Those of you who care have probably been keeping current with the fallout from Senator Santorum's recent comments about privacy and gay sex. (If not, you can read a few thousand well-chosen words about it here). The interesting part of it, to me anyway, can be boiled down to a single question - if the constitution provides for sufficient privacy to protect consensual gay sex in the home, than does it not also protect consensual incest?

That's an interesting question, all right.

The legal question gets tangled up pretty fast. On the one hand, I do not have a right to go into my bedroom with a willing adult partner and perform unlicensed medical procedures or, at least in New York, even apply a permanent tattoo. We may not do drugs, or share top secret documents, or plot the violent overthrow of the government. Just because it's happening in my bedroom with the consent of my partner does not instantly make it legal, and there is no reason to expect that the constitution would provide some sort of blanket exemption for everything that happened there.

On the other hand, the constitution does provide protection against laws that restrict private conduct if there is no compelling reason for the state to get involved. Again, the details are tricky, but the state cannot, for example, mandate a minimum of five minutes of foreplay before I have sex with my partner. As well-meaning as such a law may be, it does violate a boundary of privacy that can only be breached for very good reason.

There is lots of discussion about this, involving gays, and heterosexual blowjobs, and the eating of raw clams and other fascinating topics, but I'd like to focus on something else:

Why, exactly, should incest between consenting adults be illegal in the first place?

Well, first of all it's icky, and it grosses people out. Secondly, there is a concern that if a pregnancy should arise, there is an unacceptable risk of genetic damage to the child due to inbreeding. Right?

The thing is, the risks of inbreeding have been greatly overstated; it's simply not that big of a deal, at least from a medical standpoint. Consider this statement, from Genetic counseling and screening of consanguineous couples and their offspring: recommendations of the National Society of Genetic Counselors:

The consensus of the guideline authors and reviewers is that beyond a thorough medical family history with follow-up of significant findings, no additional preconception screening is recommended for consanguineous couples. Consanguineous couples should be offered similar genetic screening as suggested for any couple of their ethnic group.

This document goes on to note:

In the United States there is significant stigma associated with consanguineous relationships. Mistaken societal beliefs in the "ills of cousin unions" are deeply ingrained as noted by Dr Bell, a New England physician in 1859:

Perhaps no opinion, upon subjects of a medical character, is more widely diffused among the public, or more tenaciously held, than that the results of the marriage of blood relations are almost uniformly unfortunate. This opinion has been so long held and so often reiterated, that by sheer force of these circumstances alone it has come to be regarded as an unquestioned and unquestionable fact.

The history of hemophilia in the royal families of Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries is often cited as an example of the detrimental effects of inbreeding, even though the inheritance of this X-linked recessive condition would have occurred regardless of the consanguineous unions in the Royal families.

Now, I'm not offering this as proof that incest is harmless to human offspring, but I am suggesting that the risk is greatly overstated. Since such risk offers the only legitimate state interest in this act, we ought to look at how this risk is managed in other, similar circumstances. Consider the following:

1) An otherwise unrelated husband and wife learn that they both carry a recessive gene for a dangerous inheritable disease. Should there be a law against them having sex?

2) An otherwise unrelated husband and wife learn that they both carry a recessive gene for a significant, but not life-threatening, inheritable disease. Should there be a law against them having sex?

3) A husband and wife of several years are surprised to learn that they are, in fact, related to one another. Should there be a law against them having sex?

4) Two adults are related, and want to have sex. Maybe they were raised in different households and only recently met as adults. Maybe they are part of a foreign culture in which this sort of behavior is expected and common. Maybe they are just a little weird. Should there be a law against them having sex?

5) Two ugly, stupid, nasty people who treat their pets cruelly and have not worked an honest job for a day in their wasted lives want to have fifteen children. These people are grossly obese, and they smell bad, and they are poor, and viciously ignorant, and they scream at each other a lot. Of course they can have sex. Nobody would even seriously suggest they couldn't. Even I wouldn't suggest it, and really mean it.

So why is consensual incest illegal? I have no idea, and I'd like to suggest that it shouldn't be.

