“Why is a laser beam like a goldfish?”

Posted in Reviews at 17:08 by RjZ

I just finished  Robert Heinlein’s 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. I was bound to like it as it’s warmly embraced by the individualists and libertarians, even winning a Prometheus Award. (Did you even know there were awards given to science fiction books that include libertarian themes?) Heinlein, for those who don’t know the so-called Dean of Science Fiction was a well respected author in a genre that isn’t always all that well respected.

Mostly, I read three kinds of books. Non-fiction books, ‘fine’ literature (or least somebody calls it literature), and science fiction. Science fiction is the cheesy entertainment stuff in my repertoire; my ‘guilty pleasure’. What I have been unable to find time for are popular, young adult series that seem to be so popular these days. I’ve not read more than a few pages of the Harry Potter series (even stopped watching the movies), the Twilight books (haven’t even seen the movies), or the Hunger Games (quite liked this movie, actually). I can often be heard wondering out loud why people bother with these books. and the response is almost always something like; it’s just entertainment and hey, it’s better than watching TV. It seems to me there is so much amazing writing out there, and reading takes so much more effort (well, for me at least) than passively watching a movie for an hour and a half that reading these simple and predictable books is a poor investment in time. And stop picking on TV; just get a streaming service already.

But, mmm, all this seems a bit hypocritical, for a guy who’s often reading sci-fi. I was forced to defend myself while reading this last book. Without having read the Potter novels or anything like them, I really can’t justify this artificial distinction I’ve made, but I can at least describe what I found special about The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Moon is a science fiction novel set during a war of independence for a lunar colony in 2075. Some writers choose a science fiction or fantasy setting to let their imaginations run free and create new worlds for us to explore, while others use these outlandish settings as allegories for a moral that could have been placed anywhere. What sets Moon apart is that Heinlein manages to deliver his message of individualism and the virtue of choice versus the sin of forced taxes and government control without letting it simply rest on an interesting, but unnecessary, infrastructure of lunar exploration. Instead, his ideas are inseparably linked and woven into this story; supported by the science and physics of the environment.

The revolutionaries in Moon share themes and ideas with any story illustrating the same conclusions, but the action could only play out as it has in this exact and rare relationship between the Earth and it’s unusually large satellite. These details, combined with the greater themes gives the novel unexpected depth, for it can be read as an adventure story of the early years of lunar independence or as a treatise of individualism and its political requirements and ramifications.

Is Moon literature? I doubt it. It already feels a bit dated, and Heinlein’s writing can easily grate on former English majors or anyone who is uncomfortable with the status of gender roles before the 70’s. Heinlein, by the way, is notoriously progressive in his views of gender roles, and sexuality. Moon is certainly no exception, but he also manages to show enough objectification and stubborn biases to make a feminist’s skin crawl. If it doesn’t put you off completely, it’s frequently humorous quirk of his writing. Without reading them, I can’t really say that Rawling’s Harry Potter novels, or any of the others, don’t share this same depth, but any book that can so successfully sneak such fascinating themes into an otherwise just-plain-fun entertaining story, complete with a riddle telling, sentient super computer, is worth recommending.

So, “Why is a laser beam like a goldfish?” “Because neither can whistle.” Not that funny, but not bad for a recently sentient super computer who had never seen a real goldfish.

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Changing landscape in the culture wars

Posted in Society at 18:00 by RjZ

The culture wars have returned, just as they do every year around this time. Fox News is reporting that Arkansas atheists are trying to stop kids from seeing “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” A local Arkansas paper offers a local, balanced approach to the same story, explaining this isn’t about the innocuous play, but the associated, and public school supported, proselytizing.

It’s safe to say The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers (wow! in Arkansas?) probably over reached on this one. They’ve opened themselves up to a public relations debacle over a play because a child might be ostracized for not going (attendance was not mandatory). Meanwhile, the American religious right gets to force its majority role on the student body while simultaneously playing the victim in this culture war.

Until recently, many considered it laughable that Christians could play the victim at all. In the United States 86% of congress claims to be Christian), and leaders [see 35:00] can remain on the government’s science committee after admitting “All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, the Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.” The Pew Research Center has described atheists as harder to elect than muslims or homosexuals, but Christians slavishly repeat the story at every atheist billboard, and protest.

Thing is, they may finally be right. The War on Christmas hasn’t been lost, but they are finally on their way to losing.

Twenty years ago there were no billboards declaring “You know it’s a myth, celebrate reason this season.” Twenty years ago the Freethinker society wouldn’t consider stopping schools from proselytizing Christianity. In 1956 when “In God We Trust” was added to U.S. currency, American’s were afraid of the atheist Soviet Union and wanted to anything to ensure American values were maintained. Religion was a part of the fabric of society, regardless of which religion its citizens were.

But times have changed and people’s values change. Judging from comments on recent news of fighting in Gaza, average folks have begun to frame the conflict as a religious one, sometimes proposing both sides should just kill each other off.  Come on, you’ve imagined something like that yourself, haven’t you? Laying the blame on religion’s feet is a dramatic change of perspective. Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins have suggested that believers hate atheists much more than those from other faiths. A muslim and a Christian share an essential belief in a personal god. But an atheist mocks them both equally by refusing to accept even the notion of god. All the while, people have looked on at one religious figure’s personal scandal after another religiously motivated war after another ignorant attack on science, and have begun to wonder if just sharing essential beliefs is enough. Even the faithful distance themselves from the Westboro Baptist Church. Most Americans still believe in God, but is no longer automatically assumed to make you a better person. (I know, no one said that a proclamation of faith alone makes us a good, but when we say that we won’t vote for an atheist, we’re admitting that’s not actually how we think.)

In Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape he argues that one day ethics too may be explained by science. We have a long way to go, but no longer is the question of how do we know what is good presumed to be the sole domain of religion. But it isn’t only anonymous internet commenters who have begun to question the role of religion. Now, world recognized religious leader, Dalai Lama, has gotten people talking by his Facebook post: (as of this writing, over 149 thousand “Likes”)

The reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.”

The War on Christmas isn’t over. Fox News and many others will be able to milk this issue for years to come. Indeed, perhaps, now that the secularists are finally gaining some ground, we can likely expect to see more and more headlines about the conflict. During a mock debate with Bill O’Reilly, Jon Stewart described the so-called victims of the War on Christmas by saying “they confuse being able to pray everywhere with being able to pray anywhere; the loss of absolute power with persecution.”

Before the Freethinkers of Arkansas or Atheists United are jailed for war crimes, we will have to ask: when religion is removed from the public square is there real evidence of a moral failure in society? (And remember, correlation doesn’t imply causation!) Is the world really falling apart compared to the fifties? Are communities where religion and faith are the default really better off, more just, more safe? What’s changed is that more people are even asking the questions.

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Hobby Lobby wants employees to have babies, no matter what

Posted in Liberty at 13:27 by RjZ

Frankly, in my view, it’s rather silly to call the morning after pill a method of abortion, but Hobby Lobby’s CEO David Green thinks that it is and forcing him to cover the expenses of this form of birth control is against his faith.

Plan B morning after pill

Plan B morning after pills

I want to agree with him. Of course, I hope any employee of his who disagrees with his unscientific views ought to get the heck out of there, but the facts are, many people don’t have many choices where they can work. An exception to the law for his business puts them in danger of not being able to receive care that the health care law mandates.

Stories like this make me very uncomfortable with the Affordable Care Act. It is just the kind of unintended consequences that big laws result in. Maybe this is a weakly constructed slippery slope argument where people are opposed to “Obama-care” for all the things that ‘could’ maybe happen, but in this case, here they are; actually happening.

Mr. Green may have backwards beliefs and be so convinced of them that he’d like to deny care to his employees, even resulting in unwanted pregnancies, later term abortions (wouldn’t that be worse?), unwanted children, orphans, unemployment, increased crime, and on and on (hey, we can all play the slippery slope argument game, can’t we?) but is it really the role of the government to judge him? And couldn’t this all have been fixed if we just abandoned the annoying notion that employers should be responsible for health care decisions in the first place (I don’t want my boss in my business any more than I want someone in Washington in there).

So, yes, I want to agree with Mr. Green, but let’s not be too hasty. What if Mr. Green’s religion required him to ban infidels from working in his stores? What if infidels happen to be black? Is it still his right to have a different standard for whom he would hire simply because religious freedom says so? When 1960’s era store owners refused service to black people our government stepped in, limiting the owner’s freedom to forbid this.

I still want to agree with Mr. Green, in spite of the dark age foundation for his beliefs, but before we jump to his defense, we must also balance his freedom with that of his employees. Freedom and liberty while living in a society and community can be very complex and trade-offs must be weighed for everyone involved. The Affordable Care act does limit Mr. Green’s freedom, but, must his freedom trump everyone else’s?

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It’s that time of the year again

Posted in at 17:33 by RjZ

That lovely time of the year when the culture wars flair up. In this case, the city of Santa Monica, California has thrown up their hands at a battle between Christians who want to set up nativity scene, a long running tradition in the city, and atheists who chose the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” route.

Last year, a coalition of atheists joined a city run lottery to display their message in the park during this time of year. Thing is, so many applied that they garnered most of the spots and the Christians didn’t think that it was fair for them to finally, after 60 years, have a say.

This year, Santa Monica decided, sadly, but wisely, to run away from the problem, and the Christians are suing them for it. Apparently it costs Santa Monica loads of money to administer this program and, hearing people scream at them for fairly giving away too many spots to those godless heathens probably didn’t make them want to do it again this year.

So the Christians are now suggesting that the atheists have a right to protest but that doesn’t trump the religious groups right to free speech. That seems reasonable, except they’re suing the city not the atheists, who, indeed, are not a party to this case at all.

It is a little sad that this long running tradition has been ended by the skirmish, but, like many traditions, perhaps it has finally run its course and, our enlightened society has learned that forcing the views of the many on the rest, no matter how gently, isn’t something that governments need to support. So, while the right leaning media will gleefully report on this tiny salvo in the culture wars, I have to wonder if the judge won’t just throw out this frivolous case, as the city will so easily argue that costs, (and trouble) trumped their freedom of speech much more than last years coalition of atheists.

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Botched campaign or a victory for the devil you know

Posted in at 14:14 by RjZ

This narrative, that essentially, the republican campaign wasn’t in touch with the rest of America, an America who now has an out-gay family member and some interracial friends and thus couldn’t tolerate the moral-majority dominated campaign is an easy sell: in retrospect. But if it was so obvious, why were liberals so nervous before the election that maybe Obama wouldn’t get elected?

I happen to agree, mostly. The republican mantra was that the economy mattered more than anything else, and the American people were not so convinced that they wanted to bet on the economy, while sacrificing there right to choose when to get pregnant, or married, or deported. That was an ill-advised strategy, but also because, frankly, and I speak as one who lost a job–twice–in the last four years, not everyone thinks the economy is strictly the current president’s fault, or that simply saying over and over again “I was a successful businessman, I know what it takes to fix this economy” is sufficiently convincing.

Mr. Romney’s campaign may have failed not so much because the conservative republicans didn’t appeal to minorities, gays, and women, but rather because Romney was unable to convince his base, let alone those in the middle who may have considered him what he stood for. Conservatives hoped that vague promises about the economy would work from them as they had for Reagan in the past, but this time, voters, who individually might be single issue voters, picking their candidate because they’re pro-life, or pro-gay marriage, in the aggregate voted for a combination of issues. They weighed the economy and maybe even wondered if Romney might be better, but since he couldn’t even convince his base what he truly stood for, they wondered too and decided better to go with the ‘devil you know.’

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It’s all over

Posted in at 14:43 by RjZ

The U.S election season is finally over and it’s not just American’s who are glad. Almost everyone with a TV, and plenty without, were sick of the negative ads and horserace coverage for months and months, not to mention the never ending requests to like Mitt Romney’s page, or one link after another to Huffington Post or moveon.org from our conservative and liberal Facebook friends. I always thought the Facebook status box was where you attempted to impress people with how funny or clever you were in just a few words (unsure I was either, I’ve never risked updating my status).

I voted early. For the big moment, the election itself, I happen to be in Germany. It seems it’s not only Americans who are relieved it’s all over. Upon hearing my accent, people smiled and gave me knowing looks while commenting on the election results. “Good job” some said. A guy in the street offered directions while unfolding a map. Germans can be friendly and quick to offer help, no matter what you may hear! “Congratulations on Obama,” he gushed, “it wasn’t even close, was it? We were worried you might choose Romney.”

A bit slow to realize his point, I tried to explain our puzzling electoral college and that I heard the popular vote was actually quite close. He seemed more confused that I shouldn’t just be happy to have dodged a bullet rather than convincing him that more more people voted for the losing candidate than he thought.

Beyond our enemies, in Korea or Iran, or frenemies in Russia and China, I doubt you could find many Americans who could name other world leaders, and yet, random people on the streets, and fellow conference goers from around the world, followed the U.S. election with almost as much detail as we did; without even being forced. I guess it’s cold comfort to those who hoped for the change Romney promised to bring, but it wasn’t only only a thin majority of Americans who weren’t convinced, most of Europe wasn’t either. Or maybe, Fox, who spent most of election evening desperately predicting Romney’s landslide, then narrow victory, and finally near popular victory really is the last holdout from the liberal media conspiracy. It’s spread to Europe too! It’s so much bigger than we all realized.

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Tarnished gold standard

Posted in Liberty at 17:05 by RjZ

I think it’s great that politicians this year were talking about the gold standard. The gold standard is a pretty esoteric thing for a politician to bring up at a rally and expect anyone to even know what he’s talking about, let alone cheer him on. Unfortunately, I am not so convinced that people really do have an idea what impact reverting to the gold standard would have.

Since the libertarian party is generally for policies that return us to the this ultimate standard of fiscal conservatism, and I hope we’ll continue to hear more about it in the coming years, I’d like to share my non-economist views on just why returning to the gold standard is the kind of utterly non-pragmatic thing that libertarians need to stop screaming about if they ever expect to gain a foothold in U.S. politics.

Briefly, then, here’s how it works. If you’re on the gold standard, than, no matter what happens in your country, no matter what banks do with exotic, leveraged, financial instruments, you can’t ever print any money, unless, of course, you have gold in your treasury to back it up.

Right from the start, it’s silly, to imagine an actual gold standard. We’ve already printed so much money since we left the standard completely (in 1971!). The U.S. would have to so dramatically de-value its currency until it could justify each dollar’s percentage of gold in our treasuries; we’d have to rewrite decades of inflation all at once. Whatever you may have in the bank, would suddenly be nearly worthless, and your ability to buy foreign goods and services would fall through the floor.

Of course, we don’t have to return to the hard limit of gold in our coffers. Instead, we could simply not print any more and call the current amount of cash in our economy a hard limit.

All this is probably sounding pretty reasonable to my fiscally conservative readers. Rest assured, dear readers, I’m with you, but alas, the economy is more complex than we would like it to be. I get it. We libertarians don’t really trust our elected officials. We don’t want them to have any leeway to bail out parts of our economy by just printing money–what they’re really doing is borrowing against the future, and, alas, there is so little incentive for them not to do this.

And I agree with all this. The only practical problem is that, the ability to occasionally print money enables governments to at least soften the blow of a great many ills of our capitalist system. It’s commonly agreed that the Great Depression was made worse because we couldn’t print money. Please note, I am not ascribing to the Gold Standard causeing the Great Depression; over spending did. I am claiming that the inability to respond extended the impact. There was nothing the government could do to lessen the blow of failing banks which reduced trade an economic efficiency.

I disagree with the magnitude of the more recent bail-outs and how they were used during our current crisis, but I can’t deny that the Federal Reserve’s policy of “quantitative easing” (also known as QE, a new, fancy way to print money by simply adding it electronically to bank balance sheets) has eased the pain that this crisis would otherwise have caused.

Was it the government’s fault that they didn’t foresee the amount of leveraging that both banks and individuals had engaged in? Should they have passed laws to avoid this? Would a sensible libertarian policy suggest we ought to try to guess all the ways in which we can get screwed by people trying to game the system and pass laws to avoid it? Hardly.

We have borrowed from the future, because unexpected things happened in the past. Like abortions, this ability to print money should be safe, legal, and above all, rare. The alternative is a tossing and turning economy, now wildly up, now wildly down, with longer time spent in the painful doldrums, and politicians with no tools whatsoever to do anything about it. Do I trust politicians with this freedom to print money? Not much. But I know for sure what happens if there is no alternative.

Can you imagine a business trying to grow without any ability to borrow? Now scale that up to the size of a country. Argentina is a country which went bankrupt. They screwed creditors and are now unable to borrow for the future. The result is a country with resources and educated people struggling to get out of doldrums and no recourse to get there. Unlike the U.S., when they print money, no one actually believes them.

In fact, the U.S. can’t actually print money arbitrarily. We can only keep adding zeros to balance sheets as long as the rest of the world is willing to value our currency. During the recent financial crisis we’ve had three rounds of QE and billions and billions of dollars are added to our financial system (without us earning them!). The dollar, meanwhile, has held its own on international markets. Why? Because other countries are worse off than we are (for example, the Euro crisis), and, unlike Argentina, the financial markets still believe America is a good bet. When the U.S. was downgraded by the rating industries, financial markets barely reacted. Why? Same reason; we don’t have to be such a good bet, so long as we’re better than everyone else.

Returning to the gold standard needlessly removes a critical tool from our government’s ability to manage unforeseen problems with our modern capitalistic economy. Fortunately, we really can’t just print money arbitrarily, and without consequence, and the impact of such forced restraint would leave no way of reacting to more serious problems. If libertarians truly want to allow unfettered capitalism to explore all the ways in which we can enable everyone to reap benefits from our resources, we can’t afford to watch the world pass us by while we languish in our next recession or depression with no lifesaver in sight, just because of our distrust of politicians. There are better policies for libertarians to build their platform on, even if it is exciting to wonks and economists that everyday people are actually discussing such nuances of our economic system.

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