August 2005

Intelligent Design? Show me the science.

Monday, August 29th, 2005

By a philosopher I much enjoyed reading during my Consciousness class, Daniel Dennett. Read it.

To Snip?

Saturday, August 27th, 2005

I need to read this.

UPDATE: I heard about the same studies mentioned here (re: circumcision lowers HIV rate among Africans) years ago in a documentary on the topic.

However, the context not provided here is the actual paradox in circumcising to prevent HIV. What the study finds is that of men who have sex with HIV infected women, you are say 70% less likely to contract the virus if you are circumcised. However, mass circumcision would do nothing but slightly slow the spread of AIDs, since Africans will treat the procedure as “protection” and therefore not use condoms or any other form of protection.

The proper way, instead of slicing off as many foreskins as you can find, is to distribute condoms, educate the people to use them, and get people to start having safer sex. Not only is this cheaper, but it’s, morally-speaking, much more sound.

Loaded Terms: Pro-Life, Anti-Abortion, or just True Believers?

Thursday, August 25th, 2005

I recently read an amusing article about a LA Times editor who changed a review of an opera which included the sentence “an incomparably glorious and goofy pro-life paean” to read “an incomparably glorious and goofy anti-abortion paean.”

If you didn’t get it the first time around, it may be clearer if you see that the author meant “pro-life” in the sense of “life-affirming,” and that the opera actually had naught to do with abortion.

Someone responding to the report pointed out that he was an LA Times reporter, and understands that the error was made because of an LA Times style guide entry about abortion, reproduced below:

abortion

Those who favor maintaining legal access to abortion are abortion rights advocates, supporters of legal abortion or those who favor abortion rights. They should not be called abortion advocates or be characterized as being pro-abortion. Those opposed to abortion may be called opponents of abortion or abortion foes or may be characterized as being anti-abortion. Do not use the term pro-life.

Conservatives immediately lunged a response, claiming for example:

The ban of “pro-life” only makes ethical sense if its part of an even handed treatment of the abortion argument that includes a ban on the equally loaded and misrepresentative term “pro-choice”, for example phrasing the sides as pro- and anti-abortion. It’s very telling that the pro-abortion people are only characterized in positive terms (advocates, supporters, favor) while anti-abortion activists are entirely negative (oppponents, foes).

Here, the conservative missed the point. People who support the right to abortion aren’t “pro-abortion.” To be “pro-abortion” would mean you favor abortion over all other options–such that, for example, you think all pregnancies should end in abortion. Of course, pro-choice people are only focused on the right to abort–they don’t, for example, extol the virtues of aborting a fetus, but only want the option available. Pro-choice people support the right to choose whether to have an abortion, instead of being told one way or the other about it.

To put it another way, though one may support the right one has to murder another man in defense of one’s own life, one would be quite illspoken to call such a right “pro-murder.” The killing may be justified in this or that case, but there almost always exists the riskier and less convenient route, say, to capture the attacker, tie his hands behind his back, and bring him to the police. Likewise, abortion rights advocates believe that when a pregnancy is unwanted, one should not be forced to carry the pregnancy to term, since doing so forces risks and inconveniences upon the woman in question (such as, for example, complications during pregnancy, complications at delivery, being unable to perform in school or work during the ultimate months of the pregnancy, and having to care for a born human being after birth). If the woman was raped and seeks an abortion afterwards, things are even more complicated, as there may be serious psychological issues at play.

Ultimately, the pro-choice crowd sees this issue as a decision only that a woman and her doctor should be allowed to make–not lawmakers or priests or the Vatican. As I will argue in my future article evaluating the ethics surrounding abortion, the decision to abort a fetus who has the potential of becoming a full-grown human-being rests entirely with the creator, and, ironically, this view of the creator’s power over its creation is entirely consistent with Christian scripture (not that it has to be to be morally true, but this just happens to be a nice and elegant if-I-may-say-so-myself consequence of the ethical analysis).

On the other hand, anti-abortion is a completely proper term for the conservative crowd, because they think abortion should not be allowed in any instance (in other words, women shouldn’t be give the choice of abortion), so not only don’t they support the right to have an abortion, but they equate abortion with a kind of murder, and are therefore almost unequivocally against it.

The reason “pro-life,” as a term, is so grossly distorted, is that it equates a love of innocent life with being against a woman’s right to choose to abort a fetus which she created and about which there is no consensus whether it can be considered to be a “human life.” (The only consensus, lest you forget, is that the fetus has the potential at becoming a human life, but as I argued earlier in my blog, so too do my glances at a fertile woman.)

It also equates the morality of abortion with the morality of euthanasia, two issues that are so crazily opposed on the ethical analyst’s scale that it is strange to find them uttered in the same sentence. It also plays into the love that spiritual and religious people have of life, and tries to place them as diametrically opposed to people who are implied to be “anti-life,” or life haters. This is quite a distortion, and as a newspaper editor, I’d leave this term out of the debate as well.

The reason I, personally, am disgusted by the term “pro-life” is because of how inconsistent (and, sometimes even racist) the people who declare themselves pro-life tend to be. Now, here I am speaking in generalities, so please don’t take the following paragraph as the ultra-serious analysis you come to normally expect from me ;-). Coming from an Italian background, I think speaking in generalities is sometimes important, as often the “stereotypes” arise from somewhere.

There are many “pro-life” people who support the war in Iraq and our general military presence in the world, and there are many “pro-life” people who are very much against this war and all others. But just to point out the general moral inconsistency, I have to say that I find it quite laughable when a person claims he or she is “pro-life” but accepts as a consequence of our war in Iraq “collateral damage,” namely “innocent life lost as a means to an end.” I again am speaking in generalties, but I’m sure you can also find more than a few thousand “pro-life” people who believe we were justified in dropping the atom bombs on Japan (see earlier articles on my blog). The term pro-life only refers to fetuses and euthanasia because ultimately the issue is not at all about practical political or secular philosophical issues for these people. The issues revolve entirely around scripture, the Bible, and moral righteousness, seeing the people who ask for abortions as the same people who also do such evils as having sex for fun, smoking marijuana, and using swear-words.

When I analyze the issue of abortion from a philosophical standpoint (I am currently working on a WordPress draft that does just that), I leave miracles out of it. But these people can’t help but cite the scripture. It’s funny and sad that we see the same trend emerging as they aim to stamp out evolutionary theory, as well.

That said, as a newspaper editor I’d leave the term “intelligent design” out of the evolution debate, preferring instead to refer to those people as “people who believe that the only way to explain the natural diversity of this planet is to say that a higher being–call him “God”–designed each and every species on this planet, and on all the other planets in this universe that may have life forms. But those who support this view have no explanation for who created this higher being, or where he may have come from.”

As Bill Maher recently said in his wonderful New Rules from last show:

And the reason there is no real debate, is that intelligent design isn’t real science. It’s the equivalent of saying that the thermos keeps hot things hot and cold things cold… because it’s a god. It’s so willfully ignorant you might as well worship the U.S. Mail. It came again! Praise, Jesus!

No, stupidity isn’t a form of knowing things. Thunder is high pressure air meeting low pressure air. It’s not God bowling. “Babies come from storks” is not a competing school of thought. In medical school, we shouldn’t teach both. The media shouldn’t equate both. If Thomas Jefferson knew we were blurring the line this much between church and state, he would turn over in his slave.

Perhaps the grossest distortion of views ever engaged by the “pro-life” crowd was related to Terri Schiavo. I’m glad that even after that woman finally got to rest in peace, a Roman Catholic University will continue to mourn her death with a scholarship for priests in her name.

Right after my Mom had me, she had an aneurysm of her brain. The operation that had to be performed on her had a 30% chance of success, with a high chance of intense brain damage (leading to a vegetative state).

When my Dad found the doctor to perform the surgery, he spoke with him in confidence, and said to him something to the effect of, “My wife has told me she doesn’t want to end up a vegetable. Either she survives the operation, or she doesn’t–understand?”

