Thursday, October 18, 2007

Something frightening...

My friend Justin loves to tell stories of his mom, Maureen. Maureen is little quirky in about the same way that a desert is a little dry. Her quirkiness is very entertaining to her 4 sons. When they get together, one will eventually ask about any new "Maureen stories". And, of course, all the brothers know that this is not an occasion to describe her general status or well being. It's a time to marvel at, and be amused by the ways in which Marueen sees and interacts with the world.

One example is an incident where she tells Justin to be very careful with people named Mark. Maureen was, at the time, employed alongside someone called Mark, and that guy was not someone to be trifled with. "As if," Justin would recount, "the very name of Mark conveys danger about the person who had the bad luck of receiving that name."

Justin's least favorite Maureen stories had to do with her concern over his bodily well being. Even when Justin was a fully grown adult, Maureen would regail him to put on a jacket because she was cold. It didn't matter that Justin might say, "But, mom, *I* am NOT cold." The fact that she was cold was sufficient evidence to decide the matter.

Maureen eventually developed an obsession with the amount of fluids that Justin consumed. "You don't urinate enough," she would claim. "You need to drink more fluids so you urinate more." This concern developed quite unexpectedly after Justin was in college. And while it was probably irritating to not be believed about his own assessment of his thirst, it was nevertheless a gem of a "Maureen story". To be saved for later and retold. Which is, of course, how I heard it.

Which brings me to my frightening experience.

I was on my way to bed tonight and I found a stuffed pokemon toy that belonged to my 2nd son (6 years old, 2nd of 4 sons). Earlier, when I was putting him to bed, I had asked him where "Turtwig" was - yes, I know the names of their pokemon toys, but that's not the frightening part. My son said that he had recently lost that one. So I felt pretty good about finding it for him and went to deliver it to him while he slept. I was hoping it would result in a happy surprise when he woke up

When I went in there, he had kicked off his covers. And in my head, I did a quick analysis. He's kicked off his covers - that would suggest that he's warm. But he's balled up really tightly in the fetal position. That would suggest he's cold. How do I break this tie? Well I'm a little chilly. He's probably a little cold. So I covered him back up.

On the way out the door, it hit me: I'm turning into Maureen.

I comfort myself with the thought that it's a disease that has a much higher incidence among parents. And I, like Maureen, have 4 sons. I wonder if this is a risk factor. I haven't been very concerned with their fluid intake. But still. It's 1:45 am. And I can't sleep. The comforting part isn't very.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The right table

Here's the tables that I should have put in the last post.  I think they do a better job of making my point.

The point that Jon was making:

Tom & Sue
No Prevention
Joe & Amy
Not Trying
No Prevention
Bill & Jane
Trying Not To
No Prevention

Jon's point is that the difference in the intention column doesn't have any impact on the consequence.  Thus all three of the things in the Intention column are equivalent.   While differences in the Preventing column will have statistically significant difference in the consequence column.  Jon's real point: don't talk about trying or not trying or trying not to if you're not actively doing anything about it.

The point that I was making is this:

Tom & Sue
No Prevention
Definitely Happy
Joe & Amy
Not Trying
No Prevention
Could be happy or sad
Bill & Jane
Trying Not To
No Prevention
Definitely Sad

My point is that there is a difference in the consequences.  The lines are not the same.  Hence, trying, not trying, and trying not to are different, even if all those people are not actively exercising prevention. 

Where I can agree with Jon is that the practical impact of "intention" on consequences is much less than the impact of active prevention on the consequences.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions.  This point should absolutely be emphasized to anyone who is sexually active and does not want, or is incapable of caring for a child.

Thursday, May 10, 2007


My friend Jon and I got into a debate about what "trying" means. Another friend commented that he and his wife were not being careful about getting pregnant, but that they "weren't trying". Jon commented that if you're not actively preventing it, and you know what the consequences are, then you are, in fact, trying. The crux of Jon's argument is that there's an action that happens (sex) which has a probability of a consequence (baby). These actions and consequences are exactly the same when you're trying and when you're not actively preventing. Hence trying and not preventing are the same thing.

I disagreed, but I couldn't seem to dissuade Jon from this point of view. I argued that he was talking about responsibility, and that intent and responsibility were not linked. If two couples are both not actively preventing pregnancy, and one is trying while the other is not trying, both couples will be equally responsible if they produce a baby. If we're talking about responsibility, I completely agree with Jon. But I thought we were talking about "trying", which I don't think is the same thing.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, I came up with a much better response after the discussion was long over. When someone says "trying" they usually mean that they have a goal they wish to achieve. So if someone is "trying" to do something (including get pregnant) they are sad if they fail. When someone is "not trying" they're not sad if they fail. Imagine two couples:
Are they sad about this?
Tom & Sue
Get pregnant
Joe & Amy
Not trying
Get pregnant
Tom & Sue
Did not get pregnant
Joe & Amy
Not trying
Did not get pregnant
Look at the couples who are trying. They're satisfaction with the result is exactly the opposite of those who are not trying. So, there are differences in the results. The actions and the consequences are not exactly the same. And I think this is what our friend was trying to say. When he said, "we're not trying" I think he meant that if they don't get pregnant, they won't be sad.(*)

I understand why Jon, as a highschool teacher, makes this argument. It's meant to shock teenagers from some stupid excuse. It's meant to say that if they're not actively preventing pregnancy, they might as well be trying to get pregnant. I understand that stance. Its useful as a tool to dissuade teens who might become sexually active, or worse, become sexually active without any attempts to prevent a baby -- for which they will struggle to provide care. But I don't think that "trying" is the same thing as "not preventing". I think that's a redefinition of what most people mean when they say "trying".

