"I'm goin' mobile"

I just called Cingular to turn on International Roaming for my Treo 650. I hadn’t realized that there were so many wireless carriers in India! I went through the lists of roaming partners and coverage maps at GSM World to see if I could work out where I’d have service, but the coverage descriptions were confusing and the map resolution was so poor that I gave up. A colleague assures me that I’ll be OK in Pune, but I have no idea about Hyderabad and Bangalore. (The UK is easy: Cingular partners with O2, Orange and Vodaphone….)

Planning for travel

It seems to be a rule of business travel that (a) there will always be one “gotcha” that requires replanning, and (b) events will expand to fill the available time, and then some. Originally I was going to go to England for a couple of days of meetings, then fly on to Hyderabad, Bangalore, and Pune, before flying home to Boston. First, I discovered that my planned visit to Pune would overlap the festival of Diwali, which would make it a no-op (or worse). OK, let’s turn things around. Hyderabad is a fixed point, so fly to India first, visit Pune, Hyderabad, and Bangalore (in that order), fly back to England, have my meetings there, and then fly home. And just as that was settling, it turned out that I needed to add another meeting in England, up in Leeds; in addition, some of the people that I had planned to visit at the start of the trip wouldn’t be available at the end. So expand: tack on one day at the front to accomodate a stop-over in England, and add another day at the end for the new meeting in Leeds. My fingers are crossed, but I think everything is set: I’ll depart on October 16th and get home on November 3rd. I have one completely free day (a Sunday), so don’t expect a tour-blog….

(And my deepest thanks to Susan for wrestling with the stupid travel system. At this moment, their portal is still showing the itinerary as it was a couple of days ago, even though there have been half a dozen changes since then. Fortunately Galileo gets it right.)

Posted in Sun

Why the Miers nomination is an admission of the failure of conservatism

Here’s an excellent piece by Cenk Uygur on why the nomination of Miers represents the recognition that, at some deep level, the American people don’t agree with the conservative movement:

“Name one liberal or moderate judge who has ever been rejected from the Supreme Court because they were outside the American mainstream. There aren’t any. I suppose a judge could be too liberal for the Supreme Court, but no one has even approached this theoretical barrier. On the other hand, Republican presidents play hide and go seek with their nominee’s points of view on a consistent basis because they are afraid Americans will be scared off by what they really believe.”

(Via HuffPo.)

Morally bankrupt, my good man?

Occasionally someone will post a comment on a blog entry that deserves a more prominent response than simply adding a further comment. A few hours ago, Alec commented on my criticism of Thomas Friedman:

“Morally bankrupt” – that’s one of the phrases that even scientifically hip biology-teaching evangelical Christians use on me when I deny the existence of God and generally toast their tootsies with atheist rejection of their belief.

Does it actually mean anything to you, or have you too succumbed to subjective mudslinging as a means of argument, however odious the target, my good man?

The belief that morality is impossible without a belief in God, and that to be an atheist “shows a recklessness of moral character and utter want of moral sensibility” [1] is widespread; indeed it used to be the law of the land. One would expect those theists for whom the existence of [some kind of] God is an “objective fact” to argue from this that morality has an objective basis. What is curious is that some atheist philosophers have historically conceded the consequent of the argument, and have argued that, in the absence of a God, morality is necessarily “subjective” or “invented”. (See, for instance, Mackie [2].)

Yet the notion that morality and ethics are God-given is hard to sustain these days. Indeed it is under attack from both science and theistic philosophy! For philosophers and theologians such as Swinburne, the notion of “goodness” must be independent of God, otherwise the assertion that “God is good” is simply a tautology. On the scientific front, we are developing better and better models of how creatures develop social behaviours, including cooperation and altruism: Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue [4] provides an excellent high-level account of this work, though geeks should also dive into Axelrod’s fundamental work. [5] The key insight of researchers such as Kagen, Wilson, and Frank is that morality derives not from reason, but from instinct:

Wilson chides philosophers for not taking seriously the notion that morality resides in the senses as a purposive set of instincts. They mostly view morality as merely a set of utilitarian or arbitrary preferences and conventions laid upon people by society. Wilson argues that morality is no more a convention than other sentiments such as lust or greed. When a person is disgusted by injustice or cruelty he is drawing upon an instinct, not rationally considering the utility of the sentiment, let alone simply regurgitating a fashionable convention.
[4, p.143]

So to return to Alec’s charge: when I refer to Thomas Friedman as being “morally bankrupt”, I am inviting the reader to join me in an instinctually-based reaction, which derives from our shared heritage as social animals. These instincts are perfectly objective: the behaviours to which they give rise can, and have, been measured and modelled in a variety of ways. And the source of these instincts is, quite simply, our old friend natural selection. No theistic hypothesis is required.

[1] Odell v. Koppee, 5 Heisk. (Tenn) 91. Quoted in [3].
[2] John L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin Books, 1979)
[3] Michael Martin, Atheism, Morality and Meaning (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002)
[4] Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue (London: Penguin Books, 1997)
[5] Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation (New York: Basic Books, 1984)

Le mot juste on the Miers nomination

Rick Brookhiser in the National Review Online: “It’s not as bad as Caligula putting his horse in the Senate.”

Not quite. And this from a Bush supporter, apparently having a Brownie moment. After all, we’re talking about a woman who has reportedly called George W. Bush “the smartest man she’s ever known”. This immediately disqualifies her, on grounds of judgement or experience – take your pick.

(Via Sully.)

Facilitating genocide as a foreign policy option?

I guess this is what happens when warmongers get tired and impatient. slacktivist quotes Thomas Friedman (whose NYT op-eds really aren’t worth paying for) as arguing that if the Sunnis in Iraq won’t “come around… [we] should arm the Shiites and Kurds and leave the Sunnis of Iraq to reap the wind” Most people who advocate the withdrawal of U.S. troops do so in the (perhaps naive) hope that this will reduce the tension and reduce the level of violence. Friedman is the first pundit that I’ve encountered who seems to advocate civil war and perhaps Rwanda-style genocide as an appropriate way of dealing with recalcitrant Sunnis. Simply amazing.

P.S. Of course with or without Friedman’s morally bankrupt ideas, a civil war is probably inevitable.