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What the lord said to the queen November 25, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Economics, Religion.
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The UK Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, has discovered what’s wrong with modern society:

Speaking at an interfaith reception attended by the Queen this week, Lord Sacks said: “People are looking for values other than the values of a consumer society. The values of a consumer society really aren’t ones you can live by for terribly long.

“The consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs coming down the mountain with two tablets, iPad one and iPad two, and the result is that we now have a culture of iPod, iPhone, iTune, i, i, i.

“When you’re an individualist, egocentric culture and you only care about ‘i’, you don’t do terribly well.”

He went on: “What does a consumer ethic do? It makes you aware all the time of the things you don’t have instead of thanking God for all the things you do have.

“If in a consumer society, through all the advertising and subtly seductive approaches to it, you’ve got an iPhone but you haven’t got a fourth generation one, the consumer society is in fact the most efficient mechanism ever devised for the creation and distribution of unhappiness.”

Help us, Rabbi! Tell us what to do!

In an attempt to highlight the link between faith and happiness, Lord Sacks pointed out that on the Jewish day of rest, the Shabbat, the devout spend time with their families rather than spending money in shops.

The Chief Rabbi, who has represented Britain’s 300,000 Jews since 1991 and is due to step down in 2013, said: “Therefore the answer to the consumer society is the world of faith, which the Jews call the world of Shabbat, where you can’t shop and you can’t spend and you spend your time with things that matter, with family…”

You might have thought that people could independently decide to spend time on things that matter, even without faith in invisible super-beings and infallible holy books, but apparently not. The Rabbi’s God will tell you what matters and when to spend time on it, and you will obey; that is the straight and narrow path to happiness. And don’t forget to thank God for everything he’s so generously given you — I hear there are children in Africa who can’t even afford an iPod Nano!

By the way, just to be clear, the Rabbi didn’t mean to imply that we’d be better off without all those “i, i, i” consumer gadgets:

A spokesman for Lord Sacks said later: “The Chief Rabbi meant no criticism of either Steve Jobs personally or the contribution Apple has made to the development of technology in the 21st century.

“He admires both and indeed uses an iPhone and an iPad on a daily basis. The Chief Rabbi was simply pointing out the potential dangers of consumerism when taken too far.”

I’m sure the Lord’s iPhone is an older generation one — and his faith helps him resist the urge to upgrade.

(via Butterflies & Wheels)

Paying the piper November 19, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Superstition.
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For generations, the town of Hamelin had been divided unto itself: two rival clans were locked in perpetual conflict over power and honor and land. The Lion clan were farmers and herders, while the Eagle clan were hunters and fishermen — and each detested the other. When the town was struck by disease, the Eagles told their children it was the fault of the evil Lions; and when there was a drought, the Lions told their children it was caused by the wicked Eagles. Both clans spoke wistfully of a long-foretold Day of Reckoning, when the great lions/eagles of old would return, and all wrongs would be righted.

After many years of tense stalemate between the two clans, a time came when the Lions grew more numerous and more powerful, and seemed on the verge of controlling the entire town. In their desperation, the Eagles sent word far and wide promising a handsome reward to anyone who could drive the Lion vermin out of Hamelin. Months went by and the Eagle leaders had nearly lost all hope, when one day they were called upon by a tall, funny-looking stranger, with a pied cloak and a flute around his neck. The stranger offered to solve their Lion problem that very night — if only all the Eagles would stay inside their homes and shut their doors and windows. The Eagle leaders were doubtful, but they had nothing to lose; so they agreed.

As the Lion children were playing in the streets of Hamelin that evening, they were startled by a strange melody the likes of which they had never heard before. Looking up, they saw a tall man with a flute — dressed in lion skin from head to toe. The man in the lion skin beckoned for the children to come closer, and they did; whereupon he put down his flute and spoke loudly:

“Children of the Lion, listen to me! Your town and your people are in grave danger, and only you can save them. Surely your parents have told you about the great and terrible Day of Reckoning, when the wicked Eagles will be destroyed and the noble Lions will be rewarded. Well, the Day of Reckoning is upon us! An army of great lions is just outside town, but they are in need of riders — and only a child can ride a lion. The army of eagles approaches as we speak, and if we do not hurry, I fear they will prevail. So if you are true Lions, and if you love your clan and your town, follow me!

The man’s words resonated deeply in the children’s minds: it seemed that the venerable stories of old were finally coming true. When the man in the lion skin roared and turned toward the town gates, the children followed.

The next morning, none of the Lion children could be found. Their parents searched every inch of the town, including the Eagle houses, but to no avail. Finally, frantic with worry, all the Lion men and women set out in search of their lost children. Days turned into weeks, and yet they did not return. The Eagles rejoiced, and took over the Lion lands and property.

By and by, the tall stranger in the pied cloak returned to Hamelin. He presented himself to the Eagle leaders, and demanded his reward. The leaders exchanged glances, then said to the stranger:

“You claim that you are responsible for driving out the Lion vermin, but can you prove it? After all, none of us saw you do anything at all. Perhaps the Lion children vanished for reasons that had nothing to do with you.”

The stranger stood there for a moment, his fingers dancing silently over the grooves of his flute; then he turned around and left without a word. The Eagle leaders laughed.

The next morning, none of the Eagle children could be found. Their parents searched every inch of the town, but to no avail: apart from some eagle feathers lining the streets, there was not a clue as to what had happened. The Eagle leaders sent out frantic messages far and wide calling for the stranger in the pied cloak to return to Hamelin, and promising him a vast reward.

Days turned into weeks and months into years, but the stranger did not come back. As the forlorn Eagle men and women grew old in their dying town, they comforted themselves with thoughts of the long-foretold Day of Reckoning, when the great eagles of old would return, and all wrongs would be righted.

