Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Impossible Burger is going to change the world

I had heard about the soy-based Impossible Burger a long time ago but they are not yet widely available.  Burger King is launching a pilot program offering Impossible Whoppers (the original of which just happens to be my favorite fast-food burger) but they are only available in the midwest at the moment.  Happily, it turns out that a number of smaller restaurants are offering them where I live, and today I got to try one.

It's not as good as a regular burger.  It's better.  It really does taste like beef, but that description doesn't really do it justice.  Because it's made of soy, which is bland, they have to spice it up (literally) to make it have any flavor at all, and their secret recipe of eleventy-two herbs and spices (I'm guessing) is just incredibly tasty.  It's subtle.  The beefy flavor is the definitely center stage (courtesy of added heme), but it doesn't taste like beef that is straight out of the package.  It tastes like beef that has been lovingly seasoned by Thomas Keller to just the point where none of the additions stands out, but the whole is much, much greater than the sum of its parts.  A bit of thyme, a touch of sage, a hint of smokiness.

But the flavor is not the best part, it's the texture.  It not only tastes like beef, it looks and feels like beef, but without any gristle or stray bits of bone and tendon that you sometimes find in some less-than-highest-quality cuts.  Every bite is uniformly perfect, what you'd get if you hand trimmed the absolute finest prime sirloin you could find.

I think this product is going to change the world, not necessarily because it's healthier than beef (the jury is still out on that) but because it's so much more environmentally friendly to produce.  Beef production wreaks holy hell on the environment.  Offering people a greener alternative that doesn't require any compromise in flavor or texture, indeed improves on the original, is going to be huge.  The Impossible Burger is the Tesla Model S of meat.

Sunday, April 07, 2019

We interrupt this blog to bring you a little eureka moment

One of the reasons that my posting has been more sporadic that usual is that I have a few other balls in air at the moment.  One of these is an on-going lecture series about the history of science.  The next installment is on relativity, and in preparation for that I am reading a book called "Philosophy of Physics: Space and Time" by Tim Maudlin.  It has the single most lucid explanation of relativity that I have ever encountered, which can be boiled down to a pithy slogan:
Clocks don't measure time!
What clocks actually measure is the space-time interval between events on the clock's world-line.  That turns out to reduce to what we call "time" if you and the clock are not moving relative to each other.  But if you and the clock are moving relative to each other, then things get weird because, well, clocks don't measure time.  In fact, time is not even a well-defined concept when things are moving relative to each other!

Two surprising consequences of this: first, the speed of light is not constant.  In fact, "the speed of light" is not even a well-defined concept because time is not a well-defined concept, and speed is defined in terms of time.  (In fact, "the speed of X" is not a well-defined concept for any X, because, well, you know.)

(What is true is that the measuring the "speed" of light will give you the same result no matter what reference frame you're in.  But that turns out to be a consequence of the fact that clocks measure space-time intervals rather than time.  It is not, as is often taught, the foundational principle of relativity.  Einstein himself got this wrong.)

The second surprising consequence is that the most common resolution of the "twin paradox" is mistaken.  Maudlin quotes Feynman as the prototypical example:
This is called a “paradox” only by people who believe that the principle of relativity means that that all motion is relative; they say “Heh, heh, heh, from the point of view of Paul can’t we say that Peter was moving and should therefore appear to age more slowly? By symmetry, the only possible result is that both should be the same age when they meet.” But in order for them to come back together and make the comparison Paul must either stop at the end of the trip and make a comparison of clocks, or, more simply, he has to come back, and the one who comes back must be the man who was moving, and he knows this, because he had to turn around. When he turned around, all kinds of things happened in his space-ship—the rockets went off, things jammed up against one wall, and so on—while Peter felt nothing. 
So the way to state the rule is that the man who has felt the accelerations, who has seen things fall against the walls. and so on, is the one who would be the younger; that is the difference between them in an absolute sense, and it is certainly correct.
Maudlin then minces no words:
Everything in this "explanation" is wrong.
That sort of clarity is rare.

(It's actually easy to see that any explanation in terms of acceleration must be wrong because it is easy to set up a "twin paradox" that involves no accelerations: use three clocks all moving in inertial trajectories along the same line.  Clock A starts to the left of clock B and is moving to the right (relative to B).  Clock C starts to the right of clock B and is moving to the left (relative to B).  The initial positions are such that A will be co-located with B before it is co-located with C.  When A meets B, A is set to the time shown on B.  Then, when A meets C, C is set to the time shown on A.  When C meets B, the reading on C will be less than the reading on B despite the fact that none of the clocks have undergone any acceleration.)

Anyway, I thought this was cool and so I thought I'd take a moment to share it.

Secularity and teleology

1.  Introduction

In a previous post I advanced the hypothesis that the seemingly irreconcilable divide between religious and secular outlooks on life can be traced back to whether one chooses to begin one's philosophical inquiries with purpose or mechanism, i.e. whether one accepts teleology, the idea that our conscious experiences are indicative of some kind of purpose, as an axiom.  Jimmy Weiss responded to that (and also to some other points I raised) and here I want to respond to Jimmy.
I wonder if the reason Ron perceives an inordinate preoccupation with teleology among the faithful, is because he is accustomed to making so little of it?
I want to clarify that my hypothesis is emphatically not that the faithful have an "inordinate preoccupation" with teleology, only that they ask the question, "What is the purpose of subjective experience" before they ask the question "what is the mechanism behind subjective experience", whereas secular people reverse the order.  That's all.  The hypothesis is that both sides actually find answers to the respective question they started with, so that by the time they return to the other question they have already built up an intellectual framework into which the answer to the second question must fit.  So by the time a religious person returns to the question of mechanism they already know why they are here (or at least they think they do): God created them.  And any theory of mechanism that is inconsistent with that "fact" cannot possibly be true.  It would just make no sense.

Likewise, by the time a secular person returns to the question of purpose, they already know how their subjective experience works (or at least they think they do): subjective experience is an "emergent property" of brains, which were built by evolution.  Any theory of purpose that is inconsistent with that "fact" cannot possibly be true.  It would just make no sense.

And so the two sides are at loggerheads, and each side thinks the other side is populated by either morally rudderless heathens (in the case of the first group) or knuckle-dragging morons (in the case of the second).

It's just a hypothesis.  But it seems to fit the observed data.

If you're a secularist reading this, and you think this is a plausible hypothesis, then one of the practical consequences of this is that we could dramatically improve the effectiveness of our marketing if we had a better story to tell about teleology.  A lot of people yearn for purpose, and "life's a bitch and then you die, and that's just the way it is" is not a very attractive message.

2.  Why I reject Jimmy's wager

One of the interesting (to me) things about Jimmy Weiss's theology is that he is explicitly willing to admit that he could be wrong.  In our previous discussion on Reddit he put the odds at 5%, which is pretty substantial.  His argument for believing in God is not that God is a slam-dunk, but that it makes sense to believe in Him from a game-theoretical point of view: God promises an infinite reward in exchange for belief, and so if you crunch the "numbers" (I put numbers in scare quotes because infinity is not actually a number) it turns out that expected value of belief is infinite even if the odds of God actually existing are finite.

I think this argument is wrong on technical grounds, but one of the things I've learned is that geeking out about these things is very rarely effective.  Instead, the reason that Jimmy's wager doesn't work for me is that I believe that an infinite reward is fundamentally incompatible with human nature.  We are living creatures.  Being mortal is woven deep into the fabric of our being.  We're born, we mature, we have children, we raise them, and then we get out of the way and let them have their turn in the great circle of life.

The appeal of an infinite afterlife depends a lot, I think, on a failure to grasp just how big infinity is.  To paraphrase Douglas Adams, infinity is big.  Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.  I mean, you may think it's a long time waiting for Christmas morning to arrive, but that's just peanuts compared to infinity.  With infinite time you can read every book in the Library of Babel.  If you put an upper bound -- any upper bound -- on how long a book you're willing to read (100 million pages, say) you can read every one of those books an infinite number of times.  And if you spend even a little time browsing the Library of Babel you will see that reading most of those books is not going to be a lot of fun.

You can read every book, watch every movie, have every conversation that it is possible to have, see every sight, taste every taste, smell every smell, and do all of those things 100 millions times and still not put a dent in infinity.

I think I would be bored out of my mind after a mere trillion years.  I would yearn for oblivion.

So God's reward doesn't sound like a reward to me at all.  In fact, I can hardly imagine a worse fate than to be immortal.  This is not to say that I wouldn't like to live longer than I will.  Threescore and ten is a little shorter than I'd like.  But I'll take it over infinity.

3.  Towards a secular teleology

Here I'd like to address the second part of Jimmy's question, the "making so little of it" bit.  I don't make "so little" of it.  I want life to have a purpose.  But just because I'm not given a purpose by God doesn't mean I don't or can't have a purpose.  It's possible that I am given a purpose by nature, or it's possible that I can create my own purpose.  I think both of these are actually the case, and I think that idea-ism can serve as a basis not just for a secular morality but also for a secular teleology (for those who care about that sort of thing).  That could (and probably should) be its own post, but I'll just say this for now: I find it very fulfilling to learn about other people's ideas, and to come up with and promulgate ideas of my own (that's one of the reasons I write this blog).  But more than that, I think it's constructive.  I think it makes the world, at least in a small way, a better place.  If I write something that someone reads and enjoys, for whatever reason, then I've increased the net goodness in the world, and that makes me happy (that's why I like getting feedback).  There's also the chance that my words could outlive my body and give me a kind of immortality, one that won't actually turn into torture.

4.  Geeking out about the excluded middle

I don't quite understand why this is turning out to be such a big deal, but Jimmy keeps beating on the excluded middle so I feel the need to beat back, because I really do reject this:
Donald Trump either is, or he is not, a scoundrel.  One or the other must be true, if anything particular is meant by the word “scoundrel”.
The word "scoundrel" definitely has a meaning (it means "a dishonest or unscrupulous person") but that doesn't mean that the statement "X is a scoundrel" is either true or false.  Scoundrel-ness is a continuum, not a dichotomy (though Donald Trump seems to be to be a rather extreme outlier on the scoundrelly side of the scale, so perhaps that wasn't the best example).  But there are lots and lots of things like this where the truth or falseness of a statement doesn't turn on opinion or subjective experience, but rather on the lack of sharp dividing line (e.g. "A million dollars is a lot of money") or a counterfactual ("If the Russians had not meddled, Hillary would have won") or the lack of an objective referent ("Batman would beat Superman").

And, to give an example that I think falls afoul of more than one of these and is actually relevant to this discussion: "God is good."  Maybe I'll make that the topic of my next post.


It is worth noting that, despite the fact that all of the above is part of an on-going discussion with a young-earth creationist, absolutely none of it had anything to do with the age of the earth.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Why you should care about what a YEC thinks

I've had a number of people contact me off-line to tell me that they, like Don Geddis, are not at all interested in this whole YEC thing.  This response was typical:
I am [a] European, and I am sure you, at least from a general and abstract point of view, understand that the USA are not the World, and that some of the things  that seems so important to you, are just the construct of what the USA culture, politics, history etc ... but are just, to people from other backgrounds one of the many USA weirdness (as I am sure there are European weirdness, Swedish weirdness etc.). 
IMVHO, YEC and the need to argue with them, is one of those.
I actually didn't realize until I did some research prompted by the above correspondence that YEC is indeed a uniquely American phenomenon.  I was under the impression that it was world-wide, and in fact there are a lot of non-American non-Christian creationists in general (most Muslims are OECs).  But young earth creationism does appear to be uniquely American (and Christian).  I didn't know that.

But all this is not about YEC per se.  This is an exercise in trying to find common ground with someone with whom I vehemently disagree, and to see if I can learn some lessons from the experience that generalize to other domains.  I ended up partnering with a YEC in part because that just happened to be the kind of person I could find who was willing to engage with me.  I would have happily done this with a Muslim or a Mormon or a Jehovah's Witness (I've actually had a few conversations with Witnesses and found them to be quite knowledgable and intellectually honest.  But it's a very small sample size.) but it turns out to be really hard to find people willing to engage in this sort of thing, and even fewer who are willing to be intellectually honest about it.  (If you want to volunteer, please let me know!)

I happen to think that it's a good thing that I'm doing this with a YEC in part because the scientific evidence against YEC is so overwhelming.  Figuring out how an intellectually honest person can sustain such a belief is, I think, interesting just in and of itself.  It is not a simple matter of "cognitive dissonance" as Don Geddis has glibly claimed.  Cognitive dissonance simply means "the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes."  In other words, CD is just a label for the phenomenon, it's not an explanation.

Whoever you are, American or European, religious or not, the world is full of people with whom you will vehemently disagree about something.  Responding to that by retreating into enclaves of like-minded people is not going to produce good outcomes in the long run.  This planet is only so big, and at some point you are almost certainly going to have to interact in some way with someone with whom you vehemently disagree.  The world will be a better place if more people learn how to do it without resorting to violence.  Even if you don't have to deal with Islamic State in your back yard, there could be other religious fundamentalists closer to home.

If you happen to be religious, you might want to follow this exercise (or even engage in it yourself) because it turns out that atheism is on the rise in the U.S.  Atheists now outnumber evangelicals -- narrowly at the moment, but the trend is solidly  in our favor.  (If you're a social conservative, which is strongly correlated with being evangelical, things are looking particularly grim for you in the long run.)  You might want to get to know us better, and in particular, find out why we "choose to reject God's grace", and why we nevertheless do not in fact rape and pillage despite having no apparent moral compass.

Finally, if you're a Christian but not a YEC (I'm looking at you, Publius) then you have a theological difference that you might want to try to resolve.  At the very least, you differ in the interpretation of Genesis.  Are you sure you understand YEC hermeneutics (never mind the science) well enough to definitively rule it out as a possibility?  Because if you can't, then it's possible that you're making a mistake that will impact your prospects of salvation.

Just sayin'.

Friday, April 05, 2019

[Crickets chirping]

At the bottom of each Rondam Ramblings post is a set of four "reaction boxes".  Three of them are labelled "Right on", "Bogus", and "Thought-provoking".  These are there so that readers can weigh in with an opinion about the post with a minimum of fuss.  Of course, readers can leave comments too, but if anyone feels like they don't really have anything substantive enough to say in a comment, or if they just don't want to be bothered, they can express a point of view with a simple click.

There's a fourth reaction box labelled "Read it".  That's there for people who don't have an opinion one way or the other, but still want to let me know that they read the piece and appreciated the effort that went into writing it.  Comments, and the tallies on those reaction boxes, are the only compensation I get for writing this blog, and it's enough.  This blog is a hobby, and just knowing that someone is reading it and finds it worthwhile is enough to keep me going.  Not everything I post garners comments, but it has been a very long time since I've posted something that absolutely no one responded to, not even by clicking on "read it".

Well, the last two entries I posted, the ones about my adventures in YEC-land, have gotten zero reactions, and the only substantive comment they garnered was from Don Geddis, who went out of his way to tell me that he didn't really care.  Apparently, he wasn't the only one, and that's kind of depressing.  Writing those posts took a lot of effort, and I have a hard time believing that they are really the most uninteresting thing I've posted since I added reaction boxes to the site.

Anyway, that's one reason it is taking me a long time to post a response to Jimmy Weiss's latest posts.  The lack of encouragement on the first installment has been a little deflating.  (I'm also dealing with some personal matters and private correspondence.)  If you really don't care, well, so be it (though in that case I would appreciate some feedback on what you would like me to write about.  There are 122 of you who have subscribed to this blog, surely there's something you're interested in seeing here?)  But if you do, a simple click can provide a lot of encouragement.