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Friday, December 30, 2005


"Brit Jew marries dolphin"

Ever since Massachusetts legalized same sex marriage, I've been tempted to marry myself. I think I'd make a good match. Though I do have a few annoying habits, I think they are all things that I can tolerate. Besides, I know I can trust me to stick with me when times get tough.

The benefits of marriage are many: my tax rates would be lower; my SS benefits would be higher; and whenever my boss wanted me to stay late or travel, I could easily decline, honestly able to say that my spouse wants me home.

I haven't done it yet, though, in part because of inertia - why buy the cow when the milk is free? - and in part because of a certain modesty. I didn't want my very special relationship to become a public spectacle. However, now that a woman has married a dolphin, the latter objection seems rather moot.

I may still have to force the issue, and threaten to leave myself, in order to overcome the inertia problem... but at least now I have hope. Thank you, dolphin bride! Like you, I am not a pervert!

Wednesday, December 28, 2005


Left Over Embryos: Cannibalism?

I have to admit something up front: this isn't about the linked article. But the last sentence reminded me of something that I've wanted to address for awhile:
As well as being against abortion in all cases, the Church opposes stem-cell research which extracts useful cells from unused embryos left over from fertility treatments.

This notion that "left-over embryos" might as well be dismantled for whatever components they many yield bothers me quite a bit. Given my own beliefs about abortion, that might not seem surprising, but there are some people who are anti-"elective abortion" who are not troubled. Even my hero Charles Krauthammer endorses the idea.

I will concede all the obvious points. There are many such embryos, and most will never mature. Oh sure, there are a few "snowflake babies" out there, but I'm reasonably sure that the number of added to frozen storage far exceeds the number being rescued - there is no competion.

And yet, every time I encounter the idea of "canniblizing" these unwanted embryos for parts, I find myself wondering: why we bury human cadavers? For that matter, why do we bury pets? Is there no use for those bodies? Sure, they may not be good eatin' any more - but why not at least mulch them up as fertilizer?

Of course, we do "canniblize" bodies in some ways. We harvest parts for transplant from both the living and the dead. But, if the corpsed was an adult, they had to have give explicit consent. If the patient was a child, the parents can give consent in their place, but there is still a catch: it's illegal to kill a child after it's been born, even for the parents.

Since killing an embryo is not illegal, is that difference enough to let its parents' consent to it's use? Well, let's think for a moment. Imagine a mother with two children: a favorite with a fatal condition requiring a transplant, and a hated but healthy sibling. Could that parent kill the hated child, accept the punishment demanded for murder, but still given consent to let the hated child's organs be given to the favorite child? I'm sure many people would say yes, since at least it saves the surviving child. But that just seems wrong to me. Laws serve, to some extent, as lower limits on acceptable behavior. Deliberately killing one child, even if it might save the life of another child, seems below that lower limit.

In any case, we do not handle corpses as we do out of practical considerations like laws or science; we do so out of reverence. Some many consider reverence primitive; but I disagree. Of all creation, only man is capable of reverence, and only modern man has exhibited it. When anthropologists find an elaborately buried man, they consider it a sign that his civilization was advanced. How then could a return to an animalistic, primitive lack the reverence be considered an further advance?

Finally, some may agree with my reasoning, but argue that the potential benefits outweigh any principled objection. To such people, I can only remind them of this joke, which I've seen attributed to the likes of Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill:

Man: My dear lady, you delight me. Would you consider joining me in my bed for, let us say, a million pounds?

Woman: Why sir! You flatter and intrique me. I can only hope to prove worthy of your generousity...

Man: Would you consent for, perhaps, ten pounds instead?

Woman: Why sir! What do you take me for?

Man: What you are has already been established. I am simply negotiating the price.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005


Who Says Science Contains No Religion?

There doesn't seem much doubt that the form and function of our bodies - all living bodies - is determined by the content of our DNA. There doesn't seem much doubt that that DNA can change, and that those changes can be inherited.

Some doubt that those changes can accumulate enough to produce clearly distinct species; others do not doubt. But, for the moment, assume that to be so.

