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William Matheson's Journal

Mar. 6th, 2014

02:32 am - How Politics Might Work Sometimes

"Hey, see this thing you really value that practically everyone agrees is good?"

"Yeah?"

"I know how to " + situations[sitKey] + " for " + objectPronouns[whoKey] + "!"

"Alright! Go do that!"

situations:
   "get it"
   "get it back"
   "revive it"
   "keep it"
   "save it"
   "help it"
   "nurture it"
   "grow it"
   "stop it"
   "end it"
   "cut it"
   "defeat it"
   "kill it"

objectPronouns:
   "me"
   "you"
   "him"
   "her"
   "it"
   "us"
   "you"
   "them"


* * *

Ring. Ring.

"Yea?"

"... ... Hi. Megapolls political polling here."

"Cool. I've never met you. I like sharing my opinion. I like that you want to know my opinion. It feels safe to tell you what I really think since you're on the phone probably somewhere far away from here. What ya got?"

"We'd like to know what " + pluralize(subject.nationalDeity.denonym) + " like you think of this thing, being proposed by the " + subject.riding.candidates[max(subject.riding.candidates.party.parties.rank)].party.fullName + "."

"Oh! Yes! I want it, I want it, I want it!"

"Are you aware that this thing contains this contained-thing you might not want? What do you think of that?"

"Oh, gosh, no I wasn't aware. I don't think I want that contained-thing because I think it does things to things I care about."

"Are you aware that this thing also contains this thing most people don't want? What do you think of that?"

"Oh, no, no, I definitely don't want that. Most people don't want that and I think when most people are set about something, most of the time most of them are right."

"Are you aware that this thing also contains something potentially nobody wants?"

"Might be impossible, and you'll never really know it's nobody."

"Close to zero."

"Fine then. And I'm gonna bet against it being true. For self-defence."

"Even though you'll never know it's true, if it is true?"

"This particular thing seems so unlikely to be true that it's better for my worldview that it isn't true."

"Maybe you're just afrai-"

"Whatever! I don't want it!"

"Now, we're asking again, just to make sure we got that right the first time, what do you think of this thing?"

"Well, you know, now that I think about it, I don't think I want that thing after all. I don't like all the things that go with it."

"By the way, if the election were held today, would you vote for a " + subject.riding.candidates[max(subject.riding.candidates.parties.rank)].party.shortName + " candidate?"

"Oh, no. No."

"Would you vote for a " + party[client.partyCode].shortName + " candidate?"

"Yeah, I suppose."

"Please rank, in order of preference, your candidates:"
PRINT name, party.shortName FROM subject.riding.candidates
    WHERE candidate.party.isMajor ORDER BY client.party.parties.rank;


"Uh, well, that last party, put it last. I guess that first one is okay to go first. What were those parties again?"

* * *

All sides may do this. Perhaps in some beautiful country (of the mind), most sides don't do this. If there's a side that's true, and perhaps true yet with no necessary thanks to their advocating, the side that's true may do this.

As soon as you realize what persuasion like this is, you may decide it's unethical to do it, and you may even try not to. This is why we are ruled by lawyers and not by political scientists. j/k

Not all politicians operate this way! And it seems possible that some who do would do it only sometimes. But if you don't know what they're doing - and, potentially worse, if they don't know what they're doing - you may be more likely to run aground in the Sirenusas.

My position on omnibus legislation, and it's unavoidably a position, is that the risks don't justify the expediency, unless the expediency is to obviate a much greater risk. And sometimes we can be mistaken about risks to the point where we feel them to be much greater than they are. (And then there's the matter of untangling the intrinsic and extrinsic factors behind the risk.)

Tags:
Current Location: Sherbrooke, NS

Feb. 8th, 2014

04:42 pm - 22½ Responses to 22 Messages from Creationists

A response to "22 Messages From Creationists To People Who Believe In Evolution", compiled by Matt Stopera

(There are other responses. I'm going to avoid reading them so that I get the full exercise of writing this.)

I've been really 'lazy' about writing lately - it's so easy to write comments and preface tweets and Facebook posts of other people's articles that generally I feel like I get my voice heard to my satisfaction. Here, though, is a gift handed to me: 'All' I have to do is respond to these 22 points. A Facebook comment just won't do - this is far too important. Think about it and have your say, too.

What I am not doing here is saying you should not believe in a divine creator. You are entitled to that belief. I suppose you are entitled to any belief excepting things comparable to "it's okay for me to intimidate or kill Will"i but even then if you really wanted to hold one of those kinds of beliefs I couldn't stop you. But in this case you're also entitled to a general creator belief because we can't say there wasn't one.

If you're satisfied with that, go ahead and skip to the responses. But if you'd like to know why I am saying that we can't say there wasn't a creator and what that means, stay here.

If you're someone who observes a distinction between stories and evidence (e.g., data), it's straightforward to assert that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But the rejoinder is that it isn't evidence of presence either.

"No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion."


Consider the famous black swan argument: There is a (metaphorical) pond full of white swans. Can we say that all swans are white? The black swan could have flown off before you showed up. And even when you record in your diary, "Well, it looks like all swans are white," a black swan could return or, for biological reasons (if you'll pardon this sudden concreteness), emerge from the whites! We can't really prove beyond any question that there are no black swans, because we can't monitor the pond perfectly from the beginning of the pond to the end of the pond. But one black swan, and boom! There goes the "All swans are white" idea.

Yet you can visit a small pond and count the swans. You can do this and be fairly certain that you're correct, and you can say they're all white. Not that there are absolutely positively no black swans anywhere, just that there are no black swans in this pond right now. You could repeat this all over the world and find no (metaphorical) black swans. And you'd say, "Gee, it looks like there aren't any black swans, and we looked everywhere! I guess all swans really are white, but I'm open to changing this view if I see a black one. I'm going to say 'All swans are probably white. There are probably no black swans.'" Okay, perhaps I'm projecting my pedantic tendencies onto you.

So hopefully now you understand the wiggle room here. I have to leave room for you to believe in black swans because, well, maybe they're rare. Like really rare. I can't be 100% confident that they don't exist, but at the same time I can be practically 0% confident that they do, yet open to recognizing one if it comes along. Here's an example of something in which you might have nearly 0% confidence: Dodos still walk on Mauritius! It's possible that aliens came down and gave them cloaking devices, isn't it? Of course, it seems really really really really really unlikely. But show me the invisibility cloak and you've got my attention.ii Show me the evidence. (Though, to be fair, a creator God sounds much more reasonable than cloaked Dodos on Mauritius. Anyway, you probably don't need me to tell you why you have a leg to stand on for believing in God!)

And why should we give a care about science or evidence? In my opinion, it's because, together, they get results! Thought-provoking ones. Life-saving ones. Useful ones. We can use science and evidence and thinking to make things better for ourselves (broadly, as a human family). And if we can, I think we should. And that's it, that's the axiom I'm supporting. Now some people think there are things that people can do (that may happen to inflict misery on small or grand scales in this life) that will get people a better shot in the afterlife, so those things should be done. Depending on what those things are, this can be a problem. Anyway, if you're not one of those people who will use the afterlife end to justify all means on people other than yourself, let's carry on. If you are, remember that it's possible to be convinced to all get out and still be wrong. How do you think those other people who aren't in your religion feel about their religions? In cases where aspects of the religions in question are mutually incompatible (which is common among sects), how do you know you're the one who's right?iii

Beyond that attempt to appeal to common sense, I can't use evidence to tell you why you should value evidence. (In that sense, there is a leap of faith of sorts, see response #19.)

Note: On the questions, I've modified the punctuation a teeny bit and corrected two there/their errors plus one spelling error.iv

1. "Bill Nye, are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way?"

"Bill Nye the Science Guy" was a little bit flashy and corny for my tastes at the time, but my cousins seemed to think it was awesome. Not like Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty awesome, but more like How Stuff Works awesome, or Curiosity awesome, except with corny music. I didn't have cable growing up so I only saw Bill Nye's show a few times when staying with my cousins, but I did have access to a goal-similar Canadian show: Richard Zurawski's "Wonder Why". Scant information is available about it since it was pre-widespread-internet, not to mention that it was produced in Halifax!v

In this video, Zurawski explains his societal role as a science communicator (distinct, as he points out, from performing science). Make a preacher analogy if you must. Ask why even advocate for science at all.

Well, I think science is good for us inasmuch as curiosity is. Children start out curious and then it often gets beaten out of them literally or through boredom. If it's not on the agenda, it doesn't matter. If it's an uncomfortable question, it shouldn't be asked. Today we're making Snoopys.

By allowing your children to be interested in science, or even (gasp!) encouraging them, you give them a chance to put their oars in the waters of the world and help make things better for all of us. By helping them develop their capacity to think, you will help them weather the storms of life.

Generally, I'd say those are positive things. Yes, a few people do terrible things with their intelligence. People also do terrible things out of ignorance. It's also, in principle, more challenging to do things effectively from ignorance. Pure intelligence and reason alone might not be enough to live peacefully, though, so by all means, let's hang onto what we're pretty sure are necessary ethics.vi

2. "Are you scared of a Divine Creator?"

