Distributed Mind

"I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves."

Your hosts: J. Lowry, B. Martin.

October 11, 2011

A Different Way of Publishing

by ben

An idea I've been kicking around - various forms of which I've thought of over the years, esepcially with regards to music, but in this case, I'm thinking of the context of (text) publishing. I think we need a non-profit organization whose responsibility would be to give grants to support authors for the time necessary to write a book. The purpose of the funding though is not just to cover labor and other expenses, it is also in part to make up the lost potential revenue from other endeavors in that time period - not to cover it completely, but I think it makes sense to make this more generous than just the strict amount necessary or so.

Though the author may retain the copyright (or maybe the organization? probably the author though), all works funded by such grants must be licensed according to something like a Creative Commons license. I'm not totally sure which provisions are important in a C license for such a thing, but I think it might be good if possible to allow derivative works.

The other responsibility of this organization would be to distribute the work. Distribution would be primarily digital, but hard copies should also be distributed, for something in line with the material and labor costs for the printing.

Money for such an organization would be needed to cover the grants, the distribution infrastructures, and costs for editing, etc. I don't know about editors - would they be freelance for each project? Volunteer? I'm not sure.

I think the organization should generally seek out authors though there should be perhaps some way of selecting some first time authors as well. Or maybe the organization could accept proposals too, not sure.

Also, there should be some way of covering short stories as well. Perhaps they could be covered at like two or more times a reasonable and/or typical rate.

This is all in the context of secular publishing. I think it would be even more interesting to see something like this happen with religious publishing - but then the licensing terms should be even more generous - maybe even public domain?

Ideally, there would be many such organizations (and especially, ones that would be friendly to first time authors). But I think to get started, a pilot project involving higher profile authors, or something, would be a good idea.

(Note also that this is very similar to my earlier proposals about music.)

23:34:17 - Media - ben - No comments

February 04, 2010

Christianity, Politics, The Bible, and Means vs. Ends

by ben

I've been threatening to write about politics in the context of Christianity (specifically, that is, how do we as Christians approach such a thing?) at length for some time now. Of course, in years past I wrote about it a lot in this venue. But, I've been meaning for some time to put together a longer, more coherent piece of text on the subject. I even began the process of writing a book about it last year, but things being what they were and are... But, once again, my brain has been turning on this subject... I hope to be able to get back to this project now - though I need to do some thinking before I do too much writing.

Here's something I've been thinking about at the moment, though. At the top of this journal has for a long time been a quote from Jesus, as recorded in Matthew: "I am sending you out like sheep surrounded by wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (NET, Matt 10:16). I put that on our header for a reason, of course, which is simply that it has a lot to do with my thinking about how we as Christians should approach politics. You could add to it, it occurred to me today, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (NET, Rom 12:21).

What I'm saying is that I think our goals being good is not enough: the ends, as I say often, here included, do not justify the means. The ends and the means go together, and I think as Christians, that is especially important for us. And not just the means, but the intent (take a look at I Cor 13...). This is I think a large part of what I would like to talk about...

There is also plenty of room for discussion about ends, too, of course. And I know that is a sensitive point for many Christians. But that's not where I want to start.

22:25:01 - Religion - ben - No comments

August 19, 2009

Howard Phillips Lovecraft

by ben

After many years, I have finally gotten around to reading some H. P. Lovecraft. I'm quite a Poe fan, of course, but I'm otherwise not much of a fan of horror, so perhaps this is not very surprising. But I've always been intrigued by the descriptions of Lovecraft's mix of the modern and the horrific, and over the years I've read a few things about his fiction, with an one or two stories over the years thrown in. But only in the last few weeks have I read any serious amount of his fiction.

So far the most interesting stories I have read are "The Nameless City," "The Shunned House," and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth."

"The Nameless City" is an early story of Lovecraft and interesting for how it paints an interesting setting composed of the dissonant elements of the Arabian desert and the ruins of an ancient city contrasted with some very alien things. Lovecraft also demonstrates his aptitude for integrating real myths and literary references with invented ones. I'm always a sucker for some good verisimilitude. (Though these details sometimes do step on story - Lovecraft weakens part of the suspense of the story by referencing one of his earlier stories and referring to a city in it that existed before "mankind".) The story itself is, in plot, not very interesting.

"The Shunned House" goes a step farther with the verisimilitude - many of the details are apparently references to real people and places in Providence, R. I. (And for this I'm relying on the excellent notes of S. T. Joshi in the Penguin book The Dreams in the Witch House And Other Weird Stories.) Again, the picture painted by all of this is interesting. I think the plot again here is pretty weak, but the rest still makes it worthwhile. It is interestingly a fairly straightforward horror story, which is unusual for Lovecraft, who prefers strange interdimensional aliens masquerading as deities to vampires and ghosts. Some bonuses were the way he works part of Poe's biography into the story, and that I learned some real werewolf lore through one of his obscure references. Another downside shows up though, while reading the notes, in that turns out many of the more horrific details of the story were fairly directly inspired by actual events and legends, so Lovecraft didn't really add that much. Also, the denouement was very weak.

