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Don’t let Scalia tell you there’s nothing wrong January 5, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Politics, Religion.
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Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently graced some students in Louisiana with his learned opinions.

He told the audience at Archbishop Rummel High School that there is “no place” in the country’s constitutional traditions for the idea that the state must be neutral between religion and its absence.

“To tell you the truth there is no place for that in our constitutional tradition. Where did that come from?” he said. “To be sure, you can’t favor one denomination over another but can’t favor religion over non-religion?”

I wonder, what are Scalia’s criteria for a religion to be eligible for favored status? Would he include Scientologists? Satanists? Followers of Zeus and Ra? Is any belief too crazy, or is it sufficient to believe in something for which there is no evidence?

He also said there is “nothing wrong” with the idea of presidents and others invoking God in speeches. He said God has been good to America because Americans have honored him…

“God has been very good to us. That we won the revolution was extraordinary. The Battle of Midway was extraordinary. I think one of the reasons God has been good to us is that we have done him honor. Unlike the other countries of the world that do not even invoke his name we do him honor. In presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways,” Scalia said.

“There is nothing wrong with that and do not let anybody tell you that there is anything wrong with that,” he added.

I’m afraid there are several things wrong with that. If we actually look at the other countries of the world, we find that highly nonreligious societies like Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands rank higher than the U.S. on indexes like life expectancy and education; while the poorest countries tend to be the most religious. And you know who else believed they had God on their side? The Romans. And the Mayans. And the Egyptians. For a while, anyway.

It turns out that societies do better when they base their policies on reason and evidence rather than magical thinking and dogmatic adherence to tradition. After all, one person’s religion is just another’s superstition. Do we really want our leaders invoking the magical, and our laws favoring the superstitious? Even Scalia ought to be able to see what’s wrong with that.

(via Why Evolution is True)

scalia

How to solve a hard problem December 25, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Computer science, Humor.
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To solve a hard problem, first break it down into pieces. Then pack those pieces into bins, using as few bins as possible. You’re going to want a little help from your friends, so consult your social network and find the largest clique of people who all know each other. Visit the home of each of those friends (making sure to use the shortest possible overall route), and give each friend a subset of the bins whose overall number of pieces equals that friend’s age. Return home, and wait for your friends to send you their results. (While you’re waiting, you can perfect your game of Candy Crush.) Then find the longest sub-sequence common to all your friends’ results — that sub-sequence is (almost surely) your solution!

Note: If the above procedure is taking too long to terminate, try breaking your problem into more pieces; making more friends; or consulting an oracle.

candy-crush-saga

Backlash December 23, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics.
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  • “Donald Trump Faces Immigration Backlash from Tech-Billionaires” (December 1)
  • “Leaders Warn Against Stereotyping and Backlash After San Bernardino Shooting” (December 3)
  • “‘Thoughts and Prayers’ Backlash After San Bernardino Shooting” (December 3)
  • “Coke pulls offensive Christmas ad but faces backlash from indigenous rights group” (December 5)
  • “Dems Fear Backlash Over Obama’s ‘Weak and Unclear’ Plan to Defeat ISIS” (December 8)
  • “Donald Trump’s Anti-Muslim Demand Sparks Sharp Backlash” (December 9)
  • “Backlash Over Santa ‘Ban’ at NYC School a Misunderstanding” (December 14)
  • “Virginia county closes schools as Islam homework draws backlash” (December 18)
  • “Wisconsin mayor faces backlash for calling Obama a Muslim” (December 22)
  • “Obama administration’s proposed insurance reforms incite industry backlash” (December 22)
  • “Family faces backlash for controversial Christmas photo” (December 22)
  • “Clinton’s Hispanic outreach sparks online backlash” (December 22)
  • “Trump Faces Backlash Over Sexually Derogatory Remark About Hillary” (December 23)
  • “Michael Sam Tweets Major ‘Star Wars’ Spoiler, Draws Fiery Backlash From Followers” (December 19)

Insignificant December 5, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Reason.
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“First you state your null hypothesis, which is your default position in the absence of any evidence, and your significance level, which is the maximum probability you’re willing to accept for rejecting the null hypothesis when it’s actually true. Then you perform your observations, calculate the p-value (the probability of obtaining a result at least as extreme as what was observed if the null hypothesis were true), and reject the null hypothesis if and only if the p-value is below the significance level.”

