Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Why I talk about America

I'm British, but I find myself more and more talking about American politics and the American legal system. Why is this? It's not because I love America or want to move there, or that the people in the American system are in any sense notable. There's the dull practical reason that this is the internet and that the Americans own it, so it's easier to keep up to date about the states than the UK. But the key reason is different:

America has principles. Note not American politicians, that's not true, but the nation itself. If someone does something stupid in the UK you can argue against it and you can try and apeal to the idea of human rights and ancient liberty... but that has no legal or historical force whatever. There is a human rights act in the UK that aims to throw out bad and illiberal law, but it has no teeth whatever and is under constant attack from right wing newspapers. When the EU court of human rights told the government that their DNA database was totally illegal ... they simply ignored it and made cosmetic changes.

In America there is a constitution, there are principles of law. Now these are by no means absolute, nor are they universally enforced. The universal rights of the 14th Amendment are laughed off as irrelevant or ignored in the gay marriage debate. The First (free speech) and Fourth (no unreasonable search and seizure) Amendments are totally shot following the war on terror. But they still exist and the constitution still has at least some authority.

Why do I talk about America then? Because in the UK whenever something totally illiberal comes up, (42 days pre-charge detention, DNA database, internet patrols) one has to genuinely ask the people if that's the sort of society they want to live in. And sadly the right wing press tells them that they do. In America, when Guantanamo or wiretapping or the teaching of evolution or gay marrage or anything else comes up in politics, you dont have to ask if the people want to live in an illiberal society. They aren't allowed. It sounds a very strange idea, but America is not designed to be a democracy, the people are not sovereign, the constitution is. If politicians do something illiberal one cannot ask if this is what we want America to become, legally the only way to do it is either to alter the constitution (either in wording or interpretation) or to have a glorious revolution and start America again on a new foundation of bigotry and wiretapping.

This is important in debates becasue it makes things so much easier, there can be no debate about what America should be in the ordinary course of politics. When you want to change the foundations of politics you must get the supreme court behind you and jump through endless hoops and generally make it obvious that that is what you are doing. In the UK you can change the political landscape with a vote hardly anyone turns up to. Parliment is soverign and has no oversight on whatever stupid damn thing they want to do.

This is not to say that the constitution is a final arbiter of morality, there are a lot of things wrong with it. But it is a very well designed starting point for good politics. The founding fathers left extensive writings to tell us how to interpret the constitution and the rights they provide are vital. And there is danger in undermining it, recently the liberal blogosphere has been churning the idea of getting the supreme court to reduce the protection of the Second Amendment, they want to give states the right to outlaw and control guns in a way that congress is not allowed to do. This is a bad bad idea. Even if you believe that this would be a good idea insofar as its effect on gun law it is still very very dangerous to mess with the constitution. Once the clear meaning of the Amendment is altered to strip it of all power there is nothing to stop the process being repeated for the rest of the constitution. The First Amendment say, or the Fourth, or the Fifth. If congress cant inflict cruel or unusual punishment on you why not let the states?

In the UK there is nothing to stop such an idea gaining traction, there is no grand principle to appeal to to stop it happening. But when something like this happens in America you can have all the popular support and intellectual underpinning for a bad law that you like, but the Supreme court will still throw it out, you can still argue that this violates what America is about, what Jefferson would have done. And unlike in the UK if the person you are arguing with doesn't want to follow what Jefferson would have done (and fair play to him, there's no reason he shouldn't want to free himself of the dictates of a dead old white guy), there is a simple remedy: either change the constitution, start the glorious revolution and begin America anew, or just up and leave. America is a nation defined by the founding fathers, I think they were good people, but you are free to disagree. Just in the normal course of politics it is their political and moral standards things are held against. If you dont like that, feel free to move to the UK, here things are measured by the moral standards of Murdoch inc.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009


Some interesting problems at various levels of impossibility:

  • Think of a chessboard, can you cover the board in dominoes so that each domino straddles two squares exactly?
  • Can you do it for other sized boards? Not just 8x8 but nxn?
  • Can you do it if you take out the bottom corners and just try to cover the rest of the board?
  • Can you do it if you take out diagonally opposite corners?
  • Think of a chessboard which has a number of squares on each side which is a power of two ie 2x2x2x2x.... some amount of times. Take out any square at random. Can you cover the rest of the board in trionimos, L shaped blocks made of three squares?
  • Two trains are on the same track, each is moving at a constant 30mph and they are a mile apart on a collision course. A super-fly starts out at one train and rushes towards the other one at 100mph, once there it turns round instantly and rushes back to the other at 100mph. How far does the fly travel before it gets squashed between the trains?

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

The PCC and free speech

Just a quickie, I'm passionate about free speech, and as such I'd like to ask you all to go along to:

where the wonderful people are collecting signatures in response to this: The long and the short of it is that the Press Complaints Commission wants to regulate blogs. These are the same wonderful people who so utterly fail to get rid of the lies in print journalism. This is firstly a waste of time, but more importantly sets a very bad precedent. We have freedom of speech on the internet only on sufferance. Too much interference with this from governments and that can be put in real danger. As the current rows over libel law: demonstrate clearly, once bad laws are put in place to regulate speech a lot of fundamental rights go out the window.

