Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Taste of Armageddon

On February 23, 1967, NBC aired an episode of Star Trek entitled "A Taste of Armageddon".

War, as waged on Eminiar VII

Today this episode is a reminder of something we used to know: War is not friendly; it is not civilized; it is not fair; it is not bloodless. The best deterrent to war is the horror of war itself; and for that the consequence of an act of war must be terrible and extreme. Those who move to start a war must know that it is not just they, but their people who will suffer most. They will suffer pain and loss and deprivation and death of their own making. The only way to avoid such calamity must be never to start a war. This is not popular, but popularity isn't a requirement for truth.

Aujourd'hui, nous sommes tous les Parisiens. Today we are all Parisians. I support President Hollande as he acts in accord with our own military to do what he must, swiftly and decisively, in the wake of the terrorist attack on Paris by ISIS.

Arc de Triomphe in Paris
Image by Sese Ingolstadt, cc-by-sa

Monday, November 09, 2015

On Gun Ownership

In a recent conversation on gun ownership, my correspondent made the laudable statement that he would rather not own a gun than be an irresponsible gun owner. He questioned whether increased gun ownership would necessarily lead to increased responsible gun ownership. And it's a good question.

I share his perspective when he says that he'd rather not own a gun than be an irresponsible owner. I think that's the most responsible thing you can say. I think it should be said about more things... pet ownership, for instance, and voting. I'd rather not vote than pick names at random from a list, or pick them because they have the "right" branding. I wish that more voters shared my sense of responsibility.

But responsible ownership is something that must be accomplished constitutionally. I'm afraid my answer here may blunt my Libertarian credentials ever-so-slightly, and it may simultaneously scare the pants off of you.


Chris Conover presents data and commentary in a Forbes opinion piece, and I invite you to read it in full... here's my "Reader's Digest" summary of the main arguments.

Anybody can buy a car. They don't even need a license. You can even drive it, without a license, legally, as much as you want... on your own property. This is despite the fact that Americans are far more likely to die in a vehicle accident than by the accidental discharge of a firearm.

But if I want to get in that car and take it out on the road and mingle with the public, then the law says I need a license. So I get a license. The police don't come to my house and check my license periodically. If my license expires, they don't care, so long as I'm not driving in public. If I'm caught doing so they can fine or jail me, but there's nothing whatsoever that says I must have a license to own a car. And that's a device that's far deadlier far more often than guns. And that's despite the fact that there's no explicit constitutional guarantee of car ownership.

Gun control advocates use this same comparison -- cars vs. guns -- to argue that you should need a license to own a gun, "just like a car". But in truth you do not need the license to own a car. You do not need one to drive it. You need a license only to operate it in public. So in practice, regulating guns like we regulate cars would be very close to what gun advocates are asking for. Naturally, it's not the message that the gun control lobby intends, but it is what they asked for.

But we do have an explicit guarantee of gun ownership. Many people quibble over the "militia" clause of the Second Amendment, but they also often forget that the militia is distinct from the Army or Navy (per section 2) and that its composition is left to the various states (per the 10th Amendment). Here in South Carolina, for instance, the subject is in the main body of our Constitution. In section 20, the reason given is "As, in times of peace, armies are dangerous to liberty..."  It has nothing to do with hunting or fishing (our constitution asserts those rights independently). Our Article XIII explicitly defines the composition of the militia. And even then, while the militia clause provides a reason, the Second Amendment asserts the right of "the people", not "the militia". Our trust in our government has strict limits, so much so that we put it in writing.

Now you may think that this interpretation is a bit paranoid of the government, to which the answer is, "well, DUH"... it's a paranoia that was discussed at length prior to being written into the Constitution of the United States and individual States, so any law we make has to deal with that. And I'm of the opinion that "clever circumvention" is never the proper course. The Constitution should be complied with, both the letter and the intent.

Now to really scare you.

Personally, I'm fond of revolvers.
Limited capacity, but highly reliable.
I'm not in favor of mandatory registration of guns. Truth be told, I want my government to be scared of its citizens. I don't want them to know whether you have a gun, an arsenal, or nothing at all. I want them not to know how many guns there are, and I want them not to know where those guns are, at least not without a warrant. I think the probability of actually using these guns against my government is vanishingly small... and I want to keep that probability low, so I do not want my government ever to be comfortable in believing that it has more power than its citizens. When I was in the military, I felt no different. And many of my compatriots felt the same way. In this country the government cannot rely on the military to subdue its own people.

Of course, this could make things difficult for the police, but nobody said law enforcement was an easy job. And those difficulties are only incremental, in that the vast majority of gun owners are not only law-abiding, but they support the police. Those that don't support the police also don't give a damn about restrictive gun control laws. And because of this, I want the law to be such that criminals don't know whether a law-abiding person is armed or not... in public or private. Criminals should be as wary of their would-be victims as they are of the police.

Furthermore, I don't want an invading army or any other group, should there ever be one, to be able to hack a database or pull records and find every weapon. I want this country to be unassailable by enemies "foreign or domestic". Even in a time when CNN's Jake Tapper opines, "I think the American people, honestly, want security over freedom," I prefer to side with Patrick Henry:
"Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!"
I think it's a very good thing that I and other like-minded individuals are so inclined. It was people who shared our "paranoid" view that created this nation. It was these people like this who have defended it for 240 years. It is largely these people who man our all-volunteer armed forces today, just as I did in my day. We swore an oath to defend Liberty, not security... to defend the Constitution, not back-yard fences and "safe spaces".


Having said all that, I absolutely want gun owners to be both responsible and knowledgeable, as does anyone who has been affiliated with the NRA. To that end, if I were a gun merchant, then I would include a free gun owner's course with the purchase of any weapon. I wouldn't need government regulation to institute such a policy; just come take the course and then take your gun home. If you've already taken such a course, fine... show me your certificate of completion or permit. If not, then store policy says you take the course.

Could such a policy be codified as a law? Well, sure... anything at all can be made a law. I don't know that it should... and whether it would survive the courts is an interesting guess. But we don't need to pass a law in order to do it in practice. There is no Constitutional impediment preventing a vendor from bundling whatever conditions he wants into a sale. Me...? I'd give 'em a course. And if a private vendor did such a thing, I'd get behind him 100%. Might it make it more difficult to get a gun for someone who is illiterate or feeble-minded if I required him to take tests first? Yes, it would. But it would also be completely legal. He may have a right to bear arms, but as a private citizen I don't have the obligation to sell them to just anyone. That is, right up until the PC police violate my right of free association and force me to sell to idiots. But that's another topic.

Resources for online training:

Saturday, November 07, 2015

I Wish...

Think about it. 

Voting in our political system, if it were done ideally, would work like this:

  1. All voters would cast ballots for those candidates who best represented their interests.
  2. The votes would be tallied, and the winner would be the candidate who best represented the interests of the most voters.

But it doesn't really work like that, does it?  For many voters, elections are a form of team sporting event. Voters don't cast ballots for the candidate who best represents them. Rather, they get behind and cheer on the champion on their team who has the best chance of winning, whether their agenda aligns with the voters' or not. If it has ever puzzled you how it is that Congress can have an approval rating of 14% (fourteen percent!) even though each and every member was elected by a majority vote in his or her district, then here's your answer. The voters play the game instead of voting in their interests, and when to no one's surprise they are not represented, they are dissatisfied with the people they pretended to prefer for the sake of the "election game".

Doesn't that sound a little silly to you? So I want to talk to the "team players".

The only time the you seem to take a genuine interest in your own best interests is when you are discussing the candidates of your own party's opposition. It's a bit bizarre, but the next time you're watching the network pundits prattle on, pay attention and you'll see it in action. Militant Leftists wax philosophic about what "the Republicans" need to do. Right-wing mouthpieces do the same about "the Democrats". They are both supremely adept at finding the flaws in the other side's candidates, and they are both supremely inept at recognizing the same in their own.

If you were looking at it purely as election strategy, it is the worst one to take. After all, if you want your candidate to sail through the general election to victory, shouldn't you encourage the other party to offer up some halfwit as their nominee? It seems to be what they'd naturally do if you weren't around to "help" them with your sage advice as to who's best, doesn't it?

Of course, that's not exactly how your advice runs. Opposition commentary is almost entirely negative. You point out the flaws so they can pick the candidate with the fewest to offer up. But the end result is the same. By speaking up, the opposition party has exerted a lot of pressure on you to pick the candidate with the "fewest flaws". One who can win. As a result, the opposition has just picked your candidate's flaws. That's not going to affect your vote, of course... you're a team player.

Then comes the General Election, and you have nothing but the one nominee from your party, whose flaws you pretty much completely ignored during the primaries, having been fixated on what was going on in the other party for whom you would never vote as a pure matter of principle. And suddenly you recognize that your nominee isn't going to win with just your core party votes. There are swing voters out there, and they're paying attention to all the details you ignored. And you have to deal with that, so it's all back to team sports and your own nominee's weaknesses and strengths honestly don't matter. General Electioneering becomes an exercise in denying all the flaws the other team picked for your candidate, and denying any of the strengths in theirs. Anything you've ever said good about one of your candidates is bad when it's said about the other guy. And right now, I'm going to pick on the Democrats, because as the champions of identity politics they provide so much low-hanging fruit:

  • Pick on Obama? You're racist. 
  • Offer up a black candidate of your own? You're still racist because he's an Uncle Tom. And saying he's an Uncle Tom isn't racist, because you're the racist, not me. QED.

  • Pick on Hillary? You're superficial and a misogynist. 
  • Offer up a female candidate of your own? OMG, what is she wearing? And seriously, does she think she can win with that face and hair? 

  • Ask about Obama's birth certificate? RACIST! BIRTHER! 
  • Ask about Ted Cruz' birth certificate? No, really... this has serious problems! 

And it works the other way around. If a Democrat has an idea it can't be good because... well, because. And Republican ideas are good just because they're Republican. (Seriously, visit this link if you think I think it's all Democratic nonsense). Any candidate's qualifications and disqualifications are moot because you don't want "them" in charge. "Them" is, of course, the other team.

Neither one of you has a candidate... you're voting for the Donkey or the Elephant. Go, team!

Personally, I prefer it the way it's supposed to work. So I don't intend on voting Republican or Democrat or even necessarily Libertarian... and I proudly proclaim my lack of intent. I'll vote for a Presidential candidate who best represents my interests. And if they all suck, I'll abstain, knowing that my vote won't reduce the the amount of "suck" in the system.

But to be honest, most of that suck is from you guys.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Military Training vs. CWP

In a discussion I started about the Second Amendment, there was the following exchange. This is stripped down and the names changed for the privacy of the participants. So I used "Tom" and "Harry". [1]
Tom: College age "kids" fight our wars for us. 
Harry: You do realize that the college age "kids" who fight our wars have had a certain amount of training, both in handling their firearms and in keeping their cool in a stressful situation prior to going into combat, don't you? 
Tom: So do all of concealed carry permit holders. 
Harry: I do not have a background in the military. So correct me if I'm wrong in assuming that the training required for a Conceal Carry permit in just about ANY state does not even begin to equal the training one would receive in ANY branch of the Military. I know it varies from state to state, but in Illinois (the first state whose specifics showed up in my Google search) the training requirement is 8 hours of firearm safety/marksmanship and 8 hours of instruction of how the Conceal Carry law works (when it's acceptable to carry, etc.).

Actually, Harry's assumption isn't unreasonable. Anyone watching movies (or just the news) may have the impression that all military personnel are well-honed killing machines, trained in esoteric forms of armed and unarmed combat. This isn't really true, although those folks do exist. Most jobs in the military are just jobs.

