Archive for May, 2011

Not Alone Anymore

May 26, 2011 1 comment

My two friends are getting married this weekend so there won’t be any updates. Here’s some reading to tide you over along with some prudent advice on marriage by Bertrand Russell. I probably won’t recommend the best man use this in his speech.

Many husbands and many wives will forgo their own pleasures out of jealousy of the pleasures that they imagine their partners as desiring. It is much more harmful to object to other people’s pleasures than it is to be a trifle selfish in pursuing one’s own, and a certain amount of social separateness of husband and wife is necessary if they are not to become dull and incapable of finding anything to say to each other. “Marriage” 13 November 1931

Brad DeLong on the economy and economics.

Matthew Yglesias in The American Prospect on the US-Israel relationship.

Tedy Bruschi on climbing Kilimanjaro.

In anticipation for our bachelor party festivities, Jacob Sullum on “The Most Dangerous Drug.”

Sean Carroll on “Physics and the Immortality of the Soul.”

Buy Christopher Hitchens’ essay on Osama Bin Laden.

Pam Belluck in The New York Times on testing’s effect on learning.

In continuing a recent theme here on the blog, David Weiman on buddhism and neuroscience.

Plus, an appropriately awesome picture from a cool tumblr:

Categories: Personal

What Idiots Don’t Get About Ad Hominem

May 26, 2011 1 comment

Different approaches to argument work better or worse for different people. Some people need coddling, while someone else’s frontal cortex requires defibrillator shocks to jolt it into a logical rhythm. A few studies I’m aware of suggest that most people become harder to persuade if you insult them directly, however I’m unaware of the effect on an audience not directly subjected to the insult. Anecdotally, it seems plausible that making certain positions embarrassing can marginalize the belief. Regardless which approach works best, I’d like to dispel a misunderstanding about ad hominem fallacies.

Whenever faced with harsh criticism or mockery, many people seek to neutralize their opponent by entangling them in the fallacy. These modern retiarius gladiators often miss; the rete netting just isn’t as wide as they believe.

An argument isn’t logically invalid because it is harsh or because it utilizes mockery – it only breaks down if the argument irrelevantly links a personal attack to the validity of the argument itself. For example, I read Jonathan Chait’s blog and often enjoy his rhetorical stabs. In a recent post, he attacks “Paul Ryan’s Innumeracy” – the title itself insults Ryan’s personal abilities, but Chait seeks to demonstrate the erroneousness of Ryan’s numbers to illustrate Ryan’s “innumeracy.”   In contrast, if he argued that Ryan is innumerate, therefore the numbers are wrong we’d have a fallacy. I’ve accused Paul Ryan’s opponents of using ad hominem against him before and where they tried to demonstrate why they see him as a “charlatan” I may have overshot even if I’m not convinced he’s deliberately deceitful.

Not every occasion calls for it, but I’m comfortable ridiculing religious and monetary cranks when their positions warrant it. Their arguments aren’t wrong because they are cranks; they’ve demonstrated their crankery through their beliefs. Labeling David Barton a “pseudo-historian” isn’t a flaw in my argument, it’s a well-earned moniker. If Ta-Nehisi Coates points that out the Tea Party or Donald Trump engaged in racism, he isn’t being fallacious, he’s providing an accurate description of their actions.

Glenn Greenwald explains the importance of personal focus:

When I criticize a specific idea, I usually do so not by examining it in the abstract, but by focusing on a particular person’s expression of that idea. That’s how one avoids fighting strawmen and ensuring accountability (I strongly prefer “X wrote” instead of “some say”). But the focus for me is always on the idea, not its personal advocate. The point of this post was not that Kevin Drum is a mindless, subservient follower of the President’s (the fact that I said I read him regularly and find it worthwhile should make clear that I don’t think that). The point was that Kevin Drum expressed an idea that I found worthy of criticism, both because it was wrong and consequential (consequential because I encounter it frequently enough to make it worthy of examination). That style of engaging arguments (“X said Y and it’s very wrong”) can sometimes appear more personal than it is (especially for the person whose idea is being criticized), but it almost never is about the person; identifying a specific expression of an idea is, in my view, the only way to criticize the idea honestly and rigorously.

If I were to argue that you shouldn’t believe what the Dalai Lama has to say on meditation because he holds wacky evidence-free ideas such as reincarnation, I’d be engaging in a fallacious ad hominem attack. But if I’m criticizing the Dalai Lama for holding wacky evidence-free ideas such as reincarnation, it’s not inappropriate to notice his superstitions.

