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Thought of the Now

...half-baked ideas from the mind of someone who is almost certainly dumber than they think they are.


12th September 2013[edit]

Hmm.... I have not updated this bit in a while. Nearly a year, in fact. I've hardly done anything with RW in a while, come to think of it. Is it over? Will I never really contribute again? Is it just a slip? Will I be a full-time editor again? I don't know. I know I've had more time on my hands recently and never came back here to blow it. That's for sure. But I don't feel like I've outgrown the place or officially left it forever.

If anyone can offer any thoughts, sure, I'll take them. Until then, I kinda have another thing going. We'll see.

28th November 2012[edit]

5th December 2012[edit]

It's not illegal, but it should be.

Background: The Bristol University Christian Union has apparently banned lone female speakers - unless they're with husbands.

Okay, so that's the oversimplified version. In reality, female speakers have been disallowed for longer, but the vote to allow them caused a senior member to throw a huff and resign, and so a compromise was reached to appease the fundamentalist aspects of the organisation. Yes, bizarrely, banning female speakers at events unless they co-present with a husband was progress.

But why are they allowed to do this? Isn't it discrimination?

Yes, it is. But it's legal.

As a religious organisation CUs and their overarching governing body the UCCF are exempt from equality legislation. As a centrally funded group, they also don't tend to be ratified student societies - so are exempt from any legislation that governing students unions have. This means they don't get funding, and usually get a bum deal with rooms, but actually it doesn't affect them too much. CUs aren't necessarily obstructed from doing what they do, they're just not given the helping hands other student groups get. So there's nothing to stop them doing this.

But why should there be? It's not illegal for them to discriminate how they like. No one is forced to join a Christian Union, in many cases they're not (even though they like to pretend) the only Christian group in a university. The only alternative to this being perfectly allowable is for it to not be allowed, and that requires us to have over-reaching laws that restrict what people think, what they believe, and how they go about assembling to share that with other like-minded people.

Even my hard-core-liberal-atheist ass sees that as a line not worth crossing.

Although this is, admittedly, clever semantics rather than meaningful, it's not that it's legal, it's just not not illegal. There's no law saying that discrimination is allowed, there's just no law telling them it isn't allowed. The UCCF already wholeheartedly and openly discriminates on its membership and speakers; it can only allow those who accept it's ludicrously fundamentalist doctrinal basis - something I've mentioned before. It would seem intuitively wrong to say they must not discriminate against atheists and Muslims by abandoning this. It would be like telling an LGBT group that it needs to advocate and accommodate straight people more - it would defy the point.

So the CU exists. And when you sign up to it you take their shit in exchange. If you don't agree with the doctrinal basis and fundamentalism that plagues it, you're free to go elsewhere. If you're stuck thinking you must adhere to CU regulations you disagree with just because you signed up, then that's your own weak-minded problem. This is a problem with all prescriptive belief systems and organised groups that bind people together, but I don't think there's any need to make this illegal because that would mean banning all collaborations! Let them have their rules, and let them pick and choose as they like. We can't force them to do otherwise under any circumstances, because it's our freedom to mock them that would be at stake too.

28th November 2012[edit]

Faith liberation

There's currently a debate/vote in the Students' Union here about whether to introduce a liberation officer for "students of faith" - I'll get on to why I use scare quotes in a moment. For anyone unfamiliar with the terminology, liberation officers are those concerned with issues of diversity, inclusion and anti-discrimination of certain groups. Currently there's a racial discrimination committee, an LGBT committee and a woman's committee. So, do religious groups need such a position?

Religion in the UK is a fairly non-plussed affair - despite what media reports suggest, no one really gives a shit. The Union and University also has several highly active societies that represent all religions (and as of ca.3 years ago, the non-religious too) and they have some good campaigning clout with respect to getting their way. Certainly, there are certain provisions that can be made for students who follow particular religious compulsions, and while I wish to retain my right to say that these are ridiculous wastes of everyone's time, I'm not going to actively nor passively prevent people following them. If a student turns up in the teaching labs ill because they've been fasting for religious reasons I'll treat them with more sympathy than one who turns up ill just because they're hungover. The Jewish society has their own common room for whatever it is they do and preparing kosher food, and the University specifically runs a chaplaincy based on the Church of England (though it's inter-faith in practice). The question remains what exactly these students need liberated from.

The reasoning given by the proposal are vague. It basically boils down to "stopping harassment of students of faith". Fair enough... but what is it actually saying? There is a difference between the racial abuse Muslims experience just for being Muslim, and the abuse the UCCF gets for its anti-gay positions, or the flak the Islamic society got when it decided to bring a very questionable speaker onto campus. The "stopping harassment of students of faith" reasoning sounds like a euphemism for one of these things, but which one isn't clear. Needless to say, the incredible vagueness of this statement means we don't actually know what we're voting for (well, they're voting for, I'm not longer a student) and doesn't really clarify the mandate exactly.

But the main rub is, of course, that "faith issues" alone is a broad mandate. At least with LGBT you have a portion of the population to focus on - even given the blurriness that comes when you de-construct gender and sexuality. But "faith" cannot work without expressly including non-religious or the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd. It can't do this because these are the groups that have been in the traditionally underpowered and unrepresented positions. That produces a lot of conflict that needs to be solved, and would effectively create a problem for someone that currently doesn't exist. If there was a continued war between Jews and Muslims on campus, I'd understand the need for a coordinator to broker a peace there, but such a thing doesn't exist. Without such clear issues to tackle, how could a "faith liberation" position not be drawn into being an authoritative force to actually do the opposite of liberation and quash free-speech under the guise of protecting religious liberation? Would anything vaguely critical of religion be banned - would the Atheist and Agnostic Society be prevented from advertising? - or would questionable speakers be allowed to come in and spread homophobic and anti-woman views?

Religious societies already exist on campus with the aim of uniting students of specific religions together and to get what provisions they need to get by - otherwise what else are these societies doing? Introduction of someone to "co-ordinate" it all on top of what representation already exists only servers to lend a legitimacy to some of the inter-faith conflict that exists for no rational reasons.

26th November 2012[edit]

Oh your God...

Christ-on-an-orange-push-bike it's been a while since I posted any ramblings here... not that I'm surprised as my mind hasn't had the time to wander recently. Anywho... time for blasphemy!

Although not (often) used as a serious point, there's a big-ish thing about atheists declaring "oh my God" or even just the "OMG" short hand used by kool kids on the Intertubewebs. A Facebook page, some Yahoo Answers and a couple of atheist forum posts discuss it if you search for it. As I said, it's not a serious point, but it is a point.

It's a sign really of the amount of influence religion has had on our cultural and linguistic heritage that such expressions roll off the tongue so swiftly. That's nothing to be too ashamed of, or need to purge out of the language. So many words change their meaning naturally that to force it is, well, forced. It's pretty pointless. So as much as I find it amusing to substitute "gods" with intentional plurality, or my most recent favourite "oh your God" (I've retired "Oh My Science!" because it's just shite as an expression) I don't make much of a fuss about it personally. But where people do they seem to suggest that there's some sort of problem with a non-believer taking Teh Lord's name in vain. But that's a curious accusation on multiple levels - surely a non-believer doesn't think there's a Lord there to insult, and surely they think higher of people than thinking that merely mentioning it occasionally will dramatically convert people to religion.

But perhaps there's a different reason, a more Earthly one. Perhaps the average atheist who makes a point of this just thinks that Christians or other religious followers would somehow look down on them as hypocritical. But as I said before, it's not a serious point and it's difficult to find anyone seriously taking issue with atheists proclaiming Teh Lord's name in vain. Maybe atheists look at themselves as hypocritical for using such Mords, irrespective of whether there's an actual deity to take offence because that link is there through language. Still, it's an odd thing to get too uppity about. As part of our cultural and linguistic heritage, admonishing an atheist for proclaiming "Oh My God" makes as much sense as admonishing someone for using "television" when they don't fluently speak Greek nor Latin.

14th October 2012[edit]


It occurs to me that the simulation argument rests on the following:

  • Simulations kinda have the properties X, Y and Z.
  • The universe kinda has the properties X, Y and Z.
  • Therefore, the universe is a simulation.

Now, adding "kinda" in there is being generous as some of the arguments I've seen are pretty ropey at best. But mainly, they boil down to this little problem. In order to actually conclude that the universe is a simulation, you need this further premise:

  • Non-simulated reality does not have the properties X, Y and Z.

