Saturday, November 28, 2015

Are Blue Zones Worth Paying Attention To?

Life in a Blue Zone
Life in a Blue Zone
Blue Zones are a concept being promoted by the company Blue Zones (surprise!). The basic premise is that they looked at longevity statistics around the world, and found several places where longevity is unusually high. They then looked at what things these places have in common, with the hopes of coming up with rules that can be applied in other places to increase average human life expectancy.

This sounds like a noble goal, but how useful is it in practice? Am I just being a big bringdown by questioning the value of the project?

The obvious first point to consider is that Blue Zones is a for-profit company, so we should at least be careful about assuming that they're acting in our best interest. This doesn't necessarily have to mean that they are sinister or imply malice on their part, but it's important to be aware that if they didn't come up with useful answers as a result of the project, they'd be out of business.

Now, on to the Blue Zones themselves. What are the regions that are considered Blue Zones?
  • Sardinia, Italy
  • Okinawa, Japan
  • Loma Linda, California
  • Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
  • Ikaria, Greece
These places all have unusually high life expectancy. So we just see what they have in common, and that should tell us how to replicate the results elsewhere, right?

Sample Sizes

Not so fast. One important thing to consider first is sample size.

Say you were looking at the statistics of your country, and you wanted to see where the highest rate of, say, renal cancer was. You will almost certainly find that it's in some small town somewhere. Now, check the stats for where the lowest rate of renal cancer is. You will probably find that it, too, is in some other small town. One of these towns must be doing something really right, and one must be doing something really wrong, right?

Not at all. The problem is that whenever you have samples with a small number of components, it's very easy for luck to throw off the sample. In a small town, you only need a couple more or less cases of something to throw off the stats for the whole town, because the sample is so small. So a couple of extra cancer cases make it look like something is going on. In a big city, you'd need a lot more cases of something to affect the overall stat in a noticeable way.

Applying this knowledge to Blue Zones, we need to be careful if any of the locations has a small population. What do we find? Well, Ikaria has a population of only around 8000. Loma Linda is around 23000 people. Nicoya is around 25000. Okinawa and Sardinia, on the other hand, are both above one million people.

So of these five locations that everything is being based on, three have very small populations that could easily get skewed statistics. That doesn't mean that they do, of course, but it's not a good sign.

Transferable Traits

One big problem with the whole concept of Blue Zones is that when looking for the things that each location has in common, by necessity the researchers are only looking at traits that are transferable to another location. Since the very goal is to replicate the results elsewhere (and sell some books in the process), if it turned out that, say, high altitude was responsible for longer life expectancy, this would end up being ignored because you can't transfer that.

Or, noticing that several of these populations are quite small, what if the very fact of living in small villages rather than big, crowded cities is a major reason for longer lives? Again, you can't sell that as a solution, so it has to be ignored.

It could well be that many of the common traits being promoted are actually just coincidental and have no value in increasing longevity on average (assuming that there is even a genuine longevity increase in these places to begin with), and that the things that actually matter were completely overlooked.

Isolated Traits

Consider another issue, which is whether or not you need several traits working together to get the desired results. Can you just identify several things that these places have in common and assume that each one individually is useful? Maybe without several working together you get no results, or even worse, negative results? Imagine if you found, say, that drinking alcohol and living at a high altitude worked together to increase longevity, but just alcohol on its own actually decreased it? Well, you would now be exporting shorter life spans and bad advice!

And the even more interesting thing could be that there are common traits in these different places, but they need to be combined with some other thing to get the right results, but the identity of that other thing is actually different in each location, like in Loma Linda they eat lots of beans, while in Ikaria they bathe in hot water a lot. And if you do one of these things along with drinking alcohol, you live longer (let me be clear that this is just a hypothetical). Well, these wouldn't be identified by Blue Zones, and so once again you'd actually be exporting bad advice to others.

Quality of Life

Finally, there's the actual question of whether Blue Zones is even looking at the right thing. Longevity is obviously nice, all things being equal, but are all things equal? Living a long life is not the same as a life worth living, and most people would probably choose a shorter, happier life over a longer, more miserable one.

If living a year longer involved decades of eating bland food, or painful exercises, or being sedentary and expending as little energy as possible, etc, maybe that wouldn't be a worthwhile tradeoff for most people. Rather than looking for the places on Earth where people live the longest, perhaps we should be looking for the places on Earth where people are happiest, and try to replicate those results?

    Sunday, August 9, 2015

    Government Secrets and Our Trust

    The need for secrecy

    Most people accept that a certain amount of government secrecy is necessary. There are military and intelligence secrets, for example, that are needed to be kept, at least for some length of time, in order to improve country security. This is always a tradeoff though, and you would be hard pressed to identify any single secret that absolutely must be kept. You could take something like, say, the identities of your covert agents in other countries, which seems like it must obviously be kept secret, but to arrive at that point you have already assumed that you must have these covert agents in the first place. Maybe there are other ways to achieve the same ends, or maybe those ends themselves are questionable. There are always other options.

    But let us assume that there are legitimate reasons for governments to keep secrets from their country's citizens. There is always the question of what kinds of things the government should be allowed to keep secret. If you asked the government, then they would insist it's only this:
    • Things that are necessary for the security of the country

    The abuse of secrecy

    If that was all, then we'd be done here. The problem, of course, is that there is a long, verifiable history of governments using their powers to make things secret for other reasons:
    • To avoid international embarrassment
    • To hide criminal or unlawful actions by government employees
    • To hide criminal or unlawful actions by citizens with a lot of influence on the government
    • To minimize public debate over government actions that the public is likely to disagree with
    • To more easily enable government propaganda/misinformation

    There have been well publicized examples of all of the above categories over the past 15 years in the US and other countries like Australia and the UK, mostly related to abuse of terrorism prevention powers, but also quite a few in relation to the global financial crisis.

    Some of the most disgraceful examples have been when the US government has basically stated that releasing information on their wrongdoing is a security concern because it would foster animosity and hatred towards the US by people overseas if they found out what the US had done! This is, for example, what has been repeatedly said in regards to releasing information and photographs related to the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo.

    Think about just how insane a stance that is for a country that claims to care about justice and democracy. To basically refuse to allow justice to be administered because if the rest of the world found out what you had done, they'd kinda hate you for it. Imagine if a murderer in your city was acquitted on those grounds!

    Policing secrecy

    It's not surprising that these things happen. Governments are made up of people, and those people have their own personal agendas, their own jobs to protect, their own families to provide for. When someone fucks up, either deliberately or unintentionally, it's not at all surprising that if they have access to some way to suppress knowledge about it, they will take advantage of it. We know people are flawed, which is why we should never settle for any system that basically rests on, "Just trust us. We promise we won't abuse this power".

    Government oversight is one of the ways we're supposed to be protected from this sort of abuse, but oversight is rarely truly independent and free of any kind of influence, and again, the people doing the oversight are just flawed humans too. We have numerous stories over the past 15 years of financial industry overseers getting too chummy with the people they're meant to be watching, and planning for their own future when they leave government and switch to working for the very companies they performed oversight on. We know that we can't rely on this to keep the government from abusing its power.

    At the end of the day, the only real protection we have is whistleblowers. These are the people that tell us what the government and big businesses are actually doing, and letting us know when our trust has been abused. And the war on whistleblowers in the last 15 years has been spectacular.

    Extrapolate from what you know

    So how can we know how much to trust the goverment, and when to not buy into their claims that they're acting lawfully? We can never really know exactly what they're doing, since that's the whole point of secrecy. The sensible thing to do, then, is to take what we do know, and extrapolate from there.

    Whenever a whistleblower comes out with information of wrongdoing, and we can have a reasonable degree of confidence that what they revealed is in fact true, the response of the government tells us a lot. Sometimes they will go with the "few bad apples" argument and insist that the unlawful behavior was an aberration, and justice will be served.

    But if this is the case, then you would expect the government to be grateful to the whistleblower and not try to prosecute them. A government that genuinely believes it is doing the right thing and is not knowingly hiding criminal behavior should want whistleblowers to come forward, because those few bad apples give everyone a bad name.

