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Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber brings up the idea of transhumanism -- the desire to transcend the limits of human nature through chemical, biological, digital/cybernetic, etc. means. He concludes that the notion seems really creepy and wrong, but he can't say precisely why. I don't have a good argument against transhumanism (or a strong confidence in the correctness of the "that's creepy" reaction that I share with Farrell). But I thought I'd take a stab at figuring out why it seems so creepy.

The human experience thus far has been largely one of working within limits. The human psyche and cultures seem quite well adapted to coming up with incredible results while working within some set of rules. These rules are what make much of our activity meaningful -- a football game would make no sense if there were no rules as to how it should be played. Many of our most important creative works gain their appeal from going so far while constrained by sometimes artificially severe rules (my favorite example is some of the complex models, such as anatomically correct insects, that can be made in purist -- one square, no cutting -- origami).

The rules are frustrating, to be sure (and indeed, that's the point). So it's no surprise that we dream of being able to more or less set them aside, especially when they're rules we find ourselves forced to live under (such as the laws of nature). That's where transhumanism comes from -- a desire to set aside those pesky rules and quirks that constrain human nature. Yet at the same time, the notion of rulelessness evokes the feeling of creepiness in those of us who aren't filled with a desire for freedom. We don't know how to operate in a world without rules as constraints and reference points.

This feeling was explored quite well in Brave New World. The reader is creeped out, but left without much rational disagreement, with the practices of the future society. What can we say is wrong with oppressing people whose nature -- re-created through drugs and eugenics -- is to want and thrive under oppression? Huxley's answer is a psychologically satisfying cop-out. Bernard Marx's inability to fit in to the brave new world is proof -- reassurance -- that human nature ultimately can't be changed fundamentally. Our ability to reason about the events is restored by restoring the framework of constraints we've been trained by millions of years of evolution and culture to operate on.

So the creepiness that many of us sense in transhumanism is not so much a sense that it's wrong, as a sense that we can't think straight about it.


Limited internet access means I'm a little late to the party criticizing a Randy Barnett post claiming that the Left lives in a fantasy world of made-up "facts" and selectively chosen real facts. Most of the criticism seems to be along the lines of "the right does it too" or "big generalizations about the Left or the Right are never correct."

But what struck me is how profoundly unoriginal Barnett's line of argument is. It's one of the oldest tricks in the book to claim that your oponent can't face reality and instead living in a self-confirming fantasy. I've yet to hear of anyone who was convinced of their errors by such an argument (though preaching to the choir can be a useful function). Why is this such a popular type of criticism?

One possibility is that it's often true. Barnett himself admits that "we all do it to some degree -- ... no one is totally and completely objectively realistic about the facts." This is not merely an issue of human fallibility -- to some degree, the ability to live in a fantasy world can be functional. The world is a complex and messy place, so we are constantly confronted with seemingly contradictory data. I say "seemingly" because, presumably, if we were able to look deep enough, we would see how things all fit together. But few people have the resources and skills to resolve every scrap of data. So we have a faculty for dismissing apparent outliers, of moving ahead, secure in our convictions, when the weight of contradictory information is small. Imagine, for example, the believer in evolution who is told by a creationist about fosilized human and dinosaur tracks found together, and who trusts that there is a scientific explanation for this anomaly even though he doesn't have the time or access to data to figure it out. This faculty also inhibits snap conversions after hearing a seemingly convincing argument, making us uneasy enough about changing our views, so that we take the extra time to think more about it and aren't easily swayed by rhetorical skill without substantial content. This is the faculty of faith. The existence of such a faculty, however, means that it's open to being perverted, of becoming hyperactive and dismissing what ought to be convincing evidence. At the same time, faith can make a person overconfident in the convincingness of his own arguments, thus making the role of faith in bolstering his opponent's views more naked.


While visiting DC, Aussie John Quiggin notes that Americans are friendly -- friendlier, in fact, than his fellow Australians (except for the Brisbanians/Brisbanites/Brisbaniacs). This seems at odds with my own experience, as I found Australians to be friendlier than Americans. The people of DC were of about average friendliness, so it's not an issue of which Americans he's met. These two observations, while seemingly contradictory, do appear consistent with a larger trend: people who go abroad typically report that the inhabitants of their destination country are very friendly.

