I intend to use this blog as a platform for my daily thoughts on a variety of topics. I welcome comments, objections, and questions.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

I Dream of Global Warming

This morning I was the opening speaker for a conference on global a dream. I know, I know. Pretentious right? :-P

The dream was actually at least 5 minutes long and it was a very coherent speech given that it was a dream. I wish that I could reconstruct it perfectly, but I'll have to do my best.

Not being qualified to talk about the science of global warming, I wanted to draw an essential distinction between two extreme worldviews that make up the debate. There are some people who believe that nature has inherent value. The ideal state of nature is to be pristine, untouched by human hands. Our very presence violates this beauty and corrupts it. In essence, we are rapists. These people look down upon our technological progress, on industry, on capitalism, and see nature as an unknowable power that should be feared and "respected."

On the other extreme, there are those who see our manipulation of nature as one of our highest virtues. They know that human beings are not automatically given what is necessary for living a good life, rather, we must create our values. From a very basic level, we must first create clothing to keep us warm, fashion tools to capture food, and assemble branches for shelter. This necessity of human nature reaches all the way from the caveman to the man of modernity. Now we have medicine, computers, spaceships, and genetic engineering; but the principle remains the same. This transformation of our environment to suit our own needs has created a previously unimaginable wealth and quality of life. Such a perspective obviously creates a deep respect for progress, industry and capitalism.

One of these extreme perspectives is completely correct. For each of us to live the good life and attain happiness, it is the latter perspective that must be respected.

I suspect that most people fall somewhere between these two perspectives. I am afraid however that many leaders of the environmentalist movement itself believe in the former, rather than the latter. It is essential to remember this when we assess the claims of politicians and advocacy groups calling for industry to be transformed by near-socialist regulations. Is it that they deem such regulations necessary for saving humans, or do they want to put a leash on the virtuous transformation that is "raping" the planet? Does the intensity of their disgust cause them to overstate the case for environmental harm in the hopes that we will cave into fear?

But, it is certainly possible than in our eagerness to improve our environment, we forgot to look at the long-term picture. Will our efforts create disaster in the future? I'm certainly open to the possibility that humans are a significant contributing factor to global warming and that steps should be taken to prevent severe problems in the future. In the words of Sir Francis Bacon, "nature to be commanded, must be obeyed." But it is essential that we assess this possibility while still maintaining the perspective that our transformation of the environment is one of our highest virtues. We should be striving for the most efficient use of nature for our benefit.

End of dream. If only it were real....

Saturday, March 24, 2007

On a Silly Note...

Today I found a link on an Objectivist forum to a duo with a classical music comedy routine. They are not only talented musicians, but they are quite hilarious! Here are several of their videos:

- Their rendition of "I Will Survive" is so ridiculous that it nearly had me on the floor from laughing so hard. The violinist's facial expressions are awesome.

- In this performance, we learn that Rachmaninov had big hands! Hilarious again.

- Here's another one. These guys are so much fun.

- This final video is a demo of their entire act. Some of it contains portions from these videos I've mentioned but there is plenty of additional material.

I want them to come tour in the US!

I also came upon this fun list of quotes - Top 87 Bad Predictions about the Future. My favorite is a speculation about the future of railroads:

"Dear Mr. President: The canal system of this country is being threatened by a new form of transportation known as 'railroads' ... As you may well know, Mr. President, 'railroad' carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of 15 miles per hour by 'engines' which, in addition to endangering life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside, setting fire to crops, scaring the livestock and frightening women and children. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed." Martin Van Buren


Friday, March 23, 2007

In the Name of the Best Within You

So as you can see, I tweaked the colors a bit. Let me know what you think and if you have any other suggestions.

As I mentioned previously, for the past several months I've had some personal problems. I have no desire to go into the details, but suffice to say I was depressed. I had basically given up on my goals and was distracting myself by the most convenient ways possible. But the more I tried to distract myself, the worse my situation became. Thankfully I've been through this kind of situation before, and I know how to get out of it. I'd like to share a bit of how I've been doing that, in the hopes that it will help others in a similar situation.

Physical exercise is like medication. I've never been happier than when I was the most physically fit in my life. At one point I was running 3-4 miles several times a week and lifting weights regularly. That feeling of productivity, of vitality, it is like nothing else. It creates such an energy that everything becomes easier, and more desirable. 2 months ago, when a stomach problem landed me in the emergency room, I virtually stopped exercising on the advice of my doctors. The loss of regular exercise created a feeling of utter futility in action, in pursuing goals.

Thankfully, after taking medication, my stomach is starting to get better. I've reached the point where I can exercise again! I have a very simple routine, but it is quite effective. I start off with 30-45 minutes of cardio in the morning. I can't stress how helpful that is, physically and mentally. That cardio workout gives your metabolism such a boost that your burning of calories for the rest of the day is much more effective. It's also just a great way to start off the day, in an active fashion.