I was in the US Air Force. I was a radio electronics tech, but having been stationed overseas, I was required to undergo weapons qualification above that which was provided within the continental US. Keep in mind that I was not in a combat role, and received the equivalent of about a 1 day concealed weapons permit (CWP) class, centered around specific weapons that we would encounter. It was of far more interest to the USAF that I get through Basic Training to tech school and learn as much about radio electronics as humanly possible during my stay there.

In Basic Training I spent one afternoon at the firing range, where I was taught basic gun safety, how to load the weapon, and which end to hold and which to point. I fired at a target and had to hit it. While the military trains in firearm use and safety, it did not provide me with any of the additional training regarding civilian law that comes with a CWP. To be perfectly honest, unless you're in a combat role, CWP training is more extensive and practical. A military trainee would not know where he can or can't carry a gun, how it is properly concealed, or how it is properly stored outside of a military armory.

He does learn about who is or isn't a valid military target and has a weapons officer who ensures that the weapons are secured for him. In a seven-year military career I touched weapons only a few times: that one day in Basic Training, a refresher course before being sent overseas, and qualification training at RAF Croughton.

Of course, my experience is dated. We've fought a couple of wars since then. I'm sure things are dramatically different for those who are deployed today.

Harry was unskeptically accepting of that information, and I'm glad, because it's the truth. Those who are in combat roles are unquestionably among the most highly trained in the world at their primary job. But there are many, many people in support and non-combat roles who are given cursory weapons training because they need to be focused on becoming the most highly trained in the world at their primary jobs, be they radio repair or anything else.

Harry had a follow up question that I'd like to share, because it's a good one:
Harry: Thank you both for educating me on that. As a civilian, I guess I find that surprising. Of course, if it's not crucial to your job, I don't suppose firearm training is all that important. I admit that most of my information on what basic training is like comes from movies and from conversations with a few friend of mine who went through the marines. (and those are almost 25 year old conversations). Is it also incorrect for me to assume that all our servicemen are trained to function in highly stressful situations?

Here's my perspective: Actually, Basic Training itself is a "highly stressful situation" if you're not mentally prepared for it. As to whether it matches what you see in movies... well, that depends on the movie. If it's "Stripes", then not so much. But we got our identities stripped away to a certain extent with the buzz-cuts, uniformity of clothing, and the universally-shared name of "Airman". We got yelled at and made to do menial and sometimes nonsensical tasks without explanation. We were physically pushed to the limit of our physical condition every day. In my flight, I saw one recruit attempt to take his own life. I saw another one collapse and die on the track. But I personally was not stressed at all. There is nothing in Basic training that is particularly stressful if you are mentally prepared for it.

And that's really the purpose of such training. Mental preparation. Your identity is stripped down, and then built back up with less emphasis on yourself and more on teamwork. Your body is stressed to improve it. Your mind is stressed for similar reasons. You're given nonsense tasks to accustom you to following orders that may not make sense from your viewpoint because they are given by someone who has a broader strategic view. When such orders are given in the real world there isn't the luxury of educating the rank and file and getting their "buy in". That could get you killed, and we were aware of that.

At my duty station overseas we did regular week-long NATO drills. We were issued gas masks and chemical gear. Just going outside was not a task you underwent lightly, as your return indoors involved a long and drawn-out decontamination process. If you did go outside, you'd better have visited the bathroom first. We were not issued guns, but were given cards denoting who would have had guns if this were an actual incident. Scenarios included chemical attacks, bomb strikes, and mock invasions. One of the favorites was something we referred to as the "officer-seeking missile" or "NCO-seeking missile", in which those with the least experience were the only ones left "alive" to carry on the mission. Again, I didn't find these particularly stressful (they were actually kind of fun). As with Basic, the idea here is mental preparation, and you quickly learn that if you are willing to accept that unexpected things WILL happen, you don't freak out when they do. It's 90% in your head. If you're paying attention to life, you don't actually need a military education to come to that conclusion.

Outside of training, there were certain realities of life as a military member overseas that became routine that you might find strange. Such as, we were encouraged to vary our route to work daily, as well as check our cars before starting them. The IRA was still a "thing", and this was around the time that a car bomb was exploded on a runway in Beirut. Shortly after I returned home, I was preparing to drive my mother somewhere and by force of habit I checked the wheel-wells for bombs and cut brake lines. My mother asked me what I was doing. I didn't tell her, but I did laugh a little at myself and thought, "Oh, yeah... this is America."

Does that prepare someone for live fire? I can't tell you, because I've never been in a firefight. All I can say is that most training involved thinking about such things in advance. If you think about scenarios in advance, then you spend less time thinking about them when time is something you don't have. Every individual I know with a CWP spends a considerable amount of time outside of formal training thinking about how that weapon would be used if necessary. I wouldn't minimize the importance of doing that, or put them down for it, as it's completely responsible and makes them and the people around them much safer.

Where the conversation went from there is something that I'll have to save for a later post. I may scare you.

[1] If you're wondering where "Dick" is; in most any political discussion, *I* am the Dick.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

How to Suck at Atheism

or, "How to Out-Dogma a Fundamentalist"

Michael Schermer wrote an article for Scientific American called "Smart People Believe Weird Things". In it he reveals a study published Skeptic (Vol. 9, No. 3) that found no correlation between science knowledge (facts about the world) and paranormal beliefs. Note the title well. Belief in certain things does not make one stupid. And just as education by itself is no paranormal prophylactic, lack of belief in those same things does not make one smart, or educated.

So if you denounce as idiots those who possess "superstitious" beliefs simply because they believe, know that there is no scientific basis for that denunciation; and while you're crowing about your enlightenment, you may miss out on your own ignorance. I encountered a bit of fundamentally flawed thinking that needs to be shared for the benefit of those sheltered individuals who might believe that atheism automatically imbues one with intelligence, education, and/or rational thought.

It began with this particular story was shared on Facebook from The headline:
Arkansas pastor: If a woman thinks ‘she has the right over her own body… no, that’s not true’
It's accompanied by this video:

In general, as a former Journalism geek, I have limited respect for headline writers. Often a well-written, well-balanced article is subverted by a cherry-picked quote. In this case, I can't blame the headline editor any more than the writer, who cherry-picked this sermon.

