Friday, September 28, 2007

Events in Burma and the Coalition of Peace.

Haven’t been blogging on world events much, or at all, but I think that, just in case someone is reading this from a cave somewhere, you should be aware that there is a small country called Myanmar, which was formerly known as Burma, that is going through some birthing pains right now.

What I mean by that is that while they are ruled by a pretty oppressive military oligarchy (or junta as the press records it), they are protesting against that government.  Thousands of civilians have massed in the streets every day for the last week or so, in protest of higher gas prices set by the government, but truly its pent up frustration of living under the thumb of the military for 20 years now.

In 1990, Burma had a fairly democratic movement, electing a president (a female no less), Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been more or less under house arrest for 18 years.

The interesting thing about the latest protests is that they’ve been led by Buddhist monks, and the monks are taking the brunt of the casualties up to now.

This regime is supported by China, who is hardly on the side of the worldwide call for the regime to stand down and stop brutally suppressing the protests.  Although they’ve made some weak noise lately for Myanmar to soften their actions. 

The neat thing about the article that I linked to above is it’s focus on how the news is getting out of the country.  With a forced moratorium on journalists during this crisis by the government, the only outlet for news is by citizen journalists using their cell phones to take video and text messaging eye-witnessed events.  Refugee Burmese media outlets in places like Thailand and Sweden have been getting information from citizens on the street and relaying that information worldwide.

So what I don’t understand is how dictators like those in Burma, and those listed below, think that the rest of the world has no idea just how cruel and vicious they really are.  There’s like this mental disconnect between what they’re telling us and what our press is telling us is really going on.  And we know this because of technology.   Take satellite imaging for instance:

      The American Association for the Advancement of Science said the high-resolution photographs taken by commercial satellites document a growing military presence at 25 sites across eastern Myanmar, matching eyewitness reports.  We found evidence of 18 villages that essentially disappeared," AAAS researcher Lars Bromley said in an interview.

As Instapundit says (who I got this last link from), “You can crack down, but you can’t hide.”

In related news (and I mean related only in the sense of vicious dictators), Iran and Zimbabwe announced that they are starting  a Coalition of Peace.  Hmmm.  Considering who these characters are snuggling up to in the past couple of years, I imagine that the members of this “coalition” will be countries like Iran, Syria, Sudan, Zimbabwe, North Korea, China, Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia.  Notice a trend? Gateway Pundit says: “The first act by the Coalition of Peace will be to wipe Israel off the map.”

I’ve been thinking about all these countries forming ties and acting like close buddies.  What’s the common denominator here, I mean besides oppressive oligarchy type governments?  Is it Soviet style communism?  You could say that for all the countries except for the African ones, really.  I’m not sure how much Sudan is socialist as much as it is theocratic/Arabic.  They are surly cozy with the Chinese money flooding in for their oil surplus.

Seriously, what does folk like Hugo Chavez see in a long term relationship with Iran and Syria?  Does Ahmadinejad tell Hugo in private that his rhetoric about world domination for Islam is just to whip the Muslims into an Anti-American frenzy, and that they really aren’t serious?

Perhaps there’s some sick need for fascist dictators to unite against the universal threat of Democracy.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sim God

If you’ve ever played a “Sim” game, you know how fun it is to try and manage and control the holistic worlds that are created within. Keep an entire city running. There’s even one of the entire earth, sort of. And as computer power continues to increase, the limits of how detailed those tiny universes are continues to expand.

My son has a Sim Zoo, which is the only one I’ve seen in full play mode in a long time. The fun in playing is that you don’t really know how to make everything work to your advantage, and you don’t know how it’ll all work out. In the mind of a 11 year old, though, sometimes the fun is in causing chaos. Like letting the lions out of their cages and seeing what they’ll do (turns out they run around and your sim-visitors scatter and give off tiny electronic screams).

About a month ago, in the NY Times, John Tierney, explored the recent philosophical musings of an Englishman named Nick Bostrom (linked by Instapundit). Bostrom theorizes that perhaps we are the product of some hyper-advanced computer simulation created by some race so far advanced that they can produce computers powerful enough to simulate the reality we live in.

Dr. Bostrom assumes that technological advances could produce a computer with more processing power than all the brains in the world, and that advanced humans, or “posthumans,” could run “ancestor simulations” of their evolutionary history by creating virtual worlds inhabited by virtual people with fully developed virtual nervous systems.

