14 December, 2007

If you haven't yet finished your xmas shopping...

Christmas gift suggestions:
To your enemy, forgiveness.
To an opponent, tolerance.
To a friend, your heart.
To a customer, service.
To all, charity.
To every child, a good example.
To yourself, respect.

-Oren Arnold

HT: Unscrewing the Inscrutable

Who is the superest super hero?

Two cartoonists have created an ongoing competition to draw a continuing succession of "superheroes" each of which has powers which can defeat the powers of the preceding hero. So far my personal favorite is "The Creationist" (above), but check out the entire list here.

HT: Pharyngula

08 November, 2007

In which I join the "far left"...

I've not seen this story on any of the major networks, but apparently Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D. Ohio) introduced a resolution in the House on Tuesday to impeach Vice President Dick Cheney:
Resolved, That Richard B. Cheney, Vice President of the United States, is impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors, and that the following articles of impeachment be exhibited to the United States Senate:
See the link for the full text of the resolution which spells out in excruciating detail the actions of the VP that Kucinich believes warrant impeachment.

According to WaPo the resolution ended up being sent to the Judiciary Committee for discussion (from which it will no doubt never be heard of again) after some political wrangling by both Democrats and Republicans. Apparently, Democratic leadership decided some time ago that talk of impeachment was an, "...irresponsible move supported only by the far left" and so they decided to do whatever was necessary to avoid being "embarrassed" by a floor debate.

Again I have to ask: WTF? Aren't these the same Democrats who voters elevated to the majority party largely if not solely due to the deceit, fraud, and utter failure that is the current administration? Based on the polls I've seen, somewhere close to 50% of Americans believe impeachment may indeed be warranted for both Bush and Cheney. A 2006 Zogby poll found 52% in favor of impeachment proceedings based on the illegal wiretapping debacle. A more recent USA Today/Gallup poll found 36% believe there to be enough evidence to hold impeachment hearings. (that last page linked has several polls with impeachment questions; the average in favor seems to be around 30-35%). Does the Democractic leadership truly believe that the "far left" is comprised of between 30-50% of the American population? If Democrats make up about 50% of the voting population, then that would indicate that over half of their membership is "far left". Does that make any sense?

The answer: NO, of course not. Most of the polls I've seen give breakdowns by political affiliation and there are always Republicans in the "impeach" category right along with Democrats. This is not a "far left" issue, it's almost mainstream. What is the Democratic leadership so afraid of?

The "left" is traditionally associated with socialism or communitarian politics. I'm a libertarian (lower-case "l"), so that's about as far from "left" as it's possible to get without being an anarchist. I say it's high time we started talking about impeaching these goons, to say nothing of the possibility of criminal prosecution. By their actions they have repeatedly shown their contempt for both America, Americans, liberty, and the rule of law. I see no reason to allow them to leave office quietly and honorably when their terms expire. If that belief by itself makes me a member of the "far left", so be it.

07 November, 2007

To Hell In A Handbasket...

Yesterday morning the Senate Judiciary Committee approved, by an 11 to 8 vote, the nomination of Michael Mukasey and sent it on to the full Senate for a vote. Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Charles Shumer joined the Republicans in voting for the nomination and in so doing betrayed, along with those Republicans, both common sense and common decency.

If you've been following the nomination hearings, you have surely heard that Mukasey declined to give an opinion on whether or not "waterboarding" should be considered as torture. He carefully explained that he was not privy to the actual techniques employed by U.S. interrogators, as they're classified, he was unable to offer an opinion on their legality or moral status.

Except that he wasn't being asked to do so. He was given an explicitly hypothetical definition of a procedure that was defined to him as "waterboarding" and asked to comment on whether or not that procedure was moral and/or legal: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (Dem. RI) asked, "is the practice of putting somebody in a reclining position, strapping them down, putting cloth over their faces and pouring water over the cloth to simulate the feeling of drowning. Is that constitutional?" To which Mukasey replied, "If it amounts to torture, it is not constitutional"

WTF? IF it amounts to torture? What kind of moral reprobate are we dealing with here? Disregard for a moment the fact that Whitehouse' description is inaccurate (the technique doesn't simulate drowning, it is in fact controlled drowning in that the lungs are actually filling with water), what kind of human being can hear of such a thing and not immediately agree that such an act is torture?

Of course the White House was quick to defend Mukasey's response by noting that he had not yet been briefed on classified interrogation techniques and couldn't be until his confirmation. But this is utterly irrelevant. Mukasey wasn't being asked to comment on actual interrogation techniques, only the status of one described to him. Whether or not such a technique is actually used was not relevant to the question. And still he couldn't, or wouldn't, answer.

In reality, of course, Mr. Mukasey was likely assisting in covering the administration's collective ass. If he were to give what seems to any rational humane person to be the obvious answer, then it might mean difficulty or even eventual prosecution for Bush and his morally-challenged band of sycophants.

With the by-now painfully obvious lack of moral standards and the lust for power and disdain for the rule of law that characterizes this President and his rotten, corrupt administration, do we really need an Attorney General who is unable to support common sense and common decency over political sycophancy and fear? Do we really need another moral degenerate in a government already filled with them?

Keith Olbermann (who in my opinion has rightfully inherited the mantle of Edward R. Murrow) has the right take on this administration in his MSNBC commentary last night:
The presidency of George W. Bush has now devolved into a criminal conspiracy to cover the ass of George W. Bush.

All the petulancy, all the childish threats, all the blank-stare stupidity;

All the invocations of World War Three, all the sophistic questions about which terrorist attacks we wanted him not to stop, all the phony secrets; all the claims of executive privilege, all the stumbling tap-dancing of his nominees, all the verbal flatulence of his apologists…

All of it is now — after one revelation last week — transparently clear for what it is: the pathetic and desperate manipulation of the government, the re-focusing of our entire nation, towards keeping this mock president, and this unstable vice president, and this departed wildly self-over-rating Attorney General — and the others — from potential prosecution for having approved or ordered the illegal torture of prisoners being held in the name of this country.

See the link for the full transcript and a video.

Indeed. What else is there to say? At one time, one would have expected Democrats to stand up against this fraud and expose it, but we have two of the leading members of that party complicit in the process of approving yet another degenerate sycophant to the already degraded office of Attorney General. The damage this man and his fellow travelers have wrought to the office of President, the United States, and the democratic process may well not be fully known for years. Next November cannot possibly come quickly enough!

Do Want!


I think I shall add this to my xmas list...

HT: Alex Ross

05 November, 2007

The 6 Most Terrifying Foods In The World?

BLECH!!

All thoroughly disgusting, however I wonder if there are any worse things out there?

There's a show on the Food Network wherein the host travels to all sorts of exotic locales and samples local cuisine. He usually manages to find something disgusting: the US seems to be one of the few places in the world where we really don't eat from tail to head and there are certainly a lot of parts in between that I don't really care to sample!

HT: NoodleFood

17 October, 2007

Teaching The Tongue To See

From The Frontal Cortex via Andrew Sullivan, this video of an incredible piece of technology that purports to enable blind persons to perceive and navigate their environment in a manner analogous to sight by "remapping" signals received via the tongue to the visual cortex of the brain. Jaw-droppingly amazing:



I found it interesting to note the difficulty the sighted person had in attempting to use the device. It put me in mind of the old canard about blindness heightening the awareness of other senses and I wonder if the learning curve would be as high for a blind person.

