Category Archives: science

The losers of Superbowl XLVIII will be…

Francis facepalm

Religious moderates.

Here’s my reasoning.

After the game, someone on the winning team, exulting ecstatically, will say “God was on our side” or words to that effect. It’s as sure as a post-touchdown two-point conversion attempt late in the fourth quarter, if the team is still down by a pair.

This will lead humorists and atheists alike to mock the athlete’s egocentric theology, along the lines of the great “God-Man on the Gridiron” cartoon from a few years back. Which will inspire angry rebuttals from offended fundamentalists.

Religious moderates are the collateral damage in this snake-vs-mongoose battle, bitten by both sides.

I’ve read aggressive atheists argue that religious moderates “give cover” for fundamentalists, by making religion seem respectable. The faulty reasoning is that if the only religious people around were crazed fundamentalists, no one would ever be converted to religion, and humanity would break the chains of irrational superstition forever. I find great humour in such atheists’ irrational belief that we could one day cure ourselves of our own irrationality. :)

I’ve also listened to religious fundamentalists classify religious moderates as pseudo-apostates, who have fallen away from the authentic faith the fundamentalists (naturally) perpetuate. The flawed logic here sees moderate religious views are seen as a kind of “gateway drug” to the godless secular atheism, the rise of which has led to, uh, the lowest crime rates in the U.S. in fifty years. This misplaced ethos is aptly captured by the misplaced priorities of God-Man’s sidekick Fan-Boy in this cartoon here.

The book Freakonomics popularized the incorrect idea that crime rates in the U.S. dropped because abortion was legalized. (Given the machinations of Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan et al, one would be forgiven for thinking we’re living in a golden age for white-collar crime.)

The strong factor actually seems to have been reduction in kids’ lead exposure. Another economist found that in each of nine countries he studied, violent crime rates fell off a cliff, about twenty years after their respective governments phased lead out of gasoline. But his publications weren’t best-sellers. :)

Basically, religious moderates get fragged by both sides.

Back, briefly, to the Super Bowl

Though I’m an atheist, I’m sincerely glad so many football players are religious.

Statistics and psychological studies show that religious people are more generous than heathen like me. And the religious are particularly generous towards fellow worshipers, and others in their faith-defined “in-group”.

As an atheist, I value this factoid. It’s dangerous to think one is morally superior to one’s occasional opponents. So in a sense, I want to believe that some of the people who disagree with me, live with more upright selflessness – whether it’s a fact or fiction, the idea itself should keep me from developing a caustic arrogance about myself or my “side”.

Considering how much head trauma an NFL player will suffer in his career, after he retires and the symptoms start to show, he’s almost certainly going to need help. A lot of help. Possibly, very expensive help. For years and years afterwards.

As such, if I want the best for an NFL player when he retires, I would want him to be part of a large, supportive faith community. (I would also them to have access to single-payer universal healthcare, to prevent medical complications from bankrupting them or any other American, but hey, that’s just my Canadian perspective.)

Sadly, all light casts shadows

Unfortunately, when it comes to religious fundamentalists, there’s a downside to their generosity – while they’re more generous to members of their in-group, they tend to be more hostile to members of out-groups. (As the authors of this paper explain, religious fundamentalism combines the benefits of religious pro-sociality with the defects of authoritarian intolerance.)

In our day and era, gays are a favourite scapegoat of so many Christians who must otherwise be well-meaning people. This despite the fact that the centurion’s servant whom Jesus healed, was probably the soldier’s teenage gay lover, and He seemed fine with that. (Actually, all this really proves is that liberals can proof-text the Bible to argue what they want, as skilfully as conservatives.)

Still on the NFL, former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe was released from the team after the 2012 season, several months after he expressed his support of gay rights and same-sex marriage. While his stats were middle-of-the-pack, he claims to’ve gotten pushback from some members of the coaching and management who were particularly opposed to his opposition to, uh, bigotry.

[update: from this ESPN report, it looks like Kluwe may have been a bottom-dweller in some stats important to the Vikings, and as such, he may be less of a martyr than a mediocrity whose time was up. Keeping in mind that being a mediocre NFL punter is still someone in the top 30 or so at that position in the world. I edited the last sentence of the following paragraph to reflect this.]

To their credit, the Vikings have launched a formal investigation. And it’s entirely possible that the Vikings thought they could get a better punter for less money. Sadly, given the religious views of some members of the Viking staff and management, there’ll always be the question of whether faith-based reasons may have partially influenced the decision to cut Kluwe.

I’m hopeful that by the time Leo grows up, things will change and there’ll be comfortably out athletes. No doubt there will still be other social prejudices still to overcome – I may be an atheist, but I’m hardly a utopian.

And Warren Moon

To end with on football, I remember when I first found out that CFL and NFL Hall-of-Fame quarterback Warren Moon had a tough time becoming a quarterback in the 1970’s, because of an apparent social inertia in football culture that blacks didn’t become quarterbacks.

University football teams would convert high school prospects to other positions. This wasn’t only a football thing either; there was a strong anti-European sentiment in the NHL, until pioneers like Borje Salming proved that Europeans were just as good – and just as tough – as North Americans. (Hockey’s last remaining Europhobe can be found on Hockey Night in Canada’s Coach’s Corner…)

When Moon finally got to be a starting quarterback, he led his college team to the Rose Bowl, and was the game’s MVP. And he still didn’t get drafted. So he played in the CFL, where he was part of an Edmonton Eskimos team which won five straight championships. Then, finally, the NFL came calling.

The thing that shocked me the most was that the NFL’s antipathy to black quarterbacks – and the NHL’s reluctance to give Europeans a shot, for that matter – was recent enough that it I was alive for the back end of it!

I do hope that, as a society, our definition of “in-groups” keeps growing, so that one day Leo can tell his own kids that, as frustrating as the day’s social issues may seem, he too was alive at the back end of this long-standing social inertia, which swiftly, satisfyingly dissipated, soon thereafter.

(As for why I chose the Pope, that’s another post. While they’re hardly religious progressives, the Catholic Church’s acceptance of the reality of evolution, and its almost two-thousand-year-old tradition of interpreting parts of the Bible allegorically instead of insisting it’s all factually accurate, mean that by my amateur classification, they go in the “moderate” pile. Moderates whose hierarchy has shielded countless pedophiles from the law for decades, yes… but moderates none the less.)

Putting the “X” back in Xmas

Xtians began using “Xmas” 500 years ago, since in Greek, X is the “Ch” in Christ

Around the holidays, some people (not to name names or anything) urge modern society to put the “Christ” back in Christmas. There’s much to criticize about the hollow vacuousness of consumer culture, after all. Most of us can buy into the idea of better treasuring time with family and friends; and who’d oppose charity and compassion for the less-fortunate? (Well, apart from that strangest of philosophical tribes, the Objectivists, that is…)

Heck, the leftists among us might even be open to the Christian idea of a 100% marginal tax rate, on assets — that whole “tithing” thing is so Old Testament ;) – which is backed up by the fact that Jesus’ early followers were basically communists! (Admittedly, it’s easy to give up private property rights when you think the world’s about to end…)

Unfortunately, some misguided folks want to put the “Christ” back in Christmas, because they think “Xmas” is a part of some sort of secular war on Christmas. If there’s any upside to this, it’s that secular humanists are the new scapegoats of Christian demagogues. After nineteen hundred years, the Jews finally, finally catch a break! Hallelujah!  :)

In Greek, “Christ” is spelled with an X

This is all very strange, since it was Christians who started using “Xmas” in the first place. Five hundred years ago. And followers of the faith used X (and/or Xp) as an abbreviation for Christ, an additional twelve hundred years before that.

They did so because the Greek word for Christ — Χριστος — starts with the Greek letter chi, which happens to look like an “X”. And Greek is the language in which the first Christian scriptures were written, and in which the faith was first widely proselytized. (To be rigorously accurate, some portions – the Lord’s Prayer and various figures of speech – seem to’ve originally been Aramaic.)

So the real question is why these commentators would want to take the “X” out of Xmas; for today’s Christians, its presence would visually affirm a continuity with the Greek-speaking communities where Jesus’ gospel was first preached, two thousand years ago, and where the religion’s scriptures were written. How cool is that?

Orthopraxy vs. orthodoxy

I do wonder of why Buddhists, Hindus and others just don’t seem to get as worked up about these kinds of things. And my impression could just be because I’m less familiar with demagogues from those traditions.

Still, I get the sense that in eastern traditions, anger and outrage are regarded as unhelpful, if not outright harmful. For all the crimes of the Chinese government against Tibetans in the past half-century, exiled Tibetan Buddhist monks don’t seem to have an “anger button”; they tend to express their distress and condemnation in astonishingly measured tones.

One difference between the major western Abrahamic faiths and the big eastern Dharmic faiths, is that the latter tend to be orthopraxies – they emphasize correct practice – while the western ones tend to be orthodoxies, emphasizing correct belief. I can’t help thinking that may have something to do with it.

If one has adopted a set of spiritual beliefs – an orthodoxy – there’s always the risk that new scientific knowledge could undermine them. Learning that the universe is billions and not thousands of years old could cause a fight-or-flight response in some people, leading to the bellicose annoyance and self-righteous indignation so commonly heard in the words of some conservative religious leaders. Especially if they think such beliefs are all that separate us from the nightmare of Hobbesian anarchy – an unending war of all against all.

But if one has adopted a set of spiritual practices – an orthopraxy – then scientific findings which invalidate their rationale and justification, might be inconsequential. If one is becalmed by meditation, and it seems to serve one’s community, so what if the universe is fourteen billion instead of one hundred and fifty five trillion years old?

Even so, there’s no doubt there are Buddhist and Hindu demagogues, just waiting for the chance to corrode the public discourse in their own home countries, as religious conservatives have done over here. ;)

It’s probably safest to say that we in the West have simply been lucky enough not to have heard of them, because a Fox News-type empire hasn’t given their televangelism and/or megatemples a worldwide media platform. Yet.


APSC150 speech

My August Canadian EV car sales stats update went up recently. Which was cool.

Cooler still, I had a chance to wax poetic about sustainability, and my new-found optimism that we’ll avoid the worst of our dystopian horrors. I was invited to be a guest lecturer for an engineering course at UBC (APSC 150) where I had the privilege to slightly shape the minds of about four hundred first-year students. And show them how, here in the first world, #WeAreWhales. (The cryptic comment is described in the slide deck, here.)

Coolest of all, I’ve achieved a Wiki-immortality of sorts! I’m a Wikipedia footnote in the Tesla Model S article! Or, rather, one of my older GreenCarReports columns is. The one describing the vehicle’s Canadian sales figures for the first half of 2013. :)

Wiki Klippenstein

Of course, Wiki’s being the infinitely editable sites that they are, my fame will well be fleeting. Which brings to mind to Hindu parable of Indra and the ants, whose punchline was once majestically translated as “former Indra’s, all“. :) For all our works and purpose, pride and presence, in time’s great fulness we are all returned into the Void from whence we came.

The Innovator’s Dilemma, Toyota edition


This car — yes, this car — has impeded Toyota’s electric efforts

My post on how The Innovator’s Dilemma explains why Toyota lags in electric vehicles — and how Kleiber’s Law explains there’s nothing for them to worry about (yet), is now up on GreenCarReports.

While the Tesla stats were cooler to have dug up, and will probably enjoy a broader readership, this particular piece was more gratifying to write; the Innovator’s Dilemma is a fairly well-known concept in business circles, but there’s a tendency to incorrectly think that all industries get changed and disrupted quickly. To adapt from yesterday’s screed, the world of software changes a lot more quickly than the world of stuff.

And Kleiber’s Law probably (partially) explains why.

The GCR article had to be edited down, and some of the rejected detritus included this little comparison of hybrid and EV adoption rates below. Think of it as rounding out the “complete and unabridged” version of the article.

Note: I thought electric vehicles would have roughly the same adoption rate as early hybrids, figuring that greater sales due to a broader product selection from various manufacturers, would be offset by lower sales due to the higher sticker price. Boy, was I wrong. :)

Though I might claim that gov’t rebates “distorted the market” (in a very positive way, mind you) I’m not so egotistical as to be unable to admit to mistakes, so I’ll file that for future learnings… after taking this quick religious diversion. :)

A quick religious diversion

On the topic of “complete and unabridged” versions, people who peruse the Christian scriptures (the “New Testament”) will notice that the Gospel of Mark is a lot shorter than the Gospels of Matthew and of Luke. This is most likely due to the fact that back in the day, there were two standard scroll lengths: a short one, and a long one. Kind of like how we have letter paper (8.5″ x 11″) and legal paper (8.5″ x 14″) today.

Mark, chronologically the first of the three to be written, was written on a short scroll, and Matthew and Luke wrote on the longer ones.

A more interesting case is that of the book, Acts of the Apostles, commonly credited to Luke — whose name almost certainly wasn’t Luke, because people tended to assign famous works, to more famous people. The same tends to happen in our modern era — for instance, this British revocation of the American Declaration of Independence  is commonly attributed to John Cleese, though he didn’t write it.

Acts exists in two commonly-circulated versions, one about 10% longer than the other. While this is less impressive “genetic variation” than one finds in other texts — the Buddhist Dhammapada has more variants, possibly because it was translated into multiple languages early on, before anyone with overarching authority tried to establish a “canonical” version, as happened in Christianity. There, someone identified by scholars as “The Ecclesiastical Redactor” (possibly Polycarp of Smyrna) created a standard edition fairly early on. There are many reasons for hypothesizing this, not the least of which is that essentially all manuscripts available to us share the same abbreviations of key terms (from memory, Theos is abbreviated Ts and Iesous is abbreviated Is).

All of which is a phenomenally long-winded, trivia-filled way of saying that the text appended below would form the “10% longer” version of my GreenCarReports article.  It originally was included before the paragraph “The Innovator’s Dilemma – why Toyota’s tepid on electrics”.

Hybrid history and the plug-in path

Plug-in electric vehicle enthusiasts have exchanged many a high-five over the fact that in the United States and probably elsewhere, plug-in adoption rates have thus far surpassed hybrid adoption rates. Here again, context is valuable.

In the first four years of hybrid availability in the United States (2000-2003) oil was cheap, and consumers could choose between three hybrid vehicles — two small (the Prius and the Civic Hybrid) and one even smaller (the Insight). These were sold by Toyota and Honda, who shared about 17 percent of the automotive market between them.

In retrospect, it’s unsurprising that electric vehicles are being adopted faster, given the greater awareness of our environmental challenges, higher oil prices improving the cost/benefit equation, government incentives, and — perhaps most crucially of all — widespread automaker participation.  

By the four-year anniversary of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt’s December 2010 retail debut, ten carmakers will offering production plug-in electrics stateside: BMW, Daimler (Smart), Ford, GM, Honda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Tesla, Toyota and VW.  (Fiat is excluded from the preceding list, as the 500e is a compliance car available only in California.)

These automakers control about 75 percent of the US auto market, and by December 2014 their product offerings will range all the way from subcompact commuter cars to SUV‘s. To adapt Alfred Sloan’s old phrase, there’s now a plug-in “for every purse and purpose”. Fierce competition has already resulted in lower prices, which will only accelerate sales volume, which will itself improve economies of scale.

March 2013 Canadian plug-in electric vehicle sales

The blogging quietness continues, as my other projects percolate.

In my persistent pursuit of these other projects, I forgot to note down my March update on the Canadian electric vehicle market, over at GreenCarReports.  Nissan’s LEAF came out of nowhere to tie the Chevy Volt at a category-leading 82 sales.

In the imitation-is-the-sincerest-form-of-flattery category, my content doppelganger over at InsideEVs followed my April 5th Canadian EV sales update with an April 7th post of their own.  :)

Not that I think this a big deal — if I was Monsanto, I might make unreasonable claims about owning data which is in the public domain, the way they’ve purportedly tried to file patents for pigs who have genes which have evolved in pigs, the course of nature.  Heck, I even use some data from InsideEVs in my electric vehicle sales database!

It’s just that I, you know, give them credit (as per the screengrab below) when I do so.  ;)

The Black Swan’s Thanksgiving Turkey

(originally written Nov 24, 2011.  Part of Great Upload of 2013.)

It came to my attention that Naseem Nicholas Taleb, who authored The Black Swan (surprisingly, not about a ballet dancer, but about financial crises) discussed other avians in his book, among them the Thanksgiving turkey.  Per the Wikipedia page, he seems to’ve co-opted the idea from a turkey anecdote by philosopher Bertrand Russell, whose atheism doubtless led antagonists to brand him cuckoo.  ;)

The abrupt change in the turkey’s situation is part of an argument that it’s ridiculous to project present trends very far into the future, because, well, things change.  Hockey-wise, the Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers of the 1980’s inspired a high-scoring decade for the NHL.  This was followed by a low-scoring decade inflicted on fans by the New Jersey Devils’ success with the neutral-zone trap in 1994-1995.  (As per the viral video most of you’ve doubtless seen, the Tampa Bay Lightning are going retro with their 1-3-1 system.  Lightning GM Steve Yzerman was part of the Red Wings team the Devils upset in the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals.)

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