Not Saussure

April 28, 2007

A death in the family

Filed under: Uncategorized — notsaussure @ 9:09 pm

My mother died in her sleep at home and in her own bed. She was just shy of 92 years old. She died some time in the small hours of Friday 27. I’d spoken to her on the phone at about 10 on Thursday evening, when she was just getting ready to get into bed with her medicinal large scotch, and she sounded very well — well, as well as someone of that age who doesn’t enjoy particularly good health can sound — and happy. Her carer found her dead in bed on Friday morning. I saw the body before the undertakers removed it, and she really did look as if she were asleep.

While my mother certainly had all her marbles right to the end, she’d been increasingly frail in recent years, and she never fully recovered from the death of her much-loved younger sister almost exactly a year ago. She lost her sight shortly thereafter, and life really had become very burdensome for her. As she’d said in her speech at her 90th birthday party, ‘I don’t know why you’re all congratulating me on being 90. It’s no fun. I don’t recommend it at all, and I much preferred being 30.’

I hadn’t really intended to mention it here but, since it’s obviously a major issue in my life right now, it seems artificial not to. I’ll be away for a few days next week, making funeral arrangements and putting matters in train to wind up the estate.

I’ve turned off comments for this post because I don’t want people to feel they need to express their condolences. I’ll take them as read, and I thank you for them.

Dawkins vs God, umpteenth round

Filed under: Philosopy, Religion — notsaussure @ 1:28 pm

John Milton’s take on it:

In discourse more sweet
(For Eloquence the Soul, Song charms the Sense,)
Others apart sat on a Hill retir’d,
In thoughts more elevate, and reason’d high
Of Providence, Foreknowledge, Will, and Fate,
Fixt Fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandring mazes lost.
Of good and evil much they argu’d then,
Of happiness and final misery,
Passion and Apathie, and glory and shame,
Vain wisdom all, and false Philosophie:
Yet with a pleasing sorcerie could charm
Pain for a while or anguish, and excite
Fallacious hope, or arm th’ obdured brest
With stubborn patience as with triple steel.

Not a scientific proposition, certainly. Nor, to my mind, to be dismissed solely on the grounds it isn’t one or that Milton must have been a brain-washed idiot.

That’s one of my main objections to Richard Dawkins’ method of arguing; not so much that it’s wrong but that it misses the point. Someone can advance the hypothesis that King Lear was, in fact, written not by William Shakespeare but by Sir Francis Bacon. It’s an highly improbable hypothesis, to my mind, and one that I’m happy to ignore unless — which I admit as a theoretical possibility, however slight — someone can adduce convincing evidence for it. However, someone can also advance the hypothesis that

no unhypnotized observer, if such an observer existed, could read it [Lear] to the end with any feeling except ‘aversion and weariness’. And exactly the same is true of ‘all the other extolled dramas of Shakespeare, not to mention the senseless dramatized tales, Pericles, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Cymbeline, Troilus and Cressida.’

As Orwell says,

One’s first feeling is that in describing Shakespeare as a bad writer he [Tolstoy] is saying something demonstrably untrue. But this is not the case. In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is ‘good’. Nor is there any way of definitely proving that — for instance — Warwick Deeping is ‘bad’.

There are ways of arguing against Tolstoy’s criticisms of Shakespeare, but, ultimately, there would be no way of convincing him that he’s wrong — or of convincing me that he’s right — in the way you might convince someone that Bohemia has no seacoast. Nor, indeed, would many people think that the merits or otherwise of The Winter’s Tale depend on its geographical accuracy, any more than is Tolstoy’s account of the Battle of Borodino susceptible to criticism as a work of military history.

Sir Peter Medawar was of the view

That there is indeed a limit upon science is made very likely by the existence of questions that science cannot answer, and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer […] . I have in mind such questions as

  • How did everything begin?
  • What are we all here for?
  • What is the point of living?

Doctrinaire positivism — now something of a period piece — dismissed such questions as nonquestions or pseudoquestions such as only simpletons ask and only charlatans profess to be able to answer (The Limits Of Science, p 66)

Clearly you don’t need religion to answer such questions, but it seems perversely to miss the point if you complain that they’re being answered in a non-scientific manner.

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April 27, 2007

More IT fun from HMG — too much of a good thing

Filed under: Medicine, nemesis, Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 12:29 am

Hard upon yesterday’s revelation that junior doctors’ personal details were publicly available on the ill-fated MTAS website, we get this:

A controversial job application website for junior doctors has been suspended, amid fresh concerns of security lapses.The Department of Health said it was investigating claims that doctors were able to read each other’s messages.

The new concerns come a day after revelations that applicants’ personal information could be freely accessed.

The MTAS website has been the subject of protests from junior doctors. The Conservatives say the system is in “complete crisis”.

Channel 4 News reported that applicants had been able to see each other’s files by changing two digits in the personalised web address given to each individual.

