Monday, November 26, 2007

What About James Watson?

Given how many times I've posted on freedom of speech issues, I feel, well, odd about not having posted on the James D. Watson flap last month. I guess I should say something about it.

In case you have been sequestered in a remote monastery for the last five weeks, an international furore erupted as a result of this Times (of London) article. The article was based on an interview Watson gave to a former student on the occasion of his coming to England to publicize a new book of his, appropriately titled Avoid Boring People. The article included the following:
The 79-year-old geneticist said he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really." He said he hoped that everyone was equal, but countered that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.
In the ensuing flap, he was the subject of virulent denunciations, not only in the press, but in the scientific community. His English speaking engagements and book tour were canceled, and he suddenly "retired" from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, an institution that he headed for years and which probably only exists because of him and his achievements.

I just want to say something, briefly, about two of the questions that are raised by these sad events.

First: Are people who believe that some races are on average smarter than others racists and bad people?

Not necessarily. This is a scientific question and the answer to it consists of morally neutral facts. Facts are facts. If the race-to-intelligence link should turn out to exist, that may be regrettable, but there is no point in sniveling about it, and we certainly shouldn't moralize about the people who bring in the evidence. Some of the people who believe in the link do so because they are racists, but I am sure that others do so because they honestly think that is where the evidence leads. We will never be able to figure this out in an atmosphere of moralistic hysteria.

Maybe I should add that I actually don't have any opinions about this issue, because I frankly don't find it interesting. So what if (as the evidence does seem to suggest) Jews and Asians are on average more intelligent than people like me, and Blacks and Hispanics are on average less intelligent? What does that have to do with how I should relate to a Mexican friend of mine, or and East Indian friend? Obviously, nothing. What does it have to do with how they should see themselves? Again, nothing. By all accounts there is a large portion of any given major race that is more intelligent than the average member of any other race. To draw conclusions about any given individual (supposing one has any personal knowledge about then at all) is simply a fallacy.

Then why are people so worked up about this? I think it's because they are not concerned in this case with individuals, they are concerned with groups. There is an idea afoot here that William Saletan has cleverly named liberal creationism. The form of egalitarianism now dominant among "liberals" requires that all racial groups, at least all major racial groups, have equal amounts of the benefits of social cooperation -- wealth, income, prestige, etc. Whenever they don't, that is unjust, and massive amounts of state coercion are justified to correct the injustice. For various reasons, this does not make sense unless the various racial groups are genetically identical in relevant respects: if on the contrary there are significant relevant differences among the genetic endowments of different races then, at a minimum, attempts to establish this sort of race-based egalitarianism by forceare attempts to sweep back the sea.

The problem is that this assumption, of the genetic identity of races, is clearly an empirical proposition and obviously could be false. Creating a world view that hangs by such a slender thread seems a seriously dumb thing to do. At least the Christian creationists were clever enough to base their world view on propositions that are unfalsifiable. This assumption puts the standard lefty paradigm on a collision course with some o f the most powerful and rapidly developing of modern sciences: namely, those that are connected in relevant ways with evolutionary biology. Hence the "liberal creationism" label. If I were one of these racial egalitarians, I would revise my world view, probably by switching to some other sort of egalitarianism.

Second Question: So, when Watson was relieved of his administrative duties by the board of Cold Spring Harbor Labs, that was an injustice, right?

Again, I have to say, not necessarily. Contrary to what John Derbyshire has suggested, Watson's quoted remarks go well beyond the legitimate scientific issue that I have been discussing here. He seemed to say that all employers know by experience that blacks are less intelligent than whites. This could only be true if, contrary to what I've said above, that they are all less intelligent than all whites. This of course is absurd. He also seems to be saying that the reasons why the economic problems of Africa are so horrible is that these people are just too damn dumb to do much better. (To get an idea how horrible these problems are, go here. Note that the shrinking and falling blue circles represent Africa.) We are dealing with a 79 year old man who even in his prime had a way of saying rather loopy things in public. There is at least some reason to think that he should not be in a position in which he supervises other people.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving 2007!

