Saturday, December 29, 2007


16-0! Patriots closed out the regular season perfect. Wasn't always pretty, but always exciting. Now the real season starts. Go Pats!

Friday, December 28, 2007

My Daemon

If you are not familiar with The Golden Compass of His Dark Materials series (now a movie), then this will be totally lost on you.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

More Concerns about Paul

I don't mean to be constantly harping on Paul. There is a lot wrong with the other candidates. I just keep coming back to Paul because 1) my libertarian friends keep tauting him; 2) I had higher expectations before I knew anything about him; and 3) the more comes out the more ridiculous he is.

At some point folks are going to have to realize 1) this guy isn't the pro-liberty guy everything thinks he is and 2) even if he is, he's a loon who's giving libertarians a bad name.

The latest: Paul doesn't accept evolution.

Hat Tip: Timothy Sandefur

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Much Ado About Nothing: Steroids and HGH

The NY Times has an interesting Op-Ed on the effects of the use of steriods and HGH in baseball. In "More Juice, Less Punch," Jonathan Cole, a sociologists, and Stephen Stigler, a statistician, looked at the stats of players named in the Mitchell Report and found that the players' numbers (ERAs, batting avgs, home runs) do not show any statistically significant increase and in some cases show a decrease.

They do note that steroids and HGH might have aided a player to stay in the bigs and continue to perform longer, but haven't found a way to test that. If this statistical analysis is accurate, it adds more to my growing skepticism about the reasons for prohibiting the use of these technologies. If we have technologies that can prolong the careers of the game's greatest players: why prohibit them? Think of what Koufax could have done if his career wasn't cut short by injury!

Steroids raise serious long-term health risks and so that may be a reason for a private league to prohibit its use. But HGH, to my knowledge, doesn't have as significant long-term health risks. HGH is less studied, but the reported side effects are supposed to be rare (grain of salt warning: this is mostly from Wikipedia). Moreover, both steroids and HGH probably could be used safely under the direction of physicians for short periods of time to help with injury recovery (after all, this is how they are actually used in the medical establishment). And how is this any different than any other, non-prohibited, technologies used to help players recover from injury quicker?

I also think there are some arbitrary distinctions in this debate. Why ban HGH but allow cortisone shots? Big Papi got a cortisone shot near the end of the regularly season that allowed him to overcome a knee injury and perform in the playoffs. How is this any different than a player using HGH under doctor's supervision for overcoming an injury more quickly and effectively? The league bans amphetamines but not caffeine? Why allow Tommy John surgeries? For that matter, why allow weight training or physical therapy? These all help a player perform better for longer.

The argument appears to be some mix of the following:
1) The prohibited technologies are more dangerous and riskier than other technologies
2) The prohibited technologies are much more effective than other technologies

The first is more plausible, though paternalistic. The second is either arbitrary or just plain kooky. Why ban a technology that is more effective? One argument for 2 is the so-called history of the game argument. That is, in order to be able to compare the numbers of players from different eras (Ruth to Bonds), we prevent the use of certain technologies that would enhance the numbers of current players. One of the problems with this argument, however, is that it introduces the arbitrary element. Why HGH but not cortisone? Why not, then, also prevent the use of the much greater athletic training and medical knowledge we have now? Should we be using the technologies of the 20s to protect the history of the game? As this NY Times article shows, the use of HGH and steroids doesn't appear to have effected the numbers, but surely the knowledge athletes have about training and nutrition has effected these numbers to a significant degree. So this argument seems to work better if we ignore the use of HGH and focus on preventing players from using the gym and eating properly.

Friday, December 21, 2007

An Inconvenient Fact

Here's an inconvenient fact for you: world temperatures have not increased this decade. That's right, there has not been any global warming in almost 10 years.This is not predicted by the so-called skeptic-proof global warming theories. And guess what? The so-called consensus doesn't know how to explain this. They don't know if this is temporary or permanent. They don't know how to explain that while the theories say there should be consistently increasing temperatures, the temperatures haven't increased.

What does this mean? I am not sure, but I hope this data can allow for a more open and rational approach to climate change. One not based on intimidation and demanded obedience to a politically based consensus. And please, Al Gore: Go away.

