Ok, Let’s Put Our Heads Between Our Knees and Take a Few Deep Breaths

Keep Calm and Look at this Bacteriophage (which will never compare you to Hitler)

Mark’s got another post up today, profiling a gay friend he greatly admires, and I’ve got a few more things I’d like to respond to, but I’m going to take a little break.  Judging by the comment threads, this hasn’t been a particularly helpful discussion.  I’ve registered and explained my objection to the Nazi allusions, and I’m going to hold off on following up until I think I’ve got a better strategy for the discussion.

It seems like, to have a conversation about LGBT rights with this readership, it’s necessary to tightly constrain the issue we’re talking about, so there aren’t a lot of non-sequiturs and sprawling rants.  We’ve had more success discussing only the possible erotization of same-sex friendship or empirical data on gay marriage that will exist in 20 or so years.  Limiting the discussion to rhetoric didn’t work because people felt it made sense to bring anything into the conversation to explain why their hyperbolic language was necessary.

I’ve never banned anyone from commenting at Unequally Yoked, and I don’t plan to start, but I did notice a problem during these discussions where a couple people were dominating the threads by making really hyperbolic claims (even given that we started at Godwin’s Law).  I really want to emphasize that it’s fine to walk away from a fight.

No one was going to believe those claims were true if no one replied to them.  I made this mistake a couple of times, and I don’t want to see our often productive discussions derailed because everyone thinks it’s most urgent to reply to the craziest person in the thread.  It’s a lot better to respond to the sanest person you disagree with and work your way up from there as time and blood pressure permits.

So, while we’re taking a breather, I think we deserve something pretty to relax with.  Here’s 30,000 tons of sodium being exploded by exposure to water (via i09).

YouTube Preview Image

 

Hmm, a little better, but I’m still feeling a little worn down.  Let’s try something from Less Wrong:

The joy of mathematics is inventing mathematical objects, and then noticing that the mathematical objects that you just created have all sorts of wonderful properties that you never intentionally built into them. It is like building a toaster and then realizing that your invention also, for some unexplained reason, acts as a rocket jetpack and MP3 player.

Numbers, according to our best guess at history, have been invented and reinvented over the course of time. (Apparently some artifacts from 30,000 BC have marks cut that look suspiciously like tally marks.) But I doubt that a single one of the human beings who invented counting visualized the employment they would provide to generations of mathematicians. Or the excitement that would someday surround Fermat’s Last Theorem, or the factoring problem in RSA cryptography… and yet these are as implicit in the definition of the natural numbers, as are the first and second difference tables implicit in the sequence of squares.

This is what creates the impression of a mathematical universe that is “out there” in Platonia, a universe which humans are exploring rather than creating. Our definitions teleport us to various locations in Platonia, but we don’t create the surrounding environment. It seems this way, at least, because we don’t remember creating all the wonderful things we find. The inventors of the natural numbers teleported to Countingland, but did not create it, and later mathematicians spent centuries exploring Countingland and discovering all sorts of things no one in 30,000 BC could begin to imagine.

Ah, that’s the stuff.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Irenist

    Good stuff. Math–discovered or constructed? Sure feels discovered to me. But others wiser and more numerate than me have come to all manner of conclusions. I seem to recall that you’re something of a Platonist, Leah. If so, I hope you’re right: it’s a pleasing vision. (If not, pardon my mistake.)

    Something else to relax with: Here’s a Wikipedia article on the “Transatlantic accent,” which is how people like the narrator on that (awesome!) exploding sodium newsreel used to be trained to speak: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mid-Atlantic_English

  • deiseach

    Just to throw more fuel on the fire: mathematics is the invention of the Devil and comes straight from the most noisome stygian pits of despair and suffering. (You may perhaps glean from my understated and disinterested statement that I am not amongst the mathematically gifted and indeed suffered for this in school).

    Apart from that – how about to cheer you up I tell you that today is the start of Irish summer? According to the cultural and traditional calendar, not the meteorological one. Yes, today is Lá Bealtaine, May Day, the first day of Summer – and in the grand tradition of Irish summers, the rain is currently coming down by the bucketful outside my window, the temperature is 10 degress Celcius (50 degrees Fahrenheit for you Americans) and the weather forecasts on the wireless are using words like “torrential”, “flooding”, “roads closed” and “be sure to keep your dipped headlights on while driving in the daytime”.

    Now, don’t you all feel better not to be living over here? :-)

    • Mark Shea

      mathematics is the invention of the Devil and comes straight from the most noisome stygian pits of despair and suffering.

      Actually, this is true. As an English major, I can write you a poem to prove it.

    • Irenist

      Lá Bealtaine shona duit! It’s been some years now since I lived in my dad’s native Stab, ahem, Limerick City. I don’t miss the damp, but I do miss hurling and rugby. I seem to recall summers were less rainy; hang in there.

      • deiseach

        Ah, yes: the unwontedly sunny summers of the mid to late 70s when we even went so far as to have droughts (like our next-door neighbours) and of course, the fine weather during the Celtic Tiger years of the mid 90s to the start of this decade. However, since we are now back to the 80s economy, we are also back to the 80s weather to accompany it.

        You may also be pleased to know that Limerick is no longer referred to as “Stab City”; apparently, nowadays the younger generation refer to it as Shotgun City (though like everyplace else, it’s only the small thuggish minority in certain areas that get everyone tarred with the same brush).

        • Irenist

          Well, “Shotgun City” would better suit the cowboyish mystique of “The Outlaw Concy Ryan”:
          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2O0Ffghcs3Y
          Here’s hoping you get some sun (and that the ECB stops throttling the Irish economy…).

          • deiseach

            Oh, you should see the latest arm-twisting our Minister for Finance did to ‘encourage’ the Plain People of Ireland to vote “yes” in the upcoming referendum on the European Fiscal Treaty. He just casually mentioned today that if we don’t fall into line like good little Europeans and vote yes, when the Budget is drawn up in December, he is going to have to beat our backs into raw, bloody strips with his bullwhip (I’m paraphrasing what he said, but that’s the general gist of it), and then he expressed surprise and dismay that anyone should think what he said was a threat or an attempt to influence the free and open plebiscite.

            I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember Hall’s Pictorial Weekly and the Minister for Hardship? (If not, ask your father or watch this Youtube clip). Funny how these things come in cycles – and it was a Fine Gael government the last time as well!

  • Ted Seeber

    Ok, let’s bring it back to mathematics for the moment.

    Anybody else find it odd that we’re expending tons of time and energy on a subject that affects, at most, 10% of the human race?

    Even with respect to marriage, aren’t there better things to work on first, like the divorce rate among heterosexuals, or the fact that the lower classes have given up on marriage altogether as being too expensive (I’ve got a cousin and her 14-year common law husband in this situation)? Can’t we fix the institution *first* before giving the broken version out to more people to ruin more lives? ALL of these issues represent MUCH larger portions of our population than homosexuals do.

    • Ash

      1860 Census:

      Total Free Population 27,489,561
      Total Slave Population 3,953,760
      Grand Total 31,443,321

      • Ted Seeber

        So what? Are you saying homosexuals are slaves? Or that they want to be?

        • Therese Z

          No, they’re trying to say that gay people are being denied rights in the same way enslaved black people were in the 1860′s.

          Which is nonsense.

          Nobody is allowed to marry anyone they want – the law already constrains us from marrying our parent or our sibling, or five other people, or a 12-year-old, or a person in a coma, or a retarded person. The law recognizes either the inability of some of those people from making an informed decision, or recognizes the danger to the children born of the marriage. Miscegenation (interracial marriage) clearly causes no problems of those types, so it was manifestly unjust and laws against it struck down.

          • leahlibresco

            Jumping in only to clarify Ash’s original point: the prevalence of LGBT people is not a reason to close the conversation on their civil rights.

          • Ash

            One of these days I’ll learn to err on the side of clarity.

          • Ted Seeber

            Oh, I get it. But civil marriage as it exists in the United States today isn’t something anybody in their right mind would WANT as a right. Which is why many, many, heterosexuals who don’t have any religious beliefs about it being a sacrament, are just saying sod it.

          • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

            Dude, even when I agree with you: Chill out.

    • Brandon

      No, I don’t find it odd that people would expend a great deal of energy fighting for the equal rights of a small percentage of humanity. Yes, I do find it odd that people would expend a great deal of energy fighting against the equal rights of a small percentage of humanity.

      • Ted Seeber

        But with the state of civil marriage in the United States today, they’re not fighting for a right, they’re fighting for a wrong.

        • http://www.twitter.com/fodigg Matt

          You can hardly take that as a given considering that for many couples, the right (or sacrament if religious) of marriage contains intangible value as a validation of a relationship and as a commitment to one’s partner. You can’t say that marriage is “wrong” because it’s not financially viable at all incomes or because some people want to get divorced (if anything, financial woes are preventing divorces, not causing them).

          You can’t say “no, you can’t have this thing you want because we have to make it perfect for everyone ELSE first,” because you’re still denying something that has value to a minority based on trivial restrictions of biology between two consenting and able-minded adults.

          It doesn’t matter if the institution could be more valuable. It doesn’t matter if the institution isn’t as valuable as people think. It doesn’t matter if that value won’t necessarily come in the form of financial benefit. It is still valuable and it is still wrong to deny it based on sexual orientation.

        • http://www.twitter.com/fodigg Matt

          Oh yeah, this is supposed to be a calming, non-serious thread. My first comment and I’m already breaking the rules. Apologies.

      • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

        Circular reasoning. Five yard penalty. First down.

    • Concerned Citizen

      Miscegenation laws only affected blah blah blah blah blah..

      • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com/ The Ubiquitous

        False equivalency and unsportsmanlike conduct. Ten-yard penalty. First down.

  • deiseach

    Ted, hush. This is the Little Fluffy Kittens comment thread (because Leah has had enough hair-pulling in her inbox to do her for the next six months at least).

    :-)

    • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

      You are mean, holding out vain hope of little fluffy kittens and then making it a Potempkin link. But what can we expect, someone who doesn’t like math surely also hates kittens. You no can haz cheezburger!

      To salvage everyones cruelly disappointed hopes, here’s a real kitten, probably friends with the hedge-hog.

      • Ted Seeber

        Worse yet- your link goes to a 403 error for me. I don’t even want to know why.

        • http://last-conformer.net/ Gilbert

          Same on my cell phone, though it works on the computer I posted it from. So it looks like I too subconsciously hate kittens.

          • leahlibresco

            Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, that there will be no more kittens and ale?

        • deiseach

          I am dismayed and distraught to hear these plaints, because I swear, when I put it up, it was Little Fluffy Kittens.

          Looks like it’s the Doom, Gloom and Despair thread instead? :-)

      • http://prodigalnomore.wordpress.com The Ubiquitous

        What is a Potempkin link?

  • Ray

    “The universe existed before there were any sentient beings to observe it, which implies that physics preceded physicists. This is a puzzle, I know; but if you claim the physicists came first, it is even more confusing because instantiating a physicist takes quite a lot of physics.”

    This passage seems to conflate the methods physicists use to describe the universe with the universe itself. Surely no one ever used the Born approximation or computed an S-matrix before there were physicists (So these parts of physics were indeed invented.) Now we might say that these techniques would have worked as well as they do now if they had been tried earlier, and this is a fact about our universe that always existed — but if you look carefully, this too is a statement about our map. (see e.g. http://lesswrong.com/lw/rb/possibility_and_couldness/) We’re saying that if we modify our model of the world in the obvious way needed to cast physicists into the distant past, the model says they would go on doing their business the way they always have. (Of course we don’t always know where and when the physicists are, or what lasting evidence they will leave of their existence, so our model needs to work this way, even if all we want to do is anticipate what we will see in the future. )

    • Ray

      Perhaps I should add that whatever you believe about free will, we are not free to invent whatever we want — the classic example being a perpetual motion machine. Likewise, we may discover that some things are likely to be invented again and again (wheels, wings, writing, math) while others are not (e.g. neckties and tri-corner hats.) Anyway, I can certainly imagine fairly convincing arguments from our knowledge of physics and biology explaining why math (or rather some system of of symbolic communication that could be translated to or from our mathematical notation, with mutual agreement that the translation was successful) would be invented again and again. So I don’t think we need to posit the existence of anything physics doesn’t already regard as real to explain where math came from.

    • Irenist

      Mind if I move all the way to the right of this great old xkcd?
      http://xkcd.com/435/
      In other words, moving from physics to math: Before the Big Bang, would it still be true in some sense that 2 + 2 = 4, even in the absence of an observer (assuming atheism arguendo) and in the absence of any four objects to add? BTW, I’m asking more about the “is math out there” aspect than whether you have a pragmatists definition of truth (in which if there are no beings with purposes then there can be no truth since truth is only purpose-furthering belief for, e.g., someone like the late Richard Rorty).

      • Irenist

        Never mind, I guess. Looks like you answered me while I was typing my question.

      • Ray

        Well, I’d love to know which way I answered your question. Truth be told, I generally feel like the whole platonism/nominalism thing is more an aesthetic choice than anything. (Time really isn’t defined within the language of arithmetic, so I don’t know what the modification “before the Big Bang” is supposed to do to the statement “2+2 =4.” Presumably I can define it either way without contradicting any mathematical theorems or statements about physical reality.) So perhaps I’d better just say I like the hover over text more than I like the comic. :)

        • Irenist

          The hover text is pretty funny. Thanks for the reply!

  • Ray

    Oh, and for the benefit of those upthread, I believe this is Leah’s subtle way of saying, don’t feed the troll.

    “I’ve never banned anyone from commenting at Unequally Yoked, and I don’t plan to start, but I did notice a problem during these discussions where a couple people were dominating the threads by making really hyperbolic claims (even given that we started at Godwin’s Law). I really want to emphasize that it’s fine to walk away from a fight.”

    • leahlibresco

      Merci.

    • Brandon

      My mistake entirely. A bit more classic XKCD to express my problem:

      http://xkcd.com/386/

  • Jay

    I really think that Less Wrong has found the ideal way to address this sort of concern. Their system (modeled after Reddit) lets you vote comments up and down and then minimizes comments that receive a sufficiently low score. That method lets you reduces how much space trolls take up without the need to resort to an outright ban, and it also gives people a satisfying way to respond to trolls without needing to give an actual response. You just see an obnoxious comment, vote down, and can then comfortably walk away knowing that you’ve done your part to protect the community. And for commenters not quite at the troll level, but who are still subverting the community’s norms, this provides a simple and relatively comfortable feedback process (i.e., you don’t need to write out “here’s by you’re being an asshole”).

    Of course, I assume Patheos sets a uniform commenting format for its blogs, so it’s not like any one blogger here could adopt a different system. But I wonder if anyone has ever suggested to the administrators that such a system might be useful — especially where the nature of the subject matter is so likely to draw trolls and other obnoxious commenters. I have no idea how difficult that sort of change would be to implement in practice, but I bet that it would make a substantial improvement in the quality of comments.

    • Irenist

      What a superb idea. If anyone has any pull with Patheos HQ or whatever….

    • Joe

      I actually didn’t know what a troll was until Bad Catholic ran that post a few days ago on objective morality. I was immediately creeped out but how much I resemble that gross image on wikipedia. I definitely don’t want to be “that guy” so I will try to limit my comments in the future. Thanks

  • http://delphipsmith.livejournal.com DelphiPsmith

    I don’t want to see our often productive discussions derailed because everyone thinks it’s most urgent to reply to the craziest person in the thread. It’s a lot better to respond to the sanest person you disagree with and work your way up from there as time and blood pressure permits.

    Excellent advice!! And I love the math thing: “The joy of mathematics is inventing mathematical objects, and then noticing that the mathematical objects that you just created have all sorts of wonderful properties that you never intentionally built into them. It is like building a toaster and then realizing that your invention also, for some unexplained reason, acts as a rocket jetpack and MP3 player.” Yes!! Nothing is as entertaining as the fact that multiples of nine always add up to nine, or that prime numbers are what they are, or that the Fibonacci sequence turns up in sunflowers :)


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