Saturday, March 31, 2007

Are Socialists and Their Left-Wing Ilk Religious?

Yes they are:

1. Instead of trusting the evolving processes of free markets, they assume that an omnipotent, prescient, just, and benevolent leader can solve all problems.

2. Their doctrine demands today's needless sacrifices (taxes, economic controls, endless regulations, social engineering, etc.) to establish tomorrow's ambiguous utopia.

3. They have a rigid doctrine to which all members subscribe -- and display complete agreement in all aspects of subsidiary issues (wars, gay rights, recycling, etc.)

4. Their beliefs rest on faith; even when repeatedly disproven, they keep believing.

5. Israel is central to their beliefs.

6. They evangelize in public.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Can Doctors Calculate Statistics?

Here's a simple problem. Let's say that there's a disease that strikes one person in a thousand. And let's also say that there's a test for the disease that, on average, mistakenly indicates that fifty healthy people in a thousand have this disease. Now you take this medical test, and the result is "positive".

Now for the question: What is the probability that you have this disease?

Well, we know that in our population of one thousand, this test will result in a "positive" for 51 people, of which only one will have the disease. So, the answer is that the probability is one out of 51, or just under 2%.

These are conditional probabilities (or, if you prefer, Bayesian reasoning), and if understand this concept, then you probably know more than your doctor:

Hoffrage and Gigerenzer (1998; Gigerenzer, 1996) tested 48 physicians on four standard diagnostic problems, including mammography. When information was presented in termsof probabilities, only 10% of the physicians reasoned consistently with Bayes’ rule

For instance, Eddy (1982) asked physicians to estimate the probability that a woman with a positive mammogram actually has breast cancer, given a base rate of 1% for breast cancer, a hit rate of about 80%, and a false-alarm rate of about 10%. He reported that 95 of 100 physicians estimated the probability that she actually has breast cancer to be between 70% and 80%, whereas Bayes’ rule gives a value of about 7.5%.

One obvious (to me, at least) question is this: With these sort of medical tests, it seems like the outcome is "healthy" regardless of the test result. So, what's the point of the test?

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Does Wal-Mart Lower Wages For ALL Workers?

"Wal-Mart's lack of respect for their employees drives down standards for all retail workers."

- Stuart Appelbaum, President of Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union

The most charitable interpretation of the above quote is that when Wal-Mart lowers wages, then its competitors will go out of business unless they too lower wages. However, this is fallacious for several reasons:

1) Wal-Mart has as much control over wages as you have over the value of your home. Wages are set by market conditions: The size of the labor pool, the skills and productivity of labor, the competition for labor, the alternatives for labor, and so on, all affect wages -- not what any employer feels like paying. In fact, all retailers would like their labor costs to be zero, but they cannot make that happen. So, they must pay the market price for labor.

2) All else being equal, a new Wal-Mart would increase employee wages. If the size of a labor pool is fixed, a new Wal-Mart would increase the demand for workers, and wages will be bid up.

3) Wal-Mart makes workers better-off; otherwise, why would they apply for a job at Wal-Mart? Why would 25,000 people apply for 325 positions at a new Wal-Mart near Chicago?

4) If a new hotel chain opened with very poor quality rooms, would that "drive down standards" for all hotels? Or would that hotel chain go out of business? When a restaurant is found to have rats running through the dining area, do other restaurants respond by planting rats in their dining rooms?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What Are The Worst Things About Religion?

1. Its substitution of reasoning and evidence with blind faith.

2. Its substitution of curiosity, open-mindedness, and critical thinking with forever-immutable and often-dubious "facts". Not only does this retard discovery, but it is also a dull existence.

3. Its encouragement of tribalism (although, admittedly, the absence of religion would probably result in tribalism based on other things).

4. Its providing adherents with a self-defined moral cover to harm others, from imposing restrictions on medical research to flying planes into skyscrapers -- let alone the harm done to children along the entire spectrum from bar-mitzvahs, to scaring them with stories about "hell", to female genital mutilation.

5. Its providing adherents with license to prohibit any discussion of behavior derived from their beliefs. From loud public displays of evangelism, to the "right" to go home early on Fridays, to the "right" to not touch pork in your supermarket job that you voluntarily accepted, to the public broadcasting of religious services, to the "right" to terrorize airplane passengers, any refusal to accommodate religious demands is interpreted as an attack on "constitutional rights".

Otherwise, no problem.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Does Poverty Cause Crime?

No, not in any meaningful sense.

The answer is qualified because, under laboratory conditions, where all other factors are isolated, there might, in some cases, be an association between poverty and crime. And even then, and association between two variables doesn't imply that one caused the other.

In any case, there are three things worth noting:

1. There is no correlation between crime and poverty associated with time.

If poverty caused crime, then crime would have been out of control during the Great Depression. In fact, if there was a direct relationship between the two, then the ever-increasing affluence of the United States should have caused a corresponding drop in crime over the last few decades. But crime grew very rapidly in the 1960s, and in fact corresponded with the billions of dollars spent by the "Great Society" to end poverty. It can almost make one think that that there was a correlation between the growth of welfare payments and the increases in crime.

2. There is no correlation between crime and poverty associated with place.

Chinatowns are among the poorest areas in the United States, but have little crime. Similarly, rural areas are poorer than urban areas, but have less crime. And West Virginia is one of the poorest, but also has relatively little crime.

3. Crime is cultural

Income levels are useless for predicting crime, but cultural patterns (assisted by biology) are excellent for predicting crime. As a proxy for culture, variables such as "ethnic group" or "race", gender, and age will yield fairly reliable results; a population comprised of people who are black, male, and young will generate more crime than a population who is white, female, and old, while controlling for affluence. (For that matter, black-male-young will generate more crime than black-female-young, white-male-young, or any other group where even one of the three black-male-young variables are changed.)

After the bulk of crime is explained by cultural patterns, there is probably a residual explanation that correlates with wealth. That is, among any cultural group, crime declines as wealth goes up. That might mean that "poverty" causes crime, or it might mean that criminals tend to be the sort of people who do not get rich, or it might mean that there is a third variable that makes some populations both poor and criminal. For example, it might be that while being poor might not have much influence on making criminals, being poor in the presence of rich people might "produce" criminals.

That is called "envy". And although envy is part of everyone's character, the decision to act on it is nevertheless an individual choice. No one needs to be a criminal.

Monday, March 26, 2007

What is the Philosophical Basis of the Leftist/Communist/Socialist Movement?

As the graph shows, the most defining features are Groupism, Paternalism, and Equality (all outcomes should be the same for everyone, regardless of merit, regardless of free choice, etc). This should be no surprise, as their rhetoric is heavily concentrated with talk of the "community", "taking care of everyone", and "equality". The ideas of Individualism, Equity (you get what others feel you are worth), and Liberalism ("live and let live") are poison.

Its appeal is the satisfaction of envy and selective morality.
No one will ever be better-off than you, and no one will be better-off than anyone else. For many people, this matters more than material wealth or the sense of individual freedom and responsibility. And by ignoring those who are harmed by such a philosophy, you can feel a surge of morality as you sense that you are helping those beneath you; i.e., the "other".

As such, relativism is more important that absolutism; i.e., the very definition of "envy" is based on relativism.

Consequentialism is also important. Nominally, communism/socialism (and similar left-wing causes) are the means towards establishing a goal. However, there is little evidence that this ambiguous "goal" is important -- and from all appearances, socialism is much less of a process than being an end in itself. Therefore, these movements are basically consequentialist.

Most other philosophical components are in between. Most visibly, "enemies" (capitalists, Republicans, etc.) have the free will to do evil, but ordinary criminals and terrorists are deterministically reactive and cannot control their behavior.

And although there is a huge emotional component (especially envy), these movements are not without reason. Their leaders, for instance, are perfectly capable of developing calculations to increase their power and economic gain by inciting their followers.

Their strategies are also a mixture of fighting (e.g., labor unions) and cooperating (politicians). Whatever works.

And finally, they are quite certain of what they want; there is no room for skepticism in any mass movement.

In summary: Left-wing adherents seem to be driven by emotional fulfillment from:

A) Envy

B) Envy-by-Proxy

C) Paternalism

D) Selective morality

Sunday, March 25, 2007

What are the main components of any philosophy?

A) Consequentialism <----> Deontology

Do the ends justify the means?

B) Free Will <----> Determinism

Do people have the ability to make choices?

C) Reason <----> Emotion

Are the rules of formal logic being followed, or are human emotions providing guidance?

D) Relativism <----> Absolutism

What should things be measured against: Absolute standards or relative standards?

E) Skepticism <----> Certitude

At what point do the questions end?

F) Individualism <----> Groupism

How much influence should the group have on an individual?

G) Cooperation <----> Fighting

When conflict arises, which is the better strategy: To negotiate/cooperate or to compete/defeat?

H) Liberalism <----> Paternalism

To what extent should anyone have control over others?

The above eight factors are fairly -- though not completely -- independent of each other.

And knowing these factors can help you assess how others think.

For example, anyone in a mass movement will score to the right side of factors "E", "F", and "H". And to a lesser extent, they will be to the right on "C". But beyond that, "A", "B", "D", and "G" can vary. For instance, environmentalists will be to the right of "A", and political parties will be to the left. Similarly, Christians would be to the left of "B" and criminal apologists would be to the right.

Any group based on envy, like, say, communists, will be to the left of "D" -- and any group wishing to demonize historical figures ("Jefferson had slaves") will be to the right of "D".

Finally, "G" is basically a subset of "A", since it is concerned with the means of achieving a goal -- and most groups will be somewhere in the middle, depending on the situation. However, some are always at extremes.

Are there other philosophical components?

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Why Are Taxes Bad?

Well, first, here's why they're not bad: Forking over lots of money at the end of the year is a meaningless gesture, especially if everyone else does it too. Just as giving $100 to everyone in the country will make no one richer, taking $100 from everyone in the country will make no one poorer. It's just moving around pieces of paper (or, these days, readouts at the ATM or on your PC), and has no effect on supply or demand.

That said, there are basically three bad things about taxes:

1) They create wrong incentives for taxpayers

2) They create wrong incentives for tax recipients

3) They are morally hard to justify

More specifically:

If you were to perform a service that requires a minimum profit, and the taxes reduce your profit from acceptable to unacceptable, then you will not provide that service. And if you do not provide that service, you will lose the opportunity to make money, your customer will be denied your product, and the government will receive no taxes. That is, everyone loses (although the government's failure to receive taxes is probably a positive thing). The technical term for this is "deadweight loss" and affects:

- People who would otherwise want to make extra money by working overtime or having a second job; i.e. their incentive is to now produce less
- Businesses that are marginally profitable (like small stores) who cannot compete against larger and more profitable businesses who can pay higher taxes; i.e., their incentive is to close their business

In short, if you penalize people for being productive, then they will become less productive -- which exacerbates scarcity and increases prices; i.e., we become poorer.

On the receiving end, tax recipients (from those receiving welfare benefits to government employees) are given incentives to remain unproductive. Instead of things, they are paid to be at home or at their government jobs, producingconsuming things. Their consumption exacerbates scarcity; these people do not provide any mitigating production to lessen scarcity. This also makes everyone else poorer.

Finally, it is hard to morally justify the forced taking of anyone else's property -- which is what taxation is. At times, taxes might produce a desirable outcome from a consequentialist perspective -- but that must be compared against undeniable moral problems.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Why Do Some Drugs Require Doctor Prescriptions?

Ostensible Answer: To keep uninformed patients from harming themselves with complex, and potentially dangerous, medications.

Cynical Answer: Because the AMA pressures the FDA to force patients to pay a new doctor bill whenever they need a drug.

Although physicians have a financial interest in lobbying for legislation as described in the the "cynical answer", we'll set that issue aside and instead focus on the "ostensible answer".

There are three types of patients who need drugs:

1) Knowledgeable people who know which drugs they need, or have the ability to find out by way of free readily-available references on the Internet.

2) People who have no idea of what drug they need, and want to pay a doctor for his specialized knowledge.

3) People who don't know what they are doing, and take the wrong drug and/or dosage, and harm themselves.

Prescription drugs impose a big cost on Group #1 (forcing them to pay unnecessary medical bills, and delaying their drug therapy if they, say, develop a sudden and painful toothache on Saturday evening), a small cost on Group #2 (prescription drugs increase the demand for a fixed supply of physicians, resulting in higher costs and/or longer waits), and, assuming they follow the law, benefit Group #3.

So, here are some secondary questions:

- Why should people in Group #1 and Group #2 being harmed for the benefit of Group #3?

- Should, say, all home repairs be illegal except when done by licensed home contractors? Competent do-it-yourself types (Group #1) would have to pay a lot for contractors, but inept know-it-alls (Group #3) would be protected from their own renovation mistakes.

- Should all cooking be illegal except when being prepared by licensed cooks? Capable do-it-yourself cooks would no longer be able to enjoy their own efforts -- but then, those who don't understand the basics of food handling (Group #3) would suffer fewer incidents of food poisoning.

- Why are any drugs over-the counter? How can people be trusted to self-medicate with anti-inflammatories, decongestants, and antihistamines?

- For that matter, how is it that people can be trusted with over-the-counter nicotine and alcohol, but not with acne creams and codeine?

- Oh, wait. People can be trusted with codeine in the UK and Canada.

- How is it that the punishment for using drugs without a prescription (fine or jail, presumably) is preferable to simply releasing these "criminals" with perhaps a comment like, "Glad to hear that your tooth feels better."

Thursday, March 22, 2007

What Should We Do About Global Warming?


The popular assumption that global warming is real, is caused by human activity, and will culminate in disaster, requires many leaps of faith and many poor decisions.

Accepting the hypothesis that something must be done about global warming requires the following assumptions:

1. Temperatures are rising. Maybe they are, and maybe they aren't. There seems to be some dispute over this, but the government is saying that temperatures over the last 25 years have increased on average about four-tenths of one degree F. (Apparently, this average is the sum of simultaneous warming and cooling on different parts of the planet.) For argument's sake, let's assume that temperatures are rising.

2. Rising temperatures will lead to catastrophe. The magnitude of global-warming's impact (if any) is speculative, and utterly unreliable when one considers that A) Property values are not declining in coastal areas, and B) People (when not stopped by their government) are generally able to adapt to all sorts of changing conditions. From food preservation to flying to central heating to sun screens to migrating populations to automobile design to agricultural methods, people have used their heads to adapt to environmental changes that were more sudden and more severe than the long-term gradual effect of global warming. But for argument's sake, let's assume that global warming will lead to catastrophe.

3. Global warming is caused by human activity. Earth's temperature has been changing since Day One. Repeated ice ages and hot spells have happened long before people were making "carbon footprints", and for that matter, long before there were people, period. The trouble with attributing global warming to human activity is that it's impossible to do a controlled experiment. We can't switch human activity on and off to see if it indeed has an effect on temperatures. So, as a substitute, we accept as fact that:

A) Human activity increases carbon dioxide, and

B) Atmospheric carbon dioxide increases air temperatures.

By transitivity, we then use logic to conclude that:

C) Human activity causes air temperatures to rise.

All of which, so far, seems appropriate. But then comes the logical flaw of affirming the consequent:

D) If human activity causes air temperatures to rise, then rising air temperatures were caused by increased human activity.

The problem here, which ought to be clear, is that rising temperatures could be the result of any number of things that might dwarf the influence of human activity. Some of these influences are known, such as the variation in the sun's energy and in the orientation and orbit of Earth. Other influences are not known (and might not even exist), but it would be a fallacious argument from ignorance to say something like, "Because we can't figure out the other causes, we'll assume that one possible cause, human activity, is responsible for global warming."

There is no way of determining the influence of human activity on possible global warming. All the forecasters have are mathematical models, produced by vague historical associations and guesswork colored by politics and biases -- which produce dubious results with large margins of error.

But still, for argument's sake, let's assume that global warming is dangerous, and is caused by human activity.

4. Diminishing human activity is a smart investment. What exactly shall we give up to obtain less global warming? How much of global warming's destructiveness will be diminished if we use fluorescent light bulbs? What if we bought more fuel-efficient cars? What if we drove less? What if we stopped driving altogether? What if multiple families shared apartments, as was the case in the (heavily-polluted) Soviet Union?

These questions require an answer of the form: "If we discarded all air-conditioners, then the probability of coastal erosion due to rising sea levels will be diminished by...what?...percent." Or: "If we banned all air travel, then the frequency of hurricanes will be diminished by...what?...percent." Obviously, these questions cannot be answered, because no one has any idea what the benefits will be. Instead, the "environmental" advice is of the form, "It couldn't hurt if we used less energy, so let's do it."

But ignoring the cost of diminished human activity does not make this cost disappear. In fact, less human activity -- less exchange, less production -- results in lower economic growth. And economic growth is precisely what separates the living standards of the USA from Haiti, Mexico, Liberia, etc., etc., etc.

And, ironically, economic growth is what explains the difference in environmental cleanliness between the USA and the aforementioned nations. If you're not rich, you can't afford a catalytic converter.

5. The actions of a few western countries will make a difference. If, say, western governments taxed energy use to lower the quantity demanded by people in west, then there will be more energy available for the rest of the world. For example, if Saudi Arabia cannot sell as much petroleum to Americans, then it will need to lower its price -- and therefore increase the quantity demanded by the Chinese. Think of it this way: If you needed to sell your home, and there was a sudden drop in demand, what would you do? You would, as any homeowner knows, drop the price. In the end, your home will still get sold. Similarly, the petroleum will still be sold -- and used.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Am I Discriminating Against Minorities?

Let's say that you own a building with ten apartments in a city where 20% of the population is "minority", and that none of your apartments are rented to minorities. Does that make you a "racist"?

In fact, if you were to randomly select tenants for your building, there is an 11% chance of that outcome. And, for that matter, there is a 36% chance that your building would be under-represented with minorities; i.e., a situation where they occupy either none (0%), or only one (10%), apartment. This is not conclusive evidence of discrimination.

[If you like probabilities, then you are probably aware that this is a result of a binomial calculation. There's a simple calculator that does the work for you here.]

