Monday, January 31, 2005

Prayer in Sports

Dan Barker is a role model for the religious. A former fundamentalist Southern Baptist minister, Barker deconverted to atheism and is now co-president the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

"It's just plain silly. . . . When you throw a football and you pray, do the laws of nature change? Does the elliptical curve of the ball through the air suddenly swerve, or what? Is God blessing you for winning and is God cursing the other team for losing? Just the arrogance of that; it's one thing to be happy and thankful, but to put it on religion, it's so uncivil, because everybody has different religions."
I strongly recommend Barker's book Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist to any religious person who has doubts or questions about their beliefs. I know it has been instrumental in many deconversions.


Sunday, January 30, 2005

Willing slaves

In most of the world, slavery is considered abhorrent. While largely exterminated in the developed world, slavery continues to be practiced in much of the developing regions, from bonded labor to forced prostitution. While this is tragic, what I'd like to talk about today is a potential form of slavery that doesn't yet exist: enslavement of artificial persons.

What makes slavery wrong? A right-libertarian would argue that a person's body is property just like any other, and that people have the right to use their own bodies as they see fit. Someone else forcing a person to do something infringes on this right to property. Some libertarians even claim that slavery is acceptable as long as the person sold him or herself, because that person has the right to sell their own property. Unfortunately, many people who would be in a position to sell themselves into slavery do so out of the abject poverty such unrestrained capitalism entails. This occurs today in the form of bonded labor in which a person takes a small loan to pay for something like a medical procedure and agrees to work to pay off the loan, but the wages are low enough (if there are wages at all) that the debt will never be paid.

I think the issue of self-property obfuscates the situation. The problem most people have with slavery -- myself included -- is that it is involuntary. Coercion is the key. Preference utilitarians would argue that slavery is the negation of one person's desires for the satisfaction of another's. Such an arrangement is far from ethical.

In the coming century, it is likely that there will be out of neccessity a radical redefinition of personhood. Genetic engineering -- for good or ill -- will modify some human genomes beyond compatibility with the standard, leading to artificial speciation. We might unlock the genes for human-level sapience (intelligence and self-awareness) and "uplift" animals to a higher level of intelligence for use as companions, or for specific purposes. We will develop increasingly sophisticated computer systems such that ultimately they may gain self-awareness, though perhaps in a form virtually unrecognizable to their creators. We may even simulate the performance of our own minds in computer form, machines that duplicate our consciousness.

Exactly what form an artificial person might take is speculatory. They may be all of the above, or the technical challenges to some of those ideas might prove to be insurmountable. However, it is highly unlikely that they will all fail. By 2100, humans will not be the only sapient beings.

Now, transhumanists and other people who ascribe to a technoprogressive viewpoint would grant personhood to all of the above entities. For us, personhood is a status grated to any being capable of recognizing itself as an individual with a future that it can determine. Self-awareness and self-determination.

Some bioconservatives and biochauvanists will argue for generations about the special and superior nature of the human mind, but ultimately this is a futile argument. You, reader, can't even prove that I am sapient; I could just be a clever automoton mimicing sapient behavior. For those of you who have never met me offline, I could just be a blogging program.

In any case, if we grant sapient artificial beings personhood, then it is clear that they have the right to freedom from enslavement. However, the artificial nature of these people makes the situation a bit more complicated.

What happens when we design a person to want enslavement?

Suppose I decide I want to design a new species of human. It will look exactly like you or I, and have all of the same abilities as you or I, with a few exceptions. I will give this being some instincts the rest of us lack. First will be loyalty. Suppose the neural connections that form familial attatchments in infancy are strengthened a hundred-fold and targeted only at me. I will modify the being's gratification system to reward certain tasks -- let's say physical exertion -- with dopamine and oxytocin and other "happiness" chemicals. I will deteriorate regions of the brain associated with insubordination and the desire to learn new things. I prewire physical and mental conditioning into the brain before consciousness begins. The being will not be coerced into serving me. It will want to.

Suppose now that I clone this being fifty times, buy a few acres of land in Georgia, and in fifteen years set my teenagers to work picking cotton.

Is this wrong?

