I Believe That Belief Is Irrelevant

Tuesday, 15 April 2014 20:44 by The Lunatic


In a previous article titled I’m a believer!, I proposed we should swap the traditional definition of who’s a believer and who isn’t – I suggested that a believer is someone who believes that the laws of physics are immutable and a non-believer is someone who doesn’t.

In this post, I’ll take a little different approach. I’ll go on record and say that what people believe in is irrelevant. I don’t care what you believe in. Heck, I don’t even care about what I believe in myself! Simply having a belief in something does not make it true.

What if I go around the world and convince everyone that the universe is governed by a Grand Orange Duck. And what the Grand Orange Duck really wants is for everyone to donate their ear wax to the famed Diamond Crucible. I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out ... I really believe this is the truth! Once we have ear wax from every person on Earth, and the Diamond Crucible is full to the brim, the Grand Orange Duck will reveal himself to us and we will be allowed to marvel at his magnificent wings. It will be a glorious day indeed!

Even if I can get everyone to believe in the Grand Orange Duck (let’s just call it “GOD” for short), and convince every single person on Earth that they need to contribute some ear wax to the Diamond Crucible, that still doesn’t make it the truth.

Is this scenario really that far-fetched? How about this: The Mormons are very good at getting people to believe that there were white people on Earth before black people (Mormon scripture says that Cain, who killed his brother Abel, was so evil that God "cursed" him with black skin), and that dinosaur bones come from other planets – which anyone with an intelligence greater than that of an average south pacific jellyfish would reject out of hand. The leaders of the Mormon church are making really good money promoting these ideas, as they also teach that you need to donate a higher percentage of your income to get into the highest levels of heaven.

Just like my idea of getting EVERYONE IN THE WORLD to believe in the Grand Orange Duck, getting people to believe in gibberish on a mass scale, as the Mormon church (and others) seem to be doing, does not make it true.

What I’m interested in, of course, is evidence. I’m not even interested in “belief” in the interpretation of the evidence, just the acknowledgement of the existence of the evidence as a starting point, as something to study and use to come to a rational conclusion. It’s the only way we can establish a logical grasp on what “the truth” is.

I know this example has been beat to death – but depending on which translation/interpretation you prefer, the bible says something to the effect of “The world is firmly established, it shall not be moved”. I would say that this was not a religious statement originally; it was a scientific observation based on the evidence available at the time. There’s a high likelihood that whomever first uttered these words would have very been happy to re-consider if other evidence had been available – but that evidence wouldn’t come for some 1600 years, when Galileo Galilei used a telescope to provide evidence that backed up the interesting theory of “planetary orbit” as proposed by Copernicus. Along the way, however, “the world is firmly established” was included as a passage in the bible ... and that made it into a religious statement. A religious statement implies belief. When Galileo proposed evidence to the contrary, it was rejected by the Catholic Church because it conflicted with established beliefs.

There are a myriad of scientific and non-scientific explanations, and many really crazy ideas, about the nature and age of the universe – is the universe only 6000 years old and ruled by the “Judeo Christian” version of god, or maybe the various Hindu gods? And of course, let’s not forget all the mighty Greek and Roman gods. Or how about the Scientology idea that Xenu, leader of the “Galactic Confederacy” brought billions of people to earth in a UFO that looks like an airplane? Maybe none of what we see around us is real and we’re really plugged into “the Matrix”?

Or maybe there really IS a Grand Orange Duck that wants us to collect our ear wax for donations to the Diamond Crucible ...

The most logical interpretation of the best evidence we have today indicates that the universe is some 13.5 billion years old, the earth is about 4.6 billion years old, and life on earth evolved starting with single cell organisms about 3.6 billion years ago, without any outside “supernatural” influence. I’m not saying that this is “the truth”. And I’m not even saying that’s what I believe – again, what I believe in is irrelevant. I’m saying that there is a truth to the universe. We have to study all the available evidence, and not religious texts, to put the pieces together in order to come to realistic conclusions about what that truth is.

We are still discovering new evidence, it’s a process that will probably never stop. Some of the evidence we discover lends credibility to established conclusions, and some evidence is contradictory. Just like the early observer who made the statement that the world is firmly established, we have to be prepared to accept new ideas when the overwhelming evidence suggest that the old ideas don’t tell the whole story.

And yes, goofball ideas that are obviously just crazy fantasy should be discarded out of hand!

Religious people love to play the game of “what if”. What if the Grand Orange Duck is real? What if we don’t collect all our ear wax, and the GOD doesn’t reveal his glorious wings to us?

So we studiously go around and collect ear wax from everyone on earth ... and damn it, GOD still won’t reveal himself to us. Shoot, we must have missed someone! Quack!

The “what if” game is a trap. It’s specifically designed to manipulate people by playing with their heads. It is always based on something impossible to do (like collect ear wax from EVERY person on Earth) or something impossible to know, such as what will happen after you die.

We have no evidence on which to base an opinion about what happens after you die – but the Christians will say that if you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior and repent your sins (and, of course, make a few small donations to the church along the way) you will go to heaven after you die.

“What a bunch of rubbish” a more intelligent person might say.

That’s when the “what if” response always pops up ... WHAT IF we’re right??? What if we’re right – then you will GO SPEND ETERNITY IN HELL because you didn’t accept Jesus Christ as your savior!!!

Don’t get trapped into the “what if” game. It’s always a dead end proposition that will never work out in your favor. Ask for some evidence that shows WHO has already gone to heaven by bending over and kissing Jesus’s ass, and who specifically has gone to hell for rejecting such idiotic notions.

If I want to explore what happens after we die, I’m certainly not going to seek advice from religious leaders – they have no interest in the truth, and they certainly don’t know what happens any more than you or I do, no matter how fervently and passionately they make their case.

Here’s one way to look at it: estimating how many Homo sapiens have been born in total, over the entire course of human history, is very difficult. But the best logical “guesstimates” usually come in at about 100 billion people1.

A hundred billion people is a lot. Are all these dead people split between heaven and hell? Is it getting crowded up there? And what about members of all the other species? Christian doctrine says that only human beings go to heaven or hell.

The various “pre-human” species we evolved from (Homo Ergaster, Homo Heidelbergensis, Homo erectus, Homo Habilis, Neanderthals, etc) were on Earth for about 6 million years – much longer than Homo Sapiens have been around. They used tools, cultivated food, raised families, protected each other from predators – were they really that much different from modern humans?

Was there a “cut off point” in our evolution where suddenly humans started going to heaven? We really have no evidence, or really any logical reason to suspect, that what happens to us humans after we die is any different from what happened to the “pre-humans” we evolved from.

And – we have no reason to suspect that what happened to the pre-humans after they died was any different from the great apes that THEY evolved from. You can take this line of reasoning back hundreds of millions of years to the time of the dinosaurs, and even billions of years to the single cell organisms that started life on this planet.

Is there a “soul” from every one of these quadrillions of organisms floating around somewhere out in the ethereal universe, or do we just die – our organic bodies shut down and decompose? The evidence we have strongly suggests the latter, no matter how many people want to believe otherwise. Again, I am not saying that absolutely there is no afterlife – I’m just saying that without any evidence, it’s counterproductive to try and convince people that there is.

“Do you believe in god?” is an irrelevant question as far as I’m concerned. Having a belief in something does not make it true. “Have you seen any evidence that god exists?” – now that’s a much more interesting question. If someone says they have evidence, we can discuss how credible the evidence is. Was it fabricated? Is it direct, or indirect evidence? Does the evidence appear to break the laws of physics as we currently understand them? Is it subject to open interpretation?

Equally irrelevant is asking if someone believes in something that obviously exists, like: “Do you believe in donkeys?”

Finding a donkey and showing it to someone is direct evidence, but we already know that donkeys exist. Discovering donkey poop, footprints, and half eaten carrots in your garden is indirect evidence that a donkey was probably snacking on the carrots in your garden.

But what if someone says it’s really unicorn poop and footprints that you’re looking at, and it's actually a unicorn that's been in your garden?

There’s the problem.

Religious people are always proposing indirect evidence, with very liberal open interpretation, and trying to use that as proof that god exists. Without credible evidence, the only logical conclusion you can come to is that it’s a fantasy that someone just made up for fun and prophet. Errr, I mean profit.

So what about the mother of all religious texts, the Bible – and it’s earlier incarnations, the Torah, etc. What real evidence do we have that any of it has any divine inspiration? None, of course. We do have plenty of evidence, however, which shows that almost everyone who had a hand in collecting and copying all these stories took many liberties and changed things whenever they wanted along the way.

Throughout modern history, for example, people have been afraid of the number 666 – the famed “number of the beast” as described in Chapter 13 of the book of Revelations. I’ve met people that really freak out whenever they see anything that has three sixes in a row. Indeed, we have no area code 666 in our telephone system, superstitious people would immediately move out of that state!

However, in 2005, a fragment from what’s known as Papyrus 115 was discovered in the archives at Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum. The papers in this collection were taken from the Oxyrhynchus site about a hundred years ago, considered to be one of the most important archeological sites ever discovered. The fragment in question has been irrefutably dated as the oldest known written copy of Revelations, Chapter 13 (older by about 100 years2).

The text of Papyrus 115 is mostly the same as all the newer copies of Revelations, Chapter 13 that have been found at various archeological sites, except for one minor detail ...

Quite clearly, it states in Greek: ἑξακόσιοι δέκα ἕξ (hexakosioi deka hex) – which translates to "six hundred and sixteen".

Other early references to this passage corroborate this discovery; it is actually quite clear that “the number of the beast” was originally 616. Are all the people in Grand Rapids, Michigan going to hell?

Evidently, someone was copying this text and just randomly thought “616 doesn’t sound very beastly. I think I’ll change that to something that seems a bit more ominous” – and it stuck.

If the bible is supposed to be “the word of god”, how come everyone willingly accepts all these various changes?

There are stories attributed to Jesus that had been attributed to other people at least 500 years before Jesus was born. Before the printing press was invented, copying the bible was a manual Process. It was transcribed, translated into different languages and various dialects of each language, and it changed with every copy. Many of the biblical stories were taken from oral history – handed down from generation to generation, embellished and expanded upon along the way.

But once all these stories were decided upon and “the bible” was in common circulation, these problems stopped though – right? Not at all! In the early 1500’s, Martin Luther sparked a reformation of the Catholic Church which resulted in a new German translation of the bible with many changes (mostly deletions of things that he, personally, didn’t agree with). King James decided to commission another translation into English about a hundred years later. There have been literally hundreds of other variations along the way. And then, along comes Joseph Smith adding his own addition to the bible in 1830, when he decided to make up some crazy nonsense saying that Jesus came to America after he was resurrected (which in itself is such a silly story).

Think about it this way: what is the difference between the Christians adding the “new testament” to the Torah, versus Joseph Smith adding “The Book of Mormon” to the Bible? (which itself is made up of the Torah (Old Testament) and the Christian addition known as the New Testament.) The Jews feel exactly the same way about the New Testament as the Christians feel about the Book of Mormon – it’s an additional set of writings that are not officially recognized by the existing religious establishment.

Is there any “truth” to anything written in any of these books? Of course not, the bible holds absolutely zero credibility. Even a cursory analysis of the evidence indicates that the bible is a prime example of very early science fiction at best. What’s troubling is that throughout history, it has mostly been used by immoral people as a tool to control, pacify, and/or persecute anyone with a weaker mind or a weaker defensive position (the crusades, Spanish Inquisition, and various pogroms come to mind).

What evidence do we have about Jesus as a person? There does seem to be plenty of corroborating evidence, from various people of the day writing from different points of view, that Jesus was a real person and did actually exist; he’s not entirely fictional ... but most of the stories about him are. He had a girlfriend (and recent evidence indicates that he actually referred to her as “my wife” at one point3). He was likely a very charismatic orator, teacher, mentor to many people, and may well have said some very wise and insightful things. He made many friends, and it would appear that he made a few enemies towards the end as well. There is no documentation of his birth, just stories and rumors, and no one at the time documented the supposed “resurrection” that happened three days after he died. Somebody made up that part of the story about 60 years later. It’s the ultimate “urban legend”.

(And of course, all the evidence we do have says that there weren’t many white people in that part of Africa at the time; Jesus was probably black or “dark Arabic” and much shorter than the modern depictions.)

So how do we explain all these odd coincidences or reports of people predicting future events? People are always telling me how amazing it is that they ran into an old friend while at Disneyland, or some other coincidence that surely can’t be accidental.

I live in the Washington DC area, and we had an earthquake a few years ago that was felt throughout the entire region ... and later that day, at least six people called the local radio station and said that they dreamed an earthquake would happen. It can’t just be coincidence, can it? Surely that MUST be the work of a higher power?

Well – let’s take a logical look at this. I’m just over 50 years old and I’ve probably only dreamed about being in an earthquake maybe three or four times in my life. Let’s just say once every 7,500 days to be conservative.

