Friday, 20 November 2015

The Garden

The Garden

Alice came here every day, to sit on the wooden bench in her garden and watch the pigeons fly down from the trees and strut across the grass in expectation of breadcrumbs. Why they did this, she did not know, as no-one else was ever around and her pockets were empty; but every day, here they came. She had lost count of the number of days she had sat here on the long park bench, but that didn’t bother her. She was content. She was always content. At some point she would have to walk away from all this, there were other matters to attend to. At least she had a feeling there were. But there was plenty of time - she had only just arrived anyway. At least she had a feeling she had. It didn’t matter. There was peace, the trees, the birds, the wind and the Sun.

But today was different, there was something unexpected. Alice realised that she was not alone. Beside her sat a girl, dressed in grey, with a wild mess of white hair. The girl turned towards her, smiling. Alice felt a shock as she noticed the girl’s eyes: featureless, black, and yet she felt no fear, only the slight thrill of strangeness.

“Hello Alice” said the girl. “Beautiful day”

“It always is” replied Alice.
The girl stood up and held out her hand. “Please come with me. We need to talk”. Her words were polite, but left no possibility of refusal. Alice took the girl’s hand and they started to walk. “I have a story to tell you.” Sun, grass, birds, all faded.

Once upon a time there were seven beings, seven avatars of reality, the Endless: Delight, Despair, Desire, Destruction, Destiny, Dream and Death. Older than gods yet younger than time, they shape reality through their thoughts and actions. Though powerful, the Endless could suffer the fates of mortals, including change, and even death, of a kind. As eons passed, Delight had become Delirium, and both Despair and Dream had taken on new aspects.

Each of the Endless has a realm, a home shaped by their natures. The realm of Destiny is garden of paths without end, paths which are walked by every sentient creature since the beginning of life. Destiny stands in his garden, tall and robed. With one hand he holds his book, chained to his wrist. In that book is everything, every spin of an electron, every planet’s orbit, every life, every death. Destiny is blind, but he knows the book and the book is everything. He turns a page, the first he has turned in an age, and reads:

“At a time so distant from the origin of all things that stars had been mere sparks in the afterglow of the Big Bang, a crystalline ship slowly circled a vast black hole that was the corpse of a galaxy. Within the crystals flowed thoughts so slow that species had risen and fallen in the blink of an eye. The thoughts were those of the last human mind, preserved in a way intended to challenge eternity, frozen in a timeless world of imagination. In that imagination a young girl, Alice, re-creates a single day from the time of worlds and stars. In his garden, Destiny had become aware of a presence.”

Destiny lifts his head: “Well met, sister”.

“So formal as ever. Today, of all days, say my name.

Destiny pauses and frowns. Del..? Dis..?” He asks. “You aren’t in my book”.

“I’m sorry Destiny. You always forget this time. I’m in your book now. I’m on every page. Look closely. Destiny needed no eyes to read.

“As the first stars were born, you were the delight of beginnings. As minds dreamed, desired and despaired and decayed, you became the mistress of their increasing delirium. As even suns and worlds at last fell into ruin and the last minds pass into Death’s domain, you have become the Lady of chaos. You have become Disorder. All reality has become your domain.”

“As our sister Death once said, we have always known this, but never remember. You must remember now.” said Disorder. “It's time for my final duty in this cosmos. When I am everything, then there is nothing. Even time loses its power. There must be a new beginning and so
I need your book.”

“The book at I are one”, said Destiny.
“I know that brother”, said Disorder, “But even so you must give it to me.”
Destiny took his book with his free arm and held out the chain.
Disorder gently touched the chain and it collapsed into dust. She lifted the open book from Destiny’s hand. She turned a page, and saw nothingness. Now alone, she whispered to herself “Goodbye brother. Until the next time”. She closed the book and carried it away into the mist.

“No mortal before you has been free of Destiny. You are truly free to make your own future, and so this is the choice I give you”, said Disorder, “try to wait out eternity in a simulation, never dreaming yet not truly awake, never dying but neither truly alive, having no desires and sealed beyond destruction and yet your end will come, or you can take this book and help shape a new beginning.”

Alice reached out for the book. As her fingers touched the cover she knew all that had ever been. An image entered her mind of a tall robed figure, with a book chained to his arm, the book she now held. She knew who this was, who he was, and that he was blind and yet saw all that was, all that had been, and all that will be.

“Destiny…” she whispered.

“Yes, that was him. Now that will be you.” said Disorder.

“Will I be blind, chained, and so very grey?” asked Alice.
“That’s up to you” said the girl. “My brother liked to follow tradition.”

Alice came here every day, to sit in the sun and watch the pigeons fly down from the trees and strut across the grass in expectation of breadcrumbs. This was her garden, Destiny’s realm.

She sat down on an old wooden bench, took some bread from a pocket of her long white robe, broke it and threw the pieces towards the birds. Then she turned and saw beside her her book. She picked it up, opened it to the first page, and read the first few words with a smile. There, in the language of reality, were words that created a cosmos:

“In the beginning…”

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Guardian and Gamergate

I'm honestly puzzled as to why the Guardian publishes this nonsense. It's supposed to be a paper that promotes free thinking, not slavishly following dogma. #gamergate was a response to corruption in the gaming industry. There was real corruption - journalists not revealing if they did or did not have associations with game writers. This created understandable anger. The result was there was a campaign associated with a hashtag #gamergate. It's not an organised group. Some of the anger went too far. Some anger always goes to far when you are dealing with an online group of tens of thousands. It's deeply dishonest to then insist that gamergate was 'really' about hatred of women, and continually cherry pick to make that case. There are plenty of women gamers who have supported the gamergate campaign, and some of those women have been subjected to harassment and and threats too. These don't get reported as they don't fit the 'gamergate hates women' narrative.

