Friday, November 13, 2015

Those who live by the wingnut shall die by the wingnut

I must confess to engaging in more than a little schadenfreude in watching the Republican party leadership reaping what they have sown.
Less than three months before the kickoff Iowa caucuses, there is growing anxiety bordering on panic among Republican elites about the dominance and durability of Donald Trump and Ben Carson and widespread bewilderment over how to defeat them. 
Party leaders and donors fear that nominating either man would have negative ramifications for the GOP ticket up and down the ballot, virtually ensuring a Hillary Rodham Clinton presidency and increasing the odds that the Senate falls into Democratic hands.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Colonizing space won't save us

I don't have too much time for non-work-related writing nowadays, but I really feel the need to spread this meme.  Earlier this week I got into a little dust-up with a hacker-news user called moonchrome over the sustainability of exponential growth.  It was in response to a story about the catastrophic fires in Indonesia that are intentionally set in order to clear farmland for oil palms, i.e. the plants from which coconut oil is produced.  Oil palms have become a growth industry (no pun intended) since trans-fats have become unfashionable.

During that exchange I suddenly realized that there's probably a whole segment of the population that thinks that overpopulation is not a problem because — space colonization!  When earth gets overcrowded, we'll just move to Mars.  And besides, those Malthusians have been crying wolf since forever.  No matter what happens, technology will save us.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but no, it won't, and if you think it will you don't understand the truly awesome destructive power of exponential growth.

There's a classic puzzle that goes like this: imagine you have a jar filled with growth medium and a single bacterium of a species that divides twice an hour.  After a week, the jar is full.  At what point was it half-full?

The classical answer is: half an hour before the end of the week.  But that is wrong.  The real answer is that the problem as posed is not possible.  A week's worth of unchecked bi-hourly doubling would result in a bacterial population vastly greater than the number of elementary particles in the universe.

It helps only a little that our doubling time at the moment is running about 60 years rather than 30 minutes.  That stretches the week out to a few hundred or a few thousand years depending on whether you take the total biomass of earth or the mass of the universe as your limiting factor.  Predicting the future is usually a fool's errand, but I hope I don't have to convince you that before we have converted every last carbon atom on earth into a human body, life will get very, very unpleasant.

Even if we manage to colonize Mars, that will only help a little.  Imagine that we are able to completely terraform Mars, and produce a biomass more or less equal to that of earth.  For starters, colonizing Mars will only help the situation here on earth if we are able to emigrate en masse, which isn't very realistic.  But even if we were able to do that, having one more planet only buys us one more doubling time, that is, 60 years at current growth rates, after which we would be right back where we started.  And now to get ourselves out of that mess we need two more planets!

OK, say the optimists, so we'll go to the next solar system.  No, we won't.  Even sending a robot probe to the nearest star is a pipe dream at the moment.  The massive emigration required for interstellar colonization to improve the situation here on earth is a pipe dream N times over for some very large value of N.  And even if that were not so, as I mentioned earlier, even if you take the total mass of the universe as your limiting factor you only get out to a few thousand years.  That's the blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things.

The simple fact of the matter is that exponential growth is necessarily transient.  Always.  It is not possible to sustain exponential growth in a finite universe.  At some point, any instance of exponential growth will cease.  The only question is whether it happens because we decide to stop it, or because we discover the hard way what the limiting factor actually turns out to be.

Personally, I hope we do the former, because dealing with the latter will not be fun.  But to achieve that we have to change our collective mindset.  We have to start thinking about steady-state as the goal rather than exponential growth, because open-ended growth is simply not an option.  If we don't control our growth, then sooner or later the laws of physics (and mathematics) will do it for us.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Lincoln Chafee deserves a do-over

Normally I too would have very little tolerance for a Senator making lame-sounding excuses for having cast a disastrously wrong vote, but I nonetheless think that Lincoln Chafee got a bum rap over his vote to repeal Glass-Steagall.  Look at the actual timeline of what happened back in 1999:
The final vote came on Nov. 4, 1999, the same day Mr. Chafee was sworn in as Rhode Island’s senator. He filled the seat vacated by the death of his father, John Chafee, on Oct. 24, 1999.  [Emphasis added.]
So... his dad dies and a week and a half later he finds himself on the Senate floor having to cast a vote on this bill that is on its way to being passed by an overwhelming bipartisan vote (90-8 with two abstentions).  His vote isn't going to make a whit of difference in the outcome.  Under those circumstances, I don't think it was completely unreasonable for him to decide to punt on his homework and just go with the flow.  Surely not his finest hour, but you know, if that's the worst mistake he ever made in his political career I think he would actually make a fine president.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

A Moral Puzzle

I was discussing idea-ism with someone the other day when I came up with what turns out to be a very interesting moral dilemma.  Unlike the classic trolley problems, this is actually a somewhat realistic scenario, and one on which reasonable people really do seem to disagree.  Here it is:
John is a wealthy businessman whose heart is failing. If he doesn’t receive a transplant he will die. John has a large family, and his business has many employees. If he dies, they will suffer various degrees of emotional and economic pain. 
John travels to Malawi, the world’s poorest country, where the average income is about $250 per year. He finds a 20-year-old man (let’s call him Achmed) whose tissue type matches John’s, and offers him $15,000 in exchange for his heart (which will, of course, result in Achmed's death). $15,000 is pocket change to John, but it is an unthinkably large amount of money to Achmed. Life expectancy in Malawi is about 50 years, so this is twice what Achmed can reasonably expect to earn in the rest of his life. It will substantially improve the standard of living for his family, to say nothing of the fact that with one less mouth to feed (since Achmed will be gone) the money will go even further. Achmed’s brother is willing to adopt Achmed’s children, so they will not be orphans. The money will substantially improve Achmed’s family’s standard of living. It will allow Achmed’s children to attend school and give them a shot at lifting themselves out of poverty. And Achmed is not well-loved by his family. He’s a bit of a neer-do-well. What little money he currently earns he mostly spends on alcohol, and when he gets drunk he becomes abusive. He will not be missed. And Achmed knows all this, and so his life is not particularly happy, at least not when he’s sober. So everyone will be happier if Achmed accepts the offer, possibly even including Achmed, even though he doesn’t really want to die (or at least he thinks he doesn’t).
The question: is it moral for John to make Achmed this offer?  Would it be moral for Achmed to accept it?  Why?

I am actively soliciting people's opinions on this.  Please weigh in in the comments.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Coming up for air

I've been away, both literally and figuratively.  It has been over a month since I wrote a blog post.  This is in part because I've been busy with my startup, and in part because I've been on a trip to the Northwest Passage.  I would have written a travelogue, but we were so far out in the middle of nowhere that we had no internet connection for two weeks.  It was an interesting experience to be off the grid for that long.  People were starting to get a little antsy.  Personally, I thought it was kind of refreshing to be unplugged for a while.

The Northwest Passage is at once amazing and terrifying.  Amazing because it's the furthest I've ever felt from civilization.  At one point we were visiting a little Innuit village well north of the arctic circle and I decided to go for a walk out of town to see the world's most northerly golf course.  When I got there I realized I was probably, at just over a mile, further from another human being than I had ever been in my entire life.

The greens are made of astroturf.  There are no fairways.  The whole course is basically one giant super-gnarly sand trap.

The scary bit was that the Northwest Passage is now almost entirely free of ice. We did manage to find some (complete with polar bears) but we had to go out of our way.

So for two weeks we navigated one of the most notoriously treacherous and ice-bound waterways on the planet on completely calm and ice-free waters, under clear blue skies.  At one point in the trip I was actually comfortable taking my shoes and socks off and walking around barefoot and in a T-shirt.

