On this site, you can test your own confirmation bias by trying to guess the pattern in a sequence of numbers. It’s very informative and lots of fun.
Archive for June, 2010
Posted by Michael Dickens on June 27, 2010
Posted by Michael Dickens on June 21, 2010
This is my last post on keyboard layouts on this blog. In order to keep everything more organized, I have moved all my keyboard-related posts to my math blog. You can find all of them here. Any posts that I originally put on this blog will remain here, but all new posts will be on my other blog. If you want to look into the Keyboard Layout Project, I suggest you look over there.
Charity Assessment: MediSend International, Miracle Foundation, Direct Relief International, Invisible Children
Posted by Michael Dickens on June 20, 2010
When deciding how best to help people, it is important that we consider our priorities. It is because of this that I will be assessing several charities and trying to determine which one does the most good. There are thousands of charities out there, and this is only a short list, so further research will of course be necessary.
Charity Navigator, a site that evaluates charities based on organizational efficiency and organizational capacity, placed MediSend International as one of its top-rated charities. It works as a “humanitarian organization that supports under resourced hospitals in developing countries with a multi-dimensional approach to improving community health.” The organization primarily works by taking donations of medical supplies and distributing them to where necessary. They didn’t have any information (that I saw) about where the monetary donations were going, but if you donate medical supplies then you know exactly how much the supplies cost.
The Miracle Foundation provides humanitarian aid to impoverished children living in orphanages by providing them with food, water, medical, care, more comfortable living conditions, and more. It appears that the most direct measure of the benefit of this charity is their Sponsor a Child program. For $1200 a year, you can provide a children with everything he or she needs. This is considerably more than the costs associated with some other charities out there (such as last month’s winner, Charity: Water). However, unlike Charity: Water, this organization provides a full range of benefits. Also, one must consider that the contributions go to orphaned children; children require more sustenance than adults, and have a greater capacity for suffering. It’s worth spending a little more on them.
According to Forbes, Direct Relief International has 100% fundraising efficiency, and scores very well financially on nearly every benchmark. Donations help supply medical care to those in need. I haven’t found anything about the cost of this medical care, although I would think it tends to be pretty high.
Invisible Children is an organization dedicated to ending the use of child soldiers in Northern Uganda. This cause is more emotionally wrenching than the others, and indeed it is the most extraordinary. They have several programs, including a scholarship program ($420/year) and this thing called Tri which they are really vague about.
The contributions of these organizations are less clear-cut than those from last time around, but the results are interesting nonetheless. I’ll probably tackle some more in the future; but until then, think about it.
Posted by Michael Dickens on June 15, 2010
The foundational tenet of morality is to do the most good for the most people. The individual, while important in some sense, is only relevant in terms of the community as a whole. But similar to the question of individual versus collective happiness is the question of happiness versus liberty.
It shall go without saying that the moral thing to do is to try to make the world better — more specifically, to do the most good for the most people. After that, the natural question to ask is, what is “good”? Two very important ideals of goodness (which unfortunately are sometimes in conflict) are freedom and happiness.
What is happiness? Moral philosophers have been asking this question for a while, and John Stuart Mill was one of the first to provide some really good answers. He proposed the concept of higher and lower pleasures. Some sorts of pleasure, such as that derived from reading great literature, is more desirable than other sorts of pleasure, such as eating very delicious cake. Happiness, to put it simply, is a quantification of desires, with preference given to higher pleasures.
Freedom is comparatively simple to define. Freedom may be defined as the ability to dictate one’s own actions. (I use the words ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ interchangeably).
Both of these are important things to have, and highly valued by nearly everyone. But the question arises: which is more important?
Unfortunately, we sometimes have to make that choice. Brave New World paints a picture of a future in which liberty is restricted and voluntarily relinquished in order to maximize happiness; it makes a pretty convincing case for choosing freedom over happiness.
On the other side of the spectrum, consider the prospect of absolute freedom. Imagine that no one restricts the actions of anyone else. Greed and selfishness will rule. When given complete freedom, you get Lord of the Flies.
A thoughtful analysis reveals that happiness is the ultimate ideal. Freedom, much like individualism, is useful as a means to happiness and therefore can appear on the surface to be more important than happiness. This illusion is further reinforced by the elusive nature of happiness. The most obvious form of happiness is physical pleasure, which is fun but leaves no lasting impression and is generally not considered a “higher” pleasure. However, this is not true happiness. Although physical pleasure or other low-brow forms of happiness grant a great deal of immediate pleasure, they do not provide as much long-term satisfaction as accomplishing a difficult task, or reading a great novel, or studying philosophy. If we expand how we think of happiness, we may find that it is more important than freedom.
