Cyber-Security Minister Never Used a Computer

Cyber-SecurityThere’s an absolutely fascinating story hitting the news about the Cyber-Security minister recently appointed in Japan. Yoshitaka Sakurada was unable to answer relatively simple computer related questions, eventually said he had never used a computer in his life, and went on to say he didn’t think it would be an issue.

Is he right? Is he delusional? Must the minister of Cyber-Security have intimate knowledge of computers? Must any manager have a strong understanding of the job her or his workers are performing?

At first glance it would seem a manager is in the best position to succeed if she or he has firm knowledge of the work being done, but management philosophy doesn’t necessarily support this idea. It is generally considered a good idea to promote an excellent worker into a management position over a project with which she or he is unfamiliar. The idea being that if the manager is overly hands-on it is detrimental to the project. The job of a manager is to get the most out of people, not do the actual work.

It’s quite possible Sakurada will be an excellent Cyber-Security Minister. His specialty might be in managing people and that’s good enough. It’s also possible that his lack of knowledge over the division he is managing might prove a liability in the minds of those working under him. He might end up being a terrible minister. The point is, we don’t know. That’s what performance-based evaluation is all about.

The person who promoted Sakurada to Cyber-Security minister needs to accept responsibility for the outcome of this move. That’s the way it should be. We can certainly say a person appears to be unqualified for a position. We can argue that a recent trade involving our favorite sports team was misguided. We can criticize or praise any such decision, that’s well and good. But we can’t know the outcome until we see the results.

What is vitally important is to assess the results with critical thinking skills. The person who appointed Sakurada wants him to succeed and we see, all too often, excuse after excuse, spin after spin, justification after justification, to explain why failure is actually success. That’s the real problem. Not the hiring of Sakurada or anyone else for that matter.

It is important to make the hire for good reasons rather than political expediency. That being said, it’s also important to withhold judgment until a body of evidence is presented. Good hires turn out bad and bad hires turn out well.

The best strategy is to hire the person you think best qualified and if they are unable to handle the job, accept responsibility and move on. The worst strategy is to hire someone not particularly qualified and make every excuse in the book to keep them in the position. Sadly, when it comes to politics, we often see the latter.

In this case, we’ll see.

Tom Liberman

Are the Samburu Heroes and Horrors?

SamburuAn animal rights activist friend of mine recently shared a Facebook post about the Samburu tribe’s conservation efforts in Northern Kenya, particularly in regards to Samburu National Reserve. If you were to read just this article you might think the Samburu people as astonishing heroes. Should, however, you read the Wikipedia article about their tribal practices in regards to young girls and women you would almost certainly come to the opposite opinion. Which is true?

This question dramatically illustrates the divide facing the people of the United States and those of the western style republics around the world. I’m here to tell you that Samburu are both heroes and horrors. I need not choose, nor do you.

I’m certain if my friend knew of the practices of Female Genital Mutilation and Child Rape associated with the Samburu she would never have shared the article about their wonderful efforts in conservation. Yet both the horrific practices and the heroic conservation efforts are part of the same package. As things currently stand, you do not have one without the other.

There is nothing wrong with my friend’s lauding of Samburu and their efforts protect the animals that share their little part of the world. They have done good and wonderful things. There is also nothing wrong with the many who lambaste them for their vile practices in regards to young girls.

Likewise, we should applaud a politician who does something that works and lambaste her or him when he or she does something wrong. This is, sadly, not the world in which we live. It seems we are becoming increasingly uncaring of actual deeds and the cause and effect of hateful words. We care more about who is delivering the message than the words themselves. We make any excuse to exonerate someone we support and find any sliver of blame to eviscerate those we oppose.

The Samburu are not completely vile nor wholly exemplary. They are a bit of both. We might weigh one against the other and come up with some sort of final balance but why not laud the good and oppose the bad? At the height of election season, I see ads claiming the wonder and glory of one side and the degenerate evil of the other.

Consider voting for the most decent human in the election. That would be the one who treats their opponent with dignity and respect, for isn’t that the way they would care for the nation?

I would, you might say to me with a sad shake of your head, but there aren’t any. I’m sad to agree. Do try to remember, there are more than two political parties.

Tom Liberman

Angry and Intolerant this is Who We Are

Angry IntolerantA number of angry, intolerant, unreasoning, and disgusting attacks have taken place recently and everywhere I see politicians and others talking about how “This isn’t who we are.” The reality is that this is exactly who we are. We might not like looking in the mirror. We can certainly pretend we don’t want this, don’t fuel it by passing along intolerant rhetoric without regard for truth, but the reality is this nation has become increasingly angry and intolerant.

Not a day goes by without a friend of mine on social media, people who undoubtedly consider themselves to be decent, moral, and kind; saying something nasty about a person who disagrees with them on some social or political issue. Moron! Idiot! Sheep! Trying to destroy our country!

Not a day goes by when a media personality doesn’t angrily denounce and make outrageous claims about the fate of the nation if a particular person is allowed to get away with their agenda.

Not a day goes by without an angry politician vilifying someone from the opposite party for their vision of the United States.

We are angry and intolerant. That is what the people of our nation are today. Perhaps it was different in the past and maybe it will change in the future but not today. This is exactly who we are as a people. If you agree with my politics then I will support every vile thing you say, I will excuse every disgusting action you take, I will pass along any lie that supports you. If I disagree with your politics there is nothing about you worthwhile. You are out to destroy this nation and there is no lie, no misinformation, no twisting of the facts that I won’t pass along in an attempt to hurt you.

This is exactly who we are. This fact is displayed loudly by the politicians we elect, by the news shows we watch, and by our own vitriolic and unreasoning mindset available on display at the social media platform of your choice. I see it every day, over and over again. You cannot convince me with your meaningless words, spoken only after horrific tragedy, that you, that we, are not in some way enabling the violence.

The more the anger rises, the greater the chance for violence. We are angry, we are intolerant, and some people are twisting this irrationality into violent and deadly assaults.

Don’t tell me what we are not. Show me.

