Monday, May 25, 2015

The Age Of Reason (Final Notes) by Thomas Paine

There is a certain fatigue to listening to eight hours of someone mocking, accusing and condemning your religion.  There is hopefully a constructive goal in all this beyond simply blurting "same to you".

One curious claim that Paine came up with is that God would never use human language to communicate with humans, because human language is imperfect.  Of course human language is imperfect because humans are imperfect, so we are left concluding that any attempt by God to bother with humans would be beneath His dignity.  Certainly we can argue that way, but it begs the question of why a deist would concern himself with God in any way.

Since Paine has denounced all classical studies as being useless, unless it is to criticize the Bible, I would note the points where Paine has taken on a classical viewpoint unwittingly.  Since I have no doubt that most of his opinions arrived from somewhere else, I doubt that they are independent.

The first area of similarity being Paine's claim that under deism God can never make an evil command.  This was first noted by Epicurus, who claimed that his gods who never interacted with men likewise never commanded anything evil.  Of course such gods never commanded anything good either, nor did they ever reprimand anyone for doing evil or speaking falsehood.  For this reason, Plato in his Laws asserted that both atheism and deism should be condemned equally, since those who embraced this viewpoint would not be restrained by anything.  It must also be noted that Epicurus was the one who popularized the notion that he believed in "science", not religion, and this was done about 300BC.

This gets to one of the key points: Paine asserts that organized religion is the source of evil.  Christianity asserts that evil has its origin in man, so that with or without organized religion man will be evil.  That some evil men would concoct religion for their purposes is hardly surprising.  If religion were good, evil men would corrupt it, as they will do with everything.  At this point Paine and I aren't too far apart, except that he has not taken the step of acknowledging that man is by nature evil, and instead has blamed evil on something external to man.

Another point where Paine seems to match the ancients is in the employment of attack tactics similar to the Academics.  It is never the case that evil isn't intertwined with some specious form of good, so that we usually have to temper an attack by separating these things out and weighing the overall recipe.  The academics indiscriminately attacked everything.  The Roman emperor Julian's attack entitled Against The Galileans was a similar diatribe.  Their opponents  (e.g. Epictetus) simply note that this kind of attack rhetoric can be employed against everything, including anything that the academic finds necessary for the tolerance of life.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Flat Earth Notion according to Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine has a short note on the Flat Earth that deserves to be put into my collection.  After a brief note on Galileo, he gives us this:

"And prior to that time Virgilius was condemned to be burned for asserting the antipodes, or in other words, that the earth was a globe, and habitable in every part where there was land; yet the truth of this is now too well known even to be told." - The Age of Reason

The theory of the antipodes and whether it is agreed to or disagreed to both presumed a spherical Earth.  It assumes that the Earth is mostly water and that there might be widely separated land masses where men cannot sail between.  If men existed on these separate land masses, then we can dispute over whether or not they were descended from Adam, as we might now dispute whether men - or intelligent life - could exist on a different planet.  Paine clearly misunderstood the nature of this dispute.  Since Paine wrote long before Washington Irving wrote his fictional account of Columbus being opposed by clerics convinced of a flat earth, it appears that atheists had been actively working up this myth in the 18th, rather than the 19th century as I had previously thought.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Age of Reason, by Thomas Paine

This work invites a lot of comment on many subjects.  Given that I have been through several of Paine's earlier works, it should be first noted that he was a person whose every opinion was so self evident that anyone who disagreed was guaranteed to be deficient in their mental faculties.  This is all part of his extended world view, which is that his generation is the first to have encountered the phenomenon that we call "reason", it having been completely unknown to all prior generations.  Everything else derives from this.

One thing that Paine highlights is that the only things worth studying are science and technology.  Based on that viewpoint, I should have tossed his work away early on, especially since I am a technologist by profession, but I have persevered on in spite of this being a waste of mental resources.  We find that all ancient writings are mythology or errors, so we have nothing to learn from them, while Paine's generation had rediscovered, embraced and extended science, which was previously invented and known exclusively by the ancient Greeks.  A corollary is that there is nothing to be gained by studying dead languages, so only a handful of linguists need concern themselves with these matters.  Since Monarchy comes from ancient times, it is clearly wrong and needing to be reformed.  The same applies to religion.  His fury, however, is exclusively directed at Christianity, so the later half of this work is dedicated to proofs of the fabrication of the Bible.  For example, he clearly proves that the author of the book of Judges was not named Rabbi Judges, thus, this work has no authority.  This is so self evident that only a moron would disagree, and for making this great discovery, Paine is deemed a "philosopher".

My own opinion is that Reason has always been with mankind, this having been given to us by God.  The problem is that Reason is morally neutral, so that it can be employed for either good or evil, or to pass on truth or falsehood, depending on the character of the one who employs Reason.  It is Paine's failure to observe this most basic, self-evident truth that places him and his like-minded intellectuals purely into the class of Sophists, while entirely excluding them from the category of Philosophers.  So there.

