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.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Runescape and inflation - the Grand Exchange

I have just started playing Runescape a little. No, you're right, I don't have time ....

A couple of remarks. Firstly, it would be nice if some of the players could get over the desire to announce "Noob" whenever they see a new player. Presumably they were one once. Does this happen in every MMORPG, I wonder?!

Secondly, the powers that be have just opened what they call the "Grand Exchange". One of the problems in MMORPG's is inflation, I understand. People can mine ores, or cut down trees, and these things are infinitely replaced, and the drive to continue to do this is to increase your level in mining, smithing, woodcutting or whatever. So the universe is increasingly awash with material and wealth in general.

Hitherto, in Runescape, if you sold stuff to a shop, it would only get a fraction of its value. So one block of silver ore, for example, if you bought it in a shop, would cost (say) 280 "gold pieces". But if you sold it to a shopkeeper, you might only get 30 gold pieces for it. And this is quite sensitive to demand - if a shopkeeper has a lot of something in, the price they pay seems to fall quite quickly. The effect of this is to limit the rate of growth of an individual's wealth.

All this has changed with the arrival of the Grand Exchange. Now, you can cut out the middle man, and offer anything direct to potential buyers. The turnover of shops must have plummeted - but since they aren't players, and the land of Runescape as a whole accrues no benefit from taking this money out of the system, this doesn't really affect them (though I wonder whether some will end up closing down - ah, the harsh economic truths of a virtual world!). The finances of "rich" player characters will only marginally change - they continue to buy things as they require, to do what they want with. What changes most drastically is the finances for "new, poor" players. All of a sudden, it's possible to get an income of 260 gp for a piece of silver ore, rather than 40 or so. Higher income leads to access to better equipment (although its use will still require work to achieve suitable levels), and so the Grand Exchange should lead to a significant redistribution of virtual wealth. We shall see.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The intellectual

Kyl, in a comment on this post by the Constructive Curmudgeon, writes:
In the book Habits of the Mind Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling James W. Sire offers an initial definition of what an intellectual is. Sire writes,
“An intellectual is one who loves ideas, is dedicated to clarifying them, developing them, criticizing them, turning them over and over, seeing their implications, stacking them atop one another, arranging them, sitting silent while new ideas pop up and old ones seem to rearrange themselves, playing with them, punning with their terminology, laughing at them, watching them clash, picking up the pieces, starting over, judging them, withholding judgment about them, changing them, bringing them into contact with their counterparts in other systems of thought, inviting them to dine and have a ball but also suiting them for service in workaday life.

A Christian intellectual is all of the above to the glory of God.”
Sorry about nested quotes.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Why, why, why ...

... is it so difficult even to get intriguing, interesting, well-written, well-researched, provocative books like this, this, this, this and this published, when people like this, this and this can rake in royalties for books that in some cases, they didn't even write?


Are bloggers journalists?

A federal court says yes. This is being spun as a victory - it meant that the person could use a company logo within an article that he had written.

Well, that strikes me as a pyrrhic victory. I suspect that if you are a journalist, then your accountability for the things you write will be considered to be higher. I suspect there are many bloggers who don't consider it necessary to properly source comments, to differentiate between opinion and fact or to present information in a way that is reasonable. As usual, I suspect the real winners will be the lawyers.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Thoughts on Iraq - rather late, I guess

I suppose I ought to be pleased that a church in Baghdad has re-opened. But the goodness of that news is overwhelmed by the badness of the news in general about Iraq over the last few years. I am under no illusions about the wickedness of Saddam Hussein. However, the wickedness of a leader doesn't provide justification under law for intervention in the internal affairs of a nation, and the moral case for intervention is undermined by the indifference of the same leaders who intervened to wicked governments elsewhere in the world, and their own use of morally unacceptable means in pursuit of their aims.

In addition to which, the situation in Iraq is now far less sympathetic to Christianity than it was under an authoritarian regime - and if in the fullness of time the democracy decides to establish an Islamic regime, or if the country decides that balkanisation is the way forwards, or if the new regime is unable to prevent a slide into anarchy - all of which options seem as likely as the "dream scenario" of a stable, tolerant, liberal democratic government - then the environment for Christianity will have been substantially weakened.

The intervention of the US/UK and other members of the international community in Iraq was not a "Christian" action - the Christian message is not directed towards international politics, and does not give guidance in this area to leaders of nations who happen to be Christians, other than the general principles (things like acting justly, loving mercy, walking humbly before God).

Thursday, November 15, 2007

What is it with people who write spam/phishing emails?

I mean, surely they'd assume that people doing a real mailshot from a bank would know how to spell "received"? And can there really be such a desire for male "medications" and replica Rolex watches for people to make any money from sending emails to everyone in the world? It is all just such a stupid waste of bandwidth.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Evolution in civil engineering

One of the issues at the heart of the debate between proponents of darwinian evolution and proponents of intelligent design is the ability of a darwinian process to come up with solutions to problems. One of the things about a "system", beyond its inputs, outputs, energy supply and processing, is that the system as a whole carries out some function, and the function is a solution to a problem.

It is difficult to identify systems in nature where an evolutionary process has solved problems. The famous example of the apparent development of antifreeze glycoproteins in notothenioid fish is a candidate. A partial solution to the "problem" of malaria can be found in sickle cell anaemia - a genetic problem in humans that otherwise would not have provided a selective advantage (see "Edge of Evolution"). So it is quite often the case that when challenged to offer evidence of the power of evolution to solve problems, proponents of darwinism may point to its success in non-biological areas.

One example I've been pointed to more than once is the "evolutionary" process which led to novel designs for IC layout. Another one featured in the February 2007 issue of "Civil Engineering", the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers. An article entitled, "Going organic: using evolution in civils design," by Pasquale Ponterosso (what a good name for a structural engineer!) and Dominic Fox from Portsmouth University, introduced the genetic algorithm to civil engineering designers, and presented "summaries of recent research areas of application, including reinforced earth embankment design, truss optimisation, masonry arch collapse loads and mechanisms, and yield-line analysis of reinforced-concrete slabs."

Good stuff! How powerful is darwinism, if it can do all that for us!

