Thursday, December 27, 2012

The responsibility to refuse

(Thoreau is one of the most famous Americans to have argued about the importance of public disobedience to immoral laws. He also looks a bit like the Soviet Sherlock Holmes.)

I have just read an article about the Israeli soldiers' right to refuse to carry out their superiors' orders to throw out settlers of their homesteaded homes. Some have claimed that such refusal undermines the fabric of Israeli democracy.

The author argues that every citizen of a democracy has a right to refuse the government's laws. I say that he has a responsibility to do so when the laws are immoral.

A couple quotes:
'Do not individuals have the right, indeed the duty, to question the morality of their governments’ decisions? 
The worship of the government is fascism, or as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote, “the enslavement to the state can also become idolatry.“ [...] 
In Western philosophy, going all the way back to Socrates, civil disobedience to immoral law is perceived as a fundamental protection of democracy and a means for defending the rights of the minority from the tyranny of the majority. 
Following the Second World War and the Holocaust, the Nuremberg Trials were obvious proof that obeying immoral orders is immanently immoral, as the Nazi leaders were executed for obeying laws. The civilized world had expected them to disobey these laws, regardless of the legal consequences or peril to their own safety.'
And let no idiot mention Godwin's law.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

On banning assault rifles

Our Supreme Commander in his infinite wisdom has declared that he supports a ban on assault rifles (owned by the peaceful populace; the ban obviously does not cover the government thugs).

The argument boils down to this: let's prevent random lunatics from shooting children with handguns by... taking assault rifles away from homeowners. Who successfully use them to stop home invasions. (By the way, home invasion attempts are lower in the US than in Canada, for example.)

So, is our President an idiot or a political whore?..

Probably both, but one can probe deeper here. Assault rifles can be used to defend against home invasions — not only home invasions by local hoodlums, however, but also by federal agents. And they have been used successfully in the past to this extent; federal agents have been wounded and killed in unlawful home invasions, and the home owners were cleared of charges.

Of course, this is just a tip of the potential iceberg. In a country where the populace is armed with assault rifles, the government is scared. As in Switzerland, for instance. American Government would hate for this to happen (or continue happening) in the US. Hence the proposed ban on assault rifles, under the pretext of caring for the kids.

It's not paranoia when someone is out to get you...

Monday, December 17, 2012

Traffic lights

"Without the government, there would be no traffic laws and major accidents on every intersection."
— most statist fools

Watch this video and weep. On the left: traffic lights off during a power outage. On the right: back on, the next day (filmed at the same place, same time).

Or, in other words, left: libertarianism; right: statism.

This is not to suggest that we'd have no traffic laws in a stateless society. The point of the above video is that nothing is better than whatever the government has to offer and that "nothing" in most cases amounts to a spontaneous order due to the forces of mutual cooperation and pursuit of self-interest.

Under stateless society, all roads would be privately owned, and it would be up to the owner to create traffic laws and regulations (in the form of signs, traffic lights, etc.). Different road owners would compete with each other for the public's custom (passage through their roads, paid for automatically and electronically — price also kept low by competition). The competition would allow improvement in the quality of roads and traffic regulations (in terms of clarity, balance between safety and efficiency, etc.).

Another example, from England:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Swiss cheese

Why Does This Guy Have an Assault Rifle at the Apple Store?

I read two interesting articles today that made me want to emigrate to Switzerland.

First one: "Swiss Guns".

Second: EU Threatens Tiny Switzerland Over Low Taxes.
In Switzerland, cantonal governments close to voters set their own tax policies. The resulting competition between the more than two dozen cantons fosters a business-friendly environment of low taxes, minimal government interference, and widespread prosperity. That is one important reason why international businesses flock to Switzerland in droves. 
The Swiss model works so well that even as the EU and its single euro currency face a crisis of monumental proportions and possible economic implosion, Switzerland’s economy is doing just fine. Its GDP per capita is about double the EU’s, while its unemployment rate is around half. 
The Swiss government also consistently posts budget surpluses as its bloated EU neighbors drown in debt and seek bailouts. In fact, Switzerland is even helping to fund the handouts for profligate European regimes. And its economy is the most competitive in the world, according to the global competitiveness index.  
With a heavily armed population of less than eight million, Switzerland has maintained its sovereignty and independence through two world wars raging on all sides and the more recent erection of the EU, which now completely surrounds the tiny alpine nation. With a decentralized system of government, the Swiss have also been able to largely preserve their liberty despite constant European pressure.
And now some statistics.

Illinois (worst gun control in the US) vs. Switzerland (every single man owns an assault rifle and practices shooting it once a week every Sunday). Gun-related homicides per 100,000 people:
Illinois: 6.10 (higher than Texas which has many Mexican drug gangs)
Switzerland: 0.58
Guns don't kill people. Liberal politicians do.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The way British people wash their faces

If you want to wash your face in a British bathroom, you have to stopper the sink, turn on both hot and cold water using different taps, wait for the sink to fill up partially, and then splash some water on your face from the standing mix.

Which is in the same sink where people wash their hands (the same way) after using the bathroom.


(Images from the last episode of the last season of The Ultimate Force show.)

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The monkey and the US Constitution

There is an expression in Russian: "the monkey and the glasses". It comes from a fable by Ivan Krylov about a monkey that had poor eyesight and heard that glasses can provide a cure. It bought a few pairs of glasses and was doing everything with them (putting them on its head, balancing them on its tail, etc.) except the one thing that was required.

The expression is used for someone who is trying to use some object or concept, but doing a terrible job at it due to incompetence. For instance, one of the episodes of Boondocks criticizes nouveau riche African American rappers who, once they "make it", buy houses, whose yards they fill with all kinds of junk, for example, classical statues and columns, regardless of the architectural styles of the houses.

This is another example:

Watching a liberal trying to be a constitutional originalist is like watching a whale spin. Or French rap.


Awesome video. I will never-ever be able to do something like this...

Although, apparently, some people are saying that it actually looks more difficult from the side (or even from the first-person view) than it really is. Not that anyone can do it without any training or skill, but it's not as impossible as one might imagine from the first look. So, maybe there is still hope for me...

Monday, December 3, 2012

Chassidus is for everyone

Thinking that learning Chassidus is only for really holy Jews is a mistake. The purpose of Chassidus is to illuminate our lives by showing in detail how G-d is in everything. The more darkness one has in his soul, the more light he needs to illuminate it.

Chassidus is not for this or that person on such-and-such level. Chassidus is for you.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Spiritual timelessness of Judaism. Special days of Kislev

A repost:

In one of his shiurim on Chanukah (listen also to this shiur on the whole month of Kislev), Rabbi Paltiel explains that time is also a creation. Besides the time that is bound to space (which Einstein’s theories of relativity talk about), there is a more general, “background” time. Every moment of this time has its unique spiritual energy — Sunday has one type of energy, Monday another, etc.

This explains why certain holidays in Jewish history came and went, and other holidays remained. The particular day on which a particular holiday happened had its unique spiritual energy. The holidays with “universal” spiritual energies are still celebrated by Jews. For instance, the 15th of Nissan (the day when Jews left Egypt) had an energy of liberation, redemption from slavery, overcoming of one’s limitations and so on. This is why Pesach is celebrated throughout generations — not (only) to commemorate the leaving of Egypt, but mainly because the day itself is liberating; the same spiritual energy that allowed Jews to leave Egypt many years ago on this day appears again every year.

This applies to any holy day on Jewish calendar. On Rosh HaShana (New Year), the source of energy that allows the world to exist is renewed. By celebrating Rosh HaShana, we are celebrating literal rebirth of the Universe.

