30 April 2007

Ms. Palfrey's little black book

This story has been around for at least a couple of months now, but it may be about to heat up. Independent businesswoman Deborah Palfrey, who apparently has been running a DC-area "escort service" for thirteen years, is currently facing charges for her activities -- and plans to take the Samson-in-the-temple route, making public the full customer records of her business, which are said to include some of the most prominent names in Washington.

Of course, every profession has its ethics, and such a revelation would be a most egregious violation of Ms. Palfrey's. Nevertheless, I can hardly wait for this to hit the fan.

Because you know how this kind of thing always plays out. You know whose names are going to be in those records. The arrogant, smug, morally-superior, family-values-spouting, Bible-thumping, school-prayer-supporting, abortion-opposing, abstinence-only-education-pushing, sex-is-for-marriage-only crowd is going to be very well represented. Which Congressman requested one of Ms. Palfrey's associates to help him to unwind the evening after his thunderous House speech lamenting the decline of American moral values? Which ultra-conservative fundamentalist federal judge had a standing order for the "three girls, whipped cream, and a dachshund" special every Thursday? How many of these rancid virtuecrats are even now sweating in their ill-fitting suits, mentally rehearsing a string of pathetic excuses to offer to their wives, staffs, and/or constituents? This is going to be fun!

For the record, I have no objection at all to prostitution involving consenting adults; I believe it should be legal and regulated to avoid exploitation, just like any other service industry. What I object to is hypocrisy, and hypocrisy seems to fester most rankly wherever ostentatious virtue and powerful human instincts intersect.

Brain simulation on computer

This is important:

US researchers have simulated half a virtual mouse brain on a supercomputer. The scientists ran a "cortical simulator" that was as big and as complex as half of a mouse brain on the BlueGene L supercomputer. In other smaller simulations the researchers say they have seen characteristics of thought patterns observed in real mouse brains.

Using this machine the researchers created half a virtual mouse brain that had 8,000,000 neurons that had up to 6,300 synapses.

On other smaller simulations the researchers said they had seen "biologically consistent dynamical properties" emerge as nerve impulses flowed through the virtual cortex. In these other tests the team saw the groups of neurons form spontaneously into groups. They also saw nerves in the simulated synapses firing in a ways similar to the staggered, co-ordinated patterns seen in nature.

8,000,000 neurons with 6,300 synapses each works out to about 50 billion synapses total, a far cry from the estimated 100 trillion synapses in the human brain. Even Blue Gene, the world's most powerful computer, was able to run this simulation only at one-tenth of the processing speed of an actual mouse brain -- ten seconds to simulate one second of actual mouse brain activity. And as the researchers note, the simulation itself needs some refinement to reflect the properties of the organic brain more closely. So, much work remains to be done, and much more powerful systems will be needed, before we can simulate human brains with the accuracy needed to "run" individual people.

Nevertheless, this work is a milestone on the path leading to the Singularity, as the flight of the Wright brothers was, on the path to the age of interplanetary space probes. Slowly but surely the human brain is working closer to full understanding of the last and greatest mystery -- itself.


China: behind the hype

Outside the handful of privileged urban cores where most Western visitors go, it's still a medieval cesspit of poverty and cruelty.

29 April 2007

Penn & Teller on gun control

A great video dissertation. Note: some obscene language.

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European ideas

With the centrist Angela Merkel now firmly established as Chancellor of Germany, and the likely victory of Nicolas Sarkozy in next week's final round of voting for the French Presidency, I'm starting to feel that the stage may be set for a real reconciliation between western Europe and the United States after the strained relations of the last few years. This article is encouraging in that respect.

Also, please note the early comments by "denismcshane", "NotNew, and "PeakOilPersuaded", which are very, very revealing about what some elements of the European far left have become.

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27 April 2007


I've been invited to join Enter the Jabberwock as a guest contributor. My first posting there, "Shameful persecution" (on attacks against the religious freedom of Christians in the US) is now up.

Monumental dispute

In recent weeks, tensions between Russia and Estonia have been escalating over the issue of the "Bronze Soldier", a statue built in Soviet times in the main square of Tallinn (Estonia's capital city) to honor the Red Army soldiers who defeated Nazi Germany during World War II. The site also includes an "unknown soldier" tomb containing the remains of 13 to 15 (accounts vary) Soviet soldiers of the period. The Estonians, for whom 1945 meant not liberation but forcible annexation by the USSR and a period of Stalinist rule hardly less brutal than that of the Nazis, have been planning to relocate the statue and tomb to a less prominent location at a cemetery. The Russians consider such a move an insult to their war dead, and have objected vehemently. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, even threatened Estonia with "serious consequences" should the Bronze Soldier be moved -- which leads one to wonder whether he quite realizes that Estonia is now an independent country and member of NATO, and no longer a province of the Soviet Empire. The situation is complicated by the fact that more than one-quarter of Estonia's population consists of ethnic Russians, many of whom take the Russian view of the situation.

The situation has now come to a head. The Estonian government, perhaps alarmed by belligerent ethnic-Russian protests in the square, has dismantled and removed the Bronze Soldier. The Russian government is furious, and the removal led to violent ethnic rioting in Tallinn in which at least one person was killed and hundreds arrested. BBC report here, RIA Novosti report in English here, both with links to earlier articles on the crisis; pictures of the rioting here; for Estonian views, see various postings here.

To me, the most alarming aspect of the dispute is summed up in one of Lavrov's comments: "I cannot understand attempts to equate Communism with Nazism." To anyone with real knowledge of Estonia's historical experience, it would be impossible not to understand that Estonians would consider Nazism and Soviet Communism to be roughly-equivalent disasters, and that they cannot be expected to regard the Red Army as liberators.

The Russian refusal to understand the feelings of Estonians (and many other eastern Europeans) on this issue, or to recognize the historical reality of the atrocities committed by Stalin's regime against the subjugated countries, is uncomfortably reminiscent of the attitude adopted by Japan after World War II -- systematically minimizing or flat-out denying the horrors inflicted by Japanese troops in the territories under Japanese occupation. The Russians would be wise to consider the decades of suspicion and hostility Japan has faced from its neighbors as a result of this attitude -- something which Germany, which has always fully acknowledged the reality and magnitude of its wartime crimes, has not suffered to anything like the same degree.

Worse, this is not an isolated problem. After 1945 the victorious Soviets built similar monuments in several occupied eastern European capitals. If the modern Russians cannot acknowledge the real historical experience of their former subject states, which are now independent and mostly Western-oriented, the stage will be set for any number of angry confrontations which will further damage Russia's relationship with the West.

I am also struck by the fact that, as bad as French-American relations have been in recent years, I have never heard of any move by the French government to express that hostility against the numerous graves of American World War II soldiers in France. If the US after 1945 had occupied the western European countries, imposed puppet regimes, and deported or killed large percentages of those countries' populations, the psychological situation today would obviously be very different.

As for the Estonians, they are now left with an unnerving increase in tensions both with their giant eastern neighbor and with their numerous internal ethnic minority. Some might say it would have been better to let sleeping statues lie. But a nation that submits to threats and blackmail is not truly independent, and no one should be expected to let historical lies stand unchallenged.

