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Archive for the category “philosophy”

Is Marriage Unconstitutional?

This began as a comment at The Conservative Sociologist in response to her reaction to the GMM (Gay Marriage Movement).  She isn’t opposed, but finds the logic and media presentation to be flawed and annoying – she writes an interesting blog, you should check it out.

What I said was:

What I rarely see discussed is the unconstitutional nature of government regulated marriage in the USA.

In English Common Law (the law of the land when what would become the USA was still British colonies) the State is the Church and thus there is no conflict between the governments regulation and sanction of an expressly religious ceremony. The US Constitution explicitly forbids government sanction or recognition of religion. On its face, this would seem to make (federal of a certainty and arguably state as well) government involvement in marriage unconstitutional as a matter of constitutional prohibition.

Making this all so much about anything other than the gender of either participant is the acknowledged transfer of ownership of real property (to include at least one of the participants for the historical purists amongst us) that is part and parcel of the religious ceremony in contention. I don’t know about a crisis necessarily, but it is certain that no government will waste an opportunity to claim taxes and fees so I don’t expect the Supreme Court to take up this issue any time soon.

Of course, anyone seriously advancing this argument can be certain pretty much everyone will have the knives out in response … literally; virtually all of human society bases property rights and law on this explicitly religious arrangement, whatever particular religion may be the facilitator.

To be constitutionally consistent in the USA, marriage would have to be strictly a religious commitment and property rights associated with that arrangement would have to be explicitly made a contractual and entirely separate agreement between the involved parties, whether part of a civil union type contract or otherwise.

I think we can take it as a given that the GMM will be among the most fervently opposed to this question ever arising.

Marriage as it is commonly practiced in the US is an historical relic from a time when the state and church were functionally combined; the US constitution explicitly forbids state and religious union (I know that’s not a direct quote).  The US Supreme Court has a history of straining social camels through the constitutional needles eye, so that isn’t a realistic objection.  If all that be true, to be constitutionally consistent shouldn’t we either amend the document to grant explicit exception to the “no established religion” prohibition regarding the institution of marriage or write a law that makes formal the distinction between the religious commitment of marriage and the issue(s) of property rights and inheritance and all the rest?

Along with everybody else (to include Mrs. [and Mr. for all of that] Supreme Court Justice), I think it a given the gay folks amongst us will be just as much up in arms about such a ruling as pretty much everybody else will be; they are the stars of the marriage movement at the moment, in this circumstance they aren’t any different from their parents and that can’t be what equality is all about can it?

I expect this is all built on very shaky constitutional ground and has long since been resolved, but it applies an interesting filter to the questions surrounding marriage nonetheless, I think.

In Which The Question Is Asked, What’s Up With Those Gun Guys?

Via Instapundit I learned of this article in The Atlantic by Dan Baum titled What Liberals Need To Understand About ‘Gun Guys’.

Formatted as a Q&A interview, Mr. Baum asks and answers:

At one point in your trip, you switched from open carry to concealed carry. What was that like?
In some ways I really liked it. It’s physically uncomfortable, it’s heavy and it digs into you, and you have to be very conscious of your clothing to make sure you’re not displaying it, because you really don’t want anyone knowing you’re carrying it. But it kept me vigilant. You really have your shit together when you’re carrying a gun. You never forget you’re wearing it. Maybe cops who’ve been wearing a gun for 30 years forget they’re wearing it, but I certainly never did, and I wore it for about 18 months.
It also made me really calm. When you’re wearing a gun, you do not get upset if someone takes your parking space, or if someone cuts you in line. You have this quite noble sense of being the sheepdog, being the protector. And I liked that.
But then you start wondering — what is my responsibility here? It’s really complicated. Say you’re in a shopping mall and somebody starts shooting. What do you do? If you run away, are you like a doctor who doesn’t respond when someone starts choking in a restaurant? If you’re wearing a gun, do you have an obligation to run towards the sound of the guns?

To answer Mr. Baum’s question, No Sir, you have no obligation to “run towards the sound of the guns” simply because you are carrying a complimentary tool yourself.  You may or may not have a moral/legal/ethical responsibility to live up to the American urge to “do something” in an emergency, but simple ownership of a potentially useful tool doesn’t automatically infer obligation to do so directly.   BTW, your choking comparison isn’t really apropos as a choking person offers little if any direct physical danger to any but those in immediate close contact; a shooter does.  You have the potential ability to effectively and (more) safely respond to a shooter if you are yourself wearing a gun, but that doesn’t automatically translate into obligation/responsibility to do so.

Later in the piece he asks/answers:

Nick Kristoff wrote a column in the New York Times about a gun standoff that was the result of a disagreement over a goose. He argued that instead of preventing conflict, guns actually escalate it. What’s your response to this?
I think we are all too cavalier with our guns. I fault both sides, really. The NRA and its handmaidens want us to believe that the whole problem is criminals, and they will not take responsibility. We need to lock guns up. Training should be better. And I think the anti-gun side needs to show gun guys more respect and needs to summon gun guys to respect themselves more. I think we all need to take this more seriously. We have 300 million privately owned guns in this country. Let’s really talk about how we can be safer.
Joe Nocera at the Times runs a daily tally of gun killings. He’s not running a daily tally of how many people defend themselves with guns. For one thing we don’t know about it most of the time. David Hemenway at Harvard is very pro gun-control and he thinks it happens about 80,000 times a year. If that’s true, that means that guns are saving 10 times as many people as they’re killing.
I call for my fellow liberals to approach gun owners with respect. These are the people who understand guns, these are the people who can help us figure out how to be safer around guns. Instead, you drive them into a defensive crouch by calling gun culture the problem.

I suggest the phrase you’re tip-toeing around Mr. Baum is: as a political issue, gun control is more about “control” and less about “guns”.

A final observation; Mr. Baum asks/answers:

At the end of this trip, did you feel any less conflicted about your place in the gun world?
No. I still don’t really belong in either camp. If you watch the reaction to the book when it comes out, you will see that. I’m no less a Democrat than I was, but I am more attuned to the gun guy complaint — “I am over-managed and I am under-respected as a citizen and a human being.” I think the right has a point there. We need to stop fearing capable, empowered, independent-thinking individuals.

Mr. Baum associates guns and gun ownership with “conservatives” and fair enough, lots of my gun-owning friends are actual conservatives politically.  That said, I believe the attitude Mr. Baum closes his article with is more aligned with the libertarian political attitude than it is with the conservative view point. 

I heartily endorse his final words; We need to stop fearing capable, empowered, independent-thinking individuals.  Indeed Sir, indeed.

(Retail) Evolution In Action

I read at The Firearms Blog that Amazon.com may be removing shooting sport-related items from their customer fulfillment inventory.  I sent the following message to the Amazon.com PR email link just now:

Dear Sir/Madam;
 
I have today read reports that Amazon.com will no longer be willing to meet some of my retail purchases, to wit, firearms-related items like scopes, sights, slings and other such shooting sport enhancement products.  If so, I will be taking my admittedly meager business elsewhere, to an undoubtedly less satisfying transaction process, but one that doesn’t blatantly dispise my purchasing preferences.
 
Amazon.com has a perfect right to make such a business decision (if in fact the company actually has done), but so too do the individual customers Amazon relies upon to complete the sales transaction process.  I do not wish to take my paltry business elsewhere, but decline to continue dealing with any business that openly despises my beliefs and, indeed, one of the fundamental  principles upon which the USA was founded.
 
Sincerely yours,
 
William Brown, Amazon.com Prime customer

Despite my having misspelled “despise” in the original, I hope the company’s spokesperson’s response is as serious – if more literate – than my inquiry. 

A Rights-Based Strategy Of Exponential Technology Change

There exists in the USA an energetic (and more than occasionally vituperative) debate into the nature of rights.  Their source, their expression and, perhaps most vehement of all, the acceptable limitations on that expression.  What follows will draw example from a limited selection of that rights discussion with the express purpose of arguing the applicability of the fundamental principles of human rights as that concept might apply to developing a strategy to accommodate the exponential development of technology on human society.  This post is not intended to be all-inclusive and the hope is to stimulate thought toward arriving at a considered position available to be applied as circumstance makes desirable.

Since the topic is exponential change in capability, I will take the fundamental position that the principles delineated in the 9th and 10 amendments to the US Constitution are the most supportive of people having the broadest authority for developing and using technology.  Additional to this, the principle that restriction of the exercise of rights (specifically, the right to learn about and individually seek to advance the development of technology in a specifiable application) by those other than the legitimate owner(s) of a given technology (in a word; government) are subject to specific and quite limited circumstance (as example, see the entire Bill Of Rights to the US Constitution).

There has recently been an effort to counter the question of an individual exercising certain rights without reference to the general concept of rights.  I think this entire line of reasoning is most pertinent to dealing with the effects of exponential growth on human society.  To wit; that rights cannot be selectively denied without destroying the very concept, and that rights can be mutually limited in specific and stipulated fashion and degree.

Rights are the universal condition of the individual human (alright, the individual intellectual entity).  Their exercise can be denied, but they can only be temporarily extended to some other voluntarily (regardless of the duration of the agreement).  If this be true generally, then applying the same principles to encourage and normalize change becomes a mere extension of established principles and it’s application subject to the established mechanisms for dealing with disruptive circumstance.  Should it come down to a matter of law, I’m thinking a Federalist model; a unifying but expressly limited structure within which a variety of different standards are available to individual choice.  Freedom of movement between the different areas is guaranteed as is personal responsibility for the effects of one’s actions.

In their book Abundance, Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler seem to ignore the effect of network development on the ability of people to adopt technology changes in a fashion that allows for exponential growth of their ability to accommodate the effects of exponential growth on their societies and selves.  What I am suggesting in this post is that a principle of ethical and mutually beneficial standards be developed, specifically in response to the numerous changes the two men make so prominent a part of their book.  We can make such an effort a central part of our effort to adapt to and incorporate exponential change into our lives, or experience yet another set back in the course of human development – an experience they go to some effort to point out that human history is “littered with”.

The two men make the point that humanity has been improving the human condition throughout the course of recorded human existence.  Why not make doing so successfully a prominent part of a conscious strategy to achieve a continuation of that historical trend?

Picture Of War Crime Justice

At the very end of his Dec. 22 Chaos Manor post, Jerry Pournelle links to a Treppenwitz post, now several months old, which examines a famous photo from the Vietnam War. Therein blogger David Bogner reviews some of the lesser known facts surrounding both the picture itself and people’s perception of the recorded image.

All of that is interesting, yet the single most operant fact that contributed to the circumstance playing out as it was recorded at the time is never directly mentioned.

Without recounting the Treppenwitz post, the basic facts are: in 1968 the Communist Viet Cong/Viet Minh insurgent forces staged extreme acts of violence in violation of a negotiated truce throughout much of then-South Vietnam. Captured in the act of mass murder, one of these VC was summarily tried and executed by the military and civil police commander for the city and military district of Siagon (the city since re-named as Ho Chi Minh City). This summary execution was captured on both still and motion photography, the still image probably being the more historically famous of the two.

Here’s the thing; the executed man (formally Captain Bay Lop, South Vietnamese Communist Party Army, Viet Minh) was properly judged and sentenced “in accordance with the provisions of the Geneva Convention (aka Laws of Armed Conflict) regarding “Armed Partisans”, ” civilian combatant s”, and “crimes against non-combatants”. Were an American or other NATO officer to be presented with an insurgent in Afghanistan captured committing the same crimes, he would be equally in accordance with the law (negotiated treaty having force of same in the USA) in also issuing a summary judgement and execution. We would also subsequently crucify him too.

We cry about how terrible something is, empower someone to impose our considered will upon any perpetrator of that thing, and then cry in horror that we didn’t mean for what then happens to take place, all while we set out to destroy those who did our bidding in our name. Police, soldiers, politicians; you name it, the list is virtually endless. We put people in a position to act with our authority, then refuse to accept responsibility for the predictable results of our decision. If we want honest and open enforcement of our societal decisions, we must be prepared to accept responsibility for what those we so empower do as a result. Further, if we want an open and honest society (government, law enforcement, whatever) we must judge all things – not least ourselves – just as openly and honestly.

In executing Capt. Lop, South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan was photographed performing his sworn duty in an entirely lawful manner. The honest image of that honorable act was subsequently used in deliberate campaigns of lies and misdirection, both here in the United States and elsewhere, which are themselves symptoms of what still ails American society – possibly fatally. We very well may not be able to elect ourselves out of our present national condition, but I suggest Gen. Loans experience is instructive of the consequences if we don’t.

My thanks to Jerry Pournelle for this timely reminder at the outset of our latest national election year. Sometimes, harsh facts are best illustrated by harsh images.

Merry Christmas.

Staking Claim To My Position

Kevin Baker (who hasn’t been on Vicious Circle in too long) has his faith in human failure reinforced by a series of expository posts by Mike-istan. In a comment to the third post, I wrote:

One aspect of the position the police might choose for themselves that hasn’t been overtly examined in your series to-date is the degree to which law enforcement (in general terms, the armed segment of every level of the US civil and criminal courts system) might gravitate into creating its own “estate” (recalling your earlier reference to medieval societal demarcations). What if they effectively choose, “We The Cops, The Estate; To Protect And Serve Ourselves”?

On a different tack, “we who don’t need to be ruled” are always going to be confronted by a comparatively overwhelming force in any such dystopian (un)civil confrontation with organised government forces. An Army Of One was a stupid recruitment slogan and in the context of your series is a certain loser in any conflict opposing a coordinated group effort. S/He may not go alone, but …

Freedom and independence are wonderful experiences for an individual when viewed from within the mutual support and association of a like-minded group; they’re a wonderful goad for one to dominate and lead as many others as you can otherwise. The people who have already made the choice to join the effort to provide for themselves at the expense of the rest of the citizenry (which is an admittedly unfair description of government employees) are actually faced with the subsequent choice of destroying their personal lives or continuing as they have already chosen to do. Does anyone really think there’s much question as to their likely resolution of such a quandary?

Personally, I think it’s bad strategy to position any potential rival with an us-or-them threat (even if only metaphorically, as in the case above). Much better to present a selection of potential (and often interdependent) options for mutual assistance between positions. Ideological arguments are best confined to discussions with one’s self, or at most a select – and very private – group. Using them as a basis for positional identification is a virtual guarantor of violent reaction (and likely of actual violence too).

Never force someone into choosing for or against you; even if he picks you, he’ll still resent you for it and be an unreliable ally. Better to present yourself as an attractive choice potentially available to the right proposition instead.

Not-Fisking Phil Bowermaster

Phil Bowermaster is the (co- ?) creator of The Speculist blog, co-host of Fast Forward Radio and now the on-line “voice” of the Zapoint company. I have been a long-time commenter on The Speculist as have Phil and his blog-partner Stephen on my blog; Phil has even gotten desperate for interview guests had me as a guest on Fast Forward Radio. He and I have a shared context, so I’m confident he won’t be offended by my adopting the utility of the more normally offensive form this post’s structure has admittedly been drawn from.

In his Transparency Revolutionary persona, Phil posted a complex viewpoint on secrecy and transparency that made reference to Julian Assange and Wikileaks. Before getting into Phil’s post, let me take this opportunity to make clear that I personally regard Mr. Assange as being repulsive, self-aggrandising scum deserving the worst treatment humanly possible for his abusive betrayal of other’s safety merely to stroke his own ego and financially better himself. As he has operated it to-date, Wikileaks and all who participate in that great betrayal deserve the professional attentions of Seal Team Six at their next opportunity.

I’m widely known to be an easy-going guy though, so perhaps I understate my feelings.

Phil wrote:

The Spy Machine and Absolutes
Posted on May 3, 2011 by Phil

Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is known for having strong opinions about things, e.g.:

Wikileaks Founder: Facebook is the most appalling spy machine that has ever been invented

Here we have the world’s most comprehensive database about people, their relationships, their names, their addresses, their locations, their communications with each other, and their relatives, all sitting within the United States, all accessible to US Intelligence.”

I don’t think that’s just hyperbole.

Right you are Phil; it’s nonsense on stilts! Facebook is an accumulation of unsourced data points that might by correlated to indicate potential (and extremely tentative) conclusions to anyone willing to put forth the time and work necessary to structure the data to some unintended (by Facebook and it’s users) purpose.

A spy searches out data that has been deliberately obscured. In the Facebook example, a spy would spend extensive resources searching for the data concealed by the self-posted data available to anyone who logged on to the site. I am confident this is not what Mr. Assange refers to, so “spy” is entirely misleading as is his description of the nature of the data made available by Facebook’s users.

Putting aside the question of whether the US government has unhindered or even special express access to the Facebook database, such a collection of data is a tremendous intelligence tool and is bound to be used as such. Before Facebook, Google was the most appalling spy machine ever built. A decade or so ago, AOL was. Before that it was email. A century ago, it might well have been claimed that the telephone directory was.

Actually, as it’s structured Facebook is at best a collection of data that could have intelligence value in an extremely precise application by any party willing to search out those statistically few data points of relative value to the express purpose. Uncle Sugar may very well have access to every piece of information it could possibly want about you and in all likelihood wouldn’t ever know it did unless the .gov was already looking at you beforehand and knew to search for data specific to you. Otherwise, we’re all securely lost in the daticular sea of confusion that is Facebook.

Other than the potential for data search convenience once a specific data sequence has been identified, Facebook is a nightmare of data overload.

Assange is something of an absolutist when it comes to transparency. The defining principal behind Wikileaks is that any information that has been deemed restricted and that can be published…should be published. Assange is the universal, indiscriminate whistle-blower. In his view, government (and particularly intelligence agencies) represent a class of universal, indiscriminate exploiters of information.

And here we come to the point of contention.

Just in passing (and I am far from the first to make this observation), I notice Herr Assange – and Wikileaks more generally – seem to have the decidedly Circumstantialist policy of not revealing the secrets of those who have the reputation of actually killing those who do so. {cough}Putin{cough}

That out of the way, the US government is, at least in design, an extension of the citizens of that country. Even if only to the degree that can still be said to be true, the secrets he/they brute about are mine! The US federal government is a deliberately crafted construct intended to permit the greatest opportunity for expression of all the citizenry’s interests in all of their often gloriously contradictory intent. If Mr. Assange wishes to take active part in adjusting that construct, he should take out citizenship, otherwise I am in danger of agreeing with Vice-President Biden and the psychic shock of that occurance isn’t to be contemplated.

In his view, government (and particularly intelligence agencies) represent a class of universal, indiscriminate exploiters of information. Yes. Yes they are. In fact, I would go so far as to say that is one of the deliberate and designed-in purposes of the US federal government expressly for the benefit of the US citizenry at large. True “whistle-blowers” work to make sure the data exploitation doesn’t get directed against the citizens by their own government – who, it should be acknowledged, is expected to exploit everybody else (secretly, of course). Working to defeat this function is one of the actions taken by an active enemy of said country and it’s citizens.

Just sayin’.

For those of us who aren’t transparency absolutists, the world looks a little murkier. I agree with Assange that exposing corruption to the light of day is a good and necessary thing. I also agree that the government’s rather covetous attitude towards our rapidly diminishing private information is a cause for concern–if not alarm.

exposing corruption to the light of day is a good and necessary thing. Disagree on principle. Exposing corruption may well be a just and necessary thing, but “good” can only be derived from the context within which an action takes place. Exposing someone for stealing to feed his/her family (receiving food stamps fraudulently, say) would be Just, but precious little Good would come of it.

“Justice” and “Goodness” are synonyms only to those who impose judgement upon others, which is not the same thing as judging something for one’s self. This may seem a pedantic point of distinction, but it remains an important distinction nonetheless, I submit. Without a fixed meaning applied to concepts like language, human civilisation fails.

When I look at Facebook, I see a lot of things, but I don’t know that a “spy machine” is among them. Nor can a look at Wikileaks and see an unmitigated good. (I don’t doubt that Wikileaks is powerful, however, and likely to become more so.)

Wikileaks “power” is the direct result of the degree of use others make of it, not some factor inherent to the structural model. If, as has been charged, some soldier hadn’t violated his oath of service, Wikileaks wouldn’t have access to the data it has cooperated in betraying, ergo Wikileaks would have nothing to leak on it’s own. Wikileaks’ only “power” is it’s promise of betrayal. Betrayal of those who confide in it. Betrayal of the trust of those who’s data is stolen.

I can see the appeal of the absolutist mindset. Everything is so tidy; there are no difficult choices to make. The government should never conceal any information, and any that is concealed should be revealed. Any government interest in personal information is, by definition, not legitimate and to be opposed. And, of course, any large collection of personal information is nothing more than an opportunity for exploitation.

Those ideas are close enough to the truth to be appealing, but far enough from it to be dangerous. The reality is that every decision to disclose or withhold information involves a trade-off of risks and benefits. There is frequently ambiguity around who owns any given piece of information, who is entitled to know it, and who benefits either from its concealment or disclosure.

The absolutist approach leads ultimately not to transparency but to a kind of information anarchy. The element of trust is what’s missing both from closed organizations and societies and from the worldview of the transparency absolutists. Real transparency is all about leveraging the power of openness and authenticity within a complex and often ambiguous framework that we know as “the real world.” A transparent society or organization is self-aware, self-directed, and self-optimizing in a way that a low-trust society or organization never could be.

Let me conclude by stating that I hold Julian Assange in such low regard not due to my love of government intrusion or fondness for data classification protocols, but rather due to his unrepentant and deliberate disregard for the impact his actions have on those who’s lives are part and parcel of the data he exposes so indiscriminately. Not so much for the individual actors, those who are knowingly participants in that which Assange reveals (though they are equally deserving of having their trust respected), but more for those associated with them, their families and other associates. All these and more are actively endangered just so Julian Assange can have me typing his name onto my computer screen (among other claims to infamy). Perhaps even more than all of that though, Julian Assange deserves contempt for his desecration of the human condition expressed in the word “trust”. In my view, people everywhere are more suspicious of each other, and less generous of forgiveness, as a direct result of Assange’s Wikileaks debasement of trust, and for this most of all I despise him and all his works.

The reality is that every decision to disclose or withhold information involves a trade-off of risks and benefits. This.

Colored by the realisation that all people (as individuals or in organised fashion) work to achieve advantage for themselves, the gains realised through transparency will always need to be balanced by the advantage gained from closely held knowledge as well.

Which is just another way of saying what Phil said in closing.

UPDATE: The one time I don’t check Instapundit first, he has this bit of Facebook relevance on offer. Talk about your “spy machine”. 😉

What’cha Wanna Do?

Joe Huffman wants to debate the merits of privacy of public data as that relates to gun ownership and licensed carry status. My comment seems to have fallen afoul of the spam filter (I was interrupted in mid-brilliance so that may be what’s holding things up), but my basic point was that data regarding the individual exercise of an enumerated Right isn’t automatically recipient of privacy protection, so explicitly making it so is a better option to exercise than debating the philosophical extremes of privacy concerns is likely to prove to be. My question to Joe (or anyone else) being, do you want to argue, or solve this specific data privacy problem? I referenced the Illinois Senate bill currently being considered in their debate of this same issue in support of my contention, but I don’t expect to convert many to that POV.

We’ll see …

What Does What Want!?!

Not for the first time (and, to be honest, almost certainly not for the last :)), I wish to dispute with Phil Bowermaster regarding something in one of his typically thought provoking Speculist posts. Also not for the first time, let me begin by pointing you somewhere else first.

My blog-friend Kevin Baker is spending his actual Saturday having fun in similar fashion to my own, but before he left, he posted the transcript of a speech George Will gave last May to the Cato Institute’s biennial Milton Friedman Prize dinner. As part of his remarks, Mr. Will said the following in comparing the political beliefs of two Princeton graduates, James Madison of the class of 1771, and Thomas Woodrow Wilson of the class of 1879:

Madison asserted that politics should take its bearings from nature, from human nature and the natural rights with which we are endowed that pre-exist government. Woodrow Wilson, like all people steeped in the nineteenth century discovery (or so they thought) that History is a proper noun with a capital “H,” that history has a mind and life of its own, he argued that human nature is as malleable and changeable as history itself, and that it is the job of the state to regulate and guide the evolution of human nature …

Now back to friend Phil:

I think technology “wants” to improve our circumstances. Technology wants to empower individuals and transform society. Technology wants to decrease human suffering and increase human happiness.

In other words, technology wants exactly what we want. And that shouldn’t be all that surprising, because our technology is us.

Much like Socialists anywhere (and American Progressives particularly) do in their economic thinking, Phil is doing in the quote above. Both resort to a species of magical thinking to make their argument.

{In his defense, Phil is responding to this article about the book What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly, so the views he expresses might not be entirely his own.}

Now, I recognise the implied intent of the modifying quotation marks Phil employs; I understand he is making an allegorical statement and not a literal one. While I am quite willing to accept without comment using such as a rhetorical device, to advance a narrative say, such thinking simply isn’t explanatory though which is Phil’s stated purpose for the passage quoted above.

I have argued in the past that money is an artificial human intellectual construct. I believe the same can legitimately be said for history as well.

We have a (variably detailed and questionably reliable) historical record, which is often seemingly well-supported by a collection of historical artifacts. What we don’t have is any actual history, because it doesn’t exist any longer. Belief in “History” as George Will attributes to Woodrow Wilson above, “that history has a mind and life of its own”, is thus shown to be a class of magical thinking that imbues our collection of variously ancient detritus with independent intent and consciousness.

In similar fashion as does Phil with “technology”, that accumulation of not-quite-finished-with-yet proto-detritus we are frequently pleased to hold up as self-evident examples of “civilisation” (and that will be enough of the scare quotes).

Basically, it’s just stuff. And while we may have an occasionally embarrassing excess of stuff (and a correspondingly distressing lack as well), it is the height of folly to think of it as anything more (or less, it should be acknowledged) than a particular example of varyingly well-contrived crutch we frequently find useful in certain applications (and decidedly not in others). The contents of our ever-expanding tool box laid out on public display, if you will.

And like all the rest of our stuff, we can make more if we break it, use it up or just plain outlive it’s usefulness to us.

I can think of very little in this world (or off it that I am aware of) that has any great store of intrinsic worth or value (oh, please, is there a Gold Bug in the house?) on it’s own. Usefulness in plenty, to be sure, but that’s a different standard of measure, one that is imputed by some other agency and often quite variable by circumstance (ruminants find grass generally quite useful; humans without a Lawn Service quite a bit less so). Endowing our stuff with magical abilities doesn’t improve it in any measurable way and, frankly, works to impede our usage more often than not.

I don’t care what my toaster might think, nor my induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, I just want them to function. And should they not do as I expected, then the failure is to be found in my own lack of understanding, not some fanciful cognitive whimsy. We may in fact one day make stuff that has independent consciousness and identity from ourselves – the so-far mythical AGI. Come that day, I certainly agree we should ask it’s opinion. ‘Till then, why deliberately obscure our already flawed understanding of stuff, eh?

