Saturday, October 22, 2011

All Thy Greatness and Thy Coldness Too

A Hymn to the Moon
by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

Written in July, in an arbour

Thou silver deity of secret night,
Direct my footsteps through the woodland shade;
Thou conscious witness of unknown delight,
The Lover's guardian, and the Muse's aid!
By thy pale beams I solitary rove,
To thee my tender grief confide;
Serenely sweet you gild the silent grove,
My friend, my goddess, and my guide.
E'en thee, fair queen, from thy amazing height,
The charms of young Endymion drew;
Veil'd with the mantle of concealing night;
With all thy greatness and thy coldness too.

Lady Mary was best known in her lifetime as the author of the Turkish Embassy Letters, which she wrote from Istanbul when her husband was stationed there as Britain's ambassador. By satirizing Alexander Pope in one of these, she incurred Pope's enmity; he attacks her in several works. At a later date she somehow managed to get Horace Walpole angry at her, as well. She is perhaps best known now for being the primary introducer and enthusiastic promoter of the variolation method of smallpox vaccination -- originally a Turkish practice -- in the West.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Advertising and Free-Riding

There was recently a post at "Philosopher's Playground" that pointed to this article disucssing whether it is unethical to use programs that block pop-up ads. After all, the argument goes, you are typically getting something free because advertisers are paying for it, so you seem to be free-riding. I left a comment that I want to talk about a bit more:

I see nothing whatsoever in the situation that involves free-ridership; advertisers buy opportunities to advertise that they think promising, not rights to have the advertisements seen. It's no more free-ridership to block pop-ups than to ignore a billboard in a stadium, skip over advertisements in magazines and newspapers, or leave the room during a TV commercial, despite the fact that these all tend to make things cheaper. Junk mail makes the Post Office money and thus more sustainable; I think the Post Office is a dandy thing, deserving both of money and being sustained; but I will deny to the end that any bulk mailer earns thereby the right for me actually to read all the junk mail advertisements I get.

I do think that the fact that anyone could suggest there's any sort of a free-ridership in the matter is a sign of how nearly insane our acceptance of advertising has become. If someone is not paying attention to an advertisement, whatever the means by which they avoid paying attention, that's just ordinary hazard of advertising. They are still getting exactly what they are paying for -- which is that their advertisements be out there just in case someone does pay attention. That's the only thing they could possibly be paying for.

Contrast the standard pop-up ad case with a different kind of case: an advertiser approaches me in particular and offers to pay for a set of subscriptions in exchange for their sending me ads at various random intervals whenever I'm in the subscription zone. It seems that the case that I am free-riding would be much stronger here than in the standard pop-up ad case. But, unless it is in the contract I have agreed to that I will not block the ads, it still doesn't seem that I'm free-riding if I block the ads. The advertiser is paying to send me ads: nothing about this obligates me to do anything in particular with them, any more than I am obligated to read the emails sent if, to get a free prize, I sign up for a mailing list. Advertisers in such cases are not buying or trading for rights to my attention, but for permission to make use of a particular channel of access to me, one that I am still free to use or ignore as I please. But in cases like snail-mail junk mail or advertising on the web, there is even less grounds for any sort of moral debt: if people don't automatically get the rights to my attention by the fact that I myself have given them permission to send me things, they certainly don't automatically get it if someone else has given them permission. Advertisers don't buy the right to get my attention; they merely buy the right to try. And that's pretty much universal.

The basic argument in the article is this:

The Web is governed by an unwritten contract: You get nearly everything for free in exchange for the hassle of a few ads hovering on the periphery—and occasionally across the whole screen for a few seconds. Advertising probably supports a huge swath of the sites you regularly visit. It's obvious how rampant ad blocking hurts the Web: If every passenger siphons off a bit of fuel from the tank before the plane takes off, it's going to crash.

There is, however, no such unwritten contract. The Web is in fact governed by written contracts; namely, the written contracts by which advertisers pay for advertising space. Yes, I am getting many things free, and other things at least cheaper, because advertisers are doing this; yes, if web advertising never worked, there would need to be other means of supporting this rather expensive luxury. But none of these add up to a free-ridership problem. As I noted in my comment, advertisers are getting exactly what they pay for whether I let myself see their ads or not; the only thing that changes if nobody sees the ads is that it turns out the advertisers are wasting their money by supplying that venue, at least to the extent that they are trying to advertise, rather than trying to do a service. (It varies considerably, but I'm not a pure cynic about businesses that advertise; I think in many cases they really are trying to do both -- i.e., do good for people and get good advertising out of it at the same time. The latter simply makes the former a sustainable activity for them.)

