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How we talk about depression

2014 August 13
by sonicsuns

In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ tragic suicide, I’ve been thinking about the way we tend to talk about depression.

Often it goes like this:

Robin Williams suffered from clinical depression for many years. He also had a history of substance abuse. He sought treatment for his depression, bit it was not enough. He committed suicide.

See how starch that is? It gives you the basic facts, but it’s stale and it lacks detail. I want a narrative approach to Williams’ death. Obviously, I don’t know the man personally, but let’s imagine that I did. Let’s imagine that I know something about how he was really feeling, and I’ve decided to share my knowledge with the world.

If so, I might talk about his depression like this:

I think Robin was haunted by loneliness, ever since he was a kid. His parents were really distant. His siblings weren’t much better. He used to play with toy soldiers all alone. He had 2,000 toy soldiers, and he gave every one of them a different voice.

On the one hand, hey, that’s where he first developed his talent for performance. But you have to understand how it felt for him. You have to see why he did it. Sure, part of it was that it’s just fun to play with toys. Everybody does that. But part of it was that he was lonely, really desperately lonely, and he needed to make friends for himself.

Honestly? I don’t think the loneliness ever really stopped. He had millions of fans, and he enjoyed that to be sure, but inside he still wasn’t complete. I think he was afraid that people didn’t love him for being him, but instead they just loved him for doing shows and making movies. Like, if he lost his talent, then he’d turn into that little kid again, staring at thousands of plastic toy soldiers, all by himself.

These last few years were really hard for him. Every time a movie flopped, he’d go into a tailspin. He wouldn’t talk about it much, and that was part of the problem. Whenever he got really low, he’d cover it up with a joke. I think sometimes the jokes honestly made him feel better, but sometimes it was just a mask. He didn’t know how to share his deep feelings, consistently. He’d open up now and then, but then he’d go back under his shell.

He had major problems with drugs. But I see that as mostly just being an extension of these larger problems, you know? If he hadn’t felt so lonely at his core, the drugs wouldn’t have been so tempting. But yeah, the drugs did a number on him. It took a lot of work to get sober. It was an ongoing struggle.

All these troubles just built up inside, and eventually he saw his performances getting worse. Part of that was because he kept getting bad scripts for his film roles. Part of it was just because he was aging. (At 63 years old, it’s hard to be manic and have all that energy onstage.) Part of it was the loneliness eating away at him, making it hard to be funny.

So he got into this spiral. He felt bad, so his performance skills slipped a bit. Honestly, I think he was still great, even at 63. But Robin was merciless with himself. A real perfectionist. So he felt like he was losing his talent whenever he made a small mistake. And that made him feel awful, and then because he felt awful his performances just got worse. He even started thinking about using cocaine again, just to boost his energy. That really scared him, because he knew the horror of cocaine addiction and he didn’t want to go back there. But sometimes it felt like he had no other option.

He looked into the future and saw nothing. He couldn’t imagine that he’d just retire and settle down someplace, watching the world roll by, watching his daughter flourish in her career. He just couldn’t imagine that. He felt like if he couldn’t perform at the top, then he was just worthless and there was no point to living anymore. And he was deeply afraid of the loneliness. At least, that’s what I think.

He’s been struggling deeply with this stuff for about 2 or 3 years now. But in a larger sense, he’s been struggling ever since he was born. And finally, he just ended it. He just couldn’t take it anymore.

I miss you, Robin. I wish I could bring you back.

This isn’t just about Robin Williams, and it’s not just about depression. It’s about all of us, and all our personal struggles. If we’re going to help each other, we can’t keep talking like bureaucrats all the time. We need to be real. We need to tell stories.

Why the LOTR movies are better than the Hobbit movies

2014 August 13
by sonicsuns

Despite all the hard work of many talented people, it looks like the Hobbit movies aren’t as good as their predecessors.They’re not bad movies; they’re just not as good.

But I don’t think you can really blame the filmmakers. The deck was stacked against them before they even began. Here’s why:

We’ve seen epic fantasy before

When Jackson’s LOTR came out, nobody had ever done a fantasy film on this scale. There had been LOTR cartoons, but they were crap. We had fun with The Never-Ending Story and such, but were any of those movies on the same scale as LOTR? No, they weren’t.

So when LOTR was released, it was amazing. We’d never seen anything like it! But with the Hobbit, we have seen something like it. We’ve seen LOTR.

We’ve specifically seen Middle-Earth before

We’ve met Gandalf, we’ve been to the Shire, and we know what Elves look like. All these elements, and more, were brand-new when they first appeared. But not anymore.

Sure, the new dwarves are distinct from Gimili. But at least you have a clear point of comparison. Back when Gimli was new to us, the only prior movie dwarves most of us had seen were the dwarves of Snow White! The jump from Snow White to LOTR is big. From LOTR to the Hobbit? Not so big.

The Hobbit quest makes less sense

In LOTR, we have to go to Mordor and destroy the One Ring in order to SAVE THE WORLD.

In the Hobbit, we have to go to Erebor and defeat a dragon in order to…get our gold back? Gee, that’s a bit less dramatic…

I mean yeah, I get it, the dwarves lost their homeland. But it’s not as important as saving the world, is it? And besides, obviously the dwarves have been living somewhere since the fall of Erebor. They’re not completely homeless, and they don’t appear to be starving. Even if we agree that we want the gold back, there’s no need to get it back now instead of, say, two years from now. There’s no urgency.

Both quests are foolhardy. In LOTR, we’ve got nine people and we have to sneak into friggin’ Mordor right under Sauron’s nose. In the Hobbit, we’ve got 15 people and we’re supposed to kill a dragon somehow. This is the same dragon that previously defeated the entire dwarven army, but apparently Thorin thinks he can kill it with just a handful of friends.

In LOTR, this makes sense: The only alternative is to hang around till Sauron conquers the world. But in the Hobbit, why the heck are we attacking Smaug? He’s not going anywhere. Maybe we should spend a couple years gathering a larger force and figuring out how to kill this guy.

There’s a reason why these stories are so different: The Hobbit is a children’s book! And in a children’s book, it doesn’t matter if the quest is strategically sound. But that’s where Jackson runs into a problem. He’s trying to make the Hobbit with the same general tone as his LOTR movies. But these are actually two different types of stories and they require different tones.

If I could make one change to the Hobbit movies, I’d let Old!Bilbo narrate the whole thing. That would help recapture the feel of a storybook, so we’d feel more at home. But even then, I doubt that the Hobbit films would be as good as the LOTR films.

Oh, well.

Comic Books and Writer’s Chaos

2014 August 2
by sonicsuns

Mainstream comic books suffer from a problem which I call Writer’s Chaos. It’s perhaps best demonstrated by these remarks on Hawkman:

Thanagar’s champion, Hawkman, can talk to birds. He also can’t talk to birds. Sometimes, he can’t even speak normally at all! Even if he could talk normally, or to birds, there are no birds on Thanagar, because it does not exist. Hawkman was sent here to study Earthly police methods, because Thanagar’s own methods suck! That’s OK though, because Thanagar still does not exist! Yet it is populated by peaceful barbarians! Who are stupid, and also warlike!

Writer’s Chaos produces many annoying symptoms, such as:

  • Plain Contradictions
  • Annoying Complexity
  • Ridiculous Retcons
  • Status Quo snap-back (e.g. no one important ever really dies)
  • Stories that make no sense (even by comic book standards)

WC is caused by a number of factors:

Endless Stories

In the world of comics, nothing ever ends. Superman started saving people in 1938, and he’s still at it! There’s always a new threat for Superman to face.

On the surface, this isn’t so bad. If people are still interested in new Superman stories, why not provide them? The problems arises when the writers (and owners) insist that every story is part of the same timeline. These aren’t just unrelated stories which happen to use the same character; they’re part of a long-running megastory that will never end (unless D.C. goes out of business.)

This creates a major problem for the writers. Since Superman is supposed to keep this up forever, nothing can ever really change! If Superman dies (which he did), he has to come back. He can’t ever really age, because the readers don’t think of him as an old guy. He may reveal his secret identity and marry Louis Lane, but one way or the other that’s got to be undone. If a popular villain is defeated and thrown in jail, he will surely escape. Nothing sticks. After all, if there were any real changes, we’d run out of material! If Superman defeated all the major villains and retired to a life on the farm, what would we write about?

Think about books for contrast. (When I say “books”, I mean “traditional text-only books”, not “comic books”). When an author writes a book, he has the luxury of knowing that the book is not endless. He can include a major event, explore its implications, and then stop. Just reach the last page and be done with it. It gives the story a feeling of weight and reality, and it allows the author to quit before he runs out of ideas.

That’s the other problem, of course: Writers running out of ideas. Even if you’re a genius at comic book writing (and few people are), it’s hard to keep it up forever. (At the very least, you have to worry about the limits of your lifespan!) The good news is that comic book companies can always shift writers around, or hire new talent altogether, in order to keep things fresh. But that just leads to the next problem…

Many Writers

Comic book worlds are written by dozens of writers simultaneously, with very poor coordination between them. To some degree, this is the result of bureaucratic nonsense: Somebody didn’t get the memo that the Riddler is a good guy now, and thus the readers are treated to a confusing reference about Edward Nigma robbing a bank. But even with excellent coordination skills, you’ve still got a problem. The problem is that different writers have different ideas!

For instance, imagine that Joey the Writer has some great ideas about The Death of Captain Courage. He’s got a big plan for how it’ll happen, and how the Captain’s friends will deal with it. In his version of events, Captain Courage doesn’t need to come back, because someone else takes up his mantle. Sounds good, right? But across the hall we’ve got Sam the Writer, who has his own ideas about Captain Courage proposing to his long-time love interest, and the two of them can get married and have children. Eventually they form a whole family of superheroes: the Courage Clan.

Imagine you’re the boss here. What do you do? Both of these ideas are good, but you can’t make both of them happen. Captain Courage can’t be dead and alive at the same time, can he? So you’re stuck with bad options. If you pick one storyline and leave the other untold, you’re wasting good material. If you try to tell both stories, then you have to do something stupid when Captain Courage dies and we explore that for a bit but then somehow he comes back and gets married and so we explore that for a bit but then somehow his family is erased from time so he’s solo again and we explore that for a bit…and eventually it’s just a big fat mess.

Sometimes writers have bad ideas, plain and simple. But sometimes writers have good ideas and they still run into problems, because everyone is trapped together in this shared universe.

And there’s another problem too…

No backtracking

Jenny the Writer has been writing Captain Courage stuff for awhile now.  In his last appearance, she arranged for good ol’ Cap to get caught in a truly frightening deathtrap. The walls are closing in on him, armed with vicious spikes. Cap tries to escape with his super-strength, but it’s no good! Villain McMastermind laughs at him over the loudspeaker, revealing that the room is made from reinforced adamantium-3, which even the Captain cannot hope to bend! So ends the issue in a nail-biting cliffhanger, and we briefly shift our focus to some other characters. (Might as well draw out the cliffhanger, right?)

Jenny’s got a great plan for Cap’s escape. He’ll use the Pendant of Teleportation that he got back in issue #23! He’s had it under his uniform this whole time, you see, so no one will be expecting it.

But as Jenny prepares the script, she suddenly remembers something: Captain Courage actually lost the Pendant of Teleportation back in issue #56, when he visited the Temple of Darragon. He had to bribe the Old Guardian with a magic item, so he gave him the pendant…come to think of it, the Guardian actually ate the pendant!

Well crap, this is a problem! How’s he gonna get out of the deathtrap now??

If Jenny was writing a book, she wouldn’t have to worry. Just go back to the chapter with the Old Guardian and change it around somehow so that Cap gets to keep his pendant. Maybe he bribes the guy with some other magic item. Whatever. It’s not a big deal. But in comic books, it is a big deal! The Temple of Darragon story was published a year ago. You can’t just change it now, can you? That would be stupid!

Well in many cases, that’s exactly what they do. Writers come up with some sort of retcon to explain away the troubling storyline. Sometimes this is done in a really clever way that feels natural. But often, it just sucks. Things that were clearly established are now suddenly un-established, because the writer doesn’t know what else to do.

The other option, of course, is to figure out a way for Captian Courage to escape the deathtrap without using the Pendant of Teleportation. But often that doesn’t work out either.

And then there’s the problem of Dueling Writers. One writer establishes that Captain Courage is immune to laser guns, then along comes another writer that says no, he’s not immune to laser guns. (“I’ve got a whole plan for him to fight the Martian army, and and don’t want him to be immune to their main weapon!”). This goes back and forth indefinitely, and the readers get more and more confused. If this were a book, and not a comic book, the writers could either agree on what they’re doing or else just split up and write separate books.


 

The Solution

The solution to writer’s chaos is simple: Stop jamming everything into a single endless continuity! There’s really no need to do it this way.

I propose something called Shards. A shard is a special kind of continuity, with the following properties:

Clear leadership

Each shard has an owner. This may be a single writer, or it may be a small group of writers who share a common vision and who know how to cooperate. The rules of the world are laid out in advance. There’s no risk of successive writers running roughshod over each other. Of course, the shard may be cancelled outright if its sales are low. (Sadly, this is still a business and we need to make money.) But it won’t be subject to random interference from outside writers.

Independence

Shards do not cross over with each other. They’re not part of a larger universe. So the writers don’t have to keep track of each other’s work, and they don’t have to block each other out. For instance, imagine that Captain Courage is popular enough that he gets two shards. Both shards start off fairly similar, but then they change dramatically. (This is all presented to management when the shards are first proposed.) In Joey’s shard, Cap dies. And stays dead. In Sam’s shard, Cap gets married. And stays married. So even though two writers are using Captain Courage, they’re not using the same Captain Courage. Both writers get to explore their ideas, independently.

