Saturday, May 10, 2003

POOR JUDGEMENT: Via the Volokh Conspiracy, some evidence that makes me rethink my plan of becoming a Canadian Supreme Court Justice.
I'M AS SMART AS MICHAEL BARONE: Or rather, Michael Barone is as smart as me. He just writes more words about the same ideas I had, like, days ago.
LABYRINTH: If you're bored, go check out my little pet game called Labyrinth. There are no graphics, just a windows gui with buttons and text, but it's a pretty elaborate adventure game. Lots of items, lots of monsters, lots of wandering around and watching your abilities get higher and higher! What more could you want?
TIVO INSTALLATION: The TiVo installation guy just showed up at 8am this morning... geesh. Who the heck is up this early on a Saturday? He's like seven feet tall and crawling around under the house right now. I really want to go back to sleep, but I also want to be able to record two channels at once which I can't do until he installs the second line from my dish to the receiver unit.

Friday, May 09, 2003

ADULTHOOD: Courtney has some interesting speculation on how "adulthood" has changed over the past few centuries. Additionally, nutrition and other factors have led to earlier menarche among girls in our culture than was common two hundred years ago. Thus, children are maturing sooner biologically and later socially than perhaps ever before; this certainly has an impact on our culture and society, but to what degree and in what form?

Lengthened adolescence and delayed assumption of responsibility do not bode well for the productivity of our civilization. Most college graduates are already over-educated for the jobs/careers that they end up in, and the 4 (or 5 or 6) extra years they spent paying to go to school rather than doing productive work are a drain on our economy. College graduates that then continue to live off the parental dole rather than get a job need a good kick in the pants. Sure, they probably won't be able to use their "Women's Studies" degree to pursue their dream job (if it even exists), but they should face that reality and try to learn a useful skill. Kids need to quit looking at college as a four year vacation and get serious about their lives.

The job market is tough right now. I've been helping some high school juniors with college applications and the like, and I've been advising them to major in something that will actually make them employable in a field other than retail. Accountants and nurses will always be able to get a job, for example; those who instead choose to major in "Chicano History" may be harder-pressed. If you choose to go to college, learn something useful or you're wasting your time. It's frowned upon these days, but many people would benefit a great deal more from attending a technical/trade school than a university.

I don't think I even need to go in to the horror of the drug abuse, sexual foolishness, and angst-ridden poetry that also results from this delayed adulthood.
WHY MEN DIE YOUNG: Well, younger than women at least -- by an average of five years. Dr. Sanjay Gupta (who performed emergency brain surgery on an Iraqi child while working as a medical correspondent during the recent war) discusses some of the behavioral factors that contribute to men's shorter lives.
According to David Williams, a senior research scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and the main author of the study, men outrank women in all of the 15 leading causes of death, except one: Alzheimer's. Men's death rates are at least twice as high as women's for suicide, homicide and cirrhosis of the liver. Men don't just have more accidents, they are accidents waiting to happen.

"At every age," Williams reports, "American males have poorer health and a higher risk of mortality than females." ...

These reasons alone would certainly contribute to a shorter life span for men, but the problem may be even more profound. Williams blames deep-seated cultural beliefs — a "macho" world view that rewards men for taking risks and tackling danger head on. Men are twice as likely to get hit by lightning or die in a flash flood, according to a report delivered last week in Atlanta at a meeting sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In low-lying flood zones, says Thomas Songer of the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, men are more likely to drive around barricades and drown in high water.
This isn't news; most of it has been known for a long time.

Genetics also plays a role, and it's pretty clear that X and Y chromosomes concern more than reproduction.
PREMONITION: I had an eerie feeling when I woke up this morning. For some reason, I was afraid that something really bad had happened and that I should turn on the news immediately and find out what it was. I thought perhaps New York had been nuked. Obviously nothing like that took place, but it left me with a strange feeling for the rest of the morning. Must have been the fading tendrils of a dream.
BUSTING FILLIBUSTERS: I'm not sure what I think about this proposed rule change in the Senate which would gradually lower the threshold number of votes required to end a fillibuster. In general, I like it to be hard for our government to enact new laws, and so I'm not too thrilled about any change that makes it easier for them (even if the rule they are eliminating is procedural in nature, and completely unrelated to the Constitution). However, in the case of affirming appointments by the president, I can see why permanent fillibustering can be a bad thing. There are a great many federal judgeships that are unfilled at the moment, and the Senate shouldn't be dragging their feet over the people that Bush nominates. That doesn't mean that they need to affirm everyone he sends their way, but I do think that they need to take a vote on each person rather than just leaving them in limbo.
ROMANTIC CONSERVATIVES: Via Donald Sensing I see that Armed Liberal writes over at Winds of Change:
And the concrete policies they [Romantic Conservatives] choose completely undermine the fantasy – another characteristic of Romantic politics. The centerpieces of Bush’s economic policy, if you look at them carefully, don’t benefit small business, professionals, or small entrepreneurs. The impact of these incentives is as targeted as a JDAM, and it is on the large corporations who make up the GOP’s core constituency.

