Science technology

PSA: The bomb.

In this episode of the podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Fred Kaplan about the ever-present threat of nuclear war. They discuss the history of nuclear deterrence, U.S. first-strike policy, preventive war, limited nuclear war, tactical vs. strategic weapons, Trump’s beliefs about nuclear weapons, the details of command and control, and other topics.

Harris, S. & Kaplan, F. (2020). The Bomb. Making sense podcast.

I think it’s fair to say that I’m quite interested in the existential risk posed by nuclear weapons, as it’s a topic that’s well-covered by two sources that I listen to and read a lot: the Future of Life Institute section on nuclear weapons, and 80 000 hours on nuclear security. Obviously I’m not an expert but I have found myself covering a fair amount of mainstream content on the threat of nuclear war and subsequent challenges we’d face as a species.

But I was still surprised at being confronted with how unconcerned I am in the face of these risks. This episode of the Making Sense podcast really emphasises the insanity of how we’ve become oddly comfortable with the fact that there are two countries who are constantly on the brink of annihilating a significant percentage of people on earth, and sending everyone else back to the stone age. How is it possible that the rest of us haven’t stopped and asked, “Hang on. That doesn’t seem reasonable.”

If you’re haven’t spent much time exploring the existential risk posed by the existence of nuclear weapons, this is a podcast well worth listening to.

personal Science

Comment: Nasa ‘re-masters’ classic ‘Pale Blue Dot’ image of Earth.

The bright dot in the sunbeam on the far right in the image above is the “dot” being referred to.

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Sagan, C. (1994). Pale Blue Dot.

The quote above isn’t from the article that this post takes it’s title from. You can read that here. The headline just reminded me of Carl Sagan’s book, Pale Blue Dot, which is one of my favourites and from which the quote is taken.

It’s a useful reminder – for me – of how small we all are in the greater scheme of things. When work is overwhelming, and the kids are screaming, and the electricity is off, and the rain isn’t raining, I try to remember that in 10 000 years, none of it will matter. For some reason, this gives me a non-trivial degree of comfort 🙂

research Science technology

Open Source: Zotero (reference manager)

Zotero is a free and open-source reference management software to manage bibliographic data and related research materials (such as PDF files). Notable features include web browser integration, online syncing, generation of in-text citations, footnotes, and bibliographies, as well as integration with the word processors Microsoft Word, LibreOffice Writer, and Google Docs. It is produced by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

Wikipedia contributors. (2020, January 8). Zotero. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

Now that Mendeley is encrypting all of your libraries on your own computer, it might be worth looking for an alternative reference manager. Zotero has everything that you’d expect from a reference manager:

  • Importing of all kinds of resources (not just PDFs) via a browser plugin.
  • Automated extraction of resource metadata during import.
  • Notes and tags for resources.
  • Exporting of libraries in multiple formats.
  • Citation management in MS Word, Google Docs, and LibreOffice Writer.
  • Cross-platform (i.e. it runs on different operating systems) with the ability to sync between devices.
  • A browser-based version of your library that you can access when you’re not at your computer.

In addition to the standard features listed above, Zotero also has the following:

  • It’s open-source, which means that you’ll always have a version available for you to use, regardless of what happens to the current developers.
  • A plugin database that enables developers to create custom features that most users probably won’t need but which might be valuable for some.
  • It supports more than 30 languages.
  • Ability to create relationships between resources.
  • The developers are always working to figure out how to make your life easier as an academic and researcher (see Tweet below).

Here is a more comprehensive overview of what Zotero offers (including some of the main differences with competing software), here’s the blog where you can stay updated with development of the programme, and the Wikipedia page with some additional background and context.

If you use Mendeley, Paperpile, Endnote or any other reference manager and aren’t quite happy with any aspect of it, you might consider giving Zotero a go.

Note: This is a new experiment on the blog where I’ll share some of the open-source software that I use. Partly because I believe in the idealogy that drives open-source project development but mostly because I actually think that the open-source alternatives are better and would love for more people to use them.


Link: Enlightenment Wars: Some Reflections on ‘Enlightenment Now,’ One Year Later

I’m a big fan of Steven Pinker’s writing (I know that this isn’t fashionable with the social justice warriors, but there it is) and so was really happy to read his 10 000 word response to some of the criticisms of his latest book, Enlightenment Now. While reviews of the book were overwhelmingly positive many bloggers and online commentators really took a dislike to Pinker’s arguments, sometimes seemingly because of who else liked the book (e.g. Bill Gates). In many cases, where Pinker uses data and links to sources to support his claims, his critics generally go for straw man arguments and ad hominem attacks.

Pinker’s response is a long read but it’s also a really good example of how to respond to a critique of your academic work. He doesn’t take it personally and simply does what he is good at, which is marshalling the available evidence to support his arguments. If you like Steven Pinker (and science and rationality in general) you may enjoy this post.

Here is the link: