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April 27, 2004

Work More, Blog Less

When it's almost 6:00 and someone asks you to go into the lab to help them with something for "just a minute" — don't go.

Two hours later, I realized I was hopelessly immersed because that thing supposed to take "just a minute" is actually a critical super-duper emergency and will surely have me working overtime all week. (Today I came home at 11:00.)

Expect no more blogging until the weekend. Unless some sort of miracle occurs. But miracles only seem to happen to the sort of people who don't keep good records, and I'm not one of them. I predict lots of hours instead.

Riots at Veishea (again)

I graduated from Iowa State University. There's an annual student-run celebration there called Veishea that used to be — decades ago — an exhibition of good things about the university.

My evaluation of Veishea was set when a drunk passed out in the hallway near my dorm room. After that, I was happy to be out of town for Veishea weekend.

Several times in recent years, Veishea has ben marred by riots. People have tipped cars over, placed a couch in the street and set it on fire, that sort of thing. One year there was a homicide, and since then it has been a "dry" event. That didn't prevent riots from happening this year, though.

It's time for Veishea to end. When a tradition is better known for property damage than as a university showcase, it is a liability. The students don't care anymore. (I certainly didn't, when I was there — but I may be an unusual case, because I didn't enjoy much of my college experience anyway.)

April 26, 2004


Another weekend with beautiful weather, another reason to frolic in the park instead of blogging. It's nice to relax.

Except that I was relaxing with Erik and his bocce ball set, and as a couple of engineers we can't leave well enough alone. We experimented with some variations, and I'm proud to introduce a new game — polyball!

Equipment for two players:

  • Eight similar balls of two distinct colors, one for each player.
  • One smaller ball of a different color (the palino).

The object of the game is to earn points by throwing balls to form triangles that contain the palino. Players may choose the game-ending score. The playing field may be of any surface and size (a park is nice) and the balls of any size and weight and surface (bocce balls are nice).

I recommend bringing a tape measure or long piece of string or laser pointer or something of that nature, to make the sides of triangles easy to visualize.


  • All balls must be thrown from approximately the same location.
  • All throws, including the palino, must initially land at least five feet from the thrower.
  • If the palino is thrown short, re-throw it. If a regular ball is thrown short, it is disqualified and ignored.
  • Pick a player to begin by throwing the palino. If it lands in a location where it is difficult to see, it may be moved slightly.
  • Same player throws their first ball, and throws alternate between players until all balls are thrown.
  • Players may not move to examine the field until after all balls are thrown.
  • Each player's four balls (A B C D) form four triangles on the field: ABC, ABD, ACD, BCD. Score one point for each triangle that contains the palino, unless an opponent's ball is also contained. (Opponent's ball "disrupts" the triangle.)
  • The area contained by the triangle shall be judged in the most generous way, from the outside edges of the balls.
  • The triangle contains the palino if any portion of the palino is within it.
  • An opponent's ball disrupts a triangle only if it is entirely contained within it.
  • In subsequent rounds, alternate the player who throws the palino.

Implied rules:

  • More than one player may score in a round.
  • Your ball may hit the palino and/or other balls, moving them.

Of course we may tinker with these rules. An earlier variant included points for having the palino along the line between only two balls, and we briefly considered special scoring for containing the palino within a convex quadrilateral.

Have fun!

April 22, 2004

I Hate Earth Day

"Hippies… hippies… they're everywhere… they want to save the earth but all they do is smoke pot and smell bad." — Eric Cartman, South Park episode 53.

On this Earth Day it's important to read Dr. George Reisman's essay The Toxicity of Environmentalism (now 14 years old; not all the science therein turned out to be accurate, but the philosophy is spot on):

