Category: Science

The trope that changed my mind

Major spoilers for Get Out and lesser spoilers for Six Wakes follow below. This got long and warnings around topics that touch on (but don’t discuss in detail) body image.

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No, that doesn’t settle it.

A Washington Post article about a research paper claims to have settled the question of whether to put one space or two spaces after a full-stop (or as Americans like to say a ‘period’*).

The research neatly encapsulates some of the elements of questions of objectivity and meaning that I keep returning to.

The research had two components. The first was about usage and is interesting but not consequential. The second is of more note. Using eye-tracking, the researchers measured how a number of people followed sentences they were reading. Using that data, they could compare the relative reading ease of texts that used a single space after a full-stop and texts that used two spaces.

The results showed a small advantage for two spaces. By ‘small’ I mean:

  • ‘comprehension was not affected by punctuation spacing’ i.e. there was no measurable difference in how well subjects understood the texts they were reading.
  • there was some evidence that ‘initial processing of the text was facilitated when periods were followed by two spaces’.

So practically, two-spaces was not obviously better but MAYBE it required a smaller effort to read, perhaps. Note this second conclusion requires its own chain of inference that’s not well established i.e. it assumes that the processing of the text was facilitated but that was not measured directly.

But the bigger issue (mentioned in the WP article but not in the abstract of the paper) was that the text used was… a monospaced font.

That does not make any of the findings in the report invalid. It doesn’t undermine the quality of the methodology used. It doesn’t make the findings less objective BUT it does entirely miss the point of the underlying argument.

The two-space versus one-space debate pertains to the transition from typewriters to modern wordprocessing. Classic typewriters had to use common widths between letters due to the mechanics of a typewriter, including a degree of error as to exactly where a letter might be placed. Modern word-processing uses typefaces where letters and the spacing around them are customised for not just individual letters but also for punctuation. The two-space versus one-space argument is one about the transition from classic typing to modern word-processing.

There is a parallel with drug trials here. For example a new drug or treatment might be compared with a placebo. That’s a scientifically legitimate approach to collecting data and looking at efficacy. However, its often not the relevant question. More pertinent is how the new drug compares with existing treatment rather than a placebo.

The point being – what is the underlying issue or what is the question being asked? These are more vague, more wooly aspects of scientific inquiry but also deeply important. The more clarity on those aspects help us judge whether empirical evidence is relevant to the question being asked.

However, my point above does not mean the research was wasted. It does demonstrate a couple of things:

  • The typing habit of using two spaces after a full stop had some merit.
  • The possible advantage of using two spaces is very small.

I don’t think either conclusion helps out the two-spacers much. The first implies social habits and vague aesthetics of people who type can be trusted – and that would tend towards favouring the one-spacer’s attitude to modern texts with modern fonts. The second implies that the cost-benefit of using two spaces is a best marginal and at worst a waste of time. Although, I’m clearly showing my one-spaced prejudices here.

*(As we are engaged in trivial quibbles of no actual consequence, let me just say that ‘period’ should be retired as a name for the full-stop. It should then be re-allocated to the n-dash whose role is often to indicate a period of time, such as when it joins two dates together. I also have opinions about hyphens and dashes that I will reserve for another post – I feel the controversy would just be WAY too much for you all.)

Timothy’s Alternative MCU Running Order

Good evening movie watching people everywhere. It is I, Timothy the Talking Cat, editor, writer, gourmand, and counselour of the cinematic arts. Was it not the great Marie-Georges-Jean Méliès himself who once said “Sacre-bleu a talking cat! If only I had ze talking pictures I could make a film of this but instead I stick this rocket in somebody’s eye!” Yes, yes, I speak French now as well because I am a great linguist among other things. As Noam Chomsky wrote to me only the other day in reply to my letter about the intrinsic nature of grammar in the feline brain: “Please cease and desist from any attempt to contact me again.” That’s one of his famous sentences that are technically grammatical but don’t make sense.

All the truly great films are very long and the great film experiences are so long that they have to have an interval. Consier this:

  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: has an interval and an overture.
  • Warcraft the Movie: does not have an interval or an overture.

Case closed I think. The Marvel Cinematic Cosmos does not have intervals but it does have breaks between films so you can go and pee. You can just have a pee in the cinema if you bring your own litter tray but some cinemas frown on this practice as they want you to spnd the extra money buying abig tub of popcorn so you can pee in that instead.