It assumes that the best way to promote small business is to … give tax breaks and shift policies in favor of big businesses and big investors, thereby accelerating the concentration of economic power – which means shuttering the small businesses as they go under. It assures us that the best way to preserve our way of life is to … deprive us of the liberties and the equality before law that are central to it. In essence, GOP policies are aimed at using the power of the State to reward those who they think should be rewarded and enforce their ideals of human behavior…one of the basic definitions of liberalism, no?
It's just pure nonsense. As I quoted before, "With a soft-money ban in place, Republicans raised more than three times as much as Democrats during the first three months of this year. In recent years, Democrats had much better luck raising seven-figure checks from union leaders, trial lawyers and Hollywood moguls. In 2002, nine of the 10 biggest soft-money donors were Democrats, according to PoliticalMoneyLine." Republicans depend on many small donations, whereas Democrats depend on a few large donations. Which is more populist do you think?

Additionally, in 1998 nearly 50% of families owned stock... that was five years ago and I bet the stats are even higher now. Those are the people that Bush's dividend tax cut will help, because they are the owners of the giant corporations that the liberals seem to hate. Corporations aren't evil self-existing entities, they're just groups of people united for a common purpose. If you're a liberal and can't grasp this concept, think "labor union". Saying that Bush's tax cuts will only help corporations is nonsensical, since more than 50% of the population shares ownership of those corporations!
LIMITED GOVERNMENT: Out of curiousity I've located a website with the text of various national constitutions from around the world. I haven't read them all, but of the ones I have looked through it's amazing how few of them actually place any limits on government power.
BUY BUY BUY!: Somehow, I don't think that North Korean bonds that pay no interest are a wise investment.
GOVERNMENT REGULATION: There are some instances where government regulation is beneficial, and even critical. Economic situations such as natural monopolies present significant challenges to the private sector because there is little intrinsic competition, and so some government regulation may be useful.

What brings the topic to mind, however, is this awful story about passangers being sucked out the back door of a plane over the Congo. Without knowing many specifics, it isn't hard to speculate on the series of failures that led to these deaths. Poor maintenance and repair allowed the pressure system of the "several decades old" aircraft to fail catastrophically. In order for the passangers to be sucked out, they must not have been wearing seat belts -- even properly secured chairs would have given them protection and kept them inside the plane until it could land. As is common in the third world, this cargo plane likely had no chairs or security restraints at all, and most of the passangers were probably just sitting on the floor.

Safety regulations can prevent these types of accidents. It often isn't in a service provider's short-term economic interests to spend money on security devices that will only rarely be of use; they may calculate that it will be cheaper to put off spending the money on the securty and instead just spend money later paying off the victims' families. However, this passes the financial burden of their decision onto the rest of society (since the dead will no longer be working or caring for their families, for example). Even if the payments to the families of the victims cover all the lost productivity of the dead relative, there are many other hidden costs that are not taken into account, such as the psychological effects that disasters can have on the economy and on specific industries.

And of course a bunch of people end up dead. I don't think highly of regulations that try to protect people from their own stupidity (such as helmet laws), but I do think that people should be protected from others' stupidity. It shouldn't be illegal to drive a car without wearing a seatbelt, but I have no problem with it being illegal to manufacture and sell a car that doesn't have seatbelts.

Thursday, May 08, 2003

COINCIDENCE?: I have the same birthday as "America's favorite dissident", Noam Chomsky.
SCIENCE VS. PHILOSOPHY: I wanted to point out, in agreement with Donald Sensing, that science and philosophy are very different beasts. Science tells us the facts of the universe; philosophy helps us interpret them. There is certainly an interplay between the two -- philosophy may help determine what science investigates, and science may support or refute philosophy with factual revelations -- but in many ways they do not overlap.

