I wonder

March 27, 2007

Every time I hear the phrase “freedom isn’t free” repeated, I wonder why nobody ever seems to question it.

Not that I don’t think it’s true.  But since everything has a cost, and therefore nothing is really free, it puzzles me what the point is supposed to be.

You only hear it said in a certain context, in which it appears to mean something like, “In order to remain a free country, we periodically must send soldiers to remote parts of the world to kill people and break things, and to be killed and broken themselves in turn.”

Isn’t that what it means?  I could be missing something.

It looks like the underlying assumption in all this is that if we can somehow manage to kill the right people and break the right things, we can improve the overall situation.  All that is far from obvious to me, stupid as I may be.  In any case, “FIF” raises a whole lot of questions, and the first of many is:

What happens if all those brave and noble people “pay the price” for our freedom, and we still don’t get any?  Then what?

Quotes of the day

March 27, 2007

I’m currently reading Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.  Interesting stuff.  The copyright date is 1965, and now that I’ve read several of the more popular writing books published since then, I think I know now that this is the book a lot of those subsequent authors were pilfering ideas from.

Oddly, I’d never heard of this book until recently.  But at about 50 pages in, it sure looks like the mother lode for someone who’d like to write salable work—that is to say, write something that a non-relative would want to read.

I’m learning why it’s so hard for me to find time to write, too.  Swain says:

The greatest talent in writing is nerve: You bet your ego that your unconscious has something in it beside dinner.

If there’s anything I lack, it’s nerve.  He also says about planning and preparation:

Everyone has a God-given right to go to hell in his own way.

I think he’s getting ready to explain why writing involves a lot more than just cranking out pages of copy.  But that comes much later in the book.

Anyway, maybe this book will help overcome my doubts and put me on a better track.

Quote of the Day Dept.

March 16, 2007

From Salon:

Chris Rock thinks the country may be ready for Barack Obama to move into the Oval Office, telling Life magazine, “It’s ready for a retarded president, why wouldn’t it be ready for an African American president?”

I wonder what Eddie Murphy would have to say about this.  I don’t know what he thinks of Bush, but I vividly remember a bit from Murphy’s early standup days—his impression of the first black president giving his inaugural address.  It went like this:

“My fellow Americans—” [gunshot rings out]

Chris Rock’s comment, bitter and funny as it is, sounds a lot more optimistic than Murphy used to.

This doesn’t mean that the doors to the White House are wide open to any qualified candidate, though.  A study last year from the University of Minnesota found that a wide majority of voters wouldn’t vote for an atheist no matter how well qualified.

I guess I’ll have to stick by the view that the political process does a better job of perpetuating social problems than relieving them.  In my admitted ignorance I can’t think of a single major social problem that’s been solved by political means; that seems to happen mostly by social movements that challenge the political system.  I think the main function of politics is to prop up people’s Confidence in the System by reassuring them that something is being done.

Anyway, as low as my opinion of politics is, our current Oval Office occupant has rid me of the notion that it doesn’t matter which loser is in charge.  But he does demonstrate that political power in general is a better instrument for harm than for good.

Workplace Camaraderie

March 15, 2007

I have to tell you this office story because it’s what Dear Abby used to call “a dandy day-brightener.”

One of my work duties is secondary time-sheet person.  There’s a lady who takes everybody’s time sheets and enters them into the system so we all can get paid.  If she can’t do it for some reason, I do it instead.  She’s not allowed to enter her own time sheet, so she has had someone else doing hers.  Someone who is not me.

Now she has decided that the other person is messing up her time sheets, so she’s going to have me do them for her instead.  That’s fine.  It’s no big time-consuming challenge.

But to borrow a phrase from R. Crumb, what’s so goddamned delightful about the situation is the way she chose to inform me of the change in responsibilities.  Here’s how she launched the conversation:

“Okay, well, I guess I’m going to have to trust you now.”

I didn’t exactly know how to react to this effusive display of confidence in my abilities, so I just said, “Hey, do you mind if I turn that into a needlepoint?  I can put it on the wall for when I need a morale boost.”

Then I told my boss, who I’m sure heard the whole exchange, that I was going to walk to visit another office “before my head gets too big.”

Smitty’s razor

March 1, 2007

Wikipedia describes Occam’s razor:

Occam’s razor (also spelled Ockham’s razor) is a principle attributed to the 14th-century English logician and Franciscan friar William of Ockham. The principle states that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible, eliminating, or “shaving off”, those that make no difference in the observable predictions of the explanatory hypothesis or theory. The principle is often expressed in Latin as the lex parsimoniae (law of succinctness or parsimony): entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem, which translates to: entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.

This is often paraphrased as “All things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the best one.”

In other words, when multiple competing theories are equal in other respects, the principle recommends selecting the theory that introduces the fewest assumptions and postulates the fewest hypothetical entities. It is in this sense that Occam’s razor is usually understood.

This is supposed to be one of the basic philosophical principles of the skeptical movement. You know the skeptics, right? They’re the ones who say you shouldn’t believe in ghosts, psychics, and alien conspiracies—only I sort of hesitate to call them a movement because they haven’t made much progress in recent years.

It’s a good rule of thumb, though, as far as it goes.  When you’re seeing unexplained lights in the sky, there’s no reason to suppose that they are alien spaceships.  First, because that answer doesn’t really tell us anything about what the lights are and what they’re doing.  And second, there are any number of simpler explanations for the appearance of lights in the sky, answers that don’t require you to assume the existence of something when there’s no evidence to support it.

Anyway, I have a corollary to add to the mix, called Smitty’s Razor.

“All things being equal, the most disappointing answer tends to be the correct one.”

That’s my new guideline, although I’ve been following it subconsciously for years.  Use it any way you like, but don’t be surprised if the results are disappointing.