Monday, May 30, 2005

Give Me That Old Time Religion (Not)

U.S. News last week had an editorial, er, article European, Not Christian about the declining Christian population in Europe (vs the opposite trend in the U.S.). The claims of the article were fascinating. They boiled down to:
Increased Religiousness = Good
Increased Secularism = Bad

According to the article, unnamed "numerous analysts" suggest declining church attendance "is tied to a Europe-wide spiritual malaise that is pushing the Continent toward broad cultural and economic decline." Conversely, "a growing part of the U.S. electorate - and not just those associated with red America - would like religious values to play an even more prominet role in shaping the nation's laws and public life." (Kinda like Sharia was in Afghanistan, I guess).

Further claims are made for the failure of "atheistic humanism" because it lead directly to "the rise of the worst ideologies of the 20th century, fascism and communism." This move in the 19th century to a "less dogmatic and more rational faith" apparently led to both World Wars. The only possible silver lining offered up was either a return to that old time religion, or a modern variant that is just as "mystical and ecstatic" but more non-hierarchical and populist.

Supposedly directly attributable to this "spiritual boredom" is a decline in reproductive rates, which also has the effect of shifting European demographics from Christian to Muslim. The religious population in Europe that is increasing is the Islamic population, primarily driven by immigration (and driven as well by the declining Christian devotees). This is alluded to as a threat by the author. (Why an increasing Muslim fundamentalist population in Europe is a threat, while an increasing Christian population in the U.S. is not, isn't made clear).

Now, the article didn't provide much (any) in the way of factual support for its assertions. But hey, since when did reality get in the way of closely held religious beliefs? (You know, reality isn't really subjective - believing something doesn't make it true. I'm reminded of a story I heard once about Niels Bohr. Niels supposedly kept a lucky horseshoe. When asked whether he really believed in such superstitious nonsense, he replied: "Of course not, but I understand it works even if you don't believe in it." Like quantum mechanics. Or evolution.)

The parallels to the Red State/Blue State arguments I found interesting. (You know, the ones that go "Are you for a return to moral values, or do you support a rudderless secular elite liberalism that hates America?"). In these arguments, a correlation is claimed between the decline in church attendance (with its corresponding assumption of dedication to dogma), and an increase in a wide variety of perceived societal problems.

Since I was aware of the horrors that historically have occurred almost every time government and religious devotion combine, my distrust of these statements was immediate. (you know, jihads, crusades, inquisition, 30-years war - the whole appearance that monotheistic theocracies inevitably leads to atrocities)
Side Note - religious conflict causes wars. Wars cause most of the Four Horsemen ills of the world - conquest, famine, plague, death. And Tyranny.
Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes...known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. ... No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

— James Madison, Political Observations, 1795
But, given that I believe you should pursue the evidence wherever it may take you, I decided to withold judgement until I could do some investigation.

It was worse than I thought. Not only are the statements and the assumptions regarding the inferiority of the European standard of life vs. the US incorrect, just about every value judgement presented in this religious-tract-masquerading-as-an-article is also incorrect. In fact, it appears that pretty much the complete opposite of these claims is true - the more religious a society is, the worse the standard of living, literacy, gender equality, health, and life expectancy are.

In short, the data indicates a correlation between secularism and high standard of living (and conversely, religious adherence and low standard of living). Now, a correlation is just that - it doesn't presume that one factor causes another, it just indicates that the two factors are usually found together.

I attempted to gather facts about Europe, then Europe vs. the US, then finally stats across the world on various measures of standard of living.

Here's what I found. You tell me what it means.


A great analysis of intra-European standards of living from here. I'll quote most of it verbatum.
The Nordic countries are characterised by comparatively large government expenditures on social programmes, high rates of labour market participation, and limited financial dependence on the traditional family. Income disparities, class distinctions and poverty levels are the lowest in the industrial world; but the relative economic gap between generations is greater than in the rest of Europe, due largely to the early independence of young people.

The Southern European countries exhibit a pattern of relatively low expenditures on social programmes, heavy financial dependence on traditional extended families, and low levels of gainful employment, especially among women. Income disparities and class distinctions are quite pronounced and poverty levels are high, but the relative economic gap between generations is narrow.

The remaining European countries are intermediate in terms of both geographical location and institutional structure.

Figure 2 compares the European countries on the basis of a "traditional family index" comprised of five indicators, including average household size and the percentage of children below age thirty still residing in the parental home. The strongest traditional family patterns are to be found in Ireland, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece- all Catholic countries. The other extreme is exhibited by the Netherlands and the Nordic countries of Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Norway joins the remaining European countries to form the intermediate cluster on this dimension.

Figure 2 - Traditional Family Value Index 

A more general consideration is the size of the dependency ratio, i.e. the number of individuals aged 16-84 who are gainfully employed in proportion to those in that age-range who are not employed. A high dependency ratio means that there is a relatively large segment of the population which is not participating in the labour market, and thus requires support from the family or the state.

