Thursday, August 31, 2006

A Cool PL Problem

I'm taking Friedman's Class (again), and it's every bit as cool as they say.

The introducotry problem this year is Ackerman's Function, and I've really enjoyed muddling over it the last couple of days. To help get my head 'round the significance, I thought I'd spell it out a bit in a post.

The significance of it is that it's the first function discovered that was recursive but not primitive recursive.

The basis goes something like this. Suppose we want to define addition, but we only have simple increments and decrements as operations. Back in the days when Turing Machines were new, this wouldn't have seemed so far-fetched. We have two numbers, n and m, and for one of them, say n, we need to increment m times. This can obviously be defined recursively: we simply add one to the result of calling the fuction again, but this time with a decremented m, until m is 0, when we return n.


add n, m := n if (m = 0)
:= increment (add n, (decrement m))

So if we want to add 3 and 2, first we check to see if 2 is zero. It isn't, so we add one to the result of calling add again, this time with 3 and 1. Check again, m still isn't 0, so we need to find the result of adding one to the result of calling add again, this time with 3 and 0. This time m is 0, so we return 3. Well, there was an add1 waiting on that, so it's now 4, and another add1 waiting on that, so 5. The answer is 5.

Certainly not the most efficient way to do addition, but at least we know that this is a correct program that gets the right answer.

Ok, now suppose we try it with multiplication.

Well, this time, rather than adding 1 to the result of each recursive call (with the one decremented argument) what we'll need to do is add n. Because really, when you think about it, multiplying two numbers n and m is the same as just adding n to itself m times. m is like a counter. Once m is 0, we return 0 (because we will have already added n to itself as many times as we need to.

mult n, m := 0 if (m = 0)
:= add n (mult n (decrement m)))

So again with 3 and 2. First we test if m is 0, and it's not, so we add 3 to the result of calling mult again on 3 and 1 - and again m isn't 0, so we add 3 again to the result of calling mult with a decremented m. This time it's 0, so we return zero, to which we add 3 and then 3 again getting 6, which is the right answer. Again, not very efficient (especially since
we're calling our already-known-to-be-inefficient add function at each iteration), but it's a provably correct program.

Well, it works for exponentiation too:

exp n, m := 1 if (m = 0)
:= mult n (exp n (decrement m))

Same principle, only this time we return 1 in the base case because we're multiplying with each iteration. Note that exponentiation calls mult, which in turn calls add, so we're knee-deep in inefficiency, but never mind. The point is that we're building provably correct arithmetic functions on top of other more primitive provably correct arithmetic functions.

Well, since everything here is ultimately defined in terms of addition, it sort of begs the question whether we could just have one function that does all of this upon request, based on the argument it's passed. That is, could we have a function where if you pass it a 0, it returns a function that does addition, if you pass it a 1, it returns a function that does multiplication, and if you pass it a 2, it returns a function that performs exponentiation (and with a 3 double-exponentiation, etc.)? Intuitively, it seems likely.

And indeed:

[post under construction, to be modified later]

Bilingual Learning Environments

Day 2 of the Bilingualism Class, and an interesting point came up. Demontrating that lots of the research on bilingualism reaches contradictory conclusions, the professor pulled quotes from two studies on the cognitive (specifically verbal) development of kindergarten-aged children attending school taught in a different language form the one they speak at home. One study (from 1980, can't remember the source) came to the conclusion that such children showed stunted or at least slowed growth. The other (from 1963) was effusive in praise for their superior creative and adaptive skills.

What explains the discrepancy? According to the prof, the fact that the 1980 study was done in the US and the 1963 study in Canada, specifically Quebec. She's quick to add, of course, that Canadian kids aren't superior to American kids. But then this seems to be a pattern: we're two for two so far on quick disclaimers that "what I'm about to say doesn't imply anything bad about the US, but..." Par for the course in University these days, I suppose.

OK, so the explanation is supposed to be that the kids in the US study are native Spanish speakers attempting to adapt to the ambient language. The Canadian kids are native English speakers attempting to blend into a naturally bilingual environment.

Actually, as it turns out, Canada isn't really bilingual (see also here for some bitterness about this). The vast majority of the population speaks only English, with native French speakers accounting for something like 80% of the "bilinguals." So it's really an English-speaking country with a large French-speaking minority. More to the point, Quebec isn't even officially bilingual. If anything, its government discriminates against the English-speaking minority to the benefit of the French-speaking majority. So this "accepting environment" the professor imagines is just that - her imagination.

