Friday, December 21, 2012

Much to my Surprise, I Agreed with the NRA today

To be clear, I would place myself far on the left when it comes to gun control. I am fairly certain that I am a part of a significant minority that wants to abolish the second amendment through replacement, and though I don't ever expect that to happen in my lifetime, I can only hope that we take significant measures to curb private gun ownership in America to more sane levels. Over the short term, this could take the form of bans of various flavors, but a far more effective way to accomplish this is a long term change in our culture towards one that no longer holds so fervently to delusions of rambolike grandeur when faced with the potential of totalitarian regimes or threats against one's property.

No amount of private gun ownership will overthrow the US government in this day and age, and all too often I see gun rights activists sound a little bit paranoid for my tastes, listing gleefully the benign circumstances in which they think guns are useful.

Sometimes with that hammer in your pocket, a lot of screws start to look like nails.

But all that is not to say that there is not evil in this world, and that there is not a need to counter it with violence. I simply don't think that we should obsess over making that violence available to as many people as possible as easIly as possible and as efficiently as possible.

So as the NRA said today, we have a lot of security professionals who are qualified, motivated and unemployed. Let's put them in schools to protect our most prized possessions, our children.

I have no problem with security professionals providing protection.

Most everything else the NRA said today was the same pathetic fear-mongering I have come to expect. Just because the NRA can point to other problems in society, that does not mean that it will distract us from the toxic combination of distrust, paranoia and violent culture the NRA stands for.

Friday, December 7, 2012

How Far Will Zionism Go?

I posted a lengthy comment to the "about this blog" section of a blog I have been reading and for whatever reason, it has not been approved for the past week or so. I hope it is just because the author of the blog is busy, and not permitting the comment is obviously his prerogative, but the issue is important to me and I have yet to hear any good answers to my questions so I suppose I will resort to posting it here in hopes of a response from someone.

The blogger is a settler in the occupied territories, and he clearly justifies this on biblical grounds. It is a divine right and responsibility to him.

My question to these people has been simply to ask how far will you go? The bible clearly promises Abraham all the land between the Nile and the Euphrates. That represents an absolutely ludicrous amount of territory for Israel to conquer and the logical conclusion of a prophetically informed expansionist policy is to annex significant portions of Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Egypt. 

That, of course, is insane.

As is the prophetically informed, Zionist expansion that characterizes Israel's foreign policy now and since its inception and if their is any real threat to Israel's existence, it is a continuation of the status-quo.

Here is the blog I am referring to:

Here is what I posted:

"Names are indeed historic markers of past civilizations, but they have little bearing on who should occupy a location today. By the same standard, we should return Illinois to the descendants of the native tribes that made up the Illinois confederacy. History is long and successive in nature. Perhaps we would all be better off trying to find solutions that are reasonably fair to everyone who is alive today.

Of course you probably refer to biblical prophesy as a justification for the preferential treatment of Jews. I must ask, when will this end? After all, did God not say to Abraham that he will give to his descendants all the land between the river of Egypt and the Euphrates?

If you honestly believe that all prophesy in the bible is just, perfect and going to transpire at some time in the future, how far should you go to take matters into your own hand to accomplish this?

Should you expand a defensive war beyond your initial borders to take Jerusalem and double your territory?

Should you later add another thirty odd percent to your total territory in an additional defensive war? Should you then settle it with the clear motive of land reclamation even after your nation has agreed to cede that land in an eventual peace deal?

Do you really want to deal with the inevitable strife for generations, the strife that this expansionist policy will elicit from the various peoples displaced?

I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, not if it didn’t have to be that way.
But no, that is not enough. For according to the Bible all the land must belong to the Jews.

Maybe this will be accomplished through more defensive wars. At the current rate of expansion, it wouldn’t take long to achieve most of Jordan and a good bit of Iraq. After all, it didn’t take long to get the Sinai – that’s most of the way to the Nile.

Perhaps religious activists should begin building communities throughout Amman Jordan and even Karbala in Iraq.

It is insanity, and since the country’s inception this insanity has been informing Israel’s policy toward its Arab population in a way that is only going to risk its well-being at best and its very existence at worst.

I grew up in Israel. I have a lot of friends there. I don’t want either of those to happen."

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Entire Health Insurance Industry is Subsidized

There is a tacit admission by the private health insurance industry that it is an unsuitable choice to provide health coverage for Americans in any systematic manner. Of course all insurance companies, about half the politicians and your average free market capitalists would have you believe that they are capable of providing the best prices, the lowest overhead and the most affordable care through the invisible hand of competition, their record on the matter is far less impressive that their rhetoric.

The price of insurance is determined by the aggregate risk associated with a given pool of enrollees, which is mostly simply translated to say that insuring an older, sicker population is more expensive and insuring a younger, healthier population is cheaper.

Of course insurance companies are more than aware of this reality, and they certainly act accordingly - by casting off responsibility whenever they can.

They get rid of you the second you turn sixty five when your health is far more likely to fail, and up until recently they would cast you off when you became too sick - private insurance for the elderly is prohibitively expensive for most and the cruel irony of lifetime caps on spending is that those who need coverage the most are by definition excluded. They pay only ten percent of long term care for those who need it with Medicaid picking up the remaining ninety and the high deductible health insurance plans that cover over sixty million Americans today are worthless for chronic conditions, a reality that drives thousands to the safety of a government net the moment they are unfortunate enough to acquire a sufficiently grave injury or illness.

Anyone can provide competitive rates if they can systematically reduce the risk of their pool by neglecting the population who by definition need it the most. Only private insurance companies obscure the morality of its owners in the name of stockholders and profit enough to do so.