Tom Liberman

Pluto is What Pluto is

PlutoIs Pluto a planet or a dwarf planet? This question has roiled both the scientific and public world for the last twelve years. When it was discovered way back in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh it was given the designation of planet. In 2006 the definition of what is a planet was changed and the little, relatively, world was reclassified as a dwarf planet.

I well understand the need to classify things so that we can communicate. Without definitions we have a difficult time expressing meaning to one another. In this case the reality is the only thing of importance. The designation means nothing. Pluto was discovered by humans back in 1930 but it has been galivanting about the solar system for billions of years in largely the form it is today. There is no name we can call it that will change its nature. Planet, Dwarf Planet, Kuiper Belt Object, whatever, it is the same. It is only we people who are upset about the classification and that is, to my way of thinking, somewhat telling.

Why do we care? Will it make any difference in your life? If Pluto is a planet are you better or worse? Is Pluto any different? The designation is merely so we can communicate effectively and the reality is in this case it doesn’t make any difference. The only chance of any confusion occurs if we are talking about the Disney character rather than the orbital body.

The question becomes why is it such a contention issue? Why do people have their own self-worth wrapped up in the fact that Pluto is or is not a planet? I cannot say for certain but I suspect the cause is related to our ego. We want to be right. We want to be better and smarter than the other people. We find like-minded allies and pat ourselves on the back at how smart we are because we know Pluto is one thing or another. This somehow validates our feelings about ourselves and that’s a shame.

Pluto is what Pluto is, regardless of the designation we give it. You are who you are, with no importance given to what others may call you. Nothing changes. The kind of person you choose to be is defined by other things: The way you behave towards others, the things you say about other people. Your behavior defines you. Your existence. Not the names people call you, that’s their problem.

What makes you a better or worse person has nothing to do with how others designate you. You are you and so Pluto is Pluto.

Tom Liberman

Good Intentions with Johnny Bobbitt and Kate McClure

Johnny Bobbitt*EDIT*

I’m sorry to say, it now appears this was a scam involving all three parties. There never were any good intentions at all. Still, much of the blog is applicable.

*END EDIT*

About a year ago there was a feel-good story in the news about a homeless man named Johnny Bobbitt helping a woman named Kate McClure when she ran out of fuel. Bobbitt, a homeless man living under a bridge near where McClure was stranded, walked to a gas station and spent his last dollars purchasing a canister of fuel to get her home. The aftermath is a study of good intentions when there is no plan.

McClure started a GoFundMe campaign in order to help Bobbitt out of his situation. The news went viral and soon enough they collected $400,000. Bobbitt is a drug addict. McClure and her boyfriend, Mark D’Amico now had a pile of money to manage and no plan. They aren’t financially savvy nor did they have any idea how to deal with a person in Bobbitt’s situation. They paid for rehab but, as is often the case, he relapsed.

Perhaps McClure and D’Amico had the best of intentions and for the moment let’s assume they did. D’Amico said much of the money from the fund going to Bobbitt was being spent on drugs. D’Amico pointed out that if they gave all the money directly to Bobbitt he’d probably be dead not long after. It’s a valid point. So, they had to manage the money. This takes time and costs money in and of itself. They missed work trying to organize it all and spent time and effort ferrying Bobbitt to his addiction meetings. To make up for this, McClure and D’Amico paid themselves from the GoFundMe campaign money. They took trips, purchased an expensive car, etc.

GoFundMe has launched an investigation into the idea the entire campaign was fraudulent. If the couple can’t account for the money they might well be facing prison. The donors who gave all that money are understandably upset much of it went to the couple instead of Bobbitt.

Meanwhile, Bobbitt is back to living under the bridge and panhandling because he doesn’t have any money. What’s the lesson in all of this? Good intentions are not enough. Grand ideas are not enough. You must make pragmatic and realistic plans. McClure and D’Amico should have immediately hired a financial advisor and a drug rehabilitation specialist to organize their efforts. This costs money, naturally. They chose to handle it themselves and now they face serious legal consequences.

This pattern of good intentions without a realistic plan is part and parcel of the fabric of our everyday life. Look no further than Washington D.C., your local government, or your church. You might well be a good person, a decent human being, and want to help. If you don’t plan you will most likely do far more harm than good.

Tom Liberman

Vaginal Rejuvenation, Chipotle Gift Cards, Ginger-less Ginger Ale, and Critical Thinking

Critical ThinkingA plethora of news stories in recent days reminded me why I’m of the opinion that the solutions to many of the problems we face today lies in teaching Critical Thinking skills from an early age. Solutions will never come from government warnings and the illusion we are safe because of such intervention does more harm than good.

Let’s take a look at the trio of stories that caught my attention. The Food and Drug Administration is now attempting to shut down various Vaginal Rejuvenation clinics whose services have no known efficacy and, if improperly performed, can cause harm. Many people have been fooled by a fake $100 gift card for Chipotle. Finally, a woman is suing Canada Dry because there is no ginger in their Ginger Ale despite advertisements that suggest there might be such.

What do all these things have in common? The people who are harmed lack Critical Thinking skills. In the first case, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has been vociferously lambasting Vaginal Rejuvenation as a scam for over ten years. Anyone who goes in for treatment of their body without doing at least a cursory investigation of the procedure about to happen is clearly not engaged in Critical Thinking.

At least some of the people who fell for the Chipotle scam gave away personal information to the scammers in order to get a free $100. Probably the motto of the Critical Thinking movement should be: Nihil est in vita liber. Nothing is Free in Life. If you thought Chipotle was going to let you purchase $100 worth of food for simply passing along a web link you are clearly lacking in Critical Thinking skills.

In the case of the ginger less Ginger Ale, the ingredients are on the bottle. Certainly, the advertising is designed to fool but if you want to make sure you get your daily dose of ginger, then it is imperative for you to look at ingredients.

All three of these problems require no government intervention. Certainly, if a medical procedure is botched there should be ramifications and the legal system can be invoked, but that would be for doing damage, not for you getting a stupid procedure that doesn’t work when there was readily available information to that effect.