Before dinner I work out using mostly free weights, and it is very effective. For anyone interested in starting, or in getting better advice, I recommend The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding: The Bible of Bodybuilding by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Dobbins. The book is massive. It has detailed instructions on how to do every weight exercise imaginable, great nutrition information, stretching methods, and so on. There is even a specific program created for beginners that is very helpful. I've been using that program myself, with some custom alterations.

While I was still attending Drew, I didn't lift weights, but I did play two sports which I found to be incredibly enjoyable. Virtually every day at 4 I would head down to the gym to play squash for at least an hour, usually two. That consistent routine of playing the sport every day, gradually improving my skills, and competing with several friends was incredibly beneficial. I always felt great afterwards and ready to take on the rest of the night. On Sundays I would play ultimate frisbee (and I still do!). It involves a lot of running and it is a relatively easy sport to learn, not to mention that it is incredibly fun.

Now that I've started to exercise again, my spirits have been lifted beyond the heights of Icarus. So if you're feeling any sense of futility or frustration I highly recommend that you start a physical exercise regimen. It has helped me immensely. (Good nutrition of course has been equally important, but I won't go into detail on that here). If any of you are interested in starting a routine of your own, or sprucing it up, I'd be happy to share more details of what I've done.

I leave you with perhaps the most inspiring quote that Ayn Rand ever wrote:

"In the name of the best within you, do not sacrifice this world to those who are its worst. In the name of the values that keep you alive, do not let your vision of man be distorted by the ugly, the cowardly, the mindless in those who have never achieved his title. Do not lose your knowledge that man's proper estate is an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads. Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it's yours."

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Richard Dawkins and Atheism

On several occasions friends of mine have recommended that I check out the work of Richard Dawkins, a prominent professor at Oxford University, who is also a leading activist in the atheist movement. He's written on the subject, produced television specials, lectured around the world, and participated in countless interviews/Q&A sessions. Even South Park had a two-part episode last season parodying Dawkins and his utopian vision of an atheistic future. Indeed, he is one of the most recognizable figures in atheism, which is remarkable given how much of a minority we are. (Yes, as I suspect most of you know, I'm an atheist).

I could easily write a long post about why I'm an atheist and why others should be, but for the moment I will leave that aside. Tonight I just want to point you in the direction of some videos of Dawkins that I or some of my friends have found...

Dawkins appeared on an interview with Paula Zahn on CNN. Apparently they had a panel discussion about discrimination against atheists in America and "forgot" to have an atheist...Oops! So here is a follow-up interview on the same subject. The basic question of the interview is why atheists are mistrusted and feared in America. Ironically, from the very start, Zahn appears to be quite uncomfortable with the whole subject. When she suggests that some theists may feel threatened by the possibility of self-doubt after talking to an atheists, it seems like she herself feels that way. All in all, this is a very eloquent statement by Dawkins. I especially love his last sentence. Right on.

Here is Dawkins on a BBC interview promoting his book, The God Delusion. He argues that all religious people are irrational and deluded for their belief, and strongly so.

For a more extended version of the premise of The God Delusion, here is a television special that Dawkins produced. Granted, it points at the obvious targets: Christian evangelicals, Islamic fundamentalists, and so on. But, it does a great job of simply describing the form of faith taken consistently. That is, these fundamentalists are the paramount examples of the abandonment of reason and individual judgment in favor of mysticism and collective authority.

The last video I have for you is arguably the most uplifting and positive. In this television special, Dawkins asks The Big Question: Why Are We Here? Setting up the basic principles of natural selection and evolution, Dawkins notes that we are left with the gaping question of our purpose in existence. While his answer comes short of the very specific purpose posited by Ayn Rand, in its essentials, it is leaning in the same direction.

Enjoy! And please comment.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Spartan 300

Well I promised a post on the movie 300 so here it is. If you're already familiar with the history, then it's impossible for me to spoil the ending. But, there are significant differences between the actual history and the movie, so there may be some spoilers ahead...