I was also fascinated to learn from Jonah's post (at Frontal Cortex) that a similar experiment was performed with ferrets wherein information transmitted from their retinas was fed to the auditory (as opposed to visual) cortex and yet the ferrets could still see! Their brains were able to "remap" the signals and translate them appropriately. Incredible.

Mr. Deity, Season II

The new season of Mr. Deity will appear exclusively on Crackle and the first episode has just been put up. In my opinion it's not as funny as any of those in season I, but I'll withhold judgment on the season until I've seen some more (according to Brian there will be 10 in all).

10 October, 2007

Funny O' The Day

While I do not wish to turn this blog into a YouTube extravaganza, I simply have to share this video my mother emailed to me. Anita Renfroe distills the essence of daily mothering into 2:54 seconds of hilarity accompanied by the overture from Rossini's "William Tell". Enjoy.

05 October, 2007

Ethical Issues in the Abortion Debate (part II)

In an earlier post, I laid out my position on the abortion question, outlined my reasoning, and offered some objections to it, all as background for a later post. However, as that last post was getting pretty long, I delayed completing it until this second post.

I left off with the following objection to my rationale for allowing "exceptions" beyond a 10-11 week limit on legal abortion:

Okay, I'll give you rape, but a woman who had consensual sex has by her actions consented to undertake the risk of getting pregnant (no birth control method is 100% successful) and thus the risks inherent in being pregnant.

This seems like a potentially serious objection. A priori, we should agree that non-coerced engagement in an action necessarily involves consent and there is a certain intuitive appeal to the idea that consent to an action also inherently includes consent to foreseeable consequences of that action. If I understand a bit about guns and anatomy, point a loaded gun at my friend's head and pull the trigger, I cannot claim that I'm not responsible for his gunshot wound. Understanding the consequences of my action, I freely undertook it anyway. I am therefore morally responsible for those consequences. And so if I choose to engage in intercourse with the knowledge that A) sperm + egg = pregnancy and B) no birth control method is 100% effective. Therefore, I am morally responsible for the foreseeable consequences (pregnancy).

But wait a bit. These two cases aren't exactly analagous. In the first, I took no action to mitigate or attempt to prevent the foreseeable consequences of my action while in the second I did (or at indicated that it was a possibility). This difference leaves completely open the question of intent and it seems to me that this is a material defect in the objection to my rationale.

As I see it, there are several elements necessarily involved in any determination of moral responsibility:

1) Identity. Did the person in question actually engage in the action? In the case of pregnancy, this is moot. Insemination, whether natural or artificial, is the "act" in question and one can't be pregnant without it.

2) Consent. Did the person in question consent to the action? We've already discussed this; non-consent is an automatic vitiation of moral responsibility.

3) Intent. Did the person in question intend the particular consequence to obtain? In a way, intent can be thought of as consent to the consequences of an action, rather than the action itself. It's my belief that this is a material element that's missing from the objection to my rationale.

Consider the following example: I am a scrupulously careful driver, always obeying traffic laws and ensuring that my car is maintained properly. However, while driving my car through a crowded downtown area, my brakes suddenly fail while turning a corner and my car runs down an elderly gentleman standing on the sidewalk. Am I morally responsible for this man's death? I think most people would say "no". In fact, I can't imagine any rational argument in favor of such culpability. While I was certainly the proximate cause of the man's death, and I did consent to the possibility of the death of a pedestrian as a foreseeable consequence of choosing to drive in a crowded downtown area, I most certainly did not intend to kill anyone and took all reasonable precautions (obeying traffic laws, maintaining my car) to ensure that this did not happen. I am not morally responsible for the failure of my brakes, however possibly foreseeable, and therefore not morally responsible for the man's death.

Consider a similar example: I am a careless driver, inconsistently obeying traffic laws and neglecting the maintenance of my car. The mechanics told me that I needed to get my brakes changed or they were going to stop working, but I ignored them. One day, while driving my car through a crowded downtown area, my brakes suddenly fail while turning a corner and my car runs down an elderly gentleman standing on the sidewalk. Am I morally responsible for this man's death? I think most people would say "yes". Again, I'm the proximate cause of the man's death and certainly had to understand that driving carries with it an inherent risk of accident. Disregard for the proper maintenance of my car can be rationally construed as an implicit consent to the forseeable consequences of my actions, which, as we already noted, is essentially the definition of intent. Hence, all three factors are present and I am indeed morally responsible.

With this line of reasoning laid out, we can return to the argument at hand and a distinction becomes immediately evident. A couple who engage in intercourse while failing to take any precautions against pregnancy are implying by their actions the consent to the consequence. Therefore they are morally responsible for the pregnancy and the objection against my view would seem to hold. However, a couple who take all reasonable precautions against pregnancy are obviously not consenting to become pregnant. They therefore lack intent and are not morally responsible for the pregnancy. The objection would seem to fail against this situation and this represents quite possibly the majority of cases in which abortion is sought.

So, essentially, the use of contraceptives indicates a clear lack of consent to a pregnancy. Any actual pregnancy is an accident and we've determined that individuals are not morally responsible for accidents. Absent consent and moral responsibility, the objection is vitiated and a couple is ethically permitted to terminate an unwanted pregnancy (as we've already determined that, even given that the fetus is a person, killing is warranted in cases of non-consent as an ethical response to enslavement or parasitism regardless of the innocence of the inflictor)

I will offer a disclaimer here: although the reasoning appears to me to be sound, this conclusion is somewhat uncomfortable to me as it seems to legitimize abortion-on-demand, at least in those cases where the couple have taken all reasonable precautions against conception, and I feel there are other reasons to hold that abortion-on-demand is morally questionable. I won't go into those here are they are not germane to this post, but I offer it in the interests of disclosure.

Whew! This post ended up being a bit longer than I wanted! In the following, and hopefully LAST post in this series, I want to finally get around to discussing some ethical dilemmas for both "sides" of this debate and things for all participants to consider.

Another Book Meme!

Via Pharyngula, another book meme that's making the round of blogs. Books in bold are those I've read, while those italicized are those I've only partially read:

