Thursday, December 27, 2007
Last night at dinner, a religious argument broke out across the table. It was between my younger (21yo) son on one side, and my older (23yo) son + GF on the other.
They were arguing passionately about which was better: Ubuntu or Fedora.
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
God rest ye merry, physicists
Let nothing you dismay.
Remember Isaac Newton
was born on Christmas Day!
His gravity and calculus and eff equals em-ay!
Oh, pillars of physics and math, physics and math,
Oh, pillars of physics and math!
Saturday, December 22, 2007
Basically, it's projection, and an ex-fundy like Your Humble Narrator should remember this. There's a prevalent attitude among fundamentalist Christians that all one's diversions and entertainments should be theologically-correct: they must support (or at least, not contradict) your Christian faith. It comes in varying degrees of course, and not every devout Christian is terminally anal-retentive, but this is where you get the banning and boycotting of Harry Potter (for sorcery) or Pullman (for anti-theism), or any number of other books, movies and TV shows. Ditto Dungeons & Dragons, certain (arbitrarily-chosen) musical genres, and so on. It's also the source of a lot of Christian-themed kitsch -- ordinary knick-knacks sanctified by slapping on a Jesus decal.
Where Mohler, I think, has a problem is in conceiving that there are people in this world who don't feel that way -- we just don't take ourselves and everything we do that neurotically seriously. We can sing songs whose lyrics we don't agree with, but whose melody and harmony we find beautiful (and speaking as a former chorister, I say that anyone -- atheist or Christian -- who tells me my unbelief means I'm forbidden to sing my favorite Christmas carols if I like, is hereby cordially invited to get stuffed), or put up a decorated tree (though we're all too lazy at my house), or observe any number of other little rituals (many of extra-Christian origin anyway) that have syncreted onto this time of year. My agnostic parents -- who, like Dawkins, were "culturally Christian" Brits -- did all that kind of stuff, and I learned my secular Christmas traditions from them, long before I first darkened the door of a church. (Come to think of it, I might even take in a Christmas church service if I damn well feel like it).
But Mohler, apparently, doesn't see any of that. Fine, screw 'im. While he's busy holding his theologically-correct festival, the rest of us are just going have some fun -- in whatever way, and aided by whatever spirit(s), seem best to us.
So: Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays or Really Super-Spiffy Solstice or....ah, hell: have a blast this coming week, with those you love most.
Friday, December 21, 2007
Inspired no doubt by the success of their hero Ken Ham, the CORE board wants to build the largest creation museum in Canada. Since our only other known creation museum appears to be a modest-sized bungalow, this is perhaps not too ambitious a goal -- certainly we're not necessarily talking anything approaching the magnitude of Ham's Folly. However, CORE president Ian Juby does promise animatronic dinosaurs, while acknowledging it will take many years and millions of dollars to pull this off.
Too bad the money won't be getting spent on real science education.
Coming soon, to an obscure cable TV spot near you:
Juby is also producing a TV show called Genesis Week, which sounds like it will air in some low-rent religious cable slot. From the website, it appears they get a lot of their material from Carl Baugh and Don Patton. If you've been involved in the C vs. E circus long enough to be familiar with the Rogues' Gallery of creationism, you will know this means bottom-of-the-barrel stuff -- the most fact-free, pulled-from-the-anal-orifice version of creation "science". Baugh (like Kent Hovind) is the kind of creationist who embarasses other creationists.
But hey, the show is shot in High-Def, so it's gotta be good, right? I may or may not get around to watching (and having some fun with) the YouTube versions.
Under the title"The Mathematical Impossibility of Life by natural processes", someone (presumably also Juby -- in the absence of other attributions, I assume the whole newsletter is written by him) writes:
Many evolutionists attempt to cop a plea by claiming that evolution does not attempt to explain the origin of life. This is nonsense -- the entire point and principle of evolutionary theory is to remove the need for a Creator.No: the above is nonsense. I'm sure Francis Collins and Ken Miller (not to mention Charles Darwin himself) would be surprised to learn that "the entire point and principle" of their work is to "remove the need for a Creator". The purpose of evolutionary theory is to explain terrestrial biology by the methods of science. Historically, it had the effect of knocking the props out from under a particular class of religious apologetics -- the Argument From Design -- but that is a philosophical by-product, not its intent. By Juby's logic, one might as well claim that the purpose of gravitational theory is to explain the solar system without the need for God to personally push the planets around (which was actually a live argument -- about 300 years ago!).
But when one looks at the impossibility of life by natural processes, it quickly becomes evident why anti-creationists are avoiding this subject like the plague!It's very convenient to just be able to make up claims about your opponents' behaviour, isn't it? Yeah, we avoid talking about abiogenesis, except when we don't. We then get Juby's attempt to prove that abiogenesis is impossible, which consists of a calculation of the chance of randomly assembling a particular chain of amino acids 200 units long (ie, a small protein). He correctly points out that the chance of getting this right on the first try is 20200, and that you would have to try some 10242 combinations every second for the entire 20 billion-year history of the universe to "produce one protein".
