Monday, February 25, 2008

The needs of the many outweigh the rights of the individual

I just read an article in my local paper, the Vancouver Sun, that has got to be one of the most unsettling things I've read in weeks. A group of doctors - international but led by a Canadian named Dr. Edward Mills - think that "rich Western countries, including Canada, are demolishing African medical systems and destroying African lives by continuing to lure away their health care workers" and that "the problem is so bad future active recruitment should be considered a crime in international law".

Put simply, these doctors feel that if medical recruiters from Canada or America go to Africa and simply inform doctors there of the opportunities and wages available in the west, without lying or in any way misleading them, then those recruiters are committing a crime.

The rationale is that Africa needs doctors more than we do. On the face of it, that seems to make sense. How dare we take doctors away from those who truly need them. However, the unstated subtext is alarming. There is a blatant disregard and disrespect for the autonomy of the African doctors. The implication is that they should not be allowed to leave their own countries in pursuit of their own prosperity. What about personal choice? Are these doctors damned to remain unwillingly in a poor country simply because they were born there? Does this group of doctors not believe the African doctors have free will, or the mental ability to make difficult choices? That they are helpless at the hands of American recruiters? Would they consider it a crime for a North American born doctor to live and work in the United States or Canada making $200,000 a year rather than toil in poverty to help those most in need?

I wonder if this is just short sighted compassion or, dare I suggest, a sign of latent racism? Perhaps I'm reading a bit much into it, but read these lines from the article and tell me they don't give you a sour taste:

The active poaching of African doctors has caused the ratio of physicians to patients in the area to plummet in recent years, Mills said.

And as more doctors leave, the conditions for those that remain deteriorate, making it more likely they'll take the bait offered by recruiters from wealthy nations.

Does it really help to use such condescending language when talking about Africans? We're poaching and baiting them, like animals? Fuck off. Since when does a legitimate job offer to a qualified professional with no misrepresentation constitute malicious "baiting"?

The article goes on to say that "the authors distinguish between accepting foreign medical staff who seek out opportunities in other countries - which they say is legitimate - and actively recruiting them with advertisements, job fairs and lucrative sign-up packages, which they call a 'violation of the human rights of the people of Africa.'"

Is this not the same as saying "well if they find out about the opportunities on their own we can't stop them, but for god's sake don't tell them!" Also, the general population of any country emphatically does not have the right to be treated by a doctor against that doctor's will. These people have overcome some pretty major boundaries, worked their asses off, gone through medical school, and now they have the skills to help others and become a success, and then some group of high and mighty doctors says those skills do not, in fact, belong to the person who earned them, they belong to the government. And the government will punish whoever dares to direct those skills away from the greater good.

The idea that people have some absolute and enforceable (force is the key) duty to only exert their efforts to the benefit of others, regardless of personal choice, is distinctly un-American and also un-Canadian. Not only that, its logically incoherent. This afternoon I plan to go skiing. It will cost me about $50. That's $50 that could have gone to AIDS research. Am I committing a crime? If I donated that $50 to education in Africa, but not to AIDS research in Africa, am I committing a crime?

The very reason America is able to pay doctors so much, the very reason they don't have terrible public health crises of their own, the very reason we have the ability in North America to waste our money on frivolous things like plastic surgery and ski passes is the inaliable right of the people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness - our right to work for anyone willing to hire us, for as much money as we can weasel into our contracts. Fuck communism, fuck the greater good, fuck enforced poverty and enforced charity, and fuck anti-African racism masquerading as so much hippie feel-goodery.

p.s. After reading over this post, I realized I might have come across as somehow insensitive to the myriad hardships facing millions of African people every day. I am not. I sincerely applaud anyone willing to sacrifice potential wealth and devote their time to solving some of the most difficult problems the world has. However, I have enough respect for Africans as human beings to acknowledge their complete ability to make that decision for themselves, and their right to be as wonderfully greedy and selfish as they wanna be, should they so choose.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Thursday, February 21, 2008


This is a video of the spy satellite being blown up over the Pacific last night during a lunar eclipse. Note there is no explosive payload in the missile, that explosion is just from physical impact. How frigging awesome is that? Details here.