It would seem to not matter that we would all be just bits and bites, because for us everything we touched would feel like the real thing. Its interesting to think about, but fairly nihilist in that since we’re all just bits and bytes there’s no real soul and no afterlife (although he points out that if we’re interesting enough perhaps the great simulation creator will use us again in his next simulation).

Whatever, I must say. I can’t really get the enthusiasm with which the author and Bostrom carry themselves.

In fact, if you accept a pretty reasonable assumption of Dr. Bostrom’s, it is almost a mathematical certainty that we are living in someone else’s computer simulation.

Really. A you can mathematically predict whether or not there’s another more advanced race of people with computers powerful enough, and the spare time on their hands, and the inclination to baby-sit such a complex simulation as this one? Really.

That was the author of the article, and the assumption is that computing power will in fact get there. His only qualm is that the advanced race might not want to create the simulation. Here’s Bostrom:

Dr. Bostrom doesn’t pretend to know which of these hypotheses is more likely, but he thinks none of them can be ruled out. “My gut feeling, and it’s nothing more than that,” he says, “is that there’s a 20 percent chance we’re living in a computer simulation.”

It’s neat how we can pretend to be scientific by throwing out hypothetical numbers. In truth, this is the more fanciful side of philosophy, and, if you want my opinion, which I just know you do, one of the less useful ones.

Because you really have to accept that there’s just as good a chance (better in fact) that there’s a God and that he created this world, and that he’s so beyond our understanding and power that he has the ability to control every aspect of his big and quite real existence.

I’d say that given there’s a 20 percent chance this might all be some computer sim game, there’s a 75 percent chance that it’s actually real and God created it (I give the other 5 percent to those who don’t believe in God). Go ahead. Dispute my figures.

Having said all that, the article is interesting, and there’s even links to Bostrom’s work and some other musings on the subject. Bostrom’s article (at no less) is all full of equations that mean nothing really, if you look at the ridiculous things they represent.

However, if you don’t believe in God, and/or are a computer geek, this article might change your life. Have a go.

In the mean time, I’d like to take this in another direction. This article got me thinking. At one point in the article, Tierney takes the mental thread that perhaps we’re a simulation inside a simulation, ad infinitum. But at some point there would have to be an original creator of all these simulations. A Prime Designer, if you will. I think most religious and mono-theistic persons in this world can identify with that.

However, far from the limitations of a computer simulation, the universe is something far more amazing than that. It comes from something I see when I’m reading my Bible.

1. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

2. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

3. And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. 4. God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. 5. God called the light "day," and the darkness he called "night." And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. Gen 1:1-5

You’ll notice, if you read the entire chapter this was extracted from, that God said let there be light/expanse/dark/water/etc. It’s almost like God just starts talking and the universe starts falling into place. Here’s another place in scripture that reads like that. Psalm 33:6

By the word of the LORD were the heavens made,
their starry host by the breath of his mouth.

So again, the universe was created by the words spoken by a being we can’t even begin to get our heads around. So I’m thinking about this in the context of the article I’ve just read and I get this thought. According to the Bible, and thereby according to God, we are a part of a story that God is telling. Now, the story is long and complex, and when God tells it, it becomes real. God is telling our story, and He wants us to know that He is the author, and He can relate to the participants in the story.
The thing about God is, thought, that he’s omnipotent. He knows how the story will end, and not just like an author who pretty much knows how the story will end, but has to work out the details. God knew the beginning, the details, and how it would end before he started. Unlike simulations, God isn’t wondering how it’s all going to turn out. He’s not telling the story for the excitement of controlling the action, but because it gives him glory.

Now, I’m just traveling on a train of thought here. You might think that I’m not correct or in line with other parts of the Bible. You might think that my train of thought is just as loony as Bostrom’s. Perhaps. Understand that even though having God creating a story makes it seem like each person’s life is pre-written out and they really have no choice in how their lives end up, there are parts of the Bible that say things very similar, and there is considerable debate in the Christian community regarding pre-destination vs. free will and how we’re supposed to get our heads around what God is trying to tell us in these verses.

Also, please realize that I’m not saying that God is creating a piece of fiction, which would be no more real than the simulations discussed above. Like I said a couple of paragraphs above, the power of God is that his stories become reality when spoken. It forces me to comprehend a God that is far bigger and unfathomable than I previously considered. But it also causes me to wonder at the beauty of the mind of God. That instead of the universe being something as crude as bits and bytes, or even that the uncountable molecules that make it up, that at it’s whole it’s all in the mind of God. And each one of us has the ability to shadow that power by the stories we tell and the ideas we dream up. We are in the image of God.

