05 June, 2009

Carnival of the Elitist Bastards XIII: Ports o' Call

This is your Admiral speaking. Most of you already know why I be helming the ship with Commander Cujo359 providing invaluable assistance, but in case ye were too far in yer cups to remember, this should explain what happened to Captain George. It looked like he would be with us at all, but he rallied enough for us to smuggle him aboard, and now we be on a nice, leisurely sail while he recuperates in a deck chair. Sea voyage be good for yer health, no?

While we waited for Captain George to recover, a thought struck us:

That idea be under consideration, but it looks likely to fail, due to the overpriced drinks part. The crew be a bit nervous about their rum ration due to the incident last voyage. Happily, we be in no danger of running out this time. Y'see, the Southern Fried Scientist knows how to brew beer in a coffee maker:

You’re six days into a 2 month expedition, and if you were lucky enough to not be on a dry ship, it’s de facto dry by now anyway. You’re eying the ethanol stores, the crew is eying each other, and all hell will break loose if y’all don’t get some sweet water soon. This is no time for artistry.

This is not, as a rule, a terribly good beer (though, with a good brewmaster on board, it can be). This is a beer to pass the time. I can guarantee that if you are careful, it will be at least as good as the cheapest commercial alternative.

That be good enough for us. And we look to be needin' his expertise if consumption remains at its present levels. Just because we be Elitist Bastards doesn't mean moderation is a word in our extensive vocabularies. Now ye see why SFS be the most popular man on the boat, eh?

Well lubricated, we sail upon sunlit seas until we reach our first port o' call. Our Elitist Bastardry be sorely needed in Port St. Brendan, where religious sillyness be thick as the barnicles on a wrecked hull. And o' course the first soul we encounter be an unwashed landlubber who tries to sell us life eternal. Efrique dispatches him with a quickness:
I can happily have ice-cream without whining that I can't enjoy it because nobody promised I would get infinite cake after I finish.
Although if somebody should promise infinite rum, we'd happily accept.

Speaking o' rum, it be time to hit the taverns. And, o' course, there be talk o' sports, which reminds Last Hussar of interfaith violence and the worst definition of a mixed marriage he ever did hear:

Those who know Scottish football know that [Glasgow] Rangers is a Protestant club, and [Glasgow] Celtic is a Catholic club, and this is part of their fierce rivalry. I’ll let you absorb that. The SPORTS club you follow depends on which particular interpretation you put on the SAME MYTHS.

Now consider the story of Kevin McDaid, the man in Northern Ireland apparently beaten to death in a sectarian attack by Rangers supporters after the team won the League over Celtic.

He was beaten to death, murdered in a brutal way, because his religeon was identified with the opposing club.
We drink a few rounds for Kevin McDaid. Then we drink a few for his wife. Then we drink to an eventual end to religious violence. Then we drink another few rounds for Kevin McDaid. We don't quite remember what we drank to after that...

Returning to the ship takes a bit longer than usual.

Down by the pier, Stanley Fish be at it again, claiming that scientific claims be no better grounded than faith, since all knowledge claims must start with some sort o' exception. The poor bugger should know better than to say such things within Russell Blackford's hearing:
Assume any proposition you like, "Q", which might, for example, mean "Stanley Fish is the Great Beast of Revelation". Let's assume "P & ~P" and try to derive this directly by using some logical moves that are pretty standard. 1. P & ~P (assumed) 2. P (from 1. by & Elimination) 3. P v Q (from 2. by v Introduction) 4. ~P (from 1. by & Elimination) 5. Q (from 3. and 4. by Disjunctive Syllogism) If your pet logical system doesn't have Disjunctive Syllogism as a fundamental rule, this might take a bit longer, but no plausible system of first-order logic fails to provide for Disjunctive Syllogism somehow. So you get the idea. I've just demonstrated that if any contradiction is true then Stanley Fish is the Great Beast of Revelation. As I said, that might not worry someone who is not worried about accepting a contradiction in the first place. Still ...such a person must also either abandon some very basic rules of reasoning and accept that (as well as being the Great Beast of Revelation) Stanley Fish is the very same Great Fish that swallowed Jonah, not to mention that fact that he is one of the evil spirits cast into the Gadarene swine. And he's also the bottle of cough mixture that I've just been sipping from to try to loosen up some congestion in my lungs.
That certainly explains the nasty taste.

We go island hopping on our way to our next port. This little archipelago contains a lot of religion mixed with truly awful "scientific" thought. Why, on one island, we run into a reporter who's so mixed up it takes John Pieret at least an hour to try to sort her out:
Melanie Phillips won't let consistency stop her. Having made a fool of herself already, she proceeds to show that she can't keep an idea in her head all the way from the beginning to the end of her piece. Consider these statements she makes:

ID is not in itself a scientific discovery. It is rather an inference from scientific discoveries. Looking at the complexity of the created world, it says the evidence points inescapably to a guiding intelligence as the cause of that complexity.

Since ID holds that some vague kind of intelligent force must have been behind the creation of the universe, there's surely very little difference (and considerable overlap) between ID proponents and the vast majority of mainstream religious believers ...

ID is a metaphysical idea that comes out of but stands separate from science, in that science leads here to an idea with which by definition it must abruptly part company.

But, still, she cites with approval Steve Fuller's argument "that the way ID's practitioners approach the debate means they are actually engaged in a scientific enterprise." How, exactly does one part company with science but still be engaged in a scientific enterprise?
In the end, we have to give it up as a bad job. 'Tisn't much you can do when the thinking be this confused.

Zarathustra knows that frustration well, from bitter experience:
So at a party yesterday, I had one of those conversations with another guy in his mid-twenties who goes to the kind of parties I go to. Let me say first that this guy (let's call him "Ted") is a good man, and I don't want anyone reading this to think I am trying to humiliate or denigrate him. I am writing on this subject for the purpose of illustrating a certain frustration, the kind that sometimes ALMOST (but doesn't) make me want to throw in the towel and just say, "Frak it, there's no point in trying to get people to think critically."
Aye, it be like that at times, but we retain our towels and head for our next port o' call anyway. Sciencetown's always got some confused folk wandering about, and it's our duty to help them overcome that confusion. Barbara A. Drescher's printed herself some tracts to that end:

About a month ago, I posted an entry describing the Critical Thinking Education Group (CTEG). This group of educators and others is in the process of building and maintaining a library of resources for all levels and types of critical thinking education. I wrote a quick-reference page (well, a few pages) for this library called Common Misteachings. The following is an expanded version.

Well, if the godbotherers can hand out pamphlets, why not us? We hand them out left and right as we go along.

While we're in port, we swing by the local bookstore. The rum makes me muse on the suffering I endured at the last one:
Going to the bookstore is becoming a painful experience. I have unreasonable expectations. When I browse the science section, I expect to find science. Barnes and Noble, however, insists on including pseudoscience. Gah. After seeing Denyse O'Leary's atrocity shelved with the biology books, I almost fled. Here's a condensed version of the experience: Crap. Crap. Eh. Whothefuckisthis? Crap. Read it. Read it. Do people really read this shit? Crap. Why are there so many books on God over here? Crap. Read it. Enough with God already! Crap. Where the fuck are they hiding the science?
Luckily, we're in Sciencetown, where they don't hide the science. It's a damned good thing our ship has deep holds.

On our way back to the ship, staggering under the weight of many science tomes, Cujo359 muses about the recent repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope:
In a way, this mission marks the ends of two eras. One is the era of the space shuttle, which will be phased out in a couple of years. The other is the age of the Hubble Space Telescope. Without continued visits from a vehicle like the shuttle, the HST will eventually break down. The HST has given us both wonderful pictures of the universe we live in, and a far greater understanding of it. Many of us will miss it when it goes.
We surely will. Happily, though, we won't have to miss it too soon. News of the successful repair mission leads to some celebratory rounds. It's a good thing we've got a coffee maker aboard.

Once we've deposited our book booty and depleted the rum stores, we troop to a different district of Sciencetown to investigate one of Blake Stacey's finds:

Jen finds a story about a Swiss research group which made a little ecology of robots with neural-network brains and let their wiring be crafted by natural selection. The most entertaining line of the pop-science writeup:

At intervals, the robots were shut down and those that had the most charge left in their batteries were chosen as "successful", and their neural programming was combined to produce the next generation of the robots. These offspring are downloaded into the same mechanical bodies their parents inhabited, forming an closed-circuit Buddhist system which might be an extremely efficient method of maintaining a stable population, but will provide a serious headache for any robot philosophers who might turn up.

As it turns out, this is a year-old story which somehow started getting circulated again. The primary literature reference is Floreano et al. (2007) in the journal Current Biology. Well, where else would they publish? You know: robots, electricity, current. . . ah, I kill me somedays.

Har har har, argh.

All this talk o' altruistic robots leads Russell Blackford to propose a thought experiment:

Imagine that the T-1001 is a robotic fighting device with no need for a human being in the decision-making loop. Note that it does not possess any sentience, in the sense of consciousness or ability to suffer. It cannot reflect on or change the fundamental values that have been programmed into it. However, it is programmed to make independent decisions in the field; in that sense, it can operate autonomously, though it would not qualify as an entity with full moral autonomy in a sense that Kant, for example, might recognise. It has some limited ability to learn from experience and upgrade its programming.


In short, the T-1001 is more effective than human soldiers when it comes to traditional combat responsibilities. It does more damage to legitimate military targets, but causes less innocent suffering/loss of life. Because of its superior pattern-recognition abilities, its immunity to psychological stress, and its perfect "understanding" of the terms of engagement required of it, the T-1001 is better than human in its conformity to the rules of war.

One day, however, despite all the precautions I've described, something goes wrong and a T-1001 massacres 100 innocent civilians in an isolated village within a Middle Eastern war zone. Who (or what) is responsible for the deaths? Do you need more information to decide?

Given the circumstances, was it morally acceptable to deploy the T-1001? Is it acceptable for organisations such as DARPA to develop such a device?

Argh, Russell. That be no kind o' question to be asking your shipmates after they've been at the grog. Ask us again when we be sober... well, relatively sober.

We sail from Sciencetown in a bit o' a fog. Barbara A. Drescher decides it be the perfect time to share a bit o' stupidity she noted down in her diary:

We had a little earthquake about 40 minutes ago (as I am writing this). I happened to have the TV on when it happened, tuned to a local news station (KCAL 9). A few minutes ago, they interviewed a caller who said…

I was sittin’ on top of the Sugar Shack - it’s one of the few two-story buildings here in Lennox, California. There’s not that many two-story buildings over here and, uh, this (unintelligible) was a little different than most. It almost seemed as if it came from the ground up.

We nearly laugh ourselves sober.

Next day, we reach our next port o' call: Historia. There we discover that George hasn't just been sunning himself idly on the decks. He's written a (mostly true) story about a futuristic history class and an event that might have changed the world:

“OK, first the weird story. Every History Spiderweb begins with a weird story.” There was a small clamor from the students, and a couple flat ‘oh, goodies”. He touched an option on his teacher’s reader; the projector highlighted a spot on the time-line. He tossed a ball of brightly colored yarn to a student, who got up and pinned the yarn to the highlighted spot and waited.

“On 30 December, 1912, the spoiled granddaughter of a rich Illinois politician was having a party at their home in Bloomington. Many of the children of the rich and well-connected were there. On the big estate there were games and groups and a good time was being had by all her friends. And her even more spoiled brother was at the party, hanging out with his buddies.”

“The young man’s name was Adlai Stevenson. Has anyone heard that name?”

“There’s Stevenson hall at ISU,” said one girl. “My dad works there.”

“That’s right; same guy,” said Mister History. Well on this morning young Adlai was 12 years old - three years younger than you are now. And he was clowning around with some of his friends and in those days, you could legally keep unlocked guns in a house with children.”

The class grew quieter at the mention of guns. Almost all of Mister History’s weird stories ended with somebody dying, sometimes a lot of sombodies. But still - 12 year olds at a party!

George's story ends with a difficult question that has us pondering as well we can with our pounding heads. It leads to a long discussion with the citizens of Historia, who've gathered round us at the dockside park to listen. One thing we all know about history is that it has much to teach us. Cujo359 points out that history isn't just people and events, but geology as well:
Europe benefited from a mild climate, nearness to the places where horses, oxen, and other animals were domesticated, and the places where agriculture began. It translated those advantages, combined with the advantage of being so open to the sea and isolated by some geographic features, that it almost had to explore the rest of the world.

Even so, Europe hasn't had everything its way. Mt. Vesuvius, for instance, helped end the western Roman Empire. The bubonic plague reached it several times, thanks to its contacts with Asia. One of those plagues helped end the eastern Roman Empire. But Europe was lucky. Isolated from the Muslim empire by the Bosporus, the Dardanelles, the Danube River, and the mountainous southeast of Europe and too distant from the empires of Asia, Europe survived long enough to develop the technology and the domesticated animals it would use to conquer much of the world.

It could be worse. Europe could have gone through the event that ended the Akkadian empire - a century-long drought.
This seems like a good lesson for Elitist Bastards to teach, doesn't it just? Learn your history and geology, or your geology might make you history.

After all this heady stuff, it's almost a disappointment to know our next port o' call is Politician Island. But Dick Cheney's there giving a speech, and Cousin Avi's all ready to deconstruct it:

Excerpts from the speech delivered by Dick Cheney on May, 21, 2009:

I had the advantage of being a vice president content with my responsibilities I had and going about my work with no higher ambition.
Today, I’m an even freer man. Your kind invitation brings me here as a private citizen, a career in politics behind me, no elections to win or lose, and no favor to seek.

What utter bullshit. This facile attempt to appear unbiased and finally able to speak the truth without fear of political repercussions could not be more wrong or more insulting.
Here is a man almost universally loathed by the American people, who outed Valerie Plame for political gain; who asserted his office was outside the executive branch and refused to keep records in accordance with the law; who directed the ginning up of twisted and unethical legal “opinions” to justify egregious violations of domestic and international law in order to build a false case for an illegal war; who (presuming some shred of sanity or decency remains in his wizened, evil skull) carries around the sneaking suspicion that, if this thing isn’t sewn up fast, enough crap may spill out that may yet find him facing prosecution for war crimes.
THIS man wants us to believe that now he is finally free to tell the truth – nothing at all hindering the manner in which he casts history and his culpability therein.
One presumes Cheney has been briefed by his crack team of legal experts on utterances against interest.

It's a long speech, full o' the worst kinds of stupidity, and so Avi has to make a long stop at the nearest pub before completing Dick's demolition. Needless to say, Dick's thoroughly demolished, and we return to the pub for further celebration in true Elitist Bastard style.

Woozle gets up on a table to make an announcement. He had an epiphany about political philosophy while watching an old Star Trek episode:

I had labeled the philosophy I was defending as "rational liberalism", to avoid confusion the wide range of "liberal" values, much or most of which I agree with but which can get pretty loopy in places (albeit generally less alarming or outright dangerous than many neocon beliefs), but after watching this episode I found the phrase "Star Trek liberalism" bouncing around my head...

...and then it occurred to me that what I am actually doing is saying something like this: Neocon/Republican philosophy is a radical departure from the values which seem the best to me and which I grew up with, many of which are demonstrated by the better Star Trek episodes. The moral values displayed in those episodes are the values I want to preserve, in the face of the "post-9/11 world" claims that we must clamp down on freedoms and lower our standards if we expect to survive the terrorists (and abortionists and gays and America-hating liberals).

In short: I am a Star Trek conservative.

Judging from the ensuing cheers, the vast majority of us will own the label of Star Trek conservative proudly ourselves.

Politician Island was our last port o' call. We board ship, fire up the coffee maker, and sail for home. As we watch the beer brew, we get to wondering who in the world discovered how to do such a thing, and that gets us talking about other discoveries: the spectrum, plate tectonics, penicillin, hundreds o' other things that have changed our lives. Those are precious moments:
I'll let geologist James Kennett describe that moment when a breakthrough is made:
Moments of intense discovery are very emotional for scientists. when scientists make discoveries that they think are really important - breakthroughs, if you like, eureka moments - there's an elation - there's an elation, an emotion. These are emotional moments.
So they are.

(Postdated for your viewing pleasure)

1 comment:

george.w said...

Thank ye for skipperin' the voyage an' smugglin' me aboard, Admiral. Me grog rations 'ave been laced with laudanum these past three weeks, an' me gait be a mite unsteady.

This voyage should make for enlightnin' readin' in the coming week, while I try to collect me thoughts.