It was shared on Facebook with this comment by "the Atheist":
"Another horrible, dangerous line of thinking that can only exist because of Religion. Praise be!"
And what followed was an already-in-progress long, semantic argument over the "misogyny" exhibited by this man and the "problem" (undefined by all participants) of his statement. What was being argued was whether this "misogyny" was because of or separate from his religion. While I'd like to think that this fundamental mis-reading of the material was purely a result of the poor writing, that turned out not to be the case. But before we look into that, let's pay attention to what this pastor is actually saying.

The Actual Message

This particular sermon is targeted at men and women alike. Abortion is one of the examples he uses, but he's using 1 Corinthians 6 to make a far broader claim. In the sermon he argues against gluttony, Internet pornography, and body modification as well. It is the headline that is focused on women, but this one example does not encompass the whole of the broader point that's being made. To say that it's "misogynistic", one must first allow that it's "misandric" in equal measure. That, of course, means it's neither, and simply treats people equally.

On theological grounds, I'd argue that Crawford's language is imprecise... that a more proper reading is that we are granted all of the rights due to a caretaker, and have a corresponding responsibility to be good stewards. "All things are lawful for me; but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful for me; but I will not be brought under the power of any." -- 1 Cor 6:12

However, to be clear, this sermon is not about abortion alone, nor is it about women. If it is "about" anything, it's a sermon against hypocrisy... what Jeff Crawford calls "theological dualism". It is about the idea that if you choose a religion, then you should choose also to live by its precepts. Crawford says quite a lot about what you choose to do ("you" being his parishioners), and not one word about forcing others to conform to your choices. This is made rather clear starting at around 1:56. This is a sermon specifically directed at Christians by a Christian pastor.

Whether you agree with his theology or not, if you wish to debate what Crawford says, intellectual integrity demands that you pay attention to the context. It's not merely easy to isolate a statement and debate what you wish it meant instead: it's lazy.

The Perceived Message

Pro-Life advocacy is the undefined "problem" referenced by the Atheist. Although he never says it outright, later statements made it clear that this is so, and other correspondents in the thread don't share his timidity.

I think it highly revealing that in the discussion, the only conclusion that anyone had drawn is that the motivation for such a stance is misogyny... hatred of women. No one considered that opposition to abortion may be motivated by a sincere desire to protect the life of a child. Instead, it was simply assumed to be hatred. At that point everyone there had stopped thinking, and never once considered that there may be a deeper motivation. It was as if they were mice who had found cheese, and thus never bothered to look for an exit to their maze. That's incredibly disappointing, as misogyny and religion need play no part in an anti-abortionist position. This is well-argued in this piece by Hemant Mehta:
Yes, There Are Pro-Life Atheists Out There. Here’s Why I’m One of Them
There are compelling Pro-Life arguments without religion. The fact that someone ascribes to religious reasons as well does nothing whatsoever to negate any of the secular arguments which they may also have. And the mere fact that someone offers a Pro-Life argument does not make them misogynistic. So if you want to debate that topic, you have a two-fold task. Flippant dismissal of a "religious fanatic" isn't going to cut it. You have to address all the other reasons, too.

And that could have formed the basis of a rather robust intellectual discussion. Sadly, it never got that far.

Atheism as Dogma...

One voice of reason pointed out to the Atheist that religion is neither the cause nor a guard against sociopathy. It simply gives focus to those problems an irrational person already possesses. Anything that a fundamentalist will do in the name of God may be done (and historically has been) by an atheist in the name of the State.

I agree entirely. Note carefully that his argument is not an appeal to hypocrisy. Rather, it's argued as an indication that sociopathy exists independently of religious conviction. When talking about the State, there is a direct equivalence with God. The State or the Collective is not an entity... it is an incorporeal abstraction that is omnipresent and has the power to dictate your thought and actions. When you give over to that, the result is identical in every respect to religious dogma.

There are many examples of atheistic practices that mirror those of religion. One that is particularly appropriate is that Communist China long had a "one child only" law that basically mirrors the assertion that a woman has no right to her body, substituting "the State" for "God".

Not only did China's "one child only" law mandate abortions, it was enforced by the state with armed arrests, forced procedures, and continued harassment. When listing the transgressions of Christians, you would be hard-pressed to find any as heinous as having a team of armed policemen break through a door, grab a woman, subdue her husband, drag her to a clinic and forcibly remove her unborn child against her will. Clearly, such "dangerous lines of thought" do not require religion.

NOTE: I know it's tempting to the atheist reader to denounce this as a "tu quoque fallacy". However, such a reader is advised to look at the application of the argument. Tu quoque ("you too") is fallacious when used as a means to deflect blame, as it's merely a way of saying, "this is right because you do it, too". That's not what I'm doing. When your argument is that you never do a thing, then it is a valid and devastating refutation to demonstrate that you do. Remember, the plainly stated argument is, "Another horrible, dangerous line of thinking that can only exist because of Religion." Examples to the contrary are not tu quoque: they are silver bullets.

This is an inversion of the "Hitchens Challenge", which we'll re-visit below. For now, know that there is no atrocity that can be done in the name of religion that cannot be done in the name of secularism.

Yet, despite such recent documented evidence of State ownership of individual bodies, the Atheist repeated the blatant falsehood that this very condition "can only exist because of religion". This is a case of hearing the evidence, making no attempt to refute it, but rather simply pretending it doesn't exist to make the same refuted claim over and over again as if repetition makes it true. Here's an actual example from the thread:
This has nothing to do with secular ideas! This is a guy saying you have no right over your own body because of GOD.
How is this unclear? You cannot use the argument of GOD without RELIGION.
There is nothing secular about this. It is about his preaching of GOD
As you can see, the response to a clear case of such a line of thinking existing without religion is to re-define the argument so as to claim that it's not the same line of thinking unless it includes god. If this looks a bit like frantic foot-stamping, that's because it is. This isn't a compilation: it was one response.