Nevertheless, it's interesting that the two studies came to such opposite conclusions. Leaving aside, for the sake of argument, the probable explanation that the Canadian researchers might have been under some official pressure to praise bilingualism (ahead of the official policy - which was adopted in 1969), let's examine the professor's explanation - that the fact that the Canadian children were acquiring a "minority language" explains their success against the relative failure of the American children "forced" to learn "the majority language."

First of all, why should there be a difference? Children spend most of their time at school or at home, no? The amount of time they spend in the outside world is minimal, and anyway largely sheltered. They don't walk into shops to buy things, apply for jobs, hang out at cafes or any of the rest of it. So it seems logical to assume that, regardless of background, the children will acquire whatever language is spoken around them in class, where they spend most of their interactive time. In fact, the Wikipedia article on first language acquisition confirms this:

The order in which these languages are learned is not necessarily the order of proficiency. For instance, a French-speaking couple might have a daughter who learned French first, then English; but if she grew up in the United States, she is likely to become more proficient in English.

So the ambient language is likely to become dominant. And in fact, this point was made in class: the professor pointed out that although many of us have immigrant grandparents, few if any speak our grandparents' native langauge. Either it's the language that most of the kids around us speak, or it's the ambient language of the coutnry - but in any case there don't seem to be as many cases of bilingual children retaining their home language over the one they hear in society at large. If it's the language that we hear spoken at school, then the two sets of kids should have had the same experience.

If, however, it's whatever the "ambient" language is, it's still not clear that the two sets of children differ in the way the professor suggests. French is, after all, the majority language in Quebec, both officially and demographically speaking. But OK, Quebec in the 1960s was a much more segregated but numerically balanced place - at least in the cities - so it's possible that these children grew up in an English environment within Quebec. In any case, this was still a few years ahead of the national bilingual policy, so the nation as a whole would have had more of an English-speaking character than it does now.

So maybe, indeed, the directionality is as she suggests. What this fails to explain, unfortunately for her, is how the Canadian government managed to reach the conclusion that immersion learners do, in fact, show depressed verbal ability for a couple of years. They catch back up later, as it turns out, but for a brief time, they do show lower intelligence. And that's understandable, I think. While other kids are only busy acquiring vocabulary items in one language, the bilingual learners have to divide their time. It's not that the overall capacity for storage of new items is limited in any way, just that the rate at which they can be acquired is. Or at least, that's the intuitive explanation.

So then what was going on with these kids in 1963? Well, of course it might be just as she suggests. But the more obvious explanation would seem to be that there was a crucial difference in background. One of the other fun facts on the Statistics Canada page linked above is that children enrolled in the immersion programs are from higher socio-economic backgrounds, on average, than those not - and, crucially, that this trend was especially pronounced when the programs began. In other words, our 1963 Canadian kids, more likely than not, came from a priviledged background. This is unlikely to have been true of the Spanish speakers in the 1980 US study. Of course, we can't rule it out without more information, but most children of Spanish -speakers in the US are children of immigrants, and Spanish-speaking immigrants are not, as a rule, well-off or well-educated when they arrive from their countries of origin.

It seems more likely, in other words, that we're looking at a background difference that has little or nothing to do with the language environment. Indeed, the fact that the Canadian kids were able to buck the established trend and test more intelligent than average when Statistics Canada reports that most bilingual kids suffer from a brief disadvantage lends credence to this interpretation. Had they never been exposed to immersion school at all, maybe they would have seemed even more intelligent and creative than they did in the survey!

But this was all just for the sake of argument. I suspect what is really going on here is that the 1963 survey was conveniently chosen from a time in Canadian history when immersion schools were trendy and the powers-that-be were actively encouraging the movement. The Official Languages policy was still 6 years away, but the conditions that created it were never more palpable than in those years leading up. Probably what we were given in class is one of the propaganda pieces that the Liberal Government encouraged while drumming up support for the policy it later made law.

In any case, we have at least two explanations - one political, one from the learners' socioeconomic backgrounds - that seem more intuitive than the one we were given in class, neither of which was addressed. I can't help but think that the wool is being pulled over our eyes, and that this woman has a bit of an agenda.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Animal Language for Dummies

A conversation with a friend on Monday sparked some thinking about animal communication - and as serendipity does sometimes come into play, it so happens that in Philosophical Foundations today the subject of Alex the talking parrot came up.

