Wednesday, December 27, 2006

This Is A Good Thing

It takes a great deal of cynicism to believe that Congressional Democrats' efforts to un-fuck House operations is anything other than a positive development. If the House rules unfairly marginalize the minority party then they should be fixed; it's totally irrelevant that doing so increases the power of the Republicans. To claim otherwise one must believe that the Democrats' first priority should be self-perpetuation.

I really feel that anyone who appeals to "political reality" is, at some fundamental level, either dishonest or deluded. As in the case above such appeals rest on the assumption that its OK (and perhaps even morally necessary) to cheat on the small things so that your larger, more noble agenda can move forward. But isn't such a belief the absolute zenith of moral arrogance? To believe that you, or your party, are so noble and virtuous that you can grant yourselves leave to ignore or contravene rules for the sake of political expediency borders on megalomania. There's just no other way to put it.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Seasonal Disappointments: Beer and Ties Edition

So yesterday I'm in the store and I stumble across this beer that I've never seen before. A seasonal brew, obviously, given the snowman on the label. I'm not generally excited seasonal offerings; there are a few good ones out there, but most are unremarkable.

But the name of this brew, "Winter Bourbon Cask Ale", piqued my interest. The label claimed that it was aged on bourbon barrel wood and real vanilla beans. As I've had memorable interactions with other bourbon-aged beers I thought I'd give it a try.

Closer inspection, however, revealed that all was not as it seemed. The brewer of aforementioned product was none other than Anheuser-Busch. I lived in St. Louis for several years and, having taken many out-of-town guests through the brewery tour, know what AB is capable of doing to beer. Fun fact: Did you know that, in addition to barley, the various members of the Bud family are also made with rice? When I asked the tour guy about that he said something about "making the beer smoother". Yeah, smoother my ass... you make a beer that actually tastes like something and the vast, unwashed masses might stop buying it.

But I digress... I was willing to give it a shot, though being a mass-produced beer rather than a craft brew I wasn't expecting much. But it was an ale and, AB not really being an ale producer, might be informative of what they were capable. So I grabbed a six pack and had a bottle when I got home.

Unfortunately, it seems that AB's ales are indistinguishable from their lagers. The first thing I noticed was that the cask ale had the same metallic aftertaste that I've long associated with Bud and Bud Light. To their credit you could taste the vanilla, and maybe the bourbon... most notably the beer did not taste like synthetic vanilla, so props to AB for that. But these pleasant notes were drowned out by the general suck of the underlying product. So, in conclusion, its not that good. Go buy yourself a Sam Adam's Triple Bock instead.

As long as we're talking about the season and its let-downs I'd like to digress into the area of gift giving. For several years now when people have asked me what I want I tell them that I don't want anything. This isn't because I'm an anti-materialist; far from it, I like things. But I've got all the things that I need at the moment; additional things would besuperfluous . I tell people this and it doesn't go over well. They beg and pester and what have you and I eventually produce a list of a few carefully chosen items that would round out someunoccupied niches in my personal inventory.

Here's a question, people: Why, oh why, after extracting a list from me, do you go ahead and buy me crap that's not on the list? My parents, bless their hearts, are the single, largest culprit in this area. Would it be too hard to buy me that slicing knife that's been on my list for three frickin' years? Why the hell did you get me a shirt and matching tie when it wasn't on my list? I wear ties once in a blue moon; it's just going to gather dust along with the rest of my ties.

I hereby firmly resolve to not provide lists next year. When coaxed, prodded, wheedled, and/or cajoled about the issue I'm going to tell people to make an anonymous gift to the EFF instead. Except for my wife, 'cause she got my scotch last year.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Of course its about intentions

Even if Ampersand claims its not.

I finished reading The Human Stain a little while ago and I can really think of no more eloquent an argument against Ampersand's position. One of the main themes throughout the book is that its vital to ascertain an actor's intent before leveling a charge of racism. A professor refers to some students as "spooks", forgetting that the word is also an old derogatory reference to people of color, and you can figure out where it goes from there.

Certainly the episode that Ampersand is commenting on isn't as cut and dried as the example above, but eir unwillingness to consider intentions leads to horrible results. Eliminate the intentions of the actor and the only relevant item left to be considered is the perception of the victim. This leads to a self-fulfilling definition of racism whereby an act is racist if a person says it is.

"But what about the facts on the ground?"

Findings of fact are ultimately about determining intention. In the example above you can point out that "spook" hasn't been commonly used as a slur about people of color in years. But this fact is only useful to bolster a case regarding the intentions of the speaker; since intentions have been apriori ruled irrelevant there's no point in making such an argument. Under this rule any person can hold the entire sphere of discourse hostage merely by claiming offense.

Regarding the specifics of the case against Billmon, it goes back to an idea that I've written about before: acknowledging the reality of racism is not, in itself, racist. Acknowledging that racism has existed in the past is not, in itself, racist. Acknowledging that persons or institutions in the present bear a striking resemblance to racist persons or institutions in the past is not, in itself, racist. Etc.

