Monday, March 31, 2008

The Myth of the Rational Voter

I'm turning in a book to the library after I finish giving platelets today. I can't honestly say I read the book. The best I could say is that I skimmed it. I enjoyed what I read but much of the statistics and accounting "proofs" used to make their points were a bit over my head. The few that I did force myself through I eventually understood but after several chapters they just got a little bit dry. However, I do agree with the main premise of the book.
The book is called The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies. All too often is seems that voting is compared to economics and economic models are used to explain why people vote the way they do. The assertion is that people will "buy" the best candidate or policy for them just like they "buy" any other product. This book shows that more often than not that model is seriously flawed. Voting is not the same as buying a product and many people will vote for things that they never would have if they were actually paying for it. How often do people vote for a spending program without considering where the funds would come from? You wouldn't be able to do that on a personal level yet it's possible on a large scale.
The author also shows that the pooling of resources that happens when we cast or vote somewhat distances us from the outcome. We begin to feel like our vote is not too crucial and then begin not to take it seriously.
He also goes into the fact that many people vote for solely emotional reasons and throw logic to the wind. Voters will support their party's candidate whether or not they support their opinions or not. I've seen this happen several times. I can't for the life of me figure out how our current Commander in Chief was elected as a Republican. The domestic programs that he campaigned with in 2000 were astronomical and once in office he blew them completely out of the water after 9-11. What about fiscal responsibility?
I can't say I'd recommend this book to someone just looking for a little bit of light reading. However, I did find the conclusions very enlightening. I would like to believe that his conclusions are wrong. I still have faith in our republic, but the evidence in front of me just doesn't support the idea that voters behave rationally.

Finally, They Get it Right.

As I have stated before I get really miffed when I see news reports credulously reporting myth and superstition as if it were science. Frequently, the bee in my bonnet is over the subject of Thimerosal causing autism. Finally I see and article that gets the science right on this issue.

This is a quote from this article:

Some parents believe that thimerosal, a preservative found in childhood vaccines that virtually every child gets, causes autism, because many children were diagnosed after they were vaccinated. But most medical experts increasingly doubt that theory, because even though the chemical has been removed from virtually all vaccines, the number of cases of autism is rising.
"You remove thimerosal from all but the flu vaccine, which isn't given to children under 6 months of age, and the incidence of autism only increases. So you just have piece of evidence after piece of evidence after piece of evidence that really disproves this notion," said Dr. Paul Offit, chief of the Infectious Diseases Division at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This statement illustrates my biggest contention with the vaccines-cause-autism claims. They have no explanation as to why the number of diagnosed cases continues to increase at the same rate even though the alleged cause, Thimerosal, has been removed. This is statistical evidence that the vaccines have no effect. Finally gets the facts right on this issue.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Man v. Nature

