Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Moral Person Principle

Many months ago, the New Yorker had an excellent article about Billy Graham and his son, Franklin Graham. It brought an old thread of thought back to the surface of my mind; the distinction between evangelicals and fundamentalists. Billy Graham is an evangelical. Franklin is a fundamentalist. What is the difference? The difference arises not from dogmatic issues; Evangelical Christianity is not simply Fundamentalist Christianity Lite(tm). Fundamentalist Christianity is not Evangelical Christianity with extra Hellfire. The difference between Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism arises from the degree of respect given by each to the unbeliever.

In the intellecutal bad-lands of business-speak, there is a worthwhile concept called the "Reasonable Person Principle". It states that if you have a disagreement with someone, you have to start from the assumption that they are a reasonable person, and are not being willfully stupid or dishonest. We can adapt this principle to the present discussion, and call it the "Moral Person Principle". I define this principle as stating that if you have a moral disagreement with someone, you start with the assumption that they are a moral being like yourself, and are not being willfully evil. (By "moral being", I mean an individual capable of moral reasoning, i.e. an adult human, not a cow or an infant.) The fundamentalist does not adopt this principle. Anyone who does not echo their creed is called a witch, a heathen, or a democrat, depending what century you live in. The evangelical, while they may appear similar to the fundamentalist in dogma, is qualitatively different as a result of their adherence to the Moral Person Principle. While many evangelicals adopt roundly conservative stances on issues such as homosexuality, abortion, and pre-marital sex, you can often have reasoned and calm debates with them about these issues. Not so with the fundamentalist, who sees no problem harassing or assaulting people entering a planned parenthood clinic. The reason that evangelicals are so much less noxious is that they respect your faculties of moral reasoning. While they do think they're right and you're wrong, they attribute this difference to a divergence in the reasoning you each have used.

This makes them more like you and I than most people care to admit. While many people take offense at pages such as this one, which claims that "with enough prayer, homosexuals can change", espousing such a position does not make one a fundamentalist. If it did, most of us would have to accept the label of fundamentalist liberal, since we of course believe that any jesusfreak can change too, if only they would read some Nietzsche. In fact, many of the liberals I know do in fact deserve the label fundamentalist, as they do not observe the MPP. It is all well and good to disagree, even vehemently, with the idea that homosexuals need to change or be "cured". But many people go farther, saying that anyone espousing such an idea is either willfully or congenitally stupid, or perhaps simply brainwashed. To attribute such shortcomings in these cases completely denies the agency of the Christian human to make moral judgements; it is a blatant rejection of the MPP.

I am not arguing for moral relativism. I believe that many beliefs held by conservative Christians are morally wrong, and I am always eager to present arguments refuting these beliefs. But without the MPP, we are essentially reduced to a pack of screaming apes. If you believe that anyone who disagrees with you is either too stupid to understand why you're right, or too brainwashed to see beyond their indoctrination, the implication is that your beliefs are the only beliefs a moral person could possibly hold. Are you really that sure of yourself? Would you really say that your way is the one, true way, the only path to the mountaintop? Because that sounds awfully familiar...

Some readers may object that you are not obligated to give respect to sufficiently backward beliefs, in much the same way that a science magazine need not host a debate between a flat-earther and geologist. However, that analogy is not suitable. Science is a framework for rational thought driven by empirical observations (i.e. an epistemology). The flat-earther has rejected that epistomology, and so the geologist, who still operates within the strictures of the scientific framework, is under no obligation to take the flat-earther seriously. In moral reasoning, no such framework exists, because part of moral reasoning is choosing the framework in the first place. A refutation of this idea would have to define the unique and superior moral framework that subsumes all others (Is is pragmatism? Or libertarianism? Maybe darwinism?).

Pragmatism, by the way, is what underpins my thesis. If we do not accept the MPP, we can never convince those we disagree with that they are wrong. You can't argue with someone if you don't first respect their humanity - i.e., their moral agency. You can only shout at someone who you regard as little more than an ape, even if you use big words to do it. The MPP is, quite simply, the only hope for changing people.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

I am still not a kook.

My close friends have put up with a lot of my borderline-paranoid libertarianesque ranting about mass schooling (public school in particular). In the hopes that I can further convince them that, at the very least, I'm not a complete crank, here's a really good (and brief!!) synopsis of the basic position I take on the issue: It's basically an executive summary of John Talyor Gatto's "The Underground history of American Education", who, I understand, is slightly more long-winded and libertarian than most people I know can tolerate.

This page spends a lot of time quoting prominent figures in the formation of our current system of public education over the years. The sheer volume, nay, superabundance of ghastly quotations from captains of industry, secretaries of education, presidents, chairs of the columbia teacher's college, behavioral psychologists, etc, was what ultimately convinced me of Gatto's message. Otherwise, I might have passed him off as an embittered libertarian crank.