It is an ethical dilemma that is not easily approached. On the level of gut instinct, of course it is wrong. They're slaves! But upon further examination, just what is wrong with it? The slaves prefer to work for me. It makes them happy. Their preferences are being fulfilled. They don't want freedom. They don't want money. All they want is to do what they're told. How, exactly, is their enslavement infringing on their right to self-determination?

Some will argue that the modifications to this being have changed it into a nonperson. But ask it anything you could ask any other person to determine self-awareness and it will respond identically. It knows itself, it knows what it is doing, it knows what it wants. It is happy. In fact, if you freed it, it would be angry at you for interfering with its desire to keep working! It is a slave only for lack of a better word.

The real question is whether it is ethical to create such a being, not what is done with the being once it is already in existence. I seriously doubt that anyone but the most disturbed would ever want to create a biological slave race for picking cotton as in my somewhat heavy-handed example. But one area people will certainly want human capability without human freedom in is for use as soldiers. "If they want to fight and die, who are we to complain?" Another is exotic prostitution. "But she likes it when I choke her!" Even if never used in any other field, I think that "biological android" soldiers and sex slaves are ultimately inevitable. They may be banned in some places, but they will be developed and used nonetheless. This doesn't even begin to touch on the development of non-biological persons and the use thereof.

The hard part is that I can't figure out why it bothers me.

For more information on present-day slavery, visit Anti-Slavery.

, ,

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Gonzales and Rice confirmations

Sounds like an enchilada dinner.

I can't tell you how thrilled I am that a torture apologist and war-mongering liar are a part of Presiden't Bush's staff. Oh wait. They already were.


Monday, January 24, 2005


I was updating my Friendster profile and I realized that I have never once actually used it to meet a new friend. As far as social networking goes, it's not doing much for me. Granted, I rarely visit Friendster at all, but I wonder if there are people for whom the service has actually given them a bunch of new friends. I also wonder how many people I know offline who are on Friendster (or have site/blogs, or IM screen names) and I've just never found out about them. Ah, the mind's rambling path when one stays home from work.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Republican inspiration?

"It is always simply a matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country." -- Herman Goerring, infamous Nazi propagandist


Friday, January 21, 2005

I was way off

The Austin Police estimate there were 1,500 of us out there yesterday, and given that the police estimate is usually on the low side I have demonstrated my complete inability to guess the size of crowds.


Thursday, January 20, 2005

Austin Counter-Inaugural Protest

I got off work and headed downtown where I hoped to catch the protest at the state capitol. As I drove I noticed the large number of police around, in cars, on motorcycles, on foot. And then I spotted the column marching down Congress Avenue towards the Colorado River bridge. I drove all over trying to find parking, and ultimately settled pretty far away. I started walking towards the protest and I noticed lots of other people moving in the same direction. Some of them were obviously protestors, with "Impeach Bush" signs, while others looked like passers by. Eventually, I got the the light before the bridge and caught sight of the police blockade.

I made my way across the street and into the crowd. The news later said there were "several hundred" protestors; I estimated anywhere from 500 to 800, but I am horrible at guessing. The Austin Police estimated there were 1,500 protestors. As all of the promotional material had suggested, we were limited to the sidewalks lining the bridge, though the bridge itself was closed off.

Soon enough, though, the police tried to let one lane each direction through.

Most of the cars that passed honked their horns or rolled out their windows to support us, which elicited some loud cheers from the crowd. Around this time I first noticed the large burkha-wearing effigy one protestor carried. When I looked at the picture later, I also noticed the "Bush is a pink-ass chimp" sign, which I somehow missed while I was there.

It wasn't long before the police decided to fall back and close off the bridge again, allowing the protest to spill into the street itself.

At this point the protest turned into more of a street festival. There were a number of people playing drums, often in time with the crowds chants. There were the old standards. "What do we want?" "Peace!" "When do we want it?" "Now!" One person got a round of the song War going. Then some protestors came in with a Chinese dragon-styled King George effigy.

The crowd was large, civil, and very diverse.

There were several small children at the protest, even infants.

The man who was essentially leading the chanting due to his megaphone calmed everyone down for a moment and announded that several protestors had been arrested, and that after the demonstration on the bridge ended they were heading to the jail to demand their release. I later learned from the news that at least one of the arrested had been tasered when he got in a police officer's face and possibly pushed him. The exact circumstances of the other arrests isn't known. The protest leader mentioned "police brutality," but he's not exactly objective. For what it's worth, here was the barricade while we were on the bridge.