Basically, it's the Argument From Frighteningly Large Numbers. It's also a case of GIGO: what does forming some particular random short protein from an amino soup have to do with abiogenesis? Pretty much nothing. It's not even an argument. Does any serious scientist postulate that the way to start off life is to assemble some "magic" protein? Over the years, I've noticed that a lot of creationists don't seem to even understand what an argument looks like. For a discussion of abiogenesis probability calculations that deals with the real world (as opposed to creationist straw men), see the t.o FAQ.
Of course, Juby's "solution" to his invented problem is the usual GodDidIt. That's another common characteristic of creationist "argument" -- probably the single central fallacy at the core of all the others: they think "It happened by magic" is a respectable and scientific(!) answer.
Until the next CORE dump.....
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Holy Nuremburg, Batman!
Fortunately, I wasn't buying it. For whatever reason, I always believed that your conscience was your own business, or God's -- but definitely not some other fallible human's. In the Church of Christ I was taught what a great thing it was that the Reformation had broken the power of the "infallible" Catholic priesthood, and set us free to approach God as individuals. And here was this Gothard fellow trying to sneak something that looked an awful lot like the old system back in, under disguise? No thanks.
A few years later, a sex scandal broke in the Gothard ministry -- Bill's brother Steve had been boinking female ministry employees. I can't say I was much surprised. I had to wonder: just how much easier were Steve Gothard's seductions in an atmosphere that encouraged people to give up their personal moral responsibility in favour of obedience to their boss?
It would be simplistic to just blame Matthew Murray's actions on Gothard's teachings, as such (and it should be noted that Gothard's teachings are controversial within the fundamentalist movement). Shooters are always an extreme case, who act more out of their own twisted psychology than any logical consequence of -- or logical reaction against -- an ideology. But Murray's online ramblings mark him as a bitter, troubled young man, whose anger and confusion arose directly from the conflicts inherent in his upbringing within a rigidly legalistic framework.
Monday, December 10, 2007
I seem to be the only one (or else the only one whose mind is trivial enough to care) to notice this coincidence: In the same week as the opening of The Golden Compass, comes the announcement of the finding of the fossil jawbone of a polar bear -- on Svalbard, the arctic island home of Lyra's ursine friend and protector, Iorek.
The significance of this find (I mean, other than amusing me with the "life-imitates-art" schtick) is that it pushes the fossil record of polar bears back about 20000 or 30000 years earlier than was previously known -- back out of the Wisconsin glaciation and into the previous interglacial. This raises hopes that polar bears, having survived warm periods before, may not be as vulnerable to gloabl warming as feared.
Friday, December 7, 2007
The response from an OTC drug spokesperson: It would be a Bad Idea to take children's cold remedies off the market, because without them, people would attempt to give their children smaller amounts of adult medications instead, and get it wrong, thus harming the kids. Note that there was no attempt to argue for the effectiveness of these medications, just the presentation of scary bad things that might happen if they were not available. (Interestingly, it looks like parents are not as stupid as the OTC drug pushers think - sales of children's cold remedies dropped 16% in October.)
So, back to my shocking statement about homeopathy (hoping the Ottawa Skeptics don't revoke my membership). Let's get the homeopaths together with the OTC cold remedy manufacturers, and put some nicely shaken water in little bottles adorned with friendly brightly coloured graphics. In the fine print, it will state that the medication is effective for treating a 7-day cold so that it will only last a week. That's much safer than the stuff they have on the market now, and every bit as effective.
But it could be worse (well, a little bit).
View Larger Map
The GoogleMap above shows the area of sea between Sri Lanka and the Indian mainland. Near the southern margin of the shallows (light blue) is an arc of islands and shoals stretching between the two landmasses (just below the dotted line that marks a ferry route). The Indian government wants to dredge a canal through it to shorten the shipping distance around the bottom of India. Obviously, there are legitimate environmental concerns -- sandy shallows tend to be ecologically interesting, but also fragile. Then there's the cost (US$560m). And then, there's the religious angle: the chain is known as "Rama's Bridge" (though some Westerner later dubbed it "Adam's Bridge"), and Hindu mythology holds that it was constructed by the Lord Rama and his army of monkeys. Scientists, of course, tend to think it was constructed by natural causes like geology, coral reefs, and sand transported by water currents.
And therein lies a problem. Some Hindus take the myth as literal history (sound familiar?), and complain that the canal will destroy Rama's Bridge -- an act of sacrilege -- and this angle has become part of litigation to stop or change the route of the proposed canal. Back in September, the Archaeological Survey of India presented a brief to the Supreme Court arguing that there was no evidence that the army of monkeys ever existed, or that Rama himself was a literal person who walked the earth and did civil engineering mega-projects (note this description carefully skirts the question of whether Rama might exist in some non-material spiritual realm). The reaction:
On Wednesday, Hindu hard-line organisations blocked roads across India to protest against the Sethusamudram Shipping Canal Project.
