Friday, September 28, 2007

Out of Iraq Bloggers Caucus

Here's the OOIBC Blogroll:

OOIBC CentralAmerican Leftist
And, yes, I DO take it personally
Army of Dude
BFD Blog!
Big Tent Democrat @ Talkleft
Blazing Indiscretions
Blue Girl, Red State
Daily Scare
Decline and Fall
Dr. X's Free Associations
Drawing The Line
Gold Star Mom Speaks Out
Green Left Infoasis
Happening Here
Hill Country Gal
Intrepid Liberal Journal
Iraq Today
Left End of the Dial
Left Wing Nut Job
Left-Handed Elephant
Let's Try Democracy | David Swanson
Lost Chord
Lotus - Surviving a Dark Time
Meteor Blades @ Daily Kos
My Thinking Spot
Peace, Love and Erica Campbell
Reals World
Revolt Today
San Francisco Impeach Now!
Sirens Chronicles
The Barefoot Bum
The Existentialist Cowboy
The Mandarin
The Motley Patriot
The Osterley Times
The Paragraph
Watching Those We Chose
Welcome to Pottersville
Welcome to the Revolution
Worldwide Sawdust


Here's the contents of my personal blogroll:

Atheist Blogroll

To keep everyone's Technorati ratings up, I'm posting the contents of my blogrolls.

Here's the Atheist Blogroll:

1 2 3 Religious Comics**New
2 Intellectual Atheists
A Daily Dose of Doubt**New
A Human Mind
A Load of Bright
A Night on the Tiles
A Veritable Plethora
A Whore in the Temple of Reason**New
About: Agnosticism / Atheism
Abstract Nonsense
Aces Full of Links
Action Skeptics**New
After Faith
Agnostic Atheism
aidan maconachy blog**New
Ain't Christian
Al-Kafir Akbar!
Alien Atheist
Am I mad, or is the world?
Amused Muse
An Atheist Homeschooler
An Enlightened Observer
Anders Rasmussen Blog
Angels Depart
Angry Astronomer
Arcis Logos
Atheism and Coffee
Atheism is the Rational Response
Atheism Online
atheism |
Atheism: Proving The Negative
Atheist Blogs Aggregated
Atheist Ethicist
Atheist Ethics
Atheist Father
Atheist Girl
Atheist Housewife
Atheist Hussy
Atheist Movies
Atheist Revolution**New
Atheist Says What
Atheist Self
Austin Atheist Anonymous**New
Author of Confusion
Axis of Jared
Ayrshire Blog
Babble, bullshit, blasphemy and being.
Bay of Fundie
Beaman's World
Beep! Beep! It's Me.
Ben's Place
Bert's Blog
Bible Study for Atheists
Bill's View
bits of starstuff
Bjorn & Jeannette's Blog
Black Sun Journal**New
Blog of the Big E
Blogue de Mathieu Demers
Bob Kowalski
Born Again Atheist
Buridan's Ass
By The Book Comics
Can't make a difference
Christian Follies
Church of Integrity
Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster**New
Circular Reasoning
Cogita Tute - Think For Yourself
Coming Out Godless
Complete Materialist
Confessions of an Anonymous Coward
Cosmic Variance
Crazy Christian Chain Emails
Culture for all
Daily Atheist**New
Dark Christianity
Dark Matter, USA
Dark Side of Mars**New
Darwin's Dagger
Daylight Atheism
Debunking Christianity**New
Deep Thoughts**New
Deeply Blasphemous
Desperately Seeking Ethics and Reason
Deus ex Absurdum
DEVOUT Atheist Godless Grief
Diary of a Teenage Atheist
Die Eigenheit
Dime a dozen
discernible chaos**New
Disgusted Beyond Belief
Dispatches from the Culture Wars
do not read this blog
Dorset Humanists blog**New
Dr. Joan Bushwell's Chimpanzee Refuge**New
Drunken Tune
Dubito Ergo Sum**New
Duplicitous Primates
Dwindling In Unbelief
Edifying Spectacle
Edward T. Babinski
Elaine Vigneault**New
Everyday Atheism
Everyday Humanist
Everything Is Pointless**New
Expired Convictions
Explicit Atheist
faith in honest doubt**New
Feersum Endjinn
Fire Jesus**New
Fish Wars on Cars
Five Public Opinions
Five Public Opinions: I demand a recount!
Flex Your Head
Free Mind Joe
free Thoughts
FreeThought by a FreeThinker
Freethought vs. Friel-Thought
Freethought Weekly
Friendly Atheist
Geoff Arnold
Gimme Back My God!
God is for Suckers!**New
God is Pretend
Godless Kiwi
Godless on the Wasatch Front**New
Goosing the Antithesis
Gospel of Reason
Gratuitous Common Sense
Greg Hartnett
Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes**New
Hayleys Paranormal Blog
Hellbound Alleee
hell's handmaiden**New
High Maintenance Hags
Honjii's Harangues
Human Psyche of J.D. Crow
Ice Station Tango
In Defence Of Reason
Incessant Expressions
Inkblot Icon
Irked off
Jewish Atheist
Judith's thought-provoking hard-hitting journal
K H A L A S !
Kill The Afterlife
King Aardvark
Lary Crews
Le Contestataire
le tiers monde**New
leaping rabbit/lapin sauteur
Leicester Secularist
Let There Be Light
Letters from a broad
Life & Otherwise
Life before death
Life is an adventure
Life Without Faith
Life, the Universe and Everything
Living with Missy and other thoughts**New
LOL god
Look at the Bright's Side
Lord J-Bar For Democracy, Not Theocracy
louis' blog
Love the Nimbu
Lubab No More**New
lynn's daughter, thinking
Masala Skeptic
Matt's Notepad
Mechanical Crowds**New
Meet An Atheist
Memoirs of a (G)a(y)theist
Memoirs of an ex-Christian
Mere Skepticism**New
Midwest Atheist
Mike's Weekly Skeptic Rant
Misc. Musing**New
mister jebs blog
Modern Agnostic
Modern Atheist
My Case Against God
My Elemental Muse
My Life Thinly Disguised as Groove**New
Naturalistic Atheism
Neural Gourmet
New Humanist Blog
Nicest Girl and Destroyer of Planets
No Double Standards
No More Hornets
No more Mr. Nice Guy!
Non Credo Deus
North Alabama Rant
Nothing Is Sacred
Nut Watch**New
One Fewer God
Onion Breath
Onwards and Forwards
Open Parachute
Oz Atheis's Weblog
parenthetical remarks
Philosophers' Playground
Pink Prozac
Pinoy Atheist
Planet Atheism**New
Planet Humanism
Pooflingers Anonymous
Primordial Blog**New
Principles of Parsimony**New
Prose Justice
Psychodiva's Mutterings
Quintessential Rambling
Radical Atheist**New
Ramblings of an Atheist Undergrad
Random Intelligence**New
Rank Atheism
Re-imagine Ritual
Reeding and Writing
Religion is Bullshit !
Rev. BigDumbChimp
Richard Carrier Blogs**New
Rideo ergo sum
Robert's Thought's
Ron's Rants
Rupture the Rapture
Russell's Teapot
Saint Gasoline
Sans God
Scientia Natura**New
Sean the Blogonaut
Secular Humanism with a human face
See For Yourself
Shared Difference
Silly Humans**New
Skeptic Rant
Skeptical Personal Development
So long, and thanks for all the guilt!
Son Shines Zee 365
Southern Atheist
stacy, interrupted
Stardust Musings and Thoughts for the Freethinker
Staring At Empty Pages
Steven Carr's Blog
Strange Land
Summer Squirrel
Talk Reason
Talking to Theists
Tangled Up In Blue Guy**New
Tarpan's Blog
Televangelists with Toupees
Terahertz - From Physics to Life**New
Thank God I'm An Atheist
The Affable Atheist
The Allen Zone
The Angry Atheist
The Anonymous Atheist
The Apostate
The Ateist Endeavor
the atheist chronicles
The Atheist Effect
The Atheist Experience
The Atheist Jew**New
The Atheist Mama
The Atheist Resistance
The Atheocracy**New
The Atheologist
The Bach
The Blasphemous
The Blog of M'Gath
The Cat Ranch
The Chronicles of Gorthos
The Conscious Earth**New
The Daily Cat Chase
The Eternal Gaijin**New
The Flying Bagpiper
The Flying Trilobite
The Fundy Post
The Gay Black Jew
The Godless Grief
The Good Atheist
The Great Realization
The Greenbelt**New
The Happy New Atheist
The Happy, Religion Free Family
The Homeless Atheist
The Honest Doubter
The Humanist Observer
The Incomer
The Jesus Myth**New
The Jewish Atheist
The Labour Humanist
The Libertarian Defender
The Lippard Blog**New
the LITTLE things
The Mary Blog
The Nate and Di Show
The Natural Skeptic
The New Atheist
The New Horizon
The O Project
The One With Aldacron
The Pagan Prattle Online
The Panda's Thumb
The People's Republic Of Newport**New
the post-bicameral mind
The Primate Diaries**New
The Questionable Authority
The Rad Guy Blog
The Raving Atheist
the right of reason
the Science Ethicist
The Science Pundit
The Second Mouses Guide to Life
The Second Oldest Question
The Secular Outpost
The Secular-Man Blog (An Oasis of Clear Thinking)
The Serenity of Reason
The Seven Solitudes
The shadows of an open mind
The Skeptic Review
the skeptical alchemist
The Strong Atheist
The Thermal Vent
The Uncredible Hallq
The Underground Unbeliever
The Uninformed Suburban Housewife
The Uninspired Manifesto
The Water is Poison
The Zen Of G
These Twisted Times
They Promised Us Jetpacks and We Got Blogs
Thought Theater
Toxic thought waste site**New
Ungodly Cynic
Unscrewing The Inscrutable
Uri Kalish - Urikalization
Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy
Velocity Inversion**New
Vetenskap & F�rnuft
View From Earth
Villa Nandes
Wanderin' Weeta
Way of the Mind
Why Dont You Blog?**New
Wild-Eyed Atheist Boy
Without Gods
Writer Philosopher Culture Warrior
Yet Another Blog
You Made Me Say It
Young Earth Creationists Anonymous**New
Zeemy's Paradigm
Zen Curmudgeon
"Atheism Sucks" sucks

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Closing down

I've decided to quit blogging for a variety of reasons, many of them personal and few of them bearing elaboration. Not the least being that I've said most of what I have to say. To say anything more, at least as I want to say it, would require taking my efforts to the next level: getting a Ph.D. or learning to write fiction. I don't see either of these avenues as either appealing or practical.

The archives will remain available until Google/Blogger loses them or decides to delete them. The license permitting noncommercial use still stands, so you're free to reprint anything under its terms with attribution.

You're welcome to email me at lrhamelin (at) gmail (dot) com.

Good luck. Au revoir.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Simple HTML for Blogger

I find it easier and more reliable to create posts in Blogger with simple HTML rather than with the Compose feature. You need to remember only a handful of HTML tags and your posts will never rarely come out looking weird.


First, go to your Blogger Dashboard, go to the Settings tab, and select the Formatting link. Find the "Convert line breaks" setting (presently the seventh setting), set it to "Yes", and click the Save Settings button at the bottom of the page.

Creating a new Post

When you create a new post, be sure to select the Edit HTML tab. Your text will appear in the Courier monospaced (typewriter-like) font.

Simple Formatting

Start the text you want in boldface with a <b> tag, and end it with a </b> tag.

HTML: <b>boldface</b>
Appears as: boldface

Use <i> and </i> for italics, <u> and </u> for underline, and <s> and </s> for strikeout.

Block Quotations

You can use the <blockquote> and </blockquote> tags to create an indented block quotation. Put the <blockquote> tag before the quotation and the </blockquote> after the quotation.

HTML: <blockquote>When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the American flag and carrying a cross. —Sinclair Lewis</blockquote> See how easy it is?

Appears as:
When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the American flag and carrying a cross. —Sinclair Lewis
See how easy it is?


The most complicated tag you'll need to use is called (for stupid historical reasons) the "anchor" tag. The anchor tag has the general form:
<a href="[url]">[link text]</a>
The [url] is the type stuff you see in the address bar of your browser when you visit a page. You need the entire URL, including the "http://" part. The [link text] is the text the user will see; it'll (typically) be blue and underlined.

HTML: <a href="">Often Right, Rarely Correct</a>
Appears as: Often Right, Rarely Correct

I usually find it easier to write the tags and the link text first, and then paste the URL between the quotation marks.

Step 1: <a href="">Often Right, Rarely Correct</a>
Step 2: <a href="">Often Right, Rarely Correct</a>

Using Compose

If you want to do anything fancier, you can write your post in the Edit HTML mode and then use Compose to change fonts, add images, etc. Before using Compose, make sure all the URLs for your links are filled in; if you don't, Compose will fill them in for you, and do it wrong. I used Compose to make all the HTML commands in the Courier font.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Emmy Award winner Kathy Griffin's acceptance speech will be censored by E! and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. This is because Ms. Griffin had the temerity to state that "...Jesus had nothing to do with this award." Well, and apparently some other more off-color remarks, some of which are reported to have involved making the baby Jesus cry, but we'll never get to know. Bill Donohue, grand high poobah of the Catholic League -- sort of an Anti-Defamation Leagure for people who haven't really been oppressed or exterminated by other ethnicities or sectarians -- tells us that Ms. Griffin's remarks, which are certainly blasphemous, are "obscene."

Really? Blasphemy is obscenity? That's... that's... dammit, that's un-American!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Crushing uncertainty

Chris A writes about Mother Theresa and asks, "Shouldn't people be self-reflective about their lives, and shouldn't we expect that self-reflection to be crushingly uncertain from time to time?" The answers are: Yes, we should expect people to be self-reflective, and yes, self-reflection should be uncertain. But no, we should not expect the uncertainty to be crushing.

Everyone, believer and skeptic alike, is uncertain—even unconvinced—about a lot of things, with no distress whatsoever. Are you absolutely certain your keys are on your dresser? Not just pretty sure, not just confident, but so absolutely certain that even if you looked at your dresser and the keys were not there, you would doubt the evidence of your senses rather than look in your pants pocket? The notion is absurd.

Everyone deals with uncertainty. We should be astonished, not blasé, that uncertainty over some ideas causes distress. This sort of distress is patent evidence of neurosis, not mental health.

How to solve the logic problems (part 2)

I'll talk here about the last three problems from the How Logical Are You? quiz.

Question 6: One of the very tricky things about logic problems with all/none/some problems is that English is ambiguous and inconsistent about what "not", "none" or "no" really apply to. If the problem doesn't use "some" (see question 8), we can use material implications. "All P's are Q's" means "if P then Q" (p -> q). "No P's are Q's" means "if not P then not Q" as well as "if not Q then not P" (~p -> ~q and ~q -> ~p). Again, we can extract the valid statements by using the contrapositive (see question 1).

If you're middle-aged as I am, you might remember Venn diagrams from your New Math class. A Venn diagram is a good way of visualizing all/some/none relationships.

Notice that "All A's are B's" is asymmetrical: A's relationship to B is different from B's relationship to A. That's why we use the asymmetrical if ... then... On the other hand "No A's are B's" is symmetrical: A has the same relationship to B as B does to A. That's why we use two material implications.

One important trick in logic questions is that "not true" does not always mean "definitely false" (and "not false" does not always mean "definitely true"). In many cases some assertions are—given the premises—uncertain, not determinate, unknown. You can validly assert neither their truth or falsity. This question tries to trick you because it specifies a relationship between musicians and chefs and a relationship between teachers and chefs, but it doesn't specify any relationship at all between musicians and teachers.

Question 7: This question is not a logic question per se, but rather a pattern recognition question. There's a general pattern in these types of problems: The patterns that come earlier in the test are usually simple and direct; they become more complicated and abstract as the test progresses. Since this is the first pattern-type question, the pattern you're looking for is indeed fairly simple.

Once you get the pattern, you can get the answer with some simple arithmetic.

Question 8: Like question 6, this is a all/none/some question, but this question uses "some". "Some A's are B's" (and "some A's are not B's"), however, gives us very little information, so little that you can rarely draw any sort of valid conclusions. The Venn diagrams are ambiguous:

Since "some" questions are ambiguous, you want to look for "none of the above". The definitely true or false statements you can extract from a "some" condition are so grammatically complex and ambiguous that test makers rarely bother to include them.

Sophisticated theism

Julian S. Taylor writes that "I feel comfortable with my very abstract definition of the word 'God'."

Chris A writes that our understanding of God is apophatic, i.e. known via negation; it's "frustrating to atheists and fundamentalist Christians alike ... [and] the sort of things that annoy the philosophers because it's fuzzy; you can't argue against it."

Those of you who remember the Deacon might recall his (now deleted) description of modern, sophisticated theism as chthonic, fuzzy, mysterious, occult (I'm paraphrasing; I wish I'd quoted him at the time).

H. Allen Orr criticizes Dawkins' "failure to engage religious thought in any serious way."

But where is this supposedly serious, sophisticated modern theology? Swinburne? A fatuous idiot. Plantinga? Full of logical fallacies and sophistry. Sprong? An atheist.

Forgive the tendentious paraphrase; I have to read between the lines of what these sophisticated theists are saying to make any sense at all of their position. But as best I can tell, modern theism rests on a single principle.

Theists seem uncomfortable facing the meta-ethical truth that they—like all people, indeed all animals with a brain larger than a BB—are physical beings imposing their will on a physical universe which is not intrinsically moral. They shrink from the truth that there's no objective difference between Nazism and altruism; the only difference is subjective, how we feel about such activities. (I strongly dislike Nazism, of course, and I'm willing to impose my will with legal violence—police and soldiers—when Nazis try too hard to impose their own will. But I take personal responsibility for my position.) They can't take personal responsibility for imposing their will on the world, but they're not willing to kill themselves (the only effective method of not imposing one's will), nor are they comfortable ceding their moral authority to other people, i.e. priests, politicians or popes. So they push the responsibility for their choices onto an immaterial, undetectable, chthonic, mysterious God. They're not imposing their own will on the world, but God's. (Why God's will always seems to resemble whatever moral beliefs are held by the believer's parents remains a mystery. It's also a mystery why God requires armies of faith-addled morons to impose His will.)

Sophisticated, serious theism has to be fuzzy because the underlying position is simply bullshit: There is no God, he doesn't have any sort of will. You can't prove it because it's false, so you can defend the position only through obfuscation, sophistry, bullshit and lies.

Believers will deny my tendentious paraphrase; they'll say I'm just not getting it. Perhaps they're right. I remain open-minded. But I'd like to see an actual position, not just the theism of whatever isn't criticized by atheist arguments. I'd like to see something more positive than that an atheist argument "never squarely faces its opponents." If sophisticated theism is so fuzzy and chthonic, don't criticize atheists for imprecision.

And don't tell me to read a book either. I've read a lot of books. If your favorite book is so great, you should be able to summarize and paraphrase its arguments (not just its conclusions). If you need more space than comments provide, I'll give you—subject only to ordinary editorial standards—a post on the front page of this blog to make your case.

Sophisticated theists: Put up or have a steaming cup of shut the fuck up.

(h/t to Geoff Arnold for Julian and Chris's links)

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Geeks in Love

Geeks in Love.

(h/t to Pharyngula

Criticism of Dawkins

Adam Roberts delivers a magnificent criticism of Dawkins' recent book, The Fascism Delusion:
Dawkins avoids the real question of whether one’s political understanding terminates with a structureless, anarchic and social aggregation void of meaning, or with an authority who provides order, stability and reason for living. The bottom line is that Dawkins cannot afford to entertain the possibility that Fascism fills a deep-seated need in people. But the evidence that this is the case is so strong. Fascism could hardly have been as popular as it has been, for as long, otherwise.

(h/t to Geoff Arnold)

37% American

You Are 37% American

America: You don't love it or want to leave it.
But you wouldn't mind giving it an extreme make over.
On the 4th of July, you'll fly a freak flag instead...
And give Uncle Sam a sucker punch!

I ignored the part of my brain that's responsible for rational, critical thought, took the test again, and got about 95%. After slamming a half dozen shots, I got 100%.

If you're 100% American (according to this test), The First Amendment isn't right but the Second is Sacred Writ, you'd rather eat at chain restaurants than at home, Canadians are Americans in training, beer should taste like cold piss, you think the Army is terrific and we should be killing more brown and yellow people, you drive a new car and you're up to your eyeballs in debt, you hardly ever vote if at all (at least not since you voted for Reagan), you like men and cars on steroids colliding. Even though you think anyone not a mindless conformist is a traitor, you love America because here you can be free.

There's one question wrong: You have to know that there are four states that begin with a 'W' (Washington, West Virginia, Wisconson and Wyoming). Given that many Americans can't name a country that starts with a "U", I think the right answer should have been "No idea!" (half credit for each of the inaccurate answers).

Other than that I think they nailed it. Man, I love my country!

I got 37% just because of that question and I use "Zee" for 'Z'.

(h/t to The Apostate.)

How to solve the logic problems

On Friday, I took the How Logical Are You? quiz. I thought it might be useful to discuss how to answer each of the questions (I won't give the actual answers, though).

Question 1: There's an easy way and a hard way to solve this problem. The easy way is to examine each answer in turn and see if it satisfies the conditions in the question: If Ralph is 60, is he four times as old as Frank is at 15? If so, add 20 years to each age: When Ralph is 80, will he be twice as old as Frank at 35?

There's an additional shortcut. In a question like this, typically all the answers will satisfy the simpler (usually first) condition, but only one will satisfy the more complicated. Check the more complicated condition first for each answer; check the simpler condition only if the answer satisfies the first condition.

You can solve questions like this the hard way by solving simultaneous algebraic equations. Note: You should learn basic algebra, it's very useful.

There are two variables, Ralph's and Frank's present ages, so there have to be two conditions (There are an infinite number of ways for two variables to satisfy one condition). Write down the conditions algebraically (R means Ralph's present age, F means Frank's):
  1. R = 4 * F
  2. (R + 20) = 2 * (F + 20)
Solve both equations for either R or F (since (1) is already solved for R, we only have to solve the other equation):
  1. R = 4 * F
  2. R = (2 * (F + 20)) - 20 = 2 * F + 2 * 20 - 20 = 2 * F + 20
Substitute one solution for R into the other solution; now we have one equation with one variable:
  1. 4 * F = 2 * F + 20
Solve this equation using ordinary algebra and you have Frank's present age; since you know Ralph is four times older than Frank, you can quickly get Ralph's present age.

You can also solve this problem using graphs. Each condition specifies a line; the answer is the point where the lines intersect. I've left the numbers off the graph so as to not spoil the question.

Question 2: This question tests your understanding of material implication. The key words are "if ... then ..." and the absence of the key word "only". (See question 4). What follows the "if" is usually called the antecedent (often labeled as p), and what follows the "then" is called the consequent (q); we can express a material implication in logical notation as p -> q. Sometimes the test taker will try to trip you up by reversing the order in the question (see question 4).

There is only one valid way of transforming a material implication by changing the order of the antecedent and consequent and/or adding "not" to either or both: The contrapositive: reverse the antecedent and consequent, and add not to both: if not q then not p (~q -> ~p). All the other combinations are invalid. The two most common invalid combinations have special names: The converse: q -> p and the inverse: ~p -> ~q. All the other combinations (such as ~p -> q) are invalid, but don't have names.

Question 3: This is a fairly easy question to solve; I think most people will get this one right by intuition. It's interesting, though, because it's self-referential: All the possible answers refer to themselves: Each statement refers to a set of statements, and the set includes each statement. To devotees of Russell and Whitehead, this question is not, strictly speaking, meaningful. If you allow this sort of self-reference, directly or indirectly, you can create paradoxes: statements that are both valid and invalid. The problem with Russell and Whitehead's strict prohibition of self reference is, as Kurt Gödel showed, you can end up with statements that are neither true nor false, thus casting philosophical doubt on law of the excluded middle.

Question 4: This is a very tricky question! It looks like the "if" makes "Neko drives" the antecedent and "Neko goes to the movies" the consequent (see Question 1). But "only if" (as opposed to "if and only if") is a tricky grammatical way to introduce the consequent. The question should be read as, "If Neko goes to the movies, then she drives." You can then apply the same sort of analysis as described in question 1: Only the contrapositive is valid; the inverse and converse are not valid.

Question 5: This question is meant to distract you with irrelevant information, so I'll just give you a couple of hints: The total number of socks and shoes is irrelevant; the answer depends only the number of different colors. Second, since the question asks for the fewest number of each to guarantee pair, you need only consider the worst case scenario; it's irrelevant that even fewer choices might give a pair, or that the correct answer might yield more than one pair.

Two of the next three questions are tricky and get into quantified logic and sets. I'll address them in another post.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Five Minute University

Sorry the video is late; it's been a busy couple of days.

Father Guido Sarducci teaches us in five minutes what the average college graduate remembers five years after college.

Friday, September 07, 2007

I'm logical

You Are Incredibly Logical

Move over Spock - you're the new master of logic
You think rationally, clearly, and quickly.
A seasoned problem solver, your mind is like a computer!

(h/t to Scientia Natura)

What is a metre?

In Systems of Measurement (via his excellent blog) Stephen Law investigates the philosophical question: What precisely is a metre?

The metre is perhaps not the best possible example; it's no longer defined in reference to a physical object, but rather as "the distance travelled by light in absolute vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second." [Wikipedia] and is now purely definitional. Indeed, scientists established the new definition precisely to overcome philosophical challenges such as those Law describes.

Assuming the previous Standard Metre as "the length between two marks on a platinum-iridium bar [in Paris]," Law attempts to answer Wittgenstein's and Kripke's questions: Is the metre by definition the length of the Standard Metre? Or is it that the Standard Metre just so happens to be exactly one "true" metre? In philosophical jargon, is the metre an essential, necessary or analytical property of the Standard Metre, or is it an accidental property of the Standard Metre that it represents exactly one "true" metre?

Law gets the answer right, but his heavy use of philosophical jargon and his appeals to possible worlds and high-level intuitions about length undermine the clarity of his presentation, at least to a lay audience. (Law does not deserve censure for this lack of clarity to the lay audience. He's a professional philosopher writing for other professional philosophers; for all I know he's crystal clear to his intended audience.) We lay people can better understand the concept of measurement by appealing only to this actual world and lower-level intuitions, specifically our intuitions about space and, most importantly, our intuitions about consistency and comparability.

Consistent comparability over space and time is the essence of measurement. I want to predict today whether tomorrow the couch at the store will fit through the door at my home: I want to know that the couch is smaller than the door, and will stay smaller at a different time and place.

A concept of measurement and specifically the definition of metre will be good if I can use the concept reliably make such predictions; a concept of measurement will be bad if my predictions often contradict my actual experience. It is, of course, logically possible that no system of measurement could reliably predict my experience, that all systems of measurement are bad. Happily, we can discover that some systems of measurement are indeed good.

We can start with a very simple form of measurement: Take some "rulers" i.e. objects such as wooden or metal sticks, strips of cotton cloth (which we wash in hot water after each use) or rubber bands, hold each up to various "things", i.e. other objects, and remember the result. We move the things around and measure them repeatedly with one ruler, and see whether repeated measurements match our memory. If the measurement of a thing always matches our memory, we put that thing in the "R" pile; if the measurements differ from our memory, we put them in the "E" pile.

Based on this experiment, we make some curious observations. When we use some kinds of material for our ruler, such as wood or metal, we end up with a bunch of things in the "R" pile, and a bunch of things in the "E" pile. Furthermore, some things always end up in the "R" pile, no matter which of these rulers we use. When we use other kinds of material for our ruler, such as rubber bands or strips of cloth, most things end up in the "E" pile, and there's no consistency about what ends up in the "R" pile. Based on these outcomes, we'll now separate the rulers themselves into an "R" pile and an "E" pile. We can observe that when we measure one ruler with another
"R" ruler, "R" rulers tend to be "R" things, and "E" rulers tend to be "E" things. (Additionally, The appearance of "E" and "R" rulers tend to match the appearance of "E" and "R" things respectively: Bonus!)

I've used letters to designate these piles to highlight the arbitrary, a posteriori nature of the classification, but we now have enough information to coin a couple of words: we'll label rulers and things that usually end up in the "R" pile as "rigid", and rulers and things that usually end up in the "E" pile as "elastic".

We can also form a scientific theory: Objects have an abstract property, which we'll arbitrarily call "length". Rigid objects have a consistent length; elastic objects do not have consistent length. The abstract concept of "length" is itself invariant (i.e. universally consistent): It's not "length" that changes, it is the elastic objects themselves that change length.

We can make our measurements more precise, either by using shorter rulers or by using geometric techniques to make consistent subdivisions of a ruler. But as our measurements become more precise, we notice a curious thing: We end up putting more things and rulers in the "elastic" pile. At a certain degree of precision, everything goes in the elastic pile, both rulers and things!

Something has to give: Should it be our invariant abstract notion of length? Fortunately, we have another observable consistency to rescue us: We can count how many shorter rulers (or how many subdivisions of a longer ruler) it takes before we classify an object as "elastic". Objects will consistently require more or fewer shorter rulers to show elasticity. From this consistency, we can save the notion of invariant abstract length, and attribute all changes to changes of the objects themselves.

But we've begged a metaphysical question here: What if length itself is not invariant, but variable, even widely variable? What if a true "metre" (in the abstract) was yesterday about 1/10,000,000 of the distance from the equator to the north pole through Paris, and tomorrow about 10,000,000 times the distance? Or what if objects vary wildly in length, but they all do so "in sync", with our rulers ? What if yesterday the universe was only a "true" metre across, but today is 10^1000 meters across, with everything shrinking or expanding proportionally? (It's easier to imagine variation across time; it's the same, but harder to imagine, to have variation across space.)

What's important, though, is that, so long as the variation remains uniform, so long as all the true metres or all the objects vary proportionally, the consistencies we've observed will still be consistent. Therefore, we can conclude that "length" or "metre" does not actually name a thing—its grammatical use as a noun notwithstanding—but rather an invariant relationship: Things that I measure the same are the same length.

Both Wittgenstein and Kripke (at least as Law presents their ideas) are wrong in a sense. The marks on the platinum-iridium bar in France does not have the property of being one metre apart at all, neither essentially nor accidentally. Rather, the marks bear an observably stable relationship to the objects in the world. So long as the couch always fits through the door—i.e. so long as they maintain their relationship—I don't care if the door and the couch are "really" one metre wide when I move in and one million metres wide when I move out.

Law's objections, seen in the light of an invariant relationship, become unproblematic. What if, as Law suggests, some technologically sophisticated vandal were to undetectably change the Standard Metre by adding or removing material between the marks? We would quickly notice an inconsistency between measurements performed with instruments calibrated against the Standard Metre before and after the vandalism. The ordinary objects in the world would still maintain invariant relationships to everything but our Standard Metre.

This problem involves a common philosophical technique of assuming a truth which is not knowable (I consider this technique a solecism: It assumes we know something that we are, by definition, unable to know). Our actual experience would be that we suddenly noticed that everything in the world had apparently changed length, while being unaware (at least directly) of the reason for the changed length. Suddenly, everything in the world that we used to measure as 1 metre we now measure as 1.1 metres; everything that was 2 metres is 2.2 meters; everything that was 1.23456x10^6 kilometres is now 1.35802x10^6 kilometres. In short, we can observe that everything in the world has retained its relationship to everything else but the Standard Metre.

We're in a bit of epistemic bind: We don't know for sure whether the "true" metre has changed, the Standard Metre has shrunk, or the entire universe has expanded. But we really don't care that much. The simplest explanation is that the actual bar has shrunk, and no longer represents a Standard Metre. But that conclusion is more a matter of convenience than of discernible truth: It's easier to lengthen our bar by 10% than to rewrite all our old measurements. In Law's terminology, we just switch the definition of "metre" from the length of the Standard Metre to the length of the majority (or mean or median) of the things we used to measure as 1 metre according to the Standard Metre definition. It would have the same net effect (although a lot more work) to re-measure everything using the new Standard Metre. At a metaphysical level, we're agnostic and entirely apathetic about what the "right" definition is: We don't know for certain—nor do we care—which definition has "really" varied, we just want to maintain the universal invariance of the relationships.

Law cleverly introduces the concept of "smedlium":
Imagine a world quite similar to our own that contains large quantities of a metal-like material – let's call it smedlium – which gradually and unpredictably alters in size. All smedlium objects expand and contract in unison. At one o'clock on one particular day all the smedlium objects are 5% larger than they were at mid-day; at two o'clock they are all 10% smaller, and so on. Despite this peculiarity, smedlium remains a useful material. In fact, it is the strongest and most durable material available. One of the inhabitants of this world builds machinery made wholly out of smedlium. The machines are used in situations where their size relative to non-smedlium objects doesn't matter. The smedlium engineer constructs and calibrates a measuring rule made out of smedlium to use when manufacturing such machines. She measures dimensions in ‘S’s, one S being measured against the length of her smedlium measure. Of course, so far as manufacturing smedlium machines is concerned, a smedlium measure is far more useful than is a rule made out of some more stable material, for it allows the smedlium engineer to ignore the changes in size of the object upon which she is working. For example, she knows that, say, if the hole for the grunge lever measured 0.5 S in diameter at one o'clock, then a grunge lever which measures 0.5 S in diameter at two o'clock will just fit into that hole, despite the fact that the hole is now noticeably smaller than it was at one o'clock.
Law uses this case to good effect in his own argument, but it's not particularly helpful to the construction of measurements as relationships.

We can tell—using the exact same techniques as we used to distinguish between ordinary rigidity and elasticity—that smedlium things are elastic relative to ordinarily rigid (e.g. steel) rulers and rigid relative to smedlium rulers. (Likewise, smedlium rulers are elastic relative to ordinarily rigid things, and rigid relative to smedlium things.) Although we have to make our concepts of rigidity and elasticity a bit more abstract and relative, there's no fundamental change to the definition. Likewise, as Law notes, changing the bar which represents the Standard Smedlium-Metre has exactly the same effects—and demands the same response—as changing the bar that represents the Standard (Ordinary) Metre. We can even preserve the invariance of our concept of length: Length in the abstract remains constant, and it is the smedlium objects (or the ordinary objects; we're agnostic and unconcerned with the difference) whose length changes.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, the definition of the metre is now specified in terms of the speed of light. Light has the counterintuitive (but very helpful) property of moving in a vacuum at the same speed not only always and everywhere, but also in every reference frame, regardless (I'm sure) of its uniform motion and (I'm pretty sure) its accelerated motion. Even better, as Michelson and Morley showed, we can detect this property of the speed of light without reference to any other standard metric. Because of these properties, we can usefully define the speed of light in a pure vacuum to be absolutely rigid, and measure everything else relative to that metric. The speed of light can thus serve as a truly analytic (but not necessary over all possible worlds or a "rigid designator" per Kripke) definition of length.