To thine own self be true

Archive for November, 2008

On the buses

Posted by Polonius on 16 November, 2008

A few months ago, my place of work changed – the company headquarters moved to newly-refurbished premises in Glasgow city centre. This change has a number of consequences, some good, some bad. My commute, instead of a 25-minute drive door-to-door, is now a 35-minute bus ride plus a 5-minute walk (Assuming the bus turns up, etc.)

One good change is that I can read on the bus. That’s quite a dramatic change because, for some years, the only time I’ve found for purely recreational reading has been in bed, and then I’ve only ever wanted to read books that would help me sleep. Now I can read stimulating, intellectually challenging, books. I’ve actually read a computer language text-book (apart from the reference section) – the PIckaxe (Wikipedia). It’s a longer read than the legendary K&R (W), but far more readable than Stroustrup (W). I also have a copy of the Camel (W), but I’m not tempted to read that, other than for reference.

My most recent read has been Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. It’s an impressive book, if a little hard work. It’s longer than it might need be for some readers, but much of that length is a result of the sheer weight of evidence that Darwin presents, enough to convince all but the most determinedly pig-ignorant. And it worked.  Flat-earth creationism is now rare outside of the USA.

The strongest argument of the pig-ignorant seems to be that “it’s just a theory”, but that just shows their ignorance of the scientific usage of the word “theory”. In science, the word “hypothesis” is roughly equivalent to the everyday word “theory”. In science, for a hypothesis to become a theory, it must withstand prolonged attempts by hostile scientists to disprove it. It is a measure of scientists’ modesty (acquired from experience – a concept that the flat-earthers bizarrely refuse to understand) that they recognise that their current best understanding of the way the world works may benefit from future refinement. Since flat-earthers are so determinedly ineducable, it’s pointless trying to explain. A better approach is simply to use different words.

The thing that struck me most about Origin of Species was how obvious it is, in hindsight. Of course Darwin was ignorant of Mendel’s near-contemporary work. And it’s hard to imagine that both of them worked at a time when the role of chromosomes was not understood.

The writing style of Origin of Species challenges the reader. I believe there was a tendency in those days towards long sentences, but Darwin often lost track of the number of subjects by the time he came to the verb, which makes those long sentences even harder to untangle. There’s one behemoth of, if I’ve counted correctly, 218 words (on pp 275-276 of the Oxford World’s Classics 1996 Edition). It’s hard to read, but you don’t have to. If you don’t need to have the evidence beaten into you with a stick, the last chapter, Recapitulation and conclusion, sums it up. Just read that.


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It’s a funny New World

Posted by Polonius on 5 November, 2008

From a UK perspective, Americans are a funny lot. They certainly appear more patriotic than we do, which can be a bad thing, but strengthens their economy and who can blame them for that? I was, until a few moments ago, under the impression that they were more interested in politics than we are, until I checked out Wikipedia on voter turnout – 54% to our 76%!

I thought the Democrats had made a tactical error in choosing Obama. From my own very limited empirical evidence, I fear racism is rife in the US. I don’t speak to many Americans in the average month, but I am disgusted at how many of them feel it necessary to volunteer their appalling views to relative strangers. And I suspect most of the racists are Republicans. So I felt that Obama could win the primaries battle, but lose the election war; that his candidacy would bring out the racists among the Republicans, who simply wouldn’t bother to vote against Clinton. Is tactical racism excusable? The pragmatist in me felt that choosing a candidate to take account of the opposition’s prejudices is unpleasant, but a necessary evil. I was wrong, and it wasn’t necessary.

American election candidates often fight dirty, but even by US standards, Elizabeth Dole is pond-scum. Perhaps the saddest aspect of that incident is the possibility that it might have worked; the idea that Godless Americans are a bad thing. Would you rather have elected representatives who made decisions on the basis of evidence, or ones who believed that the voices in their heads came from the creator of the universe, who takes an active interest in events on this insignificant little planet? The tragedy of US democracy is that the majority of Americans are irrational. The wonder of US democracy is that the framers of the Constitution took great care to limit the power of religious fantasy.

Update: Forgot to mention – it’s a shock to learn that you’re older than POTUS!

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