Too often bigots, fools, and crybabies propel this flashy weapon to protect themselves from criticism by distracting the audience. Even if your attacker taunts you, standing above your argument’s vulnerable body, you must rebut the substance of his valid criticisms to prevent a negative pollice verso

So if Dan Savage wants to remind people of the filth that Rick Santorum spreads about homosexuals by turning his name into a neologism (NSFW) that’s not an example of incorrect logic – Santorum policy views still must be judged on their merits. For those of you that find his policy views persuasive, here’s a campaign sticker you can print out:

Read more…

Categories: Reason

3 Cheers!

May 23, 2011 1 comment

Over the weekend Ezra Klein asked, “What three cocktails should everyone — or at least everyone over 21 who likes to make cocktails — know how to make?” Well, since I bartend on the weekends I figured I’d offer my perspective:


The Sidecar Cocktail

The sidecar is a classic cocktail that provides a great example of how to make lots of other cocktails. It teaches us about balance. During the renaissance many architects utilized the golden ratio which was functional and aesthetically pleasing. Mixologists can approach building drinks in a similar way.

Generally speaking many well-balanced drinks will be around 4 parts spirit, 2 parts sweet ingredient, 1 part sour ingredient. Margaritas work well with the true golden ratio of 3-2-1; but as a tequila lover I think 4 parts work great for that too. A lot of restaurants use 2-1-1, which works but I prefer to taste a little more of the spirit and the balance of sweet to sour of 4-2-1. So go ahead and start creating new drinks following that basic formula and you’re bound to have more successes than failures.

My preference:

  • 4 parts cognac
  • 2 parts Cointreau
  • 1 part lemon juice


Garnish with lemon peel.

Tradition & Style

The Old Fashioned Cocktail

America’s first cocktail! The name actually refers to the way a drink was made, but now it’s a specific drink. Easily one of the most mangled cocktails – I understand why few people think they like them. But a good Old Fashioned can showcase what is enjoyable about cocktails.  This is also a really fun cocktail to make because of the differing philosophies for Old Fashioneds.

Some bartenders use a traditional sugar cube while some prefer the more easily dissolvable simple syrup. Some muddle fruit, some don’t. You could garnish with the classic lemon or the more popular orange and cherry. All should use bitters, but the amount and type vary and make a big difference. Techniques to build the drink vary  – experiment.

My preference:

  • 2 oz bourbon
  • 1/2 oz Simple Syrup
  • 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
  • 2 dashes Orange Bitters


Garnish with (flamed!) orange peel, no cherry.


The Martini Cocktail

Everyone needs to know this essential cocktail. I’m not going to give you a long lecture about martinis – so overplayed. Yes, the classic is made with gin not vodka, but whatever you like just order (if you’re expecting vodka make sure you tell your bartender that). James Bond was wrong to order it shaken… blah blah. Everyone likes to pontificate about the effects of stirring versus shaking. Here’s the truth – it’s just about presentation. If you don’t want a cloudy drink you should stir it. It takes a little longer (barely) but you get a beautiful crystal clear cocktail. General rule of thumb: stir clear ingredients, shake cloudy ones. Whichever method do it enough to dilute the ice and properly chill the drink.

Ratio and style of martinis vary a lot and many are good in their own ways. Some classicists loath dirty martinis. Don’t get them started on a dirty vodka martini. I like them; that’s their problem. Also, no one (sadly) orders sweet martinis (using sweet vermouth) anymore so no need to ask for it dry.  My one pet peeve: always use some vermouth and then use more than that. A glass of gin or vodka is not a martini. It’s a glass of gin or vodka.

I have many different preferences on this one – for forgotten classic:

  • 3 parts Gin
  • 1 part Dry Vermouth
  • dash orange bitters


Garnish with lemon twist.

Categories: Ezra Klein Tags:

The Batesian Mimicry of Mitch Daniels

May 18, 2011 1 comment

Venomous candidates like Rick Santorum and Michelle Bachmann are natural primary candidates in today’s increasingly extreme GOP. Despite the Tea Party’s claims that only fiscal responsibility drives their movement, social and cultural issues undoubtably animate most of the Republican Party base. This poses an obvious difficulty for the GOP’s sane wing and the establishment’s desire to win a general election. Everyone’s familiar with Mitt Romney’s constant metamorphosis, but now Mitch Daniels hopes to successfully attract enough primary voters without losing what makes him appealing to reasonable conservatives and moderates.

