Proof of God: Context

I used to own this little Palm device. The thing was a decade old when I got it, and the on-screen keyboard was scarred by the continual tap-tap-tap of a stylus. I had to find just the right pressure to register a letter; sometimes, it would register the wrong one and I’d be forced to stop, try to reposition the cursor with the stylus, delete the offending letter without adding more, and finally right that wrong. As the screen required manual calibration, typing the wrong letter was unfortunately common. It made writing tedious.

And yet, during rare moments of downtime, I would solemnly tap away at the thing. Some days I could manage a hundred words, and in the evenings I would pop out the SD card (the docking station was broken, if I recall) and copy those hundred words into their proper place in Proof of God.

If my timestamps are correct, I started writing that book on December 21st, 2009. I’m a bit surprised it was so recent, but maybe the Palm distorted my sense of time. Back then, I thought there was a hole in the atheist literature; while a decent number of books on apologetics existed, they struck me as shallow. No one seemed interested in gathering a comprehensive list of counter-proofs, and everyone assumed that Christianity was the only religion out there.

I think I was also trying to better understand religion. Weird fact: I didn’t believe in belief until well into my adulthood. Don’t get me wrong, I’d briefly see preachers on TV when flipping to cartoons, and I’d been in churches and read a few Bible stories. But the stories were too fantastic to be taken seriously, so I thought they persisted because people wanted to ground themselves in the past. If times were tough, remind yourself that you’ve survived a lot worse before and you’ll feel better. None of my circle expressed religious belief, so I thought society had long since shed those false beliefs and moved on.

It was only when I spent time with a true believer outside my bubble that I realised I’d been in one. Naturally that led to a desire to catch up on what I’d missed, and that led to the study of why people believed in their religion. And once my head had filled with arguments and counter-arguments, it made sense to start typing them out to clarify things.

While the date I started Proof of God is murky, the date I stopped is not: August 4th, 2013. I’d decided to leave the boring parts until last, which sapped my desire to write. The citation-heavy style I prefer created a maintainence headache. But above all, my answer for why people believed was leading me to an unsettling conclusion: people believed in religion to discriminate against others and get ahead in life, albeit unconsciously. The arguments for belief were just a conscious smokescreen for that discrimination, which made a book devoted to them seem useless.

In hindsight, I was also getting cynical about the atheist community. The odd beliefs of the devout seemed far less shocking when I started running into skeptics who doubted climate change and couldn’t wrap their heads around consent. Atheists could pick apart the finer details of the Watchmaker argument, yet struggle to understand feminism. Believing in nonsense seemed to be a fundamental part of being human, and wouldn’t go away if every religious person deconverted. The revelation took more wind out of my sails, and seeded a complex set of feelings about the skepto-atheist community.

If I seem somewhat dour, take heart. Proof of God also led me to some novel atheist apologetics, which I quietly continue to pursue. The introduction and conclusion we’re the first time I expressed those ideas in writing. I’m proud of other chapters too, and several years ago vowed to blog them should I wind up on FtB.

Well, here I am. And here it is, in small bits twice weekly. To make random access easier, my next post in the series will be a table of contents that’s updated as I go.

The Odds of Elvis Being an Identical Twin

This one demanded to be shared ASAP. Here’s what you need to know:

  1. Identical or monozygotic twins occur in roughly four births per 1,000.
  2. Fraternal or dizygotic twins occur in roughly eight births per 1,000.
  3. Elvis Prestley had a twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, that was stillborn.

For simplicity’s sake, we’ll assume sex is binary and split 50/50, despite the existence of intersex fraternal twins. What are the odds of Elvis being an identical twin? The answer’s below the fold.

[Read more…]

The Odds of Elvis Being an Identical Twin?

This one demanded to be shared ASAP. Here’s what you need to know:

  1. Identical or monozygotic twins occur in roughly four births per 1,000.
  2. Fraternal or dizygotic twins occur in roughly eight births per 1,000.
  3. Elvis Prestley had a twin brother, Jesse Garon Presley, that was stillborn.

For simplicity’s sake, we’ll assume sex is binary and split 50/50, despite the existence of intersex fraternal twins. What are the odds of Elvis being an identical twin? The answer will pop up on my blog in two days.

Welcome to The Community

I’m a long-time lurker. I prefer to sit back and skim through comment sections, passively absorbing, and over the years I’ve seen a fair number. After a while, you start to get a feel for their dynamics. Typically, a blog post plays out something like this:

  1. Blog author posts something.
  2. Long-time commenters pop by with their two cents.
  3. Their chatter starts to wander off topic.
  4. Someone pops by with a strong opinion that’s vaguely off-topic.
  5. This kicks up an argument, which gets ugly and spirals away from what the original post discussed.

There are exceptions, of course; endless threads have no topic to wander off of, and if the thread is obscure and the topic well-defined the comments can stay topical indefinitely. The comment community plays a large role in this, too. A small band of thoughtful regulars are a blogger’s dream, while a large number of over-opinionated randos can (and often do) ruin any thread. If acrimony starts to trump argument, even a small community can turn dysfunctional.

It doesn’t help that our tools are few, blunt and prone to breaking. Voting systems can be gamed, while banning users or keywords is an all-or-nothing affair that barely works. Allowing comments for a limited window sounds great, but it doesn’t allow the regulars to build up much of a conversation. Banning all comments kills off the local community.

Aaaaand that’s about the extent of it. Maybe someday I’ll create a browser plugin that provides a personal ranking system, which automatically mutes or even hides users based on how you’ve rated their prior comments, but that’s low in my queue.

How am I going to encourage that small, thoughtful community to form? Here’s my current plan:

  • Regular blog posts don’t allow comments, unless justified by the contents. This prevents comment threads from spiraling away.
  • The “Community” post is an endless thread. Only one of them is active at a time.
  • To provide a little structure, links to the regular blog posts will get dropped into the Community post as they go public. These can be ignored.
  • The Community post will be linked somewhere along the side menu, but it won’t otherwise be advertised. This should keep the randos to a minimum, but without throwing out regulars too.
  • The top of the Community post will outline the moderation rules in play. Those rules stay consistent over the lifetime of the Community post. If I want a significant change, the current Community post is locked and a new one is created. The new will link to the old, and vice-versa.

The first Community post is the one you’re reading right now.

The initial mod rules are fairly ill-defined and flexible, to keep the rules lawyers at bay. My guiding principle is to maximize information; it takes time and energy to read a comment, so you should try to convey as much as possible, as clearly as possible, in the least space. Critiques beat opinions, evidence wins over assertion. Strict enforcement of that doesn’t work with endless threads, but it’s still the ideal you should keep in the back of your mind.

The corollary is another matter, though: quit it with the oppressive language. If you lack the creativity to think up an alternative to “crazy,” you shouldn’t be posting here. Violence in any form is a no-no, and both stalking and harassment are low-grade forms of violence.

Speaking of which, I’d like to swipe an idea from football. They have a carding system to handle misconduct, which I think works in this context too. If you’re handed a yellow card, that’s a warning for unsportsmanlike conduct. A red card gets you banned from this thread, though not the entire blog. A black card is a permanent ban.

Got it? Then game on!

Sex, Donald Trump, and Videotape

Goddammit, I don’t have the time to write this. But if I don’t stop and put the analysis floating in my head to photons, I’ll itch about it for days.

First off, I need to lay down a trigger warning for sex, Donald Trump, and videotape. Because this happened:

The dossier, which is a collection of memos written over a period of months, includes specific, unverified, and potentially unverifiable allegations of contact between Trump aides and Russian operatives, and graphic claims of sexual acts documented by the Russians. BuzzFeed News reporters in the US and Europe have been investigating various alleged facts in the dossier but have not verified or falsified them. CNN reported Tuesday that a two-page synopsis of the report was given to President Obama and Trump.

Now BuzzFeed News is publishing the full document so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government.

Oy.
Second, there’s a chance these claims are false. I wouldn’t rate this scenario as likely, though…
The raw memos on which the synopsis is based were prepared by the former MI6 agent, who was posted in Russia in the 1990s and now runs a private intelligence gathering firm. His investigations related to Mr. Trump were initially funded by groups and donors supporting Republican opponents of Mr. Trump during the GOP primaries, multiple sources confirmed to CNN. Those sources also said that once Mr. Trump became the nominee, further investigation was funded by groups and donors supporting Hillary Clinton.

The documents have circulated for months and acquired a kind of legendary status among journalists, lawmakers, and intelligence officials who have seen them. Mother Jones writer David Corn referred to the documents in a late October column. BuzzFeed News reporters in the US and Europe have been investigating various alleged facts in the dossier but have not stood them up or knocked them down.


Reddit’s r/The_Donald users pointed to an anonymous 4chan post from Nov. 1, exactly one week before the election, that Redditors say proves “/pol/ really invented this rumor” involving Trump’s alleged business and personal ties to Russia. […]

[Rick] Wilson dismissed all of r/The_Donald and 4chan’s claims in a tweet on Tuesday night. “You’re wrong if you believe 1. What we had came from /pol 2. That I was Buzzfeed’s source. Try again, boys,” he wrote. “The information was out there looooong before the 4chan posts,” he replied to another user.

Reached by phone earlier in the evening, Wilson told The Daily Beast that the Russian allegations were “making the rounds before anyone talked about it publicly.” He said that they were being discussed as early as a year and a half ago.

… but stranger things have happened.
Third, what’s left out is as important as what’s left in. Trump’s called a sexual pervert, but there’s no mention of what acts he personally engaged in. Did he join in the fun? Or just sit back and watch? It’s not terribly relevant, though; fake news cuts both ways, and even the most charitable interpretation says Trump done wrong.
Fourth, there’s the question of how Trump’s followers will react. This one’s pretty easy: he’ll lose maybe five to ten approval points, but most of his fans will just brush this off as fake news. His transition may have the lowest approval rating of any in recent memory, but that’s when you average across the whole country. When you break down by party affiliation, though, Republicans rate him within a hair of George Bush Jr. A few may even like Trump more. Defiling a bed the Obamas slept on? Damn, that’s hardcore hate.
Fifth, we have Trump himself. He’s thought to be unshameable, but I don’t think that’s quite true. His vengeful nature is frequently treated as a show of dominance, but I think it’s really papering over weakness. He can’t stand to be criticized or ridiculed. So if the entirety of Twitter is mocking him, this has to be one of the worst moments of his life.

@realDonaldTrump (Donald J. Trump)

FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!
Retweets: 18,191; Likes: 50,597
7:19 PM – 10 Jan 2017

The Trump brand will take another hit, hurting him in what may be his weakest spot.

Sixth, there’s the media. The mainstream is actually in a bit of a bind; they have to maintain a PG rating to reach the masses, which means they can’t go into detail about the report, but without those details the full impact will be blunted. It’ll come across as just another contested fact, the “unverified” angle will dominate the coverage, and people will entrench instead of change their minds. Social media, however, can get as nasty as it wants. The allegations are nearly perfect for going viral, so this could ring across the internet for a very, very long time.

Seventh, and the main reason why I’m writing this, is that the President of the US is also the Commander-in-Chief of the military. They’re a rather proud and patriotic group of people, sworn to defend the US against a foreign enemy. So if any of them read this…

Speaking separately in June 2016, Source B (the former top level Russian intelligence officer) asserted that TRUMP’s unorthodox behavior in Russia over the years had provided the authorities there with enough embarrassing material on the now Republican presidential candidate to be able to blackmail him if they so wished.

… their definition of “foreign enemy” might expand a bit.

https://i2.imgflip.com/1hg3yo.jpg

Eighth, Trump isn’t President yet. He can’t be impeached. He’s already been elected by the Electoral College. I’m not an expert here, I’ll admit, but the only way I know of to prevent Trump from becoming President is if he agrees to step down first. That would be an admission of guilt on his part, and ain’t likely. This leaves the US in an odd legal limbo, where nothing can happen… until Trump takes the oath of office, after which anything can happen.

Ninth, there’s the Kremlin. There was quite a bit of debate about whether or not they were trying to get Trump into office, hurt Clinton, or just throw a monkey wrench into US politics. Eichenwald claims that they stopped promoting Trump when it looked like that “grab’em” video would sink his campaign; if that’s true, and it’s also true they have kompromat on him, it might signal they’d intentionally leak said video to throw the US into further chaos. Currently, though, the sources most likely to be pushing Russian propaganda are taking the “fake news” and “4chan did it” angles.

Tenth, we have the Republican party. Their loyalties are currently tugged a million ways to Sunday. Most of them are at least tolerant of Trump, given how quickly many of them backtracked after denouncing Trump over the aforementioned video. But most of them are also suspicious of Russia. Most have similar views as the military. Some of them have read this report. At best, they’ll have to endure this humiliation and a wave of angry voters demanding an investigation. At worst, they have the choice of tossing Trump under the bus, alienating a large group of voters, or let this scandal spread like a cancer through their party.

So, what does all this add up to? Here’s what I figure: the next ten days are going to be some of the messiest politics we’ve seen in the US. There are going to be a lot of heated meetings behind closed doors, trying to figure out what do on or before Inauguration Day. Trump is going to stick with denials, and wait until he is sworn in; after which, a swift purge of the Republican party is his probable first move given his current actions. The Kremlin will probably continue saying there is no kompromat. The Democrats aren’t going to change course.

The real wild cards here are the military and the Republican party. The military seems to think Trump is unfit for command, overall, but also supported him over Clinton. It’s not clear how they’ll take this leak. Will the Republicans, afraid the military would take matters into their own hands or this scandal will drag them down, invoke Amendment 25 and put Pence in charge? Will they blow the report off, and join Trump in dismissing the findings of the USIC, risking even more leaks from disgruntled spooks? These two players are the ones who’ll determine how this scandal plays out.

Watch them carefully.

main = print(“Hello World”)

I’ve been wanting to blog here for years, but I always wound up being crushed by schoolwork or distracted by personal life. Eventually I got sick of perpetually putting it off, and forced myself to apply. I’d figure out a way to make it work.

And, as you can see, I’m now blogging here!

And up to my eyeballs in schoolwork.

And with more demands on my free time than ever before.

But! I have a plan.

See, the nice thing about being a slightly-paranoid Computer Scientist is that you tend to keep a low profile. My previous blogging isn’t well known, and the rest of my back catalog ranges from “seen by five people” to “never been shared publicly.” I can easily pad this space with old material until I can come up for air. This is especially perfect, because while my contemporary writing is all about the replication crisis and angrily shouting at fools, my older work was more about atheist apologetics. I have a decently-sized book that I gave up on writing, all about the subject, and it led me to a set of arguments that I haven’t seen anyone else develop. That is book-worthy, but there’s no harm in workshopping it until I can properly put fingers to keyboard.

In the meantime, I should also get cracking at a comment policy. Years of lurking in comment threads have left me with… opinions on the matter. That’s for a future post, though.

I suppose some of you are wondering about the name. Funny, despite the whole “wanting to blog” thing I’ve never been able to decide on a proper blog name. I’ve held on to a catchy subtitle for years (“/dev/random, unless I make a hash of it”), but a title? No clue, no idea, nothing ever came to mind. Forced to come up with one at long last, I did what came naturally.

> while :; do echo `egrep 'te$' /usr/share/dict/words | perl -e 'rand($.)<1 and ($line=$_)while<>;print$line'` \
     `perl -e 'rand($.)<1 and ($line=$_)while<>;print$line' /usr/share/dict/words` ; done | less

xanthosiderite koa
Brooklynite lull
adeste reclamatory
bipunctate abevacuation
disrelate seewee
Epirote Cobden
hemisaprophyte parcel-guilty
camote danda
catastate Westphalian
ingurgitate ephelis
sommite soilures
inseminate rabies
pianoforte stabbed
preconstitute tanistry
Bonaparte intermodification
decapitate philohellenian
Marette Sharona
swinecote prefictional
miaskite Egbert
subprofessorate eosphorite
protectorate soogan
portmanmote morosities
indicolite saiyids
Marguerite hoidening
repromulgate pandemoniacal
barytocelestite alloxy
umbraculate Post-devonian
desecate white-rumped
landgate twice-canvassed
killinite pyrogallate
cycadophyte Englishable
lautarite buffoons
bipunctate tar
merocerite pencels
echelette Borak
odorate overcultivated
Parbate Perrins
amphodelite lethalize
hesperidate Lemosi
zonociliate implosively
Jacquette reimbushment
tricussate Reisinger
alunite high-hatty
archeocyte unimpatiently
montroydite roband
orcanette panstereorama
julienite unorchestrated
fulminurate pro-Sweden
Bathinette Piraeus
cassate unfeigning
lowigite dolos
lyddite intersomnial
delate hepatised
alienigenate perscribe
emporte zoroastra
hemimorphite off-put
hypoantimonate ambrosia
nonconfederate hotfoot
exonerate nonfuturition
reprobate spreadsheet

The algorithm hath spoken!