Shabbos is not merely a day to commemorate the fact that G-d “rested” (i.e., did not create the world actively); on this day, the stretch of time itself (and as a result, the world that exists in this time) is holy. The same mode of creation that was during the first Shabbos — through “thought” as opposed to “speech” — happens every Shabbos. It is as if on Shabbos we did not exist “outside” of Hashem, but inside His “mind”.

Rabbi Paltiel gives another example. In Sha’alos veTeshuvos min haShomayim (“Questions and Answers from Heaven”), a book in which halachic questions are asked “beyond the Curtain” and answers are recorded, at the end of one such teshuva, it is written: “Today is 19th of Kislev, Tuesday, and it is a day for celebration”. For a thousand years it was not known why 19th of Kislev was a happy day — until 1799, when on a Tuesday, 19th of Kislev, the first Rebbe of Chabad Chassidus, R’ Shneur Zalman of Lyadi (“Alter Rebbe”) was released from prison. This day became known as “New Year of Chassidus”, and it is generally recognized amongst Chabad Chassidim as a day instrumental for dissemination for Chabad Chassidus, which is a recipe for bringing Mashiach.
Yud-Tes Kislev is a lot bigger than Chabad. It is not New Year of Chassidus Chabad; it is New Year of Chassidus. In Yud-Tes Kislev lies spiritual victory of Baal Shem Tov. Baal Shem Tov was a special soul that came from heavens to introduce new, special type of Judaism, and it was being judged. [...] And the miracle of Yud-Tes Kislev effected not just Chabad Chassidim, but all Jews. [Listen on for explanation.]
The same is true regarding Chanukah. The day of 25th of Kislev has the special spiritual energy of renewal and dedication of Beis HaMikdosh. When the Mishkan was built, it was ready to be dedicated on the 25th of Kislev. Moses was told by G-d to wait until Adar, but the energy of this day revealed itself when it came time (on the same day) to renew and rededicate Beis HaMikdosh after victory over Greeks.

So, it is true that we celebrate the historical occurence of each holiday, but this occurence is but a keili, a vessel for the spiritual energy behind the occurence. We are really celebrating the spiritual occurence of a particular day (that is happening on that day), but since we live in the physical world and cannot “grasp” the spiritual events in their purity (they are beyond this world) — nor should we do this, because the ultimate purpose of creation is making a dwelling place for G-d in this, physical world, — we “dress” the spiritual energy of a particular day in the “vessel” of a particular holiday, with its history, customs, special prayers, symbolism, etc.

That is why Purim, for instance, could be meaningful even for Jews in the middle of Holocaust. While the historical relevance of this holiday was seemingly distant and reversed by contemporary events, the spiritual relevance (Purim is higher that Yom Kipur, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains in one of his ma’amorim) was nevertheless there.

* * *

This brings me to the question often asked about the “reason” of mitzvos. I will give a relatively obscure example. At the end of having a meal, before saying the main after-blessing for the meal, it is customary to wash one’s fingertips and pass the fingers over one’s lips. Men do this (usually, using a special cup and plate that is passed around the table); women do not. The explanation given on a nigleh (“revealed” or legal) level is that this custom was instituted to protect someone who had just eaten from the salts present in the food that may be harmful for one’s skin.

The question why this customs does not apply to women has several answers. One of them is that traditionally, women were involved with preparing food and therefore washed their hands anyway. Another is that the act of publicly washing one’s hands at the table is an act of doing something normally private in public, with the table’s attention drawn to oneself. Because privacy is more important for women than for men, it is generally recognized to be improper for the former to participate in attention-drawing events (which includes other activities, in which women normally do not participate, such as holding a public office, being a Rav, getting an aliyah, etc.).

Today, if we see in this custom nothing but a medical warning, it may seem somewhat irrelevant, to say the least. It may be surprising why this custom survived, while other, seemingly more important customs of past did not. The same logic that applies to holidays, however, applies to customs and mitzvos. They have both physical (historical, ritual, pragmatic) and spiritual dimension. The former is but a vessel for holding the latter.

Indeed, regarding washing of one’s fingertips after the meal, we find in the commentaries of AriZal (Rabbi Itzchok Luria, the founder of the most comprehensive contemporary system of Kabbala we have today — on which Chabad Chassidus is based, by the way) that through washing of our fingertips after the meal, we dispell the forces of klipah (spiritual impurity) that may have been attracted to us (similar to how the same forces are attracted to our body during our sleep and linger in the fingertips after we wake up, making it neccessary for us to wash them). Indeed, this is the kavana (conscious intent) one needs to have while washing one’s hands after the meal — to get rid of these forces of impurity.

So, why don’t women wash their fingertips? Apparently, because the forces of impurity do not affect them in this case. How do we know this? Because women are not required halachically to wash their fingertips after a meal. The most important lesson that Chabad Chassidus teaches us is: we must realize that ein od milvado — there is nothing but G-d. There is absolute unity of G-d with His creation, both space and time. All events happen in time and in space when they are supposed to happen according to the grand design of creation. Spiritual at all times is connected to the physical, both in historical events and in Torah.

Therefore, if — for whatever historical reasons! — women were not obligated to wash their fingertips at the time that this custom was instituted, it must mean that whatever the spiritual dimension of this custom is, it did not apply to women but applied to men. Even if nowadays the particular physical causes of this difference (and the reason for the custom itself) no longer apply, their spiritual aspects still do, making it necessary for us to honor the custom.

Mafia is caused by the government

There would be no mafia without the government.

Mafia, as a phenomenon, is caused by the government. And no, I am not talking about some conspiracy theory. I mean, if the government does what it is supposed to do and claims to do, that causes mafia to exist.

The moment you understand why and how that is the case, you understand all you need to know about the government and economics of freedom.

I will try to explain briefly how this is the case:
  1. There is a demand for some product or service. E.g., heroine or prostitution. Or alcohol.
  2. The government for whatever reason makes it illegal to obtain, produce, or sell this service or product.
  3. The demand for the service or product remains.
  4. Normal, "law-abiding" citizens (also citizens not prone to violence) do not go into the business of providing this product.
  5. Citizens who are not averse to breaking the law or using violence and have enough acumen or connections to get this product will start supplying it. They will, at the same time, attempt to suppress the competition ruthlessly and violently, leading to so-called "mafia wars". They will also mistreat their employees and even consumers.
  6. Because there is a demand, the consumers will still buy the product from these jerks. This will make the jerks stay in businesses. As a result, they will get away with mistreating their employees, especially if the employees (such as drug farmers or prostitutes) cannot find a job elsewhere.
  7. Peaceful businessmen cannot provide competition to the jerks, since a) they tend to shy away from things illegal, b) they don't want to use violence to stay in business (as may be necessary because of its shady nature), c) they cannot hire private protection firms, since protection is monopolized by the government, and the government won't protect someone doing business in this particular area, since it's illegal.
End of story. Demand drives the business. By making the business illegal, the government pushes the nice businessmen from this area of business, attracting jerks to fill in the niche.

What happens when the government makes this product legal?
  1. Peaceful, nice, law-abiding, non-violent businessmen are attracted to this business.
  2. Customers would rather buy the product such as beer from a local grocery store than from some violent tattoo-covered jerk at a speakeasy.
  3. Mafia jerks are pushed out of business.
We can see that both the first sequence of events and the second happened with alcohol, when it was first outlawed and then legalized again.

One could say: there would still be mafia. People prone to violence would still be around.

