Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

September 16, 2009

The Only Show On Earth: The Evidence for Creation

Filed under: books, humor, religion, science — Tags: , , , — codesmithy @ 10:26 am

John Crace produced a piece of satire of Richard Dawkins’ new book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.  The good professor complained in the comments that he thought it was off the mark.  Crace didn’t really capture Dawkin’s flavor.  So, I decided to give it a go.  I used an excerpt from “The Times” as the basis. It probably follows the original too closely, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to defend myself from charges of plagirism, but hopefully it hits the mark of a hypothetical bizarro-Dawkins, who I’ve named Dick Rowlings.

Quick, Hide the Children!  The Evolutionists are Coming!

An excerpt from The Only Show On Earth: The Evidence for Creation by Jesus’ Chaplain Dick Rowlings

Imagine that you are a Sunday School teacher eager to impart your knowledge of the Bible into young children. Now, the Bible is a very long book and it takes repetition, repetition and more repetition before those young ones will stop asking silly questions and just accept what they are being told. Yet you find your time continually preyed upon by a baying pack of mis-educated young children who insist that we share a common ancestor with all living creatures. Therefore there was no Adam and Eve as it is written in Genesis, and therefore there was no original sin.

Instead of devoting your full attention to explaining how God gave us rainbows as a sign that He would never flood the whole world again, you are forced to divert your time and energy to a rearguard defense of the propositions that God exists and the foundational doctrines of the church! A proposition that would make you weep like a statue of Mary if you weren’t so busy repeating: the Bible is true, because it is the word of God, because it says so!

Fashionably, liberal Christians chime in to insist that the story of the flood and creation are just allegory. Good thing they aren’t real Christians, because this is a slippery-slope. Once you accept the fact some of the Bible might not be true, you start questioning every part. It is no longer good enough to say the Bible is true, because it is the word of God, because it says so! You would need evidence independent of God’s word in order to decide the question, which is just silly because what better evidence could you have than God’s word?

The plight of many religious teachers is no less dire. When they attempt to impart the central and guiding principles of faith, they are harassed with unending questions and constantly admonished for their answers, as if God’s own words were not good enough. It is a sad state of affairs to have one’s time wasted with smirks and folded arms of obviously misdirected children. It is requires many discussions with the children’s parents before they will start to display the proper attitude (I find threatening to take away their Christmas presents to be particularly effective in adjusting children’s attitudes, Jesus is the reason for the season after all).

It is frequently, and correctly, said by many prominent scientists and engineers that science, in principle, has nothing to say about religion. Steven Jay Gould, an atheist and biologist, promoted “non-overlapping magisteria” which is another way of saying that science is a trade, and that is all it is, a trade. We can look at the scientists themselves for proof of this, always pointing out how studying E. Coli bacteria will allow us to create new drugs for fighting  drug resistant bacteria that spontaneously came into existence (I suspect this is part of God’s plan to keep the scientists employed.  Isn‘t He so thoughtful?).

Science may show us how to build a better mouse-trap, with the help of a little divine inspiration of course, but science tells us nothing about the universe we inhabit or helps us understand where we came from or where we are going. For that, we need the Bible. Thinking that science reveals any truth about the nature of our existence is “scientism” which is obviously a wrongheaded philosophy because it doesn’t accept the authority of the Bible, God‘s own words!

The Only Show on Earth is about the positive evidence for creation. The Bible already provides 100% certainty that we were specially created in God’s own image. But, I will provide additional evidence that makes us at least 1,000,000% sure.

We are like detectives who come on the scene after a crime has been committed. The murderer’s actions have vanished into the past. This is exactly why the only reliable evidence we will have is written eyewitness testimony of the being who was actually there: God. This is not intended as an anti-atheist book. I’ve done that, it’s another very tall hat and slightly different collar. Although, I’m happy to say “Those Deluded Atheists” has apparently become a little bit of an international best-seller with brisk sales in Turkey.