Also, how cool is it that the Dept of Defense has a Web2.0 style video library with embed links and a feed?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Well then it's not really free is it?

U.N.'s Ban says free speech must respect religion

The [UN] Secretary-General [Ban Ki-moon] strongly believes that freedom of expression should be exercised responsibly and in a way that respects all religious beliefs.

Now he never said free speech must respect religion "or else" and it doesn't look like he's proposing any sort of enforcement, so it's not quite as bad as all that. As long as that is just his opinion then we're in no immediate danger, although it is a little scary to hear anyone in a position of power say something so ignorant. There's nothing special or profound about the right to say nice things about people. Free speech is so important precisely because it protects crazy people when they say their crazy (and sometimes not so crazy) things.

Besides, it's a little silly when you think about it right? Does the existence of Pastafarians mean people shouldn't eat spaghetti out of respect? Surely not.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Planetary axial tilt goes haywire, Earth now revolves around Iraq

Here's an awkward headline that caught my eye:

Al Qaeda sows fear after sunset in Iraq's north

My first reaction was "holy shit! I'd be scared too if the sun started setting in the north!" Of course, the proper phrasing would be

Al Qaeda sows fear in Iraq's north after sunset

The article is about how Al Qaeda militants terrorize Iraqi citizens after nightfall in the country's northern region. Standard fare I suppose.

Grammar matters!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The System Works

If you asked me how to improve society in three words, my answer would be "film the cops." The kid with the camera in this video did exactly the right thing, and that cop is an asshole.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ridiculous Study from UBC

I'm just going to post sections of the article with my critique beneath, basically taken right from the conversation I had with my friend just a minute ago while reading it. Sort of a 'stream of blognsciousness' thing.

UBC Researchers surprised by the role spirituality plays
by Bud Mortenson

What makes you happy? Spirituality typically accounts for four or five per cent of an adult’s happiness, but new research has found a much stronger influence of spirituality in children.

Four or five percent of an adult's happiness? What the fuck does that mean?

Mark Holder, Assoc. Prof. of Psychology at UBC Okanagan, and graduate student Judi Wallace recently tested 315 children aged nine to 12, measuring spirituality and other factors such as temperament and social relations that can affect an individual’s sense of happiness.

“Our goal was to see whether there’s a relation between spirituality and happiness,” Holder says. “We knew going in that there was such a relation in adults, so we took multiple measures of spirituality and happiness in children.”

The results were a surprise – 6.5 to 16.5 per cent of children’s happiness can be accounted for by spirituality.

They just state these numbers as if there is some meaning there. There isn't. First of all, how do you measure total happiness, let alone "partial happiness" that you can pin to a specific cause? Second, they haven't said that spirituality makes anyone more happy, they just say it makes up 6-16% of whatever happiness kids happen to have. They could be significantly less happy, but spirituality plays a larger role in that smaller whole. Hell, spirituality could reduce happiness by eliminating other sources, making it necessarily a larger slice of the smaller pie. In normal children, sinning might account for 39% of happiness, but religious children don't have that, so overall happiness is reduced, but proportional happiness from other sources is higher.

“From our perspective, it’s a whopping big effect,” says Holder. “I expected it to be much less – I thought their spirituality would be too immature to account for their well-being.”

“Spirituality is easiest to describe as having an inner belief system,” Wallace notes. Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, she cautions that “spirituality is not religiosity, which is often more organized, and may be church-based.”

What does THAT mean? How do you not have an inner belief system? You can't go around defining words in such a vague way or they tend to lose any sort of relevant meaning. This article is highly flawed and my guess is that the reporter has some profound misunderstandings of the study itself, which may be valid.

To describe their daily spiritual experiences, private religious practices, and whether they think of themselves as religious or spiritual, children in the study rated statements such as “I feel a higher power’s presence,” and answered questions including “how often do you pray or meditate privately outside of church or other places of worship?” Parents were also asked to describe each child’s apparent happiness and spirituality, and teachers rated each child’s happiness level.