We may look at the people fooled in all three cases and happily pat ourselves on the back for being too smart to avoid it but the reality is more sinister. As more and more people exhibit an inability to engage in Critical Thinking, the fabric of our society becomes unwound. Those of us capable of making good decisions are increasingly harmed by those who cannot. When a certain percentage of people in a society can no longer think critically, the society will most certainly be crushed.

More and more people entertain ludicrous conspiracy theories and act in ways that can potentially harm us all. This is dangerous for me and that’s the person I care about the most. I don’t really care that a bunch of idiots are harming themselves, that’s the way the world works. I care they are harming me.

How do we solve this problem? There is no way to account for everyone’s gullibility and stupidity. Some people will be foolish no matter how much we warn them. However, if we start teaching Critical Thinking skills at every step of the schooling process I’m of the opinion we will do far more good than any number of government regulations designed to protect us.

Nihil est in vita liber.

Tom Liberman

The Interesting Origins of a Witch Hunt

Witch HuntThe idea of a Witch Hunt is much in the news lately and I realized I didn’t really understand the origin of the practice. Off I go to find out more. Now, to be clear, I’m not talking about the modern usage in regards to politics but the ancient usage wherein people were accused, tried, found guilty, and murdered by the hundreds of thousands for doing something they could not possibly have done. If you aren’t fascinated by that, well, stop reading.

Witch Hunts date back throughout recorded history and likely beyond with the Code of Hammurabi being the first written instance of legal remedies. The code commands throwing the person who has had a spell cast upon them into the river. If they don’t drown, the person accused of casting the spell should be killed.

The impetus for a Witch Hunt, which we see widely across the globe in a variety of cultures, seems to be straight-forward enough. If misfortune befalls someone we look for a reason behind this occurrence. It is largely the same when fortune favors someone. We humans are pattern finders extraordinaire. We see shapes in clouds and rock formations. We look for cause and effect in virtually all aspects of our lives and this serves us exceedingly well for the most part.

Sadly, pattern recognition also leads us to see associations that don’t exist. If I lived in the middle ages it’s quite likely I would imagine that exceptionally crazy, er, passionate, girl at the gym to whom I am attracted to like a moth to the flame but who is currently in a relationship with some other poor sap was under some sort of spell. After all, how could she be remotely interested in someone besides me?

If I lived in Ancient Babylon I would throw myself into the river, first taking a few swimming lessons and taking a trial run or two, and, having survived, would have her current beau put to the fire while I took his house and hopefully her love. Win!

Interestingly enough, in ancient Greek there were no Witch Hunts but the Romans were not so logically inclined and persecuted and murdered those thought to cast evil incantations or spells. This was curtailed, believe it or not, by the introduction of Christianity. The Old Testament has the famous Exodus passage thou shall not suffer a witch to live but early Christians frowned upon witchcraft as it was considered blasphemous to suggest people could cast spells. Let nobody presume to kill a foreign serving maid or female servant as a witch, for it is not possible, nor ought to be believed by Christian minds.

By the late middle ages this sensible approach was abandoned when witchcraft was determined to be a result of Satanic Worship. Those people who worshipped the devil were, in fact, capable of casting evil spells. After this various European communities went through periods where the Witch Hunt was common and at least tens of thousands of people were put to death.

By the 18th century such murders were dying out in the western world although are still taking in certain places in Africa, South-Central Asia, Papua New Guinea, and Saudi Arabia. People are still executed in all of these places.

The lesson to be learned from all of this? To me it’s fairly obvious. Just because something happens that doesn’t have an obvious explanation is no indicator of a supernatural cause. As an Atheist, I’m willing to go further. There are as many people of casting malevolent magical spells in this world as there are gods. That is to say, none.

Tom Liberman

The Red Hen and Masterpiece Cakeshop

Red Hen Masterpiece CakeshopRecently the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was asked to leave a restaurant called the Red Hen because they didn’t like her political ideology as expressed in her job. Before that a bakery called Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to make a wedding cake for a homosexual couple because of their sexual orientation.

The two stories are intertwined in an interesting way for this Libertarian. The battle lines have been drawn, as they say. For me the two cases do not present any sort of ethical dilemma. As far as I’m concerned, the ownership of both The Red Hen and Masterpiece Cakeshop have every right to serve, or not serve, who they want as long as they do not run afoul protected classes. Neither homosexuals or political appointees are guarded by the Constitution, so far. From a legal standpoint, I support both businesses.

From a professional perspective and from a human level I would not have done the same if I was the owner of either the cake shop or the restaurant. I think if I am going to start a business of any sort, I should respect both myself and my customers, regardless of their sexual orientation or political philosophy. From a personal standpoint, I oppose both business owners.

It’s really that simple for me. I don’t have to think much about it. I don’t have to worry about my political ideology or my personal distastes. I have a job and I try to do it as best I can regardless of other factors.

I’m aware we can get into nuance here. What if a group of Nazis wanted to have a birthday party at my restaurant? Would I allow it? Particularly if they were going to display paraphernalia supporting hatred of Jews. I’m actually of the opinion that I’d have them although I’d probably require modest, rather than overt, displays of their beliefs.

If a person with a white supremacist or a rainbow tattoo wanted to dine at my establishment I think I’d have no issue and attempt to serve them the best meal possible. I think we’d all be better off if we treated each other fairly and with decency regardless of personal convictions.

Now, if the same person was loudly and belligerently expressing their hatred of Jews or heterosexuals while dining, I’d feel within my rights to ask them to please express their beliefs in a more subdued fashion. If they refused, I’d consider asking them to leave. As long as they were polite and treated my business with respect, I like to think I’d keep any problems I had with their philosophies to myself.

Certainly, many of the people who I helped with software development were of deeply held religious beliefs. I’m an Atheist. I didn’t let that stop me from doing the best job I could. So, I have some evidence to support my convictions as expressed here.

I do find it extraordinarily interesting that, to some degree, those who support Masterpiece Cakeshop are opposed to Red Hen and vice-versa.

