July 2008

“If we wrap an object in some kind of envelope, so that the eyes infer rather than see the object that is enclosed, the inferred or imagined form is likely to be more perfect than it would appear if it were uncovered. Thus a square box covered with brown paper will be imagined as a perfect square. Unless the mind is given some very strong clue it is unlikely to visalize holes, dents, cracks, or other accidental qualities. In the same way, if we casst a drapery over a thigh, a leg, an arm or a breast, the imagination supposes a perfectly formed member; it does not and usually cannot envisage the irregularities and the imperfections which experience should lead us to expect.

…We know what [a body] is probably like from experience, and yet we are willing to suspend our disbelief in favour of the fictions of [the person's] wardrobe. Indeed I think that we are ready to go further in the way of self-deception. When we slip on our best jacket and see our deplorably unimpressive shoulders artfully magnified and idealised we do, for a moment, rise in our own esteem.”

That’s the art historian Quentin Bell quoted in the section on geon theory in Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works.

There are opportunities everywhere, right under your nose. As a bonus assignment to the class, rewrite it in the mold of Dalrymple.

Via Volokh, George Will writes on the epidemiological importance of alcohol which is etched in our genes (depending on your ancestry). UPDATE: Via GNXP, Stephen Bainbridge stumps for wine instead.

In other somewhat science-related news, Hopefully Anonymous promotes a physics forum and cog-sci/tech blog I’ll have to check out.

I really should have gotten around to backing up my files long ago when I was considering installing Wubi, which I guess wasn’t that big a setback at the time since I have no idea what I’m doing. Now seven years of dirt and debris have finally put the drive out of its misery, and I’ve been told its contents aren’t recoverable. That just doesn’t sound like a can-do attitude on the part of those repair people. It’s not like I scrubbed it with a magnet or anything, which still wouldn’t stop some dedicated computer-CSI people looking to see if I had kiddy-porn (I don’t, just a compilation of Sibel Kekilli and a Probot video that probably would not have been broadcastable a decade ago). I put a lot of work into stealing all that intellectual property I had on there and it would be shame if it were lost to the sands of time. Are there any gearheads out there willing to offer me some false hope?

A fitting follow-up to the last post

Via Robin Hanson. This method also jibes with David Friedman’s  point on the irrelevance of responsibility. The problem people have with separating moral and practical arguments is one reason I want to strictly segregate the former from the latter (by the is-ought gap) and then abolish it (through non-cognitivism).

That’s one of the topics in a recent diavlog with Glenn Loury (who I last mentioned here) and Josh Cohen. He even gives a shoutout to Charles Murray (while denying he’s asserting a variety of claims, somewhat reminescent of Scalia on Heller and speaking of Heller & bhtv Volokh makes Rakove look ridiculous). It’s a shifting of the discourse, as they say. He also questions how meaningful the opportunity of “equal opportunity” discussed by political philosophers is. Recently at OrgTheory they presented two theories of family influence, and I pointed out the neglected Judith Harris position, but nobody responded until just now when I checked it out to get the link. Bryan Caplan, an adherent of the Harris position, now says he needs to catch up on the latest findings of the field.

I’ve gotten my Harris second-hand, such as through Steven Pinker (still haven’t written a review of Blank Slate like I said I would) and while I still haven’t gotten around to reading her books I just got another Pinker tome, How the Mind Works. I’d promise a review, but as I’ve just noted that isn’t worth much. Tom Wolfe’s Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers is on the way.

We will be genetically engineered and living in bubbles.

A few days ago I finished reading The China Story by Freda Utley. Just last night I finished Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson. I began the first over a month ago, and the latter when I began my previous post. Part of the difference was that I was reading Utley’s book in pdf form on my computer, and was constantly tempted to look at other stuff on the internet. Another reason is that it’s much more boring. She was personally involved in some of the events discussed, but I did not care to read a chapter focusing on Owen Lattimore. Another blemish in my eyes is that like those she criticizes, she is an idealist with a distaste for self-interested cynical realism. She displayed that in other writings sympathetic to the Palestianians (not unlike several of her comrades of the old right) as well as the defeated Germans after the second world war (this would be sufficient proof of anti-semitism to a modern neo-conservative). Although she had opposed war with Germany (though ironically may bear some responsibility for it, as Japan blamed her for our boycott of them during the Sino-Japanese war) and sought a negotiated peace, in this book she tries to use the ill-repute of the old isolationists to analogize those who were later sympathetic to the Soviet Union and/or Chinese communists. I found that distasteful.

It is enjoyable to read just how wrong so many of the great and good were in their perceptions of the communists, but in hindsight we can see that Utley was wrong about much as well. China did indeed split from the Soviet Union to a degree even greater than Tito. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in absolutely no diminishing of the political power of the communist party in China. The most interesting part of the book to me was a question Utley posed but never quite answered: why was our policy in Europe (such as toward Greece and Turkey) so different from the one the same people advanced at the same time in East Asia? Her answer is that Americans were more familiar with Europe and viewed its defects as understandable aberrations given the circumstances, but were more likely to look down on backward, corrupt Chinese government. My hypothesis is that they didn’t really care all that much about China, much as with Africa today. Freda cared, and so did her fellow journalists (some of whom, like her, had some affiliation with the communist party) that stayed in China while the Japanese advanced. Many of them were willing to overlook the dark side of the Chinese communists, just as Freda acknowledged Chiang Kai-Shek’s earlier partnership with the communists as well as the Soviet Union and the defects of his own government but stumped for him anyway (the possible difference in reactions may be due to the fact that while in Russia Utley’s husband was killed on suspicion of Trotskyism). One final note I’d like to make is that most histories I’ve read attribute the result of the civil war to the incohesive nature of the Kuomingtang, which was really a collection of warlords prone to break apart, which isn’t really discussed in the book.

The discussion of the next book goes on for a while with lots of summary and a critique of Mencius Moldbug, so I will put it below the fold. (more…)

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