  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
  • Anna Karenina
  • Crime and Punishment
  • Catch-22
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude
  • Wuthering Heights
  • The Silmarillion
  • Life of Pi : a novel
  • The Name of the Rose
  • Don Quixote
  • Moby Dick
  • Ulysses
  • Madame Bovary
  • The Odyssey
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Jane Eyre
  • The Tale of Two Cities
  • The Brothers Karamazov
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
  • War and Peace
  • Vanity Fair
  • The Time Traveler's Wife
  • The Iliad
  • Emma
  • The Blind Assassin
  • The Kite Runner
  • Mrs. Dalloway
  • Great Expectations
  • American Gods
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
  • Atlas Shrugged
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books
  • Memoirs of a Geisha
  • Middlesex
  • Quicksilver
  • Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West
  • The Canterbury tales
  • The Historian : a novel
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Love in the Time of Cholera
  • Brave New World
  • The Fountainhead
  • Foucault's Pendulum
  • Middlemarch
  • Frankenstein
  • The Count of Monte Cristo
  • Dracula
  • A Clockwork Orange
  • Anansi Boys
  • The Once and Future King
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • The Poisonwood Bible : a novel
  • 1984
  • Angels & Demons
  • The Inferno
  • The Satanic Verses
  • Sense and Sensibility
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray
  • Mansfield Park
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
  • To the Lighthouse
  • Tess of the D'Urbervilles
  • Oliver Twist
  • Gulliver's Travels
  • Les Misérables
  • The Corrections
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
  • Dune
  • The Prince
  • The Sound and the Fury
  • Angela's Ashes : a memoir
  • The God of Small Things
  • A People's History of the United States : 1492-present
  • Cryptonomicon
  • Neverwhere
  • A Confederacy of Dunces
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything
  • Dubliners
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • Beloved
  • Slaughterhouse-five
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • Eats, Shoots & Leaves
  • The Mists of Avalon
  • Oryx and Crake : a novel
  • Collapse : how societies choose to fail or succeed
  • Cloud Atlas
  • The Confusion
  • Lolita
  • Persuasion
  • Northanger Abbey
  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • On the Road
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame
  • Freakonomics : a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance : an inquiry into values
  • The Aeneid
  • Watership Down
  • Gravity's Rainbow
  • The Hobbit
  • In Cold Blood : a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences
  • White Teeth
  • Treasure Island
  • David Copperfield
  • The Three Musketeers

Reading through this list, I'm struck by how many I've read only partially. In many cases, books I started and then put down, never to finish again (The Three Musketeers, Wuthering Heights, The Silmarillion). There's nothing necessarily wrong with these, they were either not to my taste, didn't hold my interest long enough, or other things intervened. Many are works to which I definitely want to return someday (The Aeneid, Freakonomics, The God of Small Things)

Some others, like The Satanic Verses and The Brothers Karamazov are ongoing projects. I've been reading the Dostoeyevsky for 2 years now, off and on. Rushdie may yet become one of those I set aside and to which I never return. I find his writing style a bit off-putting and difficult to follow (and this from someone who's read William Burroughs!).

A little research reveals that this is apparently the "the top 106 books most often marked as 'unread' by LibraryThing’s users". Interesting. By my count, I've read 38 with another 18 partially read, so I've delved into a little more than half of these. Some of the "unread" are understandable, but I was especially disheartened to find THREE of Neil Gaiman's books in this list (American Gods, Anansi Boys, & Neverwhere). Why oh why would anyone not read these books?!?

17 September, 2007

Bring On The Crazy!

On Friday, lunatic and demagogue Alan Keyes announced his candidacy for President. Just when you thought Republicans couldn't possibly become any less relevant, something like this happens. Members of the reality-based community (especially comedians!) everywhere are rejoicing...

Marcus Brigstocke rants about religion...



Hilarious! "Can we have our planet back?", "Does my bomb look big in this?"...

It just doesn't get any better...

HT: Effect Measure

13 September, 2007

The Greatest Pianist You Never Heard Of That...Wasn't...

When we hear the word "plagiarism", we generally think of high-school or college students trying to slide by in composition classes. Indeed, the word seems to have a meaning that we by convention restrict to a literary context. It's easy to see how one can copy the writing of another, but what about sound?

The incredible story of Joyce Hatto, retold in this month's New Yorker, shows us how far the definition of that word might be stretched. Over a period of almost twenty years, Hatto and her husband constructed an elaborate deception; piecing together recordings by dozens of artists, labeling them as performances by Joyce, and "releasing" them under a phony label. Over the course of time they convinced music critics and connoisseurs alike that she was a great performer, one of the finest pianists no one had ever heard of. The story is at turns fascinating and appalling and stands as a cautionary tale for us all: something that sounds too good to be true, most likely is...

HT: Alex Ross

Neil Gaiman

Sometime around the spring of last year, I was browsing in Barnes & Noble at the Mall of America in Minneapolis (on a business trip) and happened across an interesting looking book entitled Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Now, I'd never heard of Neil Gaiman, but Terry Pratchett I knew quite well as the author of the hilarious Discworld series (fantasy novels set on a flat planet which moves through space on the back of a giant turtle; rather in the style of Douglas Adams). I almost bought the book at the time, but it was only available in hardback and I didn't feel like carrying it all the way back to North Carolina.

Some months later, I was in the Barnes & Noble here in Greensboro and spotted the book again. Still only in hardback, but what the hell...I bought it. I am so glad that I did.

The book is delightful: it's the end times, when the Antichrist will come forth, gather his armies and initiate Armageddon, the final battle which will destroy the world. Except...well, there are these two guys, one an angel the other a demon, who kind of like the world. They've become addicted to its creature comforts and pleasures and decide to join forces in an attempt to thwart the Creator and put a stop to His plans to end the world. In this they are opposed by the marshalled forces of Heaven AND Hell and aided (often unwittingly) by the last witchhunter and a witch who find themselves thrown together in one of the most unlikely pairings. The book is filled with Pratchett's dry and irreverent humor and Gaiman's prodigious literary erudition and style. So, if you enjoy fantasy, and/or humorous takes on fantasy and religious themes, you will probably find Good Omens a Good Read.

More importantly, this book introduced me to the work of British author Neil Gaiman, who has now become one of my favorite contemporary writers.

Some time after this, again at the Mall of America B&N, I happened across another Gaiman book, this one titled American Gods. This title was available in paperback, so I purchased it and read it during my trip and on the return flight. As with Good Omens, American Gods is an incredible work of fantasy. Part of my enjoyment in reading the book was in trying to figure out exactly what was going on, so I don't want to give too much away, so let's say that the context of Gaiman's book is mythology come to life and the struggle between old and new traditions in the New World. True to the title, most of the characters are gods and the action of the novel swirls around their efforts to survive in a world where belief in them is dwindling. It's an incredible work of depth and erudition (who knew there were so many different deities in the various cultural traditions of immigrants?) paired with humor, a well-paced story line, and wordsmithing that would make Bradbury weep. I can't say enough good things about this book, or Gaiman's other work utilizing the same construct: Anansi Boys. Both are wonderful stories, but even more, wonderful novels.

I've found myself haunting the local Barnes & Noble, sweeping up every Gaiman work on which I can lay my hands: Neverwhere, which was made into a BBC TV series, follows the adventures of a man whose compassionate rescue of a young woman he finds wounded in a dark alley throws him unsuspectingly into a shadow world underneath London and into the middle of a war between good and evil. Stardust, recently released as a movie here in the US, follows a young man's quest to obtain a fallen star for the girl he loves. Unfortunately, the star has fallen into Faerie and on his quest to obtain it, the hero must face madmen, pirates, and witches. Gaiman is also the acclaimed author of Sandman, a series of graphic novels dealing with fantasy themes (I've not read these, but they're on my list!) that have the distinct honor of being the only comic books awarded the World Fantasy Award.

Gaiman is also the author of two collections of short stories, Fragile Things and Smoke and Mirrors. Two of these stories, Snow Glass Apples (a darkly imaginative re-telling of Snow White...from the "wicked" Step-Mother's point of view) and Murder Mysteries (a sort of "film noir" story of the first crime: a murder committed in heaven and investigated by an angel) were dramatized by The Sci-Fi Channel's Seeing Ear Theater and can be heard at the links above.