By the end of this book you will see that creation is an inescapable fact, and we should praise God’s astonishing power. Hallelujah! God created everything within us, around us, between us, and his works are present in the flowers, the clouds and especially rainbows (for more about rainbows see my book “God Gave Us Rainbows, The End.”) Given that, none of us were around when God created everything, we shall revisit the metaphor of the detective having to blindly rely on eyewitness testimony. We all know that there is no more reliable and trustworthy source of evidence than eyewitness testimony, but it is better than that. It is the eyewitness testimony of the most honest, intelligent, loving and interesting being you could possibly wish to meet, and someday, some of us will. I will also show how we can use this testimony to integrate other facts that some atheistic evolutionists claim refute creation such as, the similarities of DNA code that fall neatly into a family tree. Well thanks to the eyewitness testimony we know that this is actually proof of God reusing the same designs, isn‘t He so smart? Vestigial organs, we know these serve purposes in the body, such as the newly discovered ability of the appendix to help fight infection.  A truth real Christians knew before those scientists with their microscopes could figure it out.  Fossils?  The result of the flood. The list goes on and on. In short, you won’t put down this book doubting creation, because if you do, you are calling God a liar!

Did I say 1,000,000% certain? More like 10,000,000%.

May 11, 2009

How Can One Take Terry Eagleton Seriously?

Filed under: books, culture, religion — Tags: — codesmithy @ 10:21 am

Terry Eagleton has a new book called “Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.” Eagleton is a literature professor and Marxist. So, it comes as a little bit of a surprise that he seeks to defend the theory and practice of religion against its contemporary critics. Nevermind that Marx said religion was the “opiate” of the people and Marx’s philosophy is fundamentally atheistic; it was supposed to be scientific and utopian after all.

What Eagleton represents is someone who embraces the communist caricature of Marxism, a political movement which invented its own mysticism in the guise of dialectic materialism and became a secular equivalent to a toxic religion. Eagleton is a person who sees Jesus as some kind of proto-Marxist. In other words, a man who can only see things as he wishes them to be, not as they are.

Hence, we are faced with the Eagleton conundrum: the only way to protect one’s own irrational dogma is to protect them all. Unfortunately, the insanity of such an endeavor quickly manifests itself in obvious ways, as Eagleton does in his book, conflating Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins into the malevolent spirit he christens “Ditchkins.” Any serious discussion of Eagleton ends with the discovery of this delusional fantasy. Eagleton is no longer arguing against real critics of religion, he is arguing against chimeras of his own imagination.

One might complain about the supposed school-yard mentality of Dawkins and Hitchens. Don’t they know God can be the first cause because He (and it is almost invariably a He despite the fact that there seems to be no good reason why God would have genitalia if He was the only God) is eternal? No, because this issue has never been adequately met by theologians or apologists despite their sophistry and centuries to come up with a satisfactory answer. A theistic God, by definition, must be incredibly complex being and capable of observing, recognizing and resolving issues of unimaginable complexity.

Sure, a theistic God could explain the universe, but it falls well short of a good explanation for the following reason: however unlikely we find the possibility that the universe itself just came into existence by itself, we must admit that possibility that a complex God just popped into existence, or more unfathomably is eternal, and then created the universe is more improbable, and by a considerable degree.

From watching a one of Eagleton’s Yale lectures, it is obvious that he is not defending anything similar to Christianity as laymen practice it. Hence, having Eagleton defend religion is like having Michael Ruse defend science, one is never quite sure they get it. I have a hard time telling what distinction Eagleton would make between God and the numinous. It is quite possible he sees them as one in the same, but stripping the superstition out of religion is not a concession most believers are willing to make.

Eagleton makes the claim that God is not a Yeti. Yes, yetis aren’t invisible, aren’t able to read your thoughts, aren’t immortal, aren’t capable of altering natural laws of the universe, won’t convict you of thought crime, won’t punish you even after you die and don’t have a strange fetish about foreskins.

What Eagleton is clearly engaging in here is the time honored tradition of sophistry. He bemoans Dawkins running around in Oxford circles, and Hitchens in Washington, while simultaneously publishing a book based on lectures he gave at Yale. Yale! When Eagleton starts giving lectures at the atheist equivalents of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, next-door to Liberty University, or the University of Nebraska when resolutions are being drafted against him, then Eagleton will have a leg to stand on. Eagleton’s faux-populist appeal against the supposed elitism of atheists is only effective with a particular brand of unreflective, deluded hypocrites like Eagleton and students at Yale who are well on their way to being crafted in the mould of one of their famous alumni, George W. Bush.

