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The Joy of Materialism

Re­cent­ly I was de­light­ed to read in Bo­ing Bo­ing posts by a mod­ern Sto­ic. The de­light was be­cause it put in­to words some­thing I had been grap­pling with for years and nev­er re­al­ly grasped: peo­ple have re­placed phi­los­o­phy with re­li­gion.

It used to be that some­one would call him­self a sto­ic, or a cyn­ic, or a he­do­nist, or what­ev­er, and oth­ers would un­der­stand that he was telling them the prin­ci­ples that rule his life.

A life phi­los­o­phy! You could choose, from the buf­fet of the last 3000 years of thought, what you thought made most sense, and try to use it as a bea­con to guide you through a (hope­ful­ly) hap­py life.

Nowa­days, so­ci­ety seems to have re­ject­ed that idea, and the clos­est thing most peo­ple have is re­li­gion, fol­low­ing what his sect says, or athe­is­m, de­fined by re­jec­tion of re­li­gion.

The main dif­fer­ence (as I see it) be­tween a life phi­los­o­phy and a re­li­gion is that a re­li­gion usu­al­ly im­plies the oth­ers are wrong. If you are not of my sec­t, you will not be in heav­en with me.

If you don't share my phi­los­o­phy... well, I ex­pect you will take a dif­fer­ent path through your life than I would have tak­en. But if it works for you and does­n't hurt oth­er­s, why should I give a damn?

So here's my life phi­los­o­phy as I see it to­day. It's not how I saw it yes­ter­day, and sure­ly is not the same it will be to­mor­row.

From now on, when I say I "be­lieve" some­thing, it's short­hand for "my per­son­al life phi­los­o­phy im­plies that". It should be ob­vi­ous why such a short­hand is need­ed.

I am a ma­te­ri­al­ist. No, that does­n't mean what you think it does, at least not in this con­tex­t. What I mean is that I am not a du­al­ist, or a spir­i­tu­al­list, I am not an ide­al­ist or a vi­tal­ist, and not a phe­nom­e­nal­ist.

What it means is that I be­lieve that re­al­i­ty is ma­te­ri­al. I don't ac­cept that im­ma­te­ri­al things have any sort of "re­al­i­ty". Or at least that their re­al­i­ty is of a to­tal­ly un­in­ter­est­ing kind.

This means that I don't be­lieve in soul­s. I be­lieve the Tur­ing test is a rea­son­able test for con­scious­ness. I be­lieve if there was an en­ti­ty that act­ed like a hu­man, we ought to treat it like a hu­man. I be­lieve I am not in­trin­si­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from a ro­bot that could do what I do.

I be­lieve the pur­pose of life is to have a good time. I be­lieve ev­ery­one is as en­ti­tled to a good time as I am. I be­lieve part of hav­ing a good time is be­ing sur­round­ed by hap­py peo­ple. I be­lieve peo­ple that hurt oth­ers are a buz­zkill and should­n't be al­lowed to do it.

I be­lieve in pur­pose, and I be­lieve I cre­ate my own pur­pos­es and that makes them bet­ter than if they were giv­en to me. I be­lieve in be­ing kind to oth­ers be­cause they are all I have.

I be­lieve in learn­ing, be­cause we are sur­round­ed by won­der­s. I be­lieve the Egyp­tians piled up lots of very heavy rock­s. I be­lieve Sat­urn is pret­ty. I be­lieve giv­ing the mer­it of those things to aliens or gods is an in­sult to the Egyp­tians and adds noth­ing to Sat­urn.

I be­lieve in mak­ing things and fight­ing against lo­cal en­tropy. I be­lieve that a cer­tain end makes things bet­ter and more pre­cious. I be­lieve in love, be­cause I know I feel it and it's pre­cious.

So there.