I might be. For me, it would be a tremendous shift onto a whole other axiom and, consequently, system of thought. I'll tell you what it was like for me going the other way - it's scary to think that there isn't a divine plan (any plan that accounts for butterfly flaps in Mumbai as well as the Holocaust requires too much over-backwards-bending for my tastes) and, even scarier, that I am a forgettable piece of the (material, at least) universe. It took me a long time to get used to that.

Maybe we do go somewhere when we die. If that's the case, I look forward to finding out. It would also seem to be unfair that any transgression at all not paid for through sacrifice or salvation would result in eternal torture or oblivion.

By the way, if someone asks who am I as a human to question the ethics of God, who am I as a human to decide to promulgate my conception of the ethics of God? Are not "always doubt" and "always accept" equally problematic? And it was certainly mere humans who wrote the scriptures. Give them credit for believing they had a direct, interference-free line to the big guy, but as you're well aware people can be mistaken about just about any belief. Anyway, let's keep going.

I think at play here is a reverence for authority. It's all too common throughout the natural world, let alone humanity, and you gotta obey or else. But it must be (or at least have been) good for us as a whole, or we wouldn't have had it unless the cost were trivial.

Fight for us, and you'll go to a paradise of everlasting joy. Disobey usvii, and not only can you go to hell, you will go to hell. How this theme is similar through many conceptions of the afterlife is interesting, although they aren't all this way.

3. "Is it completely illogical that the earth was created mature? i.e. trees created with rings... Adam created as an adult..."

It's not so much illogical as it is extremely, extremely unlikely given what we're pretty confident we know.

Let's start with the idea of the Earth being created mature: You might be interested in Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything". In it you will see, in plain terms, how the estimations of science aren't arbitrary hocus-pocus. It is incredibly fascinating, for instance, how determining the age of the earth dovetailed with discovering that having lead in automobile fuel was very, very bad for us. Definitely check out this book - I guarantee it will dispel any notion that science is some kind of conspiracy. It's also (often darkly) hilarious how frequently human factors got in the way of science.

Back to the Earth. We know that the Earth is really, really old. Meteorites were used initially, though accepting an estimate that way requires assuming the whole solar system formed at pretty much the same time, to come to the estimate that it's 4.55 ± 0.07 billion years old (see endnote ix for more on numbers like this). The earliest lead ores we can find on Earth that also formed on Earth give a date of 4.54 billion years old. Anyway, this means that the Earth had lots of time to mature.

We know that distant galaxies are running away from us at breakneck speed - the farther away they are, the faster they go. We're pretty sure the universe itself is expanding, which led us to think that space itself may have been all together at one point and expanded from there, the "Big Bang" you've probably heard of. We've been talking about fundamental assumptions quite a bit already: for the Big Bang, there are two basic ones at the root of it, and they're in turn being tested. They're basically "stuff works the same way no matter where you are" and "there's nothing particularly special about any particular vantage point".

Looking deeper into the universe means looking farther back into time, and we can actually see galaxies forming, and we can see stars forming relatively recently and relatively close to us. Older stars tend to be more formed of very basic elements - hydrogen, helium - but newer ones have heavier, more complex elements too - carbon, oxygen - the kind of stuff you need to make planets. (We get compositional information like this through spectroscopy.) We think some really big older stars generated the heavy elements and stars like are Sun are a few generations removed, having formed along with some of the detritus of those expired old stars. As for how star systems form in general, there's a model. It has details, and they're way over my head.

Putting the pieces together, we have a basic narrative of how our own solar system formed, and we have evidence to support it. The experimentalists and the theorists talk to each other, and a defensible consistency is critical. When something doesn't go according to predictions, you may have discovered something new, but you may also have screwed up. (Usually, you screwed up. Try again.)

It's far more likely that the Earth formed, as all things form, and wasn't merely plopped into place. As far as trees and Adam go, I would make the same argument - things kept right on forming: galaxies, stars, planets, life, and beings like us who are wondering about it all. If you're interested in a non-trivial but accessible biological history of how we got to be us, check out Carl Sagan / Ann Druyan's "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are". Fascinating book. Life itself, the emergence of sex, homogeneity / heterogeneity... there's a great deal of interesting stuff there.

4. "Does not the second law of thermodynamics disprove Evolution?"

No, because a local increase in complexity and output isn't going to violate this overall principle. And as I read here, this is for closed systems. In such systems, things will tend to get more disordered and random as time goes on. But the Earth is a huge open system, getting input from the Sun literally all the time.

Still, the free lunch will be over eventually as the Sun gets hotter (too hot for us unless we move the Earth farther away from it) and runs out of hydrogen and starts fusing helium. And then even that will puff, and much much later the last stars will finally puff out, and all that's left will be a cold, dark, essentially motionless universe. Maybe, it's not settled yet. And that's assuming something else doesn't happen first.

I would actually love to be convinced, then, that this is not all there is, since there is seems like there'll be an end to what we know there is. Though there's just so, so, so, so much that it's not worth losing sleep over. Maybe we get reincarnated into other universes or something.

5. "How do you explain a sunset if there is no God?"

With findings from astronomy and physics, God or no God. Though in my case, poorly. I hardly know anything about sunsets and I'm only an astrophysics dropout. But taking the introductory astronomy courses for science students had enough simple homework problems and telescope usage to get me looking at the sky in a different way.

The sun sets because we're spinning to turn ourselves away from it, so to speak. (Or back towards it again, if you want to consider sunrises instead. But nobody gets up early enough.) We're a big old spinning rock with hardly anything to stop us spinning, though the moon is slowing us down a bit and earthquakes can speed us up. In fact, all the astronomical stuff in the sky rises and sets - the moon, the stars, the other planets. The day-to-day motion of the moon going around the earth can be judged by, for example, its phases, but the whizzing of the earth 'underneath' it hauls it across the sky way, way faster.

We don't feel the rotation of the earth - it's imparted to us already, and you know from just riding in your car in a straight line on a smooth road at a constant speed that you don't feel a constant speed but you sure do feel changes in your speed (and direction). Hit the gas, slam the brakes, make a turn - you'll feel those things. The earth is spinning reasonably steadily, and nobody's yet reached out their hand to stop it or spin it a different way. But even though we don't feel it directly, the spin has effects on things other than the sun rising and setting - check out the Coriolis effect.

As far as the colour of sunsets go, they get more orange-y because they have more air to shine through - that is, the line of sight between us and the sun goes through more atmosphere in the evening than it does at noon, kind of like this. The crazy bright short-wave colours get knocked out en route to us, but longer-wave ones like red and orange make it through. (Chinese astronomers, with the unaided eye, were even able to note sunspots, presumably when the sun was a deep orange. If you try this and find you have to squint, stop.)

6. "If the Big Bang Theory is true and taught as science along with evolution, why do the laws of thermodynamics debunk said theories?"

The laws don't debunk the theories, and if there were a significant chance that they would, the physicists would be looking. If a thermodynamics result were able to overturn biology's evolution by natural selection, immense fame would await the discoverers, like it would if historical researchers found someone else who wrote Shakespeare's plays, or it how it does for O. J. for when he finds the real killer.

7. "What about noetics?"

I had to look up what this was. A critical problem with studying the metaphysical, if there even is a metaphysical, are legion: for me, the critical problem is they boil down to people telling stories of their experiences and using stories and beliefs to hobble together what it all means. (Imagine trying to conduct physics this way. It would be a farce.) That isn't to say story-sharing and metaphysical inquiry shouldn't be done, but it should be seen for what it is. If God isn't physical, then we probably can't detect God with physical means (at least not directly). Yet that doesn't necessarily mean God exists. Or that God doesn't. So we must leave you to be free to believe in God - the only time we're necessarily going to chafe is when we have conflicting ideas about what's appropriate to do in this life. Like about what children are permitted to learn in the schools that we share.

By all means go about metaphysical inquiry. If you can come up with something metaphysical that refutes the physical, yet also have it be a something that I could potentially refuteviii, it would be as big of a feat as my being able to use evidence to show you the value of evidence. Actually, maybe bigger. Good luck!

8. "Where do you derive objective meaning in life?"

I don't understand how this is a problem. Where can anyone honestly derive objective meaning in life? In a sense, everything is subjective - I can't even be 100.0% sure I exist, but it's so close that I think I might as well act as if I do. I don't mean all views are equally likely to be correct, but there are - probably - limitations on how certain we can honestly be, no matter what the thing is. (And how certain we can be about our certainty! And so on, if you wish to torture yourself.) You may be interested in learning about the Münchhausen trilemma.

It's nice, though, to feel like I'm part of a special plan, that I have some kind of meaning or Purpose in Life, or that life in general has a purpose. With difficulty, I can accept living without it, or at least without a baked in, pre-ordained purpose (or judging after the fact that a purpose I would be otherwise inclined to think I found for myself was actually pre-ordained). It seems to be working for me, generally. How do I know that? Well, how do you know your way of seeing purpose works better for you? I'm happy to accept a cease-fire on this unprovable point. Is there something innate about the purpose the way you view it that my failure to adopt a similar view will prevent me from reaching the heights upon which you sit? If you must, pity me and then move on.

