Saturday, May 31, 2003

FINDING NEMO: Despite getting a 99% "fresh" rating from, Pixar/Disney's new release, Finding Nemo, totally sucked. The computer animation was cool, yay, but the plot was incredibly weak and I could barely stay awake.

As any English major can tell you, the key to any story is conflict. Finding Nemo has no conflict. There are no bad guys -- it's basically a man (fish) vs. nature story, except that nature pretty much does everything it can to help out along the way.

Along with this underwhelming story they toss in a few cheap anti-American knocks that really serve no purpose at all considering that the movie takes place near Australia. The fish don't know where Sydney is, but they can crack wise about arrogant Americans. Screw you, Pixar and Disney.

Overall it was boring and monotonous. Marlin, the dad, would escape from one mildly threatening situation and fall right into another, only to be rescued by whatever friendly sea creature happened to be swimming by. Nemo eventually frees himself from the dentist's aquarium by getting tossed down a sink, and somehow manages to reach the ocean by passing through a waste treatment plant alive. Whatever; trying to analyze the plot is like beating up a little kid with a nerf bat.
HOLLYWOOD GETS IT WRONG: Stephen Stanton explains how Hollywood gets capitalism all wrong, and why we should care.
DO GUNS REALLY INCREASE SECURITY?: I'm generally very pro-gun. I think law-abiding citizens should be allowed to own and carry pretty much any type of gun they want without government involvement. I believe that wide-spread gun ownership can reduce crime and ultimately save lives. There are some statistics that bear out these beliefs, but what I'd really like to focus on at the moment is a situation that appears to stand in stark contrast: the on-going barbarism in the Congo.

The Telegraph article describes how crazed, drug-infused, cannibalistic militias (with periodic military support) have been devestating the country for the past five years, resulting in between 3 and 5 million deaths thus far. It's an awful, inconceivably evil conflict with no apparent end in sight, and it's being perpetrated on the populace despite the apparent widespread availability of guns.
Along the town's main street shop doors hung drunkenly from their hinges. Windows on many buildings were smashed, their contents looted. The few establishments that escaped pillaging were firmly shuttered. A Hema boy, aged no more than eight or nine, sauntered down the street dressed in a ridiculously oversized military uniform, his camouflage jacket flapping about his calves.

He disappeared into a building for a moment and re-emerged casually swinging an AK47 from his hip.

A pick-up truck filled with grim-faced Hema soldiers and mounted with a fearsomely large machinegun roared down the street.
So what's the deal? I buy into the idea that guns can make society safer, so why isn't it working in the Congo?

One might argue that civil order has already broken down, and that the problem is that there is no central authority with enough firepower to restore it. However, there don't appear to be significant quantities of heavy weapons involved on the side of the militias, so why can't the rest of the population at least organize to contain and restrain them? Lack of will? Pure fear? Do I have a mistaken impression of the quantity of guns in play? Do the militias have a monopoly on firearms that the population as a whole does not have access to?

Perhaps there is some law and order threshold such that in circumstances where peace already prevails gun ownership can reduce crime, but in circumstances where violence dominates throwing more guns into the mix just exacerbates the problem. Maybe this threshold is somehow related to mob psychology in the sense that individuals will tend to follow the existing status quo, be that peace or violence. Does anyone have any insight?

(Telegraph link via Mean Mr. Mustard.)

Friday, May 30, 2003

WAR IS GOOD FOR CHILDREN AND OTHER LIVING THINGS: Not only have all the children that Saddam locked up been released, but the terrible environmental damage he caused is beginning to be repaired, as can be seen from these satellite photos. From the UN, no less!

Hopefully someone will credit this environmental clean-up to Bush's account during the 2004 election. I have no doubt that it will win over a great many Green party members.

