Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Notes on The Return of the King

I just got the extended version of The Return of the King today (I have all three extended versions now.) It's beautifully done. But of course, having read the book so many times, I have a couple of issues with it.

Movies are different from books, and frankly, I'm glad Jackson didn't try to stick slavishly to the original--what's the point of making a movie if you're not going to try to add something new to it. Overall he did a fantastic job. My main complaint, though, was that he missed something in the transformation of Frodo that was, to me, one of the most subtle themes in the book, and one that many seemed to miss.

Tolkien follows Frodo's perspective right up until Shelob's lair, but then shifts to Sam's perspective, never again entering Frodo's mind. This is consistent with his treatment of Sauron: we never see the monster. Sauron is a rumour, a shadow, the sum of all fears, a being who may not even have a physical form. He is a living nightmare. With no form of his own, he takes on any and all forms that fear may give him.

Frodo is a good man in the deepest pit of hell, having an intimate conversation with the devil which he cannot refuse and cannot escape. He already knows what to expect, because Gandalf has warned him, and he has seen what the ring does to others. And he has Gollum before him, he can see with his own eyes where he is heading. The ring has already played the obvious tricks on him, at Bree, Weathertop, and with Bilbo in Rivendell. Now it is approaching full strength, and the assault is far more subtle, and vicious. His humanity is being consumed, his mind eaten away, his body bent and broken by a burden of metaphysical weight. His is not the saintliness of quiet repose. He is gentle because he is becoming a beast. He is kind because murder is creeping into his heart. And he clings desparately to his humanity, because he is becoming a monster. He knows all this. Gollum was at least spared the knowledge of his fall, but Frodo knows what is happening to him, and this makes it far worse. Frodo's hell, and his experience of it, is, like Sauron, beyond description, and Tolkien wisely does not attempt to describe it.

In the movie, the writers treated the desire for the ring as an addiction. This is but a single layer amongst dozens. The ring is not just an addiction, it is also desire, greed, control, power, status, ego, technology, arrogance, elitism, the means that becomes an end. But most of all, it is Pride. If Sauron is the sum of all fears, then the ring is the sum of all vices and sins. So to have Frodo order Sam to go home at the urging of Gollum is a terrible breach of character. Sam is his only link to home and his humanity; Frodo would not dare part with him. Frodo is no fool, he is not duped by Gollum. Frodo has shackled him with the ring, by forcing him to swear by it. But the ring, through Gollum, has found an improbable loophole that Frodo is not aware of, a threat that will take no interest in the ring. Frodo's only mistake is giddy relief at reaching the end of Shelob's lair, in thinking the danger has passed when it hasn't.

This is not the only time that Frodo uses the ring for its intended purpose. When Gollum attacks him on Mount Doom, Frodo clutches the ring and transforms again before Sams eyes. Frodo commands Gollum: "Begone, and trouble me no more! If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom." It is by this curse that Gollum's fate is sealed. Jackson said that he didn't want Frodo to lie passively while Gollum simply stumbled over the edge, so he had them struggle for the ring, causing Gollum to fall. But Frodo is not passive. He has already doomed Gollum, but it is not murder. It happens only through Gollum's own choice. Fair warning has been given, and Frodo need only wait for the wheels he has already set in motion to lead to the inevitable. Even as the ring masters him, he masters it, and tricks it into its own destruction. For that brief moment, he is peer to the likes of Gandalf, Galadriel, Elrond, and Sauron. This is another reason that his mind is closed to us. He has joined the ranks of the Great and the Wise.

I have heard J.K. Rowling criticized for disregarding the numinosity of magic. But Rowling is a master of cheeky absurdity, a head on collision between modern popular culture and myth. The numinous appears sparingly, usually in the flash points of Harry's struggle with Voldemort. Tolkien is all numinosity, a struggle of powers and principalities which may not even have physical forms, a world stalked by moods and metaphors. Much of the magic can only be seen through the eyes of the beholder. No camera would capture it. Sam in the Tower of Cirith Ungol, seen through the camera lens, is just a frightened hobbit, clutching something at his chest, climbing the stairs. But through the eyes of the orcs who meet him, he is a towering figure of shadow, holding a sword glittering with the light of the Elves, and holding "a cowing menace to the slaves of Mordor." The ring is just a ring until it is picked up; it acts only through those who come in contact with it. By being less physical, Tolkien's magic is, paradoxically, more real. It is the very sort of magic that we encounter in everyday life, though it requires watchful eyes to see it.

Thus, we have a Dark Lord that we never see, wraiths who are invisible, a balrog with wings of shadow. This is not just evil as the absence of good, but holes to be filled with dread. We have the twisted, the corrupted, the description of evil, but we also have these empty spaces, marked: "more of the same, but much worse." Everyone has different nightmares. These figures will accomodate all of them.

Rather than show Frodo acting foolishly, it might have been better to show the world through his eyes, the steady accumulation of horror, delusion, and nightmare that assaults him as he draws near Mordor, with measured reaction on his face to guage their intensity. We see Sam turned into a grasping monster, the sky turn to blood, the stones turn to bones. Then, when he enters Mordor, the door slams shut. We see him only from the outside now, through Sams eyes. And Frodo's desparately controlled reactions grow more intense, the horror wild in his eyes, the inward stare so overwhelming that he cannot see to place his own feet, and stumbles constantly. He thrashes in his sleep, shrinks from Sam, flinches at shadows and claws at empty air. And it is left to our imagination, knowing the horrors he faced before so stoically, to wonder what they must be like now.

The Lord of the Rings is not perfect, and what works in a book will often not work in a movie. But Tolkien had ruminated on the themes of The Lord of the Rings for almost forty years, and took seventeen years to write it. It has the depth of mythology. The fox/hedgehog distinction--that some people pursue a number of idea while others fixate on one big idea--is far too simplistic. Mythology contains a world of ideas in a dense, almost holographic format. 'Foxes' may harp on a single idea but disguise it in many different forms. Analytic and synthetic would be a better distinction. Synthetics gather ideas like a snowball growing as it rolls down the hill, but many of them may be so deeply buried that even the author has forgotten them. These still resonate, though. There is a narrative truth in good stories, which appeal to aesthetic rather than logical appreciation. It may take as many years to tease these ideas out of a work as it took to put them in. You tamper with these works at your own risk, and you may break them if you leave out something essential. None of these essentials are clearly marked, and are open to interpretation. You may not even know what you've missed, even if you have a vague feeling of dissatisfaction.

Still, Jackson has made the definitive version. It's no wonder that all the people who worked on it damn near worked themselves to death. This is more than a movie, it's a piece of history. And behind all of this effort stood more than professional pride. The love of the book drove them to it. Nothing less would do.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


Someone pointed out that the theme of The Lord of the Rings is death. Tolkien throws mortality into stark relief through the presence of immortals. Galadriel, who is older than the sun itself, and Elrond, younger but still immortal, preserve their way of life through the power of the Elven Rings. But these rings also hold the threat of their destruction, because they are bound to the One Ring. Faced with this choice, they surrender their way of life, and their civilization fades from Middle Earth. In order to save life itself, they submit to mortality. Though they do not die, they are forced to return to the Undying Lands. Their life in Middle Earth ends.

Tolkien has hit on something essential here; the tragedy, and necessity, of mortality. Immortality brings a certain inflexibility, an attachment to old ways whose time has past. If these ways are preserved for too long, they become brittle, and snap with disastrous consequences. Death is necessary for renewal. Change is a continuous process of death and rebirth, and change is the only constant.

