Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Vanilla Ice and Taxes

What’s more dismal than Valentine’s Day, you ask? By my standards, April 15. And one additional, unexpected downside of taxation: Vanilla Ice rapping about using TurboTax:

(Pointed out to me by Prof. Chris Nugent of Williams.)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Lincoln and Darwin

It’s the anniversary of Lincoln’s birthday (and Darwin’s, as I’ll discuss later), in the first year since the party he started imploded.

Lincoln is a good example of how tricky it can be trying to shoehorn history into current ideological formulas — not that that’s something one should strive to do. He was the first president from the then-new Republican Party, and then as now the party was accused of representing a capitalist elite against poor, populist Democrats. Then again, most modern liberals would probably say Lincoln, who arguably did more than anyone else who has ever lived to improve race relations, fits better into their egalitarian tradition than into the Republicans’ hybrid capitalist-traditionalist lineage. I was inclined to agree — especially given some of Lincoln’s own egalitarian and even socialist-sounding labor-emancipation rhetoric, which had implications broader than just the ending of slavery — until Bush’s Second Inaugural.

Ironically, our current Republican president, who many modern liberals would probably regard as the least Lincolnesque (he is somewhat less articulate) and most monstrous entity ever to hold the office, may have done the best job of any modern Republican president of making the case for an ongoing link between Lincoln and the philosophy of the Republican Party, in Bush’s second inaugural address. In much the same way that Gov. Schwarzenegger had made the case, in his speech at the 2004 Republican convention, for an ongoing battle for freedom against a succession of foes including the Nazis, communists, and Islamic totalitarians, Bush’s second inaugural framed his push for democracy in the Middle East as a continuation of the eternal fight for liberty with which his party had been born, under Lincoln’s abolitionist leadership. Of course, post-Saddam Iraq hasn’t been quite as peaceful as the post-Civil War South (Or has it? I haven’t checked the stats on this and should be careful not to assume), so Bush’s days of framing grand narratives for world history and the future of politics may be over, and perhaps justifiably so (Bush’s post-re-election turn toward liberationist rhetoric and a fiscally-conservative agenda had me rooting for him a mere two years ago, but like a lot of other Americans, I’ve largely given up on him and the Republican Party generally).

For libertarians, who still sound like unreconstructed nineteenth-century anarchist/abolitionist types most of the time (thank goodness), Lincoln is still something of a controversial figure. He freed the slaves, the thinking goes, but he also waged a war — producing the highest U.S. body count from any war, approximately 600,000 people, and at a time when the total U.S. population was only something like 30 million — a war that perhaps could have been prevented, that was based on the dubious idea that no one should be allowed to secede from a central government, and that was characterized by censorship and the suspension of habeas corpus. Still, at the end of the day, I’m willing to overlook a lot in exchange for ending slavery, as great a triumph for liberty as the world has ever known.

But if you’re inclined — like some Southern partisans and Gore Vidal — to dislike Lincoln, you can instead spend today celebrating the birthday of another controversial figure, and a contemporary of Lincoln at that: Charles Darwin. A century and a half after he made it pretty clear that we can come up with very good non-supernatural explanations for how life got to be the way it is, he stills gets attacked. Indeed, some vague but negative allusions to Darwin were made by one of my fellow more-or-less-right-leaning writer-types (all fellows of the Phillips Foundation) after a tour of the Fox News and New York Post headquarters I went on this past Friday.

Another member of the group praised a recent essay by Sam Schulman from (for which I’ve written an article, luckily, perhaps, not one touching on Darwin or atheism) in which he argues that today’s atheists are simply not as charming as their more cautious, conflicted, almost ashamed nineteenth-century counterparts. I don’t know that lack of charm is much of a charge to throw at one’s foes in a philosophical argument, though. I’ll bet some of those abolitionists were mighty cantankerous, and understandably so.

