Thursday, September 30, 2004


The sky has not fallen;
It has only blown away.

We will miss the clouds
And even the rain,

Nor will we soon enjoy
The prickle of vacuum
Upon our skin

Nor quickly suppress
This urge to gasp and grasp
For oxygen.

I think that it was time
To expand beyond
These simple securities.

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Evil Overlord

Let's face it, villains have the most fun (especially the sort that aspire to supervillainy). About the only problem with choosing villain as a career path is that pesky way that heroes have of ruining the fun.

More often than not, the reason that heroes are so consistently able to defeat their villainous counterparts is, to put it frankly, because villains leave themselves open to defeat. Perhaps there is some psychological "fear of success" rationale behind this but most villains aren't the sort who are interested in going to a shink to address their unresolved issues. That's what doomsday devices are for.

For the practical villain, there is the "Top 100 Things I'd Do
If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord
" list which is nothing less than a practical compendium of good advice for the aspiring world dominator. It includes such sensible thoughts as:

  • When I've captured my adversary and he says, "Look, before you kill me, will you at least tell me what this is all about?" I'll say, "No." and shoot him. No, on second thought I'll shoot him then say "No."

  • I will never employ any device with a digital countdown. If I find that such a device is absolutely unavoidable, I will set it to activate when the counter reaches 117 and the hero is just putting his plan into operation.

  • My ventilation ducts will be too small to crawl through.

  • I will not have captives of one sex guarded by members of the opposite sex.

Once you've given yourself time to absorb these lessons, you might want to check out the demo for Evil Genius to see if you have the chops to become a truly great villain.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

In Defense of Placental Mammals

I was digging through my old papers when I came across this essay that I wrote during the early Eocene. Times have changed considerably, since then, and I sure that most of my readers will find the topic to be a bit quaint. Never the less, I think that the points I made are still relevant even though the situation has become rather inverted from those days.

It was only a few million years ago that mammalkind lived under a menacing shadow. Every day we lived in fear of great plodding feet and the treat of rending claws and massive, snapping teeth. For a full one hundred and sixty million years we lived with the curse of the dinosaurs. It is no wonder that we lamented our fate and wondered what we had done to deserve our lot in life. One day, deliverance came in the form of a fire from the sky. I remember that we thought that it was the end of the world. It was the end of their world, but it was the beginning of ours. Although the days and years following the Miracle were harsh and many of us were to die – the dinosaurs did not go to their graves alone – the world was finally open to us. The meek had, indeed, come to inherit the Earth.

This era that we now live it should be a mammalian Utopia. We have spread across the land and have made our first forays into the water. Some even dream that we may one day challenge the avians for the sky – and why not, they took it over from the pterodactyls. It seems as though the world should be wide enough to accommodate every mammal that lives and, yet, some already have come to the conclusion that the world is too small to allow for that.

You've seen the slogans, I'm sure: "PLACENTAS ARE FOR PERVERTS ", "DOOM TO WOMBS" and, of course, "LIVE BIRTH IS A DEAD END".

During that dark, dinosaurian era, I can assure you that no one cared whether her neighbors had pouches, laid eggs, or even whether they gave birth to live young. Those terrible lizards literally loomed over every other concern we might have. With a common enemy, we had a common cause. Now that the treat has been banished, it would seem that fraternity has termed to enmity. There are calls to segregate the Placentals and even to extinguish them outright. Excepting only a few Monotreme radicals (who pretty much hate anyone that doesn't involve egg-laying), these calls have been coming exclusively from the Marsupial camp. Although I won't discount the presence of moderate voices among the Marsupials, I am sad to say that it is a popular stance.

What is the source of all this hostility, though? A certain amount of it, no doubt, is due to the "yuck" factor. I'll be the first to admit that I can't watch a Placental give birth without feeling nauseated. It is, without doubt, a slimy, messy, stomach-turning affair. Is this then a good enough reason to say that we should round up all the Placentals and put them on their own continent? Surely not!

Many Marsupial advocates have gone so far as to say that growing a child inside of one's own body and then expelling it like some sort of bizarre form of excrement is actually perverted and contrary to nature. Before they should be so quick to appeal to nature I would remind them that the majority of egg-laying animals (including their Monotreme cousins) might look askance at the Marsupial's own methodology. Indeed, I suspect that creatures who lay tidy, sanitary eggs may have to stifle their own sense of revulsion at the sight of half-developed Marsupial embryos crawling out of the birth canal and over to their mother's pouches. They may, indeed, wonder what is so extraordinarily different about pouches and wombs when compared to eggs. Beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder and so, too, is disgust.

A more sophisticated objection comes from those who say that the Placental lifestyle is actually dangerous. They have the statistics to back it up. Placental mammals have a distressing tendency to die in birth. Passing a highly developed child through a comparatively narrow opening is a risky prospect. Even when the birth, itself, goes as well as it possibly can, the mother and child are put in a state of intense vulnerability to predators and the dangers of an often unpredictable environment. Dr. A. Walaby has been a particularly vocal advocate of this stance. He insists that placental mammals must be saved from themselves. And how does he propose to do so? His answer is simplicity itself: he wants the Placentals to stop breeding altogether. Yes, he actually believes that extinction is preferable to the risks of placental birth.

I would ask Dr. Walaby what innovation has ever been advanced without an associated risk. Does he not recall the dire warnings that his ancestors received when mammals gave up scales for hair, or when we chose to excrete milk from our bodies rather than scavenging food for our offspring? Does he not, in fact, recall what the other fish said when our ancestors first dared to crawl on the land? Indeed, we may well ponder the state of mind of a fish that would even consider trying to breathe air through its own swim bladder! And, yet, if they had not taken that bold risk, where would we be now?

