Archive for 2006

Why no knighthood for Saddam Hussein?

Saturday, December 30th, 2006

If John Scarlett could get a knighthood for helping to get us into the war, and for services in the fight against Al-Qaeda, it seems very unfair that Saddam Hussein could not, too. After all, he did as much as he could to assist in the belief that his government had WMDs; he suppressed al-Qaeda ruthlessly when he had the chance, as well as many of the other enemies of the British governent at the moment. Too bad he seems to have concentrated on buying the Australian Wheat Board rather than the Labour Party.

slikewatch in Berkeley

Friday, December 29th, 2006

There is a paper referenced in Language Log which charts the use of “all” as a quotative in Californian speech over the last decade. It seems to be falling out of favour, replaced in this usage by “like”, so that the cool kids no longer say “and I’m, all, Dude, where’s my car?” but “and I’m, like, Dude, where’s my car?”

This was fine enough, but what I liked was the diagram showing a search pattern the authors used on Google. All human life is here:


Twelve great Britons

Friday, December 29th, 2006

A spasm of irritation at some posturing lefty in the Independent made me wonder what my list of twelve great Britons would be. Here is something like it. They are chosen because they all changed the world and all are admirable in some way or other. Complete bastards are excluded, which knocks out William the conqueror:

  • Alfred the Great
  • Thomas Cranmer
  • Thomas More Shakespeare (I thought I had done this)
  • Edward Gibbon James Clerk Maxwell
  • Newton
  • Hume
  • William Wilberforce
  • Darwin
  • Elizabeth Fry Horatio Nelson
  • Churchill
  • Wellington
  • Milton

UPDATE: (changes on the following grounds: Without Nelson, Wilberforce would have been unable to carry through the abolition. Shakespeare has to be there. Mrs Tilton persuaded me to drop More. Rupert makes his point about Maxwell.)

Scott Atran rips open Sam Harris

Thursday, December 28th, 2006

Fantastic stuff here, (jump to Scott Atran) pointing towards a scientifically informed study of religion. To get there, of course, it is necessary first to remove the sillinesses of pharyngular atheism and dogmatic assertions about “religion” based on nothing but intuition. So, take it away, Dr. Atran:

Core religious ideas serve as conceptual signposts that help to socially coordinate other beliefs and behaviors in given contexts. Although they have no more fixed or stable propositional content than do poetic metaphors, they are not processed figuratively in the sense of an optional and endless search for meaning. Rather they are thought to be right, whatever they may mean, and to require those who share such beliefs to commune and converge on an appropriate interpretation for the context at hand. To claim that one knows what Judaism or Christianity is truly about because one has read the Bible, or that what Islam is about because one has read the Qur’an and Hadith, is to believe that there is an essence to religion and religious beliefs. But science (and the history of exegesis) demonstrates that this claim is false.

Name that spiritual leader

Wednesday, December 27th, 2006

Who said at Christmas this year: %(loony)“Many people say I embarrass them with my humility.”%?

Please put your guesses in comments before you look up [the answer.]

The speed of spaghetti affects the shape

Friday, December 22nd, 2006

Jeremy Ahouse sends me an amazingly good story from The Scientist about protein folding. As you know, proteins are made of a long chain, or chains, of amino acids folded up on themselves in complicated ways to make nubbly shapes, like an armchair modelled out of macaroni. The chains are assembled one link at a time by mRNAs which read off a triplet codon from the DNA and fetch the corresponding amino acid to attach it. So think of a piece of spaghetti emerging and coiling up as it does so. But different codons can code for the same amino acid, and so there are different mRNAs that do the same thing.

since the sequence of the protein is the same, an allele which differs from another only in the codons it uses to represent the same amino acids is regarded as being the same gene. The change can be significant for things like DNA fingerprinting, but not, it was thought, for anything else.

What the paper argues is that proteins made with rarer codons (for the same amino acid) may fold differently to those made with more common ones; and since the funcion of proteins is actually determined by their shape, they work differently, too. In particular, the researchers looked at a protein which helps pump anti-cancer drugs through cell walls, and found that some forms worked much worse than others with the same drugs.

