Saturday, February 28, 2015

AT&T: the saga continues

We just closed out the second day of AT&T technicians trying to figure out why our uVerse internet isn't working.  We had three techs here today for a total of nine hours, and they still weren't able to get it to work.  One of the three really seems to know what he's doing, and he claims to have found and fixed all kinds of problems with the lines leading up to our house.  Despite this, it's still not working.  He says he has no idea how it could ever have been working.  And yet, it was.  For two weeks.

He's coming back tomorrow to work on it some more.  Stay tuned.

Friday, February 27, 2015

AT&T just accused me of being a racist

Just when I thought things couldn't possibly get any more frustrating, an AT&T supervisor essentially accused me of being a racist.  I've been going around in circles with them all day about having a technician enter our house.  I'm a little leery about letting strangers into the house after learning that the government has used repair people to do end runs around the fourth amendment.  I'm not quite ready to put in my tin foil hat, but I would like to know how it can possibly be the case that rummaging around inside our house will fix the problem.  After all, it was working for two weeks with our existing wiring, why would it not work now?

So we were at an impasse: I refused to let anyone into the house until they could answer that question, and they didn't have an answer (probably because there is no answer, because the problem is almost certainly not inside our house).  At that point the person I was talking to -- a supervisor no less -- volunteered that if I had a problem with the particular technician who showed up today that they could send "an American technician instead."

That just rendered me speechless.  Yes, I get that there are racists out there for whom this would be an issue.  But I would think that AT&T would tell their people to wait for the customer to take the initiative to make the request rather than volunteering, essentially, "If you don't like our dark-skinned people, we can send you a white guy."

I really am going to have to set up a way to record these calls so I can post them on the internet.  It looks like this drama is going to be dragging on for a while.  The next episode is scheduled for tomorrow at 11, when another technician is going to come to do God only knows what inside our house.

(BTW, and just for the record, I actually did offer to let today's technician come inside the house, but he declined.)

AT&T: the nightmare continues

Today a technician from AT&T showed up to try to restore our uVerse internet service that was cut off a week and a half ago for no apparent reason.  After three hours, one factory reset, and one new modem, we are still without service.  The tech told me that the underlying problem was that our service had been "upgraded" from DSL to vDSL, and this was incompatible with our house's wiring.  (Our house is only five years old, so the wiring is not exactly ancient.)

OK, so can I get switched back to regular DSL?

Maybe (the tech wasn't sure) but to do that, I am going to need to call AT&T and start an entirely new work order.  So a week and a half into this nightmare I am back to square 1.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

An AT&T service nightmare

It's unfortunate that nowadays the only way to motivate big companies to provide even a minimally acceptable level of customer service is to resort to public shaming.  I am in the midst of the most nightmarish catch-22 scenario I have ever experienced in my life (and that is saying something because our cable provider is Comcast.)  The situation is so complicated I hardly know where to begin.

The TL;DR version is: our AT&T uVerse internet stopped working last Wednesday (nearly a week ago now) and they haven't been able to fix it.  I have lost count of how many different people I've talked to, but twice I was assured that the problem would be fixed and it wasn't, and now I'm being told that the problem can't be fixed and they have to start over from scratch, re-install our service, and give us a brand new account.

Here's the long version.

We had two services from AT&T: a regular residential phone line (known in the trade as a POTS line, or Plain Old Telephone Service) and a DSL line, which is a separate signal carried over the same copper wire as the phone line.  A few months ago I started getting notices from AT&T that they were discontinuing the DSL service and I would have to switch over to uVerse.  It turns out that uVerse is actually DSL, but the signal is carried over a fiber optic instead of a copper cable.  In our case, the fiber doesn't go to our house, it stops a few block away (I'm not sure exactly where) and the signal is converted to copper.  The upshot is that from our point of view, uVerse and DSL look exactly the same, except that they gave us a new uVerse-branded modem to replace our old DSL modem.

I resisted switching to uVerse as long as I could because I am a big believer in the if-it-aint-broke-don't-fix-it school of thought.  (And I'm sad to say I feel quite vindicated by the quagmire I find myself in.)  But the writing was on the wall, so I signed up.  They offered me a phone-plus-internet package for less than I was currently paying, so it seemed like a good deal.

On the day of the installation, though, I got my first nasty surprise.  The phone line that was packaged with uVerse was not our old phone line, it was a VOIP (voice-over-IP) line carried over the uVerse internet.  I didn't want a VOIP line, I wanted a POTS line (ask me in the comments if you want to know why) so I had to cancel the initial order and place a new one for internet-only service.

