Thursday, June 28, 2007

Evangelicals vs. Aquarians

Just read an interesting analysis on the the simultaneous rise of the cultural left and right ("hippies and evangelicals") through the 50's and 60's. Brink Lindsey argues here that they were both reactions to post-war material prosperity:

On the left gathered those who were most alive to the new possibilities created by the unprecedented mass affluence of the postwar years but at the same time were hostile to the social institutions — namely, the market and the middle-class work ethic — that created those possibilities. On the right rallied those who staunchly supported the institutions that created prosperity but who shrank from the social dynamism they were unleashing. One side denounced capitalism but gobbled its fruits; the other cursed the fruits while defending the system that bore them. Both causes were quixotic, and consequently neither fully realized its ambitions.

I love neat sweeping theories of history; I can't take it overly seriously but it is so fun. Lindsey argues that the eventual failures of either side of the culture wars has bequeathed us a sort of libertarian-ish working consensus for society's values. I'm not convinced based on the abbreviated treatment in the article, but he definitely knows how to write a good cultural history. And with great relevance -- all too often I suspect today's political and cultural dynamics are still rehashes of the 60's/70's, despite big changes like the end of Communism, the start of the Internet, and the like.

And of course the article has wonderful stories such as this:

The peculiar career of Arthur Blessitt illustrates evangelicalism’s debt to the cultural left. In the late ’60s, Blessitt hosted a psychedelic nightclub called His Place on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, an establishment whose logo combined a cross and a peace sign. “Like, if you want to get high, you don’t have to drop Acid. Just pray and you go all the way to Heaven,” Blessitt advised in his tract Life’s Greatest Trip. “You don’t have to pop pills to get loaded. Just drop a little Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.” In 1969 Blessitt began his distinctive ministry of carrying a 12-foot-tall cross around the country—and, later, around the world. On one of his countless stops along the way, at an April 1984 meeting in Midland, Texas, he received word that a local oilman, the son of a prominent politician, wanted to see him privately. The businessman told Blessitt that he was not comfortable attending a public meeting but wanted to know Jesus better and learn how to follow him. Blessitt gave his witness and prayed with him. The man, George W. Bush, subsequently converted to evangelical Christianity.

Apparently this article is excerpted from a new book; there's a decent enough NYT review by George Will, though burdened with his usual "look at me, I'm a smart conservative thinker and like to talk about Burke!" shtick.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

"Time will tell, epistemology won't"

Working on applied AI-related problems has really tempered my outlook away from theory. Apologies for another Rorty-related post, but I loved this little bit I just came across, from Stanley Fish (on
When Rorty concluded one of his dramatically undramatic performances, the hands shot up like quivering spears, and the questions were hurled in outraged tones that were almost comically in contrast to the low-key withdrawn words that had provoked them.

Why outrage? Because more often than not a Rortyan sentence would, with irritatingly little fuss, take away everything his hearers believed in. Take, for example, this little Rortyan gem: "Time will tell; but epistemology won't." That is to say—and the fact that I have recourse to the ponderously academic circumlocution "that is to say" tells its own (for me) sad story—if you're putting your faith in some grandly ambitious account of the way we know things and hoping that if you get the account right, you will be that much closer to something called Truth, forget it; you may succeed in accomplishing the task at hand or reaching the goal you aim for, but if you do, it will not be because some normative philosophy has guided you and done most of the work, but because you've been lucky or alert enough to fashion the bits and pieces of ideas and materials at your disposal into something that hangs together, at least for the moment. Or, in other, and better words, "Time will tell; but epistemology won't."

A co-worker of mine said, "when you're in a meeting and someone mentions epistemology, the conversation is through." :-)

And similarly from that article:
"The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not."

Reminds me of Clay Shirky on the semantic web:
The Semantic Web takes for granted that many important aspects of the world can be specified in an unambiguous and universally agreed-on fashion, then spends a great deal of time talking about the ideal XML formats for those descriptions. This puts the stress on the wrong part of the problem -- if the world were easy to describe, you could do it in Sanskrit.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Richard Rorty has died

Richard Rorty, philosopher, dies at 75.

