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August 28, 2006

I Demand an Investigation!

Shocking! Outrageous!

U.S. retail gas prices dropped 15 cents a gallon in the past two weeks, the sharpest decline in nearly a year, according to a survey released Sunday. [source]

These wild swings in gasoline prices are irrefutable proof of a conspiracy among Big Oil companies to rape the earth and put profits ahead of people! The executives should be hauled in before Congress — in handcuffs, I hope — to answer for their crimes!

The FTC needs to vigorously investigate Big Oil and enforce the law against them. Aggressively!

Oh, wait… gas prices went down, you say? That's not the sort of behavior I'd expect from a cartel. Unless … unless they're colluding to force their smaller competitors out of business so they can jack up the prices later!

They mustn't be allowed to get away with this! Congress, FTC, are you paying attention???

August 27, 2006

Toughness Works

Straight from the horse's mouth:

"We did not think, even one percent, that the capture [of two Israeli soldiers] would lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude. You ask me, if I had known on July 11… that the operation would lead to such a war, would I do it? I say no, absolutely not," [Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah] said in an interview with Lebanon's New TV station.

Nasrallah also said he did not believe there would be a second round of fighting with Israel, and that Hezbollah would adhere to the cease-fire despite what he called Israeli provocation. [source]

Lesson learned: Be tough on terrorists. It works.

August 22, 2006

The Internet: Bringing People Together

If you look around the Internet long enough, you'll find yourself. Or in my case, myself will find me. Which is better, because I'm lazy. I mean busy. Busy!

Case in point: Sean Handley is a computer science student at Swansea University. He has a general blog and has just started a blog about his dissertation — the algebraic specification of multicore and hyperthreaded microprocessors. He's having a pirate-themed birthday party in a few weeks.

He discovered my Island of Pizza story, thought it was linkworthy, and I noticed it in my referrer logs.

Pirates! Parallelism! I'm beside myself. (For an ocean-width definition of "beside".)

Sean, if you'd like some information about modern-day microprocessor architecture — as opposed to the inevitably out-of-date stuff you'll learn in school — I recommend the paper The Microarchitecture of the Pentium® 4 Processor from the Q1'2001 Intel Technology Journal. It's only five years old, not fifteen! :)

The paper doesn't go into excruciating detail, but believe me … you don't want the excruciating detail. That's things like a 250-page manual to describe just how branch prediction works. Around the office we like to say "Computers are Too Complicated™".

August 21, 2006

A Violent Faith

I identify religious fanaticism as the root cause and unifying theme of the conflict between Western civilization and Islamic fundamentalism. That is not a controversial opinion; the terrorists have directly explained that they view the conflict in religious terms.

Many people are comfortable blaming the violence on Islamic extremism or fundamentalism, carefully carving out space for moderate Muslims. Few people claim that the problem is inherent in Islam and that the "religion of peace" is, in fact, a religion of violence. I am one of those people. However, I'll go one better: Violence is not only fundamental to Islam, it is fundamental to all religions. Violence is fundamental to religion as such.

Why? In a word: faith.

Faith is belief without evidence. Faith is always subjective, based on an individual's feelings — rather than objective, based on sensory input from the external world.

The status of beliefs derived from introspection is a complex issue. For example, if I introspect and believe that I feel sad, can I be wrong? What are the implications of psychological defense mechanisms on beliefs of this sort? What about physical manifestations of mental states, such as changes in blood pressure or neural activity? In short, when can we properly claim to have evidence regarding mental states? This is a fascinating question but it does not need to be answered in order to address the matter at hand.

Religious beliefs form large systems. They are not merely claims about mental states — they are claims about the external world, often universal in scope. The complexities of the standards of evidence for introspection do not apply to religious beliefs about Creation or of the proper moral code for people to live by.

Ask persistently about the roots of any religious belief and you'll eventually reach the bedrock of faith. Believers have faith that they're correct and will say that their confidence is the result of communication with God — through prayer or some other form of divine revelation.

