Monday, December 24, 2012

When I die...

This isn't as morbid as you might think. I've been reading Walt Whitman, because I've had Leaves of Grass for years and, why not? Well, the poetry's phenomenal. I'm working through "Song of Myself" right now, and every once in a while it occurs to me that bits of it would be perfect for things. Mostly for proving Whitman was probably bi.

Anyway, when I die, I want to be composted1 and spread in a flower garden for a few years of happy blooming. Screw burial; stupid and wasteful.

Also, everyone who shows up has to get shitty drunk. It's what I would have done, right?

1 - Yeah, I know, you can't compost meat, right? I want someone to make the effort. At the very least, I want to be mulched.

Thermoquick Composter, 160 Gallon (Google Affiliate Ad)

Sometimes I get odd whims.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Schrödinger's Cat

Before you there is a box. In the box there is a vial of deadly cyanide. There is also a radioactive isotope with precisely a fifty percent chance of decay, and a Geiger counter to detect when it does so. If the isotope decays, the poison will be released. This will kill the cat that is also inside the box. Is the cat alive or dead?

Erwin Schrödinger proposed this thought experiment without any intent that it be taken seriously. He certainly never actually put a cat in a box with a vial of deadly poison. He intended it as a damning counter-argument to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics.

In short, the math of QM tells us that there's no reason for a particle to exist in one state rather than another. The Many Worlds model (popular with authors of speculative fiction, for reasons that are probably obvious) states that the particle exists only in one state in this universe, but in other states in other universes, leading to a branching infinity of possible universes. As an untestable hypothesis, this isn't popular with scientists, particularly since other models are testable and have been confirmed to be true.

The Copenhagen Interpretation states instead that if a particle can exist in multiple states, that it does exist in multiple states. Imagine walking into the kitchen and, rather than choosing to sit in one particular chair, you instead sat in all of them at once. Perhaps 80% of you is in chair A, while the remaining 20% is spread evenly across chairs B-F. In QM math terms, that's saying that the wave function1 tells us there's an 80% probability of finding you in chair A, 4% in B, 4% in C, 4% in D, 4% in E, and 4% in F. If we looked 100 times, roughly four of those would find you in chair C. More than that, though, the Copenhagen Interpretation tells us that until we looked you wouldn't just be in one of those chairs, you would actually be in all of them simultaneously, but more in A than in the rest.

Therefore, Schrödinger argued, according to the Copenhagen Interpretation, the wave system of the cat in the box is 50% undecayed isotope/alive cat, 50% decayed isotope/dead cat. Conclusion: The cat is simultaneously alive and dead. This is stupid2. This is a reductio ad absurdum, taking an argument to a logical and absurd conclusion to demonstrate that the argument is false.

And it's hard to argue with. It proceeds ineluctably from the mathematics of QM to the well-tested and confirmed knowledge we all share about the way death works to demonstrate that the Copenhagen Interpretation is false. And Schrödinger was a really smart guy whose name is still all over QM and he must have understood it, right?

Then why is the Copenhagen Interpretation the number one interpretation of physicists today? Why is it the one taught in schools as the truth while others get, at best, a passing mention? Mostly because it accords with all the evidence, and also because Schrödinger made a little mistake. Actually, a big mistake.

First, the evidence. If a system can exist in multiple configurations simultaneously, then it doesn't merely bounce from one to the next to the next. It actually does exist in all of them simultaneously. Every measurement we can do on electrons and molecular bonds, and extended metallic or ionic structures confirms this. A chemical bond that's half a single bond and half a double bond actually is somewhere between the two, not one or the other at different times.

Second, Schrödinger's mistake. It's rather similar to the one made by Roger Barrier in an article I discussed elsewhere. It's the mistake of not knowing exactly what an observer is. Douglas Adams, brilliant and trenchant as always, noted in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency that the cat itself counts as an observer! However, he got it wrong as well.

The Geiger counter is the observer. It's the one that measures whether or not the isotope has decayed and actually makes the "decision" to release the poison. In the same way, when you read these words on your screen, you yourself are not the observer that collapses the wave function. The single molecule in your eye that captures the photon is itself the observer, not you. The Geiger counter captures the energetic particle released by the radioactive decay and transforms that energy into an audible click. The molecule in your eye captures the photon, is transformed into a high energy state that then, through an awesome, high-fidelity QM process transfers that energy downhill and into your brain where... something happens so your brain can process it. I don't actually know much neurology. Brain is pink thinky thing. It's a goop.

Anyway, the point is that the cat is not simultaneously alive and dead. By continually observing the isotope, the Geiger counter is keeping the isotope's wave function collapsed in the "undecayed" state until such time as it hopes over into the "decayed" state and the poison is released. And the moon is being continuously observed, but God doesn't have to do that, because everything in the universe that interacts with the moon, from the Earth, to the sun, to every single particle in your body, is doing that whether you notice it or not. When a tree falls in a forest, everything around it observes that fact. It does make a sound. Reality exists absent our perception of it.

Just try to remember, there's a reason "scientific" "proofs" for the existence of a god aren't being shouted from the rooftops and taught in schools. It's because they're wrong. That's why I put them in quotes up there. There are a few scientists, a minority, who are both fully educated in their field and who also believe in a god of some kind, but they almost all, with only a few, eye-roll-inducing exceptions3, stay far, far away from any statement of the sort "Scientific Theory X proves that my god exists."

1 - A wave function details all the information about a system, whether it's a particle in a box, the electron around a hydrogen nucleus, or the 92 electrons around a uranium nucleus.

2 - Yes. It is. Don't argue. This is the world of the everyday we're talking about. You're alive or you're dead. Even if you're in a persistent vegetative state and your brain is dead but your body is still alive, then your brain is dead and your body is alive but it's still not fifty fifty.

3 - Like the doctor who recently made the news for saying the afterlife was real. He made Newsweek. And it was terrible science.

Quantum Observation: A Religio Gets Science Wrong

A lot of people just don't understand quantum mechanics (QM). That's okay, a lot of people don't understand Newtonian mechanics, either. Nor, for that matter, do they understand cars. Or hot dogs.

The problem is that they think they do. It's a known phenomenon that people rate their understanding of a topic completely independent of their actual expertise. That is to say that ask anyone if they understand a topic and they'll say they do, but when you test them on it, they could be anywhere. The only people whose understanding truly matches their self-evaluations are the experts.

In the field of science, this is exacerbated by the fact that science necessarily uses jargon, and that jargon often overlaps with common language. The term "fragility" in the study of glass-forming materials doesn't mean "it breaks easily", it describes the relationship between the viscosity of the liquid and temperature1.

Some people, like Deepak Chopra, are quacks and frauds who make money by dancing around these misunderstandings, claiming the mantle of science before the public, and then retreating into simple mysticism when challenged by an expert. Seriously, fuck Deepak Chopra. Most of the time, though, it's much more innocent.

Take this, for example. This guy is trying to use QM to prove that a god exists. It doesn't help that Einstein was given to semi-mystical quotes. It also doesn't help that he gets the science wrong, and not just the QM; he gets every day things wrong as well.

For example, he claims that when a tree falls in a forest, it doesn't make a sound. He admits that it makes "air waves", but claims that "sound" is our perception of the event. This isn't a mere quibble over terms. It's a deeper part of both his misunderstanding of QM and central to his "proof".

The problem is the quantum mechanical act of "observation". There's a serious disconnect between the everyday act of observation and that which takes place in the world of QM.

In everyday life, observation is a fundamentally passive event. Information is flying through air all the time and you receive it. Sounds are created, and travel through the air until they reach your ears, at which point your brain interprets them. Light waves travel from a source, bounce off an object, and travel to your eyes, at which point your brain interprets them. At all times, information comes to you absent your effort to retrieve it, and at no time do you actually decide when or how or whether to interpret it. Your brain does that regardless. The human experience of observation is as a passive recipient of some of the vast quantities of information that fill the world around us.