I was thinking about Dave Chappelle's work in the context of all of this when, coincidentally, I ran across a handy flowchart that says that you get a pass if you happen to be Dave Chappelle. Why does Dave Chappelle get a pass? He's got some funny shit going on, but if you apply the "intentions don't count" rule to just about anything he produces you end up with a product that unambiguously perpetuates racist stereotypes about African Americans.

In reality we, the public, give Dave Chappelle a pass because we realize that he's just the latest in a venerable tradition of people who have made ironic use of stereotypes. You don't even have to be African American for that particular trick to work; anyone want to argue that Blazing Saddles is racist?

In short, Ampersand is making a broad statement that's wholly unsupportable. As a practical argument it ignores the fact that people do make use of a person's intentions when determining whether a given act is racist. As a theoretical argument it fails because it allows acceptable modes of discourse to be dictated by the person with the lowest threshold of offense. QED.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

All I Want For Christmas

It seems that not only is the Whitehouse thinking about sending more troops to Iraq, but now they're also talking about beefing up the naval presence in the Gulf as some sort of gesture to Iran. WTF? They haven't been able to pull of one war; what the hell makes them think that military action against Iran is going to be any better?

So for Christmas I want 5 minutes of truth from Dick Cheney. I'd like to sit down with the man in some nice, quiet place away from tape recorders and prying eyes and ask him what the hell he thinks he's doing. Is he pure evil, or is he deluded? Really, those seem to be the only possible explanations at this point.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Told You So

I can't help but feel a little vindicated right now. Remember way back when I suggested that advocacy for disabled fetuses might be used as cover for an anti-abortion agenda? Lots of people seemed to think that I was smoking crack at the time.

Well, all I have to say right now is "How's this for crack smoking?". Maybe its not such a crazy idea after all. And just look at the rhetoric that they're using:

If actual or potential disability is a reason to devalue children before birth, what cruel message does this send to persons with disabilities who are already born?

Would you say to someone in a wheelchair that s/he should never have been born? That’s the message people get when they talk about “gross fetal anomalies.”

Now, as Amanda points out these people aren't genuine disability advocates; they're just opportunists looking to push their own agenda. But the reasoning that they use above is indistinguishable (indeed, some might go so far as to say "identical") to that exhibited by genuine disability advocates in my first post on the subject and the two posts that followed.

Maybe, oh just maybe, I'm right in insisting that its not appropriate to try to limit womens' right to choose in this case? Amanda seems to think so:

The ugly truth is that abortion rights does mean that some people, when they find out their child would be born with a birth defect, would terminate the pregnancy. And while that it truly upsetting, the cure is to educate people on disabilities and remove the stigma so that fewer people feel they have no choice. But stripping women of basic rights is not an answer. Freedom means that people will often make choices that aren’t what many of us would like. Instead of stripping them of their right to make certain choices—like not to have a disabled child—it’s better to persuade than limit a critical freedom.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: When you take the stance that its never OK to abort a fetus with abnormalities you restrict womens' right to choose.

This brings me to a point which I haven't been able to fully articulate to myself until recently. When I asked disability advocates why it wasn't OK to abort disabled fetuses I received a lot of responses similar to the above, that aborting disabled fetuses somehow devalued existing disabled people. I devoted a whole post in the thread just to that specific question, and I think I did a good job of showing that wasn't the case.

What I really think is going on is that disability advocates have another reason for arguing against the abortion of disabled fetuses. You can see it lurking in the background in some of the comments I received, such as this one by Redaspie:

Now, I think this assumption is highly questionable in a world where we have deaf pride, and increasingly autistic pride, with adherents of such movements vehemently opposing *any* attempt to treat, ameliorate or cure something that they see as nothing but a positive.
and this one by Ettina:
I'm an autistic person. I would love to have an autistic child. Since I'm not planning to marry, I have a plan of looking through the personality descriptions some sperm banks give for sperm donors and picking the guy who seems most autistic-like to get sperm from.
There is a well known case of a deaf lesbian couple who got sperm from a man with an autosomal dominant genetic form of deafness so that their children would be deaf.
What to you is a tragic affliction or whatever that should be prevented is to us the kind of people we are, and we value children like us.

There is an increasing belief that various disabled groups (notably the deaf), and the disabled as a whole, form legitimate social communities/cultures. I certainly agree that this is the case, at least to a limited extent; its hard to argue that "deaf culture" isn't real. However, it looks like some disability advocates are taking this fact as part of their initial argument and then going a step further. Their opposition to the abortion of disabled fetuses seems to stem in large part from the notion that such abortions pose a threat to the continuation of those same cultures.

This is also certainly the case; if people continue to abort disabled fetuses there is a distinct possibility that there will cease to be enough disabled people to constitute a viable "disabled culture". But I don't believe that this, by itself, is sufficient reason to restrict womens' right to choose.

Now before someone starts yelling "Genocide!" I'll point out that I've already addressed that argument in my rebuttal to Evonne Acevedo1. This is not genocide; an accusation of genocide must be support by positive acts (mass killing and forced abortion). The hypothetical end of disabled culture projected above would be the result of thousands of uncoerced2 choices and, as such, is in no way illegitimate.

