Sunday, December 28, 2008

A New War

Anyone who has been watching the news over the past few days is aware of the recent conflict that has renewed itself in the Gaza Strip. For many people, including those involved (mainly in Gaza) this came as a surprise, but anyone who who had been following the events leading up to the Israeli attack and who understood basic military tactics, the Israeli attack comes as no surprise. What is notable about the western media news coverage of the event is the emphasis placed on reporting the Palestinian side and version of the story and almost ignoring the Palestinian response and provocation that lead up the the attack.

I have read many news stories about the attacks from both CNN and the BBC and in both cases they treat the Israeli attack as coming without any prior indication or reason. The way the news stories are being reported they make it seem like the Palestinians had a dispute with Israel, they fought over it, had a ceasefire for a while and when the ceasefire ended Israel attacked. They make it seem like these events happened in a vacuum and were unrelated previous events, or at most because of the failed peace talks. In other words the media is treating this like an event that hasn't been building up for years, they treat it as totally unexpected.

It addition to the views of the media it is interesting (or not) to find out the views of individual people, like me, who read the news, but aren't involved. When I went to read the comments left by the readers they ranged from the absurd to the rational, from the helpful to the hateful. They blamed everyone, from Hamas to Israel, to President Bush himself (and his dog too). The comments that were anti-Israeli were usually along the lines of (not a direct quote), "We think they are wrong and isn't it terrible that they are killing INNOCENT people" (the innocent, in all caps, is a direct quote). My favorite was (direct quote [sic]) "to be honest i'm quite shocked at the comments below especially by the Americans, claiming Israel has the right to defend itself." So the anti-Israeli position can be summed up as "Israel does not have the right to defend itself and/or they are the root and cause of all these problems, and because they are the cause of these problems they should not defend themselves."

The pro-Israeli position tends to be "They have a right to defend themselves and they should defend themselves, because Hamas was the one that did not want peace."

So the blame game happens and both sides blame the other and everyone else blames someone. It is easy to see that this is a touchy subject and many people feel strongly about this. I have my own feelings about the situation but I will not share them here at the moment, but I may do that in a later post. I thought that I would give a perspective on the situation, that not many people are noticing, and certainly very few, if any at all, news reporters are noting.

So here is the situation, and this is most likely the situation that will be given in the history books.

This conflict has been building for some time. Hamas has been severed from Fatah by being largely contained in Gaza. Fatah will not support Hamas to any great extent. Hamas has alienated just about everyone that could potentially help them. They even lost the support of Egypt. Their only main support comes from Syria and Iran, and that support is problematic, or limited to words (and a few covert operations). Hamas declared the ceasefire over and opted not to renew, which will cause legal (i.e. technical bureaucratic) difficulties in the UN and in the international community at large. If anything Israel (and the US) can use that technicality to stall UN resolutions, and other peacekeeping initiatives.

In Israel itself, they are getting ready for elections and the current party in power has been accused of not doing enough to prevent the rocket attacks. Their presidential candidate, Tzipi Livni, had been viewed as "too soft" on the Palestinian "terrorists" (hardly true, but oh well), while the main opposition poised to upset her bid to be president, is viewed as being even more "hardline" against Hamas. So when the two possible candidates for the presidency are "pro-action and armed response" it can be assumed that something will be done.

Furthermore, in the US George Bush has less than 30 days in office and can't really do much (it's a standard part of the last days of a lame duck presidency). Barak Obama is going to be president soon, but he is not president yet, so he can't do anything. France has the presidency of the EU until the end of the year, when it goes to the Czech Republic, whose president is one of the most outspoken critics of the EU and refuses to fly the EU flag over the presidential palace. Don't expect much action from him. No one else really has the clout, the initiative or the desire to get involved. Most of the world is more concerned about keeping their job and/or feeding themselves at the moment to try to do anything to help.

