Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Binghamton Monthly Tourney November '09

I have a rating now! Well, actually, I think it will take several more days to show up online, but I am still officially a member of USCF! This is very exciting. How did I get a rating, you ask? Simple! I went to Binghamton for their monthly tourney, as the title suggests. It offers free 1-year membership in USCF with the $35 entry fee. Great deal, considering the membership's around $30/year by itself.

The chess was very fun, though not quite as intense as when I played Palatnik in the simultaneous match. I recorded the games, of course, and I present them here with extremely rudimentary analysis. I am the Unrated player in each game--I decided to leave out names, since there's no particular need to include them.

Game 1
White: Unrated
Black: 1476
E91 - King's Indian/Classical System with 7. ...d6

1.d4 Nf6
2.c4 g6
3.Nc3 Bg7
4.e4 d6
5.Be2 0-0
6.Nf3 Nc6
7.0-0 d6
8.Be3 Ng4
9.Bg5 Qd7
10.Ne1 Nf6
11.f4 h6
12.Bh4 Nh7
13.e5 dxe5
14.dxe5 Nd4
15.Bf3 Nf5
16.Bf2 Rd8
17.Nc2 Qe7
18.Qe2 c5
19.Rd1 Rxd1
20.Rxd1 Qc7
21.Nb5 Qe7
22.Ne3 a6
23.Nxf5 gxf5
24.Nd6 Qc7
25.Bh5 f6
26.Ne8 Qe7
27.Bh4 Bd7
28.exf6 Nxf6
29.Bxf6 Bxf6
30.Nxf6+ Qxf6
31.Rxd7 b5
32.cxb5 axb5
33.Qxb5 Qh4
34.Bf7+ Kh8
35.g3 Qf6
36.Qb7 Rd8
37.Bxe6 Rxe7
38.Qxe7 Qxb2
39.Qe8+ Kg7
40.Qf7+ 1-0


Game 2
White: Unrated
Black: 2097
Opening: D08 - Queen's Gambit/Albin's Counter Gambit with 4. a3

1.d4 d5
2.c4 e5
3.dxe5 d4
4.a3 a5 (a3 is passive, but required. Perhaps better is 4. Nf3 immediately.)
5.e3 Nc6
6.Nf3 Bg4
7.Be2 dxe3
8.Bxe3? Qxd1 (8.Qxd8+ Rxd8 9.Bxe3 Ne7 10.Nbd2 Ng6 11.0-0-0 drawish)
9.Bxd1 Ne7
10.Nc3 0-0-0
11.h3? Bxf3 (11.0-0 Bxf3 12.Bxf3 Nxe5 13.Be2 Nf5 14.Bf4 Ng6 15.Bg4 Nxf4 16.Bxf5+ Kb8 17.Rad1 drawish, but I haven't thought about it much)
12.Bxf3 Nxe5
13.Be2 Nf5
14.Bf4 Ng6
15.Bh2 Nd4
16.Bg4+? f5 (16. 0-0 is far less bad)
17.Bd1 Re8+
18.Kf8 Ne5
19.b3 Nd3
20.Nd5?? Re1# (Anything else loses, but Nd5?? was fastest)


Game 3
White: 1550
Black: Unrated
C02 - French/Advance Variation with 4. Bb5+?

1.e4 e6
2.d4 d5
3.e5 c5
4.Bb5+? Bd7
5.Bxd7+ Nxd7
6.c3 Ne7
7.Nf3 Nc6
8.0-0 cxd4
9.cxd4 Qb6
10.b3 Rc8
11.Ba3 Bb4!?
12.Bb2 Na5
13.Nd2 0-0
14.Qe2? Rc2
15.Rb1 Rc8
16.Rfc1 Qd8
17.Rxc2 Rxc2
18.Qd3 Rc7
19.Qb5 Nc6
20.a3 a6
21.Qd3 Be7
22.Rc1 f6
23.Qc3 fxe5
24.Nxe5 Nxe5
25.dxe5 Bg5
26.Rc2 Rf7
27.Nf3 d4!
28.Qd3 Rd7
29.Bc1? Bxc1
30.Rxc1 Rd5
31.Re1 Rc5
32.b4 Rc3
33.Qb1 Rxa3
34.Rd1 Qb3
35.Ng5 d3
36.Nxe6 Nxb4
37.Qb2 Ra2
38.Qb3 Qxf2+


