Court Decisions

I’ve been heartened by a number of court decisions lately:

  • Striking down mechanical racism by public colleges in the Michigan case (although vague racism is still allowed???)
  • Striking down anti-sodomy laws in the Lawrence v. Texas case.
  • The mild sentence in the horrible Ed Rosenthal case.
  • Microsoft relieved of having to carry Sun’s Java.

I think there are a few more that aren’t springing to mind.

On the Lawrence case I’m somewhat ambivalent.

I’m happy to see the Constitution interpreted so as to include private sexual behavior under protected liberties, but I’m not sure I like the Court changing the interpretations that were intended by the authors. I like the outcome when this leads to more individual liberty, but I don’t like it when it leads to New Dealish expansion of government.

So, I sympathise with Clarence Thomas who voted against the Lawrence decision on strict constructionist grounds. He personally opposed the anti-sodomy laws.

But I have trouble sympathizing with Scalia who is worried about anti-masturbation laws. I know he’s a darling of conservatives. He might be a legal genius, but he seems to be a moral idiot.

Superstition

I was in Las Vegas last weekend. Whenever I go to Vegas I think about superstition.

One of the best places to observe superstition is at a craps table. Many people go through elaborate routines before they throw the dice. Many also claim that the shooter (the person throwing the dice) always (or almost always) throws a seven (which is bad for most betters after a point has been established) whenever any of the following happen: a die flies off the table and the shooter doesn’t call for the “same dice”; a die hits a stack of chips on the table; a die hits someone’s hand; somebody says the word “Seven”.

These people have been playing craps for a long time and have had ample opportunity to observe that a seven comes up one-sixth of the time regardless of what has happened before or during the throw. But they still cling to the false theory.

Why?

I don’t know for sure, but here are some tentative thoughts…

B.F. Skinner induced “superstition” in pigeons by having a device feed them at regular (or irregular) intervals. The pigeons would start to repeat whatever head-bobbing or leg movements that they did just before being fed because the feedings reinforced this behavior. Even though these movements had absolutely no effect on their feeding, they persisted in performing (and adding to) these movements until they were doing an elaborate dance between feedings!

Does this explain why people do similar things at the craps table (and other areas of life)?

Well, I think they’re related but very different.

I think birds are hard-wired to respond to positive and negative reinforcement. It’s a great, evolved, trick that helps them survive without any knowledge about the world. People learn differently. They form theories and (hopefully) improve them through a series of conjectures and refutations. If they’re lazy or there’s no good opportunity or strong motivation to criticize their conjectures, they might adopt a bad theory and count applications of it as evidence of its truth; even though more careful thought would reveal this to be invalid. Some factors that make this mistake harder to overcome are our great pattern recognition skills (noticing repeating sequences and conjecturing a cause-and-effect relationship) and our knack for selectively noticing and remembering patterns that we were already interested in. This is why the craps players think they’ve experienced things that they haven’t.

This sort of thing doesn’t just affect our superstitions. I’m sure that much of our behavior comes from this superficial learning. And it’s not all bad. Many of our idiosyncrasies were formed this way and they add to our charm. And, not everything warrants deep consideration; sometimes accepting the first plausible theory and moving on is good enough.

But, when we let some of our important ideas about how the world works be formed by this sort of process, it’s unlikely to be good for us.

How Should One Partially Support an Organization?

I saw this article today by Ronald Bailey at reasononline
about why he joined the ACLU.

Like Bailey, I support some ACLU activities and positions (Civil Liberties, First Amendment, Drug Policy, Reproductive Rights, etc.), but I disagree with others (Gun Rights, Welfare Reform, Property Rights, Death Penalty, Freedom of Association).

It’s very difficult to find organizations that we agree with 100%. So, how should one support organizations that one partially agrees with?

Should we focus on the positive and support them if they’re doing good things and try to ignore the bad? Should we try to weigh how much good vs. bad they do? Should we temporarily support them and let them know our concerns and then withdraw support if they don’t improve?

I’m not sure about this one, so I’m interested in feedback. Please let me know, either in the comments or via e-mail what you think the best way to address this situation is, and I’ll post about the most interesting responses.

“Weird Al” Rules!

As unreasonable as it may seem, my family flew to Las Vegas this past weekend so that we could see Weird Al Yankovic in concert.

But, we all agree that it was well worth it!

Al has just started his Poodle Hat Tour, and tickets went on sale before any concert dates were announced in our area, so we decided to make an extravagant weekend of it. It was awesome.

If you appreciate Al, and you can get to one of these concerts, then you should definitely go. Al and his band are incredibly versatile and talented and still put on a great show after all these years. I highly recommend becoming familiar with the songs on the Poodle Hat album before going, because he performs many of the tracks in concert (some completely, and some shortened in a fantastic medley). He also performs many other songs including several from Running With Scissors, as well as a great selection of older classics.