If this is about average, and everyone has a dream about an earthquake every 7,500 days, that means that one person out of every 7,500 will have an earthquake dream every night (on average).

There is a population of 5.8 million people here in the greater Washington DC metro area. I’ll say 5 million – again, just to be conservative.

If we divide 5,000,000 by 7,500 we get ... 666 people who will have a dream about an earthquake each night in the Washington DC metropolitan area, and I’m sure they are ALL going straight to hell!

Seriously though – coincidences do happen, and sometimes they might seem very odd, but in reality coincidences happen just about as frequently as they statistically should.

So I’ll end this article with a really old joke: Jesus comes back on Sunday after his resurrection, and all his followers are begging to see one last miracle. They are at the edge of a lake, and someone asks Jesus to show them how he walked on water, since the first time was at night in a storm and all his followers were on a boat and couldn’t see very well. Jesus obliges, and walks out into the lake, where he promptly sinks to the bottom and drowns.

Everyone is shocked, many start to weep. A woman wails, “why did this happen?” when a wise gentleman offered up an explanation. He said, “Well, the last time Jesus did that trick, he didn’t have those holes in his feet.”

1 http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2002/HowManyPeopleHaveEverLivedOnEarth.aspx 
2 http://www.preteristarchive.com/Ancient_Revelations/papyrology/Oxyrhynchus/P-Oxy_LVI-4499_rev_13-18.html
3 http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2014/04/10/study-jesus-wife-fragment-not-a-fake

 

The Lunatic’s take on Daylight Savings Time

Sunday, 4 November 2012 22:24 by The Lunatic

Twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall, we move our clocks either forwards or backwards to accommodate the change in Daylight Savings Time.

And twice a year, there are the requisite news articles written about Daylight Savings Time, explaining to everyone why we go through all this hassle. Then there are the cutesy and often misguided Facebook posts with statements like: “only the government would believe that you could cut a foot off the top of a blanket, sew it to the bottom, and have a longer blanket.” (which is what prompted me to write this particular article in the first place!)

So let’s get to the bottom of what Daylight Savings really is. First of all, however, we have to understand what midnight is. That’s right: midnight, the time that we’ve decided each day should start.

Technically, midnight is the time that is halfway between sunset and sunrise. It’s simple enough, but that definition needs some clarification. As the Earth revolves around the Sun, the Earth’s tilt causes daylight hours to shift with the seasons.

A better definition is that midnight is the time that is halfway between sunset and sunrise, at the equator, on either the fall or spring equinox (the only two days of the year when the sun is directly overhead at the equator).

Now we’re getting somewhere, but there’s one more wrinkle in this definition.

You see, the Earth is just over 24,000 miles around and More...

Raising Kids To Be Good Eaters

Friday, 4 May 2012 14:00 by The Lunatic

When my kids were born, in 1999 and 2000, I decided to conduct some scientific experiments on them.

Oh, don’t worry, it wasn’t anything too gruesome; all their limbs and internal organs are still intact. I just wanted to put some personal child-rearing philosophies to the test and see if I could turn them into healthy and conscientious eaters without any odd phobias or irrational dislikes of certain foods.

Fundamentally, I believe that kids’ eating habits are mostly formed between the ages of two and five, and having a pro-active methodology to respond to the typical food related tantrums that every kid goes through would help get through those critical years and make them better eaters.

Primarily, my belief was that all kids naturally go through short cycles of not wanting to eat certain foods, not liking certain flavors or spices, and that many times (not always) this is due to external influences – not being hungry, tummy upsets, a particular mood, or just being enamored with something that tasted good last week and not wanting anything else. One of the key ideas is that these usually are “short” cycles of likes and dislikes, but having an inappropriate response can extend the cycles or even artificially create a lifelong dislike of one certain food.

What I wanted to avoid was the typical parental response of coming to the conclusion that “my kids don’t like ... xxx”, when “xxx” really isn’t the problem.

When parents come to the conclusion that “my kid doesn’t like xxx”, they usually stop giving their child that particular food and let everyone know at school and at play dates that their kid won’t eat it – or they make a big deal about it at home and try to forcefully cajole their kid to eat the food in question. Both responses perpetuates the cycle and just makes it worse. Furthermore, I truly believe that it gives positive reinforcement and the child realizes that they get extra attention when they don’t like something.

So I would never say “My kids don’t like xxx”.  In fact, in their entire lives, they have never heard me say that to anyone. Instead, I would say “My kids eat everything, but I didn’t cook the xxx right the last time. I’ll make it better next time.”