Even if you are being forced to be happy, the happiness is not as complete as if you had found it on your own. Forced pleasure cannot measure up to free pleasure.
It was Benjamin Franklin, one of the great proponents of freedom, who spoke those eternal words: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” These words may seem to be making a compelling argument for liberty over happiness (a.k.a. safety); however, this is not so. Notice usage of the words “essential” and “temporary”: the happiness potentially provided by essential liberty will far outweigh the short-term pleasure obtained from temporary safety. In this case, liberty is a means to happiness, but still not important in itself. Franklin may have disagreed with this last point, but Franklin would have been wrong.
Freedom may seem terribly important, but it is only so as a means to happiness. Often freedom is chosen over happiness, and this is indeed a wise choice; however, this freedom is used to ensure long-term happiness and is thus far more valuable than a short-term comfort such as safety. Freedom on its own is of no importance. Let loose in the universe, with no means to happiness, life would have no meaning. But when one has the deep satisfaction that comes from growth and accomplishment, now the world has a purpose. Higher pleasures are not possible without a certain degree of liberty, and thus we find ourselves striving for freedom; but freedom, if these higher pleasures did not lie behind it, would be empty and meaningless.
In a future post (and possibly more after that), I will further discuss the dilemma of freedom and happiness. I invite discussion on this critical issue, and propose the following questions:
Which is a more important goal — freedom or happiness?
How do you define freedom? What about happiness?
Is true happiness possible without freedom?
Is true freedom possible without happiness?
How important is it (if at all) to distinguish between higher and lower pleasures?
Is freedom or happiness perhaps not the ultimate goal? What else could be?
Please do not restrict yourself to these questions. Any discussion regarding freedom and happiness is welcomed.
Posted by Michael Dickens on June 11, 2010
We as a society commonly assume that the guilty are less deserving of life. The state administers the death penalty to those who commit serious crimes, and many people feel that this is justified. Using similar logic, some other people argue against the death penalty by saying that life imprisonment is a worse fate than death. This sort of thinking makes me wonder what goes on in people’s heads when they think that we need to punish criminals. If punishment is what you’re looking for, why do we not simply submit felons to torture for the rest of their lives?
The idea of torturing criminals may sound absurd. After all, they are still human. Torture would be out of the question. And yet, people are okay with the idea of submitting criminals to the death penalty (or life imprisonment) in order to punish them. This seems to be a contradiction. The concept of capital punishment is strange, to say the least.
One can think of plenty of good reasons for life imprisonment. A dangerous criminal should be kept away from society. But punishment is not necessary except as a deterrent. If it’s not preventing crime or helping out the victims, then it’s useless. And punishment certainly does not help the victims except to provide them with a sadistic sense of vengeance.
A proponent of the death penalty might say that the guilty need to be punished with death. This argument only makes sense if capital punishment is a more effective deterrent than life imprisonment. Although researching the subject is rather difficult, most evidence says that it is in fact not more effective. Since deterrence is the primary practical purpose of capital punishment, it appears that using the death penalty for its practical benefits is a waste of resources.
The argument that I most want to address is related to this idea of punishment. It states that murderers are guilty, and deserve to be punished. This argument for retribution is a popular argument, but at the same time it is horribly wrong.
Murderers, although they have committed an atrocity, are still people. Perhaps they don’t deserve the normal level of respect or dignity, but they certainly deserve life. The logic behind the argument for retribution is a serious glitch in human reasoning. A murderer has robbed another human being of life, so why should we make the problem even worse by continuing the killing? The “eye for an eye” system of retribution is primitive and outdated; continuing to follow such an archaic philosophy would be a mistake of epic proportions. We do not want to get revenge for its own sake; are we truly so sadistic? Our goal should be to maximize happiness, and this includes the happiness of the murderer.
Don’t get me wrong on this point. We should by all means prevent the murderer from causing further harm, and if that means a life sentence, then so be it. But mandatory execution is not justified, even for a murderer. The way to prevent suffering is most certainly not to cause more suffering.
It could be said that I have not yet addressed various other arguments in support of the death penalty. That is true, but not especially relevant. One of the most pervasive arguments out there is the argument for retribution. My purpose here is to explain why it is a terrible argument. Once it is addressed, many other pillars in support of the death penalty will topple as well. Most other arguments are insignificant in comparison to this one. Furthermore, the argument for retribution applies not just to capital punishment but to other facets of justice as well, and even to daily life; for example, look at the idea of revenge. Revenge is essentially just retribution by another name. It is generally irrational and tends to make the situation worse than it already is; fortunately, most people already recognize this. But when 65% of Americans still think that getting revenge for murder — albeit by a different name — is a good idea, you know something is wrong.