Pat has chimed in.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Time: Dictators are cool!

Time Magazine has declared Vladimir Putin as the 2007 Person of the Year. The argument is that Putin has shown great leadership in bringing stability to Russia.

I'd argue by retreating from liberty and rule of law, he's done more long-term to undermine the Russian state and its stability. Truly great leadership would have been to bring stability to Russia without authoritarianism.

Time claims that the the Person of the Year award "is not and never has been an honor. It is not an endorsement. At its best, it is a clear-eyed recognition of the world as it is and of the most powerful individuals and forces shaping that world—for better or for worse". Certainly, one would hope so, given that Stalin (twice!), Hitler, and Ayatollah Khomeini have all been named Person of the Year. (Past Winners)

Nonetheless, I think most people think of this title as an award or honor and despite Time's protests people will continue to think that way. I certainly was surprised to see Putin picked until I read the article and saw the history of the title. I still disagree with the choice of Putin, even by their standards. The runners-up were: Al Gore, JK Rowling, General David Petraeus, and Hu Jintao (President of China). I'd probably go with Investors Business Daily and chose Petraeus. By most accounts, he's doing a tremendous job in Iraq, bringing some order out of the chaos and fighting the enemies of the entire free world. Now that is leadership that will have a profound effect on America and the World.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Paul: Nazis are ok!

Little Green Footballs is reporting several stories about Ron Paul's ties to Neo-nazis and white supremacists. The first story was about donations from such groups and Paul's refusal to return the donations. Then, after distancing himself from these groups, some in these groups were feeling betrayed and are now claiming closer connections with Paul.

I guess Paul is for liberty as long as you're are white and Christian. That's not my kind of libertarianism.

Some light-hearted material

First, forwarded from Virginia (originally from KELO-FM 92.5 in South Dakota):

The next time you hear a politician use the word 'billion' in a casual manner, think about whether you want the 'politicians' spending YOUR tax money. A billion is a difficult number to comprehend, but one advertising agency did a good job of putting that figure into some perspective in one of its releases.

A. A billion seconds ago it was 1959.
B. A billion minutes ago Jesus was alive.
C. A billion hours ago our ancestors were
living in the Stone Age.
D. A billion days ago no-one walked on the earth on two feet.
E. A billion dollars ago was only 8 hours and 20 minutes, at the rate our government is spending it.

Second, from Philosopher Stone:

A funny (if you're a philosopher) parody of presidential attack ads: Kant is Bad for America

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Thoughts on Iliad

In the lull before the storm of finals grading, I wanted to make sure to put up a post that's been waiting a few weeks.

Over Thanksgiving, I finally was able to get some time to finish the Iliad. I am really glad that I reread it after all these years. Reading a work like this in high school is important, but it is hard to appreciate it at that age and in that context. With so little life under one’s belt, it is hard to take to heart many of the lessons this book teaches.

My reaction to the book was something of a surprise to me. There were many aspects of the work that I found I didn’t like. I found myself bored in the middle books with the endless give and take of the battle. The endless list of names of the killers and the killed--and their genealogies. Moreover, I didn’t find that I connected or empathized with any of the characters, even the main ones. The constant intrusion of the gods into the affairs of the mortals also bothered me a lot.

That said, I have a greater sense of the importance of this work and the themes it discusses. I was never quite sure of the point of the Iliad other than being a great mythological/historical epic tale. Now, I can appreciate some of the themes that have made this story immortal.

The primary theme is, I think, the human condition of facing mortality. This seems to explain and integrate most of the story, from Achilles' actions and his contrast with Hector to the role of the gods in the story.

One of the things that had always bothered me about the Iliad was the point at which it started and ended. It starts with the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon that leads to Achilles withdrawing from the fighting. It ends with Achilles reintegration into the Greek fighting force and the death of Hector. The ending bothered me more. Why this point? Why doesn't the story continue to Achilles' death or the Greek victory?