Update: It turns out that the one person who was killed was a Russian citizen. The rioting is spreading across Estonia.

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26 April 2007

Shedding light on the brain

Scientists at MIT and Stanford have developed a powerful tool to analyze brain function. Using lab animals genetically engineered so that their neural circuits can easily be switched on and off with simple light pulses, researchers will be able to discover "which circuits do what" more easily and precisely than earlier methods allowed. By extrapolating the knowledge thus gained to the human brain, it may be possible to develop improved treatments for conditions like epilepsy and Parkinson's disease -- and of course the work will help us make progress in the field of brain-machine interfacing in general.

Found via Samizdata.


A conspiracy of euphemism and evasion

This is one of the best articles I've seen on illegal immigration, taking on both Republicans and Democrats as well as the media.


The end of sports?

Prosthetic limbs have always been thought of as poor substitutes for the natural organic limbs they replace. But what happens to the concept of sports competition when prosthetic limbs actually have superior capabilities?


25 April 2007

Go south, young woman

Mendip points out an interesting juxtaposition: just as the US Supreme Court has upheld a law restricting abortion, Mexico City has legalized it. Coincidence -- or a plan to earn a little cash by offering American women an essential service they can't get at home?

For now, the opportunity is merely hypothetical. The procedure banned by the US federal law is a rare late-term one, and Mexico City has legalized abortion only in the first twelve weeks. But if more restrictions are imposed here at the federal level, and Mexico City (or quick-thinking Mexican cities on the US border) loosen up further, the "southern option" might indeed become an essential safety valve -- for those who live near the border or can afford a long trip.


Why stop with intelligent design?

Woman of wonder

This is pretty funny, as much for the commentary as for the video itself.

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Unintelligent design

Jabberwock has a very good posting up about "the God paradox". Vigorous debate follows in the comments.


24 April 2007

The plausibility of SENS

One of the major hurdles to be overcome in getting people to understand the potential of anti-aging research is the immediate intuitive reaction that such a goal is simply too radical to take seriously. This posting by Leonid Gavrilov assembles some links showing that the concept is indeed taken seriously by many people who are in a position to know what they're talking about. (Link originally posted as a comment here, but it deserves to be up here where it's more prominent.)


Boris Yeltsin

Many obituaries of Boris Yeltsin have appeared since his recent death; however, I think that this short posting highlights what is by far the most important point.

Whatever else one may say about the Russians, the fact remains: both at the end of the Warsaw Pact and at the breakup of the Soviet Union itself (under Yeltsin's leadership), they let their empire go without a fight. If they had tried to use military force to hold Poland, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and so on -- as the French, for example, did in Algeria and Vietnam -- the resulting bloodbath could have made the Yugoslavian wars look like a pillow fight by comparison. It's no wonder that Yeltsin, for all his flaws, is at least somewhat fondly remembered in the Baltic states.


The French election

The first round of voting for the French Presidency produced the following results:

Sarkozy (moderate right) 31%
Royal (moderate left) 25%
Bayrou (centrist) 18%
Le Pen (far right) 11%

The remaining votes went to various minor candidates, mostly far-left. In accordance with the French system, the top two vote-getters will advance to the second round two weeks later.

What is one to make of this? First, while 11% may seem to be frighteningly high for an extremist candidate, this is actually down from Le Pen's first-round showing of 18% in the previous French Presidential election. Le Pen and his party present a pretty ugly spectacle, with a history of anti-Semitism, irresponsible rhetoric, and xenophobic isolationism. I don't believe for a moment that 18%, or 11%, or any significant percentage of the French would actually want to see him as President.

But France, like most western European countries, suffers from the awkward condition of having a gigantic problem that the consensus of the political elites has declared unacceptable to discuss: the problem of a large, violent, menacing Muslim minority. It's hard for Americans, with our great diversity of media and political views, to imagine how narrow and limited the political consensus in western Europe is, or how successful the elites have generally been at defining the limits of acceptable debate; Bruce Bawer's book While Europe Slept is the best exposition I've seen of this issue.

As repellent as Le Pen is, he does at least stand outside the elite consensus; he talks (if crudely) about the issue no one else will talk about. As such, he represents a protest vote for the fed-up citizenry (I think a similar phenomenon is also developing in Britain). When he got 18% in the previous election, the respectable media predictably flew into hysterics, but smarter politicians got the message. During the current campaign, Sarkozy and Royal both, to varying degrees, pushed the theme of law and order and reining in the thugs. Sarkozy also spoke about the importance of "national identity". Neither candidate made much use of the dreaded M-word, but they didn't have to. In the context of France's current situation, everyone knew what they meant.

And so Le Pen's vote shrank considerably. Faced with this much evidence that last election's protest vote had gotten the message across to the elite, at least to some extent, many of the French felt less need to repeat it. Even so, 11% still voted for Le Pen. The ultimate winner had better make sure that rhetoric is translated into reality.

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The way to Heaven

Losing My Religion has a posting up analyzing what exactly one would need to do in order to get into the Christian Heaven (based on what the New Testament actually says), and concludes that it's logically impossible.

Lucky for me I wasn't pinning my hopes on that. Fortunately, when it comes to confronting the specter of death, there are more rational alternatives.


The "bleeding edge" of Kurdistan

A ways back I linked to these two reports by Michael Totten on Iraqi Kurdistan, illustrating how enormously different (and more successful) it is from the rest of Iraq. Here's Totten's report on his visit to Kirkuk, a city at the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of the country, whose former Kurdish population was reduced by ethnic cleansing during the rule of Saddam Hussein. Because Kirkuk dominates the oilfields of northern Iraq, the future status of the city is fiercely disputed; even Turkey is trying to interfere, due to its concern that an Iraqi Kurdistan including Kirkuk would become so wealthy that it might be a little too appealing to Turkey's own large Kurdish minority.

Whatever the merits of historical precedent (and we all know how tangled that kind of question gets, especially in the Middle East), it seems obvious that Kirkuk itself would be far better off being incorporated into Iraqi Kurdistan.

Unsing nanotechnology inside the body

We're still a long way from developing nanobots, but even relatively simple self-assembling molecules are already showing impressive potential. Mice paralyzed by spinal-cord injuries have regained the ability to use their hind legs, while mice afflicted with Parkinson's disease have recovered from it.


A few cartoons


The Apostate (a former Muslim) dissects the most common dishonest buzzword used by Muslims and their apologists to evade and stifle criticism.

As the saying goes, "For the truth, you get beat up".


Cousin species

A report from a recent symposium in Chicago on chimpanzee intelligence (found via Sentient Developments). It's a short article, but it does give some idea of how startlingly similar to humans these creatures are.

The fact that other great apes have better memories than humans (emphasized here) has been observed before in a variety of contexts. I suspect that this is not so much a distinction between species as a distinction between the literate and the illiterate. Humans who can read and write tend to write down anything important rather than depending on their memories, which therefore tend to atrophy. Anthropologists studying primitive human cultures which do not have writing have often observed what seem like astonishing feats of memory by people in those cultures.


Symbolic victory

In a small but psychologically-important defeat for the Christian Right's "some religions are more equal than others" vision of America, the US Department of Veterans Affairs has added the Wiccan pentagram (or pentacle, as they apparently call it) to the list of "emblems of belief" which can be used on official grave markers for American soldiers. Several Wiccan families, assisted by the ACLU, had filed at least two lawsuits to force the VA to accept the symbol; the VA had resisted vigorously, despite the obvious disrespect involved in denying the families of dead soldiers a form of commemoration routinely extended to those who were adherents of more favored religions.

I expect that we will soon see the Christian Right fulminating about how this extension of equal treatment to a non-Christian belief system somehow represents "oppression" of Christianity.

As an aside, I note that the article betrays ignorance in its final comment that "variations of the pentacle not accepted by Wiccans have been used in horror movies as a sign of the devil." The "inverse pentagram" (the "upside-down" version, with two points up and three points down) is the symbol of Satanism most commonly used by actual Satanists; the association is not a product of "horror movies". Contrary to common belief, Wicca and Satanism have very little in common, though they both owe a great (and seldom-acknowledged) debt to Aleister Crowley.

While the official recognition of the Wiccan symbol is welcome, it seems to me that the whole idea of an official roster of acceptable symbols is incoherent. Given the tremendous religious diversity of the US, there will always be new cases like this brought by people whose belief systems are not represented on the list. (Also, there is a symbol on the list for atheism, which is not a belief system.) For that matter, there are Satanists in the US armed forces too, and yet the inverse pentagram is not on the list. I can't wait to see how the Christian Right will foam up when someone files a lawsuit to include that.

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21 April 2007

Responding to the abortion ruling

Senate Democrats are considering ways of defending Roe vs. Wade. Wisely, many supporters are framing the issue in libertarian terms. As the president of NARAL puts it, “This is an issue about freedom and privacy.....What people in this country know very clearly is that government is not to intrude.” This is the best approach for reaching out to other potential supporters beyond the liberal base -- note that some Republicans have taken a favorable position on abortion rights as well.

The article also discusses some measures for increased gun control which are being considered. So far the proposals (such as improving precautions against legal gun sales to people with criminal backgrounds or mental problems) don't sound dangerous in themselves, but the use of rhetoric like "rogue gun dealers" suggests the presence of a massive potential slippery-slope problem. The NRA needs to be watching these proposals like a hawk, as it doubtless will be.

The way these two issues have flared up at the same time offers a perfect microcosm of why it's impossible for me to identify with either the left or the right. The side which is good for personal freedom on abortion is bad for it on guns, and vice versa.

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Secondhand smoke

The American Lung Association has a great fact sheet on this subject. I tried to link to it before, but the link always redirected to their main page. Here's how to get to the fact sheet.

Click here for the main page;

In the row of options in blue at the top, click on "Quit Smoking", then "All about Smoking";

The secondhand smoke fact sheet is the third item on the list.

20 April 2007

Printing bone

From Canada, a remarkable new development in scanning and printing technology to produce bone grafts that can be implanted in the human body. Found via Mendip.

The article notes that British scientists are working on a similar method for producing artificial skin.


19 April 2007

Evolution and the young

While a depressingly-large number of Americans still cling to creationist mythology, it turns out that acceptance of evolution is broadest among the young (63% of people 18-25 years old accept it, compared with 42% of those over 61, with intermediate age groups showing intermediate levels of acceptance). Combined with the empirical evidence that people do not become more religious as they age, this offers considerable hope for the triumph of rationality in the future.


Russian confectionery

After three "heavy" postings to start the morning, here's something a bit more fun -- check out these cakes!

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A shifting of the political ground

As if there were ever any doubt, this week's Supreme Court ruling on abortion ensures that the Court will be a major issue in next year's Presidential election. This New York Times editorial sums things up well.

The ruling in and of itself does not mark a really major assault on individual freedom. Intact dilation and extraction is a very rare form of abortion, generally used only in unusual situations; so very few individuals will be affected by it, and when an actual case arises, it's anyone's guess whether any prosecutor will really want to try to imprison a doctor for helping a desperate woman. But the key point is that the Supreme Court rejected an almost identical law in 2000; the only difference in the present case is that there are two new Bush appointees (Roberts and Alito) on the Court. Moreover, the ruling flies in the face of precedents since 1973 and also six lower federal court rulings on the same law. This shows that the fears of individual-choice advocates, that a President influenced by the Christian Right could ultimately undermine abortion rights via Supreme Court appointments, rest on a solid foundation.

And while the law which the Court has validated bans only one rare form of abortion, it is alarmingly draconian in other ways. It does not contain an exception for cases where the woman's health is at stake (though there is an exception for life-and-death cases). It provides criminal penalties for doctors -- up to two years imprisonment. And it is a federal law, overriding all state laws which are more permissive. So much for the anti-abortionists' earlier position that such laws should be left to the states.

How can we be sure the Supreme Court won't later approve even worse restrictions, especially if one or more additional judges are appointed by a conservative President? A threat which has been hypothetical has moved into the realm of the actual. This changes the political calculus fundamentally. The NYT quotes Giuliani as saying that the Court “reached the correct conclusion." If this statement is sincerely meant (something I can't easily judge, given the nature of the maneuvering necessarily involved in seeking the Republican nomination), it certainly calls his acceptability into question, from my viewpoint. I note that Clinton, Obama, and Edwards all firmly oppose the ruling.

The specter of theocracy has just become a little more solid, a little more menacing. It's time to be on guard, and reconsider our options.

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Gun control

I'm not going to try to write a comprehensive posting about the Virginia Tech massacre here. Instead, I want to focus on one specific point which this atrocity has thrown into sharp relief.

Predictably, the news had barely hit the net when all the usual gun-control fanatics came out of the woodwork trying to exploit the murders as a pretext to push this or that new restriction. All their arguments were the same as they always are -- only the context was new.

Well, Virginia Tech already had a completely gun-free policy. Even people licensed to carry concealed weapons under Virginia law were not allowed to carry them on campus. That simply guaranteed that none of the students or professors would be armed and able to stop the massacre in its tracks. Just one student or professor with a gun could probably have shot the murderer soon after the killings began, and most of those victims who are now dead would still be alive.

If I were a nihilistic monster plotting a big mass killing like this, I would certainly plan on doing it somewhere where guns were banned, so that no one could stop me (until the police arrived, which would take plenty of time). I wouldn’t do it somewhere where I knew many people had guns and I would probably be killed myself long before I’d carried out my intentions.

No matter what laws we have, a criminal who is determined enough to get a gun will always be able to get one. Gun bans disarm only law-abiding people.

Let me re-emphasize that. No matter what laws we have, a criminal who is determined enough to get a gun will always be able to get one. Gun bans disarm only law-abiding people. This is the central point of the entire issue. In all the debates and arguments I've seen on the internet since the Virginia Tech massacre (or ever), the would-be gun-banners have never been able to address this.