I encourage you all to sign up to this very important campaign.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009


Have a look at some of these beautiful galaxy images:

Many more images like this can be found at

I spend a fair amount of time on galaxy zoo, it's a website that asks you to classify galaxies, are they boxy? do they have spiral arms? do they have a bar? etc.
It's great for wasting a few hours and helping science out (they use the data on what sorts of galaxies are in what parts of the sky in what distribution to publish real scientific papers that do get used to stimulate research) but mainly it's so damned pretty. It's taught me a lot about the universe, we always think that galaxies look like those above, because that's the sort of thing that gets shown. I put those images up because pretty sparkly lights. But real galaxies when you look at them almost all look like this guy:

A smudge of beige against a black sky, mostly galaxies like this aren't making new stars or doing anything terribly exiting really, they're lumps of gas in deep space. But even though they dont look like a fantastic sci-fi fireworks display and they dont have sparkly spirals or anything like that, there's something majestic about that, something grand about a ball of gas larger than you can imagine that's so cold and distant you have to squint to make out it's very dense at the centre and thins out towards the edges. I recommend GalaxyZoo to everyone, it's a great project and you do get to look at some truly amazing images.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Relativism: morals, facts, truth

Terminology: as ever philosophy is beset by confusions caused by bad words, many concepts of truth and fact have emerged over the centuries and so I'm going to let truth cover as wide a range of these ideas as you care to think of, mathematical, physical, moral, metaphysical, poetic, whatever. But questions of observation I will call facts, these are unambiguous statements of what a suitably placed observer with the right equipment would observe about the physical world. Housekeeping done, on with the post.

A very good quote I like (I'm sorry, it was written by that horseman of the apocalypse Richard Dawkins, but I like it so there) which goes “there are no cultural relativists at 30,000 ft”. What is meant by that is that there are many people who contend that truth is relative and that we shouldn't follow what science has to say because there are other cultures with their own ideas. However when you do something where there is real risk, like flying in a plane, then suddenly the fact that the Puain people of Peru or whoever believe that flying will make the sun god angry is much less of a worry. This post is about different sorts of claims to truth and how we should react to them.

First question, why do people want to know things anyway? This depends on the sort of truth. We want to know maths and poetry and art and other things like that because it's beautiful, we want to know truths about morals to guide us in how we should live, we want to know truths about the world because it is the world that we live in as bodies and it can cause us pain if we misunderstand it, we want to know metaphysics for philosophic reasons etc.

The important things for this is why we want to know facts, we want to know facts because if we get facts wrong then all the direction that our lives get from all the other sorts of truth, all the beauty and spirituality you like counts for almost nothing. We as people may well be spiritual beings, but we interact with others and we learn about many forms of truth through our bodies. Our bodies are physical things, they act according to facts. It may well be a truth that “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone”, but it is a fact that a body thrown out of an upstairs window will hit the earth with great velocity. So if not hitting the Earth at great velocity is part of your plans then you can keep the truth of the first, but the fact should guide your action.

I see morality in two parts. First, we use all the truths we can do decide on moral principles, to decide what we want to see happen. Some people want to make others happy, some want to obey the ten commandments, some want to achieve a higher level of conciousness. Then comes actions, if your aim is purely metaphysical, then you have no facts to guide you and should use more truths to guide you, you are not influenced by the world and will not take it into account, this is totally acceptable, others may have to step around you if you are meditating in the middle of a path or something, but you do not concern yourself with such things and are irrelevant for the rest of this post.

If however, your aim involves, no matter how slightly, the physical world. You may want to make people happy or to obey the ten commandments or eat the worlds largest hot dog or something. In this case you must use facts, if you dont then you are failing to follow through your own moral code. If we aim to bring some physician set of circumstances into being then we must act in a way that is likely to make that happen. We dont say that a suicidal person who refuses to kill themselves when presented with the means to do it is following their own route to their aim, we say that they're not sincere or that they're dont want to follow the aim they set for themselves at all. You owe it to your own morals to do the things that they demand, to do the things that make it most likely they will come about.

Many people believe that something should happen, but frustrate it happening in practice because they dont follow facts. For instance people who want more prisons to be built, but who oppose the planning application for a new one near them, or people who demand public services and then vote against a referendum to implement them. As with all things there are complexities, one part of your aims may conflict with another in some small case or you may simply make a misjudgement, or equally be unlucky, follow the course the facts point you too and have it smack you in the face. But besides these cases there are many people who follow truth not facts.

When we want some situation to happen, we must seek and action of our own that makes this happen. We must take into account the way the physical universe works. To try and put the lid on a teapot by throwing it at the wall and hoping it bounces off is not a way of proceeding that is likely to work. The systematic study of what things work to achieve particular outcomes is science. The scientific method purely and simply is observing many events, spotting that one action mostly leads to some outcome, testing this hypothesis by doing the same action many times, and then for the time being doing that action whenever you want that outcome. This is not infallible. The universe is complex and we do not understand it. If I observe that some action results in some outcome I can never say totally and for all time that will work. But I can say that it is my best bet, that if I want that outcome then the way that will make it happen most of the time is to do that action. Likewise reading scientific articles or textbooks, scientists are not gods or popes, they make mistakes, all the time. But they do better than chance, a lot better than chance. In a simple problem of a block on a plane bouncing off another say: Newtonian mechanics will be right within 10% over 80% of the time if you're a good experimenter, randomly guessing will be right within 10% 10% of the time if you guess in the right ball park. Science is not a font of all knowledge, but there is no better way to find facts, if there were the scientific method would add as a theory that the result of this other process is correct, and so would induce all the predictions of this new method.

The quote at the top is sadly not universal. There are many people who use facts and truth in another way. In a recent UK case the home secretary had as a truth that cannabis and ecstasy are very bad, he had as a truth that there should be harsh penalties to prevent thier use and this lead him, I believe, to commit a moral error. His aim (that he decided with truth and consideration and all that other stuff) was that the policy of the UK should be to minimise the harm caused by drugs, he has never claimed any other aim and fervently believes that is what he wants. And yet, when facts are presented to him by a group of independent scientists that cannabis and ecstasy are not as harmful as he thought and that the best way to reduce harm is in fact not to put harsh penalties on it, I argue that he should, to be honest to his aims, have followed what these facts suggested. Instead he took the childish option of denying the facts. When facts contradict truths they often get pushed under the carpet.

