Friday, March 31, 2006

Small Signs of Inexorable Progress

A woman changed my oil today. No, not that way, get your collective minds out of the gutter. I mean a female technician changed the oil in my car at the Valvoline station today. I think thats a first; I don't recall that ever happening since I've been responsible for such a thing.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

There Are Many Paths

So, I just got back from seeing a bunch of my friends from high school, people whom I haven't seen since our graduation 10 years ago. Man, talk about a trip. Its really striking how differently they've all turned out, especially considering we all went to the same college prep program and all of that. I think about my situation, I've got a wife, a dog, no kids. I've a good job and I (well, and the bank) own my own home. I think of this as normal to a greater or lesser extent. Especially since all the people whom I associate with are in the same boat give-or-take. But these guys, its a whole range. One of them hasn't changed at all... shorter hair, and he's married to his former girlfriend, but that about it. He's working of a law firm in LA, and his wife's working on a doctorate in Spanish Lit or something along those lines. I sat down and talked with him and the 10 year gap was totally irrelevant. But then there's another guy who I've know since preschool. He was never much of a scholar, but he graduated same as the rest of us. He showed up this evening, drunk and/or high, and generally looking sort of a mess. I've no beef with drunk and/or high people, having been one myself at various points in my life, but I didn't want to talk to him. It was just too weird. And they were talking about other people who we knew and things that have happened to them. One gentleman is on the verge of a divorce. The daughter of my 8th grade science teacher, who went through the same program in high school, ended up doing time on some kind of drug manufacturing and distrubtion charge. Another girl ended up dancing in a strip club, probably past her prime. Shit, just too weird. People like to talk about the benefits of a good education like there's something deterministic about it. To an extent I'm sure they're right, but there's a whole lot that can happen after that.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

If Not Now, When?

There's a post at Pandagon supporting this article from the Washing Post saying that we shouldn't be trying to impeach Bush. Right, says I, a jolly jest for sure, especially since they both seem so darn serious about the whole. So I read the post, and the article, again, thinking that I must be missing the sarcasm somewhere. Nope, they're really saying that we shouldn't impeach the POTUS. And there's a bucketful of other notables who are apparently saying the same thing. Alright then, riddle me this: When should we impeach a POTUS? Here's a choice quote from the article:
As a general rule, though, bad faith and worse policy should be subject to political remedy, not criminal prosecution, unless there have been crimes so unambiguous and momentous that no political remedy is suitable.
Uhuh, right. The man used his position to violate the sovereignity of another country without cause. How much less ambiguous does it have to get? Give me an act that you would consider a "provable high crime", and then explain to me how its worse that what we already know. As for the political pragmatists who are arguing that the impeachment process would be either a) too distracting or b) infeasible, let me ask you a question as well. Are you so caught up in your party's political future that you can't step back and see the trainwreck that American has become? We can't hold a "no confidence" vote; absent impeachment we've got two more years of this guy. How much more damage can this man do in the time he has left in office? How it this stance any less an abdication of responsibility than the circus we've been shackled with since 2000? If you believe that the powers that be are criminal and are ruining the country isn't is incumbent upon you to do whatever is in your power to fix the issue? Sorry for so many rhetorical questions, but the idea that we should hold on for another two years when there are alternatives is just beyond the pale.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

History Repeating Itself

So I finally got a chance to read through the backlog of Economist issues which I've built up. I found this in the letters section in regards to the recent publication of caricatures of Mohammed in a Danish newspaper:

SIR - The fact is that those newspapers which chose to publish satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad crossed the line that separates civil society from barbarism. By all means let us have debates on religion, but let's do so without insulting each others' beliefs.

Alistair Nicholas
Managing director
AC Capital Strategic Public Relations
Gah... I find myself wishing for a pithy Dickensian quote about pap or pablum or some such. "We can all have a good discussion as long as everyone agrees to play nice"... right. The problem with this view is that, when it comes to religion, no one can agree as to what constitutes an "insult"; one person's insult is another person's valid criticism.