What the hell do you expect to gain by asking a nine year old if they feel the presence of a higher power? A nine year old doesn't know what the fuck that means. Hell, I don't know what that's supposed to mean. Oh Jesus, and parents were asked to report the children's spirituality and happiness. Yeah, thats scientific. That means spiritual families (i.e. the most deluded people) reported that their children are the happiest. Reliable? I think not.

While the connection between spirituality and happiness in adults has been established, Holder says relatively little is known about the connection between spirituality and happiness in children.

Factors such as gender or money contribute very little to happiness, says Holder. “In fact, the contribution of money to happiness explains less than one per cent.” They found that whether children attend public or private school has virtually no impact on their happiness.

There are lots of new questions to explore – such as how to improve the well-being of children by applying this new understanding of what contributes to happiness.

“This research represents the first steps in that direction,” Holder says. With funding from UBC Okanagan and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, he has formed a research group nicknamed the Happy Lab to examine the biology, psychology and assessment of happiness.

The researchers have identified several possible reasons why spirituality and happiness are linked. Spirituality produces a sense of meaning, it stimulates hope, reinforces positive social norms, and can provide a social support network – all things that can improve a person’s well-being.

So spirituality simply means having an inner belief system, it is separate from religion, and yet it produces meaning, hope, positive social norms, and support networks? Can there not be negative inner beliefs that reduce hope? Or have the researchers just completely confused "spirituality" with "Christianity" at this point? Sounds like it.

Wallace, who conducted the in-school testing, envisions a day when activities that improve happiness are built into the school experience.

Uh WHAT? If a belief in false gods makes you happy, that doesn't mean they should teach it in school. School is for facts, not fuzzy warm feelings. You know what else increases happiness? Heroin.

Why not go further? What if it turned out that the Jewish form of spirituality produces more happiness than the Christian form? Would the researchers recommend all families convert?

“We would love to have a way to apply our research findings in the schools,” she says. “A program in elementary schools promoting positive psychology might involve giving students cameras to take pictures of things they think are beautiful or give meaning to their life.”

“It creates a ‘search image’ – an anticipation – to look for beauty in the world,” Holder explains, adding that a number of simple activities can go a long way to promote student happiness.

“Rather than a child saying ‘this is what I did today,’ they could be asked to come up with three things they’re thankful for – different things each day. That greatly increases happiness,” he says. “Or students could list daily activities that contributed to the community, or teachers could have them look at what they do that makes a difference.”

It sounds like the way they define spirituality is "anything that makes you happy". Apparently a tendency to notice beautiful things, and having things to be thankful for count as spirituality. I can make up words too! Science is fun!

Happier people are more tolerant, creative, and productive, Holder says. “If we could promote happiness in children, it might come with these attractive traits.”

The team’s findings were presented at the World Congress on Psychology and Spirituality in India in January. “People from Portugal, Australia and India are interested in our research and possibly trying to duplicate it in their own countries,” says Wallace. But, she says, the findings are also having an impact much closer to home.

“What we’re learning is useful in our own lives,” Wallace says. “At the dinner table, we ask our own children to list all the good things that happened that day. It’s actually pretty easy to increase the happiness of your family.”

Again, how does that relate to spirituality?

“We do take the research personally,” Holder agrees. “It’s not just academic to us.”

Spoken like a true scientist.

The next phase of the study will look at families, not just the children. “We have collected data on the parents’ happiness and spirituality,” Holder says, “so we will be able to look at the relation and independence of parents and their children’s spirituality.”

Well... there you have it. The conclusion? Things that make people happy make children happy through some vague and bizzare statistical proportionality, and must be taught in schools at the expense of those yucky facts. YOU CAN'T HUG FACTS PEOPLE!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Ron Paul

I said a long time ago that I'd do a post about Ron Paul "soon" and it never showed up. I tend to do that a lot actually; the best way to ensure I don't post about a particular topic is to declare that I intend to post about it.

My Chinese New Year's resolution is to follow through on my blog-promises (blomises) though, so here's a symbolic gesture:

I used to like Ron Paul, but the gold standard is silly and I think he's racist so now I don't care for him, although I still find his ideas interesting intellectually.