But ask yourself: why doesn't mafia deal in cars? Or oil? Or airplanes? Why does it always deal with illegal things? Because mafiosi like the adventure? No, because these things are legal, and the public would rather buy from non-violent producers than from the violent ones. So, mafia would lose money if it went into a legal business or be forced to stop being a mafia.

Thus, by making something illegal, the government creates a "shade" into which the "shady types" are attracted.

Which means that if tomorrow the government made video games illegal, there would be spring up mafia dealing in video games. If, on the other hand, the government made prostitution and heroine legal, this would shut down all the respective mafias without a shot being fired by a single cop.

Isn't economics a beautiful thing?

Anarchist poetry

Government produces all order.
Under anarchy there is no government.
Therefore anarchy is chaos.

In Washington there isn't any plan
With "feeding David" on page sixty-four;
It must be accidental that the milk man
Leaves a bottle at my door.

It must be accidental that the butcher
Has carcasses arriving at his shop
The very place where, when I need some
Meat, I accidentally stop.

My life is chaos turned miraculous;
I speak a word and people understand
Although it must be gibberish since words
Are not produced by governmental plan.

Now law and order, on the other hand
The state provides us for the public good;
That's why there's instant justice on demand
And safety in every neighborhood.

-- David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom, Part III

Read the full book for free here.

Friday, November 30, 2012

On Godwin's law

As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.
— Godwin's Law (as cited by Wikipedia)

I have seen online, on a number of occasions, people using the above observation as some way of refuting or diminishing any argument that mentions Nazis or Hitler. Someone recently told me on Quora that my comparison suffers from being "Hitler fallacy".

Here is my response:

Why is it a fallacy?

For example, when Bush was asked: "How did you decide that torture was moral?", he answered: "I asked my lawyers, and they told me it was not illegal."

The best way to show through an example that such reasoning is wrong is to evoke the history of Nazis: everything they did was also legal, according to the laws of their democratically elected government.

Why is that logically wrong?

It's one thing if someone says that "Bush is like Hitler because...". Clearly, that's very silly, because he is nothing like Hitler, at least in quantity. But there is nothing wrong with saying that "Bush committed the same mistake as Hitler by thinking that legal equals moral", or, better yet, "We can see that Bush's reasoning is wrong by applying it to Nazis".

In my opinion, constant appeal to Godwin's Law is quite ridiculous. There is nothing logically wrong with using Nazis as a counter-example in morality or law. The episode of Nazism, WWII, Holocaust, Nuremberg trials (where people were tried by an international community for following their country's law and their superiors' orders), etc., is such a stark point in the recent history that not drawing lessons from it would be foolish.

Of course, one can also say: "Keeping slaves in the South was also legal, while helping them escape was illegal in both North and South", but I don't think it resonates quite so much. Maybe if I was Black and not Jewish, it would.

One critique one may offer is that comparing some act or thought to something Hitler did or thought is not in and of itself an argument for its immorality. For instance, saying that wearing shorts is immoral because Hitler wore them is clearly silly. But I would think it was self-evident that genocide is immoral. Of course, one does not need to bring Hitler as an example. But, when making an argument, one uses the most effective ammunition possible. Sure, I can say, "in a country where genocide is legal, you have an example of something that is legal and yet immoral". But that's is much less powerful than saying: "Under the Nazi regime, hiding Jews was illegal, while killing them was legal".

So, henceforth I am drawing CrawlingAxe's Law:

Someone who uses Godwin's Law indiscriminately clearly doesn't understand the difference between reduction and an analogy. If I say that A is like B in aspect X, I am not saying that A is the same as B in all aspects.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

On political agenda

I want to address the question of political agenda (now that I've got one...).

As a background, imagine the following conversation: a student comes to a Chabad House rabbi on campus and asks him why the rabbis of N. America did not pasken against slavery, if one might conceive that there was room to do so, in particular, the way it was being carried out. (This example is not from my experience, although I did ask a similar question once.) The rabbi might answer that the poskim really did not think that it was wrong from halachic perspective (although it might have been morally wrong), but another answer one might hear is: "Maybe because they did not have a political agenda".

I want to address this answer. Political agenda is assumed to attenuate one's objectivity. It is especially damaging, then, when intervening with the investigations calling for one. For instance, it's not as much a problem when choosing a salad: "this doesn't taste good because it's not organic" may be a silly thing to say, but after all, if it doesn't taste good to one, so be it. It is more damaging in natural sciences, for instance, since there the object is not to discover how one feels about something, but what something is. "White men are superior to women and minorities" or, on the other side of the spectrum, "global warming is caused by industrial pollution" are examples of conclusions that may have been influenced by a political agenda.

I think, however, that there is also a positive side to the political agenda (and potentially a negative side to not having it): it alerts one to a potential issue. I don't know whether slavery, as practiced in N. America, was halachically problematic. But if I know that it was morally wrong (and the general assumption is that there is a strong degree of correlation between morality and halacha, especially bein adam l'chaveiro), I may be prompted to investigate more into the halacha. On the other hand, if I don't know it's wrong (or have never seriously considered such a view), because I have not been exposed to extra-hallachic analyses of morality, I may never look into all the details. (I am not suggesting that Torah is somehow deficient as the lone source of morality, but people are deficient in understanding morality from Torah and especially halacha and may benefit from the "outside" analysis.)

In fact, I think most people have a political agenda one way or another. At the minimum it is what I call the inertial agenda: to preserve the status quo (I am tempted to call this political vector conservative, but it can act in a liberal direction too: for instance, one raised in a democratic society may never assume there is anything wrong with democracy from moral or legal points of view).

Thus, being exposed to various political agendas (as well as scientific, economic, or grammatic ones) may:
  1. alert one to potential issues that one might not have thought of before
  2. battle one's already existing agendas or prejudices that might affect one's objectivity.

Hitchens on Kennedy

I am quite enjoying Hitchens's biography. I am reading it not from cover to cover but going from topic to topic. The latest two topics were Edward Said and buggery in English boarding schools.

Anyway, I thought this was funny (more quotes on the question of authority to follow):
In my very first term [at Cambridge], in October 1962, President Kennedy went to the brink, as the saying invariably goes, over Cuba. I shall never forget where I was standing and what I was doing on the day he nearly killed me. (It was on the touchline, being forced to watch a rugby game, that I overheard some older boys discussing the likelihood of our annihilation.) 
At the close of the BBC’s programming that night, Richard Dimbleby enjoined all parents to please act normally and send their children to school in the morning. This didn’t apply to those of us boarders who were already at school. We were left to wonder how the adult world could be ready to gamble itself, and the life of all the subsequent and for that matter preceding generations, on a sordid squabble over a banana republic. I wouldn’t have phrased it like that then, but I do remember feeling furious disgust at the idea of being sacrificed in an American quarrel that seemed largely to be of Kennedy’s making in the first place. 
I have changed my mind on a number of things since, including almost everything having to do with Cuba, but the idea that we should be grateful for having been spared, and should shower our gratitude upon the supposed Galahad of Camelot for his gracious lenience in opting not to commit genocide and suicide, seemed a bit creepy. When Kennedy was shot the following year, I knew myself somewhat apart from this supposedly generational trauma in that I felt no particular sense of loss at the passing of such a high-risk narcissist. If I registered any distinct emotion, it was that of mild relief.
— Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22 

Finding AHPs

AHP = average y-distance between the blue and the green dots.

Since apparently in my last action potentials post it was not clear what I was looking for, I decided to post the above graph.