Off the top of my head, I have a couple theories as to why visitors to foreign countries generally find their hosts to be notably friendly. It may be an issue of lowered expectations. We can come to (sometimes subconsciously) expect foreigners to be notably unfriendly -- put off by our alienness, perhaps, or we're both unable to overcome the culture barrier. Against this low standard, otherwise average friendliness shines. It may be an issue of how people react to foreigners versus natives. It's possible that people in general tend to be friendlier toward those who reveal themselves to be from far away -- out of a fascination with encountering someone out of the ordinary, or a desire to help someone who may need more help due to being away from familiar surroundings. It may be an issue of under-estimation of the friendliness of the people in our own country. I know I'm surprised from time to time at how much more friendly people in Pennsylvania are than I expect them to be (despite having lived in the state for 17 years, and off and on for 5 more).


It's time for a little blog-introspection. The epigraph on the cover of the bulletin at the Unitarian church I attended this weekend was:

Writing for me is a way of understanding what is happening to me, of thinking hard things out. I have never written a book that was not born out of a question I needed to answer for myself.

-- May Sarton

This is a good description of the best blogging that I do. My most valuable posts -- both in terms of being worthwhile to write and containing profound, original, well-expressed content -- are the ones that I begin with the shadow of an idea beginning to emerge in my head, given definition by the process of writing it out. I've noticed the contrast much more this summer, when I'm rarely in front of the computer. I try to save my best thoughts for blog posts, since this blog serves as a record of my thoughts as well as a place for thinking them through. But I find that when I've thought about an issue, and figured out what I have to say about it, beforehand, I lose the joy and quality of posting. Posting becomes a sort of chore of transcribing things from my memory to Blogger.
An update on the "creationist books I find lying around" front: I encountered one in a motley stack of books in the back room of the natural history museum. It contained an interesting reversal of the usual connection made between evolution and atheism. Normally creationists argue that teaching evolution promotes atheism because it encourages people to see the origin of species as a process not needing God. This book, however, claimed that the prevalence of belief in evolution (supposedly inexplicable on the surface given the weight of evidence for creationism) can be explained by the rise of atheism. The book argued that the church's misdeeds, such as taking sides in wars and teaching about hell (which tipped me off to the fact that it was published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, aka Jehovah's Witnesses), so discredited it in the minds of the public that people were left searching for another explaination for life.


There seem to be three major ways to claim portions of the past as one's heritage -- genetic, cultural, and geographic. So my ancestors could be variously defined to include the Vikings, the ancient Greeks, or the Lenape/Oneidas/Nipmuc(depending on whether I count Palmerton, Hamilton, or Worcester as my residence).

Disputes between Native Americans* and archaeologists over the use of human remains can be seen in terms of these types of claims to heritage. In the case of very old bones, such as Kennewick Man, the Native American argument is geographic (ideally all three types of connection can be shown). Native groups often treat geography as the fundamental component, claiming continuity with all people who lived on their land before them. From this they can infer genetic and cultural continuity, based on the claim of indigenousness -- that they are the true people linked to that land since time immemmorial. This is reinforced by the idea that deceased members of the tribe are united with the land, fusing the two kinds of continuity. The claim by archaeologists that most disturbs many Native activists is that Native tribes migrated to their contact-era lands (though such migrations form a part of much Indian traditional history and mythology), best captured by the Bering Strait migration theory -- a claim that undercuts total geographic continuity.

However, geography only works up until 1492. After contact, it is obvious that Native Americans' lands have also been inhabited by those whose claim to remains is being disputed. By purely geographic standards, that would give white archaeologists a claim (while making the claims of forcibly relocated Native tribes more tenuous). So the primary line of heritage from contact to the present is made genetic. Meanwhile, efforts are made to portray non-Natives as illegitimate and visitors to the land they happen to reside in (a claim made easier by the reluctance of European culture to acknowledge connection to the land in a way similar to its articulation by Indians, as well as the effect of the wilderness myth in making America out to be a blank slate at the time of European colonization).