There's this parrot, you see, that can identify things by category. He's learned to say tens of words, and he can combine them in ways that shows he has a basic grasp of category. For example, you can ask him "What color three-corner?" and show him a red square and a green triangle, and he will reply "green." Meaning he knows numbers, and he knows that the words "red" and "green" belong to the category "color," he knows that "what" introduces a question, and he can correctly determine that you are asking about the color property of the triangle (and not the square) and give you the answer you want. He's able to express desires - saying things like "want grape." And apparently he gets angry if you give him something that's not a grape when he asks for a grape. In other words, he knows that you understand him and have deliberately not complied with his instructions.

So what's so special about this? Well, that's the interesting thing. I can't really think of why it should be special. And yet, things like this have a way of shocking people.

Take my friend, for example. On Monday, he was laughing because he nearly made someone in our department cry when he told her her cat didn't have feelings. I was apparently supposed to laugh along with this. Now don't get me wrong - I love watching nature-lovers get emotional about their silly imaginary crap as much as the next guy. But it seems to me simply obvious that cats have emotions. How could anyone think otherwise? Cats sulk, they play, they get angry. There are any number of behaviors my cat exhibits that seem completely unnecessary in the strictly survivalist sense that I can't really explain without reference to emotion.

So this exchange is really surprising in two ways. First of all, it's surprising that anyone would actually come to tears over this. C'mon - it's like saying the sun doesn't shine. It's so obviously true that cats have emotions, that if the friend had said this to me I would have just shrugged it off. Sort of like believing that stepping on a crack will break your mother's back. If he wants to invent this idea that cats don't feel, that's his business, I guess. Certainly nothing for me to cry about (though I might snicker a bit). Second, it's surprising that there are people who think that animals - even animals like cats and dogs - really are "just machines."

Another friend of mine is an animal rights activist and vegetarian, and she can't eat fish because she can't rule out that fish might have emotions. Here again - I guess I don't know for certain that they don't, but it's a good guess they don't. I've never seen any behavior from your basic tank fish that needs emotion as an explanation, and I certainly don't think I could have an emotional relationship with a fish the way I have with my cat. But she argues that there are some studies that show that fish feel "pain," and "it's not so far from pain to emotion."

That seems to me somewhat circular. A purely operative definition of "pain" might be that the creature in question avoids certain negative stimuli. Maybe there are also certain nerve responses that are associated with "pain," I dunno. But "pain" is surely a particular kind of internal experience in addition to simply being a motivation to avoid a stimulus, no? I avoid certain people because they're tedious, after all, but I would only jokingly describe the experience of talking to them as "painful." I think we can really only talk about something feeling "pain" after we've already established that it has a certain prerequisite emotional capacity. In short, this animal-rights activist's conclusion that fish might just maybe have emotions depends on some pretty tenuous word associations. It's a category mistake, really.

What's common to all of this is that lots of people believe what they want to believe about animals. The first friend - the one who thinks cats can't feel - likes to think of himself as tough and unsentimental. Since people have sentimental attachments to their pets, it's something he avoids. But I think his position is unsustainable given some of his other beliefs - particularly the fact that he's vehemently anti-religious and definitely believes in Evolution over Creationism.

I don't think that anyone can, in good faith, believe in evolution and ruleout that animals have emotions. Belief in evolution commits you to the idea that humans are animals like any other. There are some special human traits to be sure, and one can definitely argue that humans are orders of magnitude more cognitively advanced than other animals - fine. But if you believe in evolution, you also believe that human cognitive capacity came about through slow, incremental changes in the genetic makeup of creatures that were once essentially the same as modern apes. Those apes, in turn, came from incremental changes to other creatures, etc. etc. all the way back to the first single-celled organisms. Differences between humans and other mammals, then, will more often than not be "along a continuum" than "in kind."

Which brings me back to the parrot. Why does it shock anyone that parrots can identify basic useful categories? Surely no one believes that parrots can't see colors or make out shapes? In the wild, after all, they are able to find food and successfully navigate around obstacles. It's hard to imagine that these tasks have nothing to do with correct perception of shape or color! What's supposedly so shocking is that the parrot learns to associate words with these concepts - but again I don't see why that's a stunner. Over the course of its life the parrot learns to associate certain colors and shapes with food and others with predators - why can't it associate them with the production of sounds as well? The article (linked above) makes clear that a lot of training was necessary to get the parrot to understand these things. And that's probably as it should be. Parrots as a species don't really use language, after all. But that doesn't mean they can't learn some basic associations. There's nothing in evolution that suggests humans should play basketball, for example - and yet we do, with proper training.