A final point that I will note is that Paine calls himself a deist, while crediting his parents for giving him a good moral teaching from the Quaker religion.  Yet at the same time, he expects to live after the grave, while having no expectation of judgment for sin.  This seems to me to be just one step removed from Quakerism, since this religion was always closer to deism than to Christianity.  He wants to credit Jesus as a moral teacher, while rejecting any teaching that he doesn't like as being fraudulent.  The inconsistency in all this is his belief that deism is inherently superior morally to Christianity, yet acknowledging the moral upbringing that he owed to Christianity.  In the end, this sort of deism is doomed to moral decay, as it has proven, while at the same time it boasts of its morality more than any other religion.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Give Me Snarky Or Give Me Death: Thomas Paine continued

This is mainly some comments on the second half of The Rights of Man, and also includes a number of excerpts from Common Sense which are collectively entitled The American Crisis.

The reason for the title is that Thomas Paine's writings give me a sense of an early version of Baghdad Bob or Tokyo Rose.  It is an endless series of long winded articles full of sarcasm and mocking.  But then I found that Paine was from a Quaker family, thus, it all makes sense, since this was the manner of their founder, George Fox.  But now I am descending into the same morass so that perhaps I am hearing myself in the mirror.  The main thing that stuck in my mind was the alternation between claiming that the American colonists had been oppressed by taxation whereas elsewhere the English peasants were mocked for being poorer than their American counterparts.

The Rights of Man come across as a series of articles like Common Sense was.  The beginning part of this is a declaration of the Rights of Man by the French, which sound to me extraordinarily reasonable, but perhaps this is due to our current situation where those rights have multiplied astronomically.  An objection I had to the fixation on Rights was that it had nothing to say about Responsibilities, as if mankind should be utterly lacking in these.  This objection seems to have been raised at the beginning, and Paine's rebuttal is that their can be no Rights of Man unless their our Duties to protect the Rights of others.  While I can see some sense in this, it seems to me that if the Rights which were self evident needed to be explicitly enumerated, how much more so should the Duties of Man, since these, being derived from the Rights, should necessarily be less obvious.

A complaint that Paine gives is against governance by precedence, since the wisdom of the present age should be as good or better than precedents.  I will just note that America's judicial system continues to work by precedents to this day, under the name of case law.  A repeated insult hurled against monarchies is the epitaph of Political Popery.  America at this time included a number of Catholics, so I wonder how this was received.

The theme that Paine keeps returning to is taxes, which are outrageous due to the wars.  A key goal of his reforms is to shrink government by eliminating armies, thus, eliminating war.  But we must wage war to have the freedom to eliminate war.  He laments that in the process of raising taxes, government has intruded into vast areas of human industry with regulations designed to raise money or hamper trade so that monopolies can be engineered.  An evil associated with this lust for money is the raising of debt, and he blast those who take on unseemly levels of debt, and then boast of their wealth because of what they have been able to buy with the debt.

Finally, Paine makes some modest proposals for what could be done with the, um, Peace Dividend that would arise.  We could use a small sum to pay young families so that they could afford to pay to have their children taught.  A little more might be used to provide for those who were too old and worn out to continue at their labors.  Little did he know where that would lead.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Rights of Man, Part 1, by Thomas Paine

This work is on the French Revolution as a rebuttal to Burke's work on the French Revolution that I read earlier.  Paine had stayed at Burke's house for a time, and they seem to have both taken opposite positions on just about everything, with the unifying theme that they are both prone to filling their works with lots of rhetorical fluff.  Paine is thus as critical of Burke as Burke is of the French Revolution.  Since Burke expended many pages on describing the superiority of the English Constitution, Paine spent a similar amount of verbiage denouncing it.  I am inclined to agree with both:  That the English system is/was messed up, but it was still superior to the French one.  So far, except for some Biblical references, the opinions of both seem unaffected by any classical writings, as if Aristotle never had a worthwhile opinion on the subject.

One of Paine's amusing claims is that Monarchy is the source of war, and war is the source of overtaxation, hence, by eliminating Monarchy we should eliminate both war and taxation!  This is one of those points where classical studies, in particular the Peloponnesian Wars, should have dispelled the ignorance.  For the moment Democratic-ish Europe is peaceful, but this is only because the people have determined to direct their resources towards materialism and idleness, while the US protects their mercantilist' interests.

The core complaint of Paine against Burke is that Burke argues that all change is to be perpetually banned, which Paine mocks as Governance by the Dead.  That this system had to come into existence at some time proves that the perpetual system of governance wasn't always perpetual, thus, we must conclude that perpetual governance is a fraud.  Paine then gives us a definitive lecture on what government was like before government and what religion was like before religion, along with how both came about, which I won't dispute since he lived closer to that era than I do.  Instead, Paine argues that each generation has the right to completely overthrow what went before, so I wonder if he meant this to apply to religion as he meant it to apply to government.

