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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Big Terminator Plot Hole & Pascal's Wager

Well dear readers, I'm back after a 4-month hiatus.

There's a pretty big plot hole in the Terminator saga: wouldn't a nuclear war destroy most of the world's power and IT infrastructure, thus crippling Skynet? You'd think a computer system smart enough to figure out time travel would know it'd be shooting itself in the foot by launching all those nukes. It's thoughts like these that hinder me from engaging in more productive activities.

I went a few glorious months without being annoyed with Pascal's Wager. I was thinking of writing a pamphlet that I could hand out at churches after the service. Here's what it would say:

Many times, I have been told:
"If there's no god, I lose nothing by believing. If there is a god, you lose everything by not believing." Basically, this idea says that believing in god is a safe bet. The French mathematician Blaise Pascal was the first person to put this idea in writing so it is sometimes called "Pascal's Wager."

Pascal's Wager is sensible if the only possibilities are god or no god and the only options are believe or disbelieve. Let's consider a similar situation. Suppose you are staying at a hotel. You wake up at night to find that the hotel is on fire. Your only hope of survival is to jump 60 feet into the swimming pool below. What would you do? Well, you might get hurt or even die if you jump, but you'll certainly die if you stay put. In this case, there are only two options, and only one of them offers any hope. In a situation like that, I think most people would jump. Many people see similar logic in religion. It may not be true, but it's the only hope, they think.

The problem with Pascal's Wager, though, is that there are many gods and religions to choose from. Let's look at an example of a similar situation. You are feeling very ill. You got to a doctor who says you have fatal disease A. You decide to got to another doctor who says you have fatal disease B. You go to yet another doctor who says you have fatal disease C. Which doctor do you believe? You can't follow the advice from all of them. If you pick the wrong one or don't pick the right one soon enough, you'll die. And so it is with religion. If you're a Catholic, and the Muslims turn out to be right, you're in a bit of a pickle. Similarly, you're up the creek if you're a Jew and the Baptists turn out to be right. And just about everyone is screwed if those Heaven's Gate nuts were right.

Given all the religions out there, how sure are you that you picked the right one? Whatever you're religion is, there are millions of people who will say it's wrong.

Until you figure out how to prove yours is true, kindly refrain from bothering me about religion.

*******************************************************************************
I don't see how handing out a pamphlet like that would be any worse than the way various religions blanket the world with their propaganda and annoy people with their missionaries.

I hope for a world where people are less inclined to order their lives around caveman campfire stories.

In the name of the Cheeto, the Frito, and the Dorito, snackmen.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Yacht Tax & Why Government-Run Healthcare is a Bad Idea

In 1990, in a fit of populism, the US passed a special tax on the purchase of yachts. These were the results:

1) The Government collected very little revenue from the tax.

2) The people who wanted yachts bought them anyway, although usually overseas to avoid the tax.

3) Many US yacht comapanies went bankrupt and were forced to lay off thousands of skilled craftsmen and other workers with good-paying jobs.

In attempting to punish the wealthy, the Government ended up screwing the middle class instead. This sort of backfire happens fairly frequently, which brings me to my next point.

I wrote a short essay about healthcare reform before, but after reading it again, it seems disorganized and weak. So here goes again.

Suppose you want to buy some potato chips. If you live in a country with a free market, you can go into a supermarket and find a whole aisle with dozens a varieties of potato chips to suit all tastes and pockets, and if you don't like potato chips, there's a whole aisle of cookies right next to it. Did the government plan any of this? No, it's the power of free-markets to provide variety and low costs. But suppose the government decided to get involved. Perhaps a pressure group would persuade them to pass a special law to provide low-priced or free snacks to poor people.
The government would probably do this by issuing special food stamps to poor people to get the snacks for free. But someone must still bear the cost. The government might reimburse the supermarket (with money raised by taxing something else more), or it might require the supermarket to bear the cost. In that case, the supermarket would increase the prices of the other products to offset the money lost from the free snacks. Either way, in order to provide free or low-cost services to some people, everyone else has to pay a higher price.

