Saturday, February 05, 2005

conservatives and luddites

Alyssa Ford suggests that "bioconservatives" --conservatives who are anti-cloning, and anti-hi-tech abortion-- are going to align with leftists luddites (link from Instapundit).

This idea is just silly, but it reflects a common conceit of humanist technophiles so it seems to require a response --Glenn Reynolds also has referred to people that oppose stem cell research as luddites.

The charge is baseless: luddites are opposed to technological change due to fear of change. By contrast, when religious conservatives oppose new technology, it is simply a natural extension of pre-existing stands.

What do you expect people to do when technology infringes on their sense of right in a novel way? Suspend their moral judgment because this is a new thing? To take an extreme example, does it take a luddite to oppose a new technology for murder or torture?

Religious conservatives defend innocent life. They oppose cloning, stem cell research, and similar things because they view these technologies as just more advanced ways of killing or mutilating helpless human beings. They have fought for thirty years from the position that a fetus has a right to life --even while it is only a few cells. Should they now suspend this view when that fetus is used for medical experiments rather than just discarded? In what other area would one claim that murder is wrong except when it is done for purposes of medical experimentation?

Conservative religious objections to new biotechnology have a strong foundation in ancient and stable principles of respect for human life and in the processes that produce human life. Fear of technology has no part in the explanation. Technology is not the issue at all, only the moral acts that are connected to the technology.

Since biotechnology is not at issue, the term "bioconservative" is not appropriate. Conservatives don't oppose new biological technologies in general, just those technologies that harm what they see as innocent human life. I've never met a religious conservative who was particularly concerned about genetically-modified foods.

Ford's article also mentions cyborg technology: embedding technology into human bodies. Will religious conservatives oppose this new technology? A few will, no doubt. Anyone who disapproves of tattoos, body piercing, and cosmetic surgery can be expected to disapprove of voluntary prosthetics. But if the reaction to cyborg technology follows the pattern of the reaction to body piercing, it will never be more than an exasperated disapproval and some lectures to their own children.

There is another pattern that the reaction might follow, and that is the pattern that the anti-smoking movement took. For a long time, the anti-smoking movement was associated with the religious right. But although most religious conservatives disapproved of smoking, they weren't willing to make a political issue out of it. This forced the anti-smoking zealots to move to the left. And that's how the Democrats --the party of drugs and rock&roll-- became the party of the stern anti-smoking school-marms and how the cigar-smoking libertarians ended up as Republicans.

I predict that if there is any notable resistance at all in the religious right to cyborg technology, it will either be muted and isolated, or it will just migrate to the left where they are far more comfortable enforcing arbitrary rules of behavior on other people (because they don't believe there are any non-arbitrary rules).

There will no doubt be occasions in the future when the far left and far right find common cause in opposing specific technological innovations just as during the past few years they have found common cause in opposing the war in Iraq, in opposing the Patriot Act, and in blaming George Bush for 9/11.

I don't know why anyone should find such confluences remarkable. Don't they realize that the ideas of "left" and "right" are statistical fictions? Very few of the people on either side of the left/right divide actually have all of the properties that are ascribed to their side. So, yes, when a new technology is both a threat to innocent human life and a threat to the status quo, you can expect an unusual coalition to oppose it. But most new technology is not going to be both of those things at once, and there is never going to be much common cause to bring those two sides together.

UPDATE: made some stylistic changes

Friday, February 04, 2005

the writer vs. the professors

Michelle Malkin is involved in an internet fight over her book The Case for Internment. I'm not a historian,and I haven't read the book (yet, but this controversy is making it more interesting), but I can follow the form of an argument, and the professors have not been doing very well. In fact, I think they've been pretty much embarrassing themselves with their irrelevant arguments, ignoring of Malkin's points, and providing evidence that actually favor Malkin. By contrast, Malkin has been logical and reasonable.

As I said, I'm not a historian, but I can give a forensic analysis of an argument. One of Malkin's critics, Eric Muller seems to consider this a powerful argument against Malkin:
Before she's done, though, I wish she'd answer the question that she hasn't answered when I've asked it (twice) and that she didn't answer when the host of this morning's program on WHYY radio asked it: What are her readers to make of the opinion of retired Lt. Col. James McNaughton, now the Command Historian of the U.S. Army, Pacificon MAGIC and the supposed "military necessity" for the eviction and detention of Japanese Americans?
This is called "arguing from authority" and it's one of the weakest forms of argument. But the argument is weaker than that. McNaughton is actually discussing a particular author's (not Malkin) use of the MAGIC documents, and his conclusions are in the form of judgment calls:
The evidence for any threat from Japanese Americans was mixed and indirect. The hints contained in MAGIC, if decision makers paid them any heed at all, were not by themselves sufficient to justify the mass evacuation and incarceration of over 100,000 civilians.
It is beyond me why Malkin should have to respond to this specifically. McNaughton is just one more person who disagrees with her on the significance of the MAGIC documents. Different people can evaluate the same "mixed and indirect" evidence to reach different conclusions.