Finally, we have the legendary "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" which lives up to its hype. The plot here is quite good, though there are some illogical details (why not just let the stranger who only knows rumors leave, rather than try to kill him which will confirm all the rumors). But the suspense is real, even though we know the outcome - though there is a big twist at the end which is unnecessary but not entirely uninteresting (whether the story is better without it or not, I'm not sure, though I tend to wish it had not been added). Also, the story is rather grotesque (not gory - there's no gore), which I don't necessarily consider a positive feature. The worst problem with the story is that it brings out Lovecraft's base obsession with bloodlines. Lovecraft has something of a reputation as a racist and anti-semite, and I think it is more obvious in stories like this. ("The Lurking Fear" is another lower-quality example.)

One thing that tends to bother me in general about Lovecraft is his overuse of adjectives, especially non-visual ones. Things are often "blasphemous," for example, for reasons that we cannot quite understand. Rather than describe the images, Lovecraft decides to describe the effects of those images on the viewer, though he does so in a particularly ineffective way, using effects that seem unlikely to occur in reality to most people. Some stories are worse about this than others.

On the whole, though, I think this has been an interesting exercise. I'm glad I finally tried some of Lovecraft's fiction. At its best, it has the kind of noir-horror feel I had been led to expect. That I occasionally learn something from it is also a bonus. (And I want to mention again how helpful I've found the notes in the Penguin editions - makes me almost curious to read some of Joshi's writings about horror.)

I'd also like to read Supernatural Horror in Literature by Lovecraft. I'm also interested in reading some Dunsany, who was a big influence of Lovecraft. Reading about all this early horror fiction has also led me to some even earlier horror fiction, including, for example, the Hawthorne story "Young Goodman Brown" which I don't recall ever having read before. I forget sometimes how delightfully weird Hawthorne could be. We always think of Poe and forget Hawthorne and Washington Irving.

01:25:32 - Media - ben - No comments

Mediocre PCs and Windows

by ben

I recently purchased an Asus Eee PC 900 with Windows XP installed. This turned out to be a mistake. The underpowered device (which has what should be a fast enough processor and has 1 GB of RAM, but has only an 8 GB solid state drive which might be rather slow) combined with a resource hungry operating system makes this device often very unresponsive. Given that most of the time I am doing little more than typing or reading, this is ridiculous. Even given that rendering web pages takes more memory and processing than mere text (unfortunately - but that's another rant), these are operations I could perform on less powerful machines. The problem is the software and the operating system, presumably - they're getting in the way too often. I haven't ruled out a hardware problem yet, but on the whole, this a serious problem, and is putting me face to face with some known issues with modern desktop computing. I actually found myself wishing for a typewriter tonight - not good.

00:35:30 - Technology - ben - No comments

Controlling the Means of (Content) Production

by ben

This is an idea that I've talked about for a while, but I wanted to get something down on virtual paper as I've been thinking about it lately. We have discussed this before, I think, but these are some of my current thoughts.

Basically, I refuse to accept the categorization of media producers and consumers. I believe that we all, according to our abilities, should be content producers, and that we must refuse to live as mere consumers of what the Southern California and New York City producers think we should like. [Which I think makes me a content/intellectual property socialist.] This is part of why I dislike mindless movies - but for the millions of dollars they have available for production and promotion, I believe I or other people I know could produce movies of comparable interest, if not quality. Except that I want to emphasize that I don't believe that millions of dollars are necessary; I believe movies (or whatever) of quality can be produced for much less. The same is even more true of music and literature.

What is necessary to achieve this? Well, that's maybe not a trivial question to answer. Some elements that I believe will ply a part are the following though:

00:27:29 - diy - ben - No comments

July 25, 2009

RLS on Immigration

by ben

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about a train trip from New York to San Francisco, traveling not in style, but with emigrants, in Across the Plains. Stevenson gives a portion of the space to musings on racial bias and immigration (specifically, on American attitudes toward Chinese travelers):

Of all stupid ill-feelings, the sentiment of my fellow Caucasians towards our companions in the Chinese car was the most stupid and the worst. They seemed never to have looked at them, listened to them, or thought of them, but hated them A PRIORI. The Mongols were their enemies in that cruel and treacherous battle-field of money. They could work better and cheaper in half a hundred industries, and hence there was no calumny too idle for the Caucasians to repeat, and even to believe. ...

Awhile ago it was the Irish, now it is the Chinese that must go. Such is the cry. It seems, after all, that no country is bound to submit to immigration any more than to invasion; each is war to the knife, and resistance to either but legitimate defence. Yet we may regret the free tradition of the republic, which loved to depict herself with open arms, welcoming all unfortunates. And certainly, as a man who believes that he loves freedom, I may be excused some bitterness when I find her sacred name misused in the contention. It was but the other day that I heard a vulgar fellow in the Sand- lot, the popular tribune of San Francisco, roaring for arms and butchery. "At the call of Abraham Lincoln," said the orator, "ye rose in the name of freedom to set free the negroes; can ye not rise and liberate yourselves from a few dirty Mongolians?"

01:59:20 - Politics - ben - No comments

October 07, 2008

Christian Hypocrisy in the Second Century

by ben

Much could be said about hypocrisy in the church. Much has has been said about the subject, now and every time before right back to Peter, Paul, and James. Here's a decent quote from circa A.D. 150 from II Clement (which is totally misnamed since it's not believed to be, and doesn't claim to be, by Clement):

For the Gentiles, when they hear from our mouth the oracles of God, marvel at them as beautiful and great; afterwards, when they have learned that our works are not worthy of the words we speak, they then turn themselves to blasphemy, saying that it is some fable and delusion. For when they hear from us that God saith, “There is no thank unto you, if ye love them that love you; but there is thank unto you, if ye love your enemies and them that hate you;” when they hear these things, they marvel at the excellency of the goodness; but when they see that we not only do not love them that hate us, but not even them that love us, they laugh us to scorn, and the Name is blasphemed.

