27 June 2008

Is That Red Ink Or Blood On Your Finger?

All eligible Zimbabweans went to the polls today to cast a vote for their president… or at least they had better have gone if they don’t want to suffer punishment.

the New York Times:

Zimbabweans expected to be rounded up and taken to the polls. If they are
unable to read or do not understand how to vote, according to a journalist in
the state-owned news media, they will be “assisted” by a police officer who has
already voted publicly in front of a senior officer, as apparently all members
of the armed forces are required to do.

Zimbabwe has been besieged by violence since March 29, when opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai defeated President Robert Mugabe in the general election by a margin of 47.9 percent to 43.2 percent. Because neither candidate received the “50 percent plus one vote” constitutional requirement to be declared the winner outright, the Zimbabwean Election Commission called for today’s runoff election.

Through a systematic and escalating series of beatings and murders in the last couple of months – the body count is up to 86, with thousands having been beaten – Mugabe’s supporters have greatly increased the odds of Mugabe winning the runoff election. For one thing, they have ensured that Mugabe is unopposed, which should make it easier for him to achieve the democratic mandate of greater than fifty percent of the vote. (Tsvangirai withdrew his candidacy on Sunday, retreating in fear to the Dutch Embassy.) If that were not enough to tip the scale, they are now forcing citizens to participate in the formality by actually checking off the sole box on the ballot, almost literally with guns pressed to their temples.

Naturally, this is a grotesque and obvious farce that is fooling no one (or lest I neglect some of the modern intelligentsia, let me instead say it is fooling
almost no one). In only the most superficial sense is this “democracy” in action. Nevertheless, I maintain that it highlights the dreadful error of substituting freedom with democracy. All Mugabe has to do to maintain power is to provide enough democracy to be construed as a mandate representing “the will of the people.” Freedom and liberty never enter the conversation.

It would be foolish to label Mugabe as undemocratic and to think that he simply doesn’t understand democracy. On the contrary, I think Mugabe understands democracy perfectly, and in particular, he understands exactly how the commitment to democracy of today’s intellectuals paralyzes them in opposing dictatorships. This is his best move.

There is hue and cry, of course. Ministers from the Group of Eight industrialized nations questioned the legitimacy of the election, insisting that they would not respect a vote that did not represent the “will of the people.” The
UN Security Council condemned the violence saying that it has “made it impossible for a free and fair election to take place on 27 June.”

Yet despite all this, Mugabe and his henchmen persist in perpetuating the charade. Why would they bother? Obviously they are calculating a benefit from pretending to have an election. They know that they have probably crossed the line a bit – with the murders and terrorism, for instance – but they also know that going through the motions of holding the election will pay dividends in the end.

The advocates of democracy have no intellectual defense to counter Mugabe’s thuggery. What they demand, literally, is that the “will of the people” be served. They can mumble about human rights violations, but in the end, the “right” that is demanded is the collective “right to self-determination.” So, if Zimbabweans go to the polls and vote themselves into a dictatorship (like Iraqis who elected Saddam Hussein in a landslide and the Palestinians who voted overwhelmingly for Hamas in January), then all is well. True, at the moment, the election is strongly contested across the world, but all Mugabe has to do is some damage control. In the coming weeks and months, the fact that Zimbabwe held an election today, however farcical it was, will greatly help diplomats, politicians, and the media to pretend that Zimbabweans are well served in the end.

P.S. By the end of the day, it appeared that despite the threats, participation at the polls was relatively light. Incidentally, the title of this post refers to the red ink that was used to mark the fingers of Zimbabweans who had showed up at the polls. Citizens without marked fingers were in danger of retribution.

26 June 2008

Rachmaninoff Prelude in G Minor

I haven't had time to post in a while, so I thought I'd simply add this link to a performance of my favorite Rachmaninoff prelude: the G minor (opus 23 number 5).  I've been working on arranging this piece for two violins so that my daughter and I can play it together.

16 June 2008

Mr. Deity

For several reasons, I generally avoid making fun of religion.  First, religion is a deadly serious problem that is getting worse.  Second, I hardly think laughing at someone is likely to persuade him to reject faith in favor of reason.  And let's face it - poking fun at religion is rather like shooting fish in a barrel.  It’s not very sporting.

Nevertheless, I recommend watching these Mr. Deity videos.  They are utterly hilarious and not mean-spirited.

