Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Miscellanea

My God, Pat Sajak has a blog! I think the greatest part is when you get to the bottom of the page, after reading Pat's deep ideas about poltitics or show biz or whatever, and then you see the happy little headshot in the bottom left, which reminds you that this is, in fact, the cheesy host of Wheel Of Fortune speaking. Thanks for the heads up, Catallarchy!

Left2Right shares this comical graph.

And lastly, Will Wilkinson has given us Wilkinson's law:
The more your markets need government, the less your government will be able to do for your markets. Or, equivalently, the more your government is able to do for your markets, the less it will need to do. Pithier still . . . Government: if you need it, it won't be good, and if it's good, you don't need it.
I hope the name catches on.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Ceremony

Waiter Rant waxes philosophical frequently, probably due to his undergraduate philosophy degree, but his most recent post serves to illustrate an important point about organized religion.

The absurdity of a group of grown men hovering over lunch meats and beer, staring hungrily at a clock is simply too ridiculous to simply ignore. If there is any point at all to Good Friday, I can assure you that it is not tortured hunger and impatient anticipation of the end of a fast. Furthermore, the idea that there is something about Friday at 11:58 that is significantly different from Saturday at 12:02 that would change one's eternal destiny from damned to saved is simply preposterous.

Having been raised Catholic, I understand the rhetoric that surrounds the excessive ceremony, and I understand and appreciate it. In fact, the reason that I do still attend mass occasionally is to enjoy the familiar surroundings and the methodical procedure. Blind adherence to some ceremonial ultimatum, though, is simply harmful to both the individual and the religion at large.

To take a somewhat secular example, I find marriages to be trite and pointless almost all of the time. I don't particularly like going to weddings, as I find that they are generally forced and performed simply for the sake of having a ceremony. Even the people getting married don't want to be there, and the act of marrying is not a declaration of undying love but a dog and pony show for relatives and friends who think that marriage is what is "supposed" to happen to two people.

When Nietzsche wrote that God is dead and that we have killed him, he didn't simply mean that the supernatural figure of God had been killed. Nietzsche was speaking in a larger context; he was talking about any and all artificial constructs that we've created for ourselves, and ceremony is certainly one of those. Ceremony is dead because we see that there is no intrinsic value in doing things like abstaining from meat on Good Friday, and we have killed those ceremonies by removing the significance from them that they once had.

Cynic that I am, I would generally suggest that we abandon meaningless ceremonies, as they have simply become dead weight at this point. Dancing around on an alter for an hour every Sunday, getting married, or abstaining from meat on Good Friday all have lost their meaning and significance they once held, and are thus pointless.

I do have some hope, though, that we can reclaim these ceremonial performances for ourselves. Our ceremony and sense of tradition must arise out of personal meaning, not the other way around. If we are somehow able to take those things that are important to us and act them out in a way that corresponds to a traditionally performed ceremony, then we are able to celebrate the meaning behind the actions, not simply the actions themselves.

Maybe some people have discovered this, and when they get married or give up chocolate for lent they are doing it in the full knowledge of the meaning behind their actions. I don't see this, though, in general in society. I see people getting married because they are "supposed to," giving up candy for 40 days because "that's what you do," and eating fish on Good Friday because "that's the rule."

We can fit into the society that exists around us, but only if and when we create that society for ourselves, not the society creating us.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

ANWR

The debate to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for oil seems to be raging heavily in D.C., and it seems safe to say that the reigning opinion, or at least the most vocal side, would be the environmental lobby, seeking to keep it closed. In the house and senate, the debate is pretty heated.

In Alaska, though, there isn't really any opposition. Almost every politician (Jim Sykes aside) runs on a platform to work to open ANWR, republicrats and demolicans alike all agree, in Alaska at least, that it needs to be open. The answer why is simple; Alaska's oil reserves are dwindling, the economy is slowly fading, and oil production is Alaska's #1 source of economic stability. I don't know the exact statistic, but I believe I heard that oil production is responsible for about 80% of Alaska's economy, whereas tourism, the second largest industry there, accounts for about 7%. Alaska needs ANWR open, particularly if it wants to keep such perks as no sales tax, no income tax, and an annual permanent fund dividend.

D.C. doesn't really seem to care that much about Alaska, in fact, the only reason that Alaska gets any attention in the senate is due to Ted "Pork-Barrel" Stevens, president pro-tem and former senate appropriations committee chair. The environmentalist lobby has a huge say if not in the senate than at least in the media and outside the government, and this sway, if nothing else, is souring the public against opening ANWR.

As an Alaskan resident who receives a permanent fund, although I don't live there 9 months out of the year, I certainly want Alaska's economy to prosper as much as possible. Most Alaskans, especially those in the oil industry, will go on and on about how little they effect the environment they touch and how they make very little impact on the wildlife, and I'm apt to believe them. People get fired for flashing their headlights to get birds to move when driving up on the North Slope, and they make every possible accommodation for wildlife, plantlife, and maintaining the ecological balance.

Stepping back, it is important to note that the whole situation could be avoided altogether if the government didn't own wildlife refuges. There wouldn't be any senate debate, no political wrangling, no arguments and debates, just rational self-interested people choosing the buy and protect the land they wish to buy and protect. The environmentalists could buy and protect a wildlife refuge, while the oil magnates could buy oil fields. Everyone wins.

Of course I recognize that there are some problems, like pollution of the air and water, but these problems could be worked out with minimal government legislation and a maximum of personal liberties and freedoms. When the government ceases to be some all-powerful, land controlling entity, the citizens gain back some of their rightful power.

Publication IV

Here you can read my latest submission to the Gonzaga Bulletin. Mine was one of only two letters NOT having to do with Student Body elections or the Terri Schiavo case.

Also, this really isn't of interest to anyone, not even people who actually attend Gonzaga, but it is so hilariously penned that it doesn't even matter what it is about.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Bunnies

Easter-tide brings happy baby chicks and colorful eggs to our doorsteps, around our houses, and hidden in our drawers. Disregarding the obvious disconnect between the supposed resurrection of Jesus and springtime animals, I've always been concerned by the Easter Bunny. And Santa Clause. And the Tooth Fairy.

Children are told little white lies all the time. People tell white lies to each other all the time, for that matter. But a child predicates their entire world on what adults tell them. I'm concerned for the mental health and eventual outlook of children whose worlds are shattered, as they eventually must be, when their system of morality, politics, and existence is predicated on lies such as the Easter Bunny.

Perhaps I'm over reacting to a non-issue. Children seem to be alright, in general, and society at large doesn't seem to be suffering any negative effects due to being raised on Bunnies and Clauses. The problem might, though, have more effect then we realize.

Ayn Rand always vilified those people living in society who don't want to play by its rules. She criticized endlessly the people who chose not to accept reality as it was. Perhaps it is being raised on a false reality that causes people to reject what is real in favor of whatever they want to believe. When children have their world collapsed around them they are forces, not necessarily immediately but eventually, to accept that the world is never as they perceive it (or told it), and thus choose instead to reject reality.

I think it might be safer, and maybe even more moral, to simply raise children understanding that supernatural Rabbits and creepy fat men don't actually bring them presents at all, but rather that these beings symbolize important aspects of both our culture as well as the holiday itself. Adults seem to deal just fine with knowing that these things don't really exist yet still respecting them for their significance, I don't see why children can't as well.

Wikipedia

Wikipedia is probably my favorite source of non-academic information, but this gives me pause.

I guess that's why people don't use Wikipedia as an academic resource.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Cheer

Recent attendance at a few NCAA basketball tournament games has caused me to think a little about the act of cheering on a team. Cheering, I'm sure you'll agree, is almost totally superfluous. The players could play exactly the same game without thousands of screaming fans yelling in their ear. In fact, they might not miss as many free throws if things worked like that.

In terms of the NCAA and intercollegiate competition there is some rationale for spirited cheering; by cheering on a school's team you are making some noise for the sake of the school as well as for the sake of the players. This type of spirit becomes a competition in and of itself in that schools compete to see who has the most pride in their academic establishment.

For people who have not attended a school and no vested interest in it, or for professional sports with teams that people have no real connection to, we find that people cheer just as loudly. The probability of your yell being the one that rallies the team to victory, though, is so insignificant as to be totally negligible.

Similar to cheering is the act of voting. Like cheering a team, the odds of your vote being the one vote among thousands that decides an otherwise 50-50 election is so slim as to be classified as impossible. I'm not a statistician, and the mathematicians that I've spoken to about this seem conflicted on the actual calculation, but they all agree that the odds are extremely small.

What's the point, then? Sure, if no one voted or cheered then the systems wouldn't work, so we all have to do our part, but if one person decides not to, what's the problem? Why are we so pressured to vote (thank you, Sean "Vote or Die" Combs)?

I posit that people cheer, or vote, simply to join the club. By voicing your support from the stands or in the voting booth you place a label on yourself, you define your view to the world, and you prove, but the ultimate test, that you are faithful to a certain movement. In sports, it is obviously vocal, but with the ballot box it is more subversive. While elections are supposed to be private, do you know many people who won't tell you who they voted for after an election? Furthermore, how many people do you know that tell you you can only complain about something if you voted against it, on the grounds that you didn't do enough to stop it?

The point to all this is that if someone chooses not to vote, or chooses not to cheer on an arbitrary team that they don't care about, they aren't being counter culture or stand-offish, but rather realize the futility in the action itself. Leave the conscientious non-voters alone, and lets start doing things to actually change our government or sport of choice instead of just cheering on the team.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Schiavo

The Terry Schiavo case has been so run into the ground at the point that I hesitate to even give it more attention, but I'll add my two cents anyway.

Death is not so undesirable as we make it out to be. I don't have any reason to believe that there is anything beyond death, and I can only assume that death will be, for me, just like it was before I was born. Of course, this doesn't mean that death should be forced upon us, ever, but rather that we can rationally chose death over life if we have nothing left to live for, or if living is simply too difficult.

Because Schiavo cannot give consent to end life support, it falls to her family to make the decision. Since she is emancipated from her parents (and I believe that they don't even actually have custody over her), it is her husbands decision, and he supports her right to die. Legal precedent says this is what is supposed to happen. Done deal, case closed.

The bigger issue, as I see it, is who, exactly, is paying for her to continue living. I don't see any harm in letting her live, as long as her parents are willing to pay for it, and all of it. I can't imagine that keeping her alive is cheap. Furthermore, ANY taxpayer dollars that are supporting her failing life are being misspent by our government. If there is no person who wishes to pay to keep her alive, disconnect her.

The problem can extend to issues of welfare and the like. Suppose someone who is otherwise unable to provide for themselves is stuck without money to buy food. No taxpayer dollars should be given this person, but individuals who would like to support them are encouraged to do so.

Adam Smith believed that a capitalist society would create the wealth necessary among its citizens to allow philanthropy. I don't know if it actually works out that way, but I do believe that charity works best when it is from a private individual or organization and not legalized theft in the form of a government. Perhaps I'll expand on this more in a later post.

As for Terry Schiavo, just let her die and be done with all this nonsense. Her husband wants it, she probably wants it (if she is capable of wanting anything in the first place), and I'm sure that her parents aren't really willing to pay for it, in the long run. End of story.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Wages

This is the sort of thing you just have to bang your head against a wall a few times after reading. Expect my response in this Friday's Bulletin. I was expecting to submit a piece on how voting is really a useless effort as per a recent request (that's right folks! I do requests!), but I believe that this is a little more pressing.

I apologize for lack of new material this week, I've been out of town. Expect more regular blogging this week.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

AIM

AOL has updated their terms of service for using Instant Messenger to grant them use of any material distributed using their program.

While my first instinct is to condemn them as being thieves, I don't think they are in the wrong here. AOL is a private business distributing a free product, what more can you ask for? If you want your intellectual property safe, then send it by e-mail.

