Sunday, April 26, 2009

Viral epidemics

My recent foray into the HIV/AIDS controversy has now tuned me to these periodic "pandemic" scares. Here is the most recent one.

MEXICO CITY – A unique strain of swine flu is the suspected killer of dozens of people in Mexico, where authorities closed schools, museums, libraries and theaters in the capital on Friday to try to contain an outbreak that has spurred concerns of a global flu epidemic.

Wait ... SUSPECTED killer? What exactly does that mean? A particular strain either exists in the body or it doesn't. How can you suspect?

The worrisome new virus — which combines genetic material from pigs, birds and humans in a way researchers have not seen before — also sickened at least eight people in Texas and California, though there have been no deaths in the U.S.

So in other words, in neighboring, rich America, this strain isn't fatal. What's the danger then -- the virus, or the poor conditions of Mexico city?

"We are very, very concerned," World Health Organization spokesman Thomas Abraham said. "We have what appears to be a novel virus and it has spread from human to human ... It's all hands on deck at the moment."

Very very concerned. About 20 deaths in Mexico. When 64,000 die of all varieties of flu every year, these 20 (with an unknown mortality rate although no infected persons have died in the States) have "all hands on deck." Right.

The outbreak caused alarm in Mexico, where more than 1,000 people have been sickened.

Wait, by this particular strain? How do they know that? Untold thousands of people get sick every year in Mexico, but they somehow know that more than a thousand have been sickened by this strain? How? Are they genetically sequencing the viruses of every sick person that comes into the clinic?

Residents of the capital donned surgical masks and authorities ordered the most sweeping shutdown of public gathering places in a quarter century. President Felipe Calderon met with his Cabinet Friday to coordinate Mexico's response.
The WHO was convening an expert panel to consider whether to raise the pandemic alert level or issue travel advisories.
It might already be too late to contain the outbreak, a prominent U.S. pandemic flu expert said late Friday.
Given how quickly flu can spread around the globe, if these are the first signs of a pandemic, then there are probably cases incubating around the world already, said Dr. Michael Osterholm at the University of Minnesota.
In Mexico City, "literally hundreds and thousands of travelers come in and out every day," Osterholm said. "You'd have to believe there's been more unrecognized transmission that's occurred."
There is no vaccine that specifically protects against swine flu, and it was unclear how much protection current human flu vaccines might offer. A "seed stock" genetically matched to the new swine flu virus has been created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, said Dr. Richard Besser, the agency's acting director. If the government decides vaccine production is necessary, manufacturers would need that stock to get started.
Authorities in Mexico urged people to avoid hospitals unless they had a medical emergency, since hospitals are centers of infection. They also said Mexicans should refrain from customary greetings such as shaking hands or kissing cheeks. At Mexico City's international airport, passengers were questioned to try to prevent anyone with flu symptoms from boarding airplanes and spreading the disease.

And now we learn about the enormous government response. To 20 deaths. Of a disease that kills 64,000 every year.

Epidemiologists are particularly concerned because the only fatalities so far were in young people and adults.

Young people and adults. Yeah, that about covers everybody. Who else is there? I'd be concerned if a flu strain was killing people that weren't either young or adults, because I've never heard of such a thing.

The eight U.S. victims recovered from symptoms that were like those of the regular flu, mostly fever, cough and sore throat, though some also experienced vomiting and diarrhea.

So 8 people get this flu in the states and ... it's a regular flu, no deaths. Pandemic? Really?

U.S. health officials announced an outbreak notice to travelers, urging caution and frequent handwashing, but stopping short of telling Americans to avoid Mexico. Mexico's Health Secretary Jose Angel Cordoba said 68 people have died of flu and the new swine flu strain had been confirmed in 20 of those deaths.

So the flu has killed 68 people, and 20 of those people have the new strain. Why aren't they concerned about the other 48, that died of all the other strains? Or the horribly inadequate government healthcare that causes people to die of an illness that would not be fatal in the States?

At least 1,004 people nationwide were sick from the suspected flu, he said.

Ah, 1004 people are sick from the SUSPECTED flu. Are we suspecting that it's the flu generally, or that it's this PARTICULAR flu? How many people are NORMALLY sick from the suspected flu this time of year?

The geographical spread of the outbreaks also concerned the WHO — while 13 of the 20 deaths were in Mexico City, the rest were spread across Mexico — four in central San Luis Potosi, two up near the U.S. border in Baja California, and one in southern Oaxaca state.

109,000,000 people in Mexico, the vast majority of whom live in unsanitary, undernourished, poverty conditions. 20 of them die of the flu. That's 1/5,000,000. We have a pandemic on our hands! But of course, transfer those cases to the states (which does not have a state-run healthcare system) and the disease isn't fatal. Interesting.

Scientists have long been concerned that a new flu virus could launch a worldwide pandemic of a killer disease. A new virus could evolve when different flu viruses infect a pig, a person or a bird, mingling their genetic material. The resulting hybrid could spread quickly because people would have no natural defenses against it.
Still, flu experts were concerned but not alarmed about the latest outbreak.
"We've seen swine influenza in humans over the past several years, and in most cases, it's come from direct pig contact. This seems to be different," said Dr. Arnold Monto, a flu expert with the University of Michigan.
"I think we need to be careful and not apprehensive, but certainly paying attention to new developments as they proceed."

The CDC says two flu drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza, seem effective against the new strain. Roche, the maker of Tamiflu, said the company is prepared to immediately deploy a stockpile of the drug if requested.
Both drugs must be taken early, within a few days of the onset of symptoms, to be most effective.
Cordoba said Mexico has enough Tamiflu to treat 1 million people, but the medicine will be strictly controlled and handed out only by doctors.

And now, the profit motive. American pharms, ready to spring into action!

Mexico's government had maintained until late Thursday that there was nothing unusual about the flu cases, although this year's flu season had been worse and longer than past years.
The sudden turnaround by public health officials angered many Mexicans.
"They could have stopped it in time," said Araceli Cruz, 24, a university student who emerged from the subway wearing a surgical mask. "Now they've let it spread to other people."
The city was handing out free surgical masks to passengers on buses and the subway system, which carries 5 million people each day. Government workers were ordered to wear the masks, and authorities urged residents to stay home from work if they felt ill.
Closing schools across Mexico's capital of 20 million kept 6.1 million students home, as well as thousands of university students. All state and city-run cultural activities were suspended, including libraries, state-run theaters, and at least 14 museums. Private athletic clubs closed down and soccer leagues were considering canceling weekend games.
The closures were the first citywide shutdown of public gathering places since millions died in the devastating 1985 earthquake.
Mexico's response brought to mind other major outbreaks, such as when SARS hit Asia. At its peak in 2003, Beijing shuttered schools, cinemas and restaurants, and thousands of people were quarantined at home.
In March 2008, Hong Kong ordered more than a half-million students to stay home for two weeks because of a flu outbreak. It was the first such closure in Hong Kong since the outbreak of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome.
"It's great they are taking precautions," said Lillian Molina, a teacher at the Montessori's World preschool in Mexico City, who scrubbed down empty classrooms with Clorox, soap and Lysol between fielding calls from worried parents.
U.S. health officials said the outbreak is not yet a reason for alarm in the United States. The five people sickened in California and three in Texas have all recovered.
It's unclear how the eight, who became ill between late March and mid-April, contracted the virus because none were in contact with pigs, which is how people usually catch swine flu. And only a few were in contact with each other.

And now, the collossal overreaction. Shutting down the entire city

CDC officials described the virus as having a unique combination of gene segments not seen before in people or pigs. The bug contains human virus, avian virus from North America and pig viruses from North America, Europe and Asia. It may be completely new, or it may have been around for a while and was only detected now through improved testing and surveillance, CDC officials said.
The most notorious flu pandemic is thought to have killed at least 40 million people worldwide in 1918-19. Two other, less deadly flu pandemics struck in 1957 and 1968.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Religion as rationalization

Got into a fascinating discussion at this blog about this video:

I was fascinated by what would make this guy put this out there. Was this a deliberate lie, or does he really believe this? If he believes it, why? If this is a lie, what's his motive?

Salman Hameed of the host blog raised an interesting hypothesis -- that he is so obsessed with his anti-semitism that he really thinks this is true.

I found that explanation to be highly credible. And then I took it a step further, and hypothesized about the psychodynamics that could drive such a belief. If you are in a state of utter paranoia and panic about this perceived incredibly powerful force that you perceive as insidiously overwhelming your homeland and culture ... you might find yourself seeing symbols of this everywhere, even if it's not true.

The best analogy I could think of is an angry wife. Sometimes a wife gets mad at her husband because he deserves it for something specific he did. But other times it seems that she's already feeling angry at him, or life or the country they're in or whatever, and she projects that anger onto an object -- be it his car, his haircut, his teeth, whatever. She criticizes the object vociferously -- not because the object itself deserves it, but because it acts as a symbol for her overwhelming emotional state.

Perhaps that's what this poor sop is doing.

And then it occurred to me that perhaps much of religion (including atheistic religion) is, in practice, a rationalization and symbolism for deeply felt emotions. A jihadi feels deeply alienated from the world, yet longs for a place of peace, and he perceives that outside forces are to blame for his plight. Jihad is a religious language that matches perfectly with those emotions. It explains why he is feeling alienated, why he hates the West, and gives him hope for a better life. The answer seems intuitively, emotionally, deeply obvious. So he believes it.

I wonder how many other religious beliefs could be seen in this light. Calvinism, for instance, is the belief that we have no control over our wills -- that we are dirty, sinful, and corrupt -- and that only by submitting our will to God can we live rightly. That strikes me as fitting closely with the psychodynamics of a child who feels they lack an authentic will of their own, who worship a father figure, and who have deeply ingrained self-hatred. Perhaps the religion is simply the language that articulates the feelings which come first.

This puts a whole different light on the fact that many people follow the religion of their family -- and perceive it not as momentum, but as genuine, self-held belief. The emotional environment in which they grew up conditions them in such a way that the same beliefs that were intuitively obvious to the parents are also intuitively obvious to the children.

But it has the additional benefit of explaining why some children go a different route than their parents. Because a child has emotional drives of his own, and is not fully determined by the way he was raised. This would explain my case, in which I differ from my family on virtually every essential element of our creed. While they certainly influence me, I have an emotional environment of my own -- and the things that make sense to them do not necessarily make sense to me.

What's my emotional environment and religion? It's grounded on enlightened self-interest, and the belief that harmony with other people of high quality is a highly rewarding outcome. I am relentless in trusting no one else's judgment -- I trust only my own evaluation fo the facts. This emotional environment stems from a childhood of being lied to constantly by religious and atheistic demagogues, and told that I must sacrifice everything for what? Always some unfalsifiable ideal.

And indeed, this reflects itself in my religion. I believe that humans are designed by God to be selfish, and that with wisdom, selfishness leads us back to harmony with God and with man. I do not submit myself to any creed, because I do not trust any authority. And I believe that the road to truth comes through careful, deliberate, relentless examination of the facts.


And what could we say of the materialistic atheists? Well, I'd guess an emotional constitution that wants everything to be orderly and predictable -- that cannot tolerate ambiguity or confusion -- that struggles to hide and stifle the chaos within their own souls, and the souls of humanity, with a nice, clean, orderly explanation. Unfortunately, that explanation fails to adequately explain the facts -- but the facts are too scary to deal with. They must be suppressed in favor of clean, orderly theories.

Now, having analyzed religion in terms of the emotional biases that lead to preference of belief, does that discredit religion itself? By no means. By logical necessity, some set of facts about religious topics must be true. There either is a God or there is not. He either judges us or he does not. Etc. Some religion must be true.

This analysis merely points out that our selection and preference for religion is often guided less by a search for truth and more for a set of beliefs that confirms our preexisting emotional predisposition.

Of course, once recognized and owned, our emotional predisposition is something that can be molded. We need not always be a jihadi or a conventional atheist. We can recognize the disfunction inherent in each of those ways of looking at the world, and adjust ourselves.

And I would think, the more we adjust the lens with which we look at the world to match reality, the more accurately our religious conclusions would match Reality.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Libeling our times.

Our ignorance of history makes us libel our own times. People have always been like this. -- Gustave Flaubert

Atheists against religious tolerance.

Found a scary article today by Sam Harris. Key quote is this:

"I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance-born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God-is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss." From The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Link here

On the face of it, he claims that religious tolerance is a destructive force. Really? His line of reasoning is this -- if we refuse to call a religious idea wrong (like "I will get 72 virgins in heaven if I blow up this building") then we have no basis for stopping them.

But in arguing this, he misunderstands the basic concept of religious tolerance.

First, religious tolerance is and always has been bound by law. This is to say, "you can believe whatever you want, but you cannot act in such a way as to violate the commonly agreed-upon law." The basis for acting against a terrorist is not "You may not believe that about God." It is, "Blowing up buildings is illegal."

Second, religious tolerance is not religious acceptance. You tolerate a screaming baby next to you on a full flight. But that doesn't mean you like it or think it's as good as any other scenario. It means that, because of the rights of all the people involved, there's nothing you can do to force the baby to stop. You can't throw the baby out the window, smother it, or force somebody in first class to hold it. The baby and its guardian have rights which you can't violate. You have to tolerate the screaming.

Does that mean you can't talk to the person? Of course not. Maybe you have tips on how to keep the baby quiet. Maybe you've noticed that the baby's diapers are dirty and need changing. You can converse, attempt to persuade, even cajole. But you cannot violate their rights.

That difference between tolerance (I'll put up with it) and acceptance (It's fine) is extremely important in the context of religious tolerance. We don't have to accept all views other than our own. But we do need to tolerate them.

And why? Why is tolerance so important?

Primarily, because we don't trust anyone to be the moderator of Truth. No Christian, no Muslim, no Jew, no Atheist, no Agnostic, is to be trusted as gatekeeper of Religious Truth. Because who knows for sure what's absolutely True -- who is sure enough to justify their punishing people who don't believe what's true? Nobody. That is the fundamental assumption underlying religious liberty.

And it's why religious tolerance is so important.

Now it might be argued that I'm just playing a semantic game -- that he was really arguing against what I called "religious acceptance." But if so, he's arguing against something that isn't a significant factor in the world. Everybody who has an opinion on religious matters believes their opinion is better than the alternatives. Dogmatics because their dogma is right. Agnostics because the evidence is unclear and therefore those who have strong opinions are wrong to do so. In other words, they believe agnosticism is better than religionism. Who are these "acceptanceists" out there arguing that no belief system is better than another? I haven't met any.

So if he meant "religious tolerance" as the belief that all belief systems are equal -- and then went on to argue that this concept was one of the principle forces leading us into the abyss, then who are these people who think every belief system is equally valid? I haven't met one.

So, he gets away with this argument through equivocation -- his conflation of tolerance with acceptance. He blames a basic principle of human liberty (tolerance) for something it doesn't do (accepting all religions as equally valid). Simple, no frills logical fallacy.

The ironic part is, of course, that the author is sinking to the level of the worst of his opponents. How many religious wackjobs would make the same argument against him? "We cannot tolerate atheism, because CLEARLY [insert religion] is the truth religion and atheism is the source of all evil in the world."

And around and around we go again.


Some [men] kill because their faiths explicitly command them to do so, some kill though their faiths explicitly forbid them to do so, and some kill because they have no faith and hence believe all things are permitted to them. Polytheists, monotheists, and atheists kill – indeed, this last class is especially prolifically homicidal, if the evidence of the twentieth century is to be consulted. Men kill for their gods, or for their God, or because there is no God and the destiny of humanity must be shaped by gigantic exertions of human will . . .

Men will always seek gods in whose name they may perform great deeds or commit unspeakable atrocities . . . Then again, men also kill on account of money, land, love, pride, hatred, envy or ambition.

Does religious conviction provide a powerful reason for killing? Undeniably it often does. It also often provides the sole compelling reason for refusing to kill, or for being merciful, or for seeking peace; only the profoundest ignorance of history could prevent one from recognizing this. For the truth is that religion and irreligion are cultural variables, but killing is a human constant.
David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, 12-13

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Introversion: characteristic or condition?

On my drive today, it occurred to me that introversion might better be seen as a "condition" rather than a "characteristic." What I mean is this: We commonly say that a person "is" introverted -- as though that were a fundamental characteristic of them as a human being. But what if it is instead a condition -- the way a person behaves due to their situation?

One thing: if introversion were a characteristic, we would expect a person to always be introverted -- but in fact, many introverts become very outgoing in the right circumstances -- generally, when they find themselves in a group of like-minded people with whom they can fit in. The fact that a person can be introverted in one situation and extraverted in another implies that the situation causes the condition, rather than something inherent in the person.

So what causes introversion? My initial hypothesis is this: introversion is a combination of three factors -- feeling like one does not fit in with the people one is currently surrounded by, 2) wanting to engage in the group only if it is likely to result in acceptance and fitting in, and 3) Being either unwilling or unable to expend the mental energy necessary to fit in. Extraversion, on the other hand, is a combination of wanting to interact and either a) fitting in, b) not fitting in but either not noticing or not caring.

Thus, a person is not an introvert because there is some "introversion" characteristic in him, but because he is unable to fit into the group, and so he finds it excessively difficult to engage the group. It's possible not to fit in for two reasons -- a) you understand what is going on in a group, and find the people around you to be intolerably stupid, or b) you don't understand what's going on in the group because you are not sufficiently acquainted with the culture of the group. In other words, you can be introverted because you're in a group of people you find stupid, or because you perceive yourself to be too stupid to participate and be accepted.

Of course, place that same person in a situation in which he feels like he fits into the group and is accepted, and your "introvert" suddenly becomes an extravert.

This would also explain the common phenomenon that introverts need time to "recharge" alone, because social interactions tire them out. It's not that the social interactions themselves tire them out -- it's that, because they don't fit in, interacting takes a lot of mental energy -- like speaking a second language -- and it tires them out. But again, place that "introvert" in a group that he can connect with, and suddenly the need to "recharge" disappears.

Extraversion, of course, is either fitting in, or not fitting in and either not noticing or not caring. Thus a socially adept person would connect with a group, and become very outgoing because he felt accepted and understood. Alternatively a socially maladapted person would not realize or not care that he was not fitting in, and consequently would be very outgoing in the group, but (because he did not fit in) would ultimately drive others away.

Therefore, introversion is a combination of three things -- 1) Perceiving that a set of behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable to a group, 2) Wanting to interact only if you expect that interaction to result in acceptance, 3) finding yourself in a situation where you perceive that fitting in is either impossible or so difficult as to be exhausting.

Take away any one of those three conditions, and an introvert magically becomes an extravert.

Seems to much better describe the experience of introversion. And it explains everything in terms of "wants" and "perceptions" that can be recognized and altered by the person, rather than a native "characteristic" with which one is stuck. I like that.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


While thinking further about a conversation I had with Sadunkal about meaning, it occurred to me today that understanding what "meaning" means in the context of language can be very helpful in exploring the "meaning" of life.

The first thing is that to have meaning, you must have a mind. Without a mind to interpret facts, there can be no meaning.

The second thing is that there are two types of meaning: intended meaning and perceived meaning. This applies both to language (What I say versus what you understand) and life (What I want my life to mean versus what others perceive it as meaning).

The two types of meaning have very distinct characteristics.

Intended meaning is pretty cut and dry -- you mean what you mean. But there are some inherent dangers.

The first is, obviously, the risk of meaning something wrong. You may say -- and quite sincerely mean -- that the Earth is flat -- but the plain facts of reality confound you. So it is with life. You may intend your life to "mean" total sacrifice to others -- but that is self-defeating -- a person cannot live in total sacrifice, because they will die. And further, in order to live in total self-sacrifice, you force someone else not to. A world in which everyone lived by that principle would not function. It is a "wrong" meaning, because it contradicts the facts of human life.

The second inherent danger in intended meaning is not being clear enough in what we mean -- you might say "I love you" to someone. But what does that mean? Does that mean you'll stay with her forever? That you wanna screw her tonight? That you want to make her feel better? That that's just what people say? One phrase, vaguely defined, is really no meaning at all -- it leaves both the speaker and listener without a clear sense of what's actually being said. So it is with life. Unless you are very clear about what you intend things -- and your life as a whole -- to mean, you will act vaguely and indecisively -- and will inevitably by misunderstood.

Perceived meaning is even hairier. We can perceive meaning correctly, incorrectly, or even in the absence of meaning! If I say "Peach" and you're an English speaker, generally speaking, you'll perceive my meaning. But if you're a Turkish speaker, you'll perceive something entirely different -- a curse word, in fact. We can also perceive meaning where there is none -- for instance, seeing a particular cloud formation as a sign that we ought to marry the next girl we see, or that walking under a ladder leads to this or that.

So it is with life. I may mean my life to speak "success," but another might perceive it as "arrogance." The meaning in our lives can only be perceived as intended if the observer shares our understanding of what actions mean what things. Similarly, it's possible to find meaning where none exists -- as with the Jihadi who sacrifices himself for a paradise he will not inherit.

Another important point is to stop looking for "objective" meaning. There is no "meaning of life" carved in some objective rules of nature, any more than there is an objective definition of the word "Peach." That's not to say that nothing means anything -- only that meaning is in the eye of the beholder. That beholder might be me -- it might be my neighbor -- it might be God -- but it is always relative to the values of the beholder, and not to the universe.

But significantly, the relativity of meaning does not imply a relativity of reality. "Peach" means different things in English and Turkish. However, in both languages, it refers to a definable, real thing. So it is with life. Career success may mean "Work ethic" to one person and "materialism" to another -- but work ethic and materialism are both real things -- and a person who shares the same values will draw the same meaning from the actions involved.

So the ultimate question is not "What's the meaning of life?" It's "What do I want my life to mean, and what meaning will others (human and/or divine) perceive from what they see in my life?" Those questions, I think, are not easily answerable -- but at least they're answerable with some effort.


Amazingly, I found myself banned from a blog today. I commented on three articles. The first one was about the female California Sunday School teacher arrested on allegations of killing an 8-year old, stuffing her body in a suitcase, and dumping it in a lake. The only evidence presented in the article was the woman's statement that the girl visited her that day, and the allegation that it was her suitcase. Extremely weak case on the face of it. No motive. No MO. No witnesses. No evidence.

The blog article, of course, was entitled "Jesus made her do it," and went on and on about Christian whackos killing people. Assuming she's guilty based on a ridiculously weak case. I queried why a bunch of leftists would assume someone was guilty based solely on an arrest, given the thousands upon thousands of acquittals every year, and the extremely weak evidence as presented in the media coverage. I never got a response.

The second article involved an anonymous allegation in an Italian newspaper that the Pope had somehow blocked the US appointment of an ambassador, based on her position as pro-choice. No details were given as to how this was done. The allegation was anonymous. And as anyone who understands how politics works knows, an ambassador's views on an issue of domestic law have absolutely no relevance to the hosting state -- the ambassador cannot change Vatican law, and would be foolish to try. On the other hand, the Vatican made an official statement flatly denying having received any proposed ambassador, much less somehow rejecting her. I pointed all this out. No response from the author, although I got some interesting dialogue from readers.

The third post reported a hacker that had apparently caused a number of computers to flag gay books at Amazon as "inappropriate," so they were removed from the bestseller lists. The author said this stood in contrast to the allegation that Amazon had "gone fundy," and begun censoring gay books. Clearly Amazon had not gone fundy -- it was a hacker.

I pointed out that Amazon was already "censoring" books -- but instead of deciding what books should be "censored" themselves, they allowed the users to do it through their "inappropriate" ratings. I then wondered whether it was censorship at all, since the books could still be purchased -- the only effect was that a private company chose to remove smut from its bestseller lists. Finally, I concluded that if that counted as censorship, then it was also censorship not to have gay books in the front window @ Hastings, where kids could see them while walking by, eating their Sno-Cones.

This last post disappeared without response. And when I posted again to see if it has been removed or if there had been an error, my post didn't show up. And although I was "subscribed" to the page, I had not received e-mails from other comments, as I had in the past. Then it dawned on me: I'd been banned.

So what did I learn about this particular leftist? Well, he:
1) Takes the cops at their word about murder allegations against sunday school teachers, without any demand for substantiation in the case;
2) Takes anonymous, vague, self-contradictory allegations against the Pope as true;
3) Thinks it's censorship to take adult books off the best-seller list of a bookselling website with a wide audience;
4) Censors readers who question his presumptions without personal attacks or bigotry, express or implied.

Now don't get me wrong -- he has every right in the world to block me or whoever else from his blog. It's his blog. But he did this in an article in which he decried censorship by a private bookstore for keeping porn off their personally owned and maintained bestseller lists. More than ironic.

The whole time I was engaged in this misadventure, I was struck by the similarities between his behavior and that of fascists. Trust the cops implicitly. Trust anonymous, unfalsifiable allegations. Censor your opponents.

And then I remembered, the Nazi party was the National SOCIALIST party ...

But the biggest insight I think I gained was the sense of "tribal warfare" in his approach to these issues. His actions are not driven my principle so much as what "team" you're on. If you're on the leftist team, then a private company's decision not to promote you sufficiently is censorship. But if you're on the rightist team, then "it's my blog, my rules, and I can cut you out whenever I like."

Cops aren't to be trusted implicitly, unless the accused is a Sunday school teacher. 'Cause she's on the religious team.

And an anonymous, vague, unsubstantiated allegation beats the word of the Pope any day of the week.

While viewing this through a tribal lens is pretty scary, it does bring things into focus. Until today, I had always been confused by the seemingly erratic behavior of leftist extremists. But now I have a model to construct at least hypothetical explanations for that behavior that are consistent with some inner, driving mental principle.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

In the news

Today in the news, a woman jumped into a polar bear enclosure at the Berlin zoo, and then (seemingly surprised that the bear wanted to eat her) tried desperately to escape, and a Saudi appeals court did not approve a judge's rejection of an 8-year old's effort to divorce her 47-year-old husband from an arranged marriage (on the basis that the child's mother could not represent the child as she was not the child's legal guardian at the time).

I thought to myself, what do these two stories have in common? Aside from deceptive headlines, they also leave me with the impression that the spectrum of human thought is much wider than we typically think. Why would a woman jump into a polar bear enclosure and then run away when they attacked her? Conceivably, because she wanted to die, or because she thought they would be cuddly (and was unpleasantly surprised), or because she wanted to get on the news. Maybe some other reason, but I can't come up with one. On watching the video, however, she looks genuinely perturbed. Like, "this is terrible!" Really? Was she really surprised?

And then there's the Saudi court. A girl married away at 8 to a 47-year old. And the judge won't let her get divorced because her mother can't legally represent her.

Well it would be nice if the girl could represent herself in the divorce proceeding -- but there's only one problem -- she's too young!

Humans are really able to see things through different lenses, aren't they? Wow.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A new concept of economic growth.

I think the dominant theories of economic growth all evaluate symptoms of growth(increased wealth, more jobs, less debt, more products) rather than the substance of economic growth -- which, I will argue, is productivity.

To understand the heart of economic growth, envision 5 people stranded on an island. If they want to improve their standard of living -- the availability of food, the degree of leisure, their capacity to travel, increased health care etc -- what do they need to do?

First, I'll tell you what they don't need. They don't need "jobs." I could give them all "jobs" digging in the sand and filling the holes back in -- we'd all starve. It's not about money. A ship could run aground carrying billions of dollars of gold. They'd still starve. It's not about equality. They could all divide up the resources equally. They'd still starve.

The answer is, of course, that they need to produce useful things. They must produce food, clothing, housing, healthcare, etc.

The key to economic growth (i.e. an improvement in the quality of their lives) is in increase their productivity. For instance, instead of hunting fish with a spear, you build a net, set it in the water, and let it do the work for you. Instead of spending an hour a day bringing water from the stream a mile away, you build an aqueduct. Now, instead of spearing fish and trudging with buckets all day, you can do something else -- sew clothing, hunt for boar, write a play. More is being produced with the same resources. Economic growth.

Now let's apply that viewpoint to western economies. The development of the automobile greatly increased productivity -- all the energy that had been wasted on travel time, care for horses, spoilage of products before reaching market, etc -- was reduced. People could produce more with less. Result: enormous economic boom in the 20s.

But what happens when people don't understand why the growth is occurring, and therefore expect it to continue indefinitely? What if they don't understand that things are getting better because cars are entering the marketplace, but as soon as everybody has a car, things will stop growing?

Well the same thing that would happen if the people on the island saw that food production increased with each new net, thought that food production would continue to increase indefinitely, and started acting recklessly -- let's say, building a string of fish restaurants big enough to feed 50 people a day. On an island with only 5 people. Sure, food production increases for a while. But eventually it levels out, because 5 people can only eat so much fish. And anybody you hired to man the extra fish stands ends up out of a job.

Back to the real world. People see the stock market soaring because of increased productivity, so they put their money into stocks. But eventually the profits stop increasing. Then the people that were in stocks just for the rising value get out. Stock market crash.

In the 1920s, Ford revolutionized America with the car. Everybody's lives changed. But eventually, everyone has a car. Then things reach an equilibrium. Profits stop rising. Companies across the economy have improved the efficiency of their operations as much as they can. And things flatten out. And when things flatten out, people get out of the stock market. 1929.

I'd argue the same thing drove the economic develop of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s. In the 80s, home computers raised productivity in the home and office enormously. By 1992, pretty much everyone has a home computer. Recession. In the mid to late 90s, the internet sliced the costs of communication and information transfer. Companies sold directly on the internet. Hundreds of man-years saved every day, and freed up to do other useful things. Then everybody has the internet. Dot-com bust. Then in 2003, housing prices boom because the government is requiring banks to give loans to less than credit-worthy individuals -- everbody's home values go up. People see home values going up and don't know why, so they buy. Suddenly, the people that couldn't afford the houses stop paying. Foreclosure. Housing prices drop. 2007-2008.

The problem lies, I think, in a failure to understand what's actually causing the change in the economy. It wasn't voodoo that made housing prices go up -- it was increased demand. Figure out what's driving increased demand. Oh yeah, people buying that couldn't get loans before. Maybe that will be a problem.

Same thing with the dot-com boom. Dot coms weren't magic companies that would grow unceasingly. Eventually, the internet would be used by everyone, for just about everything it could be used for. And when that happens, the profit margins on those companies are going to plummet.

Same thing with PCs in the 80s, and every other revolutionary invention that has changed our lives. Things get better very quickly -- but for a very specific reason. And when that reason's gone, things are going to stop improving.

The lessons here are two-fold.

First, economics is not about numbers -- it's about productivity. No different than a group of five people who had spend all their time spearing fish before now able to build a hut and sew clothing, because they invented nets to catch fish for them. Increase productivity, expand your economy. That's what our economic policy needs to do -- focus on improving our productivity -- the degree to which we are able to produce socially useful things!

The second lesson is that you can probably predict market rises and falls by figuring out what -- in the REAL WORLD -- is driving an expansion. Because when that force stops improving things, you're going to have a recession. And because nobody else sees it coming, you can make a killing on the markets by getting out before they figure out what's happening.

End and process

When I was younger, I was often saddened by the realization that everything we do on Earth ultimately comes to nothing. The frustration expressed in Ecclesiastes. Build a great business, fine -- but someday that business will disappear, and then what will be left? Nothing. Same with laws, relationships, family, you name it -- it all comes to nothing in the end.

I realized later that I was looking at the problem the wrong way -- essentially asking, "what end is worth trading my life for?" Seeing that end as "what i've done in the world," weighing it against the value of my life, and concluding (reasonably, I think) that I could find nothing that was worth trading my life for. Ultimately, I was unable to come up with any end in the real world that was worth trading my life for. And that was depressing.

But then, with the death of my friend Heather in college, I changed my paradigm. Instead of concerning myself with the Ultimate End, I would concern myself with the process. It didn't matter if Heather lived forever -- what mattered was that I was able to spend time with her. It doesn't matter if everybody dies whether you help the poor or not. Helping the poor is an end in and of itself. It doesn't matter whether your business will ultimately fade or your law ultimately be changed. The value came in the action -- in DOING what was good to do.

The key premise change here was my rejection of evangelical theology in favor of a philosophy of enlightened self-interest. Instead of seeing my life as a sacrifice for something outside myself, I began to see my life was an end in and of itself. Therefore, I was not trying to find something worth trading my precious life for. I was not trading my life at all. I was seizing it, and seeking to live it to the fullest.

But ultimately this became frustrating too, because I found it to be aimless. Yes, you "do the right thing" or the "fun" thing or the "engaging" thing ... but it never leads to anything. I still had a hankering for some purpose -- some goal.

Then this winter, I learned the value of short-term goal setting -- and the extraordinary psychological benefits of determining a desired outcome and working toward it. I began to put those into practice, and it made my world much brighter.

Then yesterday, it occurred to me that the way to integrate the thruths I had learned was this: "We are trained to see processes as leading toward goals. But I see life as a series of goals, comprising a process." The goals we set -- sending the kid to college, getting the MBA, learning about AIDS, getting in shape -- those are individual goals which when strung together become the PROCESS of a life worth living.

The goals themselves are not eternal, and certainly not worth trading our life for. But the process of setting -- and achieving -- those goals is the process of living itself.

Ends to a means. Hmm.

hiv/aids 3

More little tidbits:

British Concorde study in 1994 found that AZT (the AIDS drug) did not prevent AIDS, and increased mortality 25%.

Numerous studies show that the only long-term survivors of HIV do not use illegal drugs, and do not take HIV-inhibitors.

HIV-inhibitors do not attack HIV -- they attack cellular function, since the cell is entirely responsible for replication of HIV. Specifically, they inhibit DNA replication. A drug that attacks cellular function does two things -- one, it damages the body and its immune system, leading to increased cases of AIDS (suppressed immune system type). Two, it increases lifespan after AIDS has been acquired, because it acts as an antibiotic on other infections. End result: you go from healthy to miserable, and stay there for a long time.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Cataloguing Categories

All this talk of conceptual categories left me wondering if I could catalogue them. Here's what I came up with:

1) Objective: Verifiable, testable statements about the physical world. e.g. Objects accelerate at x rate due to gravity. Virus A causes disease B through mechanism C.
2) Subjective: Experiential statements. I feel cold. I chose to go to the store. I love you.
3) Descriptive: Statements of value about something. She's pretty. Good job. This town is boring.
4) A priori: Definitions. A dog is a living organism with X characteristics; Blue is light of these wavelengths.

There may be more, but this is all I could come up with on the way back from Taco Bell.

The first thing I noticed was that the first three types all come down to a priori concepts in the end. That is to say, "This worm is 2 cm long" is an objective statement -- but it depends on an a priori definition of what a worm is, what a centimeter is, and what the word "2" means.

The second thing I noticed was that you can retranslate just about every sentence among the first three. For instance, "Ouch! I'm in pain" (subjective) Ouch! That hurts! (descriptive) and "The contact between your elbow and my chest caused X reaction in my nervous system." (objective). Each of them looks at the event from a fundamentally different vantage point. The first expresses feeling. The second expresses judgment. The third describes reality.

And then I wondered, "if we can state things from all three angles, I wonder if we can examine them from all three angles." Obviously, you study objective reality through the scientific method. Subjective reality must be studied through introspection -- looking into your own experience. Descriptive reality must be studied with respect to a purpose. That is to say, "This is the perfect car" presumes a set of criteria in the mind of the speaker for what a car is intended for -- criteria that exist independently of the characteristics of the car, but which the characteristics of the car happen to match.

The next thing I noticed was that you can't study one category with another category's means. For instance, you can't study the characteristics of a frog through introspection or determining what the frog is useful for. You can't study why you're afraid of the dark with a microscope, or say it's not useful . And you can't determine whether a woman is beautiful or not with a ruler, or hour of meditation. Each type of statement has to be evaluated in its own way.

And then I thought, seems like most philosophical disputes come down to a failure to place concepts in their proper category. Scientists, for instance, seem to want everything to be studied in an objective manner. That works for some things, like chemicals in a test-tube. But it doesn't work for philosophy, interpersonal relationships, or self-awareness. Little wonder so many masters of the lab are failures in their own mind and life. Similarly, subjectivists seem to want everything to be an extension of their feelings. If they feel a thing, it is true. They argue that science is just a rationalization for the emotional biases of the scientist. And surely it often is -- but not when science is properly applied through its proper tools, and in its proper scope. Finally, the religious tend to see everything in terms of its inherent "value." Man is "evil." God is "good." sex is "only for marriage." The purpose of life is to serve God. Always judgment, evaluation, and purpose. And surely sometimes that is good. But they often neglect simply understanding what is (objective world) or what they are actually feeling (subjective world), constantly evaluating, and never understanding.

Is it any wonder that groups looking at the world through such radically different epistemological glasses would come into conflict? They literally look at the same event, person, or phenomenon, and see something completely different. No wonder the bickering never ends.

I think I might be onto something here.

Categories applied to determinism + free will

A few months ago, I wrote about categories of concepts, and how it's important to keep them straight. Thus "Dog" is a word we use to describe an object with certain characteristics, while "two" is a word we use to describe a grouping of objects, but not an object itself (you can never see a 'two'.) Seems like a lot of philosophical errors come down to crossing these categories -- for instance, the platonic forms treating describers (like "beauty") as real -- more real, in fact, than the things they are used to describe.

Then yesterday, it occurred to me that free will and determinism come down to a similar error. The two are in different categories. Free will is a subjective experience we have in the world -- similar to "pain" or "love." Free will is the experience we all have of choosing a ham or salami sandwich -- of deciding whether or not to give a bum a dime. You cannot see "Free will." There is no "free will box" in the body. You cannot observe an animal and see "free will" at work -- all you see is bodies in motion. Free will is an experience -- a feeling -- a knowledge that you can make your body go either way, depending on what you decide to do.

Determinism, on the other hand, is an unfalsifiable claim about the objective world. It is the claim that everything is invariably caused by something else. But of course this can't be tested at present, because we cannot identify every cause of everything that occurs in the universe. It's not an experience. We don't experience the alleged genes and childhood traumas that force us to select a cheese or salami sandwich. Now don't get me wrong -- we experience the CONDITIONING of our choices -- primarily through habit, but also through compulsive behavior -- but that is different from determinism. Determinism says that everything is decided in advance. Conditioned choices, on the other hand, are our experience that certain choices are more DIFFICULT to make than others, because we experience them as SCARY or UNFAMILIAR or something else. Again, that's experiential. Not deterministic.

Defined this way, free will and determinism do not conflict. If determinism is true, our subjective experience of free will is still true. If determinism is not true, our subjective experience of free will is still true. Demanding that free will be demonstrated in the objective world is just as silly as expecting a child to find the "Two" sitting on the table between two apples, or expecting a doctor to remove the "pain" from my broken arm and place it on the examination bench. Nonsense.

This is compatibilism of a sort, but less rigidly defined than classic compatibilism. Classic compatibilism defines "free will" as "things that are done without external compulsion," despite the fact that they are internally compelled. I don't need to define things that rigidly. My compatibilism holds that determinism is an open question about the objective facts of nature, and free will is a settled question about the universal human experience. They seek to answer two different questions, and are therefore not incompatible with each other.

The key, I think, lies in defining what mean mean by "Free will" and "determinism" as clearly as possible. Within a moment or two, it becomes apparent that what we mean by "free will" is not something that can be observed in the physical sciences -- it is something we know because we feel it. Similarly, determinism is something that could potentially be known through the sciences -- if we were able to compile all facts about the universe into a computer and predict all future outcomes -- but of course we can't yet.

As always appears to be the case, age-old philosophical debates stem from a failure to adequately define our terms.

And I think this modified definition of free will is adequate to serve all its necessary purposes. One of the necessary purposes of free will is in support of moral responsibility. Our sense of justice is offended at the prospect of being punished for actions that were determined, rather than chosen. Free will is significant insofar as it supports a system grounded on moral responsibility -- on reward for good bahavior, and punishment for bad behavior. Without a meaningful free will, there really is no basis for differential treatment for different behaviors. But because we DO actually choose what to do, a world in which bad behavior was rewarded rather than punished would lead people to CHOOSE to engage in much more bad behavior.

But if we acknowledge that free will exists as an experience, if not a physical reality, then it retains its place in our social organization. Whatever the physical reasons, we experience choice. Because we experience it, we must structure our lives and our society around that experience. Good behaviors should be incentivized, so that people are more likely to choose them. Bad behaviors should be disincentivized, so that people are less likely to choose them.

By analogy, "Pain" does not exist in the physical world -- you can't point to it or touch it. It is merely our subjective experience of certain nerve reactions in our system. But that doesn't make it any less real. And medicine needs to take it into account, if it wants to function properly. You can't say, "Well pain isn't a physical entity, so it doesn't exist, and we shouldn't take it into account." It's very real -- but SUBJECTIVELY real. And we ignore it at our peril.

So it is with choice. Whether or not it's one day discovered that all things are ultimately caused by some other physical cause, the fact will remain: we all feel like we have choices, and so our lives and societies will have to take that universal human experience into account.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


"Just before WWII, total research and development funding in the United States, public and private together, amounted to approximately $250 million per year. By the mid-1950s, the federal share along had grown to more than $2 billion, reaching $63 billion in 1989, and in 1993 becoming half of all research and development spending in the United States at $76 billion. Federal research money has turned into the major funding source for universities and other institutions, expanding and reshaping departments in its wake ... the total number of science doctorates awarded each year has increased from under 6,000 in 1960 to nearly 17,000 in 1979 ... as a result, "of every eight scientists who ever lived [in the history of the world], seven are alive today [in 1969]" ... Competition among large numbers of scientists for one or a few central sources of funding restricts freedom of thought and action to a mean that appeals to the majority. The scientist who is very productive, most able to sell research, and well liked for not offending his peers for new hypotheses and ideas is selected by his peers for funding. The eccentic, "absent-minded professor" with "crazy" ideas has been replaced by a need breed of scientist, more like a "yuppie" executive than the quirky genius of old academia. These peers cannot afford a nonconformist, or unpredictable, thinker because every new, alternative hypothesis is a potential threat to their own line of research. Albert Einstein would not get funded for his work by the peer review system, and Linus Pauling did not (for his work on vitamin C and cancer even though he received two Nobel Prizes). The only benefit of the numerous cascades of competitive tests and reviews set up by peer review is the elimination of unsophisticated charlatans and real incompetence. In sum, the review of too many by too many achieves but one result with certainty: regression to the mean ... a scientists's grants, publications, positions, awards, and even invitations to conferences are entirely conntrolled by his competitors. As in any other profession, no scientist wecomes being out-competed or having his pet idea disproved by a colleague ... The transition from small to big to megascience has created an establishment of skilled technicians but mediocre scientsts, who have abandoned real scientific interpretation and who even equate their experiments with science itself."

Duesberg, Inventing the AIDS virus, p. 67

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


More interesting tidbits:

1) The HIV test doesn't determine the presence of HIV itself, much less its prevalence -- only the presence of antibodies that indicate infection at some point in the past. Consequently, you could come up HIV-positive on a test and have no HIV in your system. The test can't tell the difference.

2) There is no documented demonstration of how HIV actually attacks T-cells.

3) HIV-positive Africans in Uganda without HIV treatments have the same 10-year survival rates and HIV-positive Westerners with the treatments.

4) In the West, AIDS is defined as any of 20-some diseases, plus the presence of HIV. For example, multiple bacterial infections plus HIV = AIDS. Multiple bacterial infections without HIV = not AIDS. So the correlation between AIDS and HIV is definitional. In other words, if you define "strong" as "being able to lift five pounds, and being tan," then you shouldn't be surprised when all the "strong" people are tan.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


Many props to my new friend Sadunkal for opening my eyes to the question of whether HIV causes AIDS. I found some interesting articles that raised interesting questions, but I just found the clincher.

The World Health Organization's definition for AIDS in Africa -- called the Bangui definition -- published in Science in 1985, modified slightly in 1994, still used today.

To have AIDS in Africa, you have to score 12 on the following diagnostic tool:

Weight loss exceeding 10% of body weight 4
Protracted asthenia (lethargy) 4
Continuous or repeated attacks of fever for more than a month 3
Diarrhoea lasting for more than a month 3
Cough 2
Pneumopathy 2
Oropharyngeal candidiasis 4
Chronic or relapsing cutaneous herpes 4
Generalized pruritic dermatosis 4
Herpes zoster (relapsing) 4
Generalized adenopathy 2
Neurological signs 2
Generalized Kaposi's sarcoma 12

So in other words, in Africa, if you have 10% weight loss, protracted lethargy, diarrea lasting over a month, and a cough, the World Health Organization says you have AIDS. Of course, drinking from the river, sleeping on a dirt floor, and not having enough food for the season will yield the same symptoms. But the World Health Organization calls it AIDS. And then our government pays pharmaceutical companies billions of our dollars to "treat" it.

Most interestingly of all, you can be diagnosed with AIDS without an HIV test.


Sunday, April 5, 2009


I've always been of the opinion that the establishment of religion is worse for religion than it is for the state. Sure, it violates people civil rights to publicly express their beliefs, and that sucks. But much more insidiously, it subjects the world of the soul (religion) to the forces of corruption that result inevitably from a government-created monopoly. Imagine if the government established one type of restaurant as the "state restaurant." Not only would people losed the opportunity to explore other types of food (certainly a loss) but the chosen restaurant would itself deteriorate, because it would not be required to adapt, grow, learn new things, and approve itself. It would not need to try -- it would be guaranteed its position whether or not it tried. So it would decay.

That's what happened to religion in Europe. Most of those decaying states still have official state religions. But those religions have done nothing but decay since they were established. And the rates of belief in those decayed religions is remarkably low -- why? because there's nothing worth believing in those churches.

But recently, I've been realizing that the same dynamic applies to philosophical and scientific schools of thought. There are a large number of out of date, demonstrably incorrect notions that still hold sway in universities. Universal common descent in biology. Plate techtonics in geology. Keynesian Economics. Behavioralist psychology. It doesn't take much work to debunk these silly ideas. Yet they remain in power.


Well, let's follow the money. This article raises the interesting point that virology departments receive enormous amounts of money to research HIV as a virus. But what if (as the article intimates) AIDS is not caused by a virus, but by some other agent? What would happen to the virology department's money? They'd go broke.

The same principle would apply to plate techtonics. If the Earth is expanding, as is strongly supported by the evidence, all current geology researchers -- who have committed themselves to plate techtonics -- would be out of luck.

The same principle would apply to evolutionary biology. Add an intelligent design research department to a biology department, and the evolutionary biologists lose their livelihood.

On and on and on. The people preaching "scientific consensus" are not unbiased observers -- on the contrary, their livelihood depends on the widespread acceptance of THEIR particular academic niche. If their niche is discredited, they go broke.

Suddenly, the existence of so many "pseudosciences" that make so much more sense than the nonsense they spoonfeed us at school comes into full focus. The "scientific community" is merely a state-funded intellectual monopoly, with the same dynamics as a state church -- intellectual stagnation and a desperate effort to squelch heresies that (while truer than the institutionalized beliefs) threaten the livelihood of the establishment just as much as protestantism threatened the power of the Pope.