Thursday, August 30, 2007

Fluid Dynamics

Andrew Dalton points out, and explains, a very interesting fluids demonstration.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A Comment on ‘Conclusions’ and ‘Libertarianism’

[This is a follow up to a comment left by PM on this post. My response is long enough (and late enough) that I figured it best to make it a new post rather than trying to revive an older thread.]

To begin with, PM, the best criticism of libertarianism that I’m aware of is Peter Schwartz’s essay: “Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty”, a highly condensed version of which can be found in the anthology The Voice of Reason. It addresses all the fundamental issues, so I refer you to that for a much more incisive and eloquent analysis than I’m capable of providing. You can also re-read the letter Paul McKeever sent you and peruse these two blog posts (1, 2).

Now with that said, let me present my more limited thoughts on your idea of grouping anyone with the same alleged “conclusion” into a given category and then I’ll proceed to take up the analogy you provide in your comment.

In my view, the basic error committed in your comment and original post is to think that simply mouthing the same words as someone else -- regardless of the genesis, context, and logical underpinnings of those words -- indicates anything at all let alone “agreement”. I’ll argue that only if there is some real basis for a conclusion does it have any meaning, and only if that basis and meaning is accepted by both parties can there be any talk of “agreement”.

Moreover, this view is not peculiar to Objectivism -- it is widely accepted. Indeed, it forms one of the very basic principles of science, and is a cornerstone of its teaching. For instance, my degree is in engineering, and I can assure you that no engineering professor of mine would ever consider a “conclusion” to be valid if it were unsupported by a proper method and/or process. Without evidence of such a process there can be no question of a student’s understanding, much less of his “agreement” with scientific truth. For example, if a student is given a complex problem involving many components and is asked to determine the end conditions of the system, simply writing down 5 N, or 50 eV is not considered of much or any value, even if that number happens to coincide with the system’s actual end condition. Doubly so if the alleged supporting work contains egregious errors and falsehoods. (And grades are awarded accordingly!)

Instead science, and scientific education, properly view a “conclusion” as the result of a certain process of cognition, of an identification of reality, and professors rightly evaluate students on the nature of that process. Merely writing down an answer, or supporting it with “I called a psychic hotline”, or “that’s what my parrot squawked this morning” emphatically does not indicate agreement with a properly derived solution based on physics, mathematics, engineering data, etc. Students must demonstrate an understanding of the concepts and principles involved, not only to show agreement in the particular case, but ultimately to ensure that they’ll follow a proper method and approach when in the future they must apply the knowledge to new problems and situations.

So, faced with an unsupported or improperly supported answer, no one in the sciences would say: “who cares, we have the same result, so why can’t we all just get along and ignore the ‘trivial’ difference in how we arrived at it.” Anyone with any regard for science guards the process and methods much more fervently than he guards any one particular result -- because only with the proper method can one arrive at truth and advance knowledge (including rooting out any innocent errors that one may make along the way). Without method -- or even worse, dismissing method, data, premises and logic as irrelevant -- one not only has no claim to the term “conclusion”, but more importantly, one becomes the wholesale enemy of knowledge itself. And this is precisely the case with the libertarian movement as you yourself outlined in your post.

The only “Objectivist twist” on all of this is that, in this day and age, only Objectivists seem to apply the principles generally accepted within the sciences to the humanities. That is, Objectivists holds philosophy to be a field of knowledge and as such maintain that it must arrive at its conclusions by a proper method. The essence of this method consists in abstracting concepts from their referents in reality, initially via sense perception, and then continuing with new identifications and wider abstractions and generalizations, all the while ensuring that the growing body of knowledge is logically verified and integrated. Acquiring knowledge is thus a painstaking and demanding task, but nothing less can result in truth or meaning.

The need for this method in philosophy stems from the same source as it does in science and all fields of knowledge: that if we seek to live in, and deal with, reality, then our thoughts must correspond to reality. In other words, valid thinking requires that our concepts be reality-based; that each thinker know what is being conceptualized, what is being referred to. Without a firm grasp of this, including the necessary hierarchy and context, it is impossible to make sense of any ideas, much less prove, apply or draw conclusions from them. So just as an engineering student must understand the facts and conditions underlying abstract theories and formulae (i.e. their source and context) if he is to apply them correctly to engineering problems, so too must a philosopher or politician if he is to have success in his chosen field.

