Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Greetings From Kuwait

My job has taken me across the ocean to Kuwait, a brief stop on the way to Camp Slayer, Iraq. I'm only going to be here for a few hours, so I'm not going to be able to make any sort of piercing, insightful observations. I'll make some cursory, superficial ones instead.

I grew up in Southern California, so the LA basin serves as my point of reference for what a city should look like from the air. Kuwait city is not much like LA; its a quite discreet lump in the middle of the desert; there's nothing around for miles and miles, just flat stretches of sand and scrub. Even within the city's boundaries things don't seem very dense; there's large pockets (oil fields mayhap) that aren't lit up at all in the evening.

Things here seem to be very Westernized. According to my host there's such a diversity of cultures and nationalities commingling here that everyone speaks English to communicate. And you can't escape the restaurant chains; there's a Ruby Tuesday somewhere nearby, and the apartment where I'm currently holed up has fliers for Papa John's. Yeah, that's right, Papa John's. There was at least one section of road that wouldn't have looked out of place in Irvine, CA, right down to the palm trees and apartment buildings.

Like I said, shallow observations, but I'm not going to be here for very long. Hopefully I'll have something more substantive to say once I "head North" as they seem to refer to Iraq around here.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

False Equivalency At The New York Times

The lead article in this week's NYT Magazine is a sterling example of the emerging narrative for the 2008 Presidential race. You see, there's all these "fundamentalists" on both sides of the divide, left and right, who run around spewing their bile and preventing reasonable people from having reasonable discussions about what policies are reasonable. Therefore its a good thing that the front-running Democrats are touting their religious credentials while the favored Republicans aren't playing them up, as this will smooth things out and make them run reasonably.

First, this is a ludicrous hypothesis. The burning issues which the NYT cites (abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research) are still going to be burning issues; just because the Democratic candidates have chosen to dress themselves in the mantle of religion doesn't mean they're necessarily going to give up on progressive causes. Similarly, just because John McCain is downplaying the whole religion thing doesn't mean he's going to all of a sudden become pro-choice.

But wait, it gets better. So who are these crazy fundamentalists? Well, on the right we've got the usual suspects: Dobson, Fallwell, Robertson... no big surprises there. But then who, pray tell, are the "dogmatists of the secular left"?

Richard Rorty.

Yes, that's right, Richard Rorty.

Uh-huh... a man with less exposure than Ward Churchill, whom most of the public have probably never even heard of, is the NYT's leading example. Why did they single him out?

Looking to fend off Bible-toting conservatives, the philosopher Richard Rorty argued more than a decade ago that in a modern democracy, faith should be a strictly private matter and has no place in public discussion. Traditional religion, he wrote, is a “conversation stopper,” a source of values before which nonbelievers can be only mum. The same rigid divide informs a recent manifesto “in defense of science and secularism” signed by such academic luminaries as Daniel C. Dennett, Steven Pinker, Peter Singer and Edward O. Wilson. They urge the country’s political leaders “not to permit legislation or executive action to be influenced by religious beliefs.”
Yes, anyone who has the temerity to point out that you can't argue with religious justifications for behavior is a wild-eyed, ranting lunatic who can't be trusted. The same goes for anyone else who wants government to govern with reference to tangible reality.

I'd rant more, but I have a plane to catch.

Read This

(Via SCOTUSblog) The U.S. Court of Appeals has tossed out a bunch of pending habeus petitions from various people being held at Guantanamo Bay. Marty Lederman at Balkinization has digested the ruling so that us non-legal types don't have to, presenting a concise summary of the issues at hand. The ruling looks like all sorts of badness, but at least Mr. Lederman postulates that it won't hold up under review by the Supreme Court.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Tough Sell

I laud this approach in principle:

Instead, us progressive atheists should be engaging in that faith-based discussion more vigorously, laying out our belief systems and helping make voters comfortable with our viewpoint as part of the menu of "religious" options, not in order to convert them but just to integrate it into the terrain of debate that people are more familiar with.
but I think that secular value systems are so fundamentally different from their theistic counterparts that its going to take more than just a simple "laying out" of their tenets to convince people that atheists don't eat puppies.

The general mass of humanity, and this is true not just here in the US but across the world as well, has been conditioned for generations to accept "because God says so" as the ultimate legitimizer of behavior. Before we begin getting into the specifics of secular value systems we must first convince them that "because humanity says so" is an equally good basis for organizing society. I've touched on this topic before here and here, highlighting the relatively simple metaphysics of theistic systems as opposed to the somewhat slippery and difficult mental gymnastics needed to justify such systems from a secular, materialistic perspective.

What has happened, and what will continue to happen, is that the public is going to ask "why?" and (honest) atheists will respond with contingent answers. The masses don't like contingency, which is one of the reasons why organized religion is so popular in the first place. My fear is that, in order make secular views more palatable, secularists will have sugar-coat them in some fashion, concealing the essential arbitrariness that is their foundation. Though I suppose its better than nothing, it still makes me cringe to think about people making vague, hand-wavey references to "community" or "humanity" or "society" or any of the other phrases that commonly serve as stand-ins for theistic certainty.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

"The Secret", Intention, and Manifestation

(Via PZ) This is one of the reasons that I try to do this whole blogging thing at least semi-anonymously: I've got a pair of very good friends who completely buy into The Secret. They are successful, college-educated folks, but somehow this book/film/made for TV movie/whatever has managed to totally bypass the otherwise active critical thinking centers in their brains. I think I understand why this happens though; The Secret relys upon a logical leap that's subtle enough that even usually sane people can fail to notice that they've made it.

I first noticed this prior to The Secret becoming the big thing that it is today. I was watching What The Bleep Do We Know?, which starts out interestingly enough, but then veers off into la-la land. Said veering takes place during a segment dealing with intention and the self-imposed obstacles that people face in everyday life. They noted, rightly enough, that intention is a necessary precondition to action, and then go on to say that if you focus your intentions good things will happen to you.

Did you catch the leap? Points for you if you did. The problem is that intention, by itself, is not sufficient to make things happen. That's the fallacy that these people are peddling, that by merely wishing for something hard enough you will cause it to manifest itself.

Let me put it to you this way: In order to write The Great American Novel one must first have the intention to write a novel. Lot's of people have intentions... they're going to go back to school, they're going to start going to the gym more, etc. But they never do... the biggest failing of the human creature is not the lack of intention, but the inability to transform intention into action. I'm starting to sound like Tony Robbins, even to myself, so let me be a little bit more concrete. Once you've decided to write The Great American Novel you've got to get off of your ass and actually start writing... that's the part that so many people have trouble with.

This new crop of books and whatnot gloss over that fact. Maybe some people really have made changes to their lives after reading The Secret, but I guarentee you that those changes had nothing mystical about them. Its quite possible that the book motivated these people to actually get off their asses and transform intention into action, but one need not invoke dialogue with the Universe to explain that.

Mock The Ethicist: 2/18/2007

In these trying times its good to know that we have Randy Cohen to help us keep up with the complexities of modern life. Without his inspiring guidance how would we know how to deal with vexing questions such as these:

My company reimburses me for my parking garage. I found a two-car garage for $300 a month. I bill my company $150 for my half and sublease the other half for $225. I think this is fair, but my mother disagrees, believing that I should charge only my net cost, $75 a month. You? — name withheld, Queens

For the love of all that is holy, who cares what you mother thinks? And Randy, why the hell are you running these softballs? Here, I've got one for you:

Dear Abby Randy - Is it ethical for me to let the toilet paper hang down the front, or does good taste dictate that it hang from the back? How about the toilet seat... up or down, what do you think? -- Confused

He get's paid for this shit? Hey, NYT, sign me up. I can write a crappy pseudo-ethics column too. Moving on...

The next question from this week's edition isn't quite as banal, but is still more suited for a "Job Advice" column at

I resigned from a company where I worked for 15 years. In that time, I received many letters of commendation from clients and co-workers, some addressed to me and others to my boss. May I present these to prospective employers, or would this violate my previous employer’s privacy? — David Nieves, New York City

So how does The Great Pontificator answer?

Showing these notes to other people would not harm your boss, an essential ethical concern.

Now I can see why the NYT gives him a paycheck: never before have I met a man more capable of inducing head-asplody syndrome. Randy may have single-handly done more to dumb down discoure on ethics than anyone else on the face of the planet. Here's a hint: putting the word "ethical" into your answer doesn't mean you've provided an ethical answer. At least he has the good sense to ask a specialist to back him up on this one, albeit a legal specialist, and this time he doesn't ignore the specialist's answer.

Of course, he does spend half of his answer (that's right, 1 of 2 paragraphs) in a totally asinine comment about North Korea. But hey, even his lame jokes are enlightening, right?

Finally, after the reader has slogged through two boring questions and Randy's utterly predictable responses, ey are treated to a little ray of light breaking through the clouds:

My fiancé gave me a conflict-free African diamond engagement ring. Initially, I wanted a Canadian diamond, but Amnesty International and Nelson Mandela advocate supporting the conflict-free African diamond trade. Now I am debating if we should support the diamond industry at all and instead just go for a band. What is the most ethical thing a newly engaged gal can do? — Erin MclaChlan, Brooklyn

Oh joy! Rapture! There's so many interesting ways he could go with this discussion. For starters he could talk about the imperfect nature of the Kimberley Process, the regulatory framework for certifying "conflict-free diamonds". Regardless of what Amnesty International and Nelson Mandela say it may still be better to buy Canadian diamonds.

Or he could get really meta (and really controversial) by questioning the custom of engagement rings altogether. Why have only women traditionally worn wedding rings? Why do some women feel safer if they're wearing one? Does it make economic sense to saddle the marriage with $4k of engagement ring debt?

All of the above are well within the bounds of legitimate ethical discussion. So what does Mr. Cohen have to say? Drumroll please...

Use the money on a donation to Amnesty International or another worthy organization working to alleviate suffering in Africa.

<gasp> Randy! Why... why... it almost sounds like you have some insight into the question for once. Oh... wait... sorry folks, he's just kidding:

But ethics doesn’t demand saintliness, just ordinary decency. (I don’t condemn your using electricity, although power plants pollute the atmosphere.) In making this decision, you should honor any organized boycott, any meaningful effort at reform. And you might be reasonably guided by respected and sophisticated people and organizations, like Mandela and Amnesty International, which have devoted much thought to a complicated subject.

Ethics blueballs, anyone? OK, let's count the fallacies in that answer:

  1. Ethics doesn't demand saintliness, just ordinary decency: Well, maybe your brand of middle-of-the-road, Manhattan-situational ethics doesn't. But really, if the bar is that low then hasn't the couple already done their dillegence by paying their taxes and buying a diamond at a wholesome, socially-legitimate jewlery store? Why bother getting into all this theoretical discussion of "human rights" and "child slavery"?
  2. In making this decision, you should honor any organized boycott, any meaningful effort at reform: And just how, without your divinely inspired guidance, are they to determine which people are making a "meaningful effort"?
  3. And you might be reasonably guided by respected and sophisticated people and organizations, like Mandela and Amnesty International, which have devoted much thought to a complicated subject: Appeal to authority much? Hey, wait a minute... Randy, aren't you getting paid to devote thought to complicated subjects?

<sigh> Tune in next week when, once again, Randy will leave us all hanging...

Saturday, February 17, 2007

I ♥ Penny Arcade

In Defense of Michelle Malkin

Never thought I'd write a post with that title, and yet here I am doing so. Certain parties who should know better (I'm looking at you, Atrios, and you, digby) are engaging in egregious quote-mining, demonstrating that people on the left are just as prone to knee-jerk reactions as people on the right. Even Think Progress, which is usually a "just the facts, m'am" kind of place, is getting in on the act.

Yes, folks, she did say she's skeptical of anything that has 'Bill of Rights' tacked on to it. But come on, she's making these statements in the context of the Airline Passengers Bill of Rights. I, too, am skeptical of this sort of thing. Just look at some other examples:

What does this demonstrate? That couching something as a "Bill of Rights" is a common rhetorical device. And what do we know about rhetorical devices, boys and girls? That's right! They're commonly used to short-circuit the process of critical evaluation. So what should we do when we find a rhetorical device? All together now... be skeptical. Very good class...

Maintaing that Michelle Malkin is somehow taking a dig at the Constitution and/or The Bill of Rights is totally unsupportable... this time. I swear, the more I read the major bloggers the more I realize that they're not that much better than Rush Limbaugh. There's no reflection going on at all, they just pick a target and hammer away. Knock it off already... jesus.

Gag Me With A MitochondriaMitochondrion

Talk about missing the point. DarkSyde blathers on and on about mitochondria over at Daily Kos, then quotes Dr. King regarding people being judged by the content of their character. Time to bust out the cluestick.

Dear Darksyde -

Your article represents exactly the mentality that Dr. King spent his life fighting against. To maintain that people should respect each other because of their shared DNA is a direct repudiation of Dr. King's desire that people be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.


P.S. Black History Month is a sham too.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Nihilism Via Culinary Anthropology

I just finished The Gospel of Food by Barry Glassner, a book which is definitely a worthwhile read for people interesting in thinking about food. It's certainly not the first book dedicated to overturning food myths; Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma being one of its most recent predecessors. However, Gospel is unique in that it ventures beyond the usual exposés to talk about cultural food myths as well. As a whole the book is well-reasoned, but I have a couple bones to pick regarding specific topics.

First I'd like to comment on a couple of aspects of the discussion of "authenticity" and the search for "authentic" food experiences. Let me preface this item by saying that that section of the book asks the appropriate questions regarding the construction of "authentic" food and food experiences. That being said, I don't think he gives enough credit to Chowhound. His analysis of Chowhound amounts to "why trust a bunch of random dopes when there's educated food critics you can turn to instead?". This is true, up to a point, but I'll counter by saying that there are a lot more random dopes that there are trained food critics, which means that they can cover a whole lot more ground.

Case in point: I was in Orange County, CA, not so long ago when I developed a craving for katsudon. I was able to search the posts at Chowhound and find Goro which, as advertised, was quite good. I'm not sure that's there's a way to solicit the collective wisdom of the anointed critics regarding such a specific topic as "where can I get katsudon near John Wayne?". So Chowhound definitely has its place.

Regarding the authenticity of particular restaurants, Mr. Glassner seems dubious of the idea that there's such a thing as "more authentic" and "less authentic". Again, I'll offer an example by way of illustration. When I was in college I frequently ate at a Thai place called Sanam Luang which, on reflection, I feel was quite authentic for at least some definition of the word. In writing this I tried to figure out whether I was just being nostalgic or whether there really was something substantively different about the restaurant. I think that it has to do, in some measure, with the breadth of the menu.

Mr. Glassner is right in noting that Americans have expectations regarding Thai restaurants; you have to look hard to find a Thai restaurant that doesn't serve pad thai and satay. At the same time, however, the "standard Thai menu" only represents a small sampling of the breadth of Thai cuisine. I'm always happy when I find a Thai place that serves larb and, though I know that they're out there somewhere, I've yet to dine at a Thai restaurant besides Sanam Luang that serves kanom pak kard. For those of you who haven't had that last dish before, its sort of like radish french fries with bean sprouts and egg. Sounds odd, but its really quite tasty.

So it seems to me that the notion of "authenticity" does have some objective basis. A restaurant which accurately portrays the range of a given cuisine can be said to be more authentic than a restaurant which presents only a handful of well-known dishes. I feel well-grounded in saying that an Italian restaurant is less authentic if it only serves variations of past with red sauce and cheese. Conversely, if a Spanish restaurant serves oxtail stew I'm going to call it more authentic.

Unfortunately, though I really wished he would at least mention the topic, he didn't talk at all about food and ennui. Culinary adventurers looking for the most authentic dishes they can find are driven by more than a desire to amaze their friends and amass cultural capital. Ultimately they're turning to food as one of the last great distractions.

I wrote a paper on this a long time ago for a food class I was taking, spurred on in part by the rise of El Bulli and its ilk. Casual sex is out, drugs are out, ecstatic religion is, to a large extent, out. The pursuit of exotic foodstuffs remains one of the few socially-sanctioned ways to obtain new sensual experiences. Its why people will pay $250 to eat lard-covered cherries, hoping as they do that they'll encounter some sensation that they haven't experience before. They're the modern day equivalent of Heliogabalus, eating peacocks' tongues and flamingos' brains for the sheer thrill of doing something new.

Lastly, and this is less of a criticism and more of an observation, Mr. Glassner makes very few positive statements throughout the course of the book. I expected him to end on some sort of vanilla summary note, something akin to Michael Pollan's "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.", but he declines to do even that. I approve of the relentless questioning, the constant debunking and tearing down of myths surrounding food, but what does it mean that Mr. Glassner chooses to erect no structure, no matter how modest, in their place?

I think that, perhaps, Mr. Glassner walked to the very edge of the abyss, peered over, and then decided that it was best not to mention what he'd seen therein. The discussions of nutrition and authenticity both come perilously close to outright nihilism. With the respect to the question of what constitutes an appropriate diet he essentially says that the problem is too hard and, even if we could solve it from a factual standpoint, would that really mean anything? He then questions the very notion of authenticity, revealing a gaping chasm where minutes before there was presumably firm ground. The whole book, from the subtitle ("Everything you think you know about food is wrong") onwards feels like he's trying to bring himself to come out and say "we don't know shit, go have another pint of ice cream if it makes you feel good". He just doesn't quite get there.

Internet Down... Must... Amuse... Self

This just goes to show that I was destined to be a monk or something and not an engineer. Slashdot has a post up asking "How Would You Deal With A Global Bandwidth Crisis?". You wanna know how I would deal with it? Probably by cracking open a nice bottle of Baco Noir, that's how.

Really, there are very few reasons that I absolutely must use the Internet, and most of those are work related. I'd probably miss the convenience of planning travel online, and I'd have to bank somewhere besides ING, but that's about the extent of it. Crap, I'm not quite 30 and I remember the days before email and cell phones. We only had wood-burning modems back then, and yet somehow we managed to find things to occupy ourselves.

I dunno... maybe its just because I'm an ops guy. I've had soooo many jobs where I had to get out of bed at 2 in the morning in response to my goddam Blackberry going off. Even now that I'm no longer in ops I still have to check my email regularly as a requirement of my job. As unreasonable as it is people expect to be able to reach me in a timely fashion through email. I kind of like the idea of the Internet becoming less pervasive, if only because it would mean I'd get part of my life back.

As usual, the commenters at Slashdot don't bother to address the question, which is why I set my threshold to "6".

Friday Random Ten: On Friday For Once Edition

  1. Breakthrough - Modest Mouse
  2. Time And Time Again - Counting Crows
  3. Lithium - Nirvana
  4. Ode to My Family - The Cranberries
  5. Walking After You - Foo Fighters
  6. Fucking With My Head (Mountain Dew Rock) - Beck
  7. Lies - Stabbing Westward
  8. Soul Suckin' Jerk - Beck
  9. Another Drinkin' Song - The Mighty Might Bosstones
Nothing to see here folks... move along.

My $0.02 On The Whole Amanda Marcotte Thing

This is the kind of shit that makes me want to run off into the woods somewhere and never come back. You know why? 'Cause it proves that we're not making any progress. Not one... single... iota... of progress.

You can sit, day after day after day, and watch people reprise roles that are thousands of years old:

You're a blasphemer, and you look funny too.

No I'm not and no I don't.

See, you just did it again!


All we need is some Pharisees running around and it'll be like nothing ever changed.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Mock The Ethicist: 2/11/2007

Mr. Cohen manages not to embarrass himself too much this week, though as usual he pads his conclusions with a mountain of unnecessary verbiage. This weeks questions:

  1. Should a translator translate documents which he knew were fraudulently obtained?
  2. Should someone do the right thing when the rest of their peers are behaving unethically?

Mr. Cohen answers "no" and "yes", respectively, so I can't really fault him for his answers. The second question is actually simple enough that his answer suffices, but with respect to the first question he asserts the answer without actually justifying himself.

Why should a translator decline to translate under the conditions described in the first question? Mr. Cohen doesn't really delve into that question, choosing to assert that the fact that the documents are stolen is sufficient to proscribe the translation. While I happen to agree with this assessment, I believe that a more thorough discussion is in order.

The cuckold has the diary pages, but in their untranslated condition they're pretty much useless to him; he needs access to their semantic content. The translator's act of translation provides this semantic content. The translator is then morally culpable if the following conditions hold:

  1. The cuckold's wife has an expectation of privacy with respect to her diary.
  2. The translator should respect this privacy right in this situation.

Item 1 seems reasonable after due consideration. Belief in the autonomy of the individual suggests that no person should be compelled to divulge their private thoughts. While I might question the wisdom of committing these private thoughts to paper, I don't believe that doing so implicitly waives this right. Neither does the woman's marital status; in Western marriage we generally discourage the keeping of secrets within the marriage, but we still assert the individual autonomy of husband and wife.

In this case the wife has an expectation of privacy with respect to both the physical diary and its semantic content. Usually those two things are indivisible, but they've become decoupled in this case because the diary is written in a language which the husband can't understand. The husband has violated his wife's privacy to some degree by making copies of the diary pages, but a further violation will be committed by the translator if he makes the semantic content available to the husband. I can see no reason why the translator shouldn't respect the wife's right to privacy in this situation, ergo he should not translate.

Friday Random Ten: Monday Edition

Sorry for the delay, I know you've all been waiting breathlessly for my next pronouncement, but I was bedding-and-breakfasting this weekend. Without further ado:

  1. Man Of The Hour - Peal Jam
  2. Out Of Control - The Chemical Brothers
  3. Summertime Rolls - Jane's Addiction
  4. Prelude 12/21 - AFI
  5. Letter Never Sent - REM
  6. Jana - Killing Joke
  7. The Angels (Assassin Mix) - Christian Death
  8. Idle Flow - Peter Murphy
  9. London Calling - The Clash
  10. Unmarked Helicopters - Soul Coughing

Some real good ones this week. Out Of Control has always been high on my list of non-suck techno, and Unmarked Helicopters is a really fantastic piece that I believe was originally released on Songs In The Key Of X, though I have a copy by way of Lust In Phaze.

Then there's some random selections. This is week 2 of 2 that something off of the Goth Box has shown up (item 7). Then there's Idle Flow... I really like the stuff off of Wild Birds, so I picked up Unshattered thinking I'd probably like it as well. Turns out that Mr. Murphy decided to try a little experiment with Unshattered and repackage himself as some sort of goth Barry Manilow or something. Most of the tracks on the album are unredeemably silly ballads... bleh.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Another Reason It Might Be Pragmatism

I wrote earlier about my skepticism regarding Mr. Steve Smith's thesis that law professionals practice law in a certain way because they're carrying around relics of theistic system of legal metaphysics. Last night I saw one of the trailers USA is currently running for Psyche, the one where what's-his-face is citing "unfair surprisery", which got me thinking about lay law practice. Could the complicated practice of law be a result of legal professionals artificially raising the bar for legal practice.

Think about it: if the practice of a particular profession is complicated it tends to reduce the number of people who go into that profession. Those who are able to master the minutia of the profession are generally more successful relative to their less masterful peers. This is certainly true in my field, IT, where your paycheck is generally proportional to you depth and breadth of experience. What if the practice of law no longer involved the mastery of precedent and legal minutia? What effect would that have?

Well, it would almost certainly open the field to more practitioners. If a case could be won through rhetoric, logic, and reference to general principles it would all-of-a-sudden be possible for a much larger set of individuals to argue successfully in court. Presumably this would reduce the demand for lawyers, perhaps most especially among the well-educated (and affluent), which would reduce the fees that lawyers could command.

It makes sense; the reason that legal professionals make bankety-bank is because the practice of law is complicated. But who controls the form that practice takes? Those same legal professionals. This represents a conflict of interest, but what makes this conflict especially pernicious is that the legal profession is largely unconstrained by external realities. Unlike an architect or a doctor, whose professions are moored to reality by to objects of their practice (buildings and people, respectively), the objects of the legal profession are other legal creations such as statues, precedents, etc.

The above has a lot of explanatory power, more so even than I originally thought when I started this post. I'm really surprised that Mr. Smith didn't even broach the issue. Again, this doesn't necessarily indicate that legal folk are unethical; they could all be doing this unconsciously or from a desire to maintain "professionalism" within the discipline. Still, it seems more plausible than theories about ontological baggage.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

... And I Didn't Enjoy It Either.

Mark Haggard has been pronounced 'notgay'. Apparently it doesn't count if it was just with this one guy and only a couple times.

Rhetorical Ju-Jitsu

(via Daily Kos) This kind of thing makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Some gay rights activists, under the delightful moniker "Washington Defense of Marriage Alliance", are trying to pass legislation limiting marriage to people who can (and intend to) have children.

My only complaint is that they're being insufficiently devious about it. Right there, on their home page, they admit that this is a ploy to gain rights for gay and lesbian couples. They really have no intention of actually trying to get I-957 on the ballot, much less enacted; it looks like they're treating this as a form of legal performance art. I've no problem with that, but for the most part I think the people who are going to notice their protest are already sympathetic to their cause.

What they really need to do is go all out and try to actually get this law enacted. Find some nice heterosexual couples with children and make some commercials with them about how I-957 is necessary to protect marriage and finish the work that the Washington Supreme Court started in Andersen v. King County. They need to stop and ask themselves how they'd push this through if they actually believed what they were saying.

The initiative doesn't even need to win; it just needs to get on the ballot in order to bring the issue to public attention. I just think its highly doubtful that they'll get enough signatures using their "truth in advertising" approach.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Pragmatism Can Explain Alot

While I'm on the subject, maybe Mr. Smith doesn't make enough allowance for the power of pragmatic concerns. The position that he takes in the final couple of chapters of Law's Quandry is that lawyers and judges behave the way they do, focusing on precedent and procedure and the like, because they're still carrying around some of the meta-physical baggage of the pre-Holmesian era. I mean no disrespect to Mr. Smith, but I think he may be suffering from a failure of imagination.

Let's perform a thought experiment, shall we? Suppose that you're a young lawyer and that, during a dream, Mr. Smith appears to you and reveals the nihility that is the metaphysical foundation of your practice. Empowered and emboldened you charge into your next case arguing Mr. Smith's position. How far are you likely to get? Not very, because those aren't the rules of the game.

Mr. Smith never stops to consider whether lawyers and judges behave the way they do because that's the way they've always done things. They may be very consciously aware that they're playing an elaborate game, but feel that they have little choice in the matter. If they want to be an effective lawyer or a respected judge they have certain forms that they are obliged to follow; it simply isn't within the power of a single individual to make the kind of radical break that Mr. Smith is suggesting.

Nor does Mr. Smith ever thing about the issue of self-preservation. What would be the public reaction if judges and lawyers in the US were to suddenly declare en masse that they've been peddling a load of snake oil? More importantly, how many of them would themselves want to face the fact that they'd been basically making shit up?

In a nutshell, one need not posit excess metaphysical baggage when a simpler explanation is that people want to keep their jobs.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Founders and the Metaphysics of Law

Claims about the Constitution being based on the Ten Commandments are ill-founded at best; more nebulous claims about the Founders wanting to create a "Christian Nation" can be rebutted as well. But did Christianity, or at least some form of theism, sneak in the back door by way of the metaphysics of law?

I recently read Law's Quandry by Steven D. Smith, which makes it seem like it might have. Mr. Smith argues quite compellingly that, prior to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., "God" was seen as the ultimate basis of the law. Barristers and judges weren't "making" law, but were believed to have been revealing a law that had an a priori independent existence. Provided that's true, can it then be said that the whole of US law at the time of The Founding, the Constitution included, ultimately had a theistic base? That would seem to be the case, but what that actually means in practice is still unclear.

How would this metaphysical commitment manifest itself? One would assume that any given Founder, in drafting a law, would seek to conform that law to their understanding of the eternal and immutable law whence it draws its authority. Immediately, however, you run up against some contradictions which this theory can't explain. For example, many of the Founding Fathers were deists of one stripe or another and believed that there was a supreme being which ought to be worshiped. Presumably the "ought to be worshiped" represents part of transcendent law which Mr. Smith claims that they recognized. And yet they drafted a constitution which explicitly denies the government the right to establish a state religion.

What to make of this? Some possible interpretations present themselves. The Founders:

  1. Were putting on a show; they didn't really believe in God in any meaningful sense.
  2. Did believe in God, but didn't believe that ey "ought to be worshiped".
  3. Believed in God, believed that ey ought to be worshiped, but also believed that ey permitted freedom of conscience.
  4. Did not regard divine law as the ultimate or sole source of terrestrial law.

Item 1 seems to be counterfactual; there's no good evidence to support the belief that any of the Founders were atheists in the modern sense. Hypothesis 2 may have a little traction; its not inconceivable that at least some of the Founder's practiced formal religion for appearance's sake. But to believe that all (or even a majority) of the signatories to the Constitution did so stretches credulity. Number 3 is right out, see the 1st Commandment.

By process of elimination this leaves our last hypothesis. Its easy to envision the deists among the Founders as buying into this idea, but what about the orthodox Christians? They signed on to The Constitution as well... what were they thinking? They may have agreed with the idea as well; there's certainly Biblical precedent for it. The alternative is to assume that they contravened the will of God for no discernible reason and with no benefit to themselves.

In the end it seems reasonable to believe that, on some level, the Founders were aware that they were making law, not just revealing it. Maybe they did so pragmatically and without reflecting on the nature of what they did, but its nevertheless clear that they created laws which could not be justified by recourse to their conceptions of God.

A "Radical Misogynist" Puts In His Two Cents

One needn't be a radical misogynist to object to the actions of Texas Governor Perry. I could swear that I've written about this before, but if I have I can't find the post. So I'll argue this one de novo.

Simply put, there's no reason to make access to public schools contingent on HPV vaccination. Unlike whooping cough or polio, HPV isn't transmissible through casual contact; an individual with HPV on school grounds does not represent a threat to the health of others. Consequently, the rationale to support compulsory vaccination simply doesn't exist.

All of this, of course, rests on the assumption that the criteria for school attendance must be germane to the actual activity of attending school. But I'm glad that some people take the opposite view, because it reveals them to be the communist stoodges jackbooted fascist ass clowns terrorist sympathizers they really are.


Contrary to what some people claim, the types of HPV which lead to cervical cancer are only transmitted sexually. You don't get them from a frickin' swimming pool or standing in the shower.

Its Like Handing A Child A Loaded Shotgun

Michael Pollan should watch what he's saying; people could interpret it the wrong way:

You would not have read this far into this article if your food culture were intact and healthy; you would simply eat the way your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents taught you to eat.
Don't eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.
and most especially
Eat more like the French. Or the Japanese. Or the Italians. Or the Greeks. Confounding factors aside, people who eat according to the rules of a traditional food culture are generally healthier than we are. Any traditional diet will do; if it weren't a healthy diet, the people who follow it wouldn't still be around.
I really wonder if Mr. Pollan understands what he's saying?

For starters, he claims to be trying to demystify nutrition by approaching it in a more holistic fashion, but his advice to the masses is bewilderingly self-contradictory. My great-great-grandmothers were either German or Scots-Irish, born and raised at a time when neither culture sported a profusion of vegetables. How am I to reconcile this dictum with his directive to "Eat mostly plants, especially leaves"? Plants, especially leaves, were not necessarily regarded as suitable foodstuffs for human beings.

He also recommends that you should

Eat like an omnivore. Try to add new species, not just new foods, to your diet.
Apart from the fact that my great-great-grandmother wouldn't what to make of a bitter melon or a dragon fruit, much less prepare one, it doesn't seem like you can be omnivorous and still eat a "traditional" diet. Mr. Pollan's recommendations lack internal consistency, serving to confuse rather than clarify the issue.

Some of his reasoning is questionable (or just plain wrong) as well. He promulgates the idea that populations have synergistically co-adapted with their traditional foodstuffs at a genetic level, but he appears to credit that adaptation with more importance than is necessarily warranted. And his quote above regarding the diets of traditional societies (they must be healthy, otherwise the society would have died out) shows an ignorance of the mechanisms of natural selection. The fact that these societies are still around only proves that their traditional diet is sufficient to sustain the reproduction of the next generation; it doesn't say anything about health outcomes past child-bearing age. But what's really going to get people pissed at him is yet to come.

Mr. Pollan begins the article with the following recommendations:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
These are fine recommendations, but not enough by themselves to sustain a whole article. Over the course of the article he then goes on to develop a theory of food which elevates the status of traditional cuisines, culminating in the following:
The culture of the kitchen, as embodied in those enduring traditions we call cuisines, contains more wisdom about diet and health than you are apt to find in any nutrition journal or journalism.
Even if the above is true, just think about its implications. All of you foodies who have Mexican one night, Japanese the next, and then round out the week with a little Indian... you're eating yourself to death. You have to pick a traditional cuisine and stick with it; be grateful that Michael, in his generosity, allows you to pick which one.

This is really quite funny. The author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, an admitted foodie, is calling for an end to "foodieism". Make no mistake about it; the contemporary eating patterns of gourmets around the world are anything but traditional. And its not just because they eat out a lot; you need merely to look at the profusion of cookbooks at Williams-Sonoma to know that they're engaging in forbidden, multi-cuisine cooking in their homes as well.

Michael's problem is that he's taken an sensible idea and gone off on a tangent. Telling people to eat whole foods, to eat lots of vegetables, to cook things themselves, and not eat too much; these are all good ideas. But the unsupported apotheosis of traditional cuisines leads to rules about eating which have no bearing on actual health. I don't want to eat like my great-great-grandmothers; they had shorter life expectancies and overcooked their meat.

Mock The Ethicist: "Why Bother Talking About Ethics?" Edition

The Ethicist seems to have two firm rules:

  1. Try not to talk about ethics.
  2. If you must talk about ethics, try not to actually talk about ethics.
Witness this week's column:

A parent writes in, asking if a particular baby-sitting pay scheme it taking advantage of eir teenager. It might, if you stretched, be possible to wring some ethical discussion out of this question by examining the power dynamic between the teenager and the person hiring her, but Randy declines to go even that far, stating that "while it can be tough for even an older teenager to negotiate with adults, your daughter can decline the job if she dislikes the terms". So, while this particular question didn't really raise any ethical issues to being with, Randy still does his best to make sure that any actual talk about ethics is firmly quashed.

A wife writes in, wanting to know whether its ethical for a school to refuse to hire her husband because he has a beard. This could be a truly interesting discussion, raising as it does the conflicting issues of employees' personal autonomy and employers' interest in the appearance of their employees. So what does Mr. Cohen do? Assert something and move on, thus avoiding any actual discussion:

While the principal behaved legally, she acted unethically and unprofessionally by basing a hiring decision on your husband’s facial foliage (if that is actually what she did).
Ummm... hello... a little help here? Maybe Randy is such an ethical genius that he intuitively understands these things, but would it hurt him to explain that statement to the us mere mortals? 'Cause it ain't self-evident to me that she behaved unethically, much less unprofessionally. What if her school's dress code states that men shouldn't wear beards? Isn't it her professional duty to abide by the dress code in making hiring decisions? Maybe Randy thinks that the principle should just get another job instead... it seemed to work for the teenager.

While I'm at it I'm also going to pick on his writing style. Its full of these asinine asides:

  • she besmirched the honor of our nation’s barbers who valiantly provide the neatly trimmed beards so vital to our way of life
  • Your husband might consider resubmitting his application accompanied by a picture of Abraham Lincoln.
  • Why not add a third tier if the child throws a tantrum — baby-sitter combat pay — or a fourth for excessive exposure to Raffi, compensating a sitter who has to listen to “Baby Beluga” more than a dozen times?
Page filler... fucking page filler. If you cut out the irrelevant drivel and just focus on his actual analysis you find out in short order that there's not enough material there to justify a column.

See you next week when we'll catch more pearls of wisdom from one of America's pre-eminent philosphers.

Friday, February 02, 2007

And You Thought California Was Bad

Hot on the heels of banning trans fats, New York city now wants to ban the use of the word "nigger". Let's see if we can figure out why this is a bad idea, shall we boys and girls?

Well, how about "prior restraint"? Admittedly I'm an amature at Constitutional interpretation, but this seems to be pretty cut-and-dried. In order to categorically ban the use of the word "nigger" you'd have to demonstrate that it falls under the rubric of the fighting words doctrine i.e. the word must be of

such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from [it] is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.
My use of the word "nigger" in the context of this post demonstrates that it can be used in a fashion that forwards the search for truth.

But that's not really my strongest objection; I'm really annoyed at the culture of taboo which has grow up around the word. I mean, the people who were pushing the resolution couldn't even bring themselves to say it, dancing around the issue by saying "the 'n-word'". Presumably they'd argue that sometimes it must be said, but only in the presence of 12 learned elders, who must then rend their garments in despair. By declaring it "The Word Which Shall Not Be Spoken" they've done nothing but further its power.

Ultimately it is just a word, even if it is offensive. Trying to get people to eliminate is from casual conversation is probably a good thing, but the notion that any single word is so powerful that it can't ever be spoken is just ridiculous.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Friday Random Ten: Busy Tomorrow Edition

  1. Freedom - Richie Havens
  2. What If We Give It Away? - REM
  3. Man Research (Clapper) - Gorillaz
  4. Shiver and Shake - The Cure
  5. Sugar Free Jazz - Soul Coughing
  6. Blister In The Sun - Violent Femmes
  7. After Dark - Seraphim Shock
  8. Your Savior - Temple Of The Dog
  9. Posthuman - Marilyn Manson
  10. Submission - Sex Pistols

Not much to see here, except maybe for the Seraphim Shock. That's off of Cleopatra Record's Goth Box. For some reason the stuff off those CDs seems to show up more often than their relative proportion in my collection would seem to warrant. Or maybe the goth tracks just jump out at you.

Citizens Are Advised To Be On The Lookout For Falling Sky

So the Adult Swim folks, or an advertising company hired by them, put up a bunch of these

in the environs of Boston. Chaos ensued.

Now, I recognized the characters immediately, but that's mainly because I'm an Adult Swim whore. However, I've got to wonder about the pervading mindset that caused not one, but many, people to get all panicky about them. To borrow a quote from the CNN article, they're frickin' Lite-Brites. I wasn't aware that terrorists typically tried to call attention to their IEDs... I thought the whole idea was to disguise them.

Seriously, though, what does it say about the current state of American Society that the unknown is immediately assumed to be a threat? I'm pinning this one directly on GWB... he's got the public so worried about terrorists under the bed that they're not able to think straight. Shit...

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