If I have to pick something (I don't think I have to; bacteria and bonobos seem to get along fine without much evident existential inquiry ... although!), I'd say I find meaning in life through learning and discovery. I'd say I value living well, too, but only to a point - a bit of adversity is probably good for you. As the secular proverb goes, the north wind made the Vikings. These days, we Westerners are so comfortable and affluent that we have to torture ourselves.

Also, sexy stuff is pretty nice. I like that stuff. I like it a lot. I dare to think that it feels so good because it is so good. Generally. We must be careful not to do things that are innately tormenting to others, and also have a care or ten about addressing extrinsic torment before doing anything controversial.

9. "If God did not create everything, how did the first single-celled organism originate? By chance?"

Perhaps, inasmuch as it had a really long time in which to do it in. (Which isn't to say it was gradual, just that it had a long time to spark.) But it's likely not as wacky-random as, say, molecules randomly getting together to form structures. As you'd probably guess, a universe full of monkeys banging on typewriters aren't going to crank out Shakespeare even on time scales hundreds of times of timsing by ten longer than the age of the universe. (They might have a crack at generating postmodernist papers, though.) But given hundreds of millions of years, a lightning strike could hit a right puddle at a right time.

We may have had surface water 4.4 billion years agoix, but our earliest evidence for life so far only takes us back 3.7 billion years (though this piece is indirect). We have microbial mat fossils, discovered in Western Australia, from 3.48 billion years ago. So the upper limit on the time it took between surface water and life is about a billion years. But we don't, it appears to me, have a lower limit. It could have taken, let's speculate, a million years, and the rarity of fossilization and the fact that our crust gets recycled means that we'll never see it, though a very few rocks look like they're around 4 billion years old. (Given the rarity of those, it might be hopeless to find fossils of 4-billion-year-old life, even if it was abundant.)

The study of the origin of life is called abiogenesis, a huge field of inquiry, and one I personally have less than even a superficial knowledge of. And there's still lots to learn, so perhaps your children could contribute to it. There is no standard model yet for how life originates, but plenty of plausible 'non-interventionist' ideas.

You may be interested in Martin Hanczyc's protocells - globs of chemicals that behave like living cells. Deep sea vents are another origin possibility - and particularly exciting because Europa could have these too. We would, though, have to make sure any life we find on Europa didn't merely hitch a ride on a rock blasted off the Earth. Or Mars - hey, we could be Martians.

One thing about the origin of life - it may be impossible for it to happen again in the presence of established life. Not only are the conditions now not what they used to be (oxygen, for instance, is quite toxic if you're not adapted to it), but existing life is stirring everything up all the time.

Given the absence of a time machine, and, yes, the rarity of fossils (because fossilization itself is relatively rare - there are certainly many ancient species that we just don't know about at all because they didn't happen to leave a fossil or at least one that we found, and we tend to only see species that had hard parts), this is a tough row to hoe.

10. "I believe in the Big Bang Theory... God said it and BANG it happened!"

You're entitled to that belief. Even though we are starting to probe what was happening starting from (in principle) after the first 1/10000000000000000000000000000000000000000000th of a secondx (we can't directly probe earlier than that, but we have a name for that time nevertheless), we can still only speculate about why the universe goes to "all the bother of existing". The question "What came before time zero?" might not make any sense, but the question "Why have a universe?" does, even if we never answer it. (By all means, try.)

As Stephen Hawking wrote, "The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?"

Even if we have a mechanism for spontaneous creation, it still doesn't address why anything does exist, only a shade of how. Like how did we get the law that permits spontaneous creation? Somehow, "there is something instead of nothing because there can be something" is a trifle unsatisfying - how did it get so that there could be something? It's enough to make you want to go with Turtles all the way down!

Perhaps "there is something because there can be something" will just have to be our new axiom.

(I'm assuming here that you're willing to take the Big Bang more or less at face value, but attribute it to God. If you require a case to be made for the Big Bang itself, I refer you to response #3.)

11. "Why do evolutionists / secularists / humanists / non-God believing people reject the idea of there being a creator God but embrace the concept of intelligent design from aliens or other extra-terrestrial sources?"

Sure, there are probably people who don't believe in god, who may have a passing familiarity with evolution, who also believe that ancient aliens "planted the seed," so to speak. But there are lots of people who don't believe in god who believe life could have originated and evolved here. (Though it may have originated and very-early-evolved close to us instead of right here exactly.) Count me among those people, though I don't want to imply that we should accept the nature of something in a particular way just because there are other people who accept it the same way. One person or even none can have a reasonably accurate view about any particular thing. You can be the only right person in a room, though be careful about thinking you're right because other people vehemently disagree.

The origin of life on Earth is, as you might imagine, not the easiest thing in the world to investigate, so a natural temptation is to punt the problem of the origin of life somewhere else. (Though moving it within the solar system I can understand - for a while, conditions on Mars may have been better for life than they were on Earth.)

12. "There is no in-between... the only one found has been Lucy and there are only a few pieces of the hundreds necessary for an 'official proof'."

Here's a list of human evolution fossils. Lucy, though, was remarkably complete (40%).

Evolution proceeds by natural selection (analogous to the artificial selection we impose on, say, domestic dogs), but to a large extent the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" principle applies - which it should, if you're on a pattern that works. It seems that there are long periods of relative stasis - the genes really come out to play when there are stressors and pressures and doing things the same old way isn't an option. This model is called punctuated equilibrium.

So if we're looking for hundreds of forms between the earliest primates and us, we may be barking up the wrong tree. Even if the fossil record is spotty because of the innate problems with forming and finding fossils, the other forms may never have existed anyway.

You're right to put 'official proof' in scare quotes. We can only ever disprove some things (and we have to use common-sense assumptions even then); we can't really Prove™ anything. And we should wonder about assertions we can't disprove. Would you be with me if we decided, in the face of someone who said "Nothing is real," to not take that too seriously? I mean, if "nothing is real", that assertion isn't real either.xi (See also: This statement is false.)

Nothing is real and life is meaningless and why am I even writi

13. "Does metamorphosis help support evolution?"

It's a product of evolution, along with everything else of extant life. One of the remarkable solutions to emerge from the relentless selection in nature. A good reason to have it would be so that you don't have to have the young and old competing for the same resources. (More.) Indeed, sometimes the adult forms can't even eat.

Does evolution look like metamorphosis? A bit, I suppose. The line leading to the modern horse is probably our best example.

14. "If Evolution is a Theory (like creationism or the Bible), why then is Evolution taught as fact?"

There's nothing beyond "theory". Newton's universal gravitation is a theory, and we used its predictions to successfully send people to the moon - and back! Einstein's general relativity is a more nuanced theory, more broadly accurate, and we use its predictions to keep track of Mercury and get accurate GPS services.

Darwin noticed that the birds on the Galapagos more closely resembled American birds than Cape Verde birds (which resembled African birds), even though the Galapagos and Cape Verde habitats were more similar to each other than the islands to their continents. Today we have a great deal of evidence for common descent, though it's not the easiest stuff in the world to comprehend, and sometimes you have to purchase access to the papers.

If a theory makes predictions that hold, it should be taught as fac- well, as a successful theory. Theories are perpetually open to improvement, nuance, and falsification. This even happens in religion, albeit in a much more fraught manner, especially when "Heretic!" can get you killed.

There's enough evidence now that it is unlikely to simply be wrong, though we may discover additional mechanisms behind evolution - similar to how Darwin clued into natural selection, but it was later that the geneticists discovered mutation, or DNA itself for that matter.

15. "Because science by definition is a 'theory' - not testable, observable, nor repeatable, why do you object to creationism or intelligent design being taught in school?"

The theory makes predictions that need to be tested, observed, and boy howdy they need to be repeatable, and repeated. A respectable and essential part of science is taking results other people promulgate and trying to replicate them yourself so that we know the first results weren't just a fluke.

Being taught non-scientific things in school when scientific methods exist is disingenuous at best and a roadblock at worst. We have these wonderful brains, and we live in a world of instant information, easy access to data, and universities filled with scientific equipment. Let's explore! Let's make things better!

And let's say you do believe the universe was created. You can believe that and we can still live together! If you are curious about the creation we are in, why not use the tools we have, derived from creation (of the time-zero kind, for example), to investigate it to the fullest extent? The problem with intelligent design when it comes to evolution (as opposed to, say, cooking up the natural laws of the universe in the first place that would allow solutions to problems and intelligence itself to emerge from nature) is that you have to be a bit wilfully blind to take it seriously. Sure, we're all wilfully ignorant sometimes, but encouraging such wilful ignorance is placing roadblocks between us where instead we could be working together.

Science-minded people are interested in teaching fairly consistent facts about things we can know that require minimal leaps of faith. To teach things that require great leaps is getting into religion, and in the United States at least, teaching in public schools theories of nature derived from religious tenets violates the First Amendment. Of course, something merely being illegal isn't alone all the reason required not to do it. If that were the case, dictatorships could never be overthrown. But in this case, the legal foundation that allows the government to stay out of your religion also means your religion has to stay out of the government (and the schools it runs). You may or may not consider this to be fair.

