Orange Province

2015/05/23

Yes, I know, it’s rather old news now: Alberta’s election brought in a majority NDP government. That’s the left-most of the main four parties in Canada’s most traditionally right-wing province. (Our official opposition, of course, is the Wildrose party – the right-most party.)

The People's Republic of Albertastan

Reactions are delightful. My favorite was federal (Conservative) justice minister Peter MacKay commenting that “It’s Albertastan now.” And then the inspired and playful response by Alberta designer Laura Lynn Johnston. (Get your own here.)

At 58.4% turnout, this is the highest-participation election (by a small margin) since 1993. That’s encouraging. I am still amazed that two out of five eligible voters felt it wasn’t worth their time, but it’s hard to feel too sorry for people who don’t make this least effort to participate.

I did see one or two comments on Facebook before the election to the effect of “If the NDP get in, I’m moving!” Again, I’m not shedding any tears. Not only am I completely delighted that we have this new, forward-looking government. I also think that, if you see a problem in your home, the most cowardly response is to move out. If you really believe it’s a bad thing to have an NDP government, then stick around and participate. Keep an eye on them. Call them out. Vote again in four years. But if you run away? Then you lose any claim on the future of our wonderful province.

Ah – I didn’t mean for this to be a ranting post. I wanted to do a post-election wrap-up, following the pre-election posts I put up here and here (mainly urging people to vote, although you could probably guess even then who I wanted in).

I hope this upheaval sends a message to politicians and voters on the federal level: we’re due for a parliamentary election in Canada some time later this year.

I’ll get around to commenting on that – what I think of the different parties, their leaders, and what I hope for Canada after the election. For now, I think I’ll just sit back and enjoy some Orange Crush.

Cycling empiricism

2015/05/21

The snow has cleared here, for the fourth and (I hope) final time this spring. Flowers are blooming, leaves are greening, and those like me who take a break from cycling during the winter are getting back into it.

So I was intrigued to see an article at the excellent Science-Based Medicine site titled “Do Helmets Prevent Head Injuries?“. In it, Dr. Harriet Hall examines the evidence for the actual benefits of cycling helmets.

I’ve seen the controversy before. On the one hand, the physics and physiology seem to obviously favour wearing a helmet. On the other hand, questions of population self-selection, risk perception and compensation behaviour can push the evidence in the other direction. And any halfway-conscious Internet denizen can find passionate arguments both for and against the use of bicycle helmets. (Interestingly, sites about kids promote helmet use, while pages I found about helmet use in general are almost all either neutral or against helmet use.)

Dr. Hall’s conclusion from the actual evidence is that “the science of protection is clear: helmets offer a significant benefit.”

That sounds clear enough to me. Keep in mind (my fellow cyclists and would-be cyclists) that many of the “dangers” of helmet use are easily overcome through awareness. For example, people tend to take more risks when they think they are protected. So, wear your helmet but remember that you are still vulnerable, and those cars still outweigh you many times over.

On the other hand, she notes that “The advisability of helmet laws is an entirely different question.” Too many social and other factors prevent us from being able to draw a clear line between requiring people to have helmets and any net benefit or harm. That’s fine by me. My general position (like that of most people who value individual liberty) is that we should not force people to do something unless we have a really good idea that it will produce good and prevent harm, and we know that there is no reasonable way to produce that good or prevent that harm without restricting people’s freedom.

So get out there and ride a bike. Wear a helmet. Encourage your kids and friends to wear helmets. But don’t use the law to force people to wear helmets.

Voting

2015/05/01

I know, I just posted about the election.

What can I say? I live in a province that has been governed by the same party for more than my entire life, and all of the polls are suggesting that this streak will end on Tuesday. For over four decades, the centre-right Progressive Conservative (PC) party has formed the government. Now, it is looking entirely possible that the left-of-centre New Democratic Party (NDP) will not only have more seats than their opponents, but will form a majority.

The projection website ThreeHundredEight, run by writer Éric Grenier, presents the results of the latest (final) polls here. While Grenier is prudently cautious in his interpretation, he points out that the NDP’s “minimum seat haul is projected to be 25 seats – which would count as a historic best.”

There are four main parties in contention here. Roughly from right to left, they are the Wildrose, the PCs, the Liberals, and the NDP. (There are other parties in some ridings, but for my constituency we only have candidates from these four, so I’m basically ignoring the others.)

Now, it’s easy to feel discouraged. I looked through the platforms of all of these parties. Easily 95% of the claims in each were gassing on about trigger issues, without any specifics. They give the impression of meaningful promises, without being particularly specific. And of course, I am only one of about 4 million people in the province.* In my riding, there are somewhere north of 30 000 voters, though fewer than half of them bothered to actually participate in the last election.

So what do I want to say here? Well, I really feel like it’s time to stir things up, so I would love to promote the NDP as the party to do that. But even worse than the fact that the PCs seem to be taking their position as Alberta’s governing party for granted is the fact that more than half of the people who have the power to say something about this don’t bother.

Seriously, people? Everyone complains about politics, but it looks like three out of every five complainers have literally not done the first, most straightforward thing they could do about it.

So I have a few bits of advice for my fellow Albertans. (Those of you outside of Alberta, most of this advice could easily translate to you when the next election comes around.)

To those who lean left: Get out there and vote on Tuesday. Show the wary pollsters that sometimes an extreme prediction actually means we’re going to have extreme weather. There is a real chance that Canada’s famously most-conservative, most corporate, most environmentally irresponsible province could start a new page in history on Tuesday. This will only happen if you actually vote. Those poll results will only translate into reality if you actually go and vote. Vote early if Tuesday doesn’t work for you. Check out the Elections Alberta website for where you can vote – early or on the day.

To those who lean right: The PCs and Wildrose are in a dead heat for opposition. It looks to me like Wildrose is more fiscally conservative, and the PCs are more socially conservative. You may hate the thought of splitting the conservative vote, but even worse is making sure it doesn’t show up. Are you really prepared to let some socialist upstart walk into our legislature and overturn forty years of conservative leadership? All parties are talking about environmental stewardship. Do you think conservatives can achieve that more responsibly, and at less cost to the economy than the Liberals or NDP? Then tell us all. Get out on Tuesday and vote. Or vote in advance polls. Check out the Elections Alberta website for where you can vote – early or on the day.

To those in the centre: Politics is not all about right and left. Those are convenient fictions to let us think less while making important choices about our political lives. Being centre doesn’t mean being undecided; nor does it mean that your vote doesn’t matter. The parties all make particular claims about where we should get money from, how we should spend it, and how we should treat each other – from wealthy corporations and employers, to working families, to vulnerable people of all sorts. Your vote is your voice. Tuesday is a day when you will be heard more loudly by your government than any time in the next three or four years. Vote for a person you trust. Vote for a party you believe in. Vote strategically to block a hated alternative. (I’d prefer you didn’t, and so do these folks. I think that’s a whole separate post.) Whoever you support, however strongly or weakly, for whatever reasons, your hope that they get in will only make a difference if you back it up with a mark on a ballot. Vote. Check out the Elections Alberta website for where you can vote – early or on the day.

So whether the polls have you terrified or excited or indifferent, you have plenty of reasons to vote, and no excuses not to.

Footnote:

* I’m guessing this based on the 2011 number here (3.6 million) and the 2015 summer projection reported here (4.2 milion).

Fit in or fuck off

2015/04/28

A couple of days ago, I saw a bumper sticker with  Canadian flag image over the words “Fit in or fuck off”. (Actually, I think it was in all caps, but I’ve toned it down to avoid offending anyone.)

My first reaction, as a red-blooded Canadian, was to question the ancestry, physiology, and various appetites of the driver in various creative monosyllables. My Canada welcomes a diverse range of people. My Canada is a delightfully multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious country. People who don’t fit in stand out, and those who stand out have been among the greatest contributors to our national and global heritage.

I got home and started unloading my rant on my patient and understanding life partner.

I got about as far as the content of the bumper sticker and she nodded. “Sure,” she said. “We’re a multi-cultural society . The only people who don’t fit in are the bigots.”

Oh how I love her.

So, in the end, I agree with the bumper sticker. Everyone who wants to is welcome to fit themselves in to the rich, multicoloured tapestry of Canadian society. And if they aren’t willing to live alongside the rest of us in peace and cooperation, they can f[ly] off.

Canada flag

Openly Secular

2015/04/23

openly-secular-logoToday is Openly Secular Day. It’s a reminder to non-believers of the benefits of being open about your non-belief. It’s also a gentle nudge to those of us who are able to be open, to tell friends, family, and others who we are and what we believe. At the Openly Secular website, there are videos of many people, of varying levels of fame, discussing their atheism.

I don’t think anyone reading this blog will be surprised to learn that I am not religious. But maybe some of you also identify as atheists, humanists, or some other non-believing label, and have not yet told anyone. If you want some practice, I invite you to try it out here.

Or, if you need a venue that’s a little less public, message me privately.

Now, I also know that there are many people in my circle of family, friends, and readers who are not secular – who hold some form of religious belief. That’s awesome. But this post is not the place to hash out the arguments (any more than a church service is a good place for an atheist to start putting forth arguments against God’s existence or Jesus’ divinity).

Oh, and if you’re reading this one some other day, it’s still a good time to come out, however you are able and comfortable. And if you are not able to come out, that’s okay. There are certainly times and places where it is not only uncomfortable but frankly unwise to talk about this stuff. I may be open about my atheism, but I never, ever discuss it in my university classes. It just isn’t the place for it – my role there is as an authority on linguistics, and I don’t want any student to get the impression that they would experience negative consequences for being open (vocally or visibly) about holding some other belief.

Cranky about voting

2015/04/22

500px-Flag_of_Alberta.svgIt’s election season again here in Alberta.

Last time I ranted about this (here, here, and here), I was living abroad. Now, I’m right in the thick of it. I’ve been living back in Alberta with my family now for four years. We have put down roots here – bought a house, established good jobs in the city in our chosen fields, reconnected with family and friends.

And I have a whole new swath of rants. Most of them, I will confine to private complaints shared with Deena, but I think a few deserve to be aired more widely.

First, on a personal note, I want to declare my deep dissatisfaction with politics. It’s an ugly, depressing, foul window into the dank recesses of human nature, recesses that are more concerned with power and image than with substance. So, you know, politics. What are you gonna do?

With that out of the way, I want to offer a little meta-observation. I noticed, as I was browsing the platforms of our parties and candidates, that my own impulse to tribalism kept wanting to take over. For candidates or parties that I identify with, I want to let vagueness slide. “It’s a platform – they only have room for so much detail.” “I’m sure they would work that out in a way I like.” And if I don’t identify with them – especially if I identify myself in opposition to them – they get the opposite: “They’re evading responsibility by offering empty words.” “I just know they’d find a way to wiggle out of that (apparently sensible) commitment.” Even when they’re not vague, I am inclined to trust or distrust specifics according to my own prejudices.

This is a very important thing to remember. I really don’t like the idea of identity politics – of saying, “This is my team, so I’ll ignore their faults and exaggerate their virtues and treat anyone on another team as the enemy.” That’s divisive and unhelpful, but it is a deeply human way to look at the world. One of many human traits that this humanist strives to overcome.

And, getting past that, I see that most of the parties are essentially saying exactly the same thing. Even when it sounds like they’re not. For example, the Wildrose Party* promises to “Expand the use of clean burning Alberta natural gas and propane for industrial and residential electricity production and transportation”. Which is all about promoting Alberta’s fossil-fuel-based natural resource economy. On the other hand, the Liberal Party promises to “phase out coal-fired power plants by 2025″: a clear commitment to cleaner energy, reducing our reliance on the worst-polluting energy sources.

But, on reflection, it occurred to me that both of these policies could be met with the same action (moving from coal power plants to gas and propane power plants). The same action, with two very different spins. (I don’t know that both parties have the same actual plan in mind, it’s just that their promises aren’t as different as they first seem.)

None of the parties are very heavy on specifics (except, it seems, for the New Democratic Party, the NDP**). And where they give specifics, I confess that I’m not qualified to judge what they really mean. I wish we had the folks from BBC’s More or Less program reviewing our election campaigns. Listening to their recent election coverage (round 1, round 2), I feel a twinge of numerical envy. (If anyone out there knows of people who are doing this, in Alberta or in Canada more generally, please let me know!)

At the end of the day, I have the same choice that citizens in democratic countries everywhere have to make: which person or party is the least bad?

I am zeroing in on my favorite. I don’t think I’ll have to resort to ballot eating. But I would like to close with two pleas which I have made before.

First, if you can votedo it! For all that we whinge and complain about the type of people that we have to choose between in our political system, democracy is still less bad than any of the alternatives. And if you’re going to vote, have a little respect for the power you are wielding and try to get informed. Don’t just vote along identity lines. Find out who is actually promising what, and vote for the person you think will create the change you want (or prevent the change you don’t want). I honestly mean this, whether you vote the way I do or not.

And second, can we please, please try something more informative than a single-mark ballot? Transferable votes are easy to fill out, and give me the option to vote my conscience without worrying that I’m letting the Awfuls in by not voting for the mediocre-but-more-likely-to-win party. As it is, I am sometimes inclined to give the whole thing a miss because it seems so likely my vote will end up counting for nothing. Electoral reform could help to solve the voter apathy problem that is rampant in Alberta, as in so many other places.

Okay, I’m done for today. Maybe my next post won’t be a rant. Have I become a cranky old man? Might have to merge with The Not-Quite-So-Friendly Humanist (written by an old friend of mine). Or start the “No Longer Friendly Humanist”.

Footnotes:

* The Wildrose Party is our current contender for far-right – think a slightly more moderate Republican party. (Oh, how I’m glad to be Canadian!) The wild rose is the provincial flower of Alberta.

** The NDP is the most left-leaning of the main four parties. Roughly, from left to right, they are conventionally ordered NDP, Liberal, PC (Progressive Conservatives), Wildrose.

Apologetics

2015/04/22

Hi, my name is Tim, and I have a problem with apologetics.

On the one hand, I want to remain open-minded: open to new ideas that don’t fit with my existing beliefs; open to the possibility that I’m wrong about important things. I want to be a person who can see both the positive and the negative of an idea, whether it’s an idea I want to believe, or one I want to reject, or one that I’m indifferent to.

On the other hand, I’ve read a few works of religious apologetics. They have all been singularly lacking in philosophical rigour, scientific literacy, or open-mindedness. They have been disappointing. And that makes it hard to give the next work of apologetics a fair hearing, because I can already hear all of my well-exercised objections starting to clamour for attention, almost as soon as I open the cover.

So, when I crack into a new work of apologetics, I feel the cynicism, the disgust, and the contempt start to bubble up. And that’s not the type of person I want to be. I am not a cynic. I am not a contemptuous person.

My solution, for the moment, is to go cold-turkey on reading apologetics. No more giving them the benefit of the doubt. No more slogging through mind-numbing obsequiousness or self-congratulatory drivel to determine whether some new apologist has an amazing insight that I haven’t yet come across.

If you are a believer and think there is a knock-down argument, or even just a thought-provoking speculation, that I should be exposed to, please share it with me in the comments section. I am still determined to remain open to dialogue.

Anyway, rant over. Also, happy Earth Day everyone!

Cosmic Calendar: The Big Bang

2014/12/31


fireworks_white_red

Thirteen billion seven hundred ninety-eight million years ago (give or take thirty-seven million years), an unimaginably small, massive, timeless point erupted. Time and space sprang into being.

What came before that is a question that may or may not make sense (as time itself is said to have been tied up in that initial singularity). At any rate, for now it is a question for philosophers as much as for scientists. Whether there was a “before”, either temporally or causally, we pick the first moment of the singularity’s expansion as our starting point for this calendar.

The earliest moments of January first on the Cosmic Calendar are taken up with a fury of growth and change. There was a period of exponential expansion. Speculation is that some (still mysterious) process generated a slight excess of matter over antimatter (one part in 30 million), leading to a present universe with matter dominant over antimatter.

About ten nanoseconds in, the universe cooled to the energies we can produce in particle physics experiments today. Around a microsecond, we started getting protons and neutrons out of the particle/energy soup. In the first few minutes, we started getting deuterium and helium nuclei forming.

That’s actual nanoseconds and microseconds and minutes. On the one-year scale of the Cosmic Calendar, all of this is happening unimaginably quicker. Why not watch a (safe and responsible) fireworks display. If a firework happens to go off right at the stroke of midnight, then the chemical reactions driving that explosion could be thought of as an extremely slow-motion recreation of an event that is materially, energetically, and temporally completely unlike the big bang. (But it makes a nice symbol, no?)

Following the initial explosion, it was all about energy. Most of what there was in the universe was just energy. After several thousand years, matter (protons, neutrons, electrons, etc) began to dominate the picture. Exactly when did this happen? I am unable to pin down a clear answer. This scantily-referenced paragraph on Wikipedia says 70 thousand years, which would point to a calendar time two minutes and forty seconds after midnight. This university teaching page says 50 thousand, which is one minute 54 seconds into the year. At any rate, if your energy levels to drop in the first three minutes of the year, I suggest consuming some form of matter – nachos perhaps, or vegetables. Aside from hydrogen, the most common element (bare nuclei, not stable atoms at this point) was helium. But I am very definitely not recommending that you use helium balloons to alter your voice. It might be appropriately reverent, but we are past peak helium, so it would also be irresponsible.

Between 377 000 and 487 000 years after the bang (that’s 00:14:22 to 00:18:33 on New Year’s Day), recombination and decoupling occurred. Recombination is when the first complex atomic nuclei, such as deuterium and helium, formed. Decoupling meant that photons started being able to fly free, rather than always slamming into bits of matter. This meant something new – something that we can observe today. You see, some of those photons are still zipping along. We can detect them now as the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. If you like, you could celebrate this by spending those four minutes watching snow on an old analogue television set. Or you could listen to John Cramer’s audio reproduction (available in 20-second, 50-second, 100-second, 200-second, and 500-second versions).

Now we’re well into the New Year – on our way to the universe as we know it. I don’t have any more milestones for this first day, so perhaps we should all get some sleep.

What is your favorite part of this opening fiesta of generation and diversification? Can you spot any interesting events or transitions that I’ve left out of this description?

Scientific References:

National Research Council of Canada article on age of universe
NASA WMAP report
ESA Planck report

Further reading:

Wikipedia: Timeline of the Big Bang
Wikipedia: Recombination
Wikipedia: Decoupling
Wikipedia: Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation
Audio version of the CMBR

Fireworks image: “Fireworks white red“, by Tuan Hung Nguyen, Public Domain

 

Back into the Cosmic Calendar

2014/12/01

In the past, I have talked about the Cosmic Calendar. It is a grand idea, first introduced (to my knowledge) by Carl Sagan in his Cosmos series. Since then, though, I’ve sort of let it fall off the radar. I still think about the Cosmic Calendar, particularly in the last half of December with the Evolutionary Advent – interesting events virtually every day, and several on the last day of the year.

Anyway, I am currently working to build a more complete tour through the year. This renewed interest is inspired partly by my own children’s blossoming curiosity about everything, and partly by the new Cosmos series, hosted by Neil De Grasse Tyson (available, among other places, on Netflix in Canada). He recapitulates the Cosmic Calendar in the first episode.

Next year, I plan to post along with the cosmic calendar, going into a little more detail on each event: what happened, how it fits into the great epic of cosmic history, and some thoughts on how science-minded folks might celebrate it.

The basic idea is not my own: as far as I know, that credit goes to Carl Sagan and his collaborators on the original Cosmos series. What I will present is my own riff on it, expanding the basic idea to a full, year-long cycle of celebration and education. I will include figures that are as accurate as my layman’s research can get. I will offer suggestions about how humanists and other science fans might celebrate each cosmic event throughout the year

I will try to keep the technical language light, but not at the expense of glossing over important or fun details.

If you want to plan your own celebrations for any of the events, do check out my Cosmic Calendar page, where I list all of the events I have been able to identify and verify (already over fifty), with links to my own posts on them individually. I have also linked to other sites and individuals who, like me, want to evangelize this awesome idea to anyone interested.

I still maintain the Google Calendar with all of these events, which is open for anyone to link to or copy.

While I would love to just jump in now, as the events start to come more quickly, I have decided instead to start fresh on January 1st – the Big Bang. I am already composing and lining up the posts. I will carry on through the full year. I currently have 50+ events lined up, and I’m looking for more. Depending on the interest and feedback I receive, I may continue this in subsequent years. (In particular, things shift a little in a leap year, because the cosmos-to-days scale is adjusted by one day.)

If you have any Cosmic events that you would like me to cover, please feel free to leave a comment on this post and I will look into it. If, during the course of the year, you notice any scientific blunders on my part, let me know and I will verify and fix them.

The duality of humanism and atheism

2014/10/07

P.Z. Myers has a touching reflection on the two sides of being a nonbeliever these days.

On the one hand, there are so many things in the world – attitudes, laws, beliefs, and actions – that can drive you to the rejecting, negative stance embodied in the term “atheism”.

On the other hand, the world abounds with amazing facts to discover, delightful experiences to savour, and inspiring goals to strive for – all things that fuel the more affirming, positive stance that is captured in the term “humanism”.

Like Myers, I oscillate between the two. Sometimes it is important to rally around the flag of No, to assert the value (sometimes even the simple right) to withholding assent or belief. I am an atheist. At other times, it is more fulfilling, more productive, and more honest to focus on what we do value, what we do believe. I am also a humanist.

It sounds like Myers is beginning to despair at the state of organized atheism lately – the prevalence of sexism, tribalism, and of unthinking, reflexive responses to criticism. This is disappointing. Not that any other community is better, but we like to define ourselves specifically by our self-correction, our openness to criticism, and our freedom from dogmatic groupthink.

But, just as I refuse to let religious conservatives own the language of morality and family values, I am not about to let the negative elements own the atheism brand. Neither is Myers.

Atheism does not justify sexism. It does not have prophets or irreproachable spokespeople.

Nor (contra what Myers seems at one point to suggest) does humanism ignore the ugliness in the world.

Still … like Myers, I find myself sometimes drawn to one of these labels, sometimes to the other. Do you find that? Are you more inclined to cling to one label in certain moods, and another in other moods? Do your oscillations fit the angry=atheism, optimistic=humanism map that Myers expresses, or do you have different associations (or labels)?


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 317 other followers