(Thanks for the photos, OpinionJournal.)
POST-WAR IRAQ: Robert Pollock has a very different view of the Iraqi street than I opined on yesterday. It's also a much more encouraging report than that from WaPo, which bemoaned the current lack of Iraqi local governance.
On the street, opinion of Iraq's would-be leaders [prospective Iraqi leaders] is decidedly more skeptical--perhaps understandable in a country that has not learned to expect great things from politicians. "No to [Shiite religious leader] Hakim, no to Chalabi," is a common refrain. "I want America to stay here . . . kill Saddam and stay." Of all the preconceptions I had before my visit, the idea that Iraqis would demand a provisional government of their own at the earliest possible date was most wrong.
Unfortunately, many of the Iraqis who are offering themselves up for leadership positions are former Baathists and Saddam cronies who the local populace is understandably afraid of. Almost everyone who was in the old Iraqi bureaucracy was also involved with the Baathist regime, and so there aren't many experienced administrators available to take control.

I don't see this as a bad thing, considering how corrupt the old government was -- what it does mean, however, is that the American administration will have to train a new bureaucracy from the ground up. Luckily, if there's one thing we're good at here it's bureaucracy!
PAPER INTERNET: One of my aunts was at my house the other day and saw the anti-anti-war poster I was holding in this infamous AP photograph taken at the big anti-war walkout at UCLA in early March (link's broken, great... I'll find another later). She remarked, "that's the poster that from the protest; it's so neat that you got onto the internet!" I smiled and nodded, but her perspective on the internet (really the WWW) made me think.

My aunt's statement would have made much more sense if she was talking about me being on television, for example. It's unusual for any specific person to be on TV, and no doubt that was the connection she was making in her mind. However, the web isn't really like TV at all. Anyone can put anything up on the web, basically at will and for no cost. There's nothing significant about having your picture on a web page somewhere. In this instance, the only reason it was significant was because the photo was taken by an AP photographer and was carried by a few wire subscribers, as well as Instapundit.

If anything, the web is like paper more than it's like TV. Anyone can write something down or have their picture taken -- what makes it noteworthy is how that paper is then positioned and who sees it. The mere fact that my picture was available on the web is not remarkable, but its positioning was.
DIVINE INTERVENTION: As I mentioned yesterday, I passed my Written Qualifying Exams. They were difficult, and after I took them last week I was pretty sure that I had not done very well. I took the exams once before and failed, and I was mildly stressed out about the possibility of failing again (that's about as stressed out as I get).

During the six months of preparation, the few weeks of cramming, the 10 hours of testing, and the 10 days of waiting to get my scores back, I did a lot of praying. I asked God to give me wisdom as I studied, a clear mind, focus, encouragement, some lenient professors... and of course, I ask him to help me pass. And I did pass. So, did God answer my prayers, or did God just sit back and watch while I did my thing?

SDB believes that "the material universe is all that exists, and that everything we see around us is a manifestation of matter and the way it interacts according to the laws of physics". So he would clearly say that my prayers had no impact on my actual performance, other than perhaps psychological. But then, that assertion would be predicated on his existing philosophy and not really based on any evidence in this particular case -- indeed, my prayers were such that they could be answered without there being any incontrovertable evidence of God taking direct action.

What about free will? Some have claimed that God cannot act directly in the world or intervene in human affairs without undermining free will. That's an interesting position, and it relates closely to my prayers regarding my exam. It seems obvious that God could, for example, manipulate natural forces without interfering with free will (or even leaving noticable indications that he was meddling), but in order to answer my specific prayers in the affirmative God would have to tweak my own behavior, at the very least.

I asked for wisdom and focus, so if God assented and somehow helped me be more dedicated to my studies did he violate my free will? Not if he was only doing what I myself asked him to do. The very process of asking for God to act implies that I consent to the requested involvement.

The request for lenient professors is a bit trickier. Speculatively, God could cause memories to arise of the professors' own examination experiences which could lead to generosity when they graded mine; that would not necessarily subvert their free will (since such remembrance is not generally a conscious process), but would certainly be somewhat manipulative.

In the end, there's no real proof either way. But I did pass, and my intelligence and opportunities at the very least came from God's grace.

Thursday, May 29, 2003

POST-WAR IRAQ: Local governance in Basra is shaping up to be rather difficult. I didn't buy all the overly optimistic predictions that had an Iraqi government in place and our military out in six months, but I also didn't think it would be quite this hard to set up local city councils. I still stand by my initial guess that it will be two years or so before the Iraqis really control their country again.

