Monday, April 30, 2012

The Unpolitics of Car Racing

I’m glad the Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix went ahead as planned, simply because I like Formula 1 and I would have missed the race.

The protests were against the government. The unrest was nothing to do with the race. But the protesters, who have far more serious things to worry about than a car race, have used it to give themselves an international audience, because the press don’t care about Bahrain, but Formula 1 sells. The Sunni opposition in Bahrain is not stupid.

A lot of people said that the race should not go ahead. A lot of other people said that it should. These latter include the people whose opinion is actually relevant and who have some idea of what they are talking about, and so the race will go ahead. And the opposition, who may well be the good guys here, will be heard.

The leader of the Labour party has said something that he thought he was expected to say to get the headlines which would benefit his party. His opinion, based, I imagine, on monumental ignorance, is of no interest to anyone who has to make commercial decisions and safety decisions about the race. Milliband does not know and does not care what is happening to the people of Bahrain, he only wants to gain some political mileage. It is extraordinary that there are people who do not appreciate this, but if too many people understood the trick, the magic would be gone and it wouldn’t work. ‘We’ would have to invent new ways to fool ourselves, and they might be even worse.

But the race was run, the FIA are happy, and the opposition was heard, in that confused and partisan way in which the international media transmits these things. Now more people know that Bahrain is run by an oppressive minority which denies representation to the majority, and that that majority is desperate to change things. This is probably a good thing.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

On Neolithic Goatherds

Almost as an aside, a couple of people on those threads I’ve been linking to like to mention Neolithic goatherds, as though what such notional creatures might or might not have believed has any relevance to what their current antagonists might believe. I imagine there have an idea that religion was deliberately invented by said goatherds and then imposed on a thousand generations of unwilling minds. It doesn’t work that way. Societies, tribes, groups- more than individuals- are continuously reinventing and renegotiating- with heavy borrowing it’s true, much like language- their understanding of the world and the way they reconcile themselves to it. The need to do it comes from inside them. Whether the answer they find corresponds to anything outside them is another question. It is, in fact, the big question. Neolithic goatherds are not germane.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

"...I wonder what Jeannie thinks of me now. She didn’t even hate him, she must miss him. She’ll enjoy being a young widow, she’ll be used to it by now. She’ll be good at it. It wasn’t really my fault. Not if you look at it properly. I didn’t want to do it, I hardly knew I was doing it. I didn’t hate him. That really is true. I didn’t know him, and I didn’t hate him. I don’t think I would have done even if I had known him. Jeannie talked about him sometimes, always bad, but she wasn’t trying to make me hate him. She wasn’t interested in making him into a real person, she wasn’t telling me biography, she said what she had to say to make us both feel good. I might have liked him if I hadn’t been screwing his wife. I didn’t hate him, and I don’t hate him now. He may have ruined what was left of my life, but it was going to happen anyway. It was the next step downwards. I didn’t know it was there, I thought there weren’t any more, but it was there and I would have taken it some time. It was bad luck for both of us but more my fault than his. I try to imagine him still alive. He didn’t deserve to die, even Jeannie never suggested he’d be better dead, she didn’t tell me anything really bad about him, something he should die for. I wish he was still alive, then I could forget him. Most things you can walk away from. Most problems disappear if you go and leave them. Most of the bad things we do have never happened once they’re done. If it had only been adultery he need never have known. He would have suspected, he must have realized she was a tart but he need never have known. If he’d let me walk away that night he could have joined in the game and he could have had a faithful wife still if he chose to. Most things we do happen in the past and the mind can make them go away if it wants to. You can’t ignore death. That was the mistake I made. Death is in the present. You can say I fucked your wife, and it goes away into the past and the memory does what it wants, but you have to say your husband is dead, still dead in the present. The present can only be what it is, that’s part of the game, and some of us always lose. He is dead. I can’t remember it the way I want to because it’s still happening, and I can’t make the rules in the present, I’ve never been able to do it. If I could he would still be alive and he’d have Jeannie, which is the way it should be. That’s why he’s dead. It can’t be the way it should be.

Maybe the lawyer was right and there was a chance the jury would go for it. Maybe now if I were a free man, after all the months I’ve had to put it behind me, I might now be glad that I could go on living, and I might have found somewhere to do it and a way to do it. Maybe if I’d given up the way I wanted to I would regret it and wish I’d tried to do it differently. Part of the way he did it was so that I couldn’t blame him if it didn’t work out. I understand that now. And now I don’t care any more about making the truth known than they did. He’s still out there fighting for me, trying to stop them killing me tomorrow. I don’t really care whether he does it or not. If they don’t do it tomorrow they’ll do it in a month’s time, or a year’s, and there’s nothing in here to stay alive all that time for. He says there’s still a chance it’ll be commuted, so I can spend another thirty years here. I understand why he has to do it, but I don’t want him to. The chair is the only way out of here. If they take that away, there’s nowhere left to run to."

