Monday, February 27, 2006

A Stupendous Example of Doublethink

After reading and re-reading this post at The Poorman to make sure that I'm not missing something, I've come to the conclusion that it really does say what I thought it said the first time I read it. This is either an example of truly bad reasoning or willful myopia or, god, I don't know what. It starts off reasonably enough as a disagreement with P.Z. Meyers about the utility of recognizing religion. Sifu Tweety appears to support the contention that religion is irrational and is the result of selective pressures, a good and useful analysis. The argument is that, rather than disregarding religion entirely, we should seek to understand its evolutionary wellsprings and the resulting need for religious authority. Fine and dandy. But then the discussion veers off in a quote about seeing a choir in church and numinous experiences at Burning Man. How can a person who, just sentences above, talked about religion being the process of selection, possibly treat these experiences in a positive manner? The cognitive dissonance should have caused their head to explode. If religion is, fundamentally, a result of biological hardwiring, then when you're out at Burning Man you're experiencing the equivalent of eating 25 pounds of chocolate. The sense of unity or the spiritual or whatever is nothing more than neurotransmitters bouncing around in your head. You're not communing with something greater than yourself, you're getting high. That's not to say that this particular version of getting high doesn't have characteristics which make it different from other types of getting high. Nor does this criticism mean that there's no value to this specific mode of getting high. We can acknowledge its value without needing to cloak it in religious garb. Decloak it, study it rationally, and then put it a bottle for all of us to enjoy. But for god's sake don't conflate it with some kind of transcendent, supernatural experience.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions

Via Alas, a blog I stumbled across Den of the Biting Beaver... angry, yes, but that's where the fun is. Also, gotta give them points for the picture. But I digress... Perusing the site I found this post, which seems to indicate that the site operators are providing IP addresses to the FBI and The Center for Missing and Exploited Children if the operators feel that the search (scroll down, look for "disturbingly deviant") associated with the IP is suggestive of some sort of child exploitation. First off, I had no idea that blog owners were doing that sort of thing. No, not the searches, but the referring of IP addresses. Just another reminder, boys and girls, that anonymity on the Internet is largely illusory. Their motives seem pure enough, but the practice seems problematic. Consider:
  • IANAL, but the searches themselves aren't illegal.
  • Such searches don't actually seem to turn up illegal material. For example, searching for "looking for boys to rape" on Google (totally not worksafe) turns up gay porn and rape sites. Distasteful to many, yes, but nothing that appears to involve minors. Ditto for other variants like "boy porn" and"preteen girl porn". Lots of metatags with questionable terminology, but the actual content seems to be 100% legit.
So at this point I have to ask whether selecting IPs via their associated search strings even addresses the issue? I suspect that bona-fide pedophile sites do their best to keep off of the radar and that you're unlikely to find them through casual searching. The people who are getting caught in this sort of dragnet are probably perverts who are engaging in protected First Amendment activities. Given the above let's assume that people who are engaging in legitimate and protected activities will get swept up along with more nefarious folk. Here's what happens to them next:
The IP addys of non-convicted people (normal people) are logged and cross referenced into another database. The program will 'flag' repeated suspicious behavior. The Government will then ask the provider to track the IP address and the sites it is accessing for a period of time (no, the agent did NOT tell me how long). If the sites accessed are not child pornography sites and only the searches are suspicious then nothing happens. And that is because you haven’t committed a crime until you click onto a kiddie porn site
What, exactly, counts as "repeated suspicious behavior"? Is it something bona fide illegal, or is it just more of the above? 'Cause we've already established that treating these searches as suspicious is problematic at best. What really makes me mad, though, is that BB is putting forth something that sounds to me like a variant on the old "the innocent have nothing to hide" routine. So you get flagged, your ISP watches you, they find out that you're not looking at child porn, and they stop watching you. But in the interim people have been logging your (perfectly legitimate) browsing behavior. What's that, you object? You probably also send letters in envelopes! What are you trying to hide? Upstanding citizens have no need for privacy! I'm indulging in a little bit of hyperbole, but not much. Somehow there's this idea in the general public that its OK for the government to monitor you if they might catch criminals in the process. This is exactly like the NSA eavesdropping scandal; I don't care if its terrorists or pedophiles or fiendish fluoridators, but violating the rights of broad swaths of the public in the hopes that some criminals will get caught as well is not something that anyone should endorse. And there's other, lesser arguments against this practice as well. Consider the selection bias introduced when you start referring some searches and not others. Also, there's an aspect of vigilantism in this whole thing that needs to be considered. And why, pray tell, does BB assume that the people who are doing the searches are all men?

Saturday, February 25, 2006

What's Up Now?

Strange questions at security while traveling outbound from Austin yesterday. I was selected for special screening, probably on account of some ticketing changes due to weather in Newark, so my carry-on got the full explosive-detection swabbing routine. While he was checking my laptop he asked me a couple of questions which I've never heard before (I travel weekly, so I noticed the departure from the usual chatter):
  1. Is the computer yours or does the company own it? The company provided it for me.
  2. Does anyone at your office know that you're traveling today? Yeah, they do.
  3. Do people at the office like you? Are you on good terms with everyone? Yeah, I guess so.
He was clearly not just making small talk. So I wonder, then, what exactly was going on? Here's some wild-ass guesses:
  • People have been caught tampering with their (presumably disliked) office-mates' laptops in order to cause problems going through security.
  • TSA got a tip that such a thing is going to happen.
  • TSA got a tip that there's going to be a rigged laptop or something of that nature; the questions are a distraction/excuse in case they actually find aforementioned laptop.
It'll be interesting to see if this is a one-time thing, or if it becomes a recurrent question for any period of time.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Just Askin'...