They have admitted their inadequacy. They constantly enlist the help of the government to cover the important expenses their business model has no intention of covering. They are subsidized. They are not up to the task of providing true insurance, insurance that can provide in your time of need.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Geographic Complexity of the Middle East Confllict

This is by far the best explanation of what everyone is fighting about, and what will have to be untangled if there is ever a two state solution. I don't think people really have a proper grasp of this.

I'm beginning to doubt that. I've heard some interesting arguments in favor of a one state solution recently. Maybe I'll elaborate on another post.

New York Times

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wasted Opportunities: The Unique Experiment that is Palestine and How Israel is Botching It

As anyone over the age of, say, ten years of age what science is and the response will invariably involve one of two words: experimentation and discovery, if not both. Of course they are correct to say this and even more correct to reference both as attributes, but such answers miss the fundamental value of science as a pursuit. They are mere methods, and powerful though they may be, an understand of science that limits itself to this scope creates a profound deficiency in the application of its principles, which in turn creates a profound deficiency in the success we can attain.

At it's most fundamental, life is a science. It is a series of experiments and discoveries and whether you are good at it or not, every decision you have made in your life that was not arrived at by pure chance was arrived at by a science of sorts.

Take that pair of shoes that you purchased, for instance. You may have hypothesized that they would increase your confidence, or perhaps help you run faster or with more comfort. Maybe you have an inkling that they would be a small asset in a job interview, or even simply keep you warm. Having owned them for some time, you have tested these hypotheses and the discovery you make from the experience will inform your decision making process in the future.

This wisdom that is gleaned from the combined power of experimenting and synthesizing the results into discoveries is the true value of science, which is to say that it is a guide book. It is and will always be incomplete and our comprehension of it will be limited, but time and time again, we use this method to make most every decision in our life.

Of course the shoe example is a bit trite, but it was only brought up to demonstrate how broadly applicable the principle is. Things like where we choose to live, what restaurant we eat at, who we consider to be friends and even which flavor of religion we follow are all experiments that will be assessed for success or failure against our previously held assumptions. Sometimes we run these experiments on ourselves and sometimes we mine the data provided by the experiences of millions of others who have tried out similar hypotheses. The analogy is obvious when compared against more conventional experiments like those that are medical in nature or perhaps environmental. Sociological experiments are nothing more than formalized interpersonal interactions designed to yield more specific results. We hope that a particular drug will benefit us just as we want to see whether a particular behavior will affect the environment. We are curious to know whether the Internet is fundamentally affecting our learning, and in all of these cases, we will ideally act accordingly.

Yet we do not always act accordingly. Sometime we have a vested interest in an alternative course of action, and sometimes the experiment is of questionable reliability.

Bias will always be present and its reduction is a self-evident necessity that will likely never be met, however the value of a reliable experiment is obvious to nearly everyone, whether they know it or not. Take for instance something our society holds to be self evident and broadly agreeable: like the value of family. No one really considers this, but ultimately our basic assumption that families are good is based on a plethora of experiments carried out by most everyone we know or have heard of. We subconsciously categorize our friends, acquaintances, famous people and even fictional people into categories of "have good family connections" and "lacks good family connections." The calculus of whether or not families or good, but considering the examples we have there seems to be an emerging consensus.

Consensus is markedly less obvious in cases of controversial issues and that is almost universally a result of unreliable experimentation. Should we cut taxes? Realistically, the information is scant and most case studies occurred at points in history that are unique in their attributes and are not uncontroversially compared to the realities of the present day. Are we right to have the death penalty? What degree of gun control is best?

Whatever your personal opinion on these matters, the evidence is actually pretty ambiguous and can be interpreted in multiple ways. This is a reality that plagues any social scientist - it is nearly impossible to get a properly controlled experiment going and therefore their conclusions are generally considerably less reliable than those reached by say, physics or chemistry.

With the experimentation we conduct in our personal assessment of public policy, this is essentially the reason we have such annoyingly contentious political parties. Poor experimentation leads to multiple interpretations of the data and a significant bit of public opinion falls on one side of the matter and a nearly equal significant bit falls on the other.

It's rare on such large scales, but on occasion experiments can be conducted in the eyes of an electorate and public opinion can be shifted consistently based on this results. This phenomena is of particular interest because of it's relevance to a rather significant source of diplomatic difficulties these days: Palestine.

Despite the general consensus that it is a problem with no solution, I try to look at what potential there is. Both nations actually have a fairly similar culture, assuming that you remove some of the specifics associated with religious differences. As a matter of fact, something like 40% of Israelis came from Arab nations with a generation or two. Though I am unfamiliar with the Palestinian side of things, I know that young, educated Israelis are becoming a larger portion of the population and taken as a whole, they are far less likely to hold hard-line views on the matter. But what intrigues me the most is the fact that we have the makings of a remarkably controlled experiment.

Not to say that all of these things are good, but the situation is as such: There are two distinct isolated population centers, the West Bank and Gaza that are saliently different only in their leadership and geography. Furthermore, Israel has a great deal of control over many other conditions that affect each of the populations. To name a few examples, Israel has nearly complete control over things such as the permeability of borders, settlement policy within those borders, humanitarian aid, outside employment, external political relevance of the ruling parties, banking restrictions, and many more.

This amount of control could permit a degree of scientific precision that is completely unprecedented in the messy reality of international relations, and this experiment is being conducted whether Israel is cognizant of that fact or not. Palestinians of both flavors are paying very close attention to what works best in their plight for a better life and they have two very good example to learn from. Perhaps it would be best that they make use of this unique position of influence to fine tune conditions in a way that promotes a departure from extremism.

But that's just me.