The installation was re-scheduled, and they had some problems that caused it to take all day, but they finally got it working.  And for about two weeks I was a happy customer.  The uVerse line seemed to be more reliable than the old DSL line, which had a nasty habit of going off-line at random times.

Then last Wednesday evening we came home to discover that the uVerse internet was down.  I noticed this right away because we don't have cell coverage at our house, so instead we have a microcell, which is connected to the uVerse internet.  When the internet stops working, so does the microcell, and so do our cell phones.

I thought the problem might just fix itself, so I waited until Thursday afternoon to call AT&T.  I immediately got a runaround.  Tech support told me that the problem was with the billing department, and the billing department told me that the problem was with tech support.  I was transferred back and forth between tech and billing four times that day, but by the end I was assured that the problem would be fixed the next day (Friday, the 20th), and that someone would call me to follow up.

Friday came and went.  The problem persisted and no one called.  So on Saturday I called again.  Tech support again told me that the problem was in billing, but billing was closed and wouldn't open again until Monday.  But "rest assured" they would take care of everything on Monday.  (This time a supervisor did call and left a message on my answering machine assuring me that I did not have to worry.)

You can probably guess where this is going.  Monday came and went.  Problem not fixed.  No follow up call.  So I called AT&T for a third time.

I will spare you some of the details.  The story has changed this time around.  Instead of, "We know what the problem is, we can and will fix it, don't worry" the story I am now being told is that my account has been cancelled but they don't know why and they can't find out.  There is no way to fix this problem.  My only option is to sign up for uVerse internet all over again.

Funny thing, though: AT&T's on-line portal shows my account is still active.  I can log in, look at the account status, and the ultimate irony, see how many days are left until I get my first bill.  So although AT&T seems to lack the technical competence to actually provide the service they contracted to provide, they somehow still seem to managing to muster the wherewithal to take my money.

When I got off the phone with the last person I spoke with I was told to expect an immediate call back from someone who would take my order for new uVerse service.  It has been over an hour since then and no call.  As far as I can tell, I am stuck in permanent limbo with no internet service, no way to fix it, and no way to shut off the bills.  The perfect storm of corporate incompetence.

[UPDATE] Latest word from AT&T: my account was cancelled.  They have no idea why.  The only way to recover is to re-install uVerse.  So they need to send a tech out, despite the fact that it's already been installed once.  Earliest this can happen is Friday.  They very generously offered to waive the installation fee this time.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Why QM is the only possible theory of nature

Just stumbled across this absolutely gorgeous explanation of why quantum mechanics is the only possible theory of nature that both allows for complete knowledge and probabilities.  It's one of the best written pieces of science popularization I have ever read.  It takes you from zero to a pretty deep understanding in just a shade over 1000 words.  It's brilliant, almost a work of art.  If you're interested in QM, this is well worth the five minutes of your time it will take to read it.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

No, Rudy, this is what not loving America looks like

If Rudy Giuliani wants to call out American citizens for not loving their country he really should start with Michael Hill, who runs an organization called the League of the South.  Among other things, the LoS is organizing a celebration of the 150th anniversary of John Wilkes Booth's assassination of "the tyrant Abraham Lincoln".  And if that left any doubt in your mind that Mr. Hill does not love America, there's this:
America stands for the projection of raw power for its own benefit. It does not propagate the Christian gospel nor does it seek to preserve traditional nations and cultures, especially those of the white Western world that used to be known proudly as Christendom. No, America is a destroyer of true nations and traditions, all in the name of “progress.” American is, in reality, a huge experiment in Enlightenment liberalism gone completely haywire. 
As a traditional Christian Southerner, I want no part of “America.” I’m not talking about a particular piece of land in the western hemisphere; rather, I am talking about an idea, a proposition, a regime, a way of life. I am a Southerner, an old-fashioned Christian. The status of “American” is my antithesis. 
Now before you tell me to “Love it or leave it” and pack up and move somewhere else, let me explain. The South, Alabama in particular, is my home. It is also a captive colony of this American monstrosity. Yes, many of our citizens have, wittingly or unwittingly, embraced Americanism for either survival or profit. I have not, and I intend to convince my fellow Southerners to join my side. I do not intend to leave Alabama or the South. Nor do I intend to leave them in the clutches of America. I intend to fight, and if necessary kill and die, for their survival, well-being, and independence. 
I intend to use this website and other means at The League’s disposal to point out why the South cannot and must not remain under America’s control.
If Rudy Giuliani really cares as much about love for country as he is putting on, then I call on him to call out Michael Hill, who is using his first amendment rights to openly call for treason against the United States.  But I'll give you long, long odds that Mr. Giuliani will not do that.  I'll also give you odds that Mr. Hill does not vote Democratic.  And I'll double down and say that these two facts are not unrelated.  Mr. Giuliani, before you next criticize the president for not loving his country, I suggest you read Matthew 7:3-5.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

