Probabilities and Creationism.

First off, let me be utterly clear.  If someone believes that the deity of their choice created the Universe either recently or far in the past, created life in it, or any such thing I don’t have a problem with it.  Believe that God created the Universe in six days about 6000 years ago?  Knock yourself out.  Believe that Izanagi shagged Izanami and the “drippings” made the islands of Japan.  Okay, whatever.

I really am a near absolutist on religious freedom, including the freedom to believe things that I find…let’s just say “questionable” and leave it at that.

However some people go beyond having it as their religious belief and try to claim it as science.  This without meeting even the most fundamental of scientific standards. (Quick:  what evidence, if seen would lead to the conclusion that ones flavor of creationism or “intelligent design” was wrong?  To be scientific it must be falsifiable, there must be some possible observation that would lead to the conclusion that the idea is false.  And, yes, there are other things that people try to call “science” even “settled science” which fail to meet that standard.  I call them on it too.)

I’m not going to go into the whole long series of arguments which justify the scientific basis on current theories of evolution and the origin of life (two separate things–evolution deals with what happens once you have living things while where life came from in the first place is a different set of theories).

First, we have the origin of life itself.  Some people point to Pasteur’s work rebutting earlier theories about the “spontaneous generation” of life and say that “scientific principle” “proves” that life cannot appear from lifelessness.  What they neglect is that Pasteur’s work, while important, was limited to the experimental apparatus of the time.  A more accurate statement of his results would be “withing the space and time constraints of these experimental apparatus under these conditions life does not spontaneously arise.” It’s a little vaguer than the first and is sufficient to refute the then existent theories of spontaneous generation.

However take a much bigger “experimental apparatus”–either the entire primordial Earth, or even larger–all the planets similar to Earth in the entire Universe–and a much longer time span of millions to billions of years?  What then?

Well, given enough time and a large enough sample size, some remarkably unlikely things can happen at least once.  Rolling twenty 1’s in a row on a fair standard six sided die is a 1 in 3.66*10^15 probability–just under four million billion.  At that likelihood Most people would say “impossible.”  Roll a hundred million billion times though (big Universe) and you would expect it to happen about 27 times.

What likelihood are we looking at here?  Well, consider what the simplest “life form” might be.  At the most basic a “life form” is something that can replicate itself using stuff available around it.  So, at the most basic, life would be something like a ribosome–a strand of genetic material (RNA or DNA for instance) carrying the “pattern” and a cluster of proteins that duplicate the genetic material and the proteins themselves.  We know, for instance, that things like lightning and UV radiation can create amino acids and similar organic molecules from methane, ammonia, water, and hydrogen–all readily available in the universe.  And, indeed, this has been experimentally verified. While there is not current single accepted theory on the origin of life, this does show that the “building blocks” of life as we know it can be produced by simple, natural processes from non-living source material.  Once you have those “building blocks” and enough stimulation–through solar and cosmic radiation, lightning and other natural processes, they start interacting and it’s only a matter of time working on enough material before something self-replicating forms from pure random chance.  How much time and how much material (maybe it takes a billion worlds of appropriate type to have enough material for life to form on one, or maybe every world with appropriate conditions develops life sooner or later) depends on how likely the particular combination that’s self-replicating can come up.  The combination that makes “life” would be exceedingly, mind-numbingly unlikely.

But it’s a big Universe.

Once you have life, then, evolution comes into play.  The replication is not “perfect” (pretty close, actually, amazingly so, but not quite).  Differences from the original pattern will creep into it.  Most of the times those differences will be lethal.  But on rare occasions they’ll be beneficial.  Accumulate enough differences and you have something that’s no longer even recognizable compared to the original pattern.

How much time?  One person, in an effort to dismiss the idea of evolution being able to create the vast spectrum of life on Earth asked “how long does it take for a new species to arise?” He completely misunderstood the situation.  It’s not “x years” and one new species, then another X years an a second new species, and so on.  It’s rather, how long (on average) does it take for one species to split into two.  You have one species, after X years you have 2.  Then x years more each of the two splits and you have four.  Then x years more and each of the four splits and you have eight.  If X is a a million years, then in ten million you’d have over a thousand species.  In twenty million years you’d have over a million.  In a thirty million years you’d have a billion species.  In about three hundred million years (which barely takes us out of the paleoarchaean era*) you’d have more species than there are particles in the Universe.  Obviously, we never reach that point.  Most of those species would never happen.  However it serves to demonstrate that even a very slow rate of speciation–taking a million years for a new species to arise from an old one–is adequate to explain the vast diversity of life on Earth.