After we had access to the street, people started writing with chalk pretty much everywhere. There were few untouched sections of pavement in the protest area.

Among the chalking were several police-style chalk body outlines, which I assume were referring to the 100,000+ dead as a result of President Bush's Iraq adventure.

When I saw someone interesting, I asked them to pose.

I thought this graffito summed up the message of the protest rather well.

At around 6:30 the downtown side of the protest started marching up Congress Avenue, back towards the capitol. I joined them. There were chants of "Whose streets?" "Our streets!" and "Show me what democracy looks like." "This is what democracy looks like!" Again, many passers by honked or lowered their windows to shout approval.

Ultimately, this wing of the protest ended up at the jail where the protestors were being held.

When I left at 7:30, there were still over 100 people outside the jail demanding their release. News vans had their transmitting booms extended and helicopters circled ahead. Several protestors were writing statements about witnessing the arrests, which they said were uncalled for and an infringement on free speech.

All in all, it was a great experience. I had forgotten how good it felt to actually do something in the face of adversity, even if that something is to no avail.

, , ,

American Idol

Is there something wrong with me? I like watching the first episodes of American Idol, where people make an ass out of themselves, but I have no interest in watching it after there's only good(-ish) people left. Hmm.


Tuesday, January 18, 2005


I know I've been a little flaky with the blogging in the last couple of days, but I'll get back into it. My brother Scott has moved in with us until he leaves for nuclear reactor school in March. Better than renting his own apartment for six weeks, since he has to be in Austin to do Navy busy work during that time. Not much else is going on. We're going to the counter-inaugural protest on Thursday. Any Austinites who happen to read this, come on down to the Congress Avenue bridge between 5 and 7 and bring a big anti-Bush poster or something.

Saturday, January 15, 2005


It looks a lot like Mars with smog, doesn't it?

In fact, almost everything you see is ice of some kind. The surface is a mixture of water and hydrocarbon ice encrusted with rounded stones. There are lakes and rivers of liquid ethane. The atmosphere is 1.6 times denser than our own, mostly nitrogen but laced with hydrocarbons. The temperature is a balmy -290 °F. Titan is not merely a moon, but an entire world, larger than the planet Mercury. It is a shame that this (and the pictures taken by Huygens on the way down) are likely all we will ever see of this world for decades.

, ,

Friday, January 14, 2005

Technorati tags

Now this is what the Web is all about.

If you don't know Technorati, you should. It is basically a blog reference index that can be used to see who's saying what in the blogosphere. For isntance, if you want to find all of the blog posts about the Huygens probe landing on Titan, you might search for Huygens. It's updated in pretty close to real time, so you get a good feel for what's happening.

Now things have gotten even better with tags. The idea is that a blogger "tags" each post with category keywords telling what the post is about. So again, I might search for Huygens, but this time, what comes up are the blog posts tagged with that word, meaning they are primarily about Huygens and don't just mention it in passing. As a concrete example, this post will come up in a general Technorati search for "Huygens" (or a Google search in a few days), but will not come up in a Technorati tag search. It will, however, come up in a Technorati tag search for "Technorati" or "tags," because that's what I've tagged it with below (and incidentally, you can click on the tags to search for them).

Those of you who know and love the photo-sharing site Flickr will be familiar with tags, because searching for tagged photos is one of the best things about that service. As a bonus, Technorati searches and displays Flickr tags simultaneously, so you really get the whole zeitgeist.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Surviving on prayer

Apparently this guy clung to debris and lived off of coconuts and bottled water for two weeks. He survied because of coconuts and bottled water. There is no debating this fact.

He also prayed. For some reason, the AP reporter who brings us this news thinks that this fact is worthy of its own paragraph, f0llowed by one describing how the prayers were "answered" by a passing ship. Seems it was his prayer that kept him alive, even more so than bottled water! Is the reporter suggesting that had the man not prayed, the ship's captain would have chosen a different course? God sent a tsunami to kill 150,000 people and strand millions without homes! What about their prayers? This guy must kiss way more divine pucker than those other losers, or else God wouldn't love him so much more than all of the innocent children.