In the realm of the very small, such is not the case. The interactions of the everyday world happen at inconceivable scales; the photons striking your bookcase are so much smaller, that the effect is negligible. But a photon exists on the same scale as an electron. When you observe an electron using a photon, it's like observing a baseball with a baseball bat, like finding a coffee table in a dark room (you know, with your shin). In short, observation in QM is an active event that necessarily impacts (literally) both the object being observed and the object with which you observe. The effect of the one on the other is how you make the observation!

The disconnect, and the reason it allows people to draw false, mystical conclusions, is that the effects are only significant on that small scale, and they're only truly active on that scale. Between the QM world and the world of the everyday, a switch occurs and observation once again becomes a passive event. Newtonian mechanics may only be an approximation, as author Barrier noted, but they're very, very good approximations. Using Newtonian physics, military artillery can fire shells over the horizon, taking into account wind, curvature of the Earth, and the Coriolis effect to not only land the shell but even to set its timer so it explodes precisely and devastatingly above the target. It's an approximation that works in the realm of the everyday.

The act of human observation hasn't been altered or shifted in some way by the discoveries of QM or relativity. When I read a book, it only moves me emotionally. To proceed from QM to the notion that the universe must be observed in order to exist is a non sequitur. The former doesn't lead to the latter. When a tree falls in a forest, it does make a sound, and here's why: In Which I Discuss Shcrödinger's Tired Cat.

1 - If you must know, the ideal relationship is a perfectly straight line when ln(η) is plotted against 1/T. Like many things, viscosity is an exponential function... ideally. In reality, glass-forming liquids deviate from the ideal, and the greater the deviation, the greater the fragility.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Mainstream vs Average and Atheism Plus

I was part of an interesting discussion about the urge by creators to destroy their most awesome creations, which was dubbed the Lucas Principle1 and discussed with respect to Ridley Scott and his repeated attacks against Alien and Blade Runner, with a brief foray into the Card Effect2 and a very interesting discussion of gender neutral pronouns3.

At one point, Roberta Williams was brought up. This is because we were casting about for female creators to put alongside the likes of Lucas and Scott. Williams was (and apparently still is) a video game designer and co-founder of Sierra Entertainment. In the 90s she came under criticism of elitism for stating that she was creating games for more educated and affluent gamers, codified in '99 by the following:

Back when I got started, which sounds like ancient history, back then the demographics of people who were into computer games, was totally different, in my opinion, than they are today. Back then, computers were more expensive, which made them more exclusive to people who were maybe at a certain income level, or education level. So the people that played computer games 15 years ago were that type of person. They probably didn't watch television as much, and the instant gratification era hadn't quite grown the way it has lately. I think in the last 5 or 6 years, the demographics have really changed, now this is my opinion, because computers are less expensive so more people can afford them. More "average" people now feel they should own one.

The fact is that Williams was in part correct. Computers became mainstream just as video game consoles, telephones, and cars have all become mainstream. Her real mistake lay in calling it "average" and in assuming that this was in any way a bad thing. It's really not.

This brought to mind a speech given by Greta Christina as the keynote speaker for the Secular Student Alliance in 2010. The video (embedded below) is about an hour long and she discusses the similarities between today's atheist movement and the history of the gay movement, and what the former can learn from the latter. One of the many things she discusses is actually a warning: atheists should prepare to see themselves become less special.

Once upon a time, coming out of the closet was a guaranteed way to get yourself killed. Oscar Wilde was convicted of homosexuality and his time in prison was so injurious that he never fully recovered and died shortly after his release, spending the last few years of his life penniless and advocating penal reform. Alan Turing, hero of the second world war, was convicted of homosexuality half a century later and committed suicide following the loss of his career and chemical castration. The Stonewall Riots of 1969 were the nucleus around which the defiant Gay Rights Movement was formed.

Because coming out was still difficult, dangerous, and in some places illegal, out gays of the 70s and 80s were a very different group than today. Homosexuality has become mainstream, perhaps even seen as merely a "different kind of normal" rather than dangerous, sick, or criminal. The discussion today is whether gays can legally get married, not whether they should be in prison; and conservative steadfasts have admitted that opposing that is a losing proposition as young conservatives are coming into the fold who don't see homosexuality as a problem to solve.

Where once you had to be an incredibly strong, independent, and indeed fabulous person to withstand the withering hatred of daily life as a gay person, now you may be just another person who simply happens to be gay, who rolls their eyes and says "We're not all like Kurt Hummel." As gays have become mainstream and the mainstream has become more gay, being gay has become less special. Just another kind of normal. This is somewhat sad, but it's victory.

In the same way, Christina reasons, atheists will become less special as the mainstreaming already underway continues. Being an atheist in an overwhelmingly religious society such as that of the United states usually involves growing up in, understanding, thinking deeply about, and ultimately rejecting religion. It means facing abiding discrimination and hatred4, and facing the scorn of your community and even being kicked out of your home. It means being better informed about religion than the religious, and spending far more time thinking and arguing about matters of faith, history, and morality. It means being well-informed and articulate in a way that the population at large is not. In means, in short, being special.

Are atheists becoming not-special? Far from it! Rather, they're experiencing a different growing pain resulting from mainstreaming. They're experiencing a problem the gay community might wish it suffered from in 1975. The atheist community now has minorities. It has women, and blacks, and transgendered people, and disabled people, and all that other stuff. Christina points out that the gay movement still has trouble reaching out to the black community because, as is often the case, the gay movement was led by white men back in the day. As leaders, they were the public face, and that hurt them in reaching out to gays where were not white or not men.

This brings us to Atheism Plus. A number of women and minorities have been clamoring for greater inclusion in the atheism movement. They've also been holding leaders' feet to the fire to get them to be more outspoken about matters not traditionally part of the atheist wheelhouse5. They've been pushing for discussion of feminism, homosexuality, race relations, alternative genders, and other issues in progressive politics. This has received significant push-back from individuals who don't think that that's part of what it means to be an atheist. "The skeptical, fact-based worldview can be brought to bear on other issues." vs. "What we talk about as atheists is the god thing. Stop bugging us!"

About a year ago, atheist blogger Rebecca Watson accidentally set the internet on fire by saying she found it creepy when a guy hit on her in an elevator. What followed was an all-out troll-fest as the misogynists women always have to face when they speak in public piled on, clueless atheist men came in to defend elevator guy or ask what the problem was, other feminist atheists (male and female) spoke up in Watson's defense, and more trolls piled on, names were called, and discussions exploded everywhere6. This firestorm hasn't died down in the 15 months since it started. Other feminist atheists have become more outspoken about how the atheist community isn't and hasn't been friendly to female atheists. Minority atheists have spoken up saying much the same about the community's relationship with non-white atheists. And the whole time, the old guard, from their position of privilege, have argued that everyone needs to shut up, quit whining, and get back to not believing in god, dammit!

The latest development in this ongoing discussion has been Atheism+, atheism plus progressive social issues. A movement which seeks to bring skepticism and scientific methodological naturalism to bear on social issues. I've found it quite informative. I'm not exactly a lurker there, but I'm nowhere near as prolific as some of you might expect. Instead I mostly read and learn. Not all are so reticent to participate. Misogynist and MRA7 trolls have been a serious problem in the weeks since its genesis and it's proved very divisive within the atheist community. Even those who aren't misogynistic assholes8 don't necessarily see the need for a space to discuss these issues safely, don't see these issues as being part of atheism, or think the feminists are assholes themselves, particularly for calling them assholes for not agreeing with the first two points!

Things have been pretty rough over there, in case you're wondering. In addition to a lot of temporary bans to slap down people who've too insulting, hurtful, or hateful, there have also been a number of permanent bans. An average of nearly one a day. In my opinion, all have been justified.