I think this is where critical thinking and a consistent philosophical outlook can make the world a better place. Where everyone gets to have their food or cake and eat them too. A boy can dream.

Tom Liberman

Yanny and Laurel and the Nature of Reality

Yanny LaurelThere has arisen a large kerfuffle amongst people who hear either Yanny or Laurel when a particular sound is played. It seems impossible to those listening and hearing one of the two that those who claim to hear the other are being completely honest. This gives us an interesting opportunity to peer into the realm of what we think of as Reality. Of Subjectivity versus Objectivity.

There is both an objective and subjective reality in this situation. The sound being played is propagating through the air as an audible wave of pressure. Devices can measure this wave and display it visually as a wavelength. With some small variances depending on the sensitivity of such devices and also the variance of the sound projecting machine this Yanny or Laurel wave has an objective reality.

However, every human ear is of a different shape and the tiny bones that detect those audible waves are not the same from person to person. Everyone likely hears the sound slightly differently. Our brains are all configured differently and interpret the sounds with slight variances. The fact people seem to hear one of the two, Yanny or Laurel is interesting but not surprising. We have no problem accepting the fact that groups of people have various levels of color blindness. That many groups see green in one way and others in another fashion.

The reality of the sound wave is objectively true. The reality of our interpretation of that wave is subjectively true. I might hear Yanny and be perfectly correct while another person might hear Laurel and be equally without error. A third person might hear something completely different or relatively close to Yanny or Laurel, they also would be right.

This presents me no discomfort. Communication is not at all about the sound wave but, instead, the meaning behind it. Words are merely grunts to which we assign meaning in order to communicate ideas with one another. It’s difficult for me to order lunch if the waitperson doesn’t speak the same language as I do. This is the entire purpose of communication and, to a certain degree, defines our reality.

The sound wave that generates Yanny or Laurel is the same either way and yet what we hear is slightly different. As long as we can come to some mutual understanding of the sound and its meaning, then everything is perfectly fine. Now, let’s imagine I’m having a conversation with the leader of a belligerent power and I use a word meaning one thing to me but she interprets it to mean something else. Then we’ve got a problem.

When we speak different languages, we are using two completely dissimilar sounds to convey the same idea. As long as the idea is effectively communicated that is the entirety of our concern. The objective reality of the sound wave is meaningless, it is our subjective understanding of it that is of paramount importance.

Much of the life we lead follows this exact same principle. A red light means nothing without our interpretation of it to stop the car. The red light is objectively what it is. It is a truth. In our society we have learned to stop at a red light but other societies might have completely different rules in regards to traffic. Both are subjectively right for the circumstances.

This is not to discount objective reality. There is such a thing and our common understanding of it largely determines the subjective reality we experience. Most words don’t have the duality of Laurel and Yanny. Most words are understandable to everyone and have particular subjective meaning that aligns directly with the objective sound wave. When two different people hear the same word, they assign the same meaning to it. This is important.

It’s possible for someone to interpret the word, “Hello” to mean something derogatory and punch me in the face after I utter it to them. Subjectively they might be hearing the derogatory word but objectively it has meaning and law is based upon that meaning. When the ensuing court case, or my return fist, lands, the law will be on the side of the objective meaning of the word. Consequences will be meted out.

What does all this mean? You hear what you perceive but it’s not reality. It’s your interpretation of the real sound. Or, to be more succinct: It’s fine either way. Go have an ice cream.

Tom Liberman

The Woodchuck Conundrum

woodchuckI usually write articles about topics of little importance relating to Libertarian ideals but I thought I’d get serious for a moment and consider the age-old Woodchuck Conundrum. How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

The problems largely lie within the question itself and make it all but impossible to answer. Not that some more intelligent minds than my own haven’t made the attempt. The first problem lies in the nature of the marmot in general. What exactly is a woodchuck? The generally accepted culprit is the groundhog. We might accept this as our answer but there is a thin layer of mistrust already hovering over our final answer. Might it actually be a beaver or even a termite?

Now, the groundhog is a fine fellow to be sure but according to Wikipedia its diet consists of grasses and berries. This becomes an issue when we examine the nature of chucking. What is it to chuck? Eat? Vomit? Excavate? Hurl over a fence? There seems to be no consensus on the issue and groundhogs in general don’t seem to have a particularly compelling correlation to trees or even lumber. Clearly chucking involves wood in some form. However, the riddle itself seems to indicate the groundhog might not able to perform the activity. That is to say, “if” a woodchuck could chuck wood.

Were we to ask, if Tom Liberman could date Jennifer Aniston, how long would they kiss? You might say, well, Mr. Liberman, handsome and witty as he might be, is not capable of dating Ms. Aniston. I beg to differ. While the odds are somewhat in the same realm as randomly guessing a 128-bit encryption key, they are not, to say, impossible. It could happen. So, perhaps, in the same way, the groundhog can chuck wood. This throws yet another difficulty at the feet of our query.

What if the woodchuck was actually a termite which does interact with wood? This leads us to our final problem. There is no timeframe in evidence. Even if we assume the nature of the beast and its relationship with wood and ability to chuck therein, we still can’t properly answer. Are we chucking for an hour? A day? A month? A year? Without this vital information we cannot with good conscience assay an answer to the conundrum.

This brings a light upon many such questions. If you ask a question in a certain way that makes it impossible to answer, and yet you demand an answer anyway, is not the problem your own? Should the burden be upon the questioner to ask a good and fair question? I think so.

The next time someone asks you a question that cannot be properly answered, insist they reword their query. Refuse to play their game!

Now, having arrived at this revelation, I think there is but a single conclusion to the Woodchuck Conundrum. For us to answer properly and fairly; Ms. Aniston must give me a call. I’ll be waiting.

Tom Liberman

United Airlines and Would You Trade a Quarterly Bonus for a Chance at a Big Prize?

United AirlinesUnited Airlines recently announced they were doing away with a quarterly bonus of $300 to all eligible employees and instituting a lottery wherein those same employees have a chance to win $100,000 and other prizes. What I’d like to ask is if you would want such a plan at your place of work?

