Archive for October, 2007

Research tool wanted

Monday, October 29th, 2007

What do people here use to store all the clippings they make from the web? It needs to be quick, unobtrusive, so that I can just press a hotkey in the browser, and to allow tagging and later sorting by date; also to be easy to synchonise between two Windows computers. I’m not going to get a Mac laptop just for this. So far, the following have failed me:

  • Opera’s notes facility is quick and unobtrusive. But it doesn’t allow tagging, doesn’t easily let me sort date ranges, and won’t synchronise between computers.
  • The scrapbook extension for Firefox is comprehensive and may allow tagging, if I misuse the comments field. But it won’t synchronise between computers.
  • Ecco is old, and growing buggy. I know that other people can get the shooter working properly. I can’t, is all I can say. It would be perfect if it did work, because then I could slice, dice, and classify everything I put into it and integrate this with other information. I’ve just wasted an hour proving that there is a bug in its date folder handling.
  • OneNote? Won’t tag very flexibly, and won’t interact with non IE browsers has a powertoy to work with Firefox. May or may not synchonise; I can’t remember.
  • EverNote: I found the UI irritating and the web clipper wouldn’t work with Opera. I might have another look though; I’ve paid for it. It does synch without fuss.
  • Zotero looks great, but won’t synch at all: they suggest putting a special firefox installation on a usb drive, and carrying that between computers. Seems sensible for students but I need a solution that works at the breakfast table, when I am half asleep.

First rough conclusions: none of these will work properly with Opera, which I went back to using a few months ago, for two reasons: I adore the single key ‘z’ shortcut for going back; and I was hoping that improved IMAP would deliver me from bloody odious Thunderbird. Still, it looks as if I will have to return to Firefox.

What else? I know there was some bibliographic-ish program that I lusted after which was a competitor to EndNote. Can’t immediately remember the name, though. Ah. Biblioscape. Wants you to use its own web browser. No thanks, I already have three.

I don’t want an online solution because then it’s not around when I am offline. But I can see I might be driven to one.

Fresh hells of idiocy

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

I see towards the end of a comment thread, where only the trolls cavort and gibber in the ruins, two things: that someone is arguing against me on the basis of a wikipedia entry whose only substantive source is an article I wrote myself six years ago; and a sort of apology I somehow missed when it first appeared.

Or, as PZ puts it in another context: Yes. Science has an integrity and dedication to the honest evaluation of the evidence that religion lacks.

Instead of brooding on the mysteries of reason, I went out to spend the afternoon in the grey light of Grafham; sometimes the wind carried a chilly drizzle, too. But it wasn’t really cold unless I was standing in the water, and even then I had the warming pleasure of watching sailors further out capsizing their little racing dinghies. Even in a wet-suit, that’s got to be colder than wading. After two hours of this, I waded ashore for the last time and drove to the harbour, where I caught a fish that had to be folded to fit into my little grayling net. This was a very nice way to celebrate the rod I absent-mindedly bought when I arrived and saw it in the sale bin. It is a Powell LGA 906, that would have been about £450 five years ago, and which I got, spanking new, reduced to £100. In the intervening years, it has not stopped being a first class rod, while other “prestige” fly rods have grown steadly more expensive: £550 is the price of a stockbroker’s trout rod today and it is utterly ludicrous. For that money you should at least expect that the handle be covered in hand-sewn Siberian hamster scrotums.

I’m prepared to bet that in a blind test where the maker’s identification was covered so that the only real criterion was how performance no one could reliably rank modern graphite rods by price. There was a period when synthetic materials were new in which rod manufacuters made fantastic progress. Now they know how to do it and new models are purely a marketing gimmick. Still, I have profited by this to get something really lovely. So I don’t feel entirely suicidal.

Cartoons, stupidity, cleverness

Friday, October 26th, 2007
  • I think the third frame in this Doonesbury packs a lot into one picture.
  • Whereas xkcd, here, doesn’t even need speech.
  • And, on geekery, I want this for Christmas.
  • Still geeking: you could not improve this definition of “open”, or indeed, “anyone”.
  • On stupidity: Andrew Leonard quotes an MIT report. “Today’s on-line discussion forums, blogs, and chat rooms do a good job of encouraging lots of people to express their opinions and share them widely. But these systems are not very good at supporting evidence-based, logical deliberation: the quality of contributions can vary enormously.
    and adds
    Which is kind of like saying nuclear bombs do a good job when employed for purposes of mass destruction, but are not so great for handcrafting quality woodwork
  • Clever people: David Chalmers has tarted up his already excellent consciousness bibliography.
  • Perhaps you would prefer biology? Lots of good searchable texts there.