Percentages considered dangerous: the Clarin story

Short in­tro for for­eign read­er­s: the largest news­pa­per in Ar­genti­na (Clarín) is in a cat­fight with the gov­ern­men­t. There­fore, we are treat­ed dai­ly to sto­ries in the news­pa­per about how ev­ery­thing is ter­ri­ble and the gov­ern­ment is go­ing to eat our chil­dren, and sto­ries in the of­fi­cial TV chan­nel about how Clar­in wants to im­plant danc­ing con­tests and bi­ased news in­to our pre­frontal lobes.

The fam­i­ly sub­si­dies are a re­cent pol­i­cy that can be eas­i­ly de­scribed: if you have a kid and you send him to school, you get a lit­tle mon­ey ($220). That's be­cause hav­ing kids in school is a good thing. This has caused school en­roll­ment to in­crease a lot in one year, mean­ing a ton of poor kids are now back in school in­stead of work­ing in the streets or just stay­ing at home.

Since it's hard for Clarín to go ahead and say that's bad, it has to find an an­gle. How about say­ing that in­fla­tion (which has been rais­ing) is mak­ing the sub­si­dies use­less? It's an idea.

Hav­ing said that, it's hard to take this sto­ry and not say... dudes, you are giv­ing bi­ased jour­nal­ism a bad name.

Here's the ti­tle and in­tro:

The raise in food prices has elim­i­nat­ed a big part of the fam­i­ly sub­si­dies.

De­pend­ing on what in­di­ca­tors you use, the ero­sion can reach 92%

Tak­en at face val­ue, that's pure non­sense. In or­der for that to be right, it wuld mean that the pe­so has lost 92% of its val­ue and it has lost be­tween 10% and 20% de­pend­ing on what you com­pare it with.

What they did in­stead is take the cost of a bas­ket of ba­sic goods that has raised 36.2% (ac­cord­ing to some es­ti­mates) and con­vert that raise in­to pe­sos. That's $404. Which is 92% of the fam­i­ly sub­si­dies you get if you have two kid­s.

What's the prob­lem? Well, of course the prob­lem is that it makes no sense, be­cause it's com­par­ing two un­re­lat­ed things.

Let's con­sid­er two mo­ments in time, at the be­gin­ning of the sub­si­dies and one year lat­er. The basked of goods has raised from $712 to $1116.

Let's con­sid­er the case where that fam­i­ly on­ly has the sub­si­dies, both par­ents are un­em­ployed and re­ceive no help at al­l:

They have gone from cov­er­ing 62% of their ba­sic needs to cov­er­ing 40% so they are ob­vi­ous­ly worse off now than a year ago. But not 92% worse, no mat­ter how you cut it.

A bit more re­al­is­tic: the fam­i­ly had some in­come oth­er than the sub­si­dies. Imag­ine on­ly the moth­er works clean­ing hous­es part time. That means she makes per­haps $500 dis­count­ing trav­el ex­pens­es.

So, a year ago, they made $940 and cov­ered 132% of their ba­sic need­s, and now they cov­er on­ly 84%.

But that ig­nores that pret­ty much ev­ery­one has had pay rais­es in the last year, pre­cise­ly be­cause of in­fla­tion. So as­sume she got a very mod­est raise: 10%, and she now gets $550.

That means she went from cov­er­ing 132% to 89%.

Of course with­out the sub­si­dies they would have gone from 70% to 49%! Try telling that moth­er that the sub­si­dies have lost 92% of their val­ue, and she'll laugh in your face.

Of course that means they are des­per­ate­ly poor, and yes, their salaries are worth less (if you take those num­bers at face val­ue, gen­er­al in­fla­tion was much less than 30%).

But those $440 are some­thing that was not there be­fore. It is not a bad thing, and it is not a use­less thing. And most cer­tain­ly it's not a thing that has lost 92% of its val­ue in a year.

Shame on you Clarín for try­ing to use "math" to con­fuse peo­ple.

Why you shouldn't believe anything you read. Including this.

A few weeks ago I was chat­ting with my fa­ther in law and (s­ince I work with com­put­ers and must there­fore know ev­ery­thing com­put­er re­lat­ed) he asked me if I had heard of the 9 year old kid that worked for Mi­cro­soft as an en­gi­neer.

