Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Plenty of water on the moon if we run out here

Researchers recently claimed to have found water in the top layer of moon soil. Sounds promising ... except that the concentration is lower than you find in the Sahara!

Friday, 25 September 2009

Cultured Aussies

We recently watched the finals of the local rugby league competition. Berowra v. Manly at Berowra. Real Aussie culcha, especially the Berowra victory chant (to the tune of "For he's a jolly good fellow") -- "We gave 'em a bloody good hiding ..."

Makes one proud.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Appreciation and Generosity

With my two kids constantly competing with each other, being ungrateful and selfish, I wanted to help them to appreciate what they have and act more generously. So over a week or so, here was my three-part sermon:

1. What is appreciation?

Appreciation can mean both understanding (e.g. "I appreciate what you say, but I disagree") and thankfulness (e.g. "I appreciate you standing up for me").

Once there was a girl who lived on an orange farm. Her dad was the farmer and she could pick an orange and eat it whenever she wanted.

I know a couple who often took in foster children. One time they were looking after a young boy. They had a bowl of fruit on the table and after lunch they let the boy have an orange. Afterwards, they saw him sneak another orange into his pocket and he looked very guilty when he knew they had seen him. When they asked why he had taken it, he said that in his home they very rarely had oranges, and if they ever did have them, there would only be a few and if you didn't grab them quickly there wouldn't be any left for you later on. The foster parents weren't cross but assured the boy that there would always be plenty of oranges and that he could have one whenever he wanted. He didn't have to try to steel them.

Which one of those two children do you think appreciated their oranges more? I bet the girl just took them for granted and never even thought about being thankful for them.

We'd like you to appreciate all the good things you have: to both understand that you are very blessed and very rich, and to be thankful. You have wonderful bedrooms all to yourself. You have heaps of toys, never-ending supply of food, a secure home and loving family, good education, good health --- more of everything that you actually need.

As parents, we love giving you all that, but we also know that because you have so much, we have made it hard for you to appreciate what you've got. We aren't going to take things away from you, but want to help you think more often about how much you've got. That's part of why we expose you to Africa -- by seeing others in need, you might be able to appreciate how well off we are.

2. What is generosity?

To be generous it to give more than expected. It might be to give more money, more time, more attention, more praise etc. It might be just giving someone the benefit of the doubt when you don't know if you can really trust them. It might be not having to come first all the time.

We try to give you a model of generosity so that you can become generous too.

The most generous person by far is God. All good things ultimately come from God. That's why we say grace at dinner each night. God blesses us far beyond what we deserve.

3. God is generous to us so that we can be generous to others
2 Cor 1:3-4 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.
God comforts us so that we can comfort others.
2 Cor 9:6-15 You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. (v11) (similarly in 1 Tim 6:17-19)
God gives us money so that we can pass that money on to others. (Not so that we then become poor, but so there may be equality -- 2 Cor 8:13-15.)
Luke 6:36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful
God is merciful so that we can be merciful to others.

How can we be generous in the comfort that we share with others, in the way we use our money, and in the way we show mercy?

Three lenses of a Christian worldview

Michael Goheen spoke on Hope 103.2 Open House recently about how we can evaluate the modern world based on a Christian worldview. He claimed that three principles characterise the Christian worldview:
  1. The world was created good by God
  2. The world is fallen
  3. God is redeeming the world
We can turn these into three questions when evaluating anything: sport, business, technology, politics etc
  1. What good can we see in it?
  2. In what ways has the original goodness been twisted?
  3. What is God doing (and what can we do) to redeem it and/or to restore the original goodness?
I should certainly weave those ideas into my analysis of technology.

It's worth looking out for his book "Living at the crossroads: an introduction to the Christian worldview".

contra Singer

John Wyatt presented a neat introduction to Peter Singer's moral philosophy on Hope 103.2 Open House recently.

He summarises the foundation of Singer's ethics thus:
  1. Instead of treating all human life as equal, recognise that the worth of human life varies. 
    • Value depends on an ability to choose.
  2. Take responsibility for the consequences of your actions. 
    • Utilitarian
  3. Respect a person's desire to live or die.
    • Supports euthanasia both for those who wish to die and for those with no value.
  4. Bring children into the world only if wanted.
    • Parents can decide whether their foetus or even baby should live or die
  5. Don't discriminate on the basis of species.

And in response, he proposes his own 7 principles:
  1. The Christian perspective on the sanctity of human life provides a holistic perspective on human identity.
    • The essential thing about being a human is not the ability to choose but the wondrous integration of mind, body, relationship that mysteriously reflects the image of God.
  2. The Christian view of humanity, made in God's image, provides a stability of human identity throughout the whole of life
    •  In Singer's model, a human with brain damage becomes a non-person and of no value. But if you later recover, you become a person again. But person-hood ought not depend on such contingent, random events. You are the one person, known and loved by God, from beginning to end.
  3. The Christian understanding promotes social cohesion and mutual respect
    • In Singer's world, everyone seeks their own good and consequently views other people as competition. In contrast, Christians see the importance of relationsips in which the strong have a duty to care for the weak.
  4. The Christian understanding provides the basis for a consistent legal framework for protecting human beings from destruction.
    • For instance, in UK law, killing a brain-damaged baby is viewed the same as assassinating the Prime Minister. How could a legal framework differentiate effectively in a Singerian world?
  5. The Christian understanding fits our intuitions about human relationships
    • We naturally hold emotional stances that over-rule rational, value-based judgements. Peter Singer himself admitted that he could not bring himself to apply his own philosophy in the case of his ailing mother.
  6. The Christian understanding motivates sacrificial and empathic caring by professional and lay carers
    • If you held Singer's view, how could you care for those in severe physical need with real love and respect? 
    • Good to ask peiople: if you were given the choice of being admitted to a Christian hospital or a Singerian hospital?
  7. The Christian understanding provides a safeguard against the abusive and manipulative possibilities of advanced medical technologies.
    • Technology has a tendency to instrumentalise human beings, e.g. using cells from aborted foetuses to assist others -- this treats the foetus as a mere instrument rather than a valued being.
(See Wyatt's upcoming book "Matters of Life and Death".)

