Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Rosenau jumps on the Gnu Atheists = Teabaggers bandwagon

There was a time when Josh Rosenau was one of the more reasonable of the anti-gnu brigade. He would occasional make a point I felt was worth listening to and contemplating. But some time in the last year or so, he went completely off the deep end. His latest stunt: He has bought into the absurd comparison between New Atheism and the Tea Party. His justification? Tea Partiers (some of them) say that Obama is a secret Muslim; Jerry Coyne says that Obama is a secret atheist.

Where to begin? On a superficial level, this sounds like a convincing analogy, but just the tiniest iota of honest reflection shows it to be a completely ludicrous comparison.

Now, I need to start off by saying I disagree with Coyne on this one. I think the preponderance of evidence suggests that Obama is sincere in his Christianity (though I do think he considers the literal truth or falsity of it to be irrelevant) and in any case, we ought to respect people's self-identification unless it is clearly erroneous. Obama says he's a Christian; that makes him a Christian. If it turned out the Pope didn't believe in God, would that mean bears didn't shit in the woods?

With that out of the way, let's look at a few things here. Let's start with motivation, because that's the easiest one: Coyne is nominally attempting to discern the truth, and if we dig a little deeper we see he is probably being optimistic. He wishes Obama was an atheist, because a) he thinks an atheist president would do a better job, and possibly b) he admires Obama and so wants to view Obama as part of his tribe. Now, I'm speculating about Jerry's internal subconscious motivations here, and I could be way off -- but the point is, we see that at worst Jerry is being irrationally optimistic. There is certainly nothing nefarious in Coyne's intentions, of that we can be sure.

Contrast this with the Tea Party. It is plainly obvious they are painting Obama as a Muslim in an effort to discredit him. Do we really think there are Tea Partiers saying, "Yeah, it doesn't effect Obama's ability to do his job, but I do think he is secretly a Muslim"? Come on... On a side note, if we imagine a hypothetical devotee of Islam who speculates positively that Obama might be a secret Muslim, while that would obviously be pretty irrational, it's not the kind of attempted slander being perpetrated by the Tea Party. There's a big difference between saying, "I bet this guy is secretly on my team," vs. "Look out, that guy is secretly on the other team!"

Next let's look at what is being claimed. It is a feature of Tea Party conspiracy theories about Obama that he is not only secretly a Muslim, but that he is doing so in an attempt to covertly usher in Islamic influences to American politics -- even that he is seeking to "destroy America". In contrast, Coyne is speculating that Obama is a secret atheist who nevertheless approves of faith, and is simply concealing his unbelief in order to avert prejudice against him. Again, if we imagine our hypothetical Muslim who claimed that Obama was secretly a moderate believer in Islam, that he nonetheless approved of Christianity and other faiths, and that he simply had to hide his true faith in order to maintain electability... well, that's a little crazy maybe, but it does not merit comparison with the Tea Party.

Lastly, let's look at plausibility. Now, I am inclined to take any given politician at her word regarding her faith. But does Rosenau really think there are no closet atheists in American politics?!? That we have never had a congressperson (or even a president! It's a virtually certainly we have) who privately found religious belief to be logically untenable, but kept it to himself anyway? I think it's a safe bet that there are a number of secret atheists in Congress, and at all levels of politics. We know there are plenty of ordinary folks, people who aren't even in the public eye, who have to conceal their atheism from their employer. Why would it be remarkable if the president happened to be one of those people?

We also know that plenty of churchgoers are secretly atheists. (Fuck, thanks to Dennett and LaScola, we know that plenty of clergy are secretly atheists) Many of these people aren't even hiding their atheism out of fear or anything: They appreciate the communal and ritual aspects of their chosen church, but find true belief to be a fanciful and unlikely position. These people are all over the place.

Now, I must reiterate here that I think Obama is sincere in his faith; reading Dreams from My Father gave me the impression that while Obama was initially drawn to Christianity for the potential of black churches to organize community activism, that he soon became so enamored with the whole thing that he ceased to care about the validity of the truth claims and was willing to swallow the dogma along with the community whole hog. However, the fact that Obama goes to church is not evidence that he couldn't possibly be an atheist. Quite the contrary, it says very little -- especially for someone who has admitted that he joined initially for political reasons, and especially for someone whose employment, and possibly whose very life, would be in danger if he were to come out as a nonbeliever. While I do not believe it to be the case, it is entirely plausible that Obama might have attended Christian churches for decades and publicly professed Christian faith, while all the time being an atheist.

Is it just possible that Obama did all those things while secretly adhering to Islam? Well, I guess, but it seems far less plausible. For one, it's not hard to imagine an atheist publicly praying to Jesus and not feeling as though she is doing anything wrong. It's more difficult to imagine a devout Muslim doing the same thing and feeling like that was okay, that it was not a betrayal of his values. (And if the Muslim in question is not unflaggingly devout, why would he maintain his faith intact through decades of immersion in a different faith community?) For another, when Obama first became involved with Christian churches in Chicago, if he had really been a Muslim at the time it seems somewhat more likely that he would have sought out members of that faith community for the purpose of grassroots organizing. I suppose it's just possible that this very young and politically raw Obama had the foresight and the cold calculating nature to recognize that black Christian churches were a more fertile field for organization, and so to have hid his Muslim faith in order to mine that community... Yes, this is all possible, but it's far more of a stretch than Coyne's rather modest suggestion that he chose to embrace this community despite a disbelief in their central truth claims and dogmas.

So let's check our scorecard: The Tea Partiers' claims that Obama is a secret Muslim are malicious, conspiratorial, and implausible. Jerry Coyne's claim that Obama is a secret atheist is benign or optimistic, matter-of-fact, and (although unlikely in my opinion) at least baseline plausible. The only thing the two have in common is they probably aren't the most rational position.

Rosenau is engaging in a rather sick, twisted, and frankly obvious bit of false equivalence here. The only question is whether he is doing so intentionally and dishonestly, or if he really is that much of a fucking idiot.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why I eschew the use of the phrase "pyramid scheme"

"It's not a pyramid scheme, it's multi-level marketing!"

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that I've never really heard the difference articulated in a way that I understand, if proponents of MLM feel that the label "pyramid scheme" unfairly tars them, I am perfectly happy to criticize MLM on its own merits (or lack thereof). Telling someone that their MLM endeavor is nothing more than a pyramid scheme distracts from the central issue by allowing them to protest ad hominem. I prefer to avoid the terminology dispute altogether: Make "MLM" the dirty word, and leave the antiquated phrase "pyramid scheme" in the dustbin of history.

MLM induces people to take business risks they are often not fully cognizant of, it tends to turn people into annoying evangelists for their product and encourages them to exploit their friendships for the purposes of making money (even if the exploitation is not often conscious), and it almost always results in crappy products.

The reason for the last point, in my opinion, is that with MLM the business model is the primary product. Individual profit incentives focus on selling the business model, whereas the nominal product is secondary, a placeholder. I had to say "almost always" in the previous paragraph, because I am told Avon products are pretty good - but the vast majority of everything I've ever seen sold via MLM has been utter shite.

A friend recently spammed all of his Facebook friends to try and recruit them for Herbalife. Blech. I don't want to say anything (see my Three Rules for Facebook for why I believe in basically never calling someone out on Facebook) but man, that's annoying. Why do people do that crap?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Strawman much?

I think I just encountered the most strawman-ish description of New Atheism ever in this inflammatory post from Jacques Berlinerblau:

For those not familiar with their world-view, let me help you understand their central and timeless insight: Unless you as an atheist are willing to disparage all religious people, describe them all as imbeciles and creeps, mock every text and thinker they have ever produced, then you must be some sort of deluded, self-hating, sellout, subverting the rise of the Mighty Atheist Political Juggernaut...

Emphasis in the absurd original.

I stopped reading right there, because, WOW, that's the worst description of such I have ever seen. I did skim down to the end where he admits never having debated with a New Atheist -- but of course that doesn't stop him from pronouncing himself an expert on their positions! Dumbass...

