I wish

I wish I lived in a different country.

The country I’d like to live in doesn’t exist, but I can imagine it.

It would be a country with lots of colleges and universities. The people would be free to criticize the government without fear of being arrested for it. The weather would be, in most places, pretty nice for at least half the year. And they’d have thriving fields of science and medicine and entertainment. So far, it sounds pretty similar to where I live now. But this fictional country would have a very different approach to firearms.

In this fictional country, only members of the national guard would be allowed to have firearms. Most police officers would carry non-lethal weapons. If you joined the national guard, they’d train you for sixteen weeks on how to be a responsible soldier, including proper use of a firearm. Then they’d issue you an assault rifle and a sidearm, with bullets to go with it. In the national guard, you’d spend one weekend each month and two full weeks every year, on duty. When you went home, you’d take your weapons with you to your house, and you’d be personally responsible for keeping those weapons safe and ready. As soon as you left the national guard (for whatever reason), you’d have to give back the weapons and account for every single bullet they’d issued to you.

In this fictional country, the national guard would be very professional, well practiced and well disciplined (or, to use an old-fashioned term for it, “regulated”). Not just anyone could join. It would have to be that way, because there wouldn’t be a standing army. The national guard would be our first and last line of defense against attackers. In a time of war, they could be called up at a moment’s notice. And they’d never go on offense, traveling halfway around the world to attack someone who hadn’t attacked us. It would be defense only. That’s why I like the name “national guard” instead of “militia”, because it emphasizes the fact that the purpose is to guard the nation, not to go attacking other nations. So, “militia” would be a good name too, but we can’t let it sound like just a bunch of unorganized people with guns. It would be a well-regulated militia (a very professional and highly organized national guard).

This fictional country would have a national law saying that, as long as you’re a national guard member in good standing, local governments can’t disarm you. Maybe they could require you to wear your uniform while you are carrying the weapons, but they couldn’t force you to leave your weapons locked up. I mean, obviously you can’t be ready to defend the nation at a moment’s notice if the militia has to keep the weapons locked away in an armory somewhere miles away. The people who are in the militia should keep their weapons at home or carry them around.

In order to remind people of how important it was to keep this defense ready (and to emphasize the fact that it only applied to members of the militia who are in good standing), the law would state quite clearly its purpose. The purpose would be to ensure the security of the country, not for hunting or for stopping burglars. So the law would start with, “A well-regulated militia being necessary for the security of a free state,“, just to make that clear. Then it would finish with, “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

So everyone who seriously cared about the security of the country (the state), and not just their own security or their family’s security, could apply to join the national guard (the well-regulated militia). After completing extensive training, and only while they kept up their membership, they’d be required to keep their military weapons ready to defend the country. No local law could infringe on that.

In this fictional country, it would be almost impossible for an unhappy teenager to get military weapons and shoot up a school. There wouldn’t be very many weapons around to try to get. Such weapons would be extremely expensive on the black market. It would be very hard to raise that much money. And people who are mentally unstable would never make it through basic training, so they’d always be outmatched by professions who were better prepared. A soldier who suffered a breakdown would be given mental health treatment, but they would not carry weapons unless or until they were cleared to return to duty.

Of course, this law would be subject to change. I mean, this all sounds like a great idea now but it’s hard to predict what unexpected problems would arise in the future. So we’d have to emphasize that, when necessary, the law itself could be amended. For example, if we ever decided that a standing army was a better way to ensure our security, then maybe the militia wouldn’t be necessary anymore. And we could then change the law, obviously. Or maybe language itself would evolve over the centuries, to the point where we’d have to rewrite the law for the sake of clarity. Maybe we’d reword it to say “As long as our country needs a professional and well-trained national guard, local laws shall not prevent members of the national guard from storing and carrying their issued weapons.”

I wish I lived in that fictional country.

But, instead, I was born in a country where we have a completely different law. The law we have here guarantees that anyone, with or without any training, can have a gun and use it for hunting, or shooting trespassers. And you don’t even have to belong to a militia at all, let alone a well-regulated one. Totally different. And there’s absolutely nothing that I can do about it because this law absolutely cannot be changed.

Oh well. *sigh*


“Life of Pi” is NOT a kid’s movie!

I heard about Life of Pi, and I thought it looked very interesting. I’ve seen lots of movies about people who are alone in a small boat (or in a small boat with just a few other people) but I’d never seen one about being alone in a boat with a tiger. I had the impression that it was cute, and expected a kid’s movie on par with the 1967 cartoon The Jungle Book. Life of Pi is rated PG. Now that I’ve watched the movie, I’m here to tell you that this rating is absolutely wrong.

This movie should not be rated PG. It is not for children.

