Belief, Intellect, and Life

I have just returned to school for what will be my last semester here, God willing. This evening I attended an event responding to a book of essays by Steven Jay Gould, "Bully For Brontosaurus." Dr. Gould was an eminent evolutionary biologist who (among other things) wrote a great deal about the fallacies of creationism, and it was that subject that elicited the most response from students in the audience.

It is worth noting that just before the main lecture, the Chancellor of the university had given some brief remarks. The Chancellor, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, is one of the great intellectual figures of the Modern Orthodox movement, and he called on the authority of such monumental leaders as Maimonides, R' Kook, Rashi and R' Soloveitchik to make the point that not all of the Bible can be understood literally, least of all the Creation.

That being the case, one might expect students to hesitate before challenging the theory of evolution as flawed. Yet several did so; moreover, they used arguments that Dr. Gould expressly demolished in his essays. Nice to know they did the readings...

It is unfortunate that this burning need to discredit evolution has crept into some parts of the Jewish community. But there are two reasons that it came about, I think, both among us and among the Christians from which it spread. First, some people need the Bible to be understood literally; to introduce metaphor is to reduce the certainty of the text, its power as a clear standard to measure ourselves against. Worse, it could be said the reflect poorly on the Author, who should epitomize truth and not speak in clouded language. Such concerns are misplaced, and ignore the many passages of the Bible which are clearly metaphorical. For religious people to restrict themselves to implausibly literal readings does a great disservice to their understanding of the Bible.

The second cause for the urgency of creationism as an idea is much more serious. Any attempt to interpret the text metaphorically to better fit scientific or historical knowledge, no matter how necessary, represents to many people an attack on the authority of the Torah itself. They have reason to assume so; many in the so-called "rationalist" camp have deliberately used science as a club against religion in general. Dr. Gould, as much as he may protest otherwise and despite his frequent invocations of Psalms, is particularly insidious in this respect:
Genesis and geology happen not to correspond very well. But it wouldn't mean much if they did—for we would only learn something about the limits of our storytelling, not even the whisper of a lesson about the nature and meaning of life or God. (415)
Small wonder that some believers are suspicious.

But to react by blindly defending a needlessly-literal reading of Genesis, as well as attacking evolutionary science, is toxic for the intellect. The defenders of creationism engage in the worst sort of sophistry and sheer folly, to the point of claiming in some cases that the dinosaurs did not exist, and that their bones were created by God as a test for the faithful. Anyone trained to think in this manner will carry such training over into other fields as well; I cannot think that willful ignorance will prove a beneficial trait in the long run.

On the other hand, many scientists have overstepped the bounds of their profession by supposing that evolution somehow is a proof against the existence of a Creator. It is difficult to prove a negative, and impossible to do so regarding transcendent beings; that some try regardless is more a reflection of their own need to deny God than the supposed strength of their arguments.

I have always thought that the Evolution/Intelligent Design "debate" was irrelevant anyway, with respect to the divine origins of life. The development of complex life from simple life is trivial, given enough time and genetic mutations. What is infinitely harder, perhaps inexplicable, is the quantum leap from inanimate matter to the first self-replicating protein. How does inert carbon change into something with a motive force? What is the cause of life?

It could be that science has theories about that too, but I certainly have not heard them discussed publicly with anything approaching the fervor of the evolution "debate". Yet which is the more surprising? That life adapts, or that life exists at all?



Today marks the first anniversary of Critical Mastiff. It's been an interesting year, all told; I first tried to affect the personal, almost breezy style you can find on other blogs, before deciding that it wasn't working and switching to a more sober, analytical style. I hope that the change in style has been accompanied by improving content.

This blog has been at times a place for me to hone my arguments, to influence readers, or just to think out loud and work through the logic of things. Sometimes my blogging will pause while I do other things, or simply can't think of anything to say. But it has been a lot of fun, and I hope to continue for a while yet.

Anyhoo, enough navel-gazing...



Jack Kelly, former military man and current columnist extroardinaire, read a recent New York Times piece about body armor in Iraq that seemed unusually gloomy, and then did something new. He called up the source for the article, and got the facts straight.

