It's Not Scientific Method, It's Epistemology

Jason Brennan talks a priori theory again. What follows is something I originally intended as a comment at that link, but ultimately decided to turn into a blog post of my own.

Jason and the (possibly entirely imaginary?) psychologist are debating an aspect of epistemology; it has nothing to do with either psychology or economics. Consider the following.

Every child must become aware of the concept of duality. At a certain point, the child discovers that any object - let's say her security blanket, for example - is not the same entity as her self

Now, in order to discover that there is a "me" and a "not-me," the child presumably has to do some kind of experimentation: it hurts when I bite my own hand, it doesn't hurt when i bite the security blanket, and so on.

The entire debate amounts to this: When the child conducts this kind of investigation, is it purely by accident, or does the child have some theory involved that is confirmed when she experiences pain or not? Perhaps even the first experience of pain versus not pain is an empirical observation through pure accident; but then it is at that point that the child develops the theory (a priori theorizing), and subsequently tests to confirm (empiricism).

I'm not sure we can answer this question definitively, but I think that e.g. Mises makes a strong case for the fact that it's impossible to empirically observe something without getting a priori theory involved first. Consider the following excerpt from Epistemological Problems Of Economics (emphasis added):
New experience can force us to discard or modify inferences we have drawn from previous experience. But no kind of experience can ever force us to discard or modify a priori theorems. They are not derived from experience; they are logically prior to it and cannot be either proved by corroborative experience or disproved by experience to the contrary. We can comprehend action only by means of a priori theorems. Nothing is more clearly an inversion of the truth than the thesis of empiricism that theoretical propositions are arrived at through induction on the basis of a presuppositionless observation of "facts." It is only with the aid of a theory that we can determine what the facts are. Even a complete stranger to scientific thinking, who naively believes in being nothing if not "practical," has a definite theoretical conception of what he is doing. Without a "theory" he could not speak about his action at all, he could not think about it, he could not even act.
And, much later, in Human Action:
In asserting the a priori character of praxeology we are not drafting a plan for a future new science different from the traditional sciences of human action. We do not maintain that the theoretical science of human action should be aprioristic, but that it is and always has been so. Every attempt to reflect upon the problems raised by human action is necessarily bound to aprioristic reasoning. It does not make any difference in this regard whether the men discussing a problem are theorists aiming at pure knowledge only or statesmen, politicians, and regular citizens eager to comprehend occurring changes and to discover what kind of public policy or private conduct would best suit their own interests. People may begin arguing about the significance [p. 41] of any concrete experience, but the debate inevitably turns away from the accidental and environmental features of the event concerned to an analysis of fundamental principles, and imperceptibly abandons any reference to the factual happenings which evoked the argument. The history of the natural sciences is a record of theories and hypotheses discarded because they were disproved by experience. Remember for instance the fallacies of older mechanics disproved by Galileo or the fate of the phlogiston theory. No such case is recorded by the history of economics. The champions of logically incompatible theories claim the same events as the proof that their point of view has been tested by experience. The truth is that the experience of a complex phenomenon--and there is no other experience in the realm of human action--can always be interpreted on the ground of various antithetic theories. Whether the interpretation is considered satisfactory or unsatisfactory depends on the appreciation of the theories in question established beforehand on the ground of aprioristic reasoning [13].

Persecution Complex

Hanna Rosin has a rather thought-provoking article at Slate.com. For the record, no I do not know much about Rosin's positions on issues - including feminism. I am not an avid reader of "Double X," and I do not have a huge stake in the feminism debate, other than the fact that I think all individuals ought to enjoy equal rights and non-discriminatory treatment as a matter of good, ethical conduct.

Rosin suggests that there is no longer much of a "patriarchy." She tackles (bravely, in my opinion) difficult truths about the feminist movement and suggests (my words, not hers) that there is a bit of a persecution problem among modern feminists. Rosin seems to feel that many feminists are so accustomed to feeling persecuted that they cannot seem to see how much progress has been made on the sexual equality front.

I think this point is obvious enough to those of us who have observed a great deal of feminist ideology at work in the academic and political spheres, but who have never really been a part of academia or politics. That is, when you spend most of your time studying "the patriarchy" as a matter of intellectual pursuit, then of course you will feel that it exists; for the rest of us, equality has been improving for decades now, and continues to do so. Rosin's taking the opportunity to acknowledge that the old guard of chauvinist patriarchs has expired is a refreshing dose of perspective and hindsight.

Many people in the comments section of the article, however, were indignant. They reflected the feelings of the more (shall we say?) extreme feminists discussed in Rosin's article, who feel that the patriarchy is alive and kicking and still making life difficult for feminists.

One such commenter made the point that people "also" suggest that racism has disappeared now that the US has elected a black president.

The inclusion of that point got me thinking about the pain we all feel. Those of us who have suffered racism feel entitled to be vitriolic about it (including, perhaps, myself). Sociologists have long noticed the trend that people tend to be most outspoken on issues the more headway they seem to be making. I suspect this is a type of cheer-leading, or belief signalling. Eliezer Yudkowsky at LessWrong.com might call this "belief as attire." But people don't just want to be part of a team. They usually want to be part of the winning team. So when it becomes obvious that the losing team really is losing, those who were not yet part of the winning team likely jump aboard the trolley and signal their allegiance loudly, so that the rest of us can be made aware that they are, indeed, one of the winners.

But the real trouble with having a persecution complex is that it poisons one's ability to have a genuine relationship with another person.

Suppose Smith is a member of a visible minority and Jones is not. Suppose Smith and Jones have a budding friendship. If Smith has a hypervigilance toward persecution, she might initially reject Jones' kindness out of distrust of Jones' motives. If she overcomes this, then the next step will not be friendship, but fear of pity: Perhaps Jones merely wants to be friends with Smith out of pity for Smith's "condition" as a visible minority. If she overcomes that, Smith might next take to the idea that Jones merely wants to be friends with Smith in order to quell her (Jones') own guilt about Smith's persecution.

In short, there is always the specter of persecution hanging in the back of Smith's mind. Does Jones truly value their friendship, or does it simply involve the pernicious psychology of racial imbalance?

If we consider this to be a valid question, then there is no escape. The belief that others are out to get you is entirely non-falsifiable. There is no piece of evidence, no example of human behavior, no objective standard by which to negate the possibility that any relationship between two people doesn't involve some repressed, subconscious ulterior motive tied to inequality.

Thus, as soon as we adopt persecution as the true world view, meaning once we decide that all of human history can be filtered through the lens of "patriarchy" or "racism" or "class conflict" then it is no longer possible to view anything, no matter how small or isolated an example it might be, through anything other than that horrible, distorted lens.

Persecution complexes poison the well completely. Whether these perspectives are true is, I suppose, a matter for reasonable people to debate. However, it is unclear to me what the endpoint is. The goal of a special interest is to advance the interests of a particular group. That's tangible, that's measurable, that can be gauged.

But the goal of a persecuted class is to be free from persecution. It looks almost impossible to define what "free from persecution" actually looks like. It's easy to define at the extreme, but as we advance further toward a more egalitarian society, we have reached fuzzy boundaries that seem to boil down to personal perspective. If you feel persecuted, then you are persecuted.

Interestingly enough, that doesn't apply to the perpetrators. You don't get to be deemed innocent, even if you genuinely believe that you are. You need society to tell you whether or not you are innocent, and more often than not, you're guilty. It sounds like religion, doesn't it?

Workout Of The Day

I think I will rest my knee (tendonitis) for the remainder of the week and aim to come back strong beginning Sunday. Today, I can afford to do some more strength training. the main challenge today is that I did such a comprehensive upper-body workout on Tuesday that I have to be very careful not to over-train my arm muscles by working them out too hard again today. Keep that concept in mind as you do today's workout.

  • 3 x 10 pull-ups with legs extended in front of you
  • 3 x 20 back extensions
  • 3 x 10 cable cross-overs
  • 3 x 20 calf raises
  • 3 x 30 push-ups
  • 3 x 50 crunches


Is Government Evil?

It's been suggested that all I do is complain about how evil the government is. So, I guess the question is: is government evil? Or perhaps, do I think the government is evil?

One answer I can offer here is that the question itself is absurd. Is the government evil? Are the Chicago Bulls evil? Is the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers evil? Were cavemen evil? Is society evil, and if not, is a particular segment of society evil?