I'm also sick and tired of reading about their complaints. Boohoo, you're not "free" yet. You're also not being tortured and mutilated anymore either. Just chill!
NANOG: Kinda like egg nog, except that "nanog" is the name genetic researchers are giving the "master gene" that they've discovered which they believe is responsible for giving embryonic stem cells their pluripotency. That is, stem cells can mature into any type of cell, whereas most human cells have their nature fixed within a few days of creation.

The article says that:
In one crucial experiment, Smith's team inserted copies of the human nanog gene into mouse embryonic stem cells, and subjected those cells to laboratory conditions that normally force such cells to mature and become one kind of tissue. The human nanog gene prevented that process.

That suggests that if scientists were to reawaken the dormant nanog gene in adult human cells -- something the Japanese group and others would like to try soon -- they might "reprogram" the gene activity patterns in those adult cells and turn them into cells that, for all practical purposes, are embryonic stem cells.
If this ability can be turned on and off at will at different locations throughout the body it will be possible to heal many currently untreatable conditions: nerve damage, lost or damaged organs, severe burns, brain diseases like Alzheimer's, nerve diseases like Parkinson's and muscular dystrophy, cancer, heart disease... you name it.

In theory, it would also be possible to reverse/eliminate aging and extend fertility indefinitely.
CALIFORNIA POLITICS: I rather enjoy politics, and California has quite a bit going on. We've got a $30 billion (or $20 billion) budget crisis, an attempt to recall governor Gray Davis circulating for signatures, a highly partisan legislature, massive immigration problems, &c. &c. The problem is, most of the news blogs and sites I read deal on a more national level, and it's hard to find out what's going on locally. I get most of my California politics from local talk radio in the afternoons, but it's not entirely satisfying. So, I'm happy to have discovered Rough & Tumble, a blog that givs us "a daily snapshot of California public policy and politics". I'm sticking a link on the blogroll to the left.
I'M THE BEST AROUND! AND NOTHING'S GONNA EVER KEEP ME DOWN!: Just as Daniel-san recovered from the Cobra Kai's vicious leg-sweep, I have defeated the mighty WQE despite its initial, short-lived, victory. Yes, that's right, I passed my Written Qualifying Exams! Woohoo!

I suggest a new strategy, WQE: let the Michael win!

Wednesday, May 28, 2003

RESTORING MY FAITH IN THE MEDIA: Or at least taking a shot at it. In the wake of the recent New York Times debacles, it was refreshing to come across this LA Times memo via Courtney.
The reason I'm sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times.

I'm no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same.
SUPREMACY OF INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: Erik over at Brainville takes a rather absolutist view of individual rights that I admit is rather appealing given the socialist/collectivist view of freedom that permeates much of the world; however, in his zeal I think he has moved too far to the other end of the spectrum. As with nearly all things, moderation is the key. Individuals rights should certainly reign supreme in the natural order, but as members of society we voluntarily abridge some of our rights in order to live together peacefully and securely.

For instance, I believe very strongly that individuals bear the primary responsibility for their own defense, and that the right to keep arms towards this end is fundamental and essential to human dignity and liberty. However, given the requirements of a functioning society, I do not believe that this right should be entirely unlimited. The question is, how limited should it be? It's easy to draw a bright line and deal with the world in black and white -- there should be no limits on private weapons. Indeed, in the natural order of the world this would necessarily be the only acceptable view. However, society is artificial and we do not exist in a "natural order"; I do not believe that unlimited freedom to keep every sort of weapon is the optimal strategy for my own security and prosperity. For instance, I am very strongly in favor of laws that prevent my neighbor from constructing a nuclear weapon in his basement, even if he is doing so to protect his family or to resist a potentially tyrannical government. Similarly, I do not believe that felons or psychotics should be allowed to possess weapons.

Free speech should also be limited to some degree. Britain's libel laws are far too restrictive, but ours in America are not particularly burdensome and I have no problem with them in general. Likewise, threatening speech should not be permitted, nor should fraudulent advertising. Drunk driving should be illegal for the same reasons that it's illegal to fire a gun into the air in the middle of a city.