31 Flavors of Ontology

Ontology is the study of existence, or, to put it in philosophy-speak, it is "the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality..." yada yada yada.  You can go read the wikipedia article if you like.  It can all be summarized in a pithy slogan: existence is not a boolean value.  And because it's not a boolean value, people get themselves wrapped around the axle arguing over whether something (like God or the quantum wave function) exists or does not exist.  It is simply not the case that it must be one or the other.  Existence comes in different flavors, and arguments about existence are often isomorphic to, "Ice cream is good because it tastes like vanilla!  No, ice cream is bad because it tastes like pistachios!"  (Serious philosophers actually wrestle with questions that are essentially the same as, "Does imaginary ice cream taste good?")

It's incredibly easy to sink into semantic quicksand when talking about this stuff.  This is because the universe has played a trick on you by supplying you with a continual stream of overwhelming evidence that the universe is populated by material objects that exist in particular places at particular times, and that have a continuity of identity such that it makes sense to say things like, "The vase on that table exists."  The reason that continuity of identity matters is that it's required to make sense of the phrase, "The vase on that table."  For that phrase to make sense, the vase that is on the table now has to be the same vase that is there a microsecond from now.  If this were not so, then the vase on the table at time T0 might have existed at T0, but at time T0+epsilon it no longer exists.  Instead, it's a different vase that exists at T0+epsilon (and a different one yet again at time T0+2epsilon).

This probably sounds like I'm being pedantic, because it's just obvious that material objects like vases do have continuity of identity.  The evidence for it is just overwhelming.  But despite the overwhelming evidence, it is in fact not true.  And you don't even have to get into quantum mechanics to see that it is not the case.  All you have to do is to try to define what "the same thing" actually means.  When you do this, you run headlong into the "ship of Theseus" problem, which is so-called because of the manner in which it was first described by Plutarch around the time of Christ:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned [from Crete] had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.
Replace the word "planks" with "atoms" and you have a modern version of this puzzle: if you replace every atom in an object with a different but identical atom, do you end up with the same object or a different object?  The collection of atoms you end up with after the replacement process will be completely indistinguishable from the collection you started with, so on what possible basis could you call the new collection "different"?

This is not an academic question.  The atoms in your own body are continually being replaced in exactly this way.  None of the atoms in your body today are the same as the atoms in your body when you were born.  In fact, even the arrangement of atoms in your body changes.  So in what sense can you say that you are "the same person" that you were when you were born?  Or even last year?  Or yesterday?  Or a minute ago?

Or consider this: suppose I take a tree and cut it down.  Is it still a tree?  Suppose I mill it into lumber and build a house out of it.  At what point did it stop being a tree and start being a house?

OK, OK, I hear you saying, the temporal and spatial boundaries of the identities of things referred to by words are fuzzy, but surely that does not cast doubt on the proposition that while a collection of atoms is arranged as a tree or a house or whatever, that that tree or that house actually exists in point of metaphysical fact, does it?  Well, yes, it does.  Why?  Because atoms themselves are just arrangements of sub-atomic "particles".  (And, of course, I put "particles" in scare quotes because sub-atomic particles are not really particles, but I don't want to get lost in the quantum weeds.)

To take an example that is prosaic to the modern mind but would have been every bit as esoteric as quantum mechanics to a person living a mere 100 years ago, consider the question, "Does software exist?"  Surely the answer is "yes".  Surely humanity has not built a multi-billion-dollar industry on a delusions.  Surely there is some salient difference between software and (say) leprechauns.  But if you try to get a handle on what software actually is you will find it to be every bit as elusive as a leprechaun.  What is software made out of?  What is its mass?  What color is it?  (Notice that we can actually give a meaningful answer to that last question for leprechauns: they are green!)

No sane modern person can deny the existence of software.  And yet it is clear that the manner in which software exists is very different from the manner in which trees and houses exist.  They obey very different laws of physics.  Trees and houses are made of atoms which obey conservation laws.  Software is made of bits, which don't obey conservation laws.

But the manner-of-existence of trees and houses shares one very important feature with the manner-of-existence of software: both depend on arrangements.  What determines if a particular collection of atoms is a tree or a house is their arrangement.  What determines whether a particular collection of bits is Microsoft Word or Mozilla Firefox is their arrangement.

Arrangement is everything.  Planet earth has had more or less the same repertoire of atoms since it was formed four billion years ago (modulo the odd asteroid) but an endless variety of different kinds of things that consisted of nothing more than those same old atoms arranging and re-arranging themselves into different patterns.  (And, of course, the atoms themselves are just different arrangements (scientists call them "states") of the quantum wave function.)