There are a few very simple points I'd like to make here, which will probably clear up the confusion. Once I've made my points, the answer to these silly questions should be obvious, but just in case it isn't, I'll actually spell it out. (You thought you were getting off easy, but you forgot that this is my fabulously long-winded blog.)

First Point: Institutions Are Not Moral Agents
Last year's shocking Steubenville High School rape case made major headlines. Feminist media outlets such as Jezebel immediately made the case against the "culture of rape," whatever that is. Some predators use social arguments to excuse their crimes. That needs to change, because crime needs to change. Some rapists invent convoluted rationale for the hideous things they do. To the extent that they do so, they need to stop. This is not because society endorses the arguments of rapists, but rather because rapists commit heinous acts against other people.

Perhaps reasonable people can argue over the existence of a "culture of rape," but no one in their right mind would declare that society raped a Steubenville High School student.

The reason for this is obvious: While individuals can act, "society" cannot. That's because "society" is a word we use to denote the collective actions and beliefs of many individuals. We can describe society's tendencies, but we cannot describe a particular act conducted by society. Every institution is like this. "The student body" just means students in general. It can't do anything, even though we might use that phrase to describe what other people do.

And so it is for government, too. "The government" is not a moral agent. "The government" is an institution containing thousands of moral agents, all of whom act morally or immorally as the case may be. Individuals are responsible for their actions. We might want to hold institutions responsible for their actions, too, but that would be futile. Because institutions aren't agents, there is nothing there to take responsibility for anything. Ultimately, you always have to stick it to an individual.

Part Two: Moral Agents Are Neither Good Nor Evil
The woman you loved broke your heart. Some of the deepest hurt you ever experienced as a child was from something your parents or siblings did or said. The most terrible thing you ever heard was probably said by someone you never would have expected it from.

So what gives? Are people just, ultimately, deep-down nasty people? Were you somehow mislead about the "true nature" of the ones who let you down?

No, of course not. Moral problems are complex and multi-faceted. Human coping mechanisms are imperfect and subject to emotional weakness. In other words, we don't always live up to our own highest hopes.

There are, of course, a few truly rotten apples out there. There are psychopaths and murderers, pathological liars, manipulators, people who lack remorse. But most of us would agree that such people have fundamental psychological problems that make them atypical cases. For all the rest of us, we commit acts of good and evil all the time. Sometimes an act of good is viewed as an act of evil when seen from another perspective. And vice-versa.

I do believe in "good" and "evil," but I consider them deeds, acts, data points. I don't believe that human beings can belong solely to one category or the other.

Part Three: One Need Not Be Evil To Breach Your Trust
Have you ever broken up with someone? Chances are, part of what happened in your failed relationship was some sort of a breach of trust. I don't mean that all break-ups involve infidelity. What I mean is that when you forge a relationship with someone, you trust them with your emotional intimacy. When the relationship falls apart, you no longer trust that person with the same level of emotional intimacy. Much of the resentment we end up feeling boils down to our feeling as though that intimacy has been betrayed.

Does that mean all your ex-lovers are evil? Obviously not.

What it means is that perfectly good people - people you fall in love with - are capable of breaching your trust. It shouldn't be surprising to discover that total strangers, often times acting on behalf of institutions, can also breach our trust.

Moral agents can breach our trust; moral agents are typically neither "good" nor "evil;" institutions are not moral agents.

Let's return to the original question. Do I think government is evil?

It cannot be evil, because it cannot act.
Those who act on behalf of government institutions are usually neither good nor evil.

So, no, I don't think that government is evil. But those who act on behalf of the various institutions of government can breach our trust. When that happens, it is logical to give pause and ask what might be done in the future to prevent its recurrence. When a lover breaches your trust, the relationship ends. We cannot - or at least do not often wish to - end our relationship with government.

But we can banish government to "the friend zone." We can avoid being intimate with government, emotionally or otherwise. The way we accomplish this is by restricting government's ability to penetrate our lives.

It's not that government is bad, it's just that many of the moral agents acting on its behalf fail to live up to the responsibilities with which they have been entrusted. These moral agents ought to find other jobs, outside of government, where they can do less universal damage.

But their institutions can also be shrunk to a size more befitting of the temptation felt by some of its agents to breach our trust, or the fallibility inherent in human behavior.

Think of it this way: Just because we have created an organization large and powerful enough to build an maintain a nuclear arsenal doesn't make it a particularly good idea. Shrinking that arsenal might be a good idea, but if so, how much better an idea would it be to prevent any institution from having that power in the first place?

Workout Of The Day

I still have some nagging tendonitis, but I'm almost back to 100%. One thing I've learned about tendonitis is that you should not mess with it, even when you feel as though you are 95%. If you can still feel it, you're better off letting it continue to heal.

That poses a bit of a workout dilemma for me today, since I did a hefty upper body resistance workout yesterday, and I don't have any cardio training options that don't involve major use of my knee. What to do?

I know that I should get between 30 and 45 minutes of cardiovascular exercise today. I may give the bicycle a try, if it's not raining. That may be my best option today. In the meantime, I suppose I will make sure to take the stairs and go for a couple of walks during my breaks at work today. I don't have many more options than that, I suppose.

Evidence: A Parable

Because it was a cool night, Smith thought it best to stay in and read a book.

At about half-past nine, he looked up from chapter fourteen to find Jones standing there, smiling at him.

"Hello, Jones," Smith said.

"Hello, Smith."

"What brings you to the study this evening, Jones?"

"I was looking for that book of Sonnets," said Jones. He raised and lowered his eyebrows a couple of times, "I have a date tomorrow with Miss Applebaum."

Jones turned his head around the room a few times, spotted the book of sonnets sitting on an end table beneath an empty cup of tea, frowned, and picked it up. He bid an amiable good-night and made for the door, then suddenly stopped, and turned to Smith again.

"Say, Smith..."


"How is your cold coming along?"

"It's persistent!" Smith replied. "In fact, I didn't bother going for a walk tonight specifically because I thought I ought not aggravate it. I'm tired of having the sniffles."

Jones came closer. "I thought that might be the case. Listen, Smith, I heard a rather novel theory at the coffee shop this morning from a man who insisted he hasn't suffered a cold in ten years. It seems one day the pressure in his head became to much for the old chap. So he hired a stable boy to drill a hole, ever-so-small, in the side of head. He says it cured him straight away. He swears he hasn't had a cold since."

"Good heavens!" cried Smith. "Did you see the hole?"

"Oh, no!" Jones assured him, "his hair covered it up. And his hat. If you'd seen him, you wouldn't think for a moment that he had a hole in his head."


"So... What do you say, Smith?"

"What do I say about what?"

Jones shimmied his shoulders a bit and then pumped his eyebrows a few times for good measure. "You're sick. Shall we give it a go?"

"Jones, that's ridiculous," said Smith, "I'm not drilling a hole in my head."

"I'll do it for you."

"Jones, listen to what you're saying. You're saying I'll be cured my cold if you drill a hole in my head. That can't possible be true. I don't even have a headache, and even if I did, it wouldn't have been caused by pressure in my head. I don't have brain-swelling, I have a cold. My lymph nodes--"

"Drat, Smith!" cried Jones. "Every time I have an idea, you pummel me with theories. I'm not talking about theory, I'm talking about treatment. Now, I saw this man at the coffee shop. He was right as rain. I tell you, he was the picture of good health. The pink of perfection! The apogee of, of..."

"Jones, it's not abstract theory," said Smith. "Listen, do you remember the time old Rambles, the family horse, kicked me in the head while I was trying to re-shoe him?" Jones giggled and nodded. "You do remember, don't you. You remember how that wallop put me in the hospital for days. The blood was everywhere."

Jones pumped his eyebrows some more.

"So you see, Jones, if your theory were correct, we'd expect that Rambles would have given me super powers or something. I certainly wouldn't have needed to go to the hospital over it."

Jones lowered his eyebrows, and his shoulders, and skiffed the floor with his foot. "Listen, first of all, Smith a wallop to the side of the head isn't a hole through the skull, is it? So you haven't actually presented any evidence for your theory, no evidence at all--"

"Evidence!" Smith murmured under his breath.

"And second of all, even if we were to consider that to be evidence, then what do you expect me to do?"

"I beg your pardon?" came Smith.

"Well, consider things from my perspective! I see a man at the coffee shop with a hole in his head--"

"But you didn't actually see the hole, Jones!"