Or has the properies ¬X, ¬Y and ¬Z if you prefer. Either way, this is the one that's pretty hard to demonstrate if you're assuming the world is simulated. Implicitly, saying that you have any logical or philosophical argument for a simulated universe is saying that you've found out that reality is ¬X, ¬Y and ¬Z. But how? How do you know this? Have you gone outside the simulation to find this out? No. Have you developed logical arguments as to why a non-simulated reality would be that way? No.

What leads people to the inevitable conclusion that light speed must be infinite in a non-simulated reality? So, what has been proved by any of the points raised by the simulation argument other than "the universe doesn't conform to our preconceived, straw man version of it".

11th October 2012[edit]

"A Straight Ally"

Here are some coming out things to share on Facebook from the Wipe Out Homophobia group. If you want to share them to "come out", more power to you. If you don't, well, cool beans too. But, if you permit me to soapbox Soapbox.gif myself for a moment, here's why I don't intend on sharing the "straight ally" one:

  • This sort of thing implies that not being discriminatory needs a specialist label. How about we label homophobes as what they are homophobes; and label non-homophobes as just people. I don't really want to label synonymous with "not a complete cuntbollock" - it would imply people would think less of me unless I explicitly told them!
  • An addition of "ally" by implication means that "straight" on its own is inherently homophobic. If we're going to automatically associate being "straight" with being homophobic, then we're probably going nowhere as far as rights and equality is concerned.
  • There are transgender and sexuality based cards to share, yet we know many lesbians aren't supportive of trans-women - e.g., Cathy Brennan. Just as many feminists don't view trans women as "real" women, e.g., Germaine Greer. There's no "ally" appended to gay, bisexual or lesbian to say that they're explicitly support of trans issues.

Yes, I know it makes sense in context - much in the same way that atheism makes sense in the context of religious ubiquity - but what can I say, I'm on the soapbox right now, it's irked me just a bit.

10th October 2012[edit]

But don't call it "marriage"...

Being arse-to-elbow-deep in writing papers - and flood waters, in fact - means I've got less time to spill my load here. Or, at least, less mental capacity. Anyway, here's a quick thing that's just bugged me. Rarely do I give serious attention to what the Bottom Half of the Internet says (mostly just exacerbated incomprehension), but this one seemed to nicely word a fairly common argument. Can be found in the Bottom Half of this shit-fest screed from Andrew Breitbart's site

Actually, gays are just as free to marry as we are... provided they don't try to pretend that the union of two men or of two women is a "marriage"...So, we all have the same rights. All of us, straight and gay, can marry a person of the opposite sex. None of us, straight or gay, can pretend that unnatural unions with members of the same sex, are analogous to an authentic marriage. Marriage is a thing unto itself; it is not merely the state's recognition that two people "really like each other a lot." All - straights and gays - are free to contract a *real* marriage. None of us - straight or gay - are free to call anything a marriage, which is not really a marriage. There's no issue of equality, here; we are all already equal, as far as this goes.

Awww, bless, he thinks he's made a clever point!

But what has actually been said? Is this anything more than "you can have a marriage, just don't call it a marriage"? If there is, I'm struggling to find it. Regardless how you phrase it, whether you're posting in the Bottom Half or you're John Sentamu derping off in the Guardian it comes to the same thing. Have it, just don't call it that. It's the standard party line, now that more explicit homophobia is less socially acceptable than it once was. I.e., you can no longer, really, say that "gays can't have them rights!". It has to be based around the definition of marriage. Though let's not dwell too much, for now, on how this just re-frames an equality debate into a persecution complex.

This is a bizarre argument, because it's effectively a tacit admission that someone's not defending a concept, but a word. "Ah, but you're redefining marriage!" they may say. It's just a word. When you talk about definitions you're reducing concepts to words, and pretending it's the word itself that means something and not the properties we ascribe to it.

Instead of standing up for "marriage" as an idea, this "don't call it a marriage" argument stands up for it as an arbitrary combination of vowels and consonants. It's not big and it's not clever. Archbishop Sentamu might get his puff-piece in the Guardian about it, but that doesn't make the argument more than it is. Arbitrary combinations of vowels and consonants simply aren't worth fighting over like this. You're not defending a concept with this argument, and nothing physically changes upon your own personal redefinition, so there's no sense in continuing that train of thought. Even if someone does claim they're just defending the marriage "concept" as one-man-one-woman they still aren't doing anything more than arguing over the definition of an arbitrary collection of letters. One person defines it one way, someone else can define it another way. The joy - and the frustration - of words is that this can happen. No fucker ever carved this stuff into the very atoms of the universe.

Just let me get a little silly for a moment.

One could say that same-sex marriage can be called a Civil Union, but then why not call it a Civil Marriage? It's still not called the same thing, so it's fine. Or then mutate it to Marr1age? Or give it a cute spelling error in "mariage"? Or perhaps call it "mαrriαge", which substitutes the Latin "a" for a Greek "α"? Each time, we're getting closer to approximating the word "marriage" without ever reaching that one-to-one, letter-for-letter correspondence. That would be fine, right? After all, it is just the word "marriage" that's under debate, not silly variations on a theme - because remember, in this argument they're trying to avoid looking homophobic by saying they support same-sex marriage union. Different word, it's fine. Hey, get the ceremony to be performed by Peter Cook and you're half way there!

Okay, so that last paragraph hammers the point repeatedly with a frozen salmon, but it's just trying to underscore that if you're for equality and okay with the phrase "same-sex Civil Partnership" then you're okay with the phrase "same-sex mαrriαge". And then why not the phrase "same-sex marriage"? There is no substantial, actual, tangible change between the two, and so there can be no basis for which our arbitrary combination of squiggles to form a series of entities we refer to as "letters" and a "word" can be held back from one group but not the other. Where does it stop being red and start being blue?

Of course, there is one difference. It's why we have synonyms, and context, and disagreements. That is, that certain words have hidden inferences amongst them. "Marriage" and "Civil Union" conjure up different images in your head, little connotations that you can't find in a dictionary that aren't common to both. This means that they are not equal, no matter what you do. The equality between the two isn't even an illusion - the lack of equality is plain to see. But you'll never hear anti-equality people actually admit to this. No, that would be admitting that they're just arbitrarily homophobic. Which, naturally, they are.


17th September 2012[edit]

Further rambling, seeing atoms (II)

What was it that I wanted to continue to jammer on about? Oh yeah, that's right, visibility!

So, the old canard referenced in a WIGO:World entry is that "science requires faith because you can't see atoms". I'm unaware of exactly how often this is used exactly, but varying degrees of that idea are often employed. More reliably, the idea is turned upside down in order to say "just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it doesn't exist" in order to, say, demonstrate that God is real (despite the lack of evidence) or that a specific alternative medicine works (despite the lack of evidence) or any number of opinions. On occasion it is turned around to science in a tu quoque fashion.

Here's the linguistic catch: which version of "visible" or "see" do you even mean? If you restrict it by "eyes-only" then we have one thing, if we expand "visible" to a range of other forms of detection we have something else entirely, but nevertheless just as interesting. Switching between these two ideas - one that is just what your eyes see, and another of what your brain experiences - is a very sinful act, but it's what's usually going on when people try to tell scientists they must posses some kind of "faith" because you can't actually see atoms.

Let's just focus on the eyes for now. How many people actually believe that what they "see" is what is actually out there? Probably quite a few, but that's not entirely true. Now, this isn't to say that human vision is an illusion and that when I see red it might just be blue and when I see a sofa it might just be an elephant. No, that would be to destroy the subtlety. This is about human vision and how the brain assembles it, and while neuroscience backs this up, we don't need to really examine it in detail to get the point across. Take colour, for example. Colour is merely the specific frequency of photons hitting the retina, and this corresponds to their energy, with photons shifted to the blue end being more energetic per particle. Here's the rub: frequency is linear, but colour theory is three dimensional (HSV, CMYK, RGB etc. etc.). What gives? Put simply, the human eye has three cone cells that sample three different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Each cell has a peak intensity of sensitivity, and so from amalgamating the data from these three points, the brain interpolates a colour.

This doesn't mean "colour is an illusion", that would be to go too far. It's better to say that there is an isomorphism between the colour we see and the frequency/energy of photons striking the retina. One converts to the other in a definable process. They may operate in two different conceptual domains, but the link exists and is pretty solid. Just like the link between the genetic code of A, C, T and G, the actual chemical bases adenine, cytosine, thymine and guanine, and then the proteins they code for, and finally the traits that exist. No one suggests the genetic code is an illusion because proteins are what are exhibited in a phenotype, and so by the same idea colour isn't really an illusion either - it's an isomorphism.

