Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Brains beat machines

On the Internet, transhumanism may be belittled as much as it is praised. Its science fiction dreams predict artificial intelligence, immortality through computing, and the wholesale re-engineering of mankind. Rev. David B. Hart described it as “a sensibility formed more by comic books than by serious thought.”

But its proponents are generally technology lovers who believe that foul devil Progress is on their side.
Derision, alas, is not enough to silence their claims.

Over at the New York Times, Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang evaluate the prospective match-up of Computers vs. Brains.

Of the brain, they say:
One cubic centimeter of human brain tissue, which would fill a thimble, contains 50 million neurons; several hundred miles of axons, the wires over which neurons send signals; and close to a trillion (that’s a million million) synapses, the connections between neurons... unlike a computer, connections between neurons can form and break too, a process that continues throughout life and can store even more information because of the potential for creating new paths for activity.

Their back-of-the-envelope estimate suggests the human brain has a capacity for about one petabytes, one million gigs, of information. (They say all information stored on the internet only reaches three petabytes.)

The writers throw cold water on futurist Ray Kurzweil's optimism that Moore's Law (the so-far constant doubling of computer capacity) will overcome the difficulties. Even if it runs into no insurmountable design barriers, “By 2025, the memory of an artificial brain would use nearly a gigawatt of power, the amount currently consumed by all of Washington, D.C.”

The human brain runs on only 12 watts. If nigh-limitless power devices remain uninvented, substantive technological mock-ups of the human brain may never be possible.

Aamodt and Wang close on a humanist note.

...although it eventually may be possible to design sophisticated computing devices that imitate what we do, the capability to make such a device is already here. All you need is a fertile man and woman with the resources to nurture their child to adulthood. With luck, by 2030 you’ll have a full-grown, college-educated, walking petabyte. A drawback is that it may be difficult to get this computing device to do what you ask.

U.S. Catholic history, blogged

Recently New Advent has been linking to the blog of Dr. Patrick McNamara, Church historian and assistant archivist at the Diocese of Brooklyn.

His posts feature brief profiles of important figures, historical summaries and also original sources.

To start with, here is Dr. McNamara's description of colonial America's Maryland Tradition in American Catholicism, "a tradition that stressed interfaith harmony, public service, and an attachment to such American principles as religious liberty and separation of Church and State."

A brief foray across the Atlantic touches upon Joseph de Maistre and his ultramontanist views on the papacy.

McNamara reports on Brooklyn's anti-Catholic riots of 1844 using a period newspaper article. Priestless parishes are not a new phenomenon, he adds, explaining that they were common on the American frontier.

For the Civil War period, McNamara informs us of Father James Sheeran, chaplain of the failed Confederacy and author of the mournful poem "Conquered Banner." The Catholic Encyclopedia article on the priest begins with this precious description: "He inherited from his parents, in its most poetic and religious form, the strange witchery of the Irish temper."

We also learn that General James Longstreet was a Catholic convert.

Given its sad history, it is not surprising that the largest group lynching in U.S. history took place in the South. But the action's victims were not blacks, but Italians.

They had been officially acquitted of the murder of an Irish-surnamed New Orleans police chief in 1891.

Obviously the Catholics of the U.S. labor movement cannot go unmentioned. Let Mary Kenney represent them.

Then there are the "modest proposals" of Brooklyn's Monsignor William McGuirl. In his tongue-in-cheek 1917 St. Patrick's Day address at the Waldorf Astoria, he asked the Irish to petition Congress to enact a law prohibiting any immigration for three decades, "except for the Irish."

"For thirty years none but Irish need apply."

The monsignor called for a boy in every family to be named Patrick or a girl to be named Patricia, so that "the virtues of the great old Saint might be perpetuated by psychology." Further, he advocated that incoming immigrants from Eastern Europe or Italy to be made to take the name of Patrick.

