Monday, December 20, 2010

Why I Celebrate Christmas

I don't, actually. At least not in any meaningful sense.

I don't think that Jesus was anybody special. In fact I'm not even completely convinced he ever existed at all. I see no reason to celebrate the non-anniversary of his birth.

But I do have a Christmas Tree up in my living room, and I'll be having a turkey-dinner with family on the 25th... probably saying "Merry Christmas" a lot and exchanging gifts.

To the casual observer, that may seem something of a contradiction. And I can certainly understand why that might be the case.

Thing is, I was raised a Christian. Growing up, Christmas was always an important family event... everyone would come for a big family lunch with all the presents and crackers and fruit pudding and all of that. Other than the obligatory church service we would attend in the morning, there was next to nothing about the Christmas festivities that had anything to do with Jesus. He simply didn't feature.

Most of my family have drifted away from Christianity in various directions since that time. But we still get together every year for the sake of getting together. Christmas, like Easter and family birthdays, is an excuse for us to set aside our usual daily routines and enjoy a few hours together as a family.

Not that we really need an excuse, but it's convenient to have one.

Christmas was never really about Jesus, at least not for my family. And now that we don't bother with the church service bit, he's been removed from the whole thing as an unnecessary accessory. The only real contradiction in celebrating Christmas as a non-Christian is in using the name "Christmas".

But since that name was only added onto a pre-existing solstice festival by Christians many years after the alleged birth of Jesus, I don't feel too bad about it. I have no guilt about co-opting a holiday that had already been co-opted from someone else.

Probably the best articulated description of how I feel about Christmas is the song "White wine in the sun" by Tim Minchin. In the festive spirit, I present it here for your enjoyment:

Monday, November 29, 2010

Don't Fear the Tech

Yeah, I know I haven't been blogging here much lately. I'll remedy that, I promise.

Lately I've been focusing my creative energy on my new project, a technology blog called Don't Fear the Tech.

Please feel free to take a look over there and let me know what you think. I'll be back here again with more merciless scepticism in the not-too-distant future.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Cognitive Dissonance and Smoking

An important skill for a sceptic is the ability to identify cognitive dissonance in yourself, and in doing so, hopefully apply reason to the situation and thereby resolve it. I've managed to identify an instance of cognitive dissonance residing in my own brain, but despite my best efforts at reasoning through it, I can't seem to resolve it.

Let's start by defining the term: cognitive dissonance is a state in which you simultaneously hold two mutually exclusive ideas to be true. The classic example (and surprisingly relevant to my topic) is the person who knows that smoking significantly increases their risk of contracting lung cancer, but decides to smoke anyway. Such a person has found a way of resolving that dissonance, which usually involves convincing themselves of a lie... in this case, that for some imagined reason, their own odds of contracting lung cancer from smoking are diminished to such an extent that the short-term gain of the nicotine buzz is worth the long-term risk of a horrible death.

My own case of cognitive dissonance also relates to smoking, although I myself am not a smoker. Here's my dilemma:

I am, and have always been, pretty strongly anti-smoking. Not only am I convinced by the evidence of harm it causes, but I also find the whole thing pretty distasteful. I hate the smell, I dislike the appearance of it, and I find it unfair that smokers are accorded all sorts of privileges (like the right to take as many breaks during a work day as they like, so as to feed their addiction). Not to mention the fire hazard.

It's because of my strong dislike for it that I am somewhat grateful to the late moron, Manto "The Genocidal" Tshabalala-Msimang. Thanks to her new legislation placing strong restrictions on smoking in public, I'm not forced to deal with the unpleasantness of it as often as I used to be.

Here's where the dissonance comes in.

The problem is that Manto used a scientific argument to justify the implementation of her anti-smoking laws. And it just so happens that that argument had about as much scientific merit as all her arguments: none at all.

Specifically she cited the "fact" that second-hand smoking (aka 'passive smoking', the act of sitting near someone who is smoking) has shown significant increase in risks of lung cancer and other smoking related illnesses. While on the surface it stands to reason that this should be true, there has been quite a lot of research done on this question (of varying quality). The literature isn't at all clear on the link between second-hand smoke and lung cancer (or any other disease) risk. Given that ambiguity, it's not really justified to claim it to be an established fact... doing so is basically a lie.

So there's my dissonance. On the one hand, I have a vested aesthetic interest in supporting the anti-smoking laws. But on the other hand, the reasons given for those laws are bullshit. And I'm not comfortable with supporting bullshit.

Given that South Africa is supposedly a liberal democracy, I can't support the notion of using the mechnisms of state to restrict people's behaviour without just cause. As long as a smoker isn't actually harming the people around him, he should be able to puff away to his heart's content. If he wants to take the risk of dying an early and excrutiating death, that should be his prerogative. As disgusting as I think it is, I kinda have to support people's right to smoke.

(There's a line that should be drawn here, and this is when the people smoking are in my family. If my spouse, parents or children were to smoke, that could have a knock-on effect on my life and wellbeing, and I would feel justified in being upset about it. I'm talking here about strangers and other people whose wellbeing doesn't directly influence mine.)

But there's another issue here: public health.

There is a substantial precedent of governments taking steps, using the mechanisms of state to manage threats to the health of society as a whole. For example: obligatory vaccinations.

Vaccines are a hot-button topic in sceptical circles. We've started seeing resurgances of vaccine-preventable illnesses in first-world countries as a result of people failing to vaccinate their children. In South Africa there is a precedent of making certain vaccinations mandatory, like in the case of the current rabies outbreak in Gauteng. It's my understanding that the CDC in the United States, and similar government organisations in other countries, are sometimes granted special emergency powers in order to deal with high-risk epidemics and outbreaks.

Since there is a precedent for government intervention on preventable illnesses, why shouldn't the government intervene in order to try and reduce instances of diseases like lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease?

I'm not talking about an all-out ban on cigarettes here. I'm talking about legislation which could make it sufficiently difficult to smoke that a statistically significant portion of smokers will be encouraged to quit, thereby reducing their risk of lung cancer. In other words, legislation not unlike South Africa's current anti-smoking laws.

I haven't seen the statistics on smoking rates since the introduction of the new anti-smoking laws (if such data exists), but I imagine there could potentially be an impact there. If I were a smoker, and the number of places I was able to smoke was reduced to rainy balconies and smelly smoking-rooms, I might be more strongly motivated to quit.

Right, so, to recap: I like the anti-smoking laws for selfish, aesthetic reasons. I can't support those laws on the basis that they impede freedoms without adequate justification. But I could see a potential alternate set of justifications for those laws which would, at least, be precidented, if not commendable and desirable.

Of course more research is needed. If the data does bare out my suspicions about the whole public health thing, that it would resolve itself. But until then, I'm stuck with these two ideas duking it out in my melon when I'm supposed to be concentrating on more important things.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Carnivals and Awards

Just a quick couple of notes:

1. Check out the latest edition of the Carnival of the Africans hosted at Bomoko and Other Nonsense Words.

2. Please nominate Ionian Enchantment and The Skeptic Detective for the SA Blog Awards. Instructions on how to do that here. (And feel free to throw a nomination my way too, if you're so inclined.)

K, that's all for now.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

In Defence of SETI

In the last few weeks I've heard a series of interviews with Massimo Pigliucci as he plugs his newly published book Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. I haven't read the book yet, but I intend to someday. It sounds like a fascinating read. I do have one issue with it, however.

In one of the interviews (I forget which one it was now), Massimo was asked to explain his position on SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). Massimo classified SETI is "almost science", which he justified by saying that although SETI is employing scientific methods in their endeavour, their hypothesis (that extra-terrestrial intelligence exists) is virtually unfalsifiable. They could literally search for a million years without producing a single result, and still not have falsified their hypothesis.

I think that's a fair assessment, and I'm sure most (if not all) SETI researchers would likely agree with it.

But Massimo didn't stop there. He went on to describe the Drake Equation as being an inadequate theory, or even hypothesis. To which my response is "Yeah... so?"

(Before I carry on, I want to point out that Massimo isn't the only one who has advanced the arguments I'm dealing with here. Not by a long shot. I hear these things thrown back and forth between sceptics and other scientists and philosophers all the time. And they make my blood boil every time. I'm only picking on Massimo because his was the straw who broke the camel's back, and inspired me to finally sit down and write this post.)

The Drake Equation is a list of variables which, if each could be assigned an approximate number, should spit out the likely number of intelligent species in our galaxy right now. Some of the variables (by Frank Drake's own admission) are inherently unknowable, such as the average life-span of a technologically sophisticated civilisation. We only have one such civilisation as an example: ours. And by the time its life-span has ended, SETI won't exist anymore.

Others are knowable, but currently beyond the reach of our ability to determine, such as the average number of Earth-like planets around stars in our galaxy. We're getting closer and closer to that one, but we're still a way off.

Frank Drake often recounts the anecdote of his creation of the equation that bears his name: it was an agenda for a conference in the early days of SETI. It wasn't ever intended to to be either a hypothesis or a theory. It's little more than a way of framing the questions to be asked (and hopefully answered) as part of SETI's progress. It's a useful and important way of thinking about SETI, but it's not a hypothesis. SETI's hypothesis is far simpler: "Extra-terrestrial intelligence exists". That's it.

Another common argument Massimo put forward in the interview was this: SETI assumes that all life in the universe must be like us, and they are therefore not looking for anything other than life like us. They're only looking for radio transmissions, and are only interested in Carbon-based life.

This argument is complete bullshit.

SETI researchers will be the first to acknowledge the fact that extra-terrestrial life could take any form. While we know that Carbon-based life works (because the only form of life we know of is Carbon-based), there's no way of knowing how many other forms of life may exist elsewhere in the universe, or even here on Earth. Because we only know of one kind of life so far, that's what we're looking for. When it comes to life forms of some unknown type: how would we go about looking for it? How can you search for something if you don't know what it looks like? Nobody is assuming that all life must be Carbon-based. But nobody knows how to look for life that isn't Carbon-based.

Horta: not Carbon-based

Secondly, SETI isn't only using radio astronomy to search for signals. That was the first tool that was used (by Frank Drake himself who pointed his radio antenna at the sky back in the 60's), and is probably still the most widely used tool for SETI research. This choice is based on two things:

  1. Our atmosphere is opaque to most of the elecromagnetic spectrum. Only sections of the radio and visible light parts of the spectrum can get through largely unhindered.
  2. Radio astronomy is cheaper than optical. It's a lot easier to build giant radio detectors (like Aricebo or the VLA) than it is to build giant mirrors for optical telescopes. And since SETI has always had funding issues, thrift is a virtue.

That said, Optical SETI is a real thing. Nobody's ignoring that part of the spectrum. SETI researchers who can get their hands on funding for it are going at it as hard as they can.

SETI isn't assuming that any intelligent species out there must use radio (or even light) to communicate with us. Once again, they're going with what they know: radio and light. Humans use radio and light for communication, so we know that it works, and there's a possibility that ET would know that too - and might decide to exploit it the same way we do.

Once again, it's a practical concern. Nobody is claiming that ET would only use radio to talk to us. Nobody is even claiming that ET would talk to us at all... we just hope they will, and we hope they'll use something we can detect.

The third claim Massimo made (although less strongly) is that SETI hasn't changed their methods at all since Frank Drake's first attempt in the 60s.

This claim is also complete bullshit.

Although it's certainly true that the biggest weapon in SETI's arsenal is the same one Drake used: radio astronomy, as I've said, SETI has added at least one weapon to that arsenal in that time: Optical SETI. Also, SETI is constantly looking for ways of refining their search: Figuring out new tricks and techniques for optimising their telescope time, and figuring out what they should be looking for.

SETI has been utilising data and ideas generated by the more mainstream ongoing hunt for exoplanets as a guide, and coming up with insightful and hopefully fruitful new methods. For example: spending more time surveying stars that line up with the plane of Earth's orbit around the sun, since inhabitants of those stars would be more likely to have detected our presence through the transit and wobble methods that today's exoplanet hunters employ. And therefore would be more likely to try and make contact with us, if they're so inclined.

The SETI Institute has a whole staff of Phd's whose job it is to figure this stuff out. They literally sit around all day trying to come up with new and useful ways of improving their search, new things to look for, what we should do about it if we ever pick up that signal and being totally awesome.

If you're genuinely interested in learning more about what SETI actually does, as opposed to what the general public opinion about them seems to be, I highly recommend listening to Are We Alone - a weekly podcast and radio show produced by the SETI Institute and hosted by Dr Seth "The Alient Hunter" Shostak.

Ensign Shostak waiting for a signal

And guys, please. Do a little reading before attacking people like SETI. Those guys are far too nice to stick up for themselves. They've got a hard enough job as it is. Can you imagine working in a career knowing that there's a significant probability that you may never find what you're looking for in your lifetime? Especially since finding what you're looking for could be the most important discovery mankind has made ever. Cut them a little slack, okay?

Sunday, May 30, 2010


Are you a hypocrite? Let's find out.

Do you believe any of the following things?

  • Evolution didn't happen, or if it did, it doesn't explain the origin of the humankind.
  • Climate change is all hype.
  • Homeopathy works.
  • The age of the universe is measured in thousands of years, not millions and certainly not billions.
  • The Earth is flat, not spherical or spheroid.
  • Quantum physics explains the existance of the soul.
  • The pyramids could only have been build by aliens. Humans of that period weren't clever enough to pull it off.
  • People can bend cutlery using only the power of their mind.
  • It's possible to predict the future reliably by interpreting celestial signs, tarot cards, gazing into crystal balls or just thinking about it really hard.
  • Vaccines cause autism.

If you do believe in any of those things (or anything similar), and you're reading this, congratulations! You are a hypocrite!

Why? I'll tell you!

The methods used to learn, parse, understand and apply the principles used to create computers and the Internet (the thing you're using to read this right now) are the very same methods used to understand the following reliable bits of understanding about the world:

And so on.

So, I propose this: either rethink your belief in those crazy notions, or do the rest of us a favour and stop using the Internet - since it clearly doesn't fit into your "worldview". Also: stop using gravity.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

MTN Customer Disservice

After the ordeal I went through in migrating my cellphone contract from Nashua Mobile to MTNSP two years ago, I was kind-of expecting a easier time of it when my contract came up for renewal.

As usual I was well prepared, and I had selected which device I wanted to upgrade to months in advance: the HTC Desire. I monitored press releases of the local distributor, Leaf, to see when it would become available in South Africa.

I believed that I would only be due for upgrade in June, 24 months after I opened the contract. I wanted to narrow down the date, so last week Wednesday I called in to check my upgrade status. The computer told me that I was already due for upgrade. Which was awesome.

So I set about the process of acquiring my new Desire.

My first stop was the relatively new MTN Direct website. From there, I should have been able to process my renewal and order my new device with only a few clicks. It was not to be so. I found the site to be months out of date, showing none of the newest offers, and the Desire wasn't yet listed on it.

So I decided to call in. I dialled the MTNSP Customer Support line and followed the voice prompts until I found myself on hold, waiting for a human to answer. I held for ten minutes before the call dropped. I tried again a little later: 32 minutes in, the call dropped again. I tried one more time: One hour and eight minutes of holding later, the call dropped.

So I tried another strategy: I relented and decided to go into an actual MTN store to do the upgrade. The client where I'm currently stationed is too far from the main MTN service centre in Sandton for me to get there during office hours, so I found the closest branch and went there: The Boulders Shopping Centre.

Within ten minutes or so, I had filled in all the required paperwork. The staff were friendly and helpful, and they were regretful about the fact that they didn't have the Desire in stock on the premises. The assured me they could order it, and it would most likely arrive on the Friday.

It didn't.

It also didn't arrive on the Monday. And I've just been told that it won't arrive today: it's still sitting at the Fourways Crossing branch, waiting to be shipped. A week after I ordered it, it has yet to make the 20-minute trip from Fourways to Midrand.

View Larger Map

So now I'm left with two choices: I can either wait another day (or another week, or longer), or I can drive to the Fourways branch myself and redo all the paperwork there. Neither of those is acceptable, really. I suppose if I want my new device today (and I really really do), I have little option but to take time out of my work day and make the trip. The very trip I was trying to avoid all along, by using the customer service systems MTN supposedly provides.

I even tried complaining to @MTNSouthAfrica on Twitter, but that seems to have fallen on deaf ears too.

If I hadn't been burned before my the arduous and painful of experience of moving from one service provider to another two years ago, I would seriously be considering making another move right now.

Thanks for nothing, MTN. And don't think I haven't noticed the declining 3G reception where I live. If there isn't a serious turnaround in customer service in the next two years, I'll have to re-evaluate my decision not to move.

UPDATE: As you can see in the comments, I've just had a response from Mr Bagley, who apparently mans the @MTNSouthAfrica Twitter account. Let's hope it works out!

UPDATE 2: I ended up going to the Fourways branch. A fortuitous confluence of unrelated events led to me happening to be driving through the area in the mid afternoon. I signed the papers again and left with my shiny new HTC Desire. While driving home I received a phone call from an MTN representative regarding my tweet. It would have been an interesting experiment to see how long it would have taken to resolve my complaint had I not gone to the other branch. But it's an experiment I think I'm better off for not having run.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

It's Googlemas!

Google I/O, Google's annual developer conference is underway. What does that mean? Lots of new Google-riffic toys for us to play with!

Rather than inundate you guys with an unending torrent of updates in Twitter, Reader and Buzz, I thought it might be better to collate the most exciting announcements in one place. And since one of the first exciting announcements was the opening of Wave to the general public (no more invites needed), what better way to do it than inside an embedded wave?

Monday, May 03, 2010

Foursquare Etiquette Questions

I recently posted about my decision to start using Foursquare, the location-based social networking tool.

I'm still having fun with it, but a few questions have come to mind regarding the proper etiquette for using it. I've also found a few resources that have answered my questions, but I've got a few that remain unanswered.

I'm going to tap into your collective wisdom to try and find the answers:
  1. If I went on holiday and stayed at a hotel or something, should I check in only when I arrive, or every day as long as I'm there?
  2. Should I check in at a place if I'm just there looking at/for something, but don't make an actual purchase? Like if I'm window-shopping, or if I'm looking for a specific item and they're out of stock.
  3. If one place is nested inside another place (like a coffee shop inside a shopping mall), should I check into both, or only one? Which one?

Friday, April 30, 2010

Some Things I've Changed My Mind About

I argue that the defining characteristic of someone dedicated to the sceptical paradigm is the singular ability to change one's mind and opinions based on the presentation of new evidence. As soon as you're bound to a particular conclusion, you're no longer acting sceptically, and have become an ideologue.

It's the process of scepticism that's important, not the conclusions it leads you to. The "truths" about the world that scepticism reveals must, necessarily, be secondary - because they're always provisional, and should, ideally, constantly be re-evaluated based on new information.

With that in mind, I think it's a valuable exercise, as a sceptic, to pat oneself on the back from time to time, by identifying some of the things you've changed your mind about, based on new evidence or arguments coming to light. I hope to make this a regular series, but since this is the first instalment, I'm going to look at some of the biggest issues I've changed my mind about in my life.


I've always been fascinated by space. Before I knew how to spell the word, I wanted to be an Astronomer (either that or a Paleontologist, which I also couldn't spell at the time). I was mesmerised by Saturday night presentations of Star Trek and Space 1999 (even though I barely understood them at the time). I was also transfixed by Carl Sagan's haunting speeches in the Cosmos series about the possibilities of extra-terrestrial civilisations, and the hope that we might someday communicate with them.

Somehow or other (probably through my school library) I came across the notion of UFOs and alleged encounters with extra-terrestrial beings. Being the credulous lad I was, I bought it. I was thrilled and terrified at the prospect that visitors from other planets were visiting us, and I eagerly awaited the day official First Contact would happen.

It never did.

One day, while looking for awesome pictures of Star Trek ships online, I stumbled across a website that astounded me: Phil Plait's simple, elegant and humourous explanations exposing the flawed assumptions, innaccurate information and simple logical refutations of the things I had believed were overpoweringly persuasive. After only a few days' worth of reading, I had no choice but to reverse my belief in UFOs. The evidence and logic where too clear not to.

Alternative Therapies

In my early twenties, one of my first full-time jobs was for a company planning a health and fitness expo. It was my job to cold-call possible exhibitors and then meet with them to try and get them to buy some floor-space at the expo.

I was terrible at it.

Nevertheless, I was encouraged to seek out anyone and everyone selling something relating to the pursuit of health. Since I didn't know any better at the time, I basically opened up the Yellow Pages to "H" and started calling. On the whole, I found the purveyors of alternative therapies to be far more willing to meet with me, and to buy floor space. During those few months I met with a bevvy of homeopaths, naturopaths, massage therapists, acupuncturists, iridologists and assorted other well-dressed people with fancy-sounding titles (including one lady who informed me with a giggle that she enjoyed sitting in her hyperbaric chamber between appointments with her "patients")

Like this. Seriously.

I recall being taken aback when I met with one man, an actual MD, who asked what sort of other exhibitors would be present. He was outraged when I mentioned the word "homeopath", and the sales call ended then and there. I hadn't the foggiest idea why at the time.

It would be years before I learned about the distinction between medicine and alternative medicine (aka: not medicine), and finally came to understand that doctor's reaction. I learned that the faith I had placed in advertising was misplaced... a faith that even three years of studying advertising at college hadn't shaken. I learned to mistrust people claiming to be authorities, and instead evaluate the claims on their own merit.


I was raised a Christian. Not the evangelical, biblical literalist kind. I was raised in a traditional presbytarian church. I didn't resist my religious indoctrination at all - I trusted my parents and other elders to give me the right information. I went to church every Sunday. I sang in the choir. In my late teens, I even qualified and practiced as a Sunday School teacher for a while. I bought it.

A likely contributing factor to why I bought it was the somewhat moderate nature of the doctrine I was fed. I was simultaneously taught about the scientific explanation of the origins of the world and about the biblical account of creation in Genesis. I was told that there was no contradiction between the two, since the former was scientifically accurate, and the latter was more of a metaphor, used by God to explain to bronze-age people the fact that he created the universe, not so much how he did so.

After my introduction to organised scepticism via Bad Astronomy, I did a lot of reading. It was a lengthy process in which I systematically evaluated and then abandoned a lot of my former beliefs. The last big one to go was God. For the better part of a year I remained ambivalent on the question of God. I wasn't a Christian anymore (although I still called myself a "Philosophical Christian", whatever that means"), but I wasn't ready to abandon the whole idea. I couldn't bring myself to adopt the label "atheist" or even "agnostic".

Only after reading The God Delusion was I able to shake off the invisible sky daddy once and for all. There was no magic bullet - no single problem that I wasn't able to reconcile. But if I had to choose the argument that I found most persuasive, it was Russel's Cosmic Teapot.

Jesus (twice)

After adopting the label of 'atheist', I wasn't sure what to do with my ideas around the historicity of the bible as a whole, and Jesus in particular. Just how fictionalised were the accounts contained therein? How much was metaphor, exaggeration, copy-error and pure fabrication?

The first person who helped me to answer this question was Robert M. Price, in his appearances in the Bible Geek episodes of the Infidel Guy Show podcast. Through Price I learned that whole sections of the bible had been copied from other, pre-existing documents; that there's little to no archaeological evidence supporting any of the "historical" narrative in its pages, and that at least a few serious biblical scholars doubt that there ever was a historical Jesus.

I found his arguments persuasive, and came to conclude that there likely was no historical Jesus. Or, at the very least, the one described in the bible had been so distorted that he likely bore no resemblance to any actual, one person.

Not an actual person

More recently, I've read some of Bart Ehrmans' work. In Jesus, Interrupted he argues that a substantial portion of the biblical account of Jesus' life was likely fictionalised, but that with careful scrutiny quite a lot of it can be determined to likely be historically accurate - suggesting that Jesus probably was an actual guy, a teacher of sorts who started some shit in ancient Palestine.

My interest in the bible and the origins of the Christian religion is ongoing. One of the things I'm particularly interested in is evaluating the claims about certain traits that Christians claims are unique to them. Are they unique to Christians? Where do they come from? Are the useful or not? Fascinating stuff.

Free Will (twice)

A tough pill to swallow has been the existence of free will. I think we all assume, probably automatically, that we have a will of our own, that is somehow independent of our circumstances and environment.

But in a deterministic universe (as I now believe to be the one I live in) it simply can't be so. Decisions are made in the brain, which is a physical structure that conforms to deterministic physical laws - it can't do otherwise. Even in a quantum universe, where randomness is always a factor, randomness isn't the same as free will. Free will, so defined, is a persistent illusion.

Don't think about a yellow beetle.

I've recently called this conclusion into question. Not so much because I think my assumptions about it are wrong, but rather because I think I've been defining the terms incorrectly. If, instead, I consider free will to be my own ability to make decisions free of imposition from other causal agents (in other words: other people) I'm happy that it's free enough to be considered 'free'.

Assuming I'm not under the influence of another person's manipulations, my decisions are effectively free. That's not to say that my brain isn't still a deterministic machine, subject to environmental influences - it's more of a metaphysical redefinition of 'freedom' in this context.

I can live with the fact that my brain will do what it does, because it can't do otherwise. But when I feel that my choices are being manipulated or forced by another person who is deliberately limiting my options, I start to get annoyed. That's when my 'free will' is being compromised.

It's because of this, that I'm starting to re-evaluate my long-held position in favour of some form of communism. I'll keep you posted on where I get to on that one.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Geo-based Social Networking

I've known about the location-based social networking tool, Foursquare, for a while now. I've always thought it was rather silly - checking into places and earning points and badges along the way. Not to mention earning the dubious title of "mayor" of your favourite hang-out.

I was perfectly happy with the other geo-based social tool I was already using: Google Latitude. It was more convenient (automatically broadcasting my location to my friends, no check-in required) and didn't have that silly gaming element to it - so it was more serious.

When Google Buzz was released, it added an extra dimension to my geo-social world. Suddenly the tool I was already using for Latitude (Google Maps for Mobile) allowed me to post things, attaching them not only to coordinates on a map, but to places that have been indexed by Google Maps.

My biggest gripe with it was, and is, if the place I wanted to buzz about hadn't been indexed, as is far too often the case, the whole thing got kind of messy. I had to try and link it to an address, or to my own current location (which, if I am indoors and can't get a GPS signal, can sometimes be off by a couple of Kilometers).

A couple of weeks ago I started noticing something interesting: there was a sudden upswing in the number of Buzz posts in and around Joburg in Google Maps for Mobile. Looking at the posts, I noticed that almost all of them were coming through from Twitter. I knew that Twitter supported geo-tagging of tweets (provided you have a Twitter client that lets you do it), and it seemed that those geo-tags were being pulled through into Buzz via the Twitter integration. Awesome.

Lots of Buzz in Joburg today

Upon further scrutiny, I noticed that a substantial portion of those buzzes were being posted via Twitter from Foursquare. I was intrigued, so I took a look another look at it.

I still think the gaming side of it is rather silly. But the one thing I particularly like about Foursquare that Google Buzz lacks, is the ability for end users (like me) to add new places to the database if the place I'm sitting in isn't there already. Although there's still a little fiddling with addresses and things to create the place to begin with, once it's in there I (or anyone else) can check into it with no further fuss.

So, I'm giving Foursquare a go. I'm still not entirely happy with the manual check-in process. Also, the fact that there's no native app for my mobile device means that I'm forced to rely on the mobile website, which can also be a bit of a hassle (my network's DNS isn't exactly the fastest).

So far I'm liking it. I'm finding it a rather fun addition to my existing suite of geo-social apps (not a replacement, a supplement). I haven't had any situations where it filled a serious need. We'll see if it does that.

In the mean-time, I'd suggest you try it out too, and add me as your Foursquare friend so we can compete on points and stuff. See you there!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Making Choices

I had an interesting conversation over the weekend with some friends, about the processes involved in making choices. I learned that not everyone has heard as much about these sorts of things as I have. And since I've found the knowledge to be liberating and tremendously useful, I thought it might be a good idea to present it here.

First, a disclaimer: I'm neither a psychologist nor a neurologist. My understanding of these things comes from the sorts of books and blogs I like to read, and podcasts I like to listen to. Usually, the sources they come from are experts (often actual psychologists and neuro-scientists), so I'm pretty confident in their reliability. That said, I'm going to be reproducing a lay-person's understanding of these things, which is probably not a reliable source (read: it's probably way over-simplified and most likely wrong in a lot ways). If you're interested in a more detailed (and probably more accurate) understanding of this, I'd suggest further reading. But I hope you'll find this a useful and enlightening starting point.

The first thing we need to agree on is that the brain is where all the action happens. It's not only where memories are stored, but it's where all sensory information is processed and consciousness is somehow generated. We know that this is true, because decades of medical records show that damage to the brain impairs the ability to recall memories, to perform tasks and to process sensory information.

But it goes one step further: damage to specific parts of the brain can impair specific functions. That implies that the brain has a kind of modular structure: different bits have different functions. When they work together they do the things we know the brain does. Neuro-scientists have very sophisticated instruments that can observe those different areas operating distinctly, but together, and working to produce the subjective experience of life.

But they've also learned some other interesting things. When a certain part of the brain is damaged, the person isn't necessarily aware of the damage. They might not even notice that a certain set of tasks they used to be able to perform are no longer available to them. This could be some missing memories, an inability to recognise faces, even an inability to see (something you'd think people might notice!).

What that tells us is that the brain isn't very good at internal diagnostics. It's not really capable of doing a self-check to make sure that everything's in working order... it just keeps going as if the damaged part is working normally. That means that our conscious experience doesn't really include any awareness of how our brain is functioning: There are processes going on inside us that we're completely unaware of, even in a perfectly healthy brain.

Another important point is the way the different parts of the brain are put together. They're not just all squeezed together in a lump - there's a specific structure at work. To understand this structure better, we need to understand a little about evolution.

Although all living things on Earth are related to each other, not all living things have brains. Only a small portion of us have those. Most multi-cellular animals have a kind of nervous system - a specific set of cells that act as a communications network between the the various parts of the body. The nervous system helps to coordinate things, like moving around, breathing, eating, pumping blood and so on. Many of the more complex kinds of animals have a central core, where the processing of commands for the nervous system happens - that's what the brain is.

Larger and more complex animals have brains that can do more than just coordinate things and process sensory information: they can store memories, evaluate threats in the environment and make decisions about how to react to a given set of circumstances.

A small sub-set of those can do even more complicated things: they can recognise specific individual members of their own species (which allows them to interact socially and collaborate on rearing offspring), they can coordinate activities like hunting or evading a predator. A tiny minority can even think in abstract terms: Recognising themselves in a mirror, inventing and using tools and constructing complex communication systems. Humans are a member of that minority.

Over many millions of years of evolution, our ancestors started out with a primitive nervous system, then developed a brain. That brain grew in complexity, and new regions and areas grew out of old ones, until now we have the familiar-looking brain we recognise. An important thing to note is that those old, primitive brain regions haven't gone away - they're still a part of our brains today. Evolution has just added new 'modules' to the brain, piling them up, one on top of the other.

Human Brain

So when we look at the structure of the human brain, we see the oldest, simplest structures at the bottom (the spinal cord) and the newest, most complex parts at the top (the frontal lobe). Those old structures still do what they always have (coordinating bodily functions and processing sensory information) and the newer parts do the things we tend to think of as being uniquely human (compassion for others, planning for the future, art, logic, philosophy, language and so on). The cerebral cortex is also the part where most of our consciousness happens.

The brain is also wired up according to that pattern of development. Since the eyes developed long before the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that processes visual information sits in one of the older parts. There's also a part of the cerebral cortex devoted to processing visual information, but it only does so once the older part of the brain has had its first pass. We know this because there is a condition where people have damage to the visual cortex, and thus are unable to see - but they can somehow still evade obstacles in their path. This means they're still processing visual information, but that information isn't being passed through to the conscious mind.

This is important, because it seems that there's another part of the brain, separate from the conscious mind, that makes decisions.

That's what researchers see in experiments. Neuro-scientists have a very useful tool called functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) which allows them to look at a brain as it's working. They're able to plot out the parts of the brain which are busy by literally seeing which bits light up on the screen while the test subject performs a task.

"I like the pretty lights"

When a test subject is given a choice to make, the first part of the brain to light up is the limbic system. This is a group of components of the brain that form part of the "brain-stem" - a very old part of the brain, just above the spinal cord. This is a part of the brain known to be associated with emotion and processing sensory information (also where the famous "fight-or-flight" reaction lives). Once the subject has made the decision, the reasoning and creative parts of the brain light up, as they start to explain how they arrived at that decision.

So what does that tell us?

It strongly implies that it's our primitive mammalian (or even reptillian) parts that are in charge of making decisions. The 'higher' brain functions are then tasked with rationalising those decisions after they've already been made.

Let's think about that for a little while. It means that the little ferret-like thing living inside you (the legacy of your ancestor from hundreds of millions of years ago) is the one in charge - making your decisions and running your life. It's making those decisions based on simple emotional responses to sensory information, and its primitive little analysis of the world it's living in. The big, clever, human part of you is pretty much along for the ride - making up the story of your life after it happened. That's kinda scary, isn't it?

Who's the boss? This thing.

I said at the beginning of this post that I found this understanding liberating and useful. What's so liberating about having a rodent in the driver's seat of your life?

It's this: I'm no longer bound by my own irrational decisions. I'm able to recognise (sometimes with difficulty) that the choices I've made about my life haven't always been the best ones. How could they be? How can my inner weasel possibly comprehend the complexity of modern human life? If I found that I've made a bad decision along the way, I can go back and revisit it: re-evaluate the story I told myself about it, and try to come up with a better choice based on the real facts of the matter.

I picture myself taking my inner hamster out of his little wheel, giving him a little saucer of things to eat, and explaining to him why his decision was wrong. I give him a bunch of new facts that he probably didn't consider first time around. I show him some mental pictures of how things could have been if he'd acted differently. When we agree on what to do next, I put him back in his little wheel, and get on with it.

My limbic system

I believe that recognising the fact that your own decisions may have been bad, no matter how rational they seemed at the time, is an important revelation. Whenever possible, I try to have that little bonding moment with my Paleomammalian brain before I do anything foolish. I'd suggest that you try that too.

I've gone on about this for far too long already. But I'd like to close with one thing to keep in mind: when making a potentially important decision, try to ask yourself "What would a marmot do?"

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Homeopathy Awareness Week

Yay! It's everyone's favourite week about nothing at all!

So, in celebration, I would like to repost this for your entertainment and edumacation:

So what's the harm?

In case you have no idea what I'm talking about, here's my Back to Basics post.

And just for fun, here's the one where I (metaphorically) punched a homeopath in the face.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Facebook Foolery

Yesterday a Facebook friend of mine posted a status update that got me thinking. I haven't asked his/her permission to reproduce it here, so I won't mention names unless that person decides to identify themselves in the comments.

The Status update was as follows:

"Scientists have discovered yet another link their evolutionary chain: a couple of supposedly several-million-years-old skeletons of "humanoids" that resemble orangutans. Has it occurred to any of those brilliant scholars that those really ARE orangutans?? Hello?"

Without going into too much detail, this person is intelligent, creative, well educated and has an interest in the sciences. How, then, could someone like that be so completely wrong in every detail?

Before I delve into that question, let's first look at why it's wrong.

Given the timing of the post, I'm assuming that it refers to the recently announced discovery of two skeletons belonging to what is being called Australopithicus Sediba - a supposedly previously undiscovered hominid species native to the area surrounding Johannesburg, South Africa (my home - one of the reasons I'm particularly interested in it).

Australopithicus Sediba

As with any proposed new species, particularly those that are claimed to be part of the human ancestral line, there's a considerable scientific controversy about it. This is a normal part of the scientific process: whenever a new discovery is made and a claim put forward as to its place in the scheme of things, it falls on those discoverers to defend their argument from the scrutiny it will receive from the rest of the scientific community. If they're successful in doing so, their new idea will eventually become part of the scientific consensus.

Questions usually raised in cases like this are things like "Is this really a new species?", "Is it really as old as it seems to be?", "Does it really represent a species that is ancestral to Homo Sapiens, or is it only a cousin?" and so on. You may recall the back and forth we've seen over the discovery of "Homo Floresiensis" several years ago. The questions in that debate haven't yet been finally settled, and it may be several more years before they are. The same will likely be true of Australopithicus Sediba as well. John Hawks has written an excellent overview of the controversy surrounding it.

Okay, so that's the background, let's look at the actual claims in the status update:

"Scientists have discovered yet another link their evolutionary chain"

Describing the taxonomical classification of various species as a "chain" shows a pretty clear misunderstanding of how evolution works, and particularly the notion of common descent. For this reason, scientists almost never describe it as such anymore, and seldom, if ever, use the term "missing link" to describe new species either. Simply because those analogies aren't very useful or descriptive. You're far more likely to hear scientists referring to "branches" or "twigs" on the "Tree of life", because that imagery more closely resembles the actual structure of phylogeny. That doesn't stop tabloid newspapers from using the term "missing link" at every available opportunity... but if we haven't learned by now not to trust the mainstream and tabloid media for science news, we are truly lost.

Tree of Life

"...a couple of supposedly several-million-years-old..."

"Several" is an interesting choice of words here. The paper clearly states that the skeletons are less than 2 million years old - between 1.78 and 1.95 million, to be precise. That's not to say that those dates are subject to possible revision, but nobody is claiming right now that they're any older than that. Why implicitly inflate the age?

"...skeletons of "humanoids"..."

The correct term here is "hominid". "Humanoid" is a term used in science fiction to describe species closely resembling humans, but who don't necessarily have any biological relation to us. "Hominid" is a term used in paleoanthropology to describe a subset of ape species that are human-like, including Homo Sapiens - us.

"...that resemble orangutans..."

This is an even stranger choice of words. Why orangutan? Why not gorilla or chimpanzee?

Let's look at a little background in ape phylogeny. Today there are two subfamilies under the family of the "Great Apes" (Hominidae): Pongo (orangutans) and Homininae (gorillas, chimpanzees and humans). That means we're all pretty closely related. But it doesn't mean we're equally closely related to each other. The common ancestor between the Pongo subfamily and the Homininae subfamily lived a lot longer ago than the various common ancestors of the different species within the Homininae subfamily. That means orangutans are our most distant relatives within this family.

Ape Phylogeny

The subfamily Homininae is itself divided into two tribes: Gorillini (gorillas) and Hominini (chimpanzees and humans). That means that within that subfamily, gorillas are our most distant ancestor.

In turn, the tribe Hominini is divided into two subtribes: Panina (common chimpanzees and bonobos) and Hominina (all the different species of humans). Whether or not Australopithecus Sediba is indeed a new species, there is no doubt that it does fall within the Hominina subtribe, which makes it a human species. Which means that it most closely resembles other human species. It less closely resembles chimpanzees. And even less closely resembles gorillas. And even less closely resembles orangutans.

So why choose orangutans to compare it to? I don't get it.

"Has it occurred to any of those brilliant scholars..."

A scholar is a specialist in the humanities: art, history, philosophy. These people are not scholars, they are scientists. Describing a scientist as a 'scholar' is a subtle way of undermining their credibility.

"...that those really ARE orangutans?"

Although I can't read the minds of the scientists involved, I'm pretty certain that this thought has occurred to them. In fact, it's not necessary to be a scientist to make that determination, we can all do it right here together.

Here is the skeleton of Australopithicus Sediba:

The Malapa Skeletons

Here is a skeleton of an orangutan:


They certainly bear a striking resemblance - as do the skeletons of all the great apes. But they are clearly not the same. Even an untrained eye can see the clear differences between them.

Which brings me back to my original question: why would someone say something like this?

I suspect the answer is twofold:

First, the person is very religious (probably a Young-Earth Creationist) and therefore has a vested ideological interest in refuting the claims of paleoanthropologists.

Second, given that, I'm guessing the person relies on a combination of mainstream media (which is incompetent) and Christian publications (which have the same ideological bias, and are also incompetent) for their information.

I think it's pretty sad, really. A combination of selection and confirmation biases have conspired to make this person make a fool of themselves on the Internet. Unfortunately it's not the first time this has happened to someone, and it won't be the last.

Friday, April 09, 2010


There's something that's pretty much always bothered me, and it seems to have come to a head recently, what with the You Know What just around the corner. That something is patriotism.

Patriotism is a love for and devotion to one's country. Of all the things to love and be devoted to, a country seems like a pretty strange one to me. What is it about a country that inspires or is deserving of such devotion? Devotion of that nature seems to be based around the assumption that one's own country is somehow superior to all other countries - I call this 'the patriotic assumption'.

Patriotic car

I've been seeing car after car, advertising and shop windows, even people's clothing displaying the South African national flag, often accompanied by the logos and colours of our national sports teams (for obvious reasons). Why is it that these people do this? Why do they decorate their cars and themselves with these things? Why do I get funny looks when I say that I'm not at all patriotic?

Funny looks or looks funny.
Let's take a look at the components that make up a country: Territory, nation and state.


This refers to the physical land area contained within the official borders of the country. When it comes to South Africa, I don't deny that we have some pretty beautiful places here. Table Mountain, the Waterberg, the Drakensberg, the Wild Coast, the Karoo and so on... all awesomely beautiful places endowed with a lush biodiversity. Aesthetically pleasing to look at and even scientifically interesting.

Not bad

But is South Africa somehow better than anywhere else? Is Knysna a better rainforest than the Amazon? Is the Fish River a better canyon than the Grand? Are the ruins of Mapungubwe better than those at Macchu Pichu or Giza? No, of course not. They're all lovely in their own right, but I don't see any valid argument supporting the notion that our physical terrain is qualitatively superior to any other.

I don't see any grounds for the patriotic assumption here. Moving on.


This describes the human population of the country: The people themselves, their history and culture. Are the South African people better than anyone else? How would we measure that anyway?

Let's postulate a metric, one that's often mentioned in tourist material as being a distinguishing characteristic of the South African people: ethnic diversity. Sure, we have quite a variety of ethnicities present here, some indiginous and many others who have settled here more recently. Is South Africa more diverse than anywhere else? Is it more diverse than China, or even the United States? No. And even then, the metric itself is problematic in that the definition of a distinct ethnic group is fuzzy at best.

"Rainbow Nation"

The same goes for just about any other metric one could postulate: economic, psychological, academic... you name it. There is always a better country somewhere, and in many cases we're near the bottom of the pile. There just doesn't seem to be any objective measure that could be used to support the notion that the South African people are somehow better than anyone else.


This refers to the administrative aspects of the country: the government, the law and the principles upon which the country was founded. Are these any better than anywhere else?

The South African government, while not the worst around, are known to be riddled with corruption - even our current president is a known fraudster who used political pressure to escape prosecution, while simultaneously lying about it to the public. Escalating riots around the country inspired by lack of service delivery demonstrate that the government is not only corrupt, but also incompetent. I submit that our government is an embarassment, not something to be proud of.

President Jacob Zuma

What about our laws and principles? Surely our constitution would be the embodiment of that. While it's a pretty good one, compared to many other national constitutions, there are a number of fundamental flaws in it. Among them, the lack of an explicit separation of church and state, the awarding of taxpayers' money to "traditional leaders" who are given limited government powers despite not having been democratically elected, and so on.

In the areas where our constitution is strong, like in guaranteeing freedom of speech, the press and other civil rights, it is vulnerable to perversion and even revision by the corrupt successors of the people who drafted it to begin with.

In short, the state of South Africa has little to nothing about it worthy of admiration, and I therefore see no grounds for the patriotic assumption here.

So what now?

Why do South Africans still fly the flag? Why do they clutch their chests and get all misty-eyed when they sing the National Anthem? Why do they wear Bafana Bafana shirts to work every Friday? Why do they care who the Springboks or Proteas have or haven't beaten this week?

I don't know. I really don't. If there was some kind of real or imagined benefit to doing so, I might understand it. But as far as I can see there is none. Although the manifestation of this patriotic fervour seems similar to a kind of religious devotion, at least in religion there's a kind of expectation that the deity in question will likely bestow blessings upon you in return for your worship and dedication. There doesn't seem to be anything like that when it comes to patriotism... there isn't even an implied suggestion of tax breaks or improved service delivery.

Patriotism, it seems to me, is even less rational and more useless than religion.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

SpeakZA - Bloggers for a Free Press

Last week, shocking revelations concerning the activities of the ANC Youth League spokesperson Nyiko Floyd Shivambu came to the fore. According to a letter published in various news outlets, a complaint was laid by 19 political journalists with the Secretary General of the ANC, against Shivambu. This complaint letter detailed attempts by Shivambu to leak a dossier to certain journalists, purporting to expose the money laundering practices of Dumisani Lubisi, a journalist at the City Press. The letter also detailed the intimidation that followed when these journalists refused to publish these revelations.

We condemn in the strongest possible terms the reprisals against journalists by Shivambu. His actions constitute a blatant attack on media freedom and a grave infringement on Constitutional rights. It is a disturbing step towards dictatorial rule in South Africa. We call on the ANC and the ANC Youth League to distance themselves from the actions of Shivambu. The media have, time and again, been a vital democratic safeguard by exposing the actions of individuals who have abused their positions of power for personal and political gain.

The press have played a vital role in the liberation struggle, operating under difficult and often dangerous conditions to document some of the most crucial moments in the struggle against apartheid. It is therefore distressing to note that certain people within the ruling party are willing to maliciously target journalists by invading their privacy and threatening their colleagues in a bid to silence them in their legitimate work.

We also note the breathtaking hubris displayed by Shivambu and the ANC Youth League President Julius Malema in their response to the letter of complaint. Shivambu and Malema clearly have no respect for the media and the rights afforded to the media by the Constitution of South Africa. Such a response serves only to reinforce the position that the motive for leaking the so-called dossier was not a legitimate concern, but a insolent effort to intimidate and bully a journalist who had exposed embarrassing information about the Youth League President.

We urge the ANC as a whole to reaffirm its commitment to media freedom and other Constitutional rights we enjoy as a country.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Sceptics in the Pub!

Yes! It's that time again! Well, almost... it will be in about two weeks time.

Joburg sceptics will be gathering in a pub to be all sceptical!

This month we're back in the East at Dros on the corner of Modderfontein and Van Riebeeck roads, Edenvale.

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