TV Worth Watching

After reading LB's post about the John Adams miniseries on HBO, I decided to watch it. Man, am I glad I did!

What a great series, so far. I've only seen through the 3rd episode, but it has been consistently good, if not great. What a wonderful change of pace to see ideas and reason presented in a clearminded, heroic light on the screen. And the story of the Founders' fight against tyrrany is absolutely thrilling.

If you have HBO, I strongly recommend you watch this. If not, hopefully it will be out on DVD for christmas.

Incidentally, this is how I spent my Earth Hour. I thought it was fitting.


A Righteous Anger

I am angry. Yes, given the state of the world, this is an unfortunately common state of being. But current circumstances have incited a particularly strong sense of it.

I'm not surprised that Google has taken this stand. In fact, I would have been surprised at a principled defense of capitalsim and individual rights. My anger rises not from Google's support for Earth Hour, but for the fact that a supposed paragon of the free market has betrayed its foundation so completely, and so obviously.

It is to be expected that Google would side with this movement. It is blasé. Boring.

And that is what causes the intense anger. Why is it taken as given that the most productive, the most innovative, will side with those who see the extinguishing of light as the goal?

However, I have hope. Frankly, it is dim hope, but hope nonetheless. Men and women of like mind are taking a stand, and speaking out against the patent irrationality of this position. They are speaking out in favor of human life and human achievement, in favor of reason and productivity and human happiness.

In support of this ideal, and in support of science, objectivity, and reason, take a stand in the next few days and send in your endorsement of the Manhattan Declaration on Climate Change. Don't take my word for it. Read the Declaration and decide for yourself whether you support its ideas and aims.

I know it's a small step. I know that signing your name to what amounts to a petition seems very small. However, it is something, and I think that it is worth doing. I have read the Manhattan Declaration and support it. If you do too, follow the instructions and email your endorsement. I understand the deadline for endorsements is noon, April 1, 2008. It's an interesting experiment with laudable goals. If it can make some waves, or poke some holes in the IPCC, it will have accomplished much.

Now, therefore, we recommend –

That world leaders reject the views expressed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as well as popular, but misguided works such as “An Inconvenient Truth”.

That all taxes, regulations, and other interventions intended to reduce emissions of CO2 be abandoned forthwith.

Agreed at New York, 4 March 2008

Others who are fighting the absurdity of Earth Hour:
Productivity Hour
ManHour 2008
Wyatt's Torch


EU Asserts Democracy at Turkey's Peril

Looking at it without context, the current crisis in Turkey seems clear cut. One political party is appealing to a "Constitutional Court" to have another major party shut down and the president and prime minister barred from political life for 5 years.

The EU, who is in the mix because Turkey is applying for membership, sees this and responds angrily, scolding Turkey and calling it "antidemocratic." Sounds reasonable, right?


Turkey -- the only Middle Eastern country that has been trying to modernize and Westernize -- is in a battle for its life, trying to derail the movement away from secularism toward Islamism and Sharia law. I agree that on the face of it, it seems strange, if not wrong, to have one party petition the courts for the dissolution of another party. But in Turkey's case, those who want Turkey to remain a secular state and stay true to the complete separation of church and state, are trying to fight off rampaging Islamism from the AKP (Justice and Development Party). This is a good thing, in the context of Turkey's history and the battle it is waging to keep Sharia law from dragging the country into hell.
"The AKP ... uses democracy to reach its goal, which is installing sharia [Islamic law] in Turkey," the indictment says. "There is an attempt to expunge the secular principles of the Constitution."
But the EU doesn't see it that way. Just like George Bush, they seem to value democracy as an end in itself, regardless of what ideas are being voted on. If the Turks or the Iraqis vote for an Islamic dictatorship, who are we to question that? They voted for it.

The Turks, at least those still wanting to Westernize, are hoping to gain entry to the EU. Assuming that the EU is also working towards this, we can only conclude that it would rather have a democratically elected, anti-Western Islamic dictatorship as a member, than a secular nation fighting Islamism and trying to modernize.

Well, if the Islamists succeed in Turkey and the EU wants them to join, the EU will eventually come to realize what the proper, reasoned response to the current crisis would have been. Namely, to support and assist Turkey in resisting Islamism in the name of pro-Western ideas, to make sure the prospective member state would share similar values.

More likely, the EU will decide to deny membership to a new "Islamic Peoples State of Turkey" or whatever it becomes. If they do, they will have to fabricate grounds to do so, because the real reason -- that free states cannot deal freely with dictatorial regimes hellbent on their destruction -- would directly contradict their view of the primacy of democracy. After all, the Turks would have voted for their dictators.

(Note: See Powell History Recommends for a much more detailed examination of Turkey's history of Westernization and the threat it currently faces.)


Economist refutes rationality, proves own stupidity

Thank you Boston Globe for providing an endless stream of things to get annoyed about. This time, the Globe profiled an MIT 'behavioral economist' named Dan Ariely, who is hawking a book claiming that humans are consistently and predictably irrational. Thus the title of his book, "Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions."

He starts off with a bang, saying "I don't think people are stupid - just human," of course implying that to be human is to be irrational. To be fair, the idea of behavioral economics sounds at least somewhat interesting, in that they are trying to make mathematical models correspond better to reality by challenging the long held assumption that the "economic agents" in the model will always act rationally.

Ariely, apparently in support of this approach, uses experiments to prove that people are mostly irrational in their daily choices. The problem is, these experiments are so flawed that I have no idea how anyone could find them compelling. Here's one:
In one experiment, ...to test the power of "free," he and two colleagues set up a table in an MIT cafeteria. They offered normally high-priced Lindt chocolate truffles for 15 cents and ordinary Hershey kisses for a penny. Customers had to pick one or the other, not both. Seventy-three percent of the customers saw a good deal and went for the truffles. But when the prices were cut to 14 cents for the truffles and free for the kisses, 69 percent of customers went for the kisses, even though the truffles were an even better deal.
This supposedly proves that people are completely irrational because they passed up a 14 cent Lindt truffle. The problem with this is that it completely ignores the "pain-in-the-ass factor". Yes, I just coined a new behavioral economics catchphrase. Imagine you're walking through a cafeteria and pass a table where two guys are selling cheap chocolates. You want some chocolate, you have some change, so you might as well get a truffle for a trifle since you're already going to reach into your purse or pocket for the coins.

The next day, you pass the same table, and the prices are lower. In fact, the ho-hum Hershey's Kiss is free. I know that if I were in that situation and perhaps was in a hurry, or didn't feel like searching for pennies to make up the 14 cents, or break a dollar and be left with annoying change and another useless penny that I'd just throw away, I'd just take the free Kiss and walk away. Even though I like truffles better.

Does that prove I'm irrational? Or does it show that the "experiment" is incredibly poorly designed, and only highlights that there are many other facets to the decision-making process than Ariely seems to understand?

According to the article, Ariely also peppers his book with examples from his own life.
He tells of considering a sporty Audi vs. a Honda minivan. He chose the Audi because it came with three years of "free" oil changes. Later he computed the value of the oil changes: $150, or about 0.5 percent of the purchase price. Because he and his wife have two children, the minivan made much more sense, but "free" was irresistible.
Ariely chose an Audi, which probably cost $40,000, over the practical choice of a $30,000 Honda mini-van that was much better for his family, because of free oil changes? Seriously? That is so absurd that there are only two possible explanations:
  1. Ariely truly is a complete moron, and a perfect example of the "consistently irrational economic actor" he believes predominates in our society. He doesn't take into account his family's needs or finances, and instead is lured into an irrational decision by $150 worth of free oil changes because he somehow thinks it's a better deal. Or....
  2. Ariely is a snake oil salesman.
After reading the article and taking a look at the website for his book (which I won't link to here because he doesn't deserve the publicity), I think the answer is yes to both.

In the interest of full disclosure, I haven't read his book. It's even possible that the Globe's characterization of his experiments is superficial and doesn't describe experimental controls that appear to be missing. But I'd be surprised if that was the case. Every indication is that Ariely is either a charlatan, an incompetent, or both, and is trying his damnedest to propagate the repugnant notion that human beings are inescapably, completely irrational, and all we can do is to try and trick ourselves into making good decisions, in spite or our natures.

As a conclusion, I'll let Ariely's own words speak for themselves:

How has all this affected Ariely's own decision-making? He says he tries to be alert to early-warning signs of irrational behaviors and have a plan to avert them. Examples: ... "I have learned to avoid things that are 'free.' I have learned the importance of taking decisions out of my hands, like the decision to save. I don't want to have to think every month about how much money to put toward my retirement."

As Ariely speaks, new experiments and optimistic ideas tumble out of him, like water from a fountain. "It's amazing, the little secrets of life that make us a little better," he said. "Like dieting, for example. If only we got rid of elevators. . . ." [emphasis added]


A Brief History of Presidential Doctrines

For nearly a century, the guiding principle of American foreign policy was rational self-interest, as profoundly stated in the Monroe Doctrine. Then everything changed with the imposition of the Roosevelt Corollary, taking the country in a diametrically opposite direction. The country has been lost ever since, with later presidents thrashing about, pragmatically changing foreign policy on the whim of the moment.

Over the past week I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the foreign policies of past US presidents, in the context of Scott Powell’s Islamist Entanglement history course, and his excellent post about the Truman Doctrine.

If you take a look at the Wikipedia entry on the topic, you’ll see an overview of some of the major parts of past doctrines. It's by no means comprehensive and displays some biases, but it's a pretty good starting point. As I read it, I was suddenly struck by something. It’s not a groundbreaking idea, but at the very least an interesting one, and illustrative of an unfortunate historical trend.

Here is the “table of contents” for the Wiki entry:
1 Presidential doctrines
  • 1.1 Monroe Doctrine
  • 1.2 Roosevelt Corollary
  • 1.3 Truman Doctrine
  • 1.4 Eisenhower Doctrine
  • 1.5 Kennedy Doctrine
  • 1.6 Johnson Doctrine
  • 1.7 Nixon Doctrine
  • 1.8 Carter Doctrine
  • 1.9 Reagan Doctrine
  • 1.10 Clinton Doctrine
  • 1.11 Bush Doctrine
Now here it is again, this time with the year they were declared, and the time span between them:
1 Presidential doctrines
  • 1.1 Monroe Doctrine - 1823
  • 1.2 Roosevelt Corollary - 1904 (81 years)
  • 1.3 Truman Doctrine - 1947 (43 years)
  • 1.4 Eisenhower Doctrine - 1957 (10 years)
  • 1.5 Kennedy Doctrine - 1961 (4 years)
  • 1.6 Johnson Doctrine - 1965 (4 years)
  • 1.7 Nixon Doctrine - 1969 (4 years)
  • 1.8 Carter Doctrine - 1980 (11 years)
  • 1.9 Reagan Doctrine - 1985 (5 years)
  • 1.10 Clinton Doctrine - 1999 (14 years)
  • 1.11 Bush Doctrine - 2001 (3 years)
Admittedly, this isn’t as clear cut as it looks. Some of the doctrines since WWII really weren’t fully defined foundations for foreign policy (Kennedy, Carter, Clinton) and many of them were variations on a theme. But the pattern I initially saw still holds something worth exploring.

