When do politicians take electoral issues seriously?

When their own ballots are affected, naturally! From The Seattle Times: “The King County error came to light Sunday when Larry Phillips, chairman of the Metropolitan King County Council, was looking over a list of voters from his neighborhood whose ballots had been disqualified. Phillips spotted his own name on the list, prompting an investigation by King County elections workers that turned up 561 improperly disqualified ballots.” So Gregoire may still win….

(Via E-Voting News. Their story included a grammatical howler: somebody used the word fluctuant, presumably under the impression that it was an adjectival form of fluctuate. In fact it’s a term from biology, meaning “movable and compressible — used of abnormal body structures (as some abscesses or tumors)”.
UPDATE: The author of the piece assures me that the usage is blessed by the OED, even if it is a little archaic. My apologies: I have no objection to the creative revival of archaic language.)

The Anthony Flew brouhaha

While I was visiting my mother, she mentioned that she’d heard that “Anthony Flew has got religion”. This means that the rumours of Flew’s possible recantation must have spread from the phil. of religion blogosphere to BBC Radio 4, so I thought I’d check out the state of play.

In October, Richard Carrier documented the history of Flew’s supposed conversions in a piece in SecWeb, and reported that Flew was questioning whether an “impersonal spirit” of some kind might be the best explanation for “why a universe exists that can produce complex life”. Carrier’s recently updated the piece with some quotes from Flew himself, explaining this Deist-like position:

My one and only piece of relevant evidence [for an Aristotelian God] is the apparent impossibility of providing a naturalistic theory of the origin from DNA of the first reproducing species … [In fact] the only reason which I have for beginning to think of believing in a First Cause god is the impossibility of providing a naturalistic account of the origin of the first reproducing organisms.

Is this simply an argument from incredulity? In his 1993 Atheistic Humanism, Flew points out that “Absent excellent evidencing reasons […] it becomes preposterous to postulate a” CEB [Cosmos-Explaining Being]; in the same chapter he also argues against the uncritical use of various forms of the anthropic principle. Recently Flew has admitted to being impressed by Gerald Schroeder’s The Hidden Face Of God, but Schroeder’s (widely criticised) arguments seem to fall short of the “excellent evidencing reasons” that Flew demanded 12 years ago. (See Perakh and Carrier.)

Various religious types have been running around claiming Flew’s supposed “conversion” as evidence for the supernatural. J. P. Moreland made this argument on PAX TV, and Carrier quotes Flew as emphatically rejecting it: “my God is not his. His is Swinburne’s. Mine is emphatically not good (or evil) or interested in human conduct”.

However Flew seems to have gone beyond the position that he described to Carrier, although it should be noted that the source is a story in Fox News. Last May Flew took part in a debate organized by author Roy Abraham Varghese’s Institute for Metascientific Research in Garland, Texas; a video of the debate has been released under the title Has Science Discovered God?. Typically, the press release from Varghese’s “Institute” is triumphal in tone, and does nothing to distinguish Flew’s “impersonal spirit” from popular religious notions of god. And to increase the confusion (according to Fox),

Flew told The Associated Press his current ideas have some similarity with American “intelligent design” theorists, who see evidence for a guiding force in the construction of the universe. He accepts Darwinian evolution but doubts it can explain the ultimate origins of life.

All of this is frustratingly incomplete, of course, and I hope the arguments will be fleshed out in the new edition of Flew’s God and Philosophy, coming next year. Presumably if Flew is postulating an intelligent designer, he has an answer for the question of “who designed the designer”, as well as all of the other arguments that he himself has articulated over the years in books such as the account of his debate with Terry Miethe. Nonetheless it’s hard to know how to reconcile alignment with “intelligent design” with his assertion that he “has in mind something like the God of Aristotle, a distant, impersonal ‘prime mover.’ It might not even be conscious, but a mere force.” Perhaps we expect too much: as Carrier wrote:

Flew’s tentative, mechanistic Deism is not based on any logical proofs, but solely on physical, scientific evidence, or the lack thereof, and is therefore subject to change with more information — and he confesses he has not been able to keep up with the relevant literature in science and theology, which means we should no longer treat him as an expert on this subject.

Of course such a disclaimer is unlikely to prevent people like Moreland and Varghese from using Flew as a poster child for their causes.

POSTSCRIPT, 12-Aug-05: To my amazement, this entry continues to attact comments 8 months after I wrote it. The sad thing is that so many of the comments raise points that I addressed in later postings. So please: if you stumble over this entry, and feel compelled to comment, please read the other entries on Flew before you do so. See here, here, and here. And thanks.

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CD of the week: "The Best of Groove Armada"

groovearmada.jpgA couple of days ago I was checking out late night TV shows in England when I came across a video of a concert with a really exciting and energetic band. I didn’t know who it was, but the singers (a soulful woman and a stunning rapper) had the crowd in their hands, and one of the keyboard players would occasionally step out front to play trombone. I watched, mesmerized. At the end of the program, I saw that the name of the group was Groove Armada. For some reason I’d never heard of them before, even though they’ve been around for at least six years. (The official web site is a little spartan; try the BBC profile instead – at least unless and until the Beeb’s web goes away.)
Anyway I picked up a copy of their “Best of” CD at Heathrow this afternoon, ripped it into iTunes and transferred it to my iPod so I could listen to it on the flight home. Very tasty. Recommended.

Back home from England

I just arrived back in Brookline, MA after flying from LHR to BOS. The flight was late, due mainly to fierce headwinds: we took an extremely northerly route, up to the southerly tip of Greenland (around 60N 45W) and then over to make landfall over central Labrador before heading SSW towards Boston.
On Saturday I drove my mother to visit some friends in south-east London; a gruelling drive through patchy freezing fog down the M40, round the M25, and up the A21. It didn’t help that the rental car – a Fiat Uno – really sucked: the pedals were too far to the left and too close together. Not only did this mean that I occasionally caught the accelerator when I was braking; there was nowhere for me to rest my left foot, so I had to hover over the clutch or put my foot flat on the floor. (And the car had no torque, and the gear ratios were rubbish, necessitating more shifting than usual.) By the end of of the drive (2 hours each way), my left ankle was showing signs of unaccustomed fatigue.
We got back to Oxford about 7, and I was feeling desperately tired. However my brother and his wife were there, and we decided to try out a new Chinese restaurant for dinner, to see if it would revive me. That did the trick – even though sake doesn’t really go with Chinese food! (Better with Cantonese than with other styles, I suspect.)
And to round off the evening, I stayed up to watch Match Of The Day and saw a thrilling game between Southampton and Middlesbrough. Southampton was 2-0 up as the match drew to a close, and it looked as if the hapless Saints (next to the bottom of the Premier league) were finally going to win against a strong opponent (currently 5th). Then in the 89th minute an inadvertant deflection from a corner (recorded as an own goal) made it 2-1, and seconds before the final whistle Downing thumped in a beautiful shot for Middlesbrough to snatch a draw.

New Iain M. Banks: "The Algebraist"

From my list of “authors whose works I’ll buy sight unseen”, there’s a new book by Iain M. Banks: The Algebraist. This is a sprawling space opera, possibly stand-alone, possibly starting a new series – it’s not a Culture book. It’s set in a world galaxy in which all A.I. has been banned.

[Hardback edition just published in the UK; per Amazon.com, they don’t seem to have scheduled a US release date.]

The Economist on the dollar's decline

The Economist on what happens if the dollar’s fall means that it loses its status as the reserve currency for the world: “The dollar’s loss of reserve-currency status would lead America’s creditors to start cashing those cheques — and what an awful lot of cheques there are to cash. As that process gathered pace, the dollar could tumble further and further. American bond yields (long-term interest rates) would soar, quite likely causing a deep recession. Americans who favour a weak dollar should be careful what they wish for. Cutting the budget deficit looks cheap at the price.”

(Via Talking Points.)

Rowan Atkinson on the right to offend

In today’s Daily Telegraph, there’s coverage of a press conference including Rowan “Mister Bean” Atkinson. He and others criticized proposed changes to UK “hate speech” laws that have been interpreted as covering criticism of religious ideas. “The freedom to criticise ideas – any ideas even if they are sincerely held beliefs – is one of the fundamental freedoms of society. And the law which attempts to say you can criticise or ridicule ideas as long as they are not religious ideas is a very peculiar law indeed.” Exactly.

(Via Sully.)

At the Jini Community Meeting


Live at the 8th Jini Community Meeting at The Brewery in London; listening to Jan Newmarch of Monash University talking about a variety of Jini based projects at Monash.

(Sign of the times: 90% of the laptops here are Macs….)

Bizarre stuff: hearing references to Geoff Arnold that resolve not to me but to the other Geoff Arnold (who’s not here).

Bob Scheifler is now presenting the changes and new features for the next Porter release of Jini. Cool stuff.


Update: After the coffee break, Dennis Reedy is talking about Rio, the policy-based service provisioning framework based on Jini.