Update: A reader writes:

There is another idea of why [incest] isn't a good idea, or at least why it used to be more important. I read about about the culture of the American Indians. (I didn't remember the title, so I had to look it up: "MAN'S RISE TO CIVILIZATION AS SHOWN BY THE INDIANS OF NORTH AMERICA FROM PRIMEVAL TIMES TO THE COMING OF THE INDUSTRIAL STATE" by Peter Farb), page 26

The prohibition against marrying a stepdaughter, who is not related by blood, now becomes understandable. There is no advantage in it, since a man would be marrying into a kin group with whom, because of his previous marriage to the mother, he already maintained good relations. If a man marries his own sister, he gives up all possibility of obtaining aid in the form of brothers-in-law. But if he marries some other mans's sister and yet another man marries his sister, he has then gained two brothers-in-law to hunt with or to avenge his death in a quarrel. The primitive looks upon incest more as something threatening than as something replulsive. Incest establishes no new bonds between unrelated groups; it is an absurd denial of every man's right to increase the number of people whom he can trust.

Sounds good to me. Given the importance of society to human survival, I suppose that human evolution is as driven by social issues as it is by physical characteristics.


The medical issues surrounding incest are not clear. My opinion, based on a few hours of searching the internet, is that cousin marrages are not especially harmful unless repeated, within the same family, for generations. Sibling or parent relations may be significantly more dangerous. I do not know how these risks would compare to more common hazards, such as the use of alcohol or prescription drugs during pregnancy. I don't think anyone really knows.


Please note: I am not, of course, defending the sexual abuse of children; the phrase "consensual incest" refers only to acts between consenting adults. Thank you.

The Measure Of Men
Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Years ago, I came up with a simple formula for deciding if a fellow human being was worthwhile as a potential friend. Simply measure how this person stacks up with regard to three attributes, and if they met the required minimums across the board, they were all right.

The essential attributes? Courage, Kindness, and Entertainment Value.

I suppose I was being a bit flippant when I first announced this discovery to my friends, but as the years have gone by I have come to take this approach rather seriously, and I have even refined it a bit. Initially, I'd advise simply taking the average of all three attributes, and anyone with an above-average total score was Good People. That lasted until I met a very entertaining, very brave young man with a severe kindness deficit and instantly realized I didn't like him at all. A similar experience with a funny, kind, but utterly gutless young woman made me realize that once you drop below a C-minus on any one measure, it was pretty much game over.

Courage is different from bravery, of course, although bravery certainly helps. You see evidence of courage when you see intellectual honesty, self-confidence, and self-respect; it is evidenced by an ability to listen (even to the point of losing an argument gracefully) as well as it is evidenced by the willingness to stand up against the crowd.

Kindness implies trust, and, at its most basic level, suggests an accordance with the common values you need to get along with one another.

Entertainment Value may seem superficial, especially in the company of these other qualities, but it is no less essential. If you think about it, a surprising percentage of the time we spend voluntarily interacting with one another is essentially devoted to just entertaining each other. Some people are really good at this, while others seemed to have never developed the knack. Other people are entertaining because they are just naturally so weird or so hopeless in life that it's fun to just watch them try to find their way; so long as they have courage and kindness enough to spare, you can still love them and respect them despite their troubles.

Entertainment Value implies intelligence, humor, an enjoyment of others, and varied experience; it's a measure of what you bring to the party. Real entertainment value springs from authenticity. Nobody can keep the bullshit going forever without getting awfully tiresome.

Anyway, I was reminded of this when I was updating my list of links to other blogs (those cryptic initials there on the very top of the page). These are the pages I visit every day, written by people who, I suppose, I have measured on much the same scale.

Although they may be welcome and kindred spirits, my old-fashioned, 20th century opinion is that people whom you have never met can't really be counted as friends, at least not until you've shared your first drink and recovered from your first disagreement. Nonetheless, the authors you read, like the friends you hang out with, will help shape your opinions and filter your world view. They inhabit your head, so it is worthwhile to choose these folks carefully.


A deeply annoyed professor at UNC-Wilmington lays it on the line:

[...] After I compute final averages, I will then implement the new aspect of the grading process which is modeled after existing affirmative action policies at the university. Specifically, I will be computing a class average which I will then compare to the individual performance of all white males enrolled in my classes. All white males who exceed the class average will have points deducted and added to the final averages of women and minorities. A student need not have ever engaged in discrimination in order to have points deducted. Nor must a student have ever been a victim of discrimination in order to receive additional points.

I expect that my new policy will be well received by some, and poorly received by others. For those in the latter category, please contact Human Resources for further elaboration on the concept of affirmative action. You may also contact the Office of Campus Diversity for additional guidance.

Yes, he's kidding, of course. Just using a little sarcasm to make a point.

The sad part is, he's not really exaggerating the case at all.

Remember when you were in high school? What were your grades ever actually used for? Why, competition for college admission, of course; other than the nice people at the admissions desk, I don't recall anyone else ever asking to see my transcript. If there is a meaningful difference between our current use of affirmative action, and Professor Adam's suggested approach for assigning grades, I don't see it.

Even in college, what are your grades used for? For getting into grad school, of course, and to a lesser extent, for competition in the job market. Again, I'm sorry to say that the good Professor really didn't exaggerate at all.

Indeed, I think he nailed it dead on. Affirmative action is just as ugly, stupid, and unfair as he made it out to be. It's become so bad it's almost parody-proof.

You want a real affirmative action program? I've got one for you.

We already know who the disadvantaged kids are; we have elaborate qualifications all laid out for determining eligibility for welfare and various forms of public assistance, and we have excellent records documenting who has received this assistance in every state.

We know where the disadvantaged schools are. We know exactly how each school rates, every year, in each of a variety of critical measurements, from dropout rates to crime rates to average test scores.

Helping disadvantaged kids is a wonderful idea, and it's consistent with the values American was founded on. You want affirmative action for these kids, that's great! Just don't base it on race - simply give the help to the people who need it.

Don't overlook the poor rural white kids; they outnumber the poor black kids by a substantial margin, and they go to some of the worst schools in the nation. Don't overlook the mixed-race kids who look too white, or the Asian kids who don't meet the stereotype we have of Asian students, or the immigrant kid from Latvia who faced impossible odds just learning to read and write. Help them all.

Best of all, you will finally see real racial justice with this approach. The extent that the people of one race are affected by this problem, is exactly the extent that the people of this race will be helped. It is fair, self-correcting over time, and no longer requires the fiction that we can somehow legally determine a person's racial composition anyway. (What the hell do these people do, measure the student's heads with big calipers? "I'm sorry, kid, your brow-to-jaw ratio is too high. You're just not black enough...")

This is a good idea, a fair idea, and an easier-to-implement policy than the one we are applying now, reason enough why we will probably never see it in our lifetimes. Nonetheless, it is instructive how all the ugly, contradictory bullshit falls away when we forget about color, and pay attention what really matters about people.


A recent piece in the The New Republic raises an interesting point:

But for the moment, let's reflect on what may be the most successful low-casualty, wide-scale military action in, oh, let's say, ever. The U.S. military is now the strongest the world has ever seen--stronger than the Wehrmacht in 1940, stronger than the Roman legions of the early centuries. And this strongest-ever military will do nearly anything to avoid needless death. Two and a half millennia ago, the Greeks dreamed the world would someday be guided by a liberal democracy that could also produce indomitable warriors. Is that dream not now realized?

I realize that this is exactly what horrifies some people, and, to be honest, I am sympathetic to some of their concerns. An unfettered superpower, with no one to challenge it or to limit its ambitions, can be a terrifying thing. Arguably, there is no real balance of military power anymore in the world.

What happens to the world if, in our confidence, we turn into assholes and start running roughshod all over the planet?

Good question. Fortunately, there's a good answer, too.

Generally speaking, the concentration of power is as unavoidable as it is dangerous. Like it or not, some nation - or nations - will always be stronger than all the others. Similarly, power is unavoidably concentrated within nations as well. Every functional government on earth has the power to compel its citizens by force. In civilized nations, we call this "law enforcement" and we welcome it, at least after seriously considering the alternatives.