Now that steady rate of speciation is a horrible oversimplification.  In reality a species could be adequately suited to its environment and change little over a long time indeed, then something changes in the environment makes it less fit and changes happen more rapidly until a new mostly steady state is achieved.  A large population with enough cross fertilization so genes spread well through the whole population would change slowly, but a portion of that population, reproductively cut off from the main group would change faster so where once there was one species, eventually there becomes two.

None of this says that this must be the way it happened.  And if you believe that it didn’t, that some god or gods (or aliens or whatever other “intelligence” your “intelligent design” calls for) managed things, then more power to you.  But none of that is necessary to explain the observed data.

And the arguments about “impossibility” or “unlikelihood” fail simply from considering the scale in which that “unlikelihood” has in which to happen.

*Using 3.5 BYA as the earliest generally undisputed time for life on Earth.

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Rough Men

“We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.”

That statement is often misattributed as a quote by George Orwell. (I’ve done it myself.) The origin, however, appears to originate in a 1993 essay (43 years after Orwell’s death) as a distillation of things Orwell said, not an actual quote.  And, indeed, it is a fair expression of things Orwell did say.

It doesn’t really matter who said it.  It remains an essential truth of the human condition.

It is popular among some people to try to wish away the problem of violence.  “If only we ‘understand’ we can avoid violence.” “If we just ‘redistribute’ wealth, there will be no need for violence.” “Just make things ‘fair’, then violence will go away.”

Nice dreams, but nothing more than a maiden aunt’s fancy.

The problem isn’t “fairness”, “inequality”, or a lack of “understanding”.  The problems are deeper and more fundamental.  Some people, no matter what you do, are just fundamentally broken.  They may tell themselves they “deserve” something they don’t have, that they have been “unfairly” deprived, and so use force and violence to take it. (And thus convincing some that “fairness” will prevent it, except the “unfairness is purely imaginary–or certainly no greater than the “unfairness” experienced by people who do not turn to violence.) They may claim, even to themselves, that they have been “wronged” and thus have the “right” to harm others as some kind of displaced justice.  And, people will see that claim and decide “understanding” will allow that wrong to be corrected.

Oh, sure, there can be some truth to it.  Upbringing, situations, and, yes, culture can lead to more or fewer people being prone to violence against others but despite thousands of years of the effort of human civilization to teach folk not to do wrong to their fellows no one has been able to completely eradicate it.  Some examples have done better than others, but none has completely managed to eradicate the impulse in some people to do harm to others for their own perceived benefit (which can extend, in extreme cases, to simple pleasure in hurting someone else).

You cannot make violence go away completely.  Philosophers of all stripes, religious and otherwise, have tried to discover some means of doing it.  All have failed.  Despite the efforts of some of the brightest, most knowledgeable people over the centuries there still remain some who would prey on their fellow human beings.  It can’t be stopped, not completely.

And so long as that remains true, then someone has to step up to the plate to protect people from those predators.  The “rough men” of quote.

But it doesn’t stop there.  A handful of “rough men (and women)” cannot be everywhere.  And the predators have the choice of time and place.  They can act where the protectors are not.  And so, it behooves each of us to, at least to an extent, to be our own “rough man” ready to stand up against the predators in our society.

And yet, strangely enough, the tendency in most of the world is to put more and more of people’s protection into the hands of fewer “rough men” while removing from the individual the expectation of standing in their own defense.  And along with the expectation, they also tend to strip from them the ability, in the hopes that will somehow make the predators less predatory.  And when it fails, it fails big.

What many people don’t even consider is that a major way in which that approach is that all too often the predators find ways to take control of the “rough men” who are set up to protect the rest of society.  Indeed, this taking over of the “protectors” and turning them into the predators has shed nearly an order of magnitude more blood in the last century than all the criminal activity combined.

History has shown that you cannot make violence go away.  The predators you will always have with you.  Creating a separate class of people to handle the violence for you, allowing you to not deal with it and pretend it doesn’t affect you, has all too often backfired, creating worse problems.

Therefore, one has to accept that whatever we do there will be violence.  We can reduce it, to an extent, but not eliminate it.  We have to own that truth.  We also have to own that “outsourcing” the dealing with that violence only works to a point.  In the end the responsibility lies with each one of us.  We can, and certainly should, choose not to initiate violence.  But we need to be prepared to deal with other people choosing otherwise.

We need to be our own “rough men.”

 

 

 

The NRA, or How the Mighty have Fallen

There’s a joke that goes around in a number of forms about how the NRA is actually “anti-gun”.  Here’s one:

nraantigun

There’s a lot of truth to that, unforunately.

Back before about the mid-80’s, we were generally losing on gun rights. Then Florida became national news with their “Shall-issue” CCW law (they weren’t the first, but theirs made national news) and that started spreading. The “high water mark” federally was mid-90’s with the AWB and “Brady Bill.”

Before that “tide change” it was entirely reasonable to attempt negotiation to slow a decline that many, even among folk who favored gun rights, thought was inevitable–a “put off the end as long as possible” type thing. Give up a little bit in the hope that it will satisfy them for a while longer made sense in those circumstances.

There’s a scene in the late Jerry Pournelle’s book “Jannisaries” where the defenders of a castle are invested by a far larger army.  They did not have enough men to mount a sufficient defense so, when the siege train of the attacking army rolls up, the “Eqetassa” (think “Countess”) tells her military commander to “Make a good bargain for our people.” That, for a long time was where we were when it came to gun rights.  We were losing and it made sense to make the best bargain we could to retain what we could.

The problem is, the tide has turned. Overall, we’ve been winning on the gun rights side for decades now. There are only a very few holdouts to “shall issue” and “constitutional carry” is spreading. (I’m waiting, Indiana.) More people are being allowed to carry more guns in more places than ever before. And while the very blue states continue to pass more restrictions, the rest of the country has been relaxing them right and left.

And in those places where the new restrictions have been passed?  We’re seeing massive non-compliance.  Whether it was magazine capacity limits or bump stocks (<sarc>thank you, President Trump, for implementing more gun control than Obama managed in eight years</sarc>), a lot of people are neither turning them in nor destroying them.

The NRA, however, is still in that earlier mindset, the “eventual loss is inevitable so we’re just trying to slow it down” approach. They’re wrong and they can’t seem to wrap their institutional mind around the change.

Kind of sad, really.

Middle Men: A Blast from the Past

I don’t usually “blast from the past” such a recent post, but it fits so nicely after Sunday’s “Money (reprise)” post that I wanted to include it here.

Sunday I talked about how money, as a common medium of exchange, makes economic transactions easier and, as a result, reduces the opportunity cost.  We can have more goods and services (or more time to enjoy the goods and services we have) because we’re spending less time trying to find the exact trade of what we have for what we want.

“Middle men” serve the same purpose.  They bring things that are produced far away, they break down inconveniently large quantities from sources to convenient amounts for us, the end users, and they aggregate a bunch of different sources into one “market” so we can go one place for the various things we want rather than chasing all over creation for them.

That said, here’s last August’s post:


People often talk about wanting to get rid of the “middle man” in buying and selling in order to bring down costs.  There’s just one thing.  While the middle man may increase the price they generally bring down the cost.

Allow me to explain.

From time to time, I’ve gone to a “u-pick” farm to get fresh strawberries.  I could drive out there, get a box, and go down the row of strawberry plants picking fresh, ripe strawberries and when I’m done, I have the box weighed and pay substantially less than the same amount of strawberries would cost at my local grocery store.  And that’s not counting the ones I ate–everybody does it–while picking.

Cost saved right?

Well, actually….

Consider a few things.  The farm is about an hour’s drive from where I live.  So that’s two hours round trip in addition to the time spent picking.  Two hours, and gas money on top of what I spent at the farm itself.  Now maybe folk might want to discount that because…fresh strawberries generally better than I can get in most stores.

But you can’t just discount it.  Imagine your typical weekly shopping cart.  Consider every item in it.  Now imagine going to where that item is grown or made and buying directly from the grower/manufacturer.  And if you live in the Midwest, like I do–or anywhere far from the tropics, and that cart contains oranges, grapefruit, or anything that requires subtropical or tropical heat to grow that means driving/flying/boating to a place where it does grow.  And you’re going to have to go to dozens of different places, all to get the things that would fill that imaginary shopping cart.

While the price of the items would likely be less than you pay at the store, wow much would all that traveling around to get it cost?  How much of your time would be absorbed just going from farm to manufacturer to craftsman to a different farm and so on, all to get the basket of items that amount to your weekly shopping?

Instead, we have middle-men.  We have wholesalers who gather items from manufacturers around the world.  We have shipping companies that do nothing but carry goods from one location to another.  and we have stores which provide a variety of different items in one place from which you can select all at once.  Yes, each of those “middle men” need to be paid, and their pay adds to the price of the good when you buy it at the store.  But they do so by dramatically reducing the cost in terms of the time and effort (and gas) that it would take you to go and deal with each of the producers individually.  It might be fun or useful to do one or two but when it comes to everything a person might want?  The middle men make it not only cheaper (in total cost) but possible at all.