There are a couple of shows with kind of the same "man v nature" theme on TV right now; one which I really enjoy and one that really disturbs me. First the good news: I really enjoy the show Survivorman. Les Stroud is the host, photographer and the only person in front of and behind the camera. The idea of the show is that Les puts himself in serious life threatening situations and then films his own struggle to find water, food, shelter and just stay alive. Many of his adventures don't go off quite as he had planned. Nevertheless, he continues to film and document what can happen if you were to make the same mistakes. While hiking in the snow he makes the mistake of sweating and getting wet. He then realizes that if he stops he'll get cold and hypothermic very quickly, so he walks all through the night rather than risk death. The show never takes a "Hey look at me" tone. It always takes a very humble and respectful view of the natural world. He's quick to point at that nature is simultaneously beautiful and deadly. I'd recommend this program to anybody.
Now for the bad news; Man v. Wild is one of the stupidest, most artificial programs that I've ever seen. The host Bear Grills is this cocky little punk who walks around bragging about all the adventures he's done. It's obvious he has multiple cameramen following him. He also flat out lies and tells people to do dangerous things. The most grievous of these lies was when he tells people that the best way to go downstream along a river is to "inflate" your pack and use it as a life preserver. Yet in the footage of this moron sliding down class 3 rapids he's floating way up out of the water. Later it's obvious that he has a PFD on under his shirt. He drags himself up on a sandbar and finds a nice pile of dry sticks that lights with one strike of his flint. I've started a fire with flint before and it took over an hour of just smacking these rocks together. The only way he did it in one strike is with a serious dose of kerosene.
What makes Survivorman so enjoyable is that it shows that with even years of roughing it experience it's still a humbling experience to be out on your own. What make Man v Wild so personally intolerable is that it conveys this unrealistic man can conquer anything attitude, even when it's clear that at least that man can't without a PFD and help from his crew. As a Scoutmaster I worry that boys will accept Bear Grill's pompous advice and actually try them out. Many of his stunts are seriously life threatening. On the other hand, I hope that my scouts would adopt Stroud's attitude and heed his advice. It may very well save one of their lives in the future.
In May I'm going to be teaching the Wilderness survival merit badge. We're going to be building primitive shelters on some property behind the church and then sleeping in them. We'll have power and a covered shelter just a few feet away but even considering this I'm still rather concerned that things might go wrong. I will respect the situation and try to teach these boys reverence for nature at the same time not teach them to overly fear it.
This weekend we went backpacking in the Cohutta Wilderness. We had to cross several rivers and streams. One proved to be more than we were up for. The river was very cold and moving very fast. It was about 100 feet across and probably mid-thigh deep. Even if we had forced our way across it we'd have had several more crossings and then have to walk 7 miles out with wet feet. We'd have all had nasty blisters. The biggest reason that we didn't force our way across was that we were very unprepared for anything that serious. The boys had too much cotton clothing and nothing was stored in water tight bags. One little mistake and we'd have been in rescue mode trying to keep a boy warm with minimal resources. I have no regrets about the decision to turn back rather than attempt the crossing. I would like to return with Aaron, properly prepared to show him that the crossing would have been possible with the proper equipment. If we do head back we'll be sure to take Les Stroud's advice and attitude with us and leave Bear Grill's fool heartedness and arrogance at home.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


As a prepubescent, teen age boy I developed an affinity for science-fiction. I think it's some kind of nerd right of passage. I found out pretty quickly that I preferred novels that stick to plausible science rather than the more fantasy and magic based stories. So when I first started reading the works of Arthur C. Clarke I was hooked. His stories explored the fringes of our knowledge but were always based actual laws of physics. The idea that Clarke's spaceships, space elevators, worlds, and aliens were technically plausible was a mind expanding concept.
I was hooked. In a few years I'd read every book by Clarke that I could find. 2001, Childhood's End, Rendezvous with Rama, The Fountains of Paradise, etc, etc. I also found that he would write short stories for a science fiction magazine so I got a subscription and began checking out every back issue I could find. I also followed Clarke's research on science. There was a PBS show called Arthur C. Clarke's universe. I eagerly awaited every episode.
The world lost a true visionary today. Clarke's love of science left permanent impacts on our planet. I will do my best to assure that his impact is not forgotten. Victoria and I read books every night to the kids. We're expanded out of some of the typical children's books and they've taken it pretty well. Last week we finished the Andromeda Strain and this week we're reading the Black Hole. I'm going to suggest we add a few Clarke books in for the kids next. Perhaps Rendezvous with Rama.

