Monday, September 16, 2013

On Moral Decay

I was an observer (with a few ancillary comments) of a discussion revolving around "Moral Rot" a month or so ago, which has left me pondering the concept since.

I noticed some difficulties in that discussion, primarily revolving around "frame of reference" issues.

Consequently, I have decided to take a stab establishing some sort of framework around the subject. Here goes.

Moral rot, moral decay, moral decline... They all express the same idea, though with perhaps more or less passion, or disgust. At any rate, they suggest that general morality of humanity has decreased.

In other words we are expressing "Morality" in mathematical terms as a continuum. It has two endpoints. representing completely immoral, and completely moral, and (by reason of the previous  assertions), a midpoint, which one might refer to as neutral, or perhaps amoral (i.e. without morals. For my illustration below. I will use the number '0' to represent the midpoint.).

Now, if there were a simple way to obtain the current morality index, it would be easy to agree that there is or isn't a decline. If there were a "Morality thermometer", we could simply take daily measurements for some period of days, weeks or years, and by comparing current and historical readings, it would be quite obvious that there was or was not a decline.

Unfortunately there is no simple morality sensor. Unlike temperature, size, or population count, morality is a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted, "macro-measure". Worse yet, there is no common standard as to what components to include, or how to include them.

Alcohol, for instance, is viewed as a pernicious evil by some, and should be included in the measurement accordingly. Others hold no feeling one way or the other, and leave it out of the calculation altogether. Most individuals view theft as an immoral practice. However, this is not not universal. In fact, Many American Indian tribes held horse stealing as an honorable trade.

Thus, what one group might consider a sign of decreasing morality, another might consider a sign of increasing morality. So, in addition to a "Moral thermometer", we must also devise a "Moral compass", to establish a consistent measure of direction.

Those of various religions will point to their respective deity as their moral compass. But there are so many deities, and even differing interpretations of the same deity. There are also many who are agnostic, or atheistic with respect to deity, so this alone is not sufficient for establishing a fundamental point of origin and direction.

 It is made more difficult given that the process is one of "decay", indicating a slow shift. When decay occurs at a sufficiently slow rate, our perception can shift as well ,leading to a distorted view. Sort of like growing and shaving a beard. When you watch the process every day the growth of the beard quickly becomes rather 'normal'. You are vaguely aware of slight changes. The first appearance of whiskers, some thickening of the hair... When shaving the beard off, however, one truly becomes aware just how dramatic the change was.

Take the bikini as another example. They are quite common today. Most people aren't particularly surprised to see them at the beach, or the pool. A few people frown on them, but by and large they show up on every beach, in many television shows, including those rated for younger children. When the bikini was first presented to the public, the creator had to hire a prostitute to model it because no self respecting model would be caught dead in it. Clearly, our perception has changed with time, and exposure (I really didn't mean that as a pun when I wrote it).

And that is why we need a solid, reliable metric. Hot and Cold can mean entirely different things (ask an Alaskan and a Phoenician [meaning Arizona in this case]). But if we can get Temp at time 1 is 60 and Temp at time 2 is 50, now we have a practical sense of direction.

What if we used "Good" and "Evil" in place of  "Moral" and "Immoral"? While it might be reasonable to argue the terms are sufficiently similar to be interchanged, we are still left with ambiguity of definition.

What about "selfless" and "selfish"? Would it be reasonable to define an evil act as one in which you place your own personal interest first and foremost, to the complete and utter disregard for the impact your choice has on others? I may be slightly misusing "selfless" here. I am making a clear distinction between "selfless" and "self-sacrificing". while I use "selfish" to mean "Self above all else", I do not use "selfless" to mean "all else above self" (though one could also quite readily argue that wanton self-sacrifice is in fact a selfish act. An example would be someone who works 80+ hours a weeks to give their children a better life, this "self-sacrifice" is likely a selfish act in which one is selfishly focusing on the material status of one's progeny, while ignoring their social and emotional needs).

Now, there may still be some difficulty in constructing sound, irrefutable, logical proofs regarding the selfishness, or selflessness of certain acts. Some are quite obvious, as in the case of three young men who recently shot and killed a complete stranger because they were bored. Are the numbers of such incidents increasing or decreasing? But the obvious, violent crimes rate is not sufficient. It is more an end result, and it excludes many other acts of extreme selfishness, such as extortion, embezzlement, fraud, identity theft.

More importantly, one must also include the less obvious acts of selfishness, to really understand the trend.

Scan the news on any given day and you will see a barrage of selfish acts. Individuals suing for obscene amounts of money, often in cases where no financial, physical, or real emotional harm was done. Individuals baiting law enforcement in an attempt to create sensational videos either for personal attention to to elevate their particular cause (some of the 'open carry' videos on you tube demonstrate this). And in the political realm, we see increasingly polarized groups endless debating (arguing, really) their position, then resorting to attempts to 'game the system' (executive orders, defunding, etc...) rather than making any real effort to understand the other position, or applying any real effort to identifying or creating a workable compromise.

