2010-08-31

The doghouse: India goes after encryption

India is going after all sorts of encrypted communications that are making it inconvenient for its security services to keep tabs on everyone.

They've already gone after RIM (Blackberry), and telecoms firms are next.

If their smarts are sufficient to at least be consistently dumb, a countrywide ban on secure web browsing ought to follow.

This is a ridiculously bad idea because it only prevents law-abiding citizens from using encryption to protect their sensitive communications.

All the smart criminals and terrorists can continue to use encryption, whether or not it is legal, as they please.

2010-08-28

2010-08-25

Food additives

A very nice article making an attempt to dispel the irrational fears of food additives. An imbalanced diet is much more of a danger than the additives in the food:
So, had I overdosed? Yes, but not on E numbers.

Dr Heaversedge wasn't worried about my E consumption, not even sodium nitrite (remember that 100-fold safety margin). What he was horrified by was the fact I'd eaten 418% of my recommended daily allowance of fat, 500% of my salt RDA and 218% of my sugar RDA. So the biggest nutritional culprits in my binge came in purely organic form and had no E numbers.
Don't miss the column that enumerates a few additives used by our ancestors in recent centuries. Strychnine and sulphuric acid in beer, anyone?

2010-08-17

"Zakaj bi verniki sami seb lagal?"

[Most of my posts are in English. This one isn't. :) ]

Vprašanje v naslovu mi je pred kratkim postavila neka anonimna korespondentka, ko sem objavil, da je laganje samemu sebi popularno. Da 90% ljudi - vsi, ki so verni - sami sebi lažejo.

"Zakaj bi verniki sami seb lagal?"

Odgovoril sem ji:

Vera temelji na tem. Zato se ji reče "vera", ne pa "resnica". Jedro vere je verska laž, v katero se verjame, ker je udobno, ne zato, ker je res. Okoli laži je antiracionalni ščit, ki varuje laž pred razumom. Ščit poskuša nevtralizirati razumske misli, ki bi versko laž ogrozile. Če kakšna misel pride skoz in predre ščit, pa je vernik zadolžen, da zapolni luknjo s pasto iz laži.

2010-08-16

Conversations with a Christian

The following is my summary of a long and frequently frustrating debate on Facebook between myself, another atheist, and a Christian. I changed the names for some degree of privacy.

"The evolution of morality is a pretty well researched question with solid evolutionary answers. A better argument for the existence of something along the lines of God is awareness itself. To the best of my knowledge, science has so far been unable to offer an explanation of why anyone's aware of anything. Nor does it offer a satisfactory explanation of why I happen to be aware of only me - and not any of the other billions of creatures in existence.

In my mind, questions about the origin of awareness beg an answer that must point somewhere outside of what we currently know as nature, or at the very least requires augmentation of our knowledge of nature.

However, jumping briskly from these questions to "God exists as depicted in the Bible, and he sent Jesus to atone for our sins" is a gross violation of rationality, and it is only possible if you first assume that the Bible contains truth, and THEN proceed from that point onward, rather than considering the truth of the Bible on its own. It must be clear to any imaginative mind that IF a spiritual world exist, it might take any number of forms, and that a book originated by an organization that is obviously in the business of power and influence is NOT a source to be trusted at all.

Now, as far as Evelyn's faith goes, I think it is fairly clear at this point, and has been shown numerous times, that:

(1) Evelyn's faith is irrational, and she's proud of that. She has exclaimed several times that her world is not limited to probabilities between 0 and 1, and that it isn't limited by cold logic. She might as well have said directly that her world involves fairy tales. These were clear admissions that rationality is not important to her. And not just when it comes to religion: she actually went further and stated that even knowledge about the world is not important to her, preferring the bliss of ignorance to scientific pursuit of knowledge. (This, while at another point referring to her credentials as a scientist.)

(2) The purpose of Evelyn's faith is to give her comfort. She has stated several times that the reason she believes is because it makes her feel good, and she would like others to believe because it would make others feel good. At no time nor at any point did she use any argument that would assert that her faith is "true". When asked to evaluate the probability that her faith is true, she flatly declined. This indicates she might not even actually believe her faith is true, she just enjoys a thought process that assumes it is true, and she wishes to preserve that thought process for the comfort it provides.

(3) Evelyn believes that atheists live in mental anguish where they suffer from not having a comfortable answer about the nature of the universe. Evelyn fails to understand that it isn't necessary to believe in a detailed story of a God in order to be comfortably at ease with the Universe.

If any progress is to be made in helping Evelyn understand where Isaac and others like him are coming from, it would be in clearing up the misconception in paragraph (3) above. The reason Evelyn chooses her faith is emotional. The emotions involved are a sense of bliss if the faith is retained, and fear of uncertainty and emptiness if it isn't. Because her reasons are emotional, she will actively evade any attempts to apply reason that could threaten her faith.

I do not think that reason and logic alone can put even a chink in her armor. The armor is auto-deflecting and self-repairing, and she has been practicing those self-repairs her entire life.

If you want her to understand where you are coming from, the first order of business would be to explain, in EMOTIONAL terms, what helps you, as an atheist, to sleep peacefully at night. What makes you not perceive the world as cold and empty. What gives you the same emotional assurance as the bliss she gets from "knowing" that God is there to love her and guide her.

For atheists, who are used to thinking logically, this is a pretty tall order. Not every atheist might even have these emotional issues resolved. This is because atheists are ascetic thinkers, driven by principle, not comfort. We are willing to endure mental discomfort in order to pursue Truth.

Most people who are religious, however, are not ascetic thinkers. They don't find refuge in religion because they're driven by a noble principle. Instead, such people put more stock in mental comfort. They may in fact have given up on understanding the world in the first place, and so could not care less if their world view is further distorted. They may not even be able to tell the difference between a distortion and truth. And they don't care - as long as what they believe makes them comfortable."

2010-08-15

Iran considers prisoner rape noble

Words of an influential imam, with whom Ahmadinejad "regularly consults":
"If the judgment for the [female] prisoner is execution, then rape before execution brings the interrogator a spiritual reward equivalent to making the mandated Haj pilgrimage [to Mecca], but if there is no execution decreed, then the reward would be equivalent to making a pilgrimage to [the Shi'ite holy city of] Karbala."

Cultural relativism, anyone?

2010-08-12

How socialism caused World War II

I was just recently informed, via Tomaž Štih, of Götz Aly's book Hitler's Beneficiaries. The original German title of this book was Hitler's People's State, and it analyzes in detail Hitler's economy before, as well as during World War II. There's a Spiegel review here.

Apparently, this book makes a compelling case that the entirety of the German war effort existed to finance German socialism. The Nazi party was, of course, a socialist party - its full name was the National Socialist German Workers' Party. But it turns out that apparently, the wars and the socialism weren't related just coincidentally. Hitler was a great social redistributor; the ultimate Robin Hood, in fact - in terms of taking from the rich and giving to the poor. His social state was financed first by confiscating the property of Jews in Germany. But eventually, this source of funding ran out, and the social system required funding. Hitler's choices at that point, then, were either to let the socialist regime collapse, or... obtain funding from neighbors. The subsequent invasions were not only self-funded from what was taken from the occupied regimes - they actually helped the Reich avoid bankruptcy it would otherwise had faced.

Tomaž makes the interesting observation that, time and again, history unfolds as follows:
  1. To gain popular support, leaders distribute treats to the deluded masses by tapping an unsustainable source.
  2. The masses get used to those treats.
  3. When treats can no longer continue, two problems arise:
    1. The masses do not wish to accept that they were deluded, or that it's no longer possible for them to get treats.
    2. The leaders who caused the problem blame a third person, who becomes the victim.
I find it amazing that I never managed to see this pattern with World War II. Yet now that I do, it is striking how time and time again, the world revolves around this same old pattern: enjoying too much in the present, and paying for it later on. Not just on the macro scale, even people's individual lives revolve around the same unthinking paradigm: spend, broke, spend, broke; eat, diet, eat, diet.

If at least people were conscious of this process as it goes on. But it is the denial that makes it possible in the first place. And the denial is what, for me, makes observing it the most painful.