Friday, April 27, 2012

Passive Voice Day

It is reported at the Language Log that today, 27 April, has been declared The Day of the Passive Voice by Shaun’s blog, an idea considered by your humble blogging hedgehog to be finely wrought. Readers and the general public are encouraged to celebrate the versatility and creative potential of the passive voice by incorporating it into their writings on this day, especially given the way in which it is so frequently denigrated, falsely and ignorantly, by people who have been told that if it is excluded from their work, it will be enlivened and better understood by their readers.

That the passive voice is greatly misunderstood, and often misidentified, by its critics, is exemplified beautifully by the comments to the original article at Shaun’s blog in most of which a tremendous confusion about how the passive voice is constructed and what it is understood to mean can be easily observed by anyone who is not blinded by the deluge of nonsense spouted by self-appointed stylists.

The articles, and the challenge contained within them, and this post, are commended to the interest and ingenuity of such readers as might be inspired by them.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

How Wrong is Racism?

According to Geoffrey Pullum at the Language Log, ‘there really isn't anything I despise and abhor more than racism.’ He also says, ‘Racism is the great evil of the past two centuries, the absolute worst social scourge of modern times, the very first thing I would get rid of if I could be made ruler of the universe for a quarter of an hour.

These are extreme and definitive assertions, presumably sincerely meant. He is a man who expresses himself well. And it’s not an exaggeration intended to serve as a defence against what’s to come. So, without any intention to criticise, I shall take it at face value and respond.

Racism of any kind is a peculiarly unpleasant business because it exposes the baseness of the human mind. Regular readers will know that I am an enthusiastic armchair anthropologist. I love discovering the ways in which we are different and trying to understand them. Which doesn’t mean that many of those customs and mores aren’t abhorrent by any standards. Plenty of tribes, even today, would kill you as soon as look at you, for not being one of them, and think nothing of it. There is an instinct deep within us, a part of being human, which tells us not only to despise but to deny the very humanity of anyone who is not part of our social group. Can any reader tell the difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi? No, neither can I, but they can, and it matters so much to them that they murdered each other by the million a few years ago.

We want to believe that civilization and the enlightenment of broadened experience have placed us far above these primitive instincts, and enabled us to replace them with other, better ways of interpreting our relations with others. But the casual dismissal of strangers who are in some way not like us can be constantly seen even in people who genuinely believe they are above it.

Whether it is the worst thing there is, the greatest scourge of our time, is a matter of perspective. Most Eastern Europeans would doubtless disagree, as would most of the Chinese and a lot of sub-Saharan Africans. The French of the late 18th and 19th C would probably disagree as well, as would the homosexuals of Uganda and Iran and the women of Saudi Arabia. There have been many societies in recent times in which the crudest hatreds were expressed in terms of political or socio-economic identities rather than racial ones. The greatest scourge is the hatred that is threatening your life or condemning you to misery.

The post is worth a read, if only to get you thinking about exactly where one man’s freedom ends and another starts. Certain things go unclarified, such as whether the tweets in question did in fact cause anyone to be attacked or otherwise harmed, and whether the people at whom the remarks were aimed were participating freely in a conversation with Stacey, or were unilaterally targeted by him. It seems to me that this makes a very big difference.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

On The Origin of Polar Bears

Polar bears are cuddly, for some value of cuddly. You wouldn’t actually want to cuddle one, because they stink of fish oil and would tear you limb from limb before you even had time to pinch your nose and say ‘eeeuuugh’, but they are undoubtedly popular, somewhere between puppies and hamsters, I think. They are majestic, beautiful, elegant and brutal. If they could drive sports cars you would have to forbid your daughter to marry one, and she would do it anyway.

They are also endangered, for some value of endangered, and thus they punch even more buttons. They have been used to sell both insurance and refreshing mints, which few people can claim, and can eat baby dolphins with impunity, in which they are surely unique.

But little was known about their origin until very recently, and even that turns out to be wrong. Morphology was all we had until the last couple of decades, and morphology suggested that they were closely related to the brown bear of North America, Asia and Europe. Morphology turned out to be right, as it usually is when closely observed, and analysis of mitochondrial DNA put the separation at only 150,000 ya. This turned out, a posterior, to explain a lot of things.

So it was rather unfortunate when a recent analysis of nuclearDNA showed that the separation was more like 600,000 ya. And it probably was a complete and sudden separation, a small population isolated on floating ice or some such thing. This will also turn out to explain a lot of things, and the explanations may well have started already.