I am not saying that placentalism is the wave of the future. I am well aware that most such experiments come to sad conclusions. I, myself, remember those heady days of the early Cambrian when body plans were being adopted with all the fervor of high fashionability. So many promising phyla came to naught and I had to attend their funerals – alas, Hallucigenia, you died too young! Never the less, without innovation there can be no progress. Without risk, there can be no innovation. Would the good doctor have been happier if we had eschewed change from the beginning? The bacteria of the world may well agree but I treasure the complexities of the world and honor the efforts of those risked everything to create it, including those who died off in the attempt. I would not dishonor their courage by meekly embracing a path of timid safety.

This is a new world. The long age of the Dinosaurs is at an end. As we walk upon their graves shall we look out on this new era and embrace our future by embracing each other or shall we dig up those old bones and resurrect their tyranny anew? I think the choice is clear. Placentals have odd ways that may shock and even disgust us, and they may well be an evolutionary dead end when all has been said and done but they are mammals, too, and we would do better to honor our past and to honor ourselves by standing together, as mammals, for all mammalkind.

Thursday, September 23, 2004

The Gift of Fire

They were so cold,
But the gods didn't care.

They told me that
I should have given them more hair.

If it was up to them,
I should have made them
Walk on all fours.
I should have made their tongues
Thick and inarticulate.
I should have made them beasts.

It bothered the gods
That they could speak,
That they could shout,
That they could curse the gods.

Divine entities,
As a whole,
Are very superstitious beings.

Having overthrown their own creators,
The gods did not want to be overthrown
By mine.

I gave them fire.
I freely admit that I stole it
And no fearsome, rending vulture
Will cause me to regret this.

The gods have cursed them with perils
And forced obedience upon them,

But they still have fire
And I know that, someday,
They will learn
That even gods can burn.

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Unstructured Euphemisms

Certainly most of us have resorted to the use of euphemism at various points in our life. I would, never the less, guess that most of us have never said that one was "salting the porcelain minnow", "chastising the wax hose" or "surfing the badger".

These and other similarly creative euphemisms for nothing in particular can be created using The Euphemism Generator.

Have fun but try not to get caught putting a kink in the purple kishka.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Examining the Argument from Accountability

For centuries philosophers have been debating the existence of Free Will. One of the curious features of this debate is how lopsided it is. Over the millennia thousands, if not tens of thousands, of arguments in defense of the proposition that we free willed entities have been put forth. By contrast, there have been a mere handful of largely timid counter-arguments. In any other debate, one would suppose that the mere fact of overwhelming consensus would render the debate into nothing more than an academic curiosity with, at most, a small group of devotees. When one reads between the lines, one gets a sense that even though the majority of people fervently insist that we have free will there is, never the less, a deep and abiding fear that we may not. I believe that it is this fear or, more precisely, these fears that I believe are being argued against.

The reason that I use the plural of fear to describe the situation is that it seems that there are a multitude of concerns that people have with regards to the possibility that we may not be free agents. The philosopher Daniel Dennett addresses a number of these fears in his book Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (such as the fear of loss of self, the fear of nihilism, the fear of "sphexishness" and so on) before going on to argue his own stance that we are free enough. It is not my intention, in this essay, to make an argument either for or against free will — except to note that I have yet to encounter a definition of the term that didn't result in either infinite regress, question begging terminations, an assertion of randomness, an equivocation, or which was, simply put, incoherent — but rather to address one of the more common fears which is often stated as an argument for the existence of free will.

The basic form of the argument is that if we did not have free will, we would not be able to hold people accountable for their actions therefore, since we do hold people accountable, we must have freedom of will. It does not take a trained logician to see that the argument is faulty. The fundamental problem of the argument is that it commits an inversion of the Naturalistic Fallacy. Whereas the common form of the naturalistic fallacy conflates is with ought ("since survival of the fittest is the rule of nature, we should let the poor starve to death"), this particular form confuses ought with is. Essentially, the argument assumes that if we can not hold people accountable for their actions, society would collapse. Since this would be a bad thing, we must be able to hold them accountable. This requires the existence of free will. Ergo, people have free will.

The primary problem with this line of deduction is the assumption that the universe must necessarily conform itself to our desires. Clearly, the universe is under no necessary obligation to do so. I could just as easily say that suffering would be bad therefore there must be no suffering in the world. Unless one is willing to entertain the ad hoc supposition that all suffering is an illusions (and I'll leave it to the reader to ponder what possible distinction can be made between real misery and imaginary misery), the evidence of the universe flatly contradicts the assumption. If you don't believe that suffering is a good example (perhaps you are a Christian Scientist), I'm sure you can think of any number of examples of how the universe ought to be but isn't (at the very least, the universe ought not deceive us into believing that we suffer). Even if we ought to be able to hold people accountable for their actions, we have no guarantee that we will be able to logically do so.

Fortunately, the second fault of the argument is the presumption that freedom of will is necessary for the existence of the rule of law. Dispelling this view is going to be more challenging because we have a number of intuitions regarding the nature of accountability that stand in the way of seeing why free will is an unnecessary component to the issue.

The first concept that I need to address is the concept of responsibility. In philosophical terms, responsibilities pertain to certain types of causal relationships. Causal relationships, in turn, can be described in terms of cause and effect. A given cause is considered to be proximate to an effect if there is an immediate correlation between it and the effect. An ultimate cause, by contrast, sits at the end of a change of proximate causes.

One way to illustrate this is to consider an avalanche. The proximate cause to an avalanche might be a boulder that started rolling down a bill. To proximate cause to the boulder rolling down the hill might be a high gust of wind pushing against it. And so forth and so on. Trying to reach the ultimate cause of the avalanche might well lead us back through issues of climatology, geology, planetary formation, stellar genesis and so on all the way back to the Big Bang and, perhaps, even beyond that. This is a crucial difference between proximate causes and ultimate causes. When talking about proximate causes, we don't need to extend our investigations beyond the mundane bounds of the everyday world that we live in. When the subject turns to ultimate causes, though, we invariably enter a realm dominated by questions of philosophy, theology and cosmology. It is for this reason that ultimate causation, as interesting as the topic may be to us on an intellectual level, rarely enters into our concerns when it comes to the pragmatic issue of how to deal with a given causal arrangement.

Let us consider the issue of avalanches. Avalanches are a problem. It is in our interests to either prevent avalanches from occurring or, failing that, to prevent people from being harmed by avalanches. When grappling with this issue, we do not turn to cosmologist for their insights into the deep ontological questions of what initial conditions at the origin of time (if time, indeed, has an origin point) lead to the existence of a universe where avalanches occur. Doing so would not only pose a set of problems that, in all likelihood, may well be insurmountable but, indeed, even if we could answer the question of what ultimately causes avalanches, doing so would give us no insights in how to deal with the immediate issue. In order to make headway on that problem, we have to restrict the domain of our inquiries to the proximate and the near proximate.

Let us say that we have determined that loose patches of snow tend to lead to avalanches (a proximate cause leading to a proximate effect). We may decide that setting off explosives to clear out loose snow would help forestall future avalanches — that is, using a proximate solution to anticipate a different proximate effect. We may post warning signs in areas where avalanches are likely in the hopes of preventing people from being in the path of an avalanche. Note that if we do post such signs, we only need to concern ourselves with the immediate fact that warning signs are a deterrent to people being in a danger area. We don't need to worry about deep issue of nature vs. nurture or whether any given person is ultimately free to obey or disobey the sign. Our interests are pragmatic and do not need to be concerned with deep philosophical questions.

We apply proximate standards and solutions to the vast majority of problems that face us. Questions of free will are not proximate questions. The question of free will invariably plunges into deep ontological considerations of whether or not we are ultimately free agents. Such discussions may well be fascinating but why ought we attempt to apply a question of ultimate causality to the proximate concerns inherent in crime and punishment?

Let us first ask ourselves why we want to be able to hold others legally and socially responsible for their actions. I will propose that our reasons fall into four broad concerns: quarantine, rehabilitation, deterrence and retribution. Quarantine is the principle that a person who has demonstrated that they are a danger to the rest of society must be sequestered away from society in order to prevent them from causing further harm. Rehabilitation is the theory that punishing someone for antisocial acts can lead to a state of moral and social improvement such that they may be rehabilitated back into society as an improved individual. The theory of deterrence suggests that by punishing one person for unacceptable behavior will have the effect of discouraging others from following similar courses of action. Finally, retribution is the desire to cause harm to those who have harmed others. It is the retributive stance that says that convicts be made to suffer for their crimes in order to pay for what they've done. It is, essentially, a moral theory based on the notion that one's actions should be balanced by an equivalent set of consequences. We must now ask ourselves if a theory of free will is necessary to accomplish these goals.

Most proponents of free will argue that an individual must be a free moral agent in order to be held to any sort of accountability for their actions. It is not enough that we can demonstrate that a given individual stabbed another individual to death. If that person can not be shown to be ultimately responsibility for their actions, there is no logical basis by which we can charge them, try them, or sentence them for their actions. We would not, after all, hold someone accountable for murder if it could be proven that a mad scientist had seized control of their brains and made them do horrible things against their will, now would we? As such, how can we hold a person responsible for their actions if they were the product of bad genes or an abusive environment or, ultimately, just a puppet dancing under the controlling strings of uncountable deterministic permutations leading back to the origin of the universe? It is argued that a presumption of free will is critical to the existence of any system of justice and that it's absence negates the very concept of just action. Without free will we can't accomplish our goals because the very framework of law is a sham.

Is this true, though? Let us consider our first goal: quarantine. Leaving aside the question of free will, for a moment, why do we want to quarantine criminals in the first place? The answer is self-evidently that if didn't quarantine those who have proven themselves to be a danger we would fear that that their continued freedom would pose a threat to the rest of us. We would not want someone who has already raped several women (or even one woman!) to walk the streets for fear that he would continue to rape more women. A burglar might continue to rob. A murder might murder again. It is worth noting that all of these concerns are rooted in the expectation that people are not utterly free agents. We act as though people are, in fact, biased by their previous experiences and prone to repeat them. It would seem that a pristine theory of free will would allow us to assume that one day a person could choose to be a murderer and the next, just as easily, not to murder anyone else. Indeed, a pristine theory of free will would suggest that any one of us are just as free to go on a crime spree as anyone else and that there's no good reason to treat those who have already done so with especial caution. I will not pursue this line of argument, however, because I am certain that I will be accused of erecting strawmen if I do. Never the less, it is worth noting that even the staunchest advocates of free will are willing to concede that we do have experiential constraints upon our actions – Mother Theresa did not have the same moral latitude in her choices as Charlie Manson did.

I would ask, rather, to consider an agent that indisputably lacks free will. Let us suppose that it is discovered that a given car has a faulty brake line. We know, using proximate logic, that allowing that car on the road would likely lead to accident, injury and possibly death. It is, quite literally, a dangerous vehicle. What moral justification do we need to obtain in order to ban it from the roads? Must we prove that the car wants to be a killer? Do we need to demonstrate that the car wasn't a product of its environment and manufacture? Must we tread lightly around the fear that there are things beyond the scope of the car that made it what it is? Do we have to be able to morally condemn the car for what it has become? No, of course we don't have to do any of these things. We may well choose to ponder why the car became as it is but the critical consideration of how to actually deal with it only needs to consider that it is, in fact, as it is. It is sufficient to demonstrate that the car is a danger and that we have every reason to think that putting it on the roads would be to put others at risk.

It is obvious that a dangerous machine, like a defective car, lacks any sort of will (free or otherwise) but the freedom of the machine has no bearing on the decisions we make in dealing with it. The danger it poses is enough, in and of itself, to motivate us to act to mitigate the danger. Why do we presume, then, that we must we be paralyzed in the face of the possibility that a given individual may not have ultimate moral responsibility for their actions? If a person has demonstrated that they are a threat to others, this is all the cause we need to segregate them from others.

Ah, but what of our mind controlling mad scientist? Doesn't this say that we should imprison the poor person that he's enslaved with his mind control device? If not, how does this different from being a slave to a deterministic universe? I would answer that my saying that, yes, the very first thing that we should do is, in fact, detain him so that he won't keep killing people while under the nefarious influence of a madman. It would be reckless to allow someone to go around stabbing people just because it was under someone else's influence. Once we have successfully detained him, we would want to break the control that the scientist had over him. It would not be until that point that we could afford to release him. This brings us to the question of rehabilitation.

It is important to note that the concept of rehabilitation is a fairly modern invention. In ancient times, the primary methods of justice were punitive. Often, punishment was simply tantamount to torture or a form of state sponsored vengeance whose primary function was to short circuit the endless cycles of vendetta that vigilante justice tends to promote. Never the less, the theory that punishment can be used to rehabilitate criminals has not only gained currency in the modern world but it is based upon the realization that any successful efforts to rehabilitate a criminal would represent a net gain to society since the rehabilitated criminal would, in principle, would be able to contribute to the social good.

Do we need a theory of free will in order to hope that a given person could be rehabilitated into a productive member of society? No. To demonstrate this we will, once again, utilize the example of an agent that is not considered to have free will: non-sapient animals. Very few philosophers would contend that dogs are free agents, for instance. While we may say that a given dog is a "bad dog" for making a mess on the carpet, we aren't using the term as a moral evaluation of the animal's conduct. We understand that dogs do not have a well developed sense of agency. When we correct a dog, the only thing that we are relying on is that the dog will be able to remember the rebuke and will associate the rebuke with the undesirable act and will, with repeated corrections and the proper application of positive enforcements, become trained not to defecate indoors.

Training is the cornerstone of any theory of rehabilitation. All that is required is that the agent in question is sufficiently intelligent to respond to the training and sufficiently motivated to take the lessons to heart. The amount of intelligence required is actually fairly small. If one is tempted to assign free will to dogs, we can shift the considerations to cats, mice, or even worms if faced with a particularly aggressive skepticism. So long as an agent has some degree of memory and some aversion to corrective stimuli, it can be trained to avoid a given course of action. Humans, of course, are significantly more complex than dogs, cats, et al. This complicates efforts towards rehabilitation but it also allows for more sophisticated sorts of association.

Whether rehabilitative treatments work or not is a question that I will not attempt to address except to note that the data is complex, controversial and, all too often, equivocal. It does appear that certain social deviations are more prone to efforts at correction than others (pedophilia being a prime example of a condition that does not seem to respond to rehabilitative efforts, thus throwing a counterexample to the proposition that we may freely choose to morally improve ourselves) but in no case are we required to believe that a person must be a free agent in order to assume that said person could, in theory, be trained to be a better person. Let us now examine deterrence.

The theory of deterrence essentially amounts to a kind of preemptive rehabilitation at a distance. The idea behind the theory is that having a sufficiently harsh punishment for a given crime, people who might be tempted to commit the crime will think twice. With any hope, they will decide that the potential gains of committing the crime will be outweighed by the potential costs.

We like to believe that crime doesn't pay. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that crime often does pay. A person who deals drugs, for instance, can often make tens of thousands of dollars a month while his law abiding compatriots are forced to subsist on a fraction of that wealth. It is delusional to think that all criminals are caught. At best, we can hope that most criminals are caught. Even in the cases where a criminal is apprehended, his apprehension does not negate the harm he's done. We may be pleased when a murderer is taken off the streets but that can only offer so much comfort to the families of his victims.

By making the cost of a crime high enough, we hope to prevent crime thus reducing the number of individuals that get away with crimes unapprehended as well as preventing acts of victimization before they happen. In order for a theory of deterrence to work, we need a fairly sophisticated sort of agent. It is not sufficient that an agent can learn to avoid a course of action as a result of his own experiences; we must have an agent intelligent enough to anticipate the consequences of an action before the fact (what is sometimes called a Popperian agent). Fortunately, human beings are such agents.

Consider a room with a sign that says "DANGER: VX NERVE GAS, DO NOT ENTER". It is rather unlikely that you've been exposed to nerve gas before (otherwise you'd probably be dead). Never the less, so long as you understand the sign (e.g., you can read English) and appreciate the consequences, you are unlikely to enter the room. Once again, our capacity to perform proximate evaluations allows us to realize that if we open the room, we might die. Since most people are adverse to dying, most people would, therefore, choose to leave the room undisturbed.

The only thing that a theory of deterrence requires a handful of critical ingredients:

  1. That a given set of actions will result in a predetermined set of consequences

  2. The presence of agents who are aware of the consequences

  3. An inherent aversion to the consequence in a majority of the agents

  4. The ability for the agents to associate their potential actions to the consequences

  5. That the consequences are sufficiently steep to offset any benefits of performing the actions

The capacity to anticipate consequences is a sophisticated ability but it is not necessary to posit that we are free agents in order to account for this. In point of fact, knowledge of danger tends to have the effect of limiting our free will. I may be perfectly capable of driving off of a cliff if I don't know that it's there but, once I see a sign warning me that the road I'm on leads to a cliff, my instinctual sense of self-preservation is going to inhibit my ability to keep driving along. If I were a perfectly free agent, of course, I could just as easily decide to keep on driving as not but, as I've noted above, all but the most ardent supporters of free will shall readily concede that we aren't that free.

Given that efforts towards deterrence are intended to inhibit our choices, the contention that we are required to be free agents in order to make a theory of deterrence work is defeated by self-contradiction. Even more critically, the only criteria that matters in order to advance a system of deterrence is whether or not the efforts to deter others from the set of proscribed actions does, in fact, succeed in its goal. A system of deterrence that doesn't work should be rejected. One that does work may well be embraced (so long as it doesn't conflict with other moral goals). In this context, the issue of free will is simply a non-sequitur.

Finally, we come to retribution. Retribution is not the same as generic punishment. Because we are social animals, any sort of quarantine will be automatically punitive (which is one reason that solitary confinement is often used as a supplementary punishment in prisons), punitive actions are typically considered necessary to foster criminal rehabilitation, and efforts at deterrence would be toothless unless we actually carried out the threat of punishment. Given this, retribution must be considered actions that go above and beyond these goals. Retributive justice is punishment for the sake of punishment (although it is often phrased in terms of obtaining a moral balance). Typically it is based on the notion that a criminal deserves his fate and must be made to suffer because he freely chose his course of action.

Here, at last, we have a cause that seems to logically appeal to a sense of free will. If we do not believe that being are ultimately responsible for their own actions, it becomes more difficult to justify a course of action that is based solely on a desire to inflict harm.

The first question I would raise to this contention is to ask whether or not this is a desirably goal for a civilized society. While I would agree that there is something inside of us that wants to hurt those who have hurt us (and where does this innate desire stand with respect to our own supposed free will — but I digress), should this be something that we want to do as a culture? Historically we have been moving away from doing so. As an example of this, the crime for theft, in most of the civilized world, is not amputation but incarceration. I don't doubt that there are still people (especially the victims of robbery) who might long for the old days when thieves would lose their hands but, as a society, we consider such a punishment excessive. The notion that the punishment should fit the crime and that it should serve to promote social order is central to modern theories of justice. Vengeance may well be sweet but it isn't considered to be civilized.

It does behoove us to recognize that the meaning of civilization has changed dramatically over time. The Romans, certainly, would have had little difficulty with the idea that we should torture convicts (and even made a sport out of it). Who is to say that our own moral qualms represent the high water mark of civilization? Who is to say that some future society won't find our notion of a balance between a crime and a punishment to be a hopelessly quaint invention and an artifact of our place in history? If this is the case, must we appeal to a theory of free will in order to justify a belief in retribution? Perhaps not.

In order to consider the question of retribution we must first ask ourselves why retribution would be desirable. We can not appeal to its rehabilitative effects and we can not appeal to its deterrent effects since doing so would mean that we were either talking about a system of rehabilitation or a system of deterrence. Punishment for the sake of punishment must provide its own justification for its necessity. Perhaps we can appeal to human nature. Maybe there's something inside of us that needs to see villains suffer. If that's the case, though, an appeal to free will is the last thing we want. Instead, we would be better served to actively deny our own free will — we indulge in excess punishment because we have no choice! Perhaps we should punish criminals beyond the strict limits of necessity in order to make the victims of criminalization feel better. Maybe there's a sort of moral catharsis that we are denying to something who has, for instance, been raped by our prissy restraints on torture and mutilation. If that's the case, though, then our reason isn't punishment for the sake of punishment but, rather, punishment for the sake of emotional recompensation (this would likewise apply to any theory of punishment that appealed to a desire for moral balance). Surely if that's the case, any supposition of free will is unnecessary; all that is required is an agent that requires this means of punitive balance. Again, supposing free will actually complicates the issue because we could suppose that a victim has the freedom to simply choose not to need any sort of sanctioned retribution.

It is possible that I am being unimaginative. I must consider the possibility that there is some reason that would justify punishment for the sake of punishment and that such a reason would demand a theory of free will to justify it. What then? If free will proved to be a chimera, would the very notion of law crash to our feet? No. The only thing that would be lost is the principle of retribution. The principle would have to be dismissed precisely because it was unjustified by the facts of the universe. In its place, we would still have the option of having legal institutions based on the principles of quarantine, rehabilitation, deterrence and, perhaps, emotional recompensation. Since all of these allow (and even demand) punishment, criminals would continue to be punished for their crimes regardless of whether or not we considered them to have any sort of ultimate responsibility for their actions. Likewise, the degree of punishment we could apply may well be very broad — even the ultimate punishment of death could, in principle, be made to fit the demands of these goals. All we would lose is the justification to apply an arbitrarily harsh punishment for any given crime. I would contend that this is a very small loss.

Have I dispensed with free will, then? No. My goal has not been to address the reality or unreality of free will. The question of whether or not we have free agency is beyond the scope of this essay and, I dare say, probably beyond the ability of anyone to resolve conclusively. The only thing that I have hoped to accomplish is the banishment of a particular fear regarding the subject of free will. We rightly desire the stability of our societies and the rule of law (anarchists to the contrary) is a critical component of that stability. If our systems of crime and punishment did, in fact, require freedom of will then we would have cause to fear the possibility that free will might only be a philosopher's dream. Fortunately, our punitive institutions are not such fragile things. Whether our actions are in our genes, our upbringing, or in some sort of ephemeral soul, the legal foundations of our society will persist.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

The Abyss

It was a car trip
To take the kids to see their grandmother,
Who lived down in Winnemucca.