It was beautiful, but it was creepy.  The arctic is supposed to be cold, dammit!

I don't have near enough time to do a full writeup right now, but I do want to share two more images.

No, that is not a watercolor, it's a photograph.  Of actual scenery.  No photoshopping.  It really did look like that.  And then on the other side of the boat it looked like this:

That's a moonrise.  Again, completely unaltered.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

And the award for the most ironic statement goes to... unnamed individual, self-identified as "Eagle One", who was defending a "Muslim-free" gun range:

I will fight to the death for someone’s right to practice whatever religion they want to. I’m not here because of that. I’m here because when people start resorting to violence, we can’t allow that.” [emphasis added]
The amount of self-unawareness it takes to say something like that while defending a gun range is truly staggering.  What exactly does Eagle One think guns are for?

Oh, the reason this is a story?  One of the clowns defending the gun range accidentally shot himself.  No, really.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

PSA: Beware of sudo on OS X

There's a little kerfuffle going on over on HN about a newly discovered local root exploit on OS X 10.10.5, so I thought this might be a good time to make sure everyone is aware of something that I just discovered myself a few days ago: Apple ships sudo with tty_tickets disabled by default.  What this means is that if you use sudo to give yourself root privileges, your sudo authentication is not bound to the TTY in which you ran sudo.  It applies to any process you (or malware running as you) start after authentication.  The way Apple ships sudo it is, essentially, a giant privilege escalation vulnerability.  To see this: open two terminal windows and run sudo in both of them.  Only the first one will ask for your password.

It's easy to fix.  Just run visudo and add this line:
Defaults tty_tickets

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Ayn Rand destroyed in six words

Sorry if I'm stepping over the line in terms of tooting my own horn here, but I'm kinda proud of this.  User CWuestefeld over on Hacker News wrote this comment on a thread about bee colony collapse:
[T]his isn't a shortcoming of the market as such. It's a failure in conjunction of our incomplete recognition of private property rights. By preventing certain types of property from having private ownership, we don't allow the market to correct itself. More specifically, if we had some private entity or entities that were recognized as the owners of air or water, then they would be able to recover damages from the polluters, thus removing ability to externalize the cost of pollution.  [Emphasis added.]
To which I replied:
I volunteer to be that entity.
Those six words have gotten more upvotes than any other comment I have ever posted on HN :-)

Friday, August 07, 2015

So that's what an enclave is!

Three years ago I wrote about some little bits of one country that are completely surrounded by another country.  Turns out I didn't have a clue.  Such things are far more common than I thought.  They even have a name: they are called enclaves.  And there are even second- and third-order enclaves, i.e. a piece of one country that is surrounded by a piece of another country that is surrounded by a piece of the first country that is surrounded by the second country.

AFAICT the motherlode of enclaves is on the border between India and Bangladesh.  The northern edge (if you can even call it that) of that border is so riddled with enclaves it looks like a Swiss cheese.  Or maybe a fractal.

What brought this to my attention is this story in the Washington Post about a third-order enclave that is going away due to the resolution of a long running border dispute between India and Bangladesh.  I don't really have anything to say about it, but I thought it was interesting so I thought I'd share.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A simple way to make your site more secure

Let users have different passwords for web logins and mobile logins.

Why?  Because in my desktop browser I can use a password manager to store strong passwords.  In your proprietary mobile app, I will (almost certainly) have to type the password in manually, and on a tiny keyboard, which makes it almost impossible to use a strong password in that context.  Also, it's actually not necessary to use a strong password in a mobile app because you can use the device identifier as an additional security factor.

And for the love of God, don't deliberately undermine the use of password managers by disabling autofill in your login forms.  (I'm looking at you, Citibank!)

Thursday, July 09, 2015

A guest post from Captain Obvious

I was watching the news reports about the a Confederate flag finally being removed from the grounds of the state house in South Carolina and they were interviewing defenders of the flag, some of whom of course insisted that the flag had nothing to do with slavery.

These people need a history lesson.  Fortunately, the founders of the Confederacy wrote a Constitution in which they codified exactly what they were fighting for:
Article I, section 9, paragraph 4:
No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.
And just in case that wasn't clear enough:
Article IV, secion 3, paragraph 2: 
The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several Sates; and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form States to be admitted into the Confederacy. In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected be Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.
Of course it was about slavery!  They wrote it into the fucking Constitution, for Christ's sake!  They even went so far as to make it explicitly negro slavery!  At least the original U.S. Constitution expressed a certain queasiness about the institution by using the term "other persons" instead of "slaves."  The Confederacy could have pussy-footed around the issue just as easily, but they didn't.  Why?  Because that's what they were fighting for!  They were proud of it!

That's the ultimate irony.  All those people who insist that the flag is about "heritage" and not about hate are actually denying the very heritage they are purporting to honor.  Anyone who professes to want to fly the Confederate flag in the name of Southern heritage needs to read those passages from the Constitution of the Confederate States and let the words "negro slave" sear themselves into their soul.  Maybe the only way to heal the still-festering wounds of the Civil War is to cauterize them.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Why the data do not support profiling Muslims

I'm going to go into some detail here about why the recently published data about extremist violence do not support profiling Muslims.  I thought this would be obvious, but apparently it isn't.

Let me start by summarizing the (fallacious) argument for profiling Muslims.  It goes something like this: Obviously, most extremist violence in the world is undertaken by Muslims.  In fact, by the recent numbers, Muslims are about 40 times more likely to engage in extremist violence than non-Muslims.  So it is obviously we should be profiling Muslims rather than non-Muslims.

When couched in those terms it seems like a pretty compelling argument, doesn't it?  But here is a completely equivalent argument, which is (I hope!) obviously bogus:
Self-identified atheists are about 2.4 percent of the U.S. population.  If we assume that these are more or less uniformly distributed across the country, then there are probably about 1500 self-identified atheists living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  (More likely the number is lower, but let's be conservative here.)  One of these, Craig Hicks, shot and killed three Muslim students in February of 2015.  So about 0.06% of self-identified atheists living in Chapel Hill have committed acts that could reasonably be characterized as terrorism.  So the concentration of terrorists among atheists in Chapel Hill is about 200 times greater than the concentration of terrorists among Muslims in the U.S.  Therefore we should be profiling Chapel Hill atheists in order to improve our odds of catching terrorists.
Hopefully I don't have to convince you that this argument is fallacious, and yet it is structurally identical to the argument for profiling Muslims.  So why does it seem so much more compelling when applied to Muslims?

Part of the problem is that there really is a connection between terrorism and Islam.  Most of the world's terrorists are Muslims.  However, it is emphatically not the case that most of the world's Muslims are terrorists!  And if your goal is to find terrorists (as opposed to figuring out what religion a terrorist happens to be) that is what matters.

The real problem with all of these arguments is that terrorists are actually quite rare, and in the U.S. they are extremely rare.  There have been 26 documented terrorist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11.  That's less than two a year.  So out of 300,000,000 people, less than two of them will (on average) commit a terrorist act in any given year.

The problem is that when the numbers are that small they become very sensitive to outliers and boundary effects.  For example, I've been using the number-of-incidents as my statistic, but the NewAmerica web site actually headlines the body count instead.  If we use body count, things look worse for the Muslims: the ratio of Muslim to non-Muslim violence grows from 37% to 54%.  However, note that fully half of the Muslim body count is due to a single event: the Fort Hood shooting.  If we ignore this one event as an outlier, the body count ration plummets to 27%.  Even if we also ignore the Charleston church shooting as an outlier on the non-Muslim side, the ratio is still only 33%.

