Thursday, February 28, 2013

To err is human

At work today the TV showed live footage of the Pope on his last day in office. Most of it was unblinking footage of his white helicopter ride to Castle Gandolfo, but what was stuck in my mind was the concept of papal infallibility.

It turns out, this does not mean the Pope in incapable of making a mistake. What it does mean, however, is that it is impossible for him to make and error when he speaks in his capacity as leader of the Catholic Church on issues of doctrine, faith and morals.

Still, that means a two-legged mammal is incapable of making a mistake because of his title. This idea, even when coached in limited terms, is completely absurd and I don't understand how any human being could ever take it seriously for a moment.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


Imagine my surprise today when I read the name of my favorite economics podcast while browsing Joystiq, the only video game news blog I read.

This week's EconTalk episode is an interview with Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis, who became Valve's economist in residence last year. Valve has produced some amazing games like Portal, Half Life, Team Fortress and Left 4 Dead and Varoufakis was brought on to help create a shared currency within multiple games.

Check out the Varoufakis's summary of the Valve structure, it's a great interview and an interesting way to run a business.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Glenn Beck makes retro mistake

Glenn Beck had an interesting choice of words with his reality-free accusation that the Newtown shooter thought he was playing Call of Duty.

For someone under 50 he's incredibly out of touch, as revealed by remarks like "He believed every kill would increase his score."

What score would that be, as they are often absent in modern games. The shooter had those video games because everyone his age has those games. It's like saying all the recent shooters were known to drink water on occasion.

Maybe Beck could have said the shooter was hoping to get an achievement?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Gun control and the copy left

After reading yet another article about how 3-D printers threaten to make gun control obsolete I started to wonder: Will this issue blast a division in the pro-piracy, anti-copyright, Wikileaks-supporting Aaron Swartz-mourning community?

I associate the anti-gun control mindset with an older, more rural demographic than the young tech-savvy student demographic that wants file sharing to be unheeded and the two have little overlap. How would they handle this situation when files to make weapons get shared in 3-D printer collections?

I doubt they would be willing to turn to the authorities and risk having their whole ecosystem shut down. Would it be self-policing? I imagine that's how they handle child pornography now.

Does anyone have any insight on this inevitable issue?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A pox on both your houses

Maine elected officials had a recent dust-up with the Bangor Daily News over concealed weapons holder data and both sides displayed armor-piercing grade arrogance.

Disclosure time: I was an intern for the BDN and I have friends that work there. As a result, I witnessed a more shrill tone from private communications than what Maine's second largest newspaper presented publicly.

The BDN made a legal request this month for the personal information of concealed weapons permit holders in the state. This includes names, ages and addresses. Under a Maine law passed in 1985, the state was required to hand the information over.

However, it didn't. Officials and critics referenced the time in December when a New York newspaper posted an interactive map of concealed weapon permit holders; presumably to capture more of the criminal reader demographic by "casing the joint" for them. This put a lot of people at risk, especially people without concealed weapons who were labeled easy targets.

I believe the BDN editors when they say they had no intention to produce such a map, a move they called "irresponsible." They wanted to use it in an analysis. Sadly, this is where they went wrong.

The attitude of BDN staff was that it was blindly irrational for the public to criticize their request because they honestly, truly weren't going to print it. One of my BDN friends posted on Facebook that the point of newspapers was always to "gather" information.

No it isn't, the point is to publish information, not hold secret data banks for our own records.

What irks me is the naive way the BDN expects trust to work. Trust must be earned, it can not be commanded or expected automatically. As a reporter I constantly have to earn the trust of people I wish to interview. Many of them have been burned by a reckless reporter in the past and they will hold that grudge forever.

Wasn't "Just trust us" the mentality of the Bush administration? The public is right to be distrustful of such attitudes.

The BDN editorials skew left and it's no surprise that gun lovers would take issue with the BDN obtaining their personal information. Just look what the BDN did intend to do with the data:

The BDN requested the records of concealed weapons permits as part of long-term reporting projects on domestic violence, sexual assault and drug abuse... We intend to use this information about permits, along with other information sets we are gathering, to analyze possible correlations relevant to our reporting projects.

