Archive for December, 2013

Kin vs Group Selection in S4A

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

This article, like most of Le Nguyen Hoang’s work, brings together a wonderful mix of ideas and resources and is mostly great. But I am a bit worried that it might leave some readers with the idea that kin selection and group selection are mutually exclusive alternatives when in fact I doubt that anyone in the “group selection” camp denies the importance of kin selection.

The “war” is I think between those who propose methods of group selection that are not explained by kinship and those who insist that everything can be explained by a concept of “inclusive fitness” defined in terms of kinship defined *only* by the family tree (and who also insist that nothing else can possibly happen).

With regard to what will eventually disappear, I don’t think there’s any chance that kin selection will disappear since everyone can see that it sometimes works. As for non-kin-based group selection, I can see ways it could work; and so, given the infinite inventiveness of nature, I am sure we will eventually identify examples where the pure-kin explanation does not suffice. So I like the article’s concluding reference to Max Plank. What will eventually disappear are those who are stuck on a currently favourite theory (only to be temporarily replaced of course by those who get stuck on the next one).
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The Sunsets Are Already Getting Later!

Monday, December 16th, 2013

To a late riser like me it seems that the days are already getting longer even though is is still almost a week before the actual winter solstice. But this is not an illusion as the sunsets really are starting to happen later here, even as the length of time from sunrise to sunset continues to shorten.

How can this be? Well, the sunrises are actually also getting later too because in addition to getting longer and shorter the days actually “move around” a bit (in the sense that the time that a regular clock gives as noon even on the exact meridean of a time zone is not exactly the time when the sun is highest in the sky). This is due to a fairly subtle effect of the earth’s tilt combined with a slightly smaller effect of its orbital eccentricity (the fact that it is an ellipse rather than a perfect circle). These effects cause the length of the entire (noon to noon) day to vary with the seasons so that the clock’s equal 24-hour days cannot all be exactly centred on solar high points (so noon on  a sundial moves back and forth relative to noon on a clock). Popular accounts of this phenomenon frequently relate it only to the eccentricity which actually gives the smaller effect , but this article in The Atlantic is closer to the mark in that it gets the sizes of the two effects right. (It does however give a wrong impression of how the obliquity effect works though, because it implies that it’s like the difference between summer and winter when in fact it is between solstices and equinoxes. At both solstices the noon to noon time is about 20 seconds longer than average and at both equinoxes it is about the same amount shorter.)

This effect has been well understood for (at least a couple of hundred) years but first came to my attention when a colleague asked me to look at an essay in which one of his students seemed to have figured it out for himself!

Women in Computing

Monday, December 16th, 2013

Last week we got several reminders of the significant roles played by women in what is often perceived these days as a rather male-dominated and even somewhat macho field.

On Dec 6 Maria Popover’s Brain Pickings site pointed to a tribute video  about holocaust survivor and 1960’s software entrepreneur ‘Steve’ Shirley (produced by Google about 3 months ago as part of their ‘computing heritage’ series). Then on Dec 9  the Google Doodle was in honour of the birthday of Grace Hopper  who created the first compiled computer language in the 1950’s, developed COBOL, and coined the term “debugging”. And it may have been that which prompted the Christian Science Monitor to do a piece on a number of important female pioneers of computing  – going all the way back to Ada Lovelace who worked with Charles Babbage on the idea of programmable computers long before electronic versions were available (and whose birthday just happens to have been the very next day – but no doodle for her this year as she already got that honour last year).

God in Proof

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

I hadn’t really been planning to read ‘God in Proof’ but this excerpt has me sufficiently engaged that I might actually do so.

An Undergraduate Refutation of Atheist Evangelists

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

In a post called A Refutation of the Undergraduate Atheists, David V. Johnson’s use of the silly undergraduate-level technique of mockingly mislabeling the contrary position has distracted many of his commenters from what could have been the start of a fruitful discussion (about the appropriateness of vigorously promoting atheism).

The interesting question that Johnson reminds us of is what it means to claim that humanity would be “better off”  without religion.

This raises at least two major sub-questions. One is what it means for humanity as a whole to be “better off” and the other is what is meant by the word “religion”.

Many people do claim that religion has caused more violence and immediate pain than it has prevented, but that claim is virtually impossible to verify. It is also similarly impossible to verify whether or not people would really be happier with or without the “consolations” of religion. But even if they would be, the question remains as to whether the comfort that might be provided by religion to its adherents is sufficient to justify the corresponding costs to themselves and others. Perhaps there are values higher than happiness, but who am I to judge this for others and to deny a drug that gives ignorant bliss to those who choose it. But what of those to whom it is administered without choice? and what if in addition to creating bliss for its users it also causes them to do harm to others?

Here, by “causing harm to others” I am referring less to the possible (but far from established) effect of augmenting the human tendency to tribal violence than to the effect of continuing to cloud the minds of future generations with pleasant fuzz which prevents them from achieving the possibly painful joy of a clearer enlightenment.

And then the other question is whether it is possible to have “religion” without insisting on counterfactual beliefs and without increasing our susceptibility to demagoguery. Does religion necessarily lead us to be less resistant to accepting the words of authority figures for example?

These questions all seem open to me but I have no wish for counter-rational comfort and prefer to rely on my own moral judgement rather than some external authority. So of course I prefer a society in which these tendencies are not put at a disadvantage. It would be nice to have rational arguments “proving” that such a society would be “better” but my guess is that they do not and will not exist – and that the best I can do is encourage progress towards the world I prefer in the hope (but not faith!) that it will in fact not be more hurtful to others than I can in good conscience accept. To that end, I am inclined to cheer on the atheist evangelists, but only somewhat weakly as there are other issues I consider more important.

Where Credit Is Due

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Newt Gingrich deserves  applause for standing up to some of his co-ideologues in defense of the strategy and tactics of Nelson Mandela and the ANC, both now and in the past. He, along with Brian Mulroney and others, is among the minority of right wingers who resisted the pressure from those like Reagan and Thatcher who refused to properly oppose apartheid. It is worth remembering that not everyone on the right shares the shame of those who chose to keep people in slavery for fear of the political choices that they might make in freedom.

Is Philosophy Stupid? No, but its advocates often are.

Saturday, December 7th, 2013

The main problem with Philosophy as a distinct academic discipline is not that it is stupid, but that its advocates *are* often “stupid” in that they badly misidentify its value with claims like the following:

Philosophy answers questions like…

“Who am I?”

“What should I do with my life? How can I be happy?”

“Do I have the right friends? Are these bad friends?”

“Am I a bad person? Should I be living my life differently?”

“What’s worth making sacrifices for? How much sacrifice?”

“Am I in love? What is love?”

“Is there a god / afterlife / cosmic plan?”

No, it does not answer such questions,  and the claim that it does that impossible task drives people like me close to madness in frustration. (Religion makes the same claim but is less irritating in doing so because in that case it’s clearly out of some kind of desperation for an answer rather than with the smug assumption of academic rigor.)

What academic Philosophy does do very well is provide one (but not the only) source of experience and tools which help us to analyse reasoning about those and any other questions.  It does not provide answers, but a trained philosopher may well be useful in helping people at an impasse to look more deeply at the assumptions and mental processes of their interlocutors in a way that may help to resolve differences or at least to increase mutual understanding and empathy.

Is Philosophy Stupid? » Richard Carrier Blogs.

Nelson Mandela

Friday, December 6th, 2013

Sad to have him gone but glad for the end of his final illness.  The man’s infectious smile radiated a sincerity that I don’t think anyone has ever denied, and I am thankful that that sincerity included an unwavering commitment to principles that I am proud to share (but ashamed not to have done much to advance).