30 March 2010

Why is parsimony so difficult for some people to grasp?

I'm exhausted. I've been in two discussions lately regarding consciousness and morality, respectively. I've found these conversations to be somewhat frustrating, if only because my own position, and that of like-minded atheists and skeptics, seems so woefully misunderstood. Here's a quote from the gentleman with whom I was having the debate about morality:

27 March 2010

Should the government be able to force you to buy health care?

One of the larger controversies of the new health care reform bill – one that is now the subject of a number of lawsuits brought on by assorted state attorney generals – is that if you do not purchase health insurance, you will be fined by the IRS. According to this rant by Jim Cafferty over at CNN, by 2014 the fine will reach $700 ($2k per household) or 2.5% of income – whichever is higher. In order to be fined, you have to be without insurance for at least three months of the year. There are exceptions for low-income people and, weirdly, people objecting on "religious grounds" (can't wait to see how that's exploited). Apparently a lot of people, Jim Cafferty obviously among them, think this infringes on personal freedom. That it's unconstitutional and unethical.

26 March 2010

"I am not ashamed"

It seems like I can't throw a rock at my Facebook news feed without hitting some stupid post where someone claims how unashamed they are about being a Christian. Here's a little gem I tripped over today, which is pretty typical of the crap I see:

For my Savior, Jesus Christ, A new Facebook challenge...I am out to prove that my friends will repost this, I hope I am right!!! Let's lift up His name and make a statement!! When Jesus died on the cross he died for YOU and me. If you are not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, copy and repost. I am not ashamed. I ride in the spirit of his grace! AMEN!!!!

Is there such a thing as "scientific fundamentalism"?

After Richard Dawkins wrote a scathing op ed lashing out at the National Academy of Sciences for hosting the announcement of the 2010 Templeton Prize – an award which, according to the Templeton Foundation website, "honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works" – the winner, evolutionary geneticist Fransisco J. Ayala, accused Dawkins of "scientific fundamentalism":

24 March 2010

Blogger issues

I've gotten email from a number of people recently telling me they've been unable to leave comments. First of all, it's awesome that anyone's actually reading all my blathering, much less actually wanting to comment on it, so thank you very much for the support. It looks like the issue has to do with CAPTCHA not giving you a space to actually type the word; so, I'm disabling it and turning on comment moderation instead. Hopefully that does the trick, because beyond that I really don't know what to do. This is just a default blogger template and everything's pretty straightfoward.

If you have any issues, send me a message on my Facebook page (facebook.com/mikebot) and tell me as specifically as you can what went wrong. If problems persist I'll contact Blogger. Thanks again for those of you reading the blog, and especially those of you taking the time to offer comments and criticism. Live long and prosper. Or something.

Yours in Jesusness,
- Mike D

21 March 2010

James Randi came out today

It's a little sad he had to wait 81 years, but good for him!


http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/914-how-to-say-it.html

Beware the slippery slope

With the health care bill on the verge of being passed, there's a chorus from the right: it will lead to socialism. First we pass tighter regulations on the insurance industry; later, we pass a public option; eventually we expand medicare to everyone, and we have bona fide socialized medicine. Then we begin to socialize other sectors, and before you know it, we're hanging Soviet flags on our porches.

This also popped up in the news lately when a US general declared that allowing gays to serve openly in the military will lead to genocide. Openly gay soldiers weaken the military, he reasoned, which makes for defeat in battle, which means our enemies will then slaughter us wholesale.

This is called the slippery slope fallacy. The fallacy lies in the claim that A leads to B, B leads to C, etc. etc. While a slippery slope argument can be valid, each step along the chain must be independently established. For example, the establishment of medicare – a wholly public health system – was far closer to socialism than the tax incentives, federal regulatory oversight and national insurance exchange that is up for vote today. And yet somehow, the country has remained far from being a socialist republic. That is because there is, of course, a middle ground – we have long "socialized" our fire departments, our police, our military, our water supply, and accepted strict regulatory oversight over the food, drug, aviation and communications industries; yet we've never come close to being a socialist or communist country, and we're still not even remotely there, not withstanding the ignorant cries of tea-party protesters – the government still holds less than 1% of all business and corporate assets.

The slippery slope fallacy is especially easy to fall for because it's an informal fallacy – that is, the form of the argument is logically sound, but the conclusion does not follow from the premises.

Child sacrifice, nonsensical theology, and other questions Christians can't answer

Being a Christian is easy, as long as you ignore most of the Bible and don't actually bother trying to figure out how the theology works. Sam Harris recently teamed up with Steve Wells, creator of the Skeptics Annotated Bible (he's also annotated the Qur'an and the Book of Mormon) to develop The Scripture Project, which Harris intends to make the authoritative resource on the web for Biblical skeptics. This got me thinking about the kind of scriptures you see in the SAB, and how, when I was a Christian, no one ever really talked about them. Actually, no one talked about them at all.


20 March 2010

Why I want Obama's health care reform to pass

You can't please everyone. As we approach the historical vote for health care reform, it seems like not everyone is really happy; some less so than others. But that's just the nature of the beast. In my perfect little liberal world, the United States would catch up to most other industrialized nations and use a single-payer system. I think a public option would have been a good thing. But even with the bill in its current state, it does a lot of very important things – it extends health care coverage to millions of people while reducing costs. The bill remains controversial, however, so I wanted to articulate why I personally think this is a vital piece of legislation, despite any shortcomings I may feel it has.

First, however, it's worth addressing the falsehoods that have been spread in order to defeat this bill. In the tech world, when companies spread misinformation about their competitors, it's called FUDfear, uncertainty and doubt. The most common line I hear is that the bill amounts to a "complete government takeover" of the health care industry. But it's utter nonsense. A government-run single-payer system has never even been considered – to our detriment, in my opinion – and the public option, whose self-explanatory title belies the FUD spread that we would be forced to rely on the government for health insurance, has been removed from the bill. What the bill does do, however, is give the government more regulatory control over the insurance industry. We don't seem to mind the government regulating our food quality or air safety – heck, we could save billions if food companies were not forced to comply with FDA standards, but we might not be eating very safe food either.

It's also commonly asserted that the bill will increase taxes and run us into debt. I do find it ironic that most of the people complaining about deficit spending didn't seem to mind Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush each doubling our national debt during their presidencies. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill will save us over $130 billion over ten years. That's not a ton of money over a decade, but it's certainly not in the red, and it's quite disingenuous to suggest that the bill will be a tax burden when tax relief is a central part of the bill. But most importantly the bill will expand coverage to 30+ million people while saving the government money. If if costs remained neutral, the expanded coverage would be worth it.


Truthiness


So what does this health care bill actually do? It prevents insurers from denying care through rescission, which is when you get cancer and they root through your application and drop you because you forgot to mention that case of acne you had, or because you wrote "okay" in the space where it said "do not write in this space".

It also prevents insurance companies from denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions or charging higher premiums due to health history, gender, or occupation. This is common-sense regulation that is done in better-off countries like Sweden, in which the government provides tight regulations over the sale of private insurance. Right now, many families are unable to find affordable health care coverage – if they can get it at all – because one or more family members has a pre-existing condition.

It will provide subsidies for millions of people to buy insurance, and expand medicaid coverage to people lower on the poverty line. Altogether, over 30 million people will have at least a minimum level of coverage they currently lack.

A la Canada, the federal government will now be able to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies to control prescription costs for people using medicare.

Most importantly, it will create a national health insurance exchange, which is sort of like how you can use Lending Tree to get banks to compete for your business by using a third party to bargain on your behalf. The national exchange will have a bargaining power that individual consumers lack, and unlike the regular insurance market, insurance companies will be required to meet a minimum level of coverage. This preserves – even increases – competition and consumer choice and should, at least in theory, placate the "free market" ideologists while taking important measures to protect consumers from denial of care or inadequate care. Ezra Klein elaborates:


The Health Insurance Exchange combines the benefits of choice that are theoretically available on the individual market with the bargaining power and scale that's generally accessible only in large employers (and the exchange will, in theory, have more bargaining power than even the largest employers, as it will have a much larger base of customers). You also have a space to test out innovative ideas that might make the market better, like Sen. Jay Rockefeller's (D-W.Va.) insurance rating agency, or the public insurance option. You can standardize billing and payment methods and force the adoption of electronic medical records.


Much of the opposition to this bill is rooted in confusion, partisan ideology and fear-mongering. When we look at what this bill actually does, any sensible person can see how important it really is. It's not a sweeping overhaul of the heath care system, but it institutes many changes that we desperately need to dramatically expand coverage and reduce costs while protecting consumer choice. Why should this not be done? Why is this not vital, and urgent? 






p.s. – Many conservatives have put forth the notion that we should remove regulations that prevent insurance companies from selling across state lines. That's a bad idea, for one simple reason: insurance companies would be able to pool in a state that was most favorable to their bottom line, with no protections in place for a minimum standard of coverage, and no one in the other 49 states would have any say in the matter. The national exchange provides the requisite free-market boon while federal oversight ensures a minimum standard of care for all consumers.

19 March 2010

A scathing rebuke of religion

Johann Hari: The Pope, the Prophet, and the religious support for evil


Not much else to add to this one, but it's a fine read. My favorite quote:

Yes, I understand some people feel sad when they see a figure they were taught as a child to revere – whether Prophet or Pope – being subjected to rational examination, or mockery, or criminal investigation. But everyone has ideas they hold precious. Only you, the religious, demand to be protected from debate or scrutiny that might discomfort you. The fact you believe an invisible supernatural being approves of – or even commands – your behaviour doesn't mean it deserves more respect, or sensitive handling. It means it deserves less. If you base your behaviour on such a preposterous fantasy, you should expect to be checked by criticism and mockery. You need it.



Are you an ex?

As an ex-evangelical Christian, I'm fascinated by other people's stories of de-conversion. I'm particularly fascinated by former preachers who have de-converted such as Dan Barker and fellow bloggers John Loftus,  Bud Uzoras, and the anonymous gentleman over at Going Apostate.

Daniel Dennet did a fantastic lecture about closet atheists in the clergy, which you can view below; I suspect the phenomenon is far more prevalent than one might imagine. But I also suspect that closet agnostics and atheists are similarly prevalent in the pews, as leaving one's religious institution can be, as the Mormon fellows remarked in Religulous, "social suicide".

The interesting thing about us ex-believers is that we tend to be a lot more passionate about our agnosticism or atheism than people who were simply raised in predominately secular societies. That's because we've experienced first hand the pervasive, destructive influence that religion has, and we know what it's like to be freed from that delusional trap. It's odd to look back on beliefs I once cherished, and simply see them as absurd, divisive, and destructive. It's also somewhat ironic that just as I once wished to convert non-believers to my faith, I want to persuade others to reject their beliefs. But it's not quite the same; I don't want to win them over; I simply want them to think for themselves.

If you're an ex-believer and you have a few minutes, tell me a little bit about how you got there. What was it that pushed you over the edge from doubt into non-belief? How has your de-conversion affected your personal life? If you have a blog, I'd love to see it. 

Daniel Dennett on closet atheists in the clergy:

The real problem with religion

I haven't been as busy lately with the whole blogging thing, which may seem kind of odd in light of some of the stuff happening in the world right now. Muslim radicals have been trying to murder cartoonists who dared to satirize religion by drawing Mohammad. Nergal, frontman for Polish metal band Behemoth (of whom I am a huge fan) has been arrested on charges of insulting the Catholic church after he tore up a Bible as part of his act. And the Catholic church is in a messy state of affairs, with literally hundreds of new sex abuse cases rising up, and once again the problem is not that they happened, but that the church covered it up. This time around, the Pope himself looks at least partly culpable in the cover-ups. There was also some news about vice president Biden having a rather unsuccessful (to put it charitably) visit to Israel. Apparently peace is not in the making anytime soon.

All this had me reflecting on what exactly the problem is with religion. Because religious people tend to defend themselves by pointing out that pedophiles, jihadists and people convinced god is a real-estate agent do not represent all believers. Which is true, of course, but it's obfuscating the real problem with religion.

In Richard Dawkins' special The Root of All Evil?, Dawkins interviews a young man born in the states who is now a radical Muslim living in Jerusalem. He's a young fellow, and clearly quite intelligent despite being deluded to the point that it is dangerous. He tells Dawkins that the entire world will be converted to Islam at some point, and suggests that violence is a perfectly acceptable means by which to accomplish this goal. Dawkins says something during the interview that is very important. He says (paraphrasing) that there is someone else on the other side of the world who is just as passionate and convicted as this young man, but whose beliefs are opposite. And that really strikes at the heart of what, really, is wrong with religion.

Debate all you want about whether religious people, and religious institutions, do more harm or good. But there's a fundamental question at the root of all skeptical inquiry into religion: How do you know what you claim to know? When you have two or more people claiming that their beliefs are founded on immutable truths, but those truths are irreconcilably antithetical, reason is forfeited and no compromise can be reached. And while liberal religious believers love to talk about how people of different faiths can all hold hands and get along, the reality is that all religions make antithetical and contradictory claims. The can certainly all be nonsense, but no two of them can both be true. Some of us are lucky that we live in a culture where religious truth-claims are often tempered by secular modernism; many others, however, are not so fortunate, and the results of these conflicting truth claims is devastating.

I saw a special on the Israel/Palestine conflict some time ago, and a woman was settling in contested territory. She was asked why she was doing that, because not only could her home be torn down in the blink of an eye, but she was risking her life and the life of her family. She replied, "Because God gave us this land." How can you argue with that? When someone claims that something is true, we should inquire as to how this knowledge has been attained. On what basis is something asserted as true, much less as infallibly true? Atheists/skeptics/agnostics such as myself believe that we should base truth claims on evidence alone. Not on feelings, emotions, personal revelation, or tradition. And it is for that reason that any skeptical inquiry into the truth claims of religion will inevitably lead toward a rejection of such dogma.


Here is the aforementioned Dawkins interview:

14 March 2010

Dialogues with ultraconservatives

I'm not opposed to engaging people with opposing viewpoints. Quite the contrary – I think it's important to one's intellectual growth. But in order to have a meaningful discussion, both parties have to approach the conversation with a mindset of free and open inquiry – that is, a willingness to subject their ideas to critical scrutiny. Incredulity has no place in any such conversation.

I'm a pretty liberal guy, which one would rightly expect being that I'm an atheist (the two are strongly correlated). I spent this afternoon attempting to engage some ultraconservatives in a discussion on Facebook. Lesson learned. I won't bore with details, but here are some snippets:

Conservative: Hey there Mike, one more thing buddy, where would you like for me to ship the candy that your Muslim Boss is selling so that it does not melt? what will it take you for you blind brainwashed people to see what the hell is going on here, this is no longer about a party, but it is about you DAM freedom, wake up your in ASTUPID NIGHT MARE.

Me: I could point out that the government controls only 0.21% of business and corporate assets. Or that the largest expansions of the federal government and the largest increases in the national debt occurred during the Reagan and Bush administrations. That Bush is the one who passed TARP. That Clinton was the only president in my 30-year lifetime to reduce the national debt. That the health care bill will reduce costs and expand coverage to over 30 million people through federal subsidies and the establishment of an exchange program, and expand patients' rights by preventing health insurance companies by denying care through rescission and pre-existing conditions. But your incredulity is impervious to those facts.

Conservative: Mike, you did not answer my question, where the hell do i send you the candy bag, Clinton was a great president, he gave china intercontinental missile capabilities, do i need to continue proving how ignorant you are? or was Monica also one your girls.

Other conservative: 1st off It took Bush 8X to spend what Osama-Obama spent in his first year putting us in more danger wasting our money on mickey mouse crap. The only reason the debt was reduced Under slick Willy was cause the congress was Republican! The Health care Bill will reduce costs ONLY because It will put the rest of the country out of business.

Me:  If the only reason debt was reduced under Clinton was because of the Republican congress, then why did the debt skyrocket for the first six years of the Bush administration under which there was both a Republican congress AND a Republican president? Why did we go from a record surplus to a record deficit in the first year of Bush's presidency?

Other conservative: Key point is: Socialism fails, u CANT POINT ANY WHERE IN WORLD IT HAS SUCEEDED! Russia/ China/ Venezuela LOL!
There is no REAL debate about any of this, Good night!

Glen Beck and Sarah Palin were in Tulsa this weekend as part of their "Take Our Country Back" tour. Take it back to where, the Stone Age? How do we battle this kind of incredulity and ignorance? I want to have a dialogue with people. I want the debate about everything ranging from theology and the place of religion to health care and economics to be a free, open and critical exchange of ideas. But with this kind of incredulity so pervasive, I really don't know where to begin.







