Sunday, April 16, 2017

Twelve arguments in favor of speciesism

In the wake of my last post, I found this blog entry by Stijn Bruers, the self-styled "rational ethicist". It's called "Ten arguments against speciesism". In it he states,
In this article I will show that the human species is not a morally relevant criterion for rights and that giving humans a higher moral status than non-human sentient beings is a kind of immoral discrimination.
Note that he's set himself a rather high bar. He aims to prove that not only do animals have rights, but they have exactly the same rights as do human beings. Regardless of any victory conditions he chooses to set, in normal practice one only need to show that animal rights are non-equivalent to human rights in order to rebut his conclusions. I know he wouldn't agree with that, but that's because he's wrong at least eleven times over, as you'll see.

But he does then go on to set victory conditions as follows: A speciesist who still wants to eat or use animals and animal products must first agree to his conditions (implied by the non-negotiable nature of the conditions). Then he must provide 12 arguments... one for each of his 10 arguments, plus one to rebut the conclusion of his first five arguments, plus one to rebut the conclusion of his second five arguments. In order to accept these terms you must also accept the implicit condition that if every single rationale for his conclusions are rebutted, then the conclusions themselves remain and must be rebutted separately.

I strongly question the use of the word "rational" on his blog, as he exhibits some severe difficulty with that concept. In logic, your conclusions are not valid if your premises are dismissed. They are, rather, unfounded, and do not need a separate rebuttal.

I also note that Bruers offers a 12 thousand euro "reward" for such rebuttals. Obviously there is roughly a 0.00000000000% chance of this being paid out, as the arguments must be "valid" as determined, not by an impartial judge, but by Bruers himself. An actual ethicist would not make such an offer. His ethics would forbid it. Lacking the ethics to make a serious offer, I do not expect him to make a serious judgement. Thus, I'm not writing this for his fictitious "reward", but for the sheer fun of it.

Failure to comply apparently results in getting called names. So be it.

I'll reproduce only as much of his arguments as is necessary to identify them. They're all on his blog. Make your browser work.


Replies to five arguments against the species boundary
1) The biological species boundary is arbitrary... 
Answer: Bullshit. The only thing that is arbitrary is what they are called. In principle, two members of a species can procreate, and we extend the definition to the issue of such union (to remove actual procreation as a requirement). In practice, it is enforced by nature, not human law, reason, or ethics. The boundary between extremely similar species maybe as fuzzy as the coastline of a landmass, but it is a fool who would argue that the tides render the coast nonexistent.

But nothing in Bruers' opening argument disavows that there are separate species; rather, Bruers merely argues against the way they are classified, and thus his argument summarily fails.
2) The biological definition of species is very complicated and too artificial and farfetched to be used in a moral system...
Answer: Bullshit. See above. Bruers' lack of imagination doesn't make it complicated. A wrist has no well-defined boundary; and this does not render anatomy "too artificial and farfetched" to be studied. See also the answer to argument #4, as Bruers' preference for well-defined boundaries did not lead him to make well-defined arguments.

Bruer's "ring species" example is merely a re-statement that a species boundary can be fuzzy where there are similar species; and illustrates the further observation, unnoticed by Bruers, that it nonetheless becomes distinct given a broad-enough boundary. It is, therefore, a re-statement of Argument #1, and Bruers has failed to give five arguments as promised.

Also, Bruers displays the logical fallacy of moving the goalposts. Bruers begins with a challenge stating that he will show that there is moral equivalence between humans and non-humans. This pre-supposes that there are non-humans. It is stated in the challenge itself. Failure to adhere to that supposition means that this argument summarily fails.
3) There is a potential fuzzy boundary: it is not unlikely that a human-chimpansee hybrid (humanzee or chuman) can be born.
Answer: Not if speciesists retain control. And as this is an argument of ethics, it must be pointed out that such a hybrid can only be bred through unethical behavior. This is unethical if for no other reason than a chimpanzee lacks the cognitive ability to make an informed and rational decision about the matter, its risks, and the potential consequences for the offspring. A human would have to force the union. This is rape.

Also, Bruers has some problems with definition. He says, "A chimera is an individual composed of genetically distinct cells that originate from human and animal zygotes." False. A chimera is merely an individual composed of genetically distinct cells. This does not require that they originate from human and animal zygotes. Nor does it require human genes at all. Most chimeras are same-species, and are formed naturally in the womb of the mother, as with fused eggs, or when cells of one embryo are absorbed into the body of a twin or the mother (a condition known as microchimerism). There are other situations where microchimerism can result, such as any viral infection or individual parasitic cells. But a person with a cold is never called a chimera, though he may meet the strictest definition. But more importantly, Bruers attempts to extend boundary cases to form policy for a much larger pool of standard cases. It is neither rational nor ethical to do so, and it certainly isn't "fair" to paint all beings with the same brush. Rather, it is a matter for judgement.
4) The species boundary refers to genes or appearance, and these are not morally relevant, because racism and sexism where also based on genes or appearances.
Answer: Bullshit.  Here, Bruers again simply re-states argument #1, which is already rebutted. He again charges that species boundaries are irrelevant, this time by "zooming in" on the genome to more subtle differences. Well, why stop there? Every individual is genetically distinct. That doesn't make every individual a unique species, nor does it invalidate that species exist, which -- again -- is pre-supposed by his challenge.

Furthermore, Bruers once again has a problem with definition. Racism and sexism can be based on genes or appearances, but are not necessarily so. Racism has often been historically practiced by genetically indistinct groups, such as the English and the Irish. In modern times, sexism is often not a matter of genetics, but of behavior.

Also, this argument contains the logical fallacies of false equivalence; of non-sequitur; as well as that of moving the goalposts. The scope of this argument is not that of racism. Bruers is merely arguing outside of the subject that he initially established. Also note that as this is merely another continuation of argument #1, Bruers has failed to deliver five arguments as promised.
5) Belonging to a certain species instead of another is not something that we could choose, it is not something we achieved, it is beyond our responsibility, so we should not be rewarded for that. We do not deserve special treatment by having some genes. 
Answer: Bullshit. You might as well say you shouldn't be rewarded for having eyes by not bumping into walls. Remember, if you take Bruers' position and accept that there is no moral difference between Man and animals, you must of necessity hold all animals to the same moral standards as Man. Otherwise "you discriminate and you open the door for partiality, opportunism and inconsistency in your ethics."

You must therefore conclude that it is immoral for wolves to eat rabbits, for birds and bats to fly, for mammals to breathe air when fish can't, or any number of things that various species "do not deserve" as "special treatment" for "having some genes".

The entirety of this argument is absurd. More than absurd; laughable.

Survival of the fittest is not a reward, it's an achievement.

Summary of the first set

In summary, not one of Bruers' three arguments are valid. All contain logical inconsistencies and fallacies. One is only achievable through rape, and is therefore not an argument against speciesism, but rather in favor of it. The last is ludicrous and blatantly unethical, as it denies a species the freedom to exercise the powers granted it by its biology. It is therefore also unethical and argues in favor of speciesism. The fact that two of these three arguments are actually in favor of speciesism is completely overlooked by Bruers, and therefore constitutes an argument for speciesism in its own right.


Five arguments in favor of sentience

NOTE: The author doesn't offer a definition of sentience, and the American sci-fi fan might, through its common usage, conclude that it means "intelligence". It does not. It merely means the ability to feel, or suffer; as contrasted with rationality (the ability to reason). The five "arguments in favor of sentience" do not therefore have anything to do with the actual consumption of animals. They only argue against the inflicting of suffering, and are summarily dismissed as a group with a single argument that if animals are dispatched humanely, then all five arguments are completely irrelevant. Nevertheless, let's look at them individually.
1) Welfare ethics (consequentialism) and fairness ethics (contractualism).
Here Bruers argues that impartiality is important, and therefore you should not discriminate between the things that matter to you and the things that matter to any other sentient being.

Let's consider for a moment a court of law, where a judge and jury are expected to be impartial. Their impartiality does not require turning a blind eye to the evidence presented or the circumstances of the litigants. Quite the opposite, in fact. Impartiality allows us to prudently judge the relative value of those "things" that matter to the litigants. This is discriminating in the sense of "good judgement". Impartiality does not require that no one wins, nor does it require that everyone wins.

Bruers improperly assumes that the principle of impartiality be applied equally to disparate beings, even though impartiality is a concept devised by humans to apply among peers. There is no evidence offered that impartiality is practiced as a principle anywhere else in the animal kingdom as it logically must be if in fact animals share exactly the same rights as human beings.

Furthermore, he fails to demonstrate or provide any evidence that animals are peers of humankind.

Furthermore, his argument for sentience here is not evidence-based... it is an emotional appeal based on the mere existence of sentience, without regard to its quality.

Furthermore, as we will see in Arguments #2 and #4, below, Bruers fails to offer evidence that it is sentience and not some other aspect of consciousness that we should value.

Furthermore, this argument is sufficiently indistinct from the other two that Bruers fails to provide five arguments as promised.

Therefore, Bruers' first argument fails.
2) Virtue ethics and ethics of care.
Here Bruers argues that if you were non-sentient, how you are treated would not matter to you, because nothing done to you will influence your well-being. This is an obviously false premise, as a non-sentient thing ceases "to be" every bit as much as a as a sentient being should it be eaten or otherwise destroyed. But despite his use of the verb "being", I suspect that he is not using it to describe "existence", but rather "being-ness", which he unfortunately fails to define.

So while we're imagining, with the advent of computers and artificial intelligence we can easily imagine the existence of an intelligence that is rational and nonetheless non-sentient. Bruers describes such a non-sentient as a "thing", even though it may independently conclude "cogito, ergo sum" while still lacking the capacity to "feel". Such an intelligence would certainly have "being-ness" however it might be defined, and its "well-being", or proper functioning, would matter to it, even though it does not "feel" as would a sentient.

As Bruers' argument depends on a criteria that we can now see is not uniquely linked to sentience, his argument fails.
3) Rights ethics (deontologism).
Bruers fails to consider that all rights may not be equivalent. One can respect rights while understanding that there can be a hierarchy of rights. This is often seen in human society in discussions of such rights as free speech vs. safety or privacy vs. security.

Bruers also fails to consider the responsibilities that accompany rights. Accepting for argument that a hawk and a rabbit have a right to life, they each have a responsibility to defend that right to the best of their abilities. The hawk does so by hunting for sustenance; the rabbit does so by fleeing from the hawk. That the rabbit has a right to life does not place an onus on the hawk to defend it. Likewise, if should we accept that humans have exactly the same rights as do animals (as per contract), this alone does not place upon humans any onus to defend the rights of those animals for them.

Humans are also predators, and should reasonably have the same rights as the hawk. In practice, humans are unsurprisingly more humane than the hawk in their predation.

Bruers' argument therefore fails.
4) Ethics of respect and awe.
This argument focuses on "mental capacities such as consciousness", and not on sentience as promised. There are aspects of consciousness distinct from sentience. Bruers thus fails to deliver five arguments in favor of sentience.

He argues that we should protect and respect entities that have vulnerable and complex mental capacities. While I don't disagree in principle, nowhere does he provide evidence that sentience is a particularly vulnerable or complex mental capacity. I'll quote from Wikipedia for you here, because it is particularly concise:
In the philosophy of consciousness, sentience can refer to the ability of any entity to have subjective perceptual experiences, or as some philosophers refer to them, "qualia". This is distinct from other aspects of the mind and consciousness, such as creativity, intelligence, sapience, self-awareness, and intentionality (the ability to have thoughts about something). Sentience is a minimalistic way of defining consciousness, which otherwise commonly collectively describes sentience plus other characteristics of the mind.
Note that sentience is the minimalistic way of defining consciousness, and is far more "fuzzy" than any of the genetic criteria Bruers argues against above. But where Bruers dislikes fuzziness in the one case, he embraces it here. Clearly, he has opened the door for "partiality, opportunism and inconsistency" in his ethics.

Genetics is sufficiently distinct that you know at a glance one bird from another, or a bird from a bat, or horse. Sentience is sufficiently indistinct that scientists still conduct serious experiments to see whether it is possessed by plants. In its most minimal form it may be indistinguishable from programmed action toward survival. We really don't know because we have no experiment capable of determining the difference. To truly devise such an experiment we would first need to know what sentience is, and the honest researcher allows that we don't.

