Thursday, March 31, 2005

Summa Contra Sarnath

Terri Schiavo, requiescat in pace.

I concur in part and dissent in part with Sarnath's March 21st entry about the Schiavo case.

I agree that the party in power in the federal government will generally operate to increase the size and influence of that level of government, and that a party in control of a certain branch will tend to work to increase the power of that branch. The Democrats emasculated the executive branch during the Nixon years because they seeemed to be under the impression that Republicans would dominate that branch throughout the future. Conservative and moderate legal theorists who excoriated the Supreme Court for its activists liberal decisions were often quite happy to have the Rehnquist Court overstep its bounds to further more conservative goals. Republicans in Congress during the Clinton years wanted to reduce the size of the federal government, and devolve power to the states, local governments, and people; now some Republicans want to set up federal rules for education and other things most conservatives see as manifestly not the business of the federal government.

I think this tendency stems from the desire to have things done right. Everyone naturally thinks he has the correct plan for anything, and once someone gets in power, he finally has the means of implementing his solution. The temptation to do this is quite strong, especially because conservatives see much wrong with the established way of doing things and can justify intervention as a necessary remedy for past ills. This attitude is wrong but understandable. I think it is unfair to say that the conservative position is not essentially different from the liberal position as regards federalism, because conservative ideology does truly respect separation of powers, delegation of authority to federal, state, and local governments as appropriate, and individual rights over and against state power. Liberalism does not even pay lip service to these ideals, and while conservative politicians sometimes make themselves hypocrites, I think you will find federalism still supported by most Republicans most of the time.

The Schiavo case involved government intervention as the source of the controversy. Had a judge not intervened, Mrs. Schiavo would never have been deprived of her life. I think it is worth asking how due process was ever served in the case. Did she commit a crime, to have had the state order her to be starved and to use police enforcement to keep her from being fed? She had no living will and the case Michael Schiavo could present that it was her wish to be allowed to die in her condition seemed to me to be incredibly weak. Are we now to fear making an offhand comment about coma victims, since a friend may remember this comment and it could be used to pull the plug on us, so to speak?

A state court ordered a woman to be killed; it did not deny state support of her upkeep, but rather forced her to die. If anything justifies special intervention...

Friday, March 18, 2005


"Lil' Kim" has been convicted of perjury. Lest you think this might seem like a tame crime for a rap star and far beneath her thuggish potential, she perjured herself about a "gun battle between rival rappers," so she apparently met the criteria for an Honorable Rap Crime, but just barely. She'd better hope that if ever comes under investigation for, say, tax evasion, it at least has something to do with her gross drug-dealing profits or something "cool."

The best line:
But some are already claiming her brush with the law will do wonders for her career. "This could be the best thing that ever happened to her," said Chuck Creekmur, founder of "In hip-hop, tragedy can sometimes equal opportunity. Ask Eminem. Nothing spells money like pain."
Ah, of course. It was "painful" and a "tragedy" for her to face justice.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Irish Cultural Famine

Ah, Saint Patrick's Day. This day is a wonderful celebration of what binds each human to each other - carousing. As elitist as I may sound at times, I can truly identify with any man who will hoist a pint in celebration of anything; conversely, this means that an intelligent, conservative expert on German idealism who happens to be a teetotaler will always manage to seem strange and suspicious to me. I'm afraid I have some entirely rigid standards.

I'd love to say that the Irish saved civilization, but it seems we managed to rescue a boring Catholic tradition from its own puritanical blandness. Score one for the good guys, again!

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

UN Success

What follows is a comprehensive and exhaustive list of all that the United Nations has accomplished in its six decades. Naturally I spent years poring over historical records and analyzing the many initiatives with which the UN was involved, and evaluating their effects. I expect to publish this work in several volumes to chronicle the good that the UN has accomplished in this world and hint at the good it may still accomplish.

For now, though, the list, and note that I will list things that the UN did with the help of other organizations as well as things the UN did largely on its own.

-eradicated smallpox

What preceded was a complete list. If anything on this list appears to be mistaken, please inform me with citations of works that establish why my list is overly broad and I will eliminate those items which I included in error. I admit that the list appears on its face to be a bit long and perhaps I was overzealous in giving the UN credit for some things.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

SAT Sells Out; Mouth-Breathers Still Whine

The SAT has changed. A writing section has been added, and analogies questions are gone.

I am not impressed.

The SAT has always been something of a bogeyman to students and certain others who claim the test is culturally, economically, or racially biased, or otherwise unfair. Since the test evaluates reasoning ability and not substantive concepts (as far as is possible), these criticisms seem to reflect rather poorly on the shrill voices of complaint and not on the test itself.

The changes have only recently come into effect but have been planned for years, so while the topic may seem like old news, I have only just heard about it and there has been a sudden explosion of articles about it. Most of them have unintentionally funny, or stupid, quotes, and the one I selected is no exception.

The College Board said it was changing the SAT to better reflect what students are learning in school.

"What students are learning in school" is "not much." The test presumably had to be dumbed-down further because even with its small reliance on substantive knowledge (since, as I have said, it is a test of reasoning and not knowledge) it must have been confusing students. The test obviously has to assume some knowledge of mathematics, grammar, and vocabulary, or otherwise no meaningful questions could be asked. Since the knowledge required is (or was even when I was in grade school) taught before one even enters high school, this shouldn't be a problem to any but the slowest of wits.