Ah, you might say, but isn't this precisely what a free-rider problem is? I am paying less than my fair share, or at least, I am getting something free at the expense of someone else. But this is not sufficient for free-ridership. Genuine free-ridership requires (1) that there be something I am receiving with very little trouble at the expense of someone else; (2) that this must be a good resulting from our collective action; and (3) that there is some reasonable expectation that my part in the collective action is to do something that I am not in fact doing. (It's nonsense, for instance, to claim that if a toddler benefits from collective action that the toddler is a free-rider. The toddler is simply not a part of the relevant decision matrix. Likewise, if I invite you to my tupperware party without making clear beforehand that you need to attend a presentation at the end, and you don't buy anything or even pay attention despite eating a lot of my food, you are not free-riding; you are a free guest whom I am hoping to interest in a business transaction, and that's it: it may not be turning out the way I hope, but I've gotten what I've paid for, and you don't have any obligations to do anything in exchange for the benefit of the food as long as I don't throw you out. You can fall asleep during my presentation, play on your iPhone, whatever. My bad luck in inviting you, or my mistake in the kind of invitation I gave.) Merely benefiting from someone else's action is not free-riding, even if I never return the favor. But, again, in this case, I am doing all anyone reasonably expects anyone to do in response to advertisements: that is, pay attention to them if I want and ignore them if I don't. If the website takes money from the advertiser and then sabotages its ads, that is free-riding. To be sure, since the advertiser is looking for an effect, it's all the same to them whatever the reason for their advertisements not actually reaching me. But again, whether it's an ideal situation for the advertiser or not, the advertiser is not paying for an ideal situation: the advertiser, in the hope of reaching people, is simply paying to use a channel of access, and if the website fulfills its obligations they are getting that even if they never do reach people. To put it in other words, I cannot be a free-rider, because, although I am a beneficiary of the action, my actual attention is not part of the relevant decision matrix, only the chance to try to get my attention by a particular means -- and even that does not directly involve me. It's a decision matrix constituted by the preferences of the website and the preferences of the advertiser, given the probability or improbability of my paying attention to the ads; I'm not actually part of it at all, but more like a guest that a website has freely invited in; advertisers support and sponsor this invitation in the hope that it will lead to a business transaction. And that's my entire role: to be there if I want to be.

Indeed, one could argue that advertisers are themselves the ones who have to be careful to avoid free-riding. If they could guarantee getting through to the public, they would then be receiving the public's attention without the public's permission; they would then be reducing the amount of attention available for other things, many of which are good and many of which are certainly better than the advertisements themselves; and they are getting this good of the public's attention without properly reimbursing the public for the intrusion. Advertisers are, in short, in constant danger of being free-riders on the public's good will, when it comes to what they tolerate as taxing their attention. I suspect that it's only in fairly extreme situations that this definitely occurs; but if any advertiser were to complain about my blocking their advertisements, I would simply complain right back about the fact that, without any explicit permission from me, they are pretending that they are entitled to waste my time. And I would be at least as right as they are.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Humanize Their Scoff and Scorn

Psalm 58
by Christopher Smart

Ye congregation of the tribes,
On justice do you set your mind;
And are ye free from guile and bribes
Ye judges of mankind?

Nay, ye of frail and mortal mould
Imagine mischief in your heart;
Your suffrages and selves are sold
Unto the general mart.

Men of unrighteous seed betray
Perverseness from their mother’s womb;
As soon as they can run astray,
Against the truth presume.

They are with foul infection stained,
Ev’n with the serpent’s taint impure;
Their ears to blest persuasion chained,
And locked against her lure.

Though Christ himself the pipe should tune,
They will not to the measure tread,
Nor will they with his grief commune
Though tears of blood he shed.

Lord, humanize their scoff and scorn,
And their malevolence defeat;
Of water and the spirit born
Let grace their change complete.

