Archive for March, 2006

He said what?

Tuesday, March 21st, 2006

The Guardian’s full transcript of the interview with Rowan Williams is a fascinating glimpse into the process of manufacturing news stories. It contains one quote which won’t be noticed anywhere else, but deserves to be: “parts of the internet are, you know, the preserve of bigots and maniacs” Let’s hope he doesn’t get flamed for this by the commentators at David Virtue’s site. (If that seems obscure, look here and do a search on the comments whose tagline is “with christian love”. Not safe before meals.)

Hey, Mister, that’s me up on the Jukebox!

Tuesday, March 21st, 2006

Thursday night, and for a week thereafter on the webAnalysis on violent Islamism in Britain and what the government is doing about it.

UPDATE — the current Analysis — the one you will get if you click on the realplayer (sorry) link today — is very good indeed. I write with remarkable generosity of spirit, since the presenter gave me the worst review I have ever had in my life. I still can’t bring myself to speak to him at parties. But this is good stuff, especially noteworthy for Tariq Ramadan speaking with forked tongue, and Sue Blackmore being quite remarkably silly.

PPS — Sue says she has been cruelly edited and has a position much less silly than the one she puts forward in the programme.

Dawkins bash at the LSE

Monday, March 20th, 2006

[This is sort of deadblogging, because it all happened last Thursday. But these are more or less the notes I made at the time. I have just been too busy to get them in order.]

The OUP threw a lecture and party at the LSE to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Selfish Gene. The panel lined up to praise Dawkins was very impressive: Sir John Krebs; Ian McEwan, Dan Dennett, Matt Ridley. There were some very good jokes made, and some illuminating things said. The book itself has so much become part of the foundations of the thought world of anyone who learned Darwinism from it that it is difficult to reconstruct what was so new when it was new.

Krebs gave the example of Dawkins’ theory (attributed usually to Krebs himself as well) that animal communication is best understood as an attempt at manipulation of another animal. Mutual communication only arises as a result of an arms race. This seems to be profoundly true, and had some interesting corollaries – that where there is a profound conflict of interest between the communicating parties, signals are more likely to be costly, as they are where sexual selection is involved, whereas the communication between two animals which have almost identical interests is likely to be discreet, as between monogamous parents, or, I suppose, parents and children. (thinks later: one prediction of this is that you would expect communication between siblings to be much more conspicuous than parent-child communication. Does this explain why small animals playing are noisy?)

This is, I think, a good way into Dennett’s theory of meaning – a signal that is reliably acted on will have a meaning, even if neither the transmitter or the receiver could express the meaning except in action. In that sense, yes, the colour of oak leaves in autumn has a meaning for parasites (see Hamilton) even though neither oak trees nor the insects that feed on them have minds. Dennett reserves the term “opinion” for meanings that could be expressed as statements. Obviously, only language-using creatures can have opinions in this sense. This raises an enormous, and almost insuperable barrier to understanding with anyone who supposes that meaning requires conscious understanding. But if you want to understand Dennett, you have to get used to his terminology. Similarly, he used, in his talk, the phrase “mentalistic behaviourism” to describe his angle of enquiry. I don’t know about anyone else, but I find this easier to understand than “The intentional stance”, and it does mean exactly the same thing.1

The other money quote I got down from Dennett’s speech was that “Steve Gould was right to call Richard and me Darwinian fundamentalists … who accept that mind, meaning and purpose are not the cause but the fairly recent effects of the mechanistic mill of Darwinian algorithms. No compromise is possible and the recognition is the mark of the sane Darwinian fundamentalist.” (his emphasis)

Matt Ridley pointed out the example of Selfish DNA. This is prefigured in the Selfish Gene, though the term was not coined for another three years, by Crick and Orgel, Sapienza and Doolittle else in simultaneous papers in Nature. This was another very impressive example of the power of the idea of blind replication, serving only its own interests. But at the same time, as Ridley’s account of the contents of the human genome grew more detailed, it became obvious that the gene is not the only unit of selection. True, it is genes that are copied, but it is organisms that are winnowed, and selection is what you get after the winnowing. So even junk DNA will disappear if it is bad for the organism – and, sure enough, this is what happens. Small-celled organisms need small genomes, and something like a malaria parasite, which has to fit inside tiny red blood cells, has a very small genome indeed.

So gene level selection predicts the emergence of selfish DNA, but not its later disappearance. This didn’t seem to me an entire vindication of the central proposition of the book, though, as usual, this depends on whether you take it to mean what it says or what Dawkins later explains that he meant.

There was Ian McEwan, being scholarly – quoting van Leeuwenhoek, Galileo, and of course RD, with praise for his metaphor of genes as cards, passing unchanged through endless transient hands. I would have been proud to write that, he said.

Finally Dawkins himself. It had been called “A young man’s book”, he said – with the implications that, like Freddie Ayer with Language, Truth and Logic, he would later admit that its only flaw was that most of it was wrong. But he would not, he said. He didn’t retract any of it, except that of course “Selfish” could have just as well been “Co-operative”. Yes, he continued: a book called the co-operative gene would have been just as good, and the important word in it was Gene. This seemed to me a striking example of creative theological reasoning, forever discovering new meanings in the original text.

