About This Website

Almost by definition, popular ideas are boring. If we want something new and better, we must start with what’s currently out of fashion.  Here you will find essays and editorials on society, science and software technology, often with a libertarian perspective. More…

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    Save the World

    We all believe our problems are worse than those of others.
    And we are all correct.
    If we could trade our problems for someone else’s, we’d all be happier.
    For a while.

    Asking society to fix our problems can be a nifty way to destroy the world.
    Learn to cope and save the world.
    And just maybe yourself as well.


    Cooperative Learning

    You may have heard that the United States is about rugged individualism, but no more. For the last couple of decades, American teachers have embraced a bold new model called cooperative learning (or sometimes team learning), a research-proven method that benefits students, or at least many students. My politically philosophical articles tend to be of the “Chicken Little” sort, where I claim the sky is falling. Not here, since Cooperative Learning is not a new idea. It is a fait accompli embraced by virtually all primary and secondary school teachers and by an entire generation of our youth now coming of age and themselves becoming teachers. The sky has already fallen while we weren’t looking and it is time to analyze the consequences. I think they include putting half our population at a disadvantage and potentially destroying our very brightest.

    Discussion Questions:

    1. Do you think the author is being sarcastic here?

    2. Can you think of any potential problems with cooperative learning?

    3. What can possibly be wrong with helping each other and working things out together?

    4. Why are fewer students studying science and engineering?

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    The PayPal Loophole

    I was reminded of PayPal recently when a WSJ “Heard on the Street” column suggested eBay might be an undervalued way for investors to bet on Internet commerce. It seems eBay’s PayPal is doing pretty well, growing fast, surpassing one sixth of all online payments, and counting almost three quarters of online buyers among its customers. My question is whether PayPal’s popularity is mostly a sign of tax avoidance?

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    The Google Singularity

    I’m a fan of capitalism because history proves it works. Humanity has grown both populous and rich in lockstep with the rise and sometimes the decline of market economies and market freedom. Capitalism works mostly because it is more like a natural law than a human institution or design. Natural laws don’t play favorites and don’t change the rules to benefit themselves. Human planners make mistakes while natural laws just keep on ticking.

    But does capitalism always work? Being a libertarian, I’d certainly like to think so. Imagine my surprise on seeing a possible flaw, a case where capitalism appears to blow up, what physicists call a singularity. One example of a singularity is a black hole, a point so heavy that it collapses all nearby matter. No one likes natural laws with singularities, just as no one wants to live near a black hole or travel among land mines. I’m no economist, so I may have this wrong. But it seems to me that Google could blow up the economy, at least in theory, just by succeeding in the free market. I think Google exposes a potential singularity in capitalism.

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    Government and Walmart Clerks

    Saturday I visited the local Post Office to get my young daughter another passport and then Walmart to get my older one another car battery. The differences were striking. Here were the two institutions that most exemplify what the left cherishes and loathes, but my experience was exactly the opposite.

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    Healthcare Defeat

    We lost a lot yesterday, when healthcare “reform” was passed by our House of Representatives.

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    Conservation and Conservatism

    I recently saw Avatar, the 3D film by James Cameron, who last did Titanic over a decade ago. I am probably the only person in America who never saw Titanic, but not because I heard anything bad about it. I just don’t enjoy tragedies, probably because I find the real world depressing enough. But Avatar is different (though Cameron is still going for the pithy one-word titles). No sad ending here.

    Avatar is a wonderful in the true sense of the word because more than ever before, it immerses us with wonder in a new world. The experience was like my first viewing of Star Wars in 1977, another wonder for its time. Cameron’s masterpiece combines amazingly realistic computer animation, 3D projection, science fiction, a morality play, a war, and of course, a love story. I was especially impressed with the awe inspiring scale and detail of Avatar’s forest world. 3D viewing adds a third dimension, but Avatar’s imaginary world adds yet another dimension of the vertical, with immense trees, branch-bound paths, and floating mountains.

    The simple plot includes moral editorial on environmentalism and colonialism, with earth folk, and specifically a large avaricious corporation, wearing the black hat. There is nothing wrong with art that makes a strong moral statement, even if it is not the statement I would choose. That is the prerogative of the artist. Starkly dividing good from evil probably helps immerse us in Avatar’s world by alienating us from our own. So I am not criticizing the artist here.

