Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Apathy Jack writes:

This one is for the surprisingly large number of deluded souls who have, in the last week, suggested that I apply to fill the position left by my departing Head of Department:

The scene: A meeting of the newly re-christened English Trinity (we considered Triumvirate, but I thought it lacked the proper gravitas. Trinity was a compromise from my suggestion of Triune Godhead. The short version is that, in a school that has five English teacher positions – and should really probably have at least seven – there are three of us now...)

Me “I think you two should go for co-head, like we talked about last year.”
Colleague 1 “We weren’t serious.”
Me “Still, it’s a good idea. And you could say that the two of you have the backing of the entire department. The department as a whole will unite under your leadership.”
Colleague 1 “If we become co-heads, the entire department consists of you.”
Me “That doesn’t make what I said any less true.”
Colleague 1 “Are you interested?”
Colleague 2 “Sure. Should we write up some manner of proposal?”
Colleague 1 “Okay. Should we do it now?”
Colleague 2 “Sure.”
Me “I’ll go and make the tea.”
Colleague 1 “No you don’t, come here and help us write it.”


Colleague 2 “We can offer the school... what? What should we say?”
Me “A way out of the filthy mire we have become embedded in. Do you think we should go with ‘filthy’, or find a synonym?”
Colleague 1 “Shush.”
Colleague 2 “We can offer many things to the school, such as...?”
Me “Traction. To get out of the mire.”
Colleague 1 “Shush!”


Colleague 2 “We believe that we are, what?”
Me “Golden gods of education striding through the school like colossuses...”
Colleague 1 “Shush.”
Me “...backlit by glowing haloes, with an angel’s choir echoing as we...”
Colleague 1 “Shush!”


Colleague 2 “In conclusion, we are…?”
Me “LEGENDARY!!! Make sure you put it in capitals. With At least three exclamation marks.”

Anyway, the moral of the story is: I ended up being given a nominal promotion and a raise.

No, I’m not entirely sure how that happened either...

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Books You Should Be Reading Number 23 Of A Bunch

Apathy Jack writes:

The Lazy Boys by Carl Shuker

Let it sit there, a book of statistics and cognitive theories useless as Todd Johnson, a book of veiled accusations I could no longer stand hearing, I could no longer pull the truth from. I never even finished the last chapter properly. I can’t read anymore. No books can help me now; things are too far down. The effort to read and understand just seems too immense, the prospect of finding myself or any opening too elusive. Let it sit there along with the other books that just sit there, that lie beneath my bed gathering dust, that lie next to the khaki cloth-wrapped shape of my father’s rifle and the box of bullets I stole from my parents’ house when we stopped by on the way back from Christchurch, all the killer books picked full of holes, and my Marketing Research Methods 1.3 and my Oxford Complete Shakespeare and my Top 500 Poems, the covers and the edges of the pages all beer-stained and cigarette-singed, the pages themselves pristine, white and clean, untouched, unread


In addition to being a very good – if very, very dark – book, The Lazy Boys also features Marc Ellis playing the part of Marc Ellis, where he gets the line “I'm the demon Belial and I am hate.”

If that isn’t reason enough to go and give Carl Shuker some of your hard panhandled money, I don’t know what is...

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Books You Should Be Reading Number 22 Of A Bunch

Apathy Jack writes:

Purple Heart, by Ta’afuli Andrew Fiu

The negative perceptions of policemen stick in the mind of an Island kid, particularly when you’re dawn-raided while watching Spot On. Especially when you have a European presenter on TV talking about how you can ask a policeman for help any time and then they show you a picture of the same bastards standing in your (our) house. I can tell you they weren’t smiling like the two cops on Spot On. ‘Need help? Ask a policeman,’ I think the presenter said.

I looked from the TV to the police in the house and back to the TV again and thought, we’ll take our chances, thanks.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A pinch of prevention is worth a pound of cure

RSJS writes:

Right, the scenario: You’re young, you’re angry, you’re funded by family, what can you do but buy a car that screams “penis” when you floor the accelerator? Then you soup it up with some widgets and gizmos so it flashes, grunts and winks like a dirty old man in the park and let it loose on the populace. In this car you are capable of going somewhere near light-speed in second gear, and though “The Man” is trying to keep you down, you yell obscenities at the law and go nought to Plaid in four seconds flat.

By the fourth second you’re over the curb of your North Shore suburb, ploughing a red furrow through a few schoolkids staggering home under the weight of their many cellphones, laptops, Hello Kitty lunch pails and pneumatic face-wrenching teeth braces, skidding on your alloy rims along the pavement to the detriment of a few lampposts before finally running out of puff halfway through the fence of the nearby church. Blood on the windscreen, powerlines arcing about killing timid kittens on their first day out in the big wide world, the neighbourhood awash with leaking petrol and the corpses of the uneducated and young in your wake…

…and yes folks, that’ll get you arrested by large men in black gloves. And charged with reckless this, speeding that, criminal the other. It’s pound-in-the-arse prison and debt for eternity, miladdo. Your car is a write-off and there’s a quarter-million-dollar swathe of destruction ending at it’s deflating back tyres. Justice does its worst.

Thankfully, you have that most magical of things, insurance. Which will pay for a new car, new lampposts, new kittens, new clothes for the newly-twisted cripples, the works. No matter what horrors you inflict with your land-speed-record attempt, if you’ve got the money to get decent insurance, the cost of the crime won’t catch you.

And even better, to mollify the courts wanting to drop the book on your flat head you can buy off the victims with a bit o’ restitution, which looks spiffy in court when you shed a tear and tell of how you’ve already given the distraught families thousands of dollars that won’t bring Timmy back but will ensure his tombstone is a shiny marble edifice rather than a stick with “Tim” carved in it with a Stanley knife jammed in the unforgiving dirt. And yes, if the numbers are right and your canny insurer thinks it’ll lessen other fines and reparations the court might hand down, they’ll stump up the folding stuff for that, too.

You can insure yourself against the cost of committing antisocial acts. Bars can be covered for the fines and stand-down periods enforced when they’re nabbed for selling hooch to minors. Businesses who kill employees through anything from malfunctioning cranes to people-eating grinders can have their fines covered, too. The only lesson these fines now teach are that it’s better to spend a few bucks a month on broadform cover than actually face up to your varying sins.
My question is: Is this a bad thing?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Apathy Jack writes:

Some of you may remember the posts I’ve made where I alluded to the corruption, incompetence and, well, just plain evil of my Head of Department. I didn’t make a big deal of it (here and here, I think are the only places) because it was actually a serious thing. I genuinely didn’t feel like talking about it.

