Abortion

11 July 2018

Two questions can be asked about abortion:

  • When should abortion be legal?
  • When is abortion moral?

Legality of abortion

Should the state forbid abortion and under what circumstances?

It is generally accepted that every person has right over their body (self-ownership). Violating this right is called violence. Forcing a woman not to have an abortion is violating self-ownership so it’s a form of violence. The question is: When is this violence justified (if ever)? Opponents of abortion argue that abortion is murder.

Rights like the right to life are normally given to humans, although there are cases of giving rights typical to humans to other animals (orangutans). The right to life certainly doesn’t make sense to individual human cells. This is relevant because every human originates from a egg and a sperm cell. The first step in starting a new human life is for an egg and sperm cell to combine into a zygote. This means that at some moment in time after this step, the organism formed by these two cells must acquire the right to life. It is generally accepted that once a baby is born it already has this right. To figure out whether abortion is murder, we need to decide at which point the right to life is acquired.

There are two clearly defined events between the origin of a new human organism and a newborn baby:

  • Formation of zygote
  • Birth

Other events could be recognized (e.g. 1 month pregnancy, 3 months pregnancy, etc.), but these are arbitrary dates because prenatal development is a gradual process without clear boundaries. In addition, identifying such dates cannot be done reliably. Thus, the only meaningful choices for acquiring right to life are formation of zygote and birth. The former basically means that abortion should be illegal and the latter – that it should be legal. Below I will lay out why the former choice is not reasonable.

Killing an unborn organism

During prenatal development of a human, the organism constantly complexifies – multiplying the number of cells, specializing groups of cells to form tissues and organs, etc. When the process starts, the organism is simpler than most forms of life we know. It takes months for it to develop nervous system – before this point it certainly has no feelings and emotions. This organism is not what we recognize as “human”. If we believe that such organism should have the right to life, then the same right should also apply to organisms which are certainly more complex and experience feelings and emotions (like cows or pigs).
One may argue that this organism can become what we recognize as human and this mandates giving it the rights we give to all humans. This line of reasoning is very problematic – Going down the path of what can potentially become human, one can argue that contraception is murder. Even more, a woman that doesn’t become pregnant while ovulating or a man that is masturbating can also be accused of murder. Accepting that how one is treated should reflect what they might become justifies preferential treatment for different people – for example that children should be treated differently based on their success at school or that putting children in jail is okay if they are likely to become criminals. In conclusion, **one should be treated based on who they are as opposed to who they might become**. **Killing animals for food is harder to justify than killing an embryo or a fetus**.

Enforcing ban on abortion

The survival of an embryo or a fetus is directly dependent on the pregnant woman as it’s in her body. Even if abortion is outlawed, it still doesn’t guarantee that the actions of the pregnant woman won’t lead to the death of the organism inside her – e.g. with bad nutrition or drugs. Protecting the right of life of the unborn organism would mean controlling every aspect of the life of the mother – food, sleep, lifestyle, etc. This is an enormous intrusion on the freedom of the pregnant woman and is also utterly impractical. Trying to outlaw the ability of a pregnant woman to influence the organism inside her is like trying to outlaw aging. Outlawing just abortion is silly and, as data shows, doesn’t address the issue.

Rights of the pregnant woman

Agreeing that the embryo or fetus has right to life is not sufficient to justify outlawing abortion. The embryo or fetus acts very much like a parasite so the pregnant woman’s consent matters. There are cases in which it is resonable for the pregnant woman to not consent:

  • The life of the pregnant woman is in danger without abortion.
  • The woman became pregnant as a result of rape.
  • The woman is not willing to go through pregnancy.

Having rights is different from having entitlement. Entitlement implies somebody else has an obligation. Consider the following mental experiment:

I live in a house and there is no other house anywhere near it. Somebody walks to my house from the road and tries to steal my food. I have the right to not give them my food and this is not an intrusion against their right to life even though they will die from hunger without my help.

Consequences of an abortion ban

Even if we were to agree that abortion should be illegal, this would be just an ideological decision and won’t take into account practical consequences – the biggest such consequence is that a new child will likely be born. That child requires appropriate care and resources. Problems may arise if:

  • The parents cannot take care of a new child.
  • The parents do not want to have the child. This would mean they don’t want to commit to providing the best care possible.

In both cases, there will be suffering and uncertain future for the child. Society could also be affected negatively if proper care of the child is not taken. It can be argued that putting the child for adoption deals with these cases. Adoption is a bad idea because it means forcing somebody else to take care of that child. It’s also cruel for the child. Why force people to have children? The planet is overpopulated anyway.

Conclusion

The process of in-vitro fertilization normally includes creating multiple embryos and selecting some to implant. The rest of the embryos die. **A right to life to zygotes would mean in-vitro fertilization is murder**.

The legal question of abortion is NOT whether it is okay to kill an unborn human. It’s whether the state should force a pregnant woman to not terminate the pregnancy whatever the consequences are. It’s important to also note that it’s practically impossible to enforce such law.

The only reasonable answer to the legal question is that abortion should be legal and up to the choice of the pregnant woman.

Morality of abortion

While the legal state of abortion is something that applies to all people, the moral question has different response for each person. Leaving the decision open to each woman allows everybody to make their own decision based on their own moral code.

My opinion on the matter is that the mother should decide whether to do an abortion as early as possible. She has to take into account the opinion of the father while making her decision, unless the circumstances disqualify the father (e.g. the father is not willing to take responsibility as a parent). Once the mother has decided what do to, she has to commit to that decision and not change her mind. If her decision is to do an abortion, she has to do it as fast as possible. For the whole time the mother is pregnant, she has to take the best care possible for her potential future child.

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Gender and discrimination

17 May 2018

Many social movements in the XXI century have been formed around fight against discrimination. Discrimination can come in many forms – ethnical, sexual, gender, age, etc. Unfortunately the issues remain largely misunderstood even by activists.

According to Wikipedia:

discrimination is treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing is perceived to belong to rather than on individual merit

This article discusses several discrimination questions related to sex and gender.