It would be wise to remember that the purpose of morality is to do good. Retribution, except as a deterrent, does no good. The evidence for capital punishment being an effective deterrent is minimal to nonexistent. It helps no one but the relatives of the victim, and only then if their petty feelings are soothed by the thought of another’s suffering.
It is argued by some that the murderer has lost his rights, so his suffering no longer matters. This argument is no less flawed, nor are its conclusions any less cruel. The murderer may have killed another person, but he is still human: he still has the same wants and needs that we all do. If murder is wrong then it is always wrong, even in response to a capital crime.
Using the death penalty as retribution is unjustifiable and immoral. Death causes great suffering; why should we cause even more death, leading to even more suffering? Killing is wrong, and it is no better when permitted by law. The concept of retribution is based on an archaic sense of ethics which is not only irrational, but goes so far as to compound the very suffering that it is intended to prevent.
Posted by Michael Dickens on June 7, 2010
I was just reading some Buddhist philosophy, and I came across something quite interesting. You may have heard that old saying, “life is pain.” You may have heard that people are meant to suffer, that true happiness is impossible because everyone must suffer, that all good things must come to an end. But, perhaps fortunately, this sort of thinking is flawed because of its biased perspective.
We, liking happiness and disliking suffering, naturally divide the world into happiness and non-happiness. When we do this, we see that happiness never lasts and that all good things come to an end. I do not dispute these facts. However, I offer an alternative perspective. If we look at the world from the other side, dividing it into suffering and non-suffering, then we can just as easily see that true suffering is impossible because everyone must be happy at some point. In addition, all bad things — in much the same way as all good things — must come to an end. We can never truly suffer because all suffering, just like all happiness, is temporary. In fact, in this world we live in, nothing lasts forever.
Posted by Michael Dickens on June 3, 2010
Normally these satirical arguments are funny but not very persuasive. These arguments, however, very pointedly address the flaws in most of the arguments against gay marriage. But perhaps I’m taking it a little too seriously. I’ll just let you read the list.
01) Being gay is not natural. Real Americans always reject unnatural things like eyeglasses, polyester, and air conditioning.
02) Gay marriage will encourage people to be gay, in the same way that hanging around tall people will make you tall.
03) Legalizing gay marriage will open the door to all kinds of crazy behavior. People may even wish to marry their pets because a dog has legal standing and can sign a marriage contract.
04) Straight marriage has been around a long time and hasn’t changed at all; women are still property, blacks still can’t marry whites, and divorce is still illegal.
05) Straight marriage will be less meaningful if gay marriage were allowed; the sanctity of Britany Spears’ 55-hour just-for-fun marriage would be destroyed.
06) Straight marriages are valid because they produce children. Gay couples, infertile couples, and old people shouldn’t be allowed to marry because our orphanages aren’t full yet, and the world needs more children.
07) Obviously gay parents will raise gay children, since straight parents only raise straight children.
08) Gay marriage is not supported by religion. In a theocracy like ours, the values of one religion are imposed on the entire country. That’s why we have only one religion in America.
09) Children can never succeed without a male and a female role model at home. That’s why we as a society expressly forbid single parents to raise children.
10) Gay marriage will change the foundation of society; we could never adapt to new social norms. Just like we haven’t adapted to cars, the service-sector economy, or longer life spans.
Re-post this if you believe love makes a marriage.
Posted by Michael Dickens on June 1, 2010
In life, one often runs into claims that many people make, but aren’t necessarily true. One such claim is the ostensible harm caused by knuckle cracking. Some say that it leads to arthritis, while others say that this claim is bogus. What’s the truth?
I found plenty of websites claiming one thing or the other, but I don’t really trust websites. You can put whatever you want onto one of those. So I did some more detailed research, and came across interesting results.
Using Google Scholar, I found several research papers regarding the effects of knuckle cracking. The consensus seemed to be that it does not cause arthritis. The most useful paper I found was published in the British Medical Journal. It found that knuckle cracking does not cause arthritis, but most likely does lead to reduction in finger dexterity.
So there you have it. Cracking your knuckles won’t lead to anything as severe as arthritis, but it may lead to loss of finger dexterity so it really should be discouraged.