This basically what is going in the US healthcare system. The government requires hospitals to perform services at a cost dictated by the government. To make up for the loss, the hospitals and insurance companies pass the costs onto the insurance-holders, AKA the people actually honest enough to try and pay for healthcare themselves. The middle class gets shafted twice: they pay higher prices for healthcare plus taxes to pay for services for other people.

The argument that healthcare costs are lower in countries with socialized medicine (such as the UK, France, etc) is misleading because the healthcare programs in those countries are funded by higher taxes on other commodities (usually alcohol and tobacco). Gasoline costs over twice as much in the UK and France than it does in the US because of higher taxes. To look at it another way, the cost looks low only because the price has been added onto something else. These countries also keep healthcare costs low by rationing treatment (bad idea) and allowing easy access to preventative care (good idea).

The high cost of healthcare in the US is not the result of too little government intervention; it is the inevitable result of trying to control the market. The free market works great for snacks, movies, books, cars, clothes, and just about everything else. So why not healthcare? A free market for healthcare would cost less, be more efficient, offer a greater range of choice, and treat people like responsible adults.

Seems like an obvious choice to me, but then again, I'm a heartless, money-grubbing libertarian.

Bah, humbug!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Stupidest Debate

Whenever a killing spree occurs, various conservative dolts fall over each other to be the first to denounce video games and heavy metal as the cause.

But wait a minute. Homicide is as old as the human race. Even such cherished texts as the Bible and American History are loaded with violence. The Bible begins with a murder (c'mon people, Cain and Abel) and ends with the destruction of all life on earth. The Old Testament, which comprises about 3/4 of the Bible, is page after page of massacres, battles, and divine retribution.
Indeed, there are many things in the Old Testament that make Resevoir Dogs look like Mary Poppins.

American History is loaded with violence too. Most American History books describe at least ten wars in detail and mention numerous other skirmishes, rebellions, and murders. Oddly, however, while the books contain many written descriptions of violence (e.g. date and bodycount), they have very few images of violence. I will return to this point shortly.

So, it seems to me that you could just as well blame the Bible and US History books for violent behavior, since they both glorify it. Strangely, however, the blame is pinned elsewhere. Why?

I think the answer can be found from a favorite conservative past-time: Professional "Wrestling". For me, the most irritating thing about it is not that it is violent, but that they try to obscure it. It's "fighting" where no one gets hurt, which is complete nonsense. At least in video games, when you shoot someone, there's splay of blood and they fall down. Hell, even Looney Tunes is more truthful- there are bullet holes, black eyes, and head bumps. Many people, particularly conservatives, have the notion that violence is OK, but showing the consequences of it is not. When you show pictures of dead people, it tends to shatter the illusion that what is going on is just good, clean fun.

The only hope for a more peaceful world lies not with censoring violence, but by showing it truthfully. So long as journalists are forbidden (or choose not) to photograph coffins bearing slain soldiers, or broadcast grisly images, I fear it is only a matter of time before the US public is roused into a new lynch-mob frenzy by a rollicking country music anthem.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Does Religion Make People Nicer?

This article of the same title gives a qualified "yes," with the main catch being that religion makes believers nicer to members of the same religion. Also worthy of note is the experiment where they had volunteers take a test in classroom which they said was haunted by the ghost of a past student. The researchers found that the ghost story helped cut down on cheating. Brilliant! I should try using that the next time I supervise a test.

For my own part, I think most religions create and prevent suffering in about equal amounts. I think the best counter-example to the idea that religion makes people nicer is the religion of the Aztecs.

The Aztecs were not a fortunate people in terms of land. It was poor in resources and only supported a few basic crops. As they had nothing to trade, the only way they could acquire other things was to raid or conquer neighboring tribes. I imagine they felt some guilt about this, which helps explain the nature of the Aztec religion.