Thus we reach an inescapable conclusion that Eagleton is a coward, a sophist, and a deluded hypocrite. He exists in a fog, with a mind addled by the over-study of pointless subjects. I can only hope he finds the good sense to actually listen and learn, so he might produce something of productive value to our species instead of retarding it by continuing to muddy the intellectual waters.

February 12, 2009

Why Evolution is Awesome

Filed under: books, science — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 10:14 am

I recently finished reading Why Evolution is True by Jerry A. Coyne, a professor at the University of Chicago.  He also has a blog with the same title as the book.

From the quotes on the back cover, I was expecting a devastating case for evolution.  Dawkins puts it, “I defy any reasonable person to read this marvelous book and still take seriously the breathtaking inanity that is intelligent design ‘theory’ or its country cousin, young earth creationism.”  At various points in the book, Coyne takes shots at creationism.  So, the book is definitely written within a social context in which evolution is rejected by a significant portion of the population.  I guess the disconnect I feel between Dawkins’ quote and the actual experience of reading the book is that I didn’t feel throttled by the logic, as it were.  

It could be that it was just me, or maybe the experience is different considering that I already accept evolution as true and was already familiar with many of the arguments presented in the book.  Nevertheless, I did try to put on my adversarial hat and asked myself, if I were a creationist, would this book force me to discard creationism and accept evolution.  The answer I kept coming up with was “no.”  Now I fully admit I could be wrong, and as I said, I’m not a creationist.  But the reason why the book wouldn’t convince me is illustrated by Lewis Carroll’s dialogue “What the Tortoise Said to Achilles.”

Tortoise: Readers of Euclid will grant, I suppose, that Z follows logically from A and B, so that any one who accepts A and B as true, must accept Z as true?”

Achilles: Undoubtedly! The youngest child in a High School — as soon as High Schools are invented, which will not be till some two thousand years later — will grant that.

Tortoise: And if some reader had not yet accepted A and B as true, he might still accept the sequence as a valid one, I suppose?Achilles: No doubt such a reader might exist. He might say ‘I accept as true the Hypothetical Proposition that, if A and B be true, Z must be true; but, I don’t accept A and B as true.’ Such a reader would do wisely in abandoning Euclid, and taking to football. 

Tortoise: And might there not also he some reader who would say ‘I accept A and B as true, but I don’t accept the Hypothetical ‘? 

Achilles:  Certainly there might. He, also, had better take to football.

 Tortoise: And neither of these readers is as yet under any logical necessity to accept Z as true? 

Achilles: Quite so.  

Tortoise: Well, now, I want you to consider me as a reader of the second kind, and to force me, logically, to accept Z as true.

The full dialogue is worth reading, but in the end, Achilles was never able to make the Tortoise accept the proposition if A and B are true, then Z must be true.  So, a creationist could accept every fact presented in the book, but still not accept the conclusion.  Maybe this falls outside of what Dawkins would consider “reasonable” but from reading the dialogue, I don’t see any particular place where the Tortoise is being particularly “unreasonable.”  Now, I consider the Tortoise’s position nonsensical, untenable, inconsistent and potentially hypocritical, but I do think that it demonstrates an important point.  Truth is something that one must approach with an open mind.  That doesn’t mean discarding all skepticism, since there is a lot of “woo-woo” out there as James Randi puts it, but expecting any argument to throttle you with logic and force you to accept a particular position is itself, an unreasonable expectation.

This brings us back to why evolution is true.  Evolution is true, not because we want it be true, or we’d like it be true.  Evolution is true because as we examine the world around us, we keep coming up with the same answer.  The earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old.  Life has existed on the planet for approximately 3.5 billion years, with the first animals that we would commonly recognize as being human emerging approximately 250-100 thousand years ago.  The evidence for this comes from a number of diverse sources such as fossilized coral that recorded 400 days in a year to similarities in DNA (not just any DNA but DNA that is essentially junk).  

As Coyne repeatedly points out, this evidence puts the creationist in the position of either admitting evolution is the process that explains the diversity of life or else the creator also created all this evidence to make it appear as if life had evolved.  Of course, the religious apologia of “sure everything may appear that way, but it is actually another” is as old as Galileo and may go back further.  However, getting a creationist to accept either of these positions, for reasons I stated before, is the challenge.

