"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." – G. K. Chesterton

Archive for May, 2012

Chesterton on the shape of the Earth

Enyvoy

Clear was the night: the moon was young:
The larkspurs in the plots
Mingled their orange with the gold
Of the forget-me-nots.

The poppies seemed a silver mist:
So darkly fell the gloom.
You scarce had guessed yon crimson streaks
Were buttercups in bloom.

But one thing moved: a little child
Crashed through the flower and fern:
And all my soul rose up to greet
The sage of whom I learn.

I looked into his awful eyes:
I waited his decree:
I made ingenious attempts
To sit upon his knee.

The babe upraised his wondering eyes,
And timidly he said,
“A trend towards experiment
In modern minds is bred.

“I feel the will to roam, to learn
By test, experience, nous,
That fire is hot and ocean deep,
And wolves carnivorous.

“My brain demands complexity.”
The lisping cherub cried.
I looked at him, and only said,
“Go on. The world is wide.”

A tear rolled down his pinafore
“Yet from my life must pass
The simple love of sun and moon,
The old games in the grass;

“Now that my back is to my home
Could these again be found?”
I looked on him, and only said,
“Go on. The world is round.”

– G. K. Chesterton, Greybeards at Play

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Is the earth flat?

One of the things that I want to do with this blog is stick together rebuttals to atheist arguments commonly found on the internet.  One of the most common is the flat-earth myth.  The idea is fairly simple.  The atheist explains that at some point before the enlightenment, ignorant Christians were all sure that the earth was flat.  Some versions say that the Catholic Church persecuted anyone who claimed that the earth was round.  Others insist that when Christopher Columbus first looked for funding to sail westward from Spain, nobody supported him because they all though he would sail off the edge of the world.  Taken together, it all comes to a dramatic demonstration of the fact that superstitious Christians held the human race back for centuries until the superior, enlightened, secular folk showed up and saved the day with their superior enlightenment.

The only problem with this is that it’s, to use the technical term, complete &$!%*@&#.

For starters, we have no record that people believed in a flat earth at any time in the history of western civilization.  In the cosmologies of Ptolemy and Aristotle, both dating from centuries before Christ, the world is as round as a cantaloupe.  Christian scholars from the middle ages generally accepted what these guys said about the cosmos, though with some notable exceptions.  We have no evidence of anyone important advocating for the idea of a flat earth either in Ancient Greece or in medieval or Renaissance Europe.  This article by James Hannam, a historian of science, covers the topic thoroughly: The Myth of the Flat Earth.

 

So where does the notion that folks once believed in a flat earth come from?  From lies, prejudice, and ignorance.  It seems to have become widespread thanks to a book called The Warfare of Science with Theology, by Andrew White, a scholar and co-founder of Cornell University.  His book today is known to be a complete fraud, with White himself making up most of the claims in it and burying any evidence that didn’t match his thesis.  (Some people apparently still feel proud to provide the book, though.)  From there it wandered to other books and sources, and just became some part of general knowledge.  I recall as a kid reading a picture book about Christopher Columbus which explained that “in those days people thought the earth was flat as a pancake” and offered a picture of ships falling of the edge of the earth to prove the point.

On the plus side, intelligent people today are generally aware of the truth, but there are plenty of people who aren’t intelligent.  We’ll probably continue hearing versions of the flat earth myth from them for a while.

What I’m Reading: I. O. U. S. A.

I. O. U. S. A. has a complicated historyFirst there was a book called Empire of Debt.  That inspired a documentary called I. O. U. S. A.  Then the movie-makers felt the need for a book based on the movie.  Hence we have the book I. O. U. S. A.

In the introduction, the filmmakers acknowledge the difficulty of making a movie about the national debt, a topic synonymous with boredom for most people.  Yet they also try to emphasize that to them, the topic is very important.  Our national debt is huge and getting bigger and has the potential to bring catastrophe to the nation.  Hence they made the documentary and later the book.  The result is a work that at once serves as a good introduction to the problem and an explanation of why the problem probably won’t be solved.

