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Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Semantics and the Five-Legged Dog

I'm still sick with flu - shaking this infernally persistant little bug is like trying to walk off the edge of the world - but in the course of my fevered news browsing on the web I came upon two little items which took something of the edge off my aches and pains. Presented for your approval, via Matt Drudge and the Washington Times, is this report that Terry McAuliffe took the opportunity of the sixty-second anniversity of the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor to issue a statement attacking House GOP members regarding the intelligence reform bill which is now apparently, for better or worse, on the fast track to being signed into law.

While McAuliffe has a well-deserved reputation for bringing in prodigious sums of money for the Donks, his strategies and tactics for turning them into electoral victories for their candidates has taken a rather brutal beating over the past four years. The lack of resolve in fighting terrorism over the eight years of the Clinton administration, including the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia, and the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, has never been credibly addressed by McAuliffe and his associates. In that time, the perception of Americans as unwilling to take casualties in battle in order to achieve a military objective was exacerbated, and the desirability of US soil as a target of a major terrorist attack was enhanced, by the ill-concieved attempt to capture warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid during the Battle of Mogadishu, which culminated in the US withdrawing its troops from Somalia after eighteen fatalities were sustained in the battle. The reasoning which made showing weakness to an enemy in the face of battle seem like a viable military option safely germinated under the Clinton administration, but came to full flower in the events of 9-11-2001. Criticizing a group of Pack legislators for deliberating how best to prevent a repeat performance of something similar serves to remind plenty of people of the Clinton administration policies which helped it happen in the first place - policies largely shared by McAuliffe and the current Democratic party, and enough people to make McAuliffe's seized opportunity something of a ricin-coated porcupine.

Via Tom Maguire comes this article on the work of a UC Berkeley linguist named George Lakoff, enlisted by the Democratic Party as a savior du jour, who posits the idea that the Donks can recapture electoral success by wrapping the same ideas they've run on for about a decade in new, better language, on the premise that the Packs are winning elections by successfully selling bad ideas presented with superior language - language so good that it regularly dupes about fifty percent of the electorate into believing that the ideas themselves are superior. Missing from Lakoff's analysis is the possibility that the electorate perceives the positions of both Donks and Packs just fine, and somewhat more often than not prefers the Pack's ideas. As a linguist, perhaps Lakoff thinks that the question of whether one idea is better than another all depends on what the meaning of the word is is. The really funny part about that is that it reads an awful lot like what Lakoff is actually proposing.

I'm delighting in all of this. McAuliffe and Lakoff, and likely most of those in the current Democratic leadership are a bit like a marksman who's enamored of using the same heirloom telescopic sight his father and grandfather used. Yet, when he shoots targets with it he regularly gets his shot patterns displaced at about ten o'clock with his crosshairs centered on the bullseye - the same problem his father and grandfather had when target shooting with that sight, but which he'd always attributed to their rifles or ammunition, or maybe to a lack of practice on their part. He thinks his problem has the same origins, so he runs through large amounts of ammo and frequently practices his shooting technique, he buys a succession of better and better quality rifles and cartridges - and still has the same problem. Until he admits to himself that his problem is his skewed view of his targets in the distance, he'll never hit them in the bullseye.

As a partisan Pack, I'm thankful every day that Terry McAuliffe is the head of the DNC, and that they consider people like him and George Lakoff to be master strategists. As an American, however, I believe that the nation is best served by having both sides of the political debate offer up serious, well-reasoned arguments for healthy competition in the marketplace of ideas. When so many of the Donks' offerings are along the lines of "Bush was AWOL!", "Bush stole the 2000 election!", and "Bush will bring back the draft!", the counterpoint they provide is neither serious nor healthy, and lays the groundwork for a third party to assume the role of credible opposition to the Packs.

