Friday, April 29, 2011

Lego Man to run Britain?

(This is the only thing I'm going to post about the embarrassingly excessive fanfare surrounding the Royal Wedding).

Johann Hari: Frenzy around Britain’s Royal Wedding "Should Embarrass Us All" (source)

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the movement against royalty in Britain.
JOHANN HARI: Well, we have to deal with some really weird arguments... So, for example, the monarchists always say, "Oh, it’s really good for tourism." Actually, of the top 20 tourist attractions in Britain, only one of them, number 17, is related to the royal family: Windsor Castle. Ten points ahead of it is Windsor Legoland. So using that logic, we should have a Lego man as our head of state instead of these people.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ben's Funny Money

Despite higher commodity prices over the past 18 months (source), Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke continues to maintain that the current monetary policy is not causing excessive inflation and that the $600 billion in additional "Quantitative Easing" (printing additional Federal Reserve Notes and using them to buy Treasury Bonds), has been effective in stabilizing the U.S. economy (source).  Most Americans are unlikely to take Bernanke's word over their own grocery bills and stagnant job searches.

As one financial blog reports:
Since last August when it became clear that the Fed would initiate QE2, we have witnessed the following results: Home prices have continued to decline, the 30 year mortgage rate has increased from 4.2% to 4.8%, new housing starts declined to all time lows, the 10 year treasury note rate has increased from 2.6% to 3.4%.  (source)
With one in six Americans on some form of government assistance (source), the purchasing power of the dollar on the decline since the creation of the Fed in 1913 (source), and the U.S. Government's debt soaring (source), it's time to call this horror show by its true name:

Meanwhile, gold and silver prices continue to rise at record rates - not because they are becoming more valuable but because they retain value while the dollar loses purchasing power as more of them are printed.  Between the creation of the Fed in 1913 and the removal of the dollar from the gold standard in 1971, the dollar has continued to plummet in value and inflation continues to rise while employment stagnates - failures on both of the Federal Reserve's government mandates.

"Paper money eventually returns to its intrinsic value: zero." -Voltaire

Also, the new Keynes vs. Hayek rap battle by EconStories is fantastic:

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Cloud Computing: A Pie in the Sky?

I am either a Luddite geek or a geeky Luddite, but I'm not sure which.  While I recognize the tremendous value and potential technology has in our lives, I am wary of ceding too much power to a growing network of machines beyond our ability to control.  Further, that the "service disruption" of such technologies would render humans, individually or collectively, incapable of remedying the situation without dire consequences.

When the file hits your WiFi like a big data pie, that's Cloud Computing.

This past week has given us one small example of this: the Amazon web service outage (source).  With a variety of services far beyond the web shopping giant itself (including Reddit, Quora, and Foursquare), the self-proclaimed "networking event" to Amazon's Northern Virginia servers has wreaked havoc on a variety of services that web companies who rent Amazon's server space have come to rely on.  Beyond the usual problems this incident - along with the (unrelated) disruption to Sony's PlayStation Network - have caused, a larger debate is being held  (source) over the future of the "Cloud Computing" model that Google, Microsoft, and others have been pushing since 2007 (source).

Essentially, Cloud Computing deploys data from a centralized source (the "cloud") to all of the individual computers networked to it.  This model is as old as the Internet itself with one critical exception: the "cloud" is the source of the data, not merely an intermediary between two machines.  In practical terms, this means that an individual computer, say a laptop communicating via WiFi, doesn't store the data at all - rather the user's music, documents, pictures, etc. are all stored in a centralized online database.  This has obvious advantages, of course, including multiple devices (computers, smart phones, tablets, even a refrigerator) being able to communicate with the server to retrieve and download information relevant to the user's needs and preferences.  No more carrying around discs, drives, updating versions of files on multiple machines, or sending them across a network back and forth.  It's easy!  It's all up in the cloud, and Google's new Chrome OS has been especially optimistic about the weather forecast for this data distribution model (source): "no matter what happens to your Chrome Notebook, your data will be safe and sound" ... with Google.

But a storm is brewing in the future for Cloud Computing.  Data centralization has all sorts of inherent problems - including the obvious requirement that a total of three devices work in tandem to accomplish any given task: the server, the network connection, and the end user's computer.  If the network goes down or if the server crashes, well, your laptop is baking in the sun without a cloud in the sky, waiting for the rain of data to pour down.

And to me, this makes Cloud Computing a Pie in the Sky idea.  Relying on companies with server farms far, far away to store your data seems inherently risky for the reasons listed above, but the potential ramifications are far more nefarious.  Ongoing alarmism about the centralized tracking and storage of smart phone GPS coordinates is warranted (source), so is the threat to Fourth Amendment protections as government agencies demand user information from Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and other warehouses of private data - often without a warrant (source).  As the Wikileaks controversy of 2010 showed us (source), companies like Amazon have very little interest in upholding civil liberties in the face of government intimidation and public controversy.  And if users are willing to store not only contact information on private server space, but more of their documents, pictures, videos, and other content, who will hold such companies accountable for protecting the secrecy of this data?  Is it ever really deleted?  Who internally has access to it?

"Access denied.  The Cloud tells us what to do now, human."

To me, "Cloud Computing" sounds uncomfortably similar to the fictional Cyberdyne Systems' brainchild program, "Skynet."  It's as though the advocates of such a model are unaware that the "Terminator" films are cautionary tales of dystopia rather than ideals toward which to strive.  Not that Technological Singularity (source) is happening in the next six weeks or in six months, but isn't the Cloud Computing model exactly what would be necessary for such a phenomenon to  occur?  And once The Cloud is self-aware, with access to all the information and wired electronic devices on the planet, would machines cease to be our servants and instead become our slaveholders?  Would all devices operating on The Cloud - including the unmanned Predator Drones (another ominously-named machine) flying over much of Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan - no longer respond to human input once a singular machine consciousness arises?  These are uncomfortable questions, only made moreso by the elusive stamp of human error buried within the lines of code in every machine.  Imagine what "networking event" would alter the software that once-benevolent machines were programmed with.

Personally, I don't trust my data any further than I can throw it - and unplug it if it gets out of hand.  ...In case you are wondering: I haven't backed up this blog or my Facebook account... but all my video files are triple-backed-up for archival.  For the projects I really want to keep, I even export to good, old-fashioned tape!

Thriller Jesus

Cause this is Jesus, Jesus Christ!
And no one else can save you from the Beast about to strike.
You know he's Jesus, Jesus Christ!
Salvation for your soul after leading a sinful life.
Can a willful act of Photoshop constitute Blasphemy?  Lord knows!

Monday, April 11, 2011

I'm an Atheist

I've seen one too many "I'm a Mormon" banner ads by now.  You know, they're part of this broad propaganda campaign to normalize a particularly bizarre Christian cult (source) - perhaps for the Mitt Romney presidential bid (source).

Because the world could use more skeptical inquiry and critical thought why not make your own?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Abortion and Libertarians

Amidst the budget battle brinkmanship Harry Reid and John Boehner were entrenched in this week, contentious claims about Federal funding for health services provided by Planned Parenthood took on an unduly insular central role in a much larger fiscal debate (source).

Abortion.  It is an ultra-contentious issue in general.  And according to Free State Project spokesman Chris Lawless and correspondent John Stossel, there is no larger wedge issue for libertarians (source @9:35).  I am puzzled by how polarizing this issue is to otherwise liberty-minded people.  I will venture a guess: most libertarians come from the political right - an ideological domain in which being "pro-life" is a litmus test for conservative credentials.  Yet as a "progressive libertarian" who comes to the liberty perspective from the political left, I have a different position to share: being "pro-choice" on a woman's uterus.

Any serious libertarian understands that freedom starts with self-ownership.  That means the freedom to decide what we do with our own bodies, including controversial choices such as drug use, providing commercial sex services, or life-termination decisions (all of which I believe should be legal activities).  On these issues, most libertarians would agree.  Yet abortion poses a problem for many libertarians due to its apparent violation of the "do no harm" principal - that is to say one has the right to do whatever they choose so long as their actions do not harm another individual or their property.  This is a fair contention.

"Don't tread on my uterus!"
Clearly, the termination of a pregnancy is a unique situation for which no perfect analogy exists.  So please permit this admittedly imperfect one: property ownership.

If I am the owner of a property, I decide who is welcome and who is not.  If an unwelcome person persists in remaining on my property (an "intruder"), I have the right to use every means up to and including deadly force to remove this person from my property.  Naturally, I am going to seek out non-violent means to resolve this conflict first, however at some point if the person refuses to leave my property ("like it or not, I am living in your dining room for the next nine months"), I may choose to use physical confrontation to remove this person.  You see where I am going with this; if a woman has self-ownership over her body, then clearly she is the sole decision-maker as to whom is welcome inside her body.

Some would argue that by engaging in sexual activity, the woman is in fact "welcoming" another potential person into her body.  We can disagree about the purely procreative nature of sex, particularly in an era of readily-available contraception, but it seems inescapable that even a person welcomed in the front door can later become unwelcome.  It is probably unwise to allow unwanted people inside your house but just because a couple did not use contraception, does not obligate them to carry a pregnancy to term.  And while having the unwanted person live in someone else's dining room after nine months is one option ("adoption"), in a free society property owners should remain able to elect to use deadly force to enforce property ownership ("abortion").

Indeed, this can be a morally difficult scenario.  Being "pro choice" means having to make difficult choices on a variety of issues.  But let us consider the alternative: a government prohibition on abortion services.

As I have written previously (source), prohibition never works!  Minors have mouse-click access to pornography, escort services exist in every major American city, and there isn't a town between Seattle and Miami with a shortage of marijuana to smoke.   The "pro life" position necessarily forces the continuous demand for these services into an unregulated, overpriced, and frequently unsafe black market.  It is a position that requires government intervention in private medical decisions (like, um, "Obamacare").  It is a position that places the interests of an unborn person above the woman whose body is now the unwilling carrier of this person.  And most importantly, it is a position in which a government closely regulates the activities of a woman's uterus.  This is hardly a libertarian position - yet something like 50% of liberty-minded individuals fail to realize this.

I would venture to guess that religious dogmatism is largely to blame in blinding pro-liberty individuals in this debate - specifically the commonly-held theistic view that, in the arithmetic of souls, life begins at the moment two gametes form a zygote (apparently gametes do not have souls, but zygotes do).  Whatever unproven metaphysical claims one might make about the origin of non-physical beings, there is a reason we celebrate our birthdays and not our conception days.  It is for the same reason that we are named at birth and not at conception.  That reason is: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness begin at birth.

Libertarians should not support a mandatory welfare state inside a woman's body.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Christianity Evolves

I realize I am very critical of religion.  So today I am going to give some "mad props" to Christianity for making some commendable steps toward reason and humanity in the past few centuries.  Even though Jesus Christ extolled the virtues of loving thy neighbor, Christians managed to rationalize murder, torture, and barbarism under religious pretenses for another thousand years.

It's worth mentioning that it was not Christianity itself that rescued humanity from the fiery depths of its theocratic madness but rather a growing scientific enlightenment that has and continues to give way to a reasoned, secular discourse.  This is ironic given the oft-repeated refrain that Christianity is a pillar of absolute morality and a bedrock of civilization.  Ask yourself, "was the problem with the Inquisition that people simply weren't reading their Bibles enough or drawing up their to-do lists from God's orders?"

Apologists for the Inquisition, such as St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Augustine, managed to amalgamate the teachings of Jesus with the practice of flaying, dismembering, burning, stretching and gouging people to death.  Whatever has changed in the past two thousand years, the tomes of religious orthodoxy have not.  

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Why I (almost) Support Pastor Terry Jones

As I wrote last summer on this topic (source), the Dove World Outreach Center has ignited an already overflowing powder keg between Jihad and McWorld.  Sure, Pastor Jones has a view of America as a Christian theocracy that I do not share (and am in many ways vehemently opposed to).  Doubtless, Jones imagines America as a "Christian Nation" and cannot resist a tangential harangue about the availability of legal abortion services in the U.S. even amidst a critique of militant Islam in Europe (source).  And like Newt Gingrich (source), Jones imagines America is at once becoming secular/humanist and Islamic!  Yet on many of Jones' points, I am hard-pressed to disagree.  Check out this interview Pastor Jones gave to the U.K.'s Telegraph:

Sadly, the lethal Muslim reaction to his belated "Burn a Quran Day" (originally scheduled for the already-overplayed 9/11 date), was predictable.  Now, much of the Islamic world is up in arms and the death toll of Muslims killing 12 UN workers and guards in violent protest is still rising (source).  You know, because "Islam is a religion of peace."

Whatever concerns the misguided and xenophobic Pastor Jones holds about "Moslems," adherents to Islam who are moved to kill people after the publication of cartoons or the burning of books merely prove Jones' point ten-fold.  As an atheist libertarian spectator from the sidelines of this absurd war of religious dogmatism, it is possible to see a qualitative difference here: no one's natural rights to liberty and legitimately-earned property were violated by fundamentalist Christians burning a Quran or secularist cartoonists drawing the prophet Muhammad.  And certainly no one died as a result.  Yet instead of peacefully burning American flags or Bibles (both of which are and should remain Constitutionally-protected acts), these Afghanis take it upon themselves to kill anyone they imagine is loosely-connected to a demonstration against their beloved holy book half a world away.

Some religious folks love to burn stuff.  As long as it's their property,
it's all good. Now just don't start killing people afterward!

There is a commonly-repeated notion among Christians, Muslims and even some secular liberals that "freedom of speech does not mean freedom to mock or offend someone's religion."  To the contrary, that is precisely what freedom of speech means, as one New York Times columnist pointed out after increased criticism of Islam in Vancouver (source).  If the First Amendment to the Constitution is to have any meaning whatsoever, it guarantees unpopular, controversial, and even offensive speech, writing, and demonstrations.  Some commentators have wrestled with these concepts more openly, such as Charles Lewis with the Canadian National Post (source):
U.S. leaders begged Jones not to carry his threats, but the Florida Man of God decided to do it anyway. So last week, in a staged ceremony, he burned a Koran. Now he is party to the murder of 12 innocent people in Afghanistan.  Jones has since shown himself to be unrepentant; he insists he did not kill anyone and his Koran burning only proved the point that radicals infect Islam.
On that last point, he is right: those in Afghanistan who went off on a murderous rampage had a choice. They could have demonstrated restraint and shown the world that the religion they are so hell-bent on defending is actually one of peace — as we keep being told.
They could have reasoned that one man’s stupidity was no excuse for brutality and murder. But they decided someone would have to die for the sake of what Jones did and it really did not matter who paid the price. They are sick and depraved and they will give many the queasy feeling that our young fighting men and women are dying and being injured for nothing. I don’t want to think that way but it’s starting to happen.
There is really not much we can do about radical Islam. It can be rooted out, its adherents can be thrown in jail, and a few will end up blowing themselves up.  But what do we do about Jones? How in a free society to deal with a man expressing free expression? Legally, there’s probably nothing. Look at the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision to uphold the right of the horrific Westboro Baptist Church, whose member protest at the funerals of U.S. soldiers while they scream “God hates fags.”  What do you do about a man like Jones, who represents every instinct that is anathema to the religion he purports to represent, and is a disgrace to anyone with an ounce of dignity?
Here’s the answer. Shun him. No longer record a single word he says. Let us will him to disappear into obscurity. Let us hope that even some of the less-cowardly members of his church finally find the guts to reject him. And let us hope that when he finally leaves this earth he will spend an eternity gagging on his own pride and hatred.  And his only company will be radical Islamists he tragically inspired.
Yes, but what would Muhammad do when Jones actually does burn a Quran?
Considering history shows Muhammad to be a violent man, the answer is not promising.

Lewis gets it mostly right here.  There are no genuine legal "remedies" for demonstrations by Pastor Jones.  If his demonstration were to have taken place with only a peaceful response in the Islamic world, Jones would have no argument to stand on.  But precisely because widespread religious barbarism has resulted from these actions as with the Danish cartoon scandal before it, Burn a Quran Day shows us all just how urgently the problem of religious dogmatism in the Islamic world needs to be addressed.  To this end, Jones is a useful idiot - but to whose cause?  Surely these actions will inspire further militant resistance from Taliban forces in Afghanistan (as if having your country bombed and occupied by the U.S. military for the past decade wasn't enough already).

But here in the United States, it would seem to me that religious fundamentalists have, as of late, been the strongest proponents for upholding our eroding civil liberties.  As with last month's Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church's right to be bigoted homophobes in public (source), the Dove World Outreach Center has made clear to the world that the United States still upholds the right to assemble and speak freely - even offensively.

Indeed, since we have every reason to believe that Pastor Jones is sincere in his convictions about Jesus Christ as the one true savior and Islam being of the devil, we deserve the right to hear Jones' perspective moreso than the ecumenical liberals who would have us believe that all religions essentially teach the same thing and do so equally well (a claim shown to be patently false by the ensuing Islamic violence after Burn a Quran Day).  For these reasons, Jones' misguided efforts must be defended, if not for their content at least for their form.

Friday, April 1, 2011

It's Friday, 1911

Thanks to YouTube's April Fools Joke, this Friday will always be special whether you're kicking in the front seat or kicking in the back seat.  Learn more about this 100 year throwback function here.