Brint Montgomery Blog Site
Philosophy, Science, and Light-Weight Musings by a Philosopher
Saturday, November 30, 2013
Friday, November 22, 2013
Saturday, August 17, 2013
31 reasons why institutions exist to do what they do
Just why institutions exist to do what they do isn't so easy to discern.
I had an undergraduate Philosophy professor who, earlier in his career, had pastored a large church in the northwestern U.S. in the midst of some of the most turbulent times of the 1960s. (I believe it was in Oregon.) It grew from virtually nothing to around 500 members, and he confessed he never quite knew just why. To the consternation of many, he regularly turned-down speaking engagements and book offers from people wanting him to come and reveal his "secret" for church growth. He was as understated a man as he was insightful. He also studied some under a well-known philosopher with the enviable career name of John Wisdom. As is often the case with undergraduate studies, one remembers the style and methods of instruction almost to the complete exclusion of content. But from those studies, I do remember a remark he made about institutions, and it has been rattling around in my mind for many years. Lately, I went casting  about trying to interpret what his quote meant, which I note at the end of this list.
01. Institutions exist to serve man.
02. Institutions exist to classify us.
03. Institutions exist to impart stability.
04. Institutions exist to tell us how we can help.
05. Institutions exist to reduce transaction costs.
06. Social institutions exist to satisfy social needs.
07. Institutions exist to further the ends of individuals.
08. Institutions exist to reduce uncertainty in the world.
09. Institutions exist to solve the problems peoples face.
10. Institutions exist to check dangerous human appetites.
11. Institutions exist to organize people toward a purpose.
12. Institutions exist to actually provide responsive services.
13. Institutions exist to support and condone the "status quo".
14. Institutions exist to help solve collective action problems.
15. Institutions exist to reduce uncertainty in human interaction.
16. Institutions exist to constrain state power vis-`a-vis their citizens.
17. Institutions exist to govern the inter-dependencies among smaller units.
18. Institutions exist to reduce uncertainties involved in human interaction.
19. Institutions exist to provide order, which makes self-determination possible.
20. Institutions exist to serve and strengthen the society of which they are part.
21. Institutions exist to make binding decisions when competing interests are at odds.
22. Institutions exist to mediate tensions and maintain equilibrium between competing interests.
23. Institutions exist to keep themselves alive, make some people rich, and control the rest of us.
24. Institutions exist to pass on current knowledge and to add to the knowledge we humans already have.
25. Institutions exist to perpetuate themselves just as they are. The goal is that they will never change.
26. Institutions exist to serve the delivery of programs and services that move the people toward the vision.
27. Institutions emerge and persist because they resolve some problem of survival and adaptation faced by a population.
28. Institutions exist to help us out of situations that are too painful for people and entire communities to contemplate.
29. Social, political and economic institutions exist to serve a small class of elite much to the detriment of human progress.
30. Institutions exist to ensure a Pareto optimal outcome-—that is, outcomes where no one can be made better off without making someone worse off.
31. Institutions exist to perpetuate their existence and promote their agenda, to funnel power in specific directions, with the assumption that their existence is valuable and necessary.
And, of course, to the credit of my old Philosophy teacher, the best one:
00. The only real rule is that "institutions exist to perpetuate themselves."
Okay, maybe it's 32 reasons, but 00 seems awfully close to "bachelors exist to marry no one." I wonder if he was pulling my leg?
 I don't claim to have come-up with any of these, but merely did a Google search and spent way too much time plucking and pasting them into a text file, much like a boy might put a beetle in a box, only to forget what it looks like once it's in there.
Saturday, August 10, 2013
Can Philosophers job strike?
Philosophers can hold signs and chant but, ironically, it's not clear they can actually stop working.
This picture makes me wonder about Philosophy as a job as compared to philosophy as a mode or style of thinking. If one has a job they can go on strike, but how can one go on strike from thinking? Suppose you were a philosopher. Maybe you'd think about different things, or maybe you would chose as often as possible to think differently, or even irrationally, about various subjects. But you can't exactly stop thinking, akin to how one might stop baking, or butchering, or candlestick making.