In another post, Muller actually concedes most of Malkin's argument:
Nobody doubts that Americans in general and military officials in particular were frightened of attacks on the US mainland and on US and allied shipping along both coasts. Nobody doubts that Japan and Germany wanted to set up espionage and sabotage relationships in the US with both their own nationals and others (including, but by no means limited to, children of their nationals.) And nobody doubts that in a few instances they were successful in doing this.
So Muller agrees that there was some level of risk associated with leaving Japanese nationals running free around the country. The question then mutates to "Did that level of risk justify the internment of the Japanese nationals?" In this argument, of course, one side is going to downplay the risk and one side is going to exaggerate it. Muller's contribution to the debate is to acknowledge the very real risk and then to compare it to the irrational fear of a mouse. But if there was a real risk, then the fear was not irrational.

In another post Muller tries to strike at Malkin by demanding that she defend the most absolute position on her side: that the internment was completely justified by the available evidence. In fact, this seems to be the premise behind all of her detractors.

But that is rather extreme. There are various shades of justification. Michelle's book appeared in an environment in which the prevailing opinion is that the Japanese internment was a completely shameful, evil act, and that the people who did it were simply vile racists or were acting from irrational panic that led to the suffering of many people. Just the argument that they had some good reasons for their acts is a huge and important point. It's the other side of the story. This isn't a court of law, it's the court of public opinion. Malkin doesn't have to prove that the perpetrators are innocent, just that they are not as guilty as generally assumed.

Maybe that's not even a big deal among historians. Maybe historians have always known that there were many real factors involved in the internment besides panic and racism. But the general public didn't know. And Malkin's book was written for the general public.

Oddly enough, Muller himself quotes, in that very article, evidence that Malkin and a supporter of hers do not accept the strong thesis that the internment was completely justified and all this means to him is that there is a contradiction. It never seems to occur to him to revise his understanding of her intentions based on new information. No. He has one first impression and that is immutable. Other impressions that conflict with his first impression must be signs of contradiction in Malkin. They can't be signs that he misunderstood her.

David Neiwert provides us with a wonderful and lengthy historical account of the Japanese side of the situation. I highly recommend reading the whole thing. It will surely make you feel bad about the internment, but as an argument that the internment was unjustified, it falls flat.

The piece gives a detailed history of official racism against Asians in the time period before WWII. But the only effect of this is that it helps you to understand why so many Americans of Japanese descent might feel more loyal to Japan than to the US. And the policy makers of the time would have been aware of this, so they would know that the Japanese Americans had good reasons to be angry at the US. That's an argument for internment, not against it.

Then Neiwert quotes some touching personal accounts of Japanese children in those times, showing how much they wanted to be normal Americans. But that doesn't help his case at all. After all, the fact that there were some Japanese Americans who were loyal to the US does not in any way bear on the question of whether there were some who were loyal to Japan. Clearly there were some in each group. And deciding how many were in the latter camp was a judgment call, a judgment call that --if made wrong-- could lead to the deaths of many Americans.

Neiwert has an amusing quote in his article:
This is Malkin's methodology in a nutshell: Find a handful of facts, selectively edit and compile them in a way that ignores countervailing evidence, and present them as representative of the bigger picture. That isn't history; it's propaganda.
That is exactly what Neiwert has done in the article in which that quote appears.

All in all, if Malkin wants to prove that the internment was absolutely justified, she has a huge presumption to overcome. However, if her only goal is to make us understand that the situation was far more complicated than we thought (we, meaning non-historian products of modern educations and popular journalism) and that there is another side of the story, then she has done her job.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Arab opinion

Mostly Cajun has a great find in this opinion piece in the Arab News.

This is one of the most hopeful things I've seen about that region --almost up there with the elections: a column in a major Mideast daily that is excited about democracy. Let's hope this is just the first leak in the dike and that soon there will be flood of demand for freedom in that regon.

overheard in the lunchroom

In theory, there's no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005


Roscoe fact-checks Bill Moyers.

Now, I expect that there probably are some on the religious right who believe that we don't have to take care of the world because it won't be long until the rapture and then it'll be history anyway. But I expect there are also some on the anti-religious left who would like to massacre all the Christians because Christians are so violent. Actually, I've talked to some of these people.

Now, Bill, would it be fair of me to say that the reason the ACLU wants to remove all vestiges of Christianity from the public square is because they are part of a group that actually wants to massacre all Christians? And if that wouldn't be fair, how on earth is what you said fair?

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Kerry on getting things straight

From Hugh Hewitt, John Kerry responding to a question about signing a Form 180, which would give people access to his military records:
SEN. KERRY: I'd be happy to put the records out. We put all the records out that I had been sent by the military. Then at the last moment, they sent some more stuff, which had some things that weren't even relevant to the record. So when we get--I'm going to sit down with them and make sure that they are clear and I am clear as to what is in the record and what isn't in the record and we'll put it out. I have no problem with that.
What do you suppose he means by "make sure they are clear ... as to what is in the record and what isn't in the record"? Could it be that he was originally given a less-than-honorable discharge, that he got it changed by Carter, and that he wants an agreement by the military that if he signs the Form 180, that won't include the original discharge? He might be arguing that the original discharge is no longer valid and therefore no longer part of his record.

