Sunday, April 26, 2009

Speechless at Last

This really needs to be heard. There is not much I need to add.


Fortunately, there are a few people left on Earth who still earn their money.

here's one


Sometimes, compromises are necessary.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Do Hogs Have Free wIll?

In an earlier post, I was speaking of hogs as a metaphor for the executives of financial firms, particularly large firms, whose greedy pursuit of higher profits ruined the world's economy. I said, "hog farms have a bad smell, even on wall street."

Now, that language has a hard edge to it and I am aware that it was emotionally driven. That is nothing for which I need apologize. We are what we are; we do what we do; and we can do no other. That said, there are questions here that merit analytical consideration.

To begin with, most metaphors are imperfect. When we speak of "X" as a metaphor for "Y" we are asserting that there are some interesting similarities between X and Y, not that they are identical in all respects. For example, George Orwell (in Animal Farm) also compared hogs to humans in a different context but no responsible critic would accuse him of saying that hogs can really become human.

The similarity that I was exploiting is simply a popular impression that hogs are driven mostly by greed and fear. That is not true of all humans (and perhaps not of all hogs) but there are many who fit that description and it is legendary about Wall Street.

What then are the important differences? Let's skip the obvious physical and intellectual differences. We are after something deeper. Human beings, when offered certain alternatives, can make choices. Well, hogs in a farm do not have many opportunities to make important choices but when given alternatives, they will also make a choice. Even well programmed computers can, and do, make choices - even to the level of competing at chess with grandmasters of the game.

So humans and hogs are similar in having the ability to make choices. But humans, it has been asserted, have "Free Will." This is not a well defined concept; perhaps deliberately so. The essence of it is that humans, because of their free will, are subject to moral judgment whereas other animals are not.

I am unable to find any discernible evidence for free will. The human brain seems to be the sole support for the human mind. When the brain is injured, the mind can fail in very numerous interesting ways. When its blood supply is cut off for too long, the mind is beyond rescue. To assume the existence of some non-physical moral entity that influences human choices is a religious doctrine for which there is no evidence whatever. Philosophically, it is a dualism and in very low repute among serious philosophers.

The scientific view is that the brain is a biological deterministic machine. Even if we were to find a quantum-mechanical component in the brain that randomly influences human choices that would not change much. QM randomness is not a moral force.

Therefore, if we are to determine that free will is an important differentiating factor between hogs and humans, it must be shown that hogs have free will. I do not hold that position, nor do I think anyone will take it seriously. It follows that there is sufficient similarity between hogs and financial executives to justify my harsh metaphor: "hog farms have a bad smell, even on wall street."

how to catch a monkey

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Fire in the Church!

I had an interesting experience circa age 8 which is associated in my memory with William Golding's insightful novel, "Lord of the Flies." The common theme is the behavior of children away from adult supervision. My experience was limited to the behavior of boys.

The locale is the lower east side of Manhattan during the early 1930's. It was mainly built up with apartment buildings and inhabited by immigrants and their children, of which I was one. After school and on weekends, the kids were usually in the streets playing a variety of kid's games. These included slapping a rubber Spalding ball (which we called a "Spaldeen") up against the side of a building on one bounce, a variety of tag-like games, and hopscotch. Sometimes the girls played at jacks.

Many of the things taken for granted today were not yet available but we did have radios and the hour between 5:00 and 6:00 on some stations was devoted to 15 minute serial adventures for kids, mostly sponsored by popular foods such as HO oats and Ralston wheat cereal. I remember lying under our console radio, where the speaker was located, to hear the stories: Bobby Benson and his H-O ranch, Jack Armstrong the All American Boy, Little Orphan Annie, Chandu the Magician. Among the many simple things we did not have were zippers. The boys' pants were buttoned.

One afternoon, when I was still a newcomer, a couple of the boys came over to me and one of them said,"hey, kid, wanna play fire in the church?"

"What's that?"

"It's real easy. You just walk down those steps and shout: fire in the church! fire in the church! fire in the church!"

The steps he pointed to descended several feet from the sidewalk to a basement door that was usually kept locked. It did look real easy but, just this once, I was wary and I declined. Not discouraged, the boys found another newcomer who agreed to play so I had an opportunity to witness the game.

It began as advertised. The new kid walked down the steps while about six other boys stood quietly on the surrounding sidewalk. When he shouted "fire in the church! fire in the church! fire in the church!" they gleefully unbuttoned their flies and put out the fire.

This was done more out of high spirits than out of meanness and it was a game invented by the boys themselves, which impresses me.

Several years earlier, in my first day at school, I had another memorable experience. At recess a group of us went to the boys' room to urinate. The geometry of this room was interesting. In the center, there was a little vertical wall, several feet long and taller than I. At the base of this wall and on both sides, there were troughs to carry off the liquid. When we entered, I saw the boys line up on both sides of the wall but, instead of standing up close, they stood back and peed in graceful arcs over the top in both directions. It was a lovely spectacle, like a beautifully designed public fountain. I wish the designer of Belgium's Manneken Pis had enjoyed such an inspiration.