(That's from an aging translation by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (thanks to Wikisource).)

22:37:40 - Religion - ben - No comments

July 14, 2008

Independence Day

by ben

I spotted a couple of items on the web recently that touch on points about Independence Day that I've been meaning to write about for a few years now and haven't gotten around to (though I'm not claiming these authors' opinions match mine).

First, conservative (theologically and politically) blogger "Mr. Dawn Treader" writes a piece about whether the Revolution was justified from a Christian perspective (making a point about Biblical exegesis along the way) and points to an "ancient" (1999) piece by Mark Noll (who wrote an entire book related to Christians and the Revolution). The Revolution's shaky Biblical foundation and the paradoxical celebration of the Revolution by the church in America is something I've been interested in for a while.

And then, from David Gushee on Associated Baptist Press some remarks about church celebrations of Independence Day (pointed to by "Jesus Politics"). Gushee makes some probably fairly reasonable points. I don't have much to add, other than I'd actually like to make some more general points about the relationship between the church and patriotism, but also about secular celebrations of this country and some of their often unrealistic portrayals of our history. If I ever get around to it...

20:44:58 - Religion - ben - No comments

June 25, 2008

Dobson on Obama

by ben

I remember Barack Obama's speech at Call to Renewal 2006 (Call to Renewal is connected with Sojourners). I didn't hear it, but I was familiar with it. And I've read the transcript recently. So I know the speech fairly well. James Dobson on the other hand, has only heard of it recently, but having heard about it, he felt the need to address some deficiencies in it, which he did on his radio show today.

Now, I don't think Obama's speech was perfect. It wasn't even brilliant. But it was a good speech that made some good points. Especially notable were Obama's emphasis on his own identity (and thus responsibility) as a Christian, his defense for religion's participation in the public realm, and his reminder that separation of church and state began as a way to protect religion not government. I personally found it to be a little theologically liberal for my taste, to be sure, and I don't like Obama's defense of his views on abortion in it (though he does make a point to at least grant an acknowledgement of good faith on the part of his opponents on the issue). But on the whole I thought it was a good speech.

James Dobson and Tom Minnery (apparently Focus on the Family's Vice President of Public Policy), unsurprisingly, don't think it was a good speech. Quite the contrary, in fact. Of course, it probably doesn't help that Dobson was mentioned in the speech in direct contrast with Al Sharpton. (Dobson also blatantly misinterprets part of the speech and claims that Obama thinks he wants to kick all non-Christians out of the country, which is clearly not what Obama meant, and in fact that part in context didn't even have anything to do with Dobson directly.) That's not his primary complaint, though.

First, they criticize the speech for not raising the "Judeo-Christian heritage" of the United States and for putting too much emphasis on other religions. Specifically, Obama said, "Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers." Pointing out that 78% of Americans identify as Christian, they find this to be problematic.

They also take Obama to task for bringing up interpretive difficulties with the Bible - interpreting this as "disparaging serious understanding of the Bible." What Obama said was,

Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let's read our bibles. Folks haven't been reading their bibles.

Dobson and Minnery criticize Obama for suggesting that political moral arguments need to be universalizable to those of other religions (or of no religion) to be politically acceptable. Dobson quotes George Washington in supporting the idea that religion is the basis of morality (a view I'm not ashamed to admit I do not at all agree with - in part because I read Romans 2 to be saying the exact opposite) to criticize this argument.

Dobson also badly misinterprets Obama's call for universalizable arguments as a claim that in order to make a moral argument, the majority of people must agree with the argument in advance or else the argument is undemocratic. Which would not make any sense and be completely insupportable - if anything like it had actually appeared in the speech. But it didn't.

That last part really shows the underlying problem with this commentary: it is ignorant. Dobson and Minnery don't appear to have spent any time thinking about this speech, or even reading it accurately. Some of their complaints may be valid, though those are subject to interpretation at a very broad level, but others are, to be generous, ridiculous. Which is unfortunate on several levels, not least of which because substantial discussion of Obama's views on religion in the public sphere could be very interesting and productive.

Now, as I said, I don't want you to think I subscribe to everything in this speech. But I really do think it deserves better than Dobson gave it. But both the speech and the radio program are available and I invite everyone to examine both.

00:53:45 - Politics - ben - No comments

March 20, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)

by ben

The inevitable has finally come to pass, as Arthur C. Clarke, the great science fiction author passed away at 90 early Wednesday in Sri Lanka.

Clarke was always my favorite science fiction author, as he was both a competent writer and scientist, and produced very readable and interesting hard science fiction.