I'm just speculating here.

As long as I'm speculating, I wonder what it would mean if the military agreed that an original discharge isn't part of someone's record after they get a political crony to overturn it. Wouldn't that make it just a normal military document, accessible though a normal freedom-of-information request?

UPDATE: a friend suggests that the reason Kerry's discharge papers may postdate his actual discharge is because as an officer he is still obligated to serve for six years after his nominal discharge. Anyone know if that's the case?

more on the toy soldier

I'm now pretty certain that this isn't an action figure. Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm going against almost everyone on the right side of the blogosphere and if it turns out I'm wrong I'll be so humiliated that I'll have to give up blogging and resort to a career writing children's stories.

But I thought I had some good reasons in my original post. And now I've done some more research:

Here are some pictures of real M16s. Note the lack of a grip on the barrel of any of them. Since the M16 fires a very light load, it's hard to imagine that a front grip would be needed for utility purposes. So on the military M16: no grip on the barrel.

However, the grip does look cool. Makes it look like a heavier weapon. So some civilian carbines that are made to look like the M16 do have the grip. Here are some examples.

Conclusion: the weapon is a civilian carbine made to look like an M16 assault rifle. This is not terrorist equipment. They couldn't even have taken it from the soldier if he was a real soldier because he wouldn't have been carrying a civilian knockoff.

Here are some GI Joe rifles. None of them are remotely like the one in the picture. Also, the toy company would presumably use real military weapons for their models, not civilian knockoffs. Conclusion: the weapon is not a toy.

However, it is clear from the larger picture that whoever is pointing the gun at the "victim" does not have a finger in firing position (neither on the trigger nor on the trigger guard, ready to move to the trigger). Anyone who has even played with toy guns before would naturally have a finger in firing position. Any other way of holding it is very awkward.

Conclusion: either the person holding the gun has never held a gun before, or it is being held by a fixture of some sort instead of a person. Most likely the later, since it would be very awkward to hold a gun that far down the pistol grip.

The picture is badly framed and appears to be taken from slightly above eye level of the sitting prisoner. The framing might be because the photographer wanted to keep the gun-holder out of the frame, but if they were terrorists, why would he care? Why not just put the terrorist in a mask? And why go to the trouble of squatting down? The main effect of that is to make the subject look larger and more important. Why would the photographer want to do that? Even if this were staged, an inexperienced photographer wouldn't think to squat and an experienced one would realize that it was inappropriate.

Conclusion: This was a one-man operation. One guy set up the camera on a tripod or a chair, clamped the gun to a wall, and took a timed photograph of himself. The only thing he though about in framing was to hide the fact that there was no hand on the gun.

UPDATE: Nuts. I finally found a picture of the Cody action figure that is big enough to see that his M16 does have the second grip. It's not the rifle in the picture because the one in the action set also has some sort of nightsite or something on top. But, it blows my evidence that GI Joe doesn't have that kind of rifle.

I'm not sure how much weight to give to the fact that Cody also has kneepads and a vest like the hostage. If those are standard desert eqipment, then that wouldn't mean much. But I'm suddenly less sure than I was.

Oh well, I kind of enjoyed writing that Cokey story...

I say it's real. Kind of.

Instapundit links to this article on Backcountry Conservative. BC suggests that a photo of a purported American hostage is a hoax using a GI Joe action figure.

I looked at the picture enlarged and I think it's a real person. Folds in the fabric in the soldier's uniform and in the banner are more appropriate to human scale than doll scale. One of the insurmountable problems when you try to make a working scale model of a sailing ship is getting the sails to look right.

On the other hand, I don't think the terrorist use M16s, and they erased the hand holding it. I'm guessing it's because the hand was too white or was a woman's hand or showed the sleeve of a Western jacket or shirt.

Also, the sharpness of the lighting makes it look like an outdoor picture and that doesn't seem right for an authentic terrorist outfit that has to worry about American snooping. But it does seem right for American anti-war activists who couldn't find any indoor place that looked authentic. They wanted bare concrete and it's hard to find that in the US indoors.

Count me in the real-person-fake-picutre camp.

UPDATE: I thought I should clarify that I don't have any expertise in image analysis, this is just an off-the-cuff opinion. I'm curious enough that I may go by a toy store tonight and look at how the fabric folds on GI Joe dolls.

And see if their M16 has a handle sticking down from the barrel.

UPDATE: This is a better picture. You can see that there is no flash suppresser on the M16. My knowledge of these things is twenty years old, but I'm pretty sure all M16s have flash suppressors. Is this maybe an AR15 with the flash suppressor stripped to conform with the assault weapons ban? Also, the magazine looks like black plastic. My M16 had steel magazines.

This better picture doesn't look like the hand was erased, it looks like the pistol grip is further back from the magazine than I remembered.

La Shawn has a close-up of the GI Joe figure and there is a definite resemblance. The hostage is too blurry for positive ID though, and I think I can detect differences in the shapes of the lips and eyebrows. Action figures can't change their expression, you know.

It looks like the guy has black eye makup on.

If you were running FireFox instead of Internet Explorer, you too could zoom in on images on a web page.

UPDATE: more here.