Well, as I write, the turkey is about to come out of the brine. Here's hoping for the best - for all of us!

Thanksgiving represents so many of the simple values that are easy to scoff at, and nobody represents that -- both simple values and the easily-scoffed-at -- than Norman Rockwell. At the left is his "Freedom from Want," from the website of the Norman Rockwell Museum of Vermont. It was painted as part of a series celebrating FDR's "Four Freedoms" speech. Click to enlarge. (See Joseph Epstein's take on Thanksgiving as a cultural relic here. Hat-tip for the link to Denis Dutton of Arts and Letters Daily.)

[If you can forgive my sounding a negative note, I just can't resist pointing out what a servile conception of "freedom" that FDR speech represents. The four freedoms are: freedom of speech, freedom to worship (not
of worship -- evidently, failure to worship isn't an option), freedom from want, and freedom from fear. As Walter Kaufmann pointed out long ago, all four are fully enjoyed in the better sort of prison. I prefer the paintings to the speech. I am painfully aware, though, that most of the people I respect would have the opposite preference.]

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Glory and the Grief of Thanksgiving: A Note to Cooks

This will be the first Thanksgiving on which Nat is coming home from college. He's been doing a wonderful job (finding time to publish an article in a student paper along with getting As in difficult classes!) so I wanted to go all out in making this meal great.

I think cooks like Thanksgiving because it is such a challenge: the ingredients are so un-promising! First, there are the cranberries, which Jeffrey Steingarten has said are "not a real food." Then there is pumpkin pie. This is a dessert based on a species of squash. As it is usually prepared, it is little more than a platform for serving nutmeg. Finally, there is the roast turkey. By the time this bird is cooked enough to crisp the skin and not kill your guests, it is usually all dried out.

[I can't believe that people love Thanksgiving for the food. It's really all about feasting with loved ones, and the nostalgic memories that accumulate year after year, like subtle flavor-elements blooming in a fine wine. If you like the food so much, how come you only eat it once a year? This anthropologically interesting oddity might be called The Lutefisk Phenomenon.]

After all these years, I am still struggling to improve my solutions to these thorny culinary conundra. For the pumpkin pie, I have used this recipe for pumpkin cheesecake ever since it was first published in 1992. This year, for variety, I will try Ellie Krieger's lightened-up version of pumpkin flan.

As to the turkey, since 1996 I've used this brined turkey recipe, or adapted it in various ways. All non-brining recipes are too horrible to contemplate. Once I started brining, I never looked back! For reasons that I don't yet understand (something to do with osmotic pressure?) brining helps keep the bird from drying out.

This summer, I purchased a gas smoker, and I am going to try combining this process with the brining technique I have been using. Properly done, smoking accomplishes the same thing as brining. It is a low-and-slow cooking method, using temps that are high enough to cook the meat but too low to cause the juices to drip out (smokers don't even have drip pans!).

Below is the recipe I am going to try (no, this will not be one of those compassionate Thanksgivings), a radically revised version of my base recipe. First, a word about the revisions:
  • I am introducing flavoring agents into the brine. This has become standard practice since I began brining in 1996.
  • The baking soda: I am worried about the acidity that orange zest will bring to the brining process. I'm really not sure what difference it will make, particularly because the bird will be in the brine for such a long time. We're brining the bird not pickling it. To be safe, I'm adding baking soda. I hope this will neutralize the citric acid without ruining anything else.
  • I am finishing the bird in the kitchen oven to crisp the skin. Also, this allows me to introduce the butter rub. I don't want to do this in the smoker because the butter would drip and, in the absence of dripping pans, possibly produce some nasty soot. Also make a mess of my smoker.
  • Using the turkey cannon, a "beer can" style marinade-introduction system, will further enhance moistness and help keep the smoking process from taking all day. (I will assume that the cooking process will take about 3 1/2 hours: smoking time plus kitchen oven time plus resting one hour.)
  • Because I can't be sure of the cooking times (smokers are hard to control!), I've purchased a remote-probe digital thermometer with cable.