Then all the way back at the beginning, when life first formed on this planet, there must have been some set of the appropriate, non-living resources, and there must have been so event that combined them. The details would be interesting, because this event has not been duplicated in any lab... but that is beside the point for the moment.

Instead, consider the result of that event: the very first strand of DNA was formed. The structure of that strand was so remarkable that it not only self-organizes; not only divides and replicates itself; not only builds and defines a self-organizing creature around it; it also endures billions years of random changes without being destroyed. Quite the contrary, in fact: these changes often add size and complexity to the resulting creature, making it more durable and adaptable.

Furthermore, this remarkable strand appears to be unique. Despite the years that have passed, there is no evidence of any non-DNA life, much less any that rival it. Even viruses, which are acellular and must invade DNA-based cells in order to reproduce, contain snippets of DNA or RNA.

Furthermore, despite all the years that have passed, there is no evidence whatsoever that the event, whatever it was, ever happened again. On the contrary: the similarities of all life at the cellular level is frequently used to argue for the validity of the theory of common descent.

So, even if all the theories are right, and even if life arose from non-living elements, then it did so only one time, in only one way. And that single self-duplicating, self-organizing strand that resulted contained within it all of the detail, richness, and diversity of living creation that we see today, merely requiring random bombardment by radiation, hazardous materials, and its own living metabolism as the keys to unlock them.

Sunday, December 18, 2005


The Rotation of 'Evil'

The crying you hear about even the possibility of torture, even for those who would happily run any one of us through a meat grinder, is merely indicative of our society's ongoing rotation of the meaning of evil.

At one time, evils were mostly action-oriented, as conveyed by the "thou shalt nots" - i.e., thou shalt not lie, steal, kill, and so on. Disobediance of those comandments was considered evil.

But the meaning of evil has been slowly rotating for a long time, as indicated by the almost-Stoic principles of being, concisely captured in the Seven Deadly Sins. To not be evil, donn't be slothful; don't be greedy; don't wrathful, gluttonous, envious, or prideful.

In recent years, unfortunately, this rotation has accelerated damatically. Now, the prohibitions against evil mainly start with "don't cause": don't cause suffering; don't cause poverty; don't cause feelings of inferiority, discomfort, or exclusion.

That approach is bad, of course, since it takes virtue out of the hands of the individual, and places it in the reactions and judgements of others. "Their" reaction has become the measure of "our" evil.

I think that this explains the brouhaha about something like waterboarding. Waterboarding does cause suffering, at least while it's in progress. However, it does not cause injury. In the past, such temporary suffering would have been seen as something to be endured. After all, have we not all suffered? Have we not all survived our suffering? But now, suffering itself is seen as bad as injury... or perhaps even as worse.

Of course, the wheel of values continues to turn. Already, some hold that good people and countries "don't allow" suffering, poverty, hurt feelings, and the like. The arrogance of this is completely lost on those who would impose these definitions on all of us.

But for those of us we believe in personal responsibility, and personal freedom, this unobstructed rotation is ominous. It is well past time that we push back harder. We should firmly reject any arguments based on anything other than our actions and our motives.

Applying this understanding to the question of interrogation means that we should not injure our captives, not should we act out of anger or wrath. But, as long as the purpose to the gathering of information that may save lives, causing even extreme suffering for a short time (ex: waterboarding) is perfectly acceptable.

We should not hide this; we should tell the world about it, loudly and clearly. Allowing the reactions of our enemies to determine our standards (ala McCain) would be foolish. Pretending to do so is even worse, for such lies, when exposed, call our entire character into question.

Friday, December 16, 2005


Two Great Quotes From Mary J. Blige

Quotes from Mary J Blige, as interviewed by Zoe Williams for The Guardian:
Whether or not Blige ever believed the record industry actually meant to kill her is up for grabs; her main point is that it wouldn't have been like killing a person - it would have been like killing off old stock. I think Blige just doesn't like the industry: she thinks it's grabby and atavistic. "I do know that in this business, it's like being in the [housing] projects again, only now we have all the stuff. You've got all this money, but you're still living right next door to the person that robbed your house. It's the same thing."

and at the end of the article:
But as improbable as it sounds, and as much as the feminist in me balks at mentioning it, Mary J Blige has been a whole new quantity since she met Isaacs. "When you can see better, you want better. And you know, my husband, he had something better. He had a mom that raised him, he had a father that raised him. He had a family unit. He had sisters and brothers that weren't jealous of him. He didn't have to fight them. He had beautiful things in him, and he was already a Christian when I met him. When I saw his life, that's the life I wanted."

