Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Arianna Huffington: Dept. of Misdirection

MoveOn had an ad attacking General Petraeus calling him General Betray us. I think it was a bit much. After all, I think Petraeus is an honorable soldier. So the right wing raises itself up in righteous indignation. The MoveOn ad allowed the right wing to do what they are so good at doing: changing the subject by attacking the critic instead of responding to the criticism. Good old Arianna Huffington turns the tables right back on them. But at least she comments on their process—if not her own—as she does it.
Does anybody really believe the problem with the war in Iraq is too much questioning of those in authority, too much bluntness, and not enough deference to those who have been in charge of the war for the last four years?

That's apparently the feeling of all the conservative talk-show hosts and GOP presidential candidates who came down with the vapors over the MoveOn ad that had the temerity to question Gen. David Petraeus. Tens of thousands of dead civilians, nearly 4,000 dead American soldiers, half a trillion dollars spent, and the squandering of America's moral authority -- none of that seems to have ruffled their feathers very much. But the ad? Now that has got them royally steamed.

Rudy Giuliani is up in arms, railing against 'character assassination on an American general who is putting his life at risk.' John McCain thinks ' ought to be thrown out of this country.' Even Don Rumsfeld popped his head out of his spider hole to blast the ad.

It's the political version of the old lawyer's axiom: When the law is against you, argue the facts. When the facts are against you, argue the law. When both are against you, attack the plaintiff. And when the war is an unmitigated disaster, the facts on the ground are against you, and your only plan for the future is 'more of the same,' go crazy over a newspaper ad.
If they stopped doing this, would we?

Monday, September 17, 2007

And again

Simple Attention
The secret of beginning a life of deep awareness and sensitivity lies in our willingness to pay attention. Our growth as conscious, awake human beings is marked not so much by grand gestures and visible renunciations as by extending loving attention to the minutest particulars of our lives. Every relationship, every thought, every gesture is blessed with meaning through the wholehearted attention we bring to it.

In the complexities of our minds and lives we easily forget the power of attention, yet without attention we live only on the surface of existence. It is just simple attention that allows us truly to listen to the song of a bird, to see deeply the glory of an autumn leaf, to touch the heart of another and be touched. We need to be fully present in order to love a single thing wholeheartedly. We need to be fully awake in this moment if we are to receive and respond to the learning inherent in it.

- Christina Feldman and Jack Kornfield, Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart
Were they paying attention to the song of a bird, the glory of an autumn leaf, or the heart of another when they wrote this?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Buddhist advice

Buddhist writers love to give advice.
The hallmark of the enlightenment process is in being 'here' and not 'there.' Indeed, the focal point of continuity is in being here at all times. The famous message of Ram Dass to 'Be here now' is what results when one is adept in this practice. It is laborious in that it requires great perseverance — we are up against lifelong patterns — but it is a major enlightenment practice because it can break through our basic conditioning.

The secret of success in continuity practice is to eliminate any sense of failure. From the moment we begin, we are successful. The only measure of success is this moment, right now. Are we here? If we are here, our practice is perfect.

The fact that we have just returned from out yonder, or that we might take off again in a few seconds, is not relevant. Without this practice, we would always be spaced out. We would rarely experience being here. Thus, each moment we are able to break the pattern, we have succeeded.

— David A. Cooper, Silence, Simplicity and Solitude
As you may be tired of hearing me say, my question for David Cooper is, "Were you 'here' while writing this piece?"

But one thing I like about Buddhist advice is that it's so positive. One never fails. As Cooper says, "From the moment we begin, we are successful." What could be better than that!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The market says the surge is not working

Steven Levitt of Freakonomics points to a paper by an MIT economist that concludes that the surge is not working.
Michael Greenstone, an M.I.T. professor, good friend, and one of the best young economists in the world, has just released an incredibly thorough and thoughtful analysis of the impact of the surge. …

The most interesting part of Greenstone’s paper is his analysis of the pricing of Iraqi government debt. The Iraq government has issued bonds in the past. These entitle the owner of the bond to a stream of payments over a set period of time, but only if the government does not default on the loan. If Iraq completely implodes, it is highly unlikely that these bonds will be paid off. How much someone would pay for the rights to that stream of payments depends on their estimate of the probability that Iraq will implode.