Commuters in the capital, Delhi, were stuck in traffic jams for hours as Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) and Bajrang Dal blocked roads at various places.
Road blocks were also held in Bhopal, the capital of the central state of Madhya Pradesh, on the Delhi-Agra highway and on the Jaipur-Agra highway.
Train services were disrupted in many places across northern India.
The next day, the report was withdrawn and two directors of the Archaeological Survey were suspended (move over, Chris Comer!).
The following week, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu state again questioned the literal existence of Rama the bridge-builder. This time, people died:
On Tuesday Hindu activists angered by the comments set fire to a Tamil Nadu bus, killing two people, police said.
Enraged Hindu hardliners in the city of Bangalore, in neighbouring Karnataka state, also attacked the home of Mr Karunanidhi's daughter, Selvi.
On Saturday, addressing a public rally, Mr Karunanidhi had asked: "Who is this Ram? From which engineering college did he graduate?"
Angered by his statement, Hindu hard-line groups have demanded his dismissal and arrest.
However, a less explosive case in the Indian state of Jharkhand may offer a possible solution: the judge in a dispute over a plot of land on which stand temples to Ram and Hanuman has subpoenaed those deities to appear in court to defend their title. Thus far they are no-shows, however it seems like the Supreme Court could try the same thing in the canal case: summon Rama to testify to his involvement in his eponymous "Bridge". And if he doesn't show up to defend his construction....
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
- The host, Eleanor Wachtel, referred to Pullman as "a Church of England atheist", to which Pullman agreed. He seems to have an affectionate nostalgia for the Anglican Church (so does Dawkins, BTW) -- he loves the language of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer (but only the old, pre-revision, version). He fondly recalls his grandfather, a vicar, as wonderful story-teller.
- Contrary to garbled reports that he loathes C.S.Lewis, he thinks Lewis' lit-crit work is excellent, and that he was a good story-teller with an engaging prose style. He likes the Narnia stories until the very end: having taken his Narnia children through many trials and tribulations, growing their strength and character, instead of having them live on in our world to make it a better place, Lewis kills them off. And this, as expressed in the last book, is an outcome devoutly to be wished -- dead and in Heaven is better than living and doing good. Pullman also can't forgive Lewis for condemning Susan for simply growing up and discovering things like a social life and sexual attraction (I don't think I agree with Pullman's interpretation, though I'm not prepared to argue a point which seems to have generated a fair amount of commentary over the years).
- The authors Pullman really doesn't like are A.A.Milne and J.R.R.Tolkien. I'm not sure what he has against Winnie the Pooh, but he dismisses LOTR as "trivial". It has, in Pullman's view, no real moral ambiguity or struggle. The good and evil are always obvious. Again, I'm not sure I agree, but then I don't have a BA from Oxford, so what do I know?
Oh, and my daemon is an osprey named "Brienne".
Monday, December 3, 2007
For those of you who celebrate Christmas, IKEA has five-foot Christmas trees for only $20. For those of you who do not celebrate Christmas, IKEA helps you bring the outdoors indoors with five-foot pine-scented air fresheners, also only $20.Nice try, Ingvar: everyone knows the Swedes are a bunch of pagans, trying to inflict your Jul festival on the rest of us by stealth....
Thursday, November 29, 2007
Christmas can be such a pain, dear.
Muzak carols on the speaker,
Fa-la-la La-la-la La-la-la
Make December even bleaker,
Traffic slow as cold molasses
Step inside and fog your glasses
Slushy sidewalk, gotta clear it
Fa-la-la La-la-la La-la-la
Puts me in the Christmas spirit.
Monday, November 19, 2007
IF (You've read or seen Lord of the Rings AND you ever played Dungeons & Dragons)
THEN (You absolutely have to waste the next three hours or so reading through this webcomic)
Thanks to Scott Hatfield of Monkey Trials for causing me to squander most of my free-reading time this last weekend on it. But no hard feelings ;-).
Thursday, November 8, 2007
Really. They don't. You're astonished, right? I mean, you were lying awake at night, wondering about that, weren't you?
I feel so proud of the dear old place.
In case you were wondering how they figured this out, here is the summary:
[Dr. Provost] analysed the gait of female volunteers, showed video clips to 40 men, asking them to rate the attractiveness of the way the women walked, and then matched the results to the hormone tests.This being a university, of course the test subjects were no doubt all undergrads recruited to make a few bucks in the cause of science. Think about that one for a minute: you're a 20yo male, and someone asks you to spend a few hours watching videos of campus babes strutting their stuff, and rating them on it.
And for this they're actually going to pay you?
There is of course a postulated explanation:
She now thinks the findings tally with other research suggesting that women want to conceal their ovulation from males other than their chosen partner. A sexy walk would be too obvious, so women are thought to use changes in smell and facial expressions that can be experienced only at close range.
Hmmm...smacks a bit of Evolutionary Psychology to me. I ain't opening that can of worms. Besides, what I really want to know is: why weren't they doing that kind of research when I was an undergrad?