(*) Ironically, when our friend asked his wife if they were "trying", she pretty much said yes. But I think my point stands despite the specific circumstances of our friends' lives.

I've added a new entry with a much better set of tables that explains what I was thinking.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Monogomous wives?

Steve Landsburg has published a book called "More Sex is Safe Sex". I found out about this from econlog. Back in January 2005, I read the article that Landsburg wrote with the same title. That article no longer appears to be available. In any case, I had some questions for him, so I sent him this email:
I just your article titled "MORE SEX IS SAFER SEX". This has produced a series of questions that I have been unable to resolve on my own, and was wondering if you could provide some insite.

In your "monogamous wives" parable you mention that all the men demand two sexual partners and all the women demand one. As a consequence, prostitution starts up, and the prostitutes end up being the source of HIV for most of the men. Basically, if any one person in this country is infected, the prostitutes turn into the transmission point to ensure that everyone in the country becomes infected.

You argue that if the women were to take another partner, then prostitution will die, and most everyone will not be infected.

  1. Question 1: Doesn't this assume that the prostitutes are the source of the disease?

    As example, I offer the following image, where men are represented by letters and women are represented by numbers. A & 1 are married, B & 2 are married, etc. A line indicates that they're having sex.

    A B C D E F G H
    | | | | | | | |
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

    If we assume that each woman's additional partner will be the husband of her neighbor to the right, then we end up with this:

    A B C D E F G H A
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

    Now as soon as any one of them gets infected, all of them will get infected. There's two ways that this isn't true. The first is if one of the infected people dies before they can propagate the infection. With the effectiveness of drugs at prolonging life with HIV, that seems like a bad assumption. The second way this isn't true is if the prostitutes are the original source of the infection. At which point everyone's demands are being met and there's no impetous for an external source of infection.

  2. Question 2: What if the prostitutes aren't the source of the disease?

    Using my notation above, and assuming that the prostitutes aren't the source of the disease, I can construct a similar graph which optimally limits the spread of the disease and meets the assumption of 2 partners per person:

    A B C D E F G H
    |x| |x| |x| |x|
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

    This additionally assumes that there's an even number of couples. In this case, the best solution is a fixed "wife-swapping" scenario. Now if any one of them gets infected, the infection will spread to only 3 other people (4 total)

  3. Question 3: But if that's good, then why isn't monogamy even better?

    A B C D E F G H
    | | | | | | | |
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

    If any one of the people get infected, then the spread is limited to only one other person. Yes, in order for this to work, men need to be monogamous, which violates the assumption that all men demand at least 2 partners. But doesn't this demonstrate that such a demand is part of the problem, and that monogamy is more effective at limiting the spread of the disease?

  4. Question 4: What about other complications, like having children?

    Looking at my graph from Question 1 we get:

    A B C D E F G H A
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

    Assume 16 children. The bigamist scenario is on the left and the monogamous scenario is on the right.

    A1 => boy(A1) A1 => boy(A1)
    B1 => girl(B1) A1 => girl(A1)
    B2 => boy(B2) B2 => boy(B2)
    C2 => girl B2 => girl(B2)
    C3 => boy C3 => boy(C3)
    D3 => girl C3 => girl(C3)
    D4 => boy D4 => boy(D4)
    E4 => girl D4 => girl(D4)
    E5 => boy E5 => boy(E5)
    F5 => girl E5 => girl(E5)
    F6 => boy F6 => boy(F6)
    G6 => girl F6 => girl(F6)
    G7 => boy G7 => boy(G7)
    H7 => girl G7 => girl(G7)
    H8 => boy H8 => boy(H8)
    A8 => girl H8 => girl(H8)

    Unfortunately, this bigamist scenariol creates a problem becuase the next generation has genetically close ties to more people than would be if each monogamous couple had two children, increasing the risk of birth defects in the 3rd generation. In the monogamous situation, a girl would avoid genetic problems if she avoided bearing the child of one person: her brother. But in this bigamist scenario, girl(B1) has boy(A1) as a half brother whom she has to avoid, and boy(B2) as a half brother whom she also has to avoid. Bigamy has doubled the riskiness factor for birth defects for the next generation.

  5. Question 5: If we follow this through successive generations, don't we end up with a population of people who only have one safe mate in order to produce offspring? In other words, don't we end up right back at monogamy?

  6. Question 6: Have I missed something fundamental that is keeping me from understanding what you're paper is saying?

I appreciate any clarity you'd be willing to provide.


He wrote back. He said:

Unlike some of the other arguments in the essay, the "monogamous wives" example is not meant to be terribly realistic but just to indicate, in the context of a very simple model, that certain things are logically possible.

In your question 1, the disease dies as soon as one person fails to pass it on, either through death or by missing an assignation. With the prostitutes, that's not true. And with the prostitutes, it doesn't matter where the disease starts; it still gets passed on to everyone pretty quickly.

The only point you've missed was that this particular example can yield a great variety of conclusions depending on your auxiliary assumptions (as you've shown), but the only point I was making with it was that certain conclusions are *possible*, not that they're *necessary*.

Of course other parts of the essay do make points that should hold in any model; in particular, when there are positive externalities to sexual activity, there can't be enough sexual activity without subsidies.

Perhaps I didn't understand his response, but I found it to be unsatisfactory. It seems to me that his model is unrealistic. Who cares if something is possible in a given model? If that model doesn't match reality then there's little value to the recommendations that come as a result of that model? What are the set of assumptions that are realistic? If my assumptions are closer to reality, then doesn't the recommendation that "More Sex is Safer Sex" actually hold false?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Abolish Highschool

I read an article in Education Week calling for changes to how teenagers are treated in society.
although it’s efficient to cram all apparently essential knowledge into the first two decades of life, the main thing we teach most students with this approach is to hate school. In today’s fast-paced world, education needs to be spread out over a lifetime, and the main thing we need to teach our young people is to love the process of learning.

...Are young people really inherently incompetent and irresponsible? The research I conducted with my colleague Diane Dumas suggests that teenagers are as competent as adults across a wide range of adult abilities, and other research has long shown that they are actually superior to adults on tests of memory, intelligence, and perception. The assertion that teenagers have an “immature” brain that necessarily causes turmoil is completely invalidated when we look at anthropological research from around the world. Anthropologists have identified more than 100 contemporary societies in which teenage turmoil is completely absent; most of these societies don’t even have terms for adolescence. Even more compelling, long-term anthropological studies initiated at Harvard in the 1980s show that teenage turmoil begins to appear in societies within a few years after those societies adopt Western schooling practices and are exposed to Western media. Finally, a wealth of data shows that when young people are given meaningful responsibility and meaningful contact with adults, they quickly rise to the challenge, and their “inner adult” emerges.

...We produce such turmoil by infantilizing our young and isolating them from adults. Modern schooling and restrictions on youth labor are remnants of the Industrial Revolution that are no longer appropriate for today’s world; the exploitative factories are long gone, and we have the ability now to provide mass education on an individual basis.

Teenagers are inherently highly capable young adults; to undo the damage we have done, we need to establish competency-based systems that give these young people opportunities and incentives to join the adult world as rapidly as possible.
Making the assumption that the research is true, I have two reactions to this.
  1. This is appealing because
    1. It's a pretty strong case for homeschooling, or in the worst case, ensuring that the schooling that your teen receives is introducing them to adulthood instead of confining them in childhood.
    2. It seems to agree with Love & Logic which suggests that parental control needs to steadily decrease throughout the entire child's life and be replaced with an expectation of adult behavior.  Most people do it exactly the opposite, too little control for infants and toddlers and increasing control as the desire for independance grows.
    3. It appeals to my distrust of government provided education and of government provision in general.
  2. But it's also unappealing because I don't want to introduce my children to adult issues before it's time.  This author is arguing that the time is earlier than we think.  My immediate reaction is that we already push our kids into adulthood too early as it is, although I don't really have any supporting data that comes to mind for why I think this.
I think I'm going to purchase the book and read it.  I don't have a teenager but it's only a few years away.  This is the kind of thing that I want to mull over for a while before I decide whether or not I want to try and integrate it into my parenting.

Penn & Teller

Showtime has a program that I very much enjoy. It's the magician team of Penn & Teller running around debunking things that they view as wrong. It's called "Penn & Teller: Bullsh*t". I really enjoy it. It's not for the faint of heart, though. Penn Jillette is a connoisseur of profanity. Don't watch it with the kids around.

But I'm in a quandary. In 2004, they did an episode on the Bible. They presented testimony of inconsistencies and historical inaccuracies. And for the most part I can just interpret away the problems that they came up with. By this, I mean that they took a rather narrow interpretation and poked holes in it. A broader interpretation is harder to poke holes in. For example, the two creation stories in Genesis. I don't happen to believe in creationism. I happen to fall on the side of evolution as the mechanism of creation. Theistic evolution does a really good job of explaining my position. So the "conflicting" views in Genesis 1 & 2 are not that big of a problem. The main message of Genesis is that God did it. I don't seriously take the Genesis accounts as a reliable physical description of what happened.

And then there's the horror that Penn expresses when he retells the story of God killing all the first born sons in Egypt. Of course, that's a horrific event if you're convinced that this life is the only thing. It's also horrific if you think that the children are victims. But it's not so horrific if you believe that God loves those children more than their parents do. It's also not so horrific if you believe that God can call home any human at any time he pleases and that in doing so, God will treat them justly, fairly, and compassionately. Death is only the worst possible thing in the world if this is the only world there is.

I'm also reminded of Rob Bell's description of how to interpret the Bible, and what a "yoke" is. And of how we're to constantly re-evaluate the meaning of the Bible. We're to constantly say, "Hey, maybe I had that interpretation wrong." Especially when we're confronted with new truths that are blatant. All truth is God's truth. So if we see truth in the world that apparently conflicts with the Bible, it might just be that we didn't correctly interpret the Bible. It might also be that we didn't correctly evaluate the truth in the world. Nevertheless, it's freeing to realize that we're not forced to stick with Biblical interpretations that don't make sense. This is a somewhat controversial position amongst some Christians, but it really resonates with me. As a result, many of the inconsistencies presented by Penn & Teller fall under the umbrella of "You've heard it said, but I tell you..." new yoke interpretation.

Unfortunately, it gets harder to interpret away the heart of Christianity: the death and resurrection of Jesus. If that one didn't happen, then Christians everywhere can cry in their beers and go home. If Christ didn't rise, then how can we say that God defeated death? If God didn't defeat death, then how can Jesus be a savior who can take on for himself the wages of sin? How is he anything more than just a man? How can I be any better believing in his salvation for my life? In fact, if he's just a man, then I'm remarkably worse off believing this. I'll act like my eternal position is resolved when it's not.