Here Bruers also offers a thought experiment in which a man is transformed into a non-human animal, losing some physical properties and genes and gaining others, as if the loss and gain were in equal proportion. This is not in evidence, so even at this point the thought experiment fails to demonstrate his premise. He then offers that "if a sentient being turns into a non-sentient being, he loses something valuable and does not gain anything in return." I'm glad he uses the word "being" here. In Argument #2 we saw that it is possible to have reason without sentience, and that such an intelligence is a "being". We can thus imagine being turned into an intelligent robot having all of our memories and recollections. We would give up sentience, sacrificing none of our creativity, intelligence, sapience, self-awareness, and intentionality, but would gain immortality. Furthermore, given intelligence and memory, one could comprehend emotion on an intellectual level though one lacks it for one's self. Contrast that with being turned into a mouse, retaining your sentience but losing the capacity for human reason. What is the greater sacrifice? Is immortality nothing?

Bruer's argument is insufficient to demonstrate that it is sentience, rather than some other aspect of consciousness, that is to be most respected and awed. He does not even demonstrate that whatever quality he's looking for is not uniquely possessed by human beings. Thus this argument fails.
5) The argument from marginal cases (Dombrowski, 1997, Babies and beasts).
This argument is dependent upon intuition, and is thus not an argument at all, but a mere appeal to emotion. In my very first response, I state, "In principle, two members of a species can procreate, and we extend the definition to the issue of such union." This alone is sufficient to cover the marginal cases that Bruers describes. An appeal to emotion is unnecessary, is easily cut by Occam's Razor, and thus his argument fails.

Summary of the second set

In summary, none of Bruers' arguments in favor of sentience succeed. In his own closing arguments he again conflates sentience and consciousness, as he does in the above arguments. He fails to show that the quality of sentience is consistent among beings or that any perceived qualitative differences do not matter. He fails to show that animal rights are equivalent to human rights to an extent where it is immoral for any animal to ingest any other. He fails to show that if animals rights were equivalent to human rights... or inverting the argument, that humans have no more rights than any other animal, that humans alone should be denied predation even though it is broadly practiced throughout the remainder of the animal kingdom.

Furthermore, Bruers fails to show that it is sentience and not any other aspect of consciousness, such as creativity, intelligence, sapience, self-awareness, and intentionality, that should determine whether conscious beings should be treated as peers.

It is commonly agreed that one should be against the unnecessary infliction of suffering, but this alone has no impact on any of the other arguments, nor does it invalidate the humane dispatch of animals used for food.  It is also commonly agreed that it is better to treat animals humanely than not, and to show respect for the environment and ecosystem in general. However, this does not require any acknowledgement that animals have the same rights as human beings. It is sufficient to allow that it is advantageous to humans to maintain a diverse and robust ecology, and to exist in a clean and pleasant environment; and that for their own well-being, humans prefer not to see animals suffer.

As many animals have grown dependent on humankind, the "unnecessary infliction of suffering" necessitates that we harvest and/or use certain animal products. Certain sheep, for example, grow much more wool than they can sustain... as much as 30 pounds from one sheep per year. To reduce their suffering, we shear them.  Silkworms are physically incapable of reproducing in the wild. The wings of the adults are vestigial. They are entirely dependent upon humans for reproduction, and we harvest and use silk (an animal product) in return. Chickens lay eggs even when they're not fertilized. Non-fertilized eggs have exactly zero chance of hatching, and they are laid like clockwork. Given these and other examples, Bruers' proscription against animal products without qualification therefore has no rational ethical foundation. Even in the eating of eggs there is neither harm nor benefit to the animal or its progeny.

The human boundary is a morally relevant boundary for the "moral community" (whatever that may be) in that of all the species on the planet, only humanity has demonstrated any ability to rationally discuss the point. If one truly allows that all creatures are equal, then to say the least it is hypocritical (!) and offensively condescending (!!) to "hu-mansplain" their needs. It is only when they are not equal that crusaders such as Bruers feel compelled to self-righteously act on their behalf. The fact that he as done so demonstrates the point quite well. Such a demonstration is worth many pages of "proof".

Bruers has miserably failed to show that sentience is a valid competing morally relevant criterion. It's somewhat nonsensical for him to demand that someone disprove something that is not shown to exist. In fact, it's yet another logical fallacy... that of "proving a negative". What I have shown above, however, is that whatever reasons he had for arguing in favor of sentience are invalid, and that there are other competing morally relevant criteria which may be of higher value. That will have to do, until Bruers himself divides three by zero and returns the result to 15 decimal places.

Now I'm going to have a nice, juicy, delicious hamburger.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Furred Reich

OK, so the news got weird. Let's look at The Daily Mail (I'm firing their headline writer and going with a spelling-corrected URL instead):


For those who live under a rock, "Furries" are people who dress up in anthropomorphic animal costumes. Some are fetishists, some are just having fun. The Daily Mail piece chronicles the cancellation of the Rocky Mountain Fur Con, a convention of these like-minded individuals.

Did I say "like-minded"? My bad. It turns out that some of them have exactly zero sense of humor, despite having a penchant for dressing up in silly animal suits. The target of their ire is one "Foxler Nightfire", whom they claim espouses Nazism. And here is their proof:

via Foxler Nightfire

See what he's wearing there? Obviously that is a swastika and not a paw print.

Well that's what I heard.  I guess you have to squint to see it.

So equally obviously, the dude in the suit must be some kind of intolerant supremacist.

There are a few problems with that:

  1. His name, "Foxler", has nothing to do with Hitler. It's a portmanteau of "Fox" (well, look at him) and his real last name, "Miller".
  2. The paw print is adopted from his gameplay in Second Life. The armband is a character accessory there.
  3. Under the fur, he's half-Thai and half-German.
  4. He has a Black boyfriend.
  5. The armbands come in a dazzling array of "inclusive" colors.


And though The Daily Mail display these images gleaned from Facebook and Twitter, they show a puzzling (tic) reticence about explaining them with the above facts. Instead, they're just posted without context. Maybe the Mail felt no context was needed: Nazis is craaaazy, man.

