A Tree Fell and Other Wisdom

A tree fell in the woodsQuick philosophical note. If a tree fell in the woods and no one heard it, did it make a sound? No. When the tree falls, it creates compression waves, not sounds. It is only when something with an ear that can interpret those compression waves that a sound is created. Thus: no listener, no sound.

Oh! You thought it was a philosophic question?! So I guess what you want to know is if reality exists if no one is around to experience it.

Grasshopper: let me answer this question with a story. The great philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer was standing in the middle of a flower bed in a public park lost in thought. A constable saw him and yelled out, “Who do you think you are!” Schopenhauer, driven out of his reverie, looked at the constable and said, “If only I knew the answer to that!”

In other words: your guess is as good as mine. Well, maybe not quite as good as mine, because I’ve given this a lot of thought. No, I take that back: giving it a lot of thought doesn’t actually make for a better opinion.

When I was a kid, like most people, it occurred to me that maybe all of what I thought of as reality didn’t really exist. The only thing that existed was me. This is what the Solipsists believe. But over time, I came to see that as a primitive mode of thinking. Until recently, when I started to think that maybe there was more to it than I had thought. Think of it this way: our senses are really just input devices to a kind of virtual reality. What’s more, reality doesn’t make any sense itself. So why not assume that when I die this all goes away. As far as my consciousness goes, it does go away. (Question for people who think heaven exists: do you really think that your consciousness would survive the journey? Note: that’s a rhetorical question; I’m not interested in your answers.)

Here’s the thing, Grasshopper: wisdom is nothing more than the process of becoming comfortable with the paradoxes of existence. You will never answer these questions, but you can get to a point where you can slip into them like you do a warm bath. Ahh, that feels nice!


PrometheusSomeone (JMF, I think) recommended that I what Prometheus. But it was one of those “you should probably see this” rather than “this is really good” recommendations. It is a curious film. It is a prequel for Alien but uses a fanciful notion to get there. It uses the Prometheus myth, but in a surprisingly stupid and direct way. Basically, despite our sharing the vast majority of the DNA of most other mammals, we were created by some alien (who looks like he shares 99% of his DNA with chimps) who commits suicide. Or something.

The film deals with this by having one of the characters counter the nonsense of this argument by noting if the Engineers really did create us, it would mean that two centuries of science on natural selection was wrong. To this, the female scientist responds (as she does throughout the film), “I choose to believe.” Well then, I guess no more need be said! Perhaps a better ploy would have been to put up some blinking subtitles, “Begin suspension of disbelief now…”

The plot of the film also makes little sense. The robot infects the male doctor, which kills him and gets the female doctor pregnant with a creature, whose soul purpose is creating an alien in another host: you know, the double host procreation cycle that is so common in advanced organism. But that’s not even what’s confusing. Why did the robot infect the male doctor? We don’t know. He just did it because… I know! Robots in Ridley Scott films are evil while robots in James Cameron films are good. Or something.

There is one moment in the film when the writers seem to have awaken from their somnolent composing to realize that the whole film didn’t make sense. The robot asks the male scientist why he wants to meet his maker. It highlights the fact that the robot lives among his makers and he has no special insights because of it. The big issue here is that ontologically this quest is childish. Surly after meeting their maker the humans would then want to go on to meet their maker’s maker.

The film is little more than a muddle trying to make itself to an ending where the crew of the original Alien can find a crashed spaceship infested with alien eggs. It also makes numerous awkward allusions to the Alien film series. But it does manage to engage the viewer throughout. Scott is nothing if not a good painter of scenes. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t seem to even try to make sense the way the other films in the series did. (Note: I haven’t seen Alien vs. Predator and its sequel.)


If you ever have to kill me, I would prefer a bullet in the head. Please do not burn me alive as they seem to like to do in Alien films. You could also cut off my head. I understand that setting people on fire makes for great images, but can’t we at agree that no one is going to beg to be burned to death—especially when other options are available?

Return of the Son of the Night of the Simpson-Bowles

Night of the Simpson-BowlesThis is from an article this morning in Politico: “Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson are back at it, pushing the White House and congressional Republicans to get off the partisan sidelines and strike a deal that can keep government debt in check.” This is why we have major problems in this country. This is why basic economic facts don’t matter. This is why people who have been wrong again and again and again are still treated as thoughtful policy thinkers.

There are so many things wrong with this. Perhaps most important, this is editorial masquerading as journalism. The writers don’t know what Bowles and Simpson are up to; they only know what these two men say they are up to. As I’ve reported in the past, Simpson and Bowles are not honest brokers when it comes to the deficit. Their first task is to reduce the top marginal tax rate. There second task is to gut entitlement programs. After that, if the deficit gets reduced, great! But that isn’t their main concern.

