Quicklinks: 06 – 19 February 2023

This time we’re doing two weeks together. Why? I got infected with covid and so all my plans and normal activities have completely gone out the window. It was not a particularly severe case though but it’s still been quite disruptive.

This week we’re starting off with an impressive picture of a snow leopard which was taken in Mongolia.

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Quicklinks: 30 January – 5 February 2023

I’ll start this set of links off with this beautiful 150-year-old tree from Japan.

Imagine if you went walking in the forest and then encountered this fantastical creature!

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Quicklinks: 16-22 January 2023

Let’s start off with something cute; wolves playing in the snow.

And here’s some good news for animals; New York became the 10th US state to ban the sale of cosmetics which were tested on animals!

I’ve seen this in quite a few places, it’s a piece arguing that PhD training needs to be reformed. Now I’m not saying that PhD training (or universities in general) are perfect, they’re not. There are many things that can be improved but I don’t think this article is on the right track. In my opinion, many of the sort of issues that the article talks about are neither failings of PhD nor university education but a failure of society and expectations. A degree at any level is not supposed to prepare people for jobs. It’s supposed to provide domain-specific knowledge while building general skills in critical thinking, research and learning. It’s up to employers to provide job-specific training. There is also a problem of credential inflation where even basic jobs now require a degree, no matter how unnecessary that is. Furthermore, while I fully agree that we should value PhD graduates and that they can help find solutions to various problems, I think framing that as a key role of PhD training is sorely misguided. I say that because we don’t need more solutions! Look at the biggest problem of today – global warming. We already have renewable energy options, we know how to build public transport, we know how to make food more sustainable, we know we can cut back on consumption. The problems are not scientific, they are political. There is no political will to make the necessary changes. Most other big problems, from Russia’s war in Ukraine, censorship, human rights, equality and so on, those are all political problems that we can, in principle, solve today.

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Structuring society to counteract science denialism

The essay below is my entry to the OeAW’s (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften/ Austrian Academy of Sciences) 2022 Preisfrage. The topic was “Fact or fiction: How to deal with scientific scepticism?”


The problem of scientific scepticism, or, more accurately, science denialism, is a major one that has serious implications, particularly in modern society where so much is driven by scientific advances, and it is heartening that the Austrian Academy of Sciences has chosen it as a topic for this year’s Preisfrage. Before addressing the topic, I think it is necessary to clarify exactly what I do and don’t mean by certain terms to ensure that we all enter this discussion from the same starting point.

First, I will say that scepticism—questioning established knowledge—is good. Indeed, scepticism is a core principle of science itself. In science, all our knowledge is provisional, should be treated with scepticism and is accepted only to the extent that the current evidence supports it. However, the scientific scepticism that is of interest to the academy goes beyond this, to the extent that people, who lack the deep knowledge and training required to assess the evidence, doubt the scientific consensus in a manner that is disproportionate to the actual uncertainty of the conclusion. For this reason, I will not use the term scientific scepticism, which is a virtue that all scientists should share, and instead use science denialism which better captures that the problem is not scepticism itself but an unjustified denial of the scientific consensus.

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Commentary: The Moralbiont

Product concepts made with fungal leather (Image: Mylo)

This is the companion piece to my short story, The Moralbiont. It will discuss some of the references and science from the story. If you have not read the story yet, I would highly advise reading it first.

The conversation between Olivia and her grandfather about his thesis supposedly being covered in cow skin is a reference to a question from the Voight-Kampff test. In the Blade Runner franchise, the Voight-Kampff test is administered to those suspected of being a replicant, a human-like android lacking empathy. By monitoring the physiological responses to questions about shocking or repellent situations, you are able to tell if the subject is a real human or a replicant. I have neither seen Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner film nor read the original novel by Philip K. Dick but I did play the 1997 video-game which is where I became aware of the question.

Like my briefcase? Department issue, baby hide. 100% genuine human baby hide.

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What makes a person evil?

The first book I’m reading this year is Mark Rowland‘s memoir, The Philosopher and the Wolf. For now, I will just say that it’s stories of having a wolf mixed with some philosophical musings. One of those musings concerned evil. He maintained that evil does exist, though not in a supernatural sense, and that it consists of “very bad things” and that people do those “very bad things” due to a failure on their part, both a failure of moral duty (to do the right thing) and epistemic duty (to properly subject one’s beliefs to scrutiny). He contrasted that with the modern view of evil which, he claimed, is seen as people doing “very bad things” because of an underlying medical or social issue. I think that both of those views are fundamentally flawed and want to describe a different way of viewing evil.

Let’s briefly consider the idea that evil actions are those actions which are very bad, i.e. at the extreme end of a scale of bad actions. Shoplifting a chocolate bar is bad but not very bad. It’s worse to steal a car but still not evil. Premeditated murder, especially if paired with some other crime, is now getting to the sort of thing we would nearly all agree is evil. But there’s a flaw; except for religious beliefs, there is no “objective” morality, so there is no objective and universal measurement which you can use to say something is bad. As there is insufficient evidence to support the claims of religion, we must discard it. We are left with secular morality.

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Overpopulation and the environment

It’s a weird feeling when you find people questioning something you would’ve thought was both obvious and widely accepted. That’s something that happened to me recently regarding the impact of human population on the environment, something we’ve been hearing is a problem from environmentalists for decades. That’s why I was surprised to read an article by Ketan Joshi talking about the problems in a recent film (which I haven’t seen) and being completely against the idea that we need to talk about population. In fact, he goes so far as to call population control “a cruel, evil and racist ideology.”

I had no idea how he had come to that conclusion, and I still don’t know how much of that was directed specifically at the film he was critiquing and how much was a general comment, but there was a Twitter thread by George Monbiot which is a good read and makes explicit a similar line of reasoning. His contention is that, although the majority of carbon emissions are by the, primarily white, ultra rich, people (particularly white people) prefer to blame population growth than the wealthy as it deflects responsibility from their own actions and that this is, intentionally or not, racist because those countries with the highest population growth rates have largely black or brown population. While I agree with several of his starting points, I think he makes several errors in reasoning as he builds upon them that undermines his conclusions and which I wish to address here. Continue reading

Lineage OS and the importance of free software

Almost all of us carry phones with us, often smart phones that contain a lot of sensitive data. It can be very difficult to keep that data secure because phones often give up a lot of our information without our knowledge or, sometimes, consent. Your phone can be sending data every two seconds. So what can you do about it?

Lineage OS

PIC1Several years ago, I was struggling with an old phone and, as a way to prolong its life, installed CyanogenMod. That was an alternative operating system to Android which solved some of my performance issues, although it did cause some of its own issues. But it introduced me to the world of custom ROMs and all of my current devices are running the successor project, Lineage OS. Since I just recently re-installed Lineage OS on my phone, I thought I should briefly talk about it. Continue reading