Archive for January, 2013

Stuff I’m too lazy/tired/dull to write about in any great depth but which is worth mentioning. (Mind you, my 1200 word blarg on Monday was supposed to be one of these, so we’ll see how it goes.)

– Catholic hospitals refuse to perform abortions because a fetus is a person so that would be murder, but also deny that a fetus is a person when being sued for wrongful death. And also demand the right to not offer services like contraception if they decide it goes against their faith. For an organisation calling themselves a hospital, they don’t seem all that bothered about providing medical care, do they?

– In Florida since the 1970s, 74 prisoners on death row have been executed, while 24 have been exonerated. That means for every three people killed by the state, there’s one guy they were totally prepared to kill but who actually should never even have been in prison in the first place. Some people might find this fucking horrifying. Others – like the people who sadly get to make the decisions – think we should stop dawdling and kill more people.

– Speaking of the Criminal Justice system, that whole area seems to be particularly immune to evidence and rationality. We’re still doing shit we know doesn’t work.

– Happier things now. This short article by Penn Jillette on whether atheism should replace religion is the first thing I’ve read in a long while where I categorically agree with every single word.

– If you like meet cutes, this is the meet cutest.

– And the Merseyside Skeptics Society has a new podcast: Be Reasonable. Hayley Stevens and Michael Marshall talk with people holding fringey or “alternative” beliefs, balancing being totally polite and respectful with a proper savvy for skeptical interrogation. You can be nice to someone who’s taken time out of their day to come on your show and defend their ideas, without switching your bullshit detector off or letting extravagant claims go unchallenged. I’ve not heard an interview show that gets the balance this right since the same two interviewers did much the same thing back on the Righteous Indignation podcast.

Phew, none of that got out of control. Time for dinner.

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So the Tories are cutting benefits for the poorest people struggling hardest to support the most modest lifestyles, yadda yadda tax breaks to billionaires, you know the score.

And one of the ideas Chancellor George Osborne has often used while attempting to rationalise policies which take more money away from low-income households than the richest, is that of “making work pay”.

The terrifying bogeyman he and other Tories like to conjure is that of the feckless scrounger, probably with a Northern accent, who lounges comfortably at home with their curtains drawn all day, living the high life on benefits which your taxes paid for, and who – because of the current, unjust welfare system – has no incentive to go out and work, when they can live just as cushy a life at home on benefits.

Now, leave aside for a moment that, statistically speaking, this character is so close to fictional as to make almost no difference to any of our country’s financial troubles; ignore briefly how laughable is the idea, to thousands of people who simply can’t find work, including many with disabilities or who’ve been forced into mandatory unpaid labour, that life on benefits is the “easy” choice; disregard, for the time being, the extent to which countless legitimately struggling individuals and families are cruelly stigmatised and marginalised by such characterisations as those favoured by the Conservative party.

Even without fighting any of those points, Osborne’s premise is wrong.

The Tory plan for welfare reform depends on people being bullied into doing a job, any job, no matter how low-paying or degrading, because there is no bearable alternative. They want to make life sufficiently uncomfortable, for those people they think aren’t trying hard enough, that they’ll all just jolly well try harder. Their worst nightmare is that people without savings or property or investments might somehow be comfortable in their lives, and not feel compelled by fear of starvation or homelessness to desperately look for work.

I hope my biased and provocative use of language is making it clear how I feel about this attitude. I really do.

Because aside from being heartless, it’s simply an incorrect view of humanity.

There’s this crazy wacky idea that some crazy wacky socialists seem keen on, called the guaranteed livable income. The basic proposition is to drastically simplify whatever system the country currently has in place to carefully and cautiously redistribute wealth, offering the most basic safety net it can to those who need it while making damn sure no scroungers come along and get a penny more than they deserve… and instead just give everyone enough money to live on.

No means testing. No penalties for not following the DWP’s instruction. You just all get enough money to live on. Guaranteed.

