Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Governmental Ethics: Socialism and Morality

Like our neighbour to the south, Canada has a long, storied, and often sordid history with our First Nation's population. Like many colonial states, the incoming European settlers (from whom I am at least twice-descended) supplanted the native population, and there have been at least two centuries of war and bloodshed that followed, followed by stark oppression, followed by a persisting and modern undercurrent of less-than-favourable relations.

I spent the first part of my life on Canada's far western coast, in an area with a relatively large native population, which is where I picked up my first (rudimentary) understanding of the traditions and customs of Canada's native people. It wasn't until I moved out east, where I live now, and got a little older, that I started to understand why those traditions had faded into ceremonial memory as opposed to being present-lived.

Canada's treatment of her original forebears has been historically poor, and even now is less than ideal. For example, Attawapiskat First Nation has recently declared a state of emergency over a very, very major housing crisis. Housing in winter is a serious enough proposition in Canada, but Attawapiskat is on the shores of James Bay, in Ontario, which is off of the Hudson Bay, and is one of the coldest parts of the country south of the Arctic Circle. Having a roof over one's head isn't enough in that kind of environment, and adequate housing in such an area isn't just an improvement of the quality of life, but it's essential for day-to-day survival.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Actually, We Don't Know Anything.

If I were to ask you how many states of matter there are, I would expect one of two answers, without knowing a thing about your age, and making the assumption you're in a non-physical-sciences field. You might say three, or four. I historically always went for "four".

Well, it turns out I'm not remotely correct abut that. There are the four that we've always heard of: solids, liquids, gasses, and plasma. There are also superfluids and super-solids. Plasmas are a sort of "class" of states of matter, including typical plasmas and quark-gluon plasmas. Then there are the extreme low-temperature states such as Bose-Einstein Condensates, Quantum Hall states and the so-called strange matter.

I bring up this rather non-exhaustive list to make a point. We really don't know anything. Not a thing. And that's fascinating, if only because it means there's always something new to learn, even about something we always used to say was "basic" and "certain". How then can you say to be certain?

I ask questions because I don't know. Here's something else I don't know: What do you feel like hearing about over the next week? Well, the ~65% of you who aren't programs hitting the website to spread around your domain names, anyway. I imagine "hitbots" can't leave comments.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Following Up: Muon Propagation Restraints

So, and ahead of schedule, I've read the two papers I talked about in the previous post.

Photon Finish: Mechanical Analysis Suggests Opera Results Incorrect

I'd be lying if I didn't say I expected this, but another laboratory, lead by M. Antonello, has published a paper, not yet peer reviewed, which claims to refute the idea that the OPERA neutrinos are travelling at super-luminal velocities and suggests they are instead "merely" travelling at the speed of light. The study is based on an idea analogous to Cerenkov Radiation, where a superluminal particle should throw off lower-energy photons as it moves... an idea that has also not been peer-reviewed or demonstrated. The Cerenkov-Analogue was presented in a paper by Andrew Cohen and Sheldon Glasgow.

The papers are provided above in Portable Document Format, once again courtesy of Arxiv. The language is very technical and I'm not done with reading any paper yet. I hope to have them finished by the end of the night so that I can comment more effectively.

Monday, November 21, 2011

A New Kind of Spam: Hitbots?

I was going through the blog's traffic information and I found some really interesting trends that are leading me to suspect there's a new type of spam advertising making the rounds: hit-bots. Simple computer programs that point a browser at a website over and over again, generating hits. The idea, on a much higher scale, is the basis behind what's called a Distributed Denial of Service attack... on a lower scale though, it generates enough traffic to catch the attention of a curious website admin.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Question of Leisure

Of late, I've pondered the difference between having a healthy appreciation for leisure, and being truly lazy. To be fair, I'm aware that I place a high value on the former and a negative stigma of sorts on the latter. I think there is a certain extent to which one must use the principle of fairness in considering the question. Certainly, the company one keeps will make it easier or more difficult to be productive and have a strong work ethic, but they  can also make it easier to spend your entire weekend seated, most comfortably, in your favourite chair, on any of a number of pursuits.

I'm not saying that hanging out with one's friends, playing games, watching the television or surfing the web are inherently bad things or that working and keeping the hands and mind genuine busy are inherently bad things. I'm thinking that there must be a balance, a work-leisure or work-life balance, that is different for every person... but I imagine there are bounds.

In any event, and within the context of my own life, I know I could work harder than I have been. I do it on a regular basis. The question is what is sustainable for the next year, or five, or decade, or lifetime. I could run an experiment, of course, but that might be a bit to anal.

Just thinking out loud.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ah, Interesting!

My old chemistry teacher in high school never let us say "Oops"... everything was always interesting. That just struck me as worth mentioning.

The world of physics was shaken up a month or two ago when researchers involved with the CERN and OPERA laboratories announced that they'd first observed Neutrinos (very small non-interacting particles that have all sorts of wierd physics attached) to have passed c, the speed of light through a vacuum and the long-held theoretical speed limit of the universe. At the time, I agreed with most that such results were interesting, but I speculated that they were subject to some form of an error or another.

Well, it turns out I'm wrong. A multinational team lead by Thomas Adam of the University of Strasbourg's IPHC laboratory (who works on the OPERA project) has published new results. These new results still haven't been peer-reviewed, but they strongly suggest confirmation of the original results. Neutrinos travelling faster than they should be able to would open up all sorts of very interesting avenues in science, even if they open no new practical applications.

The science is still developing, but here's the original report of the group, in all it's jargon-laced glory. As far as I know I violate no copyright or intellectual property laws in posting this link. I should make it clear that I'm not affiliated with the host or the authors of this paper in any way.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Name of God

If I've never gone so far as to say it, there was a time in my past when I practised the neo-pagen pseudo-religion of Wicca, which was about as free-form and self-directed as spirituality can be. That's nothing against Wiccans, mind you, but the disciplines weren't for me.

What stuck, however, was an interest in things most aptly described as "occult". Anything old or arcane, really, though there's often a direct connection between these ideas and the idea of magic. In the course of this study, one theme in particular seems to have been a surprisingly common trend: the importance of a name.

Occultists of ages both past and present have continuously come around to the idea that the true name of something had a special power over that thing. Demonologists, as some call themselves, have believed that the names of various spirits, up to and including the angels themselves, were a key component of the rites to summon those powers into the material world, and even binding them to their service. The Dharma faiths of the east recognized the central importance of the Om, a key mantra said to encompass all reality, and in some Hindu sects, it is considered to be the name of God. The Abrahamic faiths considered the true name of God to be too holy to pronounce, and even his known name, YHWH, is best left unpronounced, or so it is said. Even Benedictine monks, at least in part, have a belief in the importance of names, and at least one monk from Worth Abbey in England holds that a passage in Revelations states that everyone's true name is recorded on a white stone in heaven, and advises others to try and find this true name.

The idea of a name is intimately connected with what a thing is, even from a purely linguistic view. Names can be simple or complex, and a thing can go by many names, with each name being a different face, sometimes an entirely different thing. Sometimes these differences are a matter of presentation, as a forum user hiding behind a moniker, but we must remember that all of these names show a kernel of truth, and are, in one way or another, rooted in the identity of the thing so named. A laptop is properly a computer, but that hardly tells the whole story. What is it's operating system? Who manufactured it? How is it configured uniquely by the user? This is so with God.

I'm supposed to use these posts to make an observation about the nature of the world, so here it is: the goal of the spirit is to learn the name of God.  Anyone who has ever taking a moment to examine their spirituality has, at some point, had to make the distinction between spirituality and religion, if only because the various religions of the world are so disparate. One is tempted to make the mistake that anyone one religion is necessarily more true or totally true as compared to the others, but I hold that this is not necessarily true.

Those who study the ancient history of man and religion as a whole have found, increasingly so, that religions are increasingly recursive. Taking our own familiar Abrahamic faith as an example, we can show that Islam developed out of Christianity (where Christ appears as a prophet), and that Judaism was the forerunner of Christianity, but we also know that there are forerunners to Judaism, and forerunners to the forerunners, and so on and so forth, to the point where it is almost tempting to say that the most accurate of the religions would be the oldest... except that there are no records of any of those ancient faiths outside of a few specious archaeological remnants.

However, a very clever woman and I recently hypothesised, and had done so in the past, that when we finally die and become aware of the true nature of God, we'll find quite the amalgamation of the lessons of all faiths, and the identity of god will be quite a bit different from the paternalistic elder image we so freely associate with him. The idea of recursive faiths moving closer together the further back in time one goes seems to support this conclusion.

I wish to learn the name of God. I think, on some level, everyone does. If only I had some idea how to go about that... thoughts?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The History of Everything (And why it is Inspiring)

Around 13.8 billion years ago, things began to happen. All of matter, space, energy, and time existed prior to this in a compressed state known as a quantum singularity. 13.8 billion years ago, than singularity entered a state commonly referred to as the Big Bang. Time and space expanded at an exponential rate and began to be filled by the remaining matter and energy. 13.7 billion years ago, the first stars began to shine in the heavens. 4.4 billion years ago, matter accretes to form a metallic planet about 1 AU away from its sun, which we affectionately call Earth.

Around 3 billion years ago, the first primitive cells begin to appear, and around 2.8 billion years ago, the first multicellular colonies of cyanobacteria appear in the fossil record. 1.2 billion years ago, we see the beginning of plants and animals, with the development of mitochondria and chloroplasts. 530 million years ago sees the start of the Cambrian Explosion, one of the most dramatic examples of speciation in earth's history. By the time it ended 450 million years ago, Earth had seen the first of the vertebrates, and the first of the terrestrial plants.

370 Million years ago, the very first land vertebrates slither out of the oceans. They are called tetrapod, the ancestors to every other vertebrate living on land. 330 million years ago, the first species of amniotes appear, the first to be able to lay their eggs on dry land and have them survive. 67 million years later, the first synapsids appear, the first precursors to the theraspids, who, 200 million years ago, gave rise to the very first mammals... who were probably Hadrocodium.

14 million years ago, we saw the rise of the most recent common ancestor of all the apes, ourselves included. And between 5 and 6 million years ago, we saw the Australopithecines diverge between genus Homo, our own, and Genus Pan, the chimpanzees.

195,000 years ago or so, the first anatomically modern examples of Homo sapiens sapiens appear in Africa, and 145,000 years later, they show the first examples of the modern thought process. 7300 years ago, the first urban society is formed in Mesopotamia. Within the last 6000 years, recorded history begins as writing becomes commonplace among the learned. 2350 years ago, Aristotle is making his contributions to western thinking, including the foundations of the scientific method, upon which our modern society's marvellous technologies, medicine, and understanding are based. 1100 years ago, the first examples of early English appear. 144 years ago, Canada confederates. Within those 144 years, two world wars begin and conclude, mankind learns to fly, walks on the moon, maps the human genome, develops the simple computer, builds the internet, launches a cloud of artificial satellites in concert with radio towers (also developed in that time period) making it possible for any of 5 billion people in 212 different countries to contact any of their number remotely, instantaneously. We learn to split the atom, leading to revelations both good and bad; to send entire libraries, almost instantaneously, along strands of glass the width of a hair. We've seen outside our own solar system and mapped planet mars.

The sum of recorded human history makes up, quite roughly, four billionths of the sum total of the time passed since, well, time started passing. And the modern era, depending on your definition, makes up about 2.4% of all of recorded history. In that time, we've gone from the age of the monolithic train to the ubiquitous automobile, from the first, clumsy powered flight to putting men and machines on other worlds. What used to fill an entire room in terms of processing power now fits on the radius of a human blood-cell, and 5 billion of us hold in our pockets a processing power greater than the moon landers had in their entire vessels.

Some would look at these time-scales and argue that humanity is an insignificant player in the overall scheme, and that argument is correct. However, in the scale of the human experience, the frame of reference that one argues matters most, we are significant. We, the temporal 2.4% of history, have done things our ancestors could only dream, and in some cases, could not even conceive. And of those things we have done, we have only opened more questions than are answered.

A Proper Cup of Tea

This morning, for whatever reason, I am reminded of the character Arthur Dent, of Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame, who spent a good portion of the book (and the majority of the film) in the quest for a proper cup of tea. Not because of any real difficulty in sourcing the proper cup of tea (though admittedly the beverage at hand is Root Beer, not tea), but because of the sentiment.

There are little things in our life to which we become accustomed and which are, consciously or subconsciously, a source of pleasure in our lives, and which the removal thereof can place a strange and often unidentified stress upon our lives. It's not addiction in the medical expense, because there's no withdrawal. We are simply accustomed to them. They universally cost us next to nothing to maintain, but a time almost always comes when we don't have them, and we feel off-balance for the rest of the day.

For me, it's a cold root beer, a cup of hot earl grey with lemon, a Schaeffer filled with silky smooth ink, or a hot bath. What are your little things? Leave a comment below.

The Perfect Cup of Tea: Twining's Earl Grey, steeped overhot for about two minutes, taken with the juice of 1/8th to 1/6th of a fresh lemon.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Man, 52, Gets 5 Years in Record Child Porn Bust

Original Article with the CBC

As I was cruising the news this morning, I decided to avoid the usual subjects that were titillating the class, most of which involved the birth of babies in less-than-ideal circumstances, to put it lightly and mildly. I was reading about the eviction of the Occupy protesters from their park in New York, when a New Brunswick headline caught my eye.

Douglas Stewart, a 52-year-old man from Moncton (which is about two hours or so from home), was sentenced either this morning or yesterday evening after having plead guilty to the collection, access, and distribution of the largest collection of child pornography ever ceased by law in Canada. He was given 5 years for the collection, and four and a half years each for the other two offences. That's 14 years total, which at his age would leave him 66 and in dire need of an identity transplant.

The thing is, the judge in question ordered that the sentences be served concurrently... meaning he'll only actually spend five years in jail. Hardly a fitting punishment, considering the crime. While I am aware that such crimes are often punished by the guilty's prison-mates, I do not condone that sort of behaviour, nor do I consider it justice.

And, while crimes against children generally make me incandescent with rage, I'm afraid there is a larger issue at hand here, something which runs a little deeper than a mentally-ill man being overly coddled by the state. The majority Conservative government lead by Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently enacted legislation that amended the Criminal Code, the federal crime laws. In particular, the amendment framed changes to drug legislation that included longer sentencing for trafficking in narcotics, including marijuana. Under these new rules, it's possible to spend longer in jail for possessing less pot than you could smoke on a sunny Friday afternoon than for holding a child pornography collection including 4.5 million explicitly sexual images of children, some of which are as young as two years old.

I'm not advocating that anyone smoke marijuana or make use of harder drugs, but it seems surprising to me that the political party which brands itself as Canada's moral pulse cares more about people trying to tune out for a few hours than little girls being sexually exploited. Now, admittedly, that argument is a bit of a strawman, but I think it is a relevant one. If the drug problem in Canada is as problematic as everyone seem think it is, it still can't possibly be more of a crisis than child pornography. To amend the Criminal Code to stiffen penalties for one without even addressing the other sends a very different message.

And before anyone asks, I'm not a Liberal. I'm not a Green, either, or a New Democrat. I'm not a member of a political party or especially strongly aligned with any particular one. I'm what you might call an independent. I vote the issues that matter to me. This isn't about the Conservative Party. This is about the balance of the law in Canada, and the things we seem to consider just. If anyone believes, for even a moment, that a collection of pornography of that size and grade could be collected without harming the children involved, I would suggest that person does not know nearly enough about the issue, and should consider an education on the matter. And if anyone believes, for even a moment, that the drug problem is a bigger problem than taking care of children in this country, than we as a society need to examine our consciences.

Monday, November 14, 2011

To Put it Another Way: Maturity for Tweens

"You're a good man: you don't have to act like it. You're a good father; you don't have to act like it. You're the president; you don't have to act like it. You're not plain-spoken, you're not 'just folks'; do not, do not, do not act like it."
I wish I could say I was quoting some of my own work, but it would be rather dishonest. The above quote is from The West Wing, and I suppose having some context would be helpful. One of the President's advisor, his communications director (who is possibly my Fourth favourite character on the show after the Chief of Staff, Deputy Chief of Staff and the President himself) was having a rather frank discussion with him in the oval office after a flubbed speech. Trying to avoid being quoted on a subject he wished to avoid, the president had given a very non-committal, meaningless response. For those who haven't seen the show, this particular present was a Rhodes Scholar and a Nobel Laureate, so an unintelligent non-answer looks rather silly from him.

To put it another way, he was trying to be that which he was not. And there's something of a problem with that.

We are who we are. There's no way to get around it. We're angry people, happy people, hyper people, morose people, dumb people, smart people, strong people, and weak people. We come in all shapes, sizes, and colours. We can't always change who we are, and so, we have to embrace it.

Many people take that lesson though, and run in the wrong direction with it. Being a happy person is not license to spend all day bouncing off the walls, and being an angry person (sad as I am to admit it) isn't license to grab the stupid person beside you, who asks all of the really tangential questions during already boring lectures, and bash their head against the table. Embrace your traits, yes, but embrace them constructively.

I'm an angry person, at least to some extent. I have a short fuse that's a familial trait and it's aggravated by whatever disorder the state decides to call it this week. To take that constructively is to acknowledge that I am an angry person and to actively seek amicable solutions to the things that make my angry. And now, suddenly, I'm no longer angry, but instead proactive.

This is a major point to understand for the pursuit of that elusive value we call maturity. If you are a lazy person, consider establishing a method by which you can maintain a reasonable standard of living with less work... without sacrificing anything you're responsible for. If you're irresponsible, well... I'd advise developing the trait. In such a case, another quote from the same program might be of more value.

"Act as if you have faith, and faith will be given to you. To put it another way: Fake it until you make it."

Shooting the Colosseum: A Milestone

It was brought to my attention by a very patient friend that the previous post regarding the near pass of meteor 2005 YU55 was my fiftieth post here at A&G. I wanted to take the time to thank everyone now, though a more substantive post will be forthcoming.

Monday, November 7, 2011

It's Like Shooting at the Roman Colosseum

... and overshooting the Vatican.

Tomorrow Night (assuming you leave in Greenwich Mean Time), a 400 metre asteroid (2005 YU55) is passing within about 324 000 km (or 201 000 Miles) of Earth, the closest pass by any such object of comparable size until the year 2028.

It's not the largest asteroid to ever make such a pass (or even strike Earth), and certainly not the last, but unfortunately, conditions just wont be ideal for viewing. It will be too close to dusk, too close to the light thrown off by the moon, and generally too small to view with the naked eye or binoculars. A good telescope with a diameter of six inches or more might let you view it. For professional astronomers, this is an excellent opportunity to get images of the object at resolutions of up to two meters (that's per pixel.), or about the height of a fully grown adult male.

Now, I realize anyone who's been listening to me over the last few weeks (the lengthening nights always get me thinking about astronomy) is going to realize that 324 000 km is the width of an astronomical hair. It's closer than the mean orbit of the moon. But it's still like shooting at the Colosseum in Rome and missing by six kilometers (which, for reference, would take a fast person a little over an hour to walk. In point of fact, if you made that abysmal shot, you'd have shot closer to the Vatican City than to the Colosseum, in terms of what you managed to hit. It's still 324 000 km, regardless of whether or not it's small on an astronomical level.

For those of you lucky enough to own a sufficiently large telescope, enjoy. For me, well... I'll probably be studying for my accounting test.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Introduction to Rationality I: Experiments

You know what? I've been throwing around the word 'rationality' since we've started here, and I've never actually bothered to explain it, so from time to time I'm going to explain a few key points. As a general summary of what might be expected, let's take it as read that I find rationality to be deeply rooted in two complimentary disciplines: science (by which is meant the ability to confirm hypotheses using imperical data), and logic (by which is meant the ability to resolve conflicting but unmeasurable statements using analogues).

Today, though, I want to talk about a particular, and very central, concept: The Experiment. Fundamentally, there are only ever two kinds of experiments: Thought Experiments, which are a discipline of Philosophy, and the unrelated Material Experiments, that are a discipline (and, in fact, the foundation) of science.

Material Experimentation is often called the scientific method, and it is the only reliable way of gathering information about the physical world.* A material experiment uses the manipulation of a single variable in order to test a hypothesis, which is an educated guess based on observation of the material world. This imposes a number of pros and cons on material experimentation.

*There is also statistical analysis, which is useful (within degrees) for predicting the behavior of human systems, in fields like urban planing, political science, marketing, economics, and the like. We won't discuss that much.


  • Reliability: A properly-performed experiment offers reliable, repeatable, and verifiable evidence in favour of a hypothesis, or a final and definitive refutation of the same.
  • Direct Translation: An experiment can (and should) be readily understood by the person(s) performing it. In fact, one of the strongest advantages of an experiment is that it directly translates into knowledge. In this way, experimentation is the direct connection between the material and the mental.
  • Quantification: An experiment will always include quantitative data, which is data that can have a numerical value attached to it, a key component of measurement and the basis of the idea of empirical evidence.
  • Objectivity: A properly performed experiment is objective. The manner of the test should be so controlled as to make it impossible to introduce a bias into the system, save for whatever bias exists in the variable you are attempting to measure.
  • Labour Intensive: Setting up a proper experiment takes time, materials, effort, and thought. Often, experimentation is beyond the scope of the average person for any combination of those factors. Fortunately, there are research scientists who make a living performing experiments of all sorts and their results are published and generally available from your public library, if nothing else. Never the less, some experiments are cheap and simple enough that even an amateur scientist could take part. A list of such ideas might be a topic for another time.
  • Increasing Complexity: The more rigorous the experiment or the more precise the idea, the more work is involved, and, proportionately, the more complex the experiment becomes. An experiment to determine the most effective plant food for your tomatos might be very easy to do. An experiment to determine the molecular structure of an exotic new enzyme or protein is very complex. Climate modelling is one of few applications for which we still construct computers that fill entire buildings, at least as far as complexity is concerned. In short, the further removed a hypothesis comes from a person's day-to-day life, the greater the expert knowledge they will need in order to decipher the results.
  • Verification: Even the most disciplined person can make a mistake, and sometimes a source of bias in an experiment is overlooked. Because of this, scientists frequently perform experiments that other groups have already performed, to either verify or refute their results. Such processes are time-consuming, and for the amateur scientist who has developed his own experiment, it can often be difficult to find anyone to attempt to re-create it.
Conversely, there is the idea of a Thought Experiment. It is exactly what it sounds like: a test of a hypothesis without an actual material experiment. This is often useful in the study of ethics, or in fields where experimentation would be largely impossible, such as the famous  Schrödinger's cat experiment. A thought experiment is not merely thinking over an idea to see if it seems to make sense, however. Thought experiments can and must be backed up with calculations based on the existing science.

For a less abstract example, let me explain a form of thought experiment we use all the time in business... the Business Case. A company wants to know if it should move forward with a new product line, expansion, or just about anything else. Before it does so, it gathers every sort of applicable information and has it analysed statistically. Everything from consumer behavior to traffic patterns to engineering limitations is under consideration. The various options are all considered with respect to a number of dependant variables, and the most favourable option is chosen.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Pro-Life Logic Snarl

A somewhat prominent youtube user named cdk007 ran a video recently where he posited an interesting argument that I want to address, going something along these lines:
Let's assume you are pro-life. Are you also anti-death penalty? Now, many will argue that the two are not equivalent, that abortion is death death of a perfectly innocent human being, while the death penalty is used only on adults who have committed terrible acts. However, statistics suggest that a certain number of the people on death row are acquitted each year as evidence of their innocence comes forward.
There's a lot here. First, the premise is clear: you cannot be pro-life and also pro-Death Penalty. that much, at least, is true, if not tautological. The reason he gets to make this argument is because of the incorrect use of the term "pro-life" and the political landscape of the United States, which I presume is his home. Opposition to abortion generally tends to be seen most strongly in socially conservative areas of the USA, which is the same with a pro-death penalty attitude. It creates an image of a paradox, to be sure. We must be clear to distinguish between being Con-Abortion and Pro-Life. The two terms do not mean the same thing and the difference should be clear to those with even a cursory understanding of the meanings of "pro" and "con".

There is a very real point to be made here. To those who are actually pro-life, the death penalty should be abhorrent. Humans are fallible, and that includes our judges and politicians - of that, nobody needs to be convinced. Further, just because the conditions for the death penalty may appear to be justifiable within one district, that is not always the case. In many majority-muslim states, it is the penalty for a range of sins, which are criminal under Sharia Law. Closer to home, however, and no less relevant, jurisdictions in the United States still execute the mentally handicapped. Is it fair to kill someone for being incapable of controlling their own actions? Too big of a question for me, to be sure, at least for the moment. If only we saw the same people who blockade abortion clinics blockade prison execution facilities.

The argument continues, however.
How about war? Surely, the argument can be made that wars can be fought in self defence. But how can you be pro-war if there can be no guarantee that no civilians are caught in the crossfire.
Firstly, I'm not sure anyone can be categorized as "pro-war". Let me recant that. I'm not sure any reasonable person can be. War is bad, for any of a number of reasons, and whether you base your decisions on compassion or on reason, war is simply, emphatically, wrong. But it will happen, it has always happened, and it will likely continue to happen, so long as there are people on earth who are not reasonable.

I suspect a certain amount of the reason for constructing this argument in this way had to do with the deeper question of moral absolutes. I'm not accusing CDK of any sort of intellectual dishonesty by saying that, but it is a point that needs addressing. Christianity is often associated with the idea of the moral absolute, of the absolute rules of "right and wrong" that generally align with what is found in scripture (though arguments often ensue about how a given scripture should be interpreted).  The question of moral absolutes has no definite answer, which is the first clue that it contains a logical fallacy: if there is such a thing as absolute right and absolute wrong, why can't we test that?

I am not a moral absolutist, because I believe that the needs of society often outweigh the needs of the individual. I believe that many of the things an absolutist would consider to be absolutely wrong are inherently wrong. Killing a person is wrong. Killing people from the other society that is trying to forcibly subjugate your own is self-defence. It's dark, undesirable, but necessary. Nobody likes it that way, but until society finds a way to keep the warring factions of the world from going at it, it will be necessary. That's where the phrase "necessary evil" comes from. It's wrong, yes. It's justified.

There can be no same justification for abortion. Abortion does not serve the interest of society in any way other than to limit the impacts of population growth upon our infrastructure, and there are other, better ways to tackle the problem of the ever-expanding human population than to start killing off our own.

I am reasonably assured that most of my readers will be at odds to or disturbed by the concept of justifiable wrong. It is disturbing. It is saying, in effect, that there are cases in which right and wrong no longer apply, and self-preservation becomes the only essential concern. But that is what we are made to do, on the smallest levels that can still be considered life. Our only biological goal is to survive long enough to reproduce.

Reason, Science, Morals, and Faith are our ways of reaching beyond our biology, of reaching the next step of evolution. The universe tends toward entropy, toward increasing complexity, and even as our increases in understanding bring order to the chaos, we find new places to reach, to achieve. It is time for humans, as a society, collectively and as a whole species, to reach ahead. To become the next level of intelligent life. In earlier times, we thought it was our tools that make us unique, but we no longer have the monopoly. We must become sentient in more than craft. We were the species that went from the first powered flight, to walking on the surface of the moon, in less than a century. Why can't we do it again? Why can't we go from morality for the sake of abstract concepts to morality for the sake of society? We all seem to agree, with very few exceptions, on how people ought to behave around each other, or at least we claim to all agree. Why can't we act like it?

[i]Ab intra, ad maiorem Dei gloriam.[/i]

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Unknowns Are All Around Us

I have a reputation among those who have known me for some time as a bit of a nerd (or a geek, depending on whose parlance you're using), and for good reason. I have always been fascinated by the things I do not know. I studied chemistry because I didn't know what happened when you took the smallest thing you could see and cut it in half, which lead to me studying about atoms when I didn't know what happened when you chopped up molecules  and then subatomic particles, and then their constituent parts, and so on. I studied astronomy because I didn't know what stars were made of. I studied physics because I didn't know why hitting the drum louder made a louder noise. I study philosophy because I don't understand how chemical reactions, on any level of complexity, can lead to free will (or at least the illusion thereof). I studied faith because I couldn't understand why people would pray. I studied history because I didn't understand why people said it repeated itself. I studied theoretical mathematics because I didn't understand how you could ever be certain that, in all cases, the square of the hypotenuse on a right-angled triangle would be equal to the sum of the squares of the other sides. I studied computers because I didn't understand how programs of ever-increasing capacity could be resolved into a series of switches being turned on and off. I studied metal-working because I didn't know how you could ever hope to machine things on such fine scales, I studied mechanics because I couldn't understand how you could turn a spring (whose release of energy is constant and rapid) into a clockwork, and I studied cooking because I didn't know why rosemary (which you could never eat by itself) made beef taste so good.

And the general trend in any study, whether casual or immersive, professional or amateur, full-time or night-study, is to reach ever and ever deeper into the field of the unknowns. My reading over the last few weeks has concerned itself largely with the way in which science has derived the shapes of molecules without being able to directly observe them on any visual level.

Every now and then, though, life jumps up and slaps you in the face like you called its mother something uncouth. I was cruising through the internet on a quest to learn a little something or other about orbital mechanics for a game I was playing, and, taking a break, I wound up doing what I often do, which is cruise youtube. There, I stumbled upon a youtube video, again by Thunderf00t, with the rather grandiose claim of having been the first bit of video ever captured of a particular chemical phenomenon.

It's entirely possible he's right, but what was more astounding was what the phenomenon was. He was filming the reaction of one of the alkali metals (lithium, if I recall) with water... something just about every amateur chemist has heard of, and probably seen himself. Unlike me though, he had the advantage of being a highly-trained chemist, and he had come to a realization that the final explosive hurrah of the reaction shouldn't actually happen. This lead him to take more video in a better setup that showed the formation of a large ball of lithium gas, which is responsible for the final explosion.

It's fairly astounding stuff, first to the punch or not. This is a reaction that every high-school "chemist" has seen, and if not them, than certainly their early-university peers. I've seen it so many times that video of the reaction is actually boring now. And yet, here was something that nobody had ever taken the time to document. It's been known for a while that lithium will release that gas when it is being distilled, but nobody ever noticed that it would create that gas in the process of reaction with water. That's significant. Billions of people have seen this reaction take place without realizing there had been an unanswered question.

We are surrounded by thousands of unknowns. Certainly, the more we know the less they happen, but that's what makes the game exciting. I want each and everyone one of you to think of something you don't know, right now, and go learn about it. That's what brains are for, and I believe we wouldn't have them if we weren't supposed to use them.