In the matter at hand, a true advocate for liberty must have a detailed understanding of the referents and meaning of such concepts as “rights” and “freedom” if he is to apply them. How else would one decide what to do in the case of fraud, patents, abortion, foreign policy, etc? (See the posts referenced above for further examples and discussion of this.) Conversely, because libertarians proudly and vociferously reject the need for any basis, framework or underpinnings to their statements and precepts, they can have no common understanding or agreement on their nature and application. As a result, in practice libertarians end up with no positives to offer, but rather can only advocate a single negative: to destroy the state.

Looked at from another perspective, I’d suggest that no valid intellectual field can claim: “based on A, B, C we arrive at conclusion X, but we also accept Not A, Not B and Not C as equally valid evidence for our ‘conclusion’”. Libertarianism, as you yourself outline, is flagrant in this, overtly violating the most fundamental of logical axioms. Such a repudiation of method is one of the reasons for which, in my view, libertarianism disqualifies itself as an intellectual ideology.

So in summary, I maintain that if one truly is dealing in knowledge -- be it in the sciences or the humanities – one cannot detach a conclusion from its underlying arguments. Indeed, a conclusion detached from its arguments is not a conclusion but an ejaculation -- and should be treated as such. Moreover, if one asserts that the ideas and arguments underlying a “conclusion” are dispensable and irrelevant, then in logic one maintains that ideas themselves are irrelevant. And by this admission, I submit, libertarianism again, and this time permanently, disqualifies itself as an ideology.

Finally, I’d point out that despite the idea that libertarians are to be classified by a single out of context declaration, in practice libertarians are always quick to rebut any criticism by claiming “well that’s not what we mean by libertarianism” (see any web discussion ever on the subject). But this isn’t a defense – rather it’s a symptom of the faulty method underlying the movement. It comes from trying to maintain that libertarianism is everything – and nothing: that it has no definite identity. Sadly, this is all too true. Indeed, as I’ve tried to show, by holding conclusions devoid of arguments (or based on any and every argument – which amounts to the same thing) the various random libertarian statements have no tie to reality and thus no claim to knowledge. In short, they are empty and literally meaningless.

Given all of this, Objectivists recognize (and denounce) libertarians for what they are: champions of the arbitrary and destroyers of knowledge and of man’s mind. No seeming agreement on a particular out of context political point can ever justify the wanton destruction of method and process that supporting libertarians and their explicit anti-intellectual approach would entail. (And I stress “seeming” agreement since, as I’ve argued, in reality there is no agreement absent similar supporting data and logic).

Now turning to the analogy in your comment, I think you’ll see how it illustrates my point instead of refuting it. You say:
Suppose lung cancer and breast cancer had an argument. Suppose breast cancer refused to be called a kind of "cancer" because it was *not* caused by smoking. Breast cancer might make a big deal out of this, but it shouldn't persuade the rest of us not to call it cancer.
Yet your cancer analogy only has any plausibility and meaning because a normal reader assumes (in objectivist terms: supplies the vast amount of missing but necessary context) that the people making the two diagnoses are rational and use definite, objective (i.e. fact based) means to come to their conclusions. That is the doctors do biopsies, cultures, medical histories, etc. and then apply logical methods to rule out other causes and to confirm the two cancers, and then they refer to the work of other rational scientists who have established that there are indeed similarities between the two types of cancer which are more fundamental than just the specific cause of the particular disease.

But now imagine if we get a libertarian doctor to do the diagnosis: “Do you feel that you have cancer?” “Yes” responds one patient with trouble breathing. “Good enough for me -- you have lung cancer”. And to another who’s breasts are discolored: “Based on my reading of these sheep entrails and the alignment of the stars, I conclude you have breast cancer.”

Now, PM, you tell me what exactly you conclude about these two cases. Are they both the same? Do they both belong in the category of “cancer patients”? And while you’re reflecting, note that my example is charitable because a true libertarian “doctor” wouldn’t even need any symptoms, because any “conclusion” can be drawn from anywhere. And couldn’t some other libertarian doctor come along and say: “no, the first patient merely suffers from pre-mature baldness, and the second has hang-nail.”? What then, since you’ve ruled out the necessity --nay the very possibility -- of referring back to any supporting data and analyzing it by any definite process?