Also: who says government debt is not in check? And how exactly is the White House on “the partisan sidelines”? Obama has been only too willing to make these deals. But this is the same old false equivalence that exacts no price from Republicans for being extreme and obstructionist even while giving Democrats no credit for compromising.

Matt Yglesias points this out the Simpson-Bowles bait and switchin a surprisingly funny article today, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles Unveil “New” “Deficit Reduction” Plan. He notes that Obama has already taken their recommendations for a $4 trillion cut to the deficit over 10 years—$2.5 trillion of that having already been enacted. That leaves $1.5 trillion of deficit reduction to go. But suddenly, these gentlemen are back saying we must reduce the deficit by $2.4 trillion:

The reason Simpson and Bowles are moving the goalposts is that thus far, none of the deficit reduction has cut spending on programs designed to bolster the living standards of the elderly, and what Simpson and Bowles think America should do is cut spending on programs designed to bolster the living standards of the elderly.

The problem with the $1.5 trillion figure, from this viewpoint, is that you could achieve it without substantially cutting programs designed to bolster the living standards of the elderly. That’s especially true if you’re allowed to achieve the $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction in a “balanced” way that features tax increases. But if you accept the combined premises that cutting programs designed to bolster the living standards of the elderly is an urgent national priority and also that everything needs to be framed in terms of the budget deficit, then the only way to reconcile those views is with a little burden-shifting. I don’t know why this framing has come to be accepted, but it has.

I can tell you why it has: the big media figures are all economic conservatives. They all love the idea of balancing the budget on the backs of the poor while giving themselves a tax break. What could be better?

In a later article, Yglesias points out that most of the increase in the deficit reduction demanded by the new Simpson-Bowles plan is due to it just being later. But this doesn’t really fly when you consider that much of the savings that Obama has made in the budget has been in effect for almost two years now. Of course, it doesn’t really matter. The fact remains that their primary goals have nothing whatsoever to do with the budget; they just think that the government should spend its money differently: less for the poor and more for the super rich. And with a big assist from the major media, they will eventually get everything they desire and more.

This article title refers to Night of the Simpson-Bowles.

Update (19 February 2013 1:26 pm)

Ezra Klein shows that there is a big change in the new plan: they are calling for much less revenue compared to spending cuts. In other words, they are getting closer and closer to the Republican Plan of no taxes: put it all on the backs of the poor! But don’t worry Simpson-Bowles are Very Serious!

Update (19 February 2013 7:43 pm)

It’s amazing how many people have written about this subject. I thought about doing a round up, but there is just too much. It is all of two kinds. Much of it is the usual Very Serious People approach that claims that we should break out the champagne just to celebrate that we have great thinkers like Simpson and Bowles to show us the way. Obviously, you don’t need to read any of that nonsense. Of the coverage that is worth reading, it is all pretty much the same as I’ve reported here. However, Timothy Noah wrote a piece that I think really gets to the heart of the deception that is the new Simpson-Bowles plan, Simpson-Bowles Is Back—With More Bad Ideas:

All this would lead you to think that Simpson and Bowles, nonpartisan truth-tellers that they’re purported to be, would make Step Three enactment of Obama’s $250,000 threshold (or, even better, my $100,000 threshold). I mean, they want to lower the deficit, right? But instead, Step Three is entitlement reforms (mostly Medicare and Medicaid) and … whaa? … lowering income-tax rates in exchange for eliminating or scaling back “most” tax expenditures. Step Four is to keep future spending in line. (Sure, whatever.)

Lowering income-tax rates while eliminating tax breaks would, Simpson and Bowles say, achieve some unspecified quantity of deficit savings. But if your aim is to reduce the deficit, why not get rid of as many tax expenditures as you can while leaving tax rates constant—or, better yet, raising them a bit? Simpson and Bowles would likely say they’re just being realistic about politics. Republicans won’t eliminate loopholes unless they can lower rates, too.

But as long as we’re being realistic, why not be realistic about the likelihood that a lower-rates-for-fewer-loopholes swap will reduce the deficit? Which is about zero. Simpson and Bowles’s insistence on clinging to the tax-reform fantasy demonstrates that their agenda is not limited to deficit reduction. They also want to lower tax rates. Why? They just want to, is all.

Bats, Hammers, and Handguns

Hammer and HandgunBrian Palmer over at Slate takes on a widely circulated myth that I hadn’t even heard of before, Baseball Bats and Hammers Do Not Kill More People Than Guns. Apparently, a lot of conservatives run around saying things like, “There are more people killed with baseball bats and hammers than are killed with guns.” This isn’t just said by idiot bloggers; this quote is from idiot Georgia congressman Paul Broun.