However, just for those of you keeping count of the comings and goings at Hoodrat Academy for Higher Learning: After a two-term long investigation into the running and management of Hoodrat’s English department, my HOD has tendered her resignation.

Really, I could go on at length about this. Everything I write on Brain Stab is true, but to a lesser or occasionally greater degree it’s all spun in a way designed to make my life sound like a David E Kelly show about teachers. The stuff with my HOD wouldn’t have taken careful phrasing. The part I played in getting the investigation launched - and in getting fuel added to its fire – actually smacks of scheming and plotting and unprofessional behaviour. I’m not sure I’ll get around to telling that story in its completeness. (Except if I’m hanging out with you in the next week away from a public internet site – then you may have trouble stopping me from telling it...)

Life is interesting in it's little ways...

Oh, and for those of you who are missing the Isn’t-Jack-A-Great-Teacher-Always-Martyring-Himself-Like-That teaching stories: Today I went into work, arranged a meeting of the remaining members of the department to talk about starting the year in the wake of the boss’ sudden departure; then went into university campus to have lunch with a friend who works there, where I ran into an ex-student who was trying to fix some enrolment problems, then three other ex-students, all of whom I berated to varying degrees about their lives and their academic careers; Upon leaving, I texted the first, telling her that the glitch in her enrolment was fixed; then spent a while on the phone to an ex-student who is alone in Australia and having a hard time dealing with the vagaries of life.

I then got a text from the student with the enrolment glitch:

I just clicked! How did you know about my course and my details!!!!!!

I know everything, remember? Also, I had lunch with a guy who works in the area of enrolments, and he looked you up.

So you decided to check up on me over lunch, how nice. I’d hate for you to have lunch with him after exams.

And for those of you missing the Haha-Jack-Has-No-Coping-Skills-Look-At-Him-As-He-Suffers posts, then, um, I guess my phone bill’s going to be pretty high at the end of the month, and, uh... I shaved off my big redneck sideburns yesterday because it was getting a bit hot to keep them.

I really liked those sideburns...

Quick Pedant Alert

Josh writes:

It's come up a couple of times recently on local blogs, so just to make things clear:

"Erstwhile" means former -- your "erstwhile friend" is no longer your friend. I think people don't know what it means, but figure it sounds a bit like "worthwhile" so it probably means something to do with being worthy or respectable or something. Not so.

Bonus tip: If you do want an adjective that means "worthy of respect" with a touch of "formidable", go with "redoubtable" -- a personal favourite of mine.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Books You Should Be Reading Number 21 Of A Bunch

Apathy Jack writes:

The Inn At The End Of The World, by Alice Thomas Ellis

Harry sat alone in his room long after midnight has passed, trying to make sense of his sorrow. He knew that if you lived long enough you would inevitably, to a greater or lesser extent, become disenchanted with everybody in your life, from your nearest and dearest right down to the amiable newsagent on the corner. All the people in the inn were in the throes of disappointment: that’s why they were here. How fortunate they were, thought Harry. How strangely blessed to have learned that love is an illusion, to have been given time to see its blossoms moulder and spot and not to have had it snatched away from them in perfection. He told himself that if his wife had lived she might now be a false-toothed harridan, sitting up in the bed behind him demanding to know what he thought he was doing staring out of the window like that. His son, if he had lived, might now be a pompous middle-aged man with a plump-wristed wife of his own and a tendency to gout. How peaceful it would be, thought Harry: how painless to have learned to the full that love withers and nothing matters. How pleasant to have realized completely the tedium of life and to have no fear of loss and no pangs of remembrance. That would be the consolation of age, and he had no such solace, for his wife and child had gone in beauty and youth, cheated him of disillusion and left him endlessly bereft.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Critical Thinker's Toolkit (Rev #1)

That Morthos Stare writes:

We here at Brain Stab seems to be on a bit of a rationality kick at the moment. Articles defending charitable reconstructions of arguments, arguments against Objectivism and warnings about equivocation; all of this is music to my ears. I, in one guise, am a teacher of Philosophy and in that field of excellence Argumentation Theory is a particular speciality of mine that has seen me present material at an academic level throughout the Southern Hemisphere. Since you can't shut me up at the best of times, here's a six point guide to having a reasonable, rational discussion... even with Marxists, Objectivists and the other lunatics of that ilk.

Brain Stab, with thanks to PHIL105 Productions, presents the Critical Thinker's Toolkit - Blogosphere Edition

First Tool: Argument extraction, analysis, classification and evaluation

The 'Critical Thinker's Toolkit' has this to say on arguments; half the battle is done when an argument is presented formally. Any piece of prose meant as an argument can be reconstructed into what is called 'Standard Form.' Take the philosophical chestnut, often paraphrased and misunderstood by prominent Objectivists of:

'Socrates is a man, and men are mortal, so he must be mortal too.'

This piece of prose can be separated into a conclusion, the statement the arguer wishes prove and the premises, the reasons used to support the conclusion. In our example it is clear that the conclusion, the statement that the argument seems to want to prove, is the claim that 'Socrates is mortal' whilst the premises, the reasons, for holding this to be so are that 'Socrates is a man' and 'All men are mortal.'

We can now present this argument as follows:

Premise 1: Socrates is a man
Premise 2: All men are mortal
Conclusion: Therefore, Socrates is mortal

Once the premises and the conclusion are so specified we can analyse the argument's logical structure; do the premises of the argument guarantee the truth of its conclusion or do they merely suggest it? In the preceding example the premises guarantee, or entail the conclusion. These kinds of arguments we will call deductive. Deductive arguments are those where the premises are intended to guarantee the truth of the conclusion. Not all such arguments are good, however. Here is an example.

"My fax machine is a knife; my hard drive is a fork; I can eat a meal with my fax machine & hard drive."

Reconstructed in Standard Form the argument looks something like this.

Premise 1: My fax machine is a knife
Premise 2: My hard drive is a fork
Conclusion: I can eat a meal with my fax machine and hard drive.

This is a deductive argument, but it is a bad deductive argument; the conclusion is not entailed by the premises. We can fix such an argument by adding in a suppressed premise, a premise statement that was not in the original argument but one that we could plausibly claim the arguer intended, such as:

Premise 3: I eat my meals with a knife and fork

With this extra premise included the conclusion is now entailed by the premises. It is, however, a stupid argument and we will spend no further time on it.

Some arguments have conclusions which are suggested, not entailed, by their premises, like this one:

Premise 1:Most of the cats I have owned are Tonkinese
Premise 2: Lek is a cat I have owned
Conclusion: Therefore, probably, Lek was a Tonkinese

This second argument suggests its conclusion; it is still possible that Lek was one of the many non-Tonkinese cats I have owned. These kinds of arguments we will call inductive.