The doctrine of intrinsic value is itself only a rationalization for a preexisting hatred of man. It is invoked not because one attaches any actual value to what is alleged to have intrinsic value, but simply to serve as a pretext for denying values to man. For example, caribou feed upon vegetation, wolves eat caribou, and microbes attack wolves. Each of these, the vegetation, the caribou, the wolves, and the microbes, is alleged by the environmentalists to possess intrinsic value. Yet absolutely no course of action is indicated for man. Should man act to protect the intrinsic value of the vegetation from destruction by the caribou? Should he act to protect the intrinsic value of the caribou from destruction by the wolves? Should he act to protect the intrinsic value of the wolves from destruction by the microbes? Even though each of these alleged intrinsic values is at stake, man is not called upon to do anything. When does the doctrine of intrinsic value serve as a guide to what man should do? Only when man comes to attach value to something. Then it is invoked to deny him the value he seeks. For example, the intrinsic value of the vegetation et al. is invoked as a guide to man's action only when there is something man wants, such as oil, and then, as in the case of Northern Alaska, its invocation serves to stop him from having it. In other words, the doctrine of intrinsic value is nothing but a doctrine of the negation of human values. It is pure nihilism.

Happily, many environmentalists are suffering from political infighting these days, which affords them less time spent protecting the environment from people:

In recent years, a growing faction has urged a tougher stance on immigration, calling the growing U.S. population and its consumption of natural resources the greatest threat to the environment.

They've got it backwards. Environmentalism is the greatest threat to the growing U.S. population and its consumption of natural resources.

Oh, and I rather enjoyed this image. (Via an InstaPundit link, though I forget which one.)

April 20, 2004

Capitalism and Workplace Safety

This year's Pulitzer Prize in Public Service went to a pair of journalists who wrote about Evil Businesses™ who exploit their workers by not providing for their safety.

Last year, Dr. George Reisman responded to the Pulitzer-winning articles by writing about the actual connection between capitalism and workplace safety.

In richly ironic fashion, a recent AIDS scare in the adult film industry provides a unintentional underscoring of Reisman's points. An industry widely attacked for "exploiting" its workers and treating them with little or no regard is voluntarily stopping production en masse:

At least 45 actors and actresses were under a voluntary work quarantine and about a dozen companies were adhering to a voluntary two-month moratorium until new HIV tests are completed, industry experts said.

The number of producers halting production is impressive (probably not safe for work).

Funny, OSHA doesn't seem to be involved. It's as if the producers and the workers have been able to evaluate the risks and reach an acceptable arrangement all by themselves.

Rantisi Fallout at the U.N.

Another great statement from Israeli Ambassador Dan Gillerman before the UNSC today:

I need not repeat the litany of cold-blooded murder, which Mr. Rantisi was responsible for, and intent on continuing. He was a radical terrorist leader that joyfully and publicly celebrated the murder of innocent men women and children, sought to destroy any peace initiative, and called for the destruction of Israel by force of arms. He believed that violence was the "only option". He developed alliances with terrorist groups operating around the world, supported by regimes in Syria and Iran, and was committed to fostering terrorism in Iraq and throughout the Western world. A pediatrician by training, this doctor led the campaign to mobilize women and children for use in suicide bombings. He turned his craft from the healing of children, to the killing of children.

Rantisi was a trader in death, a doctor of death, and no one should be surprised that he paid the price for it. For those who criticize his targeting as "extrajudicial" - let me say that we are sensitive to these concerns. Were it possible to arrest Mr. Rantisi, while minimizing harm to civilian life, Israel would have done so, as is its usual practice. But in the absence of any cooperation from the Palestinian Authority, and any viable means of arrest, Israel is sometimes left no choice but to target those who plan, orchestrate and execute the murder of our innocent civilians.

We are engaged in an armed conflict against terrorism of an unparalleled scale, magnitude and brutality. It is no good to affirm in theory Israel's right to defend itself in this conflict, but then in practice seek to deny us the right to specifically target those illegal combatants directly responsible, as well their command and control structure. We do so in a manner that is both necessary and proportionate, and when no other realistic option of detention or prevention exists. In these circumstances, such actions are wholly consistent with international law and we have little doubt that nations similarly faced with such a horrific choice would act accordingly - and indeed have done so, and are doing so, with the support or acquiescence of the international community.

The statements of other nations are available online also — this summary is useful.

Prediction: A one-sided resolution condemning Israel will come to a vote, and the United States will veto it. Just like last time, and the twenty-seven times prior to that.

April 19, 2004

Obligatory Hairsplitting

Several weeks (okay, months) ago I had a very interesting e-mail exchange with a retired philosophy professor, Jim, about rights and obligations. Concerned that we weren't talking about the same thing, I asked him to describe the difference between moral obligations and moral rights.

I perceive no difference. To say that "S has a right to X" [is defined as] "Others are obligated to act in a manner consistent with S's maintaining X." To say others have an obligation is to say you have a right, and vice versa.

Our conversation was a long time ago and we talked about a many more things than this, but I made what I think is an important point during that conversation and so I'd like to repeat and expand upon it here.

There is a difference between moral obligations and moral rights under some ethical systems. Speaking about obligations specifically, it is true that a person's positive right to X means that others are obligated to provide X, but the converse is not true — there may be obligations to provide X even in the absence of a right to X. (Of course I reject positive rights, but that's not germane right now.)

Under a virtue ethics approach, the source of a moral obligation is one's own commitment to virtue, or personal integrity. Not the condition or need of any other person. For example, a virtue ethicist may recognize a moral obligation to aid an injured child on the grounds that doing so helps create the kind of society they want to live in, or for the psychological value in fighting against human suffering, or as a long-shot investment ("Maybe as an adult he'll cure cancer!"), or even on the abstract value of human life. Notice that these motivations are not based on the child's need. They originate in the helper, not in the helped. They in no way establish a right of the child to receive help, but those values coupled with strong integrity could create a moral obligation.

Due to individual choices of values, it is even possible for some people to be morally obligated to help while others are not! Clearly this is far removed from the standard thinking that the child's need is the source of a right to assistance.

The case is clearer when we aren't discussing two strangers. Consider a married couple, instead, one of whom is sick and will soon die without an expensive operation. The healthy person may have a moral obligation to pay for the operation because they love their spouse and integrity demands preserving one's highest values over lesser values — e.g., sell the boat to pay for the operation, because the spouse is more important than the boat.

A stranger's moral obligation in this case is obviously smaller, and perhaps zero, depending on their own values. The situation is very different when the moral obligation is assumed to stem from the (positive) rights of the sick spouse: If the obligation exists due to their need, shouldn't it fall evenly on both the spouse and on the stranger, rather than more heavily on the spouse?

Consider your own reaction to the sick spouse case. Do you believe the spouse and the stranger have equal or unequal moral obligations? What is the source of that obligation — values or needs? (Or both?) Do you view moral obligations from a virtue ethics or positive rights perspective?

… for once, I really wish I had a commenting system. Feel free to comment by e-mail, and I may post 'em to this article.

April 15, 2004

The Authoritarian Personality

Shocking! Outrageous!

Here are excerpts from two stories that both appeared, coincidentally, on the CNN homepage on Tuesday:

In an e-mail sent last Tuesday to about 170 members of Gamma Phi Beta, sophomore Christie Key, the chapter's blood donation coordinator, wrote: "I dont (sic) care if you got a tattoo last week LIE. I dont (sic) care if you have a cold. Suck it up. We all do. LIE. Recent peircings (sic)? LIE."

In her e-mail, Key wrote: "We're not messing around. Punishment for not giving blood is going to be quite severe." [source]

Most people would be seething with indignation after reading that. The Red Cross doesn't want blood from people who were recently sick or recently got a tattoo or piercing — it's a safety matter. Christie Key didn't care about safety. She only cared about upholding her sorority's history of blood donation, and she was willing to advocate dishonesty and make direct threats to achieve that goal.

A California state senator on Monday said she was drafting legislation to block Google Inc.'s free e-mail service "Gmail" because it would place advertising in personal messages after searching them for key words.

"We think it's an absolute invasion of privacy. It's like having a massive billboard in the middle of your home," Sen. Liz Figueroa, a Democrat from Fremont, California, said in a telephone interview. [source]

Most people would be much less upset at this. "Oh," they think, "it's a politician trying to protect our privacy. Good for them. Shame on Google."

The minority of people who take individual rights seriously will criticize this politician, explaining to the few willing to listen that Google's e-mail service is completely voluntary and that people should be free to choose for themselves whether they think the privacy intrusion and advertisements are acceptable in exchange for the free e-mail service and storage space. Adults are capable of making decisions and should not be infantalized.