But all of these numbers are red herrings.  They will help you figure out after the fact whether a particular terror victim was likely killed by a Muslim or a non-Muslim, but that's not really what we want to know.  What we want to know is how to improve our odds of catching terrorists before they commit acts of terror, n'est pas?  And for that goal, these numbers don't help at all.

The reason they seem to help is that the rate of terrorism among American Muslims is 37 times higher than it is among American non-Muslims.  That seems like a compelling number, until you recall that the incidence of terrorism among Chapel Hill atheists is 200 times higher than it is among American Muslims, and 7400 times higher than among the population at large.  I hope I don't have to convince you that profiling Chapel Hill atheists will probably not have a positive impact on the problem of terrorism, despite the overwhelmingly higher rate of terrorists among them.  Yes, profiling Muslims might increase your odds of finding terrorists from 0.0000001 to 0.0000037.  But those are still mighty poor odds.  And the resentment that you would instill in the American Muslim community might well cause more terrorist acts than the profiling prevents!

So what should be done instead?  Surely we have to do something about terrorism?

Well, no, actually we don't.  The fact of the matter is that terrorism is really not that big of a problem in the U.S.  The total body count since 9/11 is only 74, or only about five people a year.  About that many people die in car crashes every hour.  Even if we include 9/11 and Oklahoma City that's still only about 150 people a year, less than two days worth of traffic fatalities.

Of course, we really do want to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of crazy people.  But your ordinary run-of-the-mill terrorism of the sort that anyone can accomplish with readily available light ordinance is just not that big of a problem, despite the splashy headlines.  It is hard to imagine a more irrational policy than profiling Muslims to prevent terrorism.

The definition of a no-brainer

The state of Colorado has made the startling discovery that if you give women access to birth control, they have fewer babies.

Friday, June 26, 2015

A bittersweet victory

Today, almost twelve years after I first addressed the topic in this blog, same-sex marriage became legal in all 50 states.  It is a cause for celebration, but my happiness today is tempered by my fear that Obergefell v. Hodges will become the next Roe v. Wade.  I was really, really hoping that John Roberts would join Anthony Kennedy on the enlightened side of history and make it a 6-3 decision rather than the 5-4 it actually was.  (There was never any hope for Scalia, Alito and Thomas.  Those men are irredeemable social fossils.)  Because the decision was 5-4, the right will for years, maybe decades, rant and rave about judicial activism and how the court needs to be packed with even more right-wing extremists so that we can finally (finally!) roll back social progress and go back to the Good Old Days before those damn liberals stole the country away from good God-fearing folk.

The ranting, of course, has already begun, with John Roberts blazing the trail in his unequivocal and incoherent dissent.  Actually, it's not the unequivocal part that bothers me.  If someone has a good-fath disagreement with government policy, they should give it voice, whether that person is a Supreme Court justice or an untitled citizen.  But if that person is a Supreme Court justice I would expect them to hold themselves to a higher standard, and at the very least base their arguments on actual facts and the actual law.  And John Roberts doesn't.

I don't have time to do an exhaustive analysis of Roberts's dissent, so I'll just point out what I consider to be the two most egregious examples of sloppy thinking.  His closing sentence really steams my clams:

If you are among the many Americans—of whatever sexual orientation—who favor expanding same-sex mar- riage, by all means celebrate today’s decision. Celebrate the achievement of a desired goal. Celebrate the oppor- tunity for a new expression of commitment to a partner. Celebrate the availability of new benefits. But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.
Um, excuse me, Mr. Justice Roberts, but my copy of the Constitution has this in it:
No State shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Now, it is arguable (but wrong) that this means that it's perfectly OK to discriminate against gay people because everyone is "equally" allowed to marry someone of the opposite sex.  It is similarly arguable (and equally wrong) that it is perfectly OK to outlaw interracial marriage because everyone is "equally" allowed to marry someone of the same race as themselves.  There was a time not so long ago when the absurdity of the second argument was not self-evident, just as we are now living in a time when the absurdity of the first argument is not yet self-evident (though that will surely happen in good time).  But to say that the Constitution had nothing to do with it, that the five justices who voted on the right side of history just invented the right to marry whoever you fall in love with out of whole cloth, is not just wrong, it's an insult.

The second egregious rhetorical sin that Roberts commits is his invocation of the slippery-slope-towards-polygamy argument while at the same time arguing for one-man-one-woman on historical grounds.  It's unsurprising that a conservative would rewrite history to suit their ideological agenda, but the fact of the matter is that polygamy has been a common and accepted social practice throughout history.  The idea that polygamy is an axiomatic evil, a boogeyman with which to scare the good citizens of the United States into fearing the horrible consequences of today's judicial activism, is an invention of the modern right-wing.  No less a Christian luminary than Martin Luther, founder of the protestant reformation, once wrote:
I confess that I cannot forbid a person to marry several wives, for it does not contradict the Scripture. If a man wishes to marry more than one wife he should be asked whether he is satisfied in his conscience that he may do so in accordance with the word of God. In such a case the civil authority has nothing to do in the matter.
Note that I'm not necessarily staking out a position in favor of legalizing polygamy here the way I staked out my support of gay marriage twelve years ago.  All I am saying is that if you're going to argue one way or the other you should at the very least base your arguments on premises that can't be trivially refuted by reading Wikipedia.  Especially if you are a Supreme Court justice.  That's your job, for fuck's sake.

So, yeah, I'm happy at today's outcome.  But Roberts's dissent is going to be a burr in my saddle for a long time.  Instead of dwelling on it, thought, I think I'll just go have another look at this map.  That has brought a smile to my face every time I've looked at it today.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

How's the Muslim-hunt working out for you, Sam Harris?

Three years ago, Sam Harris wrote in defense of racial profiling of Muslims because they are overwhelmingly more likely to commit acts of terrorism than non-Muslims, specifically:
"We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim."
(Emphasis added.)

Turns out there is actual data to inform this debate.  As The New York Times reports:
Since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly twice as many people have been killed by white supremacists, antigovernment fanatics and other non-Muslim extremists than by radical Muslims: 48 have been killed by extremists who are not Muslim, compared with 26 by self-proclaimed jihadists, according to a count by New America, a Washington research center.
Non-Muslim extremists have carried out 19 such attacks since Sept. 11, according to the latest count, compiled by David Sterman, a New America program associate, and overseen by Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert. By comparison, seven lethal attacks by Islamic militants have taken place in the same period.
So, anyone want to place a bet as to whether this will prompt Sam to issue a retraction?  I'll give you long odds against.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Easy as falling off a bicycle

There's a video making the rounds about how hard it is to re-learn how to ride a bicycle if you reverse the control sense of the handlebars.  It's an interesting video, but I think it misses a very important point.

I need to digress for a disclaimer: I have not had the opportunity to ride a reverse-handlebar bicycle, so I have not put the theory I am going to advance here to the test.  If anyone knows where I can find such a bike in the Bay Area I would really welcome the opportunity.

The reason people have a hard time learning to ride a bicycle for the first time is that they think that the direction of the bicycle is controlled by turning the handlebars the way that the direction of a car is controlled by turning the steering wheel.  It's not.  The mechanics of two-wheel vehicles are completely different from four-wheel (or even three-wheel) vehicles.  A bicycle's direction is controlled not by turning the handlebars, but by shifting your weight.

There's a simple experiment you can do on an ordinary bicycle to convince yourself that at least part of what I have just said is true: find a moderately sloped hill that lets you coast at a moderate speed (10-15 MPH) without pedaling.  Stabilize your trajectory in a more or less straight line.  Now let go of one handlebar, so you are "steering" with only one hand.  Use that hand to push that handlebar forward.  Don't do it abruptly, just apply gentle, even pressure.  If you're using your right hand, you will be turning (at least feel like you're trying to turn) your front wheel to the left.  What you will find is that your bike will actually turn to the right.  If you want to turn back to the left, you have to pull back with your right hand as if you were turning your front wheel to the right.  (I say "as if" because you will find that the front wheel actually does turn to the left despite the fact that you are applying pressure to turn it to the right!)