The Aztecs had a grim view of the world. The purpose of life was to fight and die for the glory of the gods. They also believe the sun required regular human sacrifices or it would fall out of the sky and the world would collapse into chaos. These beliefs, I guess, helped them rationalize their constant warfare. However vicious these beliefs were, it appears they helped maintain order in their society through several centuries.

Bronislaw Malinowski once observed that there are no people, however primitive, without beliefs in religion and magic. I think the oppostie is true as well. Build all the flying cars you want, there will still be people who read their horoscopes.

If there can be any great religious teaching, I think the best was elucidated by Bill and Ted of San Dimas: Go Forth and Be Excellent to Each Other.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A New Pro-Atheist Slogan & Talking to North Korea

This week, I have a double feature. Apologies for the weird formatting- Blogger is being a jerk today.

In London, a bunch of atheists got the phrase "There's probably no god, now stop worrying and enjoy your life" painted on the side of a few buses. I feel this slogan is sort of lame so I've been trying to think of a better one. Here's my suggestion:

Welcome to Earth.
Please refrain from theft, rape, and murder.
The other guests will appreciate your courtesy.
Enjoy your visit.
Now for North Korea. By all accounts of the handful of people who have managed to escape from it, North Korea is miserable shit-hole ruled by the closest thing there is in real life to a comic book supervillian. Still, their actions have some rational basis. As of this moment, there are over 30,000 US combat troops plus another 20,000 or so South Korean troops poised on the other side of the DMZ, ready to invade at a moment's notice. They also perform regular exercises to practice for it. Keep in mind that this force is within 100 miles of North Korea's capital. People who see enemies at the gates tend to be jumpy. Imagine the US reaction if the Russians stationed 30,000 troops in Toronto. People would be very, very nervous, and probably fall in behind hardline politicians promising protection from "them."
I think the Waco stand-off provides a good small-scale analogy for this. A bunch of nuts had a compound in Texas, which is not itself a crime, but word leaked out that weapons were being stockpiled and children were being abused. Given the events at Jonestown, it 's not surprising that there was wide public support to defuse the situation. Unfortunately, The ATF and FBI did a pretty piss-poor job of scaling things down. I'm no hostage-negotiator, but if your goal is to calm down the leader of a doomsday cult, surrounding his compound with military vehicles and heavily-armed police might not be the best way to go about doing it. In the ensuing shootout and fire, about 90 people were killed.
I think the best way to deal with the North Koreans is to ignore them completely. First, cut-off the aid, then remove the troops. With no more outside help or enemy to focus their hatred on it, perhaps they will begin wondering why all there is to eat is sawdust soup.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Rick Warren: A Victim of Solvent Abuse?

Below are some excerpts from Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life and some of my comments.

"If there was no God, we would all be "accidents," the result of astronomical random chance in the universe. You could stop reading this book, because life would have no purpose or meaning or significance. There would be no right or wrong, and no hope beyond your brief years here on earth."

-PDL, p. 25

When I read things like this, it makes me wonder if fundamentalist Christians just sit around all day eating paint chips and watching reruns of Davey and Goliath. Life is not less valuable because it doesn't last forever, if anything, its impermanence makes it more precious. True, the odds of any particular person being born are remote in the extreme, which means that if you are alive at all, you are fortunate beyond description.

Then we have the old "no god, no morality" argument. Many societies have existed with all kinds of religious beliefs, and yet the moral codes of these diverse groups are surprisingly similar. Practically every single group prohibits certain actions (theft, rape, murder) and encourages others (generosity, forgiveness, self-sacrifice). These rules exist because they make easier for people to live together and thus helps the group survive. It's as simple as that.

"If your time on earth were all there is to your life, I would suggest you start living it up immediately. You could forget about being good or ethical, and you wouldn't have to worry about any consequences to your action. You could indulge in total self-centeredness because your actions would have no long-term repercussions."

-PDL, p. 38

There are always consequences for your actions. Even if you successfully rob a bank, you'll have to go through a lot of effort to avoid getting caught, and even then you'll have to spend several years worrying about it. Contrarily, if you believe that the most powerful being in the universe is on your side, you'd probably wouldn't have much trouble rationalizing any action- say flying a plane into a building full of people.