It is emotionally and intellectually satisfying to believe that no one should sacrifice or abridge any of their natural rights under any circumstances, but I don't think that this perspective is practical or optimal for either the individual or the community. We are right to be concerned about the potential erosion of our liberty, but it's a matter of degree -- and not every slope is slippery. It is possible for me to voluntarily yield my right to own a nuclear weapon without later yielding my right to possess a handgun or a rifle or (for that matter) a tank. Society is built on compromise, and some freedoms can safely be surrendered in exchange for security, comfort, and prosperity. The trick is in finding where to draw the lines.

I do think that our current system has moved too far towards the collectivist viewpoint and that many of our fundamental rights are being slowly taken away by people who hope to shape society into their version of utopia wherein the elite few "guide" the mindless masses of sheeple in the direction that is "best for them". In particular, the right to possess the means to protect oneself from violent assault is overly restricted here in California. However, it would be possible to go too far in the other direction, as well. Who then should possess the power to determine the limits of our rights?

Why, we outselves, of course! That's the beauty of democracy. We have the power to reclaim our rights; our system is not hopelessly flawed and we do not require violent revolution, we simply need to state our positions clearly and disseminate them as broadly as possible, and then allow the people to decide. Unlike the socialists, I am not afraid to let the populace determine our destiny. As it is, we have already decided that certain rights are outside the power of the majority, and I am not advocating strict majority rule. Our tradition, history, and founding documents outline the rules of the game, and I trust the majority to deal with the specific details.
TONGUE TWISTERS: Here are some of my favorites --

Red leather, yellow leather. Red leather, yellow leather. Red leather, yellow leather.

Toy boat. Toy boat. Toy boat.

The pyrite pirate's playwright playmate played right.

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickeled peppers;
A peck of pickeled peppers Peter Piper picked.
But if Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: Along the same line as the textbook post below, Clayton Cramer points me to a post by Eric Muller that recounts an experience with real discrimination during a historical re-enactment at Colonial Williamsburg. I've been to CW before and found it mildly interesting, mainly because of the attention to historical details. However, is it appropriate to discriminate among visitors by race and religion so that they can get a feel for what past discrimination was actually like?
Then the bailiff explained that the members of the panel of justices would have to meet the requirements of the period—they would have to be white, male, Protestant, over a certain age (I don't remember what it was), and land owners. Then he said, “the law at the time would have required you to swear an anti-papist oath too, but”—and here he broke into a broad smile—“we're not going to push it that far.” Many in the crowd laughed.

Then he asked for volunteers. He must have noticed the enthusiasm in my face, because he specifically pointed to me and asked if I wanted to participate. I was confused—had all of that stuff about the requirements for serving been a joke? He said nothing that indicated he wasn't serious. And he'd even said that there was an eighteenth-century requirement that they weren't enforcing—the anti-papist oath—so that led me to think that maybe they were serious about the other ones. Anyway, I answered him that I didn't meet the requirements. (I'm Jewish.) “Thanks for being honest,” he said, and then turned to get other volunteers.
The point could have been made without enforcing the discriminatory rules, and would certainly have raised fewer eyebrows... but was this actual discrimination or what? Was it wrong? I can't quite put my finger on it.

Clayton Cramer mentions that in the past, black employees at CW were said to be playing the role of "servents" rather than "slaves" for fear of offending anyone, but that particular change seems very revisionist to me. It's one thing to hire actors to play historically accurate parts that involve discrimination, but it's quite another to impose racism on visitors for the sake of accuracy. The Holocaust Museum here in Los Angeles doesn't require Jewish guests to sew yellow stars onto the clothing when they enter, for example.
COMMIES: I don't know if I hate all communists, but I sure hate communism. Most young, American commies that I come into contact with are just misguided idealists, but that doesn't really make them any less dangerous. Communism has killed more people than fascism has, but it isn't recognized as being as evil because its intentions are better (on the surface, anyway). I saw a hippie wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt at In-N-Out last night and I wanted to start an arguement with him, but I didn't. What's the point? Other than pure entertainment, I mean.

Communism is seductive because it sounds so nice, but it doesn't work, and when it fails it fails spectacularly.
THINK OF THE CHILDREN: Lincoln said that "you can't please all the people all of the time", but apparently textbook writers are care less about pleasing everyone than they worry about offending anyone. Dianne Ravitch's new book, "The Language Police", gives a list of 500 words that the four major textbook publishers have banned from their products for fear of offending various groups of people. This is hardly a new issue, but it makes me cringe every time I see it.