Wouldn't you know, the article deliberately distorted the truth to make things look worse than they are!

I'm shocked, shocked, by such dishonesty on the part of the New York Times...


A Note Regarding Bankrupt Language

The many derogatory terms casually bandied about in the ideological struggle over the war seem to fall in two major classes. First are terms that, however extreme or offensive, may be supported or refuted by specific recourse to fact and historical record. Examples: Traitor, imperialist, racist.

Second are terms which, by their very construction, cannot be refuted. They are not used to advance debate or to call attention to those deserving of scorn, but rather to deny entirely the moral authority of the person so addressed. The arguments behind such a denial appear reasonable, yet often are ultimately flawed and dishonest. Such language is used to whip up emotions in lieu of reasoned discussion, usually because those who employ such language cannot back up their arguments with reason.

Of these, the term that has always filled me with the most fury has been "chickenhawk."

The theory behind the term is as follows:

It is very easy to speak of going to war when you yourself are not the one going. To bluster about war is trivial when you are comfortably at home, less so if you actually back up your words with deeds and join the army. Therefore, when discussing the necessity of a given war, more weight should perhaps be given to the views of those in the military.

So far so good, though already we are running into logical problems. While a soldier has a clear understanding of the costs of war, there is no guarantee that he will understand the costs of inaction, or be able to balance one against the other. In the end, what we have here is an argument from authority; statements for or against any position, war among them, should ultimately be judged by their truth and reason, not by who stated them—though the experts in a subject will often make the most cogent arguments.

But the "chickenhawk" meme takes this much further. Those who favor war, say the chickenhawkers, are suddenly under the obligation to join the army to carry it out. Moreover, those who support the war yet stay out of the army—chickenhawks—are hypocrites for doing so. Being hypocrites, they have no right to send the "authentic" men and women of the military to fight and die on their behalf. Finally, not only are they hypocrites but cowards as well for avoiding combat, hence the "chicken" in "chickenhawk."

The requirements for being a chickenhawk are apparently quite fluid. Often, President Bush, Sec. Rumsfeld, and others in the administration are addressed thusly; their detractors seem not to care about the principle of civilian control of the military. Former military personnel often receive this epithet; apparently, your service in previous wars is irrelevant, only your lack of participation in this one. Even Charles Krauthammer is not immune—never mind that he is wheelchair-bound and could not join the military in any case.

One would imagine, furthermore, that those who employ such language would pay more attention to the views of active-duty soldiers. Alas, one would be wrong. Such people simply ignore the inconvenient truth that the overwhelming majority of those soldiers, especially those stationed in Iraq, and particularly those on combat duty, support the war and would see it prosecuted to the end. Suddenly, these "authentic" warriors become mere peons, brainwashed by a corrupt military structure and incapable of having a single independent thought in their heads (unless they should happen to oppose the war, of course).

"Chickenhawk," then, is less an expression of honor and gratitude towards our warriors than a craven attempt to ridicule those who support the war under the perfidious banner of authenticity. At once it is a terrible insult and an instant debate-stopper.

I do not serve in the military, and in all likelihood will never serve. Shall I then hang up my keyboard, bewailing my hypocrisy, and leave the field to the enlightened supporters of peace and brotherhood, who only act for the sake of all mankind (and never out of terror that they might be drafted, of course), all because of this one potent word? Never. I believe utterly in our presence in Iraq, and I would do anything I can to perpetuate it until it is no longer necessary. If I would withhold my small contributions entirely because I do not wear a uniform, I would be complicit in the very evils I despise, through my inaction. To know a thing is wrong, and not to oppose it where you can, is contemptible.

On the bright side, such bankrupt language has the value of clearly identifying its users as intellectually lazy or dishonest. There seems to be quite a few of those these days.



The media coverage of the Israeli hitnatkut from Gaza continues. I am deeply ambivalent about the whole thing, but I am relieved that violence against the IDF has been minimal, and apparently confined to Kfar Darom. The vast majority of the Gazan Jews responded to the evictions with pride and dignity. May God take heed of their sacrifices.