Yet different people have different religious beliefs. And not just minor differences, but fundamental incompatibilities. For example: Christians believe that Jesus was the son of God. Jews and Muslims don't believe this.

So, who's right?

Ah, there's the problem. Because a person's belief about the divine status of Jesus (or any of a myriad of other religious claims) is based upon faith, it is not possible to settle the disagreement and reach a consensus. I don't mean "not possible" as merely unlikely, I mean literally impossible. Nothing short of a new divine revelation would change a person's mind, and obviously no one has been successful at causing his dissenters to have such revelations. And individual prayer seems only to strengthen, never weaken, one's religious convictions.

In any matter where objective evidence were available, the disagreement could be settled by looking at the data, or by collecting additional data, or even by agreeing that the data is inconclusive.

No person ever agrees that their faith is inconclusive.

Because religious beliefs form large systems, different religions have disagreements over a very large number of particular items. And many of these disagreements are about fundamental issues, conflicts about the central tenets of the religion and challenging its very truthfulness.

No religion can "back down" regarding its central tenets; to admit uncertainty about those things would jeopardize its very existence. With no appeal to objective evidence, and no ability to project divine revelations upon heretics, the only way to end the disagreement is through physical force. Heretics cannot be turned; they can only be silenced.

Because religious belief is based on faith, and because violence is the only way to settle disagreements about matters of faith, violence is inherent in religion. Faith and force are corollaries.

August 14, 2006

Why I Don't Bungee Jump

This is a horrible, nasty, evil, … and hilarious thing to do to someone: video

The story at the link isn't quite right. Reality is a bit more cruel. This was a case of mistaken identity — the "victim" actually isn't the person who made the comment that inspired this prank. But he thought it was funny anyway.

(The bungee jumpers were a group of Intel interns. I don't know any of them personally, and I wasn't there, but the video is making the rounds at work and I feel obligated to do my part.)

August 11, 2006

The Nature of the War Against Terrorism

The British thwarting of the planned airline bombings is a victory in the war against terrorism. The stricter restrictions on travel are a loss.

Security screening for high explosives became a search for mere knives and has now become a search for for ordinary household chemicals. This slippery slope is seriously damaging the airline industry and has made many people, myself included, detest the thought of flying commercially.

The so-called Global War Against Terrorism is not being properly waged. We should be devoting our resources much more heavily toward offense instead of defense. And crucially, we need to begin fighting on the correct front in this war. I don't expect President Bush to do this; I don't expect anyone who could win an election to do this. But the true road to victory depends on the proper answer to the question asked by so many people five years ago: Why do they hate us?

Because of their religion.

The "Global War Against Terrorism" is a poor name because it misses the point. This is not a war against a military tactic. This is primarily an intellectual war, whether politicians acknowledge the fact or not. Islamic fundamentalism as an intellectual movement has declared that Western civilization is heretical and must be destroyed.

Nevermind the particular complaints of the day, based upon some trumped-up example of alleged injustice or oppression. Justifications for Islamic anger abound … and they're irrelevant. They're easily seen to be excuses for a broader agenda when you view the situation in context. Look at Israel: when it pulls out of an area, acquiescing to the demands of its enemies, they do not stop attacking Israel. While their stated goal may be freedom from Zionist oppression or somesuch nonsense, their actual goal as revealed by their actions (and occasional overt declarations) is to push all the Jews into the sea. Genocide.

Or is it? Al Qaeda has made it clear that their hatred extends far beyond a simple matter of race. September 11th and subsequent attacks (successful or foiled) were clearly not targeted at Jews. They were targeted at heathens of all kinds … and were accompanied by predictions of the reestablishment of the Caliphate and warnings to the unbelievers to convert to Islam or to die.

Above all, this is a war of ideas. Western civilization values intellectual diversity, but this is anathema to Islam — in the same way and for the same reason that the Catholic church silenced Galileo hundreds of years ago: Intellectual freedom is a threat to religion because in any fair competition, reason prevails over faith.

