Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Evaluating purchases

I like gadgets.  My grandfather did, too.  Of course, in his time, there were a lot fewer shiny gadgets to play with, and virtually no electronic ones; but he did have the first answering machine I ever saw.  I try to justify my gadget purchases with the idea that they will make my life easier, but I know a lot of the time that isn't the case.  Many times they just cause frustration.  But you never know if you don't try, and I love the trying part, so I don't mind experimenting with new things even if I know many of them will not work out as expected.  Every so often, though, I like to stop and think about the things I have bought and ask myself whether they lived up to expectations and whether they were worth the money.  Since other people may also be interesting in knowing how gadgets worked for me, and may perhaps learn from my mistakes and my successes, I thought I would post some of the results for everyone to see.

(I don't have any affiliate relationships, so I get no money if anyone buys these things.  I am using stock pictures unless I can't find one.)

Tablet and keyboard:  I haven't had a laptop in years.  When I was thinking about getting one last year, I thought about getting a tablet instead, with the idea that the tablet would be cheaper, a little more portable, and wouldn't have to worry about booting up.  On the downside, I knew I would be giving up a certain amount of speed and screensize, as well as a keyboard.  The keyboard is the only one I can't live without, because I wanted to use the tablet for writing, but you can get a keyboard for it.  My first choice was just to get a normal USB keyboard, slightly smaller than a desktop size (LuxeMate i200).  It only costs $10 and it should work directly with the micro-USB board as long as I have an adapter.  Well, that was a huge disappointment.  First, the tablet was auto-correcting things in the most annoying fashion.  I discovered a little program that detects when you plug in an external device and asks which input method you want to use.  That was a great improvement, but I kept having problems with the keyboard not being recognized.  I don't know if it was a problem with the USB port or perhaps a software problem.  I tried a different keyboard in the tablet and got the same results, so I don't think it was the keyboard.  Perhaps it was the adapter.

In any case, at that point I gave in and bought a case with an integrated keyboard.  I had thought that might be the eventual solution, but I was hoping to avoid it.  The case I bought, like almost every case, uses bluetooth for connectivity, which seems like a waste but I accepted it after my experience with a USB keyboard.  That setup works really smoothly.  I only turn on the keyboard when I need it, which is not usually; the program asks me what input I want to use, I touch external keyboard, and I'm ready to go.  (Actually, the keyboard works without explicitly selecting the external keyboard, but I think it prevents the soft keyboard from popping up every time I am on an input field.)  I think the keyboard is a little smaller than standard, but I have no problem touch-typing on it.  Android allows me to use alt-tab and other shortcuts that I am accustomed to on the desktop.  When opened to the keyboard, the tablet sits in a slot on the case and appears to be held in magnetically, so it is easy to type in my lap.  My only complaints are the ones I would have expected:  it's heavier than without the keyboard, and a little awkward when I open the case fully and have a keyboard on the back of the tablet.  I don't know how they would avoid those problems.  I do with the case came with a vertical kickstand, especially since some programs insist on being oriented vertically.  I can actually take the horizontal kickstand and turn it vertically and it stands up pretty well, so this isn't too much of an issue.

Tablet holder:  I saw this little "Clamp Champion" holder and all my reasoning went out the window.  It just looks so useful and neat.  I have to admit that it does work in the ways it is supposed to, it's just that I don't usually need a holder for how I use it, so this has not gotten much use.


Stereo with bluetooth: I have been experimenting with bluetooth for years now, but this is the first time I have relied on it.  Around the same time, I bought a new stereo for one of our cars, and it had bluetooth capability.  I always get the cheapest one that I can from Crutchfield that comes with the free adapter kit, and they keep getting better over the years.  I got one a few years ago with an audio jack; the next one had a USB port; and this one (a Kenwood KDC-BT362U) has bluetooth.  I didn't know how much I would use the bluetooth, but it has turned out to be one of the best purchases I have made.  I have been listening to audio books for decades now.  I have used cassette players, CD players, DVD players, USB drives, a cassette adapter with an audio cable attached, and a small device that "broadcasts" to a radio frequency that you can then tune into and listen.  (I thought that last one was particularly clever.)  My biggest problem in recent years is that I want to listen on my phone.  I can carry around a USB drive or an mp3 player, but if I leave it in the vehicle, I don't have it when I'm in another vehicle or if I want to listen to it in the house.  I have been able to use my phone through an audio jack for years, but that means every time I get in the car I have to plug in the jack, open the phone and unlock it, find the audio program, and click play.  When I get out, I have to reverse the process; and if I want to pause while driving, I usually have to unlock the phone to get to the pause button, which is not safe.  As a result, I rarely used the phone to listen to audio books.