"Are you calling him a liar? That is very disingenuous of you, Smith. Here we are trying to discuss a matter of medical science, and you're calling people liars."

Smith blinked.

Jones continued. "Anyhow," he said, "one man claims to have been cured by a special treatment. The other man--" here Jones pumped his eyebrows in Smith's direction, "--if we take him at his word claims that somethings somewhat akin to that special treatment is responsible for landing him in the hospital, despite the fact that, by his own claims, a horse kicked him in the head moments beforehand!"

"Jones, this is preposterous," said Smith.

"Really what we have here, dear Smith, are two points of data. We cannot possibly describe a trend with two points of data. We need at least three to detect a trend."

"By the Central Limit Theorem, you'll need at least thirty," Smith said.


"Jones, the Central Limit Theorem states that--"

"Theory again!"

Smith sighed.

"Look, Smith, I'm not saying you're wrong. I'm saying let's collect the evidence and see who's right."

"But I just told you--"

"Are you afraid, Smith?"

"Afraid that I'll die from having a hole drilled through the side of my head? I should say I very well am."

"You see?" Jones hunched over and jabbed a finger at him. "Abstract theory and abject fear. Every time we discuss anything at all, your position always boils down to one of the two. Theory or fear. It's unscientific, Smith. It's disgraceful. You can't let go of your fear and your theories for even one second while I drill a hole in your head. How else will we settle the matter?"

"I don't think we ought to talk about it anymore," Smith said as he tried to get back to chapter fourteen.

Jones stood in the middle of the room for a moment, seemingly lost in thought. Finally, he turned to leave. He took a few steps toward the door, paused, and then turned again sheepishly.



"I read a study published by Harvard University stating outright that drilling holes in heads--"

"No, Jones!"

Jones' face soured suddenly. "Okay, Smith," he said, throwing up his hands, "what's your idea, then? How do you propose getting over your cold?"

Smith blinked again, then said, "Well, I thought I'd stay in, have a cup of tea--" Jones jerked the book of sonnets close to his chest, protectively, "--and read my book."

"So... nothing," said Jones, conclusively.

Smith raised his eyebrows expectantly.

"Your great theory for cold-treatment," Jones said sarcastically, "is to do absolutely... nothing at all. Well, a fine theory, that! You may judge me for my unconventional ideas, Smith, but at least I'm proposing solutions. All you want to do is nothing. Well, that's not helpful."

Smith looked at him pointedly. "Jones, you're not drilling a hole in my head."

"I'm saying, let's see the evidence!"

"The devil take your evidence!"

But suddenly, Smith felt a rope cinch around him from behind. Someone was there, tying him up.

"I thought you might feel that way, Smith," Jones told him, "so I took the liberty of calling a few stable boys."

Smith bobbed his head toward the ropes tying him down, "Oh, you took the liberty did you?"

"That's right," said Jones. "We all have to live in this big house, you know. Not just you, Smith, but all of us. We have to learn how to get along and solve problems together. We can't let the liberty of one man's desires dictate how the rest of us treat our colds."

"Jones, tell you what," said Smith frantically. "The next time you're sick, I'll help you drill a hole through you're head, what do you say?"

"Oh, no!" said Jones with a few pumps of his eyebrows. "I'm not falling for that!"

"But Jones!"

Smith felt something sharp press against the side of his head. Then, suddenly, nothing.


Workout Of The Day

I'm feeling a bit of tendonitis in my knee (common for me) today. So rather than running, I think I'll head over to the gym and give myself a killer arm workout.

  • 3 x 11 pull-ups
  • 3 x 30 push-ups
  • 3 x 10 incline press
  • 3 x 10 tricep pressdown
  • 3 x 10 seated cable rows
  • 3 x 10 lateral raises
  • 3 x 10 shoulder shrugs
  • 3 x 20 ab crunch machine
I probably won't be easy, but it's sure to be fun!

Blog Structure Update

I'm working on improving readers' ability to locate specific information here at Stationary Waves. To that end, I have added a new page to the blog called "Find A Workout At Stationary Waves." On this page, you can find links to my 18-week marathon training program, my "8W" general fitness training regimen, and some links to a few helpful/important stand-alone posts. This page will be updated periodically to include any new fitness-specific information I might wish to help readers track.

Naturally, you can expect that similar pages pertaining to other blog topics will be developed as time and structure permits.



One thing I can't seem to figure out about the all the recent reports of blackface Halloween "costumes" in the news these days: Are people getting stupider, or are we merely becoming more aware of their stupidity?

There are two major possibilities out there to explain all this.

The first, the explanation that I think the mainstream media endorses, is that blackface Halloween costumes have always been out there. People have been wearing them for years. The problem is society, that society has never really overcome its pervasive racism. Thanks to modern technology - specifically, social media - all these blackface costumes that have always existed out there have now been thrust into the spotlight of media attention. Now, at last, people realize how terrible and pervasive racism is. 

My objection to this explanation is that I have positively never, ever seen or heard about a blackface costume from someone I know personally, or with whom I am acquainted with, ever in my entire life. I didn't grow up in a cosmopolitan area, in fact my hometown used to be an extremely racist place. I went to college, I went to Halloween parties, I've been around. My point is that I've never even heard of this before. Perhaps I simply don't remember hearing about it, but at any rate the concept is totally foreign to me, so blackface cannot really have been a pervasive problem earlier in my life. I mean, I would have at least encountered in some capacity at some point in my life. But I haven't.

This leads me to the other possible explanation, which I inflammatorily described above as "people are getting stupider." No, I don't really mean that human intelligence has diminished so much that today people can't compute how insulting blackface is. Instead, what I mean is something I was getting at in last Friday's post, which I explained thusly:
Listen: If it happened before, then it can happen again. It's not as if the lessons learned seven generations ago stick with society forever. Every new generation has to learn the previous generations' knowledge, and then a whole new set of lessons. That's what progress is. But we can also forget stuff.
See, I grew up watching very old Loony Toons cartoons on early Saturday mornings. I'm not talking about the classic stuff from the 1950s, I'm not talking about The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show. I'm talking about the stuff that goes back far prior to any of the characters as we know them, back when Loony Toons was nothing more than a bunch of animated shorts that used to air in movie theaters before the feature presentation.

Back then, the cartoon consisted of various spoofs of politicians, entertainers, and other celebrities. A common to see was the caricature of Frank Sinatra, who in his youth was quite scrawny. They'd wheel the Sinatra character out in a wheel chair, because he was so sickly and frail. And then he'd sing a few bars of something and all the female cartoon characters would swoon and faint. Funny, right?

Well, they also used to have a lot of blackface bits. Porky Pig would somehow find himself in the jungle, and the "natives" would come out looking like they're wearing blackface and speaking bad English. When I was very young, I didn't really understand what was going on. So I asked my mother and she explained the concept of minstrel shows to me. I never thought the blackface thing was funny, but once I had some historical perspective, I found it as insulting as most normal people do.

But that was only thanks to the fact that the local TV station had a block of time to fill on Sunday mornings from about 4:00 to 7:00 AM. Had that not been the case, I'd never have experienced the concept of a minstrel show. I'm too young. People younger than me - millennials, generation Y, etc. - never had that exposure. Even people my own age who weren't early birds like me wouldn't have had that exposure.

I'm not excusing blackface, of course. There is never any context in which it is appropriate. It is always insulting.

Instead, what I'm pointing out is that important knowledge - including moral knowledge - can be lost rather quickly. If the younger generations don't experience certain things themselves, and learn from them, then they forget those lessons entirely. This is precisely what I was suggesting last Friday, and I think this recent crop of blackface Halloween costumes is another good demonstration of the point.


The Problem With Getting Your Way

The problem with getting your own way is that everyone else also gets your way. No big deal when you're arguing over a game of checkers. But, when you're running a government...

Law & Order
We've all seen that episode of Law & Order, or CSI, or Matlock in which a key witness to a horrible crime happens to be from Malaysia, and she refuses to cooperate with the investigators because she doesn't want to them to find out she's an illegal alien. Please come forward, they implore her. If you testify, then we promise not to follow up with the immigration authorities.

This sort of thing really happens. The US government even created a special class of visa for this, a sort of documents-for-cooperation barter scheme. Even so, many such witnesses refuse to participate because they are unaccustomed to governments that keep their word. They think that they'll be deported as soon as they're caught by authorities. So they bolt.

In the old days, before the Patriot Act, this was a lot easier to manage. Local law enforcement didn't ask too many questions, so when the USCIS officers came looking for information about a certain individual who may-or-may-not be an illegal immigrant, the local cops didn't have much to say. I dunno. She was a witness to a crime and helped us prosecute. She seemed legit to me.

But a major goal of the Patriot Act was to facilitate the sharing of records and information between local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. What the beat cop has on you, the CIA has on you. Many people don't realize that this wasn't always the case.

The Health Of Illegal Immigrants
Last year, the Huffington Post published an interesting report on the fate of illegal immigrants in light of the ratification of Obamacare:
WASHINGTON, Aug 9 (Reuters) - As she was ushered into surgery eight years ago, Paula was confident that doctors at Washington's Howard University Hospital would find the cancer that had been growing in her right breast for months. She was less certain about where she would wake up the next day. 
She and other illegal immigrants worry that their ability to access healthcare at facilities like La Clinica will become even more risky once President Barack Obama's healthcare law takes effect. The reform requires all U.S. citizens and permanent residents to obtain health insurance, either through the government-run Medicaid program for the poor or by purchasing private insurance via state exchanges starting in 2014.
It also bars undocumented immigrants from participating. As more low-income citizens receive insurance, the fear is that many of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants will be easier to identify just because they lack coverage.
"It's my 3 a.m. nightmare," said Alicia Wilson, La Clinica's executive director. "While we do not collect information about the immigration status of our patients, the fact that they will be uninsured could be taken as 'code' for also being undocumented."
Immigration, of course, is a conservative issue, not a liberal one. Why would a good, upstanding, right-thinking liberal expect ObamaCare to result in the mass-deportation of immigrants to whom good, upstanding, right-thinking liberals would much rather grant amnesty?

But that's the trouble with getting your own way - everyone else also gets your way.

It's For Your Own Good
Here's a cute little anecdote from a 2009 Newsweek article:
During a routine visit, Hoffman's doctor asked her if she was still smoking. Hoffman said, "No, I quit." Her doctor then looked at her and said: "I guess that pack sticking out of your purse is for a friend." Still looking for an out, Hoffman replied: "How did that get there?" It would have been smarter for Hoffman to suffer the embarrassment and 'fess up. It may be painful, but telling your doctor about your questionable health habits like eating vats of junk food, or talking about socially risky behaviors like overindulging in alcohol, illegal drugs or unprotected sex, could save your life.
A little further down in the article, Newsweek gets to the point (emphasis mine):
These little lies can have consequences from not giving your physician the tools to work with you in preventing disease to sometimes unnecessary testing or changes in medications. If, for example, you tell you doctor you are taking your medications as prescribed, but you aren't, and your blood pressure is still off the charts, that can lead to increased dosing or changes in medications. Or if you continue to gain weight, despite swearing that you are dieting and exercising, doctors "are going to have to look for a cause," says Mount Sinai's Thomas. "That means increased costs and a lot of wasted time."
No one wants to pay increased costs! No one wants to waste their time! This is obvious enough because that's our money and our time. If we waste our own money and time, we suffer the consequences.

But what happens when it's no longer just your money and time? What happens when the bill is paid for by the government and the wasted time impacts everyone else's public health wait times? One clue can be found by taking a look at public attitudes of health care waste in countries that have socialized health care systems. You can do your own research on this topic, if you want to. But here's an interesting blurb to consider (emphases mine, again):
A few years ago surgeons in Melbourne, Australia, were refusing to provide heart and lung surgeries to smokers, even those who needed the operations to stay alive. “Why should taxpayers pay for it?” said one surgeon quoted in media reports at the time. “It is consuming resources for someone who is contributing to their own demise.
Already these attitudes have infiltrated discussions of health care reform here in the United States. For example, this New York Times article from 2010 (the one that provided the above tidbit about Australia) states:
In fact, the majority of Americans say it is fair to ask people with unhealthy lifestyles to pay more for health insurance. We believe in the concept of personal responsibility. You hear it in doctors’ lounges and in coffee shops, among the white collar and blue collar alike. Even President Obama has said, “We’ve got to have the American people doing something about their own care.”
Now The Scary Part
There is no question that unhealthy lifestyles increase costs in every health care system. The data for this is convincing, all the more so considering how intuitive the notion is. The more an individual's poor lifestyle choices end up being paid by "society," rather than the individual themselves, the more of a democratic or public health issue it is. If you want to kill yourself with cigarettes, and you expect to pay for it, what do I care? But if you want to kill yourself with cigarettes and make me foot the bill, then suddenly that's my business.

The result is a scenario in which any lifestyle choice can be re-framed as a public health issue. If the government foots your medical bills, the government can use its purse strings to manipulate your behavior.

Fans of "nudging" see no problem with this, and perhaps in the case of smoking - which we all know is unhealthy - the terrible consequences of this sort of thing aren't obvious. They become much more obvious when we consider more emotionally charged cases.

Here's a news story that popped up on my Facebook feed recently:
On July 2, Beltran, 28, met with a physician’s assistant at West Bend Clinic at Saint Joseph’s Hospital in West Bend, Wis., for her prenatal visit. When asked to detail her medical history, Beltran admitted a past struggle with the painkiller Percocet. But that was all behind her, Beltran said: She had been taking Suboxone, a drug used to treat Percocet dependency. Lacking health insurance and unable to afford the medication, Beltran had used an acquaintance’s prescription and self-administered the drug in decreasing doses. She had taken her last dose a few days before her prenatal visit.
Two weeks later, a social worker visited Beltran at home and told her that she needed to continue Suboxone treatment under the care of a physician, said Beltran, who again declined. Two days later, Beltran found police officers at her home, who arrested and handcuffed her. 
According to the police report, the officers took Beltran to a hospital, where she underwent a doctor’s exam. Her pregnancy was found to be healthy and normal, her lawyers say. Police then took her to Washington County Jail to await a hearing – hours later, she was led into a courtroom, handcuffed and shackled at the ankles, where a county judge ordered her to spend 90 days in a drug treatment center. 
Alicia had no idea she was giving information to the physician’s assistant that would ultimately be used against her in a court of law,” said Linda Vanden Heuvel of Germantown, Wis., one of Beltran’s attorneys. “She should not have to fear losing her liberty because she was pregnant and she was honest with her doctor.”
A couple of paragraphs later, we learn why the authorities were allowed to do this:
At the center of Beltran’s case is a 1997 Wisconsin law that grants courts authority over the fetus of any pregnant woman who “habitually lacks self-control” with drugs and alcohol “to a severe degree” such that there is “substantial risk” to the unborn child.
This, however, is not a particularly new problem. Here I found a briefing paper from the year 2000, published by an organization called The Center For Reproductive Rights, which argues that law enforcement officials and legislatures have been doing this sort of thing for "more than a decade." More than a decade in 2000 means more than 23 years in 2013 - over a generation, nearly a quarter-century.

Your Data, Your Life, Your Choices, Your Government
The final ingredient to this horror story is the Obama Administration's push to nationalize health care records. In 2010, President Obama "rolled out an ambitious five-year plan for moving doctors and hospitals to computerized medical records." The plan was part of the 2009 economic stimulus package and provided grant money to medical institutions that adopted electronic health records. The Administration said at the time that it would improve health outcomes and make the health care system more efficient.

After all, if records pertaining to the same individual can be easily shared between two or more offices, that's a good thing, right?

Wait a minute - where did we hear that before? I'll give you a hint.

I will spare you extensive links to the NSA's metadata analysis project, through which our government collects and analyzes data on all of us, innocent citizens with nothing to hide.

There is no crime against lacking health care coverage, so long as you pay the IRS's penalty - er, tax - er, whatever it is. But if the fact that you're uninsured is captured in a little info field within the electronic health records system, and you happen to be Honduran-American (or whatever), and maybe even your parents are illegal immigrants, but you're not, then we have ourselves a serious metadata problem on our hands. We have evidence that you are trying to collect health care benefits to which you may not be entitled. The Patriot Act says we can share your information with USCIS. Or the FBI. Who knows what's in your metadata.

As the government takes on a larger and more widespread role in our health care system, mandating coverage, incentivizing electronic records, sharing information among offices, and analyzing metadata, we can expect to see more stories like Beltran's.

