December 31, 2014

My 2014 person of the year is ....

A guy who's influencing economies around the world right now, including internationally in Russia and domestically in Texas, and in other ways, around the world.

Who is the gentleman in that picture? Whom I have deliberately not captioned?

I'll explain that in a minute, and from there, you'll understand why he gets, and easily wins, the nomination for this important award.

So, with that said, that bit of suspense, let's move into the heart of things.

Drumroll?



Glad you asked for one?

It's Saudi Arabia's Minister of Petroleum Ali Al-Naimi.



Information/credit for photo above: Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi speaks to journalists ahead of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) meeting on Nov. 27, 2014.

SAMUEL KUBANI / AFP/Getty Images

I deliberately looked for one with him in Western suit, to increase the suspense a bit, lest readers immediately guess, at a minimum, that "this guy has something to do with oil."

Well, Al-Naimi has plenty to do with oil, not just "something."

This is the man who is keeping Saudi Arabia in the oil driver's seat. Even if it means, per Business Insider, oil falling to $20/bbl. And, not cutting production even if surpluses grow. Period.

This is the man who could cause a recession in Texas. With more fighting over school funding and other things.

This is the man who could cause a Great Recession in Russia, and maybe already is, along with Western sanctions.

This is the man who could make it easier for Dear Leader to keep saying no to Keystone. (Unfortunately, it is the man who could also make climate change agreements, even relatively toothless ones, harder to achieve.)

This is the man who will help the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia expand its influence throughout the Middle East, above all by weakening Iran, calling more shots in the Syrian civil war and leaning more on Israel to deal better with the Palestinian Authority in 2015.

Given that the global oil surplus was becoming evident by midyear of 2014, and that Al-Naami surely was already planning strategy, and talking strategy with King Abdullah himself by then, he's the winner.

Per the $20/bbl comment and the "we're not cutting" comment, he had to have Abdullah's stamp of approval. And, that means he's a powerful man with carte blanche.

Maybe I could almost be calling him, in advance, the frontrunner for 2015 person of the year. Let's actually hope not.

Meanwhile, even with the budgetary challenges, Saudi Arabia itself is likely among the net winners, primarily for all these geo-petro-political reasons. 

No Democrat soup for you, Bernie Sanders!

Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders
MSNBC reports that potential Democratic alternatives to Hillary Clinton, namely, officially Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Democratic Sen. Jim Webb and outgoing Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, are getting no love from either national Dem muckety-mucks or from MoveOn.

Let's break this all out.

First, why doesn't MSNBC mention former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer at all? As I've blogged about before, he's dropped a few hints about a possible run, and if not as much of an enviro as a Sanders, is certainly as much anti-establishmentarian as him or Webb, and more so than O'Malley.

Second, MoveOn? That's exactly what you need to do. Elizabeth Warren knows about timetables for presidential campaigns. In other words, "no means no."

Third, Sanders is officially an Independent as a Senator. He fully caucuses with Dems, yes, but still. It's a reasonable reason for him to get a bit of a cold shoulder. That said, he ought to take Howard Dean's non-support as a badge of honor.

Fourth, as far as campaign building? It's true that Sanders comes from a small state. It's also true that Webb's been out of politics for a while (and I don't think has the temperament for a presidential campaign). Nonetheless, contra national Dems' sniffing, as reported by MSNBC, I know we had similar comments about an Illinois state senator, no matter his stage popularity, in 2006 at year end.

As for me? Sanders would be someone for whom I'd vote Democratic, not Green. Webb? I'd have to hear him suss some things out more. Webb, despite his populism on some economic issues, has indicated little about what the government's role is in addressing those issues. O'Malley? He's got the "presidential look" more than the other two, but he might be too establishmentarian.

Schweitzer the unmentioned? If he weren't so weak on environmental issues, I'd definitely vote for him in the general election. I'd still vote for him over Hillary in a primary.

Back to an earlier point, though.

If Bernie does run, how much will it hurt him in Democratic primaries being an Independent as a senator? I think it's a question he has to figure out, at least to some degree, before running.

December 30, 2014

Dear #WendyDavis — just go away

Wendy Davis ponders becoming Texas' Harold Stassen.
(Look him up, you kiddies.) San Antonio Express-News
And, do not cross "go" of any election campaign lines until after November 2016.

No wonder you sent out the occasional email after this year's cluster****: more than retiring campaign debt, you're "keeping the door open," as you've now made semi-official, along with yet another flip-flop.

So, we'll get what?

More of a moderate pandering for moderates and even conservatives? Pass.

Especially when you did this as "lather, rinse, repeat."

And, doubled down on specific pandering, like over the border non-crisis, or packing hoglegs in public, or endorsing the most conservative Dem Senatorial candidate (while still in the primaries stage), presumably just because he was Daddy Warbucks, or going more conservative than Rick Perry on pot, you did it all in spades.

All while your financial past of being a rainmaker did enough pandering to conservatives, or at least to their wallets.

Therefore, saying this in your interview at the top link:
Pointing to one thing she’d change, Davis said in the exclusive interview with the Express-News that she wishes she had a do-over on her campaign decision to support open carry of handguns. Her position put her at odds with her party and alarmed a number of supporters. She said Monday that she opposes open carry. 
 “What I do know is that as an elected public servant, I’ve always been true to my core beliefs. Always. And I’m so proud of that,” she said. “And this was the only time I felt like I’d strayed a bit from that.”

Is simply stuff from off the floor of the Fort Worth Stockyards in your own backyard. Don’t try to sell it to us.

Oh well, at least you didn't (yet?) sue any newspapers over their editorials, unlike the way you did years ago.

But please, just go away. To some place like Zimbabwe. You're about to make my ears bleed.

