Monday, December 28, 2009

A bit of biblical fun

I don't usually do the biblical bits here, but this one tickled me:

1. Jesus calls himself the Son of man (e.g. Matthew 16:24-28):

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.
Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.

2. Numbers (23:19) points out that he's therefore NOT God:

God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent

My life is not a marketing exercise

I read so often from liberal theists, faitheists and people who want to frame science, that "aggressive" atheism is "hurting the cause" of atheism or reason or cute puppies, that it will convince nobody and turn off those we wish to convince.

These arguments are long on emotion and very short on evidence. They're also factually inaccurate (in that most so-called "aggressive" atheism is anything but aggressive).

My usual argument has been that not every atheist activity is about convincing others; in fact, hardly any of it, as far as I can see.

My life is not a marketing exercise.

But sometimes it actually does impact those we criticize, and sometimes they come to understand what we're getting at, whether that was the aim or not.

I have read a lot of deconversion stories and related discussion (hundreds by now).
I have seen many times former theists say things along the lines of "Well, actually, I had my faith criticized and it wasn't until that moment that I began to really think about my beliefs."

I've seen comments like that on blogs, in forums, on youtube, yahoo answers and reddit. I saw another only this morning.

Not every deconversion of course - a lot of the time people start thinking about these things themselves, or the trigger to start down that road is something different. But quite a lot of the time, an aggressive challenge to someone's beliefs is actually effective in getting them to think about it. Yes, it will also annoy plenty of people - people don't like having cherished beliefs criticized. You have to pick your moments. But that doesn't mean it is automatically counterproductive.

Being likeable is not often a catalyst for change.

I think being generally thought of as likeable is impossible. Atheists - unless we hide ourselves in a closet forever - will often be regarded as confrontational, simply for existing.

There's absolutely a place for people like Hemant Mehta, with those who seek to actively engage with the religious. More power to him. I think Hemant and people like him do a great deal of good, not only for atheism and reason, but for wider humanity. There's also a place for the louder, less compromising voices.

I have never once seen someone say "my former beliefs were respected and treated with deference - and that was what convinced me they were wrong".

Why would it? How could it?

Yes, if you want to work with theist allies in some other cause, be it gay marriage or proper health care or whatever, it might not be the occasion to critically discuss the truth of their beliefs, but to focus on the current priority. (On the other hand, it's probably never the time to agree to propositions you acually disagree with, or even to hold silent on them, simply for the sake of getting on.)

I think most atheists can manage the distinction between present priorities and longer term goals well enough.

But if we're talking about reason and evidence and skepticism, attempting to promote them and spread them, it makes no sense at all to ignore the most egregious transgressions against them.

If we are trying to get people to critically examine their beliefs, it makes no sense to pat them on the head and tell them we think their crazy beliefs are just dandy. Freedom of belief is only that - to believe as you like. It doesn't mean freedom never to be called on those beliefs. It is not freedom from criticism. It is not freedom from questions.

Our commitment to freedom of belief does not mean we must accept other people's fanstasies as perfectly valid, or that we must meekly hold our tongue when they're brought up. Indeed, we should not. The person you risk offending may also be the person you eventually goad into the line of thought that leads them to convincing themselves.

What could be better than people thinking for themselves?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

How to mislead others for the sake of a zippier story

In which I spank Gallup's shiny arse a little, and maybe USA Today's

I wrote a much more detailed version of this post a couple of weeks ago, but my lameness resulted in me losing the whole damn file, and I didn't have time to rewrite... until now. This is not the same post. [Couldn't remember The Greatest Post in the World, no, no. This is a tribute...]

A couple of weeks ago, Gallup published a media release about its annual Honesty and Ethics Ratings of Professions survey, USA Today had an article on it, and Hemant Mehta expressed puzzlement at the fact that while overall approval for clergy had gone down, it went up amongst the non-religious. In his words, "What. The. Hell?".

Hemant quotes the USA Today article:
Ratings dropped year-over-year among Catholics and Protestants, as well as among regular and occasional churchgoers. However, they rose in one category: among those professing "no religion." Last year, 31% rated clergy honesty high or very high; in 2009, that figure inched up to 34%.

That came from Gallup's media release, where they published this graph, which deliberately sets out the comparison that was made in the USA Today article:

So what gives? Why would it go up for the non-religious?

The most likely explanation is sampling variation. Gallup mention sampling variation, but in this case, that's just not enough.

Gallup says, hidden away down the bottom:
"Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,017 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 20-22, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points."

Even with this disclaimer, this doesn't make sufficiently clear the magnitude of the problem. That 4% is a little more than the 3% figure for the difference, so maybe we should be a little bit cautious about the three percent being real (and caution is all it would suggest, since if we scale back from 95% confidence to say 75% confidence, it would go below the three percent difference).

But it's much, much worse.

First thing to note is that the 4% sampling variation figure that Gallup give only applies to the overall figures. [By the usual calculations, I get 3% rather than 4%. I assume Gallup is inserting some additional margin of caution there, but it's nowehere near enough, as we'll see.]

The 4% they give does NOT apply to percentages of subgroups.

There were about a thousand interviewed (1017). The proportion that are willing to give “no religion” for a question about their religion on a phone interview varies a bit, but it's generally around 10-15%. I can't tell what it was here, so let’s be generous to Gallup and say 15%.

That’s around 150 with no religion. The sampling variation for that subgroup is more than 2.5 times as big as it is for the original sample (sqrt(1017/150) times as big), or roughly 10% by Gallup’s reckoning of 4% for the original survey (their 4% is very rough so I am not worrying about being too precise - and I will err in Gallup's favour at each point).

Now, when you compare TWO surveys (31% vs 34%), the margin of error is bigger – if we can assume independence of the responses in the two surveys, you actually use good old Pythagoras’ theorem here.

So the margin of error on the change between two surveys on this subgroup is around 14%.


We have an increase of 3% give or take 14%.

There is no reason to assume anything happened at all. Maybe it went up, maybe it went down. We have NO clue. No way to tell if anything happened at all.

Yet Gallup clearly invite precisely the comparison USA Today made, and Hemant ran with.

It was irresponsible of Gallup not to point out that the comparison they made in the graph above had such a high margin of error that such comparison was meaningless. They should have pointed it out, or not made the comparison at all.

The disclaimer at the end is entirely insufficient. (And USA Today should have at least realized that even with a 4% margin of error their own comparison was at least a little dodgy, but you know, it's the media we're talking about. Probably didn't even read all the way to the bottom of the Gallup release. Take a look at approval figures for journalists some time.)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Godless creep up to around 30% in Australia

A recent Nielsen survey in Australia on religious belief puts the number who don't believe in god at 24% and not sure/don't know at 6%.

The percentage of Christians is 64%, with other major faiths totalling around 5%.

The numbers are not changing rapidly, but disbelief is much higher among the young, so it looks like the numbers of nonbelievers will continue to grow, albeit slowly - census information from New Zealand shows that people don't adopt religion faster than they leave it as a cohort ages, and there's nothing to suggest that this trend would be any different in Australia; that is, the overall percentage of nobelievers will likely be well in the majority in a few decades.

Belief in life after death is only 53%, and belief that the bible/quran/etc is the word of god is only 34%.

But there were some worrying numbers, too, with Darwinian evolution not far in front of some form of "god guided" development (42% to 32%), and YE creationism coming in third, but with alarmingly high numbers (23%); in this case I'd particularly like to see the exact wording of the question that was put, because the numbers seem quite out of kilter; it would suggest that there are very few theists (only about 20% or so of theists in all) who accept Darwinian evolution, assuming almost all nontheists do.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

What evidence would it take to make you believe in god?

I've answered this question a lot lately. So I thought I'd put down how I am answering it - that way I can just point to a reasonable answer, instead of having to write one every time. I may polish it slightly over time, to clarify what I am getting at.

So what evidence would it take to make me believe in god?

The short answer is "almost any evidence at all, if it meets a few criteria, and I know before we start what it is we're looking for evidence of".

Here's a longer version, slightly clarified from one I posted elsewhere to a question from a theist.

First, let's agree on what phenomenon we're investigating:
  1. Which god are we discussing? What are its properties?
  2. what observations would rule out such a being?

This is necessary because if its properties are undefined, how can *anything* constitute evidence for it? How would one distinguish between evidence for, evidence against and irrelevant information?

Given suitably clear answers to those, I will accept pretty much any evidence that's
  • sufficiently extraordinary to match the extraordinariness of the claimed god,
  • sufficient to rule out alternate non-supernatural explanations, and also
  • sufficient to rule out alternative supernatural ones

i.e. any evidence sufficiently strong to convince me we found what we were looking for (rather than something else extraordinary or even ordinary), and that we're not just fooling ourselves or being fooled by someone or something else.

In other words, if you specify which god hypothesis we're proposing up front, and what evidence could rule the hypothesis out (otherwise it's an hypothesis without any explanatory value at all), I'll then be prepared to consider evidence for it. To cover all those bases, it will have to be multiple, pretty consistent pieces of evidence, but I won't limit it. Lots of things will do.

[One problem I often run into is that frequently the theist asking the question's concept of what constitutes evidence is not what's normally regarded as actual evidence for a phenomenon at all. Feelings aren't evidence, for example. Nor is popular opinion. Nor is "it's written in this book" really evidence, because not everything written in books is true. Historians have ways of becoming reasonably convinced of certain things having happened, rather than relying on statements in a single work of unclear providence.]

Any real evidence. Almost anything that's demonstrably not just at some stage come out of people's heads.


Now your turn, theists: What observation(s), if any, would convince you that your particular god doesn't exist?

That offensive F-word

There's a word that I'm finding increasingly offensive, because people use it for dramatic effect rather than conveying meaning.

The F-word.

The F-bomb, if you will.

No, I don't mean "fuck". Fuck's a very useful word, as noun, verb and expletive.

I mean "faith".

You see, the problem is I see more and more two very different meanings of the word being conflated, using faith to refer to both making progress in the absence of complete, absolute knowledge and to refer to belief-in-the-absence-of-any-evidence-whatever.

That conflation, in turn, is used to equate the magnificent enterprise of extracting understanding out of the universe, and fuzzy-headed theological obscurantism.

These mythomaniacal word-games are designed to mislead, to paper over the oxymoron.

That's what's offensive.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Non-religious weddings boom in Australia

Non-religious (civil) weddings in Australia have boomed over the last decade.

See this "Civil weddings now double the number of religious" media release (pdf) by the New South Wales government, and this newspaper article on the corresponding figures in Victoria (which together account for 60% of Australia's population).

So I made a graph. It shows the percentage of weddings that were civil ceremonies by year for the two states (with the corresponding remainder - the religious weddings - percentage shown over on the axis on the right).

Non-religious weddings in Australia
Data Sources: NSW Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages
and Victorian Registry of Births Deaths and Marriages

By 2002 religious weddings were already in a minority... and presently they're outnumbered about two-to-one. If anything, from the NSW figures, the trend is accelerating.

Of course, lots and lots of people just aren't getting married at all. They're not in these figures, and they're growing too.

(edited Nov 2011 to fix dead link)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Pew online Political News IQ survey

Pew have a Political News Quiz up, here, and you can see how you went compared to a national US survey.

I did okay on that:
Here's Your Score: You correctly answered 12 of the 12 possible questions along with approximately 2% of the public. You did better than 98% of the general public.

If you do it, once you get a graph like the above, there are some further links on the left with more information; the link How you did, question by question takes you to a list of which questions you got right or not and the percentage of correct responses on each question from the previous survey.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Finished "The Greatest Show on Earth"

Extremely short version of a book review, kinda.

In short, I was quite impressed with it.

Dawkins, though given to occasional infelicities, is a very engaging writer. Good coverage of a lot of the evidence for evolution. Highly recommended.

It's also a book that sits well beside Coyne's Why Evolution Is True - there's definitely value in having both.

I'd write more, but I am not feeling up to much analysis of the book right now.

[To be more specific, I now have a partially collapsed left lung, as well as some scarring on the right lung, which is apprently otherwise okay now. I feel a bit crap, to be honest.]

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Ten, no eleven! things that shit me about research seminars

1) People who can't stick close to time. There's a time limit for a reason - people have other places to go. The last 5 talks I attended all went way, way over time; if you can't get the point across in the time, you don't understand what's important about your work.

Don't these people have ANY idea how long they're going to take? Unless I am interrupted a lot, I can usually time my talk to within a few minutes or so, based off nothing more than the number of slides I have; generally close enough to finish with time for a few questions before the scheduled time is up. I check my watch a couple of times as I go, so if I am running well over for some reason (which almost never happens), I can skip ahead to the more critical stuff. How can someone go almost twice the allocated time without realizing? (And if they do realize and do it anyway, who the hell do they think are?)

2) Morons who think that putting their entire PAPER on slides is acceptable practice. In 12 point.

As soon as I see someone holding their slides in portrait orientation, I start to sweat (well, hardly anyone carries actual physical slides any more - but a few of these guys still do). I'm in for a lot of eyestrain, and they are absolutely guaranteed to run way over time. And they're going to spend the entire talk with their back to me. The back of your head just isn't that interesting.

For some reason, by far the most common offenders on this are LaTeX users. I don't know why. I can read your freaking text 5 times as fast as you can say it. Maybe more. If I want to read your freaking paper, I will read your freaking paper. I do NOT want to listen to you READING your freaking paper to me. This is not going to get me interested in what you did.

If you can't summarize it, you don't understand it well enough to be giving a presentation. If you won't put in the effort to summarize it, why should I put in the effort to sit through it?

3) People who think it's necessary to go through proofs, protocols, algorithms or whatever in excruciating detail. If I want extreme detail, I will read your damn paper. If you did something particularly clever to prove a result, tell me briefly what that was, but otherwise, unless it's the only thing your paper is about* don't do more than present the result, tell me why it's interesting and what you can do with it. Outline the proof if it's really brief.

* and if it is all you can talk about, I probably won't be back at your next talk.

4) If I have to ask "Why should I care about this?" (though I may put it more politely than that) then you have already failed.

That's the entire point of giving a presentation, something you should convey in the first few minutes. If we got to the end of your talk and I am asking, you didn't even hint at it.

If I ask and you still can't answer, you have no business giving a talk on it.

5) People who think that spouting bullshit is better than answering "I don't know". I don't expect every speaker to have a ready answer for every question - that would be ridiculous. "I don't know" is okay, "but I'll find out and let you know" is better. But whatever you do, don't bullshit me. Chances are I will know the moment you open your mouth. If not, I will likely find out a few minutes after the talk has finished. I will NOT be impressed.

6) People who think that brown text on a purple background is a good idea. Black on white is readable. Many other colour combinations are definitely NOT. And fancy wipes and shit - it's distracting, not interesting. Knock it off. Your talk should be interesting. If you have to fuck around with brainbending colours and wipes and fades and crap, you're not spending time on the content. ... and starwipe!

7) People who can't answer basic questions about how they got some particular result (e.g. "Did this come from the survey or the interviews?"). If you don't know your own research that well, why would I believe it's your own work? Even if I do, why would I trust anything else you say about it?

8) People who make some amazing assertion but don't have a good answer for "what is your evidence for this assertion?". Look, if you're going to make a claim, someone is going to make you justify it. If it's an extraordinary claim, you have to have really good evidence.

If you can't justify it, don't make the claim. Just don't.

9) People who put three words and some clipart on a slide and present 5 slides total... (and STILL, unbelievably, somehow manage to go 45 minutes past the allocated 45 minutes).

If you don't have some actual content, you're wasting my time. Have something to say, and don't spend longer than necessary to say it.

10) People who start their talk with a list of assumptions, every one of which is known, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to be completely false in practice, well beyond any sense of "approximation"*. And then finish their talk without attempting to address why their results are in any way relevant, or even identify which assumptions their results are robust to deviations from, and which ones are more critical.