Brined and Smoked Orange-Thyme Turkey

For the brine:
Two quarts vegetable stock
1/2 cup light golden brown sugar
One gallon water
One tablespoon zested orange peel
½ teaspoon baking soda
Three or four sprigs fresh thyme or one tablespoon dried
One tablespoon black peppercorns
One teaspoon red pepper flakes
One pound kosher salt
One bag of ice (seven pounds or so)

One twelve-pound turkey
One teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayeene pepper

Orange-butter rub:
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
1/8 cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme or 1 tablespoon dried
1 tablespoon zested orange peel
1 teaspoon zested lemon peel
½ teaspoon freshly grated black pepper
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

For “beer can” system:
3/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 medium chipotle chili, crumbled (chipotles are dried)

In a stock pot, combine brining ingredients, except for ice, and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve salt. Remove from heat. Cool to room temperature and chill until cold.

Put turkey, with cold brine and ice, in a camp cooler big enough to hold the turkey. Place in a cool place, such as a basement or Wisconsin back porch in November, for six to twelve hours (overnight is good).

Remove the turkey and discard brine. Drain turkey and aim an electric fan at it to dry it off while doing the following. Whisk together ingredients for butter rub. Start up smoker, with wood chips (I will be using finely split apple chips). Set up beer can system (I will be using my turkey cannon) and introduce wet and dry ingredients into the system after heating them to boiling in the microwave. Lightly sprinkle turkey with cayenne and paprika.

Place the turkey, with the beer can system, in the smoker. Insert the remote probe of a digital thermometer into the bird as per thermometer instructions, setting the alarm for 150° F and smoke until that internal temperature is reached. Keep the smoker temperature (I use three different thermometers for this purpose, simultaneously) at about 280° F during this process.

Now move turkey and beer can assembly to a pan to catch drippings and, with a brush, paint the turkey with generous amounts of the orange butter. If the turkey’s extremities (wingtips and leg ends) are already brown, cover those with foil. Reset alarm to 160°. Place in the bottom rack of a pre-heated 500° F oven to crisp the skin. Before that temperature is reached, paint the turkey with more of the butter. When the 160° internal temperature is reached, remove bird promptly. Tent loosely with foil and let rest for one hour (160° is too rare for some tastes, but the bird will continue to cook as it rests).

I'll be serving it with this cornbread stuffing. It's my current favorite.

If you spot any mistakes in this plan, please do let me know!

Update a week later:
Well, this turkey recipe turned out to me amazingly good. I think using apple wood chips turned out to be especially important: it prevented the smoked turkey from tasting like pseudo-ham (as it probably would if you were to use hickory) and gave it a wonderfully different flavor. Deborah forbade me to ever change it as long as I live. I got an email yesterday from someone who tried it and he described it as "perfect" (thanks, Richard!). But enough of this bragging! I also, I guess it's inevitable, found there were a couple of mistakes in the recipe as written above. I'll post a revised and corrected version before Christmas. [Added Later: Make that next Thanksgiving. Anyone who wants it before then can email me.]

Saturday, November 17, 2007

I See Beowulf -- With a Beowulf Scholar!

Thursday night Deborah and I attended the local premier of the new film of Beowulf, in a special Imax 3-D screening for press and VIPs. Due to our host, John D. Niles, reigning king of Ango-Saxony, (thanks Jack!), we were indulgently placed in the latter category. Afterwards, Jack held a very interesting question-and-answer period.

Of course, he had to point out that as the writer, Neil Gaiman, adapted the story for the screen, he seemed to feel that he had to "sex it up." In the poem, Beowulf is, as near as we can tell, celibate. Not so in the movie. [This BTW is one of the biggest differences between literary heroes and movie heroes. Yes, Philip Marlowe does marry Linda Loring, but not until the unfinished last book in the series. No doubt, the reason for this difference is that the movies are more democratic. The masses are not interested in celibate heroes.]

In principle, Jack didn't mind that film-makers changed the poem into a completely different sort of story -- an 3-D thrill ride with oceans of gore and eye-popping spectacle -- indeed, the anonymous Beowulf poet was no doubt also re-imagining yet earlier stories. Being "unfaithful" to your sources is keeping faith with the tradition!