All this only works if you're going fast enough.  When a bike is moving slowly, its direction is controlled more by how you turn the handlebars than how you lean.  The hardest part of learning to ride a bicycle is learning to manage the transition between these two control regimes.  This is the reason that training wheels are worse than useless when learning to ride a bike.  They change the bike from a two-wheel vehicle to a four-wheel vehicle, which doesn't undergo this change in dynamics.  If you want your kid to learn to ride a bike, take the pedals off instead of using training wheels.

When a bike is traveling at speed, what happens when you apply pressure to the handlebars is this: let's say that you apply forward pressure with your right hand so that the wheel would ordinarily turn to the left.  For a fraction of a second, it actually does turn to the left, and the track of your tires moves to the left.  But your body is still moving in the same direction it was before, so you have essentially shifted your weight to the right.  So at the moment, you are out of balance.

What happens next is a little tricky to describe.  Notice that the head tube (the part of the frame that the front fork is attached to, is angled so that the bottom of the tube is further forward than the top.  The result of this is that when the bike leans in one direction, the weight of the bike and its rider causes the front wheel to turn in the same direction as the lean.  It is this force that controls where the front wheel is pointing when the bike is moving at speed.

The reason a bike is stable when it is moving is not the gyroscopic stability of the wheels, it is the angle of the head tube, which causes the front wheel to want to point in the same direction as the bike is leaning.  As soon as you start to lean one way or the other, the front wheel naturally turns in the same direction, which moves the wheels back underneath your center of gravity and "undoes" the lean.  In order to turn, you have to intentionally overcome the bike's natural stability and induce a lean in order to force the front wheel to turn to one side or the other.

So what happens when you apply pressure to the handlebars at speed is not that you are turning the bike, but you are inducing a lean.  You can do exactly the same thing by actually leaning, and it doesn't take much.  Once you are stabilized, just moving your head from one side to the other can be enough to cause your bike to turn.

Once you realize this, it is easy to learn to ride without having your hands on the handlebars at all.  You slowly release your grip until you just have your fingertips on the handlebar.  At this point you will notice that you can control your bike by applying pressure to the sides of the seat of the bike with your inner thighs, or by tilting your head back and forth.  It takes just a few minutes to learn how to steer the bike this way, at which point you can just take your hands completely off the handlebars.  At that point, of course, it doesn't matter whether the handlebars are reversed or not.

But, of course, all this only works once the bike is moving.  The hard part is getting to that point from a standing start.

The key here (and at this  point I'm really only guessing) is to remember two things: 1) the object of the game is to get the bike moving as quickly as possible and 2) what you're trying to do during that time is not to steer, but simply to keep the front wheel straight.  To do that with a reverse-sense handlebar you do have to change your mindset.  My guess is that what would work best is to make a conscious effort to think of the process as a game of "chase the front wheel with the handlebars", i.e. if you see the front wheel turning to the right, you "chase" it by turning the handlebars to the right, and vice versa.  The result will be the wheel wobbling back and forth around its forward position, but that should be enough to keep you upright long enough to get up to speed.

My prediction is that someone who has read this blog post can learn how to ride a reverse-handlebar bike much more quickly than someone who hasn't.  I'll bet that I can learn to ride such a bike in an hour if I had an open space free of obstacles to practice in (like a parking lot).  The reason I would need this is that initially I am not going to be able to control the direction of the bike, just keep it stable long enough to get up to speed and into the stable control regime.  Like I said in the opening, if anyone knows where I can get my hands on such a bike so I can do this experiment please let me know.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Why Lisp?

A number of people have contacted me about a comment I wrote yesterday on Hacker News asking me to elaborate, e.g.:
my impression is that lisp is *only* a different notation. Is that correct, or am I missing something? I don't see why it is so important that lisp code matches the data structure (and my assumption is that the match is the answer to 'why lisp') - am I overlooking the importance of macros, or is there even more that I'm still not aware of?
The answer to this question is long, so I thought I'd go ahead and turn it into a blog post.

The short version of the answer is that Lisp is not merely a different notation, it's a fundamentally different way of thinking about what programming is.  The mainstream model is that programming consists of producing standalone artifacts called programs which operate on other artifacts called data.  Of course, everyone knows that programs are data, but the mainstream model revolves around maintaining an artificial distinction between the two concepts.  Yes, programs are data, but they are data only for a special kind of program called a compiler.  Compilers are hard to write, a field of study unto themselves.  Most people don't write their own compilers (except occasionally as academic exercises), but instead use compilers written by the select few who have attainted the level of mastery required to write one that isn't just a toy.

The Lisp model is that programming is a more general kind of interaction with a machine.  The act of describing what you want the machine to do is interleaved with the machine actually doing what you have described, observing the results, and then changing the description of what you want the machine to do based on those observations.  There is no bright line where a program is finished and becomes an artifact unto itself.  Yes, it is possible to draw such a line and produce standalone executables in Lisp, just as it is possible to write interactive programs in C.  But Lisp was intended to be interactive (because it was invented to support AI research), whereas C was not (because it was invented for writing operating systems).  Interactivity is native to Lisp whereas it is foreign to C, just as building standalone executable is native to C but foreign to Lisp.

Of course, there are times when you have no choice but to iterate.  Some times you don't know everything you need to know to produce a finished design and you have to do some experiments, and the faster you can do them the better off you will be.  In cases like this it is very helpful to have a general mechanism for taking little programs and composing them to make a bigger program, and the C world has such a mechanism: the pipe.  However, what the C world doesn't have is a standard way of serializing and de-serializing data.  And, in particular, the C world doesn't have a standard way of serializing and de-serializing hierarchical data.  Instead, the C world has a vast array of different kinds of serialization formats: fixed-width, delimiter-separated, MIME, JSON, ICAL, SGML and its offspring, HTML and XML, to name but a few.  And those are just serialization formats for data.  If you want to write code, every programming language has its own syntax with its own idiosyncrasies.

The C ecosystem has spawned the peculiar mindset that thinks that syntax matters.  A lot of mental energy is devoted to syntax design.  Tools like LEX and YACC are widely used.  In the C world, writing parsers is a big part of any programmer's life.

Every now and then someone in the C world gets the bright idea to try to use one of these data serialization formats to try to represent code.  These efforts are short-lived because code represented in XML or JSON looks absolutely horrible compared to code represented using a syntax specifically designed to represent code.  They conclude that representing code as data is a Bad Idea and go back to writing parsers.

But they're wrong.

The reason that code represented as XML or JSON looks horrible is not because representing code as data is a bad idea, but because XML and JSON are badly designed serialization formats.  And the reason they are badly designed is very simple: too much punctuation.  And, in the case of XML, too much redundancy.  The reason Lisp succeeds in representing code as data where other syntaxes fail is that S-expression syntax is a well-designed serialization format, and the reason it's well designed is that it is minimal.  Compare:

XML: <list><item>abc</item><item>pqr</item><item>xyz</item></list>

JSON: ['abc', 'pqr', 'xyz'] 

S-expression: (abc pqr xyz)

The horrible bloatedness of XML is obvious even in this simple example.  The difference between JSON and S-expressions is a little more subtle, but consider: this is a valid S-expression:

(for x in foo collect (f x))

The JSON equivalent is:

['for', 'x', 'in', 'foo', 'collect', ['f', 'x']]

Rendering that into XML is left as an exercise.

The difference becomes particularly evident if you try to type those expressions rather than just look at them.  (Try it!)  The quotes and commas that seem innocuous enough for small data structures become an immediately intolerable burden for anything really complicated (and XML, of course, like all SGML-derivatives, is just completely hopeless).

The reason that Lisp is so cool and powerful is that the intuition that leads people to try to represent code as data is actually correct.  It is an incredibly powerful lever.  Among other things, it makes writing interpreters and compilers really easy, and so inventing new languages and writing interpreters and compilers for them becomes as much a part of day-to-day Lisp programming as writing parsers is business as usual in the C world.  But to make it work you must start with the right syntax for representing code and data, which means you must start with a minimal syntax for representing code and data, because anything else will drown you in a sea of commas, quotes and angle brackets.

Which means you have to start with S-expressions, because they are the minimal syntax for representing hierarchical data.  Think about it: to represent hierarchical data you need two syntactic elements: a token separator and a block delimiter.  In S expressions, whitespace is the token separator and parens are the block delimiters.  That's it.  You can't get more minimal than that.

It is worth noting that the reason the parens stick out so much in Lisp is not that Lisp has more parens than other programming languages, it's that Lisp as only one block delimiter (parens) and so the parens tend to stick out because there is nothing else.  Other languages have different block delimiters depending on the kind of block being delimited.  The C family, for example, has () for argument lists and sub-expressions, [] for arrays, {} for code blocks and dictionaries.  It also uses commas and semicolons as block delimiters.  If you compare apples and apples, Lisp usually has fewer block delimiters than C-like languages.  Javascript in particular, where callbacks are ubiquitous, often gets mired in deep delimiter doo doo, and then it becomes a cognitive burden on the programmer to figure out the right delimiter to put in depending on the context.  Lisp programmers never have to worry about such things: if you want to close a block, you type a ")".  It's always a no-brainer, which leaves Lisp programmers with more mental capacity to focus on the problem they actually want to solve.

And on that note, I should probably get back to coding.  Iteratively, of course :-)

[This post has been translated into Chinese and Japanese.]

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Drawing The Line: making the case for idea-ism

This post has been too long in coming.  I've been busy coding.  (Actually, I've been busy writing documentation, which turns out to be even more time consuming.)

A while back I promised commenter Luke that I would answer two questions:

1.  How can reason not be circular?

2.  Why is idea-ism (still searching for a better name) a better basis for morality than Christianity (or anything else for that matter)?

I answered the first question in a previous post.  The bottom line is that reason "grounds out" in the fact that the universe has discernible regularities in it, and our brains have hard-wired into them the ability to attach labels to those regularities.  We call that ability "language," and "reason" is an extension of language.  This post tackles the second question, at which point my outstanding rhetorical obligations will be fulfilled and I can get back to working on my startup :-)

First, a reminder of what idea-ism is, what it claims, and what it does not.  Idea-ism is the axiom that moral behavior is that which advances the interests of memes or ideas.  It is important to note that idea-ism is an axiom.  I can't prove it.  In fact, no system of morality can be proven because morality is not a question of fact.  The question of whether it is right to cut people's heads off for apostasy cannot be resolved experimentally.  Morality is a matter of social choice.  It is a question of what kind of world we want to try to strive for.  Which immediately raises the question: who is "we"?

This, I claim, is the more fundamental question.  Disagreements about what is moral really boil down to disagreements about where to draw the boundary between "us" and "them."  The meaning of "love thy neighbor" really depends on the meaning of the word "neighbor".  Back in Old Testament times your neighbor meant a member of your tribe.  The bloody genocides in Joshua that New Atheists gleefully point out as contradicting the sixth Commandment aren't contradictions at all, they are simply a reflection of how the line between "us" and "them" has shifted over time.  The idea that "all men are created equal" is a modern invention, a product of the Enlightenment, and it is nowhere near being universally accepted.  Nearly fifteen years after 9/11, Americans still go apoplectic over the death of nearly 3000 innocent civilians but (mostly) casually brush off the deaths of over 100,000 equally innocent Iraqi civilians.  And yet somehow we still manage to think of ourselves as the Good Guys.  That is because the 3000 who were killed were Us, and the 100,000 (or however many it was) were Them.

There is nothing wrong with drawing a line between Us and Them.  In fact, it is a necessary, even fundamental part of life.  Life is not possible without separating a replicator from its environment somehow.  Some barriers are natural (cell membranes, physical organisms), others are artificial (city walls, national boundaries), and still others are non-physical social constructs (family, ethnic group) but the fact that these boundaries exist is inescapable.  The trick is drawing them in the right place.

There are some possible places to draw the line between us and them that are clearly wrong.  For example, the idea that "all life is sacred" is obviously problematic.  The malaria parasite, for example, is alive, but I hope I don't have to convince you that it would be a mistake to argue that curing malaria would be immoral as a result.  Likewise, there are people who consider parts of their own bodies to be "the other" and believe that they would be happier as amputees.

This is clearly a pathology but it is still worth reflecting for a moment on why it is a pathology: it's not just because hacking off your own limbs makes most people queasy.  If morality were determinable by majority rule then torture and genocide would have been perfectly moral through most of human history.  It would be nice to have moral principles which were timeless and not subject to the whims of fashion.

One possible story to tell about the reason that Apotemnophilia is a pathology is that it is destructive to life.  A desire to chop your own limbs off puts the genes that produce this behavior at a significant reproductive disadvantage relative to its competitors.  That seems plausible enough, but it has a significant problem: this argument would seem to apply equally to homosexuality.  Surely genes that produce brains driven to mate with members of the same sex are at a significant reproductive disadvantage relative to genes that produce brains drive to mate with the opposite sex.  And yet homosexuality (in my view) is neither pathological nor immoral.

(Aside: it is worth thinking about how the genes for homosexuality do manage to survive as such a large proportion of the population.)

This, then, is the problem: is it possible to give a principled account of morality?  By which I mean, is it possible to construct a theory of morality that is not vacuous, that is not equivalent to, "Moral behavior is whatever people who think like me consider moral", and that can embrace variations in human sexuality and religious beliefs while rejecting pathologies like Apotemnophilia and ISIS?  My claim is that idea-ism is such a theory.  Moreover, I claim that idea-ism is the only such theory.  It may or may not be the only possible such theory, but it's the only one that I know of, and I've been looking for a long, long time.

Before I describe why I think idea-ism is such a theory, let me quickly review the moral landscape and explain what I find lacking in the competition.


Religious theories of morality are easily rejected as non-principled because they require an arbitrary adoption of some holy text or creed.  A principled theory of morality must be able to resolve moral dilemmas without resorting to asking what most adherents of the theory think is moral.  Religions can't do that, with the canonical contemporary example being the question of marriage equality: is it moral for gay people to marry?  Some Christians say yes, others say no.  Both sides can cite scripture to support their position, and there is no way (AFAICT) to resolve the question without resorting to some extra-scriptural criterion.  That makes Christianity non-principled, and all of the world's other religions have the same problem.  (One could even take this as the defining characteristic of religion!)


I've written extensively about this in the past so I'll just summarize: the problem with Humanism is that it (by definition!) takes man to be the measure of all things, so it axiomatically relegates primates, cetaceans, elephants, intelligent aliens and artificially intelligent robots to second-class moral status.  When pressed, most people who self-identify as Humanists will readily disclaim this definition, but that just leads to the next problem: having rejected the very definition of their self-identified creed, there is nothing to replace it with.  There are a lot of alternative formulations of the intuition that lead to the coining of the term "Humanism", but none of them work.


Sam Harris adopts the axiom that moral behavior is that which advances the interests of conscious beings.  Harris writes:
For my argument ... to hold, I think one need only grant two points: (1) some people have better lives than others, and (2) these differences relate, in some lawful and not entirely arbitrary way, to states of the human brain and to states of the world.
This seems innocuous enough, but in fact Harris makes a third, tacit assumption: that the relative merits of one person's life versus another can be objectively determined.  Not only that, but he assumes that the determination is so easy to do that it cannot possibly be the subject of any legitimate dissent.
Anyone who doesn't see that the Good Life is preferable to the Bad Life is unlikely to have anything to contribute to a discussion about human well-being. Must we really argue that beneficence, trust, creativity, etc. enjoyed in the context of prosperous civil society are better than the horrors of civil war endured in a steaming jungle filled with aggressive insects carrying dangerous pathogens?
As I argued in my review of Harris's book, yes, we must, at least if we want a principled account of morality.  Because the fact of the matter is that Harris's views on what constitute the Good Life and the Bad Life are heavily biased by his status as a privileged western secular male academic.  If one is to seriously take the interests of conscious beings as the axiomatic basis of morality then one must take seriously the fact that some conscious beings have very different views from one's own, and it is not possible to reject those views on the basis of Harris's axiom.  Radical Muslims believe that the Good Life is serving Allah, and that this is worth sacrificing earthly comfort for.  On what principled basis can we reject this view?  We can't do it on the basis of Harris's axiom; radical Muslims are every bit as conscious as Sam Harris is.

Ethical Culture and Utilitarianism

There is a little-known but venerable secular tradition in the U.S. called Ethical Culture.  Its root go back at least to 1877 and possible as far as 1793.  About the same time, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were developing the theory of moral utilitarianism.  At the risk of oversimplifying, these approach morals from a practical point of view, trying to generally say that moral behavior is that which "does the right thing" or "produces a good outcome."  Which, of course, begs the question: what is a good outcome?

Ethical Culture, Utilitarianism, and even Harris's theory have a hard time with trolley problems, where people's intuitions about moral choices vary not just on the basis of utilitarian outcomes but also on the basis of the particular circumstances of the problem.  All trolley problems have the same structure: you have a binary choice to make, and depending on how you choose, either one person dies or five people die.  The utilitarian prediction is that the former is always the moral choice, but this is not the case.  My favorite counter-example is the "transplant" variant:
A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor . Do you support the morality of doctor to kill that tourist to provide his healthy organs to those five dying persons and save their lives?
Most people would argue that it is not moral to harvest the man's organs without his consent, and I agree.  Utilitarianism has a hard time accounting for this.


My claim is that idea-ism is the only principled (as defined above) moral theory that produces conclusions that coincide with most people's moral intuitions.  You can, if you like, consider idea-ism to be a predictive theory of morality, or you can adopt it as prescriptive in order to provide guidance for moral behavior.

To review briefly, idea-ism is the premise that moral behavior is that which advances the interests (or, to be more specific, the "bio-diversity") of memes, or ideas.  It is, in other words, the choice to draw The Line around abstract replicators rather than around any particular set of genes.  Many common moral principles immediately follow from this, but as conclusions rather than as premises.  In particular, the particular value of human life follows because human brains are habitat for memes.  So are books and computers, and so burning books is generally immoral, as is destructive hacking of computers.

The idea-ism axiom can be justified on the grounds that because memes are replicators, they are life, and so idea-ism is the ultimate endorsement of the value of life.  But that's not quite true.  Idea-ism is not equivalent to the premise that all life is sacred.  The interests of memes and genes are often aligned, but when they are not, idea-ism says that memes win.  So the malaria parasite is alive, but because it can't think, it's not habitat for memes.  And because it destroys human brains, which are habitat for memes. the humans win, and developing a treatment for malaria is a moral choice.

Likewise, birth control, autoerotic and homosexual sex are all moral choices.  If you'd rather read a book than raise a child that's perfectly OK.  (On the other hand, if you'd prefer to raise a child that's OK too, because your child's brain will also be habitat for memes.)  Likewise, if you were born with the body of a man but you feel like a woman, then living as a woman is also perfectly OK, if doing that helps you think.

On the other hand, cutting off your own arm can rightfully be condemned as pathological if not immoral.  If you cut off your arm, you will (almost certainly) impair your own ability to survive and hence reduce the available habitat for memes.  Suicide is likewise immoral, not just because it directly destroys your own brain (habitat for memes) but because the emotional distress this will cause the people around you will very likely impair their ability to think.

In general, the ability to think is a very powerful moral lever.  A direct consequence of idea-ism is that impairing someone's ability to think is immoral.  So, all else being equal, causing someone emotional distress is probably immoral because it will impair their ability to think.  This is not to say that idea-ism leads to extremes of political correctness.  The detrimental effects of causing someone emotional distress have to be weighed against the value of the free exchange of ideas, which is beneficial to memes.  This is why "all else being equal" is an important caveat.  Offensive speech can causes emotional distress, but addressing this problem by trying to suppress offensive speech in general will work to the detriment of memes, because only those memes which don't offend anyone would be allowed to propagate.  So: simply insulting someone with the intention of causing them emotional distress is immoral.  Publishing offensive cartoons or writings with the intention of making a political point or spreading some other kind of idea is not.

Idea-ism easily condemns the actions of radical Muslims as immoral because chopping off people's heads and destroying ancient artifacts directly destroy memes and hence are immoral acts.

Hopefully by now the answer to the transplant variant of the trolley problem should be obvious: the reason it is not moral to harvest someone's organs without their consent even if it would save five people is that this would create pervasive societal fear that any time you go to the doctor you might not survive the encounter.  Clearly that would have a detrimental effect on people's ability to think.

I claim that idea-ism is principled, congruent with most people's moral intuitions, and free from pathologies.  Moreover, I claim that it is the only known moral system (though not necessarily the only possible moral system) that has all of these properties.  If anyone can think of a counter-example I'd love to hear it.

OK, it's a little terse, but I really should get back to work now.

The best way to answer anti-gay bigotry

With humor.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Answers to Tuese's Questions for Atheists

Tuese Ahkiong posed some questions for atheists, so I thought I'd take a whack at them.

• If the atheistic worldview is true, why do they knock people of faith?

I try not to knock people of faith, but I think there are two main reasons that people do:

1.  They think that ridicule is an effective means of getting people to question or abandon their faith.  (I think they're wrong about this, but some people believe it.)

2.  They think that faith deserves ridicule because of the bad effects it has on the world, like climate-change denialism, or ISIS and the Taliban destroying historical relics in the name of stamping out idolatry.

Also, some people knock faith because they are jerks.

• Aren't people of faith, as well as atheists, the way they are b/c of their genes, environment, family, upbringing, chance, indoctrination?


• Didn't the universe just randomly make people into atheist, murderers, Christians, Muslims, etc.?

That is a deep philosophical question to which I don't have an answer.  We humans (at least those of us who aren't Calvinists) like to believe that we have free will, and so we can choose not to murder people.  Whether we have free will to choose our beliefs, though, is a different question.  I feel like I don't have the free will to choose what I believe.  I believe based on evidence, experiment and reason, and I have no idea how I could do otherwise.

• If we're just cosmic accidents waiting to be annihilated, why make such a fuss about truth as if your life and truth really matter?

Because truth and life do matter.  Life is a pre-requisite for caring.  Non-living things can't and don't care about anything, so if you're going to care about anything you have no choice but to care about life.

Also, it makes sense that living things that have brains capable of caring about things should care about life because those genes that produce brains that don't care about life don't reproduce as well as those genes that produce brains that do care about life.

• If the world is just material, accidentally, randomly, chaotically, meaninglessly floating around, what does it matter if one is right or wrong?

Because the world isn't "just material, accidentally, randomly, chaotically, meaninglessly floating around".  The world contains living things, and living things evolve according to a process that includes both random variation and non-random natural selection.

And being right matters because being right gives you the gift of prophecy.

• Btw, what one thing do you know to be absolutely true about evolution?

It is the process that created all known living things.

• And how would the atheists know that people of faith are wrong or bad or misled unless they had some absolute standard to judge from?

We do have a standard: evidence, experiment and reason.  And we don't generally believe that people of faith are "bad".  But the problem with faith is precisely what you say: there is no standard.  You can choose to have faith in the Bible, or you can choose to have faith in the Quran, or you can choose to have faith in the Book of Mormon, or the Bagavad Gita, or Dianetics.  Without an absolute standard there is no reason to prefer one faith over another.

• Do atheists believe in absolute truth?

I don't know what you mean by "absolute truth."  But yes, we believe that there is a real world out there, and that some claims about the world are true and others are false.

• Where does absolute truth come from?

It is a property of objective reality.  And it's a remarkable property.  It didn't have to be the way it is.  There's no inherent reason that the world has to operate according to physical laws, but as far as we can tell, it does.  We don't know why.  Albert Einstein once said: the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.

• Did absolute truth just assemble itself in the Big Bang?

We don't know.

• Are morals absolute?

No.  But there are some universal moral principles that are wired into us by evolution.

• Did life come from non-life?

Yes, almost certainly.  We don't know exactly how yet, but there's no reason to believe that it was not a natural process.

• Did intelligence come from non-intelligence, i.e., DNA?

Yes. Intelligence evolved gradually, just like everything else.  Simple nervous systems evolved into more complex nervous systems, which evolved into small brains, which evolved into bigger brains.

• Did order come from disorder?

Yes, but only locally, and only with a net energy input.  In the case of earth, the energy required to power the local ordering process comes from the sun, which is becoming more disorderly over time.

• How do you know what you know?

Years of study and careful consideration.

• What is you?

I (the thing writing these words) am a software process, essentially computer program, running on a biological computer called a human brain that is the result of about four billion years (more or less) of evolution.

• How do you know that you are you?

Because there's evidence that I am me.  I can effect changes in the world (like writing these words) and other people provide evidence that I did in fact write these words by writing other words in response (I hope).

• Where do the laws of logic come from?

They come from the fact that computation is universal.  What this means is that all computational processes, whether they are running on an electronic computer or a human brain, can be modeled in one very simple way (or, if you prefer, in many ways all of which turn out to be equivalent to each other).  The theory of how this happens was first worked out by Alan Turing in the 1930s.

• Is ok to torture babies for fun?

Of course not.

• Why or why not?

Because babies are habitat for memes.

• Where did the universe come from?

We don't know (yet).

• Does evil exist?  Does love exist?  Do non-material particulars exist like logic, numbers, ideas?


• Are ideas physical?

That depends on what you mean by "physical."  Ideas exist in the physical world, but they are not made of "stuff", they are made of "configurations of stuff" (the technical term is "computational state").

• Is logic material?


• Do non-physical particulars like logic, numbers, ideas, people's spirit or soul, love exits?


• Where do human rights come from?

They are a human invention.  And a damn good one if you ask me.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The difference between science and religion, take 2

In the comments section of an earlier post I advanced the following theory of the difference between science and relgion:
My definition of religion is the acceptance of claims on faith, i.e. without evidence.
To which commenter Publius responded:
I would make that "without scientific evidence." There are other forms of evidence - testimonial, personal knowledge, etc.
My knee-jerk reaction to this was to say that there is no distinction between "scientific" and "non-scientific" evidence.  Evidence is evidence.  You don't get to cherry-pick.  This is exactly the problem with young-earth creationists and lunar landing conspiracy theorists: they cherry-pick the evidence that supports their worldview and ignore the rest.

And then it suddenly occurred to me that I was actually making Publius's point for him.  It is not that religious people accept things with no evidence.  If everything is evidence and you don't get to cherry-pick, then holy texts and other people's beliefs are evidence.  The question is: evidence of what?  To me, holy texts and religious beliefs are evidence of human creativity and/or gullibility, but to a religious person they are evidence of God.  So there is a difference there, but pinning down exactly what that difference is turns out to be quite a bit more subtle than I suspected.  I'm still not sure I have it quite figured out.

Just to lay to rest the idea I'm imagining that there is a difference, let me lay out one very stark example.  Consider the theory that the Bible is the Word of God, which is to say, a privileged communication from the omniscient and omnipotent Creator of the universe.  Well, the Bible says this:
And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.  (Matthew 21:22)
This sounds to me like a testable prediction: if you ask for something in prayer, and you believe, then you will receive what you ask for.  This is an unrestricted offer.  It applies to "all things" and "whatsoever ye shall ask."  So let's give it a whirl: God, I wish for a pony.

[Wait, wait wait...]

Hm.  No pony.

Well, duh, of course there's no pony.  That's exactly what the theory predicts.  The offer has a catch.  To get what you ask for in prayer you have to believe, and I don't.  So that was not a fair test.

OK, so to conduct this experiment I have to find a believer to ask God for a pony on my behalf.  But then I will encounter another hitch: no believer will agree to conduct this experiment because "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord" (Luke 4:12) and asking for a pony seems a bit frivolous.

So let's try something non-frivolous: how about asking for the lost limbs of the victims of the Boston Marathon bomb to be restored.  That seems like a noble enough request.  Surely I can find a believer somewhere willing to make this request of God, if not on my behalf, then on behalf of the victims?  In fact, surely some believer somewhere has actually made this request already without my having to prompt them?  And if not this request, then for some other victim of some other malicious attack or accident that resulted in the loss of a limb?

And yet, in all of recorded history there has never been a case of an amputated limb being restored.  That is rather curious.  It seems to me that there are only three possibilities:

1.  No believer has ever asked for this.

2.  There is some reason that limbs are off-limits.

3.  Matthew 21:22 is wrong.

The difference between religion and science, it seems to me, is that science will unhesitatingly choose option 3 as the most likely, whereas religion will resist that conclusion with all its might.  Religion will twist and squirm and invent elaborate excuses, anything to avoid saying, "Yeah, there's something wrong with our holy text."

Science, by way of contrast, has no problem saying, "Yeah, there's something wrong with that theory."  In fact, it's woven into the weft and warp of the scientific process.  The very foundation of science is the recognition that the vast majority of theories are wrong, so it is entirely expected that any particular theory is wrong.  In fact, there is hardly any sport in finding a wrong theory.  The tricky part is finding a right theory because only a tiny minority of theories are right.

This is not to say that science-as-practiced by fallible humans always embraces correction immediately.  New theories often meet with initial resistance, but there is a sound reason for this: most theories are wrong, so given a random theory and no other information, the odds are very good that it's wrong.  The current set of accepted theories at any given time have already undergone some very strict scrutiny and filtering.  So the odds of a new theory being better than an old one is, a priori, very low.  And the odds get lower with every new improvement because science converges on truth.  Not always monotonically, but it does converge.

One of the starkest differences between science and religion is their respective attitudes towards scripture and scholarship.  Religions hold scripture and scholars in very high regard.  Science does not.  The closest thing science has to scriptures is the writings of great scientists, but hardly anyone actually reads those except historians of science.  Newton is the closest thing science has to a saint, but no one reads the Principia.  You will occasionally hear a "great scientist" cited as an authority, as in, "Einstein teaches us that the speed of light is the same in all reference frames."  But this is wrong. It is not Einstein that teaches us this, it is nature by way of experiments.  Einstein was just the first to tell the most parsimonious story.