I could go on and on and these are but a few of Gaiman's oeuvre (you can find complete information at his website). In my opinion, Gaiman is one of the best fantasy writers and storytellers alive today. Although of a very different character, I would say that his work compares favorably with the great literary fantasists Tolkien & Lewis. At the same time, the manner in which he uses the mundane to represent or illuminate the fantastic, the wonderful sense of humor (both light and dark), and his masterful and even poetic grasp of the English language combine to make his work both unique and completely enjoyable.

Technology Mantra: it makes our lives easier, it makes our lives...

I have to keep repeating this to myself for the next several hours while the technicians at my place of business work on my laptop. It's been experiencing problems and rather than wait until it finally gives up the ghost, they've decided to replace it. (Un)Fortunately, I've been through this process before and I have some idea of what to expect:

1) Right now, they're copying all of my personal settings so that later when they don't show up on my new laptop, they can claim that they did copy them, so they must be there. When I demonstrate that they are not, they'll claim that it must be a "glitch" in the copying mechanism. Sorry.

2) They told me that the replicating process will take "ten minutes". In IT tech-speak this apparently means "however long it takes" which will be anywhere between 10 minutes and 10 hours.

3) When I was notified that I would need a new machine, I was given an inventory of all of the installed software and asked to verify the list and add any applications that were missing. Ostensibly this is to ensure that any "specialty" software I require for my job will be installed on the new machine. In reality, it apparently serves no purpose as I'll have to re-install all of the non-standard software I use by myself in the days following receipt of my new laptop.
Since I've been through this process before, I spent most of the morning making my own copies of personal files and settings as well as trying to track down installation copies of the non-standard software I use. Perhaps I'll be surprised by an unusual bout of IT efficiency, but I'm going to be prepared for the worst.

07 September, 2007

Ethical Issues in the Abortion Debate (part I)

Pro-Choice? Pro-Life? Anti-Choice? Anti-Life? The semantics of the abortion debate are well known to any moderately informed citizen. So are the tactics; both sides accuse the other of various offenses, both moral and rational. But what never seems to really happen, at least in the general public conversation, is the rational and dispassionate discussion of the overall coherency of any given position. Can either position be defended without recourse to emotion or rhetoric?

I consider myself pro-life AND pro-choice. Pro-life because I believe that every human being is valuable as an end in itself and that our laws should be written to offer protection to individuals against harm. Pro-choice because I do not believe that a clump of cells is the moral equivalent of a human being worthy of such protection. On my view, abortion should be legally available until the point at which the developing fetus acquires those characteristics that enable the formation of moral agency, the foundation of rights and morality. Specifically, that's the brain and scientifically, it begins to develop sometime around the 10th or 11th week of pregnancy and that's where I would place the limit for abortion-on-demand. I would still support legal abortions after that point, but only in cases of rape or where the life or health of the mother was at risk.

I haven't explained the foundations of my reasoning, but some of it should be self-evident. Very briefly, any being with the self-awareness and cognitive ability to conceive of "rights" and recognize that such pertain to itself is deserving of being accorded such rights. What rights exist to be recognized will depend upon the nature of the being conceiving them. I don't want to digress too deeply on this point (as a proper defense of my theory of rights would take pages), but suffice to say here that so-called "human" rights aren't necessarily constrained to the beings we label "humans", but are constrained to beings with the same relevant essential property as humans, namely moral agency: the ability to conceive of and act in accordance with a system of values. We know that humans are moral agents and therefore have certain rights, including the right of self-determination (which subsumes a right to life). Again, I'm not going to digress into an explanation of why human rights include self-determination. Grant me this point ad argumentum for the moment.

So when does the fetus become a human being worthy of the protection of law? Well, as I've noted already the brain is the seat of consciousness and reasoning. Both are required for the existence of moral agency, so the fetus cannot be a human being until such time as it develops a brain. We cannot state for certain the point at which a brain becomes capable of generating consciousness, so I would place the limit at the point at which the development of the brain exhibits sufficient complexity for ANY processing. Again, as I noted that's about the 10th or 11th week. And that's where I would place the limit on abortion on demand.

Against this view, a couple of objections might be raised:

1) Human beings have "intrinsic" value which is not delineated by any point in fetal development (i.e., "human life begins at conception"). Well, I object to the fundamental premise of this objection as I believe that "values" are relational rather than merely existential. Objects possess value by virtue of their relationship to a subject in a particular context. Thus every value requires a valuer. The idea of "intrinsic value" seems to me incoherent for it would require the existence of value without valuers; that we could speak coherently of objects having value even though there were no one around to value them (would gold be valuable even if no one wanted it?). In the case of human beings, the valued object and the valuer are one and the same (the object, an individual's life, being valued by the subject, the individual). And as moral agency is required for the conception of value, this delineation for which I've argued seems to hold. Therefore, I don't find this objection coherent or successful.

2) While the 11-week-old fetus certainly possesses a rudimentary brain, it's nowhere near capable of actually generating consciousness. In fact, studies have shown that self-awareness and abstract thought don't really develop until AFTER birth. Given this, what would be wrong with killing infants themselves as they are not yet moral agents? This is a more serious objection. The philosopher Peter Singer has actually argued that the killing of severely retarded or deformed infants is morally defensible using very similar logic. As an animal rights proponent, Singer was intending to show a logical consequence of basing the human right to life on moral agency, rather than any other feature (Singer would use the ability to experience pain). My response to this is twofold: first, to note that I'm applying my argument at the class rather than individual level. Human beings as a class exhibit moral agency. Human beings as a class have a particular fetal development pattern and the delineation I propose is based on that class characteristic, not that of any particular indivdual. It is irrelevant, therefore as to whether any individual or group of individuals within the class exhibit moral agency. This line of argumentation could also be applied to non-human animals were they to exhibit the relevant levels of sentience.

Second, I would argue that a bright-line delineation is in any case impossible to determine. Most reasonable people would agree that an embryo or zygote are not the moral equivalent of a human person, but most reasonable people would also agree that an infant is. I propose to use brain development as a reasonable point of delineation due to its necessary relationship with moral agency.

I realize that these are not entirely satisfactory defenses against this objection. As I noted, it is a serious one. I believe however that it is more in line with our moral intuitions than arguing that it is acceptable to kill infants. IOW, we seem to have at least some level of a priori reason to believe that it is wrong to kill infants and we should treat with some degree of skepticism any argument to the contrary. Still, I concede that more thought is needed on this point.

Back to my rationale: I noted that I would allow "exceptions" in cases of rape or where the life or health of the mother were to be endangered. My reasoning here is as follows:

As every human being has the right of self-determination, we are all also endowed with the right to protect our own lives. A pregnant woman has this right to no less extent than a non-pregnant one and in cases where her own life or health are threatened, has the right to take steps to protect herself.

As with life and health, so also with rape. A woman who has become pregnant as the result of a rape did not consent to be pregnant. As she has the right of self-determination, she has the right to take steps to divest herself of the unwanted, unconsented pregnancy.

