Saturday, July 13, 2002

My new link maintainer software is working. Now all I have to do is stuff the database with the URLs, dump them as HTML and paste into my template. It will make maintenance a lot easier and less error-prone.


The man tipped as the next Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Wiliams, has become increasingly vociferous in his opposition to an attack on Iraq. Apparently, according to the good Doctor, we have to wait until Iraq has actually invaded another country before we have the right to attack. The statement is full of the usual warmed-over moral-equivalence, root-causes-of-violence schtick: "It is our considered view that an attack on Iraq would be both immoral and illegal, and that eradicating the dangers posed by malevolent dictators and terrorists can be achieved only by tackling the root causes of the disputes." I have two words to say to him and his fellow peace-weenies: Fuck You. We do not have the luxury of waiting around until Saddam uses his weapons of mass destruction against Israel or the States (or the UK, for that matter). The 'root cause' of the 'dispute' over Iraq is that Saddam is a psychotic monster who threatens both his neighbours and the world at large, and we want him dead. Finito. End of story. The 'root cause' of the 'dispute' about Islamofascist terror is that they want to destroy our civilisation and enslave or kill us, and we are not prepared to countenance that. What exactly does Dr Rowan Williams think would happen to him if he fell into the clutches of the Islamonazis? By all means, turn your cheek if you want. Don't presume to turn mine.

Fortunately, the Church of England has relegated itself to a position of utter irrelevance, mainly through wishy-washy nonsense like this, so I doubt very much whether Blair will change his mind. Blair needs Bush much more than some beardy-weirdy socialist priest.


I finally got round to seeing 'Attack of the Clones' a couple of weeks or so back. Wow. James Lileks can definitely recommend movies for me in the future. He liked Spider-Man. It rocked. He loved AOTC. So did I. It was at the very least ten times better than Episode I. The whole place erupted in applause and cheers when the credits rolled and the friend I was with (who is a totally committed Star Wars fanatic) was cock-a-hoop.

I saw 'Lilo and Stitch' on Thursday. Another excellent movie. Disney has definitely got it back. This is a much more mature comedy, in the vein of 'Emperor's New Groove'. I saw the 8.45pm English version so there were few kids there, but I'm pretty sure they would have liked it too.

Next up: Minority Report, MIB II and We Were Soldiers. I wish that Costa Rica got movie releases a bit closer to the US. It's really hard to avoid stumbling across spoilers.


When I was talking below about T and P values, I said that every statement has a P and a T associated with it . This is not strictly true. First, some definitions. T is the truth-value of a statement. Usually it is binary (i.e. true or false). 'All cats are mammals' has a binary truth-value (it is true). 'Some cats living at 123 New Street are more than five years old' also has a binary truth-value, even if we do not know which one it is (yet). Sometimes a truth-value is continuous. This is really what fuzzy logic is all about.

The P of a statement is its probability-value i.e. its likelihood of being true. Simple statements of fact (or their negations) do not have a P in any interesting sense. P is either 0 or 1 depending on whether the statement is true or false. Statements like 'some cats living at 123 New Street are more than five years old' do have a P, but only until the statement is checked. Then the hitherto-unknown truth-value collapses from its a priori, unknown value to its a posteriori, known value, and the probability-value ceases to be interesting.

Where this all gets complicated is counterfactuals. Counterfactuals are statements about hypothetical situations. There are two types of counterfactual. One, which I will call type A, are statements of the form 'if X occurs, then Y will occur'. For example, 'if you keep driving like that, we are going to crash'. The other type, type B, is a statement like 'if X had happened, then Y would have happened'. For example, 'if you had kept on driving like that, we would have crashed.'*

Type A counterfactuals have both a T and a P. If we carry on doing X, and Y does indeed happen, then T is 1. Before Y happens, we can assign some probability to the likelihood of its occurence. This is P. Type B counterfactuals, on the other hand, do not have a T. It is impossible to assign a truth-value to the statement, 'if Britain had lost the Battle of Britain, Hitler would have invaded England.' We can still assign a P to this statement, but there is no way of actually running the experiment and collapsing it down to give a definite T.

Does this mean that Type B events are uninteresting? On the contrary; there is a large corpus of literature and even academic history devoted to Type B counterfactuals (what if the US had lost the War of Independence, what if aliens invaded during World War II, what if Henry VIII had not disestablished the monasteries, etc.)

We now return you to your normal service. Thank you for your consideration.