I submit that these types of problems and questions can only be resolved if one follows a method developed to ensure that one’s consciousness is properly identifying reality, i.e. that one’s conclusions are the culmination of a reality-based, logical process. Such a method, while being explicitly rejected by the libertarian movement as either irrelevant or too “restrictive”, forms the very heart of the Aristotelian/Objectivist system. Applied to the question of liberty, such a method is the only way to make a call for liberty a valid conclusion, rather than a meaningless emotional ejaculation.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Quick Hits

Just a couple of items to pass on: John Mauldin's latest letter presents a very good summary of the subprime mess and how we got here. The WSJ had a good story showing the effects of environmentalism (viz. keeping people poor). It also exposes some of the tactics environmentalists so often use, including failing to present all the facts, and failing to compare the alternatives. A few excerpts from it:
While the film gives time to supporters and opponents of the mine, it leaves unsaid that half of the villagers voicing opposition have now either sold their homes or will not have to move, because they live in a protected area where the village's historic structures and churches will be preserved. Viewers who see pristine shots of the Rosia valley won't realize the hills hide a huge, abandoned communist-era mine, leaking toxic heavy metals into local streams--or that while the modern mining project will level four hills to create an open pit, it will also clean up the old mess at no cost to the Romanian treasury.
And there's the rub. Rosia Montana needs a cleanup and development. Three-quarters of its 600 families lack indoor toilets, unemployment tops 70% and the only truly viable crop is potatoes. In "Mine Your Own Business," Andrei Jurca, the local dentist, tells Mr. McAleer "we don't need foreign advocates. We are smart enough to take our own fate in our own hands." Other villagers note that concerns about Gabriel's use of cyanide in gold mining are misplaced. Seven out of nine existing gold mines in European Union countries use cyanide and the allowable limits in Rosia Montana will be lower than all of them.

Perhaps local unemployed miner Gheorghe Lucian says it best: "People have no food to eat. . . . I know what I need--a job." Mr. Soros's Romanian Open Society Foundation is touting "alternative economic activities such as organic agriculture and eco-tourism," unrealistic at best. Stefania Simon, legal counsel for the anti-mine group Alburnus Maior, has no answer for Mr. Lucian. "Unemployment is a problem, but it will not be solved by mining," she told Britain's Guardian newspaper. Noting that Gabriel has only a 17-year lease to mine, she says, "This is a solution for the short term." But right now, even non-permanent jobs and any cleanup of the existing pollution looks like a good deal to people like Mr. Lucian.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Art of Spin

I'm off for a week, so I thought I'd leave you with a bit of humor my parents forwarded me the other day (it's fiction as far as I know):
Judy Barnes, a professional genealogical researcher, discovered that Hillary Clinton's great-great uncle, Remus Rodham, a fellow lacking in character, was hanged for horse stealing and train robbery in Montana. He was hanged in 1889. The only known photograph of Remus shows him standing on the gallows. On the back of the picture is this inscription: "Remus Rodham; horse thief, sent to Montana Territorial Prison 1883, escaped 1887, robbed the Montana Flyer six times. Caught by Pinkerton detectives, convicted and hanged in 1889."

Judy e-mailed Hillary Clinton @ NY.Gov for comments. Hillary's staff of professional image adjusters cropped Remus' picture, scanned it, enlarged the image, and edited it with image processing software, so that all that's seen is a head shot. The accompanying biographical sketch read as follows: "Remus Rodham was a famous cowboy in the Montana Territory. His business empire grew to include acquisition of valuable equestrian assets and intimate dealings with the Montana railroad. Beginning in 1883, he devoted several years of his life to service at a government facility, finally taking leave to resume his dealings with the railroad. In 1887, he was a key player in a vital investigation run by the renowned Pinkerton Detective Agency. In 1889, Remus passed away during an important civic function held in his honor when the platform upon which he was standing collapsed."