Bluetooth has completely changed that.  Now when I get in the car, the phone connects to the stereo almost immediately.  All I have to do is press "play" on the stereo and the book resumes from where I was.  I can pause, fast forward, or rewind at any time.  The only hitch was getting the phone to open the right audio app when it connected.  It wants to open the system default media player, but I found a little program that allows me to choose.

This stereo is not very remarkable in itself.  It is the fourth I have put in a vehicle, so I'm pretty familiar with the process now, but this is the first one I had to go in the back to work on.  Apparently the external amplifier that came in our 1993 BMW did not deal well with this new radio, so I had to take it out and attach the input and output cables to a pass-through device.  I had always wanted to get to the back wiring, so it was an interesting experience.  Not very technically challenging, but it took some thinking to figure out how to get to the amplifier.  To remove it, I had to remove one of the rear speakers, which is also attached in an interesting way.  I actually had to buy more speakers just to get the pass-through device for the cables, but I haven't installed them besides one in the back because the trim is so flimsy on the car's doors that I am scared to take them off.  That is the last thing missing from my stereo installation experience.

The one problem I've had with the bluetooth stereo relates to using the phone.  Even if the stereo's input is not set to bluetooth, it still picks up phone calls and directs audio to itself.  (I could probably turn this feature off if I looked...)   The problem is that the microphone that came with the stereo broke when I was installing it, so I can hear incoming calls fine, but no one can hear me.  I'm still not sure how I was supposed to get the audio cable through the opening -- maybe I wasn't -- but this is an annoyance until I figure out a solution.

Bluetooth headset: I have had a bluetooth headset for years, but I never use it.  In part, I just didn't want to have my phone's bluetooth on constantly because it runs out of power so fast, although this is less of an issue with my latest phone.  The other part is that I just can't hear very well with a plug in one ear, especially since I mainly want to use it to listen to audio books, in which case I have to understand the words.  A few years ago I got a headset that supports the bluetooth stereo protocol so I could listen to it in both ears.  This works fine, but by the time you attach the receiver and put the earbuds in, it doesn't feel like you're saving much trouble over just plugging a traditional set of headphones or earbuds into the phone's audio jack.  I keep wanting to use this more, but I doubt I will.

Bluetooth computer adapter: I also got a little bluetooth adapter for my computer (Asus USB-BT211).  It plus in to a USB port and hardly sticks out at all.  I don't have much use for it, but it was inexpensive.  I have found it easier to use bluetooth for file transfer to or from my phone depending on how my devices are behaving on a given day.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Religion and politics


The intersection of religion and politics is complicated, but not so complicated that we can't make some sense of it.

Some people think that "religion" means anything you want to call your religion. And while it is true that the heart of religious freedom is the right to believe whatever you want about eschatology -- the meaning of life, if you will -- this is among the least disputed aspects of religious freedom, and therefore the least interesting. No one will argue that you should have to convert to another religion to live freely in the United States. If you believe in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster with all your heart, that is your right. If you are an atheist, that is a form of religion and no one will claim that you should be forced to believe in a god. They might wish you did, but I have not seen any serious arguments that you are required to do so.

But religion is not synonymous with whatever an individual believes about religion. "Religion" is a social phenomenon. You may have a religion that no one else shares; for example, you may believe that weekdays are holy and are intended for rest, whereas weekends are intended for work. No one will dispute your right to believe this. (They will likely dispute whether you are correct, but they won't deny your right to believe it.) The government, however, will not make many accommodations for your beliefs. If you get a job working for the government, you will be expected to come in on weekdays like everyone else. Anything else would be impractical from the government's perspective, and it isn't going to reorganize the way it does business around your beliefs.

The situation is quite different for people who, for religious reasons, prefer to work on weekdays and rest on one or both days of the weekend. Our work week is deliberately structured around their needs, and if anyone tried to change it -- for example, by shifting the workweek to a Wednesday-to-Sunday schedule and taking off on Mondays and Tuesdays -- he would be met with enormous opposition and calls of religious intolerance. And he would almost certainly back down.

