Blind Reason

Blindfolded Everybody knows that blind faith is a bad thing, right? I mean, we’re all clear on that even if we can’t really describe what it means exactly. Most of us have, at some point, known “that guy” (or girl, it’s a gender-neutral phenomenon). You know the one. Impervious to reason. A fanatical exponent of some faith (maybe even your own) whose every expression is one of devotion and doctrinal rectitude. Or the modern expression of the same impulse: a political partisan who clings fiercely to their party line and who knows their talking points by heart and can’t be taken far from them. We can see the potential for harm in that kind of devotion and we eschew it as dangerous and to be avoided.

It is such an off-putting phenomenon that even the accusation that you have blind faith is enough to send you searching your conscience for examples where you’ve gone counter to the party line. Nobody wants to be seen as a predictable drone or mere extension of some collective body with no mind of their own. We’re all individualists here, no matter how alike we might appear on the surface.

The Rational Man

And everybody knows that the antidote to blind faith is reason, right? I mean, the ascendency of reason over religion during the Age of Reason brought huge advances in science and improved the human condition. Reason was such an effective counter to the excesses of faith that for many people, reason has replaced faith as their guiding force when principles collide.

While it is impossible to live entirely without faith (there are simply too many complexities of life to question every assumption or taught truth), many strive to live with as little as possible. Nobody more so than the modern intellectual. Whether ensconced in a university or merely well-read and contemplative, intellectuals worldwide explore boundaries, investigate assumptions, and test hypotheses. And nobody can deny that this is a good thing, at least, not while enjoying the advances of science and technology.

True Faith

Since the LDS church places so much emphasis on education, it should come as no surprise that a great deal of effort has been made to rationalize our doctrine. There are scores of books, talks, firesides, and stories whose purpose (whether explicitly stated or not) is to reassure ourselves that we are, at heart, a rational people.

And that is as it should be.

We believe, after all, that God is the source of all Truth. So if there is anything that can be proven true, it is our duty to embrace that truth no matter how uncomfortable it may make us.

Reasonable Doubt

There is facts about abortion a fundamental problem buried in the above section, however—the concept of “proven true” is a troublesome one even before you get to the fallibility of all human endeavor. What we accept as “proven” can be tricky, and if we aren’t careful, we can end up in places that are murky at best. I’ve seen enough friends and associates of an intellectual persuasion leave the church to suspect that there is something almost deliberate that happens to those who pride themselves on their intellectual capacities. This happens too often to be mere coincidence, which got me thinking (uh oh…).

I don’t know if this is universal and can be raised to the status of a gospel law, but it is so frequent in my experience that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it were. I have noticed that everybody who is proud of their ability to reason eventually finds something that they cannot reconcile with the church. It may be a passage of scripture. It may be a political call to action. It may be a new church program. It may be a conflict with a leader or church authority. The details are highly personalized, but eventually every intellectual I’ve known well enough to discuss this with reaches a point where they have to make a choice between their reason and their faith.

I’ve been there, so I know how painful this can be.

Pride Goeth Before…

I wasn’t being subtle above, so it should come as no surprise that I believe this is a problem of pride. Of course my reasoning is correct and my understanding of the principles involved complete enough to come to rational conclusions. The discrepancy must, therefore, be in our leaders (past or present).

Here’s the thing: we believe and sustain our leaders as not just followers of but as actual representatives of God. Each member of the church is exhorted to gain a testimony for themselves, from God, that this is true (and really, being a member is enough work that I personally don’t understand anyone who would go through it all without having obtained that confirmation).

So an intellectual who finds their own personal point of digression has a choice to make. Popular choices at achieving a reconciliation between faith and reason include:

  • Denial. Pretend there is no problem and simply go about your business and hope it doesn’t come up.
  • Delay. Hope a solution presents itself at some future point in time—hopefully sooner rather than later.
  • Compartmentalization. There’s a problem, but just because the church is wrong about one thing doesn’t mean it’s wrong about everything.
  • Justification. The church is wrong from some explainable, and perfectly reasonable, cause (cultural inertia, social conditioning, ideological contamination, whatever).
  • Crusade. The church is wrong, but I can help fix it.
  • Individualization. God has a general path for everyone else, but mine is different because I have a greater capacity/truth/wisdom/whatever.