I told you it was crazy. No doubt the obvious problems and holes in this plan, and the many reasons we’re not already doing it, are clamouring to escape your furious fingers and make themselves heard in the nearest available comments section already. But it may astound you to know that the various economists and activists who’ve been investigating and exploring and testing out this idea for some decades have probably already considered many of the objections that sprung to your mind within around fifteen seconds. Whether or not they ultimately stand up, I’m not sure, but don’t be too quick to pat yourself on the back for utterly annihilating this whole worldview simply by having the blinding insight that giving money to people costs money.

Because, like I said, the Tories were wrong. A guaranteed livable income is about as far as you could possibly exaggerate their nightmare scenario. They’d have you believe that, in such a situation, the zombie feckless scrounger virus would spread inexorably across the land. Nobody would bother doing any work when they could just slob around picking up even more free money than they get now, with no risk of approbation or penalty. Without the threat of poverty to spur people into productivity, there’d be nobody actually making the money to hand out, and the whole system would collapse.

I wouldn’t put it past them to put it in similarly apocalyptic terms, too. But it’s a conclusion that depends on a cynical and inaccurate view of humanity. (The rest of humanity, anyway. Dave and George and the rest of that crowd could live comfortably without having to work another day in their lives, and would surely claim to do what they do out of a sense of duty and service, rather than being in it for the money. They just can’t imagine a similar altruism or public-spiritedness in anybody else.)

Only an unjustified contempt for other people can be the basis for thinking that they need to be threatened and browbeaten and punished into doing useful work; the relatively little amount of data that’s been allowed to exist indicates exactly the opposite.

I say “allowed to exist”, because it’s not hard to imagine the interest that governments might have in perpetuating the idea that a power structure needs to be maintained in society. In the case of the particular experiment with a guaranteed income described in that article, in Manitoba in the 1970s, the government withheld the data after the programme was scrapped, and wouldn’t let anyone gather further evidence which might have vindicated it.

What is known, though, from the data available, is that the Conservative nightmare singularly failed to come true. People didn’t just sit at home mooching off the state when there was free money to be had. In general, they kept working their jobs. There are reasons why people work beyond earning money to avoid poverty, after all. It can be rewarding, a way to socialise with people whose company one enjoys on projects one finds worthwhile. Particularly if you have the freedom to leave a work environment you don’t enjoy, and take the time to find someplace more suitable, without having to panic over paying the rent in the meantime.

And with that extra freedom, and without the stress and worry of paycheck-to-paycheck living, people were healthier. The resulting decrease in hospital visits, if similarly expanded over the whole of Canada, would save billions of dollars. And the only people who did drop out of work to live an easier life on free government money were new mothers – who spent more time with their babies – and teenagers – who graduated high school in improved numbers and had the chance to find jobs they might actually enjoy, and feel productive in, rather than whatever came along first which would allow them to pay the bills.

It’s a crazy idea. And the idea that something this crazy might actually work thrills me like little else. This right here is the shit I read about which gets me excited for a more awesome world and makes me want to share it with everyone in rambling blog posts with overly hurried endings because it’s late and I want to finish up and get it posted before I go to bed.

It might be a pipe dream. But I don’t think it has to be. And either way, it’s preferable to whatever heinous visions occupy the minds of our politicians as they sleep.

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Here’s a tumblr you should be watching, as a regular reminder that basically everything you read in most newspapers is bollocks. I still forget every so often and go “ooh, fancy” at some entirely fabricated pointless gossip.

I mention it now, partly because I’ve spent my day at work and my evening watching The Third Man with Kirsty and struggling to persuade her not to leave me for Orson Welles so I haven’t had time to write anything more substantive, and partly because it’s just recently started updating quite consistently. Marsh seems to have found the angle for it, namely:

“Headline-grabbing but probably misleading and badly sourced soundbite!” says group with an obvious vested interest in promoting whatever bollocks they’ve got some dodgy research to support.

It’s fun. Go have a read. Don’t believe the churnalism. I’m off to bed.

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People don’t understand science.

A bit sweeping, undoubtedly. A tad harsh, perhaps. But there’s a reason I keep reading so many people, in so many blog posts, explaining basic concepts like hypothesis-testing and falsifiability, over and over again. Most people don’t pay as much attention to my RSS feed as I do, and aren’t even peripherally aware of the world in which I keep myself immersed.

Most people aren’t the exact same type of nerd that I am, and don’t know much about science.

Which is obviously a problem that many of us nerd-types spend much time trying to address. And one interesting recent effort to bring an accessible understanding of scientific ideas, to people who might not otherwise do the heavy reading usually required to develop an expertise in these areas, is the Ten Hundred Words of Science tumblr.

It’s a project inspired by this XKCD cartoon, which diagrams the Saturn V rocket and explains what each part of it does – but only selecting from the thousand most common English words to do so. As a result, the “Up Goer Five” has a door, and chairs, and a people box, and an end marked: “Lots of fire comes out here. This end should point toward the ground if you want to go to space. If it starts pointing toward space you are having a bad problem and you will not go to space today.” (You’re allowed derivations as well; because “go” is on the list, you can have “goer”, “going”, “goes”, etc.)

The tumblr project features scientists describing their jobs, using this thousand-word vocabulary, with the obvious intent of making scientific ideas and research easier for the non-scientifically literate to understand. Here’s a good example from an atmospheric chemistry modeller:

I tell people if the air will be good to breath tomorrow.

Where people live, smoke and other things which are bad for us, are put into the air by cars and other things in towns and cities.

Some days the air comes from parts of the world a long way away from cities which means it is clean. When it rains this cleans the air. On other days the winds are very slow and so all the bad things we put in the air stay where they are – the places where we live. This makes it hard for some people to breath and so we warn them when this will happen.

We use computers to tell us where the winds will come from, if it will rain and where the smoke and other bad things in the air will go to. Then we work out if the air in their city is good or bad and tell people about it.

Now, I’m pretty smart, but I reckon I understand the basics of what this guy does for a living at least as well now, having read the above paragraphs, than if he’d explained it in entirely his own terms. And so, I suspect, would many other people who’d be less inclined to listen to something that sounds more like science.

But I’m bothered by a problem which seems to stop this from being as useful a science communication tool as it could be. “Only the thousand most common words” is a neat idea to make people think about the accessibility, or the jargonistic nature, of their language – but it can obscure more than it helps, if you’re too busy following the letter of the law to abide by its spirit.

Randall Munroe’s own rocket diagram – and the follow-up of a cruise ship he did for JoCo Cruise Crazy 3 – provide a few examples of this. The ninth deck on the “Crazy Water House”, for instance, is labelled: “The floor between eight and ten”. Now, they’re his arbitrary rules and he’s sticking to them, because it’d make the whole linguistic exercise kinda pointless to ignore the fact that “nine” happens to be the only number from one to ten not in the commonest thousand words in the language. But when translating that idea over to science communication… you’re really not preventing any confusion by avoiding the word “nine”. It’s far simpler, in fact, to say “nine” than to employ any euphemistic or synonymous phrase.

The diagram also has an “area where you can run in place so you don’t die as fast”; it actually took me a little while to figure out this must be a gym. And sure, physical exercise and extending one’s life-span are relevant to the idea of a gym – but most people probably have a pretty good idea what a gym is already. The entertainment factor comes from the fact that, while constructed from simple language, this is not a very natural way to describe the thing he’s talking about.

The Up Goer Five, meanwhile, has an area described as: “The kind of air that once burned a big sky bag and people died and someone said ‘Oh, the [humans]!’ (used for burning)”. Which is a fantastic way of describing hydrogen, and totally fits in with Randall’s original intent with his cartoon – which was mainly to be cute. Again, it’s not his work I’m seeking to criticise, but the idea of using the thousand-word vocabulary stratagem as a one-stop solution to more accessible communication.

It’s the same problem as I had with Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity – In Words of Four Letters or Less. For the most part, that thing is so well written that you don’t even notice the incredible limitation being worked around. For a page or two it’s an absolute delight to read; it talks you through some basic science background and thought experiments in a way that’s wonderfully simple to follow. There’s almost no chance you’d come up with these kinds of easily readable sentences unless working against a ridiculous and arbitrary restriction.

But while this arbitrary restriction forces you to eschew a great deal of unnecessary jargon, it also stops you from using some really helpful jargon. The word “light”, for instance, comes up a lot in traditional discussions of relativity, and with good reason. It’s crucially important to the topic at hand. It’s also a whole five letters long. While it’s always good to consider how you’re defining your terms, it’s not so great when the same rule which prompts you to do that makes you always talk about a “wave”, instead of light, and a “pull”, instead of gravity. Sometimes a slightly longer or less common word is more helpful, and confuses things less.

Ben Goldacre’s submission to the tumblr is pretty great, but some of them could be improved on by putting some of the jargon back in. Here’s an example:

I work at a school in a very cold place, where I study groups of stars in the sky. Most stars live together in groups of hundred-hundred-hundred-hundred-hundred stars (imagine that)… All of us live near a star that is part of one of these big star-groups, called the White-Drink Way.

This is a case where the thousand-word rule provides a great starting point for explaining things in simple terms, but actively makes things worse if taken too seriously. Not being able to use the word “galaxy”, or correctly name our one as the Milky Way, is a hindrance to communication.

Great science communication is really hard to get right, and #upgoerfive seems like a great way to get people thinking and talking about how they might do it better. But no single, all-encompassing rule is going to be the answer to everything – especially not if we refuse to bend it a little when common sense tells us we should.

Mostly for the sake of completion (I’m not a scientist), here’s an #upgoerfive-valid description of my job (created with the help of the text editor):

People work at their jobs most of their lives, to get money to buy things, like a house and food, and also fun stuff like games and books. When you stop working because you get too old, you’ll still need food and fun things, but you won’t have this money from your job any more.

You might have a family who can help look after you, but your family might not have enough money themselves to make sure you have enough food and can stay safe and happy. Or you might not have a family who can help you anyway.

If things were good for you, then when you were working you got more money than you needed to spend, and kept some of it to spend later when you got old and didn’t have a job any more. But you might also have made a deal, with the people you worked for, to put some money in a sort of money-box.

The way this money-box works is, you agree to put some money in there each month, out of the money you would get for doing your job. But you can’t just take it out of the box when you like – you have to agree to leave it in the box until you get old and aren’t going to work at your job any more.

So far it sounds the same as any other money-box you might put money into, only not as good because you can’t take the money out when you like. But there are some more good things about it that make people want to use these money-boxes. One good thing is that the people who give you a job put some money into the money-box too, for you to have later. Another is that the people who control the bit of land you live on won’t take away a little piece of the money when you put it in the box, the way they do with the other money you get from your job.

This money-box is also different because of what happens when you open it when you get old. You don’t just get to take all the money out and spend it, but you can use it to get someone else to pay you a small bit of money, every so often, for the rest of your life. A big group of people will take the money-box and then pay you as if you still had a job (though it will probably be quite a bit less than you were paid when you did have a job.)

People often have lots of questions about how much money is in their money-box, and how much money that means they will get every month when they’re old. They also might have another money-box somewhere else, and maybe another and another, and they want to put all their money from all their boxes into one money-box, to make things easy. They ask me things like this and I write them letters with answers which will help them (if I am good at my job). They also might decide that they have got old enough to open their money-box sooner or later than other people usually do, and I can help them do that.

There are lots of other things about the money-boxes too, because there is a very big set of things you are and aren’t allowed to do, set down by the people who control the bit of land we live on, and this set of things keeps changing and making things hard to understand easily. These other things probably aren’t that interesting and I’ve done lots of talking already so I’ll stop now.

(Can you feel how badly I wanted to just call it a pension? It would’ve made things much easier.)

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My particular sheltered corner of the internet has been abuzz with European Court of Human Rights news lately. And it’s news with a non-trivial reach outside my own narrow echo chamber, for once; the mainstream media has also been covering the recent rulings on religious discrimination in the workplace, to some extent or another.

There are four cases whose judgments have just been published, focusing on four people who felt that their religious rights weren’t given due respect and deference in their place of work. One counsellor and one registrar both refused to work with same-sex couples; the other two weren’t allowed to wear some sort of ornamental cross as part of their uniform.

Lots has already been written about this, from the lucid to the utter bollocks. Andrew Copson has been kept very busy quashing some of the rumours and countering the misinformation which has accompanied these cases, and seems to have been largely alone in the most prominent news outlets as a critic of the popular “Christian persecution” narrative.

But even some of the most reliably insightful and coherent commentators seem to be blithely accepting some premises of the religious argument which don’t merit it. Nelson Jones is as worth reading on this as ever, but his passing mention of practices being “central or mandatory in a faith tradition”, in the context of Article 9 of the European Convention, raises more questions than he asks.

Here’s my concern about having legislation in place to enshrine religious rights:

Religion is an entirely personal thing, which nobody is obliged to share. If you’re a Christian, swell, but I don’t accept any of the truth-claims based upon your “faith”, and I’m not obliged to treat them differently than any other unfounded assertions about the world. I don’t believe in your God, and see no reason to act as if I should. I’m not a Christian.

(This is important, in part, because it also means your religion can be whatever you want, defined by you and you alone. Letting corporations or governments decide the legitimacy of someone’s religion – be they devout Christian or casual Jedi – and thus rule on how far the rest of us should go to “respect their beliefs”, is the kind of precedent that can’t not go horribly wrong.)

So, given that your religion is, to me, on that level, utterly meaningless… why should I care whether or not your religion affects your motivations, when I’m judging your actions?

If you want to blow other people up, it doesn’t matter to me at all if you’re doing it because you think God wants you to do it or for some other terrible reason. At least, not in terms of evaluating whether you should be allowed to do it. Being religiously motivated neither helps nor hinders your case when you seek to justify harming others.

Similarly, if your deity is a bit more chilled out and just wants you to wear plain black socks all the time, that’s fine, but it’s fine anyway, regardless of whether you consider it a religious obligation or just a personal preference. Your socks are no more or less my business when you claim God’s interested in them than they were before.

Religion is just another motivator, a reason why people feel strongly about certain things, and want to act in certain ways. It’s not a health requirement; a diabetic doesn’t take insulin because they have faith that it’s required of them.

Central point: Claiming the right to a certain behaviour should have no more moral force than claiming the right because you really want to.

And sometimes, that’s a good enough reason. “Because I really want to” is a fine reason for all sorts of things. It’s why I’m eating Toblerone right now. There’s nothing wrong with feeling strongly about taking a particular personal action. But sometimes taking action comes with consequences, and feeling strongly about that action doesn’t let you off the hook for those consequences, even if you’re calling it a religious motivation.

So when judging these “religious discrimination” cases, try imagining that religion doesn’t exist. Imagine that people are just choosing to act a certain way, in the context of doing work they’re getting paid for. Is it reasonable for them to expect to be granted the freedom to act in a way important to them (and nobody else) every time?

In the first two cases, it’s pretty clearly not. The job description for a registrar involves conducting same-sex partnerships, and for a counsellor, to offer counselling (because occasionally the world makes sense). Lillian Ladele and Gary McFarlane both actively declined to do their jobs, which is not usually something you can choose to do and expect to still have a job.

There were no reasonable grounds for them to make such a refusal. They weren’t being asked to do anything with any significant health risk. They weren’t having to go above and beyond their job description. Offering similar services to same-sex couples is a wholly reasonable expectation for people in their roles, and the only reason they had not to do it was “It’s against my religious beliefs”.

Which, remember, means not an iota more than “I really don’t want to”.

The other cases centre on the wearing of jewellery, which is where the notion of “central or mandatory in a faith tradition” becomes a truly powerful irrelevance. Many people like to wear jewellery, and for the most part this is absolutely fine. There are some things, however, with which it is incompatible. These may include medical practice.

My fiancĂ©e is going to start training as a midwife soon. She’s currently wearing her engagement ring, which includes a number of pointy shiny rocks. Now, when she gets to the practical part of midwifery, she’s not going to be allowed to keep wearing that ring, and I don’t suspect anyone will even bother to ask whether it’s a religious matter for her. She does have some strong feelings about that ring – I count myself immensely lucky to be so high on the list of things that my love feels strongly about – but in her role as a medical professional, this carries just as much weight as if it were religious, i.e. none. Hospital rules are what they are, and there are good reasons not to let people keep wearing pointy shiny rocks on their fingers when they’re putting their hands up women to take babies out.

Similarly, if there’s a blanket rule against dangling neck jewellery in a hospital, it’s a safe bet that it’s there for health reasons, and has zero correlation to how badly someone really wants to wear something pretty – regardless of which grisly death of a rabbi from two millennia ago that pretty something represents. This rule pays no heed to religion, doesn’t even notice it’s there. It would apply in the same way to the same shaped piece of metal on a chain, if Christianity didn’t exist and it was just a treasured family heirloom.

It’s nothing to do with your rights as a Christian. You have rights as a person, and as an employee, and while they’re important and may often need defending, they only go so far. And you don’t get extra ones just for believing really hard in stuff.

Okay. I wrote this far yesterday evening, realised it was past my bedtime and I still had more to say, so shelved it until this evening, and now I’ve completely lost the rambling, incoherent plot and have no idea what else I was planning to add to this. So… you’re welcome, I guess.

Read this, it’s shorter and smarter and makes more sense. I guess I could’ve opened with that.

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I’m not in a very writey place lately. Here’s some things I haven’t got around to talking about at more length:

The patent system in the US is completely fucked.

– The dangers of self-regulation. If you’re a cop who tries arresting another cop for dangerously breaking the law, other cops will destroy you for it. The residual media image of the friendly British Bobby still has some effect on our interactions with the police over here, I think, but in America I’m not sure why anyone wouldn’t just be scared of them. It seems to be a hotbed of an aggressively defensive kind of workplace culture. And they all carry guns all the time.

– If you still think there’s any chance Sylvia Browne is psychically connected to some kind of deep universal truth, and isn’t just a huckster making shit up, you are paying no goddamn attention.

– A vocal Christian minority in the UK are still feeling deeply threatened by gay marriage. Christian Voice have taken a sudden interest in the apparent impossibility of “consummation” in the case of same-sex couples, and appear to have put a good deal of thought into whether “two homosexuals” can ever “be one flesh”. Apparently to these particular followers of Jesus, the sacrament of marriage is all about the fuckin’. And their list of civil liberties they claim are under threat are almost entirely liberties to discriminate against gays, which they’re worried might not be allowed any more.

Should ginger-bashing be considered a hate crime? Or, more to the point, should the government be in the business of deciding which particular flavours of hatred merit special attention, regardless of the criminal behaviour in question?

– Lastly but not leastly, I fucking love this conversation. It was actually posted a few years ago, which I’ve only just noticed, but it came to my attention just recently so I’m sharing it here. Eliezer Yudkowsky is a huge deal, and the stuff he and Massimo talk about here is important and awesome. There’s a transcript here which you might find an easier format.

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Regular readers will be familiar with this annual tradition.

As of today, I am no longer perfect. And, short of some dramatic advances in life-extending technology, I never will be again.

But worry not, because I’m back in my prime. It’s been a while. The last prime year I had, I spent walking out of my really well paid but horribly unsuitable insurance job, mooching around getting nothing done for a few months, then working in a psychiatric hospital. I’d only just started living in my own flat, enjoying some space I could call completely my own for the very first time. For the months when I didn’t have a job, I was alone a lot. It was pretty awesome.

This year I’m getting married. Things have changed. This is better.

The last time I was part of a twin prime, I was moving out of halls and into my student flat in Exeter, but there’s no need to regress that far.

I’m also Tetranacci this year, which I hadn’t been since boarding school, and which I haven’t heard of before today. Nice.

Next year I’ll be a pyramid, but I’ll also be quite round. Paradox THAT, bitches.

Oh, and apparently I’ll be semi-perfect, so that’s something to look forward to.

Meanwhile, Kirsty’s shortly going to stop being highly powerful and very binarily round, and instead become extremely three. We won’t both simultaneously be in our prime until we’ve been married for nearly eight years.


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