Jive Talkin'

We've all seen it, but we don't have a word for it. That moment when someone who appears to be an expert, holding forth incisively and clearly, makes a small slip...revealing themselves to be a complete fraud.

I have a friend who writes and speaks on politics, often straying into hot-button scientific issues of the moment. After showing me one particularly clearly argued piece, on why it doesn't matter whether climate change is caused by industry or sunspots, he mentioned the sun heating atoms of air.

"Atoms of air". Riiiight. It transpired he didn't know what atoms or molecules were, and had never heard of elements or the periodic table. And he had no idea of how global warming or global dimming actually happened.

I shouldn't have been surprised. This is the same man who once telephoned to ask whether chemtrails and floridation conspiracies were real. And who called another time to ask whether he'd won a free laptop - because a popup said he had.

Recently, a creationist in youtube comments was throwing around technical terms, "proving" the bible was written by god. And anywhere the New Testament text was unclear, this was because it was written in idiomatic Koine Greek, and thus to be read by the people of the "Koine district".

"Koine" means "common" - as in "common language". It was the Business English of its time, a simplified form of Greek used for international trade. But this initially plausible self-declared expert in all matters biblical and exegetical didn't know this basic fact.

Perhaps it doesn't matter when an idiot on the internet or an essayist with a thousand readers is fraudulent in a minor way. But leaders in the field also do it.

Richard Carrier is a mathematician and historian who literally wrote the book on the historicity of Jesus. He uses the brilliantly simple - but bizarrely counter-intuitive - Baysian analysis to cut through the waffle and confusion in historical epistemology.

He also gets confused between the Analytic/Synthetic and A-Priori/A-Posteriori distinctions, getting him mired in different confusions.

Analytic statements are true by definition. Synthetic statements are true if they follow logically from true assumptions. A-Priori statements are assumptions. A-Posteriori statements are drawn from observation.

Carrier conflates A-Posteriori with Synthetic, which is like conflating "Two matchboxes on the table plus another two results in four matchboxes on the table in this case" with "2+2=4 because 1+1=2".

I've read more than once in biographies of Ludwig Wittgenstein that he "founded the Vienna Positivist circle" - presumably by time travel. I've heard linguists declare English is a latinate language, because it's a germanic language with a lot of imported latinate vocabulary. And we've all heard arguments over which soap opera or which operating system is "objectively" "better".

The process of research is largely a search for sources you can trust. Because most of them you can't. Usually not because they're deliberately lying to you, but because they don't know how little they know.

Almost no one knows what they're talking about.

Gotta Have Faith

Do you believe that rain falls down? Now, do you have faith that rain falls down?

If you see someone standing in the street asserting that rain falls down and not up, you might wonder why someone would feel the need to state the obviously true. But if you see the same person standing in a thunderstorm, declaring with conviction that rain falls up as they feel it coming down on them, that's faith.

A statement of faith need not be false, but it must be implausible, and held passionately. The parents of a child who disappeared 20 years ago might cling tight to the belief that their offspring will return some day, and we recognise that it's not impossible that it will indeed happen, while acknowledging it's not at all likely. But if we saw the same parents casually holding the same belief but attaching no importance to it - that would seem profoundly strange.

So, faith must be passionate, and its objects unlikely. We don't even have a special word for beliefs which are mundane and held without intense emotion.

Indeed, the more implausible a belief, the more faith is required to believe it. This is why the most fanatical believers are also the ones with the wackiest beliefs.

But to turn this around, the people with the most faith to give are the ones who seek out the wackiest beliefs to expend their faith on.

How do you contain a fanatic? Give them something trivial or irrelevant to be fanatical about. The Turin Shroud is an obvious forgery, but even if it were genuine, its existence wouldn't support one christology over another. In spite of this, many fanatics come up with labyribthine sophisms trying to prove it genuine, as if that would somehow prove their theology.

If these people's efforts were directed toward catholicism itself, the church would splinter and implode. Churches direct potential heretics toward arcane irrelevancies for the same reason wider cultures direct potential troublemakers to sporting trivia.

But what makes one belief plausible and another not?

If I told you there was a teapot orbiting Neptune, and you had no way of investigating whether or not it were true, you could assign equal probability to truth or falsity, or refuse to assign any probability until some evidence turns up.

But actually you'd assume by default there is no such teapot, being ready to change your mind if evidence emerged that it were there.

If I told you there is a man in Brazil who's married 13 times, each time to a different woman named Maria, then it's rather unlikely - but probably not as unlikely as the neptunian teapot.

But if I told you my parents own a dog, you know that dog ownership is common, and that people seldom have reason to lie about such things, so you'd probably believe me.

So although there may be clear rules for the trained mathematician, in ordinary life we use a dense and inconsistent set of vague notions of plausibility to decide. This plausibility structure has aporias and outright contradictions, but for the most part is self-supporting - so we can generally justify our intuitions with other intuitions, which then justify the first set.

Different domains of life have different plausibility structures. In school, what the teacher says is considered probably true, because the teacher says it. Outside of school, teachers know nothing. In church, the priest is a wise guide. But the priest who visits your home is the happiness police, and must be lied to.

So, within religion and its rituals, the absurd and incoherent beliefs of the church become plausible. Miracles as explanations for natural events become commonplace. Statements which no one understands become obviously true - though still not understood.

So there is at the heart of religious faith a tension. On the one hand, articles of faith need to be wildly implausible to be articles of faith. On the other, they're rendered mundane by societal conditions which make them not just plausible but obvious.

Thus when engaged in acts of worship, believers do not have faith. And it's only when not expressing their faith that they have it.


Things people don't say on their deathbed:

* I really wish I'd spent more time at work.
* I had too much sex.
* I should have worried more about what other people thought of me.
* Too many new experiences, they weren't good for me.
* Everything my parents taught me was absolutely true.

And of course,

* You can't get into too many arguments with morons.

Cub Club (Part 3)

In Part 1, I joined the cub scouts and learned nothing. In Part 2, I joined again and learned to use a needle and thread. I learned one other thing.

This second time, the nominal leader Mr Moustache (who possibly had a real name which I might even have known) was barely seen. He'd effectively demoted himself to shuffling papers in a small anteroom, while a shifting team of ex-soldiers took care of the boys.

The only time I saw him for more than a minute was while carrying one end of a banner, while he walked in front dressed as Father Christmas, and behind us was a junior marching band and a team of majorettes. This last was two dozen pubescent girls dressed in flesh-coloured lyotards - glaring with hostility at the two boys.

We walked/twirled/blew/beat around the streets for 90 minutes. What were we doing? What was on the banner? I have absolutely no idea.

But the first evening of rejoining. Eighteen boys of around 10, arranged on three sides of a square, while in the middle... ...a tall man with a short crew-cut.

Wearing full camouflage.

Screaming and bellowing about how we lacked "discipline".

Apparently we were a "disgrace", with our little green caps, woggles with neck-kerchiefs, regulation pullovers and grey school shorts.

I almost never questioned or resisted adult imbecility - there was never any point. But on this occasion, for some reason, I decided to try an experiment.

I sneered at him.

I kept the sneer until his gaze reached me...

...and he flinched.

Just momentarily, because he immediately looked far away, and never looked at me again.

I think I attended for two more weeks, and have no recollection of anything about them. Sometimes there's nothing more to habit than momentum.

I never told anyone about this, but the one thing you realise when you reach middle age...is that whatever you think you worked out as an adult...you already knew as a child.

Cub Club (Part 2)

In Part 1, Mr Moustache (who had been something low ranking in the British army) met my father (who had been a corporal in the British army and never fired a gun).

Together they decided the 10 year old Kapitano would love to join the scouts, and discover things like:

  • Communing with nature

  • Learning survival skills in the wild

  • Helping old ladies across the road

  • Doing household chores for strangers in return for pitiful amounts of cash

  • Donating the pitiful cash to never-specified charities

  • Helping old ladies across the road

  • Something about god

  • Promising to serve the queen our entire lives

  • Keeping clean

  • Never telling lies (except when it would hurt someone's feelings or embarrass an adult)

  • Helping old ladies across the...yes, that one came up quite a lot

  • Oh, and:

  • Learning how to tie sailors in knots. I might have misremembered that one.

  • In fact, the budget stretched to one occasion of:

  • Cooking baked beans and sausages by gas in the wild, untamed empty building site next to the scout hall. Except it rained, so we did it in the hall itself.

  • I stopped going pretty quickly.