You should know that this was a response to a non-Christian. The last I asked, he was a Satanist. And this Satanist reasonably argued that religion is not the source of all evil, that it doesn't prevent people from performing altruistic acts; and that although there are some religious sociopaths, it doesn't follow that simply being religious makes one a sociopath.... and the Atheist would have none of it.

I pointed out that in painting with a broad brush, and claiming that there is nothing good in religion, he equally denounces Buddhists, Shintoists, Animists, Wiccans, Zoroastrians, and all manner of other spiritual folk beyond those he obviously targets (Those being "Christians", although he went to extraordinary lengths to avoid typing the word even once). I asked if that was his intent, and it was:
As for "painting a broad brush", that is always weak. First of all, it's very easy to tell exactly which specific religion this is about in context, but, yes, broadly speaking there is nothing good about any religion. However, that's a distraction from the point of the original post, which was "Hey, look at this really stupid and potentially unsafe thought process given to us by religious 'thought'." [emphasis added]
Actually, the original post was a fallacy brought on by a failure to move beyond a headline. And here it became clear that he really wasn't looking for a discussion. Rather, he was expectant of the "Ha, ha, silly Christians," response that one might get in an echo chamber. The fact that a Satanist and a Christian might agree that his reasoning is faulty wasn't anticipated in the slightest.

More importantly, If you're looking for something REALLY stupid and potentially unsafe, consider this:
"Everybody who doesn't think like me is dangerous" is the most dangerous line of thought in all of human history.  

...aaaaand Bigotry

Given the news that "there is nothing good about any religion", I had to ask the obvious question: "So what happens when a religion espouses the things that are secularly proclaimed to be good? They must actually be bad if you're correct. This claim leads to a ridiculous result, and is just sloppy thinking."

Um, the fact that the only good things religion can offer ARE offered by rational secular crowds kind of proves that religion offers nothing uniquely positive.
There is nothing good that religion can do that a lack of religion can't, and a lot of bad stuff -- like telling you that you don't have a right to your own body because of god -- that a secular crowd couldn't argue.

First of all, it's not a given that "the only good things religion can offer are offered by rational secular crowds". You don't get to just assert that... you have to demonstrate it, or at least argue it convincingly. Sadly, this Atheist isn't one to expend that kind of effort, and defining as "good things" only those things that secularism can offer just isn't convincing. It can simply mean that atheists are missing out on good things. Secondly, the one example he uses of something "that a secular crowd couldn't argue" has already been demonstrated to have been not merely argued, but put in practice by secularists for several decades. It's the Chinese "one child only" law that he continues to pretend can't exist.

In so pretending for the severalth time, it became clear that his argument was circular, and that it would never acquire more depth than "Religion is bad, religion is stupid." Why? "Because God." Reason need not apply. Logic need not apply. It was a textbook example of religious bigotry. And while I'm always up for a good argument, this bit of mindless tail-chasing was as far from that as it's possible to get, and I had much better things to do than waste my time arguing with a stump.

However, I could explain that until Hell freezes over.

Of course, he took my exit from his pointless hate-fest as a "concession".
It's not the first time he was wrong.

I did continue other aspects of the discussion with rational beings, as noted in my last post.

Hitchens Challenge

In the assertion I quote above, the Atheist is leaning on the "Hitchens Challenge", a task whose main power was in the reputation of its originator, famed atheist Christopher Hitchens. In fact, as I left, and shortly before he deleted the thread, the Atheist parroted Hitchens:
Name for me an act of good will that can be performed by a religious group that cannot be performed by a secular crowd. Something that makes religion morally necessary, not just a lateral step from something you can do with a secular organization.
I've seen it before, and it's actually a rather tiresome rhetorical device, but in reviewing my blog, I see I've never addressed it here. So here it is:

The "Hitchens Challenge" is most useful as a defense of atheism. Employed that way, it basically argues that it's not necessary for an atheist to adopt a religion, since one can act in a moral fashion without it. And in a religiously tolerant society that does not insist upon worship of the One True God as a moral imperative, that's quite good enough, so leave the atheist alone. At its best, it's a call for tolerance.

Here's another form of Hitchens' challenge, and a link to him posing it in a debate against his brother Peter:
"Name me a moral action performed or a moral action recommended or a moral statement made by a believer... name me one by a true believer (mumble)...  that could not have been made by a nonbeliever." -- Hitchens vs. Hitchens (YouTube)
The statement took many forms, sometimes being "ethical" rather than "moral", or as above, "an act of good will". But the challenge is useless we are talking about morality, as no one disputes that anyone can exhibit good will; and ethics, where it differs from morality, refers to mere conformity with established rules of conduct.

Note that the argument is actually useless as an attack against religion, as it's logically fallacious. Any moral argument that requires religious belief would not be recognized as moral by Hitchens (or any atheist who poses the challenge in Hitchens' stead), who places himself in the position of being the arbiter of what is a moral act. Therefore, there is no possible "acceptable" answer to the challenge. The faux challenge is offered to support an un-testable claim, which ironically removes it from the realm of that which is scientific. It is an obvious bit of sophistry that should be dropped from the repertoire of those who employ logic, as mere exposure destroys it.

But there is another answer that any atheist, assuming he has working wetware, should understand. This is to counter with a demand for any valid reason whatsoever to do so. Just as there are many governments in the world, and people tend toward those that they prefer, there are many philosophies in the world. If two philosophies yield similar results, then there is certainly no necessity to tear one down in favor of the other if it were not for sheer intolerance.

Take, for instance, a person such as myself... a Libertarian, who is content to ignore whatever beliefs you may have so long as your behavior conforms to the tolerant standards required by our Constitution. Incidentally, those Constitutional standards are in near conformance with half of the commandments incumbent upon Christians: "Love thy neighbor as thyself". And you know what? You don't even have to do that. Just treat others as you'd be treated, and everyone's satisfied. And if you don't comply with the other moral imperative ("Love God"), then that's between you and God.