Why did the Monroe Doctrine stand alone for 81 years? Why did it take another 43 years after the Teddy Roosevelt Corollary before Truman felt the need to declare a new doctrine? Why have there been so many since?

I submit that the Monroe Doctrine was a fundamentally sound, rationally self-interested foreign policy that worked so well, and was so right that no presidents for nearly a century wanted or needed to challenge it. Drastically simplified, here is what it said: “Nations of Europe, leave us alone and we’ll interact with you in a reasonable manner, and in turn we won’t interfere in European affairs. Meddle in the Americas, and you’ll pay.”

It doesn’t fit the intent of the post to go into more detail, but the essence of the Doctrine was not an internationalist or interventionist one, and did not state that the US would interfere in the affairs of nations in the Americas, either to help them or hinder them. It simply said that Europe’s meddlesome actions in the region would be interpreted as a threat, and the US would act accordingly in its own interests.

(I'm mulling over posting some longer thoughts about the Monroe Doctrine and its historical context, but in the interim I recommend reading the entire document yourself, including a scan of the original written speech.)

In 1904, Teddy drastically changed the course of US foreign policy by adding a corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. It’s interesting to note that he didn’t create his own doctrine, but instead used the power and clarity of the original, and attached his rotten ideas to its coattails.

While the Monroe Doctrine was focused only on protecting American interests, and was concerned with the threat of force from Europe – a threat to the sovereignty of independent nations in the Americas was viewed as a threat to US interests, not for the sake of the other nations themselves – Roosevelt declared that the U.S. had a right and duty to interfere in the internal affairs of independent nations if they didn’t live up to whatever our standards happened to be.
All that this country desires is to see the neighboring countries stable, orderly, and prosperous. Any country whose people conduct themselves well can count upon our hearty friendship. If a nation shows that it knows how to act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters, if it keeps order and pays its obligations, it need fear no interference from the United States. Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power. [emphasis and bold added]

So great was the break from the rationally self-interested policy that had served America so well for so long – and the public reaction to the US interventions in the Caribbean, and bad memories from WWI and Wilson’s League of Nations were negative enough – that President Coolidge reversed (partially) the Roosevelt Corollary in 1928. That partial repudiation, the Clark Memorandum, was somewhat contradictory and messy, but one interesting part was that it explicitly decoupled the Roosevelt Corollary from the Monroe Doctrine, rejecting that it had anything to do with Monroe. Then in 1934, even Franklin D. Roosevelt, for all his faults, continued on this track further distancing the US from interventionism.

Truman and Beyond
After WWII, as the Soviet threat became more and more obvious, Truman took a stand. As Scott Powell wrote so well:
“…Truman’s policy statement … made the all important connection between the broad abstraction of “international peace” and the obvious need to defend America’s interests. Based upon this reasoning, America took it upon itself to lead the world in a defense against communist expansion. For a period of over 40 years–the Cold War of 1947-1991–it attempted to act upon Truman’s premise that “international peace” and America’s interests were one. The core of his belief, and the essential nature of the policy, however, was the moral duty to support ‘free peoples.’”
This crucial error of tying America’s interests to the wellbeing of “free peoples” anywhere on the globe, regardless of whether there was any direct relation to our self-interest or even any complimentary core beliefs (see Vietnam), led America down a path of being an interventionist world policeman against communism, for the sake of battling communism.

After that, all the other presidents pussyfooted around the same issue, wondering how much or little to give up -- either in American lives or American treasure -- to prop up this or that regime, without fundamentally challenging the core premise.

Roughly every four years, a new president would face different challenges in the battle against communism, and alter his doctrine to support it. See Carter, who told the Soviets to stay out of the Persian Gulf, but did nothing during the Iranian Revolution. He didn’t independently identify the threats based on a rational evaluation of America's interests, but merely tried to apply the faulty ideas of Truman to the situation.

After the Cold War and without the communists to focus on, Clinton directed American efforts haphazardly against genocide in Africa and the Balkans.

My main point is that there were two fundamental principles in play – rational self-interest and altruism – and the relative fitness of the ideas is reflected by the transition between them in the history of presidential doctrines.

For nearly a century, the guiding principle of American foreign policy was rational self-interest. Then, as it was eaten away (Teddy Roosevelt) and eventually replaced by the altruistic doctrine of Truman, later presidents seemed to thrash about, pragmatically changing foreign policy on the whim of the moment.

Admittedly, perhaps it was in the nature of increasingly media savvy presidencies where it seemed like a good idea to “have a doctrine”. It became the “thing to do”. But for that, we may not have had the glut of half-baked policies spouted in the past 20 years. The core ideas didn't change during that time, so it seems better to call everything since Truman a corollary to it.

But I think the pattern goes a bit deeper than just that. Because altruism as a founding guideline for the policy of a nation is ultimately untenable, and the needs of those others we are to sacrifice for – and even who we are supposed to sacrifice for – are constantly shifting, it doesn’t surprise me in the least that our leaders can’t come up with a straightforward course of action and stick to it.