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Hard Part of Free Speech

I just read a thing on about "An anti-choice group in Rapid City, SD [...] suing the school district because of a middle school that didn't allow them to use the auditorium to feature an anti-choice speaker."

Feministing doesn't allow comments without registering, and I'm lazy, so I'm commenting here.

The difficult part of free speech is that it absolutely must apply to everyone if it is to mean anything at all. That means you can't stop people from saying things you don't agree with, and if a school is going to be a public forum available to anyone, it has to be a public forum available to everyone. The right way (the American way) for good ideas to win out over bad ideas is to allow everyone to give their opinion and argue with each other, not to shut out the ones you decide are wrong.

Of course, opinionated speech and debate are exactly what Feministing is doing. So... keep it up ladies!

Quick Hit: Not a Miracle

A baby amazingly survived being thrown by a tornado in the southern United States.

"He's just a miracle, luck, God watching over him - it's all it can be," said his grandfather Doug Stowell.

No. It's not a miracle, and it's not God. Believe me, you don't want it to be a miracle either, because if you say that God chose to save the baby, you also have to say that God chose to throw the baby through the air in the first place, and God decided to kill the baby's mother, and God decided to destroy homes and take lives and ruin those he didn't take. Where is the BBC article condemning God for all the 'miracles' that didn't happen?

Monday, February 4, 2008

Defending Islam

On Saturday I attended a lecture at the University of British Columbia titled "Islamic Law, Women, and the Headlines: A Commentary" by Professor Asifa Quraishi from the University of Wisconsin.

It was a really interesting talk, and I did end up learning quite a bit. However, not surprisingly, I disagree with a lot of what she said.

The general theme of her talk was to explain the "classical" history of Islam, which basically means she can cherry-pick any "facts" she likes, because historical records are hugely variable
and inherently untrustworthy. Of course, according to Dr. Quraishi, classical Islam is very compassionate, tolerant, and respectful (even to women).

Unfortunately, she never got around to talking about contemporary Islamic law. She would basically assert that "hundreds of years ago women were treated perfectly equally, but your news media don't report that do they!" There's a lot of subterfuge in that strategy though. I got the impression that her entire case (and likely her entire career) is based on a misunderstanding of terms. When she talks about Islamic law, she means ancient Islamic law. But when people listen to her, they are thinking about current Islamic law, so the impression you take away if you aren't careful is "Gee, I guess Muslim countries aren't that bad after all." This is basically equivalent to addressing the problems of modern democracy by talking about the ideals of ancient Athens.

There was a great question asked at the end of the lecture that highlighted this. A man asked if she could name a single Islamic country where her kind of equality and compassion is practiced and if not, why not? She stumbled through an awkward non-answer for about 3 minutes and moved on to another question.

There was a particularly scary point she made about international human rights pressure from western, secular nations. She brought up an example where a woman was on trial in Nigeria for some ridiculous offense (I wish I could remember the details, I'm kicking myself for not recording it), and human rights organizations applied pressure to the government to suspend her sentence and punishment. The government, in response to this, actually moved her trial up to punish her sooner. Dr. Quraishi said that even though they had good intentions, it was the human rights organizations' fault that this woman ended up being punished. There was a question about the more recent case in Saudi Arabia where a woman was abducted, raped, and then arrested because of it and international pressure was successful in reducing her sentence. Dr. Quraishi said that was because the international pressure came from Muslims, so the government was willing to listen. She made it quite clear that if you are not a Muslim, then you have no right to express a critical opinion of Islamic nations practicing whatever law their version of the Koran tells them. Bullshit.

She also emphasized the great lengths to which the Koran is interpreted and discussed before it becomes law. The point being to convince us that Islamic law is somehow democratic and dynamic even though at the root it is still based on an ancient and supposedly infallible text.

And of course there was plenty of the obligatory "but you must respect it" garbage. At one point she actually said "sorry to the atheists in the audience" because we can't tell people that stoning homosexuals to death is wrong if they believe God told them to do it. Gimme a fucking break.

If I attend any similar lecture in the future, I'll be sure to record it so I can post the mp3 along with my commentary. I should also plug the Vancouver Institute which sponsors a great series of free public lectures each year at UBC.