The point I’m trying to make is that I need the toilet.

That’s better. Typing on a full bladder is not wise even when you are getting somebody else to do the typing.

LENGTH! Length is a key factor here. If you go see a short movie then Camestros has to pay the same amount as when he takes you to a LONGGGG movie. You get more movie for your money. But length is not enough. You also need:

  • Explosions
  • Vampires
  • Space
  • Exploding vampires in space
  • Cats

The important element of Marvel films is not just that they are long and have pee breaks between films (sometimes lasting several years) but each film is an improvement on the last. Have we reached peak Marvel film yet? Oh no, not by a long chalk matey! That’s not how a shared universe works. You introduce pieces piece by pieces until you have all the pieces and WHAM perfect film probably with an interval like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.


So here’s my running order of Marvel films in the order you should watch them.

  1. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – The Iron Man/Potts origin story. This is where the whole story starts and frankly it is a classic. They’ve been mapping this all out since 1910 or whenever this film was made.
  2. Blade 1: Vampires! Not in space but they don’t play all their best cards in one go. I tried that once in a fancy casino and they all got very cross with me. “You can’t bring your own cards” they shouted and “This is not a game of Uno!”
  3. Balde 2: More vampires. Keep playing the good cards not the best card. Like the ‘reverse direction’ card not the Uno wild card.
  4. Blade 3: Even more vampires. Just pile up the vampires early to raise the stakes.
  5. The Incredible Hulk. So this guy gets annoyed and smashes things. Genius. Best role Tony Curtis ever played*.
  6. Ha ha, ‘raise the stakes’ I just got that.
  7. It was too a deliberate pun.
  8. The Vikings with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. Bah-baaa-baaaa, Bah-baaa-baaaa, ba bah bah bha bah baah bah baaaah ba baaahh.
  9. Thor Ragnarok. Change of actors but it works – Mark Gruffalo does a passable Tony Curtis impression. The main thing is we go from vikings not in space with no explosions to vikings in space WITH explosions.
  10. Black Panther: Da na na na na CATMAN! He’s a man, he’s a cat, he’s CATMAN! Oh, gosh! Can you see how these films just keep getting better and better! He’s a cat but he’s also a man. Because he is a man he’s stuck with having to be a gregarious social mammal instead of just hanging out by himself in a tree with a half-eaten gazelle. Can he manage to be both? Not quite so he fights another catman. Classic!
  11. Infinity War: Oh my golly gosh! Check this out! Kirk Douglas is back and Mark Gruffalo and a bunch of people I don’t recognise. Black Panther is back, still thinking “Hey, I could be hanging out in a tree with a meaty carcase but I’m also a man and have to hang out with my extended family and friends like some kind of non-solitary apex predator” Emotional conflict drives character development. But oh look! He’s big, he wants to kill everybody because people are frickin’ annoying, he’s PURPLE! Yes, not the hero you people deserve but at long last a character I can almost identify with: FANOFF! He doesn’t have a cat face unlike Mr Panther but he’s got a cat personality. Who hasn’t sat out on the porch as the evening sunsets and thought “wouldn’t it be cool if I could just kill everybody?”

What’s next? Well, I think it is pretty obvious from who hasn’t turned up yet. In Part 2, Fanoff is like ‘OK, I saved the universe already. Now what?’ and then a whole bunch of vampires turn up! Fanoff then magics Blade back but he can’t travel in space, so fanos magics up Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. “That’s you car now!” says Fanoff. “Thanks” says Blade, “But I can’t kill all these vampires by myself!” So Fanos waves his hand three times and says “abracadabra” and MEEE-OWW! Its catman himself BLACK PANTHER! And also Tony Curtis and Billy Joel** “Time to kick some vampire butt!” says Tony Curtis. “No, we should stab them instead!” says Blade and then they all fly off in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Billy Joel sings the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang song. THE END.

*[I’ve no idea – CF]
**[No, I have zero explanation here either – CF]

Reading Peterson 11 – Notes & Facts & Hypothesis

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12,…

There’s no shortage of notes in Jordan B Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life but that doesn’t mean every assertion related to facts is referenced. Also, when references are used they aren’t always tightly associated with the argument. Take this for example from chapter 2:

“This is perhaps because the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals, including the chimpanzees who are our closest genetic and, arguably, behavioural match. It is because men are and throughout history have been the builders of towns and cities, the engineers, stonemasons, bricklayers, and lumberjacks, the operators of heavy machinery.” – Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (p. 40). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Now there is a lot wrong with that statement factually but the right reference here, if this was an academic essay, would be to a source discussing historical patterns of employment. Peterson instead links to some modern labour statistics here The tables do use the term ‘traditional occupations’ and ‘non-traditional’ based on proportions of women involves but this is ‘traditional’ in a very loose sense and includes “Meeting, convention, and event planners”. My point here isn’t that the table is wrong of even questioning gendered-roles in employment – just that a lot of references are weak in this fashion. It is vaguely related but not neatly tied to Peterson’s argument.

(This is quite long – so more after the fold)

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January Temperatures

As usual, here are last months satellite temperature anomalies – not because they are best data set for this stuff but because they are the one that engenders the fewest pointless arguments.


The green line is my addition, otherwise this graph is from here

As per the last goodness knows how long, the moral is – natural cycles exist but they don’t explain global warming. Things have cooled after EL Niño peaks but the ‘cool’ of 2018 resembles the ‘hot’ of the 1980s and early 1990s. Why, it’s almost as if things have got  systemically hotter over the decades.

Ockham, the neo-Thomist right and transgender rights

Micael Gustavsson asked a good question in the previous post and my reply got so long that I thought it should be a post instead. [A caveat – I’m not an expert on Medieval philosophy or Ockham but I have been to Surrey. Any philosophy professors or expert on the theology of the middle ages feel free to correct my errors – or anybody really 🙂 ]

//Why would it have been impossible to reach todaylevel technology based on the philosphical thinking of thinking of Thomas? Or is that maybe to big a question?//

Mainly because it doesn’t work – so assuming technological and scientific thought proceeded anyway then over time then Thomism would increasingly be in conflict with advances in knowledge. It’s not so much that William O had to invent nominalism for science to happen, just that the kind of reasoning & conceptual framework that will come about in response to engaging scientifically with the world won’t match Thomism.

In reality, the most famous divergence came with Galileo’s conflict with the Catholic church but that just highlights one spot where a central authority tried to hold onto one aspect of a broader model and picked a very silly spot to make their stand.

I don’t think Ockham set these changes in Western thought in motion – I think he was an astute thinker who spotted a whole set of flaws in the Thomist consensus. The only way for these flaws to STAY overlooked would have been for the Catholic Church to somehow prevent intellectual development in Western Europe at both a philosophical and practical level.

Put a different way: the neo-Thomist right really want things (i.e. everything) to exist to serve an underlying purpose and for categories of things to reflect that purpose and deviations of things FROM those categories & purposes are therefore immoral.

A current example is the right and its reaction to transgender people. Now let me be clear the basic issue of the right is simply bigotry and ignorant prejudice but the styles of rationalisations that the right applies neatly illustrates how the view on categories works as an epistemology and a view on ethics.

So an anti-transgender rights conservative (which isn’t all of them) might claim that:

  • there are only two sexes/gender
  • that God created those two sexes for distinct purposes
  • that when a person acts in a way contrary to the purposes of their sex that is sinful (because it is ‘unnatural’/against God’s purpose)
  • that therefore they should not be encouraged or enabled to do so

These ideas are really just bigotry but if you were casting around for a reputable philosophical scheme to rationalise them then a set of ideas that join Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas look attractive. This is the idea that the reason things are similar (and hence can be lumped together in categories) even though they are different (so we can tell them apart) is because the truer, deeper, more essential reality IS the category. All women are alike (in this idea) because womaness is the underlying truth. As a way of thinking it makes sense if you are classifying quadrilaterals (all square-like things are instances of the underlying deeper truth of the Platonic ideal of a square).

Now there is a whole bunch of stuff there: a metaphysics, a theory of science, a view of God and theological truth (i.e. we can reason about categories and discover ethical truths). Why do John C Wright and Vox Day like syllogisms? Because they were a medieval/classic way of reasoning about CATEGORIES.

Now Ockham called bullshit on aspects of this. Specifically he moved (reluctantly at times) towards a position called nominalism – essentially that categories are primarily convenient ways of thinking about stuff. Things are essentially different but humans can identify similarities and lump similar things together. But that lumping together isn’t the truer deeper reality. Nominalism has its problems also obviously. However, when we look at things scientifically what do we see:

  • There are not only two human biological sexes. It is not a biological fact that humans divide neatly into two simple groupings by sex. It’s not true physically and it isn’t true genetically.

Now, the existance of inter-sex people is NOT the cornerstone of transgender rights – those rights exist regardless but I’ll get back to that. I’m highlighting it because it illustrates how the neo-Thomist scheme falls apart on a contemporary issue once we engage with the actual facts of the world. Even quite strong natural/empirical categories that we encounter empirically (such as biological genetic sex in humans) that has fairly well-understood causal (in the modern sense) basis does not form categories with zero fuzziness in the boundary. If God set up this scheme then God set up a scheme in which categorical boundaries have a tendency to get fractal.

And that’s JUST sex! Gender brings in questions or societal roles, behaviour, attitudes, dress, personality etc shows no respect for neat natural categories. Of course, the empirical evidence for this is in the ‘softer’ sciences of psychology and sociology and hence easier for the right to dismiss but essentially we have a similar issue. The neo-Thomist is claiming that the categories are a TRUTH about the universe i.e. A QUESTION OF FACT and that from those facts THEOLOGICAL truths can be established (God’s intent) and from that an ETHICAL truth can be inferred (being transgender is supposedly against God’s purpose) – and they are plain wrong.

I doubt William of Ockham had and views or perspective on the issue of transgender rights and there isn’t a coherent way of saying what he would think if he was alive today because he’d be a different person BUT! Bill-O (as I feel I should call him now) was already pulling apart most of the pieces of that argument.

  • His nominalism points to categories as being empirical observational things that will have exceptions, complications, and non-neat boundaries. We live in a world in which there is a platypus and birds are tiny singing dinosaurs.
  • His fiedism separated theological truths from logical and empirical ones. I.e. if God exists then God transcends logic (God is more powerful than logic and isn’t constrained by it) but therefore you can’t logic God.

Now, as I said I don’t want to overstate the fact that biological sex is not a neat category as a reason for transgender rights being important. That isn’t the actual positive reasoning. Rather, it is the fact that biological sex is not a neat category that demonstrates that the neo-Thomist argument CANNOT be correct. It is a metaphysical scheme that falls apart when brought into contact with OBSERVATION – which is what happened repeatedly since Plato first came up with the idea. Ironically it was Aristotle (who Thomas Aquinas venerated) who began chipping away at the scheme. It wasn’t a bad idea as such and Platonism had a good run in mathematics until at least the 19th century.

To move away from biology and sociology, you can see how this divergence works in chemistry. Neat categories of four elements gives way to a plethora of elements. The periodic table itself isn’t a fatal wound because there are lots of natural groupings but the inherent fuzziness (e.g. elements that are nearly but not quite metals) pushes against it. Atomic theory kills it dead – the commonalities between elements arise not from them all being in the same category but rather similarities at an atomic level lead to common properties. Having the quality of a metal becomes something that can be described without recourse to the quality of being a metal.

Anyway, this article on William of Ockham is a good read:

Also Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, which is a great read regardless is very much tied up in the times and ideas of William of Ockham as prototype for modern rationalism. The protagonist, William of Baskerville, shares the same first name with the addition of the allusion to Sherlock Holmes but is also an English Fransciscan and contemporary of William of Ockham. The background to the story involves a political dispute between the Pope and the real life Michael of Cesena head of the Franciscans in which William of Ockham was involved.


You say ‘a-loomin-um’, I say ‘al-you-min-ee-um’, we both say ‘bunkum’

I resolved to not bother talking about Vox Day for awhile but circumstances compel me. The synergies of nonsense bind extreme nationalism, Trumpism, misogyny, creationism and antivaxxerism. It is always remarkable to see what apparently scientific studies the Alt-Right will quote as if gospel and which they will turn their selective scepticism too.

To wit:

What is all this about? It is the old and thoroughly debunked canard that vaccines cause autism. The idea is rooted in two coincidences: an increase in the numbers of people diagnosed with autism (primarily due to better clinical descriptions of autism spectrum and increased awareness among doctors and the public) and the timing of when autisim symptoms are often identified at an age close to when early childhood vaccinations occur. Campaigners against vaccinations have been looking for a more substantial way of linking the two and one generic culprit has been ‘toxins’ in vaccines – i.e. various additives used in the manufacture of vaccines. For a long time the supposed guilty party was mercury, particularly in the form of thiomersal – a preservative used in some vaccines. However, studies linking the two were famously debunked and many vaccines didn’t use thiomersal or other mercury compounds anyway.

Of later the antivaxxers have been pointing their fingers at a different metal: aluminium – which is just like the metal aluminum but more British. ‘Aluminium adjuvants’  are an additive to vaccine that use aluminium. Adjuvants are any substances added to vaccines whose role is to provoke an immune response (see here for a better explanation ). Tiny amounts of aluminium are added intentionally because the body’s immune system will react to the aluminium and it is that principle (which is central to the whole idea of vaccines) that has vaccination critics concerned.

Back to the study quoted. Vox Day is quoting from The Daily Mail:

BUT….the Mail article is little more than a cut and paste from here:

Which is an article by a “Chris Exley” who mainly writes alarming articles about the terrible things aluminium might do to you. Exley  is quoting a study from Keele University which is available here:

And that study was conducted by three people including…Professor Chris Exley. Who, conincidentally enough is on the editorial board of the journal the study is published in:

It is a long chain and yet oddly this is a rare case where the populist half-baked version of the study is alomost directly from the scientist involved.

Now I don’t know much about Professor Exley’s field, so I can’t really comment on the validity of the methods used. The study involved detecting aluminium in a very small number of samples of brain tissue from dead people who at some point in their lives had been disagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. There’s not much in the way of comparisons in the paper and I get the (perhaps mistaken) impression that the method is relatively new. The paper correctly concedes that “A limitation of our study is the small number of cases that were available to study and the limited availability of tissue.”

But take a critical look at the next step in the reasoning. Exley hedges what he says but Vox follows the dog whistle:

“So, the obvious question this raises is: how did so much aluminum get into the brain tissue in the first place? And the obvious answer is: from being injected with vaccines containing aluminum.” (Vox Day)

Of course a moments thought reveals that cannot be the answer. Most people do not have a diagnosed Austism Spectrum Disorder but most people are vaccinated. For Exley’s hypothesis to be correct there would need to be some additional factor, which Exley does describe in his media article:

“Perhaps there is something within the genetic make-up of specific individuals which predisposes them to accumulate and retain aluminium in their brain, as is similarly suggested for individuals with genetically passed-on Alzheimer’s disease.”

Well perhaps there is but Exley’s study doesn’t show that. More to the point, if this IS true then vaccines and aluminium adjuvants are irrelevant – we are encounter far more aluminium in our diets than we do from the tiny amounts we might get from vaccinations. Exley has zero reason to point at vaccines, indeed his speculation would imply that vaccines CANNOT be the main reason for larger amounts of aluminium in his samples because neccesarily bigger sources are more likely.

Exley appears to be trying to join two different healthscare bandwagons together: general concerns about aluminium in stuff (see his other posts) and antivaxxerism.

Is the study itself flawed? As I said, I don’t know but the connection the paper makes to vaccines has zero substance and no evidence from the study itself. That in itself should have raised red flags with reviewers.

In the past, I’d have gone to Science Blogs for some extra background on something like this but that venerable home of blogs has been wound down.

Luckily ‘Orac’ of Respectful Insolence has set up their own blog here and has a deep dive into Exley’s paper here:

Yup, it is as dodgy as somebody dodging things in a dodgy dodge. Orac points out the dubious funding source:

“The second time, I noted that he’s one of a group of scientists funded by the Child Medical Safety Research Institute (CMSRI), which is a group funded by Claire and Al Dwoskin, who are as rabidly antivaccine as anyone I’ve seen, including even Mike Adams. Among that group of antivaccine “scientists” funded by CMSRI? Anthony Mawson, Christopher Shaw, Lucija Tomljenovic, and Yehuda Shoenfeld, antivaccine crank “scientists” all. And guess what? This study was funded by CMSRI, too. Fair’s fair. If antivaxers can go wild when a study is funded by a pharmaceutical company and reject it out of hand, I can point out that a study funded by an antivaccine “foundation” is deserving of more scrutiny and skepticism.”

And it just gets worse from there. No controls, some tiny sample jiggery-pokery with the numbers and so on. Best read directly.