Heraclitean River

You can never step into the same river twice. . .

Yesterday, Peter Singer, the famous philosophy professor known for advocating infanticide among other things, posted this blog entry in the New York Times, entitled “Should This Be the Last Generation?”  In it, he considers whether the human race should essentially force itself into non-existence, so that we would be the last generation.  Why?  Because there is too much suffering in the world. continue reading…

The recent Arizona law encouraging stricter enforcement of immigration law has led to a huge national debate.

Forget about the Arizona law for a few minutes.  Set aside the issue of how to find (or potentially deport) illegal aliens, and just consider the results of the current situation in the United States.

Here’s my question about illegal immigration — why are people who are anti-sweatshop in Asia so pro-illegal immigrant?  Why are liberals who are so pro-union and pro-workers’ rights so pro-illegal immigrant?

A lot of anti-immigration folks try to focus on all the supposed negative impacts on Americans: loss of jobs, more crime, public benefits paid to illegals who aren’t contributing, etc.  But what about thinking about the perspective of the immigrant from a basic human rights perspective? continue reading…

I discovered a bit of historical trivia recently that is really quite fun, and also a bit serious.

Harvard claims that it is the oldest college in the U.S. It furthermore claims to have the oldest continuously operating corporation in the U.S. (i.e., the Harvard Corporation, which runs the college). Turns out both claims are suspect.

Many people who have visited Cambridge, Massachusetts know the statue in Harvard Yard to be “the statue of three lies.” It is labeled something like “John Harvard, Founder, 1638.” The “lies” are:

  1. the statue is not a likeness of John Harvard (actually a model)
  2. Harvard was founded by Massachusetts, not by John Harvard
  3. the college was founded two years earlier in 1636.

Ah, but it turns out there are many, many more lies buried on many signs and documents about Harvard.

First off, Harvard wasn’t founded in 1636. It only became known as “Harvard College” after John Harvard died in 1638. The General Court of Massachusetts did indeed order a “New College” to be created in Cambridge (then Newtowne), but no work had been done before 1638. At that time, no educational institution could grant degrees without a government charter, which Harvard didn’t have. That didn’t stop it from starting to graduate people in the 1640s.

In 1650, Harvard was granted a charter by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This created the corporation known as “The President and Fellows of Harvard,” which is still the official governing body of Harvard. It claims to be the oldest corporation in the U.S. still in existence. The charter of 1650 is the one the university trots out on occasion, as they did during the recent inauguration of the new president of Harvard. How an institution of higher learning that can only legally grant degrees if chartered claims to date to 1636 when the charter was passed in 1650 is an interesting question.

But it only gets worse.  What I’m about to tell you is information that you’d never find on Harvard’s (or any) website. continue reading…

First, a disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor, and despite what I say here, the least risky choice seems to be to place babies on their backs to sleep — every time.  Nor do I intend to downplay the risk of SIDS.  It is a horrifying ordeal for every parent who has lost a child in this way.  I only seek to try to examine some of the facts and unstated assumptions about sleeping position recommendations.

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There are so many things to worry about with an infant.

One of the strongest messages that you get from many hospitals and pediatricians these days is — babies must always sleep on their back, otherwise (so they say) there is a greatly increased risk of SIDS.  Go on any baby forum online dealing with baby sleeping, and if someone suggests tummy sleeping, you’re likely to see at least a few people chime in about how you’re likely to kill your baby.  I’ve seen quotes from pediatricians who have actually had to say things like “Not all babies who sleeping on their stomach will die.”  Really?  No way!

But how great is the increase in risk?  Why does back sleeping prevent SIDS?  A generation ago, the vast majority of babies slept on their stomachs.  Doctors advised parents to do that.  Now we have whole product lines devoted to back sleeping and SIDS prevention — special pads or ramps to prevent children from flipping over in their sleep, not to mention mattress wrappers (to prevent supposed “toxic gases” from leaking from mattresses), specially designed “sleep sacks” which discourage children from flipping and also allow parents to forgo blankets and comforters (another SIDS issue), etc.  I’m not saying such things don’t help.  But how much can they help?  Are there downsides to the back-sleeping recommendation? continue reading…

Yevgeny Plushenko got something right in his remarks after winning the silver at the Winter Olympics.  The New York Times quotes him:

“If the Olympic champion doesn’t know how to jump a quad, I don’t know,” Plushenko said. “Now it’s not men’s figure skating. It’s dancing. Maybe figure skating needs a new name.”

Plushenko is probably right about the name of the sport, but (ironically) not for the reasons he intended.  Plushenko was annoyed at the win of Evan Lysacek, even though Lysacek didn’t perform a quadruple jump, a hallmark of Plushenko’s performances for many years.

First of all, Plushenko is simply drawing an incorrect conclusion here.  He received the same score as Lysacek for the artistic elements of his program (even though a number of reports have suggested that his artistry was inferior and that parts of the program were simply jumps with little effort at a transition).  So Plushenko lost on his technical score, not on artistry.  Despite the fact that he landed a quad, he simply didn’t rack up the same number of technical points as Lysacek.  Surely the win in technical points shouldn’t be determined on the basis of one kind of jump?

However, as I said, Plushenko is onto something here — “figure skating” is not what it used to be.  Quite frankly, it’s not about figures anymore, and it hasn’t really been for over 40 years. continue reading…

In general, I’m a fan of Steven Strogatz, though he’s not by any means my favorite pop writer on mathematics.  Nevertheless, I’m not sure I like his recent columns in The New York Times on basic mathematics.  The most recent one, on negative numbers, certainly has some serious flaws.

