Archive for November 13th, 2007

Economic function of the church

November 13, 2007

Mark Thoma quotes from an economics book of 1894 that makes a very interesting reading; here are the first couple of paragraphs:

…The laws of spiritual poor-relief are of importance to the economist. The kind of spiritual poor-relief to be discussed here does not fall under the head of charity. Place a dozen men, each in his own boat, on the open sea, and start them for the nearest land. They are on an equality and completely independent. If any will not row, his destruction is on his own head. If any try to row and fail, it is the great law of charity, and that only, which constrains another to help him. If any venture to burden himself by towing a weaker brother to the shore, he is compelled to do so by no law legal or equitable, but the universal law of love.

But that is no picture of actual society. No man can paddle his own canoe as a member of that great social organism in which each individual labors, not for himself, but for the whole, and is dependent on the whole for employment and for pay. Independence is the law of isolation; interdependence is the law of society. Again and again, in actual history, society ceases to desire the product of a particular man’s labor. The organic whole is in the position of employer to the millions who work, and it cannot always keep them busy; but it is not at liberty to starve them. It may take away their comforts; but, if it take their lives, it is murder. Civilization has placed us all in one boat; by mutual help we are sailing the homeward-bound ship of humanity. He who will not help may be thrown overboard, possibly; but he who, by force of circumstances, cannot, must be carried to the end.

For the rest, go to Thoma’s page.

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Most consoling of literary icons

November 13, 2007

That is what Dinah Birch calls Sherlock Homes while  reviewing two recent biographies of his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle (link via A&L Daily):

It is odd that so much comfort is to be had from Sherlock Holmes, given the brutal violence of his adventures. Not only are those who cross his path routinely shot, bludgeoned, or knifed, they run the risk of being starved, buried alive, attacked by huge and frenzied hounds, killed by horses, jellyfish, or venomous snakes, asphyxiated with toxic vapours, afflicted with foul diseases, or crushed in giant iron presses. They might lose a thumb or an ear; occasionally they lose their minds. Yet Holmes is the most consoling of literary icons. He cannot always prevent crime or punish the criminal, but he never fails to explain what has happened, and how, and why. The prosaic Watson likes to claim that his hero is infallible because he scorns the emotional baggage that befuddles the judgement of lesser men. In fact these stories are tense with feeling, for Holmes’s hatred of wrongdoing is a passion rather than an intellectual commitment.

Take a look!

Cheating and divorce among gibbons

November 13, 2007

Brian Switek at Laelaps writes about the social and sex lives of gibbons, and how the social notions of scientists who are studying these animals had coloured our understanding of the behavioural patterns of these apes:

Habituation is a problem for zoologists, and many times a researcher will habituate themselves to one group of animals and study them in detail, but such an approach can have drawbacks. If there are other groups nearby that are not habituated to the researcher they may avoid contact with the study group when they would otherwise interact, and this seems to be the case with gibbons. In previous studies researchers would often habituate themselves to just one pair, other neighboring pairs typically avoid the scientists. The results? Mating outside of the pair that might normally occur was blocked as the non-habituated gibbon wouldn’t allow researchers to get close enough, running off through the canopy instead. Furthermore, many studies take place over the course of a few months or a year, these short studies mask what is actually going on in the Indonesian forests.

As I noted previously, it used to be thought that gibbon pairs formed when a subadult male and subadult female from two “families” met up and gained access to their own plot of forest, and this does in fact happen. What was unexpected, however, is that gibbons are much more opportunistic and do not stick with the same mate their entire lives. A longer 6 year study, undertaken by Ryne Palombit and others, showed that gibbons will often leave their partner if an opportunity arises nearby, i.e. a male might abandon his female partner if the male of another nearby pair dies or disappears. In turn, another male might move in when the 1st male leaves or the abandoned female might die, but it was a bit surprising to find that not all pairs were subadults that were in permanent, monogamous relationships. The realization that gibbons “cheat” and “divorce” leads us to a very important realization; there is a difference between social monogamy and reproductive monogamy, the presence of one not necessarily indicating the other. This illuminates the fact that reproductive monogamy is much rarer than previously thought, mating being a much more opportunistic affair than one dictated by social bonds. Indeed, there may very well be advantages to being socially monogamous that are distinct from reproductive monogamy, the pair bonding of gibbons perhaps having much more to do with defending a territory (and hence resources) than whatever sense of long-term affection was attributed to them previously.

A must-read piece. Take a look!

Engineers and violence

November 13, 2007

Tyler Cowen asks as to why so many top terrorists are engineers?

I take the bottom line to be that engineers are systematizers by nature and in Islamic countries in particular they face difficult social  circumstances, relative to their human capital and ambition.  I suspect also that elites with a clear inherited path to the top do not become engineers.

Take a look!

Ambiguous slogans

November 13, 2007

Mark Liberman at Language Log discusses slogans with a special kind of ambiguity, like “Go, Musharraf, go” and goes on to list more such autantonymic slogans; take a look!