It contains serious adult themes about life and death and murder. I’m over 50 years old, and this movie made me feel like a 10-year old who accidentally ended up watching an R-rated movie filled with violence.

My wife said Life of Pi should be rated R. I disagree; it should be rated Q, meaning do not watch this movie unless your best friend is Quentin Tarantino. If you love blood and gore, if you thought Inglorious Basterds was a pleasant afternoon romp, then you’ll probably enjoy Life of Pi without getting sick to your stomach.

Allow me to explain. SPOILERS AHEAD.

The movie is basically about vegetarianism.

The main character (Pi) is a vegetarian Hindu living in India. Throughout the movie, he talks about the ethics of eating meat. His father eats meat but the rest of the family doesn’t. His father is a zookeeper and Pi wants to make friends with a tiger there, saying he can see in the tiger’s eyes that the tiger has a soul. But his father insists that he’s just seeing his own reflection and tigers do not have souls. What’s implied here is that Pi is struggling with the question of whether a carnivore can have morality. He himself never eats meat, but he wants to understand and love others who do, including his father.

On the ship, we meet a cook who mocks Pi’s family when they ask for vegetarian food. He offers them liver and sausage and gravy. There’s an angry confrontation about it. Later, we see a vegetarian Buddhist who rationalizes eating rice with gravy by saying he’ll only do it while he’s on the ship. This is foreshadowing to what Pi will face later in the movie. Pi has to rationalize eating human flesh by telling himself he’ll only do it while he’s in the lifeboat.

Most of the movie is fantasy, from the moment when a zebra leaps into the lifeboat (sustaining a broken leg) to the moment where the tiger walks off into the jungle. Those parts were hard enough to watch, with animals eating each other and hearing the crunch of bones. But the worst was yet to come. In the last minutes of the movie, we learn the true story of what actually happened in the lifeboat. Pi watched the cook carve up the dead body of the Buddhist, use some of it for fish bait, and eat some of it himself. Then Pi watched the cook murder Pi’s mother and toss her body to the sharks. Then Pi murdered the cook and sliced up his body. Then he waited a long time, struggling with his inner carnivore, to the point where he almost died from starvation. Finally, he gave in and ate the cook’s dead body. Then he made up a fantasy to make himself feel better.

The journalist at the end spells it out for us, the audience. The zebra was the Buddhist. The Hyena was the cook. The Orangutan was Pi’s mother. The tiger was Pi himself (or more accurately, Pi’s inner carnivore).

Pi had to learn a hard truth about himself and what he was willing to do. He never thought he would eat meat. He tried to tame his inner carnivore. But, in the end, he was willing to eat, not just meat, but human meat. Specifically, he ate the flesh of a man that he knew, a man with whom he’d had conversations.

In a way, I think this movie is trying to challenge all of us to examine our own ethics of eating meat. Are you willing to kill and eat a man who just murdered your mother? Would you be willing to kill and eat an animal from a zoo? How about a fish? When you buy meat from the grocery store and it’s neatly wrapped up in plastic, you avoid looking into the animal’s eyes before it’s killed. That makes it easier. But is that morally right, to enjoy the result of the death while insulating yourself from the death itself?

This is what the movie is really all about. It makes your stomach churn. That’s on purpose. That’s what the makers of the movie wanted to happen. If you show this movie to a child, one of two things will happen. A) They won’t understand it, or B) They will cry and have nightmares for weeks. Either that or the child is a sociopath.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, they also had to throw in the theme about gods and religion. We are told that Pi’s story will make you believe in God. At the end, Pi admits that there are two versions of the story. There’s the true version where he avenged his mother’s murder and ate the murderer. There’s the fantasy version where he spent six months on a boat with a tiger. Pi points out that both stories begin with a ship sinking and end with him suffering and being the only survivor so it’s just a matter of which story you prefer. Then he says it’s the same thing with God. You can either accept the truth that you are born, you live, you die, and there is no God, or you can imagine that you are born, you live, you die, and God cares about you. Which story do you prefer? The truth or the fantasy? He chooses the fantasy even though he knows the truth, because the truth is just too horrible for him to bear.

In other words, this is the famous Appeal to Consequences. If there is no God, then life sucks. I don’t want my life to suck, therefore God must be real.

Frankly speaking, the version of God imagined in this movie is kinda comforting. He watches you and sometimes gives you some help along the way. That’s a whole lot nicer than the God who condemns you to eternal torture because you masturbated and forgot to beg for forgiveness. Or maybe you begged but you didn’t say the right words; you asked forgiveness from Poseidon instead of Jesus, so it doesn’t count, and you get eternal torture after all. And let’s not forget the God who commands people to murder each other by the millions.