The bond data, unlike the other sources he examines, tell a clear story: the financial markets say the surge is not working. Since the surge started, the market’s estimate of the likelihood of default by the Iraqi government has increased by 40 percent.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

I've never thought of myself as a late adaptor

But Steven Levitt of Freakonomics claims that he is.
I’m a notoriously late adopter of technologies. It is not a conscious decision, and I don’t take any pride in it. I just do not have enough imagination to figure out ahead of time how much I will like things once I actually have them. E-mail is a good example. I couldn’t see how e-mail would be of much use to me when it first became popular. It wasn’t until my last year in graduate school that I got an e-mail account, and that was only because I liked a girl and she was on e-mail. I didn’t have a laptop until three years ago. We didn’t get Wi-Fi in the house until this year. The list goes on and on: an IPass for my car (just this year); an iPod (two years ago); Tivo (last year).
We didn't get wi-fi until this summer—and that was because we had visitors who installed it. We still don't have an iPod or a Tivo. So if Levitt is late, we must be never.

Friday, September 07, 2007

They're doing well in the manor house

Daniel Gross has a great article in Slate that points out that even though the poor and middle class are hurting — even more now with the credit crunch — the rich are doing very well.
At Saks, same-store sales in August were up a stunning 18.2 percent; at Tiffany, same-store U.S. sales rose 17 percent in the second quarter. Indeed, luxury retailers are in an expansive mood. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week (subscription required) that 'this year, some 30 high-end retailers have opened boutiques in Austin [Texas], including Tiffany & Co., Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, David Yurman, Louis Vuitton and Burberry.' These stores are located in a new mall anchored by Neiman Marcus, where same-store sales rose a healthy 4.6 percent in August. Among the strongest performers: 'designer handbags, shoes, designer jewelry, women's fine apparel, and men's.'
The top 20 percent of American income earners spend more in a given year than the bottom three quintiles combined
the economy should hold up even if Wal-Mart sales stagnate. As Gross put it,
Today, analysts are likely sifting through the jobs report [which were down for August, surprising everyone; the Dow lost nearly 200 points] and ratcheting down their forecasts for the Christmas season. It may well turn out to be a glum one for many retailers. But as long as the lights are on in the mansion on the top of the hill, the growing number of stores and businesses that cater to their residents will be busy.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Jack Goldsmith: How George W. Bush could have gotten everything he wanted had he not been so arrogant

In an article in this Sunday's (forthcoming) magazine section, Jeffrey Rosen discusses Jack Goldsmith, the conservative former Bush administration lawyer who has just written a book about how Bush lost the power he could have had just because of his arrogance. It's not a pretty story. Goldsmith's main point (as far as I'm concerned) is that if Bush had just asked Congress for the powers he wanted instead of just taking them, Congress would have given him everything he wanted. Here's an example.
In debates over the detention of suspected terrorists, Goldsmith says he was struck by how Addington’s efforts to expand presidential power ultimately weakened it. In September 2006, two months before the midterm elections, Bush eventually did ask Congress to approve his military commissions, and Congress promptly passed a law that gave him everything he asked for, authorizing many aspects of the military commissions that the Supreme Court had struck down. Although Bush had won the battle, Goldsmith sees the refusal to go to Congress earlier as the cause of an unnecessary Supreme Court defeat. “I’m not a civil libertarian, and what I did wasn’t driven by concerns about civil liberties per se,” he told me. “It was a disagreement about means, not ends, driven by a desire to make sure that the administration’s counterterrorism policies had a firm legal foundation.”

