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October 19, 2006

What's the recidivism rate for suicide bombing?

Writing about web page http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/10/05/60minutes/main2066624.shtml

Apparently, on the TSA No-Fly list for March this year is included 14 of the 19 hijackers from 9/11. That is, 14 of the 19 terrorists who died in the plane crashes of 9/11. The US security services apparently decided to screen for and ban these individuals, in case, well… they try to do it again.

Maybe they should just watch out for the smell of decaying flesh and the constant groans of ‘Braaainns’ instead.

October 04, 2006

How about a lecture notes sharing scheme?

Something I’ve been thinking about – how about setting up a scheme to help students locate lecture notes for lectures that they have missed?

Currently, people have to find a friend that does the same module, which can be difficult if you were to choose a weird module or something. Essentially, what I’m thinking of is a scheme where people can post requests for notes (possibly with rewards), and which keeps track of people’s comments and ratings. (e.g. how long it took for the notes to get returned, if at all) People can just post what they want into pigeonholes, (or photocopies, really, if we fear that notes might disappear forever) and earn credit based on how many times they donated vs received etc.

How about it? Sound like an useful service?

(Also, if anyone doing third year Maths would like to put the lecture notes for Qualitative Theory of ODEs of 4 October in my pigeonhole in the maths building, I’d be very grateful. I’d get it back to you ASAP.)

You know, we weren't really serious about the American theocracy

Writing about web page http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/29/AR2006092901055.html

We were just exaggerating for effect, mostly… And then we see something like this

The Public Expression of Religion Act – H.R. 2679 – provides that attorneys who successfully challenge government actions as violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment shall not be entitled to recover attorneys fees. The bill has only one purpose: to prevent suits challenging unconstitutional government actions advancing religion.

What the bill means is that in the US, the government will be able to spam breaches of the constitution’s Establishment Clause, (The clause stating that the government can’t mess with people’s religion) and, uniquely out of all other possible issues, they will not have to pay if they lose and their action is declared constitutional. If the government breaks the law, their accuser will have to pay the legal costs!

Naturally, groups like CWA are ecstatic.

The passage of this legislation brings us one step closer to preventing legal groups, like the ACLU, from collecting attorney’s fees from the defendants they sue in establishment clause cases. Eliminating these monetary awards will free citizens to stand up for their constitutional freedoms and not face crippling judgments for attorney’s fees.

Check out the concentration of pure antitruth in that statement. The establishment act is about protecting citizens from the government. The cases affected are those of the ACLU vs the government and its employees, where the actions of the government infere with the free religion rights of the citizen. The only cases affected are those that groups such as the ACLU win – cases where the complained about action is not a ‘constitutional freedom’ of the government, but an act of unconstitutional oppression. Under the bill, government will be freed from ‘crippling’ judgements for fees, and those fees will be placed upon groups of private citizens and their representatives like the ACLU.

These people belong in a frigging mental institution. How can any sane person consider government interference in private beliefs as a freedom, and enforcement of constitutional restrictions on government power as persecution of the Christian majority? Are their Mary statues laced with heroin or something?

September 21, 2006

Time for Kyoto 2.0?

Writing about web page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming

It’s a fact universally acknowledged that the Kyoto Protocols just don’t work. Not just by denial lists, but by groups across the spectrum up to and including Greenpeace itself. The reasons given as to why it doesn’t work varies of course. Green groups think that it doesn’t go far enough. Denialists think that it’s based on a non-existent problem. Business groups think that it’s trying to stop and unstoppable juggernaut instead of trying to simply adapt to things.
Global Warming
Really, though, I think the reason that it doesn’t work appeals to a flawed psychology in its invention.

The real reason why Kyoto fails

Think about it – it’s a scheme where a number of states commit their resources in a way that benefits the rest of humanity. (possibly)

Analysing this using game theory throws up a simple fact – the best strategy in this game is not to join into Kyoto! Instead, it is far better to continue to pollute – in this case, you benefit from your industrialisation, whilst the suckers in the agreement do the real hard work so that you don’t suffer the consequences. The incentive in this scheme is to lie, to astroturf, to make up excuses and pretend that you don’t believe in the problems, because no matter if GW turns out to be real, you win from it. In the worst case scenario, you have breathing space from your accumulated wealth, poor nations are happily screwed over, and the agreement nations have to pay again when their actions fail.

The only motivation to join Kyoto is out of a sense of moral responsibility, and we all know how politicians are with moral responsibility.

It’s obvious by this stage that the world is not going to get its act together. It is inevitable due to simple human nature that all current political actions will be in vain. Either the projections will occur to some extent, or some random miracle will save us. We’re simple not going to do anything that changes the core of this reality.

What we need is an agreement that takes account of this fact.

My Kyoto 2.0

The central principle of my proposed Kyoto 2.0 is that if nothing we do today will affect whether or not we’ll be screwed tomorrow, we can at least make sure that we will be screwed proportionally to the amount of blame we have for it. Specifically, the proposal declares that:

Future adaptation efforts will be paid out of an international fund, with payments into the fund proportional to what the science of the time determines to be the responsibility of that nation to the problem.

What will this mean?

Firstly, it means honesty. Skeptics at this point in time generally believe that either nothing will happen, or that if something does happen, ‘better’ science will show that it was not their responsibility. K2 calls them on that belief. If they genuinely believe in this, then they have nothing to fear from the new agreement. If however they were lying to excuse their own greedy actions, then the new agreement stops them from taking advantage.