A tiny minority, of which I am a member, feel a greater sense of moral outrage at the politician than at the sorority girl.

"What? Why?"

Both of these people clearly show an authoritarian personality. They want to impose their values and desires on others. They want to control them and make them conform. Key is blatant: Do it my way or else, by any means necessary, even if it could harm people. Figueroa is more subtle: Trust me, it's bad, you don't want it, and I'll make it illegal because I'm worried you'll make the wrong decision (but I'm sure I haven't.)

Why am I more angry at Figueroa than at Key? Because Key is a piker. She's inexperienced and ineffective. Her advocation of dishonesty, use of intimidation, and callousness toward fellow human beings manifested brightly and caused her strategy to backfire in an embarrassingly public way. She failed. In contrast, Figueroa wears the mantle of benevolence and concern for the public. She's fighting against an Evil Business™ who wants to inflict advertising (the horror!) on people. Due to the way she has framed her action, she is much more likely to succeed, and her success would further restrict the freedom of people to form voluntary associations and contracts. That is a freedom I cherish.

Key's direct intimidation makes her targets immediately suspicious. Figueroa's intimidation is no less real — she intends to make Google's voluntary service illegal, meaning fines or incarceration — but it takes significantly more mental effort to unmask it and to realize that it would affect millions of people and would be effectively permanent. Key's case affects merely hundreds and will cease to matter in time. If Figueroa succeeds, most people affected won't even realize they're victims, because they'll never learn of the choice Google was forbidden to offer them!

Figueroa's authoritarianism is a much more significant danger to freedom and a much more serious undermining of ethics than Key's. Of course, both should be fought — the Keys of today may become the Figueroas of tomorrow — but do not lose sight of which is the greater problem. I hope that thinking about these issues will help to retrain your emotional reactions to identify the more serious danger.

April 12, 2004

Light Blogging

I haven't been writing much lately. I've been pretty busy with other things, including <gasp> frolicking in the beautiful springtime outdoors.

Speaking of which, you've probably heard Frank Robinson's line that "close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades." He's wrong. Close only counts in horseshoes if you're within six inches of the stake. And I suck at horseshoes, so that almost never happens.

I'm happy to say that close does count in bocce ball, though.

In other news, Josh found my Israel post Shocking! Outrageous! enough to prompt him to start blogging! I'll reply soon. ("Soon" in the bocce sense, not the horseshoe sense. Probably not before Wednesday. I'm working on a speech for Toastmasters…)

April 09, 2004

It's All Related

Today I read three things that are all related.

First, I read this article by Brad DeLong, (Keynesian) economist at Berkeley, about offshoring. There's a lot wrong with what he states up-front is a "simple model — not a realistic model, an unrealistic model" including omission of the effects of increased specialization and the wide effects of maintaining vs. violating the principle of economic competition. He also takes a totally unsubstantiated swipe against Say's Law, which I found highly irritating. But the reason I'm bringing this up is because his analysis makes use of interpersonal utility comparisons, which Austrian economics rejects as methodologically invalid.

Then, I read this article by Jonathan Wilde that directly discusses the interpersonal utility comparison issue.

That second article was in response to this article by John Kennedy, which I read last — and which was, amusingly, actually a response to Brad's article! Isn't it neat how everything ties together?

I was impressed by the quality of the comments on that third article. It's almost enough to make me wish I had a comment system, too. (Almost, but not enough. Making my own software, I probably wouldn't have a problem with spammers, but trolls are more difficult…)

John's article was addressed to consequentialists, and non-consequentialists were supposed to just be quiet for a bit. While I often sound like a deontologist, my reasoning actually has consequentialist foundations. So I'm not sure if I'm supposed to be quiet for this one or not. :)

This is the sort of thing that makes blog-reading fun.

April 05, 2004

On Supporting Israel

Josh writes to ask, "Why do you support Israel?"

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

All comedy aside, it's a very important question. At root, it's a matter of shared values. Israel is far from a perfect state (as is the United States) but compared to its neighbors it stands in sharp relief as a bastion of civilization amid a backdrop of dictatorship and human misery.