Being feisty doesn’t make someone wrong, whether he’s an atheist or, say, a libertarian — like some of the crackpots and hotheads who populate Brian Doherty’s new book on the history of libertarianism, Radicals for Capitalism, which is both the March Book Selection of the Month and the topic of a reading by the author at our next Lolita Bar gathering, Wed., March 7 (at 8pm). We probably won’t get much of a chance to talk about Darwin that night, but I wouldn’t be surprised if abolitionists, Lincoln, slavery, Republicans, and Bush all get mentioned.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Blogging for the Eyes of the World, Soon

Are you ready? Then let’s begin.

If all goes smoothly, this blog will be a daily (or near-daily) thing starting on April Fool’s Day 2007, nearly three months later than planned, but still well before the end of the world.

Brief Statement of Principles

This blog won’t be an exercise in feverishly linking, with obligatory know-it-all comment, to every event in the news as it happens. There are (literally) about a million sites doing that already. This site, I expect, will be more likely to respond to books and other long-form, detailed arguments or ideas. The Web could use a little cautious reflection, maybe even some peace and quiet once in awhile.

That tone may allow some actual philosophizing to occur, so that maybe we’ll all learn something. One rarely philosophizes from a complete blank slate, though, so it’s worth briefly noting, in the interests of full disclosure, some of the beliefs — not mere prejudices, mind you, since they are the conclusions of years of prior logical analysis (nor mere assumptions or axioms, since I’d happily revise each or all in the face of new evidence) — that I already bring to bear and which are likely to be reflected in future posts:

•Claims should not be made without good empirical evidence, so it is intellectually irresponsible, indeed immoral, to claim that God or other supernatural phenomena (ghosts, psychic powers, astrology, etc.) exist.

•The only rational, non-mystical basis for ethics is rule utilitarianism (that is, behaving in accord with the rules most likely to foster the greatest long-term happiness among all morally-relevant agents — I avoid saying “people” to sidestep for now the question of the moral significance of animal welfare), and moral thinking should pervade all of our decisions, leaving no rooms for lying, cheating, cruelty, infidelity, taking credit for others’ work, or even the lackadaisical sort of callous irresponsibility (as on the dating scene) that seems to characterize much of the thinking of many young adults these days.

•Property rights are the most important manifestation of ethics and law and the often unappreciated basis of civilization, the alternative to which is violence and poverty, as socialist governments have made abundantly clear; capitalism, in short, is not only good but is humanity’s greatest accomplishment.

•Government should be abolished, or at least minimized (it is likely, though harder to demonstrate empirically, that law itself could be turned over to decentralized private courts somewhat in the fashion of old common law courts and modern arbitration firms, and that the military could be far more rationally directed on a subscription basis by capital-intense insurance firms, but at the very least all unbiased observers can agree that we should end most Cabinet agencies, government-run schools, regulation, public sector unions, and welfare/social security programs in favor of allowing an unfettered economy to make everyone far richer — and freer — faster); limiting government has been the key to America’s greatness, though it has strayed far from that founding ideal, one now largely forgotten by both left and right, though not, fortunately, by libertarians.

•Because science is easily distorted by the media and other forces, most health scares are overblown, as is the threat of global warming, for the purpose of attracting attention to research or to pro-regulation political causes (and a pro-regulation bias is likely to exist in government-funded or -directed research).

•Evolution is the best and most powerful explanation for the workings of life and, contrary to politically-motivated claims of intelligent design theorists and the like, is confirmed by mountains of evidence from the fossil records of the past to the continual arms race against bacterial development and adaptation in our own day.

•Feminism is bunk, based in virtually all its formulations on the irrational, radically anti-empirical, a priori assumption of equal mental or rational capacities (in essentially all areas of human endeavor) in the two demonstrably different sexes (as unwarranted as assuming that two similar species, say, elk and moose, must prove to be “equal” by some empirical or, failing that, metaphysical measure); while belief in God may be the most erroneous commonly held view and belief in government the most socially destructive, feminism is perhaps the most manifestly false commonly held view in our culture, refuted as it is by virtually every daily interaction experienced by virtually all people, sustained only by the kind of borderline-schizophrenic, compartmentalized thinking that enables someone to claim men and women are mentally the same one moment and then bicker over whether to see a “guy movie” or a “chick flick” the next, without noticing the contradiction.