It also means fairness. It means the costs of adaptation will probably be paid by those morally at fault. This also happens to be the richest countries, so in general this means that no one should have to suffer too much due to lack of money. Because, I think, this agreement is so clearly just, it should be very hard for dodgy states to squeeze their way out of it.

Finally, it means flexibility. New inventions that eliminate the problem will not mean wasted money. But on the flip side, practical mitigation efforts will be rewarded if they turn out to have an effect, by reducing the degree of responsibility for the state involved. If a state believes that the consequences will be worse than others predict, green measures will be a wise investment.

Of course, as an adaptation based measure, there will be a danger that short sighted politicians will choose to bankrupt their future for short term gain. But hey, that’s going to happen anyway. At least with this, there will be some political pressure against screwing over one’s children.

Any thoughts?

March 23, 2006

Coming Soon: The Abolition of Parliament Bill

Writing about web page http://www.saveparliament.org.uk/

Yay for inflammatory and sensationalist titles.

Grah for this actually being rather appropiate.

Searching Warwick Blogs for the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill brings up two hits. Not very surprising, because for some reason this thing has had a very low profile in the media. A more paranoid writer might suggest this is by design, since the title of the bill itself is carefully crafted so that a casual reader would instantly zone out and ignore it.

Which is a shame, because this bill is


(wonder if this is going to get past the censors….)

Ok. Let me explain.

The Details

A boot stamping on a human face
What this bill does is allow, in the name of cutting red tape, any member of the cabinet to pass a change in primary legislation by a single vote. That's instead of the ages and ages of debating and discussion and back-and-forth that goes on currently.

What does this mean? It means that your MPs will have very little time to read and understand the content of what they are deciding on. And so, if they were to squeeze something dangerous into an innocent looking bill, there is a good chance of getting it through. Who would oppose the 'Bill to provide sick children with cuddly toys', which just happens to conceal a payload of ID cards?

But this is scratching the surface. Most commentators seem to have a failure of imagination here. Maybe they are scared of contemplating the true horror of what's going on. The opposition have been trying to curtail the power of this bill, by asking the government to make exemptions – rules that cannot be changed without the proper, traditional debate. The government has rejected all of these. What rules do the government want to reserve the right to change without debate? Here's a list: (Highlights are boldened)

Act of Settlement 1700
Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001
Bail Act 1976
Bill of Rights 1688
Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919
Church of Scotland Act 1921
Civil Contingencies Act 2004
Claim of Right 1689
Constitutional Reform Act 2005
Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994
European Communities Act 1972
Freedom of Information Act 2000
Government of Ireland Act 1920
Government of Wales Act 2006
Government of Wales Act 1998
Habeas Corpus Acts 1679 to 1862
House of Lords Act 1999
Human Rights Act 1998
Identity Cards Act 2006
Immigration Act 1971
Local Government Act 1972
Magna Carta 1215
Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975
Ministers of the Crown Act 1975
Northern Ireland Act 1947
Northern Ireland Act 1998
Official Secrets Acts 1911 to 1989
Parliament Acts 1911 and 1949
Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986
Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984
Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005
Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Act 1706
Public Order Acts 1936 to 1986
Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000
Representation of the People Acts 1981 to 2002
Scotland Act 1998
Security Service Act 1989
Statute of Westminster 1931
Succession to the Crown Act 1707
Terrorism Act 2000
Terrorism Act 2006
Union with England Act 1707
Union with Scotland Act 1706
Welsh Church Disestablishment Act 1914.

So the government wants the right to create, without debate or discussion, a Britain where you can't vote, where you have no rights to legal representation, where there is a boot stamping on a human face forever.

And what's more, also open for amendment is this bill itself – it would be possible to extend this act to a true Enabling Act, removing Parliament from the process altogether. It would just take our MPs to slip up just once…. And BAM, democracy is abolished.

Let's consider safeguards… What safeguards? All it requires is for the minister drafting the proposal to have adequately considered the dangers. The minister sneaking in the dangerous regulation is given the duty of policing himself. What the government is doing here is asking for what is essentially a blank check, and saying, 'Trust us, we won't do anything bad with it.'

But why, we must ask. Why do you want these powers? Why do you want to have a loaded pistol pointed at our heads, as you claim to continue to protect and serve us?

How not to die

This bill is very close to being passed. The commons have done their first and second sittings already, and it needs only a 1 hour third reading before it's on to the Lords. And if it gets blocked there, then there's the Parliament act to force it through.

Better wake up people, because otherwise, there's no tomorrow.

Also, maybe the Student Union should be doing something about this. I know there's an anti-political mood in the air, but I do think we can have a broad and non-alienating consensus on this issue.

February 03, 2006

The Dollar Game

A friend related to me the following game: (Game as in Game Theory, I'm afraid)

A certain person is auctioning off a dollar. (Or a pound, or whatever) The deal is this – the highest bidder will win the prize, but every bidder – including losers – will be forced to pay whatever price they bid.

So what happens in the game? Notionally, two players can make a profit by agreeing to share the prize and refusing to escalate the situation. But such a deal is an inherently unstable one – each player has a lot to gain by screwing over the other. Furthermore, additional players can jump in and demand their share, blackmailing the cooperators by threatening to take all the prize for himself.

At each stage in the game, then, the player always profits by raising his offer to be above that of his rival. And unlike with the various pricing games we learn about in economics, this game doesn't just stop with zero profit. Even when the players are bidding above the prize, they still have an incentive to bid up a little more in order to try and claw back $1 worth of their losses. Extrapolating, we get to the conclusion that the players all end up paying infinite amounts of money for $1.