Against these views, some objections might be raised:

1) The fetus is an innocent and killing it cannot be justified. The killing of an innocent is certainly regrettable, but the justification of such killings is not impossible. Consider a hypothetical situation: a mad scientist has placed a man under mind control and is directing him to threaten you and your family. The man is completely unaware of and did not consent to his threatening behavior and thus is innocent of any wrongdoing, but he is no less a threat for his innocence. If the only possible means for you to protect yourself and/or your family is to take his life, you are justified in doing so as your right to self-preservation in the face of unwarranted violence overrides the innocent's right to life.

2) Killing the fetus cannot be justified to preserve the mother's health. This objection presumes that killing to protect one's life may be justified, but killing to preserve one's health is not. It's often accompanied by the suggestion that pregnancy is an "inconvenience" at best and killing the fetus is a "selfish" and unjustified act. Of course, pregnancy can be inconvenient. It can also have serious health consequences, some of which are life-altering.

Another hypothetical often offered in response to these types of objections is the so-called "famous violinist" scenario. Imagine that you awake one morning to find that you have been the victim of an egregious personal violation. While you were unconscious, a famous and gifted violinist has been "grafted" onto your body in such a way that all of his bodily functions are being performed by your body. In other words, his own heart, lungs, circulatory, and digestive systems have been removed and he now relies upon yours. The parasitic nature of the relationship is health (both physical and emotional) threatening to you, but it will be impossible to separate yourself from him without killing him. Are you justified in doing so? Most people would agree that continued hosting of the violinist is superogatory; that we have no duty to become slaves to another and thus that while the violinist' death is regrettable, it is ethically acceptable to have him removed.

3) Okay, I'll give you rape, but a woman who had consensual sex has by her actions consented to undertake the risk of getting pregnant (no birth control method is 100% successful) and thus the risks inherent in being pregnant. Like Singer's argument on the killing of infants, this is a more serious objection. Until very recently, I found it rather persuasive, but I am now convinced that it is not. My reasoning hinges upon what we mean by "consent" and how we actually assign moral responsibility.

But this post is long enough already. I'll delay the answer to that objection for my second post on this topic where I want to look at some ethical "dilemmas" and issues that both sides need to consider carefully in evaluating their positions on abortion.

06 September, 2007

Luciano Pavarotti, 1935 - 2007

Famed Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti succumbed to pancreatic cancer earlier today. He was 71 years old.

I have numerous recordings of operas with Pavarotti, but even though he began his career singing the bel canto repertoire (Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti), and doing it beautifully (his rendition of "una furtiva lagrima" from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore is superb), I think my favorites have to be his Puccini protagonists: Rodolfo in La Boheme, Calàf in Turandot, and Cavaradossi in Tosca. Those performances (from the late '80s, I believe) have to be some of the best work he ever did in roles that suited his mature voice perfectly.

The Youtube clip below is from a 1998 performance in Paris and even though the voice is beginning to show some signs of age, it's still a great performance of "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's Turandot.



Several of the music blogs I read have additional comments and stories to share:

Sequenza21 has a YouTube video of an earlier performance (maybe from the 70's?) in duet with Soprano Joan Sutherland (an early Pavarotti supporter) singing "Veranno a te sull'aure" from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. Quite stunning, and if you've not heard the early Pavarotti, a real contrast with his singing in the 80s and 90's

Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Notes has links to a couple more videos as well as some personal recollections from a public radio personality.

Alex Ross has some personal notes as well as some more YouTube links, including one from a 1979 performance of La Boheme ("Che gelida manina" of course).

Pavarotti officially retired several years ago because of the progression of the cancer that eventually killed him, but for some time before that he had begun to limit his performances somewhat. The strain of decades of singing was beginning to take its toll. At the peak of his career, he was one of the giants of the operatic world. His work will be celebrated along with the other great tenors of history (Lanza, Caruso, Bergonzi, Corelli, Gedda, Bjoerling, di Stefano, etc) for years to come.

Arrivederci, Luciano. Grazie per la musica!

D. James Kennedy dies

D. James Kennedy, founder and pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian church, co-founder of the so-called "Moral Majority", Christian dominionist, unscrupulous panderer of "Christian Nation" revisionist history, deceitful anti-family and anti-science activist, died yesterday of complications resulting from a heart attack he suffered last December. To the family who no doubt loved him and will miss him I send my sympathies. For the rest of us, we can only hope that the evil causes he championed with his demagoguery and lies will wither and fail without his support.

22 August, 2007

Richard Dawkins - The Enemies of Reason (Part 2)



The second video in Richard Dawkins' Enemies of Reason series (The Irrational Health Service), is now online at Google video. Although I haven't yet seen this one, if it's anything like the first it's well worth the click...

HT: Respectful Insolence

17 August, 2007

Emma Kirkby, DBE

Via Goldberg, I see that British soprano Emma Kirkby (website) has been made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. It's the equivalent of a knighthood and carries with it the right to be known as "Dame". The honor was announced in the Queen's Birthday Honours in July along with knighthoods for such other luminaries as Salman Rushdie, Joe Cocker, and Barry Humphries.

In my not-so-humble opinion, Kirkby is well-deserving of such an honor. By her talent and efforts she has done much to advance the cause of early music, performing in the genre almost exclusively since her debut in the 1970's. For the next two decades, she and Julianne Baird were simply the pre-eminent sopranos singing the Mediaeval to Baroque repertoire. I can recall hearing them and other artists in the 80s (especially attending a masterclass taught by Baird) and the experience absolutely changed the direction of my musical life with early music becoming the focus of my musical education.

I have several recordings that feature Kirkby and the almost perfect, bell-like voice rings clear in every one. I don't think I've ever heard a bad performance and although some are not my favorites, every one is worth owning. I can't think of a better female singer for Purcell (with the possible exception of Baird or perhaps Sylvia McNair) and her renditions of Handel simply shine. Truly a great talent and one of Britain's musical treasures.

16 August, 2007

Phenomenal organist...

Perhaps I've been under a rock or something, but I had not heard of Cameron Carpenter until just a few days ago when, following a link from the Minnesota Public Radio website, I watched a video of a concert he gave at Trinity Church in New York. It was under the auspices of a joint meeting of the AGO (American Guild of Organists) and the ATOS (American Theater Organ Society) and Carpenter played a program of both standard and theater organ repertoire. He opens the concert with a transcription (his own, I'd imagine) of Chopin's "Revolutionary" etude with the left hand part (scalar passages and arpeggios over three octaves ...vivace) played on the pedals. And in one of the three (!) encores, he played a transcription (again, his own) of Sousa's Stars and Strips Forever that included a rendition of the piccolo obbligato on the pedals. Absolutely jaw-droppingly incredible.

Richard Dawkins - The Enemies of Reason (part 1)


I watched this earlier today and it is really quite good. Will it make an impact? Unfortunately, I don't think so...people who are addicted to woo-woo seem all too often to be impervious to reason...


HT: Goosing the Antithesis

04 August, 2007

Simpsons Movie


My wife and I went to see the Simpson's movie this evening and liked it very much indeed. If you're a fan of the TV series, you should find it to your liking as well as it's pretty much more of the same.

In the meantime, you can hop on over to the Movie's website and craft yourself a nifty Simpson's avatar!