The fact that values for time and (genetic) distance of separation of populations provided by mtDNA and nDNA or aDNA can differ widely is becoming more and more important. Something similar happened with the Neanderthal sequences, and doubtless with sequences of other animals, too. At a time when knowledge of human history is being rapidly expanded by genetic analysis, it is necessary to recognise that no one advance is likely to be definitive, and it will take years of looking at many such data in the context of each other and more broadly, before the kind of detailed understanding we aspire to can be achieved.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Starting points

The reason that there is so much obscurity and lack of understanding in discussions of God (one of them anyway, and an important one) is that each side assumed it is the other that has to prove the truth of its position, and this causes a complete separation of ideas which is responsible for the not getting anywhere. To the believer, the existence of God is so obvious that it is the atheist who has to give well-founded reasons to challenge it, while the atheist finds the idea of God so strange that it must be the believer who provides the arguments. Each assumes that theirs is the default position and that the other has the greater responsibility to defend his position. (In the case of Arthur C. Clarke’s teapot the default position is unquestionably the assumption of non-existence.) thus they argue past each other, each expecting the other to provide evidence which will not be forthcoming, because the need for it is not understood. This is the nature of belief, it is based on what strikes us without examination as obviously true, and we like to imagine that our belief is reasoned and the other chap’s is not.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Those Olympics

I am a bad person. There are many people who wouldn’t question that assertion, and a few who would, at least for the sake of form. I can be friendly, sociable, generous, considerate, understanding, magnanimous, accommodating, encouraging, optimistic, entertaining, and a number of other desirable things, as long as there’s something in it for me and I have my instruction booklet handy. On the other hand, I have been thinking impure thought about the Olympic Games.

There, I’ve said it, a non sequitur slipped in at the end of a paragraph, almost hidden from sight, but I have said. I think bad things about the Games.

My impurity of thought has nothing to do with beach volleyball or Yelena Isinbayeva; it is a deeper, less human impurity. More or more I find myself hoping that they will be an abject, humiliating failure.

That they will be a crashing economic failure is taken as read, these things always are. That there will be utter chaos in London for weeks and a lifelong bill for the British taxpayer likewise. That the media will be full of self-important officials and inarticulate has-beens telling us (well, not me, I won’t be there) how to behave, and preening themselves over how much of our (your) money they’ve managed to spend and how they deserve get special traffic lanes and police protection and all the best seats that everyone else will have to pay through the nose for, because they matter and you don’t, is also a given. Such people are nothing to me, and don’t even notice when they are laughed at and ignored. Only humiliation is good enough for them.

The idea that they represent some kind of national pride or symbolic unity is utterly risible, of course, a marketing notion invented for the occasion, no more. It’s useful for getting people to put up with in and persuading thousands of children to work for nothing in the preparation, but it isn’t real.

But in most Olympic sports the Games are the highest prize there is, the culmination of years of work and dreams. That for decades the event has been organised purely for the glory of politicians and bureaucrats who care nothing for the people who create the show is not their fault, and I desire them no disappointment in the pursuit of those dreams or in the search for reward for their labours. I once had sporting dreams and I won’t crush those of others.

On balance, therefore, I see that the Games are of great importance to a lot of people, some of whom don’t deserve to be disappointed) and they won’t affect me one way or the other, beyond providing a bit of entertainment if I watch a bit of them, but, even so, a part of me, a part that will not be excised, would love to see the music files get lost at the opening ceremony, the terracing collapse on its foundations, the Zil lanes blocked by broken down buses, empty stadiums, bored journalists called home by their stations  because no one was interested, the right-on finding contradictory ways to denounce some aspect of the event, add your own if you wish.

I know it would give me pleasure, even though it shouldn’t, if it were a failure, and a lot of people deserve it to be.

Btw: when looking for the image that accompanies this post I googled ‘Lisa Simpson blowjob’ (for reasons which I hope are obvious). I can state without reservation that this is a bad idea.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

On The Proving of Negatives

Longrider and others both at his place and at Orphans of Liberty have been arguing about the existence of God. They were supposed to be arguing about whether religious people are entitled to proselytize and exactly how much tolerance they should be granted. At least, that’s what the original post was about, and the hosts made a couple of attempts to get it back on track. Inevitably it became an argument, almost a slanging match, about God yes, God no.
I didn’t get involved in the argument. I tried that recently and, as a wise man pointed out at the time, ‘These things never get anywhere, do they?’ So I didn’t intervene. But there are a few points that are worth making about how these arguments are conducted, and why they don’t get anywhere, all of them exemplified in that discussion.

