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

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Revisiting the Existential Threat to Western Society

I've argued this before but the topic is still hot so I'm going to approach it from a different perspective.

Believe it or not, Muslims are not inherently bad or evil. It's one thing to challenge their claims and criticize their actions when they behave badly, but that's not what a lot of the criticism is doing. I don't like vilifying Muslims as a group for a number of reasons. One is because they're not a majority in my society the way Christians are, so it's not as easy to punch up. Were I living in Iran or Saudi Arabia that would be a different story, but that would carry its own set of problems worthy of criticism in their own right. Vilifying Muslims in a Christian-dominated society doesn't promote secularism or anti-theism so much as give shade to Christian agendas. Even if you're not intending to promote Christian supremacy, unintended consequences are still a thing. If we want a post-religious society then I strongly believe that secularism needs to be our goal, not anti-theism. When enforced correctly secularism can't be so easily subverted to promote a sectarian agenda. Anti-theists can get so caught up in focusing on a particular threat that we ignore all others.

Another reason I don't support vilifying Muslims or other minority groups is because in spite of our recent gains atheists are still a minority. If there's anything that Christians and Muslims agree on is that atheists are a threat to religion. If you think that Christian society is a valid defense against Islamic aggression what you're doing is empowering Christians to fight against ideological threats. That necessarily includes us. Speaking as an atheist, if you think that Christians won't use the power we give them to shut us down with the same zealotry they'll use against Muslims you're sorely mistaken. We are the original Other, the true existential threat to all religious agendas. We may not use violence to achieve our ends the way Christians and Muslims do, but we are no less dangerous to their goals.

Christian extremists have been looking for ways to roll back the clock on the Enlightenment, to overturn secularism and restore their religious power in Western society. We should not help them achieve their goals by undermining secularism in our zeal to oppose Muslim terrorism. It will not stop with Muslims.

So think again before you share a post from Breitbart, World Net Daily and other right-wing sources. Look to see what else they have to say about religion in general; are they just anti-Islamic in particular or do they promote secularism in general? If the latter then go ahead and share it and I'll support it when I see it. But if it's just the former then most likely they're promoting a Christian agenda and no matter how much you may hate Islam or Muslims, that's not going to help anyone who isn't a Christian. Like me.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Help We Can Do Without

I voted today, and I'm glad I did. I couldn't find the ballot they sent to me until my wife kindly informed me it was probably buried in the pile of mail I hadn't noticed. But I dropped it off the completed form this morning on my way to work and all is well with the world. I hope.

Something in particular caught my attention, though. Now that the election is finally almost over and we're just about done with the Wikileaks' dump of hacked emails attacking Hillary Clinton they've gone and made a curious claim that they weren't trying to harm anyone in particular, they just wanted to provide a service by informing the general public. Nobody's buying it, and no one should. Here's why:

  • They had this information back in March, long before the nomination was decided, before but carefully timed the releases in such a way to do maximum damage not to a specific candidate but to a specific party.
  • They did not visibly work toward exposing corruption in both major parties. They just shrugged and said because no one had tried hacking the RNC it wasn't their problem.
  • What they did release was overhyped but ultimately very weak tea. The most common comparison was with sausage: you don't want to watch it being made, but that doesn't make it bad. What we learned from those emails is that Hillary Clinton and her campaign staff are seasoned politicians, not that they'd actually done anything illegal or unethical.
  • Even though they also claimed they didn't have any information damaging to the RNC, Assange admitted to having information on Trump. He claims he didn't release it because what Trump was saying to the media was far worse than anything he could release. He hasn't given us the opportunity to decide that for ourselves.

So I call bullshit on any claims of objectivity or being nonpartisan. This was very clearly a hit job on a candidate and a party that they didn't want to win the election today. Between Wikileaks and James Comey it's clear that if any rigging is going on it isn't in favor of the Democratic Party.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Criteria For Public Ownership Of Industry

The public option for health care keeps coming back to haunt us and we have private health insurance to thank for it. Back in 2009 when the Affordable Care Act was passed without a public option it was assumed that the issue was dead for another generation, but naturally we underestimated the obstinence of Republican opposition to any government program that might stand a chance to help people. "Obamacare" works...but only where it's allowed to work. So here we are seven years later right back where we started.

Oh noes!Naturally, the right-wing media is freaking out. They're trotting out all the old favorites, accusations of "government overreach" and "socialism" and the like which prompts a discussion about capitalism and government ownership of industry. Sadly, the Soviet Union demonstrated that it is possible to have too much control, but we've seen over and over again here in the US what happens when you don't have enough. Clearly we need to strike a balance which means we're going to need to come up with some criteria on which industries ought to be public domain and which ones should be run by private interests. To get the ball rolling I came up with three:

1. Is it an obvious need?

This ought to be a no-brainer, but we're Americans and by the gods we'll defend the right to be stupid no matter the cost! But I digress. Charging people for things they can't do without creates a captive market, ripe for abuse. I have no problem with recouping costs, but such industries shouldn't be treated as profit ventures the way health care is today. We have an entire industry that bases its profit model off the suffering of our fellow human beings. How is this moral, especially when we have proven alternatives that work better? Elaborate disinformation campaigns insist that capitalism is the only way to be efficient and government-run health care creates "death panels" but when put under scrutiny we find it's the other way around.