Among the words and phrases excluded:
... you can't find anyone riding on a yacht or playing polo in the pages of an American textbook either. The texts also can't say someone has a boyish figure, or is a busboy, or is blind, or suffers a birth defect, or is a biddy, or the best man for the job, a babe, a bookworm, or even a barbarian.

All these words are banned from U.S. textbooks on the grounds that they either elitist (polo, yacht) sexist (babe, boyish figure), offensive (blind, bookworm) ageist (biddy) or just too strong (hell which is replaced with darn or heck). God is also a banned word in the textbooks because he or she is too religious.
Obviously this type of nerfing is counterproductive -- it clearly inhibits actual learning, which is the point of textbooks. If a student is never exposed to anything different than what he already knows, how can he ever learn or grow? Textbooks should teach facts. Sometimes facts are unpleasant. People who live in the real world (as opposed to education-fantasyland) need to learn to deal with things they don't like without getting "offended".

Even the concept of being "offended" is ridiculous to me. People are different than you, deal with it. Some people do own yachts, some people are barbarians, whatever. Understand the context behind the words you don't like, learn where the connotations come from, and decide for yourself whether or not they're justified. That's what education is about.

Some people want to nerf the whole world and cover all the sharp corners with soft, squishy foam so that no one ever gets hurt or experiences an unpleasant moment. There already are such places: they're called insane asylums. Go live there and leave the rest of us alone. What will happen when your child is confronted with a real live blind person who own a yacht and plays polo?
CFR AND THE 17TH AMENDMENT: I've written several times about so-called campaign finance reform, and there's another aspect that I want to address. I said before that one of the reasons that there is a problem with "special interests" unduly influencing elections is that the legislative branch of our government has usurped too much power from the states themselves, and that's a fact. It would be good to drastically cut taxes and "entitlements", but how could such a thing be accomplished under our current system?

Well, it probably can't. However, the current system isn't the only possible way to do things; until 1913 the federal legislative playing field was quite different. Before the enactment of the 17th Amendment Senators were not elected directly by the people of each state, but were instead selected by the state legislatures. John Dean wrote an essay in 2002 in which he argues that this change to our republic is really what is responsible for the federal bloat we've seen since FDR, and that such cannot be laid solely at the feet of the Progressive movement.

I think Dean has a valid point. The 17th Amendment doesn't account for the explosion of state governments, but I'm sure it at least played a role in the subversion of our federal government. Why was it enacted in the first place? John Dean bases his conclusions on the research of George Mason law professor Todd Zywicki and demolishes two traditional explanations for the 17th. He then says:
Fortuntely, Professor Zywicki offers an explanation for the Amendment's enactment that makes much more sense. He contends that the true backers of the Seventeenth Amendment were special interests, which had had great difficultly influencing the system when state legislatures controlled the Senate. (Recall that it had been set up by the Framers precisely to thwart them.) They hoped direct elections would increase their control, since they would let them appeal directly to the electorate, as well as provide their essential political fuel - money.

This explanation troubles many. However, as Zywicki observes, "[a]thought some might find this reality 'distasteful,' that does not make it any less accurate."
The permanent solution to the corruption in Washington is to split Congress back into its original form, so that state legislatures can provide a balance against the federal government's insatiable appetite for power (and vice versa). The "checks and balances" of our political system are its greatest strength; competition eliminates the long-term problems that arise when too much power is concentrated in any one institution.
A COMMON THREAD: I want to briefly mention a topic that's been bouncing around in my brain for a while. I think it was brought to the forefront by something I heard on the radio today, but I'm not sure.

In a country with a parlimentary system of government, the Democratic Party would be five or six seperate parties. Because of our electoral system these disparate factions have banded into one party, and there are a few important threads that tie them all together. What do labor unions, NOW, environmentalists, urban blacks, Hollywood stars, teachers' unions, welfare mothers, and all the rest have in common? Well, the most obvious answer is that they all benefit greatly from big government and think that it's better for everyone if the elite have the power to tell you how to run your life. Longing for a big, powerful, unlimited government that can usher in Utopia is the major platform that all these groups stand on; only slightly beneath the surface is the desire to profit off this concentration of power, to use the government as leverage to attain wealth and easy living.

