I had planned to get up this morning and write a blog piece about the wonderful Al Stewart show that I attended in Bellevue last night. However when I woke up I realized that my “dream match” was on TV – Arsenal vs. Manchester United. Two great teams, both on top of their game. (I don’t follow one particular team, but I really like Arsenal, Manchester United, and Liverpool.) So blogging has had to wait until half time (i.e. now). At this point it’s scoreless, but the action has been spellbinding.
As for the Al Stewart show, here’s the setlist, taken from the Al mailing list:
Dave Nachmanoff
Al Stewart with Dave Nachmanoff
FIELDS OF FRANCE — Dave on piano
YEAR OF THE CAT — intro by Dave on piano, then a key change for the rest of it on guitars!
OK, I’ve got to get back to the second half of the match. More later.
UPDATE: What a wonderful game. The final: Arsenal 2, Manchester United 1. Excellent goals from Rooney and Van Persie, then a confident winner from Thierry Henry 2 minutes into stoppage time. (And of course Chelsea will be really glad about this after their drubbing by Liverpool yesterday.)


I was thinking about blogging on the subject of HDTV, but Andrew beat me to the punch with a piece that says pretty much everything I was going to say. Some of the content on the Discovery Channel is mesmerising in its beauty.
And despite the fact that the set-top box, TV, home theatre, and game console all come from different vendors, it all plays together tolerably well. In fact my only complaint is with the RCA home theatre box: when I’m watching cable TV, I route the audio through the AUX1 input of the home theatre, so I’m regularly switching the unit between DVD and AUX1 modes. Every time I do this, the box forgets its settings! This means that the next time I want to watch a DVD I have to remember to wait until the disc is loaded and then reconfigure from the default (4:3/480i) to 16:9/1080i. Oh, well. At least it plays both NTSC and PAL DVDs.

Thought for the day

From a letter to The Guardian about the recent protests in London against legislation banning discrimination against homosexuals:

If those Christians protesting outside parliament against the sexual orientation regulations were the exception, why did four out of the five bishops inside parliament vote against the rules?
Andrew Copson
British Humanist Association

Random 10

  • “Night Comes On” by Leonard Cohen (from Various Positions) I’ve been listening to lots of Leonard Cohen recently.
  • “Suzanne” by Judy Collins (from Colors Of The Day)
  • “The Ballad Of Ron And Popo” by the Legendary Pink Dots (from Chemical Playschool Volume 9) Just to prove I don’t usually edit these lists: this is probably the most obscure and inaccessible track of all 398 LPD tracks in my library – and that’s saying something!
  • “Dan Solo (Album Edit)” by Groove Armada (from Northern Star) Bossa nova groove…
  • “In Formaldehyde” by Porcupine Tree (from Recordings) Interesting… this is a really nice (7/10) track that I tend to overlook, because it’s in the middle of an album of stunning tracks, all 9/10 or 10/10.
  • “Flatlands” by Delerium (from Semantic Spaces) I was discussing Delerium with Hannah just now… I like Semantic Spaces, but it’s a bit too Enigma-like to really stand out…. She recommends Chimera to see what Rhys Fulber and Bill Leeb are really doing with this project.
  • “Fly Like An Eagle” by the Steve Miller Band (from King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents…) I prefer Steve Miller’s earlier work – from Children Of The Future to Number 5, but this is a good live version of his biggest hit.
  • “All The Roadrunning” by Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris (from All The Roadrunning)
  • “Step” by Patrick O’Hearn (from THe Private Music Of Patrick O’Hearn)
  • “The Weeping Song” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (from The Best Of Nick Cave) I bought this album years ago, but I still feel that I haven’t got into it yet. I’m not sure what I need to do to make contact, but several friends assure me that it’s worth the effort.

Most compelling opening paragraph for a blog entry

How could anyone read the first few sentences of this piece in Good Math, Bad Math and not be hooked?

I decided that for today, I’d show the most thoroughly evil programming language ever devised. This is a language so thoroughly evil that it’s named Malbolge after a circle of hell. It’s so evil that it’s own designer was not able to write a hello world program! In fact, the only way that anyone managed to write a “Hello World” was by designing a genetic algorithm to create one.

Be sure to read the comments, because the author admits that he made several mistakes when writing the piece. I think that these were clearly self-protective attempts by his unconscious mind to deflect the full force of the evil….