The Mix Tape of the Gods

Timothy Ferris, who produced the record sent into outer space with Voyager 1, has a nice op-ed piece about it in the New York Times
Having accomplished its mission [to Jupiter and Saturn], Voyager 1 might have quietly retired. Instead it remains active to this day, faithfully calling home from nearly 10 billion miles away — so great a distance that its radio signals, traveling at the speed of light, take more than 14 hours to reach Earth. From Voyager’s perch, the Sun is just another star, south of Rigel in the constellation Orion, and the Sun’s planets have faded to invisibility.
What's especially striking about this for me is the fact that we, human beings, have managed to send something so far away that it takes light 14 hours to reach us. A human artifact is 14 light hours away and is still communicating with us. Truly amazing.

Ferris also says that
Voyager 1 is approaching the edge of the solar system. That limit is defined by a teardrop-shaped bubble called the heliosphere, where the solar wind (particles blown off the Sun’s outer atmosphere) comes to a halt.

If all continues to go well, Voyager should pierce the heliosphere’s outer skin by around 2015. It will then depart into the void of interstellar space, where it is destined to wander among the stars forever.
How did we every discover that there was an edge of the heliosphere? Is this empirical data or theoretical. How do we know that the solar wind ceases sufficiently that it forms a nameable boundary? We are so clever.

Read the whole thing. But do it in the next few days before the NYT's puts starts charging for it.

Frozen Bacteria Repair Own DNA for Millennia

From National Geographic News
Bacteria can survive in deep freeze for hundreds of thousands of years by staying just alive enough to keep their DNA in good repair, a new study says.

In earlier work, researchers had found ancient bacteria in permafrost and in deep ice cores from Antarctica.

These bacteria, despite being trapped for millennia, were able to be revived and grown in the lab.

Some researchers had thought that bacteria would have to turn into dormant spores to survive for so long.

But if bacteria merely went dormant, metabolism would stop and various environmental factors would begin damaging their DNA.

Like an ancient scroll that's crumbling apart, the DNA becomes so damaged that it's indecipherable after about a hundred thousand years. Then the cells can't ever reproduce and the bacteria are effectively dead.

"Our results show that the best way to survive for a long time is to keep up metabolic activity," said Eske Willerslev, lead study author and a researcher at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

Doing this "allows for continuous DNA repair," Willerslev added.

The work suggests that if bacterial life existed on Mars or on Jupiter's moon Europa, it might still survive locked in icy soils.

The new study appears this week in the online advance edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Jacob Nielsen

I continue to be impressed with his work. This week's column comments on the US Census Bureau's homepage. Users were asked to find the current population of the US. Even though the page is basically well designed, and even though the current population is in big red numbers at the top of the page, only 14% of users found it! He analyzes why.

Monday, September 03, 2007

What does it mean to define something?

It seems to me that there are two ways to define a term. One is to explain its meaning in terms of other terms. The intent is to convey an idea. This is the common interpretation of the term to define. For example, the American Heritage Dictionary gives these definitions (among others) for definition.
A statement of the meaning of a word, phrase, or term, as in a dictionary entry.

The act or process of stating a precise meaning or significance; formulation of a meaning.
This sense of definition assumes that we are operating within a real of beings who already have ideas and that we are attempting to convey a new (or more precise version of an existing) idea in terms of other ideas (or other experiences) that are available for use. There is no fixed set of primitives in this sense of definition.

The second is to assign some properties to a symbol within a formal symbol manipulation system. In this sense no idea is presumed. The meaning of a term is no more or less than its symbolic definition. For example here are Peano's Axioms as expressed in Wolfram's MathWorld. [Italics added.]
  1. Zero is a number.

  2. If a is a number, the successor of a is a number.

  3. Zero is not the successor of a number.

  4. Two numbers of which the successors are equal are themselves equal.

  5. (induction axiom.) If a set S of numbers contains zero and also the successor of every number in S, then every number is in S.
Sufficiently formalized these axioms define the terms zero, number, successor, and equal. (These definitions presume that we have predicate calculus—so that we can use variables in quantified expressions and so that we know what every means—and a workable definition for set.)