With that sort of framing there's no way this could look good for concealed weapons holders. Newsrooms contain very few mathematicians and even newspapers as big as the New York Times make absurd Naomi Klein-style errors in their attempts at breaking down data. If the BDN analysis made concealed weapons holders look bad, it would run on the front page. If it didn't, the story could be "killed" or buried inside the paper.

Emergency legislation went too far

I can't blame law-abiding members of the public for objecting when a corporation wants their personal information. I can, however, blame Gov. Paul LePage, the house and senate for passing unethical legislation in response.

Even though the BDN caved to pressure and withdrew the data requestLePage pushed emergency legislation to make concealed weapons permit data private. I don't have a problem with that, but the legislation was applied retroactively and was stated as such before the BDN withdrew. I have a serious problem with that.

The BDN made a completely legal request and state law required public officials to hand it over. Retroactive legislation is sinister as it takes legal actions performed by members of the public and makes them illegal, inviting unpredictable results. I would like to see the data in question made private, but that should have been done decades ago and it was too late once the request was filed.

The state also got an e-mail request for the data when the issue got big and the retroactive rule impacted that request. It's plausible that the BDN would not have withdrawn the request if the insidious retroactive portion was not announced the day before.

By the way, the Democrats have a slight majority in both the house and senate The senate voted 33 in favor of LD 576 and 0 opposed. The house voted 129 in favor and 11 opposed. This is not just an issue of LePage and his pistol-packing GOP posse behaving badly. This is almost everyone in Augusta acting out.


Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Choose Canadian

Look out, American localists, the Canadians want to play too and they aim to stop your precious exports. Man the nationalist battlestations!

The entire message is a tossed salad of lies. The most amusing one is its use of "we" instead of "you" when referring to Canadians, as Hellmann's mayonnaise is owned by UK-based Unilever.

I wonder if actual people with actual blood pumping into their brains think it's a problem that icy Canada imports most of its fruit.

If the audacity of this localwashing wasn't enough for you, look at the sneaky fine print at the bottom of the official page:

This website is directed only to Canadian consumers for products and services of Unilever Canada. This website is not directed to US consumers or any other consumer outside Canada.

Do not pay attention to the man behind the curtain, American consumers. Keep buying local and ignore our advice to Canadians to break off commerce with your producers.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Follow-up on secular poverty cures

I'm writing to make some corrections and clarifications on several details from last week's article about realistic ways secular and skeptical groups can go about fighting poverty, which included heavy criticism of a David Hoelscher piece that sought to corrupt those movements with Marxist doublespeak.

In a private message Debbie Goddard suggested that "demand" was too strong of a word to describe her attempts to include an education focus in secular activism when I wrote "I've previously criticized demands for skeptics, atheists and secular people to [fight other causes]." Fair enough. I had other people in mind when I wrote that sentence, as some people are demanding that third-wave feminism should become a central aspect those movements. I did not intend to imply Goddard was part of that group.

I stand by when I wrote that Goddard and Walker Bristol endorsed Hoelscher's piece. Goddard said she did not endorse it, but did agree with some of its points about Atheism+ falling short on its promise to fight for social justice. She referred to it as "...A provocative and substantive (i.e., worthwhile and quite long) article." I consider that an endorsement, but either way she did not specifically support the anti-capitalist sections.

Bristol wrote to clarify that my introduction mischaracterized his stance for working with churches to fight inequality. His stance is not to work like the churches do to fight poverty because it would increase prestige and win converts in the black community, but to work with the churches to fight inequality because they are effective.

In a blog comment to my piece, Hoelscher informed me that I got his stance on a Noam Chomsky quotation backwards. Rereading that area, the previous paragraph tells us that classism shows up in unexpected places so the Chomsky quotation was intended to be criticized. That was my mistake.

Of course, this didn't have anything to do with the focus of the piece. The Chomsky error was one of several examples intended to demonstrate Hoelscher's insistence that secular and skeptical activists need to fight capitalism. Two hours after he wrote his comment he posted this image on his Facebook page.