09:25:43 - Sci-Fi - ben - No comments

May 31, 2007


by ben

Incidentally, I hope my raving about conservatives and enviornmentalism isn't offensive. I tried to be nice when making generalizations, but sometimes I'm a little blunt. Also, I was going to clarify my statement that I was inclined to follow the apparent consensus opinion among climatologists, etc. but (1) Firefox ate that post and (2) looking back, I was pretty careful the first time. I realized though that saying things like "well, I'm going to trust the climatologists on this" carries with it a lot of dangerous assumptions, or at least appears to - believe me, I'm no modernist believer in the religion of science (as I tried to indicate in my original post). The reason why I wanted to clarify that was first because I thought it was the weakest point in the post but what finally pushed me over the edge was reading a comment by the late Stephen Jay Gould in the preface to his revised (1996) edition of The Mismeasure of Man defending his right to critique what had traditionally been considered the domain of psychology. His insistence there on the traditional claim that such critiques should be judged on their content and not the qualifications of their authors is absolutely correct, of course. In the world of quick judgments though, I have to admit I sometimes look first to who is making a statement - not all statements are equally trustworthy or informed, and often one can find out a lot about whether the content of a particular critique is worth evaluating in advance simply by checking who the author is. To return to our specific problem, as I said, when Newt Gingrich (who ironically has apparently recently reversed his position on global warming - I'm pretty sure I already knew that but had forgotten it) says something about environmental science, I take it with some skepticism since he is avowedly and openly political. One could also consider things written by people like Bjørn Lomborg or economists (of which I believe there is a lot of literature, though I haven't checked recently). Now, I know that there have also been plenty of critiques of the idea from within climatology and absolutely should those (or even arguments from the aforementioned economists) be evaluated on their merits if there is reason to assume they have any (which is to say, I believe that people who are seriously interested in the theory of anthropogenic global warming will publish in peer-reviewed journals or at least a forum where it will be seen first by scientists even if not peer-reviewed, rather than in the popular press; I mean, shoot, even Alan Sokal had the decency to publish about his hoax in a journal). Now, so far I have not seen too many good arguments though from climatologists against the idea (and I know several points are subjects of debate, though with the mainstream position appearing to stand strong in most of those cases), though there are a few that seemed worth investigating. Certainly one should not be religious about the whole topic - modern science is premised on the idea that people will try to shoot down any given theory. In that sense, as I said before, I agree with some people's concerns that people are indeed turning global warming into an ideology. But just because some people are doing that, let's remember that does not mean the science is automatically wrong.

And this is where we get to a much more complicated issue that I rather side-stepped in the original post. How does one legislate based on science? I mean, we may know that the mainstream opinion among a certain group of scientists is some thing, but we do not know how long such an opinion will hold. It would be foolish to assume any current understanding of science will remain permanently. There are, of course, some theories that are better established than others and action should be taken accordingly in those cases (it would be silly at the moment, for example, for Congress to fund faster-than-light spaceships...) but even those theories are standins for more developed models to come. And some things are much more variable than that. Some well-accepted ideas of science in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries were ridiculous, harmful, or downright directly immoral. But again, we need to be aware that science is not monolithic, and not all theory is equally good, and just because theory may in some cases be adequate, we should not accept every proposed practice built on top of that. Eugenics is a classic example of how not to legislate based on science. A lot of the theory was dubious, but practice was even worse - and we shouldn't take serious the idea that things like forced sterilization were the realm of science (though certainly some scientists tried to put it within the realm of science). I think that the relationship between science (whether natural or social) and policy (especially given the limitations of both) is something that deserves continual and deep consideration. You can take that as a caveat on both sides (though perhaps not euqally) of the global warming debate, for one. But we can't stop there - this an issue that affects us all the time.

Speaking of both eugenics and The Mismeasure of Man... Last week I was whining about statistics and their abuses to one my colleagues, which resulted in that book being brought up. I've been doing a lot of reading on statistics for work lately (more on in another post soon, perhaps) and the idea of doing some non-technical reading about further abuses of them at the same time seemed like a fairly good idea. But, being preoccupied with other things, I did not immediately set out to do so; nor did I have any long-range plans to do so, for that matter. However, on the way to work today, I saw someone carrying a couple bags from the campus book store and the odd thought that they might be having a sale crossed my mind, so I decided to investigate. Indeed they were having a sale; in fact, all books except textbooks were 50% off - way too good to pass up. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how one looks at it, I suppose) there were no books I was even remotely interested in. Well, except for one, the title of which you can guess. Serendipity.

Gould's book is about what he saw as the fatally flawed hypothesis of intelligence as reduceable to a single measurable and rankable number that carries with it some sort of measure of worth or value. Or so I take it so far; I have only gotten as far as the (lengthy) preface to the revised edition so far. This is a topic I've been following with some casual interest since I first heard about Herrnstein and Murray's book The Bell Curve in college and with some additional interest since I read another essay by Murray on the same topic a couple years ago (which led to further reading which led to at least one post on race and crime, for example). In fact, I've been meaning to write something about this from a more philosophical perspective for some time; verily, even this week I considered doing so. I might have to now that I'm reading on the same topic. Basically what I want to lay out is that regardless of the quality of the science underlying such things (which plenty of peopke, Gould included, have taken difference with) we need to be careful how we deal with such things - this goes back to the question of "science" and policy. There's good moral reason to not treat groups or individuals differently based on "intelligence" regardless of what the theory says (and in this case the theory turned out to be pretty bad, though it continues to have a life of its own with people like Charles Murray). Which is sort of like saying "all men are created equal" is an excellent basis on which to build a country regardless of whether scientific opinion agrees with that idea at any given moment or not. But as I said, I think that ought to be a post of its own.

I'll have more to say about statistics soon; I've been reading too much about them recently, but I've picked up a lot of useful stuff about them, and a few more entertaining bits (such as an amusing rant by one of the authors whose book I have here to the effect that chaos as a science is more or less nonsense since noise in data prevents the formation of chaos in the real world).