If your work is always a bunch of unexamined, unrealistic assumptions followed by some unenlightening proof of a result and no applications, I am sorry, but I don't think your work is brilliant. I think it's masturbation, with grants.

*("assume a spherical cow" can be just fine, in the right context)

11) People who obliviously break a bunch of these rules, over and over, and never seem to learn a single thing year upon year. Even if you're utterly incapable of self-reflection, at least pay enough attention to notice what works and what doesn't when other people present.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


I just had to get this one down. It's too crazy not to.
"When we applied for non-profit status in the UK, and faced delays greater than for a new religion, the Charity Commission wrote back to us, and I quote: 'Kindly explain how scientific education benefits humanity.' "
-- Richard Dawkins, on the Richard Dawkins Foundation
Source: Dinner with Dawkins on Flickr (jurvetson), via Too Many Tribbles

[Aside on health: still recovering, 7 weeks down the track. Getting there slowly. And I still can't get my blog page to load for some reason.]

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Admiration and disagreement...

Mark Chu-Carroll has an excellent blog, Good Math, Bad Math - (I get the feed, which I don't do with all that many blogs). It's reliably intelligent, clear, unfailingly educational and tolerates fools not at all.

But I have to note a point of disagreement with him now.

Mark takes Phil Plait of BadAstronomy to task over what he sees as Plait employing dualism.

Actually, I don't object so much to that, though I think he's making slightly more of it than was necessary; and especially given Phil was in the process of debunking nonsense.

But then he commits what I see as a much graver error than Phil's fairly weak expression of dualism (which he refers to as "sloppy dualism").

In discussing "sloppy dualism" he says:

"But moving from non-determinism to choice is a problem. If you're consistent, and you reject non-physical entities and influences in the world, then you are no exception.

There's no scientific reason to believe that we have free will."

No problem so far - there is really little to no evidence that we have it - and indeed, some experiments do seem to suggest that we in fact may not have it. I know it *feels* like we have it, and we certainly base our society around the assumption that we possess it - but neither of those things means that we do. Our choices can certainly be influenced, that much is clear (which is why so much money is spent on advertising, for example).

He goes further:
"There's non-determinism; but there's not choice."

Okay, fine. We haven't demonstrated that we really choose in the sense of exercising free will -- though I can make some arguments - a series of thought experiments (though you could easily carry them out) - that seem to show we can at least simulate something like that. But that's a post for another time.

He's already begun to push the boundary here - he's gone from saying "we haven't demonstrated choice" to seeming to assert that we can't have choice in a purely naturalistic framework.

[This is not necessarily the case, of course. For example, Penrose suggested that quantum effects come into it. I happen to think Penrose was utterly wrong (not just about microtubules, but the whole quantum-consciousness concept), but the point still stands - there may be ways to have a natural/materialist explanation of these matters, Chu-Carroll's assertions notwithstanding. The onus is on him to make a much better demonstration of impossibility.]

But let's be generous - maybe he's not asserting that - maybe I'm misreading him?

Well, no, he really is. Here's where he goes completely off the rails:

"Choice is the introduction of something, dare I say it, supernatural: some influence that isn't part of the physical interaction, which allows some clusters of matter and energy to decide how they'll collapse a probabilistic waveform into a particular reality."

He has certainly gone beyond anything you can reliably infer fromn Plait's words there. He's also snuck in a whole load of extra stuff with little justification.

But he goes on:

"The funny thing is that at the end of the day, I agree with him. I've mentioned before that I'm a theist. The reason that I'm a theist is because I believe in consciousness."

I have no problem with Chu-Carroll's variety of theism. He's (with the possible tiny exception, which I don't begrudge him) entirely rational - his theism is utterly beside the point here; my problem is with his reasoning.

The progression appears to be (someone please nudge me if you detect a straw man):

- "consciousness is complex" (granted)

- "choice requires consciousness. We don't see a possibility for that to happen in physics" (not granted - I don't see that it's been ruled out even if we can't see a mechanism for it)

- "I therefore have no natural explanation for consciousness" (I don't agree, but let's pretend his argument goes through for now)

- "therefore god"

Wait. WHAT?

This is hoary old argument-from-ignorance - specifically, it's argument from personal incredulity:


The favourite canard of every YEC, every evolution-denier, every muddle-headed biblical literalist...

...from Mark Chu-Carroll? Colour me amazed. Stunned.

Natural explanations are sufficient for everything we can reliably, demonstrably explain at all. But he throws it over rather casually.

The fact is, as Greta Christina points out,

"When you look at the history of what we know about the world, you see a very noticeable pattern. Natural explanations of things have been replacing supernatural explanations of them... as we understood the world better, and learned to observe it more carefully, the religious explanations were replaced by physical cause and effect."

"The number of times that a supernatural or religious explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a natural explanation? Thousands upon thousands upon thousands."

"The number of times that a natural explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a supernatural or religious one? The number of times humankind has said, "We used to think (X) was caused by physical cause and effect, but now we understand that it's actually caused by God, or spirits, or demons, or the soul"?

Zero Exactly zero."

I commented on his blog (from which I have taken the liberty of extracting part).
The below is simply suggesting a possibility for what we perceive as consciousness - because I am not convinced we have really established consciousness is *real*, let alone that we can't ever explain it naturally:

- Let's take as given (I hope) that the ability to infer intent in the action of other animals has useful survival benefits (as in "that tiger is heading toward the river - it's probably looking for a meal" vs "that tiger's just gone toward its cave after a feed - it's probably looking to have a sleep"), whether the animal in question actually possesses consciousness or even actual intent. Such an ability becomes even more critical in an intelligent social species, like say, wolves or baboons, or even more so in bonobos, chimps, or ourselves, of course.

- Given that inferring intent is potentially useful for survival, demonstrate that what you call consciousness is not something as simple as say, our intention-inferring brain's attempt to rationalize what it observes itself doing.

If it's potentially something reasonably trivial (almost a side effect, perhaps), why invoke something complex without a reason to do so?

- -

Make no mistake, "god" is the most complex possible explanation. Or rather, it's the ultimate non-explanation, because we are never presented with a set of observations with which it's inconsistent. Because it can be plunked down to "explain" any observation, it's completely useless. It's the end of inquiry. It must therefore be the absolute last resort as an explanation, because its the worst possible explanation. And we're nowhere near a last resort.

So the point I was making up there is, before we start saying "consciousness is tricky, therefore god", we need first to demonstrate that there's some "there" there - that consciousness is something "real", something big - not something relatively simple, like a side effect of other brain processes - that we need a complex explanation for.

And then we need to demonstrate that natural explanations are utterly ruled out - and because we have yet to find a single case where we demonstrably can't have a natural explanation, or require a supernatural one, it had better be a very good demonstration.

Mark Chu-Carroll hasn't even come close to making his case.

[As noted before - I can post, but I can't read my blog at the moment. So I can't really see how this looks, except for a rough preview. Apologies if there are errors; as a result I will probably make a lot of tiny edits without specifically marking them as edits, as I notice them from the preview. Please excuse that.]

Blogging anniversary

Tomorrow, October 5 is the second anniversary of the first post to Ecstathy, so today marks the final day of my second year of writing this blog (one of four, in fact, but this one is my most active and second oldest).

I've made about 220 posts, and since I started measuring (a good while after I started the blog), I've had around 17000 visitors - not big, by any means, but many more than I ever expected.

Hopefully I've still got something to say in another couple of years.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Ardi: probably not an actual ancestor

Again, find an interesting fossil, and the media is full of hyperbole.

Ardi is probably not a human ancestor. Ardi is probably not a common ancestor of humans and chimps.

The hominin family tree is very bushy. There's lots of "cousins" in it.