We have laws which totally prohibit marijuana and cocaine, yet people who are willing to break the law are still able to get those things. Prohibition banned alcohol entirely, yet people who were willing to break the law were still able to obtain it. Gun bans are no more effective.

The gun-control laws in Britain have become stricter and stricter over the last few years, to the point that they are now among the strictest on the planet — and as an entirely predictable result of that, gun crime has been increasing there.

Facts are facts. Gun control disarms victims and empowers criminals. The anti-gun crusader is the unwitting ally of the burglar, the rapist, and the murderer.

Despicable delusions

In a society where substantial numbers of people believe in things like creationism, astrology, ghosts, psychic powers, and the like, perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that we also have September 11 conspiracy theories.

Let me make it clear what I mean by "September 11 conspiracy theories". I'm not talking about the claim that the US government incompetently failed to react properly to advance intelligence suggesting an attack was coming. That's actually quite plausible and doesn't even involve any actual conspiracy. We have had serious intelligence-evaluation failures before, and the present administration is particularly bad about not listening to expert advice or information which conflict with its established world-view. What I mean by "conspiracy theories" is the claim that the destruction of the World Trade Center was not plainly and simply a jihadist attack but rather was staged by the US government, that the buildings collapsed because of explosive charges placed inside rather than the effect of the planes hitting them, etc.

I can't claim expertise on the technical issues involved, but Popular Mechanics magazine can, and they have amply addressed those issues here and here.

But I do know an implausible claim about human behavior when I see one. Consider what it would imply if the September 11 attack had actually been staged by the government. Consider the number of people who would have to have been involved, not only in carrying out the staged attacks themselves but in ensuring that no subsequent investigation would ever get close to the conspirators. Consider that many of these people would probably have had to be members of the armed forces, who are sworn to uphold the Constitution, not to obey flagrantly-illegal orders resulting in a massacre of thousands of innocent American citizens (even in totalitarian states, military officers have been known to balk at killing their own people on behalf of the regime, even during major political unrest). Consider that the people who instigated the conspiracy would have need to feel absolutely confident that not one person among all those who knew what had happened would ever feel driven, by guilt or gain, to go public with the truth -- not even years and years after the fact. Consider that they would need to be equally confident that no investigation by a later Democratic administration (or Congress) would ever uncover the conspiracy. For crying out loud, we're living in an era when the President can't even get a blowjob in the Oval Office without the entire country hearing about it, and we're supposed to believe that something this gigantic could successfully be kept secret -- or even to believe that the instigators would imagine that they could successfully keep it secret -- forever?

Here's another point to consider. One of the administration's main justifications for the invasion of Iraq was its claim that Saddam Hussein possessed active programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. Since the invasion, no evidence of any such weapons or programs has been found, something which has caused the administration tremendous embarrassment. If the administration were capable of committing a crime as ghastly as staging the September 11 attacks, surely it would have no qualms about planting fabricated evidence of WMDs in Iraq. Yet it clearly has not done so, since no such evidence at all has surfaced.

One final point: in an important way, September 11 conspiracy theories are different from the above-cited delusions such as creationism, astrology, ghosts, psychic powers, etc. Those delusions merely constitute belief in abstract propositions about reality for which there is no evidence. Except insofar as they create opportunities for con men to fleece people with a poor grasp of logic, they are harmless. The September 11 conspiracy theories are more analogous to the belief that "the Jews" constitute a diabolical cabal that is secretly trying to rule the world, or the belief that black people as a race are innately violent and criminal. That is, we are talking about a belief, contrary to evidence, that a certain group of people are evil and degenerate. It doesn't matter that the group in question is a group I myself don't much like (the present administration). Throwing such a denunciation around, against anyone, when it is demonstrably false is not just a harmless delusion. It's despicable.


18 April 2007

Comic genius

All Pim Fortuyns now?

This posting by Andrew Sullivan's guest-blogger Reihan Salam has some interesting observations about French politics and how the elite there may, at long last, be starting to get the message about their long-suffering constituents' exasperation with the country's violent Muslim underclass.

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"Let's get down to business"

Some funny ads from the 1940s. Found via Mendip.

This kind of thing always makes me wonder -- decades in the future, what products of our own culture right now will seem funny, suggestive, or disturbing in ways that we today would never suspect?


Demons and nightmares

The Apostate has a very interesting posting up about superstition and how to overcome it. The world of the irrational can be a truly terrifying place.

A reminder to the Luddites

Rather encouragingly, the President has just declared that the government now "is ready to invest on a grand scale" in the development of nanotechnology, emphasizing "that this work should be well organized and effective, yielding practical results," especially in enhancing the military power of the country.

Somewhat less encouragingly (from an American perspective), the President who said this is Vladimir Putin, and the country in question is Russia.

As I've often pointed out before, the Luddites who oppose the development of new technology cannot stop it -- if they get their way, all they will accomplish is to cause our own country to fall behind, while others move ahead.

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17 April 2007

Defending the unfaith

Atheist Self has a great response to Don Feder's article "Atheism Isn't the Final Word". It's all worth reading, but my favorite part was this, in response to the old saw about how an atheistic world would be amoral because morality comes from the Bible:

Have you never heard of "if you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours?" What about "two heads are better than one?" There are many benefits to being concerned about others and happily cooperating with others. This is not just seen in humans. Females of many species help take care of other female's babies, despite not directly promoting their own well-being and happiness. Chimpanzees have been seen sacrificing their own life by jumping into a moat to try to save a fellow chimp, despite not being able to swim. An experiment with monkeys shows that when food was only available after pushing a button that delivers a painful electrical shock to another monkey, they would starve for days to avoid hurting the other monkey.

Of course a Christian would probably argue that apes and monkeys are not truly moral, since they do not obsessively try to regulate the sex lives of others of their kind.

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Another religious outrage

Some churches are helping illegal aliens to defy immigration law.

Found via A Whore in the Temple of Reason, who comments:

My hope would be that at the end of the month, anyone inside the churches who had knowledge of this or involvement would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. It is a FELONY to harbor illegal aliens.

My thoughts exactly.

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Strange delusions

Daylight Atheism has a couple of good postings up: one on the dangerous absurdity of the so-called "prosperity gospel", and the other on the disturbing logic of the concept of Heaven.



Cox & Forkum nail it again.

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Management and reorganization

Can there be any doubt that the most effective thing we could possibly do to improve workplace productivity in this country would be to make reorganization punishable by death?

In the course of my working life I've been through quite a few reorganizations. Invariably they were disruptive and confusing, wasted time and energy, and brought no discernable benefits (except in one case where a reorganization abolished a completely ludicrous administrative structure created by the previous reorganization).

Why do managers reorganize? It may be that this is like asking why grass grows or why molluscs cling to rocks. There is no "why" -- these organisms simply do those things because those are the things that they do. It is sometimes said that a new high-level manager will often reorganize the unit he controls as a way of "making his mark" on it. For obvious reasons, I call this the "dog and fire hydrant" theory of reorganization. It could be true; I've noticed that in places where there is a high rate of turnover at the top, there is also a higher frequency of reorganizations. It can get tiresome being in the role of the fire hydrant, though.

