Catallaxy Files

polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

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    Friday, July 04, 2003
    Intellectual cohesion?

    There are some pretty flimsy arguments used for higher education subsidies, and one of the flimsiest is that higher education promotes ‘social cohesion’. In a speech I gave last year I suggested a few reasons why higher education may even undermine social cohesion (not that this is an argument against higher education; just an argument against bad arguments). Yet it is a popular claim. In submissions to Dr Nelson’s 2002 higher education review the social cohesion claim was made by the National Tertiary Education Union, the Group of Eight (representing the eight largest research universities) and a joint submission from peak business groups.

    In his Australian Financial Review column last Thursday, John Quiggin joined this ideologically eclectic group. He was trying to explain why money for university infrastructure should come from bonds secured against the HECS debt, rather than from tax revenue (in government bottom line terms, the financial effect is the same). He suggested that this explicit recognition of student contributions as a future investment in higher education would contribute to social cohesion.

    I can’t see how an accounting fiction like this affects social cohesion one way or the other. Universities have nominally received some of their revenue from HECS for more than a decade, but I doubt the few people who understand the higher education funding system feel any more or less cohesive with their fellow Australians. They’re probably glad to pay lower taxes though.

    At a micro level, universities can help create bonds between their staff and students, past and present. But extra government spending, rebadged or not, won’t make any difference to broader social cohesion.
    The case for privatising marriage
    Michael Kinsley is sounding very libertarian nowadays. Good on him!

    It's going to get ugly. And then it's going to get boring. So, we have two options here. We can add gay marriage to the short list of controversies—abortion, affirmative action, the death penalty—that are so frozen and ritualistic that debates about them are more like Kabuki performances than intellectual exercises. Or we can think outside the box. There is a solution that ought to satisfy both camps and may not be a bad idea even apart from the gay-marriage controversy.

    That solution is to end the institution of marriage. Or rather (he hastens to clarify, Dear) the solution is to end the institution of government-sanctioned marriage. Or, framed to appeal to conservatives: End the government monopoly on marriage. Wait, I've got it: Privatize marriage. These slogans all mean the same thing. Let churches and other religious institutions continue to offer marriage ceremonies. Let department stores and casinos get into the act if they want. Let each organization decide for itself what kinds of couples it wants to offer marriage to. Let couples celebrate their union in any way they choose and consider themselves married whenever they want. Let others be free to consider them not married, under rules these others may prefer. And, yes, if three people want to get married, or one person wants to marry herself, and someone else wants to conduct a ceremony and declare them married, let 'em. If you and your government aren't implicated, what do you care? ...

    In fact, there is nothing to stop any of this from happening now. And a lot of it does happen. But only certain marriages get certified by the government....

    If marriage were an entirely private affair, all the disputes over gay marriage would become irrelevant. Gay marriage would not have the official sanction of government, but neither would straight marriage. There would be official equality between the two, which is the essence of what gays want and are entitled to. And if the other side is sincere in saying that its concern is not what people do in private, but government endorsement of a gay "lifestyle" or "agenda," that problem goes away, too.

    See also this older piece by David Boaz.
    I'm still trying to decide whether this 'pro-anorexia' blog is for real or a parody. I'm hoping it's the latter but I'm not confident. There are some seriously sick people out there otherwise. I must say, reading this stuff is like being a voyeur at an accident site.
    I've never understood anorexia or even dieting - how the hell can anyone prefer looking good to enjoying food anyway? (OK, so maybe that's the Malaysian side of me talking)
    (Link via Dark Machine).

    Thursday, July 03, 2003
    Countdown to London
    As noted previously Catallaxy Files will soon have a correspondent in London for two months, namely me. I'll be attending LSE Summer School from 7 July. This is where I'll be staying when I arrive - hope to get together with some London bloggers once I'm settled in.

    Wednesday, July 02, 2003
    Another perfect parody, this time of the paleolibertarians. Warning - you need to be really familiar with libertarian schisms (as labyrinthe as Marxist schisms) to get this.

