Friday, June 29, 2007

Innateness, Excellence and Rats

I played hooky this afternoon and took the family to see Ratatouille. We got to the theater after the start time but before the main feature began. It was packed, though, and we ended up in the second row surrounded by chattering two-year-olds and crying babies. It is to the filmmaker's credit that despite all this I was suitably entertained--much more so than any of the recent blockbusters that we have seen.

But there is something slightly disturbing about the film that sloshes over from The Incredibles: the disturbingly Ayn Randian notions concerning excellence and mediocrity. In both films, the main characters possess innate abilities that transcend the abilities of their peers and that make them unique and exceptional. In The Incredibles it is the, well, incredible talents of the superheroes. In Ratatouille, the main character has a heightened sense of taste and smell that sets him apart from others.

Now, some of the critics drew direct parallels with Rand in terms of the opposition to the Incredibles by the masses and by their arch-enemy who resorted to technical feats to achieve his own power. But I don't think that is quite right because while Rand's characters strive against backlash from critics and opposition (well Roark does, at least), they do not achieve their talents and powers from some innate source. They are "constructively" brilliant or the source of their capacity is an emergent property of their life experience.

Instead, I interpret both films as more religious in tone because they specify talents that arise through unknown agency, much like the celebration of Mozart in Amadeus, rather than as exemplifying extraordinary devotion to craft. Of course, if excellence is purely innate, that leaves the rest of us out of luck with regard to spectacular achievement. And that is a bit disturbing to me as a message for young people.

Still, the films are wonderfully crafted achievements in their own right, maintaining Pixar's fine reputation for devotion to the craft of film making. There is even a lovely homage to Citizen Kane in Ratatouille when the grumpy critic eats a nouveau ratatouille (of course) that causes a flashback to his simple childhood. His pen drops from his hand and we watch it fall from below, just like the snow globe dropping from the hand that once piloted Rosebud. Sadly, the semantic associations flowed to Orson Welles hawking wine later in all his obese excellence as the critic sipped his wine in reverence over the rat's gustatory achievements: we will sell no wine before its time. The final fate of the truly extraordinary?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Prior Restraint and Hostile Speech

George Will came out swinging at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals today, claiming they are magisterially undermining free speech while catering to a carefully orchestrated Left Wing agenda bent on the destruction of all our rights. Some research on this issue turned up a remarkable group of culture warriors all taking on this issue, but from a range of different perspectives.

First, the facts. A group of Christian, African-American public employees in Oakland were offended by the posting of a "Coming Out Day" message on the City forum bulletin boards, as well as via email. So a few months later they created the Good News Employee Association (GNEA) and created a flier that promoted discussing "the natural family, marriage and family values." (paraphrasing roundly) They were told to remove the flier after a lesbian employee complained that the message was homophobic. The administrator decided to do so based on her interpretation of Administrative Instruction 71 (AI-71) which bars "discrimination and/or harassment based on sexual orientation." They were apparently told that they could change the flier to make it inoffensive but they decided to file suit instead. The 9th Circuit, in Memorandum 05-15467, decided their appeal was without merit.

From the Right comes George Will asserting this represents "prior restraint" of free speech about something as innocuous as some disagreement about religious ideas about morality. This guy takes another route, suggesting that the United Nations is behind all of this, working quietly to undermine free speech.

In reality, though, the courts have rightly found that governments have a legitimate interest in preventing hostile speech in workplaces, with the only real question being whether or not certain acts cross the line from merely bad taste to truly offensive. A raving racist can be fired after being warned to stop it or, perhaps, even without warning. This isn't viewpoint discrimination, just restrictions that are designed to get the business or agency aligned with the goals of getting work done.

So we can ask several questions, here.

First, was the GNEA flier symmetrical with the Coming Out Day flier vis-a-vis hostile speech? I think not. The GNEA flier was implying that homosexuality is unnatural while the Coming Out Day flier was not implying anything about Christians, Jews, Republicans, mice, lampposts or aviators--at least not according to 05-15467 and all of the other resources I can find.