After this reading, as well as listening to the wonderfully insightful The Iliad of Homer by Elizabeth Vandiver, I think I understand why it ends here. Hector is presented as the most human of all the characters. While he is helped by the gods, he is not related to the gods. He shows the range of human emotion and virtue: he demonstrates courage and wisdom but also fear and hubris. We see Hector interacting with his family; in particular, his wife and child. No other character gets that treatment. If the major theme of the Iliad is human mortality, then Hector's death--the paradigmatic human-- as the climax and ending of the Iliad makes sense.

One of the main pieces of understanding this theme came from Vandiver's lectures. She explains that Achilles doesn't accept his humanity. He pulls himself from the battle and separates himself from his community. For the ancient Greeks, this separation would be symbolic of renouncing one's humanity. He even seems to reject the mores of his culture when he rejects the honors to be bestowed on him by Agememonon if he rejoins the fight. Honor and glory are held up to be the ultimate ends of this society and Achilles casts them aside as unimportant. This is more god-like. The gods don’t need or care for honor and glory--they live forever, they don’t need, as the human hero does, the epic poem to give immortality.

Then there is Achilles near superhuman fighting ability. After he finally rejoins the fighting he goes on a killing rampage. Vandiver notes that during this rampage no other character kills another. Achilles also rejects the norms of fighting as well: he shows no mercy, indeed, no humanity. Achilles refuses to eat or bath while on this rampage. He is nourished by the gods so that he can continue to fight.

The most significant fact about Achilles, however, is that he knows his fate. He knows that he will die in Troy. This unique knowledge marks Achilles as different. Hector and the other characters do not know their future and when or how they will meet their end. Knowledge of fate is something the gods have, not humans.

Achilles doesn't seem human until he meets with Priam after killing Hector. It is then that he eats and sleeps. He shows to Priam kindness and empathy. Vandiver explains that Achilles has reintegrated into his community—and with his reintegration Achilles accepts his human condition and with it his own mortality. And so the Iliad can end.

The role of the gods makes more sense in the context of the theme of human mortality. As immortals, the gods offer a contrast to humanity. The gods are also petty and lack nobility. Only the humans can attain glory, honor, and nobility. That is, only humans have the need and capacity for morality. It is our mortality that gives rise to morality.

On a different note, I wonder to what extent Homer sees himself as a critic of the culture he is writing abut. He presents the fighting in a way that almost makes it seem futile and wasteful. During the longest day, where the Greeks and Trojans fight brutally, with the battle going back and forth with no progress for either side, there is a general sense of meaninglessness to the fighting. Homer paints us the scene of the fields are littered with the dead – he shows us that on both sides the dead are honorable and noble men. There seems to be an implicit question: but to what end and for what reason are they dead? This is probably my modern sentiments coming in, but I wonder if it is “really” there in the text.

I was also struck by Achilles’ refusal of the new and greater honors offered to him by Agamemnon if he returns to the fighting. He says that these don’t mean anything to him anymore. The greatest hero in the greatest story is rejecting the morality of his society. That strikes me as a criticism of that morality and society.

As I said above, I was annoyed by all the interferences of the gods in the battle. Each time one of the heroes seems in trouble the gods swoop in and save him. Or the hero is made stronger by the gods and goes on rampage. This undermines human achievement and autonomy. Why do we praise a great warrior if his greatness is the result of a god? This raises a variant on the Euthrypho dilemma: are the heroes great because the gods choose them or do the gods choose the heroes because they are great?

If you haven’t read the Iliad or haven’t read it in years, it is worth a new or first look. And I can’t recommend The Teaching Company’s course strongly enough as a companion piece.

Select a Candidate

Minnesota Public Radio has a decent presidential quiz. It asks you a bunch of questions about your views on the main topics of the day and then calculates your match. Unlike most quizzes of this sort, the MPR quiz actually has some variety in most of the answers and isn't just yes/no or favor/oppose (although there are some annoying ones like that).

I matched best, not unsurprisingly, with Giuliani. I was a little surprised by just how closely I matched with Giuliani. I am not quite sure what the score means, but I got a 28 with Giuliani. 23 for McCain. Interestingly enough, I only got 14 for Paul (same as Huckabee). Hillary came in second to last, only in front of Dodd, at a 6.