The Left Shouldn't Fear The Left - They Should Fear The Right
The crux of the matter here is that conservatives never wanted ObamaCare. They were the ones derided for calling it a socialist takeover of the health care sector. They were the ones disparaged for filibustering the law. They were the ones mocked and ridiculed for saying "Keep your government hands off my Medicare!" The left couldn't figure out. They couldn't fathom it. What could be the problem? We're all on the government health care teat anyway. What's the big deal with a universal Medicare expansion? Why not single-payer?

If such leftists cannot see the link between Paula and Beltram, then there is no hope for American society. If Americans interested in civil liberties cannot draw logical chains between Patriot Act record-sharing and a giant federal initiative - funded entirely by public debt - to put the entire country on a unified system of electronic health record-keeping, then there is nothing left for me to say. If ordinary Americans cannot logically connect NSA metadata analysis "in the public interest" to government health care cost controls "in the public interest" then no one has a long enough attention span to fathom this problem even as a possibility, much less the frightening loss of personal liberty that it is.

When conservatives inevitably use electronic Medicare records - or, barring that, conduct a simple NSA metadata analysis of whatever records they can find - to wage their war on drugs, the left will have no one to blame but themselves. They wanted Obamacare despite what The Center For Reproductive Rights had to say. When conservatives inevitably use the provisions already contained in the ACA to hunt down and deport illegal immigrants, and possibly even their citizen children, the left will have no one to blame but themselves.

When the electronic health records begin to be assembled in such a way that the government can compile a list of patients who have, for example, had abortions, or had drug problems, or suffered gunshot wounds, or underwent circumcisions, that's when people will start to realize the scope of the problem.

The progressive liberals will blame the fascist conservatives for having done such a terrible thing. But who enabled what?

Please don't misunderstand me. A socialized health care system isn't sufficient to create a holocaust. For that, we would need the combination of a socialized health care system, a Patriot Act, and a modernized network of shared electronic medical records...


I am sensitive to the idea that people need treatment. But I am also sensitive to reality. The government - the US government - does not have a particularly good record when it comes to genocide. We waged it on the Native Americans. We put them in internment camps and sexually abused them. We tried to force them to assimilate. Then we did the same thing to the Japanese.

Listen: If it happened before, then it can happen again. It's not as if the lessons learned seven generations ago stick with society forever. Every new generation has to learn the previous generations' knowledge, and then a whole new set of lessons. That's what progress is. But we can also forget stuff.

In our push to provide for the poor, I worry that we've forgotten why immigrants from Honduras are scared to cooperate with law enforcement officers. I worry that we've forgotten why allowing our own government to keep electronic records on us is scary. I worry that we push too quickly to ratify one ideological policy, and forget that when the next election comes around, the people with the opposite ideology will take the reins.

Limiting the size and scope of government isn't about depriving the poor of resources, it's about making sure all those evil guys that disgust you don't take control of your institutions and purge you.

If you don't see it happening, then you're blind. Consider the size of this blog post. If what I've just said can't convince you, then nothing can, and there is no hope for you.

In the comments, Phil accurately remarks that my last paragraph here isn't really arguing in good faith, and I concede that he's correct. However, if we acknowledge that fact, then we must also acknowledge the fact that there is such a thing as reading or listening in good faith. In other words, what we have in this blog post is sufficient evidence to inspire an incredibly hefty dose of skepticism against the kind of national health care surveillance state that has been created here in the United States. We have strong evidence from which to conclude that this surveillance state presents an eminent threat to innocent people. And we have sufficient evidence to understand that just because "the good guys" are in power today (or were in power yesterday) doesn't mean they'll be in power tomorrow (or today), thus every encroachment on our civil liberties - even if committed by the good guys - becomes a clear and present danger once the bad guys win an election and take control.

All that is to say that if this argument means nothing to you - if you cannot even acknowledge the threat that this kind of power presents - then it is probably also true that no additional evidence will change your mind, either.

So I am not really making a statement against readers who disagree, so much as I am making the claim that my evidence is so strong that someone who disagrees must either (a) refute my evidence, (b) present equal-and-opposite counter-evidence, or (c) clearly articulate to me what other evidence would be sufficient.


Aprioristic Theory

If you read the kind of blogs I read, then you're already aware of the minor controversy sparked by Jason Brennan's dramatized account of a conversation he had with a self-declared Austrian School economist. His post isn't that lengthy, so read it.

No? Okay, fine. I'll summarize it for you. The conversation goes something like this:
Brennan: Behavioral economist seems to suggest that people sometimes behave irrationally. 
Austrian: There's a difference between "behavior," which is the purview of behavioral economics, and "action," which is the purview of Austrian School economics. 
Brennan: This should challenge your view of economics, since empirical behavioral economic research seems to suggest that people contradict your a priori predictions.
There have been a couple of responses written to this already. I haven't read them. (Okay, I skimmed the one that was posted on the Mises Institute Blog.) But I do have a few thoughts on this.

First, I think Brennan correctly described a "no true Scotsman" fallacy. Humans act rationally, at least insofar as the study of rational action (Misesian economics) is concerned. If someone discovers empirical evidence for apparently irrational action, the only valid responses for an economist of the Misesian tradition would be: (a) come up with a theory that shows how the action is actually, on second thought, rational and not irrational at all; (b) account for methodological errors in the empirical research; or (c) withdraw the claim that economic actors always act rationally. One cannot simply dismiss empirical research by saying, "No true human action is irrational!"

Second, I think Brennan's interlocutor was incorrect when he stated that there is a difference between "behavior" and "action." If there is a difference, it is merely semantic. On the other hand, it could be that Brennan didn't fully appreciate the Austrian School economist's point. A more charitable interpretation of his comment is as follows: Psychology is psychology, and economics is economics; they describe different aspects of human decision making and ought not be mixed. If this is what Brennan's interlocutor had in mind, then the question is very different indeed.

To wit, action that is psychologically irrational is not necessarily economically irrational. Here's a good example: Eating so much pie and ice cream that your stomach hurts. On a psychological level, this defies rationality, because the purpose of eating all that dessert was to feel good and be happy and enjoy ourselves. In light of that fact, it makes no rational sense to keep eating when you're already feeling bloated and uncomfortable.

But the economist has a much lower standard of rationality. The economist need not reconcile competing psychological urges, because they don't impact the economy. Only action impacts the economy. Thus, it doesn't matter to the economy whether you have a stomach ache from eating so much pie; it only matters how much pie you ate and why. Once you have a stomach ache, that becomes a different economic question entirely; namely, which over-the-counter stomach medicine will you buy? how much time will you have to take off work? if you do this every day, how much will it cost you to manage your eventual type two diabetes? and so on.

The psychologist wants to study and describe the tension that exists between the desire to eat a boatload of pie and the desire to act in one's own best interest. The economist doesn't care how much tension exists between those two motives. The economist acknowledges that some people eat a lot of pie, some people eat only a little bit of pie, some people prefer cake, some people cannot eat pie due to dietary restrictions, and there are prices and quantities involved.

In short, an apparent psychological conflict should not pose a conflict to the economist. It's not a subject of economic purview.

But Then Why Do Economists Keep Saying People Are Rational?
The economist knows why someone would eat too much pie: it tastes good; the actor is moved to act on that opinion; some subset of people have poor impulse control; it is what it is. But there is nothing irrational about the eating of a large quantity of pie. Pie tastes good, that's why someone eats it. There isn't much more to it than that. (Remember, economic standards of rationality are lower than psychological standards of rationality.)

This even holds true for the various other quirks discovered by behavioral economists: People tend to sacrifice some personal monetary benefit for the sake of others, people sometimes make calculation errors that cost them money, people subscribe to superstitions, etc., etc.

The only reason a behavioral economist would see this as "irrational" is that perhaps the behavioral economist holds the misguided viewpoint that economic actors are strictly money-utilitarian in absolutely every circumstance. In that case, why wouldn't someone keep all the money for himself? What-ho! We've proven that even when people have a chance to take all the money, they leave some for others! Irrational!

No, it's not irrational. It's perfectly rational. People derive utility aka happiness from things other than money. They derive utility from justice, and morality, and altruism, and all sorts of stuff.

What's disappointing is that everyone already knows that. Behavioral economists who want to make the claim that people do not always act rationally - and let's be clear that this is not all behavioral economists, only the bad ones - are really just saying that some economic decisions cannot be fully accounted for using a framework of continuous demand functions that express utility only in terms of the monetary value of quantities of goods and services.

