Saturday, June 28, 2008

I, for One, Applaud the Success of our Planetary Engineers...

...with the news that the fabled North-West passage is now open and should soon be suitable for trans-Oceanic freight.

Huzzah for Global Warming

Suck it, Panama! (in a couple of decades or so...)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Tom Harris MP: "Stop being Miserable!"

Journalist Michael Kinsley once said that "a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth."

In the case of junior minister Tom Harris this is entirely correct: he suggested on his blog And Another Thing that the public should cheer up, considering that they've never had it so good:

In our own country today, despite the recent credit squeeze, our citizens have never been so wealthy. High-def TVs fly off the shelves at Tesco quicker than they can be imported. Whatever the latest technological innovation, most people can treat themselves to it. Eating out - a rare treat when I was a child in the ’70s - is as commonplace as going shopping. And when we do go shopping, whether for groceries or for clothes, we spend money in quantities that would have made our parents gasp.
This is a point I always raise when people suggest "this country is going to the dogs!" How exactly is it?

Although I believe that open debate is an essential component of democracy, why do we glorify in complaining so much? So petrol prices are high. The prices of clothes and electronics are down. And maybe if people walked rather than drove their cars they'd save money and be healthier.

Living Longer ... and Longer

The Daily Mail took exception to Harris' remarks (I'm not linking - I dislike the Mail's editorial stance on immigration, gay marriage, women's issues, abortion, foreign policy, education, crime - as such I don't want to contribute my Google-mana to their cause). His response is clear:

I know it’s only the Mail, but for the record, I absolutely was not telling people to cheer up. I was simply asking why people in the current generation - even those who aren’t suffering as much from the current economic slowdown - aren’t as happy as our parents’ generation. Am I being too optimistic in expecting a grown-up debate about this?
Apparently he is. I am incredibly fortunate to be living in the UK at this time in history. I'd say being middle-class in the UK is probably amongst the top five best possible states for a person to exist in all history.

Like. Things have never been better.

I think nostalgia and sentimentalism for the past are negative forces in debate. If something can be shown to have got worse, bring it up. Otherwise people should be suggesting how things can be improved, rather than complaining that they think things have got worse.

In a more general sense, polymath intellectual Stewart Brand (Whole Earth Catalog, The Well) comments that "good old stuff sucks" in The World Question Centre's What Have you Changed your Mind About?:

Remodeling an old farmhouse two years ago and replacing its sash windows, I discovered the current state of window technology. A standard Andersen window, factory-made exactly to the dimensions you want, has superb insulation qualities; superb hinges, crank, and lock; a flick-in, flick-out screen; and it looks great. The same goes for the new kinds of doors, kitchen cabinetry, and even furniture feet that are available — all drastically improved.

The message finally got through. Good old stuff sucks. Sticking with the fine old whatevers is like wearing 100% cotton in the mountains; it's just stupid.

Give me 100% not-cotton clothing, genetically modified food (from a farmers' market, preferably), this-year's laptop, cutting-edge dentistry and drugs.

The idea that things have become progressively worse over the last fifty years (at least in the world's Western liberal democracies) is ridiculous.

[ImageWorldGDP from here, Life Expectancy at 65 from here]

Friday, June 20, 2008

Sonny J: Handsfree (If You Hold my Hand)

Utterly awesome:

New Colour Scheme

To celebrate the imminent surcease of my despised teenagerhood (six months and counting) I have decided to remove my depressing and difficult-to-read white-on-black colour scheme of the past two years and replace it with an airier, more mature, and pleasant black-on-white colour scheme.

Old blog

I'm quite happy about it.

There is No God, And Your Idiotic Human Ideals are Laughable!

A good article by Ariane Sherine over on CiF on the apparent gap between atheist expression and religious expression in the public sphere.

I personally think this is because atheists tend to be well-balanced, intelligent, and self-contained individuals that don't need to ascribe to a tribalistic ideology to support their egos.