Small random thoughts

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007
  • Should we treat stupidity like spam? I quite like the idea, especially as some people are working on a stupidfilter based on spam-fighting principles. With this in place, most comments on newspaper sites would just vanish. Also, if you poke around their site, you will discover the “More” button is spelled “moar”, which is a nice touch.
  • Fantastic obituary in the Independent that starts: Sammy Duddy was a colourful Belfast character who combined membership of one of the city’s most lethal paramilitary groups with a career as “Samantha”, a highly suggestive drag act.
  • I know I worry too much, but the more I read about the Storm worm, the more I think I should own shares in Apple. Not that a mac will protect you from whatever it is the botnet is going to do, but a lot of people will be buying them after it is over.
  • A drunken elk has been reported to the police near Borgholm, on the island of Öland.

Patti Smith, Jesus Godfuckingdamn

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

Her show at the Junction last night was about the purest slab of punk/rock that I have ever experienced. It’s a small venue: there were maybe four or five hundred people there, all standing, and the sound was excellent. She was able to climb down to the audience and enjoy herself for a couple of songs, though I was too far to see what actually happened. The band was wonderfully tight: two of them must have been playing with her for 32 years now; time enough to learn the chords to Gloria. And, yes, she did Gloria, along with Gimme Shelter, Are You Experienced, Smells like Teen Spirit and a few more I didn’t recognise. It was impossible not to dance. Somehow the passion, the relish and the gawky outsiderhood came together into something that worked as irresistably and pre-rationally as some religious rituals. I remember thinking about half way through that this is what Christianity ought to be like. The show was full of blasphemy, of course — the whole room singing along to “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” — but this sounded in itself strangely tragic, rather than defiant. It seemed to me more a statement of a ghastly fact than anything else.

In between songs, she talked excitedly about her day in Cambridge — tea with the fellows at King’s College, visiting Wittgenstein’s grave, performing on Rimbaud’s birthday, lying down to recover from all this excitement in one of the meadows and opening her eyes to find a cow examining her. There was a great deal of laughter from the audience at all this. This seemed to me one of the points of punk, and indeed of the hippie music that preceded it: the audience and the musicians should be all part of the same thing and this so very seldom happens anywhere but in pubs that it really does need celebrating when you stumble on it.

One last note about the music: all three of the musicians took their turns playing bass: Lenny Kaye playing in a completely unmelodic, driving punk style which worked very well on some songs, and the keyboard player, when it was his turn, using the bass as a melodic instrument, in some songs supplying almost all the interest and variety. Enough. It was all glorious. If there is any chance to see her in a place like that, take it.

Midgley, Dawkins update and end

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

I don’t normally cross-post from the Guardian pieces here. But I finally stuck the Midgley/Dawkins story somewhere people might read it and now I know what it feels like to be Madeleine Bunting.

It also occurs to me, afterwards, that many of the commentators have no idea how serious an accusation it is that a scholar has not read the book that she is writing about. It is equivalent to accusing a scientist of faking his data or, in this instance, more bizarrely, of confessing to a third party (who denies the story) that the data was faked, the experiments never performed.

Here is the correspondence that preceded it:

Dear Richard,

I have posted on the thread my response, including the reasons I had for supposing that you believe that fundamentalist parents should not be allowed to transmit their religious beliefs to their children. These had nothing to do with the Observer article to which some sub linked. They were entirely derived from your approving quote in the God Delusion from Nick Humphrey’s Oxford Amnesty lecture. I’m delighted if you now think that the passage you quoted was far more dictatorial and illiberal than anyone should be.

But it is very hard to read it as meaning anything other than that teaching children that the bible is literally true should be a crime just as knocking their teeth out is and I could find nothing in the subsequent pages to suggest that you disagreed with him.

While we’re about this business of mutual clarification, could you apologise for repeating on your site a couple of weeks ago the absurd claim that Mary Midgley confessed to never reading the Selfish Gene?

I don’t know how to make hyperlinks in comments on the Guardian site either. I thought I did, but they got stripped out. Just pasting the plain text of the link in question seems to make it clickable, though. The whole thing is a horrible mess, and will be replaced in the radiant future by some technology that actually works.

