Saturday, February 26, 2005

Don't drink, Don't smoke, What do you do?

This post is inspired in part by a recent online conversation about Hunter S. Thompson, the author who committed suicide this week.

I made a comment about recreational drugs and firearms having no place in civilized society, and was rebuffed for it, though in a fairly ambiguous way. I wasn't quite sure what the poster's point was, but it got me thinking about parallels between the various vices.

I definitely have a strong bias against recreational drug use. Maybe it was my high school conditioning, or the stereotypical media portrayal of drug addicts. Then again, maybe it stems from the thought that all my high school enemies were the type to indulge in drugs and alcohol. Given my predisposition, it's a little difficult to assess the true dangers assoiated with illicit drugs. Even if I determine that the risks posed by drug use are significant, how do those risks compare with vices that I might approve of?

There are several dimensions to this issue.

Physically, we know that there are many one-time drug users who have gone on to lead normal, productive lives. Smoking marijuana a few times in college seems to be mostly harmless. On the other hand, each use of a hard drug tends to damage brain chemistry in a more permanent way. This may result in addiction, or it may mean that the user needs a higher dose of a drug to get the same high. I will not entertain the suggestion that addiction or the long-term mind-dulling effect of drugs leave one physically or mentally enhanced. People get burned up on drugs, and no one thinks that's a good thing. The question is whether or not the consumption of a person by chemistry is a worthwhile enterprise.

The second dimension is political. As a liberal, I champion individual freedom and responsibility. We should be tolerant of people's desires to abuse themselves, especially when their abuse is truly deliberate, and not due to some disease like clinical depression. However, when responsible vice turns irresponsible, I favor state intervention. If drug use harms other people, the state has a right to intervene. Driving while intoxicated should not be tolerated at all. If anything, our DWI sentences are too lax. On the other hand, mandatory heavy sentences for possession of small amounts of soft drugs are insane. Such sentences destroy lives unnecessarily by taking productive members of society and sending them to crime school (my term for what passes as the penitentiary system in this country).

The intellectual dimension. Having never taken any drug more potent than Advil (excepting anesthesia administered by a physician), I can't speak to the intellectual value of hallucinogens, but I strongly suspect that this is a smoke screen put up by defenders of drug culture. Maybe some of the music I like would not have existed without cocaine or LSD, but I have my doubts. Rather, what I see is the same phenomenon I saw in college: friends recounting stories about getting drunk, and how their ensuing acts (often involving throwing up or pissing in their pants) were so amusing. Presumably, by telling these tales, the abuser hopes to absolve him- or herself from responsibility for his or her actions. If you want to hang out with people who do this to themselves, it probably helps to participate. It's too painful to watch your friends turn into monsters before your eyes without some sort of anesthesia. Bottom line, I don't buy the argument that drug use has an intellectual benefit manifest in the form of invention.

As a transhumanist, I'm favor the use of drugs and gene therapy to make us more than human. I suppose thats why, philosophically, I have a problem with the application of drugs to make us less than human. It's true that we weaken naturally with age. Physicists are said to give their best years before the age of 30. Our bodies might weaken due to a lifetime of undersea exploration. We can be consumed by the engine that creates our own works, but at least we produced works in exchange. To consume ourselves in exchange for the experience of consuming ourselves seems like such a waste.

Pragmatically, there are other dangers asociated with drug use including crime, disease and quality control. However, one can argue that these are not intrinsic to the issue. Legalization and government control of drugs could solve many of these problems.

Then there's the personal dimension. To me, drug abuse is a kind of cowardly escapism. We live at most one life. Drug abusers, less than one.

If drugs were safe and we had social contexts where they could be consumed without hurting other people, I would probably try them myself. The fact is that drugs are not safe, so there are no good contexts in which to enjoy them without hurting people. Hard drugs are in fact so dangerous that a single hit might kill you or render you permanently useless.

Relative Vice
It is not lightly that I quote Adam Ant. Subtle innuendo follows.