$60 oil looks locked in for next year — consequences both good and bad

First, Saudi Arabia has planned for oil to trade from the upper $50s to the low $60s next year. (And, in case it's not clear, when I talk about "$60 ... locked in," I'm talking about a range. Details of my guesstimates near the bottom.)

Yes, that means a budget deficit for the government, but "only" about 15 percent, which is still a bit less than the current US deficit, and easily handled by the Saudis.

Second, the Saudis are OK with the price going even lower. It's probably true that Russia and Iran are their main targets, but per this story, US fracking may be in their gunsights as well.

That said, I doubt that oil prices take a sustained drop below $55, but, it's certainly possible they flirt with $50/bbl for the next few months, with them continuing to slide now.

Effect? While it may be good overall globally, it will have fallout otherwise.

Russia is probably headed not just for recession, but a near-depression recession. Given today's Russian political news, more unrest is possible, as is harsher crackdown by Vlad the Impaler Putin.

Venezuela is likely headed in the same direction financially. Possibly a milder version of the same political results.

Not sure how this might affect religious tensions in Nigeria.

I'm sure that it won't be fantastic for Mexico.

And, domestically? Texas may also face some sort of recession even as Tricky Ricky Perry, with his exit, dodges the consequences of his alleged "miracle" collapsing.

Given that Gov. Greg Strangeabbott appealed John Dietz's Texas school finance ruling, weaker oil revenues could be a signal for him to side with wingnuts in the Texas Lege and slash at schools and other portions of the state budget.

The Texas state revenue stream faces a bit of a double whammy here, per the Dallas Morning News. First, state production taxes are based on the per-barrel price, which has of course nose-dived. Second, if less is being produced, of course, there's less to tax. That means the idea of giving TxDOT extra money out of the Rainy Day Fund (rather than something sensical like mandate 100 percent of state gas tax money go to transportation, then raise TAXES! elsewhere as needed), roads could get hamstrung again. (Cue up the toll roads Batsignal.)

That said, it's ridiculous that the state gas tax, which is a per-gallon rate, not a price-based rate, hasn't been changed since 1991.

Oil just has to stay at around the $60 for a couple more months to put significant crimps on US fracking for another six months after that. (I disagree with the SMU prof in the Snooze piece who expects oil to bottom out in another month or two and hit $75 relatively quickly thereafter.)

I wouldn't be surprised if it's at $65 or a touch higher by midsummer, but, it could slump back to near $60 again by September 2015.

It should be noted that tar sands oil will likely NOT be greatly affected at current prices; it would probably take sustained prices of $45 or so for that to happen. Therefore, with a new Congress about to enter into office, President Obama will have to face Keystone XL issues once again.

Meanwhile, even with the budgetary challenges, Saudi Arabia itself is likely among the net winners, primarily for all these geo-petro-political reasons.

December 29, 2014

West explosion lawsuit defendants renew stall tactics

Not yet satisfied with getting civil suits delayed until September 2015 or later, the Adair Grain Co., which had the fertilizer plant in West, Texas, its suppliers, and others, are seeking to delay their suits further.

They claim they can't prepare a proper defense because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms won't release information from its criminal probe and that it may extend that.

That's all well and good, but let's not be too sympathetic, certainly not to two fertilizer company defendants, since they blame the city of West for causing this:
El Dorado and CF Industries contend the city was negligent because it failed to properly train the first responders and had insufficient protocols in place to battle the blaze at West Fertilizer that triggered the explosion.
A motion from CF Industries also seeks to designate as a responsible party an unknown “John Doe,” who the motion said may have started the fire, and the makers of a golf cart, which was inside the plant and may have caused the fire through a potential electrical short, the State Fire Marshal’s Office has said. A motion from El Dorado also alleges that the city should be named as a responsible third party because it failed to protect its citizens by allowing through its zoning authority schools and a nursing home to operate in a close proximity to the plant.
You don't get much sicker than that.

Was John Doe on the grassy knoll? Are you sure there wasn't a second golf cart driver as well?

It's the civil law equivalent of the joke about the guy murdering his parents then asking the court for mercy because he's an orphan.

And, unless the State Fire Marshal's office has HUGELY improved over its Cameron Todd Willingham performance, I wouldn't really trust its claims too much, you know?

December 26, 2014

Hasty lumbago to Rick Perry

Time to stop looking a bit less smug, Tricky Ricky.
Besides, at The Response, your prayer for rain
didn't work either. Patrick Michaels/Texas Observer
For those unfamiliar with my snark, that's my riff on "Hasta la vista."

Rick Perry is finally about to "Hit the road, Jack," and permanently, and about time.

Or, as I said this spring, quoting his own words when he announced he wasn't running for re-election?

"Adios, Mofo."

Tricky Ricky's got just days left in the governor's mansion in Austin, and it's time to move on from reality to reminisces.

What's next for the old Trickster?

Well, although he remains officially coy, and unlike Jeb Bush, isn't officially exploring anything yet, I think we know.

Per his 2012 back medication drugs-fueled math failure, it's surely not long before he hits the road on another quest to pass the Monty Python "count to three" test:



Among other things, in another quest for the presidency that will be more futile than Graham Chapman as Arthur's failed attempt to capture the Grail.

The reality is that, despite alleged diversification of Texas' economy, a lot of it still depends on oil, and a fair amount on gas. The only other reason for his alleged Texas miracle is that housing prices didn't get as "bubbly" in Texas 7 years ago as oil and gas did earlier this year.

So, the "Texas miracle" is crumbling just as Perry leaves office, with his successor, Gov. Strangeabbott, quite possibly facing a recession of some sort, along with the fact that transportation $$ ticketed as coming from the Rainy Day Fund maybe won't.

And as for people who say "don't worry so much," it's not just exploration jobs; it's Big Oil slashing management and more, as the Halliburton-Baker Hughes deal details. It is also refining jobs, petrochemical jobs and more.

