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"Indeed, the rage of theorists to make constitutions a vehicle for the conveyance of their own crude, and visionary aphorisms of government, requires to be guarded against with the most unceasing vigilance."
     -- Joseph Story
     Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States
     Book III, § 1857.
 

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Nick Berg, it appears, has been insufficiently dissected.

When I watched the video, my general sense was, "Something is wrong, here." And I don't mean the obvious. It was a really clumsy patch job. We see shots of Berg alone against a wall, and of Berg with the five terrorists behind him; in the shots with the terrorists, he is in different postures, but we never see him moving. The sound, though it has no synchrony at all with the video, runs pretty much continuously over these discontinuous stills, right up until just before "God is great!" and the scream, but is patched together from fragments, together with the odd silence, from that point on. I say odd, because, before the murder, there is a constant background hum from the videocamera's motors, but during and after the murder it, shall we say, cuts in and out. Also, I would not suspect the director of this fetid production of any delicacy or restraint, and yet there are too many gory bits edited out of the murder itself, details said director would have been desperate to salvage from the, errr, cutting room floor, if he had any choice in the matter. The body finally shown getting its cervical vertebrae sawn has been dead for a while; the death itself is nowhere. Why?

Thus much for what the terrorists put on the tape. What about Berg himself? He did not look at all frightened, or even concerned, to me. He did not react at all to what was going on around him; he had no reaction, either considered or reflexive, even when he was shoved to the floor; he sat unmoving -- though in several postures -- through the whole inept prelude, with a single expression stuck to his face throughout. And that expression did not ring true. My first impression was, he was trying desperately not to burst into tears, which is perfectly understandable. Five minutes of same ol' same ol', though, distributed over all the takes that obviously went into this production, along with the complete absence of any nervousness, tension, or fear, all took their toll on that impression, and it began to look more and more like some sappy amateur-theatrical attempt at a "penitent" appearance.

Then we have the wholly disgraceful curtain-chewing performance of his family since his murder, which speaks volumes about the Berg moral atmosphere. We also have the remarkable coincidence of his prior linkage with Zacarias Moussaoui, and some strange behavior in Iraq when he was running around free.

I don't want to read much into Berg's behavior on the video. It's too far removed from my experience -- and, we may continue to hope, from everyone else's -- for the general "phoniness" feel of it to be anything more than a first impression, and I have no confidence in it. We have all these other things, though, and, while they do nothing to confirm that impression, they dish up a lot of collateral support, and there is nothing, really, to urge against it, other than the general disposition to put the best possible face upon the acts of one who cannot defend himself. Along those lines, though, we can also explain Berg's behavior -- well, lack thereof -- on that video, with more credit to himself, by the not-at-all-outlandish supposition that his captors had drugged him to just this side of insensibility. It doesn't explain his other strange behavior while roaming around Iraq, but it sure as hell answers what his eyes looked like on that video. And we can note the unbelievable assholes he had by way of family without that fact impeaching him.

So here are the possibilities. Either Nick Berg was an innocent who got shoved onstage, intoxicated and against his will, for a bit part in a script he didn't understand, or he was a willing participant in all but the final Hitchcock twist. I regret to say, all the circumstances incline me toward the latter view: that Berg was, as Rachel Corrie was, a useful idiot, and he said or did something during his murder that revealed the betrayals -- his captors' of him, and his of us -- which is why most of it didn't make the cut.

But I would be happy to be wrong.

-- posted by Clayton 5/26/2004 07:22:00 PM | comments (0)


Friday, May 21, 2004

An angst roundup from Instapundit, a continuing series. And there's plenty more out there that he's missed, especially lately.

If you focus on "Anti-Bush slant" or "undermining the war effort," or whatnot, you're missing what's really going on, here. Considerations like upcoming elections and treason are secondary. Air time and column inches are secondary, as well. The primary consideration is, these are journalists -- mind you, I did not say "reporters" -- and they live and breathe to make a difference. What kind of difference doesn't matter; it can make things better, or worse; it can be an unmixed blessing, or a catastrophe; it can be the final triumphant outbreak of worldwide prosperity and happiness, or "We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when"; whatever. Don't bother them with details. But they absolutely insist upon making that difference, and -- here's the kicker -- knowing that they made it, themselves. It's an important profession, damn you, important, and those doing it are important, too, the most important of all, don't you dare say different, and the proof of it is all the difference they make. So nothing is more to be expected than that they will set themselves crosswise to everyone and everything around them, agitating for the achievement of that which anyone in his right mind would prevent at all costs, so that, once it is achieved, whatever it is, no one can say, it was not their achievement.