Generally, people strike because they feel their labor does not net them some appropriate level of material good or consumer services. But philosophers do philosophy like vocal musicians do music. Even when they're not getting paid, they tend to operate in the mode -- as vocal musicians tend to constantly hum or even outright sing to themselves, sometimes not even knowing it. Philosophers likewise find it unnatural to "turn off the beam" as it were, constantly mulling over chains of evidence or counterarguments to various positions of interest. (This can often make sleeping a challenge.)
For some disciplines, people say those disciplines define who they are in some psychologically essential sense. "I'm a writer. That's what I am, and nothing else. To write is to live!" and other such writing quotes abound. Many philosophers and musicians make equally strong claims about themselves in relation to their discipline. They are not "working" the are "being".  But imagine a sewer cleaner or dishwasher making the same level of claim on what they do. It would seem very odd that a person would define the core of their being by such trivial activities. Society seems to affirm my intuition here, since we don't have statues, schools, or bridges named after people in occupations. However, we must be careful here, as works like this show we might indeed have statues which honor the role an occupation plays in society, but not the singular person him- or her-self whose essence is defined by that role, since such a role is not one that can adequately define a person's character. More generally, being a hard worker, say, is a laudable fact about a person's character; but being a sewer worker is a trivial fact about their character (if it's a character fact at all). Imagine being a hard worker, but being a state-sponsored torturer. Should that person get a statue? I think not! 
Perhaps a strike would actually be about the contract for conditions of the activity, where the conditions were no longer being met by the employer. The musician contracts to be at a certain place, time, etc and to make greater efforts to maximize their talent than s/he otherwise would if s/he hadn't contracted for a payment, yet the payment side of the contract isn't met or has suddenly become unfair on other grounds.  The parallel would then be true for the philosopher. On their side of the contract, for both the musician and the philosopher the payment is for attentiveness and focus, not just for the simple activity itself. But that addresses the level of the work, not the simply the doing (or not) of the work itself. Overall, then, I still argue the philosopher (and similar character-essence disciplines) cannot really stop working; though, they can certainly stop working well.
 This reminds me of the paradoxical capitalist proverb, "If you find a job you love, you'll never work again" as uttered by Winston Churchill. The saying also might have the utility of explaining why some philosophers often appear not to be working: it's an unfortunate side-effect of loving their job so much.
 My analysis on the torturer here is drawn from a point that the philosopher Immanuel Kant made about virtues -- namely, that in the wrong context of willing something, virtues function as vices. For example, consider Pat, a cool-headed, intelligent person. At first glance, it seems Pat has at least two virtues, but now also note that Pat is a robber. Suddenly those virtues take on a new place in the morally despicable character of the person.
 Imagine that owner Carol contracts with banjoist Jeb to play bluegrass music at a local Okie honkytonk in 1933 for the minimum wage of 50 cents an hour, six hours a nite. But in 2013 the same (now geezer) owner waves the original signed document and says "a deal's a deal, Jeb!" Here the extenuating grounds for unfairness are easy to identify, and should have consequences.
Monday, May 13, 2013
An Accidental Hearing
I found myself sitting in my study, with my college grading now completed, when to my surprise I heard the call of a mourning dove. I used to hear these calls all the time as a boy -- I lived near several woods -- but generally I'm just too busy with whatever projects to notice such a things. The sound is still extraordinarily pleasing. It's an apt reminder that I'm just too d@%* busy most of the time to hear what's worth listening to.
Saturday, March 09, 2013
Tuesday, January 01, 2013
Gliadin and "Wheat Belly" calmly considered.
I got curious about wheat as a nutrition problem when my father-in-law was (voluntarily) on a no wheat diet, due to a suggestion from a friend of his who had done so, and who subsequently experienced good results. My father-in-law had been having severe itching, but the doctors could not identify any cause for it. So he thought he would give it a try. During the Thanksgiving holiday they visited us, and it was challenging to fix meals that had no wheat.