Reader Jim C. provides this anecdote in a comment on the Tom Maguire article cited above:
As Lincoln said, "How many legs does a dog have if you call his tail a leg? Four. Calling the tail a leg doesn't make it a leg."
So long as the Donks blame their repeated electoral failures on poor presentation of their ideas and the gullibility of the electorate, rather than entertain the possibility that their opponents' ideas were actually better than theirs, and were well-presented to a discerning electorate, then they will remain, in the words of Zell Miller, "A National Party No More".


Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Let's try this again, shall we?

As I write this, I'm sitting in front of my computer at home, convalescing from a knock-down case of flu which started hitting me unambiguously yesterday. The attendant aches and pains only trouble me when I sit, stand up, or lie down. The lying down part is what has me sitting in my chair just now.

For the past few months I've been convalescing from a computer programming course taken during work hours. Between making up the hours spent in class and spending even more time on homework, my blogging suffered like Barbra Streisand on Election Day. Also, I simply had a sort of writer's block for a while, and the November elections didn't pique my interest from the standpoint of writing commentary; I felt other people were providing better and more interesting contributitions on that topic than I thought I would have, and I had no desire to present second-quality work on this site.

However, having been approached by one of my co-workers to return to providing, among other things, non-Wally-George-style conservative commentary, I've decided to find some time in my schedule to resume writing here on a fairly regular basis.

Let the games begin - again.


Wednesday, August 11, 2004

So, I went away unexpectedly again, and...

Sorry I left without saying goodbye, as it were. I went on vacation about two weeks ago, after which I started taking some of my work home with me; the project is quite interesting, so it isn't a like I'm forcing myself to work on it. I've also started exercising again, since I've got far more potential energy stored subcutaneously that is good for me. All of this takes time, but I'll try to start providing cogent commentary again tomorrow.


Monday, July 26, 2004

Flat Tire On The Road To Reason, or A Cow For Mrs. O'Leary.

Bill Quick is one of the good guys, a solid citizen of the Blogosphere - perhaps its first citizen, semantically speaking - and regularly offers some of the most cogent analysis to be found there. As his well-reasoned arguments are very much worth examining, so are the occasional derailments of his train of thought. This is just such an examination of just such a derailment.

Bill commented on a recent incident where Hazel O'Leary, a former Secretary of Energy under Bill Clinton, was removed from an airliner by a police detail, called by the pilot when she determined that O'Leary had become too disruptive to remain on the aircraft. Bill's premise was that O'Leary had been mistreated by a pilot who acted like a tin emperor, in accord with ridiculous and oppressive air security laws.

I won't extensively rehash the comments on this, but I will excerpt a few of Bill's statements. When I described air travel as a right and not a privilege, Bill replied:
Traveling by passenger aircraft is not a right, but a privilege.
I'm sorry, but that is anti-liberty, "your rights belong to the state" b******t, nothing more.*
Bill Hedrick made a follow-up comment, included at the top of Bill Quick's reply to it:
Frankly I don't give a rat's patoot about this story, but Bill if air travel is a right not a privilege, why do we pay for it?
Sigh. I saw this one coming. I should have shot it down in advance. Bill, freedom to travel is a right. Freedom to set up an airline company is a right. Freedom to operate that company any damned way you please is a right. What is not a right is for the government to step in and tell the airline companies how to run their businesses.
Bronson Yake addressed that last point pretty authoritatively here, so I'll leave it at that. Further along in the same reply, Bill wrote:
Oh, and airline travel is neither a right nor a privilege - it is a service that is bought and sold.
Bill Quick, without intending to, has made the following argument:

1) Freedom to travel is a right.

2) Flying on airliners is a form of travel.


3) Freedom to fly on airliners is a right.


4) Flying on airliners is a service that is bought and sold


5) Freedom to buy or sell flying (passage) on airliners is a right.


6) Freedom to buy passage on airliners is a right.


7) Freedom to sell passage on airliners is a right.

Replacement of "passage on airliners" by "passage in taxicabs" or most any other commercially available form of transportation results in logically identical constructions.