But he did regret that the film makes no use at all of the single greatest feature of the poem: the language! I noticed that they put a number of songs in the film (good idea, that! these people probably sang a lot!), but in every case the lyrics were rhyming verse, not alliterative verse. What for?

He also pointed out that the visual design of the film, though often beautiful (especially Grendel's cave), had almost no connection with the design of Viking-age artifacts that survive. [For an insight into what this means, get Jack's brand-new edition of Seamus Heany's translation of the poem. It is crammed with gorgeous full-page illustrations of period artifacts.] Again, this seems like a terrible waste to me. The film seems more influenced by the design of video games like World of Warcraft than by actual Ango-Saxon culture. Great film-makers take everything that is great in their sources and build on them. The present strategy seems to me like turning your back on a banquet to catch and eat flies (to borrow a simile from H. L. Mencken).

Anyway, though this is not Lord of the Rings or 300, it is worth seeing. I recommend that you only see it in IMAX 3-D, though. Otherwise you will sit there wondering why they keep hurling things (spear-points, rocks, pieces of furniture, dead bodies, monsters) at the camera. And you'll miss half of the fun. More than half, actually.

By the way, I haven't mentioned what I find the movie's greatest virtue because it was something that would probably influence no one else. As the world's only fan of Crispin Glover, I relished his portrayal of Grendel. I would have seen it if only for that!

Random Quotations

Below is a list of quotations I've compiled over the last couple of weeks. The only constraints are that I think all are of high quality, and also that I don't remember seeing any of them before two weeks ago.

What makes a good quotation? I think the only thing that all these have in common is a complete lack of unnecessary gestures. There are no wasted words, also no wasted ideas: no qualifications, no explanations, and no explicit argumentation or evidence.

This may explain why of all the authors below, selected at random, few are professors, and only two are philosophers. People who like to spell everything out are not quotable. (I can't think of any quotable statements by John Rawls. In fact, the very idea is comical, is it not?)

It also implies that quotable passages are in effect aphorisms. If other literary forms are islands and continents, aphorisms are mountain-peaks.

I don't think there is anything else the items below have in common. Some are clear, others are vague. Some are truisms, others are paradoxes (the opposite of a truism). Some are like a soothing lotion, others prick like a cactus-spine.

Anyway, here is the list:

"Always laugh when you can. It is cheap medicine. "
Lord Byron

"They never fail who die in a great cause."
Lord Byron

"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."
Mohandas Gandhi

"Tigers are more beautiful than sheep, but we prefer them behind bars."
Bertrand Russell, on the Romanitic admiration for wildness.

"Those who offer false consolation are false friends."
Christoper Hitchens (This one is quoted from memory and so is probably not accurate.)

"Anarchism is founded on the observation that since few men are wise enough to rule themselves, even fewer are wise enough to rule others."
Edward Abbey

“I know that I am prejudiced on this matter, but I would be ashamed of myself if I were not.”
Mark Twain

"If you talk to God, you are praying; if God talks to you, you have schizophrenia."
Thomas Szasz

"Since everything ends badly for us in the inevitable catastrophe of death, it seems obvious that the first rule of life is to have a good time; and that the second rule of life is to hurt as few people as possible in the course of doing so. There is no third rule."
Brendan Gill

"¿Y por qué no te callas?"
King Juan Carlos' actual words to Hugo Chavez. ¡Que viva el Rey!

"A professor must have a theory as a dog must have fleas. "
H. L. Mencken

"A man may be a fool and not know it, but not if he is married. "
H. L. Mencken

"Democracy is also a form of worship. It is the worship of Jackals by Jackasses. "
H. L. Mencken

"It is a sin to think evil of others, but it is seldom a mistake."
H. L. Mencken

... Uh-oh. If I allow H. L. Mencken quotes, the whole list will be his his stuff. I hereby ban them....