I found voltage thresholds (blue dots) and action potentials' troughs (green squares) to find the average difference between them (after-hyperpolarization potential). I did not find a good automated way of finding voltage threshold, so I just hard-coded the minimal value for dv/dt: once the trace crossed it, the voltage at which it was crossed was designated as voltage threshold. If you look at the graph, you can see that it worked rather well, but I would still like to find it in a more elegant way (I tried finding local third-derivative maxima, but had some problems with the function).

The troughs were obtained through findpeaks function (Signal Processing Toolbox package), such that:
[p, i_p] = findpeaks (f);
saves the values of peaks as p and their indexes as i_p. Since in my case I was looking for troughs, I inverted my trace (and then inverted the peaks back):
[troughs, i_t] = findpeaks (trace);
troughs = –troughs;
If you want to plot the troughs, you can just write:
plot (i_t, troughs, 'og'); %green circles
plot (trace, 'r'); %red trace
dv/dt was obtained through function diff, such that:
dn_dx = diff (f, n); %produces n-th derivative of f
In order to analyze the data, I first had to separate out individual action potentials:

function [output] = findAPs (input_trace)

    barrage = input_trace; %select APs to analyze from the trace

    %[peaks, i_p] = findpeaks(barrage); %if you want to analyze peaks

    [~, i_t] = findpeaks (-barrage); %obtain x-values for troughs

    APs = cell(length(i_t), 1); %allocate empty cell space

    %adding first and last pts of barrage to minima:
    minima = [1; i_t; length(barrage)];

    %separating APs:
    for i = 1:length(minima)-1
        APs{i} = barrage(minima(i):minima(i+1));

    output = APs; %return a cell of AP traces
Then I found dv/dt for each AP and selected for the first value above the accepted threshold level to find the threshold:

function [output] = find_v_th (APs)
    v_th = struct([]);

    for i = 1:length(APs)
        dv = diff (APs{i}, 1); %first derivative

        %find first instance of dv/dt>0.001:
        v_th_i = find (dv>0.001, 1, 'first')-1; %offset by one b/c of diff

        if (v_th_i) %if v-threshold was found, enter voltage and x vals
            v_th(i).v = APs{i}(v_th_i);
            v_th(i).x = v_th_i;
            v_th(i).v = [];
            v_th(i).x = [];

    output = v_th;
Plotting dv/dt was the same as plotting troughs. To find AHP, one can create an array of trough values and threshold values and subtract one from another, or just average each array and subtract the averages. To plot the AHPs and dv/dt's took a little more effort, since I had to put the APs and dv/dt's with AHP values back together in one barrage, making sure to preserve the x-values. I recommend doing all this in object-oriented manner.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Impossibility of voluntary slavery

From Murray Rothbard's Ethics of Liberty, "Property Rights and the Theory of Contracts":
Let us pursue more deeply our argument that mere promises or expectations should not be enforceable. The basic reason is that the only valid transfer of title of ownership in the free society is the case where the property is, in fact and in the nature of man, alienable by man. All physical property owned by a person is alienable, i.e., in natural fact it can be given or transferred to the ownership and control of another party. I can give away or sell to another person my shoes, my house, my car, my money, etc. But there are certain vital things which, in natural fact and in the nature of man, are inalienable, i.e., they cannot in fact be alienated, even voluntarily. 
Specifically, a person cannot alienate his will, more particularly his control over his own mind and body. Each man has control over his own mind and body. Each man has control over his own will and person, and he is, if you wish, “stuck” with that inherent and inalienable ownership. Since his will and control over his own person are inalienable, then so also are his rights to control that person and will. That is the ground for the famous position of the Declaration of Independence that man’s natural rights are inalienable; that is, they cannot be surrendered, even if the person wishes to do so. 
Or, as Williamson Evers points out, the philosophical defenses of human rights "are founded upon the natural fact that each human is the proprietor of his own will. To take rights like those of property and contractual freedom that are based on a foundation of the absolute self-ownership of the will and then to use those derived rights to destroy their own foundation is philosophically invalid".
Hence, the unenforceability, in libertarian theory, of voluntary slave contracts.
 Read on.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Question to mathematicians

I have data with a bunch of traces of action potentials (top graph).

I want to find the average after-hyperpolarization potential (AHP), the voltage difference between where the action potential "takes off" on its way up (known as "voltage threshold") and the trough of its overshoot on its way down, i.e., the arrow on the top graph, which presumably corresponds to the arrow on the bottom graph.

What's the easiest way of doing that?

(Note: I am looking for an algorithm to automatize the calculation. I am working on Matlab, but it can be an abstract algorithm, although specific enough to implement without any additional knowledge: i.e., don't just say: "Fit the curves to Hudgkin-Huxley equation and find the intercepts".)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Re: libertarians re: Israel

I am posting this here not just to share my thoughts, but also so that I have an easy place to copy-paste my answer from.

As a context, many libertarians disagree with Israel's 'right to defend itself', because according to them, it exists on a land stolen from Arabs in 1948, when 'Palestinian Arabs' left or were expelled from their lands. This is not the place to address that claim (and I don't have all the facts -- and neither do most people -- and if I did, there are many nuances to consider). What I am addressing here is Israelis' right to defend themselves, either individually or collectively through the organization called State of Israel (or IDF). I am also addressing the claim that the media are not one-sided.

The media are one-sided. You can call it antisemitism or whatever label you want. Perhaps it's cheering for the "underdog" gang-like terrorists vs. the mighty state of Israel (perhaps that's also the reason why libertarian analysis is so one-sided).

Palestinians do not deal with the same thing. They have to deal with the collateral damage produced by IDF killing criminals hiding in the Palestinians' midst (with the latter ofentimes knowingly hiding them). We can argue whether Israel is a criminal organization to its own citizens by the virtue of being a state. We can also argue that perhaps injustice has happened over 60 years ago when people were displaced, or when displaced people were not allowed to return to their homes. Some might argue that injustice did not happen, and it was their fault for siding with Israeli enemy and allowing it to use their territories. Or that now, after all has been said and done, things have changed and people settled on those lands — so, the best solution is to give the displaced people recompense for their lost lands, as resettlement is not an option. Or we can argue that a resettlement must happen.

But this dispute can be solved in a civil manner. Through international arbitration, diplomacy, economic pressure, etc. It cannot be solved through Palestinian thugs shooting rockets at Russian immigrants who came to the country in the 1990s and settled in Sderot.

Imagine if I had a dispute with you over some land. You claim I stole it. I claim otherwise -- that I took it from you justly. Then a third-party tenant settled in the disputed land. If you bomb his house or shoot at his children, and I defend them by shooting back at you, *in that act* (i.e., aside from my previous presumed injustice to you) am I being a criminal? Or are you being a criminal? I think most civilized people would say the latter. And if, through shooting at you I happen to kill some bystanders (especially who willingly hid you in their midst), I don't think you can say that the bystanders are undergoing ethnic cleansing or that they are going through the same thing as the tenant's children.

If you answer to the tenant's complaint that he is living on a stolen land, his answer would be: "Let's settle this dispute in a civilized, peaceful manner through arbitration, but first, the violence must stop."

Driving in Russia

And these are Americans:

I am just thinking that for the last fifty years, these two nations had the most nuclear power in the world...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Why stimulus failed

I think this video is good —

— but somewhat misleading. It makes it sound like Obama's stimulus would not have failed if the money actually reached the intended (or, rather, advertised) targets and were not wasted or did not create unintended consequences. (I differentiate between 'intended' and 'advertised' because I believe, rather cynically, that the Federal government all along knew that the money would go to its buddies, in the usual crony-capitalist fashion.)

