Truth Value

I used to lie a lot. For most of my elementary school education I was at an British international school. After 6th grade, however, my dad transferred me to a local Hong Kong school. While the school was still mostly taught in English, I was simply unused to the style of education and the amount of tedious work. My bad Chinese, which was the reason I transferred (to patch up) in the first place, was a particular burden. Looking back, I can heardly believe what I did back then: pretending to have headaches, on-purposely turning in the wrong notebook, finishing only half the homework before turning it in.

Luckily, after two and half years of what is easily the worst years of my life, I transferred to an American international school, which is ultimately why I'm in the US now. While I don't do the same tricks anymore, I still retain the "training" I got from that period. I am still a very smooth liar. I can maintain the complex web of information flow most of the time, making sure I don't tell the wrong person the wrong thing. Sometimes, I still lie before I have thought the situation through.

Since entering high school my memories of those deliquent years have faded a lot. I never keep contact with my friends from that school, and memories of the physical location and the times I spent there are generic. Becoming more and more a scientist and philosopher, I've often held knowing the truth above all else. A few recent events, though, have made me ponder the value of truth. Specifically, under what circumstances is it okay for one to lie?

Consider these situations:
  • Someone very close to you is in the hospital. You just learned from the doctor that they have some terminal illness. Would you tell them that they are dying, or would you lie and say everything will be okay?
  • You have had a crush on someone for a long time. You spend a lot of time with them, but they don't find you romantically attractive. Do you risk rejection and tell them your feelings, or do you hide it or worse, lie saying you don't feel the way you do (anymore)?
  • Someone close to you is in what you think is a cult. There is no danger from being in the cult, and they are very comfortable in this organization. You have just found evidence that their beliefs are entirely wrong. Do you tell them and watch their world collapse, or do you let them live happily in ignorance?
It's hard to say what truth is being weighed against in the first case. There is no obvious benefit from telling or not telling the truth. In the second case, truth is being weighed against your personal happiness; in the third case, against your friend's personal happiness.

If I was the "other person" in all three cases, I would unhesitantly prefer to know the truth than be left in the dark. To me personally I see no good coming out of ignorance. Happiness can be found again, and only in knowing what is actually out there can you make the correct decision.

Being the person holding the truth, though, makes things a little different. In the first and third case, I would still tell the truth. I can see this as selfishness - when only other people's happiness is involved I tell the truth. For the second case, I do not fear the rejection so much as losing what I already have. People tend to pay more to prevent loss than to gain the same amount.

Perhaps it might be more prudent to ask first whether they would like to hear the truth. In the first case it wouldn't matter - it is clear what the lie would be about, and that is tantamount to telling the truth. In the second and third case though, asking first is a possible strategy. "I have something to tell you. You may not like it, but I would like to offer you the truth. If you don't want to hear it, I won't tell you, but I wanted to let you know that I didn't deliberately hide it from you."

Admittedly, I don't do that all the time. It takes a lot of integrity and courage to do so, more than what I have. More often than not, I will withhold the truth, and not let them be aware I even know something. Instead, I will do something to let them discover the truth themselves, or work to have their mind made up first, before revealing anything.

But isn't withholding the truth still lying?
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Re: Rational People

There were two comments on my previous post Rational People.

Yvonne wrote:
As a semi-religious person, I have to say that I don't know if I'd ever have become a Christian if it wasn't for entering HKIS/such a Lutheran-based society. I don't go to church/Bible study/prayer groups so I don't have any sort of support system in that regard - but I do agree that I'm probably in religion for some sort of emotional appeal. Even if I can't put my finger on exactly what it is yet.

I believe religion is completely irrational...which may or may not make it "true" (if we define 'true' in the first place)
Faye wrote:
So I've been reading more of that Dawkins. For the record, I do think that we do need crazies like him in the world to argue one extreme view in an articulate manner. He's alright in that respect.

But I do quite disagree with him when he says that the world would be better off without religion at all. He says that religion causes violence, bigotry, discrimination, and a whole slew of other negative social effects.

He completely neglects (at least as far as I've read) that many rich cultures around the world can hardly be divorced from the religions upon which they are founded. I'm talking tribal religions, religions centered around stories and traditional practices, religions that create foundations for whole ways of life and a way for people to find connectedness with their surroundings.

What are your views on this? Given that religion is almost the definition of irrationality, in the face of scientific facts, should we try to abandon it altogether in favor of logic? What would the benefits of a purely logical social world be as opposed to the religious one we live in now?
I will respond to both comments and give a few more thoughts on my unemotionality.

Yvonne: I don't think religion is completely irrational. As I mentioned (and have yet to expound on), I think religion can be a rational choice. What is irrational is the belief in God. What, then, is religion without that belief? Good question. Buddhism, even though it doesn't have a God in the normal sense, still says something about an external, imperceptible reality - that we will reincarnate over and over again until we reach nirvana. As I learned earlier this quarter, for something to be classified as religion it must have some supernatural element - which by definition cannot be demonstrated in science.

A religion without the supernatural is, I think, what we call philosophy. If the main affect of religion is the passing on a moral code, it would be ethics. The study of ethics itself can be rational, and many philosophers have tried to find the "best" morals for humans. One way this is done, which I personally belief in, is through the realization that other people have feelings too. For me this entails a version of the Golden Rule. If one understands that they are also human and are just as flawed, makes just as many mistakes, and be just as hurt, one would treat them with respect. This foundation of personal morals is observable; it is hard to deny that other people are humans without giving up a lot of other common believes (that our senses cannot be trusted - this goes into epistemology). It is rational to have this moral system as long as the senses are to be trusted to a certain degree. If, however, the foundation of those morals are based on a unprovably existing supernatural being, then the set of morals rests on an irrational base.

I have to consent that this could be a debate on how much (or which) of our senses should be trusted. One could say that we have a sense for Godliness. I would argue here that we have instruments which confirm the feedback from our normal five senses, while none exists for the existence of God.

The purpose of this little detour is to show that, what some people consider as a major part of religion can also be built without resorting to supernatural phenomenon.

There is another aspect of religion which is crucial, and that is the social aspect. Durkheim was the one who pointed out that magic is not a religion - there is no "collective effervescence", because magic is an individual activity. There is no society of magicians (in the medieval sense of magic, not magic tricks). Shamans operate alone, and villagers come to the shaman to be healed. For this reason, it is called shamanic magic, and not shamanic religion.

And this, I think, is the main rational reason for joining a religion: it provides a sense of community. For immigrants, which we've been reading about in class, religion provides a lot of support for people new to a country. Not only is it a more relaxing place to meet new people, but it often also gives people comfort. Ethnic churches also provide a connection to their home country, and a sense of fellowship among similarly situated immigrants. To the extent that one wants a sense of community, then joining a religion is a rational choice.

To sum up my response: theology is irrational, but religion - with its extra social and psychological affects - might not be.

Faye: My response to Yvonne's comment applies a lot to yours too, because it argues that religion is not pure irrationality. My thought on Dawkins: religion does cause a lot of problems, but only the theological side. The Crusades were started because two groups believe in two different Gods (well, not really... but you know what I mean). I think it's important to note that the existence of said Gods, never mind what the Gods want, is unprovable. To cut to the chase, it's the irrational portion of religion that is causing wars and violence.

If you read my post of logic, the above statement can be cast as "if people believe in theology, then there will be wars". I want to be clear that I'm not denying the antecedent. I am not saying that if there's no theology, then there won't be wars. I think there will be less, if only because there have already been wars brought on by theology, but there are also wars fought around other differences. But having less wars would be a good thing.

Would a world without religion be a better place? I can't really say. There are questions in the philosophy of science we cannot answer, and probably will never be able to. My dad brought up this point and I had dismissed it before, but now I'm not so sure. Certainly, the social aspects of religion can be replaced by secular groups - groups that discuss science or current events, or groups that play sports together. Will that have the same psychological affect as the "certainty" that there is a purpose in life? Maybe. I do think if people were less devote there would be more progress in science, medicine, and other fields, which might have more immediate, practical effects on the world. Gene therapy and stem cell research are both blocked by what I think are irrational reasons (see my abortion post), and if it does lead to a cure for AIDS, that will save more people than religion can.

In conclusion: I think there are pros and cons to a world without religion, and I'm not sure it's possible to say whether it will be better.

I want to address one specific part of Faye's comment further. She wrote that Dawkins
neglects... that many rich cultures around the world can hardly be divorced from the religions upon which they are founded. I'm talking tribal religions, religions centered around stories and traditional practices, religions that create foundations for whole ways of life and a way for people to find connectedness with their surroundings.
To be honest, I can't say I entirely disagree with Dawkins.  I can see where Faye's argument comes from: without religion, these cultures would not have existed, and we would be losing the diversity of the world. On the other hand though, the fact that religion helped build up the culture says nothing about the culture not adapting new things.

The thing is, I see very little value in tradition. The ancient civilizations of the world have social structures very different from what currently exists in the modern world. There is value in studying those cultures historically, to understand what happened in that time period, but it would be a mistake to say we should continue those traditions because they are traditions. Absolute monarchies, slavery, theocracies, etc. have been eradicated in most countries, and I think we can all agree it's for the better. The fact that they were important in the history of modern nations says nothing about their current value.

To me, this idea extends beyond political systems to cultures and behaviors. I don't see value in a lot of things. Birthdays, for example. I understand the usefulness of marking the passage of time, and how the current system is related to the sowing and harvesting of crops. But on a cosmic scale, a second is not tied to the earth's orbit around Sol, but vibrations of a cesium atom. Earth-days and earth-years can be built on top of that - which of course, means light years are also completely bogus units of measurement, as is the astronomical unit. A human birthday, then, is some arbitrary demarcation of time. There is nothing inherently celebratory about periods of 31,556,926 seconds after our birth, or death, or the publishing of a book.

Back to religion. So what if religion contributed to the development of a culture? The parts of a religion which explains natural phenomenon (for example, the kidnapping of Persephone causing winter) is being gradually supplanted by science. Keeping to the tradition of religion here has no benefits, both in descriptive ability and in technological progress.

Despite this, however, there is value in religion, for its societal, communal, and psychological effects. As Faye pointed out, it is also of historical importance. Therefore, I simultaneously disgree with Dawkins' total abolishment of religion and the embrace of religious irrationality. Rather, religion should exist as a community of support for people who need them, but it should stay away from the realms of science.

Menstruation in Space

Last week's question: Do animals fear non-immediate, abstract things.

It turns out that this is a tricky question. First, what I called "fear" is not actually fear, but anxiety, which is different. Fear has to have a direct cause and somehow escapable, while anxiety can be indirect and unescapable.

Reading the Wikipedia page for fear says nothing about animals. The proper page to use is Emotion in Animals... which only mentions fear once. It seems to be widely recognized that animals have fear, but it is uncertain from what. It can be argued, though, that animals can be clinically depressed, as the rather inhumane experiment under the canines section shows.

So in that sense, if animals can be influenced by non-immediate events (like the constant reminder of electric shocks... I'm really glad the Animal Welfare Act was passed), then they do feel anxiety.

This week's question: We have had both male and female astronauts staying in space for long periods of time. How does the low gravity environment affects a women's menstruation?


Sorry for the late post. I'm feeling kinda lazy, so I'm just going to dump some quotes on you.

From Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach:
  • intelligence loves patterns and balks at randomness
  • Hardy on Ramanujan: With his memory, his patience, and his power of calculation, he combined a power of generalization, a feeling for form, and a capacity for rapid modification of his hypotheses, that were often really startling, and made him, in his own field, without a rival in his day.
  • This is, it seems to me, a general principle: you get bored with something not when you have exhausted its repertoire of behavior, but when you have mapped out the limits of the space that contains its behavior.
From the TED Talk of Peter Diamandis, of the X-Prize Foundation:
  • The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it's a crazy idea.
  • [The X-Prizes need to be at] intersection of audacity and achievability.
From the TED Talk of Daniel Suarez, author of Daemon:
  • All juvenile mammals indulge in play; its our way of probing new realities and of learning our place in them. 
In other news, in econ so far I've gotten a 74% on the first midterm and 54% on the second midterm. This totals 74 * .15 + 54 * .3 = 27% out of 45% possible.


I should have gone with my instinct and stayed out of econ. I'm not sure what it is, but econ and me just don't match up very well.

A.k.a. I suck at econ.
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Rational People

I'm one of the least emotional people you'll know.

Things others often find sentimental value in, such as their country or race, I find nothing appealing at all. I don't enjoy much fiction, the rousing drama in the plot, and would rather read a good non-fiction book explaining some part of nature I don't yet understand. I think about crossing the street in terms of game theoretic dominating strategies, and see the world as high if not totally deterministic (but of course that doesn't change anything).

From all this, I would like to think that I am a totally rational person, although of course I am not. My way of thinking, though, does make me a little strange to people who don't know me. It also frustrates people who argue with me, who tend to have not as good a grasp of logic. With that in mind, I decided to take Sociology of Religion partially with the mindset of understanding humans. As with Kahneman and Tversky, I wanted to understand the irrationality and cognitive biases which lead people to religion - because I can see no logic behind it at all... sort of. This will be the topic of another post.

As I've done the reading and interviewed people for the course, I slowly realized that people are not in religion because of the theology, or whether it makes sense that God did this and this at such and such a time. While Obama had a favorite philosopher/theologian, how many other people do? Well, I do - Bertrand Russell. And I have actually given this thought, having previously been a great admirer of Socrates. But people like me are in the minority - most just don't care if their religion is logically consistent.

As my professor has been emphasizing in in class, religion for the majority of Americans is about identity and community. People are in religion for the emotional appeal - they feel a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose. This can be influenced by one's culture, race, ethnicity, family, and a multitude of other things, but chances are logic is not one of them. I think if people had grown up differently, perhaps in a different culture or in a different family, they would be equally convinced of another religion.

Now, before you say nasty things, let me clarify: I'm not saying that this is bad or inferior. It's just that I've always thought of religion as a logical choice - see which theology best describe the world, then that's the one to believe in. Until this quarter I've never thought about religion in emotional terms; it has always been a sub branch of philosophy. Just as the ancient Greek philosophy of the four classical elements (fire, water, air, earth) has been discarded, I thought people would choose the most accurate theology and stick with that, too. This course has taught me that there is a sociological and psychological side to religion.

I have, in other words, made the same error as classical game theorists and economists: I assumed that people are rational. People are not rational, and the biggest proof of this is that people can hold logical inconsistencies in religion, even when confronted with them. Another note to the religious: I am actually not that hard to convince - you just need undeniable scientific evidence that God exists. Clergymen who repeatably parts the Red Sea, for example, would be a good one, or perhaps the laying on of hands which has a high probability of curing cancer or AIDS.

I'm beginning to think that I might learn more about myself from a well-defined, well understood, entirely rational AI.

Primal Fear

Last week's question: What would a transportation system look like if the ground is frictionless?

I have several ideas. There are several transportation systems already in place for traversing a frictionless medium, although not on the ground. Hot air ballons don't rely on ground friction, nor do gliders and blimps. Gladers move by wind, which will work equally well on the ground (land sailing). Blimps and planes, on the other hand, push air away from it for propulsion. Propellers and get engines would therefore to do the same on the ground.

Other ideas I had involve some initial energy. If the distance to be traversed is not too great, then air resistance is negligible. I can imagine nets being spread around an area, and people would just push off to be caught in a net at their destination. Setting up the net initially would probably require a tether, like how astronauts do space walks - which, by the way, is truly a frictionless environment.

On a more science fiction note, it may be possible to do something with eletro-magnets. It will basically be the principle in maglev trains. I can imagine some sort of remote, a magnetic suit, and a magnetized floor. Using the remote will activiate electro-magnets, which will push and pull you in one direction, or alternately slow and stop you.

Considering I just came back from broomball, some of these things sound really exciting to try out.

This week's question: Humans are often fearful of abstract ideas. Job interviews, asking someone out... these things have no immediate physical danger to us. So the question is, do animals have similar kinds of fears, and if so, from what?
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Religion and Logic

This post is actually less blasphemous than my other posts about religion.

Among my many objections against (some, not all) religious people, there is one I really can't stand: their use (or lack thereof) of logic.

Let me introduce the logic concepts first, then return to religion.

P->Q is read "If P, then Q". P and Q can be any statement; for example, if P is "it is raining" and Q is "the sidewalk is wet", then P->Q reads "if it is raining, then the sidewalk is wet". The proper name for this argument is modus ponens.

Elementary so far, right? The rules of logic allows us to define the contrapositive, ~Q->~P. Since if P happens Q must happen too, Q not happening means P did not happen. Using the example above, this would read "If the sidewalk is not wet, then it is not raining". This also has a proper name, modus tollens.

More relevant to the point, logic does not allow us to draw the conclusion that Q->P. This fallacy is called affirming the consequent. This is a fallacy because it assumes P is the only thing which can cause Q. In our example, this would read "If the sidewalk is wet, then it is raining. However, the sidewalk could be wet from rain, but also from car washing, pipe leakage, or other things.

A similar fallacy is denying the antecedent, ~P->~Q. It also stems from the assumption that only P can cause Q. Translated to English in our example, it reads "If it is not raining, then the sidewalk is not wet". Again, the side walk could be wet from other causes.

As a side note, if you do want to argue that given P->Q you know Q->P and ~P->~Q, then you need to use the bi-implication, also known as the if-and-only-if. For example, P could be "it is 5 pm" and Q could be "it is 7 hours until midnight". All of the above arguments would be true, since only in the case of it being 5 pm could it be 7 hours until midnight.

Note that these rules say nothing about the inherent truth of P or Q, or whether it makes sense that P->Q. These rules are only saying that if P->Q is true, then certain arguments are valid. P could be "I am female" and Q could be "there's an apple on the table". Clearly P is false and these two statements have nothing to do with each together. It certainly does not mean that "if there's no apple on the table, then I am not female" (~Q->~P). The original implication, P->Q, is meaningless under this interpretation. Given a sensible P and Q, however, the rules stated above hold.

Now, let's bring this back to religion. A common statement might be that "if you believe in God, then you are a good person". I will ignore whether this implication is valid for the moment. What I want to focus on is how people, after saying that and getting agreement, would go on to say "if you don't believe in God, then you are not a good person." To make this even clearer:
  1. P is "you believe in God"
  2. Q is "you are a good person"
  3. "If you believe in God, then you are a good person" (P->Q)
  4. "If you don't believe in God, then you are not a good person" (~P->~Q) !!!
The problem is with the fourth line. As I pointed out in the logic section, ~P->~Q is an invalid argument; it assumes only P can cause Q. And in this case, is believing in God the only cause of being a good person? Of course not. Many people who don't believe in God did great things. Even if everyone who was Christian is a good person, this argument would not hold.

Let's try something else. Here's a recent example:
  1. P is "this movement is of God"
  2. Q is "this movement will last"
  3. P->Q is "if this movement is of God, then this movement will last" (Acts 5:39)
  4. "If this movement lasts, then this movement is of God" (Q->P) !!!
Before you object, I know the Bible doesn't claim the last statement. This is just for demonstration purposes. This is the same idea as before, except this time the fallacy is affirming the consequent. Judaism, Hinduism, and Confucianism are all lasting movements, still active in the modern age, and yet they are not movement so of the Christian God. Confucianism, in particular, is not about God at all.

If you listen to religious rhetoric (or just any persuasive speech in general), you will find these logical fallacies all over the place. It makes me so frustrated when the speakers make them and go on like nothing is wrong.
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Domain Mapping

In my Sociology of Religion course we recently finished Christian Smith's American Evangelicalism (a/bn). The book is really good; it's one of the few books that, as I read and had questions, eventually answers them. Although sociologists talk about a general secularization of society, what we see in everyday life is that religion is still very much alive. Smith's book looks at why this is, and he forms his subcultural identity theory based on an earlier secularization theory of pluralism. One of Smith's idea is that, looking at religion as a competitive market, the "fittest" religion gets the largest congregation.

This idea, although a little heretical at first, actually has a lot of merit. I highly recommend Smith's book for more details, but one of his points is that a changing religion doesn't equate to a religion giving ground to science; it's merely adapting to what society wants. This would be equivalent to businesses trying to brand differentiate; it's merely a strategy (albeit an unconscious one) to survive.

The idea of mapping one domain to another is old. This is the most obvious in mathematics: Godel's proof of incompleteness rests on mapping the metamathematics language (or any formal system) back to mathematics itself. It goes back further, however, with Descartes. In modern times it seems natural do talk about geometry in terms of x and y, but such a mapping between geometry and algebra was not always obvious to mathematicians. The main idea is that mappings, provided they are correct and you know the limits of any particular map, provide new perspectives on looking at the original domain.

For example, the mapping of religion to economics suggests price discrimination within a church. And with megachurches, we do see that: people can walk in and walk out on Sundays only, or they can join the plethora of prayer groups, social outreach projects, and other activities offered during the week. To each his own; if someone is willing to spend time (more on this in a bit) working for the church and strengthening it, the church will draw them in. They are the consumers at the left end of the demand curve, willing to pay a large sum for religion. For the others who are not as interested, well, they can just come and count towards congregation numbers.

In class we talked about how although in society there are lots of religions to choose from, the background of a person might prevent them from choosing their favorite religion. For example, if someone was raised in a fairly restrictive church, and grew up thinking that way, it is likely that they will stay within that church. They simply do know enough about other religions to make a choice. This makes me think of complex systems, and the general problem in economics of information flow. The general assumption of perfect information is clearly too idealistic; what happens when consumers don't know that on the other side of town you can get the car for much cheaper? Joshua Epstein and Robert Axtell's Growing Articial Societies deals with this a bit. I actually reconstructed their models for a project last quarter, and their conclusion is that while the market does head towards equilibrium price, it takes time. Through in changing preferences and difference in taste between generations, then the economic equilibrium is almost never reached at all. What does this say about religion? Well, there's probably people who would join a church if they required less ("dead weight loss"); people will probably keep changing churches; a single church won't dominate the entire religious market... You get the idea.

The last "map" I will make, although this is not so much a map as a "reminds me of", is to psychology. Smith suggests that with the large number of religious choices in society, people are more likely to find one they like and commit to it. Psychology, however, suggests otherwise. Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper has written papers on how people are more likely to buy jam if given 6 choices instead of 60. This NYTimes article gives a non-technical overview. While this does not invalidate Smith's theory, more research should perhaps be done on choice between religions.

For those who find domain mapping a valuable tool, it might be interesting to you that these metaphors - which are what maps are when you explain them - have been considered by some (in particular, George Lakoff) to be the basis of how we learn. The metaphors also suggest certain attitudes. I used the phrase "spend time" above, seeing time as money. Does that mean I look at time as something I "own", that I should maximize my time, and there's only a finite amount of it?

Lakoff's book Metaphors We Live By (a/bn) will probably give more details on this. I have yet to read the book either; I would gladly read it with you and discuss.
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Efficient Transportation

Last week's question: Are outdoor ice rinks really made with water? Is Zamboni a type of vehicle or a brand name?

  • Yes, out door ice rinks are made with water. When I went ice skating last weekend, we talked about mixing some kind of chemical to raise the melting point of water, so it will freeze more easily. I suspect this will make it turn to liquid quicker under pressure though.
  • Zamboni is a brand name, with their major competitor being Olympia. The latter is what Millennium Park uses.
This week's question: In physics, we often do problems where the ground has no friction, so there is no loss in energy. Now, imagine a world where the ground (and only the ground, not buildings or other artificial objects) have no friction. What would the transportation system in such a world look like? Hint: cars move because of friction between the tyres and the ground.
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I recently had an online discussion about religion, gay marriage, and abortion with a bunch of strangers. It was an exhilarating experience. It occurred to me that while I've written quite a bit about the first two, I have yet to address the latter.

I think my views are logically entailed by several facts/assumptions:
  • Fetuses, up to a certain point, are not conscious beings
  • Humans are animals
  • We kill animals - taking certain precautions to avoid inflicting pain
That's it. If humans are just animals, then the consideration of killing humans should be no different. Of course, there are differences: humans are intelligent, we are conscious, etc. That's why the first assumption is there. It might turn out that children are born conscious of themselves, but that's rather unlikely. I also take the view that consciousness entails intelligence, so getting rid of consciousness would solve the intelligence problem as well. Since fetuses up to a certain stage are not conscious, they should be treated as any other animal.

The argument is simple from that point. When we kill cows, chickens, etc. we (in general) use procedures which make sure the animal does not feel pain, or otherwise suffer before it's death. This courtesy towards life should be offered to fetuses as well. And it is also easy to see that only at some point in development the fetus has nerves and therefore can feel pain. And therefore, abortion should be allowed up to that point.

Of course, it might be possible to perform euthanasia on the fetus after that point as well. I suppose I'm fine with this too.

Note that whether abortion is ethical is a different question from whether people should abort. Just because you can jump out of a window and kill yourself doesn't mean you should; in fact, I personally would advice people to keep their babies. But I don't have a moral qualm against those who abort (before said deadline) either.

I would like to share one more thing. In my discussion, someone brought up the idea that abortion is wrong because of legal rights... for the father. If the child is a product of both the father and the mother (so far...), why should the mother have the sole rights to abort? I think this argument has merit, but because of biological and other costs to the mother, I don't think they should have an equal say either. Of course, this is not as simple as taking the weighted average of each other's arguments. But at least it's a viable framework to look at abortion.
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Two Book Ethics

This has been sitting in my draft box for a while.

I read Flowers for Algernon (FoA) not too long ago, and then read Ender's Shadow (ES) two weeks or so ago, and realized that both authors are playing off the same theme: that of giving up long life for extreme intelligence. There were some side effects too - a decreased ability to understand social motivations, isolation, etc. I'm not sure if this is what the authors see happening in real life, of it's just coincidence that both of them used the same events.

I am really more interested in whether I, given the choice, would choose extreme intelligence over life. Charlie in FoA didn't really know what he was getting into, whereas Bean in ES had no choice at all. For Charlie the outcome was unavoidable; by the end of the book he had already fallen back to his previous state. Bean, on the other hand, went on a relativistic journey so others can discover a cure.

If I had the choice, it wouldn't take long for me to decide at all: I would go through the surgery. I'm not sure what it is that compels me to do so. Part of it certainly has to do with the fame - not of the surgery as with Charlie - but of discovering something in the short time that you are brilliant. The career peak of many mathematicians and scientists are in their 20s, after which they simply don't have the mental agility to do anything great. Is such a surgery not simply being shortly brilliant at will, then dying off?

The other compelling factor is anticipating how much you will learn and know. Here I am reminded of Charles Babbage, who said that he "would gladly give up [his] life if [he] could have lived three days five hundred years hence." This is a deal that I would make, too. Being in a religion class now makes me think of transcendence, a plateau of intellectual nirvana at the end of the surgery. But think also how mankind would advance! If I'm not the only person willing to do this - and I'm pretty sure I'm not - then science would grow in leaps, led by consecutive short generations of super-geniuses. Even without a cure to the aging side effect, there would not be the start and stop of current scientific progress.

I see why this is attractive now: it's a very transhumanist idea. Valuing intelligence above many things and not caring if we are displaced by others, the leadership of super-geniuses doesn't bother me at all.

My only regret would probably be, after being brilliant for a short period, the uselessness I would feel afterwards. Like Charlie I would probably contemplate suicide, and unlike him I won't be bound by observation. By then death doesn't bother me either.

"For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods..."
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Last week's question: How can you estimate the speed of a passing plane? Certain assumptions are allowed. In the first case, let the distances sound and light traveled be the same. In the diagram and equations below, the variables are
  • xl - the distance traveled by the plane since it produced the sound you're hearing. l is the length of the plane, which you can look up by the model. x is how many plane lengths there are between the source of sound and the source of light.
  • theta - the angle between the paths of light and sound.
  • d - the distance traveled by light and sound. d_light = d_sound
  • theta_s, theta_l - the angle opposite the paths of sound and of light, respectively.
  • v_? - the velocity of various entities. The speed of sound and light are given.
To get v_plane, first we find d through the law of sines:

Then we equate the travel times of light, sound, and the plane. Assume the plane has moved a negligible amount between the reflection of light to your sighting of the plane. This gives:

That was pretty easy, wasn't it? This formula seems roughly correct; if the sound and sight of the plane forms a 30 degree angle, the planeis traveling at 176 m/s. Online sources say a B747 actually travelsat around 240 m/s, which would be about 41 degrees.

Now for the bonus part: what if the distance traveled by light and sound were not equal? Then we have the situation below:

I don't actually have a neat equation for this one, but I managed to set up four (hopefully) independent equations, which will allow us to solve this system. The four equations are below.

The simple ones first. By the sum of angles in a triangle:

By the same relation, and the trigonometric tangent relationship:

By the law of sines:

Finally, this mess is created by using Heron's formula and the trigonometric sine relationship:

That gives us four equations in the four variables d_light, d_sound, theta_l, and theta_s. As I said, these should be independent; if someone solves this (or fails), please let me know.

After these four are solved for, we use the same time equivalence equation:

And we're done.

Note that in both cases, if you are also given the angle the plane and the horizon phi, you can also calculate the height of the plane:

Faye tagged me for a photo thing, and after questioning her definitions, I have this:

This was taken while I was at CTY. We were walking back to Stanford from dinner, and passed by the Facebook headquarters. From left to right, we have Sam, Lizzy, Hina, Erin, and me; Erica's behind the camera. We're all TAs for different courses. You can see more of this set on Picasa, and the tagged version on Facebook.

To compensate for the tough question, this week's will be merely fact finding, both related to ice rinks:
  • Are outdoor ice rinks actually made from pure water?
  • Is Zamboni a brand, or the name of the actual machine?
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