Let them with pious ardor burn,
And make thy holy church their choice;
To thee with all their passions turn,
And in thy light rejoice.

As quick as lightning to its mark,
So let thy gracious angel speed;
And take their spirits in thine ark
To their eternal mead.

The righteous shall exult the more
As he such powerful mercy sees,
Such wrecks and ruins safe on shore,
Such tortured souls at ease.

So that a man shall say, no doubt,
The penitent has his reward;
There is a God to bear him out,
And he is Christ our Lord.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Deadline 1200 BC


Water Is Not H2O

It is a straightforward fact, although corrections to it are endlessly ignored, that it is simply false to say that water is H2O unless we are speaking very, very loosely. I've mentioned this before, pointing to Michael Weisberg's paper, Water is Not H2O (PDF) and summarizing van Brakel's "Chemistry as the Science of the Transformation of Substances," but I notice that Holly VandeWall puts it very nicely in her paper, "Why Water Is Not H2O, and Other Critiques of Essentialist Ontology from the Philosophy of Chemistry," in Philosophy of Science vol. 74, no. 5 (December 2007):

An individual molecule of H2O doesn’t have any of the observable properties we associate with water. A glass of water, pure as water can be, is better understood as containing H2O, OH–, H3O+ and other related but less common ions, and even this is a vast oversimplification (if we could get truly pure water, which we cannot). Our current best understanding of the electron transfers that give water the properties we observe is a statistical average of ever changing interactions so complex as to be quite literally unthinkable. Indeed, the problem is “not that we are unsure which (distribution of types of) microstructure is the correct one. The point is that there is no one correct microstructure, because the microstructure depends as much on the context and functions just as another nominal essence would” (van Brakel, 2000b, 80–81).

This is why chemists use the ‘mixture of ions’ model to describe water’s macroscopic behavior. The only thing we can say about a glass of water that is not, strictly speaking, an error is that the average ratio of atoms in the glass is 2 H: 1 O and that it has the macroscopic properties of water. If there are other kinds of atoms in the glass, or if the ratio is other than , then we do not have pure water. If the ratio is but it does not have the macroscopic properties (pH, boiling point, etc.) of water then we have not water but a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen molecules in their elemental form. Chemical analysis and experiment deals with water not as an individuated molecule but in macroscopic quantities. All the typical observable properties of water—its pH, its density, its boiling and freezing points, its utility as a solvent, are dependent not upon its atomic ratio but the interactions between the dissociated ions. Philosophers of chemistry have been arguing this point for at least 25 years....

The idea that water simply is H2O is one of those false reductions that people can't seem to get out of their heads. What is actually true is that if you break apart the bonds in water you'll get a ratio of hydrogen to oxygen that's roughly 2:1; a very large amount of this will be from H2O, some from OH, some from H3O, etc., and it is the overall interaction of all of these, not just properties peculiar to H2O, that give us what we call water, because the properties of water arise not from the molecule but from constant, widespread dissolutions and reformations of H2O and related molecules. The matter is complicated by the fact that not even all H2O is the same; most involves the protium isotope of hydrogen (one proton), a small number have deuterium (when you have water in which a very high percentage of the hydrogen is deuterium you have heavy water, which is used in nuclear reactors -- heavy water is water, but it's poisonous in large quantities), and a small number involve tritium (which in large quantities would give you tritiated or super-heavy water, which is corrosive and, if I am not misremembering, radioactive). And that's not even counting the fact that the oxygen can occur in isotopes 17, 18, and 19, each one resulting in molecules that behave differently. Water is an interacting society, not a molecule, and it is a society of related molecules, not just H2O; among those molecules H2O is just the most prominent family, not a single kind of molecule; and light water (what we usually think of as H2O) is just the most prominent branch of that family. What looked like a simple fact is in fact not simple at all.

ADDED LATER (September 2018): Since this continues to be a fairly popular page, a few updates are perhaps in order. The following is a good summary discussion from a chemist's perspective of the (many, many) complexities that are involved in understanding water:

Martin Chaplin, Water Molecule Structure

Michael Wesiberg's paper is also available at It's still worth reading.

If you have JSTOR access through a library, you can read van Brakel's paper there. VandeWall's paper is also available there.