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
This would have been a delightful and charming request from a young child at bedtime. Unfortunately, it was not bedtime, and the person asking the question was not a child. She was, in fact, the contact for special events facility rental at the CANADIAN MUSEUM OF NATURE!!!!!
I had been attempting to book a room for a festive dinner, hosted by the Humanist Association of Ottawa, to commemorate Chuck’s 200th/TOS’s 150th. In the course of getting information, I mentioned that the event I was booking was to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin, and also asked if she knew whether the Museum had any special Darwin events planned for 2009. She asked me who Darwin was. I explained that I was referring to Charles Darwin, who developed of the Theory of Evolution. She still had no idea who I was talking about.
I suppose I must admit that there may be many fully functional and educated adults who do not know who Darwin is. And I can certainly understand that many people who are not “into” science and/or history could not produce Darwin’s name if asked about evolution, and many others would not remember what Darwin did if asked about the name. And, I must say that the facility booking co-ordinator was very nice, and provided all the information I was asking for, and even passed on my request for information about 2009 Darwin events to someone in the educational programming department (and *she* knew who Darwin was). But I still can’t wrap my mind around the concept that any employee of our national natural history museum would not even recognize the name.
[For anyone in the Ottawa area who might be interested in attending Darwin celebration events, we are still working on dates, and unfortunately, the museum will only book 6 months in advance. Watch this blog for more information.]
Monday, October 29, 2007
There is a set of questions all in the form, "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is ... ". Copy the questions, and before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:
- You can leave them exactly as is.
- You can delete any one question.
- You can mutate either the genre, medium, or subgenre of any one question. For instance, you could change "The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is..." to "The best time travel novel in Westerns is...", or "The best time travel movie in SF/Fantasy is...", or "The best romance novel in SF/Fantasy is...".
- You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is...".
- You must have at least one question in your set, or you've gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you're not viable.
Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions. Please do include a link back to the blog you got them from, to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions.
Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers. Remember, though, your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.
My great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparent is Pharyngula
My great-great-great-great-great-great grandparent is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club
My great-great-great-great-great grandparent is Flying Trilobite
My great-great-great-great grandparent is A Blog Around the Clock
My great-great-great-grandparent is The Primate Diaries
My great-great-grandparent is Conspiracy Factory
My great-grandparent is The Skeptical Alchemist
My grandparent is Evolving Thoughts
My parent is Thoughts in a Haystack
The following are my questions and answers:
The best historical novel in SF/fantasy is:
The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson
The best page-turner book in technopunk fiction is:
The Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
The best series in television documentaries about science is:
Walking With Dinosaurs (but only the original BBC script!)
I hereby propagate this meme to:
Monday, October 22, 2007
The main points made in the movie (from memory) are:
- There exists a hard-line strain of Islam which would like to impose strict Sharia law on the traditionally Muslim countries, and even take over the Western democracies as well. These people are, in fact, engaged in a war with the West -- a war we do not yet recognize, because it is so unlike any war we have fought before.
- The radicals are estimated to comprise about 10 to 15% of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. That's a worrisomely large number of fanatics.
- They hold unbelievers in contempt: we infidel ultimately must convert or die.
- Their ideology teaches that to die a martyr while striking a blow against the enemies of Islam is glorious; it is the highest honour to which any Muslim can aspire (and gets you front-of-line admission to Paradise, the 72 virgins, etc.)
- In some places in the Middle East (notably Palestine), an entire generation of Muslim children is being raised and educated to hate infidels (especially Jews and Americans), and to aspire to martyrdom in the cause. One of the film's talking heads termed this indoctrination (and I agree that it is a monstrous thing) "the worst possible kind of child abuse".
- The Blood Libel against the Jews is still openly taught in many Arab countries, generations after most of the West gave up such malicious stupidity.
- The roots of Radical Islam go back to the Nazi era. A great deal of time is spent describing the friendly connection between Hitler and the then Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (a large part of what they had in common was, of course, a dislike of Jews). Even more time is spent trying to draw parallels between the 1930s (when the world took far too long to wake up to the threat represented by Nazism), and today when allegedly the West is again ignoring an expansionist totalitarian threat, this time in the form of "Islamofascism".
The entire historical background of the situation is reduced to The Nazi Connection. That's it: no mention of a century or so of British, American and Russian meddling in the geopolitics of the region (granted the Ottoman Empire was there first, with its own record of mucking things up) ; no mention of propping up corrupt tyrannies (eg: the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein before he fell into disfavour); and -- remarkably -- the word "oil" was never used even once. No discussion of whether the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have made things better or worse. The issue of Western complicity in creating the milieu in which Radical Islam could flourish was raised only to be dismissed -- "some academics" blamed 9/11 on American foreign policy; shot of Michael Moore saying there was no terrorist threat -- then back to the mantra: "No, it's the ideology, stupid".
