Thursday, 28 May 2015

The Irish Marriage Equality vote - beyond tolerance

A wonderful quote from the Irish writer Fintan O'Toole, from John Nichols, in The Nation:

“We’ve made it clear to the world that there is a new normal—that ‘ordinary’ is a big, capacious word that embraces and rejoices in the natural diversity of humanity. LGBT people are now a fully acknowledged part of the wonderful ordinariness of Irish life,” O’Toole wrote. “It looks like a victory for tolerance. But it’s actually an end to mere toleration. Tolerance is what “we” extend, in our gracious goodness, to ‘them.’ It’s about saying ‘You do your own thing over there and we won’t bother you so long as you don’t bother us.’”
“The resounding ‘Yes’ is a statement that Ireland has left tolerance far behind,” he explained. “It’s saying that there’s no ‘them’ anymore. LGBT people are us—our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends. We were given the chance to say that. We were asked to replace tolerance with the equality of citizenship. And we took it in both arms and hugged it close.”

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Meat eating is just a tradition - let's challenge it!

 I have been thinking about the ethics of meat-eating for most of my life. Two things have been a huge influence. 1. Moving to live in the countryside and actually coming face-to-snout with the animals that we eat, recognising their characters and complex lives. 2. The amazing discoveries about animal intelligence and self-awareness. This shows us that even fish can have lives far beyond the instinctual, and even invertebrates such as cephalopods can have rich feelings including the ability to play and feel fear. Even 'dumb reptiles' such as crocodiles have been shown to have character and feelings.

I find it wrong to eat people. Broaden that a bit, and I find it wrong to eat beings - to eat animals that can love, play, and fear. There is little if any difference in the level of self-awareness of a chimp, a dolphin, a pig and a crow. It's only tradition that leads us to eat pigs but not dolphins, and tradition is simply not good enough of a reason for me. If we came across pigs today without past experience I have no doubt that the idea of eating these animals would be considered shocking, just as the idea of eating a dog is for most of us.

Up until now I have seen at least pescatarianism as a moral necessity, and I'm now having doubts about even that.

If you came across farm animals now without the traditions of eating them, if you came across these social, playful, intelligent animals, you would not eat them. We criticise, based on reason, traditional medicine, traditional treatment of women and children. Let's have the courage to challenge our traditions of farming and meat-eating. 

That's the end of my sermon!

Thursday, 21 May 2015

The ethics of mammalian brain simulation

Paul Fidalgo (a good fellow - follow him on Twitter) blogs about virtual mouse brains:

Paul's question is important:

At what point is that virtual mouse no longer “virtual,” but sentient…sentient under the law?

If we believe that the mind is the activity of the brain, then there is no functional difference between a virtual brain and a biological brain.  Because of this there are serious ethical concerns about attempts to simulate brain functions which result in awareness.  There is no reason to believe that a reasonably detailed simulation of a pain signal isn't an actual pain signal, for a certain value of 'reasonably detailed'.  We need to have discussions about this now, before we unwittingly create and possibly torture artificial consciousnesses.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Bigoted Bakers - does prosecution help the cause of equality?

A Northern Ireland bakers has been found guilty of discrimination because they refused to make a cake campaigning for gay marriage.

Is this a victory for equality?  I just don't know.  Equality eventually has to be supported by the feelings of the community in which the previously unequal live.  Does the threat and use of legislation change feelings?  It certainly is vital if the legislation is to prevent violence and bullying, but I find it difficult to see the deep harm that is caused by having a bakers turn down your custom.  It's wrong, of course, but personally I'd rather change minds by conversation.

Legislation can be a very divisive approach; it's also risky and potentially very costly.  Another way might be to make it clear in the community that a particular business discriminates, and allow (hopefully) changing public opinion to apply the pressure.

In time, views will change.  I don't know if this kind of legal action helps or hinders that process.

Monday, 18 May 2015

Why you can't go faster than the speed of light

Einstein's theories of relativity have a reputation for being complicated ideas, requiring advanced knowledge of mathematics and physics to understand.  This is true for many of the consequences of the theories, but the basic ideas are wonderfully simple.

The simplest of all is the explanation of why the speed of light is the ultimate speed limit.  It's because, from a certain point of view, it's the only speed anything ever has.

Let's get an analogy over with first.  Imagine two football players at one end of a football field.  They both start running towards the other end, and they run at exactly the same speed.  However, one of them doesn't run straight. She zig-zags back and forth.  When the player who ran straight gets to the end of the field, where is her fellow player?  Not at the end.  If there has been much zigging and zagging she might be some way from the end.

The length of the football field is time and the width is space. If you move about in space you move less through time: moving through space is a diversion from your progress through time.

How fast is our progress through time? The ultimate speed - the speed of light.  That's why the slowing of progress through time is too small to be seen for everyday speeds.  But it's there.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

The mysteries of pitcher plants

Today I managed to watch my pitcher plant ( trap a house fly.  The insect was attracted to nectar on the rim of the pitcher.  As it wandered around sipping the nectar it seemed to get unsteady.  Eventually the fly wandered too far down into the pitcher and slipped to its death.  This amazing sight led me to look up the trapping and digesting properties of these amazing plants.

There are several kinds of pitcher plants.  A couple that are commonly cultivated are the genus Nepenthes and the genus Sarracenia.  Nepenthes have pitchers that hang down from the ends of leaves; in Sarracenia the whole leaf grows into a vase shape with an overhanging lid.  I'm growing Sarracenia because they are small plants suitable for the home (and garden in most of the UK).

The number of ways that the plants acquire and digest food is considerable:

Some species secrete nectar, which may contain narcotics to disorientate and paralyse insects.

Some produce digestive enzymes, others rely on microbes to reduce the prey to nutrients.

Some act as homes for insects or amphibians whose waste products contain nutrients (such as nitrogenous compounds)

Some pitchers trap mostly dead plant material carried by the wind, and the decay of this material provides nutrients.

Some pitchers contain photosynthetic bacteria that fix nitrogen from the air, which can then be taken up by the plant when the bacteria die.

Some pitchers prevent the growth of too many bacteria in their pitchers by changing the acidity of the liquid or secreting anti-bacterial compounds.

The sheer variety of ways that these amazing  plants trap and digest food is staggering, and there is much more research needed to find out what goes on in their leafy stomachs.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Why things fall under gravity

I have come across this beautiful illustration of how gravity works both in Newton's framework and Einstein's General Relativity.

In a way, a falling object in General Relativity is obeying Newton's First Law - an object remains at rest or moves in a straight line unless disturbed by a force.  A falling object is moving in a straight line, but in curved spacetime.  As a result of moving in a straight line it moves towards a source of gravity.  Gravity isn't a force - it is a distortion of space and time that changes what it means for an object to travel in a straight line.

You might wonder why an object at rest starts falling in General Relativity if there is no force of gravity.  This is because gravity bends not just space, but time as well.  The bending mixes up space and time, so that whereas without gravity a stationary object would move only in time and so would stay where it is, with gravity some of the movement in time is switched to a movement in space.  So, what can be thought of as the object travelling in a straight line in the time direction (and so stationary) becomes the object travelling in a straight line in a mixture of time and space, and so it falls.


Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Multiple evolutions of morality

We humans have a moral sense (at least those of us who are mentally healthy).  We feel love and we feel empathy for those who we see suffering.  Biology should leave us in no doubt that this moral sense is a product of evolution, as empathy has been seen throughout the mammals - rats will put effort into decreasing the suffering of other rats, for example.

Is a moral sense unique to mammals?  If it's not, and if it has evolved independently in another group of animals this may point to morality being an expected aspect of intelligent organisms.  Not universal, perhaps, but not an unreasonable assumption.

So has a moral sense appeared in another animal group?  Yes, it has.  It's appeared in the dinosaurs.  Modern birds at least do seem to show recognisable empathic behaviour. The common ancestor of mammals and dinosaurs lived hundreds of millions of years ago, and was almost certainly not the brightest of animals, and so the existence of empathy in dinosaurs, if true, is a separate evolution.

So much that we have thought to be unique to humans - problem solving, recognition of self, a moral sense, tool building - has been found in many species of mammals.  Their discovery in dinosaurs could be an indication that self-aware intelligence is common in complex animals.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

"Don’t you dare be a weed in England’s new garden"

A friend who occasionally posts witty poems of a few lines on Facebook came up with something longer after the UK election.  I think it's rather good.

A poem by Fenella Fudge

The people made the worst of choices
Screw the poor and mute their voices
And the council mowed the buttercups
Sowing fear in a fractured nation
Seeding lies for subjugation
Don’t spare the rod, crack the hunt whip
Steady as she goes, don’t sink the hardship
And the council mowed the buttercups
Don’t grow old or lose your job
There’ll be no mercy from the ‘all-right Jack’ mob
Cleanse social housing for a new ivory tower
‘Affordable’ redefined through weasel word power
And the council mowed the buttercups
Ramp up secrecy and litigious immunity
Grab national assets with selfish impunity
Breed out conscience in privileged pairs
What was ‘ours’ will change to ‘theirs’
And the council mowed the buttercups
The zero hours labourer cuts the park grass
Regiments nature with each scything pass
Trashes new blooms and crushes hope’s traces
Slashes their cheerful upturned bright faces
Because the council mowed the buttercups
As entitlement blossoms and flinty hearts harden
Don’t you dare be a weed in England’s new garden

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Why consciousness doesn't create reality

Recently, New Scientist asked if our conscious minds create reality.  This role for consciousness has a long history in physics, and had been considered by some of the greatest experts in quantum mechanics. But it's wrong, and it's easy to see why it's wrong. It's wrong because of baseball bats and whisky.

One day sometime in the early 70s I was outside with the rest of my class trying to play baseball (or at least something like baseball).  We weren't very good.  One batter lost his grip and the bat went flying and hit me in the neck.  It hurt, but I was ok.  It could have been a lot worse.  Baseball bats are a convenient weapon.
If applied to the head with enough force they can cause unconsciousness.  Consciousness can be disrupted by physical events.  

If you want to experience effects of the physical on consciousness in a more subtle way, have a sip or two of a strong drink. Whisky will do.  The alcohol molecules interact with brain cells to produce changes in mood and perception.  Enough alcohol molecules and conscious switches off.

Even if we don't accept that consciousness is the physical activity of certain brain cells, it's clear that consciousness is the result of such physical activity.  Consciousness can't create reality because without physical reality there is no consciousness.  Consciousness doesn't create baseball bats and bottles of whisky; they can destroy consciousness.  

Consciousness that we know of either is, or is the result of, physics in action.  It's the wrong type of thing to have the role of creator. 

Friday, 1 May 2015

XML is good, really!

It's long been fashionable to dislike XML.  I have never really understood why.  XML was designed to solve many problems with data formats - sadly, problems that are being re-introduced with newer XML alternatives.  Let's take a look at XML and see what it really can offer.

XML is an extensible mark-up language.  It's designed so that an XML format can be added to without breaking existing usage.   So many legacy formats have become unusable because they were inflexible, because extensions break assumptions about factors such as record sizes.

XML has name spaces.  Data from different origins can be combined into a single XML format without conflict.  This allows for things like data objects embedded in documents.

XML is human readable.   XML was designed so that archived data stored as XML would always be readable by at least a human, and so data would never be irretrievable.  XML marks up all aspects of data - there are no invisible assumptions such as column sizes or column meanings that are so often present in other formats.

XML explicitly starts and terminates all items of data.  There are no assumed data separators such as tabs or line ends.

XML is easy to validate and process by software.  Any XML document from any source can be validated because of the rules of tag and attribute use.

XML can include a semantic description of a specific format: a DTD (Document Type Definition) or schema reference.  This allows for format validation in addition to general document structure validation.

XML is verbose because it was specifically designed to be readable - it's not a flaw, it's a design feature.   Compare a well-designed XML specification to typical JSON content - it should be clear which is the more  intelligible format.  For example, a JSON document doesn't contain information about its semantics (as XML can), and so key names can be arbitrary.  CSV (comma-separated variable) format is a horror - just consider the countless legacy CSV documents that are now useless because their meaning has been lost.

XML is a valuable way to transmit and store information, with major benefits for data integrity and longevity.  It should be even more widely used than it already is.