Pleasure is important to humans, and none of us would want to outlaw all forms of pleasurable activity that might have health risks. We just don't enjoy computer chess that much.

So we need to compare the relative risks of our vices. If I'm sexually-liberated, is it fair to criticise the chemically-liberated? One could say that sex causes unwanted pregnancies, disease, and even addiction. Does sex cause as much harm as drug use? Gambling can be an addiction, too. How about food? That stuff'll kill ya every time!

After a while, everything starts to look toxic. However, we can begin to see a patterns emerging, ways to distinguish pleasure from abuse.

If your vice directly harms other people, it has been taken too far. If you steal from your mother's purse so you can bet on the horses, you have a problem. If you know you have HIV and still feel the need to have unprotected sex with an unwitting partner, you have a problem. If you have any chance of driving while intoxicated, don't do drugs. If your drug is hard enough to make you ignore this rule, don't own a car.

Hard chemical addiction is relatively easy to spot when you're suffering physical withdrawal symptoms. Addiction is harder to spot when you simply need harder and stronger doses of your vice in order to obtain pleasure. If you have to start breaking your own rules to find pleasure, you've gone too far. If you think you may be addicted in this way, you have to change your environment to protect yourself and those around you. Don't expose yourself to the stimuli that will get you into trouble. Take a different route home. Don't surf certain Web sites. Avert your eyes when you walk by that patisserie!

I don't know anyone who wants a world without vice. Our best bet is to use our inventiveness and ingenuity keep the softer vices both safe and fun.

Baseball-Dimestore Moriah: seven card stud, 3's and 9's are wild or 5's and 10's are wild depending on the last up card. If you get a 4 you can buy a down card, or pay double for an up card. Pay extra to have your last hole card dealt face up. Queen of spades redeals.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Back to the future

This is a partial list of cool stuff that seems to have gone out of fashion. Not that I'm bitter or anything.

#1: Digital Watches
Yes, I still think that digital watches are a really neat idea. Listen, people used analogue clock faces because they couldn't make digital ones!

I can see that it might be difficult to make a digital watch look really, really expensive, and this might be a problem for some people. But not for me. I never even understood the point of wearing jewelry. For some reason, all the digital watches I see are pimped out like Nike Air sneakers. What's with that?

#2: The De Lorean DMC-12
From what I've read, the De Lorean DMC-12 wasn't a great buy. The vehicles were notoriously unreliable. However, they had gull-wing doors. I want gull-wing doors. I would pay thousands extra for gull-wing doors. Give me gull-wing doors!

I want a head-up display, too. [Note: There's no such thing as a "heads-up" display unless you're Zaphod Beeblebrox]. I bought my current car because it has a head-up display, but I want my next car to have one that projects more data on the windshield.

#3: Velcro Shoes
Why did these go out of fashion? I suppose some people just slip their shoes on and off, bypassing the laces anyway. For those of you who want snug fitting shoes without the naval manoeuvres, try these.

#4: Fried Apple Pies
Believe it or not, I don't go to McDonalds for health reasons. I rarely go at all these days, except when I'm in Toronto. One reason is that McDonalds no longer carries fried apple pies. Maybe they thought "fried bad, baked good." Maybe they didn't want to get sued. The filling in McDonalds fried pies can melt Titanium. Anyway, there are only a handful of places you can go to buy them these days. Here's a list of fried pie oases.

On a related note, Pepperidge Farm Apple Squares were also fantastic. We theorize that the apple squares are no longer available because in the future, I invent a time machine, go back in time, and obtain all of the apple squares from the past.

Fortunately, fried pies are making a comeback - you'll find variants of them at KFC and Taco Bell.

Monday, February 14, 2005

The Strange Affair of the Intelligent Design Seminar

Last week, my mother faxed me an invitation to a "Lecture and Discussion" by an intelligent design proponent. She had found a couple of the invitation cards at her workplace, and thought I might be interested.

