Friday, October 24, 2008

I get angry at libertarians

so, I haven't posted for ages... study and then study break does that to me. But after a while the boredom of nothing to do and no one to do it to begins to get to me, and that's when unsuspecting espousers (is that even a word? Firefox says no! But then, Firefox says the same of "honour") of opposing political views get an unpleasant surprise. A post over at Denialism Blog (great blog, by the way, three great writers each with a unique insight into, well... denialism) brought out the libertarian-smiter in me. In my first post I mentioned that I don't like libertarian politics, despite the similarity of my views on social freedom and theirs. Here's a few arguments why, more or less unedited from my comments there:

(exposition: the argument had previously included the examples of roading systems and microchips as things that could have been produced by private enterprise but weren't because the government was doing them so cheap. Also someone brought up what they called the Firefighting Canard, that a libertarian shouldn't let firefighters put out a fire at their house, even though the government monopoly makes a private equivalent impossible)

I said: So you're saying that we should be paying far more for things like roads and education, just so they can be private rather than public?

And the firefighting canard isn't one at all; a true libertarian would give their neighbours money to form a bucket-chain before phoning 911, or install a sprinkler system.

Asimov said it best: "He always pictured himself a libertarian, which to my way of thinking means 'I want the liberty to grow rich and you can have the liberty to starve.' It's easy to believe that no one should depend on society for help when you yourself happen not to need such help."

Someone (whose name can be found over at DB. I'm naming no names) replied that deregulation shouldn't be an end in itself, but can make the price go down.

I replied:

You tell me that deregulation and privatisation make the price go down... but we've discussed examples where private enterprise could have gotten into it but didn't because the government was doing it cheaper. And where's the profit motive in extinguishing the fire burning down a poor man's house, or giving an education to a struggling family's average-intelligence child?

The only reason the public schooling system in the US fails kids is because market advocates like you, who only want people to have an education if they can pay for it, won't provide schools with decent funding and a clear mandate to educate kids, rather than just pumping them full of a few key facts. In more leftist nations, like the one I count myself fortunate to come from, an effort is made to engage in - and give grades for - real creativity.

Moreover, the institution of public enterprises like fire, police and ambulance services, the roading system, and even government-controlled banks and railroads (Kiwibank stood firm when all the banks took a hit not too long ago) don't necessarily get in the way of business. Roads, and even the security of the basic emergency services, provide a security and substrate on which business can be built. With a social safety net for the unemployed, more tax dollars are pumped into basic necessities, stimulating competition and thus greater efficiency in that market, and the safety net itself provides an impetus to take more calculated risks on the market, knowing even if you fail you won't starve. Regulation in business, far from stifling the market, provides an extra layer of trust, making consumers more confident in their investments and purchases, stimulating the market better than allowing fly-by-nighters to operate ever could.

Shall I go on?

Obviously I shouldn't. I get heated when rich people start talking about getting rid of these, even though I am technically a rich person myself (by the standards of the people who really rely on the social safety net). Some day I might be poor, and then I will want my society to be the kind of society that helps the less fortunate.

This concept is called the Veil of Ignorance: if you were to be reborn into the society, with no idea which part of the society you were to be born into, which kind of society would you rather be born into, in order to maximise your chances of having a decent life?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Run with it! Like scissors!

I suppose I should put this up here, rather than just leaving it over at PZ's place...

I'll edit out all the stuff related to other conversations.

The thought has been growing in my mind that we need a group of people who are held, by the atheist community as a whole, of being capable of defending the tenets we hold as universal, and moreover that these people should be organised in such a way that any one of them could say "I'm a member of _____*" and anyone who has participated in the culture wars for any length of time would know precisely what it means, and also (if they find themselves on the opposite side of the argument) s**t themselves in the sure and certain knowledge that they are about to get their rhetorical asses handed to them in paper bags.

*Name to be decided.
**I know some people don't like words like that. Where I come from they're a normal part of conversation.

Now everyone start arguing about it.

Posted by: DK | September 20, 2008 9:22 AM

Wazza: Sounds cool. The group would have to have some snappy acronym though, like S.H.I.E.L.D. or U.N.C.L.E.

Posted by: Tim | September 20, 2008 9:27 AM

Wazza, An intriguing idea, likely fuel their persecution complex, but I understand the desire. When someone gets in my face with their creation myth, I can be a bit hasty.

Posted by: Sven DiMilo | September 20, 2008 9:41 AM

Hmmm, a secular humanist/atheist SWAT team, huh? Emergency response squad sort of thing?
Secular Humanist/Atheist Response Integration Alliance?
nah, that acronym might be misinterpreted.

Posted by: wazza | September 20, 2008 9:52 AM

I was thinking more a distributed thing, so that no matter where a discussion takes place, one of us can be there.

OK, here's my thoughts on the matter (concocted in the shower I took between now and the first post)

1. No official dogma. I mean, everything has to be based on evidence and reason, but you can argue for any viewpoint so long as you only use those. Theistic evolutionists would be as welcome as anyone else.

2. Membership is based on an examination by a committee of existing members (except right at the start where the original members would have to be assessed in some other way). Basically you have to argue for your point in your preferred medium, whether it be scholarly journals, newspaper articles, blogs, fora or in-person debate, and have your arguments assessed by members of the organisation to ensure that your arguments were based on reason and evidence and that no logical fallacies were committed.

3. The actual organisation would be more about a level of argument - total ass-kicking with the option of taking names - rather than a particular dogma. This level of argument of course excludes ideas like YEC because they're not based on evidence and reason and are full of logical fallacies, but it would include a wide range of possible interpretations of the facts, so long as they all answer to the criteria already set out.

I think that's enough thinking to do at nearly 2am. Night all.

Posted by: tim Rowledge | September 20, 2008 11:55 AM

SHIELD - Science Has Interesting Explanations for Lots of Data ?
SMERSH - Science Makes Exciting Research Seriously Helpful ?

Posted by: Blake Stacey | September 20, 2008 12:22 PM

SMERSH - Science Makes Exciting Research Seriously Helpful ?

Tee hee! How about, um, "SPECTRE — Science Privileges Evidence and Careful Theorization for Real Effectiveness"?

Posted by: Ron Sullivan | September 20, 2008 2:10 PM

SWORD: Science Will Overcome Religious Delusion. Would make for some cool art too.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Tower of Improvised Sign Language

I just thought of something, I'll have to quickly look some stuff up, let's see, New Revised Standard Version Bible...

"Noah Pleases God"... not what I'm looking for. In any way.

OK, here we are... Tower of Babel. Genesis, Chapter 11, verses 1 to 9.

"Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east*, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said "Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth."** 5 The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.+ 6 And the LORD said, "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 "Come++, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech." 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the earth, and they left off the building of the city. 9 Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth, and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the earth."

Now. Forget the absurdity of an omnipotent being getting worried about people building with bricks and tar. This story is absurd, and anyone who's ever had to speak to someone who speaks a different language will know why: confusing languages doesn't do a thing. Maybe you can't describe the subtle beauty of a flower, but you can certainly point out where you want the next load of bricks dumped. You can direct people to shelter from the wind or whatever God's using to scatter them. He'd have had to scatter them an awful lot for them to not meet up again before they forgot the whole "one city building a tower together" phase of their history. I mean, no matter what your language is, that's the kind of thing you remember, and tell your grandkids about. And you don't go to war with people you used to live peacefully with for no reason... and they'd remember the tower, too.

This is an element of creationism I haven't seen targeted yet: they also expect intelligently designed languages, but linguistics tells us modern languages evolved from just a few root languages. Common descent works for words, too.

*Or migrated eastward... wait, the translation can say one thing, or its exact opposite? I'll have to do a post on that at some point...
**Because the unavoidable consequence of not building a brick-and-tar skyscraper is everyone running off in different directions.
+Obviously this isn't the omniscient god of the rest of the bible, and the giants mentioned earlier in Genesis were union labour.
++What's with all the coming? Onan isn't due to be born for millenia yet.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The other's point of view

I had an interesting experience last night. I attended a discussion group on the topic of why Christians are so homophobic and sexually repressed. Most of the argument was pretty basic stuff you'll see all over the internet (except in real life, which pretty much removes the possibility of trolls... except that it was in the overbridge, so maybe...)

Anyway, the thing that was interesting was the way the argument went. Even though I was arguing for the atheist side and the others were arguing for the Christian side (once we abandoned the moot and headed for the Problem of Evil and such), we all argued from a Christian perspective. We had to. If I'd started from an atheist perspective I wouldn't have gotten anywhere. I'm not sure why, though I have some ideas; maybe they just can't conceive of a world without god, maybe these questions only make sense from that perspective... but thinking back on my discussions with theists, they're all like that. The atheist perspective is almost invalid for discussing the nature of god. Possibly because our perspective is that god doesn't exist, but still, I should have been able to discuss the nature of the world and the way it points to an unregulated universe... but things kept coming back to the idea of god. They always do. We can argue from our point of view or theirs... but they can only see things from their side. I wonder what it's like, being that limited in your thinking.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The parable of the cave

Parables are useful; they illuminate points well, and they're great for triggering discussion. But most of them are related to a theistic tradition. I haven't heard many written from an atheist viewpoint, but here's one:

I was in a cave, darker than the darkest night. And I was wandering, my hands held out in front of me and my feet lifted hesitantly, for the way was not smooth. I searched, and around me I could hear the footsteps of others searching with me. Eventually I turned a corner, and came across one who held aloft a light. It blinded my eyes, after the long search in the darkness, and I shrank back from the pain of the light, but after a time I grew accustomed. Others among the searchers did not, and some threw rocks at the light-bearer for the pain they brought, but the light-bearer did not obscure the light, nor lower the light to take up the rocks and hurl them back at the rock throwers, for the light-bearer’s only duty was to the light. I saw the walls of the cave, and they were sparkling with beautiful crystals and flowing with the softened curves of water-carved rock, and nothing I had experienced was ever so beautiful. And so it was a long time, revelling in the light held aloft by the light-bearer, before I realized that I too held in my hands a light, and that, by the light held aloft, I could kindle my own light. Others amongst us saw this too, and soon the cavern was blazing with many lights. And some that held lights went and drove back the rock-throwers, and left them in the darkness as they desired, far from the light, so that they ceased to throw their rocks. And then the light-bearers took forth the light, to illuminate other caverns. And I went with them, for I desired to show others the beauty the light could bring, and see the beauty of the other caverns of this cave of ours. And in time my wanderings with the light brought me to the mouth of the cave, where the light was pure and unyielding, and I saw before me the green grass and the blue sky, and all of it lit as the caverns never were. But I saw other caves, and I knew that I must take the light to those who searched there too. For as long as one is without light who desires it, all with the light must seek to take the light to them; for light cannot be held for one or a few alone, but must illuminate the way for all.

Friday, July 11, 2008


OK, wow, nearly two months since the last post...

BUT! I haz ekskoos!

Late May and June is when we have our exams, so I've been... uh... studying. Yeah. Studying. And not misusing my study break to play MMORPGs at all. Because it's a study break. For studying. Yeah.

So anyway, useless profundity is what I'm good at, so here's an interesting thought, one I've been saving up just for you.


Luck's an odd concept. It's kind of like the favour of a god, without a god (so for an atheist like me, you might say there's no difference, but since they all rely on the vagaries of chance the perception is the only thing that matters, and the perception IS different). Who confers luck? It's talked about like a measurable thing: "He's lucky" or "She's unlucky". But it's not like height. It changes. Others can wish it upon you willy-nilly: "Good luck with your exam!" (yes, this is the phrase that kicked me off on this speculation. Possibly caused the C in political ideas... or maybe I should have studied). But wishing luck on someone, particularly for something like an imminent exam, poses some interesting quandaries.

Most of the things that will affect your exam mark - the scaling of the exam, the difficulty of the questions, the type of questions (multi-choice will always be easier than essay even if it's asking more in-depth questions), whether or not the teacher agrees with you, whether your bribe was big enough, whether you studied enough, whether you spent too much time playing games instead *cough*... all of it is decided before you even wake up the morning of the exam. The only variable is in how you apply your study to the questions - a matter of skill more than luck.

So what does this mean? Does this mean that most people really think that a few words can alter the past to such an extent as to make the world a better fit with their friends' expectations and skills? Probably not, though there will always be some weirdo who'll say yes to that... probably it's just a social thing that no one ever examines deeply enough. Most things are like that. And it did make me feel better going into the exam... and you should never underestimate the power of positive thinking.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

I recently had something of a revelation. Western culture is becoming Wiccan.

I put this to a friend of mine who’s a practising Wiccan, and she just shrugged and said “sounds about right”. I was kind of hoping she’d say “how do you figure that?” so I could impress her with her reasoning, but then I remembered I have a blog for that.

I base my observation on three main points.

1) Who is referred to as the driving force behind the world? Once it was God the Father. Now it’s Mother Nature, the divine feminine, the progenerative principle. It’s just safer that way; none of the major religions worship a mother goddess as supreme... except Wicca. Choosing Mother Nature as a metaphor for the harmony we see in the world is the safest option, it’s not preferring Judaism over Catholicism or Hinduism over Islam. It’s something that can fit into just about any worldview, which is important in a pluralist society. It only matches Wicca in the generality, except that Wicca never really defines its Goddess, and so Wicca can be made to fit the concept of Mother Nature as easily as the rather fuzzy idea of Mother Nature can be made to fit Wicca

2) Wicca has only one rule; “An it hurt no one, do what thou wilt.” Is there a better match for the liberalist moral philosophy of freedom, non-interference and informed consent?

3) Wicca is becoming more popular. My parents have hardly heard of it; more of my friends are Wiccan than Christian, and I went to at Christian school.

Admittedly this is mostly anecdotal, but I think it’s an interesting observation nevertheless.

So what does it mean? Wicca has no creation story, its rituals can be made to fit into science (most Wiccans will admit that rituals are performed more to affect the person than to affect the world), and its Goddess can be easily fitted into ideas such as Pantheism and the Gaia hypothesis, both of which are heavily favoured by scientists. This leads me to suspect that the religion Dr Sagan suspected would come just might be here:

“A religion old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the universe as revealed by modern science, might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”

Thursday, May 1, 2008

We're going to need a bigger deep-fryer

For the last four days, squid-enamored scientists have been thawing, examining and preserving a colossal squid at Te Papa museum's research centre. Being a layperson, I wasn't allowed in, and in fact know less about this project than the people who watched it all on webcam. However, being a Wellingtonian, I was able to go to the lectures today which took advantage of having so many wonderfully interesting calamari-scented individuals in one city on the same day as the monthly science cafe.

I arrived for the third lecture, on low-light vision. This was given by two swedish vision specialists in town to look at the largest eye ever recorded. They showed how deep-sea vision works, how it can be foiled, and then moved on to land animals. The interesting thing was the research done on nocturnal colour vision; we don't have it, we never thought to look for it in anything else, and now we've found it, we suspect it might be everywhere. They also showed more unorthodox kinds of visual systems, like the box jellyfish, which has four sensory clubs which argue over who's got the best picture; sort of a democratic decision-making process.

Dr Steve O'Shea was next. He's famous for trying to capture giant squid juveniles and raise them for the discovery channel. He's also New Zealand's go-to guy for giant and colossal squid. He told us all sorts of fun things such as how difficult it is to get rid of a giant squid once every museum in transport distance has a specimen, why the gardens of Upper Hutt and Karori are so fertile, why you should never ever dump a floating sea creature back into the sea to get rid of it, especially if you're the only squid expert around, and why the rubbish collectors in Auckland hate squid research. He then moved on to other topics, and I found out that 1)giant squid taste awful, 2)just about everything eats squid and 3)trawling is BAD. For example, the common arrow squid breeds by producing a two-metre ball of jelly with eggs in it, which then floats at the same level that trawlers trawl for common arrow squid... Dr O'Shea also described his work for conservation, ensuring that future generations can also eat calamari.

Dr Tsunemi Kubodera, "Ku" to his friends, showed some of the absolutely amazing footage the Japanese researchers he's leading have been getting. The giant squid was the one everyone wanted to know about, but the videos of Taningia danae, a large deep-sea squid though not as big as the giant squid, were even more amazing. This squid doesn't have a tentacle, just eight arms, but it still catches its prey between the third and fourth arms, which is where the tentacle would be. The research on giant squid shows that tentacles tend to get torn off or damaged, so perhaps T. danae has developed a more robust system. It also has two photophores, one on the end of each second arm (R(ii) and L(ii)), which is used to frighten prey when it conducts its curving attack run, swooping past the prey from one direction with the lights showing, then switching off and turning on its prey from a different direction... very devious attack strategy. Videos of the squid interacting with a pair of simulated photophores also showed that these squid use them to communicate with others of the same species. Dr Kubodera also showed video of giant squid, showing their coloration, which indicates that they were not evolved for such depths, but are more closely related to shallow-water squid and have moved deeper as they got bigger, and are still in the process of becoming adapted to the depths. He's currently in the process of analyzing this video to calculate the squid's speed based on the power of its jets.

Finally, the main event was a science cafe where the scientists who took part in the thawing, particularly Dr O'Shea, answered questions about colossal and giant squid. They were all showing their exhaustion by now, having been working for four days on the squid, but some interesting points still came up. The specimen indicates that colossal squid are slow swimmers, with two layers of chromatophores possibly giving them chameleonic abilities, and wide variation in weight and beak size. Dr O'Shea will probably find out my name, hunt me down and slap me for this, but he mentioned the extremely tentative possibility - though without going on a limb and advocating it, of course - that colossal squid, which lack the gel-producing glands necessary to make egg masses, might brood their young live in their large, flabby mantle. Currently only females have been found, and they seem to grow wider but not longer as they get older, which would match this theory, and the low number of eggs in the ovaries would also accord with the strategy of producing fewer young, but caring for them into young-adulthood. Most squid follow the opposite strategy, so this is extremely unlikely but an interesting possibility.

Several more questions were asked, mostly general questions about large squid, but one thing that came up was that the scientists had all tasted the flesh of the squid. This was of course to determine whether or not it was ammoniacal, which would impact upon the preservation process, but all the scientists tested it...

A consensus was reached that it didn't taste so bad, but neither was it a taste sensation, and the noted conservationist Dr O'Shea ventured the opinion that the texture was similar to that of crocodile.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Shark gets confused, bites sexagenarian

Shark Kills Triathlete

Poor guy... one minute he's swimming along, next thing he's kicking, but nothing's happening. At least he got a good go of it, still doing triathlons at 66...

And what about the shark? He thinks he's going to get a nice juicy seal, next thing he's chomped down on two sticks of jerky.

Yes, that's the theory; sharks eat people because we look like seals when we wear black wetsuits. Which raises the question: why do we wear black wetsuits?

So far as I know, there's no flourescent green seal. There's no yellow-and-red striped seal. If we added glowing strips - which must be possible with today's technology, possibly some sort of LED - we wouldn't even look the same in the dark. Nature uses colour codes to say "do not eat", why can't we?

So anyway, condolences to the family on their loss, along with this blogger's wish that they found a charitable research organisation to create wetsuits that don't look like seals.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


I just had to share this with my currently non-existent readership:

How cool is that?

One has to wonder what the inhabitants of these galaxies are thinking. Of course, this is the normal state of being for them, and two galaxies can pass through each other without a single collision between stars, but still...

I can remember the first time I heard some amazing ideas, like the size of our galaxy. It's part of what drives my love for science. Imagine how many more kids would have their imaginations fired by the idea that our home is colliding with a giant conglomeration of stars.

Actually, don't imagine it. I want to see this mentioned in every primary school class in the world. Show those pictures. It can't hurt a bit.


The problem of beginnings

This is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps... no, wait, it's not even the end of the beginning. It's the beginning of the beginning.

And that's a pretty cool place to be. This could become anything.

But for now, I should tell you what it is, so when it changes, you can spot the difference.

My name, for the purposes of this blog, is Wazza. It's a persistent pseudonym; I also use it when I comment over at scienceblogs, and I expect most of the readers of this first post will be familiar with it, since they'll have clicked the link wrapped around it there to come here.

No, I'm not going to tell you my real name.

I'm an atheist, a liberal, and (to use the terminology introduced to me by dear old Randall Munroe) a sciencer. This means that:

1) I don't believe in any god
2) I will, however, defend to the death your right to believe in a god
3) I apply the principles of science in my everyday life, but slept through too many chemistry lectures to become an actual professional scientist
4) I'll be amongst the first up against the wall when the Dominionist revolution comes.


I think you guys all get what atheist means. It means not believing in any gods, as opposed to not believing in all gods except the ones in your particular faith. Some of you may think of us as amoral monsters, because the Divine Command theory of morality makes sense to you. It doesn't to me. If I'm not following a moral code I really believe in in and of itself, am I truly being moral? Atheism means following more or less the same moral code as the more enlightened christians (with maybe a little more lee-way in areas which are called immoral but don't actually hurt anyone), but doing it because you think it's right, not because god told you to. Unless you decide a different moral code is right, but personally, I base my moral code on


in particular, the modern kind that still rejoices in that name in the US as opposed to classical or neoliberalism, the two kinds which together make up the philosophy known as conservative. What this means is that I believe that people should be allowed their freedom, so long as the exercise of their freedom does not infringe on the freedom of others. Once it does, the government is allowed to infringe upon their freedom in order to protect others' freedom. I also believe that any definition of freedom includes freedom from fear (necessitating a police force), freedom from illness (necessitating public health), and freedom from starvation (necessitating some sort of government support scheme for the unemployed and unemployable). Libertarians are, in my estimation, idiots. Yes, enjoying untrammeled freedom is all very well and good, but what happens when there's a disaster? Who funds the rescue effort? Who cleans up afterwards? I ask a lot of questions like this. It's one small part of being a

Like a scientist, but without the lab coats.

As for my personal details, I'm straight, single and studying at university. I'm not going to tell you any more, because being hunted down by people with agendas is bad for my health.

Readers of Pratchett will remember that the problem of beginnings is that there's always a before. I have another blog, but it's more personal and includes my real name. Don't try to hunt it down. Please?