However I would certainly not describe myself as well-balanced, intelligent, or self-contained. As such:

We're not asking you to believe, it's true anyway

[original image by SideLong on flickr]

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Superclass and the New Elite

I've mentioned my obsession with the ultra-wealthy before. Reading David J. Rothkopf's The Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making today I was stuck by the utterly unoriginal insight that it might not be that much fun being an elite.

Rothkopf punctures a lot of the usual paranoid beliefs about a mysterious global elite - he observes that conspiracy theories are almost always psychologically comforting fictions: it is disturbing to think that one man, working alone, can assassinate a president.

This fact suggests a random and capricious universe. Much better to imagine that bad things that happen are the result of organised conspiracy.

However I do feel that it isn't really worth being a member of any
kind of global elite.

The symbol of the global elite

Constant pressures on your time; scrutiny from the press, your peers, and governments; concerns over kidnapping, and the happiness of your friends and family would probably nullify most of the advantages of being extremely wealthy and/or powerful.

No, not for me famous, multi-billionaire status. Give me £30 million and obscurity, reputably and happily earned, and I will be satisfied.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

New Year Resolutions

Why? Because it's been nearly six months and I've finally formulated the perfect resolutions. Here they are:

  1. Legally purchase every single track of music I have on my PC.
  2. Improve my German and French to the extent that I can translate the main, front-page article of both Die Welt and Le Monde into English without having to look up any words.
  3. Read Sam's Teach Yourself C++ in 21 Days.
  4. Read one fictional classic, and one non-fiction classic. At the moment I'm thinking War and Peace and The Wealth of Nations.
  5. Quit my job.
  6. Start higher education again.
Mmm. This is not actually as interesting as it seemed in my head.

As compensation, here is the picture of the Firefox girl:

For your delectation or sneering

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

New Firefox 3

It is actually surprisingly good. Websites load appreciably faster. Other than that usability seem to be about the same.

There was actually a picture of an attractive woman in a Firefox top. But how could I pass up the crop-circle reference? Tears.

Firefox 3 has yet to do anything that seriously irritates me. This means I already consider it to be good software.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Maths and Melancholy

For a while now I've been meaning to write a very long post about maths, science, religion, and education.

The fact that I never finished the essay is testament to the fact that education is an immensely complex issue, and invites ignorant and uneducated opinion.

Take this appallingly titled article by Simon Jenkins: Maths? I breakfasted on quadratic equations, but it was a waste of time. Right, OK. Where to begin?

This all seems to be in response to something called The Reform Report, which has been compiled from a think tank called Reform.

Anyway let's look at what Jenkins says:

"In the age of computers, maths beyond simple and applied arithmetic is needed only by specialists. Ramming it down pupils' throats in case they may one day need it is like making us all know how to recalibrate a carburettor on the offchance that we might become racing drivers. Maths is a "skill to a purpose", and we would should ponder the purpose before overselling the skill."

Riiiight. So a journalist thinks that in the age of computers complex maths is needed only by specialists.

If economic prosperity is still considered a Good Thing, then surely preparing students for high-paying and rewarding roles in finance, economics, engineering, business, and science by promoting maths is a positive step. Anyway, let us ponder:

"When Kenneth Baker invented the national curriculum in 1987, it never occurred to him to question its content. Science and maths lobbied hard and captured the core, alongside only English. Not just history and geography, but economics, health, psychology, citizenship, politics and law - with far better claims to vocational utility - were elbowed aside."

All of those subjects have a strong claim to vocational utility. But there is a distinction between vocational utility and simple utility.

Learning psychology is fair enough: but without knowledge of statistics how are you to interpret pschological studies? Learning economics is good: but a central part of economic modelling relies on a knowledge of mathematics.

Maths is a subject that ensures all doors into future careers are kept open. Liberal arts still offer enormous choice but you are still locked out of some career paths.

Anyway as Ben Goldacre points out, there is some questionable use of maths in the Reform report itself.

I feel much more comfortable with the third way: no more conflict between arts and science and engineering, just an understanding that well-rounded people should be versed in as many subjects as possible.