Wednesday, March 31, 2010

crypto idiocy

Professor Dendy wrote about me! Validation!

But he misrepresented the various things I've sent to him, deleted the bits he didn't like and refused to answer the many, many questions I left for him. And that other people left for him. And he also deleted many posts from his own blog. And claims he didn't.

Dendy is a childish liar. I will never delete comments he wants to make here. I will never delete the posts that led to those comments. Dendy has done both. Again and again and again.

Come on, Dendy, let's have it. Ah yes, silence.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

fail fail

I finally got a comment published in the Fail about the LHC!:
I am sure that there are more worthy causes for the money spent on this, not to mention the skills of scientists.

Things more worthy than understanding something fundamental about what matter is?

How does the idea of learning something so fail to capture your imagination? How are you so poor at learning the lessons of history? The computer you typed that banal message on and the infrastructure that blessed us with your paltry thoughts are triumphs of scientific theory and engineering ingenuity. Don't use science to complain about science, you might look like a complete idiot.
My bandwidth is littered with almost identical posts I've sent to the mail over the last few years, none of which have ever been printed.

So what am I actually celebrating? SHIT.

CERN scientists play Elite!

OK, so everyone's probably too young to get the reference, but the middle monitor in this Daily Fail report on the LCH clearly shows the scientist docking or undocking in Elite.

Or perhaps he's entering hyperspace? I guess that would be consistent with the black hole theory...

Letter to concern trolls

This is very good. Greta Christina writes to those accomodationists who try to tell atheists how to run our 'movement' and makes an excellent point. The advice these people give is always to be more quiet and respectful. They never tell us to be more passionate or compelling.

As Christina points out, this rather casts some doubt on their sincerity.

Monday, March 29, 2010

daily fuckpig

I mean, WHAT?

Should the Pope resign?

An excellent article by Richard Dawkins in the Washington Post. No doubt there will be some snivelling about tone, but I think he gets it exactly right.

Breaking the camel's back

This annoyed me when I first read it, but having thought about it, I now find it interesting. India Knight seems to have stuck with he Catholicism even though she doesn't really consider herself religious. It gives her the warm fuzzies, which is what she feels the point of religion should be and it's mostly harmless.....until now, of course. The ongoing child rape scandal has changed her mind and it's where she draws the line.

I'm not sure why events like 9/11 didn't convince her that religion might not be all it's cracked up to be in the fuzzy department. Perhaps it's because 9/11 didn't seem like a betrayal of what Islam is supposed to be about, since (rightly or wrongly) we've come to expect that kind of thing. Catholics have doubly betrayed us firstly because of the institutional abuse of our children and our trust and secondly because they've spend most of their time over the last few centuries convincing us that they are the sole arbiters of good and evil and the guardians of morality. They've been so spectacularly successful at this that the myth has become part of the comfortable fabric of our lives. It's hard for most people not to instinctively think of priests as at worst benign if not positively benevolent.

I think the child rape saga has hit many people particularly hard because of this and the Vatican doesn't seem to understand the outrage it has caused. I'm sure many True Believers (TM) will rush to defend the church, categorising the abuse as isolated events and conveniently forgetting the church's and the pope's role in covering it up. I expect many more will murmur with disapproval but do nothing else. Is it too much to expect that the fence-sitters, like India Knight, will now critically scrutinise the Catholic church and stop treating it with special and undue reverence?

Probably, since inexplicably there are already plenty of atheists crawling out of the woodwork to defend the church.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Templeton idiocy

In a huge shock to everyone, the winner of this year's Templeton Prize has immediately had a pop at Richard Dawkins. It almost seems like this is a condition of the prize.

In the article, he (Ayala, the prizewinner) argues for the different magisteria approach to science and religion. This has been so thoroughly debunked by others (including Dawkins) that I can't summon the enthusiasm to talk about it here. However, we are fortunate that stupidity is the gift that keeps on giving and he says plenty of other things we can ridicule. From the article:

Man’s “flawed” design made evolutionary theory more compatible with the idea of a benevolent creator than intelligent design. “Because of the flawed design of our reproductive systems more than 20 per cent of all pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion,” said Professor Ayala. “Do you want to blame God for that? No, science has provided an answer. It is the clumsy ways of nature and the evolutionary process.”

Read that again. Go on, I'll wait for you.

This is one of the most tortuously contorted examples of begging the question I've ever seen. Begging the question is a logical fallacy that occurs when you assume the conclusion as part of your argument.

What Ayala is saying is this: Man's (why not woman's or any other organism's) design is evidently flawed. If we believe that god designed us that way, it's hard to conclude that he's benevolent. However, evolution is a blind process, so if we believe in evolution, we get to believe that god is benevolent. Yay us! I mean, yay god!

