February 2004

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Saturday, February 28, 2004

FMA Dead But Not Forgotten 

It's not very surprising, but there are already at least 44 senators who have "come out" against an anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment. Only 34 would have been required to block it.

That's good.

But, just as the amendment would have been a symbolic misuse of the Constitution to exclude homosexuals from a part of social life (even if it wouldn't ban civil unions), so is Bush's support of such an amendment a symbolic misuse of his office (even if it doesn't pass).


God Hates Shrimp!!! 

This is pretty amusing.

Apparently, some abominations are more abominable than others.


Deductive Reasoning 

I was reminded by some bad logic on TV today of this joke:

Neighbor 1: Hi, there, new neighbor, it sure is a mighty nice day to be moving.
New Neighbor: Yes, it is, and people around here seem extremely friendly.
Neighbor 1: So what is it you do for a living?
New Neighbor: I am a professor at the University; I teach deductive reasoning.
Neighbor 1: Deductive reasoning-- what is that?
New Neighbor: Let me give you an example. I see you have a dog house out back. By that I deduce that you have a dog.
Neighbor 1: That is right.
New Neighbor: The fact that you have a dog leads me to deduce that you have a family.
Neighbor 1: Right again.
New Neighbor: Since you have a family I deduce that you have a wife.
Neighbor 1: Correct!
New Neighbor: And since you have a wife, I can deduce that you are heterosexual.
Neighbor 1: Yup.
New Neighbor: That is deductive reasoning.
Neighbor 1: Cool.

Later that same day...

Neighbor 1: Hey, I was talking to that new guy who moved in next door.
Neighbor 2: Is he a nice guy?
Neighbor 1: Yes, and he has an interesting job.
Neighbor 2: Oh, what does he do?
Neighbor 1: He's a professor of deductive reasoning at the University.
Neighbor 2: Deductive reasoning-- what is that?
Neighbor 1: Let me give you an example. Do you have a dog house?
Neighbor 2: No.
Neighbor 1: Fag!

Friday, February 27, 2004

Christianity 

I've been thinking about Andrew Sullivan's description of the Gibson movie. It reminded me of something that has always bothered me about Christianity.

First of all, let me say that I'm not trying to offend anybody. I'm no Christian scholar; these are just some lay impressions that could well be mistaken.

It seems to me that the film is all about Jesus' suffering (real or imagined). Many people have said that it helped them get deeply in touch with what their faith is all about. This strikes me as disturbing.

Christianity seems to glorify pain and suffering, and condemn human nature as evil. This seems like a screwed up basis for morality to me. I think we should value joy and success, not pain and suffering. We should recognize that people can be, and have been, vicious and cruel; but that's the product of poor choices, not a fundamentally sinful nature. Many people make better choices independently of religious teaching. Yes we have villains, but we also have heroes. Lots of them. And we should be proud of our achievements, not ashamed of them; and particularly not ashamed of pride itself.

Christianity seems to teach people to identify with those who tormented Jesus. "We're like that." "We did that to him." "He died for us, because we're so unworthy."

Well, I'm not like that. I wouldn't have done that. And not because somebody is promising me eternal life. It's because it makes sense to me to treat people better than that. I want to enjoy my life, and the fruits of positive relationships with other creative people. I don't want to torment them. Hurting them doesn't help me. I see value in them, and I don't want to destroy value. Maybe Christianity has more appeal to people who don't think this way.

One other thing that bothers me is this obsession with how terribly Jesus suffered. Not only don't I understand why that should affect how one relates to his teachings, but it doesn't even seem coherent to me. If he suffered terribly, it must have been because he chose to. Surely somebody who can change water into wine could ease his own suffering, right? Even without miracles, didn't he have a sufficiently exceptional mind to mitigate the effects of the torture? If he couldn't, wouldn't that make him less worthy of worship rather than more?

UPDATE: Here's somebody with a similar problem with this story.


Hope for Iraqi Liberty? 

Libertarian scholar Tom G. Palmer is back from a trip to Iraq and seems quite optimistic about the prospects for freedom there.

I hope he's right.

He might not have had the most balanced experience there (speaking mostly with others trying to promote freedom), but he was there and I wasn't.


Thursday, February 26, 2004

Sarcasm 

I like sarcasm. It can be funny, insightful, and powerful. But, often, if you're trying to make a point, it should be followed-up by positive claims so that people can judge whether you have a reasonable alternative to what's being criticized.

I thought about this when reading Lileks' Bleat today. It's clear that he doesn't like Howard Stern's style of entertainment and that he thinks there should be higher standards. But, his snarky tone makes it difficult to understand how he thinks his (and others') taste preferences should be supported.

I listen to Howard Stern occasionally. I admit that much of his show is unappealing to me. But, many people enjoy more of his stuff than I do and I don't think they should be denied access to it because it doesn't meet somebody's standard, or because children might hear it. And, once in a while, he does say some interesting things that most other broadcasters would be afraid to say. But, even if I didn't think that this was so, the fact that that many people choose to listen to it is evidence enough for me that it offers something valuable, and that legal restrictions against it would be bad.

Getting back to sarcasm. I think that it's a bit cowardly to limit your criticism to making a strawman argument look silly. If you want your opinion taken seriously by thoughtful people, you should be willing to make positive claims that can be considered, and criticized.


A Deeply Immoral Work of Art 

Andrew Sullivan reviews Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ.

Update: Christopher Hitchens has some interesting comments as well.


Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Why Support Bush? 

That's it.

After today's announcement in support of the anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment, I no longer mind if George W. Bush loses this November. I can understand how Andrew Sullivan and Roger L. Simon feel.

I've indicated what I think about the government and marriage elsewhere. I don't see any reason for the government to be involved in defining "marriage" any more than defining "Kosher". I certainly don't think it's appropriate to use the Constitution to entrench a religion-informed prejudice.

What does Bush stand for? Steel tarrifs, prescription drug entitlements, huge government over-spending, religious bigotry. Yes, he supported tax cuts, fighting terrorism, and he reads good things in his speeches. But his actions indicate that he either doesn't understand the values he mentions, or he doesn't really care about them. I think he did a good job of choosing people who understand how to address the terrorist threat, and delivering their message; but I can't continue trying to respect him as an individual. By supporting this amendment, he's demonstrated his unfitness for the office. I suspect that if he loses the election, the Democrat (Kerry?) is unlikely to do a much worse job of protecting liberty than Bush would. The war on terror will continue to be fought by the same people who are fighting it now, and perhaps civil liberties will be more secure.

The most positive explanation for his behavior that I can imagine is that he is pandering to the religious right to win support for his re-election and he doesn't really expect this amendment to pass. That's the best explanation and it still leaves him as a slimy jerk. The more probable explanation is that he's worse. He's either the worst sort of politician, or a religious nut, or a combination of both.


Sunday, February 22, 2004

Doctors and Truth 

Suppose what I related about medical patients in my comment below is true.

Suppose that it's true that, in general, patients with an unrealistically high expectation of recovery do better, medically, than those with a more realistic expectation.

Now suppose that you are a doctor who believes this to be true, and that you want your patients to have the best chances of successful recovery.

What should you tell them about their chances of recovery? Should you give them the most accurate prognosis you can, based on the best information you have? Or, should you lie and tell them that their chances of recovery are better than they are, if the proper treatments are diligently followed, because you believe this will lead to better results?

What would you want your doctor to tell you?

I think that many people might prefer to be lied to. They wouldn't mind being misled if it would be likely to lead to better results. If this is so, perhaps they could have a prior arrangement with their doctors that they want to transfer this responsibility to them.

I would want the truth.

I think it has to do with respect for my autonomy as a human being. It's up to me to decide how to handle the best available information, not the doctor. Just as it would be wrong for the doctor to impose a procedure on me, without my informed consent; it's likewise wrong for him to decide what I should and shouldn't know about my condition. Yes, he's an expert and has more training and knowledge about these things, but it's my life. He's a trusted advisor, not the master of my life and health.

By the way, children are people too! And they, likewise, deserve the truth and consensual advice (rather than lies and force) from their parents.


Optimism and Pessimism 

Alice Bachini has been thinking about optimism and pessimism recently (here and here). Here are my comments to the first post:

You're right that it makes sense to assume that things will get better in the long run. But, in the short run, things are a bit trickier.
On one hand, our happiness about a situation is often a function of how well things are going relative to our expectations. So, setting lower expectations might give one a better chance of exceeding them and being happier about the same outcome.
But, on the other hand, we are more likely to solve our own problems if we're optimistic about our chances of doing so. We'll probably search more thoroughly and creatively for an answer if we expect to find one soon. Also, I understand that medical patients with high (even unrealistically high) expectations of recovery are more likely to actually recover than those with lower (even more realistic) expectations.
So, I think it makes sense to be skeptical about short-run success with respect to things that are not under your personal control, and optimistic about those things that are; and optimistic about the long-term future.

I think that this, or something close to it, is generally right and a reasonable approach to take.

But so what? Is optimism something we can just decide to adopt? Can we decide that the best thing to have is optimism-level X and just make it so? Or, is it a deep aspect of our personalities that we cannot really change significantly?

I'm not sure.