The timescale of evolution doesn’t usually provide us the opportunity to watch major transformations in real time, but this political specimen exemplifies a classic case of Batesian mimicry.

When a perfectly edible species evolves to resemble a noxious one that is avoided by predators, thereby gaining protection from being eaten, it’s called Batesian mimicry, after the English naturalist and explorer Henry Walter Bates, who described the phenomenon.

Primary voters classify as voracious predators ready to devour candidates that don’t look enough like themselves. So the same Governor that called for a truce on social issues has now defunded Planned Parenthood in Indiana harming vulnerable women and families. Unfortunately, the natural selection of the primary race runs in this direction. Until the environment changes, candidates must move increasingly rightward in order to survive. Conservative elites and pundits play a large role in shaping that environment – so unless they start resisting against this arms-race we’ll continue to see tasteful candidates turn noxious.

Naked Meditation

May 15, 2011 11 comments

Sam Harris provides an introduction to meditation free of the superstitious vestments in which it’s usually dressed up.

As every meditator soon discovers, such distraction is the normal condition of our minds: Most of us fall from the wire every second, toppling headlong—whether gliding happily in reverie, or plunging into fear, anger, self-hatred and other negative states of mind. Meditation is a technique for breaking this spell, if only for a few moments. The goal is to awaken from our trance of discursive thinking—and from the habit of ceaselessly grasping at the pleasant and recoiling from the unpleasant—so that we can enjoy a mind that is undisturbed by worry, merely open like the sky, and effortlessly aware of the flow of experience in the present.

In his post he recommends The Experience of Insight by Joseph Goldstein. Here’s a snippet from my copy (pg. 51-52):

The first of these enemies, or hindrances, is sense desire: lusting after sense pleasure, grasping at sense objects. It keeps the mind looking outward, searching after this object or that, in an agitated and unbalanced way. It is in the very nature of sense desires that they can never be satisfied. There is no end to the seeking.

That seems about right.

Categories: Sam Harris Tags:

GTSCW: Golden Edition

In this week’s Graphs that Subvert Conventional Wisdom we see why monetary policy shouldn’t be run by gold standard cranks that think it’s just obvious that the Fed’s loose monetary policy is debasing the dollar and causing commodity prices to spike. Only a gold standard can prevent that! Ahem.

David Andolfatto of the St. Louis Fed:

Imagine that you are 50 years old in September 1980. Imagine that a trusted friend of yours–oh, let’s say your doctor–convinces you to put all your savings into gold. The reason he offers is that the Fed is pursuing a policy of “relentless money expansion.” He warns you that the money supply is set to grow by 300% over the next 20 years. So you listen to him.

You buy gold at $673 per ounce. And then you wait. You wait until you turn 70. And then you go to withdraw your savings. You discover that the gold price in March 2001 is $263 per ounce. That’s a whopping rate of return of…wait for it… -60% over 20 years. That’s a minus sixty percent. 

(graph via MacroMania)

Border Walls and the High Cost of Healthcare

May 12, 2011 2 comments

President Obama’s signature legislative achievement goes a long way toward improving America’s healthcare insurance system – now he’s calling on congress to fix our defective immigration rules. But healthcare costs still pose significant problems and America continues to overpay for medical services compared to other nations. So the president might as well aggravate the anti-immigrantion Right further and break down the wall separating these two issues. The GOP keeps saying they want more free market solutions for healthcare, President Obama should offer one.

The administration should seek an international agreement to recognize foreign medical accreditation, increase visas for qualified doctors, and encourage insurance companies to finance patient travel. Fred Hansen in an Institute of Public Affairs article writes,

Although up from 500,000 in 2006 to 750,000 in 2007, the number of Americans traveling abroad for healthcare is tipped to increase to 6 million by 2010.

Unfortunately I can’t find more up-to-date numbers, but it is clear that medical tourism will continue to grow. Of course, many people naturally fear the idea of foreign medicine, but if importing medical services or traveling abroad for them lowers prices or provides access to otherwise unavailable higher quality care to a suffering patient that xenophobia can be an expensive and dangerous delusion.

In 1993, the trade economist Jagdish Bhagwati wrote a piece for the Journal of Commerce advocating that Hillary Clinton’s healthcare task force open the borders for medicine and doctors.

The entry of more foreign doctors wouldn’t require anything as formidable as easing immigration restrictions. Temporary visas for providers of professional services can be made available readily to qualified doctors from abroad.