Counter-arguments to Native claims usually attack a genetic or cultural lineage. Archaeologists will argue, for example, that the remains in question are not biologically ancestral to the Native Americans trying to claim them. Or they argue that that the culture of the deceased was so different from that of the claimants that they can't reasonably be considered the same group and Native beliefs (about things like proper burial practice) are thus not relevant. The problem here is that archaeologists are asserting a prerogative, not recognized by the Natives, to define "how close is close enough" for these types of relationships. There's no clear line between "ancestral" and "not ancestral" on any of the three dimensions of heritage, which means there's wide room for disagreement even if neither side is drawing the lines based on self-interest.

From a Native perspective, (white) archaeologists can come off as making a geographic claim to remains -- "this is our land now (by right of conquest), and thus we can do with these remains as we please." However, the archaeologists themselves see their claim as transcending the three categories I outlined. These three categories are types of claims to particular heritage -- for one person or group to claim a special relationship to another person or group. Archaeologists, however, see their claim as on behalf of the whole of humanity (genetic insofar as they would dispute the ownership of the remains with, say, a hungry dog).

*nb: My references to "Native Americans" should generally be read as a shorthand for the subset of Native Americans who promote a separate Native cultural identity and more or less agree with the positions I attribute to them. These people often claim to speak for Native Americans as a whole.


It's kiosk time for whoever keeps leaving our bathroom window open. I love nature as much as the next guy, but that love does not extend to a desire to shower with two moths, or to find june bugs swimming in the toilet.
Elite Meat

Shoppers sold on organic produce find its main-course counterpart - certified beef, poultry, and pork - to be elusive.

Overall, the organic-food market has reportedly grown by as much as 20 percent a year since 1990. Sales of organic meat have recently grown at a faster rate - about 30 percent a year, according to Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Mass. But meat and meat products, Ms. Haumann says, still represent only about 4 percent of total organic-food production.

The article mentions two possible explanations for the lower sales of organic meat as compared to organic plant products -- consumer confusion over the meaning of labels, and the difficulties faced by ranchers in producing organic meat. But it seems that they're leaving out the impact of vegetarianism. I would guess that people who buy organic food are disproportionately likely (as compared to the general population) to be vegetarian, and thus not interested in meat of any kind. And added to the actual vegetarians are those, like myself, who tend to think in vegetarian terms when we're in the market for organic products (as an illustration, when I'm in Trader Joe's, it always startles me to see meat items such as tuna on the shelf -- there's something that feels incongruous about a store specializing in natural food selling meat). Many of the arguments for buying organic food come from the same environmental philosophy and culture that has spawned the most popular arguments for vegetarianism. (Interestingly, the title or this article -- "Elite Meat" -- suggests a view of organic products as status goods valued for their inherent qualities of flavor and healthfulness, rather than for their more benign externalities, which are what's most important from the environmental angle. That may explain the oversight.)

The disproportionately swift rise in organic meat sales as compared to all organic sales may, then, be partially attributable to the expansion of organic food from a small niche to a more mainstream market. As the market grows, organic foods seem more normal and less tied to a particular radical cultural image. They thus gain an appeal to people who don't fully share the norms of that culture, people who are more likely to eat meat.


From time to time we hear stories about how terrible Americans' knowledge of geography is. But it turns out we're the world champions three times in a row (the championship is held every two years).


In one of the posts I linked to in my previous post, Eugene Volokh prints this bit of a letter from a reader:

I happen to be 40 years old, happen to be an economist, and happen to be fertile, but I AM a man. I am not a human who happens to be a man. Being male is fundamental to who I am in a deeper way than any of these other characteristics.

Kieran Healy picks up on this argument for some speculation about what constitutes the essence of one's identity, but doesn't quite get to the good stuff. For me, being a geographer-anthropologist is a more fundamental part of my identity than being a man (or being 22 years old, or [presumably, though I've never put it to the test] being fertile).

The underlying idea in discussion of this quote seems to be that those things that are inborn are more fundamental to the person's identity. It's logical in a way, because those characteristics seem more permanent. But when I think about my own self-image, it doesn't work that way. This may be the existentialism in my worldview showing through. The most important parts of who I feel I am are not the things that I have no control over, like sex or age. Those just happened to me. The important parts are the parts I work for -- my skills, my profession, etc. I am who I make myself.

