Archive for the ‘social issues’ Category

Legitimate Concerns and Overstated Rhetoric

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

Colin Macilwain has unfortunately marred a reasonably sensible article in Nature News by adding unsupported inflammatory rhetoric in the opening and closing paragraphs. In between these he refers approvingly to a much better article by Charles Ferguson which appeared a week earlier, and makes some legitimate points of his own about real failings of the nuclear industry (and those that dictate the circumstances within which it operates).

The comments by tas yoto and Chris Phoenix both bear repeating. (more…)

UBB – How Should Cost and Price be Linked?

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Michael Geist is concerned because internet service providers do not match price of service at all levels to its actual cost.

But when a commodity is in short supply, selling at the cost price will lead to shortages. (In the internet billing situation, users downloading tons of movies will degrade the quality of my own less demanding service)

What the ISPs are doing is aggressively penalizing heavy use in order to keep the total demand within the capacity of the system (or perhaps just to make a lot of extra money). It should be noted that despite the rhetoric this is NOT “Usage Based Billing”. It is a differential pricing scheme set to penalize both high and low usage rates.

Perhaps a fairer idea is to have true Usage Based Billing with the uniform unit price matching what the cost of  supply would be if supply were extended to meet all demand (and then get on with actually providing that extended service).

Anti-Nuclear Inflation

Saturday, March 26th, 2011

I was disappointed to see Geoff Olson’s citation  of a totally bogus figure for the number of deaths due to Chernobyl in his anti-nuclear panic piece in the Vancouver Courier on Friday.

The particular figure, which he quoted fourth hand (from another journalist’s report of a translation of a collection from various other sources), is a hundred times higher than the World Health Organization estimate. This is so far from anything remotely plausible that one suspects it may even be a misprint.

In fact the New York Academy of Sciences explicitly denies editorial endorsement of the book in question (which consists of translations from a wide variety of Eastern European sources), saying “The expressed views of the authors, or by advocacy groups or individuals with specific opinions about the Annals Chernobyl volume, are their own.”  It may have been legitimate for the NYAS to bring these materials to the attention of the Western scientific audience for consideration and assessment, but for Olson to report their most extreme assertions as fact was totally irresponsible.

And They have the guns!

Friday, March 25th, 2011

From Discover Magazine:

New Atheism=The Tea Party?

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

I do not self-identify as an “atheist” let alone a “new” one and certainly not a wildebeest (with which I only identify in the context of computer software). But having read a bit of what is written by some of those that do, and although I do find some of it excessive, I find the claim by Jacques Berlinerblau that they all “disparage all religious people, describe them all as imbeciles and creeps, mock every text and thinker they have ever produced” to be a grossly offensive lie. Such nonsense contributes nothing of value or integrity to the public discussion.

Don’t Stop Darlington

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

Here is my (slightly edited) version of the Greenpeace Letter.

Dear Premier McGuinty:

I’m writing to support your plan to maintain the nuclear option by continuing with the development of new  reactors at Darlington and to encourage you not to be swayed by ill-informed fear mongering.

Like so many others, I am saddened by the tragedy taking place in Japan, but I am also awed by the fact that 40 year old reactors have withstood the worst natural disaster imaginable without contributing significantly to the resulting loss of life. The experience at Fukushima, I believe, will provide lessons that should enable even safer designs and protocols to be applied in the future and so should encourage you to continue with your plans for new reactors.

For this reason, I oppose the calls by Greenpeace and others to stop all approvals of new reactors.

The environmental assessment hearings set to begin next week will provide an opportunity to address the capability of the proposed designs to resist the impacts of a major geophysical catastrophe and I encourage you to proceed with those hearings in order that we can have an informed public evaluation the cost and risks of building new reactors.

Most importantly, we must seriously look at continuing our use of the nuclear option as the most viable high baseline source of non-combustion-based energy.

Sincerely,

Alan Cooper

The Sine Qua Non

Friday, March 18th, 2011

. . .for inclusion in an interfaith convention is to have a representative to whom one delegates moral authority, be (s)he priest, rabbi, imam, or “secular chaplain”. But that excludes all who reject such immoral authorities whether they be true atheists or true christians (or Jesus himself for that matter).