This line from the article strikes me as being one of the sanest things I've heard on this subject:

What the data suggest to me is that if one starts with a brain of a certain complexity and gives it enough social and ecological support, that brain will develop at least the building blocks of a complex communication system.

Emphasis on the "at least the building blocks." One thing Chomsky said on this struck me as insightful. I don't have a reference off the top of my head, but he said something in an interview to the effect that if we discovered animals are capable of (human-like) language, that would be a milestone in the field of Biology - not Linguistics. The reasoning being that if a species possesses the capability to use such an obviously suvival-advantageous development as language but does not do so, then Biology would have a lot of explaining to do.

Animals can communicate in rudimentary ways. The "building blocks" are there. Human language didn't come from nowhere, after all. The creatures out of which we evolved can't have done otherwise but to have had "the building blocks of a complex communication system." But the full-blown system is still unique to humans. If it were not, then presumably we would see more examples of it in other species besides homo sapiens. It's also good prima facie evidence that there are at least some components of the human language system that are innate - though certainly not conclusive on this point.

In any case, I've seen plenty of examples this week of people believing simply what they want to about animals and their cognitive capacity. It seems implausible to me that animals have no self awareness or inner (emotional) experience. Likewise, it fails to shock me that parrots might have some categorical knowledge. There's no mystery here. Humans and animals are related and therefore share some related abilities. It's not the same as saying that parrots are on par with humans, nor does believing humans are cognitively special commit us to the idea that animal cognition is purely mechanistic.

Statistics 4 U

If we have to have a core curriculum in university, we're definitely choosing the wrong subjects to emphasize. For example, I think a basic survey course in statistics would be more useful to most undergrads than the course I currently have to teach to earn my keep around here.

The public is shockingly ignorant of statistics; I run across new examples every day. Today's just so happens to come from Black Enterprise Magazine. On p. 14 of the September 2006 edition there is an article called "Diversity University" (sorry, no link without login, and I'm not a subscriber) about black acceptance and enrollment rates at major universities. The article is about the "progress" blacks are making getting accepted to predominantly white universities. So what's wrong with that, you ask? Well, nothing - except that the statistics cited show much more than progress. They show that blacks, in fact, have a better chance of getting in to some of the big-name universities than whites.

Take Penn, Brown, and Cornell (the only three universities on their chart for which full numbers are provided). At the University of Pennsylvania, 18,824 applied and 3.913 were accepted - an acceptance rate of 20.8%. Not bad, but for blacks it was even better. 1,229 blacks applied and 367 were accepted - an acceptance rate of 29.9%. The numbers for Brown show an overall acceptance rate of 15.3%, with a 23.2% rate for blacks; for Cornell it's 27.1% for the general population but 36.4% for blacks.

However, the same chart shows that blacks make up only 7.6% of Penn's freshman class, 6.6% of Brown's, and 5.6% of Cornell's. Since blacks are roughly 13% of the population, it could be argued that there should be more of them. Even so, it strikes me that it cannot be convincingly argued that blacks face a higher hurdle for acceptance than whites, or that prestigious universities are not making an effort to recruit and accept them. The problem seems to be that not enough of them apply. That sounds like something only the black community itself can solve. As Bill Cosby might have said, they're not holding their end in this [affirmative action] deal.

In any case, I find it troubling that a magazine can blithely display a page like this and talk about "progress" when the numbers clearly show that the goal has long been met. They're counting, in other words, on their readers not doing the math. It's even more troubling that so many politicians continue to be convinced by these (non-)arguments.

Turning Jewish

Standing in line to buy coffee today, I found myself behind an increasingly common form of annoyance: the "bumper sticker gay." Buttons on the girl's backpack included "OUT and proud of it!," "God loves me, just ask her" and (my fav) "Vagina Friendly."

