Saturday, May 30, 2015

What If the Supreme Court Ruled that Waterboarding Is Not Cruel?

As regards American law, the situation is quite clear:  If the Supreme Court ruled that some form of torture -- waterboarding, for example -- is not cruel, then it is 100% true that from the point of view of American law, it would have to be regarded as "not cruel".  Maybe other reasons could be found for limiting the practice, but the 8th Amendment ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" would not apply.  Having been taken to the nation's highest court, this would now be "settled law", and anyone who disagreed with it could be accused of wanting to "turn back the clock" to the time before the law was "settled", or of otherwise not being hip and fashionable and with the times.

Somehow, though, I think our friends on the left would not be willing to confine their criticism of waterboarding to their own subjective preferences.  I don't think they would say, "Well, waterboarding may or may not be right for you, but it's wrong for me."  They would not say, "Don't like waterboarding?  Then don't waterboard."

They would say that waterboarding is cruel in the world of facts, and that the opinion of the Supreme Court was neither more nor less than wrong.  (Note that they generally already say this of Bush v. Gore in 2000.)  They would say that the fact of the cruelty of torture should shape the thinking of the Court, not that the opinion of the Court somehow gave being and meaning and shape to what had been "without form, and void", as though the Court were the Spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters.  They would say that anyone who denies this is either making a shocking intellectual mistake or is some kind of scoundrel who denies what he knows for some selfish advantage.  They would be right about all this.

That makes it all the more perplexing that so many on the left seem genuinely unable to understand the positions of "social conservatives" on issues such as abortion and (even more so) "gay marriage".  On those topics, the main point of disagreement seems to be on whether there is any aspect of reality that we do not create for ourselves, either individually or collectively.

So when a social conservative says, "Two men cannot marry each other, nor can two women marry each other," and a liberal answers, "It's already happening; deal with it," they're not really talking about the same thing.  Maybe part of the confusion comes from the usual American sloppiness with "can" and "may".  The social conservative is not here saying that society should not recognize gay marriages (though he presumably believes that, too); he is saying that there is an essential aspect of marriage which it is impossible to reproduce in any relationship between two people of the same sex, regardless of the attitude of the courts or society.  The liberal pointing out that the courts and society now largely approve of homosexual relationships is irrelevant to that point.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Fox News and Positive Barbarism

There is another idea in human arrangements so fundamental as to be forgotten; but now for the first time denied. It may be called the idea of reciprocity; or, in better English, of give and take. The Prussian appears to be quite intellectually incapable of this thought. He cannot, I think, conceive the idea that is the foundation of all comedy; that, in the eyes of the other man, he is only the other man. -- G.K. Chesterton, The Barbarism of Berlin
This passage comes to mind when I see a story on Fox News under the banner, "IRAN'S JOKE JUSTICE:  Cartoonist faces prison for her depiction of Parliament," and contrast that with another expression of Fox outrage (do they have any other kind of story?), "OUTRAGEOUS VIDEO:  Female Vet Tackled, Arrested for Trying to Stop Flag Protest."  In the Fox Weltanschauung, symbols of our form of government are sacred, and we are not only within our rights to protect them by law, we are lax in our duty if we fail to afford them such protection.  Such is only the case, though, for the USA and perhaps a few of our very best friends (Israel and the UK in particular, but not really anyone else).  The same rules most definitely due not apply to Iran.

Anyone who has the painful habit of personal thought will perceive here at once the non-reciprocal principle again. Boiled down to its bones of logic, it means simply this: "I am a German and you are a Chinaman. Therefore I, being a German, have a right to be a Chinaman. But you have no right to be a Chinaman; because you are only a Chinaman."

Sunday, May 10, 2015

More Thoughts on Interstellar

I don't watch many movies, which is why I seem to think about the ones I do watch more than most people do -- and, usually, more than the movie itself warrants.  I've been doing that lately for the movie "Interstellar".  "Interstellar" was apparently intended to be a vehicle to both celebrate science and educate the public about science, so I had high hopes of being able to make use of it in the classroom.

Sadly, it came off more like "The Core", which also combined a threat of human extinction, an uncritical enthusiasm for science and technology, serious scientific problems, and reliance on deus ex machina.  In "The Core", the deus ex machina is money:  any problem in science or technology can apparently be solved in a matter of months if unlimited government funds are provided. "Interstellar" has two main dei ex machina:  "bulk fields", and the inevitable flow of progress (or evolution through rose-colored glasses).  The difference is that the problems with "The Core" were obvious from the trailers; we knew going in that this was going to be ridiculous, so there were no high hopes to be dashed, just the expectation of silliness.

Anyhow, let me get off my chest a few more specific problems with "Interstellar", then I'll let it rest.  In case you haven't guessed, SPOILER ALERT.

1.  Blight is some sort of global biological pathogen that seems to attack all plants.  In the book, Thorne suggests it attacks chloroplasts; he doesn't even try to justify the line in the movie about it breathing nitrogen (but that's not my main complaint).  Presumably it is carried on the wind, and the massive dust storms would make sure every place is exposed.  The problem, then, is not to get away from the Earth; the problem is to get away from blight.  It would be a huge problem to try to evacuate whatever remained of the human species, together with the food plants they needed, without bringing this pathogen along as well.  In fact, if it was easy enough to do that, why not just build giant decontaminated greenhouses and move people into them?  Why would the greenhouses need to be in outer space instead?

Building greenhouses on Earth would save many, many problems -- or at least defer them for a significant period of time.  There would be no need to spin them for artificial gravity; the Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field would shield the greenhouses from cosmic radiation; it would be much easier to access raw materials; it would be easier to maintain pressure; it would be easier to control the temperature.  Thorne writes in his book that there would be plenty of oxygen still in the atmosphere for decades to come, but enough carbon dioxide to begin making the air poisonous; that is an easy problem to deal with.  However, the air would be full of blight spores, the greenhouse would need to be hermetically sealed, with only occasional (probably emergency) access to treated outside air.  The level of CO2 would steadily increase in the absence of photosynthesis, probably leading to a Venus-like runaway greenhouse effect in the geological blink of an eye, but by locating greenhouses on the south-facing slopes of hills near the oceans (to moderate temperatures) in the high latitudes, the situation could be kept bearable for some time -- perhaps long enough to develop algae and plants that can withstand blight and bring the atmosphere back under control.  Earth would still be a hostile planet, but much less hostile than the one Cooper elects to move to.  Mankind would already have something of a substantial head start in terraforming the Earth!

2. Wormholes inherently involve strongly curved space, which is equivalent to strong gravitational fields. For a small wormhole, like the one found (in the movie) in orbit around Saturn, the tidal forces would rip apart any space ship traversing it.  Unless, of course -- bulk fields!

3. If the "five-dimensional beings" are invisible to us except for gravity, we are also invisible to them except for gravity.  Seriously:  they would only be able to see through light if they absorb light, which would make them visible.  Yet, through the magic of "progress", they are able to locate specific places, times, and people on Earth, and they are able to construct a virtual reality for Cooper that both interacts with the past and even gets the colors right.  A movie that is supposed to be strong in science should not make the science look like pure magic.  

I know that many people love Arthur C. Clarke's statement, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  Maybe, in some sense, that is true, but it is not true that anything you can imagine being done by magic can be done by a sufficiently advanced technology.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


Well, I've finally gotten around to watching the movie "Interstellar", as well as reading most of the book The Science of Interstellar.  On the whole, I found it disappointing, in no small part because I had had such high expectations for it.  Here are a few of the things in the movie that disappointed me most.  Needless to say -- SPOILER ALERT!

1.  It may well be the case that those involved in writing and producing the movie have no religion, but the fact that they completely left religion out of the film is a serious indication that they don't understand humanity at all.  Some people in fact never pray; some never tell jokes; some never sing; some never explore or investigate out of pure curiosity.  Normal people do all of these these things, the first no less than the fourth.  Now I believe that there is one religion that is in fact true, but that is not the point.  Maybe in the face of starvation and possible extinction people would worship Anubis or the Aztec corn god, but you can bet there would be some sort of religious boom. 

2.  For a movie that so noticeably lacks religion, it is particularly frustrating to see characters become prophets of the writers.  Cooper's unsubstantiated speculations while in Gargantua really do represent the intentions of the writers, but if we are really to take the serious scientific viewpoint that Kip Thorne thinks this movie promotes, they are still just groundless speculations.

3.  Kip Thorne should not have let them treat an equation in physics the same way Walt Disney treated "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo" -- as a magical invocation that automatically creates the desired practical effect.  Let's face it:  even if the Professor had a complete understanding of how gravity is united with the strong nuclear force and the electroweak force, with only bamboo, vines, and coconuts he would still be no closer to getting off Gilligan's Island.  Perhaps more seriously, we have known for decades how nuclear fusion occurs in the sun, and that the deuterium in the oceans represents an essentially unlimited supply of cheap energy, but we have yet to engineer a practical fusion energy plant.

4.  If we take Cooper's unsupported speculations as gospel truth, it is still meaningless to talk about humans "evolving" into 5-dimensional beings with bodies made of something other than normal matter.  Evolution is not magic.  For that matter, it is not at all clear in what sense such beings, even if they were created by our descendants, could really be our descendants, and they certainly would no more be "us" than amoebas are "us".

5.  If we take Cooper's unsupported speculations as gospel truth, there is a closed causal loop in our descendants preventing the extinction of the human species that gave rise to them.  Those are always unsettling, but they are not obviously impossible.  (It is doubtful, though, that they are consistent with Free Will, which is a strong argument against them.)  Maybe the ugliness of a closed causal loop is the "explanation" as to why our distant descendants, who are clearly messing very seriously with their own past, used such an indirect and inefficient way to communicate the quantum data to Murph Cooper.  Maybe.  If not, that's something that needs an explanation. 

6.  While Cooper was in his tesseract, he was able to "see" Murph's room and "push" the books.  Both of these involve electromagnetic interactions, except that when the books in Murph's room actually move, it is supposedly due to gravity, and Cooper was never visible to anyone in the room.  This pretty strongly implies that he was actually in some sort of virtual reality that only interacted indirectly with the room.  Or, more likely, everything that happens after he crosses the event horizon is his dying delusion, like "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".   Murph, however, in "prophet mode" detected a person behind the strange occurrences in her room.  All this in a movie that has no room for God.