Nonetheless, there is always the risk that our government, or any government, can go sour and raise hell on an unimaginable scale. The good news is that we have learned to contain this risk, and that we do a better job of it than anyone else in history.

We contain this risk, in part, by subjecting our government to periodic, free election. We do it by reserving tremendous freedoms for our citizens, by encouraging people to speak out, to organize, to offer political opposition in a peaceful and productive way. We do it by living the values that we have come to embrace, values that tell us that we should be slow to hurt others, than we should allow others to be free to determine their own fates, that we should not only tolerate differences among people but even welcome them.

It works pretty well, too. Sure, it could all go to hell in a few generations, but it's not like we have any real alternatives. Somebody is going to be in charge, one way or the other. We do the best we can, and it works out as best as we can work it.

The world stage is no different. Sure, there are risks to the US being the sole superpower, just was there are risks to democratic government, but what are the alternatives?

1) Somebody else could be the sole superpower. As a practical matter, the only folks in the running for this title are the communist Chinese. Anybody out there think that this is really such a good fucking idea?

2) We could share superpower status with somebody else, and hold each other in check. We did this for the last 50 years or so - it was called the Cold War, and it was not fun. Maybe you remember the duck-and-cover drills, the proxy wars, the hideous lives lead by the people on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. Ask the Poles or the Czechs or the East Germans if they have any real nostalgia for the Good Ol' Days before American hegemony. And remember, the somebody else in this case is almost certainly the goddamn Chinese again. Europe's combined forces are a tiny fraction of China's strength, and our European friends show little taste for funding a massive military expansion, over the many decades required to catch up.

Like it or not, we face a rather simple choice - the world can live in the shadow of a humane, functional democracy, or it can live in the shadow of something worse. If there is a practical, defensible alternative I'd love to hear it.

The bottom line here is that America's unchallenged might is a blessing - like all blessings, it brings risk as well, but it is a blessing nonetheless. Two generations ago the world was wracked by an ever-escalating series of terrible world wars that left our great cities in flames. One generation ago we faced a serious risk of annihilating each other in a nuclear exchange.

The world really is better now, and frankly, I think it's pretty fucking obvious that this is the case. I don't understand why so many people seem unable to admit it.

If there is a practical, defensible alternative, I'd love to hear it.


Things That Make You Go "Hmmm"

Here's a news headline you don't see every day:

A 24-year-old man who was detained walking down a shopping street with his sister-in-law's severed head in one hand and a knife in the other was being questioned Wednesday by prosecutors.

"Questioned", huh? Kinda like, Dude? What's with the head? And the knife?

And where were you going?"

More Fun With Statistics

I found an interesting little gadget over at The Volokh Conspiracy - an interactive tool for generating CDC Injury Mortality Reports.

Now, I know what each of you is thinking - OK, smart guy, so how many white females in their twenties were killed in non-motor-vehicle machinery accidents in the year 2000? Happily, I can now say with some confidence that there were none. Don't you feel better now?

Anyway, about 100,000 people did die accidentally that year. Here's a quick breakdown:

  Unintentional Deaths
  Year 2000, United States 
  All Races, Sexes, Ages 
  Total            97,900
  Fall             13,322
  Poisoning        12,757
  Suffocation       5,648
  Pedestrian        4,598
  Drowning          3,482
  Residential Fire  2,955
  Firearm             776

So, I suppose the message is clear - if you are going to keep a gun, do it safely. Always look both ways before carrying it across the street.

Automatic Poetry Generator

I just ran the thing with my URL as a vocabulary source and I was surprised to find that some of the output, was, well, actually kind of poetic:

...and steal their
wasted lives lead by an absurd denial
of something else:
in Baghdad by his pocketknife,
he marries his damaged

It's kind of embarrasing when a machine can arrange your words better than you can.

It's Official

The Japanese are insane.

A reader comments:

It's a good thing they put that little black line over her pussy, otherwise the naked girl shitting in her own hand might be offensive.


Seems we might have had a little anthrax incident recently.

If this story is true, we're about to be reminded that this war is not over yet. Not by a long shot.