As Burke complains that the French know little or nothing about England, so Paine blasts Burke for knowing little or nothing about the French Revolution.  That being true, Paine is useless as to telling us about the irregularities that led to the legislature and although we hear constantly of how oppressed the French people were, there is not one detail as to the nature of that oppression, unless it is that the government frowned on rioting.  The French Revolution seemed to have wanted to do away with prisons, apparently thinking that crime was exclusively a product of Monarchy, so that without Monarchy we should no longer need prisons.  That many innocents were killed Paine acknowledges, but he helpfully explains that they were not killed due to hatred towards them as individuals, but rather as proxies of ideals which needed to be exterminated.  It would have been fitting if Paine too had been killed during the Reign of Terror that happened a few years after, as a proxy for an idea that needed to be discarded.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Common Sense, by Thomas Paine

There are two recorded works of Thomas Paine at  The first is this pamphlet about the American Revolution.  The second is on the French Revolution.  Common Sense is clearly a polemic advocating war against England, while given its name, "Common Sense", it speciously declares itself to be neutral and guided only by reason.  One point I found sympathy with is the claim that the division of people into poor and rich was rarely the result of oppression.  There are many factors.

The most amusing part of this was Paine's argument that the constitutional monarchy of England was irrational and to be rejected because the king and the various chambers had checks on the others.  Apparently checks and balances in government are contrary to Common Sense!  His arguments for doing away with the monarchy are taken from the biblical texts of Gideon and Samuel, so that nothing of classical viewpoints intrudes into the discussion.  He postures himself as being strongly pro freedom of religion, with the only deviation being criticism of the Quakers who insist on both being pacifists and being politically noisy.  Verbal warfare is OK, but physical warfare isn't.  Somehow I suspect that he isn't going to employ this kind of argument in his other work, The Rights of Man.  There were also some crazy claims that the US was militarily very strong, which proved to be about as wrong as could be.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

France in the Nineteenth Century, by Elizabeth Latimer

Onward from the French Revolution!  Or perhaps I should say into the continuation of the Revolution.  This work at times is a bit like a polite tabloid as we are often treated to a verbal image of the queen's (or the aspiring queen's) dress.  There is also an emphasis on personal accounts, so that at times there is a sense that the overall picture is not being given with regard to economics and government.  There is little sense of what happened in the French Revolution of 1848.

What does come through is an impression of mediocrity in leadership that lasts from the time of Napoleon almost through the entire century, with only a few brief exceptions.  The French were divided between monarchists, depotists, socialists and communists.  What they did not have were any of what would have formerly been known as liberal republicans, even though they spoke of a republic.  What they called a republican was someone who intended to achieve socialism through the mechanisms of a superficially democratic, constitutional government.  But there was no regard for any constitution, which whatever it might be would be in need of constant change, or so everyone seems to think.  The text gives us a bit of Louis Phillip, Napoleon III, along with some peripheral characters like Maximilian.  Another novelty was to learn that the French only had one central body for deliberation, so that the municipal and state elections that we take for granted were unknown to in France.

The largest piece of writing is reserved for the Franco-Prussian War and the chaos and carnage of the Paris Commune.  The French clearly get the stupidity award for starting this war, but the thing that stuck out most in my mind is how the Prussians seem to have anticipated the revolt that led to the Commune and cleverly exploited this to their benefit.  But then the atheist Communists could not be restrained to any of the laws of humanity, which resulted in a counter-blow nearly as ruthless.  One has a sense that modern terrorism was invented at this time, but that may be a leap too far.  What seems clear is that the Prussian success with their policy likely inspired the Kaiser to repeat the trick by supporting Lenin in Russia during World War I.

The French finished this period with the Third Republic, which featured the removal of the Romanists from all teaching positions, as well as from charitable activities.  How - or if - they modernized during all this isn't quite clear, but perhaps it was just a spill over from the other side of the channel.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

French Revolutions: Burke (final)

This "letter to a gentleman" turned into a long winded book as Burke proceeded to critique the whole of the French government, military and economic system as it was then stumbling along.  There are a number of highlights.  The first was the note on how the intellectuals (i.e. "philosophers") managed to achieve a monopoly of the teaching institutions, so that a monotonous teaching of a single viewpoint was enforced to a degree that exceeded what the inquisition had obtained.  At the same time, the confiscation of the church property largely blocked further clergy from becoming learned, leading to a situation like our current one in which the orthodox christian clergy are generally less learned than the government funded clergy of atheism.  Charity was taken up by this government, not in the sense of Christian charity, but rather a false one that uses other peoples' money together with various contrivances for buying the favor of the masses.

The legislature itself took all power unto itself, and thus a major feature was the abolishment of checks and balances, so that the French Revolution first gave way to a classical democracy:  government of the mob.  A republic is what they had scorned.  A last point of amusement is the usage of paper money.  At that time, the government of England managed to retain a strong paper currency, but this was based on the convertibility of the money to gold.  The French had been more creative, so that the paper currency likely had more in common with that of the current Venezuela.  Burke laments what would happen with the public finances in the hands of populist crooks, which is another one of those perennial problems of government.  There is vastly more to this work, much of which almost prophecies the ailments of our current era.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

French Revolutions: Belloc and Burke (continued)

"Abbe Sieyes, could say, 'What is the third estate?  Everything.  What has it been hitherto in the body politic?  Nothing.  What does it demand?  To be something.'" - A Popular History of France from the Earliest Times, by Guizot

Guizot points out that the Third Estate - that is, everyone who wasn't clergy or nobility - had a long history of influence in the government, thus, the Third Estate had always been something.  What it demanded was to be everything, which was a nonsensical demand that doomed it to failure.