Just read this over at Tbogg; what caught my eye was not the discussion (this whole SD thing is a travesty, I'm pretty sure of that) but rather his closing comment:
I want to be blunt about how I feel about abortion: I don't care about your discomfort or moral objection with regard to abortion. Unless you are the one who is pregnant, it is none of your fucking business.
I agree with that statement for the most part, but I'm really kind of intrigued to know how he arrived at that conclusion; its unusual to find something speaking so absolutely on the issue. I tried Googling his site, which turns up a bunch of hits for "abortion", but I couldn't find anything where he elaborated on the above theme. I get the sense though, especially in conjunction with this post, that he's making the argument based on sovereignity of the body. This is where I have to disagree with his absolutist stance. I agree that sovereignity of the body is absolute as long as it doesn't infringe on others. But the neat thing about personal liberty is that you can voluntarily waive a right if you so wish. I'm going to get tarred and feathered here, but I think there's a limited set of circumstances where a woman who is pregnant (or seeks to become pregnant) waives her right to bodily sovereignity. Consider the case a single mother who conceives via artificial insemination and intends to carry the resulting foetus to term. This is a simple, but very "real life", scenario with minimal entanglement. The gent who donated the sperm can't reasonably claim to have any vested interest in the child; its just the woman and her developing foetus. Now, normally I'd support this woman's right to be a crack whore1. To paraphrase TLC, she can be a freak and sell it on the weekend, its none of my business. But the situation is different if she's pregnant and intends to carry the foetus to term. Smoking crack interferes with fetal development; when the child is born it will suffer harm from the mother having smoked crack. Does the mother, then, have the right to smoke crack? Were the woman to decide to abort the foetus this would be a non-issue, essentially a case of "no harm, no foul". But at some point (lets be Talmudic and put it at when the baby draws its first breath) the foetus ceased to be a foetus and became a person. When a woman intends to carry a baby to term and then smokes crack, she commits an act which is reasonably likely to cause harm to another person, in this case her future child. I think I'm on firm ground when I say that her sovereignity is limited in this case because her exercise thereof infringes on the rights of another person. And here's where it gets ugly. Oh god, I can't believe I'm saying this, but whose job is it to protect the rights of the unborn child? If you agree that a pregnant woman who smokes crack is not acting in the best interests of her future child does it not seem reasonable for the state to step in, in loco parentis, and tell that woman that she can't smoke crack? The preceding discussion differs from TBogg's statement above in that it postulates a foetus carried to term rather than an abortion, so the results aren't directly applicable. But it does seem to establish two facts: 1) There are instances where a pregnant woman waives her right to bodily sovereignity and 2) that there are circumstances where it is proper for an outside party to regulate a woman's behavior. What remains to be investigated is how this changes when we're discussing abortion rather than pregnancy. Consider the case of a woman and her partner who sit down and, after mature and thoughtful discussion, decide to have a baby. Further stipulate that when the woman conceives the foetus is normal, that carrying the foetus to term represents no threat to the mother's health, and that the couple have adequate resources with which to raise a child. Again, I think this particular set of circumstances accurately reflects a non-trivial subset of all pregnancies. Here's where I'm going to get tarred and feathered. I'd argue at this point that the woman has no grounds to have an abortion. Her health is not in danger, nor is there any reason to be concerned about the foetus' current or future well-being. The traditional argument at this point seems to be that a woman doesn't need a reason to have an abortion; she's sovereign over her body. I'll counter that, in making a mutual decision with her partner to carry a child to term, she's voluntarily limited her sovereignity in this area. Once she has discussed the issue with her partner, and they've come to the a mutual agreement to have a child, she has committed herself to carrying the child to term once she becomes pregnant (absent ill health or other problem as outlined above). Unless she explicitly reserves the right to terminate the pregnancy her partner has a reasonable expectation that the foetus will be carried to term. I'd like to point out that the above argument doesn't rely on biological parentage, or child support, or the sex of the woman's partner, or any other of the myriad, complicated rationales that I've seen put forward with regards to this subject. Quite simply, the woman has made an agreement and is bound by the terms of that agreement. There seems to be at least one good counter to this argument. You can assert that women implicitly reserve the right to at-will abortion, and that their partners never have a reasonable expectation that a foetus will be carried to term. But this conflicts with the reality on the ground, that abortion is the exception rather than the rule, and that the vast majority of pregnancies are carried to term. In Western culture there isn't a tradition of, I don't know, "capricious abortion"; women don't just randomly abort their foetuses without reason. So I have a hard time swallowing the argument about implicit reservation. Anyway, that's all. Mr. Bogg, if you're watching, I'd love to hear your $0.02.
1 I'm well aware that single mothers aren't generally crack whores; permit me some leeway for the sake of argument.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


As of right now, this blog is the top entry when you search for "shiny ideas" on Google. Through some freak chance it actually managed to find my post on Cosby and Dyson.

Let Me Draw You A Map

The folks at Sadly, No! have shown an uncharacteristic failure to "get it" in their response to this article by Albert Mohler:
As she makes clear, "The legal innovation of unilateral divorce began to reduce marriage to nothing but a temporary association of individuals. If marriage is merely a free association of individuals, there is no principled reason to exclude same-sex couples, or even larger groupings of sexual partners[.]
We don't often agree with Jennifer, but we'll give her this much: there is no principled reason to exclude homosexuals in relationships who meet the same criteria and are willing to meet the same burdens, as heterosexuals who wish to marry. But how did we get to polygamy from there? [-Just be glad she didn't throw in bestiality, --Mickey Kaus' editor.] So far then, only a little bit silly. ["Well, there's a big swing here to the silly party; but how big a swing I'm not going to tell you."]
Ok, cobagz1, let me show you how you get from gay marriage to polygamy2. You see, the fundamental reasoning behind all of the pro-gay marriage decisions to date is that there's no compelling state interest in preventing homosexuals from getting married. We're not talking churchy-religious marriage here; nobody is forcing any denomination to perform marriages which conflict with its collective conscience, nor should they. The marriage which is being endorsed here is explicitly civil and carries with it economic and legal benefits. When you strip it down to the bare essentials the marriage which the government endorses is really nothing more than a civil contract between two people3. Now answer me why three people who want to form a civil union should not be allowed to do so? I've heard a couple reasonable arguments against this in the past:
  • Polygamous marriages allow people to game the system: Maybe, but people who want to be polygamous and game the system can do so even without legal recognition of their living arrangement. Hell, part of the reason they're able to game the system is because their marriage isn't recognized; how can you stop that type of fraud if you don't have a record of the marriage? That being the case, I think a strong argument can be made that legally recognizing polygamous partnerships could actually reduce fraud. But all of that is beside the point; the potential for abuse of plural marriages is not enough, in and of itself, to support their restriction.
  • Polygamous marriages often involves coercion and an imbalance of power: The classic image of polygamy is a dirty old man marrying a bunch of vulnerable women, some of which are underage. Again, I'd argue that this is possible largely because polygamous marriage is unregulated. The neat part about a civil contract is that, for it to be valid, there has to be a "meeting of the minds". The partners in such a contract have to be able to give consent; the taint of coercion would invalidate the contract. This goes double for underage participants since, except in special circumstances, they're presumed to be unable to give consent.
Now, for an encore, I'll show how "slippery slope" arguments about polygamy leading to beastiality are just plain stoopid. Again, the key is consent; you can draw a bright line in the sand using the consent principle and get very reasonable results. Partnerships which are permitted under this model:
  • Heterosexual marriage: Two adults can consent to form a civil union.
  • Homosexual marriage: Two adults can consent to form a civil union.
  • Polygamous marriage: 2+n adults can consent to form a civil union.
Things which aren't allowed under this model (list courtesy of Sen. Santorum):
  • Adultery: Nope, adultery is a breach of contract.
  • Adult+child: The child can't give consent, end of story. This covers a wide range of abuses which people tend to worry about.
  • Man on dog/man on box turtle: Same thing, dog/box turtle can't give consent.
Things which are allowed, but which make people squirm:
  • Adult incest: Yeah, its way icky. There's some arguments against it having to do with genetics, but we don't apply genetic standards to non-related adults, so that's a non-starter.
So that, my dear friends at Tristamente, Non!, is how you go from gay marriage to polygamy without having to worry about endorsing dolphin marriage.
1 Had to do it, sorry. 2 Let the record show that this argument is intended to be pro-polygamy, not anti-gay marriage. 3 I suspect that much of the hoopla surrounding this whole issue could be avoided if the government stopped recognizing "marriages" and started recognizing "civil unions" for everyone. This simple change would help eliminate the problem with people conflating religious and civil marriage.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Do You See Where This Leads?