Friday, March 14, 2008

"The Year of Living Biblically" a review

There is an interesting genre' of book on the market right now. For lack of a better term I will call them "premeditated memoirs". Most memoirs are written retrospectively. The author lives through an amazing event or lives an amazing life. Then afterward they decide to right up the events as a memoir. Now if you reverse the process you come up with a "premeditated memoir".
You first decide to write a book and then you start to live your life in an interesting way. I haven't really been impressed with the genre' until now.
A few years ago I read a book of this type. The writer decided that we needed a book about him hiking the entire Appalachian Trail. So he started off on the trail and began taking notes. His hiking trip was a miserable failure and he ended up hiking less than a third of the trail. The only redeeming grace of the book was that he filled the book with loads of history about the trail and the land and people that the trail crosses through. All of this information was likely compiled after his return since he had to fill the pages that would have otherwise been filled with his personal stories.
Well I put aside my presumptions about the genre' when I started to read The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs. In many ways he followed what I was expecting from the genre' but Jacobs' writing style and the subject matter made the book very enjoyable. With the A. T. book I expected the guy to succeed and he didn't but with Jacobs' book I was expecting him to fail and he did a remarkable job of completing his task.
As I said on a previous post I expected the book to be filled with his attempt to follow, to the letter, the bizarre rituals that are contained in the Bible. To this end it did not disappoint. He stoned a few adulterers, kept kosher, did not mix his fibers, animal sacrifices, tithing, stayed away from "unclean" women, grew a beard and even tried his hand at shepherding and snake handling. All of these provided for highly entertaining stories.
Jacobs also takes great detail to show how certain sects "literally" interpret specific scriptures. I'm probably going to check this out again just to cross reference my scriptures with his research. I'll put notes in the margin like, "this is why Jehovah's witnesses don't accept blood transfusions", "this is why some sects handle snakes" etc. etc. If for Jacobs' research alone I would have enjoyed this book.
The real soul of this book came out when Jacobs wrestled with the simpler yet ultimately the more important details and commandments in the Bible. He struggled with whether he was violating any commandments in his and his wife's efforts to conceive using a fertility clinic. He pointed out the complete harshness of the Old Testament when I came to raising his son and ultimately decided that he could not literally obey certain commandments without violating other big details like forgiving those who trespass against him. His efforts to eliminate carnal thoughts, like censorship, proved to be counter-productive because the caused him to put even more focus on them. Most enlightening was Jacobs' struggle to be completely honest. In retrospect he might say that this was one of the areas at which he failed. His journey really illustrated how pervasive the little white lie is ingrained in out culture.
Ultimately Jacobs' adventure pointed out the absurdity of a literal interpretation of most scripture. The Bible is a guidebook written by and compiled by imperfect men. The subject matter may be divine but the words are full of human interpretation, metaphor and perspectives. Focus on the literal takes meaning from the metaphor and belittles the deeper, yet more important doctrines. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

“It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts I do understand.”
Mark Twain

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Religion Going Green

Well it's about time. I've always had a hard time with the attitude that many "Christians" take when it comes to environmental issues. Too often the attitude seems to be that all things will be restored after the second coming. "Well, Jesus is gonna be back soon and He'll take care of the mess we've made." I could never make peace with this attitude. Personally, I felt that going green went hand in hand with the doctrine of stewardship. Well now it appears that the Catholic church and the Southern Baptist Convention are starting to recognize this. For once it's nice to see people taking the admonition to multiply and replenish the Earth and applying it to more than just having children. And this Earth is overdue for a lot of "replenishment".


In The Year of Living Biblically A J Jacobs tells a story about how he used to keep of list stored in his Palm pilot of all the times that he was right and somebody else was wrong. The list was rather petty and the only reason he kept it was so that he could refer back to it the next time he got something wrong. "Oh yeah, well remember that time you thought it was so-and-so in that movie and it was actually whats-his-face...?" To his credit part of Jacob's spiritual journey included confessing that this list existed and deleting it. "And I the Lord will remember their sins no more."
Jacob's admits that the only reason he kept the list is because his memory is so bad and he wanted to remember these petty little details. He admits that the whole concept is just sad and has put it behind him and learning to forgive.
I have an idea along this line that I'm going to put into practice. I'm also going to start a little list on my Blackberry of little details that I'd like to remember. But in contrast to Jacob's list, my list will be of endearing details about my friends and family. There are several things that I'd like to remember but I just forget. More than just birthdays and anniversaries, I'd like to remember things that will brighten people's day.

Here's the start of my list:
(I've blanked out the names so as not to violate anyone's privacy.
-______ is collecting all of the 50 state quarters.
-_____ would like to take a Cake Art class.
-Given the chance to do anything in the world ______ would probably take the time to do something for somebody else.
-_____'s birthday is the same as Eve's and he climbs Stone Mountain every year on that day.
-_____ wants to be a marine biologist.
-_____ donates platelets but doesn't like to be recognized for doing it.
-_____, _____, _____, _____, and _____ are all on the mend from ordeals with cancer and all are handling it much better than I would.
-_____ recently had her mother move in with her due to early stages of Alzheimer's.
-_____ is going through a nasty divorce and still holding up pretty good.
-______ is one of the more spiritual people I know, but he's so humble about it he doesn't like me to point it out.
-Every time I recommend a book to ______ he has already read it. Next time I should ask him what he's reading.
-Next time ____ is talking just sit back and listen. Don't change the subject, just listen. She's very profound for a 5 year-old.