Now, let's say that 50% of landlords in this city have no minority tenants; the probability of that happening by chance is about zero. Now, since the expected frequency of such an outcome is only 11%, than means that something is "wrong" with about 80% of the landlords. And all you have to do is figure out which 80% might be discriminating -- or, as is typically the case:

A) Punish 100% of landlords, innocent or guilty, and then,

B) Compel all landlords to have renting quotas.

And it is at that point when you will be discriminating -- against the majority. Is there any reason why that is better than discriminating against the minority?

And worse, the above example assumes that the lack of minority tenants is due to active discrimination. But would active discrimination also explain the lack of male kindergarten teachers? Or young people in hospitals?

If you want to see whether you are discriminating, look at the neighbors you chose to live near and look at the spouse you selected -- and then look in the mirror and ask yourself if you are guilty.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Does it Make Sense to "Buy Local"?

Of course it does, simply because everything is "local" to someone. Put another way, if you purchase an item made 8,000 miles away, then that item was made locally to people who live 8,000 miles away. Therefore, every purchase is local, no matter what.

So, let's rephrase the question: Does it make sense to "buy locally" only from people who happen to live near you? If the answer is "yes", then that means that someone living thousands of miles away should never buy anything from you. Or, depending on how "locally" is defined, it could mean that someone living hundreds or miles away, or a few miles away, or even on the next block, should never buy anything from you.

And if "foreign" people should not buy things from you, that means that you should not buy things from them. And if you don't buy things from them, that means that they should not sell things to you. Would you like store-owners and businesses to refuse to sell you things because you don't have the "correct" address? If you still say "yes", then you must be a big fan of public schools. But if you say "no", then you understand that "buy locally" works to no one's benefit except those who happen to have businesses located near very large markets, who want to use propaganda (instead of superior products) to eliminate competition.

And it works to the benefit of businesses near people who feel a tribal kinship towards them, while these businesses hope that foreigners don't have such feelings towards their local businesses.

So, which is better: Buying a foreign-made product from a local business, or buying a locally-made product from a foreign business?

And all of this ignores the entire issue of what is "local" anyway. With inputs from every part of the globe, it is nearly impossible to completely discern the pedigree of any product. A book might have a local author, paper from Canada, a publisher in a different state, assembly from parts made in China, and be sold in yet a different state.

In the end, we all buy local -- but really buying local is an incoherent idea and a waste of time.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Which is More Useful: Empirical Data or Human Judgment?

Let's say you're a physician and you prescribe a medication to a patient. This medication has known side effects, but the patient reports a side-effect that seems impossible to ascribe to the medication.

Which would you initially feel more comfortable believing:

A) The patient is reporting a symptom unrelated to the medication (your bias: empirical data), or

B) The patient is suffering from a heretofore-unknown side effect (your bias: human judgment).

Now let's say that you just charted a driving route with a mapping program, and a person familiar with the area sees the computer-generated route, and says, "I drive around there all the time and know of a faster route."

Which would you initially feel more comfortable believing:

A) The program, using mathematical algorithms free of human bias, is correct (your bias: empirical data), or

B) The person, with knowledge that the computer doesn't have, is correct (your bias: human judgment).

In both cases, the empirical data derived from the agglomeration of large quantities of data and objective measurements is free of human biases; e.g., the patient might be a hypochondriac, and your motoring friend might be avoiding the best route because of one or two bad experiences. both cases, the empirical data was also generated by humans -- humans who can easily overlook critical factors when assembling data. And the empirical data was processed by a quick-calculating, but nevertheless very dumb, piece of electronic equipment that cannot consider any factors beyond what humans fed it.

So, the answer is: There is no simple answer; just consider the quality of your sources.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

How Can We Achieve Equality?

Equality can be achieved by implementing a totalitarian police state that will ensure that no one is better off than anyone else, no one has tastes or interests that differ from anyone else, and no one has knowledge or abilities that anyone else lacks. The simplest (though certainly not effective) way of achieving this is through extermination of populations that are perceived as being better off; i.e., millions of dead Kulaks, Jews, Chinese, Cambodians, and so forth were the products of the better-off getting what they had coming to them. When faced with someone "better off", it was much easier to equalize things by killing them instead of emulating them. However, the exterminations never achieved their goals, and we have yet to reach a condition of a perfect ant-like existence -- where everyone is identical and has no desires other than to kill themselves in defense of their leader.

In the USA, there are no mass exterminations -- but there is an ongoing popular movement to increase equality. We have "Two Americas", we have "the common good", and we have demagogues inciting the masses over the differences between CEO and "worker" salaries. Our ever-increasing standards of living are ignored, and instead, we are encouraged to focus on how much better the next guy has it -- which is nothing more than pouring acid into the emotional open wound of envy. In different contexts, these demagogues would be committing the criminal offense of incitement to riot, but when spoken in the context of "justice" or "democracy" or some other feel-good vernacular, they come across as "compassionate" or "caring" or anything else that is the opposite of what they really are -- cynical opportunists creating crises where there are none, and counting on mob emotions to grant them power over others.

Is there any reason to suppose that equality is worth achieving? Would you want to wake up in a world where you are the same, or equal, to everyone else? Would you want to be treated the same way as everyone else, regardless of what you produce or what you desire? Would you want to be denied anything that might make you happier than anyone else?

When people are punished for being better-off, then why would they want to try being better-off? And how would anyone benefit when everyone loses the desire to be better off?

Saturday, March 17, 2007

What is the Difference between Policing and War?

Policing requires the use of retaliatory force (and to a much lesser extent, "preventive" force) to ensure that criminals, as individuals, are punished for crimes they have committed.

War is the use of force against a collective group to kill them, enslave them, and/or to prevent them from attacking.

From this perspective, policing is targeted at individuals, and war is targeted at groups. And, from this perspective, the natural inclination is to condemn all wars because they kill innocent individuals. (As an aside, anyone who feels that wars are unjustified under any conditions ought to be a proponent of assassinations, as only individual leaders would then be killed -- and not their innocent subjects.)

The trouble is: What to do when a collective army decides to declare war on your country? Should your army only target enemy soldiers who are suspected of actually harming anyone -- perhaps after each enemy soldier is tried by a jury of his peers?

And what if civilians on the enemy side "get in the way"? Should your army accept casualties to defend the principle of not harming the enemy's civilians? How many soldiers on your side are worth the life of an innocent enemy civilian?

Four questions:

1. How much of an increased risk to your life (and to your children's lives) would you accept to ensure that your army doesn't harm any innocent people on the other side?

2. How much increased risk do you think your enemy's civilians would accept to ensure that you and your children are not harmed?

3. Would you now care to change your answer to Question #1?

4. If you just changed your answer to Question #1, how do you think that would affect the way your enemy's civilians might change their answer to Question #2?

Sometimes policing is more effective, and sometimes war is more effective. And even then, no one really knows the answer until after the conflict is over.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Which is More Important: The Means or The Ends?

It depends.

Absolutists who say means are the only thing that matters (deontologists) can be found moralizing about how "wars, regardless of their aims, are always wrong, if even a single innocent person is killed."

Absolutists who say that the ends, or outcomes, are what matters (consequentialists) can be found moralizing about how "equality of wealth must be achieved, regardless of how much the rich are taxed."

Very often, the same people can be both absolute deontologists and consequentialists in the space of two sentences, as illustrated above. These people can fluidly go back and forth between philosophical poles in order to rationalize their predetermined conclusions.

In the first example, it would be interesting to ask the question, "Can a single person be killed if it can be demonstrated that one billion could be saved by such an action?"

In the second example, it would interesting to ask the question, "Would it be desirable to annihilate all but the poorest people in order to achieve equality?"

To be ideologically consistent in each case, while remaining indifferently oblivious to their own internal inconsistencies, they might very well answer "Yes" to both questions.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

How Can I Write In A Gender-Neutral Manner?

By using "his" instead of:

- His or hers
- Their
- One's
- The person's

His dog -- and not his or her dog. their dog, one's dog, or the person's dog.

In many languages, most nouns are considered either masculine or feminine. This categorization, to us, seems to be a vestige of some long-forgotten and primitive way of looking at the world. Why is a fork considered masculine in Burpian? And why is a hat considered feminine in Blemish? It seems nonsensical.

Or is it? Certainly, sophisticated languages such as French that routinely genderize neutral words could not possibly be considered nonsensical -- or "sexist". Then, why should English be singled out for its occasional genderizing of gender-neutral or gender-ambiguous objects?

Just as words like "turnip" and "cardboard" have genders in other languages by custom, English usually uses "he" to describe gender neutrality or ambiguity.

And yet, watch as people trip over themselves with semantic distractions with sentences like, "I hope that he or she will honor my receipt". Instead of making your point about getting a refund, you have distracted your audience to instead focus on the pronoun construction.

Like any other language (or actually, more than most other languages), English has lots of odd grammar and vocabulary rules -- in addition to seemingly illogical idioms. But fortunately, we all understand how words ending in "ough" are pronounced, we all understand that "goed" is not the past tense of "go", we all understand that "long in the tooth" means "getting old", and we all understand that "he" does not necessarily imply that the subject is male. It's a feature of the language, and not a "statement" about women.

People interested in interpreting innocuous language patterns as political expressions of victimhood might feel otherwise, though.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Mexico or Russia: Which is Poorer?

It's pretty close.

According to The Economist Pocket World in Figures (with the poorer country in bold)...

Male Life Expectancy: Mexico 73.7 Russia 58.7

Female Life Expectancy: Mexico 78.6 Russia 71.8

Adult Literacy: Mexico 71.9% Russia 99.4%

GDP per Head: Mexico $6,450 Russia $4,080

Unemployment: Mexico 2.5% Russia 7.8%

Inflation: Mexico 4.0% Russia 12.7%

Doctors per 1,000 People: Mexico 1.9 Russia 4.3

Hospital Beds per 1,000 People: Mexico 1.0 Russia 10.5

Color TVs per 100 Households: Mexico 90.5 Russia 75.2

Telephone Lines per 100 People: Mexico 17.2 Russia 27.5

Mobile Phones per 100 People: Mexico 36.6 Russia 51.6

Computers per 100 People: Mexico 10.7 Russia 13.2

Mexicans are less educated, and have fewer phones and computers. But Russians have less money and fewer TVs.

The interesting statistic (to me, at least) is how Mexicans have only half as many per capita doctors and one-tenth (!) as many hospital beds, but Mexican men live fifteen years longer than their Russian counterparts.

In any case, it's pretty easy to see what the future holds for both nations:

Mexican Birth Rate: 22.4, Mexican Death Rate: 4.5

Russian Birth Rate: 8.6, Russian Death Rate: 16.0

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

How Can I Look Like an Expert?

An expert knows how to establish a reputation; here's how to do it:

1) Find an event whose outcome is almost assured, and loudly predict that outcome every time. For example, find the name of your incumbent political representatives and predict that they will win. On average, if there is a 90% chance that incumbents win, then you will have a winning percentage of 90% -- and bragging rights! IMPORTANT: Don't be a smart-ass and randomly pick incumbents 90% of the time, and challengers 10% of the time; if you do, your winning percentage will drop to 82%. (In that case, you will correctly pick an incumbent .9 x.9 = 81% of the time, and you will correctly pick a challenger .1 x .1 = 1% of the time.)

2) Make lots of unlikely predictions. Once in a while (like the proverbial clock that's right twice a day), you will be correct. At that point, you should constantly remind others of your uncanny forecasting ability -- and they will frequently return to tap your expertise. No one will remember your losing predictions anyway -- and even if they do remember, those incorrect predictions will be dwarfed by your spectacular long-shot insights.

3) Use lots of jargon (preferably in Latin), name-drop, boast about your academic credentials and your years of experience, and condescend to your audience. If you have a European accent, use it! Never acknowledge that other views might be correct, never express any doubt, never display humor (though sarcasm can be OK) -- and if anyone questions you, feign disgust (unless disgust comes naturally). Be dismissive of others and make your impatience known when they speak; talk over them if you need to. And utilize Points #1 and #2!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Do People Have Free Will to Make Choices?


Granted, on a very low level -- maybe the molecular level -- all inputs into our brains might be transformed into deterministic outcomes. That is: It's certainly plausible that, because we are mobile bags of chemicals, our behavior can be predicted by a ridiculously complex mathematical model that no man nor machine can come close to comprehending.

So, in the most strict biological sense, your wavering between picking the Dr.Pepper or the Mountain Dew might be a "programmed" response comprised of quazillions of miniscule electrical charges and other teencie-weencie microscopic activities that you have no "control" over. In short, some people would say that every event must have some cause -- and that the bio-physical chain of events only gives us an illusion of choice.

All of which is irrelevant to the question.

When you are looking at, say, someone's face, you are seeing what they look like -- and your assessment of the face is based on the composition, expression, coloring, shape, and whatever else. Never mind that what you are really looking at are millions and millions of cells and chemicals and atoms and so forth -- which, when combined on a massive scale, only gives us the illusion of a face. A car's steering wheel doesn't actually turn the wheels; it instead triggers a chain of actions that give the illusion that the steering wheel is turning the wheels. But... you can recognize faces, and steer cars -- even if you don't understand how you got to that point.

You see where this is going.

When confronted with a choice between two beverages, the deterministic bio-physical components (if any), when summed, enable us to select either drink. Similarly, a pitcher and the hitter, trying to outguess each other, are actively making choices. If you've read this far, that was your decision to read.

The fact that no one understands how choices are made at the lowest levels doesn't matter. (Low-level brain activity is all speculation anyway, and no one even claims to understand the process -- if there is one.) Everyone who isn't brain-damaged can make choices. Maybe they make stupid choices, maybe they make seemingly irrational choices, but they can all make choices. Under the right circumstances, with the right incentives, everyone is capable of saying, "I'll take the Mountain Dew".

Sunday, March 11, 2007

What Happened in Iraq?

Let's illustrate this with a story.

There was once a block with some pretty bad neighbors. One man in particular was pretty nasty; he looked creepy, he threatened people in the neighborhood, and regularly beat members of his family. Then one day, he started talking about how he would start killing people in the neighborhood. Worse, a cable installer noticed that the nasty man was accumulating lots of weapons, and was threatening to use them: Guns, poisons, and even grenades. The police were notified of this, and then one day, they invaded his house -- and though they do not harm him, or even arrest him, they did pulverize his weapons.

The neighborhood was able to rest a bit easier, but the nasty neighbor continued his ways of beating his family and threatening others. Then, one day, he rounded up some friends and they invaded other people's homes. In one instance, they settled in, and declared that the house and its property was theirs. The police were called, and the nasty neighbor was told to go home. Again, he was not arrested or harmed; he was just told to go home.

That worked to some extent, but he continued to beat his family and threaten others. He even murdered some relatives. The police, concerned about this, set up a monitoring station near his house so that they could observe him. They couldn't see much, but they were something of a deterrent. The nasty man was still behaving in a threatening manner, but the aggressiveness lessened.

A few years went by, and then, on one sunny morning, some other bad neighbors went on a sudden killing spree. They carjacked some vehicles by cutting open the throats of unsuspecting motorists, and gunned down people mowing their lawns, children playing in yards, and anyone else they happened to see. They finally rammed their cars into a shopping center, killing everyone in the stores, and themselves. And shortly afterwards, many people in the neighborhood died from a poisoned water supply, though no one was able to figure out how the water became tainted.

The nasty man celebrated. And, despite what just happened, continued to threaten his neighbors. But now, with the whole neighborhood being very jumpy, they wanted assurance that the nasty man was not accumulating weapons again. And so, the police knocked on his door, asking to inspect his house. His responded by shutting the door tight and telling them to go fuck themselves. But instead of forcing their way in, the police kept knocking and pleading with him to please allow them to enter so that they can be assured that he has no weapons.

This went on for months. The nasty man was allowing his friends and relatives to come and go, but would not let the police in. Then, one day, some less-favored relatives escaped and told the police that the nasty man was in fact accumulating many weapons. Finally, the police issued a warning to the nasty man: Let us in, or we'll come in. Then, after weeks of police department meetings, consultations with other police departments, neighborhood association meetings, and consultations with people in different counties, the police gave an ultimatum, and finally entered the house.

They discovered many corpses buried in the yard. And as they took the nasty man away, some relatives cheered, while others (perhaps with "battered wife syndrome") swore vengeance on the police and the neighborhood. The police were violently attacked, and killed their attackers. But others got away. And, worst of all, new relatives started appearing from other parts of the neighborhood and attacked the police. While the police were defending themselves, they also searched the house, but could not find any weapons beyond a few knives and a pistol or two. Some speculated that the weapons might have disappeared in the convoy of U-Haul trucks that would regularly come and go, but no one could prove it.

Not only were people in the Nasty Man's house attacking the police, but relatives and friends of the other bad neighbors came by to attack the police and threaten people in the neighborhood. Eventually, chaos ensued when the police were unable to tell who belonged in the nasty man's house, who was visiting, who was a threat, and who was not a threat. The police, with reinforcements from other counties, were already in the neighborhood, arresting the friends of the suicide crew in their homes, but even there, they could not tell who was a threat and who was not. The big picture: The police, apprehensive about arresting innocent people in the nasty man's house, instead became targets themselves. And the honest people in the neighborhood were still being threatened by friends of the nasty man, and friends of the bad neighbors.

And then something unexpected happened: The police from the other counties decided to leave. And people living in other neighborhoods and counties dropped their support for the honest people being threatened. Even worse: Many people in the neighborhood, who were the targets of the nasty man, who had neighbors and relatives murdered by the car-rental gang, and who were continuously being threatened, turned on their own police department. Rather than wanting the police to remove the threat to their lives, they instead wanted to the police commissioner to resign -- in fact, they wanted to fire him! They apologized to the other counties for causing trouble. They even went so far to say that the threats, the violence, and the murders in their neighborhood were the fault of the police commissioner.

While the police were standing by and being murdered by the bad people in the neighborhood, many law-abiding people went to the local precinct to protest. While the bad people in the neighborhood were threatening to take over their homes and kill them, too, these people cried that all would be better if the police just went back to the precinct house and did paperwork. And with police corpses being dragged out of the criminals' houses, these people kept insisting that they were protesting the police action to help the police; they insisted that they supported the police.