And yes, I really mean independence. We can’t do a multiverse thing where one Cap exists on Earth-1 and another exists on Earth-2, because inevitably there will be a storyline where Zorgon the Destroyer messes with the fabric of spacetime and both Captains end up meeting each other…and soon enough we’ve got another mess! It’s just that sort of crap that forced DC to reboot the whole thing with Crisis on Infinite Earths. Granted, Crisis was a good story. But we shouldn’t be forced into mega-events because of continuity snarls. Instead, we should prevent the snarls from forming in the first place. Thus, we need independent shards.

Clear markings

Every shard has a name, which is clearly displayed on every issue. Make it easy for the readers to understand which shard is which. Explain that the shards don’t affect each other. Make it easy for them to find all the issues in a given shard, starting at #1. Ideally, the whole thing proceeds in a simple progression: #1 leads to #2 and thus to #3, without any weird meandering or special comics that don’t have numbers. Let the reader start at the beginning and work his way to the end, step by step.

Which leads me to my next point…

Not endless

Shards are expected to have a clear beginning and a clear end. Write with the end in mind! Make sure everything moves smoothly to that point. Feel free to make big changes without dreaming up ways to reverse yourself. Do whatever you want with these characters; the sky is the limit. Make the story as long as it needs to be. Don’t stretch it out. Don’t prattle on after you’ve run out of ideas. This, of course, builds into another idea:

Clear plan

To avoid the “no backtracking” problem, plan out the whole story in advance! In fact, you might want to produce the whole thing in advance, and don’t release it till it’s really done.


 

Example

For clarity’s sake, here’s a simple shard proposal. (A real proposal would likely have more detail than this.) Notice how the shard concept allows me to do things that would normally be impossible.

Shard Proposal
Title: Gotham Times

Background:
Batman exists, along with some associated allies and villains. Other superheroes, such as Superman, do not exist and have never existed. The setting is realistic. There is no such thing as magic, aliens have never landed on earth, etc.. Batman has been operating in Gotham for three years. He has never had a Robin. Jim Gordon was the police commissioner and Batman’s ally, but he was murdered six months ago by an unknown killer. The new commissioner, Allan Drake, distrusts Batman.

Plans:

A major feature of the story will be Gotham Times, the city’s premier newspaper. The main character is Mary Scott, a field reporter for the Times. Investigating the rumors of Batman, she discovers that he is real. Batman is initially suspicious of her and conceals himself, but over a number of months Mary assists him in crimes by leaving notes where she knows he will find them. Her efforts largely revolve around researching a shadowy organization called the Penguin Syndicate, and reporting her findings to Batman. Eventually, she begins to gain his trust. Around that time, the Syndicate itself begins to suspect that a Times reporter is assisting Batman. They launch a plan to discover the assistant’s identity.

Another major figure is the Joker, who has no organization of his own but still gains a wide reputation as an unpredictable serial killer. He takes an interest in Batman, considering him to be the ultimate target. He also takes an interest in the Times, due to its habit of splashing his exploits on the front page.

As Mary delves deeper into the world of crime, she comes to understand Batman’s instinctive mistrust of others. At the same time, Batman slowly realizes that he has become too isolated since Gordon’s death, and he decides to regain his connection with the “real people” of Gotham (such as Mary). There is suspicion that Allan Drake is part of the Syndicate, but he is eventually revealed to be trustworthy. (The Syndicate was actually framing him, as part of a plan to replace him with someone more corruptible.)

Gordon’s killer is revealed to be a hitman named Deadshot, who was hired by none other than Mary’s boss at the Times, as part of a plan to cover up his personal dealings with the Syndicate. Mary arranges to make herself Deadshot’s next target, as part of a plan to lure him into the open. The plan succeeds, and Batman apprehends Deadshot before Mary can be harmed. Simultaneously, Mary’s boss is arrested by the GCPD.

Searching Deadshot’s belongings, Batman uncovers vital clues about the Penguin’s operations. Over the next week, he and GCPD launch a massive assault against the Syndicate. The Penguin makes a last-ditch effort to save himself by hiring the Joker as a bodyguard. The Joker accepts the offer, and then promptly kills his employer. Batman enters the Penguin’s compound and the Joker attacks him. After a desperate struggle, the Joker gives Batman a mortal wound. Just then, Mary shoots the Joker in the back. He smiles at the irony, and falls dead.

Mary and Batman share a few words before he dies. He thanks her for her help and tells her his true identity, which she agrees to keep secret. She calls Alfred, and they arrange for Batman to be cremated. They scatter his ashes over his parents’ grave. (Bruce Wayne has reportedly left Gotham to go live on a private island.)

With the Penguin defeated, citywide crime drops dramatically. Mary receives a promotion at the Times, and she agrees to help Drake clean up what remains of the Syndicate. Mary writes a final headline for the Times: “BATMAN IS DEAD. LONG LIVE THE BAT.”


 

Conclusion

See? You can do so much with shards that you really can’t do anywhere else! Comics like Y: The Last Man are successful in part because they run on the shard concept. Y doesn’t suffer from Writer’s Chaos, because it runs on these principles. All you need to do is apply these ideas to mainstream characters, and you can do all kinds of stuff with them.

If some people like old-school campy Batman while others prefer grim-and-gritty Batman, you can let both characters exist at the same time! Just put them in different shards, and you’re done.

When one shard ends, readers will just move on to other shards. Perhaps they’ll keep track of their favorite authors, or perhaps they’ll look to new interpretations of their favorite characters. But each shard will feel purposeful and coherent, instead of the jumbled mess we have now. Some shards will come to be regarded as classics, and readers will seek them out many years after they’ve concluded.

In fact, this is basically how it works in Japan. And let me tell you, it’s great! Manga isn’t popular just because of the art style or the character archetypes; it’s also popular because most of it runs on shard-style principles.

There’s a lot of good that could come for this, if only the management would get behind it.

Nine Rules of Wisdom

2014 June 26
by sonicsuns

A wise one watches the world

He seeks to surpass illusion. He does not treat assumption as truth. He values experiment and observation. He seeks to achieve a detailed understanding. He is willing to accept new evidence. He is willing to examine new ideas.

A wise one questions everything

He knows that if an idea is supported by his friends and allies, or by his opponents, or by the masses, or by a select few, or by his neighbors, or by the residents of a distant country, or by powerful authorities, or by powerless dissidents, or by tradition, or by departure from tradition, or by a sacred text, or by an ordinary text, or by venerated geniuses, or by forgotten fools, or by convenience, or by inconvenience, then such an idea may be right, but it may also be wrong. He knows that everything must be judged according to the evidence, and that all evidence must be examined fairly.

He does not trust in foolish arguments, even if they appear to support truthful conclusions. He trusts only in wise arguments.

He is willing to go wherever reason may lead him.

A wise one knows his ignorance

He does not pretend to know what he does not know. He recognizes that a guess is merely a guess, and not an established fact. He knows that some of his beliefs may be false. He acknowledges uncertainty, and acts accordingly.

A wise one admits his mistakes

When he finds that some of his beliefs are false, he changes his beliefs. He does not pretend that the false beliefs are true. He does not pretend that the false beliefs were never his own.

He knows that all his efforts must be judged fairly. He knows that good intentions do not always produce good results. If he finds that his efforts are harmful or ineffective, he adjusts his actions accordingly.

He makes amends for his own wrongful actions, when possible. He resolves not to repeat his mistakes in the future.

A wise one knows nuance

He does not insist that all matters are black and white. He acknowledges shades of gray, when they are present. He recognizes that between truth and falsehood there is often half-truth. He recognizes that something which is true in one context may yet be false in another context. He recognizes that something which is good in one way may yet be evil in another way. He recognizes that a person who is wise in one area may yet be foolish in another area. He knows that even a fool can speak truth, and even a genius can speak falsehood.

A wise one takes the proper time

He neither rushes nor delays without reason.

A wise one cares for the heart

He seeks healing for all, in the long run. He seeks to sooth those who are in pain, and to comfort those who worry.

As he does this, he maintains rationality. If someone holds an irrational fear, he teaches them to think differently. If someone holds a rational fear, he reduces the danger. If someone feels shame for no reason, he teaches them to think differently. If someone feels shame for a good reason, he teaches them to make amends and find forgiveness. He holds this patten for a variety of troubling feelings, and acknowledges nuance in every case.

As he helps others, he also helps himself, and he allows others to help him.

He knows the value of love. He knows that true love does not enable cruelty. He knows that self-love is not the same as arrogance or selfishness. He knows that love of others does not constitute mindless praise or blind loyalty. He knows that love can be found in romance, friendship, family relations, and in many other things. He also knows that it is possible for people to assume that a given relationship is founded in love, when in fact it is not. He knows that true love, and likewise true compassion, is very important.

A wise one seeks to encourage wisdom in others

He shows others how to think rationally. He shares his knowledge, with the exception of things which must be kept private for the greater good.

He does not seek wisdom so that he may have power over fools. Rather, he seeks wisdom so that he may have power over nonsense itself.

He is not threatened by the prospect of fools becoming wise, even if they become wiser than himself. Rather, he rejoices in their advancement.

As he seeks to spread wisdom to others, he remembers that he himself is imperfect. When he meets a person who seems foolish, he considers their arguments fairly. He knows that sometimes he himself may be the fool, and the so-called fool may be wise.

A wise one seeks to improve the world

He observes the flaws of the world, including his own flaws, and he seeks to address them. He seeks to eliminate unjustified suffering. He seeks to promote meaningful happiness.

He takes care to ensure that his efforts do more good than harm in the long run. He knows that misguided idealism can be harmful. He knows that great logic can still be foolish, if its product is used for evil purposes.

What’s the actual number?

2014 January 4
by sonicsuns

Watch out for phrases like these:

  • “up to”
  • “as many as”
  • “as few as”

Whenever you hear these phrases, in almost any context, your first reaction should be: “What is the actual number?

For instance:

“With our new diet plan, you can lose up to 15 pounds in just two weeks!”

What’s the actual number? How many pounds do most people lose? What’s the typical result of this diet plan?

Here’s another:

“Our business is very successful. Sometimes we earn as much as ten thousand dollars per month!”

What’s the actual number? How many dollars do they earn in an average month? (The business may actually be losing money, for all you know.)

Here’s another:

“Several studies have evaluated these two medicines. Some of them say that Medicine A is as much as 60% more effective than Medicine B.”

What’s the actual number? What is the overall result of all the studies? (Or all the trustworthy studies.)

Here’s another:

Electric bills in this area can cost as low as $20 per month.

What’s the actual number? What is the average electric bill? And how much will you spend personally? (You may use more or less electricity than your neighbors.)

Most of the time, you don’t want to know the maximum or minimum value of something. Instead, you want to know the average value, the typical value, or the value that applies to you personally.

So watch out for these phrases, and learn to think critically.

Tales of the Teacher: The Travelers and the Great Tower

2013 December 13
by sonicsuns

Once, there was an old city, with many winding roads. In the center of the city stood a Great Tower, which could be seen for miles around. It was said that this tower contained ancient wonders, and many wished to see inside.

One day, five travelers approached the outskirts of the city. They were faced with a problem: How would they navigate the winding streets of the old city, in order to reach the tower at its center?

The first traveler said “The best way is to always turn left.” So he entered the city, and turned left at his first opportunity. He turned left again, and again. In time, he had left the city entirely. He never reached the Tower.

The second traveler said “See, our friend who turned left has failed. If I am to succeed, I must do the opposite as him.” So this traveler decided to always turn right, instead of left. He entered the city, and turned right at his first opportunity. He turned right again, and again. In time, he had left the city entirely. He never reached the Tower.

The third traveler said “See, the first two travelers were both wrong. The solution is to take the middle path, splitting the difference between them.” So he entered the city, and he never turned right or left, but instead he always marched forward. But in time he reached a solid wall, and he could not advance. He was forced to turn back. He never reached the Tower.

The fourth traveler said “These fools don’t know what they’re doing. The solution is not to go left or right or straight. The solution is to do each of these things in sequence, at the appropriate time.” He took a scroll from his coat. On the scroll was a series of instructions, written by an earlier traveler who had reached the Tower successfully. “If I follow this scroll”, said the fourth traveler, “I will surely reach the Tower.” So he entered the city, following the directions as they were written. Sometimes he turned right, sometimes he turned left, and sometimes he went straight ahead. He made good progress. But there came a time when the scroll told him to turn left across a bridge, and he found to his surprise that the bridge had been destroyed by an earthquake. The scroll was suddenly useless, and he was forced to return the way he had come. He never reached the Tower.

The fifth traveler pondered over what he should do. Then, to his good fortune, he saw that the Teacher was approaching. He said to the Teacher, “I am trying to reach the Tower, but all my friends have failed. Whether they turned left or right, or walked straight forward, or even followed the directions of those who have gone before, all of them have failed to reach their goal. What must I do?”

The Teacher said “Can you see the Tower?”

“Yes,” said the traveler.

The Teacher replied “Go that way.”

Analysis:

This may seem like a silly parable, and in one sense it is. Anyone should be able to navigate towards a tower by looking at it. But when it comes to other problems, many people make the same mistakes as the first four travelers.

  • The first traveler chooses a course of action, based on nothing more than assumption.
  • The second traveler sees someone else’s failure, and assumes that the opposite action must lead to success.
  • The third traveler commits the Fallacy of Moderation, assuming that the solution is some sort of “middle way” between the previous failures
  • The forth traveler has a good idea: consult with someone else who has already been successful. But his method is far too rigid. His plan depends on the idea that circumstances have not changed.

The first 3 travelers rely on nothing more than assumptions. The fourth uses information, but it’s (partly) irrelevant. The Teacher points out the value of immediate information. What can we know about our situation right now? And remember that “now” is constantly updating. Every step that you take, every turn that you make, changes your position with respect to the Tower. So it’s not good enough to look at the Tower once and plot a course from there. You must repeatedly look up, check to see where the Tower is, and update your plans as you go. (Also, if you take a path that seems good but in fact leads to a dead end, make a mental note of that and find another path.)