So the difference between science and religion, it seems to me, is something like this: in science, at the end of the day, after all the transients caused by politics and human foibles have settled (and they always do), the experimental data wins.  In religion, it doesn't.  In religion, something else, like scripture or other people's beliefs or striving for "goodness", can trump the data.

You can see this reflected in some of the core arguments advanced for Christianity, which amount to something like: if the Resurrection didn't really happen, the consequences would be horrible.  Therefore, the resurrection must have happened.  It's not data that supports the conclusion, it's the horribleness of the consequences if the conclusion were not true.

The same can be said for science, by the way, because at the core of the belief that experiment is the ultimate arbiter of truth is a fear of the consequences if this were not the case.  If God really exists, then we are at the mercy of a higher power that we cannot control even if we can come to fully understand it.  Science offers power through the gift of prophecy, but very little guidance on how best to use it.  So some people are understandably scared of having that power.  Others are scared of giving it up.  Welcome to the burdens of being human.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Why some assumptions are better than others

All reasoning has to start from assumptions.  Assumptions by definition can't be proven or disproven. So how can we evaluate our core assumptions?  If we try to use reason, that reasoning must itself be based on some assumptions like, "Reason is the best way to evaluate assumptions."  But since that is an assumption, how can we evaluate it without getting into a infinite regression?

For that matter, how can I be sure that the concepts in my head, which I am here rendering into words, correspond to the concepts that form in your head when you read these words?  How do I know that what I mean when I write, say, "concept" is the same thing that you understand when you read the word "concept"?

Here's how.

I want you to clear your mind for a moment.  Close your eyes.  Take a deep breath.  Then look at the following pictures and their associated captions.

Paka moja

Paka wawili

Paka tatu

Paka nne

Paka wengi

Paka kubwa

mbwa moja

Now I am going to make some predictions:  If I were to ask you, "What does 'paka' mean?" you will reply, "cat."  And if I were to ask you, "What does 'moja' mean?" you will reply "one".  And if I were to ask you, "What does 'wawili' mean?" you will reply "two". And if I were to ask you, "What does 'tatu' mean?" you will reply "three".   And if I were to ask you, "What does 'nne' mean?" you will reply "four".  And if I were to ask you, "What does 'wengi' mean?" you will reply, "many".  And if I were to ask you, "What does 'kubwa' mean?" you will reply "big".

Was I right?  If so, how did I do it?  Here are some possibilities:

1.  I got lucky.
2.  I have a magical ability to predict or control your actions.
3.  God told me.

Now, I am going to tell you that none of those are the right answer.  Of course, just because I tell you that doesn't mean that I'm right.  I could be mistaken, or I could be lying.  But here is what I believe to be the right answer:  I have a model of you that allows me to predict some (but not all) of your behavior.  That model is (to a first order approximation): you are a human.  Because you are a human, your brain is hard-wired to pay attention to certain visual stimuli.  Among those visual stimuli that your brain is hard-wired to detect are the creatures known as "cats" in English, "gatos" in Spanish, "katzen" in German, "chatulim" in Hebrew, and "paka" in Swahili.  The reason your brain is hard-wired to detect cats is that this ability conferred a relative advantage in reproductive fitness to some of your distant ancestors, probably because their feline neighbors were more kubwa than your typical modern nyumba paka.  (And how you know how to say "house" in Swahili.)

Of course, none of this guarantees that you and I mean the same thing when we say or hear the word "cat".  It's possible that the features of cat-ness that my brain cues in on are different than yours, and that some time in the future we will discover that what you mean by "cat" corresponds more to what I mean by, say, "furry".  But that's not likely.  Why?  Because in the little experiment above I not only associated the word "paka" with images of (what I think of when I say the word) cats but also with numbers, and numbers are concepts that go with nouns like "cat" and not adjectives like "furry".  It just doesn't make sense (to me) to say, "one furry, two furries..."  Maybe "paka" means "furry thing".  But that doesn't make sense either because then the last image should have been labelled paka moja too and it's not, it's mbwa moja.  (And now you know how to say "dog" in Swahili.)

Why do I believe that my explanation of my (limited) ability to predict your actions is the correct one?  Because it explains more than the other possibilities.  Consider theory #1, for example.  The odds of my predicting your actions with as much precision as I can by pure luck are indistinguishable from zero.  It's not impossible, but it's extremely unlikely.  And every time I do it it -- every time I interact with (the things that I perceive to be) my fellow humans and get responses from them that make sense out of the myriad possible responses they could produce if they were simply choosing responses at random, it becomes more unlikely.

Theory #2 is not so easily ruled out.  In fact, I cannot prove to you that it's false [1].  So why do I reject it?  Because it lacks explanatory power.  My ability to predict your actions is limited.  I can predict that you will be able to figure out that "paka" means "cat" from examples, but I cannot predict what your favorite flavor of ice cream is.  Again, it's possible that I am lying about this, that I really can predict (or control!) your ice cream choice.  But that just begs the question: are there any limits to my prophetic abilities?  If so, what are they?  If not, why do I not use my omniscience to work my will on people more often?

The fundamental problem with theory #2 is that "magic" is nothing more than a synonym for "mysterious unknown process."  So theory #2 is not really a theory at all, it's an oblique way of punting on trying to come up with a theory.  The whole point of this exercise is to get a handle on my ability to predict the future, and invoking "magic" is essentially saying, "I don't know."  Magic is not a valid theory, not because it's necessarily incorrect (remember, I already conceded that I can't prove that my abilities are not magical), but because it cannot possibly represent progress.  Invoking magic is not an explanation, it's giving up on all hope of finding an explanation.

Theory 3 is even harder to dispense with.  God is not quite the same as magic because God is knowable, at least partially.  So how can I convince you that I am telling the truth when I say that my ability to predict the future is not a revelation from God?

One possibility is to make another prediction: I probably don't have to convince you that I'm telling the truth.  You almost certainly believe me.  In fact, you probably believed that I was not having revelations from God even before I told you.  Your belief was probably so strong that my positing divine revelation as an explanation for the results of the cat experiment seemed like pedantry.

Am I right?  If so, how did I manage that trick?

Why, the same way I managed the first one, of course: I have a model of you.  I have a model of you even though I have no idea who you are!  How did I come by that model?  Through a life-long and on-going process of generating hypotheses, testing them, and discarding the ones that don't fit the facts.  This goes all the way down to hypotheses about what words mean, and which words I can rely on to have the same meaning in your brain as it does in mine (like "cat") and which ones I can't (like "God").

Rationality grounds out in having everything hang together in a way that grants me the gift of prophecy that I demonstrated at the beginning of this post.  No other mental process has that property.  Prayer might grant you inner peace and harmony, but it does not help you build bridges or restore sight to the blind or increase crop yields.  This is not to say that prayer is without value.  Inner peace and harmony are much to be desired.  There is not much value in being able to build an iPhone if your life is a continuous nightmare of existential angst, though improving crop yields and inventing vaccines should not be lightly dismissed either.  It's a lot harder to achieve inner peace if you are sick or hungry than if you are not.

The point is: the apparent infinite regress of rationality bottoms out in its effectiveness, in its ability to confer the gift of prophecy and hence the power to change the world according to one's desires.  That still leaves open the very thorny problem of identifying or selecting those desires.  The hardest part of getting what you want is, very often, figuring out what it is, and in this rationality offers less help, though it does offer some.  I'll explore that in a subsequent post.

[1] In the middle ages thousands of people died painful deaths because of the impossibility of proving theory 2 to be false.