Monday, December 31, 2012

AlDraw on Android

I've mentioned my program AlDraw before. It's the one that lets you make cool geometrical constructions like you can see here.

Well, now I've released it as an Android app. If you have a device with Android 3.0 or higher, check it out!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How Can You Be Moral Without God?

Some theists claim that god is needed for morality. They ask, "How can you be moral without God?"

They might as well ask "How can you be moral with God?" Or better yet, "How can you be moral?", or "What is morality?"

I don't claim to have the answers to those questions. Philosophers have been debating that for thousands of years, and have come up with many contradictory answers, so most of them have to have been wrong.

But bringing god into the question doesn't make it any better. If you say that god's commands are good, you run into the Euthyphro dilemma. Does god command what is good because it is good, or is what is good good, because god commands it?

If the answer is the former, then we're back where we started. If god doesn't determine what's good, then what does?

The alternative has some implications that don't agree with what most people would consider morality. For example, god could change what is moral on a whim, and it wouldn't be wrong. After all, if god determines morality, and it said "It's moral for me to change the laws of morality", well, it couldn't be wrong, now could it?

And consider this analogy (adapted from this). Suppose aliens came to Earth, with overwhelming technological powers. It's impossible for us to fight them, they just vaporize our weapons as soon as we try to use them. And they impose on us some rules that seem quite arbitrary. For example, no one is allowed to wear blue shirts on Tuesday. They reward people who follow their rules, and punish people who don't. Further suppose, that after some time, they eventually leave. Which do you think would be the more common reaction to their departure? "But who will stop us from wearing blue shirts on Tuesdays?" or "Thank god those terrible aliens are gone!"

If what is good is determined solely by god, then his commands would appear to us to be arbitrary. We wouldn't consider a command against murder any more important than a command against blue shirts, and we wouldn't be worried that god is needed to give such a command.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


In some ways, Halloween is a lot like Christmas and Easter. They were all Pagan holidays relating to the changing seasons that were later co-opted by Christianity, and now don't have much to do with either. We still tend to practice the Pagan rituals, but without thinking about where they came from or what they have to do with nominally Christian holidays.

But one important way that Halloween is that no one takes the mythology of Halloween seriously at all.

During other holidays, children are taught to believe in things that don't exist, whether it's Santa Claus, or the Easter Bunny, or Jesus. But on Halloween, children are taught that all those ghosts and goblins wandering the streets are actually just other kids dressed up.

That's why Halloween is the skeptics' holiday. The lesson of other holidays is to have faith in things unseen. The lesson of Halloween is to investigate what looks mysterious and find the truth behind it.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Blasphemy Day: Freedom of Belief

Today is blasphemy day. In honor of that, here's some blasphemy: If God exists, he is monstrously evil. People do not get reincarnated when they die. Bad actions are not always punished, and good actions are not always rewarded. The writings of bronze age goat herders are scientifically inaccurate. Human sacrifice is not necessary for the sun to rise. Bunnies don't lay eggs.

Doubtlessly, you believe at least one of these things. Which is why I support Blasphemy Day. Because something you believe is blasphemy to someone. The price you pay for being able to express it is that others can express something that you may disagree with or find personally offensive. To oppose that is to oppose the very concept of free speech.

And so here's another piece of blasphemy: Religious belief should not be treated any differently than any other belief.

I don't believe in freedom of religion. I believe in a more general freedom of belief. Everyone should be allowed to believe whatever they want, including but not limited to religious beliefs. I prefer this formulation because as above, religious belief should not be treated any differently than any other belief.

There are lots of times when beliefs are treated differently because they're religious beliefs. The most obvious examples are blasphemy laws, which is what Blasphemy Day is in protest of. For some groups, simply disagreeing with their religion amounts to disrespecting it, which is a totally different standard to non-religious beliefs.

The reason religious beliefs should be treated just like any other is that they are just like any other. They can be right or wrong just like other beliefs and wrong beliefs should be discarded for right ones. Bad beliefs cannot be improved if they are specially protected as religious beliefs tend to be.

Another reason to treat religious beliefs the same as others is who gets to decide what is a valid religious belief and what isn't?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Reclaim Socialism

I know someone who, despite having socialist tendencies, refuses to be called a socialist because, she says, it would mark her as being on the fringe. I suspect this is a rather common sentiment.

But I say it is for exactly that reason that we should embrace rather than avoid the term.

Universal health care is attacked as being a socialist idea. You know what? Universal health care is a socialist idea. And that's a good thing. You know what else are socialist ideas? Public education, police departments, fire departments, roads...

We need to reclaim the word socialism so it isn't perceived as being on the fringe, because it's not and shouldn't be considered to be. We need to reclaim the word socialism so it can't be used as a thoughtless insult. We need to reclaim the word socialism because we live in a society, and that's a good thing.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Self-Consciousness and Existential Angst

I was watching this video, and a thought occurred to me. Self-consciousness, by that I mean not simply the feeling of being overdressed for a social event, but more generally being aware of your state of being, reflecting on your own existence, is generally an unpleasant feeling.

It's not exactly an original thought. Buddhism came up with it 2500 years ago. In order to achieve enlightenment and hence nirvana, you have to let go of your ego. It's also a fundamental part of existentialism, the idea of angst.

It's odd that one of the few things that seems to be uniquely human is so apparently negative. It makes you wonder why that is. I have a couple wild ass guesses, but they aren't worth mentioning without further research.

It also makes you wonder what you can do about it. The simplest answer I can think of is to maintain a state of flow as much as possible, to do things that are engaging and challenging, so you can think more about it than yourself. (And it is apparently possible to achieve a state of flow by philosophizing about angst, paradoxically enough)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Cargo Cults Get a Bad Rap

Cargo cults are religions that formed in pacific island cultures when they came into contact with Europeans. They sought to replicate the Europeans' material wealth and technology by imitating it. They didn't know how those things were made, so they thought they were gifts from the gods. They built imitation airstrips and control towers thinking those were rituals to summon planes.

The term cargo cult has also been applied in other contexts, such as cargo cult science or cargo cult programming, to mean imitating techniques and procedures without what they're for or why they're used. I don't object to that usage, because it seems pretty accurate, but it does give a poor representation of cargo cults.

As far as I can see, cargo cults are the most rational religion in existence. They're still wrong and irrational of course. But compared to more mainstream religions like Christianity and Islam, they're downright sane. Cargo cults have real evident miracles.

Airplanes and radios and all sorts of magical things. You don't need to have faith in those things. Their explanation for those things was wrong, but that's not necessarily irrational. The irrational part of cargo cults is refusing to give up that explanation when it fails to work. Compare that to Christianity which is entirely based on irrationality and faith.

Monday, July 23, 2012

But You Did Not Persuade Me

For the most part, I don't disagree with Jeff Atwood's most recent post. On a factual level, he's correct. When coding, it's more important to market than to code. In fact, for anything you want to do, from plumbing to politics, it's more important to convince people that you do a good job than to do a good job.

But that's not a good thing. Everyone shouldn't have to be a marketer. Specialization is a powerful thing, and it'd be nice if that could be applied to marketing too.

I don't know how or even if such a change is possible. And I'll admit I'm biased by my sub-par social skills. But it still seems like something to strive for.

Also, I disagree with his interpretation of that scene. The unavoidable truth it exposes is that Idi Aman is crazy and incapable of recognizing good advice.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"Alright" is Alright

Pedantic prescriptivists claim that "alright" is not a word. That it's merely a misspelling of "all right". I disagree. I claim that "alright" is a word with a meaning distinct from "all right".

The distinction is similar to the differences between "already" and "all ready", and "all together" and "altogether". In each case, when "all" is a separate word it means just that, all. If a group of something is all ready, then all the members of that group are ready. As a single word, the "al" doesn't mean anything separate from the rest of the word.

It's the same with "all right" and "alright". "All right" means everything is correct. "Alright" is synonymous with OK.

Here's another blog on the same issue. Oddly, it says that "alright" isn't a word, and then goes on to describe the difference between the two.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Can You Choose What You Believe?

It's a simple yes or no question, right? Either you can choose what you believe in the same way you can choose what to have for breakfast, or you can't in the same way you can't choose to obey the law of gravity.

Well, no. Whether or not something is a choice is not a simple binary yes or no. It is, as nearly everything else is, a continuum. We don't normally notice it, because we usually only encounter examples at extreme ends of the continuum, like breakfast or gravity.

But there are examples of in-betweens. Consider a person with OCD. Does such a person choose to wash their hands over and over? To a degree, they do, but to a degree they don't.

It's the same with choosing what to believe. You form beliefs based on what you see and hear, and you can't really change that. But you can choose what to look at and who to listen to. And even when beliefs are deliberately chosen, it still takes a long time to really convince yourself of it.

Friday, May 18, 2012

If You Can't Explain It...

There is a common saying with a variety of forms that generally goes like this:
If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.

You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.

If you understand something, you can explain it in its simplest form.

If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it.
I disagree with this saying. The ability to explain something well is a skill separate from the thing you're trying to explain.

Consider a watchmaker who can make intricate watches that work correctly, but who can't tell you why certain pieces go where they do. Not only can he build watches, but he can also innovate designs to make them better. Does he understand watchmaking? Clearly, he does, otherwise he wouldn't be able to make them work at all. His inability to explain is a problem with his communication skills, not a problem with his understanding.

Further, how difficult something is to explain depends not only on how well you understand it and how good you are at explaining, but also who you're explaining it to. This is the concept of inferential distance. It's a lot easier to explain calculus to someone who understands algebra than it is to explain it to someone who doesn't even understand arithmetic.

And if you're really good at certain forms of communication, you can explain something that you don't understand at all (though not correctly).

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Equality of Opportunity

But there's a fundamental question on the meaning of "fairness." Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money? Or does fairness mean everybody gets the opportunity to make the same amount of money?
-Rick Warren
This is a common thing among right-wingers, talking about how the left wants equality of outcome, but the right wants equality of opportunity. But it's not true.

I don't think anyone is especially interested in achieving either of those things (though democrat positions are a little closer to it). If you were really interested in having equality of opportunity, you know what one of the first things you should do is?

Ban private schools. Or at least make it so everyone can get in regardless of how much money their parents have, which would effectively just make them public schools. A better education means more and better opportunities. That's hardly equal, and it's not like it's poor kids' fault that they have poor parents.

But no one wants something like that. And I can't blame them. It's a bit too Harrison Bergeron, making things worse to make them more equal. Nonetheless, allows private schools allows inequality of opportunity.

Beyond that, "It takes money to make money". By accepting inequality of outcomes, you're accepting inequality of opportunity. A person who has spare money lying around can invest it, and make more with it. A person living paycheck to paycheck doesn't have that opportunity.

And that's only a couple of examples of how our system supports inequality of opportunity. There are lots more if you look, and those ones don't help the poor much either.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Cultural Invisibility

Have you ever noticed that your own culture is invisible to you?

I think the most obvious example of this is accent. When you hear someone with a different accent speak, you notice their accent. It sounds weird and different to you and you recognize it as an accent. But when you speak, or you hear someone with the same accent as you, you don't notice it. It just sounds like they're talking normally and it doesn't even register that that's an accent too. But it's not hard to realize that you do have an accent, you just don't notice it.

Pretty much every cultural trait is the same. Consider for example social signalling. When someone from a different social group than you signals something, it looks like a waste of money. When you do it, you don't even realize that's what you're doing.

Your culture is the baseline against which all others are judged. Anything that differs from your culture is weird and unusual. Anything that's the same is just the way things are supposed to be.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Inferential Distance

Suppose you're trying to teach someone calculus. Before they can learn calculus, they have to learn algebra. Before they can learn algebra, they have to learn arithmetic. This is the basic idea of inferential distance - background knowledge needed the understand the matter at hand.

Put this way, it looks simple, maybe not even worth talking about. But it's more subtle than that. To start with, arithmetic, algebra and calculus aren't single subjects. They're a whole bunch of related but still different subjects, which need to be learned independently. The learn integration, you have to learn differentiation, before that you have to learn limits, before that functions, variables, division, mulitplication, subtraction, addition... And don't forget the really fundamental things like what a number is.

And that's the really tricky part of inferential distance. There are a lot of things you know that you don't know you know. That is to say, you know them so well, it doesn't even occur to you to that someone else might not know it. Things that are so fundamental to your point of view that they're invisible to it. And so when you try to explain something to someone, you accidentally skip over a bunch of inferential steps, resulting in misunderstanding and each party will walk away thinking the other is stupid or crazy.

Consider a biologist talking to a creationist. They might try to explain the evidence for evolution, but before the creationist can understand that, they have to understand what evidence means, how science works, maybe even something as simple as why truth is important...

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Defense of Government

This is a summarization of an essay by my girlfriend.

According to the market model of society the efficient distribution of products and services is attained through the direct exchange between and response of self-interest driven individuals. Since individuals seek to maximize returns and minimize costs, exchanges occur only when mutually beneficial; therefore, the market inherently optimizes the societal good. For this to work, several conditions must be met: individuals must act independently and only try to maximize their own utility; there must be perfect information about, competition for, and free movement of goods; and all the costs and benefits must be known and contained to the exchange. There are situations where not all of these conditions are met, which prevents the market from working efficiently.

One such example is that of public goods, which breaks the condition of perfect competition. Public goods are things that no one can be excluded from, such as water quality or national defense. Since no one can be excluded from using it, there is no way for providers to get a return on its production, even if there is a demand for it so the demand will not be met. The government can correct this inefficiency by using taxes to provide the good.

Another example is when an exchange produces externalities, which are when costs or benefits affect other uninvolved parties. An example of a positive externality is vaccination, where even the unvaccinated are protected from disease by herd immunity. An example of a negative externality is pollution, where poor water and air quality affect everyone, not just the ones who make the pollution. Since the decision makers involved do not bear all the costs and benefits, they are not taken into account, and the market either produces too much of something (in the case of negative externalities) or too little (in the case of positive externalities). The government can create regulations which can impose a cost or benefit to internalize the externalities. For example, a tax can be imposed on polluters, or vaccinations can be subsidized.

Another case where there is not adequate competition is for natural monopolies, when goods are produced most efficiently by a single supplier. This gives an advantage to the first or largest supplier and with insufficient competition, the monopoly can charge more than the good is worth. The government can step in by running the monopoly as a public utility or by regulating the price, quality and quantity of the good.

An efficient market requires everyone have perfect knowledge of their potential options. There are many situations where the participants involved do not have accurate or equal amounts of information. There is usually some cost in obtaining information, and information can be deliberately withheld. The government can reduce the cost of information by funding research, and can reduce information asymmetries by making information public.

Even in a perfectly efficient economy, some people will be unable to compete for resources, such as the young, the old and the disabled. There is no economic incentive to provide care for those who can offer little or nothing in return. The government can provide welfare to establish a baseline minimum quality of life.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Reality is Objective

Reality is objective. What's true is true for everyone, regardless of what people believe.

You'd think this would be obvious. And yet, it comes up. Particularly in debates about the supernatural. People will say things like "Well, maybe ghosts don't exist for you, but they do exist for me." I've never seen anyone apply this sort of reasoning when doing something mundane, like say, crossing the street. No one ever says "That bus might exist for you, but it doesn't exist for me." People know there either is a bus there, or there isn't, regardless of what they believe, and if they want to not get hit by it, they ought to have beliefs which match objective reality.

I think the idea that reality is different to different people might come from the thought that our senses are infallible. If I see something, that means it's there. If I see something, and someone else sees something different, well our realities must be different. But our senses aren't infallible, and we frequently see or hear things that aren't there, or fail to see or hear things that are.

It seems to me much easier to explain occasional discrepancies in our perceptions in an objective reality than to explain the ubiquitous consistency of our perceptions. How often do people disagree about whether it's day or night, whether they're inside or outside, whether they're sitting or standing, whether there's a bus in the road or not? If reality were subjective, why would such consistency be so common?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Justified True Belief?

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy interested in the study of knowledge. One of the foundational questions of epistemology is "What does it mean to know something?". A common answer is that knowledge is justified true belief. In order to know something, you have to believe it, have a good reason for believing it and it has to actually be true.

That sounds pretty good, but there are problems with it. It's possible to construct scenarios in which all three conditions are apparently met, but it doesn't seem like anything was "known".

There's also the question of what counts as justification. But I think there's another, more fundamental, problem with this definition. One I don't think I've ever seen anyone else point out.

No definition of knowledge should include the condition of being true.

To do so is to make the term inapplicable in any situation remotely resembling real life. The reason for that is because of the answer to another fundamental question of epistemology: "Is it possible to be absolutely certain of something?". The answer to that is no. (Of course, others disagree, and I should probably write another post explaining why I think that.) All we can do is get more and more evidence for something, getting closer and closer to 100% certainty, but never actually reaching it.

In toy examples, whether a given fact is true or not is simply assumed/given. So if a hypothetical character has a justified belief, we can say whether that character knows it or not, because of our god-like omniscience. But in real life, no one has that omniscience.

Consider the same question - Is a belief knowledge or not - applied to yourself. Do I know the sun will rise tomorrow, or do I just believe it? Well, I certainly think it's true that the sun will come up. I wouldn't believe it if it I didn't think that, tautologically. But if that's the standard, then I ought to consider every belief I have to be knowledge. If I didn't believe they were true, I wouldn't believe them.

And if we apply that standard to other people, then our evaluations of whether someone else knows something or merely believes it, simply becomes a question of whether they agree with you or not.

I propose a simpler definition: Knowledge is belief that is held with a high degree of confidence.

This definition fits very well into a Bayesian framework. Degree of confidence is simply probability. If you believe something is true with a probability greater than, say, 99.9%, you can be said to know it. This also handily deals with the question of what counts as justification - that's just Bayesian evidence.