Since wheat, particularly "whole wheat" is regularly touted as a very healthy grain, I was wondering if my father-in-law had received good-intentioned, but quack advice. Then I happened to run across [this] video, by a Wisconsin cardiologist, Dr. William Davis, who argues that modern wheat is a "perfect, chronic poison." Here's his position:
[T]he wheat we eat these days isn't the wheat your grandma had: "It's an 18-inch tall plant created by genetic research in the '60s and '70s," he said on "CBS This Morning." "This thing has many new features nobody told you about, such as there's a new protein in this thing called gliadin.... [Everybody] is susceptible to the gliadin protein that is an opiate. This thing binds into the opiate receptors in your brain and in most people stimulates appetite, such that we consume 440 more calories per day, 365 days per year."On his view many people, perhaps the majority of people, are sensitive to this opiate. He claims that upon giving up wheat many people have surprising recoveries from commonly known ailments: "Diabetics become no longer diabetic; people with arthritis having dramatic relief. People losing leg swelling, acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, and on and on every day."
His overall advice is "(1) avoid all products made from high-yield, semi-dwarf wheat that wreak health destruction, and (2) create a diet that is otherwise healthy and appropriate for all members of the family." Unfortunately, it turns out that a lot of products are wheat-based: all breads, all breakfast cereals, noodles, pasta, bagels, muffins, pancakes, waffles, donuts, pretzels, crackers. And there are some surprises too: processed foods containing wheat, such as soy sauce, Twizzlers, Campbells Tomato Soup, salad dressings, taco seasoning.
Is this all faddish quackery by a doctor who seeks to make lots of money on his book, or is there really something here?
I first checked-out the blogsite of Dr. Thomas L Halton. He holds a Doctor of Science in Nutrition from Harvard University as well as Masters Degrees in both Exercise Science and Human Nutrition. He is a Certified Nutrition Specialist, a Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist in the State of Massachusetts and an ACE Certified Personal Trainer. So, this guy certainly gets the nod for being a qualified reviewer. He finds that the books is well researched, and recommends it, mostly on the grounds that Davis's views agrees with his own foundational view of nutritional recommendations -- blood sugar stability. He writes, "A major concept in this book is that swings in blood sugar have a negative impact on weight control and health in general. I couldn't agree more." He notes that Davis did a test on himself that seems to bear-out his claims:
"The author found a woman who grows the old fashion wheat and bought some flour from her. After eating 2 slices of bread made with this flour, his blood sugar rose to 110. He repeated the test with modern flour. His blood sugar after eating 2 pieces of bread made with modern wheat rose to 167! It is quite plausible that wheat used to be a healthy, lower glycemic grain years ago, but is now high glycemic due to genetic manipulation."Of course this is one guy, doing one test on himself. But I suspect its illustrative, and it's probably reasonable to assume that other tests, and on other people, have shown the same thing. Otherwise, Dr. Halton would have complained. Dr. Halton thinks Dr. Davis gets a lot right in the book, though he has some disagreement with what ratios and what selections Dr. Davis allows. It seems they both agree that too many and the wrong types of carbohydrates are the real basis for health problems in the American diet.
Granted, I am friendly to the view that carbohydrates are difficult to manage, and indeed at the basis of many nutrition problems, but Davis' claims are specifically that something about the genetic make-up of modern "dwarf" wheat, gliadin, is what's specifically causing many health problems. Not surprisingly, the Grain Foods Foundation is unimpressed by Dr. Davi's claim and nutritional advice:
"Omitting wheat entirely removes the essential (and disease-fighting!) nutrients it provides including fiber, antioxidants, iron and B vitamins. [...] Besides this, the advice dished out by Dr. Davis is completely counter to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the gold standard of scientifically-sound nutrition advice. The Guidelines call for the average healthy American to consume six one-ounce servings of grain foods daily, half of which should come from whole grains and the other half from enriched grains. Wheat is the basis for a number of healthful whole and enriched grain foods including breads, cereal, pasta and wheat berries that provide valuable nutrients to the American diet and have been shown to help with weight maintenance."They further maintain that this is yet another fad diet, and contrast Dr. Davis with the "real experts". This strikes me as odd, since if a certified, practicing cardiologist does not count as an expert, I'm not sure just who would.