Monday, August 13, 2007

Onkar Lecturing on Atlas Shrugged

ARI has just put up some recent lectures in which Onk discusses Atlas Shrugged chapter by chapter (see the OAC page). I've just started listening, but based on his OAC lectures, I'm sure they're very worthwhile. (HT: Diana via Mike)

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Paul McKeever - Freedom Party of Canada

This post, featuring Paul McKeever's letter refusing to attend a libertarian event, is one of the more encouraging things I've run into in a while. (Paul McKeever is the president of the Freedom Party of Ontario - a group I'm not familiar with but which sounds promising, especially after reading Paul's letter and a few of his comments elsewhere.)

On a related issue, for people interested in, or curious about, the Peikoff/Kelley split, I think Paul's video at the bottom of the post does a great job of explaining the issues in layman's terms.

Finally, for those not yet convinced of the intellectual bankruptcy of the libertarian movement, I suggest following the first link in the post wherein the blog's author confirms the essential criticism of libertarianism in a post purporting to refute it (I kid you not). The more I read, the more I think libertarianism is not a school of thought, but merely a club whose sole admission policy constitutes mouthing the words "government is evil" (or perhaps more charitably, in mouthing the words "don't initiate force").

Hedge Funds <> Sub Prime

I expect the media to increase its attacks on hedge funds, using their typical broad-brush tactics. I think this excerpt from John Mauldin's letter (quoting from Jon Sundt) does a good job in explaining why such grouping makes no sense and why it should not be considered a market failure when avowed risk-takers suffer a loss on a risky bet:
"Indeed, if you look at the indices for different hedge fund strategies out there, you will find a large dispersion of results for July, with some strategies gaining money and some losing money. The differences between a long/short US manager, a multi-strategy Asia manager, and a leveraged CDO manager are too numerous to mention in this article, but the press would have you believe that these managers are all bound together.

"Let me reinforce my point with a basic but very appropriate analogy. In Japan, there is a distinctive puffer fish called the Fugu. It is served in special sushi restaurants by master chefs. Fugu tingles in your mouth when you eat it. It is supposed to be an exotic aphrodisiac in Japan, where diners spend hundreds of dollars a serving to eat it. The problem is that eating Fugu can kill you. There is an old saying in Japan, 'I want to eat Fugu, but I don't want to die.' People have been known to literally drop dead in sushi bars from cardiac arrest and pulmonary failure if the Fugu they ate wasn't prepared correctly. You have to be a specially trained and licensed Fugu chef to prepare and serve it. Personally, I would want to see the stats of the chef before eating Fugu...just a simple 'number of customers killed' would work for me.

"Now imagine a family in your town called the Griswolds. (You may remember them from the National Lampoon 'Vacation' films.) Suppose for their next trip, the Griswolds decide to travel to Japan and pursue some gastronomical thrills and eat the infamous Fugu. So they do some cursory research, march into a Tokyo Fugu restaurant, plunk down $1,000 and order a huge plate of Fugu. And die on the spot.

"The next morning as you sit at your breakfast table sipping coffee, you read the following headline:


"You think to yourself, no problem... you continue sipping coffee... and maybe mutter... 'They should have known better.'

"Now imagine instead that you read the following headline:


"Your reaction may be very different. You are likely going to cancel your reservation at the local sushi bar until you hear more. What if all fish are tainted? Or is it just that restaurant? Or is it a specific type of fish? You'll have lots of questions, and you might assume, until you know more, that no fish are worth eating.

"My point is that events like these and potential losses should not come as a surprise to knowledgeable and well-educated investors, whether in Bear Stearns' funds (the current focal point of media attention) or other funds. The name of one of the Bear Stearns' funds was 'The High-Grade Structured Credit Strategies Enhanced Leverage Fund.' If this name alone didn't suggest possible concentrations in potentially high-risk investments, I don't know what would. According to one Citibank report, the fund at one point was 80:1 leveraged! In March of this year, the subprime story was all over the news. At a time when most news sources were already talking about interest rate increases hurting subprime borrowers, Bear Stearns appears to have been marketing a fund that invested in illiquid/exotic mortgage credit instruments with high levels of leverage.