The right for one person to buy passage on an airliner implies the responsibility of another person to provide airliner passage, which is to say:

8) Sale of passage on airliners is a responsibility.

And here is where the fatal weakness in this argument shines through. A right is a thing which one can exercise, or not, at will. A responsibility is a thing which is compulsory. This is a classic example of a fallacy of conflicting conditions, which is one of the fallacies of definition.

Unwittingly, Bill has argued that private air carriers must sell air passage to persons who can buy it. Since provision of the passage is implicit in it's sale, that would mean that air carriers would have to provide air passage to people who bought it. The aforementioned logical fallacy aside, this line of reasoning leaves no discretion for an airline to deny service to someone who has bought airline passage even if they exhibit disruptive or outright dangerous behavior during a flight, which is ridiculous on its face.

I suspect that even conduct not explicitly proscribed by the law or the airline's own guidelines could be legally acceptable grounds for sanctioning a badly-behaved passenger based on generally recognized standards of decorum; I'll update this post after I consult Bronson for some general advice on this point.

In finishing up this post, I noticed that Bill had made some new comments on his thread, but they're along the same line of reasoning I just critiqued, so I won't address them any further.

I respect Bill Quick, and no personal attack or offense is intended by this analysis, but I disagree with him strongly on this issue all the same. Actually, I found going through his argument to be a most rigorous exercise in critical thinking, and a salutary experience overall.

That said, nobody's perfect, everybody makes mistakes, and, save for the above-promised update, I think it's time to move on (not .org).

*Asterisks mine.

UPDATE: Bronson and I discussed the matter of sanctions based on generally recognized standards of decorum, and while he felt that my question could have been worded less ambiguously, he stated that such sanctions would likely pass legal muster in most cases.


Saturday, July 24, 2004

It's life, Jim, but not as we know it. Or is it? Or isn't it?

While rummaging about the The New Scientist's website I came upon this article from about a year ago describing a Romanian physicist's generation of plasma globules which mimic in several particulars the behavior of cells. These globules were described as being comprised of a bilayer "membrane", with an outer layer of electrons and an inner layer of positive ions, surrounding a core of neutral gas molecules. Such structures are somewhat analogous to the micelles and vesicles I described in an earlier post, but are not what most scientists would consider to be capable of generating life.

Before I go on much further, I should mention that the physicist in question, Mircea Sanduloviciu, claimed that his results were evidence that such plasma-based structures could have given rise to life on the young Earth, and that this conclusion was disputed by a physical chemist at the University of Brussels, Gregoire Nicolis. I strongly concur with Dr. Nicolis on this count. When humans eventually generate artificial life, the first results will almost certainly be similar to the artificial cellular systems I wrote about here.

But is that necessarily the case?

The article claims that the plasma blobs don't rise to the level of life, because they lack hereditary material. But what would constitute hereditary material in a ball of plasma? Would we recognize it if we saw it? What does that mean conceptually, anyway?

Prions are particles of protein which contain no heriditary material that we recognize as such, like DNA or RNA, and yet they are the causitive agents of spongiform ecephalopathies such as BSE, better known as mad cow disease, manifested in humans as so-called variant Creutzfeld-Jakob disease. They manage to alter the conformation of proteins in the brains of those they infect, proteins which are otherwise nearly identical chemically to the prions themselves.

Viruses have no cellular apparatus themselves, but contain DNA or RNA which they introduce into a host cell. Once inside, the host cell's machinery is hijacked by the viral DNA or RNA into producing copies of the virus.

Are prions or viruses alive? Good arguments could be made pro or con for both. While I don't want to seem Clintonian about the matter, I think it really does depend on what the meaning of the word "life" is.

A judge once stated that he couldn't define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it.

I suppose this serves as convincing proof that life isn't pornography.

In all seriousness, though, this puts efforts to detect life on other worlds, and attempts to create life in the laboratory, into an interesting light. How do we identify living systems if we aren't certain of our criteria?