Atheism+ is an outgrowth of the mainstreaming of atheism. It's no longer a club reserved for a very few people, a small, uniform community. It's reached the point where different people, with different interests want to join. Atheism should learn from the history of the gay rights movement and not be a movement just for white men. Avoid the problem by learning to be inclusive. Don't commit the ecological fallacy and assume that a community becoming more average means each member is becoming more average. The community is becoming more diverse, and this will bring in a variety of views, a variety of arguments, and it means there will be more ambassadors to different communities. Gay has become another kind of normal because everyone has come to realize that someone they love is gay. That the black community in America is less gay-friendly than mainstream America is a direct result of the gay movement's failure to be more racially inclusive back in the day. The atheist movement shouldn't make that mistake.

Just in case it's not clear, I'm fully in support of atheism+. My atheism isn't something I keep in a box, away from the rest of my beliefs. I like to believe that it's the result of the same skepticism and scientific worldview as the rest of my beliefs. I'm certain that my worldview isn't as cohesive and self-consistent as I would like, but I'll keep learning and growing and working on it, and I'll try to ensure consistency by not keeping each part in isolation from the others.

So where does that leave us with Roberta Williams? She was factually correct that computers and computer gaming had become more mainstream, more average, and that that meant the market for games had changed. Where she was wrong was in assuming that meant every computer owner was now average. That's the ecological fallacy. The market had become larger and more diverse. Her affluent, educated gamers were still there, still waiting for her kind of game, but there were other gamers as well with different tastes. There's room for Call of Duty, Batman, and Fallout on the shelves at the stores. There's room for heroes who are black, female, or disabled. There are people waiting to hear the stories that all of the creators have to tell. They don't all want the same stories or heroes, but that's okay. It takes all kinds.

Greta Christina's Talk at SSA


1 - Lucas isn't a good writer. He's not the greatest director. He is a man of enormous technical vision and a good producer. Unfortunately, he also thinks he's a writer and director. The Star Wars prequel trilogy isn't good. This is his fault.

2 - When knowledge of a creator's rampant bigotry spoils your enjoyment of earlier works where that bigotry's more subtle manifestations become more apparent. Orson Scott Card is a damn good writer. Unfortunately, he's also a devout member of the Church of Latter Day Saints (a Mormon) and is kind of a rampant bigot and climate change denialist. It makes it hard to read some of his earlier books. You read the Homecoming series and it's like "Oh. This is the book of Mormon but with a sentient computer and Russian astronauts." Or you read The Tales of Alvin Maker and you're like "Oh. This is the book of Mormon, only the guy's name is Alvin instead of John and he actually has magic powers rather than being a misogynist fraud." And his sympathetic homosexual characters become less so when you realize he honestly believes that if they just tried harder the gays could at least pretend to be straight and have families instead of living in sin and burning forever. Yay?

3 - I'm now fully on board with using they/their for the third-person singular when I wish to remain gender neutral rather than torturing my prose; turns out that's the way we originally used our language before yet another British busybody ruined it for everyone else.

4 - Studies have shown that atheists are the most despised group in the United States. Moreso even than Muslims. This surprised the authors because no atheists in living memory have murdered thousands of people in a single act of terrorism. Also unlike gays and minorities and "foreign" religions, bigotry against atheists has been resistant to change over time. How much does the US hate atheists? Half again as much as Muslims, the second most hated group. If America hates Muslims to the amount of 10, it has its atheist hate-meter set to 15.

5 - Traditionally in the atheist wheelhouse: how much god doesn't exist, how alt-medicine is stupid, the continued non-existence of god, how much religion sucks, why we wish people would doing that god thing, and how hard it is being an atheist. Not in the atheist wheelhouse: what it's like being something other than a financially secure, well educated, heterosexual white male, except insofar as being different from that may or may not make you more likely to believe in god.

6 - It didn't help when atheist celebrity Richard Dawkins threw fuel on the fire by posting as a commenter at PZ Myers's old Pharyngula blog at scienceblogs, saying that Watson shouldn't complain about the creepy guy because women have it worse elsewhere.

7 - Men's Rights Activists. They're misogynists but rather than calling you a cunt and telling you to get back in the kitchen, they come in and whine "What about teh menz?!", bitching that feminists ignore the problems men face (they don't) and that men have it worse than women (they don't). They make claims that are exaggerated at best and false at worst, rarely backing them up with links or statistics. In other words, they're like climate change denialists, only they complain about feminazis instead of treethuggers.

8X - Atheism+ isn't just about feminism, but that and gender issues are still the main focus of what I've seen on the fora. It's been branching out in its focus more in the last 10 days or so, I think. It's only about 5 weeks old.

X - Seriously? That's a lot of footnotes!

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Market is Flawed

Evolution is a stochastic, self-organizing process. There is no invisible, guiding hand. It produces a lot of wonderful things. It doesn't produce perfection. It doesn't produce morality1.

The same is true of the market. I follows different rules, ad is based on a different system, but it's fundamentally similar. Organisms compete, some flourish and thrive, others whither and fail. Some get together and cooperate for mutual benefit.

It doesn't produce perfection. It doesn't produce morality.

Why is that so hard for some people to comprehend?

The free market allocates resources, money, and manpower to solve problems, and it does so with marvelous efficiency. However, it only solves profitable problems. It doesn't give a damn about anything that doesn't generate a profit. Caring about your fellow human beings doesn't generate a profit.

You only have to look at 90% of the examples for the last five hundred years for examples of appallingly selfish, inhuman behavior. Outsourcing jobs and shoveling the profits into foreign banks. DuPont lying about CFCs. Ethyl and Big Oil lying about lead. Tobacco lying about cancer and addiction. And that's all just within the last 60 years. In the nineteenth century, prior to the Roosevelts, they were even worse.

We have government for a reason, because self-organizing principles don't actually lead to the best possible outcome. It would be better for everyone if everyone had a good education and a decent job, but the market leads to inefficiencies and so some people don't have either of those things. The market honestly doesn't care; government steps in to take up the slack.

Is it a coincidence that the people who don't believe in evolution also fetishize the market's ability to solve all problems?

This is surprisingly appropriate. In a month, no one will understand why I chose it.

1 - Okay, actually it does. Problem is, it produces good and evil in equal measure as competing strategies.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Political Correctness Gone Mad!

What is political correctness? Was it ever really a thing? Did it ever go mad?

What is it? An effort to avoid giving offense with respect to race, religion, creed, gender. Basically, being aware that there are people out there who aren't exactly like you, that their lives will have been different, and will respond differently than you to various things. At least, that's they what people assume it was "before it all went wrong".

But was it really? Nope. The phrase "politically correct" goes back to at least the eighteenth century, when it meant "to be in line with prevailing political opinion". To toe the party line, in other words. And that's the sense people use it in today. Like there's some sort of thought police or "politeness nazi" out there making sure you're only ever excessively courteous.

Was it ever really a thing? Yes and no. By 1970, it was briefly popular with the New Left, a sort of post-Marxist, left wing movement in the US and UK. In the 70s and 80s, however, it was used self-referentially and ironically1 by liberals, leftists, progressives, feminists, etc to guard against relying on orthodoxy. In other words, they were using it as a foil against what conservatives have been accusing them of ever since!

Did it ever go mad? Nope. Rather, there was a sea change regarding the political battleground of the US. Rather than being fought between races, classes, or even religious or political groups, the battleground in the US became divided between the ideologies of progressivism and orthodoxy, which in many ways transcend the other divisions. You find orthodox and progressive Christians2, African-Americans, and across classes. Now economists struggle to understand why poor white Christians have overturned the Republican party, making the Tea Party more than just an angry mob, despite that it advances the interests of the Koch brothers, aggressively libertarian, anti-poor billionaires.