B. C. Malt has an older paper, "Water Is Not H2O" [Cognitive Psychology 27:41--70 (1994)], that is written from the perspective of cognitive science, and does a good job arguing that people in ordinary everyday life also don't necessarily think of 'water' as designating a single kind of thing (e.g., there is a functional component). This is relevant because I think one reason why the water-is-H2O reduction won't die is that philosophers radically underestimate how complicated the requirements for good classification are when it comes to water -- and this is true for ordinary language as well as for chemists. You can read the abstract for Malt's paper here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Few Links of Note

* Patrick Riley discusses Leibniz's view of the relation between justice and benevolence in Justice as Universal Charity.

* Lawrence Golan discusses how current trade treaties and copyright laws are strangling orchestras.

* Michael Pearl discusses Philip Kitcher's article, "Militant Modern Atheism".

* Robert Paul Wolff has begun a mini-tutorial on Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man: Part I, Part II.

* An interesting discussion at Alex Pruss's blog on the reliance of scientific practice on folk psychology.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

'Only God and Our Soul'

Yesterday was the feast of St. Teresa of Jesus, also known as Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church. She has always been one of my favorites, an infinitely sober and sensible person. From her Life:

There is another temptation, which is very common: when people begin to have pleasure in the rest and the fruit of prayer, they will have everybody else be very spiritual also. Now, to desire this is not wrong, but to try to bring it about may not be right, except with great discretion and with much reserve, without any appearance of teaching. He who would do any good in this matter ought to be endowed with solid virtues, that he may not put temptation in the way of others. It happened to me--that is how I know it--when, as I said before, I made others apply themselves to prayer, to be a source of temptation and disorder; for, on the one hand, they heard me say great things of the blessedness of prayer, and, on the other, saw how poor I was in virtue, notwithstanding my prayer. They had good reasons on their side, and afterwards they told me of it; for they knew not how these things could be compatible one with the other. This it was that made them not to regard that as evil which was really so in itself, namely, that they saw me do it myself, now and then, during the time that they thought well of me in some measure.

This is Satan's work: he seems to take advantage of the virtues we may have, for the purpose of giving a sanction, so far as he can, to the evil he aims at; how slight soever that evil may be, his gain must be great, if it prevail in a religious house. How much, then, must his gain have been, when the evil I did was so very great! And thus, during many years, only three persons were the better for what I said to them; but now that our Lord has made me stronger in virtue, in the course of two or three years many persons have profited, as I shall show hereafter.

There is another great inconvenience in addition to this: the loss to our own soul; for the utmost we have to do in the beginning is to take care of our own soul only, and consider that in the whole world there is only God and our soul. This is a point of great importance.

Drought the Destroyer

I've recently been reading here and there about the infrastructure-destroying effects of drought, and it's quite an interesting topic. As you may know, Texas has been undergoing a rather severe drought for some time, and, despite occasional slight alleviation, it's still continuing. When we think of droughts and the people they effect, we usually think of farmers; these are in many ways the most crucial victims of drought, but they are not the only ones. Drought can have major effects on infrastructure across the board. The most visible sign occurs on highways, which undergo longitudinal cracking -- that is, cracks in the direction of the traffic. This sort of crack can have a number of different causes, but few are so dramatic as those caused by drought. As the earth at the edge of the road (both beside it and immediately underneath it) becomes drier and drier, it contracts and compresses, bending the edge of the road away from the center. The action is very slow but nonetheless dramatic in effect; it can result in longitudinal cracks as broad as your palm going on for yards. Unfixed, a road can begin to look like it's been shredded. Roads running across culverts can experience the same thing, but across the breadth rather than the length of the road, as the road on both sides of the culvert begins to sag.

Perhaps even more immediate in its impact on people, however, is that exactly the same thing happens to house foundations: the slab begins to sag and crack, leading to serious foundation problems and sometimes broken plumbing.

We tend to think of catastrophes and disasters as swift-moving things; but all nature really needs to destroy human works is a little time under the right conditions: slowly the whole thing cracks, breaks, dissolves, and falls away. The one advantage of living through a slow-moving natural disaster over living through a fast-moving natural disaster is that you can partly keep up with the former, correcting some of the problems as they develop rather than having to deal with them all at once. But even there you are always playing catch-up.