(h/t Ophelia Benson)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Revisiting "strong" vs. "weak" accomodationism

When I set up an RSS reader for my new phone, I added Phil Plait's blog. I've been enjoying it quite a bit. Reading an article right now about the accelerating expansion of the universe -- cool stuff.

Phil Plait's got a little bit of a bad name in the gnu community at the moment, because of his infamous Don't Be a Dick speech, but I think it's unfair to lump him in with the likes of Mooney, Rosenau, and Ruse. The reason is related to a post I did a while back on the difference between "strong" and "weak" accomodationism.

In a nutshell, a "weak" accomodationist prefers an approach of reconciliation between science and religion, often asserting that faith and reason are perfectly compatible. This describes people like Eugenie Scott, who has advocated for faith/science compatibility as part of her job as executive director of the NCSE. A "strong" accomodationist not only prefers this approach, but thinks anybody who doesn't is Not Helping and should STFU. This describes your Mooneys and your Rosenaus, who constantly denigrate the gnus. The former don't bother me; the latter are annoying as all get-out. (FWIW, I think some of the gnus spend a bit too much of their time tackling the accomodationists -- Jerry Coyne's blog is one of my favorites, but he pushes it sometimes, for instance -- so it's not a problem restricted fully to the other side.)

Despite the DBAD speech, I think Plait clearly belongs in the former category. Now, the lack of specificity in that speech is problematic: I'm not actually sure whether I disagree with him or not. But let's assume for sake of argument that he meant that speech in the most anti-gnu possible interpretation. Then I would say I disagree with him, but that's okay, and since he isn't constantly writing blog posts about how stupid people like me are for disagreeing with him, I'm not all that interested in constantly writing blog posts about how stupid people like him are for disagreeing with me.

The problem with Mooney and Rosenau and Ruse is not that they have a different tactical approach. It's that they are constantly saying how destructive our approach is. I think they think the same about us, judging from comments about accomodationism being a "cardinal sin" (that was actually the 3 Quarks Daily guys, but the sentiment has been expressed by the others). Yet I think one will be hard pressed to find very many blog posts from gnus strongly condemning Genie Scott, Michael Schermer, or even Phil Plait (despite the recent noise over the aforementioned speech) -- because they have their opinion and don't seem to be bothered by the fact that other people have different opinions.

The "cardinal sin" is not asserting the compatibility of faith and science. The "cardinal sin" is asserting, even by implication, that it's not okay to proclaim their incompatibility. Because we care about open dialog -- in fact, the goal of stripping away the special deference towards religion which prevents open dialog is pretty much the defining characteristic of "New Atheism" -- assertions that seek to shut down an open dialog really piss us off. Go ahead and disagree with me about faith/science compatibility, but don't tell me I don't even have a right to my opinion or that I'm not allowed to say it in polite company.

My two cents on that.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

An update on cooking steaks

From the blog Serious Eats comes a post similar to the one I did last month on cooking steak. It largely matches what I had to say, with three important divergences, all of which sound reasonable to me:

If you haven't salted yet and are going to cook your steak in less than 40 minutes, salt it immediately before it goes in the pan. You will have to read the Serious Eats article for the technical explanation of this, but it sounds completely reasonable to me. I imagine you could mitigate the problems of late salting somewhat by thoroughly patting the steaks dry with a paper towel immediately before cooking, but I won't assert that without trying. Still, with that one important caveat, the Serious Eats post confirms my conclusion that salting well in advance is best.

The butter and oil mixture I use might not quite be the best approach. In my previous post, I repeated the claim I had heard that combining equal parts butter and oil raises the overall smoke point. Serious Eats says this is crap, because the milk solids will still burn regardless of whether they are immersed in oil or butterfat. I had wondered about this from the get go, but was inclined to believe that it really did raise the smoke point, because a) I heard it from a trusted source, and b) experientially I have gotten excellent results with a one-to-one mixture.

I suspect there is still some merit in my approach, possibly because even butter with burnt milk solids still imparts a nice toasty flavor, and the mixture with oil allows it to keep cooking at a higher temperature even as the milk proteins break down. I absolutely disagree with Serious Eats that the best approach is to only use oil, but the technique they mention of adding butter to the pan at the last minute so that it doesn't have time to burn sounds promising. I will likely try this next time I do steaks.

Serious Eats has a lot to say about flipping, whereas I didn't even mention it. When I cook a steak, I flip it only once. I'm not religious about this, and in fact I didn't even mention it in my previous post. But Serious Eats insists that you must flip your steak every 15 to 30 seconds in order to ensure a good sear while minimizing the "grey zone" of overdone steak that often appears between the crust and the pink or red interior.

Before going further, I should mention that this is probably really bad advice if you are grilling or if you have not used sufficient fat in the pan. The reason is that under those conditions the steak will tend to stick until a certain amount of sear has been achieved -- and if the crust tears off, your steak will look bad and taste bad. But with the oil-sufficient pan-searing method both I and Serious Eats endorse, at the very worst frequent flipping should be harmless. So is it actually helpful?

Maybe. I find that I get a virtually non-existent grey zone anyway, even with the one-flip method. But then again I have a nice heavy cast-iron skillet, I have a gas rather than electric range, one of the burners is extra large with an absurdly aggressive flame (it is labelled "POWER BOIL"), and I exploit all of these advantages to the fullest in order to get a really high temperature going in the pan. Not everyone may be able to achieve such a hot cook surface with their equipment, however, and the frequent flipping method seems like it should at least in principle mitigate any issues created by a somewhat lower cook temperature.

So, I cautiously endorse the frequent flipping approach, with the aforementioned caveats about grilling or pan-searing with insufficient fat. It's far more important that the steak releases fully from the cook surface than it is to minimize the grey zone, so if it's sticking at all, just leave it until it's ready.

(Edit: I looked up the post on which Serious Eats bases this advice, and their conclusion turned out to be remarkably similar to what I wrote above. I quote: "[T]his testing doesn't take into account variables like cooking at a higher or lower heat, getting nice grill marks on an outdoor grill... And for all you single flippers out there? Well, you can keep doing what you're doing and it probably won't hurt your burgers none, but lighten up a bit, will ya?" In other words, what I previously believed turned out to be largely correct: Single-flipping can produce better appearance in a grill application, surface cooking temperature affects the usefulness of multi-flipping, and in the end it really doesn't make that much of a difference after all.

I had also mentioned in passing that I sometimes stand it up on edge to sear the sides but had downplayed the importance of this, while Serious Eats is insistent on it. They mention the "edge is often the fattiest, most delicious part of the steak," which I suppose is true depending on the cut, and when that is true making sure to get a sear on that and render some of the fat would indeed be important. So I buy all that, too.

On a side note, the Serious Eats post mentions that searing, contrary to popular belief, does not seal in moisture. They are absolutely correct. However, a properly seared piece of meat still tastes moister, because the complex molecules generated by the Maillard reaction cause you to salivate more. The only time that this knowledge has any practical value is when roasting. Some recipes for roasting have you start with a very hot oven to get a good crust (or crisp the skin in the case of roast bird) and then reduce the temperature, while others have you start with a moderate temperature and then crank it up at the end to get the crust/crisp effect. It doesn't actually matter which you do; those who advocate the former method on the grounds that it seals in moisture are just plain wrong. The latter method probably has some modest advantages in that it is easier to avoid burning the exterior of whatever you are roasting, but in practice I don't think it matters that much. I have used both methods and don't find that one is tremendously better than the other. (Edit: Serious Eats makes a convincing case that it matters a lot in the case of prime rib.)

There is one more thing I should mention which was covered in the Serious Eats article, but regrettably overlooked in mine: How do you tell when it's done? I had mentioned a couple of times that you take it out of the pan as soon as you have a good sear, and I more or less stand by that, but having some way to gauge doneness is important too. I'm afraid I overlooked this point because over time I've gotten pretty good at just telling doneness by feel -- somewhat ironically, my most important practice for this was from a summer job as a fry cook at the rather crappy family restaurant chain Perkins, where, despite the steaks I churned out being of relatively low quality and not cooked all that skillfully, the sheer number I cooked, and the time pressure which precluded any more involved investigative methods, helped me to hone this skill -- so I don't tend to consciously think about this issue very much. My bad.

Serious Eats' coverage of this topic is both fascinating (I would never have guessed the cut-and-peek method did so little harm to the steak!) and apparently sound. One very brief point I have to make: In the end, they endorse the use of a "good, accurate digital thermometer." My response to this is "Yes, but" -- yes, if you are willing to shell out the cash, a good digital thermometer is the best method for determining internal temperature; but if you intend to cheap out, as I did (twice), an inexpensive analog thermometer is superior to a poor quality digital thermometer. I used to own the latter and now own the former. Leaving aside that it would have been better to have not cheaped out in the first place, since in total I ended up spending almost as much as it would have cost to get a good digital thermometer, I am much happier with the analog one than I ever was with the digital one. The cheap digital one never seemed to be all that accurate, and if I attempted to use it in a very hot environment, e.g. on the grill, it had a tendency to glitch out sometimes. The analog one is accurate, trustworthy, and was dirt cheap. The only disadvantage of it is that it takes a few seconds to get an accurate read, whereas a good digital thermometer can give you an internal temp right away. Since I mostly use it for testing the internal temperature of roasted poultry (which can take on the order of an hour or more to cook) that few seconds is a non-issue. But if I were using it for pan-seared steaks (where you are cooking them on the order of a couple of minutes) that few seconds could become a problem I suppose.

Anyway, there you have it. In all honesty, Serious Eats is probably a much more reliable source than myself for these sorts of things, as testified by their rigorous experimentation (whereas I'm basing all of my B.S. on mere experience and accumulated knowledge). You'll notice, however, that there is significant convergence in our conclusions. Proper salting technique in particular is, I think, one of the most overlooked skills for most home cooks. So if there's one take-home from these two posts, I think that would be it.

(h/t Ed Brayton)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Do you have a God-shaped hole in your heart?

This post from PZ mentions that inane expression about how we all have a God-shaped hole in our heart that can only be filled by Jeebus. Gag me with a spoon.

But I think from a certain perspective, we do all have an existential deficiency that one might (if one were so-inclined) describe as a "God-shaped hole in the heart", whether we are aware of it or not. Only problem is, God doesn't fit, and neither does anything else. That's because the "hole" is a hallucination, an inherent artifact of human cognition. The God delusion works for some people to distract them from the "hole", because all of the inherent contradictions and incoherencies make it difficult to maintain a sharply-reasoned focus on the problem at hand; but it really doesn't do anything to address the problem.

The "hole" which I am referring to is the lack of an existentially satisfying answer to two of the Big Questions, specifically, "Why is there something rather than nothing?", and "Why do we actually experience our sentience?" It is my opinion that both of those questions, as reasonable as they sound (and still sound to me), aren't really questions at all, they are just meaningless words, no more useful than "This sentence is false." But they sure don't feel meaningless, and this is why I say we all, whether we admit it or not, have a specific existential deficiency.

I talked about the question of subjective conscious experience in a recent post, and also mentioned the problems with "Why is there something rather than nothing?" I want to amplify what I said in that post: Both of those questions are apparently subject to an infinite regress, but I believe that regress is a result of a cognitive deficiency inherent in being a human (and maybe inherent in being a sapient being of any kind). Just like the sensation of free will, they are nothing more than hallucinations -- but a hallucination that is impossible to avoid.

The correct answer to "Why is there something rather than nothing?" lies in physics and cosmology. I will not attempt to mount any sort of answer, because 1) I'm not qualified, 2) I'm not sure we really have the right answer yet anyway, and 3) I'm not entirely convinced the right answer is knowable by us even in principle. Note that this last point is entirely distinct from whether there is a right answer. In the distant future, the accelerating expansion of the universe will mean that galaxies are moving apart faster than the speed of light, and so any sentient observers that might be around at that time would have no way of knowing even in principle what the rest of their universe looks like -- but that doesn't mean the rest of the universe wouldn't be there. I don't rule out that the physical answer to this question may be similarly inaccessible to us.

But that still leaves us with the distinct feeling that there is a metaphysical question that remains unanswered, that for any physical explanation one can always say, "Okay, why that?" I am pretty sure that is nonsense. It's not existentially troubling (well, to me at least) to think that there are fundamental particles for which the question, "Okay, but what are those made of?" is invalid and a bit silly. So why should it be existentially troubling for there to be fundamental laws that just "are", and don't need some other deeper layer to explain them? Well, it's existentially troubling anyway, and knowing that it's nonsense doesn't really help.

It seems trivial to me -- so trivial that I continue to be baffled that philosophers and theologians ever took this stuff seriously, let alone that they still argue about it to this very day -- that any sort of goddy explanation is equally vulnerable to the apparent infinite regress. That is, if fundamental laws of physics are not an acceptable answer to the something-rather-than-nothing question (and I think it is acceptable, it just doesn't feel that way to us silly humans), then neither is the god hypothesis. Many people feel like it does, but they are just being distracted. "Okay, why that?" "Magic!" That's not an answer at all.

I've already covered the other question, but in brief, the correct answer to the problem of subjective experience is to point to our neurology. The infinite regress here is, "Okay, but what's actually experiencing those neural impulses?" It's a nonsense question; the question was already answered. It just doesn't feel like it has, because of our difficulties in comprehending our own non-existence. And just as with the other one, the theistic explanation dazzles rather than explains. If neural circuitry is not a sufficient substrate for conscious experience (and I believe it is, it just doesn't feel like it), then neither is the "soul" a sufficient substrate. "It's magic!" is no answer at all.

Most of the other Big Questions I think do have rather satisfying answers. "Why are we here?", for instance, has the literal answer that rests in natural selection, and the metaphysical answer that, since sapience is the substrate of meaning, the "why" has to come from us. We have a monopoly on meaning, and the idea of an external meaning to ourselves is just silly-talk. It's not even that our existence is externally meaningless; it's that meaning-external-to-sapience is nonsense words. You might as well ask about light-external-to-photons. Once we realize that 100% of meaning is determined by ourselves, I think that's both liberating and inspiring. The correct answer to "What happens after we die?" is troubling, I suppose, but it's a clear and unambiguous answer, with not even the appearance of an infinite regress or anything like that. And so on.

But yeah, we do all have a "god-shaped hole in our hearts", and it's the inability to ever give an existentially satisfying answer to those two hallucinatory questions. God doesn't actually fill that hole, but for some of us He's shiny enough to distract us from it!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I finally understand why people think same-sex marriage "threatens traditional marriage"

This quote from PZ was one of those "Oh damn, now I get it" moments for me:

If we strip marriage of the asymmetry of power, as we must if we allow men to marry men and women to marry women, then we also strip away the man and wife, dominant and submissive, owner and owned, master and servant relationship that characterizes the conservative view of marriage.

Of course! I was always really puzzled how anyone could assert with a straight face that allowing more people to get married was somehow destructive towards the "institution of traditional marriage". But my confusion was a result of me thinking that the definition of "traditional marriage" was simply that it was between a man and a woman. If that were the case, then I would be right, same-sex marriage poses no threat to that "institution" because, with the possible exception of a few sexless sham marriages, the number of people getting "traditional marriages" would be exactly the same as before, and the couples in them would be entirely unaffected.

But if the definition of "traditional marriage" inherently implies patriarchy as well, then of course same-sex marriage is corrosive to that institution. No heterosexual person is going to look at someone else's same-sex marriage and say, "Hey, that looks like fun, I think I'm going to decide to be gay!": sexual orientation doesn't work like that. But it's entirely plausible that many heterosexual women might look at a happily married well-adjusted same-sex couple and say, "Hey, how come they treat each other like equals? Shouldn't I be treated as an equal with my husband?" And that's just bad for business. If you're a misogynist patriarchal theocrat, that is.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Why a nuclear reactor can never turn into a nuclear bomb

Edit: Karl Withakay has pointed out a couple of omissions and a small factual error in this post. I have indicated this in the footnotes. Please do read his illuminating comments, especially if you are interested in the more technical aspects of nuclear technology.

The news from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant continues to be horribly depressing. For me, nothing mitigates this kind of discouragement more than being overly technical about it, so let's do that.

As bad as the situation is, there's been lots of really just stupidly over-the-top fear-mongering, and other websites have done a good job addressing that. One thing I've noticed has been omitted, though, is that while there are many resources out there reassuring people that a nuclear explosion is not possible in this case, because a nuclear reactor and a nuclear bomb are two completely different things, I haven't seen anyone offering a lay explanation of why that is the case. So I will attempt to do so here.

Say you've got a lump of Uranium-235, the fuel used in most nuclear reactors. Really, you'd have a lump of rock that contained some amount of U-235, which you would have attempted to purify as much as possible, but this is all beside the point1. This lump of U-235 can be subcritical, critical, or supercritical.

To understand what these terms mean we need to briefly revisit the basics of a nuclear fission reaction. I'll leave the detailed explanation to the Wikipedia article, but for our purposes, the important point is that when a U-235 atom splits into two pieces, along with the energy that is released, it also ejects three stray neutrons. It turns out that what induces the U-235 atom to split in the first place is being struck by a stray neutron. So you fission one atom, which causes three more atoms to split, which in turn trigger nine more fission reactions, then 27, then 81, and so on exponentially until you get a whole heapin' load of energy.

Except not quite. The stray neutrons don't always hit a U-235 atom. Sometimes they miss, and just go shooting off into the distance. Actually, since all the matter around us is mostly empty space, they usually miss.

And here's the key point: The more dense your lump of U-235 is -- the closer together the atoms are -- the more likely it is for an ejected neutron to bump into one of the atoms. I'm sure this makes good intuitive sense, since obviously it's easier to hit one of a whole bunch of targets clustered close together than it is to hit a one of a few targets scattered far apart.

If the odds of a neutron hitting a U-235 atom are less than 1 in 3, i.e. on average, each time an atom splits and ejects three neutrons the average number that go on to trigger another fission reaction is less than one, then we say the mass is subcritical. You will get some energy released, but the reaction will rapidly peter out as you run out of neutrons.

If the odds of a neutron hitting a U-235 atom are exactly 1 in 3, i.e. on average, each time an atom splits and ejects three neutrons an average of one of them connects, then we say the mass is critical. You will get a fairly constant release of energy until all of the fuel is used up. This is how you want to run a nuclear reactor.

If the odds of a neutron hitting a U-235 atom are more than 1 in 3, i.e. on average each split atom causes more than one other atom to split, then your mass is supercritical. All other things being equal (which they aren't; more on this in a second) fission will continue in a chain reaction style, releasing energy faster and faster, until you get a mind-numbingly large explosion.

This is how you want to build your nuclear bomb. But the thing is, just being supercritical isn't enough. Your mass has to be really supercritical to get a bomb of any serious yield. This is because supercriticality tends to be self-limiting. To see why this is, let's examine what (probably) happened with North Korea's unsuccessful atomic bomb test: Fizzle.

The North Korean bomb test managed to create a pretty supercritical mass of U-2352. The chain reaction starts, and, as intended, a really impressive amount of energy is delivered in a really short period of time, causing an explosion. But in that unsuccessful bomb test, the resulting (relatively small) explosion blew the mass of uranium apart before most of the U-235 had a chance to fission. So there was an explosion, but not nearly as big as they were looking for.

It turns out it's really hard to get around this problem. The North Korean engineers had to work pretty damn hard even just to get the result they did. If you tried to just slowly squeeze some U-235 together to make a supercritical mass, you'd never get there, because as soon as you got very slightly supercritical, you'd either burn up enough uranium that you weren't supercritical anymore, or you'd heat it up and the density would go down enough to take you out of the supercritical zone.

And that's what makes it so damn hard to build a nuclear bomb. Your bomb contains some amount of subcritical material, and you need to smash or squeeze it together so that it becomes not just a little supercritical, but hugely amazingly supercritical, and it does it so fast that the bomb doesn't blow itself apart when you are only halfway there. Even successful nuclear bombs of the type described so far have a fairly low percentage yield, which is why engineers have designed all sorts of clever ways to mitigate this problem.

(For a moment, I must digress because I noticed my enthusiasm is showing through here. I find the technology behind nuclear weapons to be absolutely awe-inspiring; it is just such a remarkable feat of pure engineering. But from a human perspective they are also terrible terrible things, and I am confident the world would be better off without them. Just to be clear. My fascination with the technology does not in any way diminish my opposition to the horror that these devices can wreak upon humankind.)

So what does all this have to do with nuclear power plants? Well, as mentioned before, you want the fuel for your nuclear power plant to be right around (actually just under) the critical mass. That means it's not even close to exploding. (The explosions at Fukushima Daiichi were hydrogen combustion explosions, not nuclear explosions, and other blogs have already explained how that happened far better than I ever could)

Even if somehow the fuel got compressed so that it became supercritical, it would rapidly self-correct down to the critical level, by heating, melting, or (if somehow it got really supercritical, which it wouldn't) blowing apart. It's just so damn hard to get uranium to the level where you'd have a legitimate atomic bomb explosion, there's just no way it could possibly happen by accident.

We might have intuitively expected this, since the first artificial nuclear reactor was built by Enrico Fermi and a handful of grad students on a freakin' abandoned tennis court (and in fact it even occurs naturally in at least one place in the world), whereas the first successful nuclear bomb test required scores of the world's top physicists, a massive industrial support operation, and god knows how much money and resources. But it's worth understanding the reasons anyhow.

This doesn't mean that the situation at Fukushima Daiichi couldn't get really bad. The worst case scenario for a nuclear power plant is more akin to a dirty bomb, which is not exactly super happy fun time either. And, I struggle how to say this tactfully, but the real tragedy may be that this torpedoes our last best shot at a politically tenable solution to (at least temporarily) dodge the problem of global warming. It is only a little bit hyperbolic to say that this tsunami may in the end kill billions. More about that in a future post, perhaps.

1Turns out this is not so much "beside the point" as I thought. Karl Withakay tells us that while the fuel used in commercial nuclear reactors is enriched to contain about 3-5% U-235, the minimum purity requirement for a bomb is around 20%, and in practical devices it is much much higher. So not only is it impossible for even highly-enriched uranium to "accidentally" become supercritical enough to create a significant explosion, you couldn't even do it on purpose with the fuel used in nuclear reactors.

2Karl also points out that the North Korean test used plutonium rather than uranium. For the purposes of this explanation, the concept is similar enough to suffice. But please do read Karl's comments, which provide some additional technical background and clarify a few minor errors I made in trying to whip off this post using top-of-my-head knowledge rather than actually doing the research.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Angry Birds Rio: Most confusing cross-promotion ever?

So the very popular cellphone game Angry Birds is coming out with a sequel/more episodes/however you want to call it, called "Angry Birds Rio".

But you won't be able to buy it in the Android Marketplace or in the iPhone app store. It is being launched exclusively for Android in the Amazon Appstore.

Oh wait, but the Amazon Appstore doesn't exist yet. It is co-launching with Angry Birds Rio. Which is probably a good idea, because otherwise nobody fucking cares (it's like launching your video game platform at the same time as the first "killer app" -- the failure to do so being a big problem for Playstation 3 initially, for example). But it still adds to the confusion.

And then the title turns out to be a reference to the upcoming animated movie Rio. So the whole game is a product tie-in for a completely different product.


Friday, March 11, 2011

Tempeh parmesan

A friend asked for some vegetarian/vegan recipes on Facebook, and I realized in responding that I had never recorded my recipe for tempeh parmesan. Unfortunately I don't have pictures, which would be really useful for this recipe since the only real innovation is how I cut the tempeh. I'll try to do it with a diagram, but maybe I'll plan on making this sometime next week and then doing an update with pics. Without further ado:

Tempeh Parmesan
  • One 8-oz. package soy tempeh1
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup (approx.) flour
  • 1/3 cup (approx.) Panko bread crumbs (or any bread crumbs)
  • Vegetable oil
  • Jarred tomato sauce
  • 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 2 Tbsp chopped Fresh basil (optional)
  • Freshly shredded parmesan (optional)
The key here is how you cut the tempeh in order to yield two rather convincing-looking "breasts". If you get it just right, then the appearance will be exactly like chicken parm, the texture will be exactly like chicken parm, and the other flavors will come through enough that you will barely notice it ain't chicken. If it looks complicated, that's only because I'm explaining it poorly; once you've done this one time, it should take you less than five minutes, tops, to carve the "breasts".

First, make a diagonal cut about a 1/3 of the way from each end of the tempeh to yield two identical right trapezoids, like so:

Next, place each trapezoid in turn flat on the cutting board, and make a lateral cut starting at the pointed end, about 1/4" or less from the cutting board, angled slightly up so that the cut finishes about halfway back through the "breast":

Round out the three corners to give it a less artificial look.

Finally, in a manner similar to the previous step, look for any sharp or artificial-looking edges that remain and trim just a teensy bit off where necessary to give it a nice rounded organic look. At this point, it's more art than craft: just do your best to "sculpt" it to look like what you think a chicken breast ought to look like. Discard the trimmings, or reserve them for a different use.

Place both "breasts" in a pot of boiling salted water for 15 minutes or so. Drain carefully -- don't accidentally break off the tips of your nicely carved "breast", as I have done on occasion! -- and pat dry.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Obtain three shallow bowls and arrange them left to right, with your "breasts" to the left of them and your stove to the right. In the first bowl, thoroughly beat the egg. The second bowl gets the flour, and the third bowl gets the Panko bread crumbs. On the stovetop, pour vegetable oil in to a medium heavy-bottomed skillet until it is about 1/4" deep, and heat over medium-high heat.

When the oil is up to temp, take each "breast" in turn and dip it first in the egg using your left hand. Then, using your right hand, dip it in the flour and shake off any excess. Again using your right hand, dip it in the bread crumbs and again shake off any excess. Try to get as many bread crumbs to stick as possible. (The point of using separate hands is to avoid inadvertently breading your hands, which is gross and makes it hard to work) Place the "breast" in the pan and quickly repeat the process with the other "breast". If increasing the recipe, work in batches of two so as not to crowd the pan.

Fry in the oil until bottom side is golden-brown, about 1-3 minutes. Flip and continue to fry until other side is done, another 1-2 minutes. Remove to a plate with a paper towel on it to soak up excess oil.

Place "breasts" in a shallow baking pan, and pour sauce over the top until both are covered. Sprinkle mozzarella cheese on top. Place in oven and bake until sauce thickens and cheese starts to turn golden-brown around the edges, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven, place each "breast" on a plate, and spoon any excess sauce from the pan on top. If using basil and/or parmesan, sprinkle over top just before serving.

Serves two, but can be easily increased.

1I strongly recommend against grain or flavored tempeh for this recipe, as the nutty flavor competes with the breading, tomato sauce, and cheese flavors, making it seem less "Italian". The more neutral flavor of soy tempeh is a much better fit.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Belief in the "soul" does nothing to address the problem of subjective consciousness

Apologies in advance for the even-more-rambly-than-usual nature of this post. I am fighting off a bit of a cold -- which you'd think would advise against attempting to tackle existential questions of consciousness, wouldn't you? Ah well. I'm sure I'll catch some of it in proofreading, but it may be a little, eh, disorganized from time to time.

I mentioned I've been experiencing a bit of existential angst recently, mostly surrounding the nature of subjective consciousness. For one thing, I have recently come to view the following quote, commonly attributed to Mark Twain, in a different light: "I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it." True, my non-existence will surely bother me as much after I am dead as it did before I was born (i.e. not at all). But when one really contemplates the fact that one's consciousness did not exist in the past, it seems to me to be just as terrifying an existential abyss as contemplating one's future annihilation! Now not only do I have to look death straight in the face and come to terms with it, but I have to have a staring contest with the birth of consciousness as well. Oy...

But the fact that I know I won't "suffer the slightest inconvenience from it" is indeed a comfort. I guess the bigger question that has really been troubling me can be expressed most succinctly as, "Why aren't we p-zombies?"

Now, before going any further, I need to be clear that I think p-zombies, in the strongest sense (and in the sense that is troubling me), are a silly idea. Perhaps it is my philosophical naturalism talking, but it seems plainly obvious to me that an identical physical replica to ourselves would experience consciousness in any possible universe. To borrow from Douglas Hostadter, that would be like trying to imagine an identical copy of an internal combustion engine, except this copy doesn't actually burn gasoline to create energy, it just simulates doing so. Yeah, that's silly.

But of course the allure of Chalmers's concept is that it sure seems like a sensible question even if it's not. Indeed, compared to the real universe, it is comparatively easy for me to imagine a universe populated by p-zombies, in that they really do think, and they sure do appear to experience subjective feelings, but there's nobody actually really experiencing it, at least not the way I subjectively experience it. To reference Hofstadter again, he referred to consciousness as "a hallucination hallucinating itself," a phrase which I found somewhat obtuse at the time I read it (though I knew what he meant and basically agreed), but now that same phrase has real resonance, and is terrifying at the same time.

This has been bothering me enough that for a moment I was like, "Man, I almost wish I believed in a soul and the afterlife and all that..." But then I realized that doesn't even answer the question. The question of why some living things are sentient and some are clearly not, and the blurriness of that line... that is all left completely unexplained. Unless, I guess, you believe that no animal except us ensouled humans feels a damn thing (which I realize was the predominant Christian worldview until fairly recently), but that just seems so clearly implausible on its face. And that only resolves the blurriness of the line, it still leaves all of the "whys" untouched.

There is a similar infinite regress as one encounters when trying to give a theistic answer the big "Why is there something rather than nothing?" To that question, for any answer, you can always say, "Okay, so why that?" (e.g. why god?) Similarly, "Why do we have a subjective experience of anything?" has a similar infinite regress. Sure, I can describe how human neurology seems to be quite an adequate machine for simulating subjective experience -- but from an intuitive standpoint, that seems as existentially unsatisfying as Lawrence Krauss' answer to the "something rather than nothing" question: "Nothing is unstable." Krauss' answer is pithy and compelling, but it is no less vulnerable to the reply of, "Okay, why that?"

But if a perfectly good mechanistic reason seems existentially unsatisfying, why should a magic reason be any different?

I can ask, "Why do we feel?" and you can point to all of the neurological mechanisms that allow us to feel, and I can always retort, "Okay, sure, that all makes sense, but why do I actually feel it?" (Which I believe to be a nonsensical question, but it doesn't always feel nonsensical on a sleepless night) If to the first question you instead pointed to the soul, I can ask the same damn question! Well, except for the "making sense" part. But still... again, maybe it's my philosophical naturalism talking, but it seems to me that saying that the soul is the substrate of subjective experience is just as existentially dissatisfying (actually, more so) as saying that the brain is the substrate of subject experience. What is there about the substrate that allows it to experience stuff? Does my soul have a soul? Does my soul's soul have a soul? Where does the regress end?

Answer: It ends with our biology, clearly. There's something rather charming and beautiful and amazing about that, but also rather dizzying. I've been angst-y about it lately, but I still feel like the materialistic explanation is ultimately the most satisfying -- and not only from an expository perspective, but from an existential perspective as well. Magical explanations like the soul don't resolve anything; they just dazzle us enough to make us forget the original question.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Death and coffee

This is the first time I've used our coffee maker at home in quite some time -- it got moved into the basement when we were renovating our kitchen, and we didn't move it right back up when we were done because my wife couldn't drink much coffee when she was pregnant. I'm working from home today, so I fired it up.

I remember, when Nicole (my friend who died in December) would come to visit us, she would use way too many coffee beans and grind them way too fine, which would cause the water to back up in the filter and spill all over the counter, making a huge mess. It drove my wife absolutely bonkers, but Nicole didn't want to do it any differently because "I do this with my coffee maker and there is no problem!"

Seems petty in retrospect, but of course that's in retrospect. It would be nice if we could interact with our loved ones every day as if it might be the last time we would see them, but in practice it just doesn't work like that. I think we could all use a little more perspective, but too much perspective is crippling.

Just some random thoughts. I've been experiencing a lot of existential angst lately (nothing like the sudden passing of a close friend and the birth of your second child coming within six weeks of each other to make you think about life and death, eh?!) and I've been thinking of doing a post about it, but haven't quite collected my thoughts.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Fort Bragg, Rock Beyond Belief, and the taxpayer

Regardless of one's theistic preferences or political leanings, everyone should be outraged about the recent decision by military brass at Fort Bragg to put crippling restrictions on the planned Rock Beyond Belief festival, leading to its cancellation. Even if you are an uber-conservative Evangelical Christian Tea Partier, you should still be pissed off about this indefensible decision.

One paragraph of very brief background for anyone who is not aware of this: Fort Bragg recently hosted a Rock the Fort music festival, an Evangelical Christian event which was expressly for the purposes of obtaining converts, for which the military shelled out over $50,000 and which was explicitly endorsed by the military as part of its controversial Spiritual Fitness program. Concerned about the questionable constitutionality of this activity, Sgt. Justin Griffith, backed by the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), applied to host a similar secular event caled Rock Beyond Belief, taking advantage of a DoD regulation compelling the military to provide similar accommodations to groups of differing viewpoints whenever it sponsors an outside organization. It looked like everything was proceeding smoothly, until last week when it was abruptly announced that the Fort Bragg brass were going against the advice of their legal team, and refusing to provide any funding for the event, confining it to a smaller venue than originally promised, and demanding a special disclaimer on any promotional materials for the event stating that it was not endorsed by Fort Bragg.

Now, many people may ask why the military ought to be compelled to shell out $40k+ to host a pro-secularism event on a military installation. Indeed, it rather seems like the military shouldn't really be in the business of doing that, eh? I agree! Better would have been for Fort Bragg to stay out of this altogether, and fund neither the Rock the Fort nor the Rock Beyond Belief event. But it's too late for that now, and both the constitution as well as DoD regulations are quite explicit about the next steps. You can oppose both events, but you can't support the first and oppose the second.

Another fair objection might be that while the military is bound by their own regulations to support Rock Beyond Belief, the level of funding and accomodations should be proportional to the expected audience. It turns out this argument fails on a technicality, since the relevant DoD regulations specifically mandate the same level of support, but I am willing to entertain this argument on a pragmatic basis. The Fort Bragg leadership's decision still fails when exposed to a numerical analysis.

In 2001, Christians comprised 71% of the active duty military. This includes Catholics and other denominations, so it is not really fair to use this number to represent potential interest in an Evangelical event, but I'm going to be extra generous here. Those who identified as atheist or as having no religious preference weighed in at 21%. (Note that, contrary to the pernicious "No atheists in foxholes" myth, this is slightly higher than among the general US population. I guess something about seeing little children get shot in the face has a tendency to diminish one's belief in an omnipotent omnibenevolent being... but I digress!)

If we were to argue that the level of financial support for a given event should be directly proportional to the number of potentially interested participants, by my calculations the military should have offered around $16,000 to Rock Beyond Belief. Now, as I said, this would still be a violation of the DoD's own regulations, and in any case it is clearly unethical to act like you are going to give someone $40,000 and then very late in the planning stages cut the funding by more than half. But even by this very lax standard of behavior, the Fort Bragg brass looks really bad: They are offering Rock Beyond Belief a grand total of zero dollars and zero cents.

The Fort Bragg leadership have offered a few other excuses for refusing to finance the event, e.g. they claim the smaller venue is acceptable because none of the musicians or speakers that have been lined up for Rock Beyond Belief have widespread mainstream appeal (never mind that the same was true of the Rock the Fort lineup...). But the point is, even if you buy these arguments, to offer no financial support at all, and then, adding insult to injury, to demand that all promotional materials for the event carry a notice disclaiming any implicit support by Fort Bragg whastoever -- this is just not justifiable based on any sort of practical argument.

There is one more argument, an ideological rather than practical argument, that one might make for the decision to scuttle Rock Beyond Belief: that, simply put, Christians are Good, and atheists are Bad. To that, I would first like to say, "Fuck you," but I would also like to point out that Fort Bragg's own legal team advised that the original plan be accepted without modification. There is just no way that the military will prevail in the forthcoming lawsuit, and the legal costs are going to be a hell of a lot more than forty-grand. Not only are their actions clearly unconstitutional, but DoD regulations impose an even stricter standard than the Constitution, eliminating any ambiguity of interpretation about what the military was legally bound to do.

In particular, the bizarre decision to demand the disclaimer pretty much guarantees that the military is going to get their asses handed to them in court. One has to ask what they even thought the point of this requirement was. Clearly, when the funding was denied, Rock Beyond Belief was already cancelled as a practical matter. You can't take a fourty-thousand dollar event and then cut its primary source of funding just weeks before it is supposed to take place, and expect the Show to Go On. The disclaimer requirement was utterly unnecessary, because in practice it was never going to come into play. It is almost as if they were asking for an unwinnable lawsuit.

I think there are only two explanations that make sense here: Either a lone zealot in the Fort Bragg leadership (most likely Garrison Commander Colonel Stephen Sicinski, if this is the case) was so offended by the idea of Rock Beyond Belief that he embarked on a quixotic quest to spit on the First Amendment rights of 21% of the active duty military; or else this was done on the orders of some higher-up(s) who is/are looking for an opportunity for political grandstanding, and couldn't care less what the results of the lawsuit turn out to be, since a defeat for the military would only bolster their martyr posturing.

In either of the above cases, this is being done on the taxpayers' dime, who, make no mistake, will end up paying through the nose for excessive legal costs, and almost certainly for an expensive settlement. If you aren't outraged by this, I just don't know what to say....

Monday, March 7, 2011

Bee-bim Bop!

I've been starting to try and pay a little more attention to, well, blog-whoring to put it frankly. One thing I noticed from Google Analytics is that while most of the traffic I get is obviously on the most recent post, the trickle of hits I get on older posts is predominantly due to cooking- or food-related Google searches. Even before I noticed this, I had been meaning to knuckle down and do more cooking related posts. So the goal for a little while here will be one post per day (except weekends, when I may or may not post) and alternating one atheism-related post with one cooking-related post. Yesterday I blogged about the whole "Tom Johnson"/Wally Smith mess, which was obviously atheism-related -- so without further ado:

One of my older son's first favorite books was Bee-bim Bop! by Linda Sue Park. The title refers to a Korean dish, generally rendered as "bibimbap", which translates literally to "mixed-up rice" or "mixed-up meal". Each line of the book ends with "Hungry for some Bee-bim Bop!" or "Time for Bee-bim Bop!" or some such. When Quinn was just first learning to say a few words, my wife or I would read it to him, ending each page with an anticipatory "Beeeee.... Bimmmmmm....", and then wait for him to shout "BOP!", much to both his and our mutual amusement.

Recipes and interpretations vary wildly, with the only commonality being that the ingredients are served without being mixed together, and then the diner mixes them together at the table inside their bowl. Park's version focuses on ingredients that can take the form of strips or strings (e.g. thinly sliced beef, bean sprouts, julienned carrots, egg "pancakes" that have been rolled and then sliced in a sort of chiffonade style, etc.) which are served in separate bowls, along with rice, allowing the diner to choose which ingredients they want to use. You choose the ingredients you want, spoon them on top of your rice -- and then, as the penultimate page of the book instructs us to do, "MIX IT! MIX LIKE CRAZY!"

I won't post the recipe here, because a) I feel it would be a genuinely unethical violation of copyright, and b) the only part of the recipe I follow religiously anyway is the marinade for the beef, and to be honest it's a fairly straightforward sweet-savory Asian marinade with sesame oil anyway, so I'm sure you can find a comparable recipe online. I will, however, show a picture of the spread we had set up for it Saturday night:

The two bowls on the left are white rice and brown rice. The remaining ingredients are, starting at the back row and going left-to-right and then back-to-front: Asparagus, pan-fried sliced red peppers, julienned cucumbers, marinated sirloin beef strips, "chiffonaded" egg pancakes, pan-friend julienned carrots, steamed mung bean sprouts, sliced scallions, and pan-fried quartered baby corns.

The asparagus was a spur-of-the-moment experiment. I've been itching for asparagus season to start, but unwilling to buy some that's been shipped halfway around the world so my fat American ass can have it in winter. But it occurred to me that for bee-bim bop, I would want really very thin stalks (which are the opposite of what I usually buy since I usually roast or grill them, in which case a nice thick stalk is good for getting some browning without totally draining them of any crispness) so that they would bend easily and be more suitable for this "mixed-up" meal, and that with all those other ingredients the quality wouldn't matter as much. It was a success, and I will probably do it again.

(If you'll pardon a brief digression... I just recently found out, from the excellent magazine Cooks Illustrated, that the thickness of asparagus stalks is not at all determined by when they are harvested, but rather by the age of the plant itself, which will yield stalks annually for a good five or six years. Young plants produce thin stalks, older plants produce thicker stalks. Wild, eh?)

The baby corn had been another spur-of-the-moment experiment, from the previous time I made bee-bim bop. I had been in the grocery store buying the ingredients, and saw that they carried fresh baby corn, as opposed to the frozen or canned kind. I took a gamble that this might give it a nice bright flavor (in contrast to the mushy blandness of your typical stir-fry baby corn), and that if I cooked them by themselves in a hot pan with some oil I might be able to get a little caramelization of the sugars going to further enhance the taste. I turned out to be right on both counts -- they came out crisp and bright and with that nice inimitable roasted vegetable flavor. The only problem was that the whole baby corns didn't "mix up" very well, so this time I quartered them lengthwise, which was a win-win since it also increased the surface area for caramelization.

The one part of Park's recipe I will directly paraphrase -- since I think it's a common technique but one I hadn't encountered before and really liked -- is the "chiffonaded" egg strips. You just beat up some eggs, put a little bit in a pan with some oil so that it forms a thin "pancake", flip it once, remove it from the pan, roll it into a tight little roll, and then thinly slice. When it unrolls, you get these nice little egg confetti things that are a great addition to bee-bim bop, and would probably work with pretty much any stir-fry, maybe even on a salad or something.

So there you have it. Nothing too special here, but a really fun meal, both to prepare and to eat. It takes a little longer than is optimal for a weeknight meal, since every ingredient has to be prepared separately (though you really don't need to do nearly as many as I did here, half as many veggies would have been fine). But as a special little family tradition, it's just fantastic.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

"Tom Johnson" inadvertently highlights the epistemic peril of religion

"Tom Johnson" has been outed, and I can't say I feel good about the whole thing. Just bad feelings all around, nothing much to be learned at this point.

But, one interesting thing is that we now have an article from OnEarth which appears to be a first-person account of the event on which the original fabricated "Johnson" story was based. The climax of the story turns out to provide a potentially valuable teaching moment about the extent to which accomodationist-like tactics are appropriate, and where they can go off the rails:

[A]n elementary-aged child asked me the usual question that comes up when I show animals to a crowd.

"Why do these things even matter?"

Here was my chance, my opportunity to lecture about amphibians' contributions to energy flow in ecosystems, about their intrinsic value as biodiversity, why anyone with least bit of education should understand why we need to protect diversity. Before I had my chance, an older man in the crowd piped up.

"Because God created them, and it's our job to make sure they stay around," he said simply. A rumble of "mm-hmm's" and head nods rippled through the congregation...

Could it really be that simple, finding some common ground for conservation? I'd like to think so. Here I was, my head full of fear-inducing facts about biodiversity loss and data from published studies, and the older man's answer was more than enough to satisfy the child. My name-dropping of famous environmentalists and quoting of influential studies was going to have little more impact than speaking in Latin would have. Our reasons may have been different, but our goals were the same: conservation in the name of morality, of science, of God - whatever you wanted to call it.

Now, I'm not sure whether Wally Smith went on to give his favored answer anyway -- "My [answer] was going to have little more impact..." (emph. mine) could imply that he went ahead and gave his answer anyway, even knowing it would have little impact ("was going to" signifying something about to happen); or it could imply that he decided not to ("was going to" signifying something that had been planned to happen, but no longer). If the latter, he did those kids a serious disservice. And in either case, his touchy-feely ecumenicism in regards to the motivation for conservation contains some serious hidden dangers.

First, let me make clear what I am not suggesting. Nobody thinks that Smith should have said, "Well no, that's not actually true, because God doesn't exist. The real reasons are..." That would have been needlessly confrontational, and would obviously have undermined the important message he was trying to get across. Does anyone really believe that even the most fiery of the Gnu Atheists would have responded that way?

I'm not even suggesting something like the somewhat more innocuous, "Well I don't know about that, but..." He was there for the primary purpose of getting these folks on board with conservation, and he was presenting to a group where (unfortunately) even the merest hint of skepticism would have undermined his credibility. I get that. As strong an advocate I am of being "out" as an atheist, I acknowledge there are rare occasions where tact and/or tactics legitimately dictate reticence on that point.

An appropriate way to continue would have been something like, "Not only that, but.." or "It's also been observed..", etc. But in any case, it was imperative that Smith continue on and give the secular answer, even if most of his audience couldn't care less beyond the old man's godsaidso explanation. I'll quote from a comment I left at the article:

How do you know that amongst the chorus of "Mmm-hmmms", there weren't a few kids remaining silent, kids who had started to realize the worldview in which they were raised had serious cracks? What if that little girl gets a little older and suddenly "godsaidso" isn't a good enough answer for her anymore? Hell, what if she doesn't even leave her faith, but moves to a different town with a pastor who says that none of this matters because the end times are coming soon?

Smith states that "our goals were the same: conservation in the name of morality, of science, of God - whatever you wanted to call it." But the problem with this attitude is that morality1 and science are real, and God is not. This matters. If I may wax biblically for a moment, this is the difference between building your house on a rock and building your house on the sand.

Because there are no epistemic underpinnings to faith-based beliefs, there is no mechanism for sorting good ideas from bad. If my commitment to conservation is based on facts, then if someone wants to modify my beliefs they will have to challenge those facts directly, by showing that either I was mistaken, or that other factual concerns outweigh the ones I was aware of. If my commitment to conservation is based on some old guy's interpretation of what a mythical being wants me to do, there are countless vulnerabilities that could be attacked. Not only might I some day come to realize that said being is in fact a myth, but much more trivially, someone could simply argue that the old man's interpretation was wrong. Who's to say? We are talking about the commands of a fictional being, of whom the only "official" account we have is a very long book written thousands of years ago and riddled with contradictions and obvious errors. There is no mechanism by which we could even in principle test whose interpretation was right. So ultimately, my commitment to conservation has literally no grounding whatosever.

There is an important qualification to be made here. I recognize that fundamental beliefs tend to be far more resistant to change than derived beliefs, and that could seem to contradict what I am saying. After all, it probably would be easier, for example, to convince someone like me that anthropogenic global warming was a hoax than it would be to convince a committed Christian that Jesus never existed. I doubt I ever shall be convinced of such a thing, but we could easily talk in principle about what kinds of new information and arguments would convince me; whereas it is impossible to say what would convince a committed Christian to abandon her belief in Jesus, because it would require a fundamental shift in worldview.

But here's the thing: I don't think that conservationism is a fundamental belief for most conservation-minded theists, certainly not for the sorts of folks who would be at an Alabama gathering of the Southern Baptists. I think that conservationism for them is derived from other beliefs -- if Smith's account is to be believed, primarily from faith-based ones. It is probably fair to say that no matter how convincingly Smith might have argued for a secular motivation behind conservation, there is probably no way he could have made that belief more resilient than the audience's belief in Jesus, etc. But that doesn't say a damn thing about the resilience of the audience's belief in faith-inspired conservationism!

The audience's fundamental belief in their religion may be rock solid, but because that belief happens to be hollow to the core, with no epistemic grounding to speak of, any derived beliefs based solely on their religion are inherently arbitrary, and are therefore quite weak.

Again, I don't know what Smith actually did. Maybe he did just what I thought he should do, maybe he continued on with the secular explanation anyway. And for what it's worth, I think that given the crisis situation we are in regarding the environment, it is probably a legitimate tactic to exploit theists' beliefs to bolster their commitment to conservation. But if we let that be their only commitment to conservation, that is a massive blunder, both a tactical and a strategic failure. Even from a hardcore accomodationist perspective, I don't see how anyone could argue otherwise.

1Okay, I realize error theorists, relativists, and non-cognitivists might well disagree with me here. Let's leave the meta-ethics discussion aside for the moment, as fascinating a topic as that is, because I don't feel that it is crucial to the point I am making here.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Do you have your snark-hunting permit for this year yet?

Well, as everyone in the atheist blogosphere knows by now, Jeremy Stangroom has begun a rather interesting campaign to document instances of inappropriate/unacceptable incivility on the part of the Gnu Atheists. I actually give the guy some credit for doing this; for too long, the gnu-bashers have accused us of systemic and unconscionable incivility, and then when challenged to back it up with examples, they have responded with stony silence.

Stangroom, in contast, is attempting to put his money where his mouth is, and as far as it goes, is not doing a terrible job. Out of the six examples he has cited so far, I admit I found two of them to be positively cringe-worthy (Dawkins' "stupid face" comment, and Blackford's calling Chris Mooney a "disgusting traitor" simply because he took Templeton money1). The other four inspired more of a shrug in me -- have you heard of this new thing called "weblogs", where people say whatever they want in an unedited and unmoderated forum? -- and it doesn't reflect well that Stangroom is reaching back several years to find this stuff. His campaign is ultimately a big fat "So what?" -- as several have pointed out, in order to show that gnus are systematically more incivil than other similar groups, he'd have to be citing several egregious examples every day -- but I still give him credit for rising to the challenge, however ineffectually.

What I want to talk about briefly, even though I don't have that much to say about it, is PZ's post on the topic, or more specifically, the comments. PZ is really pushing it here with this post, but of course, that's PZ's schtick. Are there really people out there who wish that every single outspoken atheist were perfectly level-headed and fair all of the time??? If so, I think those people are really boring. PZ flirts with "the line" all the time, and sometimes crosses it, and that's what makes Pharyngula so entertaining.

The comments, though, I think are going way too far. There's some rather vulgar reinventions of Stangroom's name, a whole lot of empty ridicule, etc. The commenters are trying to make a point, of course -- that they will not be reigned in by the tone police, and that any attempt to do so will just result in further escalation -- but it's unseemly and not very flattering towards them.

In other words, it looks kind of like most of the rest of the Internet. Only spelled better.

I'll be honest, I think the comments section at Pharyngula is a rather nasty place, and I don't really spend any time there as a result. But I'm not losing sleep over Someone Is Being A Jerk On The Internet. To be frank, I think some of the commenters on that post are being real tools; but I would not even be motivated to mention it if snark-hunting weren't such a hot topic lately. If you don't like how a particular online community is behaving, find a different one. Ho hum.

And I guess that's what's so puzzling about the anti-gnu brigade. Since when does the fact that you happen to agree with someone on a particular existential issue give you the prerogative to endlessly fret over their level of civility? To be clear, we're not talking about something like Christians needing to condemn and disassociate themselves from the "God Hates Fags" crowd, or god-forbid the obstetrician murderers. We're just talking about matters of tone and framing. It is so strange to be obsessed with someone else's civility level.

As others have pointed out, the charge that the gnus are giving all atheists a bad name is simply laughable. Even forgetting about Overton window-like phenomenon, which I believe are very real, atheists already had a bad name, and not because some of our number made some inappropriate comments on a blog one day.

Yes, damn right, some people in our community sometimes cross the line. Some of them go way over the line at times, and some of them (though I would argue not any of the prominent bloggers) do so habitually. But why are certain folks so obsessed with this rather trivial fact?

Edit: In re-reading some of Stangroom's series on snark-hunting, I am struck once again by the fact that he is resorting to empty ridicule in the very same posts in which he is nitpicking on examples of empty ridicule. It's got to be intentional; Stangroom doesn't seem nearly that self-unaware. I'm just a little fuzzy on the point he is trying to make. Is it supposed to be baiting people into a "you can dish it out but you can't take it" trap? Just a straightforward "taste of your own medicine" ploy? I dunno, I'm almost certain he's doing it to make a point, as opposed to just being cluelessly hypocritical (the presence of at least one ad hominem per post just seems too consistent and too "forced" almost to be a coincidence) but I guess I just don't really grok his point...

1My opinion on taking Templeton money could be a blog post all to itself, but not today. In short: I think Templeton is being very sneaky and is working towards a goal with which I disagree. That said, if I were a researcher or a journalist, and Templeton offered me money to conduct a study/write an article, and I felt comfortable with the request if not with the requester -- you bet your sweet bippy I'd take it. I've got mortgage payments to make, y'know! If you believe in what you are doing, having it funded by an organization like Templeton may create an undesirable conflict of interest, but it's not the worst thing in the world. It would be nice to be in a position to turn it down, but not everybody is, and I'm not typically going to judge someone too harshly for choices like that -- not even Mooney.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Attacking the Problem of Induction with camels and hammers

Daniel Fincke of Camels with Hammers responds to some noise I had been making in the comments of an old post of his. In a nutshell, I was contending that Hume's Problem of Induction could only be resolved via an epistemological leap of faith, and so thus an iota of actual "faith" was necessary for even an atheistic worldview -- though of course all beliefs beyond that can remain properly tentative.

Daniel quite accurately points out that my argument, which seeks to characterize as circular any and all attempts at reasoning one's way out of the Problem of Induction, is itself circular reasoning. Well I'll be damned, indeed it is.

I still maintain that the Problem of Induction is fundamentally intractable, and thus needs to be hand-waved rather than attacked with reason. Frankly, I think Daniel's point actually reinforces this position rather than diminishing it, at least from a pragmatic standpoint. To wit: I had attempted to show that no epistemology can claim to be rooted entirely on reason without first taking the validity of inductive reasoning on faith. Daniel points out that my attempt to do so fails without somehow presupposing the validity of inductive reasoning. This undermines my attempts to assert that inductive reasoning must be accepted on faith, but it accomplishes this by (IMO) effectively demolishing any attempt to say something about the epistemology of inductive reasoning and still maintain firm philosophical footing.

Daniel has not (yet) shown that faith is not required in order to accept inductive reasoning, he has so far only shown that I can't prove that it is required. I look forward to his promised follow-up post where he intends to describe "a way that inductive reasoning might be understood to be...virtuously circular" (emph. in original). Good stuff!