Let’s look at the metrics. United Airlines employees almost 90,000 people although we have no way of knowing how many of those get the incentive bonus of $300. It is based on things like attendance so it doesn’t sound particularly difficult to achieve. I’m going to say that about a quarter of the employees get the bonus. That’s 22,000 bonuses of $300 awarded each quarter for a total of $6.6 million in payouts.

We have to do a bit more guesswork on the value of the remaining prizes United Airlines is giving out but let’s say the total package is worth $2 million. That’s a saving of $4.6 million dollars for the company. Pretty nifty. It might be more, it might be less, but I think it’s fair to say the new policy is designed to save the company money. United Airlines executives claim it will generate employee excitement but I think it’s reasonable to infer this line is somewhat disingenuous.

Under the old plan an employee who met the standards receives $300 each quarter. That’s not a life-changing sum by any imagination. A bonus of $100,000 and trips are, obviously, of significantly greater value to an individual employee. The employee who wins the bigger prize is quite happy while all the employees who gave up the $300 for nothing are not as thrilled. From a metric point of view that’s about 21,900+ employees who are angry and 100, depending on how many prizes are offered, who are happy, each quarter.

Will this mean more employees seek the bonus? Fewer? These are interesting questions to me. They speak to psychological motivations. Would you do more for the chance at a greater prize or do less because your chance of getting something is greatly diminished? Would it not change your work behavior at all?

What do you think?

Would you be for or against a plan like United Airlines?

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Tom Liberman

Will Study Disproving Fish Oil Health Benefits Dissuade Believers?

fish oilA study involving 78,000 people shows taking Fish Oil supplements does nothing to prevent heart attacks or in any way reduce heart disease. No surprise there. The American Heart Association came to similar conclusions in a study last year. That being said, I’m fairly confident the study will almost certainly not change the purchasing habits of the almost 21% of United States citizens. Why?

A quick perusal of the internet shows me that a bottle of the pills can cost as little as $10 and as much as $40. Why would anyone continue to make the purchases when there is clear, empirical evidence they are completely ineffective? There are a number of reasons including something called Confirmation Bias but what I’d like to discuss today is the role pride has in all of this.

Pride seems to drive any number of poor decisions. By concluding all the money spent on fish oil supplements over the years was wasted, we are admitting a certain level of stupidity. There has long been a great deal of skepticism about supplements in general and fish oil in particular. It is quite likely most of the people taking fish oil supplements have been spoken to by friends and family expressing doubt about the efficacy of the product. The women and men taking it, and spending money on it, over the years have almost certainly defended the practice.

Many aficionados have likely read about the supposed benefits of fish oil touted by the manufacturers and decided to believe these claims despite the skeptics. There is some sense of their own self-worth tied up in taking the supplements.
This pride will be manifestly displayed in people who continue to take fish oil pills even after being confronted with incontrovertible evidence of their ineffectiveness. What does this tell us? It suggests that Pride is indeed one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

The entire thing is really just an interesting study in human nature. We don’t like to be wrong and when I say we, I include myself. That being said, it is important to attempt to engage your critical thinking skills as much as possible when presented with information of this nature. If you take fish oil supplements, take a moment to consider the implications of the test. Take a few seconds to think about alerting your like-minded friends that the benefits do not exist, that taking the pills is not helpful to your health or to your financial future.

It is only when we can take our pride out of the equation that we can hope to make better decisions.
And to finish things up, an informal poll. If twenty percent of people in the United States are at this time taking fish oil supplements then certainly a few people that read this article will be among them. Will this study, and the one’s the preceded it, dissuade you from future purchases?

What is your take on Fish Oil Supplements

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Tom Liberman

Bob McNair was the Apology a Lie?

Bob McNairThe owner of the Houston Texans, Bob McNair, recently made a comment for which he later apologized. A National Football League player named Richard Sherman thinks the original statement was a true indication of the feelings McNair has and that the apology is merely pretend. What I’m going to discuss is not the nature of the comment itself but the reality of Sherman’s analysis.

To get you up to speed, there is an ongoing issue in the NFL in which players are kneeling or otherwise protesting during the playing of the national anthem. The owners largely do not like this. McNair was quoted as saying something along the lines of: We cannot let the prisoners run the asylum. This equates the players in the NFL to incarcerated people. McNair was apparently confronted shortly after making the statement and he apologized.

Sherman believes McNair truly meant the statement, that he associates the players with inmates. People who should have no say as to how the team is managed. Sherman believes the apology a lie motivated by politically correctness.

Sherman believes McNair is not alone in his opinion. Sherman thinks other NFL owners feel the same way, players are to be used as best as possible and discarded when their productive years are behind them. Sherman also believes not all owners think like this. He thinks the owner of his team, Paul Allen, does not think this way about his players.

We cannot know for certain if McNair’s original statement is his true opinion or not but I think it’s an interesting question. Did McNair mean it when he compared NFL players to prisoners in an institution? Is he bowing to business expediency and political correctness by pretending to apologize?

I think Sherman’s opinion is legitimate. I think there is quite a good chance McNair truly believed what he said and, upon reflection, realized it was a terrible thing to say. Or perhaps McNair is simply pretending to apologize. That he, in his heart, believes what he original said. Again, we have no way of knowing the answer to this question, only McNair can tell us.

Sherman goes on to make an incredibly interesting point. He says he would rather McNair tell the truth, even if it is antithetical to Sherman’s own beliefs. Sherman would rather know the honest opinion of McNair and thereafter avoid him.

Let’s imagine I know someone whose opinions on a subject are deeply offensive to me. Would I rather they pretend not to have those opinions when around me, or would I prefer if they told me exactly what they were thinking? I find myself in complete agreement with Sherman. If you have an opinion, state it. If I don’t like it, well, it’s up to me to decide if I want to be around you in the future. Sure, when you make a statement I don’t like, I can speak up. Trust me, I do. If you refuse to back down then we are at an impasse. The ball is in my court. I can choose to associate with you in the future or I can choose to avoid events at which we might meet. If we do meet, I can choose to circumvent topics of conversation where I know we conflict and focus on areas where we might agree.