And that's the unfortunate part. In my experience, most working people genuinely want to do their jobs well. But instead of being left in peace to get on with it, they are constantly pestered with reorganizations and "team-building" activities and "motivation" schemes and whatever other fads happen to be in vogue with management consultants and publications at any given time. The sole benefit of most such impositions is that they give the staff something to make fun of among themselves.

The management that manages least, manages best.

16 April 2007

Some theocracy postings (3)

The list of contributions to the Blog against Theocracy project is apparently complete; I've added it to my list of links at right. I haven't read all of them yet -- not even close -- but here are a few more I though were especially worth reading:

The Buss
Evil Genius Chronicles
Pam's House Blend
Rabbit Mountain
Reality Principles
Elayne Riggs
Bob Rixon
Arthur Ruger
Texas Kaos
The Truffle


Completely heterosexual

The National Day of Reason

The concept of setting aside a special day out of the year for reason seems strange and a little sad -- sort of like having a National Day of Not Hitting Yourself on the Head with a Mallet.

In any case, it's 3 May, so mark your calendar. Until then, feel free to be unreasonable.

Another Islamic forced marriage

Why, oh why, do I not find this particularly surprising?

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Inspired by God

Some earlier, disquieting words from General Peter "homos are immoral" Pace.

It strikes me that, if General Pace is correct here, divine inspiration in this case did not turn out to be very useful.

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14 April 2007

The wacky world of creationism

Roy Zimmerman sets "creation science" to music in this video from the Skeptics Society conference. Found via Zaius Nation. Zimmerman's site is here.

Meanwhile, in Kentucky, the Creation Museum is opening. This link was sent to me by Mendip, who commented, "I don't know whether to laugh or cry." Actually the only sane response is to do both, particularly at gems like this:

Some creationists believe that dinosaurs could have been alive as recently as a few centuries ago, and that European dragon legends were likely a result of dinosaurs living among the populace.

Dinosaurs living among the populace? Cool! But surely if there had been dinosaurs roaming the European landscape in the days of Charlemagne and William the Conqueror -- and presumably also during the earlier, more literate Roman period -- we would see a lot more references to them in the writings of those times than just "dragon legends".

For that matter, if the heyday of the dinosaurs began in the Garden of Eden and lasted until the Flood of Noah, with "humans happily coexisting alongside dinosaurs" during that period, it's rather odd that the Bible never mentions them. The Old Testament does, after all, quite frequently refer to the various animals with which its human protagonists shared their environment. One would think that great herds of RV-sized sauropods munching contentedly away at the available vegetation (and presumably competing for it with the humans' domesticated animals) would have been rather noticeable, and that the larger predatory dinosaurs would have been terrifyingly dangerous to humans with primitive technology. But no, the whole Jurassic Park menagerie was apparently deemed unworthy of mention by the author(s) of Genesis.

The most important difference between Zimmerman's song and the Creation Museum is that only one of them is intentionally funny.

Speaking of huge, dangerous monsters, here's a Cthulhu picture collection I found via Mendip's site. Say what you will about Cthulhu Mythos fans, at least they know fantasy is fantasy.

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Trouble from Turkey?

As if we didn't already have enough problems in the Middle East, there are signs that Turkey is contemplating a military attack on Iraqi Kurdistan. Latest here, with links to earlier articles on the topic.

The US needs to stick up for the Iraqi Kurds. They supported us during the invasion of Iraq when Turkey tried to obstruct us; we owe them. And Iraqi Kurdistan is Iraq's biggest success story -- a place which governs itself and keeps the peace on its own territory with its own forces without needing our help, as we hope Iraq as a whole will eventually be able to do.

If PKK terrorists in Turkey are indeed getting support from points in Iraqi Kurdistan, then this is a serious problem and it needs to be stopped. But the US has leverage with the Iraqi Kurds to get that issue dealt with. I trust that stern warnings are being conveyed, even if not publicly, from Washington to Ankara: we will not stand by and do nothing if our friends are attacked.


12 April 2007

Quote for the day

"If you look at how theocracies are run, you notice that good works are not high on the list of priorities. Theocrats generally do not spread God's will by opening shelters for needy families. They do not collect clothes to give to poor people. They don't run soup kitchens or teach songs to kids. They don't publish religious story books. They don't do anything constructive or fun. No, theocrats spend a lot of time banning things and punishing people.

Basically, anyone who's force-fed religious dogma is going to be bored and resentful. If you talk to anyone who's sincere and happy with his or her faith, you can see that religion is like comfort food to them. For a theocrat, religion becomes chopped liver. It's supposed to be good for you, but who'd want to eat it?"

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11 April 2007

Mark Foley jokes

A collection by Dr. Zaius. I for one am shocked, shocked that Congressman Foley's sexually-inappropriate e-mails to underage pages apparently contained a substantial number of incorrectly-spelled words! Don't these Congressmen have any standards?!

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Echo chambers

Here's a really good posting about a subject which has been on my mind on and off lately -- the issue of trying to maintain some degree of coherence on one's website, which can necessitate putting limits on interlopers who have agendas of their own. As poster Lindsay Beyerstein puts it:

If you cast a very wide net, you can attract enough people to sustain a very narrow conversation. Within limits, the bigger the better, especially online. You need a critical mass of dedicated participants to create a thriving community. There aren't a lot of places in everyday life where feminists can talk to other feminists about the finer points of feminism. If I want to defend feminism from first principles with a diehard misogynist, it's easy. So, you can see why an actively managed self-identified feminist community like Pandagon is of great value to its members. If Amanda didn't work at keeping the community within certain relatively permissive bounds, the community would lose a lot.

For those of you who want to start special pleading about how feminism is worthless anyway, spare us and mentally substitute some example you like better. Imagine how you would feel if we were talking about a vibrant community centered around your favorite uncommon interest. For my part, I'm very glad that these specialized voluntary communities exist, whether I think the topic is interesting to me or not--and not just for the sake of the participants. If everyone was scrapping over first principles all the time, we'd never get to any interesting questions.

Similarly, I'm really not interested in getting into first-principles debates with creationists, flat-Earthers, September 11 conspiracy nuts, Holocaust deniers, global-warming deniers, and suchlike. It would take time and energy away from discussions about those "interesting questions" that have actual relevance to the real world.

Note also that this is emphatically not a freedom-of-speech issue. I neither have nor want any power to limit what anyone else can say. But I'm not obligated to turn my own site into a forum for him to say it. He can get his own site easily enough, or comment on one more to his liking.

Why is France the way it is?

Still fighting the ghost of the British Empire -- on behalf of a French-Islamic Empire that never was?

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A rather clever pool shot

New developments in technology

From Georgia, a prototype nano-scale generator to power the microscopic machines of the future.

From Scotland, a "spray-on computer" for medical diagnosis.


Climate change watch -- new poll

As with evolution, the reality of human-caused global warming is pretty much a settled issue among scientists. Unlike with evolution, it's pretty much settled among the public as well.

The shorter, funnier version

Check out The Bible Summarized by a Smartass, a project perfectly summed up by its title. Lots of fun, except for fundamentalists with no sense of humor.