    The point I’ll make is that we viewers must exercise care, since morality plays, even if good art, can influence us in not-so-good ways. Stories with a moral are fiction. When we internalize a fictional morality without some reality checking, I think we are more prone to real world evil. So read on for my moralizing on the possibly morale consequences of morality fiction. Also, for any who are interested, I’ll end with a short summary of cinematic 3D technology.

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    Bias and Global Warming

    My apologies to Robert Frost, but I just rewrote his poem:

    Some say the world will end in fire,
    Some say in ice.
    From what I know of human fads,
    I think the experts are all mad.
    Especially those who hold with fire,
    Because their email shows they’re liars.

    Is global warming real or is it a religion? If you believe, it is very real and something must be done. The solution requires that we all make sacrifices, not just true believers. So if your beliefs are wrong, the results could be evil, or at least expensive.

    This is the second of three articles on fanaticism and morality. In Conservation and Conservatism, I argued that art can distort our view of reality, causing “religious” beliefs that allow good people to harm others. Here, I’ll explain why we are prone to irrational beliefs and why “Global Warming” might be more religion than reality.

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    Religious Impulse and Evil

    Today’s lecture is likely to be a highly unpopular one. I will argue that evil is among us and that we good people are the cause. Moreover, I’ll try to show that it is our own best intentions that are most likely to lead to evil outcomes. It is all the fault of our religious impulse, the very same human impulse behind formal religions like Judaism and Christianity, yet also the impulse behind both the Nazi and Communist parties and their genocides. Worse, I think this evil impulse is still alive and well in the guise of modern liberalism.

    People really get mad when you accuse them of doing wrong, especially if the criticism has some ring of truth. So I’m going to start with a little humor to lighten things up. That way, y’all think I’m just a regular folksy kind of guy and may be marginally less likely to mail me letter bombs and/or throw me into some deep dungeon.

    Q. How many liberals does it take to screw up a light bulb?

    A. A majority in Congress.

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    Digital Media and Capitalism

    My unpopular idea for today is going to shock some of my fans, for I’m arguing that capitalism may have its limits, that whatever its merits, seemingly bad long term outcomes are still possible. Specifically, I’ll explain why I think market forces doom my own industry and most creative professional fields. What we create is increasingly 100% digital. Software, literature, news, music, movies and indeed all sorts of artistic endeavor are headed for an entirely digital future. But at the same time, the march of technology means it is becoming virtually free to make copies of digital works. 100% digital media cost nothing to reproduce, which reduces the perceived value. When we paid for entertainment, news, computer applications and other information in the past, we mostly thought we were purchasing the medium, the physical book, magazine or disc which cost something to make. Cheap computers and digital content mean zero variable costs plus low fixed and entry costs. So most intellectual pursuits are headed toward a digital future with much lower rewards.

    Q. It is clear to me that you are onto something. I mean, a future with free music and movies sounds dreadful, not to mention all the poor starving software engineers. Whatever shall we do?

    A. What is needed are wise elite thinkers such as myself, who can step in and set things right. People with compassion for the underdog, liberal humanitarians with the best interests of all mankind (and of course womankind too) at heart, those with a keen understanding of the problems and how we can fix them through benign government administration and incentives. Yea, an entirely new and thoroughly modern dictatorship of the proletariat (with a few humble administrators like myself).

    Q. Great idea! Why didn’t I think of that?

    A. Such things are best left to intellectuals. Fortunately, I am here to serve, wisely advancing the interests of all you little people.

    Q. And how should we address your excellency?

    A. Wise Helpful Operator Of Public Systems. WHOOPS for short.

    As you probably guessed, I will not argue we should scrap capitalism. While I see some possibly bad consequences that capitalism has in store for people, it is still a far better system that any alternative I know. For one thing, you may not share my values so and so a future constructed in my best interests probably would not be in your best interests. But even if our interests align, never forget that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Give anyone enough power, even someone as obviously kind, thoughtful and fair as myself, and you are in deep trouble. Put anyone in charge of the economy, no matter how intelligent and well meaning, and they will inevitably if unconsciously squander a good portion of your wealth.

