Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Humanities, Part I

Last semester a friend suggested I read the transcript from a great lecture he just heard. It was about the value of the humanities at universities and was given as part of a program that promotes the humanities at an otherwise science and engineering-focused school.

Back to the lecture. The argument was that we think we know more than we do and humanities can help us see this and adjust. The financial crisis was (according to the argument) a product of epistemic hubris--thinking risk (a known unknown) was understood (a known). The humanities teach that we don't know a lot of things. The lecturer illustrated this by giving an interpretation of two romantic poems.

This argument very unsatisfying. Can't we just study Godel's incompleteness theorems if we want to internalize the limits of knowledge? Or read up on the limits of various econometric techniques? Or just look at a list of provably unsolvable problems? These have the added benefit of teaching rigiourous thinking and employable skills.

This argument fits a broader pattern of argument that ends with the conclusion of "humanities make us better people." If you've read Bertrand Russell's "The Value of Philosophy" (from Problems of Philosophy) then you've read the most eloquent version of all these arguments. They're all bullshit, but I won't try to convince anyone of why since it's either obvious or near impossible to see.

I would like to just challenge the premise that the humanities are the best way to reaching an end though. If the humanities are for answering the important questions in life and making us better people, then why do we need humanities when we have religion? Religious people are happier than non-religious people. They have more of a sense of meaning and tend to behave more ethically (given their system of ethics). Religions do everything secular humanism does, just better. (I know you're thinking "but it's not about the end, it's about the journey" but that argument is bullshit.)

If you want to find the meaning of life then get a religion. If you want to change the world, you're not going to do it with a new interpretation of Roamntic poetry.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The article

Perhaps the best article I've ever read about politics in America:

A Triumph of Misinformation by James Fallows

I'm too young to remember what the health-care debate was like in 1994, but everything going wrong today is in here.

"The other purely political calculation concerned sales strategy. Throughout his campaign Bill Clinton had emphsized the overall cost of medical care as a central evil."

"polls showed . . . that most people supported the idea behind Clinton's plan. . . . [M]ost people also believed that the plan would drive costs up, not down. . . . [T]he more the administration emphasized its cost-control themes, the less believable it would become."

The administration even tried to ram the bill through as part of budget reconciliation, and made the misstep of letting the polarizing spending bill pass first setting the stage for partisan conflict.

The only thing missing is a personal blemish on the President like Whitewater and a task force writing the bill. Of course, Obama's choice to let congress write the bill may turn out worse because we still have no specific bill and it let legislators commit the mistake of a bill only slightly "'left of center' . . . [which] when Republicans lost interest became a liability."

Update: The Barack Obama edition even has Betsy McCaughey

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Bucket List

I've wanted to write a list of things I need to do before I die and today is the day to do it.

1. Read Leigh Brackett's screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back (only available at a library in New Mexico)

2. Visit Cedar Point and Disneyland

3. Run up the stairs in Philadelphia like Rocky

4. Eat wings at the Anchor Bar

5. Donate a kidney

6. Do the Ben Franklin thing with at least $500,000

Those are the only essentials, though I plan to add more.

Last Updated: March 26, 2010

Monday, August 17, 2009

Swiss Cheese

Paul Krugman points out today what everyone not living in a PVI R+10 district already knows: Obamacare will resemble the Swiss system more than England's NHS.

To save readers time I've done a simulation of Glenn Beck's response:

"If you think the Medicare doughnut hole was bad wait until you get Swiss cheese coverage under Obamacare."

Douthat: Pro-death panel

The token conservative columist for the New York Times decided to endorse "death panels" in his latest column:

"We’re already practically a gerontocracy: Americans over 50 cast over 40 percent of the votes in the 2008 elections, and half the votes in the ’06 midterms. . . . Somebody will need to say “no” to retirees."

Florida, cutting edge as ever, has been test-driving the gerontocracy for years and the reviews are in: "We're lovin' it." (It's like being at McDonald's 24/7.)

The only difference is that McDonald's doesn't tax other people to pay for your all-you-can-eat order.

Empire Strikes Back

From what I can tell The Empire Strikes Back and Star Wars are neck and neck in the race to claim the "Greatest Star Wars Film" title (and perhaps greatest film period).

I never understood why. To me Star Wars is vastly superior. The action is better, the ending is more satisfying, the soundtrack is better and acting is fresher. But the biggest problem is that: "[Empire] suffered from . . . the classic problems of being the second act in a three-act play."

Then I watched the original unaltered editions last week and I gained something of a newfound respect for the ending. The middle is still muddled, but the direction and pacing of the last 20 minutes or so deserve more credit. Kershner does a great job of easing up on the throttle in the falling action, giving a few jolts of excitment to keep the movie from going into free fall (as in Return of the Jedi). The scoring is also at its best in the series aside from during the trench run.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Quote of the Day

From the Economix blog:

"Many Americans oppose [a mandate to buy health insurance] as an infringement of their personal rights, all the while believing that they have a perfect right to highly expensive, critically needed health care, even when they cannot pay for it. This immature, asocial mentality is rare in the rest of the world."

That was written in April. If people had doubts then about the "immature" part then certainly the town hall meetings have changed minds.

Death Panels

There has been a lot of talk on TV and in the press about these death panels. I'm watching Meet the Press right now and Tom Coburn said it's fair to say the government is trying to kill people.

Look, I've taken these rumors about as seriously as I would a rumor that England is about to nuke New York City. What would be the motivation? I wouldn't believe it until I saw it.

But then I saw it with my own eyes.

