Serge Boucher

I'm a computer scientist at ULB, focusing on databases and the semantic web. I'm also a musician and photographer.

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23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism
Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future--and Locked Us In
The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution
Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality
The New New Rules: How Everybody But Me Has Their Head Up Their Ass
Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War and the Aftermath as Seen by NPR's Correspondent
The Panic of 1907: Lessons Learned from the Market's 'Perfect Storm'
The Revolution: A Manifesto
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Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life
The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith
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Chew On This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food
One Red Paperclip: The Story of How One Man Changed His Liofe One Swap at a Time
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Entries in politics (6)

Tuesday
Jan102012

Meet the Santorums

There is a lot of discussion on liberal blogs about how social über-conservative Rick Santorum's wife might or might not have had an abortion. I find the coverage of this story troubling on at least two levels.

First, I can hardly believe how callous every journalist writing about this seems to be. Don't get me wrong: I have slightly less respect for the Senator than I do for toxic pond scum. But even pond scum don't deserve to go through such a horrific experience. We're talking about a couple who saw their fourth child die in just about the worst way imaginable, nearly taking his mother with him. For me the story only confirms how immoral and dangerous the Santorums' "values" are, but can't we show a little compassion for what they went through, no matter their somewhat creepy reaction to it? The only trace of sentiment I've read comes from Irin Carmon, who feels "uncomfortable about having gone this far up Karen Santorum's womb." So pain and fear and sickness and a child dying in his father's arms while his mother fights for her life don't faze you, but you're really uncomfortable talking about anatomy? Unbelievable.

The more important question is why are critics content merely with charging Rick Santorum of hypocrisy? It is by far the least onerous charge one can make about him based on this story, and besides, it is completely false. On the contrary, this confirms two things about Santorum's position on abortion: he and his wife fundamentally believe in it, and it is unambiguously immoral.

Shortly after having undergone risky intrauterine surgery to correct a malformation while 19-weeks pregnant, Karen Santorum develops a high fever and rushes to the hospital with her husband. The doctors quickly tell them that she is only hours away from life-threatening septic shock and needs antibiotics. They also say her body is going to react by miscarrying to expel the source of the infection, and that they can give her drugs to ease the process. Karen answers "We’re not inducing labor, that’s an abortion. No way. That isn’t going to happen. I don’t care what happens." Later when labour starts as predicted she asks her doctors to "make it stop". They refuse. The baby is born, and dies a couple of hours later.

As gut-wrenchingly sad as this is, it also shows moral confusion on a scale that almost defies comprehension. What is the principle behind Karen saying "[…] that's an abortion. No way. That isn't going to happen. I don't care what happens."? It can't be the sanctity of life. If all human life is sacred, surely delaying labour is wrong when it puts a viable life at risk while doing nothing to save a doomed one. If the principle is not to artificially oppose nature, or God's will, then why attempt to correct the initial malformation with surgery? The only coherent way to reduce the Santorums' actions to fundamental principles is if one of these unquestioned principles is "Abortion is wrong. No matter the circumstances."

In the aftermath, Rick Santorum said: "Obviously, if it was a choice of whether both Karen and the child are going to die or just the child is going to die, I mean it's a pretty easy call." Indeed, that seems a devastating but inescapable conclusion to me. But it is one that they only came to at the last possible moment. Of course no-one can blame them for what either of them said or did during such an emotionally trying event, but this sentence is not a direct quote relayed by innocent bystanders. Rather it is one of the rare quotes from the story as told by the Santorums themselves, after the fact, and they, with the benefit of hindsight, still chose to include the "No way I'm having an abortion" line. I can only assume they think this stance is morally laudable, despite the eventual inevitability of making the "pretty easy call" that, as Brad DeLong opines, is "one that Rick Santorum claims to be in favor of making a crime."

Athough most in the media apparently don't want to mention it, this moral confusion is not unconnected to the Santorums being catholic fundamentalists. Don't get me wrong: I know many Christians are horrified at the idea of making a life-saving operation criminal. Even in the United States, nearly two-thirds of Catholics don't agree that abortion is morally wrong in all cases. Catholicism is neither a required nor a sufficient condition for making the wrong moral choices in these matters. But I can't for the life of me imagine how a secular person could ever reach the moral position the Santorums found during this story. Their stance on abortion doesn't come from the sanctity of life, nor from respect for natural law. It is all about the church declaring that abortion is evil. If you genuinely believe the Pope to be the Vicar of Christ on Earth, this is likely to trump all other considerations, be it medicine, common sense, or your responsibility to your already-born children. The sheer untenability of this position goes some way to explain falling church attendance in much of the world.

