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Friday, April 29, 2005

Science Oversold

All eyes have been on Kansas for the past few years, watching the fight between Creationist and Intelligent Design advocates on one side, and the mainstream scientific community (supporting evolution), on the other. An article from the Salt Lake Tribune describes the battle:
Classrooms ... have come under scrutiny - again - in Kansas' seesawing battle between left and right over the teaching of evolution.

The battle could heat up over the coming weeks, with Kansas' State Board of Education expected to revise its science standards in June.

In 1999, the board deleted most references to evolution in the standards, bringing international ridicule and wisecracks from the late-night comedians. Elections the next year made the board less conservative, resulting in the current standards describing evolution as a key concept for students to learn.

Last year's elections gave conservatives a majority again, 6-4. A subcommittee plans six days of hearings in May, and advocates of intelligent design plan to put nearly two dozen witnesses on the stand to critique evolution.

National and state science organizations plan to boycott the hearings, contending they are going to be rigged in favor of intelligent design.
I think that there are several very powerful emotional and conflicting issues here. First science has been oversold as being capable of explaining the Truth (with a capital 'T'). Evolution is a theory. I think that it is an excellent theory in that it logically and consistently provides a plausible explanation for the available empirical evidence. I look around at biological diversity in the world today and I say to myself, "yup, I could believe that evolution is responsible for part or all of it." What's important to understand is that I say "could believe" as opposed to "do believe". The reason I don't "believe" in evolution is that it isn't a belief system. It's a theory. There is no point in believing or having faith that evolution actually describes how the current biosphere came to be.

Instead of science being presented as "
the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena", it has been presented as a belief system. It has been presented almost as a pseudo-religious faith. Scientists have acted like high priests issuing edicts about what everybody should believe to be the Truth. This arrogance has really annoyed a lot of people and the battle over evolution in Kansas is the resulting backlash.

A second problem is that parents get really tired of others deciding what their children should be taught. I have absolutely no patience for outsiders coming in and telling me what my children should be taught. Fortunately, we've been able to enroll our children in schools that provide learning environments that we enthusiastically endorse. But I can certainly understand the feelings of the parents in Kansas if they don't want their children taught Evolution, at least from the "belief system" perspective.

I'm saddened by this, because Evolution is a powerful concept in computer science (called genetic algorithms). We use it in our work in robotics. Biological evolution is a nice, intuitive way to introduce the concept. Too bad it was oversold.

Multi-culti collision with reality

Multiculturalism and cultural liberalism collide in a place called reality! British columnist John O'Sullivan presents some interesting observations and analysis in this article. The focus is on Britain but it has relevance for anywhere. Many people assume that being nearly infinitely tolerant is a good thing, but it is possible to be so openminded that your brains fall out. Here are several excerpts with emphasis mine.

…all change occurs at the margin. And these marginalized figures revealed in their clash that multiculturalism and liberal values are incompatible.

Multiculturalism is easy enough to grasp. It is the doctrine that all cultures are equal and must be given equal respect and protection by government. It was fueled by the arrival in Britain of immigrant groups with different religious cultures. And it has led to such social changes as rewriting British history and allowing strict Muslim dress in school.

Cultural liberalism is a larger and vaguer concept. Its essential meaning is that people should be helped to free themselves from irksome traditional moral customs and cultural restraints. And in the last 30 years it has affected a quiet revolution in Britain — in religion, family life, national identity, and moral values.

Public life is increasingly and aggressively secular.

Family life has been devalued: Fewer people get married; more get divorced; more children are born out of wedlock.

A combination of cultural liberalism and welfare has produced its own human sacrifice in the form of a growing underclass, victims of crime, and children with fewer opportunities because they are brought up in homes without two parents.

For a long time, it seemed that multiculturalism was simply one ingredient in cultural liberalism. But this was a delusion resting on three errors: First, it did not take into account that a nation, society, or community is held together by a common culture and common moral values — often values that its members are not conscious of holding until they are challenged. That common culture had already been subtly undermined by cultural liberalism; it was now directly assaulted by multiculturalism.