18:32:33 - General - ben - No comments


by ben

Why does Firefox not ask for confirmation when a text area contains lots of entered text and one hits a button (by accident...) that causes it to navigate away from the page? Why, oh why? Incidentally, this particular missing feature of Mozilla and Firefox has been being complained about for at least 6.5 years as a little searching will show. While we're at it, why are users stupid enough to enter text directly like this instead of using text editors and copy-and-paste? (Frankly though, despite my stupidity, this is mostly on Firefox.)

Why, oh why, is Firefox so slow, especially when downloading files (nearly freezing just over updating the little download window)?

And while we're at it, why do government agencies supply Excel files of their report data for all 50 states and D.C. and Puerto Rico and then organize the Excel file so that none of that data can be used directly without extensive manual rearrangement?

While computers may be fairly advanced, we're doing a really bad job with very basic design issues (of all sorts - not just software interfaces, as my complaint about the Excel file shows). Grr.

03:49:19 - Technology - ben - No comments

May 29, 2007

Conservatives and Environmentalism

by ben

It's interesting to see how conservatives deal with environmental issues. Take, for example, everyone's favorite dinner topic ,anthropogenic global warming.

As I recall, up until about ten years ago, no conservative would even admit there was any global warming, regardless of supposed cause. Eventually, that position became largely untenable, and most conservatives took to (1) merely denying anthropogenic global warming while (2) simultaneously pointing out that global warming wouldn't be all bad. Incidentally, denying anthropogenic global warming seems to have slipped more into denying conclusive evidence of anthropogenic global warming (attempting to take the intellectual high road). In addition, the claim has been added that it would be too expensive to prevent global warming and cheaper to fix later. (There's also the absolute last ditch argument that it's not the government's job to prevent environmental catastrophes, but... Well, need I say more?)

These arguments all have several things in common. The first is that these arguments didn't sound all that bad when they were first made (the actual quality of the arguments is a different story). The second is that they have steadily moved to agree more with the environmentalist position of the mid-1990s - momentum is almost exclusively in one direction on this issue. Based on those two properties, you might see that these arguments look suspiciously like rationalizations; that would be the third thing they all have in common.

Now, I'm not saying they are rationalizations, I'm saying they sound like rationalizations. Actually, I could go further and say I think that they are rationalizations. The problem is we can't say for certain they are - rational arguments based strictly on evidence but with a strongly skeptical perspective might look similar. Note I'm also not saying they are good arguments, just that I can't prove they're irrational.

Furthermore, I think if we looked at many other environmental issues we'd see a similar pattern. For all the complaints about economy-killing pollution regulation, for example, we seem to have survived somehow. Car emission and fuel standards, I think we can safely say, were not stringent enough - the conservatives blew that one big time. About the only issue environmentalists really look conclusively incorrect on was nuclear power, and even there there remain problems, just most of them will only really be an issue long after we're all dead. (There's also the DDT thing, but the word "conclusively" is not evoked by that debate, nor am I familiar enough with the details to even attempt to sound reasonable about it.)

What I'm trying to say with all of this is... It's true environmentalism makes bold claims. And it's true that those claims can't always be proven (which is not to say they are not rational). And it's even true those claims occasionally affect the way some people want to live their lives. But, environmentalism has a pretty good track record, and converesly the opposite is also true: anti-envrionmentalism has a bad track record (I bet a lot of people who have been opposed to gas milage standards could go back in time and change their position). But what really strikes me is that anti-environmentalism seems to be merely reactionary, not rational but rationalization. I can't prove it, but the history of its battles suggests it strongly.

Incidentally, it seems that conservative opposition to environmentalism is based largely on opposition to governmental regulation. This outweighs the desire to preserve that one would tend to expect out of people who do after all call themselves "conservatives" (and in other places and times that indeed would have been the case, I'm sure). People who take a cautious approach to resources which can't be readily replaced tend to view the environment as a public good and hence one that can be protected by the government. On the other hand people who take a cautious approach to laws which supposedly can't be readily repealed tend to view the environment as an issue of private property and hence something that should not be regulated by the government. The problem is we have to put up with the earth a lot longer than the laws. Governments that have lasted more than a few hundred years are rare (and at 220, we're getting up there), and laws that have lasted that long are even rarer. On the other hand, we're more than capable of inflicting envrionemental damage that last much longer than that, besides the immediate effects of pollution and such.

As a final gripe, I get really sick of people denouncing environmentalism because of Mother Earth-types and neo-pagans. I try not to evaluate all conservatives on the basis of Pat Robertson, and I'd like the same courtesy.

Alright that's mostly what I wanted to say. But, since I brought up global warming, and since it seems to be the topic du jour, let me add a few thoughts on that.

First, I agree, as everyone does, that anthropogenic global warming is not "proven" though we need to keep in mind that most things in science aren't "proven" per se. Of course, anthropogenic global warming isn't even up to the standard of a looser definition of proof like relativity or something like that; it's definitely something that requires going farther out on a limb than that. But, and I want to stress this, that doesn't make it irrational. It doesn't even make legislating on the basis of the theory irrational. Actually, probably the opposite is true.