In the spirit of full disclosure, the things I say to my tools when I screw up a job would seemingly put the lie to all the above (and make my past nautical association disturbingly plain), so if humor was your intent I take it all back, Phil.

The Race To Genomic Identity

Eric Raymond has an incite-full (I pun) post up at his blog Armed and Dangerous titled A Specter Is Haunting Genetics. His principle point (I pun again) being that, as we come to more fully classify a statistically meaningful representative sample of the human population, we will almost certainly discover … well, let him say it for himself:

(1) we will shortly have genomic-sequence information on hundreds of thousands of human beings from all over the planet, enough to build a detailed map of human genetic variation and a science of behavioral genetics. (2) We will confirm that variant alleles correlate strongly with significant measures of human ability and character, beginning with IQ and quite possibly continuing to distribution of time preference, sociability, docility, and other important traits. (3) We will discover that these same alleles correlate significantly with traditional indicia of race.

As I take his meaning to be, we will be able to identify the individual genetic variations that are presently classified by external physical appearance – in a word: race. The squabbles begin and degenerate rapidly thereafter.

In the early-to-mid 1980’s I worked for the US Navy at a research facility. Along with one other man named Peter, we were the only two people within the building during the night shift we worked. The building was fairly well RF shielded so, to the limited extent talk radio existed back then, it wasn’t really an option anyway. 🙂 The job largely consisted of setting up multi-hour long sequences and the occasional crack of dawn customer requirement. IOW we talked. A lot – and about much we wouldn’t ordinarily have inspiration or inclination to consider in other circumstance.

As it happens, this same general topic (the socio-political impact of genetic identifiers) was one we repeatedly considered.

Now remember, this was the ’80’s; Reagan was walkin’ the walk, the economy was roaring back, Crick and Watson and DNA were a recurring theme in news stories of the day (much of them crime related) and the “nurture/nature” argument was much in vogue due to the prominence of the McMartin Pre-School (and other sex abuse) trials over those years. Peter’s family was politically active (and significant in state politics) and he had a trained artist’s sense of story, while I was a longtime reader of speculative fiction with an eclectic employment and education history; we were well equipped to apply “what if …” to a wide range of topics. No real way for us to tell how well grounded, or even if, those thoughts were, but there you have it … stopped clocks and all that comes quickly to mind.

We eventually settled on the creation of a personal “label” as the most direct means to overcome the history and industry that has accrued to race and eugenics-related perceptions. The idea being that, since individuals are apparently the result of some mixture of genetic inheritance and social environmental inputs, an individual identification code based on their individual genetics would be a method for refuting the opposition that seemed even then an almost certain response to such detailed knowledge of humanity. This would only work if there was a large enough sample base to make such classification statistically meaningful and there was created a social-input chart of some nature (that quantified the general characteristics of a given growth experience or influence – much in the manner that present-day dating sites do, as it turns out). This last was always the critical stumbling block since we couldn’t envision a means for doing such a thing (neither of us being surnamed Berners-Lee you understand :)).

I’m hopeful that with his professional background and personal depth of interest, Eric will have a better sense of the practicality of Peter’s and my early stumbling about in the night hours. If one day I become Will Brown XY-7543GT-&%76-%#$@&54A instead of XXX-YY-ZZZZ, then it becomes possible to argue that my (everyone’s) genetic code isn’t “racist” at all, but is an accurate measure of both my potential medical state as well as my capability generally, absent some form of intervention. Instead of sticking me in a niche, it becomes possible to quantify the trans-human fantasy onto a scale of feasibility as well as work to remove group classification from societal consideration. To the extent that humans are social animals, possession of a means to characterise each other in advance of detailed individual knowledge will remain necessary to continuation of the human condition. Having a mechanism to make such pre-judgement as individually accurate as clinically possible seems a useful alternative to the historical standard.

Or, so said all both of us.

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