* In Spanish this phrase uses a combination of the pluperfect subjunctive and conditional perfect (si hubiera seguido manejando así, habríamos estrellado). English does not draw this distinction.


What would it actually take to get Sinn Fein excluded from the Northern Ireland Assembly?. There have been massive riots over the last few days, well-documented reports of punishment beating and shooting, attempts to re-arm the IRA (while simultaneously releasing a few rusty old rifles and useless explosives), the arrest of three IRA operatives in Cuba training the FARC in bomb-making techniques, you name it. The last accusation is by far the most important. This alone should have put the IRA on the State Department's list of terrorist organisations with global reach. Of course that will never happen - there's far too many terrorist groupies in State and Congress. It does however illuminate the simply unbelievable degree of mealy-mouthed hypocrisy that Tony Blair is willing to stoop to.

Sinn Fein is an absolutely vile organisation. Its core supporters envisage an Ireland united under some sort of Maoist revolutionary banner. The INLA, a splinter group and now almost defunct, is more conventionally Marxist-Leninist. There has always been more than a whiff of Fascism in Irish nationalist politics (witness the refusal of the de Valera government to give the Allies naval bases on the Atlantic coast, and his unseemly haste to sign the book of condolences - in Berlin - after Hitler redecorated the bunker with the contents of his skull). The SAS should be hunting the IRA down and executing them like their colleagues in the Royal Marines are hunting down al Qaida scum in Afghanistan (although hopefully with a rather better record of kills). But of course that won't happen. There's a 'peace process', don't you know, and just like the one in Israel, it's a lot of process and bugger-all peace.

Blair has (in spades) the Euro-Weenie disease of thinking that if you just get people round a table, then they'll find some common cause and stop being beastly to each other. Of course what happens is the classic terrorist stitch-up: they pocket any concession given and refuse to budge from their original position. Any attempt at pressure is dismissed as 'not helpful' and 'a mistake', with the implicit threat of a return to violence. It is a no-win situation. The only way to cut the Gordian knot is to refuse to deal with terrorists, while simultaneously killing as many of them as possible. British intelligence knows who and where the major players are. They could be taken out over the course of a lazy weekend. Baader-Meinhof was not destroyed by discussion: the German police just rounded them up and stuck them in jail (and then they mostly killed themselves after the failed Mogadishu hijacking, har har). Needless to say, none of this is ever going to happen.


My discovery a few weeks ago that Joan Kroc, the widow of Ray Kroc, the guy who made McDonalds massive, was a major Sandinista supporter led me to boycott the place. It just now struck me how incongruous it is that the anti-capitalists' icon of corporate greed should have a sad old lefty like Joan tied up with it. If any of them have ever heard of the Sandys then I'm sure they're just the sort of cuddly Marxist buffoons that the anti-globos would love.

Friday, July 12, 2002

OK. I will try to restrict myself to substantive posts, rather than rants about Blogger.


It's like there's some sort of time delay between the system saying publishing has been successful, and it actually doing anything. Is this a load problem? I hope not, because hardware is expensive, and generally incompatible with free software.


Now I can post, and it shows up on the main page, but not in the edit window. This is unbelievable. Guys, there's a thing we software people call 'beta testing'. You really should try it...


Safe mode is also essentially useless. If you don't get quote characters exactly right, then the software can't find post boundaries. It's taken me fifteen minutes to rectify an error of this nature. I'm a hacker. God knows how an ordinary Joe is meant to figure out the fix. Hmm. That Moveable Type looks nice...


The trick seems to be to publish twice and ignore the template errors. Bizarre.


On one of my favourite sites, Libertarian Samizdata, there's been a to-and-fro discussion about the merits of creationism vs. evolution (especially neo-Darwinian evolution). Links (some of them, anyway) are here, here, here and here. There's a couple of interesting points raised in this thread, and this is one of my particular interests.

First up, Brian Micklethwait goes over the 'non-overlapping magisteria' idea (one of the late Stephen Jay Gould's ideas) and finds it wanting. The NOM idea is that religion and science are about two separate fields of human intellectual endeavour and therefore have little or nothing to say about one another. It's a sort of 'render unto Caesar' argument. The only problem is, it doesn't hold water. Religions are quite explicit in their creation myths and in their scientific outlooks. The Bible plainly says that God created the Universe in six days, in two separate, mutually contradictory narratives (Genesis I and Genesis II). It's all very well to say that modern Christians interpret this as an allegory of the true story of creation, but that won't wash for two main reasons: 1) it's a crap allegory - the timelines of the various stages of creation bear almost no resemblance to reality, 2) that's just special pleading anyway, since I think it is abundantly clear that the original authors of the Bible did not regard it as allegory but as the literal truth. Once religions start making inroads into the magisterium of science then they lay themselves open to attack using the scientific method. No creation myth fares well when the spotlight of science is turned on it. After all, why should it? Most creation myths, with the exception of nutjob recent ones like Mormonism, Scientology and the Rael Cult stem from pre-scientific cultures. The animist roots of much of early Judaism are evident in the Bible.