People mix and match, of course. A little justification with a pinch of compartmentalization and maybe a little crusade if you get some support. Flavor to taste. The problem with all of those approaches is that they are stop-gap at best. The fundamental problem isn’t going to go away. The disparities between faith and reason will accumulate, causing your discomfort to grow over time. Eventually, it is going to grow to the point where you have two options: you can talk yourself into leaving the church, or…

Humble Pie

You can humble yourself, admit that you may, just possibly, be wrong. After all, if the church really is led by representatives of God and you are in conflict with it, then chances are that you really are wrong. Most people, when asked, will admit that in general they are human, fallible, and can be wrong. Theoretically, at any rate. It is amazing how few can bring themselves to admit this in a particular instance or give an example of it happening. Particularly when they are so sure that they are right. It makes sense and it feels so right. How could it possibly be wrong?!?

So let me ask you specifically (or, given that this is a blog post, ask you rhetorically): can you be wrong even when you are positively, absolutely sure that you are right?

This is “Only” a Test

Depending on your personality, making the choice to be humble and putting your faith in God and His chosen servants can be incredibly hard to do—particularly when you know that you are at least as smart as (and possibly smarter than) those servants are. Even more so if you have made proclamations that will have to be retracted. Would He really want us to do something that is so hard and that makes us so uncomfortable? Well, we know that God isn’t exactly reluctant to ask us to do hard things. And He is forever droning on about being humble (almost enough that you’d think He was serious about it).

Indeed, God takes our humility so seriously that He has been known to offer us occasions to demonstrate that we have heard Him and are doing our best to obey. It is this aspect of Him that leads me to suspect that He has set things up such that events naturally produce these occasions. It could very well be more important to Him that smart people learn humility than it is that His servants get everything precisely right every time they preach in His name.

At any rate, I know that, personally, I’ll take the word of the Lord and His servants over my own understanding every time. Even if I think they’re wrong. You can look at it as a matter of track-record (mine being pretty abysmal even before comparing it to people who are proven right time and time again), but really, it’s a matter of faith. I believe that they’re right even when I think that they’re wrong.

Blind or Dumb?

It’s a hard thing being left without reason to fall back on in our day—particularly if you are in a situation where you are asked to defend your position or decision. That blind faith thing, remember? Some will scorn you. Others will laugh. You may even face professional discrimination (and that’s a possibility even if you’re only a computer programmer). After all, how serious can you be if you are willing to admit in public that you will suspend (and/or have suspended in the past) your own reason when it conflicts with the doctrine of your church?

So let me close with some comfort should you choose faith. God really is right. Following His representatives is not only right, but will help you avoid trials and tribulations that result in more than mere humiliation. The only real question is if our leaders really are His representatives or not. If they truly are, then you have literally no reason in the world to worry.

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21. October 2009 20:43 by admin | Comments (10) | Permalink

Suffer the Children

Christ with Children This happened a few years ago, but I was reminded of it today during church and I thought I’d share. It’s heavily LDS, so my apologies if you are unfamiliar with the jargon.

I remember it well because I was so deeply affected by it that I took the time to jot a note about the incident. I’m glad that I did, though my initial attempt to record it is an embarrassment of over-florid prose. I’ll try to keep this simple so I don’t get in the way of the experience.

It was a normal Sunday. We were on time and sat in a middle row near the front. Our ward is uncharacteristically small for Salt Lake City, so we don’t have to be early just to get seats with cushions. Indeed, it’s small enough that most of the Aaronic Priesthood boys are involved with passing the sacrament—even the Teachers and Priests.

Indeed, one family arrived shortly before the meeting began and slipped into the row in front of us as it was yet entirely empty. Their boy, three or four years old, ranged across the entire bench, managing to take up the entire row all by himself. Fortunately, he was short enough not to be seen over the bench and was surprisingly quiet so he wasn’t a disruption to others. I felt sympathy for his mother as she watched over her very active son. I thought women health clinic of the Savior’s admonition to “suffer the little children” but it looked to me that the mother was the primary sufferer on this occasion.

On this Sunday, the Stake Representative took some time for announcements, one of which was the upcoming ordination of one of the Aaronic Priesthood boys to become an Elder in preparation for his mission. The boy, when asked to stand, rose from the bench of deacons (towering over them as he was both large and athletic).

While the bread was passed, I noticed that the small boy in front of me was too busy with his quiet-time toy to be bothered with taking any. When offered, he shook his head and his mother, perhaps resignedly, passed the tray along. I remember smiling a bit at how gracefully she had handled his refusal.

When the deacons were done and all lined up, I saw the boy again as he noticed the line of young men and remembered that it was the sacrament—and that he hadn’t gotten any. He raced to the end of his row and quietly tugged at the boy in front. At the front of the line was the tall young man who would soon become an elder. At this point, the Priests had already stood, and it was time for the deacons to move. I wondered how the soon-to-be Elder would handle this development.