The talk was to be an overview of a book called The Origin of Life presented by one of its authors, Hugh Ross. Most of the invitation's text was taken up with a laundry list of Ross's credentials, starting with his Bachelor's degree! Ross has a PhD in Astronomy from the University of Toronto. Today he is the President of Reasons to Believe, a California-based organization that claims that science proves the Christian worldview.

The event was hosted by a local husband and wife couple. Judging by the fact that the invitation card gave no street address for the restaurant, I surmised that this would be a small affair. I received the card after the RSVP date, but called the number on the card and was able to reserve a place anyway.

So, last night, I arrived in the presentation room and found rather posh place settings at each of seven round tables. Dessert and coffee were complimentary. This was a relatively big-budget event.

The first people I spoke with were part of the speaker's entourage. All in all there were four people accompanying the speaker, including the speaker's wife. When the crew started placing free copies of the book on each table, I feared I was in for a hard sell. Fortunately, there would turn out to be minimal sales pitching during the event.

Many of the attendees seemed to know each other or know the host and hostess. I mingled a little before the talk, and everyone I spoke to was both charming and polite. I suspected that most of the 30 attendees were members of the same local church congregation.

The Presentation
Ross's presentation focused on the fact that life arose early in Earth's history. The Late Heavy Bombardment of the Earth and Moon would have liquefied the Earth's surface until about 3.8 billion years ago. The oldest signs of life occur in that same time period. Ross claimed that science has no explanation for how life could arise in a geological instant (though he omitted the word geological). He went on to mischaracterize space missions to Mars, Europa and Titan as last ditch attempts to find some place in the Solar System where life might have evolved instead of on Earth.

The spookiest parts of the talk were the political comments. He talked about Bill Clinton "dancing" at the discovery of the Antarctic meteorite ALH84001 that showed possible signs of life from Mars. Presumably, Ross believed that Clinton would jig at any evidence that contradicted fundamentalist opinion. He also talked about saving taxpayer money by cutting back research that he deemed wasteful in light of his "Biblical Model." I definitely got the sense that Ross was used to speaking to more conservative audiences who would be amused by such political commentary.

The main presentation was only half an hour long. Ross spoke eloquently and came across as a nice enough chap. However, he freely mixed real science with mumbo jumbo numbers in a way that would have been very misleading for anyone not versed in science. For example, he talked about the probability of all the atoms of a DNA molecule just happening to collide and form a double helix as being a number so small that it would take many times longer than the age of the universe to occur. Non-scientists could easily mistake such a straw man as scientific confirmation of Ross's views. The fact is that experiments such as the Miller-Urey experiment showed that fairly complex molecular building blocks would naturally arise in the primordial soup. More complex biomolecules would be constructed of these precursors, not directly out of their constituent atoms. Ross went on to construct several more such straw men.

Q & A
The first few questions from the audience were softballs. As I recall, the first question was asked by a person who said that he had read three of Ross's books, and was wondering why the media hadn't picked up on the Biblical model.

After three or four others had asked questions, it was my turn. I said I had two comments. My first comment was that the speaker had erroneously claimed that our planetary space probes were sent looking for alternative birthplaces for life because the scientific community felt that life couldn't have started on Earth. Disputing this claim, I said that the scientific community not only thinks that life formed on Earth, but that it formed so quickly and easily that there may also be life on other, less hospitable worlds.

My second comment was that what Ross proposed was not really science at all. The "Biblical Model" was not falsifiable. Ross et al had taken scientific facts and worked backwards to fit them into their biblical worldview. I pointed out that the Standard Model has about 20 physical constants in it. ID proponents would claim that the model is finely-tuned to produce a human-friendly universe. If tomorrow we discover a link between 11 of those constants, ID proponents would make the very same claims they do now about the 10 remaining constants. If we ever did find a "Theory of Everything" that had one physical constant and that required no fine tuning, ID advocates would still question why the laws of physics the way they are. That is, no scientific theory would ever be satisfactory for them.

Ross responded to my first comment with contradiction. He claimed that the astrobiologists at the most recent conference truly were depressed about not having a viable mechanism to explain how life could have formed so early.