Economic research strongly suggests that the AMA makes [foreign medical] examination tougher when doctors’ earnings are under pressure, thereby reducing the pool of eligible applicants for visas. Limiting entry eases competition among doctors and keeps their earnings-and the cost of health care-higher than it might otherwise be.

As the healthcare cost graph (linked above) shows, Americans spend $64 billion in excess costs because of overpriced healthcare workers. As President Obama goes around the country to push for immigration reform he might think about how he can build on his previous success by tearing down a few walls.

Controversial Statement of the Week

May 10, 2011 6 comments

Chomsky isn’t satisfied with mere equivalence:

Uncontroversially, his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s, and he is not a “suspect” but uncontroversially the “decider” who gave the orders to commit the “supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” (quoting the Nuremberg Tribunal) for which Nazi criminals were hanged: the hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, destruction of much of the country, the bitter sectarian conflict that has now spread to the rest of the region.

You’d think a linguist would have a better grasp of the word, “uncontroversially.” Hitchens responds:

[I]t is remarkable that he should write as if the mass of evidence against Bin Laden has never been presented or could not have been brought before a court. This form of 9/11 denial doesn’t trouble to conceal an unstated but self-evident premise, which is that the United States richly deserved the assault on its citizens and its civil society. After all, as Chomsky phrases it so tellingly, our habit of “naming our murder weapons after victims of our crimes: Apache, Tomahawk … [is] as if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes ‘Jew’ and ‘Gypsy.’ ” Perhaps this is not so true in the case of Tomahawk, which actually is the name of a weapon, but the point is at least as good as any other he makes.

Turn It Loose

Categories: Music Tags:

The Immorality of Journalistic Social Responsibility

In 2005, The Economist ran a special report on the unintended consequences of corporate social responsibility. Instead of being ethical, executives attempts at advancing social policy confounds the purpose of business and government.

[B]usinesses should not try to do the work of governments, just as governments should not try to do the work of businesses. The goals of business and the goals of government are different—or should be. That, by the way, is why “partnership” between those two should always arouse intense suspicion. Managers, acting in their professional capacity, ought not to concern themselves with the public good: they are not competent to do it, they lack the democratic credentials for it, and their day jobs should leave them no time even to think about it.

The last few days have illuminated a similar paradox with journalists. Journalism should seek to maximize information as companies do for profit. The Fourth Estate has a duty to inform the electorate just as much as managers have a responsibility to their shareholders.  Only in clear cases where no public benefit could be gained – like publishing nuclear designs or troop locations – should journalists censor themselves. Companies similarly can exercise ethical judgement. But the duty of the press should not be confused.

The Bin Laden Photos

I sympathize with the motives of the administration to not make a “trophy” and to seek to protect the troops and other people at risk from any backlash. But I’m puzzled by journalists that argue that the government should not release the photos of Bin Laden.Would these same journalists refuse to print the photos if they were entered into the public domain? We may need quasi-sociopathic journalists that want as much information out to the public as possible. Journalists shouldn’t see themselves as gatekeepers for the state, but as orchestrators of a never-ending siege.

Instead of manning a battering ram, the New York Post, Los Angeles Times, and other editorial boards started shoveling a moat. I don’t see a hard distinction between conventional journalists and opinion journalists. Most surprising might be Andrew Sullivan, usually a First Amendment absolutist. He writes, “To put his head on a digital spike and display his mangled head is, indeed, not the Western way. We are better than that.”

I’d hope we’d be civilized enough not to celebrate the image. I wouldn’t want a poster of it hung in the Freedom Tower or in the Pentagon, but when did publication become the same thing as celebration? I wonder if Andrew’s fear doesn’t reveal more about what we think deep down about ourselves. I’ll be disgusted with the inevitable celebration of the image from many of our countrymen. I expect the government to have paternalistic inclinations, but the constitution doesn’t give journalists the freedoms it does to serve the interests of the state. The government made a decision to kill Osama Bin Laden. It’s not the job of journalists to aid the government in altering the consequences of the decision. It’s not as if releasing the photos would be incontrovertibly dangerous the way it would for nuclear secrets. Journalists are not equipped to decide in advance whether censoring itself promotes the public good. They are betraying their obligations as journalists by failing to inform the electorate.

Maybe the government is right not to release the photos. The negative consequences could outweigh any benefits, but journalists are neither elected officials nor merely private citizens. A watchdog press calling on the government to censor itself should make every citizen uncomfortable.

%d bloggers like this: