Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Aphorisms #s 1 & 2

  1. Some liberals think the U.S. national motto should be e pluribus unum like it was 220 years ago. Most right-wingers want it to be in God we trust. Neither motto captures the dominant U.S. philosophy: Arbeit macht frei.

  2. Rebecca West said I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat, or a prostitute. Stealing the pattern of that quotation, I myself have never been able to find out precisely what political correctness is: I only know that people call me PC whenever I confront them for expressing their sense of being entitled to their privileged status.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Towards a more gnuanced atheism

The caricature of gnu atheism has it as obsessed with wiping out every vestige of religious belief. A more accurate view of what many atheists want is just to eradicate the meme-pair that demands conversion of the world to the religion that it infects and condemns those that don't convert to hell. Though the pair may infect other religions, fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam seem to be the major hosts right now. Those 2 groups thus face off, each with the idea of eradicating the other. If they just did that and left the rest of us in peace, it might not be so bad, but since they might just take the whole planet with them (keep in mind that, depending on which party is in power, fundamentalist Christians either control the US government or at least influence it strongly), we all have an interest in getting rid of the meme-pair.

That is why I am much more interested in working with theists who don't condemn or try to convert good people who don't share their beliefs than I am in increasing the number of atheists. We all have a common cause of reducing the influence of the idea of conversion by the sword.

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Saturday, October 13, 2012

Nonsense about marriage

There's this meme out there that the answer to marriage equality is for the state to get out of the marriage business and let it become just a religious notion. This is a bad idea for at least 2 reasons.

First, regardless of what you call family relationships, society will have an interest in various issues that they involve: What happens if the relationship ends? Should remaining partner(s) get more favorable treatment with respect to inheritance than people outside the family? Can 1 partner be compelled to testify against the other(s)? I doubt that many opposite sex couples would want to have to engage a lawyer to draw up all the appropriate documents that some kind of laissez-faire, libertarian view of marriage would entail. What marriage equality demands is that same sex couples be given the chance to have all the rights that opposite sex couples have the chance to get and to get them in the same way: by getting married.

The other reason I think it's a bad idea is that it gets history completely wrong. Its proponents claim that marriage used to just be religious, but until the Enlightenment, talking about secular law, religion, and culture as separate concepts would be hard indeed, even if all talk of marriage had been in religious terms. But I really doubt that it was, anyway. Since marriage was an economic relationship back before the Romantic Era, the secular law would have played a large role in its regulation even back in the day.

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Thursday, September 20, 2012


It's useful to remember that many of those who clam to be skeptics about evolution or climate change accept without question the myth, fabricated during the heyday of temperance movement, that Jesus drank grape juice and not wine.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Fathers' Day

An early Fathers' Day present from my daughter:

She generally rolls her eyes at my bad jokes (and sometimes hits me over the head with a rubber chicken for them), but today when I told one, she repeated to herself, as if reciting a mantra, X's are worse; X's are worse (where X is a friend of the family who also likes bad, geeky puns).

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Friday, May 4, 2012

The concrete and the abstract

In 1886, Leopold Kronecker famously said God made integers; all else is the work of man.1 For me, even this claim admits too much abstraction into reality, and a better formulation might be God made quarks, leptons, and photons; all else is the work of man. Abstraction is useful, but I'm thinking that a given set of facts can yield more than 1 abstract model for them.
The lesson for those who develop taxonomies is that there is not a single taxonomy defined by reality. A taxonomy—like any other tool for gaining understanding of a domain, for organizing such tools, or for what have you—is defined by reality and by the intended audience.

1 Well, actually he said Die ganzen Zahlen hat der liebe Gott gemacht, alles andere ist Menschenwerk, but it comes to much the same thing.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012


There are no absolutes, right? So I've decided it may be time to compromise on the question of whether public schools, courthouses, and other government buildings can post the 10 Commandments.1

Here's my offer:

  1. Believers get to post the 10 Commandments in a prominent place in government buildings.
  2. Stores, advertisers, and others who profit from rampant consumerism will be required to prominently display the commandment against coveting.
  3. Everyone in the following list will be required to get the commandment listed tattooed onto their forehead (along with the citation for Leviticus 19:28, just for the irony).
    • Newt Gingrich: the commandment against adultery,
    • All bankers: the commandment against stealing,
    • All soldiers and Florida gun owners: the commandment against killing,2 and
    • All trial lawyers (prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, and civil litigators): the commandment against bearing false witness.

That oughta do it. After all, why tell the kids and the hoi polloi to follow them if the elites won't?

1 There are more than 10 individual commandments given in Exodus 20:1–17, and there are 3 traditional systems for compressing them into 10 units. We can let the various groups of believers fight amongst themselves over whose list gets posted.

2 If the believers insist that this commandment only forbids unjustified killing, then I'm OK with having the tattoo state Thou shalt not kill without a just and proper cause.

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Monday, April 2, 2012

Term limits

I don't know whether the 2-term limit for presidents is good in the abstract, but since its only effect so far has been to keep Ike and Reagan from going on for another term each, I can't complain.

(The irony tag is because it was Republicans, in reaction to FDR's 4 terms, who passed the term limit amendment.)

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Friday, March 30, 2012

Blessed are those with a persecution complex? - Guest Voices - The Washington Post

Blessed are those with a persecution complex? - Guest Voices - The Washington Post:

The kicker:

I am sorry to dash anyone’s hopes, but being required to honor a contract you have voluntarily entered into is not persecution. Being required to abide by your employer’s dress code and other rules is not persecution. Being required to carry out the job you are paid to do is not persecution. Not being exempted from laws that apply to everyone else too is not persecution. Not even if you are religious, and no matter how much you had set your heart on the promised heavenly reward.
These cases are the very opposite of persecution: they are self-serving, self-aggrandizing demands for special treatment. More seriously, they are an insult to Christians around the world for whom the word persecution means something altogether more deadly.

Monday, March 26, 2012

What are we educating for?

I've been thinking lately that what we need kids to learn is not facts or theories but skills. There is some foundation knowledge that may remain relevant long after graduation, but it will be far more important for the kids to be

  • flexible, questioning, and able to change their understanding of what is true,
  • able to learn new skills and material, and
  • interested in the world.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Life imitates Monty Python

Geoff Pullum, one of my professors from when I was in grad school in linguistics, posted a blog entry over at Language Log talking about how some high schools in the UK seem to be having their students who are native speakers of a non-English language take the proficiency exam for their native language in order to pad the high schools' average scores for GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) exam scores.

I won't take a position here on the ethics of the practice, but I was reminded of this sketch from Monty Python's flying circus. Note, however, that no-one is claiming that the high schools are having native French speakers (for example) take classes where they endure constructing sentences on the pattern of la plume de ma tante ... (modify appropriately for other languages).

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Friday, March 23, 2012

Newts are slippery

Newt Gingrich's current persona reminds me of a quote from C.S. Lewis's The abolition of man:

No justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite skeptical about ethics, but bred to believe that a gentleman does not cheat, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.

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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Faith is not something we want to encourage

If faith is a clinging to a belief in spite of the fact that the evidence is overwhelmingly against it and the fact that the evidence is extensive, broad, and has been developed over a long time, then yes, faith is a bad thing.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Family values

This one wasn't quite as ironic as it could have been, but...

I saw a car today with several anti-choice bumper stickers and a "Newt 2012" sticker. No irony in that, but the flavor of the anti-choice stickers (for example, "adoption, not abortion") made me think the car's owner probably describes themself as pro-family.

And there's the irony of their being for Newt.

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Monday, March 19, 2012

Utah governor vetoes bill to curb sex education in schools | Reuters

Utah governor vetoes bill to curb sex education in schools | Reuters

(Via https://www.facebook.com/SIECUS.)

The proponents of the bill think that parents do a better job of teaching sex-ed than the schools do. What makes me think that these same people also think that the schools should be pushing religion?

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Sunday, March 18, 2012


I set this blog up a year and a half ago with the idea of sharing my thoughts on Big Ideas™ in classification and taxonomy.

That goal was a bit too ambitious for me to get started with, so I've scaled back. I'll deal with ideas at a comfortable level for me (big, small, or Goldilocks), and my posts will usually be brief. I'm not sure that there's a difference between aphorisms and sound-bites, but one of them seems to be how I think.