Author Archive

Dice-Generated Passwords

Wednesday, January 20th, 2021

By repeatedly rolling three dice (or one die three times), you can generate a high-security password; see the tables under “Dice Tables.” See also the Diceware site or word list for converting six-dice rolls into pass phrases.

Marxist Anti-Marxists

Wednesday, January 20th, 2021

Ronald Osborn convincingly argues that the religious nationalist Yoram Hazony is, in form, remarkably Marxist in his anti-Marxism. In Osborn’s words: “Hazony’s anti-Marxism ironically bears its own striking resemblance to Marxian ideology. Together with Marx, Hazony sees the present social order through a lens of a Manichean moral dualism, albeit one in which the forces of good and evil have been reversed from Marx’s script. It is progressives and Leftists who are the actual oppressing class, while conservatives and their allies are the heroic saviors of history.”

Summarizing Hazony, Osborn lists four main characteristics of the Marxist take on the world: A social class division into oppressors and oppressed, “false consciousness” of the oppressed, the need for violent class struggle wherein the oppressed seize power from the oppressors, and the final accomplishment of this.

The problem, Osborn notes, is that this too-general conception of Marxism lets Hazony “find” Marxism all over the place. And, by these standards, Hazony himself is a sort of Marxist.

Incidentally, libertarians also generally follow the Marxist form (as many libertarians have observed), basically splitting the world into the classes of rights-violating oppressors (which many libertarians equate with agents of government) and violated oppressed.

Now, there really are oppressors and oppressed in the world. This was especially obvious in the era of slavery. The problem that Osborn is getting at is that many people have a very easy time imagining themselves as champions of the “oppressed” and their opponents as “oppressors” who must be vanquished. Such thinking can very easily leave reality behind.

Boebert’s Socialism

Wednesday, January 20th, 2021

Colorado Representative Lauren Boebert recently Tweeted (see my screen captures and Tweet), “I will stand up to their [the Democrats’] radical, socialist agenda EVERY SINGLE TIME!” In a separate Tweet, she promoted the “America First movement” inspired by Donald Trump.

I responded, “The so-called ‘America First movement’ IS fundamentally socialist insofar as it asserts the federal government should override the rights of property and association of business owners and consumers, for the alleged benefit of society or the collective.” Here I have in mind government restrictions on trade and on association with immigrants.

And, of course, Boebert promoted Trump’s unlawful seizing of a second term, an effort that put the nation in profound danger of falling into fascism.

QAnon and President Biden

Wednesday, January 20th, 2021

According to QAnon conspiracy mongers, Donald Trump was supposed to seize a second term by today. Instead, he slinked off to Florida while Joe Biden assumed the presidency.

The New York Times (Kevin Roose) writes about the Q reaction. Today, January 20, was supposed to be the Great Awakening “when top Democrats would be arrested for running a global sex trafficking ring and President Trump would seize a second term in office,” Roose writes.

As I mentioned on Twitter, this is akin to cultists whose leader prophesies that the world will end a certain day, but then that day comes and goes and a new day begins. How did QAnon cultists react? Roose: “Several large QAnon groups discussed . . . the possibility that they had been wrong about Mr. Biden, and that the incoming president was actually part of Mr. Trump’s effort to take down the global cabal.” Others moved the goal posts in other ways, while some actually started to wonder whether this QAnon business is and always was total bullshit.

And some former Trump supporters are now turning on Trump.

Trump Cultists in Their Own Words

Wednesday, January 13th, 2021

The people who protested at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, and who violently assaulted the Capitol, believed Donald Trump that the presidential election had been stolen.

Trump the Agitator

Wednesday, January 13th, 2021

Donald Trump’s January 6, 2021 speech follows the classic forms of triablism and scape-goating. Within the first two minutes, Trump accuses “radical left Democrats,” “big tech,” and “the fake news media” of “rigging” and “stealing” the election. In the midst of a stream of lies, Trump claims, “This is the most corrupt election in the history, maybe of the world.” He also took a swipe at the Supreme Court, suggesting that the justices he nominated owed him.