Well, handle it he did. With dignity and reverence (and maybe a hint of a smile) he reached down and offered the boy his tray of bread. He did it so smoothly that I doubt many in the congregation noticed at all that the line of deacons had hesitated. His patience in that moment of expectation, when he knew he should be leading the others forward, stands in my memory as one of those quiet times that divinity manifests unannounced. In a little ward in Salt Lake City, a tall, athletic young man demonstrated what it truly means to “suffer the little children to come unto me.”

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31. August 2009 00:11 by admin | Comments (2) | Permalink

Being Dad

Dad Scolding One of the joys of parenting is having the opportunity to mess with your children. I always wanted to be like Calvin’s dad (from Calvin & Hobbes) when my children were young, for example. It’s no wonder Calvin has such a unique perspective on reality when his dad explains that the sun is really only the size of a quarter and that we know how much weight bridges can take by driving progressively heavier trucks over them until they fall down.

But that only lasts while they’re still gullible young.

Entertaining Young Persons

I’m discovering a new, related, joy as my kids enter adolescence. I might, if I were pretentious, call my new hobby "forming their taste", but I’d just as soon have the word with the bark on (as Georgette Heyer’s characters would put it) and call it what it is: indoctrination. I have the opportunity, as they begin exploring the worlds of art and entertainment, of expounding at length on those things I consider interesting or of value. The result is gratifying and evident in such things as Teleri’s latest school paper (a research paper this time, so I put it up in its own file).

I half expect to be brought up on charges of child abuse for things like celebrating Pratchett’s birthday yesterday with all the kids. Even so, I can’t express how fun it is to see Teleri devouring his latest, even if that means she becomes competition for the family copy (hey, being able to take her in a fair fight has to be useful sometimes, right?).

Family Entertainment

Our newest tradition, for which I fully expect to spend time in the hell of syrup and fire-ants, has been watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer with the older kids. We haven’t set an age on the tradition, or anything. When we think they’re mature enough to be capable of rational discussions of sex and violence and moral agency, we watch our DVDs with them. We have a similar (sometimes concurrent) tradition with Firefly.

This is certainly a controversial tradition. I mean, both shows have sex and violence and many lifestyle choices we are officially against. The thing is, on a deeper level, I think that both shows are also deeply moral. They explore things like family, the nature of evil, and doing what you believe is right even when doing so is likely to be both hard and painful.

Which isn’t to say that we hand them the DVDs with a jaunty "Knock yourselves cost of abortion out." and hope for the best. We watch them together and discuss things we think are important or interesting. This probably robs some of the fun out of it for the kids, but hey, we are still parents and we have a natural right, obligation even, to be pedantic whenever fun threatens to obscure important life-lessons.

And heaven knows that Joss Whedon didn’t flinch from difficult moral choices, so our discussions are wide-ranging. It isn’t likely that any of us will face the particular choice between sending a loved one to hell and saving the world, but there are plenty of relevant topics there (starting with "love isn’t always enough" and "deus non machina"). I guess what I’m saying is that we palliate our consciences by pointing out the obvious. Hey, they’re kids. They might not connect all the right dots; my favorite of which remains "if you have sex before you are married, your boyfriend will turn into a monster."

29. April 2008 20:17 by admin | Comments (0) | Permalink

Violent Video Games and Kids

 This post is the result of a school assignment Teleri had. The original assignment was to write a "letter to the editor". She modified the assignment to be a blog post. The topic, position, and composition are her own.

Playing Video Games

I really hate it when I hear someone argue that certain video games should be banned because they are EEEEVIL. Okay, they don’t use that word, but that’s what it comes down to. They might say “kids who play video games are more violent” or “video games make kids more likely to shoot someone.” Or they might say “video games encourage kids to be loners” or “gamers have no friends in real life.” They seem to think that video games only have negative effects on the people who play them.

With all the school shootings and violence going on these days, it makes sense that some people—especially parents—are concerned about how kids are behaving. Video games, especially violent video games, didn’t exist when they were kids, and neither did all this violence. So it makes sense for them to make a connection between the two. And because they think video games are the cause of the problem, it also makes sense that they want to ban them.

The thing is, I myself am a gamer girl. I’m almost fourteen years old and I have yet to shoot someone, let alone go on a shooting spree at the mall. I’m not any more violent than I was before I started playing video games. I have many friends and have no trouble making more friends. So either I am unique among all young gamers, or the assumptions people make about games are wrong. Based on the research done on video games and the people who play them, it turns out that the latter is true.

