April 22nd, 2007


Some notes on technological complexity

Given all my Smart Reality musings lately, I've been thinking about some of the things we can do to rate the complexity- or really, the "quality" of user interactions with technology- and I'm not just talking computer technology here. Or even complex technology- a bow and arrow has a user interface. A car has a UI. A club has a UI. A hammer, etc.

Humans have a natural repository of motions, a "library" of kinesthetic interactions, if you will. Walking, grasping, etc. are ingrained traits. We also can learn new ones, which rapidly become habits. One part of evaluating any UI design for any technology is to examine how it leverages our library of kinesthetic interactions. A club, for example, does a very good job of using a natural striking motion and amplifying it. Fire-making, on the other hand, requires its own highly specialized library of techniques. A good UI then, would leverage both the "natural" repository and the "learned" repository- the keyboard and mouse, for example, has already been built up as a common part of everyone's kinesthetic library.

By the way- that perspective also explains why Dvorak keyboards will never see broad acceptance. Keyboarding is already an unnatural set of motions, and even though Dvorak is superior in every way, it also becomes an entirely new library of unnatural motions to learn.

But it's not just body complexity. There's also temporal complexity. Over the course of the user's interaction with your device, how much do they have to remember from one part of the interaction to the next? With a hammer, the value is almost nil. With fire-making, on the other hand, there is a chain of related steps that must be performed in order, and that order varies based on conditions.

Where there's time, there is also spatial complexity. In the course of an interaction, how much information needs to be maintained about the physical space in which the interaction occurs. A hammer requires a small amount of this, while archery or other ranged weapons require more- especially when dealing with moving targets. Flying an airplane requires an incredible amount of both temporal and spatial complexity, as does driving a car- so much so, that our cars provide mirrors to shrink that spatial complexity and we have rules about how close to space cars to avoid the temporal complexity.

The last one I've come up with so far is the basic ROI- given the amount of effort you put into the interaction, what is the return you get out. Archery, for example, has a poor ROI compared to firearms. A hammer has a good ROI compared with a rock.
hello cthulhu

Misconceptions about Atheism

Having recently farted around in a FARK flamewar on the topic, I'd like a centralized place where I can document the misconceptions I notice about what people think atheism means, versus what it doesn't.
Atheism requires faith. An agnostic is the rational person.

This is quite possibly one of the most common misconceptions. Few atheists claim that there absolutely definitely 100% is no personified deity in the Universe. Quite the contrary, the atheist stance is this: Based on the definitions of "god" available and based on the evidence available it is vanishingly unlikely that there is a "god" according to those definitions. A veritable certainty. New definitions of "god" or new evidence can encourage one to revisit the question with an open mind.

Agnosticism, on the other hand, takes the stance that the question is unanswerable at all, that it isn't something that can be evaluated based on evidence.

Let me be perfectly clear- based on what we know, I don't believe there is a god. I actively disbelieve. I am an atheist. But I'm open to changing. This doesn't make me an agnostic, it makes me sane. If evidence were to present itself that showed, definitely, that god exists, I'd do a 180º in a second. I doubt that evidence will appear.

Realistically, there's a spectrum here- many self-proclaimed "agnostics" fall more into what I'd consider an atheist. Many others are better positioned as deists.

Atheism is a religion

This is related to the above, "Atheism requires faith". But it's a curious special case. Atheism is a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby. Atheism, which pretty much means you abstain from religion, cannot be a religion by definition. Further, you don't see folks claiming that deism is a religion. Why not? Because religion is more than a belief, it is a set of rituals and practices formalized and structured around that belief.

When people say atheism is a religion, they're really trying to say that atheism requires faith, or that atheists sometimes act "religious" about their conviction. This is very different from atheism really being a religion.

Atheists are just as dogmatic as the religious
This is another in the vein of "Atheists are too religious! Really really! It's true." Many atheists feel ire when confronted with the same arguments again and again, and when they express it, they're being "dogmatic". The same is said when they refused to accept the "evidence" presented by theists- "evidence" which is always suspect, anecdotal, just plain wrong, or perhaps even wholly fabricated. The dogma atheists hold is the same dogma expressed in the state motto of Missouri: "Show Me". Faith and belief are not acceptable tools for expressing an argument. Evidence and conclusions, on the other hand are. This is not dogma, it is skepticism. It's merely being prudent.</p>

To be fair, many atheists don't feel the need to fully explain themselves or mince words with the religious. They will often be blunt and disrespectful, dismissive even- and this can be perceived as being dogmatic. Hopefully, this list will help explain why that is.

Atheism tells us that life has no meaning.

Well, that's certainly not the case. Many atheist philosophers have discussed different sources for meaning in life. Personally, I like Dawkins's approach- it's a meaningless question. Asking "What is the meaning of life?" is like "What is the meaning of this lovely teak wardrobe?". It's just nonsense. So, perhaps this isn't properly a misconception, but more of a disagreement on the value of "meaning". For those still looking for "meaning", philosophers like Sartre and Camus do a fine job of discussing the subject without any need for gods or afterlives.

Moral codes come from god

I find it difficult to believe that people still think this a valid objection. If it were true, and atheists were correct then Christians and Muslims would have no moral code either- since there was no god to hand it down to them. In reality, human beings have an innate understanding of what is required of them to form a stable society. A code of ethics is instinctual in every other social species- or do dogs form their packs based on the teachings of "dog gods"? The only moral codes that require deities are the absurd ones that tell you not to eat meat and cheese at the same time. Large swaths of moral philosophy derive from principles that do not require a god. This trend reaches back to Plato, and crops up again and again- even the religious don't need god to exist in order to derive moral principles.

This goes back to a common rebuttal: If the threat of god's displeasure is the only thing keeping you moral, then you aren't a good person.

Atheists are immoral! See: Hitler, Stalin

Putting aside the question of their true religious beliefs, one cannot hold up a handful of very bad people and claim that a single aspect of their person is now invalid. By the same logic, I could claim that mustaches are evil- Hitler and Stalin both had fairly distinctive mustaches. Or perhaps brown shirts should be considered evil?

To turn it around, Torquemada was Christian. The concept of "Manifest Destiny", which lead to one of the larger genocides in history was primarily pushed by Christian churches. Many of the same churches also preached that enslaving the Negroes was ordained by God. Islamic terrorists are largely motivated (as one might gather from their name) by religion. The Crusades. A common feature in many religions is human sacrifice.

To turn it around one last time- there are other churches that opposed slavery. Some religious leaders spoke out against the Inquisition. Religious art, poetry, literature and architecture can be beautiful and awe inspiring. Ideas either stand on their own merit, or they are worthless. I can no more reject religion because a few power hungry monsters abused it than you can reject atheism because a few power hungry monsters may have subscribed to it. The fact that Gothic Cathedrals are impressive buildings does nothing to tell us whether or not god exists. The fact that Torquemada tortured and killed in the name of his faith doesn't answer the question either.

Hitler, by the way, was not an atheist. Often, the argument I've heard is that he must be an atheist, because no religious person would do such a thing. This is known as the "No True Scotsman" fallacy.

You're attacking me!

In my discussions with the faithful, I've noticed that people very often take criticisms of the idea of faith and the specifics of religion as personal affronts. When pointing out the severe cosmological problems that are raised by various religious tenets- the inherent internal contradictions and basic absurdities, I am somehow being "an evangelical atheist", "bashing religion", or (my favorite), being "a bigot".

Religion and faith are both ideas. Like any other idea, they may have some merits and they certainly have some glaring flaws. Faith is no more a basis for decision making than coin-flipping. When I say such things I am criticizing an idea that I consider a bad idea. While I recognize that some have a very personal attachment to their religion, I am under no compunction to respect that.

Imagine, if you will, I told some "American Idol" obsessed fan how much I thought the show sucked, and they threw a tantrum over it. In my mind, it's the same thing. People form childlike attachments to all sorts of things, and I don't respect an emotional connection to a TV show, a popular psychic- why should religion be magically exempt?

Those are my starters for now. I'll expand this post and keep a handy-dandy permalink around someplace so that I can bust it out in online debates.