Quotations of course, can be taken out of context, and so I've started to read the entirety of some of the more important works that he cites, when I can find them. Here's a link to Horace Mann's 7th annual report to the Massachussetts Board of Education: It gets interesting around page 5, where Mann says:

But allowing all these charges against the Prussian system to be true, there were still two reasons why I was not deterred from examining it.

In the first place, the evils imputed to it were easily and naturally separable from the good which it was not denied to possess. If the Prussian schoolmaster has better methods of teaching reading, writing, grammar, geography, arithmetic, &c., so that, in half the time, he produces greater and better results, surely, we may copy his modes of teaching these elements, without adopting his notions of passive obedience to government, or of blind adherence to the articles of a church. By the ordinance of nature, the human faculties are substantially the same all over the world, and hence the best means for their development and growth in one place, must be substantially the best for their development and growth every where. The spirit which shall control the action of these faculties when matured, which shall train them to self-reliance or to abject submission, which shall lead them to refer all questions to the standard of reason or to that of authority, -- this spirit is wholly distinct and distinguishable from the manner in which the faculties themselves should be trained; and we may avail ourselves of all improved methods in the earlier processes, without being contaminated by the abuses which maybe made to follow them. The best style of teaching arithmetic of spelling has no necessary or natural connection with the doctrine of hereditary right: and an accomplished lesson in geography or grammar commits the human intellect to no particular dogma in religion.

You could argue from all this that at least Mann was well-meaning. Perhaps he was. Still, he knowingly helped create a system that, by his own admission, could be used to instill blind obedience to whatever power structure came to wield it, and then assumed that by some act of providence, the system would never fall into the hands of those who would use it to secure and advance their own power. His assumption that the teaching of grammar and the training of subservient citizens are totally orthagonal is also suspect. By what method other than making them totally subservient to authority can you get a room full 3rd graders to sit still long enough for a grammar lesson?

Thursday, March 30, 2006

This post powered by ethanol.

The peak oil doom-merchants love to say "ethanol is a net energy loser! It takes more than a gallon of gas or diesel to produce a gallon of ethanol! We're doomed!"

Yesterday, I found out that this is just FUD. In hindsight, I am amazed that I was gullible enough to believe them without investigating further, but it just goes to show... Don't believe everything you read on the internet.

Here are two excellent rebuttals to the "ethanol is an energy loser" meme:

And here's my summary of what's wrong with the doom argument:

The claim that ethanol is a net energy loser seems to be based on a recent study by David Pimmental. I won't go into the full laundry list of what's wrong with his study (see the first link above) but suffice it to say: He assumes 1979 ethanol refining technology. He commits various fallacies regarding how much energy it takes to fertilize and harvest the corn. He mistakenly assumes that all of the corn harvested is used to make ethanol - in reality the byproducts of the conversion process include plant protein and corn oil, both of which we have ample use for (human and animal food).

And that's not even going into the small matter of fact that corn is not the only ethanol feedstock, nor is it even remotely the best! Ethanol can also be produced from plant cellulose, which means that native prairie grasses can be used to make ethanol. These plants once covered substantial portions of the great plains, and so they obviously don't need pesticides, fertilization, or irrigation, if polycultured, are perrenials, so they don't require the energy investment of replanting every year. The biggest benefit, of course, is that these sorts of feedstock produce far more yield per acre than corn, rendering all the ultra-pessimistic land-use estimates of the doomers null and void.

Doomers like to say that peak oil isn't about technology, it's about energy, and the foolish optimists conflate the two when saying that technology will save us. But they then completely ignore technology, which will ultimately make fools of them. The efficiency of ethanol-producing techniques has substantial room to grow, and is nowhere near running into any of the laws of physics that the doomers love to quote.

Just think about the energy involved: I've read plants are about 2% efficient at converting sunlight into chemical energy. Sounds pretty crappy. Let's assume that ethanol production from plants is 1% efficient. Also pretty crappy. The total efficiency then is 0.02%. Sounds shitty, huh? But, the average solar irradiation per square meter at north american latitudes, over a full 24 hour period, is maybe 200 watts. (I got this assuming 1000 watts for 5 hours and 0 watts for 19 hours). So, the average power production of an ethanol agriculture utilizing 55 million acres is about 9 gigawatts. That's a hell of a lot of power. Of course I just pulled that model out of my ass, but I find it completely impossible to believe that it's going to be a net energy loser.

If you don't believe my analysis, look at brazil: The unsubsidized price of ethanol in brazil is much cheaper than gasoline. (source: If they have to burn two gallons of gas to make a gallon of ethanol, how the hell can ethanol be cheaper than gas?

People like Jim Kunstler rebut these arguments by swearing, and saying "people are letting themselves be deluded into thinking we can run all our cars on ethanol forever". This is just suppressed american puritanism at its best. Cars are evil, and the evil will be purged.

