Thursday, March 31, 2016

Getting ready for the elections - Part 2

This is the second of my posts about finding ways to get to the truth about the issues in the upcoming elections. The candidates and their followers will say a lot of things between now and November. Some of it will be truthful and some of it will be lies. Some of it will contain some truth to hide the lies. and some will just be mistakes. In "Getting ready for the elections - Part 1", I listed three websites that I use to find out what the facts are in the issues and in the statements the candidates make.

Now, in this post, I cover a different way of interpreting the statements and arguments made by the candidates. That is by looking for False Arguments or Errors in Logic. Just because we find someone making a false argument or making a mistake in their logic doesn't mean they are lying or, conversely, if they make a perfectly logical argument, it doesn't mean that they are telling the truth. It just gives us a way of seeing if the argument they are using is valid. Maybe they are trying to say the correct things but are just getting it wrong. This would be like me trying to convince you that the apple we are both looking at is really red when other people are saying it is green. It may really be red but I could make a fallacious argument, say by using a bad analogy. I might say, "That apple is a fruit and here is another fruit that is red so the apple must also be red." Well, that is just a bad argument. It doesn't mean the apple isn't red. It just means you're talking with a person that doesn't know how to make a good argument. You should call me on that and force the conversation back to logic.

But this can also help us not be convinced of something that is just wrong. By looking at the logic of the argument, you can look at the individual pieces of the argument and independently check them for truth. Earlier this month, I read an article on one of my favorite blogs, Earl Pomerantz: Just Thinking, in a post titled "Inside Job", where Mr. Pomerantz starts by talking about how hard it is to have a discussion where one side is arguing from a logical standpoint while the other side is arguing from emotion. He says that emotion will win and we have to watch out for that.

But then he goes on to talk about how even a logical argument can be subverted by a logical fallacy. For instance, in the argument about when one side sees that it does better in elections if the voter turnout is low while the other side does better if the turnout is high. One panelist said that since both sides work to get the turnout in their favor, it all evens out. But Mr. Pomerantz labels this as a false dichotomy meaning that they are making these things seem equal when they are not. After all, working to lower the voter turnout is a subversion of our democracy and everyone should avoid trying to get fewer people to vote.

If you look at the comments to that post, you'll see that I responded with a short list of websites that talk about other logical fallacies and I will repeat those here (with some more additions I've found since then). I think it is important for us to be able to analyze an argument to get at the truth. This is important not only in politics and in this election year. It is an important skill to have in general. While I think it is wrong to learn how to win an argument just for the sake of winning, I think it is important to know how to argument effectively and truthfully so we can convince people of our ideas and to let people know what we think. We should strive to present our ideas in a clear and understandable manner and we should do it without distorting the truth.

If you want to learn more about the idea of logical fallacies, you might want to look at these websites:

The Fallacy Files - This is a blog with periodic posts about where logical fallacies show up and how to spot them. It also has a drop-down list of named fallacies you can use to look up a specific fallacy.

Logical Fallacies section at the Nizkor Project - This is just one part of a larger website that is intended for educational purposes to teach about the Holocaust and to combat hatred. It lists the logical fallacies to deconstruct arguments that the Holocaust didn't happen or that there were good reasons for the terrible things the Nazis did.

A list of fallacious arguments - This a part of the website run by a computer scientist who seems to want to investigate arguments that distort the truth about global warming, UFOs and scientific creationism. He has a nice list of specific logical fallacies and short descriptions of them with examples.

The Wikipedia list of fallacies - Of course you knew there had to be a Wikipedia entry for something like this. This is similar to the others but it is arranged differently and links to other Wikipedia pages about the specific types of fallacy. But each one has a short definition on the main page to help you find what you're looking for.

There are more but that is enough to get started. I find it fascinating that people have studied this and given names to different types of false arguments. It's nice to know that some people are interested in
trying to wall off the bad arguments that can be used to distort the truth or to persuade people of the wrong thing. Lets hope the candidates won't make us work too hard to see through their lies.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

He is risen

Today is Easter and we went to a wonderful service at our church. The music was great. The crowds were happy and excited. We enjoyed seeing friends and meeting new people. Our pastor's message was inspiring and exciting. But with all that and including the clear skies, it wasn't the best part!

The best part is the part that's been around since that Sunday dawn over 2,000 years ago. It is the heart of our faith and our hope. It's the reason for an entire religion. Did you ever think about that? If Jesus had not risen this day, there would be no Christians. There would have been 11 guys and a number of women and a bunch of other followers that would have just died out. After Jesus was captured and tried, found guilty, crucified and buried, his most ardent supporters went into hiding. Only one of them went to his crucifixion to show his support and to comfort Jesus' mother. They were defeated and had were now only interested in their own preservation. They thought it was over.