Bernard Korzeniewski of the Institute of Molecular Biology at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, has come up with a definition of life which excludes ants and infertile humans. From my perspctive as a colloid and surface chemist I think Korzeniewski's definition fails to acknowledge the forest for the trees, but it points out that the very definition of life is something that even trained scientists can't come to a consensus on.

My own views tend toward allowing more latitude in recognizing processes as living, but the more I think about it, the more I appreciate the wisdom in the words of the judge I quoted earlier.

But to put the dilemma in prespective, think about how intelligent organisms consisting of collections of plasma globules would assess a terrestrial bacterium like Escherichia coli.

They would observe something with a complex structure which could take surrounding chemicals and convert them to constituents of itself, something which could make copies of itself, and somethng which could transfer chemicals between copies of itself.

But it would exist at temperatures considered by the plasma beings to be too low to support life as they understood it. It would be comprised of an odd form of matter which exists only at very low temperatures, and is very little like the plasma and gas their own bodies were composed of. Would they recognize those bacteria as lifeforms?

Would they recognize us as lifeforms, if they were to observe us?

I think I'll have more to say about this in later posts.


Thursday, July 22, 2004

A well-reported story chemistry in the mainstream media.

Via Fark comes this story about a chromic acid leak on I-15 in Escondido, California. This statement from California Forestry Department spokesman Matt Streck is right on the money:
"You know how on TV somebody gets acid spilled on 'em and it eats through 'em? It's literally that bad," he said.
I've worked with chromic acid in the past, and almost exactly the same sentiments, worded the same in my mind, occurred to me. In fact, I was thinking of what to my mind is the quintessential television-program-acid-eating-through-someone-scene: the scene in Frankenstein: The True Story (which wasn't, by the way) where acid is poured an a crawling, disembodied arm to destroy it.

As an adaptation of a literary classic the movie, shall we say, takes liberties with its source material, but in an absolute sense it's a good story, and well acted, too. And the scene with the arm resonates with me to this day.

And if this post seems a bit odd to you, it's because I don't want to write about Sandy Berger, for a number of reasons, but today I'm not terribly enthused by anything else in the media, either... except for that Fark link to the chromic acid spill story, and the fond memories of a fine piece of television that it brought flooding back to me.

Perhaps something more topical will come along tomorrow and pique my interest.


Wednesday, July 21, 2004

From C-rations to P-rations.

The New Scientist (which is going on the blogroll tonight) has this gem of a story about US military research combining dehydrated food with packaging incorporating a semipermeable membrane which excludes bacteria and larger particulates, allowing a hungry soldier to safely rehydrate his food with swamp water - and not quite as safely with water from his own plumbing. From the article:
Hydration Technology of Albany, Oregon, which makes the membrane, says soldiers should only use urine in an absolute emergency because the membrane is too coarse to filter out urea.

The body will not find this toxic over the short term, says Ed Beaudry, an engineer with HTI, but rehydrating food this way in the long term would cause kidney damage.

And in the short term it'll cause disgust. And a tangy taste.

Actually, I should be a little more serious about this since:
a. This is food designed to sustain military personnel in the field; it's emphasis is on portability and nutritive value, not taste.
b. There are probably people in this country who pay good money to eat food prepared with endogenous marinade - and probably not their own endogenous marinade, either.

Postscript: Urine leaving the body of a healthy human is generally sterile, and the semipermeable membrane in the new food packs can't filter out urea, so I doubt it could filter out any other urine components. I think it's a non-issue as far as rehydrating dried rations with eau d'homme is concerned.


My brief weblog vacation has ended.

I'll write more later today, but for now suffice it to say that an operating system upgrade and temporary chauffeur duty, among other things, were involved in my absence here. I'd write more but my last two posts didn't publish properly, I'm really not up to replacing all that missing prose just now, and it's beginning to look a lot like bedtime.