"While I don't personally know the full details behind the reasons Bear sponsored this fund, it is clear in my mind that investors seem to have been taken by surprise as to what they had invested in. As I see it, and to return to my analogy, this fund may have been serving up large plates of Fugu to investors clamoring for a bite. The 'diners' appear to have either been unaware of the risks, or more likely, had not seriously considered what could, and in fact did, go wrong.

"Not all CDOs have danger written all over them, but those backed by subprimes would, with the benefit of hindsight, seem to have been quite clearly headed for trouble. It is a very narrow and specialized breed of hedge fund that trades in such a space. Like a sushi 'Fugu' bar, such investing is not typical of all hedge funds. That doesn't mean there aren't billions of dollars exposed to it... it just means it isn't your everyday long/short hedge fund."

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Reality Intrudes

This is an interesting essay on the Canadian health care system and socialized medicine more generally. I particularly like the honest and reality-centered manner by which the author came to his present views:
"I was once a believer in socialized medicine. I don’t want to overstate my case: growing up in Canada, I didn’t spend much time contemplating the nuances of health economics. I wanted to get into medical school—my mind brimmed with statistics on MCAT scores and admissions rates, not health spending. But as a Canadian, I had soaked up three things from my environment: a love of ice hockey; an ability to convert Celsius into Fahrenheit in my head; and the belief that government-run health care was truly compassionate. What I knew about American health care was unappealing: high expenses and lots of uninsured people. When HillaryCare shook Washington, I remember thinking that the Clintonistas were right.

My health-care prejudices crumbled not in the classroom but on the way to one. On a subzero Winnipeg morning in 1997, I cut across the hospital emergency room to shave a few minutes off my frigid commute. Swinging open the door, I stepped into a nightmare: the ER overflowed with elderly people on stretchers, waiting for admission. Some, it turned out, had waited five days. The air stank with sweat and urine. Right then, I began to reconsider everything that I thought I knew about Canadian health care. I soon discovered that the problems went well beyond overcrowded ERs. Patients had to wait for practically any diagnostic test or procedure, such as the man with persistent pain from a hernia operation whom we referred to a pain clinic—with a three-year wait list; or the woman needing a sleep study to diagnose what seemed like sleep apnea, who faced a two-year delay; or the woman with breast cancer who needed to wait four months for radiation therapy, when the standard of care was four weeks."

Delusions of Honesty

I'm not particularly familiar with the details of British political life, but I enjoyed this Dalrymple essay on Blair's legacy for many of the reasons Andrew Medworth cites. (Plus I love the title phrase and its use in the essay.)

Iranian Theocracy

Monday's WSJ carried an editorial detailing the on-going political executions in Iran. It's worth reading not only for the concrete examples of Iran's leaders' mentality and actions -- providing yet more evidence for the need to take care of the Iranian regime before it obtains nukes -- but also more generally to gain a better appreciation of the horror of living under a theocracy and thereby increasing our resolve to oppose its imminent rise here in the US.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Moral Reversal

This weekend, while waiting for the Bourne Ultimatum (which I highly recommend) to start, I saw the preview for American Gangster. For some reason it really hit me how sad it is that in our culture, it would be inconceivable for Hollywood to portray a (real) businessman as saying "the most important thing in business is honesty ... integrity, hard work..." yet mafiosos are routinely depicted this way. This complete reversal of morality, of victim and culprit, is the reason that I can't watch the Sopranos and probably won't watch American Gangster.

APEE Panel Discussion Celebrating 50 Years of Atlas Shrugged

ARI has put up a great audio from this year's Association of Private Enterprise Education conference. Onkar's presentation of freedom and reason vs. force and faith (~min 20) is particularly good, but I recommend listening to the entire discussion. (File can be found on the OAC page.)

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

CAIR Tries to Silence Robert Spencer

Not that I'm a supporter of the conservatives, but given CAIR's attempt to muzzle this Robert Spencer talk , if I were in the DC area I'd definitely try to attend (event takes place tomorrow at 4:00 pm).

Wealthiest Americans

Via Paul at Noodlefood comes this cool chart of the wealthiest Americans ever. (I don't quite understand the numerical value on the axis as the caption says they're ranked according to the percentage of the economy (GDP?) that their wealth represented.) Producers one and all, I imagine they differ in this respect from any equivalent list of Europeans.