Monday, October 25, 2004


Chris Mooney reminds me today that there is, as usual, a furor over Halloween in the satanic-holiday sense. This puts me in mind of a longstanding opinion I have as a fan of Judaism: it's good to separate your serious religious holidays and your party-down holidays. That is to say, Yom Kippur and Passover are serious and about religion, while Chanukah and Purim are about remembering your culture and having a big friggin' party, including ritual gambling and drunkenness, respectively. That way you don't get confused about all the "real meaning of Christmas" questions; sometimes you pray to God, other times you party to God, and you don't particularly comingle the two.

(Short sidenote: a postdoc from Assam told me recently of a local holiday with a story and set of customs essentially identical to those of Purim, down to getting so drunk you can't tell the difference between the good guy and the bad guy. Anybody out there in cyberland have more information for me?)

But today I wondered this: what should we make of Halloween and Mardi Gras? Neither seems technically a "Christian" holiday (and Halloween, in spite of being All Hallows' Eve, does indisputably have some pagan roots; on the other hand, so do Easter and Christmas), though inasmuch as they have stories, the stories are indisputably Christian, as are the cultural associations. So are these simply Christian party holidays (maybe a few centuries away from being properly of the faith)? Or is there some other story we should tell?

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Bible Quotes

But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly. And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.

Matthew 6:3-8.

There are lessons from my good Catholic upbringing that I forget, and there are lessons I remember, and this almost more than anything else I remember: virtue, sacred more than secular, is to be practiced without hope of reward or praise, and is not to be inflated in hopes of achieving either. Religious nobility, and religious principle, is never to be claimed, only to be received.

These days, much though I wish I could hold religious faith, I'm a fervent agnostic, though Jesus' words still run through me, and I can only hope his virtue does as well, but my morals say one thing strongly: believe fervently, but don't proclaim it hoping for benefit. And when even Jesus literally believes I'm in the right, I think I'm in business, and when I hear even my lapsed faith implicitly derided, let alone my lack thereof, I can't help but be angered. I'm as good as the next guy, and better, not worse, because I don't tell people.

Most Disingenuous Point?

So I've heard all the truths, all the lies, all the claims of various kinds, but my theory on Bush's truth is as follows:

Anytime Bush begins a statement with "Of course," he's pulling it out of his ass.

"Of course," I'm protecting America.

"Of course," I'm improving healthcare.

"Of course," I'm doing my best to pay down the deficit.

From here on: "Of course I'm doing x" means exactly and precisely "I'm not doing x, but I should be to the extent that you'd rather think I were."


Thursday, October 07, 2004

Continuous Prisoner's Dilemma

I've been reading up recently on how to talk about politics in a politically useful way (mostly Lakoff), and I find it progressively more frustrating. Perhaps most telling for me are the tales of the pizza fund in Republican offices: you have to donate a quarter every time you use the wrong language, like "estate tax" rather than "death tax," "freedom to marry" rather than "gay marriage," or "tax cuts" rather than "tax relief." It seems regrettably obvious that this is necessary; after all, Republicans have been doing it for years and Democrats haven't, and the Republicans control everything. But this is only one example of the game of politics over policy.

So why play politics? Because it helps you play policy; after all, you don't need to outargue the opposition if you have a majority for you anyway. To me, at least, the game is so inherently undesirable that there can't be any other reason for it. But then, why did we get here?

I think the answer is essentially a prisoner's dilemma issue; both sides playing politics makes universally worse policy, and neither side makes better. However, if only one side plays they get everything they want, and we land in the ratting/not ratting game, to which the best strategy is tit-for-tat (i.e. always screw the other guy once if he screwed you once, otherwise play fair). There's a problem here, then, as if both sides play tit-for-tat, we end up with cooperation, and we haven't been cooperating since the Era of Good Feelings.

I think part of the issue is in passing from the discrete to the continuous case: if we think of the prisoner's dilemma being played at every moment, rather than at some discrete set of times, tit-for-tat is invalidated since there's no good notion of "once." We could imagine discretizing the continuous game by making decisions for a fixed interval, but it's not clear to me that that's a reduction. Even more, it's probably possible to cooperate or not on a continuous scale, with corresponding rewards and punishments. So, having rediscovered a presumably-well-developed area of economic research, anybody know what it says? Google seems to think that people (evolutionary biologists particularly) have pondered continuous payoff stuff and gotten some partial results about how to get cooperation evolutionarily, but can't easily discover anything on what happens if we play continuously rather than cooperate continuously. So, anything?

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Tough Crowd and Terrorists

I recognize that watching Tough Crowd is my first error, but this is such a common source of annoyance for me I had to vent. Why is it that so many people in the world somehow think that asking if we did anything wrong re: terror, where we are, and how to fix it is somehow morally reprehensible for "blaming America?" Then there's moral outrage at supposedly self-hating liberals. Hrmph.

Once and for all: the Muslim world is not currently all terrorists, the Muslim world didn't attack us on 9/11, and while there was a lot going on, most Muslims were sympathetic. Nowadays, a surprisingly large portion of the Muslim world would like to attack us, and the number's getting higher. We'll be better off fewer suicide bombers wake up tomorrow, and wanting to reduce that number by trying to placate centrist Muslims is no less patriotic or sincere or important than wanting to reduce that number by killing lots of people. So let's not get all outraged when someone suggests that mainstream Muslims think we've done wrong.