Friday, July 11, 2008

More sectarian whining

It is one thing to engage in free, if disrespectful, debate. It is another to repeatedly assault and ridicule and abuse something that is deeply sacred to a great many people.

So it's okay to be disrespectful, as long as you don't hurt their feelings. Because the sentiments of the religious, no matter how silly the superstition, are paramount.

To be fair, when reports came out about some jackass in Guantanamo flushing a Koran down the commode, Andrew called them out about that, too. But it was a purely pragmatic argument--this is going to enrage them against us and serves no good purpose--rather than being out of lines because of some general rule that ridiculous ideas can be ridiculed unless they're ridiculous ideas about magic sky-fairies.

Or at least, about his magic sky-fairy.

Update 11:20 PM: I just noticed that apparently some other people called Andrew on this. And, to his credit, he posted the replies.

Update 7/12: He's taken most of it back. Oh, and he now claims he defended Myers' right to say whatever he wishes. Funny, I can't seem to find that in the original post. Here's the full text of what he said:
It is one thing to engage in free, if disrespectful, debate. It is another to repeatedly assault and ridicule and abuse something that is deeply sacred to a great many people. Calling the Holy Eucharist a "goddamned cracker" isn't about free speech; it's really about some baseline civility. Myers' rant is the rant of an anti-Catholic bigot. And atheists and agnostics can be bigots too.

I don't see any defense of Myers' right to anything in there. Really, the posturing on this is incredible. Of course, what set off Myers in the first place was the fact that for stealing a cracker, terms like "hate crime" and "kidnapping" were being tossed around, there's a movement afoot to get the student expelled, death threats were made, and there is now an armed guard at Mass at the campus chapel, to make sure no more cracker-napping occurs. I wonder if Andrew read the entire story in the first place?

Quote of the day

The [Christian] supremacists who lead the anti-gay crusade are wrong morally. They are wrong because justice is moral, and prejudice is evil; because truth is moral and the lie of the closet is the real sin; because the claim of morality is a subtle sort of subterfuge, a strategem which hides the real aim which is much more secular. The supremacists don't care about morality, they care about power. They care about social control.

Urvashi Vaid (April 25, 1993)

[h/t: PZ Myers]

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Short version of Andrew Sullivan

I wasn't wrong, but maybe I wasn't as right as I could have been, and in any event, we've kinda-sorta got something that maybe looks like the rule of law so I'm okay with it. Besides, it's the president's fault, not the companies, that they broke the law--it's not like AT&T or Verizon could afford a lawyer or anything. And it's natural to panic and toss the rule of law overboard when we're in a national panic, which we all were, especially me, so let's just move on.

When the man is right, he's right, but he periodically has episodes of recto-cranial inversion that are mind-boggling in their intensity.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Quote of the day

It's funny how so many defeated Democrats -- Al Gore, John Kerry, John Edwards and now Clinton -- seem to become more progressive after they learn that pandering can't protect them from the attacks of the GOP and its friends in the media. Let's hope Obama doesn't have to learn that lesson the same way.

More reasons why FISA is bad law

There's an excellent summary here of just how much damage the FISA provisions do to the rule of law.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Quote of the day

However, as a practical matter I doubt that conservatism without its accompanying bigotries could ever command a voting majority. The targets of bigotry shift over time: Jews and Catholics, for example, are no longer fashionable hate-objects, and blacks, career women, and gays are becoming less and less so. That's why the Good Lord made Muslims, atheists, and "illegal aliens."

Still a few bugs in the system

It seems the face-recognition technology used to verify the age of cigarette vending-machine users in Japan still has a few bugs.

The facial recognition problem is hard, and trying to use specific features to estimate age for a generic face is even harder. Then ruling out doctored photos, makeup tricks, etc., and it gets exponentially harder.

So kudos for trying, and it's not surprising there are problems. I'm just surprised it's being deployed at this stage.

[H/T: Andrew Sullivan]

The truth shall set you free, indeed...

Go read this. Then laugh.

[H/T: PZ]

Worse odds than you thought

Not only is a state-run lottery a tax on people who don't understand math... the state's cut is even better when there's literally no chance of winning.

Let's see, we have to have the state running the lottery because the private sector will run corrupt, crooked games that prey on the foolish and poorly-educated... While, of course, state-run lotteries are always above board and scrupulously fair.

Riiiight. Tell me another one.

Still stuck in the 50's..

As the Bush Regime's War On Privacy (tm) continues, we're getting the finishing touches on an agreement to exchange large amounts of personal information with European agencies. Or rather, demand that they supply that information to us:

The United States is negotiating deals with European countries to exchange fingerprint and DNA data in criminal and terrorist cases, and in some circumstances to transfer data on race or ethnic origin, political and religious beliefs, or sexual orientation.
. . .
Senior Bush administration officials said the data exchange is crucial for spotting dangerous people before they enter the United States and for furthering criminal and terrorist investigations.
[emphasis added in both cases]

Explain to me how sexual orientation is a useful part of a terrorist investigation. Useful for compiling an enemies list and indulging in some good old-fashioned bigotry? Sure, I'll grant you that. But how is it actually useful for, you know, the purpose it's allegedly being gathered for?

But some European lawmakers fear that, taken together, the accords will lead to a far-reaching exchange of personal data without appropriate safeguards and that eventually the United States will seek access to Europe-wide databases. "We seem to be opening the floodgates, left, right and center," said Sophie in't Veld, a European Parliament member from the Netherlands. "It seems to me there are hardly any restrictions left."
No kidding.

[A DHS official] said the United States has agreed to limit the purpose for which the data are sought, not to share it with other governments and not to retain data if they are no longer useful -- if there is no match on a fingerprint, for instance. He said errors in records will be corrected.

But Schaar, who is independent from the government, said he found no "clear rules on purpose limitation" or on the storage period. "First," he said, "which data are of concern is not really completely clear. Second, who are the competent authorities on the U.S. side? Third, and most important, there is a lack of independent supervision in the United States over data protection." In European states, independent privacy commissions safeguard the privacy rights of citizens, he said.

Exactly. The gummint promises they won't ever misuse any of this data and they'll get rid of it as soon as there's no use for it anymore. And they decide when that is, and whether it should be done, and whether or not they're following their own rules, so there's no need for anyone else to know anything about it.

Of course, every time in the past when they've had the authority to go fishing, it's been misused to after political opponents and people engaging in unpopular but fully legal political activity. And recently the FBI was trying to recruit people to infiltrate vegan potlucks in Minnesota as a pre-emptive move against radical vegans disrupting the Republican National Convention.

So am I supposed to be reassured that they're gathering all this data, but show several signs of incompetence, so they probably won't be successful at any nefarious misuses?

Still not a theist...

A quick followup to this long-ago post: Being a theist requires believing in several things. Specifically,

  • That God exists;
  • That God is benevolent;
  • That God is able to communicate with us in a way we can perceive;
  • That God is willing to do so;
  • That God has done so;
  • That this communication has included God's preferences regarding our behavior;
  • That we have noticed this communication;
  • That we have understood or interpreted it correctly.
One further thought: Acceptance of any one of those propositions, or all of them up to some specified proposition, implies little to nothing about the truth-value of the next. That is, assuming, for example, that God exists and is benevolent, says nothing about whether it is possible for a (presumably-infinite) being to interact with finite beings in a way they can perceive; whether any such communication has been made; and so on.

Not only are the assumptions very large, the causality connecting them is tenuous at best.

UPDATE: One further assumption should be slid in there: that any communication about preferences for our behavior have been unambiguous and non-contradictory.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Followup on false positives

This post from a few days ago has another implication as well.

Recall that our hypothetical screening system is 95% accurate at detecting terrorists. In our hypothetical population of 1,000 truly dangerous terrorists, we found 950, leaving 50 still at large and passed screening as non-dangerous.

This implies that any act of terror that is carried out will quite possibly, in fact probably, be carried out by someone who was screened, and passed screening. So think about it. Another big incident, and it turns out the perp had been investigated, perhaps asked a few questions, and then let go as not a serious threat.

What happens to the screening procedures when it turns out "someone slipped through"? It gets even more draconian, we lose a few more liberties...and very little additional safety is gained.

Ultimately, the only way to be sure we've locked up all the terrorists is to lock up everybody. But instead of accepting a calculated risk, we've become a nation of cowards who refuse to accept that life has risks, and some risks can only be mitigated, not entirely eliminated.

Contrary to his rhetoric, the President doesn't take an oath to protect American lives or even American interests. He takes an oath to defend the Constitution. Certainly the Framers knew that requiring warrants and due process and trials by jury would hinder the efficiency of the government and probably result in some criminals going free. That's part of the price of liberty. Trying to achieve absolute safety, at the expense of essential liberties, is not only impossible, it's un-American. And remembering that is more important than ever when passions are running high and people are scared.

Blunt but accurate

Christopher Hitchens, as usual, pulls no punches. The outpouring of sentiment over Helms' "legacy," and the tiptoeing around, or blatant ignoring, of how much racism and bigotry that "legacy" includes, is nauseating.