Friday, December 28, 2007

"You can't buck the market."

So said Margaret Thatcher a lifetime ago. I can't recall enough of the context to remember the sense in which she meant “can't” - whether she was saying that it is an impossibility not to do what the market wills, or whether she was simply suggesting that to do such a thing would be rude, or inappropriate.

“Meltdown”, by Martin Baker, is a competent, intelligent thriller, and it suggests that the answer is the first of those options. Assuming you are into this sort of book (and I guess you are unlikely to read it if you aren't), perhaps this message will last longer than the actual content of the plot – which involves the customary violence, deviant sex, glamorous locations, paranoia, psychotic henchmen and narrow brushes with death.

The startling point that Baker makes is that in a global economy, there are no organisations which are large enough to directly influence the markets – and conversely, the markets themselves have the power to wreck organisations of all sizes up to nations. This is a fact to which we generally turn a blind eye – too much of the time, we behave instead as though the markets are another servant of the economic system. The way in which the UK was bounced out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in September 1992 should have been a warning to us. The way in which the price of oil has been driven up by speculation – it isn't fundamentally more expensive to extract a barrel of oil from the ground now than it was three years ago, when the price was a third of today's price – should have made it absolutely clear. But it's difficult to knock them. Everything they do is driven by you – the fact that you want a pension when you retire; the fact that you want to get a return on your savings; the fact that there are certain things we need to live that we can't produce ourselves. They are just another part of the world economy, producing something that we all need – money.

In any case, the markets are by now too integral to the structure of the world economy to be done away with, even assuming that this was considered to be an appropriate response – and for the most part, their effect is reasonably benign. However, the reason for this isn't because “the markets” have any particular concern for individuals, or companies, or nations, or the poor. It is simply because stability and happiness generally lead to long term profit – and profit is the summum bonum of the markets – in fact, the solus bonus, if my amateur Latin translation is up to it. (Profit isn't everything, it's the only thing.) If the markets thought that better gains were to be had from betting against happiness, stability, or any individual, company or nation, then that would be what they would do. They have to.

But whilst the market can't be “bucked”, it can be influenced. Left-leaning thinkers have cottoned onto this more quickly than conservatives. With the possible exception of radicals like Thatcher, perhaps it's the case that many conservatives continue to assume that the market is simply a bigger version of a country market, rather than a global leviathan, not beholden to anybody. At the level of nations, the Chinese (for example) have shown themselves to have a highly adept understanding of the nature of the global economy. At the level of individuals, some people have discovered that it is possible to affect the markets through another global entity which is not accountable to any government and which probably can't, ultimately, be bucked – that is, the media. Thinking back to the international campaign calling for sanctions against South Africa under apartheid (and thence a negative impact from the markets against companies that were prepared to deal there), it is possible to see the first clash between the media and the market. Few clashes since then have had a similar impact. The Jubilee 2000 campaign to encourage scrapping of international debt was one – and on a smaller scale, the growth of the Fair Trade and ethical market is another one.

Individual voices can be heard today, but it is probably harder to gain any real influence, because there are so many voices. But if we want to see a world that is concerned for more than simply the bottom line, it is important for all thoughtful people to be sensitive to what they see around them, and wise enough to realise that the global institutions themselves simply don't have the moral compass to take us where we might want to go.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Secondary effects of language - Selfishness (part 2)

In addition to being a children's author and Christian apologist, C.S.Lewis was a professor of English. I came across this quotation the other day.
If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happines was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

C.S.Lewis, "The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses", quoted in "Desiring God", by John Piper

Monday, December 24, 2007

Dawkins' selfish genes

An interesting concept. The idea that Dawkins wishes to convey, I think, is that in actual fact, all the human-scale phenomena that we notice - our behaviour, our thoughts, our rationalisations and so on - are actually the outcome of the way our genes behave. And they are "selfish" in the sense that what a successful gene will do is ensure its propagation in increased number.

But we rapidly come up against problems in the way in which we use language. "Selfish" is an expressive word - but it is fundamentally misleading. We have an image of what "selfishness" means - it means grabbing resources for oneself to the exclusion of other people. Well, that's what a gene which will increase in abundance will do. But the word "selfish" is an anthropomorphism - and Dawkins is trying to tell us that such human behaviours don't really exist, but are the outcome of the behaviour of our genes. In any case, our genes aren't conscious entities - they don't choose to behave in a way that grabs resources; it is simply the case that a gene will only propagate into the next generation if it does something that encourages its survival.

There are other issues with this, of course - it is misleading to think that one gene in a complex organism has a direct influence on its abundance in the next generation.

So despite the power of the image, selfishness is one of the darwinists' famous "invisible pink unicorns" - a mythical creature that, even if it existed, would be invisible.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

If Jesus was born today

If Jesus was born today
it would be in a downtown motel
marked by a helicopter's flashing bulb.
A traffic warden, working late,
would be the first upon the scene.
Later, at the expense of a TV network,
an eminent sociologist,
the host of a chat show
and a controversial author
would arrive with their good wishes
-the whole occasion to be filmed as part of the
'Is This The Son Of God?' one hour special.
Childhood would be a blur of photographs and speculation
dwindling by his late teens into
'Where Is He Now?' features in Sunday magazines.

Steve Turner
The rest can be found here. More of Steve Turner's poems can be found with this link.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Lily Allen - LDN and family games

One recent Saturday morning, we were brought downstairs by a caterwauling, which sounded like all three children singing "Oh wah-leeoh wah-leeoh wah-lee...". What we saw when we arrived in the living room was even more bizarre. The children were sitting in a circle (well, triangle), playing lugubrious air guitar and pulling grotesque faces as they sang the same words to each other over and over again.

It turned out that the objective was to make the other two laugh. It certainly made us laugh, and it made a change for the three of them to find something to do together which didn't involve them trying to assassinate one another....

Anyway, what they were singing was a seriously mutated version of the chorus of the following Lily Allen song ....

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

All that's wrong with darwinism - in one press release

Well, maybe that's a little hyperbolic. But it is a pretty stupid press release. Surely it must be a spoof?

The link is here. It's from the University of Manchester related to a study on the way in which St. Bernard dogs have developed over the last 120 years.
Biologists at The University of Manchester say that changes to the shape of the breed’s head over the years can only be explained through evolution and natural selection....

“We discovered that features stipulated in the breed standard of the St Bernard became more exaggerated over time as breeders selected dogs that had the desired physical attributes,” said Dr Klingenberg....

“These changes are exactly in those features described as desirable in the breed standards. They are clearly not due to other factors such as general growth and they provide the animal with no physical advantage, so we can be confident that they have evolved purely through the selective considerations of breeders.

“Creationism is the belief that all living organisms were created according to Genesis in six days by ‘intelligent design’ and rejects the scientific theories of natural selection and evolution.

“But this research once again demonstrates how selection – whether natural or, in this case, artificially influenced by man – is the fundamental driving force behind the evolution of life on the planet.”
So, that's not evolution and natural selection, then - it's artificial selection and breeding. And can they really have been given money to carry out this study?! Everybody knows that traits can be bred! That was known well before the beagle was no more than a type of dog.

Now, what about the supposed doubt cast on creationism? Here the errors come thick and fast. "Creationism is the belief that all living organisms were created according to Genesis (not necessarily - there are non-Christian creationists, for example) in six days (not necessarily - there are old earth creationists, for example) by 'intelligent design' (quick bit of tarring of ID with the creationism brush - neat, but misleading, since the connection between ID and creationism is oblique) and rejects the scientific theories of natural selection and evolution (misleading again - they aren't usually rejected; what is rejected on one level or other is that evolution and natural selection are adequate to explain all biological phenomena).".

“But this research once again demonstrates how selection – whether natural or, in this case, artificially influenced by man – is the fundamental driving force behind the evolution of life on the planet.” This sentence reminds me of statements like "Ian Botham and me took 383 test wickets between us." Actually, Botham took all of them, in case you are wondering. The researchers have presented no new evidence against creationism, or in support of darwinism - they have taken no wickets of their own. Everybody knows what is claimed for darwinism - and most of the evidence in support of it is pretty similar to the work they have done. It looks as though they are simply trying to "big up" their own work by bashing creationism on the way past. Well, that hardly adds to the sum of human knowledge. Quick course of critical thinking, anyone?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

What's so good about RDO in Reigate?

The tumble dryer that we recently bought came from RDO, and we've bought other appliances from them before. So what's so good?

1) The prices are competitive - they beat Comet, John Lewis and Debenhams ...
2) ... and they offered a very good range of products.
3) The person on the phone had an informed opinion about what we were looking for - it was neither a teenage boy shifting boxes, nor was it a call-centre simply trying to close a sale. It was somebody who actually understood what a dryer would be used for.
4) She answered the phone quickly.
5) She remembered me when I spoke to her later.
6) She knew what was in the showroom, which saved me a journey to come and look at something that wasn't in stock.
7) Although what I ordered wasn't in stock, they said it would be into their warehouse three days later, and it was.
8) When the warehouse rang, they offered me a choice of delivery day ...
9) ... and then a choice of a morning or afternoon delivery ...
10) ... and they rang half an hour before they arrived ...
11) ... and they arrived when they said they would arrive.
12) They didn't try and flog me their own warranty, and pointed out that the appliance I was choosing had a five year warranty of its own that I could apply for.

In short, they did all the things that you want an online supplier of appliances to do. A benchmark.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Loser Like Me - Sixpence None The Richer

you know I need
all the love you give
a loser like me
I just don't know why you would
give it for free
when I don't deserve it
You know now
I wonder why
you wouldn't want to charge
a higher price
you take a loss and still give
another try
knowing that some day
we'll find each other saying

your love is fire
and I am the wood
that burns inside
the warmth of your blood
without you I'd fade away
a loser just like me

you know I try
to give you all the love I hold inside
I have a hard time when I can't say it right
but I'll see the day when I will find the words and say them

your love is fire
and I am the wood
that burns inside
the warmth of your blood
without you and the flame you keep inside
I'd fade into the night
I'll always say them

you know I need
all the love you give
a loser like me
I just don't know why you would
give it for free
Man, I miss them.

It's Here: The Design Matrix

I want this book.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Critical Thinking Skills

(H/T DawgNotes, via Telic Thoughts)

1. Gather complete information - more than one source
2. Understand and define terms (make others define terms, too)
3. Question the methods by which results were derived
4. Question the conclusion: do the facts support it? is there evidence of bias? remember correlation does not equal causation.
5. Uncover assumptions and biases
6. Question the source of information
7. Don't expect all the answers
8. Examine the big picture
9. Look for multiple cause and effect
10. Watch for thought-stopping sensationalism
11. Understand your own biases and values

A couple of Radio 4 recommends ...

More or Less - "takes you on a journey through the often abused but ever ubiquitous world of numbers." This week's episode (available on "Listen Again") did a good analysis of recent research which was presented as showing that half the new mothers that die are overweight.

"Three Minute Education" isn't available on Listen Again, so there's not much point in linking to it. But it was an interesting look at the influence of rock music on reading habits. "Wuthering Heights" is the tip of the iceberg!

Monday, December 10, 2007


In thinking about ironies (see my post below), it has struck me that one of the greatest ironies about the theism/atheism debate is the issue of creation. To create something (where before there was nothing) is an act of will, mind, consciousness. I can't think of anything in the whole world that has been created, except by a conscious decision.

Definition of terms is important here. I think it's important to draw a distinction between "creating" and "using", and also between "creating" and "making". Plenty of animals "use" things. Birds use material to make nests; animals learn how to use tools, and even machinery to achieve a particular end. Animals "make" things - termites build structures of remarkable complexity; bees build honeycomb structures. But "make" differs from "create" because it doesn't start with having to conceive of something. There is nothing in bees that allows them to say to themselves - "how about we make a honeycomb that consists of a grid of octagonal and square prisms?" - and yet as soon as I say that, you, dear reader, are able to imagine it. There is nothing in termites that allows them to build a large chamber, and within that chamber build a statue of a termite deity - and yet, again, we as humans can conceive of such a thing.

Our ability as humans to create seems boundless. Shakespeare created Hamlet and The Tempest. Engineers created bridges across the River Forth and rockets to take people to the moon. People created the means to speak across distances of thousands of miles. People create music and art, corporations and philosophies. These things don't exist - and then, through an act of will, they do exist. There is nothing in nature from which they are an inevitable outcome. Even people like Cage, Stockhausen and Pollock, whose art perhaps seeks to deny the idea of absolute meaning, still engage themselves in the act of creation. They still make something when beforehand there was nothing.

In The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins seeks to deny that life is created, and show that instead it is "made" by blind processes. He is keen to show therefore that blind processes can produce outcomes that look created. He presents the "METHINKSITISLIKEAWEASEL" experiment as supporting evidence. If this phrase - the fruit of literary genius! - can appear by a process of random mutation and selection, then surely so can the complexity of life. But the very choice of this phrase is itself an act of artfulness - for more details, see "A Meaningful World" by Wiker and Witt - and there is no correspondence in any case between the drunkard's walk process by which Dawkins arrives at "METHINKS" and the way in which Shakespeare first coined it.

All our experience of artefacts demonstrates a difference between things that have been made and things that have been created. People who want to deny the need for a creator (Dawkins etc.) have also to deny ultimately the creative acts which they themselves work by. If "METHINKS" is the outcome of nothing more (ultimately) than a drunkard's walk, then so is The Blind Watchmaker itself.

But that's not the case. The complexity and subtlety of The Blind Watchmaker isn't the outcome of a blind process. It's the outcome of an act of will; an act of creation has taken place. Given that we see no natural processes that lead on earth to creation, is it reasonable to assume that anything capable of an act of creation could arise from a natural process?

And that's the irony. The fact that humans are capable of creating things means that even when somebody creates something which seeks to deny the presence of God, the very act of creation itself affirms it.
Lord, shall we not bring these gifts to Your Service?
Shall we not bring to Your service all our powers
For life, for dignity, grace and order,
And intellectual pleasures of the senses?
The Lord who created must wish us to create
And employ our creation again in His service
Which is already His service in creating.

From "The Rock", by T.S.Eliot

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The "Golden Compass" Conspiracy?

The film "The Golden Compass" is the first of three films that are to tie in with Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. Philip Pullman is a noted atheist - he is to children's literature what Richard Dawkins is to science writing. Various groups are up in arms, and are muttering about conspiracies.

The conspiracy theory goes like this. The film is being run over Christmas to encourage people to buy children the Pullman books, which is a means of using the holiday season for getting atheistic propaganda into the hands of children.

I am sceptical. Many family films are launched in the run-up to holidays. This is - unsurprisingly - so that families can go and see them. Not many studios would be silly enough to launch a film targeted at families at the start of the school term - it's a way of guaranteeing box office figures that are patchy at best. It's not a conspiracy - just an irony (that an anti-Christian message should be promoted at Christmas).

Pullman's major grievance seems to be with established monotheistic religion:
You’re not really giving us any clues to the source of the extreme antipathy to the Church in your books.

Well, all right, it comes from history. It comes from the record of the Inquisition, persecuting heretics and torturing Jews and all that sort of stuff; and it comes from the other side, too, from the Protestants burning the Catholics. It comes from the insensate pursuit of innocent and crazy old women, and from the Puritans in America burning and hanging the witches – and it comes not only from the Christian church but also from the Taliban.

Every single religion that has a monotheistic god ends up by persecuting other people and killing them because they don’t accept him. Wherever you look in history, you find that. It’s still going on.
Here is how he describes his upbringing:
The conventional middle-class [values] of the time. My grandfather was a clergyman and so every Sunday I went to Sunday school and church. I was confirmed, I was a member of the choir, all that sort of stuff.

We still had the Authorised Version of the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer and Hymns Ancient and Modern – all those old forms of worship that had given comfort and joy to generations were still there for me to enjoy. Nowadays it’s all been swept away, and if ever I go into a church and look at the dreadful, barren language that disfigures the forms of service they have now, I am very thankful that I grew up at a time when it was possible for me to go to Matins and sing the Psalms in the old versions.
I guess it's quite likely that if you have that traditional an idea of what the church is, and that level of certainty that this is the proper structure, you are unlikely to realise that in actual fact, Christianity isn't simply another "monotheistic religion", which requires its adherents to follow a set pattern of behaviour. Although I go to church every Sunday, my experience of Christianity is almost completely different from what Pullman describes, and my religious forebears (the anabaptists) are more noted for radical pacifism than burning anybody.

From my point of view, I think there's much to be said for challenging established religions, especially where the leadership of those religions is happy to hide itself away and live off the labour of the followers. This is also the exact opposite of the Christian gospel - where God was so concerned to do something for the people that he loved that he came to earth to live and die for people who were unable to help themselves. That is the model Christians are called to follow - not the institutional charade that most people think of as as Christianity. It's interesting that the most vocal criticism of Pullman's books should be coming from organisations like the Catholic League - if the hat fits ....

Incidentally, here is a link to the interview from which the quotes from Pullman were selected - between him and Third Way, a thought-provoking Christian magazine.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Tumble dryers and the environment

We just bought a new tumble dryer. Disgraceful - they are environmental disasters, as we all know. And yet ....

Previous years, when we didn't have a working dryer, we had to crank up the heating in the house to about 21-22 degrees, so that the radiators stayed on to dry the washing. This year, the house hasn't had to be heated to over 19.5 degrees.

The dryer we bought is a condenser dryer. Nothing is vented outside. So any heat that is generated by the dryer remains in the house, which also decreases the load on the central heating (on a related issue, see my previous post about energy-saving lightbulbs here). The water from the washing is stored in a tank, which can be tipped away later on.

If there is an environmental issue, I think my concern is more the amount of fluff that comes off dried clothes. They must be wearing at a significantly greater rate, which means that they don't last as long.

Of course, there are certain parts of the world where dryers are hardly required. For example, I understand that Phoenix, Arizona has 350 days of sunshine a year. And yet every house has its industrial-strength dryer....

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Funding for political parties

The Liberal party is pushing for state funding, in response to allegations of sleaze and corruption - 50p per person (presumably) per year, divided up in accordance with their proportion of the vote at the last election.

I don't think state funding of political parties is a good idea - but then, I don't really see why political parties are necessary or desirable. No political party really represents my views - or, for that matter, even the views of any individual within that party - and the way things work, most politicians are expected to place their allegiance to their party ahead of their commitment to their constituency, when push comes to shove.

We live in an era in which an MP could directly represent his constituency - where every vote cast could reflect the will directly expressed of those people who voted for him. This would bypass all the dull partisan machinations and waste of resources that they represent. Of course, this is no more than a concept - there are huge issues that would have to be worked out to make it work. But to be honest, I think state funding of political parties is a bit like whitewashing a rubbish skip.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The lines being drawn

(H/T Evolution News)

Adam Rutherford, of Nature, believes that your presuppositions determine your ability to do science.
...were I in a position to offer Guillermo Gonzalez tenure, I would deny it for the precise reason that his, yes, religious views about purpose in the universe explicitly mean he is a crap scientist, regardless of his ability to generate valid data...
From which it is logical to infer that he thinks that Kepler, Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Maxwell ... are also "crap scientists".

Hmm. Now I have at least two options, here. Option one is to conclude that he is right, and that all of these people are crap scientists because of their presuppositions. Option two is to conclude that he is a crap journalist, and no serious journal should be employing him (... and any journal that does employ him is thus not serious). Now let me think ....

Sunday, December 02, 2007

New books

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, is a novel about the Sarajevo Haggadah. Occasionally disturbing but highly recommended.

Meltdown, by Martin Baker, is a thriller set in the world of international finance. Good if you like that sort of thing.

Both are published next month, and have reviews by me (amongst others) on the Amazon website.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Benediction - John Donne

John Donne has cropped up twice this week. Firstly with enthusiasm from a student friend on Facebook, and secondly at the wedding of an old school friend, read by his father. I've come to the conclusion that I haven't read enough of him.

Here's the poem read at the wedding.

Blest pair of swans, O may you interbring
Daily new joys, and never sing ;
Live, till all grounds of wishes fail,
Till honour, yea, till wisdom grow so stale,
That new great heights to try,
It must serve your ambition, to die ;
Raise heirs, and may here, to the world's end, live
Heirs from this king, to take thanks, you, to give.
Nature and grace do all, and nothing art ;
May never age or error overthwart
With any west these radiant eyes, with any north
this heart.
With love and best wishes to Oliver and Malgorzata.