This gets somewhat more complicated when we consider gender as opposed to sex. Gender is something that is made, rather than inborn, though it often partakes of the feeling of fundamentality that sex has, when social characteristics get linked to biological ones. Being a man isn't terribly important to me -- indeed, I feel a bit strange about even writing "I am a man." I do plenty of things that are typically male, such as being emotionally reserved. But I don't think of those things as things that complement or spring from my maleness. When I try to imagine what a female version of me would be like, I don't imagine that those things would -- or should -- change. I experience them as independent of gender and sex. Perhaps there's a bit of dominant-group privilege working there, so that I, as a male, can easily see gender as less important. Yet I know many men do see many aspects of their lives as tied up in their maleness that I would see as separate and equally applicable to a female version of myself.

Certainly a female, but otherwise identical, version of me would be different in ways I can't guess. The non-permanent aspects of identity are not strictly endogenous -- they come as well from how the world treats you and what options it has open to you. And those exogenous aspects of who you are (as well as the inborn parts) can exert a strong influence on what directions the endogenous aspects want to go. But still, when I imagine alternate versions of myself, the ones that share my aspirations and accomplishments are more "me" than the ones who happen to share my physical makeup.


(Don't let the three new posts fool you -- I'm still on quasi-hiatus. I'm just posting three things right in a row.)

Eugene Volokh has three excellent posts up dealing with the "it's unnatural" objection to homosexuality (start here and scroll down). No comments from me -- I have to get to the grocery store now.
A while back I met the cleaning lady in the dorm where I'm staying. She asked me how Dayton compared to the other places I've been (basically the northeast). I told her that people in Dayton were much friendlier, which surprised her (she must never have been to Massachussetts). People on the street here will say hi for no reason other than to say hi. People in the grocery store joke with me about the amount of stuff I have crammed into one of those little baskets. As I was writing the previous post, the woman at the computer next to me noticed it and struck up a conversation about GM food.

It feels wrong to disparage friendliness, but in a way it makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps it's just that I'm an introvert. But more so, I think it's an issue of social communication. As we learn how to behave in a society, we come to understand certain behaviors as signals for certain meanings. In the northeast, for example, striking up a conversation with a stranger (particularly on the basis of something you saw on their computer screen) would mark you as a nosy person. Talking to someone on the street signals that you want something from the person you're speaking to. But in Dayton (and presumably throughout the midwest and south), those signals indicate friendliness and sociability. Northerners aren't less friendly people than southerners so much as they communicate their personality differently. So when someone crosses into the other culture, their ability to make sense of subtle social communication is disturbed. They don't know what to make of people's behavior.
Monsanto Sues Dairy In Maine Over Label's Remarks On Hormones

... the Monsanto Company has sued a small milk producer in Portland, Me., over the labeling of its dairy products.

Monsanto has accused Oakhurst Dairy Inc. of engaging in misleading and deceptive marketing practices by carrying labels that seem to disparage the use of artificial growth hormones in cows.

... Oakhurst's products carry the state's quality seal, and the company's milk cartons say, "Our farmers' pledge: no artificial growth hormones."

-- via Ampersand

Oakhurst should launch a countersuit. Monsanto has repeatedly stated, in adverstisements and elsewhere, that its products were good (for consumers, farmers, the environment, etc.). That clearly disparages organic farming practices.

Monsanto's major argument is that growth hormones have been shown to not have any affect on the milk. (I elaborated on that type of claim in a commentary I wrote long ago -- though I should point out that since writing that column I have become agnostic on GM as a whole and pro-labeling).

I'll assume for a moment that the science behind the claim is accurate (I'm not qualified to judge). That still doesn't fully answer objections about growth hormones. Monsanto (and me, in my old commentary) is working under a limited view of consumer interests. This limited view, based on assumptions of rational self-interest, states that the consumer is only interested in, and only bases her purchasing decision on, the inherent qualities of the product -- its size, taste, long-lastingness, healthiness, etc. For many people, the decisive problem with milk produced using hormones is a disagreement with Monsanto's science -- they believe that the milk is different, specifically that it is bad for their health. If Monsanto's science can be shown to be correct, this objection to the milk is answered.

This product quality model works in most cases. But among a certain segment of the consumer population, externalities of the production process are internalized through the production decision. For example, some people will buy American-made products, not because of a belief that American products are better, but out of a desire to support American workers. Similarly, many people buy milk raised without hormones not because of the inherent qualities of the milk, but because they believe that the production process is harmful to the cows.