The Ayn Rand Institute hosted a useful discussion about the assault on the Capitol.

I wrote a first and second article about the event, with a Colorado focus.

Moon Ice

Tuesday, January 12th, 2021

Some space scientists are worried that a rush to excavate lunar ice may interfere with scientific study of the ice.

Cory on Abortion and Immigration

Wednesday, December 9th, 2020

Therese Scarpelli Cory has out an interesting article arguing that Catholics should be more worried about immigration restrictions than many are. Her basic claim is that some Catholics see abortion as inherently evil but immigration restrictions purely as a matter of prudential concerns, a distinction that doesn’t hold up.

This is a little strange for me to address because (besides the fact that I’m an atheist) I think a) abortion is not inherently evil but that b) restricting the rights of peaceable persons to migrate (in normal circumstances) is inherently evil. We share a basic skepticism of a sharp moral/prudential division.

An explanation here: The reason that some things are “prudential” is that they are wise or not to pursue depending on a person’s circumstances. For most people eating peanut butter poses no prudential concern; for someone with a peanut allergy, it does. But, I’d say, there’s also a moral dimension to someone doing the prudent thing. It is not only prudent but moral for someone with a peanut allergy to take reasonable steps to avoid eating peanuts.

A note: Prudential matters can be very hard to rationally evaluate. One can easily be factually wrong about what would be the optimal (most prudential) move. Therefore, the proper standard of evaluation is, did the person honestly seek to make the most reasonable decision possible given limited information?

Another note: Some things genuinely are optional, in the sense that one might as well flip a coin. Let’s say I want to watch a film with my family. There is no morally right answer as to which film we should watch. Some films are definitely in and some are definitely out, but within the range of appropriate films, watching any of the films would be equally moral.

Here is a key passage from the essay: “[U]nder the linguistic shroud, it [the ‘intrinsic/prudential’ distinction] is simply the pale ghost of a widespread individualistic moral theory, in which objective moral ‘oughts’ are viewed as constraints on intellectual and moral freedom that reduce the sovereignty of the individual, and that therefore should be kept to an absolute minimum. Avoid violating that small set of oughts—representing a small, universally-recognized set of especially heinous acts—and then ‘do what you will.’ As long as one is not violating the basic oughts, one’s actions can be shielded from scrutiny, as indicated by the slogan that ‘reasonable people can disagree.'”

This is a totally wrong view of individualism. Individualism does not hold that nearly any action is moral merely because the individual wishes to perform it. Individualism does not mean moral subjectivism. Rather, individualism means that the individual is the fundamental unit of moral consideration, as contrasted with collectivism, which holds that individuals and their rights may properly be sacrifices to group interests. Although it is true that deep strains of moral subjectivism run through libertarianism, an individualist can perfectly well hold that morality is objective and that it extends to all personal actions. That basically describes Ayn Rand’s view as well as my own.

Of course, individualists also (very reasonably!) think that not everything that is immoral should be outlawed. Hence, we individualists maintain two levels of evaluation, one for individuals, one for governments. That is, it can be (and often is) immoral for government to ban immoral actions. There’s nothing odd or inconsistent about this view.

Of course “reasonable people can disagree” about many things, but so what? Reasonable people cannot disagree, for example, that government should permit murder. Reasonable people can disagree about whether (say) the moderate consumption of alcohol is a good idea. And there government properly is silent. Indeed, on the matter of alcohol consumption, government is properly silent (excepting cases of drunk driving and the like) even about the choices of unreasonable people.

Although Cory at one point recognizes “juridical” distinctions, she also makes the simple error of confusing that which is immoral with that which is properly illegal. Me saying “a person has a right to do X” does not imply that X is a moral choice. Those are simply two different issues. But surely Cory would not wish to argue that everything that is immoral should be outlawed! That is a recipe for totalitarianism.

Because Corey confuses what is moral with what is legal, she completely misses the (main) point of Judith Jarvis Thompson’s essay on abortion, which focuses (mainly) on the question of (legal) rights. Now, Thompson also asserts, and I agree, that abortion at least in the early term is not immoral. I’m not rejecting objective morality in making this claim; rather, I am claiming that Corey is simply wrong on this matter, as a matter of objective moral truth. So not only does a person have a right to get an abortion (at least in the early term), a person can be morally right to do so.

