An intriguing, if maybe a bit obvious, parallel

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:49 pm

Nice article from Salon talking about how the notion in the movie ‘Inception’ that the most persistent and powerful ideas planted in our minds are the ones we think are our own ideas is reflected in the modern media landscape:


I know exactly how she feels

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:34 am

Author Anne Rice, who publicly returned to her Christian faith a few years ago after years as an atheist, has renounced her membership of the Christian church, while remaining a follower and worshiper of Jesus Christ.

Here’s the full text of her two Facebook posts:

For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten …years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.

As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I’m out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of …Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.

This article expands on the issue in nice ways:

Why Anne Rice has never been more of a Christian

I’m with her on all those issues: they’re the places where the values Jesus himself taught rub up against what the institutionalised church has become.

Christians keep saying ‘we must look to Jesus, not to people’, and they’re right… but the claim is always that the people will more and come to reflect Jesus. If they’re not, then maybe they’re not the people we need to be associating with?

I dunno, still all confusing. But the challenge for me is that I have certain values and beliefs that are firmly grounded in Christian faith and teaching, but experience the contradiction of those values in almost every public action of Christians.


The right to freedom of speech does not include the right to freedom from disagreement

Filed under: — Bravus @ 2:29 pm

A few times recently, when people have made some particularly ignorant and prejudiced comment in public, and I’ve called them on it, they’ve responded with “Oh, I thought it was a free country – don’t we have the right to our opinions any more?” (or words to that effect).

WHAT? Yes, of course you have your right to your opinion, and indeed to express your opinion. What am I, the government? Am I censoring you? Do I have any power to censor you? No, of course not.

As I put it in a forum post recently:

You have every right to state your opinion.

I have every right to state my different opinion.

I also have every right to bring facts and evidence that show that your opinion is based on ignorance and prejudice rather than reality.

Like the topic says, it’s confusion to assume that free speech means freedom from challenge, critique and disagreement. On the contrary, as soon as people try to use this rhetorical device to shut down dissent, they are themselves guilty of trying to stifle (their own version of) free speech.

No, free speech is about the full and frank exchange of views, and can’t work any other way. So I’ll carry on disagreeing with folk – and expect them to exercise their right to disagree with me.


A sense of priorities

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:22 am

This article from Paul Syvret is mostly about tax exemptions for churches, and is pretty satirical in tone: http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/opinion/its-your-chance-to-pray-for-pay/story-e6frerdf-1225897081649.

But some of the numbers he brought out struck me. Hillsong gives $1m tax-free expense accounts annually to 5 of its senior staff – that’s $5m. And that’s in addition to million-dollar houses, cars, free flights and other benefits. Hillsong raised over $50m in revenue last year, and spent less than $3m on charity. Less for the poor than for the wealthy pastors.

I’ve had this discussion about wealthy Christians with my friend Polar before, and she doesn’t necessarily agree that it’s a problem. I should clarify that my problem is not with the wealth per se, but with the sense of priorities. Could the pastors stand to live a little more simply, and pass on a bit more to those in our society who are doing it tough?

Here’s what their founder said about himself: “And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head. – Matthew 8:20.” Bit different to the Palm Beach mansions the Hillsong folks inhabit.

And here’s what He said to someone else (from Matthew 19):

16 And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?

17 And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.

18 He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness,

19 Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

20 The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?

21 Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.

22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.


Latest review of the scientific consensus on climate change

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:13 pm

There was a good review done a few years ago by Naomi Oreskes about climate scientists’ views in relation to climate change. Here’s the newest one, published this month: http://www.pnas.org/content/107/27/12107.


“Here, we use an extensive dataset of 1,372 climate researchers and their publication and citation data to show that (i) 97-98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field surveyed here support the tenets of ACC outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and (ii) the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced of ACC are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.”

Folks, there’s no controversy.


Motivation and Autonomy

Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:20 pm

Via my good friend Mark Patterson. Well worth a look.

Autonomy is definitely one of the things that makes my job a great job.


Evolution and Faith (and lots of other stuff)

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:10 am

This report on a recent survey of Americans on their attitudes to science and religion has its own particular spin on the issues, but it does link directly to the research report. Definitely interesting stuff: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/vcu-survey-on-science-and-religion/.

As I may have mentioned before, we’re in the midst of an extended study of the ‘Test of Faith’ materials on the relationship of science and religion. One quote from the report linked above that seemed to make sense to me (it was in response to the finding that 42% of Americans believe evolution conflicts with their faith) was:

The large chunk who see conflict is bad news for accommodationists. But the accommodationist response—at least that of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science—is this: You don’t understand your own faith, because if you did, you would see that there’s really no conflict. They have a big theological task in front of them.

I think it’s probably true. Those who try to fit science and faith together often do so by redefining the faith component, or trying to. That doesn’t work so well, because religious faith is pretty much designed to prevent redefinition, but at the same time, and contrary to the conclusions in the linked article, it seems to be the correct way to go about it, in those instances where the Biblical text (when understood and interpreted correctly within historical and cultural context) does not support the specific views of believers in relation to science.

Over to you…


David Mitchell on Climate Change

Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:50 am


I guess it’s possible that it’s me…

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:14 pm

…who is morally confused: http://adventistforum.com/forum/ubbthreads.php/topics/375500/1.html


On Pie, and Games with Non-zero Sums

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:44 am

I think it’s a massive blind spot that both ‘conservatives’ and ‘progressives’ fall into (oops, mixed metaphor).

The ‘pie’ of wealth and resources in the community is very unevenly shared. The wealthiest couple of percent of the population have the vast majority of the pie, the middle class share a small slice amongst a large number, and the poor get almost none.

Progressives say ‘that’s unfair! – the wealthy ought to give up some of their slice so that the poor can have some!’. Conservatives in some ways should agree – the wealthy could stand to share more with both the middle class and the poor – but they have this secret belief that they, too, could become the wealthy, so the privileges of the privileged must be protected at all costs1. Then they scream about confiscatory taxation and libruls coming to forcibly take away their slice of the pie. This paragraph, it seems to me, encapsulates an enormous proportion of all contemporary political discourse.

But there’s a simple solution: bake another pie! And another and another! It’s *not* a zero-sum game. It’s *not* necessary that for someone who is currently losing to start winning, someone who is currently winning needs to start losing. The sum total of global wealth has grown enormously in the past couple of centuries. We can argue about whether that growth has kept pace with the growth in population, but in general, there are plenty of new pies being baked daily.

Now, given the current arrangements, the very wealthy will probably own the majority of the new pies too. And the poor will have almost none. But almost none of 100 pies is better than almost none of 1 pie.

So, I’m arguing, both the progressives’ demands for fairer slicing and the conservatives’ defense of the current slicing arrangements in large part miss the point… there’s just more pie, and we can make even more2.

  1. Yes, I’m slightly caricaturing their belief structures for effect: I’m sure Mark will be along in a minute to straighten me out!
  2. Yes, there are issues, and major ones, about the dependence of the current baking enterprise on fossil fuels, and the general environmental impact and sustainability of policies of constant expansion. But in general I’m an optimist about the ways in which we can use technology to address those issues.


Energy Futures

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:29 am

(repurposed forum post)

Finally got around to the promised post on energy solutions and futures.

First up, even if we leave aside the issue of climate change entirely, fossil fuels are finite resources.

(Barring a few fantasies about endless renewal from currently on-going natural processes (someone posted a link on that here a while ago and I emailed the scientist who did the original research and she was very definitive that its a tiny source and definitely not the source of the reserves we’re using now)).

So whether we start cutting down on our use now or in a couple of decades, we will definitely have to cut down some time.

What I’m suggesting here is that we get a head start.

I’m absolutely, 100%, not talking about decimating economies and standards of living, anywhere in the world. The goal of this approach is humanitarian, definitely, but that goal is not zero-sum. It is to extend to those in the developing world the lifestyle and health benefits that those of us in the developed world have gained on the back of the massive gift of cheap energy we got from fossil fuels. At the same time, it is to guarantee our own lifestyles into the future, because without action they are unsustainable.

It was the world’s inheritance, and we’ve spent most of it. I’m not about guilt for that, but I am about the responsibility to use that boost to now offer benefits to those who missed out in the first rush (which is really not much more than a century old).

So please leave aside your fantasies of the ravening socialist horde coming to force you to live in a cave. They’re just that, dark fantasies.

First point: Any approach needs to be multifaceted. Fossil fuels, particularly oil, gave us ‘magic-bullet’ solutions to all sorts of problems from powering cars, planes and trains to lubricating their moving parts and generating electricity. We don’t get it that easy again.

Second point: Any solution for the foreseeable future will still have both coal and oil as components. That’s one reason it’s important to conserve them. (The other is petrochemicals like plastics: our descendants will be aghast that we burned something is incredibly useful as petroleum.) It’s a fantasy from the green side to think we can wean ourselves off fossil fuels entirely in the near term.

But what we do need to do is make huge steps to replace them as the mainstays of our energy use. Here are several possible facets of a solution:

  1. (this one is related to climate change, the rest are not) Coal reserves are huge – much greater than oil. There are dirty approaches to converting coal into gas or oil, but they are wasteful and expensive. A better approach is to use the coal to produce electricity, then the electricity to produce hydrogen for a hydrogen economy (see below). This all works and is all proven technology right now. The other piece of the picture is carbon sequestration: the benefit of burning coal in a power station versus burning it in a vehicle is that it’s a lot easier to capture the emitted carbon dioxide and store it underground. That way we can keep using this valuable resource without completely trashing our environment. (Coal is also a very ‘dirty’ fuel in terms of things like the sulfur that causes acid rain: the sequestration process can capture these too.)
  2. A hydrogen fuel cell economy. Hydrogen is an energy transport technology, not an energy production technology, but it’s clean and powerful. In cars it would be adsorbed onto metal hydrides in tanks, with *less* explosion and fire risk than tanks of gasoline. Hydrogen itself would not need to be transported in tankers, because it could be made in fuel cells in filling stations, using electricity: and we already have electricity infrastructure. It’s better than battery for cars because no charge cycle is required – you can just drive in and fill up as you do now – and also because it doesn’t require heavy, environmentally costly batteries. To his credit, President G W Bush pushed hard for the hydrogen economy.
  3. Nuclear fusion is the long term solution. It’s probably 40 years away at the moment, but that could be shortened with increased research funding. Despite the word ‘nuclear’, fusion produces no radioactive waste, and the fuel supply is essentially limitless. Fusion would in many ways create an energy utopia, with enough for all our terrestrial needs many times over, and enough hydrogen for a dramatically expanded space program too.
  4. Nuclear fission is an essential part of a short term solution. I know this is an issue on which I part company with many of my fellow ‘greens’, but I think it’s unavoidable. Opposition to the waste and risk of fission was the principled position 20 and 30 years ago, but that was before (a) massive improvements in plant safety, (b) dramatically better approaches for waste handling and storage and (c) before we knew about the real environmental costs of fossil fuels. I am really, truly actively suggesting the building of many more fission power plants all around the world. It’s not a perfect technology, but it’s a crucial part of the bridge to get us to fusion.
  5. Renewables. All of these draw on solar power to some extent (except tidal, which draws on the gravitational force of the moon). A calculation I made recently for a textbook chapter I’m writing:

    The solar energy reaching the top layers of earth’s atmosphere is about 1400 W per square metre. Of that energy, only about 40% makes it down to the earth’s surface – the rest is reflected back to space (about 30%) or absorbed by the atmosphere, heating it directly (the remaining 30%).

    So take the 40% that makes it to the surface: 560W/sqm. Imagine that’s only over half the earth at a time, so make it 560W/sqm over half the earth’s total land surface area (because collecting the solar energy over the oceans is tougher, although hydroelectricity actually does that) of 150 million square metres, and you get 42 billion watts – about 3 times all human energy use on earth. And that calculation is conservative at all levels.

    1. Hydroelectricity: dams, lots of them. And yeah, greens tend to stop dams being built to protect environments and species. We can do some of that, but we have to build dams. They have the added effect of protecting fresh water reserves, another essential infrastructure for humanity.
    2. Solar, both photovoltaic and concentration forms. Scalable, ubiquitous, and cheaper and more efficient all the time. New approaches are being developed all the time, and putting in the research will help to deal with the current problems. If every new house was, as a matter of course, roofed with solar panel material, that in itself would be an immense change. Creating huge solar farms in otherwise unusable land like areas of outback Australia and African deserts also has a lot of potential.
    3. Wind. It’s a myth that wind farms kill birds. They are noisy, but that’s partly a technology issue, and there are plenty of uninhabited windy places. In Holland they put them out to sea.
    4. Tidal. Only works in some places, but useful.
    5. Wave – an immense untapped resource.
    6. Geothermal – useful in some regions.
    7. Ocean thermal – using cold deep water and warm surface water with a heat pump.

    All of these can be used to generate electricity, feeding into a hydrogen economy. None of them is a magic bullet due to issues like day/night, windy/not windy and so on, but they don’t need to be if we work toward a complementary set of solutions rather than rubbishing them individually because they don’t provide a complete solution.

  6. Ones I’ve forgotten. Please feel free to add your own!
  7. Ones that haven’t even been invented yet, but could be if the basic research was done. Computers have revolutionised our lives, but were really invented within the lifetimes of some of those who post here. The next big thing may be hiding just around the corner. That’d be great, but we shouldn’t and don’t need to rely on it, because we already have all of the proven technologies outlined above that, if combined, could solve this thing.