It is a mistake to say these persons have no regard for consequences. Consequences are all they think about. They're just not the same consequences the rest of us have in mind.

There's a lot of this in the legal profession, as well. Which, for example, do you think is actually the most important consideration to Michael Newdow: the future ease, comfort, and well-being of his daughter? that she not "suffer" the "violation" of being "forced" to say "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance? or that it's his name on the briefs, the arguments, and the case title that just might make a difference, and be damned to anyone else, including his daughter?

-- posted by Clayton 5/21/2004 06:28:00 PM | comments (0)


Thursday, May 13, 2004

Thanks to something Steven Den Beste posted, I spent a long time this evening wandering around Amritas' blog, reading his critiques of Chomsky. I had not previously come across any details of what it is Chomsky has been up to; all I had was the general impression, he is held in contempt by all right-thinking persons, who are identified as right-thinking by the fact that they hold Chomsky in contempt. So now I have a general impression of what the fighting is about, and a basic understanding of the particular brand of snake-oil Chomsky has been selling.

I found myself reminded of something out of atomic logic. And here we hit a digression: since I only suppose this blog has readers, I can just as easily suppose they need that term explained. Atomic logic is the name (well, one of the names, and the name that was fashionable when I went to college) for that part of formal logic that deals with "atoms" -- what a programmer would call boolean variables -- and the operators that work upon them in expressions. Atoms are either true or false; the operators that work upon them likewise give a result of either true or false. These operators are:

  • AND -- the value of the expression "A AND B" is true only when both A and B are true
  • OR -- the value of the expression "A OR B" is true when either A or B (or both) is true
  • NOT -- the value of the expression "NOT A" is true only when A is false
  • XOR -- the value of the expression "A XOR B" is true when either A or B (but not both) is true
  • IMP -- the value of the expression "A IMP B" is true when either A is false or B is true (or both)
  • EQV -- the value of the expression "A EQV B" is true when A and B are either both true or both false
  • NAND -- the value of the expression "A NAND B" is true when either A or B (or both) is false
  • NOR -- the value of the expression "A NOR B" is true only when both A and B are false.
(Visual Basic programmers will recognize most of the operator names. I chose the VB forms, because they're easiest to type.)

Now, out of the list above, which would you say are "basic" operators, and which "derived"? A layman would object to the formal definition of OR, since the word as used in ordinary speech means XOR instead; he would choose AND, XOR, and NOT as the basic operations, and derive the rest:

  • A OR B :== (A XOR B) XOR (A AND B)
  • A EQV B :== (A AND B) XOR ((NOT A) AND (NOT B))
  • A IMP B :== ((NOT A) XOR B) XOR (A AND B)
  • A NAND B :== NOT (A AND B)
  • A NOR B :== (NOT A) AND (NOT B)
A person more comfortable with the field would choose AND, OR, and NOT:
  • A XOR B :== (A OR B) AND (NOT (A AND B))
  • A EQV B :== (A AND B) OR ((NOT A) AND (NOT B))
  • A IMP B :== (NOT A) OR B
  • A NAND B :== NOT (A AND B)
  • A NOR B :== NOT (A OR B)
But this doesn't take into account a really arcane trick. All the other operators can be defined in terms of NAND, as follows:
  • NOT A :== A NAND A
  • A AND B :== NOT (A NAND B) :== (A NAND B) NAND (A NAND B)
  • A OR B :== (NOT A) NAND (NOT B) :== (A NAND A) NAND (B NAND B)
-- and so on. We can pull exactly the same trick with NOR:
  • NOT A :== A NOR A
  • A OR B :== NOT (A NOR B) :== (A NOR B) NOR (A NOR B)
  • A AND B :== (NOT A) NOR (NOT B) :== (A NOR A) NOR (B NOR B)
-- and so on.