The increasing divorce rate is another strong indicator of selfishness. Marriage is no longer looked at as an agreement to work together to rear a family through "better and worse, sickness and health...", It is a simple coupling of convenience, made by star crossed lovers who go their separate way when the stars no longer sparkle brightly.

black vs. white, male vs. female, liberal vs. conservative, religion vs. atheism,... Increasingly the rhetoric is combative in nature, increasingly every little perceived offense is presented as publicly as possible, as each group strives to make their 'righteous' view heard. Not just heard, quite often now these various groups strive to force acceptance of their particular position.

Short term thinking is also an indicator of selfishness. This seems quite pronounced in modern financial thinking. Both in business and government, decisions are made based on next year's results, with no real consideration for the next three years, the next five year, the next decade. Kick the can down the road and let the next generation figure out how to dig themselves out of the hole we made. Can you get more selfish than stealing milk from your own baby?

Perhaps most telling are the observations of a 2008 Study on the subject of moral judgement, which illustrates the general inability of individuals today to think or talk about moral issues. The author concludes that "they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so." He illustratively comments that "When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner." He notes that interviewees responses were often along the lines of “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt."

He points out that it is not a case of them necessarily acting illegally or immorally, only that they couldn't recognized or communicate morality. In other words, it isn't that these individuals are more inclined to break laws, they just aren't able to express sentiment regarding rightness or wrongness.

But then, that is the nature of decay. It is a gradual process. It is not the case that yesterday we were all attending church, helping little old ladies across streets, and the next day we were raping pillaging, killing and plundering. No, there is a long timeline in between those two. We are somewhere in the middle, perhaps, but closer to which side? And  moving in which direction? Based on the results of the above study, my observations of current entertainment choices (Leave it to Beaver vs Everybody Loves Raymond, "I will always love you" vs "Let's make the most of the night like we're gonna die young").

It is difficult for people to directly judge moral decay with any clarity, given our propensity to become desensitized to the gradual rotting which occurs (Have you ever seen or participated in a debate over which is cooler, Pirates or Ninja's? Did you ever stop to consider that you are choosing between murdering thieves, and thieving murderers?)

 And that is the real problem. It happens so slowly we are barely aware of it; one tiny spot of rust in the wheel well, hardly worth getting excited about, growing so slowly. Given enough time, enough exposure, we become desensitized . We can no longer see the rust for what it is. Then one day, in the distant future the simply car falls apart.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Rule of Law

I was talking to a policeman a few days back, who told me about the raising of the speed limit on a stretch of highway in southern Utah. The decision was reached to change the posted speed limit from 60 to 80 (or was it 85?). The result? Traffic accidents dropped.

The reason (concluded after reviewing historical causes of accidents) was that raising the speed limit had caused speeds to normalize.Most of the accidents were caused by the disparity of speed between those who ignored the law and drove 80, and those who obeyed the law and drove 60.

When they raised the limit. Those who were going 60 were now going 80, and those who were going 80 were still going 80. Everyone was driving at the same speed, and accidents dropped drastically.

The lesson? Sometimes, obeying a law - even if it seems stupid - can save a life. Many laws exist to establish a standard, to introduce predictability, to allow us to concentrate on fewer things (humans are generally pretty bad at that, and they generally think they are better at it than they really are).

The correct way to deal with a stupid law is to change it, not ignore it (though the ideal would be to not make stupid laws).

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Gardening (mis) adventures 2013

I am home sick today, stomach bug. That is one of the gotcha's I have experienced from Crohn's. every stomach bug is an exquisite delight. the way I understand it. Crohn's  inflammation leaves the inside of your gut with something akin to road rash. And having a gut bug is like scrubbing said road rash with a coarse bristle brush.

Anyway, thought I'd jut down a fw of my (mis) adventures from this years garden effort.

One of my main objectives with my gardening projects is sustainability. I want to at least break even on cost, And I want to use techniques which are viable over long term. I also have a goal to have a "chem-free" garden. I don't mean "organic", I mean I want my fertilizer to come from home-grown compost (or fish. I am very intrigued by aquaponics. would really like to give it a try some day). I don't want to use pesticides or herbicides or any other store bought spray, powder, etc...

Okay, I make an exception for the fruit trees. I don't see any way to keep the trees healthy without using fungicides, and occasionally pesticides. I have lost a couple trees to fire blight. This year our sweet cherry was overrun by aphids. I tried lady bugs, but they took too long. We lost all the cherries, and the tree was very nearly defoliated by the little monsters.
As a result, I have concluded I am very unlikely to get a return on my investment in those trees. I will be very lucky to break even in the next couple decades.