14 June 2008

Ayn Rand, Strunk and White, and the Oxford Comma

In addition to my American Heritage Dictionary, one of my most trusty and useful books, one that is always within reach when I am sitting at my desk, is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.  Its tiny size belies its value.  It is the only reference book I can think of in which the fastest way to find something is simply to flip through the pages rather than to use guidewords, the index, or the table of contents.

Anyway, if you examine the end of the previous sentence, you will see an example of the so-called serial comma, which is described in rule #2 in the Elementary Rules of Usage, found on page 2 of The Elements of Style.  The rule states:

In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.  

The title of this post is a good example of this usage.  Without the serial comma, the title would have been “Ayn Rand, Strunk and White and the Oxford Comma.”  One can see the ambiguity that results from the missing comma.  Are “Strunk and White” a pair?  Or is Strunk one of the elements in the list and “White and the Oxford Comma” another?  The serial comma makes the meaning clear and I have long been in the habit of using it (though the British tend not to use it).

Anyway, it is not my intent in this post to elaborate on the merits of the serial comma, though I think there are some.  What I really wanted to relate was a surprising thing that I found when I did an Internet search for “Oxford comma.”  I had seen a reference to an Oxford comma somewhere and wondered if it was the same thing as the serial comma in Strunk and White’s rule #2.  It turns out that it is.

The surprising thing I found, however, was that for some reason, Ayn Rand figures in what is evidently the classic example of usage used to illustrate the Oxford comma.  To pick just one instance, quoting from World Wide Words:

[Q]  … Can you tell me what the Oxford comma is?... I wonder if it may refer to the practice of putting a comma after the penultimate item in a list, before the and – for example “eggs, bacon, and sausage” rather than “eggs, bacon and sausage”, which is how I would write it.

[A]  You have it exactly right.  That form of punctuation is uncommon in British English,… but it’s a characteristic part of the house style of the Oxford University Press, hence the name…

Perhaps the best argument for the serial comma is that apocryphal book dedication: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” [emphasis mine]

I don’t know why Ayn Rand was chosen for the example, but the use seems to be widespread.  (Come to think of it, though, if I ever write a book myself, I could hardly leave Miss Rand off the dedication list!)  Of course, the whole point of the illustration is to show that without the serial comma, “parents” and “Ayn Rand and God” satisfy the form of apposition, suggesting that Ayn Rand and God are the parents of the author!

I find it fascinating that this example would propagate – and it apparently has.  A Google search of “Ayn Rand” and “Oxford comma” yields thousands of references to the phrase.

That illustration of the missing comma is amusing, but there’s an even funnier one in the Wikipedia entry for Oxford_comma.  Apparently, The Times (UK) once included in a description of a Peter Ustinov documentary the sentence, “highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”

10 June 2008

Mr. Green or Mr. Greener

Just in case you were afraid that you wouldn’t have much of a choice in the upcoming presidential election, rest assured that there is a significant difference between the candidates.  For instance, on the important issues of government interference in energy matters and the craven capitulation to environmentalists, the June 6th Wall Street Journal summarizes the positions of Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain as follows:


The two men agree on urgent action to address climate change and the nation’s dependence on expensive foreign oil.  Both support a “cap-and-trade” system that requires companies that exceed caps on their carbon emissions to buy emission credits from companies that pollute less.  But they differ on important details. (1)

They differ on important details?  Well I hope so, because with that description they sound pretty much alike.  So, how do they differ?  The Journal tells us: 


Obama - 80% reduction by 2050.

McCain - 60% reduction by 2050.

Whew!  And I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.

(For some more commentary on the disgusting lack of choices in the upcoming presidential election, check out Gina Liggett’s post Anyone Got an Aspirin? over on NoodleFood.) 


 Wall Street Journal, Friday, June 6, 2008, p. A7. 

09 June 2008

Roosevelt’s Fiat

Amity Shlaes wrote a good article in the Wall Street Journal on June 5, the 75th anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s resolution annulling the so-called “gold clause” in all government and private contracts.  As I understand it, the gold clause was a device incorporated into private contracts that provided a hedge against inflation – that is, against government meddling with the valuation of the dollar.  In one sweep of his presidential signature, Roosevelt abrogated the contracts of innumerable individuals and companies.