More subtle, though, is the issue of abortion-on-demand. There are/were many Democrat politicians who used to be pro-life (such as Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, Ed Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Jesse Jackson, to name only a few) but who have since changed their position. Why is that? The fact of the matter is that no Democrat will get political support from the party apparatus these days if he/she is not stridently pro-abortion. Ideological diversity is unacceptable to the people who value other arbitrary/involuntary forms of diversity above all else.

Abortion is the hidden tie that binds. I'm not exactly sure why, though. Most blacks and hispanics (who largely identify themselves with the Democrats) aren't knee-jerk pro-choicers, so what's the deal with the party? I guess the party elites just know better than the plebes do, and they're intent on pushing their own agenda. It hurts the party politically, however, and I suspect that many of the minority voters that they count on are going to wake up sooner or later.

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

POST-WAR IRAQ: Donald Rumsfeld has an article up at in which he outlines some of the broad principles that the Coalition Provisional Authority will be putting into place in post-war Iraq. Some are pretty direct, but some are more subtle. The very first one is:
Assert authority. Our goal is to put functional and political authority in the hands of Iraqis as soon as possible. The Coalition Provisional Authority has the responsibility to fill the vacuum of power in a country that has been a dictatorship for decades, by asserting authority over the country. It will do so. It will not tolerate self-appointed "leaders."
That's very direct, and clearly an important thing to do.
Contracts--promoting Iraq's recovery. Whenever possible, contracts for work in Iraq will go to those who will use Iraqi workers and to countries that supported the Iraqi people's liberation so as to contribute to greater regional economic activity and to accelerate Iraq's and the region's economic recovery.
Translation: French and Russian contracts will not be honored, and nations which opposed the war will be locked-out of the rebuilding process.
The international community. Other countries and international organizations, including the United Nations and non-governmental organizations, will be welcomed to assist in Iraq. They can play an important role. The Coalition Provisional Authority will work with them to maintain a focus of effort.
That's a little more subtle -- the UN and other organizations can come and help, and we'll tell them how to focus their efforts.
Priority sources of funds. In assisting the Iraqi people, the U.S. will play its role but should not be considered the funder of first and last resort. The American people have already made a significant investment to liberate Iraq, and stand ready to contribute to rebuilding efforts. But when funds are needed, before turning to the U.S. taxpayers, the coalition will turn first to Iraqi regime funds located in Iraq; Iraqi funds in the U.N. Oil-for-Food program; seized frozen Iraqi regime assets in the U.S. and other countries; and international donors from across the globe, many of whom are already assisting.
Good, that's how it should work. There's no reason that America or Britain or anyone else should have to finance Iraq's recovery when the country is floating on oil.
MATRIX RELOADED: Yeah, what he said. I don't really have much to say about the movie. If you like the process of tearing through wrapping paper more than you actually enjoy getting to the present, you'll like the movie. Otherwise, you might be disappointed when you discover there's really nothing inside the gaudy packaging.

Mark Aveyard blasts Lileks' critique of the movie. He also claims that the woman who ate the magic cake was having an orgasm, but uh, if that's the case, then it was a more subdued orgasm than I've ever seen. Ahem.
THE SPICE OF LIFE: I think the quarter system is superior to the semester system for a lot of reasons. One of the primary is that I have a short attention span, and I'd rather learn a subject in 10 weeks than in 18. For some things, like math, we cover the same amount of material in three quarters as is otherwise done in two semesters, so there's no real net gain. But for other subjects (such as when I had to take an "ethics in engineering" course) it's quite a relief to finish up as quickly as possible.

I like variety, I like change, I like doing new things -- as long as they're below a certain threshold. For example, I enjoy rearranging my furniture but I hate moving. Changing a room around can give it a whole new vibe and completely realign it mentally. You can wash out all the old memories of past experiences that took place there and end up with an entirely new place.