•The masses are by and large cretins (keep in mind that the average IQ is roughly 100), and all political factions of which I am aware, from Marxism to fascism to libertarianism, are guilty of flattering the masses (appealing to the “good sense of the average person,” etc.) in the vain and demagogic hope of receiving popular affirmation for their own agendas, which most people will never grasp, let alone endorse; similarly, intellectuals must, despite the great temptation, beware taking too indulgent an “ironic” interest in the mind-rotting trash that generally passes for popular culture, tending as it does to contribute to the masses’ impulse-driven lack of self-discipline, forethought, or morals — and must instead pause from time to time to appreciate the storehouse of wisdom and aesthetic achievements we inherit from tradition, which tends to dwarf the accomplishments and sophistication of any one mind.

•Biotech and cybernetics offer the best long-term hope of improving the human race, particularly making humans more rational (anyone who complains that people are “too rational” already is likely insane or highly intellectually irresponsible) and sooner or later making us immortal.

•Until biotech and cybernetics make fundamental improvements in the human mind, voluntary (as opposed to government-run or otherwise coercive) eugenics is something all honest, sober-minded people should endorse — not in the irrational, crude, ethnicity-based form that the Nazis promulgated but in the common-sense form of politely discouraging stupid, violent people from passing on their ways or inclinations to any more offspring (or indeed non-relative members of their social circles) than necessary; people who claim to oppose eugenics in this milder, decentralized form unwittingly demonstrate their hypocrisy every time they engage in mate selection and pick better rather than worse mates.

Those are just a few simple ground rules that I think we can all agree upon for starters — the sort of nearly-self-evident things I can’t be bothered to go back and re-prove in every single entry but which, if kept in the back of your mind, will help smooth your reading experience and make more sense of the many other ideas to come.

The logical outcome of the ideals described above, should enough of you come to share them (perhaps as a result of regularly reading this blog), is a world of highly intelligent, anarchist-atheist yet property-respecting and moralistic, pro-American cyborgs (likely of multiple subspecies and possibly diversely transgendered) who are immortal, have an appreciation for high art, show an almost Amish respect for certain elements of tradition, and are kind to animals. I don’t expect to see this almost-perfect world within my lifetime, but all of us who work to bring it a bit closer to realization can at least sleep with clear consciences at night. Every little bit helps: registering Republican instead of Democrat (if the Republican Party returns to its limited-government principles), listening to synthesizer-based New Wave music, discouraging acquaintances from respecting the Bible, or discussing robotics in a frank and open way with your friends and family. Little by little, each of us can make a difference and set a good example — and remember, you are not alone.

UPDATE 1/15/08: I admit this list was dashed off quickly and that I may have erred by giving feminism such short shrift, for instance, or by lightly invoking the term “eugenics” when I might have said merely “biotech and picking a smart mate” — but this entry on utilitarianism may be a better way of explaining my underlying principles.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Rising Sea Levels Lift All Skeptics

This past Wednesday, our monthly Debate at Lolita Bar was about climate change, and it pitted Gore-trained Andrew McKeon against Chuck Blake, a friend of mine who has been a thoroughgoing skeptic on many topics — only recently adding catastrophic climate change to the list — since we were friends in high school back in Norwich, CT in the 1980s. We were fans of the magazine Skeptical Inquirer back then, and it was virtually the only magazine (since joined by Skeptic magazine) consistently arguing that one ought to have good scientific evidence before believing an extraordinary claim. That was what really set me on the road that eventually led me to work for skeptic/libertarian TV anchor John Stossel in the late 90s and, for the past five years, for the American Council on Science and Health — which, I should note, does not have a position on the issue of climate change, sticking to more bodily-health-type issues.