The evidence for evolution is more than can be put in a blog post.  There is more evidence than what is even presented in Why Evolution is True.  However, Coyne gives a great overview surveying some of landscapes of evidence and plumbing some of its depths.  I won’t go as far as Dawkins’ quote, but I would be surprised to hear from a creationist who read the book with an open mind and still refused to admit that evolution is true or at least appears to be true in the same way the sun being the center of the solar system appears to be true.  Again, open-minded in this sense does not mean uncritical.   Please, be skeptical.   Just don’t be like the Tortoise.

Epilogue: Dawkins beat me reviewing the book.  He also addresses some of my concerns.  Overall, I would say the difference in views is due to Dawkins being more confident in people’s inherent pragmatism.  Maybe there are fewer people like the Tortoise than I think.

July 27, 2008

The Road to Serfdom

Filed under: books, capitalism, politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:21 am

As promised, I read The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek.  I checked it out from one of the primary socialist institutions in this nation, the library.  From the due date sheet at the front of the book, it looks like I was not the only one to have this idea.

Generally when I walk into a library, I have a deep sense of dissatisfaction.  It is a profound remorse that I am physically incapable of reading all the knowledge that is contained on those many selves.  What am I missing out on, I ponder.  The Road to Serfdom cured me of this affliction.  I consider The Road to Serfdom a typical book in the library.  Wildly heralded in certain circles, Friedrich Hayek is an influential thinker.  But the book itself is the epitome of mediocrity.  How can something be so bland and lack of meaningful flavor?  First, it has to try really hard.

Hayek expressed his amazement in the introduction that the book could be successfully abridged, as it was for Reader’s Digest, while keeping the core argument intact.  This is like marveling over the ability of people to breath.  The primary problem is one of definitions.  The book does not define socialism, totalitarianism, fascism, collectivism, etc. except to say they are the same thing.

In addition, I take some offense to the pretense of the book.  Hayek argues that a planned economy is the road to serfdom, not a road to serfdom.  Hayek must have expressed surprise when he discovered that serfdom existed as a social relation and did not come about the way he describes in his book.

The book itself is a conglomeration of muddled paranoia.  To show it as such, we need to do what Hayek refused to, and provide reasons why totalitarianism is bad.

Totalitarianism can be thought of as a mass system of slavery.  But that definition is a little bit lax, because what is slavery?  What distinguishes coercive slavery from wage slavery?   Obviously, we need to dig a little bit deeper.  Slavery is bad because the worker is not given a choice of his profession.  So far so good, except for the fact capitalist society doesn’t offer an absolute choice of profession either.

To get more concrete, let’s say we have a totalitarian society in which everyone is a millionaire book critic.  The problem with the totalitarian society doe not exist for those who enjoy being book critics, but rather those who despise it.  Hayek argues that those who despise being book critics should have a choice to do whatever they want.  In order for these contrarians to be happy, the society has to be set up so that people and freely associate and trade.  This way, our dissatisfied book critic can embark on a career as a shoe shiner if he/she so chooses.

Hayek also argues that it is important that the market is not planned.  A society can’t have quotas on the number of book critics or shoe shiners.  In Hayek’s view it is better for impersonal forces to rule, having a planner set out how many shinners or book critics there shall be will inevitably lead to cronyism or suspicion.  Without a doubt, there is an undeniable transparency to just letting someone try and fail.  Again, these are all arguments for a free market, and they are all good as far as they go.  But we would be remiss if we did not bring some Marx into the mix.

Marx argued that there are specific historical conditions of modern industrial society.  At the outset, there are people who find their lot in the life where the only thing they have to sell is their labor-power.  Marx also argued that it is the nature of the capitalist system to drop the price of commodities, thus forcing the adoption of industrialized processes throughout the economy.  It is also in the capitalist’s interest to make the work unskilled, thus guaranteeing the largest possible labor pool.  This is combined with other perversities such as extending the working day, increasing productivity and keeping wages to mere subsistence.  This guarantees the capitalist the highest amount of profit by minimizing the amount of compensation the worker gets as the result of the proceeds of his labor.