Basically, after a short introduction that adequately introduces the basic concept of negative numbers, Strogatz spends most of the column trying to explain the mysterious idea that “a negative times a negative is a positive.”  As is clear from many of the comments, his explanation was far from successful for many people. continue reading…

Today is Ash Wednesday, a day that many Christians know as the only day they can be identified on sight.  Unlike many religions, with their traditional clothing, headgear, etc., most Christian sects never have visible outward symbols of their faith for the average member.

But on Ash Wednesday, many Christians appear in public with smudges of black soot on their foreheads — incidentally, generally created from burned palm leaves used at the previous Palm Sunday — to symbolize the fact that all humans are dust, and eventually they shall return to dust.

This Ash Wednesday was particularly eventful from a news perspective, with Joe Biden, the first Catholic U.S. Vice-President, appearing with a prominent dark mark on his forehead.  This led to an interesting debacle involving British TV-host Kay Burley, who was distracted by the smudge in her coverage of Biden and proceeded to speculate that he might have walked into a door.  She corrected herself after a break, also in the process revealing that she actually is Catholic.

But many other news venues (and blogs as well) have commented on Biden’s mark, though they have uniformly identified it as a symbol of Catholicism, marking parallels with John F. Kennedy (the only Catholic President in history) and the apparent lack of photos of him with an Ash Wednesday smudge.  The Boston Globe, perhaps channeling the era when only Kennedys and Irish and Italian Catholics mattered in local politics, has an online photo gallery devoted to Ash Wednesday celebrations around the globe — but only Catholic ones: “Take a look at how Catholics around the world celebrated Ash Wednesday.”

What I find somewhat remarkable in such coverage is the ignorance of Christian practices in general.  Biden is not presenting himself as a Catholic, but merely as a Christian.  Contrary to apparently what everyone seems to think in these news sources and blogs, other Christian denominations commonly celebrate Ash Wednesday, and many actually use ashes on Ash Wednesday as well. continue reading…

Once again, the government claims a victory when they regulated a system that wasn’t broken in order to help a few (in this case, most of whom didn’t need helping) while inconveniencing many more people.  As I will argue, it also promotes an already unhealthy perspective on food consumption that is ruining the eating experience in the United States.

I’m referring to a recent study done on the effects of a New York City law that requires restaurants to post calorie counts for the items they sell.  The Stanford University study looked at Starbucks figures on food and drink purchases between January 2008 and February 2009.  Here’s a Stanford news release with a summary of the findings and a link to the NPR interview that occurred today with one of the study authors.

Basically, the study concluded that the new law caused a 6% reduction in calories per transaction for Starbucks customers.  For transactions over 250 calories, the reduction was 26%.  By perusing Starbucks’ online nutrition data, it’s pretty clear that the difference means that people who ordered a basic coffee or similar drink didn’t change their habits much (6%), while those who ordered a drink plus a food item changed their habits more (26%).  The study authors acknowledge this: they note that if you analyze beverages separately, there is basically no statistically significant change.  Almost all the reduction was due to changes in food purchases.  Keep that in mind; it will be important later. continue reading…

Here’s a perfect example of why the American public has the right to be a bit concerned about health care regulated by the federal government.  Massive regulation of private companies never quite works out the way you expect.

Credit cards are evil. Everyone should be taught this starting in elementary school. And for that reason I can understand some government regulation, like, for example, saying that you can’t actually charge someone a 100% or more interest rate, or you can’t arbitrarily change the terms of your customer agreement without informing customers with appropriate notice, or you can’t set a minimum payment so low that the person only ever goes further into debt, rather than gradually paying the card off. I can even understand requiring companies to clearly publish in bold print on the back of every statement that if you default, your rate could double or triple or whatever.

Also, I believe that credit card companies should be held accountable for mistakes. If they accidentally or mistakenly ruin your credit, they should be fined extremely heavily — thereby discouraging them from implementing policies that would ruin your credit on a whim.

All of this seems reasonable. And all but the last thing has basically been in place for years. continue reading…

It’s a few days into the trial of Perry v. Schwarzenegger concerning the validity of California’s Proposition 8, and many now view this as a potential landmark case that will eventually find its way to the Supreme Court.  The Supremes have already felt the need to interfere in the procedural elements of the trial by prohibiting live streaming video, a somewhat unusual step for the Court to take, so it’s pretty clear that some justices already have an interest.

This case, or a similar one in the near future, will seek to define the status of marriage in the United States in the future.  Unfortunately, most people on both sides of the issue appear to be incredibly short-sighted in their plans.  No matter which side wins this case, marriage law must continue to evolve, because the issues that are being raised now won’t go away and create many new potential issues to be resolved in the future.

Before I get to those, let me state my solution simply and clearly.  The government should get out of the “marriage business.”  Marriage should not be a legal “right” for anyone.  Quite simply, marriage is and should be a private matter, which the government has no reason to regulate.  After all, most people do not have their marriage directly overseen by the government.  Marriages are generally private ceremonies that take place in churches, parks, homes, etc.  No one should need a government license to allow two people to make promises to one another or to allow a priest, minister, or private citizen to perform a ceremony that is simply a public declaration of that promise.

As for all the current legal benefits of marriage, those could be retained through a standardized contract (which could be altered where necessary or desired), which any adult parties can enter into, if they are competent to do so.

Do I think this solution is likely to be adopted any time soon?  No.  The complex state of current marriage law would require the rewriting of huge numbers of statutes, and that would serve as a barrier prohibiting a long-term solution like this.  In the end, my proposed solution would probably be more efficient than decades of court proceedings dealing with various issues, but large government structures do not have a reputation for adopting long-term policies when they can get by with quick fixes.

Why would I propose such an idea in the first place?  What is the rationale behind it, and what benefits will it have?  First, let’s look at it from a historical standpoint, then we’ll address some legal issues, and finally we’ll consider the moral dimensions of the problem as they will almost certainly evolve in future years. continue reading…