Was she not worried she'd lose her creative spark, landing in a happy relationship? "I wasn't happy when I got married! I was scared. The only thing I could think about was, 'This nigger - excuse me - this dude is gonna cheat on me. I'm gonna take this chance, but this is fucked - excuse me.' And at the same time, I'd actually made it to a point where I could say, 'I love this person and I want to marry him', but all that stuff in me was saying, 'I'm gonna kill him! He's gonna cheat on me, then I'm gonna kill him.' "

She smiles again and gives her final verdict: "I believe what God says about me. He says that I'm beautiful, I'm strong, I'm a good woman, I have love in my heart, I can be fat or skinny ... I can do whatever I want."
The first quote, I thought, is just very vivid. I don't know either the projects or the record industry, but I still believe I do know exactly what she means.

The second quote is more interesting. Put aside the question of why "the femisist" in Zoe Williams "balks" at the idea that the love in your life - even if he's a man! - can open your eyes to new perspectives. I just thought the Bilge was very honest, very self-aware in her description of herself... and I love the final paragraph. I wish that everybody I know could honestly say something similar. I certainly I wish I could.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


A Transparent, Anonymous, Verifiable Voting Process: A Proposal

It is apparent to anyone with half-an-ear that there are rumblings throughout this country. Discontent and suspicions about the election process continues to grow. People distrust all parts of the process: the voting machines, the ballots designers, the precinct workers, and, of course, the politicians.

To address this problem, we need a new voting process - one that the American people can trust.

The following are the minimum requires for this process:

1) It has to be transparent. That means that the process itself must be documented and well understood, and any software used must be open source and freely available for examination.

2) It has to be anonymous. There must not be any way that someone can systematically determine which voter cast which ballot.

3) It has to be verifiable. Specifically, there has to be a paper trail of some sort that can be re-examined and re-counted.

It should also be reliable, scalable, and as inexpensive as possible.

The requirement for verifiability to rule out "lever voting machine" or "touch screen" voting machines, as neither produces a per-voter paper document. We all know about the problems with hanging chads, so "punch voting" is also out.

The system that seems most promising to me is an "optical scan" system similar to the one used where I vote. Its main drawback, it seems to me, is that it provides no feedback to the voter. How do I know that it accurately read my ballot and counted my votes the way I intended?

For that reason, I propose that the new voting process utilize:

1) an optical scanner. Although the scanner used where I vote feeds itself and looks special-purpose, I know of no reason that this could not be a simple page scanner, if that would significantly reduce costs.

2) a computer system to run the open-source software which controls the scan, picks off the votes, validates the ballot (see below), and accumulates the totals for those ballots which have been accepted.

3) a display monitor, properly positioned and shielded to show the voter (and no one else) a summary of the votes that the software recognized. It should provide the user with a button (via either a touch screen or a separate input device (see below)) to either "ACCEPT" or "REJECT" the ballot results.

A display monitor should be used for this validation step, rather than a printed receipt, for the same reason that ballots cannot be brought into the precinct - to discourage "vote buying". Disallowing outside ballots prevents vote buyers from pre-marking ballots; disallowing printed receipts denies vote buyers any evidence that a voter actually cast his vote the way the vote buyer demands. A display monitor also has the advantage of being faster, cheaper, and easier to manage than a receipt printer would be.

4) (optional) a separate input device. This could simply be a keyboard with the "A" key painted green (for "ACCEPT") and the "R" key painted red (for "REJECT").

When the voter makes his selection, precinct workers must be informed of that choice through some means. Possibly, this could be as simple as generating one of two clearly distinguishable audible tones: perhaps a gentle "ding" for "ACCEPT", and a harsh "blat" for "REJECT".

If the displayed votes are "ACCEPT"-ed, then the process is complete. A precinct worker should take the ballot, face down, and put it in a box of accepted ballots. This should occur in clear view of the voter. This box (or set of boxes) filled with accepted ballots provides a verifiable trail that can be re-scanned and re-counted should any question of irregularity arise.

On the other hand, if the displayed votes are "REJECT"-ed, a precinct worker should take the ballot, immediately shred it, and increment a count of spoiled ballots. This count, added to the number of accepted ballots, should be equal to the total number of ballots distributed: an additional check to detect voter fraud.

The rejecting voter is then offered the opportunity to re-vote, receiving a new ballot and going to the front of the voting line. There should be no limit to the number of times which a voter may reject his ballot.

If the voter declines to re-vote, then the precinct worker should increment a count of frustrated voters. This count, added to the number of accepted ballots, should be equal to the number of registered voters admitted by this precinct: an additional check to detect voter fraud.

None of this prevents fraud by precinct workers, of course. However, fraud should be controllable by other procedural means. Specifically, two precinct workers, one each from opposing political parties, should perform each step of the election process, together all times. Because they are politically opposed, one will immediately expose any attempt at voter fraud by the other.

That still leaves the possibility of human error. Controlling this must be the responsibility of all participants. However, the open source software that scans ballots and counts software should help at least this much:

1) It should display the number of ballots accepted so far. The first voter of the day knows that he or she is the first voter. If the counters are improperly reset (or if the ballot box is "stuffed" prior to the first voter) the first voter will notice and complain.

Similarly, the last voters are aware that they are last. If the number of voters per precinct is made available to the public (printed in the newspaper or published on a website), one of these last few voters will notice if the numbers are substantially different than the number they saw when they voted, and will complain. Even if they do not notice, the risk that they might should be enough to prevent anyone from risking voter fraud by discarding ballots, or "stuffing the ballot box" after the precinct has closed.

2) It should display a version number and some sort of checksum for the software in use. If this information is made public prior to the election, concerned citizens may well bring this information into the precinct with them, and use it to check the software before they let their ballot be scanned. This behavior would help ensure that unofficial versions of software are not accidentally used.

This behavior may help also help to discourage deliberate tampering. However, tampering of this kind is not entirely preventable through such means. Instead, procedural rules such as the one described above must be employed. Specifically, the software should only be acquired and installed in the presence of two persons of opposing party. If the software is already acquired, they should independently verify the size, date, and checksums of the software before allowing it to be installed. Both of these persons must be adequately qualified to perform these tasks.

What remains to make this proposal a reality is the existence of suitable open-source software to meet these requirements. Software or adequate documentation is also required to assist ballot creators in the process of generating scan-able ballots.

Technically, such an effort is not particularly challenging. However, the requirement for the software to be extremely reliable is something of a challenge, as is the meta-requirement that the software source code be as easy as possible to read and review. More importantly, challenging or not, this is an important task - one which will help to restore America's confidence in its voting process.

Sunday, December 04, 2005



There has been a fair amount of banter in the media and among the pundits about Intelligent Design vs. Evolution. On "The Corner on National Review Online", among other places, this discussion has "devolved" into something like "Science vs. Religion". This is a fascinating topic to me, and far too poorly understood by non-scientists and non-believers alike. Someday, I'd like to tackle the subject in detail.

On a smaller scale, however, I did find time to respond to one small point in the on-going discussion. In response to this post by John Derbyshire, I sent the following email:

Mr. Derbyshire,

I found your recent argument regarding science vs. philosophy and theology interesting... but ultimately flawed.

First, a quibble: according to wikipedia, Pericles died in 429 BCE; Stoicism, which I personally think is about all the philosophy anyone needs, wasn't even started until 308 BCE. On this basis, then, I can say that, yes, a student of, say, Epictetus, would be at something of an advantage if transported back to the era of Pericles.