Most people don't need to be told that there's more to life than money and wealth, and I don't know a single person who would describe that fact as "irrational."

A Couple Of Loose Ends To Tie Up
I might prefer two oranges to one apple. I might prefer four apples to three oranges.

How is this possible? Doesn't this mean that my indifference curves are all discontinuous and arbitrary and we can't predict how many apples correspond to how many oranges in my mind? Yeah, I guess it does mean that. That's because there are all sorts of things that play into my economic decision making. Like, maybe I prefer an even number of fruits to an odd number in all circumstances. This might because I have a psychological problem like OCD, which would mean that I am psychologically irrational, but not economically rational, since I am acting according to my preferences. Or, perhaps I'm interested in juicing the fruit rather than eating it, and I can get more fruit from four apples than I can from three oranges, but more fruit from two oranges than one apple.

Or, perhaps a million other things. I'm just making stuff up here. The point is that there are many conceivable reasons why a demand schedule might not perfectly translate into a homogeneous function. One of the great strengths of the Austrian School of economics is that there is no great need to fit human behavior into calculus functions. This enables us to examine economic behavior first, and draw lines on charts second.

Granted, the Austrian approach might not be appropriate for absolutely every situation. If the majority of market-makers in the finance world use elaborate macro-models to invest millions of dollars for their clients, it might be in my best interest to use a similar model, myself. Refusing to do so for the sake of methodological purity would just be stupid.

So the various "camps" in economics shouldn't really be arguing about "behavior" versus "action," they should simply choose a variety of different methodologies and go with the one that has the greatest explanatory power in the situation being analyzed.

I don't think I've "resolved" any apparent "conflicts" here. I just wanted to get all this off my chest. It is kind of a stupid argument. Economics has the power to offer great insight into the world of human decision making in environments of competing resource allocation. But it also has the power to be so obtuse that the various debates cause more confusion than they clear up.

Also, I think most economists understand this. I think some non-Austrian-School economists dislike the general attitudes of some Austrian School economists, and thus like to make things personal while giving the situation an academic veneer. I'm not accusing Brennan of that, but I do think he could have thought a little more carefully about what his interlocutor was saying. Likewise, that Austrian guy, whoever he was, could probably benefit from thinking through what behavioral economists are saying.

Or maybe he already did all that, and he's good.

Workout Of The Day

An appropriate workout today would involve some calisthenics and a chance for the muscles to recover after a few solid days of running. I'm going to suggest some cross-training today to provide a bit of a reprieve from what we've been doing the last three weeks or so. It's always good to give your muscles the occasional break, over and above the occasional rest day.

So, today's workout is as follows:
  • 3 sets of 30 push-ups - Each set should be a different sort of push-up, but I'll let you choose which kind, specifically.
  • 1 plank, to isometric maximum
  • 2 sets of 50 abdominal exercises of the "crunch" variety.
  • Your choice of one of the following:
Good luck!


The Frank Zappa Aesthetic - Part I

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with my Music As Art series of posts. The goal of those posts is to highlight a musician or group that pushes modern music beyond the realm of mere formulaic verse/chorus/bridge/chorus structuring, into the realm of true artistic expression. Of course, this comes with the somewhat controversial implication that pop songwriting itself falls short of being art. While I hope most readers will appreciate that claim as being mostly self-evident, I do acknowledge that many people disagree. My intent with the series, however, is to highlight music that seems to push beyond the realm of rules and formula, and into more entirely expressive territory. Popular music has become notoriously structured, formulaic, and predictable. Those reaching beyond the established norms are working to advance artistic progress in the musical realm. Those working within the norms are simply entertaining themselves and others subject to the ground broken by their musical predecessors.

Another way to put it is as Frank Zappa once said: "Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible." This is a simple and profound truth.

Well, who better demonstrates a commitment to music as art than Frank Zappa? In fact, I had him in mind when I created this series of posts, but I thought I might delay his installment until I had a chance to cover some other artists. The problem with writing a Music As Art post on Zappa, though, is that there is far too much to cover. My only alternative, then, is to present Frank Zappa's art in its own set of installments. Today's post is the first of I'm not sure how many. Let's get right to it.

Part One: The Medium
Frank Zappa grew up and developed his musical tastes during a remarkable time in American pop culture history. It was the birth of rock and roll, the blossoming of rhythm and blues, and the peak of ensemble jazz. It was also a time during which American households could regularly experience orchestral music on the radio, via records, and at public performances.

This is an important contrast to today's music environment. Zappa's two major orchestral influences - Edgar Varese and Igor Stravinski - are nearly impossible to "accidentally come across." In The Real Frank Zappa Book, Zappa recounts how he discovered his first Stravinski record while browsing through the bargain bin at the record store. Today, by contrast, there are few physical record stores, much less bargain bins. The closest thing would perhaps be the CDs sold near the cash register in convenience stores and grocers - but those typically consist of the most popular pop music artists of all time as measured by album sales, not 20th Century composers' recordings being cleared of inventory to make room for something by The Coasters.

Furthermore, the search algorithms used to recommend music to users of YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, and so forth, return results based on prior listening history. The more you listen to Katy Perry, the more likely it is that your recommendations will consist of rare Perry tracks and Nicki Minaj tracks. There is no known option for discovering something you would never normally hear. The more this technology advances, the more likely it is that you'll surround yourself with more of the same. In short, it's getting harder to hear totally new sounds.

This is relevant for two reasons: First, Frank Zappa had the opportunity to draw from a large palette of influences. He had the opportunity to hear more kinds of music than musicians do today. Within each style of music, he had the opportunity to hear more widely varying sounds. And all of these sounds were current, they were contemporary, they were happening "now," and Zappa was hearing it develop. Second, Zappa watched - with total awareness - as the commercial structure of the music business slowly and steadily eradicated the variety of music available.

This latter point may have been one of the reasons Zappa put so many different styles together in his own music, occasionally citing Stravinski or Varese, famously mashing together be-bop and tango musical styles, and so forth. It may be that part of his mission as an artist was to simply expose the listening public to things they wouldn't ordinarily hear.

More importantly, however, Zappa was interested in progress. He was interested in doing things that hadn't been done before. He liked to experiment, and he drew influence from every available source. When he ran out of source material, he created his own. Above all, he fused it all together into a signature sound, a Zappa aesthetic, that served as the backbone for everything he would produce over the course of his prolific, decades-long career.

There are key components to this aesthetic. The most obvious one is dadaism. It is Zappa's use of nonsense and silliness that most people find off-putting. One famous quote encapsulating Zappa's perpective on this is, "You can't always write a chord ugly enough to say what you want to say, so sometimes you have to rely on a giraffe filled with whipped cream." For the casual listener, the giraffe filled with whipped cream is not merely the first thing that gets noticed. For many, it is the only thing that stands out when they hear a Frank Zappa piece or a see a video of a live performance. This over-the-top ridiculousness, this dadaism, served to call a great deal of attention to Zappa. Doubtless many of his devout fans deeply love this component of the music. But it comes with a cost, for most people never really venture any further.

But all that cartoonishness merely masked another vital ingredient to the Zappa aesthetic: his deft use of harmony, a truly apt description of which could only really be given by someone with a stronger background in music theory than I have. Zappa harmonies lean heavily on parallel fourths (for example, the bedrock arpeggios in "Pound for a Brown") or parallel fifths ("The Idiot Bastard Son"). There is often elaborate interplay between the root chord and the secondary and tertiary chords implied by adding 11ths and 13ths to the root chords. Zappa had a knack for blending two tonalities together in a way that ensures that one can never be certain where the piece will go next - not even with extensive prior knowledge of Zappa's work. He cunningly determined that most rock ensembles couldn't navigate complex harmony because the guitarists and keyboardists were playing full chords in their arrangements. Zappa arranged his work such that each player was only playing one or two notes at a time. The complex harmonies thus sounded clearer, and perhaps more importantly, richer since the notes would ring out in a variety of timbres, based on the sundry instruments sounding them out.

So those audience members that were focused mainly on the cartoonish dadaism and "freakiness" of Zappa's aesthetic must have been stunned when they arrived at a live Mothers concert expecting to hear the studio version of a vocal song like "Duke of Prunes," only to hear a fully instrumental version instead. How shocking - and, indeed, mind-blowing - it must have been to hear the delicate 12-string guitar arpeggios played against the haunting saxophone harmonies, giving rise to that piece's iconic melodies. Of course, some who hear "Inca Roads" never really clue into the fact that the beautiful and approachable vocal melodies that occur during the first half of the piece are really a sliced-up version of "Inca Roads" proper, the stunning, rapid-fire septuplet melodies that make up the second half of the song.