Hat tip to Virginia.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

How to cover the elections

The most honest news story on the presidential elections:

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Happy Nayrot!

Tonight, Dec 3rd, starts Hanukka (how do you spell it?).

As a kid, Hanukka was a time of presents and yummy latkes. In Hebrew school we were taught that Hanukka is the celebration of the miracle of the lamp oil: there was, the story goes, oil enough for one day, but the oil burned 8 days and allowed the re-dedication of the Temple after the Maccabees victory over the Greeks. Hanukka means dedication.

Interesting story, but it's not what makes Hanukka interesting to me--or it seems to Jews in general. Hanukka has a rather surprising checkered past, but the Jewish people never gave up on it.

Hanukka replaces the ancient holiday of Nayrot. Nayrot was a winter solstice holiday that like most solstice celebrations involved lights (Christmas lights anyone?). The winter solstice is the darkest time of the year and so ancient cultures would light fires and have festivals involving lights and fires to fill the dark winter period. This also probably involved a little of what the late Rabbi Wine called "imitative magic." The mystical hope was that by lighting fires this would inspire the sun to rekindle, get brighter, and lead to spring.

The Israelite priests weren't big fans of this holiday because it was part of an older Sun-worshiping religion and not the Yahweh worship they were pushing. They tried, but couldn't wipe it out. Then, the Maccabees used the holiday to solidify the memory and glory of their victory and Hanukkah was born.

Problem was, the Rabbis, who would replace the priests as the religious leaders after the destruction of the temple, weren't fans of the Maccabees. This is why the holiday and The Books of the Maccabees are not in the the Jewish Bible. The Maccabees, you see, didn't only fight the Greeks, but Hellenized Jews. When the Maccabees came to power, they were a bit on the fundamentalist side stamping out any form of Judaism that didn't fit what they thought was correct practice. This ended up pitting them against the Pharisees who would later grow into the rabbinical tradition.

Still, the ancient ritual of lighting fires in the dark winter months continued; the priests couldn't get rid of Nayrot and the Rabbis couldn't get rid of Hanukkah. Some argue that the Rabbis invented the story about the miracle oil in order to make Hanukkah fit more with the Rabbi's vision of Judaism. If you can't beat them, assimilate them.

So, Hanukkah isn't interesting to Jews because of some tale of oil. We love Hanukkah for the same reason our ancient forebears did: it's dark and cold outside (here in Roscoe, it's snowing!) and the bringing of light and warmth into the home at this time is joyful. It is also a moment of pride. We can conquer the winter, control fire, and be warm and prosperous even as the natural world (temporarily) dies.

And, of course, there are those latkes smothered in apple sauce.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Isolationism Confusion

Some readers have expressed concern about my referring to Ron Paul as an isolationist. (See my post) To be clear: I did not use this term as a pejorative or as means of shutting down discussion. I used it as a term that best describes his view.

I understand isolationism to be the foreign policy view that a country should isolate itself internationally. That is, isolationism is the view that a country should not engage in alliances, not provide support for allies, not participate in international organizations, and (or) not get involved in foreign conflicts. It is often used to mean neutrality, non-involvement, or non-interventionism. This looks to me like Paul's view; therefore I am not attributing to him a view that misrepresents him.

The first principle of the foreign policy of free country ought to the protection of the individual rights of its citizen. This view necessitates neither the isolationism as described above nor a policy of involvement. Different historical and circumstantial contingencies will require a consideration of how to best implement the principle of protecting individual rights. At times this might call for neutrality or non-involvement; but it might equally require entering into alliances or providing material and financial support to allies. Indeed, it might require attacking a professed and dangerous enemy.

Given the complexity of recognizing and properly appreciating these different contingencies as well as thoughtfully applying the principle of individual rights to these circumstances, it is no surprise that intelligent, honest, and rational individuals can disagree about what specific policy is best for protecting rights. What I find worrisome about Paul's view, as well as many libertarians, is that the answer appears always to be neutrality and non-involvement. What looks like consistency and principled policy is really just concrete-bound obstinacy regardless of the policy's relation to the principle of protecting individual rights.

I hope this clears up any confusion.