This began in the 90s, perhaps coincidentally with the fall of the Communist bloc. Around this time, there also came into vogue an effort to get people to use kinder and more neutral language. "Challenged" instead of "retarded". "Disabled" instead of "handicapped" or "crippled". "African-American" instead of "black".

I'm not too certain about the right, but on the left, political correctness is usually approached apologetically. Like, "It's a good idea, right? I agree with it, but some people take it too far maybe?" This in spite of the fact that no one ever took it "too far". The only places where that ever happened were in parodies, like the Duckman episode, "Forbidden Fruit", or the Jeremy Piven vehicle, "PCU".

My recollection of the response on the right would be akin to "I'm gonna call a spade a spade! He's not 'challenged', he's a goddamn retard! And that guy's no more African than I am for all his funny shirts; he's black!" It is, at least in part, a way to act tough and sound tough, like you're standing up for freedom and stuff, but against whom? No one is actually enforcing anything.

Don't congratulate yourself for saying the hard truths. You're just an asshole.

Is PC a thing? Yes! It's called being polite. It's about recognizing that words actually do have power, and some are freighted with negative meaning thanks to historical realities. We say "developmentally disabled" because the former technical, medical term "retarded" went into common usage and became highly offensive. The exact same thing happened to the previous technical, medical term which was why "retarded", which means "slowed" or "halted", ie "developmentally disabled", was chosen to replace it. The previous term? "Idiot".

Political correctness never went mad. Political correctness was never a thing. The right acts like there's some sort of leftist conspiracy enforcing an orthodoxy, a Stalinist thought control experiment being enacted in our universities. Nothing could be further from the truth. "Political correctness" and "politically correct" were always used by the left to guard against that very kind of thing, and as usual, the right has stolen it (an orthodox mindset is almost constitutionally incapable of developing new ideas, it seems to me) and turned it against its former users.

All there ever was was an attempt to understand, an attempt to speak clearly, an attempt to be decent to our fellow human beings. How on earth is that a bad thing?

1 - proving the hippies were hipsters

2 - Though the right has fought long and hard to claim the title of Christian solely as their own, and to label all progressive "Christians" as "

Monday, July 16, 2012

DOMS Follow-Up

I mentioned in my previous post that it's possible to alleviate post-workout soreness by starting with easy exercises. I also mentioned that Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is caused by eccentric contractions. A question I failed to address: can you avert DOMS by avoiding eccentric contractions during your workout?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: No.

You could bring a partner to the gym who grabs your weights for you at the top of each rep, so you don't have to lower them. Or you could just be a gigantic asshole and drop your weights1. There are ways to avoid eccentric contractions. However, they're difficult and time consuming and, frankly, not worth it.

Even in aerobic exercise (like running) that mostly avoids eccentric contractions, you're still going get eccentric contractions, especially when you get tired. It's almost impossible to avoid.

Finally, it's not worth it. Eccentric contractions happen. You catch things, you drop things, you run, you fall. Every once in a while, life is going to throw you a curve ball and you're just better off all around if you spend some time preparing. So get fit, mix up your exercises with a little of everything; isolations, compounds, aerobic, anaerobic, keep your body guessing and it'll keep itself ready for anything. Also, read a book; you're brain's like anything else. Use it or lose it.

1 - First, that damages the equipment. Second, it damages the floor. Third, it could damage someone else. If you can pick it up, you can put it down. Don't be an asshole.

Post Workout Soreness

Every once in a while, something terrible happens. Someone makes a terrible mistake, an unalterable, permanent, life-changing mistake. He turns thirty. Once you turn thirty, everything is ruined forever. Your hormones begin a slow decline and your waists begins a slow inflation. Fortunately, this can be combated, with healthy diet and exercise. Sometimes the person wakes up and decides to rectify his horrible mistake1.

That's day one. This is day two2.

That god-awful pain is known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). In short, you're stiff, you ache, and every movement is an explosion of agony. God help you if you sneeze after working your abs. The pain shows up the day after you exercise and lasts for three to five days.

The part that might confuse you is that it's not lifting the weights that causes the problem. It's putting them back down. When you're lifting the weights, you're performing what's known as a "concentric contraction". The muscle is applying force while getting shorter; it's applying force in the direction of motion; it's lifting the damn weight. When you're lowering the weights, you're performing an "eccentric contraction". The muscle is contracting while being elongated; it's applying force against the direction of motion; it's hitting the brakes as you put the weight down. The mechanisms of muscles and how they work in all conditions is poorly understood, not least because it's difficult to work out in an MRI machine, but we know a few things, among them that eccentric contractions cause DOMS.

First, we know that older beliefs about the causes of DOMS are wrong. Muscle spasms and lactic acid build-up have both been ruled out. Exercise can lead to painful muscle spasms, if you dehydrate yourself and get a nasty electrolyte imbalance what with sweating. However, that condition can be thoroughly alleviated without eliminating DOMS. And lactic acid is water soluble and would wash out of the muscle in a matter of hours. For years there was a popular home remedy; drinking sugar water was supposed to dissolve the lactic acid and prevent soreness. It didn't work, not least because the sugar would be unnecessary and lactic acid wasn't the cause.

What is the cause is structural damage throughout the muscle tissue. Again, poorly understood (it's much easier to rule out a hypothesis than to confirm it), but it's not damage to individual fibers or cells, but may be the connections between the filaments, the fibers. Okay, now that we know almost nothing about what causes DOMS, how about preventing it? I know of two ways to prevent DOMS. They're guaranteed to work, and they're the only things that do.

  1. Never work out.
  2. Always work out.

There. Isn't that simple?

I'm serious. Make sure your muscles never face an unusual challenge. That means you never challenge them, or you always challenge them. Either way, no unusual challenges. Personally, I work out six days a week. You don't have to be quite that extreme. I think three days a week would be sufficient.

Still, that's not going to help you at the start of a workout. You're going to be sore; it's unavoidable. However, there are ways to minimize it. Start soft. Be extremely pessimistic in your estimates of what you can handle. Then cut that in half. Then work up from there as slowly as you feasibly can. You'll be sore, but not as sore as if you start challenging yourself right away. By the time you get to the point where you're actually challenging your muscles, you'll have worked through the sore period and won't have any more.

Another thing, don't be afraid to work out when you're sore. It'll make you feel better. So long as you're not working at 99%, you're not going to be injuring yourself.

1 - That's a popular meme. You see it a lot. It's from the wonderful blog, Hyperbole and a Half.

2 - Unsurprisingly, I found that image in a blog post talking about strength training.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Science vs Religion

I believe the credulous are right to hate and fear science. Not because science attacks religion. Science doesn't attack religion any more than the glacier attacks the mountain. However, over time, the glacier brings the mountain down, and its rivers carry away the remains.

Faith thrives in uncertainty. Science has given us control of the world, and decreased our hardship, our fear, our ignorance. With that control has come a concomitant increase in secularism, atheism, and freethinking.

Are all faithful fearful? No. But the trends are clear; most people only need a security blanket when they're afraid of the dark.

Friday, June 08, 2012

The Flaw in the Ontological Argument

Imagine the most awesome thing ever. The most awesome thing ever would be less awesome if it didn't exist, right? Therefore, it must exist!

That's the ontological argument, an attempt at an a priori argument for the existence of god. A god. Some god. Any god. Something?

That's the final panel from a comic at MacHall. Click through for the full thing. It points out the most serious error in the ontological argument.

The ontological argument is at least a thousand years old, being first clearly stated by St. Anselm. It may have been implicit in older writings that made it down to us, though, but Anselm gets credit for being the oldest we have who spells it out. The argument is literally as follows:

  • Our understanding of God is a being than which no greater can be conceived.
  • The idea of God exists in the mind.
  • A being which exists both in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only in the mind.
  • If God only exists in the mind, then we can conceive of a greater being—that which exists in reality.
  • We cannot be imagining something that is greater than God.
  • Therefore, God exists.

