Friday, December 21, 2007

The Brothers Karamazov - Book Review

Dostoevsky is a philosopher, and the Brothers Karamazov is his masterwork. He said "I'd die happy if I could finish this final novel, for I would have expressed myself completely." So it would be natural to discuss his philosophy when reviewing this book.

However, his philosophy is, well, religious. Dostoevsky is not just a Christian, but he's a converted atheist. That's right - he's not just suffering from parental indoctrination, but he's someone who momentarily basked in the glow of the truth and then consciously rejected it in favor of a fairy tale. He himself said: "Thus it is not like a child that I believe in Christ and confess Him. My hosanna has come forth from the very crucible of doubt."

His "philosophy", to condense it shamelessly, is that heaven on earth could be achieved if every person accepted responsibility for the sins of everyone else. This sort of moral socialism is so intellectually bankrupt that attacking it would be akin to shooting fish in a barrel (turns out that it's not especially easy to shoot fish in a barrel, but even if you miss, the shock waves in the water kill them anyway...thank you, Mythbusters.)

So I'm going to look right over that when reviewing the book, because it's tempting to just dismiss everything he has to say and not take him seriously because of his juvenile religious beliefs. And that would be a shame, because there is a lot of value in his work.

First - don't read this for pure fictional enjoyment. The plot doesn't even begin for 500 pages...this novel about patricide doesn't have a single father-killing incident until we're halfway done. It is laboriously slow at times, and the characters are less than compelling. They are intentionally extreme, almost caricatures, as Dostoevsky uses them to illustrate different aspects of human nature. This is useful as a device, but does not give the reader much of a chance to identify with them. It's practically impossible to look at any of these characters and think "I'm just like that!" or even "I know someone just like that!" because they are not balanced, realistic personalities.

However, the characters do serve as people we can identify with in small degrees. The convicted father-killer himself, an almost completely irrational hedonist named Dmitri, has occasional moments of lucidity. During one of these moments, he spouted this gem:

But destiny will be accomplished, and the best man will hold his ground while the undeserving one will vanish into his back-alley for ever -- his filthy back-alley, his beloved back-alley, where he is at home and where he will sink in filth and stench at his own free will and with enjoyment.

I totally get that. Who hasn't traded future suffering for a few moments of guilty pleasure? Ok, maybe not everyone, but I sure have. And I've done it with full rational knowledge of the mistake that I'm making, but I sink into the filth willingly and anxiously anyway. Dostoevsky elucidates this point brilliantly, and continues to do so with this character throughout the book.

And for anyone that has the remotest interst in Christian theology - even if you just depise it - there are two chapters of this book that are well worth reading. Since the characters and plot are not especially involving, you can read these two chapters without choking down the entire book.

The Grand Inquisitor is the story of Jesus' second coming, during the sixteenth century, where he is discovered by the Catholic Church and thrown in jail for heresy. Here he's visited by the Grand Inquisitor himself, who proclaims that Jesus failed the world by rejecting the temptations of Satan during his 40 days in the wilderness. He explains that the true genius was in the questions themselves, not in the denials of Jesus, and that the Church since that time has been working to provide those three things that He refused to. The Inquisitor goes on to say that they are doing quite well without Him, and that they do not want His interference. As an atheist who despises the Church, or a devout Christian who feels that the church has at times lost its way, this chapter is pure genius. It's truly worth reading in either case.

The Devil, Ivan's Nightmare is a chapter where the atheist Ivan is visited in a dream by Satan himself. Satan portrays himself as a prisoner - not truly evil, not desiring to do evil, but trapped by the knowledge that without his existence there could be no free will. Speaking of life, he opines: "Without suffering what would be the pleasure of it? It would be transformed into an endless church service; it would be holy, but tedious." (Interestingly, an endless and tediously holy church service is exactly the picture of heaven represented in the Bible.) This personification of the devil is fascinating, insightful, and amusing at the same time.

To sum up all this rambling - I can't recommend the book, unless you're really into philosophy - but the two chapters I linked above should be required reading.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Global cooling?

Maverick geophysicist David Deming recently penned an article titled Year of Global Cooling which describes a series of cooler-than-expected temperature events recorded in 2007. Most of these events occurred in the Southern Hemisphere, which fits links I posted earlier (too lazy to dig for them again, sorry) that show the Southern Hemisphere is actually cooling over the past 25 years, and that the ice of Antarctica is getting thicker.