There have been studies that seem to prove that video games make people more violent. However, much of the research that abortion help says this has been proven inconclusive, or in some cases is actually flawed. The studies that are scientifically accurate and peer-reviewed tell a different story. A University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign study examined the effects of playing a violent video game and compared the results to a control group that did not play. They found that the players weren’t any more likely to argue with their friends and partners than the non-players, and they weren’t any more aggressive in general. This is the same result most studies are getting: there’s no causal relationship between violence and video games. MIT professor Henry Jenkins says “No research has found that video games are a primary factor or that violent video game play could turn an otherwise normal person into a killer.”

But what about all those shootings? Well, according to Jenkins, violent crime is actually lower than it used to be—even though 90 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls are playing video games. The reason we think there is so much violence is that we only find out about shootings because they’re covered in the news, and we hear about those relatively rare incidents a lot more than we used to. The kids who commit these crimes probably have personal or psychological issues that don’t come from playing video games; if video games didn’t exist, they might still have committed those crimes. And Jenkins also says that “researchers find that those serving time for violent crimes typically consume less media before committing their crimes than the average person in the general population” (emphasis added). So video games aren’t to be blamed for crime. (Personally, I think gamers are just too busy to commit violence; it would cut into their game-play time.)

Another claim made by video game opponents is that children can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality. In other words, a video game might teach them that it’s okay to shoot someone, so they might believe that shooting a person in real life is just a game and doesn’t really hurt them. But when you ask kids about this, they all say they know what the difference is. Game designer and play theorist Eric Zimmerman says that when people play, they enter what he calls the “magic circle,” which is how they distinguish between the game and reality. What happens while they are in the “magic circle” is always just a game, with only the smallest bit of reality to make it believable. Kids who would never hurt another person in real life have no trouble shooting bad guys in a video game, because they know it’s not real—it’s just a way of keeping score in the game.

But even people who don’t believe video games make kids more violent may still think video games have a bad influence on them. They might think that video games take up too much time and energy, or that they make kids isolated and unable to make friends or have a normal social life. If you’ve ever seen a kid staring bug-eyed at the screen while he shoots aliens, these arguments might seem valid. And it’s true that kids can spend a lot of time on the computer or the console with a favorite game. But that’s something that can be controlled by parents who are aware of their kids’ activities and work with their kids to figure out how much play time is appropriate. Just because there are games in the house, doesn’t mean that they have to play them all the time.

The other point—about gamers having a lack of social skills or being isolated—is so far from being true it’s almost funny. More than half of all gamers play their games with another real live person—often a family member. When you’re playing with another person, it’s usually as a team, and you both have to work together and strategize in order to succeed. This is the opposite of being isolated. Additionally, the hugely popular massively multiplayer online games encourage you to make friends and work with other people in order to have fun. Non-gamers often think that because you never meet these people in real life, it’s not a real friendship. But the hundreds of thousands of people who have participated in online guilds and other organizations would disagree.

What many people don’t realize as they’re focusing on these negative points is that video games can have very positive effects on players. One of these is how games encourage you to strategize and solve problems. These are skills that often come into use in real life. James Gee, author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, says that gamers are “active problem solvers who see mistakes as opportunities to learn and are encouraged to test new ideas.” Instead of thinking of mistakes as personal flaws, gamers often think of them as something to learn from. Another positive thing about video games is that they let children express feelings and impulses they wouldn’t be able to act on in real life. It’s better for them to work out anger by beating up a computer opponent than if they just went out and beat up a classmate who made them mad.

If you’re one of those people who think that video games are dangerous, I think you’re probably just worried about the safety of children. That’s a good thing to care about. But banning video games isn’t the way to keep kids safe. What I suggest is that you spend some time playing your kids’ favorite games. Get to know what games they like and why they like them. Your kids will think you are pretty cool if you do. You may find that there are some games that aren’t as awful as you thought just from the title or the box art. You’ll be much better informed about video games than if you just jump to conclusions. Who knows—maybe you’ll discover some games you like playing!

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29. January 2008 01:35 by admin | Comments (17) | Permalink

Geek Education

Teaching Geeks I often wish that geeks had a better grasp of markets and applied logic. This thought returned recently when I read an article linked from someone I follow on twitter. David Pogue’s questions in his NY Times article are all interesting to be sure, but some of them aren’t really all that unanswerable.

For fun, I’ll cherry-pick them for my own entertainment.

Why is Wi-Fi free at cheap hotels, but $14 a night at expensive ones?

This one’s a softball. Free Wi-Fi will often be a deciding factor when choosing one cheap hotel over another whereas the deciding factor in choosing expensive hotels is almost never free Wi-Fi. Basic market dynamics there.

Would the record companies sell more music online if it weren’t copy-protected?

