Another Speech If We are Quiet Enough to Hear

Petraeus’ speech follows in the tradition of others we have linked on this site. The great old rhetoric may not be as effective in our media-soaked age where all voices are blurred by the white noise that surrounds us (and some of it is more than white noise – it grabs at us even as we read). These may, indeed, be speeches for another era – but I suspect its listeners did listen, knowing a quiet in which such words stand alone.

(Instapundit linked to Mona Charen at The Corner.) Speech below.

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First Amendment Symposium

This weekend past, a First Amendment Symposium was held at Loyola Law School in honor of esteemed alumnus Steven Shiffrin. It was attended by eminent constitutional law scholars, including Erwin Chemerinsky, Kurt Lash, and Eugene Volokh. The topic was commercial speech, particularly in the context of Kasky v. Nike, Inc., 27 Ca. 4th 939 (2002). I’ve broken down just a hint of the arguments that each of the distinguished speakers made.

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What is to be done?

For those who do not know about the history of the Russian radical movement I should explain that the title was not invented by Lenin. Very little was. This was the title given to an interminably long and boring novel by Chernyshevsky, which outlined in fictional form the ideas of radicalism. One of the great mysteries of the Russian soul is how a novel of such incredible turpitude should have become so popular in a country, which, at the time, boasted some of the greatest novelist in the world.

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Who’s the Adult?

Shannon’s arguments are arresting, thoughtful and useful. Since he’s a technological wizard and I’m a pretty run-of-the-mill liberal arts type, since I have the myopic tendency to draw conclusions from my anecdotal experience and he from broader & more objective sources, we see the world from quite different angles, but, in the end, we see the same world. I’m reassured that the private is full of examples of the public, the specific of the general. And some of it boils down to – who’s the adult? I hope (whenever we get this damn conference over) to offer some meditations that discuss how I slowly learned to be (intermittently I fear) the adult. But here’s the first installment and it isn’t all that personal. It is merely an observation.

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With Apologies to Sergio Leone

[Author’s Note: David Foster made a comment about texbook pricing in Zenpundit’s latest post. In response, this is a reposting of a piece I wrote in October 2005 (before I joined the Chicago Boyz) on texbook pricing at the college level. I did a quick check, but if there are any broken links here, please let me know.]

I’ve been kicking around a screed on textbook prices for a while, and it’s mushroomed so that I think I’ve managed to write something that will upset everyone involved in the debate. Which is probably reasonable, give how much blame there is to go around. I have a hunch that an unpopular and lasting social or market phenomenon always has multiple roots, or else social and market forces would sweep it away in short order. I think the rising price of textbooks in the US is a good piece of evidence for that theory.

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Dirty Jobs

I’ve heard that smell is the sense that most easily evokes memory. Derek Lowe has an interesting post about smells in the lab. In my less charitable moments I am wont to say that Organikers become Organikers because they smelled too much Toluene in Sophomore Organic. But I, too was surrounded by smells in graduate school that I now miss once in a while. The smell of vacuum pump oil. The acrid smell of concentrated acids, especially the aqua regia we used for cleaning Ostwald Viscometers. The smell of burnt target paper as the laser fried it. The smell of burnt skin as the laser fried you. The smell of phosgene coming up the drains from the fume hoods on the roof . (Just kidding – when you smell cut grass in a chemlab, it’s time to grab your ankles and kiss your butt goodbye. But the drains did often carry unusual odors). One commenter reminded me of TEMED. I really do not miss coming home smelling like a fish market during the year I was using that stuff.

So, for all you non-techies out there, what are the smells of work and school that take you back?


[Update: not being an Organiker I managed to avoid thiols (mercaptans to you old fogies) after sophomore year. However, it was my misfortune to work in a lab two floors down from a lab that did use thiols. Derek’s commenter’s description that some of them smell like “burnt ass” is right on.]

X-posted at TPwithpagenumbers.

Ward — Out of Thin Air

Ward, Peter, Out of Thin Air: Dinosaurs, Birds, And Earth’s Ancient Atmosphere, John Henry Press, 2006. 282 pp.

Out of Thin Air takes the reader on a wide-ranging journey through the earth sciences, melding cosmology, the geological and climatological history of Earth, and the story of the evolution of life on Earth. It’s a unique reading experience because it proposes a theoretical change-of-perspective so profound and so recent that the author is hustling (with a large number of scientific colleagues) to publish scientific articles which outline the implications of the new information and re-assess many assumptions about the ancient past. Out of Thin Air is a snapshot of science on the run. What it lacks in conclusiveness it restores with the excitement of iconoclasm and the possible revision of decades-old assumptions.