But the deeper point is that even if that were to happen, this money would still fail to 'stimulate' the economy. What was wrong with the economy is not that there was not enough money or spending or that it just needed a kick in the right piston to get the machine working again (see here for the rebuttal of this fallacy). The problem was not with lack of investment — but, rather, with malinvestment: during the boom phase of the business cycle, money was invested into the wrong industries (see here why this happened).

During the bust phase, the economy 'discovered' that there was after all no demand for the long-term, 'capital goods' businesses (such as construction) into which the investments had previously flowed (encouraged by the artificially low interest rates). This discovery led to contraction of the suddenly failing businesses (or, rather, businesses whose failure suddenly came in the open): their stocks dropped, they had to fire many of their employees, and even declare (or come close to declaring) bankruptcies.

This process of contraction is not only natural, following the malinvestment of the boom phase, but is in fact crucial for any 'recovery'. In order to get the economy back on the road, it was — and still is — necessary to allow the businesses that became too engorged with the malinvested capital to shed it and let the capital flow to the businesses that actually have the support of their customers (because they are successful at predicting what their customers need and want to spend money on right now). This could happen through the successful businesses buying up now-cheap equipment and land or office space of the failing businesses and hiring the suddenly unemployed workers.

By keeping the failing businesses alive or by taxing the successful businesses and redirecting the tax money towards roads or public schools, one does not reverse the problem of malinvestment. And by making interest rates even lower, thus encouraging further long-term investment unsupported by the public's spending time preference, the FED is making the problem worse!

More reading:
Activating Trash

Sunday, November 11, 2012

It takes a while to build up...

In response to Edmund Conway's post–break up (with Apple) letter comparing Apple with Obama, one comment said:
Apple and Obama fan here. Agree about Apple/iOS 6, but zero sourness about Obama. What does economy problem have to do with him, again? He did a damn grand job helping to smooth the landing and overseeing the takeoff. Building takes a lot longer than destroying; people forget that. So yeah, no matter how hard I look, I can’t see anything sour in my Obama relationship, so you’re wrong that all fans would admit that.
My response:
You are right, orchestrating and building a new bubble takes longer than contracting from an old one. It takes days or weeks for people to realize that the papers they are holding are trash. It takes years to build up the con. 
Maybe the administration has been busy choosing malinvestments into which new commodity should be encouraged.  
Perhaps it should be the tulips again. The government should declare that if you invest in tulips, but your investment flops, the government will bail you out. Then, when the over-blown tulip investments burst and crash the markets, the government should provide a ‘soft landing’ by bailing out the tulip farmers and prolonging the resulting contraction from a month to another four years. 
Obama should learn from the Japanese. They have been in stagnation for three decades. Four years are like a butterfly’s dream to them.
More on topic:
Why Did Solyndra Fail? 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Government vs. OSs

Imagine if switching governments was this easy. You wouldn't have to move. You wouldn't have pack your stuff or sell it. You wouldn't have to search for a new place to live, for a new community to fit it, for new friends and contacts and a new place to buy cheap potatoes.

You would just go online and cancel your subscription to one government while subscribing for the protection and (possibly) legal services of another. You may need to change the sticker or some little flag outside your door: 'Protected by AMS Northwest'. And that's it.

Imagine how good the quality of service would be...

Monday, November 5, 2012

On the eve of American elections 2012

I just want to say for the record that tomorrow I will have no sympathy for the Conservatives. You had a chance to nominate one guy who actually stood for the principles that you supposedly stand for: individualism, personal freedom, free markets, limited government, and honesty. AND he would appeal to a lot of liberals and independents actually giving you a chance to have Obama defeated. One thing he was not is a warmonger. But no... you needed a warmonger, and you nominated one, even though he is almost a carbon copy of the current president whom you hate so much.

Well, for that you will get four more years of socialism... and warmongering. So, don't complain. You are practically getting what you asked for, just under a different label.

Anyway, I personally think Obama is a better choice. When we are worse off in four years (as we would be under Romney as well), at least the free markets won't be blamed.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Reification of civilization

Someone posted a link to the following article on the Facebook: 'A Point Of View: Is China more legitimate than the West?'
In my first talk I explained that China is not primarily a nation-state but a civilisation-state. For the Chinese, what matters is civilisation. For Westerners it is nation. The most important political value in China is the integrity and unity of the civilisation-state.

They see the state as the embodiment and guardian of Chinese civilisation. Its most important responsibility - bar none - is maintaining the unity of the country. A government that fails to ensure this will fall.

But does the Chinese state, you may well ask, really enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of its people?

Take the findings of Tony Saich at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. In a series of surveys he found that between 80 and 95% of Chinese people were either relatively or extremely satisfied with central government.

Or take the highly respected Pew Global Attitudes surveys which found in 2010, for example, that 91% of Chinese respondents thought that the government's handling of the economy was good (the UK figure, incidentally was 45%).

Such high levels of satisfaction do not mean that China is conflict-free.

On the contrary, there are countless examples of protest action, such as the wave of strikes in Guangdong province for higher wages in 2010 and 2011, and the 150,000 or more so-called mass incidents that take place every year - generally protests by farmers against what they see as the illegal seizure of their land by local authorities in cahoots with property developers.
Here is my response:

The biggest problem with the article is that it is full of logical holes, non-sequiturs. Let's assume that the Chinese people look at themselves as a civilization, not some chance community (such as the American society). Therefore what? Why shouldn't the government that keeps that civilization together be democratically elected (not that I am a friend of the democracy; I am just examining the argument)? How do we know that the government that came to power through some oligarchic bureaucratic power struggle will be more effective at this allegedly nationally-sought goal than a democratically elected one?

Or, for that matter, why is the government's job to 'preserve the unity of Chinese civilization' (whatever that means; after all, the people in the country don't speak the same language in the south and in the north; there are many different ethnicity, many styles of food and music, etc., etc.)? Perhaps private organization in charge of the particular aspects of the culture — and in charge of unifying them and standardizing them — will be more effective. If such unification and standardization is indeed what the Chinese people want, they can choose those organization themselves, and the organizations will compete on the free markets for the effectiveness of this 'service'.

Then there is the moral argument. As long as you feed the slaves and keep them happy, your forced ownership of them is justified. (I mean, yeah, sometimes the slaves complain because there is not enough food and the work conditions created by the overseers are harsh, but they don't object to being in slavery. Well, some do, but who cares about those few?)

95% support? That's nothing. In N. Korea, 100% support the Dear Leader. In Russia, in some regions more than 100% voted for Putin.

The idea about Chinese economy overcoming American in six years is a myth. Within six years it will crash. Laws of nature cannot be violated so easily. And today, yes, the GDP figures are high, but people are still living in poverty. During WWII, GDP figures were high in the US too. And living conditions were worse than before the war — the figures were a result of war spending on bullets and tanks.

In regards to China being not a nation but a civilization (and that's why a few mafia members can decide for one third of the world's population how to live), this is my favorite concept, reification:
Reification (also known as concretism, or the fallacy of misplaced concreteness) is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete, real event, or physical entity. In other words, it is the error of treating as a concrete thing something which is not concrete, but merely an idea.
In other words, 'civilization', 'tzibbur', 'community', 'hurricane', 'forest' are all concepts. They are useful concepts for understanding complex phenomena and emergent properties, but the moment we think of themselves as having an independent life of their own (such as 'tzibbur owning land'), we make the mistake of reification: falsely making something abstract into concrete.

But, in fact, this is a useful article. If we understand the exact points in which it is wrong, we will also understand why Western democracy is a failed liberal system that does not liberate people from governmental oppression, but in fact simply kicks the can of oppression down the road.