Don’t get stranded on a desert island with Rabbi Adam Jacobs November 9, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Ethics, Religion.

The Huffington Post continues to publish Rabbi Adam Jacobs, who continues to be “startled” that anyone could possibly disbelieve in a creator God and a “grand design to the universe.” Jacobs does not, however, attempt to persuade nonbelievers by presenting good evidence in support of his religious beliefs; instead, he arrogantly claims that those who profess disbelief are either hypocrites or in denial:

… most “non-believers” actually believe a bit more than they generally let on, or are willing to admit to themselves. That, or … they have contented themselves to willfully act out fantasies that bear no relation to their purported worldview.

In attempt to prove his hypothesis, Jacobs offers a test: three questions, which are supposed to reveal that all of us are really non-materialists who believe in “grand cosmic forces” that operate on non-empirical levels. Before we consider his questions, please notice that the rabbi’s entire argument is a non sequitur: even if his claim were true (which of course it isn’t), that would say absolutely nothing about whether God (or any other supernatural phenomenon) really exists. What is actually true is not determined by what people believe. The Earth revolved around the sun even when all humans believed otherwise; witches and ghosts and fairies don’t become real just because people believe in them.

But on to the rabbi’s test:

1. Would you be willing to sell your parent’s remains for dog food?

Ah, the classic moral dilemma that has confounded philosophers for centuries. On second thought — I fail to see how my sentimental attachment to the remains of my parents, and my wish to preserve their memory, entails belief in the supernatural. (And if I had hated my parents, and needed the money, and really loved dogs…)

Next question:

2. You and someone you dislike are stranded on a desert island with a functioning ham radio. One day you hear that there has been a terrible earthquake that has sent a massive tsunami hurtling directly for your island and you both have only one hour to live. Does it make any difference whether you spend your last hour alive comforting and making amends with your (formerly) hated companion or smashing his head in with fallen, unripe coconuts?

I always find it strange, not to mention creepy, when religious people imply that the only thing keeping them from murdering and raping and stealing is their belief in God — as if there is no rational reason to want to spend one’s life, however fleeting, promoting trust and friendship and cooperation by treating others with compassion and respect and solidarity. Is it really so mysterious why I would prefer to spend my last hour of existence in the supportive companionship of a friend rather than in violent conflict with an enemy?

One thing’s for sure: I wouldn’t want to be on that island with Rabbi Jacobs — he might try to secure his place in the afterlife by fulfilling his God’s commandment about killing heretics (or sabbath desecrators, or blasphemers)…

The final question:

3. Is love, art, beauty or morality intrinsically significant?

These things are significant to us, because of what we are: conscious, thinking, feeling beings. To claim that the most precious and wonderful experiences in our lives only really matter if they’re part of some superhuman plan is to cheapen them. We don’t need a god (certainly not the hateful, immoral God of the Bible) in order to care about each other and appreciate the beauty of our world.

So the rabbi’s test is a failure, but then his premise was fallacious to begin with. If there were any good reasons for believing in gods and cosmic purposes, Jacobs would be able to present evidence to that effect and make an honest case. Instead, he is reduced to insisting that those who dismiss his fantasies are only pretending: materialists ought to be immoral nihilists, dammit, and if they turn out not to be — then they’re not really materialists! Did someone mention denial?

Voting like it’s 1938 November 5, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Game theory, Politics.
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It’s Election Day this week in the U.S., and in Cambridge we’ll be electing the City Council (nine members) and the School Committee (six). Cambridge uses a “Proportional Representation” voting method, which allows each voter to rank all of the candidates (instead of just picking a single favorite). The advantage of such a method is that in the event that your top candidate can’t use your vote — either because he got too few votes to be elected or because he has more votes than needed — the rest of your preferences can be taken into account for choosing among the remaining candidates.

For instance, under Cambridge’s system, a City Council candidate needs a tenth of the votes (plus one) to be elected; any votes he receives above that quota are called surplus, and surplus ballots are redistributed among the remaining candidates according to the next preference on each ballot. This is not as straightforward as it sounds, however: we need to decide which of a candidate’s ballots to transfer — and the manner in which we do so can influence the election’s result.

Cambridge uses the “Cincinnati Method” for surplus distribution, wherein the surplus ballots to be transferred from a candidate are drawn at regular intervals from the ordered sequence of all that candidate’s ballots. For example: if some candidate received 500 top-rank votes and only 400 votes are needed for election (i.e. he has a 100-vote surplus), every fifth one of the candidate’s ballots (in the order they were originally counted) — ballots 5, 10, 15, 20, etc. — will be selected for redistribution.

The disturbing aspect of the Cincinnati Method is its somewhat random nature, and the fact that its outcome is dependent on the order in which the ballots happen to be counted: if they’re counted in a different order, the election results could be different!

There are alternative methods for transferring surplus ballots. As explained by mathematician Robert Winters, the method that is generally adopted these days is known as “fractional transfer,” wherein a fraction of all of an elected candidate’s ballots are transferred to the candidates ranked next on those ballots. This method has the virtue of being completely independent of the order in which the ballots are counted, and it is actually the default method built in to the tabulation software used in Cambridge elections — Cambridge explicitly overrides the default option and instructs the software to use the Cincinnati Method instead!

Why does Cambridge insist on using a flawed method instead of switching to a better one? The answer is rather depressing.

Cambridge is […] in the position where we must abide by a 1938 law (Mass. General Laws, Chapter 54A) that restricts our methods for redistributing surplus ballots to systems that were in use somewhere in the United States at that time.

Ah, tradition: things should always be done the way they were done in the past. When will our elected officials get around to repealing this embarrassingly stupid law?