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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