It reminds me of Peter Singer's (and the like) articles about abortion, in which he argues in favor of infanticide (e.g., of sick babies), because after all, there is not much difference between an infant and a fetus. Once we understand why he is wrong (that it's ok to kill newborns), we can understand why abortion is also wrong.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


Gov. Chris Christie

From an e-mail I sent to my in-laws:

The situation on the East Coast, where the governor of NJ made profiteering forbidden, is the best example why I am a libertarian. NOT (only) because I care about the gas companies and their natural rights. But because profiteering is the best way to attract business — to attract import of gas, generators, construction crews, shovels, whatever is needed, into the disaster zone. Why the heck would I import gas to NJ from, say, Ohio, if there is no additional incentive for me to do that?

Plus, it keeps the supplies of gas, etc., well rationed. People buy only what they really need when the prices are really high (driven up by high demand and low supply). That way, the first ten people coming into the store won't buy up all the water bottles, leaving the rest with nothing.

Meanwhile, a few black-market gas stations have sprung up. Just like in the Soviet Union, where they sold sausages and electronics on the black market at the market price (plus a little extra for the risk), while in the stores the shelves were empty from over-consumption and under-production. As the crazy mathematician from Jurassic Park said, "nature finds the way".

Yes, I know, all that greedy business owners care about is profit. But profit allows the goods to go where they are supposed to and serves as an indicator that the producer is doing the right thing.

Here is a good image from the Facebook:

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Appearances deceive

The picture above is a good illustration of the concept that unless you know the deep meaning and context of a situation, you may misunderstand it. For most people in the West, this picture looks very strange: a few officially-dressed men staring intensely and what looks like a bunch of pebbles lying on a block of wood. In fact, of course, these are top players of the deep strategic board game of Go analyzing a situation.

The same goes for frum Jews in general and Chabad in particular. 99% of people (Jews and non-Jews) think that Chabad is just a very large soup kitchen with missionary inclinations. In reality, Chabad is all about making this world into a dwelling for its Creator. The soup kitchen is just one way to achieve this.

The British are coming

Robert Murphy comments on Facebook:
Now people are arguing with me about whether the government has plans on how it would implement martial law, if it had to. Of *course* they have such plans. They developed a plan for taking out Great Britain. That's what these people think their *job* is. Don't you people watch movies?
War Plan Red

My thoughts:

There was once a point when having heard something conspiracy-like about USA being an evil empire (whether from crazy American liberals or Russians or Soviet books), I would roll my eyes. "Sure, it's not perfect, but..."

Then came a point when I realized that all those cynical things being said about the USA being a wannabe policeman of the world for the purpose of fulfilling the interests of a few major corporations may not be so crazy after all.

I guess I have passed that point by now. When I read about US having had a secret plan of fighting the British Empire, I am not even surprised...

I mean, look at these. There is a Russian obscene joke about a little boy looking through a keyhole into his parents' bedroom and exclaiming: "And they tell me not to pick my nose!" American presidents talk about international threats to peace, while USA probably at this point has a contingency plan of taking over the moon.

Martial law? Meh...

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Is price gouging evil?

A really nice article about how price gouging in extreme situations plays an important social role. (And making price gouging illegal does the opposite.)

Simply put, price gouging separates luxuries from necessities. imagine someone raises the price for a bag of ice from $4 to $15. Now, the first few lucky people coming into the store aren't going to buy up 10 bags each (leaving the rest of the people who need bags with empty hands). They will think: 'Do we really need so many bags?'

Even for each individual bag, each person will ask: 'Do I simply need it as a luxury, or do I have something really important I am trying to keep on ice?'

The people for whom it's really important will pay the $15 for a bag. The people for whom it's merely a luxury (e.g., they want to have some vodka on the rocks while they are waiting the storm out) will mumble something about those 'damn capitalist pigs' and go away.

This way the resources are 'rationed' appropriately throughout the society.

As the article mentions, it may be that a given store may set the price too high or too low. Well, that's why there is competition on the market. The stores that set their prices too high will have bags left over (since people will go to their competitors), and people who set their prices too low will be quickly sold out, not getting the 'right' amount of the capital for the merchandise.

If you're interested, read on: 'Price Gouging Saves Lives in a Hurricane'.

On a related topic, if you want to know how speculation can play a positive role in the society, watch this video by Bob Murphy:

P.S. By the way, the fact that New Jersey's governor made a warning against price gouging shows once again that though the Conservatives may talk about being friends of the free market, they are not. And they are as ignorant of how free markets work as the Liberals.

Too much information

I was just reading a quite well-written book about baby brain development: Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina. I like the book for the most part, but this little bit annoyed me:

In the chapter where he talks about relationship between the parents, the author discusses how having frequent fights between the parents is bad for the baby's brain development. In passing, he mentions that epinephrine and cortisol are secreted as a part of the 'fight-or-flight' reflex.

And that's it. He sort of just mentions them and then says that if the brain is 'cooked' in the appropriate set of hormones, it grows up healthy, but if not, then it grows up not as well developed.

I really hate when people do that: mention some facts of physiology or anatomy without explaining their relevance. It smacks of a cheap parlor trick. It's almost as if they were doing that to impress the audience with their knowledge of biology or somehow use the biological 'illustration' to give greater credence to their (often non-biological) argument.

I once saw a textbook of Psychology that had a picture of the map of Vienna at the beginning of the chapter on sexual behavior. The caption under the picture said something like the following: 'Many psychology textbooks have pictures of reproductive organs in the chapters on sexual behavior. The authors of this textbook are not sure what the relevance of those pictures is. That is why we included the map of Vienna — while equally irrelevant, it may be more entertaining.' When I read this caption, I thought it made an excellent point.

I have recently given a talk on the role of DNA methylation in late brain development. I had a slide in which I showed a figure from a study that showed that blocking DNA methylation affected long-term potentiation; I also wrote on the slide that 'a number of genes were upregulated'. My advisor asked me if I was planning to discuss or list those genes. I answered 'no'; I didn't think it was relevant, and the authors of that study had only provided a table of genes without discussing them much themselves. My advisor said: 'In that case, don't mention them at all.'

Again, I thought this was an excellent advice. If you're not going to explain how something fits into the puzzle, don't have it lying around, just for decoration. People have limited attention, and, more importantly, everything thing you say must make a point.

So... how could the author have made a better point with the mentioning of cortisol, etc.? Well, as it turns out, the function of cortisol is to draw glucose from most cells of the body towards muscle cells. Basically, when you see a lion and need to run away from it, your body needs quickly to raise energy 'currency' to supply your muscle cells. Release of cortisol does exactly that. And it makes sense to do that in a short term. As Robert Sapolski (an expert on the biology of stress) once put, 'Run away from the lion first; ovulate later.'

Imagine, however, if this process goes on for days or weeks or months! Your cells being constantly depleted of their energy resources. That will create energy crisis in most tissues of your body (except the muscles) and the long-term effects will be disastrous: the lining of your stomach will develop ulcers, your reproductive system will lose ability to perform well, and your brain cells will suffer damage (first, ability to make plastic changes in connectivity is diminished; next, dendritic complexity is reduced; finally, even cell loss -- the irreversible change -- can take place).

Now, if you think about the developing baby brain undergoing energy crisis, it makes sense that exposure to stress can be detrimental to brain development.

I am sure a writer as talented as John Medina could put the above into fewer words. Then, his mentioning of cortisol and epinephrine would be relevant to the discussion of the baby brain.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

False sense of safety


The worst invention in the Western Civilization's recent history was a result of Americans' attempt to reduce fatalities from road accidents. They introduced the inflatable airbag into the cars. Now the passengers drive, having a sense of safety.