Frankly, this whole sordid tale about the cartoons and their aftermath reminds me of nothing so much as the battles over heresy, blasphemy, etc. that went on in merry old England in times past. Y'all should check out Blasphemy by Leonard W. Levy, which recounts those goings-on in great detail. The long and the short is that, over the ages, people have repeatedly been accused of blasphemy for discussing religion in a manner which other people have found objectionable. Those who objected have gone so far as to pass laws protecting various sects/denominations/what-have-you from insult or criticism.

Now, the people who passed these laws were often accused of stifling dissent, restricting academic inquiry, etc. To which they replied that no, they had no intention of doing any such thing, they merely wished to prevent people from insulting other peoples' religions. How this worked out in practice was that as long as you confined yourself to the academic small-press you weren't in any danger. Any criticism which reached the greater public, however, was deemed to be insulting, regardless of style, content, validity, etc.

So you see the parallels here to those who call for us to have discussions "without insulting each others' beliefs". History would seem to indicate that such a stance is both theoretically and pragmatically untenable.

Hey, Mr. Nicholas, I've got a question for you, can you explain to me your rubric for what makes something "insulting"? How can I be critical (in an analytic sense) of someone's deeply held beliefs without running the risk that they'll be insulted? Uhuh... I thought so.

1 From the Feb 25th issue

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Is It All Just Epistemology?

Warning: rambling, semi-coherent brain-dump follows. I forget what even spurred this particular train of thought; probably all the recent press about Creation(ists)/(ism) in relation to Dover and elsewhere. For the most part its scientists on one side and the powers of darkness a collection of religious dogmatists on the other. This thought leads, in turn, to thoughts about why scientists and engineers tend to skew "to the left" (for whatever that phrase is worth). A common explanation seems to be that education liberalizes people; this seems a reasonable enough explanation. But it got me to wondering about whether we're confusing cause and effect. Could people start off with a "liberal" worldview which, in turn, draws them to the hard sciences? The basis of these musings is a book I read awhile ago called Truth by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, the basic thesis of which is that there have historically been four different ways of arriving at the (little "t") truth:
  • intuition
  • As revealed by authority
  • Deduction via pure reason
  • Observation of external reality
This may be my personal biases showing, but on reading this I was struck by how (at least some of) these categories seemed to line up with widely recognized factions in contemporary politics. I wonder if this is at all predictive? If I set up a survey to categorize a person's "truth category" and political affiliation would I find I high correlation between the two? Crap, I kinda wish I was still in college; this would make a killer paper for any one of a number of classes. Let's just run with the assumption that there is a correlation; what sort of practical implications would follow from this fact? It would certainly call for more study about how people come to favor one truth model over others. And we'd want to know whether this selection of model precedes political identification; I'm pretty sure that it does, since we're traditionally required to differentiate between "true" and "false" long before we become involved in politics. Assume that personal epistemology precedes political affiliation. Taken in combination with the assumption above regarding correlation this would indicate that political affiliation is a derived product, in which case you're unlikely to change a person's party affiliation if you haven't caused them to re-examine their personal epistemology. This might go a long way to explain why political affiliation is so "sticky"; how do you get someone to change their epistemological worldview? Its axiomatic, so by definition you can't reason about it in any formal sense. About the only thing you can do is demonstrate to people (informally, for the most part) that they're being inconsistent in their choices. It sort of reminds me of philosophy 101 (yeah, I actually took Philosophy 101 in college) and the people wankers who kept talking about how there's no way we can know whether we're just brains floating in jars: "Yes, be that as it may, but on a daily basis you behave like you're accurately perceiving the world. Doesn't it make more sense to match your epistemology to your behavior, or vice versa?". Granted, this is analogy isn't a 100% fit, but you get the drift. If you make choices on a day to day basis using one model, why defer to another model on "big questions"? That is all, carry on.