One misleading aspect of the media coverage (out of many) is how the settlers are described. The usual description is along these lines: "Members of a radical messianic movement that believes that the land was given to Israel by God." This implies that:

1. Messianism is radical.
2. Believing that the Land was given by God is radical.
3. The only motivations for religious Jews to live in the Territories are the above two, in a utopian or nationalist brew.

In fact, the religious community in Israel is far larger than the settler communities. All religious Jews must believe in the sanctity of the Land, and in the eventual coming of the Messiah. This does not immediately translate into support for the settlements. Even those who believe that the Messiah is on his way now do not usually live in the Territories; much the opposite, in fact. There is an attitude among many that when the Messiah comes, we will take control of the Land with the inevitability of Divine decree; therefore it is perhaps wasteful to worry too much about this or that specific plot of land in the short term.

It is true that some of the settlers believe that the Messiah will only come once we have reclaimed all of Israel, but this is a minority view. Most of the settlers are motivated for realist reasons.

I didn't understand this before I studied in Israel for a year. The main problem is that all of the maps we look at are flat. You miss the whole point that way; much of the land, especially the Territories, is hill country. During 1947 and '48, and then later in 1967, much of the fighting was centered on these hills, which controlled the road network. The defense of Israel is determined by topology. The settlements are conceived as defensive posts, and are so arranged to dominate the high ground and protect the vulnerable coastal plains to their rear. Indeed, when someone moves into a settlement, he is said to be "on a hilltop." The settlers see themselves as the first line of defense for Israel.

As well they should. In Gaza especially, the settlements were under constant mortar and rocket attack, to say nothing of attempted infiltrations in which terrorists murdered whole families. Yet the settlers stayed. Why? For most, it was not because of religious mandates, though their belief certainly gave them strength. It was because they knew that if they left, the terrorists would simply attack someone else.

Indeed, Israel is now spending NIS 300 million (nearly $80 million) to upgrade defenses for cities in the Negev proper, such as Ashkelon, who before now were mostly free from the terror threat. The front line has been moved back. Whether the end result will be good or bad I cannot say, but it is clear that much more of Israel is vulnerable now than before.

For the media to dismiss the settlers as religious fanatics is a terrible injustice, especially now, when their long years of sacrifice for the sake of their brothers in the cities has been rewarded by expulsion from their homes.


Pogo's Theorem?

I've been reading a fascinating essay on the state of journalism by Professor Jay Rosen at NYU. It is very much worth reading; but be sure also to read the comments, which are a gold mine for honesty in journalism. Several different descriptions of the mission of journalism are suggested by commentors, some pointing towards clear analysis of the world and others towards directing the attention of the public in a needed direction. But a few caught my eye as being emblematic of why much of the public is disgusted with the news industry.

Here is an extract from a comment by Dave McLemore:
One of the journalist's main jobs - one I haven't given up on yet - is to tell folks things they don't want to know.

Who the hell wants to know about corruption in the legislature, genocide in (pick a part of the globe) or the general failure of the political and social culture to live up to expectations. Journalism, at its best, records the facts of Pogo's Theorem: We have met the enemy and they are us.
The underlying sentiment, that journalism should not flinch away from unpopularity by suppressing the truth, is laudible; but note how it was phrased. Journalism, at its best, identifies "us" as the enemy. Other commenters note that many enter journalism in order to influence the direction of society, not simply to report and distill information. Here we see the ultimate expression of that sentiment: the people, because they do not do what I wish them to do, are the enemy. They must be defeated and made to submit.

The comment immediately following, by Barbara K. Iverson, reads in part:
Dominated discourse is a form of bias that occurs when the social position of the actors in any situation determines the truth and weight of their arguments, not the facts of the matter.

Notice that the majority of the stories about Cindy Sheehan include quotes from Pres. Bush, but don't include even a single quote from Sheehan. The press's deference to the President based on his status automatically skews the story. Instead of a story about opposing claims to truth which could be evaluated with good reporting, it becomes the story about how a powerful man is bothered by a nobody who apparently can't even speak for herself.
Aside from the questionable truth of this statement—most of the articles I have seen quote Ms. Sheehan extensively and the President not at all—Ms. Iverson is allowing egalitarian fantasy to color her judgement. "Dominated discourse," as she puts it, simply recognizes that the words of a staggeringly powerful man like the President carry far more weight than the words of a bereaved mother, because the President commmands the movements of armies. His words can mean life or death for millions, something that Ms. Sheehan cannot say for herself. While it is valuable to include well-reasoned dissent wherever it comes from, that should not force a newsman to consume valuable space with the tired slogans of the protester du jour.