Fortunately, there’s no evidence that any of these Gods are real. Because if there was a real God, then we wouldn’t have the luxury of inventing whichever version makes us feel better. We’d be stuck with the actual one. Lucky for us, we can change the fantasy God to suit us. That means we can take the murderous vengeful God and get rid of it. We can discard the eternal torturing God just as easily. And you can cling to the comforting guardian angel God, if it helps you cope.

It might make it easier for you to ignore the fact that you are a carnivore, surviving on the death of other animals that carried the spark of life. You might have seen that spark if you looked into their eyes. It’s easier if you don’t look.

Electric Vehicle conversions

EV conversions are fun as a hobby but articles about teenagers who build their own for just a few hundred dollars are mostly bullshit. They conveniently fail to mention the incredible luck of getting expensive parts donated for free plus hundreds of hours of labor also done for free.

Trust me, I have spent thousands of hours researching how to build an electric car. I have built three of them (with varying degrees of success and failure). There are some major challenges to overcome in taking an ICE car and converting it to an EV.

First, there’s the question of safety. Cars have evolved quite a bit over the decades, first with seat belts, then crumple zones, then air bags, then antilock brakes, and now (in some cars, anyway) collision avoidance. Generally speaking, the older the car, the less safe it is. Second then there’s the problem of technology. Newer cars tend to have tons of special features such as air conditioning, power steering, power brakes, power windows, remote keyless entry, navigation, and even self-parking. Generally speaking, the newer the car, the more complicated it is.

Let’s just consider two factors: air bags and power steering. Nearly all cars made after 1983 have power steering. Almost no cars made before 1993 have air bags. In most cars, power steering runs off a pump which is connected to the crankshaft via a serpentine belt. This belt also drives the air conditioner, but I digress. The pump gets power whenever the engine is turning over, even if the car is in neutral. That’s why it’s illegal to shut off your engine while coasting down a hill; the engine stops supplying power to the pump and your power steering fails a few seconds later.

Follow me on this. You want to convert an ICE car to EV. You find the perfect donor car for only $1000, remove the engine, remove the gas tank, put in a $1000 electric motor, put in $2000 of batteries, put in a $1000 controller, and… oops. The power steering pump gets no power unless the motor is turning. But that doesn’t happen when the car is sitting still. Which means you can’t steer out of the driveway. Oops. So you kick yourself for picking a donor car which needs power steering and then go out and get a different donor car which never had power steering, which means it was made before 1983. Which means it has no air bags. Which means it’s less safe.

But hey, you shrug and say “Air bags? We don’t need no steenkin’ air bags!” and get a 1971 VW Type I (a.k.a. a bug or a beetle depending on who you ask). At least they had seat belts. So you convert that to electric power and you don’t have to worry about the power steering because it never had power steering to begin with. Now you have spent $6000 worth of parts (plus hundred of hours of labor) to have an electric beetle. It’s sluggish and has a top speed of 45 and a range of about 25 miles. It looks like a science experiment, with little wires running everywhere. And it doesn’t have air bags.

or air conditioning.

and the defroster sucks.

and now you have no trunk space because what used to be the trunk is now full of lead acid batteries, which increases the curb weight by about 1,000 pounds.

so you need a beefier suspension.

and better brakes.

hmm. It sure would be nice to have power brakes. Oh well.

So now your stopping distance is longer, which means you’re more likely to get into an accident. And if you ever do have an accident, not only will you be wishing you had air bags and crumple zones, now you have the double whammy of sulfuric acid leaking all over the place and/or 500 amps of power trying to ground itself through random chunks of metal, all while the fire department stands there looking at your sparking acid-leaking smoldering heap wondering if it’s safe to use the jaws of life without getting electrocuted.

Don’t get me started on Engine Control Units.

Now compare this giant mess to buying an EV that was designed from the ground up to be an EV, such as the Mitsubishi iMiev. All the high-voltage wiring is outside the passenger compartment. The battery pack is under the car, not in the trunk. The weight of the pack is only 330 pounds because it’s Lithium ion instead of lead-acid. Which means it won’t leak acid in a crash. The power steering is electric instead of pump-driven. It has air bags. It has air conditioning. The heat is kinda wimpy, but nothing’s perfect. It has a top speed of 82mph, a range of 50-70 miles, and it’s actually safe to drive.  Up until 2017, you could buy one for about $17K after the rebate, $19K if you want the navigation package. But the i-Miev is discontinued. The 2018 Smart ForTwo Electric Drive has similar specs for pretty much the same price.