Howard's party

From a Howard Dean interview:
"I hate the Republicans and everything they stand for, but I admire their discipline and their organization," the failed presidential hopeful told the crowd...
And he hates Republicans because they are the party of hate. Of course you won't see any major figures in the Republican party saying that they hate Democrats. Go figure.
"We can talk about our faith, but we cannot change our faith," he said, echoing themes he sounded in his presidential bid. "We need to be people of conviction."
But it's Republicans in general and George W. Bush in specific who are inflexible and stubbornly idealistic.
"95% of Americans are really concerned about" is national security. But he said Americans also do not want to sacrifice the nation's values. "They want America to be the moral leader of the world again," he said.
But it's Republicans who think America is always right and want to impose their values on the rest of the world.

The Democrats are making a serious effort to be more like Republicans in order to win elections. Unfortunately for them, and ultimately the country, they have no idea what Republicans are like and no idea what it is about Republicans that appeals to the electorate. All they have is their slanderous stereotypes: Republicans are hateful. Republicans are inflexible. Republicans think they are always right.

Democrats used slanderous accusations against Republicans during the past campaign to excuse their own bad behavior. They accused Republicans of trying to steal the office; that gave them an excuse to prepare a contingent of lawyers to challenge every close election. They accused the Republican party of using shadow non-profits for attacks; the Democrats did it even more. They accused the Republicans of dirty politics; that gave them license to engage in endless unprincipled mud-slinging.

The Republicans accused the Democrats of villainy too, but the Republicans didn't use the Democrat's bad behavior to justify their own bad behavior. The Democrats say, "Hey the Republicans are doing all these bad things so we should do them too." The Republicans say, "Hey, the Democrats are doing all these bad things and they need to stop."

Almost all of the Democrat accusations against the Republicans were a sort of group projection anyway. They were accusing the Republicans of doing what they were doing, and then using it as an excuse to do more of it. That's why it will be easy for them to become "more like the Republicans", meaning "more like their vicious stereotype of the Republicans" because that vicious stereotype was a reflection of themselves anyway.

optimism and Iraq

I wish I could be as optimistic as everyone else that the low violence at the elections means that the terrorists are on their last legs. But there was a total vehicle ban during the elections and that would have made any terrorist attack (and escape) ten times more difficult.

I think it's more likely that Zarqawi just decided not to waste his forces on futil attacks on election day --when it was too late to stop voters anyway-- but that he still has plenty of firepower. He may very well be planning a major terror offensive just to make sure people don't think he's finished.

I hope I'm wrong.

Monday, January 31, 2005


Storyblogging Carnival p(0,0,0,0,1) is up (here we see a weakness of prime factors notation for numbers: it's less concise than the simple 11 of common Arabic notation).

I got my entry in very late, but Sheya was nice enough to post it anyway (here we see a life lesson: if you delay and procrastinate, you can still rely on people's good nature to avoid any consequences :-).

Thanks, Sheya.

P.S. I didn't really procrastinate this time though. I actually haven't had time to write for the last couple of weeks.


Here's a great discussion over at Dean's World on violence in relationships. One commenter relates this:
I was in Wal-Mart late one night when an old lady and her granddaughter crossed me in the aisle. I wasn't doing anything, but the lady grabbed the kid and jumped to the next aisle. It kind of hurt a little, because I'm a pretty nice guy.
I've been there too. There's a remedy though: smile. No really. I was in my mid twenties before I discovered the power of the smile. It's amazing what a nice smile can do in situations where the other person is tense or uncertain.

If you are like me, you will have to practice your smile in the mirror because it doesn't come naturally. When I tried it for the first time in a mirror, I found that my normal smile attempt came out either invisible or looking like I was about to eat someone's canary. But once I had mastered the art of the smile, I found it invaluable in social situations.

The original posts asks:
Every man doesn't have lethal power over every woman, using only his bare hands. But many do men do have this power over their wives and girlfriends.
1) Is this physical power difference present in your relationship? Does it follow gender lines? Does it have an effect? No? Not ever?
And, 2) If you grew up in a household where physical punishment/abuse wasn't a factor, did you nonetheless find that your relationship with your parents changed once you got old enough that they could no longer dominate you physically? Even without the threat of force, did removing the theoretical possibility of force alter things?
I was several years with a woman who weighed not much over one third of what I do. I suppose that's a recipe for disaster if the bigger person is physically aggressive. I can't really take credit for never using physical force (or even threats) against her because frankly, I never felt the slightest urge. Who could hit something that small? And who would want a woman he cares for to be afraid that he's going to hit her? What kind of relationship would that be?

I was never afraid of my parents except for a few months when my mom would give me daily shots (I don't know what I needed shots for, but I'm afraid of needles to this day). I got spankings, but never in anger. They were always official affairs following a set of procedures: (1) a reiteration of my offense, (2) an explanation of why what I did was wrong, (3) an assurance that my punishment was intended for my own good, (4) an assurance that my father still loved me. Then I'd bend over and get whacked four or five time and go to my room crying. When I was done crying it was all over. Lesson learned. Well, actually my dad did spank me wrongly sometimes, he was only human, but it was never an act of violence.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

yeah, what he said

Donald Crankshaw has a tremendous post on the Dobson vs. Spongebob episode and on similar episodes in the past.