He said he was so grateful for the publication of a book ( Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist changed the way we think ) whose title really couldn’t say out loud. His voice faltered with modesty at this point. Later he repeated – it’s in the preface as well – his claim that “certain philosophers” seem to have read the book only from its title. This looks like a reference to Mary Midgley, who most certainly did read his book before reviewing it acerbically. Yet he cannot let go of the idea. It is apparently unendurable that anyone should read the book and think his worldview not so much mistaken as merely silly. It was a terrible lesson in the vanity of writers: here he was at the launch of his own festschrift, FRS, FRSL, on a platform being praised by three of the most distinguished writers, scientists and philosophers alive today; a thousand people had applied for tickets to the lecture, and 400 had been turned away. Yet still a 28 year old review rankled inside him so much that he had to denounce it to an audience which had no idea what he was talking about.

1 I checked with him afterwards.

Coming soon

Saturday, March 18th, 2006

There is no picture to link to, and they haven’t updated the relevant page of their site, but this morning the postman arrived with three copies of the latest Granta, whose theme is God, and which contains amongst other things a story of mine, set where the photograph above was taken. Please feel free to buy copies for all your loved ones, too.

Watch out! They’re still telling us

Saturday, March 18th, 2006

I have revised my opinion that there will be no war with Iran. This isn’t because I think it makes sense, or can be won, or anything like that. It’s because I read the Daily Telegraph to find out what the warmongers want us to believe. It was the Telegraph’s leaders, in the summer of 2002, that made it plain that Iraq would be invaded1 at a time when all reasonable people thought a war could be avoided.

So here is the relevant passage from yesterday’s leader on the subject. Could anything say more clearly that the Americans are going to go ahead and bomb, no matter what the British think or believe is in their interests?

The document, published yesterday, reasserts the right to pre-emptive strikes as a means of self-defence should the union deem itself liable to devastating attack by weapons of mass destruction. This reflects Washington’s view of Iran as a threat not just to Israel and Iraq, but also to America itself, a perception inadequately understood on this side of the Atlantic.
It also exposes the repeated assertion by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, that military action against Teheran is not on the cards, for what it is: an attempt to forestall criticism from the Labour Party and from his Muslim constituents in Blackburn, rather than an honest assessment of American options.

The interesting split here is between the neocons writing leaders, and the specialist correspondents, who have a much closer understanding of what the army thinks.

1 oh and the fact that the husband of their then religious affairs correspondent, a 36-year-old Lietenant Colonel, was posted away from Northern Ireland to Istanbul. You don’t send officers that young and smart to places where there won’t be any fighting.

They told us so

Friday, March 17th, 2006

ho ho ho ho

I have done occasional dive bombings of what the Telegraph wrote when the war was going well; but of course the standard of jingoistic hubris on American television is immeasurably higher. These quotes — not just from Fox, but CNN, PBS, Washington Post reporters — actually do a great deal to explain how we got into this disaster. Here is the USA talking to itself in the voice of a ten year old boy showing off in the playground. One treasure among many — a television host on the First of May 2003:

“We’re proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who’s physical, who’s not a complicated guy like Clinton or even like Dukakis or Mondale, all those guys, McGovern. They want a guy who’s president. Women like a guy who’s president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It’s simple. We’re not like the Brits.”

(picked up from Rafe Colburn’s link blog )

Growing frantic

Thursday, March 16th, 2006

This is odd: for silly reasons, nothing must pass my lips but water until 11.30 today, and, while hunger without exercise is largely a matter of routine, and I don’t miss breakfast at all, the lack of caffeine is gnawing holes in me. By now — 11 am – I would normally have had one mug of coffee and a couple of mugs of tea. I was all right, just a little sluggish, when I woke up, but I am finding myself less and less able to concentrate, and more and more irritable as the morning wears on. Curiously, the effect is as if I were stimulated, not sedated. Perhaps the body learns to overcompensate for the effects of caffeine, and without them does not sedate itself?

Since I have to spend the afternoon in a recording studio, being malleable towards the control room while projecting authority to the outside world, I had better not continue this experiment. You wouldn’t want next week’s analysis to be interrupted by hoarse screams.

Two armies

Tuesday, March 14th, 2006

Three stories from Iraq, when put together, suggest some of the causes and consequences of the impending retreat. The first two are about how the British Army, as an institution, seems to have turned against the war. It’s remarkable that an elite soldier with eight years’ service ["decides to leave the war;":] but what is astonishing about Trooper Ben Griffin’s decision is that he was not court martialled, but given an honourable discharge with a glowing reference. The reason for this treatment is to be sought in his argument for what is essentially desertion – that the war is immoral and the American army’s behaviour illegal.

Trooper Griffin is not a coward: he’s a former paratrooper, now an SAS soldier who has served in Bosnia, Montenegro and Afghanistan. But he is remarkably anti-American. "I did not join the Army to conduct American foreign policy" he told the Sunday Telegraph:

Mr Griffin, 28, who spent two years with the SAS, said the American military’s "gung-ho and trigger happy mentality" and tactics had completely undermined any chance of winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi population.