But it's not quite that simple. The achievements claimed are somewhat more modest. In engineering terms, the problem has to be fairly well defined, and the parameters of the solution are also set by the programmer/engineer.
Due to its random nature, the genetic algorithm is not expected to provide the optimum solution. The normal procedure is to run the genetic algorithm several times and use the best answer obtained over a number of runs. This tends to limit applications of the genetic algorithm to problems where a good solution is acceptable (rather than the optimum one), and where the search space is so large that conventional numerical optimisation techniques are not practical in a reasonable timeframe.
So in engineering terms, this is good for finding "local optimums" in a large search space, but doesn't provide a means of knowing whether the best solution has been obtained. If this sort of genetic algorithm is to be used as an analogue for real biological systems, I think it is then necessary to apply this back to those systems, and demonstrate that the problems solved are of this sort. Certainly the search space is large enough. But is it too large? - is it the case that improvements in fitness are too scarce to start with for darwinian processes to make any headway in establishing fitness? This harks back to my queries from some time ago about the actual size of the search space for biological systems, which was never satisfactorily answered. It is a crucial question if darwinism is to be a creditable explanation.

Finally, the authors warn:
As with most engineering software, it cannot be blindly assumed that the output is correct or that the result is aesthetically pleasing.... An incomplete evolutionary system or fallacious or incomplete input, or inaccurate boundary conditions, will lead to erroneous output. Engineers must always be the final authority.

The genetic algorithm cannot replace an engineer's experience or judgment, but may be useful as an aid to design thinking or to creativity.
Obviously, nobody will willingly surrender their own responsibilities to a computer. But there is more to it than that. The writers are arguing that in addition to the definition of the problem and the parameters of the solution, there is a need for intelligent input to evaluate the solution. A darwinist would perhaps argue that the real world provides an environment in which evolutionary solutions face the ultimate test of their fitness. However, at least in the context of evolutionary design in civil engineering, a great deal of intelligent input is required to make this blind, random process yield something worth looking at. This input isn't available to the materialist.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Thursday, November 08, 2007

A History of Scientists who were Christians

Not the most beautiful of videos, but it makes the point - and it's a song by Sixpence I'd not heard before.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Is Platonism a means, not an end?

In "A Meaningful World", Wiker and Witt write, on Euclid's demonstration of Pythagoras' theorem:
Like the circle, [the right triangle is] one of the sturdiest things in the cosmos and, at the same time, utterly immaterial. Physical circles are never really perfectly circular; physical right triangles always fall short of perfection. We grasp such geometrical figures only with our minds, never with our hands. When we do grasp the demonstration, even though we may do it through particular drawings, we lay hold of why it must be so in any particular case from the nature of the right triangle as such - but there is no "right triangle as such" out there floating in the cosmos that we can either see with our eyes or grasp with our hands. The struggle to understand the demonstration about right triangles is the struggle to grasp something that is immaterial.

But if we are successful in this struggle, and we glimpse the necessity of the geometric relationships as such, then and only then can we see why it must be so in every possible case and not just in this or that particular drawn triangle. Even more profound, if we reflect on our own reflection, we receive a more beautiful proof, a demonstration that we have, in our reason, a power to grasp immaterial truths - a power that somehow exceeds the particular, physically defined powers of our senses and imagination and is capable of grasping universal truth. Could this be a proof of the immateriality of the soul?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Doctor Who Battles in Time Invaders card list

I can't find a list of these cards on the internet, so here's the information that I have. Please comment any additions or corrections.

Frequency - C=Common, R=Rare, S=Super-rare, U=Ultra-rare ?=Don't know
# Frq Name
376 R Sun-possessed Tenth Doctor
377 C Carrionite 1
378 C Morgenstern
379 C Pig Laszlo
380 C Professor Lazarus
381 C Plasmavore (suck attack)
382 R Dalek Sek Mutant
383 C Face of Boe
384 R Mother Doomfinger
385 C New New York Businessman
386 R Son of Mine
387 C Sally Sparrow
388 ? Professor Yana
389 C Lilith
390 C Pharmacist 1
391 ? Weeping Angel 1
392 C Captain Jack (resurrected)
393 ? Toclafane
394 C Refugee 1
395 S Judoon Captain
396 C Solomon
397 C Mother Bloodtide
398 C Pharmacist 2
399 S Pig Slave 1
400 C Francine Jones
401 C Jeremy Baines
402 C Judoon Trooper 1
403 C Martha Jones (Mood Patched)
404 ? Carrionite 2
405 C Padra Toc Shafe Cane
406 C Albert Dumfries
407 C Weeping Angel 2
408 ? Face of Boe (dying)
409 C Mother of Mine
410 C Time Lord 1
411 C Tish Jones
412 ? Sally Calypso
413 C Lilith (as a witch)
414 C Korwin McDonnell
415 ? Joan Redfern
416 ? Futurekind Chieftain
417 S Carrionite 3
418 C Malcolm Wainwright
419 C William Shakespeare
420 ? Macra 1
421 C Lois
422 C Lazarus Creature
423 ? Mr Stoker
424 C Toclafane (attacking)
425 ? Light Storm Tenth Doctor
426 C Milo
427 R Carrionite Pair
428 C Professor Lazarus (reborn)
429 C Kathy Nightingale
430 C Daughter of Mine
431 ? SS Pentallian
432 ? Traffic Jam
433 R Radiation Blast
434 ? Dalek Embryo
435 C Bliss Mood Patch
436 C Fob Watch
437 U Judoon Unmasking
438 C Macra Grip
439 C Carrionite Puppet
440 C Vortex Manipulator Teleport
441 C Lucy Cartwright
442 R Harry Saxon
443 C Dev Ashton
444 C Tallulah
445 C Judoon Trooper 2
446 ? Dolly Bailey
447 ? Pig Slave 2
448 C Tenth Doctor (frozen)
449 ? Farmer Clark
450 C Macra 2
451 C Lady Thaw
452 C Tom Milligan
453 ? Sun-possessed Korwin McDonnell
454 C Pale Woman
455 ? Human Dalek 1
456 C Lady Thaw (drained)
457 C Scarecrow 1
458 C Old Novice Hame
459 C Shakespearean Actor
460 ? Judoon (Scanning)
461 C Empire State Building Foreman
462 S Weeping Angel (feral state)
463 C Pharmacist 3
464 C Professor Lazarus (resurrected)
465 ? Clive Jones
466 R Family of Blood Weapon
467 ? Escape Pod
468 C Wallpaper Warning
469 ? Laser Screwdriver
470 C Mutant Attack
471 C Judoon Ship
472 ? Happy Mood Patch
473 R Valiant
474 U Lazarus Mutation
475 C Door Hacker
476 C Will Kempe
477 C Macra Group
478 S Age-accelerated Tenth Doctor
479 ? Human Dalek 2
480 R Lazarus Creature (attacking)
481 C Time Lord Citadel
482 C Archangel Network
483 ? Watch Attack
484 ? Stasis Chamber
485 ? Toclafane Invasion
486 C Judoon Justice
487 C Life Force Drain
488 ? New New York Senate
489 C Journal of Impossible Things
490 C Magnetic Overload
491 ? Refugee Group
492 C Larry Nightingale
493 C Father of Mine
494 ? Lucy Saxon
495 C Slab
496 C Cheen
497 C Richard Burbage
498 ? Human Dalek 3
499 ? Julia Swales
500 C Scarecrow Group
501 ? Timey-Wimey Detector
502 C GMD
503 ? Master Statue
504 U Carrionite Transformation
505 ? New New York Car
506 C Genetic Transfer
507 R Countdown
508 C Vortex Manipulator
509 ? Letter from Katherine Wainwright
510 ? Sun Blast
511 C Wiggins
512 R Thomas Kincade Brannigan
513 C Disguised Plasmavore
514 C Human Dalek Army
515 R Scarecrow 2
516 ? Erina Lissak
517 R Weeping Angel (attacking)
518 ? Leo Jones
519 S Toclafane
520 C Wiry Woman
521 C Shakespeare (Carrionite Influence)
522 C Mr Diagoras
523 ? Tim Latimer (as a War Veteran)
524 R Sun-possessed Dev Ashton
525 C Mr Phillips
526 ? TARDIS crew
527 C Time Lord Novice
528 ? Scarecrow 3
529 ? Tanya
530 C Captain Jack (in chains)
531 C Gamma Strike
532 C Lucy Saxon (one year on)
533 ? Tenth Doctor (aged by 100 years)
534 ? Pig Slave 3
535 C Riley Vashtee
536 C Valerie Brannigan
537 C Queen Elizabeth I
538 ? Judoon Trooper 3
539 C Laszlo
540 C Tim Latimer
541 C Lilith with Puppet
542 ? Creet
543 ? Billy Shipton (as an Old Man)
544 C The Master (with Laser Screwdriver)
545 C John Smith
546 U Blink
547 ? Solar Fuel Ejection
548 C Sleep Patch
549 ? Judoon Scanner
550 ? Open Fob Watch
551 C Rocket Base
552 ? Chipped TARDIS Key
553 C Carrionite Flight
554 C Saxon Campaign
555 C Judoon Fleet
556 C Peter Streete
557 ? Kath McDonnell
558 R Dalek Sek Hybrid (chained)
559 C Family of Blood
560 C Chantho
561 C Time Lord 2
562 ? Cameraman
563 C Vivien Rook
564 ? Untempered Schism
565 C Martha Jones (Resistance Fighter)
566 C Carrionite Group
567 ? Professor Docherty
568 C Futurekind 1
569 C Orin Scannel
570 C Bedlam Jailer
571 ? Pig Slave Group
572 C Hutchinson
573 ? Billy Shipton
574 ? Toclafane Group
575 ? Jenny
576 C Refugee 2
577 R Captain Jack (with Vortex Manipulator)
578 C Headmaster Rocastle
579 C Futurekind 2
580 C Lynley
581 C Judoon Group
582 ? Abi Lerner
583 S Dalek Sek Hybrid
584 C Sinister Woman
585 C Macra 3
586 U The Master's Regeneration
587 C Cricket Ball
588 ? Laz Labs
589 ? Honesty Mood Patch
590 C Compensation Form
591 C Missile
592 C Psychic Connection
593 C Vivien Rook's Message
594 ? Crystal Ball
595 C Tooth Identification
596 C President Winters
597 C Time Lord 3
598 C Ben Wainwright
599 C Martha Jones (in disguise)
600 R The Master

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Oh very young

By Cat Stevens.

Shouldn't it have been "O very young"?

Writers' strike

Well, anything that gets the tedious, smug David Letterman and Jay Leno off air for a while is good for me.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Love it!

From here
"... lines can't really go extinct, so there isn't a word for when that happens, so I have to use some word."

Their sister nodded. "It's like God having to talk to us using human language. Sometimes you just have to make do."

The single book I would most like my friends to read

Well, other than the Bible. It's "A Meaningful World", by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt. I've already reviewed it, here. It had no reviews on Amazon in the UK, so I've just written one. Here's what I wrote:
The debate between theism and atheism has led to the publication of some outstanding written work over the last twenty years - probably some of the defining books of the era. Of all the books on the great debate that I have read - and there are a fair few on both sides! - this is probably the one I have enjoyed the most, and the one which ought ideally to have the most potential to influence.

The debate has been dominated by the field of biology - Richard Dawkins and Stephen Gould versus a variety of less well-known creationists and proponents of Intelligent Design. Astronomy and cosmology have also featured to a lesser extent, with people like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking more recently being matched against Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards ("The Privileged Planet"). But to the best of my knowledge, most of the books in the genre have focussed on one "specialist subject" - interaction more broadly with a range of human knowledge has generally been absent.

Wiker and Witt's thesis is that the universe is rich in "meaning" - the dominance of the materialist worldview has blinded us to this. And the "meaning" testifies to a creative genius. To make this case, they start in English literature, looking at Shakespeare, and then move into mathematics and chemistry before revisiting the world of biology. In the process, they identify depth, clarity, harmony and elegance as hallmarks of genius, and for good measure rehabilitate the study of Shakespeare and geometry!

They set their view against the reductionism of materialism - which, for example, talks about the evolution of the eye without recognising that sight is actually part of the whole organism, or talks about the fact that a panda's thumb (which not opposable: it is used by the panda to strip bamboo) is not the optimum structure from a design perspective without considering that there might be more to design than an optimum engineering solution to a problem.

Unsurprisingly, their conclusion is that the meaningfulness that is found at all levels in the universe is indicative of an underlying creative genius.

This book captured my imagination like only a few others that I have read before ("Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas Hofstadter, "Sophie's World" by Jostein Gaarder, "How Should We Then Live?" by Francis Schaeffer). It took a discussion that had reached a sterile impasse and presented it from an entirely new perspective. For theists, this book has the potential to help them see beyond the wrangling over details of materialism again, and remind them of how rich the universe is. For atheists, this book has the potential to lift their eyes from narrow discussion about whether or not it is possible to prove that bacterial flagellum evolved, to take in again the vast panorama which once captivated and amazed them.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Big Challenge - Getting Carbon out of the Ecosystem

From here:
The “big problem” that our use of fossil fuels has created is that large amounts of carbon deposited in the form of oil and coal a long way underground has been burnt as fuel, ending up in the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide.

One of the preferred strategies for dealing with this at the moment is by reforestation - planting new forests either to replace forests that have been removed or simply for growing trees to remove CO2 and convert it to wood. Whether this will work is not clear - however, the carbon isn’t really removed from the ecosystem; it is just locked out of the atmosphere - at least until the tree dies and degrades.

The challenge: is there an alternative? For example, I wondered whether putting large amounts of plastic into deep landfill isn’t a bad idea - we are told, for example, that it takes hundreds of years to degrade, so won’t go anywhere fast. The UK government also recently failed to take advantage of a proposal to pump CO2 into the space from where an oil company had just finished extracting gas. Does anybody else have any other ideas?
To discuss this, go to the Open Solutions blog.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Trading Cards on the Internet

No matter how bad an idea it seems before you have children, at some stage one or more of them will decide that he or she wishes to try and collect a whole set of trading cards. The only ones that our offspring have been that interested in are the Doctor Who "Battles In Time" ones.

As we have now completed the third "new" Doctor Who series, the size of the deck of cards has correspondingly grown, and it now numbers 675 in three series.

Unless a series of trading cards are incredibly popular, there are unlikely to be enough people seriously collecting them in the circle of a child's friends to make it feasible to complete a collection. So, I thought to myself, why not write an internet based thing that would allow trading with a wider circle of people?

I made some progress, with PHP and MySQL - I was able to select multiple decks, write details of individual cards, set up cards available to trade and wish lists, scan other peoples' lists to look for possible exchanges. But, as with the Open Solutions thing I came up with, one of the real problems would be making the site known. Additionally making it look good and testing it was really more than I thought I was able to achieve.

There are other swapping sites around - like this one. But although this has a section for trading cards, it isn't really designed for that sort of transaction. I knew what I was looking for, conceptually, and was interested to find something very close to it the other day - here. It's not beautiful - but it does seem to offer a good system for getting in touch with people who want to trade the same thing as you. Now to see whether we can get closer to completing the collection!

What really irritates me about eBay ...

... is sellers who say they will leave you positive feedback once you have left it for them.

Look, I've bought, I've accepted your terms, I've paid - usually as I won the auction. If I've done my bit, you have no reason not to give me positive feedback straight away - regardless of my perception of you. Isn't that right? If I've done my bit, is it acceptable to suggest that you will only give me good feedback if I also give you good feedback?

Monday, October 29, 2007

How Music Works from YouTube

For those people who weren't lucky enough to catch the series when it was on television, here's a taster that somebody has posted on YouTube. Now all we need to do is pressurise Endemol into releasing a DVD boxset - actually, it would probably get onto one DVD at a pinch!

Derren Brown - Instant Conversions

Interesting couple of videos - if you click through to the first one, you'll get a link to the second part. What are my thoughts, as a Christian?

I would agree that there is manipulation within religion, including Christianity, as Derren Brown says:
Religions tend to encourage either high energy crowd activity or candlelit monotony to invoke a suggestible state amongst the congregation. Many revivalist preachers seem to have a magical touch that brings the power of the Lord into a person.
The conclusion that might be drawn from this film is that "religion" is more to do with semi-hypnotic suggestion than the power of God.

In actual fact, the Bible itself (in 1 Corinthians) says that ecstatic religious experiences (if we can generalise from speaking in tongues to the whole range of such experiences) are the least useful component of our makeup as Christians. They may be edifying for the individual believer - and those people who had those "experiences" doubtless thought after they had had them that something significant had happened - but the experiences are at best confusing for other people, and may well lead them to the conclusion that the people having the experiences are out of their mind.

It's significant that ecstatic religious experiences are not the sole province of one religion. For example, glossolalic speaking in tongues isn't only a "Christian" phenomenon; it is found in other religious traditions. (I would suggest that the speaking in tongues referred to in Acts 2 for example was something different - this can be discussed elsewhere.) And there are other forms of religious experience - falling over, trances, visions and so on - that can be found in other religions.

However, there are Christians who are gravely unhappy with the use of manipulation - or indeed any showmanship - in Christian meetings, and frequently they are the ones who are also most wary of deriving anything from nonrational religious experience. I would argue that whilst Christianity ought to engage our emotions, this should not be held in contrast with engaging our mind. Our emotions ought to be engaged because our mind is engaged. If Christianity is true, then our experiences ought not to be "irrational" or "nonrational" but profoundly "rational". And there are many people who don't put down their emotional response to Christianity to something they don't understand, but to something that they do understand, even if they can't fully explain it. There are many other aspects of Christian experience - generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, explaining the Bible, compassion, self-sacrifice and so on. I doubt Brown would argue that his piece invalidates the behaviour of people like Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry, Martin Luther King and so on.

It was interesting that the minister from whom Derren Brown sought to obtain an endorsement wasn't prepared to simply accept his word about what he had done, but wanted to talk again. In terms of the power of suggestion, it's worth pointing out that when a person stands in front of you with a camera crew saying that they are here for a particular reason (perhaps backed up by a covering letter?), your instinct isn't to assume that they have come to do the opposite. I seem to recall Richard Dawkins being particularly disgusted when a similar trick was played on him by anti-evolutionists, who got him to look silly by asking for evidence for his belief when he wasn't expecting it. There are many more examples of this in the evolution/creation/ID debate, on all sides.

It's also interesting that the minister didn't suggest that this sort of manipulation was an appropriate way of seeking to reach people with the Christian message - he was keen to build genuine relationships with people, so that he could tell them about Christianity. And it's also worth pointing out that the group of people who Brown addressed came to a meeting that they knew was going to be about spirituality - regardless of the fact that they were all atheists or sceptics, they willingly put themselves into an environment where they could reasonably expect their beliefs to be challenged.

So in summary, I would echo the implication of this piece that we need to be wary about the power of suggestion and manipulation - and those that practice it - in the religious arena, as much as any other. However, Brown's little experiment doesn't invalidate the whole of religion, and although he is a sceptic, I don't expect he would say that this experiment alone wraps it up for religion.

HPV Vaccination

Concerns have been raised about the introduction of vaccination against Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). One of the most vocally raised concerns may well be from people who argue that a vaccination against a sexually transmitted virus will encourage promiscuous behaviour.

I first heard about HPV in a talk by Josh McDowell, when I was around 30, and in science and social terms, I would consider myself pretty well-informed. He's still making the same points about it:
Of all women in American universities who have had sex even just one time, 63 percent of them are infected with HPV (human papillomavirus), the No. 1 sexually transmitted disease in the world.
If nobody has heard of it (and it is only now really starting to be widely talked about, because of the possibility of a national vaccination campaign), then awareness of it isn't affecting their behaviour. So I can't see that vaccinating against it will encourage greater promiscuity - the fact that it wasn't vaccinated against wasn't affecting anybody's behaviour in the first place.

However, the vaccination is at best 70% effective, and it isn't even known if what effectiveness it has continues beyond 5 years. And what I really want to know is: is HPV always a precursor to cervical cancer? And is HPV only transmitted sexually? If that were the case, then the pattern of both men and women having only one sexual partner for life would also eliminate the risk of cervical cancer, wouldn't it?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Open solutions

A new idea.

I have started a new blog here, which I hope in the fullness of time not to end up managing. The idea is this. Can solutions to some big problems be brainstormed in a kind of "open" environment - as in "open source" - as in people finding solutions for the sake of finding the solution, rather than for their own glory or wealth?

Challenges will be posted on the blog, on which people are invited to comment. If people come up with helpful ideas in their comments, they will be added as contributors to the blog, and can write full posts explaining their ideas, which will hopefully draw more interaction ... and so on. To use it, you will need to register with Wordpress.

Incidentally, I chose WP because I've already done other things with it, and if the idea does take off, I expect to have to export it to its own website - something I would be more confident doing with WP than with Blogger.

Friday, October 26, 2007

National Rail Enquiries

It works. But it must be one of the slowest websites I've ever had the misfortune and determination to wait for. Eight minutes to give me the time of a train from the suburbs to London. *Sigh*. I wrote and published this whole post whilst waiting for it, in addition to sorting out breakfast for two of my children.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

More thoughts on the New Perspective

Here are some more thoughts on the “New Perspective”, a theological framework initially built by Sanders and Dunn, but becoming increasingly significant as a consequence of the work of N.T.Wright. It does away with much that has been considered important in reformed theology (such as justification by faith), but it does this because it has already jettisoned other aspects of reformed theology that had hitherto been considered important.

The New Perspective is dependent upon texts other than the Bible. The people who are most influential base their arguments upon interpretation of texts relating to the practice of Judaism around the time of Christ. The interpretation of those texts is disputed – we are talking about texts written over half a millenium. It has been suggested that to describe these texts as having a coherent message of their own is misleading, and in any case, there is likely to be a difference between the written expression of beliefs and its everyday formulation.

But regardless of how this interpretation stacks up, the New Perspective is methodologically “unreformed” as well. How can we justify the use of texts other than the Bible? From a reformed perspective, we understand that the Bible is God's inspired word, and reliable as it is. We also understand that the text is perspicuous – God's message is fundamentally clear. We also understand that the Bible is sufficient – God has given us everything that we need in it. All of these principles are discarded with the New Perspective.

There is a coherence in the position that accepts the Bible as authoritative but not other texts. If other texts are to be used as authoritative, then the justification for using other texts needs to be made and defended, before they can be accepted – you can't simply take texts arbitrarily chosen from somewhere other than the Bible and then expect without justification to use them as a foundation. Or at least, if you were a Bible-proclaiming church minister, you couldn't. And yet that is what has happened, as the New Perspective is taught in theology classes and ministers pick up and present its conclusions as the results of Christian scholarship.

Beyond this lies the fact that our understanding is that Christ is the head of the church – and that the church is the locus of Christian life. Whilst academic theology has benefitted the Christian faith, it is important to recognise that Christian theology is not driven by university departments, but by the Christian message itself, which is a missionary message that finds its proper expression in the life of the church, which is the body of Christ. Again, call me reformed if you want – but reformed theology is self-consistent and coherent in this regard. Theology should flow out of the church, and out of a pastoral setting, not out of an academy – this is simply consistent with what it expresses about itself, a matter of the coherence of Christian belief. Christianity isn't fundamentally about presenting sufficient papers for a theology department to grant you tenure. Nor is it about reinventing the wheel – coming up with an entirely new theology that works “for you”. It is about a message once given to the apostles, and preserved in Scripture. If this idea is to be jettisoned, then an alternative "epistemology of Christian belief" needs to be offered and justified.

The proponents of the New Perspective also suggest that the idea of justification by faith flows out of the historical particulars of Luther's situation – his perception of his moral guilt, his conflict with Rome. But if we are to play the deconstruction game, then why not apply that to the New Perspective itself? What are the historical particulars that might be driving the New Perspective? The desire for political correctness and inclusiveness; the desire to avoid the accusation of anti-semitism (although there is no way that properly expressed Christianity could possibly be considered anti-semitic); the desire to achieve ecumenical aims – unification with Rome; the desire not to appear “fundamentalist”? It is hardly a surprise that those are exactly what the New Perspective claims to achieve. Deconstruction really gets us nowhere – it doesn't allow us to determine whether "Luther's version" of Christianity or the New Perspective one is more right. We need a means of analysing the content of both that transcends the historical particulars that drove both. Which takes us back to the question of an "epistemology of Christian belief".

Of course theology is driven by a historically particular situation – and I would argue this is the difference between theology (which is particular) and God's Word (which is universal). However, even if theology is particular, it is designed to reflect in the particular situation something that is absolutely true – and that is God's Word. That is how it is possible to discriminate between different theology – and come to a conclusion as to what is good theology and what is bad theology – on the basis of the extent to which it reflects what we understand to be true. If our idea of absolute truth shifts, to include things beyond God's word – or worse, it suggests that God's word is no more than another authority – then we have the Pilate problem – what is truth? Theology ends up cut adrift from its moorings, and becomes personal and subjective.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

15-6 - yes, we watched it

The Rugby World Cup final, that is, in case you live on a different continent. That isn't Africa or Oceania. Or South America. A shame, but probably a fair result. If the South Africans won with some gamesmanship - well, I guess that was how we beat the French in the semi.

Here's a link to a Times essay on being in Paris for the final. Nuff said.

Friday, October 19, 2007


I'd just like to thank all those people who have pinned their flags on my Frappr map (near the top of the sidebar). I know that you don't represent people from every nation that has stopped by here - but there are lots more of you now than there used to be. Hi, y'all! Salut! Dag! Guten tag! Bom dia! ... and so on.

A good week

We can look back on this week with thankfulness, I think.

We are members of two churches, and the church that we have been sent to support had a business meeting this week, which went kind of well. We have seen an increase in the size of the congregation, and in God's goodness, the congregation is much more able to consider various projects, which was the reason why we went there.

Also, I have been a foundation governor at my children's primary school for the last eight years. The PCC, who decide appointments of foundation governors, came to the conclusion that because the church I am in is not a member of "Churches Together", they didn't want me as a foundation governor any more. This wasn't an issue when I was first appointed, or for that matter when I was reappointed. No matter - it is their choice. However, as a matter of courtesy, it would have been good for them to tell me, or the other governors, that it was their intention not to replace me. And actually replace me, rather than leave a vacancy on the governing body. They didn't. Which leads me to conclude that they are far more concerned with a political issue (that the church I am in is not ecumenical) than they are with the good of the school.

Most of the other governors were disgusted with the behaviour of the PCC, and wanted me back on the governing body - my contributions to it seem to have been well received. So I stood as a parent governor, and heard this week that I have been elected, by a good majority.

Also, my latest work roster - for November - arrived this week. It was generally okay, but there was one block of five days where I was supposed to be away from base - and this was going to cause us all sorts of problems. However, I have just managed to swap this duty with someone else.


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Stupid, ungrateful me

This is one of the first Pavlovian replies to a Scott Adams post which predicted such Pavlovian replies, and it is a familiar charge:
Much of our understanding of biology is based on [evolution]. If you have ever required medicine, then it is likely that you have profited from our knowledge of evolution.
Which proves that people like Scott Adams - who can write about anything however rude as long as he doesn't take the heretical step of expressing anything that might be construed as doubt about the absolute truth of "evolution" - and me are not only stupid (for not believing in "evolution", when clever people who advance medicine do), but also ungrateful (for suggesting that the clever people who make medicine might be wrong about something). Devastating!

So how do I defend myself against such a charge? Two ways. Firstly, by asking what the writer means by "evolution". There are few people who don't believe in "descent with modification and selection" to an extent. But "evolution" doesn't yet have explanations for many of the things that it claims to explain. Of course, it's working on those things - but if evolution doesn't explain something yet, then that aspect of it is of little use in ... well, medicine for example. And, unsurprisingly, it is in the disputed areas - those areas for which darwinists claim explanations are just around the corner, and their opponents claim can't be explained through ateleological mechanisms - that the heart of the debate lies.

Secondly, by asking what the writer thinks I (or Scott Adams) reject about evolution that has actually proved to be useful to medicine. One thing would do.

I'm banned in China!

At least, according to this.

Evolution of mitochondria

Mitochondria are interesting little beasties. They exist in most eukaryotic cells, and are used to generate most of the ATP - used as fuel - for those cells. But they have their own genome - so in humans, for example, they aren't coded by the DNA in our chromosomes. The mitochondrial genome actually has similarities with bacterial genome. For this and various other reasons, the endosymbiotic theory has come to dominate evolutionary biology, at least in the context of the appearance of mitochondria. This suggests that mitochondria were originally prokaryotic (bacterial-type) cells that ended up in a symbiotic relationship with eukaryotic cells. Some people have elevated this to the status of a "fact" about evolution.

However, some people aren't convinced. Albert de Roos wrote a critique of the theory on Telic Thoughts, recently, and has started his own website, which hypothesises that mitochondria arose from within eukaryotic cells. If your interest in science extends to beyond the posturing that normally takes place between the pro- and anti-darwin lobby, you might enjoy this debate.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Another perspective on New Perspectives

For those who don't know, there is some controversy about N.T.Wright and others, who in a theological movement called “New Perspectives” are shifting away from the conventional reformed doctrine of justification by faith. The concept behind this is that when we become a Christian, God credits us with Jesus' righteousness, so that we are regarded by him as being innocent. Wright says things like:
Justification is not how someone becomes a Christian. It is the declaration that they have become a Christian.
I must stress again that the doctrine of justification by faith is not what Paul means by ‘the gospel.’
John Piper says:
... [Wright is] disconnecting [justification] from the event by which we are saved, or by which we enter into favor with God. To me, that’s the main issue—at what point is God totally for me? Wrath was upon me before my conversion; wrath was upon me before I was in Christ by faith; after faith and union with Christ, wrath is no longer on me.

Justification, I believe, is the way the Bible describes that moment.. Justification is the act by which God says, “I no longer count you guilty. I count you as righteous with the righteousness of my son.” That’s a saving moment, clustered with the call. Wright sees our call as the only decisive saving moment. And I want to put with the call the work of God in justifying me.
Other more qualified people (like Piper) have responded and are responding in more length with more theological depth than I am able to here, and I'm conscious that I don't know much about the matter and may be missing the point myself. However, I wanted to make a few comments.

I should point out that I don't believe that theology is immutable. I believe that the Bible, which I understand to be God's Word, is eternal and unchanging. I understand Christian theology in broad terms to be the application of that Word to specific historical and geographical contexts – and so theology will inevitably change as its context changes. However, this doesn't mean that everything is up for grabs, and even accepting the contextual limits of theology, it does reflect absolute truth.

Now if something's not broken, why try and fix it? At the time of the Protestant Reformation, there were serious problems with Christian theology. On a personal level, Martin Luther – who sought to live a devout monastic life – was profoundly conscious of the inability of his obedience to satisfy the God he recognised in the Bible. It was only when he came to see that “the just shall live by faith” that he knew he could be right with God. This personal discovery of the concept of justification by faith was what changed him. Meanwhile, there were serious problems with the church – widespread corruption, immorality, ignorance of the Bible, pursuit of power and so on. The church was far from behaving in accordance with the New Testament pattern of churches. Whilst technically claiming two authoritative traditions – the Bible and the church – the church was effectively overriding the authority of the Bible with the authority of church tradition. Consequently, it was failing to care for its own sheep, and it was increasingly regarded with contempt by the rest of the world.

So at the time of the Reformation, Christian theology was “broken” at both a personal and an ecclesiastical level, and a new perspective – or as most reformed Christians would suggest, a rediscovery of the old perspective – was required. Is that the case today? Is the reformed doctrine of justification by faith causing such problems that we should be looking again for a new perspective? Of course there are problems, but I suspect that few people would suggest that these were problems as a consequence of this doctrine. Some mainstream churches are failing in religious terms – but these are the ones who for most practical purposes have not sought reformation under God's Word. Wright is perhaps concerned by the lack of ethical rigorousness amongst those people who accept justification by faith – John Piper says that one of Wright's aims is to underscore the significance of the good works that people do. But there are Christian ethics that are built on this foundation. The fact that Christians fail to live up to ethical standards that they ought to doesn't mean that the foundation is wrong; it just highlights the fact that our sanctification is a gradual process that takes our whole life.

So to suggest that justification by faith (God's work) needs revisiting when the problem is apparently the things that we do would seem to be missing the point.

... to be continued

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Who is searching for ...

Little Girl Awake? I've had several hits over the last few days searching for lines of this poem.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The kings of the earth rise up ...

(H/T Telic Thoughts)

From here :
In his speech, Dawkins portrayed a black-and-white intellectual battle between atheism and religion. He denounced the "preposterous nonsense of religious customs" and compared religion to racism. He also gave no quarter to moderate or liberal believers, asserting that "so-called moderate Christianity is simply an evasion."

"If you've been taught to believe it by moderates, what's to stop you from taking the next step and blowing yourself up?" he said.
If the Christian God does exist, then there are risks...
Then Herod [no, not the Christmas one ...] went from Judea to Caesarea and stayed there a while. He had been quarreling with the people of Tyre and Sidon; they now joined together and sought an audience with him. Having secured the support of Blastus, a trusted personal servant of the king, they asked for peace, because they depended on the king's country for their food supply.

On the appointed day Herod, wearing his royal robes, sat on his throne and delivered a public address to the people. They shouted, "This is the voice of a god, not of a man." Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.

But the word of God continued to increase and spread.

Friday, October 12, 2007

More on the Biological Big Bang hypothesis

I've now read Koonin's paper. It wasn't as ground-shaking as it might have been, though it would appear to be yet another nail in the coffin in the conventional, Dawkinsian version of evolutionary theory, and another one up for Gould. Here's a few thoughts - feel free to correct me if I have misunderstood things.

Probably the most significant thing about it was the frank acknowledgement that the conventional Darwinist model (random mutation, natural selection) doesn't correspond to the evidence. The specific issue addressed is the fact that the "tree of life" doesn't really exist - for the most significant biological transitions, divergence from common ancestors seems to take place over a very small interval of time, and subsequent evolutionary changes are "small fry" in comparison. The most famous example of this is perhaps the Cambrian Explosion, but Koonin is more interested in more fundamental steps - the appearance of the first viruses, cells, and the appearance of eukaryotic cells.

Koonin suggests that the reason for this is that the big evolutionary steps take place as a consequence of "horizontal" transfer of genetic material, rather than "vertical" descent with modification. As a consequence, it is only when stable configurations appear that identifiable descent lines become apparent. Because genetic transfer of one means or another drives large scale diversification (the Biological Big Bangs), we are unable to see the antecedents of subsequent stable organisms.

Koonin stresses the analogy with the current, inflationary/Big Bang model of cosmology. To be honest, I can't see the point in labouring this, unless for ideological purposes - to stress that it is an alternative to teleological processes. In an ateleological universe, because the scale of the phenomena are so different, the analogy can be little more than a coincidence, and really is barely worth drawing attention to - it is an observation of the same sort as saying that electrons orbiting nuclei are a bit like planets orbiting a star. On the other hand, if we are in a teleological universe, that fact itself is much more significant than the fact that two processes are analogous!

Also, although this model provides a better explanation of the observations (of the nature of the tree of life), there are many unresolved issues. For example, is this mechanism more likely to generate new biochemical structures and functions than conventional neodarwinism? Certainly, a new protein or gene has a larger space in which to find a matching counterpart - but it also has a larger space in which to become distracted or damaged. Also, whilst it is easy to say that when a stable organism is formed, the inflationary phase switches off, more work would need to be done in explaining what triggers the inflationary phases, and how come they switch off at all. Of course, this isn't saying that Koonin is wrong, or that the hypothesis isn't worth exploring - especially since it does provide a better explanation.

Telic Thoughts (I think) also hints that Koonin may be too blithely accepting endosymbiotic models. The example they give is that the alpha-proteobacteria which are viewed of as most similar to mitochondria actually appear as bacteria substantially later than mitochondria - so the hypothetical absorption of bacteria by eukaryotic cells to get their current form may not be as simple as is suggested. (Not that it is suggested to be exactly simple!)

I hope this makes sense, and hasn't distorted either Koonin's work or the Telic Thoughts article.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Biological Big Bang

You may remember that I wrote a post musing about reconciling the Bible account of creation with evolutionary evidence. I suggested that the biblical "days" might correspond to specific, relatively short creative periods in the history of the earth.

At that stage, I didn't know that this paper - "The Biological Big Bang model for the major transitions in evolution" - was around. The hypothesis presented is that evolution actually happened through a series of "big bangs" - sudden, rapid increases in diversity - and the intervals between the "big bangs" is marked by little evolutionary innovation.

I want to investigate the paper at greater length. I have no real desire to reconcile it with what I wrote - after all, that was only really musing. But it's interesting, though ....

Two badges

The first one said:
If you love someone, set them free. If they come back, they're yours. If they don't, hunt them down and shoot them.
The second one said:
If they can send one man to the moon, why don't they send them all?

Monday, October 08, 2007

Clarification of my views on breastfeeding!

There's an apocryphal story about a famous speaker/writer (Evelyn Waugh, perhaps?) being contacted and asked whether he could do a talk on breastfeeding. Apparently, he was a little puzzled at being asked, but being a "trooper", as thesps say, did his research, and duly did the talk. Afterwards, the person chairing the meeting thanked him for his talk, but expressed puzzlement as to why he should have spoken on breastfeeding, rather than the subject he had been invited to speak on, which was "press freedom".

I'm sure that can't really be true.

My earlier post was not really about breastfeeding, but this seems to have arisen as an issue as a consequence, so I felt I ought to make a few points of clarification.

Firstly, I think breastfeeding is a GOOD THING. If it is at all possible for a mother to do it, then she should. I don't need to rehearse the reasons why. Our children were all breastfed for more than the average amount of time, although we did use a bottle to top up at night from early on - about which more later.

Secondly, if people are able to help mothers breastfeed, then that is also a GOOD THING. In fact, for a couple of people, we (ahem - well, more particularly my wife, actually) have done what we can to help - how to get the baby on in such a way that it doesn't hurt when the mother is still getting used physically to feeding her baby, and so on. If there were better support from overstretched health service staff or from the voluntary sector, I have no doubt that this would do a lot of good.

Finally, if you are able to get up as required in the night for as long as it takes to survive demand-feeding with no ill effects, that's great. But my concern is for the parents who can't - not without the sort of support that most simply don't have - and the point I was making is that there are other patterns of bringing up small children which also work. The motivation for the post that I wrote is that the large bucketful of guilt - because parents don't understand what their baby wants, or because the mother is so exhausted that she can't meet her baby's needs, or because the mother can't carry on breastfeeding - is something that a tired and hormone-full mother can really do without. Just because you can't do what the health visitor is saying doesn't mean that your child will grow up to be a juvenile delinquent. People have been brought up successfully in all sorts of ways. Perhaps the recommended way is the best. But second best is not the end of the world. And in any case, next year the advice will probably be reversed - even in the time that we had small children, the advice about how to lie children in cots was changed several times, as was the advice about how long you should wait before introducing solid food to a child's diet. Too often, health visitors place impossible burdens on the backs of new parents, and then don't lift a finger to help them. It's not intentional - in fact, their intention is to help, not to harm. But that can be the effect.

So, what did we do (and yes, we were both involved)? Last thing at night, when we went to bed, we used a bottle to "top up" feed, my wife having first breastfed the children, to make sure that they went to sleep full. From about three months, when the children woke in the night, I would carry them around, singing to them and talking quietly to them, and in many cases, after grumbling for a while, they would go back to sleep. That was how we coaxed our children to go for longer at night without a feed. All three of them slept through the night (11pm to 5am to start with, fairly rapidly moving towards 10pm to 6am) from around three months. Life was an awful lot easier to cope with once we were able to get a decent night's sleep. And the children have all slept very well at night ever since.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Buggles - Video Killed the Radio Star (Live 2004)

Various songs capture times in my life in a tear-inducing way. One of which is this one, which takes me back to the very first school discos I ever went to. Somehow, lots of the girls seemed to know it, and it was only about seven years later when I bought the album (on cassette!) that I really had a chance to listen to it.

I knew that Buggles was pretty much a manufactured studio band. However, lest anyone doubt their actual musicianship, here they perform it live at the Prince's Trust concert in 2004.

Talking Heads - Life During Wartime

I don't often talk about bands other than U2 and Sixpence None the Richer. However, there are other bands I like. The name of one of them is Talking Heads.

"Stop Making Sense" was way ahead of its time - I'd consider U2's concerts pretty innovative shows today, but a lot of the way was paved for them by Talking Heads about 25 years earlier.

Monday, October 01, 2007

On not demand-feeding babies

A quick, helpful hint. Most babies don't need to be fed in the night, once they are over three months old. Of course, like all humans, they get established in habits. If they aren't being fed when they expect to be fed, they will make a fuss about it. However, once they discover the benefits of a solid night's sleep (for parents as well as child) and a proper breakfast, they will not look back.

If you want advice about bringing up babies, don't just assume that health visitors will always give you the best answers. In most cases, of course, they will. However, there are certain things they will tell you because they have a) been told to tell you (like the international advice that it's best to solely breastfeed your child until they are six months old - riiiiiiiight. Then how come something different worked fine for the previous five billion humans?!) b) it is politically correct to tell you (or not tell you, like how strong the link between smoking and cot death is) or c) they don't know otherwise, because they haven't been through it themselves (like the room temperature has to be no more than 25 degrees Celsius, or that babies must be demand fed). Go and talk to other older mums, and see how they survived.

John Piper on Baptism

I've e-chatted with various people on the internet - on Miss Mellifluous' and Jon's blogs, for example - about the issue of baptism. It was really helpful to find the case made in "Brothers, we are not Professionals" for the baptist view that baptism ought to be upon profession of faith, and is not for infants as the successor of circumcision.
... The justification of infant baptism in the Reformed churches hangs on the fact that baptism is the New Testament counterpart of circumcision.

There is in fact an important continuity between the signs of circumcision and baptism, but the Presbyterian representatives of Reformed theology seem to have undervalued the discontinuity. This is the root difference between Baptists and Presbyterians on baptism. I am a Baptist because I believe that on this score we honor botht the continuity and discontinuity between Israel and the church and between their respective covenant signs.

The continuity is expressed like this: Just as circumcision was administered to all the physical sons of Abraham who made up the physical Israel, so baptism should be administered to all the spiritual sons of Abraham who make up the spiritual Israel, the church. Consider the difference between the "old covenant" people of God and the "new covenant" people of God as Jeremiah and the author of Hebrews describe them. Both these Biblical writers say that under the new covenant one will not have to look at other members of the covenant and say, "Know the Lord," for to be a covenant member is to know the Lord. This implies that entry into the old covenant people of God was by physical birth, and entry into the new covenant people of God is by spiritual birth. It would seem to follow, then, that the sign of the covenant would reflect this change and would be administered to those who give evidence of spiritual birth...

Calvin and some of his heirs have treated signs of the covenant as if no significant changes happened with the coming of Christ. But God is forming His people today differently from when he strove with an ethnic people called Israel. The visible people of God are no longer formed through natural birth but through new birth and in expression through faith in Christ.

With the coming of John the Baptist and Jesus and the apostles, the emphasis now is that the spiritual status of our parents does not determine our membership in the covenant community. The beneficiaries of the blessings of Abraham are those who have the faith of Abraham. These are the ones who belong to the covenant community.

(Brothers, we are not Professionals, John Piper, pp.133-135)
It was even more helpful to read his last paragraph in this chapter, which really reflects where I had ended up of my own accord, anyway!
Why have I dwelt on this? Because my sense is that many pastors, in order not to be contentious on this issue, neglect it almost entirely and do not call people to "repent and be baptized." What I am doing here is trying to model a responsible and reasonable defense of one view of baptism in the context of amicable and respectful relationships with those who hold other views. I think we need to teach our people the meaning of baptism and obey the Lord's command to baptize converts (Matt. 28:19), without elevating the doctrine to a primary one that would unduly cut us off from shared worship and ministry with others who share more important things with us.

The whole article can be found on the Desiring God website.