And, that all said, Perry's leaving Abbott with a revamped governor's office, with its power at a height not seen since Reconstruction. Per the story, though, it's likely Abbott will fritter some of it away for various reasons.

Beyond that, the rest of the alleged Texas Miracle was due in fair part to something the likes of Dan Patrick, in particular, won't admit — immigration, including and especially illegal immigration.

I blogged in detail this spring about both issues — oil and gas, for one, and illegal immigration for the other, as the "Texas miracle."

Hasta la vista, indeed; Perry was halfway enlightened, at least for a Republican, on the immigration issue, before his last term in office. Abbott will likely be Neanderthal, and we know that Dan Patrick is a sub-human Australopithecine on the issue.

Otehr than that, Rick Perry's Texas Miracle included regressive taxes and fees, income segregation, ignored rural areas, and stiffed the state's public schools.

And, it was dying before this. The ongoing drought is a definite damper, and while 2015 isn't supposed to be drier than normal, it's not supposed to be above average, either.

But, don't cry for Rick Perry, Austin. He won't be spending all of his time gallivanting in Iowa and New Hampshire. If nothing else, he has some self-imposed courtroom dates. (Per a poll here which just closed, unscientifically, two-thirds of respondents think Perry will get nothing more than a fine should he plea guilty or be convicted.)

Christmastime birthdays, aging, and modern America

As a number of social media friends, including one of my fellow Texas bloggers, know, today is my birthday.

No biggie in general, I passed a sort of "milestone" birthday last year. More on that in a moment.

First, talking about Christmastime birthdays.

My parents got me separate gifts, and made sure I had a regular birthday.

That said, I had a dad who refused to open his Christmas gifts one year — and still hadn't opened them months later — because we kids were being too noisy at Christmas. And, two parents together who, when I was 10, or maybe 12, not only didn't get me the Scientific American gift subscription I wanted, but didn't inquire further about how they could bolster the education of a kid that age wanting a subscription to Scientific American back in the days when it was still a real science magazine.

Both parental units are now dead, and I can't overcome the past. I can only continue to work on how the past may affect me today. Anyway, that's a slice of my childhood family life.

Back to today.

As noted, I had a milestone birthday of sorts last year. Not the last decadal milestone before the bounty of Social Security is redeemable, but the one before that, and one that is commonly recognized as a milestone.

And I can report that not only is 50 the new 50, it's got other issues.

For example, as I blogged this summer, I believe I've been the victim of employment-related age discrimination, which is even harder to prove than sex or racial discrimination. And, I suspect something like "social media skills" is going to be an ongoing trick to try to weed out oldsters in the future. That's because I was in Dallas several years back when the Morning News dumped a bunch of older, better paid columnists and such, and justified it on the grounds that it was worried about their ability to improve their computer skills.

Second, I of course hope that some partnership of welfare-hating Republicans and neobliberal Democrats doesn't further increase the Social Security eligibility age, further undercut benefits or make other changes. That's especially true because of the age discrimination issue, and also because of America's continued fraying of the "safety net" otherwise.

There are plenty of near-seniors who have saved nothing for retirement. There's plenty of others who haven't saved a lot.

In many of their, or our, cases, it's not due to frivolity. It's due to some mix of stagnant wages, troubled career fields, job loss and more.

Finally, as I get older, without being lower-c cynical in any greater degree, I do fully hope and intend to become more and more philosophically Cynical. Here's why.

December 24, 2014

How to offend with Christmas baking

I'm not talking about trying to foist glutenous baking products on those going gluten-free, whether for faddish or actual medical reasons. That's one thing, in and of itself.

Rather, I'm talking about pouring booze into Christmas baked goods, then foisting them off on others unannounced. Whether for recovering alcoholics or people who abstain for religious or other reasons, this is a no-no ... and an insult, especially if you have some vague idea you shouldn't do this, and yet you do it anyway.

(That said, the problem can go beyond Christmas, and beyond baked goods; see below.)

What's prompted this outrage is the Washington Post posting a recipe for a vodka-laced pie crust. I originally just shared this on Facebook, but decided I wanted to do more.

I want this specific recipe first, then go to the larger issue.

Other non-water substances, like lemon juice, will do the same trick, based on the acid in the lemon juice. Plus, it will taste better. I believe this is the same type of physical chemistry as that used in curdling milk for cooking, and I know that lemon juice is the normal "tool" for that.

And, because of that fact, I have further issue with a professional science writer passing this around on Facebook (her FB page is set to "public" on normal comments, therefore not violating any confidences, per my social media ethics) without noting that, too. (I've Tweeted her, and the WaPost writer, who writes the Post's science blog, on what follows in this blog post; we'll see if either one responds.)

It's so "sciency," but, it's not good science if there are better alternatives.

Meanwhile, to the recovering alcoholics and religious, and holiday baking in general.

Baking, unlike sauteeing, does not cook out all the alcohol in a recipe. Not even close.

Estimates vary, and there's also variation based on the type of baked good, cooking time, etc. But, generally, around one-quarter to one-half of the alcohol will remain in rum balls, a vodka-laced pie crust, etc. I mean, the article itself mentions that, according to About.com, only to then dismiss it as a trivial concern.
Don't worry about serving your boozy pie to young or abstaining holiday guests: The heat of the oven will burn off most of the alcohol.

Picture saying, instead:
I'm putting some gluten in what's otherwise gluten-free. Don't worry, the baking process will spread most of it around.
Or this:
Or, I know that you're down to a no-nicotine vapor juice for your e-cigarettes, but I put some nicotine in this one flavor just to "enhance" it. Don't worry, it's really not that much.
Can you now see what an insult this is? 

So, depending on the amount of booze used, and how much of the baked good a person eats, this could be a serious issue. From here on, I'm focusing on recovering alcoholics, not religious abstainers.

