Monday, December 31, 2007

My brain on Nietzsche

The spate of low-level panic induced by reading Flowers for Algernon prompted me to spend a lot of time thinking about how my brain works: the good, the bad, and the irritating. After some cogitation, I've got a new model to play with. In this model, my mind is analogous to a boardroom at some large bureaucratic company.

Bear with me.

The reason I'm going off down this highway of thought is one of the most enduring flaws I see within myself: a serious lack of self-discipline. I've never been good at telling myself to jump through hoops. I need to see the cheese before I can bring myself to run the maze. The annoying thing is that, once I'm up against a deadline, I'm really rather effective - at GCSE* in particular I pulled some extremely good results out of a very small bag of revision.

Of course, then I went to Cambridge Uni, which demanded a less deadline-oriented approach to education, and I crashed and burned messily**. So I'm keen to figure out precisely what is going on in my brain.

It's well-known that neural networks operate by a process known as "pandemonium", whereby a bunch of different subnetworks all "yell" loudly, and the loudest one gets listened to. The behaviour of my brain is going to be heavily based on the different subnetworks that are competing for head-room - its cast of characters, if you will. Enter stage left.

The first character is a workmanlike kinda guy, wearing jeans with patches on the knees and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Don't assume that he's a slacker, though; this individual is a creature of pure drive and motivation. He's the part of me that takes over at the end of a long weekend, when I'm in a good mood and get this inexplicably strong desire to tidy my room or lift some weights. I think of him as the Uebermensch - he's the man with the plan, and if he was in charge of me the whole time then the sky would be the limit.

The rest of the characters all have their own individual traits, but I'm going to refer to them by their collective name: the bureaucrats. Most of the time, they're snooty about the Uebermensch - what's this poorly-dressed peon doing invading their boardroom? How dare he! If you want another metaphor, think of the stereotypical pompous arts professor, astounded that anyone would dare challenge the obvious rightness of his opinions about everything. The bureaucrats are the parts of me that bicker and play politics and laze about. When the bureaucrats are out in strength, the Uebermensch doesn't have a chance - his voice can't be heard over the ruckus. That's what happens when I start procrastinating and realise that three hours have vanished.

Of course, the situation all changes when there's something on the line. The stereotypical arts professor, regardless of his social constructivist philosophy, wouldn't want to get in a plane that hadn't been designed by a qualified mechanic. Similarly, when trouble looms, the bureaucrats don't hesitate to hand over the reins to the one guy in their midst who's actually good at achieving things. They go and hide and let the Uebermensch get on with it.

I'm being a bit hard on the bureaucrats here; they're not all bad. In fact, it's probably one of them that's dominant within me as I write this. But they're not good at doing stuff. They're only good at talking about it. That's why I'm sitting here typing rather than doing one of the hundred jobs that are clearly visible on all sides of me.

If this model is accurate, what should I be trying to achieve? I need to feed the Uebermensch, to make him big and strong so that he can hold his own against the orgiastic laziness of the other characters. I need to figure out how to make the Uebermensch appear more frequently. I need to figure out how to make him stay longer once he's out of his cage***.

Observations so far:

1) the Uebermensch comes out most often when I'm well-rested - by his nature, he's more prone to tiredness than the bureaucrats.
2) intellectual activity is actually bad for the Uebermensch - in particular, I'm doing him no favours by blogging.
3) the presence of people tends to act as a disruptor - it's more likely that the Uebermensch will become dominant, but more likely that he'll fall from grace again.

Hopefully I can put together some sort of strategy for boosting my effectiveness based on this. Fingers crossed.

* For you USians, I think this is equivalent to end of high school.

** By which I mean I got a 2:2. Not burned so much as mildly scorched, but I'm convinced I had the potential to get at least a 2:1.

*** In one of my rare nods to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the book that started me blogging in the first place, I would equate this with what Pirsig refers to as "gumption". When you've got gumption on your side - when the Uebermensch is loose - stuff just starts to happen.
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The Horror!

Edgar Allen Poe? A rank amateur. HP Lovecraft? A purple-prose poseur. Mary Shelley? Bram Stoker? Cheesy hacks, the lot of them.

If you want a real horror story, try Daniel Keyes.

Flowers for Algernon is a story about a guy with IQ 70 - barely functional - who is experimented on to increase his intelligence. Soon he's at IQ 180, soaking up the world's knowledge like a very smart sponge. In particular, he learns everything there is to know about the experiment that was performed on him. And he learns that the experiment's premise was fatally flawed. In a very short time, his new-found genius is going to dissolve like a snowflake under a blowtorch. He's going to lose it all.

The book tracks his slow deterioration down through normal levels of intelligence, getting less and less coherent as his brain decays. By the time the story is finished, the person he had briefly become has evaporated. I swear, this story had me up half the frickin' night with nervous insomnia.

My mind is what makes me who I am. The thought of losing that freaks me out on a level so basic it's hard to describe*. If I ever contract Alzheimers and degenerate to the point where I cease to be me, someone please shoot me. I don't want to think of myself continuing like that, as a soul without a mind.

* Obligatory religion tie-in: I feel the same about the thought that I might have a road-to-Damascus experience and spontaneously convert. If that happened, if I accepted religion on any other grounds than solid evidence, I wouldn't be me any more.

When people say "just pray to God and he'll change your heart", they seem to have this strange idea that that would be a good thing. I consider this to be painfully wrong.
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Sunday, December 30, 2007

The art of not listening

Families, huh? I've known plutonium that was less reactionary.

We just had the usual Christmas row, where my mum orders my sister (who is 18 going on 30) to do the thank-you letters, my sister gets irritated at being ordered around, my mum misinterprets the irritation as bone-idleness, and it all spirals down from there.

This is probably a not insignificant part of why I try to be cold-blooded in my decisions: because I've seen the merry hell that an emotion-driven approach to life can wreak.
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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

New laptop

I just got my new laptop through in the mail. I heard that Dell was retailing laptops with Ubuntu preinstalled, so I thought I'd give it a try. Here's a brief review.


I went for the absolute minimum on all hardware options, and it doesn't seem to have done me any harm. The system is very fast and responsive. The keyboard is nice and clicky. The touchpad is a pain in the ass cos I keep banging into it, but that's true of every laptop I've ever used.

One concern I have is that I think one of my speakers just spontaneously blew out while I was writing this. I'm hoping it's just a glitch that'll correct itself.


Ubuntu is - as always - a very nice system. The only problem I've had so far is wireless connectivity. My family's ActionTec router has an odd feature: as well as entering the WEP hex key, you have to enter a key number from 1 to 4. This is not supported in the Ubuntu user interface. There's apparently some way to make it work via command-line wizardry, but I'd really rather not.

Fortunately, apparently all I need to do is set the key number on the router to 1. Unfortunately, this has given my dad, who is a Windows geek, an opportunity to be irritatingly smug.

One slight tweak that would have been nice would be if the good folks at Dell had configured the regional information before sending it to me. I had to choose timezone and keyboard layout. This wasn't a problem for me, but someone who didn't know what the different keyboard layouts were might have had trouble. Also, Firefox's spell-checker was set to German for some reason.


Generally a nice system, and fully useable for normal people. This is a laptop that your granny can use, if you spend a whole 5 minutes setting it up for her. And she'll probably enjoy the selection of simple games, too.

A couple of annoying niggles, but nothing life-threatening (apart from the possible speaker failure, which I'm willing to chalk up to bad luck). I hereby give this system an initial mark of 7 out of 10. Not bad for a bottom-of-the-range gizmo like this.
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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Lovely gesture

I just got a CD through the post. David, the guy running the local Humanist group, routinely records and writes up the meeting notes. Once he'd done that for the meeting I attended, he sent me the recording as a souvenir of my brief tenure as chairperson.

That is just so sweet!
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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Tat Thoughts cont.

The discussion on this thread is getting hard to read because of its length (most of which is my fault). I'm creating this post to make things more readable. See the comments section for my response to Terri's last post.

When I have a moment I might break each of the key issues out into its own post, which will make keeping track of the lines of argument infinitely easier.
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Monday, December 10, 2007

Humanists ahoy!

