Monday, October 29, 2007

Mutating Media Meme

The mysterious and mighty PZ hath disseminated from his Cephalopod Throne, the following memetic virus to infest the blogosphere:

There is a set of questions all in the form, "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is ... ". Copy the questions, and before answering them, you may modify them in a limited way, carrying out no more than two of these operations:
  • You can leave them exactly as is.
  • You can delete any one question.
  • You can mutate either the genre, medium, or subgenre of any one question. For instance, you could change "The best time travel novel in SF/Fantasy is..." to "The best time travel novel in Westerns is...", or "The best time travel movie in SF/Fantasy is...", or "The best romance novel in SF/Fantasy is...".
  • You can add a completely new question of your choice to the end of the list, as long as it is still in the form "The best [subgenre] [medium] in [genre] is...".
  • You must have at least one question in your set, or you've gone extinct, and you must be able to answer it yourself, or you're not viable.

Then answer your possibly mutant set of questions. Please do include a link back to the blog you got them from, to simplify tracing the ancestry, and include these instructions.

Finally, pass it along to any number of your fellow bloggers. Remember, though, your success as a Darwinian replicator is going to be measured by the propagation of your variants, which is going to be a function of both the interest your well-honed questions generate and the number of successful attempts at reproducing them.

My great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparent is Pharyngula

My great-great-great-great-great-great grandparent is Metamagician and the Hellfire Club

My great-great-great-great-great grandparent is Flying Trilobite

My great-great-great-great grandparent is A Blog Around the Clock

My great-great-great-grandparent is The Primate Diaries

My great-great-grandparent is Conspiracy Factory

My great-grandparent is The Skeptical Alchemist

My grandparent is Evolving Thoughts

My parent is Thoughts in a Haystack

The following are my questions and answers:

The best historical novel in SF/fantasy is:
The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson

The best page-turner book in technopunk fiction is:
The Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

The best series in television documentaries about science is:
Walking With Dinosaurs (but only the original BBC script!)

I hereby propagate this meme to:

1) The Accidental Weblog

2) Monkey Trials

3) Recursivity

4) Point of Discontinuity

Monday, October 22, 2007

Fear, Terror and Obsession

This past Sunday night a dozen of the local Humanists gathered to watch and discuss the movie Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West. It's an alarming film, and justifiably so: there's a lot to be alarmed about in the rise of Islamic religio-political extremism. But at the same time I can't escape the feeling that at base, this film is deeply manipulative propaganda.

The main points made in the movie (from memory) are:
  • There exists a hard-line strain of Islam which would like to impose strict Sharia law on the traditionally Muslim countries, and even take over the Western democracies as well. These people are, in fact, engaged in a war with the West -- a war we do not yet recognize, because it is so unlike any war we have fought before.
  • The radicals are estimated to comprise about 10 to 15% of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims. That's a worrisomely large number of fanatics.
  • They hold unbelievers in contempt: we infidel ultimately must convert or die.
  • Their ideology teaches that to die a martyr while striking a blow against the enemies of Islam is glorious; it is the highest honour to which any Muslim can aspire (and gets you front-of-line admission to Paradise, the 72 virgins, etc.)
  • In some places in the Middle East (notably Palestine), an entire generation of Muslim children is being raised and educated to hate infidels (especially Jews and Americans), and to aspire to martyrdom in the cause. One of the film's talking heads termed this indoctrination (and I agree that it is a monstrous thing) "the worst possible kind of child abuse".
  • The Blood Libel against the Jews is still openly taught in many Arab countries, generations after most of the West gave up such malicious stupidity.
  • The roots of Radical Islam go back to the Nazi era. A great deal of time is spent describing the friendly connection between Hitler and the then Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (a large part of what they had in common was, of course, a dislike of Jews). Even more time is spent trying to draw parallels between the 1930s (when the world took far too long to wake up to the threat represented by Nazism), and today when allegedly the West is again ignoring an expansionist totalitarian threat, this time in the form of "Islamofascism".
I was aware of most of the above, to some extent (the notable exception being the historical Nazi connection), and it's probably mostly true as far as it goes. Very scarey, and we should be worried...but: there's a fair bit of manipulation going on, a lot of it concerned with what isn't said as much as what is.

The entire historical background of the situation is reduced to The Nazi Connection. That's it: no mention of a century or so of British, American and Russian meddling in the geopolitics of the region (granted the Ottoman Empire was there first, with its own record of mucking things up) ; no mention of propping up corrupt tyrannies (eg: the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein before he fell into disfavour); and -- remarkably -- the word "oil" was never used even once. No discussion of whether the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have made things better or worse. The issue of Western complicity in creating the milieu in which Radical Islam could flourish was raised only to be dismissed -- "some academics" blamed 9/11 on American foreign policy; shot of Michael Moore saying there was no terrorist threat -- then back to the mantra: "No, it's the ideology, stupid".

In the discussion afterwards, someone pointed out that the US has been screwing over Latin America for a long time, too, but they haven't dispatched any terrorists northwards. This is a valid point, to which my partial answer is: the ideology is not irrelevant, but it does not exist in a vacuum either. The socioeconomic situation interacts with a culture's foundational memes to produce the response. Both Christianity and Islam have martyrdom traditions, but in Islam (as I understand it) it's the martyrdom of a warrior who dies in battle. Christian martyrdom, however, takes its model from Christ and the early saints -- innocent victims who go meekly to their unjust deaths, with their dying words blessing their tormentors. Thus, from the Muslim East we get suicide bombers; while from Catholic Latin America we get Liberation Theology. (And of course, we have also seen Christian terrorism: the IRA bomb-planters arose from a history of national oppression which divided along Catholic/Protestant lines, and they were aided and abetted by the local Catholic clergy.)

The message of "It's the [religious] ideology that causes all the problems" obviously goes over well with a bunch of atheists, but the more I reflect on it, the more I am of the view that whole movie is written in a kind of code -- one likely to go over the heads of a bunch of Canadian freethinkers, but which resonates with a large segment of the American public. Consider:
  • There are a lot of clips of mobs stomping or burning American flags (or maybe the same clips inserted several times). Now, flag desecration doesn't bother me much -- I believe in getting upset over substance, not symbols. But we know there are many Americans who take it very personally.
  • There is a longish segment about how the Islamists hate Christians and Jews (and incidentally also Hindus and others), and also a couple of scenes of bombed and desecrated churches in the Middle East (somehow, it's the "desecration" angle that seems to bother the filmmakers, more than the simple destruction of property). Fine, I think hating people and bombing their buildings because you don't like their religious opinions is stupid and evil -- but the harping on Christians and Jews as the target tells me something about the audience the filmmakers want to reach (and a certain segment of American Christendom already has a carefully nurtured persecution complex).
  • There are a number of clips of clerics and their mobs proclaiming Jihad on the West and promising all sorts of mayhem. Many of the segments appear to have been shot in England, which seems cursed with a ridiculous number of these sociopaths. But quite a few were Iranian in origin -- the third leg in Bush's "Axis of Evil".
  • As part of the Nazi Connection, the Chamberlain theme receives extensive play: just as we failed to take Hitler's threat seriously (despite his clearly stated intentions in Mein Kampf) until it was too late to avert catastrophe, we are now failing to take the Islamofascist threat seriously. "History repeats" we are reminded by one interviewee. However, it is never quite explained just how the Islamofascists plan to take over the West. We are told: "It is a war. It’s just not like any we’ve encountered before." Well then, what is it like? Yes, there are places like Iran that are run by Islamist nutjobs, and you can see how they might directly conquer some of their neighbours, and engineer coups in a few more (all of which is bad). But, aside from occasionally blowing up something (also bad, but hardly likely to lead to an Islamist takeover), exactly how do they propagate that to Europe and the Americas -- to a nuclear-armed USA or Russia? Don't make me guess, tell me! Leaving it all vague (while shouting "Chamberlainism!" repeatedly) creates a pervasive sense of threat, about which We Must Do Something, Quick! -- but what?
So if you want to know who the target audience of this film is, look no further than the list of people who praise the film (and how many of them are from Fox News). Obsession is aimed at American Christians and Jews, generally either right-leaning or persuadable, maybe still a bit traumatized by 9/11, and likely supportive of the Iraq War.

Towards the end, having scared us all half to death, Obsession gets around to discussing what to do about this calamity. The answer is a bit of a letdown: the moderate Muslims must stand up and denounce the extremists, and isolate them from their community. Um, yeah that's important, but what am I as a non-Muslim supposed to do? Badger my Muslim neighbours and colleagues to Do Their Duty? Accuse them of being enablers? Apparently, I'm supposed to tell everyone about this film (OK, did that, for all four regular readers of this blog) and urge them to see it. (Meh. Decide for yourself.) But suppose you do all see it on my recommendation, and all your friends and relations to the Nth degree -- surely we're supposed to do something more concrete than tell yet more people to watch a movie?

The FAQ is barely more helpful:

QUESTION: What are you hoping people will walk away with, after they see this film?

We hope the film will inspire people to spend some time thinking about their beliefs, and commit to them, and fight for them.We’re also hoping people will speak out against what is happening. We hope people will start writing letters to congressmen, letters to editors. We hope people we start fighting ignorance and bias when they see it. They will lead marches and demonstrations, petitions and activism on college campuses. We hope moderate Muslims will continue creating watchdog groups for whatever enters their mosques and their schools, and ensuring that the values important to them are taught, if they see they are not.
OK, suppose we're now all writing to our elected representatives, asking them to do....what exactly? Nuke Tehran? Intern all the Muslims in the country until they rat out the terrorists among them? Kidnap Rendition a few random people for torture robust interrogation? Get out of/stay in Afghanistan/Iraq? Strip-search every airline passenger? X-ray every cargo container for nukes? The filmmakers found enough talking heads to tell us exactly how deep is the shit we are in -- surely they could have found a couple more to suggest practical ways to start digging ourselves out.

That part is left dangling, and I think dangerously so. Obsession is clearly designed to scare the pants off its target audience, and people who are frightened are prime material for manipulation by anyone who promises to Do Something About The Problem. I don't know what the filmmakers have in mind, but the obvious immediate beneficiary of this state of affairs is the Bush administration, who have spent the past six years eroding civil liberties and banging the drums in the name of the War On Terror (and it's an open secret that they would like to take on Iran). If the film simply stated boldly that the American public should acquiesce in the growth of their home-made police state and support expansion of the Iraq war into surrounding countries, no one would listen to it. But by raising the alarm and leaving them hanging, they open the way for someone like Bush (or his successor -- I've been hearing nasty things about Hillary) to obtain a mandate to do exactly that.

Friday, October 19, 2007

An Argument For Belief

This is my first response to a comment Sombfaa left on a previous post. I know it's been a while since the post, but the last few weeks have been very busy, and I haven't had time to write a longish, properly thought-out essay (the first MMP post being the exception, as it was time-sensitive and had to take precedence).

Introduction & Recap

You write:
As far as the question of the existence of God is concerned, rather than evidence, I see a set of observations about the world that seems to me entirely open to interpretation. Let me give an analogy:

I love my husband. This is what I experince. While it is possible to claim that what we call "love" is a matter of genetic and social programming or elctrochemical impulses, I reject an explanatory framework that negates the validity of my experiences. It seems to me too much like soplipsism.

Is there a way to prove that love is real or to prove that scientific reductionism is the correct view? I do not think so. It is not a question of evidence for one and not for the other. It is the same evidence, interpretted differently, for both.

I experience the existence of God. While some people may wish to attribute this to misfiring axons, delusions or whatever,I prefer a framework in which I can trust my own experiences.
I take this to be intended, not as a logically compelling argument for the existence of God, but as a more modest attempt to justify belief in God as a rational choice, in the face of ambiguous evidence. However, I find that the first part which discusses the ontology of love is incoherent, and its connection to the second part is seriously flawed.

The Ontology of Love

While you have said what you think love isn't, you haven't said what you think it is. Related to that, you have not explained in what way you think that a neurological account of love "negates the validity" of your experience.

The experience of feeling love (or any emotion or thought) is real -- it's a real feeling, in the mind of the subject. By definition, no one else can feel your feelings as such, but the emotional lives of normal humans are standardized enough that we can recognize each other's feelings from their description. Moreover, the feeling of love usually leads to characteristic behaviours which we all recognize -- if (hypothetically) you consistently and unrepentantly treated your husband badly, we would have grounds to question the sincerity of your claim to love him. What I'm getting at here is that the experience of human love (whatever mechanism may underlie it) seems a reasonably well-established phenomenom, and "real" enough on that count.

As for the underlying mechanism of the experience, all the data we have indicate that love (and everything else we feel or think) is produced by the network of neurons inside our skulls. PET imaging technology is at the point where we can see thought and emotion happen in the brain, in real time, and know exactly what regions of the brain are associated with what kinds of mental states (currently at rather low resolution, but that can only improve). This is backed up by studies of brain-damaged patients -- physical damage to specific areas consistently produces characteristic deficits in cognition, emotion and behaviour. I suggest you read up on cases like that of Phineas Gage, or Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. And of course we all know how simple chemicals, taken either medicinally or recreationally, can profoundly alter mental functions. From this I draw two lessons:
  1. Observable brain activity associated with characteristic mental states seems plenty "real" to me -- real in the same sense as the chair I'm sitting in, or the computer I'm typing on (or the electrons and transistors that make it work -- even if I can't see them). What more "reality" do you need?
  2. Explaining mentition in terms of neurology doesn't prove there isn't "something more" to it, but if you still insist that there is a ghost in the machine, then I have to ask: where is it, and just what is it doing?
Another kind of "reality" you may be trying to invoke is the claim that human love finds its source in some Ideal Realm (identified by Christians with the Mind of God), and that without that "grounding" it is in some way rootless, or liable to dry up at a moment's notice. I have some sympathy for this view, having been heavily influenced by C.S.Lewis' Neoplatonism during my Christian period. However, in time my affection for Platonic Forms just wore off -- I came to see that at best they added nothing to (and at worst obstructed) actual understanding of my experiences, which are stable phenomena studiable in their own right.

Note that I do not claim that scientific reductionism is the "correct view"; I only claim that it is the view which allows us to make progress in understanding the world (including ourselves). In rejecting that as an "explanatory framework" (under the belief that it "negates the validity of" your experience in some unspecified way) you are in fact rejecting the only framework which actually explains anything, in favour of a pseudo-explanation logically indistinguishable from "It happens by magic!" So: I do not find your alternative to be an interpretation of the evidence so much as a superfluous gloss arbitrarily applied to it.

Mapping Human Experience to Religious Experience

To reiterate a point made earlier: subjective experience is its own justification -- if you feel it, it is a real feeling (even if its neurological correlates are not currently being monitored by EEG or other apparatus). However, your experience of God -- just like your experience of the computer you are reading this on, or the chair you are sitting on -- is both a subjective experience and is taken as implying an objective claim about the external world. Such claims are not justified by the experience alone, but are (potentially) open to verification or falsification against external reality. In my view, crossing that category boundary invalidates the isomorphism between your experience of love for your husband and your experience of God.

  1. A reductionist, neurological account of subjective experience does not compromise its reality in any meaningful way that I can see.
  2. Subjective experience is at least largely neurological, and there is no compelling reason (nor any explanatory value) in postulating additional components to it.
  3. There is not a valid isomorphism between the claims following on the experience of love, and those following on the experience of God.
I conclude that your analogy fails, and cannot justify a rational "choice of faith".

Monday, October 15, 2007

Some Ex-Equine Flagellation

One of the arguments raised against MMP was that it would increase the power of the party establishments relative to that of the riding associations, and make members less accountable to their local constituency.

Of course, we know that sort of thing can never happen under the First-Past-The-Post system, right?

Friday, October 12, 2007

In Case Anyone Still Cares....'s what yesterday's election results would have looked like, had MMP been in place:

Ridings Won Party Vote Final Legislature Disproportion
Party # % % # %
Liberal 60 46.51% 42.19% 60 46.51% 4.32%
PC 22 17.05% 31.67% 39 30.23% -1.44%
NDP 8 6.20% 16.79% 20 15.50% -1.29%
Green 0 0.00% 8.01% 10 7.75% -0.26%
Other 0 0.00% 1.34% 0 0.00% -1.34%
Check totals: 90 69.77% 100.00% 129 100.00% 8.64%

I've divvied up the 90 ridings in the same proportions as the 107 ridings we actually have (see the real results, below), and used the recorded popular vote as the Party Vote (ie. no one decided to split their ballot). In this alternate world, the Liberals would have a minority, but a strong one. They could retain power by cooperating with either the NDP or the Greens -- who get 10 seats!

The reasons the referendum failed have been amply enumerated elsewhere, so I won't belabor them further.

The real election:

Ridings Won
# %
71 66.36%
26 24.30%
10 9.35%
0 0.00%
0 0.00%
107 100.00%

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

All Candidates Meeting

We went to the local All-Candidates meeting for the upcoming Ontario election tonight. The candidates' bit was pretty typical boring blah-blah -- they (Lib, PC, NDP, Green) all agreed on motherhood issues like closing the Carp Road dump, better funding for health and education (though a bit vague on where to get the money), etc. The local PC incumbent (Norm Sterling) and Liberal (governing party for the last four years) opponent predictably blamed each other's parties for The Mess We're In. I was actually hoping for the local Family Coalition candidate to be there to provide comic relief, but no such luck.

It was the first half of the meeting that was interesting: a presentation and discussion on MMP. Some guy from Elections Ontario did a mediocre job of explaining the proposed system -- you could tell from the questions that a lot of people didn't really "get it". At all. Then we got a "pro" speaker and a "con" speaker (whose names I didn't write down).

The "pro" speaker made points I'd heard before (and some I've made myself). Then the "con" speaker got up. The acoustics were not great, so I didn't catch his name, but it was something like "Charles Fearmonger", which is close enough because that's mostly what he did. He started by making the reasonable point that the proposed MMP system strengthens the power of the parties (which strictly speaking are not a fundamental aspect of the historical Westminster system) by giving them an explicit presence on the ballot. A couple of points:
  • The choice of list candidates is done at the party level, a process which is remote from the local riding association who nominate the local candidate.
  • MPPs might be more likely to toe the party line (as opposed to representing their constituents) if it affects their chances of getting on the list next election.
However, he hasn't shown that either of these are true: the proposed system does not specify how the list candidates are to be chosen. A party could, for example, nominate them by popular vote of the whole party membership. So this particular scenario, while it could happen, is hardly inevitable.

After making this semi-valid point, Mr. Fearmonger went downhill into borderline crankery. He claimed it was impossible to find the details of the mysterious Hare Formula by which the list seats are assigned. Huh? I found it -- it wasn't dead easy, but if a software engineer can find something on a website while sitting in his easy chair with a laptop, paying half-attention to Stephen Colbert, surely so could he. Anyways, afterwards I overheard him out in the hallway explaining the fractional-seat resolution scheme to someone -- so he must have found the same information I did! So what the hell was he on about?

Next he presented some truly alarming election scenarios, presumably to show that MMP doesn't deliver what it promises. His scenarios:
  • Party X creates a "shadow" party (call it Y -- or maybe they make a deal with an already existing party). Party X only runs candidates in the riding races. Y only runs list candidates. Assuming they both do moderately well, between them they have a healthy majority, out of which they form a "coalition" government. Apparently, Mr. Fearmonger thinks we are all to stupid to see through such a transparent dirty trick, or too docile to send Party X to electoral Coventry over it.
  • His final scenario was even stupider: Every riding elects an independent candidate AND all of us (except one) decide not to vote on the party side of the ballot. That one voter votes for Party X. Thus X gets 100% of the party vote, therefore all 39 list seats -- and presumably the government. Do I really need to point out how wildly unrealistic this outcome is? All electoral systems can be mathematically shown to produce absurd results in some extreme situation -- but we don't live in the ideal world of mathematics, we live in the real world.
I will grant Mr. Fearmonger that there are probably other, less obvious ways parties could game the system -- but there always are. It requires vigilance on the part of we the electorate to punish parties that try to play tricks -- but again, this is always true. For good or ill, we get the government we deserve. MMP will not change that, but it will allow us more choice over the makeup of our legislature.