To believe otherwise is to assert that society, as a whole, has a positive duty to ensure the continuation of particular cultures. Though I'm not prepared to get into a long argument on that topic at this time, I'll offer that I disagree with that statement. Rather, I think that society has a negative duty not to interfere with the continuation of cultures i.e. we shouldn't commit genocide, but neither do we have a moral obligation to prevent cultures from dying of "natural causes". If anyone cares I can write a long post on how the presumption of a duty to prevent the extinction of cultures leads to absurd results, but as I've got to go to work now I'll leave that for another day.

1 I'm sorry about the formatting on this and other posts, see this post for details. If anyone really cares let me know and I can go back and add appropriate paragraph breaks.

2 We're all in agreement that people shouldn't be coerced into aborting their babies, regardless of their condition. If you want to argue "institutional coercion" you're going to have to make an open-and-shut case; I generally think that such arguments illegitimately downplay the power of individual will and personal autonomy.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Gun Nuttery: Then vs. Now

Eugene Volokh says

Now I'm not sure that private arms -- or at least private arms at the level that we're likely to tolerate, which is to say some privately owned infantry weapons but without privately owned warplanes, heavy armor, anti-aircraft weapons, and the like -- are likely to do much to deter or fight government tyranny in America today. It's possible that they would have this effect, especially against relatively mild-mannered opppressors; but I certainly can't muster the confidence for this that Madison or others expressed.
Couldn't agree more... its just nice to see someone with bona-fide libertarian credentials saying it for once. But then he says
But it does seem pretty clear that the "private gun ownership as check on government tyranny" view was quite prevalent in the Framing era, and was closely tied to the right to keep and bear arms. If holding such a view today makes the holders "gun nuts," then James Madison was a gun nut, too.
Who... wha... huh? Doesn't that contradict his previous statement?

If, in Madison's time, the private ownership of firearms was a deterrent to tyranny then Madison wasn't being a "gun nut" in holding such a belief. On the other hand people who assert that such is the case today, when private firearm ownership can't begin to compete with an F-16, are engaging in magical thinking if not outright "gun nuttery". One belief proceeds from rational evaluation, the other proceeds from a need to compensate for a small penis.

Maybe I Spoke Too Soon

I've been a little bit perturbed by the implications of my post on atheism and relativism. If atheistic systems of morality are all internally inconsistent then it would seem that atheism as a whole is an untenable position. However, theistic systems really aren't any better, since they tend to be counter-factual. Where does that leave us since, by definition, there isn't anything left once you've gotten rid of theistic and atheistic systems?

I got into discussion with an anonymous poster on the subject, at which point I said

A right/norm must come from somewhere be it natural or supernatural (I'll allow that this might be a false dichotomy, though I'm unsure what other sources may exist). Most atheists explicitly reject the normativity of both of these sources, leaving themselves without a rock to stand on.
Later I got to thinking that I might be wrong in that regard; "natural/supernatural" could be a false dichotomy, in which case there's the potential to salvage atheistic systems of morality.

Is there a source of normative behavior that is neither "natural" nor "supernatural"? Strangely enough, when I was thinking that question over I realized that the definitions of "supernatural" and "natural" were somewhat tenuous. The term "supernatural" is generally defined in opposition to "natural", e.g. the supernatural is that which is not natural. But if you go and look up the definition of "natural" you find that it has a myriad of connotations. Its not clear to me which definition is being referred to in the "natural/supernatural" dichotomy and whether that definition makes an appropriate basis for comparison.

Let me ask a rhetorical question: Is representative democracy natural? I usually ask this question in the context of debates on homosexuality to demonstrate that some speaker, while asserting that homosexuality is unnatural, simultaneously values other concepts that are equally unnatural. But I believe that its sheds light on the immediate question as well. In one sense representative democracy is "natural" in that it can be explained via appeal to naturalistic phenomena. But in another sense its not natural, since it doesn't occur spontaneously without the intervention of sentient beings.

So now we have another dichotomy, "natural/unnatural". Here's where we have to stop and consider whether this really represents a true dichotomy or if its just an artifact of language. What I'm setting up in place of the "natural/supernatural" dichotomy is a "natural/unnatural/supernatural" trichotomy. Does this additional category actually refer to anything?

Google the phrase "preserving nature" and you turn up a bunch of hits about protecting wilderness and such and the like. From what do these pages seek to protect it? Not from more nature; "protecting nature from itself" doesn't really make sense as a concept. Neither is there the suggestion that wilderness areas are in danger of being overrun by poltergeists. Rather, all of these results returned from the Google search imply that nature needs to be protected from the actions of mankind. This, in turn, makes a strong case that humanity is commonly perceived as having transcended the bounds of nature.

