Saturday, September 11, 2004

Back in the Blogosphere

To follow the dorkiest title this side of... I would like to welcome myself, cordially, back to this excellent use of my time. And it's good to be back after a month plus of silence, although if you've met me or observed me in my natural habitat, you'll know that I'm rarely silent even when there is no one else around. (By the way, Tom Ridge is now speaking to the National Press Club on KQED; oh neat. Not surprisingly, in the first 30 seconds he's managed to say Resolve, Freedom, Coming-together, Unity, Mission, Nation blah blah blah, several times each without bothering to embed them in any content-bearing structure.) I'm not really in practice in the writing arena just now, so expect this to be a little halting.

My life today: I have killed the Big-ass Test, and having done this, I have earned the right to embark into areas that are almost completely new to me. Haven't necessarily gotten there yet in two out of three courses, Combinatorial Game Theory being the exception. I think most of the people in that class are approaching it somewhat dismissively, as something lesser than the more mainstream areas like Number Theory, Algebraic Geometry, etc. Maybe they're right--mostly, they're all smarter than I am, and the professor is approaching the material from a "understanding games by playing/analyzing games" which renders the whole scene a little goofy. He's also prone to say ridiculous but, in context, completely reasonable things like "this one is a half, and so is this one, but the second one is a tiny bit bigger than the other one." But I think the Conway/Berlekamp approach to Games is an example of the most extraordinary audacity. The first step toward solving this class of problems is to reconsider exactly what you mean by a number, then develop a generalisation of the notion to include things that are, for example, too small to be numbers in the usual sense (but aren't zero) and figure out how to do arithmetic in some reasonable way that also describes the (some?) world accurately. Maybe this Game theory stuff really is just a toy--I'm impressed just by the amount of mind stretching involved in pulling it up from the murk.

In a distantly related and (this being my blog afterall) political vein, I would like to remark on the pressing need people seem to have to speak for everyone, i.e. all men, all Americans, all humans, etc. I'm not sure what the biological or social imperative for this impulse is, but it's definitely omnipresent, among people of almost every stripe, Liberal or Conservative (whatever either of those mean), religious or not, whatever. And it's especially common when we're pretending to elect "leaders." I'll stop short of claiming it's especially evident of among white men. Now, I'm biased on this account, keep in mind, but I can't think of any group of people that has any right to speak for everyone, except possibly for scientists/scholars who may be able to do so in their own little area of expertise, where they can say "We know the answer to this question" or "We don't know the answer to this question." Other than this exception, you must run up against the most obvious epistemological barriers pretty quickly, the ones that have been identified for so long, by 2004, that they're part of the common lexicon (a la "Well, that's just your opinion, man") Why do we do this? I guess it's just lonely. Let's us pretend that life might be something other than waiting for its end.

Someone who can make the tough decisions...

I'm going to let lie these goofy notions that John Kerry has failed to (1) make himself known personally to voters, (2) expound a clear, cogent policy agenda for the country. Okay, I lied, but I'll try to keep it short. With regard to (1), no one has ever gotten to know a presidential candidate, or for that matter a president, from the standpoint of an average voter; the demand itself is nonsense, and the claim that people know "what kind of man" Bush is, based on his public persona and the course of his administration, is either stupid or corrupt. As for (2), does anyone remember January through June? Now on to my far less relevant spiel about tough decisions.

Point of fact: Making the decision to go to war is the easy decision. Any monkey can determine to go kick ass in the defense whatever Just Cause you want, and humans are pretty much the only animal capable of brooking an insult. I point this at the usual suspects. Conclusion: GWB has proven that he is pretty good at taking the path of least resistance.

Point of fact 2: Making the decision to oppose war in the short term is only slightly less easy. It's not personally very trying (except in certain obvious cases) to gainsay what is more or less inevitable. I point this at all of us, including myself, who got political circa 2002. Moreover, in my own mind, the position of denouncing one war while allowing that some other war may have been justifiable (if not justified) is pragmatically and philosophically untenable, but I'd like to hear other opinions on the matter.

The tough decision is to make great sacrifices in order to avert war in the medium and long term. In the political venue: taking profoundly unpopular actions to prevent a war that most people don't see on the horizon--so that when no war comes, no one is thankful. That's hard. You can decide how this point develops in other ethical questions. With regard to war, however, I can take the World War, Act II, as an example: Hitler's plans, in some detail, were available well before he actually came to power, so that when he did become Chancellor, there was no good reason to think he would act any differently than he said he would. Involving oneself in the internal politics of another sovereign nation is (for most folks) a grossly unpopular thing to do, but it is certainly something that can be done without violence. In my example, I think it would have made a significant difference in the course of events if France and Britain had put some effort into something so small as pointing out to Germans that it's a little weird to say things like "Heil Hitler! I would like to buy some bread." Of course, this might have caused some serious diplomatic controversy and such. So that's a thought.

I don't think this approach requires any special insight. To the contrary, if the majority of political figures, with normal human prescience, did what they thought might really avoid wars over the horizon, that would really be progress. Important to note, though, that "giving peace a chance" is crazy talk, as war is the default condition.