Inductive arguments are good or bad in matters of degree.

The final task of argument analysis is that of deciding whether the premises are plausible. We are not often in a position to decide whether a premise is true; even the claim 'All men are mortal' may well turn out to be false should anti-agaptics ever come into existence. Thus we usually talk about premise plausibility; given what we know is this particular premise plausible. If a premise is implausible then the argument is not good; if a premise is plausible then the argument, if it is deductive is intended to entail a plausible conclusion whilst if the argument is inductive then the argument is intended to suggest, to some degree of likelihood, a plausible conclusion.

Second Tool: The Blank Slate

High-price lifestyle gurus such as Hedley Merricut like to tell you what to believe; the Toolkit, however, advocates approaching an argument without preconceptions. Don't import your fancy ideas.

You may have been brought up by Scientologists, Radical Feminists or Libertarians and those debates around the dinner-table might well have left an impression on you. The Toolkit once had an editor who had been told by his father never to trust a man with corduroy trousers, and such formative influences can easily become biases when you hear the arguments of another. Think of it this way; if you were trying to convince a Socialist of the evils of their ways you wouldn't want them to automatically trout the party line; you would want them to reason along with you. The notion of the Blank Slate asks that you do the same; approach each argument from a position of innocence and then, once you understand the arguer's position, then you can begin to pick it apart.

Third Tool: The ability to assign the Burden of Proof

The Critical Thinker's Toolkit has the following to say on the 'Burden of Proof;' learn who has to hold it. The 'Burden of Proof' tells us that if you make a statement you must be prepared to defend that statement. Here is a helpful list:

People who argue against the status quo
People who put forward a controversial claim
People who put forward a claim which could easily be checked by gathering evidence without much effort
People who start an argument
The Prosecution in a trial
Site managers in matters of safety
Whistle blowers
Sub-ordinates who disobey orders that are handed down by an appropriate procedure

The moral of the story is this: if a statement is implausible then you will need to provide some kind of argument in support of it. Implausibility here can mean factually implausible and also socially or consensus implausibility. If you hold a view in variance to the general population then expect to defend said view until such time that you can demonstrate why your position is superior.

Fourth Tool: The Principle of Charity

In its less rambunctious rants the Toolkit recommends the application of Charity to other people's arguments; not everyone makes their points as succinctly as you do. Applying the principle of Charity allows for the best possible reconstruction of an argument, something we might all learn to appreciate. For more details, seek the wise counsel of Mr. Olthwaite.

Fifth Tool: Irreverence

Aside from the sage advice given by the Critical Thinker's Toolkit, of course, itself the Toolkit recommends you treat all sources of an argument as irrelevant. What matters is the argument itself, not its delivery. The same goes with whatever possible effects the argument might have; the consequences of an argument should have no effect on how good it is. Imagine yourself as a good Socialist, prim and proper. Your opponent is a nasty, smelly Objectivist, arrogant as the day is long. Now, even though it seems justifiable in the sense of social grace to dismiss your opponent's views out of hand as a critical thinker you should ignore who is giving the argument and, instead, focus on what exactly they are saying. Just in the same way that a Climate Change Denier might have something worthwhile to say on the subject of local vs. global temperature changes an Objectivist might have something decent to report on the matter of civil liberties, a point you might well never get to hear should you dismiss all they say on their reported views alone. The Toolkit understands your mistake but you have to admit that such mistakes can be truly regrettable.

Sixth Tool: The ability to find a counterexample

The Toolkit's advice when evaluating an argument is to question whether the premises, if true, could have a false conclusion.

Take, for example, this old chestnut:

Premise 1: If it has been raining then the grass will be wet.
Premise 2: The grass is wet
Conclusion: Therefore, it has been raining.

This is a deductive argument; the arguer has intended the conclusion to be entailed from the truth of the premises. It is also a bad deductive argument because nothing in the premises forces the truth of the conclusion. The grass might well be wet but it doesn't have to be because it has been raining; I might well have had the sprinklers on or the kids next door could have been using their waterslide. For one effect we can have a multitude of causes, and rain is simply one cause for the grass being wet.

What the Toolkit has just described, then, is a counter-example, an example of additional information that, if true, would show that the argument is bad. If any such information can be brought to bear on a deductive argument then it shows that the argument does not logically entail its conclusion and thus the argument must be thought of as bad.

Counter-examples are funny creatures; whilst it is easy to imagine counterexamples to bad deductive arguments it can be a little difficult to do the same for those frequently encountered inductive ones. Inductive counter-examples are those whereby the premises show that the conclusion is unlikely but be warned; this doesn't mean that the conclusion could be true, just that on the balance of probabilities you would not expect it to be so.

Concluding Thoughts

This is just a taster of the kinds of things you will learn about should you take a Critical Thinking course. Aside from the Toolkit you would also learn about the common fallacies, more in-depth argument reconstruction techniques and, most probably, a whole lot on how to construct good arguments of your own. For those of you not engaged in undergraduate tertiary study I would recommend seeking out your local university's Adult Education or Continuing Education unit. It's amazing what you will learn, and even those of you who are already Critical Thinkers can always do with a little revision or a tune-up. And who knows; you might get me as your tutor. You'd like me, even if it turned out that we had wildly different political views.


Josh writes:

By popular demand -- well, demand -- Brain Stab is proud to re-introduce the expanding posts thingy that it used to do. In other words, at the author's discretion, only the start of longer posts will be displayed on the main page, and you'll need to click on the Full Post link to go to the page with the full post on it.

The Full Post link is at the bottom of every post, even ones where what you see on the front page is all there is (like this one) -- that's just the way templates work. Still, if you're the kind of person who'd whinge about having to click a link unnecessarily to find out if there's more to a post, you're probably the kind of person who'd whinge about having to scroll past all those long posts to find out if there are new comments, so fuck ya.

The above post was brought to you by Josh's as-yet-unsatisfied-this-morning caffeine addiction. Thank you.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

So These Two Idiots and a Cop Go Clubbing...

Josh writes:

There's a video floating around the Internets at the moment. Here's a summary:

Idiots A and B are sitting in their car. Idiot A is filming Idiot B, daring him to go over to a nearby police officer and tell him to fuck off. "Seriously -- what can he do to you? What can he do?" Sufficiently persuaded, Idiot B gets out of the car and, still being filmed by Idiot A, walks up to the cop and repeatedly flips him off. The cop then pulls out his nightstick and starts clubbing the fuck out of Idiot B. Idiot A: "Oh shit! Fuck!"

