Is Bio-Degradation of Plastics Really a Good Thing?

Saturday, November 7th, 2015

According to conventional wisdom (as expressed in 'Seriously,Science?' at discovermagazine.com):

We all know that plastic is generally terrible for the environment because it doesn’t biodegrade, and just sits in landfills.

But why is having carbon locked up in relatively small known locations (rather than oxidized and maybe even methanized into the atmosphere and/or distributed widely in micro-particles of unknown toxicity) to be considered as "generally terrible for the environment"?

Source: These plastic-eating worms could be the solution to pollution.

Can neuroscience explain consciousness?

Friday, November 6th, 2015

I think I would define consciousness in purely computational terms and I don't think I'd make it dependent on the specific structure in which the computation takes place.

eg, perhaps: "An entity is said to be 'conscious' if its state changes according (at least in part) to a computational process in which the input data includes a partial model of the state of the computational process itself."

Source: Can neuroscience explain consciousness? | OUPblog

This Shameful Tactic Cannot be Allowed to Succeed

Saturday, October 10th, 2015

Dear Conservative Canadians,

I share the fear of masked figures that is common in our culture, and I am more inclined than most to be put off by overt displays of religious and other affiliation. But the attempt to reduce  our political debate to the level of such feelings is so shameful that it must not be allowed to succeed.

For many the niquab is an imposed symbol of male domination, but for others it is a choice based on feelings of religious commitment or maybe even just on a learned sense of what I would consider excessive modesty. But however little I empathize with the particular motives, the idea of forcing a woman to reveal herself when she does not want to feels like a kind of sexual assault.

As conservative commentator Andrew Coyne has pointed out, over the past  years there have been just two women who felt unable to expose their faces in public an so were permitted to do so in private rather than during their actual citizenship ceremonies.

The cynical attempt by our current ruling party to make an issue of denying such women the right to citizenship without public violation of their privacy is something which will disgrace all of us if it is successful - or even if it seems to have been successful. So it must be made to fail.

The biggest factors contributing to our economy are external, and the actual differences between our parties on economic issues are minor compared to the harm that could be done to our social fabric by this kind of xenophobic bullying. So if you can't bring yourself to vote for any of the alternatives, then please just stay home on the 19th. Don't shame yourself by supporting the man who would make us a nation of small-minded bullies.


Our history proves why racial and religious division is dangerous.

Source: Harry Smith: Harper's Cultural War on Muslim Women Must End | The Tyee

Can the UN Combat Climate Change and Also Provide Energy Equality to All?

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

From Charles Kenny of  the 'Center for Global Development', writing in The Atlantic:

Those who are anti-coal, anti-gas, anti-dam, and anti-nuclear when it comes to energy development in the developing world are implying that people there shouldn’t use electricity at nearly the level or low price that Westerners do. This, in turn, denies people safety, security, longevity, and comfort.

Source: Sustainable Development Goals: Can the UN Combat Climate Change and Provide Energy to All? - The Atlantic

From 'axe the tax' to 'climate consensus': Looks like Bill Tieleman has more to answer for than just his shenanigans here in BC

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

From Alex Frankl in The Guardian (referring to Tony Abbot's anti-environmental success in Australia)

"After years running focus groups I’ve learned one thing: technical terms like ‘carbon’ and ‘emissions’ can never win against a simple story about tax"

except here in BC where Tieleman invented this regressive "populist" message and managed to turn it into a (well-deserved) loser for the NDP.

Philosophy Has a Problem With Expertise

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

So begins Matthew Beard's response to Stephen Pinker's recent article  about the effect of intrusions by "bioethicists" into decisions about medical research and practice (which all came to my attention via Russell Blackford's response to the response).


Hyperbolic and exponential discounting

Friday, April 10th, 2015

In his post on Hyperbolic and exponential discounting, Murray Bourne objects to the comment by 'kissmetrics' in Six Advantages of Hyperbolic Discounting that "the phrase hyperbolic discounting is despicable jargon".

But actually I tend to agree with that judgement - though not to the credit of the 'kissmetrics' author. ...more »

France Leads Again!