The second point that caught my eye was Antoine Clarke's post in which he uses this completely false syllogism:

Premise 1: Either God created the universe as described literally in the book of Genesis or Darwinian evolution is true.

Premise 2: Darwinian evolution is true.

Conclusion: Therefore, God didn't create the universe as described literally in the book of Genesis or Negative that God and Creation are true.

Premise 1 is clearly false. It's the old creationist canard: that either creationism is true or Darwinian evolution is true. This is rubbish. Even if Darwinian evolution were shown to be false (and it won't be), that would not a priori render creationism true, especially the myopic, parochial Bible version.

Clarke then goes on to say that nothing demonstrates that God and Darwin are mutually exclusive. This is a classic example of what I like to call the 'teapot fallacy'. It's a failure of epistemology, not of logic. It is the idea that because a statement and its negation are both equally valid logically, they are therefore equally valid epistemologically. In other words A and A, its negation, are to be given equal credence. I call it the teapot fallacy in reference to the physical chemist Peter Atkins, who stated it thus: we do not cleave equally to the idea that there is a teapot in orbit around Pluto as to the idea that there is not a teapot in orbit around Pluto. Even though we cannot verify the existence or non-existence of Plutonian teapots, that does not mean we can say nothing about them. Every statement has both a truth-value, T, and a probability-value, P. It is very often impossible, or at least extremely difficult, to know the T of a statement; it is usually much easier to assign a P. Science does not generally deal in T. A mechanist atheist like me does not reject the notion of a created Universe from a dislike of religion. It is the lack of necessity of a creator that animates my atheism. A creator, it seems, is superfluous. Another parable which illustrates this is the 'shy rhinoceros' idea (due, I think, to Richard Feynman): I look out of my front door every day, and I do not see a rhinoceros. Why? Is it because the rhinoceros is shy, and when it hears me coming, it ducks out of sight? Or is it because there is no rhinoceros? If, in everything we see, the hand of the creator is impossible to discern, then what leads us to posit his existence in the first place? In pure logic, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. In science, it's all we've got and all we will ever have.

Finally, there is the utterly bizarre assertion by one Jack Heald:

I have yet to find anyone who, after carefully reviewing the data, concludes that the evidence supports the Darwinian model and contradicts the creationist model.

What? This is like saying, "I have yet to find anyone who, after carefully reviewing the data, concludes that the evidence supports the Copernican model and contradicts the Heliocentric model." If you want to find some exemplars of people who really do believe that creationism is a crock, and neo-Darwinian theory is essentially the correct explanation for evolution, after careful consideration of the evidence (read: a professional lifetime of intense study), then try any Life Sciences department in any university in the Western world.

UPDATE: Here is a an absolutely superb essay, Snake Oil and Holy Water, by the ever-wonderful Richard Dawkins in an October '99 edition of Forbes.com magazine. He blasts the NOM idea in much the same way I do above, although of course being Dawkins he does it better.


This is getting ridiculous. Now it appears that not even the archives are getting updated with new content.

Blogger is exhibiting all the symptoms of random management-driven tinkering. Listen up: if it works, stop buggering around with it.


Another splendid bleat from James Lileks (are there any other kind?). He talks about how no-one who is not a parent can understand the terror involved in raising a child. I'm sure he's right, but just the merest inkling that I do have is enough to make me wonder if I ever want to have children. I mean, of course I do, but I'm not sure if I'm capable of that sort of level of sustained emotional investment. On the other hand, many of my friends have kids, and they seem to have survived without having to check into the funny farm.


Good God. What a crazy couple of weeks it's been. Database woes, hardware problems, you name it. When I get out of work at night I barely have the energy to haul my sorry carcass home and veg out in front of the TV. Blogging has been out of the question. It just takes too much energy. Shame, because there's been dozens of things I've wanted to spout off about.

Musings from Costa Rica

Contact me: d a g g i l l i e s @ y a h o o . c o m 

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