Normally I'm 100% behind everything that David Neiwert writes; I hope someday to come close to him in style and substance. So I was doubly troubled to read this post. Specifically:
Yet one thing you'll notice that's decidedly absent in all the right-wing horror at the riots is any recognition of the power relationship that is the real context in which they are occurring. There seems to be no recognition that we're talking about a people -- namely, Third World Muslims -- who've suffered a century and more of economic and political deprivation, a setting that has made them ripe for exploitation by fundamentalist demagogues. Of course we don't riot or engage in violence when someone is disrespectful of our culture and our beliefs; we Westerners have been perched in the catbird seat for some time now and can afford to ignore it if we choose. That's not how people on the bottom rung, though, are likely to respond to high-handed mistreatment and disrespect. Making fun of the high and mighty and privileged and powerful is an honorable thing, even if not very profitable. Making fun of the downtrodden -- especially from a position of privilege -- is a despicable thing ... but it sure is easy.
And I've seen similar sentiments from other people whose opinions I usually think are spot-on. Tom Tomorrow wrote the following not too long ago:
1: These riots are not the spontaneous uprisings of an outraged cartoon-reading Muslim population. The cartoons first appeared in Jyllands-Posten back during in September, and there was no such upheaval ‚— until a group of Danish imams spent a few months lobbying Islamic leaders across the Middle East for support, with a dossier that included images that didnÂ’t even run in the Danish paper to begin with. Just look at the news photos of neatly printed protest signs, all clearly produced by the same hand, in English, for the benefit of Western cameras. The cartoons may be — probably are ‚— genuinely offensive to Muslims, but this is manufactured outrage, and if weren’t about these cartoons, it would be about something else. A movie, a novel, the back of a cereal box, whatever.
Both David and Tom are making arguments about the power structure, David explicitly and Tom implicitly. The idea that both of them appear to be promoting is that, due to historic and current deprivation of various sorts, many of the world's Muslims are vulnerable to manipulation by the powers-that-be. I've no beef with their basic contention (many Muslims have been/are oppressed in various ways), but I've a couple of problems with the extrapolations that they (and other normally sensible people) are performing from that starting point. To start with, I've always found power structure arguments problematic from a theoretical standpoint. There's no way to formally test a power structure argument; its difficult to even reason about them qualitatively. In this case Tom and David are asserting that deprivation makes certain Muslim populations especially vulnerable to manipulation. It seems to me that this assertion requires both of them to intuit from afar the motivations of these groups; I'm not convinced that this can be done reliably. This line of reasoning rests on the assumption that these groups are monolithic and homogeneous when, in reality, they probably have a multiplicity of reasons for behaving as they do. Additionally, as I've written about before, the ability to describe the roots of a particular behavior doesn't necessarily excuse that behavior. David in particular seems to use Muslim oppression as an excuse for bad behavior. I find the implications of this stance particularly troubling; join me, if you will, while I follow this train of though to its logical conclusion. My personal view of things is that morality is rooted in our ability to choose our course of action. Were I to set fire to a Danish embassy it would be an immoral act because I a) violated the rights of others and b) had the ability to choose an alternate course of action. If "b" were not true (I was coerced in some fashion, I was suffering from some mental condition, etc.) I could not be held morally responsible for the setting-on-fire of said embassy. I'll go so far as to say that this is a universal rule (perhaps the universal rule) which applies across all cultures. Let me restate it again, for clarity's sake: violating the civil rights of an individual when an alternative course of action is available is immoral1. Neither Tom nor David contest that the populations which they describe have reacted violently, so part "a" from above doesn't appear to be under dispute. If you're going to assert that they haven't behaved immorally then part "b" must be false; both David and Tom are taking this approach, which is where I start to really have problems. Making such an assertion about any population strikes me as more than a little bit paternalistic. In this case in particular the only conclusion that I can draw is that both Tom and David believe that the deprivations that these Muslims have faced has robbed them of their ability to choose their course of action for themselves. Both of them seem to treat the masses as automatons controlled by their clergy; they are "ripe for exploitation by fundamentalist demagogues" and are responding with "manufactured outrage" at the direction of their leaders. I mean shit, you start off with "as a group they're overly susceptible to suggestion" and its only a matter of time before you end up ranting about their "uncontrollable lust" and "inherent criminality". I'm going to call "B.S." on this one; I'm having a hard time believing that either Tom or David really think that they are automatons. But the only alternative explanation that I can see is that both Tom and David are using deprivation as an excuse to soft-peddle what is otherwise clearly an immoral act. Its important to be sensitive to cultural differences, but there are a lot of behaviors which are clearly wrong, regardless of culture. The only way were going to be able to synthesize a coherent, multi-cultural framework for moral reasoning is if we are willing to stand fast and support a few basic principles as being non-negotiable.
1 More elegantly: "And it harm none, do what you will". Go Pagans!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Small World, Huh?

Just a note on the general smallness of it all. I'm browsing along, minding my own business, when this pops up. "Casey Luskin", I say, "I used to go to school with a guy named Casey Luskin". How common of a name can that be? So I track down a picture; lo and behold: Yup, that's the guy I went to school with. This is really just sort of bizarre. I don't remember him as being particularly anti-evolution, not nearly as much as some of the other people we went to school with. I mentioned this to a friend who also went to school with Casey, and his response was "yeah, he found someone to pay him to promote creationist stuff. weird.".