Against change we raise the bulwark of tradition, of continuity that defies change. "The King is dead; Long live the King!" In the very same breath, we accept change and deny it. We fear change and attempt to tame it; we measure and keep time, even serve it, in the hope of controlling it, parcelling it, make it march to a drum of our making. We form into social groups whose identites precede and survive us. By investing ourselves in these, we hope to participate in their immortality. Our most cherished institutions are housed in buildings whose architecture is reminiscent of ancient or medieval architecture. Banks are constructed to resemble classical architecture to provide the impression that they will weather time and economic vicissitudes. In rituals and ceremony we enact 'magic time', in which we occupy the same moment as generations who have practiced them before and generations to come who will perform them after us.

And yet, life itself is in revolt, by tearing down the old order through death and replacing it with a new order. Mortality is not a biological necessity. There are species that do not age, birds that can live for hundreds of years, crocodiles and turtles that simply continue to grow for decades or even centuries. But for a species as complex and adaptive as humans, immortality could prove disastrous. Each generation arises to question anew the assumptions of the old, sometimes only to reaffirm them, sometimes to modfy or throw them out altogether. It has been argued that scientific revolutions are generational, that it requires the old guard to die out in order for newer, better ideas to take hold. The same is true for ideas of social justice. Old prejudices linger, sometimes unspoken, but nevertheless entrenched and making themselves felt indirectly. And sometimes people will take full flight into a real or imagined past, clinging to ways and traditions disastrous in a modern world, hoping to deny time altogether. Usually this is done in the name of God, eternal, unchanging, and the Lord of Heaven, a realm untouched by time.

And yet, if you believe God is the Architect of this world, you must concede that He is the ultimate Rebel, who might answer, like Marlon Brando's character in The Wild One when asked what he is against: "What have you got?" To return to Tolkien, and one of Gollum's riddles to Bilbo:

This thing all things devours
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers
Gnaws iron, bites steel,
Grinds hard stones to meal,
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down!

The answer is Time. How likely is it that the Creator of time and the Architect of perpetual change would inhabit a realm as still and stagnant as a tomb, or desire anything like it on earth?

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Genetics and Ethics

Last week on Big Ideas I caught Michael Banner giving a lecture on Genetics and Human Nature. His main thesis was that genetic manipulation posed the danger that we would damage human nature itself by tinkering in something that we had no business meddling with. His starting point was Frances Fukuyama, who argues that we have reached the end of history through liberal democracy and free market capital, and that the only danger posed to this is that genetic engineering will change the very human nature that makes this work.

Fukuyama's arguments would require more time than I have here. Suffice it to say that they are a repetition of the old Hegelian trick, the claim that we have reached the end and goal of history. This seems to me primarily a failure of vision. Liberal democracy and capitalism may be better than any of the existing alternatives, but they are far from being perfect, and may require adjustments which are hardly trivial just to ensure their survival. We have by no means reached a steady state, as the rise of fundamentalism should demonstrate. Liberal democracy itself requires a standard of education and, yes, enlightenment, that is subject to erosion. Freedom has its enemies even amongst those who invoke liberty as a rallying cry. True freedom, as Sartre pointed out, is scary. There are plenty of people who believe that we have altogether too much freedom and would like to see a return to a pre-democratic, even a pre-modern, society. As for capitalism, the balance between social responsibilty and individual interests has by no means been established and agreed upon, and if we get it wrong, the whole structure may collapse. And there are far too many people who do not remember why we adopted these styles of government and social organisation in the first place. Given the upper hand, they may force history to repeat itself.

Fukuyama includes concern with mind and mood altering drugs with his concern about genetics, arguing that both have the capacity to change human nature and throw us into uncharted territory (I will return to the issue of drugs later.) Banner accepts this, and goes on to argue that human nature is a given, imposed by none other than God, and that the ability to change this poses several moral problems. Among these are a threat to humility, through the creation of the truly self-made man, the erosion of charity to the less fortunate (in this case, the less genetically fortunate), and the elimination of traits whose purpose we do not see but which nevertheless have a purpose. It should come as no surprise that Banner is coming from a theological background. Regardless of the origins of the argument, however, I still see this as a type of Frankenstein hypothesis, and I don't see that genetic manipulation makes any of these outcomes any more or less likely.

Consider humility. Although genetic manipulation may theoretically allow us to make people who are smarter, stronger, etc, this is unlikely to be the way we use genetics. There are just too many genetic factors involved, spread across the entire genome, and environmental factors probably play a much larger role. It is far more likely that we will simply treat a few individual genes for massively debilitating conditions. There is, however, a social parallel which acts in the same way, and causes much the same moral problem: wealth. The self-made man in our current society is the wealthy maverick capitalist, who is not self-made at all but arrives at his position with the assistance of large numbers of his fellow citizens. Humility is a major problem here; if success goes to his head, the self-made man will forget his debts to society and indulge himself at the expense of others. Inherited wealth compounds the problem, creating class distinctions and positional advantages that the children of the wealthy take for granted and assume is their right. Fukuyama's neo-conservative position is conducive to this blind spot; it is one of the very flaws which threatens to destabilize the very societal structures that he sees as the end of history. In any case, you cannot genetically make yourself at all. Only your parents can do this, and in all likelihood, only the rich could afford it. The loss of humility that Banner fears is already happening, and has been for a very long time. Genetics really adds little to the mix.

The same applies to the erosion of charity. Banner argues that we take pity on the less genetically fortunate because they have no choice in the matter. This makes no sense; even with genetic engineering, you cannot modify your own genetics anyway. You have what you are born with, and if genetic manipulation is possible, others would take the blame, not you. In any case, the disparity of wealth creates the same problem. We still hold others accountable for their material success, even without knowing the factors involved. How is the judgement of merit based upon wealth any different from judgement based upon genetic endowment, particularly since the two are related?

What I find most troubling about arguments against playing God is that we play God anyway. All that such arguments achieve is to make us blind to what we are already doing. For if we play God by killing those who might otherwise live, we are also playing God by saving those who might otherwise die. The latter is called mercy. But is it, when what we are doing is prolonging suffering, through means that would not have been possible a few decades ago? To give an example, medicine discovered a way in the 60's to save babies born with spinal bifida, a condition which leaves them paralyzed, usually brain damaged, and may leave them in cronic pain. Without a thought, they did so, and hundreds of spinal bifida children now clutter wards, some little more than passive lumps of flesh in expensive chairs. No consideration was given under those circumstance to the idea that it might be better to let nature take its course. We played God just because we could.

And so we have always done, by wearing clothing that allows us to survive in conditions that would otherwise kill us, by extending our capabilities through tools, and by helping those who might die without our help. One of the chief indicators of civilization in fossil records is the appearance of crippled humans who have lived for an extended period of time with this condition, who would have otherwise died without continual care. If we are made in God's image, it is in this sense. We too are creators. We too remake the world and ourselves to our liking.

There are many cronic health problems which are sustainable and surviveable only because we live in a society with a large material surplus, which has the resources to extend the capabilites of the profoundly crippled to a nearly normal level. We are already genetically engineering ourselves, by maintaining people with genetic disabilities who would otherwise die out, allowing them to have children and pass these disabilities on. We have overuled survival of the fittest. This is a great accomplishment, but it could spell disaster in the event of an economic or ecological collapse. Without our extraordinary wealth, hundreds of millions who are kept from the brink through spectacularly ingenious and expensive medical interventions will live in misery, if they live at all.

As for intervention through drugs, especially mood and mind altering drugs, consider this: the first chemical reaction that man mastered was fermentation. Before we had soap or bread, we had booze. What we are looking for in our new drugs is something that will alleviate the core problem without the dramatic character deformations associated with self-medicated solutions. So, prozac, whisky, or suicide? Prozac has its problems, no question about that, but if you are talking about the destruction of human nature, you can't do much worse than alcoholism. It's several hundred thousand years too late to worry about whether we should be interfering with our own biochemistry.

It is human nature to play God. We have always done so. We are in it so far over our heads that we have long since forgotten that we are under water. If there ever was a divine plan, we quit it a long time ago. We can either deny that we do it, and do it poorly, or we can admit it and try to understand how to do it well. The promise of genetic engineering is not that we will remake a new species, but that we will fix what we have already broken. The alternative is to stick our head in the sand till nature steps in and fixes it for us, at horrific cost.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

The Teleological Proof

Dr. Antony Flew, a lifelong atheist philosopher who argued against belief in all its forms, recently announced that, due to the weight of the teleological argument based upon the origins of life, he has converted to deism. While I find deism the most benign of all religious positions, so much so that I consider it a serious option for a rationalist, I do not find this argument at all convincing.

The argument is that while evolution may guide the development of life, it does not explain how life came to be in the first place. For this origin, you need an intelligent creator. However, I don't find anything particularly extraordinary in these origins. Scientists have been able to produce amino acids and cell-like structures, the building blocks of life, in conditions identical to those found in deep space. All that is required to get the wheel of evolution turning is the spontaneous appearance of a molecular Von Neuman machine--a self-replicating entity. While this is highly improbable given a small sample and a short span of time, any probability at all will reach a virtual certainty given a large enough sample.

That we have not observed this spontaneous event is to be expected. The sum total of all experiments on the subject would probably amount to a few months time in an area less than a hundred cubic meters in volume. Contrast this to hundreds of millions of years across the entire earth's surface. The problem with our experimental methods is that by their very nature they focus upon a very limited sample. It would be better to model the conditions and the properties of each of the elements and compounds in a computer simulation, and then derive all possible reactions in a broad distributed network, somewhat like Seti@home. This would not be easy, and the snag is that we often don't know the full properties of a novel molecule or structure until we actually create and observe it. Nevertheless, the discoveries provided by such a project, and their application to new materials and bio-chemistry, would probably be well worth the effort.

But the absence of proof does not constitute proof of absence. I can see nothing in the spontaneoous appearance of a self-replicating entity that requires divine intervention. Deism, like all religious propositions, is an article of faith. I see nothing in science that supports or denies it.

Update: No, Flew is still an atheist. Apparently he doesn't find the teleological proof very convincing either. I'm not sure how these rumours get started, but it sounds like another case of creationist spin.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Doomed by Hope

This week I listened to the Ronald Wright giving the Massey Lectures on Ideas. In the lectures, entitled A Short History of Progress, Wright walks through the history of humanity, pointing out a recurring pattern: a survival strategy that proves too successful, resulting in great wealth, a population boom, environmental exhaustion, and the collapse of the civilization. Without exception, each of these doomed civilizations embraced the belief that God or the Gods had showered them with blessings and would continue to do so indefinitely so long as they continued to make the proper obeyances. And these obeyances, which intensified when hard times came, only made the problems worse.

On Easter Island, for example, these obeyances involved a statuary cult, which required the villagers to cut down what few trees they had left to move and erect the giant heads of their ancestors. As a result, they had no wood to build boats to fish, no root systems to hold soil and water. They starved and dwindled to a shadow of their former glory, resorting to slavery and cannibalism. When the first white men arrived, they looked at their power and wealth, at the great ships of wood they sailed in, and despaired. The full folly of their actions and beliefs came home to them, and they began to attack the statues they had poured all of their wealth into.

While Easter Island is an extreme case, the belief that God will provide, that Our Way of Doing Things has received Divine blessing, was common to all the failed civilizations that Wright mentions. It was an essential contributor to the eventual collapse of each of them, by lulling the population into false hope and defending entrenched folly from challenge. Indeed, as the problems inherent in the system became more obvious, so too does the pressure for orthodoxy. We can already see this happening in the United States, where the administration is actively involved in supressing science critical to its policies, and religious orthodoxy is joining forces with economic orthodoxy. Seen in light of this historical tendency, the blind adherence amongst even the poorest to ideologies destructive to their own interests is not surprising. The yawning abyss is so frightening, and the solution so complex and demanding, that most would rather drift into a sleep of false hope than embrace the true hope of facing the problem and dealing with it.

Here is a partial list of some of the challenges we are facing. First, we are incredibly dependent on oil. Oil heats our homes, brings goods to us, powers the machinery used in farming and manufacturing, and is the raw material both for plastics and for the fertilizers we sustain our crops with. Without oil, we not only lose our standard of living, we can no longer feed ourselves. Even the crops used for production of oil substitutes are produced using oil based fertilizers. And we are running out of oil. As one Saudi Sheik put it, "My grandfather rode a camel, I drive a car, my son flies a jet, and my grandson will ride a camel." But you cannot support our population with camels. We need to reduce our energy consumption, find ways to recycle human waste into fertilizer, and dedicate more effort into finding alternative energy sources. Given the urgency of the situation, the partisan bickering over international fusion research is outrageous.

We are losing arable land to soil erosion and urbanization at the rate of an area the size of Scotland each year. I have always been appalled on visits to Toronto, knowing that Toronto is expanding over what I know to be the best agricultural land in Canada. As agricultural land is destroyed, the remaining land is subjected to more intensive and exhaustive use, accelerating the rate of decline. We need to stop building out and start building up, reserving arable land for agriculture, or allowing it to rest fallow, planting trees on it to hold the soil.

In the American mid-west, the bread basket of the United States, the water table is being rapidly depleted. Global warming is making the problem worse. Desperately searching for more water, the Americans are looking north to the Great Lakes and the water table of the Canadian shield. But the Great Lakes are badly polluted, and irrigation with Great Lakes water would turn the soil into a toxic desert very quickly. As for the Canadian shield, it is actually a thin layer of water spread across a pitted sheet of rock. It seems extensive only because it is all sitting out in the open, constantly being recycled by evaporation and precipitation. It would have to be piped out one lake at a time, a very expensive proposition. It is also a very fragile system, supporting a wilderness which consists largely of small stunted trees clinging to thin soil, which could very easily be transformed into a rocky wasteland. The drought of the mid-west would spread to become the drought of the northeast. We must stop polluting the water we have, cutting trees, which are essential to the maintenance of the water table, and reduce the amount of water we use. We must also find a way to build viable desalination plants to supply dry areas in the southwest, leaving the water in the mid-west solely for use by that area. Done properly (and energy requirement is a large factor here,) desalination could provide major fringe benefits--large amounts of rare elements are suspended in sea water, including gold and silver.

Another recurring feature in each of these failed civilizations is a growing disparity between rich and poor. This is also something we can see occuring now in our own civilization. This disparity induces a desparation in the populace, driving consumption and exhaustion of the environment. This is very pronounced in the third world, where rain forests are being cut down to produce short term econonmic gain and short lived agricultural areas, which quickly deteriorate into deserts. Small family farms, which respect the land they use as the future source of livelihood for themselves and their children, are being replaced by industrial agriculture which is bent on short term gains at the expense of long term viability. The solution would be to subsidize small scale farming for domestic consumption, while removing subsidies for exported food so that family farms in the third world can compete in their own markets. It is also time to insist that those who gain the most benefit from living in our society pay for that benefit. Supply side economics has been tried in every major empire throughout history. It has never worked. There is simply no evidence to support the superstition that it will work now.

But most of all, we have to face up to our problems, rather than expect that God is going to come back and clean our diapers. If there is one epitaph that would be suitable for all failed civilization, it would be "God will provide." Even if you believe that God created the world, you must concede that there is no greater act of ingratitude than to decimate the world God made and cover it with your own shit. This would be like moving into an apartment, ripping up the floor boards, breaking the windows, smearing the walls with feces, building a bonfire in the living room--and then expecting the landlord to pay you for the honour of your tenancy. Even atheists have more class than this. For those who think that God is waiting in heaven to reward them for this, think again. If we build a hell on earth, to expect anything better as a reward is pure infantile arrogance.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

The RIAA... in a Perfect World

I'm about to buy an MP3 player, probably an iPod. I would like to buy CD's and rip them on to the player, but a lot of CD's now come with copy protection, which prevents them from being played on computer and converted to MP3's. I suppose I could buy the tracks at a buck apiece from iTunes, and I probably will for some, but this means that where I might have bought an entire CD, I will now buy perhaps one or two songs from the album. The other option is just to browse other people's music collections and grab MP3's that have already been ripped. This bypasses the problem of limited online selection and protected disks, so I'll probably being doing a fair amount of this.

The absurd thing is that I really don't want to. I would like to pay the artists for their work, but thanks to the weapons-grade stupidity of the recording industry, this is often not an option, not if I simply want to buy the song and transfer it to whatever medium I need. This is called fair use. The law guarantees my right to do this. The recording industry, however, has little interest in the rights of their customers or their artists. Bands who have multi-million selling albums find themselves financing the promotional tours for those albums out of their own pockets, while their labels rob them blind and leave them with nothing afterwards. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were almost bankrupt by 1970, and David Bowie was perpetually broke till he took control of his own finances. Any lip service the recording industry pays to the artists is just that. And when file sharing appeared, instead of embracing it or attempting to protect the rights of the artists, they profoundly offended the technical community by trying to cripple hardward and software which is often used only coincidentally for that purpose. The motto of the retail industry used to be "The customer is always right." When the RIAA went after file sharers with lawyers and lobby groups, we could all smell the rank stench of monopoly--because only monopolies don't have to give a damn what their customers want.

When the recording industry first appeared, sheet music vendors fought to protect their market. They lost. Hollywood is where it is because the west coast was far enough away from Edison, who held the patent on the movie camera, that they could avoid paying royalties. And the movie industry's concern over this issue is a joke--the people who download movies are getting poor quality copies that take hours to download, even with high speed lines. It's not even a factor in sales--the real threat is what it has always been, contraband copies made in Asia and packaged as the real thing. Besides, look at the DVD sales for Star Wars, bought primarily by nerds who know how to get it online. Those who like the movie buy it anyway. And yet we have people in LucasFilms saying that the business will collapse in a couple of years because of file sharing. LucasFilms problems have less to do with that and more to do with the fact that George Lucas won't allow anyone to tell him when one of his plot ideas suck. If he collaborated on his scripts, as he did on the original Star Wars, he might have avoided some of the howlers and wooden characters that so annoyed his fans. Nobody is so good that they can't benefit from criticism.

This is the story of what the recording industry did. I would like to offer an alternative of what they should have done--put the following notice in each of their CD's and DVD's:

This disk has no copy protection whatsoever. You can transfer, copy, rip, and burn it to your heart's content. You can even hand out these copies to other people, with one proviso: insist that if they like it, they should go out and buy their own copy.

Every dollar you spend is a vote. Paying for this is a way of telling the artists you like it and want more. If you like this music, paying for it means that you will get more; more from this artist, and more from similar artists--and maybe even music from artists you will want to hear who are quite different, but otherwise wouldn't have enough support to get started. You may think that recording artists make a lot of money and don't need your support. In fact, there are a lot of expenses that they incur just to make and promote this album, and it takes a lot of sales just to break even. And hey, if they do get filthy rich, it may take a lot of money to persuade them to get back into the studio. Either way, you get more of what you want.

If you don't pay for this, and a lot of people who like it copy it for free, the artists will have to get a day job. They will stop making albums, and probably won't play anywhere more than a day's journey from home. Sucks to be you. The music that you like won't be made anymore. And every time you turn on the radio, you will hear music made by people whose fans are just too damned stupid to know how to copy it.

So, do what you want. But if everything on the radio and at the music store is infantile crap, don't blame us. We warned you.

That's what they should be doing. Of course, they're not. Wall Street has a saying: "A bear can make money, a bull can make money. A pig always gets slaughtered." The RIAA is a pig. They deserve what they're going to get.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Update on The Religious Problem

Norma points out that the religious vote didn't come out solidly for Bush, as was claimed immediately after the election. In fact, this was discounted within days of the election, but that hasn't stopped a lot of Democrats from claiming that the Democrats need to change their strategy, and a lot of Republicans from gloating that they have this section of the vote in the bag (wait for an avalanche of books on this--I'm sure some are on the press even as we speak.) The previous posting was actually something I'd posted on a site where one of these arguments was still going on. I was responding to this perception, and saying that even if it were true, there might be a good reason not to change strategies. I just tacked on the first paragraph when I copied it here, and it didn't provide enough context.

And just to clarify some of the topics on this blog, I didn't lose my faith on 9/11--I'd stopped believing in an interventionist Supreme Being a long time ago. Even if there was some kind of intelligent entity responsible for the origins of the Universe, it would stand outside of time and space, operate by utterly alien principles, and its characteristics and intentions would be so completely orthogonal to ours that our needs and desires would be largely irrelevant to it. But I had always defended people who chose to believe, believing that it did more good than harm. I considered it a noble fiction, and insisted that it was given a bad name by a handful of demagogues and fanatics. 9/11 changed that. The situation in the Islamic world brought home the parallels in Christian history, and for most of that history Christianity has been a cause for war rather than peace. 9/11 was when I started to suspect that religion itself might not be such a good thing, and may in fact encourage as many sins as virtues, or simply serve as a perpetual justification device. And the freak show in the Middle East has a lot more to do with that then Jerry Falwell.

This does not mean that I believe that religion should be abolished. We couldn't, even if we wanted to. And frankly, I find the most loathsome religious converts to be those who have had no serious exposure to it prior to their conversion--they combine profound ignorance with irrational certainty. But religions do have to be moderated, and the moderating influence will not come from within. Triumphalist religions are very polite when they haven't sufficient power to attack their rivals, or when they have so much power that their rivals cannot pose a threat. Between those two extremes lay a wide bloody country, and once you enter into that country, there is no telling when you'll be able to get out. So each religion must be kept in the position of a voice in the choir. Once one of them becomes the conductor, they will exchange the wand for a gun.

Thanks for the comment, though, Norma. :)

The Religious Problem

Over the past couple of weeks I have heard a lot of Democrats and Republicans alike arguing that the Democratic disdain for religion is wrong and arrogant. There is, I believe, another factor involved here, which may outweigh even the need to win votes.

Prior to 9/11, I was a defender of religion. Watching the towers burn and hearing that Falwell and Robertson were trying to spin it to incite hatred of liberals and homosexuals, I washed my hands of it forever--though the language and ideals of my Catholic upbringing will always be part of me. I suspect that many people have come to the same conclusion. There is simply no place for fanatacism and magical thinking in a world where human beings have the capacity for destruction that we have now.

As much as one might like to claim that fanatics do not represent the true spirit of Islam, Christianity, or any of the other of most prevalent religions, passages exist in both the Bible and the Koran that can be used to justify atrocities. And all attempts to reclaim them from within are just battles of opinion, the emphasis of one part of the faith over the other. The moderation of Christian fanaticism came from outside, from the Enlightenment, which informed most of our modern institutions, especially the separation of Church and State. Rational-empiricism and the scientific method continue to weigh against fanaticism, by discouraging any claim to absolute certainty and demanding evidence and sound reasoning. The true enemy of Al Qaeda is not Christianity, but modernity.

The Democrats' dislike for religion may have the same roots. Wooing religious voters with religious appeals seems too much like sleeping with the enemy--the very enemy that struck on 9/11. What the rest of the world is seeing when they look at George Bush and Osama bin Laden are two opponents of the same basic kind, both in agreement that this is a Holy Crusade. Hardly a reassuring thought, because these are precisely the terms that Political Islam would like to use in the discussion. They're still angry about the medieval Crusades, and they want to fight them all over again.

Also troubling are the 'values' embraced by the Religious Right. Notice that nearly all of them are focussed on sex: homosexuality, abortion, promiscuity, and sexual content in the media. Other conservative values, relating to self-reliance, hard work, etc, are neither unique to the Religious Right nor indispensable to them. These prurient values are peripheral to Christianity at best, their importance justified by isolated passages in the Bible--and indeed, are often countered by other passages. They are, in fact, 'tabloid' values, whose primary motivation lies in titilation. Next time you go to the supermarket, grab one of the tabloids, and read what's in it. You will see articles decrying the decline of moral values right next to the latest paparazi pics of semi-nude celebrities. What better way to hide your arousal, even from yourself, than to protest loudly about the morals of the object of your lust? This is the time honoured strategy of religious hypocrites since time immemorial. Thus, the bhurka, the hijab, the Muslim extremist rape squads, honour killings, and the excesses of the Taliban.

It is hard to embrace values which have so much in common with those of the very people who have sworn to destroy you and everything you hold dear. Can you give a nod and a wink to the very tendencies that conspired to create that enemy? If Christianity descends again into the abyss that has claimed Islam, can you, in all good conscience, make a deal with the devil? Or do you fight it, knowing it will cost you.

The choice that Democrats are facing, though no one has phrased it as such, is between power and salvation. Do you fight for America's votes, or do you fight for America's soul?

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Marx's Skeleton

In my last post I mentioned how the Communism deformed politics and discussions of religion. I'd like to expand on that here.

There is not and never has been such a thing as a Communist system. Marxist ethics are derived from Christianity, which came to him through his father's own conversion, Christian influences in Hegel, and from other young Hegelians, most notably Feuerbach. The slogan "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" is almost a paraphrase of the arrangement under which the apostles lived in Acts 2:44, 45. Charity lies at the root of Marx's critique of Capitalism. But Marx never actually proposed any means to bring people to embrace charity as a way of life. He simply criticised the existing system, called for its abolishment, and hoped that something better would replace it. In this sense, Communism is a true castle in the sky: beautiful, noble, desirable, but with no road to reach it. It was a pipe dream. Marx had no stomach for the real struggle, which takes place in the individual human soul, without which all other struggles are doomed to failure.

Enter Dostoyevsky's 'Demons', the Nihilists and revolutionaries, and their successors, the Bolsheviks. They too, wanted to destroy the system, but with no idea of what to replace it with. For the Nihilists, destruction itself was the goal. But underlying this goal was the desire to invoke chaos and, out of the ashes of the world, create a new order--with the revolutionaries as the masters of this new order. The goal was not improvement, but power. Still, no one is going to give you power just because you ask for it. In order to gain support and thereby claim power, you must do so, or at least appear to do so, in the name of a higher principle. Religion in Russia was already controlled by the Russian Orthodox Church, so a new religion was needed. Communism was a perfect fit--it stole all the moral thunder of the church, while undermining its authority. It too called for the destruction of the current order, but left the field clear afterwards. There was no plan. The plan could therefore be provided by the Bolsheviks themselves, tailored to suit their ambitions.

Some of the Bolsheviks were probably idealists, but the idealists lost. Stalin, murderer of the Czar, became the new Czar in all but name. A former seminary student, Stalin was well versed in how to cloak raw ambition and ruthless dictatorship in the guise of benevolent moral language. Stalin's body counts exceeded those of Hitler. In the name of prosperity and plenty he devastated the economy, making the rich poorer without making the poor richer. He took the Ukraine, the bread basket of Eastern Europe, and imposed draconian collective farming methods which turned surplus into drastic shortages, causing a famine which killed 30 million people. In the name of charity he robbed everyone blind, while he and his cadre of party bosses lived in luxury. While he spoke of brotherhood, and everyone called each other comrade, he instigated a system of denunciation that set all against all, till neighbours and family members denounced each other to the Gulag or firing squad for minor personal gain. Behind the window dressing of Communist ideology, he ruled with a despotic power that Ivan the Terrible would have envied. Communism itself was but a mirage to hide this.

And yet, everyone fell for it, friend and foe. Leftists in Europe continued to defend Stalin and his thugs, but worse, his enemies fell for the bait. Stalin and his successors waved the red flag like a bullfighter's cape, and the Anti-Communists, like Senator Joe McCarthy, were all bull. They bought the Stalinist message, hook, party line, and sinker. Thus distracted, they moved towards building their own Stalinist state, beginning with denunciations and the castration of popular culture. The real enemy was Stalinism, and there was no more fervent Stalinist in America than McCarthy himself. But what continues to haunt us is that the Anti-Communists allowed the Communists to define the terms of the argument. If the despotic Stalinists were socialists, then freedom meant capitalism. If Communism was spreading by the creation of puppet dictatorships, then the solution was puppet dictatorships friendly to capitalism. Democracy became a mere invocation, sacred, but inconvenient in practice. The Americans were even seduced by the pseudo-scientific fantasies of the Stalinists, drunk on vodka and power and lies. The pursued their own mind control programs (MK Ultra), attempted to establish bizarre occult operations involving astral projection and remote viewing, telepathy and telekinesis. All of it was nonsense, but these illustrate how completely the Stalinists had duped their enemies.

Yet in misunderstanding their enemy, the Anti-Communists also forgot themselves and their own strengths. Capitalism works because it can provide the broadest level of cooperation of any system. Stalinism, contrary to the Communist propaganda, created a society of total competition. In Capitalism, competition governs only rare and distant social relationships--between those of competing companies. The tightest and most common relationships, between co-workers, between employee and employer, and between business and clients, must be cooperative in order for the business to succeed. Efficiency is increased by eliminating competition as much as possible. A football game may be entertaining to watch, but if your society's goal is to move the ball, you want all the teams running the same way. Competition between businesses serves this by discouraging cooperation within cartels which benefit a small portion of society at the expense of greater number. This ensures that individual businesses must work with the customer, rather than acting as a group against them. Since the business-client relationship is far more common, this establishes broader cooperation within the society. Capitalism, however, must be managed and corrected continously by government. And Democracy is a means of enforcing cooperation between the government and the governed.

This understanding of Capitalism and Democracy was one of the first casualties of the cold war, and the loss of it continues to haunt us today. As a result of the Stalinist myth of Communism, unregulated capitalism has come to be seen as a pure good. In fact, the very right of property only exists through government enforcement, and bad policy can permit Capitalism to deteriorate through greed, exploitation, and massive disparity. The very survival of Capitalism requires that businesses have markets for their goods, which can only happen if the working and middle classes have a disposable income. Otherwise the economic system deteriorates into a giant casino, with the very rich placing bets on properties, stocks, and securities, while the poor go unemployed. The most successful businesses are also those that give their employees a major stake in the success of the business. Exploitation is not just immoral, it is bad management. It is also essential that the rich, who derive the greatest benefit from citizenship and the powers of government through law enforcement, utilities, courts, and regulations, pay a proportionally greater share for its upkeep. This is simply fair market value for services received.

Most of all, we must take Marx's skeleton out of the closet and bury it. The values of charity, cooperation, equality, and rationality were never the property of the Communists. They were appropriated by liars and thieves, but they have always belonged to our entire civilization. It is time to stop chasing shadows and reclaim them.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Talking to the Faithful

There's been a lot of buzz lately about the divide on 'moral values' lately. At first it seemed that this was the dividing line that determined the election, but a closer look indicates that it played the same role it always has--no more and no less. But while this incorrect perception lasted, the question that was tossed about was: how do the secular talk to the religious? Can they? Should they?