I think people on the right often go overboard in criticizing others on the right. Partly it's because they want to show the left how it's done. Partly it's because the left has such a huge megaphone in the national media that conservatives want to make sure they don't get caught in the inevitable overblown scandal. Partly it's because they are really concerned to keep the right in the right.

No doubt there are other reasons as well, but the fact remains that far too often, people on the right who claim to distrust the national media will swallow a story hook-line-and-sinker and jump right on the executioner's cart when the victim is another person of the right that isn't in their immediate club.

By all means, police the right. We don't want to give the national media any excuse for all the horrendous stereotypes they hold about us. But show some sense too.

a visit to an ag lab

This dialog has been on my web site for a while. I'm posting it here to make it eligible for the Storyblogging Carnival.

Being A Dialog Intended to Illustrate the Absurdity of Common Artificial Intelligence Projects

Dr. Abrams: Welcome to our post-modern, state-of-the-art, hi-tech Artificial Gravity research laboratory. At this facility we are working tirelessly to create AG, Artificial Gravity, using some of the most powerful research tools and techniques in the field. Be careful of the cables on the floor here. Down this aisle sit some of our graduate students. Bernice here is developing a system to simulate the motion of planetary bodies in large systems, say "hi", Bernice.

Bernice: Hi! welcome to the AG lab!

Visitor: Hi, Bernice, pleased to meet you.

Dr. Abrams: Calvin over in the next cubicle is developing complex models of close physical interaction in a gravitational field.

Calvin: Hey, you're that skeptic that doesn't believe artificial gravity is possible, aren't you?

Visitor: Well, I wouldn't say that. I just have some serious reservations about some of the research programs and their underlying assumptions.

Dr. Abrams: Abrams (beaming): Well, I'm sure that after you see what we are doing here, all of your questions will be answered and you will be as enthusiastic about the project as we all are! Daniel over here is working on ...

Visitor: Excuse me Dr. Abrams, but what I'd really like to see is this hi-tech experimental equipment you use to study gravity.

Dr. Abrams: Certainly! It's right behind this door here... let me see if I remember the combination for the door... there, come right in. I'M AFRAID WE'LL HAVE TO SHOUT A BIT TO BE HEARD OVER THE COOLING EQUIPMENT. OVER HERE...

Visitor: Excuse me...



Dr. Abrams: YES.




Dr. Abrams: CAN WE STEP OUTSIDE AGAIN? There that's better. I'm afraid I'm a little confused, what other equipment did you want to see?

Visitor: I'm sure I don't know, but I'm looking for something that might be used to study gravity. You know, something you might find in a physics laboratory.

Dr. Abrams: Oh no, nothing like that. We are computer scientists here, not physicists. We do all of our research on computers.

Visitor: How do you expect to create artificial gravity without knowing what makes real gravity?

Dr. Abrams: Why, we know what makes real gravity! Numbers!

Visitor: ... ... Excuse me?

Dr. Abrams: You know Newton's law of gravity don't you?

Visitor: I seem to remember something about ...

Dr. Abrams: The force of gravity between any two bodies is proportional to their mass. And what's mass? It's a number!

Visitor: ... ... Huh?

Dr. Abrams: Now I hope you aren't confusing mass with weight. The weigh of an object is proportional to its mass in a planetary gravitation field so we can measure an object's mass by weighing it, but...

Visitor: Excuse me, Doctor, but you lost me back there with the comment about mass being a number. It isn't, you know.

Dr. Abrams: Of course it is. You weigh an object and you get it's mass.

Visitor: Doctor, mass is a physical property, not a number, and gravity, whatever it is caused by, is not caused by numbers. Gravity is a real physical phenomenon. It can't possibly be caused by abstract entities like numbers.

Dr. Abrams: Well, of course it is! Gravitational attraction is completely determined by mass, and mass is a number!

Visitor: Hmm. Suppose you weigh an object and it weighs one kilogram. What number is the mass of that object?

Dr. Abrams: Well, one of course.

Visitor: But it also weighs 2.2 pounds. Why isn't the number 2.2?

Dr. Abrams: Because we only use metric in scientific labs.

Visitor: You seem to be missing the point. The point is that the number you pick to represent the mass is based on an arbitrary unit of measure. If there were no humans to measure mass, there would be no particular number at all associated with it. The number is an abstraction, not a physical property.

Dr. Abrams: You sound like some sort of subjectivist. Of course you can't just pick any number. If the object weighs one kilogram, it weighs one kilogram. You can't just pick any arbitrary number.

Visitor: I'm not saying the number of kilograms is arbitrary, I'm saying that the scale is arbitrary and therefore there is no single, unique number that is associated with the mass.

Dr. Abrams: But we have defined the scale to be metric, so there is a single unique number.

Visitor: Let me try it this way. You claim that mass is a number. But of course the mass is not arbitrary, it is a physically determined quantity. Yet the number itself is arbitrary in the sense that you can use different units of measure. Therefore the mass cannot be exactly the same thing as the number since the mass is fixed by physics and the number is fixed by human choice.

