Interstellar: unanswered questions

Warning: SPOILERS ahead!

Here are some unanswered questions from Interstellar:
  1. Why build a rocket silo inside an office building? Wouldn’t the exhaust make an awful mess?
  2. If a big rocket is required to lift one Ranger shuttle from Earth into space, how can the same shuttle lift off unaided from a planet whose gravity is 1.3x greater than Earth’s? Moreover, how can the ungainly Landers even land, much less lift off?
  3. Brand and Cooper speculate that Miller’s beacon was repeating the same message over and over. However, the message would have been extremely time-dilated. It would have taken months to receive a message that took seconds to send. Why is the time dilation ignored here?
  4. Moreover, it should have been immediately apparent that this was the most dangerous planet. How did the crew of the Endurance fail to notice the giant waves when they were a safe distance from the planet? Seen from a safe distance outside of Gargantua’s intense gravity well, the waves would have appeared to be standing still, but they would still have been unmistakable. Why risk landing on Miller’s planet anyway? Time dilation would cause incredible logistical problems.
  5. Supermassive black holes and stellar-mass black holes are entirely different beasts. The story mixes incompatible characteristics of both.
  6. If TARS can roll across the water like a paddlewheel, why didn’t the human crew remain safely inside the Ranger, and let TARS do the work? This would have been safer and would have spared precious time.
  7. The Rangers’s airlocks are slanted at an angle, and are not perpendicular to the body of the craft. How do they even dock when they’re not spinning?
  8. The Endurance has two docking airlocks for Ranger shuttles. Each one is offset from the central axis by a few meters, meaning neither is coaxial with Endurance’s axis of rotation. When Endurance was damaged, even if it’s spin axis was not altered (highly unlikely), the axis would not have been centered on one of the airlocks. Is there a third airlock at the central axis?
  9. Why did Mann try to kill Cooper? Why did he sabotage and booby-trap KIPP? These were pointless, needless acts. Despite his treachery in sending a misleading message, he must have known his best chances of survival were to enlist the help of Cooper, Brand, and Romilly.
  10. At the end, why would Brand be alone on Edmund’s planet? Wouldn’t NASA have sent many more people immediately, as soon as they received word that Brand had successfully established a base there? And wouldn’t Brand be much older by then?
Update 2014.11.18:
I found answers to questions 7 and 8. There are actually seven airlocks around Endurance’s central hub — only two of which are suited to Rangers. The Landers have docking points on both their dorsal and ventral sides. Cooper piloted the Lander so as to mate its dorsal docking port with the Endurance’s aft airlock.


More handwaving from Reza Aslan

In the very first sentence of this interview on The Young Turks, Reza Aslan claims that he does not read Sam Harris’ writings. He then proceeds to criticize Harris and modern atheism at length, making several deliberate misrepresentations:
  1. Atheism is an intractable and inflexible belief system.
    This is demonstrably false. Harris and most modern atheists adopt a scientific worldview, where all ideas are tentative and subject to reconsideration when new evidence comes to light. The unsupported claim that atheism is based on faith is a tired old trope of religious apologists.
  2. Atheists believe that they are under siege.
    Harris would certainly have reason to. Atheists are among the most widely distrusted groups in America, and all outspoken opponents of fundamentalist ideolgy invariably attract haters. Even so, if he believes he is under siege, Harris does little to reveal it. In his writings and public appearances, he is always respectful and polite, remaining remarkably calm and poised even in the face of hostility. Bad ideas deserve to be criticized, no matter how long and honored a position they hold in society. Some people so dislike having their sacred ideas challenged that they project their fear onto those with the temerity to shine a light into the dark places.
  3. Atheists demonize and dehumanize their ideological opponents.
    To say that atheism automatically treats all religious people as murderous fanatics is a specious straw man argument. There are demons in the world, but they damn themselves by their own actions. Fair-minded people are entirely right to call out injustice in the world, and to condemn both the perpetrators of heinous acts, and the ideas and cultural institutions that perpetuate them. People should be judged good or bad by their ideas, words, and — most importantly — by their actions.
Based on the above mistakes, Aslan leaps to the conclusion that Sam Harris and his readers (to whom Aslan refers as “zealous disciples”) are fundamentalists, no better than religious fundamentalists. Aslan does his best to come across as a moderate voice speaking reason to the uninformed and easily excited. However, his unfounded arguments and deliberate misrepresentations betray an emotional commitment to a more deferential tack toward religion.

Aslan makes this clear in his next remarks, wherein he makes a roundabout admission that Sam Harris’ blunt criticism of religion may be intellectually honest, but that it is nevertheless “dangerous”. Note that Aslan never makes the claim that any of Harris’ arguments is mistaken or unreasonable. He just thinks that they are dangerous. Why? Because religions “aren’t going anywhere,” because “religion is a growing force in the world,” and because an intellectual approach to religion “keeps us from having some very important and necessary conversations about the role of religion in society; about the problem of extremism in religious communities; and about how to reconcile the realities of the modern world with these ... scriptures that so many people nowadays view as ... inerrant.”

He’s basically saying that pointing out the irrationality and inconsistency of religious ideas to devout believers in those ideas is counterproductive precisely because these people think and behave irrationally. The sad thing is that Aslan and those like him appear to have concluded that that the principles of the enlightenment — reasonableness and humanism — are lost causes, too risky even to be attempted.

Watch the rest of the interview. Aslan goes on to claim that all religions are ways of expressing the inexpressible — the mystery of faith. Aslan compares religion to language, suggesting that a person’s religion is as arbitrary as any other aspect of a his culture, depending more on where he was born than anything else. With verbal sleight of hand, Aslan then leaps to claiming that religious ideas are not arbitrary, and that the different regions of the world are merely different ways of accessing the same source: “religion is the well... but faith is the water... the water is the same regardless of what well you are drinking from.” Aslan’s flowery metaphorical rhetoric may distract some listeners from the fact that he is contradicting himself. Religions either differ about important matters, or they do not. We know that moral teachings, strictures, and commandments of the religions of the world are different, and this is evidenced by the actions of so many believers, who regularly murder their fellow humans for drinking from the wrong well.*

That people are willing to kill over these differences is significant! Religious moderates and atheist humanists have one thing in common: they wish to overcome these differences and reduce suffering and strife in the world. Where they differ is in their approach. Religious moderates (among whose ranks Aslan surely counts as an honorary member) espouse interfaith cooperation based on a common ground — always claimed, but never agreed upon — of core religious values. They also demand a diplomatic deference toward all believers. Atheist humanists promote a rational worldview where reason, science, and consensus are the common ground. This difference in approach is significant, and it underlies the disagreement between Aslan and Harris.

Aslan and his fellows tacitly concede that religion is often irascible and irrational, and their tack is essentially one of Realpolitik: accept that people are emotional, unreasonable, and often driven by ridiculous & selfish ideas; accept the limitations of the the world the way it is rather than trying to change it; don’t speak truth to power if doing so might stir up trouble.

Harris and his supporters on the other hand believe that bad ideas should be (politely and honestly) exposed and criticized no matter how sacred they are.

* Aslan would have made a good preacher. I get the impression that he likely would have joined the clergy, but for his apparent and enthusiastic intellectual curiosity. Aslan appears a man torn between emotionally appealing mysticism and intellectually satisfying rationality. He clearly hopes to build a bridge between these two views of the world. His attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable amount to hand-waving, but this is his talent.


Flirtation tips for men

Here are my tips for men on how to flirt with women:

  1. Keep busy with lots of activities and interests, and maintain your close friendships. This will ensure that you are busy and seldom lonely, mostly eliminating the awkwardness and creepiness that come from desperation.
  2. Strike up conversations with random people you encounter—not just attractive women, but also men, children, old people, and women whom you do not find attractive. People you don’t find attractive will be easier to talk to, simply because you will be less nervous. I’ve found that older people are usually very approachable, and are also often glad to have someone to talk to. They have a lot of life experience too, so you will probably learn something you didn’t know each time you speak with an old person. The key here is to get practice in talking to strangers. The more practice you get with it, the easier you will find it. Do this for several weeks or a month, until it begins to come naturally to you.
  3. Chat with at least one woman whom you find attractive every day, but with only the goal of having some nice conversations, spreading a bit of friendliness, and getting practice. Do not ask for her number or other contact details. Provide yours only if directly asked. In other words, plan from the beginning of the conversation to say goodbye without any expectation of seeing her again. Seriously. This is important. The key is to have fun and relax, and not be invested in a particular outcome. Don’t be upset or offended if your friendliness is met with coldness or hostility. You have to remember that you don’t know what sorts of experiences other people have had. Not everyone will appreciate your friendliness, and that’s okay. Just move on and try not to take it personally.
  4. After a month or so of that, you should be able to move on to a more assertive approach, where you express your interest more directly. Continue flirting with lots of people, including one attractive woman per day. Be straightforward but respectful. Be clear about your interest, but do not be blunt. Remember that her wishes are equally important. Pay attention to her tone of voice and body language. Be wary of letting wishful thinking cloud your judgement. And again, do not expect a particular result. Gracefully accept rejections, glad in the knowledge that you’re still getting practice, and there will be more opportunities for fun flirtation the next day!
Any other suggestions or ideas?

Suffer these indignities stoically

Men who entreat us to remember that ‘not all men’ are wicked fail to understand something fundamental about people: we humans learn from experience — the more intense the experience, the more indelible the lesson. We also make generalizations based on superficial but easily discernible markers like gender and race. And because almost every woman has experienced violence — or at least the threat of violence – from men in her life, almost every woman learns to develop a keen watchfulness (if not paranoia) of strange men.

The sad fact is that prejudice against men protects women from harm. Alienating erstwhile allies and friends is the price women pay for protecting themselves.

Fear has always inflicted a higher toll on the good than the bad. Men who cares about women must pay this price too: they should not complain about mistreatment or prejudice, but suffer insults and indignities with as much stoicism as they can muster. They should go out of their way to allay women’s fears, and
accept that they will seldom see gratitude. Moreover, they should do the right thing even if no one notices or cares. Virtue is its own reward.

The unsettling corollary is that people of racial minorities should also be stoic in the face of racial discrimination. People who have experienced mistreatment or abuse disproportionately from one race will naturally make unconscious assumptions about members of this race. So even though no single person is to blame for the crimes of other members of his or her race, this doesn’t matter to those who are just trying to protect themselves, and must sometimes make snap judgements.

But wait a minute. Gender profiling is acceptable; racial profiling is not. Right?

Why? There is an important difference between a woman walking down a dark street at night, who fears a strange man she encounters, and a white person who fears a strange black person in the same setting.  In the former case, the woman is not only the potential target of violence; she also belongs to the traditionally discriminated-against group. In the latter case, the potential target of violence belongs to the traditionally privileged group. It’s often harder to have sympathy for the victims of abuse when that abuse can be cast as just comeuppance; whereas it’s easy to side with the perennial victim. Note thought that belonging to a traditionally privileged group is likely no solace to those who suffer from discrimination (or worse, violence).

So, the other side of the coin is that people who discriminate should be aware when they’re discriminating. They should strike a balance between making snap superficial judgements and taking the time to evaluate each person’s character fairly. Moreover, the bad apples who tarnish the reputations of their respective groups should be educated and corrected, or separated from the rest of the population.


Why you should stop using the word ‘mansplaining’

In a post from last week, Melissa A. Fabello of Everyday Feminisim offers 5 Simple Ways Men Can Better Respect Women. I like her suggestions, but I do have one quibble: Fabello uses the gendered pejorative ‘mansplaining’ to describe the phenomenon wherein men presume to understand and explain the experiences of women.

I honestly cannot understand why reasonable people think it’s acceptable to use this word.

The phenomenon she describes is a general one: people often assume to understand things that are outside their own experience, and sometimes even presume to try to explain these things back to those in a better position to understand them.

The phenomenon has nothing to do with gender. Women can make the same error, presuming to understand men and their experiences. It’s not even about privilege. Different groups can misunderstand one another regardless of how privileged one group is with respect to the others.

The problem boils down to self-centeredness, arrogance, and a basic lack of humility and perspective. Everyone can succumb to this failing: men & women, black & white, young & old, native born & immigrant, empowered & marginalized.

The key thing to remember if you want to avoid this pitfall is that no matter how intelligent and open minded you are, you cannot possibly understand everyone’s perspective; and you should not be so presumptuous as to try to explain other people’s experiences to them. Instead, you should invite them to tell you about their experiences as they experience them.

Some claim that just as we use the word feminism to refer to the general principle of fighting for gender  equality (and other types of equality), it is appropriate to use the word mansplaining to refer to this particular species of hubris. Feminism however is a positive descriptor, of a noble movement. Yes, perhaps there too we should find a more apt word to be more inclusive, but at least with the word feminism we are not insulting a whole group of people simply because of the insensitive arrogance of a few members. Moreover, because this kind of arrogance is not limited to one group, we need a term that is more general.

I know people like neologisms, and they like slogans and phrases with brand recognition. But this is one you should give up. Just think about it: you wouldn’t say womansplaining, blacksplaining, or jewsplaining. If you believe people should be judged by their actions rather than by their gender, their race, or the groups to which they belong, then you should not implicitly tar all men with an insulting epithet either.

Update 201701.12: A couple more important points came up in a discussion about this topic on Facebook. First, while this phenomenon — arrogantly and presumptuously explaining things to others — may indeed more prevalent among men, other men are also most often the targets of this behavior. Sexism is therefore not an essential characteristic. Second, it is a tiny minority of mem who engage in this behavior; thus emotional pathology is a better defining characteristic of the behavior than masculinity.


Brutal honesty about relationships

In her article entitled My “Naked” Truth, Robin Korth provides a poignant and thought-provoking account of a nascent romance cut short by incompatible desires and brutal honesty. After a short and unconsummated romance with a man she met online, she ended the relationship because he was not physically attracted to her.

Korth’s date found fault with her body, and blamed her appearance for his lack of desire. Korth never comes out and says it, but it’s clear that just as he found fault with her body, she found fault with his character:
  • that he did not find her attractive just as she was;
  • that he was too brutally honest about his feelings; and
  • that he asked her to change herself to fit his desires.
Some of the online responses provoked by the article make it clear that many people hold a perceived culture of patriarchy accountable too. I can see their point. Advertisers and the media certainly do no favors to people with human imperfections; the ideal of happy wealthy healthy youth is continually paraded before our eyes, and these images can certainly warp our worldview.

We have only Korth’s side of the story, but from what she wrote it seems her partner was narcissistic. At a minimum, he appears not to have understood that the way he chose his words could be hurtful to her. Honesty Is good; insensitivity is not. He should have known that his forthrightness about his preference for younger women would cause her distress.

I can empathize with Korth. It is a sad fact of life that we must all grow old, and most of us are eventually reminded of our diminishing prospects — and ultimately, of our mortality — by the declining interest that others express in us.

Korth believes that she deserves a partner who likes her as she is. This is almost accepted wisdom today: that everyone deserves someone who loves them just the way they are. But a moment’s reflection reveals that this desert imposes an implicit obligation on others. This is obviously an untenable position. Apart from familial obligations like the duty of a parent to love its child, no one owes anyone else love.

Part of Korth’s frustration surely has its roots in the expectation in Western society that every person can find one true soulmate. In this childish and romantic vision of love, physical attraction is always coupled to a deeper companionate affection. Unfortunately though, the real world seldom is so accommodating. In real relationships, there are different kinds of attraction. One can feel a strong attraction in one way, but a weak attraction in another way. For example, one can be very attracted physically to someone, but only fancy their personality a bit. Or vice versa. When people get together it is because the sum of all of the types of attraction is sufficient. It does not mean that they both have the same feelings, or that they have the same priorities. Physical attraction may be more important to one, and a personal connection may be more important to the other. How many people are honest about these priorities early in a relationship?

Yes, most people long for a partner who loves them just they way they are; but most people also want a partner who is at least a little bit better than average — in appearance, personality, culture, wealth, etc. These two desires are not compatible. Many people make compromises to find a partner. Many end up alone, and not always by choice. Those who expect the perfect partner will likely be disappointed. People should either adjust their standards to fit reality, or they should learn to be happy alone. As I wrote in a comment to Korth’s article, “there are many lost souls caught between plaintive hope and bitter resignation, because their expectations of the world are so far out of sync what the world has to offer.”

There is no point in blaming someone for failing to match your desires.

Likewise, there is no point in trying to shame someone for having desires that exclude you.

If a relationship doesn’t work out, don’t blame the other person, don’t blame yourself, and don’t curse human biology or deride the whole culture. Just move on.


The five stages of climate denial

  1. Global warming is not happening.
  2. Okay, global warming may be happening, but it’s part of a natural cycle, and human activity has an insignificant effect.
  3. Alright, human activity may be causing climate change, be we shouldn’t try to fix the problem because the planet will take care of itself. And besides, doing anything would be too costly, and would harm productivity, growth, comfort, etc.
  4. Yes, yes, maybe we should have tried to fix the problem, and maybe that would have been the most cost-effective solution in the long haul. But it’s too late now. And besides, by the time things get really bad, I’ll be dead.
  5. I see climate change as a sign of the end times, and because I’m convinced that I’ll be saved, I actually want to hasten the planet’s demise. The sooner we destroy the Earth, the sooner I can go to heaven!
    (Stage 5 applies only to apocalyptic religious fundamentalists.)
Update: It looks like I was not the first to make the observation that climate change deniers tend to move the goalposts.

Update 2016.08.08: There’s another variant of stage 5 — perhaps it could be called stage 4½ — “The increasing rate of natural disasters (floods, droughts, hurricanes, heat waves, etc.) is caused by sin/apostasy/blasphemy/colored chalk.”


Reasonable fear, self defense, and murder

An article in the CSMonitor reviews the state of stand-your-ground laws in the U.S. Here’s a salient quotation from criminologist and gun policy expert Edward Leddy, professor emeritus at St. Leo University in Florida:
“If somebody breaks into your house in the middle of the night, the presumption is you have the right to assume that they are armed and intend to do you harm. How reasonable is that presumption? The problem is there’s no clear-cut answer to that. It depends on the situation and the reasonableness of the person’s fear.”
If gun rights fundamentalists have their way, and turn the U.S. into a nation where an ever-larger percentage of the populace owns guns, the fear that an random person is armed will become ever more reasonable. This will in turn provide racists, xenophobes, and other vigilantes the justification they need to commit state-condoned murder.

A worldview based on fear is self-fulfilling.


Vladimir Putin’s M.O.

Vladimir Putin:

  • If the people are against me, then to hell with them. I’ll do what I want, and justify it based on the law.
  • If the law is against me, then fuck the law. I’ll do what I want, and justify it based on the clamoring mob fired up by my propaganda.
What else would you expect from a paranoid, Machiavellian ex-KGB agent?


Occam’s Blender

This week’s debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, was predictably uneventful, with the participants talking past each other most of the time. This was not surprising at all. Nye is a scientist, and Ham is a mystic. Their world views are incompatible.

A wise person reexamines long-cherished assumptions when presented with new evidence. A fool clings to beliefs in spite of the facts. At the close of the debate, the participants made clear to which group they belonged. When asked what it would take to convince either man to change his mind, Nye said ‘just one piece of evidence.’ Mr. Ham said nothing could convince him to change his mind.

Confirmation bias is a well-researched phenomenon within psychology, and it can affect scientists as well as laypeople. The advantage of the scientific worldview is that it is designed to actively fight the pernicious and truth-corrupting influence of bias. Fundamentalists institutionalize confirmation bias, apparently unaware that it’s even a problem.

There was a time when the seasons, earthquakes, lightning, and celestial events were considered supernatural phenomena. Ancient men had no better explanations than the myths they invented. Today we have the benefit of centuries of advancement of knowledge, and the modern person no longer need resort to supernatural explanations. The devout however, are emotionally dependent on a worldview wherein supernatural causes are still important. These are erstwhile modern people, encumbered by a Stone Age mindset.

Occam’s razor states that all other things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. Ham and his ilk do not appear to follow the principle of parsimony. On the contrary, they ascribe to what I’ll call Occam’s Blender:
No explanation is too complicated, provided it confirms pre-existing beliefs.

It was clear to anyone who is familiar with Mr. Ham that he is simply incapable of entertaining ideas that do not conform to his pre-existing beliefs. I actually found it rather ridiculous that Nye stooped to debunking the glaring physical impossibilities of the Flood, Noah’s Ark, and so on. To a thinking person, these arguments are obvious; to a believer, factual defects in scripture can always be answered with magic. Not enough room on the boat for all the species? Magic. Not enough time for rock layers to have formed? Magic. For every impossibility in Ham’s account of Biblical history, the answer is always the same: God.

I’m not sure what Bill Nye thought he could achieve during the debate. Perhaps he hoped to reach out to an audience of young people who might not otherwise be exposed to an enthusiastic proponent of the scientific worldview. I hope that he accomplished this goal. It’s clear though that he wasn’t able to reach everyone. These hilariously ignorant comments from self-identifying creationists are a staggering display of purposeful and prideful stupidity. They exemplify the backward anti-knowledge worldview that is holding back an otherwise great nation.


An ad in the guise of a warning message

“You are using a version of Internet Explorer which* Gmail no longer supports. Some features may not work correctly. Upgrade to a modern browser, such as Google Chrome.”

WTF, Google?
  • You know who I am, and you are capable of remembering my preferences.
  • You know I’ve clicked “Dismiss” about a dozen times.
  • You know that I use Safari, MSIE, Firefox, and Chrome.
  • You know that have reported exactly zero Gmail problems until now, so you can reasonably surmise that I’m not suffering from my decision to use browsers other than Chrome.
Do you really think annoying me is the best way to convince me to use your browser?

Make your browser significantly better than the alternatives, and I might switch. In the meantime, please stop prodding me with misleading warning messages.

* It would be more grammatically correct to write “You are using a version of Internet Explorer that Gmail no longer supports.”


Vigilante takedowns of Facebook pages

It’s not uncommon for people to report Facebook pages they don’t like, in an attempt to get them removed. Sometimes, people report pages even though there is little evidence of any actual violations of Facebook’s polices. Many probably hope that when Facebook is presented with a large number of reports about the same page, it will simply remove the page without investigating, or will remove it after a very superficial investigation.

In a feminist group on Facebook, I encountered some folks who are enthusiastically engaging in this sort of vigilante action, collectively reporting pages they find sexist, using “nudity or pornographic content” as a pretext. In one recent case, they paraded the results of a successful removal, congratulating one another on a job well done.

This kind of vigilante action is troublesome for a few reasons. First, it is dishonest, and likely to result in short-lived, Pyrrhic victories. Pages that actually violate the policy will remain closed. However, ones that were reported on false pretenses will quite often be reopened following review. If the grounds on which the page was reported were found not to be valid, the integrity of the reporter will also be called into question, limiting the effectiveness of the approach in the long-term, like the boy who cried wolf. Moreover, this approach does nothing to address the problems that actually motivated reporting the pages in the first place.

That brings me to the second problem with this approach: it is simplistic. There are many feminists who do not object to nudity or pornography per se, but who are dedicated in the fight against sexism, gender discrimination, unequal treatment of women in the workplace, the negative effects of outdated gender stereotypes, and so on. Where do these feminists fit in? There are surely also pages that have nudity or sexual content that runs afoul of Facebook’s policies, but to which many feminists do not object. There are many points of view among feminists on the topics of women, nakedness and sexuality. These topics are worthy of fair and open discussion. It’s dismissive and disrespectful to the diversity of opinions within the feminist movement to use nakedness and sex as a false pretext when pursuing feminist aims.

The common ground shared by feminists is fighting for gender equality and for an improvement in the lives of women. It would be far better to be honest about our motivations, and report pages for sexism if that is what we find objectionable about them. If Facebook’s policies are not clear enough in prohibiting this sort of content, then that’s where we should take the fight. We can accomplish more by convincing Facebook to prohibit pages that “promote discrimination on the basis of gender”. (And while we’re at it, we could get them to include gender identity and sexual orientation too!)