02 August, 2007

Musicophilia?

Neurophilosophy has another interesting post about music and the mind. This time about an article by Oliver Sacks in which he describes a neurological condition called musicophilia wherein the sufferer develops sudden urges to listen to or play music following some type of brain injury (this in an individual who may previously have been generally unmusical).

It falls on the heels of an earlier post about possible causes of tone-deafness and for those of us with an interest in music both stories highlight interesting connections between the brain, the mind, and music in general.

01 August, 2007

Ingmar Bergman, 1918 - 2007

The great Swedish auteur director died yesterday at his home on Faro island, off the coast of Sweden. He was 89 years old.

Bergman was known and revered for the absolute craftsmanship of his films, beginning with the scripts, most of which he wrote himself. He was also known for championing and consistently working with a relatively small group of Swedish actors, who became more or less of a sort of "repertory company" from which he cast his films. Notable in this regard are Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman (with whom he was to father a child in 1966).

He directed over 44 films, mostly for the cinema although several were for television, including a production of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte for Swedish television. He also directed hundreds of stage and radio theater productions. Three of his films won Academy awards (Best Foreign Language Film): The Virgin Spring (1961), Through a Glass Darkly (1962), and his last cinematographic work Fanny and Alexander (1984). Five of his other films were nominated for other Oscars including Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture (the last was Cries and Whispers in 1974; a film Bergman regarded as one of his best). He received numerous other awards and honors in his lifetime, including an Irving Thalberg award in 1971, and is cited by numerous directors (including Woody Allen & Stanley Kubrick) as having had an influence on their own work.

I'm personally acquainted with three of his films: Wild Strawberries, Fanny and Alexander and The Seventh Seal. This last is supposedly widely regarded as one of Bergman's best and I believe it to be one of the greatest films ever made. As in most of his films, the theme is existential: Man's search for meaning. The theme is therefore a transcendent one and the setting and the manner in which the story plays out are beautifully evocative of such a grand design: a knight (Max von Sydow) and his squire returning home from the crusades finds their homeland ravaged by the plague and Death waiting to take them. Desperate to return home, the knight challenges Death to a game of chess with his life as the stakes. Through this gambit he is able to delay Death long enough to allow him to reunite with his wife and daughter before his inevitable loss. During the course of the game, which takes place along the knight's journey home, the knight and his squire meet several other characters, each struggling through life on their own journeys and each, in their own way, must deal with the reality of Death. In the end, the knight finds meaning in his own life by enabling a young couple and their child to escape Death and continue their journey.

Bergman has long been assured of his place among the great cinematic artists, the auteur directors, and students of cinema will continue to study his works for decades to come. His work, particularly in its focus, represents one of the greatest cinematic achievements of our time.

25 July, 2007

Coultergeist parodied...

Roger Ebert creates a delicious parody of a Coulter interview:
CALLER: Hello, Ann? I’m calling to ask why you were so mean to my mother.

ANN (runs fingers through hair): I don’t suppose your mother has a name?

CALLER: Mildred Quaker. And you said she was mean and ugly, but you never even met her, because she died years ago.

ANN (tosses back blonde hair): I happen to know that, darling, because I tripped over her tombstone in a cemetery and got grass stains all over myself. Was that my fault? When these Quakers insist on being pacifists who can be buried anywhere they want to be?
That's just a taste...the full "interview" can be found at Ebert's website. Although as Ed Brayton notes, it's difficult to determine if this is a parody or not, given that Coulter is self-parodying...

HT: Dispatches from the Culture War

Funny O' The Day


From Saint Gasoline via Friendly Atheist.

22 July, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Okay, the seventh and final volume in the Harry Potter series was released on Saturday. I purchased my copy at 7:30 pm, sat down to read about 9:00, read through until I finally went to sleep at 02:00 am, and then read off and on pretty much all day today (except for playing tennis this morning and attending a birthday party for my nephew this afternoon, finally finishing up around 9:30 this evening. All 759 pages.

No spoilers here and no review either, other than to say that it was worth the wait! I think I'll wait a couple of weeks, and then post a review complete with what I thought was going to be in the book and what actually ended up being in the book. For now, let me just say that apparently I'm psychic..

Update: rather funny take on possible alternate endings (absolutely no spoilers!) as written by such literary luminaries as Mario Puzo, George Lucas, Joss Whedon, Terry Gilliam & others. HT: Whedonesque.

19 July, 2007

What, such a low rating?

This site is certified 42% EVIL by the Gematriculator

Anonymous 4 concert


The vocal quartet Anonymous 4 performed last night at the Eastern Music Festival here in Greensboro and it was an unqualified delight. The only fault I could find with the entire performance was that the house (Guilford College's Dana auditorium) wasn't sold out.

Well, perhaps that's not the only fault. The group is best known for their interpretations of Mediaeval and Renaissance music, but their last two CD's (American Angels & Gloryland) have been performances of early American hymnody and "gospel" songs and it was from this repertoire that last night's concert program was drawn. Concert attendees who bought tickets expecting to hear the music for which the group is best known were perhaps disappointed at the choices (although the source of the program was listed on the EMF website); indeed, I did notice that several people left at the intermission.

No matter. The concert was, as I said, simply delightful. Although they generally perform a cappella, the group was accompanied last night by guitarist Scott Nygaard and mandolinist/violinist Darol Anger (the instrumentalists were also featured in a couple of pieces without the singers, to great effect). With or without their accompanists, for they did occasionally sing unaccompanied, Anonymous 4 were their usual fabulous selves. The blend of these singers simply must be heard to be believed. At times, it's almost possible to imagine that one is listening to a single voice. It's not that their pitch is perfect (indeed, there were a scant couple of off-tune moments), but that they match timbre and color so beautifully.

I wish I could give a blow-by-blow, so entrancing was the sound, but unfortunately there was no printed program or announcement of most of the pieces. However, all of the concert seems to have been drawn from the music presented in their last two CDs. They sang in duets, trios, and the full quartet as well as having a couple of pieces presented by solo voices and although their genesis as an ensemble may have been early music, it is clear that these women can sing just about anything and make it sound good, so great is their talent and control of their instruments. I was especially pleased to hear that they take as much care to present this music in its accustomed idiom (complete with the requisite focussed somewhat nasal timbre as well as the vocal "catches" one hears in folk and gospel singing) as they do when singing the expected ornaments and vocal "tricks" of early music. And they make it sound so easy, so fluid, so natural. A real treat and although I can't say I wouldn't have preferred a program of early music, I'm truly happy to have had the pleasure of hearing them live, regardless of the repertoire.

Jerry Hadley, 1952-2007

A friend sent me an email today to let me know that Tenor Jerry Hadley, thought by many to be one of America's most versatile and important opera singers, died yesterday from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Hadley had been receiving treatment for depression and was found unconscious in his home on July 10 where it appeared he had shot himself in the head with an air rifle. He was taken to hospital where it was determined that he had sustained severe brain injury. He was taken off life support on Monday and died yesterday. He was just 55 years old.