And if you don't believe in God, then what possible business is it of yours whether I do, so long as I also conform to the same tolerant standards required of you? None whatsoever. So if you want me to waste my time playing a transparently rigged game based on blatantly bad logic, you first have to explain: to what end? An atheist who does not comprehend the invalidity of the Challenge must still prove its utility, and in a nation where religious freedom is defended and actual tolerance is taught, there is none.

The reason the Atheist is using this argument for attack is revealed in his opening statement: this is a "horrible, dangerous line of thinking". Of course, it's not the real line of thinking that he's upset with; it's his mental construction that stands in for it; and he doesn't target that, but the whole of religion that he irrationally blames for it; and he never reveals how it's more dangerous than the murder of innocents that he would have in its place... but hey! It's dangerous! Kill it!

There are those with whom I have substantive disagreements, and I'm happy to cordially disagree. In our democratic process, solutions and compromises may be reached that none of us are completely satisfied with, and I'm happy to conform to them as a citizen should. But this... it's nothing more than an intolerant refusal to consider another position, leading to lashing out at a boogeyman constructed in his own brain... and that's how to suck at atheism.

My position on abortion

In a Facebook thread which I'll detail a bit more of in my next post, I was asked the direct question: what is my position on abortion, and why?  Here was my answer, re-posted here for the benefit of the fellow who asked. The thread was deleted shortly afterwards.

I've actually posted my views elsewhere on this blog, but this was my answer today:


I've posted a link a couple of times already, but I'll do it again, as I think Hemant explains it quite well.
Yes, There Are Pro-Life Atheists Out There. Here’s Why I’m One of Them

My pro-life stance is informed by my religion, but is not dependent on it. In fact, numerous religious organizations are either pro-choice or defer the argument entirely, so I conclude that claims that "having religion" obligates one to pro-life are without merit. Rather, my religion and my reason are in concert, and I stand with the 19% of "true Scotsmen" atheists who identify as pro-life, and against the many pious individuals who don't.

Since I'm perfectly capable of accepting the existence of people on this planet who disagree with me, I have no problem with the fact that we disagree on this issue, as we do with many others. So the philosophical question is moot. My civic duty is to respect the legislative process. If you say you're in favor of abortion, then my response is, "Ok." If you were to tell me that your wife had a voluntary abortion, then my response (after wondering why you volunteered the information) would be to say, "Ok." The law allows it. But that doesn't mean I like it, or approve.

And that brings us to the political question, which is not so moot. We live under the laws made not by us, but by those we elect to make them. And when it's time to vote, I have to vote my conscience. I expect every voter to do the same, exercising his power with honesty. For my part, I choose to defend and side with those defenseless persons of complex emotions and thoughts who I do not see as mere potentialities, but as beings whose only fault is that they are in the earliest stages of their development. These are beings distinct from the mother in having their own unique DNA signature that they will carry throughout life. I feel that the most objective scientific conclusion is that, though they are hosted by the mother, they are most assuredly not "the mother's body".

I didn't invent the biology and can't control it, but know that we can control our own actions. To the extent that I'm pro-choice, I feel that those choices should be (and usually can be) made long before conception. I take an active part in those choices by not participating in the conception of lives I would not support. I do encourage contraception, but even more so I encourage some serious thought when it comes to picking your partners. Sex is a risky business, best left to those who have the fortitude to handle those risks. My two youngest children (twins) were unplanned. Yet they live. When force is involved the question is not so easy, so I would find exceptional abortions to be reasonable.

I realize that when YOU vote, you will most likely side with (who I see as) the not-nearly-so-defenseless parents, who very often choose not to be inconvenienced by a life that they had a not-insignificant hand in bringing into existence. I also recognize that you don't characterize your decisions this way and that there are far more factors involved, and that there are no easy answers to those who have considered the problem fairly. I trust that you're voting your own conscience, so I'm willing to live with the result, whether it goes "my way" or not. And I'm not going to jump down your throat and drag you down, however you vote on this issue, or however you feel about it, because you're as entitled to your opinion as I am to mine.

I will disagree with you, but not hate you.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Junk Science: No, Slime Mold Isn't Intelligent

I saw this on YouTube:

Anthony's Carboni's misleading comment here earns this video a coveted "Junk Science" badge from me. Why? Well, it's not for the science per se... it's due to his claim that the mold finds the shortest path between food sources, with "no wrong turns" in the maze. Now, that may simply be a poor choice of words, but in science education, words matter. As I explained in the comments,
"No wrong turns" is not how I would describe what I just saw in this video. The mold filled the maze and then retracted to leave a path with the smallest surface area once the goal had been found. In science it's important to be accurate in our observations before we start wondering if the behavior we observed is intelligent.

Here's WHY the choice of words matter. In response to this comment I was asked, "How do you know the mold filled the maze and then retracted?"

Ignoring the fact that I just said how I knew it in the paragraph above, I'll expound: I watched the video and paid attention to what I saw.

Freeze the video at :52 seconds. What do you see?

No wrong turns? BUSTED.

There are plenty of "wrong turns". The mold simply takes all paths at the same time. Now forward to 54 seconds. What do you see? 

The correct solution, by brute force approach.

A jump-cut to support Carboni's misleading statement "No wrong turns". In fact, the mold made no turns at all... it expanded outward to fill the available space, which happened to be maze-shaped. In computing, this is described as a brute-force approach. The mold's biology allows it to explore every path simultaneously, much like a program that spawns separate threads to explore every decision it must make. Brute force solutions are quick and accurate if you have the means to implement them, but they're pretty much the opposite of "intelligent".

