06.29.11

Should conservatives choose between Rand and Jesus?

Posted in Liberty, Society at 13:11 by RjZ

I couldn’t agree more. CNN wonders about the American Values Network video and article exposing the utter inconsistency between Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism and religious values espoused by conservative leaders of the united states. Paul Ryan and Rand Paul might explain that one can hold beliefs like these at the same time, by preferring the unfettered capitalistic views of Ayn Rand while choosing to believe in the morals of Christ in their personal life.

It’s a common problem for dogmatic religions. Science, for example, has little problem with religion, but religion is regularly trying to explain the natural world and inject itself into science, usually with no evidence or much predictive value. It is not necessary to believe every sentence of Atlas Shrugged and yet still ascribe to its basic tenets. Even several of the commenters at American Values Network seem quite capable of separating the values from Rand’s book that they agree with and integrating them into their Christian lives. One writes that Jesus’ edicts are “personal moral obligations” and not the realm of government action. The same is not so true, however, for devout Christians, particularly conservative evangelicals who believe that: anyone who doesn’t believe in each word of the bible shall be removed from the list of God’s righteous (Revelations 22:19), that is, go to hell.

Ayn Rand made no apologies for her statments that the beloved ideas of Jesus, are simply incompatible with her philosophy. As American Values Network points out “Where Jesus says, ‘love your neighbor as you love yourself,’ Rand says, ‘love only those who deserve it.’” Are these politicians, desperately seeking support from both fiscal conservatives and religious conservatives, able to find some middle ground between these two views? Are they suggesting that Rand’s utopia at Galt’s Gulch is compatible with the words of Christ (in red)?

Actions speak louder than words. I suspect that many of these Rand loving conservatives give only lip-service to the Christian conservatives who support them, trading their integrity for the power and opportunity to do what they believe in. It is likely that most politicians are not truly believers, but rather succumbing to the oft reported (even by medistrust of atheists in American society. Unfortunately, their tacit support of religious conservatism effectively amounts to support for the same kinds of attitudes that breed crusades and terrorism.

I may agree with the question American Values Network raises in their video, but not their argument. They seem to say that nothing Ayn Rand could say can hold any value because of her rejection of faith. They suggest that there is no reason to even listen to anyone who doesn’t share their religious faith. It’s not only Ayn Rand who rejects the teaching of Christianity, but every Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, and on and on. The American Values Network would have us close our ears to all of them. They also imply that Ayn Rand’s rejection of religion is also a rejection of morality. They equate religion with morality and, as common as this view is, it is demonstrably false in both directions (religious people are automatically moral/immoral vs. non-believers are automatically moral/immoral). This tired idea makes me honestly afraid that believers really would lie, cheat, steal, and kill, if they found they thought God wasn’t watching. That would be far worse than American politicians with questionable integrity.

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06.28.11

A little conservative campaign advice

Posted in at 9:28 by RjZ

David Frum, CNN columnist and soon-to-be-rejected-conservative has retracted his objection to same-sex marriages. Why? A decade ago he made the same argument that is still being made today, that same-sex marriages would damage the moral fabric of society. Thing is, they’ve been around now for quite some time and there is demonstrably no disintegration of the family, at least no greater disintegration than the previous decade.

I’ve made a similar case about health-care, and even marriage: look at other countries and if all hell didn’t break loose when they passed some highly controversial law, then, of course, you can still respectfully disagree with that law being passed where you live, but you can hardly claim gloom and doom is the likely outcome.

Put another way, this whole fear of gay marriage? Much ado about nothing! I suggest the current crop of conservative presidential candidates look somewhere else for some really divisive issues.

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06.27.11

Because German so pedantic is?

Posted in Reviews, Society, Travel at 13:18 by RjZ

That’s a literal word-for-word translation of what sounds like yoda-speak, but is actually German: Why are Germans so law-abiding? Because the German language is so pedantic. Warum sind deutscher so gesetztreu? Weil deutsch so pedantisch ist.

I’ve long nursed the idea that the language we speak may influence the way we are. Ever since learning German, a language with well defined rules and a pedantic grammar, at least when compared to my mother tongue, English, I began to compare the strict ideas of the language with the German people and culture and wonder if there was some sort of connection. The German language, fraught with instructions for how to organize each word in a sentence and what endings to attach to them in a host of different situations could easily be explained by the rule following nature of the people who speak it. If that’s not true, I reasoned, then it could just as likely be the other way around—an organized and law-abiding people could have evolved and selected characteristics of their spoken language to fit their lifestyles.

Just as when I was just starting college and read a survey of philosophy and discovered all those clever, barely formed, ideas rolling around in my head weren’t so original after all. (Was this a compliment or an insult to my ego, I wondered? Am I unable to come up with an original idea, or am I on par with Hume for contemplating similar ideas all on my own? With the benefit of hindsight, I think the former is much more likely to be true….) Here again, the idea is not new at all, and indeed, it’s quite a popular one: the concept was popularized by Benjamin Whorf and goes under the name Whorfian Hypothesis, or more explanatorily, Linguistic Determinism and was “a staple of courses on language through the early 1970s” according to Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought.

You’ve all heard a popular example of this idea in the old saw that Eskimos have over 40, or was it thousands (!),of words for snow. Of course, a culture so surrounded by the stuff would somehow gain a greater understanding of the subtle details, and naturally, their language would reflect this. Alas, this urban legend has long been debunked (which is to say nothing about the number of people who may still believe it to be true). English, for example, actually has dozens of words for snow: sleet, slush, powder flurries, hardpack, and sometimes, when there’s too much of it in your driveway, white shit, to name a few.

The problem with my thinly proved claim about the German language, that like the people, it has less flexibility than other languages is that it’s really only an observation thanks to my difficulty learning the language’s many rules. Where German has some strict requirements for where the verbs go in a sentence, the rest of the words can float around the sentence in a way that would make an English speaking poet green with envy. Mess around with English word order and meaning is changed dramatically. Dog bites man vs. man bites dog is the classic example. In German you can move things willy nilly achieving emphasis without resorting to typography or emoticons : – o (That would be Den Mann bißt der Hund vs. Der Man bißt den Hund.) Indeed, in many languages that require declension which signifies by prefixes or suffixes (or something else) which word is the subject or object, for example, instead of relying on strict word order as English does.

The German language is likely only pedantic from the foreign language student’s point of view. If it really were, would it be fault of the culture? Or did it shape the culture? The question is more challenging to answer, since even in African countries where German was exported, the German culture was exported along with it, which doesn’t necessarily imply a causal link.

But I’m not alone in guessing at this link between language and culture. In Outliers, Malcom Gladwell gives us an explanation of why Chinese speakers might be better at math, claiming it has something to do with the headstart children are given because of the logical naming of numbers. In English, Russian, French, German, and others, numbers are pretty messed up. Eleven, twelve, thirteen…then more logically, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen..which is kind of like 7 + 10, 8 + 10, 9 + 10. Of course, then we get to twenty, twenty-one, and it’s 20 + 1, 20 + 2. French is notorious for requiring arithmetic just to count with numbers such as 4 times 20 plus 2 for 82. Meanwhile, Chinese, Gladwell tells us, is pleasantly logical 1, 2, 3,…10, 1 x 10 + 1, 1 x 10 + 2, 2 x 10 + 3… and so forth. Gladwell points to research that Chinese boys and girls actually learn to count to much higher numbers much sooner than their English speaking counterparts.

I read this with glee; more evidence for Linguistic Determinism I thought. Not sure where my brain checked out though. This is, at best, a correlation for which there may be other causal relationships. Under this argument, we can easily presume that, while Chinese mathematicians are happy, Chinese poets are at least as envious of Germans as the English ones are, they have to learn over 10,000 symbols before they can even get started.

All of this assumes that language is the tool with which our brain thinks. It certainly feels that way. Language is, intuitively, our first clue to what we’re thinking about. I wonder what Steven Pinker would say to Gladwell about the Chinese math claim (he certainly isn’t impressed with Mr. Gladwell’s other claims). In Pinker’s book The Stuff of Thought he cites research by Dahaene and Spelke on bi-lingual speakers being asked to do math problems in their different tongues. While the participants do resort to their preferred language to do calculations, likely due to the mnemonics they’ve learned to perform them, (six times six equals thirty-six, six times seven equals forty-two…) there was no slowdown regardless of which language the question was asked in to estimate results. Estimating is, the kind of built-in math that our brains are capable of. Another study even showed subjects with damaged brains who could no longer speak or understand sentences, and yet were still able to compute math phrases “such as 50 – [(4 + 7) x 4].”

It’s time I laid my stereotypes about Germans not at the feet of language, but at my own laziness. Linguistic Determinism is simply incapable explaining the evidence of language use and acquisition, even if it does make for compelling conversation and fascinating discussions with fellow travelers.

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06.24.11

Gray libertarianism

Posted in Liberty at 19:55 by RjZ

It’s a bit of link-bait to argue you’re otherwise erudite essay on the momentous recanting of his philosophy by the father of modern libertarianism as The Liberty Scam, but hey, who can blame magazines and newspapers these days for that? The article, much longer than my comments here, is an excellent piece which will give libertarians especially pause, and encourage each of us to reconsider her own world-view.

Some time ago, I wrote about some guidelines by which I self-identify as a libertarian. My simple post would have made some of the commenters on Steven Metcalf’s Salon piece happy, for its lack of big words and philosopher’s names, but, in itself, it didn’t say much. Frankly, that actually was part of the point.

Where Metcalf takes an illustration from Robert Nozick’s seminal book Anarchy, State, and Utopia and knocks it down for being an insufficient example of real-life libertarian society (he’s right!), I think it’s pretty reasonable to suggest that no thinking person considers society quite this simple.

Libertarianism should be a set of principles that enable us to make decisions about real society in such a way that our individual rights are not infringed upon. This is the great achievement of Nozick’s book: declaring humanism as the true support for libertarianism (and thereby wrestling it away from those who suggest that socialism the truly humanist system). Metcalf kindly credits Nozick with the concept that “Society is unreal not because individuals are brutish but because they are dignified.”

I catch slack from many libertarians for the things I actually allow government might be the best choice for. Most libertarians agree that infra-structure and public goods are within the realm of the government. The sticky part comes when trying to define what is truly within the public good and what isn’t. (Take a moment to read that link, as the definition is intended to be rather narrow.) Lighthouses are a classic example of a public good, but education isn’t so easy to classify as one. Still, I, for example, concede government is not out of place providing some services in concert (some would say competition) with private institutions. And when we disagree, we must admit, it ain’t the end of the world just because the government got involved.

The 1975 Nozick might have had trouble admitting, for example, there are some activities where the incentives of a free market will never lead to the results that most individuals would desire. Health care, in general, often falls into this area, and more specific examples are easy to suggest. How should, for instance, the free market deal with orphan diseases? Orphan diseases are are often excruciating or even deadly, but are also extremely rare. The free market will never be able to justify the expense of research to cure them as so few will ever pay for the treatments, but as anyone might become a victim of one (or might have, if they had been born with it) we all could benefit from investment in such research.

Metcalf tells that more than a decade after Anarchy, State, and Utopia was published, Nozick wrote “The libertarian position I once propounded, now seems to me seriously inadequate.” With no uncertain glee, Metcalf takes this as proof that the whole thing was a failure. Of course Nozick was simply recognizing that his initial over-simplification was insufficient. And here we do, indeed, owe Metcalf a debt of gratitude for digging this all up, again. For, as I said in my original post, perhaps it’s time for us libertarians to take back the party from the crazies and extremists. The world isn’t simple, dualist, yin vs. yang. There are shades of gray and we have to live with one another in an effort to have all that free-trade in the first place.

Libertarianism makes for a truly humanistic guidebook that is both simple and truly preserves human dignity. When deciding how we wish to tax each other and what services to provide with that money, we must reflect on the anti-social danger we do to each other when that wealth is squandered on ideas that some part of society is sure is a good thing while another couldn’t imagine a greater sin.

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You can’t take everything literally

Posted in Society at 10:11 by RjZ

Anyone wondering about the literal truth of the Biblical story of Noah’s ark ought to have a look at this video of a man who’s built a sea- (well, river-) worthy replica in Holland. After checking out that video, compare with, say, the animals at just the San Diego Zoo. Or perhaps more impressive, the current number of known species.

The ark is big, and we can assume that there might be a few new species around since way back in Noah’s time (and that none have gone extinct, except of course, the unicorn), but, um, there are over 5000 different mammals around today! Some of them are as big as elephants! (Really!) There’s nothing wrong with the story, but it sure doesn’t seem like plausible history. (does it? your comments welcome!) And if it isn’t, how do we know which bits to believe and which are just useful stories?

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06.17.11

Travel photography – Lugging gear

Posted in Photography at 10:20 by RjZ

I travel light, or, at least I used to travel light. I used to carry everything for a three week trip in nothing more than a small book-bag sized backpack. If you’re going to carry a bunch of photography gear with you, and from the looks of it, nearly everybody is shooting with a DSLR these days, traveling light is essential. After all, who has room for clothes and extras when we’re carrying three lenses, a flash, tripod, filters, and on and on.

I carry way too much, simply because I am not a very good photographer. The great ones, (look up, I don’t know, Henri Cartier-Bresson) used a fixed lens, range-finder camera. They learned everything about their camera and learned to identify a scene exactly as their camera would see it. They made pictures that told stories and didn’t depend on long tele-photo lenses or distorting wide-angles. You should do that and not worry about how much gear to carry, and I should end here.

But I, I am just not that good. I carry a walk around lens with a broader range than most just so I won’t have to change too often (and miss shots). I carry a super-wide, because shots taken with it are often more impressive (on the rare occasion that they work) and they at least set me apart from shots with a kit lens. Oh, I often carry my heavy telephoto lens too because, well, you can’t shoot everything with that lens, but you can’t make a bad shot with it either.

But that’s not all, to Japan, where camera accessories were practically a badge of coolness, I dragged a tripod and on a few trips where I am expecting dark places I’ve brought the flash, and my cheapo remote triggers (and of course, gels for the flash). All in all, it’s ridiculous and thousands of pictures later, all I get is the feeling that travel photography is virtually dead.

One thing I do unmistakably gain, though, is experience. By now, you should be wondering how to carry all this junk. If you believe the market place, you’ll go out and get a specialized camera backpack that has room for all those lenses, the tripod, and even a second camera body (you know, someday….) Well, folks, these will keep you gear tucked away safe and sound, but make absolutely no sense for traveling.

The problem is, obviously, the tucked away part! That’s no place for all the crap you brought with you! The point is to take pictures and not to miss any shots, and that’s pretty hard to do when your telephoto lens is nestled inside your pack behind three zippers and two layers of velcro.

It’s worse than that though, these packs are sturdy, but all that means is when those perfectly organized compartments for tripod and long lens are unoccupied, you’re still carrying around this cumbersome pack, trying to squeeze through the mob or onto a crowded bus. Decided not drag the flash or tripod this trip? Well, good for you, you’ll still be dragging around an inconvenient camera bag.

Don’t despair, I have a simple solution for you! All you really need is a lens case for each lens (actually, for n-1 lenses; one is always on the camera, after all and you can juggle a bit and put shorter lenses in longer cases) and a neoprene wrapper, or hell, a towel, to wrap your camera in. Now you can toss this stuff into any soft backpack and carry as little or as much as you need. But there’s more! Make sure you get a lens case with some sort of flap that attaches to a belt; nearly all of the kind that have zippered tops, as opposed to the drawstring bags, have this. Now, when you’re out and about, you attach the lens cases to your book bag shoulder straps. They hang down at your side like gun holsters and you don’t look any more dorky than every other tourist with a small backpack on.

Frankly, my camera only leaves my neck when I sleep or shower during a trip, so the towel I mention above is truly enough of a case for it when you do have to stow it, but what about rain? American grocery stores still offer the easiest rain cover you’ve ever seen, for free: the plastic grocery bag, and you can find something similar most everywhere (sigh). These are disposable if they get ripped, and I promise, your camera is not soooo sensitive that it will melt from the first drop of water. When it really starts to pour, I just tuck the camera inside my rain jacket for the duration, or worse case, back in the backpack. This crinkly plastic bag fits most lenses, packs to the size of your first, and lets you use the camera in all but the worst downpours.

The backpack still has room for your guide book, a bottle of safe drinking water, and maybe lunch or souvenirs. You have quick access to the right lens for the right moment (exchanging from the lens case with the lens that was on your camera) and your whole system neither screams expensive gear nor weighs you down when, for today only, you decide not to bring every item in your kit (like that’ll ever happen).

System for carrying camera and crap

System for carrying camera and crap


So, save hundreds of dollars on a camera bag you’re going to hate and let thieves scope out the guys with the expensive looking gear. You’ve got things to see, pictures to take. Be ready!

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We’re back!

Posted in at 9:12 by RjZ

So sorry for the delay my dear (seven) readers. There were some technical difficulties that prohibited me from posting, but I am back, and I’ll get some stuff up here again soon. Tell your friends, start reading again, and above all, say something! comment!

More in a bit.

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