(Via USSC)

Update: They are already backtracking on this story. Probably another false alarm.

Just One Of Those Things That Everyone Knows

Everybody who runs a web page has heard the warning - never put your actual email address on your page (and never hyperlink it with a 'mailto') because automated spam-bots will find it and bury you in unwanted ads.

Well, as of this month I've had my special FFM contact address posted here for one year, and I have yet to receive my first piece of spam.

Of course, the address I used when I registered my domain has gotten hammered. Maybe that's how the rumor got started? Or maybe the spambots have finally been met with effective counter-measures?

Anyway, it seems to me that the friendly old mailto: link is once again safe to use. Now you can all return to your homes and get on with your normal lives.

I've Offically Had It With This Guy

I've said it before and I'll say it again - John Lott has screwed the pooch. It's time to pitch him into the same dustbin as Scott Ritter and call it a day.

We do not need people like him fucking up the good work of others in the field. Let's leave the purveyors of bogus statistics and politicized research to the other side.

Link Of The Day

DuckSEASON delivers the goods for today's recommended read.

Cry 'Havoc'...


...and go visit the Dog Of War over at the Photography Museum.

Check Out The New Stuff

I've now added a 'Comix' section at the bottom of the page, with the kind permission of the artists. If you know of another comic that you'd like to see added, please drop me a line.

I also modified the flag icons in the Bablefish translation section, to more accurately reflect certain geopolitical realities.

Now I Know Saddam Is Dead

James Rummel's got a good eye, and I think he's nailed it. Go here, and scroll down to LIES AND VIDEOTAPE.

The story about the dead guy is pretty funny, too.

You All Know One

Everybody knows one... we all know somebody who collects clowns. Black velvet crying clowns. Little porcelin dancing clowns. Even pot holders with goddamn clowns on them.

I hate clowns. The look like something the French would invent.

Well, here's the perfect gift for that special someone. They won't forget it.

A Better Place

L.T. Smash lists The Allied Dead by name.

We often say of the dead, "Well, at least they are in a better place now". Perhaps this is so.

Personally, I can't help but think that these people did the dying, all right, but it is us - all of us - who are in a better place now.

Maybe It's Just Me...

...but after all the bitching and moaning I've read about Halliburton getting special treatment from the Bush administration, all I can say is this:

Stock Price and Trading Volume, 1998-2003 (HAL)

They don't seem to really be doing all that fucking well, do they? Would you buy this stock?

Hell, they just dropped another half-point today...

My Kind Of Girl

You can't handle the truth!
Infantrywoman Felicia Harris poses for a picture on the four poster bed at the palace of Uday Hussein


The Checker-Shadow Illusion is pretty damn cool.

(Via BL)

I Love Stuff Like This

Years ago, a popular phrase among the hippie-engineer class was "Appropriate Technology" - stuff that was cheap, easy to make, and accessible to the people who actually needed it. This is an approach that lends itself well to problem-solving in the Third World, encompassing things like geodesic dome shelters made of waxed cardboard, wheelchairs made of junkyard scrap (using headless nails for wheel bearings!), protocols for filtering cholera from water using nothing more than a traditional headdress, and other neat stuff.

Appropriate Technology is occasionally useful in the First World, as well. For example, suppose you were responsible for civil defense planning in the nuclear age, and needed to provide a few million families with a reliable radiation detector at low cost?

Why, you'd design something like the Kearny Fallout Radiation Meter, of course, and you'd publish the plans in every major newspaper in the country if a nuclear attack were thought to be imminent.

I'm not an expert on these things, but this does appear to be a useful, reasonably accurate device, easily made at home at minimal cost. And it doesn't even need batteries!

Incredible. I'll probably build one myself, even though any self-respecting terrorist could find better places for a dirty-bomb attack than the little cow town I inhabit.

So That Explains It

Now that the war is over, CNN chief news executive Eason Jordon unburdens his conscience to the New York Times.

Chilling stuff.

Update: CNN is being savaged for this.

They deserve it, of course. My only question is, did all the other networks whore themselves out, too?

None Shall Provoke Me With Impunity