Archive for May, 2010

VC Friday

May 28, 2010 - 11:33 am Comments Off

Vicious Circle 52, in which we very determinedly discuss nothing serious whatsoever, largely to make up for Vicious Circle 51, which I blanked linking at the time and we spent almost the entire thing being serious about women and self-defense and the various reasons behind my gender’s curious aversion to even thinking about the subject.

Obama Administration Tosses Clintons Under The Bus

May 28, 2010 - 11:29 am Comments Off

Via Alan by way of Uncle all the way back to Fox News.

The White House asked former President Bill Clinton to talk to Rep. Joe Sestak about the possibility of obtaining a senior position in the Obama administration if he would drop out of the Democratic primary race against establishment-backed Sen. Arlen Specter, the Obama administration said in a report released Friday morning…..

“This is punishable by prison. This is a felony,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who has been leading the charge for more details on the allegation.

“This is about the White House. This is not about Congressman Sestak,” Issa said, adding that he wants to know what Clinton was empowered to say. “They’ve answered a question and it begs many more answers,” he said. “We want elections not to be appointments.”

Sestak’s opponent in the general election for the Senate seat, Republican Pat Toomey, questioned why it took so long for this explanation.

“If this explanation is as innocent as it looks, I sure don’t know why it took three months to say so,” Toomey said in a statement. “As I’ve said many times, this job offer issue is not my focus, and it’s not where Pennsylvanians want the focus of the campaign to be.”

Critics say the Sestak job offer may have violated the part of the U.S. code that says: “Whoever, directly or indirectly, promises any employment, position, compensation…appointment…provided for or made possible in whole or in part by any Act of Congress…to any person as consideration, favor, or reward for any political activity…or in connection with any primary election …shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.”

My reaction:

Ell. Oh. Ell.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is ever going to go to the Watergate place and be as damaging as Republicans would like to hope, though they’d be fools to just let this one slide. It’s too easy to phrase these kinds of offers so that nothing illegal is said or done, and from what I understand it’s done all the time.

But throwing freaking Bill Clinton under the bus? While Hillary is his secretary of state? After a primary election as bitter as 2008? The Obama administration picked the wrong damn Democrat to fuck with. That’s like shivving one of the Corleones and expecting that to solve your problems rather than create a vast new galaxy of them.

My only regret is that most of the backdraft probably isn’t going to happen where we can watch and eat popcorn…

The Substance Of Things Not Seen

May 27, 2010 - 6:28 pm Comments Off

One of the more interesting threads of discussion to evolve out of the previous two posts touching on religion is a discussion of faith, specifically the definition in Hebrews 11:

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

This is, I rush to point out, going to be incredibly out of context with the rest of the passage, which has an entirely different intended point than the one I’m about to expound on, but it did lead to a commenter pointing out that everybody operates on implicit assumptions based on things they do not see and cannot be directly experienced. I attempted to use an analogy involving math and, as Roberta pointed out gently, managed to be quite spectacularly wrong in every respect of my example while still managing to come near a reasonable point. (Neat trick that, I’ll have to remember it.) As a caution, I am about to proceed to one of those pieces where I’m not entirely sure I make sense to me, but ultimately I decided trying and confusing a lot of people (again including me) was better than not trying.

I’ve made the point at great length before that what we perceive with our senses isn’t so much a direct reflection of reality as it is a representation of reality tailored by our brains to bring the useful and relevant aspects of reality to our attention. Much of reality-as-we-live in it is experienced by us only through inference; instruments we make built on principles we’ve inferred through careful experiment perceive things like, say, ultraviolet light for us, and the entire process of science- the study of natural law- is a process of seeing “the shape of things unseen”, i.e. the consistent principles of natural law that dictate the shapes that everything takes.

A river flowing down a mountain is, on several levels, a map of things unseen: on one level, it’s a map of the surface of the mountain, whose shape dictates which paths the water flows down. On another level, it’s a force diagram with a little fluid dynamics as well; the shape of the mountain’s surface dictates which paths the water takes, but gravity dictates that the path must always be in a certain direction (towards the lowest surface of Earth it can reach), and the force of the water also over time will dictate the shape of the mountain as it wears its paths deeper. The laws of motion are not seen in that F = m*a is not represented anywhere, but can be inferred from the fact that the flowing water, and everything else with mass, moves in predictable ways. The water will only move through spaces that are not ruled out by natural law; it can move in any direction permitted and will move in many directions down any surface, but will never flow up unless another force is introduced and also will not flow straight outward. There are many paths down, but down is the only option due to gravity. When the landscape limits the space of possible paths for the water by eliminating most of the possible forces on the water, it forms a puddle and stays that way.

Evolution works in much the same way, in that life will diversify but will only do so in ways and shapes dictated by the possibilities available given the constraints of natural law. You will find a very large variety of body shapes in an ocean, but depending on what the ocean animal itself does, they will have certain tendencies to converge- toward, for example, a torpedo-eseque shape with control surfaces for a free-swimming animal. What you will not see despite the range of diversity is any animal shaped like a horse, because that shape is optimized for frequent fast, long motion on a flat surface with no support for its body weight other than its skeleton.

Ocean life may “flow” evolutionarily in any direction, just so long as its path includes an ability to manipulate its position in water, an ability to gain carbon and energy from the resources in water, and an ability to carry out its reproduction in water. Each time in fossil history that a lineage has transitioned from marine life to land life or back again, the shapes the resulting animals take tell us something about the nature of water and land respectively, just as the flowing water tells us something about the nature of the landscape. When conditions sharply narrow the range of possibilities for life, diversity narrows accordingly; rainforests feature libraries of diversity so vast it may never be fully categorized.

The resulting picture in water terms may look something like this:

A deep-sea thermal vent may only feature a few species of archaebacteria that can handle and profit off the heat and extreme chemical conditions. In terms of water flow, more like this:

Likewise, the way that human cultures and societies “flow” across the shape of history also take on shapes that are defined by forces shaping the forms of the possible. Humans adopt profound diversities of music and art, but the shapes that currency takes tend to be highly defined, because it has strict conditions for being able to function in that role. Cultures vary hugely and diversely in their taboos and expressions of “manners”, but they all tend to include a relatively short subset list of items within the “don’ts”- murder, theft, assault. There may be specific social contexts in which killing someone is considered acceptable, but there is no such thing as a society in which casually killing someone because they annoyed you is not forbidden. It is not possible to have a stable society of humans which does not include certain rules, though there may be and likely will be many, many other rules- it’s just that some have much greater ranges of possible variation than others. The nature of the directly acting forces have sources both concrete- the biology of our brains and bodies- and abstract, such as the consequences of abstract intelligence and the forms that it itself creates and manipulates.

Atheists and believers both believe in the substance of things unseen. With respect, I would not define that as “faith”, so much as an acceptance that our knowledge of the nature of our reality is inherently limited. The distinction is that the believers believe that both the forces shaping humanity and its behavior- including morality- and the forces writeable in natural law have a single source and a single, intelligent author and intent. That, and the belief that that force is even partially knowable in the same way natural law is partially knowable, is what I would identify as faith.

Blue Corn Cafe: Abusive Staff Does Not Earn Extra Stars

May 26, 2010 - 4:03 pm Comments Off

Sunday, we got a call from Kang’s breeder. The shows were done and it was time to pick her up. Arrangements were made to meet in Santa Fe the next day in the evening, and given the time, LabRat and I decided to pick up dinner while we were there, try out one of the myriad places we’ve yet to test out. After a bit of digging, we found the Blue Corn Brewery in the right neck of the woods. Being brewers ourselves and thus easily tempted with beer, it seemed like a plan.

Unfortunately, the Blue Corn Cafe & Brewery is a giant pit of fail.

Shortly after being seated, our vacant-eyed waitress arrived to take drink orders. We both wanted beer. As one does in a brewpub. Being vacant-eyed and of usefulness marginally above that of a potato, this maybe-nineteen-year-old was unable to recognize us as obviously above the legal drinking age, and carded us. Not particularly bright, but thus far no actual problems either, right? Well, LabRat’s ID was expired, and thanks to the magical sands of time instantly reversing by several years, she was of course once again twenty years and 11 months old again. The manager arrived to explain that they don’t serve expired IDs, and generally acted as though he were doing us a favor even letting us remain in the establishment with such a cardinal sin upon the table. While annoying, this still hasn’t stirred any actual problem. As the law is spelled out, if they want to be pedantic about the expired ID of someone obviously of drinking age, that’s well within their right. Better safe than sorry, all that jazz, and still only a minor inconvenience, albeit an annoying one.

My beer arrives. I imbibe and comment. I pass to LabRat so she may sample. She consumes one swallow, and returns the beverage. At this point, we have unknowingly departed from the rails of civilized customer service.

Moments later, the manager reappears. I look up, possibly expecting something along the lines of “I’m sorry, you’re clearly of legal age, this has been a mistake,” or some similar act of positive public relations. Instead, our officious arbiter of all alcohol appears highly annoyed, and belligerently declares “You’re not allowed to consume alcohol here!”

Sitting in a brew pub, only a few feet from the equipment for the production of alcohol, I was a bit taken aback.

“Excuse me?”
“She cannot consume alcohol on these premises! Her ID is expired and it is illegal for her to consume alcohol*. The waitress saw her drinking from that beer!”

The beer was on my side of the table. Full, less the two swallows above mentioned.

“Yes. She had a swallow to taste it. She’s not drinking it, I am.”
“She was drinking that beer and she is not allowed to consume alcohol here. You are not allowed to share and she cannot drink here.”
“I can’t offer my wife a drink of beer to see what she thinks.”
“No! She is not allowed! VERBOTEN VERBOTEN VERBOTEN WOOP WOOP WOOP GET YOUR ELBOWS OFF THE TABLE! SIT UP STRAIGHT!”

I exaggerate only minimally.

After a bit of further less-than-friendly conversation on the topic, while the manager vacillated between whether it was state law that she had magically regressed in age, or merely local policy, I opined that either option was low on common sense, and attempted to point out that all this fuss was over one single swallow. Had his mother been so obliging, perhaps our evening would have not been so marred, but I managed to bite my tongue on that point.

Without any exaggeration, the amount of spectacle our little reject from the food court produced would have been more adequate if we had been caught red handed giving a case of beer to a kid on a bike. Even the barest shred of sanity would dictate watching the situation to see if she had continued drinking in her magically age-regressed state, rather than stamp over and behave as if she had been doing rails of coke off the table, but sanity was clearly in short supply for our tireless defender of Because I Said So.

To head off the obvious, protecting a liquor license is clearly well worth a restaurant’s energy. They’re difficult to come by, and the fines can be steep for infractions. And to that end, as I said, we had no objection that they declined to serve LabRat. However, when your zealousness extends to verbally berating a customer over one mouthful of liquid, you have somewhat departed the realm of reasonable protection of the license and landed very squarely in the realm of gigantic asshole with minimal power exerting it simply for the thrill of the thing.

With service that rates as openly abusive, and food that would be complimented to be described as mediocre**, the Blue Corn Cafe & Brewery is very firmly off the list of places that will see our dollars in the future.

*It’s not. I looked it up.
**Discussion after our pot-bellied liquor nanny departed, we unfortunately arrived at the conclusion that for the sake of scheduling it would be more convenient to finish the meal there anyway. I was all in favor of leaving, and the subsequent heartburn made us both wish we had.

Interfaith Dialogue, 2: You're Doin' It Wrong, Cont.

May 25, 2010 - 5:00 pm Comments Off

To kick off the second half of this beast, here’s one that can apply equally well to either side if you change some words around, and then for bonus kicks even has an equally double-sided conceptual cousin.

(Religious/atheistic) mass movements and governments have committed horrible atrocities!

Well, yes. And? They were composed of humans, what else did you expect? The irony of this one is that one thing both most religious people and atheists agree on is that human nature includes a pretty major nasty streak. Christianity calls it original sin and I call it Angry Monkey (okay, that’s what I’m calling it THIS week), but aside from disagreement on the origin of the nasty streak, everybody is in agreement that it’s there. What’s yet more ironic is that the structures that atheists tend to loathe most passionately- theocracies- and the structures that the religious loathe most passionately- communist/socialist totalitarian behemoths- have vastly more in common than they do distinguishing them from one another. What should warn us about the purpose and likely outcome isn’t whether an overreaching state believes in God and says you should too or else, or says there is no God and you should agree or else, is that they’re both trying to stamp out individual conscience and will probably have no compunctions whatsoever about anything else done to individuals.

It doesn’t just apply to states; give me just about any bit of historical “excitement” and I can probably find churches of various flavors, as well as various representatives of “reason” (difficult to do with a concept that has changed so much over human history), on heavily the right side and heavily the wrong side of the issue.

The flip side is this: (Religion/reason) is responsible for this moral evolution in society and there would be no morality without it.

Mkay. The problem here is that once you claim your favored ism is an unmitigated force for good rather than claiming the other guys are an unmitigated force for evil, you then have to explain all of its failures. If you’re going to claim, to use an example from a series of arguments I’ve had elsewhere, that Protestant Christianity gifts a civilization with industry, honesty, and clarity in a way that’s impossible without it, you then need to explain every example of a culture that has achieved these things, either before or after its conception, and then explain every society in which it didn’t “take”. Every “yeah but” you use to explain how an example somehow doesn’t count weakens both your argument and your credibility- and here’s the really important and- your religion’s credibility. Remember, we’re arguing about a philosophical and cosmological standard of right and wrong- if you use weak arguments, appear arrogant, or use intellectual double standards, you’re doing so in its name and by its standards.

Not fair? You were the one claiming to have the superior moral standard that elevates all exposed, what were you expecting but to be judged by it?

The above applies just as much to atheists attempting to demonstrating that freeing people from the “shackles” of religious belief makes them smarter, more rational, and more humane. Every time you claim that you become responsible for every dumbshit atheist or “skeptic” in existence that chases conspiracy theories, denies all inconvenient history of religion’s history of scholarship, and worse yet, every cute little bright spark who had a “rational” justification for something morally horrific. HEY EVERYONE, YOU KNOW WHAT WOULD BE AWESOME? EUGENICS! STERILIZE THAT POOR IDIOT BEFORE HIS KIDS ROB US! This is perhaps best encapsulated by Richard Dawkins, poster boy for vicious, ignorant, attacks on religion, putting forth the blue-ribbon idea that atheists should start referring to themselves as “Brights”. Thanks, Dick, I really fucking wanted that can tied to my tail.

Too long, didn’t read: if you put a book of spiritual text or reasoned philosophical argument before someone, what you get back out of them tells you more about them than it does about the book. The same book
“produced” Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Phelps- or rather, provided the structure to one man’s crusade for justice and humanity and another’s overwhelming hatred of his fellow man.

Arguing on the internet, religious-flavored version: You stupid, miserable heathen, what you need is to embrace my faith of peace, tolerance, and honesty.

Your standards. I’m lookin’ at ‘em. You’re violatin’ ‘em in the exact same breath of telling me they produce superior people. Fuck off and see if you can find some honesty, patience, and compassion before you go telling me you’ve got what I need for that. I’m no better? Doesn’t matter, you were just in the process of telling me you were. You’re not perfect, you’re just forgiven? Oh, so that means you’re harassing me for your own selfish self-satisfaction and not out of any desire to be a good person or improve my life. Way to witness. Now die in a fire.

Arguing on the internet, atheist-flavored version: You stupid sheeple need to take off your fucking blinders and wake up to the truth instead of the numbing pap the church feeds you.

Yes, it’s not as though there weren’t hundreds of fucking years, thousands if you count any religion at all instead of just Christianity, in which the educated clergy were, y’know, the overwhelming bulk of humanity’s intellectual effort. Of course it can’t be that they’re STILL major forces in education and literacy if only so people can read the damn texts. Only the entire philosophical foundations of Western civilization, including the philosophies that led to the Enlightenment that let us atheists speak up in the first place, were founded in scholarship by the religious or explicitly intended to understand the world in a religious framework. Just because you met some stupid people who believed in someone apparently called JAYsus does not mean you can therefore discard everything religion ever touched as obviously retarded that you needn’t spend any effort on understanding.

Because smart, scholarly people believed something doesn’t make it right- Newton didn’t validate alchemy- but neither does it mean that because some explicitly anti-intellectual people believe something, there can be nothing there of intellectual worth.

Oh, and also thanks a whole bunch for holding up that “atheists are assholes” stereotype. Especially if you actually come right out and say nobody’s daddy in the sky is making you be nice. YES. THIS WILL PROVE YOUR SIDE IS THE FORCE OF MATURITY AND REASON.

Here’s one from the religious side: See, this is what happens, if people don’t fill the void in their lives with God, they’ll just find something else to worship and fill it that way.

There’s no “void”, okay? I’ll grant you some people seem desperate to fill themselves up with somebody else telling them what to do, but they don’t actually tend to produce healthy practicioners of faith, either, since they’re looking for somebody to give them an excuse to STOP thinking and taking responsibility. Most atheists are rational adults who either discarded something they no longer (if ever) felt to be true and fruitful in their lives, or never felt a need or desire for it in the first place.

The more pernicious variant of this is any statement that contains the assumption faith is something people are deliberately trying to run away from, either because they fear the responsibility or because they actively favor the other side. Look, I understand God and faith may be hugely important one person’s life, but in mine it’s just not relevant. I don’t go around yattering about evolution and arguing for gay rights to defeat the Bible’s teachings, it’s just not even on my radar screen.

Short version: telling someone they’re an atheist because they fear God or favor sin/Satan is like me telling you you don’t believe in Odin because you’re a Loki partisan and secretly crave the day Fenris will eat the moon and begin Ragnarok*.

Atheist inversion: accusing religious people of being religious because they NEED someone to tell them what to do to live rather than taking responsibility, i.e.the “crutch” school of argument. I can mostly invert what I said above to apply, but it also has one more extension: if you go up to someone and kick something you think they’re leaning on out from under them, two results are possible. One, it’s not actually a crutch, and he’s going to beat your skull in with it. Two, it is, and you’re a huge asshole.

I think I’m starting to ramble and rant a bit much, so I’ll close out on one thing that annoys me intensely coming from either side: sex obsession.

Religious people are not miserable, stunted, dour people who’d throw off their shackles and revel in perversion if they ever but gave themselves permission. Atheists are not screaming perverts who run from God because it means they’d have to give up fucking everything that moves and twice on Tuesday for good measure. NOT EVERYBODY ORGANIZES THEIR ENTIRE GODDAMN WORLDVIEW OVER WHAT PEOPLE ARE DOING OR NOT DOING WITH THEIR GENITALS. STOP IT!

*Stingray, in fact, favors this.

Interfaith Dialogue

May 24, 2010 - 3:36 pm Comments Off

Friend Roberta has gotten herself cross-threaded, as we infidel sometimes do, with one of the faithful in some way or another, and what I regard as a thoughtful statement has of course attracted at least one more faithful-and-aggrieved at her disrespect. As you do.

I liked the original post a great deal, as it articulates something I think can be quite difficult to get across to the sincerely religious, which is that it’s not that I have anything whatsoever against religion in general or any religion in specific as I don’t get it. No text nor sermon nor life gracefully lived has quite the same effect on me as it seems to others; I can get quite into analyzing theology and theological concepts, but the spark at the bottom- the faith- is dead for me or in the first place nonexistent. Roberta likens it to being tone-deaf, and I would too. I can tell *that* there are subtle differences in pitch and tone and grasp that’s how music works, but I can’t discern or replicate them in the ways I can, say, color. Faith is much the same in concept to me; I can observe that it exists in others and its effects upon them and upon the way they interact with the world, but it’s not an experience I can in any way duplicate or empathetically relate to. The world is the world, the people in it are people, and on an entirely visceral level I not only cannot connect with a god or gods, I can’t even understand the need or desire theorizing about them rather than going straight on through the tough stuff with just “the world” and “people”.

The reason it’s so monumentally difficult to have a discussion about the entire subject is that there’s something rather insulting in just the premises alone, no matter which direction the subject is going. Saying “I’m not religious, but I wholly respect the religious” sounds nice enough, but there really is no way to explain any further that doesn’t boil down to “I believe the foundation of your worldview and morality to be fictional, but I really like what you’ve done with the story and have no problem if you want to keep telling it to yourself.” Likewise, coming from the other way around it boils down to: “I believe you to be fundamentally rejecting an important cornerstone of reality on which I firmly believe all morality rests, but no pressure. It’s only your immortal soul and, y’know, forever that’s at stake. Good luck with that.”

It is perhaps unsurprising and understandable that the natural human response to either of these is “Fuck you and your asinine claim of respect.”

The other third rail of civil discourse, politics, is similar- in order to come along politely with disagreement between significant ideological rifts, one must pointedly ignore that said ideological distinctions are so fundamental that you believe the other to be basically deluded about the way the world works and the right way to go about ordering society. Much of political rhetoric consists of gleefully pointing out the gap and how profoundly lacking and even malicious one position looks from another, and it is hardly fictional. However, politics is less personal than religion is; it’s a little easier to come to friendly terms with Uncle John the Pinko given enough beer than it is to similarly overcome ideological differences that relate directly to the terms on which you define right and wrong and not just your ideas on the shapes they take. Much of the time it’s accomplished by pointedly looking away from the terms of the disagreement.

Of course, one cannot go through life by consistently pretending that fundamental viewpoints with which you disagree do not exist or only do in some sort of cute social-nicety fashion. When one must have an honest discussion or disagreement, it may impossible to totally avoid insult, but you can at least avoid insult based on complete and utter misconception of the opposing party’s actual views, or based on an extremely poor representation of your own. Thus, here are a few common serious errors made and how they look coming from the other side. I can do a few examples of “how atheists screw up talking to the religious”, but being on the infidel side myself, most of my “facepalm” experiences come from that side of the fence.

If you want the Cliff’s Notes version, they basically all boil down to “Telling someone what their experience is when they, being them, know definitively that it’s not true, is arrogant. Telling someone what their experience is, while being wrong, in a really insulting way will just make them write you off as an irredeemable ass.”

Religion is just a fairy tell people tell to comfort themselves about death.

Have you read any sort of religious text, especially the Bible? I have a lot of words for it but “comforting” isn’t really one of them. God’s not a sugar daddy and often not particularly sympathetic to human failings, and if you decide to embrace every word of it it pretty well sentences you to a life full of moral dilemmas and making hard choices rather than comforting ones. This is only true if the person in question deliberately chooses to ignore all content which is not satisfying, and that’s not exactly the book’s fault. Sure, death is an alarming concept, but just about any religion also includes a lot saying that not only is life pretty fucking alarming too, it also has eternal consequences.

Religion is just a way to simplify the hard questions.

If it’s simple, you’re doing it wrong. There’s a reason they call it Bible (or Torah, or Talmudic, or Koranic) study. Not only are you attempting to divine the attributes, motivations, and preferences of an intelligence far too old and vast to be readily comprehensible by the human mind, you’re trying to do it based on a collection of writings originally set down in a language you do not speak and from a cultural mindset alien to your own. Or else you can hope like hell the person interpreting it all for you is right, seeing as how it’s, again, your soul at stake and God does not accept excuses. Have fun.

Atheism is just a way to simplify the hard questions.

Not really. There do indeed exist some people whose philosophical point of view really does seem to boil down to “the universe wasn’t personally gift-wrapped for me and I didn’t get a destiny, so it’s all pointless and I may as well just hang out looking moody”, but they tend to be uncommon and easily disturbed by bumps in reality. The popular view of existentialism as represented by The Stranger is rather skewed by the fact that that particular line of thought was developed by people who could not conceive of any life more meaningful than being a clinically depressed French intellectual.

Life is confusing, difficult, and will frequently force you to make tough choices whether you like it or not. This is inherent to the nature of life. No philosophy or cosmology on earth will get you out of this reality, whether you believe your final fate is “game over, that was your only chance to do it right” or “now everything you did will be judged by someone who cannot be deceived and has standards you cannot possibly have consistently lived up to, but he’s somewhat forgiving”.

There will be a part two, possibly more. I have a lot more I need and want to do today than I have time to do it in, but getting a start on this is better than punting to a link and then trying to see if I can do it all tomorrow.

Gender Goggles Hour

May 19, 2010 - 4:31 pm Comments Off

Story: Rate of Post-Partum Depression In Men Found to Be Similar To That Of Women

Feminist take: “Women, assumed to be driven crazy by female processes in their normal hysterical way, found to actually be normal”

Men’s rights’ activist take: “Men’s pain finally noticed”

Normal person’s take: “Losing a ton of sleep, all semblance of schedule, lots of money, a readily accessible social life, and sex found to cause high rates of depression regardless of gender. Who knew?”

This game is fun!

Some Days You Get The Bear

May 18, 2010 - 7:01 pm Comments Off

Yesterday: never really woke up, wandered around in a daze. Got into an internet argument and finally wound up writing a long-planned post that suddenly acquired the form and structure it needed to lurch off the table.

Today: woke up feeling fine. Never found a damn thing to write about with newly reacquired mental acuity.

Oh well. Have a sample of what I spent some of the rest of yesterday doing, which was laughing myself into a near-aneurysm at the archives of a comic that is almost entirely extremely NSFW but is also hysterically funny. This one, however, is both safe for work and the one that left me laughing the hardest and longest.

Northerner

And this one is also safe, also very funny, and just for Steve. Dude, if you ever find one like this, let me know.

Bad Falcon

Closed Registries And Ubermenschen

May 17, 2010 - 7:29 pm Comments Off

Since I seem to have occupied most of my day with dog forum discussion, specifically as to closed registries in purebred dogs, I might as well adapt what I’ve spent my day actually writing given as I have no other ideas. Suffice to say this began as an argument over whether or not closed registries in kennel clubs are a good idea for purebred dogs. In almost all kennel clubs with a few exceptions, after a collection of dogs recognized by the breed club as being that breed is deemed sufficiently large, the registry is then closed and no dog not descended from those individuals will be recognized as being of that breed and acceptable to register or breed from with the club’s blessing. Roll that up with a question I was asked but never got around to answering because the answer was too long and complicated for IRC, and we get postfodder.

We’ve gone through some unfortunate periods in human history where someone thought it would be a bright idea to breed humans as selectively as some of us breed animals, in order to “improve” the human race overall. Those same periods of history tend to be marked by people pointing out this is a profoundly inhumane and unethical idea, occasionally with festive periods where the question goes to a shooting war, but it’s not often pointed out that it’s not only inhumane and unethical, but also a factually wrong idea that would not, even if eugenicists were given total control over human breeding, actually result in a better grade of human.

The first and most obvious reason is one I bring up every time I tear apart yet another bad sexual selection study, which is that the assumption any animal represents the “best” mate choice for the fitness of a potential mate, and animals choose among grades of partners for the best they can find to have them is inherently flawed. Fitness is survival and reproduction of children and grandchildren, and the definition of the most fit genes and gene combinations changes depending on future circumstances. The physically largest and most powerful bodies are great for intense intrasexual competition or defense, but terrible for famine conditions. A metabolism that hangs on to every calorie is fabulous for famine conditions, sometimes detrimental in times of plenty. “Best” is highly contextual and the future cannot be predicted, therefore natural populations usually feature a large variety of stable polymorphisms, or ways in which genes can vary; if “best” didn’t change often, natural populations would lose variety quickly as any sort of consistent direct selective pressure or advantage tends to have quite dramatic results.

The second reason lies in both the ways genes work and our ability to accurately identify what genes are doing what, and what traits are associated with genes and how. We can’t breed animals or people like we can build cars to do specific things, because we invented cars and build them from the ground up with a complete understanding of what each part does and how it works with other parts to have effects beyond that part’s direct function. We wouldn’t look at a car and point to the engine or wheels and identify it as the “speed part” because we know better and understand that a car’s potential for speed is an emergent property of the way its parts work as a system, but many people speak of, say, intelligence, as though it were as singular and granular as eye color. Intelligence is an observable and highly relevant trait to us, as speed is to a car, but we know very little as to where it actually comes from and what bits do what, let alone how to reliably breed for it as a trait. When we breed a dog for “working ability”, we’re actually throwing massive suites of genes together in hopes that the result will be as functional or moreso as the two original individuals, even though we have no idea how the “working ability” parts fit together or how they inherit and in what kinds of discrete units they inherit.

Further complicating things is the human tendency to think of DNA in general and genomes in particular as being like blueprints, because that’s an easy analogy that fits well with how we design and create complex things. It’s not really like that at all, however; no matter how much of individual gene sequences we come to understand, we will probably never be able to “read” someone’s DNA and be able to get a reliable picture of the corresponding individual. This is because genes interact with each other and with cues from the external environment constantly; they come with laundry lists of if-then conditionals. A gene is not like a part in a machine, but rather more like a worker in a factory, whose behavior changes based on the people around him, the conditions he’s working under, and a number of other factors.

To extend the analogy, possibly to torturous degree, let’s take a hypothetical factory worker and call him Gene. Under most conditions, Gene’s job doesn’t change much and he does his job in the same way, but if his co-worker Mary who is a better machinist than he is is there, he lets Mary do some jobs that he had been doing and maybe shifts his own focus to supporting Mary. If Bob is there Gene can slack off, because Bob makes Gene’s job completely redundant. If neither Bob, Mary, nor a long list of other co-workers are there and Gene is alone with his supervisor and his wife left him that week, Gene shoots the supervisor. Unfortunately, no one outside of the Analogy Factory can communicate with anyone within it, and the windows are only open on the second Sunday of years ending in “4″, so the odds are excellent that no one outside will ever know that Gene shot the supervisor or why the supervisor wasn’t being shot before, and in fact are only aware of the situation at all because of the chaos it causes.

This is how most genetic diseases work: they only express in the disease way under certain conditions relating to the rest of the genome they’re in, and even then often environmental pressures are also involved. Genetic diseases that work as simply as gene for blue eyes = blue eyes are selected out within a few generations, because direct selective pressure can apply to them. (The exceptions, like Huntington’s chorea, usually manage to survive because they don’t strike until after an individual’s breeding career is mostly over.) Most of the time, whatever deleterious way they can express doesn’t happen because they’re in a genetic environment that inhibits or doesn’t provoke it.

When you breed from a closed gene pool so that no variety beyond that which is initially present in a low number of selected individuals, every time you eliminate an individual from the gene pool, you eliminate a few of the environments and conditions under which a gene that has deleterious effects under conditions you can’t possibly guess can find itself. If a very fine working dog that exemplifies what people are breeding for is bred very widely and he contains a gene that does something horrible under certain circumstances, that seeds that particular gene around very widely along with whatever genes make him wonderful. As genetic diversity slowly narrows- and it always does in a closed system, it’s just a matter of how fast or slow- that gene gets more and more opportunities to express its Mr. Hyde side as the number of different conditions it can find itself in narrows. And if you ever *do* get the chance to find out which gene is doing it and under what conditions, your chance to either eliminate the gene or increase the number of genes in the population that can render it safe is long since past.

This is, incidentally, exactly the same reason why breeding for particular traits like canine working ability DOES work; you take genes that do specific things you want under certain conditions and raise the odds of them expressing in a way you’re aiming for by narrowing the range of conditions they can find themselves in. You get more disease and more instability by the exact same mechanism by which you get more capacity to work with a human shepherd or a better tracker- by artificially lowering genetic diversity. Further complicating the picture is the issue that genes can and usually do do more than one thing, and sometimes they can have a very useful Dr. Jekyll side to match their Mr. Hyde side; the same variation of the same gene, to choose an ironic example, may both predispose you to Alzheimer’s and enhance your memory before the disease sets in, which it may not anyway. (It also may not give you a great memory.) If you’re selecting for traits, you inevitably include some Jekyll/Hyde genes, and your ability to identify them usually comes only in hindsight.

You can’t produce supermen because there is no “best” that doesn’t change with circumstance, and you can’t even produce them by an artificially imposed definition because the flaws in your supermen will magnify by exactly the same mechanism as their enhanced strengths. You can only produce a more polarized gene pool, not a “better” one.

That's So…

May 15, 2010 - 7:02 pm Comments Off

I like UFC, and I’m well aware of ground strategy and the complex role that grappling plays in the sport. I’m aware jokes about the homoerotic look to it all are juvenile.

However, when a man who has “THE NAKED EYE” written across his ass fights a guy with “CONDOM DEPOT” printed across his ass, and the first guy defeats the second guy by trapping his face in his crotch until CONDOM DEPOT gives in…

I cannot be blamed for anything I say. I just can’t.