Honestly? I don’t know. My guess is that they will. Since more music is being sold without copy-protection now, we’ll soon see. My guess is that people will be a lot more casual buying copy-protection-free music because they don’t have to worry about portability, compatibility, or preservation. I know that was a major concern of mine about buying music online.

Do cellphones cause brain cancer?


How come there are still no viruses for Mac OS X? If it has 6 percent of the market, shouldn’t it have 6 percent of the viruses?

Because people who write viruses don’t choose their targets randomly. Duh.

Why are there no federal rebates or tax credits for solar power?

Because not enough people have voted for federal rebates or tax credits for solar power. Duh. Since the case for creating federal rebates or tax credits for solar power is problematic, I expect this to continue to be the case for a while, yet.

SmartDisplay, Spot Watch, U.M.P.C., Zune… when will Microsoft realize that it’s not a hardware company?

Since when are companies forced to make only one kind of product? If Microsoft wants to offer hardware products, more power to them. The market decides if those products are worth support or not and the more products on the market (i.e. the more competition), the better. Just because you don’t like a product personally doesn’t mean it can’t make a profit in the marketplace.

Why don’t all hotels have check-in kiosks like airlines do?

Because there isn’t enough benefit for hotels to have check-in kiosks. If you think they haven’t explored the option, you don’t know big business very well. If it ever becomes beneficial, they will undoubtedly add them. Either hotels have to save more in having them than they currently spend on having staff check people in, or (as implied in my answer to question one) people have to be motivated to chose a hotel based on whether or not the hotel has a check-in kiosk. Obviously, neither is the case.

Five billion dollars a year spent on ringtones? What the?

What, buying ringtones makes no sense in your world? Elitist snob. There’s obviously a market for them. A five billion dollar market, to be exact. Mock if you like, but people like them so companies sell them.

Do P.R. people really expect anyone to believe that the standard, stilted, second-paragraph C.E.O. quote was really uttered by a human being?

No. But then, that isn’t the point. the cost of abortion

Why aren’t there recycling bins for bottles and cans where they’re most obviously needed, like food courts and cafeterias?

Because recycling is mostly a scam. If recycling actually saved resources, companies would pay you for your recyclables. Right now, recycling is just a way for people who believe in it to feel better about themselves.

Why doesn’t someone start a cellphone company that bills you only for what you use? That model works O.K. for the electricity, gas and water companies —and people would beat a path to its door.

Because the assumption that people would beat a path to its door is wrong. People don’t want to have a mental meter ticking when they’re using the phone. At least, people in the U.S. don’t.

Why doesn’t everyone have lights that turn off automatically when the room is empty?

Because such lights cost more than you’d save if you had them. Basic economics, there. Think of it this way: if a company could claim that people would save more with such lights, do you really think you wouldn’t have heard ads for them by now?

Why are so many people rude on the Internet?

This one actually has two answers. First, in mostly anonymous forums like blog comments or discussion groups, there’s no cost to being rude online (certainly nowhere near the cost you would have if the same conversation were face-to-face). Those people who are only prevented from being rude in face-to-face conversations by the censure they’d receive will frequently give in to rude impulses online.

Second, most communication on the internet lacks the interactive feedback that many of us use to clue us in on how we are being received. Thus, even people who aren’t naturally rude will tend to go farther online than they would in person. It isn’t because they’re different or secretly mean, it’s just because the social boundaries are harder to discern.

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18. October 2007 18:43 by admin | Comments (1) | Permalink

On Teaching

Profound thought of the day:

The teacher decides what abortion research is taught.
The student decides what is learned.
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31. August 2007 13:29 by admin | Comments (1) | Permalink

What Price Safety?

Safety In the words of Robert Heinlein, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch." I'm pretty sure this is true on a fundamental level. Unfortunately, too many people never bother trying to figure out what something will actually cost before supporting or endorsing it.

An Example

One such instance is a new movement here in Utah called Zero Fatalities. They're running radio ads here and my blood pressure rises every time one comes on. This is from their front page:

Even though there are more people living in Utah and people are driving more, fewer safe abortion pill people are losing their lives on Utah's roads. However, the loss of just one life is too many. This is the philosophy of Zero Fatalities. It's a goal we can all live with. It's the ONLY goal we can all live with.

I can't even begin to tell you how much this disgusts me. Their one virtue might be that at least they are honest with their advocacy intentions. Many advocacy groups want to imply that they only exist to solve some problem with the implication that they'll go away once that problem is solved (comfortable in their ability to show why the problem hasn't been solved no matter how much is done to do so). Not these guys. They admit right up front that even with fatalities in decline, they're going to keep right on going until we hit zero.