Do these events disprove the theory of man-made global warming? I can't say for sure, the Earth's climate is so complex and poorly understood, by even leading scientists, that I won't claim to know better. Feedback loops and temperature forcing are concepts that I can only get my head around at the most general level. The world is full of ignorant people making sweeping pronouncements, so it's hardly productive to add my voice to the din.

But it does demonstrate how easy it is to build a convincing case by merely cherry-picking your data, let alone wantonly manipulating that data like the IPCC. There are a lot of people that stand to gain from the phenomenon of global warming. There are bushels of money to be redistributed. Don't think for a moment that the "scientific consensus" you often read about is any more correct about this popular craze than the scientific consesuses (consensii?) behind eugenics, Einstein's denial of quantum physics, or the Earth at the center of the solar system.

This much I know: carbon-swapping and greenhouse gas caps aren't the answer. That's nothing but wealth redistribution in disguise, which would have almost no discernable effect on the climate whatsoever, by the IPCC's own estimation. (You have to extrapolate their own numbers to prove this out, they fail to draw the conclusion themselves, for political reasons.)

Solar power might still be twice as expensive as coal-based power from the utility grid, but the cost has fallen 90% since the 1970s. Can anyone doubt, with a healthy market economy, that technological improvements will continue to decrease that cost at a steady, if not exponential, rate? If oil prices hold steady, we could hit that magic point of equilibrium as soon as 2015. Even if oil prices fall back to $40/barrel levels, solar power will be cheaper before 2050.

Can you imagine that the U.S. will still be burning oil and coal at all - let alone at increasing rates - in 2050, even 2100, like the enviro-goons claim in all their models? Wouldn't we make the switch to a more reliable, less dangerous, cleaner power source that is unlimited and not controlled by our mortal enemies, the second it was economically feasible to do so? Why are we wasting time pointing fingers, slandering the outspoken, and trying to slow down the world's biggest economies with artificial caps instead of moving with all of our effort toward a future of renewable power?

Why, indeed? Because there is money to be stolen. Moved from one pocket to another. That's what it's all about. That's why you read about global warming every day, see it on the news, and why it's being taught to our children in school. That's why there's an international conference in Bali right now. That why there are innumerable U.N. and government agencies, growing fat on taxpayer dollars, raising an alarm for something that has never been a problem and is on the verge of going away in any case.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Philosophy of a Video Game

A fascinating article about Bioshock, and why it deserves to be named 2007's Game of the Year. Equally interesting is that the same author considered Gears of War to be his 2006 game of the year for almost competely opposite reasons.

Anyway, I wanted to mention it because he does an even better job than my previous post of describing how amazing the environment of Bioshock is. He calls Bioshock a "coherent work of art", which I completely agree with. As a video game, it may well be groundbreaking in that sense. But I can't agree with his claim that the game is a "rebuttal of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and her philosophy of objectivism." If you read Rand, you're sure to notice that she charges government with the protection of life, not the open encouragement of lawlessness and murder. In fact, I can't recall a single Rand hero that had tortured bodies hanging from hooks in his office.

I'm not sure how philosophically engaging Bioshock is at all, imagined slights against Atlas Shrugged aside...calling it "a game about the illusion of choice and about the flawed dream of freedom — both in society at large and the medium of video games" seems to be reading too much into the drearily common plot twist and lack of meaningful options. The designers of Bioshock are hardly the first "philosophers" to explore the consequences of anarchy and its meaning to those who value freedom.

But I suppose it's infinitely more philosophical than Halo 3 or Wii Tennis. When you're a hard-core gamer, you have to take your philosophy where you can find it.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Thanks, but No Thanks

In spite of my better rational judgement, I'm often guilty of signing papers that I haven't thoroughly read. For instance, during the mortgage process, I probably signed thirty or more documents that might have sold future Mean generations into slavery, for as much as I looked into them. In fact, I might have knowingly signed such documents toward the end, to hurry the completion of the nightmarish process. Also, when I visit a new doctor, I sign all sorts of "Medical Release" forms which may or may not be legally allowing the harvesting of my organs while I'm still alive.

But, unfortunately for Salomon Smith Barney, my broker, I decided to read the latest forms they sent to me, requesting a signature. Here are a few interesting tidbits from these documents:

I understand that, although not a requirement for my participation in [long-winded explanation of various programs omitted], Smith Barney ("SB") may, from time to time, act as "principal" when effecting securities transactions on my behalf. I understand that when SB acts as princial in transactions with my account, SB will buy securities from me for its own account or sell securities it owns to my account (hereinafter referred to as "Principal Transaction"). I acknowledge that the only notification I will receive of the capacity in which SB acted in any given transaction on my behalf, including any Principal Transaction, will be the written confirmation sent to me by SB after the transaction has been executed.

