Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Google Reader

I use Google Reader to read the feeds from a couple hundred blogs, and one of the neat things about it is you can share posts you find interesting. The list of shared posts happens to have a feed of its own, which I have put in the sidebar to the right. So even if I'm not posting daily, you can always check out something noteworthy over there.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Sense of Wonder

This is one of those stories that will be flash in the pan for the mainstream media, but is unbelievably big for anyone who, well, knows how big it actually is.

For the first time, astronomers have discovered a planet (Gliese 581 c) that could potentially support life as we know it. Small enough to avoid crushing gravity, big enough to retain an atmosphere, and just the right distance from its star to keep the temperature between 32° and 104° F, allowing for liquid water — in other words, pretty much just like Earth, by astronomical standards.

Now, we shouldn't overstate the case. News articles are already calling the planet "habitable," which is only a possibility at this point. The planet may or may not have an atmosphere that would be friendly to life. It orbits a red dwarf star, which, due to the star's dimness, means that to be at habitable temperature the planet is so close that tides have locked one face to always face the star, and only certain hypothesized atmospheres could transfer heat efficiently enough to keep the air from freezing out on the far side. And the part where even with near-magical technology it would take decades to reach doesn't bode well for vacationing.

Nonetheless, it is not impossible that one could fly their magical spaceship to 581 c, pop the hatch, and breathe the air without a spacesuit. And whether that unlikely scenario turns out to be the case or not, in the history of humanity we've never been able to say it was even a possibility before today. And that's something.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Moral Musings

In the time since my last post, I've been doing a lot of two things: reading and sleeping. Specifically, I've read No Logo by Naomi Klein, Citizens of the Empire by Robert Jensen, and The Case for Animal Rights by Tom Regan. The latter was of particular interest to me, as it managed to raise some very interesting questions about rights theory that led me to a whole lot more reading online.

I've argued for a utilitarian philosophy for years now. Utilitarianism appeals for me for its egalitarian approach and for it's logic; there's no appealing to vague and variable intuitions, no appeal to some magical rules, and so on. That said, utilitarianism is not without its flaws and without its critics. There is certainly an appeal about some form of rights or justice theory; while they are harder to ground in logic, they're simpler and often easier to apply in practice. Apparently, it is a pretty standard experiment for the philosophy student to attempt to reconcile the two approaches; as an armchair student myself, I suppose it was inevitable that I would try as well. I'm sure the approach below has been done before, and probably better, but it's what I'm working with right now. I will try not to go into too much detail, so as to just get on with it.

We begin with equal consideration of interests. Interests are, essentially, what a being wants: preferences. Any sentient being capable of suffering has, at the very least, an interest in avoiding suffering. More mentally complex beings have other interests, and humans have massive collections of interrelated and independent preferences. So many, in fact, that it is impossible to account for them all. If we are to take all interests into consideration equally, then we must seek to maximize their satisfaction. We find ourselves at a position of preference utilitarianism: good is that which tends to satisfy the most preferences for the most beings.

However, sentience is a necessary but not sufficient criterion for the consideration of interests. A being cannot have sentience if it is not alive. Furthermore, a being cannot have preferences satisfied if it does not have the basic autonomy and liberty to do so. In other words, life and liberty are prerequisites for holding the type of preferences that our utilitarianism seeks to maximize. We cannot equally consider these interests if the prerequisite conditions are not met for all beings involved before we begin the consideration. We can account for these prerequisites in two ways, which have the same effect in practice. We may either say that all sentient beings have a right to life and liberty, and treat them as rights theories would, or we may arbitrarily say that the disutility of taking away life or liberty is always one unit worse than any possible utility arising from the satisfaction of preferences. For simplicity, and because it reeks of hybridism, I am inclined to call them rights and be done with it.

It is actually pure coincidence that my approach results in what amounts to the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (through satisfaction of preferences).

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Sex and Violence

Last weekend I saw Grindhouse. The retro double-feature is great fun. Pure, unadulterated, gory exploitation in both films.

Spoilers follow.

Watching ostensibly escapist films actually makes me think quite a bit about the intersection of fantasy and reality. How can someone like myself, who abhors violence, enjoy scenes of death and revenge? How can someone like myself, who considers himself a feminist, enjoy films that by definition exploit women?