His response to my second comment was the most interesting of all. He not only claimed that his model was falsifiable (I expected that), but that certain scientific results would be caustic and even fatal to his faith! That was a shocker, and I had to ask a confirmatory question about it. It seemed to me that Christians could always retreat to a Deist position. I think this rattled the audience a bit - they were probably less keen to tie their faith to empiricism once they realized that the game might not go their way.

Right after I asked my question, someone tapped me on the shoulder and whispered to me, "that was a really good question!" A few seconds later, the woman next to me quietly asked me how I came to be at the seminar. She introduced herself as the hostess, and said that the forum was by "invitation only." He he.

Anyway, after I spoke up, the tone of the questions became more critical. Someone posed the question "who created God," and another asked about the variation in bills of Galapagos finches.

During the Q & A, Ross expounded on some fairly bizarre ideas. He claimed that God was responsible for mass extinctions in order to eliminate those species not adaptable to the coming climate. Seems a bit redundant to me.

Ross also echoed the creationist view that evolution explained variation within species, but could not account for the new species. He claimed that when humanity arrived, speciation stopped because man had a soul, and God's work was done. So much for Neanderthal burial rites, thought I.

The speaker also stated that humans arrived just in time to make use of fossil fuels which had be prepared in advance by God. Wow! A plug for big oil. That was just plain freaky.

After the talk, there was a brief opportunity to mingle with the attendees and the entourage. Several people complimented me on my question. A couple of the people I spoke with admitted being evolutionists, though everyone I met was a committed Christian.

I had the opportunity to speak with the hostess and with the speaker's wife. Both were gracious and cordial.

Overall, I was thrilled that I attended. I had a great time, and I achieved my objective. I don't think anyone left the seminar without at least suspecting that science wasn't on Ross's side.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

The Academic Policing Act

The conservatives are at it again. Since science and reason don't support their political positions, conservatives are strongly anti-intellectual. God forbid the average American should learn the facts!

Today, they propose variants of a bill that I like to call the Academic Policing Act. They call it an "academic bill of rights," but, in standard Orwellian fashion, they really mean the reverse. The bill would limit the freedom of college professors to speak their minds, and creates new quota/affirmative action programs for right-wing ideologues who want to teach at university.

In Ohio, the state legislature is considering such a bill. The Ohio proposal would prohibit public and private college professors from presenting opinions as fact, and prohibit professors from introducing "controversial material unrelated to the course."

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Larry Mumper, questioned why lawmakers should approve funding for universities with "professors who would send some students out in the world to vote against the very public policy that their parents have elected us for." [emphasis added]

Hmmm. Let me see. Who will decide for students what constitutes controversial material, what facts are just opinions, and what subject matter should be regarded as relevant? Could it be... the same people who think Jesus was a philosopher?*

Not only is this this bill an attempt to politicize higher education, it is also hypocritical. Conservatives rail against government intervention in the lives of citizens, and whine at the slightest government regulation of business. Indeed, traditional conservatives would argue that if a business behaves in a manner in which you don't approve, go to the competition or start your own business. The Academic Policing Act shows that these neo-con hypocrites are all too happy to regulate when it helps them hold on to political power.

I suggest, in true conservative spirit, that Ohio right-wingers (and nutters like David Horowitz) start their own universities. Such universities will teach (with a straight face, presumably) alternative viewpoints, e.g., that the Earth is flat, that God made girls from sugar and spice, and that the true symbol of morality is the dollar sign. The parents who send their sons and daughters to such institutions had better hire their kids when they graduate because no one else will.

*Dear President Bush, I know it's hard work, but crack a book, Dude. Start with the New Testament, if you like, and see why literally none of your policies is consistent with the spirit of that book. Then, try to understand why Jesus was not a philosopher. Thank you. Signed, Your Punching Bag, Doctor Logic.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Illegal Propaganda

Under U.S. law, it is illegal for the executive branch to spend federal funds on propaganda without the consent of Congress.