    What I will argue is that market forces are working to lessen the value of at least some creative pursuits. It is possible to predict things heading down that road, but it is probably impossible to predict whether we will reach some new equilibrium before we reach the the apparent destination. Economic dictatorship cannot help us, but possible future changes in public values and opinions might eventually restore some economic power to creators of digital content. Along the way, I will also describe how some anti-piracy software works and explain why it does not work very well.

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    Thanksgiving and Murder

    Yesterday was Thanksgiving. As we consumed our turkey and various veggie dishes, the subject of furs came up. Fur coats seem to be coming back into fashion a bit, but fashions have changed. After we old folks discussed whether it is economic to re-tailor old floor-length furs into shorter coats or stoles, I happened to ask my daughter whether she might want a fur trimmed coat for the upcoming gift-giving season. We have yet to come up with a “big holiday gift” for her and I’d seen some fur-trimmed leather vests at the mall that looked great. “No way”, was her response. Not even with fake fur? (I would probably be too cheap to get her the real thing in any case.) No, it’s just too politically incorrect for her and I can understand that. Popularity is important to our society, so important that it creates its own rational. So forget that we were consuming a murdered bird, that we all had no objection to wearing leather, and that the “fur” would probably come out of an oil well.

    I’m not going to argue that killing animals for their fur should be moral. My daughter distinguishes killing for food from killing for more frivolous reasons and she has a point. My point, made at the table yesterday and the the assembled throngs of you reading this today, is that killing plants should be even less moral than killing animals for whatever reason. So maybe the real sin was that we had just murdered a wide assortment vegetables for our dinner.

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    The Death Gene

    Is death an acquired trait? We like to think of death as unavoidable. We believe that all things must die. It makes our own mortality easier to bear. Yet single-celled forms don’t necessarily ever die. They can beat the odds and indeed every surviving amoeba on earth has been alive billions of years. So maybe death is not inevitable and is just an evolutionary trait.

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    A (Sort Of) Better Calendar

    Our twelve month calendar might be the world’s oldest information data structure, save language itself. And it shows its age. How does it go? “Thirty days has September, April, June and November, all the rest have 31.” Except February, with 28 or 29 days. The number of days in a month varies and our seven-day week does not coincide with our months. Even if you know the date, you still have to ask the day of the week. There is an arguably better way, though it is probably too late to change.

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    The Neurosis of Communism

    Mistakes of Progressive Socialism

    An educator I know is apparently a leftist, or should I say “conservatively challenged?” Being of the left is completely normal and maybe even expected, for he is a full tenured professor. For understandable reasons, people most concerned about injustice are likely to enter certain professions, including teaching, journalism, law, and the clergy.

    Anyway, I asked him to read my recent article on Cooperative Learning and he responded by suggesting I read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire. This book is helpfully published without charge on the Marxists Internet Archive, owner of the Marx.org Internet domain. Or I should say “manager” rather than “owner” since these are communists and ownership is a crime.

    I did read much of the book, and it suggests different issues than those my acquaintance may have had in mind. Freire’s work is clearly Marxist, but that just makes it political opinion, extreme but defensible, right? I beg to disagree. Reading this screed brings new vividness to gory reality of communism’s failure.

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    Singer's Paradox

    Researching a future work on Utopian movements and their failures, I’ve been reading a short book on Karl Marx. Peter Singer, an American leftist writing Marx in 1980, believes communism’s most influential theorist was disproven as a scientific economist, but is still relevant as a social philosopher. Singer discusses the libertarian concept of capitalism as benign, workers and buyers being free to go elsewhere. But he argues this “liberal definition of freedom is open to a fundamental objection.”

    Singer illustrates this objection by example. When we all freely choose to commute by car, a traffic jam may result, making us less happy and more tardy than if we had all taken a bus. Yet we have no incentive to take the bus, since buses are also slowed by the congestion of automobiles. He writes, “The solution, obviously, is for us all to get together and make a collective decision.” He concludes there are cases where the common good overrides individual freedom, where collective thinking should prevail over individualism. I’ll call this Singer’s Paradox, cases where individual freedom seemingly makes us less happy.

    Does Singer have a good point, a fatal flaw in capitalism? I find it amusing that his example really illustrates the failure of socialism rather than capitalism.