This may seem a very un-spiritual way to approach religious freedom: why are people who practice mass religions and share similar beliefs allowed to influence public publicy in this way, whereas an equally sincere individual with different beliefs gets ignored? The answer is that it is not at all spiritual, and is really not intended to be (I don't think it is, anyway). It is a practical response to the fact that a large portion of society shares similar beliefs.

If you object, think of the consequences of allowing every individual view to influence public policy. Not only would it create chaos, as in the example of the scrambled work week, it would also allow anyone to apply the tag of "religion" to anything he happened to want, and who would be able to contradict him, since it is a matter of his own conscience whether he means it or not? And perhaps some people -- the most narcissistic probably -- would actually believe that their religion did require them to do things that happened to be in their own best interests. Society would be unable to function under such a system.

Another alternative would be that we could ignore everyone's religious beliefs and organize society with no account to anyone's religion. There are a couple of problems with this, however. First, who would choose the method of organization? Since we have defined atheism and every other ultimate belief as a form of religion, there would be no neutral person to decide what to do. Any organization would inevitably favour one set of beliefs over another, and that would lead to complaints and lawsuits and ultimately we would not be better off in the least. We would have to choose a system based not on a rational basis but on how to offend everyone equally, which is a fool's errand.

Second, any religion that contained a substantial membership would run afoul of the chosen organization and might refuse to participate. This might be to their own detriment, but beyond a certain size it would also be to the detriment of the government and the society. Things would be organized on two principles, one official and one non-official. Imagine if 80% of Americans celebrated Wednesay as a day of rest: how much government business would be conducted on that day? How effective would it be, since a lot of government action involves interacting with businesses and individuals, most of whom would not be willing to participate? The government would look silly for being open on a day when few people were willing to deal with it, and surely all sides of the political spectrum would call for taking Wednesdays off as a practical matter.

The poor individual finds no accommodation in this scheme. He must adapt himself to society rather than adapting society to himself. But this is the case for everyone who runs counter to society, whether on religion or economics or art or sports. We believe in your right to freedom of conscience, and you can act on your conscience how you will as long as you are not violating other laws. Government and society may make accommodations for you, but they cannot be organized around every individual's religion. The government does not take a holiday on Yom Kippur, but it is willing, I believe, to accommodate Jews on an individual basis if, say, a court date would fall on that holiday.

People seem afraid that religious freedom laws open the gates for everyone to claim anything he wants in the name of religion, but this is a fantasy. Hobby Lobby claimed a right not to be forced to provide abortifacients for its employees, a position consistent with centuries of Christian teaching and in accordance with the views of many other Americans. It is important that Hobby Lobby was already practicing its views when a new law required it to change. If it now claimed the right not to pay a minimum wage, what force would that have? There is no Christian teaching that I am aware of to support such a view, and even if they could bring forward a dozen Bible verses in their favour, that would not make it a Christian belief. Christian groups have evolved a set of beliefs over centuries and, while individuals are free to reinterpret them at will, it is not a government concern unless it falls within an established tradition. Hobby Lobby would have no case, and the people afraid that religious freedom would be used to avoid laws would have nothing to worry about.

For much the same reason, it is pointless to argue that a religion should not espouse a belief because it is not being true to its principles. It is quite legitimate, of course, to try to convince religious leaders to change their beliefs, but it is another matter entirely to claim that the religion's teachings are inconsistent with its background and therefore not subject to public accommodation. I have seen many articles in which liberals argue that the Bible is not unambiguously opposed to same-sex marriage, and therefore that religious groups should not be accommodated in their refusal to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies. This overlooks the obvious fact that almost all Christian churches have consistently taught that marriage is purely a heterosexual institution. Even if the Bible contained verses that seemed to contradict this notion, it would not alter the historical belief of Christians. Public policy is not the place for a theology debate. I assure you that early modern Catholics were convinced that Protestants were reading the Bible all wrong and used this as a reason not to respect their religious beliefs. The situation was exactly comparable: they were not following the true Christianity, so there was no reason to allow them to practice their false beliefs. That did not work out in the end, and the attempt to do it now has the same fundamental problem (except that Christianity's teaching about marriage is much, much older than the Protestants' interpretation of Scripture in the 16th and 17th centuries, so the attack on it is even more tenuous).

