Saturday, April 28, 2012

One thing I disagree on Obama about

Their vision is that if there’s a sliver of folks doing well at the top who are unencumbered by any regulatory restraints whatsoever, that the nation will grow and prosperity will trickle down. The challenge that they’re going to have is: We tried it. From 2000 to 2008, that was the agenda. It wasn’t like we have to engage in some theoretical debate – we’ve got evidence of how it worked out. It did not work out well, and I think the American people understand that.

Ready for the Fight

While I am happy that we are, in fact, having a conversation about Reaganomics, I have to disagree with Obama on that last point. It would seem self-evident that the American people do not understand things based on evidence.

So not only does Obama have to win his argument, he has to educate his audience as to the basic terms of arguments in the first place. Good thing he's a professor.

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Dance of Dragons

Sara got me a surprise birthday present (very surprising, since it's not my birthday yet); A Dance of Dragons. Even in paperback this thing is immense; I've spent 5 straight nights reading the thing (hence my complete absence from the computer).

It is clearly the weakest of the series, and much of what the negative reviews say about it is true: far too much ink is spent on food, bodily functions, gratuitous graphic sex, repetition, and pointless characters. The man should have my agent; she would never let that slide. Basically, Martin's weak points have been magnified, while his strong points have not gotten stronger - but then, they couldn't have. This is the problem with starting at the top, where the first three books are: there's nowhere to go but down.

One of the complaints, though, is that the main characters behaved in non-heroic ways; but this struck me as appropriate. The degeneration of Tyrion's character is understandable; he has pretty much hit rock-bottom as a human being. Daenerys is not an avenging angel, and Jon Snow is not a knight in shining armor. That was always the point of Martin's world. It makes for depressing reading, sure, but after this many pages, that can't be a surprise to anyone.

If anything, my chief concern is that his main characters are becoming too much the hero: Tyrion, in particular, seems to be acquiring the Hollywood gloss that means no matter how dire his circumstances, he'll always survive. I no longer believe Martin can kill any of his characters; these three, in particular, seem inviolate.

Which is fair enough, in any other book. History is written by the victors, and stories are written by the people who survived. But Martin made a point of a world where grim realism trumped dramatic narrative, and exempting even just three popular, decent characters seems jarring. Especially when they are in such incredible danger so much of the time.

On the other hand, for all I know, he's going to kill them off in the next book. That'll show the critics, eh?

But even at his weakest, Martin is a great read. The only truly bad thing about ADwD is how long we have to wait for the next one.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Global Atheist Convention

We went to the Global Atheist Convention last week, which I should have blogged about then, but I didn't (for reasons that will be explained in the next blog post).

Some highlights from the convention:

The loudest applause line of the first night was when the organizers announced that the State government had kicked in a little bit of funding for the convention, and in doing so, had treated the atheists exactly like any other group.

Yes, that's what we were applauding for: being treated exactly the same.

As for the speakers:

Dennet is not a particularly good public speaker. But his talk was so jam-packed with ideas that it was one of the best.

The other best was P.Z. Myers, who was not only funny and blasphemous but insightful.

A. C. Grayling was a delight to listen to. His presentation, vocabulary, voice, and sheer cleverness - he spoke for half an hour without notes and never paused to draw breath - were perfect. I have no idea what he was talking about, but I could listen to him for days.

Lawrence Krauss was good, too, explaining how something must come from nothing in terms non-technical enough that I could follow them.

Sam Harris was good, but he's still yapping on about meditation.

There was a terrifying talk by Leslie Cannold on how Australia is a soft theocracy - we don't have the kind of iron-clad separation of church and state that the American Constitution does. But then, almost nowhere else does. Is it ironic that the one thing I find most attractive about American government is the one thing the Republicans are hell-bent on eradicating?

The tribute to Hitchens was the best, but that's not fair: Hitch got to present all of his best material gathered over the years. No one can compete with that.

Most enlightening was Dawkins' talk, but not in the way expected. Dawkins covered old ground, whereas most of the others talked about new developments. So that was a little boring, but that wasn't the enlightening part.