On the other hand, there are professional conversion places who can overcome the engineering hurdles of an EV conversion and make it look nice when they’re done. You could call up one of these places and say “I want a 2018 Toyota Camry converted to an EV” and they can get it done. They’ll buy a Camry sans engine for $20K, put $10K worth of Lithium batteries into it, figure out some way to run the wiring safely, put in a $2K electric controller, figure out an electric replacement for the power steering, and the power brakes, reprogram the ECU so the “check engine” light doesn’t keep coming on, maybe even paint a big lightning bolt down the side, and charge you $90 per hour for 200 hours of labor, plus a little markup for profit, and voila! You have a Electric Camry for only $60,000. It has air bags, crumple zones, navigation, air conditioning, antilock brakes, everything. It has a top speed of 82 mph, a range of 50-70 miles, it’s actually safe to drive, and it only costs three times as much as a brand new Smart EV.


wait for it



How do you feel?

It drives me crazy when I hear someone say “I feel badly.” They think they are sounding educated, just like someone who says “It was a bad day for my sister and I”. But both of them are wrong. It should be “I feel bad” and “It was a bad day for my sister and me”.

English verbs can be divided into two categories: verbs of being and verbs of doing. The first group includes words like am/is/are/was/were. They link the subject to an adjective.

I am happy.
She is hungry.
Those bananas are good.
My dog was bad.
Those plates were hot.

Most other verbs describe an action and may be accompanied by an adverb which modifies the verb and describes the quality of the action.

I danced happily.
She ate her lunch hungrily.
He told the story well.
You did your work badly.
Those people argued hotly.

So, what about the word feel? It belongs in the first category. It links a subject to an adjective.

I feel happy.
She feels hungry.
I feel good.
He felt bad.
I feel hot.

It is just plain wrong to say…

I feel happily.
She feels hungrily.
I feel goodly.
He felt badly.
I felt hotly.

What confuses people is that it sounds nice to say “I feel well” instead of “I feel good”. That’s not because well is an adverb. It’s because well can also be an adjective describing health. So it’s perfectly fine to say “I feel well” meaning the opposite of “I feel ill”. The word feel is not a verb of doing, it’s a verb of being. So, what’s the opposite of “I feel good”? It’s “I feel bad”. And if you say  “I feel badly” you are just as wrong as anyone who says “I feel happily”.


“It was a bad day for my sister and I” is wrong for a different reason. It’s wrong because you would never say “a bad day for I”. It should be “a bad day for me”, therefore the whole sentence goes “It was a bad day for my sister and me.”

Also, a preposition is a perfectly fine thing to end a sentence with.


The Highest Morality?

I really enjoy science fiction. When I was a teenager, I read hundreds of sci-fi novels, including every Robert A. Heinlein novel I could get my hands on. But there were some things about RAH that bothered me. One of them was what he said when he gave the commencement address at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

He talked about monkeys that stand guard, watching out for predators, while the rest of the monkeys are eating. He compared the Annapolis graduates to those monkeys, but not in a bad way. He said those monkeys who put their own lives at risk were examples of the highest morality and said the Annapolis graduates belonged in that same category. I disagree.

Don’t get me wrong. I have great admiration for anyone who is willing to put their own life on the line for someone else. I just disagree as to what’s the “highest”.

If you risk your own life to get something for yourself (not for anyone else), people call you greedy and I agree.

If you risk your own life for your family (but not for anyone else’s family), people call you brave. I call that decent.

If you risk your own life for strangers in your own city (like a police officer or a fire fighter), people call that brave or heroic. I agree. But it’s important to note that these brave heroes would risk their lives for a visitor to the city as well, and they would never actively fight against another city. Their job is to protect humans who need protection. I applaud them.

If you risk your own life for your country, people call that brave and heroic. RAH called it the highest morality. But there’s an important distinction here. We are talking about soldiers who fight FOR their own country and AGAINST another country. Yes they are risking their lives but they have drawn a line, essentially pledging to defend and protect everyone on one side of the line at the expense of other people who are on the other side of the line. I admire them for risking their lives, and I put them on a higher level than someone who fights only for their own family, but I don’t call this the highest.

If you risk your life for all of humanity, working to protect and defend all humans everywhere from harm, regardless of what country they come from… well, about half the people I went to high school with would call you a traitor. But I say that’s a higher level of morality than someone who only fights for their own country. A good example would be Doctors Without Borders.

There could be higher levels above that. A person who risks their own life to to defend and protect all life everywhere, not just their own species, would probably be a higher level.

But I understand why RAH said soldiers are the highest level. Because it works. A society which tells its soldiers that they are the highest level of morality, convincing those soldiers to kill other soldiers in the process, is a society which will survive and thrive. It will continue doing what it did in the past. It will continue to teach its citizens to say really nice things about their own soldiers.

But in the end, it’s just another example of selfish behavior. It’s not a selfish individual driven by selfish genes. It’s a selfish country, driven by the same law of natural selection: whatever succeeds continues and whatever fails doesn’t.