Dr. Abrams: Of course mass is arbitrary in the sense you mean. As you say, I can pick any unit of measure I like, so it can be any number.

Visitor: When you chose a different scale of reference, the mass of the object changes?

Dr. Abrams: That's right.

Visitor: OK, take this book here, I'm using the metric scale, so it has a mass of perhaps 1/2, OK?

Dr. Abrams: OK.

Visitor: Now I'm using the SAE scale and the mass is 1.1, right?

Dr. Abrams: Right.

Visitor: So I've managed to change the mass of this book just by making an arbitrary personal choice.

Dr. Abrams: That's right.

Visitor: I am amazed.

Bernice: Can I interrupt this philosophical discussion to demonstrate a practical exhibit of artificial gravity?

Visitor: Please do.

Bernice: I think I understand your objection to Dr. Abrams and I tend to agree. Your problem is the lack of proof that we can model the effects of gravity accurately and realistically, right?

Visitor: No.

Bernice: So look here and I'll show you a practical demonstration. I've started the planetary motion exhibit here on my monitor. You can see these dots representing planets moving around the central dot just like the real planets move around the sun.

Visitor: OK, but where is the artificial gravity?

Bernice: Gravity is what is causing the planet-dots to revolve about the sun-dot.

Visitor: On the contrary, I suspect the planet-dots are revolving around the sun-dot because you programmed them to do so.

Bernice: Ah, you might think so, but I didn't actually just program the planets to move in circles or even ellipses. No, this program actually incorporates the laws of motion and gravity and these planets are moving according to those laws. In fact, the sun-dot is even moving imperceptibly itself in response to the moving masses of the planet-dots.

Visitor: Why is that relevant?

Bernice: Because the motion on the screen works just like the real solar system. Each planet-dot has a mass and an instantaneous velocity and so does the sun-dot, and the motion results from the same laws as the motion of the real planets. Therefore this virtual solar system has real gravity.

Visitor: I still say the planet-dots are revolving around the sun-dot for purely electronic reasons, moved by a computer program, and not by gravity.

Calvin: I know why you aren't convinced by Bernice's research, and I have to agree. The problem is that even though Bernice's system works like the real solar system, it is deterministic, unlike the real world. She sets it in motion and it slavishly follows the program in a perfectly predictable way, right?

Visitor: No.

Calvin: Let me show you how I have addressed that issue.

Visitor: But that isn't the issue.

Calvin: Here on my monitor I am running my NonDeterministic Gravity Field, or NDGF. The bottom of the screen is the surface. Into the field, at random intervals, I introduce an elastic sphere with a certain mass. These spheres fall according the laws of gravity and bounce off of the bottom surface and off of each other in a way that is completely unpredictable, according to the normal laws of gravity and motion.

Visitor: My objections to Bernice's exhibit apply equally to this one.

Calvin: Ah, you might think so. But the unpredictability is not just a matter of the complexity of the situation. It is also due to actual randomness. You see, when two balls bounce off of each other, there is a random element to the direction each ball bounces.

Visitor: The balls are still moving under the influence of a computer program, and not under the influence of gravity.

Dr. Abrams: He's concerned about the pseudo-random number generator.

Calvin: Oh, of course! Yes, I use a pseudo-random number generator in the program, so in principle someone who knew the pseudo-random sequence could predict the motion, but that can be remedied.

Visitor: I don't care about the randomness.

Calvin: We could just as well take our random input from some external source like a list of baseball scores.

Visitor: The randomness isn't the issue.

Calvin: Well, we could even use atomic decay as the source of randomness, atomic decay is completely random even in theory.

Visitor: The issue is that the activity on the screen is caused by a computer program, there is no reason to say that it is caused by gravity.

Calvin: If we used atomic decay, then the motion would be caused by deep physical interactions, not just by a computer program.

Visitor: Still, you have a complete explanation of the motion of the balls on the screen without postulating the existence of gravity on the computer monitor.

Calvin: I don't think you understand quantum mechanics. You see, atomic decay is a truly nondeterministic event. There is no way, even in theory, to predict when a particular atom will decay, so you don't have a complete explanation of the motion on the screen without positing gravity.

Visitor: OK, let me try again. You have set up a system: computer program, Geiger counter, radiation source, anything you want. The output of this system is a computer display that simulates gravity. The point is that it is simulating gravity. There is no reason to postulate that actual gravity is involved.

Dr. Abrams: The system doesn't have to be self-contained like that. You could use cosmic rays as your source of radiation, then the entire universe is potentially involved in the activity on the screen.

Visitor: Is anyone listening to what I'm saying?

Daniel: I am, and I have to admit I agree with you.

Visitor: I have a bad feeling about this.

Daniel: The problem is that the systems we have today are just too simple to really create gravity, right?

Visitor: Would it matter if I said "No"?

Daniel: The real universe is much more complicated than anything we can hope to create on a computer today. First of all, gravity isn't really Newtonian, so we need to use the equations of general relativity to get true gravity.

Bernice: That's right, to get a truly accurate gravity we need to use general relativity.

Visitor: Sigh.

Daniel: But these are just the initial stages of research into artificial gravity. Some day we will have enormously complex systems using the equations of general relativity to simulate systems with millions of objects, then we will begin to see true artificial gravity.

Visitor: Again, that doesn't address my point at all. Let me try a thought experiment to see if I can explain my reservations. Assume the existence of a universe without gravity as we know it. In this universe there are two bodies, but no gravity to make them attract each other. Now, someone attaches rockets to each of the bodies and puts a pilot on each one. These pilots know the laws of gravity and use the rockets to make each body move according to those laws. Would this create real gravity in the universe?

Bernice: In a situation like that you could never simulate the effects of gravity perfectly enough to make real gravity.

Visitor: But if it were possible, then you would have real gravity?

Bernice: Well, the planets alone would not have gravity, but the system of planet plus rockets plus pilot would have gravity.

Dr. Abrams: But only if the pilots use the right number for the mass. If the pilots move the planets around using the right numbers, then you have gravity.

Daniel: No, no. You couldn't have real gravity in that situation.

Visitor: Thank you.

Daniel: It isn't complicated enough. The effects of real gravity are much more complex and your thought experiment, by stripping out the complexity has stripped out the thing that creates artificial gravity.

Visitor: Gravity is created by complexity?

Daniel: Well, no, but you have to have complexity to have real gravity. You will admit that gravity comes in different scales, some bodies have more gravity and some have less, right?

Visitor: Yes.

Daniel: And some bodies have almost no gravity at all, right?

Visitor: Yes, I guess so.

Daniel: And you will agree that in Bernice's planetary simulation, there is a kind of attraction between the suns and the planets?

Visitor: No.

Daniel: Well this attraction isn't really gravity yet because the simulation is so simple, but as it becomes more and more complex, the attraction becomes more like gravity until it becomes real gravity.

Visitor: There are two problems with your argument. First, there is no attraction between the dots in the simulation. The simulation is just designed to create the illusion of an attraction. Second, you started by asking me if I believe there are different magnitudes of gravity, but then you switched to an argument about different magnitudes of reality. I have no idea what it means for something to be more-or-less real. I can imagine different forces behaving more or less like gravity, but there are no real forces involved in your simulations.I can imagine a simulation being more or less realistic, but being more realistic doesn't make it more real. It is still a simulation.

Daniel: But if we were using general relativity, then it could be perfectly realistic, and then it would be real.

Visitor: It doesn't matter how you simulate it, you are still doing a simulation.

Daniel: You don't even understand general relativity do you?

Visitor: Actually no, but...

Daniel: Then how can you say that we can't use general relativity to create gravity?

Visitor: I can't, but I understand the difference between a simulation and a real event, and I can say that no matter how you simulate an event it is still not the real event.

Daniel: You really need to study general relativity before you get involved in these discussions.

Visitor: Excuse me while I bang my head on the wall. BANG. BANG. BANG. Ow. That hurts.

Dr. Abrams: Now Daniel, don't be rude to our guest; not everyone understands these complex issues. Let me see if I can explain it to you by another example. Suppose we create a simulation that looks like a real-world scene as viewed through a television, OK?

Visitor: I can already tell you that you aren't going to say anything relevant to my objection.

Dr. Abrams: OK, then we put you in a room with a television screen and you sit there for, say an hour. During that hour you see various things move through the scene, some falling, some rising, everything acting just like real objects. You can even interact by speaking through a telephone. You can say things like, "Drop a ball on the left side." or even "Throw a ball up at a 45 degree angle from the lower left corner." You can get as complicated as you want. And when you do, someone does the things you ask, and you can observe the effects. If this situation were so perfect that you could not tell that it was an artificial world, wouldn't you have to admit that there is gravity acting on the objects you see?

Visitor: . No.

Dr. Abrams: But you can't tell the difference between the real world and the simulation.

Visitor: All that means is that I can be fooled. It doesn't prove that you have actually created gravity.

Dr. Abrams: But what difference is there, fundamentally, between the scene of the real world and the scene of the simulation?

Visitor: The things I'm seeing in the scene of the real world are pictures of real objects moving under real gravity. In the simulation, there are no real objects. There are only pixels, turning on and off to create the illusion of motion. Nothing is there, nothing is moving, no forces are acting.

Daniel: But what if we didn't use pixels? What if we used a vector display instead of a raster display, so the motions on the screen correspond to the actual motions of the electron beam?

Visitor: Excuse me while I bang your head on the wall. BANG. BANG. BANG.

Daniel: Ow. That hurts. Hey! Are you suggesting that gravity is a real physical phenomenon, with specific physical causes, and our work is only the creation of analogs to that phenomenon, ignoring the actual physical causes and even confusing analogies with similarities?

Dr. Abrams: Don't be stupid, Daniel. Go get coffee for everyone.

Visitor: There seems to be something to that head-banging thing...

Dr. Abrams: Actually, you are wrong, there really are things moving. Sure, what you see is only a presentation of what is going on, but inside the machine things are really happening to create the simulated world. Why are those operations any less real than the ones that occur in the so-called "real world"? After all, in the real world the things we sense are really just aggregates of billions of micro interactions that we are no more aware of than we are of the internal operations of a computer.