Every scientist brings to their work a particular philosophy, similar to the "anthropic principle" that SDB mentioned. Our science is inevitably tainted by our philosophy. A scientist who believes that the sun revolves around the earth will perform experiments based on that belief, and it can take quite a bit of time for science to demonstrate that even a clearly observable belief such as that is wrong. Likewise, belief or disbelief in God naturally brings strong predispositions to the scientific process.

Science produces a lot of facts, and different people see these same facts and interpret them in very different ways because of their differing philosophies. While it would probably be possible to convince someone who believes that the sun revolves around the earth that he is wrong, the factual evidence is not so clear when it comes to the existence of God. In fact, as SDB has argued it may be impossible because God's existence cannot be proven or disproven. The question is, literally, beyond the reach of science. Where SDB sees the universe and concludes that it somehow spontaneously arose due to random processes, I see the same universe and conclude that it's most likely that it was created in some way by God.

How can we see the same things and reach different answers? Not because either of us is ignorant of scientific fact, but because our philosophies are different and we see only pale shadows of reality.
ATHEISM: SDB is continuing his excellent explanation of his atheistic beliefs, and Robin Goodfellow discusses it some more, Brian Chapin used to be an atheist and talks about evangelism, and Mark Byron mentions some studies on the power of prayer (and its non-power). Fascinating stuff to read by some very smart people.

I'm an engineer, as SDB is, and my general reaction to new knowledge seems to be the opposite of his. I want to know everything, and the more I learn the more certain I am that our universe could not exist as the result of pure chance. Life as we know it could not have just happened randomly... I've run enough evolutionary AI algorithms to be very skeptical of the power of the evolutionary process. (One of the main foci of artificial intelligence research is in so-called "evolutionary algorithms". These algorithms are patterned on the theory of biological evolution and attempt to harness recombination, mutation, and natural selection forces to generate "emergent effects" that are greater than the information content that is put into the system. That's it in a nutshell... I can write a more thorough description later if anyone is interested.)

The general concensus of the artificial intelligence folks that I know is that we just aren't doing evolutionary programming "right" yet, which is why we aren't getting the types of emergent effects that they believe real evolution produced... but because of my own pre-dispositions, I don't think that we'll ever get the type of power out of evolutionary programming that some hope for. We all look at the same evidence and come to different conclusions, based on our philisophical backgrounds.

The existence and nature of God is the central question of life, and a great deal depends on whether you are right or not. I'm a Christian, and if my beliefs are wrong then my beliefs are worthless.
I Corinthians 15:14 -- And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
Similarly, if I am right and SDB turns out to be wrong then there will be consequences for his wrong beliefs. The matter is not one to take lightly, no matter what you believe.

Wednesday, May 07, 2003

QUIT WHINING: Up Yours has a particularly offensive little screed up at the moment. I haven't really read the site before, but the tone of this post epitomizes the greed and selfishness of the liberal left.
The U.S. ranks 28th in a list of industrialized nations for infant mortality rates with 7.2 deaths per 1000 live births. CUBA WAS 27th. My heavens that is lame. Here are some of the reasons for this shameful statistic: 3.7% of all babies are born without their mother receiving any prenatal care, 7.5% are born with low birthweight due to poor maternal nutrition, and on an average day with a little over 11,000 births, 76 of those babies will die before they reach the age of one. 1 in 27 births are to mothers who received NO prenatal care. Why? Because health care in this country is UNAFFORDABLE and BEYOND ACCESS to those who most desperately need it. The uneducated and impoverished - and the growing number of unemployed - like myself.
Actually, most states have all sorts of free pre-natal programs. Free to the recipent, anyway... taxpayers (a.k.a., people with jobs) still pay for it.

If you don't have the money and resources to raise a child in the manner you think is necessary, then I have a simple solution. Don't have kids. Please, don't. It's incredibly selfish of you to have children when you won't be able to care for them, and there's no excuse for it considering how cheap and widely available birth control is these days. I don't understand why Dawn and Moxie think that society should bear the burden for their decision to have a child. Likewise, why should their employer have to pay them and give them time off?

I want a house and a Ferrari, but unfortunately I can't afford both of them -- so I had to make a choice. If circumstances won't permit you to have a child and at the same time have the career that you want, then you too will have to make a choice. Forcing society or your employer to pay you money so you can have time off and a secure job is absurd and selfish. Having children is a luxury, not a necessity, so budget wisely and decide what you want.