A tragic end for such a great artist. I am not overly familiar with his voice, having only a couple of his lesser recordings (Mendelssohn's Elijah, and Beethoven's 9th Symphony), but from those I can understand why the tributes to him are pouring in. He made his onstage operatic debut in 1979 as Arturo in Lucia di Lammermoor at the New York City opera, while it was under the direction of Beverly Sills. The story of that debut has become famous as the most "catastrophe-laden" on record:
Somehow, the scabbard got itself lodged in the rungs of my chair, and I didn't realize it. So I sat there, singing "M'è noto. Si! M'è noto!" He got up and walked across the stage, and I followed him, dragging my chair with me. Even to the novice audience member, that looked wrong. So a couple of the supers came over and very nicely took the chair off the sword and - I don't know what made me do this, but I glanced up to see how the boss was taking all this, and I couldn't see Beverly anymore. What I could see was this shock of red hair leaning on the front rail of the bow. She was laughing so hard she couldn't sit up!
The link above will take you to Fanfare, where you can read the whole unbelieveable (nevertheless true!) hilarious account.

As a rule, opera singers don't tend to commit suicide. Despite the often cheerless and even downright depressing stories that make up the drama of grand opera, they seem to be some of the most joyous individuals I've ever met. Still, we are all only human and the trials and tribulations of life can seem to be unendurable for even the happiest of us. Farewell Jerry; you will be missed.

17 July, 2007

Another cool gadget I must have!

Behold, the Chumby!



It's an alarm clock! It's a stock ticker! It's an iPod boombox! It's the weather channel! It's a live traffic display!

It's all of these things. The Chumby can be set to display a plethora of information from the internet using WiFi and broadband internet to connect via a series of widgets that the user can configure via Chumby.com. It's also completely "hackable", as the creators put it, so new widgets can be created. Even more, one can actually create or modify the case using plans available from the manufacturer.

When the devices become available (soon!), they'll retail a little steep (around $200) but there are no monthly connection fees, so once you've bought it, the service is yours for no additional $$.

I'm not too fond of the overall design, but given that a new case can be created I can easily see myself getting one of these. Woohoo!

12 July, 2007

Tone Deaf?

Neurophilosophy has a brief article regarding an interesting study reported in the latest issue of Nature Neuroscience about neurophysiology and tone deafness.

In the Nature article, the authors report the results of studies they completed to determine the relationship between tone deafness and brain processes. Amusics (the technical term for someone with tone deafness) are unable to differentiate between pitches in any given sequence. Oddly enough, this inability seems to be generally limited to actual music; amusics appear to have little or no difficulty discerning pitch differences in speech (being able to detect the rising pitch that accompanies a question, for example). The authors appear to have found significant correlation between an individuals inability to discern pitch differences and a corresponding inability to perform tasks relating to spatial processing (e.g., visualizing the rotation of an object), leading to the conclusions that the brain appears to process pitch differentiation in a manner similar to that in which it process spatial differentiation and that deficiency in the ability to process spatial differentiation will lead to amusia.

What a fascinating revelation! Unfortunately, the Nature article is available to subscribers only, but the post at Neurophilosophy has some additional detail and is well worth a read...

07 July, 2007

George Carlin on religion



'Nuff said...

The Golden Compass

The first book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy is being made into a movie! The Golden Compass is set for release in December of 2007 and from the information available on the movie site, it could well turn out to be an epic film on the same level as The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia. The story is certainly deep enough (Pullman drew his inspiration from Milton's Paradise Lost), the author's world is every bit as rich as those created by Tolkien or Lewis and the cast list looks top-notch (Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, & Sam Elliot, among others).

The movie site hints that movies based on the other two books in the trilogy (The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) will follow and if so, I predict that if the production values in this trilogy are as high as those in LoTR or Narnia, His Dark Materials could well equal those in terms of appeal and staying power. At any rate, I do wonder how the novels' philosophical themes will fare in the adaptations. The director has stated that the movies will not "dumb down" the books for the purpose of making them into movies. The novels have extremely sophisticated takes on the problem of evil, meta-ethics, the nature of authority, and Man's purpose and I hope those are preserved in the movies. It might dampen their mass appeal, but it would be wondrous to see.

If you enjoyed such books as LoTR, Narnia, Harry Potter, or fantasy in general, you must read Pullman's trilogy. I simply can't recommend it enough.

Follow the link given above to see more about the movie and/or view the trailer!

05 July, 2007

Beverly Sills, 1929-2007

The irrepressible diva succumbed to lung cancer on Monday, July 2d. If memory serves, I first heard her on a Met radio broadcast in the early 80's and subsequently listened to many, many of her recordings over the years. Although in later years her voice began to show some strain from constant performance, her earlier performances were magnificent (I have the original cast recording of Moore's "Ballad of Baby Doe" and it is simply delightful). It was not without cause that she is credited with bringing American opera singers to the notice of both European and American opera companies, opening doors for young American-trained singers in what had previously been an arena dominated by Europeans. Her leadership at the New York City Opera was instrumental in rescuing a company in distress and turning it into a viable business. In addition to her arts and business acumen, she was apparently a truly generous and vital person. Her first autobiography, "Bubbles: a Self-Portrait", is an enjoyable read, rich with anecdotes and charming insight into the trials, tribulations, and joys of both a professional singer and real human being. She is survived by two children (by her first husband), three stepchildren (of her second husband, Peter Greenough, who died last year), a brother, and the enduring legacy of her contribution to the world of opera and the arts.

New York Times Obituary (from which the image accompanying this post is taken)

07 June, 2007

Infinite image?

Okay, this is super cool. It's a flash animation, so the image here is only one frame of it, but the entire animation has the appearance of infinite recursivity. That is to say that each of the images appears to contain other images that contain other images that in turn eventually contain the original image. You click on the animation and then move your mouse up to move forward and down to move backward (in the perspective of the image). Doing so you appear to move deeper into or out of the image itself. It's like drilling down into a huge and very deep well of images, all connected.

I can imagine how the images are linked together (frames that are designed to look like one is fading into another), but is the appearance of each frame truly random (as it appears to be) or is there some kind of symmetry at work? At any rate, really very imaginative and cool...

Funny O' The Day


From SomethingAwful's Photoshop Phriday offering: "Children's Books".

06 June, 2007

Death by soundbite...

Al Gore's latest book, The Assault on Reason, purports to detail how (in the words of the description at Amazon.com) "...the politics of fear, secrecy, cronyism, and blind faith has combined with the degradation of the public sphere to create an environment dangerously hostile to reason." I haven't yet read the book, but it's on my list. Even so, I find myself in immediate agreement with his thesis. Simply put, it fits perfectly with my own experiences and observations over the last decade or so. Interestingly enough, this observation also dovetails neatly with a story I just read about Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, but I'll save that for a following post...

Oh, and the illustration is the 05.28.07 Tom the Dancing Bug by Ruben Bolling. On point as usual and found at gocomics...

29 May, 2007

Funny O' The Day

From "xkcd"

Latest blog meme...


You scored as Scientific Atheist, These guys rule. I'm not one of them myself, although I play one online. They know the rules of debate, the Laws of Thermodynamics, and can explain evolution in fifty words or less. More concerned with how things ARE than how they should be, these are the people who will bring us into the future.