We Need A New Word

I've been thinking about word choice in conjunction with the charge that evolution is atheistic and/or leads to atheism. Whether it actually does or not is a separate discussion, but its hard to ignore the fact that "atheistic" is probably a word that most people would use to describe evolution if you asked them. A more appropriate choice would be "agnostic". Strictly speaking evolutionary theory is agnostic; it espouses no position on the question of God. But this runs into two problems:
  1. "atheism" and "agnosticism" are often conflated in popular discourse. The word "agnostic" is tainted by associated.
  2. Calling evolution "agnostic" doesn't really address the primary charge leveled at the theory.
The primary charge, of course, is the crime of "writing God out of the picture". In popular discourse the whole God question is posited as a dichotomy: you must advocate for God or atheism, there is no middle ground1. Hence the notion that evolution is expressly atheistic. The dichotomy noted above is clearly false, since there are clearly three classes of theories with regard to this issue:
  • Theories which require the existence of God for correct operation ("theistic" theories).
  • Theories which require the non-existence of God for correct operation ("atheistic" theories2).
  • Theories which operate independently of the existence of God ("???" theories).
It's that's third concept that we need to highlight and popularize. Are there any Greek wordsmiths in the house? About the best I could come up with was meseuotheism (from meseuo), but that doesn't really trip off the tongue.
1 As a side note this seems to be a good argument to use when people say that evolution violates the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Point out that the 2nd Law is totally mechanistic and doesn't allow for the existence of God either. Presumably its against the ground rules to use a godless law to disprove another godless law, since both must be false to begin with. 2 Strictly speaking this is inaccurate, since atheism encompasses both those who believe there isn't a God and those who are simply "not theists". Again, though, the common understanding of the word as describing solely "those who believe there is no God" is what I'm concerned with. And anyway, why the hell are were still using one word for two markedly different ideas?

Greetings From New York

Last night a friend introduced me to a bar called "Angel's Share". Its Very Cool, tucked away behind a door in a second-story sushi restaurant around 9th and 3rd. Most notable is the fact that it was busy, but not loud and not overly crowded. And they must have had one of the best whisky and scotch selections I've ever seen. Those of you who want to have a quiet drink and some sashimi should really check out. As a side note, I got a chance to try Johnnie Walker Gold while I was there (told you they had a good selection). Its fine, but not worth the added expense over the Black label.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

My, That's A Lovely Two-Edged Sword You Got There

There's been a spate of posts about rape/incest exceptions in response to the Utah and Mississippi legislatures refusal to insert such exceptions into recent anti-abortion legislation. Now, here's a problem... The pro-choice crowd is going to be hoist by their own petard by calling for such exceptions. Its easy to understand why, from a pragmatic and humanitarian standpoint, we don't want these women to be forced to carry their pregnancies to term, but in the long run its going to do us more harm than good. In arguing for such exceptions, don't we actually play into the hands of those who would like to restrict abortion? Making such arguments explicitly reinforces the notion that rape and incest victims are a special category when it comes to abortion. And why are they a special? Because their pregnancies are the result of non-consensual intercourse. But doesn't this view, in turn, legitimize the belief that a women's willing (or unwilling) participation in intercourse has bearing on the abortion question? If you ask for an exception for one group you hold them up as especially deserving, in this case on account of the fact that they're the victims of non-consensual activity. But the unavoidable flip side of this is that the non-exceptional group has been made less deserving; their claim has been devalued relative to the exceptional class. And why, pray tell, are they less deserving? In this case because their pregnancies were the result of consensual behavior. Is this any different from the argument that "if she didn't want the kid she shouldn't have had sex"? If you believe that a woman is entitled to an abortion regardless of her health, her marital status, whether the pregnancy is the result of consensual activity or not, etc., then you can't ask for exceptions based on these considerations. Any time you carve out an exception you create a group who are entitled and a group who aren't entitled. If you believe that abortion should be universally excessible then any such carving violates this postulate of universality, there's just no way around it.
1 Assuming they're making a "sanctity of life" argument, which seems to be the case.
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