Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Tripe at the Wall Street Journal

I opened my copy of today's WSJ this evening hoping to find something to entertain myself over dinner. Instead I find this exquisitely excruciating op-ed by Peter Berkowitz claiming that, get this, "[t]he American right is a cauldron of debate; the left isn't".

Uh-huh... right.

What the hell is the WSJ doing publishing this crap? Let's start with the premise, which any halfway intelligent person should recognize is a totally unsupported by anything even remotely resembling reality. There's ample evidence of debate on both side of the aisle; that the WSJ is comfortable publishing sweeping, and demonstrably wrong, generalizations on its opinion pages makes me wonder why anyone gives them the time of day, much less any sort of credibility. But I digress; this isn't a rant about the WSJ, but rather a particular dollop of pablum found therein.

In support of his main thesis he offers the following:

But on non-standard issues - involving dramatic changes in national security and foreign affairs, the power of medicine and technology to intervene at the early stages of life, and the social meaning of marriage and family, the partisans show a clear difference: the left is more and more of one mind while the divisions on the right deepen.
God, where to start?

First, why all the unnecessary circumlocutions? If you want to say "the war in Iraq, abortion, and the homosexual menace" you should just come out and say it. Stop hiding behind noble generalities when you've got a specific beef. You're not fooling anyone, especially when you trott out your pet issue in the guise of an "example" in the very next paragraph.

Now on to the meat of his argument, to which I reply "Umm... yeah... duh. What's you're point?". He has conveniently selected, as his sampling of "non-standard issues", questions which progressives discussed and resolved eons ago, but which conservatives are just now starting to grapple with thanks to people like St. Rudy. It's not the progressives' fault that we've moved on to other issues: global climate change, immigration, poverty, etc. To say that there are no divisions within the progressive community on these issues is, again, a totally baseless assertion.

Then he goes on about his pet issues for awhile, throws in some Strauss and Hayek, and calls it a day. All of which might be interesting reading if his basic premise wasn't so blindingly ignorant.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Ever Notice...

That Bibleman looks like a cross between an old He-Man action figure and Saul Of The Mole Men?

Writing My Personal Statement Is Making My Head Explode

The first in what is likely to be a long line of posts about getting an MBA. Provided, of course, that I get this part right and actually get accepted.

For those of you who haven't ever been intimately involved in applying to an MBA program its a lot like applying to college. You take a test (did I mention that I rocked the GMAT?), fill out application paperwork, and then supply a bunch of supporting materials. For the particular program to which I'm applying this includes a résumè and a "personal statement" which is supposed to, I dunno, give screeners insight into your worthiness as an individual or something like that.

Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis (all 2 of you) know that I've no problem writing at length about random topics. Why is it, then, that I'm finding the production of a 3-page personal statement to be such a draining endeavor? In my case part of it seems to be the prompt that I'm writing to, which boils down to "write a personal statement, and make sure you address these questions". This, I'm lead to believe, is somewhat idiosyncratic of the program to which I'm applying; it seems like many MBA programs want a couple of essays, but this program is trying to cram everything into one essay. I'll not provide specifics, since it'd be too easy to identify the program, but there are some standard questions ("tell us about a time you worked in a team", "tell us about a time when you were a leader") combined with some questions which are specific to the program.

Whomever developed the application materials might just as well have said "go out, shoot a woolly mammoth, and include one tusk with your submission". Its fairly obvious that they put together the prompt without considering whether it was possible to produce a coherent, well-crafted essay which meets all of the requirements. The questions that I have to address have very little in common; its damn near impossible to weave them into an organic essay which doesn't look like its being written to a prompt. Of course you can't be too subtle, otherwise the people scoring the essay might miss the fact that you answered the question. So you end up with this mishmash essay that's really little more than the answers to the individual questions strung together with some (hopefully clever) transitions. I don't see a point to that excercise; surely whomever is reading these things could get just as much information out of a series of short answers. It would make it a lot easier for all those people who are spending just 2 minutes reading your work.

Oh yeah, and can I get a big "Fuck you, halleluah!" for Accepted and all if its invaluable advice? "To thine own self be true"? I hate that quote... if people did their goddamn homework they'd realize that those particular words of wisdom were delivered by someone with a personal-integrity problem.

It's most certainly not OK pursue truth too honestly when you're writing your personal statement. Its not OK to say that you want an MBA 'cause otherwise you're going to be someone else's rack monkey for the rest of your life. Ditto the money angle... its definitely not kosher to say that you want to make a fistfull of dollahs. Crap, what does that leave? "I want an MBA so I can be more impactfullicious."? There's only a few reasons why people really get MBAs: money, control, or recognition. Well, ok, maybe I'm being too harsh... some MBA applicants might want to work 80 hours a week so they don't have to see their families. Don't give me that crap about people wanting to maximize their frickin' potential... if you're feeling un-maximized you don't need an MBA to fix that. Not unless your idea of self-actualization involves ordering other people around or getting others to recognize your greatness.

But you gotta dress it up in that language anyway, 'cause that's the way the game is played. Gah... it makes my brain hurt just thinking about. I'm not entirely sure what these essays are even intended to prove; they're too artificial to provide any kind of window onto the person doing the writing. At best they weed out the people who were too dumb to go out on the Internet and look at all of the sample essays, do-and-don't lists, etc. All they prove is that the writer had the necessary perseverance to go through the motions of making the sausage (and they may have had some help with that part).

Well, in the very least, I feel better having ranted a little bit.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Propagation Of The Ideal Vagina

Pam sez:

Since life doesn’t resemble Ace’s favorite video folder on his computer, we can safely write off the idea that women get their pussies cut up because we want to “win” our private pant-less beauty contests, we have to look to other sources for where women get the idea that we have to have pussies that look a very specific way. I’ve narrowed it down to three possibilities:
  1. Porn
  2. Porn
  3. Guys who take one look at it and say, “Gross, that looks ‘like H.R. Geiger giving up ink and canvas to work in the avant-garde medium of Play-Doh and bacon.’”

Not to accuse Pam of myopia, but there's at least a couple other potential culprits which she's overlooked:

I doubt that the majority of women are being told directly by their partners that their vaginas need work. Rather, I suspect that women pick up this particular idea in the same way they would any other idea about body image, primarily through ambient exposure. In the very least Pam should follow the money and recognize that this trend is being driven in part by collusion between Madison Ave. and cosmetic surgery centers.

People Search For The Darndest Things

Sitemeter just let me know that this blog is high on the list of search results for "baguette sodomy".

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Hate Crime And Thought Crime

David Neiwert has an interesting post up discussing whether hate crime laws create thought crimes. He states that:

Bias-crime laws no more create "thought crimes" than do any other laws consigning greater punishments for crimes committed under certain species of mens rea (or the mental state of the perpetrator), including anti-terrorism laws. Differences in intent and motive can make the difference between first-degree murder and manslaughter. Enhanced punishments are especially warranted when crimes are believed to cause greater harm -- and hate crimes quantifiably do so. These are standard features of criminal law, and no more create "thought crimes" than do laws providing the death penalty for first-degree murder.
I don't find David's analogy convincing; its not clear to me that battery is to hate-motivated battery as manslaughter is to murder. It may be administered as such, i.e. used as a factor to justify an enhanced sentence, but I believe that the theoretical underpinnings are different.

As David notes, manslaughter and the various degrees of murder are related via the culpability of the defendant; the more culpable the defendant the more serious the charge and associated sentence. Do battery and hate-motivated battery partake of the same or similar relationship? That is to say, are they related via some common scale or axis as are manslaughter and murder? I don't believe so, and I'll let David make my case for me:

As I point out in the book, hate crimes have the fully intended effect of driving away and deterring the presence of any kind of hated minority -- racial, religious, or sexual. They are essentially acts of terrorism directed at entire communities of people, and they are message crimes: "Keep out.
The distinction is not one of degree; the defendant isn't more culpable of the battery because ey are motivated by hate/animosity. Rather, what actually appears to be going on behind the scenes is that the defendant is being implicitly charged with the additional crime of terrorism directed at a particular community.

As I've noted before there seem to be problems with this approach. I agree with David's interpretation that hate crimes serve to undermine/limit the freedom of entire classes of people, but I think we handle their prosecution in a totally bass-ackwards fashion. Some observations and thoughts, in no particular order:

  • If, as David says, hate crime legislation really seeks to protect groups of people from targeted terrorist acts, why not make the charge of "terrorism" explicit? Push for legislation to make the targeted terrorizing of a particular group of people illegal if such legislation doesn't already exist. If it does exist, use it.
  • Is it a hate crime if knowledge of the crime doesn't become widely disseminated among the targeted group? If I burn a cross on someone's lawn its easy to argue that I intended my disdain for their class to become public knowledge. But if the defendant's disdain for a group is only uncovered after a long process of discovery then its hard to argue the charge of "terrorism", since the defendant didn't intend their animus to become public.
  • IANAL, as always, but aren't there due process problems with this approach? If you're going to treat a crime against an individual as a crime against a group then isn't it incumbent that prosecutors be required to demonstrate specific harm to the group as a whole? As it stands now its sufficient to demonstrate bias-motivated harm to a specific representative of a protected class; its just assumed that any instance of bias-motivated harm against one member translates to harm against the group.
  • What about the intersection of mutiple protected classes? Under the hate-crime-as-terrorism theory it should be worse to commit a crime against someone who belongs to multiple protected classes then against someone who belongs to just one, since multiple groups are implicated in the former case but only a single group is implicated against. But that approach has all sorts of negative social implications since it places a value on a person based on the number of protected classes to which they belong.

Lastly, to the charge of "thought crime", I'm going to respectfully disagree with David's position. Consider the simple scenario of a white man beating a black man where there are no external signs of racial animus. If the beating takes place for reasons unrelated to race then no hate crime has occurred. If, on the other hand, the beating is racially motivated then the perpetrator has suddenly committed a crime against an entire class of persons which is distinct in character from the beating. The perpetrator didn't beat the group but rather terrorized them; its an entirely new crime and not just an extension of the beating. The only distinction between the two scenarios is the perpetrator's mental state, which leads inevitably to the conclusion that the crime against the class as a whole exists solely as a result of the perpetrator's thoughts. That looks to me like thought crime no matter how you slice it.

All of this, I think, highlights a problem with how we prosecute hate crimes. If, as David asserts, a hate crime is more serious than its non-hate counterpart because it affects entire classes of people then we need to be explicit about that. Rather than using a person's motivation as a factor in enhanced sentencing we need to be charging defendants with at least two crimes, the first being the original crime against a member of the protected class and the second being a charge of "terrorism" (or "intimidation" or some other suitable verbiage) against the class as a whole. This would undoubtedly raise the bar for hate crime prosecutions, but I think that's a proper outcome. People should have to prove, rather than just insinuate, that a crime was bias-motivated; in the very least there need to be some incontrovertible markers indicating that such was the case.

As a side benefit I think this approach might be sufficient to do away with the need for the enumeration of protected classes. Enumerated lists are a problem because there are classes worthy of protection which don't make it on to the list. Failure to include them sends the message that their rights aren't as important as other peoples'. Under a two-charge formulation it wouldn't be necessary to designate particular classes as protected. Rather it would be enough to show that the victim was a member of a particular group and that that particular group was terrorized (or whatever you choose to call it) as a result of the perpetrator's actions.

Lastly, there's still the problem of what to do when a victim belongs to multiple protected classes. Logic would seem to dictate that its worse to assault a Latina lesbian (probably a member of 3 classes) than a straight white woman (probably a member of 1 class). But, as I noted above, this doesn't really seem to be good public policy. Which leads me to wonder whether characterizing hate crimes as a crime against particular groups is the right way to go? Are there other models which don't suffer from this contradiction? I really don't have a good answer to that one, but I thought that I'd raise the question anyway.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Seizure From A Lay Perspective

There's an interesting thread of discussion going on over at The Volokh Conspiracy over when does a police stop become a seizure. Jonathan Adler writes:

I have no problem with the idea that a seizure [under the Fourth Amendment] occurs when a reasonable person would believe that he or she is not free to walk away. My problem is that the "reasonable person" some judges imagine seems far too willing to question or challenge police authority. I sincerely doubt that most "reasonable" Americans unschooled in criminal procedure feel free to casually deny police requests, let alone disregard police inquiries entirely and just walk away. This may be how judges interact with police officers, but in this regard I do not believe the average judge adequately represents the reasonable person.
Followed by Ilya Somin noting that "even lawyers and others better acquainted with the law than the average person might be reluctant to challenge police demands - whether those demands are legal or not". I think they're both right on the money: the average citizen doesn't know the bounds of what is permissible and, even when they do, are unlikely to challenge illegal demands. I offer to you the following anecdote:

It was the summer of 2004, and my wife and I were moving from St. Louis to Rochester. We were moving all of our stuff ourselves; I was driving a rented Ryder truck and my wife was following behind me in our car. Out of the blue, while driving through Pennsylvania, I get pulled over by some uniformed person; I don't remember specifically if it was the PD or the Highway Patrol.

So my first reaction in something along the lines of "wtf?", because I'd been careful not to exceed the speed limit etc. etc. etc. Maybe I'd forgotten to signal while changing lanes, or maybe one of my tail lights was out (I suspected it was the latter). But that wasn't it at all. I don't remember exactly how the officer phrased it, but he let me know that I'd been pulled over because law enforcement in the area was conducting random searches of moving vans to protect citizens against the terrorist menace. Then he asked me to step out of the cab and open the back of the truck for him.

I was pretty certain that was an illegitimate request, but really what were my options? I could take a stand for liberty and justice, but that might end up with me sitting in handcuffs on the side of the road. Or I could open up the back of the truck and be on my way with a minimum of hassle. I think maybe if I had been by myself I would have said "no", but if I'd declined the officer's request in that particular instance it would have inconvenienced my wife as well. I didn't have the opportunity to ask her if she wanted to be a martyr, so I acquiesced and did as the officer asked. After performing a perfunctory visual review with the aid of a flashlight he let us on our way.

You have to be extremely dedicated to the concept of personal liberties to be willing to challenge the police. There's very little reward for doing so apart from the feeling that you've helped better society in some small way. The potential downsides, on the other hand, are really pretty much unlimited. If the officer decides to take offense when you decline things could get real ugly very quickly. A quick cost/benefit analysis makes it obvious that the right thing to do is say "sure, officer" and then get on with your life.

This Is Why I Don't Vote.

What Brad said.

Seriously, this is why I don't vote. Why should I bother when, as Maia so eloquently put it, I'm just voting for the "least bad lizard".

Until there's a viable alternative to the Republicans and the Democrats I'm going to continue not voting 'cause it doesn't make a lick of difference one way or the other. All I'd be doing is endorsing a system with which I completely disagree.

Oh yeah, and Nader isn't a viable alternative either.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

CentOS 5 on a Dell D610 Laptop

Presented in the hopes that all the time I've wasted can benefit the public. First, the preliminaries:

00:00.0 Host bridge: Intel Corporation Mobile 915GM/PM/GMS/910GML Express Processor to DRAM Controller (rev 03)
00:01.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation Mobile 915GM/PM Express PCI Express Root Port (rev 03)
00:1c.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) PCI Express Port 1 (rev 03)
00:1d.0 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) USB UHCI #1 (rev 03)
00:1d.1 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) USB UHCI #2 (rev 03)
00:1d.2 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) USB UHCI #3 (rev 03)
00:1d.3 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) USB UHCI #4 (rev 03)
00:1d.7 USB Controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) USB2 EHCI Controller (rev 03)
00:1e.0 PCI bridge: Intel Corporation 82801 Mobile PCI Bridge (rev d3)
00:1e.2 Multimedia audio controller: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) AC'97 Audio Controller (rev 03)
00:1e.3 Modem: Intel Corporation 82801FB/FBM/FR/FW/FRW (ICH6 Family) AC'97 Modem Controller (rev 03)
00:1f.0 ISA bridge: Intel Corporation 82801FBM (ICH6M) LPC Interface Bridge (rev 03)
00:1f.2 IDE interface: Intel Corporation 82801FBM (ICH6M) SATA Controller (rev 03)
01:00.0 VGA compatible controller: ATI Technologies Inc M22 [Radeon Mobility M300]
02:00.0 Ethernet controller: Broadcom Corporation NetXtreme BCM5751 Gigabit Ethernet PCI Express (rev 01)
03:01.0 CardBus bridge: Texas Instruments PCI6515 Cardbus Controller
03:01.5 Communication controller: Texas Instruments PCI6515 SmartCard Controller
03:03.0 Network controller: Broadcom Corporation BCM4318 [AirForce One 54g] 802.11g Wireless LAN Controller (rev 02)

The first thing you'll probably want to do is get your wireless working. The driver for the Broadcome wireless card that comes with kernel 2.6.18-8.1.3.el5 isn't ready for prime time; to keep the system from trying to load it put the line

blacklist bcm43xx
into /etc/modprobe.conf. Instead I recommend using ndiswrapper; it works pretty well. Do the following:
  1. Grab the Windows Broadcom drivers.
  2. Get bcm43xx-fwcutter, compile it, and use it to extract the firmware files from the Windows driver per documentation. Place the resulting .fw files in /lib/firmware.
  3. Compile ndiswrapper. Install the Windows driver via ndiswrapper -i <.inf file>. If everything is working correctly ndiswrapper -l should produce output something like this:
    bcmwl5a : driver installed
            device (14E4:4318) present
  4. Add the line
    alias wlan0 ndiswrapper
    to /etc/modprobe.conf
  5. Bring up your wireless interface:
    • modprobe ndiswrapper
    • iwconfig wlan0 essid <ssid>
    • dhclient wlan0

That should do it for the wireless. Next, you'll want to work on the kernel. The stock 2.6.18-8.1.3.el5 kernel has support for a bunch of things which the D610 doesn't need; as a general practice I like to rip out everything that I'm not going to use. Good instructions for how to recompile a kernel under CentOS can be found here. Stoopid Blogger won't let me upload my config file because it might give someone Internet Cooties, so I'll just touch on a couple of points:

  • Framebuffer support: The stock kernel doesn't have Radeon framebuffer support. It's available under Device Drivers -> Graphics Support. I've had mixed results with this; more on that below.
  • SATA/PATA: Support for the Intel SATA controller is available under Device Drivers -> SCSI device support -> SCSI low level drivers. Enable Serial ATA support and Intel PIIX/ICH SATA support.
  • ATA/ATAPI support: Not needed. Remove it and your cdrom will show up as a PATA device.

That's about it for the kernel; next we'll work on X. Linux drivers for the Radeon M300 can be downloaded from ATI. I'm currently using driver version 8.35.5. I couldn't get it to coexist with framebuffer support; ever time I ran the installer while framebuffer support was active it would hang my system. I ended up removing framebuffer support from the kernel entirely. With that said, the installation procedure is as follows:

  1. chmod u+x ati-driver-installer-8.35.5-x86.x86_64.run
  2. ./ati-driver-installer-8.35.5-x86.x86_64.run
  3. system-config-display
  4. aticonfig --initial
Once I found a driver version that worked (had to try a couple) things went pretty smoothly.

The last thing is to tweak X a little. The fonts and font-rendering support that come with CentOS 5 aren't the greatest; a good discussion of the problem and solution can be found here. Grab the freetype SRPM from one of the CentOS mirrors and install as normal. Edit /usr/src/redhat/SPECS/freetype.spec and change the line

%define without_bytecode_interpreter    1
%define without_bytecode_interpreter    0
This will enable the bytecode interpreter which provides hinting at small font sizes, which really does improve the look of things dramatically. I also installed and configured the core web fonts per Mr. Alkalay's recommendations.

That's essentially where I stand now. Things I'd still like to get working:

  • Framebuffer/X coexistance: I've not been able to get console mode frame buffer support to coexist with X, with or without the ATI drive.
  • Multimedia playback: I've not been able to get Xine or any of the other media players to work.
Anyone who has any insight on these matters I'd love to hear from you.

In retrospect I don't think that I would have gone with CentOS on my laptop. I originally chose CentOS because I was hoping to get Windows working using the Xen virtualization engine. However, Windows won't run under Xen unless you have hardware virtualization support, something which the D610 is lacking. I ended up going with VMWare Server instead, and am quite happy with the results.

CentOS very stable and has great core support, as befits an OS that's designed for servers. But apart from providing support for workplace productivity I'd also like support for non-productivity, which CentOS doesn't do so well. A lot of features like DVD playback are encumbered by patent and intellectual property concerns; CentOS avoids these problems by not providing pre-built packages for programs like Xine. If I had the time to rebuild from scratch I'd probably go with Gentoo, since it's more designed for non-business users and has better support for A/V.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Paella Bargain in Newark

Who knew that you could get good paella in Newark? My job recently took me out there to do some work for a company located in the downtown area. I stayed at the Hampton Inn on Passaic, which happened to have a sign advertising tapas from the Spanish Pavillion Restaruant on their bar one night while I was trying to figure out some place to eat. It was right around the corner from the hotel, on Harrison St., so I figured I'd go ahead and give it a try. It turned out to be an excellent choice.

Their tapas menu wasn't all that impressive, so I decided to go with the paella valenciana instead. Now I'm what you could call a "healthy eater", so I'm not usually daunted by the portions you get in a typical restaurant. The paella that arrived at my table, however, was a beast of epic proportions. It arrived in a full-size dutch over; for a second I thought that there must have been a mistake and they had brought the "paella for two" by mistake. I think that I finished maybe half of it, at most.

And it was a well-executed paella as well. The rice was well executed and served with a pleasantly lemony broth; you'd be surprised at the number of times I've had paella where the rice was just not that well done. But what was most impressive was the number of species they used to garnish the rice: mussels, clams, scallops, lobster (yeah, lobster), shrimp, squid, chicken, pork, and chorizo. It was a veritable zoo... I honestly don't think I've ever eaten that many different animals in a single sitting.

The best part was that the entire dish cost $20. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Screw Budweiser

Daniel is welcome to the title of "online myrmidon" for defending Budweiser; all of what he says is undoubtedly true, footnotes and all. Unforunately he doesn't address the primary concern of the anti-Budwiser crowd (of which I happen to be a member in good standing): it tastes like crap. Budweiser's products have, across the board, a metallic aftertaste which just really ruins what might otherwise be an "ok" beer. Why the hell would you want to drink Bud when there are alternatives like Stella and Pilsner Urquell?

Friday, May 11, 2007

Though, On The Other Hand...

... the Exchange Connector for Evolution still isn't ready for prime time. Outlook using RPC over HTTP is still at least an order of magnitude faster, even inside of a virtual machine.

General Bitching About Microsoft

My business laptop was acting all creaky and broken due to general bitrot, so I decided to bite the bullet and do a clean install. While I was at it I figured I could make my life easier by virtualizing my Windows install and moving non-business funtions into a Linux OS.

I'm happy to say that the virtualization process is working smashingly. I've got VMWare Server running on a fresh install of CentOS 5 and am now going through the process of reinstalling all of my apps in the Windows VM. Now the bitching.

I reinstalled in part because Microsoft Update was acting broken and taking forever to scan for updates. I find now, with a brand-spanking new Windows install, Microsoft Update still behaves like it's broken. Only now its not because the OS is old but rather because the OS sucks. Bleh...

My only complaint with CentOS 5 so far is that to virtualize Windows you have to have some special CPU features which my laptop is lacking. Otherwise I'd bypass the VMWare and run the virtualization natively.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Card and The Memory of Earth

Just thought I'd toss in a few words about The Memory of Earth since Mitt Romney has opened up the conversation. I picked up the entire series in 2 vols at a garage sale a couple of years ago, primarily because I like Ender's Game. Not being terribly familiar with Mormon mythology I didn't realize that it was a re-telling of the Book of Mormon until after the fact. I went to see the Hill Cumorah Pageant at the same time I was working my way through the second volume and then a light went on.

First a quibble regarding Ana Marie Cox's summary: only a small portion of the Homecoming series take place in outer space, mostly in the form of a fictionalization of the ocean crossing that I believe takes place in 1 Nephi.

Once I understood the context of the series my first thought was that Orson Scott Card must have some problems with the Mormon Church. The Homecoming series has a rather sympathetic portrayal of a gay supporting character, and the final book or so (its been awhile) seems to be, in part, a criticism of the church's current organization. So it's hard to understand why Mitt Romney would be referencing it, even obliquely. It's also difficult to reconcile the series with Ed's assertion that Card is "virulently anti-gay".

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Wherein I Tell Families To Go To Hell

I haven't written a truly inflammatory post for awhile, so it seems apropos for me to write one now. I've been inspired by a handful of unrelated articles: a post at Feministe, a post at Alas, an article in the Columbia Journalism Review, all of which arguing one way or the other that progressives should be agitating for more support for families.


No, really, why?

All of the arguments made in the above articles treat children like an entitlement, but its far from self-evident that they are. Is there a "right to reproduce"? If so is it a natural right or a right granted by law? Society has a negative duty to not interfere with peoples' reproduction decisions, but does it have a positive duty to provide material support if they do choose to reproduce?

I'm strongly inclined to argue that society has no duty to provide material assistance to people raising children. I can't see a theoretical argument in favor of that position, but I can see lots of problems if you assume its true. If society has a duty to support someone's desire to have children then what are the boundaries and limits of that duty? How many children? How much support? Childrearing support for everyone or just for people who would make "good parents"? There aren't any satisfactory answers to these questions, which argues strongly that the premise is flawed.

Silver Springs Winery

I've been living in Rochester for almost 3 years now, and have been a regular visitor to the Finger Lakes wine region. I had thought that I'd mostly identified all of the good wineries, but I just discovered a new one.

Silver Springs Winery is located in a non-descript trailer on the East side of Seneca lake; you'd likely drive right past it without stopping unless you were looking for it. We were tasting with some guests yesterday and decided to stop there because their add on the back of the map said that they specialize in red wine. They weren't kidding.

They really have some of the best red wines I've tasted in the region. They're complex and multi-layered and really far exceed the offerings of most vineyards. They certainly compare favorably with Dr. Frank's and Fox Run, both of which consistently produce high quality reds.

We had the chance to chat with the owner, John, who's obviously a big wine geek. He guided us through a tasting and started talking about using micro-oxygenation to increase the rate of polymerization of the tannins, at which point I turned to my wife and said "I love this man". I ended up taking home a bottle of their 2003 Bold Merlot; at $27 it was really at the upper end of my price range, but man oh man was it good.

Interestingly enough, though they specialize in red wines they also produce a really intense Chardonnay. It was also very tasty, but I'm not sure that I would have even recognized it as a Chardonnay if I hadn't had the label in front of me.

Really, their only problem is that I've never heard anyone talk about them before. Which is a pity, really, because they're honestly one of the best wineries in the area.

Ignorance Breeds Ignorance...

... and it has nothing to do with genetics. I've never read "The Marching Morons", but I feel safe in deferring to Ben Bova's summary:

The most prescient — and chilling — of all the science fiction stories ever written, though, is “The Marching Morons,” by Cyril M. Kornbluth, first published in 1951. It should be required reading in every school on Earth.

The point that Kornbluth makes is simple, and scary: dumbbells have more children than geniuses. In “The Marching Morons” he carries that idea to its extreme, but logical, conclusion.

Kornbluth tells of a future world that is overrun with dummies: men and women who don’t know anything beyond their own shallow personal interests. They don’t know how their society works, or who is running it. All they care about is their personal — and immediate — gratification.

I don't know why PZ Meyers thinks this has something to do with biology. Kornbluth (and, by extension, Mr. Bova) look to me to be arguing that ignorance is culturally transmitted. Mr. Bova goes on to complain about a "moron in a sports car", hardly your typical representative of a genetic underclass. He's worried about a bread-and-circuses culture full of unenlightened people; there's not even a whiff of genetic determinism about the piece.

The belief that ignorance begets ignorance is hardly revolutionary; PZ supports it, but he tends to limit his criticisms in this area to Christians. PZ is certainly not arguing that Christians are less intelligent than non-Christians. Instead, he merely points out that the Christian home-schooling system perpetuates a particular worldview which seems to be at odds with reality. If you accept that people whose parents read the NY Times are more likely to become newspaper readers themselves, while people whose parents watch reality TV are less likely to do so, then Ben Bova's thesis becomes much more plausible. If you further accept that birth rates fall as education level rises (and that "moronitude" varies inversely with education level) then Ben's concerns about drowning in a sea of morons suddenly seems quite reasonable.

Note that at no point in the above discussion is it necessary to believe that some people are genetically inferior/superior to others. All you need to believe is

  1. Parents transmit their culture to their children.
  2. Some cultures foster ignorance better than others.
  3. Ignorance (however you choose to measure it) is positively correlated with birth rates.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Multi-Culturalism and Moral Relativism

I read this post at Dispatches with interest since it touches on a topic which is particularly bedeviling to progressives: how to support human rights without trampling on other peoples' cultures in the process.

I'm a little more cautious than Ed in this respect; I agree that progressives need to avoid condoning "barbarism" in the name of preserving cultural pluralism, but at the same time I suspect that the examples which Ed cites represent the extreme end of a very grey spectrum. What we really need, more than anything else, is a framework or methodology which allows us to condemn certain traditions or practices without exposing us to the charge of cultural imperialism.

I tried to think through how I would go about doing this and immediately ran into the issue of first principles. Were I to try to build such a moral system I would probably start with an assumption of self-ownership and/or personal autonomy as the basis for fundamental rights. But I immediately find myself stopping and asking how I can justify such a position? Obviously I can't; axioms are, well, axiomatic.

But that's really the heart of the issue; there are wide swaths of the planet that don't take self-ownership as a starting point for morality. Off the top of my head I can think of at least three other popular (in a demographic sense) variations:

  • Might makes right
  • God says so
  • For the good of the community
From an epistemological standpoint these alternatives are all just as valid as self-ownership, so what are we to do? How can we justify our preference for one over the other while maintaining a commitment to a pluralistic society.

The answer, at least as far as immigrants are concerned, is to treat the process of immigration as a social compact between the immigrant and the state. The state grants the immigrant the right to dwell within its borders and, in exchange, the migrant must accept the state's preferred basis for morality. This preference might be difficult to tease out in some circumstances, but in other cases its really, really, really obvious.

Let's look at Germany, for example, since German legal rulings sparked this post. Article 1 of the Basic Law establishes the preservation of human dignity as the overriding principle of the German state. This principle is non-negotiable; the Basic Law was written so that Article 1 can't ever be amended. It's easy to argue that immigrants in Germany implicitly agree to be bound by Article 1 when they take up residency therein. Once such agreement is established it becomes pretty easy to avoid the charge of cultural imperialism/intolerance when seeking to eliminate practices which are incompatible with the state's understanding of human rights.

In the case of Germany, in particular, the emphasis on the protection of human dignity is so pronounced that you wonder how any judge could fail to notice it. Which brings me to a second thought that I want to explore: are the cases which Ed cites really examples of cultural relativism? I'm inclined to say that, in at least some of the cases, what we're seeing is not the result of cultural relativism but rather is a combination of legal artifacts with plain old bad judging. Consider example one:

So Nishal went to the courts to request an early divorce, hoping that once they were no longer married he would leave her alone. A judge who believed in the rights of women would find it very easy to make a judgement: you're free from this man, case dismissed.

But Judge Christa Datz-Winter followed the logic of multiculturalism instead. She said she would not grant an early divorce because - despite the police documentation of extreme violence and continued threats - there was no "unreasonable hardship" here.

Why? Because the woman, as a Muslim, should have "expected" it, the judge explained. She read out passages from the Koran to show that Muslim husbands have the "right to use corporal punishment". Look at Sura 4, verse 34, she said to Nishal, where the Koran says he can hammer you. That's your culture. Goodbye, and enjoy your beatings.

We may find that line of reasoning abhorrent, but it's not an example of cultural relativism. Rather, she states that she couldn't grant an early divorce because the beatings fell within the scope of behavior that the wife should have reasonably anticipated when entering into the marriage. Presumably the judge would grant the woman a divorce, but not an expedited one. This particular miscarriage of justice arose due to a faulty understanding of typical Islamic marriage on the judge's part, leading her to conclude that the plaintiff had not meet the evidentiary burden necessary to grant an expedited divorce. At no point did the judge assert that, because the couple was Muslim, it was morally acceptable for the husband to beat the wife.

The same can be said of the second example:

A Lebanese-German who strangled his daughter Ibthahale and then beat her unconscious with a bludgeon because she didn't want to marry the man he had picked out for her was sentenced to mere probation. His "cultural background" was cited by the judge as a mitigating factor.
Again, it doesn't seem that the judge was asserting a culturally-based license for a certain behavior. In this case it appears that the judge treated the defendant in much the same way that we would treat someone who had suffered abuse as a child; in both situations their respective upbringings diminish their capacity to appreciate the distinction between right and wrong. I can actually argue that this is an example of paternalism rather than cultural relativism, since it treats the defendant's cultural heritage as akin to a mental defect.

Again, let me emphasize that I think both of the above are horrendous examples of the legal system gone South. But that the same time we should be careful about raising the hoary old specter of "cultural relativism" when what we're seeing apparently results from a number of factors, some of which have nothing what-so-ever to do with moral reasoning.

Alpharetta: Good Food, Bad Driving

I've complained more than once on this blog about the general blandness of food offering across the United States. Having traveled weekly for a couple of years now it's my fairly well-informed opinion that its hard to find interesting restaurants outside of big cities. There are vast swaths of the United States that have nothing more than Applebee's to offer, and sometimes you're lucky if you can get that.

One stunning exception to this general observation is Alpharetta, GA. The first time someone told me I was going to Alpharetta my response was "I'm going where?". "Alpharetta" sounded like some small town of no great interest.

It turned out that Alpharetta was actually a suburb of Atlanta with a solid tech economy all of its own. But the thing which most struck me on visiting was how many really good restaurants there are packed into a fairly small area. They've got their fair share of some of the nicer chains, places like P.F. Chang's and Pappadeux's, but on top of that they've got a bucket of really fantastic independent restaurants as well.

The first time I visited I ended up at Modavi out of sheer change and was really blown away by the quality of the food. My first visit was over a year ago but I still remember what I ordered: a prosciutto-wrapped pork chop (bonus points for pork-on-pork) with a caramelized apple sauce, a fantastic potato gratin, and well executed grilled asparagus. Technically the restaurant is in Duluth, which appears to be a commuter suburb of Alpharetta, but whatever...

I just returned from my second visit and was also pleasantly surprised. I was working off of a different highway exit than my previous visit and was exposed to an entirely different set of great restaurants. The Atlantic Seafood Company had some of the best sushi I've experience in who knows how long. My only complaint is that they put avocado in too many of their rolls, but that's a nit-picky pet peeve more than anything else.

Now on to the bad news: the traffic sucks. Alpharetta has the feeling of a town that's grown too fast. There's too many people trying to get in and out on a daily basis for the road system that they have right now. I noticed is the first time I was there and I noticed it again on my most recent visit. I suspect that homes are probably pretty expensive as well, but that's more just gut instinct.

Blog Information Profile for gg00