    Sometimes the government will insist that the whistleblower should have used internal channels and that releasing the information publicly was unnecessary and damaging. Consider that there is no way that we could know if that's true. A government with effective internal oversight will make this claim, but surely so would one with poor oversight that is actually committing crimes and hiding them. If what the whistleblower is revealing is actually true, then unlawful behavior is taking place, and either there is internal oversight that has been managing to completely miss it, or the goverment is just straight up lying.

    If the whistleblower releases information that turns out to be accurate, and also states that they saw no viable ways of effecting change within the organization, then where do you think the safe bet lies here? That the whistleblower was releasing accurate information about wrongdoing but lying about the need to go public (and usually destroy their own career in the process), or that the government was performing all this unlawful behavior but had a totally robust internal oversight system?

    And, finally, we have to ask how we would expect a governement to behave when it knows it has lots of dirty secrets, embarrassing secrets, illegal behavior secrets. If you know that there is lots of incriminating information that whistleblowers could reveal, then naturally you're going to come down hard on whistleblowers, prosecute them and put fear into any other would-be whistleblowers. If you were a genuinely clean government, then why would you do that? Why would you prosecute the people who are helping you stay honest?

    So as you see your government try to justify the need to prosecute a whistleblower or sow disinformation about them in order to discredit them, ask yourself if you really think a government that believed it had no other dirty secrets would behave in that way. Ask yourself if it's likely that the whistleblowers have disclosed the only examples of your government behaving badly, and that they are otherwise perfectly squeaky clean. Ask yourself what else the government is so afraid of being disclosed that they feel the need to actively go after whistleblowers.

    The only real information we have about how our governments are behaving in secret is what whistleblowers reveal to us, and how our governments respond when that happens.

    How the government can regain our trust

    So how should a trustworthy government behave? Well, certainly, a government that genuinely wants to keep within the law and not abuse its power should have robust protections for whistleblowers. I can't see any good reason why a government that doesn't want to abuse its secrecy powers would not want a system that encourages whistleblowing.

    But also, an honest government would recognize that individual people within the government can't be trusted. There will always be people under different pressures and they will make bad decisions. A good government will recognize its weaknesses and try to set up a system that makes it hard to do the wrong thing, and makes it easier to do the right thing.

    One possible way is to make coming clean and being honest always the best option. People in the government try to hide incompetence and illegal behavior because they think that they can contain the secrets and have a high probability of getting away with it.

    But what if people in the government instead believed that they had very little chance of getting away with secrets and lies? What if they knew there was a very high probability that they would be found out, and then not only would they be in whatever trouble they would have been in if they had come clean, they would also be in trouble for trying to cover it up?

    I think that if a whistleblower releases information on a single illegal act that the government intentionally covered up, and that it can be shown that either the superiors or the oversight of the person/people responsible for the act knew about it, then that whistleblower should receive full immunity regardless of what else they released. No matter how damaging any other information may be, it should be treated as acceptable collateral damage for the government trying to hide illegal acts.

    This may sound extreme, but we need a system where a whistleblower has confidence that they won't be punished for doing what is ultimately a good service to both the government and the general public. And we actually need the potential damage to the government to be high enough to act as a sufficient deterrent so that coming clean will always be preferable. We need individuals in the government to be thinking not just about exposure of whatever specific act they are involved in, but the potential exposure of all other government secrets.

    Imagine how much better a government would police itself when it was facing that kind of tradeoff. And further, if a government genuinely believes in obeying its own laws, and believes that it has sufficient internal oversight that the general public should trust them, we should ask why they are unwilling to agree to such strong whistleblower protections. If they really are as trustworthy as they want us to believe they are, then they should have nothing to fear, right?

    Wednesday, August 5, 2015

    How Facebook Will Probably Manipulate the Next US Election

    It's a well accepted fact that money heavily influences US politics, with the candidate who spends the most money usually winning the presidential election. And it's expected that the 2016 US presidential election will involve the most campaign spending in history. But what is often overlooked is that it's not money in itself that wins elections. You can't directly buy votes. So why does the correlation exist?

    Money buys attention. At the end of the day, every voter can vote for whomever they want, but campaign spending determines how much they get saturated with information and propaganda for various candidates. Money makes a candidate a household name, pays for billboards and banners, buys attack ads to discredit candidates, and so on. Money doesn't buy elections, it's just a means to influence what voters know, which then affects how they vote.

    News media has known this for years, of course, where most readers/viewers understand the political leanings of their source, and aren't surprised to see biased reporting. But what happens when people think they're getting unfiltered information? What if you can make people think they're getting a balanced view, and that view gives the distinct impression that one candidate is better than the others?

    This is where social media is the big game in town. People don't think of their Facebook news feed, their Twitter feed, or their Google searches as being politically biased, or the tools of a private company to manipulate what they see and therefore influence what they think. They tend to think of these as neutral sources, possibly biased towards showing them things that are likely to keep them clicking, or advertising for things that they are likely to want. But they don't think of social media companies as manipulating what they think and feel and understand about the world.

    With the amount of time people spend on social media now, it would be pretty bad if those privately held profit-driven companies were to take advantage of their completely legal power to manipulate what they show their users, right?

    Various surveys have made clear the increasing role Facebook is playing as a news source for many people. More and more people are relying on the news articles shared by friends and the "related stories" links there as a main source of news. So if the items that appeared in their feeds were filtered in order to favour articles that are positive to some candidate or party and negative to others, then these people would be having their opinions manipulated to some degree, and would end up more likely to vote a certain way.

    We also know that Facebook is very politically active, spending around $10 million a year in lobbying. This means that the company clearly has an interest in certain political outcomes, and cares enough to be willing to devote time and money to get their way.

    One more important piece of the puzzle, we also know that Facebook has both the means and the willingness to manipulate people's news feeds, and can do so secretly if it wants. We know of one secret experiment they did, where they manipulated hundreds of thousands of user's feeds in order to see if they could change their emotional states. They were able to do this in secret and we only know about it because they disclosed it. This means that they probably have done other experiments that they haven't disclosed, but more importantly, it proves that they can secretly do this manipulation if they want to.

    And finally, and probably most importantly, none of this is illegal. Facebook has no obligation to be fair, neutral or unbiased in their filtering of what they present to people.

    So, when you put all this together, Facebook has the means to secretly manipulate the news that millions of US citizens see every day, and they have political interests that are important enough to them to be worth spending millions of dollars on. Further, they have demonstrated a willingness to do this kind of secret manipulation of their users.

    The only real reason to believe that Facebook won't try to manipulate the next US election is if they think it is likely that knowledge will be leaked, and if it is, that it would have greater long term repercussions to the company than not doing it would. Given how deeply entrenched Facebook is in the social media ecosystem, and also given that they could, of course, also limit how much people found out about it if it leaked, I don't think it's that crazy to suspect that they'll do it.

    In summary:
    • Election results are influenced by the news and information that voters are exposed to
    • People are getting a large proportion of their news from Facebook
    • Facebook has political interests and already spends time/money on lobbying
    • Facebook can manipulate what news and information users see
    • Facebook has previously demonstrated the ability and willingness to manipulate user's news feeds, and was able to do it secretly
    • There is nothing illegal about Facebook doing this
    • The only real reason for them not to do it is if they think the general public might find out and the bad press will hurt them more in the long run than the gain

    Now, I've been focusing specifically on Facebook and one particular event here, but most of the arguments apply to other social media companies and other kinds of manipulation. We really do need to be aware of just how much these companies are integrated into our lives and have the ability to control aspects of our knowledge. These are profit-driven companies whose primary purpose is to serve their customers and shareholders, and we're the product. We should not make the mistake of assuming that they have the greater interests of us or society at large as a main priority. They might, of course, but they're corporations. Generating profit is what they're legally obligated to do, and we need to remember that.

    Saturday, August 1, 2015

    Violence and Who Framed Roger Rabbit

    I watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit the other night, for the first time since I was a kid. For a movie made in 1988, I was happy to see that it held up quite well. The high productions values and attention to detail clearly paid off, and it was interesting to watch now that I'm at an age where I can relate to the adult characters more. Overall it's still quite an enjoyable movie.

    What was different for me this time, though, was the violence. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm as happy watching a good action sequence as the next guy, so that's not my problem. What stood out for me was the casual use of violence, and violence as being funny in its own right. That is, the idea that seeing someone get hurt is funny in itself.