We are a social species. We evolved the instincts to take care of each other, which increases our own chances for survival. Solitary humans rarely survive for very long. Our instinct is to defend and protect that which we recognize as being “us” and (when necessary) attack and destroy anything else. I’m proud of people who are able to expand their minds to say that “us” includes more than just their family. I’m disappointed by people who can’t even imagine stretching “us” to include more than just their country. I’m down right insulted by people who say it’s wrong for us to even try.

God bless the whole world, no exceptions.


Things I hate

Ten things that make me scowl:


expanded polystyrene (a.k.a. Styrofoam)

candy sprinkles

country music

leaf blowers

motorcycles that are so loud that the sound literally hurts my ears

lies that are disproven yet keep coming back

movies that twist together romance and hatred, love and cruelty, sex and violence

waiting in a long line when someone cuts in line several places ahead of me and gets away with it

having to smile and say “I’m fine thanks, how are you?” to the grocery clerk when I’m feeling depressed and just want to pay for my groceries and go home



Missing song lyrics

Years ago, I heard the song “Johnny McEldoo” sung by The Clancy Brothers. One thing that struck me about it was the interesting rhyme scheme. It’s something like this:

And, sometimes, the x’s rhyme with A or C.

Allow me to illustrate. The first four lines are:
There was Johnny McEldoo and McGee and me
And a couple of two or three went on the spree one day
We had a bob or two, which we knew how to blew
And the beer and whiskey flew and we all felt gay

Now I’ll remove the words that don’t rhyme:
…….. McGee . me
…… three … spree . day
….. two .. knew .. blew
…… flew …. gay

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rhyme scheme like that.

The lyrics are hard to understand, so I Googled them, and found that play.google.com has a MISTAKE in the lyrics. There’s two whole lines missing!

Just look at the last word of every other line, which are supposed to rhyme:

*record scratch* Say what? “fire” doesn’t rhyme with “in”! Then it continues…


Clearly, “fire” rhymes with “liar” and then everything’s fine after that. So where did it go wrong? There must be a missing line that rhymes with “in”. It has to be either:

He swallowed tripe and lard by the yard, we got scarred
We thought it would go hard when the waiter brought the bill
We told him to give o’er, but he swore he could lower
Twice as much again and more before he had his fill
something something something something
something something something-that-rhymes-with-“in”
He nearly supped a trough full of broth says McGragh
“He’ll devour the tablecloth if you don’t hold him in”
When the waiter brought the charge, McEldoo felt so large
He began to shout and barge and his blood went on fire
He began to curse and swear, tear his hair in despair
To finish the affair, called the shop man a liar

or it could be…

He swallowed tripe and lard by the yard, we got scarred
We thought it would go hard when the waiter brought the bill
We told him to give o’er, but he swore he could lower
Twice as much again and more before he had his fill
He nearly supped a trough full of broth says McGragh
“He’ll devour the tablecloth if you don’t hold him in”
something something something something
something something something-that-rhymes-with-“in”
When the waiter brought the charge, McEldoo felt so large
He began to shout and barge and his blood went on fire
He began to curse and swear, tear his hair in despair
To finish the affair, called the shop man a liar

I think it’s the second option, but I’ll be damned if I know what the two lines are. This has been bugging me for a long time. The freaky part is that MetroLyrics has the SAME MISTAKE. And so does songlyrics.com. And allthelyrics.com. I’ve listened to multiple recordings of the song, by different artists, and the lines are missing from ALL OF THEM. If this really is a traditional Irish song, the lines could have gone missing decades go, perhaps centuries.

Now, before you dismiss me as making something out of nothing, consider the tune itself, with no words. In 4:4 time, each line is two measures and the tune repeats every eight lines (sixteen measures).


So the number of lines in the song must be a multiple of 8 and the number of measures must be a multiple of 16. But it’s not. There are 38 lines and 76 measures. There should be 40 lines but two are missing. Q.E.D.

I’m afraid that these two lines are lost in the mists of time. I will probably never be able to solve this mystery. Add this to the list of reasons I need a time machine. *sigh*

If anyone reading this knows what the two missing lines are, PLEASE message me.


Things aren’t as bad as you think.

Pick just about any metric for the shape our world is in and chances are it’s IMPROVING.

Take violent crime. The rates of violent crime in America are at an all-time low, about half what is was when I was a kid. Total crimes are up, but as a percentage of the population it’s down. I’m safer now than I was 50 years ago. And other countries are also showing downward trends.

Take war. Worldwide, the number of people killed in wars each year, as a percentage of the population, has been going down for the last couple of centuries. Your probability of being killed in a war is lower now than just about any time in history. It’s true that the percentage of casualties which are civilians is up, but that’s mostly because the number of soldiers killed in war has dropped dramatically while the number of civilians hasn’t dropped as fast.

