douglas adams

Douglas Adams and the Puddle

The great British author Douglas Adams, who created The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and also... actually it doesn't matter what else he did, because he created The Hitchhiker's Guide and that's enough for a few lifetimes!

Anyways, he was a tremendous fan of technology and thought deeply about its impact on the world around him. Although he passed away in 2001 and never got to see the utter explosion of the internet and platforms like YouTube, so video of him is rather rare and he mostly survives through his writing. 

Here's a fantastic short collection from later in his life when he had shifted his focus from writing science fiction to nature conservancy. But whether he was talking about alien space ships or endangered species, he had a unique way of looking at the world:

It says "Part 1", so perhaps there's more to look forward to. Or maybe it's like Mel Brooks' The History of the World Part One

Space is Big

As the saying goes:

Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.
— Douglas Adams - The Hitchhiker's Guide To the Galaxy

[A note for North American readers, the "chemist" is a pharmacy.]

This clip from BigThink by NASA Scientist Michelle Thaller tries to put that bigness in perspective:

These numbers are hard to imagine. VERY hard to imagine. That's one of the reasons I'm such a strong proponent of math education for everyone of all ages (beyond my own personal bias as a math major shining through.) The only way to learn to cope with these kinds of numbers is through training. Otherwise you'll be caught in the paradigm of JBS Haldane:

My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.
— JBS Haldane

Math becomes the key that allows you to do all that hitherto impossible supposing. Or, if you'd rather think of the world in terms of awe and wonder, it gives you access to entirely different domains in which to be astonished.

The Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster

One of my favourite books of all time is Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Adams created an inclusive and hilarious sci-fi universe which contained, among other things, a drink, the effects of which were:

like having your brains smashed in by a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick.

It also provided the mixing instructions:

  • Take the juice from one bottle of Ol' Janx Spirit.
  • Pour into it one measure of water from the seas of Santraginus V — Oh, that Santraginean seawater! Oh, those Santraginean fish!
  • Allow three cubes of Arcturan Mega-gin to melt into the mixture (it must be properly iced or the benzene is lost).
  • Allow four litres of Fallian marsh gas to bubble through it, in memory of all those happy hikers who have died of pleasure in the Marshes of Fallia.
  • Over the back of a silver spoon float a measure of Qualactin Hypermint extract, redolent of all the heady odours of the dark Qualactin Zones, subtle, sweet and mystic.
  • Drop in the tooth of an Algolian Suntiger. Watch it dissolve, spreading the fires of the Algolian Suns deep into the heart of the drink.
  • Sprinkle Zamphuor.
  • Add an olive.
  • Drink... but... very carefully...

Which is, of course, quite impossible on earth. So someone came up with an alternative:

Ethical Magicians?

I've been listening to the episode of Discourse in Magic on "ethics". The episode is an extended interview with my friend, Ben Train. The episode is over an hour long so I'm not sure how many people would be willing to sit through it. It raises some interesting points including ones with which I disagree. Ben Train-19

Ben Train demonstrates mindreading on Magic Tonight.

I was interested in hearing the episode because while Ben and I have discussed this topic previously, I have no idea what the hosts of this program thought about it.

The episode is slightly misnamed. It's titled "ethics and morals for the modern magician" although the entire episode is focused around one fairly specific concrete example which was actually a piece of mentalism.

Mentalism is a proper subset of magic but in the past decade has undergone a kind of grass-roots rebranding. A traditional mentalist was (ostensibly) reading minds and seeing into the future. The current mentalist tends to be more of a Sherlock Holmes-style character that gathers information by making very detailed observations and spinning those tiny clues into full fledged theories about whodunnit. One of the reasons that Holmes was so impressive was that he was a fictional character and he had the benefit of an omniscient author who could secretly feed him the right answer. Similarly, the mentalist has the tools of a magician at his disposal to secretly gain access to the requisite information and most of the "observation" is just to keep up the pretences.

The ethical problem they were obsessing over was, "What happens when the audience accepts the red herring?" Ben actually gave some specific examples that I found troubling — people who saw his show and were legitimately misled into believing untrue things. At the same time, I was also surprised by the realization that in my own work, I don't have these problems at all and I couldn't explain why.