However: just because arrangement is everything (or everything is an arrangement) doesn't mean that there aren't useful distinctions to be made between different kinds of arrangements.  Atoms are arrangements (states -- same thing) of the quantum wave function, but the kinds of phenomena that the wave function can directly produce are very limited: a dozen or so fundamental particles that arrange themselves into a hundred or so (depending on how you count) different kinds of atoms.  That's it.  That's all quantum mechanics does on its own.  Not really very interesting.

But once you get to atoms, something fundamentally new happens: you get chemistry.  Atoms interact with each other in ways that are fundamentally different from the way in which the quantum wave function arranges itself to produce atoms.  Of course, the behavior of atoms are still constrained by quantum mechanics.  Nothing magic happens when atoms produce chemistry.  But the level of complexity rises by orders of magnitude.  This is what is meant by the slogan "classical reality emerges from the quantum wave function."

To get to us humans, you have to go through at least two more of these "quantum leaps" (no pun intended): you have to go from chemistry to life, and you have to go from life to brains.  Each of these transitions introduces fundamentally new kinds of behavior which "emerge" each from the level before.  Again, no magic, no suspension of the laws of physics, just ever increasing levels of complexity.

Brains are not the final step in this process, however.  Mice have brains, but they can't do math.  Eventually you get to brains that are big enough that they can emulate Turing machines and do math and other symbolic computations.  Somewhere along that path they invent language as well.  Once they've done that, multiple brains can arrange themselves into villages, city-states, corporations...

Arrangement is everything!

So... do you exist?  Do atoms exist?  Does life exist?  Do corporations exist?  Does music exist?  Do leprechauns exist?  Yes.  All of these things exist.  They all exist as arrangements of something.  Leprechauns exist as ideas, as fiction, as arrangements of thoughts in people's brains.  Brains exist as arrangements of atoms.  Atoms exist as arrangements (states) of the wave function.

Each of these "levels" is an ontological category.  The right question to ask is not, "Does X exist."  The answer is always "yes".  The right question is, "What is the nature of X's existence?" or "To which ontological category does X belong?"

So let us ask the right question: to which ontological category do you, the thing that is reading these words, belong?  Most people think that they belong to the ontological category of material objects, that is, the same ontological category as trees and houses.  But that is wrong.  Your body belongs to that ontological category, but you -- the thing that is reading these words -- do not.  The thing that is reading these words is not your body: if (and please pardon the gruesome imagery) someone amputated all of your limbs and replaced all of your internal organs with artificial equivalents, you would still be you.  But if someone deprived you of oxygen long enough to render you brain-dead, you wouldn't.  (That's why we talk about "kidney failure" but not "kidney death", "brain death" not "brain failure.")  You are a computational process, reified as an arrangement of electrical impulses in a human brain.  Because we do not yet know how to copy software out of brains the way we can out of computers, you (the software process) are tightly bound to your brain.  And because we do not yet know how to replace all other parts of the human body, your brain is tightly bound to your body, and that is why you (the computational process) feel a particular kinship with your body.  But nonetheless, you and your body are not only distinct, they exist in different ontological categories.  Your body is a material object.  You (the thing that is reading these words) aren't.

Some important things to note about ontological categories: once you get beyond the basics (QM -> atoms -> chemistry -> life -> brains) things get very complicated.  It is not clear how many ontological categories there are beyond brains.  Music, fiction, math, law and language are five different OCs that I can come up with just off the top of my head.  There are probably more.  The boundaries between them are not crisp, and they don't form a hierarchy.  All of them fall into the meta-OC of "mental construct".

So, my claim about God is: God belongs in the ontological category of "myth" with is a subset of the ontological category of "fiction" which is a subset of the ontological category of "mental construct".  And if any of that sounds at all like I'm being pejorative or dismissive about God then you have not understood a single word I've said.

This is not to say that you can't disagree with me.  There are two ways you could do this:

1.  You could argue that God belongs in a different ontological category.  In which case you have to tell me which ontological category you think He belongs to.

2.  You could argue that God transcends ontological categories, or that He is the sum total of all ontological categories.  But if you want to take that position, then you will have to explain to me how that statement contains any information, because defined that way "God" seems to be nothing more than a synonym for "everything".  (And so my next question will be: how can the Bible and Jesus -- or anything else for that matter -- possibly have any kind of privileged status with respect to "everything"?)

Let the games begin.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Free will and moral agency

I never imagined that my post about reframing theodicy would strike such a nerve.  I really intended it to be a throwaway argument, a little intellectual curiosity, nothing more.  But between the original and the followup post, it spawned the longest comment thread in the ten-plus year history of this blog.

