Saturday, October 01, 2005


"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things."

Lewis Carroll

Let's start with an easy one, shall we?
Let's generate the standard for perfect ethical behavior. Then, after lunch, we'll discuss how to apply it.

First, we have to be sure we are working from the same definitions. For a topic like this, we must be able to speak with precision. It takes a sharp scalpel to hew close to the truth.

Morality--a code of behavior based on external authority, a priest, shaman, god(ess), etc.

Ethics-- a code of behavior based upon observable and predictable effects of that behavior.

Instinct--impulses to behavior genetically encoded through evolution

Knowledge--impulses to behavior learned from experience

Spirit--impulses to behavior from all other sources

Postulate--Assumption which is impossible to prove, but is not contradicted by known facts and is useful in describing and predicting future data.

Evolution--speciation through the combination of random mutation and natural selection

Behavioral evolution--differential ideation through natural selection

All right, that should be enough to get us started.

First, I reject morality as a useful concept, as it is based on authority, rather than knowledge, and as such is hampered by two major flaws. First, it is subjective, relying on the biases and perceptions of the authority figure. This flaw is usually addressed by attributing the authority figure with infallibility (Christianity), or by looking at the universe as arbitrary and capricious (Greco-Roman multitheism, Paganism). The second flaw is that authority is derived from the application of force, either individually, in the case of a tyranny, or in groups, in the case of a democracy. In either case, these flaws lead to internally contradictory moral codes, which make ethical consistency exceptionally difficult.

Second, while I do not reject the spiritual, it is undefinable, unverifiable, and unpredictable, and therefore not a sound basis to found a code of behavior. However, it may not not be entirely co-incidental that there are core principles which do not vary much from faith to faith. As brief example, re-incarnation is often looked at as a profound difference between Eastern and Western mysticism, when in truth, re-incarnation forms the basis for both belief systems. Born again? Resurrection? Life After Death? Aren’t these all different ways to say re-incarnation? But I digress….
So,I look to the ethical mode to determine my behavior. But how exactly do we apply this mode? Isn’t it just as arbitrary as morality? After all, if each person is free to determine the ethics of their own actions, couldn’t we still have a multitude of codes? Apparently we need to determine a sound basis for our ethical construct, one which is rational, observable, and stable. While we still may derive different answers, depending on the weights we ascribe to the factors involved, in most cases, the answers will be close enough that the differences will be tolerable.

Well, first we have to decide what we are trying to achieve.

Is it fairness?

Well, let’s see….anybody care to take a stab at defining any one of those concepts?

No? (God, I love a bully pulpit!*grin*)

And well you shouldn’t because they are null concepts. There is no objective foundation for any of these concepts because man artificially imposes them on the world around him. Is it ‘fair’ for the cheetah to eat the gazelle? Is it justice when a good man’s house burns to the ground, killing his family while he watches, helpless? Is it equality that I sit here at a computer, well fed, well rested while there are other people on the globe starving, wasting away with disease? Of course not. Perhaps later in the discussion, when we have laid a foundation, we can re-examine these concepts, and see if we can find a basis for them, but as a primary objective, they are useless.

So, what do we have left?

Let’s reduce life down to the basics. We need to eat, sleep, and make babies, just like every other form of life on the planet. Everything else springs from these primal urges, and even these three urges can be boiled down into one more basic drive: our old friend survival. Every organism has encoded within its DNA the drive to endure, to survive. On the most elemental level, this is what makes us tick. Since survival is at the foundation of all of our behaviors, clearly, it should also form the foundation of our ethics as well.

There are two types of behavior. Those that tend towards survival, and those which tend towards extinction. Organisms that adopt behaviors tending towards extinction go the way of the dinosaur, removing those behaviors from consideration. By elimination then, ethical behaviors are those that tend towards survival. Now, does this mean an attitude of “I’ve got mine, screw you!” is the height of ethical behavior? We'll examine that next time.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


My two main computers are down with various ailments, and my home system has been reduced from a 2.7Ghz machine to a 500Mhx machine. That's an order of magnitude drop, yet the older system was top of the line just a few years ago. It amazes me how quickly computers have evolved.

I can remember when my dad first brought the Atari "Pong" game home. It was a small black and brown console, and it didn't look like much. He plugged it into the TV, and we played the very first ever home video game. "Pong" had no amazing graphics, no 3D animation, video cut scenes, sophisticated AI engines, and only 3 colors: a pink padle, a blue paddle, and a white ball. That's it. But the fact that we could actually interact with our TV, that instead of passively watching we could affect what happened kept us glued to that game for hours at a time. There were a couple of variations built into the console, but "Pong" was the only game it played.

