Elias presents ... a worm!    Thoughts on family, philosophy,
and technology


Friday, October 29, 2004

Blogging habits

Every now and then I look at some random blogs, by hitting the "Next Blog" link in the top-right of every blog. Here's a few generalities I'm led to:

- teenagers are likely to change the template of their blog into some crazy uninviting mess and to write pointlessy about the minutiae of their day

- college age people write some interesting personal blogs, because they're both intelligent and unedited

- a lot of older people, "grown-ups" if you will, write on a very narrow range of topics, and many have been blogging obsessively about politics lately (I'm not the only one) even when no one is reading them, judging by the lack of comments

- lots of people write things witty and smart (though not necessarily wise)

- lots of people spend lots of time writing lots of stuff that no one else reads

This leads me to the question of what kind of blog I've got here and what am I trying to accomplish. My main purpose is to journal ad hoc thoughts in a looser writing-style than I'm used to, for practice. Most of my writing for many years now has been dry, technical "condensations" of philosophical material I've been reading. (To learn a book, don't read what is written, write down what is meant. Related to that, I once asked Dr. Binswanger about my idea to teach philosophy in order to learn it better, so that I would be better able to write good philosophy books later. His response was: you don't learn by teaching, you learn by writing. That helped me put the idea of becoming a philosophy professor to rest.) Here I can practice having a less formal writing voice, even experimenting with different styles in different posts, while capturing thoughts which aren't necessarily related to exactly what I'm currently studying. My "Less Hair Day" post a few days ago was the first time I let the writing get a little silly. I think it made better reading for the hapless stranger, but actually I'm not very interested in delving into that style very much. I'm silly enough at home, with Amy and Eli. Writing's when I like to pull it together and accomplish something, figure out what I really know versus what I just tell myself.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Worthy of a Post

Elias slept through the night for the first time last night. I actually don't mind getting up at 2:30am to change him (it only takes a few minutes), but good for him.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Less Hair Day

October 19th, 2004. That's the day I got a haircut. Now I don't want to talk trivia in my blog, but that haircut ended 14 years of pony tail for me. Amy had been coaxing me for months that The Time had come, and I just got sick of the look. And the shampoo bills. (Ha.) Plus change was in the air, with us becoming parents and all.

The next two days I was at a conference for computer geeks, specifically, computer programmers who claim to care about Microsoft's web services technology. I like to go to conferences like this every year or two just to keep a feel for what's going on in the community of my chosen career, what the Microsoft dudes actually look like, etc. It was actually interesting because the first keynote was by a really-smart-guy from Sun who basically said that all of the web services specifications being developed by the really-smart-guy from Microsoft (who spoke later that day) were ill-conceived crap that would end up on the garbage heap of irrelevant software specifications. I'm inclined to agree, but it was fun to see the defensiveness of all the Microsoft heads after that bomb started things off.

What's it like to be at a conference for programmers? Nerds everywhere, of course. Three women in the entire room (they looked bored, even the one from Microsoft). Lots of nerdy jokes about nerdy things. I'm being harsh, though. There were some really really smart and witty people there. The guy developing the above-mentioned crap is probably one of the smartest people I've ever met. He used to have ridiculously long hair that looked, um, ridiculous, too, but he's buzzed it recently. Not good: this left me with the worst hair in the room. Not even the guy who clearly didn't care about showering could compete with the spastic curlage I had going on after undergoing Amy's scissors the night before. Not to blame Amy, though. As I told her, I like the haircut, I just don't like my hair. (I think she thinks that's too nuanced.) Anyway it's calming down now, adjusting to the new lack of weight.

I've noticed Eli's hair is starting to grow. I wonder if he'll get Dad's curls or Mom's straight do. Doesn't look like it will be red like his cousin's, that would have been exciting.

Voting Conviction

Alright. I think I've officially burned through my small obsession with national politics during this election. And I'm right back where I started: both candidates are walking invitations to disaster. So I've made the only vote I could possibly explain or defend to anyone, including myself: I wrote-in "George Washington" again. I also feel (and, yes, I see the irony) that Objectivists spend way too much energy on worrying about which loser to vote for. One vote doesn't change anything. A bumper sticker has more effect on history.

What ended my inner turmoil was to finally come across Craig Biddle's very cogent argument for why Kerry is to be preferred. I was never totally convinced by John Lewis's piece, nor by the mentionings on the Internet of Peikoff's view that while a Kerry administration will be expectedly bad, Bush's administration is comparatively apocalyptic. Biddle's piece is obviously in the same camp as these, however.

Biddle's article doesn't make me wish I'd voted for Kerry, but it does convince me that the Tracinski and Binswanger "vote Bush!" camp is following some dubious reasoning. Specifically dubious: believing that Bush speaking about "evil" and waging wars is making any significant progress at all against the enemies of civilization, militarily or ideologically. Everyone (Objectivists, I mean) is quoting her for support, but I don't think there's any way Ayn Rand would have bought this fantasy.