Looking a Gift Horse

Friday, March 18th, 2011

(via Michael Geist) Some have objected to restrictive license terms on our nation’s new “Open Data Portal” which would stop someone from using the data “in any way which, in the opinion of Canada, may bring disrepute to or prejudice the reputation of Canada.” Treasury Board Secretary Stockwell Day responded to the concern by indicating that was not the intent and that the out-of-date language would be addressed. In the light of our nation’s new name, the language will be corrected to preclude any use which  “in the opinion of Harper, may bring disrepute to or prejudice the reputation of Harper.”

no analytics, :-)   ;   no conversation, :-(

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

The blog blog analytics issue means little to me as I am here mainly to clarify my own thoughts rather than to find an audience, but D’Arcy Norman’s comment that “distributed blog conversation has basically vanished” disappoints me (especially in the light of what people are trying to do in distributed learning exercises like cck11 and ds106).  Twitter and Facebook may be useful for becoming aware of new conversations but, so far as I can see, they do not provide either the opportunity for really extended comments nor the control necessary to keep track of them.

Sam Harris Responds

Monday, February 28th, 2011

In his latest Response to Critics , Sam Harris spends some (too much) time on the nutbars before getting to the serious cases like Russell Blackford.

And before starting with his main response he provides this convenient summary:

For those unfamiliar with my book, here is my argument in brief: Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, of course, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science. On this view, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

If this is accurate then I expect the answer to my earlier question is “no”, because there are no “right and wrong answers” to the question of how to relatively weigh the “various forms of well-being and suffering”.

But I’ll read the response further just in case. (more…)

Origin of Religion

Monday, February 28th, 2011

How Did God Get Started? by Colin Wells in  Boston University’s  ‘Arion’ magazine gives a part of the story but fails to address some key questions.

Value of Religion

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

The great debate between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens was a bit of a bust – with Blair citing the roles of moderate religious leaders in “bringing together” Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland (without any acknowledgement of the fact that religion itself was the defining characteristic of the warring classes).
Other discussions such as this one may have a bit more depth, but the real question is not what value religion may or may not have had in the past but whether it has any positive net utility going forward – and either way on that, whether there is anything useful to say or do about it.

Nicholas Christakis: A tale of two videos

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Nicholas Christakis  has a couple of TED videos. This one (on how social networks predict epidemics) struck me as saying something truly interesting. The fact that we can gain predictive value by just asking random people to nominate friends  as subjects rather than picking the subjects at random themselves is the kind of beautiful idea that is so easy to understand after you have seen it that you hit yourself on the head and say “why didn’t I think of that?” – but you didn’t.

whereas this other one (which is actually the one I was directed to) points to nothing that doesn’t seem to me to be trivial and essentially common knowledge. (So much so that I almost decided not to bother clicking on the good one!)

Defining Evolution

Monday, February 21st, 2011

When I read the title of this piece (Theologians Lobby Successfully to Change Definition of Evolution | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine)I was prepared to get angry. But instead I am embarrassed on behalf of those who are complaining about the change (which happened more than ten years ago).

Apparently the US National Association of Biology Teachers was persuaded to delete the word “unsupervised” from the following statement:

The diversity of life on earth is the result of evolution: an unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable and natural process of temporal descent with genetic modification that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.

Now apart from its awfulness as a bit of language this is indeed wrong on several counts.

Perhaps most importantly, it appears to deny the predictive capacity that is essential for a “scientific” theory. In fact, the theory of evolution does have some predictive capability (though albeit of a stochastic nature). So the unqualified use of  “unpredictable” must be inappropriate.

Also, although it does not require supervision or purpose, the theory of evolution makes no statement regarding their absence. So to include the word “unsupervised” was indeed just plain wrong. (more…)

The Case for Play

Monday, February 21st, 2011

The Case for Play – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“OK kids, you can stop your creative paper folding exercise now and the monitor will collect your products for evaluation. And now, let’s take a break from all that with a quick game of Drill’nKill!”

Many traditional children’s games have a high level of rote learning and/or rule-based behaviour.

Most scientists consider their nominal work to be a form of play.

It’s all in the attitude (which is hard to define and quantify), and I suspect that a lot of educational “research” is confounded by subtle infections of attitude which dominate whatever effect is purportedly being observed.