"In heaven we will be reunited with loved ones who are believers . . ."

PDL, p. 39

That sorta sucks for the non-Christians or Christians who had non-Christian friends and family.

"First, Noah had never seen rain, because prior to the Flood, God irrigated the earth from the ground up."

PDL, p. 71

Rick, you've really outdone yourself here. May I ask what happened to that water once it reached the surface? The sun would shine on it and cause it to evaporate. After a while, it would gather into clouds and fall back down as rain. To prevent it from raining, god would have to continuously keep magically retransferring that water back underground again, which seems a bit inefficient. And the Christians say evolution is too crazy to be true....

"God is not a cruel slave driver or a bully who uses brute force to coerce into submission."

-PDL, p. 79

The 10 Plagues? Hell? What about them?

"Pray as often as possible so it is rooted deep in your heart. Just be sure your motive is to honor God, not control him."

-PDL, p. 89

Isn't the purpose of prayer to try to get god to do something you want?

"It [wrestling with god] is also a passionate activity, and God loves it when we are passionate with him."

-PDL, p. 97

God also enjoys candle-lit dinners and long walks on the beach.

"The Bible must aways have the first and last word in my life."

-PDL, p. 187

I think the following quote best phrases my thoughts on this:

"Whatever you do, don't use the Bible as a moral code. It advocates prejudice, superstition, and murder." -Penn Jillette

"Sometimes while you are praying, Satan will suggest a bizarre or evil thought just to distract and shame you."

PDL, p. 206

Rick, people who hear voices from nowhere are called "crazy." Do not listen to the Talking Dog.



I've noticed that when Rick Warren wants to make a statement look profound, he writes it in italics and puts a little border around it. OK, let me try:

*----------------------------------------------------------------------------*
Do not give money to anyone who talks about god for a living.
They are all morons and crooks.
*----------------------------------------------------------------------------*

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Genghis Khan: Evil?

Genghis Khan had a lot of blood on his hands to be sure, but that is but saying in other words that he was about as violent as most of the other rulers in history. I think Genghis does not get nearly enough credit for the instances when he offered mercy to his foes or tried to negotiate with them. Here are two incidents which I think are particularly noteworthy:

1) In 1206, as Genghis Khan was completing the unification of the Mongol tribes, his last rival was his childhood friend, Jamuka. After Genghis defeated him, he offered to be his ally again, but Jamuka said that just as there there could only be one sun in the sky, there could be only one ruler of the Mongols. Jamuka did not want to live with the shame of defeat and asked Genghis to have him be executed. Genghis granted his request.

2) Khwarezm was a Muslim empire which occupied much of what is now Iran. Tired of war, Genghis decided to send a trade caravan to establish a trade route. The caravan was ambushed and many of its party were killed by a govenor of Khwarezm, who believed it to be a covert attack. Genghis later sent another delegation, this time directly to the Shah of Khwarezm. The Sultan beheaded the Mongol emissaries and sent back the heads to Genghis. Genghis ordered an invasion of Khwarezm, killed the Shah, and obliterated the capital, Samarkand.

Genghis Khan, I think, did not want to spend his whole life at war, but simply recognized that violence, if used properly, can be extremely effective. To demonize him because he was a violent warlord is unfair, because authority is almost always gained and maintained through violence. Genghis was just better at it.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Here comes my Ig Nobel

I may end up getting an Ig Nobel for this, but here goes.

According to various surveys, a typical American male has 6 sexual partners in his life and typical American female has 2. I don't see how that's possible, unless there are 3 times as many women as men, so I decided to investigate the matter a little further.

Let's consider a simple model. Suppose we have 5 men and 5 women. We make a table to show who has sex with whom by marking with an "X." How do the averages work out under various scenarios?

Scenario #1: The Stud

In this scenario, 1 man has sex with all 5 women while the remaining men have 1 sexual partner each.

