Secular Philosophy

This sounds promising:

Welcome to Secular Philosophy, a site dedicated to the exchange of ideas and debate relating to all things secular with an emphasis on philosophy. Here you will find exclusive films, books and blogs by Daniel Dennett, Colin McGinn and Massimo Pigliucci, as well as the Center for Inquiry’s Point of Inquiry podcast every Friday evening.

[Via the Leiter Reports.]

The end of Life on Mars

They finally broadcast the last episode of Life on Mars here in the USA. I thought that the writers handled it well, within the time constraints of a single one-hour episode. ((Shorter in the UK – BBCAmerica has tons of ads.)) They managed to sustain just the right level of uncertainty throughout: as the account in Wikipedia put it, “Ultimately the viewer is left with ambiguity as to which to emotionally accept as real: Sam’s life in the present day or his life in 1973.” Most viewers will lean one way, of course; I think I may try watching it again while gently nudging myself towards the alternative interpretation.
The only real weakness [MILD SPOILER ALERT] is that when Sam and Morgan were in the cemetery, Sam didn’t raise the obvious objection about his knowledge of events between 1973 and 2006. But that’s a nit.
Bottom line: this was one of the most interesting and well-produced television drama projects of recent years. I understand that work is proceeding on a US version; while most such transfers are doomed to failure, I hope this works. But will the US producers have the courage to present 1972 as it really was, warts and all?

Institutional stupidity of the highest order

From Todd:

The Federal Aviation Administration is set to fire an employee who was training to become an air traffic controller at Oakland Air Route Traffic Control Center. His crime? He obeyed military orders to extend his duty in the California National Guard, which made him unable to obey Federal Aviation Administration orders to return to Oakland Center due to what the FAA manager at the facility wrote was “facility staffing requirements.”

In other words, “we’re understaffed at Oakland Center, so if you don’t disobey your C.O., we’ll fire you.” If the FAA was a private employer, this would obviously be illegal. But when two bureaucratic governmental behemoths confront each other, who knows what the outcome will be? Particularly when one of the bureaucracies – the FAA – is widely regarded as the most bumbling, pig-headed and incompetent organization in the entire U.S. government. (And there’s stiff competition for that title, I can assure you.)
Godzilla v. King Kong. This flatters the FAA….

OLPC: Give one, lose one?

Back on December 3, I placed a “Give One, Get One” order with OLPC. I knew that demand had been high, so I checked in at occasionally to see how things were going. Each time I’d enter my email address and confirmation number, and get a message about “sometime in January”. No problem.
Today the message had changed: “Most laptops to US based donors have already shipped.” Puzzled, I tried again — but this time I entered only my confirmation number, with no email address. This took me to a page with a FedEx tracking number; one more click, and I saw that a package with that number had been delivered on December 28 to a residential address in St. Paul, MN.
Needless to say, I do not live in St. Paul, MN.
UPDATE, Jan.21, 7am EDT: I just received an email from OLPC saying that my “donation was in the queue”, and that I should expect to receive a further email on Wednesday with shipping details.
UPDATE, Jan.24, 6am EDT: From the “further email”:

We are awaiting the arrival of new inventory so that we may ship your laptop to you. We will send you another update in the next few days when we have specific shipping information.

Heading east, with a suitcase full of cables

On Saturday morning I’m flying off to Boston. Normally I’d be on a red-eye, but when I booked this back in November(!) the cheapest deal was a daytime non-stop on Alaska. I’m going to be there for four weeks, dividing my time between working remotely and helping Kate and Mark with the children ((Hmm, that sounds odd, but nicely so! Thomas and Tori: “the children”.)).
One frustration is that ZipCar and FlexCar haven’t finished merging their businesses. I’m a FlexCar member in Seattle, while ZipCar operates in Boston and Brookline. They announced that they were merging late last year. I had hoped that even if their systems weren’t fully combined, it would at least be possible for me to get a temporary ZipCar membership, so that I wouldn’t have to shell out for a month-long rental. ((Remember that most US credit card companies only cover the CDW for domestic rentals up to 15 days; at $12+ a day, those charges can really mount up.)) But no. It seems that they’re converting their systems city by city, and Seattle isn’t due to be “done” for a few months. Shucks.
As is usual these days, “packing” means throwing a few clothes into a case, and then assembling all of the cables, docking cradles, and power adapters for the electronics. Camera, iPhone, Kindle, MacBook. My PSP… no, I’ll go without it. ((Can I really do without “World Snooker Challenge 2005”? Tough call.)) A full-size USB headset (for Skype). A spare hard disk in a USB enclosure (which means another cable and adapter). I keep resolving to buy only gadgets that can recharge through USB, but I’m not there yet.
No paper books, though. 🙂
And I mustn’t forget my hat, and perhaps some gloves. [/me hunts around for a pair] Hell, maybe even boots. By the time I touch down at Logan, it’ll be about 20°F…

Emergency supplies

I just received (from Amazon, naturally) a fresh shipment of what every self-respecting expat Brit needs in his kitchen cupboard. Yes, that is a small container of Patum Peperium at the front.
Ploughmans Pickle, Marmite, Gentlemans Relish

The QFC that I patronise, up on Capitol Hill, carries a couple of really nice sharp Cheddars, slightly crumbly, that go beautifully with Branston Pickle or Marmite. And then of course there’s Beecher’s Handmade Cheese down at Pike Place Market….

Piling on Jonah (as he richly deserves)

John Scalzi fisks Goldberg:

I’ve not read Goldberg’s book so I’m not entirely sure what alchemy he uses to argue that a right-wing, anti-socialist political movement is and always was actually a left-wing socialist political movement, but I do suspect whatever argument it is, Mussolini himself would have found it less than satisfying, and being as much the political journalist as Goldberg is, would likely have offered him fair argument on the point, if he didn’t just have him, oh, shot.

Redefining Genes

Fascinating article over at Seed:

For nearly 50 years, the central dogma of biology has been that genetic information is contained within DNA and is passed by rote transcription through RNA to make proteins. Tiny changes in the information content of the underlying DNA are what then drive evolution. But this information may not be the sole determinant of biological identity. Indeed, it’s becoming clear that we do not even know what ‘genetic information’ means any more—certainly it’s not a simple, linear sequence of biochemical ‘characters’ that define a gene. Even evolution might not be driven solely by the appearance of random mutations in DNA that are inherited by subsequent generations, essentially as Darwin supposed. The central dogma is being eroded, and it now appears as if DNA’s cousin, the humble intermediary RNA, plays at least an equal role in genetics and the evolution of the species.

Never boring, eh?

How to review really bad books, like Jonah Goldberg's

What do you do when a book comes out that attracts all sorts of bad reviews, and it sounds really bad, and the author comes across as an obnoxious jerk, and the last thing you want to do is to buy the book and help to turn it into a best-seller, but nevertheless you have this insatiable curiosity to actually read a bit of it, to see what everyone else is talking about, and you could always go to the library and hope that it’s in, so that you can browse it for a bit, but it’s not that important…
I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s had this experience. But now there’s a way to scratch that itch. I’m talking about the Kindle, of course. One of the cool features is that you can download a free sample of most books, so that you can check them out for yourself. I’ve done this several times, and I have to (reluctantly) say that the “conversion rate” is pretty high. You start reading, get into the groove, turn the page, and there’s the seductive “Click here to buy this book”.
Anyway, the trashy book of the moment is Jonah Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism”. Back around the time I took the 11-Plus exam, I remember coming across a book about literary devices with long Greek names, and I took great pleasure in using and abusing them in my schoolwork. Eventually my teacher pointed out that flashy tricks were no substitute for real argument, and that (contra Humpty Dumpty) my essays were not improved by redefining a key term as “just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less”.
Apparently, Jonah Goldberg missed that lesson, and it has led to a dubious honour. Here’s John Cole over at Balloon Juice:

First there was Godwin’s Law. Then we had the less noticeable Kevin’s Law and Cole’s Law. Now, after reading the Jonah Goldberg interview in Salon, our commentariat has come up with the “Goldberg Principle”:

You can prove any thesis to be true if you make up your own definitions of words.