We had traveled through thirteen states
Worth of weary roads and weather
Having stopped, already, to see

To say nothing of the second largest chicken sculpture
In the whole of the Western world,
And a place with a collection of two headed snakes
(Most of them preserved in formaldehyde),

When we came across a billboard
Encouraging us to come and see
The one and only Abyss.

By that point I would have preferred to drive on by,
But the kids begged and my wife suggested
That it could be, in some vague sense,

So we stopped.

I bought our tickets from a tired-eyed lady
And stepped past a worn purple curtain
Into a small room that held The Abyss.

We gazed into it,
And it, too, gazed into us.

I had never had the fundaments of my reality
Torn so thoroughly aside,
Leaving only the nihilistic tatters of despair
To clothe my naked soul.

After ten minutes or so,
I herded the kids back into the car.
It was still a long was to go
To Winnemucca.

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Unstructured S.W.A.T.

Have you every watched a cop show where a S.W.A.T. team invades a building building full of bad guys, employing all sorts of arcane hand signals? The Unconventional Airsoft website has an illustrated diagram with some rather interesting interpretations of their meanings.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

9/11: Remembrances and Reflections

When I was growing up, I always had a weird sort of envy for the people who were alive during John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It’s not that I envied the fact that they were alive to remember it but, rather, it was the sense of automatic commonality that they could establish between one another with the simple phrase “Where were you when it happened?”

My generation didn’t have anything like that. When the Challenger blew up, I thought that that might be such an event, but even though most people recall it, it never developed that near sacred sense of reminiscence that the JFK assassination achieved. It wasn’t until September 11th, 2001 that we finally had an event that etched itself so thoroughly into our memories. Now I understand that curious inflection that people get when they talk about where they were during the Kennedy assassination. I understand what it means for a nation to share a tragedy.

As I write this, I have to ask myself if there’s anything that I could possibly say about 9/11 that hasn’t already been said before by other, better writers than I? The truthful answer is that I probably can’t. As such, isn’t in an act of folly to try to add my own thoughts? Perhaps, but I think that it is important for everyone in my country to seriously think about what happened. In my case, I find that writing about a topic helps me to clarify my own thoughts on the subject.

I suppose that the best place to start is remembrance. Where was I when it happened?

I live two time zones to the west of New York City. By the time I woke up and had left for work, the events of the day were all well under way, but I was entirely oblivious of them. On that day, I decided to listen to NPR while driving to work. The very first inkling I had that anything was wrong were vague reports of fires in Washington DC and something about a plane that had crashed into the World Trade Center.

I honestly didn’t know what to make of what I was hearing. I assumed that the plane was something small, like a Cessna and the reports from Washington made me wonder if there was some sort of civil unrest going on. That, alone, should have focused my attention but I was feeling tired, that morning, and wasn’t paying too much attention to the radio. It wasn’t until I was nearly at work that I heard them say that one of the towers had fallen. It was at that point, driving into the parking lot, that I first knew that something truly serious had happened.

When I got to my desk, I tried to get into the internet, but all the sites I tried to reach were timing out. That, alone, told me that something significant had happened. There was definitely a lot of office buzz. The basic shape of the crisis was apparent and the word “terrorists” was being thrown around a lot. There were still quite a few gaps, though. I didn’t have any idea what was going on in Washington DC. The rumors ran the span from helicopters to bombs. After about an hour, someone set up a TV in a side room. Every ten minutes our so I’d go in and spend time looking at the news. This was when I first saw the images of the actual crashes.

I want to say that, by this point, I was shocked, outraged and saddened. The truth is that I just couldn’t assimilate it. Someone else in the room said what everyone was thinking, “It looks like special effects.”

He was right. The explosions didn’t look real. They looked like something out of Hollywood. It was like seeing a disaster-of-the-week TV movie. It didn’t make any sense that what I was seeing with my eyes had happened to flesh and blood human beings. Intellectually, of course, I understood this and it bothered me that I didn’t feel something more, especially since I had friends in Washington DC who could have, conceivably, been part of what was going on. My emotions refused to agree. I can’t even say that I was feeling numb. There was simply a profound sense of disconnection between myself and the reality of the situation.

It was the firefighters that finally made it real, for me. When I heard about whole companies of firemen being lost when the towers fell, that somehow broke through the feeling that none of this was actually happening. The loss of so many people, whose only goal was to save their fellow human beings from peril, was simply too awful to be anything less than entirely real.

We've all seen the images: the people leaping to their deaths, the falling towers, the burning wreckage, the grim faced rescue workers hoping against hope that someone could have possibly survived that nightmare. Over the following week, I did little more than to go to work and come home to watch television. Like many people, I donated as much as I could afford to helping the victims, but nothing could dispel the sense of futility and anger that was inside me.

One of the many things that came out of 9/11 was a phrase that quickly became a cliché. The phrase had many variations but it always took the form of "If X, then the terrorists will have won."

X could represent the assertion that if we didn't keep flying, or if we didn't go to New York City for our vacations, or if the stock market didn't go up when the markets reopened, and any number of other assertions. On the face of it, most of these contentions were ludicrous. I doubt, for instance, that the central goal of Al Qaeda was to impact the bottom line of Broadway productions. Never the less, there was a common sentiment expressed beneath all of these superficially trite expression: if the terrorists have made us afraid, then they've won. After all, that's what terrorists do — they spread fear.

Fortunately, this sentiment was in error. I say that this is fortunate because the simple and uncomfortable fact of the matter is that they did frighten us. It was fear of terrorism that drove us to pass The Patriot Act. It was fear of terrorist that caused us to ban tweezers and nail files from flights. It was fear of terrorism that ultimately allowed the administration to justify the invasion of Iraq with the specter of weapons of mass destruction. Even the thousands of flags that sprouted overnight were, in retrospect, talismans that we clutched in order to ward away that sense of dread and vulnerability that followed that evil day.

We are not a nation that is easy to shock. September 11 was not the first act of terrorism on US soil, nor was it the first attack by foreign agents, nor even was it the first attack against the World Trade Center by agents of Al Qaeda. Every act before it, however, was small enough for us to absorb into our collective psyches without causing undue disruption to our society. Even the horrific bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City didn't impact us to a fraction of the degree that 9/11 did. The attacks of 9/11 crossed a threshold. For the first time in a long, long time, our sense of security and safety evaporated.

It was an event on par with Pearl Harbor, except that this time we have an enemy that isn't going to stand in the open and fight us directly. The very fact that they struck from the shadows using our own technologies against us, that they struck with civilians at civilians, was uncanny and unnerving. The packets of anthrax that flew through our mail system in the weeks afterwards proved, once and for all, that no one, anywhere, could consider themselves safe from attack.

They did cause us to be afraid, but I don't believe that they have won. The error in the sentiment is the supposition that terror wasn't merely their method but that it was their goal. We Americans have a hard time thinking about terrorism in general and Al Qaeda in particular. The notion that terrorists are motivated by political, religious and cultural concerns seems, to us, to be perilously close to an act of legitimizing them. It is easier to believe that the only reason that they did this was because they were evil. The fear is that if we grant that they had reasons to do what they did, we might have to excuse or mitigate the terrorists from blame.

This is, of course, nonsense. When we investigate ordinary acts of murder, one of the things we always try to determine is what motivated the murder. Understand why one person murdered another does not, in any way, sanction the act, nor does understanding grant any sanction to acts of mass murder. The masterminds behind the attacks didn't just wake up and decide to use airliners as missiles on a whim. They had specific goals they hoped to accomplish. Terror was the means but it was not the end. It is only by understanding those goals that we can hope to thwart them. It is only by understanding our enemies, no matter how repugnant of an act that is, that we can hope to defeat them. This is a basic principle that is, never the less, difficult for many people to accept.

It is three years later and life has started to return to normal. People are flying once again and is anyone is afraid of going to New York it is most likely fear of muggers and not of terrorists. Normalcy is indeed, slowly, making a return but the reverberations of 9/11 are still being felt. We have occupied two countries (justifiably or not) as a direct consequence of 9/11 and the images of that day are going to play a factor in the upcoming presidential elections (for good or ill). Al Qaeda has been hampered but not destroyed and Osama Bin Ladin is still on the run.

We are a changed country. Many of the changes, frankly, concern me. Never the less, we have not disintegrated, nor have the terrorists achieved their objectives. The biggest change to my country is that we now understand, in hearts and our minds, that there are people who hate us, who pray for our destructions, and who are willing to die in order to cause us harm. It is a bitter and painful realization, a realization that will shape us in this new century. I believe that 9/11 represents a supreme challenge for us. We must contend with the realities of a hostile world were many people consider us to be an evil that must be defeated.

We must face that challenge while, never the less, maintaining sight of the principles and ideals that define the United States. It is a challenge that has taken form at Abu Ghraib, at Guantanamo Bay, in the House of Representatives and the Senate and, ultimately, in the chambers of the Supreme Court. Sometimes I am worried that we may, indeed, be willing to sacrifice our identity for the sake of fear and I wonder if the terrorist might, after all, defeat us by turning us into something which we are not. During such times, I take solice in the memory of the millions of people who immediately went out to donate blood, money and time for the sake of strangers that they would never meet. September 11 did effect us. It frightened us and caused us to go just a little crazy because of that. Never the less, I think that beneath our fears lies a core of courage and a sense of principle that will, in the long run, carry us through to a day where we will become a nation that learned many sad lessons but which will, hopefully, have become wiser in the process.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Becoming a Goat

I've decided to become a goat.

My friends tell me that I'm crazy,
That I can't just become a goat.

Even the goats, I know, agree.

I say that that is just prejudice.
I should be able to become
Whatever I want to be.

Deep down inside,
I know that I am a goat.

I subscribe to all the goat journals.
I read goat books and watch goat news.
I chat with other goats online.

(My handle is BillyGoatGruff69)

I talk Goat,
I smell like a goat,
And I even eat goat food —

Except for a little bit of lamb
Every now and again.

I'm not a fanatic, after all.

this is an audio post - click to play

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Unstructured Asteroids

One of the catastrophes that really captures my imagination is a giant asteroid or comet strike such as the one that apparently wiped out the dinosaurs. I've often wondered what such an impact would do if it happened now. Alas, I've never been good with doing complex calculations. Now, thanks to the Earth Impact Effects Program calculator, it's simplicity itself.

By plugging in some simple numbers, for instance, I know that if a 7 mile wide iron metorite were to strike Salt Lake City, then over here, in Colorado Springs, I would likely suffer third degree burns, get tossed around by an earthquake strong enough to move heavy furniture, get pelted with burning rocks up to two and a half feet thick, and be blown away by a 665 mile per hour wind. It's a good thing that I have Apocalypse insurance.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

The Leash

In real life, I am a database administrator (and I hope beyond hope that that isn't what ends up in my obituary). One of the consequences of this job is that I am often required to be "on call", which means that I have to be available twenty-fours hours a day to address problems with our databases. When I am on call, I can get calls from users complaining about technical issues, and that that does happen sometimes, but it is far more typical that I'll be paged by one of the machines with a message saying that there's a problem with it and a description of the problem. Trust me when I say that there's something eerily anthropomorphic about having a machine call you with a plea for help.