So are many furries. For instance, although Foxler says he would never sleep with a Black man, he does exactly that. But Foxler's boyfriend is not a Black man, see, because he's really a Blue Wolf. And when Foxler says he wouldn't sleep with a man, he means human. Which his boyfriend obviously isn't. This has nutcase written all over it, but it's a harmless sort of nutcase that you just smile and nod at. And those armbands... though they started out with no particular political baggage, when people started branding Foxler as a Nazi, he tried his hand at trolling actual Nazis to see how they'd react. I imagine they didn't react any better than the alt-Right, which has disavowed the "alt-Furries".


Furries are more politically diverse than their convention organizers believe, as this New Statesman piece describes.

Foxler himself is a founding member of the Furry Raiders, a group whose stated purpose is to "help improve the Furry Fandom by providing resources and services so everyone has equal opportunity". I got that from their WikiFur page. Good Lord in Heaven, there's a Wikifur. Their website and activities seem completely in line with that goal. The point is that you're never going to make a convincing case that this particular harmless lunatic is a Neo-Nazi, no matter what he might have trolled on the web.

But let's not let facts stand in the way of some old-fashioned Outrage, shall we?

Furry Raiders, being a large block of furries and desirous of attending the 2017 convention, reserved a large block of rooms for said con. That should be unsurprising to anyone. Now, while The Daily Mail quotes Zachary Brooks, the head of Fur Con, as saying that this was a "power grab"; to casual observers it certainly looks as though the Furry Raiders simply got off their tails and planned ahead. And though the organizers claimed that the Raiders refused to release any of those reservations, in fact they did, beginning with a block of 25 rooms, and more, as cancellations were made. But they wouldn't give up the reservations they had made for themselves any more than you would.

Chairman Sorin's statement.
Click to enlarge.
SJWs in the community decided to make known their vigilante predilections. The "Nazis" wearing pawprints at the 2017 Rocky Mountain Fur Con would get beat up.  See, the "tolerant" people were going to physically attack the "intolerant" people . Because that's how "tolerance" works today. And then, of course, others responded that they'd defend themselves, and the whole thing went to shit, with everybody accusing everybody else of the most hateful things they could dredge up.

It ended with the chairman of the event posting a message saying that the Furry Raiders have started to promote intolerance within the furry community, and canceled the event. Click on the image to read it.

Although the Raiders were accused of intolerance, it's clear from every news story that the initial threats of violence were made by the "tolerant" Righteous Left, with whom you apparently can't share a hobby unless you share a political belief.

And that's the least surprising thing about this whole "tail" of woe.

The DNC is right.

I had hoped to be moving away from political posts, but alas, there's this, from The Guardian:

by Jamie Peck

And my initial thought was, "So what? They're not Democrats!"

But it then occurred to me that many people, friends of mine included, might be confused by the fact that these candidates say they're Democrats and they put "(D)" after their names. Then again, many of these same friends of mine also believe that a person can become a gazebo by saying he's a gazebo. In other words, they have some trouble aligning identity with reality.

So it's worth pointing out what a "Bernie Sanders-style candidate" is.

Until the last election -- 2016, folks -- Bernie Sanders was an independent. He became a Democrat for expediency and because the Democrats had deep enough pockets to support him.  But he said at the outset that despite the branding, he would continue to identify as an independent. And the Democrats accepted him because they needed meaningful primaries to give Hillary Clinton some street cred for the general election, not because they ever had any intention of allowing him to succeed. (In practice, the DNC proved this by gaming the primary rules in favor of Clinton.)

In a philosophical sense, Bernie Sanders is a Socialist. Until he got his name out there, there wasn't much political benefit in actually calling yourself a Socialist (hence, "Independent"), but he's a Socialist just the same. Having saddled themselves with a Socialist candidate, many Democrats began the wiggling and the twisting and the spinning and the picking of nits to clarify whether he's a "Democratic Socialist" or a "Social Democrat", etc., but in doing so they disagree with what Sanders says about himself. He's a Socialist and makes no bones about it. The nit-pickers backing him are the ones who are apologetic, not Bernie.

Some sophists have declared that Sanders is not a Socialist in the sense of the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Where "true" Socialists would have the government actually own industry, Sanders does not. These folks overlook the fact that Sanders is also not an idiot, and has a strong streak of pragmatism. It is the difference between philosophy and what is possible. To use a football analogy, rather than seeking a touchdown in one play, Sanders is advancing the ball. One cannot win an election in the United States by stealing companies from their stockholders (all of whom are voters). So Sanders would have the government own industry in everything but name. It's a matter of who has the control, rather than whose name is on the deed, but the end is the same. It has little to do with Democracy, and everything to do with populism. When you call him "Welfarist" rather than "Socialist", you're just playing with labels.
"Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word, equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude." - Alexis de Tocqueville
But something you should know about the Democratic Party is that, although they would regulate business, they would leave it at that. By and large, they still believe in a free market economy and robust competition. The Democratic party is not historically Socialist. Certainly not in the way that Sanders is... he has no love for the free market. And Sanders has never aligned himself with the Democrats because he shares their beliefs. While he does share the tribal goal of denying Republicans success, his stated goal is to reform the Democratic Party into something more akin to himself.

Among the rank and file, he's had some success. But the DNC is not the rank and file. And though it may not be clear to the masses, the Party is properly something you join... it's not something that joins you.

So when the DNC is faced with "Democratic" candidates who are Democrats in name only, and who, if given the reins, would change the direction of the Party away from their traditional values, should they finance their own demise? Really?  I don't think so. I think they're right to deny funding to usurpers.

I also think that those who would reshape the Party are better served by adopting honesty as a policy, and declaring themselves for what they are. If you're going to be a Socialist, then by God, be a Socialist. Of course, in party politics it's never truly about honesty, it's about "winning", where "winning" is defined as "gaining control". There is a compelling argument to be made that, by lying about their true intentions to pick the DNC's own pockets in order to destroy them through "reform", the Socialists are being as "honest" and true to their own nature as can be reasonably expected.



The author has some experience in honestly embracing his political philosophy, as he switched his affiliation from the Repubican Party to the Libertarian following the realization that right-wing hypocrites and left-wing hypocrites are both hypocrites.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything

Seen on Facebook and the Web:

In the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the supercomputer Deep Thought is built by a race of hyper-intelligent alien beings to determine the answer to "life, the universe, and everything." Deep Thought determines that the answer is, somewhat anticlimactically, "42". It sounds like a joke, but is there more to this answer? Douglas Adams was an unabashed computer nerd and knew a heck of a lot about programming language and coding. In programming, an asterisk is commonly used to translate as "whatever you want it to be". In ASCII language, the most basic computer software, "42" is the designation for an asterisk. A computer, Deep Thought, was asked what the true meaning of life was. It answered as a computer would. 42 = "anything you want it to be." Genius.