The Problem With Zero Fatalities

The rest of it is pure hogwash, though. Zero fatalities isn't a goal we can all live with and it certainly isn't the only goal we can all live with. For a goal to be livable, you have to understand what the costs of achieving that goal are. So let's ask the question these guys glide blissfully by:

What would it take to achieve zero traffic fatalities? I mean, it's theoretically possible to achieve and it's pretty easily measured, so as a goal, it's not half bad. So. Let's assume you're actually serious about achieving this goal, what would you have to do?

In other words, what is the cost of this non-free lunch?

Easy, get rid of traffic. It might work if you just hobbled all cars so that none could travel faster than 5 mph, but that's an unsupported assumption. Is it possible to have zero traffic fatalities at higher speeds? Theoretically, maybe, but there is a point, and that point is below 35 mph, where a traffic fatality is inevitable with nothing but speed as an excuse.

This doesn't even address DUI issues or simple carelessness that make it possible to have a traffic fatality at literally any speed.

The Cost of Getting Rid of Traffic

While the picture of life without cars, trucks, and motorways may be prosaically aesthetic, the true results would be catastrophic. While you could theoretically get by on trains and subways for many things, it'd mean giving up things that require flexibility and individuality. Imagine no emergency vehicles, for example. No way to bring home more than a bag or two of groceries at a time (which means having to go grocery shopping nearly every day). No way to go on long trips with the family that requires any gear you can't haul yourself.

In the end, it presumes that every place that you want to reach is also somewhere that enough other people want to reach to build a rail line there.

But here's the real kicker that anti-vehicle utopians will have to face: trucks currently carry three-fourths of the value of all freight shipped in the U.S. and two-thirds of all freight by weight. Getting rid of that infrastructure would require an enormous amount of work, time, and money, not to mention being willing to accept the costs of rigidly controlled and scheduled deliveries.

Not getting rid of all of these things means accepting the loss of life entailed in having traffic.

Infinite Value

Zero Fatalities is a form of what I've taken to calling "the infinite value fallacy". The terms are being set by this sentence: "the loss of just one life is too many." If you accept that statement, then you really have to accept the logical consequences of that statement. i.e. if you accept that "one life is too many", then you really have to accept that we need to get rid of traffic altogether.

Frankly, there are a lot of political and societal arguments that boil down to assigning an infinite value to something. The biggest example of this right now is the vast majority of the global warming crowd. You can test this out by trying to create a cost comparison between doing nothing about global warming and all the current plans to do something. It doesn't take long for someone advocating Action! Now! to create an infinite value argument.

This goes for a lot of environmentalism today, unfortunately. It's a shame because I'm instinctively sympathetic to arguments that we should be wise stewards over our resources and make our footprint as small as we can afford to. That said, I just can't buy those arguments that assign forests more value than people's lives or even livelihoods because I don't buy that maintaining our current level of forestedness is more valuable than people's lives or livelihoods.

The Formal Fallacy

The actual fallacy involved here is called a "false dilemma" and is illustrated by Pascal's Wager. Blaise Pascal argued that it'd be a good idea to act as if there was a God because you stand to gain an infinite value if he exists and lose little of real value if he doesn't.

The trouble with that wager is that there are many more possibilities than the the two presented (starting with the possibility that God exists but not as described).

Once you recognize that you have stumbled into a false dilemma, proving it is simply a matter of finding the buried alternatives. For Pascal's wager, noting that there exists a huge multiplicity of gods, ancient and modern, is probably sufficient. Noting that at least some of those gods require sincerity and not simply bet-hedging lays it right out.

A Pleasant Delusion

Infinite value arguments are a tough form of the false dilemma, though, even if you can identify where the infinite value is being placed. What makes it so hard is that the false dilemma is bound up in a pleasant, but logically impossible position. In other words, people want to believe that some things have infinite value. We want to believe that every life is precious, that forests are inviolate, that every species is valuable, and that we should keep our oceans and waterways immaculately pure.

What that means in practical terms is that while there are many alternatives to the false dilemma of infinite value, those alternatives tend to be unpalatable. Suggesting them makes you seem harsh, even when you are right.

For the Zero Fatality crowd, you can point out that no society acts as if every life were of infinite value because all societies accept structures and institutions that cost lives (even if accidentally) and that such a belief is simplistic and kind of stupid.  It's hard to face the reality that life isn't infinitely valuable, but not hard to illustrate. Traffic deaths are actually a great illustration of this because eliminating traffic is the only way to prevent all traffic deaths and the costs of that prevention is so enormous that the pursuit of zero traffic deaths is shown to be ludicrous.