My first computer was a Commodore VIC-20 I bought while in high school, around 1979 or 1980. The VIC-20 was an 8 bit computer that carried a whopping 20Kbytes of RAM, of which about 8K was available for programs. Yes, that's a K there, not an M. Hard drives were for mainfromaes back then, and floppies were still in their infancy, so program storage was either on a cartridge, or on a cassette tape. If I remember right, the VIC could display as many colors as you wanted, as long as you only wanted 8 colors. Sound was limited to beeps, boops, and the occasional buzz. But it was a real by-god computer, and you could program it in machine code, or basic with an optional module.

My next computer was a Commodore 128 that I bought while in the Navy, around 1987 or so. It was already a couple of years old at the time, but it was a huge advance over the VIC. It came with a floppy drive standard, and had room for another one. You could attach an external hard drive if you wanted to, and it had 128K of RAM available. There were modems available for it, 300 baud being the most common, although if you were independently wealthy, you could splurge and get a 1200 baud modem, but who would ever need that kind of data transfer speeds? It would be a waste!

Next came my favorite for years, the Amiga 2000, which I bought in 1988 or 89. An overwhelming 1Mbyte of Ram available, multitasking, 2 floppies with room for an internal hard drive, a 2400 baud modem built in, voice synthesis, 4096 colors, stereo sound, and all for under $2000.00! What a bargain! I decided to upgrade eventually and added a hard drive. I searched for a while and finally found a good bargain: 50M hard drive for $450.00.

I stuck with the Commodores as long as I could. They were great machines that were far ahead of any PC or Apple product in capability, flexibility, and ease of use. Unfortunately, their marketing sucked, and I found myself owning orphan machines. Let that be a lesson to you. You can make a better mousetrap, but it takes marketing to get the world to beat a path to your door.

I've now sold out and joined the Wintel army, owning several PC's, culminating in my current machine, a 2.7Ghz machine with 512Mbytes of Ram and a 160Gbyte HD, CD burner, DVD player, 56K modem, and so on, and for several hundred dollars less than my old Amiga. In just over 20 years I've seen home computers go from glorified calculators to machines with more computing power than the first couple generations of mainframes, accompanied by a slow but steady price drop. The price of everything else goes up, but computers keep comng down. Pretty soon we'll have computers of infinite power which cost next to nothing.

But the software will cost an arm and a leg, and you'll have to give your first born in order to get technical support.

Friday, July 05, 2002

Low Carb Diets

Tell me something I don't know! It looks like the medical research community is catching on to the truth; low carb is the way to go. Check out this href=" in-depth article in the NYT magazine:

If the members of the American medical establishment were to have a collective find-yourself-standing-naked-in-Times-Square-type nightmare, this might be it. They spend 30 years ridiculing Robert Atkins, author of the phenomenally-best-selling Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution and Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution accusing the Manhattan doctor of quackery and fraud, only to discover that the unrepentant Atkins was right all along. Or maybe it's this: they find that their very own dietary recommendations -- eat less fat and more carbohydrates -- are the cause of the rampaging epidemic of obesity in America. Or, just possibly this: they find out both of the above are true.

Monday, July 01, 2002

To be, or not to be: Should suicide be legal? Is it ethical? Is it moral?

As Shakespeare once said "that is the question". This has her answer:

Ms Williamson, who has been planning her death since she was diagnosed with the disease on September 11 last year, said she was weak, could not sit up and had "tubes coming out of every orifice".

"It's a disease that usually kills the sufferer within 14 months so it's a very rapid disease and there really is no hope for anyone at this point.

"Can you just imagine not being able to move at all, not being able to speak, not being able to swallow, being on ventilators, you'd just be a living corpse," she said.

"The whole point of doing this and going public is that a little commonsense is brought into the business of dying."

Should suicide be legal? Is it ethical? Is it moral?

I read a speculative fiction story a long time ago, about a man who was infected with the DNA of an assassinated politician. The infection took over his body, until he became the reincarnation of the politician. The politician chastised his followers, who had introduced the infection in the victim, telling them that they had violated the rights of the man they had, in essence murdered, to bring about his return. He poisoned himself, in an attempt to balance the scales, but also because, as he told one confidant, death was more pleasurable than life. "Why else," he said, "would there be such strong religious prohibitions against it?"

I think of this story whenever I think about euthanasia. If death is potentially so wonderful, why do we dread it so much? And why do we revile those who have lost that dread?

The woman in this article has made a clearly rational decision. Clearly her life is at an end; why prolong it with a few additional weeks of intense suffering? It seems so clear, and yet there is an immediate, visceral reaction to the idea, even among those who favor euthanasia. Is this gut reaction instinctive, the reaction of an affront to our own will to survive, or is it cultural, bred into us through generations of religious indoctrination?

My own, completely unscientific opinion is that most folks who are considering suicide are mentally ill, and should be given treatment. Those few that are of sound mind, however, can do whatever they want to. The desire to end one's life is not automatically a sign of insanity. If a person who wishes to kill themselves can demonstrate sanity, then society has no right to interfer with his choices, however repugnant they may find them. On the other hand, suicidal tendencies which result from insanity should be restrained, until sanity is restored.