The next time I’d make the offending dish, I’d change it a little bit and do something different.  I’d ask More...

I'm A Believer!

Friday, 27 April 2012 20:39 by The Lunatic

There is a pervasive and somewhat lopsided tendency in our society to separate fellow humans into the categories of being either “believers” or “non-believers”. The not-so-subtle implication is usually that there is something wrong with you if you are a “non-believer”.

Let’s play a little game; I’ll take the position that there really is something wrong with non-believers. But first, let’s swap the traditional idea of who is a believer and who is a non-believer.

For example, if I have a ball in my hand and I hold my arm straight out from my body and I drop the ball, I believe that the ball will always fall “down” – towards the ground. In our game, non-believers are the people who will say that god can make the ball go up, or sideways, or turn into a flying cheeseburger and flap its wings at the moon.

If we get all the non-believers on Earth to PRAY really hard, and ask god to make the ball go “up” when I let go of it, I still believe it will go down.

If you ask a believer why the ball will go down instead of up, the typical explanation you will get is that “gravity is a force that attracts two objects proportional to their mass”. In general, the answers that believers give you will have something to do with gravity, and the answers will be relatively consistent on average. Without some external physical force (a blast of air, or someone swatting it with a tennis racket for example), believers will say that the ball will drop “down” even if you conduct the experiment hundreds of billions of times, as long as the Earth and the ball have mass.

However, if you ask all the non-believers why praying to god doesn’t ever change the fact that the ball goes down when dropped, you will get a bunch of different, inconsistent, and largely contradictory answers.

One of the answers you might get is that ‘god doesn’t work that way’. I love that answer, I hear it all the time. I keep asking all the non-believers how god does work, and no one really seems to know. The fallback response, however, is this: “you have to have faith.”

Ok, I’ll accept that. I am a person of absolute unwavering faith, and I will gladly put the full conviction More...

Categories:   Religion | Science | Social Issues
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Black-Scholes’ Dirty Little Secret

Tuesday, 6 September 2011 19:35 by The Lunatic

Back in 1973, two mathematicians named Fischer Black and Myron Scholes wrote a paper entitled "The Pricing of Options and Corporate Liabilities".  This became known as the “Black-Scholes option pricing model”, which earned them a coveted Nobel Prize in economics in 1997 (technically, Myron Scholes shared the prize with Robert Merton, another collaborator, since Fischer Black had passed away by that time).

The Black-Scholes option model serves as the benchmark for setting the price of a common stock option. All you need to know is the stock price, the strike price of the option, the time left to expiration, the current interest rate, and this tricky little thing called the volatility of the stock.

Ahhh, the volatility. There’s the rub. The volatility of a stock is calculated using an iterative process called a “cumulative normalized distribution function”. Basically, it looks at the variations of a stock’s up and down movement over a certain time period and offers up a percentage of the average movement. The volatility is an absolute measurement, which is different from a stock’s “beta” – the beta is a ratio of that particular stocks’ volatility as compared to the rest of the market, which is actually much easier to measure.

In my definition of volatility, I said that it relies on the variation of a stock price over a certain period of time. But what period of time should you use? One week? A month? Three months? Six months? A year? Maybe two years? The time period that you use can make a huge difference in the value of the option, but there’s no general recommendation for what period to use.

All of the other factors (stock price, strike price, time to expiration, etc.) are quantifiable values that can be specifically defined. The volatility, however, requires a bit of artistic interpretation.  If the stock was highly volatile nine months ago, but is more stable now, then measuring the historic volatility over the last six months is probably a good choice. Or not. More...

Categories:   Economics
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An Apology to Mother Gaia

Wednesday, 13 July 2011 01:42 by The Lunatic

For the past billion years or so, every animal on Planet Earth has been in danger of being eaten by some other animal at one time or another.

Humans aren’t immune from the risk, of course; just because we’re at the top of the food chain doesn’t mean we wouldn’t be a tasty treat to something else. A hiker was eaten by a bear in Yellowstone park just last week, and a few times a year we hear about sharks that feed on an unlucky swimmer.

So I get a little perturbed by folks who tell me I shouldn’t eat meat because it’s unethical, or because we’re “exploiting” animals for our personal gain. Frankly, if every animal on the planet stopped eating other animals, all species would die out. The “Circle of Life” would come to a complete halt.