It was asserted several times that, ‘You can’t prove a negative.’ Longrider himself, on the side of the non-believers, said that he could not be expected to demonstrate the non-existence of God, because to prove a negative is impossible. It probably is impossible in practice to demonstrate the non-existence of God, but not for that reason. This is often heard, in this and many other types of argument, and is stated as though it were an iron law of logic. In fact it is complete nonsense. It is folk logic, and it matters here because Longrider, particularly, makes frequent appeals to logic when criticising the arguments of others.

That it is nonsense becomes clear when you consider that any proposition in logic, and most in natural language, can be expressed as a negative. The proposition itself, ‘There does not exist a proof of a negative statement,’ is expressed as a negative, and thus, if it were in fact true, could not be proven. This isn’t just a quibble, and it’s more than an example. It is perfectly simple to state negative propositions which can be proved to be true.

The confusion stems, I think, from the fact that it is often difficult, or impossible, in theory or in practice, to prove the non-existence of some postulated entity. I can prove that there is no albino parrot in my living room by simultaneously observing every subset of space in which such a creature could be. In practice it would involve moving some furniture and fending off men in white coats (it’s quite all right doctor, I’m just looking for a non-existent white parrot), but it can clearly be done. To prove that there is no albino parrot in the world cannot be done by the same means, due to practical limitations, but it is possible in theory. To prove that there is no horse with 21-trisomy in the world is possible, however, through the observation that the same mutation which causes Down’s syndrome inevitably causes spontaneous abortion.

To prove the non-existence of God is certainly possible in theory. If it’s true, of course.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

On Prettiness

This post is the top Google entry for the search string "what's the difference between beauty and prettiness"

I'm glad to have solved that little probloem on behalf of the world.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What Ape Means Again

I wrote a few months ago about the horrible mess that was the Ape page at Wikipedia. To sum up, it had been taken over by a group of people so terrified of appearing to leave a crack open to creationist interpretation that they refused to recognise the easily verifiable fact that ‘ape’ is used by most people in a way that excludes humans.

If you ask ‘Is Richard Dawkins an ape’*, you introduce a context in which most people, but by no means all, would say yes, but the fact remains that in general use it does not include Homo sapiens. The real point is that it isn’t a technical term, much less a taxonomic one.

It looks as though the neurotic editors at WP have finally been persuaded to relax and think intelligently about the problem. I won’t go over the points I made at the time- anyone who wants to can follow the link- but to refuse to explain what the article is actually about, and to insist hysterically that it is only allowed to mean what you want it to mean, is at best to render the article worthless (people go there seeking information, after all, and if you refuse to give it to them you might as well not bother writing it), and at worst it is umbilical subduction unworthy of anyone who calls himself a scientist.

No one at all involved in trying to make some sense of that mess was disputing the taxonomy of Homo sapiens**. The whole debate was about the meaning of the word ‘ape’ in English. Dictionaries, we were told, are not a valid source for the meanings of words. Hmm. The writings of experts in the field of palaeoanthropolgy, we were told, are not valid evidence of how experts in the field use the term. Hmm. Curiouser and curiouser.

I checked a considerable number of papers written by said experts, and I found that my memory was not faulty. Most of them use ape in different ways, depending on the context of the discussion. They are quite relaxed about switching between ‘humans and other apes’ and ‘non-human apes’, ‘apes, including humans’, and other formulae, in which the word ‘ape’ is to be interpreted in different ways, sometimes within the same paragraph. Only when rigorous clarity is required do they explicitly state what they mean by ape in a particular case or, more usually, they will switch to taxonomic terms to avoid ambiguity.

So even among those who work in the fields of biology, primatology, palaeoanthropology etc, usage is free and relaxed, and this fact is easily shown to be true.  Among the general public ‘ape’ is most commonly used in a sense exclusive of humans, and this is also easily shown to be true. But try arguing that with a band of true believers who are determined that no crack will be left open by which the infidel may enter. I didn’t try to argue, I’m not stupid, but a lot of people did, and had to retire- or were banned- confused and amazed by the closed minds of those who were claiming to represent scientific truth,

John Hawks, whose blog I follow assiduously, both for his own articles and the resources and links to other papers that he provides, went even further the other day. He declared that he doesn’t think of ‘ape’, or even ‘monkey’, as including humans at all. And Palaeofreak (in Spanish), who was, as I recall, one of those who was reckless enough to try to make the same points I was making, on the WP discussion page itself, and got banned for his pains, also comments on the same subject, leading to an immensely long comment thread which is quite interesting at times although it falls into some of the same errors as the original WP thread. It's further complicated by the fact that they are actually discussing the Spanish word 'simio', which is much broader in meaning than the English 'ape', as though it meant 'ape'. Strange, but true.

*I don’t have a Dawkins fixation, it’s just that he was used as the example in the article.

**There is actually a great deal of doubt about the taxonomy of Homo sapiens, but the general relationships between extant anthropoids are clear.