..........W1.....W2...W3...W4....W5
M1.....X........X......X......X........X
M2.....X
M3...............X
M4........................X
M5.................................X

The average for the men is (5+1+1+1+1)/5 = 1.8
The average for the women is (2+2+2+2+1)/5 = 1.8

Scenario #2: The Slut

In this scenario, one woman has sex with all the men while the remaining women have one partner each.

............W1...W2...W3...W4...W5
M1.......X......X
M2.......X...............X
M3.......X........................X
M4.......X..................................X
M5.......X

The average for the men is (2+2+2+2+1)/5 = 1.8
The average for the women is (5+1+1+1+1)/5 = 1.8

Scenario #3: The Shy Guy

In this scenario, one man has no partner while each man has at least one partner.

........W1....W2....W3....W4....W5
M1
M2...X
M3.............X
M4......................X
M5................................X.........X

The average for the men is (0+1+1+1+2)/5 = 1
The average for the women is (1+1+1+1+1)/5 = 1


Scenario #4: The Plain Jane

In this scenario, one woman has no partner while the other women have at least one partner.

......W1....W2....W3....W4....W5
M1..........X
M2..........X
M3....................X
M4....................X
M5..............................X.........X

The average for the men is (1+1+1+1+2)/5 = 1.2
The average for the women is (0+2+2+1+1)/5 = 1.2

We could add more people or fill the chart differently, but that wouldn't change the result. The average number of partners for both groups must be the same, because each X adds the same amount to both groups.

This leads us to a rather unsurprising conclusion: many people lie about their sexual behavior.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Two Most Confusing Concepts in Christianity

The theory of evolution is often treated as the most serious intellectual challenge to Christianity, at least the fundamentalist kind , but I think there are some major conundrums in its most basic tenets.

1) Satan

OK, so God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and wants people to believe in him, but chose to create a being he knew in advance would rebel against him and undermine his plans. I just can't get my head around that. It seems like people would still be able to disobey God (through free-will) even if Satan wasn't around trying to lead people astray.

2) Jesus dying for the sins of the world

God had to sacrifice himself to himself to change a rule that he made? Who came up with that plan? Rube Goldberg?


Perhaps someone can explain it to me?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

With Friends Like These...

One of the reasons given for the war in Iraq was to remove Saddam because he was an evil dictator. The details of the US's support of Saddam during the Cold War are old news, but what get less attention is the fact that the US has been and continues to be openly allied with several authoritarian governments.

1) Hosni Mubarak, Egypt

Interesting Facts:

-Has ruled by Emergency Law for 25 years

-Average US Foreign Aid per year: $2.2 billion

2) Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan

Interesting Facts:

- prefers to boil opponents alive

-torture is "institutionalized, systemtic, and rampant"

-Hosted US air base at Karshi-Khanabad until 2005

3) The government of Saudi Arabia

Interesting Facts:

-From Fredom House: "The Saudi Ministry of Education Islamic studies textbooks ... continue to promote an ideology of hatred that teaches bigotry and deplores tolerance. These texts continue to instruct students to hold a dualistic worldview in which there exist two incompatible realms – one consisting of true believers in Islam ... and the other the unbelievers – realms that can never coexist in peace. Students are being taught that Christians and Jews and other Muslims are "enemies" of the true believer... The textbooks condemn and denigrate Shiite and Sufi Muslims' beliefs and practices as heretical and call them "polytheists", command Muslims to hate Christians, Jews, polytheists and other "unbelievers", and teach that the Crusades never ended, and identify Western social service providers, media outlets, centers for academic studies, and campaigns for women's rights as part of the modern phase of the Crusades."

Full Report here

-Jews are forbidden to enter the country

-Supplies 15% of US oil

-Special roads for Non-Muslims


The only difference between the government of Saudi Arabia and the Taliban (apart from oil) is that the Taliban are open and honest about their hostility to the US.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Gulf of Tonkin "Incident"

Generations of US high school students have been taught that the Gulf of Tonkin Incident was the main reason the US entered the Vietnam War. Supposedly, US warships had been attacked "unprovoked" twice by the North Vietnamese navy. In truth, those US warships were giving assistance to the South Vietnamese, so they were not exactly neutral. As for the second attack, well, turns out it never actually happened. This isn't from some goofball conspiracy theorist- Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense at the time) and James Stockdale (who was flying over the place when the second attack allegedly occurred) have both denied it.

