31 August 2006


.....by e-mail. Unbelievable.


Hey! All you guys with motorcycles or noisy-engined cars that you probably think sound so macho as you go roaring down the street? Well, those engine noises sound exactly like giant farts! Every time one of those things goes thundering past, it makes me think, "That sounds like a dinosaur on an all-bean diet."

Just had to get that out there.



Parts being recalled

Seesh. It's bad enough having the battery in your laptop recalled due to defects -- but body parts?!

30 August 2006

Quote for the day

"Virtue is more to be feared than vice, for its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience."

Adam Smith

An incident in Maywood, California

A report on an outrageous display of flagrant racism and anti-Americanism on American soil.

Notice that the racism here was entirely on one side -- SOS explicitly renounced it.

If you find it hard to believe this was as bad as Johnson describes, see photos here.


Good weather returns

It's raining outside -- really raining. I have my window open so I can savor the delicious, soothing sound of it.

It's only a foretaste, of course. This weekend the temperatures will be back up into the nineties. But it's a sign that the worst of summer is behind us. Soon Oregon will feel like Oregon again.

"An appalling habit"

Not much I can add to this commentary on the San Francisco "car jihadist". Why on Earth do the MSM even bother to do this? Do they really think they can stop us from noticing what's going on?


Technology as liberator

Technology has done far more to expand individual freedom and improve human life than ideology has. The enlightened skepticism which eroded away religious certainties during the Renaissance would have had a much harder time getting started without the printing press. It was industrialization and mass production, not ideology, that triggered the greatest explosion of material prosperity in history. It was vaccines and antibiotics and modern nutrition, not ideology, that freed most humans from the scourge of premature death. It was the nuclear bomb, not ideology, that kept the developed world free from major wars from 1945 on (by making the consequences of such wars too terrible to risk). It was mostly modern contraception, not ideology, which began to free human sexuality from ancient religious taboos. Today it is the internet, not ideology, which is enabling ordinary people all over the planet to outflank and roll back the power of big media, totalitarian governments, and the like, and is making censorship (whether motivated by leftist or rightist "concerns") more and more impractical.

And what is coming in the next fifty years is a thousand times greater than all that has gone before.


Why do we care what actors think, anyway?

As a followup to the posting below:

Every time some pop singer or actor makes some flamingly-ignorant comment about foreign policy, the inevitable point is raised: Who cares? Why are this person's opinions of any more interest than those of any randomly-chosen, equally-uninformed individual you might run into on the street, just because he's a big name in show biz? It's a fair question.

Strictly speaking, they shouldn't be. Being highly talented in a particular field is no evidence of expertise in an unrelated field. To take a much scarier example, these days we have no shortage of politicians and pundits (people quite insightful in their chosen fields, too) who are flagrantly, unapologetically, embarrassingly ignorant about science. Being a good singer confers no expertise in the intricacies of Iraq military strategy or Lebanon's political situation.

At the same time, the human fascination with celebrities is part of our primate heritage, and railing against it is probably useless. Everyone wishes they could get a wider audience for their opinions, and you can't really blame celebrities for taking advantage of the fact that millions of people are interested in any story with their name attached to it. You or I would do the same. In some cases, this actually does good, as when famous people try to raise money for causes or draw attention to neglected injustices. The anti-terrorism declaration is another example. If it makes even one conservative reconsider the demonization of "the left", it will have been worthwhile.


The Hollywood anti-terrorism declaration

This story caused something of a flurry of interest on the net a couple of weeks ago. A long list of top-rank celebrities from the largely left-leaning movie industry signed a public statement condemning terrorism.

I didn't find this the slightest bit surprising myself. Militant Islam is the apotheosis of everything a typical Hollywood liberal opposes. It's the world's most vigorous opponent of secularism, women's equality, sexual liberation, freedom of expression, reproductive choice, freedom of religion -- ideologically it's the Christian Right on steroids, with the added threat of being willing and eager to use violence and murder to enforce its prejudices (see the cartoon riots, Theo van Gogh, Salman Rushdie, etc.). There is no rational reason on Earth why any self-proclaimed liberal would hesitate for a moment to condemn this. Most of the people I know personally are quite a ways out toward the leftist end of the political spectrum, and I've never heard any of them defend militant Islam or try to excuse terrorism. (Some extreme leftists do do those things, but pretty much all extremists are nuts -- and are not typical of anything.)

No, the startling thing about the story was the reaction of the right-wing side of the blogosphere to it. The anti-terrorism declaration was hailed as a "shocker", as if the default assumption is that most movie stars are burqa-wearing, Osama-adoring Islamic fundamentalists. The hard-core right has spent so much time and energy building up their alternate reality in which the most vile, irrational left-wing extremists are representative of everyone even slightly to the left of center (and yes, I know the hard-core left does the same thing toward the right), that this parallel world has actually become real to them, so that intrusions from the real world the rest of us live in, if they can't just be ignored, seem "shocking".

It's probably due in part to this context that the Hollywood stars involved felt it appropriate to issue such a declaration. I don't question their sincerity at all -- in the absence of any public statement I would simply assume that movie actors, like most people, are against terrorism. But when your whole industry is routinely smeared in a certain segment of the media as anti-American and perhaps even supportive of America's enemies, it makes sense to remind everyone clearly of where you stand.


27 August 2006

Nanotechnology and the brain

Here is news of an important early step towards developing a full-fledged direct interface between computer systems and the organic brain -- an integral part of the Singularity.


26 August 2006

The spiritual delusion

My central objection to the idea of man as a "spiritual being" is the very concept of a "soul" -- the concept that there is some supernatural spark inside us that makes us human, that there is something going on inside the human brain other than massively complex computational processes in the synapses. It is this delusion that leads so many humans to imagine that we are something other than (or, as many of us like to have it, something "more than") animals. It is from this one central delusion that so many of our other errors, inanities, and misunderstandings flow.

People who have spent decades studying the behavior of chimpanzees in the wild report that love, friendship, conviviality, and compassion exist among them very much in the same way as among human beings. Unless one wants to argue that the chimpanzee is also a "spiritual being" (and I can hardly think of a more implausible guise for a "spiritual being" to assume), this shows that these pleasant qualities are an integral part of the animal nature which we share with our cousin species, and need no "spiritual" pretensions to explain them.

The same applies to what might be called the other side of the behavioral balance sheet. If we have no souls, neither are we "fallen". Chimpanzees have also been observed to commit murder and rape, to display greed and cruelty and violent intolerance of strangers, to engage in complex struggles for dominance within their social groups, and to wage genocidal "war" against rival communities of their own species. Human behavior does not need the concept of "sin" to explain it any more than it needs the concept of spirituality -- good and bad, it is rooted in our genes, as natural as the physical flesh and blood itself.

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Romanian pop music

The recent cult favorite Dragostea Din Tei in the original Romanian language, performed by O-Zone.

A version featuring "The Sims" with rewritten lyrics, first in English, then a mish-mash of European languages, and finally Mandarin.

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Do social insects have minds?

I've often wondered about this. The brain of an ant is so simple that it cannot possibly have anything like a mind in the sense that a mammal does, yet the behavior of an ant colony, and the structure of the underground nest it builds for itself, can be remarkably complex. It may make more sense to look upon an entire ant colony as an organism and the individual ants as sub-units of that organism -- something intermediate in level between an organ and a cell. In some ant species, a single colony may contain millions of ants. A million ant brains aggregated together might approach the complexity of a mammal brain, though in a far less flexible way, since its parts are physically separated and cannot interact with each other so easily. Ants within a colony are known to communicate with each other using a variety of chemical signals; this may actually be not "communication" between separate entities, but something more analogous to the way different structures within the mammal body use hormones to influence each other.

If an ant colony is a collective organism in some meaningful sense, it probably does not have self-awareness as the higher mammals do. An ant colony does not behave as if it is self-aware. But can we be sure? Such a "mind" would be very alien. If it did have self-awareness, would we even recognize it when we saw it?

The implications are a little disquieting. We intuitively feel that killing an insect is a far more trivial matter than killing, say, a dog. But I wonder if, when we destroy a whole ant colony, we are actually killing an organism as sophisticated in its own way as a dog is.

Unnatural sexual behavior

Those who seek to denounce some particular form of sexual behavior sometimes like to brand it as "unnatural", basically meaning that it does not exist in nature -- that is, among non-human animals -- and therefore cannot be normal for humans either. Oddly, the people who do this often tend to be those who reject evolution and thus do not believe that we are related to the other animals, but let that pass.

In most cases, in fact, it's not true. Animal sexual behavior is very varied, and unsurprisingly, it's our fellow mammals who tend to be the most imaginative. Masturbation, promiscuity (in both genders), oral sex, foreplay, incest, rape, homosexuality (in both genders), erotic dances to whip up a partner's interest, sexual play among adolescents, and even lifelong commitment to a single partner -- all these things have been observed among other mammal species and are common enough in at least some to qualify as normal behavior for them. (Note too that a couple of these examples remind us that blindly taking what occurs in nature as a guideline for what should be acceptable among humans would be rather dangerous.)

But there is one form of human sex-related behavior (indeed, one which the moralists consider an essential prerequisite to sex of any kind) which has no counterpart in nature. It's marriage.

No naturalist studying any species on Earth has ever reported a case in which two animals who wanted to mate with each other insisted on finding a third animal to stand around reciting mumbo-jumbo at them first. Only humans do that.

Personally I've always found the concept somewhat insulting. Its underlying assumption seems to be that the feelings a man and woman have for each other are not enough in themselves, and need to be "legitimized" in some way by bringing a third party -- the church, the government -- into the relationship to provide its stamp of approval.

In fact, if people feel motivated to be monogamous, they will be, with or without a piece of paper from the state. And if they don't feel motivated, the piece of paper probably won't help.

Others are entitled to their own views, of course. But denunciations of behavior as "unnatural" are impossible to take seriously.

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Pat Buchanan's new book

Pat Buchanan has just published a book which will disastrously undermine the fight against illegal immigration.

Article here.

Actual (and damning) quotes from the book here.

He seems to have assembled every possible error and distortion that makes it impossible to talk intelligently about illegal immigration:

- Conflation of illegal aliens with Hispanics, as if all Hispanics in the US (the great majority of whom are not illegal aliens, while 40% of illegal aliens are not Hispanic) were part of the problem. A friend of mine works for a businessman who is Hispanic, a 28-year veteran of the US Marines and a fervent American patriot. I'd like to hear what that man would have to say about Buchanan's racist idiocy.

- Conflation of American identity with Christianity -- in "the country I grew up in.....we.....had the same faith" -- in other words, non-Christians (such as me) are part of the problem. Of course, the illegal aliens from Mexico are overwhelmingly Christian, while some of the larger and most economically beneficial groups of legal immigrants (such as the Chinese and Indians) are not. He can't even keep straight what he's complaining about.

- Conflation of American identity with being white, as if American citizens who are black, Hispanic, Asian, etc. are somehow less American, coupled with repulsive and scientifically-illiterate blather about superior European "genetic endowments". In fact, non-white Americans tend to be more hostile to illegal immigration than white Americans are, but Buchanan goes out of his way to alienate them by insulting their American-ness and even their genes.

- The moaning-pessimist-declinist mentality in general. The United States has problems -- all countries do -- but it is not in decline and anyone who claims it is doesn't know what he's talking about.

He also invokes that reliable shibboleth of the declinist, the fall of the Roman Empire. If you listened to these people you'd think that all the Roman Empire ever did was decline and fall. In fact, the Roman Empire stood for half a millennium (even ignoring the previous centuries of the Republic) as a vast, extremely heterogenous collection of peoples of exactly the type that Buchanan claims cannot survive. It was one of the great success stories of human history. Interestingly enough, after centuries of prosperous existence, it collapsed within a few decades after the government decided to impose religious homogeneity -- by making Christianity the official religion.

Probably the ethnic make-up of the US will continue to change over time as it always has. It may be that a few decades from now 20% or 25% of the gene pool will be of Mexican origin (though with so much intermarriage that we will give no more thought to this than we do to what percentage of the gene pool is Italian or Irish today). So what? After the waves of immigration in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, people mainly descended from the original English settlers are less than a quarter of the population. America is still America. Our identity is rooted in ideas, not ethnicity.

I believe that the law should be enforced and illegal aliens should be removed from the country, whether they came from Latin America or Europe or whatever. And an American is an American, whether his ancestors came from Britain or Africa or Mexico or Pluto.

Illegal immigration is a serious problem. Part of the reason it's so intractable is that if you take a strong stand against it, you are likely to be accused of being a racist, a xenophobe, and an ignoramus. Buchanan has now given such accusations a huge extra dose of credibility and thus made it that much harder to deal with the real issues.

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25 August 2006

Plan B

The fact that "morning-after" contraception is now available without a prescription is a significant victory for individual self-determination over the forces of government meddling in our private business. It's not yet a complete victory, however. This editorial in our local paper gets it right.

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Tube humor

People on YouTube have been having some fun with Senator Ted Stevens's famous "series of tubes" rant about the internet. Watch in order:

Ted Stevens explains the internet

Jon Stewart explains Ted Stevens explaining the internet

Ted Stevens techno rap

(If the videos get hung up in the "loading" phase, click your "refresh" button.)

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The Iraq "quagmire"

A more objective look at the situation, with plenty of links. Also notice the photo of a million people filling the streets of Baghdad, unaffected by the "chaos" allegedly gripping the city.

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I feel distinctly odd calling myself an "atheist" -- it makes it sound as though I'm a member of a cohesive group of people with a common belief system and a common agenda. That's what most words ending in "-ist" imply.

Why does the word "atheist" even exist, anyway? Why should there be a special word for people who don't believe in God? There's not a special word for people who don't believe in Santa Claus. There's not a special word for people who don't believe in flying saucers. There's not a special word for people who don't believe the Earth is flat.

And what's the common belief system and common agenda of people who don't believe in flying saucers?


23 August 2006

Is this the nastiest person on the internet?

You be the judge. Full story here. If you're not familiar with the saga, click on the link to "The original post" first.

This year's election

From my point of view it would be best if the Democrats took control of the Senate and the Republicans kept the House. The Senate would then be able to block any further anti-freedom Supreme Court nominations. And the House Republicans would be encouraged to continue their tough stance against illegal immigration -- an issue on which the Democrats and the left in general have shamefully abandoned American workers.

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With best wishes

Tomorrow (24 August) is Ukrainian independence day.


22 August 2006

Conservatism and Christianity

Heather Mac Donald challenges the assumed inherent connection between the two.

This article has stirred up some rather agitated controversy on The Corner at NRO -- Mac Donald makes more telling points here. What's really astonishing, of course, is that the article's restatement of the painfully obvious should even be controversial.

Update: Here she is again, showing in the gentlest possible terms how implausible the traditional concept of God is.

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Andrew Sullivan is one of our most consistently sane and rational commentators on politics. Read his essay defining "Christianism", as he distinguishes it from Christianity -- a position which has stirred up some degree of agitation on the religious right.

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Americans for Limited Government

This organization is worth a look -- it's libertarian in ideology, but more focused on getting things done in the real world than on upholding ideological purity. They're involved with efforts to cut taxes and protect property rights in several states.

The focus does seem to be mostly on those types of issues. Under "Our campaigns" the site lists tax & spending reform, property rights, school choice, and judicial reform -- worthy causes all (though "judicial reform" might cover a lot of things), but hardly an exhaustive list of fields where government interference in individual choice needs to be "limited" at least. Searching their site for "abortion" and "marijuana" generates a total of three hits, each of which leads to a 404 error message. I'll give them credit for opposing a law in the town of Black Jack, Missouri, which was apparently designed to discourage unmarried couples from cohabiting.

And the crusade against bar and restaurant smoking bans only discredits libertarianism. The "right" to make continuous exposure to a highly-toxic substance a condition of employment simply is not a fundamental freedom except to those whose attachment to that ideological purity has blinded them to common sense. Still, it's not a major focus of ALG's activities.

They're supporting ballot initiatives here in Oregon to limit government spending, impose term limits, and ban Kelo-style use of eminent domain to benefit private developers. All these things would most likely be beneficial.

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19 August 2006


I ride the bus to work every weekday.

It's not a bad way to commute. I don't need to drive or worry about traffic. The bus driver does that for me. I can read, or stare out the window, or steal glances at pretty women on the bus, or even catch up on missed sleep. It's relaxing.

But sometimes the bus is jam-packed with people. And then, I think of Israel.

I think of what it must be like for Israelis doing the same thing, commuting to work just as I am, when one of them strikes.

I think what it would be like to feel the shock wave as some Islamist nutcase blasts himself into fantasized union with his imaginary 72 virgins. I picture the jagged metal shrapnel ripping through the densely-packed men and women and boys and girls around me, shredding muscles and lungs and hearts and brains. I picture their blood splashing across my face and hands and clothes. I imagine the pressure wave shattering my eardrums even as it also blows out the windows of the bus. I think of shards of metal tearing through me.

I don't really worry for myself. This has never happened in the United States and it probably never will. But I can't forget those people, not much different from myself, who live in the nation on the front line of the West where it abuts the wasteland of barbarism and madness, who have to conquer this fear every day for the sake of the simple act of riding the bus to work.

Their enemy is our enemy; their fight is our fight.


The Israel-Hizbullah conflict

A great on-the-spot report from Michael Totten here.

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Three things I hate about summer, in ascending order of annoyingness:

(1) The heat and glare

(2) People complaining about the heat and glare

(3) People blathering about how wonderful the heat and glare are

Bah. The only pleasant thing about summer is all the short skirts.


President Bush is a malevolent moron, and only the most naive fool could believe that he might ever do anything for good motives or make an intelligent decision. The Islamic terrorist menace is an illusion trumped up to serve as a pretext for insane military aggression. All uses of American military power are evil. Conservatives in general consist of the rich -- a reptilian, utterly-selfish cabal -- and a vast Middle American population of semi-literate Bible-besotted troglodytes. All conservatives are either covertly or openly racist, and they hate homosexuals too. They probably spend their free time strangling adorable kittens.

Leftists all hate America and love to burn flags. They support terrorism and want the terrorists to win. They support Communism, too, and were heartbroken when the Soviet Union fell. They think the schools should have mandatory classes on sodomy and on the relentless onslaught of evil inflicted by the malignant West upon the peaceful, egalitarian, Kumbaya-singing non-Western world throughout history. Through their absolute control over Hollywood and the mainstream media -- both of which are completely homogenous, monolithic entities -- they work ceaselessly to poison the minds of the public against all that is good and decent. They probably spend their free time strangling adorable kittens.

I submit that if you hold one of these viewpoints, you probably have more in common with those who hold the other one than you do with normal people. The most important division in American society is not between rightists and leftists, but rather between the extremists on each side who demonize everybody on the other side and the people with more moderate views who don't do that.

The extremist on one side looks at the extremists on the other side, gathers their most stupid and outrageous statements and actions into a broad brush, and proceeds to tar the entire other side with that brush. The trouble is, many individuals who start out as moderates read what the hard-liners on their own side have to say (since those hard-liners are over-represented among people who write about politics) and are gradually swayed by it, so the country gradually becomes polarized into two camps, each convinced that the other has gone crazy.

When somebody makes a blanket denunciation of "the left" or "the right", our suspicion should be directed first against the person who is doing that, rather than against their target.


What's an individualist to do?

Freedom! Almost everyone praises it, but where can I find anyone who actually speaks for it -- across the board?

The right claims to support it, but in reality they have a long list of areas where they don't believe in it in practice. The best-known example is abortion, but one could also cite stem-cell research, pornography, drugs, and various kinds of unconventional sexual behavior. Notice that the majority of these areas have to do with sexuality, and most of them are easily traceable back to Christian religious taboos. The right these days is increasingly identified with a politicized and anti-intellectual form of fundamentalist Christianity, which seeks to erode away the separation of church and state at every opportunity, brushing aside scientific fact (evolution, global warming) when it conflicts with dogma or is otherwise inconvenient, and generally working toward a society in which anyone who is not Christian would feel very much a second-class citizen (though well-behaved Jews seem to be accepted as a sort of "honorary Christians", at least for now). I don't want to be a second-class citizen, or to live in a society dominated by ignorant superstition and ancient Middle Eastern tribal taboos.

The left has its own laundry list of exceptions. Leftists may not seek to repress sexuality (though certain elements of the feminist wing sound remarkably similar to the Christian fundamentalists in this respect), but they have plenty of problems with freedom of speech in other areas -- the objective study of gender differences comes to mind, as does the issue of the medical consequences of homosexuality. Indeed, political correctness is to the left as Christian fundamentalism is to the right. The left generally favors indefinite increases in taxation and in social manipulation to be funded by the revenues raised thereby, pushing us toward a condition of dependence on the state, similar to what is seen in most of western Europe. And leftists seek to undermine one of our most fundamental rights -- gun ownership. Most damning of all is a "soft", reality-denying approach to the whole issue of defense against violence -- an unwillingness to confront the harsh measures needed to cope with violent crime, and to acknowledge the reality of external threats (Communism earlier, Islamic fundamentalism today) and the need for a strong and vigorous fight against those threats. I wouldn't want to live in a society where I'm a powerless ward of the state, where I'm forbidden to say anything that might offend a long list of "protected" groups or to own an effective means of defending myself, and where the government refuses to fight back against those who threaten our country.

What do the right and the left have in common? Whenever a major new problem arises, their first instinct is to call for a new law or policy forbidding you and me from doing something we could formerly do, or at least imposing some new rule on us.

The libertarians would be attractive, but they focus far too much on tax-and-regulation issues and not nearly enough on vastly more fundamental personal freedoms such as abortion and gun ownership. Also, their open-borders position renders them beyond the pale. There is no point in building a free society if one then allows it to be swamped by mass migration and reduced to Third-World-like chaos (and, ultimately, tyranny).

I like to think that there is a quiet but large "sensible center" out there -- moderate, pragmatic people who may identify to some degree with the left or the right, but not with the fire-breathing ideologues. Such individuals seem to be fairly well represented among the people I know personally. But there is not a party or ideology that speaks for them.

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