I am just old enough to remember a time before answering machines. In that ancient era, if someone wanted to get a hold of you by phone, they simply took their luck in hoping that you'd be home to answer their call. If you weren't, their only option was to try again later or to find you some other way. The critical thing about this was that the burden to contact you was on them.

I am no Luddite. Quite the contrary, I strongly believe that the overall effect of technology has been towards the enhancement of our quality of life. Nor do I believe that answering machines were a bad idea. In the days before such devices, it was very easy to miss important calls for the mere sin of going shopping or out to a movie. Once answering machines hit the market, they were eagerly embraced for the very reason that they were so utterly useful. Never the less, when answering machines became common there was a subtle shift in the burden of responsibility. Instead of having the responsibility for contact being upon the caller, the responsibility – and the expectation – to return the call was now upon you. In many ways, I think that this was the camel's proverbial nose.

My mother was a senior telephone operator for AT&T back when AT&T was simply known as The Phone Company (or, more affectionately, as Ma Bell – a name that seems more than a little Orwellian in retrospect, but I digress). One of the perks of this was that she had discounted access to a lot of things that were beyond the reach of the general public. This is the reason that I got a pager when I was eighteen. This was back in the days when having a pager typically got you mistaken for a drug dealer. This is one of the reasons that I stopped using it – the lesser reason.

With an answering machine, there was no necessary urgence to return a call if you didn't want to. You always had the plausible excuse of simply not being in until some later time. Some people even took to actively screening their calls although there was a general perception that doing so was a bit obnoxious (not that this stopped very many people). With the advent of pagers, the burden shifted again. Wherever you were, it was assumed that you would get the page. At that point, the requirement was on you to find a phone and return the call. In my own case, the convenience of being able to be reached by my friends was swiftly outweighed by a flurry of spuriously urgent pages from my father who decided that the pager was an excellent way to keep hourly tabs on where I was. I started to think of the pager as a fifty mile long leash and, consequently, started to "forget" it at home. Eventually my mother got the hint and returned it to the phone company.

I got my first cell phone in 1994. I did this because of one incident where I needed to make an urgent call and couldn't find a convenient phone booth. When I did finally find one, I got trapped in a very awkward conversation with a woman who was clearly just a little bit crazy. Back then, mobile phones (as they were more often called) were fairly bulky and the battery life on them was pretty dreadful. Never the less, the ability to place calls from wherever I was without having to search out a public phone made them well worth the effort. Once again, however, another subtle shift of responsibility was ushered in.

When you page someone, you can't expect them to immediately respond. For all you know, they could be on a rural road somewhere without access to a public phone for miles. When they have a cell, however, the general expectation is that will be there to answer you that instant. Of course, this isn't an absolute. There are socially acceptable reasons not to answer the phone or to turn it off altogether (on the other hand, all modern devices now come with voicemail, so there is an expectation that you'll return the call before too long). Likewise, when I speak of these shifting burdens, I don't want to imply that the burdens are Sisyphean in scope. The truth is that we have embraced these devices because they do represent conveniences. Never the less, the conveniences come with a cost.

In my mind, the one genuinely troubling aspect of modern telecommunications has been to blur the distinction between the home and the office. Again, it is a realm of trade offs. A perfect example of this is how I deal with those curiously anthropomorphic pages from work. If I am at home when I get one, I do not have to drive to work. I can get on my computer and connect to work via a Virtual Private Network that allows me to connect to my office computer. In most cases, this means that I can spend a few minutes solving the problem and then go back to bed (inevitably, the pages come in the middle of the night). Given that our database servers need to be running 24 hours a day, this was simply part of my job description and I understood that when I took the position.

What of other jobs though? The very clear delineation between work and home no longer exits. Where once we could look forward to being off the clock at 5 o'clock, now it's very easy for a manager to call someone at home and tell them that they need to write up a report or a spreadsheet and email it back to the office by 8 o'clock. The very fact that it is not an excessive burden means that it is a burden that a manager may be willing to impose where, in the past, it would have been deferred because it would have been far too much to expect an employee to drive the report back to the office – unless it was very important indeed.

Now wireless laptops are becoming common. You can go into any Starbucks or Borders and have effortless access to the internet. In most cities above a moderate size, you don't even need to do that. You can surf the internet from a bus or from a park bench. Once again, this is a great convenience and, yet, these devices can easily be turned into remote extensions of our offices. With powerful new PDA devices that have all the power that used to be reserved for laptops, we don't even have the excuse that they are too cumbersome and expensive to carry around everywhere we go. Our offices are poised to crawl into our purses and our pockets.

I can only wonder how much further this trend will go. Will we eventually find ourselves living in a state of perfect communicability where the vast advantages of communication will require us to permanently forgo the simple luxury of occasionally being beyond the reach of home and office or will we, finally, reach a point where we will draw a line and say "go no further!"

The future shall tell.

Thursday, September 02, 2004


I caught the edge of the world
In my mouth

Slicing it with my incisors
Grinding it against my molars

Tumbling young civilizations
Into that oceanless sea

Falling, flailing bodies
Pattered against my lips
Like flecks of gold

As I enjoyed my mid-morning aperitif
Of mayhem and misery

this is an audio post - click to play

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