Why is this hard to understand?

As an employee, enthusiastic Mac user, and life-long lover of Marmite, this story in the Register about “Amazon’s offer of a 12-pot pack of Marmite with a copy of Apple’s .Mac online service” is completely unsurprising. (Though I do wonder why it showed up in the Hardware news….)


The wettest month on record

From The Seattle Times

Puget Sound-area residents spent much of Wednesday bracing for another anticipated snowstorm…. But the predicted snow was interrupted off and on with rain and November became Seattle’s wettest month on record. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport reported a monthly total of 15.37 inches late Wednesday, breaking the previous record of 15.33 inches….
At 10 p.m. Wednesday, snow was still falling in many parts of the city. Queen Anne Avenue, the major thoroughfare on Queen Anne Hill, was closed because of snow and police officers were chaining up the tires on their cruisers…. But by [Thursday morning] rain [will be] starting to wash away the snow that had accumulated since Sunday.

Seattle articulated hybrid bus
I must say that this is the first time I’ve seen snow chains on the rear wheels of bendy buses. Quite impressive. I wonder what happens to the bending mechanism if one of those buses starts to skid…..


This is a test. It is only a test. Please ignore this test.

Via Pharyngula:
“Get on your blog, link to, and let’s see how quickly we can saturate the blogosphere.”


Massachusetts drivers may be notoriously bad, but at least they can drive in snow

Back in the north-east, a couple of inches of light snow would barely make the front page of the local section of the Globe. But here in Seattle….

Drivers inching their way through the evening commute cursed the snow that returned to the Puget Sound region this afternoon, shutting down at least one highway and essentially turning others into parking lots for several hours.

Police couldn’t keep up with cars careening across freeways, chain-reaction fender benders and motorists abandoning their vehicles on suburban roads. For the first time in at least a decade, Highway 9, a major thoroughfare in Snohomish County, was shut down much of the night because it became “a complete sheet of ice,” said Trooper Keith Leary.

Hmmm. Don’t they have sanding trucks around here?

UPDATE: Well, I was probably unfair to Seattlites. It looks as if things turned to freezing rain, which is no fun in any location. And with these steep hills…. Apparently some people who went to last night’s football game found themselves unable to get home. The office is really quiet this morning, and there’s been a steady stream of “WFH” (working from home) emails coming through.


"Greetings, pop pickers"

First John Peel, now ‘Fluff’. RIP


Test your tonedeafness

Tim Bray alerted me to a fascinating on-line test of pitch perception, called Test your musical skills in 6 minutes!

While working at the music and neuroimaging lab at Beth Israel/Harvard Medical School in Boston, I developed a quick online way to screen for the tonedeafness. It actually turned out to be a pretty good test to check for overall pitch perception ability. The test is purposefully made very hard, so excellent musicians rarely score above 80% correct. Give it a try!

To my amazement, I scored 94.4%.


Optimism in its purest form

I just checked in (online) for my flights back to Seattle on Sunday. I’m due to depart Boston at 6:00am and land at IAD (Washington Dulles) at 7:49am; allow a few extra minutes to taxi to the gate. Meanwhile my flight from IAD to SEA is supposed to start boarding at 7:50am, and to push back at 8:20am.

Oh yes: the BOS-IAD flight has an 87% on-time record.

Wish me luck….



FIRST TEST, BRISBANE, DAY TWO (close): Australia 602-9 dec v England 53-3


Pinker rips Harvard on the balance between science and religion

Via Charles and the WNMTC* list comes this forthright piece by Steven Pinker on the subject of Harvard’s Report of the Committee on General Education. First, he objects to the way in which the Science and Technology Requirement is justified:

The report goes on to emphasize the relevance of science to current concerns like global warming and stem-cell research. It even mandates that courses which fulfill the Science and Technology requirement “frame this material in the context of social issues” (a stipulation that is absent from other requirements). But surely there is more to being knowledgeable in science than being able to follow the news. And surely our general science courses should aim to be more than semester-long versions of “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Pinker argues that the importance of science is intrinsic, in language that expresses more eloquently the position that I expressed in my last blog piece (my emphasis):

Also, the picture of humanity’s place in nature that has emerged from scientific inquiry has profound consequences for people’s understanding of the human condition. The discoveries of science have cascading effects, many unforeseeable, on how we view ourselves and the world in which we live: for example, that our planet is an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos; that all the hope and ingenuity in the world can’t create energy or use it without loss; that our species has existed for a tiny fraction of the history of the earth; that humans are primates; that the mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes; that there are methods for ascertaining the truth that can force us to conclusions which violate common sense, sometimes radically so at scales very large and very small; that precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified.
I believe that a person for whom this understanding is not second-nature cannot be said to be educated. And I think that some acknowledgment of the intrinsic value of scientific knowledge should be a goal of the general education requirement and a stated value of a university.

Pinker then rips into the Reason and Faith Requirement:

First, the word “faith” in this and many other contexts, is a euphemism for “religion”…. A university should not try to hide what it is studying in warm-and-fuzzy code words.
Second, the juxtaposition of the two words makes it sound like “faith” and “reason” are parallel and equivalent ways of knowing[…]. But universities are about reason, pure and simple. Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for “Astronomy and Astrology”… [I]t may be true that astrology deserves study as a significant historical and sociological phenomenon. But it would be a terrible mistake to juxtapose it with astronomy, if only for the false appearance of symmetry….
Third, if this is meant to educate students about the role of religion in history and current affairs, why isn’t it just a part of the “U.S. and the World” requirement? Religion is an important force, to be sure, but so are nationalism, ethnicity, socialism, markets, nepotism, class, and globalization. Why single religion out among all the major forces in history?

He concludes:

For us to magnify the significance of religion as a topic equivalent in scope to all of science, all of culture, or all of world history and current affairs, is to give it far too much prominence. It is an American anachronism, I think, in an era in which the rest of the West is moving beyond it.


* Whining-no-make-that-commentary.


How do people reconcile science with the idea of an afterlife?

In all of the recent brouhaha over theism, atheism, and science (especially evolution), there’s one question which I haven’t seen much discussed. Since I can’t see an obvious answer, I thought I’d blog about it.
This question is specifically addressed to those people who accept the current state of brain science, and who also themselves as Christians (or Muslims, I guess). What kind of “brain science” am I talking about? Well, check out Wikipedia on neuropsychology, specifically cognitive neuropsychology. Read about the ground-breaking Phineas Gage and HM cases. Do you find these accounts convincing? Are they consistent with the relationship between the brain – its physical structures and electrochemical operation – and human behaviour, personality, cognition, and so forth? Of course we don’t understand all of the mechanisms and relationships today, but if you believe that science is broadly “on the right track” in these areas, then I’m talking to you.
I have no idea how many people meet these two criteria, but I assume it’s quite a large number. My question for them is not about belief in god. I’ve heard so many different definitions of the term “god” from so many people that, frankly, I’m not sure that it’s particularly useful. Instead, I want to know if you believe in life after death, and if so how you imagine it. Do you believe that you continue to exist after your physical body is dead, and if so in what form? Pehaps more important, in what sense is that which survives you? Does it have your memories, your personality, your beliefs and desires?
It seems to me that this question ought to be more productive than one about god. After all, we have a rich culture of stories revolving around notions of identity, “possession”, and so forth, from Greek mythology to Kafka to Star Trek. We may disagree on the plausibility of certain stories, but we don’t have much difficulty understanding and discussing them. So even if you can’t explain what it might be that survives you, you probably have an intuitive and accessible sense of what it means for it to be you that survives.
I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this question, but let me elaborate a bit, assuming that you believe in life after death. (If you don’t, I’m curious as to how you square this with your professed religious affiliation.)
First, how do you conceive of this something that lives on? (You probably use some term like “spirit” or “soul”, but those are ambiguous and suggestive; let’s just call it WPAYPD, for what persists after your physical death). You’ll have to educate me, because I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about here. Even if you can’t explain what it is, can you at least explain in what way it is you? What characteristics does it possess? How are these characteristics of your WPAYPD related to the stuff your brain does?
[A short digression. When I say that I don’t have any idea about this, I’m talking about the explanatory step, not the intuitive one. I’m pretty sure that you and I experience first-person consciousness in very much the same way. However when I think about “what’s really going on”, I understand it purely as “natural processes happening in my physical brain”, with no supernatural stuff involved. I’m pretty sure that people who believe in life after death have a different explanation, but I have no idea what it is.]
However you conceive of the relationship between brain and WPAYPD, I assume (correct me if I’m wrong!) that you believe that this relationship ends at the moment your brain ceases to function. Does that mean that the enduring properties of WPAYPD are determined by the state of your brain at the moment of death? If so, I wonder if you could comment on this thought experiment.
Let’s consider three plausible scenarios. In one, you live a happy life and die suddenly from a massive coronary on your 40th birthday. WPAYPD continues to exist. It has certain characteristics. In the second scenario, you suffer a Gage-like acident on your 40th birthday. You live for 10 years, during which time your personality and beliefs are observed to change dramatically. You become morose and belligerent. Then you die, survived by your WPAYPD. Are these two WPAYPDs the same, or different? Why – and how? If it makes sense for your WPAYPD to have a “personality”, is it happy or morose?
In the third senario, you contract a wasting neurological condition which leads to an inexorable loss of brain function. By the time you actually die, your brain has shrivelled to almost nothing, and you are effectively a vegetable. What of your WPAYPD now?
(When I mentioned this to a friend, he said, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s the real you” But this means that the “real” you is necessarily a-temporal and non-contingent, which seems deeply impoverishing, not to mention incompatible with the variety of free will that most religions espouse.)
Most believers think of life after death, souls, spirits, etc. as stuff which is intrinsically supernatural; they’d argue that it doesn’t make sense to ask for a natural explanation of a supernatural phenomenon. That’s why discussions of god between theists and atheists are often so unproductive. However, in this case the believer in life after death is talking about supernatural concepts that are intimately related to our intuitive notion of “self”, as well as our scientific understanding of mind, brain, and behaviour. So how do you think (or feel) about the relationship between the natural and supernatural, as it applies to the idea of life after death? Compartmentalization? A “mystery”? Predestination? And do you appreciate why I’m puzzled about how you deal with it?