Second, it did not take into account that some of these cultures and multiculturalism itself were incompatible with liberalism. Multiculturalism holds that all cultures are equal; liberalism is the doctrine that all human beings have equal rights; so if a culture holds that some human beings, (e.g., women) have fewer rights than others, then liberalism has to confront that culture and reject the multiculturalism sheltering it.

And, third, liberals have failed to persuade these other cultures that the liberal theory of universal human rights is an entirely secular one posing no threat to their religion. Muslims in particular persist in seeing it as an expression of Christian civilization — which, historically, it is certainly is — and thus tainted at best.

Even from a narrow political viewpoint, it seems unrealistic of liberals to take on Muslims and Christians simultaneously. It also ignores the cultural truth that debates between secular liberals and Christians in the West are arguments within the family. They almost never involve first-order differences such as honor killings. They are debates in which it is possible to live with defeat.

Besides, how many divisions does secular liberalism have? Would a liberalism divorced entirely from religion and its own cultural heritage have the numbers and morale to resist what looks likely to be the proselytizing force of growing numbers of Muslims in Europe? Liberal multicultural Holland — which simply dithers in the face of Muslim terrorism — offers very little assurance here. Many Dutch liberals are now worrying that their multiculturalism has an ethical vacuum at its heart that ultimately disarms them in matters as necessary as punishing murder and protecting critics of Islam.

The newly elected Pope Benedict XVI, on the other hand, proclaims that Europe can resist multiculturalism and live with Islam without surrendering to it — but only if it recovers its own Christian traditions of moral behavior. Given that some of the fruits of Britain's cultural liberalism taste distinctly sour, secular liberals might be persuaded to examine this prospect sympathetically. They should be at least half-encouraged by the Pope's acceptance of the mutually stimulating role of religion and secular liberalism: "To this extent we must be grateful to secular society and the Enlightenment. It must remain a thorn in our side, as secular society must accept the (Christian) thorn in its side."

Pretty relevant and potent observations if you ask me!!

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Now for Some Really Important News

Here's a problem you don't run into every day:
German toad experts are baffled by an acute outbreak of exploding toad syndrome which has totalled hundreds of the amphibians since the beginning of the month. The former inhabitants of a Hamburg pond - now chillingly renamed the "pond of death" - spontaneously swelled to enormous proportions before going bang, in the process propelling their entrails for up to a metre.
Thank heavens, the government took swift action to protect the public:
The authorities have moved swiftly to protect the public from the exploding toad menace. The pond is now closed and a biologist is on station every night between 2 and 3am, when toad explosions reach a peak.
So you can watch for exploding toads and shooting stars at the same time! Fortunately, the baffled German experts finally figured out what was causing the phenomenon:
... crows have been fingered as the culprits. Apparently the crow pecks a small hole in the toad to get at the liver. The toad begins to inflate itself - its normal defence mechanism - but because there is no separation between lung cavity and abdomen, the poor blighter keeps on expanding until it goes pop.
I just hate when that happens. Well, that's all of the important news for today. Tune in tomorrow, same bat time, same bat channel...

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Perception is reality...unless it's just a big delusion

Perception can make for reality, but sometimes it's so divorced from reality that it is merely a delusion waiting to be exposed...

It took about 70 years for the socialist model to show itself as an irredeemable failure. I suspect that the social democracy/welfare state model will groan mightly under the pressure from global competition until it is viewed with less fondness. Our system in the U.S is really misperceived by many foreigners. This case is made by a German journalist, Olaf Gersemann, in his book
Cowboy Capitalism: European Myths, American Reality.
Book Description (on Amazon)
Europeans and many American pundits believe that while the U.S. economy may create more growth, Europeans have it better when it come to job security and other factors. Olaf Gersemann, a German reporter who came to America, found the reality quite different. He checked facts and found the market freedoms in America create a more flexible, adaptable and prosperous system then the declining welfare states of old Europe.

As an example, the Norwegians cling to some myths...

If you missed it, here is the entire article from The New York Times.

April 17, 2005
We're Rich, You're Not. End of Story.

OSLO — THE received wisdom about economic life in the Nordic countries is easily summed up: people here are incomparably affluent, with all their needs met by an efficient welfare state. They believe it themselves. Yet the reality - as this Oslo-dwelling American can attest, and as some recent studies confirm - is not quite what it appears.

Even as the Scandinavian establishment peddles this dubious line, it serves up a picture of the United States as a nation divided, inequitably, among robber barons and wage slaves, not to mention armies of the homeless and unemployed. It does this to keep people believing that their social welfare system, financed by lofty income taxes, provides far more in the way of economic protections and amenities than the American system. Protections, yes -but some Norwegians might question the part about amenities.

In Oslo, library collections are woefully outdated, and public swimming pools are in desperate need of maintenance. News reports describe serious shortages of police officers and school supplies. When my mother-in-law went to an emergency room recently, the hospital was out of cough medicine. Drug addicts crowd downtown Oslo streets, as The Los Angeles Times recently reported, but applicants for methadone programs are put on a months-long waiting list.

In Norway, the standard line is that there must be some mistake, that such things simply should not happen in "the world's richest country." Why do Norwegians have such a wealthy self-image? Partly because, compared with their grandparents (who lived before the discovery of North Sea oil), they are rich. Few, however, question whether it really is the world's richest country.

After I moved here six years ago, I quickly noticed that Norwegians live more frugally than Americans do. They hang on to old appliances and furniture that we would throw out. And they drive around in wrecks. In 2003, when my partner and I took his teenage brother to New York - his first trip outside of Europe - he stared boggle-eyed at the cars in the Newark Airport parking lot, as mesmerized as Robin Williams in a New York grocery store in "Moscow on the Hudson."

One image in particular sticks in my mind. In a Norwegian language class, my teacher illustrated the meaning of the word matpakke - "packed lunch" - by reaching into her backpack and pulling out a hero sandwich wrapped in wax paper. It was her lunch. She held it up for all to see.

Yes, teachers are underpaid everywhere. But in Norway the matpakke is ubiquitous, from classroom to boardroom. In New York, an office worker might pop out at lunchtime to a deli; in Paris, she might enjoy quiche and a glass of wine at a brasserie. In Norway, she will sit at her desk with a sandwich from home.

It is not simply a matter of tradition, or a preference for a basic, nonmaterialistic life. Dining out is just too pricey in a country where teachers, for example, make about $50,000 a year before taxes. Even the humblest of meals - a large pizza delivered from Oslo's most popular pizza joint - will run from $34 to $48, including delivery fee and a 25 percent value added tax.

Not that groceries are cheap, either. Every weekend, armies of Norwegians drive to Sweden to stock up at supermarkets that are a bargain only by Norwegian standards. And this isn't a great solution, either, since gasoline (in this oil-exporting nation) costs more than $6 a gallon.

All this was illuminated last year in a study by a Swedish research organization, Timbro, which compared the gross domestic products of the 15 European Union members (before the 2004 expansion) with those of the 50 American states and the District of Columbia. (Norway, not being a member of the union, was not included.)

After adjusting the figures for the different purchasing powers of the dollar and euro, the only European country whose economic output per person was greater than the United States average was the tiny tax haven of Luxembourg, which ranked third, just behind Delaware and slightly ahead of Connecticut.

The next European country on the list was Ireland, down at 41st place out of 66; Sweden was 14th from the bottom (after Alabama), followed by Oklahoma, and then Britain, France, Finland, Germany and Italy. The bottom three spots on the list went to Spain, Portugal and Greece.

Alternatively, the study found, if the E.U. was treated as a single American state, it would rank fifth from the bottom, topping only Arkansas, Montana, West Virginia and Mississippi. In short, while Scandinavians are constantly told how much better they have it than Americans, Timbro's statistics suggest otherwise. So did a paper by a Swedish economics writer, Johan Norberg.

Contrasting "the American dream" with "the European daydream," Mr. Norberg described the difference: "Economic growth in the last 25 years has been 3 percent per annum in the U.S., compared to 2.2 percent in the E.U. That means that the American economy has almost doubled, whereas the E.U. economy has grown by slightly more than half. The purchasing power in the U.S. is $36,100 per capita, and in the E.U. $26,000 - and the gap is constantly widening."