Visitor: What's going on inside the computer is real enough, but it is real electronics, not real gravity. The difference is that what goes on when a body responds to gravity has no relationship to what is going on to simulate that behavior on a computer screen. Or rather the only relationship is that the behavior in the computer has been carefully designed in such a way that our human senses, with our human information processing capabilities, perceive something analogous to the activity of falling bodies. In other words, the only connection between the computer's operation and gravity is through our own psychology and physiology. Surely, the existence of gravity cannot depend on human psychology and physiology.

Bernice: Let me take Dr. Abrams' thought experiment a little further...

Visitor: Why not? It can't get any more irrelevant.

Bernice: Now imagine we had an input mechanism that connected directly to your nervous system, producing exactly the same stimulus you would get from the physical world. Not only visually, but for all of your senses including tactile and kinesthetic senses.

Visitor: It sounds like an ideal gaming computer.

Bernice: Now we could create a situation that you would find completely indistinguishable from real life. We replace the pixels with nervous stimulations that are exactly the same as you would get from experiencing things in the real world. So instead of fake motion produced by turning pixels on and off, we have real motion, right?

Visitor: No.

Bernice: Not only would gravity work in this world exactly like it does in real life, it would use the same underlying equations --general relativity and all that.

Dr. Abrams: I hope that bit about general relativity doesn't confuse you.

Visitor: No more than the rest of this conversation.

Bernice: Great. Now you have to admit that in this situation, the gravity you would experience in this virtual world would be real gravity, right?

Visitor: No more than the objects I would experience in the virtual world would be real objects.

Bernice: But aren't you using a double standard? In one case you are willing to trust your senses to believe in the existence of gravity. In the other case you aren't willing to trust your senses at all!

Visitor: That's because it is a premise of your thought experiment that my senses have been fooled. Why should I trust my senses in a situation in which I know they are mistaken?

Bernice: Do you believe you are experiencing real gravity right now?

Visitor: Yes.

Bernice: But what if right now you are attached to a computer system as in my thought experiment and don't know it? Then the gravity you say you are experiencing right now is exactly the kind we are trying to create in our projects.

Visitor: And in that case, my belief that I am experience real gravity right now would be mistaken. It would only be a sensation of simulated gravity.

Calvin: I can't believe this. You just refuse to accept anything programmed on a computer as real.

Visitor: I refuse to accept a computer program as anything other than a computer program. It's a real enough computer program though. Hypothetically, of course.

Calvin: Tell me, what exactly do you think gravity is? What is it's fundamental cause, it's origin?

Visitor: I don't know.

Calvin: Yes, I though so. I think the problem here is a somewhat mystical approach to the phenomenon of gravity.

Visitor: I have to agree.

Calvin: You think that gravity is some mysterious phenomenon that can't be explained through science and physics...

Visitor: No I don't.

Calvin: ... but you are wrong. One day we will discover what exactly gravity is, and then we will be able to produce it at will.

Visitor: Maybe so, but you won't be producing it by simulating it on a computer.

Calvin: How can you be so sure?

Visitor: Because, ... never mind. I want to thank you for this tour Dr. Abrams, it has been most, ... unusual.

Dr. Abrams: Any time! Any time! Try to study up a little on physics, and next time maybe you will understand our explanations a little better. I'm sorry if we have confused you too much, but of course not everyone can be an expert in every subject. Well, until next time.


The names have no significance except that the characters are named in alphabetical order of their appearance and Calvin's name is a tribute to my favorite comic strip character.

Dr. Abrams's theory that gravity is caused by numbers is analogous to the theory that mental events are equivalent to, or caused by, the execution of an algorithm or some similar formalism. Dr. Abrams' theory is designed to be similarly preposterous.

Bernice's theory that what is needed to create gravity is to simulate it with great accuracy is analogous to the view that if we can program computers to work in a way that is isomorphic to that of human reasoning then mental events will magically appear within the computer.

Calvin's theory is an analog to the view that mental events can appear if we only program the computer to "learn", rather than pre-programming all of its behavior.

Daniel's theory is analogous to the idea that mental events are simply a more complex form of certain kinds of physical events. A position that is not in itself preposterous, but on close inspection always devolves into either animism or into a failure to distinguish an analogy from a similarity.

The visitor's thought experiment is analogous to the Chinese Box thought experiment, and the various responses to it are analogous of actual arguments I have heard in response to it.

Dr. Abrams's thought experiment about the television set and Bernice's extension to a perfect user interface are analogous to the Turing test and various extensions thereof.

The head banging, both episodes, are simply the expression of urges I occasionally have the tenth or twentieth time someone responds to an argument in a way that is completely irrelevant to the argument.

what was I thinking?

I don't have cable and I'm missing the Iraqi elections. This election could one day come to be viewed as the greatest world event since the crumbling of the Berlin wall and here I sit reading blogs because I don't have cable TV. Pretty much the first time I've missed it in three years.

Oh well, Roger L. Simon was doing a great job live-blogging it (until he wimped out and went to bed), so I got a little taste of this historical moment.