Burke delves more into the hypocrisy of the Third Estate, by first making it clear that a majority of the legislature were low-life lawyers, sophists, charlatans and others who stood to personally make a nice profit on the revolutionary upheaval.  In the end, the good among them were driven into exile.  He goes on to point out how these politicians routinely give grand speeches about the virtues of Democracy and popular choice, only to express within the elite cliques their utter contempt for the voting masses.  Some things never change.

Burke is really in a long-winded rant mode, so I have to try to remember the occasional point that falls out of a mass of words.  One point that stood out was that in almost all revolutions that preceded the French Revolution, the goal had been to reform morals and religion for the betterment of society.  The French Revolution stood apart for having been intended to do harm both to morals and religion, thus, leading to the frenzied mob that behaved in a manner similar to that of the St. Bartholomew massacre.  At the time Burke wrote, the king and queen were locked up and not yet executed.  Burke notes that of all the vicious tyrannical kings in history that perhaps deserved an ill fate, the king and queen of France were being persecuted for being too soft, while many of their retainers had been ruthlessly murdered by the mob without any due process.  In the end, those who boasted of the Rights of Man proved to be as frenzied and barbaric as any in history.  Combining Burke's observations with Guizot's, the sense is one of a bunch of ingrates.  The more they received, the more vicious they became towards the ones who gave to them.  A problem for the revolutionaries in arguing that any established institution should be overthrown because it is established is that a generation later, what the revolution established should then need to be overthrown again.  Or we can do what we do in the modern era, which is that the establishment cites a different group as being "the establishment", so that the mobs will be perpetually overthrowing what is not the establishment, while being content that they have done their riotous duty.

An amusing bit was Burke's claim that the French hardly understood England, and the works of great literature from earlier generations were wholly unknown to the educated of today.  This reminded me of Belloc's complaint that few had read Rousseau, and many did not understand Rousseau's French, or were too impatient and rushed through without processing the ideas.  My recorded books include a "rebuttal" by Thomas Paine of Burke's work, entitled The Rights of Man.  I suppose that this would be worth reading next.

Monday, May 04, 2015

French Revolutions: Belloc and Burke

Unfortunately neither of these are actually short histories of the French Revolution.  Belloc wrote his a few generations later with the intent of correcting misunderstandings, while Burke wrote his while the Revolution was in process.

Belloc begins with a praise for Rousseau's Social Contract, which he contends that few have read and those who did read had misunderstood it.  I read it partially, but roughly have the idea that it presumes that government and social institutions are the result of a agreement among the peoples.  My own opinion is that all this was said better by Aristotle with his description of the various forms of government, along with a few other classical authors.

Then there is this thing called Liberty, which is deemed to be a good in itself.  Burke rightly notes that the important thing is what people do with Liberty, and wants to wait and see.  The classical authors note that the first generation who achieve Liberty will use it for good, while following generations will increasingly see Liberty as a justification for vice.  To this Belloc is silent.  So which is it?  Liberty for good?  Or Liberty for evil?  Is Fraternity the brotherhood of virtue and vice?  Equality the sameness of right and wrong?  The classical writers noted that government is called upon to encourage virtue and thwart evil, which is precluded by the non-principles of the French Revolution.  Of course nobody really believes in Liberty, Equality and Fraternity if pushed on specific points.

What Belloc does give is a history of the war between the French and the powers around France that resulted from the civil war.  This is something I knew nothing about, but follows directly from the practice of the European nations to try to impose a choice of king on a country through war, such as the Spanish Succession and the Austrian Succession.  This was not nearly so unequal as the American Revolution, but a disorderly France still had a struggle against the large, organized continental armies.  Superior tactics helped the French at crucial points, but for the most part the war was won by throwing masses of peasants into the battles.  What strikes me here is that for centuries the Huguenots tried desperately to be able to live their principles out in peace, but were ruthlessly persecuted by their countrymen.  Now, in the cause of non-principle, the French finally bother to rise up nearly unanimously and throw off the yoke of a principle that is clearly wrong.

Belloc is a Catholic, yet notes that the Catholic leadership of the times just preceding the Revolution was nearly universally atheist, even though many of the parish priests and church attenders were still Christian.  Why is it that Christianity seems doomed to have atheists worming their way to the top of the power structures, then corrupting the institution, robbing the church, and using whatever power they can obtain to destroy others?  As noted earlier, the French economy was in a complete mess, but it seems that selling assets of the church and the elites was one of their solutions for gaining money.  This I am not so sure about, since I really don't see much in these histories on this subject.  I am just starting Burke's work, so this will take some time to finish.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Popular History of France: Final Ponderings

I have finished Guizot's history.  It stopped just short of the French Revolution, so I have started another work, The French Revolution, by Hilaire Belloc.  I will comment on Belloc's work later, but some of what I remember of Guizot's ending is undoubtedly already conflated with Belloc's work.