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    A Comedy of Misunderstanding

    Lots of people on both the left and right believe the United States is in decline, an empire past its glory days, a tragedy in the making. I think we just might be living a comedy instead, a comedy of growing misunderstanding. I think lots of liberals misunderstand conservative motivations. They often see the right as a conspiracy. In turn, lots of conservatives are naive about progressive motives, which I think may be less about social justice and more an imagined battle of good versus evil.

    In classical terms, a comedy need not be funny, it just needs a happy ending. In Shakespeare’s day, everything that was not a tragedy was a comedy. If I’m correct about the misunderstanding driving our growing political divide, then maybe honest discussion of our core political ideals and motivations might reveal misconceptions and reunite our nation toward continued prosperity and happiness.

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    The South NH Beach Diet

    As mentioned in the previous article, I’ve created a new diet. We live in southern New Hampshire on a lake with a beach. Well, it’s really a boat ramp and only a dozen feet wide. But it has sand and I think it qualifies. So I’m calling this the “South New Hampshire Beach Diet”. However, it is not a joke. It really works and is as close to effortless as anything I’ve ever experienced, culinary or otherwise.

    Of course, it is not totally new, being “low carb” like the popular Atkins and South Beach diets. But my South NH Beach Diet has some important differences that I think make it superior, through potentially less popular. So this is yet another unpopular idea.

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    The Calorie Fallacy

    I’ve been eating differently and the results have been dramatic, one the few seemingly “miraculous” events in my life. It has been a diet of my own devising and I cover it the next article. But one cornerstone is that I stopped eating all starches and sugars. My theory is that a calorie is not really a calorie - that calories eaten have very little to do with calories of weight gain.

    Conventional wisdom is that weight is ruled by energy balance. Calories consumed minus calories expended equals calories of fat gain. It is called conservation of energy, or sometimes the first law of thermodynamics. And it is beyond dispute that conservation of energy applies to all systems, including our bodies. Nevertheless, the conventional wisdom about calories, while very popular, is very wrong. At least that is my unpopular idea.

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    Fascism versus Liberty

    I am reading Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg, which argues very convincingly that modern liberalism is the direct heir of fascism. This was a theory I mentioned in another article, so I searched Amazon for supporting evidence, which Goldberg supplies in abundance and which I will outline here along with my own take on why this matters.

    Why this article probably does not matter is spreading the word about Goldberg’s excellent book, since approximately no one visits this site. If you are reading this, you pretty much do not exist. My readership is confined to 1) my wife, 2) people searching for images, and 3) a very few people who Google has failed to persuade to read elsewhere. Google’s page rank for Unpopular Ideas (an automated judge of site “quality”) is just 2 out of 10, probably because virtually no one links here. It’s as if most readers assume “unpopular” means “untouchable”, or at least “unlinkable”. If you disagree and have some kind of relevant web presence, please promote Unpopular Ideas with link. Thanks!

    In any case, read on to find out why “unpopular” and “fascist” are pretty much opposites and why left-wing popular opinion owes a lot to supposedly right-wing fascism. I’ll also explain why the continuing existence of hidden fascism today argues for my own radical conception: a constitutional government without laws.

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    The Liberal Impulse

    About once a week a stranger performs an act of kindness toward me on the road. Someone will pause at a light or stop sign and let me go first, even though they have the right of way. My usual response is not very gracious, though fortunately the other drivers cannot hear me swearing. Elsewhere I have argued that charity, that cornerstone of western morality, can be evil. Other than recommending me as a modern-day Scrooge, how are these connected? They illustrate an unpopular idea of mine, that liberals seem to side with the angels but often end up doing the devil’s work.

    In modern usage, liberal and conservative are opposites. Liberals are for change, conservatives are not. Liberals favor helping the less fortunate while conservatives work for their own self interest. Liberals are intelligent and open to new ideas, being a strong majority in universities and other intellectual circles. Conservative circles include the Ku Klux Klan and those who disbelieve the theory of evolution. Sounds like the liberals win, right?

    Brace yourself, for I will argue that liberals can be hypocrites that reduce freedoms and harm others for their own gain. Of course they are mostly unconscious of this and mostly have the best of intentions. But changing the world usually has unintended consequences and the unintended consequence of liberalism can be slavery in some degree.

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