Thursday, August 30, 2012

Can I Get A MIttless? A Modest Suggestion for a Campaign Ad

The visual would depict Mitt Romney's dressage horse, prancing about the ring in a manner which all but those involved in the sport would find ridiculous.  Overlaid, a soundtrack detailing Romney's proposals that the rich get further tax cuts, that the middle class gets increases, that the poor and those dependent on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid take one for the team.  And, closing, mentioning the cost of such a horse and its maintenance, and, finally, pointing out that Romney deducts the horse as a business expense from his taxes, which means that every citizen of the USA helps pay for it.

Hold That Tiger?

There's a fascinating article on Chinese education in the Times today, on Nicholas Kristof's blog, by an American college student who spent a year in a Chinese high school. He'd noted the very high science and math scores Chinese students have with respect to the rest of the world, very much including the USA, and had hoped to learn a lot. He became disenchanted quickly:

But we cannot take those successes and implement them here. A cafeteria approach to Chinese culture – “I’ll take the work ethic, but not the stress-producing, creativity-killing exam, please” – doesn’t work; the baby is inseparable from the bathwater. Kristof often measures his praise with criticism of the Chinese model, acknowledging that it causes stress or stifles creativity. But these criticisms are more than disclaimers, they are inextricably linked to the model’s successes. The same gaokao that puts heavy stress on students also makes them willing to do homework over the summer and the emphasis on mindless rote memorization is precisely why students score highly.
The question we need to ask is not “How have the Chinese produced such hardworking students?” but rather “Is it possible to instill such a work ethic without a high-stakes exam to scare students into submission?” Instead of “How have the Chinese achieved such measurable success?” we must ask, “Is it possible to succeed without revolving around tests?”
China’s solutions won’t work – what we need are answers of our own.

Richard Feynman, in (I think) 'What Do You Care What Other People Think?', told of his experience in Brazil, where he found a similar system, restricted to rote repetition at the expense of creativity. A friend whose daughter attended the Sorbonne in Paris had similar stories to tell. In Japan, entrance into Tokyo University is key to advancement, as is the Ecole Polytechnique in France. Once the ferocious competition is over, students in such places slack off considerably, perhaps (don't know for sure, speculating here) behaving as do, say, Harvard legacy students 'earning' gentlemen's C's.

I'm reminded of John Searle's Chinese Room argument against the notion of artificial intelligence arising solely out of algorithm, as a digital computer program would. He imagined a man, speaking no Chinese, in a room with a Chinese dictionary and other books. Through a slot, questions would appear in Chinese. He'd take the books, and render them into Chinese, and send them out the slot. The man would know no Chinese at all. Neither would a computer doing the same thing. So, in another example, the computer chess program Deep Blue, executing a gazillion instructions a second, beat then world champion Garry Kasparov, who couldn't possibly match it in its method, and used, perhaps, another. This isn't universally accepted, and can be attacked in several ways. But would the man in the room be encouraged to creativity, to brainstorm with others, to solve problems or even define previously unrecognised ones to solve? Dunno...

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tea Partiers: the Sokol Hoax Lives?

Ron Suskind quoted an unnamed source during the Bush administration, famously, as claiming the right to construct their own reality arising out of their power. The Tea Partiers seem to all but themselves increasingly at odds with reality, and the Republican Party increasingly unwilling to challenge them on even their most ludicrous beliefs. Such as Krugman, shaking their heads, say outright that their numbers don't add up, their assumptions at odds with data, that Ryan's and Romney's proposed budgets are fraudulent and out of fantasy rather than reality.

I've wondered in this context about the philosophical distance at which some on the left have positioned themselves from the notion of the correspondence theory of truth, the existence of an objective reality, the alleged hegemony of scientific over humanistic takes on life and the hard-to-define demarcation between the two. The right, trying to claw back shared power and reassert its claim to exclusive possession of it, demonstrates a potted caricature of postmodernism, raising the possibility that there's a fundamental problem with it. Or, perhaps, a less fundamental one, whose desperately needed clarification would exclude righty abuse of the notion. The Tea Partiers and, well, sane people, are obviously at odds. Their world views are irreconcilable, and not merely, seems to me, because of intrinsic assumptions equally valid though different, their validity a matter of social construction and nothing else, neither side privileged, but rather because one side is entirely crazy and the other is trying to deal with the real world. I don't see how that can be argued. I see their assertions as not stating facts, but, rather, laying out social markers, by which identification with the group is granted, and, therefore, unchallengeable by assertion of fact. For many of them, the Obama-as-Kenyan and Obama-as-Muslim assertions are completely unfalsifiable. And 58% or so of Republicans discard the theory of evolution despite vast, unchallenged scientific evidence.