My summer quasi-hiatus is going to get a lot less quasi for the next 6 or so weeks. The computer lab in the dorm has been closed for the summer on a day's notice for upgrading. So I've only got the public library for my internet needs, and it's not open every evening.


EPA Opens The Door To Testing Bug Killers On People

Doctors, environmentalists, and public health advocates have been fighting the change. When the EPA first took up the idea, medical experts began to pore over a stack of human tests. They found many of the studies were cloaked in claims of valid research but were dominated by practices that belonged in the annals of medical farce.

Today, big chemical companies are fans of human research because it encourages less stringent standards. With data from lab animals, the EPA assumes the predicted hazards for humans would be greater by a factor of 10. It's called the "inter-species rule," adopted by Congress to account for potential differences between reactions in, say, a two-year-old child and a mature lab rat. Testing on humans lets a company duck the automatic increase.

... Critics say the companies give sparse attention to decent testing procedures and that nearly every aspect of the testing seems driven by the need to get EPA approval.

-- via WitchVox

I'll set aside this article's gratuitous invocations of Naziism and corporate greed, and try to deal with the meat of it.

The disparity between human and animal results is a twisted sort of argument. If it's true that tests on humans allow chemicals to meet safety standards more easily than tests on animals subjected to the inter-species rule, that simply demonstrates that the inter-species rule is an inadequate measure of the difference between animal and human biochemistry, specifically that the rule -- but not direct human testing -- is over-cautious about calculating human safety. It seems logical that a direct empirical test of a phenomenon (i.e., human testing) would be a better measure of the phenomenon than secondhand calculated tests (i.e., animal testing plus the inter-species rule). The author favors the "wrong" side of this inconsistency because of an unspoken assumption that the intended level of safety (captured more accurately by the human tests) is too low. Is he that pessimistic about making a straightforward appeal for more stringent standards that he depends on this backdoor way of seeing them achieved?

The third quoted paragraph shows what's really at issue: poorly done tests. It's not so much a matter of valid human testing being bad, but rather a matter of human testing being done shoddily. That's certainly something to worry about, both in terms of allowing bad products on the market because of fudged data, as well as the safety of the test subjects. The author is apparently quite pessimistic about the possibility of improving testing standards, making a ban our only hope. But bad testing can be done as easily -- I would venture to say more easily -- on animals as on humans. In terms of impacts on consumers and the environment, it doesn't matter what species the tests were run on if the results were bad (and if you're an animal rights proponent, it doesn't matter in terms of test subject safety). One wonders, then, why these greedy corporations are apparently so eager to test their products on humans. The explanation that direct testing is scientifically better than secondhand -- offered by a company spokesman -- is dismissed on the basis that such concerns don't fit the corporate greed model. Perhaps that inter-species rule is so out of proportion that it would take truly egregious fudging of animal test results to make up for it.

(Note that I'm not advancing the opposite case -- that companies should be trusted to test their products on humans. I don't know enough about the issue to do more than criticize this particular attempted argument.)
Recently, Clark University switched to a new web email system. I wasn't thrilled when Colgate had made the upgrade to the new version of Outlook Web, and I was pleased when Clark maintained the old style all of last year. When Clark did decide to upgrade, I was pleased to hear that it was moving to a different system -- @Mail -- which would, I hoped, not annoy me the way the new Outlook Web that Colgate used did.

Alas, it was not to be. I have yet to locate a feature of @Mail that constitiutes an improvement over the old Outlook for Web. Even the hoped-for sorting-by-name feature is absent. But I have located many drawbacks, including:
  1. Slower loading pages
  2. Unread messages are not marked as such
  3. The delete button doesn't work (Clark's ITS describes this as a "known bug"
  4. The inbox launches in a new window, meaning that to stay logged in you must keep two windows -- the original one, which just says "you are logged in to @Mail," as well as the actual inbox -- open.
  5. The change password utility was not available for two weeks, so I had to haul out my ID every time I wanted to check my email (they reset our passwords to our ID numbers)

So, I shall forward @Mail to the Kiosk.


Morat has the inside scoop on the EPA and Bush's Clear Skies bill. What struck me in it was this sentence:

... there are industry groups who hate it [Clear Skies] because they know regulations on CO2 are coming eventually and they want regulatory certainty on it now instead so they can keep all the issues in mind when they're making renovations and upgrades.

This is an oft-overlooked success of the environmental movement: creating a sense of social progress that will inevitably lead to greater environmental protection -- both legislatively and in terms of consumer conduct. Here we see it getting polluting industries behind CO2 regulation, and I've read about (don't have the citation on me at the moment) oil companies becoming more environmentally friendly because of a sense that it will be necessary eventually due to consumer demand. I don't think it is inevtiable that we'll take better care of the environment, but it's surprising in a way to see how that idea has taken hold. Often what you hear from environmentalists is doomsday scenarios of an overpopulated, overpolluted earth -- seemingly just the opposite of the inevitable environmentalism meme. But this doomsaying may be contributing to the sense of progress, because it helps to fix environmental degradation as both a threat and an injustice (wrong both pragmatically and morally). This fits well into the progressive narrative of history, which tells of humanity gaining more and more control over the world (conquering pragmatic obstacles -- the advance of science and technology) as well as weeding out injustices (conquering moral obstacles -- first aristocracy, then slavery, then racism, and now my cause).


To follow up on that last post, The Hamster also links to an encouraging article about the generational divide over homosexuality in which Glenn Stanton, an analyst for the social conservative group Focus on the Family, gives a good example of the contrast between instrumentalists' love of trial and error versus romantics' love of the eternal:

"What kind of culture are [young people] going to be creating for us, and are those decisions good?" he asks. "They were raised in the midst of a huge family experiment called no-fault divorce.... They don't realize they're going to subject a whole other generation to another experiment."
(When I did my template redesign earlier this summer, I had this idea that I was going to try to focus more on environment and anthropology-related topics. But lately this seems to be turning into a gay-rights blog.)

One of the most frequent claims made against gay marriage is that it breaks down the stability of marriage. There is rarely much to back it up, and so it's frequently ridiculed (as in this interesting article, found via The Hamster) by gay marriage proponents. But I think there's a way in which the argument is not quite as absurd as it seems.

It all depends on what you consider the basis of the stability of marriage, and on this issue the two sides seem to follow the two major trends of modern philosophy. Gay marriage proponents tend to take an instrumentalist view -- for them, marriage is a sort of contract that people enter into to solidify and formalize their relationship and secure certain benefits for themselves. This perspective is most apparent in talk about how marriage could be expanded to accomodate polygamy, and in proposals to split the religious from the secular/governmental aspects of marriage. Gay marriage opponents, on the other hand, take a romantic view -- for them, marriage is a mystical and time-honored union that cannot be captured by our crude utilitarian logic. This is most clearly evidenced in appeals to God's institution of heterosexual marriage in Genesis.

Romanticism often goes hand-in-hand with an appeal to the past. Mystical power tends to come to us from time immemorial, validated by its pedigree as something special because it is eternal and outside our human trials and errors. (Instrumentalists, on the other hand, celebrate trial and error and openness to reconsidering and revising.) So for marriage to work as advertised, it must maintain that myth. Any change made to the rules of marriage would weaken it -- and people's faith in it as an institution -- by demonstrating that it's merely a human social convention, subject to revision as we see fit. This is, in essence, a sophisticated version of the pure slippery slope argument I outlined earlier ("there's nothing wrong with gay marriage per se, but we can't change the version of marriage that we have").

In a sense, the romantic argument that gay marriage will undermine marriage as a whole is correct to the extent that people considering marriage take the romantic view. The question, then, is whether those people can be accounted for by a combination of 1) winning them over to an instrumentalist view, 2) allowing the passage of time to enshrine "any two adults" as the operational definition of the partners in a romantic view, and 3) weakening of marriage that is an acceptable cost of the gain in gay rights, a la the article linked in the first paragraph (I suspect that hard-core instrumentalists such as myself would see this third category as quite large).


Rough Waters For Peru's Floating Islands

Centuries ago the small indigenous Uros tribe conceived of the [floating] islands [of Lake Titicaca] as a way to isolate and protect themselves from rival tribes, the Collas and the Incas. The Uros people harvested the reeds in the shallows of the lake, bundled them together tightly and built floating island platforms complete with reed houses and canoes.