Read the Salon interview and tell me that isn’t a perfect description.

So I read the Salon interview, and I was appalled at how juvenile Goldberg sounded. The folks at Balloon Juice, Orcinus, and everywhere else have been quoting it to death, so I will restrict myself to one gem:

[Mussolini] says, for example, “Granted that the 19th century was the century of socialism, liberalism, democracy, this does not mean that the 20th century must also be the century of socialism, liberalism, democracy. Political doctrines pass; nations remain. We are free to believe that this is the century of authority, a century tending to the ‘right ‘, a Fascist century.
“Yeah, I’m perfectly willing to concede there’s a lot of stuff Mussolini says, but you’ve got to remember, by ‘32, socialism is starting to essentially mean Bolshevism. And if you get too caught up in the labels, rather than the policies, you get yourself into something of a pickle.

Eventually I decided that I really had to see this crap for myself ((Itch. Scratch.)), and a couple of clicks later a sample was installed on my Kindle. I read the first few pages, and my reaction surprised me.
I started to laugh.
If it were not for independent evidence to the contrary, I’d swear that we were dealing with a Colbert Report-style parody. (Not as good, but of the same genre.) As far as I can see, Goldberg seems to think that the following chain of “reasoning” will support his thesis:

  1. Academics in the field of political science have difficulty in coming up with a single, concise definition of fascism. (Although, curiously, Goldberg doesn’t bother to consider the standard and broadly-accepted authorities on the subject.)
  2. In popular usage, fascism has been used as a fairly broad-brush slur. (Hardly surprising, after WW2 and the Holocaust, but Goldberg doesn’t mention that obvious connection.)
  3. As a result, serious writers (like George Orwell, with obligatory genuflection) say that the word “has no meaning”. (However, Goldberg mentions this before getting to post-war usage, thus implying that Orwell’s comment referred to the political science debate. Cute, that.)
  4. “In short ‘fascist’ is a modern word for heretic.”
  5. Having detached fascism from its original meaning, Goldberg can now return to the domain of political science and redefine it as the opposite of the consensus usage.

There’s an interesting parallel here with evolution. Creationists challenge the science by extracting the technical word “theory”, redefining it according to an unrelated popular usage, and then injecting this usage into the question of science.
Ultimately, however, I can’t sustain my laughter, because of the poison that Goldberg seeks to spread with this nonsense. He’s not as obviously silly as, say, Coulter, but that doesn’t mean that he’s harmless. Here’s an extended quote from Dave Neiwert’s review at the American Prospect:

The title alone is enough to indicate its thoroughgoing incoherence: Of all the things we know about fascism and the traits that comprise it, one of the few things that historians will readily agree upon is its overwhelming anti-liberalism. One might as well write about anti-Semitic neoconservatism, or Ptolemaic quantum theory, or strength in ignorance. Goldberg isn’t content to simply create an oxymoron; this entire enterprise, in fact, is classic Newspeak.
Indeed, Goldberg even makes some use of Orwell, noting that the author of 1984 once dismissed the misuse of “fascism” as meaning “something not desirable.” Of course, Orwell was railing against the loss of the word’s meaning, while Goldberg, conversely, revels in it — he refers to Orwell’s critique as his “definition of fascism.”
And then Goldberg proceeds to define everything that he himself considers undesirable as “fascist.” This is just about everything even remotely and vaguely thought of as “liberal”: vegetarianism, Social Security, multiculturalism, the “war on poverty,” “the politics of meaning.” The figures he labels as fascist range from Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt to Lyndon B. Johnson and Hillary Clinton. Goldberg’s primary achievement is to rob the word of all meaning — Newspeak incarnate.

Fortunately I can purge my Kindle of Goldberg’s nonsense with a couple of clicks in Content Manager. I would almost wish that we could do the same thing in the world of print – but Goldberg would doubtless seize upon my sentiment as another example of “liberal fascism”.