Someone asked me if I’m a vegetarian and I said, “No, but I mostly eat vegetarian animals!”

Granted, in our modern society, homo sapiens (especially the ones living on the North American continent) should cut back on meat consumption. But from a health standpoint, completely eliminating meat from our diet is going too far in the other direction.  We are omnivores and always have been, and we require a balanced diet. Unfortunately, some people balance their diet about as well as they balance their checkbooks and they end up overweight AND broke!

Even though I’m certainly not a vegetarian, I do have many issues with our “factory farmed” meat production. Not just because it might be considered “cruel” to animals, but because we are getting increasingly isolated from our food supply.  In the past 100 years, we’ve become the very first humans in history where the majority of the population doesn’t know where our food comes from, or how it’s grown and processed. As long as the grocery store is fully stocked and the local restaurant can serve a hot dinner plate in a timely fashion, we’re happy.  We don’t want to think about where it comes from – and if we watch a video of a butcher at work, it’s considered “gross” for some reason. Why is that?  For thousands of years, More...

Americans and their Guns

Thursday, 9 June 2011 00:20 by The Lunatic

I’m really tired of seeing these news stories, pretty much every single week lately, about some kid (usually under age ten) who gets their hands on a gun and accidentally shoots themselves, a parent, sibling, or their best friend.

It’s not so much that I’m against guns; but I’m certainly against the American attitude towards guns.

Everyone is so concerned about their “right” to own a gun. But with rights come responsibility. The question shouldn’t be “do I have the right to own a gun?” – the question we should ask is “am I willing to bear the responsibility of owning a gun?”

Pro-gun advocates often invoke references to Switzerland as a country where gun ownership is high and crime is low. I lived in Switzerland for a year and just recently moved back to the USA. In Switzerland, every adult male must serve in the armed forces for at least two years, and those that have received combat training are considered “reservists” – and as such, they are required by law to keep their military issued service arms at home in case of an attack by a foreign country.

The difference is the Swiss attitude towards the firearms. Gun ownership is for the protection of the country; it’s not for personal protection, not an item that is brought out and shown off to all your friends, not something that is brought along to the bank or grocery store, not something that you can buy and sell at a flea market or local shop, and certainly not something that is left lying around for kids to pick up and play with. It is not a “right” to own a gun in Switzerland, it is a responsibility, which they take very seriously.

The Second Amendment to the US constitution states:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

I know the issue has been bashed to death by the courts, and everyone has very strong opinions on More...

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Government Debt and Rising Interest Rates – A Dangerous Combination

Tuesday, 17 May 2011 18:41 by The Lunatic

Everyone knows that our national debt is completely out of control. But there’s an important issue that the press seems to be ignoring: the potentially devastating effect of rising interest rates.

The Federal Reserve is responsible for implementing our fiscal policy, but the Fed can not “set” interest rates – the overall market does that, based on supply and demand.  However, the Fed can influence rates by increasing or restricting money supply.  At the moment, just like in Louisiana and Mississippi, the floodgates are wide open. The bond market is awash in “virtually free” money, which is artificially keeping interest rates at historic lows.

But here’s the crux of the issue: with the floodgates open, the reservoir will eventually run dry – and the expectation is that interest rates will then rise. What happens to our federal budget when rates go up?  It could get really ugly really quickly.

Here’s why:

If you look at the chart in my earlier post, Trying to Make Sense of the Federal Budget, (the second chart, with the Social Security and Medicare numbers removed), you will see that interest payments on the federal debt clocked in at $218 billion in 2010, or 11% of our federal budget:

image

The weighted average interest rate of all the US debt currently runs about 2.07%.  Shorter term debt has a lower interest rate – less than .25% – and longer term debt has a higher interest rate – approaching 4.375%. When longer term debt is more expensive than short term debt, we have what is referred to as More...

Yet another blog article about Osama Bin Laden

Friday, 6 May 2011 17:36 by The Lunatic

It’s only been a few days since Osama Bin Laden was killed, and I can’t even count the number of news articles, opinion pieces, interviews, historical retrospectives, biographies, rants, and random comments I’ve read.

Most intriguing to me is the question of whether or not we should be celebrating someone’s death.  I’ve read a couple of interesting postings specifically on this subject, but it brings up some larger questions about humanity.

I’ve always considered the human race to be one big organism. Each individual person is like a cell in the human body, with their own specific job in life. But the overall total is what makes up the “body” of humanity. Some people do the majority of our thinking, some people do the majority of “manual labor”. Some people make it their life’s work to heal others, some provide food, and – just like the cells in our body – some handle the unpleasant tasks like hygiene and waste disposal.