It's much more likely that Ardi's species is a close relative of a human ancestor than a direct human ancestor - but Ardi is probably very like a direct human ancestor that lived at the same time (a bit like looking for Cro Magnon and finding Neanderthal - it's really a very good approximation). It's even less likely that Ardi is the most recent common ancestor of humans, chimpanzees and bonobos. Again, Ardi is probably somewhat like that common ancestor, but to my understanding the branch point is a good deal older than Ardi - the figure I usually see is 6-7 mya, Ardipithecus ramidus is a bit over 4.

You don't need to call your great aunt "grandma" to feel close to her.

The fossil is a very exciting find. We don't need to make it something it's likely not, for it to be fascinating.

(been trying to post this since news first came, but haven't been able to get on blogger for some reason)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Just dust

The dust storm in Sydney hit me pretty hard - I'm struggling a bit with the side that had the lung problems.

Update: More dust. Ow.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A hole-shaped hole.

Greta Christina hits the nail right into the wood again, with her piece "There has to be somethng more": atheism and yearning.

Toward the end, she takes her argument to a conclusion that I found particularly striking (maybe it works better in context):

We don't have a God-shaped hole in our hearts. We have a hole-shaped hole in our hearts.

I think there's something profound in that little epigram.

Monday, September 21, 2009

My new favourite word

In a comment thread at Pharyngula, Plasma pointed out a word that I have needed in online discussions for a long time.

misology: fear or distrust of reason or logic

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Healthcare and survival

A number of Republican politicians and pundits have declared the US healthcare system "the best in the world". For the richest half of one percent of the population — like, say those Republican politicians and pundits — that might even be true. But how is it for everyone?

I've been wanting to graph this information for a while. I must be getting better, because I had the energy to pursue it today.

A crude but simple measure of how well a healthcare system works is how long people live - obviously, if you tend to die earlier, average lifespan is reduced. So what do the various countries get for their healthcare expenses?

I took data on healthcare costs from here, and data on life expectancy from here. The data is for the USA compared to a bunch of countries with some degree of public (i.e. government) involvement in healthcare (aside from just the elderly and veterans). The other countries are: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, and the UK.

I've seen it in words and numbers, but this makes the point very clearly. For the countries I had figures on, in 2004, the US paid more than twice as much in overall healthcare costs per person (adjusted for cost of living)... for easily the worst expected lifespan (2009 figures), almost a full year worse than the UK, which is easily the worst of the countries here (other than the US). Most of these countries manage to get more than two extra years per person average life span while spending less than half as much money.

I must be missing where the "best" part is.

Really, I don't think much more needs to be said.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Rush Limbaugh calls for racial segregation

Rush Limbaugh thinks buses should be racially segregated.

Meanwhile, 35% of New Jersey conservatives think Obama could really be the Antichrist (and fully half of them believe he actually is). Dana gives some additional figures.

I find myself unable to adequately convey just how scary that level of unhinged-from-reality is (to have more than a third of conservatives seriously contemplating that Obama is literally the antichrist? Really?).

America, Hi, it's me, frequent visitor to your shores, who happens to be somewhat fond of the US. Look, I don't want to alarm you or anything (please put the guns down for a sec, thanks). Uh, would you mind handing your nuclear weapons over to somewhere sane (Sweden or New Zealand would do) until the proportion of people in your country who are completely bugfuck NUTS goes down just a tad? Please?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Greatest Show on Earth...

Well, I bought Dawkins' "The Greatest Show on Earth", and got it for a reasonable price (i.e. half what I paid for Coyne's "Why Evolution Is True").

Have not yet started to read it. It is sitting right here beside me, though, and I am about to dive in.

Healthwise: improving, slowly.

Friday, September 11, 2009

health... again

Now a partly collapsed lung...

If I don't update for a while, I'm either better, or back in hospital.

Update: antibiotics and several sessions of physiotherapy seem to be helping with the lung. Recovery continues. (Some occasional vision and related issues that I assume relate to the torn carotid; I will take it up with the neuro specialist when I see him.)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The problem with the "moderate" view

Tom Schaller writes on in response to Obama's speech on health care:

This was classic Obama, both from a policy conceit and rhetorical framing. Anyone who read The Audacity of Hope knows how Obama works through issues—he sets up how one side conceives it and how the other side does and then, after admitting he is inclined toward progressive/Democratic side of the ledger, he humbly suggests the best solution is probably somewhere in between.

Such an attitude works when both sides you mediate lie toward either end of a spectrum of reasonableness - when both have sensible points of view that differ mainly on relative emphasis placed on items that everyone can agree are important.

In the current environment, such mediation-between-viewpoints reads more like this (the idea here is not original with me, but I have no idea who started it - and searching hasn't been helpful in finding the origin, sorry):

Side 1: Let's kill all the kittens!

Side 2: What? No! That's ludicrous! There's no need to harm kittens!!

Mediator: Tell you what. We could just kill half the kittens, while recognizing that it's really only half-necessary to kill kittens.

If one side is batshit insane (and prepared to lie and move goalposts and never actually compromise), you can't hope that an intermediate position ever makes any sense. Halfway to batshit-insane is still insane.

The golden mean is not resistant to outliers, and soon starts to smell of them

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Thursday, September 3, 2009

"Why Evolution Is True" mini-review

I recently bought Coyne's book "Why Evolution Is True". I had not planned on finishing it quite so quickly, but an enforced 5 days in hospital made short work of it; I could have read it four times over.

Overall: It's a solid covering of a lot of both the evidence that evolution has occurred (and continues to occur), and the evidence that a major driver of evolutionary change is natural selection. It's clearly and engagingly written - the level is a bit lighter than I'd like (there are many places where just a bit more detail and depth would help), but probably spot on for the audience it's aimed at.

Nits: Actually, I have quite a lot of nits to pick. I won't list them all just now (I may visit some in a later post), but they're mostly minor. I'd love to have seen more on ERVs, for example. A number of assertions are made that really should have some evidence to back them up -- and at least one of those assertions is, I think, very likely wrong, and reads like accomodationism. (Coyne is no accomodationist, which makes it seem weird.)

Who this book is for:
- anyone who wants to learn what evolution is, what is the evidence that it happens, and why natural selection is such a powerful explanation of it.
- anyone who finds themselves in the position of having to try to explain to someone else what evolution is, ... and so on. This includes me. The moment a creationist finds out I am interested in science, I'm enthusiastically Gish-galloped. This is a good start on background for being able to give better responses than my original laser-like response of "uh-whuh-huh?".
- anyone who wants to argue that evolution is wrong. This is a basic introduction to what they have to try to argue against - that straw man they currently pound makes them look like morons.

In short, "Why Evolution Is True" is an enjoyable book. Well worthwhile, even at the relatively exhorbitant price I had to pay for it in Australia.

Facing death

I get into discussions with christians a lot. Recently, I've had a lot of (online) discussion with fairly radical bible-literalist largely-creationist types.

I'm often asked by them if I fear death, and I explain that I came to terms with it years ago. I say I don't fear it at all. Many of them tell me I am lying, or that I am deceiving myself, and when faced with the real prospect of death I will come crying back to the Lawd begging for forgiveness, no-atheists-in-foxholes.

I never bought it - I've come close to death before, and even before I really thought it through, the prospect of dying wasn't that terrifying (pain, on the other hand, I'd really rather avoid, but that's a side issue). But how would I feel NOW?

Well, I recently had a serious prospect of death. I was laying face down on the floor, having crawled a few feet toward the phone and unable to move any further, with all the symptoms of a stroke, and resolved to wait for someone to find me (which I was pretty sure would be no more than ten minutes). So anyway, I had several minutes to ponder the very real possibility I might die, not at some distant time in the future, but with the very real good chance I might die today, possibly right there on the floor.

I didn't actually think death was all that likely, mind you; I was more worried about the prospect of surviving with major defects and being a damn nuisance, but even that didn't seem hugely likely - if things went well, I expected I'd probably come out of it mostly okay, given a few weeks or months at most. But still the prospect that "this could be the day I die" was there.

So how was it?

I felt not the slightest twinge of fear. Not the briefest moment of doubt. I had no impulse to pray. I had no sense that I was risking infinite torture imposed by the merciless and implacable god of the new testament*.