Also, I don't want to claim that I "believe in" anthropogenic global warming. I don't "believe in" things in science. I just don't have reasons to doubt them. I'm not signing on to some doctrinal statement here. In fact, I would not be surprised if anthropogenic global warming turns out to be wrong. I've always given it worse odds than a lot of people. On the other hand, I sure ain't betting against it, both because I do believe (there's that word finally) in the general quality of physical scientists in the world and because of the potentially cataclysmic effects if they're right. I don't think, by the way, one should blindly believe scientists (and especially in some fields - not all disciplines are held to equal standards, but also given the ability of scientists to buy into weird theories) and I even realize that some scientists doubt anthropogenic global warming. But in so far as this is unfortunately an issue where it seems to be impossible to remain neutral - if only because policy decisions must be made - I'm going to go with the people who I know to be most credible. And I generally am inclined to trust climatologists more than New Gingrich, especially on something they specialize in. True, they could turn out to be wrong (which even they admit, I'm sure), but short of becoming a climatologist myself, I'm going to have to rely on their judgment to an extent.

Also, I think everyone needs to look deep into their intellectual soul and ask themselves why they think we ought to assume anthropogenic global warming is happening or not. I happen to think that a large portion of conservatives would have to admit, if they were really being honest, that they don't buy into the the idea largely because they don't like it's implications and not because they have any real basis for doubting it. At the same time, I'm sure that because of their initial bias some conservatives may have discovered interesting and good reasons to doubt global warming that they might not have seen if they hadn't been so skeptical. I'm not sure what to say to those people, other than they'll have to be patient with those of us who are still waiting for more climatologists to come around to their way of thinking.

Ironically, had conservatives just left the whole global warming thing alone in the '90s, there would have been no partisan backlash and they would probably have found it easier to promote skepticism now. If global warming really does become the religion they're accusing it of becoming (and in some ways they probably are correct with that complaint), a large part of the impetus for that will probably be traceable to their opposition. But isn't that always how politics works? (I suppose we could blame the 60s for modern conservatism, for example...)

And absolutely finally, a quick shot at all those arguments I brought up way back in the opening: Nearly everybody believes global warming is happening, so I don't need to address that (other than to say, sure, it's always a good thing to have a better understanding of the data, and it's not completely nailed down just how much warming is happening or even that it's 100% certain it is, though it seems to be pretty close to that). Obviously the arguments about the source of global warming are the crux of the whole thing, so I won't dealt with those. But global warming is not as far as I can tell a good thing. Oh sure, it's probably alright if you live in Montana, but if you live on a coast line it's pretty bad. Some bad predictions about agricultural impacts have also been made. The mere existence of this argument suggests both a large amount of ignorance about global warming and a certain provincialism. Next, I've already said a little about why denying conclusive evidence is not useful. That also has to do with the next argument, which is that global warming is too expensive. I've never actually heard a good argument for why fixing the problem is supposed to be so expensive (actually I've never heard any argument - it always just seems to be stated as a fact) but worse this argument seems to completely ignore the history of regulation to the small degree I am familiar with it (that is, regulation usually ends up costing way less than predicted and sometimes ends up actually causing higher profitability). But even if one were to buy into it, first, the potential economic effects are also large, but more importantly, the thing is you're staking a certain percentage of your economic growth against the fate of billions of people - it hardly seems a fair approach.

[Update, May 31: I was not entirely correct when I said I had not heard an argument for why global warming was supposed to be too expensive to fix. Bjorn Lomberg's Copenhagen Consensus had something to say about that.]

04:39:28 - Politics - ben - No comments

May 25, 2007


by ben

Apparent discrepancies (I say "apparent" since there is no "apparent discrpenacy" that is not a subject of dispute) in the gospel accounts are an interesting problem - and I don't just mean in an apologetic sense, but also a literary sense. I mean, on the one hand they have become a source of contention about the accuracy of the gospel accounts, but on the other hand they can be used to extract more information from the rather terse literary form of the gospels.

Take, for example, the dying words of Jesus. Matthew and Mark merely record that Jesus "cried out in a loud voice" when dying (though they make a point to note that Jesus said "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" earlier). Luke reports that "Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!' Having said this, he breathed his last." And John says that "When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, 'It is finished.' He bowed his head, and gave up his spirit."

This is what I thought of when I was reading an article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, "Angels and Ages" pointed to by Language Hat. Gopnik deals with two interesting examples of this sort of problem. The main part of the article is concerned with whether Edwin Stanton at Lincoln's death said that he belonged to the "ages" or to the "angels." But there is also the interesting case of what John Wilkes Booth said when he shot Lincoln. Gopnik, explicitly referencing the problem with the gospels, writes,

It is not hard to see, in this exegetical exactitude, something that recalls the attention that scholars give to fine-point disputes about the words and tales of Jesus and his apostles. This attention to verbal minutiae extends to the secondary figures in the Lincoln gospel, not least his assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Booth either did or did not say, just as, right before, or shortly after he murdered the President, “Sic semper tyrannis,” the motto on the state flag of Virginia. Possibly, he cried “The South is avenged!” or “Revenge for the South,” and he cried this in the box, or on the stage, or paired with another cry. Of the forty or so reliable witnesses to the assassination whose accounts are collected in Timothy S. Good’s “We Saw Lincoln Shot,” some sixteen heard the Latin or the English, only four heard both, and many say that they didn’t hear the assassin say anything at all. Two witnesses heard Booth say, “I have done it!” Well, which was it? It is possible that he said only Sic semper tyrannis, onstage or off, and that the words were easily misheard by a stunned audience: “The South is avenged.” On the other hand, he may have cried out both, and then added the gloating remark as he fled. But then why didn’t more people hear him?

Booth himself, for whom the assassination was, Swanson says, a kind of diabolical work of performance art, insisted on the “right” reading. “I shouted Sic semper before I fired,” he wrote a few days later, in his own note, which he intended to be sent to the newspapers.