But the question did make me look for another source to validate what my eyes told me here. Sure enough, more detailed descriptions reveal that this is exactly what happens. The mold expands outward, and as it retracts, it leaves behind slime. It "understands" absolutely nothing about its environment. It doesn't re-try used paths simply because slime mold won't grow on pre-existing slime. A bit more digging uncovered the original video, uncut and reasonably titled:

Note that in the actual experiment, the mold doesn't just expand to fill the space, it's deliberately placed by the researchers to fill the space before the experiment begins. This is a starting condition of the experiment. The original researchers do not interpret this as intelligence, and are very clear as to the mechanisms they think are being exercised. In Scientific American, however, Ferris Jabr accurately describes the behavior, but then proceeds to misinterpret it as intelligence. Fortunately, the headline writer almost got it right:
"How Brainless Slime Molds Redefine Intelligence"
Replace "Slime Molds" with "Reporters" and it's spot-on. In order to interpret this as intelligence, we have to redefine the word. It's not the mold that does that... it's the person reporting the findings. The further removed he is from the actual research, the more sensational the headline.

Again, we must be accurate in our observations before we start inferring intelligence. For instance, planets are not round because they "know" that a sphere is the most compact solid form. Nor does a meteor follow the most energy-efficient path to a planet's surface because it has the uncanny ability to compute such a path. They do these things because the laws of physics make them inevitable.

Likewise, if a body is amorphous (like a slime mold's) and needs to connect to as many food sources as possible, how could it not wind up tracing the shortest path between them? The mold isn't going to survive if it just spreads out and dries up. The nutrients must be disseminated throughout the organism, and in doing so efficiently, the organism is going to retract to the most economical shape. It cannot help but conform to the laws of physics and chemistry.

The fact that this solution is not intelligently arrived at doesn't mean we can't USE the phenomenon intelligently. But we don't have to imagine that it's something it's not while doing so.


The obvious and inevitable rebuttal to all of this is the assertion that we don't really know what "intelligence" is... so how can we say that what the mold is doing isn't intelligent?

That's actually pretty easy, particularly to anyone who's ever tried to program an artificial intelligence. Basically, I won't give a biological organism more slack than I'd give a machine when evaluating its intelligence.

When you look up "intelligence", you find a laundry list of attributes much more varied and broad than the few listed by Carboni, all joined with the conjunction "and". Intelligence is a lot of different abilities taken together. One of the reasons that a true artificial intelligence has not yet been created is that many of these things are extremely hard to implement without biology. And these same things are crucial to the development of intelligence. Biological organisms are bristling with sensory apparatus, even in a single-celled creature. Our computation and our chemistry are integrated in a way that is simply impossible to build into a computer. And it turns out that chemistry and physics naturally follow behaviors that are difficult to express mathematically. Because of this, when we see such behavior (as in the slime mold) we tend to jump the gun and conclude "intelligence!"

But while defining what intelligence is may be very difficult, that's not the problem at hand. It's not terribly difficult to point out something that's not intelligent. There are a vast array of machines and objects that do seemingly intelligent things without expending a thought. Nevertheless, we know that they're not intelligent, as the behavior they exhibit is produced "mechanically" (according to strict rules, be they physical, chemical, or software-modeled).

Some of these are obviously mechanical, such as the MONIAC computer, a water-powered analog computer that models the economy. Some are less obviously so, such as IBM's Watson computer that won Jeopardy! Siri, a chess program, or the ghosts in Pac-Man may appear to be intelligent: they're not. AIs that are designed to pass a Turing Test are deliberately structured to conceal their nature in order to 'game' the evaluation. That one may fool an examiner doesn't make it "intelligent" any more than a lifelike sculpture is an actual person.

Personally, I'd say the slime-mold's behavior is pretty obviously mechanical, as it behaves in exactly the fashion and using exactly the techniques that it would had it been artificially designed in a way that uses no decisions whatsoever to solve the problem. In other words, it's the solution that I would implement if I couldn't be bothered to design an AI. That's how I understood what it was doing at first glance.


Personally, I appreciate the artistry, but I'm too fond of the human body au naturale to ever consider modifying such a perfect work.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Myth of the Star Trek Economy

Seen shared on Facebook:

Source unknown. The quote, however, is from Captain Picard.
It was spoken to Ralph Offenhouse in the TNG episode,
 "The Neutral Zone"

My response is this: "Keep sayin' it until you believe it, Picard. And while we're waiting for that, explain how it is that Humanity is SO advanced that Voyager's crew gambled away their replicator rations (i.e. FOOD). Explain how it is that Quark managed to have a 'profitable' business on a Federation space station. Explain to the satisfaction of any intelligent, attentive listener exactly why it is they shouldn't laugh dismissively at the lie you just told."

Actually, that's the response I did make. And the retort was that Quark made profits because the writing on DS9 was bad; that "the Ferengi never made sense...why would they care about 'gold pressed latinum' if any replicator could make it by the tons out of toilet paper?"

Naturally, as explanations go, that one (the writing is bad) is completely unsatisfactory, as it is a meta-explanation that must resort to stepping out of the show's fictional setting. In other words, it's so bad that it can't be made within the scope of the show at all. How do you explain to someone "in universe" that he's "written badly"? An explanation must account for the things we see, which must take precedence over the things that are said. Where they differ, the person who's talking is mostly likely wrong.

Besides, the value of latinum as a currency was due to the fact that it could NOT be replicated, as confirmed by Memory Alpha.

Very little of what is said about Star Trek's post-scarcity economy jibes with what we actually see of the society in action. What we actually see is that when commodities grow abundant, the economy gravitates toward using as currency those things that remain scarce, such as the un-replicable "latinum" or artifically scarce rations. Far from outgrowing their "infancy", the people of that century go to extraordinary lengths to maintain it. Picard's statements would appear to be largely political propaganda.

While the Federation's citizens pay lip-service to the idea of there being "no money" by the 23rd century, and that phrases like "bought" and "sold" were simply "figures of speech", a closer inspection of their actions reveals that this simply isn't true. Some examples are collected at Memory Alpha so I don't need to reproduce them here. But notable is the fact that the list of exceptions to the Federation's "no money" economy is longer than the list supporting it.