Monday, October 25, 2004

The Best Case for Kerry

Craig Biddle's is the best case I've seen for hoping for a Kerry presidency. I find it more convincing than even Robert Tracinski's argument for Bush in TIA, which unfortunately is not available on-line. Dr. Binswanger's argument echoes the more-compelling Tracinski piece.

Tracinski's argument boils down to this: it is better to have the Bush administration fight a half-hearted war with fairly good rhetoric, opening the way for true hawks to criticize the administration's inconsistent execution of its own principles, than to have a Kerry administration steer us towards a course of retreat which will embolden our enemies for years to come.

Biddle's counter-point is that since Bush's policies are universally regarded as hawkish and selfish, his presidency confuses the issue and pre-empts any large-scale discussion of what a truly assertive foreign policy would be.

I find Biddle's reasoning far more convincing, especially given the common prediction that either administration will continue prosecuting the war in Iraq in roughly the same manner. If Bush were hinting at some further military action against Iran or Syria, I might agree that his foreign policy will actually be more effective (and then could weigh this against the severe deficit of his Christian agenda). But as it is, a literal retreat from Iraq is too unpopular for even a Kerry presidency -- so with either man, we will get roughly the same actions on the ground.

I'd rather have our actions -- and, more importantly, our overwhelming inaction -- be in the name of the dove and mercilessly criticized by the hawks.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Iraqi oil

Here's some comments I made in another blog about the question of who should get rights to the Iraqi oil. The idea floated in the blog was that the oil wealth should be divided among the Iraqis. I'm repeating my comments here so that they don't get lost, and let me admit it, I like to read my own stuff, especially when true.

That oil rightfully belongs primarily to the US. Western technology developed it, and Western wealth and blood has retrieved it from decades of looting.

Being born near it does not constitute a property right. See Locke.

Concessions to those who fantasize that civilization's self-assertion is immoral will not make the world a better place.


Actually there's lots of foreign investment into "our" resources. That the resources are "ours" doesn't mean they're the property of Americans, just that American laws govern them. Correct me if I'm wrong, but a Japanese-owned company can purchase logging rights to a stand in Oregon.

The same should be true of Iraqi oil. Now that it has been transformed from booty into property, the ownership of those who turned it into property should be acknowledged.

What the heck does Iraqi oil have to do with the random Iraqi citizen? About as much as Alaskan oil has to do with me.


I guess you are saying our motives will be questioned less if we take nothing out of Iraq. That's true. But I think it is for others to question our motives until the end of time, no matter how enormous our sacrifice, and it is for us to know and validate our actual purpose.

If our leaders really were to start taking us on military adventures for booty, we'd need to vote them out. Besides our own conviction, there is no god to judge us, and global opinion is a poor substitute.

TIA on Cold War 2

The Intellectual Activitist has another eye-opening editorial, this time declaring that the "war on terror" is not WW4, but Cold War 2. Why? Because once again US foreign policy is to not confront our greatest threat (in this case Iran) openly, but to instead prop up weak democracies in "swing" countries through proxy wars, in the hope that this added pressure will, somehow, hasten the big bad guy's fall. A key difference to Cold War 1 is: much of the proxy wars against the communists were undertaken to avoid a nuclear confrontation, whereas tip-toeing around Iran actually guarantees that they will become a nuclear threat to us. More importantly, Tracinski points out, the fundamental problem with any strategy of containment is contained in the word "hope": it is a passive, reactionary policy that depends on luck. If the goal is to wipe out Islamicist terrorism, we should have taken the mullahs out of power in Iran, ending the 25 year reign of the "ideal" Islamic theocracy which is the most effective exporter of jihad on Earth.

Monday, October 11, 2004

The Laughing Buddha

This weekend was great. It was all about Eli, as has been every weekend since his appearance on planet Earth.

Yesterday, his 8-week birthday, we had him in a jester outfit (Amy likes to accessorize the baby) and showed him off at a party. He felt good and happy, and was fascinated by some of the faces. It's always funny to see a baby just staring at someone for a solid minute, like "what is that?"

Last night I gave him another bath, just my second I think, and it was a blast. We were smart enough to not have Amy record it with the camcorder this time. Due to poor camera handling, footage of the last bath accidentally went beyond the G rating that's safe to send to family.

Eli and I really had a laugh. I can't explain what it's like to be playing with your little baby, and he's looking right at you and then he's grinning, then you're both laughing, together, and there really is some inside joke that you both get, but neither of you can say what it is. It's these sudden moments that are indescribable points of happiness.