Another aspect is scale.  In college I took several art classes.  A lot of our practice work was done on newsprint.  And while newsprint was about the cheapest paper in the art supply stores, it wasn’t what I would call cheap.  Perhaps, if a paper mill was conveniently located I might go and get my paper there.  There’s just one problem.  Have you seen the rolls of newsprint as they come from the mill?  I have.  I have no idea how much one of those weighs but several hundred pounds at least.  As a college student, I could come up with a few bucks for a pad of newsprint from the art supply store.  Coming up with enough money for one of those gigantic rolls?  Not so much.

This is another thing that middle men do.  They take large units that come from suppliers and break them down into more manageable chunks for the consumer.

All too often people decry the middle man for “driving the price up” without recognizing that the middle man is actually reducing their costs.  They don’t realize that without that middle man they would be spending time and resources that could be put to better use elsewhere just to obtain the things they obtain now.  The most likely result would be to cut back on the things they purchase now–after all, how many people in the midwest really can drive or fly to Florida to buy a crate of oranges so they can have juice with breakfast?–with a commensurate drop in quality of life.

Problems arise when those middle men charge more than the value they add by reducing the total cost of acquiring the goods.  In a market economy, this provides incentives for people to seek alternate suppliers or simply use less of the products these particular middle men are dealing with and using alternate goods and services that provide better value.

And sometimes changing conditions change the relative value that a particular middle man provides.  In the modern era, for instance, the combination of electronic communication and fast shipping we have more people dealing either directly with manufacturers or regional distributors as opposed to dealing with local retailers.  The changing technology in some cases has lowered the cost of skipping one more more levels of middle-men enough that it no longer justifies the price those levels need to add to be able to function.

While this may be uncomfortable for those in the levels being “skipped”, who will need to find other ways to generate income if they are to maintain their own standard of living, the effect on the economy as a whole is to bring more goods and services to the consumers at lower cost increasing the standard of living of the population as a whole.

On This Memorial Day

FLANDERS FIELDS
BY JOHN MCCRAE

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


To absent friends.

Money (Reprise)

I have recently done three posts on Money, here, here, and here.

Someone in an online forum recently went on a long rant about how money, in particular modern “fiat currencies” (i.e. money that is not backed up by precious metals but is instead simply declared as existing by some organization–usually a government–that has authority to do so), are worthless, not real, nothing more than shared delusions.

I run into that a lot from people who bemoan the move away from “hard” currencies (currencies that are defined in terms of a certain amount of some particular physical resource, generally gold or silver) to “fiat currencies”.  Gold apparently has magical properties that makes it “real” money and the other is “fake.”

Here’s the thing though.  Those little pieces of paper, disks of cheap metals, and electronic records do have value, important value.  And that value is in their function as a common medium of exchange.

Consider a case in the absence of money.  Suppose, I made chairs.  Being pretty good at my craft I make some pretty decent chairs, a comfortable and attractive place for even the very well-to-do to prop their rear ends.

So I’ve got these chairs that I’ve made.  But, you know, I’d really like an omelet for breakfast.  And for that I need eggs.  Now, I can go down to the guy who raises chickens for some eggs only there is a problem.  One of my chairs is really quite a lot to trade for three eggs (I’m hungry enough that a three egg omelet would be just about right; after all, making these chairs is hard work), even for three dozen eggs (probably about as much as I can eat before they start going bad. (I like eggs, but not that much.)

Even if I’m willing to just suck it up and offer the trade of one of my exquisite, hand-crafted, nicely padded chairs for some eggs, there’s a problem.  The guy with the chickens doesn’t want a chair.  “Got plenty, thanks.”

Now what do I do?

Given time and effort I could find someone who would be willing to take one of my chairs for something, and that something could then be traded for something else until eventually I had something the guy with the chickens wants in exchange for eggs.

The problem is, all of that takes time and effort which I could be using for other things.  I could be using it to make more chairs (which I could then trade for other things I want) or enjoying some of the things I’ve traded for, or just eating that omelet that I started out wanting.  Anything other than going around from person to person trying to work out a system of trades that finally gets me those eggs.

This running around from place to place is a cost to me.  If nothing else, its time I could use to make more chairs to trade for more items.  The opportunity to do so is lost because I’m spending time and effort just trying to make that one trade. (Thus, economists call this “opportunity cost.”)

If only there were something I could trade the chair for, something that can be used for larger trades (like the chair–or even things larger than that) and which could also be divided easily into multiple smaller trades (so I can get eggs from the guy with chickens, ham from the guy who raises hogs, and cheese from the guy with dairy cows, and maybe some onions and peppers from someone else).  If only.