Let’s look at the stats first. In 2011, 8,583 people were murdered with guns in the United States. That same year, 496 people were bludgeoned to death. That’s roughly 20 times more people murdered with guns. And note: of those 496 murders, various objects were used including electric guitars. So Palmer asks the question: why are conservatives going around saying something that is patently false? (I know, I know: that’s what defines a conservative! But stay with me because this is fascinating.)

This all goes back to a specious argument that goes something like, “People get killed with baseball bats as well as guns; why not ban them both?!” This argument can be taken to ridiculous extremes: “Baseball bats kill people just like nuclear warheads; why not ban them both?!” But in 1993, an article in the Washington Times noted that, “baseball bats kill more people than AK-47s in at least one big city.” Here’s the thing: that’s not only specifically true; it is generally true. In 2011, the year where 496 people were bludgeoned to death, only 323 people were killed with rifles of all kinds and 356 were killed with shotguns.

So you can see how this went. From a true statement (AK-47s are used to kill people less often than baseball bats), you get message distortion. Before long, it is rifles are safer than bats. Then it is guns are safer than bats. I don’t know when hammers were thrown into the mix, but I bet it has something to do with Ann Rule. And let’s face it: this is how most “facts” that everyone knows are passed on.

This whole story highlights the fact that the real problem we face is handguns. But few people want to talk about this. Somehow, it seems natural to have a handgun in a home for protection. It seems to me that a shotgun is a better choice. It is less likely to be involved in accidents or suicides. (I’m especially concerned about guns and suicide.) But calling for an end to handguns seems to make people think of tyranny. I think if we offered a program where people could trade in their handguns for shotguns, it might do some good.

Regardless, as horrible as it must be to have some Al Capone wannabe kill you with a baseball bat, bludgeon murders are just not a major issue in this country. Unfortunately, even if we straightened out the likes of Paul Broun, it wouldn’t help. It seems that liberals are primarily interested in banning assault weapons. And in that case, baseball bats and hammers really are comparable problems. Anyone for a handgun ban?

The Lesson of Tennessee Virtual Academy

Tennessee Virtual AcademyI am really interested in education, but I find it very depressing to write about. It seems to me that it is all tail chasing that passes for educational reform. What’s more, most of it comes down to private companies trying to make a buck and politicians (in this case, the Democrats are almost as bad as the Republicans) helping them along. The recent scandal about the Tennessee Virtual Academy (TVA) is particularly illustrative, although not in the way that most people are reporting it.

TVA as its name implies is an online school. Basically, it is just a way to allow parents to more easily home school their children. But there are actual teachers who interact with the students and the parents. I have a problem with home schooling. It isn’t that I don’t think children can be home schooled well. I flatter myself that if I had children and I home schooled them, they would get stellar educations. (And they would hate it.) The problem is that most people who home school their kids don’t do it because they want their kids to be well educated; they do it because they want to “protect” their children from dangerous ideas like natural selection, quantum mechanics, and pretty much any post-Enlightenment thinking.

But if people are going to home school, I think the state should provide all the help it can. Unfortunately, TVA is not succeeding, at least on the terms that it was sold to lawmakers. According to Raw Story:

Democratic lawmakers are now attempting to cap enrollment at 5,000 after 2011 test scores showed that only 16.4 percent of middle school students were proficient in math, and only 39.3 percent were proficient in language arts.

I don’t think much of tests, but that is pretty bad. But here’s the thing: that isn’t the story.

TVA is in the news because the vice principal sent out an email to teachers telling them to erase the failing grades from September and October. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Yes, it is probably just TVA trying to cover itself. But it must be at least in part them trying to make adjustments. What’s more, when I taught, all I cared about was how well the students understood the material at the end of the course. I made allowances for students who did poorly at the end, but I never penalized a student for doing poorly at the start; students who got As on the final, got As in the course.

Because of this story, now the poor test scores are getting some attention. I think this is backwards. But so be it. What’s important here is that companies like TVA (a for-profit public school) sell their services on the basis of test scores. Yet when they fail by the one metric that they and their political allies claim to care about, nothing happens. I think this is because this kind of educational “reform” and “innovation” is not about test scores and it most certainly isn’t about education or the betterment of children. It is about making profits and gutting public education. In this regard, the Republicans are far worse. But regardless of the motivation, the result of pretty much all educational reform is to divert public funds to private (for-profit) companies and weaken public education.

And that is the real story of the Tennessee Virtual Academy.