Down With Hatch

I really don’t like Orrin Hatch. I’ve considered him a dangerous slimeball since before his anti-Microsoft jihad on behalf of Novell and friends. Now he’s on an anti-computer-file-trader jihad on behalf of the RIAA. He recently indicated that it might be ok for copyright holders to destroy the computers of suspected copyright violators.

What a jerk!

So it was nice to see James Lileks get Hatch into his cross-hairs today:

I’ll just say that I think he’s made mostly of molded plastic, there’s a pullstring in his back, and the RIAA fingerprints are all over the big white ring. I won’t listen to any of these guys blather about computers or the Internet until they have demonstrated on film that they can install some RAM, burn a CD (“shiny side down, you say?”), tell me what HTTP and URL stand for, prove they know how to get the source code for a webpage, and know better than to click “Yes” when asked if the computer should always trust data from Gator Corporation.

His remarks about remotely destroying computers that download copyrighted material is just grampa blather. The computers are stealing music! The cars are frightening the horses! The Kaiser took my dog!

Read the whole thing. In fact, read Lileks every day. It’s a pleasure.

The Dangerous Internet

Eugene Volokh did a great job fisking Bill O’Reilly’s recent whiny Talking Points Memo that complains about how dangerous the Internet is becoming because what’s available there is insufficiently policed and inaccuracies go unrestrained.

Volokh makes many strong points demolishing the logical structure of O’Reilly’s “argument”. But one thing he doesn’t mention is that O’Reilly’s main point is false.

It’s just not true that there is no restraint on what people say online. There is a powerful restraint and that is reputation.

Popular Internet writers depend on their reputations to maintain their readership, so they are highly motivated to be accurate and to quickly correct mistakes when they occur. And Internet writers do a great job of fact-checking each other, so these mistakes don’t go unnoticed for long. It has been my experience, and Eugene’s as well, that mistakes on the Internet are corrected much more quickly and visibly than in other media.

But, what about writers who are not so popular or who post anonymously? Well, clearly, the fewer readers there are, the smaller the problems that inaccuracies pose. And many readers have developed a healthy skepticism when reading things from people they have not come to trust.

So, perhaps Mr. O’Reilly should learn a bit about his subject matter and step into the 21st century before spreading these inaccuracies.

I’m sure his viewers will see a correction from him Real Soon Now.

Self-Denial

I just read another great article by Jacob Sullum in the July issue of Reason called The Anti-Pleasure Principle.

The article is ostensibly about the CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest; no, I won’t link to them, but I will link to these guys). It explores their un-scientific, alarmist, headline-grabbing attacks on various foods. But what was more interesting to me about the examination was Sullum’s observation that:

The group is also emblematic of a troubling cultural trend whose motto might be, “If it feels good, don’t do it.”

And it seems to really reflect their attitude! Whatever people seem to enjoy, they condemn and forbid: Pizza with extra cheese (“Never order” ), fried mozzarella sticks (“Just say no”), buffalo wings (“Order something else”), crispy orange beef (ditto), beef and cheese nachos (“Order just about anything else”), a gyro (“There’s no way to make this a healthful choice”), a mushroom cheeseburger (“Forget about this one!”), a fried whole onion (“a bomb”), a milk shake (“Skip it”), the Cheesecake Factory’s carrot cake (“the worst dessert on the menu”), and cheese fries with ranch dressing (“worse than anything we’ve
ever analyzed”).

And when some innovation comes along that mitigates the health concerns associated with certain foods (like irradiation, artificial fat, sugar, or meat, etc.) they invariably oppose it with dubious fears. It’s almost as though there was some law of nature (the Conservation Of Misery?) that a solution must be violating.

What I was thinking about, and Sullum touches on, is that there seems to be an attraction to this and other movements because of this anti-pleasure principle. Many religious traditions involve self-denial and self-imposed rigors, as though virtue required misery. I’m sure these ordeals help those who share the experiences to bond with each other (and separate from outsiders), form an identity, and get a sense of structure and meaning in their lives. But, I think these means are wrong and bad and not the best ways of achieving these ends. It’s even worse when they try to impose these things on the rest of us (as the CSPI often does).

Like most popular bad ideas, there is an element of truth behind it. It is important to be productive and responsible; and these things are often difficult. But that doesn’t mean that difficulty and misery are good for their own sakes! It’s important to get things done, but it’s not better to work hard than to work smart. We’re human beings. Solving problems and finding better ways to do things is what we’re all about. We should embrace improvements (with skepticism), not reject them reflexively.

I think it’s anti-human to always prefer the miserable to the pleasurable, and the “natural” to the artificial.

I’m pro-human. Human life is not all about pain and misery. It’s about solving problems, achieving valuable goals, discovering truth and beauty, and enjoying the process.

I love the way Sullum ends the article:

For my part, I think I’ll try some cheese fries with ranch dressing. They’ve never tempted me before, but if CSPI says they’re “worse than anything we’ve ever analyzed,” they must be pretty damned good.