Figure 3 - Dependency Ratios 

Dependency ratios are influenced by a number of factors, including the population's age structure, gender roles and the demand for labour. Not surprisingly, dependency ratios correspond closely with the three type-clusters of European societies. The lowest ratio, 41, is that of Sweden, which has until recently placed the highest priority on full employment for both men and women. The highest dependency ratio, 111, is that of Italy, with its relatively widespread early retirement and traditionally low employment frequency among women.

As indicated in Figure 3, dependency ratios are low in all of the Nordic countries, and high in most of the southern countries. The two exceptions are the United Kingdom and Portugal, which in this respect are not included in the southern cluster due to comparatively high rates of female employment.

European Poverty Rates 

The poverty rate averages about five percent in the Nordic countries, between 18-27 percent in the southern cluster, and roughly twelve percent in the intermediate cluster. As a consequence of neo-liberal policies implemented during the past 15-20 years, the United Kingdom is sinking to the Southern European level.

Europe vs. US

(With some other country stats thrown in as available...)

Murder (per 100K)
South Africa 114.84
Brazil 22.98
US 5.61 (US runs from 5-10 since WWII link)
Canada 4.1
France 4.07
Italy 3.75
Monaco 3.33
Germany 3.23
Switzerland 2.41
Finland 1.71
UK 1.63
(2001 Interpol)

Rapes (per 100K)
US - 32.3
Brazil - 8.5
France - 16.0
Germany - 9.5
Italy - NR
(2001 Interpol)

Persons Incarcerated (per 100K):
Canada:114 (1999)
USA: 638 (WOW)
Russia: 632 (WOW)
France: 87

More 98-2000 crime stats here. A particular note for Swedish stats - Sweden reports more rapes and assualts then other countries because each one can be counted more then once. If a child if raped 1000 times over a 10 year perid then it is reported as 1000 rapes and 1000 assaults for the year that sick f*ck was finally caught. (See 1993 for a 25% jump in Swedish Rape statistics as this actually happens.) The same thing occurs for assaults. If 10 men beat one man then 10 assaults are reported.

Standard of Living

Real Per Capita GNP (1950/1980 = 1980 $)

Country Growth (%) 1950 ($) 1980 ($)
US 2 6,330 11,500
Canada 2.3 5,210 10,300
WG 4.9 3,170 13,370
Australia 2.9 3,960 9,400
France 4.4 3,360 12,160
Japan 7.4 1,060 8,900
U.K. 3.2 3,540 9,300

Even though the U.S. spends a higher per capita GDP on health care, it spends significantly less on public health.

Health Care Spending 

The U.S. had about the worst infant mortality compared to the 23 other wealthy capitalist countries, even though healthcare spending as a percentage of GDP was highest in the U.S. Note, though, that total healthcare spending as a percentage of GDP was not a very good predictor of infant mortality as a whole. Also, life expectancy of the European states was higher than the U.S. (link)

Vacations. Italians get 42 days of paid vacation every year, the French 37, the Germans 35, and the British 28. We Americans, meanwhile, take off only 14 of the 16 days to which we are entitled. Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that Americans also work a 49-hour-week, which adds up to 350 more hours of labor a year than the typical European worker. (link)_

Occupational Safety: About the same, with 4-5 deaths per 100,000 workers per year in both US and EU-25. However, in the US, this up from 2 per 100,000 just as recently as 1996 (correlated to cuts in OSHA?), and in the EU, this is driven primarily from the recent member states - the EU-15 has rates dramatically lower. (links here, here, and here)

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Europe doesn't seem to be suffering from a "broad cultural and economic decline," particularly in comparison to the U.S. (Please hold the "if you like it so much why don't you move there" 5-year old nyaa nyaa nyaa argument. I might consider it, but I'm only fluent in english - as opposed to many Europeans who learn a second language from grade school.)

The World and Religion

So the arguments of the article just don't hold up to the facts. While European "religiousity" is declining, the standard of living is not. I realize that there are recent reports of a change in the economic conditions of some EU nations, but data reported in real time tends to be somewhat inaccurate. Time will tell if this is true or not. Regardless, this secularization trend has been going on for some time - it didn't just happen in the couple of years since the economic numbers reported above.

But what about my provocative contentions that religion is actually detrimental? Well, I don't have as solid a base of facts to support this, but there is some interesting data that I think you can draw some conclusions from.

First, let's look at countries from the perspective of "How Religious" they are. One measure of this may be to examine how many atheists are in the country. ( link )

Alternatively, we can look at the religions referenced in the article and see which countries have the largest populations of Islamic , Christian , and Hindu.

Religions of the World 

Now, let's start looking at some stats on some countries and regions and see if we see any correlations.

Church Attendance 

Teen Pregnancy Rates 

No, those aren't the same map. Pretty darn close though.

What other interesting correlations do we see?

Illiteracy by Region 

Population Growth Rates 

Length of Education By Region 

Illiteracy in World 

I find these next charts particularly interesting. There is absolutely a correlation between education and standard of living.