I finally got round to checking out the local Humanist group yesterday (Sunday). It was an interesting experience. This is only a short write-up as I'm on lunchbreak at the moment and don't have much time left.

For those who haven't come across it before, humanism is an atheistic/agnostic belief system. I haven't come across any humanist credos that I can recall, but their party line could be summed up as "morality without credulity". In the UK, this belief system is represented by the British Humanist Association, with whom the Berkshire Humanists (who I visited) are very loosely affiliated.

On the good side, the group was lovely - very friendly and considerate. The topic of conversation was interesting to me: we discussed the pagan origins of Christmas traditions (short version: if a Christian ever says Christmas is being co-opted as a secular holiday, feel free to laugh loudly). And they cheerfully encouraged me to chair the meeting, which I enjoyed to a quite unhealthy degree. Also, homemade mince pies.

There were a few bad points. Most obvious was that the average age was roughly 60. This wasn't a problem for me - I like talking to elderly people - but it would put off most people my age. Secondly, the group isn't really big enough to be strongly self-sustaining - only 12 attendees. You may have noticed that in most churches the management committee is a small cabal that quietly deals with all the admin? Well, in this group the committee is everyone, so a big chunk of the meeting was taken up with discussion of these rather tedious administrative issues.

Or, alternatively, the management committee was one person, a guy called David who seems to do most of the admin tasks singlehandedly. A very dedicated individual. However, he was also the single biggest problem I had as chairperson: he insisted on going into excessive detail on the committees he was involved with and the tasks he was undertaking. Completely overran the time limit, and he was so clearly pouring his heart and soul into it that it was hard to ask him to cut short.

If I were to continue going to this, I would feel a very strong urge to start to make changes. The group clearly has momentum - it's been going for decades - but it could use a friendly shakeup. Key points would be:

1) Get all David's information on committees, websites, etc into a structured format. The guy deserves to have his say, but in the meeting it would be far more effective to just reel off a list of headlines and ask that people review a handout for further info.

2) Make a clear break between the management/admin team and the ordinary members. Work on the principle that the members probably would prefer as little dry information as possible, with the caveats that a) the info should be accessible if they want it, and b) the admin team should work to "upgrade" existing members*.

3) Split into smaller groups during the discussion period. I wish I'd suggested this at the time, because I could see that a couple of the quieter members were getting left out in the cold. Humanism seems to attract people with strong personalities.

4) Resist the urge to computerise everything - it leaves the older members out in the cold. With such a high average age, and correspondingly low average degree of computer experience, the internet is mainly useful as an organisational principle and an advertising tool, not as a way of communicating en masse with members.

5) Look less at joining various committees and more at advertising to the general public. For example, I was hooked by a poster in the local library. Encourage David to think in those terms. Maybe I should pass him the link to this site.

* I'm suddenly getting flashbacks to the Loyalty Ladder that we were taught about in my OU training course. Damn, I hadn't realised that stuff had sunk in so well!
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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Limits of reason

Consider inductive reasoning (or falsificationism or whatever). Broadly speaking, this operates off the principle that assuming the universe has uniformity can't do any harm, and may do some good.

There's a pathological case where this isn't true: where the universe is actively trying to make your life difficult. In that situation, the uniformity assumption is a death-trap. Just imagine trying to win a poker game by rigorous experimentation - you'd get 0wned.

The human brain has access to a different kind of rationality designed to handle these cases. It's a rationality aimed at (to quote Neal Stephenson) condensing fact from the vapour of nuance. It uses rules like "once accident, twice coincidence, three times enemy action". It's not rational in the usual sense - but, insofar as rationality is ultimately pragmatic, it has an equal claim to the title.

So in a sense you could say that conspiracy theorists aren't really irrational - they're just jumping the gun slightly by engaging this secondary mode of rationality before they know there's something there to be investigated. The problem is, of course, that once it's been engaged it can't be turned off. When later tests come back negative, that just means your enemy is even smarter than you thought.
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Monday, December 03, 2007

Tat thoughts

I'm pondering getting a tattoo. In fact, there are only two reasons I haven't done so yet. The first is cultural: I'm effectively a yuppie, and the yuppie class in England tends to look down on tattoos. I personally don't hold this opinion, but would I find myself in awkward situations with my peers?

The second reason is metaphysical: I'm not sure what tattoo to get. I feel like, if I start getting needled, my tat(s) should have some sort of theme to them. For example, in Robin Hobb's "Liveship Traders" trilogy, one of the characters gets a tattoo each time he has had insanely good luck. In XMen 2, one of the characters gets a tattoo for every sin. My guiding philosophy is an obsession with reality, so my approach to tats should probably reflect this.

The problem I have is that, as a reality-obsessive, any conclusion I draw about reality would be purely provisional. In other words, it's possible that I'd change my stance later - in which case I'd have to get the tattoo erased. So how about this for an idea: I get a tattoo only when I'm confident enough about my stance that I am willing to take the risk of erasure? Then, when someone asks me how sure I really am about X, I can say "this sure" and point to the symbol of X tattooed on my skin.

This would have an additional psychological benefit. One of the biggest problems that I have is a tendency to revisit old intellectual stomping grounds long after I should have just let the subject drop. If I am truly confident enough to get a tattoo, that will serve as a constant reminder that, absent any major new discoveries, I've done my due diligence and can quit wasting my valuable time.

At this point in my life, I hold two positions that fit the bill perfectly. The first is atheism, for which I would tend to go for the symbol described here (because I'm a maths geek and I love it). The second is evolutionary biology. I'm not entirely sure what to use for this - possibly the Darwin fish?

As an aside, I'd note that any theists or creationists who feel they have a solid reason for belief in God should speak now or forever hold their peace. After I get these tats, Mr Evangelism Target will have left the building.
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Thursday, November 08, 2007

For the record

There are many arguments that people make that genuinely bug me. The one time I ever got really pissed off at a secondary school teacher was when they refused to discuss something because I "don't need know know that for the exam". Other irritating arguments range from patronising remarks, through straw men of my position, to ad hominems and outright lies.

It's not often that I come across a comment that includes all of these at the same time. Via Good Math, Bad Math I being you George Shollenberger, who is quoted as saying:

In my experiences with atheists, atheists generally show no interest in developing knowledge of God. If they did express interests in God they would find God and would not be atheists.

OK, let's get encyclopedic here. If I as an atheist "show no interest in developing knowledge of God" then why do I have the following piled up within arm's reach (and mostly in the process of being read):

  • "The Varieties of Religious Experience" by William James

  • "Hindu Writings: A short introduction to the major sources"

  • "A History of the Sikhs"

  • The New Testament

  • "Personal Religion in Egypt before Christianity"

  • "Darwin's Black Box" by Behe

  • "A History of the Christian Church"

  • "Lost Christianities" and "Lost Scriptures" by Bart Ehrman

  • "The Synoptic Gospels: A commentary"

  • Another copy of the Bible

  • "Zen and the Art of Flower Arrangement"

  • "Facts for Life" (a Hare Krishna book)

  • "The Satanic Bible" by Anton LaVey

  • Sundry atheist books

And that's only a portion of a fraction of my collection, because a lot of my books are in boxes at my new (and as yet unoccupied) flat, or buried too deeply in my book piles for me to easily get at them.

That's a minimum of 8 distinct religious stances that I've been actively investigating - and, depending on how you count it, the number could be much higher. How many religions have you studied lately, George?
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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Voodoo Kitty

I've recently made a worrying discovery: my kitty is practising magic on me. And we're not talking about rabbit-out-of-a-hat, no-it's-up-your-other-sleeve trickery; we're talking real spooky stuff.

See, over time there have been various people in the family who fed this cat, and one time it was me. For a couple of weeks, if he heard me moving, he'd run towards his foodbowl and I'd obediently trot along behind him. He's apparently never forgotten this. And, in accordance with the fundamental magical principle of sympathy, every time he wants me to feed him he runs in front of me in an attempt to supernaturally "drag" me towards the tin of kitty biscuits.

