Thursday, January 31, 2019

Culture of Fear

People love to overreact to sensationalism. I remember hearing scare stories of people trying to kill kids with bad halloween candy. How many times has it actually happened? Uh, none. We have parents paranoid about their child being kidnapped, even though the odds of it happening are next to 0. Even more disturbing is when fear causes a dangerous behavior to be substituted for "safe" one out of fear. In order to avoid all the "danger" out there, parents drive their kids excessively, exposing them to one of the most common causes of death. The media loves to hype up new dangers, because that is what sells. Activists can use this coverage to push for new legislation to "protect" people. Alas, soften the legislation comes at great cost, without significantly increasing safety. Meanwhile, small dangers gradually create greater danger to society. (Banning cars, or limiting their maximum speed would result in a huge increase in safety, but we have gradually become accepting of the dangers.)
The author attempts to present a politically neutral viewpoint. However, his viewpoint comes across as significantly left wing. He criticizes both Republican and Democratic presidents for using the "War on Drugs" to distract from more significant issues. However, he then proceeds to criticize Bush and Trump administrations by heaping praise on Obama. Is this because Obama really did eschew the politics of fear? Or is this because he views the fears that Republicans rely on less pertinent than those of the Democrats? Similarly, the spin on issues tends to favor the more liberal viewpoint. Conservatives have an unjust "fear" of gun control, rather than liberals having an unjust fear of law abiding gun ownership. (Though he does call out working gun legislation that both sides are proud of.) He brushes aside fears of crimes committed by minorities. He also goes on to point out "journalistic objectivity" causes less respected viewpoints to be given undue weight. But how do we determine what the respected viewpoint should be? His examples tend to have a left of center feel. Guns are constantly brought up as a cause of problems, with gun control advocates arguments viewed as missing the main issue. Alas, these are the arguments that tend to strengthen the right wing rhetoric. This inadvertently strengthens the validity of using fear.
The media has generally abused its role in using fear of small probability events into worrisome calamities. Alas, this also makes it difficult to identify cases where there is a need to worried about something. "Fake" experts abuse their power to get their message across, while real experts do not. Things that happen slowly over time do not invoke the fear, and are not properly held in check. A low probability occurrence ends up taking precedence over the true dangers.
Trump has significantly ramped up the blatant use of fear as a political motivator. The left has responded by being more public in their invocation of fear. Perhaps this is a good thing in that it makes it much more easy to identify. Alas social media had made it easier for one-sided fear-based messages to spread without even an attempt at journalistic objectivity. This has made fear an even more powerful tool.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Wisdom of History

J. Rufus Fears attempts to extract "key themes" from world history that we can learn from. His condescending tone makes it clear that this "wisdom" is his viewpoint. Any other beliefs are not acceptable. One point he keeps returning to is that history is caused by single men making decisions. Their failure to have proper foresight lead to the fall of empires. Those that have the proper character have a lasting positive impact. He views other events and cultural currents as not being nearly as important. However, even his own lectures contradict this. Some societies (like Russia) have historically preferred a strong leader to "freedom". This background culture helped support the rise of communism. The French culture set the grounds for a revolution. The United States needed the strong rights that were part of British culture. Without this, George Washington would have never been a significant leader.
We are limited by the single thread of history that we have lived. If Napoleon had died in his youth, would the course of history significantly changed? Would somebody else have come in to do exactly what he did? Or would history have turned in a totally different direction? Most likely, the short term events would have been drastically different, but over a longer horizon, history would have proceeded very similarly to how it did. We can look in the past at bad decisions of leaders. However, we know the outcome. At that time, those decisions may have been the "best". It is easy to look back and say "these people were great rulers." But how much of this was pure luck, and how much was due to the person. There may be many other people that had a strong moral compass and the ability to cause a similar (or even better) outcome.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Weather Makers

Weather Makers is such an over the top climate change book that it could turn even a true believer into a skeptic. This is in spite of its effort to present the science to help convert us to the urgency of doing something about climate change. The book presents many examples of species and land areas that are suffering due to the change in climate. It contains research on climate and the models and tools that have been used to identify the warming. However, it also presents the many feedback cycles and contravalent factors. Should we just encourage more airplane contrails to reduce the impact? Do hybrid cars really help - or is it the roads that are problems. We have been doing climate science for a half century now. How accurate were are predictions for today based on past assumptions? What assumptions have changed?
I also wonder what our society will look like 10,000 years from now. Could a society with our technology have existed 10,000 years ago, and we just don't see any record of it? Did other societies trigger climatic change like we have? I also wonder what is important and what is not. Are we already on an irreparable path towards turning earth into a sauna? Or are we just experiencing random blips. How much of the change we see are just random variations? It is a difficult question to answer. We only have detailed records for the past century, which happens to correspond to times of heavy increased CO2. We have tried to use ice cores, trees, and various other means to extrapolate past conditions. But, how accurate are those? Do we have other factors like airplane contrails and particulate matter that conteract CO2 in the air? There are so many different questions that could leave us in a state of paralysis.
The book also seemed to focus on "burning" to produce CO2. It even posited that if everybody switched from a hummer to a Prius, we would be on track. This is the type of thinking that could get us in real trouble. What about the "urban heat island"? What about our land use devoted to cars. We are trying to solve a global problem caused by our current societal choices. A simple surface change will not fix it. We need to make the appropriate sacrifices to be better stewards of the earth.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Praise of Folly

Praise of Folly is an old book, so it can be found in free project gutenburg and kindle editions as well as librivox audibooks. It was initially written in Latin and the John Wilson translation I listened to was done a couple centuries ago and is not the easiest to follow. At the start, Erasmus makes some puns on Thomas More's name. Then he proceeds to present folly praising herself. The work ends with more of a straightforward list of good things to do with one's life. I wanted to like this book more than I did. I just had trouble working through it. It is interesting that in the early renaissance period, works were written in Latin so that they would have a large audience. though today, those are all in a "dead" language, while if they were written in the the then-provincial language of English they would continue in a modern literary tradition.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Western Literary Canon in Context

Professor Bowers had "second hand" experience with some of the great authors discussed in his lectures. William Faulkner was "author in residence" at University of Virginia. J.R.R. Tolkein taught at Oxford (before he arrived.) These authors both made his list of the Western Literary Canon. Distilling western down to 36 lectures involves a great deal of picking and choosing. What is insightful about these lectures is the interwoven discussions of what makes something canonical. There are past authors that were once well respected, yet have fallen out of favor. ("It was a dark and stormy night.") Other authors, unknown during their lifetimes, are now highly respected. Regardless of the circumstances, all authors in the canon are good writers. Some may have been popular, while others were relatively unknown. Some may not have been the "best" of their time - they were just lucky enough to have endured the test of time. Being taught in school is a good way to last. These lectures focus on the "classics". There are plenty of Latin and Greek works. The lectures are over halfway through when they get to Voltaire. This is a nice approach for exposure to more of the older works that are not so commonly read today.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Life of Pi

I had watched the Life of Pi moving a while ago, and now am reading the book. It is very well written, and the author manages to sew doubts about what is real and what is fiction. The main character adopts the name Pi to avoid vulgar puns on his real French name. He lives in India where is family owns a zoo. He is extremely interested in religion and is a devout Christian, Muslim and Hindu (all this while living in a secular house.) There are a lot of interesting insights about captive animals and zoos. He compares people's city houses to the animal's zoo houses. If you took some people out of their house and drove them to the country and said they were free, they would think your crazy. Similarly, many animals are perfectly content living in the zoo.
His family decides to immigrate to Canada. They board a boat with all the animals. It is a rather normal voyage until the ship sinks. Then Pi ends up losing his family and finding himself on a lifeboat with a heyena, zebra, orangutan, and a tiger named Richard Parker. Most of the book deals with his struggles out at sea. He must will himself to survive, while at the same time making peace with the carnivorous tiger.
At the end, he is finally rescued and tells his tale to accident investigators. They do not believe him. He then tells an alternate story with a murderous french chef, his mother and an injured sailor in the boat. We are left to wonder whether he just made up the animal parts to make a better story. Though it doesn't really matter. The story was that of overcoming great adversary through faith in God.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

Bipolar 101: A Practical Guide to Identifying Triggers, Managing Medications, Coping with Symptoms, and More

in Bipolar 101, I was hoping for some interesting background on the psychiatric condition. Instead, the book is geared towards people that have already been diagnosed and want help dealing with their conditions. The book has a tone that talks down to the reader. It assumes they want help with the condition, but are not eager to make the needed sacrifices. Half the book is a very general "how to live a healthy life". There are occasional mentions of bipolar, but most of it is applicable to anybody (eat healthy, exercise, sleep well.) It is very US-centric. (Can we really trust the USDA?)

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Fever Crumb

Fever Crumb is set in a futuristic post-apocalyptic London. Population is now less than 100,000. A group of people that view themselves as homo-superiorous had ruled the city. However, due in part to lack of reproduction, they had been killed off by the local population. The book focuses on a group of "engineers" that work to support science regardless of who is in power. They stress rationale thought above all else, and try to avoid personal superstition and human relations. One day, however, a little girl appears on their doorstep. She is somewhat "different" with miscolored eyes. Dr. Crumb takes her in and raises her as a fully rational engineer. At 14, she is sent out to help with an archaeological site. In the process, she runs into some people that think she is one of the previous rulers. An old hunter and boy try to hunt her down, providing the drama. Eventually, new rulers come into London, with plans for moving cities. They discover Fever's parentage and Fever decides she wants to be out on her own.
The world is an interesting future that discovers bits and pieces of today's world, but obviously still has a large technological gap. Fever is a very sympathetic character. She is trying to find her way in the world after her very rationalistic upbringing. You can see how this can turn into a large number of future stories.