Unfortunately, Israel has generally taken a policy that marginalizes their only ally on the matter. Of course Mahmoud Abbas is not the perfect partner for peace, but he is certainly better than the numerous alternatives that are vying for the support of the Palestinian people. If Israel is serious about solving this problem in any way, it is best that they recognize these compatible leaders whenever they come about and work very hard to strengthen their position in the eyes of their electorate. If there is ever going to be a two state solution, Israel will need a Palestinian partner on the matter and it is foolish to think that such a partner will come ready made with unanimous Palestinian support and an agenda that is wholly compatible with the desires of Israelis. They will have to take what they can get and they will have to compromise.

Instead, they reward the Palestinian Authority's reasonable track record of cooperation for the past six years (particularly when compared with that of Hamas) with a general neglect that is obvious to the Palestinian people. They have arbitrarily held on to their rampant settlement policy, leaving the Palestinians to watch their land shrink by the day. They reward their self policing and anti terror activities with walls and checkpoints that only some 20000 have a permit to pass and they raise hell when they peacefully seek merely"nonmember observer state," a paltry upgrade from just "observer," in the United Nations.

Not only does this seem childish and bullying, but it is such a waste. Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank have no reason to assume that cooperation will gain them anything more significant than continued subordination and disrespect. For many, the results of this little experiment are beginning to come in.

Take this article as an example.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

On Homoerotic Dancing and Street Preachers

Walking through the central courtyard of your average University is a spectacle of ideas and values. Very concerned individuals of very different stripes see the place for the opportunity that it is: it is a place to reach America's future influentials. The environmentally concerned, the politically minded, the club joiners, the processed food eschewers, the "brand new product" preachers and of course every religious denomination under the sun - they're all there and they're all vying for your time.

The latter of which always seems to draw the crowds, which are directly proportional in size to the brimstone content of the message. Whether to lampoon, decry or argue their point, college students absolutely can not pass up the opportunity to engage a street preacher, mostly for sport.

On a typical day, such festivities are easy to ignore for the predictable spectacles that they are, but today's grabbed my attention because it seemed to have taken an interesting flavor that warranted my investigation.

I'll let the picture speak for itself:

As is always the case watching is the crowd is far more interesting than the speaker - particularly in this case. The speaker? His script is was laid out a few thousand years ago. The crowd? They have a little bit more leeway with how they choose to present their side. I won't say that I didn't laugh at the antics and I do agree that ridicule has its place, but I think we can be more creative than this.

This guy, for instance, has some serious grade A class:

Monday, November 19, 2012

Mowing the Lawn; Some Thoughts About the Conflict in Gaza

There are a few arguments that I discount out of hand when I get into a discussion about the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and I'd like to get them out of the way before we start.

First off, I do not care who started the most recent escalation in violence. This is a continuous problem and there is enough dirt on both sides that one could make a very reasonable argument in either direction. I'm taking the adult stance here and spending a lot less time here thinking about who'se at fault rather than who can act to improve on the situation.

I also have no historical memory of territorial realities beyond about 1967. This is not to say that I agree with all of the fairly Zionist ideologies that influenced the geographical result in 1948, it is just to say that the cultural, economic and political realities today more closely mirror the lines drawn in 1967 rather than 1948 and if there is going to be any two state solution emerging from the mess, 1967 represents the path of least resistance - as best as I can tell. This amnesia extends back far beyond recent history as well. There is a long and complex history to the place and it has very little bearing on what we should do now. My goal Is simply to improve the lot of as many human beings as possible in the region, not historical reenactment.

To be clear, I do not care what God said. If you insist on being a biblical literalist on this matter, then I do not take you seriously simply because the bible actually promises Abraham land all the way to the Euphrates, which is an insane proposition by any rational standard. So too is it insane to suggest that Israel can settle the West Bank because of a divine mandate; anyone who advocates this needs to be ridiculed and ignored.

Finally, I do not care if it is your right to use force. That does not mean that it is a good idea.

On occasion we come up with a term or an expression to describe some geopolitical reality, it makes it's way around the news, maybe even history books, and somehow seemingly without anyone actually taking the time to think tangibly about the implications, the phrase has been inducted into our collective consciousness - now it's normal, like peanut butter and jelly.
I've always thought of nuclear deterrence or Mutually Assured Destruction in this way. How do such sane people come to view the potential destruction of civilization as a legitimate strategy? What about democratizing a country as an external force? To loosely quote the late George Carlin, going to war for peace is like fucking for virginity.

The better comedians are pretty good at pointing out this sort of nonsense and maybe even bringing some rationality to the table. I'm afraid I'm not nearly as deft - but in a similar spirit, I would like to bring some attention to a phrase I have been hearing people throw around:

"Mowing the Lawn"

This is an expression and attitude that is informing political decisions in the upper ranks of Israel's leadership and only a firm belief that the enemy lacks any human decency could possibly convince such smart people that it is a rational strategy. Mowing the lawn obviously refers to a periodic maintenance that must be carried out in the occupied territories to keep the peace, and any truce is condemned to be uneasy if Israel acts under these assumptions.

To be clear, both sides are at fault. I am frequently criticized for blindly siding with the Palestinian plight, ignoring the atrocities committed by them as well as the legitimate needs of the Israelis, and to a large extent I think that is true. I do tend to spend more time dwelling on how the Israelis can change their approach and what atrocities they are committing. But I only do so for two reasons.

