Archive for August, 2008

Defense of Marriage

In November California will vote on whether to overturn the state court’s decision to permit homosexual marriage. I personally will vote to support the court, against the proposal. However, I think the whole issue is basically a mistake.

The government should not be in the business of legitimizing marriage. Currently marriage comes with a set of legal privileges, rights which one spouse has with regard to the other. It also has tax implications. These ideas are not inherently wrong, but I think it is a mistake to tie them to a notion of marriage. Our society no longer speaks with one voice regarding the definition of marriage. Therefore, we should shift those privileges and taxes to work in different ways.

People should be able to designate, perhaps on the annual tax form, who should have rights concerning medical and property decisions when they are incapable. People should be able to file taxes as a household composed of several adults sharing a residence. There should be laws which grant these privileges automatically when people share a residence for a long time, unless explicitly denied, along the lines of common-law marriage.

If we do that, then marriage can return to where it belongs: with the church. There will no longer be concerns about which marriages are valid, and which should be recognized across state boundaries. That seems to me to be a much more sensible system for today’s society.

This is not, of course, a new proposal.

I’ll be on vacation and not posting for the rest of the week, back after Labor Day.

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Abolish Syntax

Although I can’t find it now, I think it was Dan Bernstein who said somewhere that programs should avoid syntax when possible. Using syntax means permitting syntax errors. Avoiding syntax means making syntax errors impossible.

Even if it wasn’t Bernstein who said this, you can see the idea in action in things like his tinydns configuration file format. There are no keywords or grouping constructs. Each statement is a single line. The first character on the line indicates the type of statement.

The expectation is that if people want a more comprehensible syntax, they will write a separate program which will read something and generate the un-syntax. That way any problems are isolated to that separate program. (Actually tinydns-data is itself a separate program which reads the un-syntax and turns it into a binary form for the tinydns program.)

I think this idea deserves wider use. It fits with the general idea that modules should be independent. When you have a program which needs to read some data, that format of that data should be as simple as possible. When it is desirable to permit a more complicated representation, that should be done by providing a mechanism to convert the complicated representation to the simple one.

Programming languages are of course a sinkhole of syntax. That said, an example of a programming language with minimal syntax is sed. For those with only a passing familiarity with sed, it is surprisingly powerful, and the t and T commands make it Turing complete. It would not be a satisfactory language for general purpose programming, but it is quite effective in its own domain. Another language with minimal syntax is, of course, APL.

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Raising Meat

I’m a vegetarian for moral reasons. Animals raised for meat in this country are in general treated horribly (I think every meat eater should have some familiarity with factory farming of animals, since I think one should understand the consequences of a lifestyle one chooses). One question I’m occasionally asked is: is it OK to eat animals that you raise yourself in humane conditions, or that you hunt?

Clearly humans evolved hunting and eating meat, so it is in some sense natural. Obviously many other animals hunt and eat meat, but that is not particularly relevant since those animals are incapable of making moral choices. So one part of the question is whether something which is natural from our evolutionary history is therefore moral. I’ve argued in the past that the basis of our morality is our evolutionary history. However, it doesn’t follow that everything from our evolutionary history is moral. We are able to pick and choose. Observation of hunter gatherer tribes in New Guinea and the Amazon suggests that our evolutionary history included living in small bands and regarding people from other bands as subhuman others. We no longer accept that as a moral view–morally speaking, we now believe that all people are created equal.

Another side of the question is whether it is OK to use animals for anything. Some people have argued that keeping pets is immoral because it is unnatural for the animals. My view on that is that domestication is a choice. Humans have domesticated themselves–that is the choice we made in choosing agricultural and city living. I think it is morally OK for other animals to make the same choice, for all that they do it unconsciously. Some animals can not be domesticated–zebras are a well-known example. Some animals thrive on it, such as dogs. I think that keeping pets is OK, and, extending that slightly, I think it is OK to keep animals and use their byproducts such as wool, eggs, milk, and honey. That said, the details do matter: there are factory farms for dairy cows that are nearly as bad as the ones for meat cows, and that is not OK.