Corey then has a long discussion about why the moral/prudential distinction (which she calls the “intrinsic/prudential” distinction) is not a sharp line. “All evil actions are intrinsically evil (and all good actions are intrinsically good), and prudence governs all human actions, not just a certain subset,” she writes. I think the term “intrinsic” is loaded, but if we substitute “inherent” or the like I accept the formulation.

I agree with Corey that objective morality is possible and that it applies to all human action. The fault I find with Corey is that she does not actually advocate a theory of objective morality; she merely pronounces that she does while falling back on the fundamentally subjectivist orientation of religious faith. But that discussion takes us far afield from the essay at hand.

Trump’s Art of Fantasy

Wednesday, December 9th, 2020

In The Art of the Deal (p. 58), Donald Trump writes, “”The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. . . . [A] little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.”

Related: Trump once said, “It’s a terrible statement unless he gets away with it.”

Curing Aging

Saturday, December 5th, 2020

Michael Huemer has a short essay arguing that a cure for aging should be a much higher priority. He points to a story by Nick Bostrom on the topic.

Rudolph’s Copyright Error

Friday, December 4th, 2020

I bet somone’s face was red! This is the second-craziest copyright story I’ve heard, after the one about the monkey’s self-portrait. An image on Wikipedia from the 1964 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV film explains the following “permission details”:

“The copyright year in Roman numerals was mismarked as MCLXIV (1164) instead of the correct MCMLXIV (1964). This invalidates the copyright under U.S. law at the time, which required a valid date of copyright to be affixed to the production; this means that still images from the special and all of the characters unique to the special are, as a result, in the public domain. However, because the original story and song are still copyrighted and the soundtrack was validly copyrighted separately, for all practical purposes, permission is still required to air the special.”

It seems crazy to me that intellectual property could be invalidated by an obvious typo. No one actually thinks the film was created in the year 1164. (At the same time, it seems to me that use of the still, say, with an article is fair use.)

Liberty and Faction

Thursday, December 3rd, 2020

Here is a great line from James Madison: “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”

What is a faction? “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Madison also has some very modern-sounding views about biases and motivated reasoning: “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.”

However, I would say that reason is not possible unless it is motivated by some sort of interest, so “self-love” is not automatically a biasing factor, as Madison has it. There is simply no such thing as interest-free reason.

Another remarkable line: “An attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power . . . [has] divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”

And: “So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”

And: “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”

And: “[A] pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

Then comes Madison’s classic defense of republican government.

Notably, Madison warns against “A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project.”

The Reckless Colorado GOP

Monday, November 30th, 2020

This is pretty outrageous. On the same day that the state reported record numbers of people currently hospitalized for Covid-19, several Republican state legislators chose not to wear masks while attending in-person meetings at the capitol. Meanwhile, a GOP staffer who had tested positive for the coronavirus showed up at the capitol for work and was in close proximity to maskless legislators while she herself wore a mask beneath her nose.

That sort of behavior shows a reckless lack of consideration for the Coloradans funding this clown show, not to mention the Colorado health care providers working with Covid-19 patients.

As of this evening (November 30), the state has recorded 3,037 “deaths among cases” and 2,656 “deaths due to Covid-19.”

The main source for the claims above is a Tweet by Denver Post reporter Alex Burness. Burness shows a photo taken by State Rep. Cathy Kipp. It shows a man in a tan suit clowning around with a mask on top of his head, while speaking in close proximity to two other men who are not wearing masks. Behind the man with the mask atop his head sits a woman wearing a mask beneath her nose. Here is Burness’s description: “You know that photo of Rep. Larry Liston that’s been going around? . . . The woman with the brown hair in the background is [Ellen] Moroney, the GOP staffer who posted ‘I have COVID’ on Facebook on Nov. 24.”

House Speaker KC Becker distributed the following notice: “It has come to our attention that a House Minority staffer tested positive for COVID last week and was on the floor this morning. The staffer in question has been told to leave the building and not to return for the remainder of special session and until testing negative. CDPHE will be working on contact tracing for anyone who may have come in contact. We want to remind everyone that all staff are required to wear masks at all times and get tested before entering the building, or they are not allowed in the building.”

In an earlier Tweet, Burness shared another photo with the comment, “About half the Colorado Senate Republicans present for the special session are not wearing masks.” I commented, “Colorado Republicans try to convince voters that they deserve another shot at power by. . . senselessly putting other people’s health and lives in danger. Immoral, and idiotic.”

I added, “I’m shocked that, during the current pandemic, [the Colorado legislature] is even meeting in person. Why not do this all remotely? If I were in the legislature and had to go in person, I’d definitely have on (at least) goggles and an N95 or KN95 mask.”

Burness also wrote up an article on the matter for the Post. He writes, “Incoming House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, said Moroney tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 17—not Nov. 24, the day she posted on Facebook” that she had Covid. Burness reports that “Incoming House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland” said in a statement, “That aide [Moroney] sought the advice of their physician and was given permission to return to work in person on the 24th of this month.” Burness also quotes another comment by Becker, “The minority’s dangerous disregard for simple and effective protections and this staffer’s presence on the floor has placed the health of every lawmaker and member of staff at risk.”

Eying Egalitarianism

Monday, November 30th, 2020

Here’s a note from Jason Brennan’s intro to political philosophy: “[G. A.] Cohen [Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (New York: Cambridge University Press] 1995, pp. 229–44, takes [Robert Nozick’s] bait and wonders about redistributing eyes. Cecile Fabre, Whose Body Is It Anyway? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), argues for the forced redistribution of eyes and other organs.”

Enoch Against Public Reason

Monday, November 30th, 2020

When philosopher Jason Brennan posted a “meme” suggesting that David Enoch had knocked out “public reason,” I figured I’d see what’s up. SSRN has the abstract and paper, “Against Public Reason.” The paper is officially published in the first volume of Oxford Studies in Political Philosophy. (Eric Mack also has an essay in there about rights, fyi.)

Brennan has his own critique of Rawls in his great intro to political philosophy.

Enoch is concerned particularly with versions of public reasoning that entail “some requirement to justify political principles to each of those subject to them as a necessary condition for legitimacy.” In this view, “all public-reason accounts must involve some idealization”—and that’s the problem. He writes, “I insist that the relevant reason for action is the content of the principle, not that we accept it.” I agree with that, but I think that some people use the term “public reason” to describe other sorts of theories that aren’t subject to Enoch’s critiques.

Adriano Celentano’s Delightful Gibberish

Monday, November 30th, 2020

Recently I came across a music video of Adriano Celentano’s 1972 hit song “Prisencolinensinainciusol.” I love the song. What’s peculiar about this song is that Celentano, an Italian, wrote it to sound like American English, but the lyrics don’t actually mean anything. Wikipedia has some background. Language Log has some other versions of the song. There’s also a great dance routine to a more-techno remake of the song. I don’t know whether this is an after-the-fact explanation, but in 2012, Celentano told NPR, “I sang it with an angry tone because the theme was important. It was an anger born out of resignation. I brought to light the fact that people don’t communicate.”

Colorado’s Increased Deaths

Monday, October 12th, 2020

The Denver Post has a really interesting review of excess deaths this year in Colorado.

The official numbers say that Colorado currently has 2,113 “deaths among cases” of COVID-19, and 1,998 “deaths due to COVID-19.”

But deaths are actually up around 20% over normal, or “at least 3,788,” says the Post. In terms of raw numbers, “the state recorded on average” 18,935 deaths “for the same period during the three years prior,” and “an estimated 22,723 . . . between March and August.”

A caveat: “There’s a lag in death-certificate data so it’s possible the number of fatalities during the first six months of the pandemic could still rise further.”

Another key detail: “Of the excess deaths, at least 1,627 were Coloradans who died from COVID-19 complications. This number is lower than the state [official] count of such fatalities [because] unlike the death-certificate data, [the official count] includes non-residents who died from the disease while in the state.”

