How science is done

We understand how a cookie cooks pretty well. I mean two things by this. One: We understand how to assemble and bake a good cookie. And two: We understand the physical processes that make this happen.

This is how science is done, for the most part.

There are exceptions. Physics and math, for instance, are different. But for the most part science tends to be an evolutionary process. And so it is that a cook, experimenting with different compositions and temperatures, is doing science. Maybe they don’t know that. But they are. Maybe the cookie was invented accidentally, while someone was trying to make something else. Still — science.

We have a perception that science is something we can order, as if from a catalogue, and have delivered, as if off the back of a truck. But it’s not really like that.

Scientists get asked “what’s the point of your research” a lot. There’s no good answer to this question, really. Except maybe to say that we might end up with a better cookie.

The third rail

I’ve always though of predestination as the doctrinal third rail of Christianity. Touch on it, and you’ll be shocked at the response.

After touching on it in public, a good friend of mine had this to say on the matter:

The Bible consistently affirms BOTH free will AND God’s election. This is a bit of a paradox, but there is a difference between The Doctrine of Election (where we do have free will) and the philosophical position known as Determinism (where we DO NOT have free will).

That seems to me like a bit of a dodge. I’m not one for calling things paradoxes. Paradox is the Mysterious Third Door where we throw all the junk we can’t make make sense. I mean, if you apply the straightjacket of systematic theology to scripture and there are a bunch of extra limbs sticking out, you get the cognitive dissonance whether you call it a paradox or a mystery or whatever.

In any case. You can resolve these apparent contradictions…

Let’s say you consider scripture to be authoritative and truthful and accurate in the way it describes God’s interaction with humanity. Scripture talks about this interaction in a variety of different ways which can (roughly) be summarized as “free will” vs “predestination”.

Both these views have problems.

Free will means God isn’t very powerful. And it turns the biblical idea of foreknowledge into a bit of heavenly smoke and mirrors.

Predestination means God has both created automatons and that he’s responsible for a lot of really bad stuff that’s happened in the world.

There is a way out of this contradiction, of course. But you won’t like it. I don’t like it. All you have to do is change how you look at the Bible. It’s either that, or try accepting two mutually opposing propositions.

ViHart on Google+

The article is here. Quoth (any emphasis mine):

Making huge forced changes to a platform is problematic for people whose livelihood depends on certain things being a certain way. I would not recommend making YouTube or Google+ a large part of your business, and these changes should be scaring away anyone who was considering investing in the platform.


Google’s products used to augment humanity with beautiful tools that helped us get the information we wanted to see. That was the superiority of Google search, Google reader, gmail with its excellent spam filter, and YouTube, which allowed you to subscribe to any individual who might want to post videos.


Making things people want is good business. Tricking people into using things they don’t want with a bait-and-switch is not good business.

I think these changes are going to make a lot of popular YouTube videomakers looks for an alternative platform — which is to say now seems like a great time to start that service.

Can you imagine the video functionality of YouTube with a comment presentation more like, say, Reddit?

Bullet Points for a Wednesday

I haven’t done this in too long. Here goes.

  • We should have a heat map of the places that vaccination denialists live, work, and send their children. Kind of how we have sex offender maps. Then we can choose better where not to live so as to extend our and especially our children’s lifespans. And also there’s less chance of running into them at parties.
  • Facebook and Google operate under the assumption that attaching a real name to something makes it better. This may be the case. Sometimes. But not always. There’s fundamentally a bunch of my life that’s none of your business. In a way, FB and G+ are basically ubergossips, eager to pry into every detail of my life and connect it all together for easy viewing. I don’t like that. What I reveal about myself must be under my own control.
  • Is there a good way around new process drift? I mean, other than nagging or punishment. Let’s say you put a new policy in place and you notice that people are gradually starting to ignore that policy… what do you do? Short of getting up in everyone’s grill about it?
  • The US considers foods and food supplements to be entirely different things. One has stringent controls, the other doesn’t. But why? Both things go into your body. It seems like if it’s illegal for food to be 20% rat anus, supplements should be the same.
  • If you exclude accidental and workplace deaths, the US has the best life expectancy in the world. But it’s only (roughly) a few months higher than other industrialized countries, yet the healthcare costs (roughly) twice as much. Is this a case of a fundamentally broken system? Or is it just that returns diminish when keeping people alive for a long time?
  • If you can’t avoid paying a fee, or the only way to avoid a fee is to do something extraordinarily inconvenient, it’s not a fee. It’s part of the purchase price. When companies (always the worst, most awful companies) like Bell and Ticketmaster include mandatory fees on top of their listed prices, they deserve to be punished. This is the sort of crap that consumer protection legislation was designed for. I’m not saying that we should all go out and burn Bell Canada’s headquarters to the ground (though I’d shed no tears for them if that were to happen)… but…
  • Sometime in the future when Atheism is an actual established religion, Carl Sagan will be one of their arch-saints. In the meantime, can we stop talking about him all the live long day?
  • Are there any lessons we can take from the NSA spying scandals? I think so. One might be that our networks are woefully insecure and absolutely need to be hardened. Another might be that the US won’t abandon their current course easily, and they’ll prosecute and torture anyone who tries to get in the way.
  • How permissible is violence? How you answer this question is probably one of the most important things you’ve never thought of.

Legalization and cognitive dissonance

Can you support the legalization of something (on a public level) but take a moral stance against that same thing (on a private level)?

This is a really good question. I think the answer is “yes”, but I’m not sure.

The temptation is of course that we nationalise our morality. If we think something is wrong, well, then everyone has to. Tolerance is bad, because it legitimizes morally wrong lifestyles, and if you aren’t actively against something, then you’re passively for it.

We could get rid of a lot of these problems by just going back to a monarchy. Don’t like something? Well, the king did it, and the king was appointed by God, so even this must have a purpose.

The authors of the New Testament seemed convinced that the world would be the world, the church would be the church, and that was that. We give to God things that are God and Caesar things that are Caesar’s. We are not surprised when the world does bad things because they’re the world.

We’re on a bit of a different footing now, with our moral majorities, and the idea that we can simply enshrine our morality in law and that’s that.

I don’t think Paul was writing with democracy and megachurches and Republicans and the Southern Baptist Convention and culture wars and all this mixing of government and church together.

I wonder what he would have thought about it.

In any case, the question isn’t really about morality. The question only exists because we have the option to enforce our morality. The real question is about the church’s place in the world, about its agenda, and its means. If you lived in a non-democratic society, you wouldn’t even be able to ask the question — of course your morality is sphere-bounded to your own person or family. You can’t affect others’ lives. In our democratic era, suddenly we have a way, and we’ve (of course) taken that collective problem and individualized it. Which obscures the origin and context of the question.

I go further than just asking if we can enforce morality or simply be agnostic about it in the public sphere.

I ask if I can support legalization in public on one hand, and believe it is wrong to partake in that legalization?

You can slot any moral wrong in there: Drug use, prostitution, abortion, etc, etc. The human cost of criminalizing any (especially enduringly popular) activity is pretty clear. You create criminals, both in the form of gangs and the prosecuted. You create a cycle of victims, as most are afraid to come forward for fear of prosecution. You create an underclass of people who are voiceless and persecuted by the police, the gangs, and their own human failure. Legalization is, in my mind, the only real way to fix this.

But I think cocaine, for instance, is wrong. It’s something that you shouldn’t do.

So there’s some cognitive dissonance there, at least for me.

Right in the kisser

I’m not great at small talk. I guess no one showed me how or something. I’m okay with this. I’m a not-rich, not-handsome Mr Darcy.

I know a few people who have the gift of insta-gab. Get right in there. Talk it up. Ask questions. Do your thing.

I love those people. They get me to talk about myself, and there’s nothing I love more than talking about myself. It’s okay. You love talking about yourself, too. No need to be bashful.

But there’s a certain kind of talker I just can’t stand.

You’ve probably met this guy. He makes conversation like more bellicose nations make war. Everything’s about superiority, about changing the footing, about one-upping and being right. Even the Debate Club thinks he’s an asshole. That guy.

It’s exhausting. I used to think… how can one person care about so many things? How can one person go on and on and on about stuff all the time?

Then it came to me: These people don’t care about things. They’re not interested in the subjects they’re argue-talking about. What they care about is being right. If you’re the last one talking, if everyone’s given up, if people are leaving the room and you’re still trying to shock & awe your way to the conversational high ground, you’re that guy.

Let’s all pause to mentally punch that guy in the mouth.

In all Christian love, of course. But right in the kisser.

I’ve noticed a few symptoms. Here are only few, as they’re fresh on my mind. He can’t wait for you to stop talking to start talking. He doesn’t listen to what you say. He takes a position and defends it to absurdity (this one especially). He’s right. You’re wrong. He won’t accept defeat. He won’t even accept that there is no defeat. We’re just talking.

This is why we don’t talk about politics with people. It seems like politics turns everyone into that guy. And religion too, sometimes.

This is the true posture


This is the true posture of Christianity.

It is a powerful photo. I saw it last night… and I feel a bit like I can imagine Jesus a bit better now.

Say what you will about the Catholic church and about the pope and whatnot, but a million jabbering culture warriors trying to erect their Christian fence around America through politics will never have the effect this single photo has had. And is having.