The answer to the second question is actually rather easy in this case, as both Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino slickly turned their exploitation pictures into empowerment pictures where women are concerned. One of Rodriguez's protagonists in Planet Terror, a stripper who abandoned her dreams, becomes the ass-kicking leader of the straggling survivors of the human race. Tarantino's presumed slasher-film victims in Death Proof don't take their stalking laying down; they track down the killer and beat the shit out of him. And as for sex, well, there isn't a lick of it in the movie thanks to intentionally humorous missing reels. While the women in the films, particularly Death Proof, are properly glammed and sexed up according to patriarchal norms, even with the intentionally cheesy plotting and dialogue they never lack agency. In fact, one can note that the group of women who died in Death Proof were the more stereotypically feminized set — vapid, interested in dancing and drinking and hooking up with boys. Meanwhile, the group that survives and ultimately kills the killer include two stuntwomen and their girly-girl companion who wants in on the action. Some are even calling Grindhouse a feminist movie; I'm not sure I'd go that far, but the movie is certainly about women taking command of shit brought upon them by men — and brutal, bloody action, of course.

That brings me to my first question. Violence. I am, more or less, a pacifist. More to the point, I unequivocally don't believe in revenge, and I don't believe in punishment. But at the end of Death Proof, when Stuntman Mike's targeted victims track him down, reduce him to a sniveling heap, and beat him quite probably to death, I cheered. And it wasn't simply my amusement at the unexpected reversal of genre conventions; I was happy. I think the reason is that I do believe in justice. In revenge films, the violence is symbolic of justice, of people getting what they deserve. It's karma. And while in reality I would want to see someone like Stuntman Mike arrested, tried, and sentenced to life in prison where he couldn't harm anyone, in the world of fantasy I am perfectly content to let his demise at the hands of his intended victims stand in for that rather unexciting scenario.

I notice that most of my commentary seems to focus on Death Proof, which is interesting because I probably enjoyed Rodriguez's contribution more. While Planet Terror does share the strong woman theme, it is not a Tarantino film and is simply not intended to have much in the way of shades of meaning. Rodriguez chose to go for pure spectacle, and Planet Terror is nothing if not that. The violence in Planet Terror is mostly, well, zombie violence, and a lot of it. Considerations of morality and ethics are rather irrelevant when dealing with the undead.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Abolitionist Approach

Gary Francione is a leading figure in the animal rights movement, best known as the principal public advocate for the abolitionist approach to animal rights. Earlier this year, Francione began blogging at the aptly named Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach, and he recently began an excellent series of FAQ posts about animal rights.

The abolitionist approach to animal rights is exactly what it sounds like: advocating the abolition of animal ownership, use, and exploitation. The abolitionist approach takes as it's foundation the notion that animals, as sentient beings capable of suffering, are not property. They should therefore be considered bearers of rights worthy of protection. As non-property, animals cannot be owned, which further means that they are not ours to use and exploit.

Most animal rights organizations would publicly agree with the abolition of animal use and exploitation as a long-term goal. The difference between these groups, such as PETA, and the abolitionists is that PETA believes that improvements in animal welfare, no matter how small, help bring about this goal. Abolitionists such as Francione believe that this is not the case.

The problem is that improvements in animal welfare, while certainly beneficial to the animals involved, actually make abolition less likely. Consider Burger King. The animals used in Burger King's products are tortured and mutilated for their entire lives, to say nothing of being killed needlessly because they happen to taste good. Under pressure from PETA and other groups, Burger King moved to make modest improvements in the treatment of animals. PETA publicly applauded these efforts, which undoubtedly slightly improved the lives of the animals involved. Does this do anything to reduce the demand for animal products, or to end the exploitation of animals? On the contrary, this merely made people who were squeamish about the treatment of animals for Burger King now feel comfortable again. With the stamp of approval from allegedly-radical PETA, consumers feel better about eating animals. Demand increases, and Burger King is more successful. Rather than making their stated goal of abolition more likely, making slaughter more "humane" does the opposite.

The difficulty with welfare reforms is that "humane slaughter" generally has a positive effect on animal product sales. It makes people feel good about buying the products. The only way to end the use of animals in a capitalist economy is to make their use unprofitable, and the congratulations offered by groups like PETA for welfare reforms only makes animal use more profitable.

Francione believes, and I am inclined to agree, that the only way to actually achieve the abolition goals of the animal rights movement is vegan evangelism. So long as people are comfortable eating animals, and using animals, there will continue to be a demand for animal exploitation, and no amount of welfare reform will ever reach the point of reforming that demand away. Instead of pressuring Burger King to torture animals slightly less before killing them, PETA should have been pressuring Burger King to stop torturing and killing animals.

People need to be aware and conscious of where their food comes from; most people are a bit disgusted when thinking about slaughterhouses when eating because most people instinctively know that the treatment of animals in them is disgusting. Mentally sanitizing the animal exploitation industries is no better than editing war footage to pretend it isn't bloody and painful.

The fact is that nobody needs to eat meat or use animal products, especially not in more developed countries such at the United States. There is no doubt that animals suffer in the production of meat and other products, and as this suffering is entirely unnecessary, based solely on whim, it is morally wrong for it to continue. Unnecessary infliction of suffering is always wrong.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Naked PETA

Remember PETA's State of the Union Undress that I discussed here in January? Well, the stripping spokeswoman is frequent nude protester Sarah Harley, and Dean Abbott has an interview with her. The interview mostly discusses nudity rather than animal rights, and doesn't really deal with the issue of sexism. I completely disagree with Abbott's reasons for objecting to the video, which seem to be shrouded in spiritual objections to nudity and sex outside marriage and desacralizing the body, especially when you read his original objecting post. But the interview itself makes an interesting follow-up.

As I said in my original post, my objection to PETA-style nude protests is not really that there are naked people in them. I think PETA's campaigns are problematic for two reasons.

First, I think this sort of thing makes people take PETA's message (which, as an ethical vegan, I agree with) less seriously. As with violence, I think that superficial attention-grabbing tends to be counter-productive, with few exceptions.

Second, they don't merely use nudity to get attention. If they did, there wouldn't need to be catcalling men, or references to "hot chicks" being an American tradition, or frequent zooms into body parts. How many people (let's be honest here, mostly men) watched the Undress video and even listened to what Harley had to say? How many just turned it off when the images of animal cruelty began? I'd honestly be interested to see statistics on how many visitors to the Undress page clicked through to PETA's main site. I'm guessing here, but I bet that the video was watched far more times as porn than watched resulting in anyone educating themselves on animal rights issues.

But as with porn, I don't believe that the problem is with the people doing the work. I don't think that Harley was exploited or coerced into making the video. In fact, I rather admire her dedication to the cause. The problem lies with the role these sorts of actions play in society. If we lived in an egalitarian society, in which women weren't often viewed and used as sexualized objects, I would honestly have little objection. But we don't live in that society, and using sexualized images of women to sell something (even something I believe in) continues to perpetuate the idea that women are nothing more than things to be ogled.

I have to admit a certain amount of mixed feelings about that sort of conclusion. I know, logically, that it is accurate. But, I also don't think that banishing sex and nudity from the public sphere is any sort of solution. We're in a catch-22 with the objectification of women; a catch-22 women know all too well from the double-standard of modesty and sexual femininity that society demands they maintain. I think nakedness and sex are positive, women are as validly sexual as men, and I'd love a world in which people could be nude or do sexy things in public and it would be considered good fun. At the same time, until that world exists, doing those things is tainted by the misogyny of capitalism, religion, and historically patriarchal society. And so we have to maintain a balance between promoting a healthy, positive outlook on sex and the body without promoting commodification of it, especially of women. I just don't think that PETA maintains that balance in their actions.

Don Imus: Asshole

By now you've certainly heard about how Don Imus referred to the predominately black women's basketball team at Rutgers as "some nappy-headed hoes." I have three things to say about this.

First, is Don Imus really one to talk about nappy hair?

Second, Don Imus is a douchebag and should be fired. This isn't the first time he's made racist comments, or even the only racist comments he made about the Rutgers team in that very show, and an apology or two simply doesn't cut it. There are certain things that, while one can sincerely apologize for their effects, one just can't take back. Saying he's sorry for being a dick is all fine and well, but it doesn't mean he's not still a racist dick and no sane radio station would want to give him a platform.

Third, just what is the correct way to pluralize ho? According to the New York Times, the word is ho's. The Washington Post says hos. At the Chicago Tribune, it's hoes. The Oxford American Dictionary is no help, giving hos or hoes as correct. American Heritage lists only hos.

Most English words that end in -o add an -es to form the plural, e.g., potatoes, tomatoes, and heroes. There are exceptions, but as ho is a relatively new slang word the intuitive thing to do would be to pluralize it as hoes. The one I'm really confused about is ho's. No word is pluralized with an -'s. The only rationalization I can think of is that the apostrophe stands for an omitted e, much like how it is valid to write OD'd for overdosed, but what I can't figure out is why one would want to omit the e in hoes.

Friday, April 6, 2007


I've been playing around with Twitter lately. Twitter is the most bare bones social networking site in the history of the Internet, and yet it is also one of the most useful and certainly one of the most addicting. Essentially, Twitter is a status message, like in an instant messenger program. Where Twitter takes things further is in two ways: 1. by making those messages RSS feeds, you can have a page where you can see what all your friends are doing and thinking in more or less real time, and 2. by integrating with instant messaging and cell phone text messaging, you can know what's up with everyone anywhere they are, and submit your own updates on the fly.

My friends that I've tried to get to join's reactions seem to be one of three: 1. cool! 2. I don't know if I am interesting enough/could keep it up, or 3. that is so lame, why would I want to know what people are doing? The thing about it is, you really have no idea how interesting Twitter is until you're using it. Certainly, the main page is less than inspiring, with a list of people you don't know doing random things. But as with most new ideas, you soon forget how you ever lived without it.

It is only a matter of time before Twitter, Blogger, MySpace, camera phones, Flickr, Consummating, Gmail, Tumblr, and all come together in a sloppy Web 2.0 orgy to give birth to true lifelogging, or, in the spirit of clever short forms, "flogging."

Many (most?) hip, geeky types already have an embryonic flog, it's just in pieces. I do. In Gmail, I have every e-mail message I've received in the several years I've had it and space for thousands more. While I've been lazy with it, in theory I could have a photographic record of my life recorded in Flickr. If I wanted to, I could use my phone and add photos from just about everywhere I go. I'm blogging my opinions right now. With Twitter, I have a record of most of the things I've been doing or thinking, from the mundane to the exciting, and people can see it in real time. stores websites I come across. I'm tempted to start a tumblelog to get down little snippets and amusing random happenings.

What if this was all in one place? What if it was all indexable and searchable and taggable, and maybe even automatic?

I think there will be a day, perhaps a decade or two away, when the idea of not having an external "memory archive" of everything you have ever done will be alien. There will be a time when it would be considered odd to not be able to google your flog on Januray 2, 2043 and see who you IMed on March 22, 2012, and to pull up the conversation to read. It will be strange to not have photos and video of at least a few events nearly every single day, stored for perpetuity and ready for recollection as vividly as the day they occurred.

I have to admit, I'm not a big privacy stickler. Personal information, such as identification and passwords and accounts, certainly, but I don't generally care if anybody knows who I am or what I look like or what I'm up to. But it is my sincere belief that they days of privacy as we presently think of it are pretty much over, and not because of Big Brother. People are voluntarily exhibiting themselves online, and increasingly using their real names to do it. People are realizing that the Internet isn't some scary festering lair of pedophilia and stalking, it is a place just like any other, as good or bad as the people who visit.

But a flog need not be public. Twitter is. As far as I know, and Twitter certainly has a pretty small user base right now, Twitter has not yet been used for somebody to track and harm anybody. I'm sure the day will come, but the odds are no greater than a person tracking and harming someone in real life. At most, more people will simply set their Twitter to "friends only."

And so it will be with lifelogs. You'll choose what things and how much of them to make public. I might be comfortable letting people see most of my life, if they were so utterly bored they might find it entertaining. Someone else might only allow certain choice bits out. It would have to be fully customizable and robust.

Somebody is going to get rich.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The John Doe Manifesto

Michelle Malkin's brilliant parody of the self-righteous insanity that passes for thinking in conservative circles really — what? You mean she's serious?
Dear Muslim Terrorist Plotter/Planner/Funder/Enabler/Apologist,
By Malkin's standards, this means "everyone to the left of Newt Gingrich, plus libertarians."
I am traveling on your plane. I am riding on your train. I am at your bus stop. I am on your street. I am in your subway car. I am on your lift.
Lift? Did I miss the part where Malkin's target audience lives in a flat on the Thames and wears pants under their trousers and tries not to get hit by a lorry while pulling the spare tyre from the boot?
I am your neighbor. I am your customer. I am your classmate. I am your boss.
Yikes. I guess we're surrounded by scary people after all.
I will act when homeland security officials ask me to “report suspicious activity.”
Which is to say, any activity she disagrees with.
I will embrace my local police department’s admonition: “If you see something, say something.”
"No, really, anything. A blathering ejaculation of a manifesto for the insane, even."
I will raise my voice against your subjugation of women and religious minorities.
Because that's a job for Americans, damn it!
I will challenge your attempts to indoctrinate my children in our schools.
Only Republicans and Christians get to do that.
I will combat your violent propaganda on the Internet.
With her own!
I will support law enforcement initiatives to spy on your operatives, cut off your funding, and disrupt your murderous conspiracies.
Wow, that's a bold statement.
I will resist the imposition of sharia principles and sharia law in my taxi cab, my restaurant, my community pool, the halls of Congress, our national monuments, the radio and television airwaves, and all public spaces.
Another bold statement. Because you just know we're a hair's breadth away from sharia in the United States. Wait.
I will not be cowed by your Beltway lobbying groups in moderate clothing. I will not cringe when you shriek about “profiling” or “Islamophobia.”
Good thing for Malkin it wasn't a group of Asian-looking Indonesian Muslims who hijacked those planes…
I will put my family’s safety above sensitivity. I will put my country above multiculturalism.
Because putting the United States above multiculturalism is much better than doing so with Islam. Oh, I'm sorry, it's the same fucking thing.
I will not submit to your will. I will not be intimidated.
Again, stepping on Uncle Sam's turf.
I am John Doe.
If only you were actually so anonymous.