Archive | September, 2010

Little atheist things that don’t fit separate posts

30 Sep

One of my little atheist related quirks is crossing out “One Nation Under God” off of any bills I come in contact with. I know it doesn’t really make a difference in the grand scheme of things, but it makes me happy and I’m enforcing the constitution. I have yet to have any cashier notice that every bill I had them has big black marks on it, and I’m waiting till one does so I can explain how it’s unconstitutional.

A while back I started taking a camera with me when I drove places around SC just to get pics of all the religious signs I pasted. I took a bunch on the highway, but they came out blurry, so unfortunately I don’t have as many as I’d like to show, but here are a few.

This one I call “The repent tent”. It’s about a mile away from my house. I think the people that own the property are hardcore crazies that do revivals and what not. The sign in the backs says “Holy ghost baptism, Holy Fear, Holy Jesus saves”….speak in complete sentences much?

This one is really hard to see. I tried to snap a bunch of pictures of it while moving, but the tree got into the way. It’s in downtown Columbia and reads “A perfect love drives out FEAR.  God is love. Come to me” yeah….

There are signs like this all over the place, on the sides of highways and inner city roads. They point you in the direction of a church. I have to wonder about the reason for them. Are they for people who are traveling, unfamiliar with the area, and suddenly go “oh man, I need to get to a church ASAP! Which way do I go?!?!”

Outside of churches there are often these yellow warning signs. Yellow signs like these on the roads are always there to alert you to be cautious of something. The intent of the sign is to warn you that there might be a lot of people pulling out of a church parking lot ahead, but I like to pretend it’s warning you of the church itself.

“daily shall God be praised”

A business sign with a christian fish on it.

I took those last too pictures because it’s not uncommon here in South Carolina for businesses to display the religion of the owner. From reading rants on Craig’s list about local businesses, apparently it’s also not uncommon for plumbers and the like to proselytize to you after doing work in your home. Many businesses also give discounts to people if they happen to be be the right type of christian. At first this bothered me, but then I realized it’s actual beneficial to me. By loudly associating your religion with your business, it helps me know what businesses to avoid. It makes it easy for me. You have your right to display your belief, and I have my right to refuse to do business with you.

More diary crap

30 Sep

Hey totally not private internet diary, how’s it going. It’s almost 3am again and I can’t sleep; feel the best thing to do is just write what’s on my mind till I fall asleep. None of it will be coherent but here it goes.

Writing to music: Sometimes I enjoy it, other times I can’t concentrate if it’s playing. When I do write and listen to music, it almost always has to be music without singing. I get distracted trying to hear the words. When I’m writing the music I listen to depends on my mood and the mood of the piece I’m typing up. Sometimes I’ll play a song on repeat over and over again while writing. I’m not consciously listening to the song, but it helps evoke a mood or emotion within me and playing it constantly helps me keep the mindset all throughout writing. For example, one of the songs I’ve been listening to a lot while writing is this:

It puts me into a thoughtful, somewhat somber mood. Other times my music choices will change depending on the subject matter I’m dealing with. Back in college when I was writing history papers, I’d often play music of the cultures I was writing about. For example, when I was writing my thesis on Anglo-French relations in the reconstruction of post-Nazi Germany, I listened to a lot of Edith Pilaf. Other times, when I was pulling an all nighter to get a paper done, I’d listen to trance to keep my energy pumping. It really got me going as I’d be plowing through my paper, getting stuff done at 4 am, hopped up on caffeine and a strong beat. I know most people don’t associate history with techno music, but it made it fun for me.

My memory’s been particularly bad lately. I’m forgetting all sorts of things. I forgot my check card pin. Tried a couple of combinations, kept getting denied. I even forgot some of my online passwords. Don’t know what’s happening to me. My memories of my ex are also starting to fade. Sometimes I can remember them, but other times I can’t really see her face. It’s been months since she’s talked to me. Her birthday is coming up. I want to send her a card, or be there to celebrate with her (it’s her 21st), but she asked me not to contact her until she contacts me, so I’m respecting her wishes, as much as it hurts. I’m not exactly sure what’s happened, but I’m afraid my mind is going to create false memories to try and fill in that gap. I don’t want to unconsciously conjure up a false history to explain why she changed, left me, and severed all lines of communication, but it’s hard not to do when you’re not quite sure why everything fell apart. Moving on before I make myself depressed.

I realized that when I find something that I’m interested in, I have trouble doing anything else until I’ve completed it. I kinda dropped out of the internet sphere the past 2 weeks because I was constantly listening to Atlas Shrugged on audio books, or replaying Mass Effect 2. I spent the past 4 days doing almost nothing but playing that game, plowing through it. Around midnight last night I got close to the end of the game and decided to just go ahead and beat it. When I finished it was 6am…. >.< I don’t know why I’m not able to take things piece by piece instead of doing it all at once.

Still no job. Tried several different places. My best friend is having similar luck. I got a call from a staffing agency in Dallas, TX telling me they had a position in Lynchburg, VA lasting 2 months, and paying minimum wage copying papers. Why would I relocate 6 hours north just to work a job that wouldn’t even pay enough for me to get a place to live in? It makes me depressed that after all my education and hard work I’m only getting offers that high school dropouts could preform. My college had the gall to send me a letter asking for a donation. Why the fuck are they sending recent grads letters asking for donations? Don’t they know none of us have jobs, that the degree’s we’ve paid thousands of dollars for already aren’t helping at all? They should have just pretended to send out letters and not done it. The money they spent in those mailings is probably a lot more than what they’re going to get back from us unemployed forlorn graduates.

That’s all for now, I’m tired. Maybe I’ll add more when I wake up, if I’m still in the mood for this.

*EDIT* 1pm, up, walked the dogs, took a shower, got more stuff to talk about.

The dogs really piss me off sometimes. I love them dearly, but sometimes I wonder who’s walking who. First thing when I wake up, they’re looking at me, wanting to go on a walk. They harass me constantly until I take them. I can’t take a shower, I can’t eat breakfast, I can’t do anything until I take them for a walk. The moment we finally get home, me covered in sweat, they keep harassing me until I give them each a cookie. They don’t want me to put the leashes up first, they don’t want to get a drink of water first, I can’t even get a drink of water first, they just want the damn cookie. It really puts me in an irritable mood and shortens my fuse. Sometimes I’ll take extra time loading songs onto my ipod before I take them, just so they can sit there and squirm.

I hate the tv show LOST. I hate that and Dancing with the Stars. I can’t really explain why I hate them, but I just associate them with the culture of America, along with walmart, fast food, fat people, and no healthcare. <.< Odd mix I know.

Atlas Shrugged, my conclusion

27 Sep

I finished the book a few days ago and have been delaying writing this post ever since. It’s a lot to think over, and to be honest I’m afraid to criticize parts of it for what people might say.

When I first started reading the book I was not all that interested, though by the end I was unable to sleep until I finished it. There were a couple of things that really resonated with me:

  • A is A, there is an objective reality indifferent to our needs, wants, and wishes. I’ve written a few posts in the past detailing my frustration with people, politicians, and pastors who don’t seem to understand this fact. Throughout the book I wanted to strangle the people who shouted at Dagny (one of the main characters) to just “fix it.” “How do you suppose I do that?” “I don’t know! Just do it! It’s you’re job!” I am reminded of the story of King Canute who stood on the shore and commanded the tide not to come in.
  • Rand’s view on original sin and morality. I’m attracted to her morality of reason, though I’m not sure I fully comprehend it yet. (It’s buried in a 3 hour long speech by John Galt towards the end of the book. I understand how the argument is constructed, it’s just that there is so much to take in, I’m having to read it over and over again to digest it). What really struck me was the portion talking about the abomination that is “original sin”:

“A sin without volition (choice) is a slap at morality and an insolent contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality. If a man is evil by birth, he has no will, no power to change it; if he has no will, he can be neither good nor evil; a robot is amoral. To hold, as a man’s sin, a fact not open to his choice is a mockery of morality. To hold a man’s nature as his sin is a mockery of nature. To punish him for a crime he committed before he was born is a mockery of justice. To hold him guilty in a matter where no innocence exists is a mockery of reason. To destroy morality, nature, justice, and reason by means of a single concept is a feat of evil hardly to be matched. Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with free will, but has a ‘tendency’ to evil. A free will saddled with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice. It forces man to struggle through the effort of playing, to bear responsibility and pay for the game, but the decision is weighted in favor of a tendency that he had no power to escape. If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free.”

I resent how the mystics (read religious) try and make everything pleasurable a sin. Happiness is a sin. Your existence is a sin. Your very nature and the tools you need to survive are sins.

“They have cut man in two, setting one half against the other. they have taught him that his body and his consciousness are two enemies engaged in deadly conflict, two antagonists of opposite natures, contradictory claims, incompatible needs, that to benefit one is to injure the other, that his soul belongs to a supernatural realm, that his body is an evil prison holding it in bondage to this earth – and that the good is to defeat his body, to undermine it by years of patient struggle, digging his way to that glorious jail-break which leads into the freedom of the grave.”

The part of Rand’s objectivist morality that I’m struggling with is where altruism fits in. Rand makes it pretty clear in the book that sacrifice to your detriment is evil, yet is altruism a forml sacrifice?

“If you exchange a penny for a dollar, it is not a sacrifice; if you exchange a dollar for a penny, it is. If you achieve a career you wanted, after years of struggle, it is not a sacrifice; if you then renounce it for the sake of a rival, it is. If you own a bottle of milk and give it to your starving child, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to your neighbor’s child and let your own die, it is. If you give money to help a friend, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to a worthless stranger, it is. If you give your friend a sum of money you can afford, it is not a sacrifice; if you give him money at the cost of your own discomfort, it is only a partial virtue [read as evil]…if you give him money at the cost of disaster to yourself – that is the greatest of the virtues [evils] you can practice.

What about the human instinct to help your fellow man? Is that just a false construct resulting from a twisted morality? The part that I get hung up on is the term “worthless stranger”. It’s ok to help a friend, but not a “worthless” stranger. What’s the difference between a stranger and a “worthless” stranger? What’s the difference between a stranger and a friend? Knowledge and approval of the other person? Is it wrong to give money to charity? If you can afford it, I think not, if you can’t, then it is wrong. There is a part in the book where Dagny, the multimillionaire railroad tycoon, finds a bum hitching a ride on her train. The conductor is about to throw him off the train and into the desert (where the bum will most likely die) but Dagny stops him and invites the bum in for dinner. That was a form of charity. Dagny could afford it, she didn’t know the man, he was a stranger, and by all accounts “worthless”, whatever that means.

This book also impacted my views in 2 other ares: The rich, and taxes. To be honest, before I read this book I hated the rich. I resented them. They have something I don’t. They are able to do things I can’t. I viewed their wealth as some kind of evidence for their immorality. They must have done something evil to get all that money, that or they just inherited it without effort. In light of this book I’m a bit ashamed of that view, but you live and learn. I know see them not as evil, but people who are enjoying the rewards of their effort. They are something to look up to and emulate. Well, some of them. One of the things I noticed in the book is that all the rich people where honest, honorable, hardworking, intelligent people. If they gave you their word, they kept it. Unfortunately, in real life, these people are hard to come by. How would Rand view the dishonest businessman, the one who gains his wealth through fraud and deceit? These men certainly do exist. Would Rand just view them as another form of looter, dependent on the work of others for their survival?

Secondly, I understand and agree with another main point of the book: need does not constitute right. Just because you need something, doesn’t mean you have the right to take it. Governments need money to operate. That doesn’t mean they have the right to take it in the form of taxes. (And they do take it ultimately at the point of a gun. If you refuse to pay your taxes you go to jail. If you refuse to go to jail, men with guns show up at your house and take you there in chains) Before I saw no problem with the income tax, now I see it as a penalty for productivity, which is one of the highest goods. Before I agreed with progressive taxation, but now I’m starting to see it as way of penalizing those who do well. ( A month ago I would have slapped you if you told me I’d ever utter that sentence…)

The problem is that I don’t see a viable alternative. There are things that a community….needs….*shudder*, that taxes are the only viable means to supply them. What exactly is the role of government? “To protect the people”…though that has certain Orwellian undertones. To protect individual rights, property, and lives. Does that sound ok? Well what would that entail? A fire department, police force, and military obviously, with roads necessary for them to get around. What about a post office? What about Medicare and social security? In the book, the economy was going to hell and the government kept trying to fix it by slapping on more and more regulations, attempting to micromanage every industry. I find that kind of regulation ridiculous, but I think some regulation is necessary. When? Well when it’s necessary to protect property and lives. What do I mean by that? Well I approve of government regulated building standards, highway safety standards, sanitation standards, measurement standards, things of that nature.

What I’m really curious to know is what Rand would have thought about global warming. It is a fact of reality that we are drastically impacting the nature of our environment for the negative. A is A and no amount of wishing or political speak will change this. The problem is too massive to be handled on a business by business level, it has to be national and global. If few businesses are willing to alter their practices to help avert disaster, is it right for the government to step in and force them? I’m not sure. Maybe I’m looking at the problem the wrong way. People effect change by how they spend their money, is there a way to encourage them to spend their money in such a way that businesses will naturally change course? I don’t know.

Lastly, I wanted to address Rand’s view of higher education. In the book she repeatedly slams colleges and professors. In Atlas Shrugged colleges are where students go to be told what to think. The entire education system revolves around tearing away a child’s ability to think and reason in favor for giving him/her pre-decided upon ideas. I don’t know what college was like during Rand’s time, but having just graduated from the higher education system, I can say that’s definitely not what it was like for me. College is supposed to be where you learn how to think, not what to think, as portrayed in Rand’s book. Do colleges like the ones Rand described exist? SURE! I went to college right down the road from one, “Liberty” “University”, a place with the perfect Orwellian doublespeak name. In real life, real universities are engines of innovation, the same as the rich in Rand’s novel were engines of innovation. Universities that teach students how to think are innovators, universities that teach students what to think aren’t. (case in point: “Liberty” is not a place of innovation)

That’s pretty much all I can think to say on the topic for now. A friend suggested I check out the works of Virginia Postrel for the answers to some of my questions, so I think I’m going to do that. In the meantime I took the world’s smallest political quiz to see where I stand and got this result:

Nationality doesn’t matter

20 Sep

Nationality shouldn’t matter any more than sports teams matter. I’m not saying we should dissolve all the countries in the world, I recognize that they serve a purpose, but I don’t think they’re as important as they once were. Every year as technology increases and the world shrinks, boundaries between nations mean less and less. Hopefully someday they will mean nothing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s ok to have pride in your country, just like you might have pride in a sports team. Yet like in sports there is a problem when you want to inflict physical violence on another person solely because they are a fan of another sports team.

One of the best experiences of my life so far has been a summer long study abroad trip to the UK. It was an international school with many programmes and I was in the archaeology programme. There are two moments that really struck me. At the start of the programme we had an ice breaker night where everybody got together at a small party and we played team games. There were students from India, German, France, Spain, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Holland, United Arab Emirates, Czech Republic, Ireland, Austria, Italy, everywhere.

One of the games we played at the ice breaker game was a starring contest of sorts. The object of the game was to make the other person laugh. Everyone looked so serious. The easiest way to stay serious is to think about serious things, so I imagined everybody was thinking of things like the other person’s country’s past. Almost all of our countries had come in conflict with each other at one point or another in the past, so I assumed people were focusing on that to keep a serious face while staring straight into the eyes of their opponent. The thought made me uncomfortable.

Over the course of the following weeks we all got to know each other, we became friends. On a couple of occasions my Spanish, German, Irish, and Indian friends and I would get together for dinner. We’d meet over at someone’s place and all cook. It was amazing. The second moment I was talking about, but the one that had the greatest impact on me, came one night while we were all out at a pub.

Sitting there in a corner, nursing a drink, I looked around at all my friends. A Dutch and Spanish friend were dancing to the music near our tables; their countries had fought a brutal war centuries ago, Spain almost wiping my Dutch friend’s country off the map. My other Spanish friend was chatting with my Irish friend. Next to them was my English friend. Ireland and England have a long and bloody history, and Spain almost wiped England off the map in the 16th century. Near him was my French friend who was chatting to the Egyptian student. France had conquered and subdued Egypt, just like the British. My French and English friend, their countries had tried to kill each other for centuries. My German friends were also having a beer with me. WWI, WWII? Same goes for my Italian friend. All of our countries had dark interwoven pasts. We had all fought with each other at some point. 60-70 years ago we might have been trying to slit each other’s throats, yet here we were, in a pub, laughing and chatting together as friends. This realization hit me like a bucket of water, and I sat there for a bit just taking it all in. Despite all the hatred, horrors, and crimes of the past here we were as friends. Nationalities didn’t matter to us. All that mattered was that we were 20 somethings in another country for the summer, all experiencing the same thing, all of us friends. It was one of the greatest and happiest moments of my life.

I think it sometimes takes an experience like that, prolonged contact with people from different cultures, to realize that we’re all essentially the same. Yes we may look slightly different, wear different clothes, eat different foods, and speak different languages, but all this is superficial. We’re all people with the same needs, worries, fears, and hopes as everyone else. I think it’s easy to forget that when you’re in your own country, flooded by the fear and “us vs them” mentality of the news media.

Atlas Shrugged update

17 Sep
So as I mentioned before, I’m reading through Atlas Shrugged to help me better understand libertarianism, but as I’m reading it some preconceived notions I have keep making me bang my head on the table. I thought I’d write them down here for you to give me you’re opinion, and I’m open to changing my mind. (That’s the whole point of this exercise in the first place)
  • Money ≠ effort. For example. A coal miner might break his back in a coal shaft for $10\hr, while the owner of the mine sits at his desk in air conditioning making decisions for $50\hr. Does this mean that the effort spent by the owner in 1 hour is equal to the effort spent by the coal miner in 5? “Oh but the owner bears the responsibility should the mine fail or an accident happen, thus it is right that he should take more in pay from the net profits of the combined effort.” Really? If the mine fails, is not the worker also out of work, like the owner? If there is an accident the worker is likely to lose his life; the worst the owner can expect is to lose the mine and possibly jail time. It seems that the worker has more to risk than the owner. It seems that by virtue of merely putting up the capital to start the mine and by deciding how to run it, this somehow entitles the individual to more profit than the people who do the actual work. “But without the owner there would be no mine, and the workers wouldn’t have jobs!” Yes, and without the workers there would be no mine and the owner would make nothing. They are equally dependent on each other, so why should the owner take home more? (The sad truth is that workers are so numerous they’re expendable, whereas people with the capital to start a mine are rare, thus those with capital use this fact to extort more money out of the workers) This seems to me to be in conflict with the notion that every man is entitled to the product of his productive energies.
  • Laissez faire capitalism ultimately threatens personal liberties. (This is the hardest one for me to articulate) I say “ultimately” because this does not seem apparent when capitalism is operating on a small or medium scale, say the farmers’ market or regional businesses. Through unregulated competition, businesses will grow, fail, merge, etc until they have evolved into large corporations or  monopolies. These corporations/monopolies will then be able to dictate to customers what products they can buy, and at what prices. Sure people can revolt and boycott, but a well run monopoly would carefully keep the products and prices just within the bounds of tolerance, counting on the bulk of the population to be too apathetic or too dependent to revolt. Money influences politics; people with inordinate amounts of money have inordinate political power. Large corporations can out spend and out organize smaller groups of private citizens. If need be corporations can even buy legislators through extortion or promises of lucrative positions in the private field after their term. Just look at our current legislative bodies and how many congressmen/women retire from public service to work as extremely well paid lobbyists/consultants for the very corporations they previously regulated. The bailouts are another good example of inordinate corporate power. The American people did not want to hand over billions and billions of their money to save corporations from facing the consequences of their actions. (Laissez faire would have dictated that the corporations collapse) Yet the corporations (but mainly the banking industry) had grown so large, wormed itself into so many sectors of the economy, that if it died it would take the world’s economy with it. The banks knew this and essentially blackmailed the people into saving them from their irresponsibility. (Meanwhile the CEOs jet away on vacations to their private islands while unemployment is around 10%) I would say this is an example of oligarchy, which is the natural goal of such large corporations. A corporation or monopoly will naturally wish to control the governmental body that decides laws and is in a position to regulate it. How can individual liberties be protected if an oligarchy is running the country?
  • In a laissez faire economy where profit overrides all other concerns, including public health, what would keep a corporation from dumping toxic waste in a river if it thought it could absorb any costs? Even if the local community got together to protest, they don’t have enough of an economic impact to make a difference to the corporation. Even if they got other people in other towns to protest with them, you can count on human apathy for nothing to be done about it. (Plus, if selfishness is a virtue, then why should people in other towns take time out of their day to protest something that doesn’t effect them?) What would replace the EPA, the FDA, the CDC, the dept. of highway safety, dept. of weights and measures, or any number of regulatory industries that make sure products are safe and that a companies deliver what they advertise? (Don’t say self-regulation, that’s naive. It didn’t work before we establish those departments, and it wouldn’t work if we dismantled them)
  • If everything were privatized, how would minorities be protected from discrimination by the majority? Especially in education? Matter of fact, not just minorities, but poor people in general. Rich people could afford to send their children to good institutions while poor people would have to make do with what they have, which is nothing. Without an education, how would a child break free from poverty? Sure a handful might get lucky and discover something, but the you can’t always pull yourself out of poverty through hard work. There are plenty of people in this country right now working second, and even third jobs, just to support their families. They’re working their asses off but they’re never going to get anywhere because they don’t have the education they need to make better choices or get promoted. Not everybody can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and it’s not because they’re lazy or incompetent.
  • Money is not the only indicator of what is important in life. What about institutions like museums or parks that can’t turn a profit? There are plenty of great cultural things in this country that would have to shut their doors if it weren’t for public funding. Must everything be commercialized? Would a museum or park have to resort to plastering advertisements all over the place to survive? It just seems vulgar. Charity would not be a viable option to support these institutions. A) the benefactor would most likely influence what was displayed/preformed/ etc, making it hard for private individuals to compete, and B) who want’s to beg for table scraps from the tycoons? That’s essentially what I feel relying on charity for public services would amount to. “Oh great gods of industry, have mercy on us the poor and unwashed masses, may we please have a few pennies to keep a museum open, or to pay for our school?”
  • Without public goods/services/places everyone who aren’t able to afford such things are essentially a serfs. What liberties can you have if you can’t afford an education, healthcare, to put out the fire on your home, or to pay the police to keep you safe? What kind of existence is living hand to mouth? (I can’t really articulate it, but I feel like I would be a slave to money, a slave to who ever had the most of it, a slave to my employer.)