The upshot is that fewer than half of the excess deaths are accounted for by formal findings of COVID-19. What’s responsible for the rest of the deaths?

Uncounted COVID-19 cases are part of the mix, but “it’s unclear how many of the fatalities are from missed COVID-19 diagnoses,” the Post says.

The Post did find that deaths from “cirrhosis, heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s also saw significant spikes.” The best explanation for most of these deaths is that people delayed care. What about Alzheimer’s, which saw a 26% spike? Maybe the increased deaths have to do with worse care and more social isolation. Or (I think more likely) maybe more people with Alzheimer’s were dying of COVID-19 but not diagnosed with it.

Here’s a surprising finding: “Suicides dropped 2% over previous years, to 639 deaths.”

However, “between March and August, 597 Coloradans died of overdoses, which is up 40% from the 3-year-average of 424 deaths, according to the state data.”

Incentives Matter, Car Seats Edition

Thursday, October 1st, 2020

This is quite a finding: “Since 1977, U.S. states have passed laws steadily raising the age for which a child must ride in a car safety seat. These laws significantly raise the cost of having a third child, as many regular-sized cars cannot fit three child seats in the back. Using census data and state-year variation in laws, we estimate that when women have two children of ages requiring mandated car seats, they have a lower annual probability of giving birth by 0.73 percentage points. Consistent with a causal channel, this effect is limited to third child births, is concentrated in households with access to a car, and is larger when a male is present (when both front seats are likely to be occupied). We estimate that these laws prevented only 57 car crash fatalities of children nationwide in 2017. Simultaneously, they led to a permanent reduction of approximately 8,000 births in the same year, and 145,000 fewer births since 1980, with 90% of this decline being since 2000.”

Huemer on the Academy

Sunday, September 27th, 2020

Michael Huemer is worried about colleges: “The academic world may be undermining its own economic viability, by converting the college degree from a signal of intelligence and self-discipline, into a signal of hypersensitivity and intolerance.”

Starving Marvin

Saturday, September 26th, 2020

I was just listening to a panel discussion about the book In Defense of Openness featuring the authors, Bas van der Vossen and Jason Brennan. I notice that the book relies heavily on Michael Huemer’s thought-experiment about “Starving Marvin,” which came out in a 2010 journal article.

In the panel discussion, Anna Stilz has some very smart criticisms. Her basic idea is that we should take seriously the ways that initial distribution and bargaining power affects outcomes, and we should condition open trade and migration with strong protections for workers. My quick reply is a) wealth creation is mostly not contingent on initial ownership (consider all the rags-to-riches stories) and b) a free labor market (as opposed to the labor market we have today) is very good especially for the least-well-off workers, especially as productivity increases.

Kit Wellman argues that unrestricted immigration might disrupt the institutions that allowed for prosperity in the first place.

Brennan replies that the current nation-state system that closes migration thereby commits mass oppression and that people don’t actually own their institutions. Van der Vossen argues that it’s just not the case that immigrants destroy local institutions.

Radiation on the Moon

Friday, September 25th, 2020

Astronauts would get 200 to 1,000 times more radiation on the moon than what we experience on Earth.” Unshielded ones would, anyway.

Alkon on Homelessness

Friday, September 25th, 2020

My Tweet: “Obviously Denver (and surrounding) has a big problem with homelessness. [Amy Alkon] has the idea of pairing strict enforcement of anti-squatting laws with tax-paid tent camps. I don’t know the right answer, but at least this is a serious proposal.”

Crows Are Smart

Thursday, September 24th, 2020

Crows know what they know and can ponder the content of their own minds.”

Kilpatrick’s Critique of Montessori

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2020

William Heard Kilpatrick wrote a 1914 critique of the educational methods of Maria Montessori, The Montessori System Examined. Google has the book, available in free ebook versions.

The Montessori Method also is available online at no cost.

Michael Munger on Academic Publishing

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2020

Economist Michael Munger has a video series out on academic publishing.

He also has an essay, “The Future of Academic Publishing.”

See also Jason Brennan’s book, Good Work If You Can Get It: How to Succeed in Academia.