I look forward to adding more and hope to never completing this list.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Trouble maker

I feel like Wiley Miller must have my phone tapped. All too frequently his comic strip is right on the money with my thoughts and opinions.

Monday, March 03, 2008

More Cheezits

This morning Aaron and I went to church a little early as usual so we could help set up the gym area of the building for sacrament meeting. Our chapel is so small and out congregation is so large that we always fill the gym as well. If you get in late you end up looking past a basketball goal to see the speaker.
Today was open mike day, Fast and testimony meeting. As I've pointed out before this meeting is either a spiritual meeting or an agonizing ordeal. Today was a little of each. We had the typical precession of kids come to the mike and say almost exactly the same thing. Victoria pointed out to me that when there are that many of them and the all say the same thing it just kinda looks like they've been brainwashed. I agreed. Perhaps this is one of the reasons we have been counseled to avoid vain repeatitions.
The real agonizing part of the service was when member stood up and proceeded to tell us all of her ailments including all of the prescriptions she was on and the dosages. Close to 20 minutes later she sat down without really ever making a point or saying anything uplifting for the rest of the congregation. A friend of mine had the rescue the meeting by telling a cool story about a chance he had to share the gospel with a friend at work while on a business trip.
During Deacon's quorum meeting the Bishop can in and we re-organized the presidency. Aaron is the new president. He picked some good counselors as well. It kind of surprised me who he picked since he doesn't get along with them very well. Perhaps I need to follow his example and learn to forgive those who have trespassed against me. After class we had a presidency meeting. I was very impressed with the way Aaron conducted himself and I the genuine concern that he displayed for the other members of the group. I think he'll do well.
After church decided that I could use a little more churching up so I went down to a Methodist church where a friend of mine plays on their house band and give a lot of service. It was an entirely different experience than I had this morning. First of all the building was very simple but very pretty. I didn't even have to look past a basketball goal to see the speaker. The stage had a full band set up. They started playing right on schedule. The songs were drastically different than anything you'd hear at an LDS service but in many ways I felt were more reverent and sincere than the hymns I've grown used to hearing every Sunday. After a couple songs the pastor encouraged everybody to stand up and get to know the folks around you, so I got up and shook a few hands and talked to people while the band got ready for their next song.
After a few more songs from the band the pastor gave a great sermon on how to pray. She showed a little video that was a parody of the Gieco commercial that had a guy trying to pray and a "celebrity" minister doing it right for him. It was really funny and illustrated the point that sometimes the simple prayers that are from the heart are the most effective. All in all I have more to take away and actually apply in my life than I brought home from our fast and testimony meeting.
Last week I was explaining to Dave the LDS process of assigning talks to members to present a few weeks in advance. Dave passed me a note during this Methodist service, "We need you to prepare a 15 talk on the subject of 'manna from heaven' for next week's service". I'm tempted to have it ready and attend ready to present it.
At church they've been really stressing the fact that we need to tell our friends about the gospel. I've never had a problem telling anybody anything they'd like to know about the church. I've just had a problem when it comes to handing a name and an address over to the missionaries. I can't explain this feeling. I'm not ashamed of the church at all. Perhaps my own spiritual struggles of the last few years have left me more open-minded about exposing myself to other faiths. The first person I felt comfortable to discuss my feeling about being challenged by missionaries was Dave, my Methodist friend. I find it more than a little ironic that my reaction to being asked to bring a friend to church was to accept a friend's invitation to attend his church.
As I was leaving they gave me a first time visitor gift, a coffee cup, an NIV New Testament and a couple chocolates. The kids ate the chocolates. The New Testament is just small enough to be a good size for backpacking. And the coffee cup will probably make it to the office for my daily herb teas.
I've never had a problem accepting truth no matter what the source. It was refreshing today to get some truth from another source.