Effective Animal Advocacy: The difference between life and death

I don’t believe that an action will always have a positive effect simply because it is ‘for the animals’. There are many well-studied examples of well-intended programs causing more harm than good in human-focused interventions, and we need to be careful.

In this video I talked about how animal advocates can be as effective as possible – I believe the animals deserve no less.


Esports and how to get interviewed in the media

I was interviewed by Ticker Sports about esports today, including my involvement as a League of Legends player for UNSW recently. It was a fun interview, and I got to talk a little about the past and future of esports, something I’m passionate about and enjoy a lot. You can watch the interview by clicking here and going to 21 minutes 12 seconds.

As a secondary reason for writing this post, I want to talk about how I ended up speaking about this. I don’t think I’m the most qualified or even most charismatic person to talk about this in Australia, and yet I was interviewed instead of a player or coach for an OPL team, or an esports journalist/analyst.

I use a website called Sourcebottle (I’m not sponsored, I swear), which puts both interviewers and interviewees in touch with each other. Anyone from journalists to blog writers can put in a request for someone to speak about a particular topic, and people like myself will get an alert based on some keywords they’ve entered.

I’ve been interviewed for several news articles and magazines in this way, and even ended up having a book chapter written about some of my work. It’s a great tool, and I’d highly recommend filling in a profile with some keywords if there are some issues you are knowledgeable/passionate about so you can get opportunities to talk about it with the media. There is a paid version of Sourcebottle which gives you some extra perks, but in my opinion it’s probably not worth it. The free version gives you what I described above.

Finally, the media alert I got wasn’t even directly esports related. They were looking to speak with someone involved in a sport that had not been severely affected by the Covid-19 lockdowns, and I figured esports might fit the bill. Turns out it did.

The case against colonising space

I read an article today that summarised a book titled Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity by Daniel Deudney. The book (and the article) makes the case that we should be slowing down our expansion in to space. In particular, the article is commenting on the plans of both private and public entities to put humans on Mars. As a caveat, I haven’t yet read the book, though I intend to, and will likely do a longer post and video about it. But for now, I want to share some thoughts.

The article is quite critical of Elon Musk and SpaceX, mostly for their desire to put boots on Mars as soon as possible without thinking enough about the consequences, which include the possible weaponisation of space. Carl Sagan had long warned about the possible weaponisation of asteroids through the development of asteroid deflection technology (see also my take on this).

I’d like to add a concern of my own, relating to wild-animal suffering (please see this for an introduction to the concept). If you accept the premise that many wild animals and insects experience so much suffering that they have net negative lives, it would surely be bad to fill an entire new planet with them. And yet, that’s exactly what some people are proposing to do with Mars as part of or after a terraforming process. I’ve talked about this here. Given the enormous consequences, we should really stop and think about whether terraforming Mars is the right thing to do. Too many people in my field seem to assume it is definitely good to colonise and terraform Mars.

The article goes on to discuss some of Deudney’s critiques of some of the arguments people make for space colonisation, which includes ensuring the survival of humanity in the event of a catastrophe affecting Earth. I note that the article’s presentation of this case is rather strawmanned. They made it seem like people making this argument are only concerned about the death of our sun in several billion years, rather than the myriad of other X-risks such as artificial intelligence, pandemics, nuclear warfare, asteroid impacts and supervolcanoes, some of which could affect us tomorrow.

The article (and I can only assume the book also) seems to be making the case for slowing down space expansion, rather than halting it all together, which is a view I share myself.

This Device Protects You From 5G? Scientist Reacts to Pseudoscience

The main thing I discuss in this video is a series of products being promoted by ‘Juicing with Nadia K’, which claim to help protect people from the effects of 5G. To be immediately clear – 5G is not harmful, and I think this is a scam. I have reported it to the ACCC. Having said that, I thought we could have some fun and break down the claims Nadia is making, and look at a few other examples of recent pseudoscience.


The end of meat is here

This article titled ‘The end of meat is here’ by Jonathan Safran Foer in the New York Times has been getting a lot of attention in the past 24 hours, and I think it’s great. It’s about time we do away with animal agriculture for the animals, our health, the environment, and to reduce the likelihood of zoonotic disease spread.

I made a video talking about the points covered in the article, and also about some of the comments people are making about it.


More Youtube videos!

I’ve been putting a lot more work in to Youtube recently, and I hope for it to play an equal role alongside this blog. I know that video is a medium many people prefer to consume, and I want to reach those people too. For major posts in the future, I’ll aim to have a video and text version released at the same time.

In the mean time, please feel free to watch some of my recent videos and subscribe to my channel. Yesterday I spoke about asteroid impacts, and how developing asteroid deflection technology might actually increase the likelihood of asteroid impacts. Sound counter-intuitive? Take a look to find out how it kind of makes sense!


Last week I spoke about how I rejected Christianity and became an atheist.


On meditation and mindfulness – part 1

You can find a video version of this post here.

I’ve tried meditation and mindfulness a few times in the past, including when I was at one of my lowest points with depression and anxiety (I wrote more about this here). Recently, I’ve started again, and have even been mildly intrinsically enjoying it (positive on the -10 to 10 scale!). I’ve been doing the daily meditations on Sam Harris’ Waking Up app, which a friend gave me a free month trial for.

One of the things I’ve liked least about meditation (I’ll just say meditation from here on to refer to both meditation and mindfulness), besides not feeling any benefit, was the common appeal to spiritualism. This is not to say all meditation appeals to spiritualism of course, but the moment it approaches pseudoscience territory I disengage. This is probably why Waking Up has appealed to me.

Harris talks about why we don’t need to appeal to religion or spirituality for meditation, even though a lot of practices, techniques and insights about the self through meditation have their roots in Buddhism. Religion and pseudoscience sometimes gets things right, but then we can choose to separate that out from the rest of it. In the app, Harris says something to effect of ‘Needing Buddhism for meditation and mindfulness today is like needing Christianity for physics [I fact checked whether Christianity played a role in physics – looks at least partly true, I guess]. Just because they played a role in formulating the early ideas doesn’t mean we need to give their other ideas any credence today.’

I’m writing this partly to document how my thoughts on meditation change over time, if at all, and I aim to write again in a month or so. In particular, I’m interested in the claim Harris makes about meditation allowing you to observe that the ‘self is an illusion’. I’m curious to see whether I will come to notice this myself. At an intellectual level, I feel like I can kind of understand what he means by this. When you have no thoughts, then a thought arises in your mind, it seems fair to say that you did not call upon this thought yourself. It came in to your mind without your willing it. Is this what he means? Is it that all of our thoughts, ideas and experiences (since we don’t control the input (senses) to our mind either) are out of our control, and we are ‘along for the ride’?

This seems reminiscent of the way Daniel Dennett talks about free will (edit – it looks like Sam Harris proposed the below analogy, but Dennett also talks about free will in a similar way). E.g. think of a city. Which city came to mind? Why was it that city? Did you choose that city, or is it the first one that your mind called up without your real involvement? Are not all thoughts like this? Is this view on free will the same as Harris’ view on the self?

Other things Harris mentions which I find intriguing but can’t intuitively notice yet include the idea that you can’t feel the shape of your body, but instead feel a cloud of experience. I don’t even really know what this means, but maybe it will be trivial in time.

Another question I have is; what do these realisations mean for how you live your life? Are they necessarily good? On some naive level to me, realising that there is no self feels like it might be depressing, and maybe I’m better off in blissful ignorance.

I think we can have all of these insights without having to invoke any kind of spooky spiritual or religious overtones. Everything is explainable through science, and the way our mind works should be no different. Just as we call alternative medicine that works ‘medicine’, we should call spiritual pseudoscience about the mind that happens to be real ‘neuroscience’.

Stay tuned for the next instalment of this, where I’ll hopefully be able to share more of my experience of meditation.

How I renounced Christianity and became atheist (or, my ongoing struggle with the fear of oblivion)

Above photo is me taking communion in a church some 16 years ago.

You can find a video version of this post here.

Switching from Catholicism to atheism in around 2012/2013 was a rather major point of my life, so it’s a little strange in hindsight that I haven’t spoken much about it. I recently wrote about why I think atheists shouldn’t feel afraid to tell non-atheists about why they think there are no deities, but here I want to talk about my own journey.

As I started to write this, I realised I don’t know exactly how I came to believe in ‘god etc.’ (I’ll use this as short hand for believing all the typical Catholic beliefs). As far back as I can remember, I took the existence of god etc. for granted. I found I had to ask my parents for some of the answers. Here is what I’ve been able to recall and gather.

My mum’s mother was religious, and occasionally went to Sunday mass. This rubbed off on my mum, but when asked about it today, she described herself in hindsight as being a ‘closet atheist’. It sounds like my dad’s experience was similar.

I was born in Perth where I was baptised (when pressed, my mum said that this would have been more for the benefit of my grandparents, who were all believers). I took kindergarten in Tokyo, Japan, and had my first few years of primary school at a British international school (Al Khubairat) in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Broadly speaking, both of these seemed to be fairly non-religious. However in Abu Dhabi, I took part in a Christian Sunday school at least once. As best I can work out, I went because some friends went.

We moved to Adelaide, Australia in 1999 and I started going to St Ignatius College, a Jesuit private school. I was there from year 2 to year 12. I think it’s here that any nascent beliefs I had in god etc. were solidified. My mum described it best when she said I was like a sponge and would have readily taken on what the school was teaching us.

We had compulsory mass around once a week. In later years, this became optional, but I still went most of the time since most people did. I prayed in my own time, though not consistently. I believed I was speaking to a god. I discovered in my last few years there that some of my friends were atheist, and that they just didn’t believe. We never really talked about it any more than that, but I recall feeling a little surprised and sad by this.

I’m not sure exactly when, but at some point while I was at St Ignatius, it occurred to me what it might be like if, against all odds, god etc. wasn’t real. Oblivion. This scared me, and in all honesty it still does when I’m not careful and I think about it too hard. I recall once as a child thinking about this in the middle of the night (“But if there is nothing, then that means…“) and having a panic attack. I leapt out of my bed, silently screaming “NO”, and collapsing on the floor outside my room. I never told anyone about this. I did my best to remind myself that this was silly and unlikely. I was getting heaven or hell, but certainly not nothing.

After I left school, I started studying my Bachelor of Science at the University of Adelaide in 2010. I would still describe myself as Catholic, and would still pray sometimes, but I stopped going to church. In 2011, my fears about oblivion were reaching a boiling point. I was having more doubts, and it was starting to seriously affect my life. Desperate, I went to mass a few times with my grandfather, but it didn’t seem to help. I decided that I needed to apply the science I was learning and find out the truth. Did god etc. exist?

I embarked on an online journey of research, reading things from atheists and Christians. I watched debates (in particular Richard Dawkins videos), and even joined an online Christian/atheist text and voice debate platform (I tried finding it to share it here, but couldn’t), where I spent several weeks/months engaging and listening. It was run by Christian preachers, but they welcomed atheists to come and debate. I described myself here as neutral and wanting to find the truth.

The more I listened and engaged, the less it made sense. As one example, I was studying geology, and I asked about how plate tectonics would fit in with a 6,000 odd year old universe. They answered that Noah’s flood smashed up the plates and they’re still moving around a little because of that. I don’t want to strawman all creationists with this one example, let alone strawman all Christians with creationists in general. This is just one example of me realising that none of the arguments for god etc. made any sense when I thought about them through the lens of science.

After this, I rather quickly realised I was an atheist. Unfortunately, this only amplified my fears of oblivion. It was now effectively a certainty – I was going to die, and I was going to be nothing. Incredibly, while writing this I’m not experiencing panic. Perhaps I’ve gotten better at separating my thoughts from my feelings, because I don’t think I’ve actually come to terms with death. As recently as about a month ago, I had a short lived (3-10 seconds) panic over this. They usually only come at night while I try to sleep now, when my mind is most free to be active and think.

Back to 2011 – I opened up about my fears to my parents and girlfriend at the time. I tried counselling, where it was suggested I was experiencing depression and anxiety. Ultimately I wasn’t prescribed medication, but it was suggested I try mindfulness, which didn’t seem to help.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what did help, but something that comes to mind is a conversation I had with my dad in 2012 about my videogame addiction (I’ve had a somewhat unhealthy relationship with videogames for years – often I’ll either play too much or not at all, with little in between), which combined with my depression was leading me to fail some university courses. We spoke about what I want to get out of life, and he said something to the effect of ‘you’re smart and can do anything you want’.

This, more than anything else, I think, put me on the path to recovery. I decided I wanted to save the world. Climate change looked pretty serious, maybe I’ll dedicate my life to that. I haven’t really told anyone this either, but part of why this mostly worked was because I decided I might just try to live forever. If I could set the world on a path of blindingly fast progress, maybe we could develop the technology to become immortal (the work of Aubrey de Grey was of interest to me here). In any case, this did seem to motivate me to go from failing my degree in 2012 to completing honours at the top of my class in 2014.

Over time, this ‘live forever’ motivation transitioned in to a ‘reduce suffering in the universe as much as possible’ motivation, and that seems to be where I remain today. I have a mission to do, and life is too short for me to spend any more time thinking about what comes after than I have to. I still go through slumps, and I suspect depression and anxiety will never fully leave me, but I am committed to this goal.

Some things I wrote about here are things I’ve never told another person. Most of it is at least stuff I’ve mentioned to very few people. I hope this inspires you to share your stories of how you came to no longer believe in a religion.

On facts and religion

I’ve made a video version of this post, available here.

I think facts matter, but sometimes I find this hard. If someone were to tell me that they believed the Earth was flat, I’d be happy to tell them they are wrong. If someone said that a green chair was actually a blue basketball, I’d be happy to tell them they are wrong. The same goes for someone telling me Zeus sits atop Mount Olympus and casts judgement on us.

But when someone tells me they believe they will go to heaven after they die if they do certain things, I instead say ‘well I don’t personally believe that’. Why? This is also false, but we feel uncomfortable with certain facts just because a certain number of people have believed that that particular fact is not true for a certain amount of time.

You can say that you can’t prove a negative (which is an oversimplification), and that it is not correct to say that a deity doesn’t exist when you can never really know for sure. The reality is that we just don’t act like this for most things. Some examples:

We can’t know for sure that Zeus isn’t on Mount Olympus and will smite us down for doing certain things, but we tend to act like he isn’t (there’s no evidence for it). We can’t know for sure that eating cucumber won’t give us cancer, but we tend to act like it won’t (no evidence for it). We can’t know for sure that there isn’t a tea pot floating in space somewhere near Mars, but if someone were to claim that there were, the burden of proof would be on them to prove it, not on us to disprove it.

I want to expand a little more about this last one, an analogy known as Russell’s teapot, with some quotes. Russell said:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.

In some ways, this analogy is not representative of popular modern religions. There is not a large population of people who believe it teapotism, nor is there a major organised religion behind. Believing in Christianity is not quite the same think as believing in teapotism. But where it is absolutely relevant is in the burden of proof, and how we should feel about dismissing its existence.

There seems to be a great discrepancy in society between how willing people are to say that their religious worldview is correct (many even saying that all the others are wrong), and how willing people are to say that the non-existence of deities is the most likely situation. I think we should change this. People also broadly seem happy to publicly dismiss very new religions (say formed in the last 50 years), often calling them cults. The definition of a cult is:

a system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object

With all possible due respect, that sounds like the definition of a religion. The only real difference I can see is in its public perception.

I deliberated whether or not to write this post. But this hesitation is exactly the thing I’m talking about. I think people who believe the Earth is flat are wrong, so I’m happy to write about it. I think non-humans don’t deserve to suffer for human gain, so I write about that despite public resistance, and am happy to do so. I think that no deities exist, so I should write about that too. We shouldn’t be afraid to write about what we think is true and right.

For the sake of mentioning it, I was raised Catholic, and went to a Jesuit school for 11 years of my education (I used to read the Old Testament for fun, had a favourite New Testament book, and went to mass most weeks). I renounced this and became an atheist (not without some difficulty and personal challenges – perhaps I’ll write about this in the future) when I was around 19. However, I don’t think this should make me more or less qualified to talk about the Catholic god’s existence, any more than it should change how I’m qualified to talk about the existence of any particular thing.

On jaywalking and the casual ‘minor’ law breaking

I typically refuse to jaywalk (defined in NSW as crossing the road within 20 metres of a pedestrian crossing at the wrong time, or unsafe road crossing in general), especially when I’m on my own. When I’m travelling with a group of people I know, I occasionally succumb to the peer pressure as they (often) cross the road without thought. Sometimes, I will wait, and they will either wait with me or cross the road and look back questioningly, wondering why I’d be waiting.

Interestingly, I feel more comfortable waiting with people I know better, even if they are also looking back questioningly. When I’m on my own, I’ve been amused by several occasions where a stranger walking behind me walks in to me, and is confused as to why I’m waiting.

Why don’t I jaywalk? There are a few reasons. One is that I have been let off with a warning for jaywalking once before, and there are substantial fines that I don’t want to risk (up to $2,200 in NSW). I also don’t believe my time is so important that it’s worth either the money or the risk to life (e.g. if there is a car or bike I didn’t see and they swerve to miss me) except perhaps in an emergency. Choosing whether or not to jaywalk also seems to have a knock on effect where not jaywalking influences others around who might have otherwise jaywalked and vice versa (in my anecdotal observation).

What about when there is no one around? When there are definitely no cars, bikes, police, or people to see me and be influenced? As a matter of principle, I probably still wouldn’t. I believe a culture of casual non-compliance towards laws in general is bad, and condoning jaywalking strengthens this culture in a small but meaningful way.

I know people who see no problem with driving 10 km over the speed limit when there are no police around, and I think this falls in to the same category. It’s an unnecessary financial and safety risk which promotes to others and yourself a culture of not really caring about laws.

This is not to say that I am against law breaking entirely. I would happily break unjust laws, e.g. if there were say some strange quirk of the law where it was legal to abuse animals for pleasure or profit. But I don’t believe the law of jaywalking is unjust. I don’t believe the law against speeding or other safety laws like this are unjust, they exist to protect us and others.

In a world where humans and non-humans are still suffering immensely, is thinking about the ethics of jaywalking trivial? Maybe. But beside taking the 15 minutes to write this, it’s not really subtracting anything from my work to help humans/non-humans. I think ethical choices present themselves to us constantly throughout the day, and ignoring them is in itself a choice by omission. I’m sympathetic to the idea of decision fatigue or ethical fatigue, but I also believe thinking about the small things help us think about the big picture and be more ethical* people.

NB one may well argue that jaywalking and speeding laws are a bit arbitrary, and they are. Why is jaywalking in NSW 20 metres and not 50, or 10? Why is the speed limit often 60 km/hr and not 50, 70 or 62? I assume the relevant government body has made tradeoff decisions about safety, convenience, revenue and other factors, but I’m happy to trust the Australian government on these types of laws (not all!) to make a reasonable decision.

* I’m sure we all have different definitions of what this means!