Its also possible to make the case that any discussion of morality presupposes this distinction. Systems of morality are, after all, exclusively concerned with human behavior. There are few who seriously suggest that plants and animals are capable of behaving immorally; no one censures the wolf when it kills a deer, or suggests that maybe it should think about vegetarianism as an alternative. Rather, the killing of prey by predator is seen as a natural phenomena beyond the bounds of morality. However, human behavior doesn't get a free pass, indicating that it is unnatural in the "representative democracy" sense of the word.

So, the category of "unnatural" is real, and not just rhetorical slight of hand, allowing us to substitute the trichotomy of "natural/unnatural/supernatural" is place of the "natural/unnatural" dichotomy. It doesn't necessarily follow that there is a legitimate source of rights to be found therein, but at least we're no longer axioming outselves out of existence.

Let's follow that thought. If there is a legitimate source of rights within atheistic moral frameworks it must stem from the domain of "unnatural" things. In order to understand where an authority might be found its first necessary to understand what things, real and abstract, are part of this domain. From the discussion above we know that the behavior of animals is part of the "natural" domain but the behavior of humans belongs to the "unnatural" domain. Why?

This is where things get a little get a little tricky. The immediate answer that comes to mind is "self awareness", but thats obviously not the whole answer. Apes, elephants, and dolphins also show signs of self-awareness, but there are few who suggest that such findings (if true) are cause to subject these creatures to moral survey and censure. What separates humans from these animals?

The usual suspects (language, culture, tool use, etc.) are increasingly unreliable; recent research has shown that the difference between ourselves and other animals in this area are a matter of degree rather than kind. Perhaps these animals lack the capacity to act morally? In order to act morally one must be able to recognize that a situation requires a moral response. And yet, anecdotal evidence suggests that animals have the capacity for empathy i.e. they have the capacity to recognize another animal's distress1. But moral culpability, in addition to requiring the capability to recognize a problem, also requires the ability to effectively address the problem. Other animals lack the ability to address moral problems in a substantive way, even if they have the ability to recognize them. What separates humans from animals, and what ultimately disengages us from the "natural" domain, is the degree to which we are able to act to shape our environment.

The "unnatural" domain, then, is where we place those entities with the ability to shape their surroundings to a high degree. I'm uncomfortable with this definition, relying as it does not on a "bright line" criteria but rather on a judgement of capability, but that's not entirely relevant. Human beings clearly meet the standard, and as such are included within the domain. Any other sentient entity of sufficient capability also belongs in this domain, in the off chance that any aliens are reading this blog.

After a long slog we've come to the point where we can say that an atheistic basis for human morality must be derived from humanity in some regard. Here there is enough room to definine moral axioms, though the formulation of such axioms is restricted in certain respects. Because they are derived from the "unnatural" domain they will generally have to place limitations on their own applicability e.g. "suffering should be minimized if feasible" rather than "suffering should be minimized". Or such axioms must explicitly reference to whom they apply, e.g. "entities possessed of empathy and an ability to substantially shape their environments should seek to minimize suffering wherever possible".

I especially like that last one, cold and clinical though it may seem. "possessed of empathy", "the ability to substantially shape their environments" and "minimize suffering" aren't terribly abstract; its fairly easy to argue that they correspond to conditions in objective reality. Contrast this with axioms which reference concepts like "justice"; justice is a human construct, so using it as a basis for human morality is circular reasoning.

In summary, it seems that I was mistaken regarding the formal consistency of atheistic theories of morality. The formulation of such theories is possible, based on the introduction of the "unnatural" domain as separate from the "natural" and "supernatural" domains. It is possible to formulate normative axioms within the unnatural domain which, when properly constrained, are internally consistent. This places atheistic theories on the same logical footing as theistic theories.

1 See also this paper by Paul Shapiro.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Tipping Is Part Of The Problem

It really annoys me when people talk about tipping like its a legitimate practice. In Rochester there's a particularly popular diner named Charlie Brown's. Mr. Brown, in his infinite wisdom, has placed a message on the back of his menu to the effect that he expects you to tip his waitstaff, ostensibly because he's concerned with their well-being. Uhuh... right.

Mr. Brown, if you're so concerned with their well-being, why don't you fucking pay them a living wage? The whole practice of tipping isn't beneficial to restaurant waitstaff; its beneficial to the restaurant owner instead. Because the staff receives tips restaurateurs are legally obliged to pay them only $2.65/hr (or thereabouts, depending on the locale). This keeps their fixed costs low, allowing them to serve huge meals at bargain prices. I believe there's also a tax benefit, since waitstaff are solely responsible for declaring and paying taxes on their tips. Meanwhile you, the restaurant patron, are expected to pay an additional %15-%20 on top of your bill for the maintenance of the waitstaff.

Why do otherwise progressive people fail to see that by buying into the practice of tipping their actually perpetuating a system thats unfair to food service workers? Get rid of tips, and treat restaurant waitstaff like any other profession.


I just noticed that all of my old posts look like giant, run-on paragraphs. I recently switched my Blogger settings to turn off the use of "<BR/>" tags as paragraph breaks and it looks like it hosed the old posts written before the change. I swear I know to write a paragraph, I promise.