Post to remind us

I wasn't going to post anything today, specifically to remember 9/11. There are plenty of people doing that, and I did my own remembering, and talked with some people about it. However, I just saw this article that Dave Barry (yes, the humor columnist) did on that very day. It's thoughtful, and this bit caught me.
The truth is that most Americans, until Tuesday, were only dimly aware of their existence, and posed no threat to them. But that doesn't matter to them; all that matters is that we're Americans. And so they used our own planes to kill us.

And then their supporters celebrated in the streets.
I'm not naive about my country. My country is definitely not always right;
my country has at times been terribly wrong. But I know this about
Americans: We don't set out to kill innocent people. We don't cheer when
innocent people die.
And it becomes more and more obvious to the people of Iraq that we aren't like the killers who Al Qaida or Saddam (when he was alive) paint us out to be. The longer our troops are over there, the more Americans like the one's Dave knows succeed in proving to the Iraqis that we're there to help, not occupy.
I'm proud to live in this country and call it home.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The vara

Fun fact for the day.  I came across a very bizarre unit of measurement today while considering land surveys in Texas.  It seems that while surveyors in most parts of the country rely on feet or chains (go figure), in Texas, and indeed in some other southern states, you might run into the vara.

Example of what it would look like on a survey:  “thence N 23 ½ W 232 vrs.”

It turns out the vara is an old Spanish and Portuguese base of measurement imported over to the Americas.  When the Spanish system came in contact with the English system during the days of independent Texas, the modern vara was adjusted to make more sense to people who were more used to measuring things in feet.

Although, why they didn’t use the English chain, which was much more integrated with feet and miles, is beyond me.

Here’s a history of the Spanish vara:

      The vara, a Spanish unit of distance, was used in the Spanish and Mexican surveys and land grantsqv in Texas. One vara equals approximately thirty-three and one-third inches; 5,645.4 square varas equal one acre; 1,906.1 varas equal one mile; and 1,000,000 square varas, which is one labor,qv equal approximately 177.1 acres. The word vara entered the Spanish language from vulgate Latin and originally meant a long, thin, clean branch of any tree or plant. It later came to be used for any straight stick and then for a lance. Next it came to mean a badge of office carried by mayors and judges and such officials and probably achieved a more uniform dimension. As a judge's lance, the vara assumed a position of official importance in the eyes of the people, began to be used as a measuring stick, and eventually became a unit of measurement.

The vara is also thought to be the typical length of stride of a Spanish soldier.
In Texas, one vara is equal to 33 1/3 inches, or just less than a yard.  1 million square vara equal one square Labor.  The Spanish vara was set at 835.9mm in 1801 (that’s about 32.9 inches).  The Colorado and California vara are 33 inches and the Florida vara is 33.372.

In truth, it seems that everywhere in the Spanish world the vara could have been anywhere from 32 to 35 inches in length, causing all kinds of problems.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Indian Heaven Wilderness

Admittedly, my posts about hiking in Oregon and Washington have fallen short this year. We did get out a bit this last couple of weeks, so I’ll tell you about a wilderness that’s worth taking a leisurely stroll in.

The Indian Heaven Wilderness, in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington, is probably one of the lesser known natural preserves in the Cascades. It’s situated in between Mt. Saint Helens and Mt. Adams, but a bit to the south. The easiest way to get there is to take highway 141 north from White Salmon (across the bridge from Hood River, Oregon) to the town of Trout Lake and visit the ranger station there, right on the highway. Get yourself one of their wilderness maps, which are very detailed and far more updated than the USGS quads.

The wilderness is a paradise of huckleberry bushes, which have been picked by native Americans for thousands of years. Tribes from as far away as Montana and Wyoming, as well as across Washington and Oregon, would gather there for Summer festivities in the early 20th century. They would dry game, fish, race horses, play games, and of course pick berries.

The area is now inundated with locals and not-so-locals picking berries from July (if you can stand the mosquitoes, some call this Mosquito Heaven) through most of August. Some sell them in Trout Lake or other localities. If you stop at the small diner attached to the gas station at the cross roads as you enter town you can get Huckleberry shakes, pies, cobblers and just about everything else you can force the little tart berries into.

The roads are pretty good coming in from Trout Lake. The mainlines are really well maintained, even the gravel ones. I would have no trouble at all getting our Nissan on FR 60 or FR 24. I think that FR65 coming from Carson to the south is paved all along the Wilderness’ western flanks, but I haven’t driven that way, so check first.

We took a side road, FR6035, to the Crater Lake trail, and I recommend that anyone using this road have higher clearance. It’s not really bad, but there area couple of spots where the drainage has done some damage.

We took the Crater trail up 2.5 miles to Junction Lake, which is right on the PCT, and set up camp. It was a gentle climb, and our 6 year old and 11 year old did it without much fuss at all. My impression is that, except for a trail or two, the entire wilderness is quite gentle in terrain. The trees are big and the forest is shady and sometimes downright cool and dark. There are lots of lakes. Junction was nice, but we took a walk down the PCT to Blue lake, which was much more spectacular.

While on the PCT we met some lovely people named Charlie Brown and Cardinal Bird who were hiking the entire PCT from Mexico to Canada. They looked pretty clean for having hiked over 2000 miles, but they were awfully nice, and provided encouragement for us, as we hope to take on that trail someday.

The thing, again, to note about this area is that the undergrowth is almost entirely huckleberry, except for the occasional rhododendron and baby conifer. If you are there in season you’ll never go hungry.

There are a few peaks with views of the surrounding forest, with the major volcanoes all around. However, we didn’t see that much, and you probably won’t either. But the peace and solitude of this wilderness is enough. It’s pretty without all the spectacular views you get elsewhere.

And, as we were constantly reminded, this is sasquatch country. Watch out! (no, really, I expected to see at least bears with all the berries around, but there were enough people I think that they were way off trail enjoying the goodies).

Picture 1: Crater trail almost to the PCT junction. Picture 2: Juction Lake. Picture 3: Charlie Brown and Cardinal Bird. Picture 4: Blue Lake. Picture 5: Huckleberries!!

Melt down of modern news

My wife and I were talking about the state of logical debate in our fine country and society at large today, she because she had heard an interview with a man named Lee Harris, who is apparently liberal and gay, who wrote a book describing how the left has forsaken reason in their debate, if it can be called that. The book, and I assume the interview, was about the danger that radical Islam poses to western society and the myopia that occurs among liberals who assume that western values of civilization will prevail in the culture of the middle east and all we have to do is nurture that with a little dialog.

I fell into the discussion because of this article that I read a while back (via Instapundit). It was more how the current media, the press, does not aid in logical discussion of world affairs, politics and values, but actually hurts them because of the personalities behind the pages and business nature of modern media. Here is a bit of the article I was reading.
James Lewis spoke of the discussion about Carl Rove's departure because of something he said regarding the press.

When Karl Rove resigned from his White House job last week, to a chorus of yowling cat-calls from furious news writers around the country, some scribblers were particularly offended by a word Mr. Rove used for his good friends in the media: The word "mob."

Not the organized criminal type mob, but the screaming charging mass of crazed lunatics holding torches and pitchforks. Then he continues, using the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings as fuel for his argument.

The Big Media are a mob. That should be Politics 101. They are a tiny, unchecked power elite, locked into life-long careers in the remnant of a crumbling monopoly over America's national conversation. Like other unaccountable elites, they are monumentally fickle, self-indulgent, snobbish, vain, vulgar, entitled, incestuous, arrogant, ignorant, unprincipled, hysterical, and demagogic. They sound like a unified chorus for the same reasons that street mobs run as a group -- because by and large, they don't dare to stand alone. Media snobs are always looking over their shoulders to see if they are still singing from the same hymnal as The New York Times. The US media have been one-sidedly Leftist, while piously proclaiming their devotion to impartiality. Thus, they are also institutionally mendacious. Telling the truth is hardly their job. They're just not qualified.

This doesn’t go for all the newspapers you’ll read. The local ones still try to have a voice of their own sometimes. Here in Portland we have a pretty good local weekly called Willamette Week. They cover local issues with a penetration that you don’t often find in this sound bite society. Even they, however, once they step out of the bounds of purely local issues and try to make some statement on national or international issues, they recite the party line without deviation. Sad.

Basically, the importance of what gets put on the front page is what’s important to the journalists and editors. It’s only coincidence if that same subject is actually important to the rest of us as well. Again Lewis drives through several examples of that, notably that the media spends considerable time and pandering effort over presidential candidates and Hollywood celebrities but took virtually no time for probably the greatest human contribution to human welfare in the world in the last century: Norman Borlaug.