Until a president can fully understand the fundamental principles of the Monroe Doctrine, embrace them, and apply them to America's foreign policy today, we are doomed to watch our leaders rearranging the deck chairs.

Update: Added Roosevelt Corollary quotation rather than linking to it. (03/24/08)

Boston Bound?

It looks like the Caesar Augustus Van Horn family may be moving to Boston due to Mrs. Van Horn's new residency at a Boston area hospital.

That's got to be a tough situation. You know the change is coming, you've planned for it for years, but even then you can be surprised at where you end up. Gus said Boston was their 14th choice. I'm not sure how many possible choices there were, but that must be pretty low on the list.

Still, Boston is a great city, and despite the overwhelming leftist nature of much of the culture and politics, one good thing is that there are a TON of really smart people around. The chances of meeting them or working with them are pretty good. I've lived in some midwestern states where it didn't seem like there was an intelligent, let alone rational, person within 200 miles. And it's nearly OK to be an atheist here.

So welcome to Boston, Gus!

France Rattles Its Nuclear Sabre

While this article from Reuters is titled "France to cut nuclear arsenal", what I found most interesting was the clear indication from President Sarkozy that France identifies Iran as a threat and will explicitly maintain the nuclear capability needed to defend itself from that threat.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced cuts in France's atomic arsenal on Friday but vowed to keep a strong enough deterrent against threats such as the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran.

... Sarkozy said his nation had to face new security threats, including Iran, and needed to be able to strike back forcefully if attacked.

I find this candor refreshing, and I'm glad to hear of a European nation identifying the threat Iran poses, and at the very least stating that it will defend itself.
Iran denies the charges [of developing nuclear weapons], saying it only wants to make electricity. It also continues to expand its long-range missile program, and says it can hit targets 2,000 km (1,250 miles) away, heightening concern in the West.

"Maintaining the competences necessary to dissuasion at the highest level is a fundamental objective for our security," he said. "All those who threaten to attack our vital interests would expose themselves to a severe riposte by France."
I have next to zero optimism that this is the beginning of a rationally self-interested foreign policy from France, but I can certainly credit them for openly identifying the threat of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Hopefully our next US president will do the same.


Other things, et cetera, and so on #2

Good Things in the Art World

I have been following the progress of Bryan Larsen's latest oil painting over the past month or so, and so far the results are pretty amazing. He posts updates on his progress to his blog RationalArt, and through his posts I have been learning about techniques in oil painting that 1) I never knew, and 2) never thought I'd be interested in. Perhaps it's because I really enjoy his work and respect his talent that I can appreciate the technique. Strangely, when someone throws paint at a canvas or uses "found objects" (i.e. trash) to adorn a childlike rendering of roadkill, I'm not that interested in their "craft".

Also, he has a nice large reproduction of a commissioned painting he did for the cover of the BB&T 2007 Annual Report. (it's at the end of the post, and click the image for a larger version) You may remember BB&T as the bank that gave a $1M donation to Marshall University with the stipulation that Atlas Shrugged be taught.

Don't Mock the Muhammad

Bin Laden is in the news again, this time ranting against the Pope and Europe for Muhammad mockery. On top of all the other supposed evils that the West has perpetrated on the Muslim world, the Danish cartoons are apparently among the worst:
"You went overboard in your unbelief and freed yourselves of the etiquettes of dispute and fighting and went to the extent of publishing these insulting drawings," he said. "This is the greater and more serious tragedy, and reckoning for it will be more severe." [bold added]
If you're wondering how it's possible that cartoons could create such a fuss, now is a good time to point you to an excellent article by Elan Journo in The Objective Standard, called "The Jihad on America". This article goes into great detail regarding the Islamic assault on America, including an insightful analysis of the Danish cartoon issue, and how Islamic leaders stirred up the outrage in their own people. You can see the opening paragraphs of the article without a subscription, but I can't recommend highly enough that you just buy a full subscription. It's a great journal.


Both Forbes and His Critic Have It Wrong

Today an opinion piece by Thomas Sanders showed up on the Randex feed, and it caught my eye. It attempted to prove how wrongheaded Steve Forbes' earlier opinion piece had been in its characterizations of business and philanthropy, and his support of capitalism. [note: the linked website of the Arizona Daily Star may require free registration]

First, let's start with Sanders' reactions. He wrote:
In Forbes' mind, there is skulking about the land a long-standing, widely accepted cliché that business is bad because it is practiced by greedy, selfish people, and that charity, by contrast, is done by selfless people and is therefore good. He provides as evidence his interpretation of the words "giving back," "which are often employed in describing someone's philanthropic activity.

" 'Giving back' implies you took something that wasn't yours," Forbes says. "You succeed in business; you make up for it by giving your ill-gotten gains away."
I have to say, I love this characterization of the common phrase "giving back", and I think I'm going to use it from now on. OK, back to Sanders:
Where Forbes goes astray — far astray — is in his gross misrepresentation of what "giving back" actually means. Dictionaries define "philanthropy" as the effort or desire to increase the well-being of humankind through monetary contributions or other charitable aid. Within the context of true philanthropy, implicit in "giving back" is the concept of showing appreciation of and gratitude toward the society that made possible the amassing of wealth by returning some of that wealth to the society's worthy causes, thus benefiting — and improving — that society. [bold added]
Here is clearly where Sanders goes completely off the deep end. Society made possible the success of Henry Ford? Of Bill Gates? It is such an absurd statement that it's hard to believe an adult human actually holds that opinion. The only way in which society may be credited is that it stayed the hell out of the way and let these entrepreneurial geniuses get on with productive action. And I don't actually believe they should be credited at all, because simply refraining from limiting business is not an achievement.

Although he doesn't explicitly state it in his piece, his ideal is obviously altruism. He may not begrudge businessmen their success necessarily, but he certainly values their charity more.
It is indeed true that, because ours is a free society, no successful businessperson is obligated to be charitable. Fortunately, a great number of such prosperous individuals across America have not subscribed to Forbes' upside-down view of philanthropy and their benevolence has made our country a far better place.
Enough of Sanders. What did Steve Forbes actually say to get Sanders' dander up? He started off well, with the above mention of the term "giving back" and the implication that business success means ill-gotten gains. Here is the full quote from his piece:
On the other hand, charity is good, which it is. But think of it: How often do we hear the phrase "giving back," not "giving," but "giving back?"

"Giving back" implies you took something that wasn't yours.

You succeed; you've got to give back because you took something that did not belong to you. You succeed in business; you make up for it by giving your ill-gotten gains away.
Good enough so far. But here is where he proves himself a fatally flawed defender of capitalism:
Business and philanthropy are not polar opposites. They are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. The moral basis of commerce is meeting the needs of other people. You don't succeed unless you provide a product that others voluntarily want in a free market.

Productivity comes everywhere and this is the glory of free people, free markets. Our founders understood this. It's not selfishness because you don't succeed unless you meet the needs and wants of other people. A free system will allow you to develop your lawful talents to the fullest extent possible.[bold added]
After this, the rest of the article dances around this theme, but the overall meaning is clear. Forbes is defending capitalism and the individual rights of businessmen to (most of) the fruits of their labor because the ultimate ends of productive action are beneficial to others.

This view is so frustratingly disappointing because Forbes is seen as a champion of capitalism, and he gets so tantalizingly close to getting things right, sometimes. He uses many of the right words, so if you didn't read him closely you might come away thinking he really was defending individual rights and capitalism. Sadly, he is not, and he just makes everything worse by granting the altruist's premise that the moral justification of action is its benefit for others.

Strangely, Sanders picks up on this point and calls Forbes out on it, just for a moment.
But, what Forbes is actually saying is that, because it is moral at its heart and provides things that people want, successful business is the virtual equivalent of philanthropy — that the two are on the same side of the coin.
Of course that piercing and very accurate criticism of Forbes doesn't go anywhere. In the very next sentence, Sanders shows his true stripes:
He is also saying that the morality inherent in successful business and attendant, substantial profit makes "giving back" unnecessary, and that, by extension, it's perfectly fine to hoard money.
And here we are, back to the condemnation of those who wish selfishly to earn money through productive action. Unless of course they give a large amount of it away. As Sanders says to close, "That's what real philanthropy is all about." Remember, he also said that real philanthropy is "... the concept of showing appreciation of and gratitude toward the society that made possible the amassing of wealth by returning some of that wealth to the society's worthy causes...".

Forbes says, in essence, "Just creating a successful business is philanthropic enough!", and Sanders says in return, "No it isn't. You need to give more away." Forbes said business and philanthropy are two sides of the same coin, both focused on the needs of others. Sanders criticized his view, stating that Forbes' was implying they represented the same side of the coin, and instead advocating for more "true philanthropy" to balance out the implied evils of the business side.

Neither is right. Both are altruists, and it is their slightly differing approaches to the same basic ethics that represents the two sides of the coin. The same rotten, worthless, corrupt coin.

Update: Edits to closing paragraphs - 03/20/08


Sad Proof that the Balphs Really Exist

I'm reading Atlas Shrugged again, for the umpteenth time, though the first in a few years. It's kind of like getting reacquainted with old friends after a long absence. One thing I don't have the patience for is the descriptions of the secondhanders' discussions. When Wesley Mouch or Balph Eubank start talking, I tend to skim it. I know what rot they're going to say and I have no need to revisit it in detail.

But while pondering this, I realized that for the most part, I'm thankfully spared dealing with people like that in my daily life. Perhaps it's by selective pressure -- I simply refuse to spend any time with people that would spout useless drivel like that, so I sometimes forget people like that populate the world. Even at work, where I can't pick and choose with whom I interact, I rarely encounter it.

A recent work meeting hit me smack in the face, though.

Some quick background: a certain department had been operating for some years in a rather rogue fashion, and for whatever reason their activities had not been checked yet. It was found during an internal audit that some web servers they had been using violated security policy and were summarily shut down. After nearly two months of downtime and a deluge of user complaints, I was brought in to advise them on strategies to get things working again.

I went into the meeting having already laid out some options over email, and I had advised them of the seriousness of the situation a number of times over the past two years when I had happened to deal with them on other issues. Each time I had proposed options and strategies they could employ to avert what I saw as a coming crisis. In other words, a reasonable person should have seen what was coming.

I expected the meeting would be a strategy session, and that they would rely on my expertise to help guide them out of their mess. I was wrong.

For 45 minutes I sat and listened to whining as they rehashed the situation and wondered why the security team was persecuting them. Didn't they know how important their work was? They were taking the situation personally when it was anything but. A potential vulnerability had been identified and it had been closed. End of story. What they did from that point was up to them.

But they had done nothing. In two months they had not attempted to find other options, or to begin the process of rebuilding in a secure way. While their users complained, they went on as if nothing had happened. When questioned about the status of their issues, they blamed others. They threw up their hands and said "Why us?!"

I was truly at a loss for words for those 45 minutes. The levels of evasion they were displaying were just astonishing. And they were whining to someone -- me -- who had no power to fix what had happened, but only could offer them guidance so they could help themselves.

I attempted to break the problem down for them, and say simply that rather than look backward at what had happened, they needed to pursue at least two simultaneous paths to bring their sites back up. I told them point blank what those paths should be. They looked like they thought about it for a minute, and then went right back to whining. I pulled them back to concrete actions that they could take to fix the problems, and they pulled right back to unfocused ranting.

I left the meeting with nothing accomplished except for frustration at their incompetence and blindness. Later, I tried to grasp how anyone could live their life in such a way. How many little evasions add up to such a grand break from reality? How could two grown people hitch their wagons to the same bad premises and not realize it?

Now I know these questions are largely rhetorical because this type of thing happens all the time in the world. But I'm so rarely confronted with it in person that it still genuinely shocks and saddens me.

It was an interesting experiment, however. I kept looking for some glimmer of understanding, some acceptance of the reality of the situation, and there was none. I appealed to reason, logic, purposeful action, and it fell on deaf ears. If they now fail, it will be entirely of their own doing, and in willful evasion of the facts of the situation and the solutions laid out in front of them on a golden platter.

All I can do is shake my head in wonder.


Boston City Hall Takes on.... Fat?

No, not childhood obesity or anything like that. The city of Boston has finally gone and done what we have all been clamoring for, hoping for... they have banned trans fats.

Well, Praise Jeebus!

Honestly, I haven't really looked into this except to know that it's yet another example of nanny state buffoonery. I have heard that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is not far behind, of course. I'm honestly curious what the next Fad Ban of the Moment will be.

High fructose corn syrup? Nah... I think the thing has to have direct health consequences, not just a link to fatness.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the next Fad Ban in Boston (or MA) will be something environmental. Something that has to do with a carbon footprint, or something else equally absurd.

Iran's Absurd Gasoline Problem

Iran, one of the world's largest oil producers, rations gasoline for its citizens.

This isn't new news. Ahmadinejad imposed the rationing in June 2007. One would rightly ask, however, "why?!"

Here is some data to set the stage:
  • Iran has been subsidizing gasoline since at least 1979.
  • At the time the recent rationing was imposed, gasoline prices were raised 22% to 42 cents per gallon. (note that the rationing and price rise triggered rioting)
  • Last year, Iran spent nearly $7B importing gasoline.
Julian Border from The Guardian puts this situation this way:

(because of the subsidies)... There is consequently huge demand, but limited supply. With that price at the pumps, it has not made economic sense to build refineries, so Iran has managed to become an oil-rich nation with chronic petrol shortages.
Everyone I talk to, including officials, realises that the petrol subsidies make no sense, but no government since the 1979 revolution has had the political courage to cut them.

So if we look at the situation from this limited perspective, we see a nation artificially inflating demand with subsidies, and then going into debt paying for it. (Inflation last year was estimated at 20-30%.) The subsidies have also made it uneconomical to build refineries, so they can't produce their way out of the hole they have dug.

This isn't the whole story, however.

Roger Stern at the International Herald Tribune explains:

Iran has ensnared itself in a petroleum crisis that could drive its oil exports to zero by 2015. While Iran has the third- largest oil reserves in the world, its exports may be shrinking by 10 to 12 percent per year. How can this be happening?

Heavy industry infrastructure must be maintained to remain productive. This is especially so for oil, because each oil well's output declines slightly every year. If new wells are not drilled to offset natural decline, production will fall.

This is what is happening in Iran, which has failed to reinvest in new production. Why?

As mentioned previously, the subsidies for domestic gasoline prices make it very unattractive for foreign or domestic firms to invest in new refineries. But there is another aspect to this situation that is equally compelling. Stern continues...

For the mullahs, the short-run political return on investment in oil production is zero. They are reluctant to wait the 4 to 6 years it takes for a drilling investment to yield revenue. So rather than reinvest to refresh production, the Islamic Republic starves its petroleum sector, diverting oil profits to a vast, inefficient welfare state.

Employment in the loss-making state-supported firms of this welfare state is essential to the regime's political survival. [bold added]

I must admit that when I first heard that Iran rations its gasoline and imports huge amounts of it, I thought that the problem was likely because they couldn't find or maintain the technology to refine it. They may be able to pull the oil out of the ground, but being a strongly anti-western nation, I assumed they were falling drastically behind in technology. Just think of what the West found after the Soviet collapse, and how desolate and backward it really was despite putting on a brave face for 50 years.

The general consensus seems to be that the welfare state is more to blame and the problems are mostly economic and policy errors. But I was happy to see Stern bring up the very point about technology:

Refinery leakage exemplifies all that is wrong with the Iranian petroleum sector. According to the state-run Iran Daily, leaks account for 6 percent of total production, yet go unattended.

This colossal revenue loss persists due to the Soviet-style logic of Iran's state-planned economy. Subsidized energy prices force the state oil firm to sell at a loss to the domestic market. Therefore, while Iran could gain billions by fixing the leaks, the state oil firm would be worse off because the maintenance would generate no new revenue. Thus oil and money simply seep into the ground. [bold added]

Perhaps more than anything else, I see the symbolism of outward technological decline -- such as these decrepit refineries -- as inescapable signs of much deeper and greater rot at the core of a society.