This video serves as the ultimate illustration of two other things I've read recently: the first is this reminder from Psycho Milt about how cops in other countries don't take your shit; the other is this older one from Hewligan, where he points out that it's possible for both sides in a given dispute to be equally as wrong.

See, a lot of people would say "the guy's an idiot, he deserved what he got, good on the cop" (I know this, because that's exactly what they said about the Annoying Woman Gets Tasered All To Fuck For Talking On Her Cellphone video of a while ago). But you don't have to take sides -- the guys are chuckling morons and the cop is a dangerous psychopath. No-one in that video is in the right.

The logical ramifications of accepting that such a situation is possible in a rational ethical system are doubtless fodder for a fruitful and intelligent debate, but instead, here's a Snopes article about the true dangers of frozen squirrels.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

How to write non-fiction

Apathy Jack writes:

There seems to have been a trend in the last few years for non-fiction – or at least a specific type; people recounting their crazy and wacky lives, or offering a quirky look at some aspect of history or of the world (I still haven’t gotten around to buying that history of the colour mauve...). Maybe it’s not a trend, maybe I just never noticed it before. Either way, I’ve been reading a bit of it recently, and, in keeping with my New Year’s resolution to point out the faults of others so they can stop annoying me, I present the rules on writing non-fiction, should any of you be thinking of doing so.

Rule number one

Make sure what you’re writing about is actually interesting. This may sound fairly self explanatory, but I’ve read more than one book where this simply hasn’t been the case. The best example I’ve read recently would be You Can Get Arrested For That, by Richard Smith. The premise is sound: Smith found a list of those stupid and redundant laws they have in some American states – you know the ones; can’t dress your goldfish in pinstripe after Shrove Tuesday and such forth – so decides to travel from his native England to break as many of them as he can muster.

Sounds like hilarity would ensue, right? That’s certainly what I was assuming when I shelled out hard earned hamburger tokens on a copy. Disappointingly, the book is little more than a catalogue of unrealised potential. Smith is openly impressed with himself for having thought of such a zany and wacky idea, but he fails to deliver. Specifically: he doesn’t break that many of the laws on his list. For example, his first project is riding a bicycle into a swimming pool. After a fairly uninteresting chapter detailing his attempts to locate a motel with a swimming pool, he fails to find one, and moves onto the next chapter. There are some unintentionally pathos-filled moments when Smith discovers that a couple of the “laws” on his list are urban legends, but he “breaks” them anyway in a sad attempt to get his win-loss ratio above fifty percent.

Compare and contrast the works of Danny Wallace – of which I’ve read Join Me, where he starts a cult out of sheer boredom, and Yes Man, where he decides that for six months he will answer all questions and requests with “Yes”. Wallace is one of these people who commits himself to an idea, and sees travelling to Denmark to recruit for a cult of personality based around an amorphous idea he had while drunk as a workmanlike part of doing the job properly. Not only is he bereft of Smith’s all-pervading sense of self-congratulation, but he also gets himself into more “scrapes and japes” if you will (and normally I won’t) than Smith manages to in his unremarkable road-trip.

Another example is Mick Foley. His first book, Have a Nice Day was rightfully a Times bestseller. Foley is not a brilliant writer by any means, but in an easy, conversational style he recounts his life – an interesting one to be sure – and discusses the wrestling industry in a way that is not only accessible but perhaps even interesting to people who are not fans.

His second memoir, Foley Is Good, detailed his life in the year or so since publishing his first book, was filled with wrestling in-jokes that were mostly stale by the time it hit the shelves, and contained rambling digressions on whatever Foley was thinking of that day. (I’m one of the bigger Foley fans you’ll find and even I had trouble sitting through the entire chapter dedicated to blow-by-blow descriptions of his favourite theme-park roller-coasters.) In the extra chapter added to the paperback edition, Foley admits that on rereading it, even he thinks it was, in large part, pretty pointless and self-indulgent.

Hell, so long as what you’re writing about is interesting enough, you don’t even need to be that good a writer. I give you Born On A Blue Day, the autobiography of Daniel Tammet, who was born with high-level autism and synethesia, and developed savant-syndrome after a childhood epileptic seizure. Tammet admits that he has never really liked working with words, and the book often reads with the staccato style of speech common among those with autism. Tammet also admits that he finds it difficult to tell when people are not interested in the things he’s talking about, and the sheer amount of the book that he devotes to talking about Maths is testament to that. No one would argue that Tammet’s writing is more than functional, getting the point across in a straightforward and barebones sort of way; however, his story is a truly fascinating look into the mind of someone with Asberger’s Syndrome.

Rule Number Two

I said above that so long as your story is interesting, you don’t need to be Dostoyevsky, but before you rush out to chronicle the funny and fascinating things you think you’ve done and routinely bore your friends with, as a personal favour to me make sure you can actually write.

Of course, being a good writer can disguise the fact that you’re writing about rubbish. Look at Smashed, by Koren Zailckas. Zailckas drank a bit too much as a teenager, but not enough that it impacted on her academic or social life. She kept this up into university, but managed to get a good job and retain the majority of her friends. In her early twenties, she realised the drinking wasn’t making her happy, so quit without too much of a struggle. Zailckas is a poetic wordsmith, and the book is so well written that it takes you a while to realise that what she is writing about is, in essence, a slightly less harrowing version of what almost every one of my friends went through at similar ages.

Take by contrast Said And Done – the autobiography of Roger McGough. McGough has published fifty books of poetry, and had minor pop stardom in the seventies with ‘Lily the Pink’ – and of course I had never heard of him until I came across some of his stuff by accident last year. His life has been far more remarkable than he seems to think it has been – he makes a strong point that hanging out with Beatles and being a part of the emerging beat poetry scene was really not as magical an experience as music documentaries would have us believe. He recounts young poets admonishing that it must have been easy for him to tap into the spirit of creativity that was present in that milieu, and points out that most of Liverpudlian beatniks of the time were sitting around forlornly wishing they could tap into the spirit of creativity that was clearly extant in America with Ginsberg and Kerouac. However, despite downplaying many of his memories, he takes the more anecdote-worthy moments of his life and recounts them with humour and the sort wordplay that has made him a well known (except by me as it turns out) poet. He has taken a life story that he would probably claim was far less interesting than that of Zailckas and turned it into one of the most lyrical books I’ve read recently.