Even more interesting, the more substantive question raised in the followup post -- what happens when we abnegate our moral intuitions? -- has gone almost completely ignored.  I do want to eventually shift attention back to that, because I think it's an even stronger argument against Christianity (and religion in general) than the theodicy thing.  But first I wanted to address a question raised by @Luke:
[A]re you predicating this argument on God having some sort of actual free will, but humans having no such thing?
The question of free will lies at the heart of all moral issues because without free will there can be no moral agency.  If a tree falls in the forest and hits someone in the head and kills them we do not count this as a moral transgression on the part of the tree.  Why?  Because the tree has no free will and hence no moral agency.  Likewise, if someone is "mentally ill" (whatever that means) and they kill someone, or if a wild animal kills someone, we do not count those as moral failures because animals and mentally ill people do not have moral agency.

So we arrive at the age-old philosophical question: is free will (whatever that means) a pre-requisite for moral agency?  Most people intuitively believe that it is, and this is the reason that many people intuitively recoil from Calvinist theology, despite the fact that it follows logically from premises that most Christians would say they accept.  In particular, mans' free will is logically incompatible with God's omnipotence (or all-powerfulness, or whatever it is you want to call it).  It is to the Calvinists credit that they recognize this and accept that man has no free will.  Some of them (AFAICT) will even swallow the next bitter pill and concede that man has no moral agency, and that if this grates on your moral intuition, then your moral intuition is broken.

One thing you can't fault Calvinists for is being hypocrites.

But there is still this teensy-weensy little problem: if you abnegate your moral intuitions, then you no longer have any basis for distinguishing good and evil.  Maybe suffering is good.  Maybe Hitler was doing the work of God.  Maybe "all-loving" doesn't mean what you think it means, and the Inquisitors really were doing what was best for their victims (or should we call them "clients"?)  The fact that these suggestions make most people queasy can in no way be taken as evidence that they are wrong because, by assumption, your intuitions are broken.  If I go on a killing spree, or rape children, who are you to say that I am wrong?  In fact, I can't possibly be wrong because I have no free will, and hence no moral agency.  Everything that happens simply happens as a consequence of God's will, because (quoting @wrf3) God is the only being with free will.

This is a logically consistent position.  In fact, it is the only possible position that is logically consistent with any reasonable concept of God's omnipotence or all-powerfulness or whatever you want to call it.  Man's will can either trump God's or it can't.  And according to Calvinists, it can't.  Because God created us, we are His playthings, to do with as He pleases.  It would be fascinating to see just how far @wrf3's logical consistency will take him.  He wrote:
Why a dinner thinks it can disagree with the one who cooked it seems to me proof that a part of our moral intuition is wrong.
I wonder: if I were to kidnap Bob and cook him and eat him, would he object?  What if I did that to his children, would he object then?  On what possible grounds could he object, having abnegated his moral intuition?  [Note to the NSA: No, I am not actually threatening to kidnap and eat Bob and his children.  This is a thought experiment.]

If it is not self-evident to you that there is something horribly, horribly wrong here then there is nothing I can possibly say to convince you otherwise.  You are a lost soul.  I pity you (and I really pity your children!)

But if you are not willing to take the Calvinist plunge, if you harbor the tiniest bit of doubt that resigning yourself to the unspeakable horrors of moral abnegation might not be the right choice, then  I have Good News: you do have free will (or at least the illusion of free will, and that turns out to be sufficient) and so you have moral agency.  You can choose good over evil, truth over lies, peace over war, order over chaos, justice over injustice.  It isn't easy.  It takes work.  It takes the willingness to accept responsibility, to be willing to make mistakes occasionally and learn from them, and to make your peace with the fact that you will fail to achieve perfection.  In short, it requires growing up.

But it beats the hell out of the alternative.  You can't make the world a better place if you reject the very idea that "better" actually means something.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Re-reframing theodicy

The comment thread in the original reframing theodicy post was getting lively again since wrf3 joined the fray.  As an anti-spam measure, all comments to posts older than 30 days have to be manually approved, and that was getting to be too much of a chore so I'm making this new post so that people can post comments without having to wait for me to approve them.

So, as long as I'm writing, a recap:

The theodicy problem is: how can evil exist in the face of an all-powerful all-loving God?  The stock answer to this is that God gave us humans free will, and we choose to use that free will to create evil. Moreover, we are somehow compelled to do this by virtue of some sort of Lamarckian inheritance of Adam and Eve's original sin of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

That's the story.  Let us leave aside the fact that this story is at odds with what it says in the Bible, and the question of how Adam and Eve could have had moral agency if they were not created with the knowledge of good an evil, and focus instead on the question of how do we actually know that there is evil in the world?