“The Belief Instinct”

Monday, February 21st, 2011

Jesse Bering’s “The Belief Instinct” is described as an exploration of possible sources of religion in cognitive tendencies towards a sense of being observed even when we have no evidence for it. To support this idea he reportedly both cites experimental evidence and postulates evolutionary explanations – which lead him to identify “adaptive illusion” as being behind the development of religion in our species (but I suspect what he means is  that it is just a susceptibility to  illusions of being monitored rather than any specific illusion itself that may be innate).

Apostate Theocon Damon Linker, writing in The New Republic, finds all this “marvelously informative and endlessly infuriating“. He says he does not like the mix of  “experimental data about modern civilized human beings and groundless speculation about our evolutionary ancestors“, but what he is most upset about is his belief that if we accept Bering’s thesis then a “possible consequence is that we will take his arguments to heart and seek to live truthfully, without illusions—which in this case is to say, without shame.” And by the end of the review has worked himself up into quite a state of angry confusion and despair. But I think he misunderstands the implications. Giving up and/or resisting the illusion of oversight by an external god-like being does not mean giving up the moral values that entity is presumed to enforce (or the fear of incurring our own self-disapproval and/or of having bad behaviour noted and reported to our peers). So there is no reason to believe that we must either “begin shamelessly shitting on ourselves in public” or be subject to “sustained, ongoing, irredeemable self-deception“. There really is an honourable and moral alternative.

Learning Theories

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

In all of my efforts to participate in Connectivist MOOCS (#CritLit2010, #PLENK2010, #CCK11) I have run into a roadblock when discussion turned to “Learning Theories” and I have found myself unable to express (or perhaps even determine) what I want to say on this topic. My instinct is just to shout that the emperor has no clothes because none of the proposed “theories” make well-defined testable predictions, but I realize that this would be unduly dismissive of something that a lot of serious people take seriously.

Notwithstanding several helpful posts outlining the basic principles of the various “theories”, I can’t let go of those scare quotes because they don’t seem like true theories to me.

Apostolos Koutropoulos’ post on learning theories links to a video by Ian Robertson whose quick summary descriptions of various learning theories somehow caused the penny to finally drop in my mind. (more…)

This Must be Said

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

In the light of the apparent opinion of Conservative MP Ed Fast that the mere presence of a digital lock trumps virtually all other copyright rights it must be said that the only appropriate response to passage of Bill C-32 without a Fair Dealing Circumvention Exception is to advocate and support widespread defiance of the law. It needs to be made clear that if the public is expected to support the law and facilitate or at least not obstruct its enforcement then that law needs to be fair and to be seen to be fair. In its presently proposed form it meets neither of those conditions.

Mythical Myths #3 – The Concept of Race

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

Oh damn! I had no particular wish to address this until browsing led me by chance to RACE – The Power of an Illusion at PBS where a bunch of well intentioned people are discrediting anti-racism by associating it with a poorly argued denial that a meaningful concept of race even exists.

It is indeed popular these days among those who don’t like the way that it has been used to assert that the concept of race does not correspond to anything scientifically definable and so is a “myth”, but this is really just wishful thinking and the idea that race is a myth is itself a myth, which makes race another example of what I identify as “Mythical Myths” (ie attempts to identify as myths things which really are real).

It is true that the concept of race may have little utility in human affairs, and whatever utility it does have may be more negative than positive, but it is silly to deny that it has any meaning at all. Whether desirable or not, it is a fact that most people can quickly and correctly identify the ancestral continent (and maybe even a much more specific territory) of a significant fraction of those they meet. This is because isolated populations over many generations do develop observable differences in appearance (and perhaps other factors as well). The fact that the classification of people into races is not complete or 100% reliable does not make it meaningless or undefinable. For example (just to make the point and without expectation that it will be useful for any other purpose) the following might be a reasonable “scientific” definition:

A race of strength s is a human population which has been sufficiently isolated for sufficiently long that (through either just random genetic drift or perhaps sexual selection or evolution in response to local environment) its members differ in their mean value of some computable combination of measurable characteristics from the global mean of non-members by more than 2s standard deviations.

(So if we use the criterion of guessing that a person is of a particular race of strength s if that person’s measurement of the relevant parameter is within s standard deviations of the racial mean, then for a race of strength 2, assuming normal distribution of the parameter, a randomly chosen non-member has only a 2.5% chance of being misidentified as a member of the race, and similarly for strength 1 the chance of misidentification of a non-member is about 16%).

Of course not everyone will have an identifiable race, and with reduced isolation it can be expected that the “strengths” of all races will decline over time, but I am sure that it will take at least several more generations before it is impossible to say with confidence of at least half of the people we meet that they have at least one ancestor within the past twenty generations who lived in Africa, Asia, or Europe. And it will be a very long time before we cannot identify for at least some individuals much more specific ancestral histories just on the basis of a quick visual inspection. In the meantime it may be socially harmful to pay much attention to these possibilities but it is foolish to deny that something is possible just because we don’t want people to do it.

[1] The above-linked PBS site attempts to justify the claim that “Race has no genetic basis” with the explanation “Not one characteristic, trait, or gene distinguishes all members of one so-called race from all members of another so-called race.” That this second statement is probably true does imply that no race is defined by the presence or absence of a single gene, but that is not the only possible genetic basis for a classification scheme. It may well be that our identification of a person’s race (when possible) is by reference to a combination of several characteristics – each of which may result from the activation of a multitude of genes and indeed the suggestion that a characteristic not linked definitively to a specific gene “has no genetic basis” is so simplistically wrong as to completely discredit its proponent.

[2] A “quiz” associated with the site includes the question “Which of the following is likely to be your ancestor?: (A)Nefertiti, (B)Julius Caesar, (C)Qin Shi Huang – first emperor of China, (D)All of the above, (E)None of the above.” with the answer given as (D) on the basis of a silly argument about numbers of ancestors which neglects the effect of isolation of populations.

Obama Leadership “Tested” by Egypt

Tuesday, February 15th, 2011

A good part of my recent visit to Toronto was spent glued to the news coming out of Egypt. Then on Thursday, Mubarak finally addressed the  nation –  and failed completely  to satisfy the demonstrators. But by the time I read the headline in the Globe and Mail on Friday announcing that he would stay, the announcement that he would actually quit had already been made (sometime while I was in the air the previous evening and apparently too late to make the morning paper). Subsequent news stories were all about the celebrations and implications of the “new regime” with surprisingly little about the timing and process of the change of heart – though I eventually did find a blow by blow account on the BBC website.

Of course, any enthusiasm for the result must still be tempered by uncertainty about what will really happen and whether or not the democratic spirit will survive the stresses of inevitable failure to fully meet the expectations of all and to actually solve the structural economic problems (many of which are due to external causes beyond any national control).

But what does not need to be tempered is our admiration for the way the people of Egypt have handled themselves so far. The thuggery that  has occurred has been little beyond what one would expect of disappointed British soccer louts or Canadian hockey fans, and the restraint of the military (both soldiers and leaders) has provided a model that could improve the behaviour of our own guardians of “order” at events like the G20 last year.

A couple of factors worth noting by way of partial explanation (but without significantly detracting from the huge amount of credit due to both protesters and militars in Egypt) is the almost complete absence of serious weaponry outside the control of the military and the dependence of that military on American approval for funding. Despite appearances (and his last ditch attempt at defiance), Mubarak’s power has always been subject to military approval and the military has always been highly dependent for both resources and training on its American counterpart. And so Obama’s pleas for restraint on all sides may well have helped ensure the victory of progressive elements in any debates that occurred within the regime side of things. An anti-colonial cynic might say that Obama was “running” the military and Google was “running” the protesters, but I prefer to believe that they were all just significantly more humane and enlightened than some of their contemporaries in other places.

Remarkably some idiots in the US media are now second-guessing the public pronouncements of the Obama administration (notwithstanding their complete ignorance of whatever was being said in private) – even to the extent of believing in some cases that he had “told”  the Egyptian administration to have Mubarak to resign (or for those who did not hear him that way wishing that he had been firmer about it). Of course any such “telling” would have been totally inappropriate and an almost inevitable cause of future resentment, so anyone who thinks he did so would actually be best advised to say as little as possible about it.