Now, keep in mind that when I say “write well”, I don’t just mean your ability with words. Pay attention to structure, and what will make the book a consistently pleasant read. I turn your attention to The Surgeon of Crowthorne. Ostensibly a book about the Oxford Dictionary, Simon Winchester figured out that he’d need to sex the story up some, so focussed on the strange case of WC Minor, an eccentric contributor thereto. Even then he realised there wasn’t a whole book, so went off on many fascinating tangents about anything even faintly related to what he was talking about. The result is a very readable history not only of the Dictionary, but of the time period, the social mores, and many truly interesting figures therein.

For your contrast, I give you Rats. Robert Sullivan decided to spend a year in one alley looking at the behaviour of the rats therein, and write about his experiences doing so. Like Winchester, he throws in digressions to fill the book. Unlike Winchester, he doesn’t do it particularly well. One moment he’s sitting down in the alleyway, then there’s suddenly a several paragraph long history of arboreal migration, that I eventually deduced was to explain the history of the particular type of tree that grew in one corner of the alley. While there are many interesting facts in the book, the narrative is messy, and the digressions come to look less like interesting contextualisation and more like filler as Sullivan realises that sitting in an alleyway for a year just isn’t that interesting an experience.

There you go: two rules. That wasn’t hard, was it?

As they say: Everyone has one book in them, and usually that’s where it should stay, but if you follow my two simple rules, you too can write about real things without boring or irritating the reading public.

Off you go.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

I'm not saying you're wrong about everything - Just this thing...

Apathy Jack writes:

Alright, The Internet, I have a question for you.

Last night at the pub with a friend for his birthday drinks and I got hungry, so popped out to Burger King for whatever they’re calling food these days. While I was eating, I pulled out my book, because, you know, that's what you do when you don't have company (or when you've intentionally shunned company so you can catch up on your reading). I was then joined by my young friend Llama, who said that I was the only person he knew – possibly the only person in the world – who, in the course of a night out at the pub and a quick stop for fast food, would be reading a book.

Now, The Internet, I need you to back me up here: I'm the normal one, right? It's everyone else who has the problem.

Affirmations of my rectitude in the comments section.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Plus ca change

Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling writes:

Ruth Richardson was not my favourite politician. But to be fair, she stood for something. Once she'd gone, greyness descended over much of Jim Bolger's ministry. Philosophical schizophrenia was best handled by doing little. Despite Jenny Shipley's more vigorous interlude, modern National still confronts this ideological illness. It believes in free enterprise and growth, but passed many conflicting messages before last week's tax package. There's a raft of private initiatives in health, education and welfare that could provide humane choices for people, supplement the public system, lift burdens off taxpayers, and stimulate growth. Some options such as a clearly-focused review of public school syllabuses and teaching standards could enthuse many anxious parents, and cost little. But Bill English, Roger Sowry, Nick Smith and Murray McCully contrive to sound as though they are either attacking this Labour-led government from the left, or want simply to catch it preaching one thing, while doing another. Since the latter happens so often, it's no novelty to hear about it. Extra spending isn't what this country needs, and smart-alecky tactics hold little appeal.

Elsewhere in the world, conservatives have done best in modern times when identified with a clear brand. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl enjoyed long spells in office by aggressively putting top of their agendas growth, and the policies to ensure it. Lesser lights like John Howard and Canada's Jean Chretien have turned their predictable styles into vote winners. They have reduced debt, reformed welfare, and promoted enduring family values. Bumbling around with a sop here, and a concession there, never works, as Labour found with Bill Rowling between 1975-83.

Yes, Helen Clark is a formidable foe. A superb political trapeze artist, she bemuses her opponents. But her government is exposed on many fronts. It likes the poor so much its policies create more of them. It is ridiculously politically correct and makes bad appointments. Such silliness would be gleefully exploited by red-blooded conservatives elsewhere. While it's true that some cloyingly sycophantic journalists give Labour an armchair ride, that would change in a trice if National stopped being a "me too" party. Despite some recent stumbles by Labour, it looks as though another defeat must occur before National sets any credible agenda for the Twenty-first century.

Know who wrote that? Ex Sunday Star Times commentator Dr Michael Bassett, and what is most depressing, he wrote this around the 17th April 2002. Before Don Brash took National's helm in October 2003. Before Don Brash was Bill English, who led National to it's worst election defeat (21%) a few weeks after that column. Dr Bassett had this to say after the 2002 election...

The attempts by Bill English and his "brat pack" to refill the ranks by preaching family values and an alternative version of Labour's message would be a tough task under any electoral system; under MMP it was a suicide note. Any National leader will always be a less convincing centraliser than someone like Helen Clark, to whom it comes naturally. Labour gets away with its policies because its voters are less economically literate than National's, and equate state spending with growth. But big government is a less convincing creed to National's target group. They are marginally better educated on average, and certainly more entrepreneurial. When they hear Bill English preaching more spending on education and health as he did throughout this campaign, they instinctively clutch their wallets, knowing they'll have to put more in the collection plate.

In effect, National's failure to brand itself with something exclusively theirs led voters to seek alternatives. Why did English persist in sounding like a down-market Labourite throughout the campaign? Why, when he had the nation's eyes upon him during the televised leaders' debates, did he choose meaningless slogans over substance? In last Thursday's final debate, the former Treasurer was given a golden opportunity to outline the steps he would take to arrest our economic slowdown. He dodged the gift question and began talking about air points! Words flowed out of him. Most added up to nothing: "The best way to predict the future is to make it happen!"; "Stand up for what you believe in!"; "We are ambitious for New Zealand!" etc etc. When the time available to press home one's policies is so limited, a leader must produce memorable sound bites. Sadly, there is nothing of the revivalist orator about Bill English. It was Bill Rowling, not Robert Muldoon who sprang to my mind as I watched him.

But we shouldn't just blame the pastor. The sermon produced by him, his "brat pack", and Michelle Boag, was confused and weak on detail. They conspicuously failed to exploit the opportunities given them by Labour's political correctness. For instance, why hadn't they read Martin Hames's The Crisis in New Zealand Schools? Hames doesn't confine himself to the sorry political saga of the PPTA and its egregious leadership. He convincingly argues that teachers and ministry policy makers are corks bobbing in a see of pink fluff and politically correct agendas. Standards are falling and teachers have become increasingly undervalued. They in turn through their actions give the whole public educational sector a bad name. Public confidence spirals downwards, and parents turn to private schools in desperation. Crusading for higher educational standards, even if this implied some criticism of National's past stewardship, would surely attract more voters than unspecific prattle in "support" of parents and students, and empty promises to "get alongside" them.