For those of you who haven't seen it, but are still reading anyway, the movie is loosely based on the famous last stand of 300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. Facing invasion from one of the mot massive armies assembled up to that point, the loosely connected Greek city-states were threatened by enslavement into the Persian empire. Massively outnumbered, an alliance of these Greek city-states sent a force of about 7,000 men to stand against an army at least 250,000 strong, but possibly ranging as high as a million. The Persians landed their forces Thermopylae and needed to traverse a very narrow mountain pass to enter open territory, where they certainly would have decimated the Greeks. But the Greeks decided to head the invasion off at this mountain pass, where the Persians' numbers would mean very little in comparison to the more skilled training of the Greeks - particularly the 300 Spartans. Despite fending off the Persians for two days, it is believed that a traitor revealed a pass around the mountain and thus the Persians were able to surround the Greeks. The Spartans sacrificed themselves in order to buy time for the remaining Greeks to mount a defense. Their sacrifice was instrumental in keeping the Persians at bay and allowing for a proper defense to be assembled. Nearly a year later, a reinvigorated alliance of Greeks assembled to defeat the Persians on land. The ultimate defeat of the Persian invasion paved the way for Greek domination of the region and an outburst of culture, knowledge, and wealth. In fact, you could say that the Spartans "saved" Western Civilization.

Being the saviors of Western Civilization, the movie focuses specifically on the 300 Spartans - their society, their values, their leader - King Leonides, and their military prowess. However, the movie equivocates the Spartans with the values of Western Civilization that they ultimately defended. The other Greek city-states are virtually ignored, particularly the paramount importance of the Athenian navy that was crucial in devastating the Persian force. And most importantly, the portrayal of Spartan society is so completely off that I suspect that this historical battle was "cherry-picked" for use as an analogy. In the movie, the Spartans are the beacon of freedom, liberty, and reason. Any historical analysis shows that the Spartans embodied the polar opposite of these values. In fact, by modern standards, Sparta would be considered a totalitarian dictatorship. Only a very small portion of Spartan society was "free", but that is quite a stretch of that word. Hand-picked at youth, a small class of young boys were taken from their families at the age of 7 and trained to become utterly ruthless warriors. The training was incredibly brutal, and the warriors that emerged could be described as savages. As for the rest of Spartan society, most of them were "helots", essentially a slave-class that took care of all the physical labor for the society. To ensure that the helots would continue to work, the warrior-class was ordered to continually make war upon the helots.

It was this brutal force that was unleashed upon the Persians at Thermopylae. The Spartans certainly had courage and strength, but in no way were they conscious defenders of freedom and reason. Instead, I suspect that the Spartans were portrayed in this fashion as an allegory for modern events. It was continually emphasized throughout the movie that the Persians sought to spread mysticism and tyranny. The Persian military looked nothing like Persians, but rather looked very much like Muslim armies. For all of these reasons, I suspect that this movie is in fact a call to arms to defend Western Civilization against Islamic fundamentalism. In support of this claim, I refer you to a NPR interview with Frank Miller, the creator of 300.

Despite some heavy artistic flaws (such as the incredibly inaccurate history and excessive violence), I applaud this movie for its message. Islamic fundamentalism is something to be strongly opposed.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The NY Times Grows a Pair

As you can see, I haven't written here for over two months. I've been dealing with some personal things, and I'm not one to publicly advertise for sympathy or advice, so I haven't posted. But, I'm starting to pull myself up and eager to start writing again. So here we go.

The New York Times published a great article today and I absolutely must comment on it. Everything that I say from this point on will assume a familiarity with the article, so please read the whole thing.

"Mr. Gore depicted a future in which temperatures soar, ice sheets melt, seas rise, hurricanes batter the coasts and people die en masse. “Unless we act boldly,” he wrote, “our world will undergo a string of terrible catastrophes.”

The article essentially makes the point that Gore's alarmism about global warming should be cooled. While most of the scientific community agrees that warming is occurring, they are not as unified as to the nature of its cause(s).

The best testimony comes from a Dr. Easterbrook, an emeritus professor of geology. "He hotly disputed Mr. Gore’s claim that “our civilization has never experienced any environmental shift remotely similar to this."

Nonsense, Dr. Easterbrook told the crowded session. He flashed a slide that showed temperature trends for the past 15,000 years. It highlighted 10 large swings, including the medieval warm period. These shifts, he said, were up to “20 times greater than the warming in the past century.”

Granted, this is just one testimony, and the article is not some extreme repudiation of global warming advocates or the scientists who support them; but nor should it be. I'm fairly sure that the climate is changing. And, I'm not closed to the possibility that humans are a significant factor, though if we are to take Dr. Easterbrook at his word--we are not such a factor.

What I am closed to is environmentalist fanatics who want to crush all debate and behave like religious zealots. Look at how these people act. They shun anyone who questions the severity of their claims and seek to brand such people as heretics. I'm not ready to say, nor should anyone, that global warming is not man-made. I will always defend the profound need for constant debate, questioning, and discussion on a matter of profound importance.

It is for this reason that I commend the New York Times for this article, and encourage all of you to take it to heart. Do not let an irrational fear, created by a man like Al Gore, cloud your judgment. It is true that we should be concerned about the potential consequences of climate change, but we cannot allow that to suspend our reason, and silence debate.

Look for a post about the movie 300 to come soon.