A similar behaviour has been observed in pigeons. If you feed them at effectively random intervals, they'll associate whatever action they were performing at the time with food. It has been demonstrated (readable summary here) that this can lead to all sorts of weird behaviour - little "rain dances" that the pigeons perform to attract food.

It's fascinating to me to see such a very human form of insanity emerge in lower animals. And in a way, it's kinda reassuring. We as a species may be barking mad, but at least we're not alone.

And finally, the obligatory LolCat:


Maybe I oughta feed that cat before he gets too irritated...
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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Placebo Paradox

In my last post, I found myself trying to make a rather subtle point about the perception of religion. I'm fairly sure I failed.

The point was this: there's a popular perception that religion can be split into "good" and "bad" religion, and that atheists ought to restrict themselves to attacking the latter sort. The problem is that this dividing line is, paradoxically, only visible from outside the religion.

The cause of this paradox is quite hard to explain, so I'm going to hijack the superb explanatory powers of a blogger called Skeptico. Please read this article on homeopathy.

To summarise Skeptico's point: the idea that it's bad to treat malaria with homeopathy only makes sense if we acknowledge that homeopathy doesn't actually work. If we believe that homeopathy does work, using it to treat malaria is clearly the right thing to do. This is the paradox: the only people who have standing to say that homeopathic malaria cures are dafter than homeopathic cold cures are those who don't believe in homeopathy!

Exactly the same paradox applies with religion. Atheists are commonly enjoined to restrict their attacks to the "appropriate target" of extremist religion. But this dissection of religion into "moderate" and "extreme" only makes sense if both variants are equally false.

When used in an argument against an atheist, the distinction makes no sense. So can the commentators in this debate please stop spluttering with horror when we turn our guns on the beliefs of people they happen to like?
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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Causality (a rant in four parts)

Our Demon-Haunted World

Delhi deputy mayor killed by monkeys. What a tragic waste of life.

It would have been bad enough if it had been a completely random accident, but this death is a consequence of a deliberate policy of the Indian government. The number of monkeys in Delhi has been increasing dramatically of late, but the government is not willing to reduce their numbers with a cull.

Why won't they take this step? Is it because they don't have the resources? Is it some principled stand on cruelty to animals? Sadly, the actual reason is far more bizarre, and far less justifiable.

Deputy Mayor Sawinder Bajwa died because the Hindu majority thinks that killing monkeys would annoy the monkey god Hanuman.

Now, if this seems bizarre to you, don't forget: a substantial portion of Americans think that the world was created 6,010 years ago, and that Jesus's image miraculously appears on slices of bread and wooden fences. This sort of primitive superstition is scarily common even in supposedly enlightened societies. As this melodramatic news story demonstrates, that can cost lives.

The skeptical movement works to inoculate people against nonsense by teaching the skills of logical reasoning, and by explaining why certain forms of "proof" are invalid. We hope that, over time, this will enable people to recognise and evict the vampiric memes of socially-glorified ignorance.

This is not easy work. If there's one thing these notions are good at, it's dodging the chainsaw of rationality. The problem is that people want to believe this stuff: a garden with fairies at the bottom is less intellectually challenging than one filled with biochemistry and zoology and evolution. As a result, fairies are incredibly resilient creatures.

How do you kill a fairy? First you block up every single escape route you can find. If you miss even a single one - be it a postmodernist assault on reason or a Kantian moral excuse or a Pascal-style argumentum ad baculum - the fairy will disappear down it, and re-emerge as soon as the coast is clear. This is why refuting even a single daft argument, such as the 6,000-year-old Earth, can take a lifetime. The haymaker punch of reason can't be landed until superstition has nowhere to run.

The Role of Apologetics

The skeptic's task is not made any easier by the cottage industry of apologetics. For those who haven't come across this term before, the goal of apologetics is to manufacture excuses for continued belief in the apologist's deity of choice. Rhetorical techniques such as the Gish Gallop, which consists of rapidly spewing out hundreds of lame arguments to give an impression of correctness, allow a single apologist to fight off many skeptics and give his audience an opportunity to hold onto their faith.

We're at a disadvantage in this fight - our only weapon is the truth, which takes a long time to unsheathe. Reality may have a well-known atheist bias, but Rhetoric whores itself out to any religion in search of converts.

How do you deal with an apologist? It's the same fairy-killing process as before: systematically demolish every support, no matter how tenuous, they put forward for their lunacy. Highlight every error, hammer at every inconsistency, drive home every weakness in their argument like a stake through the heart of the audience's parasitical religious beliefs.

The Blockade of Moderacy

Here we have a problem. There is one set of foundations that we can't attack: the foundations that our audience is using for their cherished religious beliefs. If the apologist flees into one of those ratholes, he is untouchable - any attempt to challenge him will result in collateral damage to the moderate believers in the audience.

"Of course God made the world in seven days. After all, it's in the Bible, and the Bible is divinely inspired."
"Of course these 'fossils' we keep finding were put there to test our faith. After all, God is all-powerful, so he certainly could do that."
"Of course Creation Science is parsimonious. After all, we already know that God exists, so invoking Him is not in breach of Occam's razor."

Every single argument for harmless homeopathy is an argument for life-threatening chelation therapies. Every single argument for guardian angels is an argument for forced exorcisms. Every single argument for moderate religion can be used as a hiding-place for the most virulent of extremist beliefs.


Many commentators have asked why we attack moderate religion. "It's sheer foolishness," they say, "to attack people on the same side as you. You'd do far better to work with them to build a more rational world by increments."

To these critics, I say: if we do not attack the beliefs of the moderates then the bigotry and blindness of the extremists slips through our fingers like toxic sand-grains. To the extent that this battle for rationality has sides, the moderates are not on ours. Any attempt to cater to them deprives us of much of our arsenal of reason, and ensures our eventual defeat at the apologists' hands. Moreover, to attack only the extremists would be clear hypocrisy on our part.

To all my fellow skeptics out there: keep up the good work. It's a long, tiring slog, but history is on our side. The world we live in has become more and more dependent on the scientific and technological fruits of skeptical thinking. As this trend continues, the cognitive dissonance of the believers - both moderate and extreme - can only become more and more obvious.

And to any moderates who might be reading this: please think about how you justify your beliefs. Do you use fallacies? False data? Arguments from personal experience or unsupported faith? If you use none of these then please contact me, because one of us is obviously very wrong, and if it's me then I'd rather find out sooner than later.

But, if you use any of these, please remember the consequences of your holiday from reason. Remember the rank superstition that shelters under the broad leaves of irrationality. Remember its results. Remember Deputy Mayor Bajwa.
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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Going Geeky

With a bit of effort, there is no screwup that cannot be viewed as serendipity. Only earlier this week I completed my exam for the Open University course in Management, and was looking forward to the chance to "geek out" in my newfound free time.
I now have that chance in spades...
I may have previously mentioned that one of Linux's only real issues is driver support. In particular, because I use a fairly hardcore distro (e.g. it doesn't go out of its way to make life easy for you), I regularly have to deal with the idiocy that is NVIDIA's driver policy.
See, my graphics card is an NVIDIA. And NVIDIA only kinda supports Linux. It refuses to reveal the specifications for its cards, and instead forces us to rely on a rather kludgy system involving a "binary blob" - a great big black box in the middle of the card's software support.
This is a problem because it makes life horrendous for the folks trying to maintain my distro. Every version of the Linux kernel (which is developed with breathtaking speed) requires the NVIDIA code to be recompiled in a rather obscure fashion. A consequence is that there are often screwups. One of those has just happened, and as a result I have no GUI. I only have a command line.
It took me a while to see this as the answer to my prayers. But in a day I've relearned how to do most normal tasks - edit files, play music, browse the internet - via the command line. And damn it feels good.
Next step: rediscover batch scripts.
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Sunday, October 14, 2007

So much for Pascal's Wager

During lunchtime on Wednesday, I got chatting to my evangelical friend again. This time he brought along one of his colleagues, who was not so nice and seemed to feel (possibly correctly) that this ornery atheist was consuming valuable proselytising time with no chance of a conversion at the end of it. The result was one of the most rapid-fire religious discussions I have ever had.