In this campaign National passed up opportunities to reposition itself in line with the party's core principles. On health and welfare, as well as Treaty issues, they should have been more forthright. And surely the extra burdens placed on the productive sector by Labour were ripe for exploitation? It is a fact that economic growth could have been at least 1% higher in each of the last three years had competition within ACC been retained, and excess compliance costs tackled. National could graphically have shown what that extra growth meant for families, but which had been stolen by the left's social engineers. In the end, when past supporters peeped in National's church door during this campaign, there was nothing to entice them further except empty words and even emptier pews.

This caused the second stage in National's disintegration. With the Greens having identified themselves as the right's Public Enemy Number One, something akin to panic seized many past and current National supporters. They didn't have to hear out Bill English's dirge. Instead they set off down the street checking out the political peep shows that MMP provides. There they ogled Peters, Prebble and Dunne. Shop worn each might be, but at least their messages were clear, and none was clearly of the left. Peters in particular has an irresistible appeal to elderly ladies, Dunne to those earnestly seeking a steady, reliable restraining force on a left wing government whose experiments they feared might get out of control. Once it was clear that National and ACT together couldn't form the next government, the same fear that had led to National's creation in 1936 produced its 2002 collapse.

This is crisis time for the Nats. Before they can attract back their lost congregation they will have to define their niche within MMP, and sharpen the message. Make no mistake, there is a place in the market for policies based on National's core free-enterprise principles. Moreover, there are enough bewildered voters milling around to respond to solid leadership and credible policies. This is a conservative country not given to socialist experimentation, and voters will always be on the lookout for a steady, reliable political vehicle. Why else Peter Dunne? Either National engages in very tough soul searching and puts everything up for discussion, including the leadership, or it will end up like the old Liberal Party which finally gave up the ghost in the 1930s, its last few parishioners straggling across to National in 1936. Saturday night was either a new beginning, or the beginning of National's terminal phase.

Does anyone else find it the most depressing and tragic thing for New Zealand politics that in between then and now National managed to effectively halt that "terminal phase" with a three year course of Brashidation bringing them back to 49% in the polls, and now they have gone back to English (albeit as second to Key) and those words written five years ago are still relevant.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Apathy Jack writes:

I wish Roger McGough had published his autobiography while I was at university. Actually, I wouldn't have touched it, because even if I had made a habit of reading books during the course of my English degree (I didn't) I was still in my hating-poetry phase (as opposed to the I-leave-poetry-alone-it-leaves-me-alone phase I'm currently in) so the life story of an old poet whose work I wasn't familiar with wouldn't have been top of the list. But still, I really wish some (alright: all) of the people I went through uni with had read this:

When flower power drifted across the Atlantic from California in the late sixties many young people grasped the ideals of freedom and gentleness that it seemed to enshrine, but I was old enough to be cynical. What may have begun as a peace movement initially, an antidote to the horrors of Vietnam, had become a fashion show. It was fun, but essentially mindless. If I sound slightly jaundiced, it’s not because I’ve got jaundice, or because I believe that as a decade it is often misconceived, so powerful are the images of the period, but rather that I regret the false sense of nostalgia that passed into the tribal consciousness of young people. They inherited, many of them, a sense of loss, an ‘if only I’d been there’ sort of yearning. What was exciting about the sixties for me was that I was young, and there’s never a better time to be young than when you’re young.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Vaguely Helpful Tidbits

Josh writes:

New rule for the Antiques Roadshow drinking game:

  • If you see a coloured face, drink until you can't feel your legs.
Also: today's bit of Jack-baiting comes with a hat-tip to Paul's always worthwhile Fundy Post.

Helpful Hints

Josh writes:

OK, here's my contribution to the Brain Stab "How to Argue More Gooder" project, consisting of the single most important thing I can think of to avoid bad arguments.

I'd like to say it was the first thing I ever learnt in a Philosophy class, but that's not true -- it was in Stage II Ancient Greek Philosophy. I still have my old notes, and there it is:

Aristotle says: "BEWARE OF EQUIVOCALS!"
Beware of equivocals. BEWARE THEM! Beware them like you would the Ides of March. Equivocals are what you get when you're using the same word to mean slightly different things. In the context of the bit of Aristotle that we were studying at the time, he's talking about how "being" is equivocal -- the "is" in "Josh is human" means something different to the "is" in "Josh is sitting at his desk". Sometimes it really does depend on what the definition of "is" is (although it didn't when Bill Clinton really wanted it to).

At any rate, in the vast (VAST) majority of cases I see where people are disagreeing over something, it's not that one side is flat out wrong, it's that both sides are using the same word differently, and neither realises it, resulting in the sort of "talking past each other" scenario that Eric mentions in his post below.

The Perigo vs. Nola debate that he highlights is the perfect example. Frankly, I couldn't stomach reading all the way through to the end, but it all started with Perigo objecting to Nola's statement that "logic has nothing to do with reality". Now, Nola was using "logic" to refer to the abstract symbolic systems that describe the relationships between propositions; systems which, being abstract, have no immediate relation to the real world, and must be combined with real world facts to form a meaningful argument. On the other hand, Perigo seemed to understand it in a more colloquial sense, where "logic" is used as a synonym for "reason". Under Nola's definition, it's true that "logic" has nothing to do with reality; under Perigo's, that's not true at all. However, Perigo doesn't seem to notice the equivocal at all, and Nola does a piss poor job of explaining it.

Bonus argument tip: Consider your audience, and put things in a way that they will relate to. Nola makes the mistake of talking like the member of a Philosophy department to an audience hostile to academic register of Philosophy departments, as does our Morthos when trying to discuss the Free Will vs. Determinism controversy on Peter Cresswell's blog (see Eric's post for links).

Sometimes it seems that philosophers are obsessed with definitions (Aristotle particularly so), but this is why -- you need to be really sure how everyone's defining the words they're using, to make sure that equivocals aren't cropping up and buggering everything up. BEWARE THEM. Bewaaaaarrrre...

Saturday, January 06, 2007

We don't take kindly to Objectivists round here.

Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling writes:

UPDATE!: See that, that up there, see what Josh did!

Back in November, That Morthos Stare enlivened us all with a collection of snippets, unfinished musings on assorted topics, one of which was this bit on Objectivists.

"I'm not fond of Libertarians in general, although I do respect some (read: few) of their intuitions. The Randians, however, get no sympathy from me whatsoever. I'm not sure that they mean to act as religious zealots (indeed, I would imagine that they would be horrified by the suggestion) but Objectivists, with their character worship of Ayn Rand, one of the last century's dullest writers, would most resemble a Roman Catholic's devotion to the Pope... except that Catholic's, by and large, ignore the Popes for the out-moded fuddy-duddies that they tend to be.