I said that prob­a­bly, hir­ing 9 year olds to work as en­gi­neers was il­le­gal, and that in most places to be­come an "engi­neer" you need to go to col­lege, but any way it stayed in my head, like a pea in a mara­ca but any­way, I de­cid­ed to check it out a bit.

First: no, there is no 9 year old work­ing for Mi­crosoft, as far as I know.

And then, a cu­ri­ous pat­tern ap­peared: there is not one sto­ry about that, there are sev­er­al. And about dif­fer­ent kid­s. And most­ly in span­ish-s­peak­ing me­di­a.

Let's check Mah­mud Wael first.

Here's what In­foBAE says about him:

Mah­mud Wael, un egip­cio de 11 años y as­pec­to frágil, es el nue­vo téc­ni­co de Mi­cro­soft gra­cias a su ca­paci­dad para re­solver com­ple­jos cál­cu­los en cuestión de se­gun­dos y mo­verse sin prob­le­mas por las re­des in­for­máti­cas


Mah­mud Wael, a frag­ile look­ing 11 year old egyp­tian, is the lat­est Mi­cro­soft tech­ni­cian thanks to his abil­i­ty to solve com­plex cal­cu­la­tions in sec­onds and to move ef­fort­less­ly through in­for­ma­tion net­work­s.

If one ac­tu­al­ly both­ers read­ing the sto­ry there's more: ap­par­ent­ly Mah­mud joined the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty in Cairo at age 9, and is now at­tend­ing Cairo Uni­ver­si­ty for a de­gree in some com­put­er-re­lat­ed area.

Now, I don't want to pick on In­foBAE be­cause the same thing is re­port­ed in many oth­er places (the pre­vi­ous links are just the first few that google gave me).

In fac­t, a bunch of those sto­ries even say "With 11 years, he al­ready works at Mi­crosoft­", which is some­how not in the In­foBAE sto­ry which is tak­en from the EFE agen­cy.

Now... does he work at Mi­crosoft? I bet he does­n't (or EFE would have men­tioned it). It's just that when some­one writes "Mi­crosoft Tech­ni­cian" or "Mi­crosoft En­gi­neer" in en­glish, well, that makes no sense in span­ish, so the span­ish me­dia and read­ers are lead astray.

A Mi­cro­soft Cer­ti­fied En­gi­neer is some­one who has tak­en some Mi­cro­soft train­ing cour­ses and ex­am­s.

On the oth­er hand, in most of the span­ish speak­ing world, you can't call your­self an en­gi­neer un­less you get an en­gi­neer­ing de­gree from a uni­ver­si­ty. In fact in Ar­genti­na call­ing your­self an en­gi­neer if you don't have one is il­le­gal.

So, "Mi­crosoft En­gi­neer" is tak­en as "an en­gi­neer that works at Mi­crosoft­", be­cause the al­ter­na­tive sim­ply makes no sense.

What is the re­al sto­ry about Mah­mud Wael? Well, let's check some egyp­tian sources, which is what all those news­pa­pers should have done in the first place.

Here's Egypt To­day's take on it from when he was 9.

Did he at­tend the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty?

Well, he had a schol­ar­ship from them to at­tend the Green­land In­ter­na­tion­al Lan­guage School, and at­tend­ed one eng­lish course.

What about the "Mi­crosoft En­gi­neer" thing? He was plan­ning to take the MCSD ex­am­s. Did he suc­ceed? Well, Reuters says he got a MCTS.

An MCTS is not an MCS­D, or an MCSE. In fac­t, just by say­ing some­one has an MCTS (very im­pres­sive for an 11 year old!) you have no idea of what he knows, be­cause a MCTS is about a spe­cif­ic pro­duc­t, and there are MCTSs for al­most all of MS prod­uct­s.