"In 1995, retired Vietnamese Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap, meeting with former Secretary of Defense McNamara, categorically denied that Vietnamese gunboats had attacked American destroyers on 4 August, while admitting to the attack on 2 August. A taped conversation of a meeting several weeks after passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was released in 2001, revealing that McNamara expressed doubts to President Johnson that the attack had even occurred."

"Squadron commander James Stockdale was one of the U.S. pilots flying overhead during the second alleged attack. Stockdale wrote in his 1984 book Love and War: "[I] had the best seat in the house to watch that event, and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there… There was nothing there but black water and American fire power." Stockdale said his superiors ordered him to keep quiet about this. After he was captured, this knowledge became a heavy burden. He later said he was concerned that his captors would eventually force him to reveal what he knew about the second incident."

source

So, what we have is a war based on a flimsy pretext. Now when has that ever happened?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

How Big Does the Federal Government Need to Be?

I couldn't sleep the other night, so I decided to make a list of all the government's activities that seemed unnecessary or wasteful. Pretty soon, I had quite long list going. Then it struck me
to phrase the question in reverse: what, at the absolute minimum, should the government be doing? I came up with three main tasks: defense, printing money, and sale of bonds to fund itself.

Defense is one of the major categories of government spending, but it's mostly overkill. The main threats I see to the safety of the US (aside from terrorism which I will address separately) are ballistic missiles (from land or submarines), bombers, and conventional attacks from surface ships or submarines along the coastlines. The possibility of a land invasion strikes me as remote in the extreme, and anyway individual states could easily provide adequate land defense with their National Guard units.

As for terrorism, given the abundance of small arms in the world and the relative ease with which they can be acquired, I don't really see what the government can do to stop it. It makes more sense to put resources where they will be most effective. Shooting down a bomber or detecting a missile launch is a lot easier than trying to catch two or three guys before they set off a truck bomb or looking for a guy hiding in a cave somewhere.

To counter the threat of ballistic missiles, nuclear deterrence seems like the best choice, and it's been working for over 50 years. 300 missiles armed with one or two warheads plus another 20 or so tactical seems like enough firepower to deter any potential foe. I estimate the total cost for the missiles, warheads, warning/detection installations (including satellites), and personnel to be about $20 billion. Here are some estimates from the experts:

"In 1957, Admiral Arleigh Burke, then the chief of naval operations, estimated that 720 warheads aboard 45 Polaris submarines were sufficient to achieve deterrence. This figure took into account the fact that some weapons would not work and that some would be destroyed in a Soviet attack (Burke felt that just 232 warheads were required to destroy the Soviet Union).
At the time Burke made this estimate, the U.S. arsenal already held six times as many warheads.

Several years later, in 1960, General Maxwell Taylor, former Army chief of staff and future chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote that “a few hundred” missiles (armed with a few hundred warheads) was adequate to deter the Soviet Union. Yet by this time the United States
had some 7,000 strategic nuclear warheads.

In 1964, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his “whiz kids” calculated that 400 “equivalent megatons” (megatons weighted to take into account the varying blast effects from warheads of different yields) would be enough to achieve Mutual Assured Destruction and destroy the Soviet Union as a functioning society. At that time, the U.S. arsenal
contained 17,000 equivalent megatons, or 17 billion tons of TNT equivalent."

source

For the possibility of bombers, civillain radar would detect them easily enough, so all that would be left would be to scramble enough interceptors to bring them down as well as having a few surface-air-missiles to catch any stragglers. 500 interceptors seems like more than enough to me. The total cost for these interceptors and the associated infrastructure and personnel I estimate at $25 billion.

