Saturday, November 22, 2008

VI Day

Zombietime wishes to commemorate the remarkable progress in the last year or so in Iraq by setting today, the 22nd of November, as Victory in Iraq day. I agree, but read the whole thing.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Where next?

From Representative Jeff Flake (R-AZ), via The Volokh Conspiracy, comes an agenda for Republicans in the wake of the '08 elections:

I suggest that we return to first principles. At the top of that list has to be a recommitment to limited government. After eight years of profligate spending and soaring deficits, voters can be forgiven for not knowing that limited government has long been the first article of faith for Republicans.

Of course, it's not the level of spending that gets the most attention; it's the manner in which the spending is allocated. The proliferation of earmarks is largely a product of the Gingrich-DeLay years, and it's no surprise that some of the most ardent practitioners were earmarked by the voters for retirement yesterday. Few Americans will take seriously Republican speeches on limited government if we Republicans can't wean ourselves from this insidious practice. But if we can go clean, it will offer a stark contrast to the Democrats, who, after two years in training, already have their own earmark favor factory running at full tilt.

Second, we need to recommit to our belief in economic freedom. Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" may be on the discount rack this year, but the free market is still the most efficient means to allocate capital and human resources in an economy, and Americans know it. Now that we've inserted government deeply into the private sector by bailing out banks and businesses, the temptation will be for government to overstay its welcome and force the distribution of resources to serve political ends. Substituting political for economic incentives is not the recipe for economic recovery. . . .

There are, of course, other pillars of the Republican standard -- strong national defense, support for traditional values and the Second Amendment -- but these are not areas where voters question Republican bona fides. In any event, as we have seen over the past several months, economic woes tend to subsume other concerns. We shouldn't complain. We can now play our strongest hand.

To make the obvious pun, Flake's no flake; that was a good message. A few problems, though:

The first problem that I spot with this is that earmarks are essentially irrelevant numbers-wise. Regardless of the moral high ground of being anti-pork, it's hard to get excited when one of the main pillars of a platform is "just" $17 billion, 2% of the nation's discretionary spending. Eliminating all of them would just barely keep the budget flat for one year. Without a better reason to make this an issue, the GOP should just leave it alone - all the more so since 2000-2006 saw so much GOP earmarking that their credibility is ruined on the issue. It seems like an issue that should only be pursued once the GOP wins back a majority - then an anti-earmark stance will actually carry some weight. Don't put the horse before the carrot, so to speak.

Second problem: when a conservative talks about free-market principles, voters will think "deregulation." And when they think of deregulation, they will connect it rightly or wrongly to the financial crisis. That's not a platform anyone can win on.

Third problem: by putting the Second Amendment right next to "strong national defense," Flake plays right into a fundamental paradox of the right wing that many voters see: that while conservatism is about limited government, conservatives often push for a stronger government and the curtailment of absolute freedom in the interest of security. When I say "curtailment of absolute freedom," I don't mean that Big Brother is now watching you and a wrong word will get you carted off to prison; I mean that the right wing will support legislation establishing the potential for a Big Brother system in times of conflict. Yes, the economy is important, perhaps more so than anything else from a strictly political standpoint. But if the Republican Party wants to reestablish credibility, it needs to start by explaining the seeming contradictions in its platform, and this is perhaps the biggest of them all. After we've established that the platform is consistent, THEN we can move on to consistently living up to it.

Update: On Volokh Conspiracy, this comment by Richard Aubrey caught my eye:
The earmarks are the key, the bribe, to get legislators to vote the required way, on the big things. A key doesn't weigh much, but heavy doors can be unlocked.

I hadn't thought of this at all. By using earmarks, the argument goes, Congressmen are able to break the political process and so get much more damaging legislation passed. I'd like to see some examples of this, but there's the potential to make earmarks a significant issue here. 'Course, the fact that this is the first I've heard of this line of thought shows how poorly anti-porkers are selling it...

Sunday, October 5, 2008

So why do I want to go to the school I indicated as my #1 choice?

The college application process is riddled with minor idiocies. Everything's a crapshoot at the higher levels - one college admission officer noted that if her university had rejected their entire incoming freshman class and taken the next batch instead, they'd have just as good a student body. Testing like that done on the SAT is notoriously bad at measuring much of anything. Heck, I took the Chemistry SAT II yesterday (I should have done it in May or June right after I finished AP Chemistry, but whatever), and the problems were perhaps marginally harder than the ones on the test I took to get out of General Science freshman year. 'Course, there were more of them, but that just means less time to check your answers. Do colleges really want to value people based on whether or not they slipped a 0 (or a hydroxide group) the first time round? Then there's the college info sessions, which were probably good before the inevitable "How can I get into Harvard?/How can I get my kid into Harvard?" crowd turned them into homogeneous, bland mixtures of random facts and balancing acts (don't want to drive any kids away with definite statements!).

By far the worst offenders, however, are the college essay questions. Your mileage may vary, of course; Chicago U's essays are notoriously quirky, for example. But I'm talking about the generic questions, and especially about one particular type of question: "Why do you want to go to School X? What makes School X a good place for you? Why are you applying to school X?" Here are some potential honest answers to this question:
"To get an education." (how many students have typed this on the page, stared at it, sighed, and deleted it so they could start over? H/t Dr. McNinja.)

"Look, I'm applying just in case I don't get into School Y over there." I'm always amused by how schools take it for granted that if a student applies, they MUST want to go there.

"School X is near where I live."

"Look, Mr. Stanford/MIT/Caltech/Harvard/Princeton/Yale/[your school here] admissions officer, it's obvious why I want to attend School X. Your school has an incredible program in the area of my interest. It has lots of challenging classes in other areas, too. Your school has great professors, vast resources, myriad ways to have fun, great research opportunities, a "study wherever the hell you want" program, good food, a beautiful campus, and a student body worthy of it all. Asking why I want to go to School X is like asking why a Christian wants to go to Heaven, and you know it."

I'm not kidding with that last sentence, either. For many students, school is the religion of choice, or at least a counterpoint to their actual religion. More on that another time, perhaps.

Of course, students can't write essays like that and get accepted to college. So they something just a bit less obvious, and then write about it using all the Rules of Essay-Writing:
- It needs to have a Catchy Opening and Grab your Reader's Attention!
- It needs to Tell a Story! Make the point, don't state it!
- It needs to be Concise and Punchy!
- However, be sure to Elaborate!


I've been reading a book containing 50 essays by students that got into Harvard. The book applauds these essays as the most descriptive, informative, well-written essays of any they received. Yet none of them, I'm sure, were answering the question "Why do you want to attend Harvard?" That question is not going to elicit deep insight or beautiful writing on the part of the student. Any direct answer violates the central principle of college essays: "Show, don't tell." Sure, it's easy to ask a simple question like "Why us?", but it doesn't tell the school much about the student. Huge trouble for us with little benefit for anyone; why even bother?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sicilian Defense, why hast thou forsaken me?

Chess has become a big part of my life since summer started. I began playing chess when I was six or thereabouts, but I had no idea what I was doing. I read a lot of books - my favorite was Hypermodern Chess, a commentary on Aron Nimzovich's famous games by Fred Reinfeld - but I'd just read the commentary and look at the pictures without figuring out what was actually going on. Then I spent about a decade forgetting how to play chess, until I found out that I was friends with the top two chess players at my school.

Now, I have a real competitive streak - anybody who's familiar with me is nodding knowingly right about now. It could even be argued that I started this blog because I wanted to keep up with Kelly and her blogging. So naturally I set out to catch up with a "nation's top 100" type (if anyone knows Jay Kumar at UC Berkeley, this is him) and someone who's been playing chess tournaments as long as I've been avoiding the game. One thing led to another, and soon I was the guy with his nose in an opening book and his free hand on a portable chessboard during a trip through Lamar Valley in Yellowstone. LAMAR VALLEY, f'chrissakes!

I'm actually pretty good at this chess thing, and I made the school team this year. I don't actually know how I match up with the other team members, because it's a ladder system: new members start at the bottom and work their way up with challenge matches. I DO know that I'm not in the top 3; there's a couple of CRAZY freshmen, plus one of the "two best at my school" people (he's not anymore, though - hee), occupying those slots. But for someone who's been playing chess for half a year, being in that nebulous area between 4th and 8th ain't half bad.

Anyway, I wrote this post pretty much for one reason, that being that I played my first game in an actual match today. We played French Defense (I need to study either that or Nimzoindian, since they're the two obvious openings after 1. d4 e6), and I was actually doing pretty well. I was winning positionally in the endgame - I had an unassailable pawn duo on the 5th rank - and my opponent only had 6 seconds left on the clock. But I lost! My opponent was moving really fast, in order to avoid losing time (if he moved within 5 seconds, he didn't lose any time), and instead of taking my time, I decided to give him less time to think by playing fast myself. BIG mistake. I broke my pawn line with an ill-timed advance, and his king tied my rook down, which allowed him to get a passed pawn and win. With 6 freakin' seconds left on the clock. Note to self: If you have 15 minutes left and your opponent has 15 seconds, you left that time there for a reason. USE IT. Blargh.

OTOH, I'm still happy that I outplayed my opponent to that point. And it's not like my loss killed our chances, since EVERYONE lost (except for Dittmer, and he only won on time after being down pieces). Monta Vista really is a strong team. I look forward to playing them again later this year; I bet I'll be stronger, and I definitely won't make the same rookie mistake I made this time. It's only the second time I've played a real-life timed match - I'll just have to get used to the fundamentals of time-constrained play.

So if that was the point, why the title, you ask? Simple: Sicilian was the opening I wanted to play as Black against e4. It was awesome and cool and complicated and...and...and I was horrible at it. I never really understood the rationale behind some of the common elements (like the e6-d6 pawn center) and I had no idea how to take advantage of the opponent's mistakes. Plus the kingside fianchetto always fell apart in ways that didn't happen when I played King's Indian Defense off d4 (though I wasn't great at that either). Although Sicilian is notable for being an aggressive counterattack on Black's part, I always got locked into certain positions and my mobility fell to zilch as White attacked my pawn structure (the e6-d6 pawn formation often left the d-pawn weak, plus White got to advance his f-pawn a lot, which didn't help my constricted formation). I might experiment with it a bit now, since it's been a month or so since I last seriously played it and I might have some new insights, but I'm still annoyed at how badly I played that opening. Any hints from any experienced chess players who happen to read this post would be appreciated (I'm looking at you, CEETTN of the pit of malice).

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Why does it matter when life begins?

Wow, it's been a while. One would think I'd have spent MORE time thinking about blogs over the summer and LESS during the school year, but such are the contradictions of teenage life.

Another vague, half-formed thought I've been masticating crystallized as I viewed the comment thread of this post over at Hot Air. The post itself castigates Pelosi for her poor attempt to reconcile her pro-abortion stance with her Catholicism (not that I care, since I'm not Catholic), so of course the comment thread walks through the whole abortion debate again.

The only part of the abortion debate I'm interested in is the "murder of an unborn child" question. After all, that IS the deciding factor of the debate. If abortion is indeed murder, that obviously outweighs any considerations about women's freedom and so on, and the pro-lifers carry the day. If not, then the idealistic argument of a woman's right to choose (even if I often feel that it should be a choice of whether or not to have sex rather than a choice of whether or not to get an abortion) and the practical argument that the government has no business legislating the issue will outweigh any moral arguments the right can muster. A lot of people have gotten this far, which is why one so often hears the question, "when does human life begin?" For many, that question was answered by the Pope in 1869, when he announced that the cutoff mark was conception. This is the foundation of many a pro-lifer's position on abortion.

But upon looking at the issue, I was confounded by the question you see up top. Why is it that the primary factor everyone thinks of is life? Bacteria are alive, broccoli are alive, cows are alive, yet few have any compunction about ending the life of these creatures. More to the point, my arm is alive; the cells in my kidney are alive; that tumor that had to be cut out of my aunt Louise was alive, and human to boot, but we have no moral qualms about amputation or kidney removal or chemotherapy. When it comes to defining the boundaries of murder, "life" and "human" seem wholly inadequate. For the true crime of murder is not the death of the cells comprising a human being, but the death of the mind (to the religious, the "soul") that resides within.

That's why, to me, the relevant word is "consciousness". When Mazer Rackham describes the buggers' clearing of Eros to Ender, he makes sure to mention that the buggers don't see what they did as murder. As a hive race, they expected to encounter another such; what they did was "trimming", not murder. By the same token, until the foetus reaches independent consciousness, it's naught but a part of the mother, and the mother can decide to remove it if she wants.

Don't confuse this with the "personhood" criteria that one can find on Wikipedia. I do not require that a foetus be able to tell the world, "I think, therefore I am," to be a person. The minimum standard for consciousness, according to the few websites I've visited that discuss the subject, appears to be the ability to feel pain, which develops around the 26th week (regardless of when the foetus starts actually feeling pain). So in my opinion, till then, the mother can do what she darn well pleases; afterwards, she should treat the foetus with all the respect she would give any other living human being. Which may not be much, but it's a start.

EDIT: Both Alioth, here, and BKennedy at Hot Air have pointed out that the potential for consciousness could be used as an alternative cutoff point, and one that would establish the sanctity of the foetus from conception (since this standard requires that the entity in question would do so if left alone, we can ignore gametes, since they must first find another gamete to reach this stage). Also, Think_B4_Speaking at Hot Air has offered a second possible milestone for the establishment of independent consciousness, namely the point when the foetus' brain waves begin registering (around week 11), which would change the cutoff point to near the end of the first trimester.

Finally, a couple of clarifications:
1. "Independent consciousness" does not mean that the foetus be self-sufficient or awake, merely that it have a "self" which is separate from the mother.
2. I am not trying to equate cancer cells with human foetuses (foeti? heh). However, both of them are alive, human, and genetically unique, thereby disqualifying those three criteria from consideration. Obviously a foetus either has independent consciousness, or it has the potential for such, while tumors have neither, so we're right back to those two criteria.
3. When I draw a line, I draw a line. I don't draw a slippery slope. So please, no comments about how next I'll be excluding female foetuses, or foetuses with Down's Syndrome, or gay foetuses (and how am I supposed to tell that last, anyway?). None of these characteristics become apparent until after brain waves begin registering, anyway, so the point is moot.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

One More Rule for the Internets

For every stupid idea you can think of, there will be a Youtube video depicting exactly that - and sometimes a full-on movie.

How this saw the light of day is beyond me. And what's with the ridiculous outfit? It gives Ben Stein that child-in-man's-clothing appearance - I suppose it's an appropriate metaphor for ID trying to fit into the scientific framework, though.

For those who don't understand the title reference...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Look, Mommy, I Fed the Troll

I remember a short while back, Bill Whittle wrote a post about his encounter with a troll on his daily blog stroll. A similar thing happened to me while I was perusing Hot Air (I went there following Captain Ed, since he shut down Captain's quarters *tear*). I was looking at the whole furor over some of the crazier things Obama's pastor has been saying about how the US caused 9/11 and AIDS for good measure. Now, I don't believe in guilt by association, but it's amusing to watch politicians get dragged down by these "crazy-uncle" relationships. However, as I was looking at the comments, I run across this guy named docweasel, who seems really pissed that Obama's getting questioned about all this stuff when Romney didn't get the same questions last year (never mind that he gave a whole speech about it and Obama didn't, but never mind). Ultimately he starts branching into some really hate-filled anti-Mormon bigotry, and that's where I got annoyed. So, I read his comments and his blog post on the subject, and refuted him point by point. Maybe it was pointless, but I sure had fun.

Hmmm. As it turns out, I missed a point - it seems that Reverend Wright is one of Obama's campaign advisors. Or rather, he was - Obama's thrown him under the bus now that the statements have come to light. But frankly, this doesn't really excuse Obama, since the statements were made way back in 2003. If Obama wanted to avoid being associated with that kind of rhetoric, he knew what he was bargaining for when he asked Wright to sign up. If nothing else, it'll be amusing to see what Hillary's team makes of this. After all, she's behind, and desperate to find any bit of leverage she can use to pull herself back up to Obama. That includes crazy statements made by his pastor of twenty years. Expect a lot of political poo over the next few days. Anyway, for those who enjoy this sort of thing, sit back and pass the popcorn.


Docweasel, even assuming moral equivalence between Mormonism and what Rev. Wright is preaching (which is ridiculous), it's far more difficult to believe that Romney embraces the less palatable parts of Mormonism than that Obama endorses the worst of Wright's wrongheadedness. After all, there's no equivalence in what they have to do to distance themselves from the objectionable material. Obama merely has to attend a different UCoC church. According to your argument, Romney would have to renounce his entire religion - though I'm not religious myself, I understand that it's a bit more difficult than changing shirts or even churches (imagine that). To Romney, the objectionable parts of Mormonism are not sufficient to justify renouncing it - that's a reasonable statement, I think, given that plenty of Muslims in America say the same thing to themselves every time another bomber bites the dust in Iraq. Obama thinks Wright's statements aren't objectionable enough to justify driving to a different church every Sunday - that's an UNreasonable statement.

Anyway, moving to point-by-point refutation (I'd do this on your blog, except you won't let anyone comment on your absurdities):
* According to Mormon scripture, the founder of your church (Joseph Smith) was told by God in 1820 that all the churches of the day were “an abomination.” Do you agree with God’s view of other churches, as quoted by Joseph Smith? (Pearl of Great Price, JS-Hist 1:18-19)

Hmmm, this is refuted by THE VERY QUOTATION FROM CAPTAIN ED THAT YOU USED IN YOUR ARTICLE. You know, the "more than 100 years ago" response. Romney is not obliged to answer for what Mormons thought of other religions 190 years ago. Especially not if this doesn't translate into a prescription for action today (you know, like the Muslim prescription for action regarding non-Muslims, which STILL doesn't automatically incriminate all Muslims out there).

* According to your church’s Articles of Faith, number eight, the Book of Mormon is the “word of God.” Do you believe that?

No. Way. Mormons think the Book of Mormon is holy? It MUST be heresy. Is there some kind of rhetorical rule against demolishing straw men the opponent sets up for you?

* According to the Book of Mormon there are only two churches: the “church of the Lamb of God [presumably the Mormon church]” and the “church of the devil,” “the whore of all the earth.” Do you agree with that Mormon scripture? (Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 14:10)

Of course, no context is provided. Without the context, there's no reason to assume that the bad church is of any particular religion or even a tangible church - it could be a symbol for devil-worship, or of US Congress for all I can tell from what's given. Is this supposed to be a genuine question? How can I tell, when it's so ridiculous? Furthermore, now we're getting into the "well, the book says this, so he's bad!" arguments. Are we next going to castigate Jews because the Old Testament forbids homosexuality?

* According to the Book of Mormon a dark skin is a curse imposed by God on the unrighteous and their descendants as a punishment for sin. Do you agree with that doctrine? (Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 12:22-23, Alma 3:6, 2 Nephi 5:21-22, Jacob 3:8, 3 Nephi 2:15-16, Mormon 5:15; references to the “Lamanites” are taken to be referring to Native American “Indians”.)

Is the question "Are you a racist?" going to somehow become a better question because you attached a religious quote to it? Now I know why nobody's asking these questions; they'd get laughed out of the room.

* According to Mormon doctrine, the president of the Mormon church is a prophet of God, receiving revelations and commandments (God’s laws) directly from God. Do you believe that? (Doctrine and Covenants , 21:5, 43:3, 58:18)

According to the Old Testament, God talked to people, According to the New Testament, God talked to people. Why are you shocked that according to Mormonism, God might still be talking to people?

* One of the most sacred rituals for adult Mormons, performed only in a Mormon temple, is a ceremony called “the endowment.” Have you undergone this ritual? If so, in what year?

* To be admitted to the temple for the endowment ceremony a Mormon must be “in good standing” in the church and undergo a personal interview with church leaders, who examine the member as to whether the member obeys church commandments, supports church leaders, pays full ten percent tithe, wears the prescribed Mormon underwear, abstains from coffee, tea, alcohol, tobacco and extramarital sex, and other matters. If the member answers correctly, a pass to the temples (called a “temple recommend”) is issued, good for two years. Do you have such a temple recommend now, indicating that you are in good standing in your church?

Obviously these two questions are meant to go together, but it's not obvious what they're getting at. Is is somehow a bad thing if Romney is in good standing with the Mormon Church? Is it somehow a bad thing if he isn't? What exactly is the point of this?

* In the secret Mormon temple ceremony Mormons take an oath of obedience to “the law of the Lord.” Did you take that oath?

Well, it's no more ridiculous than having witnesses in court swear on the Bible. Again, is there any point to this question other than to figure out whether Romney is really Mormon or not?

* Before 1990, the endowment ceremony required members to take an oath of secrecy not to reveal anything that happened in the temple under penalty of death. Did you take that oath?

Who cares?

* In the temple ceremony Mormons also take a secret oath to “consecrate your time, talents and everything which the Lord has blessed you, or with which he may bless you, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints…” Did you take that oath? Would you consider the office of the presidency of the U.S. to be a “blessing” with which the Lord had blessed you?

No, Romney isn't going to consider his happiness in this life a blessing from the Lord. It must be a lie. Like the cake. You know, this refutation is getting really boring. All these questions are meant to SOUND incriminating, but they never actually get there.

* Mormons teach that by obedience to all the commandments of Mormonism, a Mormon may attain the highest degree of heaven and ultimately become a god, creating and ruling over his own universe. Do you believe that? Is this your ultimate personal goal?

"Mormons teach" - what an ambiguous phrase. Is this supposed to be another part of the Book of Mormon, or is it something that's commonly taught, is it something a few radicals espouse, or what? Who cares what Romney's plans for the next life are, anyway? Are they going to somehow affect your judgment of his actions in this one?

* Although your church presently condemns the practice of polygamy, the scripture commanding it is still in the Mormon Doctrine and Covenants, Section 132. Many early Mormons were polygamous and married (”sealed”) to numerous wives “for eternity.” Do you believe then that there will be polygamous families in Mormon heaven?

This is the lamest question ever. Even if polygamy retroactively became a sin, even a Protestant would say that's just more time spent in purgatory, assuming you lived your life in a generally virtuous way.

* The extensive interest of Mormons in genealogical research is to enable them to perform “baptisms for the dead,” thus posthumously inducting previous generations into the Mormon church. Many non-Mormons become angry when they learn that the names of their ancestors - having often been faithful members of some other religion during life - have been used in this way. often without permission of the living descendants. The posthumous baptism of many Holocaust victims caused considerable anger among Jewish groups, and your church agreed to stop the practice as to them (but admitted that it was unable to do so). Do you feel that such anger is justified? (Would you feel anger if some voodoo cult was using your deceased grandparents’ names in some voodoo ritual, and then announcing to all the world that they were now voodoo worshippers?)

And Romney is condemned for the well-intentioned but misguided action of Mormon leaders over half a century ago because...why?

* It is well documented that Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, secretly had many wives. Some of those women were at the same time married to other men, some were as young as fifteen, He claimed that he was commanded by God to enter into these marriages. Do you feel that these early marital practices of the church founder were really commanded by God? (See the book In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith by Mormon historian Todd Compton for detailed biographies of these wives.)

Hey, if all those wars the Old Testament documents weren't sinning because God said they weren't, why can't the same overriding authority be applied to polygamy?

* Mormons believe that when Christ returns to earth, a millennium of peace will begin under Christ’s rule (Article of Faith number ten), presumably as a single theocracy. Most Mormons believe that during that time, Mormons will be Christ’s appointed officers and that the law will conform to Mormon teachings. Do you believe that?

Translation: If the Mormons turn out to be right, do you think the Mormons will be rewarded for being right? Answer: Who cares?

* According to Mormon scripture (Doctrine and Covenants 135:3) Joseph Smith did more than any other man except Jesus Christ “for the salvation of men in this world.” Do you agree with that, keeping in mind the contributions of men like the Apostles, Saint Paul, Thomas Aquinas, Saint Augustine, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, and others?

No way, the people who thought Smith was a prophet put him above people who weren't prophets. Unthinkable.

Damn, dude, why did I waste my time with this drivel when I could be sleeping? I love how you try to pull the moral equivalence stunt with Wright's conspiracy theories. For your next trick, I suppose you'll prove that Joseph Smith caused cancer...or something.

The feebleness of your attacks only justifies to me the suppression of them by mainstream conservative thinkers. Spewing idiocy like this will only make conservatives look bad.

This is pretty hilarious. The same fucking rightwing blogs that declared Romney’s racist, sexist, intolerant cult to be out of bounds for criticism or discussion are now piling on cherry picked quotes about Obama’s minister. You can find plenty of really hateful slurs against blacks, Jews, Catholics etc. in the book of Mormon, but, partly because of blind hatred for McCain and Romney being his main competition, blogs, just like this one, refused to allow any debate on that.

Actually, what's really hilarious (but not surprising) is that you have no f***ing clue who Ed actually supported. I won't give any hints, but it starts with a "Fred" and ends with a "Thompson". And if we're talking "racist, sexist, intolerant," why aren't there women priests n other branches of Christianity? Break out the torches and rakes and other handy implements, let's storm the Vatican!

Link me to ONE FUCKING article where Allah or anyone else talks critically about the hate filled crap Romney teaches and gets taught by his minister every fucking day of the week. Romney is a 3rd generation elder in a dynastic family of Mormon leaders. Obama just attends the church.

The sad thing is, I probably could link you to an article on Captain's Quarters that does just that if I felt like expending the effort. Since I don't, you'll just have to suck it up. And your comment only illustrates why Obama's choice is more damaging - there's less personal damage involved in not making the choice. Imagine Romney's position as a child of the second dynastic elder of the Mormon community. Imagine trying to renounce your religion and most likely your family name because bits of the holy book disparage black people. Now imagine Obama's choice between listening to Rev. Wright's rhetoric and...going to a different church. That Obama chose to listen to Wright despite the ease of not doing so demonstrates that he doesn't find it all that objectionable. Not so in Romney's case.

Now you can debate the relative evilness of what Wright says vs. the Book of Mormon all day: the point is, its JUDGING SOMEONE’S RELIGION, which none of us has the right to do, in fact, if you ARE a Christian, Jesus told you DIRECTLY NOT TO DO IT, FUCKWITS.

