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Apr 202017

Today I pointed out that persuading teenagers to stop thinking “filthy” thoughts is roughly comparable to the task of emptying the ocean with a teaspoon, and someone retorted that the later was possible. Well perhaps, but until we’ve worked out a rough calculation we don’t really know do we?

And yes I am weird enough to have gone ahead and worked it out.



Swirling Sea

According to the wonder that is Wikipedia, the average teaspoon can contain approximately 5ml of liquid – not often ocean but the type of liquid is irrelevant.

According to a handy table, there are approximately 1.3 billion square kilometres of water in the world’s oceans. And according to a handy units calculator this equates to 1.3e21 litres of water. Dividing this figure by the volume of our teaspoon, we get the value 2.6e+23 teaspoons of water in the ocean.

Assuming that it takes 10s (we could argue about how accurate that is, but trust me it doesn’t make too much of a difference to the final conclusion) to move a teaspoon of seawater into a truly ginormous container that magically appears to contain it all, it will take approximately 2.6e+24 seconds to empty the oceans.

Now you could work on this non-stop, but I’m no Victorian factory owner, so I will be assuming an 8-hour working day, and a 5 day working week. Admittedly no paid holiday (you want pay for this? I don’t think so).

So dividing the stupendously large number of seconds by 60 (to get minutes) by 60 (to get hours) by 8 (to get days) by 5 (to get weeks) by 52 (to get years) we get approximately 3.5e+17 years. Good! We’ve reduced the E numbers somewhat!

Now if we divide this number of years by the expected lifetime of the sun (10 billion years – and ignoring the fact that we’re approximately half-way through the sun’s lifetime), we get a much more manageable figure of 34,722,222 sun lifetimes.

However it is not unreasonable to assume that something will happen to the oceans before we get anywhere near completing this little task.

Apr 182017

BBC Breakfast had a story this morning covering Prince William’s struggle with mental health, together with an interview with a counsellor and a mental health patient (both women – and this becomes relevant shortly). All very interesting and worthwhile – those with problems should be encouraged to seek assistance.

Yet what was missing?

The fact that William went public about his need for counselling in support of CALM which is an organisation trying to do something useful about the level of suicide amongst young men.

Whilst generalising the short piece to encourage everyone who needs help to seek it, it seems odd that the mysteriously high rate of suicide amongst young men and CALMs efforts to tackle it should really have gotten a mention.


Apr 162017

I am a racist.

I am prejudiced in favour of the human race.

Of course it is more common to find people who use the word race in reference to sub-divisions of humans, but you usually find that that as you look closer at each sub-division, it has less and less meaning. For instance, “white” in Europe is sub-divided into French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, Birtish, English, Irish, Welsh, … And as you look closer at those sub-sub-divisions, they are also divided up. At the lowest level, there is “family” and “not family”.

The imperative to categorise people into “races” comes from a useful trait for problem solving, but if it doesn’t tell you anything useful, why categorise “race”? There are plenty of more useful categories to put people into.

This was kicked off by a sudden surge in the number of YouTube videos on DNA results that show up for me. Which of course showed the entirely predictable result that almost everyone is a mixture of different ancestors. And people are shocked, distressed, or annoyed about the fact that that their perceived racial identity is smaller than expected.

A DNA test for me will show no shocking results – I know with certainty that all my ancestors for well over 10,000 years were human. As a rough guess, 75% of my ancestors were from somewhere in northwest Europe, with 25% from all sorts of surprising places. The proportions may change, and the higher the proportion of surprising places, the more interesting a story some of my ancestors have to tell.

Feb 122017

Now this blog posting is not intended to defend the wrongs of colonialism; we all now accept that territorial expansion by conquest (except apparently Russia) is wrong. In fact it could be argued that Britain conquered India for commercial and not colonial reasons – for example no penal transportation to India occurred. Yes, British people went to live in India, but chiefly to do specific jobs – colonial administration, soldiering, or commercial activities.

Not mass migration.

We need to be wary of judging the past with the moral standards of today; it was not until the 20th century that conquest for territorial expansion was universally condemned. And the evils of the British Raj (and earlier) because it successfully conquered India; earlier (and there were many) attempts failed, although some were close. The very presence of islam within the Indian sub-continent is indicative of attempts to conquer.

And as for the notion that only the British Empire acted in evil ways in India, just take a look through the list of massacres in India; many of those listed had nothing to do with the British.

Does that excuse the excesses of British colonial rule? No of course it doesn’t.

But even if Europeans had not become involved with India, the evils of attempted conquest would still have occurred as they did occur before.

Feb 042017

I could choose to criticise Trump’s stand in immigration from certain countries based on the rights and wrongs of it, because it’s certainly wrong. But firstly there has been plenty written and said about that aspect of it, and secondly those who don’t see how wrong it is are not likely to change.

But even those who do not see how wrong it is may well be able to see just how stupid this move is.

Just to remind ourselves, Trump has temporarily blocked all travel into the USA by anyone holding a passport issued by seven countries which were previously subject to heightened visa requirements. And for good reasons – the relevant countries have more than their fair share of terrorist activity – and it is more than reasonable to check on immigrants to verify that they are not known terrorists.

The first “own goal” is that the new restrictions blocks many people from travelling to the USA who have made their homes there including famous people like Mo Farah (although the ban may not apply to him). How much safer is the US by blocking Mo from entering the USA and going home?  Or all the others in his position?

And let’s be frank – there’s something less than honourable about issuing a visa allowing someone to travel, and then preventing them from travelling. There are people who have planned the holiday of a lifetime and arranged to visit Disneyworld or Disneyland, and all of a sudden they are prevented from travelling.

Now you could argue that if this action decreases the risk to US citizens it is worth taking. But even if it does significantly reduce the risk, I would argue that it is better to accept the increased risk to do the right thing. And in general if you do not accept a slightly increased risk to do the right thing, you are a morally bankrupt person.

But does this decrease the risk to US citizens? To assess that we need to assess how great is the risk of terrorist attacks to the USA, and specifically terrorist attacks from those seven countries.

In fact the risk attributed to terrorism is vastly overrated. Going through the Wikipedia list of terrorist incidents, I get a total of 5 incidents causing the deaths of 50 people (the perpetrators excluded), which includes the Pulse nightclub shooting. If you go back to 2015, the figures are 4 incidents and 23 deaths, and one of the incidents was a christian terrorist.

Working through a similar list of mass shootings in 2016, I get a total of 14 incidents causing the deaths of 56 individuals.

Which is basically saying that you’re about as likely to walk into a terrorist incident as into a mass shooting, and both are really, really unlikely. That doesn’t help much if you are caught up in such an incident, so taking reasonable and proportionate action to decrease that risk is worthwhile.

And targeting refugees fits into the disproportional category; of those 5 incidents in 2016, only one was perpetrated by a refugee (and nobody died).

And now onto the final bit of stupidity: Firing your legal adviser for telling you an executive order is illegal when it is being found so over and over again makes you look more than a bit foolish.  Particularly when you could accomplish almost as much (although in reality more) by simply stopping new visas being issued; especially when the decreased risk from terrorism is marginal at best.

Jan 262017

The comic book villainous president Trump has just spoken about how he believes that torture works.

The first thing to point out is that it is widely acknowledged that there is no evidence to show that it works, and anecdotally the torturer is in severe danger of hearing what she wants to hear from the victim. In other words the gut feeling that it ought to work is not to be trusted.

Secondly, torture is prohibited under international law. Now we know that the US is in the habit of showing the finger to the international community – if the US were not so powerful, they would be labelled a “rogue state”.  Just look at a list of the nations that utilise torture – it’s one of the key indicators of a bad state.

Finally, torture is wrong. Under all circumstances it is wrong. You do not “win” over terrorists by descending to their level!

Jan 202017

There are people out there who believe that “I’m offended” is some sort of magical trump card that calls a halt to the debate and requires the offender to issue a grovelling apology. It finds it’s most extreme expression in religion – blasphemy.

Which is a useful place to find excellent examples of the foolishness of trying to avoid offence – there are those who consider that the Koran is blasphemous because it is not a christian holy book and similarly there are probably those who consider that christian churches are hotbeds of blasphemy because they’re not islamic. Which group is right? Or perhaps they are both wrong.

Now I do not believe in going out of my way to be offensive to people, but neither am I going to restrict my opinions because they might be offensive to some people out there.

And when you come down to it, the offended person isn’t really hurt are they? Nobody dies; nobody is hospitalised. The only “harm” that occurs is the harm that the offended person causes to themselves.

And if you choose to be offended by something I write, bear in mind that I can choose to be offended by some of the things you hold sacred :-

  1. That you  believe in a stone age psychotic deity who proclaims “Love and worship me, or I’ll send you to a place of eternal torture”.
  2. That you insist on eating charred decaying animal corpses; and worse do so where I can smell the odious aerial effluent.
  3. Perhaps you voted for what may very well turn out to be the most cartoonish president of the USA since records began. You did know that the entire world is looking at the US freak show and shaking their heads in disbelief?
  4. Perhaps you believe that certain groups are inferior – women, men, people of a different “race”, etc.
  5. Perhaps you think that the rich are perfectly entitled to avoid their obligations to society and that tax avoidance is not a dishonourable thing to do.

But I choose not to. I’ll argue about it, and quite possibly think of you as stupid. But I won’t be offended

And if you do get offended, well then good.


Jan 142017

One of the things you regularly encounter online is the fetish Americans have for free speech; not entirely a bad thing, but some of what they believe is a bit of a myth. Part of the problem is that the first amendment to the US constitution is just a little vague and handwavey :-

or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press

First of all, what is that word “abridging” supposed to mean? It literally means shortening which makes the phrase nonsense even if it was supposed to be read as if “restricting” was the word used. Of course the meaning of language does change and it could well be that at the time, “abridge” would have unambiguously meant restrict. And “freedom of speech”? We normally take that to mean any form of expression whether spoken, written, drawn, or generated in some other way. But was that what was meant?

But now onto the myths … the first is a simple one and there is no real debate about it.

The right of free speech does not give you a right to be published by a third-party. If you are on Facebook for example, there is no right to free speech there – Facebook can decide to arbitrarily restrict what you can say perfectly legally. The government cannot restrict what you self-publish, but your publisher (including forum admins, mailing list admins, etc.) is free to refuse to publish for any reason at all.

Ultimately the only recourse to such censorship is to self-publish which is relatively easy on the Internet.

The second “myth” is a bit more debatable, but arguably the right to free speech is more about being free to criticise the government; in an era of lese-majesty and seditious libel, the major concern of the American revolutionaries was with political free speech. And whilst there has been free speech, there have always been restrictions on that freedom or consequences :-

  • Obscenity (as determined by the Miller test).
  • Inciting imminent lawlessness such as encouraging a lynch mob. Although this one can be a dangerously slippery slope given it’s historical use against people protesting the draft.
  • Commercial speech including advertising, and copyright.
  • Libel and slander.

So when looking at a particular restriction on free speech – such as hate speech (i.e. racial or religious hatred) – it is perfectly feasible for a law to be enacted to make such speech punishable in some form.

Dec 302016

Everybody keeps whinging about how bad 2016 has been.

A few old people died (and some not so old people). That’s sad, but it happens every year. And yes some of your childhood heroes died – that’s what happens when you get older.

And yes a few bad political things have happened in 2016.

But is it somehow specially bad? Try comparing it with some other notoriously bad years :-

1914 Start of WWI which eventually killed millions of combatants.
1918 The beginning of the so-called Spanish flu pandemic which eventually killed up to 100 million people around the world.
1939 Start of WWII which eventually killed millions of combatants, and we learned just how evil humans can be when they put their minds to it.
1945 The first use of nuclear weapons.

So however bad you thought 2016 was, there have been a few other years far worse.

Dec 292016

As a vegetarian (who doesn’t intentionally go around prophesying) I often encounter the hackneyed old “but we’re evolved to eat meat”. The obvious response is that just because we’re evolved for a certain kind of behaviour does not mean we should necessarily follow it. And of course, it’s not true – we’re evolved to be omnivores not carnivores.

But here’s the thing: Eating certain forms of meat exclusively for a moderately extended period of time can cause death by what is effectively starvation. As a very rough rule of thumb, the wilder an animal is, the leaner its meat is likely to be. So any of our ancestors who ate nothing but meat were likely to be at best severely malnourished and likely to die young.

Of course our ancestors didn’t eat like that or we wouldn’t be here. They ate anything they could get their hands on – animals that didn’t run fast enough, proto-vegetables, grains, fruits, nuts. Anything that wasn’t poisonous.

We’re also evolved to eat more than we need. The idea is that we store fat in reserve for hard days ahead, but these days any “hard days” rarely involve lack of food. Another example of how we should be prepared to intelligently disregard evolved eating habits.

Does this mean we should all become vegetarian? No, of course not. There are plenty of reasons to stop eating meat, but this is not one. It may be a good reason to eat meat less frequently – have high quality meat three times a week rather than junk meat seven times a week.

The New Defence

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