I simply thought that it was possible I might die. It was annoying, like missing the last half of a good TV show that I'd really been enjoying. I was somewhat concerned that my kids might see me dead on the floor, which would be somewhat traumatic. That was it.

So I feel vindicated. I was right. When faced with the immediate, real possibility of death... I don't fear it. Not a whit. All the vile christian threats - they don't work on me any more. Even when I think I might really die.

* This guy (I'm looking at KJV):
Matthew 10:28, 13:41-42, 25:41, 25:46
Mark 4:11-12, 9:43-48, 16:16
Luke 12:5, 13:23-30
John 3:36, 15:6

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

My close-up experience of grandma-killing "socialized" medicine

I had a very interesting experience this past week. Last Wednesday night I had a TIA (transient ischaemic attack).

So (long-story-short) emergency was dialled (not 911!) and an ambulance arrived in a ridiculously short few minutes. The ambos checked me out, asked a few questions... and after a few seconds of discussion they decided to take me to a hospital a few km south with a specialty neuro unit - a public hospital.

I was in the hospital in minutes. I was assessed again in emergency; and then an emergency doctor saw me almost immediately. After a surprisingly short wait (though this was probably after 7pm) the neuro specialist had come in to check me out - and he had a few residents with him. Though my case was unusual, he had figured out the cause of the TIA instantly he saw me, and attempted to get the residents to figure it out too.

(It turns out that you can cough yourself into a stroke... if you cough so hard you tear your carotid artery, and then dislodge the clump of platelets that form over the wound - with more coughing. It sounds funny, but I have to stop laughing because it makes me cough more. His diagnosis was confirmed by later scans.)

I spent nearly 5 days in hospital, and over that time (beside the initial time in emergency) I shared wards with seven people in their 80s and 90s, as well as one slightly younger lady I didn't find out much about. Apart from a few hours in emergency, I was in the stroke ward (which is opposite the nurses station and has monitors at every bed) for most of the time, but my last few days were in the next ward along. [Each of these wards is only four beds - and they're usually not all full.]

Everyone, public patient or private, old or young, had CT scans, MRIs, ultrasounds, blood tests (and further tests depending on their particular case), along with regular monitoring. While I was in the stroke ward, I and my fellow patients were all visited by a stroke team, a physiotherapist, a speech pathologist, an occupational therapist, a social worker, and several others as necessary for the individual case (e.g. I also saw a respiratory team and a dietician - to work out how the hospital might cater for my unusual dietary needs and to assess my diet longer term). Everything was being done not only to get us well and able to function as best as possible, but to try to make sure we were able to remain out of hospital and either be able to care for ourselves or be properly cared for.

The staff were amazingly professional, competent, friendly and helpful, though usually very busy.

Was everything perfect? No, several minor things went wrong. I wouldn't expect everything to work perfectly in a large organization where the situation is so chaotic and constantly changing and the people so busy. What mattered to me was the way that the problems that did arise were dealt with. If you brought a problem to the attention of the nurses or doctors, it tended to get solved. They listened.

I was one of several private patients in a public ward (by choice). Being private meant I was free to choose my doctor (why would I choose anyone but the excellent specialist they had on hand?). We got a few trifling extras (like they supplied me with shampoo and soap which was handy the first day before I got organized wityh all my own stuff).

Were there shortages? Yes, now and then - I saw the nursing staff dealing with some kinds of shortage (like not enough kidney-dishes), but I never saw a moment where they let these difficulties impact the care of their patients.

Of the four people over eighty I shared time in the stroke ward with, three improved rapidly and went home within a few days, and the fourth was transferred to another facility her son worked at for some longer term care nearer her family. In the second ward was another TIA patient in his nineties who also came along very well and was likely to be able to go home soon.

So how was the time in the "socialized-medicine" public hospital?

The sun shone in through large windows overlooking million-dollar river views. There were bevies of committed professionals looking after us. There was lots of talking and laughing and joking. One old guy did a bit of tap-dancing. People, old and young(-ish), recovered and went home. Nobody killed grandma.

[It is interesting to think on this: We have just as much a problem with obesity here as the US does. We have less money (about 20% less per capita). But we live FOUR YEARS longer. Government involvement in health care - it's certainly not perfect - but it seems it saves lives. Lots of lives. Even grandma's.]

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Finally managed to get hold of "Why Evolution Is True"

I've been trying to get hold of Why Evolution Is True" for months and months... and I finally found a copy. It was always "[typity-type] oh, our store in outer Mongolia has a copy. Or I could order it in for you... (... for $45)".

Anyway the bookstore on campus actually finally got it in. Yay. $46 (WTF!?) but with discount it was just under $43 ($35 US - yeah, I should have just waited 4 weeks and I'd be in Chicago and could have got it for heaps less, or even had it shipped from the US by Amazon, for that matter). But anyway, I decided not to wait and just get it.

Haven't had much time to read it, but the little I have read so far is very good.

I have put Darwin aside for a little (I'm about halfway through), because reading Darwin constantly had me saying "but don't we know such-and-such now?" - I really wanted to have a better understanding of current evolutionary ideas; actually I'm not too badly off, since I read around a fair bit, but it's always been in tiny disconnected pieces - this book of Jerry Coyne's looks like a good laymans overview.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Jerry Coyne aptness

Jerry Coyne said something I have been struggling to express so concisely in many recent discussions. I liked it so I figured I would quote him.

And here we have the real difference between faith and science, for, unlike faith, science can answer the question, “How would I know if I were wrong?” And if you can’t answer that question, how can you know if you are right?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ontologically logical

Today I used Anselm's ontological argument to prove the existence of Odin.

Odin was very grateful.

Now what do I do with an 8-legged horse?

Edit: See Skeptico's debunking of Anselm's argument

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Gallup Poll on religious belief in US:

Gallup poll here on religious belief in the US. Total sample size is over 178000.
(page 1, with map and article here, but to me the numbers were the story.)

USA overall: 13.2%

States over 20%:
Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Alaska

States under 10%:
North Dakota, Nebraska, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oaklahoma, Texas

Friday, August 7, 2009

200 and counting

I passed my 200th post a few posts ago (here). That was in just a few days over 21 months.

My volume is down, but I'm still around.

If a picture is worth a thousand words...

If a picture really is worth a thousand words... why do we keep saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" ... in words?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

I got push-polled about cigarette tax

I've never been pushpolled before. I've never even heard of anyone being push-polled (outside of the US).

I was asked to participate in a short survey. I was somewhat suspicious ("surveys" are often thinly disguised marketing), but the guy promised 3 minutes, and I thought, "what the heck".

So I was asked about my attitude to a proposal to increase cigarette taxes.
I gave my answer, and began to think it might be legit after all.

I was then asked a series of carefully-worded and ordered questions, and became increasingly suspicious that something was up, because the questions seemed increasingly designed to elicit a particular response in opposition to the tax increase. After four minutes (okay, so he fibbed, but not by a whole lot), the guy (an Indian, as usual) asked "Given what you now know about the proposal ..." and then it was the exact same FIRST question I had been asked.

Now I didn't know anything I hadn't known before (apart from some slightly dubious statements in the questions that I didn't attach much credence to - but I'm a skeptic; a lot of people would probably accept them as true). To ask the question again implied it was expected I might have changed my mind. No legitimate poll does it like that. I guess most people wouldn't realize what was up, but I was peeved.

I just said "I've already answered that question", and got off as fast as I could, but DAMN I'm annoyed now.

The results of the SECOND asking of that question will no doubt be used to fuel a push to oppose the proposal (with, of course, no mention of the tricks it took to lead people to that answer).

Expect some agitation from this puppy, you ghouls. I haz internets and access to bordz and groopz. You don't entwine me in your devious little push-polls without some push-back.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The question is not whether people might die...