But, putting that aside, there is a more serious error in your argument. You compare the progress in science against the progress in philosophy and theology, as if progress is all that matters. But, if one believes in revealed truth, there is no need for theological progress. To a believer, all theological answers already exist, perfect and complete, inside the revealed truth.

The goal of theology, then, is not "more God"; it is to understand and apply God's revealed truth to whatever problems currently exist. The fact that such an effort is continuously necessary is of no concern; in fact, it is consistent with the revealed nature of man as an eternally sinful, errant creature. If man could ever settle all theological questions, and fix all of his spiritual problems once and for all, there would be no further need for reveal truth, nor even for God Himself!

True, there are some who apparently believe that they have reached such a state. However, even a casual glance over society as a whole reveals that, if so, they are in the extreme minority.



The Truth about the Anti-War Critics

I originally wrote this post (as "hottub") as a comment on this blog entry. After editing a bit, I decided to re-post it here:

You know, somebody should just tell the truth about all this. Critics of the war, especially Hollywood critics, don't give a rat's ass about the soldiers. A death count of 2000+? There were training exercises during WWII that killed more Americans.

They don't really care about the welfare of the Iraqis either. After all, what were the alternative to this war? The embargo? Doesn't anybody remember when, during the Clinton years, UNICEF estimated that the embargo killed 1M Iraqis, half of them children? Of course, most of whatever harm was done was the result of the corrupt conspiracy between the U.N. and Saddam Hussein himself, but it was the embargo that made that possible. Tell me, which is better for the Iraqis - taking 100K losses in a struggle to be free, or being starved and neglected with no end in sight?

The truth is, these critics care about is preserving the mythos of the Viet Nam protesters and draft dodgers. Remember them? These sons of the Greatest Generation, spoiled by the enormous success and productivity of their victorious parents, didn't want to go and risk death in some swamp. I know, I was there - just young enough to avoid being drafted myself – and I assure you, that was the reality underlying all the protests.

The trouble is, saying you were against Viet Nam because you feared for your own skin just sounds a little too ignoble after all these years. After all, millions of South Vietnamese and Cambodians were butchered as a result of our abandonment. That's the main reason, in my opinion, why the aftermath of our sudden pullout is so rarely discussed.

Of course, Viet Nam really was a stupid war for us - it wasn't going to make the U.S. more or less safe no matter which way it went. But they can't say that too loudly either. Someone might notice that it was Kennedy and Johnson who made that mistake. That would unravel the amazingly successful efforts to pin the Viet Nam war on Nixon.

Far better to pretend that, somehow, after only one generation, the sons and daughters of Americas greatest warriors suddenly became so enlightened as to realize that war is always bad, and peace is always good - even if "peace" means injustice, danger, and the suffering of millions.

No wonder the left is so angry. They got away with this sleight-of-hand for years, but now the deception is finally being exposed for the nonsense that it is.

Iraq isn't Viet Nam. Winning there will make the U.S. much, much safer. Al Qaeda certainly thinks so – why doubt them? Besides, what are the alternatives? As I've already pointed out, continuing the embargo against Iraq would have only hurt the Iraqi people. Dropping the embargo would have been even worse. An unleashed Hussein would have unquestionably endangered the entire Middle East - a region that even peacenik J. Carter acknowledged was a "vital National Interest" – never mind the rest of the world. Or do anyone think that S.H. somehow decide to live in peace, forgiving-and-forgetting that the entire region supported the U.S. in kicking him out of Kuwait?

And the American men and women fighting in Iraq are not draftees, they're volunteers... volunteers who are re-enlisting at a record pace no less. There is absolutely no reason for anyone to protest against their deployment anywhere in the world - that's what they signed up to do.

War can be both good and bad. War of aggression, war for conquest – those are wars we can live without. But the threat of war is sometimes necessary, as is willingness to make war when the threat is ignored. War of liberation, war against clear and present dangers – those wars are good wars, and must be fought and won.

The only good thing about the liberal hysteria about this subject is that, hopefully, all of this will eventually be made crystal clear. Perhaps then the U.S. will finally be able to shake off the malaise caused by its deliberate self-deception, and resume it's rightful place of leadership in an ever freer world.

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