This is a painfully idiotic argument for obvious reasons. It assumes as a premise that god both exists and is benevolent in order to demonstrate god's existence and benevolence. I hardly need to spell out why this is entirely devoid of substance.

And it doesn't even work. If god is all-powerful, he could have devised a scheme of evolution that resulted in organisms that weren't flawed. Or he could have fucked evolution off entirely and simply designed everything perfectly out of the trap in the first plac... oh. Seriously, Professor Ayala: this is an argument?

I have one other point, which might be over-analysis. One of the many things I'm a geek about is the way people choose to phrase things within the context of what they are saying. You've probably seen A Beautiful Mind and if you haven't, you should. It's about John Nash, who is schizophrenic. In that movie, when Nash looks at a page or blackboard full of words or numbers, some seem to light up and seem more important than the ones around them. When I look at that quote from Ayala, I see it like this:

“Do you want to blame God for that? No, science has provided an answer. It is the clumsy ways of nature and the evolutionary process.”

I cannot imagine how an evolutionary biologist of all people could use the word 'clumsy' to describe evolution. It is breathtakingly elegant. It is the epitome of parsimony. If anything, he should be arguing that only god could create such a magnificent way of making things. But that wouldn't fit with his 'benevolent god' idea because evolution is cruel and wasteful. He needs to throw in the word 'clumsy' to muddy the waters.

Professor Ayala: nature isn't clumsy, but organisms are indeed cobbled together. Do what you like to reconcile this with your prior belief but I'm going to take the parsimonious high ground, if it's all the same to you. The Templeton Prize is ill-gotten-gains and you know it. Bask in the admiration of small-minded desperate idiots if that's what gives you a hardon, but you should give the money away. You don't deserve it. And you know you don't deserve it.

The aforementioned Rebecca

See? I told you she was brilliant.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ada Lovelace

It's Ada Lovelace day! Or rather, it was yesterday, but I was stuck on a mandatory (and pointless) course so couldn't write anything about it. It was sunny outside, too.

Anyway, Ada Lovelace was a daughter of Lord Byron who is credited with writing the world's first computer program: she designed an algorithm to enable Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine to compute Bernoulli numbers. It's unfortunate that Babbage was unable to ever build the machine, but he was obviously very impressed with Lovelace, who he called The Enchantress of Numbers. And rightly so: she was a skilled mathematician and had enviable foresight about the future of computing. The (now pretty much defunct) programming language Ada was named after her.

While she is generally considered to be the originator of the computer program, I think her achievement goes much further than that. She invented the abstraction as software engineers think of it: in her case a systematic way of thinking that distinguishes what a computer is from what it does. The importance of abstraction in computing cannot be overstated. The reason computers can do such amazing things is that we know how to handle their complexity. This is done by heaping abstractions on top of each other, so we don't have to deal with the complexity of the levels below. Operating systems, drivers, programming languages, middleware, network protocols, meta languages, business logic, ontologies, business interaction protocols....

While computer programs are still the way we make computers do things to this day, it's for the concept of abstraction and how they make computer science possible, powerful and above all intersting that I celebrate the life of Augustus Ada King, Countess of Lovelace.

Ada Lovelace day is also about celebrating geek chick heroes. I have several.

Anyone who knows me will know I have always been in awe of Marie Curie. Not only the first woman to win a Nobel prize, but the first person of either sex to win two.

Rosalind Franklin
, whose work was crucial to the discovery of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick, but who (outrageously) didn't share the prize.

Fran Allen, who was the first woman to receive the Turing Award, which is sorta kinda like the Turing of computer science. She also (topically) won the Ada Lovelace award in 2002.

The women of Bletchley Park. Read about their genius and importance here.

But while I'm on the subject, I can't limit myself to geek heroes. I'm also going to cite:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I'm not going to say anything about her here because I want you to read about her.

Ophelia Benson, brilliant and awesomely beligerant philosopher.

Rebecca Watson, Skepchic founder and the queen of irreverance.

Please understand that I don't use the word 'hero' lightly. Most people I know either bandy the word around meaninglessly or claim they have no heroes. I don't understand people of the latter sort.

I consider heroes as people who I admire and who surprise me. People who do things I probably can't....but might possibly be able to. People who overcome odds that I can barely understand.... People who keep out-thinking me. Yeah, these people are my heroes.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Advocating the devil

Phil Plait is right about astrology but he's occasionally naive about how idiots react to reason. He's vaguely surprised that astrologers are unconvinced by his arguments. I really like Phil's article, but I want to play devil's advocate (as worrisome as that phrase is) to see if I can predict how astrologers will respond. If I can, I'll later look at some of Phil's responders and we'll have us a game of bingo.

By the way, I'm not advocating an accomodationist approach to astrology. Phil's approach is right. The people who believe in astrology are wrong. I'd go further than Phil and suggest that they are complete idiots.

First, let's see if there can be any effect from the planets and stars as astrologers claim. Then, after I show you that there not only isn't any, but cannot be any as they claim, we'll take a look at the claims astrologers make about measured effects (I'll give you a hint: they're wrong). Then finally, I'll talk a little bit about the real effect of astrology, and how it is eroding people's ability to think clearly.

Phil has already lost believers. They will automatically think he's small-minded and arrogant. How can he possibly claim to know about what forces exist in the universe and how forces can and can't work? For the record, Phil is perfectly entitled to the claims he makes, but astrologers are going to pick his statement apart because they don't follow the rules.

What if there's a force we don't know about? What if there's a force we can't measure? Phil's wider point is that to hypothesise such a force is so non-parsimonious as to be batshit insane. For one thing, a force that can't be measured is one we can't conclude exists. He's absolutely right but he's making assumptions of rationality that by no means include believers in astrology. They will have no difficulty in conjuring up a magical force that will 'explain' exactly what they want it to explain because they are under no obligation that it makes the slightest sense. Or that it is even internally consistent.

Phil's main 'mistake' is to make the obviously true claim that the magnitude of a force's effect is the important thing. A believer would have no pang of conscience in claiming that there was some unspecified 'character' or something in the unspecified force supposedly exerted by stars and planets that somehow makes astrology work. Because they don't feel they need to make sense. The suggestion that forces probably have to work in the way we've continually observed them to have worked since Newton is unlikely to cut much ice with the idiotic.

Remember, and I keep repeating this because it's important-- this is playing by the astrologers' own rules.

I don't think it is, because astrologers' 'rules' don't have to be consistent. Phil is right, of course, to harangue astrologers on these points. Remember that I'm just saying why astrologers won't listen, not arguing with his strategy. I don't have any better suggestions.

Phil's inaccuracy argument, however, is fairly devastating. The answer from astrologers will no doubt be that some astrologers might be lying or wrong but that the one they personally happen to advocate doesn't use these tricks. There is no reasoning with such people: they will not only insist that the emperor is clothed, but will go into rapturous detail about the stitching of his lapels.

Phil's consistency argument is also pretty devastating. How could anyone fail to be convinced by it? If astrology works, then two astrologers should get the same results, right? Believers would presumably say that one of the astrologers wasn't very good and (probably) that the other was. The 'good' one would turn out to be the one who made the more accurate prediction. I don't think people who feel this way would take the time to understand why meta-analyses prove them wrong.

Let me say it again: I think Phil's article is awesome and exactly the kind of thing people should be writing. I wish I'd written the article. I would probably have written much the same thing, only not as well. This post is just an expression of my frustration at how people eschew reason without the slightest thought. That people can so torture logic and damage reason should be considered a moral and logical global emergency.

Astrology smackdown

Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy has written a pretty comprehensive analysis of why astrology doesn't work.

Astrology is one of those areas of nonsense that's never held even superficial appeal to me. I don't just mean the star sign newspaper variety, which is so demonstrably stupid: I mean the entire concept of arbitrary patterns of stars as seen from one particular point in space and ignoring distance from that point and from each other can have effects on our lives that can be calculated with made-up mathematics. Why would anyone even want that to be true, let alone actually believe it?

Anyway, Phil's article is pretty good and has some nice pictures

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

So it's soap....right....?

Advertising is weird. It sometimes seems to be a sort of conspiracy, in which we are complicit whether we like it or not. Do we really believe the claims adverts make or do we use them as an excuse to buy the things we want anyway? For example, look at shampoo adverts, which are some of the worst culprits for talking nonsense. One such claims to be “inspired by decades of genetic research.” I mean, what does that mean, for goodness’ sake? This is just soap that you put on your head, right? I find it hard to believe anyone really takes that announcement seriously and at face value. What then are the advertisers trying to achieve? There seem two likely explanations: first, the aforementioned excuse to buy into some kind of lifestyle and second an attempt to sneak something sciency-sounding under our radars to influence us without our really knowing it. Or perhaps there’s a third alternative: advertisers are lazy and stupid.
I don’t know which of these – if any – are near the mark or whether more than one is true. What I do know is that it seems to be getting worse, or at least more blatant. It’s as though advertisers has stopped caring whether they are even perceived to be telling the truth.
I find this vaguely unsettling, as if we’ve somehow lowered our standards for truth without realising it and without being consulted.