The garden almost made it chem free, but for the tomato plants. I started 2 dozen seeds inside this spring. I killed them all. So I stated a couple dozen more a month later. I managed to kill half of those, and I killed another fourth during transplanting.

Then they were growing so miserably slow, I finally broke down and bought some Miracle-gro. Now they are where they should be.

I tried cucumbers this year as well. It turns out the seeds I have are a pickler variety. My first attempt at pickles was awful. Way too salty, and garlicky. Attempt two will be ready for sampling in a week. Fingers crossed.

I decided to try a greenhouse last year as well. Again, keeping in mind that sustainabilty thing, I decided to build my own on the cheap. I spent about $50 for 120 square feet. I used PVC and re-bar. I put on my hacker hat, rather then my engineer hat for this project.

I didn't glue it, so it would be portable. There is a 1 foot piece of rebar passing through each cross/tee, to reinforce the connection between the cross/tee and the pipe. Without that, the pipes tend to pop out. The bottom of each pip is slid onto an 18 inch re-bar, which I drove about 14" into the ground. Then I covered the whole thing with a 20' x 25' sheet of plastic. Only a 20' x25' sheet of plastic is not sufficiently large to cover this structure The  ends -after pulling the plastic together as much as possible, were left with an open triangle, roughly two feet high. Oops. Oh well, a little ventilation is a good thing, right?

I filled those blue barrels with water and set them inside the structure to act as a heat sink. That much water can absorb heat during the day, and release it at night. In spite of the... ventilation... The barrels never accumulate more than an inch of ice.

Then there was the wind. We had an unusual amount of wind this year. The cross bars kept separating as a result. I solved that effectively with a couple dollars of bungee cords The wind also beat the plastic to death. Within just 4 months, the plastic was very milky (i.e. not transparent), and was breaking and tearing all over. I could have probably fixed that by dong a better job with fastening the plastic. I just threw rocks and dirt on the sides, and used a couple spring clamps to hold the gather plastic on the ends. It would have been better to use boards on the sides. I could use a board on each side, the length of the greenhouse, and attach the plastic to the board, the wrap the plastic so that it was tight over the frame. That would probably earn me a couple more months. Of course would also add cost. And I would still have to come up with something for the ends.

And if I had it properly sealed for wind strength, ventilation would have been a problem. Winter would be fine, but spring. While we might still be seeing frost at night, inside that greenhouse during the day... It would cook the plants.  So then it becomes an engineering project - design it so that it is sturdy enough, but vent -ble, and since I am at work during the day, it really need to be automatic, adjusting to temperature changes unassisted. That is starting to sound expensive.

Maybe I will try a simple cold frame first...

 On the upside the green beans are doing amazing. Again. This year they were free! I collected seeds from last years crop and planted them this year (they were a non hybrid, open pollinator, heirloom variety). Well, okay, not entirely free. My PVC structure from last year didn't survive, so I had to purchase a new support system. My father-in-law talked me into compromising my "lowest cost possible" mantra for something a little sturdier. Chain link fencing. It cost about $80 for three posts, three crossbar sections and concrete. It isn't as bad as it sounds though. I estimate we are getting about $50 of green beans from those plants, so it really only takes two years to return the investment.

So let that be a lesson to you. Listen to your father-in-law (at least, if he is as smart as my Father in law).

Oh yeah, we also added chickens to our garden project this year. Six hens.

My new favorite sport is grasshopper hunting. I tramp through the weeds to flush the grasshoppers out, and the chickens follow me. It is really fun to watch them at work. We are getting close to 4 dozen eggs a week now.
(Here is little man with the very first egg.

We get a mix of white and brown.

One day Big sis grabbed a couple to have for breakfast, both were double yolks. She was feeling pretty special).

Much better than store bought, according to this study. Economically speaking, I don't know that we are breaking even. What with chicken food, a chicken house... This winter there will be extra power costs to keep the hens from freezing.

But there are other benefits. The kids are getting some good experience for instance. And the chicken are helping with pest control, weed control and lawn fertilization.

I built a portable a-frame house for the chickens (courtesy of Anna White. Love her!).

We move it around the yard. Every place it has been, the grass is greener, taller, and (albiet briefly) weed free. I need to add some wheels, so it will be easier to move (and will thus get moved more frequently.) They do a good job eating the weeds from the grass when they are in the coop. When we let them out (which is often) they much prefer to go hang out in the garden. Yeah, they pick at the beans, and the squash, and they dig holes deep enough to expose plant roots. but so far, they are catastrophically impacting the garden, and they do munch a few bugs while they are at it, so...

Well, I better call it quits before this gets to be so intimidatingly long that nobody will read it. (To late).