And some people are like cancer. They grow up with the specific intent of killing others.

Some of these cancers are so insidious that they actually threaten the existence of all of humanity.

Our cells do fight back when threatened, and if they can’t handle the attack on their own, the heroes of our our body – the white blood cells, for example – come to the rescue. But sometimes, even more drastic measures are required.

If a patient has to undergo surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, the surgeon needs to cut out a little more around the tumor – removing some healthy cells in the process.  Consider that to be the equivalent to “collateral damage” in war (see my previous posting, Wrestling the Anaconda, for a humorous view of the “margins” that a surgeon needs to remove from around dead tissue during surgery ...)

Ok, it’s not a perfect analogy, but you get the idea.

The removal of Osama Bin Laden from the human collection was an extremely precise, laser accurate surgery – with very little collateral damage.  But 1) we left a lot of dead on the road to get to him and 2) he managed to infect others with More...

Trying to make sense of the Federal Budget

Wednesday, 6 April 2011 17:00 by The Lunatic

Pop quiz: What percent of our federal budget goes to the military? 

If you look at the “official” budget numbers, the White House reports that Defense spending takes up just over 19% of our budget.

Here is what our government spent in 2010, as reported by the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of the Treasury:

Budget5_thumb3

At first glance, this looks like a reasonably balanced chart, without any single slice of the pie taking up too much of the available dough (the pun was intended, although the joke was – admittedly – kind of crusty).

However, there’s been an unfortunate trend which started sometime around the Reagan era, where they try to “de-emphasize” the amount we spend on Defense by including More...

The Worst Investment Ever Made

Tuesday, 15 March 2011 16:54 by The Lunatic

The height of the “dot com” boom was a pretty crazy time for investors; venture capitalists were investing huge sums of cash with any entrepreneur who could type the word “internet” without using a spell checker. People made some really BAD investments and only a few of the startups from that period are still operating today.

But there’s one deal that really takes the cake. This acquisition was so absurd in its reasoning and so insidious in scale that I’m surprised the story hasn’t been made into a Hollywood feature film.

Let’s back up a few years, to 1996. This was the year that yours truly joined a small internet startup called VXtreme, an early pioneer in streaming video on the web. VXtreme had actually developed a viable technology and we created what was arguably the best streaming video platform (codecs, encoder, player, server) in the world at the time.

Remember that in 1996, people were connected to the internet with 28.8Kbps modems – or if you could afford it, you might have one of the spanking new 56K modems.  Whoo-Hooo! Blazing fast internet it was, indeed. Delivering real time streaming video over such a connection was problematic at best – but it was SO exciting to see a media player embedded in a web page, rendering real time video with a resolution of 160x120 pixels at a whopping 15 frames per second refresh rate! We were truly on the bleeding edge.

In just over ten months, we built the company, produced the product, engaged a bunch of high profile customers, and sold the whole thing to Microsoft for about $74 Million (and to set the record straight, I was not one of the founders or shareholders – just a “late hire” marketing manager, with options that were only worth about 1/10th of 1% of the company).

It was a fair valuation for VXtreme.  Our technology was merged in with the “NetShow” product that Microsoft had been struggling with, and the platform was eventually renamed “Windows Media”. Even today, the Windows Media Player, Windows Media Audio/Windows Media Video file formats, Silverlight, and the More...

Categories:   Economics | Miscellaneous | Science
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The Happiest Rip-Off on Earth

Monday, 24 January 2011 21:12 by The Lunatic

No one has ever said that amusement parks are a good deal ... in fact, they are universally considered to be total rip offs.

But after spending five days in Orlando with my kids, I think that the Disney Corporation has just one goal: they are trying to perfect the art of shifting any remaining cash balance from my bank account to theirs.

Mid-January should be a good time of the year to visit Disney World, I thought. This should be the “slow” season, shouldn’t it? Even though it was a holiday last weekend (Martin Luther King Day), I didn’t think the crowds would be all that bad.  On top of the holiday on Monday, my kids had two extra days off school for “teacher/staff development and training”, so we had Saturday through Wednesday – five very precious vacation days.

Unfortunately, it was so miserably crowded on Saturday (Magic Kingdom) and Sunday (Hollywood Studios) that it really was not much fun at all for the kids - much less the parents.

