Monday, September 24, 2007

The Theists Are Right For Once (Sort Of)

Let me be abundantly clear: Behaving morally is not the same thing as having a coherent moral system. PZ seems to be totally missing that point in his response to a Yale freshman; "atheists are amoral" may be a tired canard, but that's not the argument that's being put forward. Quoth the aforementioned froshling:

That's not to say that naturalists cannot behave morally, but merely that they can have no real and consistent reason for behaving morally. As this has been a long-standing and widespread objection to naturalism, it would seem only reasonable to expect atheists to devote careful attention to the question of morality.
Ey's not suggesting that atheism inevitably leads to wife-swapping and cannibalism, but rather that those atheists who lead moral lives do so without the benefit of a coherent moral system. I'll get to that argument in a second, but first I want to talk about PZ's response.

As a rebuttal to the fresh-person's argument PZ offers the following:

I was raised in a happy family, one that reinforced that conventionally 'good' behavior, and that rewarded appropriate social behavior. I lived with good role models who offered love without conditions, who taught by example rather than with fear or threats. I live now in a family and with a community of friends who do not demand obeisance to superstition in order to give respect. I am rewarded materially and emotionally for moral behavior.
Which is all well and good, but as a rational for moral behavior it hovers somewhere between 2 and 3 on the Kohlberg scale. I'm sure PZ is a much more sophisticated fellow, but for the most part his defense makes it sound like he behaves conventionally not because of strongly held beliefs, but rather because its the path of least resistance. I don't find that a particularly effective rebuttal.

Now, regarding the assertion that atheists can't have a real and consistent reason for behaving rationally: I agree that atheists need to spend more time considering the question, because atheistic systems of morality seem to be a pretty slippery subject. But, as I've said before, I do believe its possible for atheists to have self-consistent belief systems, its just not possible for them to justify preferring one system over another.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Interleaving Text in TEX

I wanted to be able to take an untranslated paragraph and typeset it with an interleaved translation. I wasn't able to find anything after much fruitless searching, so I decided to take a stab at it myself. At first it was sufficient to use

$\stackrel{\mbox{Translated text}}{\mbox{Untranslated text}}$
But, because it uses mboxes, that construction doesn't line break, leading it to run off the edge of the page if either text exceeds one line in length.

After some monkeying around and reading The TEXbook I was able to come up with a solution which interleaves the translated and untranslated text, one line at a time. The final result looks pretty good if I do say so myself.

Presented in the hopes that it'll save someone else some time:

%% Macro used for displaying translated speech. Translation is arg 1, untranslated speech is arg 2.

    % Various boxes
    \newbox\current     % Temporary storage for boxes split off from translated and untranslated text
    \newbox\transrest   % Box holding translated text
    \newbox\plainrest   % Box holding untranslated text
    % Create a box holding the translated text
    % Create a box holding the untranslated text
    % Add a little space before first line of new paragraph.
    \vskip 3pt
    % Iterate, stripping single lines off of the top of both boxes, until the untranslated box is empty.
        % Is there still text in \plainrest?
        % Split off top line of translated text
        \setbox\current=\vsplit\transrest to \baselineskip
        % and dump it out.
        % Split off top line of untranslated text
        \setbox\current=\vsplit\plainrest to \baselineskip
        % and dump it out.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Enlightening Conversations With Random People

One of the shortcomings of my current situation in life is that, to a large degree, I live in a liberal echo chamber. My friends and acquaintances are mostly liberalish, so my exposure to other segments of the political landscape is mediated by the MSM. I have very little opportunity to engage in direct discussion on politics with people of a more conservative bent.

So I had quite a time of it this afternoon talking to the gentleman who drove me to the airport. He asked me what I did for a living and we got to talking about my brief stint in Iraq, and which point he launched off into a monologue about the current state of things in the Mideast, interrupted only by an occasional question on my part. I didn't particularly mind the one-sided nature of things because it was the first time in I don't know how long I'd spoken with someone who seemed to wholeheartedly support everything that we've been doing over there.

I immediately noticed, in listening to this gentleman speak, how much he sounded like Dubya. Not only that he tended to hit the same points that the President might hit, but also that his speaking style and the course of his monologue sounded a lot like the President answering questions at a news conference. He tended to drift from topic to topic, sweeping it all up ("related and not"?) and synthesizing it into a grand narrative of good against evil. Rather than following one train of thought to its logical conclusion he'd stop somewhere short of that and segue to some other, tenuously related topic. Some of what he said was totally incorrect, and some of it was dubious, but he said it with convincing assurance and certainty. To me it seemed like he was trying to present a fascimile of persuasive argument but lacked all of the pieces he needed to actually make the argument coherent.

Also interesting was his assessment of why we were in Iraq in the first place. It was all about oil... not for the money, but for national security. I asked him if the WMDs were just a pretext and he said that was exactly the case. He didn't attempt to equivocate, or justify the invasion on some noble ground. Rather he seemed to be pretty happy with the whole "national security" thing, saying that if other countries had the capability to pursue their interests as vigorously as the US had pursued its own they'd be doing the same thing.

I've often, in the recent past, found myself wondering how anybody can still support the President, and now I think I have a better idea. I got the feeling, talking to this gentleman, that many of the arguments I could make against the war and in favor of withdrawal would be regarded as totally irrelevant. In a world where there are malevolent forces are invariably lining up against us, be they terrorists or rogue states, we've no choice but to protect ourselves. Invading Iraq was the best way to accomplish that; the alternative was leaving all that oil for all the baddies in the Middle East.

That sort of either/or thinking seemed to permeate everything he said. At one point he stated that the Democrats hoped that everyone would get along if we just withdrew from Iraq. There was no recognition of alternatives apart from staying the course or complete capitulation. I wouldn't find it the least bit surprising if many of the President's remaining supporters also exhibited that sort of binary mindset.

The take home lesson for me, and this is probably a good one for progressives as a whole to remember, is that people who believe things that are totally at odds with our perception of reality may be playing by a different set of rules. In my mind the violation of another nation's sovereignty is on the short list of things that a President must not do, but in my driver's world that's OK as long as its done for the right reasons. Which raises an interesting question: How do you persuade someone of the correctness of your position if you can't even agree on what makes any given idea "correct"? But that's a discussion for another day.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Spam Blog?

Huh? When I went to write that last post I had to enter a verification word to get it to work. "Very strange", thought I, "I've never seen that before". Thinking I'd somehow inadvertently turned on some previously dormant feature of Blogger I clicked on the handy "?" link, only to be told:

Your blog requires word verification

Blogger's spam-prevention robots have detected that your blog has characteristics of a spam blog. (What's a spam blog?) Since you're an actual person reading this, your blog is probably not a spam blog. Automated spam detection is inherently fuzzy, and we sincerely apologize for this false positive.

I'm not particularly annoyed, but I am curious about why this particular blog, which I've been writing in for quite some time, would only now be marked as spam. The only thing I can think of is that I recently created a few more blogs (see right sidebar), all of which cross-link to each other. In the giant relationship graph that is Blogger this creates a tiny, relatively isolated island that's densely interconnected. If I were deliberately trying to boost my popularity/placement that's certainly a strategy which might occur to me.

Anyway, kind of interesting. I've used Blogger's handy form to request that I be validated as "not spam". If you Blogger-validator-folken want to chime in you're more than welcome.

My Wife Defends Herself

After reading the latest stupidity from McCain and Lieberman in the WSJ my wife was prompted to say that she only reads it for the articles.

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