The key revelation by Marx is that capitalist society didn’t spring up out of the blue.  There are definite historical conditions.  It isn’t like the rich of one era voluntarily ceded their wealth to the mobs that won their freedom.  Even in America, who came to own what chunks of land was a function of what a King or Queen handed out.  The notable thing about the American revolution is not what changed, but rather, how much remained the same economically.  There was no wealth redistribution.  The publicly supported westward expansion is best understood as a land grab.  It is this land grab that offered settlers independence at the expense of the aboriginal people.  However, this independence is particular to the epoch it takes place in.  Productivity increases undermined this independence, thus there are people who only have their labor-power to sell for survival.  If that isn’t serfdom, I don’t know what is.

The coercive force comes about somewhat differently.  We have the pretense of fairness because the same rules apply to everyone, however a certain segment of society is forced to submit because they find their only independent means of survival criminalized.

Ergo, there will always be compromises on someone’s freedom.  The question is merely one of extent.  Do we want someone’s freedom to be determined by the conditions of their wealth or do we provide freedom more or less equally, independent of wealth.  In short, do we allow the economic conditions to dictate the politics, or the  politics to dictate the economics?  If a libertarian is to be consistent, one must oppose concentrated power in all forms, including concentrated wealth.  This means regulation and therefore planning.  The alternative is, well, actual serfdom.

July 20, 2008

Modern Science Writing

Filed under: books, culture, science — Tags: — codesmithy @ 10:21 am

I finished reading The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing edited by Richard Dawkins.  I can’t think of another book that I so enjoyed reading.  It is an anthology, and therefore suffers from uneven tone and style.  The upshot is that there are a few authors I would like to read more of, such as Lancelot Hogben, Lee Smolin, and of course Carl Sagan.  It also convinced me not to read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time of which there is a brief selection in the book.

I think the book is best enjoyed in small doses.  This sensibility comes from the fact that one should be thinking when reading it, not about the words on the page, but what it says about us, and the universe we live in.  What we are, what we are made of, the indifferent rules that govern us and what the implications are for the limited freedom we do enjoy.  As an thought experiment, try to imagine the life of an individual carbon atom, formed by a nuclear reaction in a star, which just so happened to find itself trapped in limestone on earth.  Imagine further that this atom somehow manages to enter into the carbon cycle where it might become part of you.  Part of your DNA, your hair, your brain.  But a carbon atom’s existence as literally part of you is just less than a blink of an eye in the grand-scale of its experience.  Every atom of your being has some extraordinary tale of natural history.  This is the mind-expanding world one enters as one reads the pages of Modern Science Writing.  How terribly parochial many of our conceptions of the world seem when placed on the canvas of the cosmos.

This is knowledge that deserves to shared, deserves to be contemplated by all mankind.  But when pondering this, there comes another crashing reality of natural history, how I came to read the book.  Perhaps I am guilty of projecting my particular aesthetic onto the rest of humanity, but nevertheless the book costs approximately $35.  The local county library has 1 copy, and there are two holds as I write this.  The point is that the high price of this book has a practical effect, it limits the knowledge to a specialized class.  Kate Muir points out that “the Victorians, with their public lectures and royal societies, gloried in debate and celebrated the thrills of fresh knowledge.”

I don’t think think it is quite fair to critique the popular culture of different eras.  Bemoaning the anti-intellectualism of the masses on one-side without considering how science is presented seems a tad disingenuous.  It is natural that science gets more specialized as it progresses.  A predictable consequence of this is that it may take work to make discoveries fit for mass consumption, as opposed to the Victorian era, where some new discovery could just be presented.

The danger that the discoveries of science become esoteric knowledge of a specialized class is real.  To guard against this, science must be communicated to the public, freely and openly.  Hence we find ourselves in contradiction, as to gain access to the knowledge is comparatively expensive and ignorance is free.  When should science pass into our shared cultural heritage, and should it take as long as some piece of fiction?  Is there some better way to compensate scientific authors for their work?

In closing, I don’t begrudge the money I did pay for the book.  It is extraordinary.  I enjoyed as much to think that it deserves to be integrated as part of our cultural heritage as quickly as possible.  But, this knowledge is constrained by the societal conditions in which it was produced.  Does science exist for the benefit of a specialized class, or is its purpose to enlighten humanity?  In the context of current economic conditions, it rests in the former more than the latter.

July 13, 2008

Ramanujan and 1729

Filed under: books, math — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 11:32 am

I’ve been reading The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing an anthology put together by Richard Dawkins.  It provides another good reason why life is far more interesting than the human imagination.  In it, there is a piece by C. P. Snow that speaks of relationship between Ramanujan and G. H. Hardy.  Ramanujan died at the age of 32. I can’t help but wonder what discoveries he would have made if his life had not been tragically cut short.

G. H. Hardy deserves credit for being able to recognize genius when it confronted him, especially since some of his colleagues apparently didn’t.  Hardy is said to have made the following comment about Ramanujan’s work: “must be true, because, if they were not true, no one would have the imagination to invent them.”  This dynamic is related by Snow in a anecdote he relays when Hardy visits Ramanujan in the hospital.

Hardy used to visit him, as he lay dying in hospital at Putney.  It was on one of those visits that there happened the incident of the taxicab number.  Hardy had gone out to Putney by taxi, as usual his chosen method of conveyance.  He went into the room where Ramanujan was lying.  Hardy, always inept about introducing a conversation, said, probably without a greeting, and certainly as his first remark: ‘I thought the number of my taxicab was 1729.  It seemed to me rather a dull number.’  To which Ramanujan replied: ‘No, Hardy!  No, Hardy!  It is a very interesting number.  It is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.’

That is the exchange as Hardy recorded it.  It must be substantially accurate.  He was the most honest of men; and further, no one could possibly have invented it.

How someone just knows that, I will never know.  But from the informal glancing at Ramanujan’s work, he saw numbers differently.  How much of this was a product of not being substantially formally educated, I don’t know.  I do think that learning in a more open-ended fashion, as Ramanujan did, has benefits.  Hardy made some remarks in a similar vein.

Regardless, I double-checked Ramanujan assertion, although there are a few caveats.  Since we are dealing with cubes, we will limit ourselves to whole numbers.  The sum of cubes that one arrives at 1729 are 1^3 + 12^3 = 1729 and 9^3 + 10^3 = 1729.  1729 turns out to be smallest.  The two distinct sum sequence is as follows.

1 12 9 10 1729
2 16 9 15 4104
2 24 18 20 13832
10 27 19 24 20683

In the context of the book, it is meant to show how people of a scientific persuasion see the world differently.  Where one person sees something bland, another sees it as a source of wonder.  In a certain sense, every number has something special about it.  Ramanujan’s gift was seeing what that special thing was.

June 22, 2008

Starting Down the Road to Serfdom

Filed under: books, capitalism, politics — Tags: , , — codesmithy @ 9:22 am

As promised, I picked up Friedrich A. Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” from the most socialist of institutions the library.

The book’s aim is ambitious.  It sets out to show how socialistic institutions, such as public schools, libraries, medicare, medicaid, social security, etc. invariably lead to totalitarian regimes like the Nazis and Soviets.  Hayek asks “have not the parties of the Left as well as those of the Right been deceived by believing that the National Socialist party was in the service of the capitalists and opposed to all forms of socialism? (pg 6)”

Yes, deceived by the facts.  Nazism was in service of the capitalists.  It was not in service of Hayek’s conception of free-market capitalism, but it was capitalism nonetheless.  I don’t think any one claimed that Nazism was opposed to all forms of so-called socialism.  Certainly, they were interested in the general welfare of the members of the Nazi party.  One of the reasons Hitler was so loved by the business leaders in this country was because he banned Trade Unions.  This move can hardly be construed as an action of a socialist.

I was somewhat disappointed that Hayek doesn’t provide a time-line for when governments will fall into totalitarian collapse.  He just continually assures us that they will.  Soon.  In a generation or two.  Just wait, you’ll see.

Among his more bizarre allegations was the apparent difficulty of getting his book published.  It was a conspiracy he assures us.  It wasn’t until editors at Reader’s Digest condensed his book and published excerpts to a warm reception that a publisher was willing to publish it in the United States in full.  One would think that this story has enough cognitive dissonance to make Hayek’s head spin.  I’m always surprised by those who advocate a doctrinal adherence to free-market principles in every aspect of the economy (even to go so far to argue that any variation of the principles leads directly to a totalitarian regime), bemoan its injustice as it presents obstacles to dissemination of their ideas.

