The truth about Linux

Jaron Lanier nails it:

Some of the youngest, brightest minds have been trapped in a 1970s intellectual framework because they are hypnotized into accepting old software designs as if they were facts of nature. Linux is a superbly polished copy of an antique, shinier than the original, perhaps, but still defined by it.

However the prevailing cult of OSS is so dominant that even the most obviously proprietary projects have to pretend to be open source. (The fact that all of the individuals with “commit” privileges happen to work for a single company is purely coincidental.) And try telling any OSS enthusiast that they ought to be “open” to a world with multiple open source operating systems…
Anyway, by picking out the most provocative paragraph, I’m doing an injustice to Jaron. It really is an interesting piece, especially what it has to say about the importance of speciation. Check it out.


More evidence that it's time to ban ALL faith-based schools in the UK

From Stephen Law:

According to today’s Observer (p5), the Catholic Bishop of Lancaster, Patrick O’Donoghue (illustrated), has said in a document written for schools in his diocese that:
“Under no circumstances should any outside authority or agency that is not fully qualified to speak on behalf of the Catholic Church ever be allowed to speak to pupils or individuals on sexual or any other matter involving faith and morals”
O’Donoghue also called for any books containing polemics against the Catholic Church to be removed from school libraries.

Clearly the Catholic Church doesn’t want children that it’s indoctrinating teaching to learn about the use of condoms to reduce the risk of STDs. Nor should they be allowed to see any criticisms of ridiculous medieval ideas like the Pope’s plans to set up exorcism squads. ((Let’s see: which is the more pressing problem in the world today – HIV/AIDS or demonic possession?))


The Airport Security Follies

Patrick “Ask the Pilot” Smith blasts the stupidity of the charade of airport security:

The truth is, regardless of how many pointy tools and shampoo bottles we confiscate, there shall remain an unlimited number of ways to smuggle dangerous items onto a plane. The precise shape, form and substance of those items is irrelevant. We are not fighting materials, we are fighting the imagination and cleverness of the would-be saboteur.
Thus, what most people fail to grasp is that the nuts and bolts of keeping terrorists away from planes is not really the job of airport security at all. Rather, it’s the job of government agencies and law enforcement. It’s not very glamorous, but the grunt work of hunting down terrorists takes place far off stage, relying on the diligent work of cops, spies and intelligence officers. Air crimes need to be stopped at the planning stages. By the time a terrorist gets to the airport, chances are it’s too late.

And meanwhile the travelling sheep line up and obediently remove their shoes, without so much as a bleat…


CFI London

Shucks. I wish I could be in England in mid-January, so I could attend the first conference being organized by the Center for Inquiry in London. The theme is “Secularism in the Multicultural Society: The Civil Limits of Tolerance.” The roster of speakers is impressive: Paul Kurtz, Julian Baggini, Stephen Law, Polly Toynbee, Nigel Warburton ((Co-host of the excellent Philosophy Bites podcast.)) and others.


Music of 2007

2007 turned out to be a very good year for new music – new to me, at any rate. I discovered several artists that I had inexplicably overlooked, picked up excellent new albums from some of my long-time favourites, and encountered some great new talent. So let’s take a look.
The year started and ended with offerings from one of my greatest favourites, Faithless. In January there was a new album, “To All New Arrivals”, and in December an excellent single, “A Kind of Peace”. Along the way I bought the “Renaissance DJ Set”, a triple CD of early works and influential sources. (Among the latter was a track by LSK, which prompted me to seek out their – one and only – eponymous CD.)
Steven Wilson’s Porcupine Tree is right up there with Faithless, and this year we got the outstanding “Fear of a Blank Planet” and an outtakes collection “Nil Recurring”. I added several items from Wilson’s circle of friends: “Blackfield II”, a live collection by John Wesley (who plays second guitar with PT on tour), and “My Hotel Year” by Tim Bowness. Next year we’re promised a new no-man album, which I’m awaiting eagerly.
I’ve got to stop comparing every Radiohead album with “OK Computer”, although I guess that’s the price they have to pay for coming up with one of the greatest recordings of all time. “In Rainbows” is really, really good, and I was happy to pay $10 for the “name your price” download.
The rediscovery of the year was street pianist Jonny Hahn, whom I blogged about in March. I bought several of his CDs, including “Collage” and “Lost in the Inzone”. His music reminds me of the soundtrack to the movie “Once”, which was also a great discovery.
I filled in gaps in my collection with music from the 60s to the 90s. Neil Young‘s “Live at Massey Hall”, The Who‘s “Endless Wire”, “Jupiter’s Darling” by Heart, the Oasis collection “Stop the Clocks”, “London Calling” by the Clash, The Cure‘s “Mixed Up”, “Blues” by Jimi Hendrix, and “The Blue Thumb Recordings” by Arthur Lee’s Love. iTunes came up trumps by unearthing “New Dark Times”, the 1996 album by Sunscreem. Some deep web spelunking yielded a copy of Robert Hunter‘s “Flight of the Marie Helena”. And I almost forgot the first acquisition of the New Year: U2‘s “U218”.
But as I mentioned, 2007 was a great year for discovering new music. Four women head the list: Regina Spektor, with her inspirational “Begin To Hope”, Kate Nash with the brutally honest punk poetry on “Made of Bricks”, Joanna Newson‘s indescribable “Ys”, and the comfortable intimacy of “One Cell in the Sea” by A Fine Frenzy (Alison Sudol). I also enjoyed “Songs From The Deep Forest” by Duke Special, and “Live at SoHo: The Good, The Bad & The Queen EP” by the unnamed band that Damon Albam of Blur has put together.
Then there were the artists that I had somehow overlooked. How about the Mekons? They’ve been around forever! How could I not know the Mekons? After seeing them in concert, I bought their latest CD, “Natural”, as well as the retrospective “Heaven and Hell.” Two other omissions that were finally corrected: the Polyphonic Spree, with “The Fragile Army”, and “Hats” by The Blue Nile.
And finally, the album of the year has to be “Arzachel: Collectors Edition” by Uriel. This will only make sense to a handful of people who appreciate the glorious insanity that was the English psychedelic music scene in 1969. I owned the original LP, then the Demon CD, and now this. Excuse me while I light a few joss sticks, put on the headphones, and turn out the lights….
No, really. The real album of the year is the glorious, bizarre, ethereal “The Butcher’s Ballroom” by the Swedish group Diablo Swing Orchestra. Wikipedia tries to pigeon-hole them as “avant-garde metal” or “symphonic metal”; perhaps “operatic jazz metal” will do. (And I do mean “operatic”.) Paul kept nagging me, and eventually I listened to all of the samples on the Amazon MP3 store and saw what he meant. Thanks, old friend. (And when are you going to finish writing that review?)


no-man & tim bowness

A suggestion: pop over to the no-man page at Myspace and listen to four of their tracks. Then click through to Tim Bowness and listen to some of his solo work (especially “last year’s tattoo”) (and there’s a downloadable track here).


Wintry Christmas plans foiled by technology

It’s been a wintry Christmas Day here in Seattle, and so my cunning plan was to curl up in front of the TV and watch all three Lord of the Rings DVDs, back to back – the extended versions. Unfortunately when I turned on my DVD player, it emitted a ghoulish death-rattle and refused to work. So I logged in to Amazon, ordered myself a replacement ((I wanted a decent name-brand unit, and it turned out to be only a little more to get an HD-DVD player. So I did. I know that this may be a future Betamax, but never mind.)), and settled down to read philosophy texts on my Kindle. Along the way I talked to family and friends, by phone or Skype. ((I always use Skype to connect with folks back in England.))
Speaking of Skype, I just received email telling me that my old “Skype Unlimited” package was about to expire, and urging me to sign up for the new “Skype Pro” package. The email and web materials do a lousy job of explaining the relative merits of the various plans; surely they couldn’t be hoping that I’d follow the path of least resistance and sign up for the most expensive option?! Since my present Skype usage is 40% Skype-to-Skype chat, 40% Skype-to-Skype video, and 20% (prepaid) calls to England, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to go “Pro”.


Power glitches, rain, blood, razors, and meat pies

It’s been a cold and wet weekend here in Seattle, and my PowerBook has been acting up again. I thought of taking it to the Apple store over in Bellevue, but I couldn’t face the prospect of going to a mall just before Christmas. I’ll keep my fingers crossed, double-check the Time Machine backups, and hope that it keeps going for a few more days. The PMU is obviously starting to fail, but it’s still under AppleCare…
So I had a quiet couple of days. I went to see the movie version of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, and thoroughly enjoyed it in a twisted sort of way. Avoid if you’re squeamish, though. ((I started looking up the Greek names for all the relevant phobias – blood, razors, etc. – until I read that most of those terms are completely inauthentic.)) I finished Pullman’s “The Amber Spyglass” (UK edition, no bowdlerization.)), read some more philosophy books, and had lunch with a friend who’s joining Google. The rest of the time was devoted watching football: Liverpool putting on a great show against Portsmouth, Manchester United scraping a win over Everton, and a gritty win by Chelsea.


The worst book review ever written

It is probably the most negative book review ever written. Or if there is a worse one, do let me know. “This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad,” begins Colin McGinn‘s review of On Consciousness by Ted Honderich. “It is painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed. It is also radically inconsistent.”

Thus begins the story in today’s Guardian about the controversy that has erupted around McGinn’s review of Honderich’s book. The two protagonists have issued charge and counter-charge, both personal and professional, and the philosophical blogosphere has weighed in with opinions ranging from “unprofessional” to “right on the money” (not forgetting “great fun to read”).
It so happens that I have a small contribution to make on this subject. Back in the spring of 2005 I was attending Dan Dennett’s Philosophy of Mind course at Tufts, and inevitably I had to write a term paper. ((This was the first academic course I’d taken since the mid-70s, and my paper-writing skills were not merely rusty but positively fossilized!)) We were free to use any (relevant!) book or article as the starting-point for the paper, and after considering Hornsby’s “Simple Mindedness” and Noë’s “Is the Visual World a Grand Illusion?”, I decided to work with Honderich’s “On Consciousness”. I’d picked it up at the Harvard Coop some months before, for reasons that are now entirely forgotten.
Within a couple of days I knew that I was in trouble. The more I read and re-read the book, the more it seemed to be no more than a sustained argument from personal incredulity. Honderich repeatedly declared that certain propositions were “unswallowable”, as if this constituted a knock-down argument. I checked in with Dan and told him that instead of identifying, expounding, and critiquing Honderich’s thesis, I would only be able to address the fatal weaknesses in one of his core motivations. And so I did. (PDF here.) It wasn’t a great paper, but I felt that it was a reasonable effort given my unfortunate choice of material. As I wrote:

Beyond his unshakeable belief that functionalism is unbelievable, Honderich offers no argument. Indeed he acknowledges that “it is not easy to construct an argument against strict functionalism”, and that is is perhaps impossible to find a premise more secure than his inescapable conviction. In a note, he acknowledges that his objection can be said to beg the question. Nevertheless he argues that this “shows that there is a role in inquiry for something other than arguments.”

Something other than arguments? Not, apparently, if you want to be taken seriously in Philosophical Review.


XO sighted

One of my colleagues has received his XO laptop and brought it in to show us. Now I’m even more impatient for mine to arrive – it’s quite fascinating (in the xkcd sense).