The Bush administration has ignored these rules several times. This isn't even remotely funny. It is not a joking matter. I do not lightly bring up the inevitable comparison between Bush's propaganda and the work of Joseph Goebbels.

Today, I learned that the administration authorized a fake GOP journalist, James "JD" Guckert (AKA Jeff Gannon), to operate from the White House press office like other accredited journalists. Guckert represented a fake news agency called Talon News.

Not only did this operative serve up softball questions during news conferences, it was revealed today that he was one of the handful of conservative newspeople who received the infamous, leaked Valerie Plame CIA memo. Valerie Plame is the wife of Ambassador Joe Wilson. Her identity was leaked by White House staffers, presumably to punish Wilson for publicising the deliberately misleading errors about Iraqi efforts to obtain Uranium in the President's State of the Union address. Leaking her identity not only exposed an undercover CIA operative, it may well have cost lives in the field.

I strongly believe criminal complaints should be filed in the following cases:

  1. The Niger Yellowcake scandal that resulted in the Plame CIA leak. This was clearly a case of domestic propaganda in the President's speech.

  2. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services created a fake news report that was distributed nationally and appeared on many local TV stations. The fake news report praised the administration's Medicare Drug Prescription bill. The Government Accountability Office found this to be unlawful.

  3. The Department of Education paid Armstrong Williams, a conservative news columnist, $240,000 to sing the praises of the so-called No Child Left Behind act.

  4. Syndicated columnists Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus apparently had undisclosed paid contracts with the Department of Health and Human Services. These columnists wrote articles praising Bush policies on marriage and sex education.

  5. Employees of the Social Security Administration have been directed to tell the public that there is an impending crisis in the social security system. This is false information that promotes the Bush political agenda.

You can bet that, with this track record, we will find many other examples of Bush administration propaganda.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Raising a daughter as an atheist

I just read a beautiful essay by Natalie Angier called Raising Children With Secular Values in a Religious World.

Of her daughter, Katherine, she says:

She also said that she likes to see things for herself before believing in them. If a friend told me, guess what, I’ve got a flying dog, I’d say, can I see it. Katherine said she has friends who claim they’ve seen god. One of her close friends told her she’s seen bright lights in the middle of the night that she knows were signs from Jesus. So Katherine asked her if she could do a sleepover, to check out the light for herself. Oh, you’d never see it, her friend replied. Only people who believe in god can see it.

As Richard Dawkins has said, “With religion, there’s always an escape clause.”
On the meaning of Atheism, Angier writes:
So to me, this, more than anything, is what being an atheist means, an ongoing devotion to exploration, a giving of pride of place to evidence. And much to my dismay, religion often is at odds with the evidence-based portrait of reality that science has begun, yes, only just begun, fleshing out.
There you have it. Religion is just a curiosity-stopper. It's just a way of saying Don't think about this, Don't explore that. Religion either claims that a) the knowledge is inaccessible, or b) that the knowledge is forbidden. Invariably, such claims lack evidence, and frequently they rely solely on the authority of bearded gentlemen. Piffle, I say!

Saturday, February 05, 2005

The Polar Bear Crisis

While Bush is hyping the non-existent problems with Social Security so he can dismantle the program, he's not losing any sleep over the other crises that will hit us even sooner:

Fearing Fear Itself: Social Security and Other 21st Century Disasters
...By 2026, for example, the planet could be an average of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it was in the 18th century, which would completely erase the seasonal ice—already eroding at over 9% a decade—by the end of the century. It’s also a big enough change to lead to the extinction of several species of seals, birds and—get this—polar bears.
What gives conservatives the right to destroy every last one of our (yours, mine, and, if you believe, God's) Polar Bears? Nothing but money is sacred to these people.

Benefits of Blogging

I started this blog because I wanted to get into the habit of writing. A few months ago, I realized that I hadn't written anything for public consumption in a long time. Not only was I in danger of forgetting how to write, but I had also accumulated a lot of things to write about.

For me, blogging is like mental calisthenics. I have to reason through my posts in detail, and I have to get my facts and references correct. Quite simply, I just wouldn't be thinking as clearly without being forced to write down my ideas. There have even been a few occasions when I had to abort a posting because my original thesis was either wrong or weakly supported by evidence.