Found via Zaius Nation, a must-see site for anyone with a sense of the zany -- Archie comics, Nancy Pelosi as Wonder Woman, a whole gaggle of Jesuses, and of course everyone's favorite acerbic talking orangutan. Plus hundreds of links to other offbeat stuff.

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10 April 2007

Some theocracy postings (2)

More links are up at the "Blog against Theocracy" list. Here are some more I especially liked:

Atheist Experience
Jaded Skeptic
Northstate Science
One North Dakota Woman
Sanguine in Seattle
Tangled Up in Blue Guy

*Check out the quotes from Christian Right leaders in this one, if you have any doubt about how fundamentally opposed these people are to individual freedom and the Constitutional order.


"No tolerance for irreverence"

More trouble over a Muhammad-related cartoon.


The Galaxy Building

This looks like something out of Star Trek. I wonder if it will ever get built.


The Galileo mess

The European Union, having demonstrated that it can't run an airplane-manufacturing enterprise at First World standards, now takes time out to show that it can't build an alternative to the American GPS system either.

Maybe we should stop worrying about the EU exporting its technology to our enemies, and try to encourage it to export its management techniques to them instead. They'd never recover.

The sad thing about the Galileo saga is that the name of a great hero of science has ended up attached to such an ignominious fiasco.

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09 April 2007

The role of the clergy

Americans of the Europe-is-doomed school often cite Europe's secularism (weakening of the role of Christianity in society) as a supposed source of European spinelessness in the face of Islamist bullying.

But this example of sniveling dhimmitude on the part of British Christian clergymen, and the uproar it has provoked among the mostly-secular British people, suggests that matters are otherwise. (Found via Samizdata.)

A religion which exhorts its adherents to love their enemies and turn the other cheek when struck is hardly suited to serve as a source of strength in time of existential conflict.

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American madrasah

George Dvorsky reviews Jesus Camp. Be warned -- this will both make you angry on behalf of the children being relentlessly schooled in ignorance, and make you frightened by what they might do in the future if they grow up with their programming intact. Do you think the title I gave this posting, comparing the camp to the Saudi-funded Wahhabist schools in Pakistan that churn out Muslim fanatics, is a little too over-the-top? At least one camp organizer would disagree:

It's no wonder, with that kind of intense training and discipling, that those young people are ready to kill themselves for the cause of Islam. I wanna see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam. I wanna see them as radically laying down their lives for the Gospel as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine and all those different places, you know, because we have... excuse me, but we have the truth!

There you have it. The ignorance, bigotry, and fanaticism that fuel the murderous foot soldiers of Islamic imperialism are a model to be emulated.


European views on Iran

This poll is very interesting. The most obvious point is that a majority (even if a narrow one) of citizens of EU member states support an airstrike on Iran if necessary to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. This shows that, once again, the timidity and political correctness of the ruling elites of those countries does not reflect the actual views of their people. The breakdown of opinion country-by-country, however, is also of interest.

The article lists Germany, Italy, Slovakia, and Spain as countries where majority public opinion opposes an airstrike -- all of these being countries which were members of, or sympathetic to, the Axis at the time of the original Holocaust. Countries named as having majorities favoring the airstrike include the World-War-II-era anti-Axis nations of Britain, France, and Denmark -- with Denmark, whose citizens managed to save most of their Jewish population during the original Holocaust (at considerable risk to themselves), being the country with the highest level of support for pre-emptive action to prevent a second, nuclear Holocaust today.

One probably shouldn't read too much into this, but still.....

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Some theocracy postings (1)

Not all the links are up yet at the list of postings for "Blog against Theocracy", but of the ones I've read so far (which admittedly isn't all of the ones that are up now), here are a few I especially liked:

Atheist Revolution
Dark Christianity
I Doubt It
The Rational Christian
Recovering Liberal
Springy Goddess
A Whore in the Temple of Reason


08 April 2007


More experimental clues to how life on Earth may have begun.

Exploiting the law to undermine our defenses



Moscow at night

Religion vs. science

The crucial difference between religion and science lies not in what things they hold to be true, but in the basis on which they decide which things to hold true. Science relies on evidence; religion relies on faith, meaning a willingness to believe things when there is no evidence that they are true. Science starts with the evidence and accepts whatever conclusion that evidence reveals; religion starts with the desired conclusion (God exists, Heaven exists), and then casts around for some basis for believing it. Science demands that evidence be objective and accessible to anyone; its ideal tool is the controlled experiment, designed to test for only one variable, and described carefully enough that any other researcher can do the same experiment and see whether he gets the same result. Science knows that all humans, including scientists, have biases, and has developed procedures for filtering out such biases from its processes for assessing evidence. Religion embraces the unverifiable and the subjective; its central claims (such as the existence of God) are generally formulated so as to be immune to objective testing. The religious believer debating an atheist, when his "arguments" for the existence and goodness of God are shot full of holes, will often fall back on a statement like, "I know God exists and is good, for I have felt His love!" The same untestability which makes this claim unanswerable also makes it useless as a tool for discovering truth.

(It’s important not to confuse the concepts of evidence and personal experience. For example, no one has had personal experience of evolution, since evolution happens to groups of organisms across generations, not to individuals. Nevertheless, evolution is more solidly supported by evidence than almost any other fact in all of human knowledge. Millions of people have had personal experience of encounters with angels, ghosts, space aliens, etc., but there is no evidence that any of those things exist.)

Due to its unique evidence-based approach, science has enabled us to create technology, a vast array of tools that actually work, such as vaccines, computers, anaesthetics, spacecraft, hydrogen bombs, lasers, etc. Because of this, those groups of humans who have embraced science have acquired great power, not only over the natural world, but also (for good or for ill) over those groups of humans who have been less enthusiastic or less capable in adopting the scientific approach.

Because science and religion use such different methods for establishing truth, they inevitably come to different conclusions about almost any question which both of them take up. The differences about the age of the Earth, the origin of the human race, and so forth, are too well-known to need citing. So long as science is free to operate without interference from religion, these differences are not a practical problem for it. That’s where the issue of theocracy comes in. When religion gains influence over the way political power is used, the results can be disastrous.

One of the best examples comes from Islamic history. Around 800 CE, Muslim intellectuals discovered the philosophical heritage of Classical Greece and translated it into Arabic. In the relatively tolerant climate of the time, the new ideas spread and a class of "philosophers" arose, promoting a skeptical and rationalistic approach to truth. Many Muslim rulers, themselves interested in the new thinking, downplayed its conflicts with theology in order to justify a policy of tolerance and even encouragement. Over the next three centuries a kind of scientific age arose, rudimentary by modern standards but impressive for the time. The circumference of the Earth was calculated and a number of practical advances were made, largely in the field of medicine. There was continuous tension between the philosophers and the theologians, however, and around 1100 CE the conflict came to a head with the rise of the new school of Ash’arite theology. This school’s leading proponent, the theologian al-Ghazali, attacked the views of the philosophers with devastating effect; his writings (brilliantly argued, in their own way), wiped away the grey areas which had long enabled philosophers and rulers alike to maintain that there was no inherent conflict between Islam and Greek-inspired philosophy, and that one could thus embrace the latter while remaining a good Muslim. Since medieval Islam knew no separation of political authority from religion, the triumph of Ash’arite theology meant the end of the Islamic scientific age. Philosophers were persecuted and exiled, books were burned, inquiry was shut down, and in effect, an entire civilization lobotomized itself.

