22 November 2012

Giving thanks

There's something about saying you're 'thankful' that's always sounded quasi-religious to me. Sort of like saying that you're 'blessed'. It makes me think, Why on Earth would some deity give you all these nice things when so many others are suffering? Some people are arrogant enough to think they deserve it; others just don't think much about it all.

So when I say I'm thankful, I'm thinking about all the things that others have given me. Not tangible things (well... some tangible things), but love, support and friendship... the things that are the most valuable to me.

So here are some of the things I'm thankful for:
  • My family. I'm lucky that my parents, both retired now, live close by. I'm able to see them most every week. I have a great relationship with them both. And while I don't talk to my brother much since he lives a busy life as a musician in Los Angeles (playing guitar for Rita Wilson), he's probably the only person aside from my girlfriend to whom I will tell anything and everything. 
  • My extended family. A few weeks ago I went to Wisconsin and saw my grandmother (91 years old!) along with a load of aunts and cousins. I'm incredibly lucky to be part of such a loving family. 
  • Vanessa, my girlfriend. I feel like we don't just have a great relationship; we have the kind of relationship that very few people are lucky enough to have at all. We're patient with each other, honest, communicative, passionate, funny... we truly enjoy each others' company, and have a shared vision of what our life together can and will be. Not a day goes by that I don't feel madly in love and incredibly lucky.
  • My friends. Few people are lucky to have friends as loyal and selfless as mine. Many of my friends have stuck around for years and years, through thick and thin. 
  • My cat, Alexi. Before writing this I took a short nap, and he jumped in bed with me and curled up on my stomach, purring so much I could feel it in my toes. I adopted him from a street rescue a couple years ago. I was a bit apprehensive, not entirely sure I was making the right decisions. But I lucked out... he's the best little buddy I could ask for.
  • My job. Every so often I have to get up at 4:30 a.m. to train early-bird clients. My usual shift is afternoons and evenings, so those early mornings are especially rough. And it's those times when I reflect on just how much I really love what I do. My job is incredibly fun, challenging, and rewarding. I've seen people lose a hundred pounds and turn their lives around completely; I've seen elderly clients gain newfound mobility and independence. I've seen people overcome debilitating injuries. Knowing that I had a part in guiding them is incredibly humbling, and I'm grateful for all of them. If you have to get up at 4:30 in the morning, it might as well be for a totally awesome job.
  • My guitars. My music is my passion. I'm lucky that my work schedule allows me to pursue it, and that Vanessa is patient enough to have her own space while I practice for several hours a day.
  • My readers! I started this blog simply as a way to organize my own thoughts, but it's taken on a life of its own. It's spurred tons of interesting discussions and attracted plenty of smart people on all sides of the issues I discuss. 
 I remember a while back getting a spam phone call from some prayer hotline. It was some guy going on about how God and prayer would change my life. I was like, Fuck you dude! My life is awesome! My you should be the one changing your life. Seriously though... I'm so incredibly happy. I have a great life and I'm amazingly lucky. Is it perfect? Of course not. But there is very little to gripe about, nothing that a little perspective won't quickly wash away.

So happy Thanksgiving. And remember not to eat Tofurky, because vegetarianism is the devil.

20 November 2012

The problem with philosophical metaphysics

Stephen Hawking said that philosophy is dead. That probably hasn't sat well with some philosophers, but he's right – at least in the sense I think he means.

To my mind, there are essentially two major branches of philosophy – one deals with logic, critical thinking, and the implications of science for the human experience. I think that type of philosophy is doing just fine, and probably always will. 

The other kind is the trying to figure shit out kind. The kind that asks questions like, "What is the nature of time?", or "Does the universe require a cause?" That's philosophical metaphysics, and it's dead in the water.

Science wins because it works. The underlying principles of scientific inquiry weren't developed overnight; they developed over millennia, through rigorous trial and error. Over time, we began to figure out that certain types of methods produced results that, when others repeated our experiments, could be duplicated. They allowed us to reliably manipulated the natural world and predict its behavior.

Metaphysics can't do anything like that. You can't figure out the nature of time (for example) by sitting around and thinking about it; you have to get off your ass, making observations and doing experiments. For that reason, the physicist will always be in a better position to describe the nature of time than any philosopher.

The reason this is so is that metaphysics operates by using the rules of logic and/or intuitive knowledge of our human frame of reference, and tries to cantilever that logic and/or intuition into areas that are untested or unknown. The idea of the universe needing a cause is just such an example – things around us need a cause, right? And the universe is a thing, right? Ergo, the universe needs a cause!

But if science has taught us anything, it's that the world around us is often profoundly counter-intuitive. It may, in some case, defy the "rules" of logic. What medieval philosopher could have made sense of nuclear decay, virtual particles, or quantum entanglement? Or – in the more speculative realm of things – parallel universes with different laws, 10-dimensional hyperspace, and colliding p-branes?

Our immediate frame of reference, in which our intuitions reign, can only give us a small glimpse of reality. So we've developed methods of peering beyond our frame of reference – methods that we only know are valid because they work. They allow us to predict and manipulate the behavior of reality at the most immense and the most miniscule scales, no matter how counter-intuitive the results may be.


No, Bill O'Reilly, Jon Stewart isn't 'Obtuse'

Of all the insufferable douchebags on Earth, few are more insufferable and more douchebag than Fox News' Bill O'Reilly. It's not just that he's a egomaniacal blowhard, that he's prone to logical fallacies, or that he thinks dumb people watch Comedy Central and smart people watch Fox News, when the exact opposite is true.

Now, Bill O'Reilly has made an ass of himself yet again, this time responding to this segment:



Reports Huffpo:
O'Reilly used a portion of his "Reality Check" segment on his Monday night Fox News broadcast to respond to criticism lodged at him by the "Daily Show" host. Stewart lampooned O'Reilly for "lamenting" that "traditional Americans" did not reelect President Obama and therefore, "traditional America as we knew it is gone."
"Bill O'Reilly, what are you talking about?" Stewart asked on his program last week.
"Well here's what I'm talking about, Mr. Obtuse," O'Reilly responded. He said that the majority of people who voted for Obama "want a large government that spends heavily on entitlements because that reduces so-called income inequality." He continued, "They wanted equality for gays in the marriage arena. They want unfettered abortion with no parental notification for minors. They want a one world foreign policy that gives other nations equal status to America. Here's a bulletin to those pinheads at Comedy Central: 'Those are not traditional positions!' Clear about this?"
Jon Stewart's point is that the upheaval of supposedly 'traditional' social norms is the American experiment. A hundred years ago it was 'traditional' for whites and minorities to be separate, and for women not to be able to vote. It wasn't a tradition to have social security and medicare either, but we've had them for almost 80 years now.

O'Reilly's response is a dim caricature of what Obama supports actually believe, and he didn't cite any data to support ludicrous comments like "unfettered abortion" or "one-word foreign policy". But even if he were right, he's lamenting the loss of these 'traditional positions' because they're not the America that he as a straight, wealthy, white male conservative, is accustomed to having. Well, tough shit. Change is the American way. And you know what we say to people who don't like America?



19 November 2012

Dumb science reporting: energy drink edition

You may have heard the news that the FDA is looking into some deaths purportedly associated with various energy drinks. Depending on where you read it though, the headlines may have been pretty misleading.

The New York Times did it right; the headline is simply "F.D.A. Posts Injury Data for 3 Drinks". The article correctly states,
The filing of an incident report with the F.D.A. does not mean that a product was responsible for a death or an injury or contributed to it in any way.
But others have been handling things a little more sensationally. Anais Fournier, a 14-year-old Maryland girl, died after consuming two 24-oz Monster energy drinks in a 24-hour period [1]. This, along with some complaints about Five-Hour Energy (aside from "tasting like shit"), has spurred some headlines like this:

When caffeine kills: Energy drinks under the spotlight

13 deaths linked to energy drinks; FDA investigates 

More Deaths, Illness Linked to Energy Drinks


Sigh.

The problem here is that no link has been established whatsoever. That 14-year-old girl who died after drinking Monster? She had a heart arrhythmia. Meanwhile, Monster has sold something over 8 billion drinks. 

So, how much caffeine does it take to kill you? A lot. Like, kind of a ridiculously huge amount of a lot.  

17 November 2012

The Walmart Black Friday Strike

I've seen some stuff about this bandied around Facebook, and there's a piece on it in Huffpo:

Walmart's Internal Compensation Documents Reveal Systematic Limit On Advancement

Here's an excerpt:
The company website declares that "a job at Walmart opens the door to a better life" and "the chance to grow and build a career." But interviews with 31 hourly workers and one former store manager reveal lives beset by paychecks too small to handle the bills, difficult to manage part-time schedules with hours subject to constant change, and little reason to hope for career advancement.

If you have no idea what this is all about, here's the gist of it: a bunch of Walmart employees are complaining about the low wages, and are planning to strike on Black Friday. I think that it won't happen. Maybe some people will strike, and they'll probably just get promptly fired and replaced.

Most Walmart jobs have practically zero entry barrier. Forget college – you don't even need a high school diploma to be a stocker or a cashier. That isn't just Walmart; that's pretty much the norm at grocery stores period. If you think you're going to support your three kids and drive next year's Accord working as a stocker or cashier, you need your head checked.

The thing about low-entry-barrier jobs is that practically anyone can do them. They're simple jobs and the workers are easy to replace. That means that lots more people are going to be applying, because they're easy jobs to get. The volume of applicants and workers also means that an even smaller percentage are going to make it to managerial positions. That's just reality. Not everyone has what it takes to run a store.

The girl profiled in the above article says she works at the deli counter. The fucking deli counter. Not only that, but she only works part-time. And she makes $13,000 a year. Yeah, you can't really live well off such a low wage. But how much are you expecting to make working part-time at a job that practically anyone can do? She expected to pay off student loans and have nice new clothes working part-time at a deli counter? Seriously?

Don't get me wrong – I'm all for collective bargaining and fair wages. But this is just kind of ridiculous. These aren't high-skill jobs. You don't need much of an education – hell, hardly any education – to do them. Walmart is a popular target for stuff like this, because they're the biggest boys on the block. And I'm not about to become Walmart's defender, because there may indeed be some practices that are ethically shady. But on this particular issue, the idea that you should be able to make a comfortable living off of a part-time job that doesn't even require a high school diploma, Walmart is just doing what any retailer would do. Some people just need a reality check. 

16 November 2012

Conservative reactions to the election

I know it's been a while since my last update. I'm sorry. Life happens, man. Fortunately it's all life happening in a great way, but still.... I just haven't had much time to write.

One thing I've noticed though, because it's nearly impossible not to, is the conservative reaction to the election. I don't just mean the disappointment – that's inevitable when your pick doesn't win. What I mean is the outright batshit crazy nutbaggery that, in my mind, reinforces why conservatives lost the election.

First things first though. Conservative pundits set themselves and their followers for extreme disappointment by, against all the available polling data, predicting a landslide win for Romney.

How are they taking the loss? Not well. Not well at all....

  • Rush Limbaugh claims that Obama's tax plan will usurp capitalism [1]
  • Former SNL and all-around crazy train Victoria Jackson tweeted that "America died", that Christians didn't "show up" and "evil won", and wants Florida to secede [2]. Ted Nugent said that "pimps" and "welfare brats" have elected a president who will "destroy America". [3]
  • A Vegas employer fired 22 of his employees, claiming that it was because of "taxes and regulations" Obama would eventually impose.[4]
  • Donald Trump called the election a "total sham" and called for a "revolution", whatever that might be.[5]
  • Conservative radio personality Neal Boortz called Obama a "thief" and compared him to Hitler and Al Queada.[6]
  • WND founder Joseph Farah says that Obama's win is "God’s judgment on a people who have turned away from Him and His ways"[7]
  • The Cincinnati Tea Party says America is dead "by suicide"[8]
  • Numerous conservative pundits voiced their disdain for Obama supports as people who want handouts.[9]
  • Conservatives in more than 30 states want their states to secede.[10]
  • Numerous CEOs are planning layoffs and blaming Obama, even though there are no facts to support them. [11]
The secession stuff really cracks me up. These people don't have the slightest clue as to how much they depend on the security, resources and infrastructure given to them by the federal government. But I found a wonderful op-ed about the issue here: So you're thinking seceding...

This stuff shows how disconnected from reality the Republican party has become, driven by a conservative media machine that feeds them a steady diet of appeasing bullshit. Fox News and the rest of the conservative media, in trying to construct a conservative narrative, only helped conservatives shoot themselves in the foot.

07 November 2012

Common theistic arguments that are logical fallacies

Today I was reading a new post over at one of my favorite blogs, Unnatural Acts That Can Improve Your Thinking, by Robert Todd Carroll. The post is on informal logical fallacies – what they are, various kinds of them, and several examples of the different kinds. I'm sure that anyone who's spent a while debating on the interwebs has heard various phrases bandied about like begging the question, straw man, ad hominem, etc. – all examples of informal logical fallacies. As I was reading the post, I thought back to some of the discussions/debates over my "Why Christianity is Bullshit" series, and it wasn't hard to think of several arguments frequently and repeatedly advanced by theists that are informal logical fallacies.

So I thought what I'd do is comb through Carroll's excellent post, and draw out some examples from my own experience to illustrate just how reliant theism is on demonstrably fallacious arguments.

First, Carroll primes us on what an informal fallacy is:
Arguments may be classified as deductive or inductive. Deductive arguments assert or imply that the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises. Inductive arguments assert or imply that the conclusion follows with some degree of probability, not necessity. Deductive arguments are evaluated for validity. If the conclusion of a deductive argument follows necessarily from the premises, the argument is said to be valid. If the conclusion of a deductive argument does not follow with necessity from the premises, the argument is said to be invalid. Validity is determined by the form of the argument, not the truth or falsity of the premises or the conclusion.....
Inductive arguments may be evaluated by their form, but usually they are evaluated by other criteria. The fallacies of induction are called informal fallacies because they do not evaluate the form to determine validity.
In other words, an argument like the Kalam Cosmological Argument is valid because it follows proper form:
  • Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  • The universe began to exist
  • Therefor, the universe has a cause 
This means that if the premises are true, the conclusion must follow. The KCA doesn't commit any formal fallacies, but it commits several informal fallacies (more on this later). This means that even though it's valid, it's unsound. In order for the argument to be sound, the premises have to be true – and that means being free of informal fallacies.

Having established the definitions, Carroll goes on to list several informal fallacies and provide examples, some of which are theistic. But as I was reading his list, I thought of several that I've heard that easily fit the descriptions. There are more in his post, and I highly recommend giving it a read; but I wanted to pick a few that stood out to me.

Election night progress

Prior to the election, I'd been following fivethirtyeight.com, which is probably the most accurate tracking website out there. I don't know what their secret is, but they're good. Really good. In any case, they had projected Obama to have a 90%+ chance to win, so his re-election was no surprise to me and I was very glad that Mittens is on his way back to Kolob.

But it wasn't Obama's re-election that had me feeling great; it was all the other progressive victories. It was a good night:
  • Todd Akin, infamous for his boneheaded remark that women are unlikely to get pregnant in the case of "legitimate rape", was soundly defeated. The fact that he was defeated by a woman makes it that much sweeter.
  • Richard Mourdock, with his clumsy remark about pregnancy resulting from rape being something "God intended to happen", was also defeated
  • Maine and Maryland became the first two states to legalize gay marriage by popular vote.
  • Floridians rejected an amendment to the state constitution that would have allowed taxpayer money to go to religious organizations.
  • Washington state and Colorado passed measures to legalize weed. Although it's a symbolic victory since it's still illegal at the federal level, it shows progress in the minds of the people.*
On the downside, Pete Stark, the only congressman who is openly atheist, appears to have lost his seat to someone who used religion as a wedge. On the plus side though, another atheist, Kyrsten Sinema, looks on track for a narrow victory in Arizona. 

And by the way, I think that Obama's re-election is pretty remarkable if for no other reason than the fact that Romney had the most-watched news network campaigning for him, which is perhaps no better represented than by this graph on how the news networks covered candidate speeches the weekend prior to the election:




*For the record, I do not smoke weed. But I think that people who want to ought to be free to do so, rather than tossed into our overcrowded penal system.

01 November 2012

Updatery

I've whipped out three parts to the Why Christianity is Bullshit series. That's probably going to be enough. I'm ready to get back to more heady topics, like the book on physics by Alexander Vilenkin that I'm reading. Those type of posts don't get as many comments, but I personally enjoy them much more.

This weekend I'm heading to Wisconsin to visit my 91-year-old grandmother. She's really a wonderful woman, and while she's not sick or anything, she's have a rough time... several falls in the last few months, and sleeping much of the day. I figure I ought to see her while I still can, as she's very dear to me.

When I come back, it's looking like I'll have a pretty rough week at work as my boss will be out of town, so I'm not sure how much writing I'll be able to do. It may be quiet around here for a bit. Hopefully the polemical nature of the last few posts will spark enough discussion to keep the place lively until my return.

Yours in the Flying Spaghetti Monster,

- Mike