Sunday, September 28, 2008

Party swap

At this year's Republican Convention, Mike Huckabee said, "Abraham Lincoln reminded us that a government that can do everything for us can also take everything from us." I've been trying to figure out what he meant by that. In Lincoln's day, it was the Democratic Party that preached laissez-faire, free trade, and states' rights, while the Republicans advocated increased taxation, protectionism, and an activist federal government. Was Huckabee mythologizing Lincoln as a small-government conservative? Or was he criticizing the massive government expansion that Lincoln in fact engendered? I suspect it was a little of both, because nowadays the party of Lincoln is also the party of neo-Confederates.

I often see Republican politicians walk that tightrope, invoking the mantle of Lincoln without directly praising Lincoln's politics. It's striking that Democrats rarely do this with their presidential godfather, Thomas Jefferson, who, similarly, didn't have much in common with today's Democrats. ("That government is best which governs least.") Huckabee's reference to Lincoln was one of several during the Republican Convention, but the Democratic Convention featured just one reference to Jefferson, and it was in a speech by Jim Leach, a Republican.

I can understand why. Historians of all political stripes consider Lincoln the greatest U.S. president, who kept the nation from splitting apart and oversaw the abolition of slavery, perhaps the most important moral development in our nation's history. When reading about Republicans in the nineteenth century, it is hard not to think of them simply as the good guys and the Democrats as the villains. While the picture was more complicated than that, the Republicans did begin as an anti-slavery party and continued to support the interests of African Americans after the Civil War, even as Democrats were loudly proclaiming the inferiority of the Negro. The Democrats' racism continued well into the twentieth century, with their support for the Jim Crow laws.

Modern-day Republicans like to point out these ugly facts to undermine the Democratic Party's legitimacy on race issues. But the fact remains that the Democrats, to a large extent, were the ones who first embraced the civil rights movement of the 1960s. That a white-supremacist party evolved into a civil-rights party--and, ultimately, became the first party to nominate a black man for president--is one of the more remarkable facts about our nation's political history.

How and why these realignments happened is the subject of Lewis Gould's 2003 book Grand Old Party. Gould argues that certain features of the Republican Party have remained constant even as its philosophy of government, as well as its demographics, changed. Among other things, Republicans always had a close relationship with the business community. That they initially saw no conflict between this relationship and their regulatory views suggests how radically different society was back then.

According to Gould, Teddy Roosevelt's departure from the Republican Party was a seminal event in solidifying the party's conservative philosophy. The other Roosevelt's presidency, on the other hand, represented the beginnings of the Democratic Party's embrace of welfare capitalism. That was when blacks began migrating to the Democrats. Southern whites remained attached to the party and wouldn't start to become agitated until Truman's administration.

It was in the 1960s, especially in the candidacy of Barry Goldwater and in LBJ's passage of key civil-rights legislation, that the white South became solidly Republican, while African Americans became solidly Democrat. Goldwater's role in this process was not entirely fair. He was generally supportive of civil rights, and he had helped desegregate the Arizona National Guard. But his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had an important symbolic impact.

Both parties eventually reached a consensus on the issue of desegregation. But it is hard to forget what initiated the realignment of the South. One notable Dixiecrat-turned-Republican was Strom Thurmond, famous for the longest filibuster in history to stop the Civil Rights Act of 1957 (which Goldwater supported). On the other hand, ex-Klansman Robert Byrd remained in the Democratic Party. Of course, neither of these men continued to preach racism after the 1960s.

That's what makes the question of "Where did the racists go?" so complicated. Some of them had a genuine change of heart, regardless of which party they ended up in. They all grew old while the younger generation forged its identity in a world more accepting of diversity. But African Americans have not forgotten how the parties developed to their current state, which is why the vast majority of them vote Democrat to this day despite holding some conservative views.

There is still evidence of racism among whites in both parties. A recent study suggested that one-third of white Democrats and independents hold negative views of blacks. Blogger Nate Silver has criticized the survey for both its methodology and its attempts to draw conclusions about the current election, but I have observed throughout this year that many Democrats are beginning to notice the old-fashioned racists still lurking within their own party. It is time to engage in a little reflection and stop placing the blame solely with the other party.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Tea/No Tea '08

The Republican race this year has begun to remind me of a point in the old Infocom text adventure Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

In that game, you are making your way through a spaceship when you find an object called tea on the ground. You can pick it up by typing "TAKE TEA." There is also an object called no tea which you can pick up: "TAKE NO TEA." But you cannot pick up one while holding the other, since you cannot be simultaneously holding tea and no tea.

The problem is, you have to do just that in order to access the ship's computer. To make this seemingly illogical act possible, you must temporarily become a microscopic entity inside your own brain and remove the Common Sense Particle. Once it is removed, you are free to hold tea and no tea at the same time.

After campaigning on experience and deriding his opponent for a lack of it, John McCain has now selected an inexperienced running mate. She not only lacks foreign policy experience, she has virtually no record of even expressing foreign policy views. In an interview from last month, she didn't even recognize that we have an exit plan for Iraq!