The decline of any civilization has multiple causes, but in the Islamic case, this self-imposed intellectual stagnation must have played a key role. Had Islamic science not been suppressed, for example, it is conceivable that it might have gone on to develop more sophisticated weapons with which the Muslims could have fought off the devastating Mongol invasions a century later. Certainly several further centuries of development would have left the Muslims of the nineteenth century far better equipped to resist European colonialism. But that’s not what happened. Some might argue that, because Islam makes political authority a mere arm of religion, Islamic science was always doomed to be strangled in the cradle sooner or later.

Even today, throughout the Islamic world, religion dominates government, law, and education to varying degrees. As a result no Muslim country is a leader in any field of science or technology, though several other non-Western countries are, notably Japan, South Korea, and Russia (note that all of these societies are strongly secular).

The story of the rise of science in the West is the story of struggle against reactionary religion. From Bruno to Galileo to Darwin, discovery after discovery was bitterly resisted in the name of religious dogma. Even the twentieth century saw instances of "moral" objections to the development of medicines to treat venereal disease. Even the embrace of Lysenkoism by the Soviet state in the 1950s, which crippled the progress of Soviet genetics, should also be counted as an example of this phenomenon; Communism is not technically a religion, but it has most of the essential characteristics of a religion, and Stalin’s insistence that truth be determined by consistency with established dogma rather than by evidence perfectly mirrored the danger which religion armed with state power has always presented to science.

The United States is lucky in that our Constitution and separation of powers would make it very difficult to create a real theocracy here. Nevertheless, the Bush administration – more strongly and openly influenced by religious fundamentalism than any other administration in recent times – has given us a foretaste of the damage that religious influence over the state can do to science. Its efforts to obstruct stem-cell research have driven much of the work in that vital field overseas. A government which managed to move even closer to theocracy might, for example, manage to impose creationism throughout the school system, producing a generation without real knowledge of evolution, which is the basis of modern biology and medicine. A serious effort to uproot "Darwinist" assumptions from American research establishments would cripple progress in those fields.

Even the repressive social policy which is the chief focus of the Christian Right’s political activism would, if implemented, stunt the country intellectually. Most creative people are not the sort that can be happy living under a bunch of ancient Middle Eastern tribal taboos written into law by scowling would-be ayatollahs. They would leave, taking the benefits of their creativity and innovativeness elsewhere.*

America’s health, standard of living, and military power depend on its technology, and technological progress depends on science. If science is undermined by too much government interference, technological progress will slow down drastically – equivalent to a relative decline, since in modern times technology advances very rapidly, and this would continue in foreign countries, some of them not well disposed toward us. Theocrats cannot stop technological progress. They can only shift it to countries other than the ones where they have influence.

A true theocracy would ruin America. Any step in that direction harms America. Any real patriot or anyone who values the achievements of the mind must resist such tendencies.

Note: This posting is a contribution to the "Blog against Theocracy" project. See here for links to other contributions; also visit First Freedom First, a site dedicated to separation of church and state.

*I do not at all minimize the point that such imposition of moral taboos by force would also be a bad thing in and of itself – for personal choice on abortion and divorce, for the personal freedom of women and homosexuals, and in many other ways. I’ve made it clear where I stand. But this is a separate issue from the main subject of this posting.

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07 April 2007

Repairing the brain

Some very promising work is being done in Los Angeles on using silicon chips to repair brain damage. This not only offers hope in treating brain disorders such as Alzheimer's disease; it also represents a step down the road toward the full integration of human and machine intelligence which will be crucial to the Singularity.

Notice that one does not even need to understand the functions of the affected part of the brain in order to make the technology work; one merely needs to have the chip send out the same impulses that the damaged area would have sent, and have the rest of the brain accept those signals. As Ted Berger, the project leader, says, “I don’t need a grand theory of the mind to fix what is essentially a signal-processing problem.....A repairman doesn’t need to understand music to fix your broken CD player.”

An interesting point the article notes is that Berger originally had trouble attracting support and research partners for his work, but his recent successes have generated broad interest in developing the technology further. This suggests that the oft-cited problems in getting large-scale funding for anti-aging research could similarly be overcome by achieving a spectacular success in the laboratory, as the Methuselah Mouse Prize aims to do.

Another important example of brain-machine interface is a neurosensor which can interpret the signals the brain sends along the motor neurons to control the body:

When placed over the brain’s motor-cortex area, the sensor enables quadriplegics to open and close a prosthetic hand merely by thinking about doing it. This technology, called BrainGate, allows the machine to convert the electronic signals coming from the brain (“I want to move this hand”) into motor activity by using algorithms embedded in a software chip. “The possibilities are limitless,” says Elizabeth Razee of Cyberkinetics Neurotech-nology Systems, a firm in Foxborough, Massachusetts, that hopes to bring BrainGate to market by 2009.

Work on brain-machine integration is already moving ahead rapidly. Just imagine what will be possible a few years from now, when visible success in helping quadriplegics and Alzheimer's patients starts to awaken the mass public mind to the possibilities, and creates pressure for allocating more funding and resources to research.


Chimpanzee rights

Knowing what I know about the other four great ape species (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans -- I say "the other four" deliberately, since humans rightfully belong in this group), I have long believed that they should not be lumped in with the other "lower animals", but rather considered surviving forms of primitive man. This court case in Austria may establish a basis for extending at least some "human rights" to a chimpanzee who is in danger of being turned over to a vivisection laboratory. Witnesses in the cases include Jane Goodall, the world's leading expert on chimpanzees.

Found via Sentient Developments, which makes the cogent point that personhood and not quasi-human status should be the deciding factor.


The crisis in Ukraine

This is the clearest explanation I've seen yet of what's going on. If the Putin regime tries to meddle in Ukrainian internal affairs again, things could get messy, even bloody. The West needs to be ready to respond with whatever pressure is needed to ensure that the Ukrainians are left free to work out their own problems by themselves.

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Central-planning pests

Quote for the day

"In the US, the religious Right numbers about 35 million. Recent polls show that about 30 million Americans define themselves as having no religious commitment.

But whereas the religious Right is a formidable body whose con-stituent churches and movements have salaried administrators, vast funds, television and radio outlets, and paid Washington lobbyists, America's non-religious folk are simply unconnected individuals.

It is no surprise that the religious Right has political clout and can make a loud noise in the American public square, whereas the non-religious voice is muted.

There are two main reasons for the hardening of responses by non-religious folk.

One is that any increase in the influence of religious bodies in society threatens the de facto secular arrangement that allows all views and none to coexist. History has shown that in societies where one religious outlook becomes dominant, an uneasy situation ensues for other outlooks; at the extreme, religious control of society can degenerate into Taliban-like rule."