Fortunately, we have that something.  It’s called money.  Money is, put simply, a common medium of exchange.  Somebody wants a chair?  I can trade one of my chairs to him for, oh, let’s call it one hundred quatloos.  Then, without having to worry about finding intermediate trades, I can go straight to the guy with eggs and give him ten quatloos for some eggs, to another guy I can give twenty quatloos for some ham, and spend some more for cheese and veggies.  And they’re all willing to do that because they can use those quatloos to trade for things they want.  And then, with a lot less work and effort, I can have my omelet.  Even have enough time saved to make more chairs.

Go me!

This something, this “money” has value from its function as a common medium of exchange.  It makes economic transactions easier and therefore reduces the cost, the opportunity cost, of those transactions.  It’s value is that it makes everything else more valuable because those other things can now be traded more easily and more conveniently with more possibilities.

Of course, once you have money of whatever type, “hard” or “fiat”, supply and demand applies.  What really separates “real” (hard) money from “fiat” money is the ease with which the supply can be changed.  It’s a lot easier to print more pieces of paper (and even easier to change some electronic records) than it is to come up with more gold.  This is why monetary policy is so, so important–and beyond the scope of this blog post.  But that “fiat” money is still just as real as the “hard” money so long as it serves as a common medium of exchange that can be aggregated (say, I sell a bunch of chairs to a bunch of people so I can buy a new house) or divided (as described above regarding those eggs).

Now I think I’ll go have an omelet.

Economics and rationing.

Economics, as I have said before, is the study of cause and effect relationships in the distribution of scarce resources that have alternative uses.

“Scarce” means, simply, that there’s never enough to completely satisfy everyone who wants it.  As my Intro to Microeconomics professor put it back in college, “Resources are limited.  Wants are unlimited.”

Scarcity does not necessarily mean, by itself, that there exist ultimate limits in the amount of resources available.  There probably are, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but not because of scarcity.  If, for instance, the universe is infinite in extent and we’re the only sapient life form in it, then that infinite universe, and the infinite resources it represents, would be available to us.  Of course, current understanding of physics and cosmology suggests that the universe is not infinite and it’s still an open question whether there’s anybody else “out there.”  And, if that understanding is correct, the universe being finite would mean that there is an ultimate limit on the resources available.

That there are ultimate limits does not mean that we’re anywhere close to them.  That said, scarcity is not a factor about reaching or approaching ultimate limits.  It’s a statement of what we have available to use, economically, now.

“Alternate uses” is equally important to scarcity.  If each resource only had one use, then we would use it for that and there would be no choices to make.  Resources, however, can generally be put to a number of uses.  Iron ore can be used to make auto bodies, butter knives, or surgical scalpels among many other things.  Wood can make paper, homes, or furniture.  Land can be used for farming, a base for a skyscraper, or left as wilderness.  And so on and so on.

How the decisions on how much of each resource is to be allotted to each use is the subject of economics.  It doesn’t necessarily tell you what that decision will be, only how one might make such decisions.

One thing, however, will be universal in any economic system:  there will be rationing.  Because of scarcity–there’s never enough of everything for everyone who wants it.  That means that some uses are going to get more and others less.  The only question left is how that decision is to be made.

The problem comes when people ignore that reality and try to say “we can provide all of fill-in-the-blank that anybody could ‘need’ (actually ‘want’) if only we…”

Unfortunately, reality doesn’t work that way.  Wants are unlimited.  Resources are limited.  And providing more of one thing means that we’ll have less of the things that were the alternate uses of the resources used, other things that people want/need.

Politicians and their promises are not limited by economic realities.  If there’s one thing that scarcity does not apply to, it’s promises.  Politicians can make promises as much as they want and never seem to run out.

Actually providing the things promised?  That’s a whole other ball game.  And even if they do, they rarely tell you what other things (scarce resources that have alternative uses) you’re giving up for the thing promised.

There’s an old saying, old when Heinlein used in in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” It dates back to bars with signs offering “free lunch.” In those cases the “free lunch” was only for people who were drinking and the cost of the lunch was simply figured into the price of the drinks.  And like a sign offering “free lunch” could not make the cost of the lunch go away, so too politicians’ promises don’t make costs go away.  They simply hide them in something else, or simply refuse to pay them.  But if they refuse to pay them, the folk providing the good or service soon stop.

The only option at that point is force, the threat of violence, to get them to keep providing.

There is a term for that.

So when a politician, or anyone really, who offers to make scarcity go away, to provide all you could ever want of something, of anything, then hold onto your wallet.  Then count your fingers, and your toes, and your relatives.

Because you’d better believe they are doing it for their benefit, not yours.