Where have I been?

October 31, 2007

Well…. new job + new computer + …

The Orange Box

30 years young, and still all agoogly over a videogame. What can I say?

In my slight defense, I used to be a huge fan of Old Man Murray, a game “review” site that used to be one of the funniest things on the internet (at least if you understood the in-jokes of the gaming industry). And now those guys are writers at Valve, one of my favorite videogame producers. The result was Portal, which is wickedy funny, inventive, and has a final boss fight/ending that will go down as a classic and… oh you probably don’t care about any of this.

Anyway, back to Bad Ideas.

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Why Supernatural “Explanations” So-often Suck: Book Plug Edition

October 11, 2007

Since I’ve been complaining regularly about how supernatural or theological explanations claim to offer so much and yet embarrassingly fail to deliver, I figured some more explanation is in order.

To illustrate, I want to offer an example of what a real explanation of a real mystery looks like: a satisfying answer to a hard question that actually illuminates instead of obfuscates. The example also serves as a plug for a great “high-information content” book: Parasite Rex, a book written by science journalist Carl Zimmer (who blogs over at The Loom).
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Police Chief writes himself a ticket!

October 6, 2007

Wow: kudos to this guy. He charged himself 235$ and put four points on his own license because he realized he’d broken the law… and no one was around to enforce it but himself.

I have the utmost respect for police officers and the things they have to put up with, but unfortunately the profession has too often allowed itself to be corrupted by the drug war and compromised in the public eye by blue wall nonsense.

Even the small stuff matters: here in Cleveland I, regularly see officers violate traffic laws (speeding, making illegal turns, etc.) without using their lights. This is not only illegal but dangerous: officers can, of course, have legitimate reasons for exceeding normal traffic rules, but they are required to officially alert other drivers before doing such unexpected things. Seeing them doing things they’d ticket people for sets a terrible example, and only heightens the perception that officers are working more to extract money in fines rather than to increase public safety.

Bravo to this police chief for setting the example. Not only was this the right thing to do, but the media coverage will hopefully make other people think twice about speeding past a schoolbus.


Sam Harris & the End of “Atheism”…. as a term

October 1, 2007

Hemant over at the Friendly Atheist has a summary of the recent Atheist Alliance International Convention in DC that mentions that Sam Harris got a less than stellar reception at his talk. Why? Because Harris made the case that using the term atheist and organizing under the banner of atheism is counter-productive. It’s a very interesting point, and I like Harris even more that he was plucky enough to raise it at a convention named, well the “Atheist Alliance” where there’s little question that it would be controversial.

Harris apparently argued that when non-believers use of the term atheist, it’s like having religious people draw a “chalk outline of a dead man” and then just lying down in it. There’s a lot to be said for this. Too much time and energy has to be spent explaining to people that non-believers are just people, not a group, not an ideology. We’re people that, if it wasn’t for religion, wouldn’t have any reason at all to think of ourselves as in any way related. Having to explain for the 80th time that we have nothing in common with Stalin just because we are both non-believers (anymore than we have values in common just because we are both non-aliens) just gets exhausting, boring, and irritating.

This isn’t, as I suspect some roaring Secular Spartans at the conference probably understood it, an issue of atheism being bad: it’s really an issue of it just being deeply confusing and distracting in some contexts. And, it has to be said, it’s really often pretty confusing even to atheists. Harris seems to be a good example of practicing what he preaches to: as Hemant notes, he apparently wrote “The End of Faith” without even mentioning “atheist” or “atheism.”

Now, obviously, there is no atheist Congress that is going to pass legislation banning the term, and the convention was not simply going to close up shop on the spot after Harris’ suggestion. Nor is there any possibility of simply dumping any and all terms for non-believers: atheism, for all it’s twisted and convoluted issues with connotation, is here to stay, and we’re here to defend it. But in the case of individual arguments and movements, I certainly think it’s worth considering whether it makes much sense to unfurl the banner “atheism” at every opportunity. When it’s a matter of defending atheists from slander and attack, that’s one thing. When it’s an issue of arguing against religious faith, as Harris has, I can definitely see the advantage of just leaving the discussion of “atheism” to the wayside and getting straight to the point.

I sort of feel the same way about this as I do about the recent push to create more conspicuously “secular/atheist” charities. The whole point of a charity, as I see it, is to just deliver the service, not to spend time or energy promoting any particular ideology or opinion on religion, especially when such matters are utterly tangential to the social need in question. Spending time on the promotion of religion, or trying to rack up the good that’s done as “points” for a particular ideology, is a bad thing that some explicitly religious charities do. Non-believers should not feel the need to “compete” with them by emulating that misplaced focus.

This issue has a bit of the same flavor and overtones of the tiresome “framing” debate, which I’m still working on writing about. So, more thoughts to come.