Having seen Dawkins in the flesh, I now understand why people call him strident. He was, actually, despite his classic British politeness and his careful academic demeanor. P. Z. Myers gave a talk called "Sacking the City of God" (take that, Augustine!), and yet somehow he came off as less... angry.

I don't think that strident is the right word; I think a better word is peevish. The difference between Dawkins and Myers was hope; Myers' essentially gave a pep-talk wrapped around his philosophical/political observations. Dawkins, on the other hand, during a panel discussion, was asked by Dennet, "What happens when we bring the moderates over to our side, and nothing is left but the nut jobs?", and his response was, "Should we be worrying about that yet?"

Dawkins has been fighting this fight, and losing, for so long that he sounds like a tired, bitter old man. Everyone else at that conference (save for Leslie, who also sounded like a castle under siege; and perhaps Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but who can blame her?) was full of confidence and hope; everyone else felt like we were winning. Dawkins, clearly, does not.

I'm not saying he's wrong to be pessimistic. Nor should he be nicked for all the many things the theists nick him for. But from now on, when I hear Dawkins described as strident, I am going to think of despair. It is likely a feeling that Dawkins will never escape; his entire generation will remain immune to reason until he, and they, are beyond all arguments.

But the people who deal with the young; the teaching professors like Harris and Myers, the college organizers, the volunteer groups; these people know that the next generation is reachable. They have hope of the triumph of reason, in their lifetimes; and it shows.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Thomas Jefferson gives Republicans their true name

Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last one of Aristocrats and Democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all. --Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, 1824.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Sam Harris and math

The issue that got Sam Harris into so much trouble was his assertion that decent, reasonable moderates were as much a part of the problem as the crazed religious zealots.

I think he's right. And I just read a fascinating passage in Stephen Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature that helps explain why.

Pinker is discussing the Prisoner's Dilemma, and how the simple strategy Tit-for-Tat is generally the best algorithm for repeated iterations. You start out cooperating, and then you just do whatever other guy did last time. This not only accords with our natural moral senses, but it's also mathematically optimal (which of course is not a coincidence).

Not only does it work best for the individual, but it works for the community; over time, the Cheaters are weeded out, and soon you have nothing but rational players.

But, here's the thing. Suppose there are a group of Samaritans in with your population. They always cooperate, no matter what. Sounds noble, right? And for the Tit-for-Taters, it's fine; they'll always cooperate back. Everything's great.

Except it isn't. The presence of the Samaritans keeps the Cheaters alive. Because there is a population for the Cheaters to exploit, they stay in the game, cheating everyone else and forcing them to cheat, and in general ruining it for everyone.

Yes, the Cheaters are the bad guys; but the system would purge itself of them if it weren't for the Samaritans.

And this is (mathematically) how nice, reasonable, perfectly decent, respectable, admirable, honorable people... contribute to religious zealotry.

It's a little bit like how a perfectly decent pothead's habit contributes to South American police states. Or the weekend wine drinker makes alcoholism possible. At some point you have to draw a balance between your private indulgences and social harm. Frankly, I don't have a problem with weekend drinkers or potheads (the harm they cause should be solved by other means, like regulation and legalization). And I'd like to not have a problem with nice, moderate religious types... but religion has caused so much harm that I can't. Alcohol destroys lives; religion destroys societies.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe once we get the fire under control, weekend mysticism will be fine. Maybe I'm over-reacting. I dunno; all I have is my hunches and prejudices.

And, oh ya, math.

We're winning!

In 1965, at the end of the Council, there were 58,000 priests. Now there are 41,000. By 2020, if present trends continue (and there is no sign of a dramatic upsurge in vocations), there will be only 31,000 priests

State of the US Catholic Church

Albeit slowly... but not as slowly as it would appear. Presumably the decline of priests follows the same power law as everything else. Right now the decline is gradual, but as the average age inches up, the drop-off rate will increase sharply, and the renewal rate will presumably go down as there are less priests to create converts.

On the other hand, the Catholic priesthood has such a bad reputation, maybe getting rid of them will help the Catholic faith.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The unbearable incoherency of being Republican

Over at Investor's Business Daily, there's an editorial that can only be described as deranged:

Is Obama 'Dangerously Close To Totalitarianism'?

But even better are the comments, the best of which is this one:

Michael Totten · Top Commenter · Proprietor at RED DOG ARMS
read this now and act...or read the headlines when the Congress and the Supreme Court are dissolved! I do believe we need a small committee running the country for two years...two years during which a true citizen government would be in 1789.....then regular pres. elections would be held with single term limits and congress would be elected by their peers for one year terms....
Mikey is so afraid that Obama will dissolve the institutions of government and throw away the Constitution that he wants to... dissolve the institutions of government and throw away the Constitution. 

Perhaps he'll name his "small committee" something like the Central Committee. Or perhaps Reich Committee would roll off the tongue a little easier.

This is open sedition. Fair enough; Mikey is free to argue for the elimination of democracy and his right to argue. Certainly the hippies and the Wobblies wanted to undo the foundation of the State. But even in their most drug-addled state, the hippies understood that they were preaching revolution; that they sought to undo the social contract. They were not patriots; they did not preach "my country right or wrong."

But Mikey probably has a hat with that blazoned on it. One can just hear him explaining, "it was necessary to destroy the Constitution in order to save it."

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Friday, April 6, 2012

A national conversation

Mitt Romney is going to be the Republican nominee, and just as I predicted, this means the election will be a referendum on Reaganomics. Mitt's wealth (or rather, how he got that wealth) made that inevitable. Last week Obama got the ball rolling with his speech, and here's evidence that the conversation is being had:
Today’s speech had less historical sweep than the past two and focused more narrowly on the point that has separated the two parties: the primacy of low taxes for the rich. Obama made a fairly simple argument. The Republican theory that low taxes (especially for high earners) is the essential ingredient in economic growth has been tested thoroughly over the last two decades. First Republicans insisted that Bill Clinton’s tax hikes on the rich would destroy growth and then that the George W. Bush tax cuts would create a boom. Both predictions utterly failed. (Obama did not mention that the Bush tax cuts remain in effect right now, and so that to whatever degree we blame policy for the meager growth since he took office, tax cuts ought to share the blame.) And yet, he noted, Republicans have shown not the slightest trace of intellectual humility, no inkling whatsoever that they ought to rethink supply-side economics.
Obama frames the economic choice
I was kind of hoping for Rick Santorum, because that would have lead to a conversation over the role of religion in politics. But as I have recently been reminded, every conversation with a conservative these days ends up in religion.

The reason is simple: by the numbers, Reaganomics has failed. Therefore the only defense left to it is ideological; if we just double-down, hold the line, have faith, then our earnest dedication will be rewarded and it will work! Also, it will work twice as good as we said! Except for all the naysayers, doomsayers, critics, skeptics, traitors, and liberals: it won't work for them, because they don't deserve it.

If this coming national conversation sticks to facts and figures, Reaganomics (and all that goes with it, such as an unfettered faith in unfettered free markets) may finally be retired. Note that Mittens already gave a speech in which he suggested that unregulated free markets don't always yield the optimal solution.

Nothing would be better for the world than the destruction of this selfish, farcical economic fantasy. Because as America goes, so goes the world.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

It's all Reagan's fault

Chris Mooney asserts that the Republican distrust of science started with Reagan.

Conservatives vs Science

More specifically, he demonstrates that there was only really a decline in public trust in science among conservatives in the period from 1974 to 2010 (and among those with high church attendance, but these two things are obviously tightly interrelated).

In the interests of balance, I of course would welcome a contrasting viewpoint about Liberalism.

But here's the thing. Everybody (even conservatives) agrees the last 30 years, things have gotten worse. But the last 30 years have had more conservative politics, not less. And despite all that conservating, social attitudes have continued to shift leftwards. Gay marriage is just one example of a social position that has shown dramatic change over the last ten years.

The current conservative response seems to be to assert the conservative policies we have adopted via Reagan and both Bushes were not conservative enough, and we need even more conservatism. But the amount of conservatism being proposed is far more than even Reagan dreamed of.

At some point you have to ask: if you are in a hole, and it keeps getting darker, are you sure you're digging in the right direction?