Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Religion and reason

I have only ever seen one religious objection to the theory of Quantum Mechanics, and that came from an atheist. Einstein famously declared that "He does not throw dice" and the "He" is generally taken to refer to God.

When people say things like this:

To me it seems a contradiction to insist that all things flow from blind chance and then to go on calling oneself a rationalist.
they are not, as a rule, suggesting that Quantum theorists are irrational. Yet Quantum Mechanics is the only branch of any science in which anything flows from chance, and that only to the extent that chance and probability are equivalent.

This may be because religious texts do not, on the whole, offer explanations for phenomena that, like the partial reflection of light by glass, are now the province of Quantum Mechanics. Neither the theory of evolution, nor modern cosmology, involve chance in any capacity. Yet both are routinely criticised for doing so by religious antagonists.

The theory of evolution by mutation and natural selection has no place for chance. Mutations are only random to the extent that they are not fully understood or predictable. Yet. There's no reason to suppose they aren't mechanistic; certainly they take place within narrow boundaries. Selection is entirely unrandom. That's the whole point: what happens is simply that the best adapted, most successful, "fittest" mutations are generally more successful than others at passing themselves on because their carriers tend to survive slightly better than others.

The origin of the universe is hard, and might be impossible, to see. It might lie on the far side of a singularity that will always remain opaque. That does not suggest it had anything to do with chance.

The quotation about blind chance comes from an interview with Michael Novak, in which he discusses his book No One Sees God, which Novak describes as "a book about reason's path to God". This is delicate territory; nobody likes to be called irrational. Implicit in most atheist arguments are suggestions that believers are in some mixture superstitious, irrational and blinded by cultural baggage. There is often a tendency to attack back, on the part of the faithful.

Although Novak seeks to reverse this accusation, saying that religious belief is rational and atheism irrational, he takes a conciliatory line:
[His book] will probably struggle to find the special audience it needs: committed to reason and liberty, and by the accident of certain human experiences able to sympathize both with those who know God and those who find nothing there. And to see the benefits of reasoned conversation between such seemingly opposite tendencies.
This is not least because he feels he has a shared experience with both sides of the debate. Though a believer, he says:
At times in my life I have been driven toward atheism, wanted to become an atheist. Was left in the dark about God, felt nothing, nada.
Yet, for him, this was an emotional, and not an intellectual, drive:
But none of the various sorts of atheism I encountered (and these were many) seemed intellectually satisfying. All felt--to me, at least--like dodges. Any line of questioning that brought pressure on atheism was simply defined out of existence or at least treated as irrelevant. For example, the question "Why is there something, not nothing?" was ruled out as a question that cannot be answered by science, therefore meaningless. That is much too easy.
It's a neat inversion. But just as he is wrong to speak of blind chance (he is not referring to Quantum Mechanics), he is also wrong about the atheist response to metaphysical questions. It would be more accurate to say that "Why is there something, not nothing?" is held by atheists to be meaningless and therefore not answerable - not unanswerable by science but unanswerable, period because it has no meaning. This is because it contains what is in such debates the most common of all logical fallacies, that of begging the question. Is it the case that existence requires a reason? If some prime mover is required, why does that prime mover not require a prime mover, and so on ad infinitum, allowing the question to be rephrased "Why that prime mover, and not nothing?", ad infinitum?

Where, in the commission of obvious fallacies and the avoidance of obvious questions, is the triumph of reason?

Novak also sees the end of secularism on the horizon:
The idea was suggested to me by two writers, on opposite sides of most issues, who both have a knack for reading the times: Irving Kristol in America and J├╝rgen Habermas in Germany. Kristol observes that while secularism keeps marching through the institutions of daily life, the core of its living beliefs is spent, dead, unfruitful. Any movement that deprives most human beings of any meaning in their lives is eventually self-doomed.

Professor Habermas writes that the events of September 11, 2001, shocked him into recognizing that secularism represents a small island in the midst of a turbulent sea of religion all around the world. Even in the developed world, as in the United States, religion thrives. Certain sectors of European society seem to be an exception. And how long can they hold out?
A century ago, one would have seen fewer islands of secularism. Half a century ago there were more, but still fewer than today. The deduction, from this, that secularism is in decline is not easily reconciled with reason.

Novak is wrong about the role of chance in scientific explanations of the world, wrong about the atheist response to metaphysics, and wrong about the decline of secularism. About this, though, he is right:
An admirable secular humanism still thrives among us--but it does seem limited only to smallish enclaves. It is difficult to foresee it capturing multitudes. Besides, the examples of those atheist societies that have tried to fashion ceremonies, liturgies, and vast demonstrations (to make atheism discernible to the imagination and sensibility of peoples) are not encouraging. Secular humanism seems better suited to a few strong individuals and to fairly rarefied groups among the elite than to a culture as a whole. It founders on its own perception of the meaninglessness of human life. It offers only the meaning that individuals can put into it--and as easily pull out.
The last sentence is equally true of religious practice, as a moment's reflection on the variety of this surely suggests.

But this is the challenge we face. As the world becomes increasingly irreligious, rightly, morality and ethics remain, broadly, unaltered. This is because they derive not from a divinity but from the nature of the world and from our evolutionary heritage; they are a form of behaviour we developed, pragmatically, as our social structures evolved over millions of years. Yet individuals and societies seem unable to advocate morality in the absence of religious coercion. That's what we need to change.

Thanks to Right Wing Prof for the emails and links that led to this post. A couple of years ago, he posted an argument that quantum theory actually proves the existence of God.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

I generally post from an atheist perspective. This post is no exception.

To the Christians I have debated with, thank you for your courtesy when I have challenged some of the ideas that are dearest to you.

To the Christians of the past, thank you for the cathedrals, churches and art that have filled my mind with awe and with silence.

I still hope, before I die, to sit in darkness at matins, in a remote stone cloister, as the monks enter in procession, carrying candles, singing something like this:

And to everyone who reads this blog, have a very Merry Christmas, and the best of all possible worlds in 2009.

Jewish conspiracy update

Zombietime has posted a transcript and audio recording from a recent radio broadcast in Berkeley, California. On KFPA's "Hard Knock Radio", Hunter College Professor Marimba Ani, whose racial politics amount almost to a separatist programme, was interviewed. She said:

…Who did the financing? … They had a long history, in Chicago. Which brings me to the next warning, the next what I see as implication of this, and that is the Jewish connection, which must be understood. Because we fought that in the Civil Rights movement. And I was a part of the Southern student movement in Mississippi and all the time we had to fight for control of our own movement. Now what has happened is that he has allowed that control to come into play. Because he was picked and chosen, and I could give you the list of names. I don’t have time to now, but you’re gonna have to find these things out. You’re gonna have to now get on the Net, read things. Think, don’t just listen to rhetoric about how wonderful it is to have these beautiful people there. See where they came from. See what they represent.
It's even worse when you listen to it (mp3) and hear the stress placed on the word "Jewish". The second "..." in the transcript above is just a pause in her speech. She means that Obama was financed by Jews.

She also avoids anything clumsily defamatory, like the names of these Jewish financiers and puppetmasters, by directing people to read about this for themselves on the web.

Imagine the search phrases they'll be entering. "Jewish... finance... political... control..."

And imagine the results they'll get from such searches.

As Zombie comments, the idea that there was a Jewish attempt to subvert the civil rights movement is a staple of anti-semitism. Google it if you want - I decline to link directly, but there are threads about this at sites like Stormfront and JewWatch.

KFPA's Mission is:
* To promote cultural diversity and pluralistic community expression
* To contribute to a lasting understanding between individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors
* To promote freedom of the press and serve as a forum for various viewpoints
* To maintain an independent funding base
Marimba Ani spells "Afrika" with a "k", which has a weird overtone, really, and thinks that Hurricane Katrina was a:
blatant [act] of genocide... in which thousands of our people were slaughtered, left to die, placed in disease-producing holding pens, forcibly relocated, separated from their families and support-systems, and their (our) children “lost”, all this for the purpose of corporate profit and for the illegal misappropriation of land.
It's a frightening world, in which hidden Jewish financiers secretly control the next President of the United States, who will have the power to cause genocidal hurricanes.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Fans as slaves

Here's a website full of photographs of Star Wars fans dressed in replicas of Leia's slave girl metal bikini. Sci Fi fan conventions rehabilitated?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Coffee as fuel

I thought we knew that already.



Had the grand "Iron Lady" only had the good sense to be a lesbian, the feminist movement would have died a natural death in an uncontrolled chain reaction of spontanious head explosions - but such was not to be.

Just one problem

Antarctic ice is nearly 20% above its average (1979 - 2000) level. As theory suggests should be the case, temperatures have also been consistently below average.

There is just one problem with all this. The effect is exactly opposite of what has been predicted by global warming modelers.

Lucky dogs

Ariel is said to be one of the luckiest dogs in Australia, traveling [sic] in a Louis Vuitton carrier bag and wearing only Gucci collars.
My dogs run about in fields, crunch beet that's fallen from the farm trailers and rabbit carcasses left by the shoots, sniff, pee, chase rabbits that avoided the shoots, splash in puddles, drink from the river, eat bones, meat and mixer from their own damn bowls and then sleep in front of the wood burner.

Humphrey, the labrador with the shot hips, won't let me lift him into my truck. He throws his front legs up onto the tailgate, waits, then jumps as soon as he feel my hand on the back of his neck. Don't even think about trying to get him in a carrier bag.

Break it to her gently

We have seen elementary policing progress from the deductions of Sherlock Holmes and his dear sidekick right through to the forensic use of the discoveries of Francis Crick and Dr Watson’s namesake. These developments have brought opportunities and challenges in their wake," [Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith] said.
Would it be cruel to tell her that Sherlock Holmes wasn't real?

Epidemic hysteria

Otherwise known as mass psychogenic illness (MPI). The overreaction to nut allergies.


The school of the future

An excellent piece about a high tech school in the USA sponsored by Microsoft. How not to educate children.

Spiritual capital

Consider this:

"Philosophically speaking, an atheistic American is a contradiction in terms. Now don't misunderstand me. This age has thrown up a new type of man - we call him 'secular'; he does not believe in God; not because he is a wicked man but because he is dialectically honest (? LT) . He would rather walk with the unbelievers than sit hypocritically with people of the faith. These men, and many I have known, are fine in character; and in their obligations as citizens and good neigbours, quite excellent.

But they really are 'spiritual parasites'. And I mean no term of abuse in this. I'm simply classifying them. A parasite is an organism that lives upon the life force of another organism without contributing to the life of the other. These excellent ethical seculars are living upon the accumulated spiritual capital of Judeao-Christian civilisation, and at the same time (they) deny the God who revealed the divine principles upon which the ethics of this country grow."

That's exactly right. And we in Britain are, in the main, parasites living upon the accumulated spiritual capital of nearly 1700 years of Christianity, just as the Britons of the fourth century were warmed by the declining glow of Rome's glory - until the barbarian war-bands came.
No mention at all is made of the likelihood that God exists. What if, as I think is obvious, there are no Gods? What is the above an argument for? Or is it merely a lament?

I don't know. It feels like a defence of Christianity against secularism (secularism is not, incidentally, necessarily in conflict with any form of religion other than theocracy, but that's another argument). I think it probably is meant to be a defence of Christianity. Because it isn't an explicit argument, and because it relies on a phrase that is gibberish ("spiritual capital"), it is necessary to untangle it.

There's an obvious and very basic logical error in this sentence:
These excellent ethical seculars are living upon the accumulated spiritual capital of Judeao-Christian civilisation, and at the same time (they) deny the God who revealed the divine principles upon which the ethics of this country grow
It is that of begging the question. The sentence simply assumes that God exists when in fact that's the subject of the debate. If we can know there are no Gods, then continued belief in one or more of them would be untenable, whatever the consequences and whatever legacy had been bequeathed to society by religion.

Logical incoherence aside, I think this is what is meant by "accumulated spiritual capital": legacy. I think the writer is trying to say that there are good, even vital, things in society that are only there because of the influence of Christianity. To which we would be entitled to ask: what? Which things are the consequence of Christianity and would not otherwise be there?

Next week it's Christmas, the day we celebrate the birth of Christ. Except that it isn't in any sense the anniversary of that event, even if there had been such a birth. The historically impossible tale, set at a time of events that did not happen (Herod, etc), is itself set in the springtime or early summer. How many lambs do you see in the fields right now? We are celebrating in December because humans have always done something to mark the winter solstice. We'd be preparing for a feast at this time of year regardless of whether there had been Christianity in Europe.

The Ten Commandments say you should not steal or kill. Does this make these ethics specifically Christian? Have these prohibitions stopped Christians stealing or killing, at least more than other, non-Abrahamic cultures? Did the pre-Christian Britons strike their foreheads when missionaries read these commandments to them, exclaiming "Oh! I see it now! We shouldn't kill or steal!"?

Far from us needing religion from which to draw our ethics, it is only through religious injunction that burning or stoning someone to death, or throwing them from a high building, could be given the mantle of ethical behaviour. Genuine ethics exist independently of religious belief, which is why they appear in some form, albeit sometimes horribly distorted, within every religion.

We have a system of common law in England, in France they have codified law. Both countries are nominally Christian. Which form of law is the legacy of Christianity?

The English legal system developed in the teeth of opposition from the Church. Previously, clerics were both excluded from the scope of civil law, and often responsible for its administration. Trial by ordeal was normally supervised by clerics who could and did pervert it when they wanted to. We have our legal system despite, not because of, the church.

The list goes on. Only one aspect of our culture derives from Christianity, or rather from something that happened to Christianity. The Reformation broke the power of the church, splintered it, even within countries, in a way that did not happen elsewhere. While people continued to believe, they developed a tradition of freedom of intellect and of conscience that led to the enlightenment and scientific revolution. It is this freedom that has caused the decline of religion. Once people became free to doubt, free to think, free to learn it became inevitable that they would begin to shed religious belief.

So in fact, far from having a debt to religion, we have a debt to the things that are killing religion.

Why then is there a sense that the Barbarians are at the gates? There is a genuine problem being skirted by this sort of argument. Ethics exist independently of religion, but the enforcement of ethics does not. At least, so far it has not. What we really need now is the assertion that ethics are important, that they transcend systems of religious belief and are universal. They include the freedoms of conscience and expression that have so undermined religious belief but they are not restricted to those freedoms. They also include things like honesty and self-reliance. Socialism, it follows, is unethical.

Religion gave people both the confidence to assert the need for individual responsibility, but also an excuse that made it easier to make this assertion: "It's not me, personally I'd be understanding of your weaknesses and problems. But the big guy with the beard? He's not so understanding. He knows what you think, let alone what you do, and it's all written down in a book."

What's needed now is the same confidence without the excuse.


John Hutton, the Defence Secretary, has compared the Taleban and al-Qaeda to the Nazis, saying that British forces in Afghanistan are defending the country’s values as they did in the Second World War.
More than just our values are at stake here. Either we fight them, and eliminate them, at source, or we'll be fighting them at home. They have declared war on us, they did so before 9/11, and they're serious.

Now that we have won in Iraq, we need to win in Afghanistan.

The Telegraph

Here's a good reason to stop buying it.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The greatest living Irishman

Is no more: Conor Cruise O'Brien has died.

Poultry and primitive accumulation

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

It's an easy question: the egg. Eggs were being laid by distant ancestors of chickens, hundreds of millions of years before our feathery buddies ever evolved. Shelled (amniotic) eggs developed gradually before any creatures began to live on land. They were a prerequisite for this and might also have helped draw animals out of the sea. It's safer to lay your eggs on land, fewer get eaten by predators, and there's some evidence that excursions by early amphibians onto the land just to lay eggs preceded true land dwelling by some tens of millions of years.

It would be harder to say exactly when some of the things laying eggs became chickens instead of whatever they were before. It would also be rather meaningless. Evolution doesn't consist of lurches between discrete units called species, it's rather that species is the word we use to describe snapshots of a process of change, under some circumstances (when different snapshots can't interbreed, for example).

So, what does all this have to do with primitive accumulation?

In his introduction to Book II of An Inquiry into the Nature And Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote this:

IN that rude state of society in which there is no division of labour, in which exchanges are seldom made, and in which every man provides everything for himself, it is not necessary that any stock should be accumulated or stored up beforehand in order to carry on the business of the society. Every man endeavours to supply by his own industry his own occasional wants as they occur. When he is hungry, he goes to the forest to hunt; when his coat is worn out, he clothes himself with the skin of the first large animal he kills: and when his hut begins to go to ruin, he repairs it, as well as he can, with the trees and the turf that are nearest it.

But when the division of labour has once been thoroughly introduced, the produce of a man's own labour can supply but a very small part of his occasional wants. The far greater part of them are supplied by the produce of other men's labour, which he purchases with the produce, or, what is the same thing, with the price of the produce of his own.
To what extent there was a division of labour in the society that produced this tool is hard to say:

That's because we know almost exactly nothing about the society in which such tools were made. Flints like this are hard to make (I've tried) and I think there must have been some specialisation by the time that flint working was producing such consistently useful artefacts as this. The earliest stone tool use presumably consisted of picking up a handy rock and hitting something with it. This chap used simple stone tools, more than two million years ago:

After two and a half million years of stone tool use, and hundreds of thousands of years of cleverly worked flint tool use, neatly made and consistently shaped scrapers must surely have been made by flint workers who specialised.

That is, of course, semi-informed speculation. This isn't: the scraper in the image above was not made by a modern human. It was made by a Neanderthal. I'm suggesting that the division of labour pre-dates the arrival of truly modern humans.

Adam Smith knew nothing of Neanderthals. In fact, he knew nothing of the evolution of species. Smith published his most famous work in 1776, Neanderthals were discovered in 1829, the theory of evolution by natural selection followed a few decades later. The "rude state of society" of which Smith wrote, one in which there was no division of labour, was not a state of human society at any time - not, that is, of any society modern humans ever lived in.

Rather like the development of eggs and of chickens, the development of specialisation in individuals must have been a very gradual process. It must also have been almost imperceptible. Someone who made a particularly good flint flake rode the wave and made another one. Maybe individuals here and there played around with the old banging-the-rocks-together game after supper. It would have been a slow start and at first no preparation would have been necessary for someone to make three flakes instead of one.

But by the time flint knapping had become an industry there would have been a need for all kinds of ancillary specialisations - workings on the scale of Grime's Graves would have needed ladder makers, miners, knappers, and merchants to get value from all this labour, to convert flint tools into clothing and food and luxury goods.

The point Smith was driving at was this, still in the Introduction mentioned above:
But when the division of labour has once been thoroughly introduced, the produce of a man's own labour can supply but a very small part of his occasional wants. The far greater part of them are supplied by the produce of other men's labour, which he purchases with the produce, or, what is the same thing, with the price of the produce of his own. But this purchase cannot be made till such time as the produce of his own labour has not only been completed, but sold. A stock of goods of different kinds, therefore, must be stored up somewhere sufficient to maintain him, and to supply him with the materials and tools of his work till such time, at least, as both these events can be brought about. A weaver cannot apply himself entirely to his peculiar business, unless there is beforehand stored up somewhere, either in his own possession or in that of some other person, a stock sufficient to maintain him, and to supply him with the materials and tools of his work, till he has not only completed, but sold his web. This accumulation must, evidently, be previous to his applying his industry for so long a time to such a peculiar business.
Someone making a carpet must begin with enough "stock" to be able to eat, be clothed, stay warm and dry, have tools and yarn and to labour, making a carpet. The weaver must also be able to keep body and soul together while the carpet is sold. Only then will they be able to buy more eggs, chicken, clothes and yarn to carry them through the task of making the next carpet.

I started reading about this subject because I followed a link on Chris Dillow's blog that led me to this explanation of the theory of primitive accumulation. And here's the best thing about it: it's a mis-translation:
The seemingly Marxian expression, "primitive accumulation," originally began with Adam Smith's assertion that "the accumulation of stock must, in the nature of things, be previous to the division of labour" (Smith 1776, II.3, p. 277). Marx translated Smith's word, "previous," as "ursprunglich" (Marx and Engels 1973; 33: 741), which Marx's English translators, in turn, rendered as "primitive."
That's from the first paragraph, and unfortunately things go downhill from there:
Smith's approach to original accumulation is odd, to say the least. Certainly, the division of labor is to be found throughout history. It exists even in insect societies (see Morely 1954). Yet Smith would have us believe that the division of labor had to wait for the accumulation of stock, Smith's code word for capital in the previous citation. Such an idea is patently false. How could we interpret the division of labor in an anthill or a beehive as a consequence of the accumulation of stock?
Well, yes we could "interpret the division of labor in an anthill or a beehive as a consequence of the accumulation of stock". There are still solitary bees. Bee cooperation must have begun as imperceptibly as the development of hard shells in eggs. Every small change would have served a purpose unrelated to the final result, rather like eggs being laid on land as a protection mechanism leading to greater facility to move on land and the means necessary to procreate once there. By the time communal living and a division of labour had developed, stocks had been built up in the ancestor bee societies, just as they had in the flint workings that preceded Grime's Graves.

The suggestion that Smith used the word "stock" as a codeword for "capital" is especially odd. Smith used both words, and was clear about the difference. This, from the second paragraph of the very first page of the first chapter of Book II:
But when he possesses stock sufficient to maintain him for months or years, he naturally endeavours to derive a revenue from the greater part of it; reserving only so much for his immediate consumption as may maintain him till this revenue begins to come in. His whole stock, therefore, is distinguished into two parts. That part which, he expects, is to afford him this revenue, is called his capital. The other is that which supplies his immediate consumption...
That's exactly what we mean by "capital" today.

Primitive accumulation is important to Marxists because it's a form of original sin - as Marx put it. The essay I found via Dillow states the case as follows:
The contrast between Smith's scanty treatment of previous accumulation and Marx's extensive documentation of the subject is striking. Marx's survey of primitive accumulation carries us through a process lasting several centuries. It was a brutal process in which a small group of people forcefully expropriated the means of production from the people of precapitalist society in every corner of the world:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation. [Marx 1977, p. 915]

Marx's did not limit his interpretation of primitive accumulation to isolated pockets of the world. The fruits of primitive accumulation are fungible. For example, he insisted that "A great deal of capital, which appears today in the United States without any birth-certificate, was yesterday, in England, the capitalized blood of children (Ibid., p. 920).
What on earth does "the capitalized blood of children" mean? The greatest proof that the world is balanced and just is that Marxists have to read this bilge.

But compare the quote about the exploitation of the Americas with this:
The savage injustice of the Europeans rendered [contact with the Americas], which ought to have been beneficial to all, ruinous and destructive to several of those unfortunate countries.
That's Adam Smith. Is there really such a difference between his moral judgement of European exploitation of other countries and that of Marx?

In tracing the development of Capitalism, Marx relies on more than just the idea of the injustice of primitive accumulation. For example, the development of wage labour is important. I don't intend to get drawn into those other areas. Marx wanted to trace the development of capitalism to the dying throes of feudalism. He tried to show that the original accumulation of capital was rooted in the inhumanity, slaughter and looting of other societies in the early colonial age.

But these colonial ventures were themselves capitalist; expeditions that sailed to the Indies or the Americas were financed, often by royalty, often by shareholders.

These capitalists had gained their capital in various ways that included trade and some of them could perhaps have traced their lineage back to the flint knappers of Grime's Graves and the capitalists who financed that major industrial complex. Other fortunes would have been gained more recently.

The biggest difference between Marx and Smith, so far as I can see, is one of intention. Smith wasn't trying to make any particular point. He made lots of small ones, as asides, but he didn't really have any overarching theory. His was an Inquiry, not a hypothesis. Marx, on the other had, was hammering all kinds of differently shaped pegs into the single, convoluted hole of his Grand Idea. Smith mentioned the idea of primary accumulation simply to point out that a weaver needs yarn before he or she can start work. Marx wanted to root the acquisition of capital in horror and injustice.

Neither was right, but Smith was far less wrong than Marx. Smith's limitations were merely those of the age in which he lived. His point was true but it is possible that he might have phrased it differently had he known about the long history of the world and the timescales of human evolution and tool use.

But Marx's limitations were those of a religious fanatic.

Libel costs

Political Betting and Iain Dale are worried about government proposals to make libel actions cheaper.They're wrong to be so. The biggest problem with libel is the expense. This makes it a rich man's game. Few libel actions are complicated. An equivalent of the small claims court is exactly what is needed, together with penalties that fit the wrong: principally a correction of equal space.

I speak here from personal experience, having been involved in a libel squabble about a year ago. It's the costs that make it hard to defend against these allegations and my brief skirmish left me with several thousand pounds worth of legal bills. But more about that later. For the moment, the government's proposals seem reasonable and they have cross party support.

Refrigeration denial

In the seclusion of his Maryland home, Ace has spent three years glued to the Internet, studying the Earth's climate cycles and careening from one epiphany to another - a 69-year-old loner with the moxie to try to solve one of the greatest threats to mankind.
Ace's plan is to spray seawater into the air and... well you can read about it here.

But climate scientists are sceptical.

Libel tourism

Another case:

A former associate of The Beatles has won the right to sue in England over a New York Times article which called him a charlatan. Because the article was published online the case should go ahead, the High Court has said.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tales from the Unix mailing lists

It's an old one, but I like it:

Someone wrote:
"I understand that if you play a Windows CD backwards you hear strange Satanic messages"
To which someone replied:
"It's even worse than that; play it forwards and it installs Windows"

Dog lullabies and horse prosthetics

Cute warning - look away now if this offends you.

Man singing puppies to sleep.

And the Shetland pony with an artificial leg - after she was savaged by a dog in the confusion following hurricane Katrina:

Story here, video from the veterinary institution that worked this little miracle here (YouTube). It sounds like this little pony has a big heart. They decided to operate because she wasn't quitting, clearly understood she was in trouble, alternated the side she slept on, cleverly protected the leg and cooperated extremely well with the people who were helping her.

The only downside is, the leg has a smiley face on the pad, to leave a happy smile wherever she goes.

[I should have said, thanks to Ann and Linda]

Monday, December 15, 2008

Five hundred years in 300 words

And in fifteen years.

Do not click this link

Not unless you have an hour or so to spare. Iowahawk's posts that suck less than the others, a top twenty-five.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


David Thompson on The Vestergaard Odyssey.

David T on McCarthyism.

Tin foil

Weird fires that people in protective clothing can just walk through! Transmutation! Star Wars energy weapons that cause molecular dissociation! Dr Judy Wood explains all these things at The Journal of 9/11 Research and 9/11 Issues (Yes, there are issues with 9/11!!!).

Dr Wood believes that secret high-energy weapons destroyed the World Trade Centre on September 11 2001. I mention her because she is a source quoted by Andrew Johnson on his blog at 9/11 Researchers dot com. Mr Johnson also writes at OpEdNews, for example here where he reported on a 9/11 Truth meeting addressed by "Elias Davidsson, Icelandic Scholar and Human Rights Activist", who "founded the Icelandic chapter of the 9/11 truth movement".

Mr Davidsson's speech was followed by one from Dr Mohammed Naseem, chairman of the Birmingham Central Mosque. Dr Naseem explained that the official version of events on 9/11 and 7/7 were an insult to his intelligence and:

He went on to express his concern that the media was allowing these sorts of stories to be promulgated and that there were "4 organisations running the world" – the Bilderberg group, the Trilateral Commission, McKenzie and Co Public Relations, and Common Purpose.
Mr Johnson seems also to be associated with, where you can read about pyramids on Mars, Cold Fusion, mysterious hurricanes that travel in straight lines, 7/7, the deliberate causation of climate change by squirting chemicals from aircraft, the military cover-up of UFO sightings and, of course, the real rulers of the world.

I mention Mr Johnson here because Ian Parker-Joseph did. Mr Parker-Joseph is the leader of the UK Libertarian Party. He reproduced this press release:
PRLog (Press Release) – Dec 11, 2008 – Andrew Johnson, an independent researcher not affiliated with any political party, group or association has recently sent letters to all 52 UK Police Chief Constables and 78 UK Military figures requesting they examine evidence relating to events on 9/11 and 7/7. He has also spoken out about the use of Common Purpose training by some of these organisations.
Parker-Joseph commented:
Now before we all start crying conspiracy, tin foil brigade, think on.
OK. I'm thinking...

Right. I've thought. Conspiracy! Tin foil brigade!

These are a bunch of crazed conspiracy loons dedicated to proving Blair's Law. Mr Johnson seems determined to mix all the world's conspiracy theories together into one enormous bowl of rancid gruel.

This does nothing to enhance the credibility of the UK Libertarian Party.

Unintended consequences

Here's one, of the premature withdrawal of US troops from Iraq:

A retired Iraqi Army general told me not to worry because when they are in charge they will rule the country with much greater force and less concern for human rights than Americans.

Cargo cult economics

This essay is a defence of protectionism (emphasis added):

Once upon a time, the leading car-maker of a developing country exported its first passenger cars to the US. Until then, the company had only made poor copies of cars made by richer countries. The car was just a cheap subcompact ("four wheels and an ashtray") but it was a big moment for the country and its exporters felt proud.

Unfortunately, the car failed. Most people thought it looked lousy, and were reluctant to spend serious money on a family car that came from a place where only second-rate products were made. The car had to be withdrawn from the US.
The year was 1958 and the country was Japan. The company was Toyota, and the car was called the Toyopet. Toyota started out as a manufacturer of textile machinery and moved into car production in 1933. The Japanese government kicked out General Motors and Ford in 1939, and bailed out Toyota with money from the central bank in 1949.
... had the Japanese government followed the free-trade economists back in the early 1960s, there would have been no Lexus. Toyota today would at best be a junior partner to a western car manufacturer and Japan would have remained the third-rate industrial power it was in the 1960s—on the same level as Chile, Argentina and South Africa.
In chronological sequence, then, with some information added that was excluded from the protectionist argument:

1933 - Toyota begins car production
1939 - Japan kick out foreign car manufacturers
1958 - Toyota's first exported car is a failure in a competitive market
1960s - Policy of trade liberalisation begins
1960s to 1980s - Japan's economic miracle happens
2007 - The above essay is published, and there is a Lexus

Note particularly that while the article states that the Japanese government did not follow the "free-trade economists" in the 1960s, this is the opposite of the truth. There was no abrupt switch to entirely free trade, but liberalisation was accompanied by unprecedented growth and increasing competence in, among other things, car manufacture. Yes, there were other factors and yes there were still restrictions on trade, but the movement was towards freer trade than before.

Richard Feynman coined the term "cargo-cult science" to describe work that looks like science but is not, because it lacks "a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty".

That principle of thought is completeness - not leaving out inconvenient facts that do not seem to accord with your argument, even pointing out yourself the main problems with your own work. Climate science has become cargo cult science.

The argument for protectionism quoted above is cargo cult economics.

Ritual slaughter

Cranmer reports on a campaign by Sikhs against the serving of halal meat in schools. They have religious objections. My own objection to halal meat applies also to kosher meat: I am opposed to cruelty. For that reason I refuse to eat halal meat and suggest it is inappropriate for it to be served by default in any institution that is publicly funded.

UPDATE: I should have linked to the online petition against the exclusive serving of halal meat in schools:

A vast number of schools are providing halal meat without the consent of parents and children. It must be made compulsory for schools to inform parents of the type of meals provided.
This enables parents to make an informed decision as to which meals are suitable for their children, especially if they do not consume this type of meat due to religious beliefs, such as the Sikh religion. The petition simply requests that SCHOOLS MUST GIVE ADVANCE NOTICE OF THEIR SCHOOL MEALS POLICY AND THAT IF HALAL MEAT IS PROVIDED, SO SHOULD NON HALAL MEAT.
It is only fair that in today's multicultural society, all communities are respected equally.

Occupying the same space

This idea, from Norman Geras, might cut more than one way. He is writing about objections from some Christians to the introduction of lessons in humanism, delivered by people who do not believe in God, during lessons timetabled for religious education in Victoria, Australia:

Humanism is, indeed, not a religion. But it's a body of ideas that challenges the truth of religion. It therefore inhabits a common intellectual space with the various religions and there contests some of the main teachings of religion. It is appropriate, therefore, to give it curricular space in a religious education programme. What, in any case, are these Christian spokespersons afraid of? They're not confident of religion being able to make its own way?
For example:
Creationism and Intelligent Design are, indeed, not science. But they form a body of ideas that challenges the truth of science. They therefore inhabit a common intellectual space with science and there contest some of the main teachings of science. It is appropriate, therefore, to give them curricular space in a science education programme. What, in any case, are these scientific spokespersons afraid of? They're not confident of science being able to make its own way?
Might it not be better to teach science in science lessons and religion in religious education lessons?

Thursday, December 11, 2008


The striking thing about the list of questions from mathematics GCSE examination papers used by Mark Wadsworth in his recent poll is... Well, first, here are the questions:

Write five thousand four hundred and twenty four in figures
Write 41,980 to the nearest thousand
Write down the value of the 7 in the number 25,750
Write the number 7,180 in words
It's that none of them are maths questions, not even the one that involves rounding a number. They are questions that detect whether or not the examinee understands the notation we use for numbers. I suppose you could call them numeracy questions. The rounding question just establishes whether or not the student understands which of the figures are thousands and which are smaller and can therefore be replaced with zeros. As such it's similar to the following question, that is designed to find out whether the student knows that the third number along, counting from the right, is in the hundreds column. The first and last test whether the student can read out a number if they see it written in numerals, or write one down if it is dictated to them.

It's a form of very basic literacy - like testing whether or not a child knows their alphabet.

The GCSE is taken at the age of sixteen. These are questions that used to be given to children below the age of seven. It must be soul-destroying for any but the most remedial children to have to sit and answer these kinds of questions at the age of sixteen.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Death penalty and utilitarianism

After I said in this post that I oppose the death penalty because of the problems of fallibility and process, DearieMe commented:

Would you still oppose capital punishment if (big "if" I'll grant you) someone demonstrated to your satisfaction that the number of 'murderers' executed in error was, say, an order of magnitude less than the number of lives saved by the deterrent effect? Or two orders of magnitude, or three....?
And then after a further comment by Dudley Sharp, he added:
Mr Sharp's comments imply that I could usefully modify my original question to include "the number of lives saved by the deterrent effect plus those saved by the prevention of further murders by convicted murderers". Does anyone gather British figures for homicides proven to be by convicted murderers? If not, why not?
The idea that the loss of innocent life might be justified if it prevents the loss of even more innocent life is, of course, a utilitarian argument. Mr Sharp also mentioned deterrence, but the part of his comment DM picked up on was important but different, and it hangs on the idea that convicted murderers might be released to re-offend. My post argued for whole life sentences in some cases, which would have the same preventative effect as a death penalty, though at greater expense. I think that expense is justified, because of the problems of fallibility and process. You can't release an executed person and there have been cases in this country at least of people being wrongly convicted for crimes that would surely have demanded the death penalty had it been in place - child murder (Stefan Kishko, Sally Clark) and terrorism (Guildford, Birmingham), for example.

So the experience here is that innocent people will be in danger of being killed if there is a death penalty. Whole life sentences remove the risk of further murders from those who have killed professionally of from some kind of mania and who are therefore a danger to society.

I think that brings us back to DM's original question, which is of a class that has been debated at other times: there is a group of people in a predicament, and the sacrifice of one or more will save the rest. For example, a ship sinks and ten people clamber onto a lifeboat that can only carry seven. The lifeboat starts to sink. Should three be thrown overboard, or should straws be drawn, or should volunteers be asked for, or should all perish?

I think the answer is that there is no right answer, because any premises on which any answers are based are, in fact, the real grounds of debate. It boils down to the importance placed on the individual and on the collective. In the case of the lifeboat, there's a real argument. If three people are thrown overboard it's just a matter of the merits of the selection process. If nobody is thrown overboard then these three people die anyway. Some might argue that this is the right choice, better that all die than that there is an injustice. This means weighing injustice against death. It's a different argument.

In the case of the death penalty, though, as DM states he postulates a very big if. I'm not aware there's any evidence that execution has any effect on murder rates in practice. Mr Sharp says there is, but provides no proper references. So this question is interesting in the abstract but should not be confused with an argument about capital punishment.

My own opinion is that we should strive for the least imperfect solution possible, without knowingly implementing any policies that would kill innocent people. It isn't especially compassionate, as a position. Many people facing the rest of their lives in prison are on suicide watch - we prevent them from carrying out their own death penalty for, as Kurt Vonnegut put it in Mother Night, crimes against themselves (I don't credit someone like Ian Brady with the humanity to sentence himself for the crimes he committed against others).

This is all about the fallibility issue, though. There's also the question of process. If a criminal abducted someone and imprisoned them for years, holding the threat of imminent death over them the whole time but letting them try to argue their way out of it, or throw dice, or examine the entrails of fish for signs that they should be killed or released - and legal process makes about as much sense and has as much rationality, for many of the convicted, as do these procedures; if they told them some mornings that they were to be killed later that day, or the next... then when the time came said "only kidding"; if they surrounded their victims with ritual, letting them choose their own food for that one fateful morning, making a ceremony of the murder, inviting spectators...

If a criminal did that, they'd be regarded as the most sadistic and horrible murderer of all time.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Matching the crime

Wat Tyler, at Burning Our Money, complains that:

There is something seriously wrong with a criminal justice system that fails to protect 17 year old girls from people like Kohli: 22 years is nowhere near a proportionate sentence for what he did, and its deterrent effect is practically zilch.
Tyler describes the crime as follows:
17 year-old Hannah was kidnapped, then brutally raped and murdered, by an animal called Maninder Pal Singh Kohli. As Hannah's Mum later put it, her precious daughter had been left "terrified and alone with an evil stranger. She would have been frozen with fear, unable to run or fight – the proverbial lamb to the slaughter. I feel as though Kohli has ripped out my heart and stamped on it."
What would be a proportionate sentence for this?

The whole idea of proportionality in such cases is meaningless; there are no scales on which the offence can be balanced against a response. Instead, sentencing needs to consider a group of factors: deterrence, which is debatable in such cases (if the man thought he might have been caught he wouldn't have done it, indeed in a confession in India he said he killed the girl because he wanted to make sure he wouldn't be caught); the protection of society, which turns on the idea of rehabilitation as much as incarceration; the feelings of the relatives of the victim. The last could only be fully satisfied by an until-death life sentence.

I'm the same age as one of the Moors murder victims, and until Myra Hindley died the decades were punctuated with pleas from anguished relatives of one or other of the murdered children that Hindley not be released. The possibility of release meant that these relatives could never really move on. The same must be true for many relatives, as well as victims of serious assaults who did survive.

Nothing can be done for the dead. But whole-life sentences would make the lives of those left behind far more bearable.

Of course, the death penalty would have the same effect. I'd lose no sleep if, say, the man who murdered two girls in Soham, where I live, had been killed. But the problems of fallibility and process mean I oppose this punishment.

Kicking the dog

When there's a public storm over the antics of one particular dysfunctional group of benefits-dependent adults and children, what is the responsible government reaction?

Obviously, it's increasingly authoritarian bureaucracy that will make life that little bit more miserable for other, entirely unconnected and mainly blameless, benefits-dependent adults and children, while having no effect whatsoever on the problem of babies-for-benefits* welfare dependency:

Under new laws likely to be proposed next year, missing a single "work-focussed interview" would cost a claimant £12 a week. The second missed appointment would mean a £24 cut in the weekly payment.

A third "strike" would see claimants lose all benefits payments, with Job Centre staff paying essential bills like food and heating directly on the claimant's behalf.
I have no idea what starving the feckless is supposed to achieve, even if that's what they are. If the fecklets aren't being cared for properly now, with the only money left over from their parents' lottery scratch cards, cigarettes and porn site subscriptions barely stretching to a box of microwave chips a day, who the hell is going to suffer first when the cash is cut?

The proposal doesn't even make sense. If you were on "two strikes" and losing £24 per week, you'd have to strike out again as fast as possible if you wanted to eat.

There is a far simpler way: a flat rate benefit - call it a Citizens' Basic Income if you want - that can be swapped for a tax threshold somewhere around £10k to £12k. (You've persuaded me, Mark).

* I don't think this exists quite as has been suggested. Babies are complicated incentives, in a welfare state. Nonetheless, incentives have accrued to them in a way that is in part problematic.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The poisoned well

Alex Hilton is one of three left-wing bloggers who are being sued for libel. So far as I can see, the action is vexatious. Reactions are mixed, because Hilton is a shit whose political partisanship extends to bullying young women if they are, or are related to, Tories - and who couldn't "be bothered" to look into his associate Paul Staines' threat to sue Tim Ireland for, er... libel.

Perhaps that shouldn't matter. Hilton hasn't shown any solidarity with bloggers similarly threatened in the past, but perhaps that shouldn't matter. The mere fact that there is a doubt over support for Hilton (and not the others similarly threatened) shows just how badly he has poisoned the well of political discourse. He seems the worst possible cynic, spraying vicious rhetoric about "Tory scum" while podcasting smears and setting up business with the Tory blogger Staines, ignoring the plight of others threatened with libel actions then pleading for money when he is threatened.

Hilton seems to be a natural Hater and in general such people, in different cultural situations, simply choose their hatreds differently. They always always hate, because that's what Haters do. The only things that militate against this characterisation of Hilton are his cynicism and the way he seems to regard the ostentatious display of hatred as a sort of game, switching it on to blog and off when he's on Question Time. Either way, as Mencken pointed out, he's exactly the type of person those who value free speech find themselves defending first. So if he seems in extremis, I'll contribute to his fighting fund. Not otherwise.

I'll do this because I support his right to spew partisan hatred, if that's what he wants to do. The right to free speech is not dependant on reasonableness, or niceness, or inoffensiveness - or even honesty or accuracy. There should be a law of defamation, though it should not be a mechanism for rich scoundrels to suppress criticism, but the post in question (which he published rather than wrote - an important reason to support his case if not his person) seems, from what I have seen, not to have been libellous although, of course, a court will ultimately be the judge of that, your Honour.

No such reservations apply to the others under threat, who I support wholeheartedly. Interestingly, neither has yet asked for money.

In passing, describing the litigant as a Tory is a bit misleading. She moved from the Labour Party into Respect, then to the Conservatives. She's not a Tory. When asking for non-partisan help, why not cut the partisan crap?

Debate continues

In fact, what prompted The Politico to solicit Gore's comment was its decision to report on the mounting dissent from global-warming orthodoxy. "Scientists urge caution on global warming," the story was headlined; it opened by noting "a growing accumulation of global cooling science and other findings that could signal that the science behind global warming may still be too shaky to warrant cap-and-trade legislation."

Coverage of such skepticism is increasing. The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Michael Scott reported last week that meteorologists at each of Cleveland's TV stations dissent from the alarmists' scenario. In the Canadian province of Alberta, the Edmonton Journal found, 68 percent of climate scientists and engineers do not believe "the debate on the scientific causes of recent climate change is settled."

Expect to see more of this. The debate goes on, as it should.


The Daily Times of Pakistan (emphasis added):

Because of the warlike noises being made on both sides of the border... our troops... could be needed to fight the Indians if war actually breaks out...

... The concerned circles began preparing for war...

Quality of life

These "quality of life" assessments tend to re-enforce my preference for more traditional economics. The study also cited lower than average house prices as an attractive feature of the Shetlands - but the reason house prices are lower is because there is less demand for Shetland housing. Since we can rule out low wages, unemployment, and crap education as variables here, I'd have thought the Bank of Scotland might have given more serious thought to including things like horizontal rain, low temperatures, high winds and minimal sunlight as factors when drawing up their quality of life index. But these are the sort of people who regularly come up with Canada as the best place on the face of the planet to live in. Yeah, right - the second biggest country in the world has only 33 million people living in it?

Intellectual monoculture

'Like the characters Winston Smith and Julia in George Orwell's classic anti-totalitarian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, students with non-Left views need to learn to outwardly conform to inwardly remain free." This is how a high school tutor, Mark Lopez, describes the plight of Australian students in his submission to the Senate inquiry into academic freedom, which is due to table its report today.

In 18 years tutoring English and the humanities, Lopez has seen a "subtle, unstated pressure for students to ideologically conform if they want to succeed academically".

He said the "beliefs of the politically correct, which are seen by them as so noble and emancipating, especially when … touted by radical students in the 1960s" have become a "means for compromising the intellectual freedom of the young in the 21st century".

Many academics have derided the Senate inquiry, begun in June by the Victorian Liberal Senator Mitch Fifield, as a "witch-hunt", an exercise in "mud-slinging", the dying throes of the Howard regime and a "McCarthyist" attempt to curtail the freedom of academics. The National Tertiary Education Union was typical in its submission asserting that bias does not exist.

But the submissions - some anonymous - tell a different story and paint a chilling portrait of an often unconscious academic bias in schools and universities, and of students too intimidated to say or write what they think.

Things we should blame America for, part 23456

Pearl Harbour.

Predictable, I know

But here's Charlie Mingus's guide to toilet training your cat. Seems to be genuine.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The first draft of history

I've been approached twice this year by broadcast journalists researching Boris Johnson. First, the BBC's Politics Show, before Johnson was elected Mayor of London, then last week by someone working with Channel Four. They're making a documentary about - in the words of this researcher - "what sort of man" is in charge of our capital city.

There's a phrase: "what sort of man". It could be neutral, taken at face value, but it isn't in practice. And in neither case was the research neutral.

Their interest in me stems from the fact that nearly twenty years ago, when I was in the middle of a struggle with someone called Darius Guppy, I tapped his phone and caught a conversation he had with Johnson, then the Telegraph's man in Brussels. In this conversation, Guppy tried to get Johnson to seek the address of a News of the World journalist Guppy wanted to have beaten up.

Guppy had framed me for a robbery in New York, and the circumstances were, to me, extreme. So I tapped his phone to get a measure of the extent of his treachery, then I let some of the media have copies of one of the tape. In it, Johnson agreed to get the man's address but, as I have since pointed out, didn't do so, indeed made no attempt to do so and, because he also tried to make sure Guppy didn't try any other avenues of enquiry, might even have stopped the assault taking place.

The Channel Four chap wanted a copy of the tape, or a transcript of it. I declined. It might seem a bit rich, since I once went out of my way to publicise it, but I don't really hold with the release of private conversations. In fact, I don't hold with phone tapping. Twenty years ago the circumstances were, as I said, extreme, but they aren't now. Guppy is just another dodgy expat in South Africa and even his most energetic efforts at getting back at me - setting up a sort of tribute website, among other things - have had no other effect than to threaten the well-being of my liver (after a comment was left on his blog by someone pretending not to be Guppy, Steve - for example - mailed me and said "Someone's really got it in for you; fancy a beer?"*).

So in both cases I explained that I was not prepared to release a copy of the tape and also explained that Johnson didn't actually facilitate this planned beating-up of a journalist. In both cases, the interest of the journalists evaporated like breath from a razor blade.

In both cases, I suggest, the journalists were planning a hatchet job and had no interest whatever in the truth of the matter.

BBC2 and Channel Four have high pretensions to seriousness; they imagine themselves to be broadcasting in the tradition of the Times journalists of old who conscientiously - in their eyes - prepared every day the "first draft of history".

But the people who approached me were interested only in things that might discredit a Conservative politician and were perfectly willing to ignore exonerating evidence. Omission is a form of lying.

Now, tell me you're surprised.

UPDATE: I published this post last night. Just before 9:00am this morning, I received a call from a Channel 4 reporter. I'll update again in due course.

* I repeat this correspondence with Steve's permission, of course.

Headline of the day

Although the day in question was a few days ago...

The Daily Mash:

Not just Indians dead

Effect and cause

Australian leftist cartoonist Matt Golding has been criticised for a cartoon showing how Al Qaeda came into being as a result of the sperm of the "coalition of the willing" entering and fertilising the egg of Iraq. In other words, Al Qaeda leaders had the foresight in 1988 to react to an event from the year 2003; 9/11 was, presumably, an act of anticipatory retaliation.

That's a big improvement in reflexes. It's not much more than a year since the Muslim Action Committee's Ismaeel informed me on this very blog that the 1453 Muslim conquest of Constantinople was an attempt to pre-empt the 9th Crusade - which took place in 1271.

Via Tim Blair.

Analysis of the Mumbai massacre

Who or what was responsible for this horrific attack?

Was it, on the one hand, Israel with its allies the USA and the UK?

Or was it, on the other hand, the result of climate change and insufficient socialism?


How can an agency that is a key contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change be a government agency and still be expected to provide objective information?
So said Philippa Childs, Negotiations Officer of the trades union Prospect.


Via Benny Peiser.