The fact that this story first appeared in the Telegraph, the army’s paper, suggests an astonishing degree of institutional unhappiness with the war. The second glimpse into the Army’ attitude comes from a book being plugged by the Guardian today. A senior British diplomat, reporting from Baghdad in the aftermath of the invasion, wrote:

A big part of the problem is the US Third Infantry Division. They fought a magnificent war and now just want to go home. Unlike more mobile US units they are sticking to their heavy vehicles and are not inclined to learn new techniques. Our Paras company at the embassy witnessed a US tank respond to (harmless) Kalashnikov fire into the air from a block of residential flats by firing three tank rounds into the building. Stories are numerous of US troops sitting on tanks parked in front of public buildings while looters go about their business behind them. Every civilian who approaches a US checkpoint is treated as a potential suicide bomber. Frankly, the 3rd Inf Div need to go home.

At the time, this adviser suggested sending British troops to Baghdad to help out; Downing Street rejected the plan. By the late summer they were being warned by the most senior British soldier with the American forces that "strategic failure is a possibility". Now the army is pulling 800 men out of Iraq on the pretext that there enough Iraqi policemen to replace them. Strategic failure seems inevitable if not already accomplished.

Compare and contrast "a long, gung-ho piece(may be paywalled)": in the latest Atlantic by Robert Kaplan who has been with American troops near Mosul. He seems to have found one brigade that does its job properly, and is making some difference, with a mixture of force and intelligent politics. But the money has run out.

"Where is the investment money, now that our area has been safe for months?" The American soldiers had no answer. They were as frustrated as the Iraqis. Even the safe areas showed no sign of civilian relief work or major rebuilding other than what I had seen en route. The soldiers admitted that while they had the money to lay gravel on a particular road, they lacked the funds to pave it, even though all agreed that graveled roads offered easy concealment for IEDs.
It was surreal. The stability of Iraq will likely determine history’s judgment on President George W. Bush. And yet even in a newly secured area like this one, the administration has provided little money for the one factor essential to that stability: jobs. On a landscape flattened by anarchy in 2004, the American military has constructed a house of cards. Fortifying this fragile structure with wood and cement now will require more aid—in massive amounts, and of a type that even America’s increasingly civil affairs–oriented military cannot provide. This house of cards, flimsy as it is, constitutes a substantial achievement. But because Washington’s deeds do not match its rhetoric, even this fragile achievement might go for naught.

Nothing in the bureaucracy works, and the army as a whole seems unbelievably pampered and idle.

Back in Mosul, I had lunch in the massive chow hall with Captain Brad Velotta of Alexandria, Louisiana. We figured that with all the support troops and private contractors who kept this base running, its total population was roughly 3,000. Out of this group, on any given day, no more than about 200 troops and civilian operatives ventured into Mosul. The visible results of all this support were amenities like heating and the Internet—plus crab, lobster, steak, and ice cream in the chow hall. Velotta, the commander of one of the battalion’s three rifle companies, took no satisfaction from that. His whole purpose in Iraq was to be constantly away from his FOB, "outside the wire" and among Iraqis. He spoke about the Marine detachments sent to fight near the Syrian border. They slept in the dirt, and their force protection consisted of just themselves, fanning out into a 360-degree formation at night. "Zero support tail," in other words. No ice cream. No Internet.
The need for crab, lobster, steak, and ice cream—the comforts of home—was part of an occupation mentality, as seen in West Germany during the Cold War. But the situation in Iraq, Velotta said, required a fighting mentality. Sparer bases would mean more people outside the perimeter, because the very comforts inside the base subtly reduce a commander’s incentive to take troops outside for too long. There was an undeniable contradiction between the high living standard the Army felt it had to provide for the sake of soldiers’ morale and the new warrior ethos it was trying to promote.

The stuff in Kaplan’s article abut how his brigade pacified Mosul is genuinely impressive. There seems to be, as in all armies in wartime, a growth in efficiency from the bottom upwards. Even some of the technology is proving useful, with captains able to email each other with hints and tips. The soldiers he writes about are brave, resourceful and energetic. But the army as a whole is not, and no one would describe the Administration that way.

lost in translation, very lost.

Saturday, March 11th, 2006

This is too silly for words: a Chinese menu with literal word-for-word translations done from a colloquial dictionary. It gets steadily more surreal and vulgar as you scroll down until the characters meaning “Hot and spicy garlic greens stir-fried with shredded dried tofu.” are translated into English as “Benumbed hot vegetables fries fuck silk.”

Found via Language Log which also has a nicely laid out explanation of how that particular mistranslation came about.

Now back to the politics of British Islam.

Tethered bones on a Saudi Mountain

Thursday, March 9th, 2006

I am in the throes of another Analysis, this time on the government’s plans to deal with Islamist terrorism. Thats why there have been so few posts. But I would like to quote a passage from Gilles Kepel’s latest book, saddening, illuminating, and strange.