What the Guardian is doing is supporting this dishonesty, and this kind of dishonesty is becoming an increasing problem: diverting the message of a movement to fit an agenda by cherry-picking. We had this with the awful atheism+, now just about everything online is about misogyny. There is real misogyny in our cultures, but it's rarely specific to individual movements. It has to be addressed as what it is, and not supposedly part of 'gaming', or 'secularism' or whatever.

'Gamergate' has not gone - it has won. It's now standard practice in the gaming interest to list any connections that have that might prejudice what they write.

I want to see journalists have to work harder to discuss real issues in constructive ways. The Guardian should do better.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Richard Dawkins on Twitter - nothing to apologise for

The media are at it again.  Richard Dawkins starts to discuss a controversial topic and his tweets are quoted because they seem to be either shocking or putting forward a strident point of view.  Some bloggers do the same thing, often advising Richard to keep quiet or get some sort of advice about what he tweets.

I find the reactions just a bit silly.  Richard Dawkins is an eminent scientist and science educator.  Richard is not a politician. He is not a religious leader.  He is not an elected leader of anything (at least not anything I know about).  He is an individual who is posting his opinions on an open forum.  He posts opinions which are often challenged, and he reads those challenges and sometimes changes his mind.  In doing this he is acting exactly as any supporter of reason should.

There are some who treat Twitter as a global soap-box; a place to make pronouncements, and to preach to the world your view of anything you want.  But that's a real waste.  The power of Twitter is communication, exchanges of views and feedback.  It's a source of much nonsense, of course, but it's also a source of great expertise.

If you want to treat the contents of a conversation by Richard as if they are pronouncements of doctrine then you are the fool.  If you want to get value from Richard's presence, then for goodness sake talk to him.  That's one great thing Twitter enables - conversation.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

What is the middle ground of UK politics?

I have realised that I have no idea what the 'middle ground' of UK politics is. I assumed it meant that we don't really like nuclear weapons, but we'll have them if necessary; we really do like the idea of the NHS; we are generally cautious about immigration, but when there is a crisis we are welcoming; we are pretty concerned about the environment; we distrust those with a lot of money; we are generally keen on Europe, as we know it from holidays; we want a good fair wage for all; we utterly distrust private ownership of railways, and think that at least the possibility of nationalisation is a good thing. We are cautious about money, but good when it comes to charity.

But my impression is that these views are now considered widely left-of-centre by many, even "hard left". I remember the views of the "hard left" in the 80s, and they included universal nationalisation, support for communist states, scrapping all nuclear weapons, workers' collectives running everything.
How did the moderate left end up being now labelled "hard left"? How did nationalising parts of the NHS become mainstream? How did we end up with Labour party shadow cabinet ministers saying that they would match their Tory equivalents when it came to benefit cuts? How did we get so that benefit claimants, many of them disabled or ill, became the target of cuts?
I'm really confused.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Why you can't have evidence for gods being gods.

There are many definitions of 'god'.  I'll start off by making it clear the definitions I'm not dealing with.  I'm not considering 'gods' who are intelligent and powerful aliens who can do things that seem magical (a good example of such an alien is 'Q' in Star Trek).  I'm not dealing with beings who can create a world that seems real to us, such as the Machines in the Matrix trilogy.  I'm not dealing with the version of the Christian god written about by the physicist Frank Tipler who attempts to explain miracles in terms of physics in his book "The Physics of Christianity".   Why aren't I dealing with such gods?  Because they aren't what most believers want gods to be - they can't provide ultimate judgement and ultimate forgiveness; they can't give ultimate meaning; they can't provide eternal bliss or eternal punishment.  What I'm dealing with is beings that have powers that are truly 'supernatural', and that includes the Christian god - the Alpha, the Omega, the creator of all things and the source of all morality.

I have a couple of arguments that deal with the question of evidence for such beings:

1. The argument from complexity.

The Catholic Church insists that their god is ultimate simplicity, but that's just not on.  A being that is infinite, eternal and all-knowing and all-powerful is exceedingly - perhaps infinitely - complex, as that being contains all knowledge, and all wisdom.  This complexity is a real problem when it comes to evidence for this god, as just about anything else is simpler.  This includes vast galactic civilizations that have existed for billions of years.  It includes Star Trek-level cultures that can destroy a world with a phaser bank, and can cure most illnesses with a wave of something that looks like a pepper pot with lights.   So, if you come across what seems like a miracle, or you have some internal mental experience that feels like religious revelation, there are many alternatives of lesser complexity you have to consider before you allow for the possibility of the Catholic god.  The complexity problem has been expressed beautifully by Arthur C. Clarke, who said 'any sufficiently advanced technology will be indistinguishable from magic', and by David Hume, who said that claims of miracles are never to be trusted, because there are always simpler explanations.

2. The argument from supernaturalness

The word 'supernatural' is the label for attributes of gods which are 'beyond Nature'.  The problem with this label is that it's never specified what 'beyond Nature' is supposed to mean.  Nature as we know it involves particles like atoms, electrons, photons and so on.  So, presumably, a supernatural being manages to get things done in ways that don't involve any such particles.  But that isn't an explanation of what they are actually doing to perform miracles.  Even if you can have reliable evidence that what is happening doesn't involve familiar particles, that evidence is in no way evidence for 'beyond Nature', it's only 'beyond what we know'.  So, from a practical point of view, evidence for the supernatural is definitely a problem.  It gets worse when we consider that a common definition of supernatural is 'beyond the reach of science'.  This makes evidence for the supernatural impossible by definition.

It's worth at this point clearing up a common misconception.  Sometimes evidence is considered to be supportive of the supernatural, when what that evidence is actually for is a thing that is believed to be supernatural.  For example, a primitive tribe might consider planes flying over their rain forest to be gods.  When asked for evidence of these supernatural gods by another tribe, they point up at a metal machine high above.  Of course, planes aren't supernatural (although I have to say that they feel like magic to me).  What I mean by 'evidence for the supernatural' is evidence that a thing has supernatural nature.

So, whichever definition we choose for 'supernatural', we reach an impasse.  We either have to try and demonstrate that something is beyond Nature, which is impossible, or we have a property of beings that is defined as being beyond empirical testing, so demonstrating its supernatural nature is impossible.

So, gods, by their definitions, are beyond reach of evidence.  No evidence is sufficient to show that what seems like a god or an act of a god isn't some simpler alternative, and according to some definitions, evidence isn't even possible to test a god's divine supernatural nature.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

I don't understand magnetism!

I'm having trouble understanding magnetic monopoles. Magnetic forces we know about are the result of electric charges in motion. As a result, the idea of there always being two magnetic poles makes sense, because the motion of charges has a direction and the magnetic poles are perpendicular to that direction. Consider something simple like a spinning sphere with electric charges on it. If you look at the sphere one way the spin will be clockwise and you will see one magnetic pole (I forget which!). If you look at another direction and you see the spin anti-clockwise you will see the opposite magnetic pole. Having a magnetic monopole is like trying to cut a spin in half, so that you can see a clockwise spin of charge but no anti-clockwise spin. It makes no geometric sense. There are situations where what look like monopoles appear but these are in reality the result of things that are very thin and stretched so that you can only see the effects of the opposite spins at long distances - it's just looking at the ends of a system with both North and South poles.

So, I'm wondering if magnetism makes sense at all as anything fundamental. It's simply electrostatic charges + movement, and so 'magnetic field lines' are badly named, and everything can be re-formulated in terms of electrodynamics.

What am I missing?

Friday, 24 July 2015

Macroevolution can happen

Macroevolution - the formation of a new species in one generation is extremely rare in animals, but more common in plants. The way it can happen is through duplication of the entire genome. Organisms which have multiple genome copies are called 'polyploid'. In some plants it's possible to trace back exactly where and when these things happen. For example, a new species of marsh grass appeared in a certain area of marsh in Britain in around 1870. This would have been one faulty cell division resulting in a new species. 

Animals are much more complex in structure than plants and rarely reproduce asexually so this kind of thing is much rarer, but it does happen - the plains viscacha rat in Argentina is one example. What must have happened is a faulty cell division leading to a polyploid female and then inter-breeding in her offspring.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

How 'gay genes' might work

This business of 'gay genes' seems to me to be almost universally understood. First of all, they must be inheritable. Homosexuality can't just be a frequent mutation - it's too widespread. Secondly, they have to confer benefit to those who have the genes, and that's just about everyone, because homosexuality occurs in all populations. So how on Earth could that work? It works if you consider homosexuality to be part of an 'extended phenotype' (see the book 'The Extended Phenotype' by Richard Dawkins): genes for homosexuality don't produce homosexuality in the bodies they are in, but in others. That allows them to be inherited.

Imagine a group of animals that can end up living in dense populations. What would be a bad thing is for the breeding pairs to continue to produce large numbers of breeding offspring. Instead, when resources get limited, a better situation is if some children don't breed but end up helping their parents to raise their siblings. Does this happen in Nature? Yes, it does. A very clear example is some species of birds, where non-breeding young birds help their parents get food for their siblings. This division of labour into breeders and non-breeders results in a better chance of survival.

This must mean that the parent animals have genes that allow for the production of non-breeding offspring in certain situations. Not all offspring of course, but a certain proportion. This might happen because hormones react to population density. The point is that genes for non-breeders can exist throughout the population, and can be of real benefit.

There is slight evidence of a similar situation in humans. Later children in a family seem to be more likely to be homosexual. This makes sense, as the family has already produced breeding offspring, and what might be of more use is additional resource gatherers. This seems to work because the hormonal environment in the human uterus changes with each subsequent birth, and that might increase the probability of homosexuality.

This may be wrong, but it does show that genes for homosexuality don't need to act in the bodies of homosexuals - they could simply be genes that change the hormonal environment in the uterus with time. Also, homosexuality can be of real benefit in a population at low levels, as it provides additional support systems for families - even as simple as more hands to gather food and fight mammoths!

There is not going to be a simple 'gay gene'. The situation is far too subtle.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Obama's eulogy of little grace

Obama's Charleston eulogy was certainly a great performance. It was moving, and I have no doubt it was heartfelt, but I was deeply saddened to see that he was preaching so much religious nonsense that I could not help but feel took away some of the dignity of the deceased.

It was a shameful thing to preach that the killer was somehow doing God's work, and that God works in mysterious ways.  There is nothing holy about the actions of a hate-filled cowardly murderer. It was demeaning to talk of God-given grace being given to the undeserving members of the Church as well as to the USA as a whole.  It was a denial of the true wickedness of the murder and of the powerful humanity of that community.   The families of the murdered and the community they lived in have shown extraordinary strength and courage.  It is their own strength, not some power of the spirit bestowed on them.  These people have shown the best of humanity - they have stood up for themselves, they did not need to be lifted up by God.

It was a shame that, giving the eulogy in front of such a courageous community, Obama didn't have the courage to praise that community for what it had achieved without invoking the name of a God who stood by while hatred killed so many good people.

Obama gave a powerful speech, but to me, it was a failure.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Marriage equality and the most important freedom

So many of us have lived and loved in the face of fear.  So many of us have lived secret lives, careful in case a word or a gesture reveals to the world a failure to conform. Others of us have lived lives of open rebellion against the constraints of heterosexual normality.

There has been no end of advice for us: some say that we should celebrate our difference, accept that we are pioneers for new ways of loving.  Some say that those of us who have faith should abandon that faith, rejecting their culture, because of the doctrines that condemn, but why shouldn't cultures change?

We want the freedom to not have to hide your life and your love - the freedom to have a mortgage, to raise children, to marry, to celebrate anniversaries, to care for your loved ones, and to be cared for by the one you have shared a life with.  The freedom to do all these things without having to be seen as out, because there is nothing to be out of.

This is the freedom to become invisible, to blend in with others and become a part of society.  This won't be the desire of all: some thrive on rebellion, some will forever fight for change, but the choice not to follow those paths must be there.

There is a long way to go, as the old fears will linger, but millions of us can now, finally, choose to be part of society, to follow traditions, to experience all the joys and pains of love and marriage.

You know what it is, really?  It's the most important freedom of all, the freedom that so many have that it's almost always unnoticed:

It's the freedom to be boring!

Monday, 22 June 2015

A response to Donald Hoffman's TED talk.

I have been following Hoffman's work for many years, thanks to a mutual friend.

A fascinating talk (I admire good public speakers), but I disagree with his conclusions. Evolution does give accurate perceptions, but only accurate enough. Evolution is rarely wasteful. The example of the beetle getting confused about bottles was a bad one, because evolution had not been allowed to act. Given a few thousand years, the beetle would almost certainly have evolved to distinguish between female and beer bottle. If you are going to assess evolution's power to improve accuracy you have to wait for an evolutionary time scale. The beetle's vision isn't telling it where females are - after all, beetles have no concept of females! If you assume that this was what the beetle's vision was trying to do then of course you will come to the assumption that it is wildly inaccurate. The beetle's vision was only showing is what it would have to see to mate, and that had been very accurate for millions of years. The appropriate measure of accuracy is between what we experience and what we believe we experience. 

We have pretty accurate vision. The tomato really is in front of us. We throw that because we can objectively measure how far a hand has to move to reach it. Apes can accurately assess what other apes can see so that they can hide food. That hiding involves objectively accurate assessments of lines of sight. 

Of course, our vision is only accurate to a limit. We can't see the tomato's cells or its quarks. But that doesn't mean we are mistaken in chopping it up and putting it in sandwiches.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

A moral religion must support marriage equality

You may call your religion beautiful and moderate, but if it reduces some people to second-class citizens by refusing them full marriage equality, then your religion is a problem for society, causing many people to feel rejected and hated. 

I know there are problems with extreme beliefs leading to terrorism and violence, but there is also a very widespread problem with supposedly moderate religions institutionalising prejudice. I used to think that this was not a serious problem until I watched a performance of a play about 'Proposition 8', in which a mother said "no girl dreams of being a civil partner". 

That's true - why should the dreams of children who want to think of themselves as being fully accepted and respected members of family and society be crushed? Why should a child be told that he or she is second-rate, that their love isn't as real, isn't equal? That institutionalised lack of equality can and does lead to bullying of children, and worse. 

A moral religion should not collude with such rejection, should not enable such hatred. It should teach that all are equal, that loving a member of your own sex is as wonderful and as true as the love between a man and a woman. Even this atheist accept that that would be a beautiful thing for a religion to do.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Belief in god - the Q Challenge

In the Star Trek universe there is a society of beings with almost omnipotent powers, called the Q Continuum.  Each of these beings (all confusingly called 'Q') can perform what appears to be miracles.  They play with time and space at the click of their fingers.  There is nothing supernatural about the Q - in spite of their seemingly limitless powers, they are not gods.  They are certainly not worshipped or considered sources of moral absolutes, even though they occasionally be rather friendly (although they can be deeply irritating).

The Q are conceivably true.   There are no known principles of physics that could rule them out.  And because of this, I consider that believers face the 'Q Challenge':

Come up with a single example of an observable act of a god that cannot be an act of Q.

The thing is, if there is no experience that can't differentiate between a god and a Q, then parsimony insists that the explanation be a Q.  A non-supernatural Q, a flawed, capricious being utterly undeserving of worship.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Emptier than space

Space isn't empty. The view of quantum mechanics is that space is filled with things called 'fields' - basically the potential for particles to exist.  The phrases 'electromagnetic field' and 'gravitational field' are widely used.

Electromagnetic fields can be easily messed about with by us - they are the basis of all electric motors, for example, and you can feel the forces of attraction and repulsion by playing with fridge magnets.  The gravitational field is very much weaker, and we can't easily control it, for several reasons - the first is that the gravitational force per particle of matter or unit of energy is extremely small and so the force is only significant from large amounts of matter.  We can't build a hand-held source of gravitation in the same was as we can build a hand-held source of electromagnetism (a torch).  The second reason is that gravity is almost always positive - there is no convenient anti-gravity source we can use to cancel it out.

So, we have some experience of fields, but there are many more fields that we can't easily interact with without vast and expensive machines like particle colliders.    There are at least fields for each kind of particle.  There are electron fields for example.  When particles collide in colliders they shake at these fields and, depending on the energy of the collision, they may be able to produce a wave in the field, and that wave is a particle.  Shaking up the fields that fill the vacuum is the way that particles can be made, but it's not the only way.  Quantum mechanics is based on the observation that there is always uncertainty (although very precisely defined amounts).  There is uncertainty in the rippling of the quantum fields.  That uncertainty allows for waves (particles) to spontaneously appear and disappear.  These temporary waves are called 'virtual particles'.

Considering just waves in the electromagnetic field, these virtual particles - in this case particles of light - will appear at a range of wavelengths, from gamma rays to radio waves.  Empty space is filled with these fluctuations in quantum fields.

However, we know how to block ripples in the electromagnetic field - metal cannot be penetrated by either radio waves or light.  So, if you were in space and you had a metal box with you, such as a cake tin, and you closed the lid, what would be in the box?  There would be all the ripples and fluctuations of the quantum fields in the vacuum - except for the ones that could not fit!  There is no way that a radio wave of metres in length could fit into a cake tin!   So, that cake tin would be in a strange state - it would be emptier than space!

Friday, 5 June 2015

Alcoholism - the hidden disease

The sad death of Charles Kennedy highlights the common delusion that just one more drink is not going to do any harm, and that, after all, everyone is really a heavy drinker and so it can't be all that bad. T
hat was me precisely until I recognised my alcoholism and looked for treatment. 

Eventually I found a treatment that was effective and I'm now nearly 5 years sober, although I still have to be careful. I could have gone the same way as Charles Kennedy.

 Pointing out that someone is deluded about the safety of their drinking hardly ever works, the drinker has to realise that on their own. 

What I'd like to see is much, much more publicity about the the treatments available, so people can see that there is support for those who want to give up or cut back. Information has to be provided such as the problem of 'kindling', which is that giving up and then 'falling off the wagon' has a permanent effect on the brain, so that each time of giving up results in worse withdrawal symptoms.  Giving up alcohol can be dangerous if done alone, so medical advice and supervision is a good idea.

Still, I managed long-term sobriety (so far), and I am extremely weak-willed, so there is hope for all.  If you have an alcoholic friend, relative or partner, please try and be understanding.  It's a serious disease and they need support whatever their decision about future use of alcohol turns out to be.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

The Relatively bad science of Interstellar


I tried to enjoy Interstellar - it looked great - but so much of it was either wrong or simply impossible.  I feel the need to point out some of the mistakes....

1. Wormholes don't let you go into higher dimensions.  They involve curvature of space and time.  When you pass into a wormhole, just as if you pass into a black hole, the space and time around you seem completely normal to you, because they are.  That's why Relativity is called Relativity - relative to you, space and time are normal.  You don't transition into a fifth dimension, you carry on through three dimensional space and time.

2. Gravity does not have the ability to break free of time.  Gravity is very tightly connected to space and time.

3. Higher dimensional beings don't have any more ability to break free of time than we do.  They would still need to somehow invent a time machine.

4. There is no way a planet could exist that close to a black hole.  Radiation from the accretion disk (the material spiralling in to the black hole) would both knock it out of orbit and blast it to bits.

5. If there was a planet that close to a black hole, with that kind of time dilation, you would need engines of phenomenal power to get to it, as maneuvering that close to a black hole's event horizon would be extremely hard.

6. If there was a planet that close to a black hole getting off that planet and away from the black hole would need vast amounts of energy, as it would be equivalent to having to approach the speed of light.

7. If there was a planet that close to a black hole it would be close to impossible to see because the light reflected from it would be red-shifted by gravity.

That will do for now!

Monday, 1 June 2015

Remember the CPU

Computers do such incredibly complex things these days, it can be hard to remember that it's all done by a series of incredibly small switches called transistors, and all of the data processing that a computer does is a matter of deciding whether some switches should be on or off depending on the state of other switches (including the switches that make up working memory).

Computer chips these days are so complex involving typically billions of switches just in the central processor, and so they can't be designed by hand.  But decades ago the first widely used processors were designed manually and were works of art.

It's possible to see what these looked like and how they worked using various on-line simulations. My favourite is which shows the operation of a simple 8-bit processor with only thousands of switches.

Alien 'brains' among us - comb jellies

If there is any chance of us meeting intelligent aliens then it has to be that nervous systems can evolve more than just once (here).  It's possible that we have found a separate evolution of a nervous system here on Earth.

The comb jellies (Ctenophora) are jellyfish-like animals that swim by the use of beating hair - cilia - rather than pulsating their bodies as jellyfish do.
These animals have no distinct brain, just a web of neural connections that transmit signals throughout their bodies.

The classification of the Ctenophora has recently changed, and it now looks like comb jellies are unrelated to any other animal that has nerve cells.  If this is true, it's possible that the nerve cells in comb jellies evolved completely independently.  This would mean that nervous systems are not unique and the likelihood of alien organisms with at least complex behaviour is greatly increased.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

The Irish Marriage Equality vote - beyond tolerance

A wonderful quote from the Irish writer Fintan O'Toole, from John Nichols, in The Nation:

“We’ve made it clear to the world that there is a new normal—that ‘ordinary’ is a big, capacious word that embraces and rejoices in the natural diversity of humanity. LGBT people are now a fully acknowledged part of the wonderful ordinariness of Irish life,” O’Toole wrote. “It looks like a victory for tolerance. But it’s actually an end to mere toleration. Tolerance is what “we” extend, in our gracious goodness, to ‘them.’ It’s about saying ‘You do your own thing over there and we won’t bother you so long as you don’t bother us.’”
“The resounding ‘Yes’ is a statement that Ireland has left tolerance far behind,” he explained. “It’s saying that there’s no ‘them’ anymore. LGBT people are us—our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends. We were given the chance to say that. We were asked to replace tolerance with the equality of citizenship. And we took it in both arms and hugged it close.”

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Meat eating is just a tradition - let's challenge it!

 I have been thinking about the ethics of meat-eating for most of my life. Two things have been a huge influence. 1. Moving to live in the countryside and actually coming face-to-snout with the animals that we eat, recognising their characters and complex lives. 2. The amazing discoveries about animal intelligence and self-awareness. This shows us that even fish can have lives far beyond the instinctual, and even invertebrates such as cephalopods can have rich feelings including the ability to play and feel fear. Even 'dumb reptiles' such as crocodiles have been shown to have character and feelings.

I find it wrong to eat people. Broaden that a bit, and I find it wrong to eat beings - to eat animals that can love, play, and fear. There is little if any difference in the level of self-awareness of a chimp, a dolphin, a pig and a crow. It's only tradition that leads us to eat pigs but not dolphins, and tradition is simply not good enough of a reason for me. If we came across pigs today without past experience I have no doubt that the idea of eating these animals would be considered shocking, just as the idea of eating a dog is for most of us.

Up until now I have seen at least pescatarianism as a moral necessity, and I'm now having doubts about even that.

If you came across farm animals now without the traditions of eating them, if you came across these social, playful, intelligent animals, you would not eat them. We criticise, based on reason, traditional medicine, traditional treatment of women and children. Let's have the courage to challenge our traditions of farming and meat-eating. 

That's the end of my sermon!

Thursday, 21 May 2015

The ethics of mammalian brain simulation

Paul Fidalgo (a good fellow - follow him on Twitter) blogs about virtual mouse brains:

Paul's question is important:

At what point is that virtual mouse no longer “virtual,” but sentient…sentient under the law?

If we believe that the mind is the activity of the brain, then there is no functional difference between a virtual brain and a biological brain.  Because of this there are serious ethical concerns about attempts to simulate brain functions which result in awareness.  There is no reason to believe that a reasonably detailed simulation of a pain signal isn't an actual pain signal, for a certain value of 'reasonably detailed'.  We need to have discussions about this now, before we unwittingly create and possibly torture artificial consciousnesses.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Bigoted Bakers - does prosecution help the cause of equality?

A Northern Ireland bakers has been found guilty of discrimination because they refused to make a cake campaigning for gay marriage.

Is this a victory for equality?  I just don't know.  Equality eventually has to be supported by the feelings of the community in which the previously unequal live.  Does the threat and use of legislation change feelings?  It certainly is vital if the legislation is to prevent violence and bullying, but I find it difficult to see the deep harm that is caused by having a bakers turn down your custom.  It's wrong, of course, but personally I'd rather change minds by conversation.

Legislation can be a very divisive approach; it's also risky and potentially very costly.  Another way might be to make it clear in the community that a particular business discriminates, and allow (hopefully) changing public opinion to apply the pressure.

In time, views will change.  I don't know if this kind of legal action helps or hinders that process.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Why you can't go faster than the speed of light

Einstein's theories of relativity have a reputation for being complicated ideas, requiring advanced knowledge of mathematics and physics to understand.  This is true for many of the consequences of the theories, but the basic ideas are wonderfully simple.

The simplest of all is the explanation of why the speed of light is the ultimate speed limit.  It's because, from a certain point of view, it's the only speed anything ever has.

Let's get an analogy over with first.  Imagine two football players at one end of a football field.  They both start running towards the other end, and they run at exactly the same speed.  However, one of them doesn't run straight. She zig-zags back and forth.  When the player who ran straight gets to the end of the field, where is her fellow player?  Not at the end.  If there has been much zigging and zagging she might be some way from the end.

The length of the football field is time and the width is space. If you move about in space you move less through time: moving through space is a diversion from your progress through time.

How fast is our progress through time? The ultimate speed - the speed of light.  That's why the slowing of progress through time is too small to be seen for everyday speeds.  But it's there.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

The mysteries of pitcher plants

Today I managed to watch my pitcher plant ( trap a house fly.  The insect was attracted to nectar on the rim of the pitcher.  As it wandered around sipping the nectar it seemed to get unsteady.  Eventually the fly wandered too far down into the pitcher and slipped to its death.  This amazing sight led me to look up the trapping and digesting properties of these amazing plants.

There are several kinds of pitcher plants.  A couple that are commonly cultivated are the genus Nepenthes and the genus Sarracenia.  Nepenthes have pitchers that hang down from the ends of leaves; in Sarracenia the whole leaf grows into a vase shape with an overhanging lid.  I'm growing Sarracenia because they are small plants suitable for the home (and garden in most of the UK).

The number of ways that the plants acquire and digest food is considerable:

Some species secrete nectar, which may contain narcotics to disorientate and paralyse insects.

Some produce digestive enzymes, others rely on microbes to reduce the prey to nutrients.

Some act as homes for insects or amphibians whose waste products contain nutrients (such as nitrogenous compounds)

Some pitchers trap mostly dead plant material carried by the wind, and the decay of this material provides nutrients.

Some pitchers contain photosynthetic bacteria that fix nitrogen from the air, which can then be taken up by the plant when the bacteria die.

Some pitchers prevent the growth of too many bacteria in their pitchers by changing the acidity of the liquid or secreting anti-bacterial compounds.

The sheer variety of ways that these amazing  plants trap and digest food is staggering, and there is much more research needed to find out what goes on in their leafy stomachs.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Why things fall under gravity

I have come across this beautiful illustration of how gravity works both in Newton's framework and Einstein's General Relativity.

In a way, a falling object in General Relativity is obeying Newton's First Law - an object remains at rest or moves in a straight line unless disturbed by a force.  A falling object is moving in a straight line, but in curved spacetime.  As a result of moving in a straight line it moves towards a source of gravity.  Gravity isn't a force - it is a distortion of space and time that changes what it means for an object to travel in a straight line.

You might wonder why an object at rest starts falling in General Relativity if there is no force of gravity.  This is because gravity bends not just space, but time as well.  The bending mixes up space and time, so that whereas without gravity a stationary object would move only in time and so would stay where it is, with gravity some of the movement in time is switched to a movement in space.  So, what can be thought of as the object travelling in a straight line in the time direction (and so stationary) becomes the object travelling in a straight line in a mixture of time and space, and so it falls.


Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Multiple evolutions of morality

We humans have a moral sense (at least those of us who are mentally healthy).  We feel love and we feel empathy for those who we see suffering.  Biology should leave us in no doubt that this moral sense is a product of evolution, as empathy has been seen throughout the mammals - rats will put effort into decreasing the suffering of other rats, for example.

Is a moral sense unique to mammals?  If it's not, and if it has evolved independently in another group of animals this may point to morality being an expected aspect of intelligent organisms.  Not universal, perhaps, but not an unreasonable assumption.

So has a moral sense appeared in another animal group?  Yes, it has.  It's appeared in the dinosaurs.  Modern birds at least do seem to show recognisable empathic behaviour. The common ancestor of mammals and dinosaurs lived hundreds of millions of years ago, and was almost certainly not the brightest of animals, and so the existence of empathy in dinosaurs, if true, is a separate evolution.

So much that we have thought to be unique to humans - problem solving, recognition of self, a moral sense, tool building - has been found in many species of mammals.  Their discovery in dinosaurs could be an indication that self-aware intelligence is common in complex animals.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

"Don’t you dare be a weed in England’s new garden"

A friend who occasionally posts witty poems of a few lines on Facebook came up with something longer after the UK election.  I think it's rather good.

A poem by Fenella Fudge

The people made the worst of choices
Screw the poor and mute their voices
And the council mowed the buttercups
Sowing fear in a fractured nation
Seeding lies for subjugation
Don’t spare the rod, crack the hunt whip
Steady as she goes, don’t sink the hardship
And the council mowed the buttercups
Don’t grow old or lose your job
There’ll be no mercy from the ‘all-right Jack’ mob
Cleanse social housing for a new ivory tower
‘Affordable’ redefined through weasel word power
And the council mowed the buttercups
Ramp up secrecy and litigious immunity
Grab national assets with selfish impunity
Breed out conscience in privileged pairs
What was ‘ours’ will change to ‘theirs’
And the council mowed the buttercups
The zero hours labourer cuts the park grass
Regiments nature with each scything pass
Trashes new blooms and crushes hope’s traces
Slashes their cheerful upturned bright faces
Because the council mowed the buttercups
As entitlement blossoms and flinty hearts harden
Don’t you dare be a weed in England’s new garden

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Why consciousness doesn't create reality

Recently, New Scientist asked if our conscious minds create reality.  This role for consciousness has a long history in physics, and had been considered by some of the greatest experts in quantum mechanics. But it's wrong, and it's easy to see why it's wrong. It's wrong because of baseball bats and whisky.

One day sometime in the early 70s I was outside with the rest of my class trying to play baseball (or at least something like baseball).  We weren't very good.  One batter lost his grip and the bat went flying and hit me in the neck.  It hurt, but I was ok.  It could have been a lot worse.  Baseball bats are a convenient weapon.
If applied to the head with enough force they can cause unconsciousness.  Consciousness can be disrupted by physical events.  

If you want to experience effects of the physical on consciousness in a more subtle way, have a sip or two of a strong drink. Whisky will do.  The alcohol molecules interact with brain cells to produce changes in mood and perception.  Enough alcohol molecules and conscious switches off.

Even if we don't accept that consciousness is the physical activity of certain brain cells, it's clear that consciousness is the result of such physical activity.  Consciousness can't create reality because without physical reality there is no consciousness.  Consciousness doesn't create baseball bats and bottles of whisky; they can destroy consciousness.  

Consciousness that we know of either is, or is the result of, physics in action.  It's the wrong type of thing to have the role of creator. 

Friday, 1 May 2015

XML is good, really!

It's long been fashionable to dislike XML.  I have never really understood why.  XML was designed to solve many problems with data formats - sadly, problems that are being re-introduced with newer XML alternatives.  Let's take a look at XML and see what it really can offer.

XML is an extensible mark-up language.  It's designed so that an XML format can be added to without breaking existing usage.   So many legacy formats have become unusable because they were inflexible, because extensions break assumptions about factors such as record sizes.

XML has name spaces.  Data from different origins can be combined into a single XML format without conflict.  This allows for things like data objects embedded in documents.

XML is human readable.   XML was designed so that archived data stored as XML would always be readable by at least a human, and so data would never be irretrievable.  XML marks up all aspects of data - there are no invisible assumptions such as column sizes or column meanings that are so often present in other formats.

XML explicitly starts and terminates all items of data.  There are no assumed data separators such as tabs or line ends.

XML is easy to validate and process by software.  Any XML document from any source can be validated because of the rules of tag and attribute use.

XML can include a semantic description of a specific format: a DTD (Document Type Definition) or schema reference.  This allows for format validation in addition to general document structure validation.

XML is verbose because it was specifically designed to be readable - it's not a flaw, it's a design feature.   Compare a well-designed XML specification to typical JSON content - it should be clear which is the more  intelligible format.  For example, a JSON document doesn't contain information about its semantics (as XML can), and so key names can be arbitrary.  CSV (comma-separated variable) format is a horror - just consider the countless legacy CSV documents that are now useless because their meaning has been lost.

XML is a valuable way to transmit and store information, with major benefits for data integrity and longevity.  It should be even more widely used than it already is.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Depersonalisation - the fear of self.

There's a mental condition called 'depersonalisation' that can be, for many, very distressing.  It's a failure of the mind to correctly deal with its own existence, leading to feelings of unfamiliarity about the familiar.  I'm going to have a go at describing what it is like, as I'm a sufferer.

Imagine you are actively involved in social interactions, perhaps having conversations with friends in a bar.  The atmosphere is happy.  Suddenly, you feel a chill.  A wave of anxiety passes through you.  You start to sweat.  At the same time, your perspective changes.  You aren't in a bar having conversations, instead you are in a cinema, watching friends having conversation.  They look at the camera and mention your name.  You hear a voice respond.  Your voice.  Not wanting to appear deranged, you try and forget this new perspective, and the conversations seem to carry on.  You calm down, but you can't get the feeling of distance out of your head.  It's there, all the time, waiting to pounce.  Later on you try and recall what happened.  Your mind starts to whirl.  You imagined yourself in a cinema.  But what is the cinema?  It's your own mind, of course.  But if the cinema is your own mind, who is the person sitting in the cinema, watching your own life go by?  It's your own mind, of course...

You realise you have been going through life surrounded by the strangeness of yourself.  Reality is divided into two parts: the universe, the film running on the screen, and the you, the cinema, the projectionist, the director, the audience and one of the actors.  You can never escape this feeling.

As a child, I found that I needed to start wearing glasses.  Putting them on, I had a shock.  I realised that the glasses were separating me from the universe.

This is not a state of delusion, not solipsism.  You know what is real, and you know others are real.  But the deep strangeness of your existence is there all your life.  There can be long periods during which this strangeness can be accepted as normal, and there is no distress.  But during times of tiredness, anxiety and depression it can come back with a vengeance.

It's a phobia of your own existence.  It can't be run away from, it can't be avoided.  It has to be tolerated, minute by minute, day by day, year after year.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Why the mystery of consciousness doesn't tell us anything useful.

Back to the subject of qualia. Perhaps this way of looking at things best explains what my position is: A developing human brain gathers ever more experiences about the world it lives in. Every thought in the brain appears because of the interaction of brain cells with each other and with input from the senses. This direct mapping of thoughts to brain cell activity is of fundamental importance in understanding what it means to say we are conscious. It means that for every thought there are at least two ways of describing what is going on: at the level of thoughts, and at the level of brain cell activity. Both ways of describing what is happening are true, but one way may be more revealing at any given time. Anyway, as the brain develops thoughts may arise about the nature of conscious experience. Such a thought may be "what are these things which I shall call 'qualia'?". There are two interesting things happening here. One is that the brain now contains a concept of 'qualia', and the other is that there is a reason why the brain now contains that concept. Some process of thought, some reflection on experience, led to that concept.
The thing to remember is that all thoughts have an existence at the level of brain cell activity. What happens at that level is necessarily completely due to biology and so due to physics. There is no mysterious extra influence involved. And so, there is a complete explanation based on brain cell activity as to why the brain develops thoughts about conscious experience. and the concept of 'qualia' has a purely physical representation in brain states. Brain states can, of course, represent other things, including things that don't have physical existence, but for that representation of a thing to be correct, the brain has to contain true representations of the characteristics of that thing. For example, to have a correct representation of a dog, a brain must contain the information that a dog is a furry four-legged wolf descendant.
What about the characteristics of qualia does the brain have to represent for the concept of qualia to be correct? This is where the idea of qualia involving some extra property of the world runs into problems. How can a brain have a correct representation of the real property of something being more than just physics? Some say that qualia are something special because of what it feels like to have them. How can a brain truly represent that a feeling is that special? It can't. A brain can contain the belief that a feeling is special, but that belief can never be justified by evidence. That belief has no foundation other than a feeling of mystery.
This is my position: we can speculate all we like about the nature of consciousness, but we have to realise that our very thoughts have physical substance. There is no such thing as an internal sense of the non-physical, there is only the understandable feeling of mystery when we contemplate what it is like to be a self-aware being, and mystery says nothing about what is real.
[This is the core of the book that I hope to finish sometime... it's about what it means to be a human given what science has shown us about our place in the physical world.]