Measured Against Reality

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Intolerance at Stanford and Free Speech

It's no secret that I'm very pro-free speech, so I feel I have to comment on this Stanford Daily article, about a project highlighting intolerance. The project has an admirable goal: to get people to think about intolerance at Stanford and in general. I think it can something that we don't think about too much, and there were some nasty incidents near me this year.

But I really disagreed with this part:

“Our goal is to make the process of reporting acts of intolerance more transparent and more effective,” Diana Huynh [one of the coordinators] said. “We also hope to raise awareness and encourage people to speak out against acts of intolerance.”

That seems innocuous enough, but that part about reporting acts of intolerance rubs me the wrong way. It seems to me that most of these acts are harmless, in that there's no actual threat, and people are just exercising their free speech rights, albeit in incredibly unfortunate ways. It seems to me that unless the act is intended as a threat, there's nothing to report.

Granted, it's unfortunate that there are closed-minded people in the world, but even they have a right to their opinions, no matter how repugnant they are. Unless they cross the line and actually violate a law, I feel really strongly that there should be no action taken against them.

Maybe that's what the group meant. But for some reason I doubt it. The people running colleges seem to have this idea that free speech doesn't apply to things that make people uncomfortable, or even to things that are downright hateful. But it does. We take away the right to say those things, and we can kiss goodbye all of our rights. It won't be immediate, and you might not even notice it, but once the right to free speech starts to erode, it will be eventually evaporate, and it will take democracy with it. You might think that's hyperbole, but I am utterly convinced that we cannot budge an inch in our defense of free speech, and I think that

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Prison Nation

Well look at this: America has reached an awesome new milestone:

For the first time in the nation’s history, more than one in 100 American adults is behind bars, according to a new report.

Nationwide, the prison population grew by 25,000 last year, bringing it to almost 1.6 million. Another 723,000 people are in local jails. The number of American adults is about 230 million, meaning that one in every 99.1 adults is behind bars.

It's even worse for minorities, I've heard that there are more blacks in prison than in college, though don't have a good source for it.

The really sad thing is how many of those people are minor drug offenders, totally nonviolent people who did nothing to anyone but themselves, and now they're in prison for years and years. And then when you take into account how much crime happens because drug markets are black, I bet we could easily halve our prison population by ending prohibition, and I wouldn't be surprised if we could get it under 1/10 what it currently is through sensible policies.

Too bad all of that is political suicide. And now it's getting even worse, with prison becoming an industry of its own.

So do you like where this is heading? I know I do!

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Economic Pandering

I'm just curious, but has any politician really been able to "create jobs"? They pretty much all promise to do it, but it seems to me that it's entirely beyond their control. Granted, I don't understand economics very much (I take a dismal view of the "dismal science"), but from what I've heard the economy is largely beyond the control of leaders. A metaphor that occurs to me (but may or may not be apt) is that politicians meddling with the economy are like doctors experimenting with new drugs, but not controlling for anything. So what they've done might have had some kind of effect, but it's damn near impossible to say for certain.

Sure, politicians can do things like offer corporations tax breaks and other incentives to move to the town, state, or country, but even in that their power seems quite limited. And hearing someone promise to bring back manufacturing jobs is just laughable. We're a service economy now, and we're going to need to get used to that fact. Unless there's a compelling business reason to manufacture in the US, it's not going to happen, and since China and India do have workers (at the very least) as smart and capable and hard-working as ours, those jobs are not coming back.

And it's really annoying to see the Democrats pandering to the Ohio view that NAFTA has killed their economy, when every economic article I've read has said that, at the worst, it has been neutral for the country. It's too bad, but I guess educating people against their long- and deeply-help beliefs is just not going to happen in the middle of a tight primary.

At any rate, I'd really like to know if the politicians' claims about creating jobs can be taken as anything other than insincere pandering.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Doping in Academia?

Jonah Lehrer has an interesting post about using drugs to improve performance in college. Here's the important bit, from here:

It is probably surprising that the drug backfired only once, when I stayed up on Adderall for 72 hours before a philosophy final. My appearance in the testing hall the next day was so tangled and shaky that the professor removed me from the room. I was sent away with permission to return later and finish the exam in his office. Instead, I slept. In the end it didn't matter that I failed the exam, because a semester of A+ Adderall papers had left me with a decent grade in the class. If the proof is in the transcript, then Adderall is hardly a self-punishing habit. Sometimes I think about how Marion Jones has to return all the prize money she earned while taking steroids, and I wonder whether I should be stripped of all the A's I received for papers written on Adderall. This is a haunting or a comical thought, depending on my mood.

Of course, I could have studied in college without Adderall, just like I did in high school--I just couldn't have studied with such ecstasy. Theoretical texts, in particular, were transformed into exercises as conquerable as a Tuesday crossword. I could work out in the gym with a Xeroxed packet of Gayatri Spivak perched on the elliptical machine in front of me, reading and burning calories at the same time. The efficacy of the multitasking was exhilarating. On Adderall, the densest writing became penetrable. I had an illusion of mastery, at least, that lasted long enough to write the necessary papers and presentations. I could never remember what I had written the next day, but I justified this forgetfulness as an accelerated version of what would happen anyway after I graduated.

Jonah says, "I'd always get annoyed before taking an exam that was going to be graded on a steep curve. I'd look around at my competition and see all these sunken eyes and twitchy hands and I'd feel like a pitcher that didn't dabble in HGH." Personally, I've never noticed anything like that, but I wouldn't be too surprised if kids in some of my classes were on some kind of drugs while taking tests or writing papers, especially in those big, freshman classes.

What I'm actually curious about is how many people in physics do this. It's a small enough group of people that I could actually ask, but I doubt anyone would be so candid as to admit it.

At any rate, it's certainly an interesting problem. Should we have random drug testing for people at college? Most would find the idea abhorrent. But how is it different than testing professional athletes? I'm not so sure it would be. There's this idea that our work should be pure, untainted. I don't really see the line between this being true in Baseball but not Philosophy exams. Is there one?

Personally I think it's stupid to outlaw this stuff no matter where it's done. If baseball players want to take HGH or steroids, why stop them? If the philosophy student wants to take Adderall, why stop them? I guess you can argue that, if it enhances their performance, it practically mandates that everyone else competing with them do it too. But that assumes that these things help (and it seems like they hurt about as often as they help), and it assumes that the area is actually competitive. In baseball it's obviously true, but in Philosophy? Yes, I recognize that college is competitive, but I think it shouldn't be (I have a laid-back attitude about grades, preferring to, you know, learn rather than obsess about getting the A).

Monday, February 25, 2008

Increase in the religiously unaffiliated

A reader asked me to comment on the story about the decline in religious affiliation, and so I shall. I didn't really think too much of it, the most dramatic thing seems to be how often people switch denominations, which isn't entirely that surprising given how ridiculously similar they are, and how moving or marrying could easily cause people to switch.

And even the stats about the increasing numbers of "unaffiliated" aren't too impressive:

The majority of the unaffiliated -- 12 percent of the overall population -- describe their religion as "nothing in particular," and about half of those say faith is at least somewhat important to them. Atheists or agnostics account for 4 percent of the total population.

Four percent isn't that much, and honestly I doubt that's the true number. This was done by Pew, but I doubt they'd cook the numbers much. Maybe they underrepresented people who tend to be atheists, but I doubt that too. At any rate, four percent isn't a huge number, even if we are at 12% unaffiliated.

The one true great bit of news was this doozy:

One in four adults ages 18 to 29 claim no affiliation with a religious institution.

I don't think I've ever been prouder of my peers than this. One out of every four has no affiliation! That's a fantastic number, and I have to imagine that it's much higher than it would have been 50, 20, or even 10 years ago. After the NYTimes piece about Evangelicals fleeing, it certainly seems like we're seeing a good trend. Young people are realizing that truth, and succumbing to rationality. It's inspiring and leaves me a bit optimistic about our future. Hopefully we can keep getting atheism press, and even more hopefully good press, and people will start to wake up, shatter their delusions, and breathe the fresh air that is a world unencumbered by the old mythologies.