It ended fairly unsatisfactorily - I felt that I'd fairly conclusively taken his (fideist) position to pieces, but of course there was no chance of him recognising that. However, he did extract from me a promise to pray to God, open my heart, yadda yadda. Yawn.

This always confuses me. They realise they're discussing something with a committed atheist, who knows his arguments and has thoroughly examined the evidence, yet they somehow think that I've never tried praying. I don't know what they're expecting me to say. "Oh wow, you know, I never thought of praying. I was planning on being a church-burning, Ebola-spreading atheist for the rest of my brutal, sex-obsessed* life, but now you mention prayer I just can't go on with that. I'm saved, hail Jesus!"

The truth is that pretty much every skeptical atheist in the world has tried prayer at least once. In my case, I spent seven years attending a Christian youth club, which meant weekly prayer sessions.

It gets to 4:00 on Wednesday, though, and I'm feeling knackered. The spreadsheet I'm working on is going to take at least another five minutes** to run, and I really cannot be bothered to find something else to do in that slice of time. So I figure, what the heck. I start to pray.

It's a fairly usual prayer session. I recite the Lord's Prayer a couple of times to get myself in the mood, and then go through the usual run of platitudes. I'm not quite ready to ask God to forgive my sins, but I strongly declare a general willingness to start up a dialogue with Him, if He's interested.

The spreadsheet finishes at 4:10, so I get back to work while I wait for a response from Yahweh. I figure that I probably won't feel a thing, but if I get any sort of positive rush then that would at least be worth investigating further. After all, it can't hurt, can it?

At 4:30 the panic attack starts. I almost never have these. I'm pretty sure that the attach was at least partially driven by my caffeine intake and general exhaustion - but hey, the evangelist did ask me to keep an open mind. Maybe it is connected.

So it seems I have my response from God. I ask for communication, and He sends me a panic attack. The solution is clear.

Next time I speak to that evangelist, I'm going to thank him for his useful suggestion - and tell him that I've converted to Satanism.


* They wouldn't necessarily be wrong about this bit, but I keep myself under better control than most nominal Christians. Whether that's a good thing or not is an entirely different argument.

** Premature optimisation may be the root of all ills, but it would sure have made my week more productive.
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Sunday, October 07, 2007

FreeCom: The problem

Apropos of my previous post, I'm devoting increasing amounts of thought to why precisely it is that Christians, Moslems, Hindus, Sikhs, etc are perceived as having much stronger social networks than the community of atheists, agnostics and other freethinkers. I'll abbreviate this group to FreeCom, otherwise it won't fit nicely in the title of a blog post.

The first premise that needs to be confirmed is that FreeCom does not provide equivalent social support to its members. Just because I perceive this to be the case, doesn't mean it's necessarily so. Maybe the support is there but, for some reason, I'm just not seeing it.

Seek and ye shall find?

Firstly, I could not have investigated thoroughly enough. This may be a fair point. After spending all my life in Reading, I'm only just starting to extend my roots into the local FreeCom. After being effectively a humanist for years, I've only just investigated subscribing to New Humanist.

Does this break my premise? I'd say no, for two reasons. On the one hand, none of these things even approach being "equivalent" to the social networks that churches provide. A weekly humanist meeting? Come on. Churches have three or four meetings every day.

(I'm not having a go at the humanists here - I think it's great that they run a meeting. Rather, I'm interested in what it is that restricts them to only one meeting a week. But I'm getting ahead of myself.)

On the other hand, the requirement that I actively hunt for FreeCom groups in my area is itself an indictment of those groups. There is no street I can walk down in this entire town without seeing at least one advertisement (either open or tacit) for a religious community. The only FreeCom advert I've seen was one ageing poster in the library, for the aforementioned humanist group. If there are loads of groups out there that are just very well hidden, this would also be a problem.

So, even if there are other players in town, for the sake of this analysis we can ignore them as being overly apathetic.

The Matrix doesn't have you...

Another possibility is that I'm looking in completely the wrong direction for my atheist support groups. In cyberspace, there are a thousand flourishing atheist communities. When atheists need support, they can just post to their blogs.

Does this break my premise? I don't think so. On the one hand, the online communities do not provide equivalent support. What they provide is in many ways as important, but it's suited to different situations.

You can't sit down and have a coffee with someone online. You can't laugh and sing together. Get together in a group of more than four or five and, online, even conversation becomes difficult. Even in the heart of the most dedicated geek, there is a need for IRL social networks. This is why religious communities use both media: they may be equal, but they are very different. Even if it's true that all FreeCom lacks is an IRL presence, this would still be a problem.

On the other hand, the online option is simply not available to many people. Little old ladies are not going to be flocking to FreeCom in droves, regardless of their personal religious beliefs, if they have to learn how to use a computer. People with no internet connection are not going to get one just so they can natter with other atheists. Again, an online presence is a wonderful thing, but it is not sufficient.


There are not enough FreeCom groups in my area - or, if there are, their advertising sucks. And online groups are not a sufficient alternative. So there is a genuine problem here, which is worth investigating in more depth.

In subsequent posts, I'll investigate aspects of the problem and possible solutions.
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What is management?

Sounds like a complex question, right? In fact, on close inspection, it appears to have a surprisingly well-defined answer.

Management is the elimination of diseconomies of scale - ways in which Just Doing Stuff doesn't work when said Stuff gets too large.

Imagine one solitary person working on one monolithic project. She has clear objectives and all the resources she wants. Does she need management? I'd say no - she might require coaching or training, but nothing that could be described primarily as management.

Now add another ten people. Instantly, new issues start to arise. People argue about the best way to do stuff. They trip over each other. They get angry with each other. A thousand little turf wars spring up. Left to themselves, what you have isn't a project; it's a battlefield.

People Management is intended to handle this problem. Throw a good manager into the room and he will settle things down, make decisions, organise workloads and so on.

Now add another five projects, to be worked on simultaneously. Suddenly people need to split their time up, and they probably don't do it well. Left to their own devices, they're likely to focus on whichever project they're feeling most happy about, which is likely not to be the one that needs their attention.

Time Management is intended to handle this problem. Throw a good manager into the room and he will start throwing Gantt charts and flow diagrams and so on around. As has been pointed out in endless Dilbert cartoons, those things are no substitute for Just Doing Stuff - but, if there's a lot of Stuff to Just Do, they can make your work substantially more efficient.

Now let's say there's another three teams in the same company, and they're arguing over who gets the most highlighter pens. Bingo, Resource Management comes in. And the team is probably working for customers, who may or may not have explained their requirements clearly. In steps Marketing. The team is most likely not able to choose how their environment will behave in future, so up pops Strategic Management.

Each additional bit of complexity has the potential to generate its own bit of turbulence. Management smooths that down, reducing the "viscosity" of the organisation.

What does all this mean in practice? Not a damn thing. I just like to get concepts clear in my head. Since I have my Open University exam on the 19th, it's probably a good thing that I'm at least clear on what Management is.

Now I just need to revise 16 textbooks of material, and do a few past papers. In 12 days.

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Friday, October 05, 2007

Any freethinkers from Reading, UK?

Just curious: are there any atheists etc out there from the same town as me?

If so... wanna meet up?

This is not the request of a random scary internet freak*. I'm just curious as to how many people like me there are out there. I feel I could use some sense of community.

I wish I'd stopped to chat to that guy in the library.

* OK, so I fulfil all those criteria. But only coincidentally.
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Again, I'm mirroring Amanda. After what I said in a previous post, I'm definitely backsliding. I find myself looking out for arguments again. It's partially the testosterone boost from finally watching "Fight Club", but it's partially just me being me.

How do I stop this? How do I regain that transient feeling of self-confidence? And how do I achieve that without betraying the ideals of skeptical atheism?
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Belated, but... free Burma

Free Burma!

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Surfing thoughts

First, catch your wave

In a way, the hardest thing to get the hang of is catching the wave in the first place. This is not easy - you have to spot the right moment and match speeds with the wave, otherwise it'll go straight past you. The scary-skilled experts just sit on their boards and magically end up moving at the right speed when the wave hits. If you're a normal person, don't even go there.