Have you ever noticed that Buddha statues don't have teeth even though they're smiling -- just like a baby? Eli often reminds me of a Buddha, with his perfect little honest mind that sees just what it sees, looking out from his pudgy little smiling face. (Hmm, I even think the connection is deeper: those religions do, after all, idealize non-conceptual thought.)

Years ago I saw Steve Martin say "you don't just love your children, you fall in love with them" in the movie Parenting. That was an eye-opener. I knew immediately he was getting at something profound there, and it affected my whole orientation towards having children in a positive way. It's one more way of explaining to non-parents why you'd never ever regret being a parent.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Led Zeppelin and embryology

I've been reading three books lately, and interestingly they are saying some similar things. I had this experience in college often, when there would seem to be an amazing coincidence between, for example, what I just learned in Calculus and what we were doing in Physics. The books I'm reading now are: Aristotle's De Anima, Montessori's The Absorbent Mind, and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

Aristotle is talking about the capacities of living beings and of their organs. Montessori is too. She's drawing a parallel between the stages of embryonic development in all animals to the stages of cognitive development in children. One very Aristotelian thing she says: the newborn's mind starts out empty, though it has certain capacities. (Ayn Rand agrees, of course.) The whole approach of treating the mind as a capacity analagous with and dependent upon the bodily capacities (nutrition, growth, etc.) is very Aristotelian, too.

However, Montessori is saying some things I disagree with. She would have us believe that all of nature is working as one system with its own perfection as a goal. She's taking a perspective (at least for a page or two) which denigrates the primacy of individual organisms and their goals and actions.

If she had merely said that nature is a system, discounting the private lives of individual organisms, this would have been just a false dichotomy. Because there is nothing about the individual's goal-directedness which contradicts the fact that nature can be viewed as a system. (Dare I say that the pattern of nature's evolution is an "emergent property"? ... No, I'm not ready to submit that that is a valid concept.)

But what she says is that nature has goals qua system. This is concept-stealing: only living entities, individual organisms, have goals.

She also states that a human baby is "nothing" at birth except certain capacities (fine), and as it matures into an adult it realizes the next stage of a society's evolution, because one's capacities are guided by one's environment. Again, this is off the rails -- this time she has dropped the context of human volition.

Now there is a very general sense in which one's social and cultural environment factors into one's realization of self. For example, I've been immersed in Led Zeppelin lately, which I've never really listened to before. And I'm finding that it resonates with me, it has great moments and sounds I can appreciate, as can many Americans of this era (whereas if Jimmy Page had been able to plug in 100 years ago, his sound really would have gone over like a lead zeppelin).

But one can accept or reject elements of one's culture. To be sure, I've chosen to listen to Led Zeppelin, whose sounds appeal to me largely because I've been choosing to listen to guitar bands for two decades. Man is a being of self-made soul, as Aristotle said. The most profound example of this (and counter-example to what Montessori is saying) is an intellectual and cultural pioneer like Ayn Rand, who creates and discovers fundamental new ideas and values -- in a sense, a new form of life.

Montessori is falling into the old trap of evolutionary-style determinism, a mistake with a long and deeply-rutted history. See Hegel.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Intelligence is not enough

I've realized lately just how common it is for very intelligent persons to write things that they cannot possibly believe or know to be true. Sometimes the evidence is lacking (I saw a claim that the religious right is quickly losing power in the U.S.), and sometimes the evidence is obviously contradictory (a fellow asserted that Saddam was "never a threat to the U.S. or her allies" -- which might be news to the orphans of certain dead Israelis). I've seen about half-a-dozen surprising examples of this on discussions boards etc. in the last few weeks (and not just regarding politics), cases where the writer was obviously intelligent and obviously had some grasp of the importance of logical argumentation based on facts.

Now I already knew that intellectual integrity is in short supply generally. Many people just don't care about thinking. (Peruse a random set of blogs and you'll see what I mean.) But it's been a little amazing, and saddenning, just how common it is for intelligent people who do intend to make factual and nuanced arguments to just blow it like this.

The failing is not one of intelligence or knowledge. It is a specific moral issue: having the integrity to only "believe" that which you know that you know. There is the secondary issue of the injustice of carrying out this act before others -- the obvious example from the headlines is Dan Rather's insistence that the meaning of his story was true even though the story itself was false. (Google for Rathergate.) But the root issue is personal and epistemological: what are you doing in your own head? If you want to believe that you know, for example, what's the best method concerning a certain aspect of baby care, do you go with that desire even when the cognitive evidence is lacking?

The Genius discusses this issue at length: reason versus whim; emotions as responses to evaluations, but not as tools of cognition themselves.

It is hard to overstate the importance and fundamentality of this issue, and of its practical effects throughout world history and within each man's life. Civilizations live and die because of intellectual integrity or the lack thereof -- and so does each person's capacity for happiness.