"There is but one way left to save a classic; to give up revering him and use him for our own salvation."
Jose Ortega y Gasset

"Poetry is adolescence fermented, and thus preserved."
Jose Ortega y Gasset

...Okay, Ortega will also take over the list if I let him in. I quess I'd better end it anyway...

Darn! The two-weeks rule I laid down at the beginning prohibited me from giving one of my favorite quotes, but what the heck here it is anyway:

"Those who fight for the future, live in it today."
Ayn Rand

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Does Religion "Poison Everything"?

I've been reading God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by the the always-amusing Christopher Hitchens.

His ornery sub-title raises a question that, believe it or not, I find myself taking seriously. Does it?

You know, of course, what prompted the "new atheism," the surge of books by Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennet, as well as lesser luminaries, some of whom burn hotter if not as brilliantly. It's because of 9/11, the day that changed everything.

That morning I rose late, about ten o'clock or so, and began what I expected would be a slow day. At noon my friend Don Downs of the Poli Sci Department was going to bring over some documents about a professor who had been de-tenured and fired by the Board of Regents, a case that we though raised some serious due process issues. We were thinking of trying to get the faculty senate to take a position on the case.

Quite unexpectedly, the front door bell rang. It was Don. I opened the door and looked at him sourly. "You're early," I said.

He looked at my bathrobe. "You haven't turned your TV on yet, have you?" he asked.

"Why? What happened?"

"Somebody flew a passenger plane into one of the towers of the World Trade Center and knocked it down."

"O my God," I said stupidly, "that must have killed hundreds of people."

"Oh, thousands," he corrected me.

The next thing I said was an angry outburst: "Do you see how wonderful religion is!? How it helps everyone to live together in peace?" Don looked startled.

How did I know, instantly, that this was a religious act? I don't think I was even sure right away which religion was involved, but that religion was at to bottom of this seemed beyond doubt. You have to admit that, wherever there is widespread and persistent violence in the world, especially irrational vioulence -- whether it is on Ireland, Lebanon, Israel, Aghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka -- it is usually caused by religious differences. Hitchens argues convincingly that the last European war, the civil war in Yugoslavia, was really about religion as much as anything else. "Ethnic cleansing" was really religious cleansing. It was Christians killing Muslims, and doing so because the Muslims were Muslims and, most particularly, because the Christians were Christians.

Years later, it occurred to me that there was a simpler explanation of how I knew that this was a religious act. The clue lay in the fact that the violence on 9/11 was obviously suicidal. The pilots of those planes must have died together with their innocent victims. When we secular humanists commit an atrocity to make the world a better place, it is because we selfishly want to live in that better world. If the atrocity can't possibly have that motive, one knows at once the motive was religious. The statement an Islamist once made to a reporter, "We will win because we love death as much as you love life," surely is a profoundly religious statement.

Hitchens would quickly point out, and he would be right, that this does not really undermine his thesis. After all, the very worldliness of the secular is a constraint. If I want to live here with you, that is a tie between us. My selfish desire to live is something you can appeal to when I grow too indifferent or hostile to your interests. In the gravest extremity, when all else has failed, it makes possible the ultima ratio, the last of all reasons, the threat of death. Religious fanatics, with their "self-sacrificing," "altruistic" behavior (which incidentally are a fake self-sacrifice and spurious altruism in people who think that they will be rewarded with eternal bliss) cannot be appealed to in this way.

In view of this, why do we persist in associating religion with peace and public order? I do it myself! To some extent I think it is a sort of illusion of perspective. We in the liberal West have a distorted view of what religion is really like. Our religions have been corrupted by two centuries of contact with peaceful secular humanists. The idea that peace and public order are good things is by no means a product of religion: the three great monotheistic religions resisted it quite violently for many centuries. It arises from the sort of thinking that secularists have been doing all along: naturalistic thinking about life on earth.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Ortega Still Matters

What follows is based on part of an article on José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) I am writing for the Cato Institute's Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. Actually, I am co-authoring it with the muy estimado y distinguido Dario Fernández-Morera. I've written a couple of other articles for the project, but it's been a while and I don't remember what they were about. Ortega writes with great charm, but reading him can be very disturbing, and I've been wondering how much of what he says is true. In particular, he liked to predict the future, and to analyze the present in ways that would indicate which way things would be going. By now, half a century after his death, one of the biggest questions about Ortega is: How close to being right was he? We know a thing or two about how things would go!