It can be easier to know that the ontological argument is flawed than to point out where the flaw lies. Not least, I think there are several flaws. However, I feel the greatest flaw can be elucidated with this counter-argument: Only in your wildest dreams do you imagine that your dreams can become reality. In other words, through logic, reasoning, and clever definition, do you honestly believe you can will god into existence? When speaking of a possibly extant being in our actual factual reality, you must necessarily base your argument on that reality. Mere supposition can never take precedence over verifiable1 observation.

Logic and philosophy can, in fact, guide you in your search for an extant being, even in the absence of any new observation or facts. However, it does so in the negative sense, by demonstrating that an idea or concept is incoherent, or paradoxical, or impossible. I can conceive of an object that is perfectly red (once redness is adequately defined). I can conceive of an object that is perfectly blue. I can conceive of an object that is simultaneously perfectly blue and perfectly red... but the concept is incoherent and such an object could not possibly exist. I can conceive of an object half of which is perfectly blue and half of which is perfectly red, and so long as those two halves don't overlap, the incoherence is gone. Some have argued that the very concept of god is incoherent, and I'm inclined to agree and extend that incoherence to the concept of the supernatural as a whole, but that discussion is still on-going and unlikely to be resolved.

There's nothing impossible about a unicorn. It's just a horse with a horn. Rhinocerontes, narwhals, elk and deer; there are a lot of different ways to get pointy crap to grow out your head. It's not beyond conception that an eohippus might have experimented with a keratinaceous nodule or some sort of toothy accouterments.

Consider the Pegasus. A horse with wings? Easy! Just take a horse and add wings! Except, of course, that no mammal ever has been hexapodal. In fact, all mammals, reptiles, birds... tetrapodal. Adding another pair of limbs would a massive development! Forelimbs are distinct from hindlimbs, and midlimbs would require brand new skeletal and muscular developments, changes to the development of the entire organism down to the embryological level. And then those limbs would have to evolve into wings! And even if said hexapodal monodactyl creature superficially resembled a member of the genus equus, it would not look like a horse because of the massive structural changes necessary to accommodate a pair of wings! In other words, there will never appear on this earth anything that looks like the classical conception of the Pegasus.

We know the unicorn doesn't exist not because it's impossible, but because we've looked. We've been all across this great world and there is not and, to the best of our knowledge, has never been a unicorn. We know the Pegasus does not exist because it's impossible. You can't just put wings on a horse like you can a horn.

Sometimes I think god is a unicorn. Sometimes I think god is a pegasus. Either there cannot be a god, or there simply is not one. And either way, I have the same respect for the opinion of those who think there is as I do for those who earnestly believe in the unicorn or the pegasus. None. I might have some respect for the people who hold the belief, but not the belief itself.

1 - Notice how "truth" is the core of that word.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Homeopathy is Nonsense.

  1. If you want to cure a symptom, take something that causes those symptoms.
  2. Don't do that.
It cannot be said enough. Homeopathy is complete and utter crap. There is nothing to it at all. Not in the slightest. The evidence tells us that homeopathy does nothing at all. You don't even need to consider the "theory" of homeopathy given that it doesn't do anything, but a quick glance at the "theory" confirms that it's the completest horse crap. Do not consider homeopathy if you're sick. Go to an actual doctor. Homeopaths are at best fools, and at worst outright frauds. They should be ashamed, they should quit and do anything else, or they should die in a fire. They actively make the world a worse place by practicing their credulous nonsense.

At the turn of the 19th century, a German physician was curious about the claimed benefits of tea made from a certain bark to cure an intermittent fever. Being skeptical, he decided to investigate. Good for him! Unfortunately everything he did after that was entirely incorrect. He only tested the tea on one person, he only did so once, and he didn't go on to study his hypothesis. He drank the tea, suffered an allergic reaction, and came up with the homeopathy. Homeopaths claim that if you want to cure a disease, you should ingest poison1. Poison? Yes. Homeopaths believe that inducing the symptoms of illness is how you cure illness. To cure a fever, induce a fever.

It shouldn't take much thought to understand that making your condition worse is stupid. Idiotic. Asinine. Perhaps the worst idea ever. Homeopaths realized very quickly that murdering all their patients would be a bad business practice, so they introduced the second principle of homeopathy. Since giving your patients poison is a bad idea, don't give them poison! Homeopaths began diluting their "remedies" with the intent of delivering as little poison as possible. Of course, they had to justify a remedy being effective despite being present only in very small quantities2. The resulting theory is nothing short of mysticism.

Homeopaths believe that water has a memory. Wooo! Water somehow remembers the stuff it's been in contact with, retains, through some utterly mysterious and inexplicable fashion, the healing properties of the poison, and thus you can safely discard the poison. Add poison to water. Dilute a thousand times. Shake. Dilute a thousand times. Shake. Dilute a thousand times. Shake. Hand patient a bottle of pure water and charge him for "medicine". The shaking is very important. If you don't shake the "remedy", or if you do it wrong, you might not end up with medicine!

Question: What allows water to remember being in contact with pesticide and only retain the healing qualities of the pesticide and not the part that's deadly poison? What allows water to remember being in contact with pesticide, but forget the fact that fish have been shitting in it for a billion years?

And all this doesn't even get into the even more transparently nonsensical notion of transmitting homeopathy over the phone. I wish I were kidding. Jacques Benveniste, French quack, seriously argued (and made money thereby) that if he shook his magic potion at his phone while you held your water near your phone that the mystical homeopathic energies would transmit over the phone lines. And why not? Once you're going to believe one bit of nonsense you might as well go whole hog!

There really isn't any need to go into the theory or practices of homeopathy in depth. First because it's so easy to show how stupid it all is. Second because, as I said, the evidence all shows that homeopathy, if you're lucky, does absolutely nothing. There's no reason to investigate a theory or hypothesis about a phenomenon that doesn't exist. That's why the first step in investigating paranormal phenomena is never to look into the proposed mechanism for the phenomenon, but always to find out if it actually happens. Hint: It doesn't.

1 - I am entirely serious. I am not exaggerating. There are remedies that require the patient to ingest pesticide. Fortunately, the dilutions involved mean that the best you can hope for is that you don't get any of the so-called remedy.

2 - Modern homeopathy requires dilutions so extreme that there can be not a single molecule of the original material left.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Are Republicans Racist?

When you look at the Republican party today, it's hard to understand how they could have ever been the party of Lincoln. Can you imagine that South Carolina would vote for Lincoln today?

The Republican party resents accusations of racism and love to turn it back on the Deomcrats as "reverse racism". How can the Republicans be racist? They have a black friend!

Wait, they fired him.

As I said, most Republicans resent charges of racism and don't think of themselves as racist, notwithstanding that they're very, very white and have to search hard for black Republicans1, Latino Republicans, Jewish Republicans... Look, if you have thousands of prominent members and only a few dozen from various minorities, you have a race issue. The Republican party isn't merely overwhelmingly white, it's so white that there has to be an explanation.

The first possible explanation is the null hypothesis: it's an accident of history. The Republican party is white because it happens to be white. People gather with others like them even if they aren't racist. Unless you make an effort to include people unlike yourself in your group (whether it's a circle of friends or your business or school), you'll end up looking like the cast of a show targeted at your demographic.

We know they're not Republicans because half of them are Jewish

If we want to believe that the Republican party is white not simply because of an accident of history, but because they're racially biased, we'll have to actually look at that history. The Republican party was, once upon a time, the party for black America. It was the party of Lincoln. It was the party that freed the slaves, and under whose banner the first black Congressmen and Senators were elected back in the 19th century. In the last 150 years, something has clearly changed. What happened? This guy.

In the background with his back turned, President Nixon. Facing the camera, George HW Bush.