Education and GDP correlated 

What's even more interesting in a world of primarily misogynistic religious dogma are the following maps. The first graph basically shows the same correlations we've been seeing, particularly between Europe and the U.S., that the less religious a country is, the more you have gender equity in earnings.

Male to Female Earnings Ratios 

What's particularly instructive about this next graph is that it shows that the more gender equality in education there is, the likelihood is that overall country GDP will be higher as well. Again, correlation doesn't show which is cause, and which is effect - but it is fascinating information). The implication is that the more the country subscribes to a religion which diminishes the female role in the economy and society, the poorer that society will be.

Gender Equality vs. GDP 


So, based upon the evidence presented, would you rather live in a country that is becoming more secular, or more religious?

But perhaps I'm phrasing the question in the wrong framework. It may not be religiousness, per se, that correlates with lower standard of living. It may just be that it is classical organized heirarchical religion that correlates this way.

As the article states, there are signs in all this "moral decline" of a "spiritual reawakening," even though the article's attempts to characterize this new kind of spirituality is vague. The kicker was me was the section which showed the Vatican pleased and almost smug with the unquestioned assertions of the article. One Cardinal states, "Those Roman emperors who wanted to get rid of us, where are they today?" Alluding of course to the fact that despite the decline in Europe, the Eternal Church just seems to keep on ticking in new parts of the world. (Although this quote just cracks me up - Rome, through Republic and Empire, was growing until Christianity became the "official" religion of the government with Constantine I, at which point the decline and fall of Rome came relatively quickly - from 1000 years of growth to about 100 years to fall once Christian.)

No matter how many times humanity attempts to replace religion with rationality, sacraments with science, dogma with deduction, we keep reverting back to "that old time religion." Despite crusades, torture, corruption, and pederasty, religion just keeps on keepin' on.

Apparently if we're all very lucky, we can reestablish the primacy of religion, return to a "moral life" more in keeping with the history of organized religion, and reverse the correlated trends in education, equality, health and lifespan and standard of living.

Majority Drool

In Texas, the Governor is Republican. So is 61% of the Senate. So is 58% of the House.

Given that the republican majority really need not compromise with the republican't minority on anything, the recent legislative session should give us an idea of exactly what the republicans care about, and what they don't.

(Legislation passed = "cares". Legislation not raised = "doesn't care". Legislation raised but not passed = "doesn't care, but wants to look like they do".)

Legislation Passed

  • $139.4B 2-year budget (estimated to be a $5B shortfall in 2007 - in fact, looking back 10 years ago when the republicans took control in Texas, Texans were complaining about how state spending had soared $40B, from $20.0 billion in 1984 to $63.2 billion in 1993. Now, here we are 10 years later and that $40B has been added again twice over, from $63 billion to $139 billion. This is fiscal conservatism hypocrisy at its finest. Well, ok, maybe the federal version of this is even more hypocritical...)

  • Privatization of the child-welfare system (we've seen how well privatization works in so many areas, from prisons, to social security, school systems, to energy policy, so let's put our children in the most critical and dire circumstances under the same stellar approach...)

  • Limiting Worker's Compensation

    Limiting Medical Malpractice

    Limit Asbestos Lawsuits

    (We all know that the real reason those poor insurance companies aren't getting richer faster is all these annoying people suing them to pay what the premiums said they should pay - if we can just limit this so that the really aggregiously injured can't get paid big bucks, then the insurance companies should be free to get really rich and improve the economy by, uh, trickle down, by uh, cutting premiums, which hasn't happened yet in any state that has put in place similar caps...)

  • Weaken qualification requirements for court appointed defense attorneys (really qualified attorneys shouldn't have to be the ones taking these cheap court appointed cases, so they can be free to get really rich, and improve the economy by uh, trickle down to their heirs...)

  • Cut $15/mo for nursing home residents (let the drug companies just provide more sedating drugs so they don't need as much attention...)

  • Cuts to textbook funds (after all, they only teach a bunch of garbage like evolution and the history of oligarchies and demaoguery...)

  • Requiring Parental Consent on abortions (because it's those teens who have a really close, caring relationship with their parents who get pregnant...)

  • Constitutional Amendment to Ban Gay Marriage (HJR6 we know that stable monogamous relationships are good for kids and the economy, and we know whether gays get married doesn't really affect us in any way, but those freaky gay people just scare us and we hate them...)

  • Almost $600M to kickback, er, attract new business (because somehow shifting the state income from corporate to personal taxes just isn't enough to show we care...)

  • Requiring all "Welcome To Texas" signs acknowledge fealty to President Bush (HB137)

  • Over 1000 bills recognizing special achievement (closing schools, wedding anniversary, eagle scout, retirement...)

Legislation Raised but not Passed: (ie, "eye candy")

  • School Finance Reform, including funding at least 50% of school operating expenses (HJR22, HB59, plus others - failed to bring state into compliance with the State Court Ruling of inherent unfairness of current funding approach - Texas Supreme court will now attempt to resolve starting July 6th)

  • Teacher Raises (because teacher's don't vote republican)

  • Ethics reform (because Tom Delay said so)

Session as characterized by Governor Perry. "We've got a worker's comp bill. We've got an asbestos bill. I don't know how big the mountain's go to be before we say, 'Heck of a session,' but we're really close to it."

It's good to know I'm not mischaracterizing this session. And republican legislative activity at the national level is the same, only even more extreme.

I guess what really pisses me off is that I used to vote republican. I thought that a strong defense and fiscal conservatism were rational choices for a sound and sustainable government. But strong defense has become strong offense. Fiscal conservatism means cutting only those programs that aid the lower class while increasing the debt burden on our children to unparalleled levels. Either I was badly deluded as to what republicanism was, or the party has been hijacked by a bunch of narrow minded, self-righteous, self-serving, hypocritical demogogues.

Or both.

* Sorry I didn't get all the legislation links in place. In trying to research the actual legislation text, I grew frustrated with how hard it was to find the information. I have a theory regarding why this is so, which falls along the lines of an ignorant populace is a controllable populace. I'm working on another blog on that - stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Idol Worship

Why are the world's major religions filled with idol worshippers?

(He's talkin' crazy talk again, Gladys)

No, really. All this talk of people in Afghanistan going nutso because somebody might have flushed a Koran down a toilet got me wondering What's up with that?. Really, offing 17 innocent people who were in the wrong country at the wrong time because someone might have used a stack of paper as a Roto Rooter.

There's more than one elevator not making it to the top floor over there. Someone doesn't have all his dots on his dice. The oil lamp is on, but nobody's home. Their camel is a couple humps short. A few dung bricks short of a full load. One tabouli short of a picnic.

This got me thinking (good thing something did), is Islam the only religion that worships manufactured goods to such a degree? I mean, sure, Tyler Durden pointed out that the Norse God Ikea claimed many western devotees, and you could certainly call Gotterdamerung Capitalism's devotion to consumerism a religion. Maybe we can term this Idle Worship.

But I'm talking about the Idol Worship of other more explicit theisms, like Catholicism, Judaism, Hinduism, and the like.

What's that you say? There are strictures in each that explicity reject idol worship?

You're right! In fact, it would seem pretty clear.

Counting down to Number 2 on God's Top Ten List, we have
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or is in the earth beneath, or that is in the waters under the earth; you shall not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them. (KJV - other modern variants here)
If you don't like old testament, Big Paul was pretty explicit too -
“They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” (Rom. 1:25)

Although a bit more vague, Hindus too have similar admonitions...
“No one has grasped him above, or across, or in the middle. There is no image of him whose name is Great Glory. His form cannot be seen, no one perceives him with the eye. Those who through heart and mind know him thus abiding in the heart, become immortal.” (Svetasvatara Upanishad 4:19-20, trans. by Max Müller, Sacred Books of the East, vol. 15, 1884)

Then explain to me all the crosses and morbid bleeding Jesus statues that take center stage of most western churches.

Explain the Byzantine Icons,medallions, beads, prayer wheels, and other miscellaneous trinkets.

Explain the Buddhas, and the Shiva, Kali, Vishnu, Ganesh statues that populate the eastern world.

Explain the reverence for a pile of pressed wood pulp and ink. (And I'm not just talking somber, reflective reverence. I'm talking the vehement, righteous, screaming, fire-from-above, agree-with-me-or-die kind of reverence.)

The rationalizations from each of these religions would do a circus contortionist proud. From "sacred symbols" to "visual aids to focus", each religion attempts to rationalize how, even though there are gazillions of their representative icons/idols laying about, and even though they regularly bow down and pray to these images, they're not really idol worshippers.


And I'm not really an asshole, either.

"I'm not really bad. I'm just drawn that way" - Jessica Rabbit.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


Subjective evaluation of relative significance; a point of view
The right perspective for the right problem. What is the proper point of view? It's interesting just how much perspective can influence one's decisions.


When you're driving a car, your perspective should include the moving objects and environment out to a few seconds distance. Any narrower perspective, and you don't see a change to react in time. Any wider perspective, and you aren't devoting enough attention to changes to notice and react in time.

If you're writing, be it code or prose or secret love notes to pass in class, your perspective is pretty narrowly focused on the screen, inward focused to the thoughts you're trying to express.

If a huge fist is coming at your face, your perspective narrows almost completely to the fist - the speed and direction of arrival, your kinesthetic sense of where your nose will be at the time of impact. You only think of why the fist was coming at you, what could have done to prevent it, and where you're going to find a cold compress for your cheek sometime after the moment, when you can afford the broader perspective without being so penalized. Such a broad perspective at the time of "The Coming Of The Fist" would not have been appropriate to solving the immediate problem.

Perspective must be flexible. Just as your eyes need to adjust the focal point of the lens to be able to clearly see objects inches away to objects on the horizon, your perspective must adjust to the appropriate scope to the problem at hand.

(To carry an analogy to a Bridge Too Far, like your eyes it's likely your perspective loses some flexibility later in life, and it gets harder to see either the Big Picture or something Right In Front Of Your Nose.)

But sometimes determining the correct level of perspective is difficult. Say you enjoyed your job, but there were some impending changes that made the job really unattractive. One perspective, the day-to-day perspective, says to stick around, see how it goes, you need the money and you have to work somewhere anyway.

A slightly broader perspective says Life Is Too Short, that though leaving would entail some risk and perhaps financial loss, every day that goes by where work sucks is another day you can never get back - that you must Carpe that Diem and launch yourself into the big unknown.

An even broader perspective might say What Does It Matter, that in a million years humans will be extinct, that what you do or where you work won't have a speck of impact on the universe, So Just Fuckitall. The decision here could be similar to either of the prior two - FuckItAllItDoesntMatter so I'll just take the path of least resistance and keep plodding along Status Quo. Or. FuckItAllItDoesntMatter so let's just quit and See What Comes Up.
The ability to perceive things in their actual interrelations or comparative importance
How do we know when we're seeing the actual interrelations or the true comparative importance?

What's your perspective?

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Body Power (and the female orgasm)

How cool is this?

The technology to generate power from glucose in the bloodstream has tremendously exciting possibilities. This is a battery that keeps on ticking as long as you do. If you're providing glucose to your ATPs, then you're providing glucose to this tiny generator embedded anywhere there's a blood supply.

What can we already power today with 0.2 watts of power?

Continuous connectivity. GSM Microcells and Picocells only require about this level of power. You could literally have a cell phone implanted in your ear. (Actually, probably something in the jaw using bone conduction would work better for both microphone and speaker). There are already wireless lan cards that work on this amount of power.

Embedded computing. Already there are processors that run on less that 200 mW. (Heck, even a few years ago, IBM was putting out chips like this - who know's what's cooking in the labs now?) Aside from the obvious medical monitoring implications, you could run onboard computers to augment senses, provide ready memory augmentation - anything a general purpose computer could do, you could do inside your body. (Picture the SAT of 2020 - "Ok, class, please turn off all onboard processors for the duration of the test. EMF monitors will be running, so don't try to cheat...)

This is a transhumanist's wet dream.

(I was very tempted to spend some time writing on another interesting scientific finding regarding the Secrets of the Female Orgasm, but after hours of attempting to stimulate my brain, nothing really came to me...)

Rather Be Lucky Than Good

I've always said,
I'd rather be lucky than good.
Luck has gotten me out of a lot of situations that no amount of being good ever would.

Luck is another one of those terms that is hard to define, but "everyone knows" what it means.

For instance, if you win the lottery (the big multi-million dollar one, not that piddly ass scratch and sniff shit), are you lucky?

Of course you are. Silly question.

OK, how about if you have a pretty good life, good job, nice wife and kids, then win the lottery, then become a rich asshole, have your kids kidnapped for ransom, and have your wife run away with your accountant, taking most of your future lotto payments with her.

Are you still in the "lucky" category?

According to this book I've been reading, the answer is - it depends.

The book is The Luck Factor, by Richard Wiseman. I happened to run across it pretty randomly when looking at some Amazon "Customers Who" links (you know, like - "Customers who viewed The Secret World Of Extreme Body Modification also viewed Back Pain Remedies for Dummies).

Some lucky break, huh?

Anyway, according to Wiseman, whether or not you are a lucky person depends in no small part on your attitude, and how you look at unfortunate events. (This is actually principle four - see below). And learning how to influence your luck could be a very useful bit of trivia to tuck away.
... luck plays a massively significant role throughout many different aspects of our lives. Luck has the power to transform both our personal and professional lives.

Wiseman has done some very interesting experiments and tried to rigorously (ok, as rigourous as psychology experiments ever are) determine why some people are lucky, and some people are not.
For over one hundred years, psychologists have studied how our lives are affected by our intelligence, personality, genes, appearance, and upbringing...very little work has examined good and bad luck. I supsect that psychologists have avoided the topic because they prefer, quite understandably, to examine factors they can measure and control more easily. Measuring intelligence and categorising people's personalities is relatively straightforward [oh really? - Ed.], but how do you quantify luck and control chance?

It's pretty interesting. He managed to rule out psychic phenomena, intelligence, and a few other factors that had no statistical correlation with being lucky. However, he also managed to identify some factors that are strongly correlated with being lucky. The way he characterizes the primary factors is a list of four:

  • Lucky people create, notice and act upon the chance opportunities in their life

  • Lucky people make successful decisions by using their intuition and gut feelings

  • Lucky people's [positive] expectations about the future help them fulfill their dreams and ambitions

  • Lucky people are able to transform their bad luck into good fortune

The book goes into some decent detail about why and how, and it's reasonably convincing. In a nutshell, if you remain positive and open to chance opportunities for good fortune, good fortune will eventually find you.

