Friday, January 22, 2010

On God and Faith

So... lots of people believe in some kind of God/diety/superbeing.  And most people whom I know who believe in such a diety have accepted that there will never be any evidence that can demonstrate that superbeing's existence.  Not only that, faith is a fundamental requirement of the dogma.  Without faith, you will be cast out and suffer in this life and the next... so the lore goes.

Who told them that faith is a fundamental requirement?  If they heard it from somebody else or read it in a book, how do they know the sources are trustworthy and not some false prophet?  If, hypothetically and improbably, you know it from personal experiences with mystic revelation, how can you validate it to be able to properly claim it as knowledge?  More to the point, what can you properly claim as knowledge.

Let's say hypothetically I "go with the flow" and accept the claim that you should have faith in God.  Should that faith extend also to those who claim to be God's messengers? Why or why not?  If you say that you should not accept the words of prophets on faith, what proof have you required of these prophets?

For those whose answer is, "I don't know it but I feel it".  How do you know that your feeling is correct?  Have you ever had a feeling that was in error?  (For instance, you were angry about something because you didn't have the full story - but once you had the full story you feel bad for having been unjustifiably angry).  If knowledge of the existence of a God is beyond the reach of reason, does that not also mean that you can't trust your feelings on the issue?

Not trying to be disrespectful here, this is genuine curiosity.  Not about the nature of the universe but of the nature of a common set of ideas.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

You are a wonderful cat. You're the buddy. I will miss you.

My favorite of male cats.   

His nicknames are:
  • Grun-man
  • The Buddy
  • The Ambassador to the Dog People - Grundig was cat that could win over the dog-people.
  • Lamby-kins - He was amazingly tolerant of human behavior and would let me carry him around my neck as a lamb, holding two paws in each of my hands, purring all the while.
  • Power Tail - It was really quite strong and would knock things over.


My ex-wife called me this weekend to let me know that Grundig has not been eating and has cancer, so I went over to spend some time with him this evening... and to say goodbye. 

How do you say goodbye to a cat whose body is failing but is still here?  I can't.  I can only say, instead: "You are a wonderful cat.  You are the buddy.  I will miss you."

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Your Choice: An Internet Designed by Political Pull or an Internet Designed by A Profit and Loss System

In an article entitled "Parties Lobby FCC on Net Neutrality", PC World covers and breaks down the various positions of lobby organizations that are petitioning the FCC to do in the name of Network Neutrality which is supposedly justified in the name of some public good.  I disagree with the notion that there can be such a thing as the public good, or that it justifies actions taken by the FCC to restrict the use of private property (which the Internet is) where no crime has been committed and no rights have been violated.  I not discuss my position on that here.

Today, I want to talk about Economics.  If you've read the linked article then you've seen all sorts of goals specified for the FCC to achieve on the internet.  The means to achieve these are not described in detail in the article and perhaps are not described in detail by the lobbying organizations in their petitions to the FCC either.  These groups all have their opinions about what Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must do with their networks and, assuming that the FCC chooses to act on any of them, all service providers will be compelled to comply.

It is important to recognize that producers and consumers of internet content, the customers of ISPs, bear the largest share of the burden of paying for the internet.  Each lobbying organization is asking for things that will require ISPs to change their networks, to take on new costs and new responsibilities and where it comes to regulations of any kind, a thinking person must consider some questions: who benefits from these regulations, by how much, what is the cost, and who will pay for it?

In Economics, a free-market profit and loss system serves a lot of purposes.  Profit serves to govern supply when they run high by bringing on new capacity and greater efficiency of delivery.  Loss serves to communicate that a certain service is undervalued (i.e. overproduced) the production of which must be cut back.  Thomas Sowell holds that one of the virtues of such an economy is that "resources tend to flow to their most valued uses". In deciding the structure of the Internet, such a profit and loss system would govern how much in the way of premium services are needed on the internet and how much of the internet is not sensitive to delay or throughput.  It would be up to each ISP to tune and provision their network according to the dictates of the economy.

If we understand that these basic principles hold true about the allocation of resources in production and consumption in a society (Economics), why would we let a regulating body make arbitrary decisions based on a system of politics and pull, where we let pressure groups vie over who will determine the design of the Internet.  Shouldn't we let a free-market profit-and-loss system do that?  Shouldn't we let service providers continue to come to agreement on what standards they will implement (on their own private property) as they have done for decades now?  Shouldn't we let their ability to make a profit while competing with others choose the winners and the losers in the structure of the Internet?

There are many articles that begin by conceding that the FCC has a role to play in determining the structure of the Internet.  But I don't think this question has been considered carefully enough.  An FCC regulated internet would be an internet designed by political pull and lobbying groups.  The alternative is the one that is designed by the free market and by the ingenuity of ISPs that have to put their money where their mouths are and make a profit or go bankrupt trying.  One of these alternatives requires that ISPs and their customers pay for requirements defined by some lobbying group, the other is honest in the sense that it pays for itself based on the pursuit of honest profit.

If you have decided that it's right and proper for the government to leave the Internet alone, you have some work to do.  They are presently taking comments on Network Neutrality in preparation for the issuing of new regulations.  I don't have advice on the best way of petitioning the government to put a leash on the FCC and leave the Internet alone at this point but I intend to research this and to write my congressmen in the meantime to let them know.   Feel free to comment with your suggestions.

Iran says its "nuclear rights" must be recognized

 Iran says its "nuclear rights" must be recognized.  I say they have no such rights.  I say so because they systematically deny rights to their own people and kill them for speaking their minds.  They do not believe in the right to hold ideas freely and without that, you cannot have any rights at all.  They are a tyrannical regime and they deserve no measure of consideration on the matter of so-called nuclear rights. 

As I have quoted before, "Rights are moral principles which define and protect a person's freedom of action but impose no obligation on others." But rights have to be universal and fundamental.  Iran cannot properly assert rights when it does not recognize more fundamental rights of its own people.  And the USA certainly doesn't need to wait until they can threaten us with destruction before we may act against them.  They have already demonstrated what they are willing to do when force is within their means.

It is for these reasons that I hold as a convition that the USA or any other western country would be completely justified morally to proceed with destroying any Iranian atomic facilities.  We can and we ought to assert our right to exist and to destroy the means of force of an aggressive theocratic regime, if not the regime itself.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Personal Reading Notes: Basic Economics by Thomas Sowell - Chapters 1 and 2

When I last went to the library to return books that were due, I was returning Sowell's Economic Facts and Fallacies.  I briefly ran through the stacks to see what else I might be able to pick up and I ended up grabbing the second edition of Basic Economics 3rd Ed: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy by Thomas Sowell.
Chapter 1

Sowell begins by defining the term "Economics".  Let this be an example to anyone who seeks to write non-fiction.  It is important to agree on fundamental premises before you begin any kind of discussion of your subject.   Sowell attributes his definition to Lionel Robbins:  "Economics is the study of the use of scarce resources which have alternative uses."  Sowell expands on scarcity and alternate uses and closes Chapter 1 by noting that there are basic principles which objectively apply to all economic systems (as apart from subjective opinions) and sets the discussion of these fundamental principles as the scope of his book.  This distinction is interesting to me because it is the essential which sets knowledge apart from hair-brained ideas.

Chapter 2

What follows in Part 1 is a definition for prices and for costs and a discussion of the role that prices play in the allocation of resources in an economy.  Below are my notes on key points that Sowell makes:
  • Fundamental premise: "Prices play a crucial role in determining how much of each resource gets used where."
  • Prices do not cause scarcity: " is not prices that cause [scarcity], which would exist under whatever other economic or social arrangements might be used instead of prices"
  • Price fluctutations guide consumers and producers alike.
    • consumers may see lower prices if a resource becomes abundant; higher, if scarce.
    • producers can use prices to determine whether something has been overproduced or underproduced relative to demand
    • A free market system is a profit-and-loss system.
      • Sowell stresses the loss part because people are often blindly focused on the profit part
      • losses tell manufacturers what to stop producing without the need to know why consumers prefer one thing over another
  • prices and costs
    • Prices
      • prices can help deal with A vs. B decisions 
      • they can also deal with incremental decisions:  milk can be used to produce cheese, ice cream, and yogurt.  how much of each?
      • by buying more cheese, the price of cheese increases and cheese producers will bid more milk.  prices convey this information.
      • In a price-coordinated economy, "resources tend to flow to their most valued uses"
      • "Prices coordinate the use of resources, so that only the amount is used for one thing which is equal in value to what it is worth to others in other uses.  That way, a price-coordinated economy does not flood people with cheese to the point where they are sick of it, while others are crying out in vain for more yogurt or ice cream."
      • "The quantity supplied varies directly with the price, just as the quantity demanded varies inversely with the price."
        • People demand more at a lower price and less at a higher price.
    • Costs
      • "From the standpoint of society as a whole, the "cost" of anything is the value that it has in alternative uses"  (regardless of whatever particular economic system is used)
  • "India remained committed to a government-controlled economy for many years after achieving independence in 1947.  However, in the 1990s, India 'jettisoned four decades of economic isolation and planning, and freed the country's entrepreneurs for the first time '... There followed a new groth rate of 6 percent a year making it 'one of the world's fastest-growing big economies".  (note to self:  India has long been a model that liberals use for poverty and income disparity.  As such, it has been a target of mine for deeper exploration on the root causes of that poverty.)
  • "Knowledge is one of the most scarce of all resources and a pricing system economizes on its use by forcing those with the most knowledge of their own particular situation to make bids for goods and resources based on that knowledge, rather than on their ability to influence other people"
    • Price fluctuations are a way of letting a little knowledge go a long way.
  • On Greed and pricing: "high prices are often blamed on 'greed'... To treat prices as resulting from greed implies that sellers can set prices where they wish, that prices are not determined by supply and demand.  ...the competition of numerous buyers and numerous sellers results in prices that leave each individual buyer and seller with very little leeway. Any deal depends on both parties agreeing to the same terms.  Anyone who doesn't offer as good a deal as a competitor is likely to find nobody willing to make a deal at all."
  • On the benefits of permitting Price spikes during a crisis:  "When a crop failure in a given region creates a sudden increase in demand for imports of food into that region, food suppliers elsewhere rush to be the first to get there in order to capitalize on the high prices that will prevail until more supplies arrive...  What this means from the standpoint of the hungry people in that region is that food is being rushed to them at maximum speed... probably much faster than if the same food were being transported to them by salaried government employees" 

Friday, January 15, 2010

Objectivist Round-up #131

There is a weekly compilation of blog entries by Objectivists.  They cover a wide variety of topics including morality, politics, and approaches to parenting.  Very informative and worth a read.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Random Thoughts on Avatar...

Plot Devices from Other Movies/Stories
  • From Harry Potter and The Matrix - Story of someone normal living a dreary life who turns out to be quite exceptional and finds happiness there instead of his old dreary life. 
  • From The Matrix - Virtual interface to an Avatar complete with multiple frames of reference for consciousness and for fight scenes.
  • From Lord of The Rings - Epic Battles where the creatures help the good guys.
  • From Braveheart - Moving speeches from a single charismatic leader in blue paint (skin) who invigorates a listless people to protect their home and your land from an aggressive invader. 
  • From Dances With Wolves - a man of the appalling "civilized world" who discovers the noble values of the tribal people.
  • From Al Gore - dreams of a world where the "people" live in balance with the planet with no technology and minimal modification to the planet.
Things I thought were good about the movie
  • The visual design and effects were stunning:  think huge trees, black-lighted and vivid neon dream worlds, exhilarating flight scenes on dragon-like creatures.
  • The main character earns his place in the tribe through things that are bona-fide values:  survival skills, etc.  The character is on a journey of discovery.  He starts the movie somewhat dead inside and halfway dead physically.  By the end of the movie our hero is thriving (along with running, jumping and climbing trees).  This is a common theme in a lot of stories and it shows up a lot precisely because human beings need spiritual fuel to drive our lives.  We need good art and values or we wither and die, both mentally and physically.
  • That the fight is a fight of total war and they fight until the enemy is completely conquered.  On both sides.  This is how wars are supposed to be fought.  Short, decisive, destructive.  Destroy you enemy until you destroy the will of your enemy and they stop trying to kill you.
  • Planet as Internet and Database is kinda neat.  It's a different world with different rules and that really takes the air out of the tires of anyone who wants to take the movie as an ecological parable vs. being simply a good modern fantasy epic.
Things I thought kinda sucked about the movie
  • Charicature of American/Western/Earthling as military-industrial conquerors with values that include only exploit, lie, cheat, steal, kill, so long as you get your profits to the point that our planet is "no longer green".  Yes, the movie beats you over the head with its environmentalist message.
  • The over-the-top military dude (also a charicature) who just wants to kill, kill, kill and bombs an indigenous people while sipping casually on his morning cup of joe.
  • The close-up of the word "Explosives" (they beat you over the head with this one... really took me out of the moment)
  • Unobtainium?  *eye roll*
  • The fact that we're supposed to like the hero because he's a strong individual, but the only strong individuals in a tribe are leaders and warriors and everyone else - they're basically nobody.  It's a value dichotomy between individualism and tribalism.
  • The planet's creatures helping out in the battle = Deus Ex Machina (i.e. literary cop out).   They couldn't have won the war without the help of these creatures.  It wasn't a triumph of ingenuity and ability.  It was a triumph of faith.  This may help on Pandora but it won't do shit for you on Earth.  On Earth, it's guide your actions by your thought so that you can thrive or drift/flail randomly until you die.