I'm always interested in why people feel the need to wear their beliefs in short slogans on their cars and clothes. What can she have been thinking when she parted with money to buy these things to put on her backpack for all to see? Was she trying to promote tolerance for gays? It's possible, I suppose. But if she feels safe wearing them in public, surely her community is already tolerant enough? More to the point, how is seeing a button on a backpack expected to be a life-changing event for anyone? It's like those billboards on the highway that say "Jesus Saves!" Well, great, maybe He does at that. I've never personally seen any evidence, but maybe the people who put up the sign know something I don't. But surely the Lord God of All Creation, Maker of Heaven and Earth, isn't interested in saving people so impressionable that they would offer up their Immortal Soul ® after spotting a billboard? Likewise, I can't believe that anyone who truly has it in for homos needs but one glance at a button to give up his bigoted ways and embrace the path of tolerance and acceptance.

In any case, the confrontational nature of her buttons says it's probably not about promoting tolerance. Take "Vagina Friendly." Great, I guess - but what's so special about this that it needs advertising? I consider myself pretty vagina-friendly, really - as do something like 97% of all males. Throw the lesbians into the mix, and you've got roughly half of the human population in that category. Not to mention, it's probably safe to assume that heterosexual girls aren't vagina-unfriendly, particularly - just sexually uninterested. Really, when all's said and done, there's only a sliver of the population (gay males and truly hardcore misogynists) who are vagina-averse, -unfriendly, or -hostile. So what's with the display?

Or how about the one that says "God loves me, just ask her." Obviously that's meant to be insulting to the beliefs of any fundamentalist Christians and Muslims who think God hates fags. And as far as that goes, fair enough. What makes it annoying to the rest of us is the oh-so-clever use of the pronoun "her" for "God." I'll lay my cards on the table and say I've always been skeptical of the argument that using "he" as a universal pronoun promotes belief in male superiority. For one thing, the pronoun is used in all situations where gender is ambiguous - gods and doctors as well as thieves and swindlers. For another, it's traditional usage, and reimaginings of traditional concepts never seem to suffer from the labels they're assigned in other cases. The label "Grammar School" didn't stop elementary school curricula from expanding beyond basic reading and writing, after all. Nor does the fact that we call our language "English" give people from England exclusive say over how it is spoken. But the point here is surely that this girl, and the people who made the button, made a conscious decision to use the pronoun "she" over something neutral like simply repeating "God" or using "them." The intention doesn't seem to be to fight sexist assumptions that God is male so much as to explicitly assert that God is female. More than that, there's a subtle suggestion that, being female, we can take it as a given that God loves women. (The case for this explicitly-female God loving men would seem to require more argument.) And since it's safe to say that the manufacturer of the button knows as well as the rest of us that getting God to unequivocally express an opinion about anything is a bit more complicated than "just asking," it's hard to see that there's any other point to this than to throw the bigoted pronoun in our faces.

In short, what we have is an egregious example of identity politics on display. What these buttons say, in short, is that the only thing that this girl would like us to know about her, standing in line at the coffee shop, is that she's a lesbian. She wants to make sure we know it, in fact. And I do know it - couldn't help but know it.

All this reminds me of an article I once read on the supposed anti-semitism of H.L. Mencken. The article is a response to charges brought up in a recent biography. In most cases, the author of the article (R. W. Bradford) makes his point. Mencken's style was nothing if not acerbic, but there's little of actual substance to indicate that he disliked Jews as a group. What he objected to, really, was the tendency of certain Jews to wear their Jewish identity on their sleeve - to advertise it to the point where you had to take them as Jews first and individuals second. Responding to a passage in which the author of the biography uses a falling out Mencken had with one of his Jewish friends over Hitler as evidence, Bradford writes:

Finally, Teachout identifies as convincing evidence of Mencken's anti-Semitism "the language he used to criticize Jewish friends," whose "crime," Mencken said, was to have "turned Jewish on me." But Mencken wasn't accusing his friends of a "crime." The actual passage from Mencken's memoirs is this: "Goodman and I became friends almost immediately, and remained so until the shattering impact of Hitler made him turn Jewish on me."* The emphasis on Hitler, and the background of Mencken's long-standing isolationism, help to clarify his meaning.

In other words, the falling-out had nothing to do with the fact of Goodman's being a Jew. It happened when Goodman became so adamant about his belief that the US should go to war with Hitler that he could no longer tolerate Mencken's isolationism. It happened, in other words, when his devotion to Jewish identity politics became more important than the friendship.

That's what's going on with these buttons. They're a display that says "nothing is more important to me than being gay. If you aren't as thrilled about it as I am, please don't even talk to me." Or maybe they say "please say something bigoted so I can express some righteous indignation." In any case, it's clear that we're supposed to take this girl as gay first and an individual second.