On its face it seems like an absurd question.  The existence of evil is just manifestly obvious, isn't it?  I mean, just look at all the suffering, the starvation, the genocides...

But there are two obvious problems with this line of thought, at least for Christians.  The first is that a lot of the suffering in the world is caused by things that are clearly not subject to man's free will.  Hurricanes.  Earthquakes.  Droughts.  Cancer.  Malaria [1].  And the second is that a lot of things that seem evil to modern sensibilities, like genocide and slavery, are actually condoned by the Bible, at least in the Old Testament.

So maybe these things aren't actually evil.  Maybe our moral intuitions are so broken that we actually cannot reliably distinguish between good and evil.  Maybe genocide and slavery really are good, at least under certain circumstances.

I don't normally raise this line of argument because most people consider it a straw man (and an offensive one at that) so I am supremely grateful to have a new commenter, wrf3, a living breathing intellectually honest Calvinist who is actually willing to stand up and admit that, on his worldview, one cannot rule out the possibility that Adolf Hitler was doing the work of God.  I have no idea how many Christians share this point of view, but I've had a face-to-face conversation with another Christian who admitted that he could not rule out the possibility that the 9-11 terrorists were doing the work of God, so wrf3 is not alone.

Now, my original argument was intended to side-step this entire issue by re-framing the problem in a way that didn't depend on the definition of "evil" but hinged merely on "salvation", which I am given to understand that Christians consider to be an axiomatically good thing.  My claim is that unsaved souls are logically impossible in the face of an omnipotent all-loving God.  And no one has refuted that yet, or even tackled it (because, well, it's a pretty strong argument).

But this question of what happens if you take seriously the possibility that your moral intuitions might be completely wrong is actually much more interesting, but not in a good way.  It is interesting the way playing with matches is interesting.  It leads to some very dark places from which it is very hard to escape.  Because you can't refute an assumption.

If our moral intuitions are not to be trusted at all, then we have to take seriously the possibility that we are wrong about everything.  Maybe our modern moral abhorrence of genocide is just a mistake, like our modern acceptance of extra-marital sex is (according to some Christians) a mistake.  Maybe the inquisition was a good thing.  Maybe slavery is a good thing.  Maybe racial integration really is a mortal sin.  (And, if we're going to go down this rabbit hole, maybe the Bible has been corrupted by man, as Muslims claim.  Or maybe it was written by Loki.)

I can't refute any of this.  It is not refutable.  The reasoning that leads to these conclusions is correct.  That is the whole point.

But (and this is crucial) just because the reasoning is correct does not mean that the conclusions are correct.  There are two ways to reason to false conclusions: bad reasoning (not the case here) and bad assumptions.  It is my fervent hope that enough people will decide that genocide is in fact evil that they will reject any premise that leads to the conclusion that it might not be.  If you accept suffering and killing and sickness and death as God's will, there is probably nothing I can say to dissuade you, because the distinction between good and evil is ultimately a choice.  All I can say is that I don't think you have chosen wisely.

[1] Fundamentalists actually argue that these things are caused by man's rebellion against God, but since I don't have any fundamentalists participating in the conversation yet I'm going to set this aside.  But if you are a fundamentalist, I would love to have you weight in on this.  The more the merrier.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics

[With apologies to Eugene Wigner.]

I was noodling around with some graphics code the other day to try to produce some schematic representations of water waves for a book that I'm working on.  I wanted to produce a little animation of what happens when you throw a stone into a pond.  It didn't have to be very flashy, I just wanted it to be qualitatively correct, that is, I wanted to produce a drawing of a wave that spread out from a central source and decreased in amplitude with time and distance from the source.  So I started out with the venerable sin(x)/x function:
That's a good start, but now I wanted to animate it, so I changed it to sin(x+t)/(x+t) and varied the time t from zero up to some positive value.  The result was this:
That was kind of what I was after, but time seemed to be running backwards.  So I changed the sign on my time parameter, i.e. sin(x-t)/(x-t), which yielded this:
Now my waves were moving in the direction I wanted them to, but they weren't being damped out.  A bit of reflection revealed the reason: because I changed the sign of my time parameter in both the numerator and the denominator of my function, I had reversed the not only the time direction, but also the damping influence of time, which I had gotten right the first time.  So the function I wanted was (apparently) sin(x-t)/(x+t).  When I tried that, I got this as my first frame:
That looked promising.  The graph had flipped itself upside down, but that actually seemed closer to the Right Answer, because when you throw a stone into a pond the first thing it does it to make a "hole" in the water.  So I advanced the time a bit, and got this:
WTF?  Where did that spike come from?  I didn't want a spike.  Water doesn't do that.  Water is always nice and round, not pointy.  This couldn't be right.  And yet, the rest of the animation actually looked pretty reasonable:
I spent several hours fiddling with it trying to tweak the function so that it did the same thing but without that annoying spike.  I tried changing signs, using a cosine function instead of a sine, you name it.  Nothing looked right [1].  And then it occurred to me (duh!) to take another look at what water actually does when you drop something into it.

There, right in the center of an actual physical water wave, was my spike!  It didn't have a pointy end: surface tension had made the point shrink up into a sphere, but the spike was unmistakable.  It was as if the math was trying to take me by the throat and tell me, "No, water really does work this way."

In retrospect it is actually obvious why water has to work this way.  You drop a stone into a pond and the stone makes a hole in the water.  The stone keeps falling through the water (because the stone is denser), and as soon as it has moved out of the way, water rushes back in from all sides to fill the hole.  All that water rushing in meets at the center of the hole, and because of inertia and the fact that water is not compresible, it has to keep moving, so it has to go somewhere.  The only place left for it to go is up.

In 1960 Eugene Wigner published a famous paper entitled "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences" which first pointed out this phenomenon, that math often "takes you by the throat" and forces you towards the correct answer even if it sometimes takes people a while to realize that this is what is going on.  I thought it was cool to experience this phenomenon firsthand.

[1]  The reason the spike is there, mathematically speaking, is that the function sin(x-t)/(x+t) must be zero when x=t and t>0, but the limit of the function as x->t from above is -1.  So at t=0 it has to look like -sin(x)/x, but at t=epsilon it has to have two zero-crossings at x = +/- epsilon.  The only way to satisfy that condition, along with continuity constraints, is to have a spike.  It is might even be possible to prove that no mathematical function can possibly produce all the desired qualitative characteristics of water waves (damping, forward motion in time, conservation of mass) without a spike, but that's above my pay grade.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Looking under the hood of the scientific process

TJ Radcliffe pops open the hood on the scientific process and lets you peer inside to see the inner workings in unusual detail.  He also has a pretty good description of what science actually is:
Science is the discipline of publicly testing ideas by systematic observation, controlled experiment and Bayesian inference. As such, it is fundamentally about exploration. We have ideas, we test them, we let the results of those tests guide where we go next. In the end, we publish, because if not made public it is not science. People were investigating reality long before the Proceedings of the Royal Society saw the light of day, but they didn’t accumulate knowledge because they didn’t publish. Science is both intensely individualistic and profoundly communal.
(Compare and contrast the level of detail and self-criticism to, say, this.)

He also offers up this brilliant little gem:
When someone lectures you on the importance of being open minded, try responding with something along the lines of, “I’m open to any idea that we can figure out how to test, because if it can’t be tested it probably can’t explain anything. If it can explain a phenomenon, then it can act as a cause on other things, so it can be tested, because we can make predictions of other things that it is likely to cause. If it can’t cause anything other than what it’s being invoked to explain, then it really doesn’t have any meaning beyond ‘the thing that causes that’, and that’s pretty boring. So give me an idea–one idea, not ten–and let’s talk about how to test it, what other consequences it would have that we can look into. I’m totally open to any idea like that.” 
The practice of science is very much about learning where to look for plausible ideas, and focusing on looking rather than imagining as the first step on any search for a more plausible proposition. This is difficult because it requires us to accept that we don’t know what the problem is and we might not be able to find the actual source. Imagination is much more comforting than reality at times like this. But we should learn to trust ourselves, and look to the world to guide us. That’s the only way we’ll find more plausible propositions. People were imagining answers to hard questions for thousands of years before we learned the discipline of science, and we have precious little besides some decent poetry to show for it. We certainly never cured disease or ended hunger that way.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Lyft is even more evil than Uber

Yes, I get it.  Uber is evil.  But Lyft is worse.

Today I got a text message spam from Lyft.  I don't like getting text message spam, so I tried to log in to my Lyft account to update my contact preferences so I could opt out of future spam.

It turns out that it is not possible.  I tried everything I could think of: the Lyft web site, the app, the help center.  Nothing.  If you go to the Lyft help center and search for "cancel" or "opt-out" the only thing that comes up is how to cancel a ride request.

So, Lyft folks: I understand that you are under intense pressure from Uber and you need to do something.  But this ain't it.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Talk about missing the point

PETA, that is, the organization that calls itself People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, kidnapped and killed a pet chihuahua.