Channel 4 report, including video, here.

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April 26, 2007

Why Richard Dawkins is irritating.

Filed under: Philosopy, Religion — notsaussure @ 11:21 pm

Matt, at An Insomniac, has a thoughtful article lamenting the way atheists seem to be getting up people’s noses, rather. I very much agree with him — especially when he says,

the hostile tone adopted considerably weakens the arguments being made. Whatever you believe, starting off by telling those you want to convince that they’re dangerous idiots is not the way to go about things. It simply hardens people against you – as can be seen by the responses to columns written by the likes of Terry Sanderson or A. C. Grayling in the Guardian and elsewhere. They’re merely preaching to the choir, and are unlikely to have changed any minds by it.

I frequently wonder who these writers are trying to convince, because they’re clearly not trying to persuade anyone who doesn’t already agree with them. It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy;

‘Only a brain-washed idiot could fail to realise that God is a delusion!’
‘Well, I believe in God, and I don’t consider myself a brain-washed idiot, so I don’t think I can agree with you there.’
‘See, I said you were brain-washed’.

Personally, I think it’s a bit of fruitless argument, since it’s more about ways of seeing the world than about a proposition that can be proved or disproved one way or the other. We can’t argue about whether a certain picture is beautiful or not in the same way we can determine whether it’s hanging in the National Gallery or The Louvre, but the fact that we can’t agree on its merits doesn’t mean we can’t have an interesting and useful discussion — which may well change the attitudes of one or the other — or both — of us, and it would be pointless to conduct the discussion in terms of ‘you’re an idiot because you don’t see things the way I do’. For an excellent example, to my mind, of a very good-natured and illuminating discussion between a convinced atheist and a convinced believer, one could do a lot worse than look at the debate between Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan at BeliefNet. They neither of them, I think, started out under the illusion that the other would end up changing his mind, but it was still a worthwhile debate. And well done Sam Harris for choosing to debate not with a crackpot red-neck literalist who thinks the world was created a few thousand years ago but with an intelligent and thoughtful gay Catholic secularist like Andrew Sullivan. (more…)

Wikipedia, bloggers and accuracy

Filed under: Blogroll, Internet — notsaussure @ 6:55 pm

Tim Worstall discusses the views of Oliver Kamm and Stephen Pollard on Wikipedia. Oliver Kamm complains that

By design, the most popular reference source on the Web operates by consensus rather than by discriminating between fact and error.

This leads to errors; he writes,

Here is a small example concerning my family, and that I cite because I therefore know the subject and it illustrates what I’m talking about. It would be difficult to name an African country that has suffered war in the last 40 years and whose travails have not been reported by Martin Bell for the BBC. One of those countries, however, is Rwanda. Wikipedia’s entry for Martin, sure enough, cites prominently his journalism from that country – a body of work that no one has seen because it doesn’t exist. It’s the type of small error – something that might have happened, but didn’t – that no amateur editor would feel sufficiently strongly about to check, or sure about to delete. Inevitably, given Wikipedia’s reach and unwarranted use even by serious newspapers, that factoid will make its way into profiles and, one day, obituaries of the man. It’s not important; it doesn’t affect his professional reputation one way or the other; it’s just wrong. By not discriminating between fact and error, the Web and specifically Wikipedia increasingly blur the distinction between them.

Stephen Pollard agrees, drawing attention to inaccuracies in the entry on him,

The entry on me, for instance – probably the only subject about which I can claim to the the world’s leading expert – has so many basic errors of fact that it is laughable.

He then goes on to discuss some of them; his biography of David Blunkett wasn’t official, he’s never appeared on Question Time and so forth. He writes,

I have made a point of never correcting it because once I start, there will be no end to it, as it is forever altered with new errors.

However, someone’s corrected it, and within hours of Mr Pollard’s criticisms appearing. I thought of correcting the Martin Bell entry, but, instead, left a comment in the Discussion section, drawing attention to Kamm’s complaint. In under an hour, someone replied, (more…)

April 25, 2007

More IT fun from HMG…

Filed under: nemesis, Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 8:20 pm

This is getting beyond a joke.

Yesterday, in Parliament:

Mrs. Dorries: As my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) has said, there is no argument about the fact that doctors’ careers and training processes needed modernising. The issue is that it has been a complete, unmitigated disaster, yet the Secretary of State is not accepting responsibility for that.

Ms Hewitt: I am sure that the hon. Lady will not accept my word for it, but if she just looks at the several statements made by the review group under Professor Neil Douglas, she will see that it has not been a complete, unmitigated disaster. The applications system has actually been working well in many places, particularly for GP posts.

Channel 4 News, today:

The Medical Training Application Service or MTAS is a computer system where student and junior doctors apply for jobs – a system they were repeatedly assured was secure.Today Channel Four News can reveal that since at least 9 o’ clock this morning, the details of medical students applying for foundation course posts – the first year to become a junior doctor – were openly available to the public.