The show does not do very much to debunk the resurrection. It simply says, that it's hard to prove. It doesn't provide any counter evidence to suggest that it's demonstrably false. But it does tell an analogous story about how, less than 3 decades after the death of Elvis, there are people insisting that they've seen him alive. And if the gospels in the Bible are all written 60-70 years after the death of Christ, it's pretty easy to see how this might just be part of the human condition that afflicts devotees of a hero.

On the other hand, I don't see any Elvis followers sticking with their stories so much so that they're willing to be executed instead of recanting, whereas most of the most influential early Christians did just that when it came to Jesus' resurrection. I also don't see anyone demanding the execution of the "Elvis lives" crowd. In any case, the Elvis analogy can only go so far.

Before I watched the episode, I whipped off a quick prayer: "Lord protect me from what might be coming. I want to watch this because I believe that all truth is your truth. Keep me focused on the truth and give me answers to Satan's intellectual temptations that I will almost certainly experience." I think He's done a pretty good job of answering that prayer. Most of this blog reports the answers that I got. But I'm still a little shaken by the experience. I find myself resonating with the comment Penn made that it's really not fair to pick and choose what you want to believe from the Bible. I wonder if all of my "interpretations" above are just fancy ways of doing that.

Still, the thought of returning to atheism holds only a minor pull with me. That pull being this: maybe it's true. The pull is slightly stronger now than it was before. But it's not nearly as strong as the pull of the community in which I now reside. It's not as strong as the realization of how much better my life is as a Christ follower than not. And that truth seems much more real to me than the possibility that atheism is true.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


I had a discussion with a friend recently. I was trying to make the point that, depending on your point of view, some things that seem irrational might make sense. I don't recall the context, but the example that I came up with was the fact that I was fairly concerned about his not being a Christian.

"If you really believed in Hell, that would almost certainly motivate your behavior towards those friends of yours who you think might be headed there. Which reminds me, that I'm pretty concerned about you."

"It doesn't concern me. It doesn't match my world view."

"Which is what?"

"That there's insufficient evidence to conclude that there's god or hell or anything after you die."

"Ok. But you believe lots of things that don't rely on proof, don't you?"

"Like what?"

"Imagine this scenario: you're in New York, and you look out your hotel window and witness a murder. This particular murderer is very thorough and manages to very effectively conceal what had happened. But nevertheless you are completely convinced that what you saw was a murder... but you can't prove it. You're sure it's true, but the murderer was so thorough that you can find no trace. Moreover, you didn't get a good enough look at the victim or the suspect to really identify them. In this scenario, would you attest that what you saw was true, even if you couldn't prove it?"

My friend changed the subject, "Eye witness accounts are incredibly inaccurate. This has been thoroughly documented and tested."

"That's not the point. The point is that there are things you believe but can't prove."

He conceded the point and we went on to discuss other things. But I've been thinking about his response. I don't think it's a very good one. Ok. Sure, eye witness accounts are incredibly inaccurate. But they're not so inaccurate as to cause us to not trust anything we witness. For example, I hand someone a fork and they take it. Their intial reaction is not to distrust the fact that there's a fork there. We act like the things we see are real. We act like it all day long and react accordingly. Our reactions tell us what we really need to know about our beliefs about the validity of witness.

Does that make eye witness testimony entirely thorough? No, of course not. Do I trust entirely my experience of God? Could I be wrong? Yep. There it is. I could be wrong. But I don't think I am. I could be wrong that I'm typing into a computer right now. I could be imagining it. But I don't think I am. I act like it's real. Similarly, even though I could be wrong about God, I don't think I am.

There is some part of me that feels a pull to doubt God's existence. I've decided to actively ignore that pull. My friend hasn't. I remember being on his side of that decision. I'm sure he's convinced that I'm deluding myself. Which is ironic, because I would now say that he's deluding himself into ignoring the obvious. We're both in reciprical situations. He's unwilling to experiment with Christianity. He's convinced it's not worth anything. I'm also unwilling to experiment with non-Chrsitianity for the same reason. I would say that I've already run that experiment and it failed. Of course, he'd say the exact same thing.

I don't have a whole lot of hope that he's going to change his mind. The good news for me is that it's not entirely my responsibility to change it.

Ranting Waiter

I've been really enjoying The author is a fantastic writer. I find myself needing to rethink how I'm going to contribute to this blog as a result.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Ain't irony great?

I can't help but laugh at this from the AP (HT: Cafe Hayek):
A North Pole expedition meant to bring attention to global warming was called off after one of the explorers got frostbite.
Of course, Russ Roberts does a much better job of fisking the entire article than I could, so I'll let well enough alone. I just think it's hilarious.

UPDATE: Updated link to working link.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


I shared the fact that I have a blog with some friends last night. One of the reactions was to the name of my blog: dullgeek. It got me thinking about why I called my blog that.

Of course, the first reason is that I don't really think I'm all that particularly interesting. Amongst this group of friends, I'm viewed as the nerdy one with an obsession for "The Lord of the Rings". I enjoy this reputation, even though it's entirely unfounded. I did make one reference to LoTR (notice the ubergeeky acronym?) but that single reference was it. And if you use this blog as a guide to what I'm thinking about, I think that this entry is the first time in the couple of years that I've had this blog where I even mentioned LoTR. It's hard to see an obsession with that data.

Of course, I find the things that I write about to be terribly interesting. I have no such illusions, however, that anyone else will be interested. Hence the dull portion was prescient. The interest level (as demonstrated by the comments) is tragically low. I know of at least two other people who have read it. And I think it's fair to say that in this case, it's also "at most" two other people who've read it. I'm not offended by this lack of interest, nor are my feelings hurt. In fact, I'm more likely to be proud of the fact that I made an accurate prediction.

But another reason that I chose that label is that I know that I'm not as sharp as some of the authors of blogs that I read regularly. See my links section. I hope to sharpen myself through this endeavor. But I will always be relatively dull compared to others. I'm ok with that, too.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Those Nasty Credit Card Users!

This article drives me a little batty. 

In most instances today, it would be silly to pay an annual fee for a credit card simply because most cards don't have them anymore. But in a Senate Banking Committee hearing examining credit card practices this week, one consumer advocate suggested those who pay their balances in full every month (about half of all cardholders) should pay a small annual fee to credit card companies.

Why? To pay their fair share.

To pay my fair share?  Three questions:
  1. If I'm agreeing with the terms of my credit card statement, how am I not already upholding my end of the bargain?  Most products are more expensive because they include the cost of the transaction fee that the credit card companies receive on every transaction I make.
  2. If someone else is NOT paying their full balance off, and as a consequence is paying exhorbitant interest fees, how should that be my problem?
  3. Why, oh why is it necessary for some third party to interfere in my agreemeent with the credit card company?
The credit card companies will hate this legislation.  What will happen is that they will lose the transaction fees of all "deadbeats".  The incentive that I have to use a credit card is the rewards programs and the free 30 day loan they give me every month.  But if all of that is offset by mandatory annual fees, I'll just switch to a debit card which does not have such fees.

So I doubt very much that this will happen.  But why is it necessary to even propose such meddling?  Why is it necessary for the goverment to have its finger on absolutely everything that I do?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Dumbest moments...

CNNMoney is running an article titled: "100 Dumbest Moments in Business". Here's #9:
A computer glitch in the tax rolls of Porter County, Ind., causes the valuation of a house in the city of Valparaiso to shoot up from $122,000 to $400 million - boosting its annual property taxes from $1,500 to $8 million. Though the county's IT director spots the mistake and alerts the auditor's office, the wrong number nonetheless ends up being used in budget calculations, resulting in a $900,000 shortfall for the city and a $200,000 gap for its schools.
How is this a dumb moment in business? This isn't business stupidity (for which there are plenty of examples in the article) this is government stupididty. Let's call a spade a spade.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


Steve Browne has an interesting article about anti-semitism. In it, he concludes:
for a believing Christian, the very existence of believing Jews is going to be a threat to their core beliefs, since he can't get around the fact that the basic scriptures of his faith are Jewish and the Jews stubbornly refuse to be convinced that their prophecies have been fulfilled.
This conclusion is based on the following premise:
For a Christian, his whole faith is wrapped around the idea that the life of Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the ancient Hebrew prophecies of the messiah.
(Shockingly) I disagree with this premise. I do not pretend to be as knowledgable about the Jewish scriptures as Mr Browne appears to be. However, as a Christian, I can attest that the core of my faith is that Christ, through his crucifixion, wiped me clean, and that I desperately needed it. That Jesus fulfills an ancient Hebrew prophecy is merely evidence that he is what he says he is.
This implies the highest possible stakes, his belief in eternal life as a reward for believing this and acting accordingly.
Personally, I wouldn't describe it that way. It implies there's some reward for an action that we take. I would describe it Christianity claiming that God desperately wants to bring us back to Himself. He made us to long for Him. We chose something else thinking it could replace God. This created a huge gap between us and God. So we needed a way to bridge the gap. Christ was that bridge. Eternal life is only a tiny part of what happens when we cross that bridge. Reunion with God is the real prize. But the important part is that the prize is not something we earn. It's something given to us (if we accept it)(1) because God so desperately loves us.(2) Other things he said:
there is not a single messianic tradition but several (3 to 5 depending on who you're listening to), which scholars have been arguing about for a long time.
It matters little to me that Judaism has multiple prophecies. Science produces multiple predictions. The ones that come true are the ones we tend to believe. That there are multiple predictions doesn't invalidate science. But we do tend to disagree with those who hold onto the predictions that didn't come true.
But the most important reason [that Christ is not the fulfillment of the ancient Hebrew prophecies] lies at the heart of Christian symbolism - crucifixion. In the Hebrew scriptures, an accursed death which renders the body unclean and destroys the chance for resurrection.
Let's suppose that this is true. If this is the product of this kind of death, then it would certainly require divinity to be resurrected from it. In other words, it's this kind of death, the worst kind of death, that a God who's intention is to cleanse the sins of the world would choose.

But it seems odd to me that there's this kind of execution. I presume that the execution of people is not done by their choosing. Which means that, per the Hebrew scripture, I can condemn another person not by the quality of their character, nor by their behavior, nor by any choice that the other person makes. But rather my choices can impose eternal penalty upon another. This does not jibe with what I think of when I think of God and His sense of justice. Moreover, I'm reminded of two characters from Joshua: Rahab and Achan. In which we see that Rahab, a foreigner, is welcomed as one of the Isrealites, while Achan, an Israelite is sent to his death. What distinguishes these two characters is their behavior. They are not held responsible for the sins of someone else. They are responsible only for their own choices. And those choices supercede their heritage. It's difficult for me to resolve the picture of God that I see in Joshua with this description of the revulsion of the crucifixion.

One of the last things he says about this is:
(Ask any violence professional the quickest way to get assaulted: challenge core beliefs.)
The context of this is that he's answering someone who asked him to define anti-semitism. And he came up with the conclusion at the very top of this post. Then he says this. Is he really trying to say that being Christian is the definition of anti-semitism? Obviously, I don't agree with this. I certainly don't believe in the tenets of Judaism, but I don't think that means I hate Jews! This is a conclusion that seems really broken to me.

  1. Within Christianity there are two schools of thought w.r.t. our acceptance of this gift. In the one school (Calvinism) even the act of accepting God is something that God does for us. On our own, we are unable to even accept his Gift. I find this to be a difficult position in that it destroys free will. The other school (Arminianism) says that God did in fact do it all, including giving every one of us free will to accept/reject his Gift. I'm better able to understand Arminianism than Calvinism.
  2. It's not the only thing He loves. He also appears to love free will. Which is why he allows us to deny Him. CS Lewis describes it this way: "In the end we will say to God, 'Thy will be done' or He will say to us, 'Thy will be done'." He let's us choose. He also appears to love purity. Which is why we need to be cleansed of our inpurities in the first place. Which is the purpose of Christ.

The Big 3

The goals of the free-market agenda should be:
  1. Increase the proportion of children who are schooled outside of the public school system.
  2. Increase the proportion of health care spending that is paid for directly by consumers.
  3. Limit the fraction of people's lives where they collect Social Security.

If the Republicans want to win my enthusiasm, they need to convince me that they will make a difference on these indicators. (For those readers on the Left, I should hasten to add that I am all in favor of education, good health, and retirement security for all Americans. I believe that those goals would be better served by market-oriented policies than by government expansion.)

This is a wonderful article. I recently moved and, as a consequence, needed to re-register to vote. I used to register republican, but I have switched to unaffiliated because of the recent behavior of the republicans. This is my favorite part of the article:
My personal message to Republicans is that I care more about what happens on the Big Three than about whether you hold power.
Me, too.

Decertifying Skeptics...

The Weather Channel’s most prominent climatologist is advocating that broadcast meteorologists be stripped of their scientific certification if they express skepticism about predictions of manmade catastrophic global warming.
My initial reaction to this was shock and revulsion at the attempt to silence skepticism. I'm not a professional scientist, so certainly my understanding of the scientific method is limited. But I think I'm right when I say that skepticism is a builtin part of the deal. So to hear someone deeply involved in climate science attempt to deny skepticism, it strikes me that someone might be asking for a method to the truth other than the scientific method.

I think that's a reasonable conclusion to make and I find it highly ironic that this is being done by a professional scientist. But it doesn't address the core problem: should this person's recommendation be applied? And I'm surprised that my answer is, "I hope so".

First, this recommendation really ignores how I think many people will react to this. What I think will eventually happen is that the value of the AMS certification will be diminished. When people consume weather forcasts, they look for accuracy. There seems to be little relationship between the accuracy of:
  • Local, short term weather predictions
  • Global, long term climate change
A stance on the latter is unlikely to influence the accuracy of the former. And consumers of weather forcasts will prefer those from anyone who can provide them, whether they've got an AMS certification or not.

So the impact is to increase the supply of accurate weather predictors who don't have AMS certification. In addition, by increasing the scarcity of AMS certifications, they increase the wages of AMS certified meteorogists. Which creates incentives for those who hire meteorologists to ignore the certification - accurate weather predictions are not related to whether someone is AMS certified or not. This can't be good for the certification. So, I suspect that the AMS will plainly ignore the recommendation.

However, I hope they don't. I hope that they're foolish. I've become convinced that the US health care system is where it's at, in part, because of licensure. Only those who are licensed are allowed to practice medicine. This sets a floor on the minimum quality of medical provision. Which, in turn, sets a floor on the cost of that provision. Why is this bad? Some states require certain procedures to be performed by opthamologists, while other states allow optometrists to perform those same procedures. Clearly, there is a set of procedures that can be performed by both, yet in some cases, licensure prevents it. Licensure ensures that only the higher cost provider does the job. The end result is that licensure in US health care, results in higher wages for health care providers at the expense of health care consumers. Licensure becomes a form of rent seeking.

I'd like to see the AMS certification devalued in order to put the idea in people's minds that perhaps certifications and licensures are subject to being questioned. I'd like to see licensure not be legally required. And if that happens, then a more open market for provision of those services can develop.

Friday, January 12, 2007

How I hope *NOT* to write

Through a maze of links (God bless the Web) I ended up at this article. I watched the game in question, and I agree with the conclusions of the author. It was easily the best game that I watched this football season. It's possibly that it's the best college football game ever. (I'm not willing to commit on that last part.)