I am not one to be easily rendered speechless, but that did it.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

This is why prominent atheists should not critique religion

BioLogos has an an interview with Bill Nye on the occasion of the publication of his new book.  It is nearly as painful to read as his infamous debate with Ken Ham was painful to watch [1].  The level of ignorance and tone-deafness he displays with regards to religion in general and Christianity in particular is equivalent to YECs who stand on the street corner and ask if your grandpappy was a monkey.
BioLogos: While you say your book has little to do with religion, you write in the book that it’s unreasonable to see any sort of divine “plan” in nature (p. 78). Paired with strong endorsements from many prominent atheists and agnostics on the back cover, can you see how many Christians would feel your book has an anti-religious agenda? 
Nye: Put briefly, no; I don’t perceive an anti-religious agenda, especially with regard to Christians and Christianity. The issue being debated was creationism, the idea that the Earth is 6,000 years old. As I understand it, this involves the Bible’s Old Testament exclusively. As I understand it, Jesus of Nazareth and his worldview did not come to be until the New Testament times.
Oh.  My.  God.  How can anyone not know that Christian theology holds that Jesus was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, that the Old and New Testaments form a seamless whole, that Jesus and Yahweh are the same deity?  There are all kinds of reasons one might be a Christian without being a YEC, but the idea that Christianity has nothing to do with the Old Testament is not one of them.

If you're going to critique something you should at least take the time to learn the basics of the thing you are critiquing.  This goes for scientists as well as everyone else.

[1] The reason the Nye-Ham debate was painful to watch was that Bill completely missed the most basic and fundamental point: Ken Ham, by his own admission, is not doing science.  Ken, again by his own admission multiple times during the debate, starts from the premise that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.  Ham gave away the game in his opening statement:
"I assert that the word “science” has been hijacked by secularists in teaching evolution, to force the religion of naturalism on generations of kids."
No, it is not that the word has been hijacked.  The word "science" is completely irrelevant.  You could call it fnorbage instead of science, it wouldn't make a clingleblat of difference.  What matters is that if you choose to use evidence, experience and reason rather than divine revelation as the ultimate arbiters of truth, you get better results, at least by certain quality metrics that most people care about.  And the evidence is overwhelmingly against the theory that the earth is 6000 years old.  Whether you call that science or fnorbage or squibbs and crackers matters not at all.

A public service announcement regarding 650-780-9288

If you call the number in the headline (650-780-9288) you will find that it has been disconnected.  The reason it is disconnected is because it used to be our home phone number, and we were getting so overwhelmed by robocalls (despite -- or perhaps because of -- being on the federal do-not-call list) that we finally threw in the towel and got an unlisted number.  At some point in the future, this phone number will be recycled, and some other poor unfortunate sod will probably end up getting the same deluge of marketing calls that we got.  But that is not the reason for this PSA.

The reason I'm putting up a PSA is that before this number was our number it (apparently) belonged to one Julian Carrillo and an associate of his named Maria.  The reason I believe this to be the case is that in addition to marketing robocalls we also often got calls for Mr. and Ms. Carrillo, mostly from collection agencies, but occasionally also from car rental companies and insurance companies.  On the off chance that anyone trying to contact the Carrillos tries to Google their phone number, I wanted them to find this: the phone number 650-780-9288 was assigned to me in June of 2010.  If anyone named Carrillo (or any other hispanic name) provided you with that phone number as theirs between June of 2010 and January of 2015, they were providing false information.  It is hard to imagine how this could be an honest mistake, as we have evidence that the Carrillos were still giving out this phone number more than four years after it was assigned to us.

As long as I'm on this topic, I will also mention this: the most egregious robocall offender was a company called (as best I can determine) Energy Upgrade California.  Their robocaller is very distinctive in that it opens with a woman's voice saying, "Due to the constant rise in energy costs..."  We heard this line on our answering machine so many times that I long ago lost count.  I tried everything to get them to stop calling, but they were relentless.  They are the cinder block that broke the camel's back and motivated us to get a new number.

I don't know if the company calling us was in any way affiliated with this web site.  I suspect not, because the web site seems kinda legit [1] while the phone version felt like a pretty shady boiler-room operation.  On several occasions I actually talked to one of their CSRs trying to find out who they were and what they were selling (and how to get them to stop calling!) but as soon as it became apparent that I was not a rube they hung up on me.

If you happen to be one of their victims, you have my deepest sympathies, and if there's anything I can do to help get them shut down I would be thrilled to do whatever I can to contribute to their demise.

[1] The reason I say "kinda legit" is that they claim to be affiliated with the California Public Utilities Commission.  If this isn't true, then this is a transparent fraud and I would think the attorney general would be all over their ass.  On the other hand, the site does not provide any traceable contact information, so that seems a tad fishy to me.  On the other other hand, the site does seem to be chock-full of real content, so if it's a scam someone put an awful lot of effort into making it look real.