An atheist can dream, right?

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The singularity is near!!!

This comic pretty much sums up how I feel about the singularity. Ray Kurzweil is, as far as I know, the progenitor of this "theory", which is essentially glorified futurism. Every time there's a technological advance, especially biomedical ones, people start shouting "the singularity is near!"

But if you actually look at it, the singularity concept is entirely obvious, banal, and superfluous. It's essentially saying, "Things will be different fifty years from now!" Well, yeah, of course they will. But that's been true at any point up to about a hundred and fifty years ago. It's not exactly brilliant to take Moore's Law and extend it to the rest of the world.

What bugs me though are claims about humans becoming immortal. First off, no biological system will ever be immortal, there will always be some way to kill it. And all the medical advances in the world couldn't save us from nuclear Armageddon, which is always possible. But the claims about nanotechnology curing all of our ills are just absurd. The main problem I have with it is the simple fact that our biological understanding of our bodies isn't increasing exponentially. Granted, we know much more medically now than 100 years ago, but compare medicine then to now, and then compare computer science then to know. Technology advances much faster than science, it's just in science's nature to move slowly. So even if we get nanotechnology perfected in the next 20 years (which, by the way, we won't), we probably couldn't put it to any use, or at least truly effective use. And even if we do manage to build robots to take care of us, what do you think federal regulatory committees would do with it (and let's face it, if anything is certain about the future it's that there will be bureaucracy)? I don't think it will get anywhere fast, and that's with gracious assumptions.

Granted, some of this stuff probably will happen. Machines will get smaller and smaller, and humans will become more and more dependent, biologically, on machines. At some point in the future we will probably have machines inside of us. It's not a grand insight given that hundreds of thousands of people already do in the form of pacemakers and other devices. Essentially all you're doing when you say that is take something that has already happened and project into the future.

What really bugs me about the concept of a technological singularity is that it trends toward the hyperbolic. Everyone loves looking back at people in the 70's (or earlier) making predictions about what the future would be like. Most of them are wildly off the mark, and those are the ones that make grand claims and weird assumptions. The ones that are scarily accurate are the ones that look at what has recently happened, how people have reacted to it, and projected that into the future with the assumption that technology will continue to get better. The singularity goes beyond that common-sense approach, and says that life will become unrecognizable. It very well may, after all, no one can predict the future. But the smart money is on gradual, incremental, non-revolutionary change. After all, even the internet revolution took decades to truly develop.

Rome wasn't built in a day, and I think that's the key thing singularity proponents forget with their timelines. Their predictions may come true, but within 20 years? Doubtful.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

More unbelievable anti-gay bigotry

Try reading this without having your blood pressure raised:

Janice Langbehn and Lisa Pond had planned to take their three children on a family cruise. The Olympia, Washington couple had been together 18 years and with their children were looking forward to the holiday.

But just as they were about to depart on the cruise from Miami, Florida. Pond, a healthy 39-year-old, suddenly collapsed. She was rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami with Langbehn and the children following close behind.

But once Langbehn and the children arrived at the hospital the hospital refused to accept information from her about Ponds's medical history.

Langbehn says she was informed that she was in an antigay city and state, and she could expect to receive no information or acknowledgment as family.

A doctor finally spoke with Janice telling her that there was no chance of recovery.

Other than one five minute visit, which was orchestrated by a Catholic priest at Langbehn's request to perform last rites, and despite the doctor's acknowledgement that no medical reason existed to prevent visitation, neither she nor her children were allowed to see Pond until nearly eight hours after their arrival.

Soon after Pond''s death, Langbehn tried to get her death certificate in order to get life insurance and Social Security benefits for their children. She was denied both by the State of Florida and the Dade County Medical Examiner.

If that had happened to a straight, unmarried couple, could you imagine the reaction? The backlash would be harsh and immediate. The staff would probably all be fired, or at least suspended. But just because they're the same sex, they have these impossible burdens to put up with. It's a crying shame.

I've posted this before, and I'll probably post it again, but it summarizes how I feel so perfectly:

In the late 1700s some people wanted democratic rule. Conservative elements of the church pointed to the Bible and said it proved that the king ruled by God's will.