Your first concern is choosing the right moment. You absolutely cannot just wait for the perfect wave, because it will never ever come. Instead, your thought processes should be a constant stream of "maybe maybe no no yes no no yes yes yes maybe yes YES!!!". You should be ready to throw yourself into the wave that comes, not the wave that you wish would come. There's probably a life lesson in there.

As far as catching up with the wave is concerned, don't even try swimming. Just grab your board and jump onto the wave. Anything else takes more skill than you can muster at this point.

Riding high

Once you've matched speed and location with a wave, your next goal is to stay with it. This is again harder than it sounds, and it's all about your position on the board. Try going too far forward on your board.

Yes, I mean it. Don't worry, I'll wait.


Tried it? OK, so you faceplanted the ocean. This probably hurt. Don't blame me, I only suggested it. What probably happened is that the tip of your board dipped below water level. As the force of the wave came up behind you, the tip acted as a pivot that flipped the entire board over on top of you.

On the other hand, it's possible to go too far back. Go try it.


Tried it? OK, so the wave went right over you, and you barely moved a metre. Boring, huh? The back end of your board cut into the wave, broke the surface tension and allowed it to go both above and below you without even slowing down.

The trick is as follows. When you first launch yourself onto the board, land with your weight slightly back from centre. This will enable you to catch the wave in the first place. Ensure that your hands are gripping the board further up its length. As the wave passes under you, pull yourself up the board. If you time it just right, you will start to slide down the front of the wave, collecting a serious amount of kinetic energy as you go. That's enough to launch you forward.

The final step

So how do you actually get up on the damn thing? Again, not easy. However, one thing that definitely won't work is putting one foot on and then the other. The board will destabilise and you'll splash.

If you've followed my previous instructions, you'll be gripping the board on either side a fair way up its length. To get upright, you basically need to do a squat thrust. Pull both your feet up the board at the same time, get them simultaneously somewhere near the middle of the board, and push up. Trust me, it'll work.

Well, one time in three anyway. Anything more than that, it's up to you. Let me know how it works for you.
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Spent the last weekend surfing, played badminton yesterday, and have been walking two half-hours a day for a couple of weeks now. I have no idea what precisely was responsible, but I discovered today that keeping my belt at the usual notch simply didn't work. I am now officially a couple inches smaller in circumference.

I am very happy about this. That does not say much for my self-esteem, but if my joy helps me keep the weight down then yay.
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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

That fateful comment

It's not often that posting a comment on someone's blog has a substantial effect on your life, but this one crystallised a lot of stuff for me.

The backstory: for various reasons, Amanda is feeling that she'll be better off if she stops agonising over God's existence and just takes it as given for the moment. Although of course I defy God and all of His works, I can see where she's coming from, because I've been feeling the same way about my atheism.

After several years of arguing about God's existence and/or involvement in the world, I'm in the process of realising that one of the accusations directed at atheists is actually true of me: I'm actually rather insecure about my atheism. That's why I go looking for religious arguments, why I spend so much time creationist-battling online, why I read so many books on the subject, why I'm so obsessed with it all. It's a very Freudian situation.

But here's the thing: I don't need to feel insecure. I've put an insane amount of effort over the years into understanding the philosophy, science, history, psychology etc, enough that I can have near-total confidence in my chosen religious stance. I can stop wondering whether the next evangelical I meet will pull a valid proof of God's existence out of their hat. I should remain open-minded, but there are better uses I can put my energy to.

I feel like I've been waiting for this realisation to strike for a long time now. In just a day, I can already see differences in my outlook. Last week I was approached by a proselytising Christian, and the conversation inevitably devolved into deep discussion of evolutionary biology. Today I bumped into the same guy and found I was more interested in his experiences as part of a faith community.

Last week I was horrified that people were more persuaded by good marketing and a sense of community than by rational skepticism. Today I find myself pleasantly impressed at how much effort some Christians go to to make potential converts comfortable. There's a lot that I can learn from this.

Last week I was pondering how someone could be weaned away from religious groups. Today I'm more interested in how such groups are set up. What would it take to plant a "church" of skeptical atheism?

I'll still keep up my usual level of science self-education, because I've discovered that I thoroughly enjoy evolutionary biology. I'll carry on reading up about the early Church (my current area of investigation), because I'm struck by parallels between the Christians' situation then and the atheists' situation now. I'll happily discuss religion with anyone who raises the subject, because I am in serious need of non-cyberspace debating practice. But although my behaviour may be unchanged, the driving force is becoming very different. I don't need to prove myself to anyone any more.
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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Spectral regrets

I've just been rewatching Andrew Lloyd Webber's adaptation of Gaston Leroux's "Phantom of the Opera". I absolutely love it, and not just because Emmy Rossum is cute - I'm uncultured enough to really enjoy the music.

There are a couple of things that just piss me off, though. Firstly, in the final showdown between the Phantom, Christine and Raoul, Christine utters the couplet:

Pitiful creature of darkness
What kind of life have you known?
God gave me courage to show you
You are not alone!

I just can't stop my inner atheist kicking in at this point. As a child, the Phantom was sold to a circus by his parents, who were disgusted by his deformity. A few scenes earlier we saw the young Phantom, dressed only in loincloth and a sack for a mask, clutching his stuffed toy monkey as a full-grown man brutally beat him to the delight of a jeering audience. He only got away by killing his "trainer", and since then he hasn't been able to show his face (literally). Where was God all this time?

Decades later, someone deigns to show him affection, even if only on the level of "aww, poor puppy". And suddenly God gets the credit? WTF?

I realise I'm taking this way too seriously - it's a frickin' musical - but I see the same phenomenon all the time. "A plane crashed, 127 people and a dog were killed, but one child survived with third-degree burns - what a miracle!" This is confirmation bias taken to a ludicrous extreme.

More seriously, I think the characters are painfully two-dimensional, which is tragic given they have so much potential. Raoul is played as just a well-spoken variant of the classic brainless hunk of meat. I personally lack meat, voice control and striking good looks, so this isn't exactly a persona I can relate to. They could at least have given him a couple of interesting flaws.

Christine is basically just the servant of whatever plot twist comes her way. The only slight twist is her ambivalence over the Phantom, which in the film just comes across as a mild Electra complex.

The Phantom at least gives some impression of being interesting - in the first hour there's a huge amount of uncertainty as to whether he's an evil manipulative bastard or a tragic blighted hero. Sadly, the second hour can basically be summarised as "yup, he's a bastard". This is a bit of an anticlimax, and completely destroys the most sympathetic character in the film. They could have drawn the ambiguity out so much better.

I'm especially sensitive to the Phantom's plight after reading the excellent books "Banewreaker" and "Godslayer" by Jacqueline Carey. If even a Sauron-style Dark Lord can be shown in a more noble light, what could Webber have made of Leroux's antihero?

Given my mild obsession with this dramatisation, I definitely need to check out the original book. I've currently got three separate academic courses to revise for, but once I've finished them I'll have to relearn my French and start getting genial with Gaston.
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Sunday, September 23, 2007

How maths works

It's amazing how many people really don't get mathematics. Just as the popular image of science involves test tubes of bubbling stuff and cries of "eureka", most folks seem to think that maths is what happens when Russell Crowe attacks a poor innocent blackboard with greek graffiti.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In actual fact, maths is a climbing frame.

Bear with me here.

Maths proceeds as follows. First, find a bunch of factoids about some area of the mathematical world. Then "climb the frame" by placing them into some sort of abstract context. Then explore the internal workings of that paradigm*. Then climb back down from the general rules to the specific.

If you've done this right, you may find that you've descended to Earth somewhere quite different from the point where your feet left the ground. That's mathematics.

* Philosophy-of-science geeks will note that the process I'm describing is very similar to Kuhnian paradigm formation. The two are very similar, but there are some differences - maybe I'll do a post on it.
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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

My guilty secret

Sometimes I just get these... urges. It's like an itch I can't scratch, a voice in the back of my head that says "go on, you know you want to". I know it's wrong, but I just can't hold myself back.

