Friday, January 16, 2015

I may be retiring this blog

I'm literally the only person who cares, since (as established many times) all my readers are imaginary. If somehow one of you is not imaginary and forgot to tell me, this is for your benefit too, I guess. Also if anyone happens by this blog on an accidental google search and for some unaccountable reason likes what I write and wants more.

I'm not the same person who started this blog, almost seven years ago. And that's a good thing, too; it would be pretty fucking sad if my thought process hadn't changed since I was 18. Most of things I complained about in this blog now don't really bother me, or at least I wouldn't care enough to write about. Many of the thoughts I've posted I've since changed my mind about, or restated in different ways, or don't seem relevant anymore.

This once tried to be an atheist blog. I'm still an atheist, but that seems much less important. That one question has been answered, let's move on.

When I realised how limited the atheist memespace was, I tried my hand at scepticism in general, and later on the rationalitysphere. I'm still working that last one, but the work I have here is not really a good example of that (especially everything before I read Less Wrong, but a good deal of what's after as well).

 At one point this tried to be a writing blog; clearly that failed, and although I intend to go back to that, I've been "intending to go back to that" on and off for years. No reason to expect this time will be the one. And all the fiction I've posted here sucks, but I knew that even back then.

The point is: when I read back, I cringe a bit. I think that's about as healthy a reaction as one can have to a younger self. I've posted here a bit recently, testing the waters, but there's no reason to keep at it.

I have a Tumblr account now, which I got basically because it was a convenient way to follow some people. Still, having it empty bothered me, so I started using it. I've since posted a couple of longer form things I would have usually posted here. Which means, I have a platform for thinking out loud that isn't burdened with my past dumb stuff (yet!).

So yeah. It would seem Untheism is no more. I liked it while it lasted.

As a final note, if for some reason you need to interact with my online presence, I'm on twitter, the aforementioned tumblr, and I'm usually hanging out on the forum I admin, FQA. Also, anyone using the name "Sigmaleph" anywhere on the internet is probably me.


Monday, January 5, 2015

Death is bad, 2

I fully expected the last post to be a one-shot, but then Scott Alexander wrote a thing on ethics offsets:

Some people buy voluntary carbon offsets. Suppose they worry about global warming and would feel bad taking a long unnecessary plane trip that pollutes the atmosphere. So instead of not doing it, they take the plane trip, then pay for some environmental organization to clean up an amount of carbon equal to or greater than the amount of carbon they emitted. They’re happy because they got their trip, future generations are happy because the atmosphere is cleaner, everyone wins.
We can generalize this to ethics offsets. Suppose you really want to visit an oppressive dictatorial country so you can see the beautiful tourist sights there. But you worry that by going there and spending money, you’re propping up the dictatorship. So you take your trip, but you also donate some money to opposition groups and humanitarian groups opposing the dictatorship and helping its victims, at an amount such that you are confident that the oppressed people of the country would prefer you take both actions (visit + donate) than that you take neither action.
 The concept is probably unappealing to a certain sort of person, but not me. My sort-of-utilitarian, definitely-consequentialist mind is 100% on board with the idea. Or at least, it was, until:

GiveWell estimates that $3340 worth of donations to malaria prevention saves, on average, one life.
Let us be excruciatingly cautious and include a two-order-of-magnitude margin of error. At $334,000, we are super duper sure we are saving at least one life.
So. Say I’m a millionaire with a spare $334,000, and there’s a guy I really don’t like…
 (Scott further specifies that you are a master criminal that will never get caught, it looks like death by natural causes so you don't waste police time, etc. or that you further offset those costs with more and more donations, as one in principle could)

So. As is its wont, my brain broke down on that one. One part of my mind says "Well, which world would you rather live in? The one where this mysterious millionaire didn't save all those lives, at the expense of killing one person? By any reasonable standard, that's a better world to live in: if death is bad, then saving lives is good, and saving more lives is better" The other part mostly yells "but murder is bad!".

The key insight here, as far as I can tell, is that my intuitions on morality break down somewhere in the vicinity of murder. I can be OK with the idea of killing one person to save many others (e.g. the trolley problem) because you didn't put the person in the tracks. I can even be OK with the fat man version of the trolley problem, because it's not your fault that's the only way to save five people. But I'm not OK with this. Where's the difference?