I should repeat that many other commenters have also posted, many with great wisdom. But the understanding that we are the enemy, and the narrowed vision caused by ideology too broadly applied, are both leaving the average consumer of information with a sour taste in his mouth. Far better if the news companies seek to serve the people, rather than to manipulate it.


Private Currencies

I've been interested for some time in private currencies, under the principle that anyone should be able to standardize a unit of exchange. At present, there seem to be three major classes of such currencies. The largest of these is company scrip, a commitment from a company or group of companies to provide equivalent goods or services to the scrip-holder at some later date. This includes airline miles, for example; airline miles are already considered to be the second-most popular form of currency, after government-issued fiat money.

Second is private currencies backed by precious metals. These include Gold Money, E-Gold, and Liberty Dollars. Most of these are purely digital currencies, but Liberty Dollars are primarily used in physical form (silver coins and redeemable notes) and are meant to replace dollar bills in daily use. At the same time, it has a significant markup over the cost of the underlying silver (ten Liberty Dollars are backed by one ounce of silver, currently going for about $7 on the spot market). Much of the Liberty Dollar's value is derived from the voluntary acceptance of it as a fungible medium of exchange.

Third is regional currencies, often used in individual cities or counties; for example, the Ithaca Hour, currently valued at $10 and defined as the going rate for one hour of average work.

Each of these has problems that limit their attractiveness in comparison with the USD or other government-issue currencies. Company scrip is limited to use with that company, obviously. Similarly, regional currencies are only honored within that region (indeed, many of them are specifically intended to suppress long-distance trade and encourage local industries). Gold-backed currencies, while much more liquid in theory, expose the holder to the uncertainties of the commodities market. While aficionadoes argue that the USD is just as exposed, and subject to inflation to boot, the average shopper suffers relatively little damage if the USD should depreciate against other currencies, since the bulk of our commerce is still domestic. And inflation has been low enough, at least officially, that the expected gain is not worth the uncertainty for most people. (That said, gold money should be quite attractive to those with less stable currencies.)

But what if you could use a liquid private currency that was guaranteed to appreciate against the dollar?

I am considering setting up something along these lines. Without spilling the beans, the basic framework would be that when you convert USD into this currency, there would be a small transaction cost (say 2%). The remainder would then appreciate by about 4% per year. The currency could be redeemed at any time for USD, or it could be transferred between account-holders for a small transaction fee. (In many ways the system is modeled after Gold Money, except that its underlying asset would be dollar-denominated, not a commodity.) There would be no annual storage fees as for gold-backed currencies.

The details are still in the very early stage, but at this point, risks to the depositor would be negligible (aside from the risk of me taking the money to Vegas...). More details as I hash them out.

EDIT: It has come to my attention that Paypal is currently paying depositors 3.27% interest, without charging an upfront fee. Therefore I would have to have significant benefits above and beyond what Paypal offers, which will be tricky. Back to the drawing board!


The Weaponization of Tragedy, And Its Cost

The acrimonious public debate over the present war in Iraq contains several constraining factors that distort the range of possible views on either side of the question. Chief among these is that, following Vietnam, both sides have realized that the public debate is but another front of the war, perhaps the most important front, and whoever wins the battle at home will win the war abroad. The debate thus takes on crucial significance: it is not an exchange of views or an attempt to convince others of the truth of your position, it is meme war. Ergo, when you argue for the war, you are necessarily acting as an ally for the Imperialist-Neocon-Haliburton Conspiracy; when you argue against the war, you are necessarily acting as an ally for the terrorists and dictators. At least, that is how the other side must see it. Your opponents, whether they argue in good faith or not, are actively assisting the true "other side" in the war (whichever side that may be) by propogating their memes or memes that give them material assistance.