If I were trying to reduce the accidents, I would put a sharp knife in the middle of the steering wheel. And that would reduce the accidents, because, by G-d, people would be driving carefully now.

-- Hugh Hendry, British hedge funds manager (and a famous critic of the government's attempts to manage the economy)

The point of the above quote is that by creating agencies that manage our safety for us, without our choice, the government makes us less safe. First, the agencies like FDA are extremely inefficient and in general bad at what they're trying to do, as a result of being monopolies. But more severely, they prevent us from caring for our own lives and safety.

As a result, you have attempts at logical arguments that state that without FDA, unsafe drugs and food would fill the markets, because the people wouldn't have anyone watching out for them (while the businesses would of course care more about selling the drugs and not about the safety of their customers). The people who make them cannot imagine that someone might want to care for his own safety, relying (if necessary) on private inspection agencies whose reputation he would keep an eye on.

And I think, in the end, that is the worst result of socialism: it changes the culture. It creates a nation of slaves, of people who are similar to a 30-year-old who lives with his parents and is unable to make a decision himself about his life. (As I have written before, studies show that children who were given some small allowances and allowed to manage their purchases themselves grew up to be more responsible adults.)

This is the worst result of American and European governments' policies. We see this culture of dependent junkies in Greece today. When their government attempts to cut down on spending, they come out to streets and protest, since they are not getting the free pie.

The same thing happened in the Roman Empire: in an attempt to please the public and win popularity, the government created welfare programs, feeding and entertaining the masses for free (the source of the 'bread and circuses' expression). Unfortunately, this could not be sustained forever. In an attempt to pay for the ever-increasing demands of the public, Roman government debased the currency, creating massive economic crisis that spanned the centuries and was one of the reasons for the downfall of the Empire.

In my opinion, unless drastic change of course is undertaken (by the people themselves -- for the government will never change itself for the better), both American and European societies are headed the same way. They will destroy themselves from the inside, degenerating socially, economically, and culturally.

* source of image

The axis of weevils

It seems that the axis of evil now includes:

(Not North Korea)
Some random African countries
Switzerland (they get the money of those who didn't want to pay taxes to US gov't)
New Zealand (now that Peter Jackson is filming another movie, they need no aid)

But, on a serious note, one good thing about the picture above is that the French do not get my tax dollars.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Shooting oneself in one's foot

"Our target is communism"
— Motto written on one Soviet nuclear missile facility

Saw this picture on the Facebook:

It's nice to know Obama Administration cares about the common folk and not those 'rich bastards'.

This reminds me of FDR's efforts to keep food prices high (presumably to stimulate the economy by stimulating the food industry) by paying farmers to slaughter livestock while people were starving.

So, I know: how about we confiscate all gasoline imported to the USA and burn half of it?.. That should make the economy better, eh?

I thought we were fighting a war on (the concept of) terror? Yet, our government is doing a good job of aiding our presumed enemies... maybe it can declare itself an enemy of the state and sequester itself into Guantanamo Bay?.. (I won't make suggestive jokes about drones, so as not to excite too much the CIA agents reading this blog.)

Monday, October 22, 2012

Gifts from jellyfish and pond scum

Dr. Michael Häusser of University College London speaks about new tools neuroscientists use to study neural circuits:

Friday, October 19, 2012

What makes us overeat?

I'd like to advertise my father-in-law's blog which discusses the above question. He is a professional psychologist helping people overcome eating problems and is in the process of writing a book about emotional eating disorders (when people over-eat to overcome an emotional struggle).

The blog is interesting not only to those who may have such a problem, but also to those who are interested in the question of motivation, willpower, and self-control. At the center of his ideas is the hypothesis about emotional eating and loss of self-control. One school of thought looks at self-control as a 'mental muscle' which gets tired after too much exercise (hence the slips in self-control). He looks at a loss of self-control differently: in his opinion, it is not a loss at all, but rather an attempt for someone to regain control over his life (or at least demonstrate to himself that he is control) when he feels that he is losing it.

So, for instance, if your boss makes you do a project you hate, your wife makes you wash the dishes when you want to watch a game on TV, and your kids force you to take them to a park, you may have an urge to demonstrate to yourself that you're in control of your life by doing something forbidden -- something you know you're not supposed to do. Emotional overeating is one such behavior.

If you're interested, read When Willpower is Not Enough.

More on the topic of self-control, as it pertains to my thoughts on economics and politics:
Time Preference and the Wealth (or Poverty) of Nations

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Do libertarians lack the concept of tzibbur?

A friend of mine has recently asserted, in his critique of libertarians, that they lack the concept of tzibbur: a community. As a result, he said, they think about everything in terms of individual rights and responsibilities, but they don't conceive of the 'community' owning things or having rights and the individuals owing to the community.

I disagree with my friend. First of all, without the concept of a tzibbur, libertarians would not have rights. Yes, rights are centered on the individual, but the purpose of the rights is for the individual to live in a community, at peace with others.

But I agree with my friend that there is a concept that libertarian lack. And that is (for better or for worse) the concept of slavery. Here is my response to my friend:
I think you're wrong that libertarianism doesn't acknowledge the existence of tzibbur: both as a psychological need (or reality) and as a metaphysical concept of co-existence of individuals. There is a lot of evidence that it does. For instance, see this article: 
But I would say that libertarianism doesn't acknowledge that tzibbur can hold individuals as slaves. (And that is because, according to libertarianism, slavery is praxeologically impossible. It is impossible for me to be mafkir of my will. I can never let go of it in order to transfer it. One can certainly 'let go' of his will by committing a suicide, chv"sh, but in that case the transfer is impossible; the same goes for lobotomy -- in other words, as long as a will is really a will, it belongs to only one person, and nobody else can own it or take possession of it.) 
So, while I can belong to a tzibbur, I must be free to choose a different tzibbur. For instance, if I don't like A's minyan, I can join B's minyan. Just because I am a Jew, or a social being, and, as a result, I have to be a part of the tzibbur, I still should be able to choose the particular tzibbur that I am going to be a part of. 
Even if, as you say, a person finds himself automatically belonging to a tzibbur, as you describe it ('a person never thinks of himself only as an individual -- he always thinks of himself as both an individual and a part of a tzibbur'), it doesn't mean he must remain beholden to the particular tzibbur into which he was born. (Such a situation would be absurd for many Lubavitchers, ba'alei teshuva, de novo Chassidim, etc.)

And you implicitly agreed with the above when you said: 'America is a great country, where you can live in a state that suits your desires. If you want to work hard and live well as a result, you can move to Texas. If you want to be a couch potato, you move to California.' (Not that I agree with this logic completely.) 
But what libertarians are saying is that the same principle must be applied to all aspects of life, including protection and legal services, and cannot be tied to geography. I should be able to choose which socio-political tzibbur I belong to without having to move. (As I do with a shull or, lehavdil, a phone company.) 
One may say that it's utopian, since we need protection, and there is a free-rider problem, etc., etc. So, your objections are economic, not principled, and that's a separate discussion (whether private legal authorities and defense agencies would do as good a job as the government, and whether public good can be externalized).

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Scalia's mistake

3rd-rate minds are only happy when they are thinking with the majority. 2nd-rate minds are only happy when they are thinking with the minority. 1st-rate minds are only happy when they are thinking.
-- A.A. Miln (the author of Winnie the Pooh)

An exchange on Facebook:

UCS shared a link.