The obvious candidate is "But you have another available course of action: not murdering anyone, and donating the money anyway. That's clearly better." And that's true, and if true it applies equally to all ethics offsets, not just re: murder. And I agree: if it comes to me, the obvious ethical decision is not to murder anyone and donate almost all my money to the most efficient charity. No question. But people don't actually do the most ethical action if it's too inconvenient. 

Suppose I am building an ethics system to be used by imperfect humans, and some of those humans happen to be murderous millionaires. Suppose that those murderous millionaires would obey "don't murder anyone" as a rule, and would also obey "If you want to murder someone, donate X amount of money to charity to offset you murder", but they would not accept "Don't murder anyone, and also, donate all your money to charity". Sitting in this position, it seems to me, my brain can relax and think right: this is a trolley problem. The trolley was set in motion by some very peculiar quirks of the psychology of hypothetical millionaires, but it's no less trolley-ish. I still have several lives on one metaphorical track, and one on another. Sucks for the one.

I'm not sure what this means for the problem I discussed last post, (i.e. a good way to ground "killing people is bad" without resulting in life maximization), other than further confirmation that I can't trust my intuitions on killing people to be consistent.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Death is bad (but I'm not sure why)

I would urge you to read the linked article on its own, especially if you self-identify as an effective altruist or utilitarian or somewhere on that philosophical area. But for the purposes of this blog, there's an argument there that goes like this: Murder is very bad. Most people who support abortion are sure that killing a 1st trimester foetus is not murder, but they should also be aware that there a lot of people who disagree with them. Therefore, they should not be 100% certain* that abortion is not murder. Therefore, if you admit something like a 1% chance that abortion is in fact murder, and therefore very bad, and if you put numbers on "very bad" (that's where the utilitarianism comes) it's very hard to make the math come out "abortion is good". (unless you are dealing with extreme cases like abortion to save the life of the mother/foetus will not survive/etc.)

Political disclaimer: My support for legal abortion has less to do with "abortion is morally good" and more with "abortion will happen anyway but if legal it's safer" and "we should probably give people the right to decide how their body is used as a matter of principle, even if they will decide to do bad things with them". "If it's bad it should be illegal" is not a principle I endorse in the general case. So no, I'm not trying to make or endorse an argument for banning abortion.

Back to the argument. There a number of obvious responses, like:
"I'm not an utilitarian and I don't think you can do math on life and death", in which case I would love to have a longer argument with you on the subject but this post is not the place, or

"I am, in fact, very much certain that foetuses are not people and killing them is not murder, less than 0.01% chance I'm wrong", or

"Well, obviously in conclusion abortion is wrong", which I think are both interesting positions and I'll address in a moment.

In the "put numbers on very bad" part above, the author uses Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALY). The argument is that if it turns out abortion is murder, it costs the foetus ~76 years of life, on average. Here's the part where my brain, and my philosophy, goes nuts:

What if a foetus isn't a person? Aren't we missing out on exactly those same ~76 QALY anyway?

There's a philosophy that says no. You can only care about real people, not potential people; those 76 QALY only matter if the person who would have lived them already exists.

If you accept that, yay. You can go back one level to the previous argument and try to figure out the expected personhood of a foetus, which I'm sure must be a barrel of laughs. My problem is that I'm not sure I can.

If I'm certain of anything in meta-ethics, it's consequentialism: the idea that "good" or "bad" is about states of the world. The right action is the one that results in the best state of the world, and nothing else. Not which laws you follow, not which virtues you exercise, just how the world is.

In particular, if "person X exists" is a good state of the world, we should bring it about; if not, we shouldn't. But the "fuck you, potential people" principle says otherwise: If you already exist, then states of the world where you don't mean you were killed, so that's bad. But if you don't already exist, then states of the world where you don't exist are neutral. There's no reason to care about you in the future if you don't exist now.

It seems like a very weird twist on consequentialism: The same state of the world can go from good to bad depending on when you ask the question. That's a very ugly feature I don't really want in my metaethics.

But if you reject that, not only do you have to worry about abortion, but suddenly everything from contraception to not having sex falls in the same bucket: You are not taking action to make a person come into existence, this is the same as taking action to remove a person from existence (since they both result in world states where a person doesn't exist), ergo you are a murderer.

Which brings us to a nasty conundrum: If I want to be remotely consistent about ethics, then either I admit that murder is not always that bad, or I have to stop blogging right now and go impregnate as many women as possible. Since the second option sounds like a lot of work and would probably end badly for everyone involved (except our future children, who are being saved from counterfactual murder!), let's look at the first one.

Why is killing people bad? 

... honestly, I'm not sure. I'm far more certain of the fact of "don't murder" than of any philosophical justifications for it, presumably because hominid brains evolved to have an innate sense of morality where we don't kill each other all the time, because social animals that kill each other all the time don't really work too well.

Like, there's the making people sad argument: if I kill you, your friends and family will be very sad, and making people sad is bad, therefore don't do it. And that's all well and good, except that if that's all it should mean it should be alright to kill people with no friends, or people who have lots of enemies who would be happy to seem the die. It does seem to allow not having sex, since people who don't exist yet don't have friends to care, so that's at least a point in favour.

There's the preferences argument: as a general rule, people's preferences being fulfilled is good, all other things being equal. People prefer not to die, ergo, don't kill them.

But that falls prey to the potential people problem just as well: hypothetical people would most likely also enjoy existing, ergo, if we care about their preferences we should bring them into being. Should we only care about the preferences of people who exist right now? If so, then that raises intriguing questions about the future: are we supposed to stop caring about what happens to the planet after the last currently-living person dies? After all, the people who would be alive then have no moral weight right now. 

It seems to me that I intuitively care about people who don't exist, like, I would think it's very bad if the world a thousand years from now is every human being living a miserable existence. But I don't worry about my potential children not existing. My brain parses "not existing" and "it existed and then stopped" as very different things, even though the end result is the same.

It would then seem there are two choices: 

Existence is not inherently valuable, and I need a good ethical grounding for why murder is bad that I don't have,


We are morally obligated to maximise the number of people who exist, and will exist.

I'm currently defaulting to the first one, hence the title. This just might be because the second one is weird and uncomfortable, and I would really like a good answer for this. But I don't have it.

*As a general rule, you should not be be literally 100% certain of anything, for reasons I may have gone over in the past. Here though, I don't mean just "technically this could all be an illusion created by a trickster demon" but "There is a small but measurable chance you are wrong".

Sunday, March 16, 2014

More alpha-negatrons!

Pal Sahota apparently found my previous post and may have taken offence at me using the words "crackpot physics" to describe his hypothesis. Over Twitter, he asks:
 I would've replied through the same medium, but I find the character restriction rather, well, restricting.

So, point 1: No, Google hasn't paid me. Presumably this question was prompted by the fact that he claims he invented search-as-you-type and Google stole it from him. My post was purely for the love of making fun of bad physics and there were no venal interests whatsoever. 

Also, if Google wanted to discredit him, I'm sure they could've found someone with a much greater audience than me. My readership is largely non-existent.

Point 2: What does the number of views have to do with anything?

Point 3: Were any of those professors and PhDs physicists? That seems relevant. Also, a retweet is not an endorsement.

Point 4: It could be wrong, yes. Further, it actually is wrong. Of that I have already spoken.

Point 5: I don't have a degree in physics yet, though I'm working towards one. Thus, the only qualification I claim is that I know much more about physics than Pal Sahota.

This is evident by looking at his theory. The very format of his argument is flawed, relying overtly in qualitative verbal arguments rather than quantitative mathematical reasoning. There's exactly one equation in the entirety of the alpha-negatron document, Einstein's famous E=mc2, and his attempt to fit it into his theory is severely flawed (I elaborate on that in my previous post, see the second bullet point)

Anyone actually doing physics would, at the very least, make some rough calculation showing, for example, that the alpha-negatrons actually do mediate an interaction of the same order of magnitude as gravity (or any other of the millions of effects he attributes to his pet particle). That he doesn't means he either can't do it, or he doesn't even know what a physics theory looks like.

Anyone who were to seriously propose a theory in physics would, at the very least, get past the 19th century. His particle is clearly classical in behaviour, ignoring pretty much everything in quantum physics except for occasional lip service.

And that's just the generalities of the thing. I brought up plenty of specific mistakes even a lowly physics student like myself should catch, like claiming light is a longitudinal wave or ignoring that the mass/proton number ratio is not constant in all elements (or between different isotopes of the same element). I even provided references to famous experiments that invalidate his theory, like the Michelson-Morley interferometer or Millikan's oil drop.

Those are my qualifications, Pal Sahota. You're welcome to challenge them.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Alpha Negatron

Anyone up for some crackpot physics? No? Just me then.

Pal Sahota has a theory that he claims unifies "gravity, magnetism, electromagnetic radiation and time", which is nice. Someone should probably let him know that magnetism and electromagnetic radiation have been unified for a while now, but still.

I took the liberty of looking over this document up on scribd, and I noticed a few odd things, so I decided to give him a hand with some constructive criticism.

So, Pal's bright idea is that, by studying nature, he noticed " there is a basic pattern like fractal which keeps repeating itself" and therefore space isn't empty. He doesn't say what that pattern is yet, but we'll get to that later. Anyway, space isn't empty, because it's filled with particles he calls "alpha negatrons", which as far as I can tell are like the pre-quantum idea of the electron except a lot smaller and with a proportionally smaller charge. He actually says it's "infinitely smaller", but that would mean it's charge is zero and could not do all the wonderful things it does. I'll assume "infinitely" was figurative and it's simply much smaller, though it sure would be nice to have an order of magnitude.

Anyway, these alpha negatrons are negatively charged (hence the name) and so they repel each other. Pal seems to think these would lead them to arrange themselves in an evenly spaced 3D matrix, which seems odd because all the other negative and positive charges (like protons and electron) would be guaranteed to disrupt that, but sure, whatever. Frankly his argument is irrefutable. I'd guess my first question would be why negative charges much smaller than than of an electron didn't irrevocably screw up Millikan's experiment1, but I'm sure Pal can explain that.

Next, Pal says that the nucleus of the atom and the electron spin around themselves by analogy to the solar system, which is that fractal pattern he mentioned earlier. Of course, there is the minor problem that the planetary model of the atom is wrong and has been obsolete for 90 years or thereabouts2, but it's an understandable mistake. After all, popular images of the atom are still using the planetary model, and you could hardly expect someone to go study physics beyond a pop-sci level when they are so busy developing revolutionary new theories. He's also somewhat liberal in his use of the word "fractal", when referring to a pattern that appears twice (or once) as opposed as to at infinitely many levels of resolution. But other than completely ignoring all of physics after the 1920s there's not much to nitpick here. Oh, right, there's also the fact that we know that the premise being pushed is known to be wrong, also because of that pesky quantum physics3. But that's it, at least until the next few sentences of the paragraph.

There, Pal tells us that the nucleus is "infinitely larger" than the electron (once again being figurative, I'd guess) and that's why it has a much greater influence on the alpha negatrons. I would nitpick and say that being that the interaction with the ANs is electromagnetic, the fundamental property that matters is not "size" (whatever that means in this context) but rather electric charge, and that is in fact very similar in both parts of the atom4. But I'm sure this won't affect his theory greatly.

When the time comes to explain electromagnetic radiation, Pal says that "Similar to sound waves, electromagnetic waves propagate through the alpha-negatron matrix utilizing compression and rarefaction", which is not quite right. First, because we know that electromagnetic waves propagate through the electromagnetic field, and if they had a medium like the AN matrix we would've noticed5. Second, because sound waves are longitudinal but electromagnetic waves are transverse, i.e. they do not propagate through compression and rarefaction of anything. If they did, we would not have polarization of light. But this fundamental misunderstanding of the basic nature of electromagnetic waves should not cause one to doubt the soundness of the theory.

Next in this parade of explanations is gravity, which Pal describes as a fundamentally electromagnetic phenomenon where protons attract alpha negatrons which attract other protons, and thus matter with protons attracts other matter with protons. Also waves. Curiously absent is an analysis of how the electrons in matter with their negative charges would interfere with this, or any order of magnitude calculation to show this would result in the gravitational constant we see, or any math of any other kind for that matter. But this is physics, why would we need to get maths involved?

Pal is clever enough to explain that gravity appears proportional to mass because the number of protons increases with mass, which is almost true. He fails to account for the fact that different elements (or different isotopes of the same element6) have different ratios between charge and mass, so we should observe varying ratios between weight and mass depending on chemical make-up of objects. But this difference would be small and if there's something we know is that precise measurement is kind of a "meh" thing for scientists.

As if all those explainings were not enough, there is a quite extended treatment of magnetism which is so undoubtedly correct it's not even worth detailing, except to mention it's based on "whirlpools" of alpha negatrons and completely disregards electromagnetic theory on what should happen to charges in motion. But then, what has standard electromagnetic theory accomplished, other than being generally considered one of most successful theories in physics and the template all field theories are modelled after? Surely alpha negatron supersedes it in every aspect.

Pal even takes a crack at wave-particle duality in  the photon, explaining it away by saying that it doesn't exist, and boldly asserts that in alpha negatron theory energy travels in wave packets. It seems curious that he borrows this property from quantum theory without bothering to explain why it should be so in alpha negatron theory. It hardly seems worth mentioning that the photoelectric effect cannot be explained through classical waves (such as those in AN theory), which is one of the reasons quantum theory was developed and the idea of the photon came about. I cannot wait to see how he will most definitely account for this.

During his conclusion, Pal takes a tour of all the complex physical phenomena his theory sorts out. These are just a few examples:

  • The speed of light is constant because the separation between alpha negatrons in the matrix is constant (certainly not invalidated by the fact that alpha negatrons could not possibly remain at fixed distances around charged particles)
  • E=mc2. Isn't it just a huge coincidence that the speed of light would show up there? Well, alpha negatrons save the day again, by saying that the transference between energy and mass happens through the AN matrix so the speed of light shows up. I don't see the point in bringing up that the equations for special relativity were in fact trying to explain why electromagnetic waves behave as they do so it's quite natural that the c factor would appear. Much less, that saying that the rate of transference determines the proportionality constant is somewhat like saying that the exchange rate from dollars to euros is determined by how fast the transaction is processed.
  • Relativity and the effects of gravity on time. The rate of passage of time depends on how fast things move through the alpha negatron matrix, which varies because gravity is protons!
  • The quantification of electron orbitals! Because alpha negatrons create forces that balance out exactly at the specified orbitals for no reason given!

Frankly it seems there's nothing alpha negatrons can't explain. I'm sure they could even explain things that aren't actually true, because that's just how great alpha negatrons are.

In summary, I wholeheartedly and without reservations recommend alpha negatron theory be considered an unqualified success as a unified theory of everything, and frankly it's a crime Pal Sohata doesn't already have one or two Nobels in physics.

1 Millikan showed that electric charges always appear as the multiple of a certain charge, which was determined to be the charge of a single electron. If something with a much smaller charge was around, we'd expect to see things a much more continuous range of charges, rather than the discrete separation we observe.

3 There is a quantum mechanics thing called spin, which people thought at one point had something to do with  the nucleus or the electron spinning around themselves, but was later shown to be fundamentally different.

4 Depending on the element, the charge of the nucleus can be identical (Hydrogen) or about a hundred times greater (elements at the end of the table) than that of one electron. And electrons usually don't show up alone, but rather atoms tend to have enough electrons to balance out their nucleus. 

5 Here I refer to the Michelson-Morley experiment, which attempted to detect what was then called the luminiferous aether, a proposed medium for electromagnetic waves that was disproved and led to the development of special relativity by this fellow named Albert Einstein. If the AN matrix was a medium for electromagnetic waves, Michelson would've detected it in his experiment.

6 An isotope is an atom which has the same number of protons but different number of neutrons as another atom. For example, a regular hydrogen nucleus is just one proton, but in a deuterium nucleus there's also a neutron. If those neutrons didn't matter gravity-wise, all isotopes should weigh the same and, for example, heavy water (where the regular hydrogen is replaced by deuterium) should not be heavier than regular water. Someone might want to look into that, see if we'll have to change the name.

Friday, February 14, 2014

How not to fix the problems with science

Once again, people have said something on the internet, and driven me to say others things in reply. Today's something is How the Scientific Method Silences All Ways of Knowing That Are Not White and Male, by Taeha Condon. If you know me at all*, you know this won't be a glowing review.

One would assume the article is about how they are some ways of knowing that are not White and Male, and the scientific method silences them. One would be wrong. It is in fact about how the author doesn't quite understand what the scientific method is but likes to blame it for everything anyway.

Problem the first: the author confuses quantification with the scientific method. Or at least I think she does, because otherwise I cannot explain why she continually rages against modern society's tendency to measure and quantify and considers that a criticism of the scientific method.

The core of the scientific method is "test your hypotheses", not "put a number to it". Numbers can be precise and amenable to statistical analysis and a lot of other nice things that make them useful for scientific research, but they are not what science is about. So when your title talks about problems with the scientific method and your primary argument is "we're using too many numbers", I'm gonna be somewhat disappointed.

Could one blame the scientific revolution for the abundance of quantifiable measures in today's world? Yeah, definitely. Partly because people use numbers to lend an air of sciencyness, and therefore legitimacy to their nonsense, but mostly because numbers work and science showed us that most conclusively. The author claims that "[w]e have relied on numbers and quantifiable solutions for too long, and clearly, they are not working", but then again quantifiable solutions have taken us to a world with vaccines and the Internet, so they are doing pretty fucking good, if you ask me. If "We've been doing this for a long time and the world is not perfect yet" is an argument against quantifiable solutions, then it's also an argument against agriculture, writing and democracy.

So problem the first is actually two-pronged: Quantifiability is not some sort evil demon, and it's not the same thing as the scientific method

Problem the second: You know those titular "all ways of knowing"? I am struggling to find any way of knowing in the text other than the scientific method**. Sure, the author alludes to "Aboriginal [...] ways of knowing that account for the interconnectivity of land, spirituality, country and kin", but doesn't actually say what they are or describe how they work. But they must be better than science, since they account for all that stuff! And science doesn't! For some reason.

Why would there be some ineffable, science-proof quality to interconnectivity of land et al.? I have no idea. Can you not formulate testable hypotheses about it? Or is it just that it doesn't look like the sort of thing you find in a lab with microscopes and test tubes?

Problem the third: The author consistently asserts that science is a white male way of knowing. And I'll grant that science has a gender problem; it's mostly a male dominated field, women's contributions are under-appreciated and boys are encouraged to pursue STEM careers much more than women. This has been said a thousand times before. You know how you don't go about solving that problem? By claiming that empirical thinking is a male thing and women are made for intuition and feeling. In fact, that strikes me as exactly the sort of thing that caused the problem in the first place.

Telling women that they cannot be scientists? That the single most successful way of knowing humankind has found is not their thing? That they are not built for logic and analytical thinking? That's one of the most unfeminist memes our society has. When you spread that meme, you are part of the problem.

So, in summary:
1) Learn what science actually is.
2) If you're gonna talk about how science stifles other ways of knwoing, kindly provide an example of one that has been successful to a level at least comparable to the scientific method
3) And for the love of all the nonexistent gods, there are enough sexist assholes telling women science is not for them. We don't need more.

*Which of course you do not.

**I am strongly reminded of learning about Feyerabend in my Introduction to Scientific Thought class in college.

Friday, August 16, 2013

FSTDT Forums...

A long time ago, in the mysterious times known as 2006, my younger self came across a website. It was funny, and it appealed to various interests that teenage me happened to be developing in that very moment. It was a website about making fun of stupid people, mostly stupid people that said stupid things in ways relating to taking religion waaaay too seriously. Seriously enough that one might call them fundamentalists, or even fundies. That website was called Fundies Say the Darnedest Things, or FSTDT.

One might simply dismiss it as a humour site, one of a billion that populate the webs, but there was more to it. It had a community of really smart people (or so they seemed, to me), who said things I hadn't known then and now find obvious, and yet it seems they still need saying. Even when I eventually grew tired of reading the quotes they collected, the community that lived in its forums kept my interest. It would be fair to say that if I hadn't met those people when I did, this blog would likely not exist, and I perhaps would be a very different person.

I've been in and out of this community, in the past. At times when I needed a break from the internet in general, at times when I grew disillusioned with the people, but I returned every time, because I liked it there. My latest return was earlier this year, around April. Not long afterwards, the current webmaster made an announcement that he wished to retire from administering the forum and focus only on running the website itself, so he was looking for a replacement.

This wouldn't be the first time there was a change in administration; indeed, he had taken over the website back in 2009 when the then-owner burnt out and rather unexpectedly shut everything down. She, in turn, had received the website from its creator, who passed away at an unfairly young age. That was before my time, though.

In any case, the webmaster started a thread in the forums asking for candidates, and said there'd be a more or less democratic process: those candidates that got a reasonable amount of endorsements would spend a trial period as moderators, and then maybe there'd be a general election. I submitted myself as a candidate, not expecting much but thinking I would like to see what people would say about me.

To my continuing amazement, I won. I was apparently the only candidate credible enough to make it to the trial phase, I passed it more or less uneventfully, and I became the forum admin.

Now, like I mentioned, the webmaster kept control of the website itself, I just handled the community at the forums. Which suited me just fine, since it was the only part I visited anyway. Being that it still was his website, though, he warned me that he kept a kill option on the forums if things went too far out of hand. I figured this wasn't something likely to come up.

So, retiring from his position as admin, the webmaster still kept posting as a regular forum user. He took the chance, after leaving the position of power, to say things on a couple of subjects that he really couldn't have said when he was in charge. I thought, sure, a chance to get past some old forum drama, this should be a good thing, right?

It didn't go well. People got angry at the things he said. He got angry at the things people said to him. At some point, it seemed the discussion might die down and we could all move past it, but no. Instead, it came to the point where he didn't want to associate with the forums in any way. Including having them in his website.

So he told me he was killing the forums, and gave me a chance to make a new place for them. After a period of lots of panic, and with the help of the people hosting us, I managed to secure us a new home. We even got to keep the forums mostly the same, with a different address and name being the most significant change

FSTDT continues to exist, but there no longer are any FSTDT Forums. Instead, Frequently Questioned Answers is now an independent community, which for some weird reason has me as an admin. I still feel like I'm not exactly sure how I ended up in charge, even though I just told you.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Thoughts I have during class, 2

After an introduction to the uncertainty principle, and a clarification that some of the common examples for it are not quite true:

"Huh, that makes a lot more sense now. It's not that position and momentum are there but we can't measure them because of quantum magic. Position and the wave number k are Fourier conjugate variables, and by De Broglie's postulates k equals momentum divided by h-bar, so of course if one is highly focused the other is very spread out, and in the limit you have one as a Dirac delta and the other as a wave over all space. I wonder why science popularizers don't discuss it this way, it's not that complicated...

...oh, right, Fourier transforms."

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Oh, hey

As has become a sort of tradition by now, I've noticed the state of abandonment of the blog once again and decided to revive it. Mostly, I blame the fact that I haven't been writing a lot, lately. Also, my last computer died in early January and I only got a new one a couple of weeks ago. Lost with that computer, incidentally, is all or most of my latest story, which was actually coming along nicely before everything went kablooey. 'Nicely' to be considered relative to my usual standards of creative output, that is.

While I muster the will to rewrite it or wait for a miracle to bring it back from the depths of a busted hard drive, here's a story from math class.

* * *

We are discussing how a particular mathematical transformation (a linear map) affects a rhombus. The computer shows first a parallelogram, then what appears to be a straight line. "Of course, this is actually a very thin parallelogram, not a line", says the professor."What would it imply, if it was an actual straight line?", she asks, while she tries to use the zoom tool to demonstrate.

The answer comes to mind, even before she has finished asking: "the matrix would not be invertible". Right behind me, another student says the same thing. The professor confirms this is so. Meanwhile, I am thinking, furiously, "How the fuck did I know that?"

It's not that it's an odd thing, or an unfamiliar subject. A few moments later, I figured out a couple of satisfactory answers as to why it must be so. It's just that, the moment I knew it, I had not gone through any of the intermediate steps in my mind. The answer seemed obvious in itself, as though a cached thought. And yet, as far as I recall, I have not come across this particular kind of question before. Did I do so and forget? Or did I just happen to have a cool flash of mathematical intuition?

Mathematical details, for those so inclined: A linear map is, for our purposes, a function that given a vector returns another vector, with some properties. Namely, if X and Y are vectors and f is a linear map, then f(X+Y)=f(X)+f(Y), and if k is a real number, then f(k*X)=k*f(X). We'll be working with vectors in R2, which can be thought of as arrows in a plane.  Every linear map has an associated matrix, and iff the map has an inverse map (i.e, a map g such that g(f(X))=X for all vectors X) then the associated matrix is invertible (i.e., there is another matrix which, multiplied by it, returns the identity matrix). If you don't know what a vector or a matrix are, I suggest Wikipedia, an algebra class, or giving up. The idea above of applying the map to a rhombus means, essentially, that you apply the map to the vectors of every point of the rhombus and see what happens. In practice, all you actually need to do is apply it to the vertices of the rhombus and then connect the dots.

Now, the reasons a rhombus couldn't be turned into a line by an invertible matrix can be expressed in many ways. The first, is that it would imply that the transforms of all the corners of the rhombus are in a straight line. Because of the second property above, all vectors in the same straight line (which are all multiples of each other) also go to a straight line after mapping. If two separate lines in the rhombus go to the same line in its map, that implies there are different vectors that are being mapped to the same vector. A function that takes two inputs and sends them to the same output cannot have an inverse function. Therefore, the matrix associated with the map cannot be invertible.

Another way of looking at it is that if the map turns a two-dimensional figure such as a rhombus into a one-dimensional line, there must be some direction in space it makes zero. (This is by no means rigorous proof, just the sort of thing that would be stored in my brain and influence my intuitions). A linear map always maps zero to zero, so if there is another vector that also goes to zero, it cannot have an inverse.

A third way, which came to mind on the bus ride home, is that the determinant of the transformation of a matrix tells you how it changes areas after transforming. (This is only obvious to me because it's an important part of the change of variable theorem in integration. Being a physics student, calculus is something I use much more often than algebra). A straight line has area zero, which means the determinant of the transformation is also zero, and there's a theorem that states that if the determinant is zero, the matrix is not invertible.

Friday, August 31, 2012


Hace un par de semanas, la blogger Jen McCreight publicó un poste proponiendo un nuevo movimiento dentro del ateísmo. En particular, un movimiento que vaya más allá de estar en contra de la religión (el Nuevo Ateísmo estilo Dawkins) y se manifieste sobre cuestiones como racismo, sexismo y homofobia.

El contexto es todo el quilombo que hubo en la blogosfera atea en el último año donde ciertos elementos misóginos de la comunidad se hicieron muy visibles (googleá "Elevatorgate"). Naturalmente, los elementas más socialmente progresivos quieren que la comunidad sea más inclusiva. Como resultado, sale el Ateísmo+. Ateos que además se preocupan por otras cosas.

Vale aclarar: ateísmo sigue significando lo mismo. No creés en dios, sos ateo. Esta es la base de un enorme número de críticas al movimiento A+, que ateísmo no requiere ninguna preocupación por derechos iguales o lo que sea.

Y es cierto. Los misóginos son tan ateos como los feministas. Sin embargo, el asunto es que nadie dijo lo contrario. A+ no intenta redefinir el ateísmo sino que juntar a un grupo de personas que tienen preocupaciones comunes (y que les jode esa onda en el resto de la comunidad).

Por cierto, algo parecido ya pasaba con el Nuevo Ateísmo. La gracia de la parte de "nuevo" era la idea de pasar de simplemente no ser religioso a a combatir activamente la religión como una fuerza negativa, algo que tampoco es parte de la definición del término.

Así como el Nuevo Ateísmo reconoce que no creer en dioses nos lleva (a algunos) a querer combatir la religión, el A+ extiende esa idea a otros asuntos. Reconocer la influencia de la iglesia sobre los derechos LGBTQ lleva a muchos ateos a combatir a su favor. Reconocer la cultura patriarcal de las religiones más importantes nos lleva al feminismo. Y así sucesivamente.

Tengo un cierto optimismo sobre este movimiento. No puedo declarar demasiado, visto y considerando que existe hace dos semanas, nomás, pero me interesa ver como evoluciona, y si puede no solo agregarle conciencia social al ateísmo sino también un punto de vista escéptico a la lucha por las minorías. Veremos que onda.

(este poste me vino al la cabeza en respuesta a esto, donde el autor critica al A+ en base a que "el ateísmo es una posición filosófica, no idelógica". Completamente cierto, completamente irrelevante.

Para quienes les interese el tema, tiene un foro bastante activo donde ahora mismo se está discutiendo qué es y que debería ser el A+. Solo en inglés por ahora.)