The book opens with the haunting image of mountain climbers dying of hypoxia near the top of Mount Everest as Tibetan bar-headed geese migrate overhead without apparent danger. How are birds able to survive flight at such high altitudes during such tremendous migratory exertions? Clearly, bird physiology is different in some profound way from that of mammals and reptiles. What are the ancient roots of this difference and does it have anything to do with the apparent dinosaurian origins of modern birds?

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Pan’s Labyrinth — Nominee for 2007 Oscar – Best Foreign Film

Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del Fauno: 2006)

Foreign-language fantasies, after due diligence at, usually end up having their premiere on my DVD player but a friend was so enthusiastic and persistent about seeing this Oscar-nominated film (Art Direction, Cinematography, Makeup, Foreign Language Film, Music [Score], Original Screenplay) while it was still in the theatres that I was convinced to watch it on the big screen. Mexican writer/director Guillermo del Toro has created a work that is beautifully filmed, with great computer-generated images (CGI), and excellent acting. Surprisingly, however, within moments of the film’s start, I found myself thinking more of Claudio Veliz’s comments on Anglo and Hispanic culture in The New World of the Gothic Fox: Culture and Economy in English and Spanish America.

(see this Google Video for Dr. Veliz’s talk on “The Optional Descent of the English-Speaking World” at the Anglosphere Institute last October.)

In the English-speaking world, fairy tales are more often thought of as children’s stories … filled with drama that appeals to child and parent alike, granted … but not meant to relentlessly catalogue the horrors of life. Pan’s Labyrinth, as far as I can tell, is more an adult fairy tale of a Hispanosphere variety. Redemption, in this world, comes in denying your enemies their deepest needs. Satisfaction comes in another world entirely. As noted, my exposure to the intellectual underpinnings of this approach to life comes from Veliz and his comments about the Caliban/Ariel contrast between Anglo and Hispanic culture. To a lesser extent, my exposure to the realities of Hispanosphere life come from reading from Lawrence Harrison and Hernando De Soto. I may be off-base in seeing the origins of Pan’s Labyrinth in Latin American surrealist literary culture but I don’t think I’m mistaken in seeing it coming from a very different place than Anglosphere fantasies.

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Rageh Omaar – Inside Iran

Rageh Omaar of the BBC takes a trip to Tehran to discover what the lives of ordinary Iranians is like.

It is a timely reminder that Iran is the home of an old and proud civilization, that just happens now, like the People’s Republic of China, to be caught up in a form of government that is behind the people’s capacity and taste for modernity and sophistication. Take the time to watch this, and to learn more about a remarkable people.

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

The Bombe Runs Again

(cross-posted at Photon Courier)

During WWII, the British used electomechanical devices called bombes to break the German Enigma code. The bombe in its earliest form was developed by the Poles, but was considerably enhanced by the British. (The name probably came from an ice cream dessert popular among the Polish mathematicians who did the original work)

Following WWII, strict secrecy was maintained concerning the codebreaking activities, and all of the bombes were eventually destroyed. Now, a group of volunteers has reconstructed a working bombe–it may be seen at Bletchley Park, which was Britain’s main codebreaking center during the war.

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Mencken, Schmencken

Michael Barone has a good post where he mentions how Mencken hated FDR: “Mencken was taken to be a force for social liberalism and toleration in the 1920s. But in the 1930s, he vitriolically opposed Franklin Roosevelt … and the New Deal.”

Barone is right, and it is unusual to see anyone mention Mencken’s anti-FDR phase. He is usually treated as a liberal hero for ridiculing religious people, and his disdain for the Republican presidents of the 1920s and those who voted for them.

But Mencken hated FDR at least as much as he despised Wilson, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover.

He did make one grudging concession to Coolidge:

Counting out Harding as a cipher only, Dr. Coolidge was preceded by one World Saver and followed by two more. What enlightened American, having to choose between any of them and another Coolidge, would hesitate for an instant? There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was not a nuisance.

This is actually half wrong. It is accurate to note that Wilson, Hoover and FDR, three presidents who are not usually lumped together, were all “world savers”, and this is not usually a good thing for a president to be. But Coolidge had a well-developed philosophy and acted on it. Like Eisenhower, he did the actual work quietly, while presenting a soothing image to the public. But Mencken was too convinced of his own intellectual superiority over everybody to notice that. That unearned arrogance is what makes Mencken age rather poorly, in my opinion. That said, he can be a clever writer and sometimes astute, and frequently funny. But the self-regard is grating.

Mencken was at his best in his books about the American language. There he mostly restricted himself to observable facts, or reasonable deductions therefrom, and while an amateur, he did a good job with it. His books of memoirs are also good, because they seem to have less spite in them, and his positive qualities shine through.

The Libby Trial

Despite wishful thinking by some conservative pundits, the odds that Libby will be convicted, as reflected by the Intrade betting market, have been creeping up and are now around 70%. The bigger question at this point is whether President Bush will have the balls to pardon him.

