Sunday, March 31, 2013

Embarassingly Poor:

Someone pointed me to this site so I thought I would post a review.

Let's walk through it.

(1) it asks about Truth, I agree that 'Absolute Truth Exists' - in the simplest case things are true by definition or tautology; the three logical absolutes (identity, non-contradiction, excluded-middle) being the root cases of things that seem absolutely true. Note that I don't assert that I know this to be absolutely true, but rather I think these are irrefutable candidates (refuting them would undermine the very logic you need to refute them).

(2) it asks about Knowledge, I agree that 'I Know Something To Be True' or I just contradicted myself, violating the law of non-contradiction from (1)

(3) it asks if 'Logic' exists, well yes, or I again contradict (1) -- but this term 'exists' is the beginning of their ultimate failure

(4) it asks if 'Logic' changes or not... our understanding of logic changes but it seems to be a valid concept even without a human mind so no, 'Logic doesn't change'.

(5) now it asks if 'Logic' is made of matter or not... This is a category error because logic is based upon how the state of matter changes, so we've already gone off the rails here and this 'proof' is invalid.

But let's explore their false dichotomy.

Logic IS 'made of matter' because it is the physics of matter that implements logic (see video). Without matter and the physics of our universe, logic wouldn't 'exist'.

(6) it then asks if matter 'changes' or not. This depends very deeply on what you mean by 'changes'. Matter itself doesn't really change, the STATE of the system changes, the configuration of the matter changes. But they didn't really put anything meaningful at all in for 'matter doesn't change' (ignoring many possible cases where that might be true).

So going with 'Matter changes', it responds "You have admitted that logic does not change, and say that logic is made of matter which changes. This is a contradiction"

Well that is just utter nonsense. LOGIC is BASED on how the state of matter changes (go watch the domino video again, the dominoes are DOING logic). Matter is changing (state/configuration) but the LOGIC it implements is unchanged.

Let's look at an analogy in a computer. The Central Processing Unit (CPU) in a computer implements an instruction set that doesn't change (the 'logic' of the computer, even in microcode architectures where we can write new macro 'instructions' the fundamental instructions in the CPU still do not change) - you would NOT then be so silly as to say that the state of the computer cannot change or else the instructions would change because computers DO change state without changing the instruction set.

Here you hit a dead-end because they refuse to acknowledge that their 'proof' is nonsense.

So, we go back up and look at 'Logic is not made of Matter'

(7) it then asks if Logic is universal or relative, say 'Universal'

To reach this page you have admitted that absolute truth exists, that you can know things to be true, that logic exists, that it is unchanging, that it is not made of matter, and that it is universal.

Truth, knowledge, and logic are necessary to prove ANYTHING and cannot be made sense of apart from God. Therefore...

Um, no. This wasn't 'proven' by this ridiculous exercise in stupidity. They asked a bunch of questions and, without the slightest deductive justification, inserted their conclusion.

Furthermore, I do NOT agree that 'logic is not made of matter' but they don't seem to have a "congratulations, you just disproved God" page. Can you prove it or does it just 'seem' that way? How does a concept 'exist' outside of a mind to hold it as a concept? There are a lot of things that COULD exist. Magical Unicorns COULD exist, does that mean they have some transcendent existence that makes them 'real' like 'logic'? Yeah, I don't think so.

Religion offers only morality by assertion

This brief exchange demonstrates:

I find it sad (but not at all surprising) that this person is unable to give an intelligible response or just admit that we're in the same boat, and we ARE in the same boat despite his original arrogance. But even if he had responded it would have just been an appeal to the Bible, which doesn't establish anything but poor reasoning skills. A Muslim would have appealed to the Qur'an, a Hindu to the Shastras, and a Zoroastrian to their Avesta.

I don't believe in an absolute or objective morality NOR do I accept blanket moral relativism. I would rather proclaim my ignorance on the matter. There might be such a thing as 'objective morality' which we can come to understand someday on the basis of neurological studies and the distinct concept of morality (which I have written about elsewhere), but I have no argument or evidence that this IS the case today.

But just because something is difficult (deciding on universal rights and wrongs for humanity) IN NO WAY implies that all positions are valid or that we must tolerate injustice in the name of ignorance. That is not, in fact, how society works. I also REJECT the idea that morality is only 'one' thing, indeed it seems to be a whole collection of different things all mixed together.

Our Empathy strongly compels us to interfere when an innocent person is being harmed (physically or emotionally). When it comes to human interactions, one of the areas we now better understand, is that relationships need to be based on Informed and Empowered Consent - relationships that are not based on informed and empowered consent are abusive. This is a beautiful set of fairly objective criteria that we can use to evaluate complex relationships.

What we DO have evidence for is that humans are exceedingly poor at sussing out how we ought to treat one another - and that Religion is more than passingly competent at corrupting what little empathy we have for one another (see image).

What we can do is argue, debate, and create laws to try to ensure that our lives are as safe, prosperous, and equitable as we can make them.

But there is a lot of complexity, even in the seemingly 'obvious' areas.

For example, look at the concept of 'murder'. Thou shall not murder. Pretty simple right? What about when god commands genocide and infanticide?

"Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass." (1 Samuel 15:2-3)

What about self-defense? What if it's an accident? What if it was a reasonably foreseeable and preventable accident? What if the person has brain damage and isn't in control of themselves? What about protection of an innocent life from imminent danger? Even religious opinion differs somewhat on all of these positions.

Early law on murder (such as the Code of Ur-Nammu and the Code of Hammurabi) had little subtlety and meted out the ultimate punishment in retaliation (with the state acting to murder the guilty, often using horrific methods). As we have slowly progressed and learned our laws have evolved along with our understanding, modern law on 'murder' is extremely complex and nuanced as a result (and still has a long way to go IMHO).

