Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Most Serene Republic of Cutabaria

My new country.
The Most Serene Republic of Cutabaria is a tiny, environmentally stunning nation, renowned for its burgeoning starfish population. Its compassionate, hard-working population of 5 million have some civil rights, but not too many, enjoy the freedom to spend their money however they like, to a point, and take part in free and open elections, although not too often.

The large government juggles the competing demands of Healthcare, Social Welfare, and Education. The average income tax rate is 23%. A tiny private sector is dominated by the Woodchip Exports industry.

Crime is moderate, and the police force struggles against a lack of funding and a high mortality rate. Cutabaria's national animal is the starfish and its currency is the chocolate bar.
For comparison, here is one of the "most unhealthy countries" ...
The Bucolic Setting of Antebellum South
UN Category: Capitalist Paradise
Civil Rights: Some
Economy: Frightening
Political Freedoms: Below Average
Location: American Continent
Regional Influence: Negotiator

The Bucolic Setting of Antebellum South is a massive, devout nation, remarkable for its barren, inhospitable landscape. Its hard-nosed, hard-working population of 7.898 billion are either ruled by a small, efficient government or a conglomerate of multinational corporations; it's difficult to tell which.

There is no government in the normal sense of the word; however, a small group of community-minded, pro-business individuals is mainly concerned with Defence, although Commerce and Law & Order are on the agenda. Income tax is unheard of. A powerhouse of a private sector is led by the Automobile Manufacturing, Arms Manufacturing, and Uranium Mining industries.

Urban high-volume mailers now receive their mail via chauffer-driven limousines, torture is commonly used to extract information from suspected criminals, people have to sneak out of the country in order to have sex, and the government regularly hires contractors to construct high rise apartments. Crime -- especially youth-related -- is crippling. Antebellum South's national animal is the possum, which teeters on the brink of extinction due to widespread deforestation, and its currency is the dollar.
I really can't spend all day doing this .... I have to work ....

"Superfast Rock n' Roll ...

... Played Slow" is the title of the new album from Tess Wiley, one of my favourite singers. She is American, but lives in Germany, and will be touring there in May and June - details are on her MySpace page, along with a couple of the tracks from the album for free listen.

I'll be getting it. Will you?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Intolerance from the religious right?

Ed Darrell says, in a comment:
Here in the U.S. there is an active movement, led by religionists like James Dobson and D. James Kennedy, to deprive atheists, liberal Christians, Jews, Muslims, and other groups whose ideas border on the religious from the right to expound those views, or in some cases, from the right to hold such views.

As James Madison pointed out, the right to hold such views is one of the most essential rights there is in a democracy, especially in a democratic republic.

Oppressors generally claim that the oppressed don't need the rights they ask for. One of the first refuges of oppressors whose moral paucity is on display is to claim the oppressed are "rude" and should therefore be censored.

Rethink this.
Indeed? Well, what you are talking about would be, in effect, the imposition of something like a theocratic regime. That is a serious charge - if you can substantiate it. But the only substance I know of in that claim is its frequent assertion by the New Atheists.

Conversely, in these days of relativism, drawing lines is considered "rude", and anybody seeking to make an absolute truth claim will cause eyebrows to be raised. Even if the claim is blindingly obvious, like: "Smoking is stupid.".

Now it should not be considered rude to make such truth claims (as we are being told). What is rude is to make absolute truth claims and then seek to deny people who have dissenting views the right to express them. It was Christians who fought for this - in Europe - and it was the lack of this that led to the Pilgrims leaving for the New World, seeking a new tolerant society. This definition of tolerance should hold both for atheists and "religionists". If we are to live in a truly tolerant society, both sides must accept this.

I have no experience of Christians trying to repress opponents, except where it is truly and pointedly seeking to be offensive, and even then under freedom of speech legislation they have generally been unsuccessful ("Jerry Springer: The Opera" - truly and pointedly? Do you think that they would have gotten away with jokes directed at the religious heart of Islam?). However, I hear plenty of people on both sides of the Atlantic being given positive media coverage as they push for the banning of faith schools, the removal of people from positions of influence if they don't subscribe to naturalism and so on.