There is one particularly chilling passage in Miss Shlaes’ article.  On a certain evening in April, 1933, after having single-handedly removed the country from the gold standard in order to personally manage the dollar, 

FDR surprised a bunch of advisers, saying, “Congratulate me.”… [He] took out a ten-dollar bill, examined it and said “Ha!... How do I know if it’s any good?  Only the fact that I think it is makes it so.”(1)

Whether or not Roosevelt followed this sinister little speech with the requisite diabolical laugh – MU-HA-HA-HA! – is not recorded in the history books as far as I know.  What is clear though is that he relished the power that he had just obtained for himself.

I remember reading about FDR’s shockingly cavalier attitude toward manipulating money in John T. Flynn’s eye-opening book, The Roosevelt Myth, an account of the New Deal era that is relentless in its depiction of the arbitrary wielding of federal power.  Roosevelt was convinced by some advisers in his inner circle that “the country could use a little dose of inflation.”  Almost like children describing a new game to a naive sandbox chum, they sold their ideas to Roosevelt, which were accepted all the more readily for being unorthodox.  They told him that

the government could regulate prices very simply by regulating the price paid for gold...  [FDR] declared: “If we cannot get prices up one way we will get them up another.”...  Later Congress passed an act to validate what he had done, which was clearly illegal when he did it.

Thereafter each day [Treasury Secretary] Morgenthau and Roosevelt met, with Jesse Jones, head of the RFC, present, to fix the price of gold.  They gathered around Roosevelt’s bed in the morning as he ate his eggs.  Then “Henny Penny” and Roosevelt decided the price of gold for that day.  One day they wished to raise the price.  Roosevelt settled the point.  Make it 21 cents, he ruled.  That is a lucky number - three times seven.  And so it was done.  That night Morgenthau wrote in his diary: “If people knew how we fixed the price of gold they would be frightened.”(2)

Perhaps in those days, people would have been frightened by such meddling.  I fear that now the average person is more frightened by the thought of not having the government in charge of the currency.


(1)  Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121262149780346715.html.

(2)  Flynn, John T., The Roosevelt Myth, Fox and Wilkes, San Francisco, p. 51-2.

(3)  A concise history of “The Early Gold Wars” (as well as the nice picture of the gold coin above) may be found at The Privateer Gold Pages (http://www.the-privateer.com/gold2.html).

07 June 2008

Intel Under Attack

On Friday, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) began investigating Intel, the giant integrated circuit manufacturer, for its pricing policies.  The impetus for the investigation seems to have come from the complaints of one of Intel’s competitors, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD).  As a NY Times article puts it, AMD “has waged a global and public relations campaign against Intel hoping to persuade American and foreign regulators that Intel’s pricing practices violate antitrust laws.”  

Until now, this campaign has received attention primarily from foreign government agencies, like the Korean Fair Trade Commission, which recently ruled against Intel for its policy of offering rebates to customers who promised to use Intel devices instead of AMD parts.  Now the United States government is joining the attack.

Let’s stop for a moment to consider the two relevant facts and determine which company, Intel or AMD, is violating rights:

*  Intel offers $37 million dollars in rebates to two customers, Samsung and Trigem, in exchange for their promise not to use AMD parts in their products.

*  AMD enlists foreign and domestic governments to use legal force against Intel to extract benefits it could not achieve in a free market.  

Which of the companies is exerting force?  Which is predator and which is prey?

To the casual observer who unquestioningly accepts antitrust premises, Intel’s activities do indeed appear to be “predatory.”  Intel fits the image of the Big Bad Corporation forcing its products down its customers throats and forcing its competitors out of business.  The intervention of the FTC seems nothing more than the government stepping in to protect the “little guy” from the big bully.

A more careful observation, however, reveals that the exact opposite is true.  By offering rebates to its customers, Intel is effectively reducing the prices of its own products, which is great for manufacturers and consumers.  Samsung and Trigem (and any other customer) are free to accept the terms of the exchange or not.  Intel cannot indefinitely discount its products below what it can afford or it will drive itself out of business.  Even if Intel could temporarily lose money in order to “undercut” AMD long enough to drive AMD out of business (and this is highly dubious), it would subsequently have to increase its prices to make up for it, inviting more competitors into the market.  In the meantime, consumers will have benefited from Intel’s price cuts and will benefit again when other competitors jump in.

In a free market, there is only one explanation for a single company dominating a market for a number of years: that company provides a more valuable product or service than does anyone else.  The fact that Intel can afford to offer a $37 million rebate to its customers is not an indication that it is a bully.  It is an indication that it has consistently provided more value than its competitors.  It is a measure of its success.