McNamara reproduces the full text of President Theodore Roosevelt's 1905 address to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

The president, the first to speak at a Catholic college's commencement, used the opportunity to promote Celtic literature. He claimed he had grown "particularly interested" in it in the preceding three years, adding:
I feel it is not a creditable thing to the American Republic, which has in its citizenship so large a Celtic element, that we should leave it to the German scholars and students to be our instructors in Celtic literature. I want to see in Holy Cross, in Harvard, in all the other universities where we can get the chairs endowed, chairs for the study of Celtic literature.

Noting the revival of old Norse poetry, Roosevelt predicted an “awakening to the wealth of beauty contained in the Celtic sagas.”

Dr. McNamara also discusses black U.S. Catholics such as the twentieth century's Sister Thea Bowman

Further, there is an account of the inspiring heroism of Congressional Medal of Honor awardee Father Joseph T. O'Callahan, S.J.. When he was serving on the carrier U.S.S. Franklin, a March 1945 Japanese attack devastated the ship.

His award citation reads:

...calmly braving the perilous barriers of flame and twisted metal to aid his men and his ship, Lieutenant Commander O'Callahan groped his way through smoke-filled corridors to the open flight deck and into the midst of violently exploding bombs, shells, rockets and other armament. With the ship rocked by incessant explosions, with debris and fragments raining down and fires raging in ever increasing fury, he ministered to the wounded and dying, comforting and encouraging men of all faiths; he organized and led fire-fighting crews into the blazing inferno on the flight deck; he directed the jettisoning of live ammunition and the flooding of the magazine; he manned a hose to cool hot, armed bombs rolling dangerously on the listing deck, continuing his efforts despite searing, suffocating smoke which forced men to fall back gasping and imperiled others who replaced them.

The battleship U.S.S. O'Callahan was named in Father O'Callahan's honor.

Let's end with McNamara's appreciation of Myles Connolly's short novel Mr. Blue. Comparing Connolly's creation to F. Scott Fitzgerald's, he writes:
I have come to realize that the character of Blue must also have appealed to us all, and to countless other readers, because he was a uniquely American personality. As Myles Connolly wrote him, J. Blue was the man that the ambitious Jay Gatsby might have become had he steered by a higher truth than the sound of money in Daisy Buchanan's voice.

Dr. McNamara was a great help to me in writing my first freelance essay for Our Sunday Visitor, in which I discussed the place of bishops in the public square.

In Dr. McNamara's remarks, published in the April 19 edition, he explained how intense public engagement by bishops produced the New Deal-foreshadowing Catholic Miracle. However, he said the divergence between Catholic life and American culture has increased in recent decades, as evidenced in the rise of an anti-clericalism new to the U.S.

My thanks to both Dr. McNamara and OSV editor John Norton for their help with the piece.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Pro-life students step up at Notre Dame

Recently I mentioned the need for Catholic communities to produce more committed student and academic leaders to reform both Catholic and secular institutions of higher education.

Happily, some student leaders are already emerging in reaction to the University of Notre Dame's controversial commencement invitation to President Barack Obama.

The Notre Dame Response Student Coalition (ND Response), composed of groups opposed to the Obama invitation, has advocated several measures by which they believe Notre Dame may again secure its pro-life reputation.

Most proposals involve university president Fr. John I. Jenkins, CSC, “speaking out” or taking action on pro-life issues. With the reckless daring of the young, the students propose that Notre Dame's football commercials be used for pro-life advocacy.

More realistically, they suggest Fr. Jenkins lead a student delegation to the National March for Life or reserve a university fall forum for the pro-life cause.

The students of the coalition also ask for the school to re-commit itself to pro-life policies and to give “formal support” for pro-life initiatives on campus. They request that a pro-life “ombudsman” be appointed at the associate provost level to ensure “appropriate attention” to pro-life issues.

Curiously, ND Response's requests do not mention the new Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life, though its web site recommends donations to it.