It is absurd the mental acrobatics the faithful will go through to avoid facing the fact that God, if he exists, is respsonsible for every disaster and evil in the world just as much as the few shards of goodness that we see. He knows everything that will happen, even the bad things. He can do anything, including stopping all of these bad things. And yet he does nothing but choose random people to survive while letting other random people die. It's almost as if it's purely up to chance.

Oh wait, it is.

What's really annoying is that this was a news story on the AP wire. What ever happened to reporting what actually occurred? If this guy prayed a lot, great, mention it. But why interject the utterly unfounded speculation that it had anything to do with his survival? And if you're going to speculate on one side, why not balance it by throwing in a line to the effect of, "When asked why 150,000 other people deserved to die, God decined to comment."

[via Hyper-Textual Ontology]

The writing life

I think I've finally gotten the writing thing down, and by thing of course I mean "typing stuff," not neccessarily "typing good stuff." I've managed to work on my current story every day for at least half an hour since I started it. I really did burn out early on the first day, but I'm making up for it slowly. Tortoise and the hare, and whatnot. The rough draft should be finished by the weekend, but it's going to be quite rough, so it'll take a lot of editing to whip it into shape.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Core of death!

Some of you might know that at the center of our galaxy is a black hole. A few of you might also know that this black hole has a mass 3.7 million times greater than that of the Sun. Now you can add a new fact to that knowledge: there is a swarm of 10-20 thousand smaller black holes that are slowly spiraling into the central monster, many of which are cannibalizing their stellar neighbors by sucking down plumes of superheated plasma and pumping out x-rays.

And you thought we had it bad.

Sunday, January 9, 2005

Good pieces

The good folks at Common Dreams compiled some great editorials today. The above two stood out for me.

Friday, January 7, 2005


Phillip K. Dick writes cool stories that are sometimes turned into cool movies (Blade Runner, Minority Report), sometimes turned into crappy movies (Imposter, Paycheck -- at least I've heard they're crappy, I haven't seen either), and sometimes into Schwarzenegger movies (Total Recall). He also wrote the brilliant quote you'll see if you scroll all the way to the bottom of this page. Anyway, the next story to get the cinematic treatment is A Scanner Darkly. It's being directed by Richard Linklater of Waking Life fame, and is getting the same animation-over-live-action treatment, only better. So beautiful one almost doesn't care if it sucks.

[via ComingSoon!]

Time out

When I was pulling into my apartment parking lot, there were a couple of families outside with the kids on bikes and the parents watching. These were little kids. Leaving aside the question of whether a crowded apartment parking lot is the best place for kids to be playing in a city with many fine public parks, I overheard something that struck me as funny.

One of the kids was being selfish, I guess, and wouldn't let his sister ride his bike. Their dad shouts, "Adrian, if I hear you say that again, you're going to go to time out." Something is weird to me about "time out" being a physical place that the kid is sent to, like it happens so often that the idea of losing his play previledges has become institutionalized.

It's like at an elementary school I substituted at once. I guess they were trying to emphasize personal choice and accountability, so the teacher's assistant in this classroom would always use the word "disagree" in every correction to a studen't behavior. Usually, if a kid was acting up, she'd just call his name and say, "I disagree." Sometimes it was more elaborate, like, "I disagree with your decision to stand when we're all sitting," or, "I disagree about you not washing your hands after the restroom," or, "Oh, the class isn't quiet? I disagree with that!" Since when is everything a matter of consensus? I was just waiting for a kid to get smart enough to say, "Well, we agree to disagree, then," and just keep doing whatever it was they were doing.

Thursday, January 6, 2005

Back to work

After my lengthy vacation, today I finally went back to work. I wish there was something exciting to say about that fact, but I think it speaks for itself.

Wednesday, January 5, 2005

29,000 children dead

No, not in the tsunami. Every single day, from preventable disease and malnutrition.

Michael Lerner asks us to imagine the change that might happen if every newspaper ran that headline -- an accurate one -- every day and filled their interior pages with personal anecdotes and sidebars detailing what people spent their money on in the more developed nations. There has been an outpouring of financial aid to Southeast Asia in the wake of the recent disaster, but compared to the more than 10 million preventable child deaths last year, the tsunami was a minor tragedy. And this says nothing of the millions of adult lives lost through disease, malnutrition, and war. Disaster strikes daily. Generosity should not end when the headlines do.