    But then...it happened again. Once again Father and me bumped into Mr Moustache outside the hall, and once again decided I wanted to join. But this time it would be better, because instead of eight bored boys, there were eighteen.

    I have a few memories of this time. The third is of a plump, red-bearded, red-faced scoutmaster with an abiding passion: Amateur Dramatics.

    Every week or so, he spent an hour bullying the boys into learning everything he knew about one or another aspect of stagecraft.

    Mr Amdram: Can you guess what we're going to learn about today?
    Boys: Is it...Shakespeare?
    Mr Amdram: Um, no.
    Boys: Putting on makeup?
    (Other Boys: Yeah! Cool!)
    Mr Amdram: No.
    Boys: Swordfighing?
    (Other Boys: Swordfighing!)
    Mr Amdram: No.
    Boys: What then?
    Mr Amdram: Guess.
    Boys (after a long pause): Uh, no idea.
    Mr Amdram: DANCING!
    Boys: Oh god no! Dancing's for girls!
    Mr Amdram: We Are Going To Learn Dancing!
    Boys: Ugh! Eurgh! No!
    (Continue arguing until there's no time to learn about dancing.)

    My second memory is of the lady who poured the half-time soft drinks. And did pretty much everything else.

    Someone had noticed that Kapitano avoided playing the games which the adults devised to fill up the empty dismal hours of each meeting.

    One of these was a convoluted game of pure chance, which Kapitano was the last to play...and won. And got a round of applause for doing so.

    I had spent most of my early life being puzzled about what people did and said, so this was just one more way they made no sense. Why were the boys being prodded into congratulating me on being lucky? I shrugged and went back to my seat, alone.

    I think the adults noticed the shrug.

    They'd also noticed that Kapitano didn't have any badges sewn onto his uniform. Badgelessness and not-being-a-team-player. Two aspects of the same problem perhaps?

    So the lady spent 20 minutes listening to me talk about variables, graphics, conditional branches, and how to program a Sinclair ZX-81 personal home computer. With 16 kilobyte RAM extension.

    I don't think she listened, but she presented me with a "Hobbies" badge. I got Mother to teach me how to sew, so I could attach it to my uniform.

    And that's the story of how I learned to sew.

    But the first memory...that's the formative one. And that's in Part 3.

    Cub Club (Part 1)

    I was a cub scout. Twice.

    The first time, I was walking back from some errand with my father, when we passed a half-derelict community hall - a single-room building, maybe 5x5x20 meters, a relic from a time when the upper middle class went to church in the morning, then chess societies, knitting circles and local choirs in the evening.

    Outside was a short, thin man of about 60, in a beige uniform decorated with scattered sewn-on badges. He smiled cheerfully through a greying moustache, and affected an avuncular, Kris Kringle-like manner, which I thought at the time must be calculated to put young children at their ease.

    It had always puzzled me that adults lied so transparently to children.

    Somehow, he and my father got talking, and it turned out he ran the local cub scout troupe - which met every Thursday evening in the very building behind us.

    He said I should join, my father thought it was an excellent idea, and I tried to be diplomatic about my complete antipathy to the idea.

    He said no I really really should join, because...something something something, it would be fun and jolly good for my character or something somehow. My father said yes I'd definitely be at the next meeting. I stared off into the middle distance, waiting for them to stop.

    And so, after a few days of Mother dragging me round the clothes shops to spend far to much money on a uniform I had no interest in wearing, there came Thursday evening.

    This consisted of:

  • Inspection: I think eight boys standing in a row while Mr Moustache pretended to check our uniforms for creases or stains

  • Pledging: The oldest cub haltingly reciting an archaic promise to serve queen and country, while we all performed an occult-looking three fingered salute.

  • Sport of some kind: Most likely four-a-side soccer, which involved me standing around for half an hour, making sure I was never anywhere near the ball.

  • Break: Orange squash and biscuits, and the only time when the boys showed any sign of animation, chatting about TV shows and the then-new phenomenon of home computer games.

  • No idea: Maybe more sport, or an improvised lecture from an adult. I've a vague feeling there was prayer involved at some point.

  • Some kind of finishing ceremony, then going home.

  • I went a few more times. I don't recall learning the names of anyone there, though I remember a slightly overweight woman who did all the physical work - setting up for soccer or table tennis, making and serving the orange squash drinks...

    ...and on one occasion treating me for an inexplicable nosebleed. She taught me that it was a myth that one should tilt one's head back to stop a nosebleed, and that actually one should tilt forward. I later learned that both are myths.

    I always had the impression that she was constantly telling herself that her duties weren't the boring, demeaning waste of time they seemed, and that she was keeping up a noble tradition of...something something something.

    After six weeks or so, my parents finally realised I was never going to develop an enthusiasm for the scouts - or indeed stop loathing every moment of it. So they stopped trying to persuade me I already loved it.

    But, as with bad marriages and profitable movies, the end wasn't quite the end.

    Can I Get a Witness? (Part 2)

    "It was a large room. Full of people. All kinds. And they'd all arrived at the same place at more or less the same time. And they were all...free. And they were all asking themselves the same question."
     - Laurie Anderson

    On one side of the road, an old, traditional church, with walls of big grey stone, stained glass windows, uncomfortable wooden pews...and no one inside.

    On the other, a squat, white, square, single-storey building that wouldn't be out of place in an army barracks - apart from the signs announcing it was a "Kingdom Hall" - or Jehovah's Witness church.

    Inside, 150 people dressed like they'd designed their wardrobe from descriptions of the most formal attire in the world, but never actually seen it. Small children in immaculate bright white suits and pink bow ties. Elderly women, some in wheelchairs, dressed entirely in shades of mauve. Black men in cream boubous with gold lace and sky blue fezzes. White men with meticulously clipped beards and tweedy suits from the 70s that must get worn once per year.

    And me, in threadbare black teeshirt, baggy jogging bottoms...and running shoes I found thrown in a gutter some years ago.

    Yes, for JWs, the memorial of Jesus' death is the holiest ceremony on the most important day of the year. I did ask why the resurrection wasn't more important than the crucufixion, and apparently it's because the resurrection was just god reanimating his son on a whim, whereas the death...um, is complicated.

    I've been shown a lot of JW videos, and the overall impression is of high production values...and immense cheesiness. Looking around the two prayer rooms, with solid chairs facing a polished lectern on a stepped podium in front of expensively leatherbound books...it's the same impression - expensive opulent taste as imagined by the poor.

    And the singing of hymns...same again. No badly tuned upright piano for accompaniment, and no casio electric organ either. Instead, pre-recorded lush synthesised orchestral strings...with live vocals in the style of a crowd who want to give the impression of joyfully singing the praises of their god, but don't want to do anything so crass as show enjoyment. Very British, very Anglican.

    And on to the first, nervous looking, preacher, who's job was to introduce the second nervous looking preacher, who's job was to make a few admin announcements...and introduce "Brother Piper" to do the actual preaching.

    Brother Piper is about 20 and almost succeeds in sounding confident. He has the kind of over-chiseled good looks and waiflike slimness that come from undernutrition and stress. His suit is of course immaculate, but three sizes too large.

    If you watch enough videos of ordinary people trying to explain quantum mechanics, or trinitarianism, or common core mathematics, you get to notice the little twitches, sideways glances and uncomfortable pauses which show they don't understand what they're saying - or that they don't quite believe it.

    Brother Piper twitched quite a lot. It was a rambling train of disconnected metaphors, but the gist was this:

    The universe is 13 billion years old, and God made Jesus right at the start, so the two must be really great friends to stay together so long. 
    There's also the holy spirit, which isn't a separate entity, but simply the presence of god when he's on earth doing a miracle. Except when it's not. 
    God's plan was that everyone would be immortal with eternal youth, but Adam messed everything up by making a decision for himself, introducing sin and therefore aging, death and suffering into the world. And we're inherited result because sin is genetic. And so is sinlessness, but not yet. 
    But at some indeterminate point in the future, God will finally win the battle with Satan that he could have won at any time, but chose not to for some reason. And after that, everyone will be immortal again. And they'll still have free will, but they won't be able to make the wrong decision. Because that's how "true" free will works. 
    And not only that, but 144,000 extra-special people will be selected by god to be his civil servants in heaven for eternity, functioning as a government for the perfected earthly people who no longer need a government. 
    But amazingly, these 144,000 will not be chosen by religious affilition. And god doesn't need the JWs to win. Making the entire JW church pointless in its own cosmology. 
    Oh, and it caused God so much suffering to kill his son, it would be ungrateful not to obey all his rules.

    Cue more singing, and the ceremony of passing around the unleavened bread but not eating it, and the same for the wine. I liked the way they used stale mouldy pittabread just to make sure no one had a nibble.

    End of ceremony, and much milling about making small talk before going home. I did my routine of chatting with everyone, asking simple, obvious questions and being very understanding when they couldn't answer.

    Why does god need a civil service? Doesn't eternity pushing paper sound like hell? If angels have free will, why can't they sin - except for the one who did, even though the bible doesn't say so? And if free will doesn't entail sin, why did God make humans such that it does? 
    What obscure rules was god bound by when he had no choice but to kill his son to renew a contract he made with humanity? Do immorals make babies? What does "son of god" actually mean? Why are you performing the pagan rite of Dionysus?

    The answer, apparently, is that the bible answers all these questions, but in scrambled order. So to find the answers, pick half a dozen random paragraphs from different books, then pretend they're a connected explanation. With enough wild guessing, you can make it mean something, which you can then pretend was God's intention all along.

    Except it only works at JW prayer meetings, which I got invited to, several times. But I'm neither that much of a masochist, nor that much of a sadist. Fortunately for us all.

    Can I Get a Witness? (Part 1)

    Jehovah's Witnesses. The steampunkers of the christian world. They try to live according to rules actually found in the New Testament, without the interpolations and traditions that grew up around it.

    So whereas the catholics have to retcon 2000 years of contradiction into an enormous wobbly heap of handwaving, the JWs have only the first century of contradiction to worry about.

    They don't believe in a spiritual afterlife, but that after the end of the world, you get a new perfect body on a new perfect earth forever - unless you were evil, in which case you just cease to exist. Because that's what Paul wrote, before Hades got imported from Hellenistic religions and conflated with Tartarus.

    They don't accept blood transfusions, because Leviticus says we mustn't eat blood. Even though (1) transfusion isn't eating (2) they ignore pretty much everything else in Leviticus, and (3) blood transfusions are a jolly good idea.

    Which only leaves the question: Surely you'd drink blood?

    They don't celebrate Christmas, because it's the Roman Festival of Saturn, and therefore pagan. They don't celebrate Easter, because symbolic rabbits and eggs come from fertility cults, and are therefore pagan.

    They don't perform the Eucharist, because eating metaphorical god-flesh and drinking (eating?) metaphorical god-blood is the festival of Dyonisus - god of grain and therefore what you make from grain. So it's pagan.

    What they do instead is...once a year take a sip of wine (representing blood) and a bite of bread (representing flesh) to commemorate the death of Jesus.

    So what's the difference? The difference is: They don't call it the Eucharist. So when they do it, it's not pagan.

    They are also the nicest nutjobs I've ever met. I've chatted and debated with dozens of flavours of christian over the years, and the JWs are the only ones who've never threatened me, lied to me, or assumed I must be an idiot because I didn't agree with them.

    Well, tonight they've invited me to their not-Eucharist. So I'm going, and coming up in Part 2, my impressions.

    I Dream of TV

    Six months ago I had a tooth abcess. For the modest fee of GBP200 (or USD290 in international money) my dentist performed a root canal to drain it, making such comments as "Wow, that is a big abcess" and "Yes that must have been really painful".

    Three months ago, I started to get what felt like a return of the same pain.

    Last week, on Friday 29th January, I woke up in incredible pain. I've had shingles twice in my life, and kidney stones on two occasionals, and the level was comparable. So I did what anyone else would do; I took absurdly large amounts of ibuprofen, paracetamol and codine until the pain went away.

    They were actually prescribed to my mother for post-operative pain, but on principle she takes the minimum amount she can to get the pain down to managable levels while being a tiny bit paranoid about addiction. I prefer to clobber my nerves into submission.

    On monday I saw a doctor...who refused to give any advice or prescribe any medication, on the grounds that he was a General Practicioner and not a dental specialist. But he did recommend I see a dentist who could refer me to a hospital who could do surgery. And not take so many pills.

    So I saw a dentist, who prescribed antibiotics and refused to refer me, on the grounds that he was only providing cover for my own dentist.

    So I saw another doctor...who proscribed me Tranadol. Which works in 15 minutes, slays the pain like an ancient Sumerian warrior, and turns you into a shuffling zombie. It also has absolutely no narcotic effect whatsoever, so I have no idea how people can take it recreationally.

    And then I was able to see my actual dentist, fresh and revitalised back from his holiday. Through my vague haze I gleaned that he was horrified at how much paracetemol I was inflicting upon me delicate liver, and extremely unimpressed that anyone would prescribe Tramadol ("a horrible drug") for dental pain.

    So he prescribed me Dihydrocodine. 100 milligrams every six hours, to be taken with food...and with Metrodidazole, a second antibiotic that attacks the kind of anarobic bacteria that swarm under teeth. Then I could come back on Friday, with inflamation hopefully sufficiently reduced that the x-rays could show clearly...just where the infection was. And thus what exactly needed treating.

    Dihydrocodine takes an hour to start working, isn't as effective a painkiller as Tramadol, and makes you sleepy in the same way a tidal wave makes you moist. With the result that I started sleeping 18 hours a day, but was actually capable of thought the rest of the time. I'm typing this two hours after taking a dose.

    Small detail: The pharmacist refused to give me the dihydrocodine until I went home to fetch the tramadol to exchange for it, on the grounds that I might, under the effects of the tramadol, get confused and take both drugs, which would interact, and I'd find myself unable to breathe, and suffocate to death. So, yeah.

    My head now somewhat clearer, I found myself able to reason thusly:

  • Dental x-rays don't definitively show an abcess - just some small and vague dark patches that could be anything, or nothing.

  • The pain may feel centered on a row of three teeth - one of which is actually a gap from a previous extraction - but it spreads through the right side of my face.

  • Specifically, the back of my neck, the soft tissue below my jawline, my right ear, my right eye, my right temple, and the fusion line of my infant fontanelles on my shaved head.

  • That sounds like the symptoms of nuralgia, not an abcess at all.

  • According to Dr Google, it sounds like occipital nuralgia, which is treated with anti-inflamataries.

  • Anti-histamines are also anti-inflamatories.

  • So if I take some anti-histamines, it might help.

  • And wouldn't do any harm in any case.

  • So I spoke to a (different) pharmacist. Who told me that, as usual, Dr Google was slightly but crucially wrong, and anti-histamines wouldn't help. And if I did have nuralgia is would be the trigeminal type, and if I had that I'd be hospitalised and howling in agony. With sharp stabbing pain as opposed to my dull constant type. Oops.

    Well, on Friday I turned up for more x-rays and surgery. Except the x-rays were still inconclusive. And apparently while on Wednesday I'd thought I was slightly out of it, my orthodontist (lit: "Tooth Straightener") thought I'd been really out of it.

    However, we were both a little perversely pleased at being presented with a non-trivial diagnostic puzzle. Through a process of logical deducation and selective injections of novocaine, we narrowed the possibilities to two:

    (1) An abscess on the upper-right lateral incisor. Treatment: Extraction.
    (2) A broken root on the upper-right crowned canine next to it. Treatment: Extraction.

    ...and no good way to tell which it was.

    Conclusion: Another round of pills, and another week of waiting for the swelling to go down, at the end of which, another set of x-rays, and a decision. After which I go home with one tooth fewer. And some more painkillers.

    In the meantime...I have my dreams. 18 hours a day of them.

    Yesterday, in fitful bursts of sleep, I dreamed an entire Dr Who adventure from the 70s. 2016's Tom Baker Doctor took 1990's Sarah Jane Smith back in time to change the timeline of a previous adventure, with 70s Baker and Sladen, and daleks on a space station trying to blow up the earth. Back To The Future II style, with episodes 3 and 4 abrogated and set on a different path when Sarah Jane heroically tries to save earth by blowing up the dalek ship with her on it, but the Doctor freezing time at the last moment.

    Today, I got a lost Star Trek TNG story. The one where Picard loses the emotional center of his humanity after being infected with an engineered alien nano-virus. So he has to regain it by trying to define what it is to be human in philosophical converations with Lieutenant Commander Data...while a giant green humanoid stands in for him in the captain's chair, symbiotically linking with the Enterprise.

    It seems my unconscious brain is nerdier than my conscious one.