Idiot. I can finally say it because you finally made it clear that you missed the entire point of the discussion. WE'RE NOT DISCUSSING OBAMA'S RELIGION. Being a card-carrying member of the United Church of Christ is not the objectionable thing here. The objectionable thing is that he sits and listens to Wright (and helps support him financially) as Wright makes these ridiculous speeches, when it wouldn't be difficult to distance himself from all that. On the other hand, your assaults on Romney's Mormonism are definitely judging religion, though your judgment is incredibly weak if this is the best you can offer. I'd hope you could come up with more, except then I might have to do another monster comment like this, and I don't want to do that.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Oil's Obvious Solution: Why Isn't it More Noticed?

First, an administrative note: I was so busy with homework that I couldn't do any more of the planned series on the nominees, and now that McCain has wrapped up the Republican nomination further comment on the Republican race is pretty pointless. Later posts will probably tell readers (if there are any at this point) what I think of Hillary, Obama, and McCain, so I'm calling off the series.

Anyway, this post came together for me while I was strolling through Captain Ed's comment section. Having corrected the misconception that Clinton performed an economic miracle (for those who are interested in that discussion,
here is the relevant post), I moved on and noticed a post complaining that Exxon pays taxes for a lot of the poor population. This piqued my interest, and while replying my thoughts coalesced into something worthy of a blog post. Here we go:

Oil, as much as food, is a necessity; our nation runs on the stuff. But high gasoline prices have inspired widespread complaints about the evil oil companies who make ungodly profits at the taxpayer's expense. Furthermore, oil's role in carbon dioxide emissions, its limited nature, and its disreputable provider nations (particularly in the Middle East) combine to make it that much more objectionable. Whether or not you believe that oil companies make too much money or that CO2-created AGW exists, oil is not an ideal energy source by any stretch of the imagination, certainly not as THE resource of the United States.

So, what to do about Texas tea? Motivated by dislike verging on hatred for oil companies as well as global warming, the left offers various solutions, which for the sake of simplicity I will divide into two categories: carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems. As the name indicates, carbon taxes generally tax the hell out of everything that emits a greenhouse gas, including (and probably especially) products that use oil as well as oil companies. The rationale is that creating an economic disincentive will encourage companies to search for other energy sources, plus Congress gets more money (which is a good thing for Congressmen, if not for the rest of the country). Cap-and-trade systems set a limit on the amount that the country can emit, divide up that amount into small units, and hand those units out to companies to sell back and forth until everything balances out.
Proponents of this system argue that it sets a clear limit on emissions (as opposed to the gas tax); that it is something of a "free-market" solution that allows companies flexibility in determining their emission rates; that it has been tested successfully on sulfur dioxide emissions, reducing acid rain without a lot of hullabaloo; and that Congress gets money from it (of course). Meanwhile, the Republicans offer the tried-and-true solution of leaving it to Smith's invisible handmobile. Some Republicans simply don't see this as an issue - they don't think AGW is real and don't fault oil companies for making a profit. Others trust that the free market will sort things out - if the oil companies are so eeevil and oil kills babies, surely someone will notice after a while.

However, none of these stock solutions mix well with oil because of the nature of the industry. Carbon taxes are essentially gasoline taxes applied on a broader scale - but the net result would simply be higher prices. Since oil is a necessity, oil companies have a lot more leeway in their pricing than most - they can adjust prices to meet their desired profit margin, and the only real loser in this situation is the consumer. More specifically, the loser is the poor consumer - since taxes on oil companies translate into higher prices at the pump, a carbon tax is essentially the same as the regressive sales tax for oil companies. We can see this in a smaller frame by looking at gasoline taxes, which don't put people off buying gasoline and don't stop companies from making large profits. So that solution doesn't hold up.

Cap-and-trade is more complicated, but still ultimately fails when it comes to controlling oil companies. First, the initial handout of permits is a process seemingly ripe for corruption and havoc, unless there's already a good way to control that process. Assuming the acid rain politicians figured that out, we then move to the effect on oil companies, which is essentially nil as they can purchase permits willy-nilly unless and until the market freezes up as companies attempt to hold on to their remaining credits, which basically destroys the system. And the cost for those permits will once again go straight to the taxpayer.

Finally, the free-market solution will fail (or at least be EXTREMELY slow) because of the dominance of oil. Until a development like the one that allowed us to exploit oil comes along, oil is the best natural resource available. There's technology that allows us to use other resources for the same process, but those are very slow to come together because there's little short-term incentive at the moment to develop it; furthermore, any resource that requires a surrounding infrastructure (like gasoline) will have trouble competing against the well-developed infrastructure that supports oil.

To reuse the chemistry metaphor, the unifying quality of these solutions is that they are polar; they're each developed by one side of the political continuum. Oil, being a nonpolar substance, can only dissolve nonpolar substances; let's try a nonpolar solution. Promote government R&D that develops an incentive for alternative energy sources. The X-Prize
worked well for private spacecraft development; something similar can be (and probably is being) done for alternatives to oil in various industries. Using the X-prize model, the left is happy because it helps the environment and hurts the eeeevil oil companies, while the right is happy because it preserves free-market incentives and removes ties with OPEC. Why don't more people talk about this? Is it because it's already done to the degree where more won't help?

Another simple solution, which I was reminded of by a friend: nuclear energy. Apart from the stigma of Chernobyl and the problem of getting rid of nuclear waste (both solvable), is there any reason why we aren't putting more effort into this area?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Election 2008: The Candidates

I thought it would be a good idea to say where I stand regarding each of the candidates now, given what I know about them, so that later comments by me regarding the candidates can be taken into context. This will be a series of posts, each dealing with one or perhaps two candidates.

The Republicans: Ron Paul

I'm going to spend the most time discussing the candidates I absolutely reject and those I absolutely accept; Ron Paul falls firmly into the former category. Dr. Paul, to me, is an idealist who lacks an understanding of the complexity of the real world, and as such I cannot support him.

There are certain anecdotes that have stuck in my brain regarding him that exemplify this. First, there's his stance on evolution: he dismissed it as a "theological issue", and said he didn't accept it. Paul supporters will tell me that he only said that there are no absolute answers on either side, but that he spent so much time expounding on that subject only indicates that he doesn't know/care that theories CAN'T be proven. Also, to me he staked out an absolute position the second he said "It's a theory, the theory of evolution, and I don't accept it." His discussion of science left me seeing only his ignorance on the subject, hardly an encouraging trait.

Though Paul's rejection of evolution is tolerable, as science is at best a minor issue for the presidency, his thoughts on the Civil War, as expressed on Meet the Press with Tim Russert, left me more worried. Here's the relevant excerpt:

MR. RUSSERT: I was intrigued by your comments about Abe Lincoln. "According to Paul, Abe Lincoln should never have gone to war; there were better ways of getting rid of slavery."

REP. PAUL: Absolutely. Six hundred thousand Americans died in a senseless civil war. No, he shouldn't have gone, gone to war. He did this just to enhance and get rid of the original intent of the republic. I mean, it was the--that iron, iron fist..

MR. RUSSERT: We'd still have slavery.

REP. PAUL: Oh, come on, Tim. Slavery was phased out in every other country of the world. And the way I'm advising that it should have been done is do like the British empire did. You, you buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans and where it lingered for 100 years? I mean, the hatred and all that existed. So every other major country in the world got rid of slavery without a civil war. I mean, that doesn't sound too radical to me. That sounds like a pretty reasonable approach.

So much misunderstanding, so little time. My primary beef is with two points. First, does Ron Paul honestly think Lincoln could have avoided the war and kept the Union together, when the South seceded even before his inauguration? Or perhaps Paul thinks that we'd have been better off split up and not resolving the slavery issue at all? He pins the whole war on Lincoln, not understanding that the Civil War has at least 85 years of history behind it. And this leads right to the second point: Ron Paul trivializes the war by making it just about slavery. The war was the result of a deep schism between South and North, of which slavery vs. abolition was merely a symptom. At least two other major causes were present: the conflict between industry and agriculture, and the conflict between Federalism and Nationalism. At the same time, Paul thinks Lincoln did this to enhance the federal government's power, to "get rid of the original intent of the republic." So the war shouldn't have been fought because "there were better ways of getting rid of slavery", but Lincoln only fought it because he wanted to enhance his own power. Get your story straight, Paul. When I heard this on top of the science issue, I started to think maybe Dr. Paul slept through high school; to get such a crucial period of our history so completely wrong...

But the most annoying anecdote of the lot is the most relevant to the debate. Ron Paul, running as the Consitutional Candidate who will Elevate that Sacred Document to the Level it Deserves, doesn't seem to think the Sixteenth Amendment exists at all. He has denounced the income tax as unconstitutional numerous times, the most recent of which was just a week ago:

BECK: We`re with presidential candidate Ron Paul.

And, boy, there`s something that nobody else says. Nobody on Wall Street will say that. And it only makes common sense that we are destroying our own currency.

One of the things that I think attracts me to libertarians is the idea of getting back to the gold standard and abolishing the IRS. Is it true -- I believe I have read that you say if you don`t pay your taxes, you are in the category of civil disobedience akin with Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

PAUL: Well, I -- I think it`s practicing the same principle, yes, because the income tax, the way it`s collected is unconstitutional. And if you believe that, and you practice civil disobedience, you to suffer the consequences.

I chose to try to change the law. I haven`t chosen that method.

But people who sincerely believe that it`s unconstitutional to be guilty until you prove yourself innocent and you be your own -- you have to testify against yourself, I think they have a legitimate cause. And I think it`s a libertarian principle to practice civil disobedience. It`s non-violent.

Now, the only possible justification I've found for this position is that there were wording errors in most of the ratification documents for the Sixteenth Amendment - but that argument has been cut off at the knees by the Supreme Court several times. So either Ron Paul doesn't know that the Sixteenth Amendment exists (unlikely since he's referenced it often); he's clinging to an age-old argument refuted by the Court; or he doesn't have any respect for the process of amending the Constitution. None of these are palatable to me, especially not coming from The Only Honest Candidate In Politics (TM).

This much convinces me that Ron Paul is ignorant; his noninterventionist foreign policy and "the perfect is the enemy of the good" economic policy shows me that his naivete leads him to dangerously simplistic idealism. The real world is more complicated than Dr. Paul seems to believe, and I would not want such a man holding the highest office in the land.

EDIT: Ah, yes, one more nail in the coffin for Ron Paul: the crazy newsletters of his past. It seems there are only a few possibilities: first, he actually wrote those diatribes (or knew about them), which makes him a racist homophobic bigot; or second, he had no knowledge of what was being printed under his name, which makes him criminally careless. Neither of these are presidential qualities. Myself, I suspect a bit of both; there's substantiation of my point about Lincoln in one of the articles as well as personal information in some others, but the overall position doesn't sound like Paul. Anyway, if Ron Paul's candidacy isn't already dead, this drives a stake through its heart, burns the corpse, and scatters the ashes to the wind.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Some Iowa Statistics, or Why Huckabee Isn't Winning

There have been numerous comments on the incongruity of having Iowa as the first primary state, given how non-representative it is of the nation as a whole. The primary factor is the disproportionate number of evangelical voters in Iowa (though to the largely religion-blind Democratic party this is negligible); the SF Chronicle reported that around 60% of Republican caucus-goers were self-described evangelical Christians according to exit polls, which is an obvious aid to Mike Huckabee. Michael Medved has a post up at analyzing the strength of Huckabee's evangelical boost in Iowa. Unfortunately, in the process of concluding the bias isn't strong at all, he completely screws up the statistical analysis. I'll critique his post first and then offer my own conclusions about the data he presents.

Michael Medved's conclusions are unorthodox if nothing else. He compares Mike Huckabee's support among Evangelicals (46%) to his support among women, the poor, and the young (40, 41, and 40% respectively) as well as the total of 34% of caucus attendees. This leads him to the conclusion that Evangelicals did not differ significantly from Iowa Republicans as a whole. Well, I have news for Mr. Medved: this is because Iowa as a whole is evangelical. The vote counts from women, the poor, the young, and everyone are skewed by the huge proportion of evangelicals present. Thus no real conclusion can be drawn from the data Mr. Medved offers. He does basically the same analysis with Mitt Romney's numbers, making the argument that the difference between 19% of evangelical voters and 24% of overall voters isn't large, and again missing the skew in the overall numbers from the evangelical numbers. He uses this to argue that Romney's "phoniness" alienated voters in Iowa, without any evidence to support the phoniness (I know it's there, but it's sloppy to not show any since he's giving it as THE reason why Huckabee beat Romney); this conclusion might be valid if the statistics pointed that way, but they don't. There goes half his post right there.

Medved also points out here that Huckabee didn't really win the evangelical vote because he didn't get a majority; he got only 46%. But in the same article he points out that the next most popular candidate among evangelicals was Romney with 19% of the vote; the other 4 major vote-getters split 35% of the evangelical vote. In head-to-head contests among evangelicals, Huckabee beat each other candidate by at least a 70-30 split, and it's highly unlikely that Huckabee is the last choice of the 54% of evangelicals who voted for someone else. Medved fails to recognize how dominating 46% of the vote is in a 6-way race, though it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize the difference between 46% and the average of 16.66...% if votes were divided evenly.

But Medved really gets in over his head with the latter part of his post, where he attempts to blame Huckabee's low numbers among non-evangelicals on anti-religious bias. His justification? The large difference between the non-evangelical number (13%) and the overall vote. That's right, Huckabee's unpopularity among non-Christian conservatives is due to anti-religious bias, and we know this because Huckabee's just so darn unpopular among the non-Christian conservatives compared to everyone else. Of course, I know what he's actually trying to say, which is that Huckabee's unpopularity among non-Christian conservatives is so far out of line with Iowa Republicans generally that there must be some underlying reason, and anti-religious bias is the most likely (though again he provides no evidence for this claim). But the real reason, again, is the huge number of evangelicals. Because evangelicals make up such a huge percentage of Iowa caucus-goers, and because there's such a huge difference between the evangelical and non-evangelical votes (46% to 13%, for reference), the result will obviously be a large difference between the total vote and the evangelical vote. All one can conclude using Mr. Medved's methods is that evangelicals like Huckabee more than non-evangelicals; the rest of his post is a patchwork of unsupported conclusions and poor analysis of statistics.

This is not to say, however, that no conclusions can be drawn from the data Michael Medved provides. First, a trivial calculation: Huckabee's support among evangelicals was 10% greater than total support in Iowa, while the difference between the non-evangelical and total votes was 21%. Since this data would imply that 70% of the caucus-goers were evangelicals, which differs from the 60% estimate by a significant amount, one can conclude that there was a "decline to state" option; furthermore, voters that took that option liked Huckabee about as much as evangelicals. One can guess that the majority of the "decline-to-state" voters were actually evangelicals.

Second, a more significant calculation: What happens if we make Iowa more representative of the nation as a whole? Iowa's evangelical vote represented 60% of the total, but the percentage of evangelicals nationwide is only about 15%. Since the percentage of Iowa evangelicals is about 40%, and evangelicals turned out in greater numbers to vote for the Huckster (a ratio of 3 to 2), let's be generous and guess that the evangelical vote in a more representative state would make up 25% of the total (a 5 to 3 ratio - I AM being generous here). Then we can extrapolate the voting percentages Mr. Medved provided, with 75% of the hypothetical representative state giving Huckabee 13% of their support (non-evangelicals) and 25% of the state giving Huckabee 46% of their support (evangelicals) for a total of 19.8% of the primary vote in a representative state. By contrast, Mitt Romney would get 75% of this state to give him 33% of the vote and 25% of the state to give him 19% of the vote, for a total of 29%. Though Mr. Medved does not link to the source for the numbers he cites, he does say that the other candidates all had far less support from evangelicals (less than 10% each), so their numbers would be even further boosted by this conversion. So the conclusion one can draw from this set of numbers is that the disproportionate number of evangelicals in Iowa actually played a HUGE role in propelling Mike Huckabee to the top. Of course, we knew that already - even if Michael Medved still has no clue.

Anyway, this is why I still think Huckabee has no realistic chance at the Republican nomination. Without the evangelical base, he has nothing that would appeal to conservative voters. My justification of this position another time.