Would it be OK to raise a domesticated animal and then eat it after it dies of old age? Yes, I think it would. The only objection I see would be a sort of fastidiousness, the reason that we do not eat dog meat in this country. There is nothing wrong with that fastidiousness, but I don’t think it is a moral requirement.

Would it be OK to kill and eat an animal if you would otherwise starve to death? Yes, I think it would. I do think that humans have a right to life which somewhat exceeds that of other animals. This is a very hypothetical situation, though, and not only would it never happen today, it would be rather unlikely even in the distant past. For example, it’s not OK to head out into the desert with a cow and then conclude that you must eat the cow because there is nothing else around: you acted wrongly in heading out to the desert with that plan in mind.

This brings us to the real question, which is whether it is OK to raise a domesticated animal under humane conditions, and then kill it and eat it. This is close to the line between the morally acceptable and the morally unacceptable. Which side of the line does it fall on? It’s possible to imagine an animal making an informed choice to accept a domesticated lifestyle in exchange for an early death. Douglas Adams, himself a vegetarian, put a humorous spin on this in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. In the real world, in some species of mites the mother never lays her eggs; instead, the mother dies, the eggs hatch inside her body, and the babies eat their way out.

Since animals can’t make that informed choice, we must make it for them. What I see is that animals struggle for life even in extreme conditions. I don’t think humans would make such a choice, except perhaps when in the depths of despair, and at base we are animals too. I don’t think animals would make that choice either.

So my conclusion is that it is not OK to raise animals for the purpose of killing and eating them, even if you do so humanely. It is close to the line of what is OK, but it falls on the far side.

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Tae Kwon Do

My daughter, who is six years old, recently earned her yellow belt in tae kwon do. I practiced tae kwon do for eight years, stopping about fifteen years ago with a second degree black belt. I didn’t encourage my daughter to take it up, but she knew that I had done it in the past and I’m sure that had some influence.

I’m ambivalent about teaching martial arts like karate and tae kwon do to children. Motivated children can learn the forms, but before adolescence they have a hard time generating much strength. A result that I’ve often seen is that they move through the forms very quickly, but with a lack of focus. Adding the strength and focus later requires unlearning some of what they have practiced.

On the other hand I do think there are benefits to practicing any martial art. They teach you how to pay attention to the world around you and how to live in your body rather than your mind. For children they bring an additional advantage of discipline and self-control. And of course there is the pleasure of learning a new skill.

Tae kwon do can also be useful for self-defense for children. It’s not a very useful self-defense skill for a large man like me–nobody is likely to try to hit me, and tae kwon do doesn’t help against a gun. But children do hit each other, and learning controlled self-defense can help. And, sadly, women can sometimes benefit from learning self defense techniques.

I stopped studying tae kwon do mainly because of aging. As I got into my thirties, I started getting worse instead of better, which I found frustrating. That doesn’t happen to everybody, but it happens to a lot of people. So that is another advantage of studying martial arts: it reminds us quite precisely that we are only here for a limited time.

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Many years ago I believed that if people could just discuss issues calmly that they could resolve them. I no longer believe that. I now think that the best one can reasonably shoot for is that everybody will agree that the other people are not idiots.

The basic problem is that people don’t change their minds. Most people (including me) believe through their life what they believed when they were 20. I think there is a setting point where you decide that you’ve thought an issue through, and you don’t need to think about it any further. When you reach that point, you are immune to logical argument.

This applies to basic issues such as who is like you and who is not, and how you feel about those who are not like you, and what is right, and what is wrong, and what should happen when somebody does something wrong, and what you think about religion. These then build up into larger ideas, like political ideas, which govern your view of the world.

This doesn’t apply to less fundamental issues, like science or art, where people do change their minds.

This means that major philosophical divisions between people will never go away. There will never be a right answer.

This doesn’t mean that it is impossible to get anything done. The art of diplomacy is about working effectively with people you disagree with. The same is true of politics at its best.

I think that if more people agreed with me, it would be possible to get out of the partisan traps that are making it very difficult for the U.S. political parties to work together. Politicians today are often rewarded more for ideological purity than for accomplishments. The effect is that little gets done. If people realized that others will not believe as they do, perhaps they would put less emphasis on ideology.

Of course, by my logic, I will never convince anybody of this unless they already believe it.

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