But what bugs me about this article is the writing. My general plan for writing something persuasive is to open with my premise, present the data, and close by re-emphasizing the premise. It's my general hope that the data will speak for itself. Unfortunately, this guy does not follow that pattern. In his article, he hand holds the reader down the path he wants them to go. He keeps interrupting the data to affirm his premise. Examples:
  • But after 25 minutes of entertaining and unpredictable football, the fun was just starting.
  • But as the night's events would show, the Broncos still had a lot of greatness left to achieve.
  • This instance of role reversal created an even more compelling Fiesta Bowl narrative.
  • It was at this moment that the 2007 Fiesta Bowl began to assume mythical proportions as a game that would break all the rules and defy all the odds.
  • Once again, it seemed as though Goliath was finally beginning to wear down David, only in a more dramatic way with the clock ticking down.
  • The dramatic tension inside the domed stadium grew exponentially....And then things got reallyinteresting.
  • It only added to the drama that was unfolding in the Desert.
  • The narratives just kept getting more poignant and powerful as the proceedings continued to the amazement of all.
He hadn't stopped describing the game, but this is where I couldn't take it anymore. I found the constant commentary in the middle of the data to be really annoying. When I'm writing, I hope to elicit a different reaction. "Yes, I agree" or "No way" are fine reactions. Obviously I prefer the former. But "get on with it" is something that I'd like to avoid, and it's the reaction I had reading this article.

Of course, don't forget that the criticisms from someone like me, whose major writing accomplishment to date is an unread blog, should probably not be taken very seriously by someone who's actually managed to convince people to pay him money for his writing. Still, this is the blogosphere. We don't need no steenkin rules!

Perhaps there are some things to learn from this article:
  1. He's getting paid. I'm not. Maybe his strategy is more effective than mine.
  2. Annoying people like me is probably not a hindrance to being a paid writer.
Nevertheless, one purpose I have for this blog is to improve my ability to write. I really would like to avoid annoying my readers the way this guy's article annoyed me.

(I'd ask, "What do you think?", but as the only reader of this blog, I already know the answer!)


I love this post which I will quote in it's entirety here:
Sure, if the FCC isn't toothless, then it has the power to do much good for us. No argument there, but I think the old maxim still applies with regard to government authority: "Only relinquish power to your friends that you would not fear in the hands of your enemies."

Put another way, give the FCC as much power as you'd let a Sony exectutive have in setting technology mandates, because one day the Sony executive will be pulling the strings of the FCC's processes.

I like it because:
  1. It's concise
  2. It's easy to understand
  3. It's correct
  4. It's a nice refutation to statists
  5. It's something the statists will tend to agree with
Great post. Wish I had mod points.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Surprising application of discount rates

The blog over at the Economist has a surprising entry. The basic idea behind this blog entry is that there's a large portion of the liberal left who thinks that it is our moral obligation to save the lives of future generations of people who will be killed by our collective apathy towards the environment. The idea is that the future value of those people's lives is worth protecting.

The surprising part is this: if the left believes that we have this moral obligation, then why do they disagree with the moral obligation to protect a fetus? The author of the article does a much better job of pointing out this discontinuity than I can. I recommend the article.

As for myself, I am opposed to abortion. I think the prima facia case is that the fetus is a proto-human being, and I need proof that it's not a human being before I think that killing it is ok. Absent any proof, stealing another person's right to live is wrong. It doesn't matter if that person is dependant on another for survival.

But the author of that article forces me to question my consistency. I don't know what to think about the global warming. On the one hand, there seems to be a lot of evidence that it's happening and that we play some part in causing it. However, I'm generally skeptical of the claim that we must limit economic growth in order to stop it. The above article forces me to ask myself this: if I'm concerned about the rights of an unborn fetus, shouldn't I also be concerned about the rights of future (as of yet unborn) Bangladeshis? If I think that a financial crisis does not justify the restriction of rights to life imposed in an abortion, shouldn't I also think that a financial crisis shouldn't justify the restrictions of rights to life imposed in global warming?

I have to ponder this a bit. My instinct is to recognize what Arnold Kling says about the issue, "I think that people in Bangladesh... are at least as threatened by economic and political backwardness as they are by coastal flooding." This doesn't fully resolve the issue, though. One could make the same argument of a baby: The life of that baby is threatened by finacial crisis of the mother as it is by abortion. This would justify abortion on demand for the destitute. I find that discomforting, but feel compelled to examine my consistency.

God Loves Porn?

Freelance Genious thinks that God loves porn:

I think that FG is mostly making a joke. I don't think he(?) would
try hard to defend the logic of this conclusion. But still, the joke
would be more funny(1) without the logic flaw. Here's his propositions:

1. God created humanity.
2. God loves humanity.
3. God loves humanity's actions.

Whoa.. stop there. God loves freedom. God gave man freedom.
He loves freedom more than he demands compliance with his will(2).
Humans are free to reeject God. He doesn't love that. Therefore God
does not necessarily love humanity's actions.

On the other hand, rejection of God works out really bad for humans,
and He keeps trying to tell us that, but he lets us do it anyway.

This is pretty much a show stopper for the rest of this (admittadly
tongue in cheek) argument. But still..

4. Humanity created the internets.
5. The internets is the greatest creation in the history of humanity until the next big one.
6. The internets is the Library of Alexandria.
7. The internets is full of pornography.
8. The Library of Alexandria is full of pornography.

I'm not sure I understand the significance of including three of
these propositions. There seems to be an assumption here that God
loved the Library of Alexandria. In any case, can't you just skip
5,6&8 and go straight to...

9. God loves pornography.

For that matter, can't you just say:

3. God loves humanity's actions.
4. Humanity created pornography.
5. God loves pornography.

This entire argument follows only if proposition 3 is true. I don't
think it is.

(1) Yes, it is the abosolute pinnacle of geekiness to be critisizing someone else's jokes with logic. But there it is. Whatcha gonna do?
(2) Why? How the heck should I know? Ask Him. I'm just reporting what I observe.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Saddam Hussein execution

Jane Galt asks who's watching the Saddam Hussein execution video.

Jane mentions:

Okay, so I'm against the death penalty...
The commentary is very interesting. One comment asks:
If he had been given life in prison, what would have happened if a group of Baathists had held a school bus full of kids hostage and demanded his release?

Another comment asks:

What would you do with Saddam -- that is morally proper, given his
proven crimes?

Finally, another commenter asks:

I am neither Jane nor a death penalty opponent, but I can
understand why one would oppose it in the criminal justice
system. What I can't understand is any kind of ethics,
except for an absolute belief that taking life under any
circumstances is unjustified, that says that there is no
imaginable crime that justifies death in retribution.

As someone who opposes the death penalty, here is my answer to the
questions in reverse order.

To the 3rd question, the death penalty is (by it's very name)
limited to the criminal justice system. You don't exercise the death
penalty in war. It is a penalty that is only exercised as part of
a system of justice for crimes. Being opposed to the death penalty
can only be applied to the criminal justice system
as that is the ONLY place that it's exercised.

But to the issue of the ethics of not taking life under any
circumstances, I would say that I do not believe that. I certainly
stand by the idea that taking another's life in self defense is
acceptable. Additionally, I think that the individiual participants
in a war are acting in self defense in that there is an enemy out
there who is attempting to kill them. It gets somewhat less clear
cut the higher up you go, e.g. up to the person ordering the war.
The higher up you go, the more the circumstances come into play.
Was this a response to a attack from someone else? Even, from the
point of the attacker, was it a response of last resort?

I don't have clear cut answers for anything other than self-defence.
But, in general, I think a case can be made for justifyably taking
another's life outside the boundaries of the criminal justice system.

My problem with the death penalty inside the criminal justice system
is this. The criminal justice system has mechanisms for undoing
mistakes that it makes in the exercise of its role... except for the
death penalty. The death penalty assumes that the criminal justice
system is infallable in its judgement, something that the system
itself does not assume. So that once you've executed a person,
there's no way to say "oops" after it's done. One could argue that
the same can be said of someone who's been wrongfully imprisoned,
but with the death penaly there's no way that you can even attempt
to make up to the wrongly accused. They are no longer around to
recieve your apology.

With respect to the 2nd question, my instinct is to answer that he
be given life in prison, in an undisclosed location. Of course,
that doesn't answer the problem proposed in the first question,
for which, I do not have an "off the top of my head" answer.

But thinking about it, bad people will be bad people with or without
Saddam Hussein being alive. He is a convenient reason to hold that
schoolbus hostage. With him dead, they will find some other reason
to hold the schoolbus hostage. His being alive or dead does not
change the probability that some group of bad people will hold
a schoolbus full of children hostage. Executing Hussein seems
unlikely to prevent future bad things from happening. What seems
more likely to me is that executing Hussein will prevent using him
as an excuse for for future bad things.

Can't do it.

I recently saw the following article
(This came by way of

In this article, it asks:

Almost all the problems with the American health care system boil down to two questions. How do we create a system that ensures that all citizens, and perhaps residents, have access to health insurance? And how do wecontain the huge cost increases?

I don't know what you call this rhetorical trick. I suspect it has a clever name, but I don't know it. In any case the author is laying out two questions and expecting a favorable answer to both. But these questions can't both be favorably answered. A favorable answer to one, is the negative question to the other. The author might as well ask these two questions: How do we create a road trip that ensures we end up south of our current position. And how do we simultaneously ensure that we end up north of our current position?

The problem is that the author doesn't understand the concept of insurance. Arnold Kling correctly points out here that what we have in our country isn't insurance, it's insulation. And as such giving insulation to everyone is equivalent to ever increasing costs. If you want to contain or decrease costs, you have to *STOP* giving insulation to everyone.

The author even has a section titled "reforming insurance" that, ironically doesn't talk about reforming insurance. Instead it talks about the need to regulate insurance as it currently is without the need to change actual health insurance.

I find myself in agreeing with Kling, and not with ABC News. Until we are able to unleash the entire population all demanding that their costs be contained, costs will not be contained. The *ONLY* way to get the entire population demanding this is if each member of society is individually motivated to contain those costs. As long as we're insulated from the actual costs of health insurance, that motivation will not be sustained.

I'm hopeful (possibly naively hopeful) that the system will fix itself through a gradual collapse. This year I switched insurance plans to a program that required that my family bear more of the day-to-day costs of healthcare. But that still provided coverage for catastrophic health events. I did this because my employer is continuing to pass the costs of health insurance to me. And when investigating the alternatives, I found one that had a much lower premium while still providing coverage in the event of a catastrophy. Along with that lower premium came more day to day responsibility from me. I'm betting that the amount of money I save in premium costs will more than make up for the increased day to day costs I'll encur for the next year.

I'd like to think that the increasing costs of health insurance will create incentive for people to look for other solutions. And that over time, the currently broken system will incentivize itself out of existence. The counter argument is that what will actually happen is that most people, instead of searching out lower cost alternatives, will simply drop health insurance altogether. They will then become a part of the pool of people looking for the government to subsidize their health costs.

I don't know which way it's going to go. I fear universal health care. The Canadians aren't doing so well with it. I loath the idea of governmental tampering. But I'd rather a little tampering now (to reform health insurance) instead of being forced into enormous and permanant tampering later (i.e. universal health care).