Many of the missions of the Enterprise revolve around trade disputes and agreements. These would be unnecessary if everything could be had via a conversation with a replicator. Arguments that these "trades" are for the sake of maintaining relations fall flat: the moment the Federation revealed replicator technology, they would be exposed as manipulative liars, undermining the trust on which the relationship is founded. As it stands, no one really attempted to explain the transition from the Federation 'credit' of the original series to the supposed money-free society of the movies until the devaluation of the credit was featured in James Cawley's Star Trek: The New Voyages ("To Serve All My Days") as a problem that would have to be resolved.

I find the best solution to the conflicting statements is that replicator technology is an energy-hungry technology that is most practical on the small scale.  It provides only limited production capacity and requires extremely high energy availability. A space station or starship is a decidedly atypical closed environment which makes it unusually well-suited to the use of replicators (due to the absolute need for recycling and the surplus energy of matter/antimatter conversion. Our perception of the ubiquity of replicators is colored by the fact that all Star Trek series are based on and around space-based Starfleet locales. It's simply an example of a military technology that's not in widespread general use.

This explains why farming is still hugely important to Federation planets, as we've seen in episode after episode of the original series and its successors. It's why shipments of mutant triticale strains were vital to the survival of Sherman's Planet in "The Trouble With Tribbles" and "More Tribbles, More Troubles". It's why the first thing colonies would do is establish agriculture.

Outside of Starfleet and Federation government jobs, on the larger scale, trade is necessary. The agreements are as important as they are portrayed. And we know that people still engage in commerce, because we see them do it. But the lack of an accurate description of these facts points to the fact that it's not the Ferengi who are poorly written, but the Federation. But again, that's a meta-explanation. Staying inside the narrative allows us to infer quite a lot about the politics of the Federation... a politic that is merely hinted at, but which reveals the "post-scarcity economy" to be a political mantra. Picard is simply one of those loyal Party members who repeats it.

It would not be the first time that an ideological narrative failed to jibe with reality.  For instance, here in the United States we still proudly proclaim ourselves to be "The Land of the Free" though we are not the freest nation in terms of economy, or even in terms of Liberty. We imprison more of our citizens per capita than any nation on Earth. But we are "The Land of the Free".  Wink, wink.

I'm from a rather large "fused family". There are eight of us siblings and step-siblings. One of my sisters is what both of us would describe as a "tree-hugger". When I say it, I mean it as distinct from a conservationist. A conservationist takes personal responsibility for the environment. A "tree-hugger" would impose obligations on others that they don't necessarily follow themselves. A "tree-hugger" is in it out of emotion: he's just fine with cutting down a small forest to build a "natural" log cabin so as to be in touch with the environment; but would decry industrial foresting, even though it is plainly well-managed and renewable. Industrial farming is decried as bad, but Heaven forbid we should consider the environmental devastation if the Earth's seven billions all attempted to live off the land individually. I mention these things because they're examples of holding two diametrically opposed ideas in one's head at the same time... which is exactly what Starfleet officers do when describing their economy.

Another example: that same sister would not eat meat that had been raised on our farm. Now, keep in mind that we raised the animals specifically to eat them, to be more self-sustaining, and to be closer to the source of production. Nevertheless, it was morally abhorrent to her to eat an animal that she had "known" (even though she never actually worked the farm, and her "knowledge" was theoretical at best). But it was perfectly OK in her mind to serve meat that had been purchased from a butcher. It is impossible to get from her a clear answer as to why the industrial harvesting of trees is atrocious, but the industrial slaughter of animals is acceptable... until you use the words "industrial slaughter", at which point it's a tragedy until the next meal. She simply doesn't accept that there's a conflict, and will not consider the proposition. Two competing philosophies reside in her head, and they've never met one another.

In the future of Star Trek such doublethink is par for the course, just as it's par for the course for the Star Trek fans of today. A friend of mine once claimed that she loves the 'fact' that in Star Trek everyone's vegan. When I asked where she got that idea, she responded that Riker said so outright. Here's the quote:

Note that it's not what he actually said. People do eat meat, but it's artificially produced. (Actually, he said it was "inorganically materialized", but scientifically speaking, that's nonsense. Organic molecules are those complex molecules that contain carbon, whether they're in a living thing or not.) Remember, replicated matter is the real thing. They're the same molecules; they've just never been alive. But aside from that, note that it's completely acceptable to Riker to serve up live animals to those who require it.

And here's that same Commander Riker loading up on Klingon delicacies, including gagh (which properly should have been alive). Clearly, these folks will eat whatever's put in front of them; and preferentially, too, as a matter of practice. The scarcity of meat on a starship's table would seem to be less a matter of ideology than preference:

It takes quite a bit of selective attention to interpret any of this as 'veganism'. Under similar circumstances, a Vulcan would have stuck to vegetables. Nevertheless, people see what they want to see. My friend maintains that the humans of Star Trek are vegans, though it's plain to see that they will readily eat meat.

The record of meat on Federation tables extends before and after the Next Generation. Starships of Kirk's day had a galley, and he once ordered the cook to make sure their Thanksgiving meatloaf looked like turkey ("Charlie X"). Kirk would have enjoyed a chicken sandwich had it not been eaten by a tribble ("The Trouble with Tribbles"). Miles O'Brien stated that his mother used real meat when cooking ("Lonely Among Us"). Sisko's Creole Restaurant served up authentic seafood ("Homefront"). In point of fact, Riker's "no longer enslave" claim could easily be interpreted as preferring free range meat. Obviously, the circumstances of living aboard a starship would make this impractical. And even that doesn't stop the Bringloidi colony from bringing farm animals aboard as they were being relocated in the episode "Up the Long Ladder".

Whatever the truth of the Federation economy (and diet), one thing is clear: 'Hoo-mans' are rarely honest about themselves, even when speaking amongst themselves, whether in the 23rd century or the present. For a show that is renowned for hiding pithy social commentary about contemporary issues within its storylines, this unintentional running gag is perhaps the most damning social commentary of them all.