Next, could the GNEA employees legitimately complain that the Coming Out Day flier was singling them out for discrimination under AI-71? It doesn't appear so. By promoting homosexuality, the authors of the flier were not denigrating GNEA employees. Thus, they have no specific claim against the Coming Out Day flier.

Finally, did the act of implying that homosexuality is unnatural cross the line of hostility? Just barely to my mind. Implication is not the same as direct hostility. There was a complaint against it, however, and an attempt to get GNEA to modify the flier. The fact of a complaint means that the administrator needed to evaluate his or her obligations under AI-71.

What might have happened if the Oakland government had chosen to side with GNEA and told the lesbian employee that they consider such a flier only modestly and indirectly offensive? Under those circumstances, they might have faced a lawsuit that the civil rights of the lesbian employee were violated by a hostile workplace. Suddenly the free speech issues get transferred to a question of whether the administrators allowed a hostile workplace and what remedy is appropriate if they did? So we would get a substitution of "post hoc litigation" for Will's "prior restraint." That's largely the way that sexual harassment is handled these days, creating an industry of trial attorneys who specialize in the topic.

George Will suggests that the Supremes will take and overrule the 9th Circuit because they are so terrifically out of touch with reality. I don't think so. Instead, I think the Supremes will affirm the decision and stay out of the fray, supporting the notion that judgment was used by the administrator, and that judgment was not out-of-line with existing jurisprudence or common sense.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Alternative History and Blue Moons

Sipping deeply into a Blue Moon draft with a slice of orange tilted over the lip at lunch today, I found myself wondering over alternative histories. The restaurant overlooks a small harbor and, as we ate, small boats and wet bikes cruised in and out, the crews waving to the shore as a band tested the drums at a yacht club across the inlet, tuning up for a ball tonight under the stars.

What if the Twin Towers had not collapsed from the plane hits of 9/11? What if only a few hundred people had been killed? A hundred per plane and the occupants of a few floors in each building.

The doctrine of proportionate response might have taken precedence over the urge for a massive military response. Moreover, the political momentum established by Afghanistan may not have been enough to sustain the invasion of Iraq. The Clinton administration's use of cruise missiles in Afghanistan and Africa following terrorist attacks under his watch was certainly one model that was available, but was deemed insufficient after 9/11. The use of the Northern Alliance as a proxy force supported by US air power and special forces was the chosen path forward, relieving us from the logistical difficulties of access to the land-locked Afghanistan for a full-scale invasion.

Still, a lighter-yet force presence might have been the primary option given 300 deaths at 9/11, and given continued intransigence by the Taliban leadership, but I think the outcome would still have been about the same. But given a lower international and domestic political will for the Iraq invasion, might UBL have been captured in Afghanistan? Perhaps, but only if he made a mistake of hubris or was betrayed. The option of hiding in Pakistan was too easy given the largely un-patrolable border and supportive political sentiment.

By not invading Iraq, however, we would have maintained the moral sympathy of the European nations, and would have increasingly been well-regarded in the Muslim world if sufficient NATO assets could have stabilized and rebuilt (well, built at any rate, considering the state of Afghanistan's infrastructure and institutions) the country.

Meanwhile, back in Baghdad, Saddam would have kept up his tyrannical but impotent realm. The strongest argument I have heard about the impact of the US invasion of Iraq, however, is that it was the decisive factor in causing Saudi Arabia to begin its own hard fight internally against support for terrorists, perhaps because they realized that failure to do so transformed them into a vulnerable terrorist-supporting regime. The same might be said for Libya, though it is no more plausible to argue that sufficient pressure could not have been applied to them based on the Afghanistan outcome than it is to believe that breaking the back of the Hussein regime in a week was the turning point in their attitude towards terrorist support.

The Blue Moon was light perfection, though, with just that hint of sweet orange to counteract the spices in my chicken salad.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Implausibility and Semantic Possibility

Academics can be so amusing. I'm reading a paper on machine learning late last night called "Hierarchical Topic Models and the Nested Chinese Restaurant Process" and I stop dead at the following sentence:

Suppose that there are an infinite number of infinite-table Chinese restaurants in a city.