If you determine that you can't have it all... welcome to real life. I suggest you get used to it.

Check out their comment section where I wrote as well.

On a related subject, check out this MSNBC article about women who make more money than their husbands. (Link via GeekPress.)
CFR: In addition to being unconstitutional, the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act is also useless.
Democrats today are kicking off a roundabout way of helping to finance their 2004 congressional campaigns with the very type of unlimited donations from corporations, unions and individuals that many party leaders had vowed to flush from the political system.

The strategy involves creating two new groups unmistakably aligned with the Democratic Party's long-standing campaign organizations for the House and Senate. Technically, however, the two groups are not arms of the Democratic Party. That is a key distinction, because the nation's new campaign finance law bars lawmakers from soliciting "soft money," the unlimited money that politicians still crave.
The BCFRA is causing the Dems more problems than it's causing the Republicans, mainly because the Democrats generally depend on a small number of large donations while the Republicans are financed by a larger number of small donations that are made up of more "hard money". This may be counter-intuitive if you had previously thought that the Democrats are the "party of the people" and the Republicans are "owned by the rich".
Some Democrats do not feel they have time to wait. With a soft-money ban in place, Republicans raised more than three times as much as Democrats during the first three months of this year. In recent years, Democrats had much better luck raising seven-figure checks from union leaders, trial lawyers and Hollywood moguls.

In 2002, nine of the 10 biggest soft-money donors were Democrats, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.
Don't worry, the Republicans are forming these new soft-money groups as well, and in the end there will be just as much money spent on campaigns as there was before the stupid law was passed. It's all smoke and mirrors folks. Money is like water: it follows the path of least resistance to the lowest point available, and there's no one lower than politicians.
US UNILATERALLY OPENS IRAQI ECONOMY: The US has unilaterally waived some sanctions on Iraq by Bush's order without bothering to ask the UN for permission. Meanwhile, the same groups that wanted to end scantions while Saddam was in power are luke-warm now that he's gone.
According to sources, Germany appears to be cooperative about lifting the sanctions.

France has offered to "suspend" sanctions until weapons of mass destruction are found and certified by the United Nations. Russia, however, continues to resist lifting sanctions, sources said.

"They are being so blatantly and shamelessly commercial," said one source, who is not American.

They want to protect their commercial interests in Iraq more than any other nation, said one source adding, in the end, "It will be a matter of buying them off" with concessions.
Well obviously, since it's all about oil. For them.

I hope we're beginning to see a pattern here in which the US pays less and less attention to the whinings of the petty dictators over at the UN. What do diplomats fear more than anything else? Irrelevancy. The best way to defeat them isn't to get involved in the endless negotiations which they see not as means towards and end but as an actual end unto themselves, but rather to circumvent them entirely and force the diplomats to play catch-up. They have no other choice, because if they don't end up endorsing America's actions then their actual powerlessness will be fully revealed.
LEVITATING FROGS: A how-to guide. Batteries not included.
FAITH AND FACT: I've got to say that I really respect Steven Den Beste because he is one of the most intellectually honest people that I have come across. He describes himself as a "mechanist atheist" who believes that the material universe is all that exists, and that it is wholly governed by the laws of physics. He has written a rather detailed essay explaining why his beliefs, and atheism in general, must be based on faith.

This is a point that most of the atheists I know refuse to conceed. I've argued endlessly merely trying to demonstrate to people that atheism cannot be rigorously proven to be true, and more often than not my logic is dismissed with handwaving and appeals to the "intellectual authority" of some writer or another. This dismissal of logic and reasoning only further demonstrate the religious fervor of some atheists and their refusal to accept the fact that their beliefs do, in the end, rely on faith.

Of course, there are some Christians who believe that God's existence can be proven; most of those also claim that it can be shown that the God who can be proven to exist is the Christian God and not the god of some other belief system. I think that these Christians are deluding themselves. If you claim to believe what the Bible says, then this is the only possible view:
Hebrews 11:1-2,6 -- Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. ... And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.
Read the whole chapter, it's all about faith. Hebrews 11 describes the actions taken by dozens of people who put their faith in God, despite the fact that they could not see him or touch him. If God wanted to prove his existence he could certainly do it, but he has intentionally not done so because he wants us to come to him in faith.