The hypocrisy was so transparent it even caught the attention of many conservatives, including David Frum, Charles Krauthammer, George Will, Ben Stein (who called her "the most peculiar vice-presidential choice there has ever been"), and former McCain strategist Mike Murphy. Others did 180-degree turns on things they had said, prompting a great bit on The Daily Show.

But those who thought McCain could no longer invoke the experience argument were quickly rebuffed by the RNC, which flaunted McCain's experience and Palin's non-Washington status. Somewhere along the line, he removed the Common Sense Particle, figuring he could convince voters to elect tea and no tea at the same time. The odd thing is, he may be right.

While I'm too much of a wimp to make any definitive predictions, I see Democrats falling into a trap. It's the same trap they fell into with Bush in 2000, setting the expectations so low that very little was needed to exceed expectations. You know something's seriously out-of-whack when all a candidate must do to quell many people's doubts about her readiness is capably deliver a speech she didn't write.

I won't go into a detailed refutation of the RNC's attempts to puff up Palin's record while tearing down Obama's. Many other sites have already taken up the task. What's telling is the unstated assumption that her experience must be measured against Obama's. Obama never ran on experience; McCain did. Had Palin been a presidential candidate earlier this year, McCain would almost certainly have assailed her lack of experience, as he in fact did against Romney, Giuliani, and Thompson, all of whom have considerably more experience than Palin.
"We don't have time or opportunity for on-the-job training, and the other candidates for president I don't believe have the qualifications that I do to hit the ground running and immediately address these serious challenges," the four-term Arizona senator and Vietnam veteran told reporters following a speech on the military.

"The country would be safer with me as its leader," McCain added. He said that while he respects his opponents, "this is all about who is best equipped to take on the challenge of radical Islamic extremism."
The selection of a running mate is important not just because of who gets picked, but because it tells us something about how the person at the top of the ticket makes decisions. Obama made a pragmatic if unexciting choice. McCain made a political choice. If experience matters to him as much as he has claimed, what does his selection tell us about his commitment to putting "country first"?

At the convention, Republicans adopted the Lloyd Bentsen strategy. Their message was, "We know Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin is a friend of ours. Senator Obama, you're no Sarah Palin." The trouble is, that first sentence is a lie, and anyone who's been paying attention realizes it.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Design creating the designer

Given the achievements of theoretical physics in the last century, it can come as a shock to realize the amount of unbridled speculation in the field. The way Paul Davies presents the topic in his book The Goldilocks Enigma occasionally gives it the aura of classical mythology. For example, tell me the following account of the early universe doesn't sound like some primordial battle between a good and bad deity:
Whenever matter and antimatter mingle, they quickly annihilate in a burst of gamma rays.... So that presents a puzzle: how did the big bang make 1050 tons of matter without also making 1050 tons of antimatter?.... however it is done, the story of the origin of matter would go something like this. The heat radiation released after the big bang created copious quantities of both matter and antimatter, all mixed together, but containing a slight excess of matter. As the universe cooled, the antimatter would be totally destroyed by virtue of its being in intimate contact with matter, leaving unscathed the small residue of excess matter--about one part in a billion. (p. 105)
The coincidence of my coming upon this book just a few weeks after I wrote my post about pantheism, which covers similar ground, wasn't lost on me. Both deal with the question of why the dead universe around us seems uniquely suited for life. To rephrase the old conundrum, how come anyone's around to hear the tree make a sound?

Physicists over the past few decades have discovered that many of the physical laws of the universe seem "just right" for the development of life. If the numbers had been slightly lower, or slightly higher, life as we know it could not have come to exist. I will mention just a few examples, because the topic is vast and has been covered thoroughly in numerous books:

1. If the neutron were slightly lighter, the proton would be unstable and atoms probably could not have formed. If it were slightly heavier, nuclear fusion would not be possible and stars could not have formed.

2. If gravity were slightly stronger, all stars would be giants with relatively brief lives. If it were slightly weaker, heavy elements necessary for planet formation would not have been produced.

3. If the nuclear resonance level of carbon were any different, our sun could not have produced high quantities of the element.

One must exercise caution when examining these apparent facts. Perhaps a very different sort of life, or lifelike phenomenon, would have emerged under other conditions. Perhaps we aren't exercising our imaginations enough. But examples like these have piled up, and so far they haven't gone away.

Like me, Davies isn't satisfied with the standard copout, "That's just the way the laws are, and if they weren't that way, we wouldn't be here to discuss it." To illustrate the flaw in this argument, he takes off from an idea in Carl Sagan's novel Contact. The number pi consists of decimal digits going on into infinity. The digits are completely arbitrary except for the fact that the number is derived from nature. Let's say you created a computer program displaying the number in binary, where a light pixel would represent one, and a dark pixel zero. Most likely, the screen would be flooded with meaningless "snow." You wouldn't expect to see a coherent image, such as a circle, much less a smiley face. But what if one did appear after just two minutes? Assuming the program wasn't rigged, the only conclusion most scientists would permit would be that it's just a freakish coincidence.