(This blog is an Intrade affiliate.)

Mysteries of the Orient Revealed

Culture shock is a good thing because it makes you wonder what kind of stupid things you do out of habit while wondering why all these furriners do the things that they do. The best method to deal with culture shock is laughter. Which is why I’m glad to see the “Kind of Crap” archives back up. Galvin Chow is a bit juvenile, and a bit of a potty mouth, so be warned. But he has some of the funniest Japan stuff I’ve seen on the web. Perhaps it’s his unique perspective as a Chinese-American. Some of his stuff explains a lot of the odder adult behavior I saw around me in Japan. If I were his older brother, I’d slap 7 kinds of sense into him so that he’d make a career out of writing, instead of the inevitable slacking path through a big company or government organization that he seems destined for.

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On Bias and Thinking

I’d like to juxtapose a couple of interesting posts that I have read this week that have bearing on how we select information that subsequently shapes our thoughts.

At Complexity and Social Networks Blog, Maria Binz-Scharf asks “How does the way we process information relate to how we search for it?“. A key excerpt:

“Some days ago I attended a talk on human information processing by Thomas Mussweiler from the University of Cologne who spoke at the Columbia Business School. Mussweiler and colleagues conducted an impressive number of experiments on the mechanisms and influences of individual information processing. A simple example would be to ask you to determine your best athletic performance. You have two basic options: 1) You think of every single athletic moment in your life, i.e. you engage in absolute information processing, or 2) you compare what you recollect as some of your best performances to a given standard, e.g. a famous athlete’s performance (or a famous couch potato’s performance). Not surprisingly it turns out that comparison allows to process information in a more efficient manner.

Mussweiler went on to talk about various factors that influence the comparisons we make, most importantly the standards we employ for comparing information. His experiments used a technique calledpriming to activate certain standards – for example, subjects were asked to judge a trait in a person. The result shows that priming a trait concept (such as aggressiveness) will induce the subject to judge the target person according to that trait. In other words, once activated, standards are spontaneously compared to the target person.”

This is very interesting. “Priming” would be an efficiency mechanism for rapid mental screening of a large number of things. It is also a “bias mechanism” that would strongly predispose you to see some evidence of what pattern you are looking for, even if it does not exist. It would be very much like the ” Framing” of George Lakoff in its effect.

How to deal with that effect, our own unintentional biases or being targeted by zealous Lakoffian framers ? Metacognition might be a helpful technique, as suggested in the post “Strategic Learning: Metacognition and Metamemory” at The Eide Neurolearning Blog . The Drs. Eide write:

“High level strategic learning often requires constant self-regulation and error monitoring strategies, metacognition (thinking about the thought processes), sometimes specific memory techniques (metamemory or conscious thinking about memory).”

Such self-regulative monitoring provides a mental check against racing ahead with a dubious but attractive premise. It would also tend to derail the the likelihood of the amygdala becoming overly engaged in the heat of the argument and turning us into red-faced, sputtering, arm-waving, buffoons with a surge of emotionality.

Cross posted at Zenpundit

Egalitarian Empires

For centuries, scholars have debated the causes of the rise and fall of empires.

The most widely held model holds that empires arise due to the unusually aggressive nature of their parent-societies which sweep over their more pacific neighbors. Such empires support themselves by large-scale pillaging which drives them ever to new wars. When they overextend themselves or run out of pillage to fuel their war engines, the empires collapse.

People evoke this model readily when seeking to criticize the war du jour of a Western nation. They always claim the nation acquired its wealth from a modern form of pillage, that it needs pillage to prosper but that the current conflict represents the fatal overextension that will bring its doom.

Yet does this model reflect the true causes that drive the life-cycle of empires, even on an abstract and simplified level?

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A Day About Love

This is a day all about shannon Love

Today is the the day we set aside to celebrate the most important thing in our lives: shannon Love.

After all shannon Love brings meaning to our existence. Without shannon Love what do we have?

Nothing is more powerful than shannon Love. shannon Love makes the world go round. shannon Love conquers all.

Certainly, shannon Love hurts but all agree that it is better to have shannon Love and lost than to never have shannon Love at all.

So it is fitting that that we set aside this one day to contemplate all that shannon Love has given us and to give thanks that we all have shannon Love in our lives.

Good News Beneath the Surface

As I noted in an earlier post, apparently some good news has been going on beneath the surface of the chatter about stem cells. That we see little information about this is irritating: the assumption appears to be that the public has a right to know the mechanics of wiretaps but little context about issues such as these – also ones on which we judge our politician’s choices.