In the mid 1800s some people wanted to end slavery. Conservative elements of the church pointed to the Bible and said it proved that God approved of slavery.

In the early 1900s some people wanted to give women the vote. Conservative elements of the church pointed to the Bible and said it proved that God made women inferior to men.

In the mid 1900s some people wanted to end segregation. Conservative elements of the church pointed to the Bible and said it proved God wanted to keep the races separate.

When you look back at how your parents and grandparents dealt with these things, are you ashamed or proud?

Now some people want to allow gay marriage. Conservative elements of the church are pointing to the Bible and saying it proves God hates homosexuality.

When your children and grandchildren look back at how you deal with this, will they be ashamed or proud?

Granted, it's not entirely religious people who are anti-gay, but there is some correlation. We need to stand up to bigotry, and when its source is religion, call it out. And we should ally ourselves with the sensible, moderate religious figures who realize that gay people are people too.

We simply won't have justice in this country until all people truly are equal. I know we face many difficult problems, but rampant, institutionalized intolerance must be high up on the list.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Doritos now offensive to Muslims

This story made me laugh:

Furious Muslims have heavily criticised Walkers crisps after it emerged that certain varieties of the manufacturer's products contain trace elements of alcohol.

Some crisp types use minute amounts of alcohol as a chemical agent to extract certain flavours.


Shuja Shafi, who chairs the food standards committee of the Muslim Council of Britain, said that he intended to investigate. "Certainly we would find it very offensive to have eaten food with alcohol."

Isn't it funny that the letter of religious law is so important? The best part is that it's actually "offensive". The amounts of alcohol are far too dilute to ever get you drunk, or to taste, but it's still bad. It's still against the rules. The inane, useless, 7th-century rules.

There are times when religion is too funny not to love. Of course most of the time it's just infuriating, like when people are bombing buildings because of a cartoon.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Does the Magic Matter?

I generally like the NYTimes Op-Ed page. While I don't always agree with the editorials they print, they're generally high-quality, well-written, thought-provoking pieces. However, there's one today that is little but unadulterated garbage. I'm speaking about When the Magic Fades by David Brooks.

Let me start with the easiest point, and that is his attempt to show Obama as partisan:

The Gang of 14 created bipartisan unity on judges, but Obama sat it out. Kennedy and McCain created a bipartisan deal on immigration. Obama opted out of the parts that displeased the unions. Sixty-eight senators supported a bipartisan deal on FISA. Obama voted no. And if he were president now, how would the High Deacon of Unity heal the breach that split the House last week?

First of all, calling the FISA bill bipartisan is a laughing stock. That was nothing but the Democrats in the Senate capitulating to Bush, and passing a god-awful piece of legislation. The House's actions the next day in allowing the bill to die were almost universally hailed as the right thing to do, and every sane person agrees. Voting against that insidious bill is a point for Obama, not against. If Brooks' point here is that Obama should back every measure that has bipartisan support just because he supports transcending party lines to get stuff done then Brooks is completely and utterly wrong. That line of thinking says that the Iraq War authorization was a good idea, and it's clearly bullshit. What Obama means by bringing people together is bringing them together to do good, not just bringing them together for its own sake. The fact is that sometimes playing the partisan game is correct, at least when one side is right and the other isn't.

And I'm honestly confused about the disdain some people are showing for Obama's supporters. Is it really a bad thing that people are inspired by him? Is it a bad thing that young people are voting in droves? Is it a bad thing that he attracts moderates and Republicans? Because to me these seem like great, even necessary attributes for the Democratic candidate. That is, unless you want to see a John McCain presidency.

I'm also tired of these low-blows about him being "messianic". For starters, don't we kind of need someone to take charge and save our sorry asses from the fuck-up of historical proportions that is the Bush administration? I'm not going to say we need a messiah, but I also think that knocking Obama for using grand rhetorical is just foolish. The best leaders of all time are almost universally great speakers, and it's because inspiring people with language indicates a great mind, which a good leader needs. The same people who mock Bush relentlessly for his "Bush-isms" don't see that it works the other way too: someone who knows how to use words to inspire is exactly the kind of intelligent, clear-thinking person we need.

