Readers bored by our recent all-wingnut, all the time focus are invited to read about two great things that go great together: Descartes and bees. (This is taken from our personal blog, where there are already some good comments.)

Every now and again, while I’m grading papers, I think my life might be a lot easier if Descartes had just refrained from letting his mind wander, and not come up with the wax example. It’s one of the most apparently simple, actually confusing thought experiments ever.

Also, think about this for a minute:

Let us consider those things people commonly think they understand most distinctly of all: namely, those bodies that we touch and see. I do not mean bodies in general–for general perceptions are apt to be somewhat more confused–but one particular body. Let us take, for example, this piece of wax, just come from the comb. It has not yet lost the sweetness of the honey it contained; it retains some of the scent of the flowers from which it was gathered; its color, shape and size are apparent; it is hard, cool, and can be readily handled; if you tap it with your knuckle it makes a sound. In short, it has everything which seems necessary to enable a body to be known as distinctly as possible. But see how, even as I speak, I place the wax by the fire: what remains of its taste evaporates; its scent dissipates; its color changes; its shape is lost; its size increases; it becomes liquid and hot; you can hardly touch it, and if you do it no longer makes a sound. But does the same wax remain?

Has any of you looked at a honeycomb lately? I have. The hotel we stayed at in Vietnam had a thick sheet of comb suspended in a wooden frame over a polished trough, and honey slowly dripped out of it and slid down to the bottom of the trough. It was really excellent honey, thin and floral tasting. But do you know what the most salient feature of the comb was? That would be the distinctive, mathematically regular, hexagonal structure. How does that not merit a place in Descartes discussion? It’s clear he chose the wax carefully both for its appeal to all the senses and its transformational power. In what world is that hexagonal structure of the comb not more salient than that it makes a sound (a dull, feeble sound, I might add) if you rap it with your knuckle? I mean, ‘its shape is apparent’, OK. But that description could just as well fit a blob of slightly melted, cooled wax or a ball made by crushing a piece of fresh comb with your hands. But this is ‘fresh from the comb’. Why is that not worth mentioning? Doesn’t it make the transformation more complete, as it moves from its regular lattice to undifferentiated liquid? Now, of course all Descartes’ readers knew what wax fresh from the comb looked like, certainly better than we. But it really seems strange to me that he would lavish all these sensual descriptions on the wax and just pass over in silence its single most notable feature. Why?

Reviewing the Stern Review

by John Q on November 14, 2006

The release of the Stern review on the economics of climate change has had a huge impact on the climate change debate in Australia. There had already been signs of movement, but the government was still adamant in rejecting both the Kyoto protocol and any form of emissions trading. And, although the offical position did not dispute the science of climate change, many of the government’s supporters in the media, and even some ministers, were pushing the denialist line.

That was only a few weeks ago. Now the Australian government has endorsed emissions trading (in principle at least) and is calling for a ‘new Kyoto’. Ratifying the old Kyoto is still a step too far for a government that has never disagreed with George Bush on anything, but it’s hard to see how long this position can last.

Given the impact of the Stern review, it’s important to see if it stands up to scrutiny, and I’ve done a series of posts on parts of the report at my blog. My main conclusions:

(i) Stern’s estimates of the cost of stabilising CO2 levels (1 per cent of GDP by 2050) are optimistic, but in the right ballpark
(ii) Stern’s treatment of discounting is correct (More to come on this, I hope)
(iii) Stern underestimates the costs of Business As Usual, particularly in relation to environmental damage
(iv) Headline reporting of Stern overstates the risks of worst-case outcomes in the long tail, but critics are wrong to suggest that low-probability extreme outcomes should be ignored.

Overall, my conclusion is that the Stern review gets the basic economics and the policy recommendation right, even if the presentation is inevitably political.

Interesting beneficial uses of the Web?

by Eszter Hargittai on November 14, 2006

I’m collecting examples of interesting ways in which people use various online services for their benefit. Of course, I can come up with lots of hypotheticals and examples from my own life, but it’s helpful to have concrete cases from the world at large.