But after they saw that Jesus had risen - what a difference! They willingly came out of hiding so they could spread the good news. Before, they were hiding to save themselves. Afterward, they came out of hiding to spread the good news that Jesus was alive. And it's the Good News that is the best part of this day - just as it has been since that first Easter. That good news is that we are given something that we cannot, even with all our effort and determination, earn for ourselves. We are offered forgiveness and pardon. We are offered grace that we didn't, and can never, earn.

He is risen, indeed. Be glad and rejoice!

[Update: You can watch the message at this link and view the PDF discussion notes on the same page or by following this link]

Friday, March 25, 2016

Getting ready for the elections - Part 1

Yes, I guess I'm a little late. The Presidential Election campaigns have been going for quite some time. It feels like they've been going on forever - or at least since the last election in 2012. I'm going to try to stay neutral but I will pick someone to vote for in the end.

Until November, we are going to hear a lot things said by the candidates and their supporters and you need a way to help figure out where the truth is. More than ever, I find candidates are just saying things that they know are not true but they are willing to be found out later as long as it stops their opponents at that moment. They figure that by the time they are found out, they will have figured a way to twist what they said into something else. But what we need is a way to quickly find out where the truth is and to not be fooled into thinking they know what they are saying.

I'm going to present a few links in two categories in two posts. The category for this post is Fact Checking. I've mentioned the Snopes site before and it is very good at helping to expose things that are just plain wrong or may just be mistakes. But if you get an email from someone who says the President just abolished the Supreme Court, Snopes is a good place to check. The only thing is that Snopes covers everything from people finding fingers in their fast food to web pages that rewrite the history of the railroads. So, to find information about the political campaigns, you have to dig through a lot of other things. But just in case you can't click on the link above, here is the link spelled out:

A politics-only site is PolitiFact (here's the link spelled out: I find their format much easier to look over quickly. If you want to look into the item in more depth, you can click on that item and see a more in-depth discussion. But they have a nice meter (a Mostly True reading  is shown to the left) for each item that shows how much of the candidates statement is true or false. Yes, very few things are completely true or false. There are subtleties to any statement and the folks at PolitiFact look into that for us. It saves a lot of time but is very thorough. All of the sources for their article are available so you can make your own determination, too.

The other site I want to highlight is (that link spelled out is simply It is run by the highly regarded Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. It is not a politics-only site like PolitiFact but neither is it as broad as Snopes. But since politicians are usually the ones making questionable statements, the majority of the items at FactCheck are about the people running for President. You can usually get the idea of whether the statement made is true or false by the headline given to that article. But this site makes you do a bit more reading to get the answer. Again, there is a link to click to get a more in-depth discussion and you will find links to all the sources for the articles along with charts and tags for similar articles.

There is so much information flying around out there and this is such an important decision to be making that I think it is everyone's duty to check up on the claims being made by the people who want to run our country. If you don't check up on them, you have only yourself to blame if the wrong person gets elected.

My next post will be a discussion on Logical Fallacies. These are the misleading ways people can make a statement and make it sound true when it is really false. They usually show up in a debate but they can show up anywhere.

[Update: The second part of "Getting read for the elections" can be found in this post.]

Friday, March 18, 2016

A radio show reminds me of a story my father told me

Last Friday when I was listening to the radio on my way to work, I heard an interview on Morning Edition at National Public Radio that reminded me of stories my father used to tell me.

The show I heard was an interview with actress Helen Mirren and director Gavin Hood about their new movie Eye in the Sky about the use of drones to hunt and kill terrorists. By using those remote controlled weapons, they found themselves isolated from the action and making decisions about whether innocent people should be killed in an attack to get the terrorists before they dispersed. They were making those decisions from their safe position. Would it affect the decision they made? I know this is a current question but it is similar to how war has always been run by politicians and generals who are also removed from the fighting and making decisions about innocent lives without seeing them first hand. This is a separate, interesting thing to discuss in another post.

What reminded me of my father's story was the part where Ms. Mirren was talking about London during World War 2 when the Germans sent unmanned flying bombs (the V-1 which was really an early type of jet) over the city that were loaded with explosives. Their flights were timed to end over the city and when they crashed, the explosives would destroy large parts of the city and kill many people. She talked about the distinctive sound of the engines (they were called "Buzz Bombs" or "Doodlebugs" because of that sound) and how people would hear them and pray that the engine would keep going for a while longer. Once the engine cut out, there would be an explosion a few seconds later and it could kill you or people in your neighborhood.