Hayek also bemoans the fact that people don’t properly refute his main thesis.  To wit, as Christopher Hitchens said, “what can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof.”  The strength of any argument rests on the evidence supporting it and its logical consistency.  Hayek can present a perfectly consistent argument, but so far, he uses the most loaded examples imagniable.

This brings me to labels and definitions.  Hayek presumably thinks that socialism is state ownership of the means of production.  The answer of course, is that state ownership of the means of production can be socialism, but it is not necessarily socialism.  Civics matter.  It is socialism if the means of production are controlled democratically.  If the means of production are not controlled democratically, it is something else, but the one thing it certainly isn’t is socialism.  Without this fundamental understanding, his argument is nothing more than a straw-man.

To Hayek, a state, is a state, is a state, regardless of the particular system of government.  However, Hayek assures us that any collective ownership of resources or implementation of services will lead to totalitarianism.  His solution to this situation is therefore to hand all resources and implementation of services to unaccountable private entities.  The possibility of a few of these private entities becoming dominant and eventually colluding is apparently impossibly in Hayek’s conception, in direct opposition to historical experience.

States, by their very nature, have a tendency to drift towards totalitarinism.  The founders of this nation recognized that problem and instituted a government with separation of powers, limited power, checks and balances, periodic elections, etc.  There are a few issues, in retrospect, they probably didn’t get right, such as election financing, the voting schemes employed and term limits.  Thankfully, they also gave us the ability to correct those imperfections.

Therefore, Hayek’s thesis is absurd on its face.  Did the Roman Republic fall because of socialism?  Did Greek democracy?  No, it is nature of all government to implode.  It is human nature.  Hayek’s solution is to capitualate all economic power to fundamentally unaccountable private tyrranies in the vain belief the power will remain dilute (another historical fallacy).  This ensures we remain free.  Free to find yourself in a world where the only option for your survival is to rent your labor power to a capitalist.  In this view, totalitarianism and Hayek’s “freedom” are virtually indistinguishable.

June 19, 2008

Derren Brown – Person Swap

Filed under: books, science — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:29 am

I’ve been reading “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” by Gary Marcus.  The book builds on a few points in “The Logic of Failure: Recognizing and Avoiding Error in Complex Situations” by Dietrich Dorner.  However, Marcus goes a bit further and tries to provide an evolutionary basis for our errors in judgment.

Human beings have a number of quirks.  The egotism of the human species is somewhat astonishing in this regard.  One would think with our brains, we would be most able to recognize our faults and limitations.  “Kluge” goes through a number of ways humans behave irrationally from the ability to be primed to bias one towards a particular answer, to confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.  We are definitely creatures that very much live in the moment with some limited deliberative capabilities hooked in.

As such, the book recommends watching Derren Brown’s Person Swap.  It shows just how flaky our immediate memories can be.

So, without further ado:

Recognizing that we are creatures with limitations and whose reasoning is imperfect is the first step in avoiding some of the problems that can befall us.

June 12, 2008

American Nerd: A Review

Filed under: books, culture, history — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 8:53 am

I finished up reading “American Nerd: The Story of My People” by Benjamin Nugent.  I first heard about book when Rachel Maddow interviewed the author on radio show.  The book was a good example of intellectual candy.  It was an enjoyable read.  There are a few interesting tidbits here and there.  Although, on the whole, it didn’t feel very nutritious.

The book is, perhaps unsurprisingly, about nerds.  What are nerds?  What is perception of nerds in the society?  How did nerds come to be viewed this way?  What does a nerd hope and dream about that may be different from other people?

To begin with, Nugent traces through some threads of anti-intellectualism in America.  Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that American anti-intellectualism appears to have its roots tied indirectly to racism and xenophobic fears.  The prototypical nerd is based off of a hard-working, immigrant Jews and Asians, so called “grinds” or “greasy grinds,” who perceived their best chance at advancement in society as being linked to education.  It is actually a testimony to the remarkable success of the immigrants that institutions within the society had to take measures to move the goal posts.  Intellectual achievement could no longer be the determining factor, other characteristics like nobility and hardiness were lauded.  Like any remarkably successful group that challenges existing power, the “grinds” were consequently demonized.