For the last threat, sonar nets would catch the submarines so they could be destroyed by aircraft. The interceptors could easily be armed with anti-ship missiles or depth charges, so they could serve both purposes. Total cost for that I estimate at $5 billion.

So, for $50 billion, the US could be adequately protected from the most destructive threats facing it.

Having a uniform system of currency is really convenient, so I think everyone can agree the government can continue with that. The total budget for the Mint in 2007 was about half a million dollars. You see, if you look long enough, you can find a cost-effective government program.

And lastly, the government needs money to pay for itself. In 2006, about 9% or $200 billion of the government's revenue came from the sale of treasury bonds and the like. That's more than enough to pay for the activities listed.

Everything else can be done at the state and local level: police, courts, jails, schools, welfare, etc.

Friday, January 30, 2009

A Lesson from China

China's One-Child policy is often cited as an example of an effective, wide-ranging government policy based on hard-nosed pragmatism. Its origin however, is an interesting tale in its own right.

When the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, Mao (who would later take several wives) encouraged large families to replace those lost by decades of war. The program was successful in increasing China's population, which rose from 583 million in 1953 to over 1.3 billion today. However, the population became too large, and so the One-Child policy was phased in during the 1970s. If the original policy had never been enacted, the second policy would not have been necessary.

What is the relevance of this to the US? Well, for decade the US government subsidized (and to this day continues to subsidize) the coal and oil industries and set-up utility monopolies in order to provide cheap energy. This program was successful in keeping prices low, but at a cost of greater pollution, inefficiency, and stifling of innovation. Now, the government is trying to go the other way: using tax breaks and subsidies to promote alternative energy. I wonder what would have happened if the government had not gotten involved in the first place. The price of energy would probably have beeen higher, but that would have encouraged conservation and innovation- the very things the environmentalists are pushing for now. All the technology has been around for a long time (electric cars have been around since the mid 1800s) but because of the subsidies and tax breaks, the market was distorted and these technologies never took off. And the government's largest alternative energy program, ethanol from corn, is pretty much universally acknowledged as a giant boondoggle by the experts.

I say get the government out of the energy business entirely.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Islam

"Islam is a religion of peace."

Actually, no, it's not.

Here's what the Quran says about non-Muslims: "Kill the unbelievers wherever you find them"
The Quran gives fairly explicit instructions about how Muslims should deal with non-Muslims:

First, you should try to convert them.
If that fails, enslave them.
If that fails, kill them.
If that fails, drive them from your lands.
If that fails, force them to pay protection money.

In many Islamic countries, conversion from Islam is punishable by death (as the Quran teaches). In 2006, Abdul Rahman was sentenced to death for converting from Islam, but sentence was commuted after international pressure mounted.

And who can forget poor Salman Rushdie? He's been in hiding ever since being sentenced to death for making fun of Islam (the Quran teaches that those who mock Islam should be killed).

Sam Harris sums it up well:

"As a matter of doctrine, the Muslim conception of tolerance is one in which non-Muslims have been politically and economically subdued, converted, or put to sword."

The small number of Muslims I have known seemed like nice folks, but I think this is because (fortunately) they do not follow the Quran very closely.



Addendum: This is so good, I just had to make room for it. It's a quote from Mahavira, the founder of Jainism.

"Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being."

Beats the pants of the 10 Commandments or anything in the Quran.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Government vs. Corporations

I have heard many times that without the government to protect us, we'd all be at the mercy of those evil corporations. I disagree. I think on the whole, governments are capable of inflicting much more harm than any corporation. I don't like everything Wal-Mart or Microsoft does, but at least I am not forced to support their activities the way I am forced to support the government's activities through taxes.

Besides, the US government is heavily influenced by corporations anyway. Do you really expect politicians to create laws that are unfavorable to the people that got them elected?

Most corporations pay no income taxes, but they do have access to public money to carry out their schemes because of the government. if you really wanted to throw a wrench in their plans, the best way to do that would be to take away their muscle.