Guizot's work feels like it was left hanging.  Or perhaps there was a 7th volume to the series that he didn't get around to writing.  What was fascinating was Guizot's description of the circumstances leading up to the French Revolution.  There was the financial problems associated with the war with England that brought about America's birth.  What happened during this period seems to be a systematic engagement in creative finance by the French government as various debt instruments were dreamed up only to explode after they reached their limit.  The result was economic chaos.  To this we add a clueless Louis XVI who might be caricatured as Forest Gump goes to Versailles.  Then there was Marie Antoinette, who like Princess Hillary is socially clueless, but unlike Hillary is simply naive rather than pathologically malevolent.  As was mentioned in the last post, all the smart intellectuals were forever mocking the upper classes and the establishment, which our vastly inferior intellectualoids continue to do today, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are the upper classes and the establishment.  All this leaves me wondering what will happen if the financial wizardry of today finally blows up on a worldwide basis.

Monday, April 27, 2015

A Popular History of France: Nearing the Bitter End

95.5 hours of listening done.  Only 4.5 hours to go.  Francois Guizot's long history of France from the beginnings has been quite a journey.  The part that I had missed in my earlier studies was the immense persecution thrown at the Christians by the Papists.  Multiple wars of extermination were waged over centuries with truces at different times, followed by more treachery from the Romanists.  Something sad was that the attempts to exterminate Christianity were often done side by side with a ban on exiting the country, thus, the Hugenots could be killed for staying and killed for leaving.  This eventually had a critical effect on their colonies, as the determination to maintain Popery as the established religion in Canada precluded a mass emigration of French citizens to this area, which eventually left them too weak to resist the English.

Another more familiar area to me is the era of the "philosophers", meaning Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and others.  Diderot gets off better, but most of the "philosophers" seem to have been little more than foul mouthed mockers.  It is as if a pack of unruly arsonists should be congratulated as heroes of architecture.  Voltaire comes off a little better when he decides to support some of the persecuted protestants against the papists.  The churlish side of me wants to say that he was probably just using the protestants as a pretext for venting against the catholics, but I should be more generous and not second guess the motives.  The work is now just short of the French revolution, which is where it ends.  I have a few other works on the French Revolution and one on the history of France in the 19th century to finish this ordeal with.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Looking down at San Jose

Just because you are down in the dirt and stuck in the weeds doesn't mean that you can't look down at the world.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Great Courses: The New Testament

If God hadn't intended for men to lie, he wouldn't have given them a brain and a mouth.

The last lecture was on the letters by Paul.  These were written over a period of perhaps two decades to churches and/or individuals under greatly varying circumstances, as were Paul's circumstances.  The lecturer, Bart Ehrman, claims that three of the letters, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus are all forgeries, and cites "differences of language".  He notes that this claim is based on different use of language and a remarkably different attitude towards women.  My main note is that those three letters were written to individuals, along with Philemon.  Philemon also has rather different language use, but it is with regard to reconciling Philemon with an escaped slave.  Since freeing of escaped slaves is not yet politically incorrect, it is not the least bit surprising that modernists consider it to be "genuine".  Thus, we get to the core:  If modernists don't like the message, then they deem it to be a forgery and search relentlessly for "evidence" to prove their point.  But then somehow the note in 1 Corinthians is missed:  "the women should keep silent in the churches.  For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says".  This Paul is claimed to be a different one from the misogynist author of Timothy and Titus.

Today's lecture was on the gospels.  Ehrman notes that the authors of these gospels were highly literate Greeks, for which we agree.  The problem develops when he implies that the gospel message had been pass through about a dozen or more people before finally reaching the author who put it into print.  Is this the way educated Greeks were taught to do their history?  Of course not.  If we go with the gospel of Mark being written 65ADish, then we are faced with the fact of their being apostles still alive and many eye witnesses.  Would the Greek authors really not bother to find someone who knew the story most accurately?  He then spends a lot of time dwelling on minor differences between the accounts, but fails to note that a modern court trial would feature even greater discrepancies among the eye witnesses to something that happened a few days or weeks earlier.  Not to mention some of our politicians who can't remember anything. The easy solution to all this is simply to accept what everyone generally accepted:  That about the time Peter was executed, he had Mark put his memories down on paper.  A similar pattern was followed by Matthew and John.  The evidence conforms to the tradition, thus, why do we fly off and seek a conspiracy theory for which this era provides not a single similar example?  Luke refers to the patterns of the ancient Greeks directly for his history, which Ehrman, being a scholar who undoubtedly knows that this is firmly established, refuses to even mention.  This is what "Great Courses" are made of.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Saturday Afternoon Walk in the Wilds

It is wild flower season, so I took my beloved wife for a little flower hunting at a park near San Jose.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Neurotic Networks and Deep Learning

Part of the fun of working on SkyNet is that we get to hear presentations on the latest technology from experts gathered in from around Silicon Valley and even from other parts of the world.  Today's lecture was from Steve Oberlin of NVidia on "Deep Learning" using Neural networks.  Their graphics hardware is able to process the neural network algorithms some 10X to 100X faster than regular computers, making them a key player as Google, Apple, Facebook, and Baidu all compete to produce the most efficient and accurate algorithms for recognizing images and audio.  