Dana over at En Tequila Es Verdad discusses health care reform, quoting Rep. Paul Broun:

"...and that's exactly what's going on in Canada and Great Britain today. They don't have the appreciation of life, as we do in our society, evidently. And, um. Dr. Roe, a lot of people are gonna die, this program of 'government option' is being touted as being this panacea, the savior of allowing people to have quality health care at an affordable price -- is gonna kill people."

Let's get this straight. EVERY form of health care will lead to deaths.

Any society has finite resources. Any time you spend those resources on anything whatever, you're not spending those resources on saving a life that might have been saved otherwise. Even when you're spending the resources on saving a life over here, you're not spending them on saving a life over there. If you install that traffic light, you might have spent it on heart medication. If you build that school, you might have spent it on cancer research. If you build that bridge, you might have spent it on an MRI machine. But the traffic light, the school and the bridge also improve survival...

And it's not just government expenditure. Buying a boat rather than donating money that could save lives is a health care choice too.

The one constant then, is that under any form of health care, under any form of public and private expenditure, people die. It is a nonsense to pretend otherwise.

The question is not whether health care will be rationed. It always is. The question is not whether bureaucrats will be involved in health care decisions. They always will.

The question is when and where resources will be spent. This always comes down to what treatments are effective and where to get value for the resources that are spent.

Currently an overwhelming proportion of health care expenditure in the US is spent to keep very old people, mostly very wealthy people, alive for another couple of months, at the expense, frequently, of children and babies, had some of those resources been spent on younger, poorer people.

Any way you try to allocate those resources, people die. The thing is, if you reallocate only a tiny amount of that expenditure toward younger, poorer people, the overall impact on survival can be very dramatic indeed.

The UK and Canadian systems (and for that matter, the Australian one) are imperfect.
As far as I understand, they all involve some form of judging what is effective treatment.

If there are two similar treatments, but one costs twenty times as much for only fractionally better outcomes, the public systems will tend to plump for the cheaper one - because you can treat twenty times as many people with it! (As Cujo rightly points out in comments, similar decisions happen with private providers in the US as well - though obviously their priorities are slightly different.)

Overall, these decisions do a fairly good job of allocating resources away from less effective or marginally-effective-but-hugely-expensive treatments, in order to make the health of the society as a whole somewhat better. But government involvement in providing some minimal health care doesn't stop wealthy people being able to buy additional health care.

Every system involves rationing. The present US system rations health care quite dramatically. Firstly, millions of people don't have health cover at all, and for many that do, their provider strictly rations what health care is provided - the main problem is that their decisions are not only predicated on value for money. Again, the question is not "will health care be rationed?", the question is "what is rationed, and in what circumstances?".

On its northern border, the US has a neighbor that has universal health care. However, it is not a single system - there's a different system in each province. There's been a long-running experiment right on the doorstep of the US, with different approaches to providing health care (link is to Snopes article debunking claims about Canadian health system).

It would be easy to examine what works well and what doesn't about each system. There are many other systems around the industrialized world, with different methods of paying for care and different approaches to providing it. The US is in a uniquely privieleged position to see what works, and has the ability to find out what the users of each system think of their health care and its costs.

I live in a system that has private and public components. It is not cheap, and it is far from perfect, but it is still cheaper than what you presently have in the US and (usually) does better at providing a minimal level of basic health care to the poor.

The US has a unique opportunity to get it right. But there are some people whose aim is to scare you out of making a considered decision, and the private health industry is spending enormous amounts on lobbying politicians (and people in the media) to make sure that you don't. The result is you get told a lot of lies and half-truths and get conclusions based on bad assumptions. If you pay attention to the scare mongers (mostly politicians with pockets filled by the private health insurers and incredibly wealthy media people whose concerns are very different from that of the ordinary working person), they will create so much smoke that proper, considered decision making will become politically impossible. And the only certainy then is that no matter what health care system you get, you will end up with worse health care than you could have.

So, Rep. Broun, do we spend a little and save perhaps a dozen babies, or is extending the painful death of someone in the unavoidable process of dying, for perhaps another few days, really more important to you?

edit: fixed link. Added a couple of paragraphs and a link

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Tea? Coffee?

Recent research shows that
(i) caffeine prevents and even reverses the effects of Alzheimers, and
(ii) tea consumption reduces the risk of Parkinsons

So do I drink coffee and get Parkinsons or tea and get Alzheimers?

I guess tea has a little caffeine, so I could drink like 15 cups a day.

Who knows - if I stop putting milk in it, all that peeing might even help with kidney stones. Or then again, maybe it will power my car.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The atheist busy

Been busy grading exams.

I did go to a particularly religious wedding on the weekend. Uh. May say more later.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Erdős number - do published books count?

In the past I've tried tracking my Erdős number through a particular coauthor that I think is likely to have the smallest number of all my coauthors. Today I tried doing it a different way, through someone else who I know well but don't have a direct publication with (who I just realized would have a low number)... and found a link to him.

But the question is, is the series of links I found legit?

Do coauthors of published books (which are not only citeable but cited) count as links toward Erdős number?

If so, mine is at most 5. If I look hard enough I can probably get it down to papers only, but if books count I don't need to spend the time looking. (Later edit: found a papers-only link that's of length 6. Considering its convolutedness I expect there's a shorter one to be found somewhere.)

Judging by the discussion later in the wikipedia article, the answer is that the book counts. So E ≤ 5.

One day I'm going to take some time and try to find a shorter link.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The unreported tragedy of the missing former atheists - fortunately now found

One thing I have noticed in debating theists, particularly christians, is how often one will tell you they are a "former atheist".

If even half the Christians who paint themselves as "former atheists" had ever actually been recorded as such, atheism, instead of being the fastest growing (in raw numbers) "denomination" in the US, would be by far the fastest shrinking.

At a rough guess, I would say enough christians claim to be former atheists than would overwhelm the number of atheists in the 2008 ARIS survey by a factor of well over five. In the 2001 ARIS survey, the proportion of atheists was - get this - 0.4%; 4 in a thousand. Yet easily several percent of christians seem to proclaim "former atheism"?

What gives? Were they closet atheists?

Even stranger, this group of "former atheists" presents their "former atheism" in a light I have NEVER heard from actual atheists. They were, apparently, every kind of terrible thing that the less enlightened of the rabid rightwing fundies try to paint us as... and they are conveniently held up as experts on everything from science (especially evolution) to atheism to separation of church and state.

Now there are actually a few former atheists of now various theistic stripes whose former atheism was apparent to more than their later selves - so the phenomenon does occur.

But what about all these other ones that appear in debates, on message boards, on interviews, on youtube videos, as subjects of sermons, etc etc?

So where was this enormous group of thieving, drug-addicted, sexually deviant, but all-of-a-sudden-completely open to the message of christianity experts-on-every-subject hiding?

Why weren't they showing up in religious surveys?

Were they all hiding in one large (and presumably unbearably hip) basement?

Or, as seems much more likely, are they largely exaggerators-for-Jesus?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Chaser and right-wing censorship

"The Chaser's War on Everything" is a satirical TV show in Australia. (The Chaser itself was a satirical newspaper - the nearest US equivalent I can think of would be The Onion). The Chaser's TV show (which is on ABC-TV - owned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a public-owned broadcaster) has been through various incarnations, but relies mainly on satirical sketch comedy and various other bits.

The Chaser boys regularly go over the top - some of their skits can be challenging to watch. And they don't always hit the mark - sometimes they're just not funny. None of that matters, except to their ratings.

They regularly offend the right wing, and talk radio goes completely berserk - the last time they went off quite this much was when they did a less-than-kind (but not completely inaccurate) song about people who had died. This time it was for a thing they did about the Make-a-wish foundation (a charity for sick children) - so you can imagine the furore from the "won't someone think of the children!" brigade. In both the earlier case and the current one, I actually watched the piece that caused all the fuss when it went to air - and in both cases the reaction was so over the top as to be pathetic.

Look, it's simple. If you find these guys offensive, don't bloody watch them, okay?