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

More Than Keeping Things Clean

I've been following an ongoing conversation about the division of housework amongst men and women, most recently on Pandagon. I've a bunch of minor quibbles about various points that people have been making, but I'll not go into that here. The thing I noticed is that the discussion seems to be centering around housecleaning and, to a lesser extent, other items like cooking and childrearing. Maybe I'm atypical, but I also spend a lot of my time on "administrative" activities such as paying bills and responding to the more- and less-reasonable demands of the city government. As a matter of fairness all-around these sorts of activities need to be taken into consideration as well; the assumption that running a house is limited to physical activities like cooking and cleaning is a relic of the same 50's era standard which people are otherwise rejecting. Running a household these days is more complex than it was in the 50's, so its important that people update their notion of "housework" as well.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

How Psychology Is Like Biblical Interpretation

While I was driving to the Denver airport yesterday I was scanning through the AM dial, looking for the local NPR station (what else?), when a the talk on a station caught my attention. They were discussing "Evolution Sunday" in unfavorable terms, so I decided to bide awhile and see what they had to say. I found out later that I was listening to Return to the Word on KLTT-670; you really out to see if you can find a copy of the broadcast somewhere, its really fascinating from a cultural standpoint. What really caught my attention, more that the talk about the evils of "evolutionism", was how the host also had a beef with psychology as well (referred to at least once as "psychologism" [or thereabouts]). I don't think I was aware of this particular hostility prior to listening to this broadcast, but the host seemed to pair psychology with evolution as a supreme evil. There's a great bit later on in the show where the host asserted that "evolution and psychology are the Siamese twins of paganism". Aside from the abuse of language (they're the Siamese twins of atheism, if anything) it was striking to hear the two disciplines coupled so tightly. The host went on to talk about a recent study that treatment using a couple of antidepressants (the names elude me) decreased depressive behavior in mice. The host and co-host ridiculed this study without making any specific criticisms; the general gist of their argument seemed to be that it was foolish to use mice in an attempt to determine how a drug might affect humans. They went on to cite other studies which indicate that antidepressants (and other behavior-altering drugs) are dangerous, such as one which asserts a link between Ritalin and heart problems, in support of their contention that psychology is a pack of lies. That was the point where I did a mental double-take. Does it seem incongruous to anyone else that they can reject a medical study (without substantive criticism) on one hand, and then use other medical studies to bolster their criticism on the other? The studies they cited in support of their claims and the study they chose to reject rest upon the same methodological grounds1 (biomedical statistics, in this case); the same principles which tell us that Ritalin might cause heart problems tell us that the mouse model is a good first-approximation for gauging the effects of a drug on human beings. The host seemed to be ignorant of (or indifferent to) this contradiction. Which got me thinking that this is yet another example of behavior I've seen from the pro-religion/anti-science types in the past. There seems to be a tendency to treat scientific knowledge as a loosely-grouped collection of facts rather than as a coherent body of knowledge; you can disagree with some conclusions without jeopardizing your ability to believe others. There's no recognition that the multiplicity of conclusions put forth by the scientific establishment are all derived from the same basic set of principles and processes. Sometimes these shared dependencies aren't immediately obvious (you have to get close to the level of axiom to see the commonalities between, say, physics and evolutionary biology), but if you're talking about conclusions in the same domain of knowledge (drug studies, for instance) the shared dependencies are right out there where you can get a good look at them. This treatment of scientific knowledge immediately reminded me of a common approach to Biblical interpretation. Rather than treat the Bible as a (sort of) coherent narrative I often see it treated as nothing more than a bag holding a bunch of separate verses. Verses are presented in isolation (or twos or threes) as proof of some theological point or another without considering the context in which they occur; there doesn't seem to be a recognition that the meaning of any particular verse is intimately tied up with the text that surrounds it. Which makes me wonder if, perhaps, approaching the Bible in this manner conditions you to treat other knowledge in the same fashion? Or, more importantly perhaps, whether the "bag of facts" and "coherent body of knowledge" represent two distinct epistemologies which will forever prevent their various adherents from having a productive discussion? When I hear people raving about homosexuality being "an abomination", and then I ask them how come they're still eating shellfish, I usually don't get a satisfactory response. Some day its going to lead me to a sort of theatre of the absurd, walking around downtown with a sign that says "God hates shrimp".
1 Granted, some studies are better than others, but they didn't raise that issue; I'm assuming that all of the studies they cited were well-constructed.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Sex Is Now Officially Uncool

Just saw a commercial on TV for "KY Warming Lotion". Ok folks, where I come from this is called "motion lotion" and you buy it at adult boutiques. And now they've got this whitebread, WASPy couple pitching the stuff and making eyes at each other on TV. Hello, can you possibly get less erotic? Before you know it they're going to be selling Proctor and Gamble bondage rigs in the personal care section at your local supermarket. Screw the Sex is for FAGS! campaign; it's shit like this thats going to bring abstinence back in vogue. You wanna stop teen pregnancy? Get somebody up on screen pitching anal lube who looks like their parents: "When I'm being pegged by my wife I prefer AstroGlide". They'll race to be the first kid on the block to sign a chastity pledge.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Who Knows If Bill Cosby Is Right?