Safety Always Involves Trade-offs

Safety, whether it involves accidental, deliberate, fatal, or non-fatal events, always involves trade-0ffs. We see that in our response to terrorism and our attempts to work out what we're willing to pay to reduce the risk of another terrorist attack. We certainly see that in traffic safety. And we see it over and over again with anything that involves children.

Which is where this long post is leading, really, because our most brain-damaged actions right now have to do with the safety of our children. It's here where the infinite value arguments come fast and furious. It's a tough thing to admit that we, as a society, should be willing to risk the health and even lives of our children, but without admitting this fundamental truth we're setting ourselves up for a world of pain that we're only just now beginning to realize.

That said, this post is long enough where it stands and it's time to shut it down, so exploring that theme will have to wait for another day. Or week, rather, because we're headed on vacation tomorrow...

29. June 2007 00:31 by admin | Comments (0) | Permalink

Caveat Renter

Renter beware. I've heard a number of technology companies lately extol the great virtues of renting—both hardware and software. They sell the concept to their investors and shareholders and talk about the wonderful revenue stream they will build. And I'm afraid that is all that they see. As such, they are doomed to failure. There will be a backlash, mark my words. The thing is, as pointed out in Infoworld,

But we don't see any vendor propaganda promising that we'll save money by renting.

In fact, companies moving to rental are missing a fundamental rule of business—the customer is king. The whole point of capitalism is that the absence of compulsion means that you have to win customer dollars by providing something people want. And the bottom line here is that nobody wants to rent. At the very most fundamental, nobody wants to rent unless doing so is significantly cheaper than buying. Not just a little cheaper, significantly cheaper. Renting means that someone else has control over your destiny. It means you do not own the tools that make your business run. In something like IT spending for businesses in particular, where change represents significant cost, you do not want to be dependent on another company for the continuing good function of your computer systems. It is suicide. And Ed Foster at the same magazine says similar things about "maintenance" contracts which is rent on the back side.

Companies aren't going to agree to draconian rental policies just because tech companies want them to. Even when they want them to really badly and they prattle on about bug fixes and free upgrades.

  • Fact, free upgrades won't happen—companies will invent new names and split upgrade paths to, well, generate more revenues.
  • Fact, bug fixes aren't going to happen any faster with rental agreements—you can guarantee that companies won't bump spending on support and programming just because they have more revenues coming in.
  • Fact, new revenues will go to new programs, new initiatives, and new products to generate new revenues.

Consumers are not stupid. Companies who see their customers as walking revenue streams have lost the focus that made them successful in the first place. You build revenues by accurately identifying the wants and needs of your customers—not by accurately identifying their budgets. My advice? Avoid tech companies with great plans for rental revenues like the plague—not only their products, but I'd stay away from their stock, too. The resentment of their customers will rebound and they will end up the worse for it.

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13. June 2002 10:34 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink

Teacher’s Reps

I have to admit that I'm pretty antagonistic to teachers' unions. The central truth about teachers' unions is that teachers' unions don't now, and never have, represented the best-interest of children. I don't know how they got this one over on people—this assumption that they are merely seeking to make education better and thus help children—but they have and it is high time they have that mantle of glamour removed. Teachers' unions do not represent, or seek in any way, the best interests of children. Teachers' unions seek the best interests of teachers. If there is any group in the country that has interests opposed to our children, it is teachers. Now, I'm not claiming that teachers are out to destroy children. Most people will hesitate to do active harm to children—and I believe that most people would try to avoid any indirect harm as well. And I personally know a number of fine teachers who try to do the best they can by the kids they teach. My favorite uncle, for one. But those fine teachers are often forced to work against their own union in order to actually accomplish the great things that they do (can't have people destroying the curve or raising the bar for the rest of us, you know). I guess what I am trying to point out is that if there is any group that needs to have their motives and initiatives questioned, it is the teachers' unions. You can see this dynamic in action with the priorities that teachers' unions have. Take classroom size. This is pretty much their number one call for reform. And it's true that some correlation to classroom size and quality of education exists. But there are a billion different things that are a) cheaper and b) more effective than reducing classroom size that would provide better benefits sooner. But that doesn't stop the teachers' unions because the unambiguous thing that reducing classroom sizes does is make it easier on the teachers. The other needed reforms make more work for teachers—work the good ones are already doing and work that the rest of them don't want to even attempt.

And really, when it comes right down to it, the single biggest problem with education today doesn't have anything at all to do with the public schools. The biggest benefit to children—and the single greatest factor in determining success in education—is parental involvement. There's been a big push for homeschooling lately. And I should mention that we homeschool our children, so I'm sympathetic to the 'cause'. Homeschoolers are cleaning clock on most measures of academic success. They're winning national championships, they average higher on standardized tests (even when controlled for ethnic and income factors), and they are entering colleges better prepared than their public schooled compatriots. But most interesting to me is that many of those benefits disappear when studies factor in parental involvement. Involved parents turn out to be the deciding factor in the success of children no matter where they are or where they go to school.