That guy is Harry Dent, the architect of the Southern Strategy, which catpulted Nixon into the White House. After the Civil Rights Act was passed, a large portion of the American population was unhappy, and that portion was the angry, white, racist bloc. The Southern Strategy was, in its simplest form, "We hate niggers, too!", which pulled white Southerners out of the arms of the Democratic party (for whom they had voted for more than a century) and firmly into the Republican fold. In the words of political strategist Kevin Phillips:

From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that... but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.

After the angry racist vote won the election for Nixon, it trickled down to the local level, and the Republican party has had a solid hold on the South ever since. It's hard for anyone born after 1980 to imagine, but the South used to be owned, lock stock and barrel, by the Democrats, and for the same reason it's currently owned by the Republicans: white Southerners really, really hate black people. Once they hated blacks and voted Democrat because the Republicans had been the party of Lincoln. Now they hate blacks and vote Republican because... well, they've gotten subtle about it. In the 60s and 70s, a Republican only had to talk about Civil Rights, and that was enough. In the 80s, the code shifted to "welfare queens", and the like. Everyone knew Reagan meant lazy black folks, but Republicans weren't allowed to call them "porch monkeys" any more.

The really interesting thing is that some of their codes and creeds go back to the 1820s. These days the Republicans scream about states rights as a way to fight for their constituents' rights to attack women and minorities in the state legislatures. In the 60s, "states rights" was code for fighting for segregations; "The Fed'ral gummint don't have the right to put censoreds in my school!" But the States Rights go back to the 1830s, as a way for the Southern states to defend slavery. These days school vouchers are mostly touted as a way for locals to get their children's education out of federal hands. Originally, they were touted as a way for white locals to get their children out of federally integrated schools. As a program begun in an effort to continue segregation by any means, school vouchers have had surprising resilience, perhaps because the Republicans have been forced to pretend not to be racist, and have instead spent decades openly courting the white religious vote.

In short, the Republican party has spent more than fifty years as the party of, by, and for white racists. That racism has been forced underground and become less overt as racism has become socially and politically unacceptable. What's the difference, though, between someone who wears racism proudly on his sleeve and one who merely pretends he isn't racist, or even believes it? What's the difference between a platform intended to deprive non-whites of economics, social, and political equality and one that's identical in all respects but is instead proferred as an "austerity" and "small government" platform that merely has, as a side effect, the economic, social, and political segregation of non-whites? Does it really matter that racists have more targets than just uppity negros, that now they also have to worry about "undocumented immigrants"? Where once anti-Catholic hatred was focused on the waves of Irish and Italian immigrants in the early part of the twentieth century, now there's the added bonus of racial hatred as well!

Many Republicans, possibly most Republicans, honestly believe they're not racist, and that their party's policies have no racial bias in intent or effect. However, more than half a century of history simply cannot be denied. Their racism wasn't cured, but forced underground. They didn't stop advocating their racist policies, but stopped calling them racist themselves. Their protests of "reverse racism" are just the old claims that soon the whites would be slaves to the angry negros, but dressed in the language of their opponents. Just as pseudoscience and religious fundamentalism cloaks itself in the language of science, so too do the racists seek to use liberal philosophy as a shield from criticism, but even a brief study of their history, cause, and effect shows their protestations as hollow.

Are Republicans racist? Not all of them. Is the Republican party racist? Without a doubt. Should its policies be ardently opposed? Only if you genuinely want what's best for all Americans, and not only wealthy white America.

1 - Remember, if they're from the nineteenth century, they don't count. Hell, if they're from before the 60s they don't count.

What is Scientific Consensus?

It doesn't take much to spark the imagination. Looking at a map of the Earth, it's easy to see how easily the Americas could snuggle up to the Old World should they be so inclined. This was first notice back in the 1600s, but no one thought much of it beyond "Huh." It was given more weight in the early 20th century when "continental drift" was elucidated by Alfred Wegener. Even then, it was very controversial because there was simply no known mechanism for how the continents could move; it was derided that he had suggested that the continents simply plowed through oceanic crust. However, evidence and hypotheses accumulated through the 20s, 30s, and 40s and continental drift developed an interesting fringe notion into an established, albeit still controversial, scientific theory by the 1950s.

By the mid-60s, gravimetric, seismic, and paleomagnetic1 evidence had accumulated to the point that the old understanding of the Earth's crust was thrown out and plate tectonics was an established theory, and those denying it were increasingly relegated to the fringes. Today, only those completely ignorant of the extensive evidence argue other hypotheses to explain the grossest facts. We have a consensus.

Science isn't a hierarchical organization; there's no top-down, centralized authority that decides what scientific truth is. Each scientist examines the evidence and draws conclusions. Each scientist gathers evidence and publishes conclusions, hoping to convince others. The more compelling their argument, the more convincing they are, the more they contribute to global understanding. Individual scientists can carry great weight in their field. Truly eminent figures such as Pauli, Dirac, and Feynman could be terrifying to young physicists, shredding their work and humiliating them in public. However, not even they were empowered to make pronouncements on scientific truth ex cathedra. Many older scientists fear becoming the increasingly awkward presence at conferences, no longer contributing to valuable new research, but increasingly devoted to odd ideas of no merit, wasting their twilight years in pseudoscience, mocked by their younger peers. Even scientists in their prime, recognized experts in their fields making substantial and valued contributions in areas of interesting and controversial research, when they step out of their laboratories to opine on fields not their own, meet rolling eyes and barely constrained disdain.

Scientific consensus isn't handed down from on high, nor is it decided upon by vote. It stems neither from authoritynor from popularity. Rather, consensus emerges as the evidence for or against a proposition accumulates and scientists find themselves increasingly swayed, not by other scientists, but by nature itself. Consensus is an emergent, organic process. The blind men might initially mistake the elephant for a wall, a pipe, a snake, but through cooperation and comparison they build to the truth and learn that each is perceiving an aspect of the whole.

Consensus on large, complex issues takes decades to achieve. The global phenomenon of plate tectonics had results that were apparent to cartographers of the seventeenth century as a phenomenon in need of explanation, but there was no way to study it until the twentieth century, and even then it took fifty years. Darwin's theory took the scientific world by storm because it was the culmination of decades of careful work on his part, but also because it was the culmination of centuries of observational science. Geology and biology had mountains of evidence seeking an explanatory framework, and the controversy between opposing and incorrect schools of thought were impossible to reconcile. Evolution provided a fundament on which biology could build a vast, interconnected structure that explained all of their observations and which dovetailed perfectly with the geological evidence. It was a consensus waiting to happen.

The prospect of global warming was raised in the nineteenth century. Observation of changing temperatures appeared in the twentieth. Dedicated research began in the 1950s and the science of climate change was born. Models have been developed over decades, and techniques innovated for gathering more detailed evidence across wider historical ranges. In the 90s, consensus had emerged among climate scientists; we're causing warming. As the models have gotten more sophisticated and the issue more attention, consensus has spread to the larger scientific community and evolved from "global warming" to "global climate change". Evidence has accumulated to the point where, as Stephen J Gould might put it, "it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent."2

This is all different from dogmatic assertion. It is arrived at independently by every scientist. It isn't mere speculation, absent a physical referent, but is built upon a foundation of evidence. It isn't a theological doctrine, invented whole cloth and never to be questioned, but is arrived at after decades of painstaking work responding to thousands of difficult challenges. Scientists have no dogma. They have observation, evidence, curiosity, and discipline. Each dreams of being the next Newton or Darwin, providing a powerful framework to draw together centuries of observation. Each hopes to be an Einstein or Planck, overturning an old modality and uncovering a deeper truth. Each hopes to be a controversial iconoclast, blazing new trails into uncharted truth, but settles for a life of quiet investigation.