I'm a big fan of thinking about things and trying to understand what they are really like, rather than just accepting our emotional reactions. These reactions can be bad and lead us into further error. And, I think I've been able to improve how I respond to things. Perhaps my immediate reactions are still similar to what they had been, but I quickly try to get control and guide my reaction towards what I think makes sense. I'm certainly not perfect at this, but I think I'm getting better at it.

So, while we might not be able to completely control our fundamental outlook on things in a way that affects our immediate responses to things, I think we can do a lot to improve our general responses and thinking about them in a way that gives us most of the benefits of a good outlook and mitigates most of the bad effects of a bad outlook.

At least, I'm optimistic about this being the case.


Wednesday, February 18, 2004

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished 

Radley Balko is right.

In his recent Fox News article, he laments the departure from the U.S. Senate of Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill). Apparently, Fitzgerald has been punished by his party leadership for committing the sin of refusing to go along with the standard behavior of trying to bring as much pork-barrel spending as possible back to his home state.

It's understandable, but wrong, for representatives to reason that as long as others are doing it they should try to get as much for their own districts as possible. But, in order for things to improve, we need principled politicians to go against the grain and refuse to participate in wasteful spending. Eventually, this might become recognized as good behavior and those who continued to try to fleece the nation's taxpayers for their own districts' sake (really, their own sake) would be ridiculed.

A good party would support someone like Fitzgerald and promote progress. The Republican party doesn't.


Public Universities 

There's a great debate going on between Jack Balkin (here and later here), and the forces of reason: Sasha Volokh (here and here), David Bernstein (here and here), "Juan Non-Volokh" (here and here) and Glen Whitman.

I've long been intrigued by the "liberal" infatuation with state education, because it seems like such an incredibly illiberal idea to me. The last thing a genuine liberal should want to do is institutionalize state control over the indoctrination of our youth (I'm thinking of all public education here, not just universities). I understand that they're comfortable with it now because their views are the dominant ones in academia, but that might not always be true. Do they really want supporters of a state whose policies they vehemently disagree with to be dictating the content and slant of education?

And, while Balkin's view (that the essential public good of helping people participate in culture and democratic debate is necessarily provided by the state) could have had some appeal in the past; I find it hard to believe that as sensible a person as Balkin is could think that's true today. Interested people can learn and discuss whatever they want today (both online, and in real-life meetings organized online). All without forcing others to pay for it, and without the coercion and hassles that schools regularly inflict on their victims students.


Howard's End 

Now that Howard Dean has officially dropped out of the race (sort of), I thought I'd point out Clay Shirky's interesting analysis (from a couple of weeks ago) of what happened from the perspective of internet-based campaign organization. Lots of interesting observations like:

The easy thing to explain is why Dean lost – the voters didn’t like him. The hard thing to explain is why we (and why Dean himself) thought he’d win, and easily at that. The bubble of belief, which collapsed so quickly and so completely, was inflated by tools that made formerly hard things easy, tricking us into thinking that getting votes had become easy as well — we were all in Deanspace for a while there.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Happy Valentine's Day 

Enjoy Mark Steyn's lyrical examination of "love".


Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Bush Lied! 

Jacob Levy explains why Bush's "biggest spender" answer on his Meet The Press interview was both technically false, and intended to deceive.

Bush's spending record, with a Republican controlled congress, has been disgraceful. I suspect that if he can't convince genuine fiscal conservatives that he'll be different next term, they might not be enthusiastic enough to help him win re-election.

I still think that the election is his to lose. But it's losable.


Monday, February 09, 2004

Not A Position Most Americans Will Want To Take  

Read Mark Steyn on John Kerry.


Thursday, February 05, 2004

Lileks 

Lileks is nice and screedy today. That's the way I most enjoy his writing. I don't mind reading about his family and work once in a while, but I love it when he uses his enormous talent to expose stupidity.

First, he skewers Patrick Stewart for being against manned space exploration. Then he goes after John Kerry for, well, being so much like John Kerry.

"I’m waiting for a Kerry speech in which he seems angrier about 9/11 than he does about tax cuts."

As they say, read the whole thing.


Monday, February 02, 2004

Boob 

I'm referring, of course, to anybody who is outraged by the baring of Janet Jackson's breast during the Super Bowl half-time show and thinks that the FCC needs to perform a swift investigation and punish CBS and MTV, etc.

What real harm did this event actually do to anybody?

I think that this is the kind of thing that makes Republicans seem like idiots. Yes, I know there are some non-Republicans who were offended too, but this kind of reaction is more strongly associated with the religious right.

I propose that every dollar that the FCC spends on this episode should be removed from their next budget, because clearly they have at least that much to waste.