Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Betting On Goliath

Last night we watched a terrific documentary film about Ricky Jay, a scholar, actor and magician.  The documentary is called Deceptive Practice.

In the movie, a martial arts teacher told us about Jay’s tremendous focus illustrating it with a story of some artifice Jay did at a dinner with his fellow Aikido students.  The trick involved folding two one dollar bills together to produce a two dollar bill.  Everyone at the dinner begged Jay to tell them how the trick was done.  Jay, of course, refused.  Just so, he refused on many other occasions to say how it was done. A certain mythology developed about what circumstances it could be done or not done. The students puzzled over how they could con Jay into a position of being unable to perform.

They saw their chance when, after a workout, they presented Jay with two ones while he was nude and showering.  The picture is priceless.  Jay is roundish and gnomish with a slight speech impediment.  Still, Jay performed the trick flawlessly.  To this day, the sensei carries around the two dollar bill to remind himself and his students about the power of focus and of their own inability to tease out how it was done.

The story reminded me of David and Goliath.  The story is well known, so I won’t repeat it here.  Suffice to say that a Philistine giant challenged the Israelite army to single combat to settle certain territorial claims.  Goliath had been causing trouble all during the opening skirmishes in a valley between two mountains.

David was a slinger. Incredibly, when David told Saul he could rid him of this pesky hulk he never mentioned the sling.  Rather, he told Saul he was a bear and lion fighter.

Goliath was accompanied to the valley by a shield-bearer. Upon seeing David, he began taunting calling him a mere boy carrying sticks.

David prevailed that day because Goliath was slow, dim-witted and probably visually impaired.  That’s why Goliath had to be led out. David had one stick (a shepherd’s staff) and hid the presence of the sling.

David ran toward Goliath who was dumbfounded by the move.  When it was too late David produced the sling and fired off one of his smooth stones.  Goliath went down.  David finished off Goliath with Goliath’s own sword.  The Philistines took flight and were routed by Saul’s forces.  The Philistine camp was looted and many invaders died.

David appeals to us even today because he is one of those prized people who was both a warrior and a poet.  This story also shows him to be shrewd and exceedingly blessed.  David’s lineage puts him as a direct descendant of Ruth, the Moabite woman.  It’s important to note that the Moabites were an unsavory lot.  Despite his questionable purity, David was a forebear of Jesus.  David was anointed King when Saul failed.

In the case of Ricky Jay’s deceptive practice, he depends on our slavish regard for both the usual measures of success and insistence on believing only those things we can see.  The story of David and Goliath points to the folly of a slavish regard for the usual measures of success and an insistence on a belief only in what we can see.


I’m Just Sayin’,



Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Texas Sharpshooter: Adventures in Logic III

Dear Children:

This may be new to you, but bear with me. You will be rewarded.

Correlation does not imply causation (cum hoc propter hoc). That is Latin for "with this, because of this". It is a term used in science and statistics to emphasize that a correlation between two variables does not necessarily imply that one causes the other. Many statistical tests calculate correlation between variables. A few go further and calculate the likelihood of a true causal relationship.

The opposite assumption, that correlation proves causation, is one of several logical fallacies by which two events that occur together are taken to have a cause-and-effect relationship. This fallacy is also known as cum hoc ergo propter hoc, Latin for "with this, therefore because of this", and "false cause". A similar fallacy, that an event that follows another was necessarily a consequence of the first event, is sometimes described as post hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin for "after this, therefore because of this").

You only have to remember the gist: one thing does not cause the other because they occur near, before or after the other thing.

One interesting version of this is in the news every day; the medical news. It’s called The Texas Sharpshooter fallacy. Sorry, there is no Latin word for Texas.

This fallacy posits that if there are at least two factors that present themselves in a large sampling of data, the same conclusion may be drawn as from the whole sample. It’s as if someone shot a million .45 rounds in the broad side of a barn. After examination of the bullet holes, our gunman draws a target around two of them claiming a medal for marksmanship.

It would be funny if it didn’t have tragic consequences. Our brains are wired to look for patterns. That’s how we recognize faces for instance.

Thousands of parents have refused to have their children vaccinated because of this cruel fallacy. A child has autism, that child got vaccinated; vaccination causes autism. It’s not as if parents were making a tragic mistake for their own children but they are also risking exposure to Rubella, for instance, to their children’s classmates. Remind me to talk about Moral Hazard some day.

Not that there aren’t hilarious examples of this as well, Sports radio is full of it. Some talking head notices that Bruiser’s ERA seems to fluctuate with his picture on the first page of the sports section of the paper. That’s fun but no less a load of equines puckes.