Blackburn on Bernard Williams

While I’m on the subject of Simon Blackburn, here’s his review in TNR of the posthumous collections of essays by one of the most important philosophers of the last 100 years, Bernard Williams. I was particularly struck by Williams’ elegant treatment of the difference between science and the humanities. For example… but no, I shall resist the temptation to excerpt the piece. It’s worth reading in full.

Being British

Even though I’ve lived in the US for the last 26 years, I’ve never gone through the process of acquiring US citizenship; I’m still a “resident alien”. When I’m filling out application forms, or checking in at hotels, I enter “United Kingdom” for the country that issues my passport. And for the most part I think of myself as British, not English. But according to this article in the Expat Telegraph, my position seems to be increasingly unfashionable. It’s unclear whether the Union between England and Scotland will survive – or whether it should.
It would be nice to think that this is the kind of issue that is clarified by a little distance. From over here in Seattle, undisturbed by the day-to-day bustle of British politics and media, surely I should be able to view the matter more clearly, more dispassionately. Unfortunately not. “On the one hand… on the other hand…”, and I rapidly run out of hands. For example: what do the Scots really want? The author makes a good point: “The dilemma for many Scots is that because the Conservatives are so weak there, those who want to get rid of Labour have nowhere to go but the SNP. The protest vote, by default, becomes an expression of nationalism.”
His conclusion: put the whole thing to a vote. If the majority of Scots really believe that they’d be better off on their own, so be it. But hopefully they won’t.

Blackburn on Truth, philosophy, and Dawkins

[Bear with me on this one, OK?] I’ve recently started reading Butterflies and Wheels, prompted in part by the enthusiastic review that they gave to Frederick Crews’ wonderful Follies of the Wise. Today they linked to an interview by Nigel Warburton with Simon Blackburn, professor of philosophy at Cambridge. I blogged about his latest book, Truth, a year and a half ago; in the new interview, Blackburn displays the elegant style that I applauded then. For example, here he is on everybody’s favourite whipping-boy: relativism.

Nigel: Has relativism had its day as an influential philosophical position?
Simon: No – and I don’t think it should ever die. The danger is that it gets replaced by some kind of complacent dogmatism, which is at least equally unhealthy. The Greek sceptics thought that confronting a plurality of perspectives is the beginning of wisdom, and I think they were right. It is certainly the beginning of historiography and anthropology, and if we think, for instance, of the Copernican revolution, of self-conscious science. The trick is to benefit from an imaginative awareness of diversity, without falling into a kind of “anything goes” wishy-washy nihilism or scepticism. My book tries to steer a course to help us to do that, but the going is fairly rough at times!

Enjoying Blackburn’s style, I clicked through to his web site (quite Hofstadter-like in its self reference), and after a little browsing I came across his review of Richard Dawkins’ A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. It was wonderful: vintage Blackburn, presenting an appreciative yet balanced view of Dawkins. First, appreciation of Dawkins on evolution:

[O]ne essay in particular, ‘Darwin Triumphant’ is a marvelous statement of the methodology and status of current evolutionary theory. Indeed, I should judge it the best such introduction there is, and it ought to be the first port of call for know-nothings and saloon-bar skeptics about the nature and power of Darwinian theory. In it Dawkins shows his uncanny ability to combine what might seem light and introductory material with actual heavyweight contributions to theory. Here he moves seamlessly from introducing ‘core Darwinism’ to answering a question left open by Francis Crick. The clarity of his writing is astonishing. This is his description of core Darwinism: ‘the minimal theory that evolution is guided in adaptively nonrandom directions by the nonrandom survival of small random hereditary changes’. Every word counts; none could be omitted and for the purposes of definition no more are needed. It is immediately obvious that core Dawinism is compatible with random genetic drift (where no adaptive advantage accrues because of a change) or with external catastrophic interference, as in the destruction of the dinosaurs, yet much ink has been spilled on such misunderstandings. Here is one part of his answer to Crick, talking of the way in which Lamarkian inheritance, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, could not be as efficient as natural selection: ‘If acquired characteristics were indiscriminately inherited, organisms would be walking museums of ancestral decrepitude, pock-marked from ancestral plagues, limping relics of ancestral misfortune’. Almost any page will show similar gems.

Then on religion. According to Dawkins,

Religion is superstition, like astrology, alternative medicine, and the rest. He likes an example of Bertrand Russell’s in which we consider the hypothesis that there is a china teapot orbiting the sun. Someone might believe that, but there are many reasons for supposing it false and none at all for supposing it true. Dawkins is right that it would be simply silly to say, for instance, to set store by the statement that the belief cannot be disproved. It may depend on your standards of proof, but in any event it is as unlikely as can be, and as unlikely as any of the infinite number of equally outlandish possible beliefs that we all ignore all the time.
It might seem not to matter too much if someone convinces himself that there is such a teapot. But Dawkins might side, as I would, with the Victorian mathematician and writer W. K. Clifford, whose famous essay ‘The Ethics of Belief’ excoriated our ‘right’ to believe pretty much what we like:
In like manner, if I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery.
But the real and present danger lies not so much here, but in what the belief in the teapot waits to do. To become anything worth calling a religious belief, it needs to connect with our form of life, our way of being in the world. Perhaps out of its spout come instructions on how to behave, who to shun and who to persecute, how to eat and what to wear. Now the teapot becomes an object of veneration, and controversy. It needs interpreting. It needs a dedicated class of men (usually men) to give authoritative renderings of its texts and their meanings. In short, it has become a religious icon, and dangerous.
It has also stopped being a teapot, or merely a teapot (just as Duchamp’s urinal in an art gallery stops being merely a urinal: it is the audience’s take on it that matters, not the china). It will have started, for instance, to be a sin not to believe in this teapot, although normally it is no sin to doubt the existence of anything. The teapot may have become eternal, although natural teapots are not. In fact, at this point we can forget the teapot qua teapot, and look straight at the institutions it supports and the instructions and the way of life into which it gets woven. The factual component is not the bit that does the work. The teapot is merely a prop in the game, and an imaginary teapot serves just as well.

And finally a cautious note about Dawkins’ rhetorical skills:

There is of course, no reason at all why biology, like any other science, should not give terms a technical use. But our words control us at least as much as we control them, and I am not convinced that in places such as these Dawkins is in such perfect control as he is in general. Consider, for instance, the idea that we alone on earth can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators. What is the stripped-down, clean, biological truth intended by such language? Like all other living things we have genes. We also have psychologies; that is, in accordance with our genetic recipes and chemical environments, brains have formed, so that we think and desire and grow into the culture around us. But what is all this about rebelling and tyranny? A tyrant may tell me to do something, and rebelling I do something else. What is the analogy? Perhaps an occasion when I really want to do something, but control myself and do something else instead? But why describe this as a case of defying my genes? You might as well say that I am rebelling against my brain, whereas the fact is just that I am using it. It is only Cartesian dualists (religious people) who go in for opposing what nature would have me do against what I, the real me, does. And it is not even true that alone on earth we can exercise self-control. A dog may resist the temptation to take a biscuit, having been told not to do so.
It seems, then, that there are three levels at which to read Dawkins on such matters. There is strict science, empirical, verifiable and falsifiable. There is the value of the gene’s eye view or the meme’s eye view, giving us some surplus meaning: a guiding metaphor or way of thinking of things, earning its keep through prompting more strict science. And there is the third, rhetorical level, where the surplus meaning might mislead the lay person, but which is in Dawkins’s view easily detachable and disavowed. I have some doubts about this last claim, but the more important question for science is whether when the bad surplus meaning goes, everything goes.

Good stuff.

Torture as a distraction?

Andrew Sullivan just posted about “the terrible abuse of power and the constitution in the Padilla case, one of the most important cases in the history of American liberty”. He links to Dahlia Lithwick, who concludes that:

The destruction of Al Dossari, Jose Padilla, Zacarias Moussaoui, and some of our most basic civil liberties was never a purpose or a goal—it was a mere byproduct. The true purpose is more abstract and more tragic: To establish a clunky post-Watergate dream of an imperial presidency, whatever the human cost may be.

And I found myself wondering whether the deliberately inflicted mental breakdown of Padilla was simply a distraction: a way of getting people arguing whether sensory deprivation and isolation deserves the label “torture”, and thereby overlooking the far more far-reaching constitutional question. I ask myself whether this administration is capable of such a deeply cynical and amoral move – torture as a PR ploy – and it’s hard to resist an affirmative answer.