Take diseases. Despite hearing about outbreaks by Ebola and Zika, the fraction of people who actually die from such things is tiny compared to past outbreaks of typhoid, cholera, polio, measles, the plague, etc. We’ve made amazing progress against so many killers of the past, and we’re even making headway against Malaria now.

Take education. Even when you hear people complain that their schools aren’t as good as other schools, the fact that’s overlooked is that more people around the world are going to school than ever before in the history of the world. The global literacy rate is at an all-time high and it’s still going up.

Even when it comes to population growth, there’s good news. Our population is still going up but the number of babies being born has finally stopped growing exponentially and has stabilized. As one statistician put it, we have reached “Peak Child”. And soon we will reach “Peak Adult” too, and the population will stop growing, right around 11 billion is the prediction.

Take corruption in politics. We complain that our politicians don’t live up to our expectations but the truth is that’s because our expectations are much higher than they ever were in the past. The truth is that the average politician today is less corrupt and more responsible than the average politician of 100 years ago, let alone 1,000 years ago.

Take religious zealots and cult leaders. Even though you hear more about such things now because it makes for interesting news, the fraction of the population who fall prey to cult leaders is smaller now than it was in the past. And there are fewer and fewer people dying in holy wars started by religious leaders. The fraction of the population who say they don’t belong to any particular religion is higher today than ever.

Take transportation. Cars are safer now than ever. The number of fatalities per million passenger miles is about half now what it was 30 years ago, largely due to reductions in drunk driving and improvements in airbags and crumple zones. Airplane travel is amazingly safe now. in 2013, there were 31,000,000 commercial airplane flights, and there were only 6 fatal crashes. People say “one in a million” meaning something extremely rare, but that’s one in five million.

Take food and nutrition. The average human today is less likely to suffer from malnutrition or a vitamin deficiency than the average human did 100 years ago, or at almost any time in history. The percentage of children who develop blindness from malnutrition is lower than ever. The number of people who face starvation may be large, but it’s still a smaller fraction than during most of history.

You really have to look long and hard to find examples where things are actually worse now than in the past. One example I can think of is that fifty years ago it took fewer working days to earn enough money to buy a house. But even that one is a good-news-bad-news kinda thing. Housing is more expensive now but it’s also better. Our houses are more energy efficient than ever. They stand up better to natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes than ever. They catch fire much less frequently than they did in the past, and when they do catch fire we are much much less likely to be trapped in them.

There are a small handful of other trends that actually are getting worse, like global warming for example. But I don’t want to get into those today. I just want to focus on the fact that such things are a small minority.

We have the illusion that the world is falling apart because bad news spreads fast and far. But, in almost every way, the world is better now than it ever has been, and things are continuing to improve.


Pascal’s Wager

Rene DesCartes and Blaise Pascal lived in France about 400 years ago. They were colleagues and they were both mathematicians. Also, they both tried to prove the existence of God.

Rene DesCartes tried to prove it directly, arguing that nothing can exist without God. But his attempt failed; he only got as far as proving that you can’t ask questions if you don’t exist. This is usually summarized as Cogito Ergo Sum, which I discussed in my last post. If you ask me, his attempt was doomed from the start; it’s just too long a chain of ideas and each link in the chain can break very easily.

In order to justify a claim like “You need to believe in Jesus in order to get into Heaven”, you’d have to show all eight of the following: #1 There’s a law which says everything has to come from somewhere, e.g. if you see a shoe, there must have been a shoemaker (Let’s call this the Shoemaker Law). #2 The Shoemaker Law applies to the universe itself. #3 The Shoemaker Law does not apply to whatever created the universe. And whatever created the universe… #4 is able observe what happens as the universe unfolds, #5 cares deeply about the behavior of the creatures which inhabit the universe, and #6 has a plan for rewarding or punishing those creatures based on their behavior. Also, #7 You know what the rewards and punishments are. Finally, #8 You know specifically which behaviors are the ones to be rewarded and which ones are to be punished.

Cogito Ergo Sum doesn’t prove any of the links in that chain, let alone all of them.

In modern times, others have tried to build on DesCartes’s work by making the dubious claim that the Shoemaker Law applies not only to the universe, but to knowledge and logic itself. Their argument is basically “I think, therefore logic is real, therefore God exists”. At best, this allows them to bypass the first three links in the chain I described above. But they conveniently ignore the fact that it doesn’t even address the other five links. You often find such arguments under headings like “Christian Apologetics” or “Presuppositionists”.

Blaise Pascal took a different approach. He fell back on his formula for the Expected Value, which I discussed quite a bit in my three posts about playing the lottery. Here’s the logic which Pascal laid out.