Of course, his intention with the Chomsky quotation would have been a lot clearer if he had included any actual criticism of the remark. As it stands, this is what he he would have us believe is an obvious case of classism:

Take for instance Noam Chomsky. The New Atheist message, he once told an interviewer, “is old hat, and irrelevant, at least for those whose religious affiliations are a way of finding some sort of community and mutual support in an atomized society lacking social bonds.” If “it is to be even minimally serious” he continued, “the ‘new atheism’ should focus its concerns on the virulent secular religions of state worship” such as capitalism, imperialism and militarism.

I have no idea what Hoelscher's issue is with Chomsky and he didn't try to explain it.

Hoelscher's essay is a perfect illustration of "Modern English" as described by George Orwell in Politics and the English language. The writing is snaggletoothed, meandering and pretentious and fails to convey ideas without hiding behind vagueness and impenetrable run-on sentences.

Of course, I would expect him to say his writing is clear as an icicle during a spring thaw and I lack the ability to understand him. I say the Emperor has no clothes. It's up to the reader to determine which is true.

Hoelscher also called me out for tossing a few rude words in to describe his views on economics. He right, of course, but I offer no apology. Anti-capitalism is an adolescent disease and I can give Bristol a pass because he's young but Hoelscher is a tenured professor and needs to be held to a higher standard. As I've said time and time again, there is no excuse to be a Marxist in the 21st century. These are dead-end ideas and the lessons of history are both fresh and clear. Honesty requires harshness in criticism of that position.

If he wants to be rude back, then I have no right to complain. Fair is fair.


Friday, February 15, 2013

A cohesive experience

This morning I was assigned to cover a summit on youth employment. The keynote speaker was a labor economist who spoke about the trouble high school students face when trying to get a first job and why it's so crucial to their future that they start working.

What stood out to me was how familiar yet foreign the concepts of labor economics felt. The presentation was upbeat, filled with solid information and easy to follow. It also used reasoning related to opportunity costs, moral hazards and signal theory in ways I was not used to. The experience was dazzling.

Imagine if everyone was assigned a collection of the same 100 Lego pieces and instructed to build something in private. After toying with your ideas for a while you come up with something and add it to a public display. You are then given a chance to see what everyone else came up with and are zapped by the surprise of what you see. Other people have taken those same pieces and arranged them in ways that never occurred to you.

Are there any other fields that offer that experience?


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How should secular people fight poverty

Debbie Goddard wrote an interesting piece last week that says promoting education should be an important goal of the secular movement.

I want to see the movement do more than pay lip service to the value of education. I’ve talked about this before, but I am frustrated that we-the-movement only seem to get involved with public education when a teacher puts Bible quotes on the walls of her classroom, when a football coach leads his high school team in prayer, when a science teacher spends time promoting intelligent design, when an administration prevents a student from starting an atheist club, or when a high school graduation is scheduled to take place in a church. Then we swoop in with our science advocates and Wall of Separation to make everything right…but don’t seem to worry about the fact that the high school’s graduation rate might be less than 50% and the shared science textbooks are older than the students.

I've previously criticized demands* for skeptics, atheists and secular people to engage in mission creep, such as to shift their focus away from their central themes and towards other causes that already have support movements. There's no need to retrace those steps, and Goddard did reiterate a good point from Walker Bristol that the black church gains a lot of its power from presenting itself as a force to combat poverty* and it is in the interest of secular groups to copy that approach..

So assuming secular groups should fight poverty what approaches should they use?

Bristol's concentration was on the Why and not the How, so he didn't name any specific approaches the way Goddard spoke of funding education scholarships. Unfortunately both* of them endorsed a piece in the fringe leftist publication CounterPunch written by philosophy professor David Hoelscher about class problems in atheist circles.

To be fair, I do remember thinking when I signed up for my first TAM, the biggest conference of the skeptics movement, that the high registration fees assume that everyone is rich.

Hoelscher started his sprawling essay with a quote from Karl Marx, which should hint at the quality of the rest of the piece. He later quotes Noam Chomsky favorably* as saying "'the new atheism should focus its concerns on the virulent secular religions of state worship' such as capitalism, imperialism and militarism." Later he wrote:

As the Marxist Terry Eagleton observes, there is something egregiously amiss when “[atheist] avatars of liberal Enlightenment like Hitchens, Dawkins, Martin Amis, Salmon Rushdie, and Ian McEwan have much less to say about the evils of global capitalism as opposed to the evils of radical Islam” and “most of them hardly mention the word ‘capitalism’ at all.”

So what are we to make of this, should secular groups who want to fight poverty spend their time fighting capitalism? Instead of asking a shallow philosophy professor, why don't we hear what economist Milton Friedman had to say on the subject:

...the question is how can we as people exercise our responsibility to our fellow man most effectively? That is the problem. So far as poverty is concerned, there has never in history been a more effective machine for eliminating poverty than the free enterprise system and the free-market.

But let's not kid ourselves, secular people who don't study mainstream economics are hostile to capitalism and market-based solutions and reject Friedman. It doesn't seem to matter that economists like Cass Sunstein have convinced modern progressives like President Barack Obama to view markets as an effect tool for organizing society. For example, in last night's State of the Union Address the president advocated market-based solutions to climate change. When it comes to economics, there are far too many secular people on the fringe.

It's also true that capitalism hasn't worked as a magic panacea everywhere, such as in the former USSR and chaotic poor nations. It has, however, worked to eliminate a lot of poverty in famous cases like Hong Kong, Sweden, Estonia, Singapore and Denmark. It even worked when brutal dictators tried it while keeping the rest of the country locked down in China and Chile. Compare West Germany with East Germany or South Korea with North Korea to see the difference between capitalist and anti-capitalist approaches.

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for eliminating poverty. If we knew of one beyond all uncertainty then academic economists would be advocating its adoption. With no sure-thing to advocate, here are some positions and actions for secular groups that I believe will reduce poverty:

* Promoting financial literacy for poor people. This could take the form of luring adults to free classes with free food, or raising money for public schools in poor districts to require a personal finance class.

*Addressing condom fatigue. I know that sex education is important for reducing unwanted pregnancies, which are a poverty-creating machine, but we can't keep looking at poor people as too stupid to understand how pregnancy works. Americans have access to cheap contraceptives and know plenty about them but many choose not to use them.

*Help increase the purchasing power of the poor through housing zoning deregulation, ending rent control laws, fighting price cartels like barber licensing and increasing access to affordable food.

*Promote international trade as a way to bring lower prices to poor consumers and increase the standard of living for poor foreign workers. For the exact same reasons, promote free and open immigration.

* Stop listening to economic know-nothings like David Hoelscher. Seriously, just close the browser window when he comes up. You have nothing to learn from him about economics except efficient ways to kill poor people.

We should never make zero-sum assumptions and think wealth in one place causes poverty in another. Poverty is the natural state of the world and it is through innovation and human cooperation that we are able to eliminate it. Some places just haven't had as much growth and have been left behind. Those of us who know about growth owe it to everyone else to share what our civilization has learned.

Adamantium Claws: I received messages from Goddard, Walker and even Hoelscher pointing out details I got wrong. I chose to preserve and asterisk them and the clarifications, responses and  admissions of errors are found here. None of these issues challenge or change my thesis in any way.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Only the White House defends drone strikes

I've seen a barrage of criticism dropped on President Obama this year about his lax rules on who to assassinate with a drone strikes, including NPR, the ACLU, The Daily Show, my liberal friends and now even Buzzfeed.

I think the Buzzfeed article is what brought it to critical mass. It's not fair to say that liberals are giving the O-man a pass on this issue because all one hears today is criticism of this plan from liberals. The only defense I have heard comes from within the White House.

So yes, if George W. Bush was still in office the left would be going crazy over this issue, but it's not like the Obama drones are endorsing Obama's drones. Maybe they'd be organizing more protests and recording stupid folk songs about it if there was a Republican behind it, but they aren't ignoring it either. I love pointing out liberal hypocrisy but it's not coming from the rank and file.

The only hypocrisy comes from the president himself. The sweetest part of this whole ordeal is that the even President Obama doesn't think this policy is a good idea, judging by the post-election New York Times story that started:

Facing the possibility that President Obama might not win a second term, his administration accelerated work in the weeks before the election to develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures, according to two administration officials.