The only way to win the game is not to play.

Which is pretty cool. I wonder if this can be used to describe some real world situations…

February 01, 2006

Darwin Kicks ID's Ass

Writing about web page http://www.warwickboar.co.uk/boar/features/darwin_versus_god/

(Copy of a letter I sent to the letters page which probably won't get printed)

In this week's Warwick Bore, Alex Varley-Winter declares it to be a 'myth' that ID is just creationism. But that's wrong. The opposite is true – the judge in the recent case in America, stated specifically in his decision that ID is precisely creationism relabelled. Literally, as drafts of textbooks on creationism were converted into textbooks on ID simply by replacing the names.

Let's be blunt here. There are three kinds of people who believe in ID. They are the ignorant, the stupid, and the dishonest.

The dishonest are the worst. These are the arch-manipulators in charge at lobby groups such as the 'Discovery Institute' in America. These groups, it is known, follow the euphemistically titled 'Wedge Strategy'. The plan, explicitly stated and discretely endorsed, is to use issues like evolution to drive religion into government, with the ultimate goal of creating a theocratic state. Such institutions directly fund and support individuals like Dembski and Behe, and coordinate a careful strategy to destroy science and rationalism as a whole. For all their declarations that ID has nothing to do with religion, these people hold a step by step plan to use ID as a tool of mass manipulation. The creationists are simply organised in a way evolutionary science cannot be, because for all the conspiracy theories, there is no single towering Scientific Authority.

The stupid are the oracles of the dishonest, knowingly or unknowingly. None of ID's ideas are in fact new. Irreducible complexity was talked about by Darwin himself, and every example brought up has been clearly refuted by adopting a more realistic version of evolution – one where, for example, ireducibly complex situations can be reached by shaving down from a more complicated one, instead of just naively building up. Dembski's specified complexity is entirely invalid, because it treats evolution as a search algorithm when in fact it is not – natural selection isn't trying to find a certain exact solution. Then, we get the metaphysical stupids around them. The ones that argue, for example, that science can't explain everything. Or the ones who argue that ID needs to be given a change. The problem is that ID wants to be science, and the question answered by evolution – can current physical laws explain observed distributions of life – is a scientific question. It is a question in which we can seek direct verification from observation. In all its claims, ID has been shown time and again to be wrong or insufficient. It should not be 'given a chance', until it has come up with evidence or arguments that can stand on it's own two feet. ID itself, by it's vagueless over the idea of 'intelligence' (whose existence philosophers still debate) and 'design', has currently no explanatory power at all. It amounts to no more than 'stuff happens'.

Finally, there are the ignorants. The ignorants are the pawns of the ID movement. They are the majority who jam the polls. The ignorants represent two things – the failure of modern science education to convey the values and principles of science, and the concerted effort by the stupid and the dishonest to cloud their mind as to the facts of the matter.

The manipulators at the head of the ID movement want to twist science into a thing where skeptical thought is useless, where facts are equivalent to opinions. They want to twist religion from it's proper role as a source of comfort, inspiration and personal peace, into a shackle on ideas and a network of clumsy dogmas that can be used to beat up on discourse. For this reason, these people need to be resisted, and fought.

January 31, 2006

Oh Maths, Why Has Thou Forsaken Me?

Writing about web page http://www.channel4.com/4money/ontv/deal_or_no_deal/

Rich capitalist bastard mocking the proles.
A tv show, currently being show on Channel 4 on Saturdays called Deal or No Deal has caught my attention. The general gist of the show is this:

There are a number of boxes containing a known selection of cash amounts – what is not know is how the amounts are distributed. A player selects one box at random.

The game then proceeds round by round. With each round, one of the boxes is randomly selected, it's contents shown, and then eliminated. Every 2 or 3 rounds, the player is given an offer based on the average of the remaining box amounts. The player can take this offer and quit the game, or he can carry on, until eventually every box is eliminated except the one he initially selected, whose contents he wins. This is essentially the only choice the player has.

Question: How best does one play the game?

The obvious thing to do, as a statistician , is to stop playing when the expectation is decreasing. I.e. calculate the average win the next time you get an offer over all possible intervening outcomes, and stop once this is below what you currently have. The problem is that this doesn't work. It turns out that such expectations are exactly the same as the current average. (Proof is exercise for the reader)

A friend suggested an alternative – to stop playing the moment you are above the initial average – i.e. quit when you are ahead. The argument is that you remove the cases where you start off winning, but eventually lose. Unfortunately, you also lose the cases where you win and keep on winning. And guess what, these cancel out and you don't change your average winnings.

It seems that you can change the distribution of the winning probabilities only so much as you keep the average winnings the same. (Maybe this can be proven using some theorem from that of random walks?) So in the end, the best strategy is decided by the utility function of the player – how much is that extra 1000 pounds worth to him? Personally, I'd go for the reverse of my friend's strategy – quit when I fall below my initial expectation. This means that I guarantee a reasonable win, but have a long tail of probabilities going upwards, giving me a chance at the big one. Interestingly, this corresponds exactly to the much vilified idea of 'luck'. (Possibily an evolutionary explanation?)

Wikipedia has a good article on this, of course. It notes I've been a little bit naive with my analysis - the offer is a proportion of the expectation that is increasing with time. So essentially, the game lets players trade average winnings for reduced risk. It also references an unusually interesting social science article that I currently aren't arsed to read because I have two essays to write. The article (slogan = Tomorrow's Research Today! – really very creepy if you think about it) notes that the game is actually pretty good economics experiment into risk aversion, and there's a nice variety of different behaviours.

So, um, read it if you are interested.

January 04, 2006

Nice article about wikipedia

Writing about web page http://www.hyperorg.com/backissues/joho-dec29-05.html#wikipedia

I like what this guy has to say.

Ok, I can't really think of anything more profound at this moment.

December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas.

And so we come to yet another Christmas.

Funny thing, Christmas. It's the one holiday we have that is in fact totally pointless. Jesus – if he was the messiah, if he even existed – was not born on December 25th. It's not the solstice, or any other astronomically significant moment in time. It's just a date. A number drawn out by the random processes of historical convenience. (Man, the strain of that essay on RNGs is really having an effect…)

Most of the movies on TV now fill me with dread and revulsion. Endless exortions to return to the basics, to recover the spirit of Christmas and so on and so forth. This holiday, then, is the time our long dormant collective consciences can be tapped and channeled into a variety of deserving or undeserving causes. Resistance is futile. Surrender to Jeebus! To the poor Africans! To the buy one get one free!

You can only hear Jingle Bells so many times before you go on a rampage. I don't need a Christmas holiday. I need a holiday from Christmas.

Bah humbug.

December 18, 2005

On Good vs Evil. And Wikipedia

Writing about web page http://www.wikipedia.org

Man, long time since I'm blogged. Too busy. A mixture of things – assignments, of course, due to my typically crazy selection of every single module available, essays, and applying to endless silly internships. (No offence to whoever writes those websites, but there is too much homogenity within the various application websites. If I have to look at another website talking about development, team working, motivated, goal orientated, competitive, I'm going to scream. Get a thesaurus, guys!)

I guess all the recent silly news about wikipedia managed to flush me out of my hidey-hole, just for now. This post may contain numerous errors, because I'm writing it in a hurry.

The thing everybody forgets is that we're the good guys.
— Jimmy Wales

Hell, I don't believe in good or evil. It's quite possible that no-one believes in good and evil, really, though most people say that they do. We cite all sorts of things about what we believe to be absolute goods or absolute evils, but they never work in practice. Is murder evil? Everyone seems to think it is, but that doesn't stop us making war. Is charity good? Everyone agrees, but I don't see a communist paradise quite yet. Et cetra. More often than not, good and evil are used as verbal bludgeons to eradicate neccessary subtlety.

But I do think Jimbo (as we Wikipedianistas call him) captures an essential truth here. As much as being good makes sense, the only side in all these sorry affairs that are close to good are the wikipedians.

Lemme pause for a bit, to work out what we are talking about. You can't have missed it, can you? The Seigenthaler affair? And numerous anti-wikipedia rantings from the popular press?

We need to work out what the reality is here. People should ignore the crap that's been in the media about this. Even the Guardian is horribly wrong in its reporting of the case. Let's sum up the Seigenthaler affair:

  1. Vandal posts garbage to Seigenthaler's entry. (It wasn't initially clear in fact that it was a vandal. It could have been just another conspiracy nut who genuinely believed in what he was posting.)
  2. Someone attempts to remove the information, but does so by pasting in copyrighted information. That's bad. It gets reverted to the vandalised version.
  3. Seigenthaler finds out, and contacts Jimbo. Immediately, the page is reverted.
  4. Seigenthaler wants the real life identity of the vandal. Jimbo can't oblige.

The only thing that really went wrong was step 2. Many many articles get vandalised every day on wikipedia. Statistics show no recent rise in vandalism. It's bad if vandalism is left unreverted for a long time, but it happens. Seigenthaler is not a particularly important person, so no one checks his article.

4 is a real problem here. It's the thing that's been siezed on by the anti-wikis. They call it accountability. But they haven't thought through what this entails:

  1. First, you can't do it to existing edits. Wikipedia just doesn't have that information on file, and if it does, it would be breaching the agreement it made with all of its registered users.
  2. It's not practical with current technology. IP addresses, email addresses and so on are all unreliable forms of ID on the internet. The only way to make it work is to have a compulsary internet identification scheme on the national/international level, and clearly setting something like that up is not wikipedia's responsibility.
  3. It's hard to restrict. Granting this 'accountability' would be unparalleled on the internet. Even Brittanica does not provide this sort of information on its authors. If it works with wikipedia, then such legislation is easily extended to internet forums, blogs, personal websites…
  4. It is horrifically dangerous. Remember how children are taught not to give away emails or home addresses on IRC. Ditto here. Editors are vulnerable, and facing real life threats would be a terrifically chilling effect on freedom of speech. I have spoken to an editor who is scared for his life following the Seigenthaler affair, because a right-wing radical christian group has claimed that his edits to remove bias from an article on Pedophiles makes him a pedophile, and he fears these people can discover his real life identity. This works with politicians too - it is all too plausible in today's society for an employer to fire employees who are percieved to have edited various controversial articles with a bias. This 'accountability' will simply restrict control of knowledge to those who can afford the lawyers. In reality, the system of transparency, and the idea of demanding NPOV and verifiability does work on wikipedia, has worked on wikipedia, and is the only thing that can work with wikipedia.

The thing is, the refutations from wikipedia's proponents have always been rather weak. Why? Because wikipedians are just too nice. The reason wikipedians take part in wikipedia is because they believe in the value of the Project, and buy into the massively optimist view of humanity contained within. (See the wikipedia guideline Assume Good Faith for an example) The reason for opposition to wikipedia, in particular the acidic, misleading, vindictive opposition that appears these days, however, are darker.

Why do these people oppose wikipedia? Because a successful wikipedia threatens their own interests. Media sources, which earn money by controlling information with copyright, fears wikipedia. Encyclopedia Britannica, whose editor has made the most vocal attacks on wikipedia, obviously fears wikipedia. The assorted banned users obviously have a personal vendetta. Neccessarily, those whose livelihoods are based on an information monopoly fear attempts to free this information.

Wikipedia needs to win this war.

To help, see link

Or help edit an article!

September 26, 2005

Now this is repulsive

Writing about web page http://www.sundaymirror.co.uk/news/news/tm_objectid=16170720%26method=full%26siteid=62484%26headline=exclusive%2d%2dmaxine%2ds%2dsick%2dvisit%2dto%2dgraves-name_page.html

No, I don't normally read the Sunday Mirror. (or any other tabloid) Those who know me know me as a Guardian reading lefty, and proud of it. Still, I came across a copy on the bus yesterday, and allowed my eyes to stray over the headline.


Maxine, of course, would be Maxine Carr, the woman notable in her involvement in the Soham Murders. Also, tabloid enemy number one. So, what has she done now? What is it that the Sunday Mirror finds so utterly outrageous?

She decided to visit, in private, the murdered girls' grave. Where she wept, and left teddy bears. And even worse:

Yet Carr – jailed for lying to protect the girls' killer Ian Huntley – wants to return EVERY YEAR.

Oh my lord, the horror, the horror.

Really. The horror. This, people, is a vision of the future. The Mirror, one of the UK's largest papers, has now decreed remorse to be a crime. When Maxine, whose only connection to the case was that she stood by her trusted boyfriend and provided a false alibi, decides to visit the grave of his victims to express her regret, and to try to make her peace with the dead, she is branded as a sick villain.

Why is the Mirror doing this? It moans about the cost of protecting her anonymity, but then publishes her address every now and then, leading her to recieve death threats. It moans about her getting educated in psychology. It notes, with bloodthirsty relish, her attempts at suicide. Do most of the readers of the Mirror visit the Soham girls' graves? Do the staff of the Mirror go there, ever? Why do they so want to hold this wound open to fester and rot? The explanation is pure, simple greed, and here they are trying to elevate themselves morally, making themselves the great noble judge, the crusader for justice.

Now this is sick. Gut wrenchingly, vomit-inducingly sick.

And yet, people still keep buying the newspaper. Any readers here to tell me why?

September 12, 2005

At least it isn't the science section anymore

Writing about web page http://www.guardian.co.uk/life/science/story/0,12996,1567977,00.html

Today was the Guardian's first edition in the new 'Berliner' version. Plenty of hype, of course. My thoughts on this is that, well, big deal. The format should be a bit more convenient, but I've gotten rather adept already with the old folding contorting gesticulating game. As for 'everything is going to change', and the loss of the special science section, that was scary, but I reckoned that they wouldn't neglect their core audience.

Which is why I am currently angry. So angry that if I knew where their offices were, I'd be marching down there with a bunch of friends to demand the old science section back. If I had any friends.


What they've done here that made me so angry is a bunch of things. First, they've turned the science section into a daily spread. Fine. That's ok. And then they decided to call it Ideas.

Ideas? What the hell does Ideas mean? Hey, let's all vote for the BNP. That's an idea, isn't it? Floral print is an interesting idea for jolly clothing. Do you have any idea the size of the queue today?

The trouble with ideas is that like rectums, everyone's got one. Sure, ideas are part of science. But that's not just it. What is neccessary is also a rigorous and as-objective-as-possible means of discriminating between them, to reject what is false and then to examine even deeper what we fail to reject. Bush was talking gibberish when he was on about teaching all sides of the story. We haven't the time to deal with the infinity of crap out there without a shred of evidence to support.

Science isn't about ideas. Science is about wonder and skepticism together. Science is about getting to truth. Why don't they just call the damn section truth, and be done with it? Or maybe just science?

Well, apparently because they want to publish interviews with folk like Michael Behe.

Behe is a crank. Behe works at the Discovery Institute, whose official goal is the so called wedge strategy, to redefine science and to cement religion into US life. In short, to make the USA into a theocracy. Behe's contribution to this is the idea of so-called irreducible complexity, the idea that things are too simple to have evolved naturally. (This is a point many people get wrong. Behe states that evolution is complexity linear, and so will never arrive at efficient systems.) Irreducible complexity is one of the few falsifiable points of creationism, but it has been falsified again and again.

So, what was the Guardian doing interviewing someone who persists in stating things that are just plain wrong? Who is a known distorter of the facts? What was it doing failing to point out the endless refutations which exist for everything Behe says? Your guess is as good as mine.

Lemme analyse a few tit bits:

Everybody – even Richard Dawkins – sees design in biology. You see this design when you see co-ordinated parts coming together to perform a function – like in a hand.

Behe immediately muddies the water. Keep track now… What Behe is on about now is organisation. Organisation is fine. Behe now renames organisation as appearance of design. I mean, in many, many things, pieces come together to perform a higher task. The organisation of the markets out of individual traders, for example. Behe now calls this appearance of design.

You can't just have one part work a little bit then add another part and have it work a little bit better. And that's the sort of thing Darwinian evolution would have to do, if it was true.

Strawman number one. Darwinian evolution isn't about adding things. Evolution is about just change in genetic material. Evolution can also be taking things away. But we can still wait, because Behe hasn't shown life to be a mousetrap, yet.

I see it as straightforward empirical observation. One analogy I like to use is to Mount Rushmore. If you had never heard of Mount Rushmore, you would see immediately the images of four people and immediately recognise that to be design. There wouldn't be any question of metaphysics there. You can tell that something was designed from its physical structure.

Really? Now that is a metaphysical question. Let's do a thought experiment.

Suppose you are an alien. You have never seen a human before. You have no concept of a face, and have never seen a construction engineer, never seen dynamite, and have no knowledge of Earth landforms. Would you really conclude that Mount Rushmore was designed?

And we can do better. What about pareidolia – the finding of patterns that don't exist? Faces, in particular. The Virgin Mary in cheese sandwiches. Does Behe really think these are designed?

It's not a matter of knowing about Mount Rushmore. It's about a number of distinct requirements to allow us to recognise design.

1. We have a designer in mind – Humans, or even more specifically, human americans. (As opposed to non-human americans, I suppose.)
2. From this designer, we have a set of things we are looking for. For Mount Rushmore, it's the fact that it looks like a face. For the motor car, it's the fact that it takes us places.
3. We know of a set of processes by which our designer could have produced the design.

Note that we have all of the above when judging Rushmore, none of the above when judging the Cheese sandwich, and none of the above when judging life. This makes the latter two at best a matter of faith, and at worst complete garbage.

It's that you can see that there are quite literally machines in the cell. Machines made out of molecules. It's not just the intelligent design people who use this term. It's widely used in molecular biology. If you look in any of the science literature you will see that they talk about "machines".

Strawman number two. Biologists mean a different thing from Behe here. Machines are just systems that do things. The use of the word machine doesn't mean biologists accept design. He's trying to steal a word.

No. I'm just trying to explain the bacterial flagellum. You see, this is one problem I always run into. I see this flagellum and say, "Gee whiz! It looks designed," and then people come along and say, "Well, you're trying to say that the whole world was created by some superagency." No. I'm just focusing on this area in biochemistry.

But you see, Behe isn't. Behe's whole argument rests on his incapability to explain the flagellum. The fact is, other people have actually been trying to explain the flagellum, and they've outline at least two possible ways with evidence to support them. Meanwhile, all Behe has done is to sit around and chant - it isn't possible.

Yes. We're at the molecular level of biology and from physics we know that's where it ends.

What, now, is biology? Behe takes a lurch into the metaphysical here. We say that biology ends at the molecular level, because biology is a field we define ourselves. Life itself is a very hard thing to define in a non-arbitary level. There is no rule in physics that there may not be biological influences from beneath the molecular. Behe finds it very easy to accept invisible intelligences, but very hard to consider the existence of undiscovered laws of nature.

All that the evidence from biochemistry points to is some very intelligent agent.

And here's the final nail in the coffin. Biochemistry doesn't understand the concept of intelligence. No one, and I mean no one, understands the concept of intelligence. The whole intelligence word is an ancient and insoluble concept in philosophy.

Behe is using the idea because he doesn't know what he means, and he can safely count on no one else knowing either. He's using it just because he needs to segue into his Discovery Institute job. But even if his argument succeeds, he's only disproven a very strict definition of evolution. Consider following alternatives that have no trace of intelligence, but also have the same amount (zero) of evidence, and the same (negligible) probability…. (The Flying Spaghetti Monster is a false start here. We need something unintelligent, not just dumb.)

  • Quantum evolution – evolution proceeding beneath the level of his irreducible complexity
  • Order principle – special cases to laws of mathematical chance, favouring life
  • Multiple universes – we just happen to be in the right one
  • Molecular telepathy – non linear causality in evolution

The list is provably infinite.

And meanwhile, the final question the interviewer can come up with:

Did Galileo come to mind?

Presumeably, the bit where he licks Behe's boots was deleted from the final version.

September 01, 2005

A Zombie Apocalypse

Writing about web page http://urbandead.com/

Hey, with the world going to hell, what better than to escape into a fantasy undead rising? At least, this is one disaster that isn't terribly likely to happen, right? Right?

So, go play Urban Dead now…

Essentially, it's a text based MMORPG. So, graphically and stuff, it isn't terribly impressive. It isn't even technically impressive. But it's good fun. Basically, you play a human survivor in a dawn of the dead type scenario. Every half hour, you get an Action Point to do stuff, and you can save up to 50 of those. You spend your action points hitting stuff (or more typically, missing stuff), moving about (the game world is huge. 10,000 tiles, with about 80% of them containing an indoor tile) and performing various actions. The trick is that if you get killed, you become a zombie, and get to hunt down and chew up braiinss… And the zombies get the advantage that they can't permanently be killed….

So essentially, the humans hide.

Basically, they barricade themselves into safehouses and go out hunting now and then to discourage zombies from gathering. The zombies tend to bash on the doors a bit, and then move on in search of easier targets.

It's kinda interesting watching order emerge in the game world. While the author is himself updating the game now and then, the more dramatic changes in gameplay come from the players themselves. See, after a while, the zombie start getting organised. While before 5 or 6 might attack, rumours are now circulating of a vast horde that have gathered. Over 100 zombies who actually coordinate their attacks, and use human informants and PKers to help out. These guys have simply steamrollered their way through. So suddenly, recently, the balance of power has swung towards the zombies. Even though the humans have tried to form their own groups, they don't work nearly so well together…

So, join the game. Have a go. Help us beleagured humans out. You might enjoy it.

July 20, 2005

Leopold II of Belgium

Interesting documentary on last night. Bet none of you saw it. It was on around midnight, on BBC2, and you were probably busy paying back that sleep debt. Well, I watched it. It was pretty good. Considering the subject – systematic atrocities resulting in the deaths of 3 – 20 Million people.

Pretty awful, hmm? But more surprising is the year. We've been getting used to such numbers in the bloody mess of the mid-late 20th century, over the world wars and the famines and so on. But this was in 1885 – 1906. A time where the world population was only around 1.7 billion. 20 Million people is more than 1% of that number. Over that period, 1 in 100 people in the entire world was killed in Congo, because of one man, King Leopold II of Belgium.

When we see such numbers, what strikes us is the insanity of it. Hitler and the rest and in the end somewhat convenient to us. We can say that these people were insane, blinded by crazy ideology. Murderous monsters, irrational creatures of hate. We can say to ourselves – we recognise such evil. We can avoid it, stop it, prevent such atrocities from recurring.

But Leopold's crimes are different. He was very much rational, very much reasonable in his actions. His motivation was simple – personal profit.

And for this profit, under the guise of spreading 'civilisation', he purchased as a private citizen a gigantic area in Africa for himself. To maximise his earnings from the growing rubber trade, he created his private armies to enforce his rule. To cower the people with terror to produce more for himself, he ordered the killings, the rapes, the exterminations.

One junior white officer described a raid to punish a village that had protested. The white officer in command: "ordered us to cut off the heads of the men and hang them on the village palisades, also their sexual members, and to hang the women and the children on the palisade in the form of a cross."

It was all very logical. Terror works. Leopold's rule was not threatened by rebellion. The white missionaries and so on mostly kept quiet, happy so long as they were left alone to carry on their tasks of conversion. The victims were black, and the guards were black too, enslaved from childhood or recruited from cannibal tribes. The whites giving the orders kept their hands clean. Who cares if black savages killed black savages? What did it matter, so long as the rubber kept coming?

In the end, a handful of people got the truth out. They forced the issue into the public agenda with photographs and pamphlets. They persuaded the missionaries to put their humanity before their faith and speak out. They persuaded the merchants to put their humanity before their purses and give funding. Leopold, cornered, commissioned a report, hoping to whitewash over the whole thing. But even the loyalists he appointed to write it were horrified by what they saw.

So the King gave up his land to Belgium. He was paid 50 million francs in gratitude. The Congo enterprise had earned him 200 million Euros in today's money, but he was the most hated man in Europe. He died a year later.

And then, Belgium forgot. The King had burned all his papers, and his supporters were now able to rewrite history. Never mind the endless eyewitness accounts – the witnesses were dying now, of old age and of Belgium's own colonialisms. The supporters pointed to the great buildings Leopold had built with his wealth, created the image of the great civiliser. Statues of the King began to pop up. Britain and the rest could have disapproved, but they were busy. The Great War was starting, and suddenly Belgium was plucky little Belgium, holding back the Kaiser. The old rabble rousers were disappearing. Morel, the british champion of the congolese was discredited for his anti-war views. Harris, a priest who spoke out, was executed as an Irish nationalist.

One of the greatest holocausts of history disappeared. Leopold wins.

July 07, 2005

Well, we've been attacked

Writing about web page http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/news/archives/2005/07/07/explosions_plunge_london_into_chaos.html

The picture in London is rapidly clarifying into a series of coordinated terrorist bombings. Pretty soon, I suppose, the recriminations and the real panic will begin. I think everyone is pretty numb right now.

Jesus fucking christ.

Of course, this attack is a surprise to nobody. We've been predicting attacks on the UK all along. Unlike after 9/11, there isn't going to be a sudden awakening. We know why they hate us. We know (probably) who they are.

Fucking hell.

There is very little, it seems to me, that we could have done. Doubtlessly, people are going to be appending this to the ID card bill. But this is one of those attacks that such a bill will not help. The public transport system is just too big, too broad to be included in an identification scheme. By definition, such a system has to be vulnerable.

Another 'obvious' statement to make is that this has something to do with the Olympics. Of course, the timing is very unfortunate, and will lead to maximum world visibility. But it is deeply unlikely that an attack can be organised to such detail in 24 hours. Speculation will happen, but it won't be accurate.


We need to remember this attack changes nothing. Iraq is still as it is before. The issue of security and rights are still unchanged. The risk of being attacked is still the same, now that one has succeeded. We must not be taken away by the emotional tides, and let our fear and terror betray us.


June 13, 2005

Probability Puzzle Time!

Writing about web page http://www.gchq.gov.uk/recruitment/careers/math_apply.html

This puzzle from the GCHQ recruitment website has completely flummouxed me. I suspect there is some sort of general method to dealing with stuff like this, but I have no idea what it is.

2. Alice and Bob play coin toss: Alice pays Bob £1 for each head and Bob pays Alice £1 for each tail they throw. They continue playing until one player loses (runs out of money). Initially Alice has £6 and Bob has £14.

a. Determine, with proof, the probability that Alice loses.
b. Determine the probability that Alice loses but also has at some time previously been within £1 of winning.

June 11, 2005

How Much Effect Is There From the Sea?

Follow-up to Humanity's Greenhouse Footprint from The Militant Wing of Pacifism

CS responded to one of the previous posts with:

A little known fact is that much of the world's CO2 is stored in sea-water, and a rise in temperature reduces the water's capability to retain CO2, so the oceans give off CO2 as they warm. While I don't have exact figures to hand, I think the contribution of natural warming to CO2 levels in this manner is significant.

I pretty much ignored it, previously, because it wasn't really significant to my point – even if human global warming is triggering other carbon sources, this still counts as human caused climate change, in that it wouldn't be happening if we weren't releasing. It just adds a degree of superfluous indirectness to the preceeding. It didn't occur to me to investigate this particular 'fact'.

So, from RealClimate :

This question keeps coming back, although we know the answer very well: all of the recent CO2 increase in the atmosphere is due to human activities, in spite of the fact that both the oceans and the land biosphere respond to global warming.

Why? Because we've actually measured the Carbon content of the seas. The following is pasted pretty much directly from that entry. (Because I can't get blockquotes working right…) They've given references, so you can check up their assessments if you desire:

Pasted section begins

On time-scales of ~100 years, there are only two reservoirs that can naturally exchange large quantities of CO2 with the atmosphere: the oceans and the land biosphere (forests and soils). The mass of carbon (carbon is the "C" in CO2) must be conserved. If the atmospheric CO2 increase was caused, even in part, by carbon emitted from the oceans or the land, we would measure a carbon decrease in these two reservoirs.

Number of observations of carbon decreasing in the global oceans: zero.

Number of observations of carbon increasing in the global oceans: more than 20 published studies using 6 independent methods.
The methods are:
(1) direct observations of the partial pressure of CO2 at the ocean surface (Takahashi et al. 2002),
(2) observations of the spatial distribution of atmospheric CO2 which show how much carbon goes in and out of the different oceanic regions (Bousquet et al. 2000),
(3) observations of carbon, oxygen, nutrients and CFCs combined to remove the mean imprint of biological processes (Sabine et al. 2004),
(4) observations of carbon and alkalinity for two time-periods combined with an estimate of water age based on CFCs (McNeil et al. 2002), and the simultaneous observations of atmospheric CO2 increase and the decrease in (5) oxygen (Keeling et al. 1996), and (6) carbon 13 (Ciais et al. 1995) in the atmosphere.

The principle of the last two methods is that both fossil fuel burning and biospheric respiration consume oxygen and reduce carbon 13 as they produce CO2, but the exchange of CO2 with the oceans has only a small impact on atmospheric oxygen and carbon 13. The measure of atmospheric CO2 increase together with oxygen or carbon 13 decrease gives the distribution between the different reservoirs.

All the estimates show that the carbon content of the oceans is increasing by 2±1 PgC every year (current burning of fossil fuel is 7 PgC per year). One method is able to go back in time and shows that the carbon content of the oceans has increased by 118±19 PgC in the last 200 years. There is some uncertainty about the exact amount that the oceans have taken up, but not about the direction of the change. The oceans cannot be a source of carbon to the atmosphere, because we observe them to be a sink of carbon from the atmosphere.

Why are the ocean and land taking up carbon, when we know that warming of the oceans reduces the solubility of CO2 and warming of the land accelerates bacterial degradation of the soils? The answer is that warming is not the only process that influences the oceans and land biosphere. The dominant process in the oceans is the response to increasing atmospheric CO2 itself.

June 09, 2005

Bellamy KO'ed by Scientific Fact

Follow-up to Lies, Damned Lies, and Global Warming Deniers from The Militant Wing of Pacifism

Well, it seems that Monbiot has won his little spat with David Bellamy. That would be the Bellamy I blogged about previously for making crap up about Global Warming. He's just been kicked out from the Centre for Alternative Technology for:

Some of Prof Bellamy’s recent published statements seem to be flying in the face of the considered opinion of the majority of the scientific community. Such statements are clearly inconsistent with the standpoint of CAT.

Of course, it would be unseemly for me to gloat too excessively at his personal misfortune, but really, if you want to pick a fight, then you really need to make sure the facts are at least partially on your side. On subjective issues of judgement, there is always plenty of wriggle room in any argument, but if your statements are based on complete and utter lies, then you are just looking like an idiot.

This has been blogged about somewhat, here and here.

June 06, 2005

Silly, silly poll on religion

Writing about web page http://wid.ap.org/polls/050606religion.html

So, some people are raving and ranting about the results of a new poll by AP.

Most of this is stating the complete bleeding obvious. Of course the US is more religious than Canada and the UK and stuff. But some of the claims being made by the poll are pretty silly. And if you look carefully, you will find that the poll was in fact badly done.

The specifically dubious claim is that:

Nearly all U.S. respondents said faith is important to them, and only 2 per cent said they do not believe in God.

Now, let's dig up the actual results:

Now, they've all focused on that first single entry:

  • I don't believe in God.

But check out some of the other entries:

  • I don't know whether there is a God, and I don't believe there is a way to find out.

  • I don't believe in a personal God, but I believe there is a higher power of some sort.

  • Not sure.

By the definition of belief, all of the above in fact qualify as not believing in God. If you don't know whether X exists, obviously you don't believe in its existence. You just don't believe in it's non-existence either. And an impersonal God is indistinguishible from a natural law – many scientists, such as Einstein, believed for example in the universality of a natural order, and they don't believe in God. And if you are not sure what you believe in, how can you make the positive statement that you believe in God?

Here's the thing. Implicit in the question was the definition of 'not believing in God' as 'believing in the absence of God'. Now, this is an incredibly strong and irrational statement to make, and the vast majority of self-declared atheists would not agree with it. No scientist worth his/her salt would dare make such a statement.

That's why it is hugely misleading for the above ranters to treat this latest poll as proof of the end of secularism in the US, or whatever. Rest assured, fellow comrades, there is still some sanity in the old US of A.