Constructs

Will Wilkinson recently wrote on the ramifications of doing something for someone because "she's my sister." It is a decent read, and raised for me a related question.

A huge part of life is reclaiming our own lives. We begin our awareness of the world with giant statues, like Nietzsche tells us, hovering around our existence. It is our duty to smash these statues in order to reclaim our own lives. These impositions on our lives, these things on our back telling us what to do, can range from religious rules to cultural mores to perceived responsibilities.

Familial constructs are one of these statues, but as Wilkinson posits, simply destroying it is an action we must weigh carefully. Society is itself a sort of construct, one that we must live with (or attempt to change). The bigger question raised by Wilkinson's post is not so much "how do I deconstruct these synthetic structures" so much as it is "how can I recognize these structures and live with them without compromising myself?"

I'm a veritable Sigmund Freud, I know. Still, take stock of the world around you. Who do you have on your back? What are the statues that are sitting in your back yard? Furthermore, who are you, and how can you be you with these things around?

Singer

In regards to my feelings about Peter Singer, I think this article about sums it up.

Killing babies? Sex with animals? Please. Sure, one must shock the masses, but Singer is a little far gone, even for a Utilitarian.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Discrimination

It seems apparent, and I've read some evidence in psychology textbooks to support this, that people need someone to hate. The first thing any good rhetorician does in a speech is to set up a division between those whom he is speaking for (or to) and those who are supposed to be regarded as the enemy. All wars are predicated on the idea that those who one is fighting are the bad guys, and you're supposed to hate them. Furthermore, there is generally only one type or group of people at any given time that someone is supposed to hate. In the earliest roots of America, it was the British, after independence it was the Native Americans, after they were destroyed it became the African-Americans, then the Nazis, then the Communists. Now it seems that our hatred is supposed to be directed at Middle-Easterners of all varieties.

The hatred for the Middle East, though, is ill-conceived. It was created by the actions of a few, not the sentiments of the whole group, and our response (war in Iraq) was not a reaction on the part of the country, but rather by some over eager politicians and a segment of reluctant Americans. Sure, our patriotism stood strong and we were a very solidified block against the 'terrorists' immediately after September 11th, but it only took a few months for that enemy, that hatred to get old.

It should come as no surprise that soon after the patriotism inspired by 9-11 died out we started looking for a new group to hate, a group that is still being marginalized both socially and politically. It has only been in recent years that the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender population has been seen very much, and I posit that this is a result of America needing an enemy to be united against. Given recent measures to create 'defense of marriage amendment,' the debate over what constitutes marriage, and what rights the GLBT population should be granted, there is obviously tumult in the government. One only needs walk down the street to hear people using the word 'gay' as a pejorative term or to hear the obviously bias many in the United States have against GLBT people.

Here is an analysis of a recent court case in Illinois where the primary point in question was the gender of one of the 'parents' of a child. In short, the person who would later be known as Sterling Simmons was born a female but always identified with a male gender identity. He met Jennifer Simmons, whom he was unable to marry given his femaleness. They had a child by way of artificial insemination, where he was listed as the father, including assuming all of the rights associated with fatherhood. Later, Sterling had his ovaries and uterus removed, obtained a new birth certificate claiming him to be male, and married Jennifer.

7 years later, they separate, and each seek custody of the child. The court denies Sterling anything outside of visitation rights because he has no legal claim as father, as he wasn't male then nor now. A variety of other Illinois state laws would allow him to stand as father if he was, in fact, male at the time of trial. The court rules that he is not male.

First of all, Illinois needs to stop issuing birth certificates that say male to people who the state actually deems to be female. This, though, is hardly the larger question at hand.

I am frequently told by pro-DOMA (defense of marriage act) folks that the reason why two members of the same sex can't marry is because the definition of marriage clearly states that it is only allowed between opposite sexes. It isn't a matter of not granting the GLBT population marriage rights, it is a matter of impossibility, as they could not fulfill the definition of the term.

I don't quite know how they hope to rely on an argument from definitions when they can't even define male or female, but lets take their argument as solid for a moment. I have a solution that can end discrimination against GLBT people and pacify those who persecute them. Simply end government discrimination.

How do I mean this? First of all, remove government involvement in marriage altogether. Allow churches to marry who ever they want, for whatever reason they want, but end discrimination allowed by the government. Discrimination of any kind allowed by out government is blatanly unconstitutional.

Furthermore, in a custody case such as this, ignore gender altogether. To make a decision based on gender would be to discriminate, which cannot be allowed in a working democracy. The parents of a child, that is, the two people who have custody, are the biological parents. If those parents wish to transfer their custody right to another, then that is their choice. In this particular case, the burden of parentage was clearly transferred to Sterling, and he was obviously the father by way of transferred responsibility.

What ever happened to blind justice and equality before the law? In the words of F. A. Hayek, "The great aim for the struggle of liberty has been equality before the law." Individuals and private organizations may hate or discriminate against whom ever they wish; that is their right. But the law, the government, must not make any decisions based on gender, race, sexual preference, creed, nationality, or other superficial traits. Only then can democracy flourish.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Universalizability

A friend recently told me that I am unable to recognize the universality of human suffering. This could very well be true, and it should not come as a surprise that this is the same friend who first coined the term philosobot, to demonstrate my seeming immunity to emotion. The center of his assumption, though is cause for some reflection.

Suffering can be seen as universal. Indeed, I'm not sure that there is anyone who does not suffer at times, and I doubt that there is anyone who would try to assert that people free from suffering their entire lives even exist. Given the relativity of the term it is essentially impossible to prove, but I would say that it is mostly safe to assume that all people, at some point or another in their lives, have experienced suffering.

In another sense, though, suffering is NOT universal, simply because we all do not experience it all the time. Rather, there are large portions of our lives not afflicted by suffering, and, hopefully, these moments are just as universal as the suffering is.

Perhaps the difference between the optimist and the pessimist is their perspective on which attribute defines humans. They are not, though, so disconnected as their nature as opposites might imply.

The existential comedy (if one can call it that) "i heart huckabees," now out on video, ended with this idea: "our interconnectedness arises out of the manure of human drama," and I think that the underlying theme here is exactly the same idea of universality in suffering. It is neither suffering nor happiness nor anything else particularly that binds us together as a human race; it is the very fact that we all deal with the same human shit that makes us human.

Neither I nor the film have said anything particularly stunning about human nature; the sole conclusion here is that people are people because they deal with people problems. Nothing earth shattering, and mostly self-evident, I know. But the over riding theme, the fact that our experience is universalizable in the sense that everyone in the world can potentially feel happiness is something to at least assure ourselves of now and again.

The main characters in the film face a turning point in their existential evolution when they spend time hitting each other in the face with a large red rubber ball. While I don't necessarily identify with this particular act, I personally identify perfectly with the idea behind it. Personally, I find music to be especially effective as a mind clearer, and that I my normally overactive mind stops and removes itself from my existence for brief moments when I'm lost in a song. The characters of the film found for a brief moment a way to escape human drama and realized the nature of their existence.

As I'm sure others who have experienced the particular existential feeling that they portrayed in the film can attest to, the feeling is singular. When our minds stop and the drama of suffering and happiness around us end, we are able to recognize both how unspecial and integrally connected to the world around us we are. If anything, it is an exercise in recognizing that we are simply animals and creatures of this world.

While the feeling of getting away from one's thoughts and drama is temporary, the cause of that feeling is not. We are all simple animals, we are all a part of nature, and beneath the drama of human life these facts remain, and this is another way in which we are ultimately interconnected.
Should we recognize the universality of suffering as the defining trait in human existence? Yes, but it is not the only universalism trait. Happiness is just as valid as suffering, and it is being faced with "human drama" that makes us interconnected. Furthermore, though, it is our very natural nature as animals that binds us. We are a part of the earth which is a part of the galaxy, which is a part of the universe, which connects us all, fundamentally, always.