Yep, it's true. I've been reading my old maths textbooks again. Galois theory is even cooler second time around. Seems that it's mathematically impossible to draw a regular septagon using only compass and straightedge. That's so weird.

I'm aware that saying "I know that the quintic is not in general solvable by radicals" is not as snappy as "I know kung fu", but I'm comfortable with that. Just as long as the plain brown cover doesn't fall off my Number Fields book.

I think the next stop for me is Algebraicists Anonymous. "Hi everyone, my name is Alex and I'm a mathematics geek..." And I'm off the wagon, baby!

I'm also a little hyper. Could you tell?
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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Spooky skepticism

Early this morning, I was getting dressed in my bedroom when I heard a horrible groaning noise. On inspection it was coming from my acoustic guitar. Untouched by human hand, the guitar was making strange, discordant noises. It sounded like a bad tape recording of someone trying to talk to me.

Whoever they were, they were in great pain - a few of the noises were absolutely heart-rending moans. Without human fingers on its soundboard, a guitar shouldn't even be able to make noises other than the specific notes of the strings - certainly not a hellish wail of torment. What the heck was going on?

I felt like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve. Was I receiving some sort of visitation from a fiery afterlife? Would I have to mend my ways and start buying oversize turkeys for coworkers? As it turns out, the answer was...


After watching the "haunted" instrument for a few minutes, I finally figured out what the cause was. I'd rested the guitar in upright position on a sports bag that was itself precariously balanced on some books. At some point, I'd stomped on the floor just hard enough to destabilise the bag. As a result, the guitar was sloooooowly sliding off it, and its head was being imperceptibly dragged down the wall.

The slight rasping motion was enough to create a resonant vibration in the body of the guitar, which was making the strings sing out. And the jerkiness of the guitar's slide was enough to make it sound a little like distorted human speech.

The moaning effect was because the guitar would only move a little way before coming to rest, so the last millimetre of motion was the slowest. This meant that the guitar's vibrational frequency dropped, so only the deeper strings would respond. The result was a descending wail as the frequency of the sound, averaged across the strings, gradually varied.

So much for my ghostly visitor.

What would have happened if I hadn't approached this phenomenon with a skeptical mindset? Well, for a start I'd have been out of that room before the dust had settled! I wouldn't have had the nerve to go back in until evening, by which point the guitar would have "magically" completed its slow fall off the bag and dropped dramatically to the floor. By then I'd have been convinced not only that a ghost was trying to speak to me but that it could levitate objects, poltergeist-style.

As a skeptic, though, I knew that what I thought I was experiencing - a ghostly conversation - was not necessarily what was really happening. As a skeptic, I knew to control my emotional response, to avoid leaps of logic, and to look for the most parsimonious explanation. With these powerful tools of thought in hand, I was able to fight back my instinctive superstition and come to a more accurate conclusion.

If I hadn't had that skeptical mindset, what you'd be reading here would be a story of how my guitar spoke to me, and that story would have been a lie. Speaking as someone who places a high value on truth, this incident demonstrated once again that skepticism can be our salvation.
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Saturday, September 01, 2007


Tactical blunder on my part. As part of my ongoing debate with my friend (who I'm hoping to test the power of prayer with), I've been attempting to point out inconsistencies in his pattern of beliefs. For example, he doesn't believe in ghosts. I pointed out the Biblical passage where the Witch of Endor raises Samuel's ghost for Saul, and commented that the Argument from Scripture "proves" ghosts just as much as it "proves" God.

To my amazement, he agreed with me.

He now believes in ghosts, too.

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Short story

"You did what?!"

Henry's shout escaped through the window and echoed round the forecourt, startling students and Japanese tourists alike. In his office, Professor Charles Baker just smiled at his colleague's amazement.

"It was quite simple, really," he said calmly. "Stochastic process theory has been very well-researched over the past fifty years, and its application to evolutionary biology is frankly rather obvious. I'm surprised no-one's done this before."

"But see here, Charles, what you're saying can't possibly work! An equation that predicts evolution? For a start, you'd need to feed it more information than biologists could ever gather."

A slight frown passed briefly over Baker's face. "For a long time I thought the same," he admitted. "And you're right that low-level evolution - minor variations of size and colour - isn't easy to track. However, if you consider the broader sweeps of change, the fluctuations pretty much even out. See, it follows directly from Kline's Lemma." He pushed over a perilously balanced stack of scribbled workings.

Henry raised his hands in supplication. "Charles, I know you can do more maths in a day than I've managed in twenty years. I'm a zoologist, for Pete's sake. But what you're telling me is... well, the implications are..."

"I know," interrupted Baker, "and I already discussed some of them with the Department of Epidemiology. We've got a full-scale trial scheduled for later this year. We're aiming at the common cold for starters. If I'm right, we'll be able to predict how it'll evolve to wiggle out of the traps our immune systems lay for it. Throw in the right drugs and bingo! no more blocked noses every winter."

He paused for a moment, and another frown flashed across his brow. "There is one thing that's worrying me, though," he said slowly, almost reluctantly. "I tried running the equations backwards as well as forwards, and it worked superbly. Every fossil species we've ever discovered just falls naturally out of the model! So I pushed it back even further, towards the start of life."

"Then, in the data from three and a half billion years ago, I started to notice gaps in the flow - little jumps, where a species hurdled a barrier that by rights should have killed it off. At first I assumed that I'd made an error, forgotten to take some factor into account. I spent weeks searching for a pattern in the data, to correct my mistake. And I found a pattern, but it wasn't any of my doing."

He pushed over another sheet of paper, this one with a complex system of swirling lines printed onto it. "This, Henry, is a graphical representation of the flowlines. Don't worry about the maths, just tell me what you see."

Scratching his head, Henry stared at the graph. "You know," he said, "these darker loops at the bottom look almost like symbols. That's a bit queer, isn't it?"

"Very," agreed Baker. "I thought exactly the same as you, of course. So I got one of the lads from Linguistics to take a look at it. I didn't tell him where it came from, of course, but nonetheless he pointed me straight to an expert in Middle-Eastern archaeology."

"The symbols are ancient Hebrew, Henry. And when they were translated... well, read for yourself." He pushed a final scrap of paper over, this one with three words on it. Just three words.

As Henry studied the short phrase, his expression changed from puzzlement to utmost shock. With a short scream, he hurled the paper away from him, jumped out of his chair and ran from the room. The tourists looked on in puzzlement as he sped across the grass of the forecourt.

Professor Baker sighed gently as he picked up the fragment of hand-written English from where it had fallen, and replaced it on the table. Would Henry ever forgive him for his discovery? Would the world? He looked down again at the three words that had elicited such a reaction, as if hoping they would disappear.

Three short words - encoded in the gene flows, buried in the very origin of life.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Weirdness is...

...reading a Philosophy of Science textbook whilst three pints* under. Seriously, weed has nothing on this. I think I may be a logical positivist.

Or maybe it's just that beer lends itself to anti-realism:

"Dude, what if, like, it didn't matter what stuff actually was - just sorta, y'know, what it did?"

"Woah, duuuude..."

FYI, this is all preliminary to an adult education course I'm signed up for: "Dawkins, Darwin and God". The course leader is a Christian and evo-devo biologist. I suspect that his Amazon review page may provide the best course outline - it's likely to be evolution-friendly but Dawkins-unfriendly.

Since I'm the closest thing the atheist community has to a Dawkins fanboy**, this will be interesting for me. If nothing else, it's going to be an extremely good training ground for my framing skills.

I do have this slight worry, though, that I'll turn up and every other member of the group will be a Dawkinsian atheist. That would be freaky.

* Real ale, of course. 5% abv minimum. This explains much.

** E.g. I don't actually stab voodoo dolls of him. Atheists are about as far from a cohesive group as it's possible to get without investigating the possibilities of small felines.
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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Skeptics, assemble!

The Story So Far

One of my friends is a Christian. Not just a Sunday Christian. Not even a happy-clappy isn't-God-lovely Evangelical. He's from a group with some beliefs that I can only describe as Medieval.

What do I mean? Well, if I said angels and demons, that wouldn't be the half of it. Exorcisms, channelling the Holy Spirit, prophecy, faith healing, the works.

