Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Closest Thing to e-petitions

The Nation and The Washington Times have implemented a sort of e-petitions system which they will use to funnel questions to the President. I've been asking for something like this for a while, so I'm pretty pleased.

The results have so far been, well, interesting, like questions on whether or not we should legalize marijuana to help the budget shortfall.

The interesting bit about that question is how Obama laughed it off, even though it probably bears some scrutiny. Decriminalization could mean a lower burden on law enforcement, and provides an avenue for increased tax revenues. Some reporters attempted to raise the issue again in followups, tying it to Clinton's recent discussions about how local demand for drugs drives violence south of the border (I think those are different drugs, but still).

For my part, I'm warming up with a question about the nonsense of the penny.

It will be interesting to see how this site's role evolves over time.

Vote for Zakaria's GPS

I would like to encourage anyone reading this to visit Fareed Zakaria's GPS page on and vote to up-rate the show. It's one of the most intelligent shows on television, but is currently rated "mediocre" by the philistines on the website.

Rating the show may involve creating an account on the site. But without your help, the fine folks at might decide information on Zakaria's GPS is not worth maintaining. So please bring a false email address if you must, but show the Internet that some people actually care about intelligent roundtables, that we don't just want boisterous talking heads bullying their guests, that we can occasionally pull ourselves away from American Idol to think deeply about the state of the world.

Culture in a Flat World

Shueisha publishes magazines in Japan, magazines like Weekly Shonen Jump. Shonen Jump's weekly circulation in the mid-1990s was upwards of 6.5 million. For comparison,* Time's weekly circulation in the US at that time was just over 4 million. People, around 3 million. Keep in mind, the US population is twice that of Japan.

There's an deeply held, if unstated, American conviction that the States will always run a cultural trade surplus with the rest of the world. The belief has deep roots. In the last century, America has certainly exported a huge number of cultural artifacts to other countries. As early as 1918, the US was producing around 80% of all films worldwide. Fast forward, and we now pipe MTV into over 100 countries. The most successful film in French theaters thus far? Titanic. These trends were enough for NY Times to label American Culture The New Colossus in the mid-1990s. But is there any reason to believe that the 21st century will continue the trends of the 20th?

This cultural dominance can partially be explained by our economic and military dominance over the last hundred years. But this economic dominance, as Zakaria and Ferguson have brilliantly explained, is on the wane.

Of course, we have maintained our cultural influence in other ways. Technologically hamstringing DVD players with region codes, creating subtle import barriers, and forcing advanced Intellectual Property legal regimes on other countries for the benefit of our sophisticated content creators, we have helped ensure cultural products can most easily flow from here to there, from us to them.

With new technology, however, content creation is becoming democratized. With wider access to the Internet, distribution is taking on new forms. With these advances, the old political barriers to a globalization of content are eroding as well.

This isn't just about Youtube videos of Ghanaian street art, either. Unbelievable opportunities are emerging around the world for low cost cultural products to reach wide audiences. Consider the Indian film industry, currently growing at 13% per year. While the total revenues of the average American film remain far higher than those in Bollywood, India manages to attract far larger audiences with lower production and marketing costs. Hollywood is falling all over itself to get an American presence in that market. One might wonder why. Slumdog Millionaire may have increased the cachet of the Indian film industry, but that was a successful export of Indian filmmaking ideas (Danny Boyle's contribution notwithstanding). Filmmakers have so far had extremely poor results attempting to break into Bollywood.

If cultural presence is an extension of economic presence, then as other nations rise economically, a perpetual cultural trade imbalance seems unsustainable. Some argue that America created its cultural rivals by exporting recording, publishing and filmmaking technologies. Perhaps America was really creating cultural rivals when it imported durable goods and exported capital, helping so many foreign economies around the world to grow to the point where they can afford cultural industries.

With the staggering popularity of Japanese magna or Indian musicals, you might wonder if the folks at Viacom or Condé Nast are trying to push culture the wrong direction.

* Wikipedia reveals that all these numbers have fallen off, with Shonen currently nearer 3 million, and now comparable to People and Time.

Friday, March 27, 2009

British Minister Hannan becomes Internet celeb, thanks American Bloggers

Daniel Hannan railed against British PM Gordon Brown a few days ago. Brown's been saying that the British economy is suffering from an international crisis. Hannan responds,

"It is true that we are all sailing together into the squalls. But not every vessel in the convoy is in the same dilapidated condition. Other ships used the good years to caulk their hulls and clear their rigging, in other words, to pay off debt. But you used the good years to raise borrowing yet further."

The interesting thing, Hannan notes, is that the media did not run with this until bloggers found it. He credits the American bloggers with being particularly on top of their game.

Another dimension to this is that he's been making these speeches on YouTube once a week for a while now, but this is the first one anyone's noticed. I think he'll find that the Blagotubes can be an engine for change, but they can also be exceedingly fickle.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Is It Wrong to Pay for Sex?

An upcoming IQ² US debate will feature the proposition "It Is Wrong to Pay for Sex". I previously noted that economist Tyler Cowen and feminist Catherine MacKinnon will speak on opposite sides of the debate, among other noted intellectuals.

Two prima facie arguments leap to mind regarding this proposition, one against, and one for. I have laid them out categorically, eschewing natural prose in an attempt at precision, as logicians sometimes do.

Premise 1) Mutually consensual economic transactions confer a benefit upon each party to the transaction.
Premise 2) If all the parties affected by an act are benefited by that act, then that act cannot be wrong.
Lemma 1) Mutually consensual economic transactions cannot be wrong.
Premise 3) Paying for sex involves a mutually consensual economic transaction.
Conclusion) Paying for sex cannot be wrong.

P1) The sex trade inevitably leads to the widespread abuse of women.
P2) Paying for sex fosters the sex trade.
L1) Paying for sex leads to the widespread abuse of women.
P3)Activities that lead to the widespread abuse of women are wrong.
C) Paying for sex is wrong.

I imagine these two arguments basically capture the way MacKinnon and Cowen see the issue. How can the conflicting results from these arguments be explained? Are any of the premises incorrect, or are the arguments equivocating between two different terms?

Academic Earth and The Obsolescence of Higher Education

Academic Earth is a Hulu-like site collecting academic lectures from some of the world's top universities.

MIT's OpenCourseWare project has been making it easy to gain high quality education for free, but a site that aggregates the best academic lectures from several universities demonstrates how we are making self-education ever more accessible through the staggering power of the Internet.

Economists claim that greater access to our best institutions will not render mediocre higher learning institutions obsolete. The economist sees higher education as not primarily about education, but primarily about "signaling." The idea is that going to a University isn't as much about gaining knowledge as it is a chance for the student to demonstrate to others that they are willing to sit still, work hard, and delay gratification.

But even if that were true, couldn't another organization spring up to certify the progress and diligence of students following a self-study regime? Why not simply have all our students study under the best professors from our most esteemed institutions?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Muxtape Replacement:

Adam Pash of Lifehacker was apparently so distraught by Muxtape's closure that he made a clone of it over at This version does not host any mp3 files, but just streams them from artist pages around the web, so it may skirt the issues Muxtape faced.

I'm not sure content owners will understand the distinction. After the Boxee fiasco, I get the feeling content owners simply don't understand that if you share your bits on the Internet, you no longer control their delivery. You can't just put something on one site on the Internet, it doesn't work that way.

From everyone who realizes how this works, hotlinking this way is considered impolite, it's considered bandwidth theft. The assumption on most of the Internet is that the burden of hosting is significant. Maybe content owners will put all this together someday.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Internet Destroys Advertising

That's the subject of a controversial article at TechCrunch.

The most novel bit wasn't that consumers have more ways to defeat internet ads, though they do, or that consumers ignore puhsed ads, though they do, but that the internet kills the value of advertising in all media.

What socially valuable purpose do push (unrequested) ads serve? Let's set aside the cynical view of an advertiser engaging purely in psychological manipulation, and consider the value ads really contribute.

Ads can inform consumers about products those consumers wouldn't otherwise be aware of. Ads might also allow the consumer to make an inference about the relative quality of a product, based on how much a company is willing to spend to attach their name to that product.

Finding unbiased information about new products is fast and easy. Consider all the product rating sites (Ratebeer and TripAdvisor are mentioned in the article). This facet of the internet almost completely effaces the need for advertisements on television or in newspapers.

The piece on TechCrunch concludes that the Internet will move towards more pay content, which I think is misguided, since the Internet also makes downward price competition very easy. (Was it the Guardian or the Register that was hoping NY Times would move closer towards a pay model for online content so they could become the most cited paper online?) But this does raise many interesting unaddressed questions about what the future of television advertising looks like, thanks to the internet.

The Price Point for an iPod Killer

The media has been hoping for an iPod killer roughly since 2004.

It seems as though the phrase "iPod Killer" has changed in use over time. At first, it was reserved for players from large corporations, upcoming launches from groups like Microsoft or Sony. Then it was used for players with astounding arrays of features, like the iRiver products. Now it's used for portable players that are incredibly inexpensive. (The ICOO V616 player is a shuffle replacement for only $15.)

This reflects two realizations. First, large corporations cannot predictively make competitive products. Second, there are already many feature rich players out there, but Apple's dominance of personal media players is unassailable. How could another media player take over, perhaps only if it were free, or nearly so?

Maybe the real iPod killer will be the emerging consumer class in China, who might prefer goods from ICOO over Sony, partially due to expense, perhaps more out of a preference for local design.

In related news, there's a new shuffle coming from Apple, this one with text-to-speech controls which can read the name of your current track to you. I've been wanting a feature like that for a while. One major drawback: these controls only work with Apple's earbuds, which fall out of many people's ears under any light jostling.

*There are over 200,000 results when searching for "ipod killer", so my analysis of trends in the use of the phrase is fairly speculative.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Oh, I get it. Ethan was with Dharma.

The other night, prominent members of the Bloc gathered to watch Lost.

A suggestion was raised that Lost waits 45 minutes to provide any meaningful info, and we did have a really long scene of Jin running through foliage.

But this episode gave us the biggest payout in the middle, even though I didn't really catch the importance of it at first.

We've been wondering for a few episodes who the baby was. Turns out it's Ethan. Bwa bwa bwa! Far more shocking once you think about what this means...

* Ben didn't kill The Dharma Initiative, merely a part of The Dharma Initiative, integrating the others with Richard's group.
* Maybe these survivors from Dharma replaced the ousted members of Richard's tribe, people like Widmore.
* Ben wanted to get more kids born on the island, Ethan was born on the island. What's the Ben-Ethan situation? Is Ethan "special" in some way? It seemed to me like he was just a runner, and often a failure.
* If Ben went back in time, following Sun, what would he do? Would he kill the Dharma Initiative more viciously? Kill young Ben and subsequently destroy all of time?

As time travel stories go, there's a really great primer on how to approach them philosophically over at Crooked Timber. For this season of TV, the award for the most philosophically consistent approach to time travel goes to Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. The award for the worst bungling of time related issues on TV is permanently reserved for Heroes. Lost seems stuck somewhere in the middle, hinting that they will allow some inconsistencies, but be conscious of it whenever it happens. We're yet to get the full list "rules" of time travel on Lost (if there are any), so who knows. Let's hope they don't blow it.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ubuntu 9.04 around the corner

Recently, my hard drive failed. I heard it coming, heralded as it was by the signature clicks and whines of a dying machine. Lucky me, the warning signs meant almost everything got backed up. Almost. I never bothered to make a Windows recovery disk. So, a week or so ago, facing the daunting task of getting XP back on the machine without a disk, I simply opted to install Ubuntu 8.10.

The last time I installed Ubuntu, 6.04 or so, I had to fight to get a lot of stuff to work. The last week or so, with 8.10, has been a completely wonderful experience.

I've faced a few weird bugs, but they turned out to be bugs in Firefox or Inkscape, not in the system itself. The lack of a robust pdf editor is bit of a hurdle, and I've found DVD to Xvid conversion far easier on Windows (unexpectedly). The lack of Google's Chrome makes me sad, but FF seems to be zipping along fine for now, especially as I rely more on bookmarklets and less on extensions. But the system works well. And those drawbacks are balanced by the feeling of power I get when the system asks me whether I want to run a certain program, or if I would rather read the underlying python, see how it works. Fueled by all this access, I have already helped triage a few bugs, and even submitted some code to a project.

The big news in the Ubuntu world is the upcoming release of 9.04, "Jaunty Jackalope." Tomorrow, Ubuntu 9.04 will be frozen for beta, which will be released on the 26th. The most astonishing thing about Ubuntu, beyond all the open access, is the fact this collection of amateurs (and a few full-time coders) can all be mobilized to stick to very strict release cycles, and that every one of those releases is so much better than the last. I cannot think of a major commercial software program that sticks this rigorously to release dates.

When the beta hits on the 26th, or when the final version hits April 23rd, I'll definitely upgrade to "Jaunty Jackalope", and start the next six month cycle of anticipation as I await the release of "Kosmic Koala."

Looking back, I am a little grateful Windows is hard to shoehorn onto a system, even for those with the rights to do so. The Microsoft lockdown helped me make a switch that was long overdue, and I'm not looking to go back anytime soon.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Breaking: Alan Moore is Crazy

[9/11 was a t]errible shame, but we had a lot more than two buildings blown up during the ‘40s when America was providing most of the munitions to Hitler...
-Alan Moore

The interview contains more lucid moments, explaining why he distrusts Hollywood, and why he finds the American Superhero tradition dull. But make no mistake, this man utterly despises America, and would likely hate any comic book film we produced.

For my part, I thought the first ten minutes of Watchmen were transcendent filmmaking.

First off, more fight scenes need to be backed by Nat King Cole, and fewer by Rob Zombie. The backing music added a surreal feel to that opening fight. It made the scene simultaneously a bit more comic and a bit more tragic than the typical American action film, a balance difficult to pull off and perfect for that particular narrative.

The second scene in the film impressed me the most. The rapidfire visual punchlines of the opening montage took more creativity than most filmmakers employ throughout their whole careers.

Sadly, I felt like the rest of the movie stood in the shadows of those moments. On the whole, I liked the rest of the film, but most of the time I just wanted to see those first few scenes over and over again.

Wikifight: The History of the Hot Pot

From the article on the Hot Pot, one can learn all of the following:

1: The Asian hot pot originated in Mongolia.
2: There is little evidence to support that.
3: The Mongolian hot pot tradition originated from nomadic tribes, and is the father of the Chinese hot pot.
4: A nomadic household would avoid the tools required for hot pots, to save volume and weight during migration.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Jon Stewart vs. Jim Cramer

I am a huge fan of Stewart, so maybe this is my own bias... but Jim Cramer looked like David Brent during this debate. You alternate between feeling sorry for nice guy Cramer who just wants everyone to like him, and then suddenly wondering if Cramer should be in jail.

It wasn't even that Jon Stewart laid out his best arguments, his side was mostly built around footage he scrounged up from a not-for-TV interview of Cramer. The stuff on that clip was shocking, but mostly Jim Cramer lost because he simply refused to debate. He was constantly playing the "reformed sinner," as AP put it in their coverage, "Stewart Hammers Cramer."

I would feel bad for perpetuating this slow news week ratings grab (why is this debate hyped on the cover of USA Today?), but I think this means the feud is officially over.

The uncensored debate is embedded below.

Part I:

Part II:

Part III:

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Intelligence Squared US, NPR's forum for Debate

NPR hosts a series of debates on miscellaneous pertinent topics, panels of 3-for and 3-against are formed with the world's leading public intellectuals (with specialized expertise on the topic). Audiences vote for or against the motion before and after the debate, the winner persuades more audience members.

Coming up is a debate on the motion: blame Washington more than Wall Street for the financial crisis. Niall Ferguson, one of the sharpest economic writers in the world, argues for. That position is not my intuition, so I'm excited to hear his arguments.

Another upcoming debate is on the motion "it is wrong to pay for sex." Ethicist Catherine MacKinnon speaks for the resolution, one of my favorite economists, Tyler Cowen, speaks against (among 4 other panelists).

You can view the pre- and post-debate poll results, or listen to the past debates to decide for yourself. The debate topics are very engaging. Past debates include "Islam is Dominated by Radicals," and "Carbon Reductions are Not Worth the Money." (By the polls, both of the "for" teams on those motions won; I highly recommend hearing precisely how.)

The series is sponsored by the Rosenkrantz foundation, was inspired by a similar program in London, and is currently in its second year. The first year of debates were all sold out. Radio and podcasting is a fine start, but my proposed topic: IQ² US should be televised.

Subscriptions to IQ²: Podcast; RSS

Android App Scans Barcodes, Nabs Torrents

If you make something that steals copyrighted content, you can be shut down unless you can demonstrate "significant non-infringing uses." None immediately come to mind for Torrent Droid.

Hackaday has a writeup on the thing, Wired also covers the app.

There was apparently a contest for someone to create the app on a site that allows you to pledge money for programmers to create apps, androidandme, (noteworthy itself).

I wonder if there will be a similar app for the iPhone, now that hacked iPhones have their own unsupported app store.

The Jailbroken iPhone makes me wonder if we really needed an open handset initiative. Soon after release, any sufficiently advanced platform is open.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Ongoing: Boxee, Jon Stewart

1. Boxee and Hulu are locked in a death struggle over whether or not the one can access the other. Boxee is an open source* media center which lets you easily watch internet video on your television. Hulu streams full television shows from major networks over the internet, and for a time, provided full support to Boxee integration.

Recently, Hulu was asked to remove official support for Boxee by their content suppliers, so they complied. Boxee responded with a workaround, getting Hulu access without official support. Hulu then went beyond dropping support, and actively blocked Boxee access. Boxee has now worked around that obstacle as well, and has even included a "Hulu Status Meter" in their app to let users know how the war is going.

Hulu provides access to its shows to computers, and what someone doesn't understand is that Boxee is a computer, so it will have access until you pull all of Hulu down. The death of Hulu or the death of Boxee ends this fiasco, nothing less.

2. CNBC's Jim Cramer has fired back at John Stewart's rant (doubtless after reading about it here on the Bloc). Stewart, in turn, fired back at Jim Cramer on his show on the 9th and the 10th. The 9th was another great show. You can catch it here on Hulu, probably even if you use Boxee.

*UPDATE: Boxee is not exactly open source. It is freeware with open source and proprietary elements mixed together.

Stem Cells, Redux: The Art of the Silly Analogy; Over-Extended Arguments

I was accused of using a "sloppy parallel" in my last post. I believe I used a silly or ridiculous parallel, but I don't believe it was sloppy. To explain what I mean, I have to explain how parallels work in moral discussions. Towards that goal, this became far less of a response to the concerns of the last post, and far more a discussion of why I discuss ethics in the peculiar ways I do, using the last post as a backdrop. In fair warning, it is quite long, so reader beware. Update: Relevant links have been added since the original posting.

Part I: The Art of the Silly Analogy

Morality is an interesting subject for discussion. Answers in ethics are hard to verify, we cannot simply "check the math." Even so, we still have incredibly strong intuitions that the problems of ethics are generalizable.

By "generalizable," we mean that solutions to one ethical problem help us solve others. When I decide whether or not to kick someone out of my lifeboat to keep it from capsizing, that seems to be a similar sort of problem faced by spelunkers trapped in a cave wondering whether or not they should kill and eat one of their own until a rescue tunnel can be completed. When we know whether or not it is morally permissible to lie to Nazis at your doorstep asking for the man you are hiding in your basement, we know something about whether or not it is acceptable to lie to an abusive husband who knocks on your door and is seeking his wife who you know has fled to a halfway house down the street.

Because of this property of moral theory, because its problems lend to general solutions, the moral analogy is a profoundly useful tool in moral discussions.

The danger of moral analogies is that such analogies sometimes obscure relevant moral details.

If I say to you that killing your neighbor is wrong, and then try to generalize to say that killing a prisoner is wrong, a pro-death penalty advocate would rightly interject that his neighbor is an innocent, while a criminal is not. (I believe there are other grounds upon which to attack capital punishment, but the analysis in this analogy is, at best, incomplete.)

The quirky/fanciful/silly/absurd moral analogy is a special subset of moral analogies which also attempts to entertain. Partly these analogies are fun to read because they are incredibly ludicrous, but still somehow capture all the relevant moral details under discussion. Such moral analogies are the bread and butter of ethicist Judith Jarvis Thompson, and I have attempted to duplicate her style here, because I think it's a funny way to discuss ethics, and still gets the job done.

Such analogies can be attacked in one of two ways. The first way is to claim a disanalogy, the second involves fighting the conclusion within the analogy.

The first type of attack involves pointing out precisely where the analogy breaks down (it sometimes does), but resisting the temptation to simply stamp one's foot and say, "That analogy is clearly wrong, because it is wholly absurd."

Another path of attack is to say that even under the analogy, the moral conclusion would be other than the author intended. Judith Jarvis Thompson in one essay asks, if you were dying of a disease that could only be cured by the touch of Henry Fonda's (or Peter Fonda's, I forget) cool hand upon your fevered brow, would Mr. Fonda have a moral obligation to come to you with this cure? My answer, much to the disappointment of Thompson in that piece, is simply, "Yes, of course he would."

My analogy involved a choice between the blastocysts around the neck of a mad scientist, and the population of Eudora, and this choice symbolized the choice between engaging in stem cell research, or avoiding it. Perhaps this analogy breaks down because the population of Eudora would have their fates locked in stone in my analogy, perhaps it breaks down because we don't believe the scientist would have really implanted those blastocysts anyway. Perhaps your response is that it would be morally wrong to kill those blastocysts, because you simply believe that blastocysts have equal value to adult human lives. I believe each class of responses ultimately fails.

2) I find the discussions of stem cell ethics intellectually lazy, though I don't think willfully so, I don't consider anyone misinformed in this debate "evil."

One example of well intentioned intellectual laziness comes from Slate, via a link provided in the comments:
"Embryos are the beginnings of people. They're not parts of people. They're the whole thing, in very early form. Harvesting them, whether for research or medicine, is different from harvesting other kinds of cells. It's the difference between using an object and using a subject."

This is the sort of utterly careless reasoning that typifies mainstream thought about ethics. Let's examine it more closely.

The author is trying to say that embryos have special moral relevance. He does so by claiming two things about embryos, 1) embryos are "whole" people, not "parts." 2) (perhaps concluded from 1?) embryos are "subjects," not "objects."

Because blastocysts are "whole things," should they have greater moral weight than partial things? That sounds like absolute gibberish to me. The moral prohibition on destroying adult humans, or using them coercively in medical research, has nothing to do with the fact they are "complete individuals." An amputee is less complete than he was before the operation, but that does not make it suddenly more permissible to coerce him into medical research, that does not make his destruction no longer morally relevant.

Where did this whole/part reasoning even come from? Perhaps like so: "I can coercively experiment on human tissue, but not on human beings. Human tissue is only part of a human, where as human beings are whole humans. Therefore, it must be because tissue is only part of a complete human that makes these experiments morally acceptable."

This analysis is deeply misguided. Tissue doesn't have any history of experiences, rationality or susceptibility to pain. These are the sorts of items that makes destroying something, or coercive experimentation upon it, raise moral issues. Maybe that's not an exhaustive list, maybe some of those aren't as relevant as other factors, but the mere "being whole" is not the bright moral line the author thinks it is.

The second distinction permeates ethical thought post-Kant, despite being devoid of content. What does it mean to be a subject vs. an object? Well, in English, an object is at the end of a sentence, and a subject is at the beginning. I use the object, but the subject uses something else. But I can say that "The Bus took John to the store," or that "John rode the Bus to the store," and I don't believe one sentence is any *morally* different than the other.

Sometimes we mean something more specific by "object," we mean things like chairs and tables and hammers, while with "subject" we mean "other people." I can do things with objects I generally shouldn't do with people (sit on them, smash them, throw them across a room). But the reason I can do these things with objects has nothing to do with their "object-ness," it has to do with the fact that they have no experiences that are harmed by such treatment. If a hammer could feel pain and form memories, it would still be an "object," because it "has mass," but it would possess the moral weight of a moral "subject." If a man is born complete, but completely devoid of brain activity, such a man is not a "subject," under the moral use of the terms, because there is no answer to the question "What is it like to be this (encephalitic) man?"

Traditionally, in moral discussions, the subject/object distinction applies to the goals you have in the interaction. If you are "using" someone, or if you are "objectifying" them, then you have dropped any regard for how they feel, or what they are getting out of the exchange. But it is too easy a generalization to say that any time you stop considering how someone else feels in an interaction amounts to a grave moral wrong. Compare man who absent mindedly takes change from a clerk with a man who wonders with deep passion what it would feel like to get mugged as he takes your wallet. The former is not the villain of the piece, the latter not some saint.

The subject/object distinction causes far more confusion in ethical discussions than it effaces.

The Slate piece closes with a warning: "If you don't want to end up this way—dead to ethics and drifting wherever science takes you—you have to keep the dilemmas alive."

I would counter that if you engage in lazy moral thinking, like endorsing some part/whole line of moral relevance, then you are a far greater threat to society than those willing to discard hasty moral reasoning wherever they find it. Keeping false dilemmas alive is not some noble triumph.

Part II: The Over-Extended Argument

[T]he intentions of the pro-life crowd is to save unborn children who might make important contributions to future generations ...
I haven't heard the argument that "all additional humans are good.
In what way are the unborn children used in stem cell research, or even pending abortion, different from the unborn children who await if we all procreate more often? It is not in their potential for contributions to human society. If your goal is simply to encourage that potential, then your argument has very little to do with abortion or stem cell research.
"Assuming additional humans are good, cannot the relationship be other than directly proportional?"
Yes, it likely is. But any analysis of the value of new babies to society is not going to let you distinguish between the fetuses that the pro-lifers want to save and the teeming unconceived millions out there. If there is an argument that accomplishes what the pro-life crowd wants to accomplish, that argument must apply to fertilized eggs, but not to eggs that could potentially become fertilized but aren't currently, or it will fall subject to this class of attack.

Pro-choice arguments have a similar hurdle, over-reliance on properties like "rationality" make such arguments risk endorsing infanticide. The general point is that you must keep in mind the goal of the argument, and tailor the argument narrowly to meet that goal.

For the pro-lifer, the argument is that a certain class of potential humans should be born. That class (for the typical pro-lifer) includes fertilized eggs, but not humans who are not yet conceived. Arguments about the potential value of future human life risk falling into a trap of endorsing far more than the pro-lifer wishes, and falling into a reductio ad absurdam of implying that we should all procreate far more than we currently do.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Obama Ends Stem Cell Ban

Bush poured money into Iraq with little hope of progress, Obama is pouring money into recovery efforts that I worry are similarly doomed. Just as I was starting to feel a sense of deja vu for an administration that seems detached from all the positions I consider compelling, Obama ends the ban on stem cell research.

I consider the end of this ban as a no-brainer good decision for the benefit of humanity, up there with moving to an opt-out system for organ donation [PDF], or eliminating the penny. But I grew up Catholic, so I understand some might be reluctant to jump on the stem cell research train.

Here's the basic equation of stem cell research: we can sacrifice some stem cells to one day save many adult human lives.

Some argue that the research is not likely to lead to scientific advances that improve the human condition, and others argue that these stem cells were bound to be discarded if not used anyway. I'm setting those arguments aside to consider the basic question: is it morally acceptable to trade stem cells for human lives? I think it is morally obliged.

Suppose you on a Special Forces team, and one day you burst into a room where a mad scientist is about to press a button which will kill everyone in the town of Eudora, KS. Many of these people will die prolonged deaths where they lose control of their nervous system slowly over time. You are about to shoot the scientist, but then he cackles, and says, "You can't shoot me, I have a jar of stem cells around my neck! If I die, the glass will shatter and they will die too!" Based on your briefing for the mission, you have zero doubt that what he says is the truth.

I posit that not only is it morally permissible to kill the scientist, but anyone who refuses to do so subscribes to an utterly barbaric moral code.

Just imagine Spider-Man swinging down from a bridge where the Green Goblin says, "Which will it be, superhero, Mary Jane Watson, or a bus full of stem cells!?!" There is no drama in that scene. Why not? Because it's not a meaningful moral dilemma.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

"The Punisher" starring... Sharon Keller

Sharon Keller made waves recently by denying "lawyers for a man facing execution... extra time to file a last-minute appeal" according to the New York Times. It is an apparently common practice to provide such a service to the defense in a capital offense. Instead she shut down at 5PM sharp, allowing the state to execute the defendant. That on its face is probably a debatable practice, but one which the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct decided was worthy of beginning proceedings which could bring about the judge's removal.

Even more amazing was her refusal in 1998 to open a new trial for "a mentally disabled man who was convicted of rape and murder, even though DNA tests after his trial showed that it was not his semen in the victim", as noted by the Kansas City Star. Judge Keller gives an interesting argument supporting the 1998 decision here, but it should be noted then governor George W. Bush pardoned the defendant, Roy Criner, and Bush had no love for pardons then or later as President.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

At the risk of opening an old wound...

I will not try and make the case that Sarah Palin was the victim of character assassination because I do not believe that is the case. The Journal of Experimental Psychology posits that the hyperfocus (by everyone) on Sarah Palin's looks cost John McCain the election. At first I was skeptical, but the study (unlike the teaser) does a good job of noting that the focus was on the effect of Palin's looks on Republicans and moderates.

Jon Stewart takes CNBC to task

Jon Stewart's Network moment happened on March 4th. The reviews are mixed.

My favorite piece was by Charley Blaine of MSN Money. He did the best job of fairly summarizing Stewart's piece with only a small measure of conjecture tossed in regarding Rick Santelli's possible motive for cancellation. He also adds a juicy bit about how the leaders at the Fox Business network are probably dancing in the streets.

I rate Stewart's rant as follows:

Scale: 1-10, 10=very

Efficacy: 10
Accuracy: 6
Hilarity: 10

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Money, math, and sports

Brains never used to be appreciated by braun, and vice versa. That mindset is coming to an end (has ended) with the increasing amount of money that is being invested in sports entertainment. From the rise of sabremetrics in baseball to the birth of the salary cap in football, sports franchise owners are relying more frequently on the skills of mathmeticians and accountants to help them find both the balance of supply and demand for ticket pricing as well as novel ways to objectively rate the players who provide entertainment.

It is at this crossroad that Michael Lewis (author of Moneyball), finds Shane Battier, the thinking man's basketball player. I had no idea that pro basketball franchises used such advanced metrics in preparing for and analyzing games, until I read the aforementioned column. I used to believe that baseball was the only sport that applied such 'outside-the-box' thinking, but having read this article, I begin to think that all sports will be forced to move in this direction, as the word of an advanced scout will no longer be enough to justify a $100 million contract (see Haynesworth, Albert).