The irony at the core of those who oppose science is that they accuse science of harboring their own greatest weakness, dogma, and attack it on the basis of its greatest strength, dispute. Evidentiary dispute lies at the heart of science, wherein competing hypotheses are tested against the facts and the intellects of opposing egos, insuring that unsupported ideas are discarded and only those explaining all the facts and contradicted by none can survive. And this is called a weakness by doctrinaire opponents of scientific investigation, as if only hierarchical agreement with a central dogma can be an approach to truth. And then, when those disputations arrive at powerful and supported truths, they attack that as dogma, when it is anything but.

1 - Gravimetric - Measuring gravity. For example, using the world's most sensitive plumb bob to figure out how much a mountain weighs. Seismic - Measuring earthquakes. Every time an earthquake happens, the earth rings like a bell. By recording when the energy from an earthquake at point A arrives at point B, geologists have built up a picture of the interior of the Earth. It's cool. Paleomagnetic - Measuring the magnetic fields in rocks. The magnetic field of a rock reflects the magnetic field of the Earth when the rock was formed. This allows you to determine the twistings and turnings and shiftings and foldings the rock has taken since it was laid down.

2 - 'In science, "fact" can only mean "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent." I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.' - Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Obama the Lesser of Two Evils?

Politics is frequently a very cynical and manipulative process. Every new medium, the internet, television, newspapers, brings with it heavy-handed propaganda that gets more sophisticated with time and practice. Nearly everyone involved comes away feeling tarnished and disillusioned.

This may be exacerbated by the first past the post system used in the US and elsewhere. Among other issues, it leads to two-party politics, gerrymandering, and tactical voting. Each party simultaneously tries to paint itself as the middle of the road and the other side as dangerously extreme, with the result that everyone looks at their own party as merely the lesser of two evils (except for that rare bird, the true believer).

It's hard to argue with results. The higher up the political spectrum you go, the more canny a political operator you have to be. It's hard to imagine how someone can be both an idealistic crusader fighting for the little guy and a shrewd operator who knows how best to manipulate the system and accumulate political capital. Unless, of course, you watch The West Wing. Ahh, can't you just smell the idealism?

Now I'm going to make a simple argument: the people on my side are flawed individuals who genuinely want to make the world a better place. This is based on observation. The vast majority of people are decent people, and politicians are just folks. They're just folks with money and power, but they're still just folks. Sure, there's the occasional bad egg, but my side is composed of mostly just folks. As for your side... Well, I'm willing to grant the consideration that the same is true of them, albeit there heads are completely up their asses. Sometimes it's difficult, as when you've got a political candidate from Massachusetts whose political career appears to be made of flipflops and pandering. Now, am I talking about Kerry or Romney?

Screw it, let's talk about President Obama.

Obama's 2008 campaign was really built on a platform of "After 8 years of Bush, you really, really want something different." He was a young Senator without much political career behind him, so it was easy to be something different. Also, he's black. This wasn't the most difficult strategy in the world to pick; after 8 years of Bush, we really did want something different, and I think only a terrorist attack would have gotten McCain into office. Instead the economy collapsed. Still, Obama's campaign was one of fresh faces, new beginnings... hope.

Four years later, well, he didn't destroy the Tea Party with a single blow, he didn't make it cool to be gay, he didn't alleviate poverty or even end the recession... It's very easy to be disillusioned with Barack Obama. Particularly since it's hard to remember everything he's accomplished in the last four years. How exactly did he help gays? He expanded hate crime legislation in their favor, ended the justice department's defense of DOMA, ended "don't ask, don't tell", and came out in favor of gay marriage. And for women, he expanded workplace rights and health care coverage, and appointed two women to the Supreme Court. In a country sodden with Austerity stupidity, he's fought an increasingly hard-line Republican party to fight the recession. And that's just what I found in five minutes of googling. Seriously, what the fuck has Obama done so far?

Is Obama really the lesser of two evils? I think he's a savvy political operator who's determined to do some good. He marshaled his political capital and spent it when it would be most effective. Given the movement of the Republican party to a more extreme stance at the far end of the conservative spectrum, that it's dominated by libertarians at the top and fundamentalists at the bottom, he's saved some of his maneuvers for an election year when they would do the most good. Why wait until now to say he supports gay marriage? Because a majority of Americans support it, but the Republican party absolutely cannot. It's forced Romney into the uncomfortable position of either alienating his base or winning lukewarm support from the middle. And given that he's a well-educated black liberal, it simply seems inconceivable that Obama doesn't actually support gay marriage. That's just one example of a clever political maneuver to support his real position, and one which I think is the only moral position to take.

Is Obama the lesser of two evils? No. I think he's very good at his job, and a very good man.

What the Cabbage? or Holy Collards, Batman!

These are Collard Greens. They're pretty popular down here in the South. They're eaten year 'round, but are best in the winter, because they store a lot of nutrients in their leaves for the winter. The leaves are slightly bitter, which I believe is why I've always gotten the impression they're more of a lower-class food; why go for nutritious when you can go for tasty?

This is Kale. Kale used to be one of the most popular in Europe. Like collards, they're grown world-wide and respond well to freezing, actually tasting better afterward. Because of its striking coloration, it even comes in ornamental varieties.

This is Cabbage. It's got a lot of leaves packed into one spot, is a good source of vitamin C, and is naturally a little spicy. This makes it quite popular in a variety of dishes.

These are Brussels Sprouts. They get a pretty bad rap, probably because if you overcook them they end up grey, mushy, and bad-tasting. But if you cook them right, they're flavorful and might fight cancer! Either way, they're full of good nutrients, like tiny cabbages!

This is Romanesco Broccoli. Look at it. Just look at it! It's a frickin' fractal! It's a logarithmic spiral of buds, each of which is a logarithmic spiral of buds, each of which is a logarithmic spiral... Just look at it!

This is Broccoli. The first President Bush didn't like broccoli. He can go right to hell. Broccoli is awesome.

This is Cauliflower. It looks like albino broccoli, doesn't it? Don't let that weird you out. It's different, but it's pretty awesome. Low in fat, low in carbs, high in fiber and nutrients. It's a superfood! Also, tasty.

This is Kohlrabi. It's another guy that's popular in Europe, but never really made it to the US. Apparently Charlemagne ordered them grown throughout his kingdom. It's name means cabbageturnip. It does look an awful lot like a turnip.

So what do all of these have in common? These guys.

That's wild cabbage and wild mustard, of the brassica family. Cabbage has been domesticated more than half a dozen different ways, focusing on different aspects. Its leaves, its roots, its flowers... and all because it's super-nutritious and a little bit spicy! One: Cabbage is awesome. Two: So are we, for figuring that out. Three: Us again, because we've come up with so many ways to take advantage of cabbage's cabbageosity.

Remember turnips? Well, there's a reason kholrabi look like turnips; turnips are a closely related species of brassica! They're cousins! Turnips are pretty cool, too. The root's got some vitamin C. The leaves, for which they've also been cultivated, have a whole other mess of crap, too, like folate and fiber and junk. Go, turnips!

Beets are another variety of plant that have been cultivated multiple times. Sugar beets, chard, beetroot... Man, farming's pretty darn creative.

Monday, June 04, 2012

TVTropes: Slut Shaming

I have a tendency to link to TV Tropes when I think an article is even slightly relevant, and I've contributed to a lot of its pages. Every once in a while, I even go to the trouble of making a new article. With Choke Holds, Living Legend, and Corrupt Politician, I was just trying to fill a gap in the trope landscape. For example, Choke Holds used to be included in Tap On the Head, even though they're not quite the same thing, so I made a more precise trope that even went to the trouble of differentiating between blood chokes and air strangles.

Whereas with those I was creating variants of existing tropes, Soldiers at the Rear, Kick Me Prank, and Fixing the Game were more archetypal, less derivative. I was particularly surprised that there wasn't a trope for the kick me prank. So were others, apparently, but it hasn't really flourished; after all, it's something that shows up more often on kids' shows, I think.

