Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Horse race

For some reason, I threw together a page that gives an overview of the Iowa Electronic Markets relevant to the 2008 presidential election. It's fun to see so many Republican shares in steep decline, a happiness offset by the knowledge that others will necessarily rise in their place.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The social construction of Santa Claus

I was preparing some deep soul-searching post about god and atheism and how the concept of god is real even if god isn't, but then found this much more thorough exploration of essentially the same issue (h/t LG&M):
The first thing to point out is that a social constructionist would not necessarily consider the existence of Santa Claus to be the same thing as the existence of a man in a red suit who flies around the world in one evening in a sleigh pulled by eight or nine flying reindeer and delivers toys to all of the good children of the world. Perhaps physicists are so literal when it comes to social actors, but we social constructionists tend to have a broader view on the subject. Indeed, for us, an actor exists inasmuch as and insofar as action is legitimately performed in its name. It is the massive set of activities carried out in the name of the state -- invoking state authority, done on the state's behalf -- that provides the evidence for the state's existence, as well as concretely instantiating the actor "the state" from moment to moment. Contra some IR constructivists (like Alex Wendt), it's not like there's some essential stateness lying around somewhere from which state acts emanate; rather, there are a series of actions performed in the state's name, actions that -- if successfully legitimated -- give rise to the effect of a solid object called "the state". It's not center first, action second; it's action first, appearance of a center second.
So, Santa is at least as real as the State. Merry Fucking Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Where are the blogs of yesteryear?

My favority brilliant lefty blogs have a habit of dying sudden deaths:
  • Fafblog, surrealistic snark. Ceased being updated a year and a half ago.

  • Whisky Bar, mordant, trenchant, informed analysis. Site pulled down abruptly,
    but lives on in the Internet Archive, and has an ongoing fan site Moon of Alabama.

  • The Poor Man, general mockery of wingnuttery. Seems to have died recently, would normally be managing the Golden Winger awards for 2007. Also lives on in archives.

This keeps happening. I predict Who is IOZ? will be the next to go. It has the same level of acidic, incendiary brilliance that leads to sudden flare-out.

Fortunately, there is really no shortage of good, biting material on the left -- the Bush administration has spawned a cottage industry. But I still miss the above trio.

TGGP notes a similar phenomenon in his rather different corner of the blogiverse.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Academic Units with Mildly Amusing Names, #3 in a Series

The Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley. This is in bold counterpoint to the rest of science, which is well-known to be mostly either evil or mad or both.
The Greater Good Science Center is an interdisciplinary research center devoted to the scientific understanding of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds, and altruistic behavior. While serving the traditional tasks of a UC Berkeley research center—fostering groundbreaking scientific discoveries—the GGSC is unique in its commitment to helping people apply scientific research to their lives.
This place sounds like it's taking on potentially interesting and important questions and presenting them in the most treacly and insufferable way imaginable. Makes me want to sign up as a neocameralist.

Found via LinkBack from this interesting talk by Steve Pinker, who claims that humanity is, in fact, getting gooder, or at least less prone to murderous violence.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Gay cooties

Gregory Cochran specializes in putting forward controversial hypotheses that relate to human genetics. He's recently released a paper (with John Hawks and others) that shows that human evolution is accelerating. That's very interesting but not especially as obviously controversial as his stuff on the genetics of Askenazi intelligence and the pathogenic origin theory of male homosexuality are where you want to look for stuff like that. The latter is my subject here. [edited for clarity]

The idea is that a genetic theory of homosexuality makes no sense at all, since a genetic mutation that was so counter-productive to reproduction would be rapidly eliminated by natural selection. There are a few alternative explanations, such as that this deliterious mutation is linked to some other beneficial function (which explains the genetic survival of disorders like sickle-cell anemia). But Cochran's preferred explanation is non-genetic -- instead he hypothesizes that some infectious agent affects brain development.

I don't really have much of a stake in the politics of homosexuality. Cochran's science seems solid if speculative (and identified as such); his ideology is hidden although he has some associations to the rather suspect crew of Steve Sailer's Human Biodiversity Group. I find issues where science and politics intersect rather fascinating from an epistemolgical point of view. Presumably there is an objective fact-of-the matter about things like the origins of homosexuality, global warming, race/intelligence connections, etc. But it is almost impossible to investigate these issues objectively. Everyone involved, including scientists, seems to be quite agenda-driven. My personal strategy is to try to not associate with either side and find a neutral middle ground, but that is often difficult and unrewarding.

The name is somewhat biasing. If homosexuality is caused by an external organism, it is not necessarily pathogenic, at least from an individual's point of view. It is pathogenic from the standpoint of natural selection, because it reduces the rate of reproduction, but people do many things that are good for them but bad for their genes. So our hypothetical gay infection could be considered a symbiote rather than a pathogen. It is quite certain that a large percentage of the infected would prefer not to be "cured", and a different percentage would leap at the chance. In actuality, it is unlikely that there would be a cure since the action of this hypothetical pathogen probably takes place during early development. So no individual cures, but possibly parents could decide to take some inoculation that would be designed to knock the pathogen out of comission before they get pregnant.

Obviously those with a stake in homosexuality as a lifestyle or subculture get incensed at this prospect, and I can't say they are wrong to do so. Megan McArdle makes an analogy to the case of deaf culture, which is not happy that deaf children can be given cochlear implants and cured, removing them from the deaf culture and community. And deafness is much more clearly a pathology than homosexuality.

But I wonder if wiping out the homosexual pathogen/symbiote would be a calamity for humanity as a whole, let alone the gay subculture. It is unquestionably the case that homosexuals, like Jews, have made contributions to the mainstream culture far out of proportion to their numbers. You may not care for Broadway shows or the Village People, but

... there's no part of the cultural landscape without a gay element. Even if gays constitute as much as fifteen percent of the population, the gay contribution to Western art, architecture, music, and literature far exceeds what it should be statistically. If you accept the right-wing claim that only one in a hundred people is gay, then the gay contribution is truly extraordinary. Think about it: A group comprising one percent of the population producing Erasmus, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Marlowe, Bacon, Hölderlin, Hans Christian Andersen, Tchaikovsky, Proust ... the list goes on and on to include three of the four major nineteenth-century American novelists, one (perhaps both) of the two great nineteenth-century American poets, and two of the three most noted mid-twentieth-century American dramatists.
Not to mention Alan Turing, John Maynard Keynes, etc...

So, let's suppose the pathogen theory turns out to be true, and that medical research comes up with some sort of vaccine or other technique that interferes with it. The result could be that we plunge our culture into a dark age. Certainly we'd eliminate a lot of valuable diversity. The net benefit to humanity seems very likely to be negative.