They don't do it by attempting to cause ideas to arise in the mind of the reader. They do it by formulating a set of formal rules that will relate these terms to each other in ways that we find compatible with our intuitive sense of these terms.

But our intuitions aren't part of these definitions. The definitions are intended to stand on their own, i.e., to be such that a computer or other mechanical reasoning device could work with them without our assistance.

Definitions of this second sort formalize levels of abstraction. For any level of abstraction, if sufficiently well understood, it should be possible to formulate rules that relate the abstractions (types and operations) defined at that level of abstraction. Of course, most levels of abstraction are too complex for such formalizations. But the point is that even at best all one can do with a level of abstraction is to define its terms in terms of themselves and each other. One shouldn't expect new terms that come into being when representing concepts relevant to a level of abstraction to be defined in any other terms.

Since a level of abstraction is (by definition) implemented in terms of lower level operations, it will always be possible to show how the relationships among the terms are realized. But those implementations are not definitions. And as is well understood, implementations are not the point. Multiple implementations of a level of abstraction are possible as long as the required inter-relationships among the terms are preserved.

This issue comes to mind because Aaron had asked me to define qualia. I essentially gave a short and ad hoc version of the answer elaborated above, i.e., that either (a) to define qualia as an idea that someone could understand would have to rely on the fact that the person already experienced them or (b) to define qualia as a term that makes sense on the subjective experience level of abstraction, i.e., in terms of other terms at the subject experience level of abstraction, probably wouldn't (seem to) satisfy the request. (Besides, I doubt that I could do it anyway.) So either way, it would be pretty difficult to define qualia in a way that would seem responsive to the question.

What sort of subjective experience does this suggest?

From the New York Times.
[Experimenters] had cats step their forelegs over a three-inch barrier, then distracted the animal while the barrier was lowered. When the cat moved again, it raised its rear legs as if the barrier were still there. “That memory of that obstacle lasts for as long as that cat stands there,” [David A. McVea and Keir G. Pearson of the University of Alberta] said, though because of the difficulties of herding cats, the longest they were able to distract one was 10 minutes.

In that study, though, it was unclear if visual cues, or something else, resulted in the long-lasting memory. So in the new work the researchers repeated the experiment with a twist: they stopped the cat after it had seen the barrier but before it straddled it. When the cat moved on after more than a few seconds it did not raise its rear legs enough.

“The movement of the forelegs does something unusual,” Mr. McVea said. “It cements the memory of the obstacle.” They had similar results using a barrier that the cat could feel but not see, demonstrating that visual cues were not necessary to create the memory."
I don't understand the second experiment. Of the cat didn't step over the barrier with its forelegs but was allowed to resume after the barrier was retracted, why should it step over the barrier with its rear legs?

There are, of course, all sorts of ways for this behavior to occur. But the easiest one to imagine is that the cat has what we would call a short term memory, which we experience as something like a mental image, i.e., subjective experience.

We just had our cat implanted, but …

From the Los Angeles Times
[The California] state Senate passed legislation Thursday that would bar employers from requiring workers to have identification devices implanted under their skin.

State Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) proposed the measure after at least one company began marketing radio frequency identification devices for use in humans.

The devices, as small as a grain of rice, can be used by employers to identify workers. A scanner passing over a body part implanted with one can instantly identify the person.

"RFID is a minor miracle, with all sorts of good uses," Simitian said. "But we shouldn't condone forced 'tagging' of humans. It's the ultimate invasion of privacy." …

The bill has been approved by the state Assembly and now goes to the governor. …

One company, VeriChip, has been licensed by the Food and Drug Administration to sell implanted identification devices, and about 2,000 people have had them implanted, Simitian said. A representative of the firm did not return calls seeking comment Thursday., a Cincinnati video surveillance company, has required employees who work in its secure data center to have a microchip implanted in an arm.
Naturally, Republicans opposed it.
Nine senators opposed the measure, including Bob Margett (R-Arcadia), who said it is premature to legislate technology that has not yet proved to be a problem. "It sounded like it was a solution looking for a problem," Margett said. "It didn't seem like it was necessary.
I wonder if he would think it was a problem if we required everyone who ran for office as a Republican to be implanted.