For the more religiously devout in the audience - not that there's likely any of you left, given my periodic teasing about dogmatic beliefs - the idea is already captured in the saying:
"God helps those who help themselves!"
Hezekiah 6:1**

I'm going to try to make a conscious effort to adopt some of his recommendations to become luckier. What can it hurt?

I'd be interested in hearing how you think luck works.

** Actually, there is no book of Hezekiah. And the bible (KJ) tends to promote the opposite belief. "He who trusts in himself is a fool..." (Prov 28:26)

Friday, May 13, 2005

Drinking, Dames, and Doritos

Drinking and Dames. Does it get any better? It's a scientific fact that these are two great tastes that taste great together.

Alcohol has been with man as long as man has been man (and probably even earlier). And the reason seems clear (in my current alcohol induced illusion of clarity, many things seem clear).

The reason: Women.

Alcohol promotes proliferation. Animals susceptible to alcohol's inhibition supressing effects propogate more. (translation: Drunk people have more sex). Therefore, each generation tends to have more of its members susceptible to this not unpleasant side effect of ethanol.

More evidence of the Divine Role of Alcohol in The Meaning Of Life:

Generally, women will feel the effects, or get drunker than men of the same size even when they drink the same amount. Men can drink more before becoming intoxicated because of a stomach enzyme that is more prevalent in men than in women. As a result, women are less able to digest or breakdown the alcohol before it enters the bloodstream. Therefore, women must be careful not to drink themselves to a disadvantage. (source)
Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, lowers inhibitions, and impairs judgment. Drinking can lead to risky behaviors, including unwanted sexual advances, having unprotected sex, or playing around with a gun. (source)

Except for the gun part, I see very little here that's a bad thing. Throw Doritos into the mix and you have A Very Good Thing.

Bean Counter Economics

"We shouldn't be paying for cable modems for our employees - let them surf the web on their own nickel," said Bean Counter (hereafter know by the nickname "BC", which coincidentally happens to also describe the representative century of enlightened thinking exhibited by said individual).

The argument I proceeded to make for paying for this "perk" should have pleased even BC. But for some reason, it didn't. It went something like this.

"They more than pay for themselves," I said.

"No they don't. They generate zero revenue."

This is a fairly standard response from BC. There is "cost savings" and "revenue from sales". Investment is a foreign concept, invented by strange people in a strange land, and BC is deeply suspicious of it. He liked things he could count.

"While I could attempt to explain that the software a developer writes is the revenue generator here, let me try to show you how it also saves costs."

"This I gotta hear." BC always loved a good justification, particularly one that had been worked on for days. It made saying "no" that much more satisfying.

"How much do we pay a contract software developer?" I asked.

"Anywhere from $50-$120, depending on who the vendor is," he replied. These were costs. He knew them cold.

"How much do we pay for a cable modem for a software developer?"

"$41.50, on average."

"Okay," I say. "Let's say that John over there didn't have a cable modem. He puts in his time at the office, goes home, eats dinner, and has some free time. How does he spend it?"

"What do I care, as long as he isn't billing it to the company," said BC.

"But I do care. Because if he had a cable modem, he has the opportunity to spend some time on work. He might spend some time doing some extra work because he's falling behind, or has something due tomorrow."

"He could do that work here," BC countered.

"You think if he has a spare hour to spend on work, he's going to spend half of it driving here and back? Besides, coding is a creative exercise, and sometimes you need to be out of the cubicle chaos to get work done. Sometimes you get an idea late at night, and you want to code it up before you forget. Sometimes you're at home, waiting for the plumber to come fix your toilet, and want to get some work done because you know you're falling behind."

"So he can just put in a few more hours at the office. That's what I do." BC looked smug, like he owned the moral high ground over all these slackers that wanted to do their work at home, of all places, probably snacking on bags of chips and watching John Stewart in the background.

"And many of them do. But at some point, they go home. And when they're there, I want the barrier to be as low as possible to their doing just a wee bit more work should they choose to." I rushed on. "Think about it, BC. If they only used it once, not just once in the week but once in the month, we come out ahead."

"How do you figure?"

"We save the delta between the cost of a contractor to do that hour of work vs the cost of the cable modem, which by your own admission even at our cheapest rates has an ROI each and every month."

BC shook his head and looked like he felt really sorry for me. "It just doesn't work that way. We didn't save the delta, because we hadn't planned to spend the delta in the first place. And it's not even the same money - the cable modem expenses come out of facilities budget, while the contractor costs come out of your personnel budget. So you're not only not saving money from an expense you were never going to incur in the first place, but you're actually shifting the costs out of your department into the facilities overhead, thereby hiding the true cost of your organization." BC looked very superior now, having run rings around me, logically like.

"BC, trust me on this. Developers putting in extra hours for the company is a good thing. Extra hours mean extra features, which mean more competitive products, which mean more sales. Employees putting in extra hours means fewer contractor hours, which means cheaper hours." I paused. "Cable modems help promote this activity."

"That's all speculative and abstract. You can't tie revenue to it, the costs are real, and they don't displace some other existing cost. There is zero financial justification for them. So I'm recommending cutting them from the budget." BC started to walk off. "If the developers want to put in extra hours so bad, let them do it here in the office with everyone else."

I sat there, frustrated and stunned. Not just at his lack of understanding of how adverbs work, but because for once I thought I had a firm, economic argument for a development practice that could sway BC.

Most of the time, the economic justification for enlightened software development organization practices are even harder - try explaining how spending money on an IDE will pay off, or how spending money on a release party to let off steam, snacks for the office, pay scales above the median for the great programmer who you know is 10x as good as the "median"...

Or the biggest one today - why some software tasks just can't be performed as well in India. Not because Indians suck - they have a similar distribution of talent to the US, I think - but because outsourcing your family jewels is always a bad idea. And for a software company, developing new product is the family jewels.

People who make the decisions in software companies should have grown up in software companies. And in the really good software companies, they did.

Time to start another really good software company.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Good and Evil

Interesting conversation with a friend. One of the discussions was over the definition of Evil.

He used it to define something else (I won't say what - no reason to offend you with the sort of societal taboos we argue about). I said "You can't use Evil as a definitive term - it has no semantic value." He said it did, of course (or there wouldn't have been a discussion about it, now, would there?) So we spent the next half hour debating the definition of the term. To no definitive conclusion.

This is a term that appears to have very common usage, so you would think that its meaning is clear. Here's a definition that shows multiple usages, one of which uses the term itself in its definition. (You know you have a problem when you use a term to help define itself - oroboros never gets very far).

This Wikipedia article has some interesting comments about the use of the term Evil, although I can't help but feel this is one of the most confused and muddled postings on a definition I've seen in a while. It appears to be so overloaded with different meanings and connotations that, as I said, it lacks semantic value because it doesn't communicate a concept clearly.

We seem to use a lot of terms, fairly regularly, where everyone just knows what they mean. I think that abstract nouns that actually communicate meaningful content should be tied at some level to concrete nouns (ie, something one can perceive with the senses, so that a common representation can be shared with another individual with the same senses). I posit that even emotions (some of them anyway) can be described in terms of "the feeling you get when you see a man pointing a gun in your face" (or "the feeling you get when I do this" as I slowly reach down and...ahem. Maybe in a later post).

Evil is a tough one. If it is to have semantic value, then it needs to be tied to concrete representations. Here is my first crack at it. (But you'll have to stick with me through another bumpy trip through left field first before I bounce off the wall and stumble back to home. (Hmmm...another blog topic - why are sports metaphors so common? In fact - why do humans play sports at all? Or better - why do humans find watching sports so fascinating? But I digress from my digression)).

Let's posit that life has a meaning. (Why? Because if life is meaningless, then who gives a rat's ass what anyone thinks about anything).

If life has a meaning, then that meaning (whatever it is), is "pro-life". (No, not in the "I'm for the death penalty for abortion doctors" kind of pro-life.) Pro-life in the most direct sense of the word - directly supportive of the continuation of life. The opposite of anti-life, which would be directly and actively against the continuation of life...something which tries to stop life.

Why should this be true? Because if the inherent, built-in meaning of life was in any way anti-life, then life would snuff itself. It would cease to be. It would be an ex-life. Anti-Life would be a self-cancelling concept, one that could randomly arise then rapidly disappear from the universe.

So we know that any meaning of life is, by definition, pro-life. Therefore living things, if they are to fulfill their purpose, to embody the "meaning of life" (whatever it may be), must actively be pro-life. Living things must support to some degree the continuation of life. (And probably the "growth" of life, if we can define what the heck that should mean. It almost certainly does not mean blind, unmitigated proliferation, which results in a malthusian meltdown and is ultimately "anti-life". But more on the Catholic Church later).

Now say we're going to construct an abstract dimension of measure, with one end labeled "Good" and the other end labeled "Evil". We arbitrarily assign the "Good" label to the positive side of the dimension, and "Evil" to the negative side. (Think of a number line - remember those from grade school?)

And to keep it simple, we'll make the positive side the "pro-life" side, and the negative side (yes, you guessed it - you're way too smart for me) the "anti-life" side.

So to be "Good", or perform good acts, one must act in support of the continuation and growth of life. Evil acts against the continuation or growth of life.

So is murder evil? Well, yes, most people would put murder in the anti-life category.

Is murder in self-defense evil? Perhaps, but certainly to a lesser degree. In fact, you can construct a reasonable case that says if someone is going to murder, then eliminating this source of "anti-life" is pro-life. You are helping life continue by removing an element that is working against the continuation of life.

Is accidental homocide evil? Well, it certainly had the same outcome as murder. But intentional murder requires an anti-life mindset, an "evil" way of thinking. Intentional murderers have demonstrated they can be evil, and therefore may be (will likely be?) again. People who cause a death by accident haven't necessarily demonstrated this mindset, this tendency to cause death. (Unless what they did was so clearly negligent that the likely outcome of someone's death was easily predicted - such a reckless disregard for the life of others is another form of "anti-life" thinking or tendency).

What about suffering? Is causing pain and suffering evil? If the afflicted individual feels like dying rather than continue with the pain and suffering, then yes, we'd have to say that causing that outcome is evil. Like the prior example, intent has an influence on where an act fits on the "good-evil" scale, although the actual outcome is the primary driver.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. We should really only call something "evil" if it can be demonstrated to be anti-life in some way.

And in real life, things get complicated. So there is room to argue about whether something or some act is evil or not. But at least with this definition we can have a common basis from which to evaluate.

This ties in to a framework of moral behavior I'm trying to formalize, one that derives from concrete bases for the meaning of life (rather than being handed down from a being with a booming voice that speaks in Hebrew). But that's for another post.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Girls are all evil (?)

I remember seeing a mathematical proof once that girls were evil. I think it went something like this.

Girls = Time x Money
Time is Money, (eg. Time = Money)
therefore Girls = Money2

Now, Money is the root of all evil (eg. Money = SQRT(All Evil))
therfore Girls = SQRT(All Evil)2
so Girls = All Evil

Ain't math wonderful?

Now, as anyone who reads this mind-bogglingly boring blog knows, I love girls. They smell nice. And only some of them are evil. Which just goes to show - figures lie, and liars figure. The feats a clever pollster can pull with statistics can bring a childlike wonder and awe to the arithmetically aware. One caught my eye the other day from the Wall Street Journal. (I won't bother linking since it requires a subscription).

The editorial cited a recent IRS study breaking out what groups pay what percentage of federal tax revenues. In particular, to make their point that taxes for the very rich really should be reduced, they noted that the highest earning 0.1% of the population paid 5.06% of the federal tax burden in 1979, and was paying 9.52% as of a couple of years ago.

"Gosh," you say. "I know they're really rich and all, but it doesn't seem fair that their burden has almost doubled in the last 25 years!" The editors agreed, stating that this proves that "the overall tax burden grew more progressive from 1979 to 1999," so these hard working individuals "already bear an outsized share of the American tax burden."

I'm fairly certain this statistic is true, as it isn't hard to verify. But wait - are the richest of us paying a larger share of the national taxes because of the tax code?

No, it's because the very rich are earning a far bigger proportion of the national income. In 1979, this same 0.1% of the very (extremely, ungodly, couldn't-spend-it-all-in-one-lifetime-even-if-I-tried) rich took home about three percent (3%) of the national income, and paid about five percent (5%) of the taxes. In 1999, they earned about ten percent (10%) of the national income and paid about eleven percent (11%) of the taxes (as opposed to the again shrinking 9.5% of the taxes today noted in the editorial).

Not only that, but the tax rate for these folks has gone down dramatically. In 1979, the top 0.1% paid, on average, 32% of their income in taxes. Today, they pay less than 23%. So the reason these top 0.1% percent are now paying a higher share of the tax burden than in 1979 is because their share of the national income is rising faster than their tax rates are falling. (A simliar set of statistics were in the same edition of the journal regarding the current Social Security reform discusions - don't get me started...)

Translation from statistics speak -
The Rich Are Getting Richer (and paying a smaller share of their riches to the common kitty).

Now this isn't really news. Unregulated market economies pretty much end up following inverse power laws (as do many natural distributions over time - a brief technical tutorial here.)

And if I'm just sounding jealous and pissed off, well, I am. I share the opinion of approximately 6 billion other individuals on the planet who believe that "if I had that kind of money, I'd do better things with it." I'm not really a fan of income tax (yes, I like consumption taxes better), and don't really think that raising the tax rates on the super wealthy will help or change anything (primarily because they can afford better accountants than the IRS).

Mostly I'm just pissed off at people not thinking rationally, believing what they read uncritically, and behaving like random molecules in a gas that can be modeled stochastically (which is actually the current model used to describe the rest of the wealth distribution - how does it feel to have all the intelligence and influence of a gas molecule? I know, I know, you don't give a fart.)

I could rant for a bit about some filters one should use to evaluate the validity of any statement that uses statistics as it primary support. Survey's are a particular favorite peeve.

  • How was the surveyed population selected? What percentage of the population actually responded? What is the size of the population?

  • Who sponsored the survey? Who summarized the results? Is the raw data available? How were the questions phrased?

  • And if you believe the data - does it matter? Can you do anything about it?

Here's a statement that has been proven true in survey after survey.
In a poll taken among (pick your audience), it was found that 95% of cancer victims had breathed in air, in most cases multiple times each day. In fact, it appeared that the more breaths the individual took during their life, the more likely it was that they would die of cancer.

(People who took fewer overall breaths of air during their lifetime were found to have died of other causes).

This relationship between breathing and cancer is a grave concern, and one worthy of tax investment to find a cure.

(BTW - the poll had a 5% margin of error. See? I'm providing the additional detailed technical information on the poll so you know how really really valid it is!)

I could rant. Yup. But what's the point, really? Someone else could just prove I'm wrong - and have the statistics to back it up.