Mind you, Gopnik is talking about eyewitness accounts - no one is disputing that these people saw the event, but only whether their accounts are accurate.

At the end of the article, Gopnik makes the point that even had we been at Lincoln's death bed there's no guarantee we would have known exactly what Stanton said - certainly the eyewitnesses at the Ford's Theatre didn't know exactly what Booth said. And things are no different today - there are often arguments about recorded comments and speeches.

I think there has to be a lesson here - or more than one. On the one hand, one might be inclined to say that naysayers who take minor discrepances in the gospels to be indicative of fundamental contradictions that show the gospels are either majorly inaccurate or, worse, complete fiction should lighten up a little. Probably true. But there is a problem for those practicing a conservative hermeneutic too, because usually of how much weight is often placed upon exact phrasing in the gospels. I understand all the theology that has been built up around that practice - not all of it sound, I'd be inclined to say - but still, I think it ought to give people pause. Now, no credible scholar would ever buy into "proof-texting" as they call it (though they might disagree about what constitutes proof-texting), but people still do it all the time, even people who say we shouldn't do it (I plead guilty, your Honor).

22:55:30 - Religion - ben - No comments

April 22, 2007

Charles Babbage

by ben

Do you know who Charles Babbage is? Probably not, as very few people seem to know who he is. This seems to be true even in technological fields. Now, while Babbage may not have been a pivotal figure in the history of science, he certainly was an interesting one - as I think you will agree.

You see, Charles Babbage designed what was presumably the first "general purpose" digital computer. This is, however, not what makes Charles Babbage interesting. What makes him interesting is that he did so in the middle of the Nineteenth Century.

His computer was called the Analytical Engine, and of course, it was mechanical, not electronic. Furthermore, as you have probably guessed by now, it was not completed. Had it been, it would have beaten the first actual general purpose computer by decades.

What made me think of Charles Babbage tonight, though, was not his Analytical Engine. It was the title of his autobiography: Passages from the Life of a Philosopher. Someone (I have forgotten whom, though it may have been Anthony Hyman who wrote a biography of Babbage) once pointed out that the word "philosopher" in the title is presumably short for "natural philosopher," that is, a scientist, and that furthermore the archaic term "natural philosopher" dates to a time when scientists were not specialists but generalists. And the reason I thought of that is because it's that sort of generalization that I always sought (oftern unsuccessfully) as a student of the sciences. I hope to write more on this subject in the near future, but for now I will leave you with the thought that is possible there might still be room for generalists in science. (And I will hint that the answer, at least for some, may lie in part in Babbage's invention: computers.)

Incidentally, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher is avaiable online (scanned pdf). I own two books related to Charles Babbage, both of which I have found to be interesting (though I must add a disclaimer that I have never read them "cover-to-cover" as it were). The first is the aforementioned biography by Charles Hyman called Charles Babbage: Pioneer of the Computer from 1982. The second is a more recent book by Doron Swade, The Difference Engine: Charles Babbage and the Quest to Build the First Computer (the Difference Engine was an earlier computer design by Babbage that was not for a general purpose computer). For the more technically minded, John Walker has some excellent resources on the analytical engine, including an emulator for those who feel like programming a hypothetical machine.

Incidentally, if anyone feels deprived of good biographies, the early history of computing provides some very interesting life stories. Besides Babbage we have his contemporary and colleague Ada Lovelace, touted by many as both the first programmer, in so far as she wrote programs for the Analytical Engine, and who was, obviously, a woman no less - a rarity in the field still, sadly, but certainly so in the Nineteenth Century. Then later there is, Alan Turing, who is an important figure in computing theory. Turing's biography actually makes for a good spy story too, or at least part of one: Besides laying some pivotal ground work for modern theory of computing (which concerns itself in large part with what can and cannot be computed), Turing worked as a cryptographer during World War II and designed a machine to read the German Enigma cipher; and at age 51 he died from cyanide poisoning in what is most often explained as a suicide. And of course there is always John von Neumann who is known largely for, well, doing a lot of stuff; besides his involvement in computer science, he worked in many other fields, and he was involved in the Manhattan Project. I suppose that all goes back in some ways to the question of generalists. Though, I certainly don't want to claim everyone can be Von Neumann.

05:40:59 - Science - ben - No comments

April 14, 2007

You Can Never Have Too Much Information: College Enrollment

by ben

Why don't people attend college after high school? That was the question I asked myself. I still haven't found really good information on that,and I did not perfectly predict the responses even among what I did find. Nor did that turn out to be the most interesting question one could ask about this issue. But, first, reasons students gave for not enrolling in college can be found in a 1999 survey of Oregon high school students (specifically, see Table 18). I'm sure there's better data on this, but I don't have time to spend all night looking for it. Maybe some other time, or at least if people are interested (of course, maybe someone can suggest some source?). Now, the more interesting thing I found: "Factors Related to College Enrollment" (executive summary also available), a 1998 study. It looks like it was done for the Department of Education, but its not clear (though certainly they're using it - it's on their web site after all). Interesting but odd things in there. Turns out a lot of small things correlate really well with "post-secondary education" (as they call it) attendence. None of that will necessarily tell you why students end up attending college or not, but it will give you a pretty good mechanism for predicting which students will.

