Why symmetry gets really interesting when it is broken | Aeon Ideas

February 23rd, 2020

Here’s a nice bit of writing that gives the reader just enough information to start a journey in each of several important directions: Why symmetry gets really interesting when it is broken | Aeon Ideas

From The Village Green

February 14th, 2020

My good friend and 1964-5 college roommate John Butler is the editor of The Village Green, an environmental newsletter focused on the area around his home in Ontario but with much of more general interest as well.

In the latest issue he writes:

I have long been an admirer of Rex Murphy, Newfoundlander extraordinaire, insightful essayist, courteous radio host, adept and sprightly player with the English language.

But he has changed.

Now, as columnist for mildly right-of-centre publications, he rails angrily (and with inaccurate logic and evidence) at those who oppose fossil fuel projects, particularly projects in Alberta.

He doesn’t seem to be an overt climate change denier, though he savages people who propose policies to deal with climate change. He seems much more interested in touting any fossil fuel project that produces jobs, no matter how vile the outcome of those projects. He also seems near-obsessed with not offending Alberta by espousing fossil fuel reduction policies, lest we seem ungrateful to that province and thereby drive it closer to western-province separatism.

In a recent column he condemns the very idea of an aid package for Alberta to deal with the loss of oil patch jobs, calling it something we do for third-world counties but not for our fellow citizens – it might demean them. Better, he says, for Canadians and their governments to embrace fossil fuel mega-projects like Alberta’s Teck oil sands mine.

Rex Murphy has one thing right – the scale of the issue is enormous. Vastly curtailing – even eliminating – the fossil fuel industry in western Canada will be necessary if Canada is to play its fair role in combatting global heating. Part of that involves drying up the insatiable demand by the rest of Canada – and the world – for fossil fuels. Part of it should also involve concerted national investment in developing green energy jobs in Alberta to compensate for lost oil jobs (easy to say but hard to do since it involves sacrifices on the part of non-Albertans to make those investments. It also involves Alberta’s willingness to be converted).
It will be tempting to make quiet exceptions, to appease oil appetites and industries – a pipeline here, an oil sand extraction plant there – to stanch the blood. Every nation with regions that rely on fossil fuel revenues faces the same temptation. A little exception here, there, everywhere, forgetting that ultimately there is no such thing as a “little catastrophe”.

Rex Murphy’s argument seems to be a call to loyalty and gratitude – western fossil fuels have enriched all of Canada, so it would be ungrateful and disloyal of us to turn our backs on a part of the country that has done so much good for us.

Imagine your brother opened a factory next to your house. For a long time it made a profit and he shared it with you because you are family. But the factory produced toxic by-products that poisoned both your properties and the people on them. For a long time neither you nor your brother noticed this insidious poison. But now you see it, smell it, taste it. Now you know. Your brother says, “If I close the factory I will starve. For old times’ sake and the sake of the family, let’s keep quiet about the poison. It will eventually kill us and others, but don’t interfere with my operation of the factory.

That kind of family loyalty kills people and their planet.

Millenials vs Mayor Pete

February 13th, 2020

Source: Vox.com via (178) Habib’s Reading List – Quora

Greenhouse Saturation

February 12th, 2020

Must work on a “for the layman” clarification of all this:

OneTab shared tabs

Shadows on the wall

February 8th, 2020

Alexander Parker’s favorite thought experiment is Plato’s cave.

But what caught my eye was the comment by Gergely Mészáros which ended with the claim that “the analogy fails because we are not the watchers, we are the shadows on the wall”.

Why Vote?

February 7th, 2020

Aeon writer Julia Maskivker asks

Source: Given how little effect you can have, is it rational to vote? But her answer, though in accord with my own, is unconvincingly supported.

Rather than argue from some set of vague moral principles involving duty to community (which could in my opinion have been made much more clear and well supported), I would argue instead from the personal self-interest that Dr Maskivker considers inadequate.

In the modern world many elections are close enough that there is a non negligible probability of a tie. And in the case of a tie every vote has the potential of changing the result.

Furthermore, even when one’s preferred policy option is certain to lose (or to win), the demonstration of a higher level of support can deter those who defeat it (or encourage its elected supporters) in a way that benefits the individuals who wanted it.