That means that any data that could perhaps detract from your position is not simply a complication in your argument that must be accounted for, but a weapon of the enemy that must be discredited, rebutted, denied, or—when all else fails—suppressed. True intellectual openness to new ideas or conclusions, the proper willingness to loook at all sides of an argument, becomes a liability in this age of meme war; to be open to ideas within the opposition becomes tantamount to treason, just as surely as crossing battle lines and firing on your former comrades would be treasonous for a soldier.

Aside from the intellectual depravity of such a situation, it is damaging to all parties in a practical sense. Ideological rigidity leads to a refusal to examine your premises to account for new data, which leads to spectacular failures when your model of the world diverges from reality. More than that, the tactical needs of the moment can make you accustomed to deceit, or to belittling unpleasant truths without actually refuting them. Such habits are corrosive to the human soul.

Which brings me to combat deaths.

The media is fond of doing stories about soldiers who died in action or their surviving family, or as the media calls it, "Putting a human face on war." Regardless of the justice or necessity of a given war, it is always tragic (in the original sense) when a soldier dies. Especially in this age of volunteer armies, the dead were often men and women of outstanding courage and character, who had lives filled with promise and family who loved them. Their deaths are heartbreaking.

Death is everpresent in war, naturally. In many senses, death and war are interchangeable: "If we go to war, some of us will die." That makes it tempting for many to use the death of a soldier as a judgement against the war itself. Indeed, this subtext shines forth from most of the "human face" stories in the media: "Look at those who died. Their deaths are a waste of their youth and great potential as human beings. Therefore, we should take care that none else die in this fashion, by ending the war."

Some consciously bring the subtext forward into the text itself, for example Cindy Sheehan [warning: the linked post contains several pieces of extremely profane hate mail received by the author], who uses the death of her son as a club against the war itself. As much as she and her fellow-travelers have the right to do so, such arguments say nothing at all about the justice or necessity of the war. Soldiers will die in just and unjust warsalike. This sort of argument is noise, not signal.

How does the pro-war camp respond? I have seen (and used) a few variations, the most common being:

1. Combat deaths in this war, not yet over 2,000, are insignificant compared to Vietnam, Korea, or World War II, or even such prosaic killers as drunk driving.

2. The soldiers, being volunteers, knew what they were getting into. Furthermore, the soldiers in theater overwhelmingly believe in the justice of their mission.

3. Unduly focusing on the tragedy of their deaths (particularly the reactions by their surviving family members) in order to cast doubt on the war itself is effectively propoganda that undermines the morale of the soldiers still living.

As valid as these points may or may not be, they have the pernicious side-effect of cheapening the true value of the soldiers' sacrifice, and the pain that their families and friends go through. Worse, they force defenders of the war to take the position that such pain is practically irrelevant to the main question. That is not to say that we are insensible to the families' pain; for example, many of the most outspoken warbloggers are current and former military or their families, who have known good men who died in Iraq. But that families' grief has become just another front in the war makes us colder as people.

Now, whenever I see news reports of grieving families, my first reaction is disgust for the reporters and their singleminded agendas. Empathy for the families themselves comes much later, if at all; and that disturbs me. It is no longer instinctual to appreciate another's pain, only to consider it as a data-point in a larger context of a vicious struggle against the neo-appeasers. As can be seen in these articles themselves, a similar (if inverted) mindset has taken hold among the anti-war faction; combat deaths, and their accompanying anguish, are simply another opportunity to undermine the war itself in the popular imagination. Remember the media frenzy that broke out at the 1,000th combat death, an event with intrinsic significance only to government accountants and aspiring numerologists.

In short, by turning the deaths of our soldiers into just another front in the war, we on both sides of the question are sacrificing some of our humanity. I am not casting blame, though I have no doubt who is responsible. I am warning people on both sides to take stock of their souls, to not let the pressing needs of the moment turn them into mere caricatures of people who give up their humanity for the sake of the cause. If we do, what will happen when the war is over?


The Importance of Identity

Many people, myself among them, are fond of ridiculing the excessive interest by some parents and educators in fostering children's self-esteem. While it sounds good on paper, what often happens is that children develop inflated egos bearing no relationship with their actual accomplishments. Self-esteem too often becomes self-importance, feeding into the worrying advance of narcissism in modern culture.