I have been skeptical of artificial intelligence for a long time, and especially neural networks since they are incomprehensible even to the experts who develop them.  Other algorithms have proven to be much better.  But then three years ago there was some sort of major breakthrough for which Steve's explanation only confirmed to me that neural networks are still incomprehensible, but researchers seem to have stumbled onto the right recipe.  The main example he gave was the ability to recognize images in pictures, which Facebook highlights with their ability to recognize faces in uploaded pictures.  The problem is that the machine has to be "trained", or perhaps that should be "brain washed".  A set of 1.5 million pictures was used with 22,000 items that had been identified in the pictures by hand.  This entire set was fed into the machine learning system, so the machine could correctly associate images with items.  Afterwards, it was possible for the machine to recognize images with just over a 95% accuracy, which is about the same as for a human.  On still images.  For audio, the recognition was about 90% for clear voice and 80% if there is background noise.  Not bad, but we are still talking about some fairly heavy duty hardware on two special aspects of human intelligence.  The real challenge is machine learning without all the tiger parenting, which Steve hinted at, but for which the results weren't quite as impressive.  It is still going to be a while before we can design the Terminator.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Popular History of France, by François Guizot

I have about 30 hours remaining of this work out of the total of about 100 hours.  Currently I am on Louis the XIV.  What I have learned is that Louis the XIV was king for 72 years and an absolute monarch for 56 years.  Or to put it another way, he was a dictator for more than half a century.

The part that really stuck out to me is Cardinal Richelieu who at one time clamped down on the protestant Huguenots with all the force he could, but then became lenient to them once his authority was established.  This was completely the opposite of the policies of extermination that were waged against the Protestants by the Catholics elsewhere.  Then there is the bit about the 30 years war and the fact that the Protestants would not have been able to bring this war to a peaceful conclusion without the intervention of Richelieu.  Apparently we Protestants owe are freedom to a Catholic cardinal.  So much to learn.

A peculiarity in all this is how France became the overbearing monster state.  First this was done by the Romanists, and then by the Monarch.  Now, it is the European Union pushing for the super state.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

From Portugal to China: The story of the Jesuit Mission

I am taking a church history class for seminary which required me to do a project of my own choice.  The one I chose involved readings from several books.  The primary source was:

Journey to the East, The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579 - 1724, by Liam Matthew Brockey

Since I am also active in a Chinese church here in California, there was much relevant to the story for me.

There are a number of things that stood in this that reminds me of my life among the Chinese.  For example, the Chinese are one of the most superstitious people on the planet.  This was in many ways to the advantage of the Jesuits, since the superstitions of the Chinese were in many ways just replaced with Catholic superstitions:  Rosaries, veronicas, relics, and the like.  The chant of the Buddhist priest was replaced with a Latin mass.  Yet somewhere in the clutter of Popery and Mariolatry they seem to have found room to also teach about Jesus and what he did for us on the cross.

The Chinese government today doesn't like large, organized religion operating out from under the thumb of the bureaucracy.  The same was true during both the Ming and Qing dynasties, so that organizing small house groups was the norm.  Then there was the complaint of the Jesuits that the Chinese parents would pressure their kids to do their secular academic lessons, while neglecting the spiritual ones.  That I find the most amusing, since the same principle applies today.

The Jesuits were renowned for their education and spent much time decoding Chinese and studying classic Chinese works for their apologetics work.  Something curious in Brockey's account is that they spent all their time on Confucianism and almost none on Daoism and Buddhism, even though these two religions were all over the landscape.  There is another work I read recently on Buddhism in China that gave an extreme recommendation of the opposite sort:  That Christian missionaries should know as much as possible about Buddhism to the point that they would master Sanskrit to become familiar with the original works.  The observation I have in this is that, although Buddhism is common in China, the Chinese are almost entirely ignorant of the religion and view it more as an extension of their superstitions.  Thus, it would have been completely unnecessary for the Jesuits to have spent time on Buddhism, but Confucianism did effect the culture to the core.

A last surprising bit for me was to learn that half of the Jesuit missionaries died on the voyage from Portugal to China.  Things were rough then.  Brockey pointed to this journey as a key part of their formation as priests, since they were compelled to minister to the sick and dying through the voyage.  During storms they had to offer prayers and comfort the panicking.  Words of wisdom had to be communicated in spite of every language barrier imaginable.  Sermons needed to be prepared and delivered to the most hostile of the crew, and something had to be said for the dead as they were being committed to the waves.  This book definitely deserves a thumbs up.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

The Great Alcatraz Ferry Controversy

Sometimes we have to be reminded that not everything is peace and harmony in California.  We are mostly aloof from the juvenile political concerns of the rest of the world.  But then there are really times when we must make a stand for what is right.