In short, Gaza has fallen into a political black hole at the precise moment when everyone else they have traditionally relied upon, is not in a position nor has the desire to help. They are in effect, between a rock and a hard place with nowhere to go. They could not have picked a worse time to end the ceasefire, and Israel is taking full advantage of the situation. The only wild card in the whole situation is how the Arab world (not including the Egyptians, but including the Iranians) will respond. That is the only trouble. The Arab/Iranian world may respond with force, which will make things very complicated.

Despite the fact that there is a war going on, it will be interesting to see how this plays out. I will follow the developments.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Mormonism is Truth

"Mormonism is truth; and every man who embraces it feels himself at liberty to embrace every truth: consequently the shackles of superstition, bigotry, ignorance, and priestcraft, fall at once from his neck; and his eyes are opened to see the truth, and truth greatly prevails over priestcraft....The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same." -- Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith p. 264

Monday, December 22, 2008

A $93 Computer Reboot

Recently I had a problem with the automatic locks on my car, they just wouldn't work. So I checked all the fuses and everything I could think of, but to no avail. Because I was going into the local Honda dealer anyway to get a new key made I figured I would have them look at it. So I took it in and they hooked it up to their computer and the car's computer was not responding properly. So they reset the on board computer and that fixed the problem. In other words they just hit the reset button on the computer, and then they charged me $93 for it.

So I wondering how they did that and if there is anyway for me to reboot my car's computer without having to take it into the Honda dealer to have them hit the reset button and then charge me $93. It seems like a fairly simple process and I am only impeded in carrying out my own trouble-shooting due to my lack of computer interface and know how. If a high school drop out, grease monkey can figure it out I think I could figure it out.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Movement: Not as Simple as it Seems

I remember reading a short story many years ago by Issac Asimov (I think it was in his book I, Robot). In the story there is a robot named Robbie that plays with a child. While the robot can play ball and many other things the one thing that it cannot do is talk. Apparently Asimov thought that talking was such a complex thing that when we did get around to building robots, like Robbie, that we would have an immensely difficult time getting the robots to talk, whereas all the other normal human functions such as walking would be easy and natural to reproduce.

Thus for the most part, actions such as walking, picking things up and the like are almost always presented as simple for a robot and usually the first thing they "learn" how to do, whereas talking and language in general is presented as being the hard thing to deal with. This attitude towards the complexity of language and the simplicity of walking and moving was not particular to Asimov's stories. There are many more examples of this way of thinking, such as Data from Star Trek, Gort from The Day The Earth Stood Still, the Terminator and others. With these robots they have an easy time moving about but they have an immensely difficult time learning how to talk (or at least talking normally) and communicate.

There are a few notable exceptions to this, but this usually happens in movies where they actually try to make a robot as opposed to having a person wearing makeup (for example, Jonny 5 from Short Circuit). In these cases the actual logistics of making a robot become apparent and the "simple" things such as walking and picking things up are no longer so simple, while the other thing, language, which authors and philosophers considered so difficult can easily be reproduced.

Lately there have been real attempts to make functioning robots, like they have in movies, and while scientists have been able to make computers talk and respond to speech for years, they are having an immensely difficult time with something so simple as walking. Even with all the combined brain power of a corporation like Honda the best they can do is to get a robot to walk up an incline (with the incline already programmed into the robot). Other groups at universities that are developing robots are running into similar problems, they can make them talk, but when it comes to moving and picking things up then it becomes much more difficult.

So it is ironic that authors and philosophers would consider language an extremely complex thing and difficult, if not impossible, for robots to master ends up being one of the easier things. This mistake is understandable because as we learn and grow we first learn to move and to walk and then we learn how to talk. While we learn how to walk fairly quickly, it takes us years to learn how to use language. Granted computers cannot use language to our level, but they can reproduce language in a fairly believable format, while they have difficulty with the simple things like walking.