Moving, on the other hand, always makes me feel empty and alone. Even once I've got my phone and my internet connection hooked up I still feel isolated and distant in my new location. What if someone is trying to reach me, and they don't know where I am?! Geesh, I don't even know where I am! A couple of weeks later the new house starts to feel like home, and everything mentally falls into its proper niche. The secret to success is to will yourself into taking that first step.

Many people have told me about feeling trapped or stuck in places or experiences in life, such as jobs or relationships or what-have-you. That's not something I've ever really had trouble dealing with, myself. There have certainly been times when I've felt that I'm not making sufficient progress in the direction that I want to go, but I've never felt trapped anywhere with no escape. Most such "traps" are really just mental hills we have to climb, fears we have to overcome, and motivational thresholds we have to surpass. We need to take the first step, and the rest is easy (even if it's not always comfortable).

For myself, I try and recognize such situations in my own life early on, and then move quickly to escape before I invest too much time or energy in a losing proposition. I'd rather face unpleasant truths than live enveloped in comforting lies, and so when a job or relationship or circumstance goes sour I do my best to muster up the courage and energy to escape as soon as possible. It's important to consider the situation carefully, but once the truth is clear I never waste time making the hard decision that will inevitably be required.

He who hesitates is lost. Who dares, wins. Just do it.

Monday, May 26, 2003

WON'T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN?: Apparently, Iraqi doctors are now confirming that the spike in the infant death rate in Iraq in the 1990s was Saddam's fault, and not really due to sanctions. Who'd've thunk it?

Pic from

Sunday, May 25, 2003

CONTAINMENT: Because of the containment problem I just mentioned I don't believe that humanity will ever develop artificial intelligence that rivals our own. I don't think that we'll ever be able to understand the true nature of our minds, because our comprehension is itself contained within that system. That's why research into AI relies heavily on trying to generate emergent effects -- complex results from simple inputs. Getting complex results from complex inputs is easy, but so far no one has been able to come up with a system of rules that fully describes human behavior. Constructing simple inputs is easy, but it's almost always impossible to get more complexity out of a system than you put into it in the first place.
APPEAL TO CONSEQUENCES: SDB asks "Do you prefer unpleasant truths or pleasing falsehoods?" In almost every instance I believe it's better to know the truth than to believe in something false just because it's more comfortable. There are plenty of examples, particularly that relate to religion, but since I said "in almost every instance" let me briefly discuss one case in which the truth seems irrelevent.

Is there such a thing as "free will"? I believe there is -- if man is created in God's image, then the most significant implcation of that is our existence as free moral agents. It gets to the root of one of the biggest questions that many people have about God: if God is completely good and also all-powerful, why is there so much evil in the world? Because he gave us the ability to make choices, even choices that don't coincide with his desires. Free will is essential to Christianity, because without it there would be no value in talking about good or evil, both of which rely on intentionality. God imbued this physical bodies with a supernatural essence, a spirit if you will, that transcends the mere material universe.

From a scientific perspective, however, there isn't much explanation or allowance for free will; additionally every conceivable investigator is himself trapped within the phenomenon in question. How can I possibly determine whether my own thoughts and actions are the result of choice, or whether they are predetermined by chemistry and physics? My decision-making process is hopelessly and fundamentally tainted and depends entirely on the result being generated. This difficulty is what I call a "containment problem", because our reasoning itself relies on the answer we're trying to come up with.

Most of the non-Christians that I've asked believe that there is such a thing as free will (does SDB?), but none of them has a credible conjecture on the source or nature of it. If our intelligence is wholly dependent on the biology of our brains, then how can we be anything but complicated deterministic machines? Some have turned to quantum mechanics, but no one yet has an understanding of quantum effects that could be used to explain the origin of free will. Even if QM plays a significant role in the high-level operation of our brains (questionable), this just serves to introduce macroscopic randomness to the system... would they argue that this is the same as free will? If so, it's a different definition than I would use.

In the end, I don't think it matters. Although SDB wouldn't like it, an argument based on "appeal to consequences" appears to give the most satisfying answer possible. If there is no such thing as free will, then the question itself becomes rather pointless. If we're all just biological computers running complex, chaotic programs, then why even bother having the discussion? Acting as if we do have free will is the only practical option (how would you act otherwise?), and so we may as well believe it to be true.