I live in a county in Florida with, I believe, the 3rd highest concentration of old people in the country. Something like 60% of the medical costs here are paid for by Medicare (the government). We are the front lines of the fight against socialized medicine because are already have it, and if the government is trying to cut dead weight they would logically start here.

Well, they did.

I saw a SWAT team truck pull up next to my neighbor's house. A few police thugs got out, guns in hand, I heard shots seconds later, and the van rolled off.

Lock your doors. Call Congress. The death squads are on the move.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Quote of the Day

"'You have to be able to discern differences between people,' she said, criticizing the practice of racial profiling."
More from the New York Times.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


The New York Times reports on new studies of interracial dormmates.

I'm a bit underwhelmed with the results can't imagine anyone who started off skeptical is going to be won over.

But that probably is irrelevant since most advocacy groups, despite the lip service paid to diversity, promote affirmative action to "enhance access and equality in . . . opportunities."

Affirmative Action

Quote of the Day:

"Being a minority at Ohio State, we try to stay together, to build ourselves as a community, it’s different for white guys.

A lot of them come here without much exposure to diversity"

This might be out of context but it sounds like he said minorities band together as a community (good conotation) but white people band together and miss the diversity (bad connotation).

Runner-up is a newspaper quoting a B.U. student as saying: "We [Latinos] need scholarships to survive."

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Ricci vs. DeStafano

The Supreme Court handed down its decision on the controversial Ricci vs. DeStafano case a few days ago, which reminded me of an article that provides textbook case of bad statistical reasoning.

The passage in question is:

"Independent experts, too, warned against making too much of the three-judge panel's decision to rely on the lower court ruling. That's what appeals courts often do.

The 2nd District Court of Appeals ruled on 2,859 cases last year. Of those, 381 decisions — 15 percent — came with a signed opinion, the clerk's office said."

The problem is that no one was making a fuss just because Sotomayor and her colleagues didn't give a signed opinion, they were arguing it was odd for a case this controversial, one taken up by the Supreme Court and expected to have a 5-4 decision.

The real statistic people are interested in is, conditional on a case going on to the Supreme Court, having a 5-4 decision (and, as we now know, generating 4 different opinions) how often does a lower court feel there's no need to give a signed opinon? I suspect it's higher than 15% though I have no idea how much.

Monday, June 29, 2009

More on Star Wars

Here's a thought experiment. Suppose the Washowski  brothers decided now, in the year 2009, that The Matrix should have a subtitle, like Reloaded and Revolutions do.

They decide to call it The Matrix: Revelations because there's were the nature of the Matrix is revealed among other things.

Would you refer to The Matrix as "Revelations"? That should tell you everything you need to know about Star Wars vs. A New Hope.

P.S. I just want to mention one good example that illustrates my point:

Halo: Combat Evolved is usually called Halo, despite the potential for confusion with Halo 2 and Halo 3. We could call it Combat Evolved, esp. with Halo 3: ODST and Halo: Reach coming out soon, but we don't. Why? Probably because its a terrible name and there was no need to use it until 2004 but why change then since its clear Halo 2 is "Halo 2" and Halo is "Halo."

Generation R

I was reading the New York Times and came across this article.

I didn't know whether to laugh or sigh, so let me just quote the best line:

". . . millions of young Americans are facing the reality that manufacturing will no longer serve as a conveyor belt to the middle class."

The article is written as if this is a revelation. The tone gives a sense that those $28 an hour jobs were a right, not a gift they should have known wouldn't last much longer.

But there is a silver lineing in everything. This article is a good demonstration of how people respond to incentives: "Since the recession began, enrollment at [the local community college] has jumped 14 percent, largely because many laid-off workers have returned to school and because the uninviting job market has pushed many high school grads into college."

That being said, we can probably find better incentives than depressingly low wages at Wal-Mart and the grants administered through our arcane financial aid system.

Sunday, June 28, 2009


I named this blog "A New Hope" because of one my pet peeves.

I HATE it when people refer to Star Wars as "A New Hope."

It's disrespectful to the franchise. It's tantamount to saying Greedo did shoot first. It's the only way of saying "I'm not a fan of this franchise" in less than 12 parsecs.

I don't exactly understand the psychology of it, but there seem to be two classes of "ANH" people: loons and everyday people. One "ANH" guy I know is an everyday joe sci-fi nerd. You wouldn't think anything is wrong with him until you say "let's watch Star Wars" and he says "which one?" If I wanted to watch Empire I'd say "Empire," if I wanted to cry I'd say "Episode 2." Unfortunately some readers might think its a sensible question to ask--but try another context. If I said "let's watch Jurassic Park" would you know what movie I'm talking about? What about if I said "Jaws"? Would you ask which JP, which Jaws? Probably not.

But that guy is probably an exception to the rule. Another friend is a more typical ANHer: he thinks Twix candy bars are cookies and "Episode 3 > Star Wars." That tells you everything you need to know about his respect for the film and, more importantly, his IQ.

Still, wasn't Star Wars always called "Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope"?

Nope. The "Episode IV" and "A New Hope" were added to the scroll in one of infamous revisions 4 years after the film was made.

But doesn't it make sense to say "A New Hope" for consistency since we say "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi"? NO! By that logic we should just be saying "Episode V" and "Episode VI" to be consistent with the new movies--a terrible thing since we usually want to forget they exist.

Now, I will admit, a lot of my argument so far has been sophistry and ad homenim attacks, so for the record: the most important reason no one should ever say "A New Hope": It's a bad title. It's terrible. It's the worst of the six--by a wide margin.

Now you know where I stand: on this blog, Star Wars is a movie and A New Hope, if anything, is this blog.