And this is a failing that all of us experience. In year 9 we did and experiment in physics, to find the angle that you shine light into in a semi-circular prism so it just gets reflected out. I had at that time a well formed truth of the elegance of the laws of physics. So I did the experiment and got 43 degrees. My truth told me this was simply wrong, it must be a much neater number, 45 degrees. My aim in this was to learn the real nature of things, to uncover facts. I failed morally and fudged the results to get 45, the fact was there all along, but I chose my truth. I was told immediately that this was factuality incorrect and that 43 was right. This was a failing that I try very hard to guard against repeating.

Other people who want to educate children and make them most able to get jobs and to be moral and upright citizens of the community have truths. One such truth is that the theory of evolution is untrue, and if it were true that is is evil. The facts tell such people clearly and repeatedly that evolution is true and that knowing it does not make you immoral or lead to the breakdown of society. In reality the facts tell them the exact opposite. But once again we see a moral failing, truth wins out over inconvenient facts and the aim that is publicly declared is betrayed. The children are not educated, dont get good jobs and produce a society with more social problems.

The same happens with sex education people aim to protect children physically and emotionally from the effects of sex. Truth tells them that this should be done by not telling them about sex, or telling them it is evil, fact tells them it should be done by talking intelligently about the realities of sex and handing out condoms like they're going out of fashion. Which do you think wins, truth or fact? A moral failing once again and surprise surprise a chlamydia epidemic.

I suggest that a similar question exists over alternative medicine. There is no discussion of fact to be had, alternative medicine is by definition that stuff that has not been shown to work in physical tests. Those treatments where the facts say “this will not make you better”. There are people who aim to make themselves, or even worse their child, well, to physically improve their health. In some people their truth tells them that natural remedies* or homoeopathy or any other made up treatment, that factually does not work and has been shown not to work in endless double blind tests, will work for them. Often this is not a moral failing, often people here believe the facts to be on their side, they try an alternative treatment and they find that it works. In this case I suggest it is not a moral failing for you to not know about the placebo effect or regression to the mean or the malleable nature of experience, it is not a moral failing for you to be taken in by the liar in the lab coat who swears blind that tap water will cure you of cancer. It may be an intellectual failing or a failing in your education, but honest ignorance is not immoral. However, people who do know about it, people who have read up on the subject and seen the faked reports put out by quacks, seen the endless tests and meta-analysis that show exactly no effect, people who have been trained in critical thinking skills, then that is a moral failing. Same for people whose truth tells them that MMR is a conspiracy to spread autism, endless facts tell them that if they do not give their child MMR it is at a much higher risk of dying young and painfully. Ignorance is fine, it can be cured by seeing a real doctor who knows the literature or even reading it yourself, the totally independent has summaries of research written in plain English for the lay person to read without having to go through any representatives of government or big phrama these can tell you simply and clearly which treatments (including herbal and traditional treatments) work, how well, for what sort of person and to cure what. To look at this and ignore it is, I argue, a moral failing IF, this is key, you claim that your aim is to become healthy, if you want to remain spiritually pure, or support the herbal remedy industry then no error has occurred at all. But dont please pretend to want something and then act in such a way as to frustrate it.

I failed in year 9, we all fail, all the time, it's no shame to have failed, but it is important to learn from the failure and to put mental processes in place to prevent it. To condemn me for my actions in year 9, or to condemn the school board for pushing intelligent design, is unfair. People making errors of this kind are normally the last person to spot that it is an error. We all fail, we need to be shown our error, clearly and sternly yes, but in the way one corrects a child who has made an error, shouting doesn't help, it makes you defensive. (Personal note, this is something I'm very bad at, I shout at people for things a lot because I have a low tolerance for bad science, I need a lot more work on this because I fail at this stuff all the time). But I do think people should be called out on it. You really do owe it to that part of your morals that deal with the physical world to follow the course of action that is most likely to get the right result.

*I must admit confusion as to why people who like natural remedies for things so rarely use the natural remedies that have actually been shown to work. Eating an extract of ground willow bark will make your heart healthier and cure most pains, it's been shown to work and has almost no side effects, and you can buy a bottle of the stuff for about a quid, it's called aspirin.

Any comments, arguments, counter-examples, better ways of thinking about this, as ever welcomed below.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Just a quick thing

Question on any questions this week about new proposals to get rid of a parent's opt out for sex education after the age of 15. As the law stands parents can get their child out of sex ed lessons up to 19 and the child can get themselves out after that, if indeed any such lessons are provided at that age. I've had a think and I'm going to write this and then post in a few hours later to make sure i'm not ameking a rash assesment here so here goes:

Any group or person, be it the child, be it the school, the parent, the government etc who seek to deny sex ed lessons to children:

  • Is putting that child at risk of STIs, early pregnancy etc
  • Is putting that child at risk of being abused emotionally and physically by people who know more than them
  • Is leading to that child being less able to form a healthy emotional understanding of sex, especially sex as a factor of a meaningful long-term relationship
  • Is likely to lead to that child having many difficulties with understanding their sexuality in later life
  • Is thus indirectly harming that child in many many ways
  • Is not acting in the best interest of that child
  • Should seriously consider their role caring for children.
So should parents have a right to pull their kid out of sex ed? Fuck off, no you cant. Just like you cant pull them out of Maths or English, you're stunting their development and storing up all kinds of shit for later on.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Thursday, 5 November 2009

REPOST Some rather interesting questions has this rather interesting first post that I'd rather like to go through and answer because behind the silly misunderstandings there is some real science to be explained here. So here we go, original in bold as ever:

I just want to ask you some questions. I'm assuming you're an evolutionist.

A what? I'm not an evolutionist, it's not a creed to believe the theory sported by the most evidence.

By the way, I'm not a Christian, I'm just arguing for the sake of rationality.

Wouldn't mind if you were, if you're intelligent, have done basic research and can construct a coherent argument then you can debate no matter what you believe.

1. The law of Physics says Energy cannot be created or destroyed, how therefore can you justify the Big Bang?

This is a fantastic question. It's really deep to ask how something can come from nothing. And the answer is from quantum physics. We have observed in accelerators and similar experiments, that not only can you make something from nothing but it happens all the time. Empty space creates particles all on it's own. Which Raises two questions, why isn't the universe full of these things, and what happened to the conservation of energy? Well these particles dont hang around for long, one of them is made of anti-matter, it's basically the opposite of a real particle, they will destroy each-other if they meet (insert sci-fi/fatasty analogy of your choice). What about energy, they both have energy, so where did it come from? Simply speaking one is totally the opposite of the other, including energy, so all that's happened is that some energy has been made, with some anti-energy to balance it out. Author's note, the correct scientific term for this is negative energy... but I just cant make myself write that, it just sounds too New Agey, so I'm going to call it anti-energy, but if you ever hear a real scientist talking about negative energy, that's what they mean. We've seen this loads of times in experiments. But how does this help us.

Well, the universe acts in the same sort of way, there aren't particles of anti-energy waiting to destroy everything, but there is a very large amount of negative energy in the fabric of space. Do you remember from school that gravitational energy, the energy from being high up, is negative? If two things are near by they have some anti-energy because of gravity. If you let them fall they dont get all their kinetic (movement) energy from nowhere, they gain even more anti-energy from gravity. So: in the beginning there was no space and no time and no matter and no energy. This is the big bang, it's not a flash of light in a dark room you should imagine, you should imagine being inside a room smaller than a pea that explodes out, except there's nothing outside the room. The point is that this doesn't violate conservation of energy, because for all the energy you put into making matter and making it move and be hot and all that kind of stuff, an exactly opposite amount of anti-energy is made from the gravity and bending of space and a few other exotic things I dont really understand. The message is that the universe was made on credit, and unless there is a big crunch the debt isn't really going to be paid off. Like a lot of people all the debt gets shifted from one form to another so much that it never really gets paid off for good. So good question, long answer.

2.The probability of Earth being created by Chance is so astronomically small, that it is too improbable to count as evidence.

Evidence of what? I'm not quite sure what you mean here. So I'm going to answer a similar question that gets asked a lot. The odds by chance of the universe being arranged in such a way as we could be here right now doing this is minute, is it not sensible to think that it was therefore rigged? To answer this we have to think a bit about probability and specialness. For me to win the lottery is very very improbable, it's so improbable that if I buy one ticket and win it is more sensible to suggest that I rigged the lottery than that I won for real. There is a problem though when we talk about things that happened in the past. The odds of the lottery numbers being 12 18 26 35 40 44 49 last week were the same 587,320,272 to one as they were every other week. Just this time they came out. We shouldn't be shocked when improbable things happen, they must happen, otherwise they'd be impossible things. Never confuse what is impossible with what is merely very improbable, said someone very wise, no idea who, might have been me … might have been Jack Sparrow now I come to think of it, but whoever they were they were very smart. What makes the two examples different is that one is special and the other is not. Me winning the lottery is something we should doubt because there's some significance to it happening that does not apply to any other similar event, me winning the lottery has a significance that Dave from Milton Keynes winning it because you're talking to me. To Dave's friends of course him winning the lottery should doubted but mine is entirely believable. This difference is because it's easy to spot any particular thing in the past, to find Dave from Milton Keynes AFTER the result, but to predict it before? That's hard. So we shouldn't be surprised when we see improbable things in the past, everything has a small chance of happening, it's only surprising if it's in some way special or predicted.

So the universe earth etc. The existence of a planet here that could harbour life with 2 arms and twitter is shockingly small, I mean tiny. No really think of the biggest number you can, now think ten to the power of that number and then say … factorial (thanks to PBH), that much to one is how improbable this life is. But, that's like saying it's improbable that Dave won the lottery, we only noticed life it after life began … sort of by definition. Imagine we wound the universe back and started it up a stupid number of times, most of them would collapse in a second, most of the rest would never get galaxies and stars, most of the rest would be so inhospitable to life that it didn't evolve. So we want to ask is the universe something we should be surprised by. Is it special in some way. Now the fact that we are here now isn't special, we'd think the same thing if we were a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, same for being 2-armed apes, we'd think we were just as special if we were caterpillars with the power of thought. The only thing to ask is – is the existence of conciousness special, does it need an explanation or is it just something we noticed after the fact that we wouldn't have predicted before.

The idea that humans are vital to the universe is a natural and pervasive one. But life is so small and the universe is so vast that we really are insignificant, the universe does not require us for any of the day to day running of the place, leaving weird quantum stuff aside, the universe did fine before life and will do fine after it ends. So do I think life is significant? Not really, but that's not a very strong argument. There is however another suggestion from the many world's theory, not a scientific fact by any means, but a very real possibility, if I was a betting man I'd take … 10 to 1 odds on it being true, but I've no evidence of any strength to back up that instinct. This is the idea that there are many universes and that each one is slightly different. So there are unimaginably vast numbers of universes without life, and every once in a while, an impossibly rare universe has life, and that universe gets noticed, and the others dont. So it's not surprising that the universe is fine tuned to include us, if it didn't, we wouldn't notice.

This post is too long as it is so here's a sneak preview of the questions I'll answer later.

3.Even Darwin said, If there are not hundreds of transitional fossils found, my theory is incorrect, and today, we have even less transitional fossils than in Darwins time.

there are

4.Evolution cannot create complex objects or facilitate the change from a simple organism to a complex organism because small and random changes are insignificant unless they are part of a whole.

it can

5.Evolution is a constant process, so why are things not evolving today?

they are

6.If Evolution is not a constant process, and we have reached the climax of organisms and will not evolve further, what determined our stage to be the last stage?

false premis

7.The process of Carbon Dating is unreliable because so many assumptions are made that affect calculations.

it's backed up by many other tests.

8.Archaeological layers in the earth, as defined by Evolution are incorrect due to the fact that they are based on Carbon Dating, and the process of cyclic layers is not taken into account.

we have many many tests, and wtf are cyclic layers?

9.There is not one example of genetic mutations that add and enhance a species, therefore evolution is unfounded.

there are many, e. coli and nylonase are examples

Oh, and by the way, I answered each of your questions. Used logic. Maybe you should consider it. Your main incorrect assumptions were: You know better than God, You know the entire human race and all of their deeds, You are not taking responisbility for what we have done oh and You havn't done your research.
It's been interesting but logically unchallenging.


BTW, comment plz as ever. How is my writing? I'm doing this stuff for two reasons, first I enjoy it, but I'm publishing because I love telling people about science. So how am I doing for explanation? Too much jargon? Too little jargon? Not accurate enough? Not clear enough? Inconsistent? I really appreciate all feedback.

RESPOST Why I love maths.

Stop! Please dont run away, I promise this wont be scary or hard. A lot of people are scared by maths because what you have to do in school is awful and boring and hard and crap. I know it's awful, I hated it as much as you all did. But I still love maths, because there's something more to maths, there's beauty. And if you'll give me just 5 minuets of your time, I'd like to show you something that I think is more profound than a lot of poems and more lovely than a lot of art. And I promise no big words and no sums, not one.

REPOST Islam, racism, multiculturalism and why the far right pisses me off

(BNP=Daily Mail=far right is a short hand for racists who oppose Islam because it is the religion of non-white immigrants, the guardian is shorthand for people suffering post-colonial middle-class gilt who support Islam because it is the religion of non-white immigrants, neither label refers to all people who read either paper and should be considered simply a label of convenience).

I object to the BNP and the Daily mail and the rest of the far right. I object to them for all the obvious reasons, and for calling me a communist, but I also object that they hold opinions I agree with. I object to having to agree with the Daily Mail gang about anything but on one issue they're right … or rather they aren't, but they cast things in such a light as to make them seem like they are.

Let's start at the top. About 600CE an Arab (a person whose immediate family are originally from the Arabian peninsula and surrounding area) thought up a brilliant new idea. Basically he got stoned in a cave and invented Islam, a religion that had all the hallmarks of a new and world changing faith. Things started out reasonably well, the holy text of this religion includes an injunction to study the world to learn more about god, so Islamic science (just about the only science of importance going at the time) flourished. Al-gebra, later algebra, al-chemy, later chemistry, geometry, biology, physics and the rest were all expanded at a huge rate. Islam looked like a religion that could do science a great deal of good, and so humanity a great deal of good.

However, there are mixed messages in all religious texts. The morality of Islam is, you must remember, one set down by an illiterate paedophile in the 600's, not very sophisticated. And this is where the problems start. Islam as it is practised in large sections of the middle east, from Saudi Arabia to Iran via Afghanistan has twisted this not very sophisticated morality into one that is genuinely evil. This sort of Islam, that practices horrific corporal punishment, includes thought crimes, repressions of minorities, of women and which is supported by theocratic regimes, for short I will call this Wahhabi, many scholars will disagree with this but it'll do for now. So he's where I fear the Daily Mail fan club and I agree, we both believe that Wahhabi is a monstrous abomination and for the good of all mankind should be utterly destroyed.

I dont worry to much that this agreement reflects a moral failing of mine, though it does make me pause for thought, and here's why, our logic is totally different. The Daily Mail dont object to Wahhabi because it is an abomination, they say it is an abomination because they object to it, and why do they object to it, because it is foreign. And not even that it's of a different race. The BNP gang sees Arabs in this country and finds this offensive. A great many people of the far right are no doubt quite content for Wahhabi to be practised in the middle east as much as they may like so long as they dont have to see Arabs on the street. The BNP gang has leapt on Islamophobia, not out of an intellectual opposition to Wahhabi or Islam in general, but out of opposition to Arabs. This is only possible because of the great confusion that exists and is created by such far right groups and by those who oppose them:

The Daily Mail gang equates Islamic with Arabic, they do this because racism leads easily to over-generalisations, so the received opinion that most Arabs are Muslims and vice versa (neither true really, the reverse most defiantly not so) becomes Arab=Muslim=bad. In response to this guardian readers have invented the concept of Islamophobia, a word to describe the far right's views on this issue. This is a bad word, it's not the Islam that the BNP gang fears, it's the Arabs. Arabophobia is a terrible thing, and like all other forms of racism should be stamped out. But just because those who practice it equate Arabs and Muslims does not mean we should. There is widespread Arabophobia in the UK, there is a widespread belief spread by both sides that this is equivalent to Islamophobia, it's not. When nice fluffy guardian readers attack the Daily Mail for Islamophobia what they mean is that the Mail should stop being racist. This is a good thing, we should be stamping out racism everywhere it occurs, but saying that opposition to a religion is the same as opposition to a race of people is not correct. You cant attack someone's race in the same way as their beliefs, if I attack a German for being German then I am a racist and this is an error, if I attack (verbally of course I'm talking about opposition in debate here) the same person for believing that Hitler was a nice guy I'm not making the same error.

So, I object to the way a lot of people portray the debate about Islam. Being a Muslim is not the same as being an Arab and does not deserve the same protection. Someone who is opposed in any way for being an Arab is a victim of racism and needs protection, someone who is opposed in debate and argument for being a Muslim has had a disagreement, someone thinks that their moral system should be corrected. This is a totally different type of thought. In general the second sort of opposition needs to be done sparingly and with good reasons, but it is of a different kind to the first.

The next question is multiculturalism, the blurring between Arabophobia and Islamophobia is a distaste for multiculturalism. What should I, who accepts migration as fine and who is happy to see people of many races on the street but who objects to Wahhabi and to all the horrors that implies, think about the culture of Muslim people. It is vital that we respect people, (note people not their beliefs), if people believe crazy and stupid things that is their right, no person should stop them doing this by force. We are entitled to stop them believing stupid things by argument and persuasion, but not by force. So we should be happy for people to go to mosques 5 times a day, and set them up near us. This is something that the Daily Mail gang opposes, they see such buildings as places where lots of scary people get together, that makes the scary people seem more scary, so they oppose Mosque building because of Arabophobia and so further blur the line between it and Islamophobia. I should be fine indeed with the outward signs of religion, yes even with the burka, in the situation where anyone else would be entitled to wear the same sort of mask. We should not oppose things that are done because of religion, no more than we should support those done in it's name. We should treat people's culture as simply one out of many motivations. If people for whatever reason want to wear a mask (or a dagger in the case of Sikhs but that's another question) that's fine with me whenever it is legal for anyone else.

The Daily Mail lot want to get rid of the burka as it is a sign of otherness, and they oppose all otherness. The guardian support the burka for the same reason, we must support all displays of otherness they say in the name of multiculturalism. What we think of the burka must be because it is a mask, not because it is a mask worn by Arabs. In all questions of Sharia law, halal food, etc. etc. we must ensure that the culture and religions of the people in this country are given exaclty zero weight. A point of view in debate should be considered on its merits in exactly the same way if presented by someone from an insane cult, or the head of a respected institution or religion or if it's just an ordinary guy with no affiliation. What I'm advocating is not a guardian style knee-jerk right for people to do whatever their culture dictates, we have law for a reason, that reason is Mill's harm principle, we need to stop people who want to harm others. But once those limits are in place I'm not advocating a Daily Mail ban on people doing things that aren't white enough. I want to see a public debate held on strictly neutral terms.

We need to stop Wahhabi, be it in the middle east or anywhere else, it is evil. Mill's harm principle and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that is its intellectual descendent tells us that we must prevent the evil atrocities that are being done in the name of Wahhabi, it is a crime against humanity and must be stopped. I object that the guardian doesn't agree, they are too scared of racism to tackle evil of a similar scale, and I object that the BNP does agree, they come at it from exactly the opposite repressive end of ideas and oppose it out of confusion and Arabophobia. I want to be able to welcome with open arms Afghan refugees who are fleeing from the kind of evil that I am simultaneously arguing hard to end. Is that such a contradiction?

As ever please lots of comments, I want to see how people react, is anyone interesting, do you want more of this stuff or should i stop posting them?

REPOST A letter to my friends.

Ok I've been meaning to write this for a long time, so here it is finally.

Religion and me

As you may have noticed I'm an atheist, religion is however one of my many passions and I've started to realise that in my passion I often say things that sound fine to me but which others can easily misinterpret, or which I dont mean at all but say when carried away. And the last thing I want is for people to be offended by me or put off from what I have to say. Richard Dawkins et al, whilst excellent scientists, academics, debaters etc (read Dawkin's science books by the way they're brilliant) are doomed to fail when they talk to many religious people, simply because their audience dismisses what they have to say pre-emptively. So I'd like to make a public apology.
All my friends, religious or otherwise, if I have upset you by ridiculing your belief or by offending a broad group to which you belong or inappropriately talked about people of your group having the character of some fringe lunatic, I am very very sorry, and promise that I meant no disrespect to you as a person by it. I have Christian, Buddhist, Deist, Pagan, Atheist (it would be good if I could spell that damned word), Agnostic and Pastafarian friends, with many others in-between and I do not think any less of any friend for being religious.
If I respect my friends who are religious why do I post many things attacking people's beliefs? Because respect for you all as individuals does not imply respect for your beliefs. I have a family friend who I like a lot, she's a lovely woman, very kind and generous. She is a young earth creationist who believes that the universe is 6000 years old, Hubble red shifts and careful analysis of many aspects of the universe tells us that the true age is 13.7 billion years. She is out by a factor of over 2 million, this is equivalent to believing the distance from Alaska to Maine is a little over 2m and that the whole of North America would fit in a generously sized living room. This belief is insane, much as I respect her and think she is a lovely person this belief is just wrong and frankly, she is intelligent enough to know how wrong.
My problem with religion is that whilst as a system for bringing communities together, comforting those who are grieving and helping people make tough decisions it is unparalleled, it does produce real dangers. Knowing the age of the universe is unlikely to save your life, but in many things being out by a factor of over 2 million is enough to kill you many many times over. Religion provides many bright people with the desire to believe things that aren't credible and this kills. Not just kills Jehovah's Witnesses who need blood transfusions, or women in many countries who die because they cant get a safe abortion, or gays and apostates who in the 21st century are killed by stoning but many others in far less serious cases who just cant act appropriately because they think they should, to be a good person, believe something that reason tells them is false. These things make me angry, because there is no bigger perversion of the good that religions should be doing. I'm upset because I hear rational normal people telling me that god made mountains with dinosaur skeletons already in them, or that they have met and done spiritual battle with witches or that the laying on of hands can cure their illness.
So to all my friends, I am so sorry if I upset you, because you are the very people who need to be able to hear about the things I post without being put off or feel you're being shouted at. I really want people who are religious to hear some of the crazy and frankly evil things being done in the name of their religion. Because if the important debates of our time like gay marriage, assisted suicide, ID in science classes etc are set up to be god vs. liberals then everyone looses. If nutty ideas aren't challenged within religious circles than they wont be challenged at all. My young earth creationist could listen to me present evidence all day, it wont change her mind. To stop someone with a nutty belief you need to get to the heart of where that belief originates, and that's what I cant do. I know a lot about religion, I went to Sunday school as a kid and have read most of the bible, but it's been so long since I believed in god I cant connect to it any more.
I know it's damned presumptuous of me to think this. But I know a few of you are the kind of people who really want to see change in the world for the better, and you are the only people who can do it. People of faith that can reach out to others in a way that I cant, I can give you all the science in the world, talk to you about constructing your own moral system, do a comparative analysis of religions of the world. But someone from the same church, or just someone who believes in a god at all, has a far different impact when they say that Matthew cant be a historical account because Matthew 27:52-53 is about zombies. It's very different for me to say that the pope is evil for his stance on condoms, as it is for a catholic to say that the Christian principle of compassion outweighs papal dogma.
So I'll end by saying I'm sorry if I call religions nuts, I dont mean it, I mean that religions give licence for people to hold nutty beliefs, and that reasonable people of faith are probably the key to challenging that licence.

Please do reply to this whatever you think, I want to know what you'd all like me to do, my dear friends.

REPOST What's wrong with science

Science is my passion. In order the things I passionately care about are: sex, maths, science, freedom, fairness, alternative medicine, religion, tea, radio 4 and astrology. I love science, I dont just mean that I'm interested in a few things about space or evolution or whatever, I mean that I really really love it and get a huge amount of pleasure from it in the most profound way I have ever experienced.

Why am I saying this? I'm saying it because I think other people who feel similarly should say the same thing too. And I think that because there's a danger, not that science will stop happening, but that it will become separate from the real world. Too often I read things in the paper that start with “scientists have announced” or “a world expert in such and such today said that”, I was watching an interview with a scientist, possibly Marcus Chown, and the interviewer described scientists as the new priesthood. This scared me a lot. If this is the way things are going it needs to stop now. Scientists should not be allowed to claim infallibility just for being scientists just as a priest should not be able to claim infallibility for being a priest (whatever the pope says no human is without error).

Why is this a problem? If things go on like this people wont be able to do basic science themselves, everyone will start to assume that Science with an upper-case S is this big holy thing done by people in white robes in special cathedrals of knowledge. And that means that people wont use science in their day to day life, and I believe that this is vital for staying alive in the world. We live in a technological society, things rest on knife edges, if people cant use critical thinking disasters happen. If you give your child a homoeopathic remedy instead of real medicine the child's death is not due to you rationally considering the medical literature and experiments to compare results. It's because you've rejected the cult of science and gone for something that feels better. People who reject science in this way and buy into whatever nonsense seems good to them (watch out for the phrase 'western science') are feeding off this feeling of being rejected or alienated by science. So we need to make sure there is no cult of science for people to be turned off by.

What do I think should happen? I think that everyone, whatever they do and however well educated, can be and should be a scientist. This doesn't mean doing complicated research, it means thinking about the evidence for important beliefs and testing things in some limited way. It means not accepting what experts say because they are experts, but because they have done a good experiment to show they are right. It means not risking your health on the advice of people living centuries ago, but trying to be healthy in the way that the evidence shows is best. In the case of MMR for instance, it is in my opinion immoral for someone to make a decision about whether their child should get this jab without using science, few people have the time to analyse the research done for sure, but everyone has time to go to their doctor and ask him what the research says. And if he doesn't know, get a new doctor, medics who dont follow research on important topics like this should not be trusted.

What stops everyone being a scientist in this way? Society makes it so damned hard! Newspapers never publish examples of experiments, so much is done on what one or other group of scientists say, their word is taken as evidence. Why? Because science is hard, nobody wants to try and do it because it makes your head hurt. This is a double failure, of society and of education. Science classes that I have been to are massively unfit for purpose, pupils are made to spend years memorising facts without the faintest idea where they come from. We all learn at school that science means labelling a diagram of an eye, with little understanding of why the various fluids are there, we learn that chemistry is about manipulating horrid chemical equations without really understanding why the reactions happen, we are told that f=GmM/d^2 but are never told how this was found out. This makes science seem like it is a dry complicated academic mess, and so the media tells us that it's far too hard for us and so tells us something it thinks we can understand, irrespective of whether this is true or not.

My final point is that there is no need for science to be like this. Science as a method is easy, you look at some event, generalise what you see, predict from this something you haven't seen yet and then see if that happens. If so the generalisation survives this round, but if not we find a new one. There is no reason for this to be hard to do. In every day situations: if you think that crystals make your plants grow well, try it out, put two identical plants next to each other, one with a crystal and one with out, simple things like this mean either that you can confidently harness the power of the crystals knowing they work, or that you can stop wasting money on useless ornaments. But even in the profound things there is still a lot of science people dont get exposed to. A lot of deep science can, with a bit of thought, be said in such a way that you keep all the ideas, but make it seem much easier. I'd be prepared to bet that there would be far fewer “debates” on evolution if everyone were told that “there is a species of bacteria that eats, and can only eat, a by-product of nylon, as nylon was invented in the 40s, bacteria like this could not have lived before then, so they must have gradually come into existence since as the descendants of a very similar bacterium that ate something else” and yet if this is presented anywhere it is either written in such a dumbed down way “scientists say bacteria can eat plastic” or in the full horrors of a stream of incomprehensible Latin words so that nobody really understands why it is important. Science is easy, there's no reason why you should do something important without testing your ideas, and there's no reason why you should believe experts without testing their reliability.

Just a quick question: is anyone at all interested in this essay? I just wrote it because I've been irritated recently and wanted this idea off my chest, if nobody wants it feel free to say so and I'll write them but not publish in future.

REPOST Derren Brown's "Deep Maths" is easy

If you didn't watch the lottery prediction or the event program you're crazy, go watch it online right now. But if you did you may have been interested by the "deep maths" of coin tossing that Derren claimed would take an hour to explain... not so, it's fairly simple really. So I'm going to try and explain it quickly and without anything more than common sense.

The game:

You take a coin and flip it a lot of times in a row, and you note every time that two different sequences of 3 results comes up.

The assumption:

Your initial reaction (and mine) was that all of the 2x2x2=8 results are equally likely to come up. Because if we flip a coin 3 times only this is true. You try and flip a coin 3 times and record weather your sequence came up or not and then start again. If you do this enough times (you'll need a few hours and nothing better to do) and you can easily show that all 8 results are just as likely. We are lead to believe this is true for the game above.


This isn't what happens, in a long string of results HTHHHTHTHTTHTHTHTHTTTHTHTH
THTTHHTH etc it is possible for results to overlap. For instance HTHTH contains HTH twice, and HHHHH contains HHH 3 times. How can you use this overlapping to your advantage? You start by thinking about what happens if you nearly "win" but fall down at the end. What can you do if you predict HHH and it comes up HHT? You've got a result you dont want, and you have to start again from scratch. but what you can do is get a head start. If the last coin in your sequence is different from the first one something interesting happens. You pick THH, the first coin is a tail, you're happy, the second is a head, you're very happy, the third one is a tail ... you haven't won this time, but you're not upset, because you've already got the first coin of the sequence in place. To put it simply: with THH every time you predict a coin wrong you are already a third of the way through the next attempt, but if you pick HHH then every time you go wrong you have to start again at the beginning.

I predict THH: T win! 1/3 done, H win! 2/3 done, T ignore what happened before, start again with the first one right , 1/3 done

I predict HHH: H win! 1/3 done, H win! 2/3 done, T ignore what happened before, start again with the first one wrong, 0/3 done


Pick a sequence where failing to get the end right means you are automatically in with a second chance. This means you can win far more often than you would think. The reason is just common sense, no deep maths, no psychology, no team thinking, no magic, just common sense.

As for how he predicted the lottery, there are dozens of equally plausible solutions, but however he did it I'll stab myself in the foot if a group of 24 people in a trance had the slightest involvement.

REPOST House bill 676 (AKA evil Nazi comunist healthcare bill)

Disclaimer: I lean anarcho-capitalist and I'm British, everything I say is biased. Read the bill and make your own mind up.

Americans spend more on health care per capita than just about anywhere. This is largely due to the poor not wanting to pay for preventative medicine and so paying out massive lump sums for emergency operations etc (one of the highest causes of bankruptcy in the US is medical debt). So it makes sense for preventive medicine to be paid for by central funding, thus putting more people into the labour market and increasing general goodness and utility. However massive government health care programs (eg the british NHS) are often inefficient and expensive for their own reasons (not not as much per capita as America). The NHS is the 5th largest employer in the world after the Red army, Walmart, US defence department and Indian national railways.

Ok enough preamble, the bill. The only version I can find is the bill as presented to the house, this is the short (30 page) bare bones version before lobbies and others can expand that hell out of it with thousands of sub clauses. The entire thing is at or

* Chiropractic services. ( bluntly chiropractic 'treatment' is psudoscientific nonsense, no well conducted study has shown any benefit for the kinds of conditions it claimed to deal with, on top of that is is dangerous in a very real and well documented way.

* freedom of choice ( this is a good if not vital idea, but this one sentence is not nearly enough to deal with it, we'll have to see how things turn out after editing and expanding.

* No balance billing ( this is the sort of thing we have problems with in the UK, the sharp discontinuity between private and public, accepting any govt. money at all renders your services non-billable.

* Favouring community-based care ( is another one that needs to be watched post edit, in theory this leads to much better outcomes for the patient, but not universally, I can imagine many situations where this will either be interpreted too strictly or opposed by NIMBYs.

* Official prescription drug buyer ( if you have to legislate to say that people should be encouraged not to give their patients drugs that are dangerous you're doing it wrong.

* Promotion of generics ( fantastic, this is an absolutely necessary part of the legislation (watch it get watered down or pulled in committee. While we're at it lets use free software on all govt computers.

* right to petition ( two things: you don't need to tell us we have the right to petition, that's given in the the first, what you mean is that people have to listen, that's a different matter. secondly the word region here scares me, I get images of the UK's postcode lottery where different services are available depending on where you live.

* funding ( not being very familiar with the American system is putting what taxes will be raised a normal part of bills? If so it's a very clever idea so people can know what everything costs and where the money comes from. Though this is just nonsense, you can't cut paperwork by saying you're going to, bureaucracy breeds, secondly you're raising a large chunk of this by taxing only the top 5%... is it really fair/sensible etc to have such a dichotomy, with only the rich paying for only the poor.

* replacing medicare offices by new regional offices ( Is this really a good use of resources? If medicare is running things now why can't they carry on, keep all the same offices just expand them as required, I dont see the benefit of what looks like a massive re-branding exercise.

* Huge list of duties for regional director ( Is it sensible to centralise things in this way? I see no logical reason why the same person who decides when and where hospitals are built should also decide on an area's health budget, surely the first needs to be done at a really local level and the second at a huge area?

* electronic records ( I know I'm jaded by the NHS, but huge computer systems dont work. it wont cut down on paper either, everyone will still print things out. We need records of what drugs are give an what tests take for sure, but do we also need all the rubbish that are always in government databases? There is also the problem that people who fear computers wont tell doctors things because they worry about it being on the system.

Conclusion: This bill will pass, but it'll look nothing like this by the end, America could never accept such radical change. The bill has far too wide a mandate as it stands, you'd need to tear down half the health industry to implement it. There are some very good points but the focus is quite wrong. What this bill should be about is providing the basic services that the uninsured dont get, not trying to put vast swathes of heath care into the government's hands in one fell swoop.

Both sides are misrepresenting this, the impression I get from republican officials is of a far more limited bill than this one. The impression I get republicans ... well the impression i get from republicans is that republicans are stupid, but the bill is presented as actually evil. This is not destroying anyone's rights, nor will it cost half the national budget, nor will there be mass killings or the amount of government involvement described.

What it is is badly balanced and inefficient (half the bill is spent creating new middle management posts) but with enough wholesale re-writing this bill could very easily become serviceable.


So basically, I rant a lot on facebook and write many mini-essays and stuff. So I thought I might as well branch out and make a proper blog. I wont promise to make this regular or coherent. Just whenever I want a rant I'll stick it on here. I welcome all the feedback I can get so please dont be shy. If you dont understand what I've said please tell me because it means i've screwed up. Hoping we all have fun with this. Yours, Rebellionkid.