Scientific Atheist


92%

Spiritual Atheist


83%

Agnostic


58%

Theist


25%

Militant Atheist


25%

Apathetic Atheist


25%

Angry Atheist


8%

What kind of atheist are you?
created with QuizFarm.com


HT: De Rerum Natura

21 May, 2007

The Way I See It

If you've bought a cup of Starbucks coffee lately, you've likely noticed that many, if not all, of the cups have these nifty quotes printed on them. The quotes are part of a marketing campaign to "spark conversation", or as Starbucks puts it,
In the tradition of coffee houses everywhere, Starbucks has always supported a good, healthy discussion. To get people talking, “The Way I See It” is a collection of thoughts, opinions and expressions provided by notable figures that now appear on our widely shared cups.
As you may also have seen in various news stories, Starbucks has caught a little amount of flak for this program due to the allegedly large percentage of the quotes which are claimed by detractors to be either "liberal" or of the "freethinking" variety. (for example, Worldnutdaily had an article a month or so ago about a Catholic woman "offended" by a humanistic quote).

Now, I've been a regular (almost daily) Starbucks customer for years. I've seen many of these quotes and in reality there's no bias present in the quotes whatsoever. For every "atheist" or "freethinking" quote, there's a Deepak Chopra or Rick Warren to offset it. For every "liberal" there's a Jonah Goldberg. In this case, the whiners are just more of the same fragile individuals whose worldviews simply can't stand up to opposing opinions. Unfortunately for them, everyone's entitled to his/her own opinion, and with so many people out there, it's likely that you won't have to look very far to find someone with whose opinion about something you're likely to disagree.

For myself, I kind of like the quotes. They're almost always thought-provoking and interesting and other people's opinions are just that: opinions. Offensive some might be, but that's just the way things are bound to be.

But what about when someone's "opinion" is obviously and egregiously false? And what about situations in which such a falsehood approaches the moral equivalent of libel?

At Civil Commotion, Robert Felton calls our attention to a quote he found on a Starbucks coffee cup:
Darwinism’s impact on traditional social values has not been as benign as its advocates would like us to believe. Despite the efforts of its modern defenders to distance themselves from its baleful social consequences, Darwinism’s connection with eugenics, abortion and racism is a matter of historical record. And the record is not pretty.
Via Starbuck's website, I see that the quote (The Way I See It #224) is from Jonathan Well's book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. Wells is a well-known evolution denier and the author of Icons of Evolution, one of the first of the modern attempts to use the trappings of science (without any of the actual methodology or content) in an effort to cast doubt on evolutionary theory.

But Well's statement doesn't just represent an opinion. His statement is obviously and egregiously false. Darwinism has NO connections to eugenics, abortion, or racism. None. These oft-repeated falsehoods have been debunked many, many times by many people. That Wells repeats them is an indicator of the level to which he's willing to sink in order to further his agenda.

I can certainly understand Starbucks wanting to provide an open forum for opinions and the exchange of ideas, but since when should that include countenancing the promulgation of obvious and egregious falsehoods? If Wells were a holocaust denier or a geocentrist, would his "opinion" still have been printed? Surely the mere fact that this is his opinion shouldn't shield it from editorial review? Doesn't Starbucks have a responsibility NOT to promote obvious falsehoods?

Even further, doesn't Starbucks have a responsibility NOT to disseminate material of a libelous nature? If Wells' statements were to be true, surely it would cast evolutionary biologists and other proponents of Darwin's theory as moral reprobates. Only a degenerate would participate in teaching and promoting an idea with such truly negative consequences. And truth would be a positive defense to a charge of libel, so Wells' statement would be wholly justified.

But Wells' statement is NOT true. And demonstrably so by multiple sources. And a falsehood that maligns the character of innocents for no purpose other than to further a personal agenda is quite possibly an example of libel. Now Well's libelous behavior doesn't surprise me (Google his name for plenty of examples of his disgusting tactics), but in this case, Starbucks must share the blame for turning a blind eye in the name of "diversity". And that's the way I see it...

Update: A little more searching locates posts on the Starbucks coffee cup topic at Stupid Evil Bastard, Dispatches from the Culture Wars and Atheist Jew.

Funny O' The Day

Another from xkcd:

18 May, 2007

Executive Privilege

Stephen Heersink posts some timely, lucid, and polemic thoughts on Executive Privilege as practiced by the current occupant of the Oval Office. I'm going to post some quotes and comments below, but please do read the entire original; it's well worth the time.

In discussing the history of the idea, Heersink notes:
Ever since George Washington became the nation's first president, our government's chief executive has appealed to "executive privilege." Infrequently, even hesitatingly, but under "special" circumstances and situations. Executive privilege, in this sense, is an Executive's exemption from accountability and scrutiny for reasons outside the ordinary functions of an open and free society for extraordinary reasons -- often for "national security" and/or "access to candid/privileged counsel."

But as the Watergate incident reminds us, "executive privilege" cannot be invoked to "hide" corruption, malfeasance, ineptitude, illegality, or the "people's right to know." In 1974, the Supreme Court in United States v. Nixon held: "the valid need for protection of communications between high Government officials and those who advise and assist them in the performance of their manifold duties" and that "[h]uman experience teaches that those who expect public dissemination of their remarks may well temper candor with a concern for appearances and for their own interests to the detriment of the decision-making process." But, it granted no "further reach" of Executive Privilege.
Take note of the particularly narrow construal the Court makes. Now compare that with the increasing invocations of such privilege by the White House. Heersink notes the appalling performance(s) by the current Attorney General as a example of the depths to which the administration has sunk.
In our system of government, this "absolute executive privilege" just does not stretch as far as Bush's delusional imagination. Observing the nation's Attorney General deliberately deceive Congress and the Public to "hide" the President's actions through dissimulation will necessarily persist, because Gonzales' departure would "open" an opportunity to get past the grand-standing, deceptions, and dissimulation. Gonzales, therefore, has to stay. He's the Wall of Separation. He's the Barrier. He separates "access" and "clandestine," "disclosure" and "obfuscation," "open" and "closed," "executive" and "everyone else."
Sad, but true. I have all but given up watching or reading the news. It seems as though every new story drives me further into despair. What new perversion waits just 'round the bend? When the President of the United States believes that the Constitution is "just another piece of paper", what depravity is off-limits? As Heersink notes:
This untenable tension between a delusional man's belief in absolute executive privilege and an excessively-timid and uncertain Congress, held in suspense by a confused, even indifferent, electorate, is in fact a constitutional crisis. We have a Leader who maintains he is the law, he is the executive, he alone has absolute executive privilege, and that he is not accountable to anyone, except his phantom deity! By all ordinary standards, these assertions of "executive privilege" are imperceptibly indistinguishable from a tyrant's claim to absolute rule. As Mr. Bush repeatedly states: He's the Decider.
I truly believe that we stand at a crossroads in history. We have a choice: follow our current path and end in tyranny or choose anew the path laid for us by the Founders: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Democracy isn't just a choice; it's a moral imperative. Neither is it some sort of gift, in the sense that it can be bestowed upon us by others. We must earn it and by our actions constantly strive to maintain it by fighting those who would take it from us. I believe that history should reflect the fact that our current President is one of the worst if not the worst ever to hold the office and that the current administration has done more damage both to our nation's internal functioning and external image than any other. History should also record the fact that we as a people refused to stand idly by while it happened.