Uhh.. Have You Met "You"?

Stoopid Time...

"Gee golly, this Intarweb thing sure is empowering."

"You said it Beave, I'm changing the course of history right now..."

fap... fap fap... fapfapfapfapfap...

Atheism Does Lead To Moral Relativism

(via Dispatches) Ilya Somin has an excellent post up at the Volokh Conspiracy rebutting the idea that atheism leads to moral relativism. He points out, rightly enough, that atheists can hold to moral systems that are just as strong and socially beneficial as those of their theist fellows:

While some atheists are moral relativists, there is no necessary connection between the two beliefs. Atheists, like theists, can have strong commitments to objective views of morality based on reason, tradition, communitarianism, and so on.
However, this statement is somewhat misleading in that it accepts the logical consistency of these "strong commitments" at face value. I've touched on this topic briefly before in the context of universal human rights. In assessing whether or not atheism leads to moral relativism you must examine the logical underpinnings of the "strong commitments" of which Ilya speaks. If it turns out that most atheists behave in a logically indefensible manner then it really doesn't bolster the case for atheism, even if the result is socially beneficial.

The theist has it easy in this respect; when asked whence spring their rules for living the theist can just reply "God". It matters not that various sects disagree on the nature of God or which rules they should follow; we're merely interested in the internal coherence of their belief system. Right or wrong, theist philosophies have an internally consistent foundation, namely belief in a deity or deities with the power to dictate social norms1.

But how does an atheist answer the question? If there is no deity, but rather just nature red in tooth and claw, what it the ultimate justification for their behavior. Commonly there seem to be two basic responses to this question, one based on social contract and one based on the assertion of some sort of universal set of rights.

In the social contract version the answer is something along the lines of "because we all benefit if we play by this set of rules". That's undoubtedly true in many instances, but such an answer reduces morality to game theory. We're all just players seeking to maximize our respective outcomes. I'll allow Maynard James Keenan to summarize this particular position:

Consequences dictate our course of action
and it doesn't matter what's right.
It's only wrong if you get caught.
If consequences dictate
my course of action
I should play GOD
and shoot you myself.
The social contract view is morally hollow on close inspection.

But what about atheistic theories that each person is possessed of an unalienable set of rights? Well, by denying the supernatural world you're left with only the natural world. If nature is non-normative (and I've never met an atheist who insists otherwise) then how can a person be intrinsically possessed of a set of rights? Humans are just another natural phenomenon; how can a natural phenomenon be vested with rights when nature is non-normative? Even if, by some miracle of logical judo, you can demonstrate the existence of such rights, how do you go about testing the truth or falsehood of any specific instance?

Its clear from the discussion above that atheism logically leads to moral relativism. I can hold true to a set of noble and socially beneficial beliefs without invoking any sort of deity, and society may judge my behavior to be exemplary, but that's all of that is entirely irrelevant. What recourse do I have when I meet someone who holds a different set of beliefs? Its logically indefensible for me to say that my beliefs are right and their beliefs are wrong. Since I can't make a decision between two sets of beliefs I must hold that either everyone's beliefs are equally valid, or no one's beliefs are valid at all. That's moral relativism, period.

1 Though I suppose you could turn around and ask "why should I do what God says I should do?".

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Christmas As A Secular Holiday

This thought was triggered in part by the USA today report that the Christmas trees have been restored at Sea-Tac, though I've been mulling this particular idea over for a couple of years now. Are Christmas trees religious symbols or are they secular symbols with a religious origin? This is just one facet of a larger question, which is whether Christmas is a religious or a secular holiday. I'm of the opinion that the US actually celebrates two holidays, both called "Christmas", one of which is secular and one of which is religious.

This may seem far-fetched at first, but consider the following:
Similar items are commonly displayed at "Christmas time" in the US. One is a nativity scene; its clearly religious, depicting a scene from the Christian story of The Nativity. But what about the other one, the inflatable snow globe? Its not a religious symbol in the sense that its mandated (or even sanctioned) by any religious authority or text. Rather its just the latest salvo in the ever-escalating Christmas decoration wars, most recently lampooned in Deck the Halls. So I think its safe to assert, in the least, that there are two categories of symbols commonly associated with Christmas celebrations in the US, one of which is religious and one of which is secular.

It would be enough, at this point, to construct an argument placing Christmas trees in the latter category. But I want to be more comprehensive; can an argument be made that there is a comprehensive Christmas practice in the US that is purely secular in nature?

How is Christmas popularly celebrated? The Wikipedia article on the subject seems fairly comprehensive, though I'd add practices such as decorating the tree and baking cookies as well. Note that of all of these items only two have Christian roots (nativity scenes and Santa Claus) and only one (nativity scenes) retains overtly religious symbolism today.

Such observations aren't conclusive though; we must also ask how people interpret these symbols. When people put up a Christmas tree or exchange gifts are they doing so in recognition of some Christian tradition, or are they participating in a secular, family holiday along the lines of Thanksgiving? Well, per the 2000 Census, ~77% of the US population self-describes as Christian, or roughly 3 in 4. Do more, or less, than ¾ of the population celebrate Christmas? The answer is surprisingly hard to pin down; I've found estimates as high as 95%, but those estimates are put fourth by people who potentially have something to gain by inflating the number. Even if you allow for a "Fox discount" the actual percentage is likely higher than 77%. The spread1 between these two numbers represents people who aren't Christian but who celebrate Christmas.

What does it mean that there are people who aren't Christian but who celebrate Christmas? Some probably observe the holiday under duress because they want to get along with their families and the rest of society. But some undoubtedly are actually celebrating Christmas of their own free will just because they like getting the family together and giving presents. This secular version of Christmas is almost indistinguishable from its religious counterpart; close scrutiny will reveal a lack of church-going and overt religious symbolism, but that's about all.

Which brings us back to Sea-Tac... what version of Christmas was being celebrated there, religious or secular? Given the absence of any religious symbolism (overt or otherwise) I'd argue that the people who put up the Christmas trees were celebrating the secular version. The only argument to the contrary, as far as I can see, is "Christmas is a Christian holiday". But, given the discussion above, I don't believe that assertion holds anymore.
1 I'd actually argue that, for the purposes of this calculation, the 77% needs to be adjusted downwards, relying as it does on the assumptions that all Christians celebrate Christmas and all Christians celebrate the religious version of the holiday. Not all Christians celebrate Christmas (for example Jehovah's Witnesses), so the category "Christians who celebrate Christmas" is a proper subset of "Christians". Additionally, I suspect that many self-identified Christians are actually celebrating the secular version of the holiday; when they put a star on top of the Christmas tree do they do so because it reminds them of the Star of Bethlehem or just because it looks nice?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

MathML Workaround for Blogger

Earlier I posted about not being able to get MathML to work with Blogger. As you can see below I've a partial workaround:
Now there's still a spacing issue, but its a start. Behind the scenes its uglier
<object type="application/xhtml+xml" data="data:application/xhtml+xml;base64,PG1hdGggaWQ9ImVxdWF0aW9uIiBzdHlsZT0iZGlzcGxheTpub25lOyIgeG1sbnM9Imh0dHA6Ly93
Ugly, huh? The data URI is a base64 encoding of the following:
<math id="equation" style="display:none;" xmlns="">
    <mfenced open="[" close="]">



    <mfenced open="{" close="}">



Now, in theory, I should just be able to set the data attribute of the object to #equation, but that doesn't seem to work for some reason. So in order to get the MathML to display without needing to put it in an external file I had to use the "data" URI scheme. If anyone knows a workaround to the base64 portion of my workaround let me know.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

An Operations-Based Approach To Network Security

One of the problems that I often encounter when dealing with issues in network security is deciding what needs to be fixed. Many of the formal models which have been developed just aren't that applicable in real life, since they deal in abstractions that don't necessarily map well to life in the data center. I bring this up now because I'm currently reading Securing Storage1 by Himanshu Dwivedi. Mr. Dwivedi talks about security issues in terms of "Security Risk" and "Business Risk", which correspond roughly to "severity of consequences from a technical perspective" and "severity of consequences from a business perspective". Using this mechanism he goes on to classify various types of attacks against SAN fabrics as "low", "medium", and "high" risk. The whole point of performing a threat assessment is to determine what steps should be taken to best improve your security profile. Ideally you'd like to the items that end up at the top of your list to have a relative sense of urgency i.e. it makes sense to address them before any other items on the list. But here's where a lot of risk assessment metrics run into issues. For example, Mr. Dwivedi classifies some attacks as "medium" or "high" risk based on their security and business implications, but this ranking is less than helpful in terms of actually guiding remediation efforts. In this case the attacks in question require physical access to the SAN; as long as you're following some basic standards of datacenter hygiene, such as physical access control, then there are probably more pressing security issues which need to be addressed. The CISSP approach is a little better in that it (allegedly) lets you calculate how much you should spend to remediate an issue. Leaving aside the difficulties in calculating your exposure, much less the expected annual incidence of a particular risk, this approach still doesn't provide complete guidance. If I have a security budget of $100 and I've 3 projects, each of which suggest that I spend $45 to implement them, which 2 should I pursue? The two approaches listed above, and others that I've encountered, all fail to factor in the actual nuts and bolts of security in an operations environment. Security projects compete for $'s and person-hours, just like any other IT undertaking. In such a situation a comprehensive approach to risk management would tell you which projects maximize your ROI. Here's the part where I start venturing out into somewhat uncharted territory. Where do Mr. Dwivedi's model and the CISSP model break? In Mr. Dwivedi's model its pretty easy to spot the problem; it doesn't pay any regard to the actual yield of any particular remediation step. You should not spend time protecting yourself from a difficult and somewhat theoretical attack if you're also vulnerable to a less theoretical and less difficult attack, even if the latter doesn't pose as big a risk as the former. The breakage in the CISSP model a little more subtle; even though 2 assets might both have the same ALE the cost of protecting those two assets is going to differ, sometimes wildly. So how to build a better mousetrap? I going to be heretical and suggest putting the cart before the horse. All of the risk analysis approaches to which I've been exposed start with some sort of formalism such as the quantification of risks. I'd suggest that we should reduce the use of formalisms, since most of them are badly broken to begin with. How, exactly, are you supposed to calculate the annualized frequency with which you'll get hacked? IT isn't the insurance industry... we're just not capable of making those kind of assessments at this point. Instead, here's what you do: You hire yourself a competent security specialist and have them audit your network for general hygiene. A first approximation to a secure network can be had by the systematic application of a few basic rules: least access, encrypt it if possible, collect and read your logs, etc. Lots of these things don't require money, just the time and know how to implement them. A good security analyst will be able to point out almost immediately where you're network is falling down. A lot of people will probably object to this approach, because it relies on the expertise of a particular individual and treats security as an art rather than a science. This is a valid criticism to a point, and I'll accept it for what its worth. But such criticism disregards the fact that every institution with a computer can greatly benefit by first remediating a list of common problems (or verifying that such remediation isn't necessary). You shouldn't need a formal risk analysis to tell you that you should be using SSH instead of telnet. The starting point for security shouldn't be formal risk assessment, since most organizations don't meet the security baseline that makes such assessments useful. Instead organizations should focus foremost on the laundry list of hardening steps and best practices which can be implemented for free. If they manage to get through that list then they can start to consider formal assessment and its associated expenditures. Here's another area where formal models break down; they don't take politics into account. Rather, they assume that any issue can be remediated if serious enough. This, I know from personal experience, is demonstrably false. So take the list of suggestions that your consultant came up with and cross a line through all of the ones which you know you'll never be able to implement. Go on, do it now, we'll wait... done? Continuing on then... We're still left with the question of how to prioritize the fixes which need to be implemented... this is where the "cost-benefit" from the title comes in. Its very easy to say "cost-benefit", wave your hands, and call it a solution; this is essentially the approach which the CISSP model takes. But such an approach is unsatisfactorily nebulous; what do "cost" and "benefit" mean within the domain of IT operations? In the current context of the discussion "cost" can't be measured in $$$; the fixes which I propose implementing are generally free. Nor can you easily convert person-hours to $$$ since most IT employees are salaried (and generally expected to work long hours to fix things if need be). "cost" is best measured directly in the number of hours it will take to implement the fix. Such an approach has the added benefit that a competent administrator can usually make such estimations accurately; if you have X servers to fix and each server takes Y minutes then the aggregate time required is damn close to X*Y. But cost is only half the equation... what about "benefit"? Admittedly this is a hard question to answer. The benefits of security are notably difficult to quantify, given that security is largely about preventing hypotheticals. I'm going to suggest a practical metric for measuring benefit which will probably piss a lot of people off: the suck factor. The use of this particular metric is ultimately why this is an operations-based approach. You, as an operations person, generally have a pretty good idea of how much it would suck if a particular problem was exploited. Lest I be accused of undue cynicism I'll point out that there's often a strong correlation between business requirements and the suck factor. But really, this metric is about operations folks making their lives easier, not about the needs of the business. Because, frankly, if there's no inherent suckage in a system getting pwned, then why bother in the first place? So really, we're looking at the ratio (implementation hours)/(suckage)2. Admittedly "suckage" is kind of vague, so lets see if we can come up with a concrete analogue, preferably denominated in hours so we can deal with a dimensionless number. A good proxy for suckage is "time needed to fix", which has the additional benefit of also being fairly easy to calculate. The lower this ratio the more it makes sense to implement the fix. In a nutshell: If you're in charge of security for a typical shop the best thing you can do is chuck formal metrics; they probably don't apply to you. Instead find yourself a security analyst or some hardening guides and rank the resulting fixes based on the ratio of the time needed to implement the fix vs. the time needed to clean up if the vulnerability is exploited.
1 Which, incidentally, isn't that good of a book, regardless of what the Amazon reviews may say. It claims to be a 'practical' guide, but actually has very few specifics regarding how to secure existing technologies. A lot of the time Mr. Dwivedi say something along the lines of "this is what the relevant standard says you can do, see you vendor documents for implementation details". That's fine for a theoretical work, but as I said this book claims to be practical. I would expect to see a more thorough review of existing technologies. There are also some technical errors, such as equating "zone hopping" in a SAN fabric to VLAN hopping when the two phenomena are distinctly different. Aside from those criticisms the book needs heavy editing; it is readily apparent that English isn't Mr. Dwivedi's primary language. 2 Here's where I tried to do MathML, see previous post.