And, in that "most of the alcohol" will burn off issue, we've just addressed ethyl alcohol, not the flavor of alcoholic beverages.

While vodka is more neutral, most spirits — as in the rum of those rum balls — have some sort of flavor. Flavors can themselves be a trigger for people early in sobriety recovery. (I have spit out [politely] or otherwise refused to eat, alcohol-laced foods, that I didn't know in advance were "laced.") And, on flavors, sauteeing doesn't cook out all the rum flavor, or all the wine flavor. And, simple sub-boiling parboiling certainly doesn't do that. Wine-infused spaghetti sauces are a big issue, and, per that About.com link, retain a fair amount of alcohol as well as flavor.

Simple suggestion?

1. Don't do this in cases where it's unnecessary, like the pie crust.
2. Where it is necessary, like rum balls, which have their name for a reason, carefully identify them as such to guests, office co-workers, friends, etc.
3. Don't think recovering alcoholic friends are being "picky" if they ask about unlabeled foods; if you're a real friend, that thought shouldn't cross your mind in the first place.
4. If these recipes, like the myth of the value of resveratrol, are "excuses" for you to do a lot of alcohol-based holiday cooking ... maybe you should take a closer self-examination. I would include under this rubric claiming some alcohol-related baking is more "sciency" than it actually is.

And, if you can't do this, I can write a second post called "How to offend with insisting you're right with Christmas baking ideas."

The varieties of free will – and determinism – not worth discussing

To riff on Dan Dennett, in part, with that title, that's my take on two paired essays by the same person, Gregg D. Caruso, a professor of philosophy at Corning Community College.

Somewhat in the first, and even more in the second, essay, he insists that free will — or certain types of free will — are connected with what he calls retributive justice.

(In all of this, I'm trying to practice the principle of charity to suss out the argument that I think Caruso actually is trying to make, which is discussed near the end. That said, I've only gotten there through repeated comments by him, and others. And, if I'm coming to a wrong conclusion by that principle of charity, then we have a bigger issue.)

That right there, the retributive justice, sounds like we're in John Rawls territory, but with the addition of explicitly connecting this to free will.

In response to the second essay, specifically, and in connection with the issue of "retributive justice," I set out a laundry list of both logical and empirical or epistemological objections.

The logical one is that there is no logically necessary connection between the two. And, I wasn't alone on this, either. I said:
There may (or may not) be empirical connections, based on psychology; hence my references to neuroscience. But, that’s a different matter. 
It’s like reading Rawls as if Rawls trying to justify his ideas by appeal to certain versions of free will. And, what Rawls says about issues of ethics and justice has no logically necessary connection with free will. 
I can be a hardcore determinist, yet still believe in the value of retributive justice.
I can be a compatibilist, and believe in retributive justice. I can be a libertarian free willer and believe in… I can be some sort of free will optimist-skeptic and believe … I can be like I actually am, thinking the whole free will “versus” determinism issue wrongly framed ….
 
and believe in retributive justice. 
Or, I can be any of the above, and reject that idea. 
Or, I can be any of the above, and reject the idea of objective morality in general.

His response?

Essentially to offer a stipulative definition of free will. 

Well, if someone wants to put forth a stipulative definition of free will that insists it contains free-will actions for which one can be held morally accountable, then I guess ethics and free will are logically connected, especially if one insists that that's a two-way if-and-only-if connection.

The two-way direction of an if-and-only-if is part of the key here.

Let's take the three main schools of normative ethics — consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics.

The details of how to be ethical in consequentialism and deontological ethics are compatible with any school of thought on volition from the hardest of classical determinists to the most libertarian of free willers. Virtue ethics, in that it lays stress on the individual more, and the psychological stance of the individual, is seemingly incompatible with full-on determinism.

But, two of three major schools of normative ethics say that claims that ethical actions in general must be linked to free will are simply wrong.

And, given that justice is a subset of ethics, two of three major schools of normative ethics say that claims that ethical actions in general must be linked to free will are simply wrong.

Some people may think that a hard determinism dehumanizes people.

Actually not, or at least not necessarily. As long as determinism is applied to theories of ethics in a non-Randian way, it should treat all people as equally human. What that means for all people may be different than in a free will system, but, still, it's not proposing to treat all people like livestock or something.

That said, back to Caruso.

There seems to be further deck-stacking. And, rather than try to shoehorn comments into a 500-word limit, there's my blog post, right here!

First, Caruso goes on to sometimes talk about "harsh retributive justice" or "just deserts." It's almost like he's at a pipe organ that has stops and ranks that are all conservative dogwhistles of some sort.

And, to boot, I think he knows that.

He talks about conservatives who believe in free will having harsher views on “just desserts” than those who don’t.

But, he doesn’t talk about political liberals and their stances on justice being influenced, or not, by their thoughts on free will

I doubt that most liberals reject free will. Rather, it’s either that they think it’s more attenuated by circumstances than conservatives do — but NOT obliterated by circumstance.

Related? An old chicken or egg argument — for conservatives, does insistence on free will come first, or a just world? To be honest, I don’t most conservatives even consider that.

The fact that Caruso only posts analysis of conservatives' relationship to free will and certain theories of justice makes me think he's pulling a Chris Mooney by implying that only conservatives, and not liberals, engage in motivated reasoning.

He also ignores that political conservatives in the rest of the developed world don't necessarily have a lot in common with US conservatives. (This, too, is a mistake Mooney also makes.) I do agree that religious overtones often influence discussions of free will, and theories of justice. But, again, religiosity, or lack thereof, is precisely where conservatives in the rest of the developed world most differ from their American compadres.

So, outside of America? False move, Prof. Caruso.

Back to the arguments against linking free will and theories of justice.