Another component to the aesthetic is the use of odd rhythmic groupings in melody. This is perhaps Zappa's trademark technical ingredient. The "classic" Zappa grouping is a quintuplet followed by a triplet, demonstrated by the faster sequence of notes in the main melody of "Peaches En Regalia." But that rhythmic figure occurs everywhere throughout the Zappa oeuvre; it is iconic. Once he had enough fame and fortune to pay the music world's most technically proficient performers, Zappa penned the legendary percussion masterpiece, "The Black Page," which elevated his use of odd rhythmic groupings to its absolute apogee.

These three ingredients coming together built the foundation for a whole other musical world, one unlike anything else that was happening in the music scenes of the 1960s and 70s. Or since. Frank Zappa succeeded in doing something few have ever managed to truly accomplish: He carved out a sound all his own.

And for most artists, that would be too much to ask for already. But in the Frank Zappa aesthetic, it was only really the beginning. In subsequent installments, I'll take a look at how Zappa explored diverse musical avenues while always remaining true to his signature sound.

Workout Of The Day

Let's do a 30-minute tempo run today, shall we?



Kevin Vallier has a couple of posts (here and here) at Bleeding Heart Libertarians in which he attempts to establish that beliefs held by Christians are, at the minimum, reasonable. You can find some of my objections in the comments of those posts, but I thought I might take the time to discuss the idea here.

To what extent is any set of beliefs "reasonable?" Vallier lays out two criteria: (1) The belief has "epistemic credence," and (2) the belief is sufficiently rational to influence action. Let's take a brief look at what he means.

Regarding the first point, all Vallier really means is that the belief can be justified somehow. "Justification" is, itself, its own sub-discipline within philosophy, and not one with which I am overly familiar with. Thus, a full treatment of the justification problem is out-of-scope for this post, but the important thing is simply that justifications exist in support of Christianity, namely: authoritative testimony, historical account, and feelings. This doesn't mean any of these things are sufficient to win over anyone considering the merits of Christianity, it simply means that a believer has the ability to justify his belief to himself.

I note that this is a rather weak standard of "reasonableness," but it is what it is.

Regarding the second point, what Vallier means is something like this: I might believe that there are aliens living on one of Neptune's moons, intelligent lifeforms that have a rich society and culture, but who will never, ever have the technological means to make contact with people on Earth. I might even be able to develop an internally consistent justification for this belief. However, nothing about this belief will ever influence anything I do on Earth.

This second point is Vallier's weaker point, I think, since physicists often theorize about the physical conditions in and around black holes. These theories will never influence the actions of any physicist or layman here on the surface of the Earth, but they are still reasonable beliefs because they conform to our current knowledge of the universe.

Given the weakness of this second point, I think we can set it aside.

For my part, I think it is safe to say that any belief can be justified somehow. The question of reasonableness seldom comes down to whether or not a belief can be justified, but more specifically whether it can be justified in light of all the knowledge held by the believer.

In other words, I might be able to justify a belief in reincarnation, but how easily can I justify a belief in reincarnation in light of what I know about physics? How easily can I justify a belief in the Holy Trinity in light of a complete dearth of physical evidence for any sort of supreme being, much less one that has somehow managed to split himself into three equal parts that interact with human beings differently?

I guess what I'm trying to say is that justification is not a sufficient condition for reasonableness. Clinging to justifications that ultimately fail to satisfy our epistemological integrity is what illusions are all about. At a certain point, one has to draw a line. One has to come to a point where they can no longer tolerate the sound of their own bad rationalizations.

Plenty of smart, reasonable people believe in Christianity. Christianity is not really the point here. The point is that anything is reasonable if we use Vallier's definition of reasonable. That suggests to me that his definition is a bad one.

Workout Of The Day

How did yesterday's abdominal workout treat you? I thought it was pretty fun. Well, today is a non-gym day, because it's important to rest your muscles in between strength training workouts. That means today is a good day to go for a 50 minute run. You can do it!


Men, Media, And Image

Via Facebook, I came across the following photograph:
Near as I can tell, there are two interpretations of this photograph. The charitable one is that this young man doesn't need to be told to "man up" because he is already adequately manly.

Less charitably, the way I interpret the message of this photograph is that telling someone to "man up" is in and of itself offensive. Now, the reason I interpret it this way is because the message states that the young man "needs feminism" specifically. In other words, feminism is the idea that resolves the conflict created when he is told to "man up." This, in turn, could mean one of two additional things: Either feminism is the idea through which the young man gains relief from being told that manliness is a certain ideal to which he objects, or feminism is the direct source of his definition of manliness.

Neither of these explanations bode particularly well for a man's self-image. The first implies that behaving in a manly way is bad; the second implies that men are starting to define their gender identity through a conceptual paradigm designed to favor women.

Muscle Men
All is not cause for alarm, however. Recently The Atlantic published a story about the image of the male physical ideal as it evolved throughout the last century or so. What we learn from this story (among other things) is that the "muscle man" media ideal has existed for men since the turn of the century. Back then, it allegedly looked something like this:
These days, I'd argue that most men (or, at least, those who aspire to a media image ideal) aspire to be something more like this:
We can argue about the relative merits or demerits of any of these physical ideals if we want to. We can proceed to have a discussion about the pressures of media-driven imaging, I suppose. But doesn't that whole conversation come with a large dollup of feminism baked into it? What I mean is, if we proceed to have any discussion about how seriously men should aspire to look more like media images of the idealized male, aren't we really just bound to rehash the conversation that women have about media images of women?

In other words, what do men, specifically think about these male media images?

After all, the context of the feminist discussion of media images is one of "unattainable beauty." The controversy is that the media snaps photos of 14-year-old fashion models under the (alleged) false pretense that an adult female body "should" look like that of a 14-year-old Czech girl. Moreover, it is certainly true that a woman who aspired to make her body look like that of a young teenager would be attempting the impossible.

Interestingly, though, idealized male images - however superhuman they may appear to be (and Ronnie Coleman sometimes seems to possess superhuman athletic ability) - are always rooted in the idea that what you see is entirely attainable through good old-fashioned hard work. In other words, if you hit the gym, put in the hours, eat the right diet, and really try, there's no reason why you couldn't make yourself look a lot more like Ronnie Coleman than you currently do.

So the male physical ideal is all about the attainable. If a man fails to live up to the image the media is shoving down his throat, it mostly comes down to having either a bad work(out) ethic, or other, non-physical priorities.

Man Up
There are all kinds of theories out there about why the "media expectation" of female beauty tends toward the unattainable, while the "media expectation" of male beauty tends toward the theoretically possible. People have built whole careers on the idea. I'm just a know-nothing blogger. Even so, I'm going to float a theory about this.

Could it be that something about the male psyche differs in important ways from the female psyche? Could it be that the image that appeals to men is something that evokes a spirit of sportsmanship, competition, athleticism, and perfection attainable through hard work and true grit? Whereas perhaps the image that appeals to women is something that evokes a spirit of eternal youth, of sexual maturation, and the period of life that corresponds with innocence, virginity, and so on?

What I'm getting at is that perhaps "the media" doesn't set our self-image so much as the sexes do themselves. This is obviously influenced by the images that surround us, but not necessarily defined by them. Regarding male image, the fact that we can't walk two blocks without stumbling into a gym with an active marketing department influences us insofar as we now know it is possible to hit the gym after work. At the turn of the century, it wouldn't be a gym, but it might be a local boxing tournament or something. But at any rate, the images tell us what's out there, while the desire to take on that particular activity is what moves us to aspire to that particular image.

I even do it, myself: I aspire to somewhat of a male image defined primarily by the tall, thin, muscular, graceful Kenyan 10K runners I have occasionally had the opportunity to see at big races. They're not scrawny like American marathoners, and they're not big like Ronnie Coleman. To me, they embody what the human body looks like at peak athletic performance. It's something that, aside from the height, I can look a lot like, myself, if I put in the hard work.

I'm not really sure what I'm trying to say in this post. Mostly I am just musing about masculinity and social expectations. I think it's a good thing to "man up." I think it's good to exemplify certain classically male attributes, like competitiveness, and jocularity, and firmness, and courage, and "toughness" or perhaps "impenetrability" in the sense that hostile outsiders can't "get to you."