On the other hand, there is a great truth underlying the (somewhat half-baked) theory: people form identites for themselves, which may far outstrip their true status and accomplishments. But having formed such an identity, a person will try to live up to it or risk losing his own respect. A powerful identity becomes at once a restraint against actions that conflict with it, and a standard to which the person can aspire.

A quick anecdote to illustrate the point:

A few years ago, the older members of my Scout troop went through Philmont, a series of backpacking trails in the Sangre de Christo mountains in New Mexico. Several campsites along the trail are staffed and have activities ranging from burro-racing to shotgun shooting. About halfway through our backpack we had come to Cimmaroncito, one of the campsites. One of the activities there was a rockface perhaps thirty feet high (though my memory is a bit fuzzy on this point). Climbers would be attached to a belaying line, and the belayer would sometimes give climbers a bit of a lift at a tough spot, but other than that there were no handholds or assists beyond what you could find in the rock.

So the guys began to climb, one after another. Some were able to get to the top in less than a minute, others took longer. There was one patch about halfway up where the obvious handholds were very far apart, which proved tricky for most of the climbers. One or two of the boys were stuck there for a few minutes, trying to make the reach; but in the end, everyone made it past. Then it was my turn.

By that point in the backpack, my leg-muscles were getting very tight, and the tricky patch gave me a lot of trouble. I just couldn't extend my leg far enough to reach the next foothold. I think I spent about twenty minutes on that one foothold, steadily dehydrating in the sun. It was miserable; at that moment there was nothing I wanted more than to give up and ask the belayer to let me down.

Why didn't I? Because I thought of myself as being able to tough things out. More than that, I had spent the entire backpack until then cultivating that impression among my friends, who were watching me from below. To give up then would be to betray my own identity, and worse, to do so in public. My identity and pride kept me on that rockface long after any sane person would have thrown in the towel. (As it happens, I ended up at the top, eventually.)

It seems to me that the prime mission of an educator is to have his students internalize the proper standards of morality, honor, and industry. Standards that are simply imposed from outside will be ignored whenever the outside pressure is absent; but standards that are part of a person's very being will always influence his actions. Unfortunately, it seems that in many circles, theories of education must lurch wildly between ephemeral ideas of self-esteem, and rigorous knowledge-based learning. That a student's identity can be influenced, carefully and judiciously, to provide an anchor and a beacon for him in his life, seems to have fallen by the wayside in professional circles.

Granted, much of this has to do with the grueling demands of an information society. Teachers feel that they need to teach vast amounts of data and skill for their students to have a chance in life. Yet this seems to be going at the problem from the wrong direction. Would it not be more effective to teach a student to love learning, to make it a part of his identity, so that he himself will be motivated to learn what he needs? Especially given that study after study shows that very little actual data is retained from our earliest years in school, it would seem better to spend that time helping students construct an identity that will benefit them in life.

Of course, many people are leery of intentionally guiding a student's identity. It smacks of brainwashing, or of forcing choices on the children, who (popular wisdom has it) should be able to make their own choices. This is ridiculous. A young child is perhaps better able to evaluate his interests and skills than a well-meaning parent or teacher, but is absolutely unqualified to orient his own moral compass without help. Similarly, the habits of tenacity, organization, or discipline are unnatural to most children and must be introduced into their souls by others; else we are left with a generation such as this one, which for all its virtues seems unable to focus its energies on a problem for any significant period (Exhibit A being myself...).

As a society, we need to relearn the importance of fashioning a collective identity, and teaching our children personal identities, that help guide and inspire moral, honorable and effective habits. It is the difference between rolling a heavy stone across a flat field, and rolling it down a sloping hill. People tend to go where they are inclined to go; therefore, we must pay attention to their inclination, and influence it as best we can.