Mass killers make up the most famous names in history: Attila the Hun, Caligula, Hitler, Napoleon. But few of the famous can claim to have saved lives. Perhaps Louis Pasteur, and of course many unknown scientists and inventors in medicine, agriculture and engineering. But who is celebrated by the Media Mob? Paris Hilton. Dan Rather. Hillary Clinton. The next Democrat for president. None of them have real achievements to their credit. None of them come within miles of Norman Borlaug.

The Big Media just aren't interested in stories of profound human significance. Life-saving scientists are boring, and besides, don't we have too many people walking on the planet already? That's the vaunted "editorial judgment." It reflects the snobbish values of the vulgar Media Mob, and it's utterly subjective and selfish. Mobs don't think. They just hyperventilate at pseudo-scientific superstitions, like Global Warming.

He then goes into a description of where we started as a nation, with a collection of some of the most extraordinary intellectuals we have ever known, such as Jefferson and Hamilton and Franklin, and how the debate and news was carried in this country by free thinkers who’s ideas and values were shaped by their own studies and lives instead of the constant force fed side show we get now.

There was no centralized intellectual monopoly. Political arguments were often heated, with news sheets flaming each other like the best of the blogs. The newspapers produced geniuses like Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken, both self-taught news writers. Twain may be the foremost American novelist of the 19th century, and Mencken is one of the greatest essayists in the English language. That was before anybody had a degree in journalism.

Things have not improved. The decline of quality media in America can be traced to two things, (1) professionalization of the news business, and (2) a former technological monopoly in electronic and print media. With industrialized technology it became possible for a single ideology to exercise control. Colleges were accredited by bureaucracies, which enforced liberal uniformity where diversity used to flourish. Journalists became careerists, like teachers and other bureaucrats.

And then, he concludes:

But journalism doesn't thrive on a forced consensus. News conformity is always artificial, a matter of ideological indoctrination, not fact. Indeed, the average newswriter today is a shallow and gullible BA in English, with no knowledge of (or interest in) science, technology, history, economics, international affairs, or politics, nor any practical experience of real human nature. That is why we now have just one single national story line, repeated hundreds of times a day in all the major dailies. It is mental Coca Cola --without the nourishment sugar provides.

It's all very effective; with a more truthful media the Democrats wouldn't stand a chance in electoral politics. The entire American Left owes its existence and power to the Media Mob. And our national dialogue would be saner, better-informed, and more rational. We would have a much healthier world. Until then, a vigorous New Media provide our best hope.

Now, that last paragraph is a big OUCH. Not that I fully agree with this in light of the mental garbage that some Republicans put forth. It’s not like they’re much better, but they are on the right side of many issues from where I sit, if only by accident.

But his point about how we get our news and information has teeth, I think. I’ve talked about this before in the context of what happened to the news media since about Watergate, when the news went from capturing life to turning a buck. When every journalists turned from wanting to report to wanting to be the next big thing, at the heart of the next big break. Sensationalist reporting became rampant, and news media began a slow descent into madness by cutting corners and eliminating “beat” reporting. Now virtually the only true beat reporters are sports analysts.

Many journalists who got their BA or MA in writing and journalism are probably very upset about me and Mr. Lewis spreading this type of thinking around. But I see this type of journalism all the time. Stories are put forth without much real understanding or context. How many times have the NY Times or the AP gone on about some tragedy or military screw up in Iraq, only to have military people come back and explain that the news was completely backwards because they didn’t understand what they were reporting.

I could bring out other bits and pieces, but this one occurred in the news today as well. Tom Blumer noticed that the NY Times has to work pretty hard to twist economic data to make believe that the economy and job incomes are not doing well.

What will the future of news media be like? It does no good anymore for folks to disregard the blog world as non informational and patently inferior to traditional media news. People are going there anyway, knowing that they aren’t getting the full picture from the morning paper or the nightly news. I had a friend a couple of years back who used the pap statement when I used a blog post to back up something I was arguing: “I suppose you believe everything you read on the internet.”

Well, I suppose that we shouldn’t, but that goes equally for anything and everything. Know where it’s coming from. Use your own knowledge and experience. Get out from behind the TV and read a bit. Don’t think for a second that any journalist or writer (or blogger) is completely unbiased. Assume that politicians are corrupt, as power ultimately will do, and stop giving them more access to power. Assume that people are generally OK (if not good in a Godly sense) and that government’s and organizations don’t always speak for them accurately. Know that while Democracy and Capitalism have their flaws, there is no other governmental/economic system that has produced more freedom for people in the history of man.

Let’s get back to logical argument, can we now?