The Tea Partiers, of course, would disagree with me, and assert precisely the same thing about, well, sane people, and are immune to factual and logical disputation of their positions. I'd like to refute them with more than a Potter Stewart hand-waving 'I know it when I see it'. I'd like to assert, with absolute confidence, that there's a way to objectively distinguish between socially constructed world views based on external correspondence, or lack of it, with reality. Then again, I'd like to do so with respect to science and other human enterprises--an exercise most scientists take as obvious or unnecessary, but which has resisted most rigorous philosophical attempts to do so. Or, perhaps, I can just say they're all bigoted, intolerant, ignorant, dogmatic poopyheads, and that lefties aren't. Obviously...

Republicans: Bring Back Noblesse Oblige

Ross Douthat in today's Times tries to recast Mitt Romney as not a Mormon but a classic WASP, one of those worthies schooled in the Values That Made This Country Great.  Wrong, seems to me, on both counts.  Dwelling on Ann Romney's speech, he concludes thus:

Her best line evoked generations of reticent, public spirited Brahmins: “Mitt does not like to talk about how he has helped others because he sees it as a privilege, not a political talking point.” The same was true of her strongest passage:

      No one will work harder. No one will care more. And no one will move heaven and earth like Mitt Romney to make this country a better place to live.

This is not an ideological or policy-oriented argument, calculated to reassure conservatives worried that Romney is too moderate or moderates worried that he’s too conservative. Nor is it a promise that Romney would actually be a great guy to have a (non-alcoholic) beer with. And while it evokes the hope of a better tomorrow, it doesn’t cast the mere act of electing Romney president as a kind of grand apotheosis in its own right, in the style of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Instead, it’s an argument for Ann Romney’s husband that could have been made on behalf of the old White Anglo Saxon ruling class with whose Social Registered members he shares so many qualities. You don’t have to love him, the more effective parts of her speech implied, or relate to him, or even always necessarily agree with him. But you can trust him with the presidency, because he’s suited to public service, and he was born and raised and trained to do this job.

He titles his column 'The Case For Noblesse Oblige'. Wrong, seems to me, on both counts.  It's hard to be more of a Mormon than Romney, who ministers, tithes, missionaried and raised five Mormon sons.  And one of those Values was never flip-flopping on issues such as abortion, or joining the NRA while running for president out of a lifelong love of hunting, or renouncing one's principal political achievement (Massachusetts health care).  Nor did Romney, with Bain Capital, actually build anything.  But Douthat's wrong on a deeper level.  Consider, for instance, the egregious Niall Ferguson, who waxes nostalgic for the British Empire--though not in a bar in Perth or Dublin, nor in Amritsar or Johannesburg.  In reviewing a book by Philip Bobbitt, Ferguson, descending into self-caricature, delivered himself of this gem:

Philip Bobbitt, however, is homo atlanticus redux. A dapper Southerner, renowned almost as much for his sparkling literary allusions as for his acute thinking, he divides his time among Austin, Tex.; New York, where he teaches law at Columbia; and London, where he has lectured in war studies. His new book, “Terror and Consent,” is in many ways a manifesto for a new Atlanticism, not just a reassertion but a reinvention of the dominant role of the trans-Atlantic alliance. It will be read with pleasure by men of a certain age, class and education from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to London’s West End.

 Such rhetoric expresses profound regret that people formerly excluded from power--women, black folk, Hispanics, gays and lesbians, former Colonial wogs, others, constituting solid numerical majorities in the USA and the world--are demanding, and sometimes asserting, a share of that power, and recognition of their common humanity.  And not just regret, but anger, resentment and resistance by any means necessary, attempting to reverse time.  It cuts to the Republican position on issue after issue.

So, Obama isn't even a citizen of the country, and won because of voter fraud--itself a falsehood arising in part out of record turnouts of black and Hispanic folk in 2008--after a lifetime where every achievement was due to affirmative action--reverse racism, they call it.  Control over women's bodies, abortion, even contraception.  Romney's bellicose nonsense about Russia as geopolitical enemy and China as requiring stern resistance.  Foreign aid and the United Nations.  Obama kissing the Saudis and 'apologizing for America'. Ayn Rand's 'virtue of selfishness.'  All of it.

Not only wrong factually, morally and ethically, but, if implemented as policy, utterly doomed to failure, arising out of fantasy, stupidity and outright lie.  And, apparently, appealing enough to many to, quite possibly, get Romney elected.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Money Talks, Republicans Walk

The Times today has two Republicans and two Democrats discussing the utility of presidential conventions in their 'Room For Debate' series. It's fun to read: Interesting that the two Republicans have little use for conventions, and the Democrats like them. Also interesting that Dan Schnur, a Republican, called for the parties, rather than the taxpayers, to finance the conventions. It's almost as if the Republicans, who have far more money after Citizens united than do the Democrats--Sheldon Adelson alone could finance the GOP convention--want to put the Democrats at a further financial disadvantage, and as if the Republicans don't want the Democrats to have an opportunity to place their message before the electorate. Imagine that. NB: been ill, better now and will show up here. Thanks for understanding