The internet is bad for religion

This excellent video from famous creationism debunker Thunderf00t articulates very well something I've thought for a long time – that the internet is bad for religion. It's easier than ever to be exposed to counter-arguments, criticisms and opposing views, which in my experience (and as the video shows) tend to be bad for religion, which often thrives on emotional appeals, childhood indoctrination and groupthink. The precipitous drop in religious affiliation in developed nations over the last 15 years is a testament to that.

08 March 2010

Thoughts on digital rights management

As you can tell if you've ever glanced at my profile and taken a gander at my other blogs (which I don't really bother updating much), you know I'm a PC gamer. And I would probably post this on my PC gaming blog, except that this is a consumer rights issue that crosses many mediums. I took note of the recent controversy over the DRM embedded in the game Assassin's Creed II, published by Ubisoft.  DRM has long been a bane of PC gamers, with Sony's infamous SecuROM causing a litany of problems for innumerable users, and it seems that Ubisoft decided to see if they could top Sony in the "treat your customers like crap" department.

Essentially, the game requires the user to be constantly logged into a server on the internet. Other companies have done similar things by requiring internet authentication for updates and downloadable bonus content, but Ubisoft is the first to mandate that players be constantly connected to the internet. Predictably, over the weekend there was a server issue preventing many players from logging on. Ubisoft initially attributed the problem to "overwhelming demand", but later admitted that the servers had been hacked.

There are two significant problems with any kind of DRM. Firstly, it does nothing to prevent counterfeiting. Cracked versions of "protected" video games are available on Bittorrents as soon as, and sometimes even before, games are released. There are many claims from across the internet that Assassin's Creed II has been hacked and is available illegally, though Ubisoft denies this. But even if Ubisoft is right, just how long do they think it will last? In the meantime, legitimate users of the product continue to get the short end of the stick.

DRM is by no means merely an issue with games. I buy almost all of my music online. Most of it comes from iTunes, with the occasional purchase from Amazon MP3. The smartest thing that iTunes did was to ditch the DRM "protection" from their AAC files; now, just as with Amazon MP3, they can be used freely – converted into other file types, burned to a CD an unlimited number of times, etc. Were this not the case, I would almost certainly continue to purchase CDs. iTunes movies prevents customers from burning a movie to a DVD for use in a movie player; it can only be burned to a data DVD as a backup copy. I'm not really sure what this is supposed to accomplish aside from coercing people into buying Apple TV, but it certainly makes purchasing movies from iTunes less appealing.

As we move away from physical media toward digital distribution, DRM will become more pervasive, to the detriment of paying customers. Those who wish to obtain pirated copies of movies, music and games will always have plenty of options to do so, and DRM does nothing but diminish the experience for the end user. Ubisoft is now scrambling to rectify their situation while message boards are filled with cynical gamers saying "I told you so" as many other are actually turning toward piracy precisely because a pirated copy will not be afflicted with the problems affecting legitimate customers. Does that sound backwards, or what?

07 March 2010

The folly of prayer

I recently saw a group on Facebook called Praying for Layla Grace, a support group for a beautiful little girl suffering from stage 4 neuroblastoma, which is cancer of the nervous system. "Stage 4" means the cancer has spread to other organs – in this case her bone marrow – meaning her prognosis is grim. Perhaps it's just my fascination with psychology, but I think tragic situations such as this provide a unique insight into human behavior. In this case, I'm curious what people's rationalization is for praying on Layla's behalf. Presumably, they hope that God will cure her. Presumably, they want a miracle. And who among us wouldn't? I can only imagine the pain of losing a child to cancer. When I worked as a physical therapy tech in college, I witnessed first-hand a child wasting away from brain cancer. It was difficult for me to witness, as a total stranger; for her family, the tragedy was certainly overwhelming.

It's my position that prayer ultimately does more harm than good. At best, it's a superstitious behavior with dubious theological foundations that creates false expectations and is supported only by the light of confirmation bias. At worst, those false expectations can make already difficult situations that much more difficult as believers are forced to fabricate rationalizations on the behalf of God when their prayers do not come to pass as they hoped.

I know a great many others have taken a crack at debunking prayer, which is now a fair bit easier thanks to a number of well-designed scientific studies that have done just that. But believers are never short on rationalizations when science strikes down such a commonplace behavior. Prayer can't be studied, they might say. Or, you have to pray for the right kinds of things. They might suggest that a controlled study of prayer is an attempt to manipulate God and hey, you just can't do that. Some might even go so far as to say that solid scientific evidence that prayer works would be too much evidence for God's existence, and that would take away "free choice"... as though knowing for certain whether God existed would adversely effect one's choice to follow him.


Theological hurdles

Whenever people pray for someone like Layla Grace, it begs the question: if God is capable of intervening and healing her, why didn't he just keep her from getting sick in the first place? In my experience, believers struggle ceaselessly with this question, usually deferring to some sort of vague rationalization about God's will being mysterious. But this raises another important question: If God's will is unknown, and he will act on it regardless of your prayers, how is that any different than praying to a god that does not exist?

Sometimes believers will rationalize that God wants to test his faithful, or give them an opportunity to act with compassion and love. But this feeble rationalization presumes that God would afflict a toddler with deadly cancer just to test the faith of his followers. What reasonable person would wish to follow such a god? Such rationalizations remind me of the following quote by Bertrand Russel, commenting on the rationalization that such tragedies are the result of "original sin":
"I would invite any Christian to accompany me to the children’s ward of a hospital, to watch the suffering that is there being endured, and then to persist in the assertion that those children are so morally abandoned as to deserve what they are suffering. In order to bring himself to say this, a man must destroy himself in all feelings of mercy and compassion. He must, in short, make himself as cruel as the God in whom he believes"
Much of these theological conundrums hearken back to the problem of evil, or as I prefer to describe it, the problem of suffering. "Evil", to me, narrowly refers to deliberate acts of malice; "suffering", on the other hand, refers to the natural course of events over which we have no control.

Beyond intercessory prayer, there are also prayers of thanks, and prayers of a personal nature such as praying for one's own good fortune. I've noticed that believers are wont to praise God for all manner of things – they thank God for the food on their table or the friends and lovers they meet, pray they will be chosen for that lucrative promotion, etc. These types of prayers beg two important questions – in just what way is it that God has intervened such that he is found to be deserving of thanks, and why has he excluded so many others in need? Why, for example, would God be thanked for the bountiful food on your table while millions of children all over the world face death from famine? Does God think your life is more valuable than theirs? Does this omnipotent God choose to control some things, but not others?


Prayer has no effect

The meta-analysis of intercessory prayer to which I linked above concludes thus: "There is no scientifically discernable effect for IP [intercessory prayer] as assessed in controlled studies. Given that the IP literature lacks a theoretical or theological base and has failed to produce significant findings in controlled trials, we recommend that further resources not be allocated to this line of research." 

But we don't necessarily have to look at studies of intercessory prayer specifically to discern whether prayer is of any value; we can simply look at the world around us. Believers die of tragic illnesses and circumstances at the same rate as non-believers. Imagine, for example, that you are driving cross-country, and pray to God that he will protect you on your trip. Unfortunately, the probability of being in an auto accident – fatal or otherwise – is a statistically predictable phenomenon; believers are no more or less likely to be spared than non-believers. Little Layla Grace is statistically no more or less likely to survive her cancer than any other child, despite the fact that innumerable people are undoubtedly praying on her behalf. When natural disasters strike such as the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, believers are affected just the same as non-believers. Believers and non-believers divorce at the same rate (actually, one study by the Barna group – headed by an evangelical Christian – found that atheists have a lower divorce rate than Christians, though I suspect that is for other reasons, such as the tendency for believers to marry younger), and have the same rates of mental illness such as depression (again, some studies have found this to be higher for believers).

I think it is perfectly reasonable to presume that if a theistic God* really existed and answered prayers, none of this would be the case, simply because what we observe is precisely what we should expect to observe if a theistic God does not exist. I believe that rather than confound ourselves as we attempt to reconcile the behavior of an omnipotent but completely invisible and undetectable god with the harsh indifference of the natural world toward human suffering, we should accept reality as it truly is that we may face it with realistic expectations and better cope with tragedy and disappointment, rather than persist in wishful thinking.

And it is here that I'll close with one of my favorite quotes, from Carl Sagan: It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. 





*I make a note of specifically referring to a theistic god – one who orchestrates events, cares about people and intervenes in the natural world – versus a deistic god, who exists (or existed) merely as an imponderable "first cause" that set the universe in motion; no one prays to a deistic god – that would be a paradoxical concept! I believe the existence of a theistic god is a much more relevant question than the existence of a deistic god, and I believe the existence of a deistic god is best addressed with other, distinct arguments such as the ones I have posted previously. [1], [2], [3], [4].

06 March 2010

Buyer Beware

 Update 3/11/2010: Apparently blogging is good for something other than just me shouting into the ethereal void of the interwebs. An employee from Music123 found this blog and took it upon himself to personally rectify the situation. I can confirm, having just viewed my adjusted credit card statement, that the problem has been fully resolved. So, a big thanks to Skaught Parry for taking the time to address this issue personally. As for Music123, well, they've taken fine care of me in response to this issue, and I feel confident enough to buy from them again.

_________________________________________
You may have noticed that I haven't been blogging for a while. Or, maybe you haven't because you've been busy reading other, more interesting blogs. But I wanted to take a break from my usual armchair philosophy b.s. and vent something that has been bugging me greatly.

See, I just wrote a check for $1,023.40. And I am really, really not happy about writing this check.

I'm a guitarist. Back in July, I found this amazing USA Washburn, which I would link to but unfortunately it is no longer in production. Mine looks like this:


Yes, it's awesome. And it was expensive. But, the online store from which I purchased this beauty informed me that the high price was no problemo, with this enticing advertisment:


You can read the details here, but the important thing is this: this card promises zero interest financing on purchases of $199 or more, with no finance charges if it's paid off in a year. This is actually a great thing if you can use it. I've bought three Carvin guitars with the Carvin credit card, and financed all them. It's a lot easier to make small payments at your convenience over a year than dump one lump sum of cash on an extravagant purchase.

So, after buying this guitar, I set up the online payment system. Just like with my Carvins, I dutifully paid each monthly minimum payment. It never occurred to me to wonder why I was making monthly payments at all, but by that point I'd forgotten the original ad. Then I noticed, about five months in, that my balance hadn't gone down... like, at all. I should have scrutinized the statements instead of just making the payments and going on with my life, but I'd never had any issues with Carvin, so I didn't think anything of it.

Well, lo and behold, I was being assessed monthly finance charges at a rate of 23%. Needless to say I canceled my plans to have an awesome day, and immediately booked a couple hours of being totally fucking pissed off. I contacted customer "service" at HSBC, and here's what they told me:

Please be informed that your purchase dated 07/27/2009 qualified for a regular revolving plan and it requires a minimum payment each month. Finance charges on this plan will be assessed using the Average Daily Balance method during any billing period in which the previously billed balance was not paid in full by the due date. Since, we did not receive the full payment by due date, finance charges were assessed on your account. 
After reviewing your account, we regret that we are unable to complete your request without additional information. Please refer to your copy of the original sales slip. If your sales slip specifies that the purchase was to be placed on a promotional credit plan, please forward a copy of the sales slip. If you are unable to locate your original sales slip, you may contact the merchant for a copy.
Basically, they told me that my purchase didn't qualify, for some unspecified reason, as a "promotional purchase" despite the fact that it was well over $199.00. I contacted Music123 about the issue, and they told me to contact the bank. Circle jerk.

I eventually wrote an angry letter detailing the situation to the staff at Music123 and told them I would never, ever buy anything from them again and that I would strongly encourage my fellow musician buddies to do the same. This was their reply:
I was more than a little appalled to read about your experience with our store credit card. This will require the attention of someone further up the chain than those of us who correspond directly with customers. It would seem that we did an inadequate job of properly explaining the financing promotion as I am certain HSBC would not renege on a contractual obligation. Whatever the reason, we will get to the bottom of it and make sure that it does not happen to any of our other valued customers.
That was the last I heard from them. I've now had no choice but to transfer the remaining balance to my regular Visa to avoid getting ass raped by a 23% interest rate. I'll still be in debt though, and it doesn't make me feel any better knowing that I've pissed away at least a couple hundred bucks in finance charges.

I had one of those moments where I thought, Is this just me? Am I in the wrong here? Because it seems like they're using fine-print bullshit to pull a bait and switch. And you know, looking back at the original ad, that's exactly what I think.

Be careful with store credit cards folks. And stay the hell away from HSBC (they also finance Best Buy's card) and Music123. I should also mention that Music123 did not require a signature on delivery, so they basically left a $2,000 guitar sitting on my porch. Classy.