It’s Getting Better All The Time

Looking at the news, and listening to the sentiment of those around you, sometimes it can appear as if things are getting worse and worse. But really, I think people are just getting more pessimistic, and more prone to sensationalising the problems they see in the media.

In fact, I think that because we have things so good these days, it blinds us to the actual problems facing the world. Just look at how Trump got into power by exaggerating the problems of crime and terrorism in the United States, or even when Abbott and Co managed to whip up a frenzy about how terribly Australia was doing, when we performed better than most other developed countries throughout the Great Recession. We live in one of the best countries in the world, at arguably the best time to be alive, and yet people think society is on some downwards spiral. These days you are less likely to face violent crime, disease, illiteracy, or discrimination than ever before. Yet people pine for some imaginary past where things were better (or ‘great’…)

This is why I like to make sure I read the Annual Gates Letter every year. This is the letter that Bill and Melinda Gates produce each year to highlight the progress they are making through their various humanitarian efforts. In this letter, they point out that:

“Actually, in significant ways, the world is a better place to live than it has ever been. Global poverty is going down, childhood deaths are dropping, literacy is rising, the status of women and minorities around the world is improving.”

There are so many people working hard around the world to make things better. The problem is, slow and gradual improvements to people’s lives doesn’t make for a good news story. You won’t see the news reporting that extreme poverty has been cut in half over the last 25 years; but it has. You won’t hear about the 122 million children’s lives saved in the past 25 years, but the numbers show this to be the case. These days the percentage of children vaccinated is higher than ever. You won’t see any front-page stories about these continued trends, and yet it is happening. In fact, when the general public was polled on this, only 1% of them believe poverty was decreasing; madness!

This year it is predicted that one of the things that humanity has been working hard for will finally pay off, and we will have zero cases of polio. Rest assured, this will make it on the news. But sadly, it will be a one-time only report, whereas negative news (like terrorist attacks, or other crimes) get repeated daily, with constant coverage of the fallout, and victims. Don’t get me wrong; I think this kind of reporting is important. But it is this very reason that people develop a pessimistic view of how the world is functioning.

Reading the Gates Letter helps me maintain optimism. It gives a clear picture of how these sustained efforts are making measurable differences, and gives me confidence that, as Bill Says, “The future will surprise the pessimists.”

And sure, there are a lot of other things that we need to address when it comes to the world stage, with inequality, war, and the environment being prime examples. However, I think it is important that we take the time to see the actual progress being made, and to take stock of the real gains being achieved each and every day by determined and dedicated human beings.

Read this letter!

MM

Advertisements

Thoughts on the Fine Tuning Argument

Intro

In recent years, I have tried not to devote too much time to debating with Christians online as I find it quickly spirals out of control for me. I really enjoy the challenge of these arguments, of striving for a better understanding not only of the views of others, but also the elucidation of my own views that I find this practice brings with it. After all, you never truly know where you stand sometimes unless you but heads with someone else who has a different point of view.

Recently however I have noticed a bunch of posts regarding the ‘Fine Tuning’ argument for a creator god appearing on my Facebook feed and elsewhere. This had always struck me as a particularly weak and unfounded argument, so I wrote the below reply to a Christian friend and wanted to share it here (if only to simply get it off my chest).

What the hell is fine tuning anyway?

 

Pictured: the universe (or part of it)

 

For those not familiar with the argument, the basic idea is that the physical constants that make life possible in our universe, whether it be the gravitational constant, the ratio of the strength of electromagnetism to the strength of gravity, the cosmological constant, etcetera, are so finely tuned to their particular value, that this speaks to the existence of a divine tuner, who has set the universe’s properties up accordingly. So for instance, if the gravitational constant wasn’t exactly what it was, the formation of planets might not have been possible.

Why I think this is a weak argument.

The problem with the fine-tuning argument is that it presupposes that these constants are something that has to be tuned to begin with.

To claim that a constant has to be fine tuned, and that there are other possibilities as to how the world could have turned out, is to confuse the idea of a constant, with that of a variable. Take a circle as an example. You can finely tune its radius to produce whatever area you want, but the value of pi is a constant, and thus beyond your tuning abilities to alter the nature of the circle.

The fine-tuning argument really just seems to be the anthropic principle dressed up in different clothes and paraded into the conversation.

The best way I can think to try and understand how these constants are most likely something that isn’t even ‘tunable’ is to consider other constants of our reality, namely mathematical constants. I believe this is an apt comparison to make, especially given the deep link between the mathematical world, and the physical one.

Consider Pi

 

Fun fact: I named my Chihuahua Pi, and he is predictably irrational

 

Let’s go back and consider for instance the number pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter; has this constant been finely tuned? If the value of pi were changed in any way, then circles would no longer exist, along with any other number of mathematical constructs, and the physical realities they are linked with. So, is the value of pi one of these finely tuned constants that creationists often refer to?

I have never heard people claim that the value of pi must have been finely tuned. I think this is because the number is considered an intrinsic property of circles, and that if the number were changed, or defined in any other way, then the thing it is related to would cease to exist.

Now consider the rest.

Extending this to the physical constants of our universe, is it really that far-fetched to suppose that these constants are a fundamental property of our own universe, and that the reason they are constant, is because they are an intrinsic part of how the universe exists? Creationists may like to imagine a god fiddling with the knobs and fine tuning a universe, but if the value of these constants is restricted by the very nature of the universe (like how pi is linked to the nature of a circle), then suddenly the idea of any tuning become impossible.

You might argue that some of the constants being referred to could conceivably be tuned to some other value while still allowing a universe to exist, albeit one that simply doesn’t allow the formation of a universe able to sustain life as we know it today. But given that we don’t know the entire nature of how these constants interact, or how they function, to suppose that some of the constants have ‘possible ranges’ that they could be set to, is not something supported by any facts. It is not, after all, as if we have any other universes with differently set constants which we can compare these to.

Maybe if these gods had created a parallel universe with a weaker strong nuclear force, or a stronger weak nuclear force, we would be able to peer across the boundaries of our own and observe such a thing. But this simply is not the case.

Conclusion.

In my opinion, the fine tuning argument is a weak argument because it presupposes the mechanism of fine-tuning, and then uses this contentious idea to support itself. There is no evidence of tuning being something that is possible, any more than we can imagine the number pi being changed by a god during its act of creation.

What do you all think?

The Five Stages of Trump Victory Grief, (now with Bonus Stage)

Denial

There is no way that Americans would elect a racist, sexist, liar to the White House.

Anger

Holy crap, people are actually voting for someone who wants to bring back torture and targeting civilians!

Bargaining

Although, if Hillary wins a few of these small states, and there is a last minute swing….

Depression

The world is screwed.

Acceptance

I guess there only so much he can screw up in four years; maybe this will be a good wake-up call for the U.S.

Bonus stage; pre-emptive Schadenfreude.

Oh boy; I can’t wait to rub this in Trump supporters faces when it all hits the fan.

Gods Danm you Autocro3ect!!1!

AutoCorrect.JPG

AutoCorrect, you have saved me in the past from so many mistakes. Over the past twenty years, hours upon hours of proof-reading have been simplified through your ingenious algorithm.

But sometimes AutoCorrect; sometimes you really frustrate me.

Take the above for instance; I missed the double ‘t’ in better. So what do you offer me? What common word must I have meant when I wrote ‘beter’? What slip of the finger could have produced this lexicographical anomaly?

No, I didn’t mean ‘biter’. Fan of beer that I am, this isn’t what I had in mind. Stretching the likelihood when you suggest ‘beater’ and ‘beret’. But it is your suggestion of ‘bitter’ that really bugs me. You know why? Because there is a bloody double ‘t’ in there. So you can clearly extrapolate and know that double ‘t’s exist as a thing to correct towards. There is a double ‘t’, but also an ‘i’ instead of an ‘e’! Give me credit where it is due AutoCorrect, and don’t take away one of my correct letters.

Seriously, ‘better’ is a common word, and I missed one letter.

You should know better AutoCorrect, both literally and figuratively.

Work rant complete.

MM

Lunchbreak rant: The Problem with Asserting Implicit Messages in the Bible

Ok, so this started as a response to a post on Facebook from one of my Christian Facebook friends (Hi Troy!) during my lunch break. But it slowly spiralled out of control, so I figured I would paste it into a post here, in order to get it off my chest.

The article in question is linked below, and seeks to explain why the exhortations to stone people in the Bible don’t need to be taken literally today.

First of all, the author points out that many of the passages in question apply only to the Tribes of Israel, and cannot necessarily be extrapolated further than that group of people. I have to ask; if the laws in that part of the Bible are a covenant between the tribes of Israel and God, and thus not something that modern Christians have to follow, then how is this not some form of moral relativity?

This however is only a minor point in the article which focusses the rest of its argument to the idea that ancient legal practices were different to today’s, and that we must look at the words of the Bible through these Bronze Age lenses.

The article suggests that the laws written in the Bible are not meant to be taken seriously, as often punishments in the area weren’t handed out. I thought this was meant to be the word of the god, and thus a trustworthy document? Comparing the apparent rules of a creator with the pragmatic governments of the time seems to be troublesome.

The article notes the “the absurdity and impossibility of putting many of these laws into practice.”, yet still wants us to trust in the general idea behind the law. But why not apply this logic to other parts of the bible? It is perhaps absurd and impossible to expect gay people to not be gay, and yet this is what many Christians today claim.

If these “were not meant to be complied with literally even when they were first drawn up, [but rather they] serve an admonitory function”, then why not simply state this in the document that outlines the laws?

The text literally demanded a person be put to death but assumed the punishment would be substituted for a fine set by the courts.” Strange to think that these pretty explicit laws can be assumed to be paid off with a bit of cash. How can a legal system be considered fair when it can be so skewed by the wealthy?

The article likes to say that the way that these systems were meant to be employed was implicit in the document. I have heard the same argument employed by some homosexual Christians to explain how the Bible doesn’t decry same-sex relationships, but rather only certain kinds of same-sex actions. They say that it is implicit that when the Bible says “a man should not lie with a man as a man lies with a woman”, that it really means in a sinful manner, as can be done with heterosexual couples also.

The problem with trying to insert implicit things into the interpretation of the Bible is twofold: first it assumes that we can infer these implicit things by looking at other documents, when the Bible claims to be a wholly singular read. And secondly it then has to explain why such an important thing (the very word of a god!) would have relied upon implicit messages, when explicit ones would serve better. After all you don’t see lawmakers these days using implicit language in important legal documents.

I especially like this passage:

Old Testament scholar Joe Sprinkle notes that “‘life for life,’ in the sense of capital punishment, has an explicit alternative of monetary substitution.”

Really? I expected more from the Bible when it came to the idea of the sanctity of a human life. Instead here we find the assertion that taking a life is simply a monetary transaction, and that if you have the means, you can buy your way out of any punishment or culpability.

So really, if the contention of this author’s article is to be taken seriously, that is, that when the Bible says that a personal shall be put to death the Bible doesn’t mean literally; then perhaps the Bible needs to be rewritten, so that it says “the murderer shall be put to death, or pay a ransom”. Would not that be simpler, and more timeless? After all if an omniscient god was the origin of these edicts, then surely it would note the inherent problem in relying on customs that don’t span the breadth of time.

“It is not at all clear that the Old Testament ever commands Christians to stone women who commit adultery.”

Actually, many of these commandments are pretty explicit. Sure you can argue that there are later passages that can be used to infer that this isn’t so, but that argument can be applied elsewhere also (with worrying effect). There are passages saying “Thou shalt not commit murder”. But then subsequent murders are sanctioned. So can we say that it is implicit that some murders are ok? The fact of the matter is, if we are to take the Bible as the word of a divine being, and the framework of a moral system of laws and commandments, then there shouldn’t be such problematic implicit readings. This in itself should cause us to question the legitimacy of such a divine document.

The genre of the passages, in light of the common ancient Near Eastern legal practices and customs, suggests(…)”, if ever there has been a time to acknowledge the human origins of the Bible, then surely it is after reading this sentence. If we have to look towards ancient, and many would say out-dated, forms of society and legal system to try and explain an apparently timeless and absolute moral system, then surely we can see that these laws are a product of their time, and not the divine.

Lunchbreak rant complete.

MM

Sport is Ridiculous; But thats OK

I will admit it: News.com.au is my guilty pleasure website.

It isn’t my go to source for news, despite its relevant moniker; rather it serves as a bit of a relaxing look at whatever craziness is going on in the world, or more generally on the internet.

But I have to say this article on the front page rally irked me:

Now I know this is click bait, and they just want me to open the article so they get their dollars, but having read earlier in the day what the story was about, I was interested to see why they had chosen their clearly mocking tone.For those wondering, the boy had won a drone racing championship.

For those wondering, the boy had won a drone racing championship. Yes those are things that exist, and that you can win money at. You might not be aware of them, but as this article shows, they are apparently a big enough deal to warrant hundred thousand dollar prizes. Even so, just look at how News.com.au presents the story:

Look at the derision in the title; look at how they are belittling this guy’s efforts, and for what? The kid did a good job at flying a drone, but they mock it as if that is no achievement at all. Yet scroll down the page a little and what do you find?

An article about a racecar driver being mistreated. Why don’t they malign the fact that this man is famous for driving his car faster than anyone else?

Go further down and there is a whole section about people who can do mundane tasks better than other people, whether it be running, riding an animal, kicking a ball, or even jumping in the air.

It’s called ‘Sports’.

And just because you don’t find it impressive, doesn’t mean that it can’t be a competitive, skillful and legitimate pastime.

Granted there are more dangers inherent in some sports than others. There is no doubt that being a racecar driver exposes you to more risk than remotely piloting a quadcopter, but I hardly think this risk is what would denote a sport as being worthy of the name. Look at darts, or snooker, or any other sport that requires massive skill at limited personal risk.Really, the author just appears jealous of the fact that this kid has won a large sum of money for something they think isn’t worth it.

Really, the author just appears jealous of the fact that this kid has won a large sum of money for something they think isn’t worth it. Well guess what man; that’s sport. I don’t see why people being able to hit a ball over a net repeatedly should be multimillionaires. But they are, and it’s because people want to watch it happen. I don’t care for it personally, much like I shall never pay money to watch a drone race; but so long as it doesn’t negatively impact on my life too much, I am willing to let it be.

sports

In fact the only time when the capricious nature of athlete-celebrity status really has any impact on my life is when the media hold them up to be role models, and then feign shock at anyone who misses the mark.

So at the end of the day, if we are willing to accept running races, ball games, motorsports, etcetera as legitimate ways for people to not only spend their spare time but also earn a living, then it seems hypocritical to attack others for pursuing their own interests and making money from it.

Let the kid have his day.

MM

Handy Microsoft Word tip plus bonus Imperial Units Rant

I just found this out in Microsoft Word, and it is pretty freaking awesome. If I write something (or more likely copy something) with weird units like miles, or inches, or chains, or whatever; I can get Word to fix this error in outdated units for me. Check it out:

word convert

Just highlight the offending units (including the numbers), right-click, and select the Additional Actions menu. Simple. Click on whatever units you want, and Word will replace the text and you are done. I don’t know why it gives two options which do the exact same thing, but I am willing to ignore the double up due to the sheer usefulness of this feature.

I think this will be most useful when I deal with documents that have temperatures, because Fahrenheit is just plain crazy. With miles at least I can have some sort of idea as it is just a proportion. I know a mile is just over one and a half times a kilometre, so I can get a rough idea.

This however cannot be done with temperature, not only are the units different sizes (i.e. a change of 1°F is different to that of 1°C), but the starting points are all off. When 32° F is mentioned I think, “man; that’s a hot day” (and not just because I am from Ballarat, and anything over 20° for me is too hot), and then I see pictures of people frolicking around in blizzards and make a Jackie Chan meme face.

Jackie Chan Meme

0° Celsius makes much more sense. It is zero degrees; you don’t have any degrees to warm yourself up.

Fahrenheit frustrations aside however, I was amused the other day when Harrison and I were watching a nature documentary set in an Arctic region and the Mighty Attenborough said something along the lines of:

Temperatures here can fall as low as negative 40 degrees.

“Is that proper degrees or Fahrenheit” my son asked.

(You can see that I have indoctrinated him well to my anti-Fahrenheit prejudice when he calls them proper degrees, and not Celsius)

We did our standard Siri-investigation and were surprised to discover that actually it doesn’t matter; -40 Celsius = -40 Fahrenheit. So at least that is one example of a unit in a documentary that is truly accessible to all, regardless of if you use proper units, or imperial monstrosities.

MM

P.s. as an atrocious speller, I have to point out that Fahrenheit , like manoeuvre, is a word that I struggle so hard to spell that even my best attempts leave spell check unable to understand what it is I am trying to say.

ANZAC Day 2015

I hate to say it, but I can’t wait till this ANZAC Day is over. Because quite frankly the media saturation and overexposure is making the day seem less significant to me, and I don’t like that. I don’t like that it is making me think less of the day than I usually do.
ANZAC Day should be about remembering the sacrifices our troop shave made in the past, not trying to assert that Gallipoli was some intrinsic part of our becoming a nation. Other countries have had events in their past that were necessary for them to have become the nation that they were; the United States for instance celebrate Independence Day as a formative event in their history. It truly did impact the nation that they became, and is an integral part of their culture.
ANZAC Day is different. Yes we can remember and celebrate the fact that our nations fighting forces were willing to make sacrifices for their country, but let’s not try and make the fact that it happened 100 years ago more important than the actual people involved. And let’s not try and say that so much of our nation’s amazing culture is tied up in this particular bit of military history. Our culture is a flowing, changing and developing thing; it wasn’t set in stone 100 years ago.
So tomorrow I will be remembering the sacrifice that my great grandfather, and many others past and present, made in service of their country, and not celebrating some faux nationalistic ideal.
There; rant complete. Does anyone else feel this way?