A middle-aged man dreaming of the day when he can stop begging for scraps and write for a living.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Justice vs. Vengeance

Here in the US we have a problem with crime. We're obsessed with it. We dedicate outrageous resources to dealing with it and even romanticize it to some degree (have you seen the latest episodes of COPS, CSI or Law & Order?). In our fantasies the innocent are protected and the guilty are punished. Yes, I said "fantasies" because we have an idealized notion of crime and punishment and it's causing some serious problems.

A recent study points out that 4% of the people on death row are innocent and that percentage is higher for those sentenced to life in prison. Contemplate that for a moment: four out of every hundred people sentenced to death are victims of our legal system. Does that shock you? Does it bother you at all? It does for me, but I know people who don't give it a second thought. For them it's an acceptable margin of error.

Consider also that we spend about $74 billion a year nationwide up from $37 billion in 2007 and just about as much as we spend on food stamps for the poor. It's become a major growth industry for the private sector meaning that once again we've found a way to make a profit off the suffering and misery of others. But they deserve it, right? They're convicted criminals, whether or not they actually did the crime.

American prisons are brutal places. When the inmates aren't preying on each other they're at the mercy of their guards. It's a problem we've known about for twenty years or more and we've turned a blind eye to it. Why? There's a prevailing attitude in the US that people who end up in prison deserve to be abused under the guise of "punishment." We're cutting rehabilitation programs across the board so we can spend money to build more prisons, resulting in high rates of recidivism: inmates returning to prison because they re-offend after they're released.

I submit that with these attitudes and the policies reflecting them, we have transformed our justice system into a vengeance system. We've abandoned the notion that prison is a place to separate troublesome members of our society and teach them not to be problems, but a place to abandon them where they can suffer as they deserve. Consider that with the margin for error in the percentage of innocent victims in the prison system and the overrepresentation of minorities you've got a recipe for a human rights disaster.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Struggling With Money

It's been a common talking point over the past twenty years: Americans have a spending problem. We have too little money saved up and too many of us have nothing saved for retirement. Everywhere you look the message is the same: our debt to savings ratio is too high and it's a serious problem.

Yes, it is. But why are we having this problem? I find it very curious that when I try to track the changes to the cost of living I get a lot of confusing data. We have easy graphs to track spending for the federal government, graphs on health care and driving and gun violence and just about anything else you could want that's pertinent to our daily lives. But not so much for inflation and prices even from official government sources. It's like they don't want us to know how much we're spending just to meet our daily needs.

I live in a nice apartment with one and a half cars (my Lady got her scooter), very little debt (which takes some doing, believe me) and a few creature comforts. I don't live in anything resembling luxury and it took me a long time to get some very good deals, which includes extremely low rent for the area where I live. If I were to move closer to my work as I really want to I'd have to pay half again what I do now in rent and related expenses. Every time I manage to accumulate some savings something inevitably comes up and makes it disappear again. I've taken to tracking my spending and expenses in a spreadsheet, and even using that to identify excessive spending the prognosis isn't good. I simply don't earn enough to do much more than tread water even if I were to cut everything back and live like a monk. Consequently I haven't a prayer of coming up with the 20% deposit for a small home without putting myself at the mercy of predatory lending practices.

When my father was my age he was making approximately a third less than I am today. Yes, my parents also struggled with money but they had a three bedroom house they were almost finished paying off, three cars and two teenaged sons. So what changed between 1986 and 2014? Six years ago someone I have come to admire very much was able to put the numbers together and figure it out.

Yes, we have a spending problem but the problem isn't that we're being irresponsible with our money. The problem is that we're spending too much just to break even. Between the rising cost of living (the CPI doesn't track food or transportation costs!) and our stagnating wages there simply isn't any left over to save. It's not that we're eating out more often, because we're not. It's not that we're buying more toys, because that isn't it either. It's not that our houses are too big or any other factor suggesting that we're too greedy for our own good. The problem is that we're like a frog in a pot of water and someone is slowly turning up the heat. They don't want us to notice before it's too late to jump out.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Delay the Affordable Care Act?

It would be funny if it weren't so insidious. Having spent three years doing everything they can do to either repeal or undermine "Obamacare," we now have some initial indications of success and slower rises in health insurance premiums than at any time under Republican governance. Nevertheless, House Republicans have voted at least 47 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act UPDATE: 50 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act when they're not voting to delay it.

At this point there's no stopping the implementation of Obamacare. The White House has delayed specific provisions to the derision of conservatives, but the overall provisions are not going to be stopped. Every year conservatives claim that it's going to make premiums skyrocket and every year it doesn't happen. Now we have an election year coming up, a mid-term election where Republicans typically have more success and they've pinned their election strategy on selling the idea that Obamacare is a failure. Clearly, Republicans will keep trying to repeal and delay as long as possible.

So here's the thing: I would completely support a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act. The one thing Republicans could do to get my support is give us Medicare for all. Give us a public option, a single payer system where the government can negotiate costs. It doesn't have to completely replace private insurance like in Canada; plenty of nations have instituted both to great success. But stop pretending that health care is a luxury rather than a literal life-or-death necessity. Then you'll get your wish. You'll have completely undermined the Democrats and demonstrated that the Republicans are genuinely more concerned about governance than catering to industry lobbyists.

Until then, no. No delays, no repeal, no "compromise" intended to undermine the success of the program. If there's no progress then there's no deal.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What If I'm Wrong About This?

Having just acknowledged that I can be wrong and be perfectly aware that I'm capable of being wrong, I come to the topic of being wrong about gods and the afterlife.

Hell is a particularly insidious concept that really epitomizes the effectiveness of the carrot and the stick approach to coercion. On the one hand you've got this fairy tale place commonly referred to as Heaven where there's no more suffering, no more worry, no more sickness or death. In Heaven you experience an eternity of bliss while you reunite with loved ones and sing the praises of the all-powerful God. But if you reject God (and thus Heaven) then your only option is Hell, a lake of fire and brimstone where you experience unending torment and shame for all of eternity. I've listened to more than a few stories of people who were traumatized by fear of Hell as children, and a few adults who struggle with religion only because they're afraid that leaving it might actually send them to Hell. It can have that much power over our minds.

Unconditional Love Nowadays I can easily laugh it off. If you tell me I'm destined for Hell, I'll tell you I'm going to punch you in the aura. Neither threat has any power over me, but it wasn't always that way. I used to worry that my journey away from religion might actually be sending me to Hell. It's a common question that occurs to anyone with even a shred of self-awareness: what if I'm wrong?

If I'm wrong, then I'm wrong. We're wrong about things all the time. Do I have the chicken or the fish? Let's say I choose the fish and it makes me sick. I had no way of knowing the fish was prepared improperly so I was wrong because I didn't have enough information to make the right choice. There are things we can't know beforehand that necessarily impede our ability to choose.

So if I'm wrong about this and I end up in Hell it won't be because I'm rebellious or obstinate. It will be because the god who puts me there doesn't care enough to make sure I have the information I need to make a good choice. That's his fault, not mine. I don't believe in auras, elves, unicorns, leprechauns, gods or the afterlife. If it turns out I'm wrong about any of those assumptions then I'll be wrong because I have no reason to believe in them, and that's the right reason to be wrong.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

I Was Wrong

A lot of people who know me don't think of me as a particularly humble man. That would be because I'm not. I am in fact quite arrogant, or at least confident in the correctness of my assumptions. I'm aware that I turn off some people because of my air of arrogance. Other people are attracted to me because of my air of confidence. There's just no way to please everyone.

In fact, I'm wrong about things all the time. I don't project this awareness because that's not how I was raised, but please take my word for it that I am aware of it. I am not right about things more often than the average individual. I'm no polymath like Sherlock Holmes who can speak authoritatively on a wide variety of topics. I have areas of interest in science, literature and politics but I am at best an enthusiastic layman in those areas. My understanding is general at best rather than specific. I grasp the basic concept of quantum mechanics but not well enough to teach a course in it.

On occasion I get accused of being close-minded because I'm fond of arguing passionately about whatever I think is true. I don't just say what I think is true, I usually try to dig up sources to support why I think it's true. For the average discussion this can appear quite daunting. Add to that several decades of experience in constructing and supporting arguments in favor of what I believe and people can walk away with the impression that I'm a know-it-all who can't be told anything. I'd like to take this opportunity to explain why that isn't true.