How about Slavery? Surely treating another human being as your property whom you can beat at will (so long they get up 'within a day or two') is something blindingly, obviously, categorically, WRONG? Right? Surely... Well, no, humanity failed at that one for thousands and thousands of years, eventually encoding it into their religious texts as endorsed by their respective 'god'.

I don't think there is a clearer or more obvious failure of religious appeals to authority than the calls to slaughter infant children and the endorsement of slavery.

These complexities are why a SECULAR morality that presumes our IGNORANCE and strives to grow based on actual knowledge, rather than asserting ABSOLUTE rules, is the superior methodology.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Relativity & GPS

GPS satellite atomic clocks must be adjusted by about 38µs/day to stay in sync with Earth-bound clocks due to the effects described by general & special relativity.

The time slowing effect of a stronger gravitational field described in general relativity means a clock on Earth runs about 45µs/day slower than the clock in the satellite. While the time dilation effect described in special relativity, due to the relative motion, accounts for the satellite clocks falling further behind by about 7µs/day. The net effect is 45 - 7 = 38.

When discussing this in these terms of tiny numbers it might seem like so small of a difference as to be irrelevant to navigation but tiny errors add up. Without taking these effects into account your GPS would be next to useless in a matter of hours and off by about 10 kilometers by the end of the day.

Both effects have been experimentally confirmed in numerous different ways with a very high degree of accuracy, giving us an extremely high degree of confidence that the effects are real and not measurement errors and that the theory accurately describes the observed effects and that Classical Mechanics alone cannot account for the observed data.

GPS satellites travel at roughly 4000 m/s, you can compute the exact daily cumulative effect on time using this Wolfram Alpha calculator:

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Genetically Confused

This was a first for me but I realized this is probably a common misunderstanding about genetics:

Let's unpack this a bit so we can see where this has gone wrong:

"Monogamy is biologically absurd", this must be news to the species that are largely monogamous and this person is clearly unaware of the costs of 'sperm competition' (if you are sleeping with lots of mates then, often, so are your competitors). There are also relationships between the vulnerability and cost of rearing young and the behaviors of parents of a species. Vulnerable and costly young tend to have long-term paired parents (probably no simple causation exists there, many factors are likely involved).

"To survive the species have to diversify their DNA", no, species tend to survive difficult events when they support a diverse population. That doesn't mean that species DO anything to ensure they diversify their DNA (indeed, most species have gone extinct). But the greater difficultly here is the implication that sexual promiscuity is a route to this genetic diversity.

It might sound plausible if you aren't aware of one extremely important aspect to our genetic diversity (which I wrote about previously), the process of DNA Recombination. This happens during meiosis (the special cellular replication process of gamete cells that produce ovum and spermatozoon) where allele's can get mixed between the parents chromosomes in prophase I when the homologous chromosomes pair up and trade small pieces of the chromatid. So the offspring are not stuck with merely getting a copy of either the fathers chromosome or the mothers chromosome, the chromosomes of the offspring is actually a unique mix of alleles from those between the two parents. This rapidly overwhelms any minuscule individual benefit as novel alleles spread through a population.

Let's also remember at this point that evolution doesn't take place within an Individual, it takes place in populations over time, with each step being dominated (in complex, multicellular sexual species) at the point of reproduction; so we need to consider long-term, population behaviors of genes. And between our meiotic processes and genetic recombination, sexual reproduction provides ample opportunity for novel genetic diversity rapidly spreading through populations regardless of the mating solution for a given species (which is dominated by asymmetric reproductive behavioral interests between the sexes).

Instead of number of mates, the impact of an individual on the future evolution of a population is largely determined by the number of SUCCESSFUL (keyword) offspring they have.

In the modern age, in a developed country, with ample resources, and an assumption that this will continue into the future (probably a bad assumption) then you *might* be able to argue that sleeping around could yield a greater number of surviving offspring than you could have in a purely monogamous arrangement -- but this could hardly have been selected for in the few short years we have enjoyed such circumstances (and the fact is, we see promiscuity used far more for pleasure than for reproduction). In the harsh, pre-enlightenment world that lasted 250K-100K years (just for anatomically modern humans, and millions of years for our primate ancestors) selection pressures yielded larger (and more costly) brains, and produced more vulnerable and costly young that required ever more sophisticated parentage to ensure success.

But I think our modern reproductive Monogamy was driven more by cultural pressures as societies grew in size and needed to manage things such as inheritance. But it certainly does not harm genetic diversity in a population.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Can't we all just get along?

>>> What do we gain from arguments like this wouldn't it be better to have a belief in god?


But thanks for asking, your forerunners used a sword to make their point. So I am TRULY grateful.

>>> we should be working together to stop world hunger, aids, war, homelessness, cancer

I agree, so why do you need religion for those things? I don't need a carrot (Heaven) or a stick (Hell). Even if there is a God, I absolutely REFUSE to accept any kind of scapegoating Human Sacrifice on my behalf. Where I have done wrong, punish ME for it, I will own my failures.

And if anything seems to hold promise for resolving these types of issues it would seem to be science, and not religious faith.

I find ample reason to try to be a positive force by examining my own existence and observing Nature. Nature rewards cooperation, symbiosis, interdependence, flexibility, action and foresight.

Brains serve two amazing purposes:

(1) to be able to model the world in order to make better predictions (giving us the benefit of a very flexible foresight without requiring any magic) - this requires memory and a whole host of other nifty computational tricks

(2) to enable us to act in the world with greater complexity than simpler organisms, it is a command-and-control center that gathers data via our sensory organs and allows us to 'act' in the world on the basis of our foresight by controlling motor functions

To be able to do such things, Brains require the cooperation of trillions of cells, working together -- and let's be clear, this is TRILLIONS of cells who have GIVEN UP their near-immortality (their progenitors survived for ~3.6 BILLION years!!! but this will be their last generation with a near certainty [with notable but rare exceptions]). The ONLY cells in your body that have any chance of producing maybe one or a few of the next generation of cells are your gamete cells. So every generation, hundreds of trillions of cells sacrifice their billions of years of continuity so that a few can pass through that narrow genetic keyhole.

How amazing is that? Why isn't that in the Bible? Why doesn't it describe genetics, and viruses and bacteria and diet as the sources of our diseases instead of 'casting out demons' into pigs? Where are the antibiotics to help compensate for our lacking immune systems? Where are the anesthetics that could have alleviated hundreds of thousands of years of horrific suffering due our very necessary but completely uncontrollable sense of pain?

[[Aside: And we know that pain is COMPLETELY, 100% illusory. There is no such thing as pain, there is only the EXPERIENCE of pain. There is no pain in the body that is experienced. Brains CREATE the experience of pain purely based on sensory data (often getting it wrong! failing to signal pain sometimes when it should and often creating false pain) because simpler organisms who lacked this sense destroyed themselves (even humans with our greater intellect cannot do very well without a sense of pain, look up videos of kids with this disorder where they cannot feel pain AT ALL).]]

But once we've taken care of the root cause of our pain, anesthetics enable us to heal more quickly and retain our sanity. And our collective mental state is EXTREMELY important for our individual morality as well. Childhood abuse is very harmful to ones innate senses of Empathy and Compassion that are the very basis of our sense of morality (a sense that is successful BECAUSE it enables those things I spoke of earlier like cooperation). This is why it is so critical for us to fight to end physical and emotional abuse of every human being.

The only way to make sense of this reality is that we're a deeply ignorant species, crashing our way through history, and slowly growing out of this ignorance. Not a SHRED of evidence for a God that I can see.

I can make peace with a universe that simply IS, and our suffering is an unavoidable by-product of that process (and our responsibility to manage it). But I cannot fathom how someone can look at the reality of the world and go 'Wow, what a design! Clearly made by an all-loving, all-just, all-forgiving being!'. Just boggles my mind because there is so much wrong with it. 2.5 million children will starve to death this year, while 10 million people total will suffer horrifically before their deaths of starvation and untreated, painful diseases.

I USED to believe in God. But only because I was indoctrinated as a child with lies that took me decades of careful study to overcome. A state of affairs that I can now see is nothing but emotional child abuse. I don't harbor any resentment over it, but I would love to see it change.

I also don't wish to make Religion illegal, that would be stupid and harmful and accomplish nothing positive at all. But I am here to give my small voice to a reality that, for thousands of years, wasn't allowed to have a voice or defend itself.

A reality I approach based upon a deep and profound concern for Truth.

Not an easy or comforting faith, of which there are hundreds of thousands of variations, but one grounded in evidence and logical reasoning.

Not one that claims ultimate truths but one that rejects the unsound and only cautiously accepts supportable conclusions.

One in which KNOWN sources of errors, bias, and illogical are systematically removed from our conclusions.

One in which demonstrably unsound methodologies (such as Faith) are rejected.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Charles Darwin: Survival of the Fittest?

The intellectually dishonest, who seem to fail to do any research in the matter, often misrepresent Evolutionary theory as promoting 'survival of the fittest', which they misinterpret as 'anything goes'. This evidences a thorough misunderstanding of Evolution and the evidence before us.

First off, this phrase, 'survival of the fittest' was coined by Herbert Spencer only after reading 'On The Origin Of Species' (it doesn't appear in Species until the fifth edition where it was used as a subtitle as a metaphor for 'differential preservation of organisms that are better adapted to survive to reproduction in changing environments'). Charles Darwin wrote:

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.

And here he is really talking about populations, and not individuals. Because it is not the individuals that 'evolve' through their life (generally speaking, there are things such as horizontal gene transfer in bacteria) but rather populations evolve through the genetic variations that occur in each generation and the resulting differential reproduction that occurs.

If you actually look at evolution you see a profound interconnectedness of all things. A human being simply could not live without a vast network of supporting organisms and also things like water, sunlight, and so forth. And those things wouldn't exist without the physics that produces some kind of chemistry in which computational processes can be expressed.

Not to mention our common ancestry with all living things, bacteria and bees and flies and humans all share this history and sometimes the scars. Our eukaryotic cells show evidence of a symbiosis formed between at least three, originally independent, organisms - without which human beings couldn't exist (energy demands, etc). Everywhere we look in nature we see cooperation, symbiosis, interdependence, altruism - why? because they work to the benefit of the organisms.

Nature is a profoundly beautiful dance. Yes, nature is also brutal in some ways, but we Homo sapiens are the only known organisms that have a sufficiently powerful organ of thought where we can compute possible futures and select among them in a way that just might eventually allow us to extricate our future-selves from that cycle.

As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. ~Charles Darwin

This is the message of Evolution, we are all connected and we share a common ancestry with ALL life here on Earth...

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Where do you find 'love' in the brain?

This is a general concept post because such questions come up pretty frequently in discussions about epistemology and ontology.

But where DO you find 'love' in the brain?

First, I want to step back from the problem a bit and look at a much simpler question, how does something like addition happen?

This question is interesting because we know that computers do addition, brains do addition, and less well-known, dominoes can also do addition (watch video)!

Where is 'addition' happening in those dominoes? Does any individual domino know anything about addition?

No matter if the addition is taking place in chemical reactions, electronic switches or dominoes the fundamental principles are identical - the process is a cascade of causes and effects and the result is INTERPRETED as addition. Other calculations performed using exactly the same kinds of logic 'circuits' produces a tic-tac-toe game, image interpretation, or could produce language by driving muscles using calculated outputs to muscles.

There is no magic here, what is happening is there is some structure upon which some state is represented.

So the key concepts here are that the structure is important. Without some appropriate structure (be it organic chemistry or dominoes) there will not be the kinds of state changes that map to computational behaviors. You just get 'noise'.

The state changes can be conformational (changes in the shape of the the thing), or based on chemical or electromagnetic potentials. As long as these potentials can 'move' they can be transmitted and affect the states of other structures.

In our brains, neurons and glial cells (along with a cadre of organic molecules that compose them) provide the structure upon which the state changes chemically, bio-mechanically, & bio-electrically.

Some of these neurons are driven by external stimuli that provide our sensory mechanisms (for example, neurons in your eye have pigments that are light sensitive, which triggers those neurons to fire when they sense light, and they can misfire when you apply even slight pressure to your closed eyelid). We only just recently decoded the algorithm (the set of calculations) the neurons in your eye use to encode the visual information from your retina for transmission over the optic nerve, it doesn't just send the data like 'video', it has to be compressed and encoded because there aren't enough nerve fibers going from your eye to your brain to send all the information directly! But now we know for sure, all those neurons are exactly performing a calculation.

Other clusters of neurons in your brain do other types of calculations. A detailed run down of what we know about these regions in the brain would take 1000's of pages but one very interesting region you might want to look up is the Amygdala, which has to do with the processing of memory and emotional reactions.

We can, to some extent, 'measure' a brain in love by looking at activity patterns in the neurons. This is a very gross, or high-level, view and it doesn't tell us much in detail at this point in time but we do indeed find neuronal correlates to love in the brain. And using ever improving tools we can study the brain in love:

Helen Fisher: The brain in love

Love's all in the brain: fMRI study shows strong, lateralized reward, not sex, drive

Neuroimaging of love: fMRI meta-analysis evidence toward new perspectives in sexual medicine

How Two Brain Areas Interact to Trigger Divergent Emotional Behaviors

Rebooting The Cosmos: Is the Universe The Ultimate Computer?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Isn't it time for a more Transformative Justice?

Something that has been bothering me for a very long time now is how our criminal justice system works here in the US (and around the world).

My impression of this system is that it long ago abandoned any component of rehabilitation and has become more focused on fear, intimidation, hatred and lately it has disturbingly turned these tools of destruction towards a profit motive.

So I'm going to throw something into the æther and see what sticks.

I don't claim to be an expert in any way -- I only claim to be a fairly compassionate human being (not that I'm perfect there either). I just want to have the discussion.

The current all-or-nothing criminal justice system we have now is destructive & largely ineffective—what I believe we need is a more nuanced & layered system.

There needs to be more options between a person who has done harm running around free to continue to harm others and full, institutional imprisonment.

Very roughly, one idea I had was to Occupy the person, not have the person occupy a prison cell -- people to sit with a person and watch, educate, assist, and protect others. Show the person a better way to live, and don't tolerate inappropriate behavior. Temporary incarceration certainly will be necessary with some people at some times, but we need to work to improve people, not JUST punish them. Love for humanity should be our guiding principle. And I don't think this would be 'soft' on crime either, I think it would be incredibly difficult on most people to be monitored like a 2 year old.

As it turns out, I'm not the first person to think along these lines (shocking, I know). Apparently the term 'Transformative Justice' has been used with ideas along these lines (thanks to this article by Mia McKenzie and this article at Feministe for introducing me to the term, I had previously written this entry calling it Loving Justice).

I would like to add one additional component to that mix beyond what I think most people would, that is the idea of psychotropic drug treatment. And I don't mean treatment for addiction, we already have that (and we need to do better there). I mean using powerful psychotropic agents such as Peyote, Ayahuasca, psilocybin mushrooms, Ibogaine, LSD, and MDMA under proper medical supervision (psychiatry combined with psychotherapy, see some of the MAPS research for background in this area, once again, I'm not making this up, just pulling things together).

Another component to all of this is to end the stigma and social out-casting that comes with being a damaged person. Just consider the current typical progression:

  1. person has a violent episode and/or does something stupid
  2. they are imprisoned for an extended period of time
  3. they lose most or all of their social support network
  4. they suffer further additional mental and often physical abuse in prison
  5. they are eventually released and usually cannot get a job or are only offered extremely undesirable jobs
  6. they lose access to government programs like education assistance and housing, things that might actually help them get back on their feet
  7. they are treated as a pariah by most of society
  8. they return to crime, WELL DUH
How about mandatory education to a 2-year-degree level before release for violent crimes? How about mandatory job training and psychotherapy? How about hope for employment in some capacity other than menial laborer?

This does NOT mean that people get away with anything they want to do, recovery is, at best, arduous and difficult. It doesn't mean I think criminals should go free, it means I would like to see a path where at least some criminals can get out of the cycle they are locked into by our current system of 'justice'.

Sometimes the honesty is just too much, POGO 211

I was reviewing the 2011 study Bad Business: Billions of Taxpayer Dollars Wasted on Hiring Contractors from the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) and I came across this little gem of a 'review' AFL-CIO Struggles With Reading Comprehension by Geoffrey Lawrence.

It quotes sections of the study and gives them a 'proper' critical review, recasting the results in the light of being (1) completely unreliable because the study itself says so and (2) showing exactly the opposite, that government workers are overpaid compared to their counterparts.

Wow, if you just read that page and didn't actually bother to read the study you would be strongly inclined to side with Geoffrey. What a bunch of dishonest folks over at the AFL-CIO!

Just look at his evidence:

The authors explicitly admit:
POGO is aware that its methodology does not incorporate some governmental cost factors: i.e., non-directly associated overhead (e.g., executive management and administration, information technology, and legal support), material and supplies (e.g., insurance and maintenance), or facilities (e.g., depreciation, rent, insurance, maintenance and repair, utilities, capital improvements).
In other words, POGO admits that it is impossible, based on available data, to compare federal employee compensation to contract employees’ compensation and so they instead compare only federal labor costs to the total expenses faced by contractors.
That’s as apples-to-oranges as it gets.

What a shockingly POOR study! Bring out the torches and pitchforks!

Before we burn anyone... let's just look that up in the study:

POGO is aware that its methodology does not incorporate some governmental cost factors: i.e., non-directly associated overhead (e.g., executive management and administration, information technology, and legal support), material and supplies (e.g., insurance and maintenance), or facilities (e.g., depreciation, rent, insurance, maintenance and repair, utilities, capital improvements).[70] However, given the fact that POGO relied exclusively on GSA’s listed contractor billing rates for performance at government sites, many of those cost factors would essentially be canceled out.[71] In fact, when contractors perform work at contractor sites, POGO found that contractor billing rates were, on average, 15 percent higher than rates for work performed at government sites. In addition, POGO did not include in its comparative analysis additional costs that the government incurs as a result of outsourcing services to contractors. Those costs would only add to the costs associated with outsourcing documented in this report

Oh... my... it seems Geoffrey did a little quote mining there. I'm 'sure' that was 'just' an accident.

Now, I have no doubt that the folks at the AFL-CIO were willing to overlook these limitations when they decided to trumpet POGO’s report, given that their mission is far more political than academic. However, they might have thought otherwise had they paid more careful attention to the reports’ findings. Specifically, the authors acknowledge in a passing statement:
POGO confirms the results of studies that compared the public with the private sector, finding that federal employees generally make approximately 20 percent more in salary and full compensation than do their counterparts in the private sector.
Oh…so the report actually finds the exact opposite of what the AFL-CIO is claiming! Federal employees are overcompensated relative to their peers performing similar jobs in the private sector…which is also to say that there is a labor cost savings from federal outsourcing. Huh.

Damn, Geoffrey is on fire! I'll sharpen my pitchfork immediately! Wait... let's just double check this...

POGO confirms the results of studies that compared the public with the private sector, finding that federal employees generally make approximately 20 percent more in salary and full compensation than do their counterparts in the private sector. While POGO’s investigation adds some credibility to the government and private sector comparison studies, POGO has some concerns about those other studies.

For example, USA Today analyzed a sample of 40 occupations using BLS data for 2008 and found that the typical federal employee is paid 20 percent more than a private sector employee in the same occupation.[177] The study found that “federal employees earn higher average salaries than private-sector workers in more than eight out of 10 occupations.” USA Today used median salaries and did not adjust for any other cost factors, including health care and pension benefits. That study was refuted by National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley, who stated it “compares apples and oranges” because certain government work “has more complexity and requires more skill than…work in the private sector.”[178]

A similar opinion has been stated by former OMB director Peter Orszag:

…the truth is that a comparison of federal and private-sector pay, even by occupation, is misleading because the employees hired by the federal government often have higher levels of education than their counterparts in the private sector—even within the same occupations. When you factor in the education and experience of the federal workforce, there is no statistically significant difference in average pay levels.[179]

Now I'm just disappointed.

What I cannot figure out is, this gross mischaracterization by quote mining done out of ignorance or malice.

Surely a champion of the Truth and Reading Comprehension such as Geoffrey could have managed to read the very next sentences following his selected quotes?

Contrary to popular belief, many government services are not performed by federal employees, but by contractors. The government spends hundreds of billions of dollars annually on services—in fact, approximately one-quarter of all discretionary spending now goes to service contractors[209]—and POGO’s analysis found these contracts may be costing taxpayers, on average, 1.83 times more than if federal employees had done the work. In order to reduce those excessive costs, a government-wide system to conduct federal employee versus service contract cost analyses needs to be created. Instead of directly hiring service contractors without considering hiring federal employees—perhaps from a newly created pool of part-time or temporary federal employees—conducting cost reviews at the start of the process would allow the government to save billions of dollars annually.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Pigs, Pain, and Abortion

Oh boy, it seems @RichardDawkins has really stepped in it now.

What is unfortunate is that he is merely trying to have a conversation - can't we disagree on details without vilifying each other over it? Let's get to a conclusion first and see where we stand. Especially since I think he is strongly pro-choice. But the fact is, in most locations, elective abortions after about week 20-24 aren't allowed currently, there must be some threat to the mother after that point. This is largely because medical science tells us this is the time at which the fetus might start to feel pain (some studies suggest even later).

And yes, I strongly objected to Dawkins' "Dear Muslima" post precisely because it was NOT a conversation. It was an attempt to silence a voice of a legitimate complaint using a fallacy, arguing that because something else in the world is worse you should just shut the hell up. And I'll happily repeat what a shitty thing that is to pull on someone and shame on him for failing to apologize for it. But that doesn't mean everything he does is wrong henceforth (and I'm seeing a lot of ad hominem attacks, "why do we care what a misogynist says"). Attack the argument, not the person.

Now I'm going to step in it (even more than the above), and ramble a bit... I don't have a fully coherent argument here but I do have some musings I would like to share with the 3 people who might ever read this.

I'm pro-choice primarily for reasons of bodily autonomy because the social consequences (and those evidenced by the history of anti-abortion) are abhorrent to me (which is an emotional argument but I'll try to make the case for why this is irrelevant).

But I do think about and consider things such, 'why' does this Bacterium move away from the neutrophil, and 'why' does the neutrophil give chase?

Do they possibly have some kind of primary experience? I honestly don't know, I must plea ignorance on the question. I can only make some rough estimates about it. I know that I don't get cold sweats at night thinking about the trillions of bacteria I killed when I took some antibiotics (or swallowed some food for that matter). I think bacteria are simpler than our human eukaryotic cells, and those cells die all the time, I don't worry about them. What about HeLa cells (human cells with a now independent, single-celled existence)? Is each of those cells a full human with all the rights of a human being? Of course not, it requires a massive collection of cells working together to make a human being, to have the same kind of conscious thought we have requires a functioning brain. This is why, to me, it doesn't seem like a fetus can or should have the same rights as an actual human being. The mere potential for something isn't the same as the thing.

Sure, the actions of the bacterium and neutrophil are "just" chemistry/physics, but so is pain (as are our brains). Pain is even more illusory, subjective and arbitrary. Your brain decides to feel pain or not - sometimes it is wrong, sometimes (usually) it indicates real damage. Of course, we know we don't like pain -- but this is an emotional reaction. And this is the reason that, I think, emotions sometimes must matter. And we can't argue it's "just" chemistry in one case and ignore the fact that it is ALL "just" chemistry.

If we are honest we must admit that our emotions are largely the source of our "values".

Consider what happens to a child who does not feel pain at all (video). Without the feedback of 'pain' our behavior is very different - we no longer care that we've just broken 7 bones, we keep running until the bone shards shred our insides and we die. It's not a good thing for the organism. But their lack of pain sensation doesn't mean we can just abort that person - so this cannot be our sole criteria, but I still agree that it is an important one. Similarly, we find that people who cannot experience empathy are often sociopaths. Such people might need to kept out of society for their entire lives but I don't know that means it is ok to kill them even if they have done something horrific (and here I refer to the Death Penalty, which I oppose, in part because of how often we have murdered innocent people in our fervor to place blame).

This doesn't mean all emotions are equally valid or override the rights of others. But there is a reason we social beings have, as a whole, the emotional responses we do (including humiliation, anger, empathy/compassion), the trick is to temper them with our faculty of reason.

So I hope we can have productive conversations and discussions on this issue.

Monday, March 11, 2013

You are free to sit in the back

As some people are aware by now there was a "BIG Debate" scheduled for March 9, 2013 between physicist Lawrence Krauss and Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, public speaker on Islam.

Prior to the debate Dr. Krauss had expressed his concern over this idea of 'segregated' seating, where Muslim women would be seated in the back of the Auditorium. This is made clear by the two tweets from Dr. Krauss:

So, on the assurances that the "event in London will NOT be gender segregated" Dr. Krauss showed up to the debate as scheduled.

However, prior to the start of the debate it became evident that several people had not been allowed to sit where they wished and they complained and Dr. Krauss took the action to remove himself from the debate (video on facebook post) unless the issue was remedied and he began to leave. They then again assured him no forced segregation was allowed and the issues that had come up were resolved and he returned to the debate.

On review, the UCL staff is considering not allowing IERA hosted events in the future:

It now appears that, despite our clear instructions, attempts were made to enforce segregation at the meeting. We are still investigating
but, given IERA’s original intentions for a segregated audience we have concluded that their interests are contrary to UCL’s ethos and that we should not allow any further events involving them to take place on UCL premises

I wholly support Dr. Krauss' actions both prior to the debate to ensure a free and open forum and his courage to stand up for his principles when previously discussed requirements were not being met.

I find the forced segregation of women to be antipodal to the goals of open and free scientific inquiry.

The respect for religious freedom has boundaries, even if we try to err on the side of caution we no longer allow religions to practice human sacrifice. I do not and will not respect a religious dictate that women must sit in the rear of anything, not buses and not public auditoriums. They are free to practice this at their home or at their place of worship (and I am free to speak out against it) - but please keep your religious nonsense out of the public sphere.

Everyone should have been told this was an OPEN and FREE forum and as such, they would be free to sit in any arrangement they wished but OTHERS WOULD BE FREE TO DO THE SAME. If that would be unacceptable to anyone, they should have refrained from attending.

If I went to a Mosque I would follow their rules, despite the objections I might have to them. They did not act in kind, the representatives of the IERA violated UCL's terms and conditions and purposefully took inappropriate actions to break them. Shame on them.

This was not an apartheid, the sky is not falling, it was a minor incident, and while it tainted the august proceedings, it was quickly resolved mostly to satisfaction.

Islam is hardly the sole source of prejudice or oppression against women. Christianity is rife with it as well and even our secular Western societies are far from free of it. It is a problem unto itself. So speak out against it to be sure, but do so equally in all measures.

See also:

Morality and Incest

This is a recent 'hot topic' on twitter so I thought I would write a "brief" description of my thoughts. This is going to cover a wide array of topics so some expertise on the part of the reader is assumed, you might need to research some topics on your own (*gasp*) as I just don't have time to do a deeper dive at this time.

(1) Atheism is a position about ones disbelief in the deity conjecture. Period. Atheism says absolutely nothing more than that. There is NO 'atheist' position on incest nor on ice cream. So my position on this topic is exactly that, ONLY my position. Other atheists can and will give different opinions, at the end of the day what matters is the evidence supporting a given position. Pointing to some book and claiming it as an authority doesn't pass muster, it is NOT evidence, sorry. If you believe otherwise please come talk to me about it when you have a degree in epistemology, otherwise I'm not really interested in your uneducated rambling.

(2) the superiority of non-revealed (or 'secular') morality is that it assumes our ignorance on matters not established by facts. It is willing to admit error in the face of contradictory evidence. Meanwhile the Judaic/Christian/Islamic religious are left making poor excuses for why their God commands slavery or trying to justify old men raping young women on the poor justification that the girl had reached menses (never mind the well-established psychological damage this does, that's just too bad because god willed it so - or so they claim). So I am willing to admit I could be wrong, but I think my position is very conservative to allow for a margin of error.

(3) religious adherents are profoundly hypocritical in their demand for evidence against all other claims but are unable to produce the same for their own. Keep that in mind when responding based on an appeal to authority or other fallacies

When I look at the 'morality' of human interactions I try to be both universal and consistent. I try to avoid special cases unless they are unavoidable (most likely out of our ignorance). But on consideration of the matter I see no reason to special case 'incest', it seems to fit into universal patterns of human behavior. Let's look at a few facts related to incest:

  • there is evidence for a natural aversion to close-kin relations, and inbreeding avoidance in animals
  • There are well-established psychological dangers associated with close-kin relationships, most actual instances are abusive in nature
  • The closer the relationship the greater chance of serious deformities, with first-cousins being about the same risk level as a 40 year old woman having children; but closer relationships have exponentially higher risks
  • There is scientific evidence supporting modern age of consent laws, this is why younger children CANNOT give consent, they lack the capacity

Now let's look at some universals. In the human sphere, moral interactions have a common thread requiring all participants being Informed, Consenting, and Empowered. To be uninformed is to be exploited. To be nonconsenting is to be forced. To be unempowered is slavery.

  • Informed (including but not limited to: STDs, pregnancy, intimacy, feelings, real risks, appropriateness, expectations during and after)
  • Consenting (doesn't need to be forms signed in triplicate but it DOES need to be explicit and all parties have a burden to ensure the willing consent of all others, not just assume it, NOT force it, NOT put it under stress or pressure or to account for such stress and pressures where they do exist)
  • Empowered (empowered to say NO, and have NO mean NO - and have it recognized and respected by the law)

If a relationship is between TRULY Informed, Consenting, and Empowered adults then I would say it should not be against the law, which does NOT mean it necessarily has to be the social standard either.

But if you look at just the known psychological implications I think a very close sexual relationship could almost never be described as truly consenting, so that would be deeply problematical for me. I would already like to see a much higher standard for Informed, Consenting, and Empowered than we have today - I don't see how you could reasonably establish it for close-kin individuals.

Beyond the relationship itself there is also the question of procreation. Again, I would argue there are universal principles here that should guide us. I do NOT argue we know exactly where the magical line is that shall not be crossed, I argue for a conservative position that we are willing to adjust as our knowledge increases.

Once genetic sequencing becomes cheap enough (exactly how cheap? this one of those things that because of our ignorance we have to accept is a fuzzy line), I think that ALL couples will have a responsibility to get sequenced and ensure their offspring will have a REASONABLE chance of at least not having profound deformities and genetic problems. Until then, we do know something about the risks as they related to kinship.

So, what percent chance is "worth" the risk? Again, this is a fuzzy line that each couple should be allowed to decide on their own. There isn't an absolute answer, nor any guarantees, even with genetic testing. But if you KNEW that if you had children they were going suffer horrifically would you abstain from procreative sex? I know I would. What if it was a 90% chance? 80%? Where would you draw the line? Again, I think the key here is to be INFORMED, Consenting, and Empowered.

But, to forbid 'incestual' relationships on the basis of genetic risk but ALLOW the same level of risk between other couples is hypocritical and needlessly inconsistent.

So, if we wrap all this up into practical terms I would say that parent-(*ADULT*)child or (*ADULT*)sibling relationships would have such an extremely high burden of proof as to be impractical, if there is any hint of an abusive relationship (or that it began before the age of consent) then society would have an interest in intervening and procreation would be well beyond reasonable risk levels (even trying to be extremely conservative in honoring personal rights). More distant relationships progressively less so, first-cousins... I just don't know, I admit I am not well-enough informed to be making that decision but I would bring all the tools of science to bear on the question. I think that in the absence of clear direction one-way or the other it should be left up to the Informed, Consenting, and Empowered ADULTS.

What I would absolutely not allow, under any circumstances are abusive relationships, incestual or otherwise, and there is a plenitude of 'otherwise' abusive relationships in existence that I'm more concerned about than hypothetical kin relations. Like selling young women off into marriages against their CONSENT when they are still children who cannot consent - just because they have had their first menses is no excuse for trading them off to be raped. THAT is something that we KNOW causes great harm and psychological damage, it isn't just theoretical.

More distant relationships seem to have very little genetic risk and carry only the same psychological risks as distant relationships.

Again, I stress these can only be relationships between *ADULTS*, not between Children because children CANNOT consent.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Christianity is not moral: slavery

The case of Christian Slavery is exemplary of just how inadequate and damaging Christianity can be (not all are) to ones innate moral compass (which the evidence suggests is given to us by natural Evolutionary pressures that evidence deep interconnectedness, symbiosis, cooperation, altruism, and empathy).

NOTE: This, in no way, implies that Christians cannot be moral people (or Muslims, etc). It means that they are ignoring very serious issues with their religious texts, and it is often these issues that enable and empower extremists. I acknowledge that the bulk of Christians (/Religious People) are simply hard working, honest, loving people. If that was the extent of Religion then I would have no beef with it. But Religion doesn't stop there (see image).

I know that the Kübler-Ross model ("five stages of grief": denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) is technically inaccurate but I think it still provides a good framework for looking at how Christians behave when faced with Slavery and other moral failings of their religion. Of course, not every Christian will go through the contortions in an orderly fashion, but I just want to make sure I touch on the salient points.

Stage 1: Denial

They will object that Christianity doesn't condone Slavery, or at least not "that kind" of Slavery. Or others will claim that Christianity was the birth of a kinder and gentler form of slavery, for the good of the 'godless heathens' they enslaved. And others yet still will claim the Bible merely speaks of Indentured Servitude. And the final appeal will be that "it was a different time", which is an argument for moral relativism (which even I largely reject), not any kind of moral authority.

It should be an embarrassment that such a morally foundational question should be rendered incomprehensible by so many Christians.

While the Bible does speak of Indentured Servitude, this is ALSO immoral and it was still Slavery. But this isn't what I'm writing about today, I'm writing about:

And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour. (Leviticus 25:46)

Two phrases here make it clear this is not mere Indentured Servitude, that these people are considered property and that they can be kept as Slaves "for ever".

The passages that do refer to Indentured Servitude (as the latter portion of this passage does but the first portion clearly DOES NOT) make it clear that this applies to their fellow Israelites, NOT of people from foreign nations.

These slaves can also be beaten, and while the punishment for Murder is to be stoned to death, the punishment for killing a Slave is merely a property crime (and only then if the slave dies immediately, if they die after a day or two then you aren't guilty of anything).

The Reverend Richard Fuller summed up the Christian position in defense of American enslavement of African people in 1845, his letter stating: “What God sanctioned in the Old Testament, and permitted in the New, cannot be a sin

So, Slavery cannot be wrong in the eyes of God (the definition of sin) because it was sanctioned in the Old and confirmed in the New with Paul returning the fugitive slave Onesimus to his master; not with the admonishment that Slavery is wrong but that failing to obey ones master is the crime. Pardon me while I puke.

A Southern Christian View of Slavery, James Henry Thornwell, 1861, From The Annals of America: 1858-1865, The Crisis of the Union
The Presbyterian Church in the United States has been enabled by the Divine Grace to pursue, for the most part, an eminently conservative, because a thoroughly scriptural, policy in relation to this delicate question. It has planted itself upon the word of God and utterly refused to make slaveholding a sin or nonslaveholding a term of communion.

So I really DO NOT CARE how nicely some Slave owner treated their slaves, the institution is wholly filthy and I categorically condemn it. Pity that so many Christians cannot do the same.

On Christianity, slavery CANNOT be considered wrong or immoral because it was sanctioned by God. If you disagree then, I'm sorry, but you don't even understand the basis of your own religion and you remain in the denial phase.

Stage 2: Anger

Once you confront them with these issues they will often become angry with you. They will attack you, insult you, charge that "you just don't understand it because you don't have Holy Spirit". Best I can tell, 'Holy Spirit' involves a removal of that part of a normal human brain that questions absurd propositions.

Few seem to progress beyond Anger.

Stage 3: Bargaining

They will make all kinds of arguments that are completely irrelevant. Every Red Herring and Strawman and attempt to shift the Burden of Proof in the book will be thrown your way.

They will try to dismiss the 'Old Testament', but this is foundational to the New Testament, without it Jesus wouldn't have legs to stand on and he constantly reaffirms and references the Old, perhaps in a new light, but never throwing out a single iota of the law.

Stage 4: Depression

This is an example of why religion (ANY religion, not just "the right one") has such a strong hold on people, they are inculcated with the idea that they are worms and need the Religion to cure them. They build up a mental dependence on the idea, almost as if it were a drug.

David Zucker: I believe in justice, maybe not in this life, but there has to be justice. And if there isn't a God, I think it would be very depressing. I'd prefer to believe there is.

From the outside of the delusion this statement makes no more sense than wishing for a Tooth Fairy. Having been inside the delusion myself I understand the sentiment but it is as baseless as missing an imaginary friend. The feeling of loss is real, the pain felt is real, but the basis in reality for it isn't.

It is a virus that damages the host. We need to understand better how to care for people in this situation, which is part of why Recovering From Religion exists.

Stage 5: Acceptance

When you can state plainly and openly, "I categorically denounce slavery, in all variations, as an immoral action" you will have reached Acceptance.

The Bible plainly has a God that:
  • ordained Slavery,
  • commanded a man to sacrifice his own child (and then sent the Son to be the scapegoat human sacrifice after this pattern),
  • commanded the genocide and infanticide of 8 different nations (Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites and the Amalekites):
    "Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass." (1 Samuel 15:2-3)
  • murdered the first-born of all Egypt and all infants, children, and adults in a supposed global flood.
  • See also: How many has God killed?

If you STILL think this is the foundation of all morality, go back to step 1 and #ThinkHarder

The next step for most people is usually a prolonged 'Spiritual but not Religious' phase, with a general trend that the more you study the sciences, the more you will find that superstition is one of the greatest evils in our world. Upon the precepts of superstition no atrocity, no matter how heinous, cannot be excused.

There are lots of resources out there now days that can help you eliminate this kind of superstitious thinking from your life but YOU have to first recognize it and work on it.

See Also:
Death of the Southern God

Argument from Design is self-defeating

Let's say you are walking along a secluded beach.

In the sand you find a fine gold watch, you open it up and it's still keeping perfect time!

Ah, you think, this watch must have been created by a fine watchmaker. I can see the hand of design...

NOTE: you didn't look at the arrangement of grains of sand and jump to this conclusion because WATCHES AREN'T ANYTHING LIKE *SIMPLE* NATURAL PROCESSES!

This argument is self-defeating the moment you KNEW you needed something 'obviously' made by a human to make it.

That VERY contrast is the defeater.

Guess what else, human's ARE part of Nature, the things we produce are produced by natural processes also but they are natural processes that required the formation of a system capable of building models of the future and enacting complex, fine-grained actions.

There is absolutely zero evidence there is a 'ghost' required to operate the machine.