Why? Well, that's a good question. I'm not entirely sure. Most likely it's a combination of two factors: his love for us, and the gift of free will. If he acted in such a way that his existence could be proven, then it would negate the usefulness of the free will that he gave us. I believe that when the Bible says that we are created "in his image" our possession of free will is a fundamental component of that. And because of his love for us, he didn't design us to be mindless robots. He wants us to love him in return, and love that is forced is not love at all.

Tuesday, May 06, 2003

HELP ME OUT: Here's a little problem to chew on if you're feeling clever tonight.

1000 == 7
101 == 10
110 == 15
200 == 25
10010 == 33


1000001 == ?
21 == ?
112 == ?
120 == ?
1011 == ?

If you can describe your thought process after you get it, that would be helpful as well. People might put the answers in the comments, so don't go there until you finish your own work!
THEORY AND PRACTICE: In theory, theory and practice are the same; in practice, they aren't. Courtney has a post up about the miserable situation that Mugabe has brought about in Zimbabwe, but I'd like to focus on her closing question. She excerpts some quotes from a Zimbabwean 22 year old who admits "he burned houses, watched while children were raped, and shot a white farmer. But he says it was the alcohol and drugs, not him, that did these things." Courtney then asks what should be done with these people?

Hey, that's easy! Straight to the electric chair. Or, if electricity is scarce in Zimbabwe, just apply a bullet to the head. If one supports the death penalty (as I do) then there can be no more clear situation in which to apply it. He confessed to murder, rape, arson, &c.

Of course, that's not a realistic solution considering the vast number of armed youths who would then be subject to execution. There's an implementation problem, unfortunately. Realistically, the region is totally screwed for a couple of generations. That's the difference between theory and practice. Proper application of moral theory could turn Zimbabwe around quite quickly, but actually finding all these murderers and executing them is a rather difficult proposition. The country will be forced to reach some moral compromise and endure the continued existence of these cancers on their society.

Sigh... not that it will matter once SARS makes its way to Africa and hooks up with HIV. Again, in theory there is a lot that could be done to help the continent of Africa, but in practice it's all impossible.
WIDE MOUTH CANS: Is it just me, or do these new-fangled wide mouth soda cans splatter a lot more soda on your hand when you open them than the old narrow mouth cans did?
PUTTING THE "FUN" BACK IN FUNDAMENTALISM: Donald Sensing has a post up that he wrote in response to an email I sent him. It relates back to my previous post on Christians and Israel.

I don't agree with him that Mary's biological virginity is "centrally" important to fundamentalists. Although, the mere fact that it's not particularly important to me may mean that I'm not a "fundamentalist"....

Additionally, the term "literal interpretation" seems a bit prone to misuse. I consider myself to believe literally what the Bible says, but much of the Bible is clearly figurative in nature and the "literal" interpretation of such passages is to take them figuratively. If that makes sense to you. Many books are written as poetry and verse and would be complete nonsense if taken out of their figurative context.

People who couldn't care less about Christianity probably won't be interested in the topic; likewise, many serious Christians already know all this stuff. So, I suppose this is for whoever's in between.
ARGUMENT BY ABSURDITY: This comment thread from Mean Mr. Mustard encouraged me to write a little post on one of my favorite hobbies: argument by absurdity. Most people who hold opinions don't really understand what they believe (this goes for pretty much any belief system), and even if there are strong arguments in favor of their beliefs they generally aren't aware of them. Most often, they will state poorly formed versions of good arguments that miss some crucial points -- this is when you pounce.

There are two possible beginnings: sincerity or sarcasm. Sincerity can be fun if you're in a really wicked mood, because you can lead your mark along slowly and get them to agree with the conclusions you initially draw from their arguments. Sarcasm works too, but you have to strike more quickly because people tend to tune out sarcastic responses before you can get to the good stuff. Once you've found the flaw in their reasoning (whether you agree with their position or not is beside the point) decide how you will exploit it, and either go for the quick kill with sacrasm or lead them along the garden path of sincerity before rhetorically stabbing them in the back.

You've decided on an initial approach, now what? The sky's the limit! What you really want to work towards is a totally absurd conclusion that logically flows from the arguments that they've made; you have to do so without revealing the true strength of their arguments however, assuming there is any. Do your best to prop up the strawmen they've constructed and to nourish their false dichotomies. Work your way carefully towards your absurdity and then just toss it out, doing your best to imply that your mark really believes it. If you're trying to be sincere, you can pause to consider the absurdity before rejecting it, thereby gaining some credibility just for appearing thoughtful.