In the discussion afterwards, someone pointed out that the US has been screwing over Latin America for a long time, too, but they haven't dispatched any terrorists northwards. This is a valid point, to which my partial answer is: the ideology is not irrelevant, but it does not exist in a vacuum either. The socioeconomic situation interacts with a culture's foundational memes to produce the response. Both Christianity and Islam have martyrdom traditions, but in Islam (as I understand it) it's the martyrdom of a warrior who dies in battle. Christian martyrdom, however, takes its model from Christ and the early saints -- innocent victims who go meekly to their unjust deaths, with their dying words blessing their tormentors. Thus, from the Muslim East we get suicide bombers; while from Catholic Latin America we get Liberation Theology. (And of course, we have also seen Christian terrorism: the IRA bomb-planters arose from a history of national oppression which divided along Catholic/Protestant lines, and they were aided and abetted by the local Catholic clergy.)
The message of "It's the [religious] ideology that causes all the problems" obviously goes over well with a bunch of atheists, but the more I reflect on it, the more I am of the view that whole movie is written in a kind of code -- one likely to go over the heads of a bunch of Canadian freethinkers, but which resonates with a large segment of the American public. Consider:
- There are a lot of clips of mobs stomping or burning American flags (or maybe the same clips inserted several times). Now, flag desecration doesn't bother me much -- I believe in getting upset over substance, not symbols. But we know there are many Americans who take it very personally.
- There is a longish segment about how the Islamists hate Christians and Jews (and incidentally also Hindus and others), and also a couple of scenes of bombed and desecrated churches in the Middle East (somehow, it's the "desecration" angle that seems to bother the filmmakers, more than the simple destruction of property). Fine, I think hating people and bombing their buildings because you don't like their religious opinions is stupid and evil -- but the harping on Christians and Jews as the target tells me something about the audience the filmmakers want to reach (and a certain segment of American Christendom already has a carefully nurtured persecution complex).
- There are a number of clips of clerics and their mobs proclaiming Jihad on the West and promising all sorts of mayhem. Many of the segments appear to have been shot in England, which seems cursed with a ridiculous number of these sociopaths. But quite a few were Iranian in origin -- the third leg in Bush's "Axis of Evil".
- As part of the Nazi Connection, the Chamberlain theme receives extensive play: just as we failed to take Hitler's threat seriously (despite his clearly stated intentions in Mein Kampf) until it was too late to avert catastrophe, we are now failing to take the Islamofascist threat seriously. "History repeats" we are reminded by one interviewee. However, it is never quite explained just how the Islamofascists plan to take over the West. We are told: "It is a war. It’s just not like any we’ve encountered before." Well then, what is it like? Yes, there are places like Iran that are run by Islamist nutjobs, and you can see how they might directly conquer some of their neighbours, and engineer coups in a few more (all of which is bad). But, aside from occasionally blowing up something (also bad, but hardly likely to lead to an Islamist takeover), exactly how do they propagate that to Europe and the Americas -- to a nuclear-armed USA or Russia? Don't make me guess, tell me! Leaving it all vague (while shouting "Chamberlainism!" repeatedly) creates a pervasive sense of threat, about which We Must Do Something, Quick! -- but what?
Towards the end, having scared us all half to death, Obsession gets around to discussing what to do about this calamity. The answer is a bit of a letdown: the moderate Muslims must stand up and denounce the extremists, and isolate them from their community. Um, yeah that's important, but what am I as a non-Muslim supposed to do? Badger my Muslim neighbours and colleagues to Do Their Duty? Accuse them of being enablers? Apparently, I'm supposed to tell everyone about this film (OK, did that, for all four regular readers of this blog) and urge them to see it. (Meh. Decide for yourself.) But suppose you do all see it on my recommendation, and all your friends and relations to the Nth degree -- surely we're supposed to do something more concrete than tell yet more people to watch a movie?
The FAQ is barely more helpful:
OK, suppose we're now all writing to our elected representatives, asking them to do....what exactly? Nuke Tehran? Intern all the Muslims in the country until they rat out the terrorists among them?
QUESTION: What are you hoping people will walk away with, after they see this film?We hope the film will inspire people to spend some time thinking about their beliefs, and commit to them, and fight for them.We’re also hoping people will speak out against what is happening. We hope people will start writing letters to congressmen, letters to editors. We hope people we start fighting ignorance and bias when they see it. They will lead marches and demonstrations, petitions and activism on college campuses. We hope moderate Muslims will continue creating watchdog groups for whatever enters their mosques and their schools, and ensuring that the values important to them are taught, if they see they are not.
That part is left dangling, and I think dangerously so. Obsession is clearly designed to scare the pants off its target audience, and people who are frightened are prime material for manipulation by anyone who promises to Do Something About The Problem. I don't know what the filmmakers have in mind, but the obvious immediate beneficiary of this state of affairs is the Bush administration, who have spent the past six years eroding civil liberties and banging the drums in the name of the War On Terror (and it's an open secret that they would like to take on Iran). If the film simply stated boldly that the American public should acquiesce in the growth of their home-made police state and support expansion of the Iraq war into surrounding countries, no one would listen to it. But by raising the alarm and leaving them hanging, they open the way for someone like Bush (or his successor -- I've been hearing nasty things about Hillary) to obtain a mandate to do exactly that.