The issue at stake is the Alcatraz ferry service has a lease that is about to expire and the National Park Service which operates the ferries is thinking about a change.  Rather than berthing them at Fisherman's Wharf, they are considering the possibility of using For Mason.  For those of us on the Alcatraz Swim team, this is clearly a catastrophe, since this puts the Aquatic Park where we swim half way between Fisherman's Wharf and the Alcatraz Ferry terminal, thus, our mostly undiscovered part of the waterfront is going to see a never ending tsunami of tourists and similar vermin.  The other key issue is that the new ferry route would cut across the swim path from Alcatraz to San Francisco, creating hazards beyond whatever else is lurking in the water.  The lease that the NPS is seeking is for 50 years.

In the broader context, global warming means that over the next half century the glaciers are going to melt, the earth is going to be inundated, and as Kevin Costner showed in WaterWorld, those of us who choose to evolve will be the survivors of the human race.  Clearly we need to keep the swim lanes open from Alcatraz to San Francisco.  So there you have it.  Following is what I got in the email this morning:

We need your help!

Stop the National Parks Service from moving Alcatraz Ferries from Pier 39 to Fort Mason and congesting the bay and Aquatic Park

As you may already know, NPS is looking to move the current short lease location for Alcatraz Ferries down to Fort Mason with a longer agreement that may put them coming in and out of Fort Mason for 50 years. This is why all of our Swim With Pedro sessions in the Fall are all at Crissy Field - they will be renovating the railway through Aquatic Park for trams to transport tourists to Fort Mason Alcatraz ferries.
The issues are obvious, with increased bay traffic in the way of our swims, but also congesting Aquatic Park with tourists and tram traffic, making operations for all swim and recreation clubs dangerous and difficult. It also poses new risk to recreational boaters, kayakers, and paddlers by turning this peaceful part of the bay into a ferry and tourist highway.
Submitting comments to the NPS is critical. This NPS web page has a "Comment Now" button on the bottom that folks can use to submit comments.  
David Bennett, a Dolphin Club member, thinks it also helps for people to send comments to local supervisors, Supervisor Mark Farrell of the Marina District (his jurisdiction includes Fort Mason), Supervisor Julie Christensen (she covers the Fisherman's Wharf area and her business community would be hit hard by loss of revenue from tourists that visit there for the ferry) and PelosiFeinstein, and Boxer.
Please join us in encouraging swimmers and other Fort Mason and Aquatic Park users in vocalizing the negative impact it has on local athletic and recreational communities in San Francisco, in addition to businesses that would lose significant revenue if tourists were redirected away. Keep Aquatic Park and the surrounding area safe and accessible to everyone!

Thanks for taking the time to voice your opinion!

Friday, April 03, 2015

Something for Good Friday

Given all the news around the world, I am in an Apocalyptic mood, so here is something from Revelation:

16 Then I heard a loud voice from the temple telling the seven angels, “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.”

2 So the first angel went and poured out his bowl on the earth, and harmful and painful sores came upon the people who bore the mark of the beast and worshipped its image.

3 The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea.

4 The third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. 5 And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say,

“Just are you, O Holy One, who is and who was,
    for you brought these judgements.
6 For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets,
    and you have given them blood to drink.
It is what they deserve!”
7 And I heard the altar saying,

“Yes, Lord God the Almighty,
    true and just are your judgements!”

8 The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire. 9 They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory.

10 The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in anguish 11 and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did not repent of their deeds.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

'Tis the season for Tiger Mom's to start relinquishing their cubs.

The college acceptance letters are coming back to the high school kids at my church.  This being an Asian church in America's densest concentration of Tiger Moms, that has rather severe implications.  Many will go off to Harvard, MIT or CalTech, but a few will need to stoop to the top four University of California schools:  UC Berkeley, UCLA (Los Angeles), UCSD (San Diego) or UC Davis.  We won't discuss the emotional ramifications (for both parents and children) of going to lesser schools, although I have personally observed that youth from some of the lesser schools are often more successful.

Many parents were wanting to know information regarding UC open house days where parents and students get to visit campuses to help make up their mind.  This brought back recollections of 11 years ago when we went to the UCSD open house.  The children were quickly separated from the parents and taken out to a court yard where a leader organized them into events that were designed to train them to have "fun".  The parents (including my wife and myself) were then herded into a large classroom where a professor of Psychiatry gave us an extended group counseling session.  The gist of her lecture was that after eighteen years of upbringing, the kids have gotten what it is that you wanted to teach them, whether you realize it or not.  So get over it.  Or something to that effect.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Those who live by the Pao will die by the Pao.