The one detail in Timbro's study that didn't feel right to me was the placement of Scandinavian countries near the top of the list and Spain near the bottom. My own sense of things is that Spaniards live far better than Scandinavians. In Norwegian pubs, for example, anyone rich or insane enough to order, say, a gin and tonic is charged about $15 for a few teaspoons of gin at the bottom of a glass of tonic; in Spain, the drinks are dirt-cheap and the bartender will pour the gin up to the rim unless you say "stop."

In late March, another study, this one from KPMG, the international accounting and consulting firm, cast light on this paradox. It indicated that when disposable income was adjusted for cost of living, Scandinavians were the poorest people in Western Europe. Danes had the lowest adjusted income, Norwegians the second lowest, Swedes the third. Spain and Portugal, with two of Europe's least regulated economies, led the list.

Most recently, the Danish Ministry of Finance released a study comparing the income available for private consumption in 30 countries. Norway did somewhat better here than in the KPMG study, lagging behind most of Western Europe but at least beating out Ireland and Portugal.

The thrust, however, was to confirm Timbro's and Mr. Norberg's picture of American and European wealth. While the private-consumption figure for the United States was $32,900 per person, the countries of Western Europe (again excepting Luxembourg, at $29,450) ranged between $13,850 and $23,500, with Norway at $18,350.

Meanwhile, the references to Norway as "the world's richest country" keep on coming. An April 2 article in Dagsavisen, a major Oslo daily, asked: How is it that "in the world's richest country we're tearing down social services that were built up when Norway was much poorer?"

Obviously, this is one misconception that won't be put to rest by a measly think-tank study or two.

Bruce Bawer,a freelance writer based in Oslo, reports frequently on social and cultural issues.
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Monday, April 25, 2005

Yearning to be free!

This Michael Ledeen column highlights some key events not being played up in the press.
Not only are we participating in a global struggle against tyranny, but, if we look carefully enough, we can see the collapse of the conventional wisdom about the relationship between tyrannical rulers and their subjects.
Let's start with a thoughtful article in the April 19 Asia Times written by an Australian named Andrei Lankov ...."for the first time in some 50 years a large group of North Koreans, acting openly and in the presence of foreign journalists and camera crews, dared to challenge the representatives of authority..." Lankov believes that the demonstrations bespeak a significant erosion of the regime's ability to repress its subjects. That erosion has sapped the will of the soldiers and police, who are now "often ready to look the other way, especially when there is an opportunity for a small bribe."
Meanwhile, across the border in the People's Republic of China, there have been several demonstrations in recent months, ranging from peasant protests (shades of Mao!) in the hinterland (when Communist-party officials were caught stealing money that was supposed to go to dispossessed land owners) to worker's agitation in the big cities along the coast. Thomas Lifson, of American Thinker, suggests that the Chinese regime senses its own growing weakness. The regime has certainly intensified its repression of religious freedom, arresting the Catholic priest Zhao Kexun in Hebei Province, and continuing its mindless persecution of the Falun Gong. Luis Ramirez, the brilliant reporter of Voice of America, noted last fall that China was facing a most unexpected crisis: a shortage of qualified workers. And along with this manpower shortage, the brutal demographic consequences of the Communist-party's strict rule of "one child per couple" are beginning to take hold: The population is aging, the number of people retiring is higher than those entering the workforce, and retirement pension funds are drying up. Moreover, corruption is pandemic, and the recent National People's Congress provided the occasion for an anti-corruption campaign, with the usual showcase arrests and trials. But it is hard for a regime that claims sole authority to blame corruption on individual sinners.
As Janet Klinghoffer put it, "China is facing the same innovation roadblock the Soviets did." The Soviet Union could never match Western technological innovations, because Soviet citizens were never given the freedom to do so. Klinghoffer quotes a U.S.-embassy report from Beijing that suggests the Chinese are facing the same bleak future: "Recently a Chinese scholar remarked...that the lack of intellectual freedom and the extraordinary waste of resources severely handicap Chinese science. Both problems are rooted in the Communist Party's monopoly on power and in the socialist system...Nobody believes in Marxism, said the scholar, it is just a slogan..."

The importance of that freedom thang!!!

This is precisely the sort of thing we heard from Soviet citizens in the
years leading up to the great implosion of the Soviet Empire. The Russians had brilliant mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, but the rigidity and corruption of the system prevented them from translating their brilliance into high-quality products. The same is going on in China, with the same political results: The people are angry, and want fundamental change.
The same process is even further advanced in Iran, where near-constant demonstrations, protests, and even armed attacks against the institutions of the Islamic republic have raged.
The popular contempt for the regime is so blatant that the mullahs' usual pretense that all is well, has been openly discarded, and replaced with mounting repression. Like the North Koreans and Chinese, the Iranian leaders' greatest fear is that their own people will bring down the regime, and the mullahs have taken desperate action against the spread of ideas within the country.

Five hundred years ago Machiavelli insisted that tyranny is the most unstable form of government, and he warned that the most dangerous development for any tyrant was the contempt of his own people. That dramatic tipping point is now very close in China, Iran, and North Korea. All that is required to get there is a steady flow of the truth from outside their borders, guidance for those who undertake the struggle against the tyrants, and constant reminders — backed up with modest action — that we are with them.

Next Year in America

Yesterday was Passover, a very widely celebrated Jewish holiday. Indeed, many non-practicing Jews and even non-Jews end up participating in a Seder, the traditional Passover dinner during which the escape of the Jews from slavery in Egypt is described. The last line of the Seder service is "next year in Jerusalem", which, during the many centuries of oppression and persecution of the Jews, was a statement of hope. Now its meaning is more difficult to understand, since there are actually Jews in Jerusalem and the rest of us could go and have a Seder there if we really wanted to. I think David Cohen expresses nearly exactly my feelings when he wrote:
We are taught that there are two Jerusalems (the Hebrew word, "yerushalayim" is plural), the earthly city, shel mata, and the ideal or Heavenly city, shel ma'ala. I have no desire to live in the actual Jerusalem. Unlike previous generations of Jews, I am free both to leave my home and to live in Israel, but I am American through and through and know that any emigration would be my loss. (Some argue that the wish is simply to celebrate the Seder in Jerusalem, not to move permanently to Israel, but tourism as religious obligation has no appeal to me.)

Turning to the ideal Jerusalem, the prayer is often understood as a hope that we will find peace and justice next year. I am as much in favor of peace and justice as the next Jew (everywhere but on bumperstickers), but I find this understanding of the prayer as unsatisfying as the first. First, unlike most Jews of my acquaintance, I don't believe that peace and justice go hand in hand, but rather I believe that they are often at odds. Second, during the many centuries of Jewish persecution during which Israel was forbidden to us, this was a powerful prayer of physical redemption. Turning it into an anodyne wish that we could all just get along is offensive to me.

So, assuming for the sake of argument that I'm not satisfied to simply be a hypocrite, what will I mean when I say "next year in Jerusalem." It came to me a few years ago that I had subconsciously come to identify the United States with Jerusalem. I don't mean this as an argument that Americans are now G-d's chosen people (although I'm open to that argument) or that the US is shel ma'ala, the ideal city. But I do believe that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and, most importantly, American life as we live it are now the best practical example to mankind of how life should be lived. Tonight, when I say L'shanah haba'ah biyerushalayim, I will be praying that next year, the world will be that much closer to living in freedom and prosperity, as Americans do.
There has never been a better time and place to be Jewish than now in the United States. When I say "next year in Jerusalem" I really mean "next year in America".

Saturday, April 23, 2005

New Great Guys Blog Contributor

I've invited a new blogger to join Great Guys Weblog and I'd like to extend a hearty welcome to him. He and I run together and often have deep philosophical discussions while running (or at least they seem deep in my oxygen deprived brain state). Hopefully, we'll be able to recreate those conversations here, without being oxygen deprived.

Indeed, that would help increase the frequency of posting. I haven't been posting much because there isn't much going on in the world that's really catching my attention. The economy seems to be pulling back a little, but not enough that the data really shows it clearly. The middle east seems to be in a wait-and-see holding pattern. There are no elections coming up in the United States. There really haven't been any postings on other blogs that have stimulated me either. And I've been too lazy to finish some of the longer essays I've been working on (I'll get them done eventually).

No doubt all of this will change soon. Some new catastrophe will occur and I'll have something to write about, or our new contributor will stimulate an exchange. Then I'll get back to tapping the keys more frequently.