Don't pat yourself on the back too fast, though. Statistically, you probably don't qualify as an involved parent. Being involved means more than just going to the games and recitals. It means more than getting a report card twice a year and meting out punishment and reward. Involved parents help with homework, ask their kids what they're up to, and spend time with their children every day. Being an involved parent is a lot of very hard work, which is probably why it is so very rare. It isn't a whole lot of extra work to go from being an involved parent to being a homeschooling one. It is almost impossible to have a career and be an involved parent. Here's a simple 'involved parent' test—is a parent present when the kids get home from school to ask what they did and how their day went? Anything less than that tells children that they aren't that important and that their concerns take back seat to the important stuff the adults are doing. Being an involved parent is a tangible, scary, large sacrifice—one that I believe to be well worth it, but not in any way I could ever 'prove' and certainly not in any way economic.

4. June 2002 10:31 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink

Sun Blind

Attack! One of the fundamental rules of business I have learned is that to succeed, you must attack the leader. If your efforts aren't geared to become better than the current #1, then you don't really have any justification for existence. Find the weaknesses, become more efficient, discover hidden customer wants.

Attacking yourself is a problem with Sun Microsystems. They just don't seem able to do it. Oh, they do okay when they’re in the pack somewhere competing for profits, but whenever they find themselves ahead, they have a tendency to sit back and enjoy the scenery. But even worse is when Sun only thinks that they’re number 1. Their release of Java as a competitive development language was brilliant and they managed to put it out there with enough oomph to attract every anti-Microsoft developer on the planet. And they achieved enough momentum and enthusiasm that they thought that they would be able to coast into number 1 position in development languages. Coasting along for the last year, they haven’t been very responsive to the development community. They’ve delayed standards reviews. They’ve stalled on effective IDE issues. And, perhaps worst of all, they stopped pushing Java in broad marketing initiatives.

The result is disaster. Java is steadily losing ground to Microsoft’s .NET and there’s no end to the slippage in sight. By not maintaining their momentum, Sun has allowed Microsoft to overcome their advantages and leverage the millions of existing Microsoft developers into the Internet development arena. As a result, Sun faces more than just the direct challenge of VBScript vs. JavaScript (or even VB.NET vs. Java). Now they face whole architectures they let get out of the bag with what amounts to no answer from Sun—XML, ADO and SOAP to name the most obvious, and groundbreaking, examples.

So have they learned from their mistakes? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be “no”. Scott McNealy seems to have decided that his ego alone can overcome any obstacle and he has failed to give any answers with substance about how Sun will manage to overcome these threats to Java. This is making a lot of developers who have banked on the popularity and utility of Java very nervous. New third-party tools are coming out that help extend the usefulness of Java immensely, but these tools can be expensive and make a poor comparison for a development house that is looking at the ease of VB.NET and comparing that to the hoary, expensive, patch-work monster that Java has become.

Good thing Sun has that lovely server business to fall back on. Um, or maybe not. While Sun was playing around doing whatever they were doing back there, their server market is being eaten alive from the bottom. Sure, Sun makes incredibly reliable servers, but they’re pricey suckers and Sun hasn’t implemented any substantive improvements recently. In other words, they didn’t attack themselves. Their prices didn’t come down until they started losing business and that is far, far too late. Further, consumers have found that if reliable costs too much, they can often achieve the same results with less reliable, but redundant. Thank Michael Dell for that little epiphany. Dell pushed server prices so low that you can afford three of his servers for the price of one Sun. And that’s after a major price-slash on the part of Sun.

My prediction? Sun is in for a tough time. They’re clearly in decline and the pit seems to be bottomless. McNealy and co. don’t seem to have fully realized their danger. Upon hearing that Sun needs to recalibrate, Scott McNealy’s response is simply “We couldn’t be better positioned.” He’s known as a tough guy, but even tough guys get knocked out if they’re not careful. Particularly when they walk around with their eyes closed.

What do you do once you're #1? Same thing. Attacking yourself is a tough thing for companies to do and it isn’t something they typically do well. Those who do, however, will tend to reach number 1 and stay there. This principle is the single biggest factor in the continuing success of Microsoft. Bill Gates is the most paranoid man on Earth and he is convinced that if he rests on his laurels for even a moment, some upstart will come around and nail him. He’s right.

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15. May 2002 10:29 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink


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