I'm currently working my way through Is Bill Cosby Right? by Michael Eric Dyson; so far I'm fairly disappointed with the book's overall quality. Item the first: I'm having a hard time evaluating his arguments; for a book which is ostensibly expository the meaning of his prose is problematically slippery. Consider the following which was proffered during discussion of Ebonics and Black English (p. 73 in my copy):
Thus, complex linguistic rules emerged from the existential and political exigencies that shaped black destiny: speaking about white folk in their face without doing so in a way that resulted in punishment or perhaps death, leading to verbal hiccups, grammatical hesitations and linguistic lapses; articulating the moral certainties of black worldviews without compromising the ability to transmit them in the linguistic forms that best suited their expression, while adapting them to the religious passions of the white world; capturing in sound the seismic shifts in being and meaning of New World blacks that came in staccato phrases or elongated syllables; unleashing through the palette a percussive sense of time peculiar to the negotiation of an ever-evolving identity with grace and humor...; and situating the absurdity of modern blackness through the constantly modulating forms of diction that lent a protective veneer of spontaneous rationality to rapidly evolving patterns of speech.
Huh, excuse me? That particular quote starts out specifically enough, but then veers of into, well, I don't know what. Will someone please explain to me what exactly is meant by "protective veneer of spontaneous rationality"? And why is it engendered by "constantly modulating forms of diction"? The quote above is a particularly egregious example, but writing like that is to be found throughout the book. How to engage an argument when the argument is couched in such non-deterministic language? More importantly, Mr. Dyson doesn't directly engage Cosby's claims. In his infamous speech, quoted at length throughout the book, Cosby makes specific, normative claims regarding the behavior of what he refers to as the "lower economic people". Rather than addressing these assertions directly Dyson engages in rhetorical distraction or resorts to common logical fallacies. Consider the following:
  • Mr. Dyson provides a number of well-researched mini-histories regarding the evolution of various aspects of African-American culture. But he seems to miss the point that showing the evolution of a particular aspect of that culture is not equivalent to defending it. For example, Dyson talks about the evolution of dress in the black youth subculture, noting that black youth are "able to express antiestablishment attitudes through 'garments that are unclean, unkempt and disordered'" (p.113). This is probably true (I'm not in any position to refute it), but not germane to the argument at hand since I suspect that Cosby would argue that unclean and unkempt clothing is bad, regardless of its cultural pedigree.
  • Dyson also ascribes incredible theoretical literacy to the masses in such areas as the selection of childrens' names. Let me stop for a second and go on record as saying that I think the names discussion is largely pointless; questioning the method that someone uses to pick their child's name is a baseless exercise. However, both Cosby and Dyson have engaged the issue so I'm ok with using it in an illustrative context. Dyson notes that the use of newly-synthesized names (what he terms "unique names") can be interpreted as a liberating attempt to avoid the use of non-unique names, since many non-unique names are tainted by all sorts of historical baggage (p.123). But really, are the parents who name their child "Moet" or "Versace" (I shit you not, p.134) worried about the implications of using a non-unique name, or are they just naming their kid after a coveted brand? Again, I suspect that Cosby believes the latter, and that the latter is no way to name a child. To engage such a claim Dyson must either a) defend the practice of naming your kids after a brand name or b) demonstrate that parents who choose such a name are motivated to do so from theoretical concerns about the use of traditional names. Dyson does neither.
  • When he does come out to defend a practice he often dismisses criticisms by noting that other people are just as bad or worse. Again, in many of the cases he cites he's undoubtedly correct, but that has no bearing of the correctness of the practice he's seeking to defend. Taking the subject of names (again, sorry), he notes that a there are various negative attributes such as behavior problems and increased criminality associated with unique names. He could have argued a correlation between unique names and lower socio-economic status, which would have explained such negative attributes without implicating unique names. Instead he says the following:
    For a moment it appears as if Cosby's disgust with unique black names may be justified, especially his aside that those with such names "are all in jail." But then, when we recall that some of the worst crimes in history have been committed by folk with perfectly normal names like Charles Manson or Ted Bundy, there's a bit of relief. Moreover, many of the white supremacists who committed untold atrocities against black folk in the South had regular names like Sam and Billy, and segregationist politicians who justified those heinous acts as occupants of the highest office in state like Alabama and Georgia had old-fashioned names like George Wallace and Lest Maddox. To be sure, Pookie might steal your car, which is bad enough, but he isn't likely to participate in acts of racial genocide.
    Ahem... allow me to paraphrase: "Lot's of white people who did horrible things had normal names, so there's no need to consider how unique names affect criminal behavior. Look! Over there! Genocide!". Bonus points for the person who can name, in Latin, all the logical fallacies in that particular statement.
Most disturbing is a tendency to conflate the message with the messenger; Dyson discounts Cosby's criticisms in those cases where Cosby can (rightly) be accused of not practicing what he preaches. This is a common enough mistake and doesn't require one to ascribe any special malice to the one who commits the error. But Dyson takes it a step (or two) further, dragging out all of Cosby's family problems in the first 25 pages of Chapter Four. Cosby's problems aren't all that relevant to the argument at hand, and they certainly don't merit the detailed recitation provided by Dyson. The only plausible reason I can come up with for such treatment is personal animus on the part of Dyson. He spends a lot of the book taking Cosby to task for various aspects of his public life (such as his race-blind comedy and refusal to become an advocate for African-Americans), but that discussion is germane to the overall theme of the book. Airing Cosby's dirty laundry, on the other hand, looks like nothing more than a hatchet job. Since pointing out hypocrisy seems to be OK by Dyson I'd like to remind him about the parable of stones and glass houses. He berates the upper classes for their cultural blinders, but is clearly guilty of those same views himself. Consider, if you will, his allegation that Martha Stewart's insider trading is more harmful than a man who sticks up a candy store (p.90-91). Sure it is, especially if you consider the economic implications of a crime first and other considerations second, just like every other whitebread corporate Wallstreet type. However, if you consider the broader picture you'll realize that the gentleman who robbed the store was most likely able to accomplish said feat by threatening the physical wellbeing of the person tending the register. We can't be secure in our property until we are first secure in our persons, so clearly the worse offense is the one which involved the threat of force against the person minding the till. And that's just the tip of the iceberg; his contention that tattooing/piercing are rebellious and "other" is particularly laughable. Soccer moms get tattoos all the time, and my suburban-living, McMansion-dwelling boss at my last job had an earring. Body modification (with the exception of scarification and implants) has been totally co-opted by mainstream culture. So, in conclusion, I'd like to recommend to Mr. Dyson that he reconsider his approach. Cosby is undoubtedly wrong in many of his assertions, but you'd never know it reading the book. Maybe, instead of engaging in rhetorical games he could instead actually engage Cosby's comments.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Yet Another Example Of Why I Hate Computers

If I haven't mentioned it previously I work as a traveling engineer for a computer hardware vendor. My latest job has taken me out to a mountain town in the middle of nowhere, New Hampshire, which wouldn't be so bad except I've been out here for six days so far (the whole project was supposed to take 3 days) and am going to have to come back for more. Let me tell you why... First the fiber runs didn't work; the customer eventually had to get their fiber contractors to fix and recertify the runs. Only a day lost there, most of which I spent twiddling my thumbs. Annoying, but not unexpected. It gets better though... I spent the past four days wrestling with a piece of software that we just couldn't make work. First I talked to other engineers. Then I talked to the software support folks. Then I talked to the software vendor, who turned out to be completely useless. The vendor basically threw up their hands and told me to rebuild the system. So I rebuilt the system and had the same problem. I finally figured out, without the vendor's help, that it was a MSSQL permissions problem. That's what pisses me off... a permissions problem which took 1 minute to fix stole 4 days of my life. In a previous lifetime I worked as a line cook and was studying to be a chef, a situation I aspire to return to in the future. When people ask me why I still want to cook for a living I tell them its because I never have to reboot my knives. Its not like you come into work one day and spend hours on the phone with tech support figuring out why the onions won't saute, only to be told that you need to upgrade to Soybean Oil v2.0 in order to get the system to work. Fucking computers. On the upside, while we were killing time waiting for the software vendor to pull their heads out the customer showed me this really cool CLI from Microsoft called the Monad Shell. Unverified rumor has it that MS is developing a GUI-less version of Windows Server; my guess is that if that's true then this is the CLI that's going to be used to administer it. Two observations:
  1. This shell represents a big step forward in the evolution of CLI interfaces. Things like directories and files are treated as objects, not just text streams. When you pipe output between commands you're actually piping object streams, not just text streams. And it has builtin interfaces to things like the registry and WMI. I'm a big Unix fan, but this shell is a big improvement over any Unix shell I've ever used. There's a lot of crap that's Windows-specific (more on that below), but the basic object paradigm could be ported to Unix without issue.
  2. This shell exists, in part, because all of the information in a Windows system is buried in inaccessible places. Yes, its cool and usefully innovative, but part of the reason that this shell is so particularly useful is because there's previously been no convenient way to script may of the things that it allows you to do. Contrast this to Unix systems which, as a general rule, keep all of their configuration in easily-manipulated text files.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