Ride-hailing services won’t be accessible to all | Vancouver Sun

January 21st, 2020

I think it was with good reason that BC has been slow to allow ride-hailing services to undercut the service provided by well-regulated and market controlled taxis and encourage people to jump into cars with random unvetted strangers. But I would have thought that after years of delay they would have come up with something better than this!

Source: Ride-hailing services won’t be accessible to all | Vancouver Sun

Other jurisdictions which were quicker to allow these services (such as Toronto) managed to include a guaranteed minimum percentage of accessible vehicles so how did BC manage to fuck it up so badly?

Something to Celebrate!

January 21st, 2020

It may be a “one off” in the light of recent Canadian and US decisions but let’s hope that whether or not it gets overruled this marks the trend in global jurisprudence.

Source: Swiss Judge Acquits Credit Suisse Protestors – The Energy Mix

And of course there’s also evidence that some financial leaders are thinking it might well be.

Choosing Death

January 15th, 2020

Interesting article with good comments

Source: If you could choose, what would make for a good death? | Aeon Essays

Spurious Appeals to “Science”

January 12th, 2020

Sex is complicated. Some plants require the cooperation of more than two different gametes to produce a viable seed, and some animals live parts of their lives as male and part as female while others switch sex according to chemical signals in their environment and others are hermaphroditic (and in some cases even capable of self-fertilization) while yet others are capable of parthogenesis (by means of forgoing meiosis). Among humans true hermaphrodism is rare but not unknown (though not sfaik with evidence of fertility in both directions), and various other intersex body forms can arise from genetic abnormality or fetal environment. Even more common than intersex bodies are the cases in which behavior is different from the norm for the apparent body type and/or genome. This includes both cases of gender dysphoria and exclusive homosexuality (with the latter being so common as to apply to on the order of 10% of all humans). The range of secondary sex-related characteristics is of course huge – with bearded women and breasted men being far more common than is visible after the adjustments of depilation, makeup, and clothing. Not to mention the range of other physical attributes, sensitivities, and attitudes, which, despite perhaps being distributed bi-modally with high correlation to apparent sex, are nonetheless of such variance that sex is a poor (and in any case inappropriate) predictor.

Getting back to the two most highly correlated variables (namely chromosome pattern and externally apparent genital structure), they do indeed define two non-overlapping clusters in the multi-dimensional spectrum of human sex types which almost encompass the entire species.

Because of the dominance of these two particular clusters  and because of the correlation of these clusters with variation in physical size strength and aggression (and maybe other factors as well) those who identify with the “weaker” sex may feel at risk or disadvantage when exposed to the other group in vulnerable situations or in athletic competition. As a result, certain facilities and competitions are segregated, but then the question arises of how to deal with those who, for physical or psychological reasons, don’t fit into one of those two clusters.

Some people feel genuine terror at the prospect of entering an almost exclusively male environment (especially one involving public nudity) and others feel equally genuine terror at the prospect of not having certain spaces free from people who have penises (or in some extreme cases even from people who have some secondary male characteristics despite being biologically clearly female).

Some people who have changed their social presentation want to engage in sports in the category that they identify with, but many women feel that it is unfair to have to compete athletically with people who have the advantage of having grown through adolescence with typically male bodies and hormones.

These are not easy issues to resolve, but calling the latter groups above a derogatory term like TERF (or “bigoted fuckface”) is offensive – and so too is insisting on calling the former men and referring to them with male pronouns when that is easily avoided. (My personal preference is to refer to a person by whatever pronoun she or he prefers, but if someone feels unable to do that I don’t object so long as some other way is found of avoiding the pronouns that are known to be hurtful.)

Unfortunately both sides in the “debate” are most wrong when they claim that “science” supports their view.

YES it is true that, in humans, sex is almost always binary and immutable, BUT it is not always that way and it is certainly not a universal pattern in biology.

YES there is a (multi-dimensional) spectrum of sexual categories, BUT if anything, this contradicts the idea that one not in one of the two dominant categories can be appropriately assigned to one of them (either just by declaration or by some other means).