Friday, October 19, 2007
Introduction & Recap
As far as the question of the existence of God is concerned, rather than evidence, I see a set of observations about the world that seems to me entirely open to interpretation. Let me give an analogy:I take this to be intended, not as a logically compelling argument for the existence of God, but as a more modest attempt to justify belief in God as a rational choice, in the face of ambiguous evidence. However, I find that the first part which discusses the ontology of love is incoherent, and its connection to the second part is seriously flawed.
I love my husband. This is what I experince. While it is possible to claim that what we call "love" is a matter of genetic and social programming or elctrochemical impulses, I reject an explanatory framework that negates the validity of my experiences. It seems to me too much like soplipsism.
Is there a way to prove that love is real or to prove that scientific reductionism is the correct view? I do not think so. It is not a question of evidence for one and not for the other. It is the same evidence, interpretted differently, for both.
I experience the existence of God. While some people may wish to attribute this to misfiring axons, delusions or whatever,I prefer a framework in which I can trust my own experiences.
The Ontology of Love
While you have said what you think love isn't, you haven't said what you think it is. Related to that, you have not explained in what way you think that a neurological account of love "negates the validity" of your experience.
The experience of feeling love (or any emotion or thought) is real -- it's a real feeling, in the mind of the subject. By definition, no one else can feel your feelings as such, but the emotional lives of normal humans are standardized enough that we can recognize each other's feelings from their description. Moreover, the feeling of love usually leads to characteristic behaviours which we all recognize -- if (hypothetically) you consistently and unrepentantly treated your husband badly, we would have grounds to question the sincerity of your claim to love him. What I'm getting at here is that the experience of human love (whatever mechanism may underlie it) seems a reasonably well-established phenomenom, and "real" enough on that count.
As for the underlying mechanism of the experience, all the data we have indicate that love (and everything else we feel or think) is produced by the network of neurons inside our skulls. PET imaging technology is at the point where we can see thought and emotion happen in the brain, in real time, and know exactly what regions of the brain are associated with what kinds of mental states (currently at rather low resolution, but that can only improve). This is backed up by studies of brain-damaged patients -- physical damage to specific areas consistently produces characteristic deficits in cognition, emotion and behaviour. I suggest you read up on cases like that of Phineas Gage, or Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. And of course we all know how simple chemicals, taken either medicinally or recreationally, can profoundly alter mental functions. From this I draw two lessons:
- Observable brain activity associated with characteristic mental states seems plenty "real" to me -- real in the same sense as the chair I'm sitting in, or the computer I'm typing on (or the electrons and transistors that make it work -- even if I can't see them). What more "reality" do you need?
- Explaining mentition in terms of neurology doesn't prove there isn't "something more" to it, but if you still insist that there is a ghost in the machine, then I have to ask: where is it, and just what is it doing?
Note that I do not claim that scientific reductionism is the "correct view"; I only claim that it is the view which allows us to make progress in understanding the world (including ourselves). In rejecting that as an "explanatory framework" (under the belief that it "negates the validity of" your experience in some unspecified way) you are in fact rejecting the only framework which actually explains anything, in favour of a pseudo-explanation logically indistinguishable from "It happens by magic!" So: I do not find your alternative to be an interpretation of the evidence so much as a superfluous gloss arbitrarily applied to it.
Mapping Human Experience to Religious Experience
To reiterate a point made earlier: subjective experience is its own justification -- if you feel it, it is a real feeling (even if its neurological correlates are not currently being monitored by EEG or other apparatus). However, your experience of God -- just like your experience of the computer you are reading this on, or the chair you are sitting on -- is both a subjective experience and is taken as implying an objective claim about the external world. Such claims are not justified by the experience alone, but are (potentially) open to verification or falsification against external reality. In my view, crossing that category boundary invalidates the isomorphism between your experience of love for your husband and your experience of God.
- A reductionist, neurological account of subjective experience does not compromise its reality in any meaningful way that I can see.
- Subjective experience is at least largely neurological, and there is no compelling reason (nor any explanatory value) in postulating additional components to it.
- There is not a valid isomorphism between the claims following on the experience of love, and those following on the experience of God.
Monday, October 15, 2007
Of course, we know that sort of thing can never happen under the First-Past-The-Post system, right?
Friday, October 12, 2007
|Ridings Won||Party Vote||Final Legislature||Disproportion|
I've divvied up the 90 ridings in the same proportions as the 107 ridings we actually have (see the real results, below), and used the recorded popular vote as the Party Vote (ie. no one decided to split their ballot). In this alternate world, the Liberals would have a minority, but a strong one. They could retain power by cooperating with either the NDP or the Greens -- who get 10 seats!
The reasons the referendum failed have been amply enumerated elsewhere, so I won't belabor them further.