One study I noted in Dr. Davis favor shows that even people without a special sensitivity to gliadin (celiac disease (CD) patients) develop problems in the face of eating it. (Celiac disease is a chronic reaction to gluten proteins that results in the poor absorption of nutrients in the small intestine.) Admittedly, the study was small, using three celiac patients and three patients without the disease. Their conclusion was, "The data obtained in this pilot study support the hypothesis that gluten elicits its harmful effect, throughout an IL15 innate immune response, on all the individuals. This innate response is found in both patients with and without CD, although the triggering of an adaptive response is CD specific."  Another study from the Univ. of Maryland showed that "based on our results, we concluded that gliadin activates zonulin signaling irrespective of the genetic expression of autoimmunity, leading to increased intestinal permeability to macromolecules." As I quickly searched-out studies that appeared in professional journals from academic labs, there is indeed clear evidence that gliadin does have noted, but limited effects on otherwise healthy people.
What can be said, then, overall? The evidence leads me to this conclusion: some individuals could indeed be sensitive to gliadin, even without having celiac disease; since, the immune and system does not operate on a discrete have-it, don't have-it system when it comes to having troubles with absorption of nutrients. My current belief is that Dr. Davis has overstated his claim -- namely, that gliadin is toxic to all (or almost all) who eat genetically modified wheat. Yet he does have scientific evidence on his side that gliadin can have measurable intestinal effects on some large portion of the population. Just how large and how significant these effects are is up in the air, but I currently do not see the call for alarm that he seems to be raising.
 "'Modern wheat a "perfect, chronic poison,' doctor says" CBS This Morning, September 3, 2012 (Accessed Jan 1, 2013)
 "Wheat Belly: Quick and Dirty 2" Wheat Belly Blog December 5, 2012. (Accessed Jan 1, 2013)
 "Book Review: Wheat Belly" Dr. Thomas L. Halton website August 14, 2012. (Accessed Jan 1, 2013)
 "Our Perspective on 'Wheat Belly". Six Servings (Official Blog of the Grain Foods Foundation). Aug. 30, 2011. (Accessed Jan 1, 2013)
 "Is gliadin really safe for non‐coeliac individuals? Production of interleukin 15 in biopsy culture from non‐coeliac individuals challenged with gliadin peptides" GUT: An International Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology June, 2007, 56(6)889-890. (Accessed Jan 1, 2013)
 "Gliadin, zonulin and gut permeability: Effects on celiac and non-celiac intestinal mucosa and intestinal cell lines." Scandinavian journal of gastroenterology - PubMed.gov April 2006; 41(4):408-19. (Accessed Jan 1, 2013)
Saturday, December 22, 2012
Ebenezer Chicken Scrouge
It seems to presume that the future already exists as a non-contingent state of affairs; furthermore, it also seems to presume that one can actually make comparisons between two elements within this state of affairs from the present moment.
That the metaphysics of the future and the epistemology of the present were both foisted on poor Ebenezer so suddenly, all in one statement, no doubt accounts for his gaping beak of surprise -- well, that and the pronouncement on his existential plight, granted.
Did I mention I'm a Philosopher on Christmas break with no students around?
[ image ] savage chickens website.
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
Gun control should be a lower priority; yes, even now.
The horror of an event lasts, but the real and overall numbers belie weightier problems
This info-graphic has been floating around the internet, as a kind of perspective on the recent tragedy of school shootings. I think there are two suggestive things here. First, that we get upset over something which has comparatively very small impact (in terms of total number of deaths of citizens); and, second, that emotion of recent events easily clouds our judgement on overall factors.
I am presuming that since all deaths happen only once to each citizen, they must be counted as equal. Yet since so many more deaths occur in all these other categories, guns are actually a much smaller problem for the country as a whole than these other issues. However, the emotive baggage toward guns and the highly publicized (albeit terrible) episodes involving them is what biases a response in people. But that doesn't change what facts there are on the actual numbers of deaths. So, as an overall assessment, I'd say the gun worries are overblown.