There was a time that the left gained a good deal of its support from believers, who often saw the primary moral value of religion as charity, and saw the left as best suited to champion this cause. But during the Communist scare in the 50's, government charity was associated with Communism, which was of course, Godless and Evil. This line of reasoning has been pursued ever since. Never mind that Communism never existed, that it was only a red flag waved by what were essentially political thugs who had little interest in charity, to distract people while they ran a fairly generic totalitarian state. The character of these totalitarian states had far less to do with Marx than they did with the ambitions of their leaders. Nevertheless, the terms of the cold war skewed politics and discussion of values permanently.

The 'values' of Christian America can best be seen in the prurient nonsense spewed by the supermarket tabloids; news bites obsessed with subjects that are at best fringe issues to Christianity itself, drawn from a few isolated passages from the Bible. Homosexuality, promiscuity, and the use of drugs and alcohol provide titillating anecdotes, but these are not and never have been the focus of the core values of Christianity. These play to voyeuristic impulses, not moral sensitivity. Shock rockers like Marilyn Manson and Madonna make their names by playing on these superficial distractions. Abortion is a recent issue, never touched on by the Bible (indeed, there are passages in the Bible that would appear to condone even infanticide), and the Christian response to abortion has actually made the situation worse by delaying abortions till later in pregnancy, interfering with birth control and thereby making abortion more likely, and by making abortions themselves more dangerous.

Stated briefy, the core values of Christianity, and indeed of all major religions, are faith, hope, charity, and honesty. Faith and hope are essentially the same: a willingness to trust in oneself and others, and to face the world without fear. Instead, we live in a culture of fear. Faith itself has been trivialized to the rote belief of a few scriptural myths. It has little bearing on the real world beyond the mere act of testimonial--words, rather than action. If the facts do not conform to these myths, the faithful ignore them, or attempt to turn relativism to their own purpose. So much for honesty. Charity is for suckers. The poor are to be despised and spat upon, kept at bay by gates and police, and the rich enjoy their priveleges seemingly by divine right. Despite a growing gap between the richest and poorest, the rich demand more tax cuts and grouse about welfare bums. All the while, global financiers saddle impoverished peoples with crippling debt and call it responsibility, depite the fact that much of this money has been used to buy arms from the first world, worsening the misery of the third world and destroying what little ability they have to repay their debts. And Christians seem to have little or nothing to say about all this.

For those who wish to return to Christian values, and to those who wish to speak in terms of those values, I suggest that they try to understand what those values are. And to those who claim that America is a Christian nation, I echo Ghandi's comment about western civilization: "I think it would be a good idea."

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Fixing the Ponzi Scheme

I was going through the statistics section of the Economist, looking over the performances of the various countries. Canada's wasn't bad, but the numbers for the U.S. scared the hell out of me: huge numbers for the trade deficit, budget deficit, and debt. All this after just having read that the U.S. Fed is being propped up by large investments from East Asia, and China in particular.

This situation may give China veto rights on all of America's foreign policy. This is precisely the situation Britain found itself in during the 50's, when Eisenhower ordered Britain out of Suez by threatening to destroy the pound using Britain's massive WWII debt to America. The debt put England's balls in his hand. He gave a little squeeze, and the last of the British empire fell and died with a wimper.

The outsourcing situation doesn't help. The economic theory is that allowing goods to be produced where they are cheapest leverages the relative strengths of various national economies. All well and good, when the two countries are more or less equal and able to maintain a more or less equal trade balance. In that case, both sides benefit by getting cheaper goods. But when the labour market is nearly infinitely elastic, enforced through totalitatian measures, as it is in China, wages in China remain at rock bottom, and there is little that Americans make that the Chinese can afford. Instead of trickling down, the money is being thrown right back at the Fed in a global Ponzi scheme. The result is the inevitable decline of the standard of living of American workers towards Chinese levels--or massive trade deficits, that can only be sustained through loans, giving China the power to threaten the American economy.

At the same time, China is building a massive industrial infrastructure, which could be redirected to less peaceful uses once established. Combine this is hordes of 'bare branches'--young males with little or no chance of marriage--and you have the perfect environment for massive military mobilization. If the time came that China wanted to flex this muscle (and this is not a given--China does not have a history of expansionism), it could remove America from the stage by playing its economic ace, after which Bill Gates entire fortune would barely pay for breakfast. The consequence of going through on this would be disastrous for China, but primarily to those at the lowest level of the pyramid. China is run mainly by party aparatchiks and triad gangsters, who aren't renowned for their humanitarian concerns.

Rest assured that the Chinese already know all this.

The solution would be a set of human rights and environmental tarrifs, which would partly cancel the attractiveness of outsourcing and provide strong incentives for businesses in the third world to raise the standard of living and the environmental standards in those countries. Essentially, follow environmental standards and pay your workers, or pay an even larger amount of money in tarrifs. This does not mean that third world workers would have to be paid the same as Americans. It means that they should be paid to achieve essentially the same standard of living as American workers, which may still amount to considerably less money given living expenses in that country. In other words, development in the third world would still be attractive. But the overall effect of this would be to protect job markets and labour rights in the first world while improving conditions in the third world and creating markets for first world goods. And those tarrifs would provide a much needed revenue stream for the government. This is not protectionism per se, so much as a strong incentive on companies, especially western companies, to act responsibly in other countries. It protects both sides. And while terrorists are not motivated by economic imperialism (they live in their own reality-free zone, which I won't get into here), it is a handy excuse they like to fall back on to generate sympathy for their cause.

The U.S. is in a unique position to do this because everyone wants to get into American markets. Even if America went alone on this, it would have a tremendous impact on the world. Too bad none of the politicians has thought of this.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Everybody take a pill...

Found this on Harry's Place. Wow.

Also, check out Eminem's video Mosh. Every time I start thinking that rap is crap, this guy comes out and surpises me.

As the U.S. election draws closer, I think everyone down there needs to up their valium dosage. The lawyers are already gearing up, and the nasty thing is that I don't even think the parties have control over it anymore, passions are running so high. The kind of partisan nastiness that we're seeing is now happening on the grass roots level. With the Democrats that seems to be where most of it is coming from--the Republicans, well, Bush has a history of nasty tricks going all the way back to his bid for Governor against Ann Richards. And the American electoral process will probably break under the strain: 58000 absentee ballots disappeared in Florida, and the Republicans are contesting 35,000 voters in Ohio. Both of these are swing states, and Bush's brother is running Florida. Watch the fur fly.

It's kind of cool to see everyone so impassioned, after forty years of near comatose apathy, but I get the feeling that a lot of people are thinking with their spleens. The fear engendered by 9/11 and stoked with inumerable alerts has made Americans desparate to do something. Bush supporters want to hit someone, even if that someone had nothing to do with 9/11. Kerry supporters figure that all this stomping around is just making more people mad. If Kerry does win, he'll be inheriting a hell of a lot of problems, which may make things worse for the Democrats in the long run. Still, I don't think they can afford not to; there are other reasons to get rid of Bush which I think may be even scarier; the mess he's made of the economy, his suppression of science he doesn't agree with, and the blurring of the line between Church and State, to name a few.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Reality Check

Slashdot recently cited an article that demonstrates that Bush supporters hold beliefs that are out of sync with the facts. Most still believe that Saddam Hussein had WMDs, that Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda and that Iraq was involved in 9/11. The answers of most of the Bush supporters on Slashdot simply reiterate this position, or state that you have to be tough on Islamic fanatics because they want us dead.

The point is not whether you oppose Islamo-fascism. The majority of the most vehement critics of Islamo-Fascism also opposed the war in Iraq, because it played into the extermists hands. The argument is about strategy, not about the goal. And I am repeatedly astonished by the apparent incapacity of Bush supporters to distinguish between these.

This observation, shared by most of those critical of Bush and his supporters, is the reason we believe that Bush supporters have lost touch with reality. What we see is a rigid adherence to a single, poorly conceived strategy. This strategy is like trying to perform brain surgery with a pick-axe. The major points of this strategy are:

1. Use of superpower style tactics against guerilla opponents--long range attacks, with large area of effect destructive capabilities--in other words, Shock and Awe. Shock and Awe, however, has high collateral damage, destroys infrastructure, and has very limited success against small mobile guerilla groups. In fact, this strategy is designed for fortified emplacements of mixed units, including tanks, artillery, and infantry, who are committed to holding a position. None of these conditions apply in Iraq. Ultimately, Saddam and the majority of his forces were killed or captured by ground troops, not by cluster bombs and long range strikes. This scorched earth strategy was also used in Vietnam. It didn't work there either.

2. An obsession with Iraq regardless of its connection to Political Islam. This obsession pre-dated 9/11, and 9/11 was only the pretext for for doing what elements of the Bush administration already wanted to do. In fact, Saddam Hussein, however vicious, was the one leader of an Arab country who had no ties to Political Islam, and who had always traditionally been despised by extremist Muslims in general and bin Laden in particular. 9/11 made invasion of Iraq a lower priority, not a higher one, however much we may have loathed Saddam Hussein or been appalled by his policies. Removing him simply opened the door in Iraq to the very people we were supposed to be fighting against.

3. The inability to determine between friend, foe, and neutral parties. Bush came out early on and said that if you were not with America against terrorism, you were against it. There are many people who agree in principle but not in practice; they support the goal but not the methods. Most of the Iraqi people are neither with the American troops nor against them--most don't bear them any ill will, but simply don't want them around, shooting or blowing up their neighborhoods. This lack of enthusiasm is difficult to understand for troops who have bought the black and white picture and consider themselves liberators fighting the good fight, and who may have expected the reception given the Allies in northern Europe during WWII. Unprepared for the lukewarm reception, some are assuming that the civilians actually support the other side. It's hard to win the peace when you go in thinking that the people you were meant to save are already the enemy. The result is that the Bush administration is firing blindly into the world, missing the target and making a lot of new enemies.

4. Poor comprehension of the enemy. There is a tendency to describe all opponents in the war as terrorists. In fact, actual terrorists of the Al Queda type may be quite rare. Instead, American troops are faced with a combination of criminal gangs, nationalist resistance, foreign agitators, and terrorists, with the majority probably being criminal gangs. The motivation and tactics of each of these groups is quite different, and strategies which work well against one type will actually give advantages to others. For example, diplomacy is best used against nationalists, who can be turned against foreign agitators, and criminals must be hit financially.

5. Predictability and rigidity. Bush is steadfast, no doubt about that--so steadfast that everyone knows what buttons to push and what he'll do when they're pressed. This provides the likes of Al Queda with the opportunity to play him, and to plan long in advance, even before the event that causes him to react. The terrorists are suicidal; they not only have no fear of retaliation, they are counting on it. Their goal is to provoke the most extreme form of retaliation possible, in the hopes that the Americans will offend enough people to gain sympathy for the terrorist cause. They have gotten exactly what they wanted. In fighting terrorism, the target must be the meme itself. Innocent casualties work to spread the meme, and must be avoided. Otherwise the terrorists will replace their numbers faster than they lose them, and the war can never be won.

Jesus told us to love our enemies. Sun Tzu said that we must know our enemies. In fact, they amount to the same thing--in order to know our enemies, we must first empathize with them and see the world from their point of view. This may lead us to find a way to end the animosity, but it will certainly lead us to understand better how to destroy them. Bush simply called them evil and left it at that. That's not good enough. When critics attempt to explain where the terrorists are coming from, conservatives always cry bleeding heart and turn away. The result is that they have no idea who their enemy is, or how to fight them.

A terrorist is always a man in a crowd, using innocents as cover, hoping you'll kill some of them too. If you want to take him out, you have to take careful, steady aim and take him out with one shot. Bush is just snapping the gun up and spraying the area on full auto. Maybe he will hit the target, and maybe he won't. But one thing is certain: where there was once only one angry man, there will now be a crowd of angry men.

Thursday, October 21, 2004


Just saw a documentary on stupidity. Pretty thin (and a little stupid), but there was one good point in it: people form schemas of the world, belief systems, which they use to filter out information that disagrees and process information that does agree. In other words, they see only what they want to see.

The intent is to prevent cognitive disonance. Even if we've had all your money stolen by a man in a gorilla suit, sold our children for magic seeds, and woken up with a sheep, we will try to rationalize your behaviour so as not to appear dumb, especially to ourselves. Police investigators encountered an extreme example of this in a man who got taken by the Nigerian scam and continued to believe, even after the investigators laid out the whole scam to him, that the con men were acting in good faith, and that things just went wrong. Anything rather than admit that we made a mistake. Genuine personal paradigm shifts are rare. That Zen ideal, 'New Mind', where the person approaches the world without preconceptions, is a rare thing.

There was a case of a man who had a brain injury which damaged the emotional part of his brain. He could reason perfectly, but he could not make a decision. Rationality may play a part in our decision making process, but only if we have an emotional attachment to rationality itself. Evidence may also play a part, but only if we value the weight of evidence over existing beliefs. I enjoy James Randi ranting and storming about pseudo-science, con artists, and irrationality, but he's preaching to the converted. To the True Believer it's like that Far Side cartoon about what the dog hears: "Blah blah blah Rover blah blah..." Rational empiricism demonstrates it validity only after one has accepted and practiced it, and even then it may take time. The original choice to accept it is a leap of faith, because at the outset there is no more 'proof' that reason and evidence will give you the answers than any other competing view. And it requires a faith in our own judgement, which requires encouragement to develop.

Unless kids grow up in an environment where learning is important, their natural curiosity will die out. In the conformity that rules elementary and high schools, too much knowledge makes you stand out. We all know the names: geek, nerd, bookworm, weirdo, and so on. The bullies usually consider themselves dumb and don't like anyone who shows them up. And, of course, who are the school heroes, but the jocks. It's as if we have to grow through the earlier stages of civilization before we reach adulthood. Homo Sapiens, meet Neanderthal Man.

So we end up with a population that has no curiosity, and doesn't like to think. Of course, we all think for ourselves--and yet, everyone thinks the same thing... Hmmm. We believe very strongly in our opinions, but is that because they are really our own opinions, or because they are the opinions given to us that we dare not part with, because we actually suspect that we are too dumb to come up with something on our own to replace it? It reminds me of an ad I saw years ago in a sleazy men's magazine: "What kind of man reads this? The kind of man who has firm opinions on current talking points!" Oh... my... God... Sort of like the latest fashions from Vogue. "Paris says ugly this year, and who cares?" Rush Limbaugh said it all. "Don't think, I'll think for you." His fans actually call themselves ditto-heads. The mind boggles--except, of course, when you don't have one.

And so the stupidity goes on.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Bush and Terror

I just caught a documentary on CBC which showed folks in America who are liberals in all other respects who intend to vote for Bush because they think he can stand up to terrorists better. They want a guy who the terrorists will know will come after them if they attack.

Let me make something clear: Islamic extremist militants do not give a rats ass if you come after them. They believe that if they die in their cause they will go immediately to paradise. It doesn't matter to them if you kill them, and it doesn't matter to their cause either if they can recruit enough people to replace their lost numbers. As a message from Al Qaeda affiliated group put it, "You love life, but we love death."

The situation in Islamic countries in the middle east is perfect for producing terrorists: huge numbers of young males with no purpose and poor prospects for marriage. 75% of the population of Saudi Arabia are below the age of 20. Polygamy means that the majority of women will be married by a select group at the top of the economic ladder, leaving vast hordes of "bare branches", young men with nothing to do and no attachments, in a land where the greatest social influence is Wahabbiism, a strict fundamentalist brand of Islam. All that is needed is a justification for the cause, and this is precisely what Iraq is providing.

Because Bush went in under false pretenses with gross underestimates of the challenges to be faced, heavy short term American casualties are extremely embarrassing to the administration and must be avoided at all costs. The preferred tactics are long ranged and automated: bombs and shells, which cause far higher collateral damage. A more realistic approach would have used more troops, less bombs, and would have taken more time to oust Saddam without Shock and Awe by encouraging a coup from within. In the absence of WMD and ties to terrorists, the Americans had time on their side, an advantage that the Bush administration squandered.

Terrorists do not hide amongst civilians in order to avoid being attacked, but to bring the attacks down on the civilians, in the hope that they will eventually feel compelled to fight back in self defense. The current American tactics play hand in hand with this strategy; in fact, terrorist elements are probably feeding the Americans with 'targets' intended to cause the maximum civilian casualties. And the result is being played and spun by the media to Muslim countries throughout the Middle East. The intent may well be to win freedom for Iraqis, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

There are other factors at work here. First, the American commitment to Iraq is tying its hands with regard to other threats. Right now, America couldn't do anything about North Korea even if it wanted to. Second, the American military consumes vast amounts of oil, money that is pouring into the Middle East, some of which is being used to fund the very terrorists they are fighting. Third, an army travels on its stomach, and the American economy is tanking. It is largely being kept afloat by outside investment, largely by countries like China who need to keep American markets alive but have no love for America itself. If the debt bubble that Bush is building busts, and the American economy fails, it will no longer be able to support a superpower military, nor will it be able to sustain the vast influx of money needed to support friendly nations like Israel.

This is not something that anyone should wish for. America bashers who think this would all be for the best are deluding themselves. And the fanatics in the Middle East who dream of returning to the middle ages may get their wish--only to discover that a medieval economy cannot support the vast majority of their people at even a subsistence level. You cannot eat oil. The scenario is bad for the west and very bad for Americans, who will see a dramatic decrease in their security, influence, and wealth. But the west, and America in particular, are very inventive and adaptive. They will adjust and recover, though America may lose its status as a superpower permanently. Islam, however, is not as flexible. And China will simply stop.

As for Israel, it will get very tough. But I have this suspicion that if everyone on the world got wiped out except for one single guy, when that guy woke up, the first words out of his mouth would be "Oy vey!"

I have three words for all those anti-semites out there: give it up.

Advertising and Fear

The NY Times has an article on Neuroscientists and Marketing. Like the answer isn't already obvious: fear.

Playing on fear hits on the second level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, safety. This has to be satisfied before love, self-esteem, or self-actualization. Targetting this hits us at the mammalian level, even below the monkey. Only raw physical drives come before this. This is why SUV's are selling so well. Car buyers have been convinced that SUV's are safer. In fact, they're not--their center of gravity is too high for their wheel base, and their size and weight makes them less maneuverable, making accidents more likely and more deadly when they happen. But the perception, fostered by advertising, has made them a runaway success.

This also explains why politics has been so warped since 9/11. All those alerts are scaring the hell out of people who haven't applied a little statistical perspective and realized that even in 2001, your chances of being killed by a terrorist were far less than being killed by in a car crash. By the same reasoning, we should all stop travelling in cars. But rationality doesn't even get a chance at this level.

It also explains why Democrats are more frightened by footing of 9/11 than Republicans. Republicans actually think Bush is doing a good job against terrorism, while Democrats are aware that the invasion in Iraq had nothing to do with terrorism, and may make the problem worse by aggravating Islamic paranoia. In other words, Democrats see 9/11 as a threat which has not yet been dealt with properly.

Understanding the role of fear in people's choices explains a lot of things: the War on Drugs (fear of gangs), McCarthyism (fear of Communism), Fundamentalism (fear of uncertainty), and knee-jerk patriotism (fear of foreigners.) Whenever you see people acting like lemurs, it's a pretty good indication that this is what's happening. And the best advertisement of this is the 6:00 news, where no news is good news, and the entire program is spent on statistical anomalies. This was also the real conclusion of Bowling for Columbine; the guns don't help, but other countries have almost as many guns as the Americans. What they don't share is the irrational fear.

Advertising just rides on the coattails of bad journalism.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Dungeons and Dragons turns 30!

Wow, dude has it been that long? Hey, where's the Cheetos?

I am partial to 2nd ed, and I loved the first ed Gygax modules (the Vault of the Drow series and Giants series). And I've got a shelfload of Dragon magazines. But really, the whole point was never the rules, but what you did with them. The nice thing about D&D was the fudge factor--as the DM, you could scale the difficulty level as you went to bring the party to the edge of defeat without wiping them out. More strictly defined rules systems didn't leave this leeway, because players could tell from the dice roll whether they had succeeded or not. In D&D the DM was always the final arbiter. Now you can run online adventures with Neverwinter Nights, so if your old D&D group has split up into different cities, you can still play together, but I'm not sure it or the 3rd edition gives the same leeway.

I was lucky in that I played in university with a bunch of people with multiple degrees. We had people in history, philosophy, english, political science, psychology, and engineering, all voracious readers, and a couple of hard core gamers. The interesting thing about running in a tabletop game is that the DM plays God, so you really get to see what their idea of justice, politics, economics, and human nature is. This led to a lot of interesting discussions on subjects like the nature of evil or medieval politics. We used to have pitched arguments about the difference between religion in the game world vs. the medieval world. The gods in the game world took active roles, while the God of the medieval church never intervened. This meant that religion in the game world was actually controlled by the gods--a very interesting premise.

Another interesting thing about D&D is that it is intended as a fully cooperative game. A lot of cooperative games were created in the 70's, but D&D is the only one that caught on. The opponents are provided by the DM, who nevertheless is not playing against the players. This was always missed by the hysterical critics, who were obsessed with the violence in the game or the mythical elements (eewwww--the occult!) Media coverage of the game in the early days was pathetic. They were always so intent on looking for a scare story that they couldn't see what was going on right in front of them: players working together in a creative hobby.

Sunday, October 17, 2004


This blog is intended as a repository for all of the comments, raves, responses, and opinions I have been posting on other sites. These comments range across a variety of subjects: politics, religion, science, philosophy, programming, games (I'm a game developer), and humor.

My bete noir, however, is political or authoritarian religion--religion used by demagogues for political gain. This blight on the human landscape is the result of a combination of pride and sloth on the part of both its leaders and followers. Not self-esteem, but false pride, the human desire to be right all the time, the temptation to claim final authority. Not the sloth so detested by the Puritans, but intellectual laziness so often disguised by busywork, a lack of curiosity and the atrophy of reason.

Political religion takes many forms. Out of political correctness or personal outrage, we all hone in on different manifestations of it: fundamentalist brands of various religions, narrow political and economic orthodoxies, pseudo-science, scientism, occultism, and cults.
But the enemy has always and everywhere been the same, and the plain of Armageddon is not on any map, but is a place in the human soul. The enemy is in all camps, because it is within us, and we have no devil to blame for it. In typical buckshot manner, the religions take aim at this too, but hit so much else that no one can tell what the original target was. I think I know what their original intent was, but there is just no way to prove what that intent was by referring to any scripture.

The Holy Texts are so vague and self-contradictory, so spread across time and influence, that nearly any meaning can be gleaned from them. Whenever someone argues for the infallibility of one of these books, they are in fact arguing for the infallibility of their own interpretation. Catholicism is criticised for having a Pope who claims to be infallible, and rightly so. But fundamentalists of all stripes make the same claim by hiding behind the Bible, or the Koran, or some other work. The world is full of popes. And nothing works in their favour so well as a flock unwilling to study the evidence and think for themselves.