Professor Grayling was a participant in a recent public debate in London on the motion "We'd be better off without religion" -- note that the audience vote after the debate favored the motion (that is, it supported the atheist position).


Life extension on Samizdata

This Samizdata posting on the Edmonton Aging Symposium prompted a broader discussion on life extension.

Some of the usual objections came up. The most unusual one, to me, was the concern that once life extension is possible, the government would make it mandatory. It used to be that we worried about totalitarian regimes killing people. Now we have to worry about them forcing people to stay alive? Gee, I guess fascism just isn't what it used to be.

I have a number of beefs with "libertarianism" as it currently defines itself, but many libertarians are evidently reliable voices in telling the pro-death Kassite "bio-ethicists" where to get off.

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04 April 2007

Are we crazy?

This is how the United States looks when viewed from Australia, apparently.


Technological confidence

Ray Kurzweil discusses his optimistic view of the future.


03 April 2007

Corporate abuses

This posting and discussion are worth reading. Just consider: what if it were you?


An interesting posting about paganism in Finland.

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On the "argument from boredom"

One argument sometimes made by people who object to research into radical life extension is that living for centuries or millennia would be a bad thing because people would get bored. This seems like a very odd position to take in a society where most people, so far from being unable to think of things to do to fill their time, find themselves constantly lacking enough time to fit in all the things they want to do. Still, let's examine the idea a little more closely.

If you think that you might be bored if you are still alive 100 years from now, consider this: How bored would a person who was a young adult in the year 1907 be, if he were still alive (and young and healthy) today? He would have seen countless technological and cultural developments he could not possibly have imagined in 1907 -- antibiotics, jet airliners, movies, recorded music, space travel, the sexual revolution, the internet, and far more. Will the cascade of innovation stop for the next 100 years, leaving us in a world identical to today's except for our own extended life-spans? Of course not. It will not stop, it will continue to accelerate dramatically. You will not get bored.

If anything, my own expectation is that there will always be more interesting things going on than one person could possibly keep up with, no matter how long he lived. According to Ray Kurzweil's projections, by around 2045 we should have achieved the full Technological Singularity, with complete merging of human and machine intelligence, freeing humans from the limitations of biology (and from any limits on the increase of individual human intelligence, even to trillions of times its natural level), allowing us to lead lives so rich, deep, and free of external constraints over the individual as to be literally beyond the imagination of humans today. We in 2007 can no more foresee the cultural achievements and character of post-Singularity civilization than a bacterium could comprehend the pleasures offered by Shakespeare, the internet, or a simple lunch out with a friend. You will not get bored.

If you want a vision of a stupefyingly-boring eternity, consider the Christian view of Heaven. Since Heaven is supposed to be perfect, it couldn't progress or change. Most enjoyable activities, being considered "sinful" to some degree or at least hardly godly, would presumably be unavailable there. The traditional vision of Heaven would have me impatiently checking my watch after half an hour, never mind all eternity. Worst of all, the place would presumably be swarming with the kind of insufferable Bible-besotted prigs whose smug holiness makes everyone avoid them in real life, with the genuinely broad-minded, imaginative, skeptical, intelligent individuals having been deemed unfit for admission.

No thanks. I'm staying here -- hopefully forever.


Quote for the day

"Taking Brave New World to be a cautionary tale about the perils of scientific inquiry is even more wrongheaded. While Huxley’s dystopia depends on some minor technological advances, its spirit is essentially anti-scientific. The author, who knew his science—he was the grandson of T. H. Huxley, the great Victorian biologist—makes this plain. “Every change is a menace to stability,” the Controller tells the Savage in their dialogue. “Every discovery in pure science is potentially subversive.” Huxley’s imagined world, like Orwell’s, is static. We are not being shown the perils of letting science march on indefinitely, so much as the perils of letting science march forward a short distance, then stop forever."


The depths of evil

A reminder of what we're up against in Iraq. Every call to withdraw from Iraq before the Iraqi government is stabilized is a call to abandon the Iraqi people utterly to the depredations of these monsters who have already murdered so many of them.


Blog against theocracy

Check out the "blog against theocracy" project this coming weekend. Found via A Whore in the Temple of Reason.


Are some atheists too aggressive?

I'm not sure how I feel about this (thanks to Mendip for the link). I do sometimes think that people such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris express themselves in a way which is more aggressive than necessary, and may put off people who would otherwise be receptive to the substance of their arguments. On the other hand, it's important to adhere clearly to the principle that nonsense is nonsense. No one would feel any obligation, or indeed ability, to respect an educated adult's serious belief in the existence of unicorns or Santa Claus. One would certainly be obligated to tolerate such a belief, since it does no obvious harm to anyone else, and one could also respect the person holding the belief, assuming he had other positive qualities; but seeking respect for the belief itself would simply be asking too much. A belief in the existence of God differs from a belief in the existence of unicorns only in that it is held by a much larger percentage of members of society.

(I think the distinction between tolerance and respect is a very important one, by the way. We owe tolerance to pretty much everyone and everything unless they produce effects or behavior which are obviously intolerable. Respect, with its connotation of approval and admiration, is a very different matter and needs to be earned.)

Nevertheless, we manage to deal with people who believe all kinds of nonsense (astrology, flying saucers, psychic powers, crystal healing, and what have you) and even interact pleasantly with them, precisely because people tend to avoid confronting each other about such matters. The same goes for people with differing political opinions. A person who insists on getting confrontational about such differences at every opportunity quickly develops a reputation as a social boor and is avoided by everyone, regardless of the objective merits of his own views.

I don't agree with those who are criticizing Dawkins and Harris themselves. We need Dawkins and Harris. They're advocates for the plain and simple truth. As I've pointed out before, there's no reason why all atheists should have the same agenda or tactics or have anything in common at all -- any more than all people who disbelieve in unicorns have anything in common.

To me, it comes down to the circumstances. On this website, I'm completely straightforward about what I think. If some people find this disagreeable or inappropriate, they are free to find something else to read which is more to their liking. In ordinary social or work situations I generally avoid discussing de facto controversial subjects unless the other person invites it in some way. And as for moderate, secular Christians (or other religious people) who are as supportive of the separation of church and state as we are, cooperation with them is a pragmatic necessity in the cause of resisting the fundamentalists as effectively as possible (see here, and the last paragraph of this). One must agree to disagree about differences, for the sake of the common interest.


Fading challenger

This article from the British newspaper The Telegraph argues that the European Union's hour has passed.

This would be good news not only for the European countries (notably Britain and the newly-independent eastern European states) which fear losing their national sovereignty, but also for us.

I doubt that the euro will last until 2010 without the stresses imposed by different national policies and priorities forcing at least one or two major countries to abandon it, thus destroying its credibility as an alternative to the dollar. And I'd bet that by 2015 the EU itself either will have abandoned its efforts at political centralization and become a mere free-trade area, or else will have lost the British Isles, eastern Europe, Scandinavia, and possibly Germany, shrinking to a "Club Med" remnant.

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Genetics and life extension

This seems like a worthwhile idea. Since some animals live an unusually long time -- and therefore must age unusually slowly -- let's analyze the genes of those species and find out how they do it.