It’s all a bit tentative as yet, and I may have got some or all of the details right, but it is a wonderful indication of just how complicated the meccano of life must be.

Is theology nonsense (no 599968 in an ongoing series)?

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

Interesting piece in the TLS (I hope it’s not paywalled) by Thomas Dixon, who has organised a conference to which I think I am going next summer, rounding up a bunch of science-and-theology books. One of them appears to be making large claims for the Pascal Boyer explanation of religion as consisting (1) of beliefs about supernatural beings, which (2) are generated by the hyperactivity of our agency-detection mechanisms.

Boyer is a very smart guy, and these ideas are possibly true. But they are not an explanation of religion because it can’t just be reduced to a belief in supernatural beings. Any coherent explanation has to balance social function with psychological origin. If I think a particular seashell is precious, I am either deluded or a child. There are psychological explanations in either case, which are entirely valid and satisfying. But if my tribe trades in cowries, I may be rich as well. That’s something that psychology alone can’t explain.

living well

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

One of the most creative areas of British journalism is the creation of synonyms for “notorious drunk”. Such people exist in British public life, but the constraints of libel laws mean that you would be very very foolish to say so. Even in obituaries, the preferred term is “convivial”. But I caught a lovely new phrase in the Times report of a distinguished Scottish lawyer arrested after an air rage incident at Heathrow. The man in question is “known as a bon viveur.”

Sneaking anti-piracy

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

My laptop runs windows XP, which none of the other computers in the house do – why should they upgrade? — and is also set to collect automatic security fixes. So this morning it asked whether it should upgrade to IE7. Why not? It’s not as if I were going to switch to it. But I noticed, as the upgrade collection ran, that it was simultaneously running the whole "Windows Genuine Advantage" business (Note, the advantage is entirely Microsoft’s). Presumably, at this stage, there is nothing it could do if it concluded that the program were pirated except refuse to upgrade; but within three or four years it might just cripple the whole machine.

At that point, most optimistic nerds would conclude that this is why Ubuntu, or some similar flavour of linux will make the great breakthrough. It is simple, reliable, and free. And, if you run it, you, not anyone else, determines what you may do with your computer. Yet of course most users will neither know or care about licenses or DRM. The idea that a computer and its data belongs to the user starts to feel terribly quaint when most people have no idea what’s on the computer and what’s on the net. The network is the computer, and you have no rights on the network.

In which I have a dream unlike MLK

Thursday, December 21st, 2006

So I was at a conference of some kind, vaguely religious or journalistic: people sat at long benches along refectory tables, and we were discussing the Bishop of Southwark when a slim, dark-haired woman, a friend of mine though unidentifiable in the dream, said "Andrew, I have a much better story".

She was, she said, a woman priest herself, and the members of her order used to go away for retreats from time to time. At one of these, one morning, one of the women came down in an apparently distressed stated: lumpy around the face as if she had been crying. So she was asked what was the matter. Nothing, nothing, she said, and went back up to her room. My friend followed, with others, and listened at the door. Sure enough, there came a cry of pain and then more sobbing. So she shoved open the door and they all pushed into the room: all of the furniture had been roughly shoved together – "it looked like a hurricane had gone through IKEA", she said – and in the middle of the room was a disordered bed with the woman who had been crying lying on it, stark naked, and with bruises all the way from her upper thigh to her lower back. To one side, also stark naked, except for a gold pectoral cross, was a bishop leading the retreat, who had been spanking her.

The woman on the bed was in tears but not ashamed. "We were just exploring the spirituality of pain" she said, and at this everyone filed out again. But they never trusted the bishop again.

Yes but who was it? I asked when I heard the story. The dark-haired woman hugged me close, so no one else could hear, and told me. I didn’t catch the name but it was nice being hugged. "You know I love you", I said in response to the secret, though I felt as I said it that this was only making things worse.

Then I crossed the room and started to tell the story myself at another group of benches. Behind me, the women priests were standing and putting on their robes, preparing to leave.