Thus the scariest thing about the Santorums is that they're not at all hypocrites: they're perfectly sincere. In matters of life-and-death, their first reference is the preachings of their church, above what the doctors tell them, above what simple common-sense would tell them is in the best interests of all their children — including those already born. And they believe this gives them the moral high-ground. Not only is Rick Santorum defending a position that many consider morally repugnant, he wants those who'd make a different choice to be prosecuted as murderers. And he thinks this gives him the moral high-ground.

In perhaps the most quoted passage of John Stuart Mill's autobiography, he describes his father's attitude towards religion thus:

"As it was, his aversion to religion, in the sense usually attached to the term, was of the same kind as that of Lucretius; he regarded it with the feeling due not a mere mental delusion, but to a great moral evil. He looked upon it as the greatest enemy of morality; by setting up factitious excellencies — belief in creeds, devotional feelings, and ceremonies, not connected with the good of human kind — and causing these to be accepted as substitutes for genuine virtues; but above all, by radically vitiating the standard of morals, making it consist in doing the will of a being, on whom it lavishes indeed all the phrases of adulation, but whom in sober truth it depicts as eminently hateful."

Yes indeed, former Senator and presidential hopeful Santorum's "values" are not connected to the good of human kind, or even of this own family. Mill's father died in 1836, Lucretius around 55BC. Yet in the 21st century, their argument on religion's potentially toxic influence on morality remains frighteningly relevant.

Wednesday
Jan042012

How Everything is Going to Shit

Two eternal principles of human societies are, first, things tend to get better over time, and second, at any given moment, everyone believes they're getting much, much worse. I'm aware of the contradiction, and try to keep a realistic and optimistic worldview. Sometimes, though, it's really hard.

This morning, for example. I can't sleep, so around 5AM I get dressed, plonk myself on the couch and start watching the last republican debate. (Yeah, I know, big mistake.) A vicious back-and-forth erupts while discussing foreign policy. Asked to clarify how eager she is to start a war against a country of 70 million which has not attacked anyone in the last two centuries, one of the candidates answers, Otherwise, an unspecified number of American lives might be at risk. Oh, we have no choice then. Let's do it. It's nice that waging war is apparently risk-free.

Her opponent counters that there is no evidence, no evidence at all, that Iran is even trying to build a nuclear weapon. And he says it with a straight face, on national television. (I'm assuming. I saw it on YouTube.)

Imagine a world where such clowns are competing for the most important job on Earth. Where both are supported by millions of people, can raise fortunes to help their campaign, are taken seriously by the media and the entire nation. Where both of them already hold political positions of considerable power.

Yup, that's the world we're living in.

I switch to the presumably less retarded realm of economic news, where the debate du jour is about the proper protocol for one senior economist to call bullshit on another senior economist. Sure, that's important.

My father enters the room and hands me today's paper. There's a group photo of what looks like haredi jews wearing the striped-shirts-cum-yellow-star garbs often seen in Europe during the 1940's. A young girl is throwing a timid but well-intentioned Nazi salute while watching the camera. Please, oh please, let this story be about a Guinness World Record for Most Insensitive School Play Ever. Or Dieudonné's latest musical.

It's not. It's a protest by an actual group of Haredi comparing the secular Israeli state's hostility to their ultra-orthodox ways with Naziism's hostility to the existence of Jews. You see, a Jew walking the streets in Nazi Germany might be sent away to die in a labour camp. A Haredi walking the streets in Jerusalem might see a woman. Yeah, I can understand how that's totally the same thing. In a related story, grown men have been publicly rebuked for picketing a girl school, spitting on the pupils and calling them "nazi whores". Those girls are 6 to 8 years-old.

Let me make this absolutely clear: those concentration-camp-reenacters are not protesting the spitting-on-8-year-old-girls guys. They are the spitting-on-8-year-old-girls guys. They're protesting the rebuke that followed their spitballs, because they feel it's a totally inappropriate reaction to their completely reasonable spiritual lifestyle, which happens to involve standing outside schools shouting insults at 8 year-olds. I disagree. I think a rebuke is an entirely appropriate response. So is a baseball bat, thumbscrews or any combination of slick Krav Maga moves like they apparently do down there. You know what would be inappropriate ? Forcing them into one of those medieval sarcophagi, you know, the kind with all the nails on the inside, whaddya-call-'em?… Yeah, iron maidens, that's the name. Yes, that would be inappropriate. Definitely an overeaction. Somewhat.

Anyway…

Below this abomination, two Israeli academics debate the relation between faith and secular law in their country. The phrase "a small but vocal minority of religious fascist nutjobs" is conspicuously — and depressingly — absent.

I turn the page, thinking things can hardly get any worse. There's a photo of what can only be a female version of a Jesus-on-the-cross statue. I mean, that can't possibly be an actual, living, breathing human being. No way anyone does such a thing.

