Pondering the question….

OK: if I was editor of the EDGE, what question would I pose to the pundits? And how about you? Feel free to comment with your suggestions.

EDGE is please to announce that this year’s EDGE Annual Question – 2006 will be published on New Year’s Eve online at http://www.edge.org. The Question, and the responses to date, are under wraps until that time and the press is under an embargo not to publish prior to their January 1st editions. I can promise that this is one of the best yet and you can have a wonderful New Year’s Day browsing through the deep and rich responses to this year’s provocative Question.
Last year, the 2005 EDGE Question – “What Do you Believe Is True even Though You Cannot Prove It?” – generated many eye-opening responses from a “who’s who” of third culture scientists and science-minded thinkers. The 120 contributions comprised a document of 60,000 words. The New York Times (“Science Times”) And Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (“Feuilliton”) co-published by running excerpts in their print and online editions simultaneously with EDGE online publication.

Last year’s contributions were wonderful: definitely worth re-reading.

Even the Washington Times? Wow….

This is from an op-ed in The Washington Times (hardly part of the mythical “liberal MSM”) by Bruce Fein who served in Reagan’s Justice Department and is as conservative as they come:

According to President George W. Bush, being president in wartime means never having to concede co-equal branches of government have a role when it comes to hidden encroachments on civil liberties.
Last Saturday, he thus aggressively defended the constitutionality of his secret order to the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on the international communications of Americans whom the executive branch speculates might be tied to terrorists. Authorized after the September 11, 2001 abominations, the eavesdropping clashes with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), excludes judicial or legislative oversight, and circumvented public accountability for four years until disclosed by the New York Times last Friday. Mr. Bush’s defense generally echoed previous outlandish assertions that the commander in chief enjoys inherent constitutional power to ignore customary congressional, judicial or public checks on executive tyranny under the banner of defeating international terrorism, for example, defying treaty or statutory prohibitions on torture or indefinitely detaining United States citizens as illegal combatants on the president’s say-so.
President Bush presents a clear and present danger to the rule of law. He cannot be trusted to conduct the war against global terrorism with a decent respect for civil liberties and checks against executive abuses. Congress should swiftly enact a code that would require Mr. Bush to obtain legislative consent for every counterterrorism measure that would materially impair individual freedoms.

[Via BoingBoing.]

Defining seasons

Most people are well aware of the fact that English and American are two different languages. Amazon.com and the WWW are full of dictionaries and lists pointing out the different meanings of words like “pavement”, “boot”, “fanny”, and so forth. But one thing that is rarely mentioned is the difference in meaning of the words that identify the seasons of the year. And I’m not just talking about “fall” vs. “autumn”. For example, Alec just blogged

By this evening, winter will be half-over and the days will begin to lengthen in the northern hemisphere once more!

In both England and America, the seasons are defined by the equinoxes and solstices. However in the US, a season begins with the event in question, while in England the season is (approximately) centred on the event. At my primary school (Braintcroft, in London NW2), I was taught:

  • Winter: December, January, February
  • Spring: March, April, May
  • Summer: June, July, August
  • Autumn: September, October, November

Most of the time the difference is innocuous, but occasionally it causes confusion. For example, I was on a conference call yesterday which included Sun engineers from the US, UK, and other countries. Alec (again!) asked when the next meeting was due to take place, because he was concerned that the schedule was drifting: yesterday’s meeting had been advertised as the “Fall Review” and it had slipped into winter. Nobody remarked upon this at the time. I wonder how many of the people on the call realized that yesterday (December 20) was both the middle of winter for the English and the last day of fall for the Americans.
And then of course there are the Aussies…..

Bare-faced lying, innit?

I wonder how he’ll explain away this:

In 2004 and 2005, Bush repeatedly argued that the controversial Patriot Act package of anti-terrorism laws safeguards civil liberties because US authorities still need a warrant to tap telephones in the United States.
“Any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires — a wiretap requires a court order,” he said on April 20, 2004 in Buffalo, New York.

Except when it doesn’t, apparently.

Sometimes I just don't understand Amazon….

I just received an email from Amazon.com, apologizing profusely for the fact that a book I’d ordered would not, in fact, be delivered before Christmas. The new estimated delivery date is December 28.

We are sorry not to have met your expectations for this important order. We do value your business, and hope that you continue to favor Amazon.com for your online shopping needs.

That’s odd, because the book in question – Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell : Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is scheduled to be published on February 2…

It's official: silly season now runs from January to December

So Alonso will join McLaren in 2007. These announcements of team changes are getting earlier and earlier, and they really mess things up. Who’s Renault going to support when the chips are down – Fisichella or Alonso? And this kind of thing only happens in F1, as far as I can see. Can you imagine Van Nistelrooy playing for Manchester United against Chelsea when it was known that he had already signed for Chelsea next season? F1 is a team sport, and announcements of changes should take effect immediately. And then we could avoid nonsensical stuff like this from Alonso:

“I’m pleased that we are able to make this announcement now as it will allow my current team and I to focus 100% on defending the world championship next year.”

Yeah, right.

My #1 book of 2005: Dawkins' "The Ancestor's Tale"

I just posted a review of Richard Dawkins’ “The Ancestor’s Tale” to Amazon.com. I’m reproducing it here:

Dawkins has written more important books: “The Blind Watchmaker” and “The Selfish Gene” were essential reading for all. He’s written more academic books: “The Extended Phenotype” dots all the i’s and crosses every t. And he’s written more impassioned books: “A Devil’s Chaplain” contains wonderful, heartfelt essays.
But for me “The Ancestor’s Tale” beats them all. People joke about “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things”, but Dawkins shows how much we know about the truth of this. The scope is breath-taking – in time, in detail, and in the range of perspectives that he invites us to share. I read this book during a week-long business trip, and Dawkins’ device of a pilgrimage seemed particularly apt: I savoured every moment, and finished it just as I arrived home.
One of the most important stories in the book is “The Salamander’s Tale”, in which Dawkins considers what he calls “the tyranny of the discontinuous mind”. He starts out with the familiar account of “ring species” such as gulls and salamanders, and arrives, with Mayr, at the judgement that it took us so long to arrive at the idea of evolution because of Platonic essentialism. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS ESSENCE. Dawkins doesn’t directly assert what seems obvious to me – that religious opposition to evolution arises from essentialism – but he makes clear just how destructively essentialism continues to bedevil science. And when I concluded that story, I was almost startled to realize that it comes less than half way through the book, at rendezvous 17 out of 39. After amphibians we still have to meet fishes, worms, cnidarians, fungi, plants, and so on, leading up to the Great Rendezvous and thence to Canterbury – the first replicator.
At the end, I found myself in awe of how much we humans know, how much we’ve discovered about life, how rich and multifaceted that knowledge is, and how much more there is to learn. “The Ancestor’s Tale” is without doubt the best book I’ve read in 2005; I expect that it’ll be one of those few books that I return to again and again.

[And thanks, Tom, for lending me your copy. I will have to buy my own, of course.]

"If you're not a terrorist, you have nothing to worry about." Yeah, right… HOAX?

UPDATE: OK, so this is now revealed as a hoax. But it has led many people to come forward with their own stories of similar incidents – see Juan Cole’s piece here.
UPDATE: Over at BoingBoing there’s a lively debate about whether this is actually a hoax.
It’s a lousy time to study 20th century history in the USA. Case in point:

A senior at UMass Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung’s tome on Communism called “The Little Red Book.”
Two history professors at UMass Dartmouth, Brian Glyn Williams and Robert Pontbriand, said the student told them he requested the book through the UMass Dartmouth library’s interlibrary loan program.
The student, who was completing a research paper on Communism for Professor Pontbriand’s class on fascism and totalitarianism, filled out a form for the request, leaving his name, address, phone number and Social Security number. He was later visited at his parents’ home in New Bedford by two agents of the Department of Homeland Security, the professors said.

Quite apart from the intimations of “1984”, I can’t help but be appalled at the extraordinary inefficiency, wastefulness, and pointlessness of the whole effort. Of course chasing student inter-library loans is a good way of creating a public illusion of frantic activity, and it’s a lot easier than actually figuring out how to secure the homeland.
UPDATE: Over at Boing Boing they’ve pointed out that this terrorist document is available from Amazon.com. I think we should each buy a copy and then invite the young men from the DHS [why do I always visualize them as Mormon missionaries?] over for a nice cup of tea and a sit-down.