Scalia appeals to duel federalism in support of his case that some of the more controversial issues currently argued over at the Federal level are easy to deal with from a Supreme Court perspective. He argues they are matters to be dealt with by the individual states.



Scalia lives in this funny universe, where:

1) rights are created by the governments, no received naturally, at birth;
2) constitution must be defended, except when it comes to Justice Scalia's pet topics, inspired by his Catholic background (marijuana, gay rights, abortion, etc.); in those cases it's ok to use the same methods that his friends Ginzburg and Breyer use to defend their pet projects.


A, are you familiar with duel federalism?


I am familiar with the concept. Doesn't mean I like it (although it's obviously better than centralized power that Vladimir Put... I mean, Barack Obama would have). Doesn't mean I don't think that Scalia is a hypocrite.

The constitution has recognized people's natural rights. Just because the drafters and their contemporaries were hypocrites doesn't mean we have to follow their lead.

Look up Lysander Spooner's argument that slavery was unconstitutional (even before the 13th Amendment). E.g.:


It is a matter of who you want to 'define' your rights. In order to 'protect' your rights, they must be defined. We reject the incorporation doctrine, not because we think States should violate the rights of individuals, but because we don't trust a centralized power to be able to define our rights.

It is a curious position to distrust the federal government, but then want to use it to protect rights.

Also, do you agree that people disagree on what constitutes a right?

Why shouldn't this be left to local governing bodies?

Leaving it to local governments doesn't mean you condone any abuse of rights that may occur on the local level, it just means you don't trust a centralized power to be the arbiter of your rights.


Who should define what the word 'ostrich' means? Why shouldn't this left to the governing bodies? A better question is: why should it?

To leave anything to any kind of government, an institution founded on the concept of violence (of either majority at the hands of minority or vice versa), means to invite violence.

Why would you want something as precious as understanding and definition of our natural rights (the concept that binds us into a society) be left to a monopoly organization, however local? Obviously, it should be left to the people themselves -- and competing (on a free market) private legal authorities who codify the 'will of the people'.


If you are an anarchist it is even more of a curious position to want a central government to be the arbiter of your rights.


Obviously, I don't want the central gov't to be the arbiter.

My point was not that in an argument of how often to rape people -- once a week or once a month -- the first argument is right. My point was that rape is wrong.

The whole premise that natural rights need to be 'defined' by some governing body is wrong from the start. Natural rights need to be discovered and recognized. This is what Scalia is missing.

The question of which social mechanism is best for efficient and precise rights discovery (central gov't vs. local gov'ts vs. private 'authorities') is secondary (and, to some extent, not so much a legal or a political question, but an economic one).

So, when Texas says that sodomy should be illegal, Scalia finds nothing wrong with it. For Scalia, this is how Texas has 'defined' the right of having sex: 'as long as it's between a man and a woman'. But I say: in their (presumed) attempt at rights discovery, Texas made a mistake. Of course, I agree with Scalia that when the central gov't tells Texas that, the situation becomes even more dangerous in the long run.

Anyway, in my personal life, my rights are violated much more by the state I live in than by the federal gov't.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Democracy and the illusion of public ownership

Today, in a shower, I put a finger on what I subconsciously understood to be wrong with democracy. And so I hurry to share it with my (potential) faithful audience.

What's wrong with democracy is that it is an actualization of the legal fiction of public ownership. Let me explain what I mean.

Imagine that 500 people presumably own some public property: let's say, a central square. That's our premise.

Now, by 'ownership' I mean 'legitimate control'. When I own something I can control it (and we agree that I am doing so legitimately): I can decide what its fate is: I can use it, leave it alone, allow others to use, or forbid others from using it (even if I am not using it at the moment myself). A funny counter-example is a story of Ludwig Wittgenstein who once told him that he would give me some trees growing nearby as a present, as long as the student agrees never to use or alter them in any way or prevent the previous owners from using them in whatever way they wish. The point was to illustrate what ownership is: it's legitimate ability to exercise control over something and prevent others from doing so. If you don't have that, then your "owning" of something is merely academic.

Next comes democracy.

People elect a mayor of the village who will decide what happens to the public square. 251 people vote for Bob, while 249 vote for Bill. Bob becomes the mayor and decides to plant a tree in the public square, against the wishes of 400 people. But, they can't do anything about it, because Bob was elected through a democratic process. 'Next time we will be wiser', say the 400 people (or, at least those that voted for Bob) and walk home.

Let's see what happened here. There were two acts of aggression:

1. When 251 people imposed Bob as the village mayor on the 249. The argument that had it been the reverse (with Bill becoming the mayor), it would be worse, may be true, but it doesn't refute that electing Bob was an act of violence.

2. When Bob decided to plant a tree against the people's wishes.

So, first we had an act of oppression of the minority at the hands of a majority (249 vs. 251), which in itself created the oppression of majority at the hands of a minority (the villagers vs. Bob). But since the first act is meaningless in and of itself (if by the village's constitution, Bob couldn't do anything, then his election would not be a meaningful act of any sort), the essence of representative democracy, as we have discovered, is the same old oppression of majorities at the hands of minorities, which we had back when we had monarchy.

The difference is that the majority of the people get to decide who the jerk on the throne is going to be*. The difference between monarchy and representative democracy is, therefore, what I call 'economic'. It's not a principled difference, it's a difference of the expected practical outcome. Sometimes the 'economic' expectation works out, sometimes it doesn't. (Certainly, publicly elected officials have done more damage than the kings, but perhaps that's because they had better technology and more people at their hands.)

The same goes for constitutional democracy: the basis for preferring it (an expectation that it would somehow curb the abuses of the elected 'jerk') is economic. Sometimes it proves to be true; sometimes it doesn't. Certainly American constitutional democracy has proven to be a failure to a large extent. Today, most people don't even understand what constitutionality means.

So what then? Direct democracy? Well, first of all, as all of you thought the moment you read these words, it's economically unfeasible for a large number of reasons. Second, it creates the same oppression of the minority at the hands of the majority (although, true, it doesn't create the second step of the new oppression of a new majority at the hands of elected minority).

So, at least under absolute monarchy, there are no illusions: the king owns the land, and he decides what happens on his property. End of story.

Of course, economically, it's better if there are many small private owners (each deciding what's going on on his property, and private competing judicial 'authorities' arbitrating arising disputes), but that's another discussion.

But this is what I thought about in the shower: what's particularly funny about the above situation with the villagers and the central square is that the whole time they are being oppressed (by either majorities or minorities) the people live under an illusion that they somehow own the public property. In reality, however, the elected official owns it, at least to the extent that the tolerance of the people will allow him (directly or through some constitutional mechanism).

Imagine the following scenario: a family of five decide to buy a dinner. They vote for milchiks vs. fleishigs, and four out five decide to get a pizza. The fifth person has to go along, and when they are eating the pie, he complains about the taste. One of the four looks at him and says: "Well, don't complain now -- you bought it!"
* A more sophisticated reader may point to the idea of government with consent. So, the difference between a democracy and a monarchy is that in the first case, people in charge govern with the consent of the majority. But that again is fallacious: how do you know that every decision is made with the public's consent? We don't make an argument that the king rules with the consent of the governed: we check it, through elections (and the elections show that it's difficult to predict, without actual verification through voting, whom the majority supports). But if we are going to verify through voting that the president and Congress have the consent of the majority for every law they pass, then we might as well have a direct democracy!

Otherwise, we are back to the situation where every time the government passes a law, it goes against public wishes (or at least without any evidence of public agreement) regarding what should be done with the public's presumed property.