As far as I know, this trick has only one real-world application, which is in the construction of integrated circuits. The actual nitty-gritty of putting together NAND and NOR gates is a lot simpler (and the gates work a lot faster) than any of the others, so this trick is used all over the place in microprocessors. Other than that, NAND and NOR are pretty much useless; there is no expression in which they can be used that cannot be made clearer by not using them.

This didn't stop one of my professors in college from jumping all over this trick. It showed that NAND and NOR were more "basic," you see. He even assigned an ugly problem on the final: Write an equivalent to this ordinary expression using only the NAND operator. And we did it, too. Something that started out as an easily understood half-of-a-line became an impassable four-line thicket of up-arrows (the glyph for NAND) and parentheses. We had our revenge by the same act, though, since the idiot no doubt went blind trying to grade them.

Now from what I saw on Amritas' board, the prototypical Chomskyite would go right along with said idiot professor, concluding, either NAND or NOR (take your pick) is the actual internal mechanism (the "deep structure") of all thought, and all the other operators are merely derivative ("surface structure"). Whereas the truth is self-evidently the opposite: AND, XOR, and NOT are the workhorses of everyday thought, and all the others are derivative; the OR and IMP operators, as defined, actually contradict the equivalent everyday usage, and NAND and NOR contribute nothing to understanding, but instead obstruct it.

On another tack, I was reminded of an argument I had once on the internet with a woman who absolutely insisted that brown was not a color. She had the artist's "insider" perspective, you see: One finds brown on a color wheel by starting out with red, or orange, or yellow, and decreasing the luminance, so there is no such thing as brown; there is only dark red, or dark orange, or dark yellow. It made no difference to her that that perception doesn't work that way, that it requires an effort of will to see the underlying similarity of what ordinary perception insists on treating as qualitatively different, and more than a little self-deception to say that the qualitative difference doesn't matter.

Back to the immediate subject. Chomsky is full of shit. I say this with all the confidence of long introspection on the underlying problem (and with no other authority), and, if Amritas' depiction of the field is anything to go by, it probably helps that I have no training in it. The actual structure of thought, if we must have it in those terms, is an amorphous digraph interconnected to a fare-thee-well, where both the vertices and the edges have any number of qualities, but nothing is in any particular order. Grammar is not a necessary component of thought itself; it arises from the requirement of representing this graph somehow in a linear form (since words must be uttered one after another), and there is no one "right" or "best" or "fundamental" way to do this. The syntactical system, whichever one it is, picks out enough of the highlights to communicate, not the entirety of the graph, but enough (the "meaning") so that it can be reconstructed in the listener's mind (again, in no particular order); the wholly internal art of resupplying the bits and pieces that didn't get sent, thus pulling reasonable certainty out of uncertain materials, is what goes by the name of "understanding."

(I've played around with the idea of constructing a computer model along these lines, but actually doing it would require a lot more time than I have to spend on it. Mostly it would have to do with deciding what ought to be a vertex, and what an edge, and what all the possible attributes (qualities) of each would be, and growing the whole thing in much the same order that a child learns to speak. The end result, I suspect, would be a picture of language, and of the basic knowledge required to understand language, that would show only slight echoes of what grammarians have been maintaining for centuries; in particular, I suspect that the "parts of speech" actually required to describe and run a working language would bear very little resemblance to the old categories of nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and so on.)

Also: If Chomsky's universal "deep structure" idea is right, and if, as he has it, it mirrors the syntactical patterns of English, then English ought to be one of the easiest languages for foreigners to learn. Whereas we know, it's one of the hardest.

-- posted by Clayton 5/13/2004 01:23:00 AM | comments (7)


Friday, May 07, 2004

Well, if this blog ever had readers, they've surely drifted off by now, but I'll struggle to keep up the fiction. Apologies for dropping off the map. All I can plead in mitigation is the unremitting gall of employers who actually want projects finished on schedule. It's been heads-down time here for a good month and a half. It's not just this blog that has suffered; I've basically been out of touch the whole time, and there's a lot of news to get caught up on before I would have anything to say about it that anyone else would think were worth reading.