I do need to separate myself from some of the other critics here. I don't oppose the United States using assassinations in the war on terror, and it doesn't make a difference to me if they targets are American citizen or not. By all means, Anwar al-Aulaqi needed killing. My issue is the method the O-man uses to approve the assassination and the lack of oversight or even judicial review that could influence further drone assassinations.

The president wants us to trust him, and by extension, everyone that takes office after him. That's a horrible way to run a country.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Ladies and gentlemen, this is it

He's got a T-bar, here it comes... Tetris!

This old promo tape is the world's second longest commercial for the Nintendo World Championships, right behind The Wizard.

The highlight for me is the announcer trying to pump life into a game of Tetris while the camera betrays him with footage of two dead-faced nerds going through the motions.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

The shame of modern communism

Yesterday I made a woman cry during an interview.

I was covering a naturalization ceremony where about 200 foreign-born residents were made American citizens and I interviewed a woman whose family fled the Ukraine in the late 1990's. Her father had been arrested and tortured for criticizing communism and he managed to flee with them when she was a teenager. She told me other people weren't so fortunate and then started to cry uncontrollably.

I write on here a lot about how much I detest Marxism, communism, socialism* and other anti-capitalist utopian fantasies, but I don't spend enough time hitting home how deadly serious these matters are. This woman's personal horrors that came rushing forward shows us what is at stake.

I think of most modern communists as hobbyists. They make shallow, empty-headed suggestions in favor of a communist state because they have no idea what they're talking about and lack the integrity to perform any real research on the subject. They think it's cute and novel.

They speak with the same tongue as the anti-vaccination crowd who tell us that medicine is worse than disease.

Their ignorance and indifference is a crime against humanity. They join activist groups like Worker's World Party, which supports North Korea, and International ANSWER, which sided with the Chinese military in the Tiananmen Square protests.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who survived a Soviet gulag, said in 1975:

There is a word very commonly used these days: "anti-communism." It's a very stupid word, badly put together. It makes it appear as though communism were something original, something basic, something fundamental. Therefore, it is taken as the point of departure, and anti-communism is defined in relation to communism. Here is why I say that this word was poorly selected, that it was put together by people who do not understand etymology: the primary, the eternal concept is humanity. And communism is anti-humanity. Whoever says "anti-communism" is saying, in effect, anti-anti-humanity. A poor construction. So we should say: that which is against communism is for humanity. Not to accept, to reject this inhuman Communist ideology is simply to be a human being. It isn't being a member of a party.

When I read of historic figures like George Orwell who believed in socialism, I cut them some slack because they did not have the hindsight of history to guide them. The modern socialist drones have no such excuse. In fact, they have to cling to bitter little lies like "true socialism has never been tried" to shrug off the lessons of human experience.

When I rewatched the first season of Spartacus I kept thinking how most of the gladiators saw gaining their freedom as the ultimate accomplishment and once they had it their lives would be nearly perfect. Yet, watching the show I knew I had my freedom and didn't think much of it. That's because I have the luxury of taking it for granted. The former soviet and eastern European new citizens I interviewed had a much different experience and cherished their new lives.

There isn't enough shame directed at the modern proponents of communism. Yesterday when I spoke to that woman these ideas that seem so abstract became, very, very real to me. If everyone had that experience, would anyone dare to pick up and carry those discarded ideas ever again?

*This is my boilerplate clarification that I am referring to actual socialism and not President Barack Obama or Denmark's welfare state.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Economics professors hate him....

...Blogger reveals thrilling accidental discovery that let's you master macroeconomics in just 10 days with this one weird, old trick.

I've seen a lot of these silly banner ads, like the mortgage ads that pair boring, standard text with a grotesque person's face or the 50 state car insurance ad that asks you to click your state and is inexplicably festooned with a crude drawing of a superhero.

This one below has to take the cake. I was following a link from Mike Munger's blog and had to stop to admire the gem that generated in the text.

What an amazing demographic target, I had no idea free energy conspiracy theorists and militia members were joined at the hip.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Buy Local myths at Skepticamp

My talk from last October at the New Hampshire Skepticamp event is now online.


Friday, February 1, 2013

Steve Novella takes on Atheism+

Steve Novella, who has the knowledge, experience, skills, temperament and clout to be recognized as the next leader of the scientific skepticism movement, wrote a piece this week explaining what the skepticism movement is and why he rejects the attempts to hijack it by people like PZ Myers who wish to turn it into a generic left wing movement.

I have never endeavored to tell other people what to do with their own activism. If Penn and Teller want to have a skeptical/libertarian show, that’s their right. They can do what they want. The Skepchicks combine feminism and skepticism, and PZ combines (by his own account) skepticism, atheism, and liberal politics. My view – let a thousand lights shine. At the end of the day, we are all skeptics. Let’s celebrate that, and we can still argue about our differences but let’s not pretend that any skepticism-plus is the one-true-skepticism just because it’s our own.

Novella is completely right. I run a blog that is both libertarian and skeptical, and I have never tried to say that being a skeptic means one has to be a libertarian. In fact I believe that there is logic and solid evidence behind some of the policies of libertarians, progressives and conservatives, even among those that challenge my world view. That is the nature of information.

The post was a reply to something PZ Myers wrote that included a remarks about economics and skepticism I agree with followed by some hubristic remarks about how anyone who disagrees with his personal politics is a pseudoscientific agent that should be purged:

Similarly, I can predict that skeptics will now struggle to exclude politics and economics from any debate; economics is notoriously fuzzy, and politics is wracked with extremes of opinion. But of course both fields do have hard evidence that can be addressed. Does the American political and economic system cause great hardship for many people? Does it promote stability and international cooperation? Are some of our expenditures unnecessary and others insufficient? Are there evidence-based alternative strategies that work better? Can we compare economies in different countries and assess their relative performance? 
And most importantly, should rational skeptics take a stand on these issues, discuss and debate them, and come to reasonable conclusions? I don’t think it’s true that they are unresolvable. 

PZ Myers is absolutely right that we should include economic topics in skeptical conversations - that is to say his words are absolutely right, but perhaps not his intention. I have been promoting the pseudoscientific nature of the "Buy Local" movement on this blog for three and a half years and have been trying to get it wedged in to a conference for a nearly as long.

Support of free trade and opposition to rent control are both economic policy positions backed by rock-solid scientific consensuses, so why not start with them?

However, I don't think that's what PZ Myers really meant. He assumes his crude anti-capitalist ideas are wise and expects that the science will support him. This is just another lame attempt for him to confuse his personal value judgments with metaphysical truth, and label anyone who disagrees with those value judgments as an interloper who needs to be purged.

Look what he went on to write:

Unfortunately, opening up the skeptic community to actually discussing these topics would lead to Deep Rifts that make the one over religion look insignificant. We’re riddled with wacky libertarians and their worship of the capitalist status quo (or worse, demanding a greater reduction in government and compassion). A libertarian speaker who openly espoused the opinions of a loon like Ron Paul — and there are people in this community who regard him as a saint — would pretty much guarantee a kind of noisy riot in the audience, and lead to a big chunk of organized skepticism decamping in fury. 

Which would probably be a good thing.

Novella's response to that was:

Perhaps I am misunderstanding what PZ is saying here, and if so please correct me, but this sounds an awful lot like a desire to purge the skeptical movement of those with a differing political outlook. I find it hard to see how this would be a good thing.

And PZ responded to that remark:

Yes, I apologize, I am being misunderstood. No, I’m not saying we should purge people with a particular political outlook. I am saying that the skeptical movement, just like the atheist movement, contains a largely irrational element that doesn’t really accept the principles Novella outlined.

Oh, we understood you just fine. This is not the first time he's said he wants to purge non-progressives from the secular and skeptical communities. He considers anyone who disagrees with his politics to be irrational. He just can't fathom that he could be wrong, even about something as complex as capitalism that lies outside of his area of expertise.He can't even distinguish between someone who opposes feminism and someone who opposes using skepticism limited resources to fight generic feminism battles.

The battle between Keynes and Hayek is a fight within economics by experts. It is not like the battle between evolutionary biologists and creationists where misinformed outsiders are up against united experts.

I'm glad Novella is speaking up.