However, the trope I think I'm proudest of is Slut Shaming. I wasn't the first to try and add it as a trope; lalaone asked, "Why was this cut out when I tried to add it, but when this person adds this it's ok?" My response was, "I really couldn't say; recall that things like this tend to get slammed hard by MRAs at the best of times. However, I put it through the YKTTW, got examples, got hats, edited this way and that, and added it. I hope it's here to stay. Perhaps in the interim the internet got a little more savvy about misogyny and religious prudery?"

I got this from some misogynist's website.

It isn't the most active trope out there, though it gets the occasional edit. If you look, you'll see that most of the entries are from my library. I went into a bit of detail with Robin Hobb's Realm of the Elderlings series and the show How I Met Your Mother. Marshall's "I call slut!" from the episode with The Naked Man was what prompted me to go in and make the trope.

As for why lalaone's attempt got deleted and why the trope didn't already exist, take a look at this, the first comment to appear on the discussion page.

The article seems rather biased toward the proposition that being a slut is not in fact shameful. At the least the activity often(whether for men or women) requires getting people into bed by being a Manipulative Bastard, and betraying one's last partner.

Seriously, within minutes of putting up the article. I'm glad I put it through the full YKTTW process, getting additional examples, cleaning up the entry, and seeing lots of people agreeing it needed to be put up. It hasn't been taken down yet, and if it ever disappears I'll fight tooth and nail to keep it.

The internet really is a bastion of misogynist douchery, where white, male, and hetero privilege rears its ugly head any time something slightly out of the norm appears. Things like this need to be out there just so people actually take the time to think about them and maybe, hopefully, come away a little less biased, a little more informed.

"What the hell is slut shaming? Slut shaming is the unfortunate phenomenon in which people degrade or mock a woman because she dresses in tight or revealing clothing, enjoys sex, has sex a lot or may even just be rumored to participate in sexual activity. The message that slut shaming sends to women is that sex is bad, having sex with more than one person is horrible, and everyone will hate you for having sex at all."

Friday, June 01, 2012

The Full Dialog on Profiling

Sam Harris and Bruce Schneier went back and forth on the issue of profiling. First they published a few articles on Harris's website, then they took it to email and published the full, final dialog. At 13000+ words, it's a novella. I responded to the first piece by Harris, but not Schneier's response, nor Harris's response to that. Now I'm going to do so. The whole thing's worth a read, but I'll provide very short summaries.

Harris's First Piece: In Defense of Profiling
Summary: Modern security screenings at airports are ridiculous. An infirm, elderly couple shouldn't go through an invasive search while a guy who could "play a Bollywood villain" lounges innocuously behind me. We should only screen people who are Muslims. Or look like Muslims. Or look like they could be Muslims.

My response: Dude, what the fuck. That wouldn't work because terrorists aren't stupid. As soon as you start focusing on a certain kind of target, they'll start planting bombs on other people. Also, it would really, really piss people off. Long story short, it would make us less safe by making more people want to hurt us and make it easier for them to do so.

Harris's Second Piece: On Knowing Your Enemy
Summary: This one isn't so amenable to summary because it's a broad response to the many, many responses that he got. So, I'm not going to summarize and respond succinctly and separately, but together and at length. A big part of it is trying to defend himself from charges of racism.

Unfortunately, Harris pulls all of those responses together and posits them as a representative whole. For example, in his list of eight points people raised, number two is that there's no link between Islam and suicide terrorism. Number four is that there's no way to "look Muslim", because the religion spans most of the continents and racial groups, from whites, to Semites, to blacks, to Asians. Number six is that racial profiling would let Muslim terrorists game the system and recruit people outside the profile. He then turns around and points out that four conflicts with number six, because if there's no way to "look Muslim", Muslim profiling wouldn't be the same as racial profiling. Number seven is that profiling would be incredibly offensive to Muslims, raising support for anti-American sentiment (and hence terrorism), which he then points out conflicts with number two, that there's no link between Islam and suicide terror.

Positing all the points that his thousands of readers made as a whole renders that whole incoherent, and I think that turns it into a Straw Man. The principles of honest argument (rather than political or popular debate) demand that you attack the strongest possible interpretation of your opponent's argument, not the weakest.

For example, point two, which he writes as "Furthermore, there is no link between Islam and suicidal terrorism." His interpretation is to take this literally, that his critics mean that there is no link between the two and therefore profiling Muslims would be useless. The charitable interpretation is that there's no necessary link between Islam and suicide terror. In fact, the vast majority of Muslims don't practice terrorism and are appalled by it. It's easy to argue that there is a correlative link between the two, as it's easy to read from the Koran that dying killing infidels is a good thing. The exact same thing can be garnered from Christian and Jewish texts, and both have strong traditions of murdering and dying for God. I believe there's a causative link between Islam and suicide terror, but it's not a universal causation. To put it another way, you won't die of cancer within minutes of smoking a cigarette. There are other factors at play.

Another reason Harris's approach in this article is flawed is because points two and seven are only in conflict if you take the uncharitable interpretations of each and assume that everyone making either argument is also in agreement with the other.

He then takes these arguments further and, to my eye, conflates them without justification with other events. Number seven, which is about offense given to Muslims and creating a culture that would lead to further terror, he links to the sort of appeasement that has been offered in response to Draw Mohammed Day. Cartoonists drew Mohammed, a portion of the Arab world went insane and burned, pillaged, and murdered. Some people responded by drawing Mohammed more, and were criticized by others, some of whom said, "That's just going to make them burn, pillage, and murder more." Those critics were in turn criticized for giving in to fear, and we need to stand up to them, etc. Does point seven necessarily link to that? No. Again, uncharitable.

The stronger interpretation of seven is that treating Muslims in that fashion as a group and without justification would necessarily anger them. Not only would we be creating a Muslim Malcolm X1, but we'd be creating support and sympathy for that type of individual among the Muslim population at home and abroad. It wouldn't drive all Muslims to angry, anti-American sentiment, and it wouldn't drive all of them to violence, but it would drive some, and the rest would find it harder to criticize them.

After other things like that which, I feel, don't get at the heart of the matter (that profiling would be counterproductive and dangerous), he segues into a discussion of Islamophobia that's somewhat relevant to the attacks he's facing but that aren't too interesting to me. I agree with him that Islam needs to be criticized on the grounds that, like all religions, it's factually wrong2 and that culturally a significant portion of the Islamic world represents a very serious threat to the non-Islamic world. I'm just disagreeing with him on the practical issue of racial profiling at airports.

Schneier's Response: The Trouble With Profiling
Summary: John Brockman is really smart. He sure hit the nail on the head, but I'm going to do a better job of explaining it with some simple analogies. Also, I'm going to point out a few things he missed, such as how randomized security cannot catch all possible threats and isn't intended to, but is intended to make the cost of trying high enough that terrorists don't even bother.

My response: Be smug, but not obviously so, after all I didn't fully anticipate what the nationally recognized expert on security would have to say on the subject. Only, you know, a lot of it.

The Full Dialog
The thing is that Schneier really is an expert about this and he answers all of Harris's points clearly and succinctly, and better than any amateur (me) could hope to. It's long, but well worth the read. Be aware that every time you think Harris is making a serious mistake, Schneier will point it out. I strongly recommend reading the full novella, because it's a short primer on security procedures and will explain how a proposed deviation like Harris's is a non-starter for simple, practical reasons as well as broader, ethical concerns.

1 - I'm aware that Malcolm X was a member of the Nation of Islam, but the radical differences between its doctrines and those of the rest of Islam make them related, but not the same religion. Sort of like a Messianic Jewish cult that's also racist in two different directions.

2 - Among many other things, there is no god, so Muhammed couldn't have been his prophet. Also, pig is delicious, fasting is stupid, meteors are for study, not prayer. Scientific study. Making study carrel's out of it would be silly.