I tracked this down for you. It came from "15 Fan Theories that will change the way you see these movies." on ViralThread.  And it's pretty cute. But it's pretty obvious that it wasn't written by someone who was a computer nerd himself. Or a Douglas Adams geek, for that matter. Those who are both would refine it, I think.

To start with, ASCII's not a language, and it's really not software. It's a way of representing data. That pedantry aside, "anything you want it to be" is a terribly imprecise translation for a coder. I'd go so far as to say it's just wrong.

If we want to designate "any value you want" in programming, we use a variable, and speak of such things as "n dimensions". Here's a good example: [LINK].

But ASCII 42 (the "asterisk" or "star") isn't a variable. Rather, it is commonly known as a wildcard character. It has nothing to do with what you want and absolutely everything to do with what exists. It more literally (and quite precisely) indicates that what you see returned is "all there is." To be exact, it matches 0 or more characters in a string (such as a filename) while expressing no preference for what those characters might be. For instance, in Unix, saying "cp * /dest" will copy everything from the current directory into a directory called "dest". And if there's nothing there, it copies nothing. But it won't create files for you just because you want them.  I stress that it can't be something that isn't already there.

In short, ASCII 42 by itself is a way of representing "everything that exists".

Douglas Adams
Douglas Adams was a self-described "radical atheist" (he so labeled himself to stress that he wasn't agnostic. Rather, he was firmly convinced that God does not exist), and this wildcard interpretation is far more in keeping with his own philosophy. He'd put the sort of Chopra-esque metaphysical message as the opening quote right out in the open and lampoon it. I certainly don't think he would hide it as a deep message in his work. Rather, every word he wrote illustrated the absurdity of life. And he wasn't coy about it. That's also reflected in personal interviews.

It was brilliant, yes, even if were accidentally so... but in a much different way than indicated at the top of this article. Were I to put it in English, I'd say, "This is it, folks. What you see is what you get."

And to be sure... Adams would not have blocked any attempt you made to examine the Universe you find yourself in, and try to find meaning in what you see. But he's been known to portray those who do so as scientists who became their own laboratory mice. Meaning? Puh-leeze. Look around.
"I want the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything."
"42."
The answer makes sense now, right?

It's time to think about the question.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Iron Fist.... without blinders.


 Spoilers ahead. If you care about spoilers, go away. 

I've been binge-watching Iron Fist on Netflix. Before I began I read a few reviews on the web, and they all were of an accord that this series sucks.

I like it. I can't agree with any of the reviews I've read. Then again, all of those reviews are filled with words like "mansplaining", "White savior", and "cultural appropriation". As far as I can tell, not one of them has actually reviewed the show itself. At least, they didn't see the show I did. So this isn't as much a review of the show as it is a review of the reviews.

Take arguments like this, from the Verge, entitled "Iron Fist isn't just racially uncomfortable, it's also a boring show", which is pretty typical. So typical, in fact, that every review I've read could have come from the same pen:
"In the first episode, Danny breaks into unsubtitled Mandarin upon learning she’s a martial artist, apparently assuming Asian women he casually meets on the street are happy to speak Mandarin with a white stranger. Two episodes later, he mansplains kung-fu to her, all to better illustrate how she needs his protection. At no point does Colleen call him out for this. Instead, she reacts with little more than gentle bemusement toward his better handle on language and his skills as a fighter, when she ought to be kicking him to the curb."
The author of this piece, Kwame Opam, chides Marvel for the "creative laziness" of the series. The only creative laziness I see is in Opam's review. He'd rather push his social platform than pay attention to the show. Case in point:
"But more often than not, Danny comes across as a college student come home from studying abroad, perplexed as to why no one gets his newfound love of yoga."
Fucking lazy.

Reality check:
  • Danny Rand is no college student on walkabout. He spent 15 years in the Orient learning martial arts from Mandarin-speaking monks. As he was 10 years old when he arrived, that's well over half of his life. In his life he has been more immersed in Chinese culture than Colleen Wing (she's half Japanese), and more immersed in Chinese culture than he ever was in American culture. This is not appropriation, this is upbringing
  • He meets a woman with a Chinese name who teaches martial arts. He knows this because she's posting bills on the utility poles, advertising her dojo. After he learns her name and profession, then he speaks Mandarin to her. It's a reasonable expectation on his part, given his experience. And when she says to speak in English, he does. This is hell and gone from just starting a random conversation in Mandarin with the first oriental he meets.
  • On the other hand, Colleen simply assumes that Danny is homeless. As he's performing kata in the park, she drops a couple of bucks at his feet. He strikes up a conversation with her in the first place because he's returning her money. She is the one who made the unwarranted assumption based purely on his appearance... not the other way around. 
  • He demonstrates his proficiency with kung-fu to Wing because he's asking her for a job. He asked for a job on the street as well, and she dissed him because she merely assumed that he was a homeless bum. Does she get called out for that blatant display of economic privilege? Not by the hypocrites, no. She just assumes that this gaijin can't know what he's talking about. So he has to demonstrate. This isn't "mansplaining", it's called "making your case"... unless, of course, you are once again a privileged hypocrite.
  • The fact that he demonstrably does have a better handle on Mandarin and does have better skills as a fighter, both hard-won, means that she "ought to be kicking him to the curb"? Seriously? So a White kid raised in a Chinese monastery from the time he was 10 years of age can't possibly act in accordance with his life experience without being resented and kicked to the curb? Because.... he's White? Turn it around: what does that say about the way we should treat Asian kids raised in America? 
Besides, by the time you hit the end of season one and the backstory is revealed, along with the dramatic points that it enables, complaining about cultural appropriation just makes you look stupid. 