I guess the reason why I am pointing this out is that I am amused by the fact that many people egotistically think that their words are so hard and complex to understand that surely a robot would have immense difficulty reproducing them, and for robots that is what they must struggle with the most, because that is what we struggle with the most. But when it comes down to it, our language is comparatively simple and it is everything else that is complex. Perhaps the complexity and problems of language are self-created and our inability to learn it does not come from our lack of intelligence, but our lack of intelligibility.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

When Ideals Meet Practice

Quite frequently someone gets a great idea that would make the world a better place and they want to share that idea with others and get them to participate because they think that it will greatly improve the lives of all those involved. Unfortunately these great ideas meet the harsh trial of reality and fail because frequently what seems like a simple solution to a problem is just that, too simple a solution.

I used to teach beginning level lab classes in physics and invariably the students who were just getting used to solving problems in physics would encounter something that made doing the labs difficult. They would solve the equations given to them and do the experiment but in the end their results from the calculated equations and the actual observations did not match. The projectile did not fly as far as they calculated it would or something happened in the collision that thew off their data, and when they asked me why the equations did not match perfectly with the observations I would usually say it was because of friction (it was in most cases). It's just that the equations they were using did not account for friction.

When some students realized this they came to the conclusion that if there were no friction then the world would be a lot better. With their beginning understanding of physics they could conceive of perfect engines that were perfectly efficient, cars that could go for miles, easier travel and shipping and all kinds of things where friction decreases the efficiency of a process or where friction prevents us from doing something. Thus they come to the conclusion that a world with out friction would be better off.

Of course when they come to this point in their thinking I would begin to ask them a series of questions to get them to think about the implications of what they were proposing. I would point out the cases where it would be desirable to have less friction, but then I would ask them to think about situations where friction was not only desirable, but necessary. I would ask them about walking and say, "If there were no friction then how would your foot push you forward?" Or "Even if you had a frictionless engine in a car, what good would it be because the tires would just spin endlessly because they need friction to make the car move?"

When the students thought about these questions they would realize that friction was not something that was completely undesirable and just an inhibition to things we want to do, but it was something that was necessary for normal life. In the case of friction it was a simple matter to have the students see the potential problems of eliminating friction, but this is not always the case. There are some things that people observe and want to eliminate because they view them as undesirable, but all too frequently their idea fails one simple question, "How?"

Unfortunately there are even times when people see something they view as a moral and public evil and when they get into the actual practice of eradicating it their method of choice is simply a reclassification of the original problem or a completely new and troublesome problem. This is to say that when ideas meet practice they tend to either create new problems or at least replace the original problem with a very similar one.

If we apply this concept to the noble and worthy goal of ending discrimination and prejudice we frequently run into problems. I agree that this is something good to work for but all to often the methods chosen result in more problems rather than fixing the original one. If we consider racism there are very few who would not say this is a good thing to eliminate, but when it comes to the actual mechanics of identifying and eliminating racism then we very quickly run into problems.

I say this from personal experience as I was once accused of being racist. This happened while I was living in Argentina. I was at the time conversing with a native Argentine and we just so happened to be walking through a trash heap that existed in the middle of the city. While some of the larger cities did have proper rubbish disposal, the citizens of the particular city where I was at simply took their trash to a marshy area that could not support houses and dumped their trash there. The Argentine who I was with asked me if such things existed in the United States. I told him that I had never seen or even heard of this kind of thing in the United States. I went on to explain that the nearest landfill to my house when I was growing up was on the Pima Indian Reservation. Of course this landfill was nothing like the one we were walking though at the time, but in the mind of the person I was talking to he equated the sanitary landfill I was telling him about with the unregulated dumping of trash we were currently walking past. When I explained that it was located on the Indian Reservation he became indignant and called me a terrible racist for dumping on the poor defenseless natives and contributing to their demise. When I protested and tried to explain the truth he would not listen and insisted that he did not want to talk about my racism. With that the conversation ended.

Bringing this back to my original topic, if we are to eliminate undesirable things such as racism then we must first establish what it is we are eliminating, and how we are to do it. For how are we to eliminate racism if people are accused of being racist simply because of the location of a landfill near their house, especially one that was planned and begun when I was in elementary school? Should I be "reeducated" simply because I grew up in a neighborhood that that was predominately white? Am I automatically racist because I was born a White American (some people I have talked to seem to think this, ironically enough)? How do we eliminate racism? Do we discriminate against people because historically people that look like them discriminated against others? The questions could continue forever, but there is a simpler way.