    Tuesday, July 01, 2003
    Language and perfect pitch

    Eric Lien blogs on this interesting bit of research:

    Dr Sophie Scott and colleagues at the Wellcome Trust carried out brain scans on a group of Mandarin and English speakers. They found that the left temporal lobe, which is located by the left temple, becomes active when English speakers hear English. The researchers believe that this area of the brain links speech sounds together to form individual words.
    They expected similar findings when they carried out scans on Mandarin speakers. However, they found that both their left and right temporal lobes become active when they hear Mandarin ...
    Mandarin is a notoriously difficult language to learn. Unlike English, speakers use intonation to distinguish between completely different meanings of particular words. For instance, the word "ma" can mean mother, scold, horse or hemp depending on how it is said. The researchers believe that this need to interpret intonation is why Mandarin speakers need to use both sides of their brain. The right temporal lobe is normally associated with being able to process music or tones.

    Eric speculates:

    These findings raise at least four obvious questions (from my hobbyist-linguist standpoint, anyway). First, does this have anything to do with the well-known East Asian affinity for European classical music? (Disclaimer: my training is in linguistics and computers, not neuroscience; take my hypotheses with a large grain of salt) ...

    Chinese appears to have been a tonal language for as long as the several thousand years it has been written down, and likely far longer. Presumably, living among an ethnic group who speak a tonal language would exert some selective pressure against people whose right temporal lobes functioned poorly. Over millenia, that might have some effect on the structure and/or function of their brains, and specifically on their pitch discrimination and retention abilities. This might give them an edge in the musical world, especially in the performance of orchestral music, where one must jump about a complex (compared to pop music) progression of pitches with exact timing, while literally buried in a huge mass of people playing other pitches.

    It's also been known for a while that East Asians have a higher incidence of perfect pitch, though Zatorre puts this down to differences in the right frontal cortex rather than the right temporal lobe. He also curtly dismisses the idea that musical ability could be related to speaking a tonal language --- by pointing out that Asian-Americans speak English, ignoring the fact that their many of their ancestors spoke tonal languages, which over thousands of years could have had some effect on their brain (though, reasonably enough at the time, he didn't believe that portions of the brain affecting speech would have any particular link to music). Standing on more solid ground, he also notes that Koreans and Japanese have a high incidence of perfect pitch, despite that both their languages are non-tonal --- but it's certainly possible, though not yet tested, that Japanese may make use of the right temporal lobe to understand their language, which is pitch-accented ...

    However, Europeans and white Americans themselves, all native speakers of non-tonal languages, are also quite well represented among concert violinists, while Vietnamese, Thais, Laotians, and Hmong, speakers of tonal languages, are rather more rare.

    For that matter, where are the American blacks? Despite their virtually single-handed invention of jazz with it's own complex tonal structure (and paucity of East Asians), blacks are conspiciously absent from the classical music world (though socioeconomic and cultural factors may play a role here and in the comparable absence of SE Asians). However, many of them trace their ancestry back to West Africa, which is full of tonal languages (off the top of my head, I can think of Yoruba and Twi; I think Hausa also developed tonality under the influence of neighboring languages, which suggests that most of those were tonal as well).
    Get a life, you silly dope

    Aboriginal activist Stephen Hagan, who took his fight against the public use of the word nigger to Australia's High Court and the United Nations, has lodged an official complaint with the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) over what he claims is a culturally offensive reference to indigenous people.

    The ad, which has screened nationally since May 6, plays on the use of commonly-used descriptive terms for coffee in Australia, where coffee with milk is termed a flat white, and various forms of espresso are known as a long black or short black.

    The ad displays the image of a tall African American basketball player while a voiceover refers to a short black coffee.

    Similarly, a woman of European appearance sporting a frizzy hairdo is screened while flat white coffee is discussed.

    Mr Hagan said he had noticed that part of the ad about the short black had been cut out.

    "It's a big win for one person like me being able to make a complaint and then to have them respond so quickly," he said today.
    Good to see that some neocons have a sense of humour.




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