Wow, call me paranoid, but that sure sounds like I'd be allowing "SB" to buy and sell stuff in my account without my consent or foreknowledge. They do nothing to alleviate my fears in the next paragraph:

I also understand that effecting a Principal Transaction on behalf of an investment advisory client presents certain potential conflicts of interest. In addition to the fees for the Programs charged by SB, I appreciate that SB also may profit from the transaction by receiving a markup, markdown or other fee. I understand that when acting as an underwriter or member of the selling group of an offering, SB will obtain an underwriting fee or selling concession, and may have reputational interests in the success of an offering that act as incentives to execute Principal Transactions on my behalf.

Again: wow. Probably this just falls into some legal category of over-notification, and I shouldn't even blink an eye before I sign it, but this sure sounds a lot like "We want to screw you for our own benefit, and we'd like your permission please." I do hope that SB understands when I politely decline.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Bioshock: Game Review

I finished Bioshock yesterday. At least, I think I did. I completed something resembling a boss fight, there was a confusing cut scene, and then the game went back to the main menu. As far as I'm concerned, that's a win. Gears of War was calling me, so there was no time to waste debating.

According to the cut scene, it seems that I decided to screw over the one friend I made in the game and tried to take over the world. Usually, I'd be pleased with such an option, but it's strange that the game didn't offer me a choice about it. I even played the Good Samaritan, trying to help the Little Sisters instead of harvesting them, but in the end I apparently reneged on all my good deeds.

Although frustrated with the ending, I was very impressed with the overall mood. The game is set in 1960, and the retro artwork, advertisements, and electronics create an immersive and convincing environment. Additionally, the ruined city of Rapture is pervasively creepy. It was hard to shake the sickening disgust of searching through people's homes, emptying their trash cans and scavenging their cabinets, while stepping over the family's corpses in various states of dismemberment. Peeking under children's beds, with their stick figure drawings still tacked to the walls, covered in blood. Barred doors and barricaded furniture, burned and broken down, where some father tried in vain to make a last desperate defense of his wife and kids.

Adding to the creepiness are the sounds - you're never sure if that noise you hear from the next room is a tv set left on or a mad, blood-crazed resident muttering to himself. The siren call of the vending machines ("Tell your friends about the Circus of Values!") and the soothing announcements over the PA system are in direct contrast to the carnage all around you. And you can never relax - bad guys crawl on ceilings and through vents to get at you - so there's nowhere to rest or assume safety. You don't meet a single person in the game who doesn't want to kill you, so your only 'friends' are turrets and security bots that can be hacked for your protection.

Fighting in the game is wonderfully varied - you can set enemies on fire (they'll jump into nearby water to douse the flames), freeze and then shatter them, stun and then deliver a killing blow, telekinetically throw objects at them, approach stealthily and beat them with a wrench, or fire a standard array of ballistic missiles in their direction. There's also an entertaining mini-game associated with hacking the various electronic devices.

Oddly, what I really missed in Bioshock was a sense of hope. Right up until the end, I kept hoping to find some last hideout of normal people...some final encampment of families that I could save from certain doom, but that never happens. All that climbing over corpses, and in the end, your character decides (without player input) to add to the charnel by using the secrets of Rapture for world domination. I'm not a big 'happy ending' kind of guy, but the mood is so depressing, that I was hoping for something good to happen...just once.

A game mechanic that really annoyed me was the limited amount of stuff you could carry. Look, I understand that there's a practical limit to the gallons of napalm that I can lug around, but is my wallet truly so full that I can't possibly find any more room for that $20 bill? If I can only carry 400 rounds of machine-gun ammunition, ok, but it's not in any way believable that I'd be unable to carry any more than $500 ("Wallet already full"). Such a silly and arbitrary cap puts a serious dent in the carefully-crafted immersion that Bioshock works tirelessly to maintain.

As an overall game, Bioshock is very good, but not great. It looks absolutely wonderful, and it's fun, but it's not so engrossing that you forget to feed your kids.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Vote for me! I'm even stupider than you are

Dear Republican masses,

I'd like to talk to you about your candidates for president. Exactly one of them (McCain) actually polls ahead of Hillary in a two-way competition, and only one other (Giuliani) even shows signs of life against her. And yet the top two candidates in recent Iowa polls are Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, who are only slightly more electable than W. would be if he was legally allowed to run for a third term.