Then on Monday, it rained – hard – which at least thinned out the crowds somewhat. Luckily, that was the day we had selected for Animal Kingdom, which is probably the only Disney park that you can do in the rain (but many of the rides and activities were closed for at least half the day). On Tuesday we went to Epcot – the best park of the bunch, in our opinion. But even then we spent far too much time in lines to be worthwhile. It was very frustrating.

Disney World has this new scheme called the “Fast Pass” ticket. Here’s how it works: instead of waiting in line for a ride, you get More...

Bah, Humbug, I say!

Friday, 24 December 2010 00:13 by The Lunatic

I’ve never celebrated Christmas.  Ever. 

When I was young, it never really crossed our minds – we weren’t Christian so it just wasn’t something our family did. I’ve never once had a Christmas tree in my house.

As I got older and started working in a professional career, I would usually go in to work on Christmas day – just because I objected to being told that I HAD to take a day off for some religion that I didn’t care one whit about. Usually, I wasn’t the only one there.

Except for a couple of “mandatory” gift exchanges at work, which were more office politics than anything, I’ve never given anyone a Christmas present.

And now that I have kids of my own, we all agree that it would be hypocritical to subject them to this custom just because of the social pressures of our society (which have unfortunately gotten worse over the years). 

I also get annoyed at the “celebration envy” that many non-Christians fall into. Hanukah is a minor Jewish holiday which no one outside of the Jewish faith would have ever heard of if it weren’t for the questions of “so what DO you celebrate?” – the idea of a “Hanukah bush” is an embarrassing distortion and any self-respecting Jew wouldn’t dream of putting one in their house. And what’s up with all these Winter Solstice parties? More...

Categories:   Religion | Social Issues
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The Evolution of god

Wednesday, 24 November 2010 14:19 by The Lunatic

The following article was written under invitation from the CommonGroundGroup, a website put together by some members of the Baha’i faith, for discussion of the common areas of agreement between science and religion. They seek to include alternative views and promote open discussion on topics of science, religion, and philosophy. I appreciate the invitation to contribute an article which is diametrically opposed to most of their normal postings.

I love evolution.

Just as biological evolution creates new species, information and knowledge and technologies also evolve – and in a very similar manner. Take the microprocessor that is running the computer on which I’m writing this article, for example. The electronic microprocessor isn’t the brainchild of a single brilliant engineer who just created it one day, without any prior information or knowledge. All modern processors are evolutionary offshoots of the Intel 4004, introduced in 1971. It was a huge breakthrough, but that milestone could never have come about without the invention of the transistor and the many simpler integrated circuits before it; and the core processing logic was built upon the mechanical and vacuum tube computers which evolved over the fifty years before that. None of these would have been possible without a working knowledge of electricity, magnetism, chemistry, and physics – the secrets of which have been slowly uncovered, bit by bit, for hundreds (thousands!) of years.

Evolution tends to go in fits and starts, especially in the early stages. There are the agonizingly slow changes that take millennia – the spinoff of one species to another for example, or the adaptation to environmental changes that all early life went through as the Earth cooled; for almost half of the 3.5 billion years that life has existed on Earth, there was nothing more complex than single cell organisms.

But then, occasionally, some big event comes around More...

Categories:   Religion | Science | Social Issues
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It’s Not Over Till The Fat Lady Eats All The Halloween Candy

Monday, 1 November 2010 15:25 by The Lunatic

My family loves Halloween. It’s our favorite holiday of the year – we get to decorate the house, wear costumes, go to parties ... and eat candy.

Lots and lots and lots and lots of candy.

In a society of bulging waistlines and bad eating habits in general, I really wish we could go just a little easier on the candy at Halloween.

I mean, what’s wrong with giving out only one small morsel to each trick-or-treater that comes by, instead of big handfuls?  What’s wrong with running out at a reasonable hour and saying “sorry, we don’t have any more” instead of buying so much that you’re stuck with pounds of leftovers?  What’s wrong with giving out something healthy, instead of candy, or a “trick” like some families used to do when I was a kid? (the idea used to be that you’d give out a trick … OR a treat.)

Sure, it’s just one day a year – but we have more candy sitting on our counter than I’d normally let my kids eat in an entire year.  Seriously. Maybe two years.

I tried to be reasonable.  I tried to get a small amount of candy, and supplement our offerings with little bags of pretzels. But my own family rebelled.  They turned on me. They ridiculed me More...