The real election:
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
It was the first half of the meeting that was interesting: a presentation and discussion on MMP. Some guy from Elections Ontario did a mediocre job of explaining the proposed system -- you could tell from the questions that a lot of people didn't really "get it". At all. Then we got a "pro" speaker and a "con" speaker (whose names I didn't write down).
The "pro" speaker made points I'd heard before (and some I've made myself). Then the "con" speaker got up. The acoustics were not great, so I didn't catch his name, but it was something like "Charles Fearmonger", which is close enough because that's mostly what he did. He started by making the reasonable point that the proposed MMP system strengthens the power of the parties (which strictly speaking are not a fundamental aspect of the historical Westminster system) by giving them an explicit presence on the ballot. A couple of points:
- The choice of list candidates is done at the party level, a process which is remote from the local riding association who nominate the local candidate.
- MPPs might be more likely to toe the party line (as opposed to representing their constituents) if it affects their chances of getting on the list next election.
After making this semi-valid point, Mr. Fearmonger went downhill into borderline crankery. He claimed it was impossible to find the details of the mysterious Hare Formula by which the list seats are assigned. Huh? I found it -- it wasn't dead easy, but if a software engineer can find something on a website while sitting in his easy chair with a laptop, paying half-attention to Stephen Colbert, surely so could he. Anyways, afterwards I overheard him out in the hallway explaining the fractional-seat resolution scheme to someone -- so he must have found the same information I did! So what the hell was he on about?
Next he presented some truly alarming election scenarios, presumably to show that MMP doesn't deliver what it promises. His scenarios:
- Party X creates a "shadow" party (call it Y -- or maybe they make a deal with an already existing party). Party X only runs candidates in the riding races. Y only runs list candidates. Assuming they both do moderately well, between them they have a healthy majority, out of which they form a "coalition" government. Apparently, Mr. Fearmonger thinks we are all to stupid to see through such a transparent dirty trick, or too docile to send Party X to electoral Coventry over it.
- His final scenario was even stupider: Every riding elects an independent candidate AND all of us (except one) decide not to vote on the party side of the ballot. That one voter votes for Party X. Thus X gets 100% of the party vote, therefore all 39 list seats -- and presumably the government. Do I really need to point out how wildly unrealistic this outcome is? All electoral systems can be mathematically shown to produce absurd results in some extreme situation -- but we don't live in the ideal world of mathematics, we live in the real world.
Sunday, September 30, 2007
I apologize for the fuzziness of the photos. I don't own a macro lens, so these were taken with a telephoto, then cropped and blown up in GIMP (the real size of the body is maybe 10mm). For much better images, see the BugGuide site, which (along with hints from Spiderzrule) allowed me to identify this as Micrathena sagittata.
Genus Micrathena belongs to the orb-weaving spiders, which are ubiquitous. The bite is not considered dangerous.
When I first saw this critter I was quite startled -- it's easily the most bizarre spider I've ever seen outside of a zoo. I thought bugs like this only existed in the tropics. Turns out, no: it's fairly widely distributed in the central and eastern US.
Saturday, September 29, 2007
Notwithstanding my advocacy for MMP, I do have a couple of reservations about it:
- That the minority or coalition governments which will inevitably result will give too much power to tiny parties with loony views (ie. as the governing party panders to them to retain power).
- Governments need to be stable, and able to act without always being overthrown by non-confidence motions.
- I question what seems to be a popular (if tacit) assumption, that having the proportions of the legislature reflect the popular vote is somehow magically "democratic", in a way that other relationships between electoral choice and parliamentary seats are not.
So: I am voting for Mixed Member Proportional Representation. I don't want to belabour points made elsewhere, but briefly, I support it because:
- I think it has been, and is, bad for democracy in this country when parties can obtain large legislative majorities based on a low percentage of the total vote.
- Even if my preferred candidate has no hope of getting elected locally, I can still have some influence by voting for my preferred party. In other words, my franchise still counts for something.
- It allows minority views a voice in the legislature. One specific upside of this for me is that the Green Party might get some seats. OTOH, the downside is that so might the Family Coalition Party. I'm willing to take that risk.
How MMP works
I finally found what I was looking for, buried on page 144&ff of the report of The Ontario Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform. To save y'all the trouble, I'll do my best to summarize the scheme here, by way of presenting the spreadsheet I cobbled up to play with scenarios (for anyone who really wants to understand the proposed system, I recommend reading that whole chapter of the report).
Example 1: "Typical" election
|Ridings Won||Party Vote||Quota Calculation||Quota Seats||Final Legislature||Disproportion|
Example #1 is taken from page 157 of the Report, and is intended to reflect a fairly typical Ontario election. There are five parties designated A through E, plus "other" representing any additional parties. The inputs to the spreadsheet are in red; everything else is a calculated result.