The same things that protect us against arbitrary religious views on the part of individuals also protect us from groups claiming a place alongside established religions in public policy. There is no reason to believe that a government that makes concessions to one religion, such as Christianity, must make equal concessions to all religions down to the Church of Satan. While Satanists may be sincere believers, with progenitors going back centuries, there is no established tradition of a Satanist church prior to 1966 and very few members even today. If, in a hundred years, the Church of Satan comprises 2 or 3 million members and has a relatively consistent body of dogma, it may well demand and gain a place alongside established religions. I have no doubt that the Founding Fathers entertained no idea of religious toleration for Satanists, but that was because they did not exist, at least not as a movement. For the early modern Catholic Church, Protestant reformers were little better than devil-worshippers, yet they managed to reconcile to their co-existence eventually. They did not accept it until half of Europe had been Protestant for several centuries, and while the required longevity and spread of Satanism or other religions might be less today -- and while we would not burn them at the stake in the meantime -- there is a similar waiting period before it could be considered a religion worthy of accommodation in the public sphere.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Surprise

You know, if I thought anyone actually read my blog, I'd probably be a lot more careful about what I write here.  I guess that's part of the thrill of blogging:  you never know when you might suddenly become a teen pop idol, or get sued for defamation, or something else exciting.

My first surprise was that someone responded to my post about the Mann vs. Steyn case to defend Michael Mann.  Since the person remained anonymous, I wonder if it isn't Mann himself; I've heard he spends a lot of time patrolling the internet looking for derogatory statements to defend himself from.

Then someone responded to the anonymous poster, saying pretty much exactly what I would have said:  that the case for being compared to a child molester seems pretty weak, and I thought the focus of the case centered on the use of "fraudulent" to describe the hockey stick graph.

And then the real surprise:  Mark Steyn himself cited my post over on his blog.  I have to admit, my first reaction is that his case may not be as strong as I thought if he would bother to cite me.  But let's give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he believes me to be more worth citing than I actually am.

And just in case I have some new eyes on the blog (hey, I got nearly 80 hits a few days ago), I just have to mention that my book, "The Last Christian Peace: The Congress of Westphalia as a Baroque Event" came out in paperback a few weeks so.  Instead of $115, which is what the hardback cost, you can now have my wisdom for a mere $35, or less if you buy from a discount store.  No, it will not be nearly as entertaining as Mark Steyn's books, and it is completely bereft of humour, but I promise that it will be the most interesting book you ever read on the Peace of Westphalia.  (I was going to add, "...or your money back," but I'm afraid of the legal consequences of making such a statement; even if I honoured it, I might be violating my contract in some way.  So you'll have to trust me.)

You might also want to head over to my web site, Everything Peace of Westphalia, to see what else I have to say on the subject.  It has the advantage of having zero advertising, which is quite a rarity for a site with content.  (It's because nobody visits the site, not because I'm opposed to advertising, but you still benefit.)

Friday, August 21, 2015

Trial of the Century

I admire Mark Steyn.  Even if you disagree with everything he says -- and I'm sure a lot of people do -- he is a remarkable person.  A few years ago, Michael Mann, climate scientist and creator of Al Gore's famous "hockey stick" graph showing drastic warming in the last century, sued him for libel.  Steyn had called the hockey stick "fraudulent," among other things.  This is not the first time Mann has sued, although I'll be honest I'm having trouble finding other examples because these things don't get covered much in the mainstream media.

Steyn's co-defendants, National Review and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, are trying to get the case over with as soon as possible, which is a predictable reaction.  Steyn, on the other hand, views the suit as an aggressive attempt to shut down the debate, so he has no intention of settling.  In fact, he counter-sued Mann under anti-SLAPP legislation, which as I understand it seeks to defend people against frivolous, but expensive, lawsuits designed to shut down their free speech.

There are several remarkable things about this case.  One is that Steyn is not trying to get out from under it in the easiest way possible, which is what most people do.  The fact that he is confronting it and insisting that it go to trial shows that he is a man of unusual fortitude.  But, even if I were willing to take such a stand myself, I would surely be a basket case worrying about the consequences and unable to do much else.  Not Steyn.  He continues to publish and appear on talk shows.  Even more remarkable, he has published two BOOKS directly touching on the court case.  The first is Climate Change: The Facts, a collection of articles by nearly two dozen authors (including Steyn, but also many scientists) exposing the weaknesses in the argument for climate change.  Obviously, this was something that was on his mind a lot, and by preparing the book he has furnished himself with a stack of arguments why his statements about Mann were not libelous.