God Dammit, People

I was listening to a segment on New Hampshire Public Radio where (Dr.?) Drew Westen was discussing a recent study on cognition and partisan think. The conclusion of the study was that partisans aren't really thinking when it comes to political issues; no big surprise there, tell me something I didn't already know. But then he went on to talk about Republicans and Democrats and how both parties have historically made use of this fact. He said, and bear with me because I'm paraphrasing from memory, that Republicans have been very effective in using emotional appeals to manipulate the electorate, but Democrats haven't done so and are clinging to an 18th century notion of dispassionately reasoning about issues. Ok, its shit like that which makes me want to take a baseball bat to my radio. Why, oh why, whenever this subject comes up, does everyone laud the Republican Party and bash the Democrats? It seems like everyone these days has become a confirmed pragmatist; the only consideration given to political parties' actions are how they're likely to affect election outcomes. Hello, is there an idealist in the house? Can we at least stop to pay lip service to the notion that the process of politics is important too? I mean really, so the Republican party has managed to obtain a stranglehold on power because they're good at playing to peoples' emotions? Anyone see anything wrong with this, like maybe emotional manipulation is no way to run an government? I would like to think, in part, that the Democrats are "clinging" to rational discourse because, from a moral, ethical, and economic standpoint, rational discourse is the correct way to make decisions. I'm going to go out on a limb and make the wild-ass assumption that political decisionmaking should be informed, at least in part, by external reality. If you're willing to spot me that assumption then doesn't it shake out from there that encouraging critical thinking about political questions is the right way to do things? So, for the love of god, the next time you here someone discussing political strategy in terms of its pragmatic outcome you should stop and remind them that pragmatism has perverted the political process and that there really is a better way to do things. Oh yeah, and Carthage must be destroyed.

Friday, February 03, 2006

I Can't Argue With That...

Ok, so I'm chatting with a couple of friends over beer when one of them comes out and says that he supports Judge Alito. That's unexpected, because my friend is (literally) a Massachusetts liberal. So, after I pick all the little bits of my skull off the floor I give him the usual song and and dance about how Alito is pure evil. And he says that he mostly agrees. So then I ask him how, if he agrees that Alito is pure evil, he can support Alito's nomination. Its very simple, my friend says. Start with the assumption that one of George Bush's nominations will eventually make it through the trial by fire. Since Alito is not the worst possible candidate we should support Alito against the chance that someone worse comes along. But Alito is pure evil; how could anyone be worse? They could be charismatic, says my friend. I had to give him that one; someone with Alito's view and more charisma could be much worse. How do you argue with reasoning like that? Try as I might, I couldn't find a good counter-argument, as perverse as my friend's reasoning seems to me.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Make 'Em Pay

Just finished reading Collapse by Jared Diamond. Definitely a good read; in discussing the effects of societal choices it serves as a good companion to Guns, Germs, and Steel, which seemed to me to lean heavily towards environmental determinism1. However, I have some quibbles with his summation, specifically in terms of his proposed mechanism for environmental reform. Mr. Diamond places ultimate responsibility on the consumer; he spends the last section of the book demonstrating how consumer preferences for ecologically sound goods can, through market forces, force companies to clean up their act (literally in some cases). I've no beef with this; the examples he gives are sound and the mechanism he proposes undoubtedly works (but slowly, and perhaps not in all cases). But he ignores a much more fundamental type of change which could be made, namely forcing companies to pay for their real environmental costs up front. The problem with environmental costs is that, for a long time, nobody even recognized them as legitimate; the environment isn't tangible, and the effects of poor environmental practices are diffuse and hard to calculate. Its only recently that we've come to understand that a company's actions can have an impact on the environment and that a dollar amount of economic damages (or, in rare cases, benefits) can be associated with that impact. Mr. Diamond gives two prime examples of this sort of activity, notes that the law has failed in these cases, and then moves on, never to take up the subject again. The first example provided by Mr. Diamond has to do with the salinization of farmland due to over-watering. Briefly, over-watering2 of a field can cause the mobilization of salt in the soil, making the ground unsuitable for growing most types of plants. This wouldn't be such an issue except for the fact that the salt can flow downhill; in this case the salt from a farm on higher ground can contaminate the fields of a farm on lower ground. Mr. Diamond pauses briefly during this discussion to note that there is now way for the owner's of the lower field to be compensated for the loss of productive farmland. A more egregious example which is discussed at length is environmental damage due to hardrock mines. In some cases mines are required to post a bond for cleanup once the mine is decommissioned (in some states they just have to promise that they'll clean things up), but the required value of these bonds is usually not large enough to cover the required cleanup. More importantly, its often the case that, once a mine is played out, the mining company will transfer all of its remaining valuable assets to another company and then declare bankruptcy, thus avoiding the need to pay for cleanup. Again, Mr. Diamond laments this failure of law but lets the matter drop. In both of these cases, wouldn't it make more sense to force the people involved to pay for the cost of the environmental damage they've inflicted? For example, in the case of the farm that lost some fields its ridicuously easy to determine economic damages, and I would imagine its pretty easy to determine fault3, so there don't seem to be any technical hurdles that need to be cleared. All that would be necessary is for the powers that be to summon the will to enact the requisite laws. In a similar fashion, if the property-transfer ploy that mines engage in is as transparent as Mr. Diamond claims then how come there isn't any way to stop it from happening, or at least compel the beneficiaries of the property transfer to pick up the bill? I'll concede that that situation is more complicated, but I find it hard to believe that that particular loophole can't be closed. And there are many other examples as well. Water pollution killing the fish? Well, figure out what the fish are worth and then charge the culprits with their cost. Air pollution making people sick? Figure out what their lost productivity is worth and then charge the polluters. I'll grant that these things are difficult to quantify, and that its even more difficult to prove that a particular company caused a particular instance of pollution. And yet economists are still able to say that "X impact from industry Y causes Z dollars in economic damages every year". Its not rocket science to levy an appropriate emissions fee on all members of that industry in proportion to the amount of pollutants they emit. And, lest I be accused of unfairly targeting industry, let me say that this approach needs to be extended to the general public as well. Cars causing air pollution? Tack a whopping great tax onto gasoline. Let me tell you something, I was fucking ecstatic when gas reached $3 a gallon, its the best thing that's happened to US energy policy in a long time. The only problem is that the price came back down and people are going to forget it ever happened and go back to their usual routine. Gas need to go to $5 a gallon and stay there4. Now let me explain why I favor this approach over the approach advocated by Mr. Diamond. As he notes, its very difficult for consumers to have an effect on companies which are distant from them on the supply chain. Consumers have to influence them indirectly by influencing end distributors like Tiffany's and McDonald's and letting the effect propagate back through the supply chain. As Mr. Diamond so elegantly lays out, this approach doesn't always work and is slow to take hold. However, if you force the companies at the beginning of the supply chain to build the cost of their environmental impacts into their overall cost of doing business you end up with much more predictable results. They're not altruistic; they'll pass on the increased cost to their customers, causing a ripple effect that propagates forward through the supply chain much more reliably and quickly. And, even better, my little ol' libertarian self has no problem justifying this from a theoretical standpoint. A legitimate function of government is to protect property and enforce tort. Here we have a case of real, quantifiable damages against life and property inflicted by individuals or industries; compelling them pay compensation isn't overreaching on the government's part. Hell, the stronger argument is that not forcing them to pay represents an abdication of responsibility on the part of the government. Remember that the next time this comes up and some wanker starts going off about how this sort of thing is communism and wealth redistribution promulgated by tree-huggers and puppy-lovers. So, Mr. Diamond, listen carefully and take notes. In you next revision of Collapse I want you to take up the theme I've outlined above. Your current proposal is certainly part of the solution, but you also need to encourage people to work towards enforcing these types of direct costs to parties which produce environmental damage.
1 I suspect that Mr. Diamond might have written this book specifically with this intent. In the summarizing chapters he explicitly states that, contrary to the claims of some of his critics, he doesn't believe in environmental determinism. 2 Over-watering is another issue which can be dealt with in a similar fashion. As Mr. Diamond notes, over-watering is often caused by the prevalence of cheap water. In the case of Australia, for instance, water is subsidized by the government. The easiest way to prevent over-watering is to make all industries pay a fair market rate for water rather than providing it to certain segments (read "farms") at a discount. 3 IANAL, please forgive me my ignorance if that is an incorrect assumption. 4 I know that there are problems with this approach as well since it disproportionately affects low-income individuals, but in the balance the positive, long-term change that would be effected by increased gas prices would benefit everybody. Especially low-income people, since we also know that they are disproportionately affected by pollution as well.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Ecuador Travelogue