“Got it. Here goes: My significance level is zero, and my null hypothesis is—”

“Wait a minute: a significance level of zero means there’s no evidence that could ever convince you to abandon the null hypothesis.”

“Oh, is that bad? All right, then: My significance level is five percent…”

“That’s better.”

“…and my null hypothesis is that I will not change my significance level retroactively based on the outcome of the observations.”

“Hmm, let me test that… OK, the results are in, and they are statistically significant: p-value is two percent. You should reject the null hypothesis.”

“No problem — but I’m afraid that means I’ll be changing my significance level to one percent, making your observations insignificant. So my null hypothesis has been proved true after all!”

“The null hypothesis is never proved, it can merely fail to be rejected. And anyway, if your null hypothesis were true, wouldn’t that mean you should not have changed your significance level? Actually — never mind; this is a waste of time. Do you even care whether your belief is based on evidence?”

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Just because you can’t measure something doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

“Excuse me, but I must be going now: evidence has just come in forcing me to reject my null hypothesis.”

“What hypothesis is that?”

“That you’re worth talking to…”

In God’s name October 24, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Religion.
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Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the UK, has written a book named Not in God’s Name (excerpted in The Wall Street Journal), in which he provides his recipe for defeating religious violence:

Yes, there are passages in the sacred scriptures of each of the Abrahamic monotheisms that, interpreted literally, can lead to hatred, cruelty and war. But Judaism, Christianity and Islam all contain interpretive traditions that in the past have read them in the larger context of coexistence, respect for difference and the pursuit of peace, and can do so today. Fundamentalism—text without context, and application without interpretation—is not faith but an aberration of faith…

We must raise a generation of young Jews, Christians, Muslims and others to know that it is not piety but sacrilege to kill in the name of the God of life, hate in the name of the God of love, wage war in the name of the God of peace, and practice cruelty in the name of the God of compassion.

Now is the time for us to say what we have failed to say in the past: We are all the children of Abraham. We are precious in the sight of God. We are blessed. And to be blessed, no one has to be cursed. God’s love does not work that way. God is calling us to let go of hate and the preaching of hate, and to live at last as brothers and sisters, true to our faith and a blessing to others regardless of their faith, honoring God’s name by honoring his image, humankind.

Aw, that’s nice. Though I can’t help but wonder: How does Sacks know all that? How does he know God’s love works one way and not another? How does he know what God is calling us to do? I realize Sacks is a member of the House of Lords, but he admits that a literal reading of the sacred scriptures supports the fundamentalists’ interpretation of God’s will rather than his own. While I’m glad Sacks has found a way to cherry-pick and “reinterpret” the texts such that he doesn’t feel obliged to kill anyone, wouldn’t the fundamentalists be justified in judging his faith an aberration?

The truth is that Sacks is committing the same fundamental error as the fundamentalists: speaking in God’s name, identifying life’s meaning with obedience to God’s commandments, and glorifying faith. That is the real cause of religious violence — and in order to defeat it, we must raise a generation of young people to be wary of claims to knowledge not supported by evidence; to value life, love, peace and compassion for rational reasons, not because “God said so”; and to understand that no scripture is sacred and that faith is not a virtue but a vice.

Sacrifice of Isaac by Caravaggio

A widespread and insensitive mentality September 6, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
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Listen up, ladies — an important message from the Pope:

One of the serious problems of our time is clearly the changed relationship with respect to life. A widespread and insensitive mentality has led to the loss of the proper personal and social sensitivity to welcome new life. The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails.

That’s funny, because it seems to me that there is a widespread and insensitive mentality and a lack of proper sensitivity regarding the health and autonomy of women — one example of which is the perverse characterization of abortion as a “tragedy” that entails “extreme harm”.

Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option. I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.

That’s interesting, because a recent study found that 99% of women who’ve had abortions reported that it was the right decision for them (up to three years later), with both negative and positive emotions about the abortion declining over time. The study also found that higher perceived community abortion stigma was associated with more negative emotions. So I wonder whether the Pope realizes that it’s his callous teachings that are exacerbating the agony and pain of so many women? But then, it’s not the reduction of actual harm to women that is the Pope’s main concern, is it.

The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father. For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it. May priests fulfil this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence.

If anyone tells you you’ve committed a grave sin and then offers to forgive you for it if you repent, turn around and walk away.

pope

Software engineering principles exemplified with cooking recipes August 15, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Computer science.
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Don’t Repeat Yourself

Bad:

Add an inch or two of water to a pot. Insert a colander above the water, and bring the water to a boil. Add broccoli in bite-sized pieces. Cover the pot and cook for a few minutes, until tender.

Add an inch or two of water to a pot. Insert a colander above the water, and bring the water to a boil. Add cauliflower in bite-sized pieces. Cover the pot and cook for a few minutes, until tender.

Better:

Steam broccoli and cauliflower. (See sidebar on how to steam vegetables.)

Modularity (Low Coupling)

Bad:

Push the “Start” button on the left side of the oven, then push the “plus” button until the temperature display reads 350. Wait 15 minutes. Put cookies in the oven for 27.5 minutes.

Better:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees (see oven’s instruction manual). Bake cookies for 20-30 minutes, until firm and brown.

Abstraction

Bad:

Milk a cow, and let the fresh milk rest in a cool place for 24 hours. Skim the layer of cream off the surface and pour into a container. Shake the container for 30 minutes. Filter through a gauze to eliminate the liquid. Put into a mold and chill.

Better:

Buy some butter at the store.

cow-butter

Easy issues July 16, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
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Rabbi Avi Weiss supports the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling guaranteeing same-sex couples the right to marry — even though it “runs contrary” to his religious beliefs — due to his commitment to the separation of church and state. But he tries to have his wedding cake and eat it too:

Still, as an Orthodox Jew, I submit to the Biblical prohibition. But as an open Orthodox rabbi, I refuse to reject the person who seeks to lead a life of same sex love. If I welcome with open arms those who do not observe Sabbath, Kashrut or family purity laws, I must welcome, even more so, homosexual Jews, as they are born with their orientation.

First of all, let’s not forget exactly what the Biblical guidance on this matter is:

And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.

Weiss tries to downplay the magnitude of the Biblical condemnation by quibbling over the accuracy of “abomination” as a translation for the Hebrew to’evah — without quoting the entire verse or mentioning the death penalty it prescribes. In any case, he accepts the Bible’s denunciation of homosexuals, yet he still wants credit for “welcoming” them. How would Weiss feel about, say, a Christian claiming to “welcome” Jews while simultaneously maintaining that the Jewish people are collectively responsible for the death of Jesus?

Weiss is clearly a good person trying to do the right thing, but his religion is getting in the way, creating conflict and strife where there need be none:

Are these easy issues? No.

Certainly, the role of homosexuality in the Orthodox community is something that must be deeply considered, discussed and evaluated. We must bring the plurality of voices to the table as complex dynamics will require thoughtful, sensitive and wise conversation.

There are many difficult problems in this world, but homosexuality is not one of them. Indeed, Weiss never even attempts to make any kind of argument against it. He concedes that homosexuals are born with their orientation, yet he still considers them sinners — because the Bible says so. One can only hope that the outcome of all that thoughtful, sensitive and wise conversation will be the long-overdue realization that the Bible was wrong about this issue (as about so many others), and that rational people should not be submitting to dogma. There are many difficult problems in this world, so we mustn’t get hung up on the easy ones.

rainbow

Scientists say July 6, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Science.
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  • “Scientists Say ‘Life After Death’ May Be Possible, In A Way” [Huffington Post]
  • “Scientists Say They Can Recreate Living Dinosaurs Within the Next 5 Years” [Entrepreneur]
  • “Scientists Say Horse Tranquilizers are Good for the Soul” [Gawker]
  • “Eating Healthy Is A Mental Disorder, Scientists Say” [Inquisitr]
  • “60 Really Is The New 50, Scientists Say” [Today]
  • “Scientists Discover That Eyes Really Are ‘The Window To The Soul'” [Daily Mail]
  • “Scientists Say Moms With Bigger Butts May Give Birth To Smarter Kids” [Elite Daily]
  • “‘Designer Babies’ Debate Should Start, Scientists Say” [BBC]
  • “New ‘Stupidity Virus’ Discovered, Scientists Say” [ABC News]

Declining standards May 31, 2015

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Education, Religion.
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As if being a Chasidic mom in London wasn’t hard enough already:

The British leaders of a major Chasidic sect have declared that women should not be allowed to drive. In a letter sent out last week, Belz rabbis said that having female drivers goes against “the traditional rules of modesty in our camp” and against the norms of Chasidic institutions.

It added that, from August, children would be barred from their schools if their mothers drove them there.

According to the letter — which was signed by leaders from Belz educational institutions and endorsed by the group’s rabbis — there has been an increased incidence of “mothers of pupils who have started to drive” which has led to “great resentment among parents of pupils of our institutions”.

They said that the Belzer Rebbe in Israel, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, has advised them to introduce a policy of not allowing pupils to come to their schools if their mothers drive.

The UK Education Secretary launched an inquiry, and in response, the Chief Executive of the Belz Day School wrote her a letter of explanation. After complaining about “misrepresentation” and apologizing for a “negative impression” created by an “unfortunate” choice of words, the letter continues:

Our community is guided by religious principles and strong traditional values. We are concerned by the erosion of such values, especially amongst our youth, caused by the proliferation of technology and the declining standards of visual and printed media.

We are proud of what we stand for and we do not feel the need to excuse ourselves for our deeply held beliefs and staunchly maintained way of life. It has withstood the test of time and is not prone to the vagaries of passing fads.

We fully accept that despite being private schools we have responsibilities to our members and to the wider public. However, as private schools we have the freedom to set our own high standards by which we seek to live and bring up our children. Our community invest in our way of life and it is our duty to ensure that we provide an education in line with our time-hallowed traditions.

For this reason we have seen it necessary to issue guidelines which are restricted to our community and guided by the Torah and by the teachings of the Rebbes of Belz. We do not impose these guidelines on anyone who has not chosen to adhere to the mores of our community of his or her own free will.

That claim is disingenuous with regards to the community’s women — who know that their children will be expelled from school and their families ostracized if they choose to disobey any of the “guidelines” handed down from the rabbis — but it’s downright false with regards to those who are most vulnerable: the children.

We hope that this clarifies our true intentions. We will continue to remain vigilant and unbending in ensuring that our children are shielded from the onslaught with which we are all faced today. It is our belief that only in this way will they grow up proud of our traditions and lifestyle which is built around the Torah, the family and mutual kindness. This is our purpose in life and for which we will always stand up proudly and unflinchingly.

You might be proud of a tradition that subordinates women and obsesses over policing their “modesty”, but your children deserve a fair chance to make up their own minds — and that requires exposing them to the existence of other worldviews and allowing them to think for themselves, without penalty. Otherwise, the claim that they have freely chosen to belong to your community is a mockery. And if the only way you can get your children to grow up proud of your traditions and lifestyle is by “shielding” them from alternative viewpoints and demanding obedience and conformity, then perhaps your principles are nothing to be proud of, after all?

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