Game 4
White: 1784
Black: Unrated
Opening: King's Indian Attack vs. French Defense

1.e4 e6
2.d3 d5 (I actually expected him to play 2.d4 so much that I wrote down d4 on my record sheet, made my move, and then noticed his next move and realized, "Oh, right, he plays KIA.")
3.Nd2 Nf6
4.e5 Nd7
5.g3 Bb7
6.Bg2 c5
7.Nf3 b6
8.0-0 Nc6
9.Re1 Be7
10.Nb3 Qc7
11.Bf4 c4
12.Nd4 cxd3
13.Nb5 Qd8
14.Bg5 0-0
15.Bxe7 Qxe7
16.cxd3 Ba6? (I honestly didn't spot the next move. I got compensation, though.)
17.Nc7 Nc5
18.Nxa8 Nxd3
19.Re3 Nxb2
20.Rb1 Nc4
21.Rc3 Rxa8
22.Qf4 b5
23.Rc1 Nb4
24.Rb3 Nxa2
25.Ra1 Nb4
26.Rxb4 Qxb4
27.Rxa6 Qb1+
28.Bf1 b4
29.Ng5 Qg6
30.Bh3 b3
31.Rxe6 b2!
32.Bf5 b1=Q+
33.Bxb1 Qxb1+
34.Kg2 Qb7? (34.fxe6 and White cannot mate)
35.Qf5 g6 (if now ...fxe6, 36.Qxh7+ Kf7 37.Qh8+ Ke7 38.Qxg7+ and Black can resign)
36.Qf6 fxe6
37.Qxe6+ Kh8?? (37. ...Kf8 escapes, eventually)
38.Nf7+ Kg7
39.Qf6+ Kf8
40.Nd8+ 1-0


I was...moderately happy with this outcome. I definitely should have won the last game, and probably could have drawn the second game with solid play. My play wasn't exactly ideal in the other two games, either. But overall I showed well, I think.

Oh, since I haven't put up my game against Palatnik on the blog, I'll do that now. It was a simultaneous game, so I don't read too much into it, but I was ecstatic to get the draw.

White: Semon Palatnik 2473
Black: Terry Drinkwater Unrated
E05 - Catalan Opening
1.d4 Nf6
2.c4 e6
3.g3 d5
4.Bg2 Be7
5.Nf3 0-0
6.0-0 dxc4
7.Ne5 c5
8.dxc5 Qc7
9.Nxc4 Rd8
10.Qb3 Bxc5
11.Nc3 e5
12.Bg5 Nc6
13.Bxf6 gxf6
14.Nd5 Rxd5
15.Bxd5 Nd4
16.Qd3 Bf5
17.Be4 Bg4
18.Bf3 Bf5
19.Be4 Bg4
20.Bf3 Bf5

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


So after I made a big deal out of apologizing for being a day late, this is three weeks later that I actually put anything on the blog. As expected, writing challenges don't just disappear when I make a commitment to make them disappear, but I'm working on it. Anyway, the way the writing is going, I can't exactly post in chronological order. Some scenes don't work at all, and some flow out nicely. So today I'm posting my most recent effort. Time to introduce some new characters, neh? Well, not really; but they do come up.


As Yuki and I circled warily, I mused that it wasn't actually all that different from work. All right, so office suits didn't carry swords into the conference room, but their verbal sparring often had the same life-and-death quality.

She moved first, reversing direction and coming in hard with a slash towards my left shoulder. I took it on my left guard and punched out with the other, pivoting towards her, but she just kept moving and ended up to my left with a clear shot at my back. I dropped into a forward roll and winced as her sword cut the air above me.

I spun as I rose, expecting a fast-approaching blade, but Yuki just stood there looking at me curiously. Not questioning my fortune, I started my own charge, hoping to get in close, where my mailed fists would be more effective than her blade. But she danced away, and I had to put up both arms to block a flurry of blows.

"Slow," Yuki taunted as she struck. "Perhaps it is my fault for expecting something. What happened to the skill of the one known as Iron Fury?" She worked my guard high, then suddenly reversed into a middle thrust.

"I'll take age and treachery over youth and skill any day," I retorted. I pivoted around the incoming sword and dropped my right hand down to keep her from shifting to a slash. The pivot ended with my back to the sword, as I reached out for a vicious backhand blow. Yuki traded for a knee to the side, and then it was her turn to fall away in a roll. I pursued, but stopped before a nigh impenetrable steel curtain, Yuki whipping her blade back and forth to keep me at bay even as she rose.

"You say that, but you don't really mean it," she pointed out. "You fight tricky, but you never used tricks to fight. You've laid on a world-weary veneer, but--"

I interrupted with my fists. We exchanged a few blows, sword on fist, then separated. Yuki was the worse off; I could feel a bruise coming up, but she was limping.

"Why'd you cut me off?" she demanded.

"After years apart, you still talk like you know me," I said. "Not to mention you still talk like it's a free action. I'm not here to listen to you. I fight, I take you to the hospital, I go. That simple." I closed in, leading with my left.

And blocking with my right, against Yuki's descending blade. I told you it was her feet, right? Against anyone else two fists beats one blade, but Yuki was already miles away from my intended attack. Not just that, either. Her grin was all the warning I had before I got a hammer blow to the side. I staggered, and she was behind me. I whirled, left arm sweeping below my right guard, but she just came in behind the block and poked my chest with her sword. I raised my arms in defeat.

"So is this what it takes to get you to listen?" Yuki inquired, breathing hard.

"Well, it helps," I replied.

"'Good," she said with some asperity. "Because 'simple' is the last word for our situation, and if it takes a blade to make you listen to an adventurer, I'll leave it there till I'm done."

"Now you're just being contrary."

"Maybe I am," she admitted, smiling. "Besides, inside's better than out for long talks." She sheathed her sword. "But then, the only reason you're not leaving right now is that you know I'm faster. And when I'm done, you'll know why that's worst for all of us."

"All of you, maybe," I retorted. "Worst for me would be--wait a second. All? You mean everyone's back? And how did you manage that little feat?" I looked quizzically at her, but faltered at her suddenly grim expression.

"Not everyone," she said quietly. "Verth never took to townie life the way you did. I found him a month ago, all right--found him with a layer of snow covering the hole in his belly. Word was he'd fallen in with the local thugs, and ran his mouth once too often for the boss." She stared into the distance. I laid my arm across her shoulders.

"The thugs?" My voice was soft.

"Dead," she said, almost without emotion. But her eyes were moist. "Took me a week to root them all out. Not sure anyone else knew who was who--got myself a couple of wanted posters by the fourth day. You know how it is."

"That I do," I sighed. "How about the others?"

"Carran never left," she answered, blinking her eyes dry. "This is his life. Couldn't pry him away from it with a crowbar. Lyran was on-again, off-again. Trying to have it both ways, I'm surprised he never got--caught. Too fond of creature comforts for his own good, the rascal," she grumbled good-naturedly. "We'd pick him up in Plesset and he'd drop out in Deringham, saying he'd never be back. Didn't have your resolve, I guess. Ephestra settled down like you, though. Hell, she was going steady when I showed up. She was more trouble than you, honestly. You don't want to come back, but she didn't want to leave. Love's harder to budge than hate."

"She left, though," I cut in. "Why don't we head back to Folger's, and you can catch me up on why."

"What, you don't want to hear more about Ephestra's exploits?" she asked mischievously. "Time was you'd be jealous."

"Time gone past," I replied in kind, then sobered. "Besides, you may be chuckling now, but last night you weren't so pleasant. Not angry, either, however you tried to fake it." I fixed her with a serious stare. "You were nervous--scared, even. And that's got me more worried than when you had three feet of steel pointed at my chest."

"Yeah, but that's because you knew I wouldn't follow through," she pointed out.

"No, that wasn't it," I replied, moving suddenly. Before she could react I had her in a headlock. She yelped, reaching for her sword, but I blocked her from drawing. "Notice anything?" I asked her casually.

She sniffed. "You didn't break a sweat. But why let me think you were out of practice?"

"Because I wanted to see if you needed me, broken down as I wasn't," I replied, releasing the hold. "Besides, if you'd been going all out yourself I'd have been down at the first blow. Shall we?"

"I still would've won," she said irritably, stalking towards the road. I smiled and followed.


I'll also be editing the first excerpt for continuity and style whatnots.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Ok, So It's a Day Late

As promised, the first part of my writing. I may have to rethink this--it wouldn't be fair to me or to you to release half-finished junk (for example, right after the end of this section I've skipped a good deal of what I envision to be internal dialogue because it depends on where I take the novel later). OTOH, it means I could edit the posts as I go along, which might be educational in itself.

All right, here goes.


“So a guy walks into a bar.” I used to laugh at those. Get a man drunk and he’ll do things he wouldn’t soberly consider for love or money. Ever hear the one about Superman luring people off the roof? But sobriety hadn't stopped me from doing unimaginable things. And love had nothing to do with it, worse luck.

So I ignored the joker and ordered my drink. Yeah, I was sober, but I didn’t want to be. And this was the only place in town that served 12% beer, so here I was. The first swallow scorched my throat going down, and I was going for actual flames when a shove from behind turned the rest of the bottle into glass shards and foamy splatter. I turned around to let the shover have a piece of my mind, and perhaps a few hours’ rest. Like a drunkard, remember, I thought, and let my fist come around in a massive, sloppy arc that it never completed.

Yuki stood there, one hand on her hip like the other was meant to be, only it was busy crushing my wrist. “Really, John, I knew you must have deteriorated, but this is pathetic,” she said with a hint of accent. “It makes me wonder if I shouldn’t just break this and leave you to fester.”

I’d prefer if you didn’t—break it, anyway,” I managed with some semblance of politeness. “Be hard to work one-handed.” If she was here, then so was the rest of the gang.

“Relax, John,” she said scornfully, seeing my eyes dart. “They're busy trawling--you know the drill. I wouldn’t need backup anyway, the state you’re in.” I didn’t dispute the point, even if she had mistaken my punch for the real thing. “On the other hand,” she added, “I’m not here to drown myself in alcohol either, like you are. I’ve got better things to do than dwell on the bad old days, and now you do too.”

“Yeah, I have a job.” I freed my wrist. She let me. “I make an honest 9-to-5 living now, and I don't need--"

"Trouble," Yuki interrupted, sneering. "You used to live for trouble, John. You've got the scars to prove it. Are you so scared of acquiring more that you'd hide behind a desk and a mug of beer? Have your fists gone soft? Or is it that you're too good for us, with your steady pay and comfortable lifestyle?" She looked up at me, face hard. "I guess we don't need a man getting fat in the belly and the purse. We'll just be about our merry way, and let you be about your job." She made it seem a dirty word.

I knew she was goading me, but I was never famed for my patience. "Do you want to see if I've gone soft? Take this outside, and we can have ourselves a philosophical discussion." I almost said "put up your fists," but I remembered that it was her feet I'd have to watch.

"It can wait until you've sobered up," she replied. "We're staying at Folger's Inn down Broadside Way. Tomorrow, at noon--if you still have the guts." She strode away. I didn't bother to protest that I'd had less than one drink. Watching her flowing movements, I wasn't sure I could best her, sober or not. One fight, I told myself. I have my pride. But after that, I'm done, no matter what they say or do.


ps. John and Yuki are just names, right now, and subject to change. I can tell you one name that won't come up as Yuki's replacement, as if it matters: Kagemoto Hoshiko. I want to use that name, but not on a character who seems so hard-headed. I might even write something just for that name, because it's so evocative to me. It translates: Star's child, origin of shadows. Sweet.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


Those who know me know I have a problem with writing. It's not that I write poorly, as I hope a quick sampling of this blog would show. I've never gotten a grade below A- in any English class, and a large part of that is my cumulative essay grade. (Certainly it's not my work ethic.) No, writing well is not the problem. Writing quickly is the problem. I take forever to put fingers to keyboard, far longer to put pen to paper. Every sentence is a hard-fought battle against my twin desires to rewrite the sentence (I'm doing it now, with this sentence--and yes, I often end up with long paranthetical remarks as a result of this) and to go surfing my routine websites (a smattering of webcomics, manga websites, and Facebook-related material) for the umpteenth time just to get away from the writing.

This difficulty is made infinitely more frustrating by the fact that I deeply enjoy writing. As an avid reader, it's hard for me not to fantasize about turning my own ideas into essays and stories--hence this blog, at least regarding the essays part. I look forward to filling white space with words, words that interconnect to form rich dialogue, complex analysis, (I'm freezing up again here, trying to come up with another example to fill the gap and fit the rule of three) evocative poesy, and all the other types of literature I so eagerly gobble up from the reader's end. (My brain is screaming "aagh, repetition!" I'm trying to ignore it.) I go on Facebook and read my friends' poems, stories, and essays, and I think, "I want to do that!" or even "I could do better than that!" Yet my resolve dwindles after another few (synonym for frustrating, synonym for frustrating...ah, what the heck) hours watching a white screen remain infuriatingly (yay, found a synonym!) blank--unless I fill the screen (and the time) with games or other escapes.

Much of the problem is what rests between my ears--not too little, but too much. This is not a reference to my intellect, but rather to my extraordinary dependence on mapping out everything I plan to write before writing anything at all. (I'm doing it now--gotta stop, gotta stop!) The papers I turn in for my English classes are generally my first drafts--with an inner voice driving me to perfect everything as I write it, revision often proves redundant. Yet going through the whole process of revision would still take less time than the time it takes me to produce those first drafts, more because the tension of producing quality work according to plan in one go drives me quite literally to distraction than because it's more difficult to produce quality work. Write well, write quickly, or write according to plan--I can only do two of the three at any given time.

Therefore, I'm now working on how to facilitate the interplay of planning and writing so that each helps, rather than hinders, the other. As part of this exercise, I'm writing a story. What kind of story? I had no idea when it started. I went with a bar joke and let the characters play out from there. As I write, the story takes shape--something like the result of a three-way between Watchmen, R.A. Salvatore's work, and Order of the Stick. That's if the story doesn't change, which it's guaranteed to, but so it goes. From here on out, I'll post weekly updates to the story, and I promise they will be substantial. I mean, as long as I'm producing large quantities of verbeage, why not throw it to whatever snarling Internet trolls (or possibly even reasonable people, if I'm lucky) might frequent this blog?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Just a Theory

I have a bit of an obsession with intelligent design. Look back through my older posts and you'll find a brief post about Ben Stein's movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. That post has approximately 50 pages' worth of commentary, a pitched battle between myself and an ID proponent. If you want to look at the minutiae of the debate between evolutionary theory and intelligent design, look there. This is not a post to deal with minutiae.

This is my response to a single comment made by one design supporter on one Facebook discussion. This is the essence of my stance on intelligent design.

I don't understand why this is some sort of evidence against ID. Presumably a designer would know this and that's why sexual reproduction is the way it is.

This is the nugget, the kernel within the post that demonstrates why ID should never be taught in science classrooms (I would say "will" but I know a parochial school in my area that teaches intelligent design). This is because the basic reasoning behind this quotation can apply to any natural phenomenon we care to name.

"Presumably a designer would know this and that's why gravity is the way it is."

"Presumably a designer would know this and that's why malaria is the way it is."

"Presumably a designer would know this and that's why the stars are the way they are."

"Presumably a designer would know this and that's why the brain is the way it is."

Each sentence covers a wide swath of scientific knowledge - relativity, epidemiology, astronomy, neurology. "This is the way it is because a designer did it."