I’m just sayin’


Monday, March 25, 2013

So’s Your Old Man: Adventures in Logic II

Dear Children:

In the study of logic, there is a fallacy called argumentum ad hominem (against the person). Of course it is often a personal attack but more often it is an attack made against an adversary’s associations, lifestyle, education and parentage. It is a fallacy because such an attack does not speak to the validity of a proposition. Girls aren’t supposed to know anything about math or science. Short people don’t know basketball. Plain people should not be giving fashion tips. Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. You get the idea.

There are many specific brands of the ad hominem fallacy such as Circumstantial when a claim is made by someone who has special or secret knowledge. When someone says they have secret knowledge, that claim may be true or false but the speaker’s credibility is nonexistent.

A proposition may be attacked when the source appears to have a Conflict of Interest. For a source to be authoritative it must be both objective and impartial. The evidentiary weight of an argument diminishes with the benefit that accrues to the source.

Guilt by association is also a fallacy in this category. There is no bearing on the validity of a statement concerning crime from the mouth of a criminal.

But, it’s another special kind of ad hominem fallacy we see around us the most. It is called Tu Quoque; literally “you too”. This, finally, is a subject dear to the hearts of us all; hypocrisy.

We are highly sensitive when it comes to hypocrisy. “Do what I say, not what I do.” We don’t listen to those who fail to practice what they preach. We know for sure that “If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas” attributed to Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. In modern political parlance, we call such people flip-floppers or worse. You are sensible to be suspicious of such people. Unfortunately, your suspicion does not amount to a refutation of their claim.

Please understand that it must be this way. No less a figure than Jesus has asked us to examine our hearts to see if we are righteous enough to cast the first stone (John 8:7). In logic, too, the sins of a speaker do not say a true thing about the speaker’s words.

If a speaker is wrong, we’ll just have to prove it another way.

I’m just sayin’


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Straw Man: Adventures in Logic

Dear Children:

Recognizing specious argument isn’t easy. Moreover, we often know something is wrong but we have no name for it. This begins a series about the various ways arguments are distorted.

Now don’t get me wrong. Some things aren’t open to examination by logic. Take matters of faith for instance. If you say you believe in Unicorns you have expressed a belief. No one can tell you that you don’t believe in Unicorns. Nowhere in all the rhetorical arts is it possible to fully know another person’s mind.

And, there are other statements of fact that do not have to be proved-up logically in order to be true. You say it is in the paper today that Bruiser hit two home runs. Such a statement is likely to be true.

It’s the statements that are offered up as reasoned and true that I want to discuss here. In these cases, statements used to argue a particular position are always subject to the crucible of logic.

One of my favorites is called Straw Man. It is a fallacy one finds everywhere. But first, let’s understand a principle of logic called argumentum ad logicum (argument to logic). A proposition is not false because the logic used to prove it is invalid. In other words, we cannot say that something is false and base it on the notion that the proposition was not proved with impeccable logic. That’s just fair. Understand that a statement may be valid even though it was wrongly argued.

That's right.  We are in the business of arguing such points rightly so that we can make a judgment about validity.

That’s where Straw Man comes in. Straw Man is a particular version of argumentum ad logicum that refutes an extreme version of someone else’s argument rather than the actual argument he or she has made. For instance, if some outrageous description of the other’s statement is false, what he actually said must also be false. Politics is rife with this fallacy.

Senator Snort: This fighter jet strikes me as frightfully expensive.

Senator Blather: Senator Snort is such a penny-pincher. He would leave our country defenseless.

Do you see? Senator Blather has fashioned a cartoon version of what Senator Snort had to say. Then, because penny pinchers and those weak on defense are silly, we needn’t listen to him. In no way did Senator Blather actually engage Senator Snort’s statement.

Here’s another one: “We know that evolution is false because we did not evolve from monkeys”. Never mind that evolution does not aver that humans evolved from monkeys. That’s a straw man. Make up something false to knock over and, in so doing, belittle someone who wants to engage on a serious topic.

With a little practice you will recognize this fallacy in everyday life. See if this one is familiar:

Mom: Today we’ll clean out the closets. They are looking messy.

Kid: We cleaned out the closets last Easter. Must we clean them every day?

Mom: Who said anything about every day? You just want to keep your crap forever. That’s ridiculous.

There are two straw men in one short argument. The important thing to note here is that nothing was accomplished.

I’m just sayin’


Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Tramp Gramp

Dear Children:

It’s been more than seventeen months or so since a posting on these pages.

