Grey Matter

Sense of Entitlement

When Australia wants to improve its position on human rights, one of the big hurdles is Christianity. Yes, while there's a prominent Christian lawyer and active human rights campaigner on the committee to garner input from Australians, there's also the Australian Christian Lobby that really aren't happy with the idea.

Let's look at some of the spin:

It delivers increased power to vested interest groups who have failed to win their case for change with voters

Ummm, hang on. There's some code here. What they really mean there is that it grants normal human rights to same sex couples.

It turns rights into a tool for conflict through rights assertion

Translated: Conflict is bad. Leave things the same. Anyone who actually needs help with their rights should just shut up and stop making waves.

It fails its stated objective of protecting the vulnerable in society

Which means: it doesn't protect us vulnerable right-thinkers and our insufficiently insulated children from the invashun of teh gays.

However the point that tugged on my heartstrings was bullet point #3

It puts at risk important freedoms Christians take for granted by putting them on a level playing field with other "rights"

Oh cripes! This human rights business is all about bringing specially entitled Christians down to a LEVEL PLAYING FIELD!
Wouldn't that mean that Australian Christians end up with merely equal rights? The sky is falling!


I just finished reading Gary Drescher's Good and Real, in which he demystifies a lot of subjects that have long been very muddled. While presenting lucid explanations of physics, time, choice, determinism, and foundations of ethics, he stays well clear of religion through most of the book, touching only briefly in his final chapter:

Finally, many religious individuals attest that their belief in God imparts an optimism that is otherwise beyond reach. This is a subjective matter, but for me the opposite holds. I can accept that we inhabit a world of both splendor and squalor, of comfort and brutality, and that we can work to improve the balance. But if I were convinced that a universe created by an all-powerful, all-loving deity could still be marred by recurrent agony and atrocity, then I would likely surrender in despair. Moreover, the notion that God is necessary for hope implies that life, back in godless reality, is hopeless. But it is not--it most emphatically is not--and I protest both the defeatism that says otherwise, and the escapism that denies the finality of physical reality, for better or worse.

I suspect Gary's wrong here in his counterfactual "if I were convinced..." since if he were to be truly convinced of a religious outlook with an afterlife, he'd do exactly what a lot of religious folk have done: focus all hope of happiness onto an ineffable afterlife, and give up any real hope for this tainted world. If one believes in a perfect, blissful afterlife, then there is no comparable earthly hope available, so the unrealistic dream itself denies the possibility of any other optimism worth having.

Of course, positing an unrealistic ultimate hope in no way blocks the possibility of a realistic optimism--an optimism I share with Drescher.

Quantum Confusion

Versified argument continues over at The Digital Cuttlefish.

What it has shown me is that, as staggering as it seems, there are still working physicists who insist on a Copenhagen interpretation with a strict requirement for a "conscious" observer. *sigh* It's enough to drive one to Kuhn. At least the bulk of the physics community has given up on anthropocentrism.

I also stumbled across David Chalmers' (tongue in cheek?) Law of Minimization of Mystery: "consciousness is mysterious and quantum mechanics is mysterious, so maybe the two mysteries have a common source." It seems about as useful as Tim Minchin's
Peace Anthem For Palestine.

Quantum computing abhors decoherence;
It's there with no conscious observer to see.
Still there are mystics with stubborn adherence
To quantum descriptions that need me or thee.

Puzzles abound at the limits of science:
Mysterious cans full of worms to mislead.
Why mix up disparate cans in defiance
Of reason, experiment, logic or need?

Mind in behavior and cells and potentials
Is yielding a torrent of useful results.
Clutching at yet unexplored non-essentials
Works better for book-deals and starting new cults.

The Conversation Continues

Verse versus verse continues in the discussion over at The Digital Cuttlefish. This is another extract.

A phenomenon is "observed" when an observer becomes aware of it. This requires the observed system to affect the ultimate observer system, which is known to be localized in the brain and probably in the cerebral cortex.
Zeh, H. D. (1979). Quantum Theory and Time Assymetry. Foundations of Physics, Vol 9, pp 803-818 (1979).

This was no time for sleep;
This was no time to eat;
There were comments to write
Using metrical feet.

All that old, old, old phi -
All that phi had to die.

We shoveled the verses;
Thoughts shoveled them back,
Until out of the blue came a Quantum Attack.

It was Little Cat Zeh, a dualist dealer
And out of his hat he extracted
    A Wheeler!

Zeh implied "Let's make space for a god of the gaps:
All things that my Wheeler observes must collapse!"

You see, if we grant this wild Wheeler admission
And let his conceit go, then superposition
Descends on all universe parts unobserved
And keeps all their possible presents preserved.

"Oh no!" I said, "Cuttle, please fetch me a mop.
This anthropocentric conceit has to stop!"

I called up a friend who'd seen all this before
And told him the problem...

Copernicus swore.

Now I'm Ska'd

Remember kids, anything you post on the web could end up a source of humour in years to come. (Actually, it's worse. Anything you post could become a source of global humour overnight, but don't let that worry you. At least you'd be famous.)

Seussian Symbol Grounding

When the photons from my futon
Find the focus of my eyes
They will kick my cones and rods,
Thus causing signals to arise.

I cannot span the spectrum
But my special cells respond
To their windows on the wavelengths
From the wondrous world beyond.

My cortex then combines the cues
And cottons on to patterns;
With fancy feature filtering
The futon form unflattens.

My nervous networks notice
Both the novel and mundane,
Matching models, melding motifs,
For my memories to retain.

In my Hebbian web of me-ness
Not one neuron stands alone:
Every concept gains its context
From connections that it's grown.

Yet my net of wet connections
Are not abstract facts that lack
Any impact, since they're cinched
To visceral states from bliss to wrack.

(As you may have guessed, this was part of a continuing discussion over at The Digital Cuttlefish.)

Symbol Grounding

The Chinese Room won't save your "soul"
Old Searle has dug himself a hole.
You see, a man within his room
Need not be produce of a womb
Since OCR and lines of code
Could lift that secretarial load.
The "understanding" must have been
Performed by Searle's adept machine.

Once you see Searle's dopey drone
Can lack a brain and flesh and bone
You'll see the Chinese Room's a joke
That shouldn't baffle clever folk.
Alas, the ruse has gained esteem
And thrives - a most persistent meme -
In those who can't complete their weaning
From outmoded views of meaning.

My symbol grounding doesn't mess
With idle infinite regress -
No turtles, turtles, all the way,
No eyes that other eyes survey.
But every part of how I think -
Every symbol, every link -
Finds routes to run to states all real:
The correlates of how I feel.

This was a comment I posted on The Digital Cuttlefish's Daniel Dennett's Darwin Day Delivery in response to another commenter.


I felt driven to compose a reply to The Digital Cuttlefish, but it's time consuming for slow writers like me.

Isn't it queer?
Are we but hosts?
Robots of robot machines
Rid of our ghosts?
Send in the memes.

What is it like
Knowing at all?
Zombily Bayesing our nerves --
Store, then recall.
Are they just memes?
Send in the memes.

Easy to claim, "Freedom evolves!"
Making the term we're defining the thing that it solves,
Nailing that feeling of agency down to its seat
Inside a blind
Theatre of meat.

Learning is fun.
Shall I explore?
Using the memeplex of science
I can learn more.
But would these be memes
Not shared with my teams?
Perhaps there's a flaw.

Memes can be rich:
Memes everywhere
Driving the dualist dreams
Into despair.
But we're more than memes
Though sometimes it seems
Non-memebots are rare.

(With apologies to Stephen Sondheim, Daniel Dennett and Sue Blackmore.)

Apple Ease of Use?

When a company releases an update to their terms and conditions, presented as a complete document of 17,835 words with no indication of which sections have been updated, or what definitions have changed, you know this company doesn't care if you read their contract.

That's 17,835 words of legally binding contract to be read. At an average reading speed of 200-250 words per minute, that's 1.2 to 1.5 hours, if you can stay awake. And this is supposedly just an update! How many words actually changed? What new conditions did they impose? What am I deemed to have committed to that I didn't commit to when I first signed up? I can't tell unless I read it all.

It's pretty clear that Apple don't expect iTunes users to read the terms and don't actually care. They know they have a big stick (lots of lawyers and lots of money), so they don't care that their approach to updated contracts is excessively burdensome to all of their users. They are, in effect, actively encouraging users to keep using iTunes without reading and understanding their contract. I'm not a lawyer, but it sounds to me like they've placed themselves on very shaky ground. Still, that probably doesn't worry them, because it would cost a user an arm and a leg to take any challenge to court.

Here endeth the rant.

Foot bath

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