MathML and XHTML vs. HTML and Firefox irritation and Blogger

So I've been dicking around with MathML, trying to figure out why it renders in one context but doesn't render in another. Guess what? Turns out its all about the MIME type, at least as far as Firefox is concerned. Create an XHTML document with some well-formed MathML and give it a .html extension. Load it in Firefox and presto, no rendering. Change the document extension from .html to .xhtml and try loading it again. What's that, you say? It renders now? Fantastic! So what's going on here? Firefox won't render MathML unless the MIME type is application/xhtml+xml. Apparently DOCTYPE has nothing to do with anything, and using an "http-equiv" meta tag doesn't solve the problem either (though the latter can change the character encoding on the fly). Which means that I can't get Blogger to display MathML, because I can't figure out how to make Blogger serve a blog entry as anything other than text/html. Anyone know a workaround for this?

When Everyone's A Racist, No One Is

Rachel S. of Rachel's Tavern has recently written a post that expands the definition of racism beyond all recognizable bounds:
The truth that white racism and white supremacy are fundamental to the organization of American society (and the rest of the world too). Nobody escapes it. Even the most loving well meaning people have imbibed some degree of racism. Even people of color participate in the system of white racism and white supremacy.
I recognize the validity of the point which she is trying to make, but she's perpetuating a horrible abuse of language at the same time. As I've written about in the past, if you expand the definition of "racist" and "racism" far enough it loses its power of description. Push the definition far enough, in face, and you end up with some pretty absurd conclusions. Perhaps we're all racists, and perhaps we all engage in racism. But Rachel seems to be ignoring the fact that "racist" and "racism" are words with moral overtones and implications. To call some one a racist is to make an assertion that they are engaging in behavior which is not only unacceptable, but is also avoidable. If everyone who lives in North America is a racist by virtue of breathing the air then "racist" looses its moral dimension; you need to invent new language, or at least new qualifiers, to distinguish Mother Theresa from the Grand High Dragon of the KKK. Rachel's follow-up post at Alas doesn't really clarify the matter any either. Feagin's model doesn't discriminate between intentional and unintentional racism except at the institutional level. Hell, if you accept Rachel's definition of racism then the categories of "intentional" and "unintentional" are insufficient. If an "intentional racist" is someone like Hitler, and an "unintentional racist" is someone who doesn't know any better, than what label do you apply to people to people like Jesse Jackson? You need to introduce at least one more category, "passive racist", to cover people who don't engage in racist behavior except at the indirect institutional level. Presumably this would cover people like MLK who are/were actively anti-racist, but still participated in racist institutions by virtue of their membership in America society. Do you see how crazy this is? Listen to this statement for a second: "MLK was a passive racist". Juxtaposing those words should cause a rupture in spacetime; they just have no bearing on reality. When you've broadened your definition of racism that far its become a totally useless word and needs to be discarded.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Your Government At Work

Via Pharyngula we find yet another example of using the wellfare of hypothetical children to ban something they don't like. How on God's green earth can Maine's Bureau of Liquor Enforcement possibly justify something this inane. Like kids are really going to be attracted to a caricature of Santa... and what the fuck are they doing in a speciality beer shop anyway, cause I know they don't carry this at your corner store? On the upside, though, someone finally had an excuse to say "Watch why a civil liberties group is fighting to protect Santa's Butt".

Normative Assertions and Analytic Frameworks

I've recently started working my way through the second edition of Economic Analysis, Moral Philosophy, and Public Policy. So far its very good, especially for a book with such a dry-sounding title. Messrs. Hausman and McPherson are correct in asserting that economics is not a bloodless, amoral practice, but I believe that they're making stronger arguments about its inherent normativity than are actually warranted. In particular, they seem to be blurring the distinction between making a positive normative assertion and merely describing behavior. This tendency is most clearly demonstrated in their discussion of Lawrence Summers' 1992 memo to his colleagues at the world bank (p.14):
2. Summers assumes that there is a single framework for economic evaluation, which he takes for granted. He never states it explicitly, and he never argues for it. Though he wouldn't put things this way, Summers is relying on an ethical foundation that he believes his readers share.
I disagree with their assertion that in choosing to analyze a problem using a particular framework Summers is inherently relying on an ethical foundation of sort. In order to talk intelligibly about the problem he must choose some framework; ethical preference could certainly enter into this process, but its not apparent that it necessarily does. By way of analogy let's consider the plight of the theoretical physicist. In describing a particular physics problem ey1 can choose to use Newtonian mechanics or some post-Newtonian framework. The choice of which framework to use is based upon the suitability the framework to the problem being solved; you use Newtonian mechanics to study billiard balls and relativistic mechanics to study tiny things moving very fast. Does the physicist introduce ethical framework in choosing to use one or the other? I would think not. This critique can be extended to their discussion of rational choice. They maintain that the very notion of rationality is inherently normative and that, by assuming that agents behave rationally, economists are making a normative assertion. But can't it also be argued that economists are merely trying to model "behavior in the wild"? Rather than asserting an ought they are just describing an is; whether this description is accurate or not is beside the point. Economists are not saying that people should behave rationally but rather that people generally do behave rationally. Again, ethics can be implicated in choosing to use an economic framework which assumes rational agents, but this is not necessarily so.
1 I recently became aware of Spivak pronouns; I think they're an elegant solution to the problem and intend to do my part to promulgate their use.
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