On the first point, the book gives a clear summary of the debt problem for economic novices.  The authors walk us through a series of fundamental points. (1) The United States government, like almost all modern governments, spends more money than it takes in, and thus has a debt. (2) We finance our debt by selling bonds to investors, and promising to pay a certain annual interest rate on those bonds. (3) Thus we are entirely dependent on a group of investors willing to hold our bonds for the interest rates that we’re willing to offer. (4) When national debts get too big, the investors get skittish about their interest payments and start to dump the bonds.  Once this happens, it starts a downward cycle that leads to national insolvency and economic disaster.

All of this ought to be common knowledge.  It’s a tribute to the lousiness of our national education system that many people don’t even understand what government bonds are or how we pay for our national debt.

From there the book proceeds to chapters on our “four deficits”.  Besides the national deficit, there’s the trade deficit, the savings deficit, and the leadership deficit.  These chapters are also laid out with admirable simplicity and clarity, yet the long-term consequences if we don’t deal with them are not neglected.  The book wraps up with a series of interviews with major financial players such as Warren Buffet, Paul Volcker, and alan Greenspan.

So that’s the good part of I. O. U. S. A.  What’s the bad part?  The bad part is that the authors never escape the boredom trap.  They offer thunderous declarations about how important the topic is and how we can’t afford to ignore it, yet their respondes smack very much of politics-as-usual.  For example, in the opening chapter we get this: the Comptroller General “has totaled up the government’s income liabilities and future obligations and concluded that our current standard of living is unsustainable unless some drastic action is taken”.  Yet two pages later we learn of the same individual’s response: “he hosts a series of luncheons and civic meetings around the country, which he’s dubbed the Fiscal Wake-Up Tour.”

So we’ve got luncheons.  We’ve got civic meetings.  And we’re calling it by the hair-raising, pulse-pounding name of “the Fiscal Wake-Up Tour”.  What’s next?  Founding a committeee?  Perhaps even creating a task force?  The national debt certainly is a huge problem.  It’s too big to be solved by the current political system.  If the problem is to be solved, we need some innovative approach to bringing it to public attention.  This book does not offer that.

Monkeys and Typewriters

for some reason there’s a lot of confusion about the topic of monkeys and typewriters.  I’m not sure how it originated.  Sometimes in the late 19th or early 20th century, people started believing that if you put some number of monkeys at typewriters, they’d eventually produce something.

A monkey

 

 

I’ve heard variation in both the numbers and the text to be produced.  Some versions say 13 monkeys, others say 700 or 5,000.  Some say they’ll produce the complete works of Shakespeare, while others say it’s the U. S. Constitution or Moby Dick.  None of them are very precise on the details.

A typewriter

In fact, there are many problems with this statement.  First of all, a monkey at a typewriter would not be guaranteed to type anything.  It wouldn’t even be guaranteed to stay at the typewriter.  If it was guaranteed to type, it still might not type all of the keys, but might instead limit itself to a small subset of them.  And worst of all, it would eventually die.  Monkeys tend to do that.

A chimpanzee (which is not a monkey) at a typewriter

Suppose we lay aside those difficulties for a moment.  Imagine we had a monkey that would type diligently at sixty keystrokes per second, every second.  Since there are 26 letters in the alphabet–we ignore punctuation and capitalization–this means that there’s a 1in-26 chance that the first letter would be ‘c’.  Likewise there’s a 1-in-26 chance that the second letter would be ‘a’.  Since 26 multiplied by 26 is 676, there’s a 1-in-676 chance of the monkey producing ‘ca’ together.  Extending the process a little bit, we find a 1-in-456,976 chance of it typing the word “call”.  And there’s a 1-in-64,509,974,703,297,150,976 chance of it writing the sentence “Call me Ishmael.”

The Complete Works of Shakespeare

Alternately we could think of it like this.  Even our very diligent hypothetical monkey would have to type for more than a trillion years before the odds of it typing “Call me Ishmael” were great than one half.  Given that time frame, I suggest we dump typewriter-equipped monkeys once and for all.

 

Do I Really Hate Economics

Last year I wrote a couple of posts on my hatred of economics.  I haven’t written much on the topic since then, as the presidential election has grabbed more of my attention.  Just a few days ago, a commenter challenged me to consider whether I truly hate economics, or just certain schools of thought within the field.  I’ve considered the question, but rest assured: I still hate economics.

Of course, at some times I’ve expressed some liking for certain types of economics.  My previous post is about Biblical economics.  I’ve had high praise for E. F. Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.  But the things that I like are so far outside the mainstream that most people wouldn’t even identify them as economics.  The type of economic thinking that actually influences our nation and most others is entirely loathsome to me.

The major economic debate right now concerns government spending.  Broadly speaking, President Obama and the Democrats offer a federal budget that grows by several trillion dollars over the next decade or so.  The Republicans prefer a proposal from Congressman Paul Ryan that also adds trillions of dollars to the budget, but fewer trillions than the Democratic proposal.  There were already several major fights about the budget last year.  Several more are shaping up for this year and the years ahead.  The details vary but the centerpiece is the same.  The Democratic plans always involve higher taxes on the wealthy and slightly more spending on education and other Democratic priorities.  The Republican plans never involve tax hikes and always involve a bit more for the military and other Republican priorities.  But both parties agree on the majority of government spending for the near term.  Both agree that we’ll have an enormous military, nearly ten times larger than that of any other country.  Both agree on hundreds of billions of dollars for transportation, agriculture, and other departments, money that mostly ends up financing wealthy individuals and corporations.

The debate is not really about spending.  The debate is about “growth”.  You can pick up almost any newspaper and magazine or turn on any news channel and see the talking heads arguing about growth.  Each side insists that their policies will produce growth while the other side’s policies won’t.  Each side points to individual incidents that supposedly support them.  Greece imposed austerity measures and unemployment got worse.  California has high taxes and suffered an economic disaster.

Neither side ever asks the question of whether growth is always good, or what type of growth we should aim for.  There are many types of growth.  Growth is Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the most commonly used one, but there’s also growth in jobs, manufacturing, home construction, and countless other things.  What both the Democratic and Republican talking heads agree on is that growth in any of these areas is always good.  If we manufacture more stuff this month than last month, that’s a “positive reading”.  If we build more houses this year than last year, it can only be good.

A sensible economic policy would start with the question of what we want?  Do we always want growth?  Should we always want growth?  Is manufacturing more junk necessarily good for us?  Will more houses always be a good thing?  Over the past decade we built far too many houses and, as a result, the housing sector entered a tailspin that wrecked first our economy and then much of the world’s.  Few people would deny this, yet we see no mainstream economist suggesting that we revise our approach to growth.

If we were, as a society, to shift from loathsome economics to human economics, we’d start by broadening our aims.  We would consider all the consequences of growth in a particular sector.  We would consider how manufacturing affects the environment, supplies of limited resources, and the social structure as well as how it affects the amount of stuff we have.  We would consider the age-old question of whether owning more stuff actually makes people happier.  We would consider how any policy actually affects human well-being in its entirety rather than just how it affects narrow economic definitions.  Then there would be less reason to hate economics.

Biblical Economics

The first minister I ever met after converting to Christianity often made fun of books with titles like The Seven biblical Principles for a Happy Marriage.  He would hold up a copy of the Bible and thumb through the pages while challenging anyone to find him a happy marriage in these pages.  The point was funny but also sound.  We should not try to pretend that the Bible directly addresses modern issues that it actually doesn’t address, and we shouldn’t try to cram our favorite mottos and messages into Biblical stories if they aren’t actually there.

There’s a similar problem with trying to find any financial advice in the Bible.  The Bible was written thousands of years before modern economic systems existed, and hence it does not directly address modern economics.  It does, however, contain stories, songs, prayers and sermons whose principles are valid across the ages, and with that in mind we may look for hints of what direction we should move in.

Every intelligent person knows, of course, that the Book of Genesis is a worthless collection of old fairy tales that no one can take seriously anymore; I’ve heard internet users say so scores of times.  I’m not here to comment on the validity of that assertion.  In chapter 41 of Genesis, Pharoah has two dreams and asks for someone to interpret them.  Joseph is brought from prison and explains the meaning of the dreams: there will be seven years of abundance, followed by seven years of famine.  Joseph then advises Pharoah to store up grain from the good years so that his people will have plenty to eat during the lean years that follow.  This proves to be a good advice, though again I offer no commentary on whether the Book of Genesis contains anything worthwhile for modern readers.

The United States of today is in a position similar to the Egypt of four thousand years ago.  We are a wealthy, powerful nation with plenty for ourselves and the might to intimidate every nation around us.  We have also had a time of abundance.  From roughly 1983 to 2007, we have experienced the greatest prosperity of any nation in world history.  So did the nations of western Europe and other first-world nations.

Now what did we do with that amazing prosperity?  One who wasn’t in touch with events might think that we’d take advantage of it by putting ourselves on a solid future.  Surely we would pay down our debts, repair crumbling infrastructure, build up schools and other institutions that would guarantee our future.

Of course we didn’t do any such thing.  Our governments (federal, state, and local) squandered its surpluses on uselss foreign wars, corporate handouts, and jacking up spending in any area you’d care to name.  Corporations bid it all on short-term schemes and  “bubbles”.  Individuals went hog-wild on massive houses, SUVs, HD TVs and other junk that they couldn’t afford.  Not only did we spend all the fruits of our prosperity, we even took out massive loans to finance even more binge spending.

Then 2008 came, and the first bills started to come due.  They are still coming due today.  They will be coming due for a long time to come, and almost everyone in the western world will eventually have to put up with a lower standard of living than what we were used to.

If we had collectively approached fiscal decisions in the way that Joseph recommended to Pharoah, thinks might have gone differently.

Where I’ve been

It’s been almost two weeks since my last post.  I have been neglecting you, fair blog readers.  I feel that I at least owe you an explanation.

First of all, I have allergies.  Does this come as a surprise to you?  It certainly came as a surprise to me.  Throughout childhood and up to last year, I did not have allergies.  Now I suddenly do have allergies.  Let me tell you, they’re not pleasant.  If you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have allergies, be thankful for it.  Because of my allergies, I’ve been sleeping a lot more than I usually do.  I’ve also spent a fair amount of time sitting around being miserble , and on one memorable occasion I spent about half an hour blowing my nose continuously.

The second reason for my absense is less painful but more prosaic.  I have been busy.  I am a teacher, as alert readers will recall, and right now my classes are preparing for the AP exams.  That means extra work for me as I relentlessly drill my students on derivatives, integrals, normal distributions, confidence intervals, and all that jazz.  This means less time for blogging.

In any case, I’m now back, and I’ll endeavor to post more regularly.  I do suggest that we all take a minute, from time to time, to consider the differences between relations online and in “the real world”.  In our physical lives, social relations are fairly constant.  Abrupt, unexpected shifts are rare.  If Bob is your neighbor today, you can be pretty sure he’ll be your neighbor tomorrow.  In the online world, it just ain’t so.  You may read a person’s blog, follow him on twitter, like his photos on Facebook, but you don’t truly know him, and he may vanish into the ether at any time.  As I’ve noted before, the internet is full of dead blogs, places where streams of lively messages top abruptly in July of 2007 or some other random time.  I hope this never becomes one of them.

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