One might counter that self inflicted or accidental deaths are not a "problem" that the country needs to deal with, certainly not with legal solutions. In fact, some libertarians would further are that (1) we should be allowed to harm ourselves, and (2) we can't legislate accidents away.
But I think there is a way to approach the matter which moves the issue to the first or initiating causes of citizen deaths. Just as a badly broken mental health system can allow a person to end up using a gun in terrible ways, so can other broken social systems -- such as substandard auto monitoring, allowing under monitored or dangerous practices, perpetuating addictive cigarettes in society, etc. -- all these allow other consequences where many, many citizens die. Therefore, it's the initiating causes that we should be worrying about, and the initiating causes for gun deaths have far, far less consequences in terms of citizen deaths than the initiating causes behind these other social issues that lead to citizen deaths. So (and again), as an overall assessment, I argue that gun worries are overblown.
 One should also note that the claim about FBI and baseball bats is incorrect (source).
 Of course, if one can't legislate accidents away, there is this mystery of what the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been doing all these years.
Monday, July 09, 2012
Better person-like robot stealing a job near you.
Curse that seventh joint!
Adding-in the extra joint from standard robots (i.e. from six to seven) allows for more human like activities when doing hazardous research. But it's not all good news. This company, Nikkyo Technos, has a nice virtual set-up system that cuts down significantly on programming this new robot.
When work precision in genetic amplification trials was compared between Mahoro and people, Mahoro’s precision was better than that of veteran technicians. Mahoro also did the work in half the time. “Mahoro’s arm has seven joints. Factory automation robots only have up to six. In factories, a hand can usually be positioned freely using six joints. But with a seventh axis, elbow motion can be reproduced. That enables the robot to move like this.”It's easy to sell robotic implementation for hazardous activities as a safe way of keeping humans from harm's way, but it's a less easy sell when implementations are applied to simpler tasks, like sorting the burgers or frying the nuggets and fries at a local fast food restaurant. Some of this is already happening. Take McDonald's as a study here. It already uses robotic software drink dispensing at some of its restaurants (e.g. this video). But sometimes, the robots don't strike us as robots, because they look like activities that we already do in other areas, but they still have the same effect -- replacing a low-skill job, and offering big profit advantages to a company. Last year, for instance, Stuart Sumner reported that
McDonald's is to install touch-screen technology across its 7,000 restaurants in Europe in an attempt to make the process of ordering food fast and more convenient. Speaking to the Financial Times, Steve Easterbrook, president of McDonald's Europe, said that the technology would improve efficiency, with transactions expected to be up to four seconds shorter per customer. The change will also provide the fast food giant with a wealth of information on customer ordering habits.Such an easy-to-use touchscreen makes this passive robot and it's convenient data mining opportunities too good to pass-up. (Here a video of one in action in Melbourne, Victoria.) As when one cashier in a U.S. Walmart grocery store can run several check-out stands, so too fewer workers are required to fill orders at McDonald's.
This worry of robotics replacing standard-fare human jobs is an issue I'm seeing more and more as I move around the mediascape. A couple of months ago, PBS ran an excellent segment called "Man vs. Machine: Will Human Workers Become Obsolete?" which captures many of the issues involved. At first glance, the replacement robots for workers would look to be merely a matter of cost. But if low-skill workers en mass start seeing their jobs too quickly replaced by these kinds of machines, there could be a social back-lash against the company. But I can't see companies moving too slow on all this, because the advantages to the bottom line are just too tempting. So I don't know if it will be done as subtly as possible, where it doesn't get noticed until after the fact; or, if there will be some big tipping point where it all happens suddenly. Maybe robots will bring about some sort of human utopia, but probably not before there is noteable social unrest beforehand.
 "Two-Armed Android Robot Takes on Risky Lab Work" Daily Disruption (July 7th, 2012).
 "McDonald's to implement touch-screen ordering" Computing.co.uk (May 18th, 2011).