The point I wish to emphasize is that in no conceivable way has force been used by Intel.  On the contrary, it is AMD that has initiated force - not directly, of course, but in the only legal way it could: via the government.  Indeed, it is precisely because governments are the only legal instigators of force that in a free market coercive monopolies are impossible.  

AMD claims that Intel’s pricing practices are “unfair,” yet when we look closely we see that the only “weapons” that have been wielded by Intel are products that lots of manufacturers and consumers have demanded for many years.  Whether Intel’s circuits are better than AMD’s is not the point; that they have been chosen freely by consumers is the point.  The only way for Intel to have achieved this market share unfairly is if they had used legal force to block competition.  But Intel did not do that.  AMD is doing that.  

I don’t know the intricacies of anti-trust laws in the United States or elsewhere, but in terms of pricing policies they seem to boil down to these three rules:

If you are a big company and charge more than your competitors, you are committing “price gouging” and must be stopped by the government.

If you are a big company and charge less than your competitors, you are a “predator” that is “undercutting competition” so you must be penalized by the government.

If you are a big company and charge the same as your competitors, you are part of a cartel guilty of colluding against consumers and must be dismantled by the government.

These three rules reduce to just one: if you are a big company, you are under the perpetual threat of government punishment.  A company is at the mercy of the government’s whims, and the more successful it is - that is, the more it has earned its market share - the more it is likely to draw the attention of “trust busters.”  And apparently, all it takes to get the FTC stirred up against one is to have one’s competitor whisper in its ear.

03 June 2008

Erasure, Soviet Style

Today, the NY Times published an article about the tightening noose around critics of the government in Russia.

"On a talk show last fall, a prominent political analyst named Mikhail G. Delyagin had some tart words about Vladimir V. Putin.  When the program was later televised, Mr. Delyagin was not.

Not only were his remarks cut – he was also digitally erased from the show, like a disgraced comrade airbrushed from an old Soviet photo.”

A grimly amusing photo accompanied the article.  To the right of the man with the microphone one can see the disembodied hand and leg of Mr. Delyagin.  Apparently, the authorities missed those limbs when they were censoring the critic out of existence.

02 June 2008

Optical Illusions

A colleague of mine at work emailed a link to a few fascinating optical illusions.

I think the pleasure we get from observing optical illusions is precisely the same as the pleasure of observing magic tricks.  Upon seeing a rabbit pulled from a hat or an assistant in a box sawed in half, nobody (at least no rational person) thinks that magic is real.  Obviously, the whole fun is derived from the implicit knowledge that nature is immutable, that things are what they are, and that there is a single, external reality to be grasped by opening one’s eyes.  This makes it supremely entertaining to see a talented magician make it appear that the laws of the universe were violated.  If anyone thought for an instant that empty hats really could produce rabbits, magic shows would hold no charms. 

Thus, the aspects I find most interesting about illusions are the philosophical implications.  A common, and quite incorrect, interpretation of illusions is that they reveal an alleged fallibility of the senses, and this in turn indicates that we can never really know the universe “as it really is.”  

Upon more careful thought, though, we can see that the exact opposite is true.  The senses are in fact infallible.  And optical illusions themselves are marvelous demonstrations of this fact.

For a simple illustration, let’s take the first illusion, the checkerboard with the cylinder, as an example.  Looking at the picture, it is hard to believe that squares A and B could be the same shade of gray.  It seems impossible!  So, how would we determine if they are the same shade or not?  Well, we might print out the picture, cut out squares A and B, and put them side by side on a neutral background.  And sure enough, if we do this, it turns out that they are exactly the same shade.  How do we know?  Because we see it with our eyes.  Why are we sure that this is a sufficient criteria?  Because the senses are infallible.  

Indeed, living creatures have no other connection to the universe apart from the senses.  At the most basic level, there is no other way to obtain the raw material that grounds our knowledge.  Also, there is no basis of denying that the raw material of the senses reflects reality.  It is ostensively so.

The subjectivist (a la Descartes) would claim here that since his senses have been initially fooled by this illusion, the sense organs are not to be trusted; perhaps all reality is an illusion, simply a dream, and perceptions are nothing more than the probings of some evil demon in our brains.  This is nonsense of course, and such arbitrary postulates disqualify the subjectivist from even participating in the conversation (or any conversation, for that matter).  He should be left to mutter, “I think not,” and disappear in a puff of his own logic, as the joke goes.  The important point to notice, though, is that in order for the subjectivist to even attempt to refute the validity of the senses, he must rely on the very validity that he denies (or at the very least, he must rely upon having a louder voice than his opponent).