The Arab nations exhibit many or all of the seven factors of noncompetitive states:

  • Restrictions on the free flow of information.
  • The subjugation of women.
  • Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure.
  • The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization.
  • Domination by a restrictive religion.
  • A low valuation of education.
  • Low prestige assigned to work.

Israel exhibits none of them. Israel is successful and competitive, and in many of its cities Arabs and Jews live and work together peacefully and prosper. For example, the microprocessor in my laptop was designed at an Intel site in Haifa. I interact with several people there (both Arab and Jew, in the same team) on an occasional basis. They're extremely smart people and accomplish very valuable work. They're professionals. Within Israel, people thrive in peace under a decent government.

So I'm perplexed by Josh's next question:

Isn't it inconsistent of Israel to demand fundamental rights for the safety of their citizens while denying basic human rights of non-radical, law abiding Palestinians?

I do not believe that Israel denies the basic human rights of non-radical, law abiding Palestinians. On the contrary, it is the Palestinian leadership that does so. For example, Arafat's Fatah organization attempted to murder Zohair Hamdan, an Arab, for petitioning for signatures of Arabs in Jerusalem who were opposed to Arafat's rule. Arafat is a dictator and a tyrant who tolerates no dissent. That's denying basic human rights.

If Israel acted in a way that promoted the rights of ordinary Palestinians while prosecuting radical elements with deadly force, I would probably side with Israel. Instead, I read about Israel building settlements in Palestinian land. I read about Israel attacking the Palestinian security forces on several occasions, then subsequently demanding that Palestinian leadership enforce security and stop terrorists. Israel actively makes it impossible for the Palestinians to act on Israel's demands, and then points to Palestine's failures when justifying Israel's actions.

The Palestinians have no land. The "occupied territories" belong to Israel proper. Israel acquired that land as the result of several wars instigated by its Arab neighbors who intended to destroy the state of Israel. It bears pointing out that while Egypt and Jordan do not allow Palestinian refugees into their countries, Israel welcomes them into its cities and allows them to work. This is a significant security risk, but they do it anyway.

As for Israeli attacks on Palestinian security forces, they only look horrible until you realize that the Palestinian Authority does not negotiate in good faith. Palestinian jails are a revolving door for terrorists, and Arafat's Fatah organization funds their activities. The Palestinian Authority is not serious when it claims to crack down on terrorism. Those words are for journalists only. Arafat is legendary for saying soothing things in English and then inciting violence in Arabic. Peace is not Arafat's goal — he could have had that many times — his goal is maintaining power. If he was interested in peace, the Palestinian media and classrooms (which he controls; there's no freedom of speech) would not be filled with anti-Jewish propaganda.

Gillerman's argument is compelling, but is constructed in a way that absolves Israel of any moral responsibility for the situation. I believe Israel is just as responsible for the existence of terrorism as the members of the Palestinian government, such as it is, that fail to act to prevent it. Israel's actions undermine the moral clarity of their arguments. How do you reconcile these inconsistencies? Or do you even see them as inconsistent?

The Israelis are serious about negotiating a peace. But a negotiated peace isn't possible so long as the Palestinians are unwilling to give up the "right of return" — because it would mean the destruction of the state of Israel. When two groups have fundamentally incompatible demands, negotiation is impossible. Arafat has deliberately prolonged the crisis by corrupting the education of Palestinian children, teaching them to hate Jews and that martyrdom is glorious.

Israel has demonstrated its willingness to coexist with Arabs in places like Haifa, and the success is apparent. It is long past time for the Palestinians to demonstrate their willingness to coexist with Jews, instead of trying to blow them up or push them into the sea.

I grant that Israel is partly responsible for the existence of terrorism against its citizens. They could have killed Arafat a long time ago, and ought to kill him today. He's the constant factor over several decades of conflict. That's not a coincidence.

Worth reading:

  1. Everything Steven Den Beste has written about Israel. He has shaped my view of the conflict more than any other single source.
  2. "In Moral Defense of Israel", a special publication from the Ayn Rand Institute. It's even more stridently pro-Israel than what you've read here, if such a thing is possible.

… and before anyone asks, I am not Jewish, neither ethnically nor religiously.

Tiny Island