I think it’s interesting how the main characters in the book are all ridiculously brilliant and rich. All of them (the ones I’ve encountered so far up to chapter 5) have either been born with a silver spoon or had a meteoric rise to riches. I wonder how the book and morals of the story would be different if instead of a group of industrialist playboys, the main characters were poor coal miners or store clerks, you know, people who actually have to break a sweat to make sure their families have something to eat that night. I’m kind of turned off by the arrogance and egocentrism of the main characters. Yes, you’re rich tycoons who are making things happen in the world, but you’re not the only people who matter. It’s like they’re the lone sparks of competence and they feel the world would shrivel and die without them. You’re either brilliant and successful or incompetent and a looter. I would go on about empathy, but that would sound trite.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not some red book carrying Maoist. While reading the story I equally want to strangle James Taggart and all the people who blab on and on about the needs of the people, and business’s duty to help those less fortunate. I’m not a statist, I detest the level of government involvement in the novel. Surely there is some middle between the two extremes Rand paints. I recognize that it is immoral to extort money from an individual in the form of taxes, but I feel the alternative consequences of having a nation free of publicly funded institutions is even more immoral. I don’t see any alternative. There are things that people need that they cannot individually afford or achieve. Many of our greatest accomplishments as a species have come as a result of the combined effort of governments, things private industry could not have accomplished on the same scale.

A nuclear free world is a myth

16 Sep

Once something is invented, it cannot be “uninvented”. This is a very simple fact that you can’t ignore. Another, equally simple fact, is that there will always be ambitious and power hungry leaders. The natural product of these two facts is that these leaders will always strive to achieve the ultimate power that is a nuclear bomb. They may do so publicly or covertly, but they will attempt to acquire the bomb. It is naive to believe the smaller powers in the world will forgo building the bomb in exchange for humanitarian aid, or not being attacked by the greater powers. It is equally naive to believe the powers that currently have stockpiles of the bomb will ever get rid of all their bombs. The distrust and deception of the cold war should show you that despite any outward appearances of complete disarmament, neither power would risk giving up all their bombs only to find the other power lied and hid a few.  Mutual distrust would insure that some bombs were hidden as an insurance policy. That alone makes a nuclear free world a myth)

I was born a year before the Berlin wall fell. I never grew up in a world where the threat of instant and total destruction was possible at any moment. I guess it’s still possible now, but it’s so unlikely that I never even think about it. There are so many other problems in the world that are actually happening for me to waste my time worrying about such a remote possibility like a nuclear war. The interesting thing about nuclear weapons is that they make themselves obsolete. I’m sure you’ve heard of M.A.D., or Mutually Assured Destruction. If you haven’t, the name pretty much gives it away. If you attack us with nuclear weapons, we attack you. We both die, so there is no point in attacking with those weapons. In order for MAD to work, you need to have a nuclear weapon hidden somewhere, and the ability to deliver it to the enemy quickly. The US currently has this in the form of missile silos and a handful of submarines hidden out under the oceans, each with enough warheads to destroy an entire continent.

MAD works for keeping countries from fighting a nuclear war, but it does not work so well for the new threat: religious fanatics. How do you fight people who gladly die, who gladly strap bombs onto their bodies? They have no capital you can capture, no government to negotiate with. They will actively seek to acquire the nuclear bomb in order to carry out what they believe to be their god’s will. MAD does not deter them, even if you threaten to annihilate the country they came from. That problem is indifferent to whether or not you get rid of your stockpile of nuclear weapons. But I digress, the main point is that nuclear weapons are hear to stay. They always will be, and leaders will always try and get them. Lowering the nuclear stockpiles of the world’s major powers is all well and good, but it doesn’t accomplish much. As long as you have the ability to kill everything on the planet, it doesn’t matter how many times over you can do it.

Is this what going insane feels like?

16 Sep

Last night I stayed up too late again. When I crawled into bed I knew I was going to sleep to some ridiculously late hour.  Upon closing my eyes and having a dream about a steampunk submarine, a dirigible, and some evil holocaust style experiments, I awoke and my cell phone reported the time of 12:07pm. The chemicals have been flowing through me today. At times I’ve felt happy and content, then just as quickly I was depressed and resigned. I went about doing some cleaning in my room, but more or less feeling listless. I looked at my workbench, at all the supplies and tools I had to make things, but I didn’t know what to make. I knew what I could make, but I saw no real purpose to it. The house is dark, still, and sullen. All of the lights turned off, leaving only the faint glow of the sun to light the interiors. I felt distinctly like time did not exist, like I was somehow trapped in this twilight zone. Everything had always been this way, and they always would be.

I decided to take the dogs for a second walk. Not to free me of my prison, but more out of pity for these animals that spend their entire lives confined to the house, waiting to die. Gathering up their leashes, I decided to leave my ipod behind. No, this time I wanted silence; no distractions from the act of walking. We stepped outside and the air was warm and still, yet somehow managing not to be oppressive the way the atmosphere crushes you like a heavy blanket. I attached the dogs’ leashes to my belt so as to free my arms from the conscious tugs and pulls they exert upon finding a new and interesting smell. The walk proceeded uneventfully at first, the quiet periodically broken by the chirp of a bird or the crackle of pine straw under my shoe. It was only after a few minutes that an odd feeling came over me. It was dissatisfaction that I could not absorb all the images before me. I was distinctly aware of how my eyes could only focus on one area at a time, leaving the peripherals unexamined.  For some reason this bothered me a great deal. Without thinking I removed my glasses and clipped them neatly onto my shirt.

Being extremely near-sighted the world instantly lost focus, just as I had wanted it to. The trees, the leaves, the clouds, everything was no like a watercolor painting. No longer was there any differentiation between my immediate field of focus and my peripherals. I was free to take it all in. I did so in a detached manner; aware of what I was looking at, yet not being apart of it, like a museum visitor looking at a painting. “Why this world? Why this ‘reality’?” I thought to myself. This whole scenario, the small blue world, our cities, our jobs, our struggles, it’s all starting to get a little tired. Why does it have to be like this? My foot started to hurt, but why should I care? Why should this sensation matter? I kept hoping that my realization of all this, this sensation of stepping out of reality and examining why it was so, would somehow grant me the power to change it with my mind the way you can change a dream when you realize you’re dreaming.

Alas, non of the changes I willed into existence materialized. The fact that I am just a conscious living organism sunk back into my shoulders. Resigned to this powerlessness I enjoyed the show of sparkles that light up the street as the sunbeams hit small specks of quartz, bouncing the light back at me like a disco ball. Nearing the house I closed my eyes briefly, intensely aware of how the sun felt on my face, the smell of the bushes, and the caress of the wind. It was the same feeling of calm you get when watching a movie’s main character sit on a hillside reflecting in quiet upon the great struggle they just overcame. Opening my eyes my bright blue sky lay before me like a great abyss. I felt like I would fall forward into the colors, but alas we were home. Putting on my glasses again, the world came quickly into focus. Once again I felt like I was looking through a porthole out the side of a ship. I entered the dark and solemn house, gave the dogs their treats, and the pact was completed. Back to reality, whatever the hell that is.

Girls vs Women

15 Sep

Are you aware of when you use “girls” as opposed to “women” and in what context you use them? I know a lot of people who aren’t, and whenever I hear them use the terms incorrectly it drives me up the wall. There is a bias in our society of referring to full grown adult women as “girls”. They are not “girls”! They are women. Get it straight. A friend of mine went to Mary Baldwin College and would rightfully flip out whenever anyone referred to it as a “girl’s school”.  “No!” she would correct them, “It’s a College for women, not a ‘school for girls’!”

The idea of referring to women as girls is a holdover from back in the days of rampant misogyny, and thankfully, I think it’s slowly phasing out. I think part of the problem might be written into the English language.

  • Boys
  • Guys
  • Men

As opposed to

  • Girls
  • Women

People want use “guys” and “girls” in the same casual way, but “girls” also has the double meaning of immaturity and dependency that “guys” doesn’t carry. Since “women” sounds too cold and formal, people revert to “girls” despite it being inappropriate to refer to female adults as such. Thus I usually try to use “gals” or “ladies”, despite the fact they don’t quite translate the exact connotations as “guys”.

I know this might sound overly anal, but I’m also that jerk who cares about the proper usage of who vs whom and good vs well. Sorry for being educated. <.<

Making games more like life

15 Sep

Lately I’ve been playing this game, STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, which is the last in the trilogy of STALKER games. The graphics are pretty nice, but the interesting thing about this game is how it tries to mimic real life, not only in terms of looks, but in terms of play. Yahtzee from Zero Punctuation gave a nice review of the first game in the series “Clear Sky” where he pointed out that while ” in most FPSs the player is some kind of hybrid of man and refrigerator, able to take entire munition dumps to the face, while the enemies all have armor made out of whipped cream and skulls made of cake, it seems going into this game everyone got their character sheets mixed up…” You see, in the STALKER series there are several mechanics that attempt to make the game more life-like, despite the horrific radioactive, monster filled setting. When you look through the scope of a weapon, your weapon wobbles slightly, as you fire on full auto, the gun kicks up, you become exhausted very quickly after running for a long time and need to stop to take a breather, you get hungry if you don’t eat for a while (which depending on how long you’ve gone without food, will greatly affect your energy regeneration), when you get shot, not only do you really get hurt, but there is bleeding to worry about, (same with all wounds, you need bandages to stop the bleeding that will slowly sap your health), weapons wear down quickly and start to jam more and more often, NPCs don’t like it when you walk around brandishing your weapon, and most importantly: the environment will quickly kill you if you don’t pay attention to your Geiger counter. I would argue that it’s mechanics like this that really make a game more immersive than just graphics alone, but graphics have come a long way. Check out this demo for the CryEngine 2 from Crytek. The graphics are three years outdated now, and the engine is being replaced with a more advanced cryengine 3, but it’s still amazing and highlights some of the graphic advances that go into making a game more immersive:

Now I enjoy that and I wish I had a computer that could run that, but it got me thinking. If the goal of game developers is to make games more and more lifelike, theoretically we’re eventually going to get to a point where video game graphics and game mechanics are indistinguishable from real life. How does that fit with the idea that games are an escape from real life? Will real life lose it’s appeal?

As I’m writing this I’m starting to have second thoughts about what I originally set out to write. I don’t think the fact that games are becoming more and more lifelike will eventually become counter intuitive. After all, while the mechanics and immersion will start to bring games closer and closer to the world we’re trying to escape, at the same time the settings and events played out in those games will still allow us to transport ourselves from our current reality.

Unlike some Sci-fi I don’t foresee a world where everyone abandons real life in order to play video games. I feel this way for a host of reasons but mainly because some people will just not be interested, and other will be too busy with life, like feeding their families, to be able to indulge in devoting large amounts of time to virtual space. Plus, I think there will always be a niche of people who like to play “old school” games, regardless of the medium. I realize I didn’t really take a position here in this post, or discuss in detail the deep philosophical questions, but I guess that’s because I’m still unsure myself. If this topic interests you, I highly recommend you take 20 minutes out of your day and listen to this talk given at TED. It’s pretty thought provoking.

Religious search engines, protecting you from ideas

14 Sep

An interesting article on NPR. If you didn’t feel like reading it, the basic synopsis is that there are now search engines for religious people to use that will filter out any results that don’t already agree with their world view. Not only that, but the search engines are proactive in what content they provide. The article gives two examples: Search for “democrats” and you get articles on Marxism, search for “sex” and you get abstinence only articles.

This whole thing just blows me away. So you’re telling me that your belief system is so weak it’s threatened by just being exposed to other world views, thus if you must use the internet (and be connected to the the wealth of accumulated knowledge the world has to offer) you choose to do so by essentially locking yourself in a closet.

Actually, it’s not surprising. If you’re a religious fundamentalist, like the people who use these sites, you’ve already arbitrarily decided on how the world works. You’ve deluded yourself so deeply into believing that you’re correct, so why bother even exposing yourself to other ideas? It’s sad really. What they’re essentially doing is intellectually castrating themselves.  Perhaps it’s out of fear. Maybe they’re afraid their might be a chance they could be wrong, and that being exposed to different opinions might open them up to doubt.

I think the internet has had a really interesting effect on religion. While on one hand it makes it easier for religious groups to coordinate and get out their message, it also exposes people to a lot more information that they previously wouldn’t have been able to get. I think this is key, it is this fact that makes the internet a negative thing for religion. In order to keep your believers following you, it’s important to control their access to information. Information is power after all. With the internet offering all this information, and for free, you’ve lost that power. You can no longer control what your followers are exposed to. In the real world religion can rely on social pressures to keep people in line. People are more likely to shut up and go along with the crowd and avoid asking questions that might cause them trouble. With the anonymity of the internet, religions can no longer coerce people like that. Here is a really interesting video on the subject:

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