So, in short: Mah­mud is a very im­pres­sive and in­tel­li­gent kid, but he is not an en­gi­neer, have a col­lege de­gree or work at Mi­cro­soft.

And now the sec­ond case, Marko Calasan from Mace­do­nia, which is the one ac­tu­al­ly men­tioned to me.

And it's ex­act­ly the same sto­ry, ex­cept that he got a much bet­ter cert from MS than Mah­mud, and he got it ear­li­er.

Again the "works at Mi­crosoft" thing seems to be ex­clu­sive to the span­ish speak­ing me­di­a, and prob­a­bly for the same rea­son.

Now, let's think about what this says of jour­nal­is­m. These sto­ries were not hard to check. All you need is pass­able eng­lish skills and google. And if your eng­lish suck­s, google can help you with that too.

But dozens of news­pa­pers and sites just run with it be­cause the "Mi­crosoft hires (s­mall age) kid!" is just too nice and peo­ple would ac­cept it be­cause hey, it's in the news­pa­per­s.

And you know what? I sus­pect that it's the same thing with a large part of what you read in the pa­per­s. If check­ing a tiny piece just be­cause I have some pe­riph­er­al knowl­edge about it says there are dozens of ar­ti­cles that are just wrong, what hap­pens in all the ar­eas where I am clue­less?

Be­cause we are all clue­less in al­most ev­ery­thing, and jour­nal­ists are prob­a­bly clue­less about 90% of what they write about. It's not even a con­spir­a­cy, it's just ig­no­rance am­pli­fied by their job de­scrip­tion.

A short short scifi story

I wrote this for a con­test at the New Sci­en­tist mag­a­zine. I thought what the heck, maybe some­one will like it. And no, I won't ex­plain it, be­cause that spoils the whole thing.

There is no Such Thing as Free En­er­gy

I wished a cold drink was still a pos­si­bil­i­ty, and looked out, across the baked clay that used to be a swamp. The hatch closed and we start­ed our long trip to the stars, curs­ing the in­ven­tor of the per­pet­u­al mo­tion en­gine all the way.

Space Platform by Murray Leinster: rooting for the Death Star

I just fin­ished read­ing Mur­ray Le­in­ster's Space Plat­form (in my new phone yay!).

You can read it too, if you wan­t, be­cause it's avail­able, for free, from Many­book­ in any for­mat you may need.

It's a very old-­fash­ioned (pub­lished in 1953) sci­fi sto­ry, but what re­al­ly shocked me was that in the 25 years be­tween this and Star Wars (1978) ev­ery­thing changed.

Why? Be­cause this is a book writ­ten from the per­spec­tive of work­ers build­ing the Death Star.

Specif­i­cal­ly, the main char­ac­ter, Joe, is work­ing on build­ing the gy­ro­scopes for a space sta­tion which will be the first per­ma­nent ar­ti­fi­cial ob­ject in or­bit... and is ful­ly load­ed with nukes.

Fur­ther, it's strict­ly a USA project (although there is a men­tion of it "be­ing of­fered" to the UN) and the whole book is spent show­ing the coura­geous work­ers and sol­diers fight­ing sabo­teurs in Ari­zon­a.

Re­place USA by "the em­pire", work­ers and sol­diers by storm troop­er­s, space plat­form by death star, com­mu­nists and an­ar­chists by ewoks and rebels and... well, it's "Re­turn of the Jedi", ex­cept the em­pire wins and all ewoks are killed in the end.

This short nov­el is com­plete­ly acrit­i­cal: US hav­ing the pow­er to de­stroy any city in the world at will is good. All oth­er coun­tries be­ing un­able to re­tal­i­ate is good. Try­ing to pre­vent it by any mean­s? Bad and cow­ard­ly.

In just 25 years, though, films de­scrib­ing the sit­u­a­tion ex­act­ly from the op­po­site point of view had ev­ery kid cheer­ing for the sabo­teurs.

It's amaz­ing that this book is clos­er in time to Star Wars than Star Wars is to to­day.

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