So I can give examples of intolerance directed against religion. Can you give actual examples of intolerance directed against atheism?

Nothing new under the sun

I went through a Bertolt Brecht phase towards the end of sixth form (that is, age about 17) - his plays ("Mother Courage and her Children", "The Caucasian Chalk Circle") were probably instrumental in bumping up my socialist awareness. A group of us went from Haywards Heath College to perform The Caucasian Chalk Circle (I played the violin in the band) on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which was an amazing opportunity.

Brecht himself was no saint by all accounts, but the concern for justice which is the subtext of much of his writing is potent.

Azdak, one of the main characters, shelters the Grand Duke who has been overthrown, because he can't bring himself to turn the duke in, and then throws himself on the mercy of the court, only to find the judge himself has already been killed. In this extract, Azdak finds himself involved in the process of replacing the judge, supposedly by giving Prince Kazbeki's nephew a test to see how good he would be in the job. Azdak is acting - convincingly, it seems - as the Grand Duke, on trial for losing the war.
Nephew: ... So you claim the Princes forced you to declare war. Then how can you claim they made a mess of it?

Azdak: Didn’t send enough troops. Embezzled funds. Brought sick horses. During attack found drunk in whorehouse. Propose Uncle Kaz as witness. The Ironshirts laugh.

Nephew: Are you making the outrageous claim that the Princes of this country did not fight?

Azdak: No. Princes fought. Fought for war contracts.

The Fat Prince: jumping up: That’s too much!

Azdak: Really? Only telling the truth!

The Fat Prince: Hang him! Hang him!

Ironshirt 1: Keep quiet. Get on, Excellency.

Nephew: Quiet! Now pass sentence. Must be hanged. Hanged by the neck. Having lost war. Sentence passed. No appeal.

The Fat Prince: hysterically: Away with him! Away with him! Away with him!

Azdak: Young man, seriously advise not to fall publicly into jerky, clipped manner of speech. Can’t be employed as watchdog if howl like wolf. Got it?

The Fat Prince: Hang him!

Azdak: If people realise Princes talk same language as Grand Dukes, may even hang Grand Dukes and Princes. By the way, sentence quashed. Reason: war lost, but not for Princes. Princes have won their war. Got themselves paid 3,863,000 piastres for horses not delivered.

The Fat Prince: Hang him!

Azdak: 8,240,000 piastres for food supplies not produced.

The Fat Prince: Hang him!

Azdak: Are therefore victors. War lost only for Grusinia, which is not present in this Court.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Bertolt Brecht, trans. Tania and James Stern with WH Auden
I trust the resonances with more recent history will not be missed ....

Azdak turns out to be a good judge, with a strong inclination for natural (if unorthodox) justice, although he remains something of a scoundrel. The story is really about a girl called Grusha Vashnadze, and how she ends up rich by graciously caring for the governor's child ("Of every four pieces you shall have three. Would that I knew how big they would be.") when the governor and his wife flee in the troubles. The chalk circle of the title is a reference to a maternity test, very similar in concept to Solomon's one.

The play is worth a read - or better still, a watch - although it would probably need a 12 certificate, due to some language and mild sexual references. I got the extract from the play from this PDF, which I think is a teachers' guide produced in Australia to accompany a production of the play.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Atheism and women's suffrage

(H/T Telic Thoughts)

Larry Moran, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Toronto, is comparing the New Atheists to the women's rights movement:
Do you realize that women used to march in the streets with placards demanding that they be allowed to vote? At the time the suffragettes were criticized for hurting the cause. Their radical stance was driving off the men who might have been sympathetic to women’s right to vote if only those women had stayed in their proper place.
Telic Thoughts point out that the Suffragettes were seeking to secure basic rights, whereas the agenda of the New Atheists is to deprive their opponents of rights.

There's another issue, which is that the argument is historically ignorant. What Moran seems to be saying is, "Look, the Suffragettes were aggressive and they got what they wanted." But actually, although it made headlines and drew attention to the cause, the Suffragette campaign failed to secure its objectives. Robert Lacey writes:
Whatever the intentions of Emily Davison [who threw herself in front of the King's horse], her death did not impress people at the time, only confirming popular prejudice against the wildness of the suffragettes. "She nearly killed a jockey as well as herself," complained The Times, "and she brought down a valuable horse ... Reckless fanaticism is not regarded by [the public] as a qualification for the franchise."

It took the terrible war of 1914-18 to transform attitudes, as women moved into offices, shops and factories to take over the jobs of men. Mrs Pankhurst suspended suffragette protests - it would be pointless, she argued, to fight for the vote without a country to vote in - and her conciliatory attitude prompted the politicians to climb down.

"Where is the man who would now deny to woman the civil rights she has earned by her hard work?" asked Edwin Montagu, the Minister of Munitions, in 1916. In Junbe 1918, five months before the war ended, the vote was given to women over the age of 30 who were ratepayers or married to ratepayers. Ten years later, suffrage was extended to all women, on the same terms as men.

Robert Lacey, "Great Tales from English History", vol.3 p.208-9

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Christians and illiberal behaviour

Christians are generally considered to be more repressive, patriarchal and traditional than secular society - generally down on women, right?

Well, women at the church last night had a "bring-and-share pudding evening" - around 25 women, most from the church, some friends, took desserts to try a variety. Lots of friends were asked, and inevitably quite a few couldn't come, for a range of reasons.

But what was striking was that there were a significant number of non-Christian women who said they'd have to check with their husbands whether they would be allowed to come. Now I can't think of any of the women in the church who would need "permission" to be there - they might not be able to get there for practical reasons - but in no cases simply because their husband "said no". We were pretty amazed that this response could even be an option.

Tim Chester had a very helpful post on submission in marriage, an issue which is so against the spirit of the age it makes me squirm just reading the passages, and I believe the Bible is God's Word! He gives, as a useful summary:
  • The wife puts her husband’s will before her own.

  • The husband puts his wife’s interests before his own.

  • This captures, I think, the similarities in their respective attitudes (since mutual love and mutual submission are commended within the wider body of Christ of which they are members - see 5:2, 21). But it also captures the difference in their roles. It gives the husband a lead role, but a lead role defined by the cross - one which seeks the good of the other rather than self-interest. It also captures how their respective roles correspond to the roles of the church towards Christ and Christ towards the church.

    Friday, April 20, 2007

    Things I didn't know ...

    ... about places close to where I grew up.
    Cuckfield is also known locally for its idiosyncratic system of mayoral voting; unlimited numbers of votes can be purchased for the price of one penny each, with the winner receiving the most votes. The position is purely honorary and the money raised supports local charities.

    Unintelligent design

    The Motorola V220. We bought one last year for our older daughter, on a pay-as-you-go tariff. It can play interesting sounds, take photos and so on, and it comes with a USB port. Cool!

    Unfortunately, it doesn't come with any driver software, and a long search on the internet yielded nothing that would allow me to get anything off it or onto it. With the possible exception of a €40 piece of proprietary software made by somebody else.

    Hello????????? If as a hardware manufacturer (yes, Motorola, that's you I'm talking about), you aren't going to provide an easy and intuitive means of using an interface, don't provide the interface!!

    Freedom of speech

    How do you balance freedom and responsibility? One person's freedom of speech and another person's right not to be insulted or intimidated? Difficult questions. David Byrne wrestles with the issue here.

    My thoughts in brief? In an ideal world, my freedom is expressed in a context in which I show love for other people - I "love my neighbour as myself". (And who is my neighbour?) If that is the context, it prevents me from using my freedom to harm other people.

    But this isn't an ideal world....

    True rationality but not only rationality

    A discussion is raging (well, simmering) on my previous post, regarding whether you need more than empiricism to do science (or conversely, whether anything more than empiricism actually undermines science). In that context, I thought I'd post another short extract from Schaeffer:
    Although rationality is important, it should never become exclusively so. ... The Christian is not rationalistic; he does not try to begin from himself autonomously and work out a system from there on [which was, of course, Descartes' method - EfG]. But he is rational: he thinks and acts on the basis that A is A and A is not non-A. However, he does not end with only rationality, for in his response to what God has said his whole personality is involved....

    A number of years ago I was at a discussion group in Detroit. An older black pastor was there. We discussed many intellectual and cultural problems and the answers given by Christianity. One would have called the discussion "intellectual" rather than devotional. As he was leaving, the pastor shook my hand and thanked me. If he had said, "Thank you for helping me to defend my people better," or "Thank you for helping me to be a better evangelist," I would have been very glad that what I had said had been helpful, and then possibly I would not have given it another thought. But what he actually said was, "Thank you for opening these doors to me; now I can worship God better." I will never forget him because he was a man who really understood. If this is not our own response first of all, and then the response of those whom we try to help, we have made a mistake somewhere.

    Francis Schaeffer, "The God Who is There"
    The modernist, empirical approach, as far as I can see, gives no real foundation for anything other than rationality - and indeed, only offers as a foundation for rationality the fact that it works. This is incredibly distant from what we are as human beings. The awareness of this limitation was I suspect what caused Dawkins to write "Unweaving the Rainbow".

    But no matter how you add, subtract, multiply and divide, the modernist worldview still can't allow us to be more than zeroes. The only way in which we can have the significance we instinctively invest in ourselves (and which even - perhaps especially! - Dawkins invests in himself) is if that significance is externally attributed.

    Monday, April 16, 2007

    Christian Science

    No, not that sort ....

    I've written before about the fact that science comes from a Reformation Christian worldview, and that the suggestion that science is equivalent to philosophical naturalism is historically and philosophically ignorant.

    A post on Evolution News makes a similar point in more detail.

    Saturday, April 14, 2007

    Question about language and gender

    Being British, my command of any other languages is pretty limited. I have a question about other languages, and I'd be interested in the insight of anybody who has a better command of something other than English.

    In English, there are three genders (male, female, neuter) but male and female genders are only used for objects with a definite gender ("she" might be a girl, a woman, a ship or a female animal of some sort, but wouldn't normally be a city or an unspecified bee). "Cow" in English tends to be used to refer to any domestic bovine animal, including bulls, unless otherwise specified - which means that the word "cow" is basically a neuter gender word ("What is it? It's a cow!"). It can be a female gender word, but only usually if the cow(s) in question has been definitely identified as female.

    However, in Spanish (to give an example), I was introduced to la vaca, which is a female word translated as "cow". Do they use this word in the same way as English people use the word "cow", despite it being a definitely female (and not neuter) word? Or, given the definite role that bulls play in Spanish culture, does la vaca definitely differentiate from el toro, and you have to plump for one or the other when you first see the creature?

    And what about, say, cats? The Spanish for "the cat" is el gato. Again, that's not bad if you are (say) asking about a cat you just happen to have seen. But supposing you are referring to a cat you know to be female - your pet cat Phoebe, say? Are you still stuck with using male pronouns to refer to her, despite the fact that you know her to be female? Would you say Phoebe es un gato when she is actually female?

    Does the same happen in other languages?

    Airline simulations

    For many years, I've been interested in getting hold of a good airline simulation/game. This would be one that represented the best of simulations - that is, it was both realistic and playable. "Realistic" in this context would mean that it would be possible to reconfigure details such as pricing structure and cabin fittings, operate routes, acquire a reputation, operate a variety of different sorts of airlines to a variety of different destinations. Your opponents ought to correspond in some measure to real airlines. "Playable" would mean that you can set up routes, schedules, aircraft and staff fairly easily.

    Airline Tycoon was the most commercially accessible option. However, realism was written down in this for playability. You can have fun buying charter flights and writing programmes for your airliners, but they are too expensive to set up an interesting airline, and as soon as you start doing well, your AI opponents start putting bombs in your aircraft.

    Then there was "Airlines 2". This was more realistic from the point of view of the business simulation (though aircraft seem to crash with surprising regularity). But the real problem was that even with the largest airport, you could only schedule five routes with your airline. Hardly a hub in any sense of the word ....

    I don't know whether Airline was derived from this or not. I had high hopes of this - it certainly comes with vast amounts of data, and promised a range of options for configuration, and the best timetabling options for flights that I have seen. However, it takes about 15 minutes to start up, and 10 minutes to process quarterly actions. The menu system for moving around it is completely not intuitive. I've tried it, and I stuck with it as it migrated from version 5 to version 6, but whilst conceptually it was great, in terms of its implementation it was (in my opinion) unplayable.

    There's a new kid on the block - Airpro. I'm going to go and investigate it now. But if anybody else knows of airline simulations which meet both the playability and realism criteria, then do let me know.

    Wednesday, April 11, 2007

    Do oddball beliefs disqualify you from certain jobs?

    It has been suggested by the more militant opponents of ID that people who believe in ID or other non-naturalistic worldviews should be disqualified from teaching, or from receiving Ph.D.s, or from having columns in Scientific American, amongst other things. I was interested to read what Robert Lacey wrote about the organisation that supported "The Few" in the Battle of Britain.
    This formidably efficient back-up organisation, unparalleled in aerial warfare to that point, was the work of Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, a cagey character generally disliked by his fellow airmen, who nicknamed him 'Stuffy'. In fact, 'Stuffy' had some most original and unstuffy personal interests that included theosophy and a belief in fairies, angels, flying saucers and the possibility of intelligent communication between the living and the dead.

    "Great Tales from English History", vol.3 p.251
    What impact did this collection of odd beliefs have on Dowding's ability to do his job? Apparently, none at all. He had a clear idea of what he had to do. He had two main principles - firstly that technical superiority should be the priority, and secondly that expensive machines and the lives of trained airmen should not be risked unnecessarily. The British victory in the Battle of Britain was the first occasion when Hitler was defeated, and it seems in part to have been down to Dowding's leadership.

    Tuesday, April 10, 2007

    Quick update

    A pile of reading-related posts ought to appear at some stage - but I need a while to muster my thoughts and type them out ....

    In the meantime, some reaction to the interview questions I asked Tom and Jon below. Firstly, thanks both for the replies. Secondly, interesting that the reaction of both was that the questions are "hard". I think what you mean by that (since I experienced the same thing) is that the answers required some thought. Most posts don't require thought in the same way, I believe - they reflect people's state of mind and in many cases almost write themselves. But responding to somebody else's questions in a formal way isn't a process that we often carry out.

    Jon described the interview as the "Paul Fernandez show", which was a neat title. But the value of carefully chosen questions is that they don't focus on the interviewer, but the interviewee - and I hope I managed to do that.

    Miss Mellifluous asks if I have missed my vocation. Well, Mell, the pattern for my questions was really pretty much that of the questions you asked me - I am doing no more than reflecting you! But regarding my vocation, I don't know what it is - if you have any clues, do tell!

    And I'm still happy to ask other people questions, if they want an interviewer. It's fun, though not as easy as it sounds. However, Tom is also looking for candidates ....

    Tuesday, April 03, 2007

    An antidote to Burns Night ...

    ... in the form of another meme. Since I was at university, I have had it pretty forcibly drawn to my attention that my birthday is Burns Night. Occasionally, this has been accompanied by haggis, neeps and whisky. So here is another meme, to show that there's more to my birthday than a Scots poet.

    Enter your birthday in Wikipedia
    January 25

    List three events that occurred on that day
    41 - After a night of negotiation, Claudius is accepted as Roman Emperor by the Senate.
    1533 - Henry VIII of England secretly marries his second wife Anne Boleyn.
    1919 - The League of Nations is founded.

    List two important birthdays
    1627 - Robert Boyle, Irish chemist (d. 1691)
    1900 - Theodosius Dobzhansky, Ukrainian-American geneticist and biologist (d. 1975)
    (Better than obscure rulers and actors, IMO)

    List one death
    1640 - Robert Burton, English scholar (b. 1577) (The Anatomy of Melancholy - not that I've read it)

    List a holiday or observance
    Tatiana Day, celebrated as the Day of Russian students since 1755, when the Moscow University was founded. (Two for the price of one there, methinks)

    There's the usual stuff about tagging five other people - to which I will add my usual thing - if the hat fits, wear it. :)

    "I'm asking the questions!"

    Here's a new (to me) meme/tag game. Miss Mellifluous has "interviewed" me....

    1) Imagine you are a fabulously talented musician (or maybe you are already?) what instrument do you play and which already famous musos from any era are in your band with you?
    I play piano and violin, but I'm not fabulously talented. However, the most fun I have had in musical terms was orchestral playing. I would be happy to be buried in the violin section of any symphony orchestra working my way through some of the well-worn classical repertoire - preferably with a bunch of the people I have known throughout my life. As far as conductors and soloists were concerned, to be honest, any who don't allow their egos to get in the way of the music.

    In terms of non-orchestral music, I would love to have been part of Talking Heads, and you can tell from my blog that I'm addicted to U2 and Sixpence None the Richer. But as with all the best groups, the chemistry in them worked so well that the whole was more than the sum of the parts. I'd rather sit in the audience and listen to any of them than pick and choose musicians.

    But if I were fabulously talented, and could choose who to work with ... I think it would be Sixpence.

    2) Tell us about your best holiday ever and what made it so fantastic.
    I think it was probably staying as a family in Florian├│polis, Brazil with Andrew and Cora. I'm not big on holidays where you are living in a self-absorbed bubble. We spent the best part of two weeks there, meeting the Christians amongst whom they were live and work. We went to their house church. I even went to one of the evening classes that Andrew took (though it was in Portuguese - I can't even remember what the course was, let alone any of the content!).

    In addition to which, it was the closest I have ever stayed to the Equator (although the weather was rarely seriously hot), Santa Catarina Island is unsurprisingly surrounded by lovely beaches - ranging from the surfy to the toddler-friendly - it has a civic park and various historical sites, shopping malls, and a spectacular bridge.

    We are waiting for the opportunity to go again - we really want to visit the Igua├žu falls next time!

    3) Who has been the most influential person in your life and why?
    It's a bit boring and predictable, but it's Jesus. Not only directly, through the Bible, but indirectly, in that most of the people who are "secondary influences" would also say that it was Jesus who most influenced them.

    I suppose if I were to pick one other key influencer, it would probably be Francis Schaeffer. At a time when evangelicalism was starting to become notorious for its lack of thought, Francis Schaeffer was presenting a case for Christianity that was intellectually solid and yet which engaged with real people. Schaeffer has influenced Christians in all sorts of ways - in their approach to the Bible, to church, to philosophy, to culture. He established "L'Abri" in Switzerland (there are several others around the world) as a place where Christianity was to be lived out. A stay in L'Abri is another "holiday" I would like to take at some stage.

    4) Which one word would you eradicate from the English language if you could?
    The word - not the concept? So if I get rid of "pain", pain itself doesn't disappear, and we just need a new label for it? I am just trying to get rid of an aesthetic carbuncle on the face of the English language?

    How about "function"? Or "globule"?

    5) If you could have coffee with God and could ask Him one question this side of heaven, what would it be?
    I suspect it would be scientific rather than ethical. Scientists have been chasing the idea that there is a "grand unified theory" - a scientific concept that will allow them to draw together all different strands of physical science. I would love to know whether there is a unifying principle other than God - whether it is possible to derive everything in the universe from a single concept, or from a very small set of concepts.

    This being a tag game, let me know if you are prepared to be "interviewed". It's just for fun, and I decide the questions!