Oh, I know that those crazy secular bastards (McCain and Giuliani) aren't pounding the stump with their faith...I know they might be tempted to fund life-saving stem-cell research or, heaven forbid, allow gays to collect each others' pensions...but please consider the alternative.

True, Romney passionately professed his faith in Jesus last night, in a desperate attempt to prove to Republican evangelicals that he's every bit as stupid as his creationist opponent. "You think it takes faith to believe that the Earth is only 6000 years old?" Romney reportedly said. "That God planted dinosaur bones in the ground to test our faith? Well, try believing that a convicted con-man and child rapist found golden plates inscribed with heavenly secrets that God left out of the Bible. Try believing that Jesus, when he comes back to Earth, will rule from Independence, Missouri instead of Jerusalem. It takes even more faith to swallow bullshit like that!"

It must be incredibly comforting to think of succeeding the "I talk to God" president with an even more religious, anti-intellectual goofball. But don't be fooled...flexing your evangelical muscle during the primary will only serve up the White House to Hillary on a silver platter. Four years of oil-company taxation and nationalized health care is the type of medicine guaranteed to extend the hospital stay of our already ailing economy.

Try to think rationally for once. Try to consider the logical consequences of your actions, and choose the path that leads closest to your goals. No wait, never mind, that never works. Instead, just blindly believe this: I talked to God last night, and he wants us all to vote for Rudy.

Hitman: Movie Review

Hardly worthy of a review, Hitman is exactly as bad as you'd expect it to be, possibly even a little worse.

It is so inanely generic and formulaic that it defies commentary. The movie lightly brushes against your senses while consistently failing to make an impression. Once the flick was over, JC and I chatted for nearly an hour, and the topic of the movie we had just seen didn't come up once. It's that memorable.

Not that a formulaic action movie is necessarily bad. I wasn't expecting to witness an Oscar-worthy drama. I relish brainless explosion flicks like The Transporter or Chronicles of Riddick almost as much as Homer Simpson enjoys raspberry-swirl donuts with a double glaze.

But Hitman lacks something essential: the swaggering hero who personifies cool and oozes danger. Timothy Olyphant - either through his fault or the script's, I'm not sure it makes any difference - is not convincing in the role of smartly-dressed genetically-engineered killer. He also lacks the charisma to carry the movie through the familiar forest of stock characters and recycled plot lines. His often-naked female sidekick is suitably hot, but not nearly special enough to make a wave in this drab ocean.

I never played the video game, but I doubt it would have made any difference. I was hoping for watchable trash, but Hitman can only aspire to such mediocrity.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Fat and Happy

Should health-care companies, employers, or the government pay you to lose weight?

My instant reaction is, of course: No fucking way! The people who stand to gain the most are the people who have let themselves go the most. But if I examine the problem rationally, instead of spitefully, it's hard to escape the conclusion that it makes economic sense.

The reason this type of incentive program works, instead of seemingly more important incentives like longer lifespan and higher quality of life, actually makes a lot of sense. Similar incentive programs have worked for drug addicts and prengant smokers as well. People who abuse drugs or eat too much are more focused on immediate gratification and short-term benefits than their non-addicted counterparts. Long-term benefits, no matter how terrific they may be, simply don't outweigh the short-term reward of a double cheeseburger. But instantly replacing that burger or cigarette with a couple bucks is a powerful incentive for the personality type most susceptible to overindulgence. After several rounds of payment, the long-term benefits become apparent, thus replacing the need for a continued monetary incentive.

So if a health-care company, or employer, or government, could save $1 million dollars by giving away $100k, then aren't they compelled to make the investment? Even if it's not exactly a fair distribution of resources? What if you start skinny, and then put on 50 pounds...can you game the system to make a few bucks? Would we actually be incenting people to get fat, and then lose weight, instead of maintaining a healthy lifestyle? Or would you pay people who start off skinny too?

I'm essentially a libertarian with strong feelings of personal responsibility, so I'm having a hard time rationalizing this type of plan. But if it saves money for everyone in the end, by reducing the cost of health insurance, then on what grounds can I rationally oppose it? (Besides, I'd stand to gain a few bucks from this plan myself.) Not sure how to disentangle myself from this logical snare.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Just like that, my hockey season is over, with a disappointing 7-4 loss in the playoffs. This means I have at least four more months of my son looking at my trophy, asking "Dad, when are you going to win another one?" Good question, son. Good question, indeed.

Poof! could also describe the sound of my recent gains in the market, as today is shaping up to be a brutal open. Dec 11 can't come soon enough.