The existence of Western civilization, with all its manifest and spectacular successes, is a continuous reminder that Islam is not the One True Path. Religion deals with this threat in the only manner it can deal with any conflict: by force. Faith and force are corollaries. Only reason allows the facts of reality to decide conflicts. (This conflict has another name, philosophically: The primacy of consciousness vs. the primacy of existence.)

Our enemies are, by their own proud admission, religious fundamentalists. A consequence of this is that they are not open to persuasion. No rational argument can convince them to live in peace with us; their minds are closed to reason. Our choice is therefore between three alternatives: 1. Surrender and submit to their demands, converting to Islam. 2. Continue to fight a long-duration war that gradually saps our freedoms. 3. Go on the offensive and utterly destroy our enemy.

I choose the last. And so should every person who values reason. We should take the gloves off and pursue the enemy with moral confidence and military vigor. To the death! Not because we want to kill them, but because they refuse to stop trying to kill us.

The most important weapon in this war, in the long run, will be education. And this is the weapon I sadly do not believe a U.S. President will employ, because doing so would entail the explicit advocacy of reason over faith. This position would be very difficult, politically.

But I'll do my part. (More to come…)

August 07, 2006

Geeking Out (Again)

I just did something that is both neat and unuseful. I loaded third-party firmware onto my old wireless router so that I could get it to connect to my current wireless network as a client rather than as an access point.

Why would anyone want to do that? It's useful if you have a network device that doesn't support WiFi but you'd like to locate it far away from your wired network. The canonical example is hooking up an Xbox (which has an ethernet jack but no wireless support) to your home network so you can access Xbox Live without running a cable from your office to your living room.

I don't have an Xbox. I don't have anything at all that needs to be hooked up in this way. My stationary computers are already on the wired network and my laptops have WiFi. So now I have a neat little tested and working device but no immediate plans to use it.

I did this because I was recently over at the home of a co-worker who recently purchased a used Xbox. This reminded me that I had a perfectly good and modifiable wireless router sitting in my closet. So now I have a perfectly good and modified wireless router sitting in my living room.

And it stares at me, that little blinking light telling me that it wants to stream audio and video from my network upstairs.

A home theater upgrade, including a media center computer, might be in my future.

August 02, 2006

Net Worth Report - End of 07/06

I don't have much commentary this month. The only noteworthy change is that my house appreciated by $6,000, if you trust zillow.com. And I find that difficult to do, because they say my house has appreciated $17,000 in the past three months. Ignore all that and I've been basically flat over the last quarter. (Still better than the overall market, which has been down about 3% over that period.)

Net Worth Figures
Category06/0607/06
Total$446,227.17$456,613.48
Short-term$15,994.62$18,616.14
Medium-term$98,503.80$99,924.29
Retirement$150,116.64$149,951.26
Property$181,612.11$188,121.79

Recall that I'm defining "Adjusted Net Worth" as net worth excluding the value of autos and unvested stock. The "Estimated Contribution" is how much money I believe I'll need to invest in order to meet the following month's ANW target. A declining EC indicates that I'm ahead of plan, and an increasing EC indicates that I need to save more in order to reach my long-term goal.

Goal-Tracking Figures
Item06/0607/06
Adjusted Net Worth$410,882.92$422,503.48
Next Month's Target$413,615.26$425,169.41
Estimated Contribution$368.22$269.89

My credit card balances are 100% backed by time deposits and/or savings accounts earning interest at a higher rate than I'm being charged by the credit card companies. The monthly payment is estimated as 2% of the balance. (Most credit cards are now using a 2% minimum payment, and due to this it is important to have a strong cash flow and/or pay with funds from your credit card arbitrage savings account.)

Credit Card Arbitrage Figures
Item06/0607/06
Balances @ 0% APR$31,768.11$31,682.32
Monthly Payment$635.36$633.65

You can keep track of other personal finance bloggers at NetWorthIQ. I've updated my entry there.

Tiny Island