Categories
Politics

Serendipity: Irshad Manji

This evening I emerged from my philosophy class and turned on my cell phone to call back in to a meeting in California. Instead, I saw an unfamiliar message: No service: SOS only. What to do? irshadmanji.jpgI decided to join Dan Dennett and others in attending a talk and book-signing by Irshad Manji, the author of The Trouble with Islam Today : A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith. And I’m really glad I did. She’s an excellent speaker: energetic, passionate, witty, uncompromising. Dennett asked her how she dealt with critics who saw her open discussion of Islam with “infidels” as a betrayal; how she negotiated that “fine line”. She rejected the premise: she’s not interesting in balance, in compromising with bigotry. She’s not trying to convince those who disagree with her: she’s seeking to empower and encourage those who share her beliefs but are afraid of speaking out.

No, I don’t share her faith, nor do I agree with her qualified support for the invasion of Iraq, but I applaud her commitment to universal human rights, her integrity, and her courage. A wonderful event. Do hear her if you get the chance.

Categories
Blogosphere

What does this mean for iWork?

Many, many Sun employees are now working from their homes in every corner of the USA world. Many have chosen to live in low-tax states. How is this New York ruling (reported in Slashdot) going to affect this? Will Alaskan telecommuters wind up paying California income taxes if their VPN connections terminate in Menlo Park? Once again, technology meets tax policy, and the result is going to be a mess….

“hal9000(jr) writes ‘The Boston Globe is running this story on an out-of-state programmer working for a New York company who had to pay state taxes. ”New York has the right to tax 100% of a nonresident employee’s income derived from New York sources,’ according to the 4-3 decision by Court of Appeals. The court relied on a fairness rule called the ‘convenience of the employer’ under law that says a worker’s income is taxable if he chooses to live outside the state, as opposed to if he or she was transferred there.’ “

Categories
Philosophy

Playing it safe

I just submitted my first written coursework since – oh, I don’t know, 1974? – for my PhilOfMind course at Tufts. The format was a dialogue between three philosophers on a particular topic. The choices were limited: I couldn’t simply pick any philosophers and any topic. I chose Fodor, Millikan and Paul Churchland on mental representations.

I started off routinely – read the lit, capture what each participant had to say on the topic, figure out a sub-topical flow that I could use to organize their ideas. And then I read some exchanges (Fodor & Pylyshyn vs. Smolensky on systematicity in connectionist models) that I thought would be a great way of contrasting Fodor and Churchland. A priori language of thought, symbolic, and pristine on the one hand; distributed representations, activation vectors, fuzzy combinations on the other. There were only two problems: I couldn’t see a role for Millikan in the debate, and at least 80% of the dialogue would be fictitious: there wasn’t a lot of material I could directly quote.

Which to do? Safe but pedestrian, or edgy but speculative and incomplete? In the end, I played it safe – but I think I’ll write up the other one anyway, just for my own satisfaction.

Categories
Atheism

Getting a sense of perspective

In his weekly opinion piece for the BBC, the British political commentator (and ex-Labour MP) Brian Walden wrote: “Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, wrote something recently that chilled me to the bone. Sir Martin is the winner of the Michael Faraday Prize awarded annually by the Royal Society for excellence in communicating scientific ideas in lay terms. In my case he did almost too good a job. He pointed out that though the idea of evolution is well-known, the vast potential for further evolution isn’t yet part of our common culture. He then gave an example. He said: ‘It will not be humans who witness the demise of the Sun six billion years hence; it will be entities as different from us as we are from bacteria.’

Now, why should this chill someone to the bone? After all, we’ve known for about a century that humans have only been around for a tiny fraction of the lifetime of this planet, let alone the universe. Furthermore the extrapolation of this pattern to the future is not scientifically hard. There’s no reason to believe that evolution stopped once homo sapiens arrived on the scene.

But then Walden brings in religion. “A growing number of people believe that we need a fresh dialogue between science and religion. I mean religion in its widest sense – a belief in the value of human life. [Don’t use those code-words, Brian.] Apparently the direction of scientific progress means that we have to make moral judgements about what’s permissible and what isn’t. We need a moral consensus. Most emphatically, I don’t mean that we need to create a sort of blancmange morality that wobbles about, containing a bit of God, a bit of physics, a dash of Catholicism plus a smattering of Buddhism and a few sprigs of well-meaning atheism. That kind of ethical coalition wouldn’t survive, and we need something that will. What we all need is to acknowledge our interdependency.”

I’m all for a robust debate about ethics, for creating a coalition that will survive. But I’m not sure that religion as we presently understand it is capable of adapting to this role. We’ve just gone through a series of religious holidays in which everybody – bloggers, magazine editors, broadcasters, politicians – seem fixated on a handful of people, events, places, and ideas from a brief period of time, roughly 2500 to 1500 years ago. It’s going to be hard to open your mind to the future if you insist that some historical events are uniquely privileged. Forget about six billion years: a hundred thousand years from now, nobody will remember, or care about, any of those ideas.

If Walden wants to talk about “religion in its widest sense”, I suspect most of his opposition will come from those who espouse religion in the narrowest and most retrograde sense. Perhaps we need a new label. Humanism? In the meantime, he might want to contemplate the role that religion’s historically narrow perspective may have played in creating an intellectual climate in which cosmology “chills him to the bone.”

Thought for the day: “When Kepler found his long-cherished belief did not agree with the most precise observation, he accepted the uncomfortable fact. He preferred the hard truth to his dearest illusions: that is the heart of science.”Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Categories
Computing

The dirty little secret of the computer biz

I spent several hours on Saturday replacing the CPU fan on my wife’s computer. The old one had started making a noise like a vacuum cleaner that you could hear all over the house. It’s an middle-of-the-road PC, a bland eMachines box with a ~900MHz Celeron. We talked about replacing it with a Mac Mini, but there’s plenty of life in the old system and it seemed wasteful to replace it unnecessarily.

While I was disassembling the innards to get at the CPU, I took the opportunity to clean out the dust from the power supply fan and replace the video adapter with something a little more functional. When it was all back together, I ran some tests and spent a few minutes upgrading her copies of Firefox and Thunderbird to the latest releases. Nothing earth-shattering: the parts cost about $60 at CompUSA. The biggest challenge was bending the spring clip on the fan to fit more securely onto the tabs on the CPU’s ZIF socket.

The point is, there’s no way she could have done all of this stuff herself: it’s just too complicated. A nice piece on the BBC website makes the point: “But all the people who called me had one thing in common: they were at their wits’ end because they had bought computers after being seduced by advertising into thinking that they would be easy to use and fun, but had found them to be much more complicated than they had expected. And most importantly, none of them knew what to do or where to turn for help.”

I’ve decided that in future I’ll recommend that people get laptops. Not because they need the mobility, not because it’s cheaper (it isn’t) or more comfortable (most laptop keyboards suck), but because if when things go wrong, they can simply fold up the computer and carry it to a human being, to get help.

Categories
Hmmm

Oi! US TV!! We want our Doctor Who!!!

The first episode of the new Doctor Who series just aired in the UK. Reports from colleagues such as Chris and Dave are positive. So why are we in the US having to wait? From the BBC’s FAQ:

Q. Will the new series be aired outside the UK?

A. So far, we only have confirmation that the new series has been bought by CBC television in Canada, who air it on Tuesdays at 7pm, starting on April 5, and Prime TV in New Zealand, who have not yet announced an air date. No Australian or US broadcaster has picked up the series yet.

AARGH!!!!

Categories
Computing

Tim, Rio, Jini, Rob

Over in ongoing · Java, the Grid, and Rio, Tim was “thinking about how you’d run a big distributed Java system as a service across a whole lot of networked computers”. Dan Templeton pointed him at Rio, and I followed up with a link to the papers from last December’s Jini Community Meeting in London. And I remembered a comment by Rob Gingell, adapting Santayana: “Those who do not use Jini are doomed to reinvent it.”

Categories
Politics

Balkin on the lessons to be learned from the Schiavo case

In a series of pieces in Balkinization, Professor Jack Balkin of Yale Law School goes into detail on the constitutional aspects of the Schiavo case. But his closing words on one particular entry were particularly acute:

“Finally, the Congressional Republicans’ moves also suggest that if Roe v. Wade were overturned, the matter would not be left to the states, as so many pro-life politicians have advocated in the past, but would quickly become a fight over federal legislation outlawing abortion nationwide. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Indeed. This is more than just Tom DeLay and his henchmen grandstanding to please their base: it’s a real test of the US Constitution.

Categories
Blogosphere

An offer I couldn't refuse….


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Categories
Hmmm

Crumbs!

Merry complained that I’m always blogging about unpleasant things – why can’t I blog about something nice? How about the crumb test dummy? I think that qualifies. Now, how do I get my hands on some of those McVitie’s Milk Chocolate and Orange Digestives?