The first of which is simply that I grew up in Israel, and therefore I have a better idea than most of the national psychology that goes a long way towards fueling this quagmire. My understanding of Palestinian society is admittedly one dimensional, as would be my proposed solutions. Hamas (or any other Palestinian leadership) must denounce violence, and it must recognize Israel's right to exist. That is evident, and I'm unequivocal about that. I just see a lot more ways to achieve that by modifying Israeli behavior rather than Palestinian. There is a good chance that I have a limited scope and I'll leave it up to the Palestinians to pick up that slack.

The second reason is related and is simply to say that Israel has a greater array of choices. Israel's policy towards Gaza is a stranglehold on its economy and as the occupier, Israel quite literally has the ability to fine tune the economic environment in the strip. And it has been wielding that power with a great lack of responsibility. If Israel has any intention to shed the title of occupier, it must create an environment that will allow Gaza to grow into a society it can trust with autonomy. This will not happen with 60% unemployment, a freeze of assets and commerce, and periodic incursions that kill up to 0.1% of the population.

Moreover, the heavy handed approach that Israel has been taking towards Gaza only strengthens Hamas while decimating the rest of the population, and the Israel's righteous rage renders them blind to this fact. The most obvious benefit is that the blockade creates a convenient choke point for essentially all economic activity in or out of the strip, which is exploited by Hamas in the form of a tunnel surcharge. But most important is that oppression from an outside force is the lifeblood of any freedom fighter.

But Israel does not trust Gaza with prosperity under the pretext that it will be abused and used to raise an army against them. Though I agree that this may very well happen for a time, I should note that it is happening now as well. And the deterioration of the Palestinian plight has only further destabilized the precarious environment surrounding the conflict.

This time around, Hamas' missiles reach further. This time around, the West Bank is beginning to realize that their peaceful approach has only given them more settlements and marginalized leaders. This time around, nascent democracies across the Arab world are shaping their policies towards Israel.

It does not have that same visceral sense of security that strong military action imparts, but allowing Gaza to have hope and giving Palestinians responsibility on the world stage will moderate them. Nearly every contemporary criticism of Hamas could also be said of Fatah just a bit over a decade ago. Though Mahmoud Abbas is not perfect, he is a far cry from his organization's political heritage as terrorists in the mountains of Lebanon.

We need to replicate that with Hamas. All of those people are not going to disappear, no matter how often you cut the grass. This ceasefire will not last forever. Neither side thinks it will.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

How to Stump an Evangelist

So here's a little thing I came up with  to best handle the occasional street evangelist who is trying to share the good news.

Before we start, I would like to point one thing out: most people I have come encountered that have tried to convert me to Christianity have done so in a very respectful manner. Furthermore, when you put yourself in their shoes for a moment and realise that they are deeply convinced that you are in eternal danger, understand that what they are doing is actually a very reasonable thing to do from their perspective; even humanitarian, in a sense. If I was absolutely convinced of such things, I would hope that I would care enough to act and help everyone who is in "danger" - I think it speaks well of their character. That being said, a certain amount of respectful confrontation is likely to be instructive.The reality of what they believe is something that they have to grapple with. After all nothing, especially not beliefs, religion or God is beyond criticism.

So without further adieu, I give you a fictional conversation between me and a Proselytizer:

Proselytizer: Excuse me sir, have you ever thought about what will happen after you die?

Me: A little bit, but I try not to get caught up in it too much.

Proselytizer: Well, let me ask you this. If you were to die today, do you know where you would go?

Me: Probably nowhere - is this really a reasonable way to start a conversation with a stranger?

Proselytizer: I'm so sorry, but we just wanted to tell you about a way that you can know where you are going. A way that you can be saved and go to heaven. 

Me: Look, I knew this was coming and I do appreciate the intention behind it, but it is just too late for me. I have sinned too much. 

Proselytizer: No, that's not possible. Why according to John 3:16, all you have to do is believe that Jesus died for your sins and you will gain eternal life. 

Me: Well, I know that - but you see a few years back I realised something. I was having a conversation about the bible a few years back, and I realised that according to Christian tradition it is the Holy spirit that both convicts us of our sins (John 15:8) and moves through us to minister to non-believers. After all it was the pouring out of the holy spirit over the apostles that led to the success of their ministry - you see Jesus saying that in Acts 1:5-8, also in Luke 1:15, you see John the Baptist possessing the Holy Spirit and because of that, many come to God. 

Proselytizer: That's true.

Me: Yea, so the point is that the Holy Spirit has some capability to bring about conversion, to give people the power to save. But at the same time he can convict us? How is that fair? He is capable of saving us, but then he condemns us once he fails to do so? Anyway, I couldn't get around that thought and yes, I think it is an immoral vile thing for an all powerful and omniscient being to do. 

Proselytizer: Umm... I don't think that is necessarily the best way to think of it.

Me: Perhaps, but that doesn't matter. Because in that conversation and many others since then I have made this point. I have argued that the Holy Spirit is either incapable or evil - I have spoken against the Holy Spirit often. 

Proselytizer: Well, maybe if you came to our church and we could have a talk with Pastor Brighton, we could sort all this out. I think you'll find that there are other ways to think about this. 

Me: But that's not the point, it doesn't matter. Let me see that bible for a second... Ok, here it is. Matthew 12:31 "Wherefore I say unto you, all manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men." See, it's too late for me. These words were unequivocally said by Jesus himself: I am unforgivable. So really, I do appreciate your time and concern - but there is just nothing to be done...

I find that most people are rather shocked when I take that angle. Especially the younger crowd. This is entirely based on limited personal experience, but it seems that older Christians are much more likely to hold fast to the more unpalatable aspects of Christianity. Younger people, not so much so. They are more inclined to believe that Christianity is nothing more than a collection of happy, beautiful and moral teachings and everyone has access to a very simple route to eternal bliss. Very few have truly confronted the notion that most of the people they encounter on the street are going to suffer in Hell for eternity. Very few have truly grasped the notion that according to their beliefs, countless foreign peoples not fortunate enough to be born to a Christian culture are doomed to Hell. 

I think that is something one should ponder, especially if they are trying to convert others into it. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Muhammad Movie Trailer Madness

As you may have heard, another bit of Western satire has irked Muslims the world round. Lots of people are absolutely inflamed over the disrespect to the prophet Mohammad and of course the various pundits are either supportive of the free speech exercised by the film-maker or horrified at this rather oafish display of cultural insensitivity.

Before we go any further, it might be a good idea to actually watch it:

I'll admit that I go into this with a couple of assumptions under my belt. First, I am firmly behind the free speech rights of whoever created this video - whatever it contains, no matter how vulgar, it is permissible. It is permissible because of my second assumption, which is that freedom of speech is only truly exercised when the speech is controversial. This is the value of the whole concept: to protect the ideological fringe from the desires of the majority or the powerful.  Sometimes you will agree with ts fringe and sometimes you will not, but if you ever find yourself with controversial ideas, you should hope that society on average doesn't look to their personal values to decide whether they will allow you to pipe up. This is the primary reason as to why we can not make a habit of caving to international outrage  over cartoons, movies or books.

Another thing to keep in mind is that we are actually fairly agnostic, so to speak, about which religions are ridiculed on YouTube. Take for instance the channel called ebolaworld, which. Has a regular series titled "Unbelievably Messed-Up Bible Stories." The series uses many of the same techniques to ridicule bible stories such as Job, Noah's Ark, Jacob and Esau and so on. In both the recent Mohammad video and those put out by ebolaworld, various important religious figures are portrayed as oafish, deviantly sexual and violent in an attempt to ridicule the religious beliefs many hold dear. I suggest that religious people the world round trust in their God's to handle the personal offense as he or she sees fit.

Perhaps the most amusing aspect of the whole issue, however, is how the video gives such an easy free pass to Joshua, the viciously militant Judeo-Christian leader of the Israelites. Watch for it, right in the middle of the video dedicated to ridiculing the deplorable actions of Muhammad the warlord, they have the gall to justify Joshua's pillaging of Palestine and murdering and or rape of thousands of women and children as acceptable because God warned them for 450 years and didn't ask them to convert to Judaism. To any reasonable person, that is no excuse. I consider both prophets to be equivalent.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Falling with Style

This is a bit of a lighthearted departure from the usual fare on this here blog, but I just had to post this out of sheer amazement. Compelled, really. For good or for ill, sometimes I am just blown away by what human beings can accomplish - its always nice to recognize the good as well.

This is called tracking. It is the same basic aerodynamic principles used on those massive ski jumps you see on TV, except you launch from a cliff with a parachute (base jumping). The control, skill and audacity required to pull this off is mind boggling. He is essentially wearing nothing more than a reinforced rain jacket that inflates a bit, no camera tricks.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Fair Trade Cocaine and Other Responsible Choices

The notion of voting with your dollars is becoming more and more present in the minds of the US's hyperconsumer society - which is good, all things considered. At least we are trying to be conscientious, though in the deafening din of the Internet I always seem to come across this report or that report that casts various degrees of doubt on the functional outcome of our good samaratan checkout antics.

Is fair trade coffee beneficial to the society writ large, or does it just benefit those few farms with the resources to navigate the convolution of inspections and standards mandated by whatever Western organization has taken it upon itself to decide these things. How much of my red paint surcharge actually ends up as medication for AIDS victims after all the overhad has been taken out? If my bicycle is made of carbon neutral bamboo and I always make it a point to drink my overpriced Dave Matthews Band concert beer from biodegradable plastic cups, can I just try and remain unaware of exactly how much energy it takes to manufacture and transport these single-use fads.

I think the tone in my phrasing of these questions hints at my perspective, though I do genuinely applaud people for caring. If nothing else, it indicates a slight societal trend towards the acceptance of inconvenience and expense in the name of positive long term outcomes. Something that is sorely needed if we are ever going to solve any problem more significant than this months unemployment numbers or the high gas prices over Labor Day weekend.

What I want to talk about is the next step. How can we improve on this model?

It's simple, we must be consistent. We have a tendency to hold to certain consequential pleasures with vigor while strive to placate our conscience with minor tokens of benevolence. I see it all the time and in most cases it is benign and understandable. In fact I have no doubt that any examination of my li would turn up many such inconsistencies, but I do take higher moral ground on one issue and one issue only: Illegal drugs.

I live in a fairly liberal college town and I am a firm believer in the notion that anything can be enjoyed responsibly. In fact, I am unequivocally for the decriminalization of all drug use and furthermore the legalization of most. The cyclic and discriminatory nature of our punitive system for  the handling of addicts is far too self evident for me to spend much time on.

But In the interest of being as direct as possible after, admittedly, a good bit of meandering around the subject - I would just like to say that nothing pisses me off more than the hypocrisy of well to do college students and young professionals who go to great lengths to ensure that there clothes are ethically sourced, that their coffee purchase supports a family and perhaps they even feel a tinge of guilt when they contemplate the factory conditions in Shenzhen, but then they go home and think little of funding a bloody drug war with their minor drug habit. 

I'm not even going to link any examples here. Do a Google search. Start simply with the search terms "cartel" and "executions." Maybe learn a thing or two. Take just a moment of your day to honestly contemplate what it must be like to live in Mexico, to try to raise a family there, perhaps even to try and be prosperous.

Come back and tell me how ethical a consumer you really are. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Second Ammendment 2.0

As someone who grew up overseas, the notion that gun ownership is a right extended to the American people in order to keep the government in check horrifies me - at least in these modern times. However in the same breath that I express my horror, I can freely admit that such attitudes towards gun ownership are in all likelihood exactly the same notions that the founding fathers had in mind when they drafted the amendments. I suppose I can even agree that gun ownership among the general population as a deterrent against abuse of power by the government was a reasonable approach. 

I humbly posit that a lot has changed since then.

Perhaps the most glaringly obvious and insurmountable difference is the imbalance of fire-power we see today. Go ahead, start your uprising against unwanted taxation and see how long your high-capacity ammo magazines, semi-automatic rifles and youtube combat training stands up against an assault by the masterfully trained career warriors that will roll up in acronym laden black armoured trucks, equipped with years of experience and the best armour and weaponry money can buy. And if somehow you are still free after that experience, then please, tell me how you plan to take on the most expensive fighting force ever devised by man. 

You see in these modern times we have a whole myriad of terms for this sort of Second Amendment rights use. We typically use terms such as hostage crises, siege, rampage and so on. Designating gun ownership as a legitimate and protected means of ensuring safety from the government gives legitimacy to anyone who disagrees with the government and wants to do something violent about it. If the right to bear arms is necessary for the security of a free State, than anyone who believes that their free State is being threatened and starts to fight for his free country is technically acting in accordance with the Bill of Rights.

Of course you might say that lone players represent the fringe and not the well regulated militia envisioned by the Founding Fathers. However at what point does a violent fringe group with a vendetta against the Government become a well regulated militia with a noble mission to protect freedom? The ambiguity sounds messy.

It is this ambiguity that creates the environment that brought us the likes of Randy Weaver, David Koresh, Timothy McVeigh and all those other historical boogiemen. They all lie somewhere along the continuum between lone, murderous madman and member of a legitimate militia uprising against the government.

And lets face it, in the history of this country not one person who has ever taken up arms against the government has been successful. Not one has been labeled by mainstream society as anything other than a psychopath. This, however, is the eventual result of operating politically by 18th century moral standards pertaining to might and violence.

The Constitution and the Bill of Rights are in impressive documents, but they are by no means comprehensive. They had the limited scope inherent to their time and therefore we can expect them to have considerable deficiencies when brought up against 21st century circumstances and problems.

Nor could they have possibly anticipated the 21st century's resources and solutions.

Take the Internet, for instance. It has only existed prominently for the past 20 years or so and in just that historical blink of an eye, it has managed to become ubiquitous and influential beyond even the wildest notions of any past futurist. No longer can secrets be easily kept and no longer can an individual be so easily silenced. If you are looking for a means for you, as an individual, to best affect the inertia of your government - to preserve your free State - then look no further. Think of the case studies of the Arab Spring. Think of all the Youtube videos uploaded that have caused public outrage and then change. Think of all the words written by ordinary citizens and have then gone on to find an audience of National scale.

Yes, these instances are rare and you are not guaranteed to be effective, but it does happen - and on a whole it is quite common. Much more common than successful armed uprisings, at least. So why is the NRA so powerful? Why do we still care so much about the Second Amendment. Why do we not see with clarity what our most valuable asset really is. At the very least the unprecedented equality of influence made possible by the Internet should be guarded with equal vehemence, hopefully more.

Perhaps, then, a superior wording would be:

Unobstructed access to the market of ideas, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and freely use the Internet, shall not be infringed.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Beautiful Science

A spectacularly beautiful method of showing the particles decaying from a small chunk of Pb210 (a lead isotope).

You can do this yourself by taking a clear plastic jar and covering the bottom and sides of the inside with a thick absorbent paper. Saturate the paper with alcohol and place the container in dry ice. Then place a little chunk of Pb210 on a wire that extends to the center of the jar.

The dry ice will saturate the insides of the jar with alcohol vapor and the alpha and beta particles emitted by the lead will cause it to condense as they pass through it. Hence the little trails of smoke.

I think I feel a science related post coming on soon, therein the beauty lies.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Citizens United is Correct - but Probably Wrong

I've been reading a great blog over at Big Think called Daylight Atheism and it got me thinking, then commenting - but it all grew into a blog post so I'll just put it up here.

Here's the post: clicky - go read it and come back here.

For those of you that are too lazy, I'll summarise it by saying that the article states that Citizens United might be a reasonable decision because it is hard to distinguish between an advocacy group's right to put information out there with all their resources and a multi-billion dollar corporation's right to put information out there with all their resources. Just to show how your emotions can conflict on this issue, let's say we are talking about the Christopher Reeve foundation (an advocacy group just about everyone agrees with) and an advocacy group funded by Exxon Mobil (a corporation plenty of people disagree with).

Now I think a better example that shows how sticky the subject is would be news corporations, specifically those that are publicly traded. Such corporations put out partisan political messages on a regular basis and they often do this on the airwaves. Just like evil oil companies, they also ultimately do this for the benefit of their shareholders.

Maybe your gut instinct is to say that that is preposterous to compare the two, most news outlets at least strive for accuracy and neutrality to a reasonable degree. And that might be true. But there is no requirement that news corporations behave that way and any good behaviour on the part of our newspapers and networks is only a result of the economic pressure created by our desire for unbiased information (for the most part).

As I understand it, the problem is that in the modern corporate environment we live in, there is very little to define what exactly the press is. So giving it special freedoms is frequently complicated by the fact that it's structure is essentially identical to other entities we might not want such freedoms to be extended to. Citizens United was legally justified on these grounds and legally speaking it is pretty bulletproof.