But the problem remains: if the senses cannot be wrong, how do we objectively account for the illusion?  An important distinction to make is the difference between sensation and perception.  Illusions do not fool the senses; the sense organs can only “report” the stimulus that characterizes their function.  However, humans (and other animals) have a much more sophisticated faculty of perception, which involves memory and the automatized responses based on past experience.  

Illusions play upon this higher level perceptual faculty.  They work by creating a match (or partial match) to something with which the mind is familiar and letting the mind “fill in the blanks.”  In most situations, this automatic response enhances the comprehension of one’s surroundings.  That is the whole point - the response is automatic precisely because it is reinforced by experience.  Each time the situation is encountered, the mind strengthens the connections that facilitate the response.  In cases of illusions, however, the brain’s automatic response yields misleading information.  The mind’s attempt to complete the picture fails because the new situation is in some important respect different than similar ones in the past.  

Notice, however, that in every case, the way - the only way - to discover and resolve illusions is by collecting more sense data.  Furthermore, the way in which we humans (and possibly some of the higher animals) learn to do this is itself an illustration of the validity of the senses.  The general approach, whether we identify it as such or not, is to isolate the entity that we are examining from automatized responses.  For instance, if we have doubts about an object we are looking at, we might blink, move around to look from another angle, pick up the object to turn it around, shine a light on it, smell it, etc.  In the case of the checkerboard illusion, we cut out the shapes and placed them side by side on a neutral background.  In the “shape distortion” illusion, we might use a ruler or straightedge to determine if the lines are parallel, and so forth. 

All illusions can be examined in this light.  Let’s look at a few popular examples.  Far from demonstrating that sense organs distort reality, these examples demonstrate the utter fidelity of the senses.  

*  A mirage is an illusion that occurs in certain hot atmospheric conditions such as may be found in a desert.  If one gazes across a flat plane at the horizon, one may see what looks to be a shimmering sheet of water in the distance.  Of course, there is not actually water there - it is simply light reflected from the sky because of a very shallow angle of incidence.  Is this a failure of one’s sense of sight?  Of course not.  The light is actually reflecting from the distant ground and arriving at the retina.  The light is there, and is detected correctly by one’s eyesight.

*  A perfectly straight stick immersed in the water appears to be bent.  Is this a distortion created by the senses?  No.  Eyeballs (along with the associated nerve systems) are not “straight stick” detectors; they are light detectors.  The light is actually bent by the differences in refraction indices between air and water.  It is ludicrous to expect the eyes themselves to somehow correct for the bend.  The information arriving at the eyes is real.

*  If one stares at a red triangle for several seconds, then looks quickly at a blank white wall, one will see a faint green triangle that gradually diminishes.  Has the sense of sight created a ghost?  No.  Like all physical processes, the retina’s response to light has certain finite response times.  In the case of a decaying response to a step removal of an intense color, the time constant is apparently several seconds. 

Obviously, these examples could go on and on.  The point is that the senses are not instruments of omniscience.  They are components of living creatures that interact with matter in a manner that permits the organism to detect its surroundings.  They do not manipulate reality; they detect reality, and they do so in a particular way.  It is utter nonsense to disqualify a faculty precisely because it has a particular identity, yet that is exactly what the subjectivists do.

Here’s an interesting thought that occurred to me.  There is no way to test it, unfortunately, but I submit that if you held a picture of the checkerboard illusion in front of a newborn baby, to him squares A and B would appear to be the same shade.  He would not be “fooled” by the optical illusion.  Why?  Because he has had no experience with objects yet.  He does not know what a cylinder is.  He does not know it can cast a shadow on a checkerboard.  He does not see the checkerboard as a foreshortened array of squares.  All he sees are splotches of color.  His brain cannot possibly “correct” for the shading of square B. 

I’ll conclude with one final observation.  I’ve been referring to the shaded shapes in the checkerboard illusion as “squares” A and B.  Where are the squares?  I didn’t say parallelograms, though of course they are drawn as parallelograms on the page, not squares.  Obviously, this is another instance of the amazing power of our perceptual faculties automatically operating upon sense data.  Our mind recognizes the fact that a checkerboard of alternating dark and light squares held at an angle would look much like the drawing.   In no sense is this a “distortion” of reality.  On the contrary, this capability has enormous cognitive benefits.


Almost immediately after I posted this, LB informed me that Gus and Rational Jenn had recently posted on optical illusions as well.