If they break the law - well, that's what police are for. If they break guidelines for broadcast material, there are regulations and penalties in place there too. If they contravene ABC's own internal procedures, there are penalties there as well. None of that happened. There may be a question of whether the internal review was sufficient, but that's an internal matter for the ABC. To take them off the air for two weeks to pacify the right wing - when they followed ABC procedure (the piece was reviewed and approved) - was ludicrous.

The weird thing is, it was relatively speaking, the cases that the right wing decide to go nuts over are not extreme compared to other stuff that they do. It's generally no worse in offense terms than South Park or Drawn Together (except it's live, rather than animated).

Occasionally, *I* find something they've done offensive. That's not bad, it's valuable. We need our comfortable middle-class existence shaken up a bit. Nobody and nothing should be above ridicule, and it can be very valuable to step back from yourself and try to examine why you find something offensive.

If a parent of a dying child watched the piece and was offended (and I can certaonly imagine some would), *that* parent has every right to take it up with the ABC. But all the people screaming about the possibility that someone might be offended? You offend me. Get a fucking life.

The ABC is moving to curtail the way satirical programming is reviewed - which means less satire. That's a terrible loss to our society.

You have a right to find things offensive. There is, however, no right to never be offended - and there should not be.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

pax atheism?

I recently saw the latest global peace index rankings.

The thing that stood out was the countries with the low scores ("most peaceful"). They're countries well-known for low levels of religious belief. So I thought I'd try to get some data. I grabbed numbers on "no religion" from wikipedia, and looked at the relationship. There were a lot of countries really squashed up at the low end of non-religous percentage (left side), so I did a transform. Unfortunately a large proportion of "0% atheist" countries make a log-transform impossible - so I did a cube-root instead.

So here's my graph of Peace Index (Low = Peaceful) vs non-religious percentage (click for larger)

Interesting, eh?

- "wealth" will be a confounding variable (poorer countries will on average be less peaceful and more religious)
- a few of the non-religious percentage figures are a bit rubbery, and my treatment of ranges (taking the upper end) less than ideal.

I'd like to improve this plot by getting other/better figures (e.g. I'd also like to try some of these), giving ranges where ranges were given and giving less weighting by the width of the range (make them smaller or paler or something, if the figures are really uncertain). I'd like to use other figures, and see what adjusting for wealth (say GNP per capita or somesuch) does. Just looking at some of the wealthy "western" countries, it looks like the effect remains, but would be weaker.

I'd also like to label the points!

But this is a good start, and I've spent all the time I can on it for now.

Monday, May 25, 2009

I can has scienz

(Well, it seemed funny when the idea came to me. I haven't seen this anywhere, but no doubt it will have occurred to others also.)

Creationism - a party of no Idas?

The media hype about Ida is wearing thin.

But by contrast Dana's post is a delightfully clear summary of the issues. Perhaps the most engaging one I have read.

Sharpening the horns

I recently saw a version of the Euthyphro dilemma that to me resonates better than the usual presentation. It's the same argument, but it fits better as a reply when theists do the old "can't be moral without God" dance.

In a comment by Ian Spedding at John Wilkins blog, he said:
"Ask them if they believe their chosen deity is a capricious being or one of reason and order. If the former, why follow a moral code that was thought up on a whim, if the latter, what is to prevent us from reasoning to the same conclusions all by ourselves."

I have a feeling it may be further teased along, but it's a good one as is.

(Some of the other discussion in that comment thread is also interesting.)

[edit: b0rken link fixx0red]

Friday, May 8, 2009

creation and existence

If you assert that everything that exists must have a creator, then you assert that either god does not exist or god in turn had a creator.

If you instead agree that at least some things don't have a creator, then there is no need to posit a creator at all.

Infinite cake.

I can happily have ice-cream without whining that I can't enjoy it because nobody promised I would get infinite cake after I finish.

The lack of infinite cake does not make the ice-cream worthless. Instead, undistracted by the imaginary need to gather cake-forks, I can focus on the very real ice-cream at hand, and enjoy it while it lasts. It's pretty good ice-cream.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Why 60 Dem senators is not all that filibuster-proof

There's a lot of noise about Arlen Spector's move to the Dems, which along with Al Franken (when he finally gets there, probably some time in 2011) makes for 60 democratic Senators.

But 60 democratic senators, while it sounds filibuster-proof, is nothing of the kind.

If the democrats try to rely on those 60 votes, where does the power lay? With the right-leaning democrats. It hands blue dogs the ability to bring on a Republican filibuster any time they have an issue that they want their own way on... and I don't imagine they won't use it a few times.

They can't do it *every* time, but that doesn't mean that they can't do it at all. If there's something they *really* want, you can bet that's a bargaining chip they know they hold. Even if they don't actually use it, the threat may be enough to get them what they want at the bargaining table.

Let's wait and see how it all pans out.

Monday, April 20, 2009

No posts in a month!

I don't think I've gone a month without posting before on this blog.

This has been caused by a number of things - an ongoing illness, combined with work pressure has led to a general ennui with regards to writing much. Anyway, I won't bore you about it, but I wanted to say that I am still around.

I have a number of topics to talk about, but finding the energy to actually turn them into priceless prose? Not so much. Hopefully I will be back at it in all senses very soon.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

An ambigram

Hemant mentioned that he wanted a "flying spaghetti monster" ambigram tattoo.

That struck me as a pretty tricky thing to do, so I had a go at just making "Spaghetti Monster" just to see if it was possible. It's a quick and dirty attempt with no artistic merit, but I think it's adequate as a proof-of-concept that an ambigram something like what he wants should be quite doable in the hands of a more accomplished artist with the time to attempt it.

The Atheist "A" was just something I tossed in at the last moment (I noticed it on my blog as I was about to upload a first attempt and wondered if I could work it in. The answer was "yeah, sort of").

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Will Lie for $$$

The people providing political commentary on US TV are extraordinarily wealthy. As far as I can tell, they're all in the top tax bracket.

As a result, their opinions are necessarily coloured by that fact. Even the honest ones (a list which appears to be quite short) will give you the news filtered through the lens of its impact on them. So you cannot easily get much useful information about its impact on you. And many of them (I'm looking especially at some people on Fox News and CNBC) will lie right to camera if they think it will make them better off.

Their alarmism makes people make bad decisions. Instead of debunking the bad decisions they've caused, these parasites will encourage them. The lesson is threefold:
  • You can't trust main-stream media. At all. Ever.(1)

  • You have to work things out for yourself. (2)

  • You can't trust main-stream media. At all. Ever.

  1. Watch them by all means, but always assume that every word comes with an agenda, and make sure you understand how the person you're watching (and the people they work for) are lining their own pockets. Follow, as the saying goes, the money. They will tell you what's good for them, not what's good for you. They will tell you what's bad for them, not what's bad for you. They will exploit you.

  2. That's a nuisance. There are plenty of sources of good information online, but there are plenty of bad sources of information, too. You have to equip yourself at least well enough to tell a good argument from a bad one, and read more than one source of information.

There's a major case in point on income tax. And it's not just the cable news and finance guys that you have to watch out for - networks and the newspapers are doing it too.

They're exploiting dumb people. They want you to be dumb too.

Specifically, one thing that's got me cranky is the way the media has been playing up stories about people trying to earn less than $250,000 in order to pay less tax (as discussed in several of the links). Instead of doing the responsible thing - explain the actual situation - they're encouraging you to misunderstand.

Most of my readers are very smart, so I'm probably stating the obvious, but let's look at what's going on.

Most western countries have a progressive tax system. That means that as you earn more, you pay a higher percentage of your income in tax (however, as you earn more, your ability to shift income in ways that lowers your tax rate also goes up, so it's sometimes not progressive at all).

This happens by there being progressively higher tax rates on the amount you earn above particular threshholds, creating what are called "tax brackets"

In the US in 2008, the top marginal tax rate (the amount you pay on your last dollar) was 35%. But the average tax rate for everybody is below that. What's happening is that the two highest marginal tax rates for those with the highest incomes in the US will in 2010 go ... back to what the highest two marginal rates were in 2000. That's all.

The very, very highest incomes will - in 2010 - be paying 39.6% on their last dollar.

The total (or average) tax rates for 2008 look like this (public domain image by Dejo):

What's happening is that in 2010, the green line will move up a bit, but in fact most people in the US will actually pay a little less tax - the red and black lines will only be higher up the right hand end - and most people are quite a way left of the middle of the graph).

Guess what? I already pay more than 39.6%. My marginal tax rate here in Australia is 40% (and it's recently gone down - I was paying 42%). If I was earning my current income in the US, I'd be paying 25%, not 40%. I pay a higher marginal rate of tax than every Rick Santelli in the US. Actually, if you include the way some of the government benefits reduce with income (something I strongly support), my effective marginal tax rate (impact of the last dollar I earn) is actually a fair bit higher than 40%.

The top marginal income tax rate here is 45% - oh, and there's also a consumption tax.

I experience very little disincentive to earn an extra dollar of income, even though I am paying a higher marginal rate of tax than everybody in the US will be paying, even after the tax changes come in. (The biggest disincentive I experience is simply the marginal cost in time, a far more scarce resource to me than money.)

I don't feel like I pay "too much" tax. I drive on roads. My kids go to school. I get less expensive prescription drugs than I otherwise would. When I have to go to the doctor, I get most of the money back. There are police, fire brigade, ambulance services and a hundred other things that make it possible for me to earn that money I pay tax on, and make it possible for me to enjoy the benefits of the rest of it.

I also gain the security of knowing there are a couple of safety nets available if everything were to go pear-shaped. The fact that other people are getting the benefit of those safety nets right now is not a source of envy - if you're badly enough off that you need them, there's really not much to be envious of.

Here's something to keep in mind: if they'll lie to you about that, what else can't you trust them on?

Monday, March 2, 2009

It's times like this I wish...

... that I had more than high school physics.

I was solving a nifty little optimization problem which occurred to me as a continuous version of a discrete problem that used to come up in an old computer game I used to play long ago. The problem boiled down to finding a best route of travel given two different speeds in different kinds of terrain.

Anyway, after a page of scribbling around, I came up with a formula for a simple case of the problem.

Then I realized that my simple case was (in a modified form) essentially going to be solved by Snell's Law (also called the Law of Sines). And sure enough, my simple formula was Snell's law (but changed about a bit so it wasn't instantly obvious, like having a ratio of cosecants of angles to the normal instead of sines - which is just a matter of inverting both sides...).

This is essentially what I was doing, but less formally and with a lot more faffing about and a few false starts. (It's easy to find on-line if you already know what to look for, eh?)

I felt like a bit of a dope. On the other hand, at least I was definitely on the right track. Since I'd had a headache all day, that was all I could manage in the time available, so I didn't go on to derive the problem I was actually interested in (the shape made by traveling as far as you could in a given time, given a particular boundary between the two regions), but with Snell's Law it should become a somewhat more straightforward calculation for the situations I was playing with (since it tells me "where to head" after striking a smooth boundary, so for the simpler cases it's a matter of computing where you end up given each boundary point).

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The bus...

After going to the trouble of making my own "atheist bus" headlines (I have several ready to go if I decide they're worthwhile), I find out there's a website already set up that puts it on the bus for you and everything.

Friday, February 27, 2009

There's probably no...

There's probably no teapot. Now stop worrying and drink your damn tea.

Ding-dong, the witch is (probably) dead.

Looks like the Aus. government's compulsory web-censorship plans are dead.

Nick Xenophon changed his mind (even though he was doing it because he figured it would help his anti-gambling stance), so they don't have the senate numbers any more.

I'm leaving the banner up for now though, because Conroy has had his tits all over this like a stripper looking for a 20, and if it can be revived, you can bet he'll do it - I expect this legislation to be a zombie and rise again, looking for brains.
(Stephen Conroy is the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy... and rubbing his tits all over brain-eating zombies)

What's the point in metaphors if you can't mix them? Or stick 'em in a blender on "pulverise"?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Technology stuff

Hey, did you know the Chinese have a cell-phone battery that can last a lifetime?

(line break in link now fixed)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The law of recursion

An observation based on reading many comment threads:

As any comment thread grows sufficiently long, the probability that Godwin's law will be mentioned approaches 1.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Reading the man

I'm reading Darwin's Origin of the Species.

I've read extracts before, and one day I sat in a library and read a chunk of it, but I've never actually read the book before.

I'm not doing anything high-minded like reading it for the blog for Darwin campaign or anything - it just happens to be one of the many books I bought when I was in Washington D.C. last year, and I've read the other science books (Shubin's Your Inner Fish, Sagan's The Varieties of Scientific Experience, both recommended). I just wanted to read it, and there was a reasonably-priced edition.

I feel the same sense of excitement I had when I plunged into D'Arcy Thompson's On Growth and Form, a book which can unfortunately only be experienced for the first time once. (If you've never read it, do yourself a favour and try to find a copy. Mine was the shorter 328 page edition.), except that with Origin, instead of a well-regarded descriptive book on the fringes of mainstream biology, we have a book critical to modern biological thought.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Oh, brave new world ...

... that has glider guns in't!

This is freaking cool. But if Belousov-Zhabotinsky reactions or cellular automata are unfamiliar, don't go there just yet, read this first.

Wow, I want to explain six different things at once. Where to start.

There's some amazing chemicals (quite a few different ones) that undergo Belousov-Zhabotinsky reactions, which switch between states. The image shows one such reaction where there's a cyclical colour change.

If you set up a BZ reaction in a thin layer (say something like a petri dish), then you can observe beautiful cycles of spiral waves.

Very similar spiral waves of excitation are observed, for example, in certain cardiac problems.

Now, to go off in a completely different direction, there are mathematical constructs called cellular automata (CAs).

These are basically a layout of cells - often in a line, or sometimes in a 2-D array (or sometimes even in higher dimensions), which evolve according to simple local rules (such as "if the cells either side of me are both black, next step I will change to white"). The image here is of the development of one such CA, called "Rule 30". As you progress down from the top, each row of the image represents one "time step" in the development of this 1-d cellular automaton.

While they were originally purely mathematical ideas, patterns that arise in essentially the same way, and look very much like those seen in some kinds of cellular automaton do occur in nature, for example, on some kinds of shells:

Further, people have noted in the past that a particular kind of cellular automaton, the cyclic cellular automaton can generate very distinctive spiral waves that look somewhat like BZ spiral waves.

The most famous of these cellular automata is undoubtedly Conway's game of Life, a 2D one that produces some amazingly intricate patterns.

One very early pattern that was discovered is called a glider - a pattern only a few cells across that changes in such a way that it appears to "fly" diagonally in a straight line.

In 1970, Bill Gosper, in response to a challenge by Conway to find a Life pattern that would show "unlimited growth", designed a constuction that produces a constant stream of gliders, called a "glider gun". (There are a large number of other constructions that exhibit such unlimited growth.)

Using many structures such as this, it has been shown that it is possible to construct a kind of computer that is equivalent to a Turing machine.

In 2005, Motoike and Adamatzky discussed using Belousov-Zhabotinsky reactions in the construction of logic gates in liquids, and there has been a bunch of other related papers.

Now to the new bit. There's a new paper up on arXiv where a bunch of researchers the University of West of England (including Adamatzky) have constructed, using BZ reactions, a chemical version of a glider gun (it's not exactly a game-of-life glider gun, but it has similar properties.

As the authors say in their conclusion, "theoretical ideas concerning universal computation in these systems is closer to being realized experimentally. We were able to manipulate glider streams, for example annihilate selected streams and switch periodically between two interacting streams. We were also able to show that glider guns could be formed or annihilated via specifi c interactions with glider streams from a second gun. We also showed examples where glider guns could be used to implement simple memory analogs."

They also say, "[t]hese discoveries could provide the basis for future designs of collision-based reaction-diffusion computers". Indeed.

There may well be implications relevant to the development of the earliest self-reproducing structures (protolife) on earth.

via The physics arXiv blog