There's another, more positive, difference between my friend and other Christians: he's willing to experimentally test his beliefs. In particular, he firmly believes that his fellow believers can reliably sense him praying for them, and has actually gone so far as to suggest an experimental protocol to see whether he's correct.

The Protocol

A cleaned-up version of his protocol is as follows. Myself (Skeptic 1), my friend (Believer 1) and his assistant (B2) all go to my flat in town. S1 and B2 synchronise watches, and decide on a start time for the experiment. B2 sits in the apartment block's communal garden, which is separated from the block by 20m of garages.

S1 and B1 sit in the flat's bathroom. This is a windowless room with no exterior walls, so no light or vibration can enter without being very obvious. There is ventilation but it's noisy enough that any sound getting through would also have to be very obvious.

The experiment lasts 10 minutes. S1 will select a trigger time by picking a number from 0 to 19 from a hat, and adding that number of half-minutes to the starting time. At this time, S1 will signal B1, who will begin to pray for B2. S1 will make a note of the starting time. S1 will also keep eyes and ears open for any potential communication channels - no mobile phones!

If/when B2 feels the effects of the prayer, he will write down the exact time he first felt it. Once the 10 minutes is up, B2 will return to the apartment. B2's time of receipt will be presented, and then B1's time of prayer will be revealed.

If B2's time falls within the half-minute during which B1 was praying, we mark the test up as a positive result. The experiment will be repeated a prespecified number of times (probably three) and the results collated.

Help Wanted

If there is more than one positive result in three experiments then, by my calculations, that will be proof at the 99% confidence level that either a) B1 and B2 can communicate supernaturally, or b) my test protocol is open to manipulation. That's where you folks come in.

I can't see any weaknesses in my protocol, but I have no experience of running this sort of test. Even if I did have that experience, I'd still want independent confirmation that I haven't missed any obvious issues. I would thus greatly appreciate it if everyone who reads this post would leave a comment either pointing out a flaw in the protocol or declaring it apparently sound.

Because it would be really embarrassing if I had to convert to Christianity...
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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Proud to be British

Recently I've been reading a bunch of "heavy books". This is mostly due to the fact that all my favourite books are packed up ready for an apartment move, but it has led to my coming across some interesting concepts.

The most fascinating idea so far is from "Eichmann In Jerusalem" by Hannah Arendt, which uses the trial of a Nazi war criminal to give a disturbingly matter-of-fact discussion of the Holocaust. One chapter speaks of why it was that Denmark suffered so little of the genocide, why Danish Jews didn't get carted off, and why no concentration camps were ever set up there.

In short: it was because Denmark didn't give an inch to those trying to foment hate. Did the Germans decree that all Jews were to wear golden stars? The Danish made clear that everyone in Denmark would insist on wearing one, starting with the King. Did the Germans try to set up "Jewish Councils" as a first step to deportation? No-one showed up. This continued right up until the Nazis' final attempt to unilaterally arrest all Jews, at which point the majority of Danish Jews fled to Sweden in transport funded by their fellow Danish citizens.

That is in itself a very heartening story. But the amazing thing about it is the effect it had on the Nazis. You see, it was a Nazi who let the Danish Jews know that they were about to be arrested en masse. It was Nazis (among others) who completely failed to enforce any of the previous edicts. In the face of Danish protest, Nazi anti-Semitism collapsed.

It turned out that many Nazis simply hadn't thought about the morality of their actions that much. When all the world was Nazi (or so it seemed), when all the authority figures were supporting the Nazis, when there was no sign of protest or outrage at their actions, they struggled to even realise that their genocide might be considered evil.

Danish courage shattered that illusion. Danish outrage broke open the Nazi echo chamber and filled it with cries of dismay. Danish loyalty to the principles of liberty and common humanity managed to "corrupt" the entire Nazi hierarchy in Denmark, to the point that the final mass arrest required outside troops.

Wouldn't it be nice to be so proud of your country?

Well, now the Brits out there can be. Via Dispatches From the Culture Wars, the news comes through that Salman Rushdie, the famous fatwah recipient, has been made a Knight of the British Empire. In the face of entire fascist countries and communities, our Government has made a stand for freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the human right to life. Quite frankly, I didn't think they had it in them.

We haven't quite taken on the badge of the oppressed, but we've offered to share our own badge of honour with those whose lives are in jeopardy from murderous fanatics. We've drawn a line: an attack on Salman Rushdie is an attack on all of us. We have not gone quietly into the night; in this battle of ideologies, we've made a stand for humanity. Today, I'm proud to be British.
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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

How many forms of understanding?

“We have more than one form of understanding. [...] The great achievements of physical science do not make it capable of encompassing everything, from mathematics to ethics to the experiences of a living animal. We have no reason to dismiss moral reasoning, introspection or conceptual analysis as ways of discovering the truth just because they are not physics.”

- Thomas Nagel, as quoted in this article

Let's imagine a hypothetical situation. A friend comes to you with an excellent moral argument, perfect in every detail, which leads inevitably to the conclusion that gravity doesn't apply to her - she can, if she so wishes, walk on thin air.

What would you do? Would you encourage her to test this conclusion by walking off a skyscraper? Or would you ask that she kindly remove her head from the clouds before gravity did it for her?

No, Thomas. There's only one form of understanding that leads to truth: that which attempts at all opportunities to expose itself to the evidence. Scientific understanding, in other words. All else is shadows and dust.

There are, however, very many forms of pontificating.
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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Poor Quality in action: Access

Today I wish to draw your attention to another example of poor quality in action. As with the last one, the culprit is.... Microsoft.

Microsoft Access 2000, to be specific. It has another of those wonderful useability features that turns your brain to mush after ten minutes use.

Now, there's an argument to be made that Microsoft Office suites are primarily designed for the use of retarded monkeys, and hence we shouldn't expect them to be developer-friendly by default. That's fair enough - I can quite understand that a product like Access may have to ship with all features enabled (although, as I've declaimed at great length, an option to turn the features off would be greatly appreciated). However, the precise implementation of this particular feature makes the aforementioned retarded monkeys look like Deep Blue on steroids.

The feature in question is the little gizmo that reformats your SQL* syntax for you, which as best I can tell is intended to make your code more readable to the machine. However, Access isn't content to reformat the code for its own use. Oh no, Access is too friendly for that. Access shares.

The practical upshot is that my beautifully-laid-out code keeps getting turned into a reader's nightmare. The following is an example - a bit of code that grabs some asset-related data in an attractive fashion. Before:

SELECT    CPN.Asset_Tag,
dAC1.Asset_Category AS Record_Category,
dAC2.Asset_Category AS Review_Category,
dAT1.Type AS Record_Type,
dAT2.Type AS Review_Type,
dAM1.Name AS Record_Manufacturer,
dAM2.Name AS Review_Manufacturer,

CompareProductNum AS CPN
LEFT JOIN dbo_Asset_Types AS dAT1
ON (
(CPN.Record_Category_ID = dAT1.Asset_Category_ID)
(CPN.Record_Type_ID = dAT1.ID)
LEFT JOIN dbo_Asset_Types AS dAT2
ON (
(CPN.Review_Category_ID = dAT2.Asset_Category_ID)
(CPN.Review_Type_ID = dAT2.ID)
LEFT JOIN dbo_Companies AS dAM1
ON CPN.Record_Manufacturer_ID = dAM1.ID
LEFT JOIN dbo_Companies AS dAM2
ON CPN.Review_Manufacturer_ID = dAM2.ID
LEFT JOIN dbo_Asset_Category AS dAC1
ON CPN.Record_Category_ID = dAC1.ID
LEFT JOIN dbo_Asset_Category AS dAC2
ON CPN.Review_Category_ID = dAC2.ID

And after:

SELECT CPN.Asset_Tag, dAC1.Asset_Category AS Record_Category, dAC2.Asset_Category AS Review_Category, dAT1.Type AS Record_Type, dAT2.Type AS Review_Type, dAM1.Name AS Record_Manufacturer, dAM2.Name AS Review_Manufacturer, CPN.Record_Model, CPN.Review_Model