The often quoted statement of "corporations are people" is so frequently and easily ridiculed by pundits, activists and your average liberal, that gives a false sense of security. It is essentially a straw man attack on a Supreme Court ruling that does not address the real issue.

Which is that we are trying to run a 21st century society based on 18th century rules.

I am all for the constitution on many levels, but we need to be a lot more liberal about changing it. I think it is pretty self evident that the past 50 years have heralded some previously unfathomable considerations that your average (and even exceptional) 18th century political thinker could not possibly anticipate.

Weapons development, communications infrastructure, international interdependency, etc. These are only a few of the many systems that now act on such a ridiculously massive and complex scale compared to the 1700s that I find it insane to think that you can use these old rules to play such a new game.

And everyone knows this.

Ranging from the interstate highway system and NASA to the Patriot Act and drone strikes, the US has a very rich tradition of modifying - for better or for worse - the rules the government has to play by. Any rational person will have to concede that this is necessary.

The problem I see is the method in which we have been doing this. Our governance system is encumbered and obscured by an infinite number of slight modifications that allow the change to, more often than not, only creep in.

And I see two negative consequences to this, both stemming from our natural tendency towards fear and prudence - both as individuals and as a nation. Our propensity to fear causes us to look the other way when these creeping changes might be overreaching and compromises our morals. Whereas our natural tendency towards prudence causes us to choose the easy road out when more difficult, long term solutions are clearly more beneficial.

I think it is time that we take a step back and look at our system in a very fundamental level, assessing its components for validity in the 21st century. We have a method for doing this, though, in today's political climate it is essentially impossible.

We need to change people, the world is changing without us.

Monday, June 4, 2012

CTAFF! (Christianity Today According to my Facebook Feed #1)

I think it's fair to say that since I deconverted from Christianity, I have tended towards hanging out with my non-religious friends. Not because I have anything insurmountable against religious individuals, just that our ideas of how to live our respective lives have diverged somewhat.

In any case, we're all still Facebook friends which is great for the occasional reunion, but it's also a great means for me to keep tabs on the latest trends in modern Christianity.

So I've decided to start a series of posts called CTAFF, or, Christianity Today According to my Facebook Feed which will list some of the interesting articles, memes and ideas that my friends write and repost on their Facebooks, as well as my thoughts on the matter.

Without further adieu:

It's fairly axiomatic to say that a biblical view of women doesn't afford them a particularly equitable position in society. Thankfully things like executing the unchaste and quarantining the menstruating have fallen out of favor over the last couple millennia, but unfortunately religion still holds considerable influence on relations between the sexes.

This article comes from a fairly trendy christian website that seems to be geared towards young adults, it garnered over four thousand likes on Facebook and about six hundred Tweets. I think it’s fair to say that this is a reasonably popular and trendy view of marriage according to contemporary Christianity.

As the male component of a committed heterosexual relationship, I’ll get the obvious criticisms out of the way: saying that it is shameful to withold sex, engage in criticism and prioritize oneself within a relationship is dangerous territory. Of course you can swing too far in the other direction, but the fact of the matter is that within reason I expect my partner to improve me through criticism. I am highly interested in her priorities. And it is extremely important to me that she not view sex as an obligation and that I will not view sex as a right.

Sex is a privilege. And saying that it is shameful for a woman to withhold it when things might be rocky or when communication may have broken down can create a sense of duty that frankly I find detestable. You need to work through your relationship problems when they arise and ignoring the woman’s priorities or attempting to force a sexual relationship in absence of a good communication is just asking for abuse to happen.

What makes this even more unfortunate is that this article has almost no support for its claims. Not even from the Bible. Sure, it quotes proverbs as saying that being a wife is a work in progress, but all the specifics she felt guilty about have no grounding in the bible or logic. Rather it seems that it is based only on a vague sense of subservience to the man in the relationship that is commonly expected of Christian wives. 

The relational ground is fertile for womanly guilt and any number of normal, human flaws could be extrapolated into shame and inadequacy without any cause and no effective remedy.

Which brings me to the overarching problem I have with this this article, which is simply the type of solution that is promoted.

It is normal to have difficulties in a relationship and it is expected to feel inadequate at times. Moreover, it is true that for a relationship to work you need to strive to improve yourself for the sake of your partner.

However I assure you that striving to behave as a delusional carpenter did 2000 years ago will do nothing for your marriage, and saying otherwise leads to advice columns that promote a complete lack of dialogue between the two participants in a relationship.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My Deconversion, In Brief

Well it's been a journey, to say the least. Like many, I grew up in an intensely religious household and the concerted effects of every single major authority figure I looked up to, my social environment and the highly regulated information environment I grew up in led to me trying very hard to be a good Christian. Because it was what good people did. Because it would give me peace and love and joy and solid relationships. Because it was true.

And I'll admit, I always found it difficult.

I was actually a Missionary Kid, which meant that my parents went to a foreign culture in order to spread the gospel and convert the locals. In defense of my parents, however, I have to say that this was done in as appropriate a manner as possible. While I disagree with their goals, they were good people and their only responsibilities as missionaries were to help out with the local church and be involved with the community. The idea was that community involvement would give Christ’s light an opportunity to shine, and the good news will be spread only as a result of curiosity and natural interest. So my Dad managed a community center, played on sports teams and just hung out with the locals. Which I guess I’ve always justified as quite a bit more respectable than going door to door, handing out pamphlets and so on.

So all in all, things were going well. In the absence of critical thinking (It was discouraged insofar as it challenged the faith) and protected by the simplicity of middle class life, I found it all quite palatable.

This is particularly the case with the boarding school that I attended. It was incredibly tight knit - probably because it was comprised of only a few hundred students and was situated in a rural portion of a non-english speaking country. And though the time I spent there was supportive and enjoyable for me, I will always lament the narrow mindedness that permeated the place.

Despite being comprised of students whose parents work in something like sixty different countries, everything was suspiciously unanimous. All my inherited views - things like politics, healthcare, abortion, wars, education, science and slight doctrinal differences notwithstanding, religion - they never encountered a dissenting view. And so my confidence in them was great.

So much so that I specifically remember the first time that I realized I could be wrong. Because I was shocked. Now I had always fancied myself as a well-reasoned individual and with this unearned confidence I entered a discussion with one of my newly acquired liberal friends (of course, I only came across these once I enrolled in University) about something political. I believe it was something along the lines of abortion.

Now as I’m sure you can guess, the conventional wisdom on this topic I had grew up with was that it was murder. Period. And anyone that said otherwise was heartless, immoral and misled. This notion was supported by a small dose of talking points, but in my confidence I had never taken the time to verify veracity or understand the complexity.

Needless to say, I was schooled. And I knew it.

I’d like to say that that was it. That that was the moment I swore to re-examine all of my beliefs systematically and adhere to reason above all. It was far more gradual than that. But I did learn never to be so sure of myself.

Political views are less integral to  the Christian faith than are other notions of truth and it took a couple more years of open minded searching and some advanced biochemistry to topple my faith completely. It should be said that these years were difficult for me. I felt very lost.

But I wouldn’t trade them in for anything.

This brief summary doesn’t do it justice. Starting in those years, I learned to embrace the limits of my understanding but continually strive to break them down. I learned how to approach life with a minimum of preconceived notions and expand their numbers based solely on merit. I learned the value of discussion and debate.

I guess that's another reason why I started this blog. I hope that it will give me access to a wider range of ideas. They will either teach me something new or test the accuracy of those I have. 

And who knows, maybe I'll help someone along in their journey. I know these sorts of blogs certainly helped me in mine. In a sense, I suppose my motivations are somewhat similar to those of my missionary parents.

I relish the irony.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Wordplay - Why Christianity is a Religion

Christianity is, indeed, a religion. I know, I know, this seems to be a rather obvious statement, but I am continuously amazed by the amount of denial Christians will embrace in order to support their position.

This is something that irks me, if nothing else because I absolutely can’t stand it when there are concerted efforts to define terms according to convenience or as a strategic position, rather than according to actual consensus on the matter.

It is an argument that has come up time and time again, as if it somehow makes Christianity a more palatable proposition: “Christianity is not religion, it’s a relationship with God!” It seems to be a necessary component of a Christians argument for their faith. I’ve heard it from street preachers, from my parents, from religious friends I get in debates with, it’s everywhere.

And if you doubt the popularity of this notion, just look at the view count on this video.

Yes, a poem going on at length about a demonstrably false proposition has garnered over 20,000,000 views and hundreds of thousands of likes. Sure, it’s point is bolstered by production value, colorful language, and pensive music that builds as the poem drudges on but real question is whether or not there is any substance behind it’s claim.

So let’s examine it, shall we? Here is how my response plays out in my head:

To start, I find it prudent to look to what I hope we can all agree is the authority on the matter: dictionaries. Here are a few definitions of religion that were found on common online dictionaries:

Now let’s say for a moment that I grant your proposition. OK, Christianity is not a religion, but are you really wanting to accept the implications of that?

Now words are defined as much as what they are by what they are not. This one of the way we ascribe meaning to them. Every time we describe something with an adjective or associate it with a noun, we do so with the intention of narrowing the range of possible options down to a selection that is specific enough to be of utility to us. Furthermore, this tendency is only useful insofar as other people have a similar understanding of the term being used.

Take for example, a chair. When I say chair, I intend to exclude things like beds, tables, stools and so on from our range of options. Unlike beds, chairs are too small to lay on and are generally only large enough for your hindquarters. Unlike Tables, chairs are generally smaller and an appropriate height for sitting. And unlike stools, chairs have a back. And so on.

So looking to our example of religion, it seems that the term religion connotes things like an allegiance to a particular divine explanation for the order of things, the worship of a divine being and the adherence to a defined set of religious practices and moral codes.

So what then? When you tell me that Christianity is not a religion, are you trying to tell me that you don’t believe in a particular divine explanation for the world? Is this to say that you don’t worship a divine being? It seems that you must not adhere to a defined set of religious practices and moral codes.

Clearly, this is not the case. But in any world where we value the utility of words as tools to describe things accurately, this is what you are insinuating by claiming that Christianity is not a religion.

Now it is fairly obvious that the motivation behind this denial of Christianity’s religious aspects is simply an attempt to distance your beliefs from all of the negative things we associate religion with. The institutional abuse, the wasteful spending, the wars, ect...

This makes about as much sense as me saying that I am not American because I did not participate in any of America’s rich history of international cronyism and frivolous wars. I am American, and I think that most clear minded individuals understand that that doesn’t necessarily mean that I am supportive of our policies as they are now, let alone how they have been carried out over the past 226 years.

I take a similar attitude towards your religion.

I do not assert that your religion is necessarily bloated, rife with institutional abuse, wasteful spending and so on. I do not think that the actions of the Catholic Church or Billy Grahm necessarily reflect your personal values. And I definitely appreciate the fact that you seem to find all of that as repulsive as I do, so much so that you involve yourself in pedantic attempts to redefine language.

However since yous seem to be religious, what I do think is that you have an unrelenting allegiance to a particular supernatural understanding of the world. I do think that you tend strongly towards a particular set of beliefs and practices and moral standards based on ancient writings.

And that, is the religion that I have a problem with.