Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Kristof on Darfur

Kristof nobly trying to do some good again. I've seen him ridiculed a good bit on lefty sites, but I've never understood why. But you know how those people are. Anyway, he's on the job again here, and good for him.

Interesting to note the quote from a reader he starts off with. It's funny that one is as likely to hear Americans say that Americans are the most generous people in the world as one is to hear someone say that we need to quit worrying about these little brown people elsewhere and do for our own. In fact, you often hear the same people say both things. (The former is more common if the breeze is being shot, the latter if actual money or action is being asked for.)

Can't really have it both way, friends....not without seriously tortured reasoning.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Chris Wallace: Republican Partisan
More Faux News Follies

We only get basic cable, so on Sunday morning when I'm really jonesin' for the talk shows, I have to start out with Fox "News" Sunday because nothing else is on yet. Whew, man. I didn't have easy access to tv last semester, and I'd just plain forgotten how blatantly biased Fox "New" is.

Dunno whether anyone else had the displeasure of seeing the spectacle, but Chris Wallace first interviewed Richard Meyers. He lobbed him nothing but softballs, always in an extremely deferential tone, always waiting patiently while Meyers answered, giving him as much time as he wanted to answer each question. "Wow," I thought, "what a wienerly interview."

But then I thought about Meyers's stature and impending retirement, and thought that one might justifiably go easy on him.

Then Chris Dodd came on the show to talk about the Bolton nomination, and Walllace's demeanor changed completely. He was aggressive almost to the point of being disrespectful, interrupting Dodd several times, talking over him at other times, always rushing him, repeating the same questions over and over in different forms even though Dodd had already given excellent answers several times. Even in response to eminently reasonable answers, Wallace would react in a way that conveyed a kind of subtle incredulity. It was a disgusting display of naked bias.

It may also be worth nothing that later on This Week, Stephanopoulos was interviewing Sam Brownback (who opposes new fetal stem cell lines) and Specter (who supports them), and after Brownback's first response, Stephanopoulos responded rather too quickly and sharply with another question, seemingly indicating his disagreement. But after that, he got himself under control.

The impression I came away with was that Stephanopoulos was trying to be objective and doing a passably good--but by no means perfect--job of it, whereas Wallace wasn't even pretending to be neutral.
Slay the Gerrymanders

Here's some good news from the NYT.

I don't know of any issues more important than redistricting reform. This is something I lay awake worrying about at night.

Wait...did I write that or only think it? Holy God, I am a geek...

Anyway. Our democracy is slipping closer and closer to becoming a joke because the voters no longer choose the politicians, the politicians choose the voters. Witness the recent, blatant, anti-democratic (and anti-Democratic) power-grab by DeLay and his minions in Texas. Why there weren't riots in the streets over that I'll never understand. Sure, the Democrats gerrymandered NC districts after the last census, but at least they were honorable enough to merely cheat in the time-honored way, not between censuses like DeLay & co. I mean, there are limits, right? Sheesh.

Iowa already has an independent commission for drawing districts, and (believe it or not) the Gropenator has proposed such a commission for California.

E-mail your congresspersons!!!!!!! THIS IS IMPORTANT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Orson Scott Card vs. Smartness
Or: The Last Refuge

Whew. Here's another real stinker from the sci-fi-writer-turned-conservative-hack. It's like a parody of right-wing paranoia and nationalism-disguised-as-patriotism. There's a good deal of my-country-right-or-wrong-type stuff, a suggestion that we should suppress news stories that undermine the War on Terra, and some whining about a recent expose on Mormonism.

My favorite part, though, is his David Brooksian attempt to invent some snappy terminology that distills the essence of The Current Unpleasantness. The fruit of his efforts? Well, you see, it's all about "Smartland" vs. the Heartland. The inhabitants of Smartland are those unpatriotic media and intellectual elites who don't realize that they should STFU, support the president, salute the flag, and go to church. The inhabitants of Smartland don't realize how lucky they are to live over here, in a country where the religious right merely dreams about killin' 'em and drops hints about how they probably deserve killin', instead of over in the Middle East where it would just kill 'em...

Oh, gosh, that last bit's a little unfair to Card. He doesn't really drop any hints about killing us. That's Coulter...

But the rest is more-or-less accurate. Christ, how do people like this find an audience? Are there really that many people out there so deluded and possessed of such modest intellectual abilities that they think that this crap is insightful? Perhaps it's all about having one's predjudices reinforced...

The thing about these my-country-right-or-wrong types is that they see even the truth as a threat. They're so comitted to the claim that this is the best of all possible nations that they are willing to distort the facts in order to support the fantasy.

And, um, just for the record, let me make it clear that I think this is a damn fine country. In fact, I think I think it's a better country than I think they think it is, because I think it's good enough that it can withstand having the truth told about it. In fact, I think it'd be an even better country if rather more truths were told about it....

What we have here are two visions of how we should conduct our efforts against terrorism. Card thinks that critics of the administration should shut up, and we should all fall in line behind Dear Leader. When America does something wrong, the information should be covered up. Our opponents, he claims, are unified, and this gives them an advantage over us. We should respond by becoming more Borg-like ourselves.

I, on the other hand, think that we should appear virtuous by being virtuous, not by lying about our virtue. If we do something wrong, we should admit it and promise not to do it again. I think dissent is good, especially when there are criminals and idiots running the country. I think America will win this struggle only by being America, in all it's cacophanous glory.

But, then, I guess I'm one of the insidious denizens of "Smartland"...

One thing Orson Scott Card gets right, I think: Osama bin Laden et. al. are considerably worse than Orson Scott Card et. al. I'm fairly certain that OBL would kill people like me if he ruled the world. I'm fairly certain that people like OSC (Pat Robertson, James Dobson) would merely make our lives miserable. The nugget of truth Card's screed is that many on the left underestimate the badness of the Islamic religious right. That's a point worth keeping in mind, thin and obvious though it might be.

After reading this dreck, though, one can only hope that Card will go back to writing sci-fi and leave off the fantasy.

[O.k., that's it. I'm done picking on the worst of the worst. From now on, I'm going to focus on non-crap. But after my customary four hours of sleep, I was cranky and this really annoyed me.]

[Oh, and, to my shame, I found this on Fark.com, where it was--I'm not making this up--labeled "Hero".]

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Why John Bolton is Unqualified to be U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.

(1) Anyone who thinks that it is permissible to kill innocent people for oil is unqualified for any post in the U.S. government that might affect foreign policy

(2) John Bolton apparently believes that it is permissible to kill innocent people for oil
(3) John Bolton is unqualified for any post in the U.S. government that might affect foreign policy

This is not hyperbolic lefty paranoia about the reasons for the Iraq war. John Bolton is a foreign policy "realist" (as are many other members of the administration, e.g. Rice, e.g. Cheney). Foreign policy realists think that the ONLY thing that should guide our foreign policy is the pursuit of our national interest. (Bolton has said, among other things, that the U.S. should have unrestricted “discretion in using force to advance its national interests.”) This means that it's permissible for us to kill innocent people for oil. It also means that it's permissible to kill innocent people for money. Or for land. Or to distract Americans from domestic problems. It also means, among other hideous things, that it's permissible to invade other countries to enslave their populations. In fact, it means that it's permissible for us to do anything to anyone so long as (a) that person is a non-American and (b) doing whatever to him would be good for America in some way.

Perhaps John Bolton does not really beleve any of these things. If not, then he should stop saying things that entail that he does. It's hard to believe that most "realists" (better term: 'amoralists') really believe the obvious entailments of their view. If they don't, then they should stop saying things that entail that they do. So long as they keep saying it--and acting as if they believe it--I'll continue to conclude that they do believe it.

This fight should not be about John Bolton's personality. This fight should be about John Bolton's evil theory of foreign relations, an evil theory shared by many in the current administration. This is the theory of a von Ribbentrop, not of a U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

W may be a bad president, but at least he's an "idealist" about foreign policy. 'Idealist' in this context means: someone who believes that America has moral obligations to non-Americans. That is, we can't kill them indiscriminately. It's "realists" who brand non-realists "idealists," the term suggesting that we believe in some kind of pie-in-the sky utopian vision of the world. But what "idealists" really believe is that it's not permissible for nations to be evil.

Hitler was a "realist" about foreign policy. Churchill--in his better moments--was an "idealist."

Friday, May 27, 2005

Brother Tom Gets It Right Again; Atrios Apoplectic

I think Tom Friedman is on the mark today--as he often is--when he argues that we must shut down Guantanamo Bay. Our actions there are likely to go down as one of the blackest black marks on our history--a history with entirely too many black marks on it as it is.

The administration's policies with regard to the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay seem to indicate that their commitment to human rights is shallow at best, a mere smokescreen at worst. What's going on at Guantanamo Bay is consistent with the general orientation of American conservatives in my lifetime: they have been all too willing to engage in egregious violations of the rights of non-Americans in order to purchase even miniscule--and sometimes purely fictional--improvements for security for Americans. This is what happened, for example, when conservatives backed the Nicaraguan Contras.

But our government is underwritten by a theory according to which all human beings have certain inalienable rights. Our constitution guarantees that our government must recognize these antecedently-existing rights, but the constitution itself is not taken to create these rights, and, so, these rights are not limited to American citizens. Here's a good place to use the "what if the tables were turned?" test: how many of us would tolerate the abuses of Guantanamo Bay if the prisoners held without trial there were Unites States citizens? How many of us would tolerate it if another country were holding our citizens under such conditions?

As the most minor of footnotes to all of this, I notice in passing that Atrios now exists in a state of near-constant apoplexy. I hate to be too harsh toward the guy who gave me my first big link, but I have to say that I consider Atrios to be little more than the Instapundit of the left anymore. And although the comments are sometimes amusing, they are almost uniformly shrill and irrational, an exercise in the worst kind of groupthink Atrios, like many others on the left, has nothing but contempt for Tom Friedman--and, apparently, anyone else who dares to be a centrist and refuses to toe the party line. I frequently disagree with what Friedman has to say, but he certainly doesn't warrant the kind of sneering disdain that Atrios heaps on him.

But, sadly, such seems to be the polarizing and snarkifying effect of the blogosphere. Whereas we more-or-less leftish types spend a good deal of time complaining about Fox "news," Atrios and his ilk make Fox look like Frontline.

Atrios is, however, right to say that it would have been better to see this column two years ago. Still, better late than never. Let's hope that Darth Dubya is listening.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Tips on Thinking: What if the Tables Were Turned?

Another in my fascinatin' series in which I tell you things you alread know...

Here's a little trick to help you be a better reasoner in general, based on a trick your mom taught you about how to be morally good. Since many mistakes in reasoning are actually moral mistakes--e.g. unfairly using different standards for yourself and others--it should come as no surprise that the same trick that helps you in your moral reasonings will help you in other domains as well.

The trick goes a little something like this: when you are evaluating an inference or assertion, simply ask yourself "what if the tables were turned?" That is, if you are evaluating someone else's inference or claim, ask "how would I evaluate this if I had made it?" And if you are evaluating your own inference or claim, ask "how would I evaluate it if someone I disagree with had made it?"

This trick works very well, and that's because we do tend to apply differential standards to the claims of those with whom we agree and those with whom we disagree. We tend to be far less critical of the inferences made by ourselves and our allies than we are of our opponents. This is the logical analog of certain well-known moral facts: we all have a tendency to cut ourselves more slack than we cut others.

Cognitive scientists tell us that humans have a tendency to accept rather uncritically claims that they find congenial, but to submit other claims to scrutiny until they find some flaw in them. There is a certain respect in which this may be a rational strategy, but the logical downside of this inclination should be fairly clear.

Of course, applying a consistent standard to yourself and others doesn't guarantee that you're applying the correct standard...but applying different standards does guarantee that you're getting it wrong at least half the time...

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Orson Scott Card: Christianity More Plausible Than Star Wars

Man, this has got to be a new high in setting the bar low. What's really sad is that I'm not even sure he's right..

I haven't seen Revenge of the Sith yet, so it could suck for all I know. I do find it amusing however how the fringes of the political spectrum get all bent out of shape about Lucas's movies. After The Phantom Menace, some of my liberal (and intelligent!) friends tried to convince me that Lucas was a racist because some of the characters sounded vaguely Asian. Now, apparently, we've got Orson Scott Card and other conservatives coming down on the side of the Empire against the Jedi. (Um, wait...that actually makes a bit of sense, doesn't it?)

Anyway, apparently it's now patriotically correct to be anti-Star Wars. So straighten up and fly right, people (in your TIE fighters, that is). Enough of these bleeding-heart Jedi and the anti-authoritarian Rebellion (er, Insurgency?).

Anyway, Card's ditty will probably provide you with a chuckle. For extra Cardy goodness, you might also enjoy reading an account of my afternoon with the guy about 13 years ago. But probably not.

On a related note, check out this awesome petition in favor of charging Michael Moore with treason. Man, you can't make this stuff up...

Um, let me re-iterate my belief that blogs shouldn't just be used to obsess about the biggest kooks on the other side. That's a waste of the time and bad for the soul. But sometimes I just can't help myself...

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Philosoraptor Plays Hooky from NSA, Gets Hit By Truck Instead

So my department Chair decided to go to the NSA, thus sparing me from a 10-hour round trip + $100 hotel room charge. If this program takes off, I'll probably still participate, but getting to this meeting was going to be quite a pain, probably for little gain. So my plan was to stay home and get some work done on this #@&* book...but, on account of the on-going insomnia problem I have to take out several hours a day to exercise in order to have any chance of sleeping that night. I've been riding my mountain bike on the trails near Bolin Creek and the Chapel Hill airport, but I cleverly injured my feet a couple of years ago, and the trail riding was putting undue stress on the injuries. So I decided to do some riding on the roads.

Now, I used to do some road riding, and I when I first thought about trying mountain biking, the latter seemed a little scary. After mountain biking for awhile, however, you come to realize that it's a lot safer than being on the roads with @*$&%&ing idiots who don't know how to drive zooming past you all the time, barely in control of their land dreadnoughts.

So anyway, I'm on the road for less than five minutes, riding along at a good clip, doing everything right, when I hear a truck coming up on my left. It starts to pass me, and I note with some alarm that it is WAY too close, despite the fact that nobody's even coming in the other direction. I move over to the very edge of the road. This is happening pretty fast...I'm thinking this a**hole is going to hit me...when I see out of the corner of my eye the back end of the truck going by.

That's when the trailer hit me.

It was a glancing blow, barely catching me in the ribs, hitting me mostly in the left triceps. It knocked my left hand off the handlebars, and sent me and the bike off the road, wobbling wildly. Fortunately the shoulder expanded into a relatively wide, grassy section just as I went off the road, and I ended up far enough down and back on the bike that I managed to keep from going over the bars...in fact--and I still don't know how this happened--I didn't even fall over.

By the time I come to a stop, the truck that hit me is at the top of the next hill, turning left. I managed to flip him off and yell some naughty words at him, but then he was gone. I got on the bike and rode after him like hell, but I knew he'd be long gone by the time I could get up the hill. It looked like a kind of groundskeeping truck, and I think what hit me might have been a tow-behind wood-chipper, but I can't be sure. I spent the next hour and a half riding around the area looking for 'em, but, of course, couldn't find them. Just as well, probably. I must admit I was pretty pissed, and not looking to talk about the matter.

In the end, I got off pretty easy. Some scratches and bruises, a sore triceps, and a little bit of neck and back pain, but nothing serious.

But, just the same, I think I'll stick to the trails from now on...

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Evangelicals Storm the Academy

One of the great things about living in a university environment is that it's one of the few places in the country that's dominated neither by conservative Christianity nor by big business. But that won't last if the former group has its way, according to this in today's NYT.

I've talked extensively with students who have fallen in with e.g. Campus Crusade for Christ, and it's a sad thing. Happily, sensible students frequently break out again after they see what's going on with the Stepford Students, but many are trapped for good.

Of course one can't talk about that branch of Christianity without discussing their bizarre attitudes about sex, and these do emerge in the Times piece. Mr. Haven, the protagonist of the piece, is an evangelical minister who did not even kiss his fiancee until after they were engaged. Think about what this betrays about Mr. Haven's views about sex. Kinda scary. It is, of course, no surprise that a significant percentage of Christians have pathological and indefensible views about sex. It's tragic, but not likely to change any time soon. And it's more than a little worrisome that someone with such a twisted view about such a great and important part of the human experience would presume to advise others on how to live their lives.

There's a vicious hatred of much of what is wonderful about humanity at the core of many conservative religions. Such hatred of our humanity is one of the forces of darkness that Western civilization has managed to beat back, but our victory over such forces is far from complete. It's an on-going battle. When relatively more reasonable forces managed to wrest control of the university from religious fanatics, a major victory was won. If people like Mr. Haven have their way, however, that front will be re-opened.

One might be able to maintain a kind of conflicted optimism here by noting that reason has some powerful, though unsavory, allies in this battle. Big corporations have gone a long way toward brainwashing many of us into accepting a kind of mindless hedonism--turn on MTV or BET for a few minutes if you don't believe me. Those corporate forces won't give up ground without a fight, and they must be aware that the puritanism of the religious right represents a significant threat to them.

The trick, however, is to construct a culture that is dominated neither by the anti-human puritanism of sexual conservatives, nor by a vulgar, mindless hedonism that promotes physical pleasure and material wealth above all other goods. That leaves an extraordinarily wide and varied range of possibilities for sexual exploration and expression[. O]f course, it just discourages the dumbest of the dumb mistakes one might make about sex.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Philosoraptor to the NSA

...for one day, anyway. That's right, unless I can figure out some way to get out of it, I'll be trekking up to Fort Meade for a meeting about developing an information analysis program at my university. It's rather a schlep for me when I'd rather be mountain biking...er...I mean...working on my book...but, well, you know how these things go.

I did briefly wonder whether it would be wrong to help out the NSA, but then came to the conclusion that that's kind of a nutty worry. If I can somehow, some way make some small contribution to improving the country's intelligence and information analysis, then I should do so. In particular, I'm interested in impressing upon them the importance of not spinning the data in the politcally correct direction...

Anyway, more real posts soon!

Monday, May 16, 2005

None Dare Call it Wanking:
The Poor Man on Instapundit, Administration Propaganda, and Defacing the Koran at Gitmo

The Poor Man sums it up for us.

You know, I've been getting more and more irritated with liberals of late. Sometimes you just can't get those people to see reason. Sometimes I even have thoughts like "maybe my natural home on the political spectrum is with the liberal Republicans..." But then I remember that liberal Republicans are a dying breed. And then I remember the theft of the 2000 election, the fact that two of the last three Republican presidents have been unqualified for the job, Watergate, Iran-Contra, the relentless torrent of propaganda and lies leading up to Gulf War Episode II, and the extent to which fundamentalists control the party...and I must sadly admit that the Democrats--God help us--are our only hope.

Anyway, this is really just a link to the Poor Man's post. I'm in the process of recovering from the semester and getting web access started up at Johnny Quest's digs. So real posting should resume soon.

Oh, and note that The Poor Man catches Rice still trying to link Iraq to 9/11. God, these people are reprehensible.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The Pope's Sins of Omission

From the Chronicle.

Haven't read it all yet--currently trying to get the hell out of Dodge and back to NC for the summer. But this looks interesting.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Limited Government and Living in Sin in NC

Republicans claim to want to get the government off our backs. If that's true, then they will raise a ruckus about this development in North Carolina. Apparently a Sheriff's dispatcher was forced to quit her job when her (fascistic) boss found out she was living with her boyfriend. U.S. Magistrate Carl Horn in Charlotte is also said to "regularly ask defendants whether their living arrangements violate the cohabitation ban," and refuse to release them until they promise to comply.

Be funny to see them try to enforce that ban in Chapel Hill...

Sunday, May 08, 2005

The Newest Thing In Armageddons: The Verneshot

For some time now Canis Major and I have been playing a friendly game of "What's the Worst that Can Happen?", in which we argue about whether we should be more alarmed about, say, quantum vacuum decay, gamma ray bursts, supervolcanoes, global warming, the release of undersea methane hydrate, or what.

Well, in case you're jonesin' for a new super-worst-case scenario to worry about, check this out. It concerns the "Verneshot," a theoretical phenomenon which, if real, would explain some puzzling facts about mass extinctions. You're probably familiar with the dispute between those who think that the KT extinction (the one that killed the dinosaurs) was caused by a meteor impact and those who think that it was caused by an eruption of the Deccan Traps. The former hypothesis seems to have taken on the status of orthodoxy recently, but the question is complicated by the fact that the Deccan Traps were erupting around the time that the KT impactor hit.

Well, it turns out that this coincidence of "meteor" impacts and supervolcano-like eruptions may not be unusual. In fact, there is allegedly evidence of such coincidence of events for at least four mass extinctions. The odds of this occurring by chance are purportedly 1 in 3,500 (though intuitively they would seem to be even greater).

What allegedly happens during a Verneshot goes something like this: gas seeps up from deep in the Earth, as it is wont to do--but its escape is blocked by a big ol' chunk of ancient crust, a "craton." When enough gas builds up, there may be a supervolcano explosion at the edge--which would be bad enough--but even worse, the craton, along with a large amount of material from underneath it, is shot out of the atmosphere, only to come crashing back down on the other side of the Earth. And that means curtains for most living things on the planet. Even things lucky enough to avoid being vaporized, shredded, shot into orbit, squashed, or burned, would probably die in the resulting (non-nuclear) nuclear winter.

And get this: apparently the KT impactor hit at about a twenty degree angle, which is consistent with an impact by material ejected from the Deccan Traps. If true, the Verneshot hypothesis would unify these two competing explanations for the KT extinction.

Oh, and give us disaster afficianados a little something else to ponder...

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Red State Family Values?

In the parking lot of an Idaho Wal-Mart, no less...

Via Fark.com.

[Gosh, this is a cheap shot...]
Firefighter Recovers after Ten Years of Unresponsiveness

This story is so great I almost can't believe it. Unfortunately, thirty seconds into my happy reaction to this, I realized that some folks are probably going to try asserting that if we'd just waited another couple of weeks, we could have saved Terri Schiavo...

Anyway, that's my prediction. Be interesting to see whether I'm right.

[I'll be done with grading in a couple of days, and then will start posting again. Sorry about the hiatus.]