I do possess sufficient self-awareness to realize I'm not always right about everything. There are things I've thought about and researched sufficiently to feel comfortable about, and I often write about them. I use feedback (when I can get it) to test and refine my arguments. It's an ongoing process and at this point many of my arguments are very polished, especially when it comes to topics that come up in popular discussion. For example when someone attempts to justify their belief in their god because I can't prove their god isn't real, I have a pithy reply to demonstrate how their logic fails. I came up with that pithy reply after years of trying to explain the burden of proof at length and gradually refining my explanation into a simple, penetrating response. Most of the time, however, I include subtle caveats into my statements. "It seems to me." "As I understand it." "The evidence suggests." These are mental bookmarks intended to remind me that I am ultimately agnostic when it comes to absolute statements.

When I'm wrong and I know it I try to explicitly state it as such. "No, I was wrong." "I stand corrected." I then try to point to the source demonstrating how I know I was wrong and what the correct answer is. I'm human and I sometimes try to rationalize how the new information still allows me to be correct (seriously, who wants to be wrong?) but I try to be brutally honest with myself when I know I need to correct my assumptions.

In the end, changing my mind is dreadfully easy: all you have to do is show me the evidence.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Speaking of presuppositionalism

In discussing presuppositionalism yesterday and today, the topic naturally turned to creationism (one of the biggest examples of presuppositionalism around). A few defenders of creationism attempted to argue the old straw about science being unreliable and incapable of offering certainty, therefore God. In doing so they betrayed their ignorance of what science is and how we know what we know.

To begin with science doesn't talk about absolutes, it talks about degrees of certainty. The short explanation of this is that certainty is defined by supporting evidence. The less evidence you have to support your idea, the less certainty we have that it's true. The more evidence you have, the greater the degree of certainty.

There are no absolutes when it comes to knowledge. We're always updating and refining our knowledge, but at this point we very rarely end up refuting something that has a great deal of evidence supporting it. Most of the ideas in science that get left behind are ones that didn't have that much evidence supporting them regardless of how popular they were. One such example is the Big Crunch hypothesis for how the universe will end. Current observations make that hypothesis extremely unlikely so cosmologists have a very low degree of certainty.

Creationism has no evidence supporting it. The conflation of creationism as a branch of science is a lie meant to comfort people who are emotionally invested in it. There's no evidence of a creator, no evidence that the universe was fully formed at its beginning or that a trickster god planted false evidence to lead us to believe that it's actually 13.8 billion years old (See: Last Thursdayism).

The "young earth scientists" out in the world aren't scientists. They're religious partisans who make no useful predictions, perform no repeatable experiments and devote the majority of their time either attempting to refute real science or creating apologetics for what current discoveries mean for their beliefs. What they do is not science. It's more accurately described as lying for Jesus.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

It's A Duck

I've been having a lot of discussions about presuppositionalism when it comes to belief in gods. A lot of believers are invoking it even when they don't know it's name. They assume that the existence of their god is a given and that it therefore falls to non-believers to prove otherwise. It's an extremely dishonest tactic by attempting to reverse the burden of proof.

As I like to say, if I have to prove your god isn't real then you have to prove I'm not your god testing you.

I ran across an old comic that neatly demonstrates the problem with presuppositionalism and the way it's applied in debates over evolution, cosmology and so forth. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

It's A Duck!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Jokes involving atheists

I encountered someone who complained that whenever atheists tell jokes it's always about religion, never about atheism or atheists. He eventually clarified that we never allow anything funny and offensive about ourselves. I have to concede the last point; I can't think of any jokes about atheism or atheists that I would find offensive.

Here's what I came up with:

Q: What did the atheist say after walking into a church?
A: Mind if I smoke?

Q: How many atheists does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: One, and it's not funny!

Q: Why did the atheist die at the bottom of the cliff?
A: He didn't believe in gravity, either.

I realize it's a short list, so I invite anyone to come along and suggest some more. Bonus points if I find it offensive to atheism.