Thoughts

11th April
2009
written by simplelight

Never underestimate the capacity of men to abandon that which is complex but provably true for that which they can understand. That’s why we abandoned the mystery of God for the seductions of neo-Darwinism.

25th February
2009
written by admin

What is the responsibility of the government in times of recession? What is meant by “stimulating the economy”?

US GDP (in the long run) = number of working people * productivity of each working person.

Thus there are three levers the government can pull today to  increase GDP by 2025.

  1. Increase the number of people
  2. Increase our productivity
  3. Increase the number of people willing to work

The first would require increased immigration or a higher birth rate. The second is a function of education and the capital stock (which the government is in the habit of depleting) and the third (in the case of full employment) is a matter of personal choice.

Over the long run, there is very little the government can do to increase per capita GDP other than ensuring optimal productivity of the workforce and creating conditions which would ensure full (or close to full) employment without inflation. Sacrificing productivity is always the long term peril as labor is shifted to the public sector.

On the demand side of the equation, the government has the option of preventing people from saving and enforcing spending. Of course, in the longer run, the only option is preventing people from spending or saving and allowing the government to do the spending for them. Consumption is merely shifted from the private sector to the public sector with no net increase in demand on the generous assumption that government spending is as efficient as private spending.

Hayek gave a convincing critique of government action’s ability to stimulate “aggregate demand.” Hayek viewed the boom and bust of the business cycle as primarily a monetary phenomenon created by governments’ artificial inflation of money and credit.

Sound money policy, conversely, allowed the disparate knowledge of millions of economic actors to be conveyed through the price system, rationally allocating capital and labor through relative prices. The problem with government attempts to manipulate the economy through fiscal policy — spending that takes resources away from those who are productive and redistributes it to politically favored interests — is that it is audacious. It assumes that government knows better how to spend and invest than individuals acting in their families’ best interest.

“The real question,” according to Hayek, “is not whether man is, or ought to be, guided by selfish motives but whether we can allow him to be guided in his actions by those immediate consequences which we can know and care for or whether he ought to be made to do what seems appropriate to somebody else who is supposed to possess a fuller comprehension of the significance of these actions to society as a whole.”

The usual retort to this argument is a variant on “in the long run we are all dead”. In the short run, then, the role of the government is to act as a counter-cyclical economic agent. Short runs turn easily into long runs, though, and short-lived is the president who decides the economy needs not “stimulating” but … what? We don’t even have a word for it.

David Brooks expressed this thought succinctly, if somewhat belatedly, with his call for “epistemological modesty”

3rd November
2008
written by simplelight

Stilling the eternal, internal murmur of self-reproach

God stopped to show us that what we create becomes meaningful to us only once we stop creating it and start to think about why we did so. The implication is clear. We could let the world wind us up and set us to marching, like mechanical dolls that go and go until they fall over, because they don’t have a mechanism that allows them to pause. But that would make us less than human. We have to remember to stop because we have to stop to remember. 

Tags:
1st July
2008
written by simplelight

Every now and then it is forcefully driven home to me that Linux is not yet ready for mass adoption. I have been trying to set up my back / forward mouse buttons on Feisty Fawn. There is no reason why this should be difficult but the official instructions are alarmingly non-deterministic! Exhortations to “experiment” are just plain annoying. Plug and Play (TM) might not be perfect but it gets the job done most of the time.

9th May
2008
written by simplelight

In the first week of my freshman year in college I went to a talk that was given by 4 people who had been disabled as a result of attempted abortions. Their mother had subsequently given birth to them. This video reminded me of that formative hour of my life.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLi_Q74RH9Q]

1st May
2008
written by simplelight

I’ve heard before that walking a mile emits more carbon than driving a mile so decided to investigate for myself.

A 190lb human walking at 3 miles per hour would expend 302 kCal. Therefore, covering a mile would take 20 mins and approximately 100 kCal. Apparently it takes 7-10 kCal of fossil fuel to produce 1 kCal of food. The upper end of the range assumes a diet of highly processed food and meat being transported long distances. The lower end of the range assumes a more vegetarian-centric diet and locally produced food.

Therefore,  a 1 mile walk requires 700 – 1,000 kCal of fossil fuel energy.

Driving a 30 mile per gallon car for one mile at 60 mph takes 1 minute and 1/30th of a gallon of gas. One gallon of gasoline contains approximately 30,000 kCal of fossil fuel energy.

Therefore, a 1 mile drive requires approximately 1,000 kCal of fossil fuel energy.

Depending on where you source your food and what you eat, it doesn’t make much difference in terms of carbon emissions. Driving a car one mile is far cheaper than walking a mile. But the health benefits of walking a mile far outweigh the cost.