--==//oOo\\==--

The reviews I've read heap a ton of praise on Jessica Henwick's portrayal of Colleen Wing. And yup, she does a fine job... but then again, so does everybody else, despite protestations to the contrary. One of the things that has struck me about this series is the consistency of the acting. There are a couple of stinkers amongst the minor parts, but nobody just up and steals the show as Vincent D'Onofrio does as Wilson Fisk in Daredevil. And Finn Jones isn't the lifeless actor that his critics imagine. Jones plays his character well. If you want to see what lifeless acting looks like, check out William Hurt in Dune or Lost in Space.

It makes me wonder how much of this is amazing raw talent that I'm somehow not seeing (that is, compared to her peers), and how much of it is Social Justice Warriors punishing the perceived cultural appropriation of this 40-year-old comics property by hanging 100% of their praise on the on the female oriental actress. To be sure, the script writers cater to the feminist mindset by casting this slightly-built woman as a martial artist who simultaneously beats up multiple well-trained assailants twice her size. And I don't blame them for that.

But as far as the characters go, don't tell me that it's mansplaining for Danny to castigate Colleen's students for their lack of respect and discipline. As martial arts teachers go, she doesn't make a great impression. Her students are lazy, sloppy, talkative, and disrespectful. Danny has no experience with that, and knocks the legs out from under one with a Kendo stick (as was probably done to him). Colleen then takes the opportunity to ma'amsplain to him that her dojo isn't really a place where students can learn to defend themselves wherever they may be... and in the process learn the accompanying valuable lessons of philosophy... but it's a safe space. Pretty damned short-sighted, since when martial arts are done right, anywhere in your vicinity is a safe space. That, coupled with the pride that sees her turn down an honorable rental agreement in favor of violating the Bushido code and fighting for money makes her a terribly flawed character. You won't hear that from the reviews, though. And it certainly doesn't change my mind when the source of her philosophy is revealed in episode 10.

From now on let's set aside talk of mansplaining and ma'amsplaining and call explanations what they are. And 86 the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't oscillation between claims of cultural appropriation and stereotyping (a tone-deaf progressive dog-whistle for "a foreigner who isn't appropriating mainstream American culture").

--==//oOo\\==--

I've read the show described as "boring". What they call boring, I call "has a plot".

I've read that it "lacks a villain". I think they underestimate Madame Gao and The Hand.

I've read that the fights "look choreographed". News flash: they all do. Whether on Arrow, Daredevil, Luke Cage... even in the movies of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, they all look choreographed, because they are. And frankly, they're choreographed by people who are far better qualified to judge them than I or any other reviewer I've read. My son, who is a martial arts teacher, called the engagements in episode 1, "a hot knife through butter". He likes it.

I have not read a well-thought-out discussion of the corporate sub-plots; nor do I expect to from those whose handle on economics doesn't include an understanding of capitalism. In this arena there are no true villains or heroes. Just people with differing points of view. The Meacham siblings' initial response to a presumed impersonator wasn't a "poorly justified overreaction". From their point of view it was a justified reaction to an impostor who showed up to prey on their sympathies and fortune. And one can sympathize with the board members who later took steps to rescue their company and livelihood from a single ignorant stockholder. They weren't evil. Selfish, yes; but that that was their fiduciary responsibility. This will easily put people who are looking for black-and-white simplicity out of their depth.

One thing that reviewers get right are the shout-outs to the larger Marvel cinematic universe, whether it's a mention of "that green guy", "the Devil of Hell's Kitchen", the man with impenetrable skin (Luke Cage) or the drunkard female private eye (Jessica Jones) as well as guest appearances by well-known supporting characters. This is prep for The Defenders, a scaled-down team up which will be to television as The Avengers is to the movies.

This is not a show that succeeds or fails on the basis of its action scenes. It's one part action, one part intrigue, and one part detective story with a little bit of soap opera mixed in. This isn't The Avengers: it's a street-level story that stays on the street.

If that doesn't live up to your expectations, maybe it's your expectations that are the problem.


Now, all that said, and having finished watching Season 1, there are things of which I'm critical. The plot's not consistent, there's a bit too much whining here and there, Danny occasionally exhibits some signs that I'd suspect were due to blunt head trauma rather than psychology; and things sort of fall apart (and come back together) in the last episode. And in general, people bitch about "you've been lying to me!" far too often. At some point, intelligent people would have sussed out that everybody has lied about something. There are also points where you'll legitimately say, "I did not see that coming!" And that's a good thing. My point is that the criticisms of Opam and his like are simply political bullshit, and the rough patches that are left don't make the show unwatchable in the least.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Revolutions

One of my favorite works of fiction is the Dune series by Frank Herbert. You may have seen one of the dramatizations. Or you may have read the book, Dune. It is rightly called a masterpiece: a work of science fiction, but also one of politics, psychology, sociology, and metaphysics.

If you haven't read Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, or God Emperor of Dune you're missing important parts of Frank Herbert's message. In Dune, Paul Atreides (“Muad’Dib”) leads a revolution and ascends to the throne of the Padishah Emperor of the Known Universe. In Dune Messiah, his revolution spreads throughout the galaxy. He learns that a revolutionary often becomes a slave to his followers, and watches as the future of humanity falls into the trap of predestination. In God Emperor of Dune, Paul's son Leto II sacrifices his life and legacy to restore freedom to the Empire.

It's the theme of the second book that I want to explore today.

One of the interesting things about revolution is that it comes in many forms, all of which are related. A change of opinion and a change of government are differences in scope, not in kind. A change of opinion is the revolution of a single mind.

What Paul learns in Dune Messiah is that the revolutionary quickly becomes subservient to the revolution. A revolution begins with a change of opinion. The revolutionary changes first his own mind, then those of others around him. They, in turn, extend the change. But the moment the revolutionary touches other lives, the revolution is beyond his control.

In my last post I noted that the controversies of politics are rooted in the vagaries of language. As such, we have to be very careful about how we phrase certain concepts so as not to introduce disagreement when none existed before. As above, once a concept has been disseminated, it is beyond our control.

--==//oOo\\==--

Liberty is a dangerous and powerful thing. So powerful that I, for one, do not wish to give it up. It is unique among precious possessions in that it need not be scarce. It is also something that is extremely difficult to regain once lost. It is dangerous not merely because it gives people the latitude to do bad things, but because it can destroy itself. So when I see trends in that direction, I note them. I point them out.