First, there are 90 seats for local ridings (the "# Ridings Won" column), elected in a First-Past-The-Post manner, just as they are today. The second input column is "% Party Vote", and reflects the new addition to the ballot, where the voter selects her/his preferred party. Note: the "% Ridings Won" column only totals to 69.77%, as this represents % of the entire legislature (139 seats), not just the 90 riding seats. The "Check Totals" line is so I can check that I assigned exactly 90 seats, and 100% of the party vote (and also verifies the sanity of calculations made in other columns).
The fun part comes when you start allocating the 39 list seats to bring the final proportionality of the legislature closer to the proportions of the Party Vote. The proposed Ontario MMP system uses something called the Hare Formula, which begins by calculating a quantity called the "Quota". The formula says:
Quota = (# Included Party Votes Cast) / (# Included Riding Seats + # List Seats)
The "Included" qualifier requires some explanation, as some Party Votes and Riding Seats are excluded from the Hare calculation. A party is excluded if its Party Vote is less than 3% of the total votes cast (see the "Other" line in Example #1). IMHO, this is a good thing: it means that the truly loony fringe can't gum up the works. It also means that the minimum number of seats any party can have based on Party Vote alone is three. (I'll deal with exclusion of Riding Seats in Example #2, below). In the table, which parties are included in the calculation is shown by TRUE or FALSE in the "Included" column. Parties which are included have their Party Votes carried over into the "Weight" column (since the readers of this blog -- all four of them -- are math/sci geeks, the use of scientific notation won't confuse anyone). The Report uses some made-up vote numbers for the Party Votes; for the spreadsheet I've just used the percentage (arithmetically, it works out to the same result). Similarly, the included Riding Seats are carried to the "Seats Avail" column. The "Quota" (given at bottom center) is then calculated by the Hare formula.
The number of seats each party should receive is then calculated as:
QuotaSeats = Quota * (Party Vote) / (Total Seats in Legislature)
Obviously, this usually yields some fractional seats. The official procedure for rounding these up or down to whole numbers is a bit complicated, and in the spreadsheet I've just used a simple a arithmetic rounding, which usually gets the same result (though in some cases it may magically create or abolish a seat). The 39 list seats are then distributed among the parties in order to bring their total representation up to the number given in the "# Final Legislature" column.
The result to pay attention to is the difference between the "% Party Vote" and "% Final Legislature" columns (calculated in the "Disproportion" column). The goal of MMP is to minimize the disproportion, and for many realistic election scenarios, it succeeds. In this example, the total disproportion (obtained by summing the absolute values of the per-party disproportions) is 5.57%.
Example #2: Overhanging Seats
|Ridings Won||Party Vote||Quota Calculation||Quota Seats||Final Legislature||Disproportion|
"Overhang" occurs when a party wins enough riding races to get a higher percentage of the legislature than the Party Vote would entitle them too. This is the other criterion by which a party will be excluded from the Hare Formula calculation, and receive no list seats. This is shown in the table above (taken from the second example in the Report). Here, Party A has won almost 43% of the seats in the legislature in the riding races alone, and 3.5% more than their share of the Party Vote. Thus, their seats are not included in the Quota Calculation (note that the total "Seats Avail" is thus only 74, ie. 129 minus 55). The final result is that A is slightly over-represented in Parliament, but not badly so.
Obviously, MMP means that majority government is the exception rather than the rule. The fun part here is to look at the results of these scenarios and speculate on likely alignments and coalitions (the magic number for legislative control being 65). Assume, say, that parties A, B, C and D are respectively Conservative, Liberal, NDP and Green (with E being possibly a religious or ethnic party) -- who gets to govern? Which parties are similar enough in philosophy to cooperate for three or four years?
Example 3: List Upset
|Ridings Won||Party Vote||Final Legislature||Disproportion|
I played with a few more scenarios, just to see what happened. Example 3 shows a situation I call List Upset, in which party A wins a majority of the riding races, but B picks up enough list seats to achieve a plurality (and thus become the presumptive government). If this seems "wrong" to you, I suggest you are thinking about the MMP system the wrong way. You are stuck on the idea that the FPTP riding race is the "real" election, while the party vote is an illegitimate pretender which can be allowed only a secondary effect. In fact, this is exactly backwards: for good or ill, MMP is primarily a proportional representation system, but one that retains the concept of having a local representative.
And finally, an oddball example election I call Asymmetrical Landslide, in which A gets a legislative majority on riding seats alone, but B gets a majority of the Party Vote:
Example 4: Asymmetrical Landslide
|Ridings Won||Party Vote||Final Legislature||Disproportion|
The total disproportionality here is huge. However, I submit this is very unlikely to occur in a real election. It would require either that A won most of those ridings with only small pluralities, or that most voters decided to split their ballot, choosing the local candidate from A, but choosing B on the party vote.
So, the proposed MMP system is not my favorite alternative to FPTP, but I think it's a significant improvement. Should the referendum pass and MMP become law, we are in for interesting times in Ontario politics -- but hopefully in a good way.
Note: If I could figure out how to use Google Docs, I would post the spreadsheet there. However, being too lazy to do that, I'm willing to send a copy to anyone who asks. Just drop me a line (Open Office and Excel formats available).