Walter Kaufmann’s book “Without Guilt and Justice” critiques Rawlsian theories of justice and ethics in general, and Rawls himself in particular. It rejects both “retributive” AND “distributive” justice alike, on other grounds. People are individuals, and we cannot treat them like data points in population genetics, therefore there is no way of being “fair.”

Thus, I can — and do — reject ideas of retributive justice in general based on anything that smacks of Rawls’ version of ….

Let’s call it liberal moral redistribution, with a deliberate riff on socialism, even communism, in that “redistribution.” And, that's quite deliberate, and yet another reason I call myself a skeptical left-liberal.


So, with Caruso, I reject (for now) retributive justice, but with a reason that is 180 degrees opposite of the reason that Caruso wants to reject retributive justice.

And, I do so without throwing out babies with the bathwater.

Then, we have what I’m going to call “folk philosophy,” paralleling “folk psychology,” on the issue of free will. And, frankly, I think some professional philosophers engage in it, too.

Caruso, while referencing Libet, doesn’t really appear to wrestle with the idea that neuroscience is still in the Early Bronze Age, if that. We’re going to need science to tell us more about consciousness in general, and volition in particular — without going down the road of scientism — before we can talk about free will in general with any great degree of clarity.

In addition to wrongly linking a cart and horse that doesn’t necessarily go together, Caruso is putting an ill-defined cart ahead of that horse.

And, again, it’s unnecessary. To riff on Gilbert Ryle's "category mistake," I am inventing the term "conjunctive mistake."

As I mentioned in my first comment to him on his first essay, I covered a lot of this — the uncertainties of talking about free will in all its glory — in the essay I did at Scientia Salon about saying “mu” to the idea of “free will vs. determinism.”

In that issue, like Caruso in his two essays and in other writings, wrestled not only with Libet, but also Daniel Wegner and others. Do we have a conscious free will in the classical sense? I think Wegner has, at a minimum, raised some good questions.

That said, if he's right, or to the degree that he's right, that doesn't leave some sort of determinism as a  default. And, that, in turn, gets me back to Caruso's thinking.

I think Caruso’s still stuck to a degree (but not necessarily a huge degree) of viewing this issue in terms of polarities.

Finally, as I also noted, consciousness is not a “hard” problem in the sense of David Chalmers. But it is, and will continue to be, a difficult problem, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

As for that "conjunctive mistake"? Theories of ethics are complicated enough, even if we stay on the side of moral realism, without committing philosophical entanglement of mixing them with free will.

That said, to parse out Caruso.

You want to talk about more humanistic justice? Let's set aside free will. Here's my thoughts.

Can we adopt a less all-encompassing pragmatic utilitarianism toward justice? Yes. And we should.

If, without dehumanizing people, retributive justice has at least some value for the person upon whom it’s administered, as well as larger society, to the best our limited, non-Rawlsian point of view can tell, then retributive justice is what we need. (Note that this largely does not describe the current American retributive criminal justice system.)

If retributive justice doesn’t have such value, then we need to do something else.

Simple pragmatism. No particular stance on free will involved.

Does this treat people as “automatons”? I think not. It treats them as persons with some degree of freedom. On a free-will oriented stance, it can also lead to them being more conscious about “drivers” of their behavior. On a less free-will stance, it can simply work on those unconscious drivers, while offering the possibility of more, including possible enlightenment of their consciousness.

And that's not all. Caruso could have — and should have — brought in Daniel Kahnemann's "fast" vs. "slow" thinking into the issue. Even without tying it directly to free will, it would directly tie to issues of degrees of consciousness. But, it didn't.

Back to the logical disjunction. It's possible that some varieties of free will might be MUCH more averse to retributive justice than might a quasi-determinism. Any sort of theory of free will that sees free will as something evolving would likely favor a theory of justice that aided that evolution, even with cases like criminal behavior. Per my "dehumanizing" notes above, that's that type of free will.

And, as for Caruso's case for free will being an illusion, in essence for committing to some broad variety of determinism, beyond my issue-by-issue, action-by-action partial psychological determinism? Per a good review of his book on the subject, I think I'm far from alone in finding him wanting, even if it's for other grounds, and beyond those, of the review.

So, Caruso can claim until the cows come home that retributive justice, and a desire for it, are based on free-will stances on volition. He'll still be wrong.

And, yes, he writes a lot about free will. So, I'm not sure if he thinks attacking retributive justice — his claims aside — is a winning "move" because it will appeal more to liberals, whom secularists are more likely to be, or what.  But, it seems he also has legitimate concerns about retributive justice.

Fine. Write a separate essay about that. And, I would likely love to discuss it with you.

As for engaging with, or not, the idea that belief in free will could be harmful to society?

First, the shorter answer, as I Tweeted Caruso: How would one even begin to try to scientifically prove such a claim? Surveys would offer correlation evidence, of course, and might point to causation. But that's not guaranteed.

Second, you cite what you do note as "a few studies," while noting that they're limited in what they indicated, but not noting whether they wrestle with either of the two issues noted above:
1. Distinguishing US conservatives from those elsewhere and
2. Looking at how belief in free will may affect liberals' thoughts.

Third, a belief in the existence of free will is about as much like the actual existence of free will as belief in Santa or Jesus is the same as actual existence of Jesus or Santa. If Caruso can't differentiate between the two, or ...

If THAT is his premise for claiming a logical connection between free will and theories of justice, that it's actually some connection between a BELIEF in free will and theories of justice, then I don't want to go further down a rabbit hole about making assumptions to clarify his thinking, assumptions which he might reject even though they seem true.

That said, per that principle of charity, I think that's what Caruso is trying to argue. He may have a point.

Let's assume that we can do research, and ignoring liberal/conservative issues to start, we just confirm that, for society in general, in the US and elsewhere, that a belief in free will leads to a belief in the efficacy of retributive justice.