Still, blind devotion to an author doesn't necessarily make you a bad person. I don't dislike goths due to their insistence that Anne Rice is worth reading. I pity them, just as I pity anyone who decides to read a Poppy Z. Brite novel (the short stories are another matter entirely). No, it's the insistence that Rand's philosophy has real world relevance. Well, that and the claim that Rand's aphoristic style is philosophy.

Let me put this into perspective. Philosophy is a dialectical discipline in which we trade and develop ideas. One of our chief virtues is the ability to be wrong and admit to that fact. Objectivism, however, is a dogmatic belief system best analogised with a Jack Chick tract. I don't whether Objectivists think that it is immoral to show dissent from the official view or whether their intellectual poverty is so great that they have to toe the party line, but such strict adherence to a distinctly impoverished ideology isn't philosophy. I suspect that what appeal Objectivism has is psychological; if you think being a prick is a good thing then Objectivism gives you nice variety of shallow reasons to do so."

Hewligan concurred, goading Morthos to more fully explain why Objectivists are bad people. A task I volunteered myself for in my December Commentfest after he inadvertently answered his own question. And so, here we are.

Before we get started, for those who want to know what Objectivists belive in, go here. This post would also be good to gain some New Zealand context.

Although it should be obvious, not all libertarians are Objectivists, and not all Objectivists are pricks. I have met many fine normal Objectivists, this post only targets those who fit the bill.

Ayn Rand

First off, are some Objectivists pricks because Ayn Rand was a prick. Well no, because she wasn't. Not that she was perfect, she had flaws like anyone, some wrong ideas, a few character flaws, but she still falls within the range of normalcy and wasn't a bad person, or a prick. Ayn Rand's life and personality won't enlighten us in our quest.

But what of her writing? Here we are on firmer ground. I think the origin of many Objectivist's prickishness lies in her fiction. When you watch a normal TV program or read a normal novel, the main characters go through "an arc", I think it is called. They start off with personality / beliefs "a", go through various experiences, and end up with personality / beliefs "b" And it is through watching them go through that change that we find reading novels enjoyable. Ayn Rand's novels don't have this. Her protaganists seem to be like T 34 tanks. They start off as they finish, and everyone else just pings off them or goes under their tracks.

Ayn did this for a reason, she wrote that the goal of her fiction is to project her vision of an ideal man: not man as he is, but man as he might and ought to be. The problem is that Objectivists use Ayn’s characters as a template for how they should be. This, unfortunately leads to this by Kane Bunce. which is absolutely tragic because it is not (please surely not) the view that Ayn had or wanted her followers to have, but given the flaws in her fiction is what you can get.

Objectivism isn't about having a low opinion of and indifference to your fellow man, but of having a high opinion of and will to engage them to use their full potential, but unfortunately since Ayn's characters are so one-dimensional and un-engaging, Kane Bunce’s view is often the end result. Andrew Bates also deserves a kick up the arse for concurring. And that is the first reason why Objectivists are bad people. Since the characters in Ayn's novels are indifferent and one-dimensional, then people who use those novels as guides will end up in danger of being the same.


Morthos has claimed that Objecivism is a mock philosophy. Does this make Objectivists bad people? I don't think so. It isn't so much that Objectivism is not as developed in the "formal academic philosophy", but how Objectivists have dealt with that fact. Another aspects are that Objectivism is a meta-narrative.

I say "isn't so much" because it is still a factor. One of Objectivism's difficulties is that there isn't/wasn't a good, academic quality, setting out of it's beliefs. This has led to a) academic philosophy pretty much ignoring it, and then, b) an air of anti-intellectualism among Objectivists due to academics ignoring or deriding their philosophy. More specifically there is an unfortunate distrust of Philosophy departments and contemporary philosophers, viewing them all as a Caligulan orgy of subjectivism and relativism.

This should improve over time. There is no reason why Objectivism can’t be tidied up and presented academically, and this is slowly beginning to happen. People like, unfortunate Tibor Machan , Chris Sciabarra, and Tara Smith are presenting Objectivist ideas in a format that people like Morthos could engage with.

Secondly, and briefly, being a meta-narrative, makes Objectivism prone to the usual schisms and denunciations that other meta-narrative’s like Marxism and Christianity suffer. This is normally fine, since it only affects how believers deal with each other. Problems arise because meta-narratives tend to have their own vocabulary and terminology, meaning that when others try and engage them they need to get to grips with how terms are being used (as Morthos found himself doing here, and here) and are also in danger of having their beliefs misconstrued and often end up just talking past each other (see the exchange between Robert Nola and Lindsay Perigo one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, oh, dear, god)

And, in case anyone was thinking it, Objectivists are not pricks because Objectivism is a cult or because Ayn Rand was cultish. It isn’t and she wasn’t, despite the ferocious arguments amongst her followers. Read this for more.


Lastly, and most importantly, the reason why many Objectivists (and in the New Zealand context “Libertarianz” since the two are linked here more than anywhere else) come across as being pricks or bad people is simply how they present their ideas. Curiously, and perhaps fatally for people who profess their admiration for a free-market system, mnay Objectivists feel they are at war. This is wrong for many reasons.

Firstly, almost no-one is actually fighting against you. At the recent Libz conference, attendees were told by one speaker:

“We must Attack! Attack! Attack! With your dying breath! Attack!
This aint no game people! This is war!”

God only knows why, or against whom. The vast majority of the voting population are not in metaphorical opposing trenches doing all they can to combat reason and laissez faire economics.

Most people are in a marketplace for ideas and political philosophies. They have a set of requirements - they want law and order, to have a comfortable standard of living, well educated kids, and for grandma to get a hip replacement of she needs it – and shop around for whoever will offer that to them. Almost everyone, even parties opposed to markets, grasp the importance of marketing their ideas so they are the most persuasive they can be.

This is often a matter of language, and no I don’t mean lying or Orwell, but using the language of the marketplace rather than that of the battlefield, and of avoiding needless use of terminology that has negative connotations.

Look at Peter Cresswell’s admiration for Barry Goldwater’s statement that "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice". The sentiment is admirable, but why call yourself an extremist? What do your customers, the people who you want to sell your ideas to, think of when you use the word extremist? They think of lunatics, hijackings, bombings, and violence. So why use that word? Why not “principled”? This isn’t being deceptive, or Orwellian, it’s just a better word.

