Monday, 19 December 2016

Buying locally, but not in winter and not if it requires driving to more stores


We've all heard that buying locally-grown produce is better for the environment because of the fuel consumed to transport goods, but that isn't always the case. If you can buy locally-grown tomatoes in the middle of winter, it's likely because they've been grown in heated greenhouses over several weeks, which is far worse in terms of carbon emissions than buying tomatoes that have been transported from another country where they were grown without artificial heating. Indeed, the environmental impact of transportation is typically a drop in the ocean compared to the many different resources that go into producing our food. These resources will include the energy consumed to make it possible to grow crops in areas and seasons that are colder or drier than where they naturally grow, but also processing of food into more complex products like chocolate bars and ready-meals. As a general rule, the more processing involved, the more energy required, and this is a far more important factor to attend to in the supermarket aisle than whether something is produced locally.

Monday, 20 July 2015

The Extinction of Thoughtful People and Fearless Parrots


Around five percent of all the people who have ever lived are still alive. That's an astoundingly high proportion given that modern homo sapiens have been around for upwards of 150,000 years, and it speaks to just how steeply the world's population has increased within living memory.

This increase, along with the technological advances that made it possible, have fundamentally transformed our planet in a way that has obviously taken an enormous toll. We've cleared away habitats to make way for our agriculture, practically emptied the sea of fish, and begun to change our climate, but the pace of all this has been just slow enough for each new generation to grow up thinking it's always been this way, that our use of natural resources is normal so we can go on like this forever. But we clearly can't. The reality we are now living with, and have apparently been living with for the last century, is that the Earth is experiencing a mass extinction event on a scale not unlike the one that killed off the non-avian dinosaurs. Over the last century, vertebrate species have been disappearing at a pace that is conservatively estimated to be 114 times the background rate.

Monday, 29 December 2014

I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a War

A vulnerability exists in the human mind that allows the suspension of disbelief to be engaged outside of narrative contexts. This could allow an attacker to divert attention away from dubious claims and redirect the energy of well-meaning individuals into vigorous debate about irrelevant things.

When we encounter fiction, we instinctively divert our attention away from glaring questions like why Luke looks human even though he's from "a galaxy far, far away" or why Nazi soldiers speak English to each other in American films. We suspend our disbelief about these things, allowing them to pass us by uncritically and almost invisibly because they're somehow beside the point. We are critical of what is intended to be evaluated, but the background is often spared the same scrutiny.


The lyrics of the children's song I Know an Old Lady represent a particularly extreme example of the suspension of disbelief. They tell the story of an old lady who swallowed a fly (presumably by accident) and who swallows a spider to catch it. At this point, she has to find a way to get rid of the spider, so she decides to swallow a bird to catch the spider "that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her". Then she swallows a cat to catch the bird, and a dog to catch the cat, and so on up the food chain. The sequence of predators invoked after this point makes less sense though, swallowing a goat to catch the dog, then a cow to catch the goat, and finally a horse to catch the cow, but after the first few steps, the song has established a pattern and the implausibility of which predators come next doesn't seem to matter much. It's wonderfully silly and perfectly harmless fun. Outside of fiction though, the story would be about as implausible as you can get. Within the confines of a narrative though, we happily suspend our disbelief to enjoy the story, and if we spell out exactly what absurdities it asks us to entertain, we have quite a list:

Monday, 22 December 2014

The Dalai Lama's Greeting Card Company

This patch addresses multiple issues with minds that are receptive to Dalai Lama quotes.


Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama (Photo by Jan Michael Ihl via Flickr)

The Dalai Lama is an agreeable man with twinkly eyes, and obviously an inspiration to many people, but while I admire his emphasis on love and compassion, I don't typically find what he says about these subjects any more insightful than the philosophy found in an average greeting card. It's possible that I regularly miss the point of the things he says, but much of the time, he seems to be either rehashing age-old truisms that I can't imagine are news to anyone, or making statements that initially sound true and profound, but when you really dwell on the substance of them and follow them through to their logical conclusions have almost everything backwards.

I don't expect agreement about this from anyone who is not already of this opinion without looking at some examples, so let's look at a few of his most popular quotes. In each case, I'll try to interpret his meaning as charitably as I can, but you'll see the problems I get into. Along the way, I'll use the opportunity to discuss what I think are more instructive (and much more interesting) ways of thinking about the issues raised.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Uri Geller's Prison


When someone claims to have a psychic ability, there is the extraordinary possibility that they're telling the truth about a genuine ability, but the more mundane possibilities are obviously that they are consciously lying about it for money and attention or that they have managed to convince themselves that they have an ability they don't in fact possess.

All of us are capable of deceiving ourselves from time to time about one thing or another, and even more so if we see this as a problem that only other people are susceptible to. Many self-professed fortune tellers and mediums are conceivably in this category, but this is unlikely to be true of the spoon bending performances of Uri Geller because of the preparation and ingenuity that would be required to fake them. It just isn't the sort of thing a sane person could innocently convince themselves they could do if they can't. In cases like this, we could exclude self-deception as an explanation leaving genuine paranormal ability or deliberate, premeditated deception as the only options. If we assume for the sake of argument that there is no such thing as paranormal ability, some interesting questions arise about the psychology of people like Geller.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Analysis paralysis and wedge issues: When knowledge isn't power

A vulnerability exists in individuals who are especially receptive to learning, which could allow an attacker to flood them with information that could induce an excess of self-doubt and disunity. An attacker who successfully exploited this vulnerability could take partial control of an affected mind.


A few months after Hitler took over as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Bertrand Russell responded with the kind of violence that is typical of philosophers: with a scathing essay. He called this essay The Triumph of Stupidity, and I want to expand on just two sentences from it. The first is one of his most famous quotes. Speaking of the new regime, he lamented that "the fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt."

Friday, 3 June 2011

A non-standard curriculum

A lack of genetic diversity poses a threat to the survival of a species. If there's a substantial amount of variation in a population, then it's more likely that at least some proportion of its members will be resistant to any given disease, thereby reducing the likelihood that a single epidemic will succeed in wiping out the whole population.

A similar argument can be made for diversity in education. If there's a substantial amount of variation in the way people are educated, then it's more likely that at least some proportion of the population will be able to detect mistakes in policy and so on before they cause damage, thereby reducing the likelihood that a single ideology will succeed in wiping out the civilisation we live in.

This is also the thinking behind diversification of investments. Simultaneously investing in both umbrellas and sunscreen has a way of reducing risk.