We hope other news – about Iraq, education in America, our health, energy sources – is good. But, we don’t know. Hell, the high level of home ownership wasn’t discussed all that much, but I suspect mortgage defaults will be. I suspect some bad but more good news, like the green revolution, is taking its course while we remain oblivious. What will prove important in the future? We don’t know. It isn’t all that important, probably, that we do know most. But not knowing some stories may affect us in subtle but important ways. One such story is that of heroic self-sacrifice Michael Yon reported (audio interview).

Bad news is entertaining. We like to consider the Alps and Grand Canyon – even though we know life is a good deal more like the Nebraska sandhills. A frisson of terror followed by relief that we haven’t been destroyed entertains: the reaction of an audience when the heroic, tragic hero (the scapegoat Aristotle tells us) is exiled, the reaction of the Puritans to Wigglesworth’s “Day of Doom,” the reaction of the audience to Gore’s doom. We fear we are the goats but assure ourselves in the end we are sheep.

Bad news can be motivating. But bad news also leads to despair. Fearing consequences, fearing responsibility, we don’t act. We become mired in hesitations and doubts. Politicians hedge their bets. They say the surge won’t work but do not question Petraeus about the plan – preferring to say there is none. That debate, the sarcasm of the press, reinforces our sense that to be wise is to be ironic, cynical – passive. The twentieth century began with Marcher, James’s hero whose great tragedy is that he is the man to whom nothing happened because he did nothing, felt nothing, committed himself to nothing. Our politicians begin the twenty-first arguing their positions follow the polls better than do their competitors’ votes – passive before the winds, two-dimensional, turning like tin roosters, weather vanes on the barn roof.

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The Free Market Looks at the Environment

Here’s someone who really sees the glass as half full:

It’s also true that there exist social systems that are damaging Nature – by eliminating private ownership and similar things – much more than the freer societies. These tendencies become important in the long run. They unambiguously imply that today, on February 8th, 2007, Nature is protected uncomparably more than on February 8th ten years ago or fifty years ago or one hundred years ago.

Generally, he’s seen as a bit too free market, a bit too hard nosed. But Klaus shares with Havel a tendency to speak his mind – with perhaps less wit and tact. Nonetheless, I suspect I’m not the only person charmed by his response when his interviewer asks: “Don’t you believe that we’re ruining our planet?

I will pretend that I haven’t heard you. Perhaps only Mr Al Gore may be saying something along these lines: a sane person hardly.

(Thanks to Instapundit, then to Drudge.)

Update:  The interview was then translated in its entirety in the Prague Daily Post – although I retain some affection for the Czenglish quoted above; it is byLubos Motl from his blog, “The Reference Frame.”

Is Obama Right?

Senator Obama states that the more than 3000 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq were “wasted”.

NBC Nightly News reports that the soldiers beg to differ.

Those who have seen Jarhead know that what’s reported from the front might not always be what the soldiers really think. The insinuation in that movie is that any time you see positive, upbeat videos of American soldiers in the front lines, it’s been carefully censored by the Pentagon, or if not, the front line commanders have exerted much pressure on the soldiers not to complain. (Along that line of thought seems to be the implied message that complaining, a trait commonly thought of as “unmanly”, is preferable to “manly” stoicism. Would that mean that having an “unmanly” armed forces is what those who think along those lines really want?)

Is Senator Obama right? After all, he’s a graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School. Moreover, he was president of the Harvard Law Review. In other words, he’s about as educated as a man can be. Surely his education has enlightened him in a way that no mere grunt in the sands of Mesopotamia could possibly understand. After all, as Senator Kerry once sagely remarked: “You know, education–if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, uh, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

I’m sure all those chicken hawk neocons are completely out of line to believe the self-congratulatory propaganda of the American military-industrial complex (run by none other than Vice President Cheney through his vise grip on all things Halliburton) could possibly be worth any more than the enlightened dismissal of the doyens of our brilliant, public-spirited intellectuals, whose Ivy League education places them leaps and bounds above the mean existence of mere mortals.

Yes, that was a bit arch and snide. I actually don’t necessarily believe that Senator Obama is a preening elitist. (For all I know he’s just a regular elitist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) The point is, I’m afraid there are people out there who probably do buy into that world view. If you see one that effuses about how magnificent this or that current darling of the media is, smile and politely remind him (or her!) to take everything with a grain of salt, including the advice of those who would tell them to take only one side’s story (such as those of the soldiers) with a helping of a salt lick.

By the way, Matteo found some interesting commentary about the rhetorical parlor game against so-called “chicken hawks” (quoting Ace of Spades HQ):

Exit question: Since Arkin asserts that the troops should not be allowed to influence the public’s opinion on the war, and since the entire left demands that anyone supporting the war become a troop himself — has the left pretty much created a Catch-22 by which any and all support for the war is illegitimate?

Campaign ’08 is well and truly under way!

(Hat-tip: Instapundit)

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]