I do not disagree with anyone about all things nor do I agree completely with anyone on all subjects. I, like Sherman, would prefer to know you true opinions. Then I can make judgments and take actions that I deem appropriate.

My opinions are in my blogs and my novels for all to see. I’m an Atheist. I’m a Libertarian. I don’t suffer fools lightly. If that offends you, and there are many who are offended, then the ball is in your court. You can choose to engage me or avoid me. You can choose not to be friends with me on Facebook so you don’t have to see my thoughts on various topics. That’s cool. I respect that.

I think that’s Sherman’s point here. He wants McNair to be honest. If they disagree, so be it. What he doesn’t like is saying one thing while behind the scenes doing something else entirely. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t apologize if you say something and upon further examination realize it was truly awful. You are allowed to change your opinion. I certainly hope McNair is truly sorry for what he said, that he realizes the condescending nature of his statement. Then the apology is warranted and should be accepted.

I’m sure Sherman, and others, will be watching McNair more closely in the future. Will his actions down the road support his original statement or the apology? That’s the true test. We can say anything we want. It’s our actions that prove the integrity of our words.

Tom Liberman

Taylor Winston and the Case for Relative Morality

taylor winstonAs an Atheist, one of the things I talk about frequently is the relative nature of ethics. My religious friends believe their morality is handed down from god to them. I argue that morality is not fixed by any being, be it god or the government, but is subject to interpretation. This reasoning usually does not find purchase with such friends. I hope the case of Taylor Winston and stealing might make the point clearer.

Stealing is wrong or stealing is usually wrong. The former statement is an absolute statement of morality and is found pretty much verbatim in the bible. Thou Shall Not Steal. There are no caveats. This is the argument made by my religious friends. The second statement is not so stringent. Stealing is generally wrong but it circumstantially could be the right thing to do. This is the argument often made by Atheists.

I think the case of Winston might resonate with my religious friends. He was attending the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas. He was among the crowd, along with friends, when the gunfire began to rain down upon them. He managed to escape over some fencing while helping others do the same. Then, seeing the many wounded, he went to the parking lot and found a vehicle with keys. He illegally entered the vehicle, started it, and drove it to the hospital with victims of the attack. He then returned and ferried more people in the stolen truck.

The public reaction to Winston and his actions pretty much proves the point of relative morality. If stealing is wrong without question, if we follow the word of god’s morality; there can be no question Winston was in direct violation of the 7th or 8th commandment, depending on the version. Winston should suffer whatever punishment a society based on religion should choose to enforce, perhaps chopping his hands off.

My question for anyone reading this blog post is what did you first think about the story of Winston and the truck stealing? What was your immediate and instant reaction? I’d be enormously surprised if anyone thought Winston committed an immoral act, including the owner of the truck.

I suppose some argument can be made that he simply borrowed the truck but the reality is Winston saw a situation in which he needed something that did not belong to him and took it. It’s that simple. In this particular case he did the ethical thing, the right thing. Not only should he not be punished but he should be rewarded.

This is one of many reasons I’m an Atheist. Please feel free to join me.

Tom Liberman

Pascal’s Wager is all about Integrity

pascal's wagerI was watching my favorite Atheist Based show, Atheist Experience, when they once again took on the topic of Pascal’s Wager. For me it all comes down to integrity. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. What is Pascal’s Wager?

The idea is an interesting study of probability and decision theory. The premise is that a belief in god will bring an almost infinite reward, eternal happiness in heaven. If, on the other hand, you do not have such belief, you suffer eternal damnation. This is where the wager becomes a true bet rather than a religious argument. What is there to lose or gain in belief or lack thereof?

Let’s say you could wager a penny to win a million dollars. No matter how long the odds of the bet, you’d most likely take that gamble. It’s essentially the same thing as spending a dollar on a lottery ticket when the reward is hundreds of millions of dollars. The single dollar you spend has no real effect on your life and the reward is so enormous, it’s worth taking.

Even if you are almost certain god does not exist, the reward of believing and the punishment for not believing makes it silly to do anything else. Why not believe? You don’t have to go to church, you don’t have to express that belief to others, your life doesn’t really have to change all that much. You just have to believe to get the reward and barely give up anything at all.

Well, that is if you don’t value your integrity. For me the loss in believing is that I’m lying to myself, I’m lying to my family, I’m lying to all my friends. I don’t believe in god. I think the very idea is rather silly. I am certain there is no heaven and if it existed, I wouldn’t want to go as it is run by a misogynistic, murdering, despot.

If I decide to believe in god in order to get a reward although it is against everything my rational mind derives; I have no integrity. What won’t I do? Lying, stealing, cheating, raping, murdering are now on the table, as long as doing so likely benefits me. Why wouldn’t I kill my parents to get the money I’d inherit, particularly if I was certain to get away with it? Here is some news for you; I wouldn’t seek to murder anyone, or rape anyone, or steal from anyone; no matter how certain it was that no one would ever find out. Because doing that to other people is wrong, just as if they did it to me.

Pascal argues that believing in god doesn’t hurt me in any way. That is where he is wrong. Stating that I believe something that I do not destroys my own sense of self-worth. I would be living a lie. My integrity would be gone. If I were to do such a thing I would loathe myself for the rest of my life.

The idea behind the wager itself is worth discussing. The concept of risk-reward is something you should think about when making decisions in your own life. What have I to gain and what is there to lose? Those are questions that should be answered before making major life decisions.

In this case the potential loss is greater than the reward, at least for me. The question is valid, I hope my answer is clear.

Tom Liberman

 

 

The Solar Wall and President Trump

solar wallPresident Trump made building a wall between Mexico and the United States a big part of his campaign although actually funding it has proved difficult. He recently suggested putting solar panels on the wall. A solar wall as it were, so that it could pay for itself. That’s the thought process I’d like to examine. Yes, the thought process.