Positive Discrimination

The ratio of men and women in different professional or social fields varies. This has been taken by some people as a sign that there is gender discrimination in that area. There are many examples of various regulations put in place to ensure both men and women have access to the given field. In some schools or universities it is mandated what the ratio between men and women should be. A prime minister recently proudly announced that in his government there are as many men as women. Such measures are usually referred to as positive discrimination.

Policies of positive discrimination show lack of understanding what the essense of gender equality is. Some professions are known to be predominately masculine while others are predominately feminine. While discrimination probably contributes to this, the major reason such professions exist is the differences between people and how they are brough up. The way society is structured and possibly to some extent biological differences between men and women is the fundamental cause men take more interest in some fields while women in other. If we consider this a problem, the way to solve it is eliminating the cause (gender stereotypes) instead of legislating the desired end result. The legislation (or other presciptive rules) still forces people to make decisions based on gender instead of experience, qualities, etc. Positive discrimination is still discrimination.

Sex vs Gender

Lots of people insist that the words sex and gender have different meaning with sex referring to the biological characteristics of the person and gender referring to their perceived identity. The existence of biological differences (and thus, sexes) is undisputable. On the other hand gender is argued to be some combination of sexual orientation, lifestyle, interests, etc. It is hard to define gender as such a term, because each person uses it in their own way.

In the past, it was widely accepted by society that there are two genders that correspond to the biological sexes (male and female). Due to stereotypes about the behavior associated with each biological sex, some people didn’t fit into those two categories and felt misrepresented. Recent changes in most societies gave more voice to such people and it is becoming widely accepted that other gender identities exist (often called “third gender”). These days some people seem to be offended by others implying that they are male or female. Various gender identities have been recognized at various levels – sometimes by national governments. New gender identities get recognized all the time. Some people identifying with such genders have demanded social changes – removing “gender” field from identity cards, adding third gender pronouns to a language, obliging people to address others with a word chosen by the one being addressed, listing all genders when addressing groups of people (instead of, for example “ladies and gentlemen”), etc.

It seems like some of those people feel opressed and want recognition. We, as a society are doing this recognition the wrong way – it appears that most people don’t understand where the problem with the old 2-gender system lies. That system divides people into 2 groups and assigns stereotypes to each one. Those stereotypes then become the base for discrimination. Proposed solutions divide people into more groups each one with its own stereotypes. When somebody doesn’t feel represented, they naturally demand a new group corresponding to their identity. The premise of such divisions is that people can be put into categories with stereotypes assigned to each one. Such divisions are by definition discriminatory. The process of splitting groups into smaller ones can continue until there is one group for each person in the world. This is where we should be at anyway – accepting each person as a unique individual. We may as well forget about the groups and just treat each person as a human being.

A group of people may feel they have the same gender identity as each other and there is nothing wrong with that. Even if this is the case, there is no reason this should be the basis for human interaction. Humans should be treated by others as humans. When two people meet, they shouldn’t judge each other by how they dress or who they want to sleep with – that’s what gender equality means. Identity is for the individual and has no relevance to others in most situations.

The term sex has meaning for contexts like medicine and is thus useful for example on identity cards (in case of emergency). Separate pronouns for different genders imply that these people should be treated differently so we should instead support a common pronoun (like singular they). On the other hand, the term gender is useless other than as a synonym of sex to designate biological sex.

The psychologist Jordan Peterson has some interesting discussions on the subject of third gender rights:

Why pronouns aren’t about respect
Don’t tell me what to say

Final Thoughts

Overcoming gender discrimination is not about caring what is a person’s gender or making sure all genders are equally represented in various contexts. It’s about treating people as humans without taking into account their gender.

Free will and sense of self

18 April 2018

Natural sciences are about modelling the world around us. They are what allows us to make predictions with incredible accuracy and thus form the basis for engineering. The fact that we have rovers on Mars, skyscrapers, medicine, etc. are all due to natural sciences. Even though we don’t have absolute certainty, if our understanding about the world was far off, we wouldn’t have any of this. Our engineering achievements are proof of the accuracy of our scientific models. These same models can be applied to answer questions about free will and the sense of self.

brains as information processing machines

Our brains are incredibly complex, but the achievements of science demonstrate that they can be described by the same physical laws as the rest of the universe. Brains arised by the complex chemistry of life through a long process of evolution. The brain is in essense an information processing machine, just like a computer – it receives information (from our senses) and reacts (through our muscles). If we have a computer powerful enough to model the physical processes that happen in a human brain, this computer would be functionally indistinguishable from a human brain – providing the same input would result in the same output. There is nothing exceptional about the cells or tissues that make up a brain.

choices are result of brain processes

A person’s choices are a consequence of the complex interactions between neurons in that person’s brain. The way a brain developed due to genetics, experiences and other factors is what fundamentally determines any choice made. Some people like to believe that there is something more to a human being than a body (what some describe as “soul”) and this thing can somehow make choices. This cannot be the case, because most of our scientific knowledge would need to be wrong for something like “soul” to exist.

What about free will?

Free will is often intuitively understood by people as the abilty to make choices. Some may argue that free will is incompatible with the idea that decisions are pre-determined. The logic is that since everything is pre-determined, no action can change it and therefore there is no choice. This would be true for a hypthetical observer external to the world, but different actions of a person would lead to different consequences. We make choices all the time – that’s how we call the brain process that leads to a decision. Stating that our decisions do not affect the world is fallacious. Determinism is not an excuse to make poor decisions – such poor decisions would be the result of the belief that there is no choice. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy where the conviction of lack of choice excludes some courses of action. Thinking that free will and determinism are mutually exclusive is a false dichotomy.

Free will is a concept innate to the brain – it only makes sense as an entity in our mental representation of the world. Although we have some intuitive understanding of it, there are different ways to think about it. Wikipedia describes free will as “the ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded” which is still quite vague. The concept of free will is useful with relation to the idea of responsibility. People are responsible for their actions when they understand different courses of action are possible. The idea of responsibility influences people’s behavior and that’s what justifies its acceptance. The influence stems from the fact that the mental model of people includes free will (in the next section it will become clearer why this is the case). In this sense, free will exists.