Science does not tell us how to behave, and in particular it does not tell us how to respond to people’s desire to appropriate an identity in a way that others feel is inappropriate. What we need for that is empathy, caring, and maybe a bit of wisdom.


The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – Butterflies and Wheels

Tribal Skepticism (in the Age of Gender Ideology)

Using Phony Science to Justify Transphobia

What is happening at Unist’ot’en?

January 12th, 2020

With regard to the question of who speaks for the nation with regard to the use of its land, one answer is provided in this video:

But although the existence of a competing claim from the elected band council is acknowledged, its validity is denied without including any of their voices. And although I might prefer the position of the hereditary chiefs from an environmental perspective, I also feel strongly that hereditary (or other) authority has no legitimacy anywhere unless it is regularly endorsed by a clear mandate from the majority of the people whose lives and land it claims authority over.

If the people accept that authority, let them say so in a way that is clearly unforced like a secret ballot. Any claim to represent them without that is just as invalid as that which used to be made by the hereditary chiefs of my own homeland (where it took a civil war and a beheading to start the process of reform – which was slower but less bloody than those required in many other places).

Update(Jan15):For more perspectives see this G&M opinion piece

and this from BIV

Update(Jan24): Here is Jody Wilson-Reybauld’s view.

see also this from the National Observer

Update(Feb12): And here’s another attempt from G&M

Greenpeace also chimes in – with reference to analysis at ricochet.

Moral Foundations

January 10th, 2020

Biased presentation of a potentially good idea

Using the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, Haidt and Graham found that libertarians are most sensitive to the proposed Liberty foundation,[4] liberals are most sensitive to the Care and Fairness foundations, while conservatives are equally sensitive to all five/six foundations.[6] Joshua Greene argued however that liberals tend to emphasise the Care, Fairness and Liberty dimensions; conservatives the Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity dimensions.[17]

Source: Moral foundations theory – Wikipedia

What I find a bit offensive about Haidt’s version is the failure to recognize that the scales used to measure responses to the different “foundations” are independent.  There is really no meaning to the claim that conservatives are “equally sensitive” to all of them while liberals are “most” sensitive to the Care and Fairness foundations, since just changing the survey questions to include more extreme examples of Sanctity violations and more modest ones of Care and Fairness would have produced results showing equal response from liberals and a bias towards Sanctity among conservatives.

Also the whole model fails to distinguish between sensitivity and moral judgement.

For example I may feel disgust at things that I do not feel are morally wrong, and indeed there are cases where I may consider my disgust at something to be a moral failing on my part.

Similarly, with regard to group loyalty, I may feel that (except for the obligation to honour voluntarily accepted commitments) it is not a virtue because it limits the scope of our willingness to care for others.

Indeed if I were to adopt Haidt’s metrics then I might say that they indicate that conservatives lack a moral compass and just judge as morally good whatever pleases them, whereas liberals can distinguish between what they like and what is good. But that would be abusing the data so I won’t do it.


Can Renewables Suffice?

January 6th, 2020

A Tyee debate:

It Bears Repeating: Renewables Alone Won’t End the Climate Crisis | The Tyee

Memo from a Climate Crisis Realist: The Choice before Us | The Tyee

Don’t Call Me a Pessimist on Climate Change. I Am a Realist | The Tyee

OK Doomer | The Tyee

Other sources:

Jacobson et al

My analysis to follow (maybe)

More on Philosophical Expertise

January 6th, 2020

In the recent Aeon essay Is there anything especially expert about being a philosopher? , David Egan draws an analogy between the relationships between philosophical and scientific expertise and between acting and music. I found it interesting and potentially relevant to the ongoing furore about whether physicists “need” the help of philosophers. But am still struggling with how it fits into the mix.


January 4th, 2020

Aeon has re-circulated an essay from last March which claims that belief in meritocracy is harmful without even identifying exactly what “meritocracy” is. In order not to be accused of the same omission I will identify a meritocracy as a social context in which power, wealth and/or other rewards are determined primarily by some kind of objectively measurable and universally recognized “merit”. There are of course many potential measures of both merit and power/reward, and so there are also many different kinds of meritocracy. The Aeon article appears to be concerned mainly with rewards of material wealth, and with merit as some vaguely defined combination of innate talent and hard work but it doesn’t explicitly say so and does not acknowledge any alternatives (such as those which apply in the academic world for example).

Another major problem with that article is that, despite claiming to make the distinction between reality and aspiration, it ends up nonetheless using arguments that conflate “belief in meritocracy” as a goal and as an opinion about the existing state of affairs. It starts by proclaiming the distinction and discussing the latter, but its main goal is to denounce the former and its arguments in that direction are where the conflation occurs.

Those who believe that we actually live in a meritocracy may indeed be unsympathetic to those who are less well off (and I am not unaware of the problem that if we actually did live in a meritocracy that might lead to an undesirable level of unconcern); but in fact we obviously do NOT live in a true meritocracy (where wealth and power are determined primarily by some kind of objectively measurable and universally recognized “merit”), and so the opinion of anyone who thinks we do is, to say the least, suspect (and I hope not representative of what would actually be the response of most people if we actually did live in such a meritocracy).

But the article then goes on to assert that having meritocracy as a goal also leads to hardening of unfair discriminatory attitudes. Some of the referenced research does seem to correlate a hardening of attitudes with a belief in the goal of meritocracy, but even in that research, not enough effort seems to have been made to clarify the distinction between what is desired and what is believed to be real – nor to discount the effect on one’s attitudes of thinking about an ideal alternate world without focusing on it’s difference from our own. In particular, for example, in the study by Castilla and Benard which “found that, ironically, attempts to implement meritocracy leads to just the kinds of inequalities that it aims to eliminate” the “companies that explicitly held meritocracy as a core value” may have followed the usual corporate practice of asserting that one embodies a value and expecting everyone to agree rather than admitting that one does not actually embody that value and working to identify and correct deficiencies.

I actually suspect that a fairly subtle change of wording in some of the questions in those surveys might have had a dramatic effect on the responses and “conclusions”. (And most of what passes as social science “research” these days is similarly worthless because of the ease with which minor changes in protocol can be used to manipulate whatever outcome one desires to “prove”.)

What in my opinion is harmful about belief in a certain kind of meritocratic ideal is the lack of concern for the hardships of those we judge to be less deserving. But the belief that only those with some level of merit deserve a reasonable life is only a particular kind of meritocracy and there is no indication that holding to a kinder form leads one towards the more cruel. Leaving aside the tedious debates about whether the real Bill Gates fortune is due primarily more to talent or to luck, there is no need for a meritocracy which permits such wealth to deny the provision of a respectable floor below which no person’s wealth is allowed to fall.

Conventional Wisdom?

December 27th, 2019

The previous item (about generating Carbon nanotubes etc after “burning” off just the hydrogen from methane using CO2 as the oxidant) raises a point that soot is mostly just unburned carbon and repurposing it as such may ultimately be a good approach to CO2 removal – which challenges the ideal of always demanding complete combustion.

And the same issue of Scientific American where that came up (though just in the paid promo section from Qatar) also includes a real article (by Wade Rouche in the edited ‘Ventures’ section ) which raises some concerns that have often troubled me about bio-degradable plastics (which always end up back in the air as CO2 rather than underground or on the seabed in a form which may eventually get geologically reformed into petroleum). Perhaps coincidentally(?), the first of the ’emerging technologies’ touted in that issue is the use of bio-sourced materials for the production of bio-degradable plastics – but without any acknowledgement that using those materials to produce non-degradable products would be even better.

CO2 reduction via Methane partial oxidation

December 27th, 2019

This was referenced in the promotional supplement to the Dec 2019 issue of Scientific American. The idea is to combine methane and carbon dioxide to produce just water and unoxidized carbon – with the carbon in an economically attractive form such as nanotubes or fibres. If it works, and there is sufficient demand for the product, then it could perhaps eventually pull a significant amount of CO2 from the atmosphere while at the same time providing advanced materials for high tech applications.

Source: Texas A&M University at Qatar | Researchers develop natural gas processing technology that could reduce Qatar’s carbon footprint

Here’s an earlier theoretical discussion of the chemistry involved.

Pluck or luck? 

December 7th, 2019

In Pluck and hard work, or luck of birth? Two stories, one man | Aeon Essays, David Labaree explores the role of luck and privilege in his own life.

Commenter Tom Horton asks “When you finally drop the merit illusion and acknowledge the huge role of luck in your life, what should you do about it? My own opinion is that you should share your luck as widely as possible. And I don’t mean become a philanthropist.” and Labaree replies “As you say, the first step is to give up the illusion that you earned all the social benefits that have come your way. The next step is to make this clear to others. That’s why, in the last few years, I started telling a short version of this story to my students at Stanford – a way of nudging them to reconsider the circumstances that brought them there. As you note, this is not to say they didn’t work hard to get admitted, just that there are lots of people who worked just as hard who never had a chance.”

And by telling his story more publicly, Labaree is taking the full stride of that second step – namely encouraging others to do likewise.

But there is a third step needed too. Once we have widespread agreement with the idea that inequality is largely a result of luck rather than merit (and further that having merit is itself a result of luck), then we face the question of what (if anything) to do about that.

The question then is whether and how hard we should strive to eliminate or reduce the effects of pure luck as a source of difference in human life fulfillment. Do we just accept (or even relish) the role of fate in our lives (perhaps, if on the lucky end of the spectrum, assuaging our guilt by dribbling a bit of charity down on the losers), or do we look for real ways of adjusting our society to minimize the pain that fate can impose?

There are many things we can’t equalize and risks we can’t eliminate, but the lack of early access to capital is not one of them. In the light of the fact that the vast majority of humankind’s accumulated capital wealth is the result of the thought and labour of countless generations of our mutual ancestors, and that it’s present distribution is a result only partly of the efforts of recent generations and much more on a combination of luck or theft throughout the ages, it makes perfect sense to guarantee every child access to an inheritance of a fair share of that wealth. Where should this come from? Well a tax on unfairly large inheritances would seem to be the obvious solution. And, since pre-death gifts might be used to circumvent that, it should be extended to apply to all gifts and unearned income from any source. And what rate should apply? Why not start with the same graduated rate that applies to any other income? What you want to tax the doll I give my child at Christmas? Yes, but only if the combined value of that doll with all the other gifts you and others give her adds up to a taxable income. And if you want to give your adult child an income of $100000/year rather than give it all at once when you die, then yes you will be able to reduce his overall tax burden that way (and will probably also benefit from a more gradual transition of authority if you are passing on a family business).

To my mind it has always seemed odd that our tax system privileges unearned over earned income. Does this make any sense? If not let’s put an end to it – and use the revenue to give every child a fairer share of our universal inheritance.

Is virtue signalling a perversion of morality? | Aeon Ideas

November 29th, 2019

A recent essay by Neil Levy in ‘Aeon Ideas’ asks: Is virtue signalling a perversion of morality? Here’s my answer.

From hypocritical priests and preachers to conspicuous displays of environmental concern, virtue signalling has always been part of our nature. Whether or not we are good, most of us instinctively understand the value of being seen to be good.

In my opinion, virtue signalling, interpreted as the conspicuous exhibition of virtuous behaviour for the purpose of increasing one’s own perceived value, is indeed a perversion of morality. But not all instances of moral grandstanding have a selfish purpose. Some may be intended as an honest attempt to increase public acceptance of a particular honestly held moral value. This is not in my opinion a perversion of morality (although it may, if ineptly done, be counterproductive as a result of looking like virtue signalling).
The accusation of virtue signalling may often be either virtue signalling itself and/or an attempt to divert the topic of discussion. But that is not always the case. For example the accusation of virtue signalling may be raised against one with whom we agree about the claimed virtue of the behaviour in question but whom we suspect of hypocricy in their own motivation (and so perhaps whose behaviour is undermining rather than supporting public acceptance of the position).

On Muddled Thinking

November 16th, 2019

Mathematics is a process of staring hard enough with enough perseverance at the fog of muddle and confusion to eventually break through to improved clarity. I’m happy when I can admit, at least to myself, that my thinking is muddled, and I try to overcome the embarrassment that I might reveal ignorance or confusion. Over the years, this has helped me develop clarity in some things, but I remain muddled in many others.

— William Thurston, Fields-medal winning mathematician