Yes, and further suppose:

...that the Dim Sum cart could move at light speed...
...that the Szechuan sauce was infinitely hot...
...that Mr. Ying could only sit to the left of any member of the Yuan family...
...that you could get take-away delivered after 10PM...

It all goes to show the remarkable creativity of language. Quoting Pynchon: A screaming comes across the sky.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Anti-theism and Chaucerian Frauds

I've been debating with myself on the potential merits of a book that would serve as a kind of anti-theist manifesto for a new generation. The book I'm envisioning would be Chris Hitchen's god is not Great combined with elements of Dennett and Dawkins, but refracted through a fictional prism that places the arguments into the context of a dialog between a young man and a fading old televangelist.

The televangelist reflects on his life and his manipulation of his flocks while leading the youth in an intellectual journey through his most cherished beliefs, ultimately arriving at a conclusion of unbelief, and how he is now a scholar of scientific and rational ideas. As the ideas unfold, the young man challenges many of the elder's presumptions based on his own belief, but his skepticism begins to grow as the discussion grows.

I was particularly struck by Hitchens describing Jerry Falwell as a "Chaucerian fraud" during an interview shortly after Falwell's death, and that there is a poverty of fiction that presents fairly basic ideas about skepticism and faith for consumption by young people. Yet there is no shortage of religious tracts that present ideas of faith in simple, easily consumed tidbits, including the infamous Jack Chick tracts.

Many questions remain, though, including whether cartoons and/or verse are the best approaches, much less whether I have the chops to make it happen.

I always read this sort of thing with a smile that even in the 14th century wits were far quicker than it often seems today:
For smalle tithes, and small offering,
He made the people piteously to sing;
For ere the bishop caught them with his crook,
They weren in the archedeacon's book;
Then had he, through his jurisdiction,
Power to do on them correction.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Gender, Morality and Legal Divergence

This amounts to an exploration of the complexity of my moral failures.

A 35-year-old woman some miles to the south of here, the wife of a cop and mother herself, got wild and crazy one night, plied several boys with alcohol and had sex with two of them. Not much would have happened if the boys hadn't rolled their vehicle in a drunken stupor later that night.

Now she faces 300 days in jail and is very apologetic after pleading guilty. Her husband divorced her 4 days after her arrest, as well.

But the interesting fact is that some blogger said what most males who ever went through puberty were thinking, somewhere in the back of their minds: "I know when I was 16 I would have done a 35-year-old hot mom." And I would have, too, though I might have freaked out a bit and ran away, too.

But wouldn't we be less sympathetic with a 35-year-old male "molesting" a 15-year-old girl?

In other words, there is a certain asymmetry to sexual desire that emerges at puberty, and that doesn't quite accord with California or US law. Should the fact of the desire and potential lack thereof has an innate asymmetry influence the formulation of law? I don't think so, and do believe that she should be punished for her lousy choices. But did she do less harm to those horny teen boys than we would accord to a female victim in the same sensational position? Or how about a male perpetrator of a male victim?

I would guess so because I would guess that the boys got what they wanted at some level. I would also guess that few would assign the same motivations to a 15 or 16-year-old girl in the mirror version of the same scenario. But is that accurate in terms of formulating a moral position outside of the legal formulation?

As it stands, the law makes distinctions based on what might be termed the "least discriminatory factor." In effect, since the age of each victim is in question as a proxy for their rational decision making, the legal protection should be built on the age factor while avoiding the discriminatory consequences of presuming a difference in outlook for a girl, boy, woman or man, and the relative relationship between each.

It is not ideal, but is simple enough to provide sufficient guidance. Still, I can't escape the general feeling that those boys were harmed more by the consequences of alcohol and driving than her molestation. Is it a flaw of being too familiar with the robustness of my own psyche in my teen years? Maybe, but I doubt I could be convinced I would have been harmed in any particular way by similar circumstances at that tender age, yet would not ascribe the same robustness to girls.