December 2006 Archive

Elite potato guards

December 13th, 2006

Persuading people to change their habits or attitudes is one of the hardest but most important things that any leaders can do. Advertisers clearly must be skilled at this or they wouldn’t exist, but usually their job is helped by the fact that people want the goods they’re selling them anyway, and often their role is merely to promote one brand over another. The media have a frightening degree of influence, but this is often used merely to sell more papers or airtime, and their standard strategy is commonly just to upgrade interest or concern about an issue to hysteria. It is the Government that is elected to lead, whose job it is to steer necessary changes in society, and it is they that seem to have the weakest grasp on how to change our hearts and minds.

200 years ago, at least a couple of people in power took a more imaginative approach…

Antoine-Augustine Parmentier 1737-1813The potato had been in Europe for a well over a hundred years, but in 1785 the French were still suspicious of the things. Potatoes were fine as hog feed but thought to cause Leprosy in humans. Antoine-Augustine Parmentier knew different as he had been imprisoned by the Prussians and forced to live on a spud-based diet whilst incarcerated. Now, you’d have thought that anyone who’s survived on a single vegetable of dubious repute when in jail would be heartily sick of the damn things, but Parmentier was a scientist, a pharmacist who was impressed by their nutritional value. When back in France, he extolled their virtues in scientific papers and embarked on a series of publicity stunts to promote them for the important purpose of reducing famine. One, in particular, was a stroke of pure genius. Read more »

Your lover is ugly and doesn’t exist

December 4th, 2006

Richard DawkinsYour lover is ugly; how could you fail to see these hideous scars? And what about this appalling history of violence? The early and recurrent madness? Of course, your family, friends and neighbours are all deluded too. Finally, and worst of all, your lover, the centre of your world, is really just a figment of your imagination.

Sound familiar? It’s the standard approach taken by books extolling atheism. And we wonder why the news doesn’t go down so well!

In Breaking The Spell, Dan Dennett speculates that religious devotion is a form of love. Certain religions may be happy with this view, after all, does not God reciprocate with his love for you too? But Dennett is looking to explain the tenacious pathology of sincere unfounded belief in the non-existent, not to inspire a warm fuzzy hug-in. To an evolutionary psychologist, love’s use is as the mental character encouraging long monogamous relationships so slow-growing and vulnerable human children may be looked after by a single pair of adults. Of course, even a psychologist knows that the experience of loving another may be wonderful, mysterious and rich; evolutionary explanations add knowledge to the experiential side without subtracting from it. The ubiquitous love of imaginary beings, some argue, is just a misdirected side effect of our ability to love real people.

Whether or not a religious person is in any meaningful way truly in love with God, faith certainly shares similar deeply held features with love such as partisanship, exclusivity and comforting blindness to logic (no, your lover isn’t the most beautiful or intelligent person in the world). So it is hardly surprising that when we atheists try to break the news to religious folk that they are misguided star-struck fools we get a prickly response. Not only are we telling people that the object of their love doesn’t exist and that everything that they think is important to them is absurd and dangerous, we are also explaining that they cannot or should not ever love in this way again. Read more »

Skimmed Milk

December 2nd, 2006

CoffeeThis site’s theme is Skimmed Milk and if that seems odd to you I should mention that “theme” is a WordPress term for the presentation of a site. Its visual design, layout and language are all, for the most part, customisable. This page is about the theme of the site in this sense, not in the sense of an overarching subject or topic of discussion.

If you have a WordPress blog and would like to use this theme then feel free to pick up a copy at the bottom of this post. [Edit: this version has been superceded. The latest one is available here.]

I didn’t set out to write a theme. I found a lovely one, called White As Milk by its designer Azeem Azeez, which attracted me by its deliberate visual sparseness and simplicity. I’ll just take this, tweak a few minor things and start blogging, I thought. Read more »

Diminutive Willis

December 2nd, 2006

View Amarya Sen's Identity and Violence at
Whenever the World is facing catastrophe, whenever civilisation is in peril, Hollywood knows exactly what to do: send in Bruce Willis. He’ll blow up the asteroid, defuse the bomb, take out the terrorists one by one and save the planet. Single-handedly, while injured, despite his shirt being shredded and his face covered in motor oil.

Well, the World is facing some pretty shaky times and we need to look for saviours to take on the Willis role. So whom should we pick? After reading Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny I’m proposing Amartya Sen. OK, he might cut a diminutive figure next to Willis, and he won’t handle weapons with quite the same panache, but if anyone paid attention to his careful, patient, prose we would be a darn sight closer to saving civilisation. Read more »

Shades of gray

December 1st, 2006

Checkerboard shadow illusion

Here’s an amazing thing: the squares marked A and B are the same shade of gray! Yes, that’s right. I’ll say it again more slowly: the darker-looking square marked A at the top of the board and the lighter-looking square marked B in the shadowy area are actually the same physical colour. Your monitor is displaying the same colour values in each area.

You can probably guess part of why the illusion works so well—we automatically adjust to counter the darkening due to the shadow —but the illusion continues working even when the green cylinder “causing” the shadow is cropped out:

Checkerboard shadow illusion closely cropped
This shows another part of why the illusion works; we make different assumptions about sharp edges than we do about gradients. The final picture should help you to see the truth of the claim that the squares are the same gray:
Visual proof of the checkerboard illusion

The illusion’s creator, Edward H Adelson, provides a more complete explanation.

It’s not new; I’ve been personally marvelling at it for a few years now. But familiarity doesn’t seem to defuse its effect. I consciously understand its workings, I can talk myself through it, but I just can’t make its reality seem intuitively present to me. It’s a fantastic optical illusion, but it’s also so much more; it’s a great scientific parable that illustrates key attributes of the way we think. Read more »

First blot

December 1st, 2006

I’ve a childhood memory of the perfection of new notebooks; the smooth silky white pages, the neat cover design, the precision-machined shape. Then I’d make my first mark – an unskilled little drawing or some scrawny handwriting – and this perfection would be ruined forever. So I’d put off this moment of disappointment for as long as possible. But once, finally, this damage was done I’d then be free to fill up the book in as messy a way as I liked.

Well this is my shiny new blog and that childish feeling is with me. I don’t want to start until all ideas are clear in my head and until I can map out the future structure of all arguments and discussions in their entirety. But, of course, if anything will it’s the blogging itself that will help me to get this thinking straight. So I can’t put things off any longer: this is the first blot. The rest of the mess will follow shortly.