Snoqualmie Falls, railroad museum, and Archie McPhee's

And the thing linking these three topics is a collection of photos. Two collections, actually, here and here. I uploaded them to Facebook because (a) iPhoto supports that, and (b) I ran into some certificate issues with grommit. However Facebook limits the number of pictures per album to 60…

Snoqualmie Falls

Snoqualmie Falls

Twin Peaks' Double R Diner (Twede's Cafe) in North Bend, WA

Twin Peaks' Double R Diner (Twede's Cafe) in North Bend, WA

From the observation car: the railroad museum at Snoqualmie, WA

From the observation car: the railroad museum at Snoqualmie, WA

The legendary Archie McPhee's store is moving.

The legendary Archie McPhee's store is moving.

"There is no way to be a good interrogator and not look into torture. "

You need to read Terry Karney’s reactions on reading the torture memos.

I was beginning to wonder at myself. It wasn’t until I was deep into the third memo (which is a detailing of the various “techniques” being used, and the rationalisations for them being legal, that I really started to be disgusted. It was the detailing of how sleep deprivation was to be enforced which got me. I can’t imagine doing that to someone. I just can’t.

Part of that is years of being intimate with torture. There is no way to be a good interrogator and not look into torture. To be a good interrogator one has to be curious, and torture is the uncle we don’t like to talk about, because he’s a little off.

It’s not that I’ve not walked right up to that line. In some example exercises I came right up to it. And I stopped the event. The subject was willing, and I wasn’t going to do anything which caused permanent physical, or mental, harm, but if I’d done it, I’d have been on the other side of the lines I’d drawn. It was tempting, seductively so. If I’d done it, he’d have talked. He was getting ready to cry. I hadn’t touched him. I hadn’t even fixed him to the chair (which probably made it worse, he could move, but he couldn’t get away). I had absolute power over him (insofar as the LT would have let me go, which; it turns out, was further than I was willing to let me go).

And in a follow-up, Terry points out the obscene illogic of the standards established in the memos:

The only way to avoid being tortured is to give up information. If one doesn’t have the information, than one is doomed to be abused. The most willing “detainee” will not be believed, unless he has information about high value targets. This is defined as a “very high” standard.

What it actually is, is no standard. Everyone is presumed to be knowledgeable, and the only way to avoid being tortured to get at that knowledge is to have it to give up.

Honest ignorance will get you tortured. Devotion to the truth of one’s ignorance will only “prove” that one is a die-hard fanatic. And “die-hard fanatics” need to be abused, so they will “give up” the information we knew they had. Catch-22.

"Never again"

More from Andrew Sullivan on the torture memos:

If you want to know how democracies die, read these memos. Read how gifted professionals in the CIA were able to convince experienced doctors that what they were doing was ethical and legal. Read how American psychologists were able to find justifications for the imposition of psychological torture, and were able to analyze its effects without ever stopping and asking: what on earth are we doing?

Read how no one is even close to debating “ticking time bomb” scenarios as they strap people to boards and drown them until they break. Then read how they adjusted the waterboarding, for fear it was too much, for fear that they were actually in danger of suffocating their captives, and then read how they found self-described loopholes in the law to tell themselves that what the US had once prosecuted as torture could not possibly be torture because we’re doing it, and we’re different from the Viet Cong. We’re doing torture right and for the right reasons and with the right motive. Many of the people who did this are mild, kind, courteous, family men and women, who somehow were able to defend slamming human beings against walls in the daytime while watching the Charlie Rose show over a glass of wine at night. We’ve seen this syndrome before, in other places and at other times. Yes: it can happen here.

The torture memos

I’ve just been reading the torture memos which the Obama administration has released. Read them yourself – please. I’m not sure that I trust myself to describe my reactions, but Andrew certainly speaks for me:

Bybee is not representing justice in this memo. He is representing the president. And the president is seeking to commit war crimes. And he succeeded. This much we now know beyond any reasonable doubt. It is a very dark day for this country, but less dark than every day since Cheney decided to turn the US into a torturing country until now.

Setting aside questions of a “truth commission”, and also whether individual interrogators should be prosecuted, two things stand out very starkly.

  • Yoo and Bybee should be disbarred from legal practice – including the teaching of law – for life.
  • All of the doctors who supervised the torture sessions have violated their Hippocratic oaths. They should be struck off and never allowed to practice medicine again.

Contra Baggini

Here we go again: another self-avowed atheist blaming fellow atheists for the state of dialog between believers and non-believers. Here’s Julian Baggini over at CiF:

Perhaps a period of New Atheist exuberance was necessary. At least it got people thinking, although I fear it has confirmed every negative stereotype about it. We now need to turn down the volume and engage in a real conversation about what of value is left of religion once its crude superstitions are swept away. If we don’t, we will only have ourselves to blame if the vague platitudes of Bunting and Armstrong win the war for hearts and minds.

In other words, fundamentalist religion is obviously absurd and is doomed to extinction, but unless the New Atheists shut up and show a little respect, it will be replaced by a “woolly-minded” kind of “doctrine-lite”.
Now this seems utterly absurd. It simultaneously dismisses atheists as being unable to prevail against arguments that are “vapid and shallow”, and stipulates that atheists are responsible for setting the tone of the discourse.
Perhaps it’s just a UK thing. Maybe over in the land of my birth orthodox religion is on the point of collapsing, and like demolition experts destroying a tall building, atheists need to place a few small charges in the right place, get out of the way, and wait for a tidy implosion. But somehow I doubt that: if anything, the patterns seems to be that the “woolly-minded” are breaking apart, some becoming more fundamentalist and others joining the apatheists. This would make a nonsense of Baggini’s argument, of course.
Over here in the USA, atheists are also being told to shut up. Will Wilkinson rejects the idea:

I was recently reading somewhere about Christopher Hitchens’ debate with William Lane Craig at Biola and someone in the comments of whatever blog I was reading made the observation that there are tons of Christian schools like Biola and Wheaton and so forth full of smart kids who undergo training in arguing for the existence of God. It’s not like it’s treated as an open question at these places. The Christian schools and their Christian students know the result they need, and they practice in the most persuasive arguments that deliver that result. None of these arguments are any good, of course, as there is no God, Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, and so on. But my sense is that there are about a gazillion works of theistic/Christian apologetics for every God Is Not Great. But write a God Is Not Great or a The End of Faith and you’re colored as some kind of obnoxious disrespectful lout out to set the lions on all those downtrodden Christian. Why is that? Even other atheists are encouraged to deplore the brazen “New Atheists’” alleged in-your-face lack of humility. I find this completely ridiculous.

UPDATE: PZ Myers skewers Baggini and Bunting in his inimitable way.

Selected Tweets from 2009-04-12

  • Reconfiguring my blog so that a bare minimum of my twitterings are aggregated daily. And I may give up even that. S/N ratio is important. #
  • Settling down to watch the DVD of “Leonard Cohen Live in London”. I’ve loved his work for over 40 years; still pure magic. #

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Laureen buys a computer… with cash

Laureen went to buy a MacBook at her local Apple Store.

When I hand him a stack of bills, he blinks. Blinks! And says “I can’t take that. You’ll have to go to the back, where they have a cash drawer.” I am not sure why he didn’t take it back to the cash drawer and make change (a mere $12 worth), but I don’t argue. As I’m walking back, he says to me “I’ve been here for years and I have never, ever had someone try to pay with real money.”

Easter traditions

The Friendly Atheist asked how atheists celebrate Easter Sunday. I don’t know about “celebrate”, but we like to sit down together to watch The Life of Brian. And Hannah’s visiting from Scripps for a few days, which makes it extra nice. “Always look on the bright side of life…”

"Bozo Sapiens"

Here’s my latest Amazon review, for “Bozo Sapiens” by Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan:

Explaining ourselves
Why are humans the way they are? Why do we make such stupid (and obvious) mistakes all the time? Why are we so bad at estimating probability? Why do we fall for scams? As the Kaplans ask, “Is it instinctive for people – our doltish enemies, our spontaneous selves – to get things wrong?”
Yes, this is another book about evolutionary psychology, and one of the most approachable that I’ve encountered. It casts its net wide; after a brief introduction, we get four chapters on topics as diverse as economics; perception, language and thinking; error in action; and social structures and relations. The penultimate chapter, “Fresh off the Pleistocene Bus”, considers the difference and (more important) continuity between us and our ancestors from 70,000 years ago. The authors close with “Living Right”: the origins of our sense of what is right, civil, moral, and just, and the way in which “we accommodate the tensions between our simple primate emotions and our bewildering world through the connective tissue of culture.”
This is a delightful book. It nicely complements and extends Dennis Dutton’s outstanding The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. As I was reading it, I worried slightly that the Kaplans had spread themselves too thin, and were attempting to bring in too many topics. By the time I finished, those fears had disappeared. I think they’ve struck just the right balance.
The advance reading copy that I had did not include an index; I’m not sure if one is planned. It did, however, include copious end-notes, and they are uniformly good. Perhaps footnotes would have been better, simply because they’re less easily overlooked. But this is a minor point.
Highly recommended.