Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

February 18, 2008

Richard Feynman: Cargo Cult Science

Filed under: culture, science — Tags: — codesmithy @ 11:36 am

Richard Feynman was an American physicist and Noble Prize winner.  He is also known for his work investigating the Space Shuttle “Challenger” disaster for which there is an upcoming movie highlighting his roleCargo Cult Science is an adaptation of 1974 Caltech commencement address.  Within it we see themes of what Feynman feels science is all about, and the nature of knowledge and understanding.  We also see some of his frustrations with lax thinking, and those who fall short of a scientific standard yet have the audacity to call what they do “science.”  The speech foretells some of the issues that would be at heart of his investigation in the space shuttle disaster and the problems that he would see.

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February 17, 2008

Ralph Nader on the Leading Democratic Candidates

Filed under: politics — Tags: , , , — codesmithy @ 9:08 am

Ralph Nader was on Democracy Now! giving his opinion on the two leading Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Nader has stated that he will run if Clinton gets the nomination.  His purpose in running for the presidency is not to win, but rather to get the Democratic ticket to address concerns that deeply concern him, and affect countless other Americans such as health-care, the environment, corporate welfare, to name a few.  In short, his purpose in running is to play a foil.  The practical implications of his candidacy, and particularly how it interacts with our plurality voting system, is part of what makes him such a controversial figure in American politics even among those who support his causes.

February 16, 2008

Student Questions Dean’s Use of Unnamed Sources

Filed under: culture, media — Tags: — codesmithy @ 11:23 am

David Spett is a senior at Medill, the prestigious school of journalism at Northwestern University. He is a columnist for The Daily Northwestern, a student newspaper where he looked into the use of unnamed sources by the controversial dean, John Lavine. As dean, Lavine has been promoting a fully integrated marketing program over the protests of some students and alumni. In the Spring 2007 issue of Medill Magazine, Lavine wrote a Letter from the Dean, basic front filler material, where he quotes two anonymous students at the school. Using some of the information in the letter, Spett tracked down one quote as feedback to the Winter’s “Advertising: Building Brand Image” class. He contacted all the students in the class to ask if they had given Lavine the quote. No one admitted it, even when Spett promised not to publish their name. This is especially odd considering the student is quoted as saying:

I came to Medill because I want to inform people and make things better. Journalism is the best way for me to do that, but I sure felt good about this class. It is one of the best I’ve taken, and I learned many things in it that apply as much to truth-telling in journalism as to this campaign to save teenage drivers.

It certainly sounds like a life changing experience. The student came to the school to inform people and make things better, and this class let them do exactly that. Maybe the student forgot. Well, don’t expect Lavine to remember where he got the quote either, because he doesn’t remember. However, he insists “I wouldn’t have quoted it if I didn’t have it.” Except of course for the fact, that he did quote it, and in fact, does not have it.

The great irony here is journalism versus marketing. It is not just the dean using anonymous quotes, it is a dean selecting quotes lauding programs that he championed over opposition that he cannot prove were actually made. It is indicative of the distinction between marketing and journalism that is essential, and that Lavine is so eager to blur. Good journalism is about intellectual honesty and transparency, good marketing is about convincing people to buy what you are selling. Well, dean Lavine, I don’t thing people are buying what you’re selling.

Here is some additional coverage in the Chicago Tribune.

February 15, 2008

Keith Olbermann FISA Special Comment for 2/14/08

Filed under: politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 2:25 pm

Keith Olbermann had a special comment on efforts to revise FISA and President Bush’s role.  Some portions are repeated from a previous comment.  I don’t want to get too hung-up on the word fascism.  Fascism, in American politics, has become a caricature and a pejorative term.  A term thrown out at political enemies at seemingly trivial disagreements.

However, it is increasingly difficult to describe what is happening in American politics without invoking the illustrative and disastrous example from the past.  When a Supreme Court Justice defends the use of torture as an interrogation tactic, what is the substantive difference?  How can due process exist if the judicial system will torture you until you confess?  What good is the protection against self-incrimination before trial if the state can torture you beforehand and use it against you?