What’s the first thing you think about when using solar panels? For me, what comes immediately to mind is the idea they have to face the sun. Unfortunately, by far the greatest surface area of a wall is going to be facing away from the sun. A wall, by its nature, is up and down with a narrow top. Now, it’s certainly possible to make a wall of a greater thickness so solar panels can sit on top of it, but that’s going to dramatically increase the amount of material required for the wall, which of course, adds cost.

There is also the possibility of attaching angled panels to this solar wall but that would seem to largely defeat the purpose of a wall, to keep people from being able to cross over it. If there is a big, angled roof to the thing, it would seem that scaling it would be made significantly easier.

Anyway, let’s imagine there is some way to attach the panels to the solar wall without greatly increasing the cost of the base material of the wall while not inhibiting its stated goal of preventing people from crossing over from Mexico.

How do we get the generated power from the power source to the people who need the energy? That’s an enormous problem with all power plants. You have to be able to transfer the energy to users. This is done through infrastructure. Traditional power plants are built in a single location so all power lines can emanate from them. With a solar wall, this is not possible. Basically, your power generation is occurring over a huge area. So, in addition to the panels the entire infrastructure must be created to take that power and distribute it. The cost of this is something I’ll leave to your imagination.

And this is what I’m talking about. These are thoughts that I’m almost certain didn’t even begin to occur to President Trump. He doesn’t think things through. That’s not a quality I admire in anyone. Let alone the President of the United States.

Honestly, this is what I imagine. “You know, President Trump, we’re having a terrible time getting financing from Congress to build that wall. You know what would be cool? Solar panels on it!”

Trump, “That’s a great idea, hey, when’s lunch?”

Then at the next opportunity Trump touts the solar wall as a fully realized possibility without having given a moment’s thought to the practicality of building the thing. I’m serious here, when you heard Trump talking about the solar wall what was your first thought? Mine was, interesting idea, but how is that going to happen? Yet I watch people cheering madly an idea that it seems to me is obviously impractical if not impossible, and certainly not cost effective.

I suppose this is the world in which we find ourselves. Sigh.

Tom Liberman

Rick Perry and Supply and Demand

rick perrySecretary of Energy Rick Perry apparently incorrectly defined Supply and Demand while speaking to workers at a coal-fired power plant in West Virginia. What I’d like to talk about today is Perry’s understanding of the idea of Supply and Demand, not so much his mistaken understanding of the meaning.

What Perry said is this: Here’s a little economics lesson: supply and demand. You put the supply out there, and the demand will follow. The real law of Supply and Demand does not mean that, but I’m not going to get into what it really means. I’d like to discuss Perry’s actual statement, which presumably he believes.

The idea is related to something called Say’s Law. Basically, if a product is put out there, people will purchase it. It’s not exactly what Perry said but it has correlation. Say’s Law was largely meant as a way to understand how we get gluts of particular products, excess that people are not purchasing. It was generally considered correct until the Great Depression when a great supply of workers created no demand. It is now almost the opposite of current economic theories. Supply is created by demand. If people want something, others will produce it.

I don’t want to get into a complex economic dissertation here, one I am not qualified to make. It seems fairly logical to me that the very idea people will simply purchase something because it is available is nonsense. This is even more true in today’s connected world than it was around the turn of the century, primarily because people have access to far more information. They can look at competing products and decide which they want to purchase.

Now, we could talk about marketing. Certainly, that gets people to purchase products they perhaps do not need or want. Even then it is not the mere presence of the product that is driving demand. You can ask any retail store manager. If they put more of a low-selling product on the shelf, they are largely going to have extra inventory.

That’s what disturbs me about the statement. Not that Perry incorrectly defined Supply and Demand, but that he apparently thinks what he said is true. He wouldn’t have said it otherwise, unless he misspoke, which is possible. It seems to me he said what he meant to say.

Happily, it’s not a big deal, Perry is the Secretary of Energy. Wilbur Ross is the Secretary of Commerce and if he made that statement, well, then I’d be concerned. So, basically, a bit of a useless kerfuffle. Still, I learned something about economic theory, so it wasn’t a total loss.

Tom Liberman

The Election Integrity Commission Spawned by Circular Reasoning Fallacy

election integrity commissionAh, what danger we weave when first we practice to use Circular Reasoning. President Trump believes he won the popular vote but the tally indicates otherwise. This means there must be something wrong with the count. This means we now have something called the Election Integrity Commission which will suck up millions of dollars, vast resources, and most certainly violates the spirit of the Constitution of the United States if not the letter.

I, Tom Liberman, am always right.

How do you know, Tom?

Because I said so and I’m always right.

As ridiculous as that sounds, this sort of logic is the reason we have the Election Integrity Commission.

Trump absolutely believes he won the popular vote in the election, his hubris will not allow any other explanation. He said as much on any number of occasions. Each state is in charge of how they choose to assign their Electors, as is expressly declared by the Constitution of the United States. Without exception, they use popular voting as this method.

The various states don’t believe there is any significant voter fraud. There is certainly no evidence of widespread voter fraud. Therefore, they are largely refusing to turn over to the federal government any of the information they have gathered in regards to voting. They view it as an overreach. I agree.

The problem here all stems from circular reasoning. Trump believes something for which there is no evidence. This becomes a problem for a man with an apparently unshakeable belief in his every pronouncement. When we say something that is wrong, our first tendency is to attempt to support the statement when others refute it. When the person trying to support an almost certainly suspect premise is in a position of power, we get things like the Election Integrity Commission. If this doesn’t worry you, then you’re reading the wrong blog.

A person who appears ready to violate the Constitution of the United States in a vainglorious attempt to support what is almost certainly an untrue statement is a dangerous figure. I realize that I’m stepping on dangerous legal grounds when I assume the request made by the commission for information about the voters in the various states is unconstitutional. I don’t have a background in Constitutional Law. I could be wrong about a legal violation but I’m certain I’m right about a violation in spirit.

The federal government is not supposed to be meddling in how states run their elections and for good reason. How an election is conducted is under the purview of the state.