2. Is there an obvious reason why the government shouldn't be allowed to participate?

It doesn't make sense for the federal government to take over production of bath toys. There's no compelling need for it unlike, for example, power and communications. While the government has a vested interest in regulating the production of bath toys to make sure they're safe for the public, toys aren't a necessary commodity so it can benefit from competition without too much concern about oligarchic collusion. If bath toy manufacturers get together and decide to artificially inflate prices to increase their profit margins, consumers can opt not to buy them without significant risk. The same cannot be said for critical pharmaceutical products.

3. Is research or delivery hampered by profit margins?

Pony ExpressTelecommunications haven't been making very big strides in the last decade. The core technology is decades old and at this point we're seeing diminishing returns. If anything, current business models are looking to eke the most money out of the least service, and delivery has been stymied in areas where there's simply no profit to be found to establish infrastructure. However, that doesn't mean the need isn't there. This is why we have public as well as private mail service, because private delivery companies don't like going out to remote locations. Clearly, there's room for both to co-exist.

I'm sure there's more but that's all I can think of off the top of my head. Can you think of more?

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Cat and the Cave: Plato's Cave versus Schroedinger's Cat.

The Cave of...Link?

Plato's Cave is a famous philosophical construct wherein hypothetical prisoners are tied down facing one wall of a cave so they can't move their heads and look around. Behind them is a fire providing light for the cave, and between the fire and the prisoners are puppeteers moving back and forth holding various objects that cast shadows on the wall for the prisoners to observe. It's a hideously contrived scenario, but Plato used it to demonstrate the difficulty of expressing concepts through language when we don't have a concrete experience with those concepts. A prisoner might say "I see a book" based on a projection, but there's no book on the wall only shadow. It's only when they're released and can look around that they can see the real objects casting shadows. True understanding, Plato argues, isn't possible until then.

What I find curious is how many Christians love to inject Jesus into Plato's Cave. Plato wrote passionately about mistaking an image for the real thing, then Christians try to tie their invisible, intangible god as the fire lighting the wall. The mind boggles.

There are lots of ways to examine this religious hubris, but I found my thoughts moving in the direction of Schrödinger's cat. Like Plato's Cave it's a thought experiment, not meant to be taken literally. He made it to argue against the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum superposition, but like the Christian version of Plato's Cave I would like to borrow it to make a point.

You wanna do WHAT?Schrödinger supposed that if you took a solid metal box, a cat, poison, a geiger counter, a hammer and a tiny amount of radioactive material you could construct a situation where the geiger counter is set to possibly detect the radioactive material, but it's not reliable because there's so little radioactivity. If it does, the geiger goes off which releases the hammer to smash the vial of poison. The poison kills the cat, whose only crime was to be imprisoned in the stupid box by silly humans. Does the geiger counter go off and doom the cat, or does the geiger counter miss the radiation and let the cat live? Under the Copenhagen Interpretation, Schrödinger argued, the cat is both alive and dead until the box is opened and the quantum superposition is observed.

Where am I going with this? Both Plato's Cave and Schrödinger's Cat address knowledge. We can't know things until we observe them, we can only speculate. Speculation is not knowledge. The best guess in the world is still just a guess until the answer is revealed. It's important to remember not to declare victory until we actually achieve victory conditions.

Remember Jesus in Plato's Cave? Nothing to see here.The Christians who borrow this allegory are doing violence to Plato's philosophy. In their cave all shadows are imperfect reflections of their god, which is why everybody has a different idea of what they're looking at. Plato himself asked why the prisoners wouldn't discuss the images between themselves and work out agreement on what they were supposed to be looking at, which is something we've been doing about gods for thousands of years. Of course, we're no closer to an answer today than we were ten thousand years ago. Christians agree that we're all prisoners in the cave, but they're the ones who actually know what those shadows represent! How? Because they feel it. Because they fake it until they believe. Because the Bible says so. Because...they just know, okay? Because shut up, that's why!

I'm constantly confronted with claims of knowledge in my daily life. Living in the age of information makes it a challenge to parse all those claims to separate the ones that are true from the ones that are false. Until I do, each one remains in a quantum superposition of being both true and false until it can be unpacked and examined. The shadows on the wall don't represent knowledge, they represent what we think is knowledge until our assumptions can be tested against the real thing. Always remains skeptical of people who are confident of the truth without being able to demonstrate how they know it. In the end, if you know you're right but can't explain it you should reconsider the possibility that you're actually wrong.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Argument By Moderation

There's a curious trend in social media that simultaneously amuses and disgusts me. I call it "argument by moderation." Moderation in this case doesn't refer to a moderate or nuanced position, but rather the people responsible for performing administration on a forum. They don't have an easy job, and once the forum gets big enough they don't even try. They'll ban or lock you if anyone complains about you whether or not it's warranted.