I've read enough of the analytic philosophers castigating Rorty -- and taken bits of classes from a few of them -- that I feel I just have to love the man.

I remember managing to see him speak twice. Once was on philosophy of mind at the good ol' Sym Sys Forum. (Video!) ("He is wrong, but wrong in such an interesting way!" I remember one comment.)

Most fascinating was when he gamely participated in a discussion at this very odd Christian thought conference some groups on campus put together. (The Veritas Forum, here's a link.) He was standing there, arguing with the Christian conservatives about the nature and legitimacy of authority, but humorously ceding ground where appropriate... "Look, it's not that all children will be active critical thinkers and discover everything for themselves. Getting a kid a secular liberal education isn't that much different than any other education -- you have to beat it in to them." (That is a paraphrase, not a quote. But I'm pretty sure he referred to "secular liberal education" having to be "beaten into them".) I think this is a really important point, but I just like the tongue-in-cheekness.

I confess I have never read any of his books. Perhaps I should.

Here's an interesting review he wrote of Marc Hauser's Moral Minds.

Here is the SEP entry on him.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Freak-Freakonomics (Ariel Rubinstein is the shit!)

I don't care how lame anyone thinks this is, but economic theorist Ariel Rubinstein is the shit. He's funny, self-deprecating, and brilliant. I was just re-reading his delightful, sarcastic review of Freakonomics. (Overly dramatized visual depiction below; hey, conflict sells.)

The review consists of excerpts from his own upcoming super-worldwide-bestseller, "Freak-Freakonomics". It is full of golden quotes such as:

Chapter 2: Why do economists earn more than mathematicians?


The comparison between architects and prostitutes can be applied to mathematicians and economists: The former are more skilled, highly educated and intelligent.

To elaborate:

Levitt has never encountered a girl who dreams of being a prostitute and I have never met a child who dreams of being an economist. Like prostitutes, the skill required of economists is “not necessarily 'specialized'” (106). And, finally, here is a new explanation for the salary gap between mathematicians and economists: Many economists are hired to justify a viewpoint but I have never heard of mathematicians who proved a theorem to satisfy their masters.

This too:

Levitt is correct when he says: "Information asymmetries everywhere have in fact been mortally wounded by the Internet." (68) The curious reader can roam the Net and discover, for example, that there are some who harbor doubts regarding the (superfluous) story about the fellow who claimed to have defeated the Ku Klux Klan using a trivial tactic. It is also easy to find doubts raised about the validity of Levitt’s two important studies (including the famous and surprising study in which Levitt (and Donahue) argued that the legalization of abortion in the 1970s had a drastic impact on the decline in crime in the U.S. in the 1990s). The two studies were the subject of critiques published in the same academic journals in which Levitt gained recognition. In response Levitt acknowledged "insignificant" errors. There is no trace of the criticism in the book.


Freakonomics aspires to "thinking sensibly about how people behave in the real world. All it requires is a novel way of looking, of discerning, of measuring. This isn’t necessarily a difficult task, nor does it require super-sophisticated thinking." (205) The authors believe that “The most likely result of having read this book is a simple one: you may find yourself asking a lot of questions.” (206)

I do not believe in magicians who know how to teach people to think, to feel and to invent. Levitt claims: "A long line of studies ... had already concluded that genes alone are responsible for perhaps 50 percent of a child’s personality and abilities.” (154). I dare to attribute (without research) 49% to the mother, father and kindergarten teacher. These numbers do not leave much room for Freakonomics.

Did I forget to say, Ariel Rubinstein is the shit? His website even has a giant listing of university town cafe's across the world (with pictures!), with spots I have heard of many times but never visited and now relate to only as mythical, legendary places, like Small World Cafe (left). His entry for Palo Alto, however, is missing the much less cool, though terribly wonderful, 24-hour Happy Donuts (right).

This showdown is not intended to parallel the above in any way.