My Mom survived the operation, thank goodness. But if the operation had failed, and my Mom would have been left there in a vegetative state, I would have thanked anyone who gave my father the right to end her life as someone who truly understands humanity, and the morality of life and death. Since then, my Mom has said the same thing to me. She was utterly disgusted by the Terri Schiavo case, and how so-called religious people’s could support keeping alive a woman who was clearly suffering so much, just to push forward their biological-life-obsessed agenda. But perhaps the concurrence between intelligent design theorists and “pro-life” people isn’t so far-fetched. After all, it’s quite hard to get so very excited about saving embryos, 1- or 3-month-old fetuses, or braindead human bodies, if you don’t believe that “God” had a hand in creating each of them, if you don’t believe that each of those configurations of cells are works of art from an Almighty Creator.

Corporate Pork in the Age of “Homeland Security”

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2005

As reported on most major news stations, Air America, and Slashdot, Lockheed Martin was awarded a big $212 million contract to install thousands of cameras in NYC’s subway system and a wireless network which, incidentally, will not work in moving cars. I don’t know whether the cameras themselves will actually work in the cars (it seems to me if one seems a technical hurdle than the other will as well), but that remains to be seen.

I know this almost goes without saying, but this is really a waste of taxpayer dollars. People will say this is a good step, that anything goes to make them feel safer, but in the end, we have to think about the facts.

9/11 didn’t happen because of a failure of security or intelligence. It happened because of a failure of imagination. We’ve said this time and time again, but perhaps now we’re forgetting just how surprised we were that terrorists decided to hijack our airplanes and fly them into our buildings while we were worrying about trucks full of explosives being driven into the underground parking garage.

People have worried about subways being a terrorist target for years, even before 9/11. Therefore, it’s quite likely they won’t be a target. It will more likely be an unattended package in Times Square, where it’s crowded and relatively light on security, or a smuggled package into Carnegie Hall, where the well-to-do nature of the crowd makes no one suspect anything, or any other number of possible things that are completely not obvious. Because protecting against a terrorist is ultimately futile, because smart ones will obviously choose means that you didn’t think of, then why take these measures at all?

Well, one reason is because people in public policy feel this pressure to do something, so that when something does happen, they won’t be fired on the grounds of taking no steps to counter terrorism. Then, we hand $200 million dollars over to a corporation that already lives and breathes on our taxpayer dollars for fighter jets and missiles, and we never look back.

In return for this false sense of safety, we get other hidden harms. Invasion of privacy? Check. Feeling like you live in a police state? Check. $200 million dollars we could have spent on health care, education, or retirement benefits? Check.

How about when the new “anti-terrorism” cameras start being used to spot young black kids who might be carrying marijuana, so we can lock them up? Are there legal exemptions in this system if, when approaching a person for suspection as a potential terrorist, finding a bit of marijuana isn’t admissable as evidence against this person? I doubt it. It’s probably just like the cameras in the parks around New York; installed, supposedly, to prevent rape, but used most often to bust drug deals.

My other concern is much more practical. These cameras won’t work. I heard the woman who sponsored the project for the MTA saying the purpose was to be able to find a suspicious package, identify it, and dispatch bomb sniffing dogs to “take care of the situation.”

You must be kidding, right?

First of all, whoever will be manning the camera stations, if they are anything like the luggage screeners in the airports, I very much doubt they will notice “suspicious packages” when we need them to. Second, following the trends of most modern terrorists, you’ll be looking at a suspicious bag at the West 4th Street station, while a young man wearing a backpack suddenly explodes.

What if the coordinated terrorists decide to drop “suspicious packages” all over most of the subways in Manhattan, at about the same time. 30 suspicious packages across New York. They’ll only actually blow up 10 of them, but you’ll be spread so thin by that point that you won’t even know how to respond.

Do you see what I’m getting at? How futile is this stuff? I know it’s hard to accept, I know it’s cold and maybe downright mean, and you may be saying, “Andrew, you’re full of shit, you don’t understand this at all,” but this is what I say to all this spending:

Fuck it. Fuck it all. Don’t spend a god-damn dime on pre-empting a terrorist attack.

Spend it, instead, on providing health care for sick Americans. Making sure the unemployed get employed so they don’t turn to crime. Focusing on education in poor neighborhoods where crime is common. In the end, you spend $200 million dollars in any of those, and you’ll probably save a few hundred lives every year, and at least we can measure it, and at least I don’t have to sacrifice my civil liberties for it.