This statement demonstrates two massive problems with intelligent design:

1) The familiar objection - it's unfalsifiable. A designer could have done anything, useful or useless, beautiful or ugly, efficient or inefficient. Like the invisible insubstantial room-temperature dragon in my basement, the designer cannot be disproven. God could have created fossil bunnies in the Precambrian era. The designer could have predicted the existence of pollution, and created an algorithm that would eventually develop enzymes to counter that pollution. The designer could even have worked through strictly evolutionary processes (though no ID advocate likes to admit that, because they think evolutionary processes don't work). No matter what science discovers, the designer could have done it. Like the bogeyman it will always haunt scientific inquiry no matter how long scientists spend disproving "facts" like irreducible complexity. The designer becomes a tautology. Once it is assumed that 1 = 0, anything can be proven.

2) The design hypothesis seriously hinders scientific inquiry. Don't bother with predictions, don't bother with experimentation, don't bother with discovery - the designer's got it covered. He knew something, and that's why the world is the way it is. What else are we to assume from the red tape ID proponents have strung up across every evolutionary phenomenon beyond the level of speciation? "It's impossible for the bacterial flagellum to have developed naturally, so don't bother investigating it." "It's impossible for complexity to arise through stochastic processes, so don't bother simulating it." "It's impossible for paleontologists to find enough transitional fossils to satisfy evolutionary theory, so don't bother digging." Or how about the favorite whipping horse of any design supporter, abiogenesis? "It's impossible for life to have developed naturally. The odds against it are staggering. So never mind the abiotic synthesis of amino acids, of polymers, of phospholipid bilayers. Never mind autocatalytic cycles, and the actual laws of probability. It didn't happen, so don't bother investigating it." Don't bother with scientific inquiry.

Science asks HOW phenomena develop, HOW processes function, HOW the universe came to be the way it is. ID answers with WHO, a perverse frameshift mutation of the question. Thus it is reduced to tearing down what is already known, what we already have. In the process, it makes a mockery of the method by which we gather knowledge--that is, science. Then ID proponents wonder why scientists scorn them, why their "theory" is refused "equal time" with "Darwinism" and instead "suppressed" by "establishment" science and education. The answer is simple: it is not, and has never been, science.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

How the Laffer Curve fundamentally undermined fiscal conservatism

Just about everyone knows the basic idea behind the Laffer curve: at both 0% and 100% taxation, the government gets no tax revenues, meaning that decreasing taxes can theoretically lead to increased revenues. The resultant theory of supply-side economics helped catapult Ronald Reagan to the Presidency in the 1980s, and controlled GOP economic policy for a generation. It also crippled economic conservatism on the national stage, perhaps beyond our ability to heal.

But wait, you say. Isn't lower taxation in line with the goals of fiscal conservatism? Well, yes and no. To economic conservatives, lower taxation is a desirable but secondary byproduct of lower spending. This unremarkable revelation came to me when I was thinking about the California budget deficit (see two posts down) and realized that the debate was framed incorrectly.

We don't have a budget deficit. Wait, don't leave, let me explain! The term "budget deficit" implies that the problem is insufficiency; specifically, that tax revenues are insufficient to cover spending programs. But this is an absurd way to view the problem. For starters, tax revenues have consistently increased relative to inflation over any period of time you care to name. Some data: here are historical records of tax revenues over the last 75 years and an inflation calculator. I challenge readers to find any time period 10 years or longer where real tax revenues decreased. Factor in population growth if you like; it doesn't matter. America's government, just like California's, has generally taken in more money from its citizens each year.

Furthermore, tax revenue is, by and large, the independent variable in this equation. The only government that has absolute control over how much money it gets is a dictatorship. More to the point, changes in tax policy don't have any real long-term effects on tax revenues, which have hovered around 18% of GDP for at least 30 years and probably much longer (here's some historical GDP data for curious readers to play with). George Bush's much-reviled (or much-vaunted, in the right crowd) tax cuts led to a short, sharp fall (>10%) in tax revenues as a percentage of GDP between 2000 and 2004 - but by 2007, revenues were right back on the long-term trend line. The limited effect of political decisions on tax revenues is amply illustrated by this graph from Paul Krugman's 1/16/08 NY Times editorial, "Taxes and revenues - another history lesson." Krugman contends that this graph shows the benefits of increasing taxes, but fails to note that the graph correlates much more closely to GDP than to either Clinton's or Bush's tax policies.

Clearly, tax revenues aren't the problem - they're perhaps the last consistent performer in Washington. Hence I repeat my point: we do not have a budget deficit. Rather, what we have is a spending surplus. Basic economics teaches us that we have limited resources to satisfy unlimited needs; but when politicians can punt scarcity into the national debt, they tend to spend beyond their means in attempting to deliver instant gratification of their constituents' demands. This leads right into the basic tenet of fiscal conservatism: the key to responsible governance is restraint in government spending. In short, the problem isn't how much money government takes in, it's how much money government puts out.

In this sense, the Laffer curve is nothing but trouble for economic conservatives. Here's the core of the problem: the Laffer curve diverts focus from the problem of excessive spending by dangling the dual carrot of lower taxes and higher revenues. Supply-side economics is only useful insofar as it suggests that raising taxes is not necessarily an efficient revenue collection instrument; taken any further, it generally becomes an argument for lower taxes in order to spend more. Hence absurdities like conservatives compromising with liberals by spending money on social programs as well as the war effort; like the "compromise" between tax cuts and increased spending in the recent trillion-dollar stimulus bill; like the generation-old tendency of the opposition party to accuse the majority party of indiscriminate spending, ignoring its own indiscretions when it was the majority party (blatantly evident in both parties over the past three years). Rather than measuring our wish-list against our budget, we measure our budget against our wish-list. Then we wonder how it is that so many people bought houses they couldn't afford to keep, caught up in the dream of a permanent real-estate boom.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Perspective on Religion, Prayer, and Meditation

I recently received a questionnaire from a classmate related to a class assignment, and I feel like my responses were worthwhile enough that I should lengthen my memory of them by posting them here. Some of the answers are very shallow; I plan to contemplate the questions further when I have time.

1. What is prayer to you? What is your definition of prayer?

Prayer (meditation) is a process of stillness, focus, awareness, contemplation, and understanding - in that order.
[secondary] Prayer is stress relief, an emotional buffer between my raw feelings and my actions.

2. Why do you pray?

I pray (meditate) when I am most emotional, and when I am least emotional. When I am intensely emotional, I seek to calm my feelings and restore my self-control. When I am emotionless, I seek to enter the process described above through stillness.

3. What form does your prayer take?

I quiet myself, assume a posture (no specifics other than tucked chin and straight back; it's pretty spontaneous) and focus on my breathing.

4. To whom do you pray? What is your image of God?

If I pray to anyone, I suppose it's myself. In a sense, I pray that I may improve myself.

5. How often do you pray?

Intermittently over the past five-ish years, recently increasing in frequency. I now pray (meditate) in some fashion on most days.

6. Do you feel that God ever communicates to you? How?
7. Have you ever had a time when you felt that one of your prayers was answered? Describe the incident. If not, is there a time where you feel or felt close to God?

No, and no.

8. At what point do you feel most spiritual? With whom? When?

I am most spiritual when I am surrounded by my own thoughts. In that sense, I am always alone when I am spiritual, even though I may be with other people.

9. Why are you religious (or not)?

Because I was not brought up in a religious context, I am not predisposed to believe in a higher power, which precludes a belief in most religions. When it comes to my worldview, I value the empirical over the hypothetical, the descriptive over the normative, the real over the ideal; as such, I prefer to restrict my belief in the supernatural and/or transcendent. Finally, the material plane satisfies my capacity for wonder, so that I have no real desire to add a divine element to the mix. The causes and consequences of humanity interest me more than the causes and consequences of deities.

10. Do you want to be religious or are you pushed otherwise? Why?

While going to a religious school has certainly opened my eyes to the possibilities of faith, I remain unwilling to circumscribe my worldview with religious doctrine. To adopt religion seems a limited and limiting way of life. At this time, the most religion I would allow into my life would be the admission of a higher power (Deism) mixed with elements of philosophy and meditation from various Eastern religions. And at this point, I think my beliefs would be most accurately described as agnostic, which is a shift from my atheism prior to entering Bellarmine.

California's Budget Crisis and the Economic Stimulus

My father often tells me that he has only ever seen one graph in the San Jose Mercury News that concisely conveyed relevant information without distortion. The graph was in an article from the late '90s discussing California's budget deficit, and it graphed the California government's inflation-adjusted revenues and expenditures over time. The notable point to be recognized, my father would say, is that although both lines steadily increased as time passed, the line representing expenditures was consistently higher than the line representing tax revenues. California's tax revenues had increased at a rate significantly outstripping inflation, meaning that in any given year, Sacramento politicians had more real resources than the previous year--yet the government's response was simply to keep spending beyond its means. Worse, my father would tell me, California was making long-term spending commitments, out to a decade or more, based on the assumption that these trends would continue, that the tech boom was a permanent phenomenon. This article, said my father, plainly showed the seeds sown for a California crisis down the road.

Of course, I'm not saying my father was some kind of genius just because his prediction is coming true. Anyone with the same information and a basic capacity to reason could have done the same, and many probably did. Still, I have to say, this sounds a lot like what my father's been saying:
California spends far more than it takes in, despite having some of the highest taxes in the United States. It is hostile to business, and the middle class is fleeing in droves. It runs huge deficits every year, yet the Dem dominated legislature refuses to do anything effective to cut spending.

Now one in ten Californians is unemployed. Does any of this sound familiar? It should. It’s what Obama and the Democrats have in mind as a “solution” for the rest of the country.

I don't really agree with Bill Quick on that last point. The problem with California is that politicians based their spending commitments on the rose-colored glasses theory of economics. They planned based on an eternal boom, and it came back to bite them. Obama, on the other hand, knows the economy's tanking, and he's promoting spending in order to fix it. In other words, rather than being the fuel for spending (as in California), the economy is now the impetus for spending. As such, I don't think it's fair to say that Obama and the CA legislature are touting the same solution, because they've been working on different problems.

However, it is telling that when the economy was booming in California, the answer from the left was increases in social spending on education and healthcare, coupled with tightened environmental regulation under the recently established California EPA. And here is Obama's analysis of the economic crisis, taken from his recent not-State-of-the-Union speech to Congress:
The fact is, our economy did not fall into decline overnight. Nor did all of our problems begin when the housing market collapsed or the stock market sank. We have known for decades that our survival depends on finding new sources of energy. Yet we import more oil today than ever before. The cost of health care eats up more and more of our savings each year, yet we keep delaying reform. Our children will compete for jobs in a global economy that too many of our schools do not prepare them for. And though all these challenges went unsolved, we still managed to spend more money and pile up more debt, both as individuals and through our government, than ever before.

(emphasis mine)
So Obama advocates increased spending on education, healthcare and the environment as partial solutions to the crisis (even accepting the nebulous connection between the former and the latter), while California Democrats advocate increased spending on education, healthcare and the environment as something to do with cash from boom times. It's almost as if their drive for this social spending is completely indifferent to economic concerns, and all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the economic crisis is just a means to push through the left-wing political agenda. "Never let a good crisis go to waste" and all that.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Working Government

"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."

Volokh Conspiracy's Ilya Somin writes a thoughtful post with this quotation from Obama's inauguration speech as the vehicle. Professor Somin argues that "[Government] has systematic flaws that justify a presumption against it," basically defending the virtues of small government. It's a great piece of work, and Volokh has a great comment culture, so read the whole thing. However, I think Somin passes over the fundamental problem with this statement, with only a passing reference to what I consider its biggest flaw: "Who could possibly be against government when it 'works'?"

My problem with Obama's statement is not that it has no general presumption about limiting government power, but rather that it has no general presumptions at all. The only positive declaration implied by the statement is that what "works" is important; but without any idea of what "working" is, how are we the listeners supposed to learn anything from this statement? Without any semantic content in the statement, listeners are free to attach any interpretation they want to it, making Obama into a tabula rasa for everyone's hopes and fears. Everyone's in favor of things working; the problem is that nobody can agree on how best to arrive at the "working" conclusion. Obama's statement, like many before it, expresses the obvious and skips all the controversy that comes attached.

For reference, here is the full transcript of Obama's inaugural address. The statement in question can be found on page 2.