The College Board probably meant "how students are learning in school," since what they are learning is almost entirely irrelevant.

Still, Amanda Corcos, 17, of Oak Park, said she was glad the analogies had been removed because it was not something she spent much time studying in high school.

I never studied analogies in high school. Does anyone do this? Did this ever constitue a part of anyone's syllabus? The SAT's analogy questions were designed to evaluate one's understanding of the relations of meaning among several words. Analogies tested verbal reasoning and the understanding of connotation rather well, and if one actually understood the words in one's vocabulary rather than remembering a bland and potentially misleading dictionary definition for each word, analogies would present no problem. It is a bad omen that this girl thinks one should have to "study" analogies.

Now that the SAT has a writing section, a third of the test is subjective. SAT scores are going to mean even less now. The verbal section is also easier and less meaningful with the absence of analogies.

Instead of lowering college standards, how about we let fewer people into college? Instead of reducing the value of a degree to the point that it becomes worthless, just so everyone can get this now-worthless degree, how about keeping college open only to those with the intelligence to do the work?

Saturday, March 12, 2005

The New Skeptic Forums

The New Skeptic has been neglected for several months; I thought it time to revive it and attempt to raise a forum-based community around the blog. In this way we can perhaps take and respond to feedback and also discuss issues not pertaining directly to any blog entries. Though the forum will be small at first and perhaps receive no more content than the blog (and perhaps even less), I hope that interest and membership will grow.

The forums are designed to discuss issues of political and philosophical interest, as well as to find opponents for chess, to organize informal tournaments and ladders, and to discuss and play other games besides. Chess is a great interest of mine and Auskunft's, and if nothing else you will find here a place to meet opponents of intermediate (club) caliber who are genuinely interested in playing and improving.

If the forums sound interesting to you, please find them at this link and register; we have controlled the membership so as to require validation before one can post and view anything beyond the general rules, in order to keep spammers and other rabble out. If you find the place rather bare of content, well that ought only to encourage you to fill it and contribute!

Friday, March 11, 2005

Garry Kasparov Has Retired

...and international chess has lost the last vestiges of interest it could possibly hold for any true fan of the game.

Read and despair.

This truly is a devastating blow to international chess, and it is difficult to be truly hyperbolic about the effect this will have on the game and its popularity. Garry Kasparov is considered by many to be ("have been" is more appropriate - with such a heavy hand do I write that, though!) the best player in the game's long history. He was a natural talent who work relentlessly to improve on his own play. The casual observer of the game sometimes misconceives chess genius as something entirely inborn, with the chess savant needing only a little practice to keep himself in top form. This is simply not true. Chess at the highest level (and Kasparov has been at that highest level, in fact the top-rated player in the world, for two decades) requires intensive study and hard work. One of Kasparov's early teachers was Mikhail Botvinnik, and Botvinnik's influence on Kasparov has been evident throughout his career in the enormous amount of work Kasparov is known to have done in improving his game, finding innovations in the opening, and keeping himself in top physical and psychological form to compete over the board. Kasparov's opening preparation is especially legendary, and the man has laptop computers full of opening moves he has studied, many of which he has never played, and apparently will never play, in a game.

Kasparov was hardly characterized merely by intense work at the game, though. His style was tactically and postionally brilliant, deep, and beautiful. His was not the bold (some would say reckless), "messy" style of Mikhail Tal; but Kasparov was ruthless with the initiative and his calculations were most often accurate. Nor did Kasparov possess Tigran Petrosian's dry, subtle positional style of prophylaxis; but he could strategically outplay even Anatoly Karpov and had a deep understanding of strategic nuances in his positions. It might be said that Kasparov's weakness was the endgame, but this is only half-true: Kasparov seemed to be deficient in the endgame because he rarely seemed to reach an endgame, finishing off his poor opponent with superior opening preparation and flawless middlegame play.

Kasparov was a genius, and his position as the absolute best in the world was never in doubt. Where there might be doubt whether Anand were really a better player than Kramnik, because the positions right behind Kasparov seemed so fluid, there was never any doubt that Kasparov was above the pack. And this complete dominance was almost constant for twenty years, with only minor slumps for Kasparov. He did not seem in the same league as his contemporaries. Kasparov's games were too deep and too precisely played to compare to others of his time, though those others were brilliant players themselves. Kasparov seemed to belong to the time of Alekhine, and it is no surprise that he idolized that man.

I will not now delve into the political wrangling that disgusted Kasparov and forced his decision to quit. I would like to make one thing clear, to those who might scoff when Kasparov says things like "I have nothing left to prove" and "I have accomplished all my goals." Kasparov truly did prove himself beyond any doubt to be a chess genius and one of the best of all time. He decimated his competitors so well and for so long a time that there really was no reason for him to play anymore. Since the 1980's and early 1990's, when Karpov was still in his prime, no one has been a worthy challenge for Kasparov, and it must have been frustrating for him to prepare so intensely only to find his hard work barely needed.

What Kasparov will do after chess is a fair question, but a better and more worrisome one is what will become of international chess without Kasparov. Kasparov was a great player and colorful personality, and with his strong opposition to FIDE gone, it seems likely that chess will fall into mediocrity.

Congratulations to Garry Kimovich, and let us hope this will not be a requiem for chess.