FROM (((((CompareProductNum AS CPN LEFT JOIN dbo_Asset_Types AS dAT1 ON (CPN.Record_Category_ID=dAT1.Asset_Category_ID) AND (CPN.Record_Type_ID=dAT1.ID)) LEFT JOIN dbo_Asset_Types AS dAT2 ON (CPN.Review_Category_ID=dAT2.Asset_Category_ID) AND (CPN.Review_Type_ID=dAT2.ID)) LEFT JOIN dbo_Companies AS dAM1 ON CPN.Record_Manufacturer_ID=dAM1.ID) LEFT JOIN dbo_Companies AS dAM2 ON CPN.Review_Manufacturer_ID=dAM2.ID) LEFT JOIN dbo_Asset_Category AS dAC1 ON CPN.Record_Category_ID=dAC1.ID) LEFT JOIN dbo_Asset_Category AS dAC2 ON CPN.Review_Category_ID=dAC2.ID;

Now, even the less computer-literate amongst my readers (both of them) should be able to recognise a slight readability difference between version 1 and version 2 of this code. The difference is: you can't read version 2. Every time I stick any SQL code into Access, this is the sort of gobbledygook that Microsoft, in its infinite wisdom, transforms it into. Pity me.

And can you turn it off? Don't be silly, says Microsoft, why on Earth would you want to do that?


* Structured Query Language, a sorta-kinda programming language that's used for getting information out of databases
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Sunday, January 14, 2007

How to disprove evolution

One common complaint that I've come across relating to evolutionary biology is that it is unfalsifiable. This is technically correct. The broad statement "stuff evolves from other stuff" cannot be conclusively falsified. Fortunately, Real Scientists don't leave it at that - they actually go into detail on how evolution occurred.

One example of how this extra specificity can render evolution falsifiable is given by the notion of common descent. Common descent is not falsifiable in the general case - you can never be sure that any new species can't be fitted somewhere on the family tree. However, one prediction that can be derived by considering this concept in specific cases is: the phylogenetic tree of any set of organisms is fixed.

Say we choose four organisms, then consider ten genes that occur in all of them. For each of these genes we can draw a graph or network of how the organisms appear to relate (more on how to do this later). If those graphs are not equivalent, that indicates that the family tree is not the same for each gene. This would falsify common descent.

With this approach in mind, I present a step-by-step HowTo guide to falsifying evolution.

Step 1: Pick two or more genes

It turns out that it's generally easier to pick a couple of genes first and see which species their sequences are available for than to pick a couple of species and try to identify genes they have in common.

If you're after a list of genes to consider, why not spend some time sticking random searches in the NCBI's Entrez Gene database frontend?

For this example, I have chosen the genes HoxA5 and HoxB5. No particular reason; I'd just heard hox genes referred to before.

Step 2: Pick four or more species

If you pick fewer than four species, it is impossible for the graphs to be distinct - three points can only be connected up in one way. With four species, you have at least two ways (see below). More species would be interesting, but let's keep it simple.

To confirm that your genes are available for the species you're interested in, go to the NCBI's Homologene site and type your gene's name into the search bar.

For this example, I'll be considering homo sapiens (humans), pan troglodytes (chimpanzees), mus musculus (mice) and rattus norvegicus (rats). This is because these species are all available for the genes I'm interested in.

Step 3: Determine the distance between the species' genes

For each gene, and for each pair of species, you need to determine the extent of the difference between the exact forms of the gene in each species. This can be thought of as a measure of distance - two variants of the same gene will be separated by a given number of mutations.

The easiest way to do this is to cheat and use NCBI functionality again. In the case of HoxA5, for example, I would go to its HomoloGene page and click on the link titled "Show table of pairwise scores". This brings up a table of alignment scores - we're interested in the "d" (distance) values.

Step 4: Create a phylogenetic graph for each gene

We now have enough information to use a technique called the nearest-neighbours algorithm to derive a phylogenetic graph. A phylogenetic graph is basically a family tree of the species, except without any indication of where the last common ancestor fits into the picture. They look something like this, only without the "X marks the spot" in the middle.

The advantage of a phylogenetic graph rather than a tree is that it is actually impossible to figure out which part of the tree is the "root" from theoretical techniques alone. An unrooted tree, a phylogenetic graph, is therefore used instead. These are quite easy to generate from bioinformatic data. The easiest algorithm, and the one we're using here, is called the Nearest Neighbour algorithm. There are more reliable algorithms, but this one is handy because we only need to worry about the distance between gene variants rather than their actual encoded content.

To produce the graph, you can use an online tool like this one - just fill in the distance data from HomoloGene. This particular tool produces a number of trees, which all represent the same graph with differently-positioned roots. You'll need to figure out what the original graph looks like. For example, this tree:

is structurally equivalent to this graph:

(note: 1 is human, 2 is chimp, 3 is mouse, 4 is rat)

Step 5: Compare the phylogenetic graphs

If you find, as I did, that the two genes you have chosen give phylogenetic graphs that are precisely equivalent, tough luck: you've failed to disprove evolution. In fact, you've actually reinforced it slightly - in the absence of some variant of evolutionary biology, there is absolutely no reason to expect this law of phylogenetic graph equivalence to hold.

It is certainly not characteristic of any designed system. If you ran this test on computer code, on engineering designs, on literature you'd continually find situations where it didn't hold - chimaeras that built on many existing traditions rather than just the one. If the living world was indeed designed by an intelligent, purposeful entity then He must have gone out of His way to give the impression that evolution was responsible.

If you find that the two genes give phylogenetic graphs that are not equivalent, congratulations: you may have falsified evolution. If you've pulled off this trick, I would ask that you list the genes you used in the comments section of this post, so I can confirm your results. If there are no mistakes in your working, we can try some more accurate phylogenetic graphing algorithms, and if the results are still positive then quite frankly you're looking at a Nobel Prize here.

Good luck!
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Poor Quality in action: Microsoft BIDS

Microsoft SQL Server Business Intelligence Development Studio is an interesting product. The basic idea of it is simple: most companies have lots of databases floating around with information that's potentially useful to those in power. Hence, why not make it easy to produce lots of reports capable of digesting that information into pretty charts?

The idea is good. The implementation is atrocious. I'm currently stuck in the midst of one particular conundrum, which I wish to share.

BIDS uses the same interface as MS Visual Basic - it's a grid that you can position block elements such as charts and textboxes on. Whilst this is extremely effective for small reports, it's bloody awful for large ones - if you want to make a change to the size of the top element you have to select every other element of the report and shift them all a bit. Which you can't do. For reasons known only to themselves, Microsoft have made it very difficult to select more than a screen's worth of elements at any given time.

Of course, there are workarounds. The best one by far is to create a subreport - a separate report that can be embedded into the main report. This is represented in the main report by a fairly small block element, so can be easily moved around. A nested set of subreports can be used to create a fairly elegant layout. So far so good - why am I complaining?

The problem with this approach relates to the means by which data is imported into BIDS. Each report actually has two parts - a backend consisting of one or more SQL queries ("datasets"), and a frontend consisting of pretty charts etc. The upshot of this should be obvious: if you want to use the same dataset in more than one report, the only way to do it is to include a copy of the same SQL code in each report*. This is unmaintainable - with enough reports, you'll end up with multiple versions of the same SQL, all of which produce subtly different results. So much for the elegance of subreports.

I'm particularly peeved about this problem because it is so completely unnecessary. Simply by introducing the backend and frontend as separate objects that could be linked as appropriate, this quite major problem could have been avoided. But it's fairly clear that the developers of the system never thought of this - they just took the existing concept (individual reports a la Crystal Reports) and built a system that could create a bunch of them in parallel. This product is fundamentally not designed to produce suites of reports.

There is one positive upshot, though. Next time someone complains to me that Microsoft's offerings are so much more ready for primetime than Open Source stuff, I'll have a really good counterexample handy...

* There is another way, which is to use the SQL to create a View (basically a dataset) embedded in the database itself. However, most non-programmers can expect to receive write access to the database schema shortly after the mercury freezes in Satan's thermostat.
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