Sense of self

If you ask a human if they are conscious, chances are the response will be “yes”. A computer that simulates a human brain will give the same response. Is there a difference? As mentioned earlier, the response “yes” can be fully described as a consequence of the natural laws that govern the brain or the computer simulation. The only possible cause for it is the brain’s activity or the simulation of it – any alternative would contradict our scientific knowledge. Human consciousness is nothing but the result of the interactions between complex networks of interconnected neurons. As humans each one of us has the feeling that there is something more to us than a bunch of chemical reactions. We have a feeling of self and this seems to be beyond the natural laws. This feeling is expressible (e.g. we can talk about it) and what we express is dictated by natural laws. The sense of self can only be an illusion. We can try and understand this illusion by considering corner cases of the sense of self.

When does the sense of self arise? It has to be in the brain, because a human with a missing limb or organ still has a sense of self. Split brain patients show that if the brain hemispheres are separated, each one acts on its own and has its own sense of self. The two hemispheres are still trapped in the same body – this confirms our understanding that the sense of self comes from the brain. Brains are almost exclusive to life forms that can move. They are a good survival tool when it is necessary to process information and take actions based on that information. Life forms that cannot take actions (e.g. plants and fungi that are attached to the ground and cannot move) have no use for brains. In order to take actions based on information, a brain needs to have some understanding what actions will have the desired effect. This basically means a brain needs to have a model of the world. Such model can be used to make predictions and take actions to achieve given goals.

A brain can increase an organism’s chance of survival. Memory allows learning from past events – one aspect is learning from own mistakes and mistakes of others and another is collecting information about the world. The latter, when combined with a mental representation of the world allows making predictions. Predictions permit to choose actions based on expected outcome. The more sophisticated the mental representation of the world, the better the predictions. At any moment the fundamental goal of a brain is survival. In order to keep an organism alive, the brain has to think not only about what is necessary now, but also what will be necessary in 5 minutes or 5 days. This means the brain has to be capable of modeling the living organism as an entity that is moving through time – without this model, only actions which are immediately beneficial can be taken. The sense of self arises from the model that the brain uses to describe the thing that needs to survive. Free will is useful in this model, because it facilitates selecting between different courses of action.

Why being oneself feels the way it does? We don’t have the sense of self all the time – only when we think about it. It seems that the sense of self transcends time due to the fact that we have memory. Most of the time we think about objects external to our brain – be it another galaxy, the car on the street or our hand. There is no special feeling associated with such thoughts. When we think about our brain, this creates nerve impulses inside it. What caused the impulses ends up affected by them in a feedback loop. In other words, thinking about the brain involves observing parts of it while at the same time the thinking process is changing them. It’s an illusion that there is something special to being oneself. Our intuition on the sense of self is limited by the fact that our reasoning cannot be isolated from the brain.

Questions

Is there life after death?

Everything we are is in our body. When the body dies nothing is left. After death “feels” the same way as before being born.

Why do we give special rights to humans compared to e.g. orangutans or robots?

The reason why we do give ourselves such special rights is the instinct that promotes the survival of the species. Every species puts its own interests before those of others. We just happen to have the combination of social structure, knowledge and technology to enfore our view. Once we understand this fact, we can ask ourselves whether this is morally just when not necessary for survival. This is another question for another time.

Conspiracy Theories

6 February 2018

On numerous occasions I have encountered reluctance in people with respect to talking about conspiracy theories. It is somehow assumed that conspiracies are agreed upon to be wrong and ridiculous to the point that they don’t even deserve a discussion. While this is often the case, problems can stem from such attitude.

Only the small secrets need to be protected. The big ones are kept secret by public incredulity.
– Marshall McLuhan

From an educational standpoint, it is useful to discuss even a theory that is agreed upon to be wrong – explaining things is a valid and effective method of learning. Explaining helps understand the connections between observations and conclusions. This way one can improve their reasoning skills and learn how to avoid mistakes. This is the scientific approach.
For example “Is the earth flat?” is an absolutely valid question. It brings up discussions about eclipses, sailing and more. It relates to the story of Eratosthenes measuring the size of the earth and the false belief that medieval europeans thought the earth was flat. Talking about these things as a response to such a question is much more productive than laughting at the “ridiculousness” of the question.

Once a hypothesis is labelled “conspiracy”, there is a stigma to thinking and discussing it. People who dare to not forget the hypothesis are discredited. This discourages critical thinking. While most conspiracy theories are generally agreed upon to be false, some turn out to be true even though very few people treated them seriously at the time. We shouldn’t let judgement blind critial thinking.

What’s wrong with veganism

14 September 2017

Veganism is quite widespread in the western world. People become vegans for varying reasons and I cannot examine each vegan’s convictions individually. The purpose of this article is to make it evident that the most common philosophical justifications of veganism are unconvincing. I’ll show shortcomings of arguments provided by people who choose such lifestyle.

Vegan argument: Producing meat leads to changes of the environment and creates a lot of waste.

Many human activities change the environment – constructing a highway or a dam; cutting trees for heating or furniture; producing and burning fossil fuel for transportation, etc. Production of meat is just one of them and production of some non-animal foods also has serious impacts. Singling out animal food is not rational and yet that’s what many vegans do. It’s hard to know what exactly is the impact when all you see is food in the store. There are many factors to be considered – land, irrigation, chemicals, energy use, transportation. Arguably transportation has the biggest impact and it applies to most human activities.
Humans have changed the environment drastically and started the 6th mass extinction. We continue to do damage and the more people there are, the more damage will be done – it is a well known fact that the planet is overpopulated by humans.
Animals that eat meat are often bred by humans for pets. Actions that promote or validate the breeding of such animals indirectly change the environment.

While valid, this vegan argument has lots of implications. Any vegan who uses the argument and answers any of the following questions with yes is likely a hypocrite:

  • Would you refuse eating insects even if their production has less environmental impact than that of most plants?
  • Do you use energy that comes from burning wood or fossil fuels (e.g. cars, buses, electricity)?
  • Do you have children?
  • Do you have a pet that you feed with meat?
  • Do you go to the zoo?

Vegan argument: In order to produce food, people make animals suffer. Society should oppose animal suffering.

There are many human activities that lead to animal suffering. Energy production kills lots of animals as collateral damage – this can be by toxic substances, radiation, changing the environment, etc. A lot of animals die as a result of the human-caused climate change. Many people (possibly some children) suffer while producing things like clothes in third world countries. To prevent human-induced suffering, all these must stop. The same logic that mandates not eating industrial animal products mandates not using the electric power grid, cars, industrially-produced clothes and everything else that directly or indirectly contributes to animal suffering.

There are some things which are consistent with this vegan argument, but nevertheless are not often discussed by vegans:

  • Killing a single lion can prevent tens of antilopes from suffering.
  • Stopping the reproduction of a species prevents the existence of future generations and thus prevents their suffering.
  • Killing an animal in a research experiment to find a cure for a disease may prevent thousands of people from suffering.
  • Preventing animals from being killed by accident (stepping on an ant, swallowing a spider) can reduce suffering.
  • Killing everything on the planet will totally eliminate future suffering.

Some may argue for ceasing actions causing suffering and not for actively getting involved in nature to prevent suffering. Abstaining from action is still a form of action and the feeling of suffering doesn’t change depending on the cause. Advocating leaving the nature as it is means advocating non-prevention of suffering. This puts under question the motives of those who subscribe to this argument, but don’t take actions other than adjusting their own choices of food, clothing, etc.

Virtually every living thing dies – death can only be delayed. Minimizing deaths does not seem to be a desired goal for vegans, because the way to achieve that would be to kill everything to prevent all future generations from ever existing and dying. This vegan argument only requires better treatment of animals – it doesn’t require not breeding or not killing them. The difference between letting something die and killing it is the feeling of guilt.

Refraining from all animal products is not the way to prevent suffering.

The more fundamental question to ask is why vegans concentrate on minimizing animal suffering? Breeding animals leads to suffering, but also to (arguably more) well being. A simple example would be the satisfaction one feels after having eaten. Why not concentrate on maximizing animal well being? The conviction that one is more important than the other is arbitrary (which is intuitively obvious when considering the ridiculousness of the idea to kill everything to eliminate suffering).

We know about suffering from being a human and most societies accept that making a person suffer is wrong. This vegan argument extrapolates human values and superimposes them to other forms of life. Inevitably, the more similar a living organism is to a human, the more humans can relate to that organism. This line of thought favors organisms with nervous system and assumes it’s okay to kill plants and fungi just because humans cannot relate to them that much. This argument still puts humans before everything else, just in a much more subtle way. One could argue humans need plants for survival and would suffer without eating them. This is still not an excuse to kill plants (potato, carrot, onion), to stop them from reproducing (sunflower) or to exploit them purely for human benefit (cavendish banana).

Vegan argument: Those who are not vegans are selfish and cruel to the animals.

This argument is based on the assumption that intentions are more important than results. While some may appreciate one having good intentions, what makes a difference in the end is the results. Good intentions do not guarantee improvement or advancement.

I am certain very few (if any) vegans adhere to all the rules their arguments imply. The actions of all other vegans are quite arbitrary. This shows that they put their own well being before that of other animals. Those people are selective in their convictions and only prioritize other animals when they are not giving up too much. This is not different from what non-vegans do. Vegans just have different priorities and are willing to give up animal products because they don’t value them as much compared to other things. Humans, including vegans are selfish by nature.

The convictions of most vegans show they try to escape from responsibility and perceived guilt rather than fight for a belief. While they preach respect for other living organisms, their actions contradict this value.

What some call cruelty toward animals is mostly the result of capitalism. The cruelty associated with breeding animals for food is induced by the desire to maximize profit. The cruelty is a symptom of a bigger issue and it is not limited just to animal breeding.

Should all humans become vegans?

It has been argued by some that eating animals is barbarism and our descendants will look on this in a similar way as most people today look on slavery. The sections above are a good argument this is not the case.

Some people have conditions that make it unhealthy to eat certain plant foods. Other people experience adverse effects to vegan nutritonal regimes. For most of these people being a vegan is not a good option.

Vegans are not better than the rest of the people.

τ > π

6 August 2017

I was looking for a title that is correct, searchable and clever and settled for this – probably only achieved the first.

It’s not 28th of June, but giving such importance to dates is lame, because the importance is based on the assumptions that the US calendar is special, two signs after the decimal point is special and decimal is special.

In case I still haven’t lost you and you’re wondering, this will be about the mathematical constant π and its double τ (which is actually pronounced [taf] in modern greek).

What is and what isn’t a problem

Many have already explained the objection to π, but I’ll mention it anyway. The main use of this constant is to describe angles and a full angle is 2π. This is inconsistent since you make just one turn. While this is not a major problem, it matters a lot in education. The proposal of many is to use τ instead (which is equal to a full angle). The only drawback is the need to propagate the change around the world.

Then many debates start showing how some formulas are simpler one way or the other. Some have argued that having the constant the way it is minimizes the number of divisions by 2 in formulas such as circle area. This is off the point.
π actually hides the division by 2 which is done anyway when you derive the formula for circle area (usually with an integral).
Those who are scared of dividing by 2 should probably just stick to degrees – 360 has 24 divisors. Constants are not chosen to be small so that there is no division, but to represent meaningful quantities. Everybody who advocates avoiding division must logically prefer if the full angle is 6 times (or more) some constant.
Avoiding division by 2 can be used to defend quite ridiculous ideas: We could name the piece of an edge between a vertex and the intersection with the median of a triangle. This way we can say that to get the area we simply multiply this thing by the altitude to the edge.

Also, having a constant that is half the actual constant is ugly. Beauty is one of the things that could drive students to like mathematics. If we ever encounter an advanced extraterrestrial civilization, I’m pretty sure they will use τ.

Where the problem comes from

The number π is defined as the ratio between the circumference and the diameter of a circle. This is not consistent with the rest of mathematics where radius is used instead. It may be tempting to think that the problem stems from using the radius, but radius turns out to be a much more useful concept.

Many examples can be given as to why the radius is more fundamental. One that comes to mind is circle equation in analytic geometry. The whole of trigonometry is also based on radius.
Trigonometric functions were introduced (and still commonly used) to deal with triangles. Once sine, cosine and tangent are defined in terms of ratios of edges in a right triangle, this can naturally be extended by putting the right triangle in a unit circle. The triangle is placed so that the hypotenuse is always 1. This doesn’t work with a circle with diameter 1.

Solution

Teach τ in schools and use whichever you prefer in practice. It seems some people have an irrational attachment to π and refuse to accept the concept is flawed.

For more information, youtube “tau vs pi”.

Patriotism

14 June 2017

I will share my opinion on patriotism.

By patriotism people understand several different things:

  • Being proud of belonging to a country, showing the flag, saying how your country is great just because it’s yours.

It doesn’t make sense to be proud of something that wasn’t your choice.

Ever since I was a teenager, I didn’t want to live in Bulgaria. It was just always too difficult, too risky and too much of an effort to justify moving somewhere else (until recently). Why should I accept as part of me something I never chose? Something I would have prefered to be otherwise ever since I became old enough to have serious plans and convictions? In fact, if I had been born several months later, I probably would have become, for all intents and purposes, italian (as my parents were considering going there but decided to stay in bulgaria because of me).

  • Being devoted to a country with your actions.

Devotion wastes time and energy and it’s best to choose a set of things and be devoted only to them. It makes sense to be dovoted to the country you live in. If most people in a given country are devoted to it, this form of collective action will bring benefits to most of the people in the country.

I can be devoted to many things, but I’m not devoted to the country I was born and grew up in. The reason why is another topic which is to some extent explained here. If I decide to permanently live in a given country, it may be worth being devoted to it.

  • Supporting a country in events (competitions, sports, etc.).

This is just an expression of your identity. Watching a competition and sympathizing with one party can be an emotional boost. However, identifying just with a country is kind of narrow-minded as country is quite an arbitrary entity.

I identify with Bulgaria, because I have lots of common history with it. I better identify with the city I lived in most of my life (Sofia) or with the internet, where I’ve spend a lot of time. I also identify with the european culture and history.

Mastering a language is difficult

23 March 2017

Speaking a language is usually understood as the ability to communicate with people in that language when the necessity arises. That’s usually the goal of people studying a foreign language – for example so that they can use it in their job. Such level of knowledge is insufficient for some purposes.

Somebody can speak a language to various levels of proficiency. There are many ways to measure that and one with which most people are familiar is CEFR which has the levels A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2. The A levels are usually described as “Basic user”, the B levels as “Independent user” and the C levels as “Proficient user”. However I don’t think that in general such scales give a good overview of language skills.

When one starts learning a language, the progress curve is relatively steep and gets less steep with time. This means that getting from B1 to B2 requires much more time than getting from A1 to A2. In addition, the methods required for advancement in these two cases are completely different. While making textbook exercises may be a good method for getting to A2, for getting from B1 to B2 a more efficient method would likely be reading articles in a familiar domain or listening to the radio. To get from C1 to C2, the situation is much more complicated – more time is required and there is no obvious effective method. Living in a country where the language is spoken may help but I believe even after years of doing that some people still don’t reach C2. Scales of language competence are logarithmic with respect to time and effort.

From my personal experience, tests are not an accurate measure of the oral skills of the person.
listening – In the real world, there are much more challenging situations – understanding movies, hearing somebody on the street while there is noice, several people talking at the same time, people with strong accents, somebody talking to you while you don’t expect it, using jargon or other peculiar vocabulary.
speaking – Expressing yourself spontaneously about anything is much more difficult than what you’re expected to do during an exam. Also, in real life you have to combine speaking with thinking while language exams usually don’t grade based on cognitive capacity and you can choose what to say based on your language skills.

Language tests usually give higher results than the actual competences because they don’t take into account all these complications. As a rough estimate, real knowledge can be up to one level lower than what test results show – this has been more or less the case for me.

When you speak a foreign language and live where this language is spoken, you realize how much more you have to learn. Here are some difficulties I have experienced:
* Calculations – To perform mathematical operations, I usually need to either translate to my native language or imagine the expressions in written form. When I think about it, this is logical given that I have 16 years of experience with mathematics in my native language (a number difficult to match).
* Spontaneity – When you interact with people, you are expected to say most things without needing to think about them. Due to lack of spontaneity, often I cannot really have a normal casual conversation with another person.
* Hard thinking – When thinking consumes most of the capacity of my brain, I cannot really talk about what I’m thinking if the language use also requires thinking. Thus, limited language knowledge limits the capacity to debate, make good arguments and do it on time.

Overcoming such difficulties requires serious brain rewiring. It may not even be possible to achieve this fully after a certain age.

Alarms in android

12 February 2017

I used a “stupid” phone for many years, because it did everything that I needed at the time. Last year I wanted to travel so it was a good idea to have a map with me. I decided to buy a smartphone (it’s a Lenovo with Android). I started using my Android phone for everything except wake up alarm since I was used to the tone on my old phone and I didn’t know if a different tone will actually wake me up.

After a while I decided it’s better to use just one phone. I set up the alarm the night before a day when waking up wasn’t actually important, just to see if I’ll wake up. It did so I could now use my phone for everything.

Some days later I had to wake up at 4:30am for a flight at 7:00am and I set up an alarm. Next thing that happens during the night is my friend waking me up at 5:00am because he knew I have to wake up at some point. I didn’t miss the flight but for a while I didn’t know why my alarm didn’t ring and I was too busy tracking why. Later I noticed that my phone restarts during every night and at first I thought it was some auto-upgrade stuff. I couldn’t find auto-upgrade settings and then I discovered that there is an option named “Auto Power On/Off” and it was set to turn the phone off between 4am and 8am. I vaguely remember enabling this option (and then forgetting it existed :)). It wasn’t totally my fault, because a well-written alarm application that comes with the phone will warn me that the phone will be off at the time of the alarm. A well-designed operating system would make sure that alarms work even if the phone is off (a feature that existed 10 years ago in “stupid” phones).

I disabled the “Auto Power On/Off” feature and thought everything will be fine. Then just last night I set up an alarm for the morning and it didn’t ring. After a short investigation I figured out that it was set for a specific date and that date is tomorrow. It turns out that’s what the standard Android alarm application does by default and because I set it up after midnight, it was off by a day. The problem is that one can set the alarm without seeing indication it’s on only for a specific date. Apparently the alarm on the day of my flight wouldn’t have worked even without the “Auto Power On/Off” feature for the same reason.

In half a year this phone has caused me more trouble than my previous two phones combined did in 10 years. My conclusion is that complexity always comes with a cost. Before I bought my phone I suspected that problems of such essence could arise with a smartphone. Of course, I couldn’t have known the details. Such issues indicate bad design and bad design always bugs me when I see it in software that has been in production and mass use for years. If one extrapolates, one can image a very good reason not to use a smartphone.

Relativity of Logic and Mathematics

23 December 2016

I will discuss the relation between human cognition and objective reality (assuming there is such thing).

Human babies are not born with some of the cognitive abilities we consider essential to being human. Their senses are working just fine from the beginning but their brains cannot process the sensory information. For example, a newborn baby sees the world around them in the form of images but does not understand what information these images carry about the world. The baby does not understand concepts like objects, distances, etc. To support this claim, we can listen to testimonies of people who have never seen in their life. These people do not understand what visual information is and how it allows other people to extract knowledge about their surroundings, although they understand the underlying concepts in other terms (touch, motion, etc.). Processing sensory information is not something we are born with but rather it’s somthing we learn. Eventually children start understanding progressively complex ideas (gravity, numbers, time, etc).

Overview of the Learning Process

As far as we know, the brain is an information processing machine. Vitalism was disproven in the XIX century and scientists now know that brain works by the same physical laws and with the same basic ingredients as everything else.

The way the brain works is shaped by evolution. The individuals that are more likely to survive are those that perceive the world in a way that increases their chance of survival. World perception is continuously formed by positive and negative feedback. Today we know that our macroscopic interpretation of the world (objects, forces, etc.) is not as accurate as microscopic interpratation (elementary particles, force carriers, etc.). Nevertheless, all species before humans have managed to survive just fine without knowledge about the microscopic world. This shows that more accurate interpretation does not necessarily mean greater chance of survival. This discrepancy is explained by the enormous amount of processing power required to understand the microscopic world. For an organism of a given complexity, accurate perception of reality will make the organism less fit than perception adapted for survival.

We must assume that what we perceive is not necessarily reality but rather the simplest form the world could take to match our observations. Different types of cognition are useful for different organisms – some insects have much better intuition about surface tension than humans just because this is very important for survival on their scale. In general, everything that we don’t encounter directly in our surroundings seems counterintuitive – vacuum, microgravity, non-visible light, relativity theory, quantum mechanics.

Linguistic relativity is the idea that people perceive the world differently depending on the languages they speak. Some languages do not have separate words for green and blue and studies show that speakers of those languages are more likely to ignore the difference between the two, because they are perceived as different shades of the same color. There is evidence that the Piraha people do not understand the concept of numbers, because there is no necessity of numbers in their daily lives.

Fundamentals of Human Cognition

Ideas, such as mathematics and logic usually remain unquestioned. However, they do not seem to be fundamentally different than the other concepts we are discussing as they also get developed by humans in the brain. Some mathematical theories were developed specifically to model some aspects of the world, while existing ones happened to be very useful to model other aspects of the world. As we try to get more precise in making predictions, we see that our models do not always work. Complex thought process is usually done in terms of a given language while our languages allow the formation of logical contradictions such as Liar’s Paradox. Mathematics loses its beauty once we get to its foundations (Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, Axiom of Choice, Infinity paradoxes, etc.) and out intuition is more like a barrier that leads us to contradictions than a useful tool. Fundamental concepts like cause and effect, determinism and logical dichotomy start breaking apart when we get to scales alien to the human intuition – quantum mechanics challenges most of what we thought we knew about reality. There is no evidence that mathematics and logic are embedded in the building blocks of the universe. The brain is just a composition of such building blocks so by the Occam’s razor, we must assume that mathematics and logic are just very effective tools, developed by our brain to model our surroundings.

The trouble with understanding

Ideas like numbers and geometric shapes probably do not have a fundamental meaning. Laws of logic like dichotomy, thruthness, etc. are probably not a useful tool in understanding reality. Abstract notions like symmetry and consistency are useless in the context of metaphysics. Mathematics and logic are a barrier to understanding reality and it’s not clear whether the human brain is capable of trascending it. It is not known whether we have the cognitive tools to understand the fundamental nature of our world or whether this concept even makes sense.

Recommendation letters for educational institutions

23 October 2016

Some universities require students to present recommendation letters in their application for admission. I suppose the belief is that the letters are necessary to give some kind of guarantee of the qualities of the student and show that the student can get along with professors. I think requiring recommendation letters for admission is wrong.

Most professors don’t have the time to write such a letter so usually the student writes the letter and the professor signs it. A quick search shows that there are tens of thousands of universities around the world which means that in the majority of the cases, the university where the student is applying will have almost no information about the professor. This means that who is the professor and what is the actual content of the letter is of very small significance.

To get a recommendation, the student has to find somebody willing to sign it. It doesn’t matter how many professors deny or would deny, so recommendations only prove that the student was able to convince a given number of professors to write one each. The more professors the student has had, the higher the chance of getting enough letters. Recommendations make academic success depend on external factors and thus shifts control and responsibility away from the student.

Asking for a recommendation letter is similar to asking for a favor. It happens out of the ordinary academic process and the other person has no obligation to deliver. When backing up a student, the professor takes a risk by puting their reputation on the line. Favors are characteristic for the type of interpersonal relationship called friendship. They do not conform to academic relationship code. Asking your professor for a recommendation letter is about as inappropriate as asking them for a loan.

Most of the time each professor has hundreds of students so the professor can only get to know some of them. This doesn’t mean however that the others are not worth writing recommendations for. One may be reluctant to initiate interaction with the professor because they don’t perceive what they have to say as important enough. One may know the answer to a question but still want to let the others answer. A student may not be able to attend a lecture because they have to work in order to afford their studies (this is the case for a lot of people in some countries). When asked to sign a recommendation letter, professors can base their decisions on personal impressions of the student and results of formal tasks (tests, assignments, projects, etc.). Any of the two implies qualities, but having qualities is not sufficient for good personal impression and results of formal tasks are reflected in the final grade. A letter can provide evidence for student qualities but lack of letter does not provide evidence for the contrary. The final grade is better suited for the purpose of attesting student qualities.

Most societies value practical experience and the best place to get such experience is in an industry. Working in the industry has the almost inevitable effect of distancing the person from the academic world. Getting a recommendation letter from a professor is more difficult if you have just spent several years away from academy.

Requiring recommendations for admission favors people possessing negative qualities like showing off, selfishness, disrespecting relationship boundaries and overconfidence.

Requiring recommendations for admission is discriminatory for:

  • those who are more introverted
  • those who have enough knowledge and experience to have doubts
  • those who respect social norms
  • those who don’t have the time to attend all lectures
  • those who have spent time getting practical experience

Moral relativism

26 September 2016

Moral is usually defined as a set of principles that describe what actions are considered proper what are considered improper. Some people believe that morality is universal while others believe that it is individual. Whether we accept the former or the latter has profound implications on society.

Sometimes people don’t agree on the morality of given actions. Perception of morality is often influenced by cultural factors. For example, in some cultures being humble is a virtue, while in others confidence is appreciated. Questions like “Does the end justify the means?” or “Is there a noble lie?” are subject to debate. The existence of different opinions shows that, either moral is a complex concept and very few people have a grasp of it, or morality is open to interpretation.

Moral Darwinism

I have heard of an idea that I would call Moral Darwinism. It tries to define moral as the actions that help for survival. The premise is that survival is the main goal of every living thing. So if there exist two conflicting ideologies about morality, only the one that survives could be right.

What is wrong with this attempt at a definiton is that it makes two assumptions, which are not true:

  • The survival of a group is aligned with the survival of each individual in it.Often the best way for an individual to survive may be through actions that result in harm to other individuals, even if they share the same ideas. This happens when there is competition, e.g. because of limited resources. In the real world what is good for survival of one person is often bad for others. In extreme cases, the best opportunity for survival may be a war. An ideology that would promote survival would also promote death.
  • What is good for survival in long-term is also good in short-term.Even if an action helps for short-term survival, it is not necessarily good in long-term. Given a sustainable ideology for survival, the short-term odds for survival can always be improved by neglecting long-term negative effects of actions. Destructive processes that need time to take effect, like burning fossil fuels, can have positive effects in short-term. In reality, long-term effects are often hard to predict. What we believe helps for our survival may actually be driving us to our extinction.

Moral Darwinism is a destructive, inconsistent ideology.

Moral is individual

The universe follows certain laws and humanity has been trying to describe them for thousands of years. There are still a lot of things we don’t know, but we are fairly certain that humans are not the center of the universe. Assigning some special significance to us is contrary to all existing evidence – it is silly at best and arrogant and stupid at worst. We can theorize what moral is, but there is no experiement that can be performed to determine whether an action is moral or not. The universe doesn’t “care” about right and wrong. Moral is not some abstract entity that we are trying to understand, but a set of ideas we as humans are coming up with. History and anthropology have taught us that these ideas vary with time and between cultures.

Morality does not stem from an objective truth about the world. Since there is no way to agree on a definition of morality, we must conclude that morality is open to interpretation. We have to accept that there is no universal moral.

Moral and society

All over the world there are establishments that try to impose some form of universal moral. These include enforcement of religious laws, propaganda of cult of personality and racial pride. We should be aware of the dangers arising from such establishments.

All forms of universal moral are against the ideas of equality, personal liberty and freedom of expression. They are also destructive to critical thinking.

Dangers of religion

18 March 2016

People support various ideas without serious evidence (like the Loch Ness monster or the earth being flat). Religion, unlike other similar ideas, enjoys special treatment – it is widely accepted that anybody can believe in whichever religion they choose and that religion shoudn’t be questioned or criticized. People make exceptions for religion that they wouldn’t make for any other belief system or philosophy.

Some religions mandate abusive physical practices and rituals, including physical mutilation. Religions also impose social rules (like male superiority) and dubious moral beliefs. Imposing religion on a person contradicts fundamental liberties like freedom of thought and freedom of speech. This suppresses critical thinking and contradicts the scientific method, which is the only method we have to gain knowledge about the world. Religions teach people submission and satisfaction, which lead to inaction. Some religions even prescribe punishment for leaving the religion. Raising children in a religion is abuse very similar to slavery.

With religion, people can practically justify any action. For example, the spread of Christianity in the late antiquity brought destruction and stagnation in Europe and the middle east (the movie Agora illustrates that very well) and contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire. In the middle ages the Holy Inquisition led to the deaths of thousands of people in Europe and Islam stopped the development of science in the arab world. Most of the history and culture of native americans was obliterated after the arrival of the european settlers, because it was considered herecy. Today religious fanatics commit terrorist acts all over the world.

The problem with religion is that it is built on premises that cannot be truly examined or questioned. Religion is not affected by the physical reality, but is rather based on subjective belief. If we give special status to religion by putting it above values like freedom of expression, we are giving mandate to people to act on their religious beliefs whatever they are.

Religion is dangerous, because believers try to impose their beliefs on the whole society (as shown by demands made by religious fanatics). In the United States, some religious scholars want to teach their beliefs to children in school. In a german city, female students were told what clothes not to wear to avoid offending migrants from the middle east. We should not make religion immune to discussion or criticism and put religious rights of individuals above other rights. Otherwise these individuals can harm or restrict the liberty of others.

Democracy considered harmful

23 January 2016

The liberty of every person to participate in making decisions is generally considered as a right and seen as an expression of equality. People think of democracy as a final step of social development. The fact that democratic systems have persisted for centuries doesn’t mean that they are better but merely that they are more stable. Installing democracy is believed by the majority to be an improvement, but the majority has been wrong many times throughout history.

Every person is constantly judged on their knowledge and experience and nobody questions this (e.g. one can’t become a pilot without being licensed). Why should the right to make decisions that possibly impact others be unconditional? Most societies that claim to be democratic already apply arbitrary exceptions to voting based on age, whether you’ve been convicted, etc. Sometimes this can be unjust but we do it anyway. For a similar reason we should limit voting only to those having the necessary knowledge and experience. The only real reason this is not the case is that those who would be affected negatively by this are a majority (and the system won’t be that stable).

I believe that most people don’t understand that equality is just lack of discrimination and not right to participate in every activity. And yet people are so supportive of democracy that they impose it through violence. Isn’t imposing democracy without a vote hypocrisy?

Through democracy the ones who are actually competent to choose the best course of action and understand the implications are not heard in the noise of random people that want something either because they were told they do or because they just feel like it at the moment. The competent people get ridiculed by the ignorant majority.

One example: A prime minister candidate says that they will make it so that terrorist conversations through the internet are monitored. To a random voter this seems like a great idea. A qualified person understands that the only technically possible way to achieve this implies destroying the security of internet and the privacy and freedom of the people. This person also understands how ignorant and unprepared the candidate is.

That voting must not be a universal right is obvious and people should admit this is already the case. The question we have to think about is how exactly to decide who has the right to vote.

Knowledge and choice

16 January 2016

Every day we are flooded with tons of information. Most people use and depend on things that very few understand deeply (technology, science, economy, etc.). It’s impossible to pay attention to everything around. Most people don’t make this reflection either so I decided to share my thoughts.

You cannot directly test everything you see, read or hear. This would require lots of time and resources as well as being at several places at the same time (not possible as of 2016). At some point you have to assume things you haven’t verified personally. You have to develop a way to recognize what is true with high certainty. Some have interest to skew the facts which is an additional complication. There is too much knowledge to learn it all. However some people are expected to have deep understanding in lots of domains (journalists, politicians, etc.). This means that one has to think very carefully before trusting such person (Are they qualified to talk about that? Isn’t there a reliable source that can confirm or refute this?). In the end we have to rely on others for information and sometimes this leads to mistakes.

Humans are the only species on earth that has developed civilization – agriculture, cities, writing, science and technology. These achievements are only possible because of communication, collaboration, labor specialization, trade, etc. These processes are sustainable only if there are enough individuals interacting with each other. As history shows, disturbance in these processes can lead to stagnation, decline or destruction of a civilization. It’s possible that we face such problem in the future. Most new things today can only be done by a group of people. As lots of things become automated (agriculture, industry, etc.), human knowledge and experience is less required. Eventually there may be nobody left with that knowledge. Some day we could end up using technologies which are not understood by anybody. Lots of books and movies exploit that idea. We depend on the civilization and we should do all we can to keep it working.

Every person chooses their beliefs and what products and services they use. Our choices often affect others, in some cases without us realizing it. The impact of your decisions can be hard to grasp, due to the complexity of the world we live in. Factors like network effect, path dependence, vendor lock-in and bandwagon effect can play a significant role. Making a decision on behalf of others (governments normally do this) has even more serious consequences. Here are some examples:
* The more people use some chat software, the more useful it becomes.
* If a government prioritizes road over rail transportation, the country becomes more dependent on crude oil.
* A company making audio players can sell music in a format supported only by its audio players.
* People having to choose between several products often choose the one their friends use.
* Using given software in education will make alternatives less desirable because they would require additional learning.

We have to try being as informed as possible and choose our sources of information well. We have to avoid neglecting our choices since they may have bigger impact than we suppose. We need to pay more attention to the choices of others, because they may affect us.

Refugee crisis

21 November 2015

Some say that helping people in need is one of the foundational principles of EU countries, Canada, etc. They empathize with the people whose lives were destroyed by the war in Iraq and Syria and say that these people should be offered refuge. This sounds like a nobel idea, but whether that’s really a good thing is questionable.

Inviting people to live in EU or Canada does not solve the problem. The refugees leave because of lack of living conditions and just providing them with a place to go does not solve the underlying problem. The EU has its own problems and they should be a priority. The economy is not going well and a huge part of the population is unemployed or underemployed. Taking refugees is associated with additional expenses and rise of unemployment. As a consequence, salaries and so purchasing power will drop, which will lead to shrinking of the economy. The EU seeks workers for certain kinds of jobs, but taking refugees won’t solve that problem. People that are needed to fill open job positions can come through normal immigration programs. The ones who don’t apply for those programs, but come to EU are those that the EU doesn’t need. Accepting refugees will negatively affect EU citizens and will lead to rise in crime rate. It’s better to help by contributing to solving the crisis.

People need to find a place to escape from the war, but this doesn’t mean that they should come to the EU or Canada. If anybody has to take refugees, that are the countries close to the displaced people (Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, etc.). Refugees won’t be able to integrate into western societies due to the differences in culture, values, language, religion and climate. Thus people coming to western countries are more likely not to be genuine. Out of all the people seeking asylum, only a small part are really escaping from war. The others are economic immigrants or people seeking social aid coming from all over Asia and Africa. Among the immigrants, there are certainly people intending to perform terrorist acts. There is no good way to distinguish true refugees from the rest. The security of a country’s citizens must be a higher priority than humanitarian acts to other people.

Individual countries accepting refugees is not a good plan of action. This is effectively selecting people who claim to live in war zone, and putting their needs above the needs of other people. This is an insult to people who are willing and able to integrate and contribute to western societies, but are not accepted, because they happen not to live in war zone and are honest about it.