Aug 4th, 2010 by ravi
Analogies about the WTC Islamic Centre and the ADL

More than one writer has criticised the Anti Defamation League’s stance against the proposed Islamic Center near “Ground Zero” in Manhattan, using analogies such as the below from Peter Beinart:

The ADL’s rationale for opposing the Ground Zero mosque is that “building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain—unnecessarily—and that is not right.” Huh? What if white victims of African-American crime protested the building of a black church in their neighborhood? Or gentile victims of Bernie Madoff protested the building of a synagogue?

These analogies are erroneous, and I believe the error is non-trivial. African-American crime is not committed in the name of “African-Americanism”. Similarly Bernie Madoff did not scam his clients as a claimed act of Judaism. However, if I recall correctly, the attackers on 9/11 did (among other claims) consider their act to be on behalf of Islam; and the act was masterminded by an Islamic organisation or entity. The oft-repeated caution that these individuals do not represent Islam is the point that is missing in the analogies. A better analogy, that brings out this point, would be:

What if a Unitarian church was proposed near the location of the Stonewall Riots (or another location where homosexuals where victims of an attack)? Given the virulent homophobia of the Westboro Baptist Church, a Christian entity, does it make sense to ban the Unitarian church in order to spare pain to the harmed community?

Aside: someone like Christopher Hitchens might argue that given that any form of religion, even a progressive, inclusive one like the Unitarian Universalists, are the root cause of a good part of the violence and terrorism we see around the world, due to their basis in irrationality.

Update: as Allogenes points out in the comments, the Unitarian Universalist do not identify themselves as christians, so my analogy is as flawed as the one I criticise. Just desserts! The reader is encouraged to substitute a mild, tolerant denomination (the Episcopalians?) for the UU, in the above.

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Jul 21st, 2010 by ravi
Richard Posner on Chief Justice John Roberts

Richard Posner, himself a conservative judge, recently wrote that four of the five most conservative justices since 1937 are together on the Court now: Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, and Samuel Alito. Many lawyers believe it would have been better had Roberts and Alito been forced to disclose their real substantive intentions in their hearings because they would not have been confirmed if they had. Posner said of Roberts: “The tension between what he said at his confirmation hearing and what he is doing as a Justice is a blow to Roberts’s reputation for candor and further debasement of the already debased currency of the testimony of nominees at judicial confirmation hearings.

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Jul 1st, 2010 by ravi
Lefty Cartoons on our national relationship with Keynes


A cartoon that was inspired by Paul Krugman’s article “How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?”

(Thanks to Massimo Pigliucci for pointing me to this cartoon blog)

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Jun 29th, 2010 by ravi
More on poverty and relief

Karelis argues that being poor is defined by having to deal with a multitude of problems: One doesn’t have enough money to pay rent or car insurance or credit card bills or day care or sometimes even food. Even if one works hard enough to pay off half of those costs, some fairly imposing ones still remain, which creates a large disincentive to bestir oneself to work at all.

“The core of the problem has not been self-discipline or a lack of opportunity,” Karelis says. “My argument is that the cause of poverty has been poverty.”

The upshot of this for policy makers, Karelis believes, is that they don’t need to fret so much about the fragility of the work ethic among the poor. In recent decades, experts and policy makers all along the ideological spectrum have worried that the more aid the government gives the poor, the less likely they are to work to provide for themselves. David Ellwood, an economist and the dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, has called this “the helping conundrum.” It was this concern that drove the Clinton administration’s welfare reform efforts.

But, according to Karelis, that argument is exactly backward. Reducing the number of economic hardships that the poor have to deal with actually make them more, not less, likely to work, just as repairing most of the dents on a car makes the owner more likely to fix the last couple on his own. Simply giving the poor money with no strings attached, rather than using it, as federal and state governments do now, to try to encourage specific behaviors – food stamps to make sure money doesn’t get spent on drugs or non-necessities, education grants to encourage schooling, time limits on benefits to encourage recipients to look for work – would be just as effective, and with far less bureaucracy.

With apologies for the repost: this block of the article is more central than the one I posted before.

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Jun 29th, 2010 by ravi
The sting of poverty – The Boston Globe

When we’re poor, Karelis argues, our economic worldview is shaped by deprivation, and we see the world around us not in terms of goods to be consumed but as problems to be alleviated. This is where the bee stings come in: A person with one bee sting is highly motivated to get it treated. But a person with multiple bee stings does not have much incentive to get one sting treated, because the others will still throb. The more of a painful or undesirable thing one has (i.e. the poorer one is) the less likely one is to do anything about any one problem. Poverty is less a matter of having few goods than having lots of problems.

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Jun 11th, 2010 by ravi
Intellectual machismo and Physics envy

That it reached conclusions quite different from what the ordinary uninstructed person would expect, added, I suppose, to its intellectual prestige. That its teaching, translated into practice, was austere and often unpalatable, lent it virtue.

The above is a quote from John Maynard Keynes reproduced from Paul Krugman’s blog. While Krugman uses it to explain the puzzling call for interest rate hikes, made by certain economists, I think it is equally applicable to a wide range of fields whose practitioners often seem to suffer from acute Physics envy. Their solution was often mimicry of the results (of Physics), if not the method: the very act of positing counter-intuitive theses (similar to some of those of Physics) or prescriptions accrues intellectual prestige, irrespective of whether these results can stand analytical examination or were even analytically arrived at in the first place.