Quote of the Day

The more aware a nation is of its unity, and the more this unity is borne by specific spiritual principles, the more prominent will be the place of symbols and symbolic acts in its political and religious life. Conversely, if a people's sense of unity is weak, if they do not feel bound together by a common history or a common purpose… if the nation accords first place instead to the personal concerns, ideas and aspirations of the individual, then symbols and symbolic acts will increasingly vanish from that nation's political and religious life. In that case, too, the awareness of commonly held principles, and practical cooperation to translate those principles into reality, will also cease in that nation. This fact has been documented in history, both ancient and modern.
—Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Jewish Symbolism, p. 7, Feldheim pocket edition. While R' Hirsch was speaking primarily about the Jewish people, his point is valid for everyone.


Israeli Research Into Solar/Hydrogen

Whenever anyone has criticized the proposed hydrogen-fueled vehicles as being energy-inefficient, I've always thought that they are missing the point. To me, the value of hydrogen is as a medium between electrical generators and cars, allowing any form of electricity to become fungible and portable in the way that petroleum is today. Until batteries get much more powerful than they are now, hydrogen seems the best potential way to transport energy from central generators to the end-user. Personally, I've been hoping that hydrogen could be refined from solar power, allowing for a "green economy."

Apparently, I'm not the only one:
The production of nonpolluting hydrogen fuel could be facilitated by innovative solar technology successfully tested on a large scale at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. Scientists say it also promises to expedite the storage and transportation of hydrogen....[N]early all hydrogen used today is produced by expensive processes that require combustion of polluting fossil fuels. In addition, it is very difficult and expensive to store and transport the gas. The new solar technology tackles these problems by creating an easily storable intermediate energy source form from metal ore, such as zinc oxide.

With the help of concentrated sunlight, the ore is heated in a solar reactor to about 1,200 C in the presence of wood charcoal. The process splits the ore, releasing oxygen and creating gaseous zinc, which is then condensed to a powder. Zinc powder can later be mixed with water to produce hydrogen for fuel, and zinc oxide, which is recycled back to zinc in the solar plant. In recent experiments, the 300-kilowatt installation produced 45 kilograms of zinc powder from zinc oxide in one hour, exceeding projected goals.

The process generates no pollution, and the resultant zinc can be easily stored and transported and converted to hydrogen on demand. The zinc can also be used directly, for example, in zinc-air batteries, which serve as efficient converters of chemical to electrical energy. Thus, the method offers a way of storing solar energy in chemical form and releasing it as needed.
The project is actually a collaboration between a number of countries (full details here), but the science was originally developed and the facility was eventually built in Israel. Israel is extremely interested in solar technology, for obvious reasons, and has developed a lot of expertise on the subject.

How effective is the process? According to the Society of Manufacturing Engineers,
The first trials of the solar power-plant have used thirty-percent of available solar energy and produced forty-five kilos of zinc an hour, exceeding projected goals. During further tests this summer a higher efficiency is expected. Industrial size plants, for which this is a prototype, can reach efficiency levels of fifty- to sixty-percent.
This is amazing. Modern photovoltaic cells average about 16% efficiency, and the best dish-sterling systems (not yet on the market) get about 26%. Solar power towers can get around 60%, but that is before any transaction costs for converting the electricity into a portable form. And in any event, solar power towers are incredibly expensive to set up, though cheap to run.

I haven't found any data on how much the new process actually costs, so it's tough to tell whether and how quickly this could help hydrogen replace gasoline. But I continue to be optimistic. I predicted a year or two ago that we would replace fossil fuels within thirty years, and I'm sticking by that prediction. After all, we've got Israelis working on the problem...


Individualism vs. Tribalism?

Reading an opinion piece in the Orange County Register reminded me again why I don't care much for committed individualists. The piece, "Terrorism and Tribalism" by Prof. Tibor Machan, ascribes the existence of terrorism to the "tribal" mindset, i.e. that individuals have no inherent meaning or value except as part of a larger group or tribe. Therefore, killing people has no significance except as an attack against a rival tribe as a unit; "innocence" as a concept has no relevance, since killing an innocent harms the enemy just as much as killing an evildoer.

It is true that there are societies built around this principle. If you look at the Code of Hammurabi, murder is punishable by a stiff fine, paid to the government of that city; or, if you murder a man's wife or child, your own wife or child is killed as a consequence. Theft, on the other hand, is a capital offense. In other words, murder is bad since it diminishes the economic capacity of the community, and family members are meaningful only as extensions of the "man of the house." Theft, on the other hand, threatens to undermine the very fabric of society and cannot be tolerated.

