Aug 192002

Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs lifts the choice excerpt (at God of the Machine we do not say “money graf”) from a charming “lesson plan” of the National Education Association:

Blaming is especially difficult in terrorist situations because someone is at fault. In this country, we still believe that all people are innocent until solid, reliable evidence from our legal authorities proves otherwise.

Disregard the moral equivalence tripe for a second; that’s NEA standard, you don’t expect anything else. Look instead at the logic in the first sentence. Blaming is especially difficult because someone is at fault — more difficult, apparently, than it would be if no one were at fault.

Now consider the second sentence. “In this country we still believe all people are innocent until solid, reliable evidence from our legal authorities proves otherwise”? Not exactly. No, strike that: not even close. In this country we certainly don’t convict without solid legal evidence, but belief is of course a different matter altogether. The author of this sentence, one Brian Lippincott, “affiliated with the Graduate School of Professional Psychology at the John F. Kennedy University in California,” ought to meet my mother, who regularly punished me and my siblings in the absence of solid, reliable evidence from our legal authorities.

It shocks me, still, that anyone who thinks this badly has a job teaching children.

(Postscript: I can’t find the actual document anywhere on NEA’s site, only the Washington Times story quoting it. If anyone has the link or the document itself, please send it to me and I will post it.)

(Update: Aha! The actual document. Thanks to Bill Quick for digging it up. Bill also points out what I overlooked, that the people who write NEA lesson plans don’t do much teaching at all. )

Aug 172002

Jacques Barzun said you can tell a civilization is in decline when it starts making dictionaries, compilations, and lists. So what does it mean to make lists of bad beer commercials? These five aren’t the worst, exactly, only the most shameless in their appeal to the LCD.*

5. Miller Lite. Tastes great, if your idea of a cocktail is horse piss and sand. Less filling, so you can get tanked yet stay nimble for that bar fight you’ve been spoiling for all evening. Honorable mention: “It’s Miller Time.” Time to knock off at 5:00, lest my boss get a nanosecond of work out of me that I don’t owe him (one ad in this series actually showed the clock reading five after five as the boys file into the bar), and head for the nearest watering hole to get plowed with my mates so I don’t have to face my shrew of a wife sober.

4. Meisterbrau. Mercifully extinct, but the basic pitch was “tastes as good as Budweiser, but cheaper!” So does tap water.

3. Keystone. “Bitter beer face” hasn’t yet entered the language, which I can’t say for “I love you man” and “Whassup,” but the commercials are still running. We aren’t out of the woods yet.

2. Tequiza. Not on TV, but all over Manhattan billboards and subways. “I’m only laughing cause you’re my boss.” I’m a pathetic corporate suckbutt who feels the need to ingratiate himself with my superiors to keep a job I hate anyway. “No, they aren’t real, so what.” Yes, I elected surgery to increase my appeal to that special class of men who like their mammaries really, really large. You got a problem with that?

1. Budweiser. It’s unpatriotic not to drink Budweiser, I’m pretty sure. (Bud Lite may be OK with a note from your bartender.) At the very least the Clydesdales aren’t going to parade through the picturesque little town that you live in, nosiree.

*Liquid Crystal Display.

Aug 142002

To the Reader

Time will assuage.
Time’s verses bury
Margin and page
In commentary,

For gloss demands
A gloss annexed
Till busy hands
Blot out the text,

And all’s coherent.
Search in this gloss
No text inherent:
The text was loss.

The gain is gloss.

–J.V. Cunningham

Aug 142002

Christopher Hitchens has replied to the notorious “Comrade Hitchens!” letter with which Martin Amis ends Koba the Dread. I was no fan of Koba, but Hitchens is awfully slippery, essentially accusing Amis of lacking irony and humor and taking it too easy on the numerous enemies of human freedom that preceded Stalin, while failing to acknowledge that none of them murdered remotely on his scale. He also adduces a few leftists who objected to Stalinism early on as if that sufficiently justified the many who ignored and excused it. And the song and dance about how things would have turned out fine for Russia if only Lenin and Trotsky had succeeded in 1905, as if Stalinism were a product of the First World War: please. Hitchens nonetheless is always a pleasure to read, and he does score a few direct hits, as Anne Applebaum points out.

Aug 122002

My mom and dad, better known to readers of this blog as “Aaron’s father,” took me and Lisa out to dinner the other night. (Tocqueville, and it was excellent, thanks. Started with a yellowtail sashimi/tuna hamachi thing, then a scallop with foie gras, then sturgeon with white truffle foam, and a chocolate souffle cake with mint ice cream for dessert. Get your parents to take you there.) Dad thoughtfully waited until the sturgeon to reveal his agenda. He objected to my description of my upbringing as “ACLU-Creative-Playthings-crypto-Communist-marginalized-Jewish.” Not the whole phrase, and not even the excess of hyphens; just the crypto-Communist part.

My parents are not now and never have been members of the Communist party. One of my father’s uncles voted for Wallace in ’48 — now that’s crypto-Communism — but the family, my father not least, scorned him for it for decades. It is true that when I insisted, in sixth grade, on plastering my school with McGovern for President posters, that they drove me down to Democratic Party Headquarters on supply runs, and didn’t even complain, as I recall. But that isn’t quite the same as advocating the violent overthrow of the government, even secretly. So I have removed the offending adjective, even though Dad said a substitution of “pinko” would have been acceptable.

And Dad, as for that place where I called you a moral relativist, I’ll be happy to discuss it. Over dinner. Real soon.

Aug 102002

The great computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra is dead of cancer at 72. He was probably best-known for his shortest-path algorithm and classic paper, “Goto Statement Considered Harmful,” but to Dijkstra computer science owes such concepts as structured programming, synchronization, semaphores, deadly embrace, guarded command, and many, many more. He once advised a researcher looking for a topic to “Do only what only you can do,” which is the best career advice I ever heard from anyone. At least read his obituary; you might also have a look at his collected papers. Many can be read by non-programmers with profit, such as this one, on the scientist’s relation to society.

Aug 092002

Susanna Cornett over at Cut on the Bias decided, one fine day, to pick a fight with the evolutionists. (Gene Expression replies in detail; Susanna rebuts, in somewhat less detail.) Her jumping-off point was the recent discovery of a couple of hominid skulls that don’t fit the current view of human evolution. A paleontologist says, “This really exposes how little we know of human evolution and the origin of our genus Homo.” Susanna writes triumphantly: “But wait! I thought we knew all that! It’s been taught for years as immutable truth.”

Not exactly. Virtually all biologists agree that natural selection is true; but they ardently disagree about the mechanism and the path. An analogy from the history of calculus might be helpful. When Newton and Leibniz discovered calculus they based it, theoretically, on infinitesimals, quantities that are arbitrarily small, but not zero. Bishop Berkeley pointed out, correctly, that the concept of an “infinitesimal” is logically incoherent. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that Weierstrass put calculus on a proper foundation by defining limits rigorously. But that didn’t stop people from using calculus in the meantime: it worked, it solved problems that no other method could solve as quickly, or at all. Same with natural selection. It solves too many problems to be thrown over every time some new morphological evidence shows up that’s difficult to classify.

Susanna continues: “Ive been taught, as a social scientist, that you look at behavior, or evidence of various sorts, and ponder about it until you come up with an explanation. Then you devise a test to see if your explanation fits.” I doubt whether this is true even of the social sciences — von Mises and the Austrian economists, for example, argued that economics was deductive — but physical science assuredly does not work this way. It was not pondering the facts that brought Copernicus to advocate heliocentricity. Copernicus’s model, before Kepler, actually fit the facts worse than the Ptolemaic model. But it ditched all the secondary and tertiary epicycles. It was simpler. I don’t know exactly how Descartes arrived at the central insight of mechanics, that a body in motion remains in motion unless acted on by an external force; but it was not by “looking at behavior.” Aristotle, on the other hand, watched horses pull carts, and concluded that constant velocity requires a constant force, which is plausible, intuitive, and false.

But if Susanna likes tests, I propose that she devise one for the validity of intelligent design. What evidence would persuade her that intelligent design is false? I won’t presume to answer for her, but if I advocated intelligent design, my answer, I think the only consistent answer, would be, “No evidence.” For nothing, in principle, is incompatible with the miraculous. And a theory that can accommodate any evidence is not a scientific theory.

(Update: Susanna points out that she has a further post on the subject and accuses me — but very nicely! — of “piling on.” It might look that way, although I hadn’t read the Charles Murtaugh post on which I was supposed to be piling, and I certainly griped about the testability of ID and the all-inclusiveness of God theories, just as Razib did. But the bit about forming scientific hypotheses — that was mine, all mine, dammit!)