A good example is the natterings of Larry Summers (unsurprisingly, another economist) on the ability of women to do advanced mathematics… on which question Summers is, with great show of regret, pessimistic. This opinion is offered without much analysis but instead explicitly justified by appeal to toughness and the need to accept unpalatable conclusions. Unsurprisingly, Summers has found a strong defender in Steve Pinker, the leader of the evolutionary psychology pack whose arguments similarly are high on radical claim and calls for dealing with “reality”.

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Jun 4th, 2010 by ravi
Walled gardens and public ones

With regard to the use of analogies in the criticism of Apple’s closed App Store method for installing applications on the iPhone and iPad, John Gruber quotes Neven Mrgan who wonders why the idea of a “walled garden” is considered an obviously bad idea, even if one were to ignore the fact that public gardens are also regulated.

Rather than ignore the last bit, let us get it out of the way first: regulation of public parks and gardens are defined by the public and are designed to serve their interest. The opposite is the case for regulation of access as carried out by device vendors (Apple) or access providers (AT&T).

And now for why “walled gardens” are obviously undesirable, perhaps the substitution of the term with an older and (as is almost always the case) more appropriate term will bring out the obvious: “gilded cage”.

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Jun 4th, 2010 by ravi
Capitalism at its best

Peter Beinart is a stuffy young coot, the kind prized by publications like The New Republic (where he used to work, and perhaps still does) and The Atlantic Monthly, themselves the preferred coffee table adornments of stuffy middle-aged coots. But recently, he has shed his neo-liberal upbringing and taken a turn for the worse, to what might appear to be reasoned analysis. And on what is perhaps one of the weightiest problems of the “modern” world. The Israel-Palestine business. Beinart’s questioning of the unequivocal fanboyism of American Jewish organisations has drawn responses far and wide. From Abe Foxman of the ADL, Jonathan Chait, another fine product of TNR, and other luminaries. On the left, The Nation’s Eric Alterman grudgingly credits Beinart for his infant steps towards critical thinking, but that is now why I bring up Alterman’s Nation article.

Often capitalism is equated to the Right and the struggle against capitalism is defining of the Left. But capitalism, as some of its ideologues will contend, has no moral pretensions. The Left might desire human rights for the Palestinians. The Right might wish the Holy Land to remain in friendly control in preparation for the upcoming rapture. But capitalism is best illustrated by the third comment on Alterman’s Nation article (image below).

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Jun 2nd, 2010 by ravi
The incredulous gift of PZ Myers or How Religion turns its opponents illogical

PZ Myers, a.k.a Pharyngula, is a biologist who has carved out a niche in the blogistan (absent strong presence from big daddy Dawkins) for forceful opinion typically aimed at religion and related oddities, under the rubric of “skepticism”. And when the fanbase demands red meat, PZ obliges, casting the net ever farther and wider to find new candidates for ridicule. This time around, the lucky winner is Jainism.

Wikipedia might tell you that:Post

Jainism is an ancient religion of India that prescribes a path of non-violence towards all living beings. Its philosophy and practice rely mainly on self-effort to progress the soul up the spiritual ladder to divine consciousness.

But that’s just too much silly talk for old PZ, who offers an alternative description:

a petrified clown turd of foolishness that convinces people that it’s OK to be a credulous git

Now, you might wonder how one might back up such a definition and thus avoid seeming an incredulous git, and PZ has an answer:

Prahlad Jani, an Indian “fakir” (a term PZ has perhaps borrowed from that other pioneer, Winston Churchill, who used it to describe Mahatma Gandhi). And Jani, it has been claimed, lives merely on air and sunshine. PZ will have none of this tomfoolery of Jainism, and closes the case thus: the person who tested Jani is a “deeply religious Jain”, the “obvious flaws” in whose testing have been identified by “Indian skeptics”. Hence, concludes PZ, Jains (assuming here that PZ is concluding/summarising the thesis at the top of his post) are “kooks, plain and simple”.

Now, if you study biology at University of Minnesota where you might be fortunate enough to partake of the wisdom of PZ, and further, if Logic 101 is not a prerequisite for your programme, you might wish to have PZ’s attempt at it (logic) broken down for you, so here goes:

  • Indian “fakir” claims to live on air and sunshine
  • Dr. Sudhir Shah tests and validates this claim
  • Sudhir Shah is a Jain and president of Jain Doctor’s Federation
  • “Indian skeptics” have critiqued Shah’s claim


  • Jains are kooks
  • Jainism is a “petrified clown turd of foolishness”

Clearly PZ has inherited more than the beard from Aristotle!


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May 21st, 2010 by ravi
Massimo Pigliucci debates Jerry Fodor on Natural Selection

The real meat of the debate starts at 36 minutes into the recording. You can safely skip to that point without missing anything. This is an interesting debate because Massimo is one of the few critics of Fodor (Lewontin might be the only other) who seems to get Fodor’s fundamental criticism. More on my view on Fodor’s criticism later.

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