Amazingly enough this bill has been in the works since 2005. I don't know its history or why it didn't pass earlier.

What seems even stranger is that I can't find any official information that describes the bill as preventing employers from requiring implants. The only thing I can find is a bill that limits how government issued IDs may be used. See

Might it be "like something" to be material?

With respect to previous posts on subjective experience, can one get away with a statement to the effect that subjective experience as we know it is just what it's like to implement sufficiently high level biological beings? I'm not real thrilled with this position but it would go something like this.
  • We are material beings.

  • It may be "like something" to be material beings and we just don't quite understand what that really means. This sounds like a form of panpsychism but I don't have another way of putting it. But perhaps there's some acceptable way to think about it. (After all, downward entailment is an acceptable way to think about downward causation. So perhaps there's hope that we'll come up with something.)

  • If it is "like something" to be material beings then subjective experience would be what it's like to be the way we are as humans. (I know this sounds pretty far out, and Aaron is likely to make fun of it, but it's the best I can do at the moment.)

    One way to make this more appealing is to realize that we don't know how primitive forces work. We talk about virtual particles and force fields. But what do those really mean? How do they work? Of course, there's no end to the how-does-it-work question.
I wrote about this approach to epistemology at the bottom of this post about what we mean by reality.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

An argument Bush can't make

According to Forbes,
As of Sunday, Sept. 2, 2007, at least 3,738 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. The figure includes seven military civilians. At least 3,061 died as a result of hostile action, according to the military's numbers.

The AP count is three higher than the Defense Department's tally, last updated Friday at 10 a.m. EDT.
According to, there were 47,359 "hostile deaths" and 10,797 "non-hostile deaths" in Vietnam. I'll bet Bush is wishing he could say that American deaths in Iraq are far below 10% of the American deaths in Vietnam. Why are we being such babies about it?

Dennett's questioning of subjective experience

In a post below, I comment on a passage in which Dennett is said to question subjective experience. It's occurred to me since that it is is absurd for anyone to question subjective experience —especially by writing or speaking.

To write or speak is to (attempt to) externalize one's thoughts. (Dennett does it very well. I'm not criticizing him on those grounds.) But to externalize one's thoughts is first of all to acknowledge that one has thoughts and secondly to act as if (a) one believes that others too are capable of thought and (b) one is attempting to have arise in those others something like the thoughts in oneself that one took the trouble to externalize—to act as if one is attempting to communicate one's thoughts.

But a thought is a subjective experience. So the simple act of engaging in thought externalization and communication is to acknowledge a belief in the existence of subjective experience (e.g., thought) in oneself and others. So it seems absurd to me for anyone—at least anyone who has subjective experience as I'm assuming Dennett does—to write or talk about the non-existence of thought or more generally of the non-existence of subjective experience in general.

The passage quoted below had Dennett denying qualia rather than subjective experience in general. But as far as I'm concerned qualia means subjective experience. Since thought is subjective experience, to deny qualia is to deny thought. Here are two definitions of qualia.
  • a property as it is experienced [emphasis added] as distinct from any source it might have in a physical object —Merriam-Webster (definition 2)

  • the intrinsic phenomenal features of subjective consciousness, or sense data. Thus, qualia include what it is like to see green grass, to taste salt, to hear birds sing, to have a headache, to feel pain, etc. —A Dictionary of Philosophical Terms and Names

Saturday, September 01, 2007

"Free won't"

From the HealthDay News (reprinted in the Washington Post)
Fifteen right-handed individuals (seven males and eight females, average age 26) participated in a 'go-no-go' exercise. They were asked to press a button on a keyboard but first to indicate what time they were going to perform this action. They were also asked to choose instances in which they stopped before actually pressing the button. When participants decided not to press the button, a specific area of the frontal lobe region of the brain lit up. When participants followed through, however, the area did not light up.