Let us say that criminology studies show retributive justice in general is not efficacious, and generally becomes less efficacious the more harsh it is.

We can then discuss this in terms of ethics, and relatedly, in terms of political philosophy.

Perhaps Caruso will actually wend his way to that in final comments, or maybe will be given an opportunity by Massimo Pigliucci to write a third essay that comports with my charitable interpretation of his first and second ones.

As for the rest of what's actually in his two essays?

I would say, or write an essay on issues in volition, but ...

On my "mu," not just with Caruso but in general, I'm at the point where I think we should just stop talking about free will for, oh, about another century or so.

Seriously.

Cognitive neuroscience in particular, and science of mind in general, isn't going to move from the Early Bronze Age into the Iron Age for at least that long, and it's ridiculous, ultimately, to talk about issues of volition, and theories of them, before then.




December 22, 2014

Insurance reform MUST have cost controls — whether Obamacare or single-payer Vermont

Whether it's Obamacare, one of whose biggest failings is the lack of cost control outside of the mythical savings from the highly overhyped electronic patient records, or a single-payer system, such as the one that Gov. Peter Shumlin had proposed for Vermont and has now pulled off the boards, successful insurance reform in the United States MUST, MUST, MUST have effective cost controls as part of it.

Period and end of story.

Now, on single-payer, that's probably harder to do within a single state than nationwide, especially a small state like Vermont. But, impossible? No.

Sadly, it appears Shumlin didn't tackle that part of the issue early enough, or head-on enough.

Obama? Hell, we all know that O-care is neoliberal "trust the market" tinkering on one end and a candy cane on the other. It doesn't even require standardized insurance forms, which would be a simple, and effective, cost-saver right there.

Any insurance company that says "you have to use our forms" will change its tune soon enough if you totally cut it off from the hog trough. Period and end of story.

But, the issue of funding it through taxes? Especially since taxes are theoretically more "progressive" than the current private care system? Yeah, that might make rich folks upset. Well, that's where you sell them on effective cost control — assuming you have effective cost control.

The whole bulk of our current health care system, taken en masse, is a piece of shit, all in all. And everybody's afraid to call it that, then flush it as it needs to be flushed.

Bud Selig is Commissioner Emeritus Man!

So, former baseball commissioner Bud "Bud" Selig is now "commissioner emeritus" with an additional $6 million a year in retirement slush funds to do whatever he's supposed to do.

Well, he needs a costume, does he not?

I mean, it takes a superhero to hound Alex Rodriguez, while at the same time ignoring Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and others who also reportedly used steroids.

And to simultaneously ignore that your open-roids policy has also led to innuendo against Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza and others, innuendo seemingly unfounded.

But, don't cry for Bud-gentina.

He'll not be crying for any part of the mess he left behind.

Maybe he'll earn his $6 million by helping lobby Congress to let minor leaguers be treated like serfs, if he's not too busy still trying to selectively crack down on alleged roiders.

Speaking of minor-league serfs, Rany Jazayerli noted on Twitter:
For the $6M annual pension owners are giving Bud Selig, they could have given every minor leaguer in baseball a raise of about $300 a month.
Bingo.

Or maybe he's going to be trying to apple-polish his "legacy" and become the first commish since Bowie Kuhn to be elected to Cooperstown. After all, rescuing not damsels, but HOF legacies in distress? That's a job for Commissioner Emeritus Man™!

December 20, 2014

Obama: Cyberwarmonger against North Korea?

In the early days after the Sony data hack and breach was first announced, after giving some, but not full, credence to the originally proposed idea that North Korea was behind the hack, I backed off, and instead attributed it, as did some guesstimate reporting, to one or more disgruntled current or former Sony employees.

First, nobody connected to North Korea mentioned "The Interview" in the first few days, or even first couple of weeks, after the breach became public knowledge. Wired has also addressed this. And, the type of information that was being leaked seemed to fuel the angle of disgruntlement.

But now, the FBI says Kim Jong Un's minions, or minions by extension, did it.

And yet, I'm still not sure.

And I'm not alone. Here's an in-depth analysis refuting the FBI.

Points 1-2 there address the idea that it seems made to look like it came from North Korea by someone who didn't quite know the right imitation.

Points 3-4 cover the revenge factor.

Points 7-8 cover why Obama would want to blame North Korea, at least in part.

But I think this needs to be taken further.

First, let's say the US, specifically the NSA, has in the past 12 months created some shiny new cyberwarfare weaponry. It's been itching for a chance to try it out.

So, instead of "weapons of mass destruction" and "mushroom clouds," we drum up other slanted or false claims and voila!

Second, let's say Dear Leader ... OUR Dear Leader, not Kim Jong Un's dead daddy ... I gave OUR Dear Leader that name ... let's say our Dear Leader is actually playing, if not 10-dimensional chess (at which he sucks) but bank shot pool. Or bow shot diplomacy.

As in, "Hey, Beijing, watch us do this to Pyongyang."

So, while lives may not be lost, cyberwarmongering against North Korea leaves me about as ill at ease as warmongering against Iraq. That said, Democrats right-or-wrong types still refuse to recognize the foreign policy continuities between Dear Leader and Shrub Bush.

Update, Dec. 30: And, the private sector continues to reject our government's claim that North Korea was behind the Sony hack. Assuming that our government was behind NK's Internet shutdown, this makes Obama a cyberwarmonger, does it not?

December 18, 2014

Pardon me if I don't cry too much for Tampa Bay Rays fans

So, despite city of St. Petersburg staff agreeing to let the low-attendance Tampa Bay Rays look across the bay to the city of Tampa and or Hillsborough County for a new stadium, the St. Pete City Council has voted it down and now, per Hardball Talk, fans are butt-hurt.