As it is with my original example, that of friction, there is a way to solve the problems. In some cases we do not want to eliminate something altogether, such as friction, as that would make normal life impossible, and other things such as racism we may want to eliminate but are unsure of how with out creating problems, or implicating the innocent. The simple solution to the problem is not social, or political, or even cultural, it is personal. But this is the most difficult of all possible solutions because it requires the most individual involvement of all.

It is striking that almost all of the solutions proposed by politicians, activists and proponents of ideals involve the actions and responsibility of everyone except the individual. Even the movements that emphasize the individual and personal involvement somehow fail to require first personal change and/or require complete personal change throughout. There is nothing wrong with requiring others to uphold a standard as long as you yourself first hold to that standard.

This way when ideals meet practice it is backed by experience and knowledge which will prevent misunderstandings and mistakes. I would not ask others to live a principle I have not first tried to live.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Who Really Supports You?

This post can be considered a follow up to a previous post I had where I asked the question "Who do you really support?" In relation to that idea I was thinking about the obvious corollary to that question, "Who really supports you?" As I was walking through a building at UNC-CH I noticed a flier tacked on to a wall advertising a rally that was to happen in a few days. The flier advertised a rally against Prop. 8 and in support of the "LGBT Rights Movement". As I was not going anywhere in a hurry I stopped and read the flier. It started out giving the time and place of the rally, why they were doing it etc., but then the emphasis of the flier began to change and it mentioned that the equal rights could only be won by "fighting for a democratic socialist future." At the end it finally stated who had written the flier and organized the rally, "Carolina Socialist Alternative". It then listed a couple of web sites about the organization and its afiliations ( and (

If you go and check out these sites you quickly realize what this is about. These organizations are the modern iteration of the communist party (though if you read their sites they very adamantly deny any association with communism. As they point out: "We believe the dictatorships that existed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were perversions of what socialism is really about.") . As a matter of fact, despite what the flier advertised these organizations have little to do with the LGBT "rights" movement. You have to dig pretty deep into the sites before you find anything mentioning LGBT rights.

The point is these socialist organizations may say they support LGBT rights and even organize rallies in support of them (at least here in NC), but there are a few things that must be considered. Would the LGBT community really want the support of the socialists? They may agree (right now) on many things but this appears to be a political alliance of convenience more than anything else right now. It would appear that the socialists are taking advantage of the current situation and are voicing their support for the LGBT community so that they can get their support. In the end they (the socialists) may not be interested in preserving the "rights" of the LGBT community any more than they are interested in preserving the "rights" of religion. Situations and political alliances will change depending on the political climate.

While I have used this one example, this idea is not limited to this one situation. Many times a particular movement goes looking for support, and they find it, but sometimes that support may be more than they bargained for. Also they may find that even though they welcome the support initially, that means that they now become associated with that support and it may be detrimental to their movement later on.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Good Editorial

Today I happened to pick up the paper and read a good editorial that appeared in The News & Observer, a newspaper published in the Triangle area. The author of the editorial gave insightful comments about the differences between the original civil rights movement and the "new" civil rights movement. As he points out:

"A significant difference, they argue, is that sexual orientation, unlike race, is a choice. Homosexual orientation can be hidden; skin color can't. Black advocates point out that gays have not come close to suffering the historic economic, educational and social injustices that African-Americans have endured. The fight for the right to marry just doesn't measure up to the struggle to be recognized as a human being instead of a piece of property."

He goes on to explain that the original civil rights movement came out of the religious convictions of those involved and that "for many blacks, the pursuit of secular civil rights represents the fulfillment of Christian-based equality."

This new "civil rights" movement goes against this and focuses their protests against religions. In contrast the original movement had a moral and religious basis for their demands, the new movement has neither, since their lifestyle is a rejection of morality and all traditional religion. They argue that they are in the right and that they must be given their demands because it is constitutional, but to paraphrase a scripture, "what evidence have ye...? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only."