Nor do I think that women ought to have a say in a man's aspirational self-image. I don't think it's feminism's right to tell me whether or not I should be upset with being told to "man up." I think men should determine this. And, for most part, I think they do determine this, without feminism's help, and without any help from women in general. This is entirely appropriate.

And I think the media has influenced the self-image of both men and women for a long time, but that it seems to me that women take this self-imaging a lot more seriously than men do. They own it a bit more, and they raise it to the level of the impossible to a greater extent than men do.

Workout Of The Day

I love doing abdominal exercises. It's been a long time since I totally made life difficult for my abs. So I think I am going to declare today "abs day." Please celebrate with me.

Today's workout is a 45 minute run, of course, but before heading out, do the following:

  • 30 push-ups
  • 15 hanging leg-raises
  • 30 push-ups
  • 20 hanging torso twists (10 per side)
  • 30 push-ups
  • 1 v-sit isometric 
  • 11 pull-ups
  • 50 right side crunches
  • 11 pull-ups
  • 50 left side crunches
  • 11 pull-ups
It's a tough workout today, but you'll feel great when you finish. I guarantee it!


Album Review: Haken - The Mountain

I'll be totally honest: I had never heard of the band Haken until earlier this year. I was looking for some new progressive metal bands to explore. Longtime readers know that I am a big fan of the genre. But once you've heard Dream Theater, Fates Warning, Redemption, and Symphony X, where do you go?

You could seek out the lighter material, and I did. I'm also a big fan of bands like Porcupine Tree, Marillion, and Spock's Beard. I even like a little Umphrey's McGee. But these bands have been around for quite some time. It's unlikely that progressive music aficionados would not have already devoured everything those bands have to offer.

You could go heavy. So-called "djent" bands like Periphery and Animals As Leaders have made extremely important contributions to the world of progressive music over the past few years. They're great bands, but if you're like me, there's only so much djent you can handle. The vocals - when present - leave a lot to be desired in terms of melody. Come to think of it, the instrumentation also leaves a lot to be desired in terms of melody. Owing to its heavy metal influences, this kind of music tends to be more about rhythm than about melody.

Enter: Haken. According to their Wikipedia page, Haken formed in 2007 and released their first album in 2010. If I remember correctly, I discovered them through a recommended video on YouTube. The album art seemed deliciously prog in all its nerdy glory.


By the end of the day I had devoured both of Haken's two available albums and was ready for more. I was in luck, because Haken released their third album, The Mountain, in July. Thus, this album review comes a little late, but it's been a busy year for progressive music, so it took me a little while to get to it.

The great thing about Haken in general is that they seem to write music that has just the right combination of 7- and 8-stringed heaviness, ambient modern-prog moodiness, and vintage 70s-prog whimsy. To put it succinctly, when you listen to a Haken album, you are keenly aware of the fact that this band is comprised of genuine fans of the genre. What do you love best about progressive music? Haken has you covered.

If you're the kind of fan who came to the genre through metal and djent, Haken delivers all the brutal riffing you're looking for. One thing that stood out for me immediately here on the new album is the use of either 8-string guitars or detuned 7-strings. The deep, heavy riffing goes all the way down. I mean you can feel it your chest when the band gets going. The syncopated rhythms could easily be found on a Meshuggah album, but for the fact that they are juxtaposed against a backdrop of pop music approachability. That is to say, just when you think it's so heavy your face will fall off, in comes lead singer Ross Jennings' soft baritone vocals setting you at ease again.

Thus, if you're the kind of fan who prefers the softer side of prog, you can rest assured that The Mountain never gets so heavy that it becomes off-putting. The vocals, the synth patches, the sudden breaks into jazz jams, they all hearken back to the golden age of 1970s progressive rock. In particular, the band's two keyboardists seem to have a knack for dialing in synth sounds that evoke mellotrons and Hammond organs, while still somehow sounding fresh. Jennings' vocals sound like a fresher, updated version of vintage Gentle Giant. It's great.

And just when you're getting settled into the crafty, even-handed blend of the heavy and the light, The Mountain takes you into purely whimsical territory. By "whimsical," I mean that Haken seems remarkably fond of taking sudden left-turns. A song's heaviest moment will often suddenly swerve into carnival-like keyboard sounds and jazz guitar shredding, all over an odd meter. Just when you've locked into the groove, the instruments disappear, and the music becomes full-on a capella (with rather stunning harmonies, I might add).

In a word, The Mountain is an album that manages to deliver the bread-and-butter of prog. The album's production is outstanding. The instrumental virtuosity is unreal. The songs are soaring, beautiful, brutal when they have to be, and manage to evoke an emotional undercurrent of inspiration.

All this adds up to an excellent album. It really has been a great year for prog.

Workout Of The Day

Nothing to it. Just another nice 45-minute run today. Just take it easy and have fun with it. 


Why The Left Should Be Worried

Current breaking news tells me that Congress is on the verge of ending the shutdown and avoiding default. I have no idea how long this breaking news will be valid. Probably, by the end of the day, there will be some sort of resolution that keeps the country puttering along.

Leftists and Democratic sympathizers are happily announcing the end of Republicanism. Take, for example Dave Weigl at Slate, who says:
As in 2011, as in the winter battle of 2012–2013, the House GOP's utter inability to break through the Senate's resistence will lead to the passage of a "clean" or (cleaner) bill with most House Democrats joining a rump of Republicans. Senate aides are confident of that happening, but more than a little irritated that it didn't happen two weeks ago, before Republicans had discredited themselves. Talking to reporters yesterday, Sen. Lindsey Graham seemed downright depressed at the thought of Boehner being weakened or overthrown—the Republicans of the World's Greatest Deliberative Body wanted to give him a chance. Instead, for the third time, they've watched outside pressure groups crack the whip and conservatives cut the speaker down. The late-Tuesday decision by Heritage Action to "score" against the final Boehner plan was one last indignity; the bill was already failing, but the hard right would get to claim credit, again, for scotching a compromise.
Then, presciently:
But you can already see how the conservative base will remember this episode. It won't be a story of Republicans making a huge strategic error and bumbling into an Obamacare-defunding fight without the votes to ever win. It will be a story of wimpy party leaders selling out. The shutdown would have been winnable if they hadn't sold out.
The Washington Post also has the story. In a piece written by Rosalind S. Helderman and Jackie Kucinich, the Post argues that "no one" has control of the House GOP. Helderman and Kucinich reach a conclusion similar to Weigl's, but the context is notably different:
Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) said conservatives have succeeded in exposing problems with the health-care law. 
“Oh my gosh, we’ve lit up Obama­care for the whole nation,” he said, describing what his wing of the party had won in the shutdown. “Look, the rollout was atrocious, this is a fundamentally flawed plan, and we have made it crystal-clear to the American public that we stand with them on Obamacare.” 
That attitude illustrated a split within the GOP that has only grown more profound in the days since the shutdown started: Hard-liners are sure that their position is gaining strength, while moderates and a number of Republican leaders counter that the party has experienced an epic collapse.
Let us accept that there is a growing rift between those who the press calls "conservative hard-liners," and those who presumably are not hard-liners, represented by John Boehner and his cadres. Democrats and leftists seem to be celebrating the GOP's collapse under the pressure of these two camps, but I don't believe they should be.

Why not? Because the government shutdown appears to be a high-water-mark for the "hard-liners." That is, they appear to be more powerful within the GOP than ever. After all, if they weren't, then the GOP would have been able to do a deal with the Democrats by now. By all accounts, the reason that hasn't occurred is thanks to these "hard-liners."

The reason leftists should be worried is because the GOP is now less willing and less able to negotiate and compromise than ever before. If Republicans lose big in the next wave of elections, this will temporarily mean more power for the Democrats - hence the left's premature cotillion. But in the wake of the GOP's disappearance, the country may well be left with a gaping hole, a political vacuum that can only be filled by those ordinary citizens who feel their government is out to get them.

Understand: It doesn't matter if these people are wrong. It doesn't. The only thing that matters is how they feel. You can't govern a country by convincing a large group of people that they're wrong. Hell, you can't convince a large group of people that they're wrong. All you can do is either compromise with them or stomp them down.

We see that this faction isn't willing to compromise. The Democrats might be capable of stomping them down, but the political consequences will be legendary and notorious. Alarmed? You should be.