I notice, however, that Steven Den Beste is still in a funk over the quality of feedback he receives. And what I have to say in just a bit will no doubt qualify, in his mind, as just the sort of sideline trees-instead-of-the-forest nitpicking he complains about.

I wind up agreeing with Steven most of the time. Every once in a while, one of the overtones of what he has said will make me uneasy, but there is very little of his output with which I would disagree, and, most times, very little (if anything) that I would add to it, and anyway he says it a whole hell of a lot better than I would. (I like to flatter myself that this has something to do with the relative amounts of free time each of us has, to say nothing of the fact that writing, like any other art, improves with exercise. If I should ever find myself with sufficient leisure, though, Steven, I'll be gunning for you. Just letting you know, is all.) If I don't have anything of my own to say, I'm not going to waste space here posting that nothing, nor will I waste anyone else's time (again, keeping up the fiction) grinding through "I agree," "me too," and "read this." Steven runs one of the only two blogs, so far as I know, that have ever linked here (the other being Emperor Misha); I assume anyone who winds up here will already be an avid reader of USS Clueless, and will already have seen whatever I might otherwise link. The same applies to any email I might send.

Still, there's that funk to worry about. What worries me about it is that it has much the same feel to it as was present and growing in Steven's posts on his discussion groups just before he pulled the plug on them. And the overall sense I get from his recent posts on the topic is, he'd like, every once in a while, to have the sense that there are at least decent odds of finding something in his inbox that makes it worth the effort of firing up the damn program and slogging through everything else.

I hope you realize, Steven, that's a very tall order. Even if we overlook the torrent of spam, and the residual drip, drip, drip of pointless "gotcha!"s, both of which already have the scales heavily tilted the other way, it's an intimidating assignment. "Attaboy!" only goes so far, and it doesn't work more than a couple of times, even assuming you have any reason to think my approbation is worth something. The alternative is, actually coming up with something just as interesting to say back, but that takes a lot more work.

OK, that said, here's the potshot I alluded to above, again addressing those troubling overtones. Actually, I have two of them. First, it's "rights," Steven, not "natural rights." The important part is that there be things government cannot do. Where those rights arise, whether from the nature of government, or from the nature of man, or from philosophy, or from law, or what have you, is unimportant, and the term "natural rights" has some legal baggage you might not want to tote along.

Second, the idea of "perpetual revolution" is troubling. Human nature is what it is; it effortlessly defeats any attempt to change it, and clobbers any scheme predicated upon its being somehow different. And it is human nature itself, in the last analysis, that drives the determination of the proper forms and powers of government. So there is no intrinsic value in "change" apart from the merits (or lack thereof) of a particular proposal; it is far more important that the law be known -- which includes that it be stable -- than that it be just; and we've been at it for a few centuries, now, refining this, that, and the other, and pretty much have most things right already. And I must say, I find it difficult to reconcile your admiration for the idea of "perpetual revolution" with what, to paraphrase Aristotle, anyone must have before he comes to the study of engineering: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The remarkable thing about our government is its long-running stability. The world has seen tyrannies, whether stable or fragile, one after another, with dreary monotony, for millennia; it has also seen, here and there, the occasional short-lived outbreak of freedom, and usually they shake themselves apart. Ours is the only one that has lasted.

(I should perhaps clarify what I mean when I say, "Human nature is what it is." The trouble is, it would take much more time than I have right now. Let's see if this does the trick, though: "Law" is to "justice" is to "human nature," what "statement" is to "truth" is to "fact." What I want to avoid, here, is any confusion arising from the failure to distinguish between human nature itself, on the one hand, and all the -- mutually contradictory -- systems that have attempted to describe and/or control it, on the other. My statement about the knowability of the law being more important than its justice, though, is in a different category; it depends upon a specific view of human nature, and thus invites all those mutually contradictory systems to take their whacks at it.)

Moving on to a different post, here's a final observation. One of the indications -- I was going to say "stigmata" -- of "p-idealist" thought is the attempting to explain the behavior of multitudes in terms of specific personal motives.

-- posted by Clayton 5/07/2004 09:44:00 PM | comments (0)


 

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