In the end, once the absurdity is rejected by everyone involved make sure that you tie that rejection together with all your mark's arguments, so that they will be rejected as well. If you're clever, you can discredit all his reasoning, even the parts that are legitimate and well-founded. Any attempt he makes at defending himself can be easily brushed aside by pointing at the absurd conclusion, and most people won't give him another thought.

Monday, May 05, 2003

LAKERS: It's really hard to stay on the Lakers playoff bandwagon sometimes.
ELECTION 2004: Best of the Web has a breakdown of the recent Democratic candidate debate, and James Taranto basically agrees with what I wrote earlier. Senator Lieberman is the most credible guy in the field.

However, I still stand by my earlier position: a Jew is nearly unelectable at the moment, particularly in a Democratic presidential primary. Many people may say that they don't see the type of anti-Semitism that I mentioned in my previous post, but I think it's an important underlying factor. It's also the type of liability that won't rally Democrats to the cause. Although Lieberman is the strongest candidate the Democrats have to offer, and would make the best president out of the lot on TV this weekend, he will not win the nomination.
I VO, YOU VO, WE ALL VO FOR TIVO: Ok, so I broke down and bought a TiVo through this special DirecTV program that my mom has access to. Got it for half the retail price, hardware and service. I don't really watch a lot of TV, and now I'm paying something like 50 bucks a month for DirecTV and TiVo... fantastic. I was reluctant to expand my TV-watching capabilities at first because I thought it would be a waste. I hadn't even had cable for several years and I didn't miss it at all. DirecTV is nice, but I still watch TV only rarely.

So I set up my TiVo and programmed it to find the only three shows I watch: The Simpsons, Law & Order, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I'm a simple man, what can I say? This was Saturday afternoon. I left the thing running at home while I went out Saturday night and didn't give it another thought until Sunday night just as I was heading for bed.

Let's see what TiVo has done for me, I thought to myself. Ho hum, turn on the TV and press a few buttons... what's this? My TiVo had recorded three episodes of Buffy, five Law & Orders, and six Simpsons. All in one day. Suddenly I didn't feel so sleepy, and it was hard to tear myself away from the stupid thing.

Six episodes of The Simpsons can be watched in two hours if you skip through the commercials.
CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM: CFR is a poor attempt to solve a very serious problem. Power corrupts, and those who wield government power tend to try and use that power to maintain their position. Likewise, the governed groups attempt to coerce the government into using its power to their advantage by passing laws that benefit the group in question. One of the main ways that these groups try to manipulate those in power is by contributing money to their election campaigns. It costs a lot of money to get elected to federal office so the candidates need the support; since they'll be up for election again a few years later they also need to stay in the good graces of their contributors. It's quite a cycle, and it rightly disturbs many people.

However, groups are funded by individuals who contibute money to the cause, and it's morally wrong and bad policy for the government to have the authority to decide when its citizens may speak and what they may say. This is particularly true when it comes to the political speech that is instrumental in determining who exactly gets to wield the government's power. It's as if the management executives of a corporation tried to forbid the board of directors from sharing financial information with shareholders.

The real problem isn't the speech, the real problem is that the people who wield government power use it for selfish gain. This is human nature, and no law can prevent it or even really detect it. You may "know it when you see it" but that's a rather subjective standard. The only real solution to the problem is the reduce the amount of power that the government wields so that there is less incentive to abuse it. In an ideal world, labor unions and corporations would have no reason to contribute money to candidates because they would know that the government could neither hurt their business nor help it by passing laws. The government wouldn't have fat subsidies to hand out to farmers, or control over elderly peoples' purse-strings.

My instinct tells me that we could cut our government budget by 70% and it could still fulfill all its essential functions. In 2002, we spent around 15% of the money on defense, which we should keep. Gut all the other "discretionary" spending (code for pork), and gut the majority of the "mandatory" spending (also code for pork, plus doomed Social Security) and we could all put a lot of money back in our pockets. Additionally, the vast majority of "special interests" would disappear, because the government just wouldn't have the power to help them anymore.
CHRISTIANS AND ISRAEL: Eugene Volokh has up a couple of posts refuting the (strange) charge that fundamentalist Christians are anti-Semitic. I fall into the category that many people would label as "fundamentalist Christian", so I thought I'd share my thoughts and anecdotal experience.

