October 18, 2004

Thank god for pixie dust

I never claimed to understand religion. But last night topped it off. Let me start with a story about my parents and how faith helped them cope:
My mother was born with a crippling arthritic disease and struggled with it her whole life. Every day my father had to help her out of bed, and every day I had to come home from school at lunch time to make her a meal. It was very difficult for all of us. I truly believe that my parents marriage would not have survived without their shared belief in pixie dust.

Now, I think we can all agree that this is utterly ridiculous. But if you replace the words "pixie dust" with "Jesus", "Allah", or "Yahweh," people of all different religious beliefs won't blink an eye. Why is it that Christians will accept this statement with the word "Allah" and vice versa? Is it because they have those big books? Because I can write a book about pixie dust that will be a lot more interesting to read, and will be much less gruesome. Actually, I'd probably just copy it from Peter Pan, but I'm sure someone with actual writing talent could pull it off legally.

The message I take out of this is that people of religious belief are willing to accept other beliefs that are similar, as long as they are based on something non-human. This leads to a reframing of atheism vs. theism which posits atheism and humanism as positive philosophies, celebrating the abilities and great potential of human compassion, while theism degrades humanity by assuming it worthless without deities.

Posted by mill1991 at 10:51 PM

October 8, 2004

Third party candidates

I am a little concerned about the sanity of people who would vote for a third party candidate in this election. They would have you believe that John Kerry and George W. Bush are two sides of the same coin. Maybe there is some truth to that. However, George W. Bush is clearly mentally retarded. One only needs to take in five minutes of one of his speeches to discern this. John Kerry, on the other hand, has no cognitive problems that I am aware of, besides his belief in god (Zing!). Even if all other things are equal, I will vote for the more intelligent person.

Now, this is where the Ralph Nader supporters jump in and say that he is also very intelligent, while not having the flaws that the two mainstream candidates do. This may be true, but the fact remains that his views are not mainstream enough. Even if there were an electoral system that were fair to third-party candidates, its hard for me to believe that he would win. There just aren't enough socialists in the U.S.

This is why I think that supporters of left leaning third-party candidates should be voting for Kerry this time around. He is not perfect, but he is a lot more liberal than W. Nader's campaign invests time, effort, and money on trying to get people to vote their conscience instead of voting strategically. The best case scenario is that they get everyone sympathetic to Nader's views to vote for him. Even then he probably doesn't have enough support to win. A better strategy would be to get Kerry into office this time, and concentrate efforts on election reform. Innovations like Condorcet Voting (not IRV! see ElectionMethods.org for why) can allow third-party candidates to put their money where their mouth is.

If my thinking is correct (and I'll be the first to admit it probably isn't), mainstream candidates will have an advantage no matter how sophisticated the vote counting method is. In order for members of smaller parties to get proportional representation, we need just that: if 10% of the votes go to the Green Party, then the Green Party gets 10% of the elected representatives. But I'm getting way out of my area of knowledge here.

Posted by mill1991 at 4:25 PM

October 7, 2004

Vice presidential debate

A lot of times, watching debates, I think of answers that I wish my candidate would have said. Watching John Edwards, a few times I thought I had better answers than him, but then I don't have to think as fast as him. Given the same amount of time, John Edwards's responses probably would be even better than mine. Sometimes, though, I think the liberal way of thinking causes Democrats to get too defensive and suggests a weakness.

One instance that really bothers me is when Cheney talked about John Edwards avoiding $600,000 in income taxes somehow. John Edwards immediately went on the counter-attack, playing the Halliburton card. To me, this is the tactic of "I'm bad but he's worse." I don't think Edwards has anything to be ashamed of when, in preparing his taxes, he takes advantage of all the mechanisms that allow him to pay less. He didn't cheat the system - he took advantage of the rules in place to pay the smallest amount of taxes. Do you think there are many accountants who, knowing all the loopholes that they can use, don't use some of them because they feel they owe their fair share? Thats a ridiculous notion.

What John Edwards should have said is something to the effect of, "Well, I pay someone to do my taxes, and that person does them the best way he knows how. I'm certainly not paying him to cost me more money. John Kerry and I want to close tax loopholes so that people in the highest income brackets, which includes both candidates on both tickets, do pay their fair share." From here he could segue into Halliburton. "Meanwhile, what the vice president's company, and others, like Enron and MCI, did, is deceptive business practices..."

No thinking person considers it immoral to try and pay the least amount of taxes possible. But deliberately misleading stockholders and clients is clearly immoral.

Posted by mill1991 at 3:46 PM

August 26, 2004

State vs. Market Control

I am here to address the age-old debate between state control and market control. This issue has come to light recently with the proposed smoking bans in Minneapolis and St. Paul. One point of view is that if people really disliked smoking so much, then it would be in the best interest of restaurants and bars to prohibit smoking, and they would do so. The other perspective is that smoking is harmful to customers and people who are employed at restaurants and bars, and that the government should essentially protect people from themselves.

While this issue is interesting, it is not the raison d'etre of this post. I'm more interested in generalizing guidelines about when the government should interfere and when it should let market forces have control. I think an interesting playground for this discussion is the issue of the environment. Take gasoline for instance. There is not an infinite supply of gasoline, every American knows this, and yet we consume at a torrid rate. Do market forces work fast enough to counteract this?

For instance, the following argument could be made: Once gasoline supplies start running low, the prices will increase, making the consumption of gasoline and the purchase of automobiles less desirable. People will start walking more, busing more, and companies that previously dealt in gasoline or automobiles will find it in their best interest to devise new fuel sources to get people back into cars. It could even lead to an economic boom as people are forced to upgrade to cars with that run on the new fuel and old cars are retrofitted, as well as the infrastructure that might be necessary for the new fuel source.

The counterargument could run as follows: Market forces are too slow to respond to this. Once gas gets too expensive for people to buy, this will be a huge hit on our economy. Gas stations might be forced to shut down, and certainly fewer cars will be purchased. With a little bit of government intervention, this could have been prevented. The government spends some of its money on scientific research, such as developing alternative fuel sources. Under this scheme, automobiles using new fuel sources can gradually be phased in, and as technology develops they can compete with gasoline powered automobiles.

Okay, as I type I keep on thinking of arguments for each side. I actually had a position when I started but now I'm not so sure. A counter-argument to the last paragraph could be that smart businesses, AKA businesses that should survive, will anticipate the gas-crunch and spend revenue on innovating to create new fuel sources. The drawback to this, though, is that businesses are run by people, who might be individually motivated. If I'm the CEO, my lifestyle might be improved if I take more money as profit, as opposed to spending it on research for fuel sources. On the other hand, an elected representative has a duty to do what is best for his or her constituents. But even here, one could make the argument that elected representatives actually do what is best to increase their chances for re-election.

So, in conclusion, I have not solved this problem in the last half an hour, as I had expected to do. But writing this entry has made me think a little more clearly and cynically about the problems.

Posted by mill1991 at 5:05 PM

August 5, 2004

Dreams

Today I had a dream that lasted quite a while in a period of sleep that was much shorter (like 10 seconds). This started me thinking that maybe dreams aren't really experienced, but are only remembered. In other words, a person doesn't "have" a dream so much as s/he remembers it. I remember reading something to the effect of this theory in a paper which I'm having trouble finding. Anyhow, the whole thing seems wrong because of lucid dreams, where the dreamer realizes from within the dream that the whole thing is a dream. I have experienced these myself, and can even change the flow of the dream. So, this would seem to say that the dream must be experienced if it can be changed midway through. However, there is also the possibility that the memory of changing the dream is part of the remembered part.

If a dream takes one-third the time as the actual experience, does this mean our minds can move in "fast-forward?" Do we just slow down the speed of our minds to the usually leisurely pace of the physical world? I suppose this is possible - how many times during the course of a day does a person really have to "think fast?" In our dreams the physical world is not constrained by natural laws, so we don't have to wait for it.

The more interesting question to me, though, is what dreams are created from. In Dennett's Consciousness Explained, he ridicules the idea of a Freudian Playwright who composes dreams and layers them with symbolism and subtlety to sneak them by an internal censor. I can agree with this. If there really is a part of my brain that is good at such abstract things as writing stories with detail and symbolism, then why would it stay hidden in the dream world? I can understand why my consciousness doesn't bother with nuts and bolts things like firing speed to pick up my fingers when typing, but dream-writing seems too abstract and useful in consciousness to be banished to dream life.

Its possible that a dream is created from snippets of memory. A lot of dreams take place in familiar locations, and with familiar people. Unfamiliar people and places might just be long-lost memories that are not conscsiously recognizable. In this framework, a dream is essentially a loosely knit fabric of random memories. They don't always fit together at the edges, which sometimes leads to the non sequiters that are so common in dreams. I don't know, in writing this doesn't seem solid enough to have even been worth the trouble of writing, but I thought I'd get it down.

Posted by mill1991 at 4:44 PM

July 25, 2004

Atheist acceptance

A gallup poll in 1999 showed that atheists are basically unelectable. Among groups such as atheists, women, blacks, gays, and catholics, and jews, atheists find the least support. Only 49% said they would vote for someone who was an acknowledged atheist. So basically, an atheist cannot win. Contrast this with Marion Barry, who was elected mayor of Washington D.C. after he was caught smoking crack on video, and convicted of another drug offense. What this means is that more people are comfortable with a crack fiend being in power than a person who has no belief in a god. Atheists should lobby to get wife-beaters and child molesters included in the next poll just so they have some chance of not finishing last.

I don't really understand the reasoning of anyone who is so against electing atheists. Its not like god-believing representatives are consulting with their god before they make decisions. First of all, their main interest is usually appeasing their constituents so that they can be re-elected. In cases where this alone is not enough to make a decision, they hopefully appeal to their reason (although its more likely to be their political ideology). Both atheists and theists probably have a political ideology or reasoning abilities, mostly independent of religion, so again a god is not part of the picture.

The only real reason for dismissing an atheist candidate is prejudice. I think there is probably an irrational fear that if an atheist gains power, he or she will immediately start drafting legislation to make all the children atheists, or some such nonsense. Mostly it involves a misunderstanding of the atheist "agenda," as it were. Folks, there is no atheist plan for world domination. This is similar to homophobics who are afraid that homosexuals want to make everyone else gay. Well, gays and atheists aren't interested in winning converts - to paraphrase the Matrix:Reloaded, while others may not share our beliefs (or lack thereof), our belief do not require them to. Unlike some belief systems, we're not trying to "save" anybody, and thus converting them to our beliefs would be fruitless and oppressive. All most of us want is tolerance and acceptance.

Posted by mill1991 at 12:24 PM