January 26, 2006

John Polkinghorne on Faith and Science

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 9:17 pm

John Polkinghorne is my new idol. I had never heard of him before I saw this interview (video is here and transcript is here). Polkinghorne is a retired particle physicist and current Anglican priest. (A physicist and a priest — how cool is that?) Now that I’ve heard him speak on the intersection of science and theology, I’m a big fan.

Here are some excerpts, first on the subtle signs of God in science:

We’ve found time and time again in fundamental physics that the equations that describe the way the world works are written in terms of what we recognize as beautiful mathematics. There is a aspect of wonder in the organization of the world which is very striking and very rewarding to the scientist as part of discovery. Now we can ask the question is that just our luck or is there a reason for it? And I would say that the universe is rationally transparent and rationally beautiful in other words shot through with science of mind because in fact there is a divine mind, the greatest mind behind the wonderful and beautiful order of the world.

I studied physics in my younger days. There is an elegance and a beauty to, say, Maxwell’s Equations that makes one believe that these equations are so perfect that they just have to be true. But I remember a professor telling me that Maxwell’s equations aren’t true because they are aesthetically pleasing, they’re true because they work, i.e. they describe the way the world works. So why is it that, time and time again, the equations that work are also beautiful?

January 17, 2006

The Rich Will Always Be With Us

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 10:38 pm

While looking for something else, I came across an article on power laws, and specifically how power laws describe the distribution of blog traffic. The short version is:

In systems where many people are free to choose between many options, a small subset of the whole will get a disproportionate amount of traffic (or attention, or income), even if no members of the system actively work towards such an outcome. This has nothing to do with moral weakness, selling out, or any other psychological explanation. The very act of choosing, spread widely enough and freely enough, creates a power law distribution.

power law distribution in blog trafficThis chart from Shirky’s article illustrates the power law distribution at work in blogs as of about three years ago. Since the larger the number of choices, the steeper the power law curve, the chart for blogs today would show an even more severe disparity between traffic for “A listers” and “long tail” blogs (like the one you’re reading at the moment).

All of which got me thinking about Jesus’ statement that “the poor will always be with you”. The power law distribution tells us something else: the rich will always be with us. Communism tried to do away with the rich, but failed miserably: the political elite in the USSR were every bit as wealthy in comparison to the masses as the capitalist elite in the US. The power law distribution holds in any population larger than a commune or a kibutz.

Still, many Christians have spent a lot of time worrying about the rich as though they are the source of all poverty. But the rich are merely a fact of nature, an inevitable result of the power law distribution. We need to forget about the rich, and spend more time worrying about the poor.

While Jesus said that the poor would always be with us, he means this descriptively, not prescriptively. He is not giving us a new commandment to “make sure you don’t get rid of the poor”. He is stating a fact that has proved true from then until now. If we are going to learn from the power laws, we need to worry about raising the well-being of those at the end of the long tail, not impoverishing the 100 richest people in the world.

The shape of the power law distribution remains constant, but its steepness does not. The curve for feudal societies, I imagine, was much steeper than ours is today. Upward mobility, unimpeded by arbitrary obstacles, has the affect of flattening out the curve (think universal access to high quality K-college education). Also, tax policy can have an important affect: progressive tax rates, estate taxes and capital gains tax rates all can flatten out or steepen the curve.

These progressive tax policies aren’t there to steal from the rich (and they don’t) and they aren’t there to discourage economic growth (and they don’t). These tax policies aren’t about the rich at all — they are about providing opportunity and mobility to all of us so that we can live in a society with a power law distribution that is flatter rather than steeper. This is the utilitarian argument for progressive tax policies — a flatter curve means a more stable, propserous, civilized and dynamic society. It is a more ethical and moral society. And I would argue, a more Christian society, in that the power of the power law is just a bit more humane.

But regardless, the rich will still be with us.

January 7, 2006

DMB: Bartender

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 6:33 pm

While on vacation, I spent a lot of time listening to music, particularly music by the Dave Matthews Band. I’ve listened to contemporary Christian music over the years, but I’m always more inspired by Christian themes in music by nominally secular artists. For example, the single greatest Christian lyric, in my opinion, comes from Bono’s When Love Comes to Town:

I was there when they crucified my Lord
I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword.
I threw the dice when they pierced his side
But I’ve seen love conquer the great divide.

I’ve been struck lately by the religious themes in Dave Matthews‘ lyrics. It’s tempting to speculate on Matthews’ religous beliefs, and view his fairly large oeuvre in the light of those beliefs. But a long-standing principle of literary criticism is that we must look at any poem, book or lyric without regard to statements the author has made about its meaning or his beliefs. The words must stand alone. They say what they say, and all else is irrelevant. Given this, I remain blissfully ignorant regarding Dave Matthews’ religious beliefs, but enjoy his lyrics on their own merits.

Thoughts on 2005, Plans for 2006

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 1:52 pm

I’m back from what turned into an extended blog vacation. Nice to know I was missed!

I took the opportunity during the holidays to reflect back on my blogging during 2005, and where I’d like to take the blog during 2006. First, the retrospective.

I began blogging in December 2004 in the midst of a national mood of conservative Christian triumphalism. The conventional wisdom was that the Christian right had re-elected Bush. The conservative Christians seemed to think they had brought about God’s will on earth through a second Bush administration, and expected Bush to reward them with arch-conservative SCOTUS Justices, a defense of marriage amendment, a roll-back of Roe v. Wade, increased funding to faith-based programs and a chipping away of the separation of church and state, just to name a few.

What a difference a year makes.

Two things the Christian right didn’t take into account. First, the incredible incompetence of the Bush Administration led to a rapid erosion of Bush’s “political capital”. Second, the majority of Americans, even of Christian Americans, don’t support their stands. Given these factors, it was often politically inconvenient, if not impossible, for Bush to push the Christian Right’s pet issues. Thanks be to God.

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