Ortega’s best-known work by far is The Revolt of the Masses, published in 1930. In it, he describes a new sort of human being, which he calls the Mass Man. The Mass Man is the product of the unprecedented material abundance that European civilization achieved during the nineteenth century. This prosperity brought with it sudden increase in the size of the population, which in turn produced two effects which, combined, brought about devastating results. The new people inevitably have attained considerable political and social power. At the same time, it has proved impossible to educate them in the traditional manner, to subject their minds to the discipline of abstract standards, including those of tradition, logic, facts, or science. The mind of the Mass Man does not measure its internal experiences by any standard superior to the self. In politics, this unconstrained frame of mind expresses itself in the form of “direct action.” Its characteristic literary expression is the insult. Above all, the Mass Man has a powerful affinity for the state, as the state promises to provide two things on which the new human type places great value: security, and results without effort. The Mass Man treats the material abundance that created him as if it were the fruit of an Edenic tree, his for the plucking. He neither knows nor cares about the institutional framework that makes this abundance possible. Eventually, his indifference will kill this abundance off at its root.

Another persistent Ortegean theme is his fascination with “liberalism,” by which he meant the classical liberalism of the nineteenth century, an idea that he both admired and criticized. One of the most distinctive ideas in his critique of is his conviction that this sort of liberalism, even in this relatively freedom-friendly variety, has always been too indulgent and optimistic in its view of the state.
Liberalism [he says in the essay “Concord and Liberty”] has never been quite capable of grasping the significance of the fierce nature of the state. ... Let us admit that societies cannot exist without government and state authority; that government implies force (and other things, more objectionable but which it would take too long to enumerate); and that for this reason “participation in government is fundamentally degrading,” as Auguste Comte whose political theory was authoritarian, said...
Fundamentally, in Ortega’s view, the state is necessary, but it is a necessary evil. He held a similar view of society itself.

... What should we make of this? For the moment, I just want to make two comments, one on his gloomy analysis of the Mass Man, and the other about his comments on liberalism and the state.

Surely, the biggest single question is this: By now, we have long lived under the rule of the Mass Man. Is it turning out as he thought it would?

Here is one reason for thinking he was basically right, at least on one point. Most Americans reject in any form the idea that human beings evolved from other life forms. They must be dimly aware on some level that evolution is the basis of the biological sciences that have prolonged their lives, enhanced their comfort, and banished many of the terrors of the past, but they simply don't care. Scientists! What do they know? Polls show that this vertical invasion of barbarians is advancing year by year.

This is exactly the sort of mental "indocility" that Ortega complained of. You might wish to say that, in a way, things were no better in the past, and you would surely be right. Medieval peasants were no paragons of rationality, and were no doubt worse in this respect than the products of today's "public" education system. But Ortega would point out that the peasant was used to submitting his judgment to human authority, to the judgment of people he was convinced were his betters. He had no idea by what standards these mysterious people regulated their thoughts, but he did know that disciplined minds exist and that he could indirectly share in them by accepting their judgment. Today, this constraint has been removed. Well, good riddance to it! The alarming thing is that it has been replaced by -- nothing.

Ortega was very worried that science would not survive in this sort of environment. It the past, it would get along in European society with only the support of a determined minority of adepts, but minorities don't run things any longer. He may have been right about this.

At least that's how it looks to me right now. But maybe I'm just being momentarily overcome by the Ortegean gloom.

On the other point, I am more sure that Ortega has hit close to the mark. Liberalism, even in its more libertarian version, has always been under the spell of the notion that the state is some sort of club (social contract theory), that it is no more ethically problematic than any private association, such as a charitable foundation or a business corporation. This idea, so strange when you stop to think of it, is one for which we have already paid a terrible price, and will continue to do so. Reading Ortega is a healthy antidote. Who knows? Maybe there is a chance he will save us yet!