In my last post, I noted the confusion between rights, privileges, and advantages;. But I did not explicitly state was that this confusion has often been deliberately cultivated. Obfuscation of language is a political tool. It allows the politician to say destructive things with kind words. Furthermore, it's entirely possible for a person who is habitually precise in his own usage and meaning to be surprised by the ways in which that meaning can be misconstrued.

Today it is quite common to speak of “rights” with regard to services that chain another man to one's own will. These are not rights. Nevertheless, that is what they are called in popular discourse, and it makes blanket statements about "rights" extremely dangerous.


For instance, my friend Edric recently tweeted that "Majorities shouldn't get to vote on whether minorities should have rights". That is true... of natural rights. But it is not true of many things that are commonly labeled as rights. At no point do the claims of the minority disenfranchise the majority, much less the whole of society, from discussing whether something is or is not a right.

At no point does the mere existence of a minority negate the voice of the whole. If that were true, we would be left with a “tyranny of the minority” where all that has to be done is to exclaim, "I have a right!" and the discussion is over. This is no less distasteful than a tyranny of the majority. Sadly, I've seen it attempted all too often.

Note that a pure democracy is "majority rule", by definition. It is because of the need to defend minority rights that our founders rejected pure democracy as a form of government. They knew, as do we, that there is a necessary balance between a democratic representation and protecting the rights of minorities. We find the balance point by understanding that no natural right can impose upon that of another person. This is a constant. It does not change simply because one chooses to spread the imposition over the whole of society.

So while Edric's observation is true, it is a narrow truth, easily misunderstood, and extremely dangerous when misunderstood. Given the current state of language, should it stand without qualification, then we would quickly learn what Paul learned in Dune Messiah… That our good intentions can ultimately destroy us if we are not careful.

--==//oOo\\==--




Sunday, March 05, 2017

My Friend, the Non-Gazebo

My friend Edric Haleen, despite recent appearances, is not a gazebo. Yet I recently received an email from Edric which simply stated,
So, yeah.  This is now a thing . . .
The link is to his brand new Twitter feed, which began with the following images:


Now, for the record, Edric is neither black, nor transgender, nor female, nor an immigrant, nor Muslim, and he didn't come here from Mexico. As for his pride, I haven't inquired.

Also, Edric has famously (among his friends, at least) shunned almost all forms of social media. He's not on Facebook. He doesn't tweet. He's not on Myspace or post on online forums, or do any of the social stuff that so many Americans have adopted as cultural norms. With the exception of his personal website (which I don't think is secret, so here's a link), we've simply come to know that "Edric don't do Internet".

Given several other strange and weird cues, those of us who know him were a bit curious as to whether he was hacked or had simply lost his mind. Since Poe's Law makes guesswork unreliable, I cut the Gordian Knot with this incisive question: "Were you hacked?"

Came the reply...

Not hacked. But also not crazy. He is taking on the role that Dr. Danusha V. Goska would describe as "champion of the oppressed". I'm not using that in a pejorative sense, as I know that Edric's motivations are pure. And I believe that Edric himself would admit it's a fair characterization given the hashtag he has adopted: #usingmyprivilegeforgood.

But in our email exchange he does ask a question:
But why should I enjoy rights beyond people who are simply because I am not?
The question deserves an answer. I thought I might share it with you. I'll give you the short one, then I'll relate and greatly expand what I've already said to Edric himself.

The short answer is that of course no human should enjoy rights beyond another. 

I also told Edric, "Since you now have a public presence, I hope you don't mind if I explore the topic in a blog post. I think it's a fascinating subject."

This is that exploration. It's not a refutation. But I will close the loop at the end, I hope.

--==//oOo\\==--

I think you would find no Liberal, Libertarian, or Conservative who would disagree with the point. You won't find a Democrat or a Republican who would seriously challenge it. It's one of those Universal Truths.

So if there is discourse to be had, it must lie in the vagaries of language.

Sadly, political conversation too often gets muddied by imprecise language. In general conversation we have a tendency to speak of "rights" when we mean "privileges". Note that I'm using the word "privileges" in a descriptive and non-pejorative way, as we often use that word (without the "s") when we mean "advantages".

Thus, it's common that a particular non-citizen may have all the rights of a particular citizen, some of the advantages, and none of the privileges. That's the nutshell.

So to make this easier, I'm going to define what *I* mean when *I* use these particular terms when I talk about them here. These aren't presented for debate, but so that you understand the words I use.
  • Rights are the those things inherently due to any human being, whether by the grace of God or through the mere fact of his or her existence. But rights are limited to those things that do not impose upon other human beings. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness all can be achieved without imposition. And if we accept that free speech is a right, then it logically follows that censorship cannot be. Rights are both unalienable and not limited to those that are enumerated in the Constitution. 
  • Privileges are afforded by citizenship, are defined by social contract, and are by definition alienable. If you wish some gain that can only be achieved by imposition on another's time, labor, or other resources, then it is provided through this social contract. In other words, privileges are granted. Here's an example to illustrate the difference: everyone has the right to pursue an education. You cannot say to someone, "You are forbidden to learn," as was done to so many slaves in the past. But to have a provided education imposes upon the time and the talents of teachers, administrators, and those who provide the facilities and materials. This falls squarely into the realm of privilege. We are not all privileged to have a first-class education, though we wish that were the case and work to expand education. Social contracts that provide for privileges include taxation or charity. You might call these "entitlements". I don't.
  • (Dis)Advantages are attributes acquired through birth and heritage and genetics. We are born with advantages and disadvantages, and often there's very little we can do about them. I'm 5'8" tall, and not very athletic. I wasn't born into a rich family, either; and inherited nothing in the way of wealth. Those are facts of my existence. Under most circumstances height is an advantage... but not if you want to be a fighter pilot.  So I was born with an advantage there, though I'm at a distinct disadvantage on the basketball court. Under most circumstances my race is seen as advantageous... but not when I was in school, and not when I lived in the southern part of Washington, D.C.. Whether your attributes are advantageous or not depends on your circumstances, understanding that some attributes are more often advantageous than others.
This is non-standard usage, but I'm not terribly concerned about that. If someone can stand there with ginger hair and a radioactive Caucasian glow and claim to be a Black female Muslim, I'm entitled to define my terms.  Most people would say "check your privilege" where I would say "be aware of your advantages". I prefer my phrasing because, "check your privilege" both improperly implies that you have something to do with those advantages; and that they are always in your favor. For instance, the phrase "White privilege" implies that it's something you exercise and that it's always advantageous. It isn't, and it's not. Much controversy revolves around discussion of whether certain specific things are privileges or rights or just the way things are (advantages / disadvantages). There's too much depth to discuss any of them here (well, maybe a little at the end).

Again, my rule of thumb is that it's a natural right if it requires no imposition on another person. I find that to be pretty solidly definable and defensible in that a right is always rooted in the principles of liberty and self-determination.

--==//oOo\\==--

So, back to topic.

When it comes to genuine human rights, no one would argue that all humans should not enjoy them equally. In the United States we hold (in theory, at least) that aliens and citizens alike have the right to free speech; freedom of religion; to peaceably assemble; to be free of unlawful search and seizure; to be secure in their homes, etc. It doesn't matter whether you're born in Kentucky, formally immigrated there from Korea, or are just a German tourist.
(I say "in theory" because we've made a poor showing of ourselves on many counts, including but not limited to civil forfeiture; a heinous and blatantly unconstitutional practice that should be abolished retroactively.)
When we're talking privileges, though, it's a different story. We have certain "rights" (properly privileges) that are reserved to citizens alone. Foreign nationals don't really have the right to enter the country and take up residence. Many have been privileged to do so, including my grandparents, who became naturalized citizens. Citizenship grants the privilege of permanent guaranteed residence, as a US citizen cannot be exiled; whereas non-citizens or those to whom citizenship was granted improperly may be deported. On the legal strength of it, we call that privilege of citizenship a "right". For non-citizens there's no such thing. We have an INS, and we have laws determining legal processes for immigration. Since Edric's shirt simply says both "immigrant" and "Muslim-American", I assume these have been followed.

The same goes for voting. Voting is the only "right" specifically mentioned in the Constitution that is limited to citizens alone. It is granted to those who are eighteen or older and is presumed to apply to all who are of such age (26th Amendment). It can be revoked, but not on the grounds of "race, color, previous condition of servitude" (15th Amendment), sex (19th Amendment), or failure to pay a poll tax (24th Amendment).
(If Edric's shirt said "Black, transgender, female, immigrant, Muslim-American ex-convict", I would point out that the 15th Amendment's "previous condition of servitude" clause, coupled with the Virginia Supreme Court's ruling that incarceration is slavery (that is, the only slavery that is in accordance with the 13th Amendment) requires that no restriction can be made upon their vote as a result of such incarceration, and that all voting rights must be restored upon their release. I kind of wish he'd just write that in with a silver Sharpee.) 
But why should citizenship be such a big thing?

Well, on one hand, it's not. Just being here puts you in a place where all human rights apply. Being here legally puts you in a position where there must be additional just cause to return you to your home country. Being a citizen allows you to vote.

On the other hand, it is. It's participatory expression of self-determination. The whole point of a country is to build and maintain a society that operates on certain principles (many would say "culture"), and to defend those principles. A giant Achilles' heel would be exposed should we decide that anyone who got from the border to a polling station, legally or not, should be allowed to vote. An invasion would not take the form of a military incursion, but a queue. And it wouldn't have to be done nationally, as state and local elections are of significance. Should we be so irrationally soft-hearted as to ignore the concept of citizenship, we would take the first step toward giving up our ability to safeguard any rights from those who would abolish them.
(I am not saying this is what Edric is doing. But he did ask a question.)
How is it that voting gets a pass on being restricted to citizens given what I said about rights, above? It's because voting, by its nature, is also an application of force. Apply enough force in the form of ballots, then under the terms of the social contract you are granted the ability to impose your will on others through law. You can't vote without imposing on the people who will have to abide by your laws or submitting to those who impose upon you. Under normal conditions we all agree to these rules or are born to them. But having the "house rules" changed by a family vote is a very different thing from having a group of ruffians walk in the back door and announce that the rules have changed... get used to it.

--==//oOo\\==--

On the subject of advantage (what others would call "Privilege")... once you've said, "Liberty and Justice for All" there's very little to do, really, except educate people about that word "All" without losing rationality or losing sight of Justice. Not every restriction is X-ist. For instance, if I'm hiring, it's a rule of thumb that I should consider any applicant. But if I'm casting a documentary about Hitler, I probably want to limit my auditions to people who physically resemble Hitler. The casting director isn't racist or sexist for auditioning Hitler look-alikes.

I've mentioned elsewhere that we try to impose too many things by force when we shouldn't. We don't need the law to do those things that peer-pressure and economics do better. One of the notable things we can do better is to address those difficult fringe cases that are better served by rational judgement than by the blanket application of intractable law.

Thus, I think it's stupid to have a law about restrooms at all when we all know that even a guy in a dress still has to use the john now and then. If he quietly picks the one that calls the least attention, and everyone quietly looks the other way, then it's only when somebody wants to peek under somebody else's clothing that it becomes an issue for either side. I think we can reasonably limit the problems to that.  If somebody wants to marry someone else, I think it's a religious issue. On the subject of religion, the Constitution says, "make no law". So I'm in favor of no law, just like it says. To me, this means no law about taxes with regard to marriage, too. And frankly, your marriage is none of my business at all. I'm neither in favor of it nor opposed to it. And I think if my "approval" or "disapproval" makes a difference to you, then you need counseling. As far as race is concerned, people are people. If you're from some culture I'm not familiar with, I might ask some ignorant questions out of curiosity; but ignorance isn't racism. Frankly, I'm pretty sick and tired of the racists who think it is, and they are in as much need of remedial education as anybody else.

--==//oOo\\==--

Now, the above commentary is all over the place, and a lot of it is pretty wide of the point that I think Edric is making.

At the end of the day, Edric wasn't hacked and he didn't lose his mind. He's not a gazebo. The kind of peer pressure and education that I'm talking about is mostly what he's doing here. It's "shock theater", where you notice the absurdity of a White guy making such claims, and it gets you thinking about his tweets in ways that you would not if a PBTFIM-A from Mexico had made them. Edric can correct me, but I think they're deliberately non-controversial when applied to him so that you can see more easily that it's absurd to make them controversial when applied to others.

He's a teacher. It's what he does.



I'll have more to say.