I’m not completely naïve, I know the United States has had special commissions created not to find truth, but to spread unwarranted seeds of doubt. That being said, this is the first time I recall such an investigation being a direct attempt to prove as true a presidential misstatement. This is the first time I’ve seen Circular Reasoning from the President of the United States send so many people scrambling into action.

The danger here is manifest. If the government feels obligated to force its version of the truth on the people of the country, we are living in dangerous times. Trump, or any other politician, can say as they please, it is only when their actions threaten me that I become alarmed. What concerns me about this is not so much the Election Integrity Commission, it is certainly stupid and I’m glad most states are refusing to cooperate, but the long-term implications of a head of state who not only cannot admit a mistake, but must manufacture, via dubious Constitutional actions, a truth that fits the narrative.

I hope it concerns you as well.

Tom Liberman

 

Chris Soules and Venus Williams

Chris Soules Venus Williams
There were two car accidents recently in which a person died. One of the accidents was caused by a white man, Chris Soules, with a strong belief in Jesus as his savior who also happens to live in rural Iowa. The other was caused by a black woman, Venus Williams. She doesn’t speak of her religion and lives in an urban environment. I find the general tenor of the comments on the two stories to be incredibly telling. First let’s look at the accidents.

Soules purchased liquor at a store. He smashed into the back of a tractor sending it into the ditch and killing the driver. Soules then reported the accident, waited for paramedics to arrive, but then fled the scene before police arrived. He went home and when officers came to question him he refused to come out for five hours. Open liquor containers were found in his car.

Venus Williams attempted to make a right turn but traffic prevented her from moving forward. She was stuck in the middle of the intersection, which is her fault. She shouldn’t have made the turn without it being clear. Another car didn’t notice and ran into her vehicle from the side. One of the passengers was an elderly man who was taken to the hospital where he eventually died two weeks later.

Now that you know the circumstances of the two accidents can you guess the general thoughts in the comments sections? Williams is a murdering scum who deserves to be put in prison. Soules is a poor unfortunate who hit a tractor that probably didn’t have its lights on and maybe cut in front of him and possibly he was tired and it was going to take the police a long time to get to the scene so he just went home. He was asleep so when the police were yelling at him to come out and calling his phone for five hours, he just slept through it. He feels terrible about the accident and has been punished enough. What purpose does it serve sending him to prison?

If you aren’t disgusted by the stark contrast between these two reactions there is something wrong with you.

I’m not saying everyone is exonerating Soules and eviscerating Williams but I am saying that the majority of comments on both stories are exactly as I’m portraying them.

I’m not sure how much of it is a black and white thing or a belief in Jesus thing but it is most definitely a thing. And it is horrific.

I’m not saying Williams is completely innocent or Soules is totally guilty of a crime. I’m just saying the reaction to both is out of proportion and based on things other than actual facts.

I really don’t have a whole lot to add. There is something seriously wrong with the critical thinking skills of people in this country. There are many people in this nation who are filled with unjustifiable rage against people they perceive as different. I don’t get it. I never will. But I can speak out against it.

Tom Liberman

Where a Hugging Seal and Whale is Fake News

seal whaleA photo of what appears to be a Beluga Whale and a Southern Fur Seal apparently hugging one another spread across social media much like a wildfire. It’s a fake news photo. I’d like to spend a little time analyzing why so many people loved the image and viewed it as some sort of harmonious moment in an ever more tumultuous world, and how this relates to the more dangerous phenomenon of fake news.

To toot my own horn for a moment, I saw the picture myself and immediately guessed it was a fake. Believe me if you will, I have no evidence of my opinion. I’m quite sure most of the people who believed the photo to be real, or at least suspected it was authentic, are now of the opinion they knew it was a fake all along.

Anyway, a few days later when the image was definitively proved as a fake, it hit the news again. A lot of people are apparently upset. The artist herself, Elena Vizerskaya, has a webpage where she creates many fake photos. It was from the site it spread so quickly through the internet.

Why did people believe the image? Why are they so angry it turned out to be a digitally created? I think that’s a fascinating subject for discussion.

It’s a sweet image. Two animals apparently embracing. We humans like to anthropomorphize animals; that is to say, we like to think animals display the same sort of behavior patterns as we humans. When we hug another person, it is a sign of affection. When two creatures of different species do the same, we see some sort of metaphor in which the world can be a united and better place. If a seal and a whale can love each other, why can’t we?

We want the world to be like this. Where everyone gets along and there is harmony and joy. Thus, when we see an image that seems to validate this desire, we are inclined to give it more credence than is deserved. This is called a Wishful Thinking Fallacy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the picture was true gives way to the conclusion the picture is true.

We run into this way of thinking virtually every day, and it leads us to faulty conclusions. The people who truly believed the photograph then create a world for themselves in which the photograph was real. When the person so believing is given strong, or even irrefutable, evidence the original photograph was not real, we often see one of three results.

One group of people will continue to assert the photo is real. They will deny the evidence of the website finding some excuse to continue with their belief. Perhaps the photo is real but being denied because the government has a secret program going onto move Southern Fur Seals from the Antarctic to the Arctic. Certainly, President Trump or former President Obama would be the instrument of this conspiracy.

Another response is to accept the new evidence and feel betrayed, lied to. This group of people is furious at those who they perceive wronged them. They will lash out violently, with words at least, and probably blame one of the two aforementioned presidents at some point or another in their rant.

The third possibility, and the one usually in least abundance, is that people thus mistaken laugh, shake their heads, and admit they were rather silly to believe such an obviously fake photo. Sadly, there aren’t very many people in that third group left in the world.

Thus, we see the photograph as a microcosm of all the Fake News in the world today. It seems to me people have largely succumbed to the Wishful Thinking Fallacy when it comes to political decisions. I think most people do not do this when dealing with business and personal choices that have an immediate impact on their life. But when it comes to politics, we seem perfectly happy to accept any reality that matches what we want for this world.

It is only when we develop the ability to laugh at our mistakes that Fake News will lose its power. I’m not holding my breath.

Tom Liberman