Friday, May 30, 2008

What is an atheist?

For those of you who haven't been following the culture wars too closely, I'm going to show you a little snippet from that paragon of fundie morality, Monique Davis. Monique Davis is a Democratic Member of the Illlinois House of Representatives and worked as a teacher and an educational admin for Chicago public schools. It was while atheist activist Rob Sherman was testifying before the House State Government Administration Committee that she unleashed the following:

"I don't know what you have against God, but some of us don't have much against him. We look forward to him and his blessings... I'm trying to understand the philosophy that you want to spread in the state of Illinois... This is the land of Lincoln where people believe in God... What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous... It's dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists... Get out of that seat! You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon."

This charming diatribe earned her a place as Keith Olbermann's Worst Person in the World. Anyway, let's not waste anymore time pondering the ravings of one delusional psychotic; I'd like to address the question stated in the title.

It seems to me that many fundies and even some moderates pretty much share the same view as Davis regarding atheists, lumping us in the same category as angsty teens with a head full of Neitzsche. For the benefit of moderates who visit this blog, and atheists looking for snappy answers to moderates, I'd like to try and clear up the confusion.

Atheism is exactly what the word looks like it means: No-god-ism. We acknowledge the limitations of human knowledge and, faced with the mysteries of the universe which are beyond present human understanding, we choose not to fill this gap in our knowledge with supernatural beings. Simple as that.

We do not hate God. We don't even believe He exists, so what's there to hate? Does a Christian, Jew or Muslim hate Zeus, Odin or Vishnu? In any case, any secular humanist can tell you that hatred is counterproductive and has no place in polite society. That having been said, God's followers can be pretty damn annoying, worst of all in the case of the fundie, who appears to be a product of hatred, fear and more than anything else, ignorance.

The thing to bear in mind when speaking of atheists is that there are many, many flavours of atheist. Just as theists have Catholics, Protestants, Free Presbyterians, Locked-up Presbyterians, Shi'ites, Sunnis, Sufis and what-have-you, atheists will have secular humanists (like me!), nihilists (nutters) and so on and so forth.

Most atheists turn to atheism as the logical response to the inadequacies and inconsistencies of organised religion, e.g. Moses' Exodus vs total lack of archaeological evidence*, Genesis vs evolution + big bang + radiocarbon dating + common sense. It is part and parcel of good science to always be aware that there may always be a better explanation. As such, even knowing as much as we know, we acknowledge that maybe, just maybe there might be room for a supernatural being, say, sparking off the Big Bang. But that's hell of a maybe, and as yet, wherever science has turned it's gaze, God seems to have buggered off. BUT, we keep our minds open. Hence many scientists will consider themselves 99.9% atheist, i.e. we're open to the possibility that He exists, if and only if there is strong evidence for His existence. However, what current evidence suggests is that either: a) There's no God(s); or b) He/They doesn't give a shit.

Of course, one could argue that these days, believers aren't meant to follow selected parts of the scriptures. For instance, one shouldn't pay attention to the bits which advocate corporal punishment (Proverbs 20:30), nihilism (Ecclesiastes 3:19), genocide (Numbers 31:17), child murder (Psalms 137:9) and sexism (Corinthians 11:8-9, Deuteronomy 22:5 & 25:11-12). And certainly not those bits forbidding Christmas trees (Jeremiah 10:2-4) and Harry Potter (Leviticus 20:27). And with all these exceptions in mind, and note that this is most certainly NOT an exhaustive list, any reasonable person has to ask: Is the damn book** even RELEVANT anymore? Or are you just cherrypicking and shoehorning the words to mean what you want them to mean? How different is it from picking out "the good bits" from, say, Moby Dick, The Catcher in the Rye or even The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? I for one would definitely favour Cyrano de Bergerac as a role model over that poor sucker, Job...

And so the only sensible thing to do is to consider another hypothesis which better fits reality and is more relevant to the zeitgeist of human cultural evolution, i.e. maybe, just maybe the scripture is plain WRONG. Which seems to work, because if it was right, we'd still be chucking spears and rocks at each other.

So that, more or less, is why atheism is. In stating the above, I do believe I speak for the great bulk of those who would call themselves atheist. If not, please leave a comment and feel free to correct me.

* You'd really think they'd take better care of the tablets with the 10 Commandments on them.
** Yes, I know I've only picked out the Biblical silliness. I'm quite aware that there are other scriptures from equally, if not more barbaric religions, but pointing out their inadequacies might be more trouble than it's worth.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Happy, happy, happy!

Right, I've taken another look at this diabolical chunk of the Net of mine, and I can't help but feel like it's mostly a glimpse into the mind of Wobbly-Headed Bob. This is unacceptable. So, here's something a bit more upbeat, partly taken off a post I left in the RDF forums.

I've had a thing for science for as long as I can remember. About 2 months ago, I wandered the British Science Museum for the 1st time in about 20 years, and I can honestly say the experience shook me to my core. I can't describe adequately how much I adore that place, walking through it and feeling so utterly humbled, surrounded by all those incredible feats of human intellect. And I still get a rush from thinking about the time I attended a lecture on nucleosynthesis and found out that every atom that makes up our world was forged in the heart of dying star. And of course, seeing the bits and bobs of the human condition fall into place through exposure to Diamond, Pinker, Blackmore, Dawkins and the Pale Blue Dot.

Probably my earliest memory of exposure to the sciences was a set of the Encylopedia Britannica back in the library of my old house in Kuching*. I wasn't even 10 at the time, and barely understood half of what I read, but I found myself drawn to it like a moth to a flame. It seemed to me so much more fascinating than myths and fairytales! Noah's Ark was just a silly story compared to learning about the life and death of stars. And what hateful, petty creatures Zeus, Odin and Yahweh seemed to be compared to the sheer feats of human endeavour that led to the Apollo 11 landing, the eradication of smallpox, the flight of the Flyer and splitting the atom!

Through science, I understood that beauty was everywhere you cared to look for it, whether under a microscope, in an X-ray diffraction pattern, a photo from the Hubble telescope or simply contemplating the intricacy of the human hand. Now, half a world away, the birth of the universe is being recreated on a much smaller scale in the LHC and physicists the world over are watching with bated breath as science unravels yet another mystery of the universe.

Wherever you look, you can always look closer, and there'll be something to find. And when you look in enough directions, you'll find that it all ties together beautifully, so today we find the 3 great fields of physics, biology and chemistry overlapping and melding together, giving us an ever-growing picture of our universe. All this from centuries of scientists and intellectuals, patiently collecting evidence, putting 2 and 2 together and, to paraphrase Newton, standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before them.

So, with that in mind, I'll take science over superstition any day of the week, thank you very much. It's prettier, it makes sense and science doesn't care whether you believe in it; it just works.

*If you don't speak Malay, Kuching means cat, which may or may not have had something to do with why I luvs teh kitteh.

In other news...

... here's a little something a Facebook friend posted:

Long story short, the most powerful method for combating stress is sex. Not cuddling, not a peck on the cheek, not massage, not encouraging words, just good, honest, penetrative fucking. So says Stuart Brody, of the University of Paisley.

So yeah, to all my acquaintances who are still keeping up that ridiculous prudish facade, live a little. It's good for you. Just be sensible about it and kindly refrain from making unwanted babies. Dead baby jokes are funny* until they happen to you.

On a completely different note, here's a story about a hatemongering psycho bitch who's trying to convince people to collect on their 72 virgins. Or 42. Whatever. The point is, she's not alone in this. We all know that the scope of scripture is sufficiently large to justify absolutely any sort of behaviour you can think of, and this woman is riding on the back of the religious meme virus to get impressionable young idiots to blow themselves up.

I find it odd that even my moderate religious acquaintances are willing to ignore the negative baggage that comes with the religious meme virus, things such as:

- Faith without question. Fundies somehow manage to consider this a virtue. They seem blissfully unaware that this spawns hypocrisy and ignorance that leave even small children scratching their inquisitive little heads.
- In group mentality. You're either one of Us or you're one of Them. Scripture is very big on dehumanizing non-believers, and dehumanization is the foundation of genocide.

Put together, these 2 traits of the religious meme mean you have a large number of easily controlled peons to do the bidding of whoever's loud enough to be in charge. Pathetic, isn't it? Of course, moderates are veeery quick to point out that not all adherents to some invisible man or other are like that. But that's not the point. The point is that religion as a whole has provided a framework in society in which the uneducated, the ill-informed or the downright delusional** are allowed to attain positions of power and/or influence, far too often to the detriment of humanity as a whole. Gott mit uns? Deus vult? Allahu akbar? Thanks, but no, thanks, I think.

I seem to have drifted somewhat. I was pretty sure when I started this post, I intended to end on a positive note, so here's a bunch of wascally wabbits killing themselves in amusing ways. Hmm...

* You know they are. I concede that they're perverse, disgusting and total violations of basic human decency, but there's just something about them.

** Warning to the sane: These 3 links may cause undue stress and increase in blood pressure. Please view with caution.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


I eavesdrop a lot. Hell, I eavesdrop constantly, in restaurants or cafes, waiting in queues, on the bus or on the train, walking through crowds or wherever. Not sure why, but it’s something of a habit now, and I find it useful for gauging which way the wind blows in society. But let me say, what I hear is fucking depressing. Let me tell you why.

I mentioned before I’m a secular humanist (of transhumanist leanings). As such, my priorities in life are pretty much in line with the Humanist Manifesto 2. I want to believe in a brighter future for humanity. I want to believe that there is an intellectual solution to the human condition, one that results in a stable, sustainable world where everybody can enjoy a reasonable degree of well-being and job satisfaction. But the thing is, everything I see and hear is pointing towards a completely different direction. If anything, there appears to be more than a grain of truth in the words of Agent Elrond; that humanity a virus on this Earth, selfishly consuming without thought for the future. And like a plague too virulent for its own good, we’re burning out our resources faster than is safe.

Look for a moment beyond your own lives. Think for a moment about the direction of human history. There was once a time when we, like every other creature on this planet, had to fight tooth and nail for our survival. Now suddenly, in a very short time, we appear to have gotten too good at it. We’re on top of the food chain, with no natural enemies save other humans. We spread across the planet like a virus, consuming and consuming, impacting the environment in ways ridiculously out of proportion with our relatively meagre biomass.

We are programmed by genetic prerogative and culture to treasure our lives beyond all else, and each of us strives ever onward to better our own well-being before all else. Perhaps that was for the best, centuries ago, when human life was shorter and more brutal. But there’s over 6 billion of us now. If you’re a fan of Gaia Theory or perhaps more comfortable thinking in terms of geological time, then perhaps you could be forgiven for considering the threat humans pose to the planet as relatively small. Admittedly, I am inclined to agree. A meteor impact could quite easily erase humans from this planet just as easily as it did the dinosaurs. Sea levels could rise and drown the planet, leaving the fishies to inherit the very wet Earth. At the end of the day, life on Earth would go on, with or without humans.

But the thing is, I’m human and have an interest in the survival of my species. Apparently fundies, marketing executives and junior auditors are, too. I have to keep reminding myself of the fact.

The market economy has been the most powerful engine of human endeavour in the history of man. Driven by profit, we have explored every inch of this planet, advanced the sciences and reaches new heights of art and culture. Perhaps there are those who believe that human progress was driven by more noble intentions. Perhaps they would point out to me the poets and writers and explorers and other luminaries who died penniless, whose legacies would not blossom until long after they died, testaments to their selflessness in the name of endeavour. I will not dispute their intentions, nor will I dishonour their memory speculating on their motivations. However, what one has to bear in mind when speaking of humans as a race and their relation to the market economy is that it has been a great driver in achieving new levels of efficiency in food production. With greater efficiency, a small proportion of a population can feed ever larger populations. This frees the population not engaged in food production to engage in other professions, without which we’d never have developed the societies in which the great luminaries of human discovery sprang forth.

For the longest time, the human race was no more than scattered tribes in a big, big world. We reaped the bounties of sea and earth, not for a moment pausing in our quest to gain more and more for ourselves, ignoring the fates of fallen empires even though we now find ourselves on the same road.

In our world, money begets more money and money is the ultimate power. This isn’t cynicism. This is the harsh reality, beyond naive illusions of good and evil, this is the reality that we have made for ourselves. Because of this, the fate of the human race lies in the hands of so very, very few people indeed. The paradigm by and large remains the same; get more money. And here we are, after 13,000 years of modern man, we find ourselves at a crossroads. The limits of the world’s natural resources are making themselves known. Modern economic theory still has yet to take into account environmental impact. The human race is growing and consuming in a manner that can only lead to inevitable scarcity of resources, and after that, conflict, death and misery on an unprecedented scale.

In the long run, perhaps a few hundred years after what appears to be a highly probable World War, maybe humans can take a lesson from this state of affairs and manage themselves better. Maybe, if not for one crucial factor: Nuclear weapons.
We’ve all heard the stories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We’ve seen the photos of these two cities reduced to ash and men turned to vapour, leaving nothing more than silhouettes on a wall. Now consider the fact that between the US and former Soviet Union alone, there are over 30,000 warheads each with the explosive power of at least 25 Hiroshima-strength bombs. Quite sufficient to wipe the Earth clean of all life, except maybe for cockroaches.

That is the threat of future war. Mutually assured destruction. But this is not where the problem lies. The threat of nuclear fire is not something that we’ll see in our lifetimes. Judging by US military spending alone, there are many more imaginative ways to wreak large-scale havoc. The point is, it’s not a future we have to face. What it all comes down to is consumption. Consumption and the hearts and minds of Joe Average all around the world.

The flesh and blood of the market economy is the consumer. More consumption pumps more money around the system, and for that reason, the market economy flourishes in a society filled with shallow-minded consumers. This is what Joe Average wants: More children, more money. And not a moment spent thinking about what it means if everybody on the planet thought the same way. Those who have less desire more, but by the cruel reality of the market economy, it is those who have more than they need that are in a position to acquire even more. And so it is that so very few people control so very much of the world’s wealth. And to perpetuate this state of affairs (something those in power are very keen on indeed), Joe Average must be kept wanting more. Joe Average must be kept stupid, so he has no idea what the consequences of non-sustainable consumption will inevitably lead to.

Now, I know I’m not the only person who reads the works of Jared Diamond, so I’ve no doubt that a great many intellectually inclined people are out there, doing what they can to stave off the coming apocalypse. But how many are there? Thousands? Consumerism, like religion, is a meme virus. And like any decent meme virus, it lodges itself deep in the minds of its victims, clouding their thoughts, leaving them as the diminished consumerist zombies they are today.

I want to believe that those who would protect the future are making a difference, that their exhortations for moderation and environmental awareness are being heard. So I eavesdrop. And I listen to see if maybe, just maybe I can figure out which way the wind blows.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Ye cannae change the laws o' physics!

Unless you're Kobe Bryant, apparently:

I mean, seriously, what do they feed guys like him???

Speaking of anachronisms...

... I've always had a soft spot for steampunk. There are few things in life that could make me happier than ownership of an obscenely powerful PC that I could run Unreal Tournament 3 on it's maximum settings, WITH an exterior of rosewood and brass. With that in mind, I Googled "steampunk computer" on a random whim and the first result was this:

Now THAT is a whole new magnitude of awesome. That having been said, the other links that turned up were tres cool, too. I want...

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A couple of anachronisms

I was just thinking, how odd is it that Games Workshop is still in business in the age of PS3 and Wii? I used to work for these people once upon a time, and, dress it up all you want - it's playing with toy soldiers.

This isn't to diss it or anything, I like the little universes they've created for themselves, especially the dark future of Warhammer 40,000. It just strikes me as singularly amazing that, in an age where gaming instantly conjures up words like mouse, keyboard, gamepad, l33t sk1llz, FPS, RTS, MMORPG, UT, CS and stfunoob, these people have kept the flag flying with tabletop wargaming for about as long as I've been alive. That they've managed to keep large numbers of people rolling dice, painting miniatures, writing bad fan fiction* and poring over whopping huge rulebooks strikes me as one of the most amazing feats of marketing of our time. Personally, I've always had a soft spot for their painting competitions. If this isn't art, I don't know what is. If you've not seen these before, bear in mind that many of these miniatures are just a bit smaller than your thumb.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. I checked out their annual report for FYE 30 June 2007 and was a little disheartened to find their after-tax results drop from a profit of ~GBP2 mil in FY2006 to a loss of ~GBP3.5 mil in FY2007. Given that the bulk of their income is still from the sale of their tabletop wargames in the age of the pixel, I've no idea how they'll ever recover their former glory in FY2004 (PAT of ~GBP6.6 mil). So good luck to them. I likes WH40k. In the strictest, Asimov-Clarke-Heinlein sense of the word, WH40k is actually pretty crap science fiction, but I likes reading about it the same way anyone else escapes into Harry Potter, trashy romance novels or Jerry Springer. It's like M&M's for the brain.

Another thought that hit me earlier today was the future of marriage. Most of us are familiar with 1 man + 1 woman marriage. Others go with 1 man + 4 women (alive, at the same time) marriage. Others still go with 1 man + as many women/ underage girls as they want, which in any age is fucking barbaric**. But seriously, from the evolutionary point of view, in sexual relations, I recall from Selfish Gene that there are two main strategies for a female to accept a male mate, and most other strategies lie on a spectrum between, and I think it fits pretty well for humans. The two strategies are:

Marital bliss - The female forces the male into spending time and effort into courtship in order to make sure the male is committed to helping raise the offspring, thus increasing the chances of her genes surviving. Here we settle on a pattern of 1 male + 1 female partnerships.

He-man - The female boinks the biggest, meanest, toughest badass male she can find with the objective of pairing her genes with the biggest, meanest, toughest badass genes she can find. With any luck, that badass-ness will rub off on her offspring and increase her gene's chances of survival. This leads to a society of 1 male + many females and a whole bunch of other males dearly wishing they were that 1 male.

Both of these strategies and damn near everything in between have been observed in Nature. Humans, being subject to memes as much as genes, have managed to establish stable societies all around the world utilising ALL the strategies. Bear in mind that the gene and meme know no right or wrong, just survival.

Now what I was thinking, pertaining to marriage, was this: If humans completely conquer genes, that is, we can manipulate genes at a whim (a la Gattaca), or we can achieve physical immortality through cybernetics (a la Ghost in the Shell) or nanotechnology (a la Battle Angel Alita), what does that mean for marriage? Will the entire concept of marriage lose all meaning for humans? Will our undying, perfect grandchildren read of marriage as something animals and primitive humans got into? Will sex be a purely recreational (woohoo!), as opposed to reproductive activity?

I think so. And I can't wait for the day humanity shrugs off marriage and finds better things to do with their time. I suppose there's a little bit of a bias here, seeing as I'm Chinese, and I've soon got to attend the wedding dinner of some cousin I've never met in my life and endure the company of shallow-minded idiots whom I really wish wouldn't have children. But that's just me. :-)

*The production of abominably bad fan fiction is not necessarily a negative thing, from the Games Workshop point of view. This means they've managed to capture young impressionable minds that could just as easily have been taken by some console or CCG or some such.

**Yeah, you know who I'm talking about.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Proud to be...

... what, exactly?

Proud to be Chinese? George Carlin raised a very interesting point during one of his shows: Why should one be proud of an accident of birth? I mean, I like certain aspects of Chinese culture and everything, but proud of it? Great food, beautiful written script, NO dietary restrictions, no religious obligations and no real cultural restrictions. But on the other hand, traditional Chinese culture places far more value than I feel is necessary on material wealth and family ties. If my brother/cousin/uncle is an asshole, why should I stick up for him purely on grounds of shared blood?

Proud to be Malaysian? An emphatic NO, thank you very much. For a start, as a secular humanist, I consider it damned childish to place one's loyalty in something as meaningless as a flag. For another, M'sia has no small amount of dirty laundry to sort out. The rascist kind, so that just strikes me as pretty fucking unforgivable. So, no, definitely not proud. Embarassed, in fact. At least in Taiwanese parliament, MPs have the stones to let their fists do the talking. Around here, they just call each other names. It's like a kindergarten!

Proud to be atheist? Not so sure. Atheism just came to me as the logical choice. Should one be proud that 2 + 2 = 4? I suppose I could say that I'm really happy my mind hasn't been poisoned from youth with medieval religious texts. And I'm definitely grateful to the luminaries who came before me in the sciences, without whose efforts I'd never know the wonders of the natural universe.

Proud to be me? Yes! That is, relatively speaking... I just came across a pretty depressing article in IHT today. I really don't watch much TV, so I was quite surprised and disgusted to encounter MTV's I Want a Famous Face for the first time. How is it that a dozen people can be so utterly lacking in self-respect that they'd use plastic surgery to look like celebrities? Idiots! I hope their noses fall off...

*sighz* What would Bertrand Russell do?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Now THIS is Powerpointing!

Here's a little something I found on New Scientist's tech blog. For the benefit of those who can't be fuct to click the links and read, Colin Price of the U of Worcester (pronouned Woos-ter, for those uncultured barbarians out there*) put Powerpoint and Unreal Tournament together to get Unreal Tournament to display PP slides in its 3d environments. Man, what I wouldn't give to do an entire university course like this!

Just imagine! While camping in your happy little nook with your frickin' huge sniper rifle, you could be perusing the walls and teaching yourself quantum electrodynamics! Or using the Unreal engine to simulate physics far beyond those crummy, though well-intended scrawlings of your lecturer! Ah, the possibilities...

*I forsee that I will regret those words...

The Mighty Meme

Alrighty, then! As promised, the painfully overdue introduction to memes is finally here! I'm largely extracting from material from Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine, so if, after reading this, you're interested in a closer look at memetic evolution, I totally recommend Blackmore's book.

The term 'meme' was first coined by Dawkins in The Selfish Gene in 1976. At the time it was a very convenient concept in giving insight into the evolution of human culture, though I doubt very much that Dawkins quite anticipated how far the meme would be taken. Since then, the meme has proven to be a powerful tool in understanding the human mind and the development of human culture as we know it. The meme reaches into every aspect of human life and in later posts maybe I'll tell you why I personally believe the meme to be the future of the human race.

For the moment, we'll keep our feet firmly on the ground and restrict this post to answering the very simple question: What is a meme?

When Dawkins first used it, he defined the meme broadly to refer to "any cultural entity that an observer might consider a replicator". In saying this he was drawing parallels between the meme as a carrier of cultural information and the gene as a carrier of genetic information. This comparison isn't quite accurate, but is very useful since the contrast between the gene and the meme gives us a firmer grip on both. So, here's the basics...

The basic unit of the meme cannot be defined. Bell-bottoms can be considered a meme. So can clamshell phones, wearing a baseball cap backwards, the twirling your pen through your fingers and, horror of horrors, the theme song of Planet Unicorn. For convenience, we can term a group of related, mutually supporting memes a memeplex. For instance, a particular language can be considered a memeplex, as can a particular culture's marriage and burial rites, and of course, religion.

Genes can only transmit vertically, memes don't care. Memes are transmitted through imitation. For example, if I saw you wearing a shirt I thought was cool, I could go get myself a shirt just like it. I could buy one, make one, beat you over the head with something heavy and steal yours... Thus the meme of the cool shirt has propagated from one person to another. It doesn't matter who you are, or whether you're related to me, speak the same language or whatever, if the meme is deemed by others capable of copying it to be worth copying, then it will be copied. By contrast, there's only one way to propagate genes (outside of artificial insemination) and that's good, honest pornography, followed by genetic material passing from parent to child, i.e. vertically.

Like genes, memes survive by fidelity, fecundity and longevity. Just like genes, those are the three magic words that determine the success of a gene. As such, when we view ideas from the perspective of memes, we have to keep these three words in mind. As an example, we can take evolution vs. creationism. Evolution requires the understanding of such things as DNA, natural selection and a little about the interaction between organisms and their environments, just to grasp the very basics. Creationism, by contrast, just requires you to believe that God wills it, and that's that. So, guess which idea is easier to propagate. Creationism has a massive advantage in fecundity and this contrast highlights the fecundity that faith has over understanding. Faith can be copied faster, therefore it is more widespread. There's an important lesson here: Just because an idea is popular, it doesn't mean it's true. It's quicker and easier to just follow the crowd, but always bear in mind the question: What if the crowd is wrong?

And that's the quick and easy guide to memespotting. Simple, yes? The real fun comes when we take memes and genes in parallel and look at the development of the human animal. But that's something for another time.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Somebody I wish I'd heard about sooner

Ok, ok, I know this is meant to the meme primer but stick with me, this is good shit...

I've been trawling RDF a LOT lately and it led to 2 absolute gems in Youtube:

I might as well mention that I came across these after hours and hours of sifting through debates involving fundies and I must confess, I'm not very experienced in the art of debate, hence I found myself struggling to catch up with the hyperactive changes in semantic frameworks. Reading again revealed quite simply that at the heart of it, the fundies have nothing but faith.

It strikes me as especially odd when they try to debunk evolution, yet they don't actually understand simple natural selection. How did they manage to miss that? Where on earth did they learn about evolution? The Kent Hovind Institute for the Christian Understanding of Science?

In any case, the last big discussion I looked at had a cluster of fundies admitting to:

1) Everything created in 6 days.
2) Earth is 6 to 10 thousand years old.
3) Homosexuals deserve the death penalty.

Seriously, as an atheist, I try to think of everybody as human before all else, but these people really don't make it easy.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

More human than humanist

I was digging about the net on Humanism, and I have to say, though I haven't actually done much reading on it before, it's pretty much as I imagined it. For the curious, I've included the Humanist Manifesto II among my links to the side. I expect I'll be referring to it every so often.

It's a very, very interesting document indeed, and was revised in 1973 from the previous 1941 version after decades of apocalyptic war had revealed the old version to be a bit too optimistic. Much like how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is, in all honesty, a wishlist to Santa Claus. It's really happy reading, and it's chock full of glorious and wonderful ideals for a better world, and then you look up and read the news and despair.

Better yet, pick up some Chomsky. No, not his stuff on Universal Grammar, his other stuff. On US foreign policy. Take a good hard look at the fates of Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Cuba and some Panama for good measure. Then tell me whether these words make up the reality we face:

"Blessed are the strong, for they shall possess the earth - Cursed are the weak, for they shall inherit the yoke. Blessed are the powerful for they shall be reverenced among men - Cursed are the feeble for they shall be blotted out.

Blessed are the bold for they shall be masters of the world - Cursed are the humble, for they shall be trodden under hoofs. Blessed are the victorious, for victory is the basis of right - Cursed are the vanquished for they shall be vassals forever."

- Ragnar Redbeard, Might is Right

Two fields of technology have proven useful in charting the progress of civilization: Transportation and communication. Through them, we've pretty much got the run of the planet. And when they became sufficiently advanced, globalization inevitably followed. Now, like it or not, we're all in the same boat and now more than ever we've actually got to learn to get along. We've already witnessed from history that ambitions of world domination by any single state simply won't work; there's too many different people in the world for anyone to possibly gather enough like-minded followers to make a credible bid for power in that fashion.

In a world of untold hundreds of different cultures, we'll all be carrying with us a cornucopia of cultural artifacts, the very stuff (the memes!) upon which our nations have been built. Conflicts can and will arise, but when you think about it, where do the conflicts stem from?

Is this land your God-given right? What if somebody else comes along and tells you it's his God-given right?

Has your family been herding cows for generations? What if climate change means you can't anymore?

Do you have a right to free speech? What about the guy who tells you God hates fags?

Does your culture glorify fertility? What if there's simply too many people in the world?

Seems to me that if people are going to get along, everybody's got a good deal of cultural spring cleaning to do. We have to come to terms with the fact that some of the values we hold most dearly are possibly outdated. Or just plain wrong. Of course, the painful reality of it is that most people are too stubborn or too stupid to critically examine their beliefs, and in all likelihood would rather die (or kill) than admit they're wrong.

So what's left for a rational person to do? First off, identify the problem. The way I see it, if people are killing each other for their beliefs in some invisible man in the sky, fine by me. Looks like evolution at work. Just keep them the hell away from the sane people, eh? No, the real problem humanity faces is not a matter of religious conflict, but one of economics and environment:

How do we make it so that everybody is happy AND that this state of affairs is sustainable?

Pull that off, and we can debate creationism and evolution until the 2nd Coming (pfff...). As it is, the majority of the planet's population don't seem all that happy. Even the ones with material wealth (guess who) don't seem very happy, judging by their consumption of self-help books. And sustainable? That's not even in the vocabulary of today's world powers!

The problem seems simple enough, just reading it as it is, and I've no doubt I'm not the first to think of it, so why the great difficulty in addressing it? That's a little something I'm going to save for a later post. Next up, the long-overdue memetics primer!

A Glimpse of Memetic Coolness

Alrighty, I've noticed that I've been on a string of posts that are either really depressing or really angry, so today I'm a-going to churn out something on a more positive note. Here's a little something I picked up from Susan Blackmore's Meme Machine.

Well, not really Blackmore, seeing as she got it from Daniel Denett. It's a very interesting metaphor regarding memetic evolution. As we are all no doubt aware by now, evolution is largely a trial and error thing. A mutation pops up, and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune decide whether the organism is fit to survive. That's the good old-fashioned Darwinian way of doing things. For the benefit of those not heavily read in modern evolutionary biology, Darwinism, i.e. evolution as hypothesized in his Origin of Species is something of an incomplete theory. It's more of a baseline from which modern biologists have since built a more complete picture.

Anyhoo, the metaphor is called the Tower of Generate and Test, and the way it works is that you can basically slot an organism onto any of the four floors of the Tower, depending on it's method of generating and testing survival strategies.

On the ground floor are the Darwinian creatures. Basically, these creatures' cognitive abilities are completely pre-programmed into their genes. They cannot learn, and their behavioural traits are bought in the lives of it's members. This floor is mostly inhabited by simple creatures that can reproduce really quickly and hence afford to survive in this manner, e.g. amoeba, plankton, plants.

On the 2nd floor are Skinnerian creatures, named after B F Skinner. These creature's are a wee bit smarter because they can learn from their mistakes. Through conditioning, behaviour is killed off rather than the whole body. Think Pavlov's dog. This creature "evolves" much faster because many different behaviours can be tried in a single lifetime.

On the 3rd floor are the Popperian creatures, named after Karl Popper. These go one up on the Skinnerians because they can imagine possible outcomes to their actions. i.e. By simulating the action in their minds, their hypotheses are the only things put at risk.

On the 4th and final floor are the Gregorian creatures, named after Richard Gregory. They have the ultimate ability of imitation, and are thus able to carry their cultural artifacts with them through the generations, building knowledge on knowledge and accumulating information as a species, enhancing their overall intelligence.

And that's the whole Tower. No, I don't know if there's a possibility of a 5th floor. As it is, I find it very heartening to be on the 4th. It strikes me as something worth thinking about. I'm pretty convinced that humans are defined by their memes more than any other organism on the planet. When a calf is born, it knows instantly to shy away from anything that's not a cow and stick close to cow-like things. A bee comes pre-programmed with it's repertoire of dances to point out pollen to the colony.

But a human? A human has to be educated for years and years before he becomes a useful part of society. If Singapore is anything to go by, it would appear that humans even have to be taught how to make babies... The human species, viewed through the lens of evolutionary biology is a truly fascinating battleground between the gene and the meme, each driving or impeding the other.

I've mentioned before that, beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors, advances in genetics, cybernetics and nanotechnology are quickly rendering the gene irrelevant. This leads one to the conclusion that soon, the human is going to be all about the memes. And that I've really got to get down to writing that introduction to memes I mentioned earlier. Oops... :-)

Monday, May 12, 2008

Rage against the idiots

Warning: Coarse(r) language ahead

I'm in a bitchin' mood today, and verily, there's a little something I've been looking to get off my chest for a while. It's simply this: Anti-intellectualism really pisses me off. Not so much a pet peeve as much a zomgwtfih8people kind of thing.

I had a short 3-ish year stint in white collar land. The corporate finance section of an accounting firm to be precise, so plenty of exposure to the guts of the of the market economy and I oftentimes found myself truly appalled at how so many people wear their ignorance like a badge of honour.

As the 4 Horsemen have discussed at great length, this is quite common among the religious and I'm not sure whether to look at these people, these fine specimens who truly believe the dinosaurs are a hoax and that everything was created in 7 days, I really don't know whether to regard them with oh-you-poor-brainwashed-dumbfuck pity or help-I'm-going-to-projectile-vomit revulsion. I simply can't wrap my head around it! It's stupidity of an order of magnitude beneath my comprehension! And holy hell, there are so, so many of them...

There is something truly, truly perverse about glorifying faith without evidence in every aspect of life. Speaking from personal experience, there's something pretty fucking stupid about faith in an auditor. That having been said, I've met some pretty fucking stupid auditors, bankers, lawyers, directors, CEOs... Now, I've met some moderate religious types and I especially admire my Muslim friends who appreciate the taste of roast pork. For the most part they're intelligent, rational people who just happen to be going through the motions (sometimes) of whatever faith they profess. But the moderates, I find, are a woefully small minority. Far more common are the schmucks who turn up to church, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, hanging on to every word uttered by the pastor. In the case of one church I visited, the pastor turned out to be a smug, self-righteous, egotistical dumbfuck who spouted hypocrisy with every 2nd sentence. Sound familiar?

And the thing about this special breed of asshole (the congregation, not the pastor), is that their faith has shut them off from anything which doesn't agree with their "divinely-inspired" worldview. But let's turn away from silly old Bronze Age myths about a Jewish zombie for a bit.

I'd like to talk a bit about worshippers of the new gods. You know what I mean. The simpering, snivelling, scrounging, drooling, spineless, materialistic wretches who worship at the shrines of Gucci, Prada, Luis Vuitton, BMW, Gap, Christian Dior, Shu Uemura, Salvatore Ferragamo and any number of shiny new brand names in that shiny new shopping mall the size of an oil tanker. The same kind of specimen that hates their own pathetic little lives so much that they have to pore over gossip magazines and obssess over the fictitious lives of some goits in some soap opera.

You get shedloads of them in East Asia. "To get rich is glorious." Thanks a shitload Chairman Deng. NOW look what you've started. Legions of shallow-minded dumbfucks who have no souls beyond their bank accounts, their mobile phones and the clothes they wear. A plague of consumerism, spurred ever onwards by "analysts" FULL of good and happy news about how the economy is stronger than ever, not for a moment pausing to think of the environmental timebomb they've set off, waiting, just waiting to bring climatic apocalypse upon the fruit of their hyperactive loins.

Meanwhile, scientists and intellectuals across the globe work their guts out in labs, librarys and lecture theatres, ever raging against the decay of society, and for what? To be mocked and reviled by the very people they're trying so save. To have their warnings shouted down by the likes of lobbyists, politicians and capitalists. To get bombed and shot for conducting life-saving research! Animal Liberation Front?? What in fuck's name is wrong with these people??

It's thinking about stuff like this that have a guy thinking: What's the point? Now I need a cup of tea, some tai chi and to go away and see if I can find the bloody point again.

Ok, done bitchin'. Feel free to ignore me, I know I bitch something fierce. Tune in next time for something happier.

DISCLAIMER: This is a rant. It is frustration and exasperation given form. It was also written in anger, hence caution should be exercised in viewing its content and indeed in taking any of it seriously. Ranting, when done correctly, can be entertaining and informative social comment, and more importantly, it provides a very efficacious venting mechanism for the writer. This rant has been very satisfying indeed for me, and it will be a while yet before I rant again. If you enjoyed this rant, please be informed that I do not rant on request. If you didn't enjoy this rant, or perhaps find it offends your sensibilities, well, it's a big Internet, and there are other websites perhaps more suitable for your tastes. Thank you for reading :-)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

I hate Ragnar Redbeard...

Seeing as it's Mother's Day, I figured I'd have an entry more or less in the mood of it. That having been said, it's not going to be a pretty one. There, you've been warned.

I was peeping in a newspaper lying around my aunt's place and I saw an article about some guy in a village on the other side of the country having trouble supporting his wife and 8 kids. Nothing unusual about that around here, but here's the stinger: 3 of the kids are paralysed and incapable of communication.

2 of those children are in fact in their 20s. Apparently, due to some neurological disorder, they are vegetables, can't speak, and the scope of their daily activities comprises eat, sleep, shit and piss. Judging from the pic in the paper, they couldn't even sit up.

And it was while looking at that picture that a question popped into my head. And it's a fucking ugly question so I'll just spit it out:

Is there such a thing as mercykilling?

That those 2 men/veggies survived as long as they did is a true testament to a mother's love. We are genetically predisposed to protect our kin. Most of us will come from cultures that program us from an early age to believe that a mother's love is unconditional, that it's the most powerful of human emotions.

But looking at those 2 skeletal figures in their T-shirts and diapers, staring blankly at whatever direction their heads happened to loll, knowing full well that that was IT for them... That was all this life could offer them. From cradle to the grave, eat, sleep, shit and piss. Genetically and memetically, they are already dead.

So what do you think is the right thing to do? And most importantly, why?

Eschew obfuscation!

"Brevity is the soul of wit," said the Bard. Apparently this phrase was completely lost on the bulk of postmodern philosophers. The following is from an article by Tom Shipka in Philosophy Now bemoaning this fact:

Him: I love you and I would like to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?

Her: Yes, of course. But let's negotiate a pre-nuptial agreement to protect both of us.

By contrast, a postmodern philosopher's proposal of marriage...

Him: Given that there is a traditional transcendence of social antinomy and polarity in a variety of culturally-sanctioned paradigms of persisting mutuality and reciprocation; and given that a multiplicity of precedents in our interactions predispose one to envision the practicality and workability, and indeed the desirability, of our acquiescing in an appropriate mode of combating social antinomy and polarity, it seems prudent that you and I launch the culturally-sanctioned paradigmatic transcendence of antinomy and polarity such that the overall consequence will be a maximization of multiple utilities and benefits that are beyond the reach of the isolated and not uncommonly forlorn individual.

Her: In respect to the foregoing hypothesized possible future, the proffer is deemed meritorious but only contingently, the contingency being that the implementation be predicated on a mutually satisfactory and culturally-sanctioned agreement assuring that the proposed paradigmatic transcendence is non-hegemonic and liberating.

Ah, l'amour! :-D

Never stand between a utilitarian and a train

I was reading an article in an older issue of Sci Am and came across some interesting responses to the Trolley Problem. For those not familiar or who can't be bothered to click the generously provided link, the Trolley Problem is:

A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are 5 people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. Fortunately, you can flip a switch which will lead the trolley down a different track to safety. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that track. Should you flip the switch?

That's the basic version. Do nothing, 5 die. Flip the switch, 1 dies. Easiest thing in the world. The version being discussed in the article was a little more close and personal. Only a little. Instead of flipping a switch, this one places you behind a really fat dude at a platform next to the track. Pushing him onto the track would stop the trolley. According to Judith J Thompson, a philosopher who has extensively analysed the Trolley Problem, many people willing to flip the switch wouldn't go so far as to push the fat dude.

The utilitarian approach is simple enough: 5 is more than 1. 1 must die. I must confess, it sounds perfectly reasonable to me. The response I was reading that interested me was as follows:

"No, I would not push a bulky person in front of a train in attempt to stop it to save five. Why? (1) Physics: there is no way in God's green earth that a 200- or 300- pound person is going to stop several thousand tons going even 30 miles an hour. Children should be raised with that understanding, and anyone who does not understand that should go back to grade school..."

The reader went on in that vein for a bit longer, then explained her anal retentiveness on the physics of it with the following:

"Yes, I am not in the "spirit" of the question. Yet the moral dilemma was presented to me to THINK about, to evaluate and respond. So I did."

To which I have to say: I think I know exactly who I'd push in front of the train/trolley. Spoken in the most neutral terms, her decision means that in the choice between allowing 1 or 5 to live, she would choose 1. And she covers her self-righteous hide with appeals to laws of physics in a hypothetical question. AND she even goes on to play the "think of the children" card! Pathetic!

Anyway, no more time to waste on idiots... The Trolley Problem has a few other versions worth thinking about. Here's one that gave me pause:

A brilliant transplant surgeon has five patients, each in need of a different organ, each of whom will die without that organ. Unfortunately, there are no organs available to perform any of these five transplant operations. A healthy young traveler, just passing through the city the doctor works in, comes in for a routine checkup. In the course of doing the checkup, the doctor discovers that his organs are compatible with all five of his dying patients. Suppose further that if the young man were to disappear, no one would suspect the doctor.

I know my answer, and I'm fucking glad I'm not a doctor. There's also the matter of who those people are on the track. e.g. What if the one person was:

- Your mother?
- The President of the US? (ahahaha... trick question...)
- The Pope? (Atheists! Ssh!)
- Richard Dawkins?

And what if the 5 people were:

- convicts?
- children?
- [insert ethnic minority here]?
- cancer patients?
- Ann Coulter, Shirley Phelps-Roper*, Deepak Chopra, Donald Rumsfeld and George W Bush? (Ah, now I'm just fantasizing... :-D)

And lastly, what if YOU were on the trolley with a whopping huge bomb which you could trigger and would annihilate you AND the trolley, saving the 5 on the track?

But hey, it's just a thought experiment. There's only ONE way to know for sure what you'd do in that situation. May none of us ever have to find out...

Oh, and on a side note, you've probably realised by now that the Greater Good I follow most certainly means a very utilitarian outlook on life. As such, I'd really like to hear solid justification why somebody should NOT flip the switch in the basic version of the Trolley Problem. I try to keep an open mind, but I honestly cannot see any reason not to flip the switch. As such, comments are really, really welcome for this particular entry.

*or anybody else from, really.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

We're so doomed...

I was reading the comments on my post of Selfish Genes, and yes, the thought had occured to me that abuse of the welfare state's generosity does in fact lead to genetic natural selection falling apart. And I know there's something pretty damn perverse about it, but humans have gotten a bit too good at looking after our own. Which had me thinking about this*:

Oh, man... :-(

* If you haven't watched it, Idiocracy is a damn funny movie. Go see!

My love affair with linguistics

Lately I've found I get a lot of blank stares when I tell people that I'm teaching myself linguistics. It seems that the field still has this image of being some painfully obscure intellectual exercise with no real practical use, together with the likes of philosophy, sociology and that special subject of assholes too clever for their own clogs, social epistemology.

Looking back, I find it a bit odd, too. I graduated a physicist, worked in corporate finance, now here I am, trying to swallow whole Zoltan Kovecses' (I love this guy's name!) Language, Mind and Culture. So I figured I might as well explain how I came to develop this fascination for language.

For a start, I myself am not actually multilingual. In fact, if you were to count only the languages I can read, write and speak fluently, I'm pretty much monolingual. I do have tiny smatterings of Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Portuguese, French, German, Spanish and, bugger knows why, the first verses of the Soviet National Anthem and Katyusha. Apart from that, tres, muito, tottemo, sangat, very monolingual.

But that isn't the point of my studying linguistics. A lot of people are under the impression that studying linguistics is about consuming lotsa languages. Nononono, it isn't. At least not the linguistics I'm into. My interest is the relationship between the mind and language, or cognitive linguistics, and it was sparked by readings into Zen.

Zen is really, really weird in that the harder you try to describe it in words, the further off you'll be from it. So I won't try very hard. Basically, it came down to the recurrence of a certain theme in Zen, which I found embodied very well in a phrase by the 6th Patriarch of Zen in China, Huineng. Those of you familiar with the Jap species of Zen will know him as Eno. The phrase is this:

"When I point at the moon, do you look at my finger or do you look at the moon?"

Short, snappy and laden with meaning. In these words are encompassed the hearts of the fields of semiotics and linguistics. But how? How is it that our minds make the connection, from these words, to visualizing the finger and the moon in our heads, to understanding them to be a metaphor for language and signs?

Language is not just a tool to communicate. We grow up with it. Our minds form strong links between words and concepts. We all start out with more or less the same brain, but over time, our minds will settle into the shapes that make us uniquely us. As humans, we live by the meme and are dependent on memes for our survival. Through language (itself a meme) we transmit our memes, both to our offspring and to those around us. Every facet of our lives is determined by our interactions with those around us, and we do that primarily through language.

So it strikes me as strange that we should take language for granted. We are so quick to latch onto the words of people with power and influence without closely analysing what is it they're really saying. "Indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians" becomes "collateral damage". "People who may threaten our hegemony" become "terrorists". "People who disagree with me" are "evil". More experienced hands in playing the games of power are very adept at this kind of insidious word game. Where I come from, politicians are terribly ham-fisted, and it shows.

Words and repetition have an awful power to them over the unwary. With carefully chosen words, one group of people can make demons and animals out of another, and it won't be long after that before man can commit great inhumanity on man simply because one views the other as "less than human".

200 thousand in Darfur since 2004, ~1 million in Rwanda in 1994, >100 thousand in West Papua since 1963, 1.7 million in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, one third of the population of Equatorial Guinea from 1968 to 1979, 1 to 3 million in Bangladesh in 1971... just to name a few, all way past WWII, mind you. Unarmed men, women and children, each one a life just like you and me. Why? Because the hand holding the machete, the finger on the trigger, the man giving the orders was convinced they were "less than human".

All because so very, very few people can see past the words and into the minds that produced the words.

And that's why I'm studying linguistics.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Why? Why? Why?...

"Because mummy said so."

And that's how a lot of conversations between my wee nephews and my sister end. Personally, I'm thrilled that they're showing such curiousity from such an early age. I'm even more thrilled that, as the uncle from far, far away, I don't have to deal with it :-D

In this jungle/shopping mall that I call home, there is a subject taught in secondary school called Moral Studies. Basically, it's what you have to endure if you're lucky enough not to have been born having the shahadah forced into your ears.

What it is (and I kid you not) is basically a teacher too young, too old or too inept to teach anything else reading a book at you. The contents of said book, is simply a list of 16 "Major Virtues" and 64 "Minor Virtues", to use a fairly loose translation. Essentially, all this book is is a collection of nice words, together with a parable or two in case the meaning of said words didn't sink in. An extract of a dictionary, basically.

I have lasting memories of a senile, doddery old fool droning on and on with that wretched book laid out on the table in front of him. Sometimes, for variety, one of the class would have to read it aloud, while the others slept soundly on. If not the senile old fool, then the brain-dead young History teacher (yet another subject taught using the time-tested Malaysian method of reading a book aloud at some children) would come in and apply the same technique.

On a side note, let me tell you something about the monumental stupidity of those in the teaching profession here. Once upon a time, my English teacher was ill, so a sub came in to give us a spelling test. My lasting memory of it was that girl, probably in her mid-20s, loudly saying "Fatty-gew! Fatty-gew! Icy-cless! Icy-cless" I mean, zomgwtf? It turned out she was trying to pronounce "fatigue" and "icicles" in a way "to make it easier" for the students. *facepalm...

For years and years, this has been the case. An education system bent on filling hundreds, thousands of bright young minds with empty words. What I'd like to discuss here is a hypothetical situation:

WHAT IF, one of those kids was actually listening? And WHAT IF, that kid should ask that surprisingly obvious yet elusive question: "Why should I be a good person?"
In fact, let's take that question a bit further:

- "What is it that I am basing my morality on?"

- "Why shouldn't I live for my own selfish gain?"

Simple questions, with complicated answers. But I believe I'm quite right in saying that these are questions that NEED to have answers, REAL answers, firmly embedded in future minds as early as possible.

More often than not, those who would claim to be our teachers in this country would fall back on religion. Fortunately, our education system makes sure the great majority of the population are kept too simple-minded to probe further than so-called "God-given" authority.

I'll admit that this sordid state of affairs has served the purpose of the nation thus far. Malaysia did not need geniuses, innovators, visionaries, moralists and artists to establish its market economy, and believe me, it shows. It needed money, and it has produced a generation of people who lust for material wealth like nothing else and who sometimes have the skill to acquire it. But how long can this continue?

I want to believe in serving the Greater Good. I'm human, you're human. That's all the excuse we need to help each other out. I want to believe in rule of law. But I live in a nation where the difference between a criminal and a policeman is merely that you can bribe one of them. And don't even get me started on what our politicians are like...

So put yourself in the Moral teacher's shoes... What would you tell the kid who asks you: "Why should I be a good person?"

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Oh t3h noes!!!

How embarassing! I have no formatting kung-fu! Yes, I noticed my previous post's fonts keep getting smaller and smaller. The idea was for the extract to be in a slightly smaller font, and the body text to be in the default size, but I can't get it to work! :-(

Tried again with Firefox, but I cannae do it! So, until I figure it out or I get someone to make it look like I meant for it to look, I recommend the following:

1) Use your browser to change the size of the font. On IE the shortcut should be Ctrl+Mouse scrolly thing.

2) View the screen from 5 feet away and use it as an eye test. If you can't read the last paragraph, that's NOT GOOD.

And here, for no reason in particular, is something fun you can do with coconuts:

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Selfish Genes Made Easy (extract from WIP)

I just got a comment today (Yay! 1st one! Thank you Juliette!) and was quickly reminded of this blog's purpose: To educate. Me as much as my readers, coz the moment we stop opening our minds to learning, we cease to be human. All are welcome to comment, and of course, silliness in comments (a la Youtube or will be either deleted or ridiculed mercilessly :-)

Anyhoo, I consider evolutionary biology to be among the most important of the sciences, particularly in terms of understanding our place in the universe. And no living biologist has had quite as much impact as Richard Dawkins with his Selfish Gene. As such, I've extracted a chunk of my book, which attempts to give the reader a taste of the power of present evolutionary theory. Again, comments and feedback welcome, ESPECIALLY if I've made a boo-boo:

*extract starts*
The only way I could possibly write this without feeling tremendously guilty is by stating here and now that what I’m writing here is a drastically abbreviated account of one of the most amazing facets of modern evolutionary biology. As such, if, after my humble introduction you are in fact interested in learning more, then I must point you towards The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. The long story short is as follows.

You are probably at the very least familiar with some of the basic premises of evolution, i.e. that it involves organisms slowly changing over the generations as they mutate and favourable mutations survive to breed future generations and less favourable mutations die out. The trick is to view evolution not from the point of view of the individual organism, but from the perspective of it’s DNA (or RNA in the case of simpler organisms, if you want to be pedantic). For simplicity, I’ll just refer to DNA and start my story in the middle.

Think of an organism, say, a cat. In order to make copies of itself, a cat’s DNA has over the generations, produced an organism with all the necessary traits for survival, i.e. limbs to get around with, a digestive tract to process raw materials, a reproductive system to create copies of itself, etc. From all outward appearances, a cat appears to be a beautifully designed machine.

Hundreds of generations ago, a cat may not have been quite as it appears to you today. Such a proto-cat would perhaps be less well-formed. And somewhere down the line, along comes a mutation - bigger ears, perhaps, or longer legs, rougher tongues or some such. What matters is how such a mutation contributes to our proto-cat’s chances of survival and here’s the bit where survival of the fittest comes in:

- If the mutation INCREASES the gene’s chances of survival, this new superior organism could become dominant and slowly replace the original.

- If the mutation DECREASES the gene’s chances of survival, odds are it expires before passing on its inferior genes to the next generation and that’s the end of that.

- If the mutation makes no real difference to the gene’s chances of survival, you get a possibility of a new breed of organism exploring a new evolutionary path.

When we look at the nature’s wonders around us today and think about the randomness inherent in natural selection, it’s easy to liken the result to rolling 1,000 sixes on 1,000 dice. How is such complexity and perfection possible? This is where most people with an inadequate understanding of natural selection go drastically wrong. The result is most certainly like rolling 1,000 sixes, but in the case of natural selection, it’s more correct to say that one rolled 1,000 dice, then removed anything that didn’t roll a six and rolled again. So, after the first attempt, going by simple averages, say 1 out of every 6 dice give you a 6. That gives you about 167 sixes, so you keep those, and reroll the rest. Here’s a quick table showing the results of each iteration:

Keep this up for long enough after a total of about 35 iterations you should have a fair chance at arriving at your 1,000 sixes.

By comparison, if you were to try and roll 1,000 dice and coming up all sixes the HARD way, that is, without this mechanism of selection, you’ll be rolling dice well into the 5th or 6th death and rebirth of the Universe and in all likelihood won’t come anywhere close.

The term Darwinism is often used to describe the process of ruthless judgement by Nature of an organism’s worthiness to exist. The bit where the selfishness of the gene comes in is when we observe that the purpose of the gene is to propagate itself, often with little to no regard for the organism carrying the genes.

For example, black widow spiders and praying mantises both practice mating habits that don’t end well for the male. An understatement, I suppose; the males get eaten by the female shortly after mating. From the point of view of the individual organism, this is, of course, very, very bad. However, it appears that this suicidal act increases the males’ chances of fertilising the eggs, and from the genes’ point of view, that’s all that matters.

Another example closer to home is the existence of junk DNA in our genome. About 70% of the human genome has no apparent purpose in the construction of an individual human. So why is it there? Very simple: that “junk” DNA does not “care” what it does for us. It’s there because it’s carrying out its purpose of replicating itself. Apparently, at some point in time, part of those genes’ survival strategy involved hitching a ride inside the genome of some hapless creatures (i.e. us), so there it is, freeloading on our genome to this day.

The selfish gene treats genes very much like incredibly advanced viruses, existing for the sole purpose of replicating themselves. The great diversity of life we observe today are a reflection of all the different strategies explored by genes to propagate themselves, each organism being a “survival machine”, to quote Richard Dawkins. This brings us to another fascinating concept, also introduced in The Selfish Gene: The meme.
*extract ends*

The thing to bear in mind is that the evolution of genes alone is NOT enough to explain the development of humans. We're a bit odd like that. An example I can point to is our brains, which are disproportionately large compared to those of similarly sized mammals. And they gobble a LOT of energy, too! Why humans, when other animals seem to get along fine without?

Stay tuned, and I'll (eventually) tell you a tale of memes. Alternatively, bugger off and pick up a copy of Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine.


"Most people would die sooner than think - in fact they do so." - Bertrand Russell

It's kind of funny that I overlook something like this and just accept it as a fact of life, but as George Carlin eloquently points out, some people are really fucking stupid. The evidence is everywhere, but why do we put up with it? Why do we close our eyes to such things as astronomically stupid as Youtube comments, George W Bush, brain-dead information ministers, religious fundamentalists, Scientology, Ben Stein, Ann Coulter... the list goes on and on and it's... amazing! It's like getting an X-ray and finding out you've been living with a tumour the size of a turnip in your head!

I mean, don't get me wrong, I like stupid people in moderation. They make me laugh! But isn't it a wee bit dangerous to have so many of them around? Why do they exist? Why is society so goddamn tolerant of people who shit in the human gene and meme pool? Why are these people not Darwin Award winners?

Just today a friend of mine showed me this. If you can't be arsed to click the link, it's a paper from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showing an inverse relation between one's sense of self-worth and one's cognitive ability. Simply put, the dumber you are, the more highly you're likely to think of yourself. No doubt my esteemed readers have made this observation for themselves, but I just found it humourous and informative to see concrete evidence of that fact confirming that it's not just something about the idiots in my life in particular - it's a universal idiot trait.

Come to think of it, that is the crux of the problem, isn't it? I mean, when you think about stupidity memetically. Here's another gem from my favourite philosopher:

"The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt."

Those who live by science and reason have a Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads every minute of their lives - the knowledge that any of their beliefs could well be false and superceded by new findings. Through constant critical analysis, ideas are forged and our understanding of the universe becomes ever stronger as we build knowledge upon knowledge.

The trouble is, this takes time. And effort. Lots of it.

Idiots aren't quite so rigorous with their ideas (which is to say, their delusional bullshit). They just disseminate whatever the hell sounds good to them. Bear in mind I'm not referring to honest mistakes and the like - I'm talking serious, wilful bullshit, examples of which were given above. The Selfish Gene pointed out 3 things that mark a successful gene, and Meme Machine showed them to be perfectly compatible with memes, in this case the memes for behaviour that can be considered stupid. They are:

1) Fidelity - Stupidity is easy to imitate. Nuff said.
2) Fecundity - Idiots aren't shy about it and are very quick indeed to visit their stupidity on others.
3) Longevity - Idiots, having settled into a life of stupidity, become quite resistant to external threats, such as Reason.

As such, I am forced to come to the very disheartening conclusion that these charming specimens are here to stay. Guess the rest of us might as well enjoy the ride as much as we can...

George Carlin on Religion

Well, seeing as I'm carrying that 'A' on my site, it just wouldn't be complete without this classic:

Ah, man, this guy is really funny when he's bitchin'...

Sunday, May 4, 2008


I was doing some reading into Zen and I came across this gem in one of Dr Suzuki's books, written by a certain Bukkoku Kokushi:

No target's erected,

No bow is drawn,

And the arrow leaves the string;

It may not hit,

But it does not miss!

[Translated by Dr Suzuki]

I've been reading into Zen for quite a few years now and, having practiced Kendo, am somewhat acquainted with Zen's relationship with the real world. As I understand it, the poem above refers to a very specific moment in the mind. It can occur anywhere, and it isn't restricted to archery. Even those without any acquaintance with Zen or Buddhist teachings can experience it.

My personal experiences with that moment have always been very fleeting, transient moments. Moments of sublime perfection, like those very, very rare moments I put one over my sensei. From the Zen point of view there is no point in speaking of it, but a scientist in me would like to try, partly to satisfy my own curiousity, partly for my friends reading this who haven't a clue what I'm on about.

One moment that stands out in particular in my memory was during my first engagement against my sensei. I was still ungraded, and hence had no armour. It was an exercise in technique, where I and my fellow novice kendokas would hurl ourselves at a fully armoured sensei, using whatever techniques we could master to break through his guard and score. Of course, he was entitled to hit back, relatively gently as we were unarmoured.

Only those who have engaged another in single combat can understand the tricks one's mind plays with time and space here. From the moment we salute each other, the world slows down, the peripheral vision narrows and your whole universe shrinks and fades, leaving only you and your opponent. The past is a distant memory. The future is an infinity away. All there is you, your sword and your adversary.

The sensei was old, but by damn, he was fast. A blur and whack! A sharp pain shoots up my arm as he catches me on the wrist. I attack his wrist, but he deflects it easily and whack! He's struck me sharply on the head, and the world flashes white for the briefest of moments. I lunge repeatedly, and each time he deflects, sidesteps and is upon me. Before long my wrist is red and I'm nearly exhausted. I surprise him once by releasing my right hand as he went for it, then lunged for his throat with the sword in my left hand. He managed to deflect, but I took satisfaction in seeing his eyebrows raise in the gloom behind his helmet. I'm near my limit, but these engagements don't end until either the sensei says so or you simply can't stand anymore, so I lunge once more, locking swords. And then came my moment.

As we slowly moved apart, swords pressed closely into each other, I saw the gap. My sword was held on my left, like a spear, his was kept straight in front in him. I saw the tip of my sword point directly at the plate protecting his throat. That was the moment I lost myself. With no thought of attack or defense, my mind far away from my pain and fatigue, my world vanished, and I thrust with every fibre of my being towards my target, shouting "Tsuki!*" like it was the last word I'd ever say.

When the world came into focus again, the sensei was laughing his approval. It was a perfect strike, knocking him back 2 feet. By the end of the lesson I was dazed with elation, exhaustion and man, oh, man did my wrists hurt...

Not long after that training session, I would earn my armour and engage the sensei a few more times. He still beats the living tar out of me, and I've stopped for a while, but I still train, looking for those brief moments of perfection.

*For the uninitiated, in kendo, to score a hit, one must strike a valid target (head, hands, torso or throat), shout the name of the target and stamp one's foot at the same time. The concept is called "ki-ken-tai-ichi", which translates more or less as "Energy/Breath, Sword, Body as One". Tsuki is what to shout when going for the throat.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Master Chief? Is that you?

I've been hearing a lot about Iron Man lately, and I'm itching to watch it. Took a peep at and found a heap of really cool articles on whether or not Stark's armour is feasible. This led me to this really cute video:

I thought the clock on his nadgers was a nice touch. I didn't dig very deep, and thus didn't stumble on any vids of the Trojan on the happy end of live fire tests. Judging by what was going on with the baseball bats at the end, I've a feeling bullets might not be much of an issue with this thing.

The creator, Troy Hurtubise, started out by attempting to develop a bear-proof suit - Project Grizzly. He then goes on to test it by putting it on and subjecting himself to all manner of physical abuse that really leave you wondering how he can still walk. You can find more on him on Wiki.

I don't know about you, but I'd really like this guy to have a chat with the people at Cyberdyne...

Friday, May 2, 2008

Cui bono?

This is something I'm going to come back to, probably quite a few times, in the future but I'd just like to record a few thoughts I've had today and, hopefully, see what people think. The question I was thinking about was this:

Is there a positive direction to human progress?

Part of why I've been thinking about this comes down to my atheism. The religious will for the most part fall back on religion as justification for their behaviour. The fact that their scripture is so ludicrously dated and self-contradictory that it can justify pretty much anything is part of the reason atheists become atheists, but that's another story for another time. As such, one must ask: If atheists are not kept in line by threats of Hell and promises of Heaven, what is it that regulates an atheist's morality?

Looking around the forums, it's tempting to say "buggerall", but if we're a little more selective with our samples and weed out the angsty teenagers, Goths and plain old idiots, we find that atheists gravitate ever so slighty to a very loosely defined concept of The Greater Good. It is this Greater Good that is of interest to me.

I latch on to my own personal interpretation of Greater Good, contrary to my readings in Zen, because I believe there is a direction that Humanity can take that can be considered progress.

We began billions of years ago as pure energy. Then, our atoms were forged in the fires of dying stars. Then came the spark of life. A relatively short period of chemistry and natural selection later, along comes a clever monkey. A lot of scrapping later, here we are, in all our incredible diversity.

Now look at us, at the level of the individual. We're born and, if we're lucky, we go to school, get a job, find a partner, have kids, retire and expire. If we're not so lucky, we'll probably have to skip a few steps. Look back at this life, scrutinize it unflinchingly, and ask yourself: What was it about?

If you're religious, the answer's easy! Do "good", live "well" and get your raggedy ass into Heaven.

But when you're atheist, well, this is where that vigilance and discipline I spoke of earlier comes in. These are questions every atheist must ask and answer for himself:

- What is your life about?
- What is the Greater Good that you serve?
- What would you sacrifice for the Greater Good?

The concept of a Greater Good is a deep and powerful one. To formulate a Greater Good that can actually be agreed upon could well form a rallying point for atheists and theists alike. Of course, it's agreeing upon one that proves to be difficult...

There's something very odd about the fact that pretty much ALL the spiritual traditions on the planet have come up with the Golden Rule (a.k.a. the Ethic of Reciprocity), yet many manage to muster great hatred for anyone outside their particular denomination.

No shortage of intellectuals have put forward excellent ideas, not least the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I'm quite partial to Bertrand Russell's idea that there should only be one army on Earth which does not answer to any single government. But these are just the dreams of intellectuals. As things are now, too many people have a vested interest in keeping the bulk of the populace ignorant, shallow and most importantly obedient.

Be that as it may, I allow myself the belief that there is a Greater Good, that Humanity can conquer itself and become something greater, and that we each have a part to play in making that brighter future beyond our own lives happen. Otherwise, what's the point?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

ZOMG I wanna be a mecha!

Just found the coolest thing ever! Trust the Japs to not only figure out how to build an exoskeleton, but make it look cool. As fate would have it, the company building these things is called Cyberdyne, Inc. Yeah, Cyberdyne. Skynet and T1000 and scary Austrian cyborgs. Don't ask me how they didn't get sued for that... The pic is of their currently available exoskeleton, HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) Fun facts from the website:

- Currently used to augment the strength of those suffering from weakened muscles or spinal injury.

- Multiplies the strength of the wearer by about 2 to 10 times. No, you don't feel it's weight (about 23kg). It supports itself.

- Runs for approximately 2 hours 40 mins before it needs recharging.

- Available in Japan only. :-(

Yoshiyuki Sankai, you're my hero!