Lastly, I'm much more intellectually engaged than I was before I started blogging. It's not just that I spend more time thinking about philosophy and politics, I'm also more motivated to participate in online and offline forums.

So, thank you, dear readers. Reading your comments, indeed, just knowing you're out there, has made a big difference in my life.

And, if you haven't already started your own blog, I highly recommend it!

Friday, February 04, 2005

Wealth doesn't make you moral

At a Democratic Meetup a couple of weeks back, a fellow Democrat who spends a lot of time in the company of Fortune 100 executives told me something surprising: top corporate executives think themselves moral because of their wealth! When you ask them why, they'll tell you that they are moral because they "create value." By this they mean they inflate the stock price of their corporation.

Just a few weeks before, in a discussion about "red state values," a friend suggested that conservatives think that wealthy people are moral, or at least that wealth is an indicator of high morality. I was very skeptical of her theory. Anyone who has read the New Testament knows that this is in total opposition to the teachings of Jesus. Besides, the wealthy villain is iconic in our culture. Who could possibly associate wealth with virtue? Wealth is obviously neutral.

Here's a related story plucked from today's headlines. See of you can spot the perversion:
Adelphia to offer hardcore porn movies
Five years ago, Adelphia dropped Spice, a soft-core pornography channel, from cable systems it acquired in Southern California because company founder John Rigas considered such programming immoral.

Since then, the company filed for bankruptcy protection in 2002 after Rigas and others were accused of cheating investors out of billions of dollars. Rigas and his son Timothy were convicted of conspiracy, bank fraud and securities fraud. Sentencing is scheduled this month.
According to nuts like Rigas: a) presenting, to consenting adults, movies of other consenting adults having sex is bad, b) showing countless instances of violence daily to all age groups is good, and c) stealing money is really good.

Actually, now that I think about it, (c) makes total sense to anyone who thinks that wealth makes a person more moral. For such people, the more you steal, the more moral you become and the more likely you are to make it into heaven.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Make Love

Reuters reports Teen sex increased after abstinence program. Big surprise there. Plus, all these new sexually active teens haven't been taught about birth control and STD prevention. Brilliant.

Two weeks ago, the AP reported on a study that showed that parental notice wouldn't curb teen sex. Again, big surprise.

I happen to think that sexual abstinence is a noble goal for teens. As a teen, I was celibate. Not by choice, mind you, I'm just chronically sour. I might have told myself that abstinence was my choice, and from a Kenobian point of view, it was: I made no effort to be a cool cat (resistance was futile), thereby ensuring my virginity. But looking back, it's hard to imagine that my life would have been improved if I had scored on anything other than academic tests. Anyway, noble goals are good, but as Robert Burns wrote "the best laid schemes o' mice an' men, gang aft agley,..."

Many married men would have a hard time refusing a consequence-free tryst with, say, Alyssa Milano or Brooke Burke (or both simultaneously). If many adults can't accept a celibate lifestyle (nor perhaps faithful marriages), it seems unrealistic to expect inerrant celibacy from teens.

Here's why abstinence-only programs are so daft (apart from the fact that they don't work). Dictated rules of behavior are ineffectual barriers against adolescent hormones. Our culture may be polluted with media drivel (especially from those hypocrites at Fox), but that's a red herring. Neither can one blame the public school system for being a poor chaperone. What teens need are values, not rules, and values will almost certainly come from the family.

In my opinion, what counts is that teens behave with honor and integrity, whether or not they are sexually active. Teens should take care to protect and respect themselves and their partners. This means not only knowing about birth control and STD's, but understanding human hearts.

Parents have a right to expect teens to be chaste. Parents should make their feelings on the matter known, and set appropriate rules and limits. However, parents should not do this at the expense of teaching their children about sexuality, love, honesty, commitment and the nature of good relationships. If a teen does become sexually active, he or she should at least know to make love, and not just sex.