Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Three things that are not true.

The only thing you can dry with a dish towel is dishes.

The only thing you can dry with a hand towel is hands.

The only thing you can dry with a beach towel is beaches.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Concrete evidence of belief in God.

An anonymous user remarks on my God-shaped hole post:
Actually, there is a somewhat complex philosophical argument purported by Descarte that follows this "God-shaped hole" line of reasoning. Not so much "everybody thinks there is one" but more, the mere fact that the humans' capability to fathom a perfect creator exists at all -- if there weren't a creator, would we have the ability to wonder?
Far be it from me to argue with the man who brought us "I think, therefore I am", but the brief summary of the complex argument looks like baloney. I'm not a philosopher, but I don't see how our capacity to do any particular thing can be seen as evidence of God (or lunch). We're not babel fish. To my mind, considering the possible existence of a creator is pretty pedestrian compared to some our other thoughts, and this "look what we can do" thing sounds a bit too much like "dude, we are so! awesome! that our creator can be none other than the awesomest ever." I reject that argument too, primarily because of what it implies about me, given some of the supremely stupid things I've created. It's not a rigorous refutation, I'll grant.

Um, anyway, where was I? I think that belief in God comes only through faith. There is no logical argument to prove or disprove, and applying logic to the problem is kind of like trying to catch a pound of sailing mercury with tweezers (except more fun, like Pac-Man).

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Bone to pick

[This is a "repost" of something I wrote before beginning this blog. As such, some of its links are already stale, but the argument is as fresh as a daisy.]

About three weeks ago, I ran across an article which was complaining that a web site owner was directing his fans to donate to homeless dogs. The article wasn't saying that dogs shouldn't have homes, but "with 800 million people suffering from hunger, I think we have slightly more pressing issues to worry about."

I've heard this argument one way or another many times. "How can you give your money to provide computers to low-income households when you could give it to provide food for starving children?" On the face of it, it sounds legitimate, but this line of reasoning leads to the "One Most Worthy Cause" problem.

Note, I didn't come up with this idea, I'm just propagating it. After one of these appeals to give to one cause over another, someone replied and pointed out the problem with the line of reasoning. It resonated with me, and now I get this twitch in my brain every time I hear the argument.

Anyway, the problem is this: if you cannot justify giving to a "lesser" cause when a "greater" one exists, then there must be just One Cause above all the others, to which all money must go. Which is more important? Starving children, or children with cancer? Pretend there's a way to decide. Then you have to let one of them go until the more worthy cause is "solved."

I've been getting into this site lately called 'whatsbetter.com', which shows you two things, and you pick which is better. The choice that came up right now is "Butterfinger" vs. "Really Old Game Shows". So, often times it's apples and oranges, but you're still encouraged to make a choice. The site scores all the votes by all the visitors and ranks all the (thousands of) items. It has a list of the top ten and the bottom ten. The worst right now is "Child pornography", and above that are "syphilis" and "colon cancer". Seventh from bottom is "testicular cancer". Yuck.

Anyway, let's say that this really is the list of the worst things. Given the "One Most Worthy Cause" line of reasoning, you can't donate to curing syphilis or testicular cancer until colon cancer is wiped out. If there's a charity to help the problem of child pornography, you have to donate to that, and cancer research stops.

By the way, when I looked at this a few weeks ago, "AIDS" was worse than "children with cancer", and we have to take care of them both before getting to "terrorism."

I don't want to feel guilty about not donating to children when I donate to protect civil liberties (for instance). To some extent, I think that's apples and oranges (do I want more/better children but no civil liberties, or are liberties more important than the lives of children?). In any case, I don't think anyone should feel guilty donating to dogs.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

God-shaped hole

When I was a college student, there was once a guy on the quad talking about God. One of the things he said was that one of the most compelling arguments for the existence of God is the fact that so many people in so many cultures and countries seem to believe in one. It's as if humanity has a God-shaped hole to fill.

I thought to myself, this is his most compelling argument?

The existence of desire does not imply the existence of possible satisfaction. I may have a cheeseburger-shaped hole in my belly, but that does not imply the existence of a cheeseburger. If I were a caveman with this same burning sensation in my gullet, I could not use it to prove that cheeseburgers just are somewhere for my consumption.

And perhaps that cheeseburger-shaped hole I feel is not really in the shape of a cheeseburger after all. Perhaps the only thing that will really satiate is soylent green. Is God made of people? I don't know. I do know that if people could feed themselves by imagining food, there'd be no more hunger, and if my brain worked like the guy preaching God on the quad, I wouldn't have much imagination.

Friday, January 13, 2006

The sad story of James Frey

I don't know much about James Frey. I haven't read his book, and I haven't seen him interviewed. Certainly I've heard of the book, but the segment about it I saw on the Oprah Winfrey show frustratingly did not tell me what the book was about. There were all these people singing its praises, but I had no idea what the story was. Maybe I just missed that part, but it turned me off anyway. My past experiences with anyone promoting something without the very basics of specifics have been basically, specifically, bad. It felt like they were trying to fool me somehow.

I did read the long article about his book at The Smoking Gun. Long story short, they could not verify the majority of the events in the book, but the few things they were able to corroborate at all were very different from how the book describes them.

According to the article, Frey has said repeatedly that everything in the book is true. I've talked to one person who says that he hasn't said that but rather has always acknowledged that the memoir is a little different from life. I don't know which is true, but the line I'm hearing from Frey today is "I wrote it as I remembered it" and now future printings are going to contain an author's note about it. The differences between the book and the life as described by The Smoking Gun are not standard minor memoir embellishments, in my opinion.

Ultimately, what bothers me about this is summed up in a harsh (and funny) book review I got from this post at Hissy Cat:
A Million Little Pieces is the dregs of a degraded genre, the rehab memoir. Rehab stories provide a way for pampered trust-fund brats like Frey to claim victim status. These swine already have money, security and position and now want to corner the market in suffering and scars, the consolation prizes of the truly lost. It's a fitting literary metonymy for the Bush era: the rich have decided to steal it all, even the tears of the losers.
The Smoking Gun also mentions how greatly this cheater has prospered. The review has more to say also about Frey's writing style. Since I haven't read Frey's work myself, I found this useful for appreciating some of the satire that's followed:
For all Frey's childish impersonation of the laconic Hemingway style, this is one of the most heavily padded pieces of prose I've seen since I stopped reading first-year student essays. Frey manages to puff up this simple story to book length thanks to one simple gimmick: he repeats. Repeats the beginnings of sentences. Repeats the beginnings of phrases. And the endings. Endings of phrases. Phrases and sentences.

And while his prose is repeating, his tale is descending. Descending into Bathos. Bathos in which he wallows. Wallows. In bathos. Bathos, bathos, bathos.
Most of the fun I've found from this, I found through this post at Feministe:And that's all I have to say about that.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

An anniversary.

A year ago today, my mother died. I've grieved over that in the year, reminded of her at various times (and what seemed like all of the time), but I think there's still more to do. I don't think I've fully comprehended what I've lost. I don't think I understand what I had or what I never had.

I can't tell whether I'm putting it off or just taking my time. A year seems like a long time to let go until I remember how long I had what's gone.

I try to remember that lots of people in the world have lost their parents. It doesn't seem possible that this horrendous state of affairs is as common as it is, but I'm hardly alone in having had to say goodbye to my mother. I'm actually kind of lucky that I got to say goodbye when she was still alive to hear it. It's hard to feel that luck sometimes, but I am still grateful for the good things about her death.

I don't think that we as a family could have done any better. She died at home, surrounded by people who loved her. Her mother held her hand as she passed. We should all be so lucky when our time runs out.

You can't stop at just one.

Let's say you're against torture, but you want to accommodate the hypothetical ticking time bomb scenario. You know the one: there's a tremendous bomb set to go off in a major city in the near future, and there is someone in custody who knows where it is. Torture is used to compel this person to divulge the location of the ticking bomb in the short time available. To allow this exception, you write the law so that it says "no torture" except when there's an emergency which demands it.

Israel had a law like this in January 1999:

Now let's say you have someone in custody who you suspect has done something wrong. Is there a ticking bomb? You can't tell for sure, but there could be. You and the prisoner both know that if there is a ticking bomb, torture will ensue. So if there is a ticking bomb, you can be darn sure the prisoner won't tell you about it, but you really have to know—right away—whether there is an imminent threat. How do you get the truth quickly in an emergency situation? Wait, I have the law right here...oh, yeah. "Pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death."

I'm not making this up. From Why ticking-bomb torture stinks:
The only democracy that has experimented with the ticking-bomb scenario is Israel. It sanctioned the use of "moderate psychological and physical force" in such cases. The experiment proved unsuccessful and illustrates an insidious danger. Torture can grow. Israel found it impossible to limit torture to the terrorist alone and ended up applying force to those it believed knew or could lead security forces to the terrorist. Eventually the Israeli Supreme Court found that the exceptional use of torture in ticking-bomb cases wasn't working, It was an exception that was becoming commonplace and the court put an end to it. It is also salutary to note that at least one prisoner died under interrogation, raising questions about the concept of non-lethal torture. Any form of torture risks the life of the person tortured, by way of heart failure or otherwise.
(Emphasis added.)

The court's decision was in September 1999, and it said something else I agree with:
If the Shin Bet believes it must torture a suspect to reveal the location of a "ticking bomb," the torturer would be put on trial, but a court might accept the argument that physical force was necessary.
If it really is a case of torture or die, make that case to a jury. If you're not sure a jury of your peers will sanction your actions, perhaps you should reconsider them.

One other thing I've always wondered about: does the ticking time bomb scenario apply to innocents? If you have someone who had nothing to do with the bomb plot but knows where the bomb, is it justifiable to torture that person? If terrorists abducted your child to keep you from telling the authorities about a plot you learned about, would you tell the authorities anyway? What if the authorities tortured you?

This gets pretty deep into lesser of two evils territory. Where is the line? Can you only torture the bomber? The bomber's assistants? People who had nothing to do with the bomb but are sympathetic to the bomber?

These are hard questions. But to help you answer them, I've brought a pair of pliers and a blow torch...

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Loafing Lagomorph

Loafing lagomorph
This is our rabbit, Vanilla, laying about as though she has nothing better to do. I think "Loafing Lagomorph" would be a good name for a blog (much better than "Drunken Lagomorph"), but nobody agrees.

(Toehold repetitious posting watch: an earlier blog name suggestion.)

Monday, January 09, 2006

Trustworthy Presidents.

When discussing the recent NSA unwarranted wiretapping story, Rob Corddry of The Daily Show said:
Jon, I think at this point, the Bush administration has earned the right to be trusted on these things. I mean, come on. They've been telling us they're credible for five years. I think it's high time we believed it.
It's no secret that I don't trust President Bush, but some people do. Even if I did trust this particular president, however, I would still think this program is a bad idea.

The problem with collecting data isn't so much who is getting it but who will get it. To approve of this idea, I'd have to not merely trust this president with it, I'd have to trust them all. I think it's safe to say that not every president in our history has been worthy of that kind of trust, and likewise I doubt that every president in our future will be worthy of that kind of trust.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

My son sure does remind me...

I think about Mom when I'm burping my new son. This is mostly because Mom thought that burping and farting were hilarious, and baby burps are especially entertaining, in my opinion. A seven pound baby can make a burp that will frighten small animals, and they always come out so casually (even if they are assisted). So this is just the kind of surprising burp that Mom would have most appreciated.

More than that, however, she really would have wanted to see her grandson. She made no bones about wanting grandchildren from my sister and me. I'm glad she got to see my daughter before she died, but it's a bit sad now that she's missing the second grandchild she would have wanted to meet.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Premium Baby Chow

We've just switched our son to a hypoallergenic baby formula that our daughter had when she was a baby. He's clearly miserable about something, and he's making everyone else miserable as a result (with hour-long crying jags and a disinclination to sleep).

The stuff is expensive. Worst case scenario, he eats every two hours, and we keep buying it at Walgreens, and it will cost about $201.50 a month. Now, he doesn't really eat every two hours, and we can probably find a place cheaper (and less convenient) than Walgreens, but he's also going to eat more as he gets bigger. Our daughter doubled her birth weight by three months, and it's safe to say her tummy grew along the way.

The stuff brings back memories. This is the formula smell I remember from four years ago. I sat down for the first feeding with it, and the first whiff was a memory moment. Then, as now, I was chief bottle washer, and I smelled that odor every single day.

I recall hanging around the store in the early morning, waiting for it to open, so I could get some formula to my daughter before she woke up. I remember the nightly routine of the washing of the bottles (now, thankfully, made easier with a washing machine). I knew how many there were. I knew how many were clean. I knew how many we needed in a day, and I did the arithmetic on these numbers several times a day.

Anyway, I expect this stuff to keep yanking me back four years for a while, and I'm looking forward to it. If it also grants peace to my boy (and his family), that'll be worth the price too.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Newborn difficulties

The two toughest tasks my newborn son has on any given day are burping and pooping, and I'm not sure which is the hardest.

My first impulse is to say that burping is harder because he can't do it on his own. He only burps with assistance. On the other hand, the burps come easy with that little help from his parents. A belch that trembles trees just floats out.

Pooping is always a strain. He gets no help from us, and he obviously has trouble with it.

When he has gas or a bowel movement, it's about the same. He's tense, he squirms, and it's written all over his face that he's uncomfortable.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

How to learn a language.

On a recent outing with my talkative daughter, she spotted a car with baby decorations in the window, and this launched her into a discussion of the stone cold fact that she is not a baby (and we therefore will not be getting baby decorations for the windows of our car). She enumerated her achievements as a big girl to further emphasize her point.

Among her distinctions, she said, she learned to talk.

How kids learn language is a pretty interesting topic. She's nowhere near having a conversation about it on Daddy's level, but this got me interested anyway. It can't hurt to ask her. She just did it recently, after all, so maybe she has some insight.

"Yeah," I said, "you learned to talk. How'd you do that?"

She answered immediately, "I just got better."

Can't argue with that. She elaborated, "you and Mommy teach me." This girl really knows her stuff. She still mixes up "got" and "have," but she certainly knows how she got what she has.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Live principled or die trying.

There was once a religion that believed that sex—all sex—was sinful. People who believe in total celibacy, obviously, do not reproduce. The only way the Shakers replaced their numbers was through conversion and adoption.

That these people all but vanished from the Earth does not constitute a great mystery.

You might say, though, that the Shakers had a choice. They could continue being Shakers as they had been (and vanish from the Earth), or they could be Shakers but without that silly celibacy schtick. Would those still be Shakers?

I'm thinking about this as it relates to recent events in America. There seems to be a notion that the only way we can survive in the face of terrorism is to abandon our principles: spy on Americans, torture people, etc. It's the same choice the Shakers faced. Stay true to your principles and die or live on sans principles.

The people of America are well within their power to decide that torture is something they'd like to see more of. I don't think, however, that the resulting country would still properly be called America. Would George Washington see that as America?

Of course, the framers didn't believe in a thing like the income tax either. That's why we needed an amendment to authorize Congress to tax income. So the America of George Washington has, in some sense, departed this world already. Maybe this "my America is the real America" idea is just another lament for "the good old days."

Still, I think these things are choices the country must make about who we are, and I'm continuously surprised at how the country makes them.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Happy New Year!

I think the last time I made a New Year's Resolution was when I resolved to stop using a tab to start paragraphs in email. I'd stuck to the practice for something like a decade in the face of mounting evidence that everyone separates paragraphs with a double space, and I'd had enough.

It's not much of a life change, I'll grant, but it stuck like no other resolution has. I could look through my email archive and find right when the change happened by looking at my outgoing mail (but I won't) because I don't think I lapsed once.

Last night we had the whole family (sans rodent and rabbit) watching fireworks on TV with instant replays courtesy of TiVo. Two red-eye feedings later, and I'm only semi-coherent.

Anyway, Happy New Year!