This is astonishing. Not only can we see what they wrote in their applications; their addresses; their phone numbers; who their referees are. We can also see if there were white, heterosexual, gay Asian, Christian, Jewish or Hindu, and we can also see if they have got police records and what the crime was.

Once we were informed we checked the site to see if there had been a massive breach of this already controversial system – and there had been.

At 4.35pm we told the Department of Health. The chair of the British Medical Association’s Junior Doctors Committee also called the department – at 5.05 they closed the breach – it took them just half an hour.

They were completely unaware that it had been open – at a minimum since this morning.

The Department of Health’s excuse? They wouldn’t put up a minister, but told Channel 4, (more…)

Commenters anonymous

Filed under: Blogroll — notsaussure @ 4:15 pm

As people may know, Tim Ireland is conducting a campaign against anonymous comments in political blogs.

I shudder to think what he’ll make of a spat currently going on over in America, where the policy of Jon Swift, the reasonable Conservative, who allows anonymous comments, is letting things get a bit out of hand, starting here, and getting steadily worse as you scroll down.

April 24, 2007

Blair on the effects of the invasion

Filed under: Blair, Iraq, War on Terror — notsaussure @ 3:28 pm

The BBC, reporting Mr Blair’s warning that

that terrorism continues to be a “global” threat and needs to be fought whether it is in “Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else”,

a view he concedes, with remarkable candour, is “not popular”:

Mr Blair acknowledged the situation in Iraq was “hugely difficult”.”It’s difficult because you have external elements – al-Qaeda up near Baghdad, and Iranian-backed elements down in Basra – who are deliberately creating the problem.”

He said it was not true that Saddam Hussein “was a kind of lid” on sectarian violence which “poured out” once the dictator was toppled.

“If you talk to ordinary Iraqis – whether they are Sunni or Shia – they want to live together. You have these outside terrorists coming in and linking up with internal extremists and causing this carnage.”

So isn’t he saying, in terms, that the carnage in Iraq wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the invasion? That the invasion was, at least in part, the cause of the current sectarian strife?

Yes, yes, if you’re foolish enough to ignore warnings not to keep your PIN number in your wallet along with your cards and you then leave your wallet lying around in a pub, that doesn’t excuse someone making off with your wallet and emptying your accounts, but you couldn’t thus wholly absolve yourself of your responsibility for the misfortune, could you?

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April 23, 2007

Anonymity and reputation

Filed under: Blogroll — notsaussure @ 9:32 pm

Chris Dillow takes issue with Brian Appleyard over the latter’s argument that

All western — not just scientific — wisdom is based on identity. Advocates and their critics can be identified and their ideas formally tested. This is nothing to do with the statistics of crowds, and everything to do with the authority of the person. Take that away and truth and judgement become fictions.

Chris gives the example

Take a simple statement, “all swans are white.” The validity (or not) of this has nothing to do with the identity of who utters it. It’s merely a statement about swans, to be tested by looking for a non-white swan.The key test of an idea is not: whose is it? It’s: does it accord with facts and reasoning?

— to which Brian Appleyard ripostes in the comments,

The question you have to ask yourself is: how do you establish that all swans are white? It is the process.

This puzzled me no end. In fact, I’m still a bit puzzled since I’m not sure I haven’t misunderstood what Mr Appleyard is trying to say in his article, but I think he’s missed the point. The obvious answer to his question is precisely that we rely on the wisdom of crowds, since I may advance the proposition that all swans are white, since I’ve never seen one that isn’t, and Chris may agree with me, since he hasn’t either, and then Brian Appleyard says, ‘Hang on a minute, there’s a black one lives on the river near me and I can take you to show it you.’ It’s not Brian Appleyard’s reputation as an ornithologist that helps us here; it’s the fact he can show us a counter-example. (more…)

Wordsworth goes rap

Filed under: England — notsaussure @ 5:39 pm

Something else I missed a couple of weeks ago, but better late than never. Cumbria Tourism have had the bright idea of promoting the Lake District to a younger and more hip market by taking two of its best-known literary figures — William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter — and having New York rapper MC Nuts prance around Ullswater dressed as Squirrel Nutkin deliving a rap version of Wordsworth’s Daffodils. Further and better particulars in The Telegraph, who reproduce both the original poem and MC Nuts’ version — ‘The modern re-working manages to stay true to the original sentiment but with some slight variation of the lyrics,’ or so say Cumbria Tourism, though I wonder whether Wordsworth would have rhymed retina with et cetera.

I think it’s great fun, though I’m not sure how many people will actually be induced to visit The Lakes as a result of watching the video.

And aren’t people always complaining that rap music concentrates too much on themes to do with guns, violence and drugs? Well, surely this is a step in the right direction.

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