Given the fact that (as we all know) believing in Jesus is what gets you into Heaven, and given the fact that Heaven is an infinite reward, and given the fact that the alternative is Hell, which is an infinite punishment, we can calculate the Expected Value for believing in Jesus. The formula will require some unknown quantities, but as you’ll see in a minute, their precise values don’t change the outcome. First, we need the probability that God exists. Let’s call that “g”. Like all probabilities, this is a number between zero and one. Because you can’t be 100% certain that God does not exist, that means g > 0. It might be 22% or 0.00000004% or it might be 0.000000000000000000001% but whatever it is, it’s not zero. Next, we need to ask the question what does it cost you to believe in a god that doesn’t exist. Let’s call this “c”. Pascal claimed that c was zero, but it still works if c is some other number, as long as c is finite.

EV for believing in Jesus = (g) x (infinite reward) –  (1-g) x (c)

Notice that, if g > 0 and c is finite, this result is always infinity, regardless of the specific values for c and g. Now consider the Expected Value for not believing in Jesus. For this calculation, we need one more number, the value of not believing in Jesus in a world where there is no god. Let’s call this “a”.

EV for not believing in Jesus = (1-g) x (a) – (g) x (infinite punishment)

Notice that, if g > 0 and a is finite, the result is always negative infinity.

Pascal’s conclusion from this is that, no matter how unlikely you think God’s existence might be, whether it’s 50% or 2% or 0.000000000000000001%, it doesn’t matter. When you multiply that probability times the infinite reward of going to Heaven, it’s always a safe bet for you to believe in Jesus.

There are so many flaws with this argument that there’s an entire page on Wikipedia devoted to explaining Pascal’s Wager and its flaws. I’m not going to try to repeat them all. I’ll just point out three which I thought of on my own.

Flaw #1: It uses circular logic.

The whole point of Pascal’s Wager is to try to decide if God exists and what you should do about it. The argument admits the possibility that God might not exist at all. Yet the argument is founded on the assumption that believing in Jesus gets you into Heaven and that Heaven is an infinite reward. If there is no god, then this assumption isn’t true at all. He started his proof for knowledge about God by assuming we have knowledge about God. That’s circular logic.

Flaw #2: It ignores alternatives (such as other religions).

Even if God does exist, that still wouldn’t prove that Heaven is real, or that Heaven is an infinite reward, or that believing in Jesus is what gets you into Heaven. Muslims believe that submission to the will of God is what gets you into Heaven, not belief in Jesus. Some religions believe that God has already decided whether you will get into Heaven or not and nothing you ever do has the power to change that decision. And Pascal conveniently ignored the possibility that there might be more than one god, and perhaps even different heavens. Then there’s one of my very favorite alternatives which I found on youtube: Keight’s Wager (“Keight” is pronounced like “eight”). Put yourself in God’s shoes for a minute. You’ve just created a universe. You’re lonely. You want to invite some people to join you in Heaven. What kind of people would you, God, want to hang out with? It’s easy to imagine that God is really into science. So maybe God would only invite into Heaven people who embrace the scientific method. Now, considering that there’s an amazing lack of evidence proving God’s existence, the only rational conclusion for a scientific-minded person to make is that God does not exist. Therefore, the perfect candidate for who God wants to invite into Heaven is…. an atheist! So, if you want the infinite reward of going to Heaven, your best strategy is to be an atheist. I’m not saying I actually believe Keight’s Wager. I’m just pointing out that Pascal’s Wager rests on unproven assumptions.

Flaw #3: The exact same logic leads to conclusions which are obviously wrong.

Suppose I show up at your door selling a bottle of water which came from the Fountain of Youth. Given the fact that (as we all know) drinking water from the Fountain of Youth bestows upon you the gift of immortality, and immortality is an infinite reward, let’s calculate the Expected Value for purchasing this bottle. We need the probability that I’m telling the truth about the water. Let’s call it “t”. You can’t be 100% sure that I’m lying, so t > 0. I didn’t specified the asking price for the bottle of water; let’s call it “p”.

EV = (t) x (infinite reward) – (1-t) x (p)

As long as p is a finite number and t is not zero, this formula always comes out to infinity. Therefore, you should definitely buy the bottle of water from me, no matter how much money I ask from you, and no matter how slim the chance is that I might be telling the truth. If the reward is infinite, then your only logical course of action is to hand over all your money.

Clearly, this is wrong-headed. Only a fool would hand over all their money to a stranger selling bottles of “magic” water. To suggest that logic demands that this must be the best course of action is just ridiculous.

.  .  .  .  .

Remember in my last post when I said that the Expected Value formula doesn’t work very well when you use very large numbers? Well, here’s a case where Pascal tried to apply the formula to INFINITE numbers, and it failed miserably. Frankly, he should have known better. But he was desperate. He knew deep down that he was 99.9% convinced that God doesn’t exist, but he badly wanted to keep clinging to some tiny scrap of hope. He couldn’t face the idea if giving up his belief. So he slapped together this appalling collection of bad logic and said he would keep on believing in Jesus anyway.

I can sympathize with Pascal’s situation. I struggled for years before I could finally give up my belief. After holding on to it for such a long time, it was very difficult to let go. I was a believer from childhood up until my early thirties.

I think that if I had started questioning my beliefs in my fifties or sixties, it would have been even harder to let go. I’m not sure if I would have been able to do it.

In conclusion… if you’re a believer who wants to try to bring me back into the light and you think to yourself “Hey! I know what to say to an Atheist. I’ll say what if you’re wrong? That’ll get him”… don’t even bother. I have spent way more time asking myself that very question than you ever will.


You can’t know anything with 100% certainty.

When people say “It’s impossible to know with 100% certainty that there is or isn’t a god.”, I respond that it’s impossible to know with 100% certainty ANYTHING. If “100% certainty” is your benchmark, then nobody knows anything about anything and we can all just give up on ever trying to find any knowledge at all. Obviously, in the real world, we have to make a judgment call and say “In this situation, 99% certainty is good enough for me to make a decision.” or maybe it’s 95%, or 99.999%, depending on the situation. It seems to me an awful lot of time gets wasted quibbling over whether someone who is 99.7% sure the aren’t any gods should be called an atheist or an agnostic.

Even scientific facts (like “water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit”) are subject to change when more evidence comes in. For example, as recent as 20 years ago, it was considered a “fact” that male pattern baldness was caused by a sex-linked gene on the X chromosome. Now we know that the original study which made that determination was faulty. The “fact” that you inherit baldness exclusively from your mother’s side of the family turns out to be simply not true.

Even the example of water freezing at 32 degrees F isn’t 100% true. The truth is more complicated than that, depending not just on temperature but also pressure. The so-called triple point of water happens at .01 degrees C and 611.73 Pa (roughly .006 atmospheres). Around 2,000 atmospheres, water can remain liquid all the way down to zero Fahrenheit. Read the wikipedia article about “ice”.

Heck, even in an ordinary real-life setting, if you put a bowl of water outside and the meteorologist on the radio tells you that it’s 31 degrees outside, can you be 100% sure that the water will freeze? Of course not. The weather report could be mistaken. The water could have trace amounts of salt in it, which changes the freezing point. The bowl might be in direct sunlight, preventing it from freezing.

And in the bigger picture, the only reason that you think you know that water freezes at 32 degrees F is that you remember having been told this fact by other people. But you can’t be 100% certain that your memory is accurate. People forget things all the time and make mistakes. Maybe the correct number is 23 and not 32 but you have some combination of Alzheimer’s disease and Dyslexia. Sure, the chances of that being true are very very slim but it’s not zero.

Beyond faulty memory, there’s also the possibility that you are not who you think you are at all and everything you think you remember about your past is actually an elaborate hallucination. You could be lying in a hospital bed, in a coma, on some distant planet, dreaming that you’re an Earthling, and all the so-called facts you think you learned on Earth are just figments of your imagination. Sure this idea seems far-fetched, but you can never be 100% certain that it isn’t true.

I’m not saying that facts don’t exist, or that nothing is true. I’m just saying that, as a human being, our knowledge of the facts is never 100% certain.

The only fact I can think of that might come close to being 100% certain is Rene DesCarte’s Cogito Ergo Sum, “I think therefore I am”. But even that statement is very limited. It only applies to the person who is doing the thinking. And it doesn’t really explain what it means to exist. If I’m part of a simulation, living inside a computer, is it fair to say that I “am”? Cogito Ergo Sum doesn’t even prove that your brain has any physical substance, let alone the body which you believe contains your brain. It also doesn’t explain what I am. It just says that I am. And I’m still not entirely convinced that it’s 100% certain. Maybe there’s a flaw in the logic that we haven’t discovered yet.

But most of the time, in day-to-day life, it’s pointless to worry about this stuff. All you need is to be convinced that it’s probably okay and the risks are small. Could a speeding car kill you? That’s a sizable risk, so it’s prudent to take precautions like staying on the sidewalk and waiting for the signal at the crosswalk and looking both ways before crossing the street. But it would be overreacting to never leave your house just because you can’t be 100% sure that a car won’t drive up onto the sidewalk and kill you. There are no guarantees in life. Just accept the fact that, sooner or later, everybody dies, and make the best judgment calls you can in each situation. If you spend your life terrified of death, you miss your chance to enjoy the life you have.