16. "What mechanism has science discovered that evidences an increase of genetic information seen in any genetic mutation or evolutionary process?"

Funny thing, the genome for the marbled lungfish is bigger than ours. Way bigger. We have about 3.2 billion base pairs. Those lungfish have 130 billion. The conclusion is perfectly clear: God has amazing plans for the marbled lungfish. But seriously, it's not just the number of genes you have, it's also the order they're in and whether or not they're 'conserved', and and and and...

You can, though, get a duplication, followed by a point mutation, thereby effectively having a new gene, though what use it is will be another story. Very interestingly, point mutation occurs more often when it's advantageous! Boy, genes are shrewd little buggers! But they had to be.

There are also limits and trade-offs that we're discovering, intimating that sometimes genes are merely repurposed rather than added-on. For example, we think our particular kind of colour vision comes at the expense of our sense of smell. And we discovered with Siberian silver foxes that we couldn't breed out their aggression without also making their coats spotty.

By the way, the whole lecture series that video is from, Robert Sapolsky's "Human Behavioural Biology", is amazing - so much so that it's not going in an endnote, I'm telling you right here! Books for it are Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers (his) and Chaos: Making a New Science (James Gleick), but they're not really required if you can't get them (at your library, for example). An older version of the penultimate lecture (which didn't get taped again, and isn't in the playlist) is available here. Okay, see you in a month! :-)

17. "What purpose do you think you are here for if you do not believe in salvation?"

I don't think life needs a purpose, but I'd like to know about the causes of it and most of all the cause for having a universe, and what context, if any, we fall into. For all we really know, we're fuzzy crud on the parts in somebody's computer. Well, probably not.

As for salvation, are bacteria here for salvation? I just wonder what's so special about us, other than the fact that right now we're being us. I would love to know the mechanisms behind that - why I'm on the Will Show 24/7 and you're on the You Show 24/7. Are there any ways we can find out while still being in our present lives?

There's an idea that we're here as a lesson to the universe on "What's so bad about sin?", one that I was exposed to when I attended an explicitly Christian private school for two years. Not only do we suffer here, but we're here for suffering. This makes people double down on holding a rather dim view of the world and adherents are understandably eager to get on with the next one. At least that's how it worked for me, as I drew pictures of the apocalypse in grade 9 art class.

If we can build a 'heaven' for ourselves here, we can make the waiting for the real one you expect go a little easier. I'm willing to speculate that heaven is something we have to build if we want it, not something already out there waiting for us nor something we got booted out of. I wouldn't take any particular picture of the future too seriously or strictly, but check out the Venus Project for an example of what some people envision.

It's unlikely that we'll get truly everlasting non-stop joy, unless we're willing to re-engineer ourselves. But is non-stop joy even necessary? The point of joy would seem to be nature's way of telling you, "You done good, you done good." Unless you're unimaginably busy doing good, you wouldn't think you'd get that feeling all the time, and nature might prevent you anyway, even if you are crazy busy, because otherwise you might work yourself to death in the pursuit of joy. And even if we overcame these apparent challenges, then the joy itself might drive us nuts, if this idea from the Matrix has any meat on the bone.

18. "Why have we found only one 'Lucy', when we have found more than one of everything else?"

Gosh, we wish we had found even one of everything else. We're fortunate to have found what we have.

19. "Can you believe in 'the big bang' without 'faith'?"

No, because we need a certain bit of faith to accept any proposition whatsoever. But we can use evidence and reason and common sense to decide which propositions to accept. I'm fairly certain I'm sitting at a chair typing this. But maybe I'm in a coma and this is all a dream. Or maybe dreaming is the real world. Still, science seems to be doing a bang-up job at helping us understand this imaginary world. We can have this engagement because of it!

Over the past few decades I've become fairly certain that physics isn't some great conspiracy - it's not just a big joke foisted upon the world by people who want to look smart. It has enough consistency within it and with nature that such a conspiracy would be an extraordinary feat - of the scale where you would need a deity to pull it off! But that doesn't mean there is a conspiracy and there is a deity and the deity is doing that. It's a possible explanation, but it seems really really really unlikely (the conspiracy and the deity-running-the-conspiracy parts, anyway).

20. "How can you look at the world and not believe someone created / thought of it? It's amazing!!!"

It doesn't get less amazing as you start to work it out. Having some answers about the nature of the world just seems to lead to new questions.

As John Archibald Wheeler puts it, "We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance." (Scientific American (1992), Vol. 267.)

It's amusing and cute that people at the end of the 19th century thought the major work of physics was pretty much wrapped up. I doubt that determination will be made with intellectual honesty about any broad field of inquiry ever again. Our conceptions of things change in remarkable ways: To think there was once a time when people looked up at this and didn't know it was the center of our galaxy, or that there was such a thing as a galaxy!

21. "Relating to the big bang theory... Where did the exploding star come from?"

It's not a star exploding, it's an expansion of space out of a single point of unimaginable heat and density. But it's fair to ask why that single point came to be, or perhaps even 'where' it came from, but the 'where' might be irrelevant, or incomprehensible even if it is relevant. Also see response #10.

22. "If we came from monkeys then why are there still monkeys?"

Well, we're apes, though we do have a common ancestor with monkeys somewhere. You might also ask: If all land-living vertebrates came from amphibians, why are there still amphibians? If most multi-cellular life descended from, say, archaea, why are they still around?

The goal isn't to get to be the most complex thing around or the smartest ape in town, the (DNA's) goal is to keep the DNA going, at virtually any cost. (Yet patterns of reciprocal altruism emerged, at least among organisms that weren't directly competing. Stronger together! (Read more.) But put two organisms trying to do the same thing together, and one will eventually outcompete the other into oblivion... that is, if one or the other don't adapt.)

If you don't need to change to survive or get a leg up, you probably won't. Moreover, the thing that offshoots from you and moves on to a new niche because of the competition will leave you in yours, unless you're both packing up and leaving. I would say "leave you alone in yours," except that they may come back to eat you from time to time, so you may end up developing some interesting defences.

It could be that we got smart because there was a niche to exploit that required being smarter. Heaven help us if this opportunity happens for dolphins or other apes.

There are plenty of ideas about the nuts-and-bolts of why and how this happened - one that appeals to me is how social competition among ourselves may have made us make each other smarter. This may now be cranking into overdrive because of our media and culture.

Finally. Not only has this been the hardest thing I've ever written, but I thought it would be trivial to write! But if it were as easy as, I dunno, pouring a drink of water is for most of us, we'd all be nuclear-astro-cosmo-omni-talented-wonder-whizzes. But we can all get to be better thinkers, armed with verifiable information, and continue the work of understanding and appreciating our world. Thanks for reading.

Notes:

i. I mean, if I'm not Hitler. Actually, I don't think it's worth retaining capital punishment even for mass killers and despots. Our having such an appetite for retribution makes it less likely they'll ever surrender, and the potential rewards of becoming a dictator are so beyond imagining that you might as well pay little heed to any punishment, if it ever comes, since who gives a great care about punishing failed would-be dictators? And hey, they might actually believe they're doing the right thing by becoming the dictator.

When is it appropriate to kill? In my opinion, it's when they're on your doorstep coming to you, you can't debilitate them or debilitating won't help you, and you don't have the luxury of negotiating. If you kill people who are merely potential threats, you give everybody else an excuse to kill you just because you could kill them. It probably won't end well.

The 'die' part of "live by the sword, die by the sword" may not come about to you personally, as you can leave the consequences for others. You might be a mass-killer with a bitchin' sword who then retires in the sun somewhere, but you're giving people permission to meet your sword with their swords, and those people will still be around when you go, unless you killed every last one of them. (Please don't try this.)

ii. Though someone with such an invention may be tempted to keep it an absolute secret. As soon as somebody knows you have it and believes you mean them ill, they'll go about their business much more tightly and you'll be a pariah and end up like Gollum.

iii. A friend in high school told me, when it comes to religion and afterlife: "I think what you believe, that's what you get." It seems too idiocentric (based on ourselves individually) to be believed! But it is a mechanism for how we could all be right. For the afterlife, I can accept "everybody is right" explanations. When it comes to physical stuff, though, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the over-backwards-bending to make us all be right can put us in an untenable position. I'm sitting in a chair, but if you choose to assert that I'm standing up, I'm not inclined to entertain a philosophical framework in which I'm standing, unless we're just debating for fun. If you're interested in learning about knowledge itself, the name of the field is 'epistemology', though more 'spiritual' approaches (song) certainly exist. (For what it's worth, I love George Harrison but I don't wish to be "brainwashed too.")

It's possible that you're right and everybody else is wrong. But the more and excuses and bends-over-backwards you have to make to come out right, the less likely it is that you're right. Example: Dodo's aren't extinct, they've just been cloaked by aliens.

C. S. Lewis, in The Last Battle, paints the religion of the pseudo-Arab Calormen as being opposite to the pseudo-European Narnia's. I'm just going to quote the summary in Wikipedia:

Emeth, who expects Tash to smite unbelievers with heavenly fire, goes searching for Tash in Aslan's Country, but instead meets Aslan. It is revealed that Aslan and Tash are opposites, with each existing as the antithesis to the other. Aslan tells Emeth that 'all the service thou hast done to Tash, I accept as service done to me' and further explains that 'no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him'. He explains that Emeth's pious devotion, because it was rooted in a love of justice and truth, was really to Aslan rather than to Tash, although Emeth had not been aware of this; Emeth finds great happiness in this revelation.


Ah! So, say, Muslims are really going to be Christians in the end, they just don't know it yet! Of course!

If you want to use this kind of reasoning so that you can sleep at night without worrying about whether good atheists go to heaven, you have my blessing. Although I love knowledge and understanding, justice as we do it here has a lot of retributive aspects in it that I don't care for. I think we give people too much credit and responsibility for the weather patterns in their brains, we have very narrow views of what constitutes ethical behaviour, and we often mistakenly accept that following the law must be ethical and breaking it must not be. Anyway.

iv. Why not put things just as they were and use [sic]? Sometimes that's the right thing to do. But when the stakes are this high, it isn't the time for the equivalent of "Ha-ha-ha, they said 'their going to get there vegetables at the grocer.'" Point it out if you must, (and pointing it out isn't necessarily scorn but I'm taking the safe route anyway) but if you're inclined to be scornful you might want to consider if it's good to be the first to be scornful. There's a good little XKCD comic about this when it comes to not knowing things. If we're going to inhabit the same space, it behooves us to engage each other rather than drive people away.

v. Wonder Why? aired on CTV until 1994. Going by my memories, other 30-minute cartoon or cartoon-dramas (e.g.: Gargoyles) sprang into place for awhile. Then in 1997, CTV gutted its Saturday morning lineup and put in Disney's One Saturday Morning. I didn't like any of the shows (no, not even Recess), and although the absence of it alone wouldn't have made me not watch, I wasn't much impressed with the educational content. The most I remember is someone in a white coat saying some seemingly arbitrary fact about the natural world and then asking, head askew, "What's up with that?!" Teasing at least a little bit of what was up with that wouldn't have killed them. Though maybe I was lazy when the point was to be actively curious.

vi. Sam Harris argues in his book The Moral Landscape that there can even be a science of morality, if you take well-being of conscious creatures as the desired goal. It is likely that many of the answers of this science will match ones most religions have already found (e.g., "Thou shalt not kill." (though not necessarily with the redress prescribed there!)).

vii. 'Us' inasmuch as for this sentence I'm not concerned about from where the authority is derived.

viii. If I can't potentially refute it, I can only take it on faith. Science gets the results that it does largely because it, generally, keeps the faith axioms to a minimum. You're welcome to go beyond the scope of science in your inquiries, but taking things back to science from those voyages will be a philosophical challenge to say the least.

ix. I'm tempted to write it out: "4,200,000,000" but we're only reasonably certain about the 4 and bit less about the 2. We can deal with this by using scientific notation - take the digits you reasonably know, then note how much you have to multiply or divide by ten. We'd write 4.2 billion like this: 4.2 × 109. For when the range of certainty is required, you'll see a "plus or minus" (±) and a another number, indicating that the 'real' result is within the range of the reported number minus that up to the reported number plus that.

x. The same issues with accuracy arise with the very small just as they do with the very large. The Plank epoch is defined as zero-to-one Planck time, and the Planck time is about 5.391 × 10-44 seconds. For general-interest purposes, we can informally round that up to 1 × 10-43 (0.5391 rounds to 1), which is the 1/10000... thing I copied from WolframAlpha.

xi. Unless you get into paraconsistent logics or something. As my friend would put it, that's an exercise for the reader.

Current Location: Sherbrooke, NS
Current Mood: nervousnervous

Dec. 25th, 2013

01:11 am - NFL Week 17 TV Guide

All games on Sunday, December 29th, 2013

In the final week of the NFL regular season, all teams play, all play is on Sunday, and all contests are intra-divisional. This year, as many as thirteen of the sixteen games may have playoff implications. In the interest of simplicity, I'm going to focus mostly on what the teams in these games can get if they win. I've updated this list to include the Canadian rebroadcasters where applicable, though a good source for that week-to-week is the very useful blog A Rouge Point. If you're interested in which specific American markets are getting which games, check out 506sports' NFL map - I only include the American affiliates that reach Canada, and not even all of those, I think.

Teams in bold are playoff-bound or at least still alive, and the only one that's locked into a particular seed is Kansas City (#5 AFC). All times are Eastern. All of the AFC division titles are clinched, but none of the NFC's are. When I say "on top of that", I mean that there's something else a team can achieve provided the previous condition has been satisfied.

Early games:
NFC East:
Washington Redskins (3-12) at N.Y. Giants (6-9), 1 p.m. (FOX, incl. FOX Rochester)
Neither the Giants or the Jets qualify for the playoffs in a year when their stadium hosts the Super Bowl. If you can think of a reason to watch this game, let me know. Robert Griffin III won't be QB-ing for Washington, and depending on how things are shaping up in Tennessee, they might have a reason to push a little less (see Houston/Tennessee below)...

NFC North:
Detroit Lions (7-8) at Minnesota Vikings (4-10-1) 1 p.m. (FOX, incl. FOX Detroit, Minnesota)
This will be the Viking's last game in the Metrodome.

NFC South:
Carolina Panthers (11-4) at Atlanta Falcons (4-11), 1 p.m. (FOX, incl. FOX Boston, Spokane, Tacoma -> CTV Toronto)
Carolina has at least a wildcard - they can win or tie to win the NFC South and a first-round bye, and also the #1 seed on top of that with a Seattle loss and San Francisco win.

AFC East:
N.Y. Jets (7-8) at Miami Dolphins (8-7), 1 p.m. (CBS -> TSN2, CTV Montreal)
Kansas City is locked-in to the upper wildcard, whereas for the other spot, four teams (Baltimore, Miami, San Diego, and Pittsburgh) are playing musical chairs with one chair. For Miami to be seated when the music stops, Miami needs to win and needs a bit of help: one or both of a Baltimore loss and a San Diego win. If you're interested in scenarios with ties, check out this post on a Dolphins blog, as it includes a nifty chart. Personally, I'd be rooting like heck for Cincinnati to beat Baltimore, because you don't want to be counting on San Diego to win in the late game if they're already eliminated, which they would be if Miami wins.

AFC North:
Baltimore Ravens (8-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (10-5), 1 p.m. (CBS, incl. CBS Boston, Detroit, Spokane, Seattle -> RDS, CTV Atlantic, Ottawa, Kitchener, Northern Ontario, Winnipeg, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia)
Baltimore's easiest path to the wildcard is to win and look for one or both of a Miami loss/tie or San Diego loss/tie. The defending champions need help getting back in to the playoffs. Cincinnati is looking for a win and a New England loss to make their AFC North win also be a first-round bye.
Cleveland Browns (4-11) at Pittsburgh Steelers (7-8), 1 p.m. (CBS, incl. CBS Cleveland)
To get a wildcard spot, Pittsburgh has to win, then all of Miami, Baltimore, and San Diego must lose.

AFC South:
Jacksonville Jaguars (4-11) at Indianapolis Colts (10-5), 1 p.m. (CBS)
The Colts have the AFC South, but can also get a first-round bye with a win plus losses by Cincinnati and New England.
Houston Texans (2-13) at Tennessee Titans (6-9), 1 p.m. (CBS)
A Houston loss guarantees their first pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. If they do something silly like win, they will have to count on a Washington win because Houston would "win" a tiebreaker between the teams. More info.

Late games:
NFC North:
Green Bay Packers (7-7-1) at Chicago Bears (8-7), 4:25 p.m. (FOX, incl. FOX Rochester, Cleveland, Detroit, Minnesota -> RDS2, Sportsnet East, Citytv)
Now we're talking! The division goes to the winner of this game, and neither team is good enough to be a wildcard, so it's win-or-go-home. (Chicago could win the division with a tie, but you might have noticed that ties are rare enough in the NFL that they don't really merit much advance consideration. For the 2009 through 2011 seasons there were no ties at all!) Green Bay will know on Thursday whether or not they get Aaron Rodgers back, but I think they can win with Flynn. (Update: Rodgers is cleared to play and will start.)

NFC South:
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-11) at New Orleans Saints (10-5), 4:25 p.m. (FOX)
The Saints could be out of the playoffs entirely if they lose, but if they win they get a wildcard at least, and a Carolina loss on top of that gets them the division and a first-round bye. Carolina/Atlanta will be wrapping up when this one is getting going.

NFC West:
San Francisco 49ers (11-4) at Arizona Cardinals (10-5), 4:25 p.m. (FOX -> Sportsnet Ontario, West, Pacific)
The current NFL playoff structure favors winners of weaker divisions over stronger second-place teams in stronger divisions. Arizona is likely to be this year's victim. The NFC West can only be won by San Francisco or Seattle, and the other one will be a wildcard, and if New Orleans wins the NFC South it bumps Carolina into the other wildcard, so Arizona must win and New Orleans must lose. San Francisco, as just stated, has at least a wildcard, but if they win and Seattle loses, they get the division and a first-round bye, and the #1 seed is theirs if, on top of all that, Carolina loses.
St. Louis Rams (7-8) at Seattle Seahawks (12-3), 4:25 p.m. (FOX, incl. FOX Spokane, Tacoma)
Seattle has at least a wildcard, and with a win they would get the division and the #1 seed. They'd win a tiebreaker with San Francisco, so if they lost and SF lost too, they still finish at #1.

AFC East:
Buffalo Bills (6-9) at New England Patriots (11-4), 4:25 p.m. (CBS, incl. CBS Boston, Cleveland)
New England owns the AFC East. They can win or tie to clinch a first-round bye, and on top of that even grab the #1 seed if Denver loses.

AFC West:
Denver Broncos (12-3) at Oakland Raiders (4-11), 4:25 p.m. (CBS, incl. CBS Detroit, Minnesota, Spokane)
Denver, already owning the AFC West and a first-round bye, can finish with the #1 seed with a win or a New England loss.
Kansas City Chiefs (11-4) at San Diego Chargers (8-7), 4:25 p.m. (CBS)
Kansas City is locked into the upper wildcard seed and has nothing to play for, but San Diego has the opportunity to win themselves the other wildcard with a win and losses from both Miami and Baltimore. Those games will be wrapping up when this one gets started, so they might well find themselves in the driver's seat at kickoff... or left by the side of the road. (Update: Kansas City head coach Andy Reid says he'll "mix-and-match" starters and backups throughout the game.)

Sunday Night Football:
NFC East:
Philadelphia Eagles (9-6) at Dallas Cowboys (8-7), 8:30 p.m. (NBC -> TSN, RDS)
Chip Kelly's Eagles are so much fun to watch because they keep you guessing and they defy much conventional NFL thinking. Like the Packers/Bears tilt, this is a win-or-go-home matchup between Philadelphia and Dallas for the division title, with neither team being good enough (this year) for a wildcard. Philadelphia could also "win with a tie". Teensy little problem on the Dallas side: Their regular QB, Tony Romo, may not play - he has a herniated disc.

Sources:
"2013 NFL playoff scenarios for Week 17" - http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap2000000303368/article/2013-nfl-playoff-scenarios-for-week-17
"Cowboys-Eagles NFC East title tilt gets flex treatment" - http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/2013/12/22/cowboys-eagles-week-17-flex-schedule-sunday-night-football-nbc/4171657/

Current Location: Bedford, NS

Dec. 18th, 2013

11:25 am - "Final Prayer" by James T. Johnston

Early Monday morning, my grandfather, Jim Johnston, passed away. I thank you all very much for your condolences, and please know that we're fine, though perhaps a little emotionally fraught and also coming down with cabin fever. :-)

The trip downhill was worse than the inevitable news itself. I will probably write more about it later, as there are what I think are interesting ethical issues to cover, though I may find them interesting because it's the first time I've been faced with them. I hope to do this soon.

Here is the link to the obituary in today's Chronicle-Herald:
http://thechronicleherald.ca/obituaries/1174658-johnston-james-thompson-bell-jim

On the wall of his room, he hung this poem:


Final Prayer

Dear God, draw near to hear my whispered prayer,
Soon must I pass in keeping with your call.
Grant that the loved whom I must leave behind,
Shall weep no tears, but let my eyes bear all.

Be thou their hope, the hand that leads them on
When strength fades in the shadow of their fears;
A breath of courage to a will nigh gone,
The grace to give them comfort through the years.

Remove the veil of strife that clouds their thoughts,
"Your Peace" I now attain, my battle won.
Lord, may they hear a still small voice proclaim,
I lay me down to "sleep", thy will is done.

Enfold me Lord in your undying love,
Take victory from the grave to your control;
Forgive my debts, as you forgive all debtors,
and bless this rest, the Sabbath of my soul.

                                                     James T. Johnston

Current Location: Sherbrooke, NS

Nov. 26th, 2013

12:57 am - Our Conservative Government: It's hard to be objective

This is a summary of how I've seen the Conservatives over the years. It's worth noting that just because I dislike the Conservatives, and like the Liberals right now, it doesn't mean the Conservatives all wear devil ears and the Liberals all have halos.

I prefer Trudeau to Mulcair right now. Mulcair leads a caucus of people that includes many who got in on the brand, not on their merits as candidates for office. When it comes to policy, like the long-standing NDP goal of abolishing the senate, they publicly speak with one voice, and they've even distributed Senator "trading cards", ridiculing them and the institution, but not addressing legitimate concerns about the concentration of power in one place. Not my style.

I am a member of the Liberal party, but I don't really participate in it so much as follow it. In fact, I could not vote in this year's leadership contest that Trudeau won, because I am also a member of the Green party. Same deal there with following rather than really participating. But I get great letters from Elizabeth May once in a while. She's done just about everything one MP could ever do, and people recognize this. Imagine if there were 307 (337 after 2015) others like her. Not necessarily Green MPs, just engaged and principled ones that have a tendency to say what they mean, mean what they say, and resist prejudice. Garth Turner was such an MP for the CPC, if you can believe it, but he got in trouble for blogging and he lost his re-election bid in 2008.

I think we need our representatives to reflect our 'nobler' hearts and not our fears. The CPC appeals to prejudice instead of reason: "You're either with us or against us! Now let's put all the bad guys in jail where they belong!" (Among other things, they tried to put the word "rape" back in the criminal code even though it makes people batten down the hatches. (It also shifts the discussion from symbiotic patterns of abuse to the idea that there is one evil abuser and one saintly, innocent victim.) They also raised the age of consent to 16 because apparently people any younger than 16 would never consent to sexual activity without being coerced - or, god forbid, have their own agency and seek it.*) Teens, admittedly so far ones engaged in distributing photos without consent (like the 10 in Laval), are levied with child pornography charges - more words that make people batten down the hatches.

* - There is a closeness-of-age exception for those younger than 16. Is it a pathology for a 15 and a 21 year old to find each other attractive? We've made acting on it illegal. Oh, by the way, you have to be 18 to have anal sex if you're not married. What good does any of this do? When it comes to young people and sexuality, we tend to assume the worst.

They're also the most secretive government we've had in ages. They've held our press, a vital institution of democracy even though it isn't part of government, in contempt. They've muzzled scientists who don't want to toe the government line.

They're also taking away the ability for registered medical marijuana users to grow their own.

What used to be the banal transgression of ripping movies is handled with criminalization because we must support the 'rights' of corporate content providers. We enter into secret negotiations with other countries to consider dramatically decreasing our internet freedom in the name of security and the Almighty Dollar.

Internationally, we may have endured damage to our reputation over environmental and diplomatic issues.

The CPC cast themselves as competent economic managers (Uh-huh...), but how much should we have gone into debt for "Canada's Economic Action Plan"? As long as the 'crisis' continues, they can keep churning out the propaganda.

In response to the November 2008 fiscal update, the opposition coalesced. Harper convinced the vicereine to allow him to shut down parliament when it turned against him. God, would we love to have been there for that conversation! He shut it down again for the 2010 Olympics.

In 2011, the government was held to be in contempt of parliament.

Let's not forget Bev Oda's entitlement to her entitlements, and her impromptu interferences: "sign below to indicate you ^NOT approve".

And the Senate: Duffy representing PEI by dint of having a cottage there and claiming his Ottawa home as a home away.

And now there's the 'cyberbullying' bill. It's hard to remain objective.

"Unite the Right" Yep. At the expense of most of the moderate element of federal conservatism.

On the bright side, electoral reform is now a hot topic, because people feel that there may something structurally deficient: it's either go all Liberal, or all NDP, because Liberal / NDP splits favour the united-right CPC. We should never accept that we have to merge the Liberal Party and the NDP just over a structural deficiency, perhaps the same way that the Reform and PC parties perhaps should not have merged. Fortunately, there's something we can do to fix this, and I don't think we'll have to open the constitution. For the next election cycle, ask the candidates at your local debate what they think about voters ranking their choices in the order of preference. Like this:



Do that *before* we open the debate on proportional representation, which among other things entrenches the role of political parties since the proportional, at-large seats will be filled in using ranked party lists. It's the voters that should be doing the ranking, not the parties. (Though we could require that party lists be formed by an internal ranked ballot among party members / supporters. That wouldn't be so bad. But still, parties. Tolerate them in practice, but avoid them in principle.)

Anyway, I hope the Liberals do well in tonight's by-elections. I don't want to paint all CPC supporters as supporting all the nonsense coming from His Imperious Majesty. If you prefer conservatism, that's a-okay by me. But let's also have democracy and engagement.

Current Location: Sherbrooke, NS

Nov. 25th, 2013

08:39 pm - The 'cyberbullying bill' should explode in the hangar

"New cyberbullying bill to prohibit sending 'intimate images' without consent" (and more, much more)

I wrote this admittedly fear-motivated* letter on Thursday morning. I sent it to the Herald, but they didn't print it. Here's their opinion on the noxious 'cyberbullying' omnibus. Now here's mine.

If anything, I ought to have written along the lines of "The 'cyberbullying bill' should explode in the hangar" (they're the legislators: it should be their job to use fundamental reasoning skills to demonstrate we need this, not my job to say we don't), but I was trying to get into a newspaper, so I attempted to be charitable even though the CPC hardly merits that at this point.

The cyberbullying bill must be broken down

I am concerned about our federal government's readiness to use the seemingly noble notion of defending children as a justification for substantially increasing its surveillance and seizure powers. Effectively, we are being asked to trust our politicians not to use these powers for ill. More of the infrastructure for a police state will be present, but of course no politician has ever used the machinery of government to gain political advantage, so we shouldn't worry.

We may not even get to have a debate on whether, say, we should prosecute people for stealing cable, because whenever a politician steps behind a "Protecting Canada's Children" sign on a podium, we're expected to simply go along with everything. Putting everything into yet another omnibus bill seems to me to reflect a dangerous attitude of "You're either with us, or you're against the safety of children." No ifs, ands, or buts are permitted. It's the Vic Towes controversy all over again, but this time it might be harder to oppose because the memory of Rehtaeh Parsons is fresh on the public's mind, not to mention our present preoccupation with Senate expenses, the Senate itself, the Prime Minister's Office, Elections Act violations, and the Mayor of Toronto.

I have hope that items like the "anti-terrorisim" measures stuffed under the "cyberbullying" banner, including the ability to place tracking devices on any person or thing if it will aid an investigation, are not actually reflective of an increased threat but rather a desperate governing party, behind in the polls, attempting to appeal to part of its traditional base with increasingly overreaching "law and order" measures.

We must not sit back and take this. Even as there are people who would support every measure in the bill, I hope they also support breaking it down into smaller pieces so that we will be able to have meaningful debate.

Thank you,
William Matheson
Sherbrooke, NS

* - Wanna know something, though? We live in a country with constitutional protection of expression and conscience (among other things). So as far as being afraid to speak up? Don't speak up like you're afraid to speak up, just speak up! You can think much better when you're not trembling with fear.

Current Location: Sherbrooke, NS

Nov. 10th, 2013

03:43 pm - Automatic Writing: A frightening person from my childhood

The most frightening person in my childhood (outside my immediate family, ha-ha!) was my third grade teacher. She was imperious, insensitive, cruel, critical, nasty, petty, hypocritical, hypercorrect, frightening, mistaken, and altogether wrong, about everything. My year in her room was worse than wasted. She took all of the innocence and goodness in me and tore it up. I was damaged goods, so she'd pound on them all the harder so everybody could see I was damaged. It was the year I left behind love. It was the year I could no longer play with the girls at recess. Was it the same year I started playing with the girls at recess? Yes, it was. For a time it was heaven. Even sometimes in the classroom things were good. I remember the birthday announcements and being able to joke about girl's birthdays that I'd be invited to.

Of course I brought my share of misery upon myself. I picked my nose in the classroom. I mean, I thought I was concealing it, but Amanda wouldn't let it go. She wouldn't let anything go. I disliked her because of that, but she was never really cruel to me, she just called things as she saw them. Later she would say “Mark L.* is up to his old tricks again”, remarking on how the same patterns of torture from him and attention-seeking from me created a toxic symbiosis that readily re-established itself in fifth grade. I know now it wasn't my fault that I went through all this shit. Hell, if I knew what I knew now, I wouldn't have let them take me to school at all – they could take me to jail for all I should have cared. What would they have done, really? You've got to learn to dig in your heels. At some point in third grade I ought to have dug in my heels and said “Screw this.” But that phrase wasn't even in my vocabulary.

* - I'm not concealing his name – that's literally what we called him. We had a primary Mark all through school, a rather congenial fellow I might add. Mark L. was a sort of import for two years, grades four and five.

My first experiences of detention were from this teacher – first in second grade when she falsely accused me of throwing snowballs at recess, second in her classroom where I'd not done my homework three times. Presumably, life for her was a sick sort of baseball. I don't remember what it was I didn't do, so let's say for not doing one of the endless variations on multi-digit adding and subtracting, I ended up in the slammer – the eighth-grade classroom, at recess.

My later escapades of not doing homework and other “outbursts” and things got me into the eighth-grade classroom more and more, to be under the eye of the principal, who also taught. It was actually quite refreshing, because not only was I free from my button-pusher, I also could listen to him talk to his students about something real.

I just went and re-read a note from my grade five teacher that I'd found, typed up and put on my website. I cringe at the defensive response I wrote. (The “Shut Up Juice” part betrays that I'd been watching wrestling.) It's true that I was always looking for an excuse. I wouldn't accept responsibility for anything. Any explanation for how things go that didn't have the most flattering interpretation for me were unacceptable.

Why did I get that way? I couldn't accept that I was damaged goods, so I had to be perfect instead? Whatever was going on, I think the third grade was the year everything fell apart. And all my father would say was, “Grade three was one of my best years.” But he didn't understand, and I don't either. You'll notice that letter was addressed to him. In fifth grade he spoke in terms of making me start over again from first grade and/or that I'd be spending the entire following summer working with him.

One thing that still gets me is the N (“needs improvement”) I got for handwriting. The teacher said to the whole room something like, “William, you got an N because your writing is too big – Stacey, you got an N because your writing is too small.” I remember my grandmother encouraging me to write in a book designed to coach cursive. Now I don't use cursive except to sign my name or write a recipient's name on the envelope of a card that I'm hand-delivering.

I still feel like I haven't really learned stick-to-it-iveness. Whatever I've done, it hasn't been enough. But why should I worry? You can't fight entropy. There's a general malaise and weariness through all things, isn't there? Or are we all just sad right now?

And I still suck at dividing with decimals.

Current Location: Sherbrooke, NS
Current Mood: disappointeddisappointed

Oct. 8th, 2013

03:21 am - 21. lessons from the ogres

Saw Shrek 2 tonight with Andy. I think it's an essential film, and it would seem others agreed, as it became the highest-grossing 'pure' comedy of all time during its theatrical run. (Finding Nemo remained slightly ahead but is more of a comedy-drama.)

When I first saw the movie, I wanted things to end the way they didn't. This time around, I didn't even remember that they had agency, so invested was I in my notion of what they should have done.

It was a different experience to see it now, knowing now that people have the capacity to connect on the inside. Not so long ago, I honestly didn't know that. I was an adult, but bereft of love. Now if anybody can pick up the connect-on-the-inside lesson from watching this movie, that's an automatic 10. For me, a happy 9.

There are other things that are important to know. Crest 3DWhite toothpaste will not help you find your soulmate. Anybody you should date will tolerate your not having used Odorono*. Wearing Axe says “I'm insecure and superficial, here's something for me to physiologically hide under!” while one of its ads says, “It doesn't matter if you're handsome and just saved someone's life – she'll fly away as soon as a shiny object approaches.” (Great job on presenting an ideal human blueprint for consumers, Axe!) If you can find someone like you on the inside as well as the outside, that's probably a promising match.

Generally, I feel like the “opposite attracts” maxim is applied at a macro scale when it's inappropriate – like how quantum physics is tossed around unknowingly. Or it could be that we're not aware of what things are really opposites. Plus and minus are opposites. Cold and hot are opposites. Male and female might be opposites. Country and rock are definitely not opposites. Neither are rap and gospel. Conservative and liberal might be opposites, but Conservative™ and Liberal™ certainly aren't. Neither are India and Pakistan, nor Israel and Palestine, nor Iran and the USA, nor the Koreas, nor the Chinas. But we act like they are.

* - I'm pretty sure The Who knew that. And yeah, I'm echoing Dan Savage. “Sex is a savoury pursuit” is among his great soundbytes.

* * *

It's a dark, dark night out – a good one to be inside. When you go out at night and don't have the stars or city lights for company, it's a bit frightening. I suppose eventually you would adapt to the dark, but I am unwilling to spend a night alone in the woods in order to learn firsthand. In fact, I would like to live my whole life without being lost in the woods overnight.

It's really scary sometimes that there's more inhabiting this world than just people. But we are animals too, and we're walling ourselves away from other animals on the basis that we have something that they don't. It's profoundly infantile. It's like we have a later bedtime than our younger brother, so we lord it over him.

I'm not saying we can't eat animals, nor saying we should give ourselves to the mosquitoes. I think we could stand to be more aware of the living world around us. Hopefully in a way that keeps us secure – I would love to have a rooftop observatory on a house around here so I could see the stars and hear the wind in the trees and hear the loons cry and not have to worry about being eaten.** It's an artificial experience of nature, but artificial is what we do best.

** - Unless Hannibal Lecter is in town. Oh, he's not real?

* * *

I didn't come up with the saying that the perfect is the enemy of the good, but it applies to a lot of things. The hilarious part is that the admittance that we ourselves are imperfect, even if it's not merely teeth-out, doesn't automatically mean we'll accept less than perfect. We can go on petulantly demanding perfection for years. I'm appalled at many of my previous stunts – I say 'many' because I can only be second-hand appalled at the ones I've forgotten about. I'm half upset that I had such childish notions of things, and the other half upset because everybody could see it.

Actually, thinking about it more, it's the view that we are somehow strange, defective, bad goods, that we would be rejected if we showed our true selves – I think that's a lot of what drives the perfection chase beyond the threshold of ridiculous and/or self-defeating. If we let anybody see us do or accept something less than perfect(ly), we give ourselves away. They'll see that we're depraved and unworthy.

I think we're not depraved. A worldview I was exposed to held that we're all depraved and that the punishment is death, but believing in and accepting the Lord as your Saviour lets you access His forgiveness. That's a little fucked up. It screws with your head, seeing a fellow dastardly-deeds-doer everywhere you look. You go looking for evil. ("That's Satan in you now!")

But I think we're not depraved, even though we're imperfect and temporary. I have no proof. I also want to doubt that we're “basically good”, inasmuch as the notion goes that there's an inner part of us that just loses control while an outer shell of negative emotion gets to reign unimpeded. I think our whole being gets, for instance, angry. I think we dive right in. I think some of the most awful things we do are some of the most pure. But also some of the best things.

We're complex animals, I'll give us that. But neither saints nor devils.

Current Location: Sherbrooke, NS

Oct. 4th, 2013

09:12 pm - Review: Why I hated This Is the End

Seth Rogen and his friends team up to bring us This Is the End, and if you're one of Seth Rogen's friends I guarantee you will almost piss yourself with laughter.

And if your experience watching this movie was one of mirth and wonder, you can go ahead and stop reading now. You're able to see more than I.









Okay, are they gone now?

This movie was an opulent turd. I've never had to endure something so pointless in my life that was also so polished. The movie bears resemblance to a good, healthy bowel movement that leaves no mess. But it's a bowel movement that I didn't want to make time for.

Perhaps Seneca would say I'm a dangerously optimistic person, and that's why I'm angry at this movie – it falls short of what I expect to see in other people in every possible way. Instead of laughing at the sociopathic goofballs, I hated them.

It's a shame, because the movie started out so promisingly. Just Rogen and his Canadian friend Jay Baruchel. Jay blasting Rogen's cleansing and gluten-free brainwashing. Jokes about pot. It's setting up to be the perfect stoner movie! Actually, let's ask my friend Mailliw to comment on that.

“Hey, Mailliw, you were high when you saw this movie, right? I'm a Respectable Law-Abiding Citizen™ and never touch that stuff because it's Illegal™, but can you tell me what it was like to see this high?”

“It was rough, man! It started out good but then it bugged me how the people kept doing things that were thoughtless and inconsiderate instead of smart and pro-social. It made me hate them! Plus my friend kept stopping the movie, prolonging the agony. And then later we were stopped for someone else and he said with no hint of a joke 'I hate it when I have to stop the movie for other people.' But he'd stopped it on us for an hour on aggregate! We're cool now, but while the movie was going I just wanted it to be over, but it just refused to end. It was a bad trip, dude.”

“Thanks, Mailliw!”

But yeah, it looked like it was setting up to be a great movie – I might have written “comedy with good hard laughs” – and then the party happens. A party with a bunch of people who you don't care about (unless you are way deeper into pop-entertainment culture than I am), acting like jerks, thinking they're funny. It's like a high school film with a budget.

Maybe if the actors had been pro athletes and there were a bunch of sports references, I might have liked this movie more. I'm not saying sports culture is better than pop-entertainment culture; they're equally banal. It's just that I'm into sports, whereas I'm not into pop-entertainment culture. Actually, to be honest, I actively dislike pop-entertainment, like a disgruntled failed actor would. So my hate-on for this movie isn't entirely the fault of the movie. I hate pop-entertainment like one of my cousins hates sports – I don't know why she hates sports, but at least now I understand her feelings.

The conceit of this movie is that celebs making fun of themselves is funny. Because they're celebs, you see? Everything celebs do is funny, or at least fascinating. So this movie must be a slam dunk, because it's celebs, who are funny, making fun of themselves, who are funny – I mean, it must be funny squared or something!

No.

It's not funny. They're assholes. Just assholes. And they're not laughing, “Ha-ha, you asshole,” like real friends do. The characters all get on each other's nerves. They also got on my nerves. They were so good at pretending to be a waste of space that they were a waste of space. Even Jay, who has a hint of maybe being a soul-searching character, is in the end difficult to root for. He whines, but during the first half of the movie at least I agree with him. It's still whining, though. He bugs me like this review is probably bugging you, if you liked this movie.

I wanted most of the cast to be eaten so the movie would be over. Emma Watson is in this and you're now allowed to say outside of LiveJournal that she's as hot as all get out, but she's wasted on a throwaway gag.

Severe spoilers follow. If you want to see this movie without them, stop reading here.
















It's the apocalypse, so inevitably the characters end up bargaining their way into Heaven. Lesson: If you're good when God's watching you, you'll go to Heaven! No, you nicompoops! It's being good when people aren't watching you! I'll see your real ethics if I can see what you do when you don't know you're being watched. Anybody will sacrifice themselves if they know that it's an automatic on-ramp to Heaven. That diminishes the meaning of the sacrifice, since it's no longer a sacrifice at all. It's not bad... I mean, it's an integrative solution if it's good for you and you also save your friends, but there's nothing really noble in it.

Some of them get to Heaven. Several things will strike the thinking person:

Why are they all wearing clothes? We ought to be naked and free!

Why are they smoking pot? Hopefully they have steel lungs or something.

Why the fuck do they have the Backstreet Boys?! Or why not, I guess. This must be Pop-entertainment Heaven. I think I'd rather go to Dog Heaven.

If Seth Rogen had set out wanting to lampoon apocalyptic ideas, he should have followed the source material more closely. Instead we get a threadbare pastiche with a dash of his personal wish fulfilment. (“Everybody loves the Backstreet Boys! Only squares don't love the Backstreet Boys!”)

That's enough. I think I've made my case against this movie. In my Twitter review, I gave it 2.5. Even though I know more of where my hatred is coming from, the fact that this movie paints a depraved caricature of us is offensive enough to me that I'm not moving that needle very far. 2.51

Current Location: Sherbrooke, NS

Sep. 18th, 2013

09:26 pm - Whacking Moles: Getting Ruby 2.0 and Rails 4.0.0 going on OpenSUSE 12.3

To do this, I started with a fresh OpenSUSE 12.3 virtual machine running under VMWare Workstation 9. Besides letting the updates install, the only significant thing I did was install VMWare Tools, which is another boatload of pain covered here. Of course, you could follow the rest of this on a native operating system. But doing things like this virtually means you can revert to a previous snapshot/state when (not if) you screw up. Anyway, I installed all the available updates too, after I installed VMWare Tools, and then I took a snapshot.

Some of this may apply to other Linux distros, so don't dismiss this straight away if you're not running OpenSUSE.

Also, I am not using RVM. It's one of those things that makes your life easier... by first introducing another level of complexity and general screwing-around. If you care about switching versions of Ruby and Rails and having different versions of Ruby and Rails for different projects, then I am sorry about your life something like RVM is the way to go. This is for the rest of us. (Actually, it's not so bad. I think I got lost because I was sudoing things that I shouldn't have been. Which, with RVM, is everything. See below if you want to just use RVM.)

OK, first you have to get Ruby. But the one you'd get in YaST is 1.9.3 or something. So go to software.opensuse.org, and look for "ruby":

http://software.opensuse.org/package/ruby?search_term=%22ruby%22

Click on "Show Other Versions" under the green button at the bottom. Click "Show Unstable Packages" under OpenSUSE 12.3. Find the 2.0 version of Ruby from devel:languages:ruby, and click on "1 Click Install" and accept everything.

So now it's just "gem install rails", right? Ha-ha! No.

Go to YaST and get the package "ruby-devel". And there's more you'll need too: sqlite3 (a database engine) and nodejs (a JavaScript engine). Get all three packages.

Now you could do "gem install rails" but you will get weird errors related to the documentation. So do "gem install rdoc" first. Then do "gem install rails". Wait 2 to 45 minutes.

And now you can build your first test app! But for me even typing rails -v gets me "If 'rails' is not a typo..." What gives?

Well, as this video says at 29 minutes in, since I installed rails as root, the command for Rails is not 'rails' but 'rails2.0'. Say what?

Good news, though: if you don't want to type 'rails2.0' over and over, you don't have to. Add the following line to the end of the hidden .bashrc file in your home directory. You can use the "Control" drop-down in the Dolphin file manager, pick "Show Hidden Files", then open .bashrc in KWrite (under "Open With").

alias rails='rails2.0'

Note that this'll only apply to your home user, not to anything you do when you switch to the superuser inside a terminal session.

At last, you're ready to Get Started!

*headdesk*

Update: New problems emerged, so I finally did it the RVM way. Wasn't hard at all. Don't use sudo.

\curl -L https://get.rvm.io | bash

Then /bin/bash --login

Then the install and use stuff:

rvm install 2.0.0
rvm use 2.0.0
gem install rails


I presently have to type the binbashlogin and rvmuse parts every time I roll up my sleeves, but it works, it finally blessedly works. I mean, works again. Sigh.

Update Update: OK, you can set a default ruby to use like this:

rvm alias create default 2.0.0

Current Location: Sherbrooke, NS

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