Thursday, July 31, 2014

Another tech company plays with its users

First it was Facebook. Now it's OKCupid that has confessed to conducting secret experiments on its users.
One experiment linked users up with people who were deemed a bad match — a 30 percent compatibility rate based on OKCupid’s algorithm. OKCupid labeled these bad matches as being 90 percent compatible to see if people could “like” each other even if they had nothing in common.
Again, a tech company changed how it selected its deliverables. Again, the public is pissed.

OKCupid showed even less concern for its users than Facebook. Facebook filtered out some of the information it ordinarily would have shared, but it didn't provide false information. OKCupid subverted its core functionality: it gave outright false results.

OKCupid asked a valid question, but it pursued an ethically indefensible strategy to find the answer. There are protocols to follow when you experiment on human subjects. Reputable scientists know about these protocols. Are there any reputable scientists at OKCupid? It doesn't seem so.

The obvious followup question: is OKCupid a trustworthy company?

Well, it came clean: give it credit for that. But its post-facto confession doesn't excuse its deceit. The confession doesn't make up for whatever fallout resulted from its tampering.

What OKCupid traffics in isn't maintaining old relationships, but creating new ones, one of the most deeply personal areas of anyone's life. Sure, the end user ultimately decides whether a relationship is viable. However, just because you're ultimately responsible for spitting poison out before you ingest it, doesn't mean you want food companies to disguise garbage as edible food. That's what OKCupid did.

Is The Daily Show becoming dispensable?

Tonight I saw a Daily Show correspondent's report that I could easily have done without. It wasn't just uneven: that's a common failing of the pieces. No, Jordan Klepper's piece skewering Gawker was irritating.

Part of the problem was that the subject was boring. We already knew Gawker and its ilk were bottom-feeders: the report didn't say anything new. Worse, though, the report wasn't funny, either. Whoever wrote the piece went for obvious, easy and flat jokes. The innocent bystanders (especially the eminent cancer researcher) were just that, innocent, and didn't deserve the ridicule they faced merely for allowing themselves to appear on camera.

Jon Stewart's commentary segments are still sharp and funny, but the correspondents and interviews are no longer compelling. I wonder if we're seeing the start of the show's decline.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

We have to walk the walk

I didn't have an opinion on the refugee crisis at the U.S.-Mexican border. I didn't know enough. Were these kids fleeing impossible violence in their homelands, or were they merely pawns in somebody else's grand scheme to beat the U.S.'s immigration laws?

By now, though, I've concluded the conditions in a few Central American countries, including Honduras and Guatemala, are horrible enough for kids that the majority of the kids showing up at the border should be considered refugees.

Here's where we have to consult the mirror.

For decades the U.S. has entreated countries bordering war zones to take in refugees. We know it's a burden, we say, but come on, please, help out: it's a humanitarian crisis.

Now it's our turn. Here's a humanitarian crisis. Are we going to step up, or not?

Most of these kids aren't doing a number on us. Anyway, due process is supposed to ferret out any that are. This is a crisis, yes, but it's not such a crisis that we're in danger of lsoing our nation over. We can absorb them, at least in the short term.

So: after decades of talking the talk to much poorer nations like Jordan, are we going to walk the walk, or not?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Joseph Rudolph Wood and suffering

We can't judge for ourselves whether or not convicted murderer Joseph Rudolph Wood III suffered during his execution at the hands of the state of Arizona last night. Only the requisite staff and the witnesses admitted by the state know what happened. Relatives of the victims say he didn't (see the embedded video), but they also said that if he did suffer, what he felt couldn't compare to what his victims suffered at his hands.

I can't help feeling, though, that the question of the executed man's suffering misses the point.

As columnist E.J. Montini noted in the Arizona Central column to which I linked above:

The hand wringing that has followed is not for Wood.

It's for us.

We pretend to have concern for the murderer, that we want our state-sponsored killing to be humane, to be civilized – as if such a thing is possible.

But we don't want such things for the murderer. We want them for ourselves. We want the killing to be swift and "peaceful" so that killing a person doesn't upset us.

State-sanctioned executions are a way for society to express its support for the loved ones of the victims. We can all understand the desire for vengeance: "an eye for an eye" was one of the earliest moral codes. We also want the execution to serve as a warning to others who might be contemplating similar crimes.