Eventually, a new nasty man, perhaps even nastier than the first nasty man, made himself known. He openly stated that he was building the most lethal weapons known to man, and that he intended to use them to wipe his neighbors off the map. "Imagine a world without my neighbors," he would say. And he would send his friends around town to murder people by firing at them from adjacent yards. And everyone else in the neighborhood responded by ignoring him, and getting angry at the police commissioner for thinking about how to respond. Many people in the neighborhood, and everyone in other neighborhoods, became obsessed with hating the police commissioner and also hating the few people in the neighborhood who realized that they were the targets of these threats.

The story ends, so far, with police still being killed in the nasty man's house -- and with apparently little inclination to enter the new nasty man's house.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

How Should I Confront Certitude?

There are times when people actually have good cause to be certain of things; this is not about them. It's about people who exhibit the obnoxious trait of continuously being certain about most everything, without justification.

Some people might consider their certitude a technique towards "winning" their every conversation. Others might worry that any doubt will make them appear inferior next to a seemingly brighter interlocutor. Some might feel brilliant if they feel like they know everything. Others feel comfortable in world that is simple and unambiguous. Some are delusional. And others might simply just not want to think much about anything.

Regardless, it can be a very annoying trait -- and the most extreme cases should be avoided.

But sometimes, we find ourselves confronted with certitude that cannot be walked away from. How should this be handled?

Well, it should not be handled by presenting refuting evidence -- unless, of course, you just want to be provocative; a genuine certifoon cannot be persuaded of anything that is contrary to his beliefs.

There are, however, two approaches that can lessen the onslaught -- and each is dependent on whether the certifoon's proposition is testable.

If it is testable (e.g., predictions of interest rates, sport outcomes, elections, etc.), then you need to ask the certifoon how much he is willing to wager on his prediction. Or, to emphasize your point, just offer him one dollar if his prediction turns out to be correct. And also ask him how much he will surrender to you if his prediction is wrong. And then ask him why he is not offering more than whatever he just put up.

This technique will not work if your certifoon is also a cheapskate. Few things are worse than a certiskate. This technique will also not work if he brings up irrelevant moral platitudes like how "you cannot put money on such a thing".

If the certifoon's proposition is not easily testable (religious dogma, silly medical advice, common superstitions, etc.), then ask him what it would take to get him to change his mind. If you get an answer, then you might have made some progress. If the answer is "nothing can change my mind", then the conversation is over.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Should the Government Sanction Homosexual Marriages?

No, the government should not sanction homosexual marriages.

That answer would upset many people.

But those who object to that answer would probably feel better if the phrase was appended with, "...and neither should the government sanction any marriages."

There, all better. Homosexual marriages would still be unrecognized, but with universal un-recognition, it's now palatable. It makes you wonder whether the demands for gay marriage are more related to A) A desire to be married, or B) Envy of heterosexuals.

Regardless, why should any association between two (or more) people be the business of the government? If the minister (or priest or rabbi or Fred's Marriages Inc.) make the relationship "official", then what interest could the government have...besides the IRS?

Many heterosexuals find the thought of homosexual sex disgusting. But then, there are undoubtedly many homosexuals who find heterosexual sex disgusting. And there are many (probably most, actually) homosexuals and heterosexuals who find dead-animal necrophilia disgusting. But as long as no one is compelled to participate in acts that they don't like, then why should anyone care about what others do? And most of all, why should the government care? Why should they be in the marriage business?

Or was that already answered?

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Does Public Transportation Save Energy?


Public transportation, like any other activity, uses energy. But the implication of the question is that public transportation uses less energy than the alternative of no public transportation.

But this is also false.

Let's make optimistic assumptions about public transportation; i.e., assume that it's widely used -- and buses are packed with people around the clock. For that matter, let's also assume that every one of these people would have otherwise used the most gas-guzzling vehicles they could find.

Those public-transportation people therefore use less energy than if they drove instead. And that implies that the supply of energy sources (like, say, oil), would not be depleted as quickly. And that would keep oil prices low; i.e., more oil = low oil prices.

So far, so good: Public transportation looks like a "winner".

But...those low oil prices would induce motorists to use more energy, leaving us back where we started, energy-wise. And if the government artificially keeps oil prices high with lots of taxes to "conserve" oil, then oil will become more abundant elsewhere in the world, like, say, China. The oil will still be used, but not by us.

Also, an unintended (?) result of subsidized public transportation is that it artificially raises the demand for all travel -- and that in itself increases the total amount of energy used by all transportation. For that matter, transit "advocates" constantly claim that highway congestion cannot be solved by constructing new highways because the new highways will fill up almost immediately. Well, if that's the case, then why wouldn't the empty highways resulting from nearby public transportation construction also fill up almost immediately?

Why should it be a government policy to encourage people to use transportation more than they would without taxpayer-supported "incentives"? If the goal is to use less energy, then shouldn't the government be
discouraging transportation? And yet, public-transportation users are not expected to pay their way. (And, in all fairness, neither do motorists -- there are hardly any road-user prices anywhere.)

So, it looks like public transportation has no effect on the total amount of energy used, increases the amount of energy that transportation requires, and presents a large bill to taxpayers.

None of this is to imply that public transportation (or, more accurately, mass transportation) is intrinsically bad, but the claim that it saves energy is false.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Does Proximity to a Lake Cause People to Have Colonoscopies?

There is a weak, though statistically significant correlation between the two. Specifically, an increase in a state's area under water is associated with an increase in the percentage of people over the age of fifty who have colonoscopies.

Therefore, in order to encourage more people to have colonoscopies, we should increase the size of lakes -- or somehow submerge more land under water. Artificial flooding would probably do the trick -- or perhaps increased carbon emissions would lead to health-improving global-warming floods.

But then, maybe we have cause-and-effect reversed. Perhaps an increase in colonoscopies results in more land-under-water; colonoscopies might be a bigger threat to the environment than the aforementioned carbon emissions!

Or, could this all be coincidence? In fact, I went to
StateMaster, and arbitrarily selected the "Percentage of Area Water" statistics. Statemaster then spit out a long list of correlations with related (and seemingly unrelated) variables, and "Colonoscopy Testing" just happened to be on the top of the list.

No matter how often we hear "correlation is not causation", it never quite sinks in.

Maybe this should be called the "correlation-is-causation" bias.

Makes you think about the relationship between human activity and global warming, too.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Do Military Hospitals Provide Good Care or Poor Care?

It depends on when you ask the question.

Last year, authoritative economist Paul Krugman declared, in an enthusiastic endorsement of socialism, that the Veterans Administration Hospitals provide better care than private hospitals.

This year, people of a similar ideological bent are blaming the numerous problems of the Walter Reed Medical Center and the Veterans Hospitals on President Bush.

It makes one wonder why they didn't attribute last year's superior care to President Bush, and this year's failures to socialism.

One innocent possibility is confirmation bias, where all evidence appears to confirm one's preconceived conclusions. Or, a more malevolent explanation would be that these people will cynically use anything for propaganda -- although they secretly know that these examples aren't sufficient to support their conclusions.

And in any event, is it really possible for a huge bureaucracy like the Veterans Administration to change so much in only one year?

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Are Americans Religious?

Not particularly.

Although 92% believe in God, 85% believe in heaven, 82% believe in miracles, 71% believe in hell, 63% believe there is a devil, 44% believe that God is male, they are not religious in the sense that they blindly follow everything in The Bible.

It's easy for them to hold those beliefs because none conflict with their hard-wired sense of morality. That is, they select sections of The Bible that don't conflict with their civil lifestyle.

For example, I suspect that few "religious" people (at least, Christians and Jews) would condone putting people to death for working on the sabbath, or for being a homosexual, or for being insolent to a parent. In fact, if you do a Bible text search on the phrase "put to death", you can see dozens of capital offenses that, I think, few people would approve of. It's a long list: Adultery, sex with a daughter-in-law (which returns a death sentence for both parties), bestiality (Fido also gets the death penalty), claiming to be a "wizard", anyone who attempts to dissuade you of a belief in God, anyone who rejects the God's Commandments, blasphemers, and all sorts of other transgressions that I can't understand because the prose is too incoherent.

But there are certainly many references to blood, stoning, eye-gouging, "smiting with iron" -- and enough other violence to ensure that any decent Christian or Jew would not permit their children to view a literal reenactment, assuming that they could stomach these things themselves. Better to believe in the abstractions, and live a life free of literal interpretation -- as civilized people tend to do.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Is The Army as Incompetent as The Post Office?

Probably yes.

But the Post Office isn't that incompetent; the mail does seem to be delivered reasonably well. The problem with the Post Office is that it is inefficient, as it operates outside corrective competitive forces -- and the result is an expensive service that has reduced incentive to be innovative. Similarly, the Army is also very inefficient, as it also operates outside market forces -- and there are probably many instances of the military wasting money on expensive contractors, as well as sacrificing quality with low-bid contracts.

But there are also differences between the two entities: The Post Office, if open to competition, would have to deal with UPS, FedEx, DHL, and other private delivery services -- and might very well be forced out of business as a result. But the Army is not about to be replaced with Joe's Militia, or to keep the analogies straight, the United Military Service.

So it then comes down to the question of: If the postal service (or the INS, or the Department of Energy, or the DMV, or any other lethargic bureaucracy) cannot be trusted to provide a decent service, then why should we trust the Army to protect us? There are three answers to that:

1) The inefficient U.S. Army doesn't need to be as capable as a well-run private business; it only needs to be better-run than the enemy's inefficient army.

2) Unlike tasks like processing learner's permits, many people (especially males) are hard-wired to excel at fighting to protect their tribe. That is, going to war can be much more than "just a job".

3) Trusting your army to protect you is better than trusting the enemy's army to protect you after they have won.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Which Substances are The Most Addictive?

None. No substances are addictive; "addiction" is a behavioral trait that is a function of how badly someone wants something else, and is therefore related to the person -- and not the object that they crave.

Some people like cigarettes, some like heroin, and some like alcohol. Others like coffee and others like chocolate. Some like skiing and some like golf. And they have the choice of indulging their preferences or not. They have a choice. They can be self-disciplined and indulge in a sensible amount of their craving, or they can be reckless and overindulge.

But rather than assigning responsibility to those who suffer the negative consequences of overindulgence, we often excuse their behavior by blaming the substance instead. We say that they "can't help it" because the substance is "addictive" -- transforming their personality weaknesses into badges of victimhood, and thereby absolving them from responsibility for their behavior.

And what happens if the addictive substance or activity is not available? Deprived heroin users have mild flu-like symptoms, and deprived cigarette smokers feel agitated. And yet, somehow, cigarette "addicts" fly for twelve hours without a smoke. For that matter, people routinely suffer the consequences of non-indulgence when the payoff is sufficient; e.g., sleep-deprived people disturb their rest by getting up early to go to work, athletes play while in physical pain, and pregnant women reject all pharmaceuticals.

And what exactly does the alcoholic have to endure when being deprived of his next drink?

Thursday, March 1, 2007

What is Meant by the Term "Cheapskate"?

A cheapskate is someone values their possessions (money and otherwise) way beyond what they are actually worth, and is therefore highly reluctant to surrender any of it -- even if, by objective standards, they would materially gain.

It's actually an extreme case of the "endowment effect" that goes well beyond a normal person's apprehension over discarding, say, a shirt that hasn't been worn in years.

A cheapskate crosses the line when someone else is denied an opportunity to gain from a trade. For example, if you keep an old book around collecting dust, no one else is really affected much. But if the book has a unique feature (out-of-print), and you have the opportunity to trade it for something that is even more valuable to you, then you are depriving yourself of a material gain -- and you area also depriving someone else of having that book that he might really want.

Another example: You have plans to have dinner with someone but cannot bear the thought of paying, say, two dollars for a drink -- and so, you instead insist on eating in a roach-infested dive "on principle". In fact, the only principle is that you have trouble parting with fifty cents, even if it means a risk of poisoning yourself and the other person. The "principle" is exposed as a hoax when you accept the other person's offer to buy the drink for you.

And at that point, you are thought of as a "cheap son of a bitch".