Let’s illustrate with an example.

Suppose that various people were each trying to start their own business.

  • The first decides to sell cheap products , even if they’re also low-quality. His business fails.
  • The second decides to sell high-quality products, even if they’re also expensive. His business fails.
  • The third decides to sell mid-range products, regarding both price and quality. His business fails.
  • The fourth decides to follow the exact strategy of a previous entrepreneur who was successful. Perhaps this involves a mix of products, or a particular advertising strategy, or whatever. But he fails to realize that his circumstances are different from his predecessor’s circumstances. His business fails.
  • The fifth takes the time to actually analyze his own personal situation, and the current status of the market. He collects information about what products will sell, what advertising will work, etc.. He constantly updates this information, tests his theories, and learns from his own experiences. (Though this does not preclude learning from others.) He may end up selling any type product, whether expensive or cheap or mid-range, but the point is that the product is actually suited for his unique skills and circumstances at this particular moment. He does not assume, like the others did. He learns, and he never stops learning. This man is the most likely to succeed.

Shaman Chess

2013 November 17
by sonicsuns

I propose a variation on chess, called Shaman Chess. It is played with a standard chess set, plus two “shaman” pieces. Each shaman starts the game two spaces in front of its queen.

Shamans can only move by switching places with another piece. There are two ways to do this:

  1. On your turn, you may switch your shaman with any other piece you have on the board, except for the king or queen.
  2. You may capture the enemy shaman. However, when you do so, the enemy shaman does not leave the board. Instead, it moves to the previous location of the capturing piece. (Afterwards, it still functions normally.)

There is no pawn promotion in shaman chess. However, there is pawn reclamation.  If you advance a pawn onto the enemy’s back row, you may move the pawn to any empty space within the first two rows on your side of the board. A pawn reclamation may count as one complete move, or it may be combined with another (possibly unrelated) move within the same turn. For instance, if you move a pawn onto the back row, you may choose to reclaim the pawn immediately, within that same turn. Alternately, you may leave the pawn on the back row indefinitely, and reclaim it at some point in the future, during your turn. (Obviously, if the pawn is captured in the interim, it cannot be used thereafter.) If you reclaim the pawn on some later turn, you may still move another piece during that turn, because pawn reclamation does not count as a normal move.

En passant captures are only permitted in cases of normal pawn movement. A pawn which moves via shaman switching is not vulnerable to en passant capture as a result.

In algebraic notation, the shaman is denoted by S.

I have two suggestions for the shape of the piece:

  1. Realistic: The shaman is a woman wearing a cloak, with her arms raised high.
  2. Abstract: The shaman is a sphere on top of a flat base. The sphere has spiraling lines on its surface, culminating at the top.

Variations:

  • Wild Shaman: The shaman may switch with the queen.
  • Supreme Shaman: The shaman may switch with the king or queen.
  • Void Shaman: The shaman begins the game outside the board, in a space called the “void”. Each shaman has its own void space, which can only be reached by shaman switching. Other pieces may occupy the void, if the shaman switches them there. When your shaman is in the void, you may switch it with any piece you have on the board, except your king. (Optional: Queens are also exempt.) When your shaman is on the board, it may only switch with the piece which is currently in its void. But the capture rule above still applies. (Optional: Friendly captures are permitted.)

Wash with like colors

2013 September 8
by sonicsuns

All my life, I’ve heard that it’s important to “wash with like colors” when you’re doing laundry. You have to do the whites in one load, and everything else in another load. If you mix them up, then the colors from the colored clothing will leak on to the whites, and you’ll wind up with green underwear or something.

All my life, I’ve ignored this advice. And the colored clothing has never leaked onto the white clothing.

Is this advice out of date? Perhaps modern clothing is made from different material than it used to be. Or perhaps there’s something different about modern washing machines…

Sometimes, well-known advice isn’t worth following.

Smug-faced crowds

2013 July 3
by sonicsuns

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

–Siegfried Sassoon

Looksism

2013 April 29
by sonicsuns

Looksism” (or “looks-ism”) means “judging people unfairly, based on their physical appearance and/or sex appeal.”

(Admittedly, “looksism” is kindof a cumbersome word. But I haven’t been able to think of anything better. “Appearance-ism”? “Sexiness-ism”? I’m willing to take suggestions, though.)

  • When men try to date sexy girls, while ignoring plain girls who might actually have better personalities, those men are committing looksism.
  • When your faith in a politician is bolstered because the politician is handsome, you are committing looksism.
  • When girls hate themselves just because they’re heavier than average, they are directing looksism at themselves.

Looksism is wrong. Looksism ruins lives.

I do not mean to say that it is wrong to appreciate someone’s physical beauty or sex appeal. If you see a sexy person, and your enjoy the sexiness, that’s fine. But if you see a sexy person and then assume that they are also honest or kind, or that they would make a for a good partner in marriage, or anything else like that, then you are committing looksism. Some sexy people are honest and some sexy people are not, and you really shouldn’t assume these things based on sexiness.

Conversely, if you see an unattractive person and you’re aware of the unattractiveness, that’s fine. But if you go on to assume that this person is also lazy or stupid or anything other such thing, then you are committing looksism.

It is not looksist to think “That woman is beautiful.”
It is looksist to think “That woman is beautiful, and therefore she is a good person.” (Or “That woman is ugly, and therefore she is a bad person”)
It is also looksist to think “That woman is beautiful, and beauty is the only quality that really matters when you judge someone.”

Looksism encompasses a wide variety of unfair assumptions. Just as it is looksist to think “That woman is sexy, therefore she is a good person”, it is also looksist to think “That woman is sexy, therefore she is a shallow person.” (Sexy people have personalities too, you know.)

Of course, it’s often tricky to separate “looksism” from “justified appreciation of physical beauty.” But they are different things, nonetheless.

Looksism is often combined with sexism; women tend to face more looksist attitudes than men. But looksism can fundamentally be applied to anyone, male or female.

Looksism is wrong.

Questioning Global Warming

2013 April 28
by sonicsuns

(I made errors in the first version of this post. Please see the updates below.)

The IPCC is, by far, the most prestigious scientific organization when it comes to Global Warming. I have long had faith in the IPCC, and in the idea that human-caused Global Warming is a serious problem that needs to be addressed soon.

But suddenly, I have doubts. I came across two articles recently that appear to prove that the IPCC has a terrible track record at predicting Global Warming. Namely, they claim that the IPCC has been predicted far more warming than has actually occurred. Furthermore, they claim that average global surface temperatures have scarcely risen (on average) for over 10 years. If true, these results throw the entire field of Climate Science into question.

The articles are here and here.

First graph:

Second graph, which deals with the 2007 AR4 report:

Important note: I don’t have reason to believe that either of these sources are especially trustworthy. But they claim to be getting their data from great sources, including the IPCC itself and the Met Office in Britain.

The big question is this: Are these graphs based on real data?

If the articles are simply making stuff up based on nothing (which certainly happens sometimes), then we have nothing to worry about. But if this is the real, actual data…then Global Warming appears to be tiny compared to what we expected.

The temperature data appears to be confirmed here, at least mostly.

One of the scientists from the DailyMail article says he was misrepresented…but his response never seems to refute the idea that the IPCC has been wrong four times in a row (95% confidence range!). He says that the “highest-response models” are “looking iffy”, which seems to indicate that, yes, errors have been made…and then he fails to address the magnitude of the errors alleged in the DailyMail article, which he is responding to.

I’ve tried searching for articles by climate scientists who refute these findings. I haven’t found much.

Michael Lemonick, a journalist, writes that surface temperatures have indeed stayed pretty steady for the last ten years. He says that although the surface temperatures haven’t been increasing, the ocean has been absorbing an unusual amount of heat. He says that the heat in the ocean will eventually return to the air around us, causing a quick increase in temperature. I can see how that might be true…but why didn’t the IPCC see this coming? The graphs above show confidence intervals for 95%. Is this ocean phenomenon really so rare? And how do you explain the IPCC being wrong 4 times in a row over several years?

I’m wary of post-hoc explanations. Perhaps the ocean argument is true, but perhaps it’s merely speculative (and wrong). Perhaps the climate scientists were simply wrong to begin with, and now they’re convincing themselves that it’s ok, because of this new development with the oceans. But if we don’t understand the oceanic absorption of heat well enough to account for the climate over a 10-year period…what else don’t we understand? I mean really, you’re not supposed to exit the 95% range four times in a row. That really indicates that the system is more complex than you realized.

Some may say that the long-term predictions of the IPCC will still come true, even though the short-term trends have failed. But how can we know? What reason do we have to trust the IPCC, considering their failures thus far?

Reuters, which I consider trustworthy, chimes in with this article: Climate scientists struggle to explain warming slowdown
There’s a response here, and a response to that response here.

Reuters dismisses the idea that the warming slowdown has been caused by a slowdown in carbon emissions, saying “Greenhouse gas emissions have hit repeated record highs with annual growth of about 3 percent in most of the decade to 2010, partly powered by rises in China and India. World emissions were 75 percent higher in 2010 than in 1970, UN data show.”

So…emissions are going up, but global warming is slowing down…and as far as I can tell, the graphs I showed earlier really did display real data, and the IPCC does in fact have a terrible track record with its predictions.

So…have we been wrong? All this time? I don’t know. If we have been wrong, three things:

  1. Yay! No more climate crisis!
  2. Oh crap, we’ve been misleading people all this time…
  3. We had better change some of these laws we set up!

I do not make any strong conclusions simply on the basis of these graphs. Considering the sheer weight of scientific consensus that “Global Warming is a big deal and we need to address it now”, I simply say that I have doubts about Global Warming. If I had the power to do so, I’d send out journalists and scientists to re-evaluate all the data we have, and figure out exactly what we do and don’t know, and where we have and haven’t been wrong. I wish the president or somebody would launch a serious investigation of this, and figure out exactly what is going on.

And if, in fact, we’ve been wrong all this time…we need to face that. There’s no point in ignoring reality. That’s not how science works.

Always check the data. Always admit to the truth. Even when it’s inconvenient.

Update:

Here’s another graph, from the same source as the first graph above:

Notice how the black line is higher than it was originally. Also, look at the brackets on the right side that indicate the confidence ranges of the reports. In most cases the black line still resides on the lower side of things, which indicates that the IPCC has indeed overpredicted Global Warming. But at least it’s in the ranges, instead of being below them entirely. And in the case of SAR, the black line seems to fit perfectly!

I don’t know why this graph is different from its predecessor. They’re from the same source, after all. Is this one just using a different sort of analysis, perhaps? Or has someone been sloppy?

Update 2: It seems the first graph simply drew a line between the first and last datapoints. Since 2012 was unusually cold, this brought the line lower. The second graph is more of a best-fit scenario considering all of the data, which makes the second graph more authoritative. (Climate change should always be measured according to long-term trends.) So the climate-skeptic case is weaker than I first thought when I wrote this post, but it’s still a lot stronger than I would have expected prior to seeing any of this data.

Update 3: The BBC chimes in: Climate Slowdown. It says that warming has indeed slowed down, and describes this trend as “unexplained”. It says that this new data lowers the probable short-term temperature forecast, but that the long-term forecast remains unchanged. But it’s really unclear about what counts as “short term” and “long term” in this context. The best I can figure is that “short term” runs to maybe 2100 (or maybe not as far as that), and “long term” is thousands of years. I think we can safely ignore any climate problems that won’t crop up for more than a century. After all, after a whole century has gone by, who knows what technology we might have? Carbon scrubbing could be simple, at that point.

I’m still not sure what to think about all this…

Update 4: A blog called ClimateDepot has published a long post on the (alleged) state of the science. Can this blog be trusted? I don’t know. But it links to other sources. Notably, it linked to an article where James Lovelock, a scientist, admitted that his earlier views of the climate had been “alarmist”. (Though his views had been really extreme to begin with.) More notably, Dr. Ivar Giaever, a Nobel-prize winning physicist, is mentioned as a firm skeptic of global warming. Physicist Hal Lewis felt similarly, until his death in 2011. There’s also a page on Dr. Lennart Bengtsson, formerly of the IPCC, who is also skeptical. (Many of his quotes are poorly translated, though.) Matt Ridley weighs in here.

All told, I’m still not sure what’s going on. It’s very difficult to keep track of all the different sources, and their various degrees of (possible) bias, and to adjust for degrees of certainty, and the difference between “The earth will heat up by one degree” vs. “The earth will heat up by one degree if X amount of carbon is emitted within Y amount of time.”, and to judge the accuracy of the latter statement when in fact we’ve emitted L amount of carbon within M amount of time.

It’s very confusing.

Update 5:

Here’s an article with plenty of graphs, describing the earth’s temperature according to various databases: Ten years of ‘accelerated global warming’ ? If this data can be trusted, it’s clear that global warming actually ended back in 1996, and the trend is actually slight cooling over the last 10 years.

We could imagine a situation in which global warming pauses for 16 years and then starts up again in earnest. But do we know that this will happen? What do we actually know, and what is speculation?

President Obama recently said that warming has accelerated over the last 10 years. If this data is correct, then Obama is utterly wrong. And if he’s utterly wrong, that demonstrates a disturbing disregard for the facts on his part.

What’s going on here? Is all this data simply wrong? Is it made up? Has it been misinterpreted somehow? Or is Anthropogenic Global Warming simply a crackpot theory, which persists despite massive contradictory evidence?

By the way, the initial graph for this post displayed confidence ranges of 90%, not 95%. I was wrong about that.

But still, I have great doubts about Anthropogenic Global Warming.

Update 6:

Some videos from Anthony Watt:

He posted a guest post about climate science here.

Update 7:
(4 January 2014)

Want to see a big technical post with lots of raw data? Here is is: http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/11/15/a-big-picture-look-at-earths-temperature-santer-17-update/

And here’ a year-end summary from Anthony Waats: http://wattsupwiththat.com/2014/01/04/2013-was-not-a-good-year-for-catastrophic-anthropogenic-global-climate-warming-change-disruption-wierding-ocean-acidification-extreme-weather-etc/

*sigh* At this point, I qualify as a Global Warming Skeptic. Call me a “denier” if you like. But I just don’t see how the mainstream theory can be reconciled with the data.

Here’s my rough sketch of the situation:

  • The earth is getting warmer. Slowly.
  • The earth will probably continue to get warmer over the next century. Slowly.
  • The current rate of warmth is not going to cause major problems. Our warmth-related problems will be minor.
  • The rate of warming is not likely to accelerate to such a degree that it produces major problems anytime during the next century.
  • Carbon, along with other man-made greenhouse gasses which we currently know of, has some power to warm the climate. But the effect is small. Perhaps it is so small as to be completely negligible.
  • The mainstream scientific community has it wrong. We all jumped onto a bandwagon, and we lost our impartiality.
  • I believe that believers in Global Warming are generally good people who honestly want to improve the world, and their biases are generally subconscious. This is not, as some right-wingers allege, a grand scheme to reduce our freedoms. This is largely a case of well-intentioned passion which overpowers our ability to think clearly.
  • Environmentalism in general is not rendered false simply because Global Warming is false. But we should re-evaluate each part of environmentalism individually, to see what does and does not make sense.

I admit I may be wrong. But this is my position at the moment.

Update 8:

The Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change is a skeptical organization.

More data: http://wattsupwiththat.com/2014/03/31/dataset-of-datasets-shows-no-warming-this-millennium/

BBC shows some dissent within the IPCC: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-26655779

Update 9:

Dr. Judith Curry, a climatologist, speaks out:

The more I research climate change, the more skeptical I get.

Update 10:

Nigel Lawson weighs in: Cool It

(last updated 4 May 2014)

Gun Control and Australia

2013 April 27
by sonicsuns

The Daily Show is a comedy show, but it also makes a lot of great points. The recent series about gun control and Australia was particularly informative.

(You can avoid the ads if you install Adblock Plus)

Part 1:

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Gun Control Whoop-de-doo
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Indecision Political Humor The Daily Show on Facebook

Part 2:

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Gun Control & Political Suicide
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Indecision Political Humor The Daily Show on Facebook

Part 3:

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Australia & Gun Control’s Aftermath
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Indecision Political Humor The Daily Show on Facebook

John C. Wright’s conversion to Christianity

2013 April 26
tags:
by sonicsuns

Notice: Christians (and other theists) who do like to have their beliefs challenged should probably not read this post.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was recently introduced to some Christian blogs. Today’s post is a response John C. Wright’s conversion story, which you can read here. (For background on my own views, you may browse my other posts on religion.)

He begins:

I am more than a presumably rational individual, I [was] a champion of atheism who gave arguments in favor of atheism so convincing that three of my friends gave up their religious belief due to my persuasive reasoning powers, and my father stopped going to church.

Upon concluding through a torturous and decades-long and remorseless process of logic that all my fellow atheists were horribly comically wrong about every basic point of philosophy, ethics and logic, and my hated enemies the Christians were right, I wondered how this could be. The data did not match the model.

Now, the atheists I know do not tend to be “horrible and comically wrong” about “every basic point of philosophy, ethics and logic”. It seems to me that Wright has known some especially irrational atheists. (I’d list QualiaSoup as an example of a very rational atheist. There’s also Carl Sagan, among many others.)

Wright continues:

For the first time in my life, I prayed, and said. “Dear God. There is no logical way you could possibly exist, and even if you appeared before me in the flesh, I would call it an hallucination. So I can think of no possible way, no matter what the evidence and no matter how clear it was, that you could prove your existence to me. But the Christians claim you are benevolent, and that my failure to believe in you inevitably will damn me. If, as they claim, you care whether or not I am damned, and if, as they claim, you are all wise and all powerful, you can prove to me that you exist even though I am confident such a thing is logically impossible. Thanking you in advance for your cooperation in this matter, John C. Wright.”

I decided to replicate Wright’s test. First I said the prayer almost exactly as he said it, attempting to speak to God in the same style as Wright. (I reworded things a bit to fit my views.) Then I got on my knees, closed my eyes and said another prayer, which I made up as I went along. Like Wright, I asked God to show himself to me. I’ll tell you the results at the end of this post.

Wright had a profound experience three few days after the prayer:

Three days later, with no warning, I had a heart attack, and was lying on the floor, screaming and dying.

-Then I was saved from certain death by faith-healing, after which–

-I felt the Holy Spirit enter my body, after which–

-became immediately aware of my soul, a part of myself which, until that time, I reasoned and thought did not exist-

-I was visited by the Virgin Mary, her son, and His Father-

-not to mention various other spirits and ghosts over a period of several days–

-including periods of divine ecstasy, and an awareness of the mystical oneness of the universe-

-And a week or so after that I had a religious experience where I entered the mind of God and saw the indescribable simplicity and complexity, love, humor and majesty of His thought, and I understood the joy beyond understanding and comprehended the underlying unity of all things, and the paradox of determinism and free will was made clear to me, as was the symphonic nature of prophecy. I was shown the structure of time and space.

-And then Christ in a vision told me that He would be my judge, and that God judges no man. I mentioned this event to my wife. Then about a month later, when I was reading the Bible for the first time beyond the unavoidable minimum assigned in school, I came across the passage in the book of John, a passage I had never seen before, and to which no Christian in my hearing had ever made reference, which said the same thing in the same words.

-And then I have had perhaps a dozen or two dozen prayers miraculously answered, so much so that I now regard it as a normal routine rather than some extraordinary act of faith.

Well, that’s quite an experience! The only awkward thing about it is that, overall, the evidence against the existence of the Christian God greatly outweighs the evidence for the existence of the Christian God (I’ll just call him “God” for the rest of this post). And yes, that’s still true after considering Wright’s conversion story. I’ll get to that in a bit.

Small note, Wright says:

Christ in a vision told me that He would be my judge, and that God judges no man

Isn’t Jesus just the incarnation of God? Aren’t they the same person? (Or “three persons, one god” as the vague saying goes.) So if Jesus judges people…how can it be that God does not judge people? But this is a minor point, so let’s move on.

Wright continues:

In hindsight, if only I had not been so arrogant,  I could have glanced around at the earth and sky, and seen the intricacy, wonder, and beauty of nature, regarded the unanswerable authority of the conscience within me, and known that I was a created being inside a created cosmos, not  a random sandheap blown for a season into a meaningless shape by blind winds. Any child can see it, and all children do.

A few points here:

  1. I acknowledge the intricacy, wonder and beauty of nature. But just because nature is wonderful doesn’t mean that God designed it. (I’d also like to point out that nature is flawed: In addition to providing us with air, nature has also provided smallpox.)
  2. Who’s to say that the human conscience is evidence of God? Isn’t it enough to say that human beings simply observe their surroundings, and can see for themselves that some actions are good and others are bad, that some actions bring happiness and others bring sadness? Isn’t that the basis of morality?
  3. If we were created out of randomness, why would that imply that our lives are meaningless? Perhaps there really is a basic Meaning to the world, a basic Law of Right and Wrong, just as there is a Law of Gravity. And happily, we happen to have the basic abilities to pursue Meaning and make the world Better. So we can still potentially have meaningful lives, even if we weren’t consciously designed for that purpose.
  4. Even assuming that there is a loving God who created the universe, what makes Wright so sure that Christianity is the one true religion? Well, his religious experience, of course. But I’ll cover that in a bit.

Wright continues:

So I was prepared to say adieu to logic and reason and just take things on faith, when I then found out that the only people who think you have to say adieu to logic and reason in order to take things on faith are crackpots both Christian and atheistic.

Every non-crackpot thinks faith is that on which you rely when unreasonable fears tempt you to disbelieve that to which your reason has consented. If your father says you can dive off the high dive with no risk of death, and he has never lied in the past, and your reason tells you to trust him, it is rational to take his word on faith and jump, and it is irrational to let your eyes overestimate the danger poised by the height.

I think that Wright is confusing three different definitions of the word “faith”. The definitions are:

  1. Belief in something
  2. Belief in something despite the evidence (or lack of evidence)
  3. Belief in something because of the evidence.

When the evidence shows you can jump off the high dive without injury, it requires Faith #3 to make the jump. When the evidence does not show that you can smoke cigarettes all your life and not increase the risk of cancer, in requires Faith #2 to keep smoking and ignore the risk.

Christian belief is largely based on Faith #2. The people who recognize this fact tend to use phrases like “I don’t need evidence; I have faith!” Then someone like Wright comes along and talks about “faith” in the sense of Faith #3, and it tends to confuse everybody. (Perhaps this is a small point, though.  You may ignore it if you like.)

Wright discusses how his atheist friends responded to his conversion experience:

They reasoned as follows: “God cannot possibly exist. Therefore any evidence that you encountered that God exists must be hallucination, mis-perception, faulty memory, self-deception, coincidence, or anything else no matter how farfetched and absurd. Since any evidence that you encountered that God exists must be hallucination, mis-perception, faulty memory, self-deception, coincidence, or anything else no matter how farfetched and absurd, therefore none of your evidence proves God exists.”

I found their perfect, childlike faith touching.

No matter what they saw, no matter what they heard, no matter how the world was against them, they would go to the lions rather than look at the evidence, lest their faith in their faithlessness be shaken.

Now, as I said earlier, it appears that Wright knows some very irrational atheists. According to Wright, these atheists treat the nonexistence of God as an axiom, and dismiss all evidence in favor of God on that basis. This, of course, is a terrible way to approach the subject of God.

You have to start with neutrality. Find the evidence in favor of God, and the evidence against God, and weigh them against each other. If you discover that God very likely does not exist, even after considering Wright’s testimony, then you may conclude that Wright was likely hallucinating or mis-remembering or whatever. But you can’t just start with “There is no God, because I said so.” That’s just stupid.

However, this seems to be a case in which stupid logic has produced a fairly accurate result. (That can happen sometimes, by pure chance.) Because when we actually look at the evidence, we do indeed find that the concept of God simply does not fit the data.

The train of thought should begin with something like this: “If God existed, the universe would look like this. But if God did not exist, the universe would look that that.” Then you take an objective look at the universe and figure out which scenario matches up. Are we living in a God-is-real universe, or a God-is-not-real universe? Where does the evidence take us? Which side wins out, in the end?

So let’s look at this God that Wright is proposing: This God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. (i.e. God is  all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving.) If that God existed, what would we expect to see in the universe? Well obviously, we’d expect to see that nobody suffers, or at least that nobody suffers any more than they properly deserve. Suffering should either be nonexistent, or it should be proportional to personal morality. Whichever of those scenarios you choose, or even if you somehow blend them together, there should be no exceptions whatsoever to the rules. After all, this is a Perfect God. He has no limitations at all (except in the sense that he’s Perfectly Moral and thus does not commit evil.)

Now let’s look at the universe. Is there suffering? YES! There is lots of suffering. For instance, millions of people have starved to death. (All around the world, for countless centuries). Well, that’s a bit odd…

But perhaps the suffering is proportional to personal morality. Perhaps only evil people starve to death, while good people are miraculously given food (like the manna which God allegedly gave to the ancient Hebrews.) Well…no. That doesn’t fit the data either. Innocent people starve to death all the time! Especially poignant are the stories of children who live in poor countries, and there’s a famine or whatever, and the kids starve to death despite being only 5 years old, and completely innocent of any crimes. And this applies to Christian families just as much as anyone else.

Now, considering all that, does it really make sense to believe in an Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omnibenevolent God? Seriously, go look at the websites of some of those hunger charities. Find the pictures of starving children they sometimes show. Look at those children and try to reconcile the idea that there is a Perfect God somewhere who could easily provide these kids with abundant food, at no personal cost or risk to himself. And he knows about the kids, because he knows everything. And he wants to help the kids, because he’s all-loving (or at least he loves innocent people). And he has the ability to help the kids, because he’s all-powerful! And yet….somehow…he doesn’t help the kids…

It just doesn’t make sense. It makes no sense at all.

Christians, of course, try to defend their belief by making excuses for God. “It’s ok,” they say, “because the kids are going to heaven!”. First off, I’d like to have some evidence that heaven actually exists. Secondly, I’d like to point out that you would never make that excuse for anyone else. If an actual human being decided to let the child starve, when he could have easily fed the child at no cost to himself, you would call him a monster. But when God does the exact same thing, it’s ok!

Now tell me, Christians: Are you really being rational about this? Or are you just being biased?

And heck, I’ve only talked about starvation. I could easily go on and on about diseases, droughts, hurricanes, meteors, murderers, or any number of other things that have killed innocent people before. If God really existed, he could have stopped all of these…but he didn’t. You know why he didn’t? There are only two possibilities:

  1. There is a God, but he doesn’t have all the qualities that you attribute to him. Maybe he’s all-loving, but he’s not all-powerful. (Or whatever.) A limited God, in other words.
  2. There is no God. God does not exist.

In either case, Christian theology is wrong.

You can go on making excuses if you want. You can point to the experience of George Mueller, for instance. He was a devout Christian who ran orphanages. On several occasions they almost ran out of food, but they were saved by last-minute donations. Mueller thought that this was directed by God. The trouble, of course, is that plenty of other orphanages in the world really have run out of food at one time or another, or else they got hit by a tornado or a plague or something, and children died. If God helped Mueller with his orphans…why doesn’t he help all the other orphans? Or hey, here’s an idea: Maybe the last-minute donations were not directed by God. Maybe they were just the actions of good-hearted humans, who had either heard that the kids were running out of food, or they simply showed up at the right time due to coincidence. In light of all the innocents who suffer in the world, the non-God explanation makes a lot more sense to me.

Another excuse is that God works in “mysterious ways”, and therefore somehow it’s ok when he lets innocent children starve to death. I can understand how God might be mysterious, but this excuse is simply nonsense. You’re basically saying that you can’t explain the situation, but you’re sure that God is real because…well, you never really get to that part. It’s Mysterious.

Really, now. Look around you. Are we living in the God-is-real universe, or the God-is-not-real universe? Of the two, the answer is clearly the latter. (If you’d like to propose a limited God, we can have a separate discussion about that. But that’s not what Wright is proposing, so I’m mostly ignoring it for now.)

There are many parts of Christian theology that don’t make sense. But the Problem of Evil is probably the most obvious. It also helps to know that Jesus was likely a myth to begin with, and faith-healing doesn’t seem to work. (Granted, one historian and one study do not automatically settle the debate. But as far as I’ve seen, the overall evidence still leans heavily toward God-does-not-exist.) Also, it’s interesting how various people believe that they’re in direct contact with Jesus (aka God), yet somehow they disagree on what Jesus wants us to do. Are they really all talking to the same divine being? Are they talking to any divine beings?

There are so many things that just don’t add up…

Wright says:

I then discovered that the Christian world view makes sense of much that the atheistic or agnostic worldview cannot make sense of, and even on its own philosophical terms, is a more robust explanation of the cosmos and man’s place in it, answering many questions successfully that atheists both claim cannot be answered, and then, without admitting it, act in their lives as if the question were answered, such as how to account for the rational faculties of man, the universality of moral principles, the order of the cosmos, how best to live, etc.

The Christian worldview actually does not make sense in light of the evidence I just cited. And I don’t see what exactly atheists lack. We have plenty of plausible answers to the Big Questions. Our answers aren’t perfect, I’m sure. But that doesn’t mean that the Christians are any better.

My answers:

  1. The cosmos as we know it was created in the Big Bang. (I don’t know why the Big Bang occurred in the first place, but it’s better to admit ignorance that to invent a baseless answer.)
  2. Man originally evolved from other forms of life on planet Earth. Our place (as far as I can tell), is to pursue Compassion and Wisdom, while discarding Cruelty and Ignorance. (Again, not perfect. But it’s something.)
  3. The rational faculties of man came about through evolution. Originally this was just a method for devising better ways to stay alive and pass on genetic code. Nowadays, we have reached such levels of intelligence that we can ignore those basic goals and pursue other goals if we want to. (In a way, we’ve gone beyond the normal process of evolution.)
  4. Universal moral principles exist in the same way that Gravity exists. I don’t know where they came from, but I can perceive that they are real.
  5. The order of the cosmos is governed by physical laws. Its meaning is governed by moral laws.
  6. It is best to live with compassion and wisdom. We should seek to end needless suffering and to improve human life in general.

Christianity provides other answers to these questions. And in some ways those answers are more appealing than the ones I’ve listed here. Unfortunately, Christian theology simply doesn’t fit the facts. The aesthetic appeal of that theology should not blind us to the truth.

And again, just because I don’t have a perfect explanation for everything doesn’t mean that Christianity is automatically superior. It is better to admit your ignorance than to adopt baseless answers.

Wright continues:

One skeptic, in a bit of a lapse of his vaunted presumably rational character, told me solemnly that I could not possibly have had Jesus tell me something from a book in the Bible I had never read before. He said that I had read it afterward, and developed the previously undiscovered ability to edit and rewrite my memories, which I then used on myself, so that I only thought I remembered Jesus telling me about the nonjudgmentalism of God. The memory was created after I read the passage, and then back-dated. Then I used this power again to make myself forget that I had the power to make myself forget things.

I asked him if I also had the power to rewrite my wife’s memory, since she remembers me telling her about the passage before I read it. He then tried to cut the conversation off, while accusing me of being irrational.

At this point, everything Wright says has to be weighed against the evidence for the nonexistence of God that I’ve already cited. That means that the case for memory alteration is a lot stronger than it would be otherwise.

Memory alteration is a real thing. It’s not a point-and-click process, of course. And it’s not something that you do consciously. But unconsciously, memories can be altered in order to fit your own biases and beliefs. (I recommend a book called Mistakes were made, but not by me. It discusses self-justification and unconscious memory alteration.)

That said, the atheist here is proposing a needlessly complex theory. Here’s a simpler one: Sometime before his deep religious experience, Wright heard about this passage in the Bible. There are over 2 billion Christians in the world, so it’s not too strange to suggest that he heard this passage from someone, at some point. (In fact, he mentions that he had read parts of the Bible in school! Isn’t it possible that this “unavoidable minimum” actually included the Book of John, which he later misremembered as being some other book? So perhaps he had read this passage before, but he didn’t realize it. Or maybe he saw it on a poster, or whatever. Somehow he encountered this passage.) Then he forgot about it, in the perfectly normal way of forgetting. Upon converting, Wright was thinking a lot about God. He remembered this passage, though he didn’t remember where he had first encountered it, and assumed instead that this memory was actually the Voice of God. He mentioned the passage to his wife, telling her that God had told him about it. Then he later discovered that passage in the Bible.

Notice there’s no need for memory alteration in this theory, aside from the normal sense of forgetting something, remembering it again, and mis-attributing the source. And it easily explains what happened with his wife.

Wright continues:

Another atheist told me I induced a heart attack in myself with my previously undiscovered heart-attack inducing power. And then cured the heart pain with my previously undiscovered heart-attack-curing power. I did both things in order to convince myself falsely of a doctrine I did not believe and had no interest in believing, but, unbeknownst to myself, my secret desire to believe was so great that it overwhelmed and sanity and seized control of my subconscious biological and cardiovascular processes. When I questioned him about such things as whether he was familiar with my medical record, or when I asked to see the evidence supporting this theory, he called me names.

I’m guessing that Wright simply had a heart attack for normal reasons. Somehow or other this near-death experience caused his religious experience.

Is that a thorough explanation? No. Is it common for people suffering from heart-attacks to convert to other religions? No. But considering the evidence I cited for the non-existence of God, it’s more plausible that a normal heart attack (and subsequent near-death experience) caused the conversion, as opposed to the idea that God gave Wright a heart-attack and then revealed himself to Wright via divine power.

Also, note how Wright describes his attitude toward Christianity at the outset of the heart attack:

[Christianity was] a doctrine I did not believe and had no interest in believing

That strikes me as being quite odd, because earlier in the post Wright made another description of his pre-heart-attack feelings on Christianity:

Upon concluding through a torturous and decades-long and remorseless process of logic that all my fellow atheists were horribly comically wrong about every basic point of philosophy, ethics and logic, and my hated enemies the Christians were right, I wondered how this could be. The data did not match the model.

So, prior to the heart attack, Wright believed that the “the Christians were right” regarding “every basic point of philosophy, ethics and logic”. It sure sounds to me like he was half-converted already! If that was the case, is it really fair for him to describe Christianity as something he “had no interest in believing” at that time? I agree that he was not actually a Christian until after the heart attack, but it certainly seems plausible that he was interested in Christianity. Perhaps we could even say that he wanted to believe, despite his claim that he had “no interest” in it.

It’s something to ponder, anyway.

(No, I’m not saying that Wright probably gave himself a heart attack. But I’ll return to this point about prior-half-conversion later in the post.)

Wright continues:

Another atheist told me that that heart failure was a coincidence, not a direct result of my prayer tempting God Almighty, and if that had not happened, something else like a car accident would have happened, and since I am irrational, I would have drawn an improper post hoc ergo propter hoc conclusion no matter what happened, on the grounds that God cannot exist no matter what the evidence says nor how obvious it is, and so anyone who draws the obvious conclusions from the evidence MUST be irrational.

I’m guessing that if Wright had not experienced near-death soon after his prayer, he would not have converted to Christianity. It’s just a coincidence that he had the heart attack soon after his prayer. (Side note: Why did God decide to wait for three days, anyway?)

And again, I don’t disbelieve in God regardless of the evidence. I disbelieve in God because of the evidence. The atheist he cites seems to be irrational.

Wright continues:

In general, the argument that I am impeached as a witness on the grounds that my testimony did not confirm the prejudices and assumptions of a third party is not one likely to prevail in a court of law, or as a debate among sober philosophers, scientists, nor anyone trained in rigorous reasoning.

Wright, I do not impeach you as a witness because your testimony does not conform to an arbitrary belief. I impeach you as a witness because your testimony does not conform to reality, as measured by objective observation.

And so far not one atheist has approached me with a legitimate argument, such as the Problem of Pain, or the Paradox of Determinism, or any apparent inconsistencies in the Bible.

Again, Wright, you appear to have been talking to irrational atheists. But now that you’ve brought it up…how do you explain the Problem of Pain?

Actually, you don’t explain it. Not in this post, anyway.

(Also, by the way, there are plenty of inconsistencies and errors in the bible.)

Wright continues:

My question for [atheists] is this: if science discovered tomorrow that the universe was half its apparent age, and estimated the stars as half their current number, would the believe in God somehow be twice as credible in your eyes?

If so, why so?

If not, then, logically, the age of the universe and the number of stars has no bearing on the credibility of belief in God or in the Incarnation.

Wright has made an error in his logic. Christian theology consists of several beliefs. Here’s a small sample:

  1. The universe was created by God
  2. The universe is less than 20,000 years old
  3. Jesus Christ was born of a virgin
  4. Jesus Christ came back from the dead
  5. Good Christians go to heaven after they die

If we discovered tomorrow that the universe was only 7 billion years old (instead of 14 billion), then Belief #2, listed above, would indeed become about twice as plausible than before. (It would still be ridiculously small compared to reality, but it would be less ridiculous.) But Belief #2 is only a small part of Christianity, so the plausibility of Christianity as a whole would only increase by a small amount. And thus, the belief in God would become more plausible by a small amount. A very small amount.

But yes, indeed, our data about the universe really does matter when judging whether God exists.

Wright continues:

Again, if you are attempting to persuade me that I should not believe in unusual events or unheard-of or hard-to-believe on the grounds that no unusual nor unheard-of nor hard-to-believe events never happen, simple logic shows that this cannot be the case:

Logically, every ordinary event is unheard-of before we hear of it; and the first example of even repeated events is unusual until the second example occurs; and events are hard-to-believe when and only when our expectations and our experience does not match: therefore every novelty is as incredible as the platypus when first encountered. Therefore not only do incredible events happen, they must happen, for if they did not, the concept of credibility could not exist.

At one time, there were reports of a newly-discovered creature called a platypus. People said “That’s unheard of! It cannot exist!”. But it was later proven that the reports were true. The platypus really does exist.

Around the same time, there were reports of creatures called mermaids. People said “That’s unheard of! It cannot exist!”. It was later proven that the reports were false. Mermaids do not exist.

So yes, indeed, some things which seem impossible turn out to be true. Other such things turn out to be false. So, what about God? Is God like the platypus, or is he more like the mermaid? How would we know the difference? By checking the evidence, of course. Which I’ve already done, earlier in this post.

If, on the other hand, you are arguing that I ought not believe reports of miracles on that grounds that miracles do not exist, and that we know miracles do not exist on the grounds that no believable reports of them are heard, you are arguing in a circle.

You ought not to believe in miracles, on the basis that countless supposedly miraculous events have been better explained with non-miraculous explanations. (And by “better”, in mean that the theory better fits the evidence, overall.) If you find a specific alleged miracle in which the non-miraculous explanations make less sense, in light of all the evidence, than the miraculous explanation, then you you may believe in that specific miracle. But considering the evidence supporting the non-existence of God, it’s hard to imagine what miracle could be so convincing, and so clearly miraculous, as to be logically considered an actual miracle. (And no, you’re not allowed to jump straight from “I don’t know how this happened” to “God did it!“. You have to be more thorough than that.)

Wright continues:

You are also implying that the human race, all of whom believe in gods, ghosts, magic and miracles of one sort or another, except for that exquisitely tiny minority of persons who are consistent atheists, just so happened to have all made the same lapse of judgment in the matter of paramount and foundational importance in their lives, and continue to do so, some of whom would go to the lions rather than reexamine the aforesaid lapse of judgment. While it is possible that everyone during the parade is out of step except the fond mother’s son in the old joke, this would seem to be as unusual, unheard-of and hard-to-believe as a Virgin birth, if not more so.

Ah, the argument from popularity. There are several responses to this.

First, Wright himself disregards this argument when it comes to most of Christian theology. It is indeed true that the vast majority of people believe in “gods, ghosts, magic and miracles of one sort or another”. But it is also true that the large majority of people disbelieve in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. They also disbelieve in the idea that faith in Christ will bring them eternal life.  So I can use Wright’s logic against himself: He is implying that most of the human race, which disbelieves in the resurrection of Christ,  just so happens to have all made the same lapse of judgment in a matter of paramount and foundational importance in their lives, and continue to do so, some of whom would go to the lions rather than reexamine the aforesaid lapse of judgment.

Wright takes popularity as a sign that Christianity is true, except when it comes to those areas in which Christianity is not popular…in which case popularity suddenly doesn’t matter anymore. (This would be ok, if the evidence was still in his favor overall. But it’s not.)

Second, I can use Wright’s logic against him again by citing that earlier bit about things which seem absurd but are later proven true. After all, if the vast majority of people believe in a God, then by definition atheism seems absurd to them. It’s “unheard-of”, or “unthought-of”, to their way of thinking. Thus I can write: Logically, every true idea is unthought-of before we think of it; and the first example of even “obvious” ideas is unusual until the second example occurs; and ideas are hard-to-believe when and only when our pre-existing beliefs and our experience do not match: therefore every novelty is as incredible as the “earth is round” theory when first encountered.

When Christianity seems absurd, Wright says that absurdity is no reason to dismiss it. But when atheism seems absurd (as judged by its popularity), Wright takes this as a sign that atheism is wrong. (This would be ok, if the evidence was still in his favor overall. But it’s not.)

And note how Wright uses the steadfast devotion of certain theists as implicit evidence that theism must be true:

some of [these theists] would go to the lions rather than reexamine the aforesaid lapse of judgment.

But on that note, remember how Wright himself described the irrational atheists earlier on:

No matter what they saw, no matter what they heard, no matter how the world was against them, they would go to the lions rather than look at the evidence, lest their faith in their faithlessness be shaken.

When theists are deeply devoted to their belief in God, Wright appears to take that as a sign that God is real. But when atheists are deeply devoted to their nonbelief in God, Wrights takes that as a sign that the atheists are simply being stubborn and irrational. (Though again, I agree that these particular atheists really were irrational. I’m just pointing out how Wright judges theists and atheists by different standards.)

Wright doesn’t appear to have any solid evidence to support his argument that God exists. Or rather, he doesn’t have so much evidence as to overpower all the signs that God does not exist.

“But what about his experience of God?”, you may ask. “Doesn’t that count as substantial evidence?”

Well no, for the reasons I already mentioned. But here’s one more point: If we decide to believe in God because of Wright’s testimony, we must also believe in alien abductions, due to the testimony of abductees.

There are many people who believe they were abducted by aliens, who fit Wright’s basic mold:

  • Previously, they did not believe in alien abductions
  • They had no history of mental illness
  • Then they had an abduction experience, which they could later recall in great detail
  • They formed a deep conviction that this experience was real

There are differences, of course. Alien abduction seems to start with Sleep Paralysis in most cases, and I don’t think Wright had that. It also tends to be furthered by hypnosis, which “reveals” (actually invents) further details about the experience. I don’t think Wright has ever seen a hypnotist. But still, the fact remains that people can have profound fictitious experiences if the circumstances are right.

Fundamentally, I think that’s what happened to him. Somehow, some way, the circumstances were right and he had a vivid hallucination of Jesus etc..

If that still seems far-fetched, let me remind you of two things:

  1. As I mentioned earlier, it appears that Wright had already half-converted before his heart attack. He had concluded that the atheists were wrong, and furthermore that the Christians were right, with regards to “every basic point of philosophy, ethics and logic”. Considering that this attitude already existed in his mind at the time of his near-death experience, doesn’t that make it plausible that he would suffer pro-Christian delusions?
  2. There’s a lot of evidence that the Christian God does not exist. Hence, it would seem that any experience of that God is probably an illusion. (But no, I don’t take the nonexistence of God as an axiom. Review what I said earlier.)

Of course, maybe Wright just knows something I don’t. Maybe he has some noncommunicable evidence. But I doubt it.

I honestly tried to replicate his test: I prayed for God to reveal himself to me. Three days later…nothing happened. No heart attack, no near-death experience, no faith healing, no miracles, no visitations from divine beings, no sudden sense of the oneness of the universe…nothing. Three whole days went by and nothing happened which even slightly demonstrated the existence of God. Nothing whatsoever.

Maybe God’s just biding his time for some reason. If I do have a profound God-based experience sometime soon, I’ll update this post. But I don’t think that will ever happen. (Update: It’s been 3 months now, and nothing has happened. Recently my aunt, who is a very devout Christian, prayed over me with great passion. But I still haven’t received any divine signs or visitations. I remain an atheist, and I’m comfortable with that.)

Some will say that God works in mysterious ways. They’ll say that he heard my prayer and simply decided not to answer. Or maybe he did answer, but in a way I didn’t notice or acknowledge.

But really, considering all the other arguments I’ve put forth, both in this post and in my other posts on the subject, what’s more likely? That the Christian God really exists as advertised, and all the evidence against him is somehow bunk? Or that the Christian God simply doesn’t exist in the first place?

Wright, I’m sure you had a profound experience. I haven’t been through that experience myself, so I won’t pretend to understand what it felt like. Nor will I claim that your Christian beliefs have necessarily degraded your life. For all I know, your conversion was a great change and it helped you to become a better person. I don’t pretend to know things like that, one way or the other.

All I do know is that, to the best of my judgment, the evidence against the existence of your God massively outweighs the evidence in his favor. Your testimony is not enough to outweigh all the contrary evidence. Even the collective testimony of many similar converts still pales in comparison to the anti-God evidence. (Especially when you consider all the people who have had profound experiences which led them to convert to other religions…but I digress.)

I don’t hate you. I’m not angry at you. I’m not laughing at you. I’m not even saying that you’re generally an irrational person. (In fact, you seem like a smart guy!) I’m just saying that I think you’re being irrational on this one particular issue. Your evidence is insufficient.

I remain an atheist. Specifically, a humanist.

But anyway, regardless of what you believe, I wish you well.

(Updated 28 April 2013, 31 July 2013)

Magic Martial Arts

2013 April 25
by sonicsuns

I found something funny in the middle of this article:

Yanagi Ryuken, an aikido practitioner in Japan, managed to convince many people — himself among them — that he had mastered the “no-touch knockout”: an ability to vanquish his opponents without even touching them. The first of these two videos [...] shows Yanagi effortlessly thwarting dozens of his students as they appear to attack him:

In the second video, he confronts a martial artist not in on the delusion, and that second martial artist punches Yanagi in the face.


Let’s take this as a reminder that claims need to be tested in proper circumstances. It’s not enough to show that the master can prevail against his own students. We have to see how he fares against an outsider.

And now that we’ve shown that Yanagi is not a skilled as he seemed, we have to wonder: What’s going on in the first video? Ordinarily, I would say it’s simply a fake. I would say that everyone in the video is in on it; they’re all just pretending that Yanagi is amazing, so their school can get more attention or more funding or whatever.

The trouble is this: If Yanagi knew he was a fake, why did he agree to fight with an outsider in the second video? Perhaps he thought the strength of his reputation would send the opponent to the ground. Or perhaps (as the bold text states), Yanagi actually believed that he had the ability to knock people down without touching them. That is a strange idea…and somewhat frightening…

If Yanagi really thought he had mastered this technique, it’s a reminder of how people can be irrational without realizing it.

Here’s another video, which I found at this site:

Truly, the human capacity for self-deception is incredible.

Dawkins, Religion, and Mehdi Hasan

2013 April 25
tags:
by sonicsuns

Richard Dawkins, a famous atheist, recently composed some controversial tweets on his twitter feed. I learned about the tweets here.

The topic was a journalist named Mehdi Hasan. Hasan writes for the New Statesman. He is also a practicing Muslim.

Dawkins wrote:

Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed [sic] flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist.

Let’s dissect Dawkin’s assertions. (Dawkin’s beliefs are in bold, and my responses are below them.)

Mendi Hasan believes that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse.

On this, we agree. Hasan really does believe that.

It is ridiculous to believe that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse. This belief is not supported by the evidence.

Once again, I agree. Though I hasten to add there is nothing specifically Muslim about this problem.

  • Christians: It is ridiculous to believe that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.
  • Jews: It is ridiculous to believe that the ancient Hebrews were freed from slavery in Egypt via a series of miraculous plagues.
  • Hindus: It is ridiculous to believe that people are subject to a cycle of reincarnation
  • Buddhists: It is ridiculous to believe that Buddha, or any of his followers, has ever displayed supernatural powers.

Ridiculous beliefs in the supernatural don’t have to involve religion at all:

  • It is ridiculous to believe in ghosts
  • It is ridiculous to believe in astrology
  • It is ridiculous to believe in fairies
  • It is ridiculous to believe in telepathy

Anyone who believes that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse cannot be a serious journalist.
Or, more broadly: Anyone who believes in something ridiculous cannot be a serious journalist.

This is where we disagree.

First off, it should be obvious that this belief about Muhammad has no practical effect on Hasan’s work as a journalist. It’s not as if he’s thinking to himself “Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, therefore I shouldn’t double-check my facts or quote my sources accurately.” These are two separate areas of thought.

Secondly, lots of people have done great work as journalists, despite their supernatural beliefs. Personally, I’m a big fan of Bill Moyers. Moyers believes that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, which is ridiculous. But that doesn’t stop him from being a great journalist! He’s highly intelligent and I value his work. (Some will ask how I can remain an atheist when I openly admit that many intelligent people are theists. The answer is that the raw evidence just doesn’t add up. Also, I can name intelligent people who are atheists like myself. For instance, I.F. Stone.)

Modern journalism has lasted for a century or two, depending on how you define it. During that time, the vast majority of humans on this planet have believed in supernatural powers. Journalists, as far as I know, are no exception to the trend. And yet there’s been plenty of good journalism regardless. (There’s also been plenty of bad journalism, but in most cases I don’t think the badness is actually the result of religion or supernaturalism.)

And of course, this principle extends beyond journalism. There are plenty of plumbers, designers, architects, soldiers, writers, singers, bakers, teachers, carpenters, scientists and whatever-else who all have ridiculous beliefs regarding the supernatural, and yet they still do an excellent job when it comes to their primary profession.

Dawkin’s wrote a follow-up tweet, saying:

You’d ridicule palpably absurd beliefs of any other kind. Why make an exception for religion?

Personally, I don’t make an exception for religion. If someone believes in UFO abduction, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s a bad journalist. If I’m going to judge him as a journalist I’ve got to examine his work as a journalist.

For yet another example, consider Edgar Mitchell, a U.S. astronaut who was the sixth man to walk on the moon. Edgar believed in such nonsense as remote healing and alien visitation, stating that he is “90 percent sure that many of the thousands of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, recorded since the 1940s, belong to visitors from other planets”. Here we have an example of nonsense that actually seems somewhat germane to the man’s profession: He’s a former astronaut who believes that aliens have visited our planet. And yet, despite this ridiculous belief, Mitchell was a perfectly capable astronaut. He did his job well.

Some people do make unfair exceptions for religion. But the defense of Hasan is not based on such exceptions. The defense of Hasan is based on Hasan’s actual work as a journalist.

Dawkin’s criticism is unfair.

Causing offence

2013 April 24
tags:
by sonicsuns

They say that the only way to avoid offending people is to keep your mouth shut. Anything you say will be offensive to somebody, at some point.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that all statements are equal. Some statements are wise and others are foolish. Some statements are kind and others are cruel. So the speaker can’t simply dismiss all criticism by pointing out that everything offends somebody at some point.

At the same time, people should be free to make reasonable statements, even when they may cause offense.

I’ve mostly offended people by talking about religion. I’m an atheist (specifically, a Humanist), and I don’t have any supernatural beliefs. I think that most people believe in a lot of nonsense. However, I am very aware that religion has a good side. Lots of people find hope, joy, morality and community through religion. All of these are good things! I place high value on hope, joy, morality and community, despite the fact that I’m an atheist. (In fact, there is really no contradiction between atheism and goodness.)

The Christian says “Be good, because Jesus said so.”

The Humanist says “Be good, because it’s the right thing to do.”

We agree on the most important matters. The rest is just details.

So please, do not misunderstand my motives. When I criticize your religion, it’s not because I want to rob you of hope, or joy, or morality or community. I’m not trying to drag you down. I’m trying to enlighten you.

And if in fact I am foolish, if in fact there is a God and I just don’t see him for some reason, then at least I am an honest fool, a well-intentioned fool. Do not assume that I am some sort of villain who aims to insult or destroy. I am only trying to help.

I do not aim to offend. I only aim to enlighten. If the truth is offensive, then I am sorry to offend, but the truth must be told nonetheless. (Though again, there’s always the chance that I’m wrong and you have the truth.)

I am only trying to help.

*hugs*

The Rules of War

2013 April 23
by sonicsuns

The basic Rules of War, to my way of thinking:

Rule One: War must only be fought for good reasons. The essential purpose of the war must be to preserve human rights and advance the general welfare of humanity. (In World War 2, the Axis broke Rule One, but the Allies more-or-less followed it.)

Rule Two: Civilians must not be harmed. There is always the chance of accidents, and of course civilians suffer indirect harm when their loved ones take up arms and are killed on the battlefield. But as much as possible, civilians must not be harmed. And no military force should use civilians as human shields, because that seriously increases their risk of being harmed.

Rule Three: Combatants who are out of the fight must not be harmed. If a combatant surrenders, or is captured, or is wounded such that he can’t fight any longer, he must not be harmed. Such combatants may be confined, to prevent them from joining the fight again, but they may not be tortured, abused of killed.

Injustice at Guantanamo

2013 April 22
by sonicsuns

I’ve written about this before, so I’ll just leave these links:

https://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/15/opinion/hunger-striking-at-guantanamo-bay.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-22246527

Heck, even Fox News quoted an ex-Bush official who admitted that many of the people held at Guantanamo are innocent: http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2009/03/19/ex-bush-official-guantanamo-bay-innocent/

We’re abusing innocent people! And we’re ok with this??

My old essay on American corruption: http://www.sonicsuns.net/mainblog/archives/my-government-is-corrupt

As always, the best source for information on these issues is Glenn Greenwald.

A strange tragedy

2013 April 22
tags:
by sonicsuns

An old co-worker emailed me recently. He said he had been reading this blog, and he sent me links to other blogs written by committed Christians. Apparently, my co-worker is trying to convert me. (This is ok, by itself. He has every right to make his case, and there’s always the chance that I’ve been wrong all this time.)

He mentioned these three blogs:

The last of those is the most intriguing, and it inspired this post.

Unequally Yoked is written by a woman who grew up in an atheist household. In time, she began to question her beliefs. She studied Christianity thoroughly, and eventually became a Christian. (Specifically, a Catholic.)

I’m sure many would consider this to be a great example of the power of Christianity. Surely, they would say, the evidence supporting Christianity must be really massive! After all, it converted an intelligent girl who was raised as an atheist, and who made a thorough study of the topic before converting.

The only trouble with this idea is that I have exactly the opposite story.

I was raised as a Christian. (Specifically, a Methodist.) At first my faith was superficial, but starting in 6th grade I developed a deep and abiding faith. I wanted to live my whole life in dedication to Jesus Christ. But in time, I began to question my beliefs. I studied Atheism thoroughly, and eventually I became an Atheist. (Specifically, a Humanist.)

So now we have one girl who grew up as an atheist and then converted to Christianity based on the facts, versus one guy who grew up as a Christian and then converted to Atheism based on the facts.

And here’s the tragedy: One of us is wrong.

We can’t both be right! Either there is good reason to believe in God, or else there is no good reason to believe in God. And either way, whoever is right, someone has made a massive error in judgment. Because we’re not mild in our beliefs; we don’t each think that we simply have a 51% change of being right. She believes very firmly that God exists, and I believe firmly that no God has been proven to exist (and thus that we should disbelieve in God).

And yes, I did read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. It was nonsense.

This girl is clearly intelligent. So am I. (Sorry if that seems like bragging.) We’re both intelligent people. And clearly, we’ve both given this a lot of thought. But we’ve reached opposite conclusions.

And that leaves us with an obvious fact: It is possible for an intelligent person to think about an issue thoroughly, and still reach a very wrong conclusion.

And that’s just sad. Regardless of who is right or wrong (I’ll probably review these blogs later), it’s sad to know that such wrongness exists.

After all, if intelligent people can be wrong about religion, what else are they wrong about?

How to reduce gerrymandering

2013 April 12
by sonicsuns

Gerrymandering is the practice of arranging political districts (such as congressional districts) so as to bias the results. For instance, you could have a state where 50% of people are republican and 50% are democratic, but then you could gerrymander the districts such that 60% of the elections will result in a republican victory.

There’s a simple way around this. When it’s time to change the district lines (or when X years have gone by), give everyone the opportunity to submit election maps for consideration. A nonpartisan system of rules will judge which is the best map. (In order to apply these rules, you’ll need  polling data, determining not only which party people favor but also where each person lives.)

Rule #1: Every district must be contiguous. In other words, you can’t take several unconnected pieces of land and call that a “district”. This rule is already the law of the land, thanks to the courts.

Rule #2: Districts must have roughly the same population as each other. So the most populous district may not have more than (for instance) 10% more people than the least popular district.

Rule #3: The district map must lead to results that fit with the people’s overall political leanings. Conduct a virtual election, assuming everyone votes for a candidate of the party they favor most. (This is where we use the polling data.) For instance, suppose that the state is half democratic and half republican. One map runs a virtual election and finds 58% of the seats go to democrats. Another map runs a virtual election and finds that 53% of the seats go to democrats. The second map is superior, because it more closely resembles the overall feeling of the state.

Rule #4: Townsplitting is discouraged. This is used as a tiebreaker, in case several maps reach the same results in the virtual elections. The idea here is that people who live in the same town should probably be in the same district. After all, they live under the same local laws, so they’re a little more likely to have similar interests. Every map gets a townsplitting score, calculated like this: Look at every town in the state. If the town belongs to a single district, that’s worth one point. If it’s split between two districts, that’s worth two points. Three districts, three points. etc.. The map with the lowest townsplitting score is the winner.

If multiple maps tie in the virtual elections and the townsplitting scores, then the legislature can simply vote which one to adopt. This might be a chance for corruption to creep in, but by this point all the really bad maps have been removed, so it’s not a big deal.

Another method to fix gerrymandering is to use Mixed Membership Proportional representation.

Doctor Who: New Time Society

2013 April 12
by sonicsuns

This post will only make sense to ardent fans of Doctor Who. If you’re not a fan already, skip this post.

In classic Doctor Who, the Doctor was not the only Time Lord. He was merely one member of a whole Time Lord society, centered on the planet Gallifrey. This led to several characters, such as the Master, the Rani and the Meddling Monk. It also led to several storylines, such as the Doctor being put on trial. Unfortunately, this also made things hard for new viewers. Time Lords kept mucking about in each others’ business, making everything hard to understand.

When the series was rebooted in 2005, the Time Lords were gone. Aside from the Doctor himself, the entire race had perished in an offscreen Time War with the Daleks. This made things much easier on new viewers (which was especially important to do, because this was a reboot.) The series has progressed very well since then, showing that the show doesn’t need a Time Lord society in order to stay entertaining. The Master has returned a couple times, and the whole of Gallifrey returned briefly for the climactic end of David Tennant’s run, but in general the Time Lords have been swept out of the show. And it works!

Still, there are certain advantages to having a time-traveling society in the setting. Perhaps someday the concept should be revived. Let’s examine the idea.

First off, this sort of change shouldn’t be taken lightly. It should only happen if the writers feel that the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. Let’s run with this “the Doctor is the only Time Lord” concept for as long as we can before we give up on it.

Second, we shouldn’t simply bring back Gallifrey and its entire cast of characters. If we did so, we’d largely be retreading old ground. The return of Gallifrey worked well as a one-time temporary thing, but it won’t do well as a permanent change. Let Gallifrey fade away.

Still, we could have a roughly comparable society, composed either of Time Lords or simply people who know how to time-travel without being Time Lords themselves. Probably it would be some combination of the two.

How would this get started? Two obvious possibilities: First, the Doctor is married to River Song, who is a partial Time Lord herself. If the two of them had a child, that could be the start of a new society. (Yes, I know about what happened to River in her first appearance. But there are ways around that.) Second, the Doctor already has a semi-clone daughter by the name of Jenny. Perhaps she could be a part of this new society.

The great thing about time travel, of course, is that we wouldn’t necessarily need to wait around for these things to develop. Everyone could basically show up all at once, to the Doctor’s surprise.

The Doctor would still be a unique figure. He’s probably have the only TARDIS, though others would have timeships of a different design.

By the way, Jack Harkness referenced Time Agents in his original appearance. They haven’t showed up since. Perhaps that referenced could be retconned into a foreshadowing of the new Time Society? It’s a thought, anyway.

Changing myself

2013 April 6
by sonicsuns

Inscribed on the tomb of an Anglican Bishop (1100 A.D) in the crypt at Westminster Abbey in London:

When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits I dreamed of changing the world.

As I grew older and wiser I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country. But it, too, seemed immovable.

As I entered my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I sought to change only my family, those closest to me, but alas! they would have none of it.

And now as I lie on my deathbed and realize (perhaps for the first time) that if only I’d changed myself first, then by example I may have influenced my family and with their encouragement and support may have bettered my country, and who knows, I may have changed the world.

Source: http://www.homeschooling.net/blog/mothering/first-change-myself/

 

Judging the Data

2013 April 5
by sonicsuns

There are many ways to be detailed but not precise.

There are many ways to be precise but not accurate.

There are many ways to be accurate but not relevant.

Reading the Tea Leaves

2013 April 4
tags:
by sonicsuns

There’s a particular type of fortune-telling that focuses on looking at tea leaves. The idea is that you can spot patterns in the leaves, and this will tell you someone’s future (or whatever). This, of course, doesn’t make any sense. As fun as it may be to look at tea leaves, the fact is that tea leaves have pretty much nothing important to tell you. (Unless you’re a botanist who literally wants to study tea leaves, I suppose.)

This sort of misguided thinking pops up all over the place. The basic idea is to look at complex data and draw irrelevant conclusions. The more complex the data is (and tea leaves do make complex patterns), the easier it is to fool yourself into thinking that it tells you something useful.

For instance, while Back to the Future was in production, someone looked at the records and found that no movie with the word “future” in the title had ever done well. He assumed that this pattern would continue, and requested that Back to the Future be renamed “Spaceman from Pluto” in order to make it sell better. Thankfully the movie’s title did not change, and it did spectacularly at the box office. The original idea that the word “future” somehow harms a movie’s chances of success had been completed unfounded. It was only coincidence that led previous movies to do poorly.

In essence, Reading the Tea Leaves means spotting patterns where none exist. You can easily think that you’re being quite clever when in fact you’re being dumb.

There might be a God

2013 March 31
tags:
by sonicsuns

I am an atheist. (Specifically, a humanist.) I don’t believe in any god.

However, I do acknowledge that my knowledge is limited. Everybody’s knowledge is limited (as far as I can tell). There could be all sorts of weird things out there that I’m not aware of, including things that I’ve never even imagined. It’s possible that there really is a God out there somewhere, and I just haven’t found him yet. Maybe there are several gods. Who knows?

Maybe the Christians are right. Or the Muslims or the Hindus. Or maybe they’re all wrong, and the real truth is completely different from everybody’s expectations. (If there really is a god, I’m guessing that he fits into the “all major religions are wrong” category.)

This applies to plenty of other concepts too. Maybe there’s an afterlife, for instance, and I just haven’t discovered it yet. (Maybe we eventually create an afterlife with technology somehow.)

If I find enough evidence to prove the existence of a God, or an afterlife, or unicorns or anything else, then I will change my beliefs.

So you see, just because I’m atheist doesn’t mean that I’m not open to new ideas. And it doesn’t mean that I’m 100% certain that “this is all we’ve got”. There’s always room for new discoveries, and there’s always room for hope.

The Basic Guarantee

2013 March 19
by sonicsuns

I am writing to advance an idea. For lack of a better term, I call it the Basic Guarantee: Everyone in the world should have adequate food, shelter, medicine and safety, regardless of their personal circumstances.

The food may be bland, but it will be plentiful and nutritious. The shelter may be small, but it will be sturdy and safe. Medicine will never be perfect, but a basic level of treatment should be available to all. Violence should be suppressed, so that no one needs to live in fear. These things should be available to everyone, even the very poor.

This guarantee may be achieved by any combination of governments, NGOs, religious groups, secular groups, individuals, and societal movements. I don’t know exactly how it might be done, but I’m sure that it I can be done, eventually. And I’m sure that it ought to be done.

Countless millions of innocent people have suffered over the centuries. But thanks to advances in society, law, technology and other areas, we are making progress. In 1990, 43% of the world lived in extreme poverty. Now, that figure stands at 21%. If present trends continue, extreme poverty will approach zero by 2030. Various other measures are improving too, such as child mortality rates.

With a concerted global effort, I think we could achieve this by the end of the century. And if it’s going to take longer than that, all the more reason to get started now.

Imagine it. In all the world, nobody starves to death. Nobody dies from exposure. No one is killed or disabled by a preventable disease. And the idea of war becomes unnecessary and remote.

And someday, people will look back on 2013 and wonder how we ever endured such harsh conditions.

Amendment to clarify the supremacy of the constitution

2013 March 18
by sonicsuns

Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution includes this passage:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any state to the Contrary notwithstanding.

It seems odd to me that the treaties made under the constitution are apparently on equal footing with the constitution itself. Here’s my amendment:

  1. This Constitution shall be the supreme law of the United States, followed next by the laws which are passed by the federal government pursuant to this Constitution, and thereafter followed by the treaties which are passed by the federal government pursuant to this Constitution. The constitutions and laws of the several States shall be legally inferior to this Constitution, and they shall furthermore be legally inferior to the laws, treaties and other legal instruments of the federal government, provided that such federal instruments are exercised pursuant to this Constitution.
  2. If any law, treaty or other legal instrument which has legal force within the United States is in violation of this Constitution, the offending passages shall be null and void with respect to the United States. But this shall not be so construed as to allow laws, treaties, or other legal instruments to be violated due to a false claim that any such instrument is in violation of this Constitution.
  3. The judges of the United States, including federal judges and State judges, shall be bound by the provisions of this Constitution, notwithstanding anything in the constitution or laws of any State to the contrary.

What scares her

2013 March 17
by sonicsuns

A quote from a friend of mine:

When I was learning to fly airplanes, people kept asking me “Aren’t you scared when you fly?”
And I would think, ‘No, flying doesn’t scare me. What scares me is the thought of living a mundane life.”

An automatic language linking system for Wikipedia

2013 March 17
by sonicsuns

Wikipedia is available in several languages.  On any given article, users may add language links to a special sidebar, leading to that article’s counterpart in another language. For instance, the English article describing Africa has a language link to the French article describing Africa, and vice-versa. The one problem with this is that Wikipedia covers many languages, and it can be tedious to manually link every page on a given topic to every other corresponding page in another language. I propose an automatic system to make this easier. I call it ALLS, or Automatic Language Linking System.

First, let’s distinguish between manual language links and automatic language links. A manual link, or M-link, is typed in manually by a user. An automatic link, or A-link, is created by ALLS. A-links are only generated in response to M-links. The two sorts of links are distinctly identified for readers. For instance, M-links might be displayed normally while A-links are listed in parenthesis.

A-links are based on something called a node. A node is a special page which lists various articles that all cover the same topic in different languages. These articles are grouped into several classes: Class A, Class B, Class C, etc.. The tile of the node is a simple number, like “Node:3943″.

When 4 pages are joined through mutual M-links, a node is created automatically. For instance, suppose that the English, French, Japanese and Italian pages covering baseball are all cross-linked. English is M-linked to French, Japanese, and Italian. French is M-linked to English, Japanese, and Italian, etc.. (This requires 12 M-links overall, since links are not bidirectional.) Once this happens, ALLS creates a node and lists the four pages as Class A entries. However, a page may only belong to one node at a time. Any page which is M-linked into multiple nodes is registered as “In Conflict” by ALLS, and is not used for linking purposes.

Any page which M-links to a Class A entry on a given node is automatically listed as a Class B entry. For instance, if a German page is M-linked to the French page on baseball, the German page is listed as Class B on the node. If the German page is later M-linked to all the Class A pages, and they in turn link back to it, then the German page upgrades to Class A.

Any page which M-links to a Class B entry is automatically listed as a Class C entry, etc.. In the case of multiple classifications, the higher class wins. So a page which is M-linked to both a Class B entry and a Class A entry becomes a class B entry, by virtue of the latter M-link.

If M-links are deleted, such that the number of Class A entries drops below 4, the entire node is deleted. (You could also set this up to only require 3 Class A entries, if you wanted to be more lenient.)

Now that we have our node, we can generate A-links. For instance, you could set ALLS to “Generate A-links between all articles on a given node, provided that the article is listed as Class C or higher, but ignore all articles which belong to more than one node.” You can change these parameters as you see fit.

Of course, A-links won’t double-up with M-links. If two pages are set to be both M-linked and A-linked, only the M-link will be displayed.

Note that A-links are only generated in response to M-links, not in response to other A-links. So there’s no danger of cascading errors.

There will also be the option of manual entries that prohibit certain A-links from forming. This is another way to guard against error.

An amendment to give the president legislative initiative

2013 March 15
by sonicsuns

For the U.S. constitution:

  1. In the normal legislative process, a bill shall first be passed by majority vote in both houses of Congress, and shall then be presented to the President, and he may sign it or not sign it, as detailed elsewhere in this constitution. The President may send suggestions to Congress as to what bills ought to be passed, but this shall not be construed as formal authorization on his part, and Congress shall not be bound to obey his suggestions.
  2. In an alternative to the normal legislative process, the President may draft his own bill and sign it, together with an explicit Notice of Authorization. This Notice shall specify a period of time, no greater than 180 days from the date the bill was signed, during which time the signature shall have legal force. The President shall then send the bill, together with the Notice of Authorization, to both houses of Congress. If both houses of Congress pass the bill by majority vote within the allotted time, the bill shall immediately become law, without need for further approval from the President and without granting him the opportunity to issue a veto. If Congress passes the bill after the authorization has expired, or if Congress passes a modified version of the bill at any time, the signature shall be invalid for that bill, and the bill shall be presented to the President as though it were a normal bill initiated by Congress. The President may then sign or not sign this bill, as he does with other bills initiated by Congress.
  3. Having signed a bill and issued an attached Notice of Authorization, the President may not nullify or amend this signature or Notice, unless expressly authorized to do so by a majority vote in both houses of Congress.
  4. If a bill has been authorized by the President according to the provisions of this amendment, but thereafter he loses his office due to death, resignation, end of term, or any other reason, and the bill has not yet been made into law, then the authorization shall immediately expire. A temporary loss of authority, wherein the President shall remain President and some other officer shall serve as Acting President, shall not be considered as a loss of office for the purposes of this amendment.

Research Reform

2013 March 4
by sonicsuns

Recently I read a book called Wrong by David H. Freedman. It’s a good book, and I recommend it. It documents how scientific research (among other things) is biased in a variety of ways. (However, just because mainstream scientific practice is often wrong does not mean that alternative ideas are any better. Most of those ideas are simply more wrong than mainstream science). I’m especially concerned about medical studies, since the wrongness of those results could end up killing people.

I propose the following reforms for all medical research, with similar reforms for other kinds of research. Funding should be awarded only to institutions which follow these rules.

First, all studies must be registered in an online database before they are conducted. The registration should describe the intent of the study, the methods that will be used, and any other relevant information.

Second, the results of all studies must be submitted to the same online database. If the researchers feel that the results are invalid for some reason, they are free to attach a note explaining why. But they may not hide the data from the public. (Why not? Because researchers are known to suppress results they don’t like.) If the study is aborted midway through, a note must be submitted explaining why. Simple silence shall not be tolerated. And if a unreasonable amount of time goes by without a proper report being made, that lab should be censured, and given less funding in the future.

Third, in general, scientists should be rewarded for practicing good science, rather than producing studies which depict particular outcomes or types of outcomes. Negative results should be given just as much respect as positive results. The media will probably pay more attention to positive results, but the scientists who produce negative results should receive payment and the respect of their peers just the same. The only factor to consider is whether the scientist has practiced good science, has he eliminated all sources of error, etc..

Fourth, scientists should be allowed to make public comments on each other’s studies, pointing out possible sources of error. In order to shield scientists from professional retribution, a system of verified anonymity may be appropriate.

Fifth, it should be standard practice for labs to be paid to replicate studies which are not yet complete. For instance, someone may conduct a study to see if broccoli can lower your cholesterol, and register that study as I just described. Then someone from another lab notices the registration and decides to run the same study at roughly the same time. (But with a totally different set of scientists and test subjects.) This too is registered. Each study would ideally have (let’s say) 3 different labs working on it simultaneously. Once that marker is reached, the study is marked as “full” in the online database, discouraging (but not prohibiting) other labs from running their own replications. In this way, every study is replicated right from the start. Each branch of replication would not necessarily use the exact same methods, but they would study the same questions. (For instance, once study might ask people how much broccoli they eat per week, while another actually feeds them a particular amount of broccoli.)

The 3 labs should be barred from discussing their results with each other, or the public, until all of them have completed their studies. (Exceptions may be made for ethical reasons, for instance when an urgently-needed lifesaving drug is on the line.) As each lab finishes its study, it should sent the results to the managers of the online database. The results should remained sealed at this point; not even the managers will read them. Once all 3 labs have submitted results, the managers should open all 3 sets of results simultaneously and publish all of them, regardless of what they say. Alongside these 3 studies, the managers should append a note with their own analysis. (For instance, “The labs disagree as to the effect of broccoli on cholesterol. No effect has been proven.”)

The replication system would discourage people from giving much weight to an errant study, since they would see contradictory studies published simultaneously. And thanks to the secrecy that comes before publishing, the labs would be unable even to  bias each other. (Later replication studies would still have the problem of being biased by the past, though.)

This issue is far more important than most people realize. We simply must reform the system.

A group that got nothing done

2013 February 27
by sonicsuns

When I was in high school, I dreamed of making video games. (I still do, though that’s one dream among many.) I discovered a local independent game development group called Crossbeam Studios, and I was delighted when they let me join the team. They had no money and no particular means of getting any; they were just a group of guys who wanted to create a video game in their spare time. But we all had hopes of someday making something remarkable. The focus of our efforts was a game called “Orb”.

I sent a long email to the project leader, asking him his thoughts on Orb. I wanted to know what the core game mechanics would be, and what would make the game stand out. All I knew at the time was that the story took place in a world filled with magic, but that didn’t tell me much about the gameplay itself. I was eager to discover our plan. And I knew there had to be a plan, because I had been told several times that the other members had been brainstorming concepts for the game for over 3 years before I arrived on the scene. I sent my email, and awaited a response.

The response was disappointing, and it relied heavily on the word “maybe”. Maybe we would have a great magic system that allowed the player to mix different sorts of magic at will. Maybe there would be unique ammo for the various weapons. Maybe we would focus on exploration. I don’t remember the details really, but these were the sorts of responses I got. I realized that, despite years of brainstorming, the team had not actually decided on nearly anything.

I learned more about the game’s development history, and a pattern emerged. Several times the team had conducted a round of brainstorming, coming up with new ideas until a fairly clear picture of the game emerged. They would reach the point at which it was time to stop brainstorming and start creating….but they would fail to create. Nobody seemed to have the energy to get anything done. (I suspected that everyone was waiting for everyone else to pitch in, for the most part.) Slowly it would become obvious that nothing was being accomplished, and around that time someone would propose a massively-altering idea. (For instance, the game was going to be populated with talking animals, and then someone proposed that they switch to humans.) This would set off another round of brainstorming, probably to the relief of everyone involved. Brainstorming is often easier than creation, after all.

I had joined the group at one of these “peak” moments, when brainstorming was over and work was set to begin…and nothing really happened. In an effort to encourage activity, the leader purchased some fairly expensive software for us to use. That didn’t help much. He tried to guilt-trip us to make use of that software, but that didn’t help much either.

He devised a precise scheduling system, where development was broken up into “steps”, and each step had to be accomplished by a specific person in a specific order. In theory, this meant that everyone would know what he had to do and when he had to do it. In practice, it meant that a single person could delay the whole group. And that’s exactly what happened. Someone didn’t get his step done, for whatever reason, and the rest of us sat idly by, because it wasn’t our turn to act yet. Eventually the whole system was scrapped. And after that….well, they stopped emailing me.

I checked their website again some years later, only to find that, once again, they hadn’t really accomplished anything.

Humanist Bibles

2013 February 25
tags:
by sonicsuns

Most theists place great emphasis on a holy book (or several books). Christians, for instance, venerate the Bible. Churches have bibles available to read, and many Christians have their own bibles at home. A Christian group called the Gideons strives to make bibles available around the world. If you’ve ever checked into a hotel and found a bible in the bedside drawer, that’s because of the Gideons.

It makes me wonder: What would an atheist bible look like? More specifically, what would a humanist bible look like? (Humanism is a form of atheism which explicitly values virtue.)

My first thought is that there can never be one Humanist Bible. Christians (and other theists) believe that their holy book is divinely inspired, and thus there is no need to make changes or create variations. Humanists, on the other hand, believe that all books are written by people, and thus there is always the chance of error. If anyone wrote a Humanist Bible, it wouldn’t be a definitive work. Likely there would be changes made and updated versions produced. So you would see a “Humanist Bible, Second Edition” for instance. And if anyone attempted to write Humanist Bible, everyone else would be just as entitled to write their own bibles. So then you might see titles like “The Humanist Bible according to Bob Johnson, Third Edition”. And that’s just the way it should be; a whole mess of different bibles circulating and changing, reflecting the increasing knowledge and conscience of humanists at large.

Some will argue almost every book could qualify as a “Humanist Bible” to some degree. Since Humanists don’t recognize any book as being divinely inspired, then every book must be equal, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, all books are non-divine, and Humanists wouldn’t really object to the placement of random novels in hotel drawers. But I’m looking for something that fulfills a similar function to the Christian Bible.

The Christian Bible has several purposes. It is intended to answer basic questions about the universe and philosophy. It’s also supposed to contain many wise sayings and moral teachings. More than anything, the Bible is intended as a general guide to life. That’s why the Gideons put bibles in hotels; the idea is that any random traveler can open the bible and find some sort of guidance.

The actual Bible is a real mess, and falls short of these high ideals. There are nuggets of deep wisdom sprinkled in a sea of superstitions, falsehoods and contradictions. I think we can do better.

So what exactly would we find in Humanist bibles? Well it wouldn’t be one long anti-theist rant, if I have anything to say about it. It’s perfectly fine to point out the flaws of theism, of course. (I do it all the time!) But that can’t be the entire book. Remember, we’re supposed to be crafting a general guide to life. If we forget that, the reader is liable to finish the book and say “Ok, so there’s no logical reason to believe in God. But I still don’t know what to do with myself!”.

Humanist Bibles should consist of stories, fables, essays, quotes, parables and poems. Fictitious stories are fine, so long as they are understood to be fictitious. We should feel free to borrow liberally from old tales, if they happen to teach a valid point. I would include several stories based on Aesop’s fables, such as The Boy Who Cried Wolf. I would also include the parable of The Good Samaritan from the Christian Bible. In effect, I’d be extracting the wisdom from past traditions, religious or otherwise, and leaving behind the nonsense that traditionally goes along with them.

Tales would often be modified from their original form. In the case of the Good Samaritan, for instance, I might remove Jesus and instead cite an unnamed “Teacher” as the storyteller. (In fact, a “Teacher” character might work pretty well in general, as it would signal the reader who to focus on.)

Other tales might be modified drastically. There is one tale from the Bible where Jesus walks on water and a disciple briefly joins him, demonstrating the power of faith. I might write a story where a man thinks he can walk on water, attempts to do so, and nearly drowns. The lesson would be reversed: Instead of encouraging blind faith, my story would caution against it.

Of course, many tales (and other entries) would be invented from whole cloth. Humanist authors would be free to invent all kinds of things. You could also recount events from your own life, if you felt they demonstrated an important concept. Or perhaps you’d like to recount the events of history.  For instance, you could demonstrate why Freedom of the Press is so important, by recounting the censorship efforts of a real-life despotic regime.

I suggest that most entries consist of simple language, similar to Aesop’s fables and the parables of Jesus. Simple language is easier to understand, easier to translate, and easier to memorize.

Some entries would illustrate basic moral concepts, such as honesty. Others would take a more cerebral approach, describing the basic logical underpinnings of Human Rights, for instance. Still others would simply provide encouragement for those who are in crisis. Perhaps a few would simply hold practical advice, teaching you how to save your money, or how to eat a healthier diet, or something like that.

Imagine the potential impact. Perhaps a cancer patient reads a Humanist Bible entry about hope, and her hope is renewed. Perhaps a man struggling to repair his marriage reads a passage about love. Perhaps a girl reads several humanist bibles in her youth, and develops a greater understanding of purpose and virtue.

Remember that there would be many different bibles existing at any one time, containing many different entries. Some of them would be poorly written, I’m sure. Others would be outright corrupt. But in time, the best stories would become the most popular, and together they would comprise the best bibles. (Copyright law could become an issue, so I suggest that the various humanist authors make use of Public Domain status or Creative Commons licenses. )

If you ever read something you didn’t like, or felt that something was missing, you’d be free to make your own bible! Cobble together whatever entries you enjoy, make whatever changes you find appropriate, and have it printed. Maybe pass it down to your children someday.

Some bibles would be small, containing only the very best entries, or entries about a particular topic. Other bibles would be huge, multi-volume affairs, attempting to cover as much of the human experience as possible. None of them would ever be perfect or absolute, but many of them would be a great help to people all around the globe.

I would like to see that happen.