I've not posted in many days because I've been traveling in Ecuador. That old saw about travel being broadening really is true. Its regrettable that more people can't afford to travel internationally; I think that society could definitely benefit from people becoming a little more cosmopolitan. So, first things first, impressions of Quito. I had the good opportunity to be traveling with a friend who had previously been an exchange student in Ecuador; we were shown around the city during our stay there by her former host family. That seems to really be the way to see things, traveling with a local. I suspect that my previous experience traveling in Iceland (good vacation, but waaayyy too expensive) would have been better if I had been traveling with someone who was intimately familiar with the country. I was also pleasantly surprised to find out that I was able to follow basic conversations in Spanish, despite the fact that I was never very good at it in high school and haven't used it in years (though I suspect that I still sound like a retarded 8 year old when I try to speak it). The first thing I noticed about Quito was the general economics of the city. I wouldn't go so far as to say "third world", but everything, even in the tourist areas, seems a little bit worn, there's trash in the street, there are stray dogs all over, etc. Probably not that much worse than various parts of Los Angeles that I've been to, but then again I wouldn't go to those parts of LA to vacation. In the Old City in particular you see lots of things which bring to mind the phrase "abject poverty" (don't worry, you ain't seen nothing yet), but the economic malaise seems to go all the way (or at least close to) the top. For example, we had the opportunity to have lunch at the home of my friend's host family. They're solidly middle (perhaps upper middle) class, they've got a house in a nice part of town, and live near people who are well-enough off to afford private security. Oh yeah, did I mention the private security? I have to assume that people either don't trust or can't rely on the police. There are a lot more private security guards than one would see in similar areas of the United States, even for modestly-sized private residences. Anyway, as I was saying, my friend's host family is well off. Their parlour (sala?) in particular was very nice, lots of high quality furniture, inlaid wood floors, all that jazz. But when we got to tour the other parts of the house I found that they weren't nearly as nice. I had the impression that they'd dumped a lot of money into their sitting room (presumably for appearances sake) at the expense of the rest of the house. What really struck me, though, was their reaction to gifts which my friend had brought. She gave them $100, maybe $200, worth of random stuff imported from the US, distributed among four people. By the end of the gift giving the mother and father were both in tears. Another member of the group I was traveling with attributed this to general emotion, that they were just so struck by the thoughtfulness of the gifts from an exchange student they hadn't seen in 7 years. Undoubtedly there was a good bit of that mixed in as well, but I'm convinced that their extreme reaction was due, in part, to the fact that what seemed like modest gifts to us were really much more valuable in their eyes. Another fascinating aspect of Quito is the blatant social and economic stratification. In the States we're all about stratification, no doubt of that, but we go out of our way to camouflage those differences. In Quito, by contrast, its quite obvious that how much money you have and who you know can get you better treatment. In the money category, consider the gondola in Quito which takes you to the summit of one of the mountains surround the city (Cruz Loma?). There are two lines for the gondola, a regular line and an express line. You pay more for tickets for the express line, which allows you to spend less time waiting for the gondola. The group I was traveling with remarked that that sort of thing wouldn't fly in the US; people around here get very pissed when other people are able to buy special treatment in such an obvious manner. Regarding the social aspect, it appears that the host family we traveled with had some connections (the father of the husband was apparently a fairly important person). They showed some kind of a card when we arrived at the gondola which got us parking in a small lot close to the entrace; most people apparently have to park down the hill and take a bus up. Also, we just sort of waltzed into La Ronda (a really nice restaurant, probably one of the nicest in Quito) without reservations and were seated after waiting for only a few minutes. During the course of our travels around Quito there were also a couple of exchanges between the husband and either police or security people which I didn't quite follow; they could have been nothing, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were some kind of bribery or other negotiation going on. So after hanging around Quito for a day or so we spent 3 nights at the Cuyabeno Lodge, a really nice (from a relative standpoint) jungle lodge in the Cuyabeno Nature Reserve (part of the greater Amazon basin/rainforest). Actually getting to the lodge was something else though. We took a flight from Quito to Lago Agrio; the flight was fine, Lago Agrio (basically an oil town) was nasty. Too many people and too little hygiene. And it got worse; we took a bus from Lago Agrio to the edge of the reserve. You want to talk about abject poverty, here's where we get to talk about abject poverty. During the drive we passed so many tiny shacks without running water or electricity; our guide later said that the people who live in them survive on less that $10 per week (month?). Its inadequate to try to set the misery of these people down on paper, you really have to see it to understand it. The reserve itself was pretty awesome, but it takes time to grow on you. My first impression was that it was quantitatively, but not qualitatively, different from other reserves/parks that I've been to. Sure, the animal life was more colorful (literally and figuratively), and there was denser vegetation, but it wasn't really different. Then I started to notice that it really was different... its living thing piled on living thing piled on living thing. Every available growing substrate seems to be taken up with something or another, and there's lots of instances of things growing on other things, like epiphyte plants growing on trees, and I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if there are things growing on the epiphyte plants as well. But what really made me understand the qualitative difference of the Amazon forest as opposed to elsewhere was taking a walk in the jungle in the evening. There are truly freakish insects everywhere... we