Everyone at my church is adamantly pro-Israel and basically loathes the Palestinians. The Palistinians are seen as murderous thugs, and the general sentiment is that Israel's government takes far too soft a line with them. When Sharon was elected, my politically-informed friends were glad because they thought he might finally crack down on Arafat's terror campaigns. There is zero sympathy for the Palestinian "cause" and no respect whatsoever for any of their attempts to justify their actions.

I had a conversation a few weeks ago with a few other guys my age, and the concensus among them was that if Israel gets into another war they would personally travel there to fight as mercenaries on their behalf. Would they actually follow through on this idea? Well, I'm doubtful; but the sentiment is there. Some of my Christian friends wear Star of David jewelry, and some have considered getting such tattoos as well (I don't know if anyone has done it yet).

I certainly can't speak for all "fundamentalist Christians" (love that label), but every one that I know is as strongly pro-Israel as any Jew I've met. Why is that?
Genesis 12:1-3 -- The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."
Christians believe that the Jewish people, and Israel in particular, have been specifically selected by God to be blessed; in my opinion, their mere continued existence is strong support for that belief.

I can write a lot more on this topic, if anyone's interested.

Sunday, May 04, 2003

POINTLESS TESTING: I'm spending the weekend (and I'm going to spend the next few weeks) studying intensively for my Written Qualifying Exams, and it's hard to be enthusiastic. The WQE is a new test format that's only been in use for a couple of years and it replaces the old Major Field Exam that used to be required in order to proceed in the graduate degree program. The WQE is very different from the MFE, however.

The MFE was written specfically for each student by his or her professors, and was based on the classes that the student had taken and the research that the student was doing. A PhD is supposed to be a narrowly focused degree, and the MFE was designed to ensure that the student was proficient in the field (within computer science) that he or she was going into. The tests explored the field in generous depth (so I'm told) and could be quite hard. However, it was generally understood that a student's chance of passing was mostly related to how much his advisor liked him and how confident his advisor and committee were that he would be a successful PhD candidate.

The WQE, on the other hand, was designed to be more objective and broader in scope. In theory, it doesn't go into as great a depth as the MFE did but covers a much wider range of topics -- most of which, by necessity, do not fall within the student's research focus. The main goal was to reduce the subjectivity of the grading, and so the scoring is done using a double-blind methodology wherein the students do not know which professor wrote each question, and the professors do not know which answer set belongs to which student. Questions are written by ten different professors, each an expert in their field, and these same professors then score the answers to the questions that they wrote.

It's an interesting idea, but I don't like the way it works in practice. The professors that I've talked to all admit that they would not be able to pass the WQE if they were to take it, because it's simply too broad. Despite the fact that the test is not supposed to be particularly deep or advanced, if a student hasn't recently taken a class with the professor who writes a question it is likely that the student won't know whatever nuance of the field the professor decides to incorporate into his question. Additionally, no notes or books are allowed to be used during the exam, which is unrealistic in my mind because in real life almost anyone would use a book (or a computer!) to help them calculate network flows or to design arithmatic logic units. Except experts in the various fields, of course.

The end result is that each time the exam is given there is an approximately 50% pass rate. This is a very scary thing, let me tell you. Even though we have three chances to pass, it's nerve-wracking to have to study and study and study and know that if you fail you'll have to spend another six months studying again. To top it off, when you get your test back there isn't much feedback on what you did wrong, so it's not very easy to correct yourself.

Since the exams have only been given in this format four times, no one has failed three times yet and been kicked out (as is supposed to happen, based on the information I have seen). Several people have taken it twice and failed and then just not taken it again because they're too scared. I've heard rumors that people won't actually be kicked out, but who knows? Who wants to be the first to test that hypothesis?

The grading of the MFE may have been subjective, but it seems to me that that's more in the spirit of what grad school should be about. Computer science is an incredibly broad field, and I think it's unreasonable to expect any one person to have expert knowledge of every area within it; likewise, I'm not sure what purpose a broad, shallow test format serves, since that's basically what being an undergrad is all about. Graduate school should be about research and innovation, not endlessly poring over undergrad textbooks and trying to guess what professor is going to get picked to write which question.
RANDOM CONSPIRACY REPORTER: I have way too much time on my hands, apparently. I wrote this little toy a few years ago in ASP and just translated it to PHP; go take a look at my Random Conspiracy Generator.