Last week I posted this comment, making a general observation as I occasionally do and not addressing anyone in particular.

Behold My Comment!
After a few days this sparked a conversation with another user trying to peddle his "spiritualist" business and everyone who knows me knows how gladly I suffer fools. The conversation ended fairly quickly once I made it clear to him that I'm not easily swayed by bullshit. It's not the first time I've had discussions like that on Twitter although it had been a while, and I feel that I was fairly restrained compared to other evangelicals I've interacted with. I thought the matter settled until today.
How do you define 'unusual activity?'

Like, WHATEVEROkay, time to go to the mail account I registered for this, a one-shot I created expressly for stuff I don't care about. It turns out that Yahoo! really wants more information about me because they decided that while they recognize my password they won't let me continue without further validation. The validation account I used for that address is bogus because frankly, they don't need to know and I'd never needed it before. Today, it seems, I needed it. So I have a cascading failure of confirmation emails to accounts I can't access which is preventing me from verifying that I am who I say I am.

So, round one to the "spiritual" snake oil salesman for engaging in argument by moderation after he came to me with claims that I had the temerity to question and deride once he couldn't support them. But should the Twitter admins follow up on my support request they'll be able to see this short timeline of events and hopefully draw the conclusion that there was no unusual activity on my account, just someone tattling on me for failing to show them the respect they didn't earn.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Why Should This Offend You?

You need to eat bananas with creamy peanut butter.

the holiest of snacksLet's assume for a moment that people take this seriously. Imagine we live in a society where bananas and peanut butter have become part of our daily nutrition, specifically where they're eaten together. You cannot eat a banana without peanut butter, although you can eat peanut butter without a banana. No, it doesn't make much sense to make this a moral imperative, but bear with me a moment. In this thought experiment, the consumption of bananas with peanut butter is a cultural more and there's no quicker way to offend someone than to deviate from this behavior.

If you don't eat bananas with creamy peanut butter you deserve to be imprisoned and punished.

You can't not eat a banana every day. You can't not eat a banana without peanut butter.yuck! Neither can you eat a banana with anything but peanut butter, and if it's the chunky style you're in trouble. Imagine that you're told if you don't comply with this behavior you deserve to be locked away and punished. How does this make you feel? Annoyed? Perhaps even offended yourself? I happen to like a ripe banana and creamy peanut butter, but who am I to impose this preference on you? What gives me the right to pass judgment on you like this?

Now consider this argument:

It's not that I'm judging you for not eating bananas with creamy peanut butter, it's just the law that you have to. I'm simply letting you know what's going to happen to you.

nobody knows the troubles I seenThat makes it all better, right? I mean, it's just about who is or isn't following the rules, right? Just because the rule is arbitrary and unreasonable doesn't make it my fault. Of course, I could reject the idea that the rule is justifiable or should be enforced given its very arbitrary and subjective nature. I could turn a blind eye to a bad law and avoid calling attention to the fact that you're not following it.

If you think this is a bad argument for imposing arbitrary morality on you, then don't try to pull it on me with your religion. I reject the assertion that I "send myself to Hell" or "deserve Hell" based on what you believe. I certainly don't appreciate you trying to convince me that I'm sick (read: sinful) so you can sell me the cure (of salvation).

religious freedom in actionDon't tell me I shouldn't be offended from being told I'm destined for Hell. You may think you're doing me a favor by warning me of my impending doom but I appreciate it about as much as you might appreciate being told you're headed to prison for failing to eat bananas with creamy peanut butter. My behavior suggests I endorse the law requiring you to be imprisoned for deviating from it, and that I have no interest in changing the status quo. Likewise, you're expressing your endorsement of Hell and everything it implies (like infinite punishment for finite crimes) by trying to sell me your beliefs.

I don't believe in Hell, and I don't appreciate the implication that I deserve punishment for the immorality you imagine of me. If that's really what you think, do us all a favor and keep it to yourself.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Famous Last Words

Death is one of those things that few people like to think about but is inevitable for all of us. We like to think it's a significant event, that it's just a transition to another existence, that if we're lucky we'll be able to share some profound last words. I don't know about the first two, but I've decided what I'd like my last words to be if I get the chance.

"I see a light! I'm in a long tunnel and there's a bright light at the end! There's a man there beckoning toward me. Shit, is he ever hung! Is it Jesus? I think it's Jesus! He's waving! Hi, Jesus!

"Wait. That's not Jesus. That's Ganesh. No wonder he looked so hung."