Telecom immunity, torture, contempt of oversight, these are all symptoms of a common theme: the glorious leader can do no wrong.  However, if the last seven years has taught us anything is that the leader is wrong, about a great many things, quite often.  What do we call it then when these leaders and their enablers blatantly and knowingly violate the law?  They may insist they did it for a good reason and act demonstrably hurt when we have the nerve to question their integrity.  However, we are not going to get anywhere by capitulating and looking for a fundamental change of heart.  There are two things we need to do.  One, call a spade a spade.  Two, stop being afraid every time George W. Bush says “boo!”  Keith Olbermann displayed both of these qualities in his special comment tonight.  It is time that more of the people in positions of power, especially in the opposition party, consistently showed the same qualities.

Richard Dawkins and Madeline Bunting Discuss Religion

Filed under: culture, religion, science — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 1:14 pm

Richard Dawkins and Madeline Bunting have a discussion on some of the topics raised in Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion.”  Dawkins’ main contention was quite simple: the existence of an omnipotent and omniscient being is a scientific question.  A universe with a God in it is quite different from a universe without one.  Science can and should aid our reasoning in determining the basic truth of statements such as: did Jesus have a father?

Bunting does a respectable job of waffling through the discussion.  She criticizes Dawkins’ strategy, complaining that confronting people’s beliefs is not a proper way to get them to like you.  Ironically, Blunting has particular difficulty in explaining exactly what belief is and whether or not she believes Jesus had a father.  She was, at that point, displaying a classic case of cognitive dissonance.  Her eventual out was her ill-defined “emotional” truth.  Truths that at their heart are personal and subjective.  Why particular Biblical claims fall into this category when they can clearly be objectively verified, Blunting fails to properly explain.  The most likely explanation is that they simply have no other refuge.

February 14, 2008

Scalia’s Interview with the BBC

Filed under: politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 12:35 pm

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia did an interview with BBC Radio 4 Program “Law in Action.” In the interview, Justice Scalia talked about the death penalty and torture. His originalist stance on the 8th amendment, namely “cruel and unusual punishment” on the surface seems fair. However, the argument is not whether the death penalty per-se is prohibited, but rather does executing someone via lethal injection or the electric chair constitute cruel or unusual punishment. The answer to that question will not be found by looking back at founding fathers, nor particularly insightful. With modern medical knowledge, we can discover facts about a person’s final moments that simply were not known at the time it was introduced. Moreover, with the advancement of DNA fingerprinting, we are finding an astonishing number of people, particularly in capital punishment cases, wrongly convicted of crimes. Was it not cruel or unusual punishment for the people we executed later to find they were not guilty?

The point is “cruel and unusual punishment” was one of those things left intentionally vague, so judges have the freedom to interpret it according to currently available evidence. So, when Justice Scalia points to originalism for his decision, we must also consider which evidence he chooses to ignore.

His most reactionary positions expressed in the interview were on torture and Guantanamo. He expressed his fascination with a ticking time-bomb scenario and extended it to cover what has become known as enhanced interrogation techniques for the typical Bush apologist stance. The argument is convoluted. Torture, something that is specifically banned under U.S. Code and Geneva Conventions, is also illegal as a punishment by the 8th amendment, but according to Scalia ,because the accused hasn’t been convicted of anything yet, it isn’t punishment, so it isn’t illegal. Is this man really a Supreme Court Justice? The 5th amendment states:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation. (source)

“No person shall be… deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” In other words, one can’t be punished by the government without having their day in court. Yes, there are some complications, but those are covered under due process, and other amendments make further guarantees. The language surrounding “life, liberty, and property” is slightly less clear today, but Scalia, as a Serious scholar and originalist should know that it comes from Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government.”

Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom and an uncontrolled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of Nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power not only to preserve his property- that is, his life, liberty, and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men, but to judge of and punish the breaches of that law in others, as he is persuaded the offence deserves, even with death itself, in crimes where the heinousness of the fact, in his opinion, requires it. (source)

Life, liberty and property are not separate guarantees. They are a package that Locke builds up in his work. Locke is talking about a person’s welfare when he says “life, liberty, and estate.” The founders took many of Locke’s ideas wholesale, as they clearly did in this instance, the wording was changed slightly. However, what they meant is perfectly clear. Justice Scalia is flat-out wrong on this point. No harm can come to a person but by those of punishment for a crime and the minimum of necessary evils needed to support due process. Torture to gather information is a non-starter. He may think slapping someone around is justified, but that isn’t the law and something the founders explicitly prohibited.

The other surprising point was about Guantanamo. Justice Scalia is correct that certain guarantees are not made to all citizens. But, on the other hand, the intent of the judiciary is to check the powers of the executive branch. The executive branch does not become judge, jury and executioner just because they secured some “safe-haven” somewhere else. They are still officers of our government and subject to our laws. I would like him to point to the passage in the Constitution which says U.S. laws don’t apply in territories underneath our direct control. However, this hole will probably have to be patched up via a Constitutional amendment.

February 13, 2008

FISA Vote

Filed under: politics — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 12:05 pm

Glenn Greenwald has some analysis on the failure of Dodd/Feingold amendment to strip retroactive immunity from FISA Amendments Act of 2007. 18 Democrats joined the Republican in ensuring the provision stayed in.

Senator State Up for Re-election
Evan Bayh Indiana 2010
Thomas Carper Delaware 2012
Kent Conrad North Dakota 2010
Dianne Feinstein California 2010
Daniel Inouye Hawaii 2010
Tim Johnson South Dakota 2008
Herb Kohl Wisconsin 2012
Mary Landrieu Louisiana 2008
Blanche Lincoln Arkansas 2010
Clair McCaskill Missouri 2012
Barbara Mikulski Maryland 2010
Bill Nelson Florida 2012
Ben Nelson Nebraska 2012
Mark Pryor Arkansas 2008
Jay Rockefeller West Virginia 2008
Ken Salazar Colorado 2010
Debbie Stabenow Michigan 2012
Jim Webb Virginia 2012

Roll call is here.  Hillary Clinton didn’t vote on the measure.

This is more evidence that the D beside the name is just a label.  Yes, Democrats are more likely to defend fundamental principles such as the rule of law, but it in no way guarantees that they will actually fight for them as a whole.  Ironically, it took the 2006 Democratic election victory to enable this affront to occur.

The ray of hope in this mess is Donna Edwards successful primary challenge of Albert Wynn in Maryland’s 4th Congressional District.  Through primary challenges, people can ensure the D next to the name actually means something.  However, nothing will change as long as outrages like this aren’t incorporated into an institutional  memory.  This vote needs to haunt these Senators.

Thankfully, not all is lost yet, although the window is almost shut.  The House passed the RESTORE Act which does not have retroactive immunity.  It is now up to the Senate and House to reconcile their differing bills.  We need House Democrats to stand behind their version.  Firedoglake has an online petition to tell the Democratic representatives to stand-firm.

Make no mistake, the United States is in a massive hole right now.  However, even the birth of this country was tenuous and took struggle to achieve.  It was the people who fought off tyranny and established this new governance.  It will take the people to reform the government and put it more inline with principles upon which this nation was founded.

February 11, 2008

Rolling Stone: The Chicken Doves

Filed under: history, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 10:46 am

Rolling Stone has an article titled “The Chicken Doves.”  It equates Harry Reid’s and Nancy Pelosi’s political collapse to Neville Chamberlain’s.  Although to be fair, Neville Chamberlain deserves far less blame than Reid and Pelosi.  Chamberlain was trying to stop the break-out of another World War on the faint hope that giving the Sudetenland to Germany would be enough to prevent it.  Chamberlain had miscalculated.  Hitler’s imperial ambitions did not end at the Sudetenland and war was inevitable.   However, appeasement may have been successful in drawing Germany eastward and opening up a new front in the war, which was essential to Germany’s eventual defeat.