In an interesting bit of cross-pollination, the debate was written up on by Alan Miller, who is helping to organize a debate on similar eco-topics, run by, taking place Tuesday night, February 13. NYSalon is essentially an offshoot of one of my favorite bunch of London-dwellers, the circle of post-Marxists centered on, the Institute of Ideas, and the Centre for Science and the Media, who (while they may not share all my views on economics) argue for progress and Enlightenment/pro-science thinking — and promote fearless, un-p.c. debate — as a reaction against what they see as their fellow leftists’ (especially greens’) growing tendency toward pessimism, hatred of technology, and distrust of rationality.

If all Marxists eventually ended up thinking like these guys (and they really are from the left, remnants of the old Revolutionary Communist Party and the now-defunct Living Marxism magazine), intelligent dialogue across the right-left divide would be much, much easier.

Meanwhile, as it happens, the parent organization of Skeptical Inquirer has announced a change in its mission — promoting science in general instead of specifically debunking unscientific and paranormal claims — and is opening an office in Washington, DC, to lobby for more science-based policy. If this means, though, that SI will be promoting exaggerated climate change fears or jumping on the latest health-scare bandwagon, I may find myself in the odd position of feeling more sympathetic to quasi-Marxists from England than to my old skeptical allies.

P.S. This would mark four ways, incidentally, in which I feel as though an era has recently ended, and with it four of my main interests. I spent about two decades thinking about:

(1) alternative rock

(2) comic books and sci-fi

(3) conservative politics (in so far as it might be a vehicle for government-reducing libertarian policies)

(4) the skeptics movement

…and then within a period of about one month in late 2006, I found that:

(1) the founding punk club CBGB’s, here in Manhattan, closed

(2) I was finally compelled to stop collecting comics after DC Comics started repeating plots (about time-altering crises) from my teen years

(3) the Republicans lost Congress, having accomplished little in the last twelve years by libertarian standards — and almost simultaneously, an aged William F. Buckley (to my mind, the most important “fusionist” figure spanning the conservative and libertarian movements, though he is not fully libertarian and isn’t usually thought of that way) announced that a speech at Yale would be his last, and Milton Friedman, who I was lucky enough to meet while he was alive, passed away (he was one of about seven Nobel Prize-winning libertarian economists; and let me add the econ Nobel has only been awarded for the past thirty-eight years, so you do the math — not a bad showing by a political faction that only about 2% of the population explicitly identify with, not that this high achievement rate stops most people from calling libertarians crazy fringe figures).

(4) the best-known skeptics organization is moving to DC and giving up on merely debunking ghosts and Bigfoot over and over again, for good or ill.

I may need new hobbies, and you may have to read about them on this blog.

UPDATE 3/27/2007: Chuck Blake and another physics-trained attender of our February debate, Mitch Golden, debate climate change in a pro/con pair of articles on the site I edit at work,

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

DEBATE AT LOLITA BAR: "Do We Face Catastrophic Climate Change?" (plus Dawn Eden/Virginia Vitzthum footage)

This week brings not only Groundhog Day, when we ask whether we’ll see six more weeks of winter (get the facts: ), but also the release of a major UN climate report suggesting we may face weather problems much harsher than that in the future — so we’re staging a live, no-holds-barred debate in one week about whether any of that’s true. Miss it at your peril.

But first (briefly), if you’re in the NYC area, you may have the chance to help keep a young Egyptian blogger out of prison for criticizing the Egyptian government. A rally outside the Egyptian embassy in Manhattan (2nd Ave. between 58th and 59th) at 3:30pm today (Wed., Jan. 31) is the sort of thing that has sometimes helped keep people like this man — Abdelkareem Nabil Soliman — from being imprisoned by Egypt simply for daring to write about the flaws of the regime there. If you don’t have to be at work, please think about showing up or forwarding this to others who might (or writing about it).