The glaring absurdity of one of the most oil-rich nations on earth being reduced to rationing gasoline leads us inevitably to fundamental examples of political and philosophical failures. The Iranian government is based on Islamic law, but in political practice it's just another form of socialism. Soviet-style managed economy, political oppression, stagnation... it's a story we've all seen before. With very few exceptions, the history of the past 100 years has shown that the extent to which a country denies individual rights and with it, free markets, it hastens its downfall.

Here's hoping that the extreme nature of Iran's belief system leads them to collapse faster than the Soviet's did, and before they build or buy nuclear weapons.


Eliot Spitzer: Two masters put him on a spit

I was traveling today for work, and heard and saw a bunch of news, gossip, and bullshi'ite about the whole Eliot Spitzer thing. Without access to a computer, I was wishing I could either write a post, or see what other OBloggers had to say about all of this.

When I got home I saw that there was no need for me to post about it. Just read what Gus Van Horn has to say in The Soul of a Tyrant, and what Myrhaf discusses in Eliot Spitzer and Reality.


A Must Read: PHR on McCain, Obama, Iran and Israel

Scott at Powell History Recommends has posted a very provocative article titled McCain or Obama: Either Way It’s All Up to Israel.

Just go read it.


The Smoking Ban: Protecting Us from Ourselves, Since 2004

I live in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a place where the government goes above and beyond the call of duty in trying to protect us from ourselves.

A few years ago, Boston enacted a smoking ban in all bars and restaurants, and a bit later, the whole state followed suit. As an Objectivist, I ranted against this absurdity to anyone who would listen. I don't smoke, but I fully support the right of business owners to run their establishments as they see fit, for patrons to frequent those establishments according to their own likes and dislikes, and for employees of those establishments to work there or not based on their own values and judgments.

Supporters of the ban really didn't have a leg to stand on when they tried to defend customers from second-hand smoke -- the argument of "well, just don't eat/drink there if you don't want to smell smoke" was too obvious and rational to fight against successfully.

The argument that got the most traction was in defending the poor service-industry workers who had to put up with the smoke. This was all based on them having a "right to work" as well as a "right to work in a safe environment", taken to mean their right to work was translated into a duty by a bar owner to make things "safe".

For some reason, raising the point that those workers didn't have to work in a bar that allows smoking was met with cries of outrage. I distinctly remember peoples' voices getting high-pitched and frantic, with whines of "but EVERY bar allows smoking! What is a waitress going to do if she doesn't want to work with second-hand smoke? She'll starve!"

So the law passed, and smoking was banned.

Then, as a father nearing middle age who rarely goes out to bars anymore, I saw what a difference it makes in my going-out experience. I meet up with old friends in Boston maybe once a month at most. Going into an old Irish bar or dive that we used to frequent when I was in my mid-20's (oh soooo long ago...) is an entirely different thing now. I don't have to immediately throw my toxic jeans and shirt into the laundry when I get home, and take a 45 minute shower just to get the burned-in smoke smell out. My eyes don't burn when I'm at the bar. My voice doesn't get hoarse. It's awesome.

Would I change the law now, even though I love the small impact it has had in my life?

Yes, in a heartbeat.

If there was a market for non-smoking bars, it would have been established as an alternative before. If the market has since shifted and there is greater demand for it now that people have seen the change, repealing the law now may actually allow both smoking and non-smoking bars to flourish.

But even if it goes back to the old way, where most good bars -- the ones where the food/drink/people are the best, the popular ones that people want to go to -- are smoke filled and make my eyes water, I'd still rather have that than knowing that my momentary enjoyment of clean air is at the expense of the individual rights of businessmen, employees and customers alike.

So as much as I hate smelling like I rolled around in an ashtray upon leaving a bar, I say repeal the smoking ban!


Other things, et cetera, and so on #1

On Moths, Soup, and Memory

A recent study appears to show that moths retain caterpillar memories. Please check out the article for details, but to sum up, the researchers trained some tobacco hornworm caterpillars to avoid a certain smell by shocking them, and even after metamorphosis, the resulting moths also avoid the smell.

Having been delinquent in maintaining my up-to-date knowledge of moth metamorphosis research, there were a couple of things that really jumped out at me from this article.
  1. Caterpillars can be trained? Upon a moment's thought, it seems obvious that just about any organism with any sort of somewhat sophisticated neural system would be able to develop a kind of sense memory, or learned response to stimuli. I just hadn't pondered the particular case of the caterpillar.
  2. On the face of it then, it doesn't seem totally alien that the resulting moth would retain some of the caterpillar-ian memory. It is the same organism, regardless of its form. That is, until I learned the following.
  3. During the pupa stage (in the cocoon), the metamorphosis apparently isn't just a rearranging of parts.

"The intriguing idea that a caterpillar's experiences can persist in the adult butterfly or moth captures the imagination, as it challenges a broadly-held view of metamorphosis -- that the larva essentially turns to soup and its components are entirely rebuilt as a butterfly," says senior author Martha Weiss, an associate professor of Biology at Georgetown University. (bold added)

Soup?! As I said, I haven't kept up with moth science, but I had never heard that metamorphosis was such a radical tear-down and rebuilding. I mean, what happens here? Do some enzymes get activated that liquify all the body parts into constituent proteins and genetic material? Or individual cells? Or groups of cells/proto-organs? How does the rebuilding take place? Some cellular structures must be controlling this process, but I can't reconcile a soup-theory with any other process I know about.

Can anyone out there shed some light on this Soup Theory? I've done some cursory searches to find out more advanced explanations of the metamorphosis of moths and butterflies, but I have yet to find anything satisfying. I'll keep looking and post what I find, but if anyone has any links to check out, please post them in the comments.

To me, this issue is crucial to understanding the caterpillar-to-moth memory trick. If the Soup Theory means that even the neurological system is dismantled or even dissolved and then rebuilt, retaining memory seems impossible. This leaves the question of whether some structures are retained (like the 'brain') and the rest of the 'soup' organizes around them.

I first heard this story this morning on NPR, and the researcher who was interviewed made an offhand joke at the end, saying in effect, "We may be getting closer understanding metamorphosis, but we still have no idea why moths crash into porch lights." This was rather annoying to hear, because a pretty good theory for this behavior has already been put forth.

Name That Religion

Here are some quotes from an article about intra-religious clashes in the middle east between hardcore members and more mainstream members over properly modest dress and other public actions.

Dr. H_ is a modern (religious) woman who dresses modestly, ... and observes the (tenets of the religion). One day driving home, she saw that someone had put up a sign in her neighborhood that read "Don't pass here unless you dress modestly."

"I find that offensive," she says. "I don't think that anybody should impose dress codes on the public."

When she tried to haul the sign down, some ultra-(religious people) pelted her and her car with rocks. Dr. H_, who asked that her full name not be used, went to the local police, but she says they did nothing.


That rock attack was hardly an isolated incident. People driving on the (holy day) have been bombarded with rocks. Earlier this year in B_, a young ... woman was sitting next a (national) soldier on a public bus when ... men assaulted both of them and forced the woman off the bus. Men and women, they said, should be segregated. Later, (a member of the same religion) who stood up to the zealots within his own community was himself brutally beaten. He said it was like a pogrom.

If I was reading this post, I'd think the quotes came from an article about Iran. That would be wrong. The story from NPR is about ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel.

The parallels between ultra-orthodoxy in Judaism and Islam (and Christianity, too) are very striking.

I don't see any greater lesson here than that, however. It's not surprising in the least that religious zealots would do something like this, regardless of the religion. And though there may be some extra-crazies making things tough on the not-quite-as-crazies, either in Iran or Israel, at least the Jews aren't turning out anti-Western terrorists hell bent on our destruction.

But while we focus on the terrorist threat, and even though some are starting to come around to the view that we really are fighting militant Islam, it's important to remember that the essential nature of all religion -- subjugation of self to the supernatural, and denial of an individual's right to their own life -- is the defining characteristic that makes the pogroms possible.


This Old "Green" House

As I mentioned previously, I enjoy home improvement projects, and do all the work myself. What I didn't mention is that I hate paying other people to do work for me. So my motivation in these projects, and in doing them myself, is three-fold:
  • I enjoy the productive activity of moving walls, running electrical or plumbing work, building new floors, etc., and doing it well. My standards of perfection are much higher than a contractor's. And it's a great weekend contrast to sitting in front of a computer screen all week.
  • Everyone in the family benefits when the rooms are more open, updated, and usable.
  • I save a shi'ite load of money sourcing the materials myself, and not paying labor or permitting fees. And yes, I'm smart enough to read a book on good construction practices and install an electrical circuit without government oversight, thank you.
Because of my penchant for this kind of thing, because of the age of my house, and because of my Boston-area location, the This Old House franchise is a favorite of mine. I watch the shows when I can, and I subscribe to the monthly magazine. Sure, their projects are over-the-top for my budget -- as much as I'd like to have $300K lying around to spend on doubling the size of my house, that's a little bit of a stretch for me right now. Maybe after the summer. Of 2020.

But there are still plenty of great ideas to work from, and many of the problems TOH's subjects have are similar to my own. I look forward to the magazine every month. But lately, I've noticed a disturbing trend.

TOH is turning green.

Over the past year or so, I've noticed an uptick in the number of environmentalist-related articles. But in October 2007 they had an entire issue dedicated to Green Remodeling, and since then it seems like eco-friendly building crap has taken up a good 30-40% of the magazine each month. With TOH Magazine, you can now learn about how your choice of sustainable bamboo flooring will impact your "carbon footprint". As annoying as this infiltration of environutjobbery is, the magazine is still worth reading. I just skip those parts. But if the magazine starts to follow this TOH-online article, I may just have to cancel my subscription:

Growing Up Green
Technology, politics, economics. While the future of the green movement might be shaped by these large, complicated factors, the question of whether sustainable trends can be sustained themselves really comes down to the next generation of homeowners—children. And as parents and educators can attest, the outlook is promising.

"We actively cultivate sustainability awareness with them, and they are quite receptive to the messages," says Michael Klug of his two children. "My sons rail against SUVs even more than I do."

I have to say, this is not what I'm looking for when I open a home remodeling magazine. However, the worst thing about this is...

There is a market for this stuff.

TOH isn't stupid. They are responding to market forces and putting out content that their customers want to read. Assuming they are shifting their focus based on customer data and feedback (a reasonable assumption), this means that people are clamoring to find out how to 'live green', even in their simple bathroom updates. This is depressing.

And while the case can be made for conservation of energy in your house to lower your bills -- I do it too -- TOH is trending away from the Good Ol' Yankee Thrift of keeping your costs down, and instead the undertone is the tired old environmental moralism. "Not only will you reduce your bills, but you can sleep easy at night knowing that your greed and materialism is not killing the planet."

Well, This Old House, I'm letting you know now that you are on notice. Keep this trend up, and you'll lose my $12 per year. So shape up.