Now if only Lerner would stop sabotaging rational progress with his "spiritual left" talk . . . refusal to accept that we're all we have is half the reason so much suffering continues.

Tuesday, January 4, 2005

Zach Braff

I just read some of Zach Braff's not-often-updated blog for the first time. It has it's moments:

I'm staying in a very nice hotel. It's so fancy; the bathroom has two toilets right next to each other. Not sure why. Seems awfully decadent to me. Either one is for peeing and one is for pooing, or it's to enable you and your loved one to go two-sies at the same time. I don't know, but I like it.

For those who haven't seen it, go rent Garden State now that it's out on DVD. Great movie. Nice soundtrack, too.

President Bush's balls

An excerpt from a New York Times interview with Jeanne L. Phillips, chair of the Presidential Inaugural Committee:

Q: I hear one of the balls will be reserved for troops who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

A: Yes, the Commander-in-Chief Ball. That is new. It will be about 2,000 servicemen and their guests. And that should be a really fun event for them.

Q: As an alternative way of honoring them, did you or the president ever discuss canceling the nine balls and using the $40 million inaugural budget to purchase better equipment for the troops?

A: I think we felt like we would have a traditional set of events and we would focus on honoring the people who are serving our country right now -- not just the people in the armed forces, but also the community volunteers, the firemen, the policemen, the teachers, the people who serve at, you know, the -- well, it's called the StewPot in Dallas, people who work with the homeless.

Q: How do any of them benefit from the inaugural balls?

A: I'm not sure that they do benefit from them.

Q: Then how, exactly, are you honoring them?

A: Honoring service is what our theme is about.

[via BoingBoing]

Monday, January 3, 2005


Jared Diamond, author of the Pulitzer-winning (and all-around excellent) Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and the recently-released Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, had an op-ed piece in the New York Times noting some of the conditions that lead to the fall of various civilizations. Five major factors are the damage that people have inflicted on their environment, climate change, enemies, changes in friendly trading partners, and the society's political, economic and social responses to these shifts.

I think it goes without saying that the United States is inflicting damage on the environment. We are seeing unprecedented climate change as a result of that damage and damage elsewhere in the world. Much of the world is opposed to our policies of unrestrained capitalism and exploitation, and many are willing to attack us when the opportunity presents itself. Traditional trading partners in Europe are increasingly turning to emerging markets elsewhere and the dollar is losing primacy to the euro. Meanwhile, at home, the rich get richer and the rulers put their fingers in their ears and shout, "America is great!"

It might not be long. Either democracy will reform the country and correct the imbalance of power, or this may be remembered as the decade the giant fell.

Sunday, January 2, 2005


I'm writing a short story today. The entire thing came to me last night in bed, almost fully formed. It will be down on virtual paper by sunset.

No, seriously.

Update: 45 minutes in, and I'm already at 1,000 words.

Update 2: 12:30 pm and I have 2,250 words, including a 30 minute break. I might not finish in just one day if I burn myself out. Not that it would really be finished anyway, with the editing process still to come. But I would like a rough draft.

Saturday, January 1, 2005

Happy New Year

Let's put 2004 behind us. Sure there were some good things on a personal level -- weddings, graduations, and so on -- but I think it is safe to say that the total happiness of humanity will be lowered because of the events of 2004, and the overall suffering has increased.

So let us instead look ahead at 2005. Politically, I don't expect anything good to come of it. No big elections, Republican-dominated government, and so on. Everyone who has the means, find a way to protest Bush's inauguration on January 20; I'll be at the Texas state capitol. If we're lucky, we just might see the privatization of social security, an expanded USA Patriot Act, and an overturn of Roe v. Wade. I can't wait!

On the geek front, the Huygens probe will finally land on Titan on January 14. Nothing will be discovered that will excite any but the nerdiest among you.

Personally, my goals are pretty modest. I want to get some of my writing on the market, even if it never gets sold. I want to do more good things for people and donate some money to charities. I want to find the cool places in town that nobody's ever heard of. I want to meet new people. I want to free myself from the shackles of wire and finally get a wireless network in our apartment. I want to find some new music to listen to.

Nothing too challenging.