Nugent looks at some of the popular culture portrayals of nerds and nerd culture as well, focusing on the escapism and rule-based aspects, including hyper-whiteness traits, such as mispronouncing words that had obviously only been read, and not spoken aloud to a knowledgeable audience.

Nugent progresses to his personal life, examines some people he grew up with and looked at why they embraced nerdiness.

Nugent mentions Revenge of the Nerds multiple times.  So, I am sort of surprised he didn’t incorporate the main theme of that movie into the book.  Nearly everyone struggles with trying to be accepted, especially in middle school and high school.  Everyone has dramas and crises going on in their life at any given moment.  Nerds are a group that deals with that alienation in a particular way, and maybe that is worth exploring, but it behooves you to mention that the problem isn’t unique to just nerds.  The problem faces everyone.  Everyone feels alienated at one time or another.  This is the prime Nixonian political calculation, there are always a lot more losers than winners.  If you get the losers to band together, you can just ride their antipathy towards the perceived winners to power.

It is hard to bemoan the plight of being a nerd.  Even the self-described ones such as Nugent is doing so well he is getting books published.  His best friend Kenneth was a video game testing lead/program manager.   Self-loathing is a problem, but the big problem with that there is no measure of perspective.  Maybe high school sucks and girls don’t like you.  Is that worse than getting your arm blown off by a bomblet in Cambodia or Laos, or being deformed by Agent Orange in Vietnam?  Intelligence is a gift, even if you find yourself alienated, or depressed.  Maybe one would never miss it, but it doesn’t mean humanity wouldn’t be poorer from the difference.

May 28, 2008

Bush Gets Whacked By Former Press Secretary

Filed under: books, media, politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:22 am

The Politico has a review of Scott McClellan’s scathing memoir “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.” The story of how Politico got the book before its publication date is a little bit of a mystery. Apparently, they purchased it from a Washington bookstore. What was said store doing selling the book before its publication date? I imagine the publisher is pissed. Regardless, McClellan apparently gives his insights into the Plame leak, the run up to the war, and his general feeling about the administration.

McClellan said that Bush ran his administration like a campaign. As the Politico notes:

McClellan repeatedly embraces the rhetoric of Bush’s liberal critics and even charges: “If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq.

“The collapse of the administration’s rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should never have come as such a surprise. … In this case, the ‘liberal media’ didn’t live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served.”

It is one thing for the disenfranchised left to complain about the lack of anti-war voices in the run up to the war and how the mainstream media left many of the administration claims about Iraq go unchallenged. Coming from McClellan, it is hard to call his endorsement of such views anything other than “blame the victim.”

We sometimes forget the incredible amount of national unity the United States had in the wake of 9/11. The need for unity; the need to put disagreements aside and work together for a common purpose in the name of our collective safety was real, is real. Like McClellan, I have no doubt Bush is an “authentic” and “sincere” man. I have no doubt he believed he was doing the right thing and felt he had a messianic purpose to lead this nation. However, he did something that was unforgivable. He cooked the books, excluded those who disagreed, kept the whole story secret and filtered facts to build the case for his desired purpose.

In short, he used us. He didn’t rule by consensus. He ruled by marginalizing all those who disagreed. He never started administrating. He just continued campaigning. Anyone who dared question his proposed course of action stood accused of helping the terrorists. The disaster he caused, with his war of choice, is larger than that caused by the terrorists he demonized. Despite Bush’s views on the matter, criticism and informed public debate is essential. It helps vet the thinking and ferrets out the bad ideas and mistaken assumptions. Bush wanted none of it. Of course, what should we expect from a failed oil man?

Bush was also helped by Fox News. If the “liberal” media failed to report something, they risked being scooped by Fox and the only thing worse in mainstream media than being wrong, is getting beat to a story.

Bush remains sure that history will vindicate him. I highly doubt that it will. The Iraq War will forever be Bush’s War in much the same way Vietnam was President Johnson’s. If Bush doesn’t have his foreign policy record to hang his hat on, it is hard to imagine the range of domestic crises throughout his presidency would bolster his record. Years from now, I think will be to pull a McClellan, blame others in the administration and ultimately those who elected him. He may have a point, although it doesn’t change the fact we were betrayed.

Update: Glenn Greenwald has more about the McClellan revelations.

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