In this country, we spend over $400 billion on defense. That’s more than our combined spending for Education, Housing, Justice, Housing Assistance, Environment, Employment, Science/space and Transportion, among other things. And it’s not just slightly more; it’s $100 billion more.

Keeping applications open

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2005

Just an interesting post I made to OSNews in response to someone saying that IE “starts quickly” while Firefox “takes forever.”

Just to clear up, the only reason IE starts faster in Windows is because IE is technically “always running.” The only thing that has to “start” is creating a Window with an “IE control” in it.

I get the same behavior on Linux by running galeon -s when my X session starts. This runs galeon in “server mode,” which means it’s always in memory, and when I run Galeon (on my laptop, I press ALT+F1 to run my browser), it starts in < a half-second. If Firefox had a similar mode, it could offer you the same thing. As for OpenOffice.org, it's true that the start time is relatively slow. I'm sure they'll get around to optimizing it. Personally, I think the obsession people have with start times on Linux and Windows machines is due to a basic design flaw with most Window managers. Applications should really only start up once; if you start an application multiple times in a day, you're essentially performing redundant computation. The program can sit in memory and if it really is not used in awhile, it will get paged out anyway due to our modern Virtual Memory implementations. In OS X, for example, you can get the same effect as "galeon -s" or IE's "preloading" simply by not quitting an application after all its windows are closed. This leaves the application running, and when you open a new window it will be nearly instantaneous. (Strangely enough, many old Windows/Linux freaks are sometimes "annoyed" by this aspect of OS X, since in the Linux/Windows world up to now, closing all windows of an application is equivalent to closing the application itself).

Real Time with Bill Maher and Conservative Boneheads

Monday, August 22nd, 2005

There’s a great blog post over at The Liberal Doomsayer, and I provided a reply. Here it is.

Great post. Found your blog via Technorati search for Bill Maher (wanted to see what the blogosphere was saying about his latest show, which I just caught last night).

To call her a bubblehead is right on… I couldn’t believe some of the spin this woman was selling. Do you remember when she said that the reason she can say that Iraqi women are doing better now than before the war despite the fact that journalists and reporters have said otherwise is that “as you know better than anyone, Bill, the media in this country doesn’t always tell us the truth.”

Oh, that’s right. If Iraqi women were doing better, the media would want us to think otherwise! When we on the Left say that the media is distorting the truth, say by presenting White House PR as “the truth” or presenting America in the most favorable light possible, the reason we are able to prove this at all is because we know that press access to the White House is controlled by the White House (duh), and therefore, journalists don’t want to piss off the administration too badly since that might cost them contacts in high places.

Would it offend anyone to provide definitive journalistic proof that Iraqi women are doing better after the Iraq war? Of course not! The White House would love an article like that, and we on the left wouldn’t mind it either–after all, what, the hell, are we spending billions of dollars for if humans aren’t even getting basic rights in Iraq?

But this bonehead Conway really is just a talking head of the right, who parrots what the right-wing machine tells her to say. She is what Paul Krugman recently called “an echo chamber”, who simply assumes that what other people tell her in her conservative circles must be true.

Remember when she mentioned that John Kerry voted against what she called “the body armor bill”? She referred to the $87 billion package as “the body armor bill,” even though FactCheck.org and other actual analysts have thoroughly proven the distortion in this claim (a distortion used by Bush to win the election of 2004). It pissed me off that Bill Maher didn’t call her bluff and instead simply used the equally propogandistic “Well, Kerry fought in Vietnam.”

In reality, the proper response would be to point out that the $87 billion package included $300 million for upgraded vests, yes, but that was a mere 1/3 of 1 percent (i.e. 0.33%) of the actual bill’s spending.[1] Do you think what Kerry voted against was those $300 million, or is it more rational to assume that Kerry voted against the other $86,700 million dollars spent in that bill?

1. http://www.factcheck.org/article155.html

Yay, ddrescue saves the day

Monday, August 22nd, 2005

It turns out GNU ddrescue did just the trick, and I was able to get 98% of the data off that dead hard drive. Now to set up a new Windows system for these poor bastards (why, oh why, can’t everyone run *nix?). I need a cup of coffee first.