The demise of the Church

In Science and religion revisited, Larry Buttrose voices an extremely unbalanced criticism of the Christian Church. Nevertheless, I thought this bit was well worded:
Around four centuries ago, the church began a gradual decline in power against the nation-states and the rising entrepreneurial class, against increasing literacy and the reason of the Enlightenment. From the 17th century the Church started assuming more the role of spiritual guide and ethical advisor, in its gradual transformation towards a kind of transnational agony aunt, with plenty of moral huff and puff but little if any real temporal thwack.
Nonetheless, any organisation with a billion members will still wield great influence, but compare its importance in everyday life with, say, the World Wide Web, and we see how much has changed. The carbon credit of today is the papal indulgence of the time of Luther.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Carrier Pigeon

A news report highlights the slow speed of broadband in South Africa. The data transfer from PMB to Durban took 2 hours 6 min via pigeon, during which time only 4% of the file had been transferred over the Internet. Impressive as a publicity stunt, but ...
  • There is always some point at which sending a physical medium is faster that a WAN transfer, as discussed on Low-tech Magazine.
  • I bet they didn't use the IP Over Avian Carrier standard or any other protocol that allows for transmission problems.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Effective Motivators

Dan Pink spoke at TED about the disparity between what science knows about human motivation and what techniques business uses to motivate employees.

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that higher rewards lead to lower performance, except in the most non-cognitive tasks. The carrot-and-stick approach only works for tasks where the solution is obvious -- e.g. a mechanical task that requires no thinking.

Key to his argument are the results of numerous variation to the Duncker's Candle Problem.

The better motivators are intrinsic rather than extrinsic:

  • Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives
  • Mastery: desire to do better and better at something that matters
  • Purpose: service of something larger than ourselves.

Can homosexuals change their sexual orientation/identity?

On Hope 103.2's Open House, Stanton Jones discusses the efficacy of the Exodus Foundation program for changing people's sexual orientation. He presented research to the American Psychological Association recently that sought to demonstrate:
  • That at least some people can change sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual.
  • That conversion programs are not necessarily psychologically damaging.
Jones claims that the beliefs to the contrary are based mostly on anectodal evidence. What research has been published is with very small sample size, short periods of time, and based on therapists input rather than the subjects themsleves. He carried out a longitudinal study of 98 homosexuals in the Exodus program over 6 years.

Setting aside the 33% drop-out rate, the study showed 25% reporting success in becoming heterosexual, 25% decided and succeeded in becoming chaste, 25% remained homosexual and 25% were still in the process and the outcome was unclear.

Although some participants experienced substantial distress during the program, others improved on standard stress scores. The study found no statistical correlation in either direction.

It's useful to read Anthony Venn-Brown's criticism on the Open House blog site.

Stephen Clarke on Conservatives and Liberals

Stephen Clarke proposes a neat distinction between Conservative and Liberal attitudes towards morality on the ABC's Philosopher's Zone.

Liberals place high moral value on:

  • Individual freedom/autonomy
  • Fairness, equal opportunity
Conservatives, while still holding to the above, place greater moral value on:
  • Respect for authority
  • Respect for sanctity / purity => typically some religious system
  • Protecting your group from external threats (e.g. patriotism)

Mark Rowlands on morality

Mark Rowlands talks about morality on the ABC's Philosopher's Zone (that site includes a complete transcript). Putting aside what seem to me irrelevant comments about his pet wolf, Rowlands introduces some basic concepts about morality very neatly:
  1. If you construe human morality on the basis of implicit contracts then at its base morality is about:

    • Power - You only make a contract (you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours) with people who are capable of helping or harming you. People without power fall outside the contract.

    • Deception - Perceived back scratching is more important than actual. Contracts reward skilled deception.

  2. Given that interpretation, animals have moral rights wrt their relationship with humans. [Doesn't seem to me that he justifies that claim.]

  3. But morality is more than just rights e.g. we might be morally obliged towards object (e.g. an obligation to protect a work of art) that have no inherent rights.

  4. Critical of Descartes' mechanistic view of animals:

    • "Going back to the Descartes classic example, the very famous philosopher who had ridiculous views of animals, you know, animals can't think or feel because they don't have minds, and so on, this resulted in animals being vivisected while alive and conscious, you know, nailed to boards and cut open, and if anyone would protest about their sort of protests, then people say Don't be stupid, they're just machines, this is just their wheels locking together and making a funny noise, they don't feel anything at all."