Thursday, May 31, 2007

Not with a bang but with a whimper


Somehow this fate of the universe depresses me. An accelerating universe pushed apart at an ever increasing rate by dark energy and where the big bang slips past the horizon leaving no cosmic background radiation sounds empty and dark. Admittedly I won't be there but it bothers me anyway.

Gasbag

Very few things in life are as irritating as an e-mail that has been forwarded multiple times. You know the kind I mean: originating from a person you barely know who at some point in the distant past and by means unknown has managed to acquire your e-mail address; kicked around between a dozen recipients who in their boundless narcissism apparently imagined that you would find the message as interesting as they did; and of a predictably idiotic nature regardless of the topic -- unfunny, if they are jokes -- gullible, if they are warnings -- sinister, if they are chain letters.

The other day I received one, laced with multiple exclamation marks as is the custom, inviting me to join in signing a petition against rising gas prices. Said petition would then be submitted to the government, who when confronted with the unchallengeable power of our mighty signatures would obligingly lower the price of gasoline. Here is the reply I wrote to the original sender, a woman living in another province who I have never met:

"dear Ms. [xxxx]:

Petroleum is a non-renewable resource, the reserves of which are running out even as global demand for it continues to skyrocket. The most basic laws of economics dictate that its price will continue to rise until it has all been depleted (which is forecast to happen at the latest by the end of this century.) Fluctuations in supply owing to regional instability in countries such as Iraq, Venezuela and Nigeria, as well as the production quotas set down by OPEC, also play a role in determining the global price of oil at any given time. If we as consumers find that filling the tank has become too expensive, we can always purchase a bicycle.

P.S. Please remove me from your mailing list."

With such an utter lack of diplomacy it's no wonder that I am a social outcast, but I do enjoy the peace and quiet that comes with it. (Here is a link to a primer on gas prices.)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Some fine versifyin'

This goes out to the few of you true romantics left out there amongst the cynical, blog-reading masses. Failing that, if you are not in fact romantic this still may be of some use to you when you are looking for a more original compliment to pay to your lady friend than "wow, you look really, really hot":
"A woman of so shining loveliness
That men threshed corn at midnight by a tress,
A little stolen tress."
Written by -- who else? -- the master, W.B. Yeats. The full poem can be read here.

Banking on sharia

It's encouraging to see so honest a look at so-called "Islamic banking" appear in, of all places, a Pakistani newspaper. Note that a lender's assumption of risk, even when it cannot be reflected by "un-Islamic" interest rates, is not going to be motivated by altruism but instead will end up being built into higher up-front costs. In other words, you can drive out the laws of economics with a pitchfork, but they will always find their way back.

The Probability Broach


Interesting fantasy about what it would be like with almost no government from L. Neil Smith and Big Head Press. It's Utopian but then most political movements are driven by idealism and the ideals of libertarianism aren't half bad. For the more serious types, you can buy the (non-graphical) novel here.

For a more intellectual look at libertarianism try reading Milton Friedman's Free to Choose or Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom or going really far back John Stuart Mill's On Liberty.

Incidentally, it was Hayek's Constitution of Liberty that Margaret Thatcher famously took out of her handbag (I've always been curious to know what else was in that handbag) and slammed onto a table at a Tory party conference declaring "Gentlemen, this is what we believe in."

Sad to see the state of the Tories today with a limp biscuit/used car salesman (no offence intended to that noble profession) leading them.


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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Putin 'em in their place

An article on Vladimir Putin's Russia claims that democracy in that country can and must wait until "the rule of law" has been restored and "state institutions" have been rebuilt, presumably to what they were during the glorious Soviet years. And if Putin happens to use his autocratic powers to imprison and assassinate his opponents, rebuild the secret police, shut down dissenting media outlets, and make unprovoked and belligerent threats against foreign governments -- why, all of this is merely "the lesser of two evils", the greater evil being a Russian economy ungoverned by central planning.

It shouldn't be any surprise that this theory is brought to you by the New Left Review. Large sections of the international Left, in spite of their avowed interest in representing the interests of "the people", spent many decades of the past century in apologizing for the worst kinds of dictatorships -- provided of course that those dictatorships were also of the Left. Putin promises to satisfy their ongoing need for anti-Western and anti-capitalist strongmen, who have largely been reduced over the past few years to the ragged crew of Castro, Chavez, and Ahmadinejad.

It's amusing, though, to imagine how easily this article could have been re-written by a nefarious right-winger to justify a conservative autocracy instead. Just suppose that George W. Bush in the US, rather than Putin in Russia, was the one being given carte blanche to destroy his democracy in order to deal with "lawlessness" and fix problems with the economy. (There are many on the Left who already say exactly this about Bush, but in his case they don't mean it as a compliment.) So Mr. Putin is going to restore "the rule of law"? This sounds almost like the high-Toryism of the Daily Mail. Is he going to make the trains run on time too? Call me hopelessly idealistic, but the naked worship of power is repellent no matter which side of the political spectrum it finds itself on.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Immigration and its discontents

One of the most bitter and ferocious debates to come out of American politics in a long while is currently taking place in Washington. The topic is illegal immigration, and specifically the bipartisan Bush-Kennedy bill now under consideration in the Senate that would grant full citizenship (provided certain conditions are met) to the estimated 12 million or more aliens now living in the country. Grassroots supporters of the Republican party are furious, saying that no amnesty should take place without the border being closed to future illegal immigration altogether. (Although the bill does have some enforcement provisions, these are vague and seem to have been added as an afterthought.) Other concerns are that American citizenship is being offered cheaply to those who have already shown themselves ready and willing to break American law; that millions of low-paid and relatively uneducated new citizens will bankrupt existing social entitlement programmes; and that the vast new electorate instantly created by the bill will vote overwhelmingly Democratic in the future, so potentially destroying the two-party system in the US.

As an immigrant to Canada, and a legal one, I can't say I have a great deal of sympathy for the aliens. My parents were forced to jump through various hoops to gain our admission to this country, and it worked out well for us in the end. I am grateful to the Canadian authorities for their generosity in welcoming us, but if they had chosen to reject us instead they would have been well within their rights to do so. No prospective immigrant has any "right" to take up residence in another country. National sovereignty dictates that only those incomers can be admitted who are going to benefit the country in some way, and that their numbers should not be so great as to place a financial or cultural strain on the existing population. There is no Divine Right of immigration, any more than there ever was a Divine Right of kings.

National self-interest alone would dictate that in the US at present there are serious reasons to hesitate over enfranchising millions of mostly poor and unskilled people, the biggest one being that their presence drives down wages for those existing citizens who are also poor and unskilled: this is a vital concern if you are a member of what remains of America's dwindling working class. But there are apparently enough influential voices among the American political and media elites who are affluent enough to stand to benefit personally from an endless supply of cheap labour, and who naturally regard the matter differently.

Indian broadband lagging

A study has shown that while China's uptake of broadband is accelerating, India's is stalling. The reason is simple. India has yet to liberalize it's telecommunications industry.
Mobile phone companies in India are relatively unregulated and as a result, we see a huge surge in mobile telephones and innovative services to consumers. This has worked miracles by reducing the information barriers for the poorest people - a farmer in India can now decide where to sell his produce (and command the highest possible price) by telephoning his contacts. Consumers can similarly call different sellers and get the best prices. Information parity means efficient markets.

By contrast the old fixed line business is still heavily regulated in India (such as only allowing 74% foreign ownership of Indian telecoms companies, imposing foreign equity caps and prohibitions, complex licensing procedures, high licensing fees and difficult local labor laws). The result is an unbelievably awful fixed line phone system to which anyone who has done business in India can attest (me, for example). It is no wonder that broadband just has not taken off.

Open telecommunications is a great equalizer. It enables information transparency allowing consumers and businesses to make smarter, better informed decisions. It is vital for a country's success. The only way to ensure it is to get rid of regulations. The US has certainly seen the benefits of telecommunications deregulation.

An aside to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The only way to continue to keep the US innovation edge in this area is to start to open up the radio spectrum and to allow ownership of parts of the spectrum instead of the spectrum being declared "public property". Keeping radio spectrum ownership public is a relic of the past when transmission equipment was not precise enough to transmit at a narrow range of frequencies and so radio frequencies had to be allocated in chunks. The FCC should move on. Thanks to the FCC, FM radio was delayed by several years and satellite radio may come under the FCC jurisdiction, stifling innovation there as well. Oh yes, I forgot, privatizing the spectrum would also mean they have less say as to how the spectrum was used and words like "wardrobe malfunction" would become a thing of the past.

Interesting article about privatizing the spectrum and the FCC policy can be found here.

What we don't know

An ode to our terrible ignorance of life and the world we live in and the fact that life continues completely oblivious as to whether we understand it or not. Larkin raises a profound epistemological point. Can we know anything at all?
Strange to know nothing, never to be sure
Of what is true or right or real,
But forced to qualify or so I feel,
Or Well, it does seem so:
Someone must know.


Strange to be ignorant of the way things work:
Their skill at finding what they need,
Their sense of shape, and punctual spread of seed,
And willingness to change;
Yes, it is strange,

Even to wear such knowledge - for our flesh
Surrounds us with its own decisions -
And yet spend all our life on imprecisions,
That when we start to die
Have no idea why.

On the other hand, the recognition of our ignorance is what motivates scientists who, in turn, pose new questions and shift the boundaries of our ignorance.

Tinky Winky is Gay


Nice to know that Polish leaders have their priorities set and have finally uncovered that evil BBC conspiracy to spread homosexuality through the Teletubbies. One would think that leaders of a country with an unemployment rate of 14.9%, dilapidated infrastructure and a large rural underclass would have other things to think about. Go figure.

New Space Age


Interesting article in Wired magazine about the new generation of space entrepreneurs. In particular it talks about Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, and his ambitious plan to get us into orbit (instead of the boundaries of space as Burt Routan has done).

Possibly one of the reasons we are not on the moon and on Mars is that space travel has, since its beginning, been left in the hands of NASA.

Since Gordon Moore recognized that the number of transistors on a circuit at similar cost doubled roughly every 2 years, we have come to expect massive increases in computing power on a year by year basis. Storage, though less noticed, has also undergone a similar revolution. 2 years ago, i bought a 1GB memory stick for $100 approximately. It is now possible to get a 4GB memory stick for $50 (an 8 fold increase in 2 years).
Computing could have gone the direction of space travel if the government had been in charge. 60 years ago the Eniac cost around $5 million (in today's currency). The US government was just about to launch an ambitious program to develop better and more efficient nuclear warheads and the need for computational power would by necessity increase. If they had decided that computers were a national security issue they could have set up an agency to handle computation. Civilian computation needs would be satisfied by the state agency. Today we probably would have had machines considerably more powerful than the Eniac but only a handful of them, each of them costing a fortune and probably taking up entire warehouses (this is often the case in science fiction books from that era). Only the biggest corporations would have been able to afford time on them.
Space travel went down the state controlled route and computing went down the entrepreneurship route. Needless to say, there is no Moore's law for rockets. If there were, today we could be vacationing on Mars, sipping a pina colada under a thin plastic dome at the foot of Olympus Mons.

Regulate This!


Politicians everywhere are a busy lot. In New York, they are busy banning trans fats and using iPods while walking, San Francisco has banned plastic bags, in the UK, every house tap must now be fitted with an anti-scalding device, the MPAA will now consider depictions of smoking when rating films and, of course, it is illegal in most countries to roll a joint and start puffing away.


These laws don't come out of the blue. In the UK, a study by the Kings fund found that nearly 73% wanted a ban on smoking in public places, 72% wanted a ban on junk food from schools,
and 65% wanted the government to put warning signs on bottles of alcohol.

Some bans do work. In New York a year after a ban on smoking was introduced, the number of adult smokers dropped by 11% (and the refined cigar smoker can no longer puff away in a cigar bar...grrr), seat belt laws have saved +500,000 lives in the UK.

However, one could ask how far they would go to prevent self-destructive behaviour. Surely if I sit in front of the TV guzzling beer and stuffing myself with crisps, I am doing harm to myself. Should I then expect a gentle knock on my door by a pair (a man and a woman to ensure gender equality, one of whom must be a physically challenged, transgendered, person of colour) with a gentle but firm admonition about not stuffing myself with the aforementioned beer and crisps (but not too firm in case I take offence and they trespass on my legitimate right to be a horizontally challenged individual)?

The problem is one of giving them an inch. These laws are a far cry from the repressive laws in China and Iran but they tend in that direction. In Iran, people don't even bat an eyelid when their leaders introduce bans on Western style neckties and haircuts. It's all par for the course in these countries. Here these laws would at least elicit some sort of debate - albeit a weak one. But even here there are those who are certainly willing even to question the moral integrity of someone who doesn't quite agree with them. Certainly the debate over drugs has been poisoned by this sort of thinking as has restrictions on pornography and prostitution. And who, after all, would oppose a law that would save lives (theocracies do even better as "saving lives" include the spiritual world too)?

Many of these laws are frivolous and "harmless" such as the iPod ban (if it is ever introduced) but the precedence they set - one in which government meddling becomes increasingly accepted - is cause for worry.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Kata logon

A longish but absorbing article in The New Yorker examines the Antikythera Mechanism, billed as possibly "the world's first computer." The metal-geared device, used in astronomical calculations, was created somewhere in Greece between 150 and 100 B.C.

Adam and Steve

For the second year running, violence has marred the Moscow gay-pride parade. Riot police apparently stood by and failed to intervene while marchers were attacked by hooligans shouting slogans such as "Moscow is not Sodom" and "homosexuality is satanic". (The religious allusions are a nice touch here -- what better way can there be to defend your faith than to wade into a crowd of strangers who have done you no harm and start beating the crap out of them? That'll show Satan who's boss!)

The reaction to this parade was particularly severe because it was taking place in Russia, a country currently in the midst of a general regression to barbarism. But we don't have to look too far from home, unfortunately, to find more examples of this kind of mindless ignorance, even if they are more refined in their expression here than elsewhere. This morning I attended a Catholic church service at the chapel of a well-regarded Canadian university, about an hour's drive from my home. A young priest visiting from the U.S. delivered the homily, during which he denounced homosexuality (along with various other modern phenomena) as "evil"; this prompted some of the students present to walk out in protest, but also led to vigorous nodding and murmured "amens" from the older and discernably more rural people in the front rows.

Naturally, I don't expect any priest to differ from the doctrines of his church. But even from a Catholic perspective this one could have treated the matter with more consideration. The modern Vatican position is that homosexuality is "intrinsically disordered" in its nature but not something that is freely chosen, since God in his mysterious wisdom apparently creates some people with a same-sex attraction that they are not permitted to act upon; in other words, it is not a sin to be gay, but only to commit homosexual acts. By obscuring the Church's own distinction between action and orientation with the blanket term "evil", the priest was at the very least being deeply uncharitable to any gay people unfortunate enough to have found themselves in attendance.

In any event, I find it all depressing beyond measure. Surely we should know by now that homosexuality has appeared in every part of the world, even in those places where it is dangerous or even fatal to be gay; that it has appeared in every recorded era of history; and that it even occurs among animals, who according to theologians lack the capacity for moral choice. Perhaps there is a semantic confusion between something that is statistically abnormal and something that is morally so. I have no idea. I don't understand the apparently desperate need of many Christians to vilify people who they have never met and who pose no threat to them whatsoever, on the basis of what has been written in an erratic and highly fallible two-thousand-year-old book. I just don't get it, and on days like today I can't help but wonder if I am simply too kind to be religious.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Creationist museum set to open

Yikes.

For all of its shock-entertainment value, the museum's website does offer valuable insights for those seeking to understand the mind of the Biblical literalist. Did you know, for example, that "old-earth" (i.e. real-world) geology is at least partly to blame for "drug abuse, sexual immorality, abortion, epidemic divorce, school violence, suicide, etc."? Neither did I. I've always thought that geologists were dull as dishwater -- what sort of man finds his vocation in rocks? But now that I realize they are conspiring to undermine our entire moral order, I see that they're actually the mack daddies of the science world.

Picking on fundamentalists is like shooting fish in a barrel, so I'll try to resist the temptation to run up the score here. Instead, I'd like to examine this particular Creationist notion that scientific inquiry as normally pursued in the secular world is in the long run demoralizing. I don't think I've ever met anyone whose life of debauchery and hedonism was prompted by the study of geological strata or quasars or mitochondria, but even if I had I still wouldn't believe that we should ignore or conceal scientific truths for fear of their potential moral effects. Suppose that people are unhappier in an ancient, vast, and cooling universe than they would be in a young one soon to be redeemed by God: what of it? We have to accept things as they are, not as we would wish them to be. (And in any case, is an uncaring cosmos really more terrifying or demoralizing than one presided over by the Biblical God, who wages holy wars on behalf of his people and consigns many souls to eternal torture?)

Perhaps fundamentalist Christians would have a healthier respect for the age and scope of the universe if they could learn to get away from the idea that human behaviour is or ought to be solely influenced by promises of reward and punishment. If your only motivation for doing good is to "lay up treasures in heaven", then certainly there is a risk that losing your faith will ruin your character too, and you might be well-advised at least for pragmatic reasons to steer clear of studies that challenge the Biblical worldview. But if you prefer to do good for its own sake, nothing in your understanding of physical reality will cause that to change: your moral compass will always point to the same place, regardless of what Darwin or Dawkins has to tell you.

Vapourish

As I was out driving this morning I was listening to a CD of Mozart's "Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra," a delicate and exquisite work. The second movement in particular, the slow movement, is of such rapturous loveliness that by the end of it I found myself quite teary-eyed. (This, by the way, is why I don't carpool.)

An emotional response of this kind to music is not unusual or especially noteworthy; most sensible people have had it at one time or another. But what I found striking in this instance was that the experience of beauty was accompanied by a terrible sadness, as if the joy and the pain were complementing one another. The phrase that comes to my mind from Gaelic is am bròn binn: the sweet sorrow. Perhaps we are sorry because beauty is so uncommon in the world that, having found it, we want to capture it and possess it; more than that, even, we want to unite ourselves to it... and we can't, of course. Lasting happiness of any kind does not exist on this earth, and even as we are being transported by Mozart we already find ourselves missing the beauty before it is gone, in a kind of pre-emptive grief.

Then again, perhaps it's just me. Like Jaques, "I can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs." You can judge for yourself by listening to a full MP3 of the Concerto here (the link is near the bottom of the page.)

Dissecting Dawkins

Richard Dawkins, who is now apparently regarded as the poster boy of militant atheism, was recently dressed down by William Rees-Mogg in the "Times" for allegedly "taking the silliest arguments that have been used by the most ignorant people" in order to score his points against religion. In his peculiarly English way, Rees-Mogg tries to draw a distinction between fanatical Muslims and uncouth Yank evangelists on the one hand, and urbane clerical chaps such as the Archbishop of Canterbury on the other -- a distinction he believes Dawkins to have neglected entirely. Rees-Mogg also faults Dawkins for the latter's vehemence in expressing his opinions, which he seems to think shows bad form. There's a fair amount of lace-curtain gentility in this criticism that we can safely dismiss, but even apart from that I can't help but feel that Rees-Mogg has missed Dawkins's main point altogether. Dawkins's book The God Delusion aims to demonstrate the irrationality of every kind of religious faith -- regardless of whether or not that faith has managed to accommodate itself within the framework of a pluralistic, secular society.

It is certainly the case that Islamic suicide bombers are a greater threat to our safety than genial Anglican clergymen, but this consideration is outside the scope of The God Delusion. Dawkins wishes to draw our attention to the fact that belief in things such as the Virgin Birth or the seventy-two virgins promised to Islamic martyrs are equally unverifiable from a rational point of view, even if the former belief is much more aesthetically appealing and much less dangerous in its implications than the latter. We can't prove or disprove that either belief is true (though we may possibly reach certain conclusions about their veracity by examining the historical and textual circumstances surrounding them.) In the end, every act of faith requires the will to accept as fact something for which there is no empirical evidence. Dawkins contrasts this with the scientific method, which proceeds cautiously and judiciously towards discovering new facts about the world, and which is willing to subject itself to repeated tests and revisions.

As it happens I do believe in God, and so obviously I can't find Dawkins's arguments entirely persuasive. Where he is at his best is in demolishing the most fatuous reasons for believing in God, such as St. Anselm's ontological "proof" that proves nothing at all, or arguments such as the one that claims that God has to exist because, without him, there would be no hope for survival after death, and no punishment of the wicked. Simply conceiving that God exists, or fervently wishing for it, is not enough.

Dawkins is on somewhat weaker ground, though, when he attempts to deal with the idea of the "uncaused causer". While it's true that invoking God's existence necessarily raises the question of where God himself came from, a Godless universe must also have its own unexplained point of origin. The state of the universe prior to the Big Bang -- when it was allegedly compressed to such a degree that it had no attributes of space or time -- existed at least as a potentiality, and the cause of that potentiality remains unknown to us. So it doesn't seem totally unreasonable to define God as possibly being equal in age or in scope to the universe itself, while possessing the added characteristic of intelligence or will.

Dawkins also in my opinion inadequately addresses the implications of the so-called made widely known by the astronomer Martin Rees. According to Rees, even the slightest change to any one of six constants governing the basic properties of matter would have meant that life as we know it could never have arisen. Dawkins, in response, invokes the anthropic principle: it may seem unlikely to us that things should have turned out so propitiously, he says, but then again our perspective on the matter is skewed by the fact that we are here to consider the question at all. --Even the anthropic principle, though, does not address the staggering unlikelihood of our being here. That the universe should have arrived at its current state is so statistically unlikely that by rights it should never have happened. Dawkins, perhaps sensing that more is needed by the reader at this point, mentions the currently fashionable hypothesis of multiverses (i.e. multiple universes), an infinitely large number of which would, at least in one instance, result in the sort of cosmos we see today. I am not a physicist (and I hope that Rajeev, who is one, can explain the scientific rationale for this theory to me), but the "multiverse" hypothesis seems as if it is being used in this particular case as a kind of deus ex machina (without the deus, of course) by Dawkins as he hopes to avoid invoking God as a hypothesis for anything. Ultimately more questions are raised by this than are answered.

I found Dawkins to be uncharacteristically woolly and evasive on the topic of abortion, perhaps because those who are most vocal in opposition to it are the irrational religious types he is striving against. He makes a vague and wholly irrelevant reference to the fact that humans eat meat with very little compunction, as if inter-species predation had any bearing on ethical problems among humans. For a man who for so long has promoted the concept of the "selfish gene", he doesn't offer an explanation of how aborting one's offspring could work to advance the cause of natural selection. But Dawkins does at least concede that if scientific inquiry establishes the fact of fetal suffering during abortion (as I understand it already has done), this should influence our opinion of the procedure. In saying this, at least, he is far ahead of those whose entire justification of abortion rests on the abuse of weasel words such as "choice", and who prefer vilification to debate.

[This entry is getting a little long, so I'll have more to say about The God Delusion later.]

Friday, May 25, 2007

Do your bit for global warming.

There's a little town called Illussat in Greenland that's positively thriving as a result of global warming - retreating glaciers have exposed minerals to be mined, eco-tourism is up and unemployment in Illussat is zero. Just makes you wonder what the other positive side effects of global warming are and whether they will cancel the negative ones. Just think - a longer growing season, the Northwest Passage opening up for trade for the first time in yonks, larger areas of Siberia and Canada opening up for human habitation and also the chance that we may be forestalling the next ice age. You can read more about Illussat here.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The sad decline of Amnesty International

What has happened to Amnesty International over the years has been a shame and a disgrace. Even by about fifteen years ago, when I was a university student, I refused to give the group my support on account of the group's blanket opposition to the death penalty. It seemed to me at the time that A.I. had arbitrarily decided that any kind of execution was an abuse of human rights, regardless of the circumstances under which it occurred or the degree of necessity that prompted it. (By the same sort of reasoning, A.I. could just as easily have decried the incarceration of a criminal as an offence against the individual's freedom of mobility). This summer at its conference in Mexico Amnesty is seriously considering recognizing abortion as a "human right", so that any democratic government whose electorate has found itself opposed to abortion would be stigmatized as guilty of a "rights" violation. Whatever next -- a "right" to infanticide, polygamy, female genital mutilation?

This week, the organization has also come under fire for its clear biases in decrying rights abuses in the Middle East and elsewhere. A.I. spends an inordinate amount of time focussing on the actions of Israel, and comparatively little on those of neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt whose human rights records are objectively much worse. (When was the last time Israel tortured and executed homosexuals, denied women the right to drive, and stoned adulterers to death?) More recently, A.I. decided to prominently feature U.S. Vice- President Dick Cheney on its website as a torturer and cartoon villain. It looks very much as if Amnesty International is falling prey to an anti-American and anti-Israeli animus that threatens to undermine much of the fine work it has done in the past.

Dumb and dumber

Apparently if your neighbour is too stupid to secure his/her wireless connection or is particularly generous, it is nevertheless illegal to piggyback on it. I'd like to see this particular law make it to the Supreme Court. Not sure how it can be illegal if you are not stealing data or doing something destructive with it. More can be found here.
Here's a simple variation of the law that would make more sense. If your neighbour secures his connection using either WPA or even the eminently crackable WEP protocol then it's a simple way to say "bugger off". On the other hand if you see an open network then Bob's your uncle.

Beauty...

Beauty comes in many forms but for me I came across purest beauty when I finally understood what Maxwell's equations were about. In 4 equations, Maxwell showed electricity and magnetism were part of the same force.


The first equation says that an electrical field diverges from an electrical charge, the second equation says that magnetic monopoles aren't possible and that the Coulomb force exists between the two poles, the third equation says that if the magnetic field changes then it will produce an electrical field (like inducing a current induced in a wire by using a moving magnet), and the fourth equation says that a moving electrical field or current will produce a magnetic field.

That's it. If you understand those four statements, you understand electromagnetism. From these 4 equations, much of our century was founded. From these came electrical generators, light bulbs, transistors, and computers. How could anything be more beautiful than that?

Has climate change affected you?

The BBC has finally decided to shut down it's long running Have your say forum "Has Climate Change Affected you?". Thank goodness for that. But as a study of human stupidity it stood alone. Here was one particularly block-headed comment from the forum:
Here we are in winter. BUT it was actually sunnier yesterday than today... what more proof do these subversive climate change deniers need? It should be a crime to deny climate change.

Aside from demonstrating his complete lack of understanding of the word "climate" and a few other things, has he ever come across the word thoughtcrime (or crimethink in newspeak)? Seems that the radical green is not above totalitarian impulses.

Talking about thought-crime. The treatment of Danish researcher Bjorn Lomborg suddenly springs to mind. Consider that reputable magazines such as Scientific American used headlines reading "Science defends itself against The Skeptical Environmentalist". Reading that particular issue, we find statements like:
And who is Lomborg, I wondered, and why haven't I come across him at any of the meetings where the usual suspects debate costs, benefits, extinction rates, carrying capacity or cloud feedback? I couldn't recall reading any scientific or policy contributions from him either.
Logical fallacies pour out of that statement like water from a melting iceberg. Not to mention it strikes me as a wee bit snotty.

Climate change has become a religion unto itself. When singers like Sheryl Crowe go around making recommendations about toilet paper use in the name of climate change, I think it's time to convert (and don't shake her hand on the way out).

Back to that tedious forum on the BBC. I did see a glimmer of hope:
We need to be careful and make sure that the response of our politicians is balanced. The science of climate change is still far from firmly established and there are still plenty of open questions. If we go too far, we risk compromising other worthwhile causes such as fighting global poverty and malaria etc. for a threat that may not materialize.
But it was not enough to make me feel that the forum's time hadn't come. RIP.

Castro's health improving

Dammit, won't this old bastard ever die? How many people do you have to kill to get God's attention, anyway? (And for that matter, how many Montecristos do you have to smoke? I might just take up cigars myself...)

When Lutherans attack

Following hard on the recent poll suggesting that "only" 26% of young Muslim Americans consider suicide terrorist attacks justifiable, Iowahawk investigates the attitudes of young Lutherans in the Midwest.

Bad reasoning

Logical fallacies abound in the corporate world (and elsewhere too). Bad reasoning creeps into many critical decisions that companies face. Here's an example that I ran into recently. There are two systems in a process (actually more but for simplicity, we will confine it to two). It has been observed that whenever system two is under-performing, system one will also under-perform. But sometimes system one will under-perform and system two is chugging away perfectly happily.

I was talking to one of the operations managers and he told me that because he could not correlate the performance of system one with system two, he decided to ignore system two. Taken aback, I tried to explain to him that it is clear that there wouldn't be a perfect correlation because if system one has its own problems then sometimes it will under-perform when system two is performing but whenever system two is under-performing, system one will definitely under-perform too. In other words, A implies B but B does not necessarily imply A and so there cannot be a perfect correlation. After some time, he finally got it and decided to include system two in the scope of his analysis. I should note that this guy is an engineer from a decent school. I suppose I should be happy he got it in the end but it did give me pause to think of the number of times bad reasoning made it through and was acted upon by people who should have been trained to think logically.


An Irish Folk-Song


Will you be as hard,
Colleen, as you are quiet?
Will you be without pity
On me for ever?

Listen to me, Noireen,
Listen to me, a rúin;
Put healing on me
From your quiet mouth.

I am in the little road
That is dark and narrow,
The little road that has led
Thousands to sleep.

(Translated by Lady Gregory).

Why we blog

No-one knows exactly how many weblogs there are in the world, but the popular indexing site Technorati will let you search about 75 million of them, so that gives us a rough idea. With such a vast number available, very few of them can have more than a handful of regular readers, and it is more than likely that most have no readers at all. So why bother blogging?

The main motivation for most pointless human activity is the desire to pass time in our lives, and blogging is like cross-stitching or crossword-puzzling in that it can never really be finished. The closest analogy is with diary-writing, but the diary is a limited medium: usually it is meant to be private, and you can only show it to at most a few other people. By contrast weblogs, because they can at least potentially be read by everyone on the planet with a computer, can't help but try to attract attention to themselves. All of us want to be heard and understood, and most of us also have a secret narcissism that makes us believe that our opinions and ideas are more interesting and compelling than those of anyone else. This is not a bad thing as long as we are realistic about the overall effect our opinions are going to have on the rest of the world, which for most of us is close to zero.

In my own case there are a couple of other, more idiosyncratic reasons for blogging: I like to have the daily discipline of writing and researching, and sometimes (such as at the moment, for example, since it's 2:45 a.m. as I write this), I'm simply trying to cure my insomnia. I have no illusions that anyone, outside of a couple of friends and acquaintances, will care to read any of this, but I take a strange comfort in the thought that these words are going to sail endlessly through some kind of ether, like the messages on Voyager 1. We write because we are alive; no other reason is necessary.


(posted by Neil)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Lou Dobbs defies economic fundamentals

Lou Dobbs has long been a critic of free trade and outsourcing as can be read here. He has cried about manufacturing jobs moving overseas and now a new generation of white collar jobs moving to third world countries. Well he's right. Manufacturing jobs and many white collar jobs are leaving the US but Dobbs, being a bit of a soap box proselytizer only talks about one side. He has completely missed a titanic shift in the US economy; namely, that manufacturing is simply not as important as it once was. Compare Singapore and Hong Kong with little to no manufacturing to Italy that is hell bent on protecting it's manufacturing industry (mostly over-priced shoes) then ask how relevant manufacturing is again. Simply said, about 70% of the US economy is now services; services such as serving you at the local supermarket, styling your hair, doing your accounts, or reporting the news are what make up the US economy today.


David Ricardo was the first economist to formalize the theory of comparative advantage. At it's most simplified level, what comparative advantage says is that countries will naturally shift their economies to where they are most skilled. When countries do that, they benefit because they are able to use scarce resources more efficiently - and don't forget economics is all about the study of how we use allocate resources to do something useful (like feeding and clothing ourselves).


We intuitively do this in society - none of us tries to grow our own wheat, milk our own cow and then try and write advanced software to write our blogs in the evenings. We specialize in what we're good at and this enables us to use our resources (the most precious of which is time) more efficiently. This is only one part of the theory of comparative advantage. The other is that we don't have to be absolutely the best in the world in order to specialize. We only have to do one thing better than we do other things. On a global scale as there are so many products and services, it is extremely unlikely that two countries would happen to have the same speciality. And, anyway, typically the response to competition is that either you do better or you move into a market where there is no competition.


So coming down to Earth, what does this say for Dobbs' arguments. Well it says that the US is better off when it shifts its resources to areas where it is more productive. In fact studies have shown that for every $1 worth of work that has been outsourced, the US gains $1.12 - $1.14. Higher productivity means higher earnings, and lower prices and lower unemployment. So it is no tragedy when lower productivity jobs leave the US. The only thing politicians can and should do is to help those who have been displaced. In other words instead of trying to keep those factories in the US through subsidies or tariffs (which has the perverse effect of encouraging young people to go into dying job markets) and thus helping only a tiny minority of workers (and the factory owners who usually are the ones to lobby for such protection), it is better to allocate those resources to retraining and possibly helping people relocate to areas that are growing.

Everyone can benefit from free-trade if only politicians would let them. As for Lou Dobbs, who studied economics at Harvard, he should know better or maybe he should have been paying more attention during classes.


(posted by Rajeev)

Heraclitus

In my haste to get this blog underway I completely forgot to introduce the ruggedly handsome fellow whose face adorns this page. Heraclitus (535 - 475 B.C.) was the author of the beguiling quotation which gives "The Bow and Lyre" its name. He was an Ionian Greek philosopher of whom little is known, apart from the fragments of his work which have come down to us. He was nicknamed "the Obscure", perhaps because of passages such as this one:
"As a single, unified thing there exists in us both life and death, waking and sleeping, youth and old age, because the former things having changed are now the latter, and when those latter things change, they become the former."
(fragment 88). Heraclitus was apparently trying to reconcile two different (and, if you believe the later philosophers, contradictory) ideas: 1) that everything is in a state of ceaseless flux and 2) that opposites are identical. The former doctrine was famously expressed by the Greek phrase panta rei, or "everything flows". Plato quoted him as having said that "you can't step into the same river twice" (to which some wag replied that you can't even do it once), but this was unfair: Heraclitus only said that the waters were constantly changing, not the river itself. "Everything flows" didn't mean that the universe was inherently chaotic, but that opposites were unified by the transformations that bound them together (hot to cold, wet to dry, etc.) His wonderful line "the way up and the way down are one and the same" (frag. 69) served as one of the Heraclitan epigraphs to T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets", and Eliot echoes the philosopher when he says "in my beginning is my end" ("East Coker", I.)

The other epigraph of Heraclitus used by Eliot for "Four Quartets" comes from fragment 92: "Although logos is common to all, most people live as if they had a wisdom of their own." With this slightly snippy remark, he originated the concept of the logos -- the divine order of the universe -- that would go on to have such a powerful influence on Plato and, later, on the author of the Gospel of John.

Rajeev and I decided to name this weblog "The Bow and Lyre" to express what we hope will be the complementarity of our different interests: his focus will primarily be on economics and technology; mine, on art and society (with politics being shared between us). These disciplines are different but related, in the same way that Rajeev and I manage to maintain a friendship despite living on different continents. In all things, logos -- whether it is taken to mean reason, or the divine order -- is what we are striving towards.


(posted by Neil)

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Brass tacks?

The mating habits of the domestic Canadian bonehead are laid bare here in cringe-making detail for all the world to see. I don't know what I find more surprising: the fact that these hosers believe that dry-humping a total stranger is an acceptable substitute for saying "hello", or that the 84% of women who've been honoured with this kind of attention in the past continue to go to singles' bars in the hope of meeting the man of their dreams. Good luck with that, ladies.


(posted by Neil)

Fascinating fact about Fatah

Apparently, the name "Fatah" is Arabic for "conquest". Who knew? This is interesting, if only because CNN, the BBC, the "New York Times" and countless other news sources describe Fatah as a "moderate" organization. Who or what could these nice moderate types possibly want to conquer? Perhaps a look at the maps on the Fatah homepage might offer a clue.


(posted by Neil)

T. Eliot, top bard*

Having made T.S. Eliot look like a covert Hamas sympathizer in a previous post, I've decided in my usual flighty way to come rushing to his defence in this one. While it's true that a few of his poems are marred by casual anti-Semitism, most of them are very fine indeed, and I'd recommend his work to anyone who hasn't already come across it. Eliot is one of the few poets whose phrases are powerful enough to come to me unbidden: "these fragments I have shored against my ruin"; "they all go into the dark"; "thoughts of a dry brain in a dry season"; "the still point of the turning world"; "all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well"; "after such knowledge, what forgiveness?" His is not a lyrical beauty, but the penetrating clarity of someone alternately tormented and comforted by metaphysical speculation:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre --
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

("Little Gidding", IV). Eliot is not entirely gloomy, though; he has a particularly English kind of subtle, lacerating humour:

Grishkin is nice: her Russian eye
Is underlined for emphasis;
Uncorseted, her friendly bust
Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.

The couched Brazilian jaguar
Compels the scampering marmoset
With subtle effluence of cat;
Grishkin has a maisonette;

The sleek Brazilian jaguar
Does not in its arboreal gloom
Distil so rank a feline smell
As Grishkin in a drawing-room.

(from "Whispers of Immortality"). (The framing of the word "maisonette" in there is priceless -- it shows Eliot's flair both for comic timing and for snobbery.) More of the same kind of thing can be found in his play-fragment "Sweeney Agonistes", with its cast of lumpen characters and their vapid, terrifying conversations:

Birth, and copulation, and death,
That's all the facts when you come to brass tacks:
Birth, and copulation, and death.
I've been born, and once is enough.
You don't remember, but I remember,
Once is enough.

(From "Fragment of an Agon"). The critic Northrop Frye once noted that "Sweeney Agonistes" had the remarkable effect of making the modern world "look even worse than it is":

When you're alone in the middle of the night and
you wake in a sweat and a hell of a fright
When you're alone in the middle of the night and
you wake like someone hit you in the head
You've had a cream of a nightmare dream and
you've got the hoo-ha's coming to you
Hoo hoo hoo


(*"T. Eliot, top bard" is part of a palindrome invented by Alastair Reid: "T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad. I'd assign it a name: 'Gnat dirt upset on drab pot toilet'." Some less nauseating palindromes can be found here.)

"Cherchez le Juif"

Headline in today's Guardian: Norway to Give Palestinians Direct Aid.

Let's hope that Hamas spends at least some of that money on improving the range and accuracy of those "home-made" Kassam rockets of theirs. Only twelve Israeli civilian deaths in six years? Come on! Here's a few kroner to improve your marksmanship. If you need to practice on Fatah headquarters first, that's fine.

The other day I heard a BBC Radio journalist helpfully explain the current internecine conflict in Gaza, which has caused dozens of deaths, as the result of "internal and external pressures" such as overcrowding, sanctions and Israel's withholding of tax revenues from the Palestinian Authority.

Now every anthropologist knows that if you put too many monkeys in a cage they will go mad (or "apeshit", if you like) and start to crack each other's heads open. And I've no doubt that it's difficult for the average Gazan to get much sleep or peaceful meditation with all the chanting and gun-firing and ululating that goes on in his backyard. But the funny thing is, many people in the world live cheek-by-jowl with their neighbours without acting on the desire to kill them in large numbers. In Hong Kong, for example, they somehow manage to cope with a population density that is twice that of the Gaza Strip. (In Macau, the density is about seven times greater than Gaza). Perhaps the difference is that Hong Kong and Macau are not overrun with armed, power- hungry fanatics? Just a thought.

As for sanctions, who'd have thought they'd have such a bad reputation when, after all, they worked so well against South Africa? (Or were those a different kind of sanctions?) But even if the Palestinians were in fact being impoverished by a lack of international aid, it's far from clear that the best way of coping with that is to start massacring each other. Selling off a few of their guns would be much a better start. They could also make their budget go further by cancelling that television show featuring Farfur the Genocidal Jew-Hating Mouse, but perhaps I'm just being heartless there -- the children love him!

Meanwhile, the tightfisted Israelis have decided that they don't want to send any more money to an entity which has, as its very reason for being, the destruction of Israel, and this apparently is yet another reason why Fatah and Hamas are currently staging their local version of the Hatfields and the McCoys. Well, that sounds logical enough. Just the other day I asked my neighbour, who I've been threatening to kill for years, for a loan of twenty bucks, and when he refused I was so angry I went home and kicked my dog. We've all been there.

Perhaps one can best summarize the BBC's view of the Middle East using the words of T.S. Eliot: "The Jew is underneath the lot."


Posted by Neil

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Welcome to the Bow and Lyre...

This is the first post in, what we hope, will be one of many.