And this is just insane:

Up until now The Chosen One’s speeches had seemed to them less like stretches of words and more like soul sensations that transcended time and space. But those in the grips of Obama Comedown Syndrome began to wonder if His stuff actually made sense. For example, His Hopeness tells rallies that we are the change we have been waiting for, but if we are the change we have been waiting for then why have we been waiting since we’ve been here all along?

Yes, and MLK's "I have a dream" speech was about an actual dream. Is Brooks serious? Does he really think that Obama means "we" as in the collection of individuals? It clearly means the movement, the people coalescing behind one person and demanding an end the insanity, demanding something better. Misinterpreting that means you're either an idiot or being disingenuous.

Then there this:

Obama says he is practicing a new kind of politics, but why has his PAC sloshed $698,000 to the campaigns of the superdelegates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics? Is giving Robert Byrd’s campaign $10,000 the kind of change we can believe in?

Nice job not noting that Hillary gave a bunch of money to those people too, that information is totally not pertinent. Regardless, I liked the Obama camp's response to this idiotic accusation, "They've discovered that we support the Democratic party," (paraphrased). I'll admit, this could look like he's trying to buy their vote, but I very much doubt it. First because no superdelegate is stupid enough to be bought, and second because who would be bought for $10,000? It seems to me far more likely that they're just supporting other Democratic candidates, and even if they're not, knocking Obama for doing this seems odd because the Clinton camp has done it too.

In the end, I'm as bemused by the Obama-knockers as the Hillary-haters. Personally, I'll vote for whichever candidate the Democrats put up, even though I prefer Obama. But it's starting to look pretty clear that the people prefer Obama, and he has a better chance of winning against McCain is every recent poll I've seen, I'm thinking it's time for others to support him too. But some don't, and I can respect that without needing to call them delusional or idiotically bash Clinton.

In any event, I hope this stupid "Obama's supporters are a cult!!!!111" thing ends soon, because it's moronic beyond words. Of course, that's the very reason it'll likely keep up until the fat lady sings.


Monday, February 11, 2008

Dawkins is coming to Stanford!

Wow, this is incredible news. First Christopher Hitchens comes to Stanford, and now Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss are coming!

The rise of religiously motivated threats to scientific practice and instruction in American schools has motivated Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss to engage in a public dialogue on strategies for science education in the twenty-first century. Their open conversation concerning science education and related issues began in the July 2007 Scientific American and continues at this Aurora Forum event moderated by Mark Kay of the Stanford School of Medicine.

I'll have to get my tickets tomorrow, if you're in the area, stop by the Stanford Ticket Office and pick them up, this should be one great show.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Super Tuesday

I just got back from voting. It was the first time I ever had. It's actually a bit exciting, and I'm incredibly nervous for tonight's results. If the Patriots lose the Super Bowl and Obama loses Super Tuesday, all in the course of two days, I don't think I'll be able to take it!

More misunderstanding of evolution

This is pretty funny:
DEAR ABBY: It's the personal isolation of people today. Business people will not answer their telephones and speak directly with customers. Individuals won't answer their phones at home, but do respond to e-mail and text messages. A generation has been schooled to keep a cell phone glued to their ears at all times instead of communicating face-to-face.

If Darwin was right, future generations will no longer require a tongue because we will no longer converse. Instead, we'll grow extra fingers with which to type and text. - RON C., SOULSBYVILLE, CALIF.

That's not how evolution works! It's amazing, you could learn this by reading just one popular-level book, or a few articles, hell I bet even reading the Wikipedia article would dispel that idiotic notion. Ron C is a moron who doesn't understand evolution at all, and apparently so is Dear Abby (which, by the way, is not in the least surprising). And that's not even dealing with the idiocy of the rest of his statement. People need other people, we always have and we always will. Social animals don't just stop being social

Monday, February 04, 2008


Read this article on abortion. No, you don't have a choice, you must read it.

It's a doctor explaining why he performs abortions, and he describes the two attempts on his life because of what he does. It's a fantastic article, read it.