And if domestic politics is more your thing, there will be a dance Friday night (Feb. 9) in Madison Square Park (not Garden — the Park is just north of the Flatiron Building, between Madison and Fifth/Broadway near 25th St.) to protest NYC’s dance-venue-limiting cabaret laws.

But back to business as usual — and by business, I mean a debate, on perhaps the most important question of all:

“Do We Face Catastrophic Climate Change?”

Yes: Andrew McKeon, Columbia-educated engineer turned banking consultant and Gore-trained head of the Climate Change Foundation

No: Chuck Blake, CalTech/UCSD physics alum and former MIT computer research scientist/statistician turned quantitative analyst

Moderator: Michel Evanchik

Host: Todd Seavey

Wed., Feb. 7, promptly at 8pm at Lolita Bar (basement space, 266 Broome St. at Allen St. on the Lower East Side of NYC, one block south and three west of the Delancey St. subway stop); free admission, cash bar

P.S. Footage, such as it is, of our previous debate, on chastity, can be found on YouTube, in fourteen parts starting here (I don’t always look and sound quite this stunned, but the audience was huge that night):

And one of our debaters, Virginia Vitzthum, can now be found on YouTube at this URL, plugging her new book on online dating’s happiness and horrors, I Love You, Let’s Meet:

P.P.S. Let me know if you might be seriously interested in being — and seriously qualified to be — a full-time blogger about sci-fi, including manga and videogames.

(NOTE: The above was sent as a mass e-mail in the days prior to the debate and was posted on this blog retroactively in April 2007. Click here for other Debates at Lolita Bar.)

UPDATE 2/25/07: Alan Miller, himself a host of debates for, was in the audience for the Lolita Debate described above and wrote a nice article for HuffingtonPost about it. On a related note, as I type this the world is probably mere hours away from hearing Al Gore give an Oscar acceptance speech for his climate-fear documentary An Inconvenient Truth. I wonder if he’ll aim for the trifecta of mentioning his Oscar, his win of the popular (not electoral) vote in 2000, and his recent nomination by one Scandinavian politician for the Nobel Peace Prize.

If he really gets carried away and wants to appeal to a gullible public, he might also consider mentioning the fact that at a press conference here in New York City tomorrow, director James Cameron plans to unveil three ancient coffins, subjects of his next documentary, that he claims contain the decidedly-unresurrected remains of Jesus, Mary, and Mary Magdalene (as deduced, he’ll argue, from writings on the coffins and study of DNA from the remains). I’m skeptical, as always, but Gore could argue that this discovery leaves the world in need of a new savior, and he seems ready to try and fill the position (God, Gaia, whatever).

UPDATE later on 2/25/07: I read online that Gore won, but I was somewhat consoled to tune in briefly a few minutes later (with the broadcast still going on) and see Helen Mirren accepting for Best Actress — the first Oscar recipient to have played Ayn Rand (in The Passion of Ayn Rand) and, as far as I can recall, the first Oscar recipient I’ve actually met (at a party for the cast of a staged reading of a play by David Lodge circa 1993, when I was working for Glenn Young at Applause Books and with the late Jack Temchin from the Manhattan Theater Club [who once told me he saw 2001 stoned as a young man and thought he was the only one who couldn't follow the plot] — but I didn’t talk to Mirren for more than a moment because she and Lodge seemed to be enjoying each other’s company so much; I’m classy that way).

UPDATE 2/28/07: Apparently, Mirren is also the first Oscar winner I know of to admit that she wasn’t wearing underwear during the ceremony.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Conservatism for Punks: Round One

I have a piece on today arguing that it is wrong for Hillary Clinton to use the anticommunist song “Right Here, Right Now” by Jesus Jones as one of her two campaign songs, since it’s one of the few anti-left rock songs we have and there are plenty she could pick that would suit her and her socialistic leanings far better.