Friday, March 20th, 2015

France has log been a leader in finding and using alternatives to Carbon combustion, and also in legislating against potentially dangerous extraction schemes such as fracking. And now that solar technology has become cheap enough to make sense in many contexts, France appears ready to back it with legislation rather than bribes.

But in the article France Says New Roofs Must Be Covered In Plants Or Solar Panels (at ThinkProgress), ends with a weaselly remark that "France has lagged behind other major European countries like Germany, Italy and Spain in solar power development. As of last summer, France had just over five gigawatts of photovoltaic capacity, accounting for around one percent of total energy consumption. Germany has nearly 40 GWs installed. France is heavily reliable(sic) on nuclear power for its energy, and nuclear generation in 2012 made up about 83 percent of the country’s total generation." So Germany's solar effort, being about 8 times that of France, displaces about 8% of its Carbon combustion - which France has beaten by a factor of ten by going nuclear. Some laggard!

Finland Understands Fairness in Punishment

Friday, March 13th, 2015

Finland, Home of the $103,000 Speeding Ticket — The Atlantic.The clearest case for this is in cases where there is a fine or jail time option. Why should the poor suffer loss of a much greater fraction of their entire lives than the rich for the same offence? But total assets should figure in as well as current income, and the same principle should apply to corporate wrongdoing - with the penalty being conversion to the state of a fraction of total equity (including voting rights) comparable to whatever the jail term for the same crime would be for a guilty individual as a fraction of an average expected lifetime.

How to Live Like a Stoic

Wednesday, March 4th, 2015

Massimo Pigliucci has a new blog about his experience of following a "stoic" philosophy.
My goal in following Massimo is not to become a Stoic but just to get a better understanding of what it means, and in particular how the attribution to Stoics of faith in the Logos squares with the often expressed idea that they didn’t hold to an objective moral law.
As one who strives to live "according to positive values” but “reject the idea of an objective, universal and unchanging moral law”, I don’t see any contradiction there. But given how often people claim to see one, I will be interested in leaning more about how the classical responses to that perception compare to my own. ...more »

Many Worlds Links

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

In case this OneTab shared tabs page doesn't last here is my local version of the links.

What does the "Many-Worlds Interpretation" of Quantum Mechanics even mean?

Saturday, February 21st, 2015

Sean Carroll identifies some Wrong Objections to the Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, which is fine but I'd rather he addressed some of the better ones.

I have always thought of (my own experience of) the universe as corresponding to (a very small part of) one particular configuration of a stochastic system, and that having a theoretical model for that system allows me to predict conditional probabilities of certain features (measurements) given others (state preparations). I suppose other configurations could be regarded as alternate worlds which *could* in some sense exist. But why is it necessary (and in fact, what would it mean) to suggest that they *do* exist?

Oh dear! Now I feel a little Feynmanesque "poem" coming on:

We don't know the meaning of "meaning",
And we don't know the meaning of "is".
So how can we possibly claim to know
What the meaning of  "the meaning of "is"" is?

What's in a Name?

Sunday, February 8th, 2015

Shadi Hamid and William McCants (of the Brookings Institution) object that "John Kerry Won’t Call the Islamic State by its Name Anymore". The article contains two arguments, the first very bad and the second very good.

The good argument is that no non-Muslim has any business dictating what is or is not "true Islam". It may be fine to report on one's understanding of what the majority of Muslims seem to be saying on the matter, but to put that in the form of an authoritative declaration is both patronizing and ridiculous.

But the idea that this forces one to accept the self-declared "name" of an organization is also ridiculous. If the LRA had decided to call itself "Christians of Africa" would anyone seriously think it appropriate to go around saying "the Christians of Africa must be destroyed"? Of course it is appropriate to refuse ISIS the dignity of calling it "The Islamic State", and indeed to accept that designation is an insult to the many Muslims who do not accept it as such. (But of course this refusal can and should be done by reference to the requests of other Muslims rather than to one's own position on what is "true Islam".)


More on Zealotry

Sunday, February 8th, 2015

The proper response to Islamic Zealotry (including some criticism of Walzer's position) has also been discussed (again in 'The Atlantic') by Shadi Hamid with particular reference to the situation in France.

Hamid points out some of the real inconsistencies in the French (and much of the European) position, but his analysis also seems to me to be dangerously off-base in some respects.

Christians Enraged by Obama's Failure to Demonize All Muslims

Friday, February 6th, 2015

Apparently the conservative pundits and right wing religious types are all excited about President Obama's having mentioned that using religion to brutalize other people is neither a Muslim invention nor foreign to the American experience.

According to ThinkProgress, Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said, “The evil actions that he mentioned were clearly outside the moral parameters of Christianity itself and were met with overwhelming moral opposition from Christians.” Would that be the same Southern Baptists whose very raison d'etre was to split off from the main Baptist Church in order to allow their preachers to be slave owners (and who continued resisting integration right through the 1960's)?

See also Ta-Nehisi Coates' take on this, and also Jim Fallows, at The Atlantic.

The Media analyses Varoufakis' wardrobe

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

The European has an article on the new Greek finance minister - which apparently picks up on a report in The Guardian. There is also news about his discussions with Osborne and other Euro finance ministers but in a profile of the man I would have liked to learn more about his economics background. Anyhow I guess it's nice to see even just one example of a male politician being discussed largely in terms of his appearance and clothing.

Battle of Bones

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

From Kenan Malik  comes this discussion (to me via 3QuarksDaily) of the 'Kennewick Man' controversykennewick_reconstruction (which, it seems, basically boils down to the question of whether modern indigenous tribes have a right to claim the bones of Starfleet Captain Luc Picard  - who was apparently killed by someone he came upon during a time travel excursion to ancient North America).

To what extent should people's religious beliefs and claims be given sufficient credence to interfere with the reasonable activities of others (such as the excavation of a site which any plausible interpretation of the data dates to well before any ancestors of the claimants were likely to be in the area)?

Is it perhaps plausible that North American aboriginal populations of hunter gatherers of 5 to 10 thousand years ago were so much more sedentary in their habits that they occupied the same territories for periods over which almost every other region of the Earth has been occupied by multiple different populations?

Does "respecting" even the irrational and/or harmful aspects of traditional belief systems as appropriate for some racially defined populations not insult the basic humanity of the individuals in those populations by letting them be indoctrinated as children into irrational and often racist beliefs and attitudes?

Has not the urge to throw off the chains of silly oppressive dogma been both expressed and suppressed throughout history in all races and cultures, so that the torch of enlightenment has never been owned by one particular culture and the struggle to maintain and extend its reach is not a recent "clash of civilizations" but an ongoing conflict within each culture and family, and even often within each individual?

On Zealotry

Sunday, January 18th, 2015

Prompted by Michael Walzer's piece on Islamism and the Left in 'Dissent Magazine' (to which I was led by Jeffrey Goldberg's report in 'The Atlantic' on French PM Manuel Valls' resistance to the term "islamophobia" ).

The Zealotry of Righteous Assholes

  • is a universal phenomenon to which we are all susceptible
  • is the most disproportionally visible external face of all religions
  • is also highly visible in various political tendencies
  • is often prompted by some kind of imperialist or classist oppression but distorts the response into an excuse for the exercise of excessive violence and other self-indulgent behaviour

The identification of everything that is fair and reasonable as "Western" values to which the rest of the world should not be "subjected" is a cruel "Occidentalist" echo of the simplistic and patronizing "Orientalist" attitude that was condemned (and arguably much too sweepingly attributed) by Edward Said.  Or, as Walzer says, “individual liberty, democracy, gender equality, and religious pluralism aren’t really Western values; they are universal values.”

The article is linked to a response by Andrew March and a reply to that from Walzer. March's response strikes me as turning Walzer on his head and interpreting him as accusing the left of refusing to confront Islamism at all, when his main thrust seemed to me just to be against the all-too-frequent pseudo-PC rejection of even appropriate levels of anti-Islamism as "Islamophobic". March correctly identifies that the problem is often "a less black-and-white disagreement about political judgment in specific contexts". And he goes on to identify the "critical motive" of those who "have expressed doubts about the applicability of European conceptions of strict secularism to Muslim countries" as "the freedom, autonomy, and self-representation of the peoples in question"(note peoples not people). But when he says that "The war against violent Islamism is taking care of itself", what he really seems to mean is that it is just fine to let it be handled in the worst possible way - which will indeed turn it into a "clash of civilizations" rather than an appropriate level of support for those who resist zealotry wherever it arises.

In a way this argument is reminiscent of some at the height of the cold war when leftists struggled with their own kinds of zealotry and disagreed on how to respond to the errors and misdeeds of the "communist" world relative to those of our own people and governments.


On Computers ‘Learning’

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Briggs is certainly right that much of what is touted as 'Artificial Intelligence' is just the use of electronic machinery to implement the calculations in a method devised by human intelligence. Indeed, for now that really is all that computers can do. But it already goes far beyond playing optimally at tic-tac-toe (trivial) , or chess, or simple kinds of poker. Those are what attract popular attention, but they imply far less for the future than do even the earliest attempts at voice and image recognition./p>

A true "learning" program isn't just the implementation of a previously worked out method of solution to a particular problem, but takes as its input the results of its various earlier responses to similar problems and from that constructs a better solution algorithm than the one it had before[*]. This can be done deterministically by a machine, and perhaps it is only hubris that convinces some of us that what we do is qualitatively different from that.

So I think Briggs' commenter Larry Geiger nailed it with “The extrapolation from what computers can do to what some people *think* that they can do is foolishness”(emphasis added).

[*]Update(2015-01-13) - like this which coincidentally came to my attention on the morning after I wrote the above.

Suis-je Charlie? Si non, il me *faut* etre Ahmed!

Monday, January 12th, 2015

Suis-je Charlie? Muss ich Charlie werden? Why am I not Charlie?
Perhaps I am *not* Charlie, but if I am not Charlie, then I *must* be Ahmed!

I have often (well, at least occasionally) loved Charlie Hebdo with a love that brought pain to my heart (due primarily to having a diaphragm seized with convulsive laughter at the pricking of an inflated pope or politician). But I never wanted to *be* Charlie because the sharpness of his humour was often (well, at least occasionally) more than I wanted to express. Does the revolting incident in Paris now obligate me to take on a persona that is not my own in order to preserve the right of free expression?
Do I have some obligation to carry forward any benign message that is not my own but would otherwise be suppressed? What if the message was not benign? - eg if the victims were holocaust deniers?

When a man-killing lion is brought caged to my village I bear it little sympathy and in truth would dispatch it quickly if I could. But (unless I am overwhelmed with shameful revenge for attacks on my nearest and dearest) I have no urge to torment it. So when the slavering monster strikes out through the bars of the cage and catches one of the tormenting boys who have been poking it with pencils, why should I feel the need to take that boy's place and start a poking that I was not doing before? Of course I should not. But perhaps this is different. In this case the beast has a mind with malicious purpose and killed the boys as a threat to prevent others from playing a game that was doing it no real harm.

If someone uses threats to deny me the right to go where I do not now need to, does my failure to challenge his proscription encourage him to keep on expanding his claims until, when I start to feel the pinch, I discover that all my freedom to move has been taken and that the beast is engorged and empowered with resources? Do I stand with the Czechs? the Poles? or wait til the French are also gone? (Actually I guess only the first and last turned out to be feasible in 1939.)

I never wanted to draw Mohammed in carnal knowledge of a pig (I don't think Charlie ever did that either - and actually it was some Muslim cleric who circulated those images as a false purported example of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons). And I still don't want to (though I may have had a brief vengeful thought in that direction on first news of the killings). What I really want to do is draw or evoke in words an image of his spirit with a shocked look of shame and a tear in his eye[*]. Should I now be concerned that some rabid fuckhead might want to kill me for that?

Is an image of Benjamin Netanyahu's face on the head of a cockroach anti-semitic?
Would it be so if it was part of a larger image of all world heads of state similarly disposed?

Is it anti-islamic to point out that Islam is the only major religion in the modern world whose *current* adherents include a non-negligible fraction who endorse the rape of an innocent child as a punishment for some alleged offense of her parent? or which is the state religion in places where abandonment of the religion is punishable by death?

How could *any* truly faithful followers of a prophet who forbade them to idolize his image convert that proscription into the idolatrous prohibition of any kind of mockery?

[*]written yesterday, but great minds think alike:Charlie Hebdo Cover Features Muhammad Holding 'Je Suis Charlie' Sign - so, perhaps I am Charlie.

See also these links