My intention was to blog the zany stuff that happened in the 112th Congress. Instead, we were treated to the most numbing disappointment possible. It no longer looked like any fun. Instead of law-writing shenanigans we got parliamentary shenanigans. Instead of enjoying the more colorful characters, we heard from the ideological and dim ones. Instead of the tax and deficit-reduction debate we were promised, we got a repeat of the culture wars fought in the seventies and eighties as well as well as contempt for the settled law of that period. Instead of tossing out Speaker Pelosi for her arrogance, we got a new parboiled Speaker. Instead of a lively debate turning on the role of government, we got buzz words and irrefutable proof that liars can figure.

Instead of a reverence for The Constitution we got the fifth grade Readers Digest version of The Constitution. It has been carefully bowdlerized for our protection. Instead of principled discourse about religion's place in the public square we got the Sunday school song version and a hundred-word-vocabulary rendering of the Judeo-Christian scriptures. Islam and Mormon teachings get less attention. We're burdened with bumper sticker insights, cruel jokes, inside snides, snark and a wink/wink mentality when it comes to polite conversation. Our public manners are atrocious.

Help! This is stuff we do not need. The language has gone all twisty and uncertain.

For those who are pathological on the left or right, let me hasten to add that all our political and religious wings have nurtured this nonsense and delighted in its fruit. We make up things our founders might have said if they lived in our time. We leech all context out of what our founders did say. In fact, every dead politician is fair game for those who have a point to make and don't care whose graves are trampled in the process.

Consider this singular fact: the buzz words we use come from the buzz word factory; mass produced in such quantities that they appear as if from nowhere and linger only for as long as they are needed. "Job killing legislation" leaps to mind. "The backs of seniors" qualifies as does "the right side of history". The marketplace of ideas has been replaced by a spigot of hot-button words.  Check that: it’s more like a fetid puddle of hot-button words.

Only the fringes of issues are supported. Whole industries have sprung up in Washington, DC and the state capitols to protect some corner of some issue and to influence policy, law and regulation. No assault however thin goes unchallenged. Positions are hardened and re-hardened to the point that only adherence to the most stringent formulations of the issue are permitted. By this time, if you want any representation on any issue, your only option is to sign on with the fringe. Do not try to find a middle-ground. There is none.

If you feel manipulated: congratulations. Informed people do not like feeling manipulated. It is also true that caring people will not enslave or be enslaved. Thoughtful people will cling to the hard kernel and practical applications of their faith; charity, honest dealing and worshipful decision-making. Strong people are servants to the weak.

So what? None of this is new. Political, ethical, religious and social thinkers have espoused these ideas for millennia. Unfortunately, caring and ethical ideas are rendered toothless by what passes for advocacy. Grasping for and service to power is both brutal and normative.

Just so, those same sages have discussed why an ideal in government and public business gets brushed aside so often. After all, these ideals are meant to be liberating.

We have come to the cruel understanding that it is good people trying to live their lives in peace who enable the cynical manipulators. Manipulators rule because concepts of peaceful order are messy and unreliable.

How sad. If it is true that the manipulated have a hand in their own oppression, what force can prevail in opposition? How can we both live our lives in peace and keep the manipulators at bay?

Consider the hobo; men who, during the first third or so of the twentieth century, looked for work all over the country. They got around by the dangerous expedient of empty railroad box cars. That was roughly all I knew about Hobos until I was given 300 cigar boxes

The ensuing panic about what to do with so many otherwise useless containers has led to an interest in so-called tramp art or hobo crafts. The jug band guitars, the purses, frames and such we’ve made recently is reflective of that. It has also led to the discovery of the wonderful world of cigar box illustration,"travlin'" songs, much of our rich chain-gang music and songs about heaven like "Big Rock Candy Mountain".

The hobos also left signs on buildings and fences for their brothers who followed behind. The signs were deeply practical like the one that means "judge lives here, you will be beaten".

One graffito in particular caught my eye. It was the sign of The Cross of Christ. This is a universal symbol of a faith community; followers of Jesus. In this context, the meaning is quite different and not-at all-subtle. It means "Religious talk will get you a hand-out". For some people, merely hearing the right words is sufficient reason to give up thoughtfulness and free will. After all, charity is a duty. Cooperation with a manipulator, on the other hand, is a breach of good sense.  Do you catch the difference?

As difficult and unclear and squishy as that is, take a lesson. Know when you are being shucked and jived even if the shucking and jiving makes you feel better. A manipulator may be at work.