A professor of mine once joked that his favorite Christian Fundamentalist bumper sticker was the one that says "In case of the Rapture, this vehicle will be pilotless." -- because "It assumes mine won't be." Just like this girl assumes that most of the people around her are not "vagina friendly," or that they will be shocked to see that someone thinks of God as unambiguously female (and feminist). She's not promoting tolerance with her buttons any more than Christian Fundamentalists are spreading their religion with their billboards. All it is, really, is smug.

I feel the same way about gays that Mencken seems to have felt about Jews. It isn't homosexuality per se that bothers me, just like it wasn't Judaism per se that bothered Mencken. But homosexuals who need me to know before I've even met them not only that they're gay, but also what they assume I think about that? The world can do with fewer of them.

This isn't just a matter of annoying buttons. An editorial in the paper today reminded me how far this stuff has a tendency to go. Apparently IU has a special support office just for GLBT people. Great. More of my fees spent on things that don't concern me. I really fail to see how identity issues that gay people deal with are a problem that the university as an institution needs to address? Can't concerned gays start a volunteer service for this on their own time? As far as I know, gays are a small percentage of the overall population. It depends greatly on how the numbers are done, of course, but virtually no study that counts "dominant sexual orientation" (as opposed to, say, "some homosexual encounter since puberty") as the criterion finds numbers above 4%. An entire support services center for problems that really only affect 4% of the campus? That hardly seems a fair use of university resources. And just so I'm not misunderstood: I'm all for tearing down the Black Culture Center and the Asian Student Center too.

This stuff has got to stop. Identity politics builds more walls than it tears down. If gays want acceptance, there are many ways to go about getting it. Wearing confrontational buttons that label you before someone has even met you isn't one of them.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


So I'm taking this class - Second Language Acquisition and Bilingual Children - from this person - Raquel Anderson - to fulfill my Acquisition requirement.

I've always been very interested in Bilingualism, and as this class seems likely to be intense I expect to learn a good deal about it this semester.

One interesting thing about the professor: she's from Puerto Rico, and therefore is a second-language speaker of English herself. Her accent, however, is near-flawless. It's pretty impressive, and also very cute (in the sense that while 96% American, there are still subtle traces of Puerto Rico that sound very cool). I love listening to her talk.

Her grammar (and especially word choice), however, aren't as good. Don't get me wrong - she still has impressive skill with English for a second-language learner, but she hesitates often over word choices and occasionally gets it wrong. Probably not unlike the way I speak German.

What's interesting to me about this is that Olaf Sporns, a professor of Neuroscience with whom I had a class my first semester at IU, has exactly the opposite problem. His grammar and word choice are absolutely flawless; he's easily the most impressive second-language speaker of English I've ever met in that way. Especially the word choice. (He did make one frequent "typical German" grammar mistake - which was to say "how does it look like?" in place of "what does it look like?" - but other than that...) Indeed, a native German speaker (who shall remain nameless) whom I know who talked to him reports that Olaf no longer speaks German well. However, he retains a noticeable German accent.

What I'm getting at, of course, is that cases like this go a long way to convincing me that there is indeed a competence-performance divide.

AMLO Crosses the Line

The Mexican Election is something that I've been following with some interest. People, it seems, just never learn. Never mind that every socialist economy the world has ever known either imploded or is currently in decline, South/Latin America is once again enchanted by the empty promises and comforting rhetoric of neo-tribalism.

The new wave of Latin socialism started, of course, with Chavez - but the current front is in Mexico. In the closest election in that nation's history, the leftist candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) lost by a paper-thin sliver of a margin, but has refused to concede. He has been demanding a full recount - to which, incidentally, he has no legal right - on claims of fraud. Mexico's elections board today refused to acknowledge his complaints, and it is believed that Calderon will soon be certified the winner.

In response, Obrador is calling for a September 16th mass demonstration in the Zocalo and has said that he will never recognize Calderon as the winner. President Fox, so far reluctant to intervene (saying - probably wisely - he would not interfere in Mexico City's private affairs without a request - which would naturally have to come from a local government that strongly backs AMLO), now says that as September 16th is a national holiday, the traditional military parade in the Zocalo takes precedence and will go ahead as scheduled. Mexico, in other words, is damn close to a full-blown crisis, and it should now be clear to everyone (except, of course, ZMag and Democracy Now!) that AMLO has no respect for law and order.