Monday, March 27, 2006

RIP Stanislaw Lem

Lem dies:

If you have never read Stanislaw Lem, you must. Though much of his work was done during and about the cold war, it completely lacks the quaintness that makes so much early science fiction so very difficult to read. Perhaps this is because, unlike Clark and Asimov, he wrote from behind the Iron Curtain, giving his words an authority sorely lacking in the works of corn-fed American authors of earlier eras. His allegories on the nature of conciousness, global military conflicts, and the vast gulf between the everday and the alien are vitally important to today's world. As a bonus, his less serious work is among the funniest I've read. He is somewhere between Vonnegut and Swift in hierarchy of satirists.

If you can read only one Lem book, read Fiasco. If you can read more than one, read:

The Futurological Congress
The Cyberiad

For a more exhaustive review and catalogue of his works, see

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

bicycle wheels part 1

Today I started building up the rear wheel for the maruishi in the garage. I have it all laced up, and have just started tensioning it. Before I explain what all that means, let's talk about how a wheel works. I'm not talking about rolling. You already know that a wheel rolls. But a wheel does something else. It supports a heck of a lot of weight in proportion to its own weight.

My wheel - hub, axle, rim, and spokes (no tire or innertube on it), weighs just a hair over a kilogram. When it's finished (if I build it right), it should be able to support around 200 kilograms of radial force - force applied to the axle and pointing straight down. How is this possible?

A lot of people think that bicycle wheels support the weight of the rider because the hub hangs by the spokes from the top of the rim. In other words, they think that when you sit on your bike, the tension in the spokes at the top of the wheels increases (which is to say, the spokes at the top of wheel stretch), and that force is then transmitted around the circumference of the rim to the ground. Well, that's not the way it works.

How does it really work? In fact, the hub "stands" on the bottom spokes! That is, the bottom spokes get shorter which transmits the force of the rider directly through to the ground. A bicycle wheel actually works just like an olde-fashioned wagon wheel with wooden spokes. Don't buy the explanation? You can verify it for yourself. The easy way to verify it is by having someone straddle their bike and hold onto the handle bars. Then, pluck one of the bottom spokes with your fingernail. It will make a sound of a certain pitch, just like a guitar string would. Now, have your friend press down on the handle bars as hard as possible. Pluck the same spoke. The pitch will have gotten lower. You can use this same method to find out if the tension of any of the other spokes changes. You'll find that a few spokes at the bottom of the wheel change, but the ones at the top and the sides stay the same. If you don't believe that, ask yourself the following
question: If you had an un-laced rim (i.e. no spokes in it), would you expect to be able to sit on top of the rim without bending it? I wouldn't! Well, the rim would have to be that strong if it were to support your weight from the top.

Maybe you still have some doubts. How is it that the spokes can support weight pressing down on top of them? If you take a spoke by itself, and try to stand on it, it will bend immediately. The answer is pre-tension. (which is different than 'pretension', something I'm exhibiting by trying to add something new to the internet on the subject of the bicycle wheel). When you finish building a wheel, there's a lot of tension in the spokes - that is, each spoke is pulling outward on the hub, and inward on the rim. Then, when you put weight on the wheel, the tension of the spokes at the bottom of the wheel decreases slightly.

In other words, with no weight on the wheel, the spokes at all points of the wheel might be pulling the rim in towards the hub with 20 Newtons of force. When you put weight on the wheel, the spokes at the bottom of the hub decrease in tension, while the spokes at the top retain the same tension. So then you have, say, 10 Newtons at the bottom wheels and 20 at the top. This means that the hub is being pulled up towards the top of the rim harder than it is being pulled down towards the bottom of the rim, and so the rim can support as much weight as it takes to restore balance to the forces acting on the rim.

That's hard to conceptualize. People who have taken (and understood) a physics class have it beaten in to them to look at things this way, but most people find this counter-intuitive.

Here's another way to understand it. Suppose you and your friend are playing tug of war. You have a rope with a red flag in the middle of it, and you are pulling on the rope exactly as hard as your friend is. This means that the red flag in the middle of the rope doesn't move at all. Now, your other friend Manfred comes up behind you and starts to to push on your back. You're still pulling just as hard on the rope, but suddenly you start to move forward, and so does the red flag. But if
Manfred's sister, Uma, comes along and grabs the flag and starts pulling it back toward you with the right amount of force, then the flag will stop moving again. At this point, the tension betweeen the flag and your friend is the same as it was before, while the tension between you and the flag has decreased (because Manfred is pushing on your back). Well, substitute Manfred for the ground, and Uma for the weight of the rider - a bicycle wheel works the same way.

There are a lot of other forces that a bicycle wheel can support besides radial force. For instance, when you pedal, the spokes transmit the twisting force (the torque) on the hub to the rim, which makes the wheel turn, which makes you go. I'll write about how that works next time.

Lastly, if you want to build your own wheel, see

Friday, March 10, 2006

Just as I suspected - kids are more likely to drop out of school from boredom than from failure.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Wow! A really, really good column by Cary Tennis:

This is a humbling point if you believe it is true about yourself. I can personally remember times in my life when I was conciously bigoted in one way or another. Can you?

In other news - yes, I really am going to start on the bicycle wheel soon. Lately I've just been gathering up all the parts needed.