20:26:19 - Politics - ben - No comments

April 09, 2007

Security through Infrastructure

by ben

I just caught a talk on C-SPAN (yes, I am an addict) by one Stephen Flynn, fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, security expert, and author of The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation, blah, blah, blah, before the World Affairs Council of Houston on March 27th. Basically, Flynn was harping on the idea that one critical role in protecting the United States from terrorism is to make it an unattractive target through strengthening domestic security - such as securing chemical refiniries - and infrastructure. He also talked about the need to emphasize "hazard" rather than terrorism, since terrorism is not the only threat but so are natural disasters and accidents. Furthermore, he claimed a need to involve everyone in the process, for example, emphasizing "preparedness as a civic duty." And he gave some scary examples of lack of preparedness.

Brilliant. Well, of course, I am not an unbiased observer; I've made claims similar to Flynn's in the past as well. (But then, you know, I'm not a fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations or a security expert, and all that stuff.) But, anyway, I really do think the general point is a good one. The cost of preventing or drastically mitigating a disaster relative to the cost of a full disaster is insignificant. Furthermore, regardless of the risk of terrorist attacks, we know that natural disasters will occur, so it pays to be properly prepared. And, we really have no excuse, given the low cost and high risk without it, and finally the fact that this is not a partisan issue and there's no opposition.

I don't have any specific policy recommendation on this one. I'm not familiar with the particulars of all the issues to weigh in. Though, I would like to suggest that some more emphasis be placed on the issue than is now. One thing we can all do is obviously to find out how prepared our own community is. And if you don't like the answer, you'll know what to do. This is not just, or even primarily, a national issue, it's a local and regional issue in most ways. So we certainly have more influence here than we might elsewhere. Furthermore, this is an interesting issue in that we can all take direct action. We can as individuals or families or whatever prepare for disaster by taking the proper direct steps (keeping bottled water, and all that stuff) and through training and practice. There's Red Cross classes on these sorts of things, and amateur radio licenses, and organizations that can be joined, and so on.

00:38:58 - Politics - ben - No comments

March 19, 2007

Literature and Nonfiction Recommendations

by ben

Okay, my major project for this weekend somehow became a list of literature and nonfiction recommendations. It's highly idiosyncratic, of course, since the point is to list things I have found to be of particular value.

02:40:37 - General - ben - No comments

March 17, 2007

Essential Non-Essentials

by ben

I'm a few days behind on this one, but still, it's good enough I want to give it some attention. David Wayne, a more doctrinally conservative and reformed blogger, wrote a great post this week called Emeril as Theologian. Dumb title so ignore that. But basically, Wayne is diagnosing the problem of taking issues that in the past have not been considered essential issues by many people and "kicking them up a notch" into essential issues. He brings up eschatology, adherence to six day creationism, and even one I've brought up in this forum before, namely women in ministry. This promotion of non-essential issues is a big problem in my opinion, as you may have noticed from posts here in the past. I'm just glad to see it getting more attention elsewhere.

01:22:44 - Religion - ben - No comments

March 14, 2007

Half-Formed Thoughts for March 13, 2007

by ben

Why is it that in this nation we believe that individual economic choice is a fundamental right, but we don't believe in pure democracy, instead adhering to that questionable substitute of representative democracy? I mean, you're telling me that I don't have to go along with everyone else if they choose to buy compact cars instead of SUVs or vice versa, but if a majority of 425 persons in Washington feels like making transporting kittens across state lines illegal or some guy elected by 51% of voters feels that launching nuclear weapons, say is a good idea, then I'm stuck? (Of course, technically I have to go along with a majority of 425 representatives, but we've conveniently dispensed in large part with even that pretense of democracy.) Not that anyone has actually proposed making the transportation of juvenile felines illegal, or proposed nuking anyone, at least not in the last 5 minutes, but you get the point. Frankly, I'd rather be able to vote on everything my representatives in Congress get to vote on than chose whether to buy at the Gap or Old Navy, but that's just me. And besides, if you have a truly democratic socialist country, isn't that in a lot of ways the same as having "economic freedom?" Probably not in the technical sense. Ah, I don't care, I just want democracy.

Incidentally, I do think people should be able to buy what is most relevant for them within reason, and I think people should have the right to seek employment where they want, or start their own business and work for themselves. I'm much less keen on the idea of corporation as individual entity. The idea of freedom is, you know, to give people freedom, not some soulless entities choice. The idea that people shouldn't be forced to go along with certain economic decisions made by others is distinct from the idea that anything that makes more money is a good thing. Not being intimately familar with the history of economics, I'm not entirely clear how all of this relates to the original economic ideas on which our nation's economy was supposedly built. No, I haven't read anything by Adam Smith. Yes, I know I should. It's on the to-do list somewhere, I think. (Consider it moved farther up the list.) Oh, and I did add "within reason" for a, well, reason. We happen to live in what political scientists call a liberal democracy. That implies, among other things, that you can't vote to kill me, for example, just because you don't like me. Similarly, you shouldn't be able to wipe out all the individuals of some species just because you own the land they live on - you don't have the right to take resources, in this case, biodiversity, from the rest of us. And, yeah, I think you might even be able that argument to extend that to whether you get to own handguns or a 2 mpg vehicle (though the application is not always trivial). I mean, I wish you could do whatever you want, but let's face it, sometimes things have consequences.

On a completely different nore, one of the commenters on the post by Fred Clark I linked to brought up "cognitive dissonance." It might be worth reading more about that, come to think of it...

01:47:43 - General - ben - No comments

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