Let's hope AMLO has the decency to admit he's wrong and stand aside.

The Only Winning Move

So - this is my (temporary?) blog. Since it's tradition to start out with an explanation of the title and purpose...

Anyone who grew up in the 80s will recognize the title as a line from Wargames - a fun but not very profound (or realistic) movie about a lone high school hacker who nearly starts WWIII when he hacks into the government's missile mainframe by accident trying to play some computer games. Disaster is averted when the kid tricks the machine into running simulations against itself. The computer "learns" that there are no winners in a nuclear war and stands down its attack saying "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play."

Well, that's more or less how I feel about politics in general. My views are profoundly Minarchist: some basic frame of government is necessary to keep civilization civilized, but over and above that the best policy is to leave people alone. Most (possibly all) attempts to micro-manage the economy, and with it people's lives and personal choices, end up hurting more than they help. It is no historical accident or coincidence that free societies are prosperous societies. If politics is the game, the only winning move is not to play.

But this isn't meant to be a blog about politics - at least not primarily. Really, I chose the Wargames quote because I grew up in the 80s - and is there a movie more "of the 80s" than Wargames? The year it came out was the year I got my first computer (an Atari 800XL). More than anything, the technology revolution , the computer revolution in particular, is something I identify with my generation. I love technology, and I love progress. I like nature hikes and animals (especially cats) as much as anyone, but I have no patience for the "back to nature" types. Man was meant to solve problems; life is a constant struggle to improve. To an impressionable 4th-grader, Wargames was something like the 80s version of the New Seekers' Coke ad: an announcement that the world was now digital...and younger and faster. (In the case of the New Seekers I guess the point was that everything was going to be lame for a decade...and behold the 70s.) Never mind that it's really just a fun teen flick - that's what it meant to me at the time.

It's true that I'm a computer geek now. I wasn't back then. I spent over half of the 90s living abroad (Japan, Korea, Germany) and learning new languages (another passion of mine). I came home to be a Linguistics professor and rediscovered computers in graduate school. Now, my field is Machine Translation, and I'm working on a PhD at Indiana University.

This blog will be about many things. Cognitive Science, Computer Science, Formal Languages and Logics, Algorithms, Linguistics (esp. Syntax), Machine Translation. And yes, also Politics (especially of the Classical Liberal/Austrian School variety), Philosophy, movies, pop culture, novels, cats, friends, and THOUGHTS ON LIFE.


Chasing Noah

As it turns out, the maiden entry on this blog ends up being a response to a post on another blog. For some time now I've been meaning to program a blog for myself and not finding the time. So for now, this spot on Blogger will have to do. Noah sent an email asking me to look at his post, so I'm using this as an excuse to get started.

Aparently NPR was allowing another socialist to spout off about Katrina. Noah, who describes himself as sliding "into the netherworld of classical liberalism," took some issues with it.

Not enough, as it turns out. Noah may be "sliding," but I've been in this netherworld for years, and one of the issues that really raises my hackles is the idea that the government either could or should have done more than it did to help New Orleans after Katrina.

Quoting Marcellus Andrews (the aforementioned public spender):

Katrina claimed so many because the people of Louisiana and the good ole US of A pretended that safety is a private good instead of a public good.

To which Noah responds:

Is safety a 'good' at all? I suppose in relation to dangers like natural disasters, you could make the case that it is, but whatever problems arise from this are irrelevant to the failure of the levee system in New Orleans.

We can nitpick about whether goods have to be tangible, but I think it's fair to say that safety is a value that people are willing to pay for and can therefore be talked about as a "good." People buy guns, attend martial arts classes, pay for outside floodlights and burglar alarms all in the name of safety - and these are crucially private purchases made by private individuals to their individual benefit. It would have been better to say that safety very definitely is a value, and a largely private one at that. Mr. Andrews may be right that there is also a concept of "public safety," but clearly "safety" in general is not (exclusively) a "public" good.

Noah writes:

In fact, the levees protecting New Orleans were designed to withstand a category three storm, and Katrina was category five. Someone(s), somewhere(s), made a (series of) decision(s) about precisely how to build the levees, and they simply were not built for a storm like the one that hit. It has nothing (directly) to do with philosophical considerations of economics and public vs. private safety.

Well, actually I think it does insofar as the decision to build the levee only up to cat-3 specs rather than cat-5 specs was a calculated, money-saving risk. It's not unlike the perennially healthy person who elects not to pay the high premiums for maximum coverage on his health insurance. Of course, rare and dread diseases are always a possibility, even for healthy people, but a person who rarely gets sick or suffers accidents may come to the conclusion that the relatively low risk of serious disease or injury isn't enough to justify the higher premiums on a better coverage plan. It's the kind of decision that can only be evaluated after the fact: a calculated risk that either pays off or it doesn't. In the case of New Orleans, the question is how high a premium should be placed on public safety. Mr. Andrews seems to think that no expense
should be spared in providing for public safety, but that's a position one seriously doubts he would defend in other areas. For example, the inevitable price of civil liberties is that the police will not have the power or resources they need to completely eradicate crime. We accept a tradeoff here: individual liberty at the expense of some acceptable level of danger from crime. Public health is similar. No doubt we could lengthen the average lifespan by allowing the government to regulate what everyone eats, how often they exercise, etc. Again, we accept less-than-ideal health standards in exchange for individual freedom and saved monitoring/enforcement costs, etc. The money that could have been spent on the levee either went to some other public expense or wasn't charged to the taxpayers. In either case, it was a calculated tradeoff. The risk of a cat-5 storm hitting soon was deemed small in proportion to the expense required to prepare for it.

Where Mr. Andrews goes wrong, really, is in attempting to deny that such tradeoffs exist. The truth is that they do exist - and in every possible economic system, not just Capitalism.

Quoting Marcellus Andrews:

A truly moral economy provides freedom from fear as well as freedom from nature's wrath.

Noah responds:

It's delusional to think that 'freedom from fear as well as freedom from nature's wrath' are attainable. Also, it's not at all clear to me what Mr. Andrews believes 'moral' means, nor why something like an economy should, or how it even could, be 'moral.'

I agree that it's delusional to thin that freedom from fear or nature's wrath are attainable. Even the healthiest of people sometimes take ill and die suddenly. More on this later. But I have a bone to pick with the idea that no economy can be "moral." Noah's right, strictly speaking, that an economy has no moral value, but I think there are such things as moral and immoral economic systems. Mr. Andrews was just being imprecise: he should have said "A truly moral economic system..." I would then argue that Mr. Andrews has it backward as to which system is "immoral." Lassiez-faire Capitalism, which allows individuals to retain the wealth they produce and the freedom to use this wealth in the pursuit of their own goals, is clearly a more "moral" system than any sort of welfare state (which I assume Mr. Andrews advocates) which forcibly takes wealth from productive people and places great restrictions on which goals individuals can pursue and how they can pursue them. This brings me to Noah's final point, which I think is an excellent one:

Clearly, Mr. Andrews is a proponent of plentiful social spending. He states as simple, unargued fact that schools, among other things, are a public good. I can't help wondering, though, if more of New Orleans poor had had the opportunity to avoid the pointlessness of so much of public school by, say, getting more or less immediately marketable vocational training, would they have had the money to get out when the storm hit?

Indeed. More to the point, why didn't they get out when the storm hit? Here is something that has nothing to do with economics: any individual who chooses to live in a hurricane-prone floodplane owes it to himself to have a contingency plan, no? Expecting the government to protect you from each and every possible natural disaster is a bit like moving to a high-crime area and then not locking your door. Technically it is the job of the police to keep you safe from crime, yes, but in reality this in an impossible task for any police force that respects even a small amount of civil liberty. Well, it shouldn't shock anyone that the government doesn't have the resources to provide for absolute safety from natural disaster either. Absolute safety from natural disaster in a coastal floodplane like New Orleans is expensive on a scale few can imagine. Living there entails risk from floods and hurricanes, and citizens who chose to make their lives there should plan accordingly.

The lesson from Katrina should be this: the government isn't always there for you, nor can it be expected to be. Indeed, sometimes government prevention efforts exacerbate the problems they are intended to solve. I can't help but wonder what the population of New Orleans absent the government-funded levee would really be. One presumes it would be much lower - because the cost of setting up shop on a hurricane-prone floodplane would not be artificially lowered by the presence of the government-funded levee's "guarantee." In some real sense, building the levee in the first place was the precondition for the disaster. Where we went wrong was allowing people to forget this by putting expenses and responsibility for it over on the government, and therefore out of mind.