All that aside, we don't particularly want to get our hands dirty.

Lethal injections allowed us to sustain the delicate fiction that our executions were "humane". Now that the tried and tested drug cocktails are no longer available and their replacements seem to produce public relations nightmares for state officials, though, we have to find an alternative.

Other methods of execution were abandoned because too many of us started thinking they were too brutal. The victim's loved ones might not be bothered by the condemned's convulsions or blood, but the rest of us are. The Eighth Amendment was a handy fig leaf to mask our queasiness as humane concern. (Methods like the gas chamber and electrocution also seem to be genuinely cruel, not to mention unreliable.)

So either we need to get past our squeamishness and consider those abandoned alternate methods of executing people, or ...

We could bypass all the questions of suffering and cruelty by adopting an alternative to the death penalty itself.

I've laid out my objections to the death penalty. Twice. The suffering of the condemned as he's being executed isn't one of those objections, but if that's what brings you to the anti-death penalty camp, great.

Cruz the braying jackass

Sen. Ted Cruz, one of the reasons Texas' Congressional delegation resembles the children's table at a particularly unruly party (only less civilized than actual children), called the FAA's temporary travel ban of U.S. flights to Israel "an economic boycott".
"The facts suggest that President Obama has just used a federal regulatory agency to launch an economic boycott on Israel, in order to try to force our ally to comply with his foreign-policy demands," Cruz said in a statement, arguing that the flight ban would have a negative impact on Israel's tourism industry.
"The facts"? Here are the facts: (1) a Hamas rocket "landed about a mile away from the airport on Tuesday" (per the TPM piece), and (2) Malaysia Airlines has taken a lot of heat for allowing MH-17 to fly over the area in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian separatists are fighting the government. (Malaysia Airlines was just doing what other airlines were doing, but fat lot of good it has done them to point that out.) Given the facts, it was prudent for the FAA to initiate a ban, at least until it was able to clarify the extent of the risk posed by the fighting. That the ban inconveniences people is unfortunate, but weigh that against being shot down.

And "an economic boycott"? Did the FAA ban the Internet, electronic funds transfers, and shipping, too? Way to overreach, Ted.

I guarantee you that, in the aftermath of MH-17's shoot-down, if a U.S. carrier's plane were to be hit by a Hamas rocket, Cruz would be leading the charge for a Senate hearing to grill the FAA on why no flight ban was in place. Now that the ban has been lifted, Cruz may get his chance. The New York Times piece notes that the European Aviation Safety Agency continues to recommend that airlines continue to avoid Tel Aviv — not a good sign that the facts on the ground have changed. I really hope the FAA didn't buckle under political pressure.

As for Cruz, his jibe at the Obama administration is part of a long line of knavish remarks designed to rouse his ill-informed constituents' base passions. Some who knew him before his entry into politics swear he's s smart, savvy man. I don't know: he's a pretty convincing moron. If his friends are right, though, he's a despicable fire-starter who claims to believe things he knows are abjectly false. "Smart" doesn't imply "honest".

Idiot or panderer? Either way, Cruz is as big a jackass as Marco Rubio.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Rubio the braying jackass

Per the AP:
Americans who oppose same-sex marriage often face "intolerance" from those who support it, Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said Wednesday in a speech about values that appeared aimed at wooing social conservatives.
This would be ludicrous if so many people didn't share his idiotic opinion.

Rubio also likes to mischaracterize those who disagree with him.

"Even before this speech is over, I will be attacked as someone who is a hater or a bigot or someone who is anti-gay," Rubio said.
No, you're not a bigot, though you might be anti-gay. (I say nothing about whether you're a hater.) What you unquestionably are is a stinking, self-pitying moron. Unless, of course, you're just a despicable opportunist who's playing to stinking, self-pitying morons.

For decades — no, centuries — no, millennia — non-heterosexuals have suffered cruelly at the hands of Christians and Muslims. (I don't know whether Jews have mistreated them too.) Non-heterosexuals have been tortured and murdered simply for being who they are. In parts of the world, they still are. Hell, anti-gay violence is still alive and well (so to speak) in the U.S., even if it is less acceptable in polite company than it used to be.

What's the "intolerance" same-sex marriage foes face? Hard words.

Oh, my. How will the poor souls stand it?

Marco, you make me sick. Shut the fuck up.

You and your ilk are not victims.

More on the absurdity of the Hobby Lobby decision

Michael Hiltzik in the Los Angeles Times wrote a sensible piece back on 2 July 2014 about the then-latest fallout from the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision.
The day after handing down the Hobby Lobby decision on Monday, the court issued orders pertaining to six pending cases in which employers claimed religious objections to all contraceptive services required under the Affordable Care Act. The court either ordered appeals courts to reconsider their rejection of the employers' claims in light of the Hobby Lobby decision, or let stand lower courts' endorsement of those claims.
Hiltzik touched on the question of a petitioner's sincerity of belief, asking, "... how do we limit the exemption only to those with religious scruples?" He noted that in a recent case, Judge Janice Rogers of the Washington, D.C., circuit appeals court declined to probe the sincerity of the petitioners' beliefs in ruling for them and against the contraceptives mandate of the PPACA. Yet the Hobby Lobby decision can only be seen as "fair" if the irresistible weapon of religious objection can be limited to those who are sincere in their beliefs.
Allowing exemptions to a federal law based on "unchallenged" and "unchallengeable" claims of subjective belief is the antithesis of secular law. That may be why religious exemptions have been handed out very carefully, until now.
In short, the only way to keep Hobby Lobby from being the easy excuse to undo laws at will is for the courts to interrogate sincerity of belief.

Congratulations, right-wing Justices: you've turned the federal judiciary into the Great Pumpkin.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A stupid argument against Russian culpability for MH-17

Russia may or may not be responsible, in whole or in part, for the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17. I think the hypotheses implicating Russia as at least partly responsible make sense, but my information comes from U.S. media outlets so I might be getting a distorted picture.

However, let's dispense with one nonsensical counterargument being peddled by Ron Paul, among others. I've sometimes found Paul to be a useful contrarian. However, there's a good reason he has never been more than a fringe politician: he can be a shortsighted crank. This is a prime example.

Of Western media outlets, Paul writes:

They will not report that neither Russia nor the separatists in eastern Ukraine have anything to gain but everything to lose by shooting down a passenger liner full of civilians.

They will not report that the Ukrainian government has much to gain by pinning the attack on Russia, and that the Ukrainian prime minister has already expressed his pleasure that Russia is being blamed for the attack.

Really? You thought these were persuasive arguments?

Of course "neither Russia nor the separatists ... have anything to gain" by shooting down a passenger jet. No one has suggested they did except for Russian apologists, and they've only suggested this in order to mock it as an obviously stupid argument. Nobody stood to gain by this tragedy. In fact, the consensus is that the shootdown must have been a terrible mistake by a badly trained operator.

Paul seems to think it's news "that the Ukrainian government has much to gain by pinning the attack on Russia". No, Ron, that's not news, that's obvious. Just as obvious as the Russian government having much to gain by pinning the attack on Ukraine.

Either Paul is off his meds or he thinks his readers are dumb as rocks.

Monday, July 21, 2014


We know that Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 crashed with 298 people on board. We know no one survived. We know where the plane crashed. We know when it happened.

We may never know more than that. Not for sure.

It seems clear the plane was brought down by a missile, and the simple physics of the circumstances rules out a shoulder-mounted model. But will we ever know who fired it? Probably not.

A lot of answers might have been found in the debris field. However, the debris field is under the control of what can only be called irregular forces. Whether they're freedom fighters or terrorists, they're not disaster specialists, and their first priority is not preserving the area for professional crash investigators. (I'm also not sure how they can be certain all the debris is within the perimeter they've apparently established.)

At this point, no real investigation is possible: the integrity of the site has been fatally compromised in the eyes of the world, whether or not the irregulars actually have tampered with it. Even if we found the voice and data recorders, it's doubtful they could shed much light: it hardly seems likely either mechanical fault or pilot error accounts for the crash.

What about data sources not at the mercy of the irregulars: signals intelligence, satellite surveillance, eyewitness observations? Unfortunately, they all come from sources that may wish to mislead. Anyway, the idea that the U.S., for instance, is going to make public its spy satellite data is laughable.

Barring a miracle, "the" story of flight MH-17 will probably depend on whom you believe. It's not likely we'll find out more than we already know — or suspect.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

It's the drought, stupid

A Glendora, California couple was chastised and threatened with fines by the city for a brown lawn. This, in the face of a three-year-long drought affecting the entire state that is so severe, Gov. Jerry Brown just signed legislation enacting mandatory water conservation.

Here's what the city manager, Chris Jeffers, said.

"Conservation does not mean neighborhoods need to deteriorate because property owners want (the) landscape to die or go unmaintained," he said.
This is one of those times when I wonder, "Do I really have to say it?" And then I realize I do, because this guy clearly needs to hear it. So:

Get your head out of your ass, Mr. Jeffers.

The grotesqueness of fundamentalist "justice"

A ten-year-old Afghani girl was raped by a mullah but now faces being murdered by her own family out of their sense of family honor.

Let's recap:

  • The crime: rape. (A very violent one at that, not that that should matter.)
  • The victim: a ten-year-old girl.
  • The rapist: a man supposedly "educated in Islamic theology and sacred law", according to Wikipedia. His name is Mohammad Amin, should you be in a position to spit on him. He confessed to the rape, incidentally, so don't worry that you'll be wasting saliva.
Yet who's being persecuted? Who might be killed? The victim — who is, again, a little girl. Even the girl's mother wants her dead.
In the hospital room, the doctor found the girl’s mother holding her child’s hand, and both were weeping. “My daughter, may dust and soil protect you now,” Dr. Sarwari quoted the mother as saying. “We will make you a bed of dust and soil. We will send you to the cemetery where you will be safe.”
You might be asking yourself, is this just one supremely screwed-up family?

Nope. A couple of women's advocates publicized this case, and the blowback didn't just come from the family.

After the two women’s officials began speaking out about the case, they started receiving threatening calls from mullahs — some of them Taliban, others on the government side — and from arbakai, or pro-government militiamen. One of their claims was that the girl was actually 17, and thus of marriageable age, not 10.
(Photos of the girl clearly show she's prepubescent.)

What the fuck is the matter with you zealots calling for this girl's life?

Are you so completely fucked in the head that you think a little girl bears any responsibility for this crime, much less all of it?

Are your values so completely evil that you refuse to admit it was the man who was completely responsible, that it is he who should suffer the consequences for this crime?

The family's attitude is utterly, monstrously wrong. However, it's very much a product of the warped, debased, and deeply misogynistic religious fundamentalism that holds the region in thrall.

Wanting to shame sexual promiscuity is understandable, but to take that principle as far as slaughtering a rape victim — who, I repeat, is a little girl — brands the responsible religion as sick and immoral.

This is what makes fundamentalist Islam incompatible with civilization. It's utterly at odds with humane values and true justice.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Time for the Catholic Church to decide

On the one hand, the Catholic Church doesn't want to lose federal funding.

On the other hand, the Church doesn't want to employ non-heterosexuals, which is the major reason the Church is at risk of losing federal funding.

This is as clear a case of wanting to have its cake and eat it, too, as I've seen in a while.

I've said it before: "Faith-based charities may be doing good with federal money, but the price is just too high." That price includes the legal right to discriminate in hiring, enshrined during the G. W. Bush administration (see my aforementioned post).

The net result of our government's current policies is, the consciences of religious believers are granted greater deference than those of non-believers. That's discriminatory.

The Catholic Church has been quite vocal about claiming religious liberty is under siege. My response?

Hey, bishops, I have a solution for you: if you don't like government policy, stop taking its money.
The corresponding advice for the rest of us is, we must stop relying on religious organizations to provide social services. If they want to provide charity out of their own resources, fine. But to create situations where people are forced to rely on a religious group for help — where, for instance, a Catholic-run charitable hospital is the only recourse for health care — is simply untenable today.