Is Tropicana Field ideal for baseball? Erm, no. Is it as horrible as some Rays fans claim? Well, because other Rays fans beg to differ.

And, the bottom line is that the Tampa Bay Lighting — HOCKEY! — outdrew 20 years ago, with a smaller population, what your current population draws for baseball in the same stadium. And did so more consistently. More below. At the same time, previous and current owners apparently thought it less of a white elephant than now. The turf's been upgraded twice since 2000, other changes have been made as well; the Wiki link indicates they've been done by owners, not the city.

See the bottom of this page for more details about that pull quote and why the stupidity issue is that real.

Is it located, as far as center of population, in the ideal part of metropolitan Tampa-St. Petersburg? No, but arguably neither are other stadiums like Busch in St. Louis.

Is its location geographically challenged? I've never been to Tampa-St. Pete, but I've been to the Bay Area plenty of times, and the Giants draw fans from the East Bay, San Jose, Marin County and more. Oh, while the Bay Area overall has good mass transit, BART does NOT go to either Marin County or San Jose. (It's headed to San Jose, but it's not there yet. And, it's not headed at all to Marin County/North Bay.) So, that's a bit of falsehood to claim that mass transit trumps all the Bay Area's geography issues, Rays fans.

If you're in San Jose and don't want to drive all the way to a Giants game, you still have to drive up to Daly City or wherever to catch BART. If you're in Napa or Sonoma, you have to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge into the city, and you probably figure you might as well drive to the game while you're at it.

And, Tampa Bay is no more convoluted than San Francisco Bay, and at 400 square miles, is no bigger than the smallest defined area of San Francisco Bay (excluding San Pablo and other sub-bays).

Otherwise? St. Louis and Cincinnati are both split by major rivers. St. Louis has light rail of moderate impact on the Missouri side only; I don't know if Cincy has light rail at all or just buses. Metro Seattle is made very vertical by Puget Sound, and I've not heard any special praises for its mass transit.

Besides, the sprawl and geographic convolution argument cuts both ways. There's surely St. Pete fans going to the Amalie, today's Lightning location, or the Raymond James for the Bucs. Yes, they may get more fans from the eastward, Lakeland all the way to Orlando, than the Rays. But, the Rays could potentially get more fans from Bradenton and points further south with their current location.

Is TSP a small baseball market? Noooooo.

It's not only a hair larger than mid-market metro St. Louis of my beloved Cardinals, per Wiki, it's larger than several other MLB sites.

Metro Tampa-St. Pete is bigger than:
1. Metro St. Louis
2. Metro Baltimore
3. Metro Denver
4. Metro Pittsburgh
5. Metro Cincinnati
6. Metro Cleveland
7. Metro Kansas City
8. Metro Milwaukee


As for attendance? It had about 2.5 million in its first year, according to Baseball-Reference. It fell a full million the next year, and has never broken 2 million since.  Even in good times and a growing population base, it hasn't broken 1.8 million since 2010, so you can't blame all the attendance woes on the previous ownership group of Vince Naimoli; the team's not drawn a lot better, despite having a better product, under Stuart Sternberg.

Given that the Tampa Bay Lightning also played there, before their current location, and drew well there, while part of the problems might be location, and part of the problems might be a stadium not well designed for baseball, I simply reject the idea that those two issues are the sum total of why baseball doesn't draw well there. 

Indeed, the Lightning drew about 20K a game there, and that's HOCKEY. And it was there in "poor sister" St. Pete. (The team draws even better in Tampa.) In other words, Rays fans, the hockey team outdrew most years of your baseball team, in the same location. And, year after year. Even when the expansion team didn't do that well right away.

As Rays fans getting more butt-hurt claim that I don't know what I'm talking about, or that I'm confusing the Lightning's current location and attendance with other things, you start to sound more and more like you're doing some special pleading.

No, I've never been there. But, I have plenty of statistics in hand. I've already covered attendance (and attendance vs. the Lightning), the reality of geography of Tampa Bay vs. San Francisco Bay, the reality of mass transit elsewhere and more.

And, to have some fans indicate I'm clueless, or that I'm getting things mixed up, or that I'm like George W. Bush invading Iraq and then clueless as to the fighting?

Sorry, but you're not winning your argument.

Meanwhile, back to that case at hand.

The Lightning draw even better now, in Tampa, with a better team, but that leads to something else.

This gets back to something I've said before. Some areas, while they support some sports well, don't others. And maybe, Rays fans, South Florida (TSP, on true lines of longitude, is as close or closer to Miami than it is to Jacksonville, so I'm calling it South Florida) just isn't major league baseball territory.

Accept it!

St. Louis hasn't had an NBA team since the Hawks, with Sweet Lou Hudson and Lenny Wilkins, left 45 years ago. After the ABA Spirits, with Bad News Marvin Barnes, Moses Malone, Maurice Lucas and M.L. Carr, failed to make the NBA cut, it's never gotten a whiff of mention as a possible NBA expansion or relocation site.

The Rams and Raiders have been gone from Los Angeles for 20 years, and even with the Rams winning one Super Bowl and making a second, don't seem to be too missed.

So, maybe Evan Longoria, David Price and other players don't draw fans that well, either. And, that may be true with the Miami Marlins and Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton.

That said, on the traffic and geography side, and why the Trop was built in St. Pete, I'm also beginning to suspect that part of this may be a unique regional issue, namely that Tampa-side people don't want to necessarily play so nice with St. Pete. To the degree that's involved, that's wholly your problem and stop blaming anybody or anything else.

Meanwhile, on to the business side.

Jeff Loria shook down Miami-Dade County taxpayers for big bucks for his shiny new stadium. Even if the Sternbergs, or new owners, could get out of the St. Pete side of the area, Tampa/Hillsborough County residents would surely crucify their elected officials for blowing taxpayer money on a stadium. That's especially true because Florida was one of the states hardest hit by the housing bubble. I don't think the Tampa or St. Petersburg economies are doing fantastic, either one.

Beyond that, on the St. Pete side? The current city council isn't the problem.

The one dumb enough to build a "spec" stadium without a guaranteed tenant is the dumb one. The current owner, knowing he'd bought a team occupying a spec stadium is a close second. Economic development directors who have brains will tell you (as multiple ones have told me before) that building a facility for speculative purposes, whether a sports facility, a small office park, a logistics facility (I've seen both of those built as spec buildings and sit vacant for years too) is one of the "best" ways to get yourself fired.

They're often built into pre-conceived ideas that are pretty inflexible, and because economic development corporations are adjuncts of local governments, they're also built on the cheap. The Trop "pleads guilty" on both counts.

Only other business angle I can think of off the top of my head is maybe Naimoli figured he'd be able to find a sucker eager municipal government on the Tampa side of the metro after a couple of years. Well, he failed.

Oh, and baseball fans? Beyond traffic, and on viewing experience, this can't be as bad as old Tiger Stadium, or current Wrigley, for that matter.

To be somewhat charitable, and honor emotions and other things, while still focusing on the facts, I'll concede that as much as 50 percent of this may be due to location and/or stadium.

But no more than that.

Rays fans, will you concede that the other 50 percent may be baseball support struggles?

I expect crickets, but if you want to do differently, you can.

December 17, 2014

#Cuba — If the Havana Ham, Ted Cruz, hated Obama before ...

Fidel Castro, ready to be "recognized"
Wikipedia
Getcha popcorn! The New York Times is reporting that normalization of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba will happen as a sidebar of Cuba releasing Alan Gross plus a US spy arrested decades ago, in exchange for the US releasing some Cubans, and also, per details noted below, agreeing to start liberalizing some contacts between the two countries as soon as possible.

Here's the full deal on what's happening immediately:
In addition, the United States will ease restrictions on remittances, travel and banking relations, and Cuba will release 53 Cuban prisoners identified as political prisoners by the United States government. Although the decades-old American embargo on Cuba will remain in place for now, the administration signaled that it would welcome a move by Congress to ease or lift it should lawmakers choose to. 
Ted Cruz, the real "Havana Ham"
Wikipedia
While Obama cannot overturn the Helms-Burton Act, normalizing diplomatic relations is an executive prerogative. And, he can, by executive order, lighten some restrictions on trade. Havana Ted could try to cut the State Department's budget, but ain't nothing else he can do.
Diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba were severed in January 1961 after the rise of Fidel Castro and his Communist government. Mr. Obama has instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to immediately initiate discussions with Cuba about reestablishing diplomatic relations and to begin the process of removing Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism, which it has been on since 1982, the White House said. 
And, here's non-diplomatic actions planned by executive order.
The United States will also ease travel restrictions across all 12 categories currently envisioned under limited circumstances under American law, including family visits, official visits and journalistic, professional, educational and religious activities, public performances, officials said. Ordinary tourism, however, will remain prohibited. 
Mr. Obama will also allow greater banking ties and raise the level of remittances allowed to be sent to Cuban nationals to $2,000 every three months from the current limit of $500. Intermediaries forwarding remittances will no longer require a specific license from the government. American travelers will also be allowed to import up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba, including up to $100 in tobacco and alcohol products. 
As for 2016 electoral fallout in Florida? Let's not forget that the revolution was 55 years ago. There are not just one, but two generations of adult Cuban-Americans born in the US of A. Many of them may not be tired of the trade embargo of Helms-Burton, but, they're not wingnuts living and dying over keeping Fidel in a small box. So, Marco Rubio can, along with Ted Cruz and the occasional Cuban-American older Democratic politician, foam at the mouth. But, many younger Cuban-Americans have moved on.

Besides, Cuban cigars! That said, since general tourism won't be allowed, people who do bring back Cuban cigars will be reselling them for a premium.

Oh, look, more wingnuts who can't spell!  © Alan Diaz/AP Anti-Castro
activists Osvaldo Hernandez, right, and Miguel Saavedra, second from right,
chant anti-Obama slogans in the Little Havana area of Miami.
Anyway, from a non-wingnut POV, especially here in Texas, just watching Ted Cruz shit bricks over this is fun enough, more than Marco Rubio.

And, not just Havana Ted. The Times notes that Francis the Talking Pope backed the US-Cuba talks, too. So, conservative Catholics who accuse liberal Catholics of being "cafeteria Catholics" over abortion, the shoe is once again, as with the death penalty and the invasion of Iraq, now on the other foot. So, more wingnuts can again wig out.

Speaking of that, Florida's top dog Cuban-American wingnut, Marco Rubio, has already attacked Pope Francis on this.

Both Obama and Raul Castro are supposed to speak at noon Eastern about the issue. I'll update this with major relevant new points as needed.

The main one seems to be that it's full speed ahead on working on normalization of diplomatic ties.

As for the trade embargo?

Chris Tomlinson notes that Cuba has a highly educated workforce. Who wouldn't want more trade? It has offshore oil reserves that could use the help of a country with major drilling expertise. Better the US than Vlad the Impaler Putin, isn't it?

And, as Craig Calcaterra notes, this could affect the signing of Cuban baseball players. The US is easing "professional ... activities" on travel.

===

Beyond the above, it's just not been a good week for Ted Cruz in general.

His Senate procedural stunt over immigration royally backfired. Havana Ted ultimately filled Obama's Christmas stocking with at least six dozen stalled nominees getting Senate confirmation or pledges thereof.

And, I "love" that when the likes of Faux News and beyond talk about "some Democrats" opposing the move, the only one they can ever name by name is New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez.