I now understand why so many reviewers have said that Hats by The Blue Nile is such a perfect album to listen to through really good headphones, at night, with the lights out, with no distractions and no pressure of time. The only puzzle is how I managed to miss this since its release in 1989. (I only found it now because I was fooling around with liveplasma while checking out iWOW, and I decided to plug Prefab Sprout into both liveplasma and iTunes. Several clicks later, I landed on Blue Nile, and the rest is between me, the iTMS, and my credit card provider.)



The vast majority of my music collection is stored on my PowerBook, ((The CDs are archived back in Massachusetts)) and when I’m in my apartment I listen to it using iTunes. (I either use headphones or stream it via WiFi to my home theatre system.) The whole setup has been very satisfactory, but there was room for improvement. After a tip-off from Gene, I downloaded a plugin for iTunes called iWOW, from SRS Labs. I’d come across this company before; I have a pair of noise-cancelling headphones from Sharper Image which incorporate SRS technology.
I was blown away. The plugin allows you to manipulate the stereo separation, position, and definition in various ways; there are presets for various kinds of music and output devices. Try this: set iWOW up the way you want, then turn it off, start playing a familiar track, and turn iWOW on half way through. The effect is remarkable: a vast improvement over unmodified iTunes. There are also some cute tricks you can play: by turning down the “virtual centre speaker” you can eliminate most of the vocals, creating a kind of karaoke mode!
I used the free trial for a week, then shelled out $19.99 to register it. Well worth the money. Now if only I had an iWOW plugin for my iPod…


Why? Why not?

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean offers a nice piece on one of those annoying questions that keeps on popping up: Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? Many religious thinkers have tried to weave this into an argument for the existence of God (or at least some kind of First Cause), but none of them stand up to serious scrutiny. There is, for example, the idea that non-existence would be “simpler” than existence, and so some kind of prime mover is necessary.

It’s easy to get tricked into thinking that simplicity is somehow preferable. After all, Occam’s Razor exhorts us to stick to simple explanations. But that’s a way to compare different explanations that equivalently account for the same sets of facts; comparing different sets of possible underlying rules for the universe is a different kettle of fish entirely.

And he points out that it’s critical to distinguish between “simpler” in the Occam sense and “simplicity” as an aesthetic preference:

And, to be honest, it’s true that most working physicists have a hope (or a prejudice) that the principles underlying our universe are in fact pretty simple. But that’s simply an expression of our selfish desire, not a philosophical precondition on the space of possible universes. When it comes to the actual universe, ultimately we’ll just have to take what we get.

As Sean concludes, the problem is that we’re making a kind of category mistake in even asking the question:

Ultimately, the problem is that the question — “Why is there something rather than nothing?” — doesn’t make any sense. What kind of answer could possibly count as satisfying? What could a claim like “The most natural universe is one that doesn’t exist” possibly mean? As often happens, we are led astray by imagining that we can apply the kinds of language we use in talking about contingent pieces of the world around us to the universe as a whole.


Hitchens on Cantuar

Christopher Hitchens has a most enjoyable piece in Vanity Fair about the book tour he did to promote God Is Not Great. It sounds like he had a lot of fun, with Jerry Falwell’s death providing a real bonus. (I missed his appearance at the Town Hall in Seattle, which was a shame.) And then when he got home…

June 10, Washington, D.C.: It’s been weeks on the road, and after a grueling swing through Canada I am finally home. I tell the wife and daughter that’s it: no more god talk for a bit—let’s get lunch at the fashionable Café Milano, in Georgetown. Signor Franco leads us to a nice table outside and I sit down—right next to the Archbishop of Canterbury. O.K., then, this must have been meant to happen. I lean over. “My Lord Archbishop? It’s Christopher Hitchens.” “Good gracious,” he responds, gesturing at his guest—“we were just discussing your book.”
The archbishop’s church is about to undergo a schism. More than 10 conservative congregations in Virginia have seceded, along with some African bishops, to protest the ordination of a gay bishop in New England. I ask him how it’s going. “Well”—he lowers his voice—“I’m rather trying to keep my head down.” Well, why, in that case, I want to reply, did you seek a job that supposedly involves moral leadership? But I let it go. What do I care what some Bronze Age text says about homosexuality? And there’s something hopelessly innocent about the archbishop: he looks much more like a sheep than a shepherd. What can one say in any case about a religion that describes its adherents as a flock?

(HT to Dave for the correction to the title.)


Update on Pivar's stupid lawsuit against PZ

Quoth Stuart Pivar to a reporter: “My attorney withdrew the suit today.” No word on whether an apology will be forthcoming…



My Nintendo Wii arrived today, and I’ve been checking it out. ((And for those who asked me how I got one, I bought it on eBay. When it arrived, the receipt showed that it had been purchased from, confirming my suspicion that a considerable number of those that we are selling are being snapped up by people using “sniping” software.)) I like the overall user experience, though I imagine that the relentlessly cheerful pieces of music that accompany everything could get tedious after a while. The online mode is completely seamless. And as for the games… well, I’ve only played one game of tennis, which I lost. I suspect that this is going to be quite addictive, and not a bad work-out either!


The one-dimensionality of political discourse

Good piece from The Barefoot Bum on Political dimensions. Take, for example, Iraq:

The trouble is that if you criticize the war along one axis, you risk by your silence on the other axes to be held in agreement. If you criticize the war as irrational, it sounds like you would approve of its aims if only they were being pursued competently. If you criticize the U.S. conduct of the war on moral grounds, you sound like you therefore approve of the morality of the opponents. If you criticize Islam, you sound like you’re in favor of the war. (I myself was accused of being pro-torture because I virulently criticize Islam.) If you try to criticize the war on all three axes, 90% of your audience will simply mutter TLDNR ((Too Long, Did Not Read)) and move on to something simpler.


It's good to dream sometimes

Check out the latest This Modern World.


I can never go back to Massachusetts…

From the Massachusetts General Laws ((Hat tip to AtheistPerspective, via Gene.)):

Chapter 272: Section 36. Blasphemy
Section 36. Whoever wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.


EPL: what will it look like next May?

Watching this weekend’s English Premier League matches, it’s clear that “everybody expects” that by the end of the season three of the top four slots will be filled by Chelsea, Manchester United, and Liverpool. ((Of course everyone also has an opinion as to what the order should be…)) But which will be the fourth team? Arsenal? Tottenham? Everton? Or (mirabile dictu) will Manchester City prove to be more than a flash in the pan? I hope it will be Spurs, with Berbatov and Keane weaving their magic, and Lennon finally coming into his own. But the early signs aren’t promising.
So who do you think it’ll be? Or are the “big three” going to falter? ((I just watched Manchester United vs. Tottenham, and ManU’s defence was absolute rubbish. A fair score would have been 2-1 to Tottenham, including the penalty for Brown’s handball.)) It’ll be interesting to revisit this blog entry at the end of the season.