What really makes the “battlefield” view of many Objectivists, and libertarianz, so devastating is that it is polarising. With war, there is no middle ground. You are either with us or you are against us, and if you are with us, you are with us the whole time, 100%, there are no weekend soldiers. And so not only do you come across as a lunatic / extremist to your potential customers, you find yourself in constant battle with your own side to keep them on a war footing.

Large parties, like National and Labour, are successful because they are a broad church. You are valued no matter how large or small your contribution or skills. If you are out there every weekend doing a sausage sizzle to raise funds for the electorate, fine. If all you do is send in $5 with your membership form in June, fine. If you think you’re at war, then anyone who doesn’t go to war with the same fervour as you is guilty of cowardice, or if they leave because of your behaviour, then they are guilty of treason. The punishment for that in real war is death. However for a small political party / movement the punishment is a small divided membership, and severely disabled organisation. I should point out again that there are many good normal Objectivists and Libertarianz to whom this does not apply.

Which brings us to Hewligan’s observation. The context he was using was the invasion of Iraq, but the principle is the same.

“If you can't convince people of the rightness of the invasion, the question is: "Why can't you convince them?"

or rather “If you can’t convince people of the rightness of your position, the question is: “Why can’t you convince them?”

If you are at war, the answer is often “Because you haven’t attacked with enough strength and fervour”, and the solution is to attack harder in your black and white world view, coming across as a prick, and selling your philosophical wares to few.

If you are in a marketplace, the answer is “Because I have not been persuasive enough” and you work harder to offer what your customer wants, and are happy even if he only buys part of your philosophy because he is welcome to come back any time for more, or even a look around, since you have been so pleasant. And your staff retention is better than on the battlefield where you keep killing them.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Books You Should Be Reading # 20 Of A Bunch

Apathy Jack writes:

The Devil You Know, by Mike Carey

The man who opened the door to me was presumably James Dodson, the birthday boy's father. I took a strong dislike to him right then to save time and effort later. He was a solid-looking man, not big but hard-packed: eyes like two ball-bearings, salt-and-pepper hair adding its own echoes to the grey. In his forties, but probably as fit and trim now as he had been two decades ago: clearly, this was a man who recognised the importance of good diet, regular exercise and unremitting moral superiority. Pen had said he was a cop: chief constable in waiting, working out of Agar Street as one of the midwives to the government's new Serious and Organised Crime Agency. I think I would have guessed either a cop or a priest,and most priests gratefully let themselves go long before they hit forty: that's one of the perks of having a higher calling.
'You're the entertainer,' Dodson said, as you might say, 'You're a motherless piece of scum and you raped my dog.'

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


That Morthos Stare writes:

10) Maneater - Nelly Furtado
Though, in terms of Misogyny, Furtado has Spankrock beat. I was a bit slow on this one, but it eventually clicked and took over my life for those handful of days which any great pop-record always does. All drums and a dirty synth riff which sounds like it’s just squeezed itself into something skin-tight, Furtado manages to both take the role and mock the role with equal… well, sense of distance. There’s something dead deep inside the song – when describing the riff, the initial metaphor which came to mind was a zombie’s lurch. Nightclub of the Living Dead. No-one gets out here with what makes them human alive.

Kieron Gillen isn't a name you probably know, although you bloody should. He's a games journalist and writer of sequential art (his new series, Phonogram (at Image) is a tribute to 90s Britpop reimaged as some perverse superhero mythology; it's glorious and beautiful and, well, stuff). Anyway, his top 40 for 2006 finally forced me to confront my love for Nelly Furtado's 'Maneater.'

I was never particularly interest in Furtado when she first appeared on the scene. 'Insipid' was the word I used, I believe. Frankly, I was waiting for the world to realise that her music wasn't all that, and when her latest album was released I sighed a gentle sigh and returned to the textbooks.

My first encounter of 'Maneater' was the music video. I was entranced, mostly by just how bad the song was (and a bit by the imagery). Subsequent viewings did little to improve my mood and as I don't listen to the radio my only other exposure to it was as musak in shops, which is hardly what I would call positive reinforcement.

A little under a week ago, in the 'Number One Shoe Warehouse' I found that not only did I like 'Maneater' as it played in the background but that I really liked it. And that it works as musak (which is kind of disturbing when you think about it).

Why? Because it's actually a clever little bit of pop, and incredibly well-crafted in things sonic.

It reminds me a little of Rachel Steven's 'Sweet Dreams (My LA Ex)' in that 'Maneater' is not just two songs merged but also two musical genres battling it out by verse and chorus. 'Sweet Dreams...' has a moment of Big Band Dance Hall to it (about two thirds of the way through) and it just works. 'Maneater' is two kinds of pop, neither of which I would usually nod my head to, but, well, as Gillen puts forward, its deep, its undead and it changes you.

Ya, verily, 'Maneater' snizzles my nizzle. Also, me mizzen mast.

Admitting to past mistakes is a virtue (although public confession of such things is often vice as the Pope keeps pointing out) and so I wish to apologise to all those who had to suffer under my sighing and gnashing of teeth in re 'Maneater.' I was wrong. I may well got to Hell for this, but I now place 'Maneater' into its rightful place in last year's pop pantheon.

Although, and I dare you to disagree, the best thing about last year's Music was my discovery of the 'They Might Be Giants' podcasts. There is something delightful about the Dust Brothers remixing TMBG tracks.

Better than sex. Well, at least that's what the Vicar told me, and he'd know moreso than I.

New Year...

Apathy Jack writes:

The Good

New Year's Eve, chatting with the flatmate, and I show her one of the cards I got from a student. She reads it to herself, then quotes reproachfully:

"I remember all those cracked days in English when you threatened to kill us, told us you hated us, and even threatening us with the chair."
"I thought you were exaggerating when you said you did all of that?"
"Every story I tell you is completely true."
"Well, it says here you shouldn't change because you make learning fun."
"Yeah, well, every story..."

The Bad

Let's get this clear from the start: It is a bad thing that Saddam Hussein was killed the way he was. Let me explain why: If someone murders someone else, they are a bad person who deserves to die and go to hell. However, if the murderer is killed by a serial killer, for the sole reason that the murderer wouldn't give his oil to the serial killer at discount prices, then that's not cool, and it certainly isn't justice. It's just another murder.

As of the end of '06, more American lives have been lost in Iraq than in the terrorist attacks on September 11th. George W Bush has officially caused the deaths of more Americans than Osama Bin Laden.

The Rest

So I'm woken up at 6.30 on the first day of the new year by a text from a student. This is one of my projects that I've invested a lot of time and effort into - she's turned up in a fair number of Brain Stab posts in the last year - but she was one of my failures, deciding to leave school. Her text is the general how-are-you? sent when one is bored. