31 January 2007
Up Helly Aa
Labels: Western Europe
The oppression of Christians
30 January 2007
Climate change watch
29 January 2007
So it has come to this again
"Fermi's paradox" is the question: given that the conventional wisdom (based on formulations such as the Drake equation) is that technological civilizations are probably fairly abundant in the universe, why is it that we have seen no sign whatsoever of their existence? There have been no radio or other signals which suggest intelligent origin, no visits to Earth by alien spaceships or probes, no archeological evidence of such visitations at any previous time in our planet's history. How can this be?
A large part of the answer is probably provided by the Rare Earth hypothesis, which asserts that Earth's astronomical situation is actually extremely unusual -- our whole solar system is a freak case, in fact -- and that environments which could allow the development of multicellular life forms are very rare in the universe. Having read the book for which the hypothesis is named, I find the case for it to be strong.
With or without the Rare Earth hypothesis, however, the solution to Fermi's paradox has always struck me as rather obvious (in fact, I'm sure others have already made this argument). Technological progress works much faster than biological evolution, especially since it tends to accelerate exponentially, a trend visible through the whole span of recorded human history. This acceleration effect becomes far more significant with the prospect of the Technological Singularity, culminating in the full integration of machine data-processing power into human intelligence, so that individual humans become vastly more intelligent than they are today -- a development which Ray Kurzweil projects will likely happen as soon as forty years from now. The rate and character of further progress after the Singularity is, by definition, beyond the ability of present-day humans to imagine.
However many planets there are in the universe which have the innate capacity to evolve an intelligent species at some point, some one planet will be the first to do so. Once this happens and a technological civilization appears, intelligence will diffuse outward from that planet and saturate the rest of the physical universe in far less time than it would take biological evolution to produce any other intelligent species anywhere else. That is, the first technological civilization to appear in the universe will be the only one. We just happened to be first. If we hadn't been the first, we wouldn't exist at all.
What really strikes me about this posting, however, is the discussion thread following it. Most of the comments are by UFO believers attacking the article. In their tone, rhetoric, illogic, distortions, ad hominem hectoring, personal insults, evasions of the real issues, etc., etc., etc., these comments closely replicate the range of Christian responses which a posting affirming an atheist viewpoint typically draws. It seems that emotional commitment to an irrational belief works in similar ways regardless of which particular irrational belief it is that is being defended.
Russian consumer-product design
What's the point?
Prague panty statue
Found via Blue Gal.
(While we're on the subject, what is it with public art in the West these days? Why does it all have to be abstract? Even an occasional throwback like one of those statues of a general on horseback would come as a relief. I'd even settle for a tractor! At least with those you can tell what it's supposed to be.)
27 January 2007
Tragic consequences of superstition
There came a point in my life when I just chose to believe, because living without faith, hope, and love was something I just couldn't do. Was it psychologically weak? Intellectually dishonest? Maybe, but I don't care.
This is a standard of evaluation which Sullivan, like any intelligent person, rightly rejects when any type of belief other than a religious one is under discussion -- he has regularly denounced other writers for believing what they wanted to believe about politics or the Iraq conflict, when those beliefs were contrary to the evidence.
Here is a clarifying and well-written response from an atheist blogger.
I have a lot of respect for Andrew Sullivan; he is his own man and doesn't slavishly follow any party line, and on issues other than religion he always has solid reasons for taking whatever position he does, even if I disagree with him. But like many people, he somehow manages to set religion off in a separate compartment in which it is exempted from evaluation by the standards of evidence and logic which apply to everything else.
25 January 2007
More Russian technology
On a related note, in 2002 I visited the equivalent American institution, the Johnson Space Center in Houston TX, and it is well worth the trip if you are at all interested in space travel.
You can't afford to ignore this or gloss it over. This is what we are confronting right now. It isn't going to go away or change just because we don't want to believe that it is what it is.
David Frum re-posts most of it here, in case the original article disappears.
24 January 2007
Protesting for pay
Fighting for the right to discriminate
Western Europe's overlooked success
Labels: Western Europe
Where even the vodka freezes
21 January 2007
Do not go gentle
Here's the website of Alcor, a company which already offers this service.
I freely admit that I do not have the specialized expertise to know how plausible it is that vitrification, or cryonics more generally, can achieve what its proponents claim. For myself personally, I am only 46 years old and in good general health, and I think my chances of living long enough to benefit from the technological eradication of aging and natural death are quite good. But if you are older than 60 or in poor health, I would strongly advise you to look into cryonics. You have nothing to lose by finding out what you can.
A plain and simple fact
20 January 2007
Putin backing down -- and wising up?
This could be a positive sign, if it means that Putin is starting to recognize that Russia's efforts to assert hegemony over its neighbors are backfiring and actually driving them to assert their independence (as Ukraine and the EU are doing, as the article mentions), leaving Russia isolated.
Now all we need is for him to realize that antagonizing the US by arming Iran is similarly contrary to Russia's real interests.
Labels: Eastern Europe
The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant
Dominance and subordination
Labels: Eastern Europe
Why you shouldn't go to the zoo while drunk
19 January 2007
The ultimate slacker
Found via The News Blog.
Labels: Lighter side
If I should die before I wake.....
The Duke false-rape case: not unique
Imagining the future
A point which has always struck me about such old predictions is that they were fairly close to the mark on many aspects of technological progress (though I don't think anyone anticipated how important computers would become), but totally missed anticipating how culture would develop. Anne's posting mentions several examples. In these old visions of the future, women are depicted as "archetypal aproned housewives" still primarily occupied with domestic tasks, even though using (correctly-predicted) cooking and cleaning techniques more advanced than those available when the articles were written. The continued predominance of the nuclear family is taken for granted. And I'd hazard a guess that all those old sketches depicting the high-tech society of the future (our present) rarely, if ever, show non-white people participating as full equals. (The original Star Trek was considered startlingly visionary in this regard, but actually the upheaval in racial attitudes was already well under way when it was being made.)
The simple fact is that technological developments are easier to predict than cultural ones. This is especially true today, when the price-performance of data processing is increasing according to a fairly consistent exponential pattern and we can anticipate a near future where almost everything important will be reducible to data processing. But cultural change is very hard to predict, even when in hindsight one can see where the cultural change has followed from technology. Star Trek's hand-held "communicator" more or less anticipated the cell phone, but its writers never anticipated the real-world cultural effects of the cell phone.
The struggle against racial discrimination, the tremendous broadening of the range of life options available to women (and for that matter to men), the overthrow of one sexual taboo after another, the battle to preserve and extend these gains in the face of an upsurge in reactionary religious fundamentalism, the ways the internet has changed social and political interaction, the rise of serious moral conflicts over medical experimentation on the higher animals, the problems posed by large-scale Third World immigration into the developed countries -- none of this seems to have been anticipated. The idea seems to have been that life would go on according to pretty much the same pattern as in the writer's own time, just with cleverer and cleverer gadgets.
I often wonder what aspects of our present culture, which we take for granted and never even think about, will be looked back upon as silly or even as disgusting and barbaric just a few decades from now.
My take on "the surge"
I've managed to reconcile myself to such an outcome. But I don’t think we should give up and let that happen if there is any real hope that “the surge” would lead to a better result. That’s something I can’t judge, and I don’t believe the average man in the street — or the average Congressman — can judge it either. I certainly don’t trust Bush’s judgment on the subject. I supported the Iraq invasion and still think the original strategy was a good one. But the administration’s hideously inept planning and execution have brought an operation that might have worked to the brink of failure.
Most likely the best people to judge whether Bush’s new plan has any hope of success are the generals — and they aren’t in a position to state openly what they think.
So what makes me think that there is some real hope of the new plan being successful?
(1) The stated willingness to get confrontational with Iran and Syria if they keep stirring things up (and I hope the same warning has been delivered, if privately, to Saudi Arabia).
(2) The assertion, if true, that the Maliki government is ready to follow through and not treat the Shiite terror groups with kid gloves. Some people have gone so far as to claim that Maliki’s government is a mere puppet of men like Muqtada al-Sadr. If this is not the case, now is the time for him to prove it.
(3) The assertion, if true, that the extra 17,500 troops in Baghdad will be able to hold and police urban territory after it is cleared of insurgents. I frankly doubt the increase will be enough, but I am no military expert.
(4) 4,000 Marines to Anbar province will make a difference if the gloves come off and they can really fight. Anbar is the heart of the insurgency.
My gut feeling is to try. I can’t stomach the thought of abandoning Iraq when we might have had a chance to win.
Bear in mind that it has always been the appearance of Western weakness that has emboldened jihadism. This is what worries me about the idea of withdrawing without winning. Bin Laden’s own writings before the Sept. 11 attack always emphasized the idea of the US as a “paper tiger” — he dwelt on the US retreats after the Beirut Marine barracks bombing and the Mogadishu fiasco. He argued that a sufficiently bold attack would lead to a moral collapse and total retreat of the US. Hence the Sept. 11 attack. Our tough military response proved him wrong and bought us a few years of respite with no further attacks, while Europe, which never hits back militarily, continued to suffer them. But if we pull out of Iraq in what is perceived as a humiliating defeat, many jihadists will argue that bin Laden was right after all — and the danger to our own territory will increase drastically. If there is any chance of avoiding this outcome, we must pursue it.
(Note: I originally wrote this in the comments thread here, and the whole discussion is well worth reading. But I thought it deserved its own posting.)
The message is clear: if you overhear someone whose appearance suggests he is Muslim talking about, say, bombs on the subway, don't call the FBI. If you're on a plane and you notice such a person doing something odd with his shoe, don't bother to inform the cabin crew. You're just being paranoid. There's probably some perfectly harmless explanation which you're too ignorant of Muslim culture to think of.
Even the backward imam character quoted in the first two paragraphs of the review is presented as a mere buffoon, rather silly but nothing to be alarmed about. Meanwhile, here's the latest in the recent string of revelations of what Muslim clerics in the West are actually preaching.
18 January 2007
A conservative looks at "the surge"
But to me, the most striking thing about the article (prominently linked from the National Review website) is its partisan emphasis, seeming to assess the entire issue on the basis of its impact on the interests of the Republican party rather than on those of the United States (or of our troops). "Republicans can only hope that Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her sidekick, Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, overplay their hands by cutting off funds to U.S. troops in the field." Hope?
Thought for the day
If such a person were in a room in a hospital which was burning down, and the room contained one five-day-old baby and a freezer holding 100 five-day-old (microscopic) embryos, and he was able to save only the baby or the embryos but not both, which do you think he would save?
Make anything you want out of sunlight and dirt
And, of course, for this and other reasons, everyone should read this book.
Climate change watch
Snow, with flakes
Labels: Lighter side
16 January 2007
The stuff makes driving pretty hazardous, of course. Here is some video supplied to a local news station by a man who filmed fifteen car crashes just from his own home.
Now, some of you living in parts of the country with more bracing weather may be thinking, "Three inches of snow? What's the big deal?" The reason it's a problem is that this typically only happens here for two or three days at a time, every two or three years -- you'll notice on the video that the newsreader mentions 2004, the last year we had conditions comparable to this (in fact, that was worse, with freezing rain and slippery ice -- where I lived at the time, even the mail and daily newspaper were not delivered for three days). Because "snow days" are so rare, people do not have a chance to get used to them and get familiar with how to drive safely under such conditions. Today even buses were sliding around, and I saw at least a dozen empty ones about town which had either stalled or been abandoned as too dangerous to drive. If we get freezing rain again, the city will be essentially paralyzed. I've seen it before.
So I'm staying home as much as possible until it melts. Leave the streets to the macho ding-dongs who somehow thinks the laws of physics don't apply to them.
15 January 2007
Islamic marital advice
"We shouldn't be ashamed before the nations of the world, who are still in their days of ignorance [jâhiliyyah -- that is, non-Muslim], to admit that these beatings are part of our religious law." So there.
Godless common sense
I also wondered at the narcissism of believers who credit their good fortune to God. A cancer survivor who claims that God cured him implies that his worthiness is so obvious that God had to act. It never occurs to him to ask what this explanation for his deliverance says about the cancer victim in the hospital bed next to his, who, despite the fervent prayers of her family, died anyway.
I find it depressing that every organ of conservative opinion reflexively cheers on creationism and intelligent design, while delivering snide pot shots at the Enlightenment. Which of the astounding fruits of empiricism would these Enlightenment-bashers dispense with: the conquest of cholera and other infectious diseases, emergency room medicine, jet travel, or the internet, to name just a handful of the millions of human triumphs that we take for granted?
When multiculturalism hit the academy (several years after I had graduated), I was appalled that barely literate students were allowed to trash the most astounding creations of Western civilization before which we should all be on our knees.
I have to recognize that this is the best of all possible times to be alive. I don't know how many of us would give up our astounding array of choices, despite their costs above all in family stability, to go back to a time of more restricted individual autonomy.
Up to half of the conservative writers and thinkers whom I know are non-believers. And yet because of the rule that one may never ever question claims made on behalf of faith, they remain in the closet. At some point, however, they may emerge to challenge the idea that without religion, personal and social anarchy looms.
Read the entire interview -- it's well worth it.
14 January 2007
Hats -- gateway to Sodom and Gomorrah!
Found via Slaying Dragons.
Credit where credit is due
I call this concept "cultural appeasement". It is really a proposal to make concessions to the enemy in hopes that he will be satisfied and not commit further aggression. The concessions would have to do with the nature of our culture rather than with the borders of Czechoslovakia, but the principle is the same.
Eric Scheie has a very good rebuttal of the entire concept here.
It has occurred to me that there is one imaginable "cultural appeasement" concession which would probably actually work to prevent any more attacks. If all Americans were to convert to Islam and abandon all other religions, including Christianity, then we would no longer be "infidels" and the jihadists would indeed have no further reason to attack us. Of course, the rightists would never propose such a measure. It is only those features of American culture which they themselves dislike that they will propose to throw to the wolves.
13 January 2007
Won't anyone give these guys a room?
The world of drugs
Honor! Honor! Honor!
12 January 2007
Accelerating toward the Singularity
Resisting berserk political correctness
The ape diet
Here is a trial case (it does not really meet the standards needed to be called an "experiment") in which nine human volunteers were put on an ape-like diet for 12 days. In some ways the diet was adjusted for human tastes; insects were not on the menu, but fish, which wild apes do not eat, were available. Root vegetables, which wild apes also do not eat but for which our hominid ancestors acquired a taste long ago, were also included. Nevertheless, the diet did broadly resemble the way apes naturally eat. Despite the short duration of the test, the health benefits were clear.
To respond to one point raised in the comments: cannibalism does exist among chimpanzees, but it is extremely rare. More commonly, chimpanzees hunt other animals for meat, but they still consume far less meat than most modern humans, partly because they are not very successful at hunting. As far as observers can tell, the other three great ape species (bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans) do not eat meat at all.
A choice -- for some
You touched on something I’ve always been amused by: the constant refrain by social conservatives that sexual orientation is a “choice”. [.....] Like yourself, I find such statements to be absurd. But I also wonder if they are not revealing: I have no choice in my sexuality. I like women. I have and have had homosexual friends and acquaintances all of my adult life, and living in the DC area assures that one can access to that whole milieu should one choose to do so. And yet it’s no more a “choice” for me than breathing. For whatever reasons, guys aren’t sexually attractive to me – I have NO choice in the matter, they just aren’t. But [social conservatives] seem to exist in a different frame of reference than mine. For them, sexuality IS a choice. One apparently wakes up each morning and makes a decision whether they’ll be attracted to have sex with men or women. I can only imagine such a situation existing if one were bisexual. Otherwise it makes no sense. So I have to wonder if all the folks running around spouting off about Gays are protesting just a little too much. They view homosexuality as something seductive to them, (witness the claims that Gay marriage “threatens” their marriages – Why? How? Unless it forms a temptation for them.); I view it simply as something I have no interest in. To recap, I’d have to say that if you show me someone who says homosexuality is a “choice”, then I’ll show you someone for whom it REALLY is a choice…
Could it be that most of those agitated people inexplicably insisting that "it's a choice" are actually bisexual, deep down? It's the best explanation I've seen yet.
Religion in France
The low figure of 4% for self-identified Muslims is also interesting. France does not keep statistics on its population by religion or ethnic origin, so any figure you do see is an estimate, but the usual estimate for the number of Muslims in France is five million, which would be 8.3% of the total population. Is it possible that this figure is hugely inflated? Or could it be that many people of Muslim ethnic origin have turned away from the religion, as in Russia? Either way, it's another blow against the Europe-is-doomed-to-Islamization pessimists.
The Boers of Anbar
In fact, the position of the Sunni minority in Iraq today is rather analogous to that of the white minority in South Africa. The main difference is that the South African whites gave up their minority rule in a negotiated settlement, whereas the Sunni-dominated Saddam regime was brought down by an outside invasion.
If hard-line South African whites were to launch an armed uprising in an effort to overthrow South Africa's present government and reinstate apartheid, they would win very little sympathy in the West. Yet the Sunni insurgency in Iraq is very analogous.
(The international dynamics are different, of course, since the countries south, west, and north of Iraq are mainly Sunni -- this is explained well in the article linked above.)
If this aspect of the matter were better understood in the West, I suspect there would be much less concern over the Sunni Iraqis' largely self-inflicted plight.
09 January 2007
The Backstroke of the West
Here's one of my favorite examples. When the Star Wars film Revenge of the Sith was distributed in an early Chinese-dubbed version, it was provided with English subtitles -- but rather than being taken from the original English dialogue, they had been translated back into English from the Chinese version of the script, and the results are a wonder to behold. A collection of stills with the subtitles is here. I can kind of see how some of these happened. For example, in the Chinese movie title "The Backstroke of the West", the Chinese word xi meaning "west" does sound a bit similar to "Sith", so it must have been chosen as a translation purely for phonetic reasons -- but then, in the subtitles, it was translated back into English as "west". And "backstroke" for "revenge" makes some sense if you think of "revenge" as equivalent to "striking back". But I think these subtitles must have been produced by one of those computer "translation" programs. I can't imagine any human being, however incompetent, rendering a person's name as "Ratio Tile".
That's an old example, but the Chinese of today are still at it. Check out these examples from Beijing's official preparations for the upcoming Summer Olympics. And who knew that the drooling, steel-fanged, slime-covered monster from Alien was such a kindly and neighborly type?
And, of course, don't forget this.
Labels: Lighter side
08 January 2007
More on Islam in Britain
Note: "10 Downing Street" is the official residence of the British Prime Minister, more or less equivalent to the White House.
It is ironic that the introduction speaks of "how young men spread poison to undermine their OWN country". To these particular young men, "their own country" is not the land where they were born and raised, but rather the worldwide Islamic ummah (religion-nation). We had all better get that point through our heads as quickly as possible.
More on the execution of Saddam
The end of homosexuality?
I've always leaned toward the hormonal-imbalance-in-the-womb theory myself. Homosexuality can't be a simple gene-linked trait; any trait which has such a negative effect on an organism's chances of reproduction would be weeded out of the gene pool very quickly by natural selection if it were genetic. Nor can it be a "choice". I know for a definite fact that I could not cause myself to become homosexual by an act of will, and any other heterosexual person would say the same. So I can't believe that those who are homosexual became homosexual in that fashion. Moreover, the existence of homosexuality has been well documented in many species other than humans.
The point is, soon we won't need to argue and speculate about this question any more. We'll know.
To Sullivan, who is himself homosexual, this has some alarming implications. If the biological basis for a condition is thoroughly understood, it is theoretically possible that it could be changed (some would say "cured") -- that is, tests could be done to find out whether a fetus in the womb is going to be homosexual, and if so, hormone therapy could be applied to change its orientation to heterosexual. Or a homosexual fetus might simply be aborted. The implications of such developments would be troubling from a variety of perspectives.
In the years to come there will be a huge, bitter, complicated ethical debate about this subject, and that debate will be utterly irrelevant and pointless. Regardless of what arguments anyone makes, the therapeutic eradication of homosexuality is inevitable. Here's why.
As long as abortion remains widely available -- and it will, no matter what the Christian Right thinks -- it will be impossible to selectively prevent just those abortions which are sought for certain motives as opposed to others. We can already see proof of this in China, India, and South Korea, where a strong cultural preference for sons over daughters has led to selective abortion of female fetuses on a massive scale. At least in China, abortion for the purpose of gender selection is illegal, but that makes no difference. The technology is available, so people use it, as can be seen by the considerable imbalance of the genders already observable in the three countries. (Needless to say, a large excess of males in a society has terrible implications for future social stability, but governments are helpless to prevent the phenomenon, and the masses apparently either are too short-sighted to anticipate the future problems their behavior is creating, or simply don't care.)
In the case of homosexuality, the matter is even more clear-cut. Virtually all parents would prefer that their children not grow up to be homosexual. Even those with very socially-liberal views, who are genuinely free from any prejudice against homosexuals, still know that being homosexual greatly increases the challenges and problems a person will encounter in life, and diminishes his chances of happiness. Furthermore, most people have, to some degree, a certain feeling of disgust toward homosexuality -- even people in cultures where homosexuality has never been considered "sinful". (I believe that this feeling of disgust is rooted in the genes, but that's a subject too complex to get into here.)
Once testing for incipient homosexuality in the womb becomes widely available (whether legal or not), we will rapidly reach a point where practically the only children destined to become homosexual who are still born will be those whose parents have personal beliefs that rule out abortion. (Most such people are highly religious and therefore likely to be prejudiced against homosexuals, which will create another set of problems.) If it later becomes possible to "heterosexualize" the developing fetus using hormone therapy instead of aborting it, the number of new births of children who will grow up to be homosexual will fall to practically zero. After that, only life extension technology (enabling existing adults to live indefinitely) will prevent homsexuality from vanishing entirely. And even then, eventually a day will probably come when it is possible to change the established sexual orientation of adults (via biotechnology, not the preposterous "ex-gay ministries" which currently disfigure the discussion of this subject). Despite the fact that in the last few decades homosexuality has bizarrely evolved into a sort of quasi-ethnic identity, with "gay pride" and suchlike, I suspect that a fair number would opt for such therapy if it were available and proven effective. Being homosexual does add considerably to the problems and frustrations of life, after all.
The prospect of such an outcome would doubtless make many people unhappy. Yet it is consistent with the way humans actually tend to behave when offered new technologies to exploit.
Update: More thoughts about this issue on Sullivan's site here. One of his readers makes a very interesting point: in a present-day case somewhat parallel to this scenario about the future of homosexuality, Down's syndrome is already detectable at the fetal stage, and about 90% of fetuses which carry this defect are aborted, with the result that the syndrome is disappearing from the population. But the proportion of the US population who claim to be morally opposed to abortion, and even assert that it should be forbidden by law, is certainly much greater than 10%. So a substantial fraction of these Down's syndrome abortions are taking place among people whose stated position is that abortion should not be permitted at all. That is to say, they are utter hypocrites.
Religion in Britain
The survey also found that 82% of the British "say they see religion as a cause of division and tension between people. Only 16% disagree."
Thus it is clearly ludicrous to describe present-day Britain as a "Christian country" (and only 17% of the British themselves agree with describing it that way). It is a secular country with various religious minorities. The same is probably true of most of the rest of Europe, both western and eastern (strongly-religious Poland being the one major exception).
Found via War of the Waves.
The prophet speaks
Behind the façade of "moderate Islam"
This particular example is from Britain, but I see no reason to think things are much different here.
Found via Eye on the World.
06 January 2007
The worst album covers of all time?
Evolution and creationism
Found via Atheist Girl, who is back with new postings after a couple of months of the site being inactive.
Here's a short video displaying actual skulls ranging from 6,500,000 years ago (roughly when our ancestors split off from those of chimpanzees) to the present, showing that there is no "missing link" or sudden discontinuity in the progression from a chimpanzee-like form to the modern human.
Found via Atheist Jew, who also has an essay arguing that the internet will accelerate the collapse of the creationist case by drawing out its advocates into situations where its fallacies will be exposed. He emphasizes the target audience of "lurkers" -- undecided people who don't participate in the debate but just wait to see which side can make a better case -- as I also do below.
The point of arguing
Here's how I look at it. On any question where you hold a strong viewpoint, the potential audience can be divided into three groups. There are those who are already strongly in agreement with your own position, those who have already decided firmly in favor of the opposing position, and those who are undecided or at least don't have very strong feelings either way.
There's no point in preaching to the first group. They already agree with you. At best, if your arguments are especially clever or well-formulated, you may be able to show them some pointers about how they can support the cause more effectively.
Nor will preaching to the second group accomplish anything. A person who has a strong opinion about something very rarely changes in it response to a single session of logical argument or emotional appeal, no matter how skillfully presented. If a person enters the discussion with a deep and long-held conviction that abortion is immoral, or that the Koran is the word of God, or that Communism is the only possible way to build a just society, the odds are practically zero that anything you say will make him abandon this opinion. One can speculate about why such convictions are almost impossible to change, but empirical observation shows that they are.
Which leaves the third group. These are the ones who can be persuaded, because they don't already have firm convictions on whatever question is being discussed. Moreover, they can go either way.
So those people -- the undecided -- are the ones to keep in mind in a debate. On the internet, their presence is rarely detectable because they are unlikely to join in. There's not much point in posting a comment that just says "I'm not sure which of you is right." But they are often reading. I've often read comment threads which featured contention over some question on which I hadn't made up my own mind. I seldom post anything on such threads. It's more interesting to watch and see which side can present the more convincing case. At most, I'll ask an occasional question.
This is why things like tone and logic are so important. A lot of the contention one sees on the internet over controversial issues is aptly termed "flaming" -- personal insults, obscene language, sneering contempt for the opposition, all presented in a manner which suggests the person posting it actually thinks he is being clever and witty. It has the same kind of feel as a person telling ugly racist jokes in the secure privacy of a small in-group of like-minded people, knowing that nobody present will call him to account.
But on the internet, you never know who is "present" in the sense of reading. You never know what potential recruits to your own side are instead being turned off by your obnoxious language.
The same is true of extremist, purist rhetoric that damns to the outer darkness everyone who fails to support the entire agenda of the "enlightened". I've often noted how hard-line liberals trash conservatives in general, and hard-line conservatives trash liberals in general, in this way. It's utterly counterproductive. The moderate person who agrees with 90% of your ideology, but feels you are likely to insult and rail at him because he disagrees with the other 10%, is likely to decide it's best to have nothing to do with you or people like you.
In any debate, always keep the undecided reader uppermost in your thinking! You won't convince the person you are arguing with. That isn't the point. There are others reading who are comparing what you say with what he says. If he starts swearing at you and calling you names -- and on the internet, the odds are fairly good that he will -- don't descend to the same level. He's forgotten the audience and started discrediting his own position. Just leave him to it.
04 January 2007
It didn't start in 2001
Invading Iraq, killing bin Laden
Ya know, the only problem I have with all of this is who we targeted and for what reason. I'm not crying over Saddam's execution. I'm just angry that we have spent so very much human life, time, money, not focusing on Osama bin Laden. Where is he?? What happened here because of him and his followers was a nightmare that many will have to live for the rest of their days.
As I see it, there were three reasons for invading Iraq:
(1) To overthrow the most brutal government in the world, for humanitarian reasons.
(2) To abort the WMD development programs which most governments at that time agreed Saddam probably had -- the disagreement was over what to do about it.
(3) To install a democratic government in a major Muslim Arab country, hopefully inspiring other Middle Eastern peoples to also create democratic, prosperous societies which would alleviate the conditions which Bush believed were responsible for the rise of terrorism.
If one accepts their own premises, (2) and (3) were certainly integral to the so-called War on Terror (a name I don't accept -- terrorism is a tactic, whereas the enemy is Islamic imperialism). Saddam was certainly supporting terrorism, even if not al-Qa'idah specifically. He was doing everything possible to give the impression that he had WMD programs (probably because he was trying to intimidate Iran). If I had been in Bush's place, knowing what he knew then, I would have invaded based on (2) and to some extent (1).
Bush and his people vastly underestimated the difficulties of (3) and never did adequate planning, a disgraceful oversight which may have doomed us to ignominious failure (though I think it's too early to say so yet). I think they were misled by the fairly easy transition to democracy in much of eastern Europe after the fall of Communism. Remove Saddam, and Iraq would stand revealed as another Poland. Well, it's not another Poland or even another Belarus. Bush's circle didn't understand Islamic culture and wouldn't listen to people who did.
As for bin Laden, killing those responsible for Sept. 11 is a lower priority than preventing another (and worse) Sept. 11, but clearly it is a priority. Remember, many other top al-Qa'idah figures have been killed. I think we came close to killing bin Laden at Tora Bora. As for why we still haven't killed him, hunting down one well-hidden individual can be difficult. Major Nazi war criminals remained at large for years after World War II. Most likely he is hiding in Pakistan and any operation with a good chance of getting him would inflict so much damage on that country that the Pakistani government would fall, something Bush does not want to risk. At any rate, he will be hunted and in constant fear of betrayal as long as he lives, and his health is said to be poor. I do not think he has gone entirely unpunished.
03 January 2007
A tiny sample of what Saddam did
Somalia and Ethiopia
The enemy within the gates
This enemy within the gates is the tendency, which we all have, to dwell on the negative, to wallow in gloom and doom. Everyone's situation includes both good and bad. Even if you were the most fortunate person on Earth, it would be quite possible for you to make yourself utterly miserable if you insisted on contemplating only the unpleasant aspects of your situation (for there would still be some) while dismissing or ignoring the positive.
The reason this matters is that the way we perceive our situation can affect how we deal with our situation. Wallowing in doom and gloom leads to pessimism. Pessimism leads to despair. Despair leads to paralysis. And paralysis leads to defeat even when defeat was not inevitable. If you convince yourself that everything is hopeless, you will not take action, because you will have trapped yourself in a state of mind where you believe that taking action is futile or will even be counterproductive, regardless of the actual track record of such action in the real world. This is why the enemy within the mental gates is so dangerous.
01 January 2007
Ten important things that happened in 2006
(2) The sleeping giant of nativism continued to awaken in Europe. It had already been stirring thanks to events such as the London and Madrid train bombings and the murder of Theo van Gogh, but the deranged Islamist response to the Danish Muhammad cartoons -- showing that Islamists expect even non-Muslim people in non-Muslim countries to obey Islamic taboos -- and the increasingly-violent intifadah in Paris seem to have forced the European masses to realize that they have a serious menace festering in their midst, even if most of the political establishment still refuses to address the problem.
(3) Saddam Hussein was tried and executed by his own former subjects. One can only hope that the oppressed people of Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, etc. are thinking about this and getting ideas of their own.
(4) North Korea's long-dreaded atom bomb test fizzled out at a pathetic half-kiloton, showing that this tinpot dictatorship can't handle a technology the US mastered 61 years ago. They didn't do so well testing ballistic missiles, either.
(5) In the US, conservatism's posture of moral superiority began to collapse in a welter of scandals, from Abramoff to Haggard to Gibson to Foley. Normal people are especially intolerant of corrupt and disgusting behavior when it comes from people who have been preaching stridently at them about God and morality and sin and so forth.
(6) Partly in reaction to (5), the American people handed Congress over to the Democrats, effectively halting the Christian Right's drive to install an anti-Roe majority on the Supreme Court.
(7) Gay marriage continued to be practiced in Massachusetts without doing any discernible harm to anything.
(8) Voters supported abortion rights everywhere in the country where they were on the ballot. South Dakota's draconian law was overturned 55%-45%, while parental-notification laws were rejected in several states. It's time for the Christian Right to recognize that on this particular issue, the debate is over. If an anti-abortion law can't win in South Dakota, it probably can't win anywhere.
(9) Voters also approved stem-cell research in Missouri, a fairly-conservative state, despite bitter opposition from the Christian Right.
(10) The US made it through another year without a major terrorist attack on our own soil.
Ten things I HOPE will happen in 2007
(2) Giuliani will decide to run for President.
(3) The Russian people will tire of Mafia-style government and bring about their own Orange Revolution, finally bringing Russia into close alignment with the West, where it belongs.
(4) The US government, under pressure from public opinion, will finally adopt effective measures on illegal immigration -- tough employer sanctions and a full-length barrier at the border.
(5) Britain and Ireland will leave the European Union, encouraging several eastern European countries to follow suit.
(6) The US government will stop denying and obfuscating the issue of human-caused global warming and start leading the world toward policies and technologies to solve the problem.
(7) The North Korean government will collapse or be overthrown from within.
(8) The US will take decisive action against the Iranian nuclear program, thus saving Israel and probably the whole Middle East from catastrophe.
(9) The Iraqi government will announce that its forces are ready to deal with the insurgency on their own, allowing Western troops to go home at last.
(10) A swarm of precision-targeted, appropriate-sized meteors will simultaneously destroy every mosque and fundamentalist church on the planet. (Hey, I can dream, OK? If this actually happens, I promise to start believing in a benevolent higher power.)
Ten things LIKELY to happen in 2007
(2) At least one major new breakthrough medical treatment, involving stem cells, will be announced.
(3) In at least one major western European country (probably France or Italy, but possibly Germany), the option of abandoning the unpopular euro currency and bringing back the country's old national currency will be openly and seriously discussed, causing a worldwide crisis of confidence in the euro and a stampede back to the dollar.
(4) China will suffer some kind of catastrophic crisis, either ecological or (more likely) in its banking system.
(5) The US will try a new military strategy in Iraq, but it will ultimately fail due to inadequate planning, reliance on half measures, and continuing reluctance to confront neighboring countries about their meddling.
(6) Jean-Marie Le Pen, or someone like him, will gain a startlingly-large number of votes in the French election, forcing the political establishment to confront the problem of Muslim violence and intimidation in France.
(7) India, whose normal summer temperatures approach the limits of what the human body can endure for long periods of time, will suffer a global-warming-related heat wave severe enough to produce a death toll of over 100,000. This will lead to a diplomatic crisis between India and the United States due to the latter's record of refusing to acknowledge or deal with human-caused global warming.
(8) Nobody will do anything about the Darfur genocide.
(9) The US -- the one country with the logistical capability to destroy Iran's nuclear program with a conventional (non-nuclear) airstrike -- will take no action, instead continuing to fiddle-faddle around with UN resolutions and economic sanctions. This will force Israel to act by itself against the Iranian program -- a task for which it will have no choice but to use its own nuclear weapons.
(10) A consensus will emerge (outside the hard right) that the Bush Presidency is a failure, but he will not be impeached.