Here, for example, is an interesting case of IT being put to use for the potential benefit of folks in a realm having little to do with IT. It’s about the use of Google Earth to back up claims about the value of some land that the government in India wants to acquire from farmers for limited compensation. The piece doesn’t say whether the use of these images ultimately led to a different outcome, but the potential is there.

Another relevant example is how people exploit spelling errors on ebay listings to get good deals. Because most people searching for those items don’t find them, there is much less of a bidding war and the final price is lower than would be otherwise. There are now even Web sites that help you exploit this, for example, eBooBoos does the guessing on your behalf. The results of a search on “turtle” yield items such as a turle neck sweater or a trutle box. (One wonders why ebay hasn’t worked on this issue in-house, but that’s another matter.)

I am looking for other examples concerning the beneficial uses of IT by average folks in particular, although interesting uses by super techies are welcomed as well. I’m not so much interested in (this time around) cases of xyz Web site helping to deal with other realms of IT uses (e.g. a handy tool for following blog posts), but uses that have a relatively direct impact on other realms of life as well. If you can share pointers to articles like the one above regarding the farmers in India that would be great. I also welcome stories from personal experiences. This is all related to some talks and papers I’m working on. Thanks!

Blame Canada

by Belle Waring on November 14, 2006

If the incoming populist Democrats would only slap a softwood-style tariff on foreign pundits, we would be spared much suffering. Plain People of the Internet, I give you Mark Steyn, on why weak-willed women are leading the West down the path to Eurabia:

I heard it anecdotally from two friends in the space of a week…You wear the head scarf and a head to toe dress or you’re not showing bare legs, bare arms, uncovered hair. They were stunned at how much more relaxing it was to stroll across the park, stroll to the corner store. They suddenly felt far more secure, they felt far more safe, they weren’t jeered at for being an infidel whore or anything – and I would imagine that, you know, it’s not actually that big a stage from sort of passing for Muslim in the street to actually embracing it in some kind of way of residual way at least nominally for the advantages of a quiet life.

That’s why they do it. I mean, I was told by some French guy that 4 out of 5 converts in Islam in Europe, to Islam, are women. I don’t know what basis he produced that statistic. When I talk to people, they don’t actually disagree with it if you ask around. [Fact-esque!–Belle]

It gets way better below the fold. [click to continue…]

Beware of Yanks Bearing Suffering

by John Holbo on November 14, 2006

A couple days ago Matthew Yglesias took time out from thinking about tough issues to note that WW I was really, really a terrible thing. Jim Henley commented:

The fascinating thing about recent American "conservatism" is how many Republican commentators have tried to rehabilitate WWI as a noble cause. It was when Tacitus made that argument that I first really understood that he was insane. I’ve since seen it from others.

On cue, Instapundit linked to this, by Trevino (a.k.a. Tactitus):

[click to continue…]

An option Hitchens doesn’t consider

by Chris Bertram on November 14, 2006

Christopher Hitchens “writes”: :

bq. What is to become, in the event of a withdrawal, of the many Arab and Kurdish Iraqis who do want to live in a secular and democratic and federal country? We have acquired this responsibility not since 2003, or in the sideshow debate over prewar propaganda, but over decades of intervention in Iraq’s affairs, starting with the 1968 Baathist coup endorsed by the CIA, stretching through Jimmy Carter’s unforgivable permission for Saddam Hussein to invade Iran, continuing through the decades of genocide in Kurdistan and the uneasy compromise that ended the Kuwait war, and extending through 12 years of sanctions and half-measures, including the “no-fly” zones and the Iraq Liberation Act, which passed the Senate without a dissenting vote. It is not a responsibility from which we can walk away when, or if, it seems to suit us.

Well there’s a rather obvious answer, isn’t there? The United States could offer to resettle all and any such people in the United States (with, perhaps, a smaller quota coming to the UK). No doubt those states where the war was most enthusiastically supported would be the first to make generous offers to the Arab would-be immigrants. Come to think of it, why didn’t Kinky Friedman make this part of his election platform?

Wikipedia hits the top ten

by John Q on November 14, 2006

For the first time in its history, Wikipedia is #10 in Alexa’s daily Traffic Rank though not in the official top 10.

[click to continue…]