I've been a life-long skeptic, inspired at an early age by the writing of Douglas Adams and Richard Feynman, and later by Penn & Teller's Bullshit. I believe (deeply) that false beliefs are harmful and we have a moral obligation towards others not to spread them if we can avoid it. That makes performing magic problematic because a magic trick, properly executed, would seem to be spreading false beliefs; namely that something which should not be possible is. Performing magic while not being  giant hypocrite is a problem which doesn't appear to have an obvious solution. That's also why I perform so little magic for children, but spend a lot of time teaching magic to them. The idea that an honestly curious young person would ask me to explain something to them and that it should be my responsibility to not do that just bugs me too damn much.

Now it's worth considering the possibility that Ben is simply not doing anything wrong. I know there are people who think that the magic they see on television is undeniable proof that demons are working through humans and that it is being covered up by the networks who are owned by the Illuminati. They are so far down the rabbit hole of wingnuttery that they are certainly beyond my ability to help. (And yes, they're real, I've had conversations with them.) But to design a show with that sort of person in mind would be to lose all perspective.

Ben Train reading minds

Ben Train demonstrates advanced Mindreading

But there is probably more to it than that. This specific example is problematic because it implies, at least to some extent, that what is being performed is based in science. The label of science is what cranks and frauds reach for to gain credibility. You're relying on the audience's ignorance of science to justify your practice. For my own personal morality, that is a line I choose not to cross, and I don't perform any material in this vein.

This tradition is not exactly new. Magicians have used science as a cloak for their work for over a century. Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin would claim he could make his son float by drugging him.

There are (at least) two ways around the problem, both of which they danced quite close to on the podcast. The first example they brought up was Captain America. Why is it that people are able to see Captain America without becoming concerned about the black market for Vibranium? Moreover, why can't we bring our audiences to the same place?

Performers seem to have an inner shut-eye charlatan which is desperate to convince people that what they do is real. Not only do I have to read minds, I have to make it "believable" — whatever that might mean. Looking at the example of Captain America, it's possible to realize the obsession with realism is misplaced. In order for something to be interesting, engaging or astonishing, it is absolutely not necessary for it to be real. In one of his Stanford theoretical physics lectures which he had facetiously dubbed "Quantum Mechanics for Old People", Leonard Susskind said, "I never use the term real. I find it very misleading."

You can get much more mileage by demonstrating something which is apparently supernatural and having faith (!) in the audience not to start a religion around you, than you can by demonstrating the same phenomenon with a pseudo-scientific explanation.

Part of that is simply having an attitude of respect for my audience. This comes from the other subject they briefly touched on: Penn & Teller. They follow in the "honest liar" tradition along with performers like James Randi. There is deception, but there is (confusingly) no attempt to hide the existence of the deception. When watching them, there is no pretence of trying to convince you of anything. [1] They know cool things, you don't, that makes this interesting.

Unfortunately, we get in the habit of underestimating the audience. This stems from a time when we were younger. Most magicians start out primarily performing for children. When you're surrounded by five and six year olds, it's not hard to be the smartest person in the room. But I've seen many people carry that attitude over to their adult audiences. I try and take the opposite approach and when I walk into  room and assume that I am average or, more specifically, that half the room is smarter than me.

When someone is watching me do magic, I assume (possibly out of courtesy more then an actual evidence) that this person is scientifically literate and know some basic facts about the universe (magic is not real, astrology is bullshit, the dead to not return as ghosts to help with card tricks). I never have to say anything, but if by nothing other than subtext, I can get that across, that frees us up to enjoy the incredible things which happen without obsessing over fake causes. And if someone really wants to know how I learned any of this, I tell them.

Ethics are extremely important in magic. We do walk a fine line. Lying for money is never easy.


[1] When not convincing people that Teller is the Saviour of all synthetic fabrics.

What's behind it all? An unnecessary discussion

Last night, I attended an event hosted by Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. The topic was supposed to be What's behind it all?

"Has a scientific explanation of the universe replaced the need for God as cause of its origins? Could life on our planet exist apart from divine intervention? Is there evidence for a designer?"

Discussing the event at the reception afterwards, the general consensus was that the evening was a waste of time. Well, that was the point of view of the audience. Presumably with a reasonably full Convocation Hall at $18 a ticket, someone must have been extremely pleased with the outcome.

So what was the problem? The event was poorly planned on almost every front. Assume for the moment we can forgive the ticketing mishap where the hundreds of people who purchased advance tickets were still required to pick up tickets by waiting in line with those who had not bought yet leading to massive lines and a 25 minute delay in starting the event. That is sort of typical of large academic institutions; they know they want your money, they're just not entirely sure what to do with you once they've got it.

The evening became largely an opportunity for the speakers to talk past each other. With an event scheduled at two hours, each of the three speakers (more on them in a moment) was offered a 25 minute opening statement, followed by 5 minutes to respond to what the other two speakers had said. This was supposed to be followed by a 15 minute free form exchange between the three. Between the delay in starting, some issues getting power point presentations up, that left a paltry 7 minutes which they used to field a grand total of 2 audience questions. So not only was it barely necessary for the audience to be there, it was barely necessary for the three speakers to be in the same room.

The Speakers

The first speaker was Lawrence Krauss, a physics professor from Arizona State University. He has become a rather prominent public intellectual and the author of several important books explaining complicated modern science for a popular audience. He's also one of them "strident" atheists, friend to Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. (At one point he jokingly claimed to be Hitchens' "personal physicist"... Where can I get me one of those?) He was also the speaker who clearly came with the largest cheering section.

The second speaker was Stephen Meyer, a... philosopher (?)... from the Discovery Institute. This speaker falls firmly in the "What the hell were they thinking?" category. The Discovery Institute promotes a strange fringe theory called "Intelligent Design". This is one of those underhanded attempts to dress religion in the guise of science, or probably more appropriately the philosophy of science, to sneak it into school classrooms. Totally unable to gain any academic acceptance of his findings, Dr. Meyer has resorted to publishing two large academic seeming books (Darwin's Doubt and Signature in the Cell) released for the public.

The final speaker was Dr. Denis Lamoureux, a professor from Alberta with three doctorates and a strong Christian faith. His presentation seemed to involve presenting a bunch of bits of evidence for evolution following each one with a footnote explaining that it's really okay to still believe in god anyway.

It was a rather confusing assembly. Two of the speakers were there to discuss evolution; one in the context of a religious framework and the other trying to bash it as a failed hypothesis. The third was a theoretical physicist. Each one was faced with two interlocutors who weren't qualified to offer an informed critique of their ideas. It's hard to see how the organizers saw any meaningful discussion coming of this. Add to the fact that Dr. Meyer is clearly a controversial character in science, a theologian badly disguised as a philosopher of science, it seems clear that Wycliffe was trying to go the way of Fox News, stirring up controversy for the sake of selling tickets to an event.

Opening Remarks

Dr. Krauss, as far as I'm aware, didn't say anything that was demonstrably false although he may have begun in a way that some may consider to be in bad taste. He began by pre-emptively discrediting Dr. Meyer, outlining why Intelligent Design had been repeatedly discredited and read some of the rather scathing remarks from the judge's ruling in the pivotal 2005 court case surrounding ID in Dover, Pennsylvania. Some may consider it rude to attack what you assume your interlocutor is going to say, but it seemed appropriate in this instance. The Discovery Institute gains a veneer of credibility by one of their representatives taking the stage at a respected academic institution that they don't deserve.

Dr. Meyer tried to explain the thesis of "Intelligent Design" which is rather difficult because near as anyone can tell, ID is simply a marketing campaign designed to put a theistic spin on the "Argument from Ignorance" fallacy. It attempts to make the leap from "We don't understand how this could have happened" to "A god could possibly have done this by mechanisms we don't observe and don't understand" to "A god likely did this and we can now claim we understand." The spin campaign is based on several things:

Quote Mining - Anyone who has read the published works of Charles Darwin knows that he was fond of a particular rhetorical device. He would grab attention by pointing out a particularly difficult challenge to overcome (say for example, how impressively the eye is "designed") and then springboard from there into an explanation of how that challenge can be overcome perfectly reasonable ways. However if you leave out the explanations, you're left with a series of excerpts that appear to say Darwin had no faith in his idea to explain anything.

Misunderstanding Probability - Humans are generally lousy at intuiting the answers to questions involving probability. Part of the problem is that very small changes to the wording of the question can result in huge changes in the answer. Dr. Meyer was obsessed with the probability of finding particular folds of protein in design space by searching randomly. He made an elementary mistake with conditional probability. The question is not "What is the probability that such protein folds can occur as a result of a mindless random process?" (Ignoring the fact he ignored the non-random component of natural selection). The questions is actually supposed to be, "Here we are, made of these proteins... what is the probability that those proteins originally formed by a mindless unguided process?" Superficially, they seem like the same question, but the way you answer them is entirely different. Essentially Dr. Meyer seems to have spent his entire presentation barking up the wrong tree. A similar misunderstanding played a significant role in the not-guilty finding from the OJ Simpson trial of many years ago.

Redefining Words - early in the presentation, he explained that when he referred to "information" in DNA, he was specifically not talking about "Shannon" Information [a reference to Claude Shannon, the founder of Information Theory]. Unfortunately, he never did get around to explaining what he meant by information or how it would be measured. As near as I can tell, information is rather circularly defined as patterns or arrangements we find (subjectively interesting but whose origins we are unable to explain by purely undirected causes. As an example, Dr. Krauss in the discussion brought up the hexagonal shape of snowflakes and that those also show signs of "apparent" design, but Dr. Meyer specifically said that those arrangements didn't constitute information because we could explain the hexagonal shape in terms of the physics of the interacting water molecules. So it seems information is defined tautologically as arrangements science can't explain which leaves intelligent design based entirely on the "God of the Gaps".

Full Disclosure: Unfortunately (or suspiciously, depending on your level of cynicism) Dr. Meyer was struck by a rather severe migraine headache part way through his opening statements and he had to stumble a bit through his opening remarks, not getting in everything he had planned to say, and often reaching for words and sources.

He did attend the reception afterwards, presumably feeling better. I actually tried to ask him what he meant by information since I've never heard a coherent definition of "information" as used by creationists and I refuse to spend the money to buy the books on Kindle and indirectly support the Discovery Institute's work. Unfortunately, he hung around for a few minutes, signed a few books and promptly retired for the evening.

Dr. Lamoureux offered the most confusing presentation. As I mentioned it was "evidence for evolution" with footnotes saying it was fine to believe in god... and the Christian god because... reasons. He was very open and honest that his belief was the result of faith. The King James Bible defines it as:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. -Hebrews 11:1

He actually went so far as to say that we are better off because the findings of science do not overlap with the account  in the bible because then we would have proof of the existence of god and then we wouldn't need faith. Apparently we are so deeply accustomed to the idea of a mysterious hidden god that we have actually deluded ourselves to believe that hiddenness is a virtue. Or as the saying goes:


Fait is one of those curious forms of socially acceptable dishonestly. A person who claims faith admits to holding beliefs that they have absolutely no right to believe based on the available evidence but they are going to believe them anyway. However because it has the label faith it's somehow acceptable dishonesty, like answers to the question, "Does this outfit make me look fat."

I did wind up feeling badly for Dr. Meyer because it seemed that his two opponents recognized that he didn't belong at the event and he was being attacked, almost to the point of ridicule, from both sides.

The Moderator

The moderator, Karen Stiller, was largely invisible through the evening. That is to be commended because moderators are, at most of these events, useless. But someone needs to read the speakers bios, so there. The only thing which was curious was when it ultimately did come time to answer questions from the audience (which had to be submitted by twitter or email) she ultimately chose two questions which were strangely dissociated from the topic and not entirely comprehensible English. It was a very strange and anti climactic way to end a rather frustrating evening where nothing got discussed.

The After Party

The Reception (which I'm choosing to call an after party to make it sound cooler) was a fun casual get together. Luckily by allowing the event to run late enough the turnout was manageable and it was still possible to mingle.

The Future

It seems there are more events like this in the pipeline. It would be nice to see Wycliffe learn from some of its mistakes so it can put on a more productive evening next time.

Update - The event was actually recorded and is available to view online. You can check it out if you like:


Thanks to WhyEvolutionIsTrue for pointing that out.