21st April
2008
written by simplelight

The Wall Street Journal had an article a few days ago about the unreliability of some of the numbers behind global warming. The article goes on to say:

The fear of a sudden loss of ice from Greenland also makes a lot of news. A year ago, radio and television were ablaze with the discovery of “Warming Island,” a piece of land thought to be part of Greenland. But when the ice receded in the last few years, it turned out that there was open water. Hence Warming Island, which some said hadn’t been uncovered for thousands of years. CNN, ABC and the BBC made field trips to the island.

But every climatologist must know that Greenland’s last decade was no warmer than several decades in the early and mid-20th century. In fact, the period from 1970-1995 was the coldest one since the late 19th century, meaning that Greenland’s ice anomalously expanded right about the time climate change scientists decided to look at it.

Warming Island has a very distinctive shape, and it lies off of Carlsbad Fjord, in eastern Greenland. My colleague Chip Knappenberger found an inconvenient book, “Arctic Riviera,” published in 1957 (near the end of the previous warm period) by aerial photographer Ernst Hofer. Hofer did reconnaissance for expeditions and was surprised by how pleasant the summers had become. There’s a map in his book: It shows Warming Island.

The mechanism for the Greenland disaster is that summer warming creates rivers, called moulins, that descend into the ice cap, lubricating a rapid collapse and raising sea levels by 20 feet in the next 90 years. In Al Gore’s book, “An Inconvenient Truth,” there’s a wonderful picture of a moulin on page 193, with the text stating “These photographs from Greenland illustrate some of the dramatic changes now happening on the ice there.”

Really? There’s a photograph in the journal “Arctic,” published in 1953 by R.H. Katz, captioned “River disappearing in 40-foot deep gorge,” on Greenland’s Adolf Hoels Glacier. It’s all there in the open literature, but apparently that’s too inconvenient to bring up. Greenland didn’t shed its ice then. There was no acceleration of the rise in sea level.

Finally, no one seems to want to discuss that for millennia after the end of the last ice age, the Eurasian arctic was several degrees warmer in summer (when ice melts) than it is now. We know this because trees are buried in areas that are now too cold to support them. Back then, the forest extended all the way to the Arctic Ocean, which is now completely surrounded by tundra. If it was warmer for such a long period, why didn’t Greenland shed its ice?

This prompts the ultimate question: Why is the news on global warming always bad? Perhaps because there’s little incentive to look at things the other way. If you do, you’re liable to be pilloried by your colleagues. If global warming isn’t such a threat, who needs all that funding? Who needs the army of policy wonks crawling around the world with bold plans to stop climate change?

It seems to me that we should have thought about this before we starting using our corn to power our cars. Because that’s the kind of stupidy that leads to food riots around the world.

5th February
2008
written by simplelight

William Kristol had a great quote in his editorial in the NY Times yesterday:

 The American conservative movement has been remarkably successful. We shouldnt take that success for granted. Its not easy being a conservative movement in a modern liberal democracy. Its not easy to rally a comfortable and commercial people to assume the responsibilities of a great power. Its not easy to defend excellence in an egalitarian age. Its not easy to encourage self-reliance in the era of the welfare state. Its not easy to make the case for the traditional virtues in the face of the seductions of liberation, or to speak of duties in a world of rights and of honor in a nation pursuing pleasure.

That’s the kind of soaring rhetoric that would be good to hear from some of the Republican candidates.

30th January
2008
written by simplelight

My post two days ago has been honored with some critiques. 

Dan over at Fitness for Occassion makes the following two points which I would like to comment on:

  1. If God could potentially be incredibly unethical, as SL posits, then how would moral truth come from God?
  2. [Atheism] is not a religion, not a system of beliefs.  It is simply the idea that God does not exist.

On the first point: I’m not sure that the existence of moral truth (or absolute truth) in humanity is a very strong argument for the existence of God. (But I do believe it is part of an argument). However, the point that Hitchens made was that the fact that the Andromeda galaxy is going to obliterate earth in 5 billion years proves that God is either a) nonexistent or b) not good. To which I say, not true. First, it might not happen. Second, I hope our little band of humans will have made a plan given the 5 billion years advance notice of our destruction. Third, God is the standard for Truth. This was Richards’ point on the necessity of a resting point for any set of beliefs. This is the failure of relativism. If we don’t take some absolute, external criterion as our yardstick for measuring truth then we’re left with nothing. As I said, Hitchens didn’t even bother to address that point.

On the second point: Atheism has always been more than a single idea that God does not exist. To say “I am an atheist” conveys a lot more information than to say “I don’t believe in sentient pink unicorns”. The existence or nonexistence of God is a fact which touches on almost every aspect of life: what we strive for, what we uphold as ideals, what our purpose is, and what kind of society we would want to build. That makes it, if not a religion, at the very least a system of beliefs. Every atheist I know is arguing about a lot more than the mere existence of God.