I'm just sayin'


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Catch XXII Redux

Dear Children:
It didn’t get much ink given the sturm und drang of the last two years, but Senate leaders have come to an informal compromise over Rule 22; the rule covering the use of the filibuster discussed previously. Don’t think that tenderheartedness has broken out, though. The accommodation results from a new situation on the ground, so to speak. This Senate now has 53 Democrats and 47 Republicans which puts the possibility of cloture out of reach for both parties. Filibuster as a delaying tactic as opposed to a killing tactic is off the table. In other words, a filibuster would take the form of the filibuster of old where a member needs to identify himself and hold the floor for the tactic to work. The chance of it becoming a party-wide tactic is diminished.

Mr. McConnell and Mr. Reid looked out from Lookout Mountain and saw a Senate where nothing gets done. This was the situation that existed in the second Clinton administration and directly resulted, along with a booming economy, in the paying down of the national debt at an extraordinary pace. God forbid that should happen again.

So they tried it out on the Aviation Policy Bill. Aviation Policy has been bouncing around the Congress since Mr. Reagan broke the Air Traffic Controller’s Union.

You’ll be happy to know that Chicken Little was wrong. When the measure came up, Mr. Reid permitted a flood of amendments from the floor including repeal of healthcare. None of the amendments passed because the Aviation Policy bill had been thoroughly vetted in committee over the last two and a half decades or so.

This was just the first try of what Senator Schumer called procedural civility.

There are a number of things in its favor, not the least of which is the Presidential election. For the mid-terms, most Republicans ran against Nancy Pelosi’s heavy-handed tax/spend ways and healthcare. Mr. Obama is the likely issue in 2012.

Anything can and will happen. For now, though, a little peace is welcome.

I’m just sayin’


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Characters Welcome: Ralph Hall

Dear Children:

For those of you who prefer a few facts to inform your positions, Ralph Hall Republican from the 4th District (Rockwell) of Texas, may not be your man. That’s nothing remarkable in the lower chamber and would not warrant our attention if he weren’t the new Chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee. That particular committee is charged with encouraging “scientific advancement" as "one of the keys to U.S. competitiveness in a global marketplace." We will look into the specifics later.

For now, attend to the notion of a reliable vote in Congress. We have already learned how the seniority system works. Please apply all the negative aspects of that system to this character. Believe the hype. A reliable vote coupled with a chairmanship is the most valuable thing a lobbyist can own short of the Speaker. Do not think, however, that Congressmen are “owned” in the sense that they are obliged to do whatever their lobbyist “owner” requires. The system is much more subtle than that. In your mind form an atom with a nucleus and orbiting electrons. The dense material is a vote while the electrons that circle are The Congressman, the lobbyist or interest group and money.

The reliable vote attracts and holds the Congressman, the money and the lobbyist. It forms a very stable system. Everything is in balance and no one can tell what brings about that balance. Did the Congressman come first with his natural political inclinations and moral gyroscope or did the lobbyist make a persuasive case for one position or another? Or, is money the stabilizing force as between Congressman and lobbyist? I don’t know and I don’t care.

The fact is that a set of circumstances have come together to make a reliable vote possible. That reliable vote, in its turn, replicates itself endlessly over the thousands of issues that bawl and holler for attention each year over the 30 years since Mr. Hall went to Washington.

Figuring all this out can be daunting. The National Rifle Association and the Israeli Political Action Committee are well known as is the National Education Association and The American Hog Producers. They each have their own ratings that are a pretty good at clueing us to reliability on the gun, Zionist, teacher and oinker fronts. But what is The Eagle Forum and (I dare you) what is the Alliance to Stop the War on the Poor? Maybe you can guess what Arc is up to.

Whatever you may think these outfits are about, their ratings are very important in the reliable vote sweepstakes. Mr. Hall is a prince among reliable voters. To be sure, most members of Congress are reliable voters. The system works to make the money flow, the lobbyist employable and counting the Congressman’s nose in advance of a vote is made tranquil and effortless.

It also obviates the pesky rigors of persuasion, attentive listening or thoughtfulness. That’s where Ralph Moody Hall comes in. To put this particular character in the chair that oversees the government’s science and technology effort is a painful reach. He was once quoted as saying that he could do anything his grandson’s computer could do – wait for it – only slower. He was also the elegant gentlemen who got perilously close to killing the Science and Technology bill last year by inserting a provision that permitted federal employees to view porn on their office computers. He has serious questions about global warming fears. Why? You see, he has these serious questions and doubts man’s activities could affect nature one iota.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t know nothin’ about no global warming. I do expect more from those whose decisions will affect your Hawaiian Tropic expenditures.

I’m Just Sayin’