The colour-frequency link isn't the only thing that suggests that what we see isn't exactly what is out there. Everyone will have seen and be tricked by an optical illusion at one point in their life. The existence of optical illusions certainly proves that something else is going on there during the process of forming an isomorphism between what we actually "see" (in our heads) and what is actually "visible" (to our eyes). Try another fun one: look at your left eye in the mirror, then your right, then your left, then your right. You can switch focus repeatedly, but you won't see your eyes move. You might think they were moving too quick for you, but actually if you record yourself you'll see it. The resulting conclusion is that your brain shuts down your vision when your eyes move - and with very good reason. Eyes don't work like cameras, they pick up only a small fraction of your entire field of view. This means that instead of taking a large, high-definition photograph, they take a small detailed patch and then scan around. This happens constantly, eyes are twitching all the time to pick up your surroundings. If your brain didn't shut your vision down, you'd have nothing but a blurred mess for vision! Anyway, the conclusion of this is that what you actually see is just a reconstruction your brain makes from a combination of this rapid-scanning data and prior experience - which is why someone in the distance might look like someone you know right up until the point they're close enough to say "hi" to, and then you're left wondering why you thought that.

Vision isn't an unambiguous recording device.

This isn't the end of the story, though. We need to leave our eyes and return to physics. When we look at the world, we see only a small fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum. We think of photons and "light" of being just visible light, the colour spectrum that we can see with our three cone cells, but in principle there is absolutely no difference between that light and radio waves, and microwaves, and x-rays, or gamma rays. It's just energy. There's a difference in how these energy ranges interact with matter - we see a select range of the EM spectrum for no reason other than this is the range that causes chemical reactions without destroying the molecules in the process. Infra-red light only induces molecular vibrations, which can't create chemical reactions needed to create a signal for our nerves. At the other side, X-rays are powerful enough not to just cause chemical reactions, but actually eject core electrons from atoms and cause a heap of other problems. So, there is method in this madness.

The second thing we see, besides photons, is refraction and deflection. Looking at a solid object doesn't cause your eyes to see that object, but the photons that bounced off it. This effect has a limit, and this limit is based on the size of the object doing the diffracting and frequency of the light. Objects smaller than the wavelength of the light won't diffract it. This puts a lower bound on what we can see with our eyes, which can only work with the "visible" light. This is about a couple of hundred nanometres, which is a lower theoretical bound for what we can see - more accurately, what we can resolve - no matter how powerful the microscope is.

If we have higher frequency light, however, things change and we can go smaller. X-ray crystallography, to a first approximation, is no different to sticking your eye to a microscope, except looking at far smaller objects - on the size of proteins and individual molecules - using X-rays instead of visible light. Again, just to emphasise, there is no difference between X-rays and "visible" light, it's just frequency and energy scales. Obviously, you can't stick your eye down a microscope and have x-rays fired into it (not least because your eyes can't detect x-rays), but you can get an appropriate detector and have a computer effectively simulate the recombination of the scattered light to form an image. In practice there are a few more things you have to do because of the nature of the interaction, but those are the basics.

So let's go back to "seeing" atoms and the initial claim about "faith".

X-ray diffraction looks at electron density, which happily hangs around atomic centres more than it hangs around no atomic centres. A molecule, therefore, "looks like" its electron density. Switching focus to electrons over atoms isn't all that unusual, as when we see things with our naked eyes we're actually seeing electron density doing the diffraction and refraction, and when we see colour it's specifically transitions in the electronic state of atoms that we're seeing. Electrons are part of atoms - by actual definition - so there is a very, very strong isomorphism between the concept of "seeing an atom" and "seeing an electron" or "seeing an electron density" - so strong a correspondence, in fact, that it's merely an argument from semantics, and not a very good one, if you want to contest that they're not the same thing. X-ray diffraction uses, in principle by a very hand-wavy approximation, the exact same idea as human vision to image atoms and molecules directly. The jump is simply the difference between a computer and x-ray-responsive detector doing the work instead of biological eyes. Then we have to ask; is the fact we have a detector and computer doing the processing any different to how our eyes work to form an image? The eyes already form a step that isolates what we experience from the world - to create that isomorphic link - so is there a problem in just adding one more step? One is biological and almost completely unreliable, the other is mechanical and reliable - albeit infuriatingly complex and prone to breakdown. But the underlying mechanics of what is actually going on differs relatively little between the two.

Having "faith" in atoms is just plain silly. ---

16th September 2012[edit]

Further rambling, seeing atoms (I)

WIGO:World recently had this entry:

33"Science requires faith because you can't see atoms!" Oh yeah?

It's a pretty cool bit of technology, but really it isn't anything new. Atomic force microscopy and its related techniques have been around for some time. One of the most famous examples is of a quantum corral, showing a ring of iron atoms on a copper surface, and one of the earliest demonstrations involved making the letters IMB out of atoms - guess which company sponsored the development of STM and AFM! And just one more showing a curious repeating pattern, sort of angled, like a repeating helix, I wonder what that could be...

Anyway, this does raise two interesting questions. On one level it discusses the type of bonds - and so gives me an excuse to talk electronic structure - and secondly it raises issues about what exactly "visible" even means.

Bonding, as you would learn it in high school chemistry is a very artificial concept. Bonds are simple formalities we introduced to explain how molecules form and how they're shaped, they don't really exist as discrete entities and certainly aren't sticks or springs attached to little balls. Chemical bonds are actually electrons, or at least are formed because of how electrons are distributed throughout molecules. This is wrapped up in molecular orbital theory, which happily explains pretty much everything about how atoms and molecules work. For those who don't know, electrons go into "slots" (good a word as any) referred to as orbitals. Importantly, and this really is the crux of explaining all chemical reactions, each orbital takes two electrons. We start with the orbitals around indiviudal atoms, which are relatively simple to work out as you're just trying to figure out how an electron (a negative charge) behaves around a nucleus (a positive charge). This produces an atomic orbital, an AO, and is a starting point for a molecular orbital, an MO. We combine AOs together to form MOs, which are orbitals that span entire molecules rather than being simply based around single atoms - very early functionals for DFT actually failed to demonstrate this, meaning that under those particular theories (Thomas-Fermi theory, if you need to know) molecules wouldn't exist. The density of the electrons does vary across a molecule, but generally speaking a molecular orbital will consist of contributions from AOs from everywhere. In fact, this particular factoid means that for continuous substances like metals you can throw out this idea and introduce a few new concepts (band theory) to get an accurate result without too much of a problem. Its the relative energies and distributions of these molecular orbitals that cause chemical compounds to behave as they do.

The very simplest case is hydrogen. In the dihydrogen molecule you begin with two atoms, and only two electrons, meaning only two atomic orbitals that are meaningful (there are an infinite number of AOs, in theory, but if they don't contain an electron they don't really come into play). These then combine together to form two new molecular orbitals. In one case they add together, in the other case they subtract. That sounds like an odd thing to say, but that's simply what the mathematics behind quantum mechanics tells us - the adding and subtracting are mathematical operations to describe what is happening. This is also known as LCAO - or Linear Combination of Atomic Orbitals, linear because it's adding and subtracting. Linear combinations appear a lot in quantum mechanics, not least superpositions and entanglement, but their main use here is to generate new MOs from AOs.

Addition of number of electrons in your molecular orbitals and bonding symmetry.tiff
Molecular orbital diagram of hydrogen. Left and right show single hydrogen atoms, which have one orbital each. These then combine to form two new orbitals. The labels come from symmetry properties, which is a bit beyond the scope of this ramble, but the "*" character denotes anti-bonding

When AOs add together they stabilise and go down in energy, the ones that subtract destabilise and go up in energy. You can see this from the H2 case because when the two AOs add, they push electrons in between atoms. As opposite charges attract you get a nice little buffer of electrons between the positive charges of the atomic nucleus. In this simplest case, this is directly analogous to a "bond" as we'd consider it from high school chemistry. As electrons like to be in the most stable configuration, they'll go in the lowest energy first, which happens to be this new molecular orbital that causes a bonding interaction. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise to say that the lowest MO is a bonding orbital, but the terminology seems to go a bit strange when the higher one is an anti-bonding orbital. Anti-bonding electrons try to cause molecules to fly apart, they're not in very stable and happy positions. In hydrogen, this orbital pushes electrons away, exposing the two atomic nuclei to each other without this buffer in between, like charges repel so the two positive nuclei want to fly away from each other.

Bonding electrons will try and hold a molecule together, anti-bonding electrons stop that happening. A "bond" therefore, is just the result of having more bonding electrons than anti-bonding electrons and the number of bonds present is just the equivalent of a simple sum; bonding minus anti-bonding, divided by two. In principle, this does mean you can have "half" a bond, but such a thing is rare and means something else. That's easy enough to see in the simplest case of the hydrogen molecule; two bonding electrons in the lowest energy, zero anti-bonding electrons because there aren't enough to fill that far (the anti-bonding orbital effectively doesn't exist, yet), therefore 1 bond. If you took helium instead of hydrogen, you'd have the same number of orbitals to play with, but four electrons to fill into it. That would be two bonding electrons, two anti-bonding electrons, zero bonds. And lo and behold, hydrogen tends to go around in H2 while He hangs around on its own. If you take an electron from the H2 molecule and promote it into the anti-bonding orbital, 1-1=0, and you have no bond, it breaks apart.

Kekulé structure of benzene

This gels nicely with the earlier and simpler concept of single, double and triple bonds because those are derived from the energy taken to break a bond. A double bond requires about twice as much, because you would have to promote two electrons into an anti-bonding orbitals to break it. Similarly, you can run the calculation for CO2 and find you have four bonds, hence two double bonds, or for CO and find three bonds, hence a single triple bond. This reconciles what is actually happening with our "bond type" model from high school chemistry. But, it doesn't really tell us where a bond is located.

An actual chemical bond from the perspective of quantum mechanics and molecular orbital theory in fact spans the entire molecule. This isn't readily apparent from the simple case of H2 because it's so simple, the entire molecule is just one bond. But it becomes a lot clearer in larger cases, and also demonstrates a few places where the older model falls down. For instance, this is why the Kekulé structure of benzene fails almost entirely - the idea of "resonance structures" to overcome the limitations of the model still produces some nice ideas, but it's very qualitative, rather than hard theory. The Kekulé model would suggest two different types of bond, three double bonds and three single bonds. But experiments very quickly showed that this couldn't be the case - all the bonds were effectively equal. In fact you have nine going on in total, this syncs up with the idea of three doubles and three singles but it separates the concept of what a single and double actually are. First, we have 6 forming identical sigma bonds between carbon atoms (refer to the diagram for hydrogen, which shows a sigma bond), and 3 entirely different ones making up the pi system around it ("pi" is another representation of symmetry to differentiate it from "sigma").

This is why a "double" bond isn't quite double in the sense of two bonds from both an energy and a structural point of view. It's two different bonding MOs combined. It has one component exactly the same as a single bond (for now, we'll ignore the molecular orbital theory on these) and there's something else on top. We can do the exact calculation as with hydrogen to get the number of double bonds available, but we start with different atomic orbitals on the carbon atoms. We start with six atomic orbitals, combine them in different ways to get six molecular orbitals, three bonding and three anti-bonding. We cram 6 electrons into the bottom three, leaving the anti-bonding orbitals completely empty. (6-0)/3 = 3... which matches the Kekulé structure of benzene that suggests three "double" bonds, but doesn't really tell us where the electrons are. The bonds actually span the entire molecule, and this can be seen if we look at the molecular orbitals formed from the atomic orbtials.

Pisystem Benzol.svg
The benzene pi system. A representation made up of the different combinations of the 6 atomic orbitals available. This is another formal way of viewing things, but is a good approximation for what is happening to actually create a molecular orbital.

In short, our basic concept of atoms being sticks attached to each other is wrong, but it's easy to reconcile with what is going on from a quantum perspective because it also falls out of observations. Our basic formalisations actually only fail in a few specific cases, but that's what science really is; if our model fell apart in many cases, we wouldn't use it, we just need to find that frontier where it does fail in order to advance. MO theory is a very good theory from the perspective of philosophy of science because not only does it explain where the previous one failed, but it also shows why the previous one was a good approximation where it worked. Our ball and stick diagram suggests 9 bonds in benzene and 1 in H2, and molecular orbital theory predicts exactly the same thing, albeit with a caveat that a "bond" in this sense is just a formalism. We can easily reconcile the two ideas together and everything begins to make sense.

So, what is atomic force microscopy from the original article picking up? It's picking up electron density. It's picking up all the places where electrons are distributed and this is controlled by MOs. When we run fairly complicated calculations to build MOs, we can see that electrons begin to pile up in different areas, and indeed, this is what we see from methods that scan electrons. X-Ray diffraction, AFT, STM, all of these methods look at electron density, and this matches up exactly with MO theory.

All the properties that led us to think of bonds being sticks way are explained by a new way, and that makes theory a very powerful thing indeed.

Okay, this ended a little longer than intended, so I'll cover the separate idea of "what is visibility" at a later date.

14th September 2012[edit]

Writing the report

Here's a little secret. Many of the practical lab courses I'll be teaching this year have been significantly re-written in order to "reduce the focus on report writing".

This is very much the quintessential double-edged sword, and it's razor sharp on both sides.

On the one hand the benefits of switching marking emphasis to the practical work undertaken is excellent. For far too long chemistry undergraduates can merely turn up, mess about, produce a great report and get top grades. I have first-hand experience of this because my highest individual mark as an undergraduate, my only ever 100% score, came from a practical session where I wasn't just hungover, but still wasted from the night before. My lab partner actually sent me home half way through the day because of it. Yet still, 100% on the write-up. Ideally I'd want to remove grades (we're currently trialling the idea of specifically hiding the grades of each piece of work until the end of the course) but we have to award degrees at the end and some kind of numerical ranking is the top rule of the game. It's the paradigm we're working in and that isn't going to change. We have to deal with it, and shifting the marking to a more productive place is one move we can make.

These are the benefits that this idea has been sold under. Hopefully, it'll pay off.

The downside, however, is that - to be extremely frank about it - undergraduates cannot write for shit. Scientific communication is a skill, and no one gets any practice at it in a safe environment where the consequences are cushioned and the feedback is provided. It's very likely that the first chance a science undergraduate gets to do any real communication of their results is their first draft of their BSc or Masters dissertation. Even then the standard isn't particularly grand (reading mine back is embarrassing) so it's not until years later when it comes to writing up a Ph.D thesis does anyone get the chance to practice their writing.

The result is that the first draft gets completely eviscerated by those reading it.

People shouldn't have to wait until their doctorate is on the line in order to learn the skills required to communicate results, theories and intentions correctly and in a way that can be understood by their peers. Not only because these things take time to learn and learning becomes difficult with age and experience, but because constant revisions to the same piece of work to try and satisfy the conditions of "good" science communication is demoralising. This isn't effective. Those communicating in science need the chance to be able to start from scratch, with new ideas, and to be able to put what they learnt the last time around into this new piece. Getting the right head start is essential, and can save so much more time and this can only come by the opportunity to write new material, not persistent editing of the same material. No good can come from learning how to start a thesis six months before you're supposed to submit it.

What are the key problems in report writing?

Yudkowsky's post on guessing the teacher's password may sound like a work of sheer arrogance (probably because it is) but it's also very true. By age 18, potential undergraduates have been taught a lot about what to think and how to score highly on exams, but have never been drilled into proving that they know their stuff. There are some explanations I read in reports - leaving aside the fact that their wording is curiously similar to how Wikipedia describes it - that I would trust coming from the mouth of a specialist Postdoc, but not from an undergraduate. I don't want them to tell me that they're aware of the right buzzword, I want them to prove to me that they have the right model of what is happening in their head. "The acid acts as a catalyst" is a right answer, it's what would get a tick from someone not as pedantic as me, but it's not what's happening. "Protonation of the ketone group of the ester allows a reduction in bond energy yadda yadda yadda" is more like it. It may seem like a trivial case for students to describe back to you something you already know, and something that is established as a fact, but if they can't do that for a known case, then how the hell are they going to do it for unique research. Remember, the poor sods having to read your thesis have no idea what you're talking about before they open to the first page.

This sort of "password guessing" holds true for humanities students - English, philosophy, music theory etc. - no matter how much the students protest against it and claim that their discipline is about making arguments. I've proof read 2:1 and 1st grade essays, and they follow the same pattern. Use the right flouncy terms, agree with whoever is marking it, make a vague case and the right gestures and you'll mostly get there. If you're lucky you'll come across a supervisor who gives enough of a shit not to let this happen, but this fact is true regardless of your academic discipline. An essay marker in literary criticism that takes your stuff on its merit rather than the number of times you can fit "post-structuralist" into it is about as rare as a postgrad in science that will go beyond the box-ticking and actually read into what they're given.

Students need to learn two things from their essay writing and report writing. Firstly, it's that this isn't letting us know that they've understood, it's about proving that they've understood. Secondly, they need to know that no matter how trivial these answers seem, it's all about practising the skills needed for when the answers aren't trivial.

Once this has been hammered home, they can focus on learning how to write and communicate effectively. Precision and unambiguous writing is the order of the day and it's not that difficult. Indeed, once you're really into the swing of it, providing clear and concise explanations is actually easier than trying to show off with jargon. There's no reason this should be held off until the third or even forth year, students can do it from the very beginning. There should never be a time when it's excusable to say "as you can see from the diagram" instead of "figure 3 shows...". When I rule the world, this will be beaten into the little bastards from day one. The skills required to set up a document in Word with headings, reference notes, figures and tables, contents, abstracts... it's not that hard, but it's something that takes time to get used to.

How would I solve it?

Well, ideally, I'd have reports marked by people who have literally no connection to the experiments. Traditionally, it's the post-graduates working in the labs supervising that experiment that mark the report, as they'll have the expertise, but that comes at the risk that they'll be too complacent with the answers. Your familiarity begins to work against your ability to critically evaluate a discussion section. Naturally, this requires almost as many markers as students, so it's out of the question, but we need a way to really remind ourselves the difference between someone who's proven to us that they know the answer and someone who has just guessed the password. As markers and teachers that's key.

But as course organisers, we need to figure out ways of reinforcing those two points I outlined earlier. That report writing is about proving that undergraduates know the answer, and about the practice needed for the non-trivial cases. One way to approach this is to segregate out the writing as a separate skill and teach it on its own. But this leads to the issue of eating into valuable time - something has to be pulled out in order to make room for something new. This also makes the mistake of pulling the skill out of context, they have nothing to actually use it on if "scientific writing" was covered entirely separately! So, instead, it needs integrated. It needs to be constant and consistent throughout a course.

For this, I think students should write, have it marked, returned and used to specifically improve their next piece. We need to be able to see that they're taking comments on board and improving. If they fail to give figure's captions in one piece of work, that's fine, so long as they do it in the next one. It's a failure to improve that's often the problem, not necessarily "bad" work.

This is only just one dimension of what students in science need to learn, but it's a core part of being a proper fucking scientist.

31st August 2012[edit]

Quantum evolution.

I’ve recently been getting to grips with the idea of Quantum-Directed Genetic Algorithms (QDGA). For those who want to see a genetic algorithm (GA) in action, I suggest checking out Boxcar2D, which attempts to use a GA to “evolve” a car based on how well a randomly generated one performs. Ones that actually work breed with others that actually work, ones that crash and burn die and don't breed at all. It's the natural selection we all know and love, but in a computer. To me, this is quite cool, but I want to expand it a little and it's given me an idea for a little project.

Firstly, what’s a QDGA? Simply put, it's exactly the same as a genetic algorithm as found in Boxcar2D, but instead of "fitness" being determined by a physics simulation on a racetrack, it uses the outputs of a quantum mechanical simulation instead. QM calculations take the electronic structure of a chemical compound, simulate the interactions of all the wavefunctions that make up the electrons, and then spit out an energy at the end - it's different to molecular mechanics interactions which try to figure out how strained any particular formal bond is compared to its supposed "ideal". This is important because chemistry is like a game, if you get to the lowest energy, you win the game. If the calculation of your total products spits out a lower energy than your total reactant, the reaction goes ahead. If its the other way round, it doesn't. Most of the time, the calculations reflect reality pretty well and papers upon papers have been written comparing different methods with reality. From this calculation of a molecule's energy, you can start deriving properties that can then be used as your fitness criteria in a genetic algorithm. You simply need a way to encode your molecular structure into a "genetic code" that can be manipulated by the GA, and then a way to decode the gene back into a structure so you can determine its fitness in a computational simulation. Simples.

So, onto the little project idea I came up with. I want to “evolve” DNA bases. This basically asks two questions:

  1. How suitable are adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine as DNA bases, are there others?
  2. Will an algorithm converge on A, T, C and G or substantially different structures?
DNA chemical structure.svg

First of all, what is “fitness” when it comes to DNA bases? From the interactions we can see between bases, we know that there must be a way for the bases to interact. In this case it's hydrogen bonding, where electron dense areas attract the relative positive charge of hydrogen atoms. Further, the interactions are very specific. The A-T bond consists of two interactions, and the G-C bond consists of three. Therefore a bond between A and C, and T and G (and A and G and C and T for that matter) must be unstable. This is something we can very easily check with a quantum calculation; are the two bases bonded together more stable than they are separately, and if so, by how much? But equally importantly, we need to ask what interactions aren't stable, because there are four base combinations that shouldn't work if you want your genetic code to function as a replicator. DNA simply couldn't do its job if C could bind even partially well with A and T. From this, we can get the “fitness” required. This, of course, isn't the only property that makes DNA bases unique. They're all planar, conjugated molecules which not only allows for very good electron distribution to facilitate the hydrogen bonding interactions, but this also allows them to stack quite nicely in the double helix. Though this does raise the question of whether this property will inherently follow from the other!

If we took four randomly generated bases, we end up with six separate interactions. Our fitness is in systems (for simplicity's sake we should model all four evolving at once) where two interactions are favoured and the other four are disfavoured. We then take the codes that created the best systems and "breed" them to produce a second generation, and then start again working out the fitness. It may seem strange to “breed” molecules, but all you're doing is taking various genes and swapping them around – it's all done in abstract code that's isomorphic with the molecules.

Now, the fiddly details. Like in real-world evolution, you need a big pot for GAs to work on; 10 per generation at the very least, preferably closer to 20 just to get the necessary variety from your randomly generated starting point. The larger the group, the better. This is time consuming, you not only must spend time translating these back and forward between the code and the actual molecule (though, in fairness, we already have something like that!) but you also need to run the calculations themselves. And that isn't easy, especially as computational cost doesn't exactly scale linearly with this stuff!

I did a quick pilot study on this to figure out rough timings. Starting with uracil, a simple optimisation process using the B3-LYP hybrid DFT functional and the 3-21G basis set took about 12 minutes on a single 3GHz core. 10 individual steps in total, and most of that involved rotating a methyl group I used to substitute for the connection to ribose and the DNA backbone - if you included ribose it'd be a far bigger molecule, and computational time doesn't scale linearly. 12 minutes is reasonable for a hybrid DFT optimisation (it's the sort of thing that would have taken hours on a super computer back in the early 90s!), but that started with a well-optimised structure to begin with. An interaction between uracil and adenine, however, took a bit longer. Even stripping back the calculation method to pure Hartree-Fock theory (which is like DFT, but shitter) took over an hour, and adding in the necessary density functional or hybrid calculations to make it reliable would push convergence times up even further. This is fine for research, and given that my record so far is an NMR spin-spin calculation that took over 48 processor hours to run, but the number of calculations required to keep the GA satisfied quickly grows. You need to sacrifice some accuracy (well, a lot of accuracy) for a high-throughput. You need four single calculations for each base, and then 6 interactions between them. So a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation shows about 7 hours per system (15 mins for a base, an hour for each interaction), and with ten systems in a single generation that's 70 processor-hours or more. I have the luxury of a 36-core cluster that can probably handle this, but it's not mine exclusively and it's not worth wasting resources on a mini side-project right now.

So, how best to actually go about trying this? I'm currently looking at teaching computational studies at an undergraduate level because, lets face it, students know fuck all about computation and think it's massively complicated when it's really not that bad, and with computers becoming faster and cheaper it's going to be an essential skill in the near future to at least be familiar with how simple calculations are run and how to interpret their results. So, why not pawn it off onto them? With a dozen pairs of undergrads coming through each experimental group in the teaching labs each week, and a course lasting seven weeks, we could fairly easily run an evolutionary experiment by combining the data. The repetitive tasks of setting up and translating structures become less repetitive because they can be interlaced directly into a learning process. With a fairly modestly-sized cluster computer booked up for the project, the molecules can be built and the calculations can be set up by groups of students and then ran overnight ready to be analysed the next day. A brief write-up for the students, collate the data in a spreadsheet, then get the GA to interpret the fitness of each result ready for the next group to come in the following week and start it again.

It might just be crazy enough to work.

30th August 2012[edit]

Stop that now, down with this sort of thing.

I take the idea of liberal equality more literally than most. I see "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood" at the top of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights or "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men* are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights" (and I'm not even American) and I genuinely believe it. Every. Single. Fucking. Word.

It's not an idea that I can switch on and off as I choose. Describe to me the worst crime imaginable and I still would not be able to, in good conscience, support execution. Even Anders Behring Breivik deserves a fair trial and the chance to rot in prison (while, of course, a lot of smart people try to get inside his mind to figure out what makes people like him tick). Recant the worst atrocities of dictators past and present (democratically elected or otherwise) and I will be at pains to point out that they're still human - if only to remind people that nothing makes you immune from such evils yourself. I have nothing to prove by this except to show I can map my own experience onto the subjective experience of others - I only avoid the "someone else's shoes" idiom there because they might be wearing Crocs. It's not a difficult skill, but christ-on-a-bike it seems to be a rare one.

So I support the radical idea that slavery is wrong because it's slavery, not because the only slave trade people can fit into their brains happened to Africans. I support the idea that beating someone to within an inch of their life and tying them to a fence to die is wrong because it's vile and murderous, not because the victim was gay. I could point out such harsh examples all day, so I'll move on. I can put myself into those positions, real and hypothetical, and realise what harm is being done. I play by the Golden Rule. Again, this is not difficult.

Does that mean I'm completely ignorant of motive? No, I'm not. I treat that just as equally too, and I think this is where I part ways with a lot of people. The hatred and loathing of a group for being different, or at least not belonging intimately to your group, is a powerful motive. But at the same time it can be a remarkably petty motive. Sophie Lancaster was murdered for being "a goth", and the number of times I've seen people pelted with whatever was available (eggs, stones, coke cans) for wearing the wrong football shirt makes me sick. Don't wear the right number of stripes on your shoes, wear the wrong gang colours, listen to the wrong music... all these factors can take you and put you in the Wrong Group. Once you're in that Wrong Group, the reasons you're there are fairly trivial: being in the Wrong Group makes you a Target.

Certainly, murder and violence are the extreme end of the spectrum, but what about all the others things we see as crimes? Hate speech, bullying, discrimination, stereotyping and so on. All these things contribute to the attitude that fractioning off the human race into groups is a Good Thing, and that we must defend Ourselves while hating Them. Is one particular motive less vile and degrading than another? No. Does the magnitude of an act change depending on who it's targeted at? No. Or, more specifically, does a kid being beaten at school because he's gay feel more or less pain than one being beaten for wearing eye-liner? No.

So what? People would mostly agree with this, right?

Actually, I'm surprised how many self-identified liberals actually don't agree with this, and don't take equality quite so literally. To them, their sympathy can only lie with underprivileged groups - I wish this was a straw man but it's the attitude I've seen. The racism of Jim Davidson is deplorable, but Chris Rock's isn't (actually, that's kinda true because Chris Rock is actually funny). The stereotype of some housewife chained to a kitchen sink is backwards, but portraying her husband as a bumbling idiot who can't fill a dishwasher is progressive. Chav** is offensive to the working class but "posh-bashing" is a basic human right.

But wait, that's okay! Women, the working class, and black people have been underprivileged, so this is just redressing a balance. Right?

No, it isn't and this "redressing a balance" argument is simply a red herring. Every time someone tries this argument, swap it for something isomorphic: they want their discrimination, they want to feel smugly superior over another group, they want to maintain the boundaries that have previously separated people. Because this is exactly what that argument says between the lines: bullying, hatred and discrimination is fine. "All men are created equal"? Nah! We have past crimes to redress! By declaring fair game for some groups under the banner of supposedly redressing a balance merely perpetuates the hatred that we want to fight against - because it's still perpetuating the hatred and it's the hatred that is wrong, not the target. Things that are wrong are wrong because they are wrong, sounds circular but it's better than "things that are wrong are only wrong when you target them at the wrong people". The idea that liberation is about getting equal, not even, seems lost on some people (please tell me if this point is sounding like a broken record). You cannot remove deplorable behaviour from society by reinforcing that this behaviour is acceptable and just moving it behind a curtain and turning it on someone that you have no sympathy or empathy for.

In some respects, this is just intentionally targeting the people you need to get on side - so at best it's counter-productive to getting equality for underprivileged*** groups. You don't (at least, shouldn't) need much to convince women they need equal treatment, but by perpetuating the myth that feminism requires men to look like idiots, be turned into performing monkeys, and that their legitimate concerns regarding things like child custody and visitation rights are meaningless isn't going to get them on-side - hence I've dubious about dismissing people as an MRA when they don't actually hold any invalid opinions. On the class-axis (one which I have a far more resonant interest in) I would like a progressive system where wealth is evened out to generate equality of opportunities amongst people - but I want rich people to want it too and realise the benefits, not to be begrudgingly forced into it. You know why? Because I wouldn't want to be begrudgingly forced into it, and I'm capable of enough empathy to realise this. And we certainly don't get to that stage by posh-bashing and threatening to murder bankers in their sleep and saying "hey, it's okay because they're rich!!" Whether you're born with a particular skin tone, a particular gender, sexual orientation, or into a particular wealth bracket shouldn't be an issue. All of these things are accidents of birth, no one had a choice in the matter, no one is at fault for it so why should they be punished? Every time I see someone calling for a revolution and to execute the Royal Family I think (beside the fact that such a thing would accomplish sweet fuck all) "So, you want to kill a load of people because they happened to be born in the wrong place?" Yeah, think about that one for a minute.

Okay, now I'm ranting. So let's get to the crux of it. Why is the idea of "redressing the balance" and targeting privileged groups not acceptable? Note, I didn't say "shouldn't be acceptable" I said "not acceptable".

Put simply and shortly, when you say it's okay to bully and demean a group you're saying that they don't matter. You're saying that their feelings, their views and their opinions aren't worthwhile. You're saying that their subjective experience means nothing. You're saying that these people aren't human enough to warrant your empathy. That's a dangerous route to take, no matter how much privilege you think your target group has.

* "Men" at this point in history almost exclusively refers to the human race as a whole. The idea that it would refer exclusively to the male of the species is a much later idea. Get over it already.

** Used primarily by fairly well-off students to refer to the working class locals in the cities and towns they descend on when they move to university. I wish I was joking.

*** I prefer "underprivileged" to "privileged", actually. It focuses our attention where things should be, and doesn't accuse anyone of anything. "Oh, you're just privileged to say that" is like saying "well, your opinion doesn't matter because, well, just because!" whereas referring to underprivileged groups zones in on where inequality actually exists, enabling us to do something about it that is positive, rather than damaging and demeaning who are, quite frankly, not wilfully at fault.

21st August 2012[edit]

Not as bad as...

How do go about ranking problems? Really, it's a major hurdle for anyone even having the slightest pretence of a utilitarianism, but also a far more general point that controls our attitude. It's almost impossible, as you're trying to chisel out a objective ranking out of experiences that are the most subjective of them all. Square pegs, round holes. And so, this is where the "not as bad as" argument gets confusing.

Middle class children shouldn't be worrying about things like their school exams, because there are kids in lower class schools doing far worse. Then again, those kids shouldn't worry either, because there are children in other countries who can only dream of being in school until they're 16. But when you think about it, those kids too should feel lucky because at least they had school and aren't in the third world. And frankly, at least those in the third world aren't all continually hungry. And hell, hunger is usually only temporary, those kids should count themselves as fortunate next to the ones dying, all bloated and pussed-up and surrounded by flies eating their eyeballs...

Yep, the world is such a truly horrific place that no matter who you are, you can probably find someone in a worse position than you. Although given a finite population you'd expect it to bottom out somewhere, and there's some serious Fridge Horror to be had at wondering who ranks 7 billionth out of 7 billion. But hey, at least they're not a battery farmed chicken, right?

But that's going from one extreme to the other, there are near countless more subtle examples in between, and a vast array of complex attitudes as to whether it's right or wrong to dismiss a problem because it's "not as bad as" one that's worse. This is where those attitudes get really inconsistent, and the problem comes back to the square peg of subjectivity to the round hole of objectivity. Can you really tell someone who is objectively in a better position (say, the teenage child of someone in the 1%) that their subjective experience of depression and self-doubt is better or worse than the subjective experience of someone in a different position? Yes, people can and people do. "Your life is great! You shouldn't feel like that!!" as if what people feel can be controlled by a command. Yet you wouldn't dream of telling someone on the poverty line in America that "Your life is great! Look at the people on the poverty line in Africa!!". It's a poor attitude to take.

Similarly, we can take a look at Richard Dawkins' "Dear Muslima" comments - let's leave aside the dickish tone and look at the content, thought. For those in the "Skeptical Community" living under a rock for the last year or so, a little background. Skeptical Blogger Rebecca Watson was asked, in an elevator by a guy if she would like to have coffee in the guy's hotel room. Dawkins read Watson's response of "guys, don't do that, it's creepy" and responded in a "not as bad as" manner; that she should STFU, because at least she's not some woman in an Islamic country that can't even go out without a chaperone, and has basically no rights at all. This is, of course, because Dawkins is looking at a bigger picture, one where experiences are ranked objectively, not subjectively. Only one person can say how it feels to be stuck in an elevator with someone asking you X, Y or Z, and it's not Dawkins.

Yet, this is where the inconsistent attitude comes in because Watson herself pulls the exact same trick that Dawkins did when it comes to circumcision. Female circumcision: Bad. Male circumcision: Not as bad. Going deeper into the specifics is beyond the scope of this minute paragraph,* but the underlying logic is still the same: Buck the fuck up, shitbrick, because your problem isn't as bad as mine.**

That theme can be expanded a bit more. Can we really compare the apples and oranges of physical abuse with mental abuse? Can we dismiss someone being taunted for how they dress but not dismiss someone being taunted for their sexuality? We treat violence against people of "the wrong skin colour" as a vile and unforgivable crime, but we accept violence against people of "the wrong football shirt" as par for the course.

Possibly the worst offender for this being rape. You can compare date rape that can be generously described as an otherwise amorous sexual encounter gone wrong (i.e., no pre-meditation on behalf of the rapist, a completely different class of mens rea) with, well, I feel genuinely uncomfortable writing a thorough description about it but let it be known I can have a very sick imagination when it comes to it. Certainly, on the objective level one is worse than the other, and I'd consider someone who went through situation A saying "I know exactly what you went through" to someone in situation B to be quite an insult. Yet, I can't deny the subjective experience of the two. That would require a complete empathy lobotomy, but that's the problem we're facing at the moment with a flood of politicians trying to figure out what sort of rape is "genuine" or "real" or "legitimate". It's the hazards of having such a wide variety of acts under one banner, I suppose.

But this is how people are, we routinely dismiss other people's problems because we have no salient experience of them, but just as readily chastise others for dismissing problems we do have salient experience of. This is problematic because it mixes approaches to how to rank problems from "a problem" to "not a problem" and those approaches produce completely different results. Dawkins' problem in "Elevatorgate" was to forget the contribution of subjective experience, but Watson's problem was to be blind to her own "white whining" by forgetting the objective ranking.

Do I have a solution? No, not really, and I invoke my "half-baked" clause there. But perhaps we should, when wondering about our subjective problems always be mindful of its objective ranking, but when trying to assemble that objective ranking, always be mindful of the subjective experience. And certainly, beyond all doubt, we shouldn't just dismiss the problems of others because they don't affect us.

* Owing to the multiple types of female genital mutilation (I-IV) direct and unexamined comparison to the male equivalent is an unwieldy thing. Indeed, a more appropriate comparison between some types of FGM would be surgical castration. Then again, you're comparing mutilation practices that are normalised in their respective regions, and you could say it's more a case that practice A is fine because we do it but practice B isn't because you do it. Anyway, comparing the two results in a complete clusterfuck, but that's sort of my point; you won't change the subjective experience of it. ** Now, if I really wanted to lay into this, I'd note that the typical feminist position on abortion is that "men should shut up about it because they can't get pregnant" (an attitude I do happily hold myself) then note the irony that

17th August 2012[edit]

More Biblical morality

Upon encountering your average homophobic Bible-thumping bigot or idiot - or, if you please, a bigidiot - pretty much the only question worth asking is this:

If the Bible didn't say homosexuality was wrong, would you still detest it so much?

Hint, there's no answer to this that someone can come out well from.

Anyone who knows a little theology will recognise this as a very specific case of the Euthyphro Dilemma, the question that asks whether something is good because God says so, or whether God is good because it's good. It highlights the problem of appealing to an external source of morality as opposed to, say, a goal-orientated deduction of morality. I.e., removing the is/ought problem and replacing it with a should/if problem, "we should do this if we want to achieve this".

But, the Euthyphro Dilemma itself is somewhat abstract. Applying it too widely to the entire concept of morality means there's far too much to take it. The question above, however, I think narrows it down to something concrete that we can really grasp. It's only a very specific instance, and I'm sure it wouldn't take long to generate a dozen other specific instances, but we can get stuck into specific instances so much better because we have something to think about and assemble in our minds with a high degree of salience.

So, how do you answer it? The answer is either "yes", "no" or "deflect". The latter is obviously one to watch out for, but deflecting the question is a poor approach because it is so simple. Sure, it's a loaded question, forcing someone into a yes/no dilemma, but the difference to "when did you stop beating your wife?" type loading is that we're simply asking someone to imagine a hypothetical scenario and assess their beliefs under those circumstances. This isn't difficult, and indeed is what a lot of people believe is what actually makes the human mind unique in its consciousness. "If the average wavelength of light emitted from the sky was 550 nm instead of 480 nm, would I believe the sky to be green?" Yes. "If someone was coming at you with a knife and had expressed a strong desire to stab you, and had already stabbed several others, and you were holding a loaded gun, would you feel justified in killing them?" Yes. It really isn't difficult to put together hypothetical situations and deduce our actions and imagine our beliefs.

Deflecting the question is obviously what is most likely to be encountered because the other two answers aren't good - much in the same way that both straightforward answers to the general Euthyphro Dilemma show an appeal to external objective morality to be an absurdity. If one answers "no" to the specific question, then this is really, really bad. It means that person is capable of forming their own judgement, and that they're allowing a single book, a product of a dark-age religion, to override their own choices. It means they have a belief, but happily throw it out in favour of what they're told. I'm sure from the perspective of the ruling classes that want obedience this is a Good Thing, but from the viewpoint of an individual there is no way this sort of attitude can be virtuous.

Answering "yes", of course, shows them up to simply having a homophobic opinion anyway. Okay, that's fine, at least they're consistent. But the absurdity here is that they would still attribute their belief to a book, deflecting the "blame" for holding such a belief to an external source when it's clear from this answer that they hold it themselves, independently, so are pretty much culpable for the existence of that belief. They might suggest that even if the Bible didn't explicitly state something they could still deduce God's opinion on the subject, but this doesn't make things better.

So, in short, I think discussing the Euthyphro Dilemma is best handled with the specific instances rather than the generalities. Broad puzzles have a lot of wiggle and worming room, but asking a concrete question does not. Is it entrapment? Some kind of trick to railroad people into giving a answer that reflects badly on them? Yes! Of course it is! Because holding these beliefs reflects badly on them, so we may as well illustrate it nice and clearly.

16th August 2012[edit]


Warning: Contains large quantities of straw.

"Tax is theft" seems to be a common cry of the anarchist. Is there a way to refute this? Well, simply, it's enshrined in law so isn't theft. By definition. Ah, there's the problem, "by definition" is a shit argument. So let's look at what it is. Tax is basically what we pay to live in this little thing called "civilisation". It lets us belong to a State, a collective, something that makes us belong and reap various rewards because of it. We could list those rewards, or we can imagine a world where there is no tax. Without that exchange, there is no State (the entity can't fund itself in order to exist). Without that State, there is no authority. Without that authority there is no law. Circularly, without that law, there is no tax.

Without the rule of law, provided by a State, we're stuck in a world where absolutely nothing prevents me being gunned down in the street, at random, for no reason. No law, no punishment. Well, apart from the prospect of retaliation, so if I gun them down first, it's fine. Just so long as they don't have any mates with bigger guns, or so long as I'm surrounded by my own gang with their guns. So, if you want to go shopping, go in groups. Large groups. And go armed, there's no telling what you might encounter. Maybe you'll be a good, law-abiding citizen and not just steal from those shops while you're out, but there's no law to abide by and no State to be a citizen of, so you're just left with being "good". And the fact that shop owners will probably be as armed as you are. That said, that TV looks mighty tempting, and the owner's back is turned, and it's only a shotgun...

But no, I'm good, I won't steal. The last few times I've been held up and mugged haven't turned me cynical yet, I still go to work. Well, I'd like to get to work but the git owning the key piece of road between my shack and the office has hiked his prices, and I don't have enough in change for it. At least not enough in his personal currency. Oh, it doesn't matter anyway, look! There were some others not too happy about it and they decided to fight their way through in protest. Crap. The street is now littered with bodies and they're just going to rot there because there's no municipal maintenance or cleaning teams around. Oh well, at least the next owner of the road should be able to get it at a knock-down price; "some blood removal required" always takes at least 20% of the value off.

Shit. Now I'm late for work and smell of corpse. Bollocks, now I'm fired. Oh, turns out they were going to fire me anyway for no particular reason. That's okay then, I'd hate to think they were firing me for a stupid reason. Time to go home then, maybe someone was kind enough to move those bodies... ah, no. Seems like they're still there, never mind. Oh fuck! I've just remembered that personal contract with the landlord says I need to have a job to live there. I didn't think much of it at the time, it just seemed like a normal thing, and besides, it wasn't like there was an alternative! Maybe if I just keep quiet about it until I get another job.

Wait, what? They're throwing by stuff into the gutter already? How? How did they know? Surely it's an invasion of privacy to know I was fired before I did... oh, wait, there's no protection of privacy because it's not like there's a "law" to stop that. But at least I get to know all the latest celebrity gossip because of that. So that's fine. I'll just sit here, in the gutter, reading the celebrity gossip.

But at least I don't pay any taxes. That's theft!

11th August 2012[edit]

Biblical morality

I'm not 100% convinced this Biblical objective morality is as difficult to refute as some claim. The usual apologetics line goes something like "the Bible is definitely the source of morality, because otherwise moral relativism is true, therefore Hitler would be right". I'd like to say I've seen better, but I haven't. Even the more intelligent ethics and moral arguments boil down to that sort of thing. Yet we're stuck in the same mode that Intelligent Design uses: here's a straw man of the Other Theory, therefore My Theory is right. It doesn't do what it's supposed to.

You can talk about the is/ought problem, you can talk about subjectivity in defining utility, that's fine. But here's the thing; we actually have a claim we can test on our hands. The claim is this "the Bible is the source of morality.". Now, barring any quibbles and unpacking needed about morality, this is fairly straightforward to test, and there are a few ways we can go about. Mostly, this involves asking what do we expect to see if this proposition is true. The proposition states that the Bible is:

a) Objective about morality, therefore is right under all circumstances.
b) Authoritative and so can tell us what to do.
a) Sufficient to be a guide for morality that we can follow.

I hope this doesn't form a straw man, as this is what I get from people who claim there's an objective morality we must follow. It has to be objective, dur, but it also has to have authority and be sufficient to tell us what to do. After all, the entire exercise in trying to establish an objective morality moot if it doesn't have to tell us because we can somehow derive how to act from another something else entirely!

So let's think about a) Objective. How can we be sure something is objective? Because it says so itself? Because I say so? Because it's written in stone? True objectivity should be, for lack of a better word, axiomatic. If you have to give a reason, it becomes subjective. If you say "the Bible is the source of objective morality because it was inspired by God", that doesn't stack up if I don't believe in God. If it's because it's old, then lots of holy books, extant and lost, fit the criteria just as well. For the most part we consider the information flowing into bodies to be objective, we don't give much of a reason because there's no real alternative that makes sense. Is it an illusion? Well, if so, then what? Would that mean you can jump out of a plane without a parachute and survive? Terminal velocity is pretty fucking objective, I'd say. We can establish such facts merely by pointing and grunting, we don't need to form an argument about whether or not hitting the dirt at 120 mph has turned someone into a squishy mess. A book purporting to be a source not only of instructions on how we should act but the very source of why we should act this way doesn't fit the bill of being so axiomatically correct because people need to give reasons for it and argue for it being the case.

I'm sure more professional philosophers will consider that a fairly crude way of dealing with the concept of "objectivity", but I think it illustrates the point of what one of the properties the Bible must have in order to make us sit up and take note of it as a book to be followed and revered. No one can just point and grunt at the Bible and get across that it's the source of all our ethics and morals.

So what about b) Authoritative? Again, if we're being told to sit up and take note of what the Bible says on everything, it needs to have some weight behind it beyond the norm. If you're Heinlein, you'd say authority comes from violence, the man with the bigger stick gets his way. Indeed, the Bible has a lot of violence in it, but those are just stories contained within it. Not following Biblical morality doesn't get you struck down by lightning or anything like that. Even in cases where it has been enforced through violence, it's very human violence, not divine. Does the Lord have need of lightning bolts to smite those who fail to heed His Word? Obviously not as the gun and the noose have done so quite nicely in its place. But remove that, and you have nothing. There's no pressing need, coming externally from human thought, to follow what a book says to the spirit or letter. And that can be backed up by objective fact; "look, I'm sodomising someone, and look, no lightning bolts!".

But that's a forceful view of authority, as I said, if you were Heilein, but I'm not as militaristic as him. In our modern civilised society we like to think that it's not violence that keeps us all in check but a collective good. How far that's actually true, I don't know, but it's still a principle. We elect leaders democratically, and theoretically they rule by the consent of those ruled.Judges and law have authority given to them by people. Collectively, we come together to thrust authority upon people (police, judges, law-makers) and concepts (rule of law) and we accept their authority because we give it to them. Does that mean you can remove your consent to be ruled as an individual, as in the "Freemen" idea? No, it doesn't, because the authoritative weight of law comes from the collective, not the individual. Anyway, do we see such a thing with the Bible? Not in the slightest. It's already firmly established that you if you don't believe in God, it carries no weight, and that puts it in a completely different box to the rule of law, where if you don't believe in it, it still applies because the collective force of others still matters.

But most pressingly, authority comes because it's singular. There is only one law of the land, you don't get to pick and choose which formulation applies to you. Police, judges and law-makers act as a united force. They may disagree on occasion, but the principle of them acting as a united front still holds. Contrast this to the concept of authoritative morality derived from holy books; where there's a plethora of books to choose from. The Bible doesn't exist in isolation, you have multiple versions, multiple interpretations, and then you have other books entirely, the Qu'ran, the Vedas, countless books extant and lost to compete with it. And you can choose which religion to follow - and when you follow a different religion, the tenets of another don't apply to you. In short, the Bible doesn't satisfy any criteria for being authoritative.

Finally, c) Sufficient. Is the Bible a sufficient source of morality? Well, this is tied up closely with whether it is objective. To be anywhere near approaching objectivity it would have to cover everything explicitly. If you give wiggle-room for interpretation, then your notion that it is objective becomes laughable. The most obvious example being the commandment "Thou Shall Not Kill" - can we count the number of times it's been re-translated as "Thou Shall Not Murder"? Not because there are issues in going from Hebrew, to Greek, to Latin to English, but because people want to justify war and the death penalty. Suddenly objectivity vanishes because you introduce subjective interpretations.

It's precisely the fact that you can do this that prohibits the Bible being sufficient as objective morality. This is basically proof by contradiction; we assume it is sufficient to be objective, then realise that it isn't sufficient enough to avoid multiple interpretations and thus objectivity and sufficiency vanish. The distinction of when it is and when it is not right to kill someone isn't covered in much detail in the Bible. I'd guesstimate that to get a codified piece of law that covers all (plausible) situations where the morality could be questionable would run into 10,000 pages - an order of magnitude more than what the Bible actually contains. And that would just be for that one act, you'd need the same again for stealing, sex, fighting, and so on. When the Bible is 90% stories and genealogy, you're left with very little space for your unambiguous moral code. Rule of law, on the other hand, can get away with far less detailed prose (though it's still long and detailed to minimise interpretations) simply because it has to define what is legal and illegal, not what is right and not right.

But, as I said at the top, it's easier than this. If you think that the Bible is not only an instruction book for how to act, but also the exclusive source as to why we act must like this, and that there is no other place we can derive our "shoulds" and "oughts" from, you have to answer this one question: how are all the people who have never read it, and all the non-Christians who don't believe in its authority, not languishing in a jail cell after raping, murdering and pillaging their way through their lives?