My father was born in Wales and his mother and he moved to London before the war. He joined the Royal Air Force and was usually out of the city at his base. But when he would be on leave, he would come to London to visit his mother. He remembered first hearing the Buzz Bombs and thinking it was just some different type of airplane. When he heard the engine cut out, he thought to himself, "Good. They got that one." Only later did he find out the story about why the engines cut out. He always talked about how terrifying it was to hear the sound of those engines and wonder when the engine would cut out. He said he always felt safer when it was time to leave his mother and go back to the military base. But he was always afraid for his mother who couldn't get out of the city. I suppose she would have gone if she could.

You can listen to the interview and read the transcript of the radio story at this link.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Not so bad this year

I never thought I'd be writing this but here it is - the time change this past week-end wasn't so bad for me this year. I have to read that again myself because I can't even believe my own words. We "spang ahead" at 2 AM Sunday morning, March 13, lost an hour of sleep and I didn't feel it! That has never happened before.

In fact, I usually write about how I hate the time change; I hate both fall and spring - but especially spring. I've written about it in spring 2009, fall 2011 and spring 2012. And now again. But this is the first time that I can remember that it hasn't disrupted my life. I was finding that as I got older, it was becoming harder and harder to adjust each time we changed the clocks. But now this. Am I getting younger? Maybe last November, when we turned the clocks back one hour, we really turned them back and now we're all much younger than we were before. At least I feel that way. I don't think I ever got through a time change this well even when I was much younger. But I don't want to analyze it too much. I'll just enjoy this while I can.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Another good movie

We've had a pretty good run of movies lately. Last week-end, we went to see Zootopia. Even though we'd seen the trailers before the earlier movies, I wasn't really sure what we were getting into. The part we saw before, the main characters need to get information at the registry of motor vehicles where all of the workers are sloths and they move and talk very slowly. This is especially funny because the person needing their help is a rabbit who is in a hurry. It was really well done and we all enjoyed that scene. But you always worry that maybe you've seen the best part of the movie.

Well, we were happy to find out that we hadn't seen the best part of the movie. It was a delightful mix of an interesting story (most of it is a mystery), wonderfully intricate animation (you'll have a hard time seeing all the jokes in the background the first time you watch this) and really good voice acting. The voices were one of the things I was worried about. I knew that a lot of famous actors were doing the voices and I find that doesn't usually work very well. But this time, it worked. I thought the voices matched the characters very well.

They were very careful to keep all of the animals in character. The main story line is introduced at the beginning of the movie in a school play where they point out that now, predators and prey live peacefully together. But it is never quite that simple and we also learn right away that the predators can still be dangerous and they prey must be careful. The big mystery starts when a number of predators go missing. But just before they disappear, it seems that they have reverted to their age-old instinct for predation. It's up to the main characters to figure out what is going on. There are a few misleading clues and they think they've found the answer but it turns out that there is more to it. All the while, we meet a fascinating mix of characters and situations. The time flew by. The themes are not as simple as you may often see in an animated movie whose main audience will be young children. I think they aimed higher with this movie. We all enjoyed it.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Power from the sun

Facing south-east

We have had solar panels installed on our house and we've been doing quite well - mostly generating more power than we use. And it's still winter and the sun is low. I should have written about this when we first did it. As it is, I'm going to have to update this post when I finally get around to taking pictures of our set up. We have two sets of panels. One facing south-east and one facing south-west. So, we get pretty good coverage. There is an app or smart phones that lets you track how much energy you are using and how much you are producing. It really makes you aware of what is going on and helps us conserve.

There are more and more options for getting solar power for your house. But the two main groups are that you can either buy the equipment yourself or you can have a service provider install the equipment and buy your power from them. We opted for the second one and decided on Solar City as our provider. It really is a no-lose proposition. We didn't have to pay anything. Let me emphasize that. We didn't pay a penny for this. There were no hidden costs. The salesman came to our house and asked some questions about our usage and looked our place up on Google maps and did a preliminary estimate on how many panels we could install and how much energy could be produced by them. He gave us an estimate for how much power we'd get from the panels versus how much we'd still need from the power company. Then, a more exacting survey is done where they draw up the final design and then they start applying for permits from the town and state. Once those are done, the work crew comes out and does the installation. They were very fast and neat and left nothing laying around after they were done. Then, the big wait was fro the power company to come and install a different kind of power meter that can run backwards. Yes, as it is now, we are selling power back to the power company most days.
Facing south-west

So, this is how it works. We buy our solar power from Solar City at about half the rate we were paying the power company. Then, we get credit for power we sell back to the power company. And we don't have any maintenance to do. I have heard people say that they are better off with their purchase of the solar panels and other equipment because the power is essentially free. But they do have to buy the equipment and maintain it and we never have to worry about that. But you can look into those options yourself. Just be prepared to deal with your state and town, though. But maybe you can find a company that will help you with that. With Solar City, we had to do nothing but turn on the switch.

I added the pictures of our collectors on March 6.