So, Catholic Church, you have a choice. You can either adhere to governmental guidelines for receiving governmental money, or you can forego those funds. This business of carving out exemptions in laws for you, for no discernible reason other than that you've successfully guilt-tripped us into doing it before, won't fly any more.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Troubleshooting device charging

So it has come to this: I'm using this blog to bookmark random Web articles. Oh well.

The Wired piece is, "WTF Just Happened: Why My Gadget Charged Very Slowly (Or Not At All)" by Tim Moynihan.

The tidbit I didn't know that I want to ensure I don't forget:

If you want to replace a cable to charge your tablet without paying a premium for a manufacturer-supplied replacement, your best bet is to look for a 28/24 AWG (American Wire Gauge) USB cable. This is a wider gauge than the 28/28 cables supplied with 1-amp chargers, and more of the cables’ wires are dedicated to transferring a charge. These cables are easy to find at all the major outlets (Monoprice, Amazon, Newegg) starting at less than $2.
[links in original]

The Times' science coverage is weak

The New York Times does an exemplary job of covering national politics and foreign policy. It manages to do a decent job of covering the arts. It runs its share of long pieces on a variety of subjects, whether it be a profile of a (putatively) important person or a school's struggle with decades of sexual abuse (I don't have a link to the Horace Mann story, sorry). It even manages to toss in regional stories that might have larger implications, particularly where it has a good supply of stringers, e.g., Texas and California.

For a national publication, though, its coverage of science is decidedly weak. I was going to say "dreadful", but the truth is, I can't think of another general-interest publication that does a better job.

That bugs me.

I know that All Knowledge Is Available On The Internet. Having it available and actually encountering it, though, are different things. We need gateways to expose people to information they don't know that they don't know, that they don't know they should seek out.

The Times does have a Science section. Its focus, though, is frustratingly narrow. The articles tend to be about technology, especially as it affects daily life; biology, especially as it affects health; or the environment. These are important subjects, to be sure, but they're not the be-all and end-all of science. Where are chemistry, geology, or physics, to name but three very big areas of scientific inquiry? When physics is in the news, as with the apparent confirmation of the Higgs boson's existence, the coverage tends to be more about the technology (the Large Hadron Collider, in that case) than the underlying physics. I don't expect a mathematically rigorous explanation, of course (I'm no more qualified to understand that than the average layman), but it would have been nice if the Times had put the news into context by explaining at least a little about the Standard Model.

I happen to be a cosmology buff, so the Times' treatment of this absorbing subject especially irks me. The nature, origin and fate of the universe may not be everybody's cup of tea, but as a topic it surely deserves better than vapid essays like this one. The paper covers small towns in Vermont with more care. Hell, it covers fashion far more thoroughly than science. If we had as many column-inches about current research as about Milan, the Times' readership would be the most scientifically literate bunch on the planet.

No publication can do everything well, I suppose, but the nearly unlimited room available to the Web version of the paper makes the narrowness and shallowness of its science coverage an especially egregious weakness. In an age where the national debate requires a populace that understands enough science to recognize bamboozlers and frauds (I'm looking at many of you, Republican lawmakers), this is a weakness we shouldn't tolerate in one of our most nationally important publications.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Chuck Jones exhibition (yawn)

The Museum of the Moving Image in NYC is hosting a Chuck Jones retrospective starting 19 July 2014.

Jones was certainly one of the Big Three directors at Warner Bros. during the studio's Golden Age of animation, the other two being Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett. (In spite of being essentially the father of the outfit, Tex Avery didn't stick around long enough, nor did Frank Tashlin or Art Davis; of Bob McKimson's directorial stint, the less said, the better.) Yet Jones carries an outsized reputation, especially among casual cartoon fans.

Jones certainly had his moments, a few of them cited in the article (though I prefer others, like Rabbit of Seville and The Dover Boys at Pimento University). However, for pure laughs, he couldn't hold a candle to Friz Freleng. The thing is, because Jones self-identified as an intellectual, I think it was and still is easier for both academics and adults not sure they should be proud of liking cartoons to like him. He self-consciously incorporated elements of "higher" art into his shorts. And by happenstance, he simply lived long enough to be able to ride the modern wave of animation appreciation that started in the late 1980s. If there was any elder statesman people were likely to meet or to hear about in the last couple of decades, it was Jones.

Yet nobody's cartoons make me laugh as hard as Friz Freleng's. Not Jones', not Avery's, not even Clampett's. And Freleng managed to wring laughs over the longest time of any Warners cartoon director. Whereas the quality of Jones' shorts declined in direct proportion to the quality of the animation in the late 1950s, Freleng stubbornly overcame the limited animation and stylized drawing to produce at least mild laughs until the studio's nadir in the early 1960s. Freleng's cartoons at their best are masterpieces of timing, artful repetition and exemplary musicality. As Jones himself admitted, Freleng made effortlessly funny cartoons at a time when Jones was still trying to figure out how to be funny rather than precious. (Preciousness is a failing that Jones never quite overcame: his limited-edition Bugs Bunny "cels", really original artwork, from the 1990s are as nauseatingly cute as his Sniffles shorts from the late 1930s.)

Throwaway gags are exquisitely set up and paid off. Look at Sylvester's facial expressions in Canned Feud, particularly in his brief breaking of the fourth wall when he looks at the audience: the look of sheer desperation, the tiny droplets of sweat that run down his face, the brevity of the scene (a second or less), are all just enough to convey exactly what he's feeling without milking the gag. Bugs Bunny sends Yosemite Sam over the cliff in Bugs Bunny Rides Again, but the real payoff is when Bugs looks stricken, races to the base of the cliff (ahead of the still-falling Sam), produces a mattress, says to the camera, "You know, sometimes me conscience kinda bodders me," pauses, adds, "But not dis time!" and tosses the mattress away. Later in the same cartoon, Sam is pursuing Bugs through a tunnel; we cut to Bugs hurriedly building a brick wall over the tunnel's end; we cut back to Sam rushing into the now-dark tunnel, experience a second of total blackness before his painful collision (which is so severe, it lights up the wall to show Sam and his horse flattened against it), then cut back to the exterior where Bugs watches a Sam-shaped part of the wall topple over, followed by Sam and his horse. The bare description of this gag doesn't convey its perfect timing, which is what sells it.

Little moments like these are littered throughout Freleng's shorts. They absolutely kill me, so I've wondered for a long time why he's not better loved even among animation fans. I've concluded that part of the problem is that there's nothing flashy about his shorts. They don't break new ground in drawing style or concept: he never produced a short that consciously lampooned Fantasia, for instance, or laid out explicit rules for his chase cartoons, while Jones did both. Yet if you step back, it's hard to claim that What's Opera, Doc? is funnier than Rhapsody in Rivets or that the average Jones Road Runner/Coyote short is funnier than the average Freleng Tweety/Sylvester short, especially if Granny is present and voiced by Bea Benadaret.

Focusing on Jones and ignoring Freleng is akin to focusing on Disney and ignoring Warner Bros., which is what animation scholarship did for decades. It seems the assured old hands who reliably deliver laughs don't get no respect. But just as scholars eventually woke up to the inventiveness in Warners shorts, inventiveness of a type not found in Disney's, they need to wake up to the sterling qualities in Freleng's cartoons, qualities not always found in Jones' shorts.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Random thoughts for 12 July 2014

  • There is no justice in a world where all four original Ramones die before Keith Richards.
  • Israel's ultra-Orthodox religious fundamentalists and hard-right hawks have made the country thoroughly unlovable. The illegal settlements are bad enough, but this pointless rocket/missile exchange with Hamas over the teens each side has slaughtered ... are right-wing Israelis too blind to see what a dead-end strategy they've embraced?
  • Andy Lopez was a 13-year-old killed by police last year because officers mistook his replica toy gun for the real thing. Some have cast the shooting as racially tinged and an example of police brutality, but I think this was simply a terrible mistake. I understand the family's outrage. However, the onus here is on the toymaker: if you make a realistic replica of an AK-47, you're simply inviting a tragedy like this. ThinkProgress has a good recounting of the story.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Religious liberty isn't just about gays

Dylan Scott at TalkingPoints Memo writes that so-called religious freedom bills are being advanced in the wake of the Supreme Court's biased and wrongheaded Hobby Lobby ruling.

The TPM piece discusses the bills only in the context of their possible effect on non-heterosexuals. That's too narrow a view.

The religious fanatics pushing these bills publicly declare only their desire to be free to discriminate against non-heterosexuals today. That, to them, is a winning stance in that a significant fraction of the country is still deeply uncomfortable with non-heterosexuals being treated as "normal". However, the idea that the fanatics would stop there is naive. So is the idea that other fringe nutjobs won't jump on the bandwagon to enshrine their own pet prejudices under the color of religious liberty.

Want to escape the burden of providing health insurance? Become a Christian Scientist. Want to deny service to non-Muslims? Embrace Islam. Prefer to serve whites only? I'm sure you can find a religion somewhere that will justify that. Take a look at the U.S. corrections system, where claims of religious duty have been used for decades to get special meals and other preferential treatment. Convicts have even created their own religions for the purpose, and gotten away with it.

The Hobby Lobby decision forces courts to determine what constitutes a reasonable request for exemption from laws. Federal judges must be thrilled at the prospect. If those pushing the exemptions were genuinely concerned for their faiths, they would be no more enthusiastic. It's a lose-lose proposition.

Every form of discrimination has been justified at some point by holy texts. The Supreme Court opened the door for all of it to come flooding back.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Ambiguity in the Declaration of Independence?

Per the New York Times:
A scholar is now saying that the official transcript of the document produced by the National Archives and Records Administration contains a significant error — smack in the middle of the sentence beginning “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” no less.

The error, according to Danielle Allen, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., concerns a period that appears right after the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the transcript, but almost certainly not, she maintains, on the badly faded parchment original.

A punctuation error that affects the interpretation of one of our founding documents is potentially a very big deal. The Declaration is one of the two documents at the heart of the story we tell ourselves, the story of what our nation was intended to be.

On the other hand ... we've been poring over these documents for more than two centuries. I doubt a punctuation mistake will lead to some radical, totally unexpected interpretation of the Declaration. It would be unfortunate if any new interpretation led to the kind of seemingly endless and destructive imbroglio that surrounds the Second Amendment, but maybe it will lead instead to the kind of ongoing vital debate we have about the First.

Should be interesting to see what comes of this.

Who are the really smart people?

In a blog entry entitled "The Curse of Smart People", the author observes:
Smart people have a problem, especially (although not only) when you put them in large groups. That problem is an ability to convincingly rationalize nearly anything.
[emphasis in the original]

In other words, smart people supposedly can convincingly argue themselves into believing they're always right.

I've certainly known many people who, in spite of concrete evidence to the contrary, bullheadedly proclaimed the correctness of their ideas or work. I don't consider these people smart. At best, these people are clever. (Some of them aren't even clever.) I never trusted their work. Neither did anyone else.

The smartest people I've ever known have always been open to the possibility they're wrong. They know they're human.

apenwarr has figured this out, too.

Ironically, one of the biggest social problems currently reported at work is lack of confidence, also known as Impostor Syndrome. People with confidence try to help people fix their Impostor Syndrome, under the theory that they are in fact as smart as people say they are, and they just need to accept it.

But I think Impostor Syndrome is valuable. The people with Impostor Syndrome are the people who *aren't* sure that a logical proof of their smartness is sufficient.

Impostor Syndrome — what a dopey name for a healthy instinct. (And the ones trying to "fix" the "problem" are usually the real impostors.)

I got dinged a lot at my last tech job for lacking confidence. There was something to that, but some of it was simply my manager trying to make me play the political game within the company. The game requires that you mulishly assert your own correctness until proven wrong. If you merely agree to investigate the possibility of an error before being presented with incontrovertible evidence a problem is yours, you are looked on as a pushover, a wimp. It's sad that men — and this is a largely male problem — who were mocked and bullied as wimps themselves are clueless enough to reproduce this brain-dead attitude, but there it is. I refused to play the game, and that's one reason I'm no longer in the industry.

Some people legitimately have self-confidence issues. However, the vast majority of high-tech workers don't. They should cultivate a healthy sense of humility, and admit that there is always the chance they're wrong. Much of the time they won't be: they're not dumb, and mostly they're careful in how they do their jobs. But admitting the possibility of error isn't weak, it's prudent. No, it's more than that: it's responsible. Isn't that a trait we value?