saw one thing called a "lobster grasshopper" (or similar) which looks like your garden variety grasshopper except that it's (a lot) bigger and has a heavily armored carapace in a multitude of colors (I seem to recall a lot of brown and red, possibly some yellow as well). We also saw a beetle of no particular distinction except for its gold shell. I don't mean yellow, I mean thing thing looks like a gold nugget; it reflects so much light that people had a difficult time photographing it. And, of course, there are you ever-present panopoly of spiders, some quite hefty, but they really pale in comparison to the previously-mentioned examples. As an interesting aside, we also had the change to visit an indigenous village, which wasn't nearly as bad as I had expected. The particular group that we visited (wish I could remember the specific name) lives in conditions which are actually a lot better than many of the habitations I saw on the way to the reserve. They've got decent housing, a generator for electricity, a school, DVD players (movies are a prime source of entertainment apparently), etc.; they seem to be making a pretty good living from the whole eco-tourism thing (again, relatively). The visit itself consisted of us going out there on a canoe, taking a break to have a beer we bought from the village store (which stocked some staples of no interest to tourists, so probably caters to the local community as well), then going to see this whopping-great tree on the outskirts of the village. No hordes of people to greet us, no song and dance and exposure to the wisdom of the shamans, none of the crap that I'd feared. At some point during the trip we ended up talking with our guide (a very, very smart chap by the name of Paoul) about the impact of external contact on the indigenous people. He seemed to be under the impression that, in the long run, contact with the outside world is going to turn out to be bad for the natives. With regards to the natives who have already been contacted, he noted that the youth are often unhappy because they recognize the paucity of just about everything in their own lives in comparison to the outside world. They leave their villages and head towards the cities in order to try to obtain the things they've seen, but there isn't any work for them outside, so they end up coming back unsatisfied. With regards to tribes which haven't been contacted (Paoul said that there's still a lithic-technology tribe somewhere in the preserve) he advocated leaving them uncontacted, seemingly on the "ignorance is bliss" principle. Which, of course, led to further discussion which meandered into the territory of authenticity. "Authenticity" is such a problematic word, especially in the context of contacts between the Western world and indigenous societies. Lots of people are worried that contact with the outside world pollutes or dillutes indigenous cultures and keeps them from preserving their traditions. One of the friends I was traveling with is a martial arts instructor, and he likened it to an experience he had when visiting some monks in China. There were people in the group he was touring with who were unhappy to see the monks using cell phones; apparently using technology was not suitably monkish. My friend's observation on this was that "monks need to keep in touch too". Anecdotes like this make me think that there's more motivating the desire to preserve indigenous cultures than just a concern for the well-being of those cultures; there's a strong undercurrent of "don't evolve" as well. In the case of the monks, people expect to see guys in saffron robes sitting around meditating; in the case of indigenous peoples they want to see them living in grass huts and adorning themselves with shells and feathers. People have a pre-conceived notion of what the monks and the indigenous peoples should be like, and they find anything which deviates from this image disturbing. As for the "ignorance is bliss" take, from a pragmatic standpoint Paoul is probably right. Its hard to be unhappy about things which you don't have if you don't know that those things exist. Ideologically I find it hard to square this stance with the idea that the noblest goal of humankind is to help each other find self-fulfillment. Keeping information about the outside world from people doesn't further this goal and is, in a very real sense, paternalistic since it rests on the notion that information about the outside world it too dangerous for indigenous peoples to handle. It seems to me that there should be a way to reconcile this conflict between pragmatism and idealism; it ought to be possible to introduce indigenous socities to the outside world in such a fashion that it doesn't cause the problems which Paoul pointed out. Not that I have any idea of how that can be accomplished, but I have a hard time believing that there's not some solution to the problem. The rest of the trip was fun, but not nearly as interesting. We went to the hotsprings at Papallacta and to the market at Otavalo; the hotsprings were especially nice after being in the jungle for 4 days. Speaking of authenticity, I got yer authenticity right here. The toilet wasn't working on the bus from Lago Agrio to Papallacta, so at one point everyone got out and peed by the side of the road. Hows that for authentic? Being a foodie (among other things) I was also very interested in the Ecuadorean food cultures. As near as I can figure out there are at least 3 native styles of food, some better than others. The most ubiquitous seems to be, I dunno, "common" food. Lots of chicken, rice, papas, plantains, plus there's all sorts of cafes which serve sanduches (ham and cheese sandwhiches served hot or cold). Pretty good, but not astounding. Then there's the food I got at La Ronda, the aforementioned fancy restaurant in Quito, which seems to be classically (i.e. French) -inspired but uses indigenous ingredients. I had seco de chiva (a sort of stewed goat meat) which was really good, but I have to complain about the presentation. The plate had a portion of the seco accompanied by rice, potatos, avocado (and maybe something else), but none of the accompaniments were dressed and the potato tournades (tournades? who the hell uses tournades anymore?) were underdone. The last style I was exposed to was the food that they were serving at the jungle lodge; it was probably the best of everything I had to eat. Lots of fresh fruit and vegtables, presumably because refrigeration is at a premium. I swear, I had the best ceviche I've ever had, and they served a radish salad w/ lime and cilantro that was really fantastic. I really wished that I spoke spanish better... I wanted to interrogate the camp cook to find out where he learned to do his thing. That is all. We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.
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