If atheism is going to make an argument about how society is going to be organized (which Hitchens was doing in the debate) then the rest of us would like something a lot more substantial than a one line statement about something that doesn’t exist. We would like answers to: What informs your system of jurisprudence?  What values does your society hold dear? What exactly does “self evident” mean in our defining documents? Where do our rights come from and who guarantees them? What motivates our concern for the poor? That’s why atheism needs a foundation. Because the next time an atheist says that they’re going to eliminate a few million people I’d like an answer more comprehensive than it’s based on ”a simple idea”.

28th January
2008
written by simplelight

[Update: If anyone has a link to the video/audio transcript please post in the comments]

Last night I attended the debate at Stanford between Christopher Hitchens and Jay Richards. The topic was “Atheism vs Theism and the Scientific Evidence of Intelligent Design” which I felt was a little too broad for a meaningful debate.

My heart at first sank when I saw Jay Richards. He has hair reminiscent of an early Abba member or a really blonde version of the BeeGees. He looked as though he had just put away his surfboard and strolled into the debate. Christopher Hitchens came slouching in making every effort to look like a disenchanted intellectual who is angry with the world but is sustained daily by his special breed of cynicism.

Christopher Hitchens opened for the first 14 minutes and unleashed his standard diatribe against ‘religion’. He seemed a little unprepared but is clearly a gifted rhetorician and quite capable of thinking on his feet. He didn’t say much new and his style was well captured by a later comment from Jay Richards: “A sneer is not an argument and insults do not constitute evidence”. His main argument was that if the world was designed by a creator, it was not a benevolent creator. He frequently resorts to this argument despite it clearly not belonging in a debate on Atheism vs Theism. (Just because one doesn’t like God, doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist).

Jay Richards had the floor for the next 14 minutes and presented a rational, well-thought out argument for theism. He had 6 main points (and a seventh which he added later)

  1. Moral truth – we all know what it is, the question is where did it come from and atheism has no answer to that. This issue was half-heartedly contested by Hitchens and a question from the audience regarding an evolutionary explanation for morality.
  2. A finely tuned universe – basically a brief overview of the anthropic cosmological argument (every physical constant finely tuned for mankind and unlikely to have occurred by chance). Hitchens seemed to feel that the fact that the Andromeda galaxy will be obliterating earth in 5 billion years refutes this argument. Unfortunately his argument went along the lines of: “What kind of cruel god would allow this?”
  3. A beginning to the universe in a finite past – therefore something caused the universe which must be God. He used the phrase “resting point” for the basis of a theistic belief and asked what the basis for atheism was. This is a fairly strong argument. Granted, there are theories which postulate an eternal universe but those seem to be less accepted these days.
  4. Irreducible complexity - he didn’t get into details but cited the bacterial flagellum and asked why it’s obvious that Mt. Rushmore was ‘designed’. This argument obviously runs the risk of each instance of irreducible complexity being knocked down with subsequent research (a point which Hitchens noted). I spent many years doing research on genetic algorithms in computer science and this argument does accord with my experience of computer simulations.
  5. Materialism – the atheist, materialist philosophers all conclude that consciousness is an illusion and feel that this is problematic. For most people, a purely material view of the world leads to a conclusion which seems incompatible with experience. Obviously this is not a proof for the existence of God but Richards’ point was that our subjective experience is more consistent with a theistic philosophy.
  6. Free will – it’s incompatible with a mechanistic worldview. Hitchens’ bizarre response was that if free will was given to us then it can’t be free will.
  7. The origin of biological information (added towards end of debate). They touched briefly on the direction of entropy but unfortunately nothing conclusive from either side. (I’d like to challenge some of the atheists who really know their biology to read this book and provide a rebuttal to the main thesis of the book in the comments below.)

Richards ended with the question: which worldview (atheism or theism) best accomodates all the above observations?

Hitchens then had 4 minutes to respond and, to my mind, did not answer one of the points that Jay Richards had made. For the rest of the debate he attempted to generalize from particular observations (how can we think Mohammad really made a midnight ride into the sky on his horse, how can anyone believe in a God who demands that we kill our children (Abraham/Isaac), genital mutilation in the name of religion, to his point that God does not exist. Along the way he attacked Mormonism, Islam, Catholicism, etc.

Jay Richards maintained his composure admirably, was exceptionally well-informed on every topic while still being likeable, charitable, and theologically rigorous. 

Hitchens’ hubris appears to know no bounds. When asked whether he thought he was more intelligent than everyone else who believes in God he said: “Yes. And the polls suggest that I am too” (!)

Basically there were two messages: one hopeful; and one of despair (he mentioned sex and schadenfreude as his two purposes for living), futility and constant railing against a God who doesn’t exist. Atheism, to my mind, has always been deficient on the inspiration front and it seems a shame to spend one’s allotted time fighting the God you don’t believe in.

Previous
Next