The students have also sought to engage in dialogue with the university president. While ND Response's protest letters strike a much better tone than the communications of many other student activists, they reveal at least one major novice activist's mistake.

Though Fr. Jenkins initially offered to meet with 25 leaders of ND Response, the coalition boosted its demands. They asked that all student members of coalition groups and select faculty and staff supporters be allowed to attend a meeting with the university president in a large campus auditorium.

Likely thinking themselves magnanimous and perceptive of Fr. Jenkins' human limits, the coalition guaranteed that fewer than ten students would speak or engage with him at the proposed event.

“The content of this meeting will be available to the public following its event in the form of a transcript and live video recording: True dialogue only comes with accountability,” ND Response's April 6 letter explained.

Let's review.

Fr. Jenkins has recently made the worst decision of his presidency. Prominent figures have called for him to step down.

Yet these student innocents want him to go before a few hundred of their peers in a meeting style that could be seen as inquisitorial. Every careless remark Fr. Jenkins makes in such a venue will be recorded and scrutinized for weakness and “gotcha” moments by many of the internet denizens angered by his actions.

It's no wonder that, as CNA reports, the university president believes “conditions for constructive dialogue simply do not exist.”

ND Response replied to this comment by noting its members' intentions to “facilitate our productive discussion and demonstrate President Jenkins' genuine interest in transparent dialogue... ND Response remains open to true and transparent dialogue with Fr. Jenkins on this issue.”

Regrettably, the reply subtly and perhaps unintentionally denigrates Fr. Jenkins. If he has genuine interest in dialogue, students aren't needed to demonstrate it.

Student activism, however necessary, has its risks.

ND Response's proposal for a “pro-life ombudsman” resembles the decades-old left-wing student activist custom of placing themselves and their fellow travelers in the university establishment.

While ND Response's efforts may be more beneficial than, for instance, the creation of yet another assistant provost for diversity position, too much success means the local pro-life movement might calcify into another self-serving bureaucracy.

Then there is the danger present when young people mistrust their elders and set themselves up as the overconfident judges of the establishment's virtue. Lacking the social graces of age, some then poorly conceal their inexperience with self-righteous postures.

Yet these troubles only threaten because of the failings of the university leadership.

As Plato noted, it is a sign of social disorder when teachers fear their pupils, the wisdom of the young man is “a match” for the elder, and the old “imitate the jaunty manners of the young because they are afraid of being thought morose.”

If such concerns are kept in mind, then ND Response could provide a model for breaking out of the self-defeating habit that is the protest cycle.

Freedom and therapeutic deism

Damon Linker recently argued that orthodox Christianity is “unsuitable” for American pluralism. He argued that the “anodyne, inoffensive, tolerant” approach of
moralistic-therapeutic deism should replace what remains of public Christianity. Its vague exhortations to Niceness and Self-esteem are supposedly more fitting for a society in which some people “feel like second-class citizens for failing to conform to traditionalist Catholic-Christian moral teaching.”

How insipid it is, to rewrite excuses for licentiousness in the rhetoric of class warfare and victimization.

Linker's advocacy of a flimsy moralistic-therapeutic deism can attract many critiques. But few would be better than Ross Douthat's post Theology Has Consequences:
The more you fear the theocon menace, the more you'll welcome the Oprahfication of Christianity - since the steady spread of a mushy, muddle-headed theology is as good a way as any of inoculating the country and its politics against, say, Richard John Neuhaus's views on natural law.

But let's say you think that the biggest problems facing America in the Bush years were, I dunno, the botched handling of the Iraq occupation and a massive and an unsustainable housing and financial bubble. In that case, you don't have to look terribly hard to see a connection between the kind of self-centered, sentimental, and panglossian religion described above and the spirit of unwarranted optimism and metaphysical self-regard that animated some of Bush's worst hours as President (his second inaugural address could have been subtitled: "Moral Therapeutic Deism Goes to War") and some of his fellow Americans' worst hours as homeowners and investors. In the wake of two consecutive bubble economies, it takes an inordinate fear of culture war, I think, to immerse yourself in the literature of Oprahfied religion - from nominal Christians like Joel Osteen to New Age gurus like Eckhart Tolle and Rhonda Byrne - and come away convinced that this theological turn has been "salutary" for the country overall.

One bright spot of the winter of 2009 was the announcement that Douthat would take William Kristol's place on the New York Times editorial page. This young pro-life Catholic who is independent in his conservatism has already gone far.

Austin Bramwell, a longtime critic of “movement conservatism,” honed in on the advantages possessed by a conservative like Douthat who can move and speak and write in liberal circles:

Take [Douthat's] various opinions on church-state issues. I don’t think Ross would deny that you could glean most of them by reading past issues of First Things. But mainstream liberals don’t read First Things; they read The Atlantic. Ideas that might seem old hat in the former became a revelation in the pages of the latter.

Bramwell's comments about the contents of First Things being a “revelation” to the liberal mainstream help explain how Damon Linker could publish a book depicting Rev. Richard John Neuhaus as a menacing theocrat.

It's worth recording Linker's February dustup in which he accused thinkers like Andrew Bacevich, Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher of adhering to a conservatism that “...demands an almost total overthrow of the status quo in favor of an alternative reality in which American citizens reject the ideal of individual autonomy, admire the virtues of self-denial and self-restraint, live financially within their means, and embrace a foreign policy driven by a narrowly defined national interest.”

Linker disdained the critiques of a “culture of choice” and in a jaw dropping move, described the objects of his criticism as enabling of clerical sexual abusers like Fr. Marciel Maciel. Excepting John Schwenkler, the main respondents to Linker generally ignored this below-the-belt swing-and-miss and zeroed in on his more substantive attacks.

Patrick Deneen said the criticisms to which Linker objected in fact
...speak to the modern American inability to govern appetite. They rest not on a call for the imposition of authority - how could one demand authority to suppress the imperial impulse? - but seek the encouragement of self-government and self-control. Such arguments rest on a fundamentally different conception of liberty than that assumed by Linker: not the absence of restraint, but self-government resulting in freedom from the self-destructive slavery to appetite.

Deneen noted that the expansion of private liberty is premised upon the expansion of a public power which “orders our lives in innumerable ways, and infiltrates our daily existence in ways that may be more extensive than any old-fashioned monarch could have dreamed of.”

(This trend is observed in certain libertarian arguments defending Supreme Court decisions which struck down morals legislation. These lovers of liberty trade local control and self-government for the court's centralizing imposition of permissiveness.)

To Deneen, Linker responded with a strange focus on fornication. After an outburst of anti-clericalism, he describes the “paleocon” ideal as “a society in which liberty has been redefined as obedience. And that can hardly be described as a liberal society.”

Linker concentrates on obedience to man, long caricatured as “mindless.” But it's clear that solicitousness towards the natural world or conformity to human nature are also threats to his vision of liberalism. This only reinforces the conservative critique holding that Linker's “culture of choice” is blind to reality, or rather brackets reality so that it may be conceived of and manipulated in terms of human will.

This culture is not fertile ground for the maintenance of the foundations of liberty.

Nearing the end of the disputants' exchanges, Ross Douthat warned that Linker risks confirming conservatives' enduring suspicions of the liberal order: “That it claims to create a political framework that's studiously neutral between competing modes of thought and life, but when push comes to shove it wants to impose liberalism all the way down.”

To his credit, Linker backed down, saying he has concluded that
the connections I made in the original item were overdrawn, and that I made things even worse in the second post. Ideas and arguments can take on a logic of their own, and I foolishly followed the logic of mine into a position several steps more radical than one I really want to defend.

He attributed his writings' fault-ridden extremism to his newness to the blogging medium. Fair enough. Not everyone has been rambling on-line since the days of FidoNet and Prodigy.

Yet, two months later, his endorsement of moralistic therapeutic deism echoes his novice effort. In praising the rise of individualistic, low-commitment religious or social mores, Linker avoids the difficult questions about the nature and sustainability of freedom's cultural roots.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Homeland Security 'Rightwing Extremism' report revisits the nineties

Now making the rounds is a Department of Homeland Security document called Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.

Michelle Malkin, who claims to have verified the origin of the report, makes a point about the document's treatment of amorphous and unnamed “extremist groups”:

I have covered DHS for many years and am quite familiar with past assessments they and the FBI have done on animal rights terrorists and environmental terrorists. But those past reports have always been very specific in identifying the exact groups, causes, and targets of domestic terrorism, i.e., the ALF, ELF, and Stop Huntingdon wackos who have engaged in physical harassment, arson, vandalism, and worse against pharmaceutical companies, farms, labs, and university researchers.

By contrast, the piece of crap report issued on April 7 is a sweeping indictment of conservatives.

Factual questions about the report may come to the mind of the casual reader. From page five of the report:

Paralleling the current national climate, rightwing extremists during the 1990s exploited a variety of social issues and political themes to increase group visibility and recruit new members. Prominent among these themes were the militia movement’s opposition to gun control efforts, criticism of free trade agreements (particularly those with Mexico), and highlighting perceived government infringement on civil liberties as well as white supremacists’ longstanding exploitation of social issues such as abortion, inter-racial crimes, and same-sex marriage. During the 1990s, these issues contributed to the growth in the number of domestic rightwing terrorist and extremist groups and an increase in violent acts targeting government facilities, law enforcement officers, banks, and infrastructure sectors. (emphasis mine)

Same-sex “marriage” was barely on the radar in the 1990s. See the Pew Forum's time line. Same-sex “civil unions” weren't even recognized in the U.S. before the passage of a Vermont bill in the year 2000. The marriage issue proper didn't come to national attention until Massachusetts' 2003 court decision.

Without further documentation, it's unwarranted to believe that white supremacists were particularly concerned about same-sex “marriage” years before it became a clear threat to public decency, religious liberties and parental rights.

In the 1990s, it was hard to believe that same-sex “marriage” was the issue of the future. Why would extremists use the issue as a recruiting tool when they could easily gain recruits by citing the raid on Waco, the events at Ruby Ridge, Second Amendment concerns and fears about one-world government?

The DHS report's claims about antiabortion extremism is slightly more plausible, given the violent example of Eric Rudolph. But even then one has to recall the quip that more abortionists have been killed on Law & Order than in real life.

The Clinton Administration's Violence Against Abortion Providers Task Force, VAAPCON, worked so broadly as to maintain files on mainstream pro-lifers such as Archbishop of New York John Cardinal O'Connor.

This seeming overreach itself fed fears that the government would soon turn oppressive. The latest DHS report is sure to have similar effect.

“Revisiting the 1990s” is a telling subsection title in the DHS report. If we must revisit the 1990s, it is important to review Phillip Jenkins' prescient March 23 essay Terror Begins at Home. He writes:

Based on the record of past Democratic administrations, in the near future terrorism will almost certainly be coming home. This does not necessarily mean more attacks on American soil. Rather, public perceptions of terrorism will shift away from external enemies like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah and focus on domestic movements on the Right. We will hear a great deal about threats from racist groups and right-wing paramilitaries, and such a perceived wave of terrorism will have real and pernicious effects on mainstream politics. If history is any guide, the more loudly an administration denounces enemies on the far Right, the easier it is to stigmatize its respectable and nonviolent critics.

...Time and again, Democratic administrations have proved all too willing to exploit conspiracy fears and incite popular panics over terrorism and extremism. While we can mock the paranoia that drives the Left to imagine a Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, such rhetoric can be devastatingly effective—as we may be about to rediscover.

Page 2 of the DHS report reads: “Federal efforts to influence domestic public opinion must be conducted in an overt and transparent manner, clearly identifying United States Government sponsorship.”

Here the bureaucratic invocation of “transparency” poorly cloaks the worrisome presupposition that the federal government should strive to influence domestic public opinion at all.

This report on “Rightwing Extremism” has certainly influenced some people's opinions.

With its publication, mostly harmless kooks now have more fodder for their newsletters. Their fevered reactions, composed in the bombastic style of the armchair revolutionary, will then feed government reports on extremism.

Budgets and paranoia will grow, wisdom will lessen, and these significant nothings will continue to clutter our public discourse.

(Report via Skojec)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Notre Dame and the Protest Cycle

The announcement of President Barack Obama’s invitation to give the commencement speech at Notre Dame is the occasion of the latest furore among internet Catholics.

The site Notre Dame Scandal has gathered more than 260,000 signatures protesting the invitation, including my own.

Considering the president’s immovable and extreme position on abortion, the protesters have just cause for their ire.

Yet their reaction suggests they could be playing a role in a vicious cycle which can end only in defeat:

1. The most rigorist Catholics stop supporting a Catholic school because of its dubious actions.

2. This makes the school more dependent on lax Catholics and non-Catholics’ support.

3. This leads the school to perform still more dubious actions...

4. Which then prompt more Catholics to withdraw support.

If this description is accurate, anybody who wishes to steal another Catholic university from the faithful who built it would simply have to instigate one or two large scandals to begin the negative feedback loop. The Cardinal Newman Society or the Catholic League could even be baited into helping alienate concerned Catholics from their institutions.

Granting that this cycle exists or threatens to begin, how could it be reversed?

Archbishop Chaput recently said we are witnessing the fruit of decades of complacency and bad catechesis.

Perhaps many Catholics and their organizations are spending too much time throwing rocks at the malodorous fruit instead of watering the tree’s roots.

Come commencement time, we can imagine that a few dozen protesters will leave Chicago, which spawned Obama the politician, to waste a day or two by padding an ineffectual crowd in South Bend. They’d be better off inviting their neighbors and lapsed Catholic friends and relatives of ChiTown to dinner or even to prayer.

Protest is often the opposite of evangelization. While evangelism proclaims the Good News that Christ is risen and has forgiven sins, the sentiment of protest can boil down to the statement “You’ve messed up big-time, jackass!”

Protest, too, falls short of that fraternal correction which is best done in the context of an existing relationship.

Until Catholic communities produce more committed student and academic leaders, higher education will want for such salutary relationships. For every internet comment trying to “scold a new church into being,” ten times as much energy needs to be expended to advance genuine Catholic renewal.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Hacker strikes web site of U.S. Intl. Religious Freedom Commission

Not only is USCIRF's Iraq recommendation being overlooked. So is its web security.

See the hack in action:

(Click for larger screenshot)

The ringtone and medication spam are viewable in Google's search results and in Google's cache, but not on the site proper.

This U.S. government site is a victim of the spam link injection hack. One victim provides further information on the attack, writing:
The hack I fell victim to involves some waste of space making secret changes to Wordpress source files and the Wordpress database enabling him to output a tonne of hidden links on all blog pages via a hidden Wordpress plugin.

It appears USCIRF itself uses Joomla, which is also vulnerable to the hack.

Brief research indicates that the hack is viewable only to search engine bots. Besides producing spam, the attack negatively affects page ranking in search engines and thus reduces the likelihood that internet users will find useful information from an affected site.

Given the mission of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, it is hard not to speculate whether the site was deliberately targeted by freelance or government hackers who wished to bury information they found to be disparaging of their country.

In addition to adversely affecting the dissemination of USCIRF findings, the bad security practices which allowed this hack may render sensitive information vulnerable to exposure and may help make public the commission's reports before they are intended to be released.

The U.S. State Department isn't paying much attention to the USCIRF's Iraq recommendation. Thanks to these hackers, internet users won't be paying attention either.