Uh, yes way: "Found in the cave where she'd been imprisoned, starved and tortured for her five-month long marriage, 15-year old Sahar Gul…"

OK, I give up. I just don't care anymore. I throw the paper towards a dark corner, very far away, switch to Youtube and search for "cat".

I know these are times of good resolutions, and many of you are probably pledging to exercise more, drink less, be more punctual, whatever… For my part, I mostly wish I could read less news.

Addendum: I wrote this while the first votes in the process that will eventually determine the next leader of the free world were being counted. The result: a shameless mannequin tied with a man who believes that mutually consenting adults do not have a right to privacy. "Land of the Free" indeed. The only sane and principled candidate scored 0.6%.
Tuesday
Nov022010

The Stupidest Political Statement Ever

If you've been following the US midterm campaign at all, you know that 2010 is an extremely good year for stupid, ignorant, or even certifiably insane candidates. Which begs the question: who's the craziest? That's probably too hard to answer, so let's try something simpler: what's the craziest thing that was said?

Until today I would have found it preposterous that amid the frenzy of inane statements made by hopeful politicians in the last few months there could be a "winner", an argument or position so outrageously wrong that it clearly stands on "top" of the pile. Now however, I think I might have found exactly that.

Asked about immigration at a town hall meeting two weeks ago, congressional candidate Joe Miller replied:

The first thing that has to be done is secure the border. . . East Germany was very, very able to reduce the flow. Now, obviously, other things were involved. We have the capacity to, as a great nation, secure the border. If East Germany could, we could.

Have you read that? Read it again. Ponder the implications. A guy who's running to oppose Obama's oppressive socialist government thinks the US should look towards a Soviet puppet state for inspiration. He also seems unaware that the Berlin wall and the iron curtain were built to keep East Germans in, not to prevent people in Paris and Copenhagen from taking advantage of the freedoms and opportunities offered by a life under the Warsaw Pact. Unless, that is, Mr. Miller's immigration strategy is to screw America so bad that it becomes desirable to prevent Californians from fleeing to Mexico. (Actually most of his economic program makes a lot more sense in that light.)

Bill Maher once said that Bush's stupidity made him an easier target for comedy than Obama. He should be afraid: if Joe Miller is at all representative of the next crop of politicians, comedians will soon become redundant.

Sunday
Sep052010

Has America become Too European?

Yesterday I read Richard Feynman's Caltech 1974 commencement address, where he said that scientists had a responsibility to be more than just honest, i.e. to go beyond simply telling the truth, and make a point of mentioning everything that might make their results or argumentation wrong. While better scientific papers often have a "threats to validity" section doing exactly that, Feynman insisted that scientists should exert this strenuous form of integrity not only in academic circles, but also while addressing laypeople.

Thomas Straubhaar's latest op-ed is a perfect example of a piece with not even a hint of Feynman's "scientific integrity." Mr. Straubhaar, professor of economics at the University of Hamburg, presents an argument that goes something like this: "During the 20th century, the US favored small government, individual freedom and market forces. It rose swiftly to superpower status. Today, it has a bigger government that uses more interventionist policies, but its growth is anemic and some fear its greatness is fading. To remain powerful, it needs to shrink government and return to laissez-faire economic policies."

Sounds like a good argument, right? What kind of hesitant, unconfident chump bothers with "threats to validity?" Well, I do:

  • Were the laissez-faire policies of the early 20th century really the main reason for America's success? Weren't, say, low population density and immense reserves of oil and other natural resources at least as important?

  • How laissez-faire were those policies really? Isn't FDR's 1933 New Deal, widely credited with helping the economy recover from the great depression, just as interventionist as what Obama's doing now?

  • Even assuming America's greatness is really due to the free market policies of the industrial revolution, is it so obvious that they still represent the best option now, a hundred years later, with the world increasingly multipolar and domestic oil pretty much gone?

I'll stop at three things, but the attentive reader will easily find more.

Wednesday
Aug122009

Just In: Tasty Food Keeps You Thin

While roaming the web for news bits on the health-care reform debate in the US (which can be hysterically funny or very sad, often simultaneously) I stumbled upon a report on various health care statistics in OECD countries.

For me the most interesting part of this report was the last graph, which charts obesity levels across countries. These seem to inverse-correlate perfectly with how good I find the food there. The thinnest countries are those with either superb meat and produce (Switzerland), awesome cuisine (France), or both (Japan). The fattest are those where good food seems rare and wicked expensive (the UK and US).

Obviously this is just my own perception, but how great would it be if there was some general law hidden in there, so that each time you had a really good meal, you could tell yourself that in all likelihood it must also have been really healthy?