Sadness and remorse for the worst acts of human history

Sunday, August 21st, 2005

Wow, I worked myself up at this late hour thinking about issues related to the morality of warfare (or lack thereof, as it were), and in particular to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A particularly naive /. poster (is the adjective “naive” redundant here?) pointed out how we can often forget that “civilians can be enemy combatants,” and he mentions a Mitsubishi plant in Nagasaki, as if that were most casulaties occured in Nagasaki (nonsense of course, since over 100,000 deaths occured in that unfortunate city). He then compares America to a police station and Japan to a “man who runs at the station with a bat,” and concludes that it is therefore “all the man with the bat’s fault.” If that reasoning weren’t pathetic enough, he provides another justification for dropping the bombs: that Japan would have done the same, but to New York! Ah, the things I could teach the average /. writer about argumentation. I really hope these aren’t the same folks I meet in the workplace of my future. Read the rest of this entry »

Gangs of America: The History of Corporate Power

Friday, August 19th, 2005

I am totally engrossed in this book at the moment. My Dad gave it to me to read, and I flew through about 100 pages today while allowing the aforementioned backup processes to run.

Among other such gems you discover in this book are these facts:

  • The Boston Tea Party wasn’t so much about taxation without representation or hatred for the British crown as it was about anticorporatism. Colonialists were worried about the East Indies Trade Company moving into the colonies and taking their business. Colonists used to see “globalization” for what it was even back then, calling the East Indies Trade Company a vile institution which “enslaves one half of the human race to enrich the other half.”
  • The founding fathers were thoroughly against the idea of the corporation, and thought that large monied enterprises were the greatest threat to democracy, as they could subvert the political system if they were not placed in check.
  • Even Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson saw these threats, and they were themselves supported by Adam Smith, the economist whose theories are nowadays oft-used in justifying corporate existence.
  • During the days of robber barons, one man essentially created the modern corporation by lobbying the government for the right to intercompany ownership, namely one corporation owning stock in another. Through this law, he established “holding companies,” whose only purpose was to hold stock in other companies. And via holding companies, he was able to take over other corporations and place his corporations outside of any regulation by the state governments. Furthermore, this same man whose foresight gave him great wealth, also provides a nice historical example of corporate greed that is unchecked by government power: he managed to buy up newspapers to fire editors who didn’t print what he liked, and he managed to buy politicians by offering them posts on the board of his major corporate entities.
  • Corporations were not always this way. Corporations do not have to be separate legal entities, completely unaccountable to any of its investors, able to integrate across industries by gobbling up other corporations, able to subvert democracy through political contributions, and able to ruin people’s lives through “externalities.” Once upon a time, American society and American government knew corporations were dangerous, and knew they needed to be carefully monitored and controlled. What happened?

I hope this book answers that last question.

GNU ddrescue and dd_rescue and dd_rhelp, what the?

Friday, August 19th, 2005

Wow. I hate when shit like this happens.

Apparently there are three tools out there to help with the same thing. First, there’s dd_rescue, the tool I was using earlier (which ships with Ubuntu in a debian package called… ddrescue). Then, there’s dd_rhelp, a shell script which is a frontend to ddrescue and which implements a rough algorithm to minimize the amount of time waiting on bad block reads.

Then, there’s GNU ddrescue, which is a C++ implementation of dd_rescue plus dd_rhelp.

I only just realized this and so now I’ve compiled a version of GNU ddrescue to pick up my recovery effort. It’ll probably help with one of the partitions that seems particularly messed up.

So far the nice thing about GNU ddrescue is that it seems faster, and more responsive. Plus, it has a real logging feature, such that if you enable it and then CTRL+C the app, you can restart it and it’ll automatically pick up where it left off.

UPDATE: wow, good thing I switched. GNU ddrescue is significantly faster just in terms of raw I/O performance. I jumped from 4GB of this partition being rescued (which took 30 minutes with dd_rescue) to 6GB in the last ten minutes. It seems at least 3x faster. I also like that the GNU info page describes the algorithmic approach in-depth.