The verdict was that Kleiner Perkins was not guilty of discrimination in firing Ellen Pao.  No doubt we will continue to be inundated with pseudo moralizing regarding gender discrimination being rampant in Silicon Valley.  As a Christian, I am constitutionally obligated to keep my morals to myself, so will make no comment on this.  I will, however, go off a bit into dangerous waters by suggesting that Silicon Valley might get a completely different message from what has officially been determined as the message that we are supposed to get:  Beware the ambitious woman.  It would be better not to hire them in the first place.  At least that is what would seem to be a better conclusion based on the statements that have been made, which again, is not my Christian take on things.  What is certain is that we can look forward to a lot more rhetoric on the subject.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

UCLA and the Diversity Inquisition

One of the privileges of sending your kids to college is that you inherit the school magazine after they leave home a second time.  Or was that the third?  Anyway, the article that cought my eye is "True Colors: Hollywood's Diversity Dilemma".  The crisis is the white males are over represented relative to their percentage of the population.  For example, "Film studio heads were 94 percent white and 100 percent male".  Clearly this implies a conspiracy worthy of another James Bond movie.  Preferably with a black, female playing James Bond.

"This year's findings also confirm that multicultural storytelling sells.  Films with relatively diverse casts enjoyed the highest median global box office receipts and the highest median return on investment."  Yes we need some more episodes of Lord of the Rings.

"We found that people want to see shows that they can relate to.  Shows with casts that roughly reflect the society do better."  Chewbacca comes to mind here.  I can relate to the Hulk in some ways.  Maybe we could have the next Star Wars movie done with half the storm troopers being female.

Nearing the end, we are treated to, "There is no greater imperative for a media company than creating content that authentically resonates with all audiences, especially younger audiences ..."  Like Spongebob Squarepants.

The thing that puzzles me most, however, is that the overall argument is that the studios aren't maximizing their exploitative financial potential because they are discriminating against minorities and women, which hurts their image with the media addicts, thus, diminishing the return on investment to the vulture capitalists.  Additionally, the literal turn-off due to overly white, male broadcast TV will necessarily reduce ad revenues, which in turn will diminish sales of V-12 Ultra-King Cab trucks and exotic cruises, which will cause Americans to consume less irreplaceable natural resources than our neighbors, thus, losing the competition to be the greatest materialistic power in the universe.  Or perhaps I misunderstood?

Update: Following up on Ramana's comment, you can guess the race and gender of the author of the article, Jack Feuer, by following this link.  The breakdown of gender and ethnicity of the students is here.  As the slang goes, UCLA stands for University of Caucasians Lost Among Asians, given that Asians are the largest, um, racial group and whites are second.  Then we must also note that UCLA discriminates against Chinese and Indian students, and in favor of other racial minorities with respect to enrollment.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Good Bye, Lee Kuan Yew

I first went to Singapore in the winter of 1979-1980.  Or was that 1980-1981.  Can't quite remember the date, except that it was a very modern and clean city, with a few throwbacks to earlier times.  I had an impression that all south east asian countries would be like Singapore, only to be totally shocked when I learned the truth.  Singapore was in a class all its own, and this has continued until today.  Yes, Japan and Taiwan are also modern, but they aren't as consistently modern as Singapore.  Today Singapore is the third richest country in the world in terms of GDP per capita, after Qatar and Luxembourg.

The genius behind the transformation was Lee Kuan Yew whose combination of Confucianism and western ideals produced the ultimate clean government molded from a people for whom this behavior was totally alien.  Western amoral moralists like to howl about the methods used, but I am really quite happy to hang out in a tropical place where even the mosquitos know that they must obey the law.  How much better it would be if the intellectualoids would have tried to learn and implement something constructive from Lee.  So as I say my goodbye, may the Singaporeans continue with the good lessons from their founder and not try to emulate the post-law and order behavior of the West.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

&*^%$@# Bam! Wam! Pao!!!

I love Asian names.  There was a Mr. Hu I worked with for a time.  Recently it was brought to my attention that there was a woman named Sue Yu, who had a propensity for lawsuits.  I fell in love with and married a Wu, although my misogynist upbringing tells me that it is the man who is supposed to do the Wuing.  The most recent one is in the news and her name is Ellen Pao, who is engaged in a gender discrimination lawsuit with a Silicon Valley venture capital firm.  The news has her legally punching well beyond the welterweight class, in spite of her petite frame.  But the jury is still out, or to be more accurate, hasn't been sent out yet, so we have to wait for a final decision. A Fortune magazine article on this affair is here which adds some more twists.  Some more claims are here, which I don't care to summarize.

I don't know nearly enough to comment on the particulars of this.  It just has me reflecting on the idea that too many men in high paid jobs is symptomatic of a misbehaving boys club.  Perhaps it is, but I doubt that lawsuits will do anything other than make the misbehaving boys more cautious.  Then there seems to be a notion that boys chronically misbehave, while women are always victims.  My instincts are that both boys and women come from roughly the same moral culture, but would be happy if someone could show me in some way that women are inherently different in terms of morality and ethics.  I am unapologetically a fan of chivalry, so am guaranteed to treat women differently from men, which is intended as a matter of respect.  But can liberated males really treat liberated women in a way that is identical with how they treat their male comrades?