I understand that this principle of inflicting punishments on innocent family members is sometimes used in the Muslim world; and in any event, it is clear that the mujahadiin consider their victims only cells in a larger organism. So Prof. Machan's thesis has some merit. My quarrel is that he sets up against tribalism the "distinctive American view of individualism—that it is what the individual does that establishes who someone is, not where he comes from, what tribe he belongs to…"

Prof. Machan closes his piece by saying in part:
[Tribes] are nasty fictions behind which the few who are privileged and unjustly favored hide their vested interests. They are the ones who are most threatened with the idea of individualism, of a rejection of collective duty and guilt. [My emphasis—ed.]
Clearly, this piece is not only an attack against tribalism per se but against the very concept of a community. Prof. Machan explicitly rejects the notion of collective duty, and paints a picture of the free individual as beholden to no one, master of his fate, shaper of his own mind and soul.

This is absurd. That an individual is profoundly shaped by his parents, teachers, and general social setting is so widely acknowledged as to be a cliché today. While people can certainly sieze control of their life and shape it according to their active desires, very few actually do so. Where you come from is a powerful determinent of who you are, Prof. Machan notwithstanding.

Moreover, you enter the world thanks entirely to your parents, and you owe them your very life. You amass debts to your teachers, your mentors, your family and friends for protecting and nurturing you; and indeed, this is the function of a community. To say then that an individual has no duty to the collective, and that the collective is a "nasty fiction" which does not itself have duties to its members and to the world, is incredibly arrogant and morally suspect. You are repudiating a debt solely because of your dislike for the creditor.

There is an alternative to sheer tribalism on one hand, and egotistical individualism on the other. That is the idea of reciprocal rights and responsibilities. In a society built on such an idea, you are acknowledged to be an individual and to have certain rights thereby. On the other hand, you also have a duty to the society which must be fulfilled if you wish your rights to be respected. I believe Jewish law to be such a system in concept, balancing as it does the sanctity of human life with the obligations of Divine decree. The U.S. Constitution was meant in this spirit, as could be seen in the words of John Adams that now that we had free speech, we should take care that it is responsible speech.

Unfortunately, many people today want their rights gratis, without the accompanying responsibility. Individualists are quick to assert their inviolate status in the face of government action, but are allergic to any sort of communal obligation or compulsion. This while they are taking advantage of the many fruits of communal action, such as roads, plumbing, schools… In my book this is called parasitism.

To be fair, the shrillness of the hard-core individualists takes place in a context of increasing government encroachment in private life, in the name of communal responsibility. The statist faction has used the language of community to erect a nanny-state superstructure that inexorably crushes our freedoms, our opportunities for material success and our mental independence. When fighting against "community," the individualists are most often fighting against statism; this may have been a large factor in the development of individualism in the first place.

That said, the philosophy itself is shallow, narcissistic, and if ever allowed full rein will be far more destructive than your average welfare state.


News Flash: Free Trade Works!

Some of you might remember the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the ending of textile quotas last January, allowing (theoretically) unrestricted trade in textiles. Great was the horror of the whining classes, and they trotted out stories predicting that China would swamp not only domestic textile producers, but also producers in such impoverished countries as Bangladesh or Sri Lanka (to which I responded with a dismissive post that was cold-blooded even by my standards).

Well, surprise. Today's print Wall Street Journal is reporting the growth in exports from several countries in their article, "Asian Textile Makers Adapt to End of Global Quotas." In the first five months of the new regime, growth numbers were as follows:

China: 86%
Bangladesh: 25%
Sri Lanka: 20%
Cambodia: 17%

No mention of Indonesia, though. But regardless, the smaller countries are successfully expanding in the face of cheap Chinese goods by, gasp, exploiting comparative advantages and niche markets! Paging Dr. Ricardo...

Yet again, free trade has helped the worst off, in spite of all the dire predictions to the contrary. There are valid reasons to oppose free trade, but fear of injuring the poor is not one of them.