I should note that I got a few e-mails complaining that by calling “Right Here, Right Now” the only prominent rock song to properly celebrate the collapse of communism, I was slighting the Scorpions’ “Wind of Change.” I probably should have mentioned it, though I think the case can be made that it was more of a German-reunification song than a collapse-of-communism song per se — but as my own article implies, beggars can’t be choosers in the search for anticommunist rock songs, so here’s to the Scorpions.

Welcoming them into the fold will compensate for Duran Duran’s tendency to rant against Bush and global warming in recent years, which may suggest — though it does not in itself prove — that they are less libertarian than I thought and more conventionally leftist. Alas.

My two real regrets concerning the article, though, are that the editor took out (a) the part where I noted my concern back in high school that the cute goth chick who loaned me the Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow might not like my political views and (b) the part where I suggested, perhaps a bit too crassly, that Hillary ought to heed the wisdom of track 8 on Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I.

P.S. In less than a week, as it happens, I will get to indulge in another important bit of Gen X rock nostalgia as the Police reunite to open at the Grammys.

As Bill Flanagan recounts in the sacred text/band bio, U2 at the End of the World, when the Police played together as an ongoing band for the final time, at an Amnesty International concert in 1986, they exited one performer at a time, handing off their instruments to the members of U2 during the Police song “Invisible Sun,” about the troubles in Northern Ireland. In effect, says Flanagan, the outgoing biggest band in the world literally handed its instruments over to the incoming biggest band in the world, and a song begun by Brits was finished by Irishmen.

P.P.S. Coincidentally, “Invisible Sun” also has the odd distinction of being the one alternative rock song that ever inspired my mom to poke her head into my room while I was listening to it and say, sounding unusually serious, “That’s a great song.” Mom’s right.

UPDATE 2/11/07: Less than an hour to go before the Police come on, and luckily the techno fan upstairs in Apt. 4A is not listening to techno and has stopped watching the deafening war movie or possibly documentary about avalanches and building demolition that he seems to have been enjoying.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Book Selection of the Month: "The Death of Common Sense" by Philip K. Howard Book Selection of the Month (February 2007):

The Death of Common Sense by Philip K. Howard

I was recently pleased to discover a book that, while far more focused on practical, unphilosophical matters, does as much to angry up the blood and make one want to burn Washington, DC to the ground as any radical philosophical screed: Philip K. Howard’s The Death of Common Sense, published in 1994 at the peak of Gingrich-era anti-government sentiment (and the start of the Republican Congress, replaced by the Democrats last month after twelve frustrating years). It’s a marvelous collection of infuriating anecdotes about the stupid results of government regulations, about one per page, starting off with the story of how New York City elevator regulations prevented Mother Teresa from opening a homeless shelter here (and still we leap to government regulations as the only imaginable solution for problems like climate change, to use the topic of this month’s Debate at Lolita Bar as an example).

Howard’s book reminds me very much (perhaps not coincidentally, though I haven’t yet asked him) of my former boss John Stossel’s one-hour specials for ABC News, which began around the same time (with me starting my six-year stint there in 1995): example after example of government doing things so outrageous that philosophical disagreements almost seem to become irrelevant, and anyone with a brain is forced to say “Enough!” [UPDATE: as is indeed the working title, I believe, of a Stossel special tentatively scheduled for the night of March 23].

I may sound radical sometimes, and I may have majored in philosophy, but at the end of the day I still think practical, utilitarian consequences matter most (the sort of social ramifications of everyday decision-making described in, to take two items from my current to-read pile, an issue of Manhattan Institute’s City Journal or the book Structures of Everyday Life, which surveys the empirical details and reconstructed stats, to the extent we know them, of ordinary people’s lives in the fifteenth to eighteenth century in Europe — a book that Michel Evanchik, moderator of our Debates at Lolita Bar, was kind enough to give me).

I can’t imagine too many people, of any ideological stripe, coming away from Howard’s book thinking regulation works — nor, more important, that it is workable.