Corporations can be cruel and greedy, but they are mostly interested in making money. A corporation wouldn't set off nuclear bombs to intimidate people in other countries. They'd probably set them off if they could make money from it (charge admission to watch- nuclear carnival?). They'll throw poison in a river if it's cheaper than paying the fine or disposing of it properly, but they wouldn't spray poison to kill other people's crops or dump thousands of tons of chemical weapons in the sea.

A government is force- prisons, police, soldiers. The government doesn't protect anyone's freedom. If anything, the single greatest threat to a person's freedom is whatever government holds sway where that person lives.

I agree that there will probably always be a government of some kind around and that there are a handful of legitimate functions of a government. The presence of police for example probably deters some crime (although it would be difficult to do a cost-benefit analysis to find the ideal amount). However, most of what the government does, in my opinion, is stupid and/or unethical.
If you want to help homeless people, pay for someone's education, contribute to scientific research, or whatever, you're better off using your own time and resources to accomplish that goal than handing money over to the government and hoping they do what you want.

I can't avoid hypocrisy in this. After all, here I am in the Peace Corps benefiting from a government program. I like Peace Corps a lot and I'm glad it's around, but if it wasn't, it would not stop me from pursuing my goals. I found an opportunity that seemed like a good fit for me so I took it, which as far as I can tell is what everyone else on Earth does.

Rebuild the World Trade Center Already

It's been over 7 years. What is the hold-up? Did they lose the plans? Just rebuild it the way it was. The original towers only took about 7 years to build. Go to youtube and watch for Penn & Teller's take on the subject.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Healthcare Reform

There has been much debate as to whether the US should switch (completely) to government-run universal healthcare. Supporters of such a system often cite that many countries (actually all of them) with socialized medicine spend less per capita for
healthcare than the US.

Per Capita Healthcare Spending in US$ (Public + Private)

#1 United States:4,271
#2 Switzerland:3,857
#3 Norway:3,182
#4 Denmark:2,785
#5 Luxembourg:2,731
#6 Iceland:2,701
#7 Germany:2,697
#8 France:2,288
#9 Japan:2,243
#10 Netherlands:2,173
#11 Sweden:2,145
#12 Belgium:2,137
#13 Austria:2,121
#14 Canada:1,939
#15 Australia:1,714
#16 Finland:1,704
#17 Italy:1,676
#18 United Kingdom:1,675
#19 Israel:1,607
#20 Ireland:1,569

At the same time, the US lags behind many other countries in terms of infant mortality and other indicators. These facts are presented as an open-and-shut case for socialized medicine. Let's dig a little deeper to see if there isn't more to the story.

In 2000, the World Health Organization gave this list as ranking of all countries in terms of healthcare quality. The US took 37th place. However, if you check, you'll see that Canada is 30th and Germany is 25th. And there are many nations with socialized medicine such as China that have a much lower ranking. If we look at the top-ranking nations, we see that they are also among the world's wealthiest. This leads to a rather unsurprising conclusion: wealthy nations have better healthcare than poor ones. Well, derrr, they have more money to spend on it. It is true though that the US is near the bottom in healthcare quality when compared to other wealthy nations.

OK, so why is the US's ranking so low when so much money is being spent on it? Well, part of it might have to do with the high cost of medical lawsuits. With this many lawyers involved, you can be sure there are armies of math geeks doing their damndest to spin the numbers, but here is a factsheet from the docs that says basically the same thing. Well, looky here: Harvard says 40% of medical lawsuits are hot air. According to this article, the legal cost of medicine is actually quite small, and the higher costs are attributable to doctor's salaries and the price of drugs.

So, the US system could use some tweaking. Are the people who want universal healthcare be willing to pay $8.62/gal for gas? OK, only part of that tax money goes to healthcare, but to pay for it, many other commodities must be taxed. And let's not forget that the insurance industry is not going to agree quickly to shut down and give up billions of dollars in profit.

In brief, the US healthcare system is a giant clusterfuck, so take care of yourself and buy good insurance.