... "The issues facing the people living on the floating islands are multifold," says anthropologist Arrufo Alcantara Hernandez, director of the faculty of social sciences at the Universidad Nacional del Altiplano in Puno. "The waters of the Uros have been overfished by commercial fishermen, tourists are affecting their traditional culture and sewage from Puno is causing environmental and health problems."

This is an interesting -- though hardly unique -- story of how, after a lifestyle becomes unviable after being out-competed in the struggle for resources, it is preserved on the basis of showing off the lifestyle. Instead of being a straightforward solution to the problem of making a living, it becomes a secondhand or once-removed solution -- making a living from tourism by pretending to make your living in a "traditional" way.

Usually when we hear these stories, the blame is placed on those who have made the traditional lifestyle unviable -- in this case polluters and commericial fishers. Indeed, it often seems that making someone else's lifestyle less viable is prima facie wrong, even if the actions in question aren't otherwise bad. But this article ultimately swings in the opposite direction, portraying the situation as purely an issue for the Uros to deal with, as if it were akin to a storm or earthquake that no entity can be held responsible for:

"They've successfully dealt with many serious challenges over the last few centuries," he [Hernandez] says. "I think if the Uros people use foresight and care, they'll be able to overcome their problems and balance their traditional lifestyles with the modern world."


More (belated) bad news from the Boy Scouts:

No Merit Badge For Scouts

When the Philadelphia-based Cradle of Liberty Council voted in May to end its discrimination policy against gays, it was rightfully lauded. But only weeks later, pressured by the national group, it reversed itself, releasing an eight-point position statement written in the literary style that only comes from writing with a twisted arm.

I'm starting to wonder if the national organization is digging its heels in on the homosexuality issue out of stubborn principle -- the principle of "you can't tell us what to do." This issue will continue to fester for a long time, convincing more and more people that Scouting is all about homophobia. I wonder how many good potential scouts -- both gays and pro-gay straights -- the organization will lose because the first thing that comes to many people's minds when they hear "Boy Scouts" is now "they don't like gays" rather than "they go camping" or "they build character." When I joined the Scouts in fifth grade I didn't have any particular opinions about homosexuality -- I barely knew such a thing existed, much less that many people consider it one of the cardinal sins -- and my parents, while not homophobic, are not exactly gay rights activists, so it probably wouldn't have affected me. But if I hadn't been a Scout -- and thus didn't have the years of non-sexuality-related positive experiences that keep me loyal to the organization despite its reprehensibe failings on some issues -- I would be reluctant to let my hypothetical son join. And without gay and pro-gay Scouts joining, the organization will lose much of the "insider criticism" -- of the kind that someone like me, as a Scout, can make -- necessary for real change. Criticism will increasingly come from outsiders, who are easily dismissed as a "them" who have no right to tell someone else's organization what to do, instead of from some of "us."

This process is, of course, how voluntary organizations maintain fidelity to their mision -- imagine if a whole bunch of people who don't like to camp joined the Scouts and tried to change its focus to, say, computer games. But it's incredibly frustrating for those of us who are already in, and see a minor and counterproductive element of the organization elevated into one of its main missions.

I got this link via John Cole, who (rightfully) finds it outrageous that the article opens by comparing the Scouts to the Taliban. Beyond the general claim of bigotry, it doesn't attempt to elucidate what the parallels are. So I'm left wondering if we shouldn't be sending troops to Irving, Texas to take out the headquarters, before Mullah Roy L. Williams forces everyone to wear neckerchiefs and establishes knot-tying training camps around the country.


I wouldn't be able to knowingly kill another person. I have difficulty with unquestioning obedience to orders. I'm really out of shape. And now Tacitus has given me another reason not to join the military:

This really was the best part of my own Army experience: when we were in Nicaragua for Fuerte Apoyo in '98-'99, it was impossible to move about without being besieged by mobs of curious, often raucous children. They would climb all over your equipment if you didn't watch them, but they were always friendly, and to my knowledge they never pilfered a thing. They did, though, regard the American soldier as an inexhaustible, magic source of candy, and so we grew used to driving down dusty roads with urchins running alongside howling "Dame confetas! Dame chocolate!"