Best wishes


Richard Dawkins wrote:
> Dear Andrew
> I have posted (Comment Number 874811) a reply to an error of fact that affects me, in your otherwise admirable piece on Swedish educational policy at
> It suggests that you will probably want to apologise publicly for your error, and I certainly hope that you will, because I think the false suggestion about me is really quite damaging, since it suggests that I am far more dictatorial and illiberal than anybody should be.
> By the way, I don’t know how to do hyperlinks in such postings, which you obviously do. I’d quite like to abbreviate the url citations in my posting.
> Thanks and best wishes
> Richard

Small world scoop

Wednesday, October 17th, 2007

Deborah Kerr is dead. The news doesn’t seem to have reached the wires yet; but my mother, to whose brother she was once married, just rang to tell me. She was a nice woman and a fine actress.

Helmintholog: the only site you need for up to the minute showbiz news.

Briefly Noted

Monday, October 15th, 2007
  • I finally got the London Library’s electronic access to scholarly journals working. Still no JSTOR, but lots of goodies anyway, among them an article from the Journal of the American Academy of Religion arguing that the “Prosperity Gospel” movement, known as “Blab it and Grab it” to the outside world, which is one of the more prosperous and visible bits of Bible Belt sub-culture — Benny Hinn, etc — derives its distinctive teachings from a blend of Mormonism and the Nation of Islam. Again, no time yet to do more that skim, but a great story if true.
  • Mary Gauthier excellent last night. She seems to have stopped trying to be a Nashville singer, and in fact had a very funny story about how songs are written there. In her case this decision also takes account of the weakness of her voice, which is limited in range and accuracy. On the other hand, it is, when it hits the target, devastating. Very moving solo acoustic versions of “Goddam HIV” and “Mercy Now”. We bought the new CD but have not listened yet.

Adaptationism contested

Monday, October 15th, 2007

Jerry Fodor, in the London Review of Books, takes a swing at adaptationism in the name of Evo-Devo. I’m not sure that he lands any really new or heavy blows, but I have only read it once and I am more than usually stupid with a cold this morning. Germane, perhaps, is a letter from a friend in Boston:

Teaching my evolutionary biology course again this fall – I’ve re-read the Sean Rice textbook now for the 4th time, and it’s really on the money. One can prove — prove in the sense of proof – that there’s exactly one modeling case where the Dawkins’ gene’s-eye-view makes the right predictions – which
is all a scientist cares about – and in all the other cases – ie, 99.99% of biology – it doesn’t work … In the sense of: it gives the WRONG predictions.
Thus it is not a matter of semantics or armchair philosophy about ‘levels of selection’ — it is simply like getting the thing wrong, like saying there are ‘clumps’ like OH instead of molecules or atoms.
It’s just that way. Tough luck. But that’s really how it is. In every other case – if there’s sex, fertility selection, if selective forces change with varying allele frequency (density dependence); if an individual’s striving for increased fitness reduces the mean population fitness — all of these situations illustrate the failure of the Dawkins view.
Yet, this goes unsaid. It also indicates that evolutionary psychology, as I understand it cannot possibly succeed if it takes ‘allele frequency’ as its central driving principle.

disconnected jottings

Thursday, October 11th, 2007
  • This is an example — perhaps the platonically perfect example — of a joke which is either screamingly funny of wholly incomprehensible, with no region in between. It seems to me that if you understand it you are bound to be the sort of person who finds it funny, and if you wouldn’t find it funny you would be most unlikely to have acquired the background knowledge to understand it.
  • To the Albert Hall last night, to see the Cowboy Junkies. One really excellent performance, of “200 More Miles”, which was better than any of the recorded versions I have; the rest competent, but never quite on fire. Perhaps the extraordinary voice of Margo Timmins is fading a little. I’m still glad we went. Then I found an invitation to see Patti Smith in Cambridge in my inbox this morning. Curious. The last time I saw her in Cambridge, I recken I was in a room with about 25% of the American anti-war movement; but that was November 2001 in Cambridge, Massachussetts. She wasn’t terribly good, and the atmosphere of pious rectitude, though I admire and in some sense like it, convinced me that this would never be a mainstream sentiment. But the first time I saw her, in about 1978, she gave the most completely sexual performance I have ever seen.