Chamberlain worked to prevent a major war from breaking out.  Pelosi and Reid refuse to end a disastrous one that has already begun.  Like Hitler, Bush’s imperial ambitions extend far beyond the few countries the United States is currently occupying.  Bush has let it be known that his goal is to transform the Middle East through regime change.  Bush has stated that he wants to establish democracies.  In practice, what Bush wants are obedient client states in the region.

The nature of the Democratic party’s collapse is their unwillingness to press the issue.  They could have forced compromises by being as obstinate as the remaining Republicans in Congress are the President are.  The Democrats are unwilling to play hard-ball.  So, the killing continues.   We will not have an end to this occupation until those who want to end it, want to do so as badly as those who want to continue the bloodshed.  If the Rolling Stone article shows anything, it is that trying to end this war will be an ongoing struggle, even if a Democratic president comes to power in 2009.

February 10, 2008

On Basic Morality

Filed under: culture — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 1:38 pm

“A Theory of Justice” by John Rawls is as good a presentation as any on basic moral truisms.

The predominant reason for rejecting Rawls’ conclusion is not the argument, which is good and sound, but rather its consequences.

In the book, Rawls uses a rhetorical device known as the “veil on ignorance.”  His aim is to “nullify the effects of specific contingencies which put men at odds and tempt them to exploit social and natural  circumstances to their own advantage.” (pg 136 – A Theory of Justice)  In short, it is provide circumstances in which we are not hypocrites and honestly apply the standards we apply to other people to ourselves.

At the end of the day, justice and honesty is about applying the same standard to everyone, including ourselves.  I’m not saying that this is easy.  However, it is blindingly clear that in some instances we don’t even try.  For example, if one advocates particularly harsh punishment of an individual to set as a warning for others, that isn’t justice.  It is intimidation.  It is authoritarianism to enforce fearful obedience.  It is the tool of the thug.  It has no place in a society that proclaims the only legitimate forms of power is by the consent of the governed.

Another moral truism is that we are only responsible for our own actions and their predictable consequences.  Therefore, it is also unjust to punish someone for the crimes of others.  However, we should also act on the principles of solidarity.  If we notice injustice in the world, if we are doing it, we should stop.  If we notice someone else doing it, we should try to stop them.  However, when we attempt to stop injustice by other parties, history has shown we must be especially cautious.  We must take time to ensure and reflect we are applying the same standard to everyone.

Consequently, our moral reasoning is plagued by a veil of selective ignorance, in which evidence that does not conform to the desired world-view or is otherwise inconvenient is ignored.  However, in order to be fair, all the evidence must be judged according to the same standard.  In fact, according to Rawls’ theory of justice, that is precisely what justice is: fairness.

February 9, 2008

On the Importance of an Evolutionary World-View

Filed under: culture, politics, religion, science — Tags: — codesmithy @ 12:25 pm

The theory of evolution is one of the most profound discoveries in human history.  It tells us that the human race is but one species that evolved on this planet.  Life on this planet developed billions of years before the first human ever developed.  While we are the current masters of the planet, we are intimately interconnected and part of the ecosystem.

This world-view has particular implication for modern industrial society, in particular our dependence on fossil fuels.  Fossil fuels are vast pockets of stored solar energy in the form of chemical bonds from the remains of plants and animals that existed millions of years ago.

Fossil fuels were not placed in the ground by a benevolent creator for our eventual benefit.  It is merely a historical artifact which happens to have benefits and some potential issues.  In the long-term, the most pressing issue is whether burning this vast reservoir of energy too quickly will poison the ecosystems the human species depends on for our survival.  There is evidence this is precisely what we are doing.

This is one of the reasons why evolution is important to internalize.  It shows us that we are the masters of our own destiny.  There is no benevolent hand guiding our development.  Our actions can have disastrous consequences not only for ourselves but on the entire planet.  No one will come down from the sky and save us from our folly.

Our ability to shake off the myth of a paternalistic and benevolent creator is not just an issue of scientific rectitude, but may very well essential to our collective survival.

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