Thursday, April 26, 2007

How To Compensate Regulators

Steve Landsburg suggests that we could improve the performance of various regulatory agencies by forcing the regulators to hold stock portfolios of the industry which they regulate. This is a case of "good idea, bad implementation". I can't support telling people that they have to invest in a particular way; that's not a game that government should be playing. However, can't we achieve a similar effect by tying their compensation package to an index of the relative industry? Index goes up, compensation goes up. Index goes down, compensation goes down. In that case we'd not be telling anyone how to invest the money they already have, but at the same time they'd have an incentive to ensure that the industry was effectively regulated. And, by using an index rather than actual stocks, it also works around the Viagra/Cialis problem that Steve brought up.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Horror That Is "Educational Porn"

True story: While my wife and I visited a couple we know awhile ago I made the flippant remark that we were "post-sexual". They found this horrifying, for whatever reason, and slipped an "instructional" DVD into our luggage when we weren't looking. Today, with nothing better to do, we decided to give it a look-see.

Oh... my... god.

Its awful... horrible even... who watches these things? My wife thought that, given the general lack of quality, it must be some sort of "freebie" or giveaway. But lo! And behold! The Sinclair Institute is selling it on Amazon for real money. I'd write a detailed critique here, but some helpful Amazon consumers saved me the trouble:

He's right the people on the video are just horrid to look out instantly ruining the mood you were trying to capture by watching this with your spouse. There is a scene early on where a rather fat hairy pale guy whose image still haunts my mind is getting oral sex, and i have yet to make it past that scene and probably never will. All the sinclair videos i've seen have extremely gorgeous people on the ads and sometimes covers of the Dvd but no where in any of the tapes does anyone look remotely of the same caliber as the ads. It's hard to watch this, you most likely aren't going to learn a single new thing this is just going to be a waste of your money and then time.
1) A couple of the actors are not pleasing to look at, period!
2) The theme of the video is mostly concerned about okaying you that oral sex is okay.
3) I'd say this video is geared toward a very young couple who have never tried oral sex before.
4) The second time I watched it with a new girl friend, I almost fell asleep! LOL
I'll add to this that the "rather fat hairy pale guy" mentioned in the first comment couldn't seem to maintain an erection during the fellatio demonstrations. Not terribly instructional, yes?

Sweet jesus... I hope our friends didn't think that we'd actually learn something from this. It was neither erotic nor instructional... here's a hint for the Sinclair Institute folks: If you make a video entitled "Better Oral Sex Techniques" you should assume your audience has some oral sex techniques to begin with.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Why Meditating Is Different From Saying The Rosary

Maia at Alas fails to appreciate that some Eastern religions are substantively different from traditional, Western religions:

One weird feature of the left, probably going back to the 1960s, is a completely inexplicable view that Eastern religions are in some way better than Abrahamic religions. While this is less strong than it was, you can still see it, particularly in the way the Dalai Lama is treated.

Every major religion, every religion that has ever had any power, served the interests of the ruling class. Religions can and do justify existing power structures and give people reasons not to fight back. While most religions also have ideas that undermine those power structures, all major religions spend most of their time upholding existing power structures. If you like meditating then go for it, but don’t pretend it’s that different from saying the rosary.

Oh, but it is... saying the rosary implies a listener external to the practitioner (God, if you will), whereas meditation requires no such metaphysical commitment.

Any of y'all who consistently read this blog know that I'm solidly in the materialist/agnostic camp. Does it come as a surprise to you, then, to find that I meditate? Admittedly I don't do it with any great frequency, and its usually in support of my martial arts training, but I do it nonetheless. I suspect that if I pursued it more vigorously I'd probably be a better person in some sense as well.

Maia should read Zen And The Brain, which I've written about previously here, here, and here. The author, James Austin, does a pretty good job of exploring and documenting the effects of consistent meditation, but at no time does he find it necessary to invoke any sort of supernatural explanation for those effects. Instead, he notes that all of the beneficial effects of meditation can be attributed to physical causes.

So what, then, to make of religions that have a large meditative component? If they understand the nature of meditation, and decline to attribute its affects to the influence of some outside power, doesn't that make them "less false" than other religions in some non-trivial sense? There are lots of meditative practices in Western religion, but I'm not aware of any that don't come with supernatural baggage attached. Contrast that with, say, then Zen practices described in Dr. Austin's book, which don't logically require any commitment the existence of deity.

A lot of Eastern religions are not different than Western religion; they fall apart in the absence of a supernatural framework. But the meditative practices found in some of them remain valid from a materialistic perspective, which makes them superior to Western religions IMHO.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Flip A Coin?

Michael Kremer has an interesting idea for how to fix the patent system. Essentially, he wants the government to purchase patents for a fair market price. How to determine "fair market price"?

The sticking point is determining that "fair market price". But Kremer has solved that problem: First we grant the patent. Then we auction the patent to the highest bidder. As soon as the auction ends, the man from the government arrives and flips a coin. If the coin comes up heads, the auction winner completes his purchase; if it comes up tails, the government buys the patent for the amount of the winning bid. Bidders have every incentive to bid judiciously because the coin sometimes comes up heads. But this way, half of all patents end up in the public domain, which is halfway toward solving the problem.
Kremer's solution to the problem reminds me of similar methods in math/CS (especially w.r.t. crypto). In the math/CS world you work backwards from the desired behavior towards an algorithm which generates that behavior; if you have to do something like introduce a random variable (again, lots of this in crypto algorithms) to make things behave correctly you just go ahead and do it. This appears to be the approach that Kremer has taken, working backwards from a desired result to the procedure.

This is a perfectly valid approach in the domain of mathematics, but I'm not convinced that its legitimate in the domain of law/public policy. Obviously you have to know what solution you're aiming for in order to formulate a policy, but at the same time you have to be able to derive you policy from existing principles i.e. you're working forwards rather than backwards. Normally this isn't a big issue, but I'm not sure that the coin flipping can be supported working forward from first principles.

Really, the question to ask here is whether randomly allocating patents to the public domain is a proper function of government? Kramer's approach necessitates that the government purchase these patents, which he claims will lead to collective savings:

We pay through the tax system only what the inventor would have extracted from us anyway, and we get the additional benefits of competition: more mousetraps are built, and more inventors can start piggybacking on the idea.
I disagree; its not a forgone conclusion that there will be savings at either the collective or individual levels.

There's no logical connection between the price paid at auction for a patent and the price the consumer pays if that patent grants a monopoly. Consider, as a contemporary example, the Zune and the iPod. These are mutually substitutable goods, but are covered by a different set of patents. If company X's monopoly on one patent imposes a "patent tax" that increases the price of their MP3 player consumers can switch to company Y's product, thus avoiding the patent tax. But, if the government purchases company X's patent, everyone must pay some part of the cost of purchasing that patent through taxes. Its not apparent that consumers would save collectively in this situation.

There's also the notoriously difficult proposition of placing a value on intellectual property. A public auction establishes, by definition, the "fair market value" of a patent, but the fair market value of a patent doesn't have any direct correlation to the eventual cost to consumers. Its quite possible that a company could be granted a patent that has a high market value but then implement the production and marketing of that patent in such a way that consumers actually end up paying a negligible amount of patent tax. For example, consider the XBox, a device chock full of patents. MS marketed the XBox as a loss leader; its not clear that the price would have been any lower had Microsoft not had a monopoly on some of those patents. Or the auction could take on a speculative character, with people bidding up a "promising" patent. Again, if the government ponies up for a patent which eventually turns out to be useless the taxpayer has ended up spending more than they would have otherwise. You can argue that an efficient market calculates all of these eventualities into the price of a patent, but I've got two words for you: "irrational exuberance".

Consider also the case of the individual. Individuals pay different amount of patent tax based upon their buying patterns. I buy a lot of books and few electronic gadgets; presumably I pay much less patent tax than a person who buys lots of gadgets and few books. If the government starts buying up the majority of patents some of the gadget-buyer's tax shifts to me, while a portion of my tax shifts to em. In the end I end up worse of and ey ends up better off.

And these are just critiques of potential outcomes; I haven't even touched on the question of whether capricious government action is appropriate. Randomly allowing only some patents to be purchased by private parties seems off to me; does the ability to grant patents also give the government say over their disposition? I'll go no further than that, because that's a legal question that I'm not qualified to answer.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

I Remember Back When We Only Had Wood Burning Cars...

Sweet Jesus, read this post by Devilstower and tell me you don't hear Grampa Simpson in your head. Apart from sounding curmudgeonly ey's also conflating two different issues, federal highways and homogeneity. Just look:

At the start of those days, it quite famously took weeks just to get from one coast to the other by driving, so we undertook (you know, for national security reasons) the greatest engineering program ever tackled by any nation on Earth -- crisscrossing the United States with a network of broad highways. It was a bold project. It was huge experiment. It was possibly the silliest thing that any people ever did to themselves.
Really? It's silly to not want it to take weeks to go from coast to coast? Ever heard of "interstate commerce"? Devilstower may be happy, wherever ey is, going without products from the other 49 states, more power to em. But me, out here in little old Rochester, I'm might happy that I can occasionally have citrus during our 11 months of winters. You know how I get my citrus? From a supermarket, which got it via truck, which delivered it via the highway system, probably all the way from sunny California. And yes, you can go on and on and on about carbon footprints and eating locally, but the fact is that reliable interstate transportation is a necessary evil. Calling it "silly" shows a complete lack of thought about this issue. But wait, it gets better:
Fifty years after we starting the concrete flowing, we have 47,000 miles of Interstate highway. 47,000 miles of mountains sliced in half, small towns either bypassed or bisected, and intersections so devoid of character that a stop in Gillette, Wyoming is indistinguishable from a stop in Greenville, South Carolina.
I suspect that Devilstower's real beef is with trans-continental homogenization. That's a real issue; I've traveled all over the place recently and have found that shit really is pretty much the same with the exception of major cities. But highways didn't cause homogenization; they may be a necessary condition, but they're not a sufficient one. Homogenization is caused, among other things, by
  • A desire for homogeneity among the populace: People like McDonald's because its a known quantity.
  • Economies of scale: It's hard for independent shops to compete with large corporations. Large corporations tend to be uniform; when they outcompete the little guy they bring uniformity in their wake.
I'm sure I could think of some more, given time, but you get the idea. Blaming the highways for there being a Starbuck's on every corner just doesn't make sense.

And don't get me started on mass transportation. Mass trans is all well and good in densely populated areas, but what about if you want to travel through the great wilderness between cities? Where am I going to find a train thats a) faster and b) less expensive than driving between Rochester and oh, say, Washington DC? I actually do that fairly regularly in about 7 hours for about $80 worth of gas. If I wanted to do it with Amtrak it'd take 10 hours and cost $118 one way. Its not competative from a price or time standpoint. And god forbid if I want to go somewhere like Lewisburg, PA, a nice little town that isn't generic yet. It's got a highway running right by it, but I can't imagine it becoming accessible by mass transit any time soon even if all of Devilstower's funding dreams were to become reality right now.

So let's summarize:

  • Mass transit is great, but it doesn't meet all transportation needs.
  • Highways are not the root of all evil. They bring us things and let us go see our friends in other cities.
  • Homogenization is real and ugly, but is not a necessary effect of an efficient interstate highway system.

A Note About Conflict

Seems like everyone it talking about framing today. PZ makes the excellent point that the media loves conflict, and that science is all about generating and resolving conflicts. However, it also has to be the right kind of conflict.

The recent spate of "Science v. Religion" stories, to take a salient example, attracted eyes because people across the board have a vested interest in the outcome. Other recent conflicts that have been covered include "free speech v. political correctness", "Republicans v. Democrats", and "Christianity v. Islam"; in each case people find the conflict interesting because they've got a dog in the fight or feel that the conflict is somehow relevant to their lives. Then there's another class of conflicts (call them "Jen v. Ben" conflicts) that aren't particularly relevant to people's daily lives, but are appealing due to their salacious or voyeuristic aspects. The media ran with these stories because they knew ahead of time that the subjects would be of interest to a wide range of people.

It remains to be seen whether the kind of conflicts that science regularly generates have that kind of drawing power. There are very few people who care whether the universe has 8 dimensions, or 10, or 11, despite the fact that settling the matter would represent a tremendous step forward from a scientific standpoint. Other common types of controversy (taxonomic disputes, medical best-practice, etc.) suffer a similar fate; they're not of much interest outside of a specific field. It'll take a lot of work to turn the steady stream of conflicts that PZ describes into narratives that will interest the average person.

Half Right

The problem with this whole "framing" thing is that it rests on questionable assumptions about the way things ought to be. Meteor Blades writes:

However, framing or marketing, or whatever you prefer to call it, doesn't have to be manipulative. In this world of blurbs and rapid-fire images, it seems to me we progressives are compelled to find not only the right message but the right way to deliver our message, or we might as well stick to our echo chambers.
Ey doesn't stop to question the underlying assumption that we must operate in a "world of blurbs and rapid-fire images". That's the way things are now, but it doesn't have to remain so for ever.

Obviously we've got to be able to operate in the real world. Presently this requires the production of pre-chewed, easy-to-swallow ideas; they're a necessary evil, as distasteful as that may be. Meteor rightly notes that they needn't be full of lies; effective communication is often nothing more than presenting an idea clearly and concisely. And the study of framing/marketing/whatever is eminently useful in wrecking the frames of evildoers. But the whole enterprise is like the dark side of the force*.

It's far too easy to slip from effective communication into manipulation. Consider the example that Meteor provides: "rubber-stamp Republicans". What does that mean? Nothing... absolutely nothing. It's totally bereft of any meaning. Its an empty phrase that's designed to short-circuit the critical reasoning process. No matter how you slice it, that's manipulative.

It's telling, really, that Meteor can write in the preceding paragraph that "framing or marketing, or whatever you prefer to call it, doesn't have to be manipulative", the immediately follow it up with a gem like that. I don't think Meteor is a hypocrite... far from it. I honestly don't think ey even recognizes that the phrase "rubber-stamp Republicans" is manipulative. And that, boys and girls, is a problem.

Additionally, there doesn't seem to be any long-term push towards a more substantive mode of discourse. Every time we talk in sound bites, even benign, positive ones, we provide reinforcement and validation for the whole practice of talking in sound bites. If, as so many claim, reality has a liberal bias, then wouldn't progressives benefit in the long run by encouraging people to think about issues in a more nuanced fashion? I'm not even sure how you'd go about doing that, but part of the process has to be a conscious refusal to reduce complicated issues to simple phrases. We need to, loudly and publicly, state that some issues can't be reduced to sound bites. And when the opposition does it we need to call them on it.

So let's not talk about "framing"; its a dark art that leads to taking liberties with the truth. Let's talk instead about "effective communication", with an emphasis on presenting actual ideas and not just empty phrases. Lastly, we should work on producing a culture less reliant on bite-sized ideas and more conducive to substantive discussion.

* Apologies for the Star Wars reference, but it really does seem to be an apt analogy.

Friday, April 20, 2007

High-End Diploma Mills

So I'm about to embark on a journey through the world of post-graduate education. I'm getting ready to take my GMAT, and after that I'll be enrolling in an MBA program at a well-know university. My parents must be so proud...


I'm enrolling in an evening-and-weekend program for technology professionals; I'm guaranteed admission as long as I break 500 on the GMAT, get my application in on time, and am ready and able to fork over a significant fraction of $100k for the privilege. Have you seen what it takes to break 500 on the GMAT? You have to have a pulse, and not much else. But flash-forward 18 months after enrollment and I've got a diploma, and there's not even a little asterisk or anything that says I went to night school.

Really, this entire MBA thing is a scam. I've got to get myself stamped so I can get out of the trenches, but I seriously doubt that the MBA program itself is going to provide much in the way of useful training. And it looks like this sort of thing isn't limited to MBAs either. I had a chance to speak with a friend of mine who's getting her master's in library science and she says that she's basically seeing the same thing. She hates grad school, and doesn't necessarily think that she's learning anything particularly critical to her success, but recognizes that if she doesn't get the advanced degree she can't go on to do anything really interesting.

She says that she sees a lot of people in our position, all jumping through these advanced-degree hoops not because they think they'll learn something, but because they need to be able to put the degree on their resumè or else they'll be stuck doing scutwork for the rest of their lives.

In the case of the program I'm enrolling in I get the feeling that it must be a cash cow for the university. The program costs so much more per semester than an undergraduate degree, and takes up a lot less of the university's resources. When you really stop and look I'm basically buying their endorsement on my resume; its got nothing to do with my level of talent (or lack thereof). Right now I want to do data center operations and, frankly, I think I already have a pretty good idea about how to do it based on all the time I've spent actually working in data centers. What is the business school going to tell me that I don't already know? Accounting? Budgeting? Cash flow projections? Whatever... everyone just puts numbers into Excel. You say something like "time value of money" and their eyes just glaze over.

So anyway, the entire thing strikes me as a big boondoggle. Thoughts?

Friday Random Ten

For once I find myself with a little free time on Friday afternoon. I give to you a selection of tunes for your perusal:
  1. Superheros - Daft Punk
  2. Beds Are Burning - Midnight Oil
  3. Car Song - Elastica
  4. Southside - Moby
  5. Eat The Rich - Aerosmith
  6. Big Battle - Toto
  7. It's My Life - No Doubt
  8. Rusty Cage - Soundgarden
  9. The Unforgiven - Metallica
  10. All Along The Watchtower - U2

Honestly, the Toto is a little embarrassing. I swear all I have is the Dune soundtrack. Which makes me a big dork, I know, but at least I'm not a big, Toto-lusting dork.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Muslim Humor And The "Secret Chinese Menu"

I'm currently in Manhattan, working for one of the numerous ad agencies on Madison Ave. I've had the opportunity to have an interesting chat with a couple of the folks in their IT dept. which I think you'll find interesting.

The lead sysadmin is a resident alien and a Muslim. He looks the part too, brownish with a formidable beard and a noticeable accent. Normally I wouldn't consider those details to be particularly relevant to anything, but in this case its germane backstory: he works in Manhattan and "looks like a Muslim".

He has an interesting take on the challenges of being a Muslim in American today that I haven't really ever run across before. He seems to regard it as an inevitable part of the process of becoming Americanized (direct quote: "The same thing happened to the blacks"). His take seems to be that if Muslims just keep their heads down and endure they'll eventually be accepted into American society. I really have no idea whether that's true or not, but its interesting to hear a Muslim say it.

I find his entire attitude to be somewhat remarkable; I didn't get any sense of anger or resentment on his part. Really, he's really very stoic about the indignities he's had to face since 9/11. That's especially unusual considering that he was interviewed by the FBI in the aftermath of 9/11. His name turned up on the roster of a convention or conference that was also attended by some fairly well-known terrorist (prior to becoming well-know). He registered for the event but didn't attend because he couldn't get time off. The FBI still wanted to talk with him to see if he knew anything about the terrorist in question, came to his house and asked to see his immigration papers, the whole nine yards. I'd be more than a little annoyed if that happened to me, but he didn't seem that perturbed.

He's very open about the difficulties he faces as a Muslim in NYC; he really has a sense of humor about the whole situation. For example, he said that he never has a problem with crowded commuter trains; for some reason nobody wants to sit next to him. Or his kids, who have a different last name than he does. When their teachers ask about that he says "their mother is my second wife". He says that he has to have a sense of humor; he couldn't put up with things if he didn't. A fascinating fellow... glad I met him.

Now, on to the "Secret Chinese Menu" portion of the post. Allow me, if you will, to speak on my experience with Chinese food. I've eaten a lot of it, all over this fine country of ours, and my opinion is that it generally sucks. I'm not even certain that I've ever had good Chinese food, and that's saying a lot. I know that I've had good Japanese, good Italian, good Mexican... hell, I've even had good Moroccan. But its seems that, wherever I go, Chinese food falls into one of two categories: "mall Chinese" or "hole in the wall Chinese". Mall Chinese would be something like you get at Asian Chao or Panda Express... it's OK quality-wise, but not terribly interesting. Then there's hole-in-the-wall Chinese, which is what you get at all those little hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants that can be found in every strip mall in America. At these establishments you usually get some stir-fried medly of vegetables and meat in a bland sauce, different in character from what you get at the chain places, but about the same quality. Both varieties are generally lacking in any sort of culinary artistry.

Another one of the guys I've been working with is Chinese, and a couple of nights ago he picked the restaurant from which we ordered take out. We got dinner from Wu Liang Ye, at 36 W. 48th St., and man, that was some good Chinese food. I had mai fun with egg and shrimp that had been dry stir-fried (or nearly so) in something curry-ish. The Chinese gentleman had some kind of lovely looking soup with whole baby bok choy. He said that he has trouble finding good Chinese too and that Wu Liang Ye is the best in the city.

So we got to talking about food, and he mentioned "ordering off of the Chinese menu", and which point I stopped him and asked for a clarification. Like many round eyes, I'm sure, I've often have had the suspicion that if I only spoke Cantonese I'd be able to get much better food at a lot of Chinese restaurants. Well, it's true, there is a secret Chinese menu, at least at some places. So I asked this gentleman what was on this special menu, and he said that its usually things that just wouldn't fly with Americans: diced jellyfish in some kind of hot-sauce, a jerky-like pork product stir-fried w/ veg and sauce, etc. So this little bit of urban lore does have some truth to it.

That is all. Right now I'm calmly waiting for Manhattan to be washed into the sea on account of all the rain.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Good In Theory...

(via Slashdot) Computer company Very-PC is going to start selling oil-cooled server racks. Not such a bad idea, right? Oil conducts heat more efficiently than air, reducing the amount of energy it takes to cool the rack. Just one question: How do you service computers in the rack?

This, I think, is an example of a good theory being undone by reality. The article is short on details, but it sounds like they're basically immersing the rack in a vat of oil. If you have your rack in a vat of oil, what do you do when you need to change out an Ethernet cable? Do you have to drain the tank, or is there going to be some hoist mechanism to raise the rack out of the tank? Either way, what used to be an easy and routine task all of a sudden becomes a horrible chore. Unless they've got some clever work-around you're going to have problems if you need to do something as simple as power the server off and on. I suspect that any data center using these racks might actually loose money due to reduced productivity.

Imus, Closet Rap Aficionado?

Maybe rap music has nothing to do with Don Imus, but has Imus tried the "rap music" defense yet? I can just see it now: "Li'l Bow-Wow made me do it".

Oh No! Not Christian Radio!

Y'all know how much I like a good ethical dilemma, so I feel compelled to comment on this post over at Pharyngula about a business playing Christian radio in its waiting area. The essence of the dilemma is as follows (but go read the rest for details):

Today I went to get my car inspected as my state requires it annually, and you will get a ticket for having an expired inspection sticker. The inspection place I went to had a Christian radio station in the waiting room. I politely asked the guy at the desk (who I later confirmed was the owner) to change the channel to one that was not religious. He said he would not.
The person sending in the question eventually ended up taking their business elsewhere and wants to know if they did the right thing.

So what issues are in play here? Let's start with the easy analysis and go from there. Does the business owner have a right to play Christian radio in his waiting room? I'd offer a qualified "yes" in this case. In general I support the right of business owners to do whatever the hell they damn well please within to confines of their business, provided such doing doesn't infringe on the rights of others. The question of whether playing Christian radio in the waiting room does so turns, in part, on whether the customer is there voluntarily. I agree with PZ's take:

The only concern would be if there were only one local place that could handle your legally-mandated requirements, in which case there might be grounds for making a bigger stink.
If this business was the only one within a reasonable distance that could provide a government mandated service things might be different. At that point the customer becomes a captive audience, which changes the analysis. However, that doesn't seem to be the case, since the questioner was able to take eir business elsewhere. The business owner isn't acting as a de facto representative of the local government, so he's free to do his thing.

Moving on, what are the ethical implications of him choosing to do so? The questioner feels that the business owner was behaving in a discriminatory fashion:

I explained that not all of his customers are Christians - surely some are Jewish and some are not religious at all. He still refused and I told him that he was discriminating by making me listen to his religion being promoted.
Going solely by the description provided by the questioner the charge that the business owner was "discriminating" is pretty much baseless. An act of discrimination involves showing preference to one class of person over another in some substantive fashion. If the questioner could demonstrate that the business owner was giving preferential treatment Christians over non-Christians there'd be better grounds for such a charge. But the mere presence of Christian radio in the room, IMHO, doesn't demonstrate such preferential treatment.

That really seems to be the heart of the questioner's contention, that it was unethical to expose a non-Christian to Christian radio. But we need to make a further distinction: did the questioner have a problem with the specific instance that ey described, or does eir contention hold as a general rule? If the content of the particular broadcast ey had to listen to was particularly egregious that's certainly relevant to the discussion. But the questioner doesn't provide any reason to believe that ey heard anything untoward, so we can assume that eir complaint was not with the specific instance, but rather with the practice in general.

So then, is it unethical to expose a non-Christian to Christian radio? Let's see if we can generalize away some of the specifics and create a more universal statement. Is this situation peculiar to Christianity? Would it have been OK if the shop owner had Rabbi Shmuley Boteach playing instead? The questioner has given me no reason to distinguish between the two, so we can assume that the question applies broadly to all religions. That being the case

"Is it unethical to expose a non-Christian to Christian radio?"
"Is it unethical to expose a non-believer to religious advocacy programming on the radio?"

PZ rightly points out that there's nothing special about religious programming either:
This isn't unique to religious broadcasting, either — I'd feel the same way if I had to listen to Rush Limbaugh while waiting on some car maintenance.
In which case
"Is it unethical to expose a non-believer to religious advocacy programming on the radio?"
"Is it unethical to expose someone to radio programming with whose content they disagree?"
Is there anything special about the fact that this was radio programming as opposed to, say, print media? Radio is loud and intrusive; if you're in the presence of a radio broadcast you can't really choose not to listen. But there's examples of that in print media as well; its hard not to read posters, for example. In either case you're being unavoidably exposed to a message; if you don't want to be exposed to the message your only alternative is to leave the area. However, we've already determined that we're not dealing with a captive listener here, so the mere fact that ey'd have to remove emself from the immediate area isn't a problem. The fact that the program was conveyed by radio, as opposed to by some other means, doesn't appear to be particularly relevant, in which case
"Is it unethical to expose someone to radio programming with whose content they disagree?"
"Is it unethical to expose someone to ideas with whose content they disagree?"

Well, I sure hope not. Y'all can see the problems that might arise if it were.

I saw this result way back in paragraph one, but I wanted to go through the generalization process explicitly just to make sure I hadn't screwed up the analysis somewhere along the line. From a business standpoint its probably better to play Muzak, since few people find it objectionable, but from an ethical standpoint there's no substantive difference between Christian programming and The News Hour With Jim Lehrer. They both put forth ideas with which the listener may not agree, but its not unethical to expose the listener to either.

Now that the formal analysis is out of the way I can get on to the ranting. Who the fuck cares if they're playing Christian radio? This is exactly the same kind of mentality that has people boycotting Disney because their children might be accidentally be exposed to Teh Gay. Look, people, if you're so delicate that you curl up into the fetal position at the mere hint of pro-Christian sentiment what does that say about your own personal prejudices, huh? If you think Christian radio is moronic then the next time you find yourself in that situation you should stop, listen, say "Yup, that's moronic", and then move on. Or better yet, find some entertainment value in it... Christian radio can be highly amusing if approached with the appropriate sense of ironic detachment. Whatever you do, grow a pair already, will you?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Booze On Parade: Wasmund's Single Malt Whisky

I recently got my hands on a bottle of a relatively new whisky that's been written up in the Washington Post. God its awful...

Mr. Wasmund's gimmick is that he claims to have found a way to "obtain optimal maturity much faster". Rather than spending years barrel aging the whisky he's got some sort of secret process that extracts color and flavor from the wood in a matter of months. The bottle that I have (from batch #3, per the label) proudly states that the whisky is 4 months old.

Obviously I don't know exactly what he's doing, but I suspect that the effect is achieved, in part, by increasing the surface to volume ratio of the aging medium. My guess is that he's probably dumping wood chips into the barrel along with the raw whisky.

Whatever method he's using it just isn't producing a quality single malt. I'm open-minded about booze; if I can get good booze for half the price I'm all for it. But this stuff is just bad... it has a bouquet like a woodshop. No, really, I'm serious... it has a smell evocative of wood and paint thinner. And it tastes pretty much the same. The first time I drank it it reminded me of chewing on Popsicle sticks when I was a kid.

So I put it back on the bar and left it alone for awhile, thinking that I'd find a use for it somehow. Then, this evening, I get a hankering for Irish coffee (all you purists in the room can calm down, I know its not Irish coffee without Irish whiskey). So I thought to myself "Self, maybe the coffee will cover up the woodiness". I brewed up some coffee, added cream, sugar, and a slug o'Wasmunds, then took a sip. Imagine my surprise when the coffee really didn't cover up the woodiness at all.

That's what prompted me to write this post here. This stuff isn't good for anything... not mixing, not drinking straight, nothing. It just tastes too much like wood. Two thumbs down.

Asian Exclusion Act?

(via Pandagon) angry asian man is characterizing a recently-leaked immigration reform paper as a new incarnation of the Immigration Act of 1924, otherwise known as the Asian Exclusion Act. If his characterization were correct that would be pretty much all bad; the AEA limited immigration solely on the basis of people's nationality and explicitly excluded many people of Asian descent. But reading through aam's post I immediately noticed the following:

And according to the Office of Immigration Statistics, the Asian American community is the second largest group of immigrants who enter the United States through family sponsorship or by being immediate relatives of American citizens. [Emphasis mine]
My immediate though, of course, was that if this could legitimately be characterized as some sort of "exclusion act" the people with the most ground for complaint would be the largest group. aam doesn't provide a link to the data that he's citing, but I imagine its similar to the stats which can be found on this page. Table 10 seems to be the most germane, listing as it does region and country of origin as well as the class of admission.

aam cites both the "family sponsorship" and "immediate relatives" categories. He correctly notes that Asians represent the second largest group in both categories. What he neglects to mention, however, is that North Americans represent the largest group in both categories. If you break it down by country then Mexico comes out on top in both categories. China and the Philippines are neck-and-neck for second place, but aam doesn't even mention the Philippines in his post.

So its probably irresponsible to characterize this as an "Asian Exclusion Act". In order for the comparison to be valid aam needs to demonstrate deliberate targeting of Asians. That's a hard charge to support when Mexicans represent the group which will be most heavily affected.

More importantly, saying this draft proposal is "Anti-Family" is also something of a stretch1. Look at the specific categories of person that the draft seeks to limit:

  • Parents
  • Children over age 21
  • Siblings
This proposal isn't going to tear mothers away from children or husbands away from wives. Rather, its try to limit the number of extended family members who are granted legal residence.

Where you stand on that depends, in large part, on your beliefs about immigration in general. If you believe that unlimited immigration is infeasible then you're going to have to exclude somebody; limiting the number of extended family members that can be granted residency doesn't seem to be a particularly pernicious control measure.

1 Interestingly enough, the phrase "Anti-Family" only shows up in the title of the press release; "anti-family" doesn't show up in the body of the article, so its unclear which activists, if any, are actually leveling that charge.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Moron, Eh?

Joe Carter thinks I'm a moron for calling him a 'theocrat':

Update: I found a prime example of the type of tin-foil hat wearing paranoia that leads people to denude terms of all relevant denotation. In reference to a post I wrote, a blogger wrote:

The theocracy in those statements is soft, but its certainly there. Joe Carter is not arguing in favor of personal conscience. He's arguing something much stronger, that there is a divine law, that governments should be run with reference to that law and, more importantly, that everyone who disagrees is wrong.

Joe's belief that he's cornered the market on divine Truth, and his willingness use the machinery of government to administer said Truth, makes him a theocrat.

Anyone who claims to have a direct line to The Almighty, to know eir mind and wishes, and who expresses a willingness to use the coercive power of government to force others to conform, is a theocrat.

So yes, Ed is right, we shouldn't go around reflexively accusing the people at the Discovery Institute of being dominionists. At the same time, however, we should feel free to call a spade a spade. Persons who believe the business of governance should conform to a particular set of religious precepts are theocrats, pure and simple.

And we should feel free to call a moron a moron. Anyone who thinks that I am a theocrat is, pure and simple, a moron.

Alright, I'll bite... what word should I use?

If I were going to level a self-critique I'd say that I was stretching the connotation of the word; "theocracy" invokes images of the Taliban, not folks like Joe. But as far as denotation goes I think I'm right on the money; go ahead and look it up. If there's any denotative stripping going on it's Joe's definition of theocracy:

Theocracy, which literally means "rule by the deity," is the name given to political regimes that claim to represent God on earth both directly and immediately.
But I'll be content to use his definition, narrow though I find it to be, if someone can provide a useful answer to the following question: What do you call it when the state is organized with reference to a particular set of religious principles? "Theonomy"? OK, fine, I take it all back; Joe's not a "theocrat", he's a "theonomist".

I've no objection to people who allow themselves to be guided by a religious code; what they do on their own time doesn't concern me. But when they start extending their code to non-believers, and using the state to enforce conformance therewith, that's when I start to have a problem.

The point of my original post is that, whatever you choose to call them, there are large numbers of people who are "trying to impose their religious dogma on the legal system" (thank you, Eugene, for the pithy summary). My criticism of Ed was that he seemed to be limiting the scope of his judgment to only the most overt of the lot. We need to call out anyone who relies on religious justifications to support public policy decisions, whatever name Joe may give to them.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

"Soft" Theocracy, But Theocracy Nonetheless

In recognition of the whole Blogging Against Theocracy Thingy, Ed at Dispatches posts a timely warning about the overuse of the term "theocrat". I think he's right to a large degree; we must be careful not to turn it into another "fascist" or "communist". At the same time, however, he looks like he's letting bona fide theocrats off easy. One needn't be a rabid, foaming at the mouth, state sanctioned stonings dominionist to be rightly labeled a theocrat.

For example, Ed says that Joe Carter shouldn't be counted as a theocrat. But a little bit of googling turns up gems like the following:

Ironically, though Lincoln is often praised for this remark, it contains three of the most controversial ideas in American politics: that God should be invoked in the political sphere; that God's existence matters, much less that he is always right; and that since He takes sides on certain issues, some people will be divinely justified while others will be in opposition not only to their political opponents but to the very Creator and Sustainer of the Universe.

If you find these ideas absurd and repugnant, you are most likely a secularist. If you find them to be embarrassing truths, then you may be on the religious left. If you find them so obvious that they hardly need stating, then you are probably a member of the so-called "religious right."

I embrace them whole-heartedly, which makes me a certified member of the religious right. Although I've often been uncomfortable with that term, I find it fits me more and more, as if I'm growing into it. So be it.

The theocracy in those statements is soft, but its certainly there. Joe Carter is not arguing in favor of personal conscience. He's arguing something much stronger, that there is a divine law, that governments should be run with reference to that law and, more importantly, that everyone who disagrees is wrong.

Joe's belief that he's cornered the market on divine Truth, and his willingness use the machinery of government to administer said Truth, makes him a theocrat.

Anyone who claims to have a direct line to The Almighty, to know eir mind and wishes, and who expresses a willingness to use the coercive power of government to force others to conform, is a theocrat.

So yes, Ed is right, we shouldn't go around reflexively accusing the people at the Discovery Institute of being dominionists. At the same time, however, we should feel free to call a spade a spade. Persons who believe the business of governance should conform to a particular set of religious precepts are theocrats, pure and simple.

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Business Of Presidential Campaigns

Running a Presidential campaign has, I'm sure, had business-like aspects since the dawn of time. But have the internal business processes of campaigns historically been of interest to voters? I don't think so. I can't recall, prior to the start of this election cycle, ever hearing people talk about the logistics of particular campaigns in anything but the most general terms: how much money was raised, how much advertising was being purchased, etc. I think that might be changing, however, and I'm not sure that I necessarily like where that leads.

Yesterday on The Diane Rehm Show there were a bunch of folks talking about the various Presidential contenders and their campaigns. Ms. Rehm's panelists spent part of the time scrutinizing the various campaigns from a very business-oriented standpoint, talking their burn rates and whether a bureaucratic campaign structure lead to inefficient use of campaign funds. They contended that these items, which I would previously have categorized as trivia suitable primarily for consumption by political junkies, were now being viewed as important by primary voters in general. Primary voters want to be sure that whomever wins the primary will make the most efficient use of their campaign funds come the general election.

I can't argue with that theory; it seems reasonable enough by me. But the implication is that success in the primary is dependent, in no small part, on a candidate's ability to run a "businesslike" campaign. Being able to do so has certainly helped candidates in previous elections; running an efficient campaign helps the candidate better spread their message. But not until now has having a high ROI been seen as good in-and-of itself.

Its not clear to me that such evaluation leads to better Presidential candidates. It furthers the process whereby we end up with candidates in the primaries being selected largely for their perceived "electability". The decision as to whether it should be Clinton or Obama shouldn't rest on the minutia of their staffing decisions; it should rest on some sort of substantive policy differences between the two.

I've complained about this in the past, this attitude among progressives that we should get someone into the White House at all costs. If we end up sending some triangulator with a stable full of half-baked half-promises its not going to do us any good in the long run.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Press Conference Magic

Listening to the President's press conference this morning was really a truly amazing thing. I now understand exactly why he was elected to a second term in office: he has the ability to be utterly convincing when pure bilge is streaming from his mouth.

He was spouting things I knew to be deliberate misrepresentations, things that I knew plain old falsifications. But the only reason I know that much of what comes out of his mouth is BS is because I spend far more time than is absolutely necessary reading about politics. How would I know, if I wasn't a political junkie, that he wasn't speaking anything close to the truth?

I probably wouldn't, and that's the problem. He goes on and on and on about how the bad Democrats are trying to second-guess the military and are buying peoples' votes with a larded-up spending bill. To prevent such abuses by the Legislative Branch he's going to have to use the veto. I know that's crap and you, if you're reading this blog, probably also know that's crap. But when he says it he truly sounds like an embattled president trying to do the right thing for the troops. Joe Couch Potato, who only believes what he hears on CNN, is going to fall for that hook, line, and sinker.

I think this is intimately related to a post I wrote awhile back about how much easier it is to lie than to debunk a lie. Unless CNN follows up the press conference with a list of all the points that the President misrepresented people are going to come away believing what he said. Most people just don't have the desire to go out and verify what the President is saying for themselves.

I'm watching the post-conference analysis right now, and no one is correcting what was said. They're just providing political color commentary: "Here's what the President wants, here's what the Democrats want, let's see what happens". Bleh...

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Mock The Ethicist: My Head Exploding Edition

He finally did it. He's been threatening for awhile now, and he finally chose today to make my head explode. Oh... my... god. The absolute ignorance of this man. Its astounding... its colossal... its huge beyond imagination.

His answer to this week's first question is completely absurd and needs rebutting in full. Let's start with the question:

I am a schoolteacher. A teenager told me about her thoughts of suicide. To offer her hope, I told her that I had contemplated suicide decades ago and survived with the support of friends and doctors. She told her therapist about this — fine with me — who told our school social worker, who criticized my conduct to our principal, perhaps endangering my job. I’m not the therapist’s patient, but was it ethical of her to discuss me? — name withheld, Conn.

This is a beautiful question... easy enough to answer, but it deals with serious ethical issues. Now let's watch the master in action:

There is plenty of blame to go around: everyone acted imperfectly.

Oh really... funny, it just seems to me like the therapist should have kept eir damn mouth shut.

Although the therapist had no professional duty to you — as you note, you are not her patient — she erred by ordinary civilian standards when she chatted about you to the school social worker, passing along secondhand information that could be damaging.

Randy, have you ever bothered to research anything in your life? 'Cause, you see, the therapist probably breached eir professional duty to her client by talking about the content of their session. What the patient says during a private therapy session is generally assumed to be confidential, provided the patient and therapist have an ongoing therapeutic relationship and the discussion itself was conducted confidentially. Absent information to the contrary, I think its pretty safe to say that the therapist fucked up.

Even the student can be gently faulted for repeating your story without consent, although in her defense, she should have been able to rely on her therapist’s discretion.

And remember, boys and girls, make sure to get peoples' permission before you talk about them in therapy!

You, too, could be chided, at least for your naïveté. You should have anticipated that a young person might repeat such an emotionally fraught story about a teacher. Also questionable was your attempt to engage in a quasi-therapeutic relationship with a student in so fragile an emotional state.

Teachers... never, ever, ever try to console your students. It just leads to badness down the road. If you do so, however, Randy recommends that you charge them by the quarter hour for this quasi-therapeutic relationship.

He then goes on to give ethical advice about how to tell your friends that their fucking French chateau has bedbugs. What planet is Randy living on?

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