    We're all familiar with the old cartoons that this movie is paying homage to, and the fact that they use violence for humour. We've all seen the Coyote get hurt in elaborate ways while trying to catch the Roadrunner. The fact that he is never permanently injured allows us to laugh at his misfortune. Or slapstick like The Three Stooges, where the casual violence the characters aim at each other is funny because they don't actually get hurt.

    Or at least, that's certainly how it was always viewed.

    But when I was watching the opening cartoon of Roger Rabbit, I didn't laugh once. It was literally entirely about Roger Rabbit trying to save a baby from being injured, and himself getting constantly hurt in the process. The humour was completely based around the inventive ways the writers came up with for him to be hurt. Now, he never gets injured, even when a refrigerator falls on his head, but he clearly gets hurt. And that in itself is supposed to be funny.

    I feel like an old man yelling at the kids to get off his lawn, but I didn't find it funny at all. Now, I wasn't morally outraged or anything, but I wasn't enjoying it either. I was thinking, "Oh, well, this is aimed at kids and kids aren't exactly able to get sophisticated humor, so slapstick and fart jokes tend to be the bulk of the humour they get."

    But this also isn't true. Warner Brothers cartoons have certainly been enjoyed by adults over the decades. The Three Stooges was certainly intended for adults to enjoy. And, hell, adults enjoy watching shit like Funniest Home Videos. Clearly the enjoyment of seeing people hurt but not permanently injured has never been limited to children.

    What I'm wondering is whether or not we're changing as a culture. Diana felt the same as me watching the movie, so I know I'm at least not alone. And neither of us are pussies who hate seeing violence in TV shows and movies. But it certainly seems to be the case that violence just for the sake of violence isn't funny to us.

    And this wasn't just limited to the opening cartoon in Roger Rabbit. Throughout the movie, there was a general level of slapstick violence, with Bob Hoskins' character quite often hitting and physically manhandling Roger Rabbit, and it clearly being intended to be funny and lighthearted. Now, I know it probably sounds like I'm overanalysing and sounding like a stodgy old man, but it felt to me like someone needed to sit Hoskins' character down and say, "Now, now, Detective Valiant, you need to use your words. We don't hit each other here. I want you to sit in the corner and think about how you should treat your classmates."

    I would certainly like to think that we're just a small part of a more general social trend in not finding violence funny for its own sake, while still being able to appreciate well crafted humour that happens to involve violence. People getting hurt should generally not be funny to us, it's the very opposite of empathy. We don't need to become overly sensitive and politically correct, but just like most decent people these days don't take pleasure in seeing a bull being killed in a ring, two dogs fighting each other, or a TV character shaking his fist at his wife and saying, "One of these days...POW! Right in the kisser!", it would be nice if we started to move away from laughing when a person gets hit in the face with a frying pan or kicked in the balls too.

    Sunday, July 26, 2015

    Why the Dalai Lama's Teachings Probably Shouldn't Be Taken Too Seriously

    I often see quotes from the Dalai Lama on social media and in various places, and I get the sense that many people consider his teachings to be inspirational. Certainly, messages about love, kindness, forgiveness and so on are generally good things, and I'm not going to criticize that. The point I want to raise here, though, is that to western audiences, a lot of these aspects of the Dalai Lama's beliefs get presented and people take inspiration from them, but I notice that his other beliefs, the stuff about karma and reincarnation, tend to be downplayed somewhat.

    This isn't at all surprising. To a largely Christian audience and a strongly Christian influenced culture, karma and reincarnation isn't going to resonate very well, while concepts like love and forgiveness are much more universal and things that more or less everyone aspires to. But what worries me is that people end up taking just a subset of his beliefs and as a result, elevating him to a position of respect and reverence that he doesn't really deserve.

    Don't get me wrong, he's not a bad person and certainly if more people in the world were like him (in some ways, at least), the world would almost certainly be a better place. But if you want real answers to peace and love in this world, he's not the guy for the job. Take his quotes as your feelgood morning buzz if you want, but don't make the mistake of thinking that he preaches a path worth following.

    Okay, what the hell am I talking about? What's so bad about the Dalai Lama?

    Well, nothing, really. At least nothing that isn't also bad about other Buddhists, other Christians, and in general, most religious people.

    The problem is the karma and reincarnation.

    While you might read wonderful quotes about being full of love, the Dalai Lama's belief system is based around karmic justice, the idea that good deeds are eventually rewarded and bad deeds are eventually punished. Because we can empirically see that this kind of karmic justice generally doesn't happen in our lifetimes (sometimes people "get what's coming to them"; plenty of times they thrive their whole lives just fine), this concept is usually also tied together with reincarnation. So if karma doesn't get the bad guy in this life, don't worry, it will get him in the next.

    This kind of belief system is obviously more or less impervious to proof. The Dalai Lama loves to make statements that make him appear scientifically minded, such as that he would readily give up his belief in reincarnation if science could prove it false. Now, of course, this isn't how science works, the burden of proof is on him to show that a fantastic concept like reincarnation is real, and it's basically impossible to disprove a vague supernatural claim like reincarnation, especially when no one even agrees on what it really means (different schools of Buddhism all have different ideas on what gets reincarnated and what does not; do you keep your memories, some vague concept of soul, etc). Given that his position as Dalai Lama itself requires reincarnation to be true, it's hardly surprising that he would cling to it, though I don't know if his stance on science having the burden to disprove it is one of ignorance of the scientific method, or a deliberate attempt to appear reasonable and open to change while really believing nothing of the sort.

    So the point here is, just like other religions such as Christianity that comfort people by telling them that the good will be rewarded in heaven while the bad will be punished in hell, the Dalai Lama's teachings on love and kindness are also based on his belief that justice will be served eventually, in this life or the next. He has made it quite clear that he sees this kind of karmic justice necessary for a fair and just world, and he clearly believes it to be true.

    The Dalai Lama can afford to love and forgive because he believes justice will come to everyone eventually anyway.

    Where does this leave us? You don't really forgive someone if you're counting on them getting karmic justice eventually. You're not showing compassion if that compassion relies on a trust that some supernatural justice will eventually sort things out. If you want to believe in that kind of justice to help make sense of the world, then great, pick Buddhism, pick Christianity, pick any of the religions that give you this promise. Just don't be fooled into thinking that the Dalai Lama is preaching something different.

    Now, on the other hand, if you can hear his teachings, and take away from that a genuine ability to love, to forgive, to show kindness, and to not want those who harm you to be harmed in return, then guess what? You're a better person than he is. Don't try to learn from him, because he should be trying to learn from you.

    Sunday, July 12, 2015

    Rethinking the theme of Terminator 2

    Not so much thumbs up
    I went back and rewatched the previous Terminator movies with the recent release of Terminator Genesys, and while I still very much enjoyed the first one, I found myself not enjoying Terminator 2 as much as I had when I was younger. I think there is still a lot of great stuff in this movie, don't get me wrong, but this time around I found the theme annoyed me. I'm hoping that this post will get across what it was that was bugging me about it.

    Main Theme

    One of the key messages of the movie is the idea that "the future is not set. There is no fate but that which we make for ourselves". This is fine and not what bugged me. It was the greater theme of learning the value of human life. My issue isn't with the theme itself, but with how poorly the movie actually handles it. There are two main plot points that support this theme:
    1. The Terminator learning the value of human life
    2. Sarah Connor not killing Miles Dyson and instead choosing a non-lethal approach to taking down Cyberdyne
    Neither of these really ends up doing much service to the theme, so let's go over them and I'll try to explain why.

    I Know Now Why You Cry

    Let's start at the very end. The final line of the movie is:

    Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too.

    This is a nice feelgood line to end the movie on, and it sounds meaningful. We're meant to leave the movie thinking, "yeah, if a lousy machine can figure out the value of human life, why can't we damn humans do it?"

    The problem, of course, is that no machine has actually learned the value of human life. A machine in a movie learned it because that's what the script said. But you can't take a profound fictional event and use it as a premise for a logical argument about the real world. You don't base your opinion on human beings on what a fictional robot did in some movie! This is a clever line that feels profound, but it really says nothing.

    Now, going through the movie, we see the Terminator go from not knowing why he can't kill humans to apparently valuing human life. We even have the funny exchange where John Connor keeps telling him that he can't kill humans, and he just keeps asking, "why?". The best John Connor can come up with is, "because you just can't. Trust me on this."

    John Connor is just a child in the movie, so we shouldn't expect any kind of profound philosophical argument from him. But if the Terminator's arc in the movie is going to be eventually valuing human life, then we need things to happen in the movie to justify that. And as far as I can see, that isn't the case. The movie progresses and as far as we can tell, the Terminator is avoiding killing people because John Connor ordered him not to. But then suddenly, at the end, he apparently now understands why people cry, and values human life.

    The movie did no work to get to that point. It just kind of asserts it because it needs it for story closure. There is no good reason for the Terminator to now value human life, other than if he just somehow 'figured it out' from out of nowhere. And if a movie is all about learning the value of human life but can't actually articulate in any real way why human life is valuable, then it more or less fails.

    I Almost Did It

    The previous issue was a bit nitpicky, but this one I think is the main problem. This is the part where Sarah Connor goes to kill Miles Dyson, but in the end, they decide to take a non-lethal approach to stopping Cyberdyne. We get the scene with her sobbing on the floor as John Connor and the Terminator run in, and she says, "I almost did it". First thing is first, though. The real reason Miles Dyson is still alive at this point is not because Sarah Connor couldn't pull the trigger. It's because of luck and Sarah Connor being a fucking terrible shot.

    Sarah Connor absolutely pulls the trigger to kill Miles Dyson. But he moves at the last moment when a radio controlled car hits his foot. This is pure luck and by all rights Dyson should be straight up dead at this point.

    She then goes on to pour 60 rounds of assault rifle ammunition into the desk he's hiding behind, but his desk must be stacked full of bricks or something because none of them penetrate and kill him.

    This still isn't enough. She then heads to the room he's in and fires at him with a pistol, eventually hitting him once in the shoulder. It's only after all of these lousy shots that she eventually has to confront him and his family and then, finally, she's unable to shoot him in the face at point blank range while his wife and child look on.

    Hardly 'pat yourself on the back' moral integrity here, and Miles Dyson really should be dead and the movie basically over at this point. Ironically, Sarah Connor would have far more moral integrity if she actually followed through with shooting him at this point, because otherwise it means that she had no problem killing him with an assault rifle from 50 meters away, but not while looking at his face.

    But at this point, we're meant to think that what has happened is that she 'came to her senses' and realized what she was doing was wrong. The alternative, not so feelgood answer, though, might be that she was right in the first place, but lost the nerve to make a difficult moral choice once she could no longer stay emotionally distant from it.


    So the issue here is whether or not killing Miles Dyson in order to stop Skynet being created would be a morally acceptable thing to do. The movie tries to argue that it wouldn't be. Now, obviously, if you can solve a problem without taking lives that's always going to be preferable. In this case, we're talking about trading one person's life for the lives of billions of people. It's possible that you may be able to do it non-lethally, and in the movie they find a way, but at a much greater risk of failure, particularly with a T1000 chasing them.

    It's a question of whether preserving that one life is worth all the extra risk of trying to find a non-lethal approach. One thing that might seem significant here is that fact that we're talking about killing a person who hasn't actually done anything yet, which makes it seem like some kind of thought crime. But that's where this moral problem differs from anything we ever actually encounter in real life, so we need to be careful. The movie has the unique situation of having precise knowledge from the future of what is going to happen. And this makes it less killing a person for what they might do, and makes it closer to killing them for what they have done. This doesn't ever happen in the real world so we're not built to think well about this kind of situation.

    The fact that Miles Dyson isn't intentionally trying to wipe out the human race makes this feel different to than if he was doing it intentionally, but that doesn't change the need to stop him. It means we shouldn't kill him because he 'deserves it', but it doesn't change the fact that killing him in order to stop him might not be unreasonable. Given how large the stakes are, this might be the unfortunate but pragmatic best move given the circumstances.

    Consider that, right now, the US has an ongoing drone bombing campaign across several countries in the Middle East, where thousands of people have been killed. Thousands of innocent civilians are knowingly killed as part of this, and not much effort is made to avoid that. Drone attacks aren't aborted if there's any chance that an innocent person might die. Far from it.

    And people seem to be mostly okay with that. I mean, people kind of don't like it, but no one seems to be kicking up a fuss or petitioning their representatives. The news media barely talks about it. Most people are happy to not be reminded of it, and to not think about it.

    But really, if you're not losing sleep over thousands of innocent people being killing on an ongoing basis, in some dubious, poorly defined war on terror, on what ground can you really be against killing one single person who will guaranteed cause the deaths of several billion people. By what we're currently morally accepting, a drone should be able to bomb Miles Dyson's house and kill him and his entire family and we should just call it collateral damage.

    Now, since I don't think the US drone bombing is morally acceptable I can't exactly use that as an argument for killing Miles Dyson. However, my point is more that we accept deaths for the greater good all the time, and when it saves lives we usually consider it a good thing. If one death saved billions of lives, would we really be morally torn about it?

    The problem with Terminator 2 is that it avoided the actually morally difficult choice of having to do one bad thing in order to avoid a much worse thing. Making a tough choice, and then living with the guilt of that, that can actually be a noble act. Deciding that you can never take a life under any circumstances, and then muddling through a plan that hopefully will stop the deaths of billions of people if you get lucky, that's actually not so noble after all.

    Friday, June 12, 2015

    Towards True Marriage Equality

    Like most progressive people, I'm in favour of a legal redefinition of marriage to make it fairer and more equal for as many people as possible. If for no other reason than the various legal perks and advantages that are given to married people in many countries, I think this is an issue that needs to be taken seriously.

    What I want to talk about here is what a fair definition of marriage should be, and ask whether we as a society are actually ready to accept the repercussions of that definition. I see a lot of pro-gay-marriage people happily insult non-progressives as bigoted and homophobic, which is often quite justified, but I also see these same people displaying the bigoted behavior they condemn to other underrepresented minorities, without even appearing to realize that they're being the exact same kind of bigot that they rail against. Let me explain, and you can then decide if I'm full of crap or not!


    The traditional definition of marriage is generally something of the form:

    The legally or formally recognized union of a man and a woman as partners in a relationship.

    The progressive definition I would argue for is something like this:

    The legally or formally recognized union of consenting adults as partners in a relationship.

    Think about this and decide if you agree that this is a reasonable definition. In arguments about marriage equality, progressives will typically focus on limiting marriage to being between a man and a woman as being unreasonably restrictive, and argue that any consenting adults should be able to form a legal union if they wish. I agree with this general principle, but it's important that we look at the cases that it does and doesn't cover, and see if we agree that we're on the right track.

    What Marriage Wouldn't Cover

    Opponents of gay marriage often bring up various cases and argue that redefining marriage will result in some kind of ridiculous slippery slope to absurdity, so let's look at those cases and see how they are handled by our progressive definition:

    Marrying children.

    Requiring marriage to be between consenting adults is important in order to exclude claims that someone would be able to marry a child. A child isn't sufficiently mentally developed to enter into a union of this kind, so this seems to be a reasonable restriction. And obviously marrying children isn't possible with our progressive definition, so this argument is invalid.

    Marrying animals.

    Another popular claim is that redefining marriage will result in bestiality and people wanting to marry their pets or other animals. Now, we can be explicit and say consenting adult humans if we really want to be pedantic, since that is our intention here, but the fact that animals do not have the ability to consent to marriage should already cover this.

    Marrying inanimate objects.

    Following on from the previous one, no one would be able to marry their car or their favourite sex doll or any other object, since like with animals, inanimate objects cannot consent to anything. 

    What Marriage Would Cover

    This is where things will get interesting for progressives. Remember again that if you want to argue that marriage should be between consenting adults in order to argue in favour of gay marriage, you need to accept the implications of this redefinition, or be guilty of hypocrisy.

    Incestuous marriages.

    If two consenting adults want to marry and they happen to be related to each other, what reasonable objection can we give to this? Whether it's two brothers, a brother and sister, a father and daughter, two cousins, or any other combination, they're consenting adults, and what justification do we have for stopping them?

    Some people will just jump straight to the "incest is gross" line of reasoning and not even go any further than that. And this is understandable, since there is a strong inbuilt aversion in most humans to avoid sexual attraction to relatives, for good evolutionary reasons. But we're not talking about forcing anyone to do anything. The question is, if for whatever reason two related people are sexually attracted to each other and want to get married, do we have a reasonable objection to it?

    We really need to keep in mind the principle that "just because I don't like something isn't good enough reason to stop others from doing that thing". This is one of the exact arguments that homophobic people use against gay marriage. Because they think homosexuality is disgusting, that should be enforced on everyone.

    One argument that usually comes up with incestuous marriage is the one about higher risk of deformed children. This is undoubtedly a reality, but consider why this isn't an effective argument:
    • Related couples can have children without being married. Marriage isn't some kind of license that people require before they can procreate, so limiting it in this case makes no sense.
    • Marriage does not necessarily involve children. This is an argument that is often leveled against gay marriage, and the same answer applies. A couple can marry without having children, or they can adopt children if they want. It's important that an incestuous couple is aware of the risks, but that's not a reason to forbid marriage.

    Polygamy and polyandry.

    Do we have a good reason for limiting marriage to being specifically between two people? This is certainly what most people want, but just like gay or incestuous marriage, if multiple consenting adults want to have this kind of union, is there any good reason not to allow it?

    I think the biggest legitimate concern would be if people abused this kind of marriage as a legal loophole, say by some cult having all members marry to take advantage of spousal property ownership transfer laws, or the board of directors of a corporation all marrying to take advantage of laws that protect a person from having speak against their spouse in a criminal case (where these laws exist).

    But assuming we can deal with those legal issues, is there any reasonable moral objection that we can give? I can't see a good reason to limit marriage in this way, just like I can't see good reason to limit it to being between a man and a woman.

    We should also be aware that there are two different cases here: A group of more than two people all being married to each other; and a person being married multiple times simultaneously, but those partners not being married to each other. I think both are legitimate cases.

    Again, we need to remember the point that just because we don't like something or want to do something, that's not a good enough reason to deny it to others who do want that thing. There might be other reasons that could apply, but this isn't one in itself.


    It's easy to think that laws should be based around what the majority wants, and ignore minorities. To some degree this is fair, since it's unlikely that you can make laws that will satisfy every member of society, so when you have to choose, going with what the majority wants is often the best trade off. Hell, that's what elections are!

    But we do need to reconsider laws when we find that some minority is being unfairly treated and we don't have a sufficient justification for it. This has been the case for LGBT rights. Minorities generally can't get enough political will behind their agendas without some of the majority getting on board, and so as more people have decided that we can accommodate LGBT people in various ways without unreasonably affecting the majority, the momentum has gathered enough to bring about change.

    As that change happens, we need to stay aware of other minorities that we can help in the process, and not treat them the exact same way the majority has treated the minority group we are focused on. It's far too easy for most people to dismiss people who are in incestuous or polygamous relationships as 'weirdos' or 'freaks' or 'abominations in the eyes of god' or other uncharitable things, but it's important to remember that they are consenting adults who aren't hurting anyone, and these are the exact labels that LGBT people have been fighting for years. We shouldn't just push the intolerance down onto the next minority group and consider it a victory.

    If we really do care about marriage equality, and really do think that consenting adults should be free to marry, then we need to also accept all of the people that this redefinition affects, or we're just as bigoted as the homophobes and other non-progressives.

    Thursday, June 11, 2015

    In (Partial) Defense of the Death Penalty

    With the recent sentence of the death penalty being given to Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, it seems like an appropriate time to discuss some of the issues surrounding the death penalty.

    To get started, let me state where I stand on the issue. I generally support the death penalty in theory, but oppose it in practice. My opposition mainly is due to two issues:
    • Trusting the legal system to not sentence innocent people to death
    • Humane methods of imposing the death penalty
    To be clear, I don't support the death penalty as a method of retributive justice. I am generally against forms of justice that involve making people suffer. This is a big reason why I support the death penalty in the first place. I think it is far crueler to lock a person up for life with no hope of freedom in an environment that forces them to develop the worst aspects of themselves in order to survive, than to humanely put them down.

    I understand that when people do bad things, there is often a very strong desire by the victims, families of the victims, and often the public in general to see that person suffer as part of justice, but I don't think this is an impulse we should embrace, but rather this is the ugly part of us that makes us more like the person we are trying to punish, and the one we should work to move away from.

    I see our system of imprisoning and punishing people to serve three useful purposes:
    • Stopping dangerous people from having the opportunity to offend again
    • Providing a deterrent to those who might be considering committing a crime
    • Rehabilitating the offender if possible
    Making the offender suffer should not be on that list, no matter how good it might make other people feel. I'm sure you've heard when some rapist or child molester is sent to prison, people say things like, "Good, now I hope he gets raped in prison". Maybe you've even said and thought this yourself. Stop and think about what a horrible thing this is to wish on any human being. And also stop and think about how often innocent people get sent to prison. So you're ultimately hoping for a system that subjects innocent people to that kind of suffering on top of falsely imprisoning them. Everyone should wish for a safe prison environment where offenders can serve their time without fear of being raped or killed, if for no other reason than for the sake of all the innocent people who end up in there. You can't pick and choose, hoping that only the actually guilty people are made to suffer.


    So let's talk about some of the common objections to the death penalty, and why I don't think they're sufficient.

    Putting someone to death is cruel.

    Certainly, it can be cruel if done in a cruel way. I don't at all advocate for barbaric execution methods like the electric chair. But given the existence of drugs used for peaceful euthanasia in countries like the Netherlands, if you can't put someone to death humanely by lethal injection then you're simply doing it wrong.

    Putting someone to death is not cruel enough.

    The flipside of the previous objection, this is where people feel like the death penalty lets an offender off easy, essentially by not forcing them to stew for years and think about what they've done. There are a few issues here.

    One, if the offender is a psychopath, they will probably never end up feeling remorse for what they did, no matter how long they're imprisoned. At best, they'll feel bad that they got caught.

    Two, this argument really doesn't make sense to me coming from any religious person who believes in an afterlife. Surely, you feel that he's going to get adequately punished by your god after he dies, right?

    Three, as I've stated above, I don't think the desire to make an offender suffer is one we should be promoting. If an offender is unlikely to be able to be rehabilitated into a trustworthy member of society, then putting them down is, in my opinion, the most humane thing you can do. And everyone else will have to accept that making the offender suffer is not going to undo the damage, and they're going to have to find more constructive ways to work through their grief and loss. Enjoying the suffering of others is never a path to long term psychological wellbeing.

    Putting someone to death makes us just as bad as them.

    Obviously, putting someone to death as punishment is not at all the same thing as, say, a murderer killing a bunch of innocent people. Equating these things makes as much sense as equating killing in self defense and murder. Just because a death is involved does not make them morally the same thing.

    Consider a different example: have you ever heard anyone say that we shouldn't put kidnappers in prison because that would make us just as bad as them? We imprison a kidnapper against his will even though that's what he did to someone else, because it's not at all the same thing. Similarities between the crime and the punishment are just that, similarities, and they don't necessarily equate the two things morally.

    Death is what he wants, and so we shouldn't give it to him.

    This is one of the arguments that has come up in the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev case. The idea that he wants to be a martyr, that he wants to go to heaven and get his 72 virgins or whatever, so we shouldn't give it to him.

    Firstly, if you're not a Muslim yourself, this argument makes no sense, since you, by definition, do not believe he has the reward waiting for him that he thinks he has, so what better punishment than giving him the rude awakening? The longer he lives, the longer he gets to enjoy the thought of all the rewards that he thinks are waiting for him.

    But probably more importantly, who cares what he wants? Again, the object isn't retribution and suffering. You keep him from harming others, you send a deterrence message to other would-be criminals, and if you can't reasonably expect to ever rehabilitate and release him, you humanely put him down. But fucking with him based on what he wants shouldn't be part of the program, because we should strive to be better than that.

    My Objections

    So, as I mentioned at the beginning, I have my own objections to the death penalty in practice. There have been far too many innocent people put on death row in the US to be able to support the death penalty with the justice system as it currently is there (and I'm sure the same is true in other countries), except in the rare cases where the guilt of the person is really not up for debate. This is the case with someone like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, where no one, as far as I'm aware, has ever argued that he is innocent. If this was the kind of certainty bar that was used in all death penalty cases then I would be willing to reconsider that stance.

    And the other one is the apparent difficulty in humanely putting criminals to death. I don't know if this is due to incompetence, or a secret desire to actually make these people suffer, but it seems ridiculous that this should be an issue. And yet it is, and so I wouldn't support the death penalty unless that was sorted out.

    My Reasons for Support

    So why do I support the death penalty in theory? Well, in general I think our criminal justice system should be more focused on rehabilitation, and I think society would be a far better place if that was taken more seriously. In practice, it seems that going to prison tends to do the opposite of rehabilitate, and when combined with limiting a person's options for getting law abiding employment after they are released, tends to send people down a negative life spiral rather than give them a genuine chance to make amends and start again, even if they really do feel remorse and want to do that.

    But for some people, even with a perfect system of rehabilitation, this will simply never work for them. Whether due to mental illness like psychopathy; a mental state that is so damaged by bad life experience that it really can't be repaired; the need for a strong enough deterrent for some crimes so it is understood that if you commit them you will never be set free; or due to crimes so heinous that the general public would simply never feel safe if they were set free; humanely putting that person down is not an act of vengeance or cruelty, but the opposite: a pragmatic choice and an act of decency when a perfect solution doesn't exist.

    Is Western Culture Oversensitive to Hitler?

    Hitler Chic In Thailand - Photo credit: Tibor Krausz / CNNGO
    "Hang on", I hear you saying. "Are you about to defend Hitler?"

    No, rest assured that this is not a post defending Hitler or the Nazis, or any kind of anti-Semitic statement. What I do want to discuss though, is how much we should expect other cultures to share our own sensitivities, how much we can be unaware of our own insensitivities to other cultures, and how we can deal with cultural offense in an increasingly globally connected world.

    So, a recent episode of the excellent Last Week Tonight with John Oliver had a segment on the growing trend in Thailand of 'Hitler Chic', the use of Hitler and Nazi imagery for humour:

    For once, this is something that I kind of disagree with John Oliver about, so I thought it would be worth discussing.


    So, the obvious issue is that many people in western culture feel that using Hitler imagery for humour or fun trivializes the horrible things that he was responsible for. There is likely some truth to this, but we also need to recognize the massive degree to which Hitler and the Nazis have become the go-to example of evil in our culture. So many discussions involving politics, slippery slopes, and in fact just about anything, end up with someone playing the Hitler or Nazi card at some point. Now, this can be totally fair, as often a discussion can be clarified by taking it to an extreme to show where a line of reasoning may lead, but with Hitler this has become so overdone, so much the only reference most people seem to share, that we have even coined a term for it, Godwin's Law:

    "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1"

    Basically, western culture seems to have so few common references to draw on where people can be confident that others will get what they mean, that we've practically turned Hitler into a caricature of evil, and we're on the verge (if not already crossed over) of no longer being able to reasonably include a reference to him in a serious discussion.

    No Paucity of Examples

    Now of course, a persuasive leader who started a world war and committed arguably the largest act of genocide in human history is not someone to take lightly, but it's not as if we're lacking in other examples. What is problematic with western culture is how little most people (and I include myself here) are aware of other examples, when there is no shortage.

    One of the examples of genocide I tend to use is the horrific genocide in Rwanda of the Tutsis by the Hutus. Here is a genocide of up to 1 million people that took place only 20 years ago, yet most westerners probably know next to nothing about it. It's a fantastic example of how normal people can literally turn against their neighbours and kill them, and it even includes the church and religion playing a big part in provoking it.

    Or take Holodomor, the "hunger extermination" of Ukranians in 1932-3 that killed between 2.5 and 7.5 million people, on the same scale as the Holocaust.

    If you want horrible dictators, how about Pol Pot, responsible for millions of deaths in Cambodia, as just one of many, many examples.

    Or what about Hirohito or Tojo and all of the horrible deaths they were responsible for before and during World War 2? There is no Godwin's Law for them.


    If our view of Hitler and Nazis was kept in perspective, we would use them as examples and be sensitive to them in roughly relative proportion to other events and people in recent history. But we don't do that, and that should be a sign to us that maybe we're oversensitive to one thing and far too ignorant on many, many others.

    And so, we find other cultures that, for whatever reason, don't hold the same level of sensitivity about something as we do, and we insist that they should change? Like it or not, Hitler and the Nazis generated some very striking imagery, and so it shouldn't be surprising that it would get appropriated in places that aren't as sensitive to it, such as Thailand. Why not?

    We do it ourselves all the time too. How familiar and iconic is this Che Guevara image?

    Photo credit: Alberto Korda - Museo Che Guevara, Havana Cuba
    It has appeared on t-shirts, in art, and in so many locations with most people not even knowing or caring if anyone would be offended by its use. It's striking and not offensive to the people using it, so they use it.

    Or, since we're talking about Thailand, consider the use of Yantra tattoos, which many westerners get because they look cool, despite that it's often offensive to Thai people for religious reasons.

    Sak Yant Tattoo performed in thailand.jpg
    Sak Yant Tattoo performed in Thailand - Photo credit: Ryaninuk

    The Past, the Future

    Different cultures are sensitive to different things and to different degrees, that's normal. Generally, over time, that sensitivity diminishes and what was once offensive or taboo becomes a piece of pop culture. In Thailand, a Hitler Teletubby shirt is funny, but for most westerners, it's not. But we should remember, that in the west we can open a Viking themed restaurant, for example, with no one being offended in the least, but this wasn't always the case either.

    We live in an increasingly globally connected world where there is much common ground, but we're going to keep coming across differences between cultures. Some of those will be considered interesting and welcomed by other cultures. Some of them will be a sensitivity that won't be shared. I would never argue that being sensitive to another culture is likely to be a bad thing, but ironically, that also means being sensitive to the fact that they might not feel the same way about something that you're sensitive to, and not requiring them to share your point of view.

    We can only shield ourselves from these cultural differences to a limited degree, and that is going to keep reducing over time. So we need to accept that either we push everyone in the world towards a lowest common denominator where no one does or says anything that could offend any other culture, or we accept that these differences are going to exist and that it's okay. The past tells us that historical things that we're sensitive to now, we won't be at some point in the future, it's just a question of how soon. So we shouldn't hold it against other cultures because they got there sooner than we did.

    Sunday, May 10, 2015

    Homosexual Acceptance and Cultural Change

    Minnesota for Marriage – Minnesota State Fair (7992941428)

    As time has gone by we have had numerous cultural shifts in society where a group has gained acceptance and better treatment. When this happens, quite often large cultural changes result as previous behaviors and traditions become no longer morally or logically justifiable. The acceptance of black people as being equal to whites; women being equal to men; disabled people being worthy of the same respect as the able bodied; violence not being an acceptable way to discipline children; animals being more than just objects for us to use for our own ends.

    When these shifts occur there are often large changes as society adapts. White people had to learn to co-exist with black people rather than segregating them. Men had to learn to co-exist in workplaces with women. People speaking up when they see someone beating their child (or wife!). Animal fighting sports become less socially acceptable.

    A recent change that has the potential to cause large social changes, and that will almost certainly require a lot of people to be dragged into accepting that change, is the acceptance of homosexuals as first class citizens. For the most part, if homosexuals weren't outright persecuted, then typically the attitude of society was more like, "as long as you keep to yourselves and don't make us have to change to accommodate you, then we're cool". But as fights for homosexual rights and equality are being won, this kind of attitude is becoming less acceptable and society at large has to start addressing the behaviors and traditions we have that are not inclusive of homosexuals.

    There is a rather unique area of cultural change required here, and that is the various social customs of segregating males and females. What makes this so unique is that homosexuals basically throw a spanner in the works of any social segregation that is justified by the argument that people who are sexually attracted to each other need to be kept apart under some circumstances.

    Public restrooms; change rooms in gyms; schools; military and other high stress environments where sexual interest is considered a distraction or danger; prisons even. People will argue that this segregation is about things like modesty, respect, etc, but this is just a red herring. Except for some rare exceptions such as sports where the strength differences between men and women make for an unfair playing field, all of these places in society where we segregate males and females come down to perceived problems of having people who are sexually attracted to each other having to interact in ways that they may feel uncomfortable doing.

    This is not controversial. Most men will fart or go to the toilet with other men around, but not feel comfortable doing the same around women. Most women will change at their local gym with other women present, but would never do so with men around. And so on.

    But this is where homosexuals force society to rethink these conventions, because the same social structures simply don't work for them. When two groups are attracted to each other, you can keep them separate. But when members within a group are attracted to each other, this is no longer an option. The largest heterosexual group you can create without sexual attraction being a potential issue is effectively infinite: all heterosexual men or all heterosexual women. The largest homosexual group you can create without sexual attraction being a potential issue is two: one homosexual man and one homosexual woman. Add any other homosexual or heterosexual person and you have a potential sexual attraction issue.

    Here's the thing though: we expect homosexuals to deal with it. We expect the homosexual man to deal with taking a shit in the men's restroom, and get over the potential embarrassment. We expect the homosexual woman to get changed at the gym surrounded by other women. We expect the homosexual teenager at the all boys or all girls school to deal with the distraction that these schools exist to remove. They simply don't have a choice. It's either isolate yourself or learn to deal with it.

    So this is the cultural shift that we need to start dealing with. If homosexuals can handle being in close proximity with those they are sexually attracted to, maybe the rest of us can too. Maybe we should hold everyone to these same high standards. Or are we going to just say that homosexuals are more mature people and heterosexuals are immature and can't be trusted to behave? It would indeed be a strange kind of discrimination for society to say that homosexuals aren't equal: they're better people!

    If you've read this far and these ideas make you feel uncomfortable, then congratulations! This is what cultural shift feels like. All of those people who came before you spending their lives with a social convention that was then changed underneath them felt the same way. This is why it's often said that for real social change to happen the old people need to die out to make way for the new ideas. And when you're living through social change, you get to choose if you're going to be part of that change, or if you're going to be one of the people that society waits to die so that progress can happen.

    Sunday, February 8, 2015

    How Do We Decide What's Right?

    University of Toronto pro-life protest 11

    So, here's a hypothetical I want you to really think about. You hear on the news one day that a new law has been passed: if the biological mother of a child up to 12 months old decides that she no longer wants the child, she can take the toddler to a clinic and have it put down.

    The justifications behind the law aren't important. All that matters is you probably disagree with this law. You probably think it's morally abhorrent. You probably think that it's murder.

    What would you do? If you suddenly found yourself living in a country that legalized the murder of toddlers under a year old, what would you do? Would you write a stern letter to your local paper? Would you start an activist group to have the law changed. Would you start picketing out the front of Toddler Termination Clinics? Would you wish that someone burned down those clinics? Would you consider doing it yourself?

    We often have to hold our tongues and accept living in a society where the laws don't quite match our personal morals. It's rare, probably non-existent, for a person to agree 100% with every law they are held to. Maybe it's speed limits. Maybe it's some tax law. Maybe it's which drugs are legal and which are not, and the penalties involved.

    For the most part we accept this. But what happens when there is a law we really object to, that we cannot in clear conscience support? Legal slavery. Discrimination against women. The death penalty. We generally feel that it is our moral duty to speak up. We may even feel it is our moral duty to disobey that law, to take a stand. And we often respect others who do this.

    At least, when we agree with them.

    And that's kind of the point of my hypothetical at the top. Most people would feel outraged if such a law was passed in their country, and would probably become actively involved in trying to change it. It would not be uncommon for people to verbally attack those who made use of the law. Some might even commit acts of violence. And many people would, if not outright support such things, at least be sympathetic to those who did.

    So when it comes to issues like abortion, most would probably claim to understand this point, but I actually don't think they do: for a person who genuinely believes that life begins at conception, they really do believe that abortion is murder, and you're asking them to accept and live in a society that legalizes the murder of a helpless 'child' under some circumstances. It doesn't matter whether their belief is true here. To them it is. It's just as true to them as the belief that terminating a six month old toddler is murder to you.

    And this raises the really crucial question: how do you determine the laws of your country for issues that some group will find morally abhorrent, no matter which side the law favours? How do you decide which people get a law that matches their moral intuitions, and which people have to just suck it up and live with laws they strongly morally oppose?

    One option is simple strength in numbers, and this actually is kind of what does tend to happen in practice. Slavery is legal until enough people object to it. The death penalty is legal until enough voices speak out against it. Euthanasia stays illegal in most places because too many religious people believe that suicide under all circumstances is an unforgiveable sin, and not enough other people have witnessed a terminally ill loved one suffering to be outraged.

    But most people would not say that slavery should be legal as long as the majority are okay with it. We tend to think that there is a certain objectivity to morals, and that as societies develop and flourish the people within those societies gain empathy. Something that is also undoubtedly true but probably acknowledged by less people is that as science and understanding of the universe increases and the power of religions decreases, we learn things that make the justifications behind some laws no longer hold.

    Once you can show that black people are not mentally inferior to white people, you can no longer justify slavery on that basis (at least, not if you're honest and rational). You can't withold the vote from women because they're inferior to men if science shows that this isn't true. And you can't claim that life begins at conception if the evidence shows that a fertilized egg doesn't become a viable organism until much later.

    But you can certainly claim that a soul is injected into that fertilized egg at the moment of conception.

    Of course you can claim that. How could anyone prove otherwise? Just like you can claim that homosexuals are an abomination in the eyes of god, or that suicide is a mortal sin, or that god grants men dominion over women.

    The problem when people use religion as a justification for any moral belief is that there is no way to prove them wrong, not even in theory, because their claims are not testable in the physical world. But religious people generally claim to get their morals from their religious beliefs, and as we've seen above, those morals then become the basis of the laws they try to have govern their country.

    So there's no such thing as a person's religious beliefs being kept to themselves and not affecting others, as long as their beliefs inform their sense of morality. And there's no way to reconcile two opposing moral beliefs when they're based on religion. And this is quite often the situation we find ourselves in.

    Where does this leave us? As an atheist, obviously I think that laws should not be based on religious beliefs. But we live in a world where most people still hold religious beliefs and think they are a valid source of morality. And as I made clear above, you can't have a stable society with laws that a significant number of people hold a moral objection to, whatever the basis of those moral beliefs.

    The only real answer seems to be addressing religion itself. As long as people think it's okay to believe things based on faith, this problem will never go away. Anti-abortionists will feel 100% justified in their opposition to pro-choice laws. Many Muslims will feel that the death penalty is perfectly appropriate if someone tries to leave the religion (i.e. become an apostate). And anyone who thinks that faith is in any way a valid reason for holding certain moral beliefs really can't criticize any of these people without being a massive hypocrite.

    Saturday, January 31, 2015

    13 Observations From A Newcomer To Edinburgh/UK

    Note: This is a guest post authored by my awesome wife, Diana

    I have been living in Edinburgh just over 6 months now, and I thought it would be fun to share my initial thoughts on things that have stood out for me for one reason or another. Maybe some of these things are just Edinburgh or Scotland specific and are different in the rest of the UK. This is not meant to be a newcomer’s guide to the UK.

    Maybe it helps for you to understand these thoughts if you know that I have lived in various parts of Australia, and I lived 3 years in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. So it is not just from the perspective of someone who has never lived overseas before, but I have only lived in one other country, so I am not exactly an expert on these sorts of things, and if I was I would probably see these things I have noticed in a more balanced way.

    You will probably notice that some things I am quite particular about for emotional/non-rational reasons, and so I'm not pretending that my position or point of view is always logical and well reasoned here, but that's not really the point of this post. I just want to present some of my reactions to things over here and I'm hoping others will find it interesting or amusing.

    Anyway, let's get started...

    13. My feet should not touch the end of the bed

    Apparently a double size bed is the standard bed size for couples in the UK. Even some UK hotels will provide this size and it is a special thing if they have UK king size (Which is Aussie Queen size). I guess this is mainly due to smaller room sizes? Maybe if you never turn over and are deep sleepers, and are slim and short, and do not have pets that sleep in your bed, double size is fine for two people sleeping, but for me this size really reduces the quality of my sleep. And good quality sleep is really important to me and I don’t think I am alone on this.

    We rent a furnished place as otherwise I would have bought a larger bed (the room is just barely big enough for a larger bed). But I am surprised that couples here seem ok with sleeping on a double bed. I guess something is wrong with me. Adam and I had a king size bed is Australia (UK super king size) and we had plenty of room and you could not notice if someone turned in bed, and there was even plenty of room for the cat. I guess with hot weather as well, you do not want to be close to someone else when trying to sleep. So maybe that is it, UK couples snuggle and if so that is great. But yeah, I look forward to sleeping in a larger bed again.

    12. Trash bins in the streets

    I get that Edinburgh is an old city, and it was built before they had to think about effective garbage removal, but seeing all the large black garbage bins in the streets makes the place look shitty (the bins are out there all the time, not just on rubbish collection day). I think it leads to more bits of rubbish being in the streets. This is not everywhere, and our newish apartment complex has a storeroom for the common garbage bins, but there are still plenty to be seen around Edinburgh. I guess this particularly bothers me as the place is so beautiful, so it seems such a shame to have big black garbage bins on the street ruining this. Maybe people here are used to seeing the bins and they do not even notice them anymore? I have noticed recently on Leith Walk they are trialling having the bins there only certain times during the week, when they are actually going to come around and empty the bins, and I think this has really improved the look of that road.

    11. Power points in Bathrooms

    I want to be able to dry my hair in the bathroom.

    So, bathrooms can be small here, true. But apparently there is some rule about how there needs to be 1m between a power outlet and a water outlet (Or something like this), so this basically means very few bathrooms have any power outlets. They can have an outlet for shavers, and you can buy electric toothbrushes that can plug into these shaver outlets. So, from what I have heard most people just dry their hair in the bedroom.

    I know they are trying to save me from electrocuting myself or someone I love. But I don’t care, I can handle a power point in the bathroom. I know my brother’s first apartment only had one power point and it was right up near the ceiling away from any water source, and you also needed a ladder to use it (maybe an exaggeration), so I guess Australia had something like this before. Aren’t there things you can install like a safety switch that stops electrocutions in houses anyway?

    And a minor note, but do the shaver power outlets emit some kind of magic electricity that can't electrocute you? How is one type okay but not the other?

    10. Mailboxes, you are doing it wrong

    Actually I guess they are mail slots, because you basically get your mail delivered through a slot in the front door. For our place it is actually quite nosy when the mail gets delivered, the first few times it really scared me! What I understand even less about this, is that we live in an apartment which you need to either have a key or get someone to buzz you in to get inside, so how does the mailman get into the building? Does he have keys, or could anyone who buzzes and says they're the mailman get let in? Then why have security? Also, surely it annoys him having to walk up 3 flights of stairs to deliver my mail. Perhaps we can all agree having mailboxes at the front of apartments that we can also access with a key makes more sense.

    9. Let me run free

    One of my favourite things about Scotland is the freedom the average person has to walk on someone else’s land. The Pentland hills near Edinburgh are a great example of this. I won’t go too much into this, as I could write a whole other post on this topic. And I am sure most of you already know more about this than me, and if you don’t, google it!

    I had this more or less at Lennox Head growing up. I use to walk on farmland, but I would have to climb through barbwire fences to do this (I got quite good at this) and I obviously was not meant to be walking on this land. But because I guess I was a bad child, I got to see some really beautiful parts around where I lived. Down the end of my street there was a bit of rainforest where there were vines me and my friends could swing on, but I had to get through barbwire fences to access this. So I really love the freedom to explore over here.

    8. What’s all this about no sunshine?

    Honestly it is not that cold, and not that cloudy. Maybe we have been really lucky with the weather, and I admit the sun setting at 3:30pm is a little soon, but this only lasts a short while, and in summer you get the sun setting at 10:30pm, so to me the trade-off is worth it. Maybe it is just because I love variety, and the weather and daylight hours vary quite a lot here. What bothered me was the endless sunshine and hot days without any rain in Perth. I really missed the rain. The cold is fine as you just have the proper clothes, and the heating in our home is great. I was way colder in my home in Perth in winter.

    7. Scottish people are awesome

    Yes, I know this is a generalisation, but you should be used to that now from me and meh!

    Our first impression of a Scottish person in Scotland was our cab driver. He went out of his way to find exactly where our apartment was as we did not realize apartment number and street number are switched here when you write them (So 9/10 is unit 9 street number 10 in Australia , whereas here it is street number 9 apartment 10). We gave him a tip, and he handed back half of it as he said it was too much. Pretty much this first impression has held up. I feel really welcome here which is nice. Maybe I am actually not as welcome as I think, but I certainly feel like I am.

    6. Castles, for real

    Castles for us are such a novelty. We love roaming through them. We get as excited about castles as we do about snow. I am very glad that so much effort and money has been put into keeping these amazing buildings accessible to the public.

    5. That was not food

    The quality range here can really vary. My impression is that things are a little more expensive in Germany but you have better quality. We had some Toad in the Holes (admittedly this was frozen food) heated up in the oven and I have never felt so ill from eating something in my life (except when I have gotten food poising). I have no idea what type of meat they used but it was such bad quality. Maybe we should have known better, and maybe you all know better. Maybe all frozen meat products are a no go here. I do not know. Adam and I have frozen vegetarian meat as part of our lunches now.

    4. Pierogi my favourite

    So apparently there is quite a large Polish community here, there are Polish speciality shops all over the place. And we totally win from this as I love Polish food. I can get a pack of mushroom and sauerkraut pierogi from the local supermarket for £1-1.50 (AUD2-3.00 roughly). Bargain! My background is Ukrainian, Polish and Belarussian (or as Adam says it does not matter, and I guess I tend to agree), and my grandma use to make varenyky which is more or less the same as pierogi. I would like to make it too, but it is too time consuming. So it is nice to get it (or something close enough) so easily here. Now if only I could get cabbage rolls like my grandmother use to make…she was the best cook.

    я голодний

    Hope that translation was correct, I know how to say it, I don’t know how to write it. (It says "I am hungry!")

    3. Not hot chips with meals, what?

    Just so there is no confusion, I mean what you call crisps in the UK or potato chips in Australia. We have had a few times now when we have ordered a sandwich at a café where it would come with a few potato chips or corn chips on the plate. We have never had this before, and we think it is the strangest thing. But I guess do hot chips make more sense? Yes, yes they do! Or else you might as well throw a few Gummi Bears on the side if you're going to head down that path!

    2. Washing, washing everywhere

    It seems so odd to me that dryers are common in Australia but they are not in the UK, not even laundries seem common. In some units/apartments in Australia they do not have a separate laundry, but they will have something within the bathroom, like a cupboard with the washing machine and dryer behind it. Maybe this comes back to the lack of power points in the bathroom… and smaller sized places in general. In Germany we had a communal laundry room where we could all put our washing machines and dryers.

    With the unpredictable rain, you cannot really hang your washing up outside here (There is not even the option where we rent), so the only option for our case, and I think this is common in the UK, is to air dry your clothes inside your home. So this means almost all the time we have two clothes racks with washing drying. From what I have seen new places are also being built without a laundry, and with the washing machine in the kitchen.  Why! Does it honestly not bother UK residents? I have seen some larger homes will have a laundry, so maybe having a laundry is a rich person thing here? I think maybe it would be fine to dry your clothes inside if you were one person, and you could open the windows to have airflow remove the dampness. But with it being 0 degrees outside, I do not really want the windows open all the time.

    1. Tiny deathtrap bathrooms

    They seem to love having the shower in the bathtub here. I think this is a US thing too. In Australia, only cheap places (Or maybe old ones) have the shower in the bathtub in the main bathroom. We tend to have a separate shower. Bathtubs are slippery, the shower curtain sticks to you, and it’s cold! With a shower with glass doors you are in this warm, safe box. I don’t know how old people manage to step into these bathtub/shower combo’s. In Australia, if there is a lack of space, they will only have a shower and not bathtub. The main plus of the shower/bathtub combo is not having to clean the grout. But to me, that is it.

    Because the bathrooms are so small, the sinks tend to be right up next to the toilet, virtually to the point that you could be going to the toilet while leaning over the sink and brushing your teeth at the same time. I can't even imagine what this does for hygiene, but I know Adam is not overly impressed putting contact lenses in and out of his eyes two feet from a toilet bowl!

    We tend to dislike the trend of putting toilets in bathrooms in general, but over here it's almost like they built the bathroom at a size intended only for a bath and sink, and then just decided to jam a toilet in there because they've been playing too much Tetris or something.