Davies explores several possible solutions to this dilemma. (I will deal with only a few of them here.) The most popular is the hypothesis of multiple universes. In an infinity of universes, some are bound to produce life. Those that don't will obviously go unnoticed. We're here simply because our universe is one that happened to have the right set of laws needed for our existence.

The multiverse hypothesis isn't purely ad hoc; it seems to follow from certain versions of the Big Bang theory, as well as from certain versions of quantum mechanics. But there are major problems with the hypothesis, as Davies explains. For starters, it is borderline untestable. It also seems to violate Occam's razor, the principle that theories should be as simple as possible. And it leaves unanswered the question of where the universe-generating mechanism came from.

One bizarre twist on this hypothesis bears mentioning. Davies quotes Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom as saying, "There is a significant probability that you are living in [a] computer simulation. I mean this literally: if the simulation hypothesis is true, you exist in a virtual reality simulated in a computer built by some advanced civilisation. Your brain, too, is merely a part of that simulation."

That's just a modern variation on an age-old philosophical idea, but Bostrom makes a case for it based on the multiverse hypothesis. See if you can follow this. If countless universes exist, there are likely to be ones containing civilizations that have reached the point of creating simulated universes. Any civilization with that capacity is likely to exercise it numerous times. Therefore, there are likely to be more fake universes than real ones, and so, by the laws of probability, we are more likely to inhabit one of the fakes.

Davies has fun with this idea. If we're in a simulation, who is to say we aren't in a simulation-within-a-simulation? "Logically there is no end to this nested sequence.... The real universe could be lost amid an infinite regress of nested fakes. Or it may not even exist at all. Reality might consist of an infinite sequence of simulations, period" (p. 185).

As the saying goes, that way lies madness. Bostrom's argument has many holes, but the most basic is that the conclusion undermines the premises. If we live in a fake universe, how do we know the physical laws we have discovered--on which the multiverse hypothesis rests--accurately describe the reality outside the simulation?

Davies, in any case, prefers a one-universe model, but he still suspects that the seemingly life-friendly laws cannot be due to chance. He proposes that there must be something leading our universe in the direction of producing conscious, thinking beings like ourselves. What that something is, he leaves open, but he puts forward a series of related theories that he maintains are compatible with modern physics.

While I'm not sure I understood all the details, his basic idea is that conscious life itself, in the far future, somehow influences the early universe to produce life in the first place. The laws create life, and life creates the laws, in a sort of circular time-loop with no ultimate origin. I couldn't help thinking of the following Escher drawing:

Davies contrasts this idea with the classic grandfather paradox, where a time traveler kills an ancestor. He says it is more like a time traveler saving the life of a girl who will one day become the time traveler's mother. Davies insists that this scenario, while strange, does not create a paradox.

Actually, the scenario is called an "ontological paradox." One notable example I discussed on this blog is from the movie Somewhere in Time. A man receives an antique watch from an old lady. He later goes back in time and gives it to a young woman, who will become the old lady who gives it to his younger self--and so on, ad infinitum. The paradox is that the watch was never built by anyone, at any time. It just eternally exists, fully formed. Since Davies is as bothered as I am by the question of why anything exists, I would think he'd stay far away from such scenarios, which only compound the question.

Considering the difficulties with all these theories, why not accept the traditional idea of a creator God? Davies thinks this answer presents at least as many difficulties as the others. For one thing, did God choose to create the universe, or was it a necessary act that flowed from His very nature? Either possibility leads to additional questions. Also notice the problem with describing creation as an event in time--God exists outside of time, at least according to traditional religions.

I think that such questions miss the point. God by definition is where rational inquiry ends. To believers, the purpose of belief is to transcend the rational in order to connect with the unfathomable. The usual response by scientists is that God, then, should remain forever outside of scientific discussions. To some extent, I agree. But when scientists are reduced to positing fake worlds within fake worlds, or self-created entities from an unexplainable time-loop, we are justified in wondering if the end has already been reached.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Word relativity

While in college, I once gathered entries from Dictionary of Changes in Meaning by Adrian Room, a book that gives obsolete definitions of common English words and traces their evolution to their current meanings. Here are a few of the examples I collected:

algebra: bone-setting
buxom: obedient
coffin: basket
computer: person who does computations
corpse: a living person's body
friend: lover
garbage: animal food
girl: child of either sex
grammar: the study of Latin
hussy: housewife
jargon: twittering of birds
jest: noble deed
kill: to strike or beat
knight: boy, youth
lair: bed
larva: ghost
lewd: not a member of the clergy
litter: portable couch
nice: foolish
nosy: having a large nose
passenger: traveler on foot
poison: any liquid mixture, not necessarily toxic
sagacious: having a keen sense of smell
silly: blessed
snob: shoemaker
toilet: cloth wrapping
tomboy: boisterous boy