Second, and even more extraordinary, is his new book called A Disgrace to the Profession. Subtitled "The World's Scientists in their own words on Michael E. Mann, his hockey stick, and their damage to science," it is an even more direct and devastating attack on Mann.  More direct, because it is not about climate change in general but about Mann and the hockey stick in particular; but entirely indirect, because it is a book about what other scientists have said about Mann, with Steyn only filling in the backstory to each quotation.  If other scientists can say such things about Mann -- and they are really brutal in places -- then what court could reasonably convict Steyn of libel?

So my hat is off to Mark Steyn, not only because he is taking a courageous stand for free speech (the ACLU has filed an amicus brief on his behalf), but also for doing so in an incredibly gutsy and brilliant way.  He has some experience with such cases, having been hauled before Canada's mis-named "Human Rights Commimssion" for alleged Islamophobia, a charge he also beat.  But I don't think this stuff ever becomes routine.  It is clear that the suit bothers him and he wants it to be over, but not at the cost of allowing Mann and his ilk to stymie discussion through bullying tactics.



Sunday, March 15, 2015

Civility in politics

If you follow politics at all, you have probably heard people complain that our political discourse has become dangerously rude and argumentative.  Whether this is actually true is open to question; at least members of Congress haven't started beating each other senseless in the Capitol.  But I don't deny that many people today substitute ad hominem attacks in place of arguments, and this does nothing for the health of our democracy.

The good news is, I have an easy solution to promoting civility in politics:  whenever you discuss an issue with someone, don't say anything you would not say to your best friend.  If you were arguing politics with your best friend, you would assume that his intentions were good.  If he was wrong about the issue, it would be because he misunderstood the consequences of his position.  You would not assume that your best friend had a secret motive, that he or she really did not want the best outcome for the country but instead had some selfish goal in mind that he didn't want to admit.  You would take his argument at face value and debate it rather than dismissing his argument as a ruse and attacking his actual but unstated motives.

The rule, in short, is this:  argue with others as you would argue with a close friend; in particular, assume that the other person sincerely believes what he says and believes that his policy choice would lead to the best outcome for everyone.  If we all followed this rule, there would hardly be any incivility left in public discourse.  Even if only some people followed this rule, it would still be a major advance if they followed through by insisting on the same standards from other people on their side.  Of course, they would never convince everyone, but they could change the tenor of the debate by announcing that they have no respect for political commentary that questions the motivations of their opponents rather than addressing the substance of their arguments.  It may not marginalize those who persist in such attacks, but at least it would offer an alternative for people who want a serious debate.

You may feel at this point:  that is all well and good, but what if my political opponents really do have hidden, selfish motives that they shroud in positive-sounding rhetoric?  That is possible, of course.  But remember that if you really think that, and if you think that attacking their secret motives is the only way to defeat them, then you really do not want civil debate.  There is no grounds for a debate if you do not take your opponents' arguments seriously.  You have assessed that they are liars and you are attempting to expose their fraud; this is the form of a prosecution, not a rational debate to arrive at the truth.

I would ask you to consider in this case if attacking someone's secret motives really is the best way to advance your political position.  If the person really doesn't believe the arguments that he puts forward to convince people, shouldn't you be able to defeat those arguments easily enough?  And if you do, what are your opponents going to do at that point, since they dare not expose their own selfish motives?  If, on the other hand, you find you can't make headway against the ostensible arguments advanced by the opposition, isn't it possible that those arguments are actually valid?  Perhaps, even if your opponents do have selfish motives that they are concealing in the debate, their position is the more just in spite of their hidden agenda?

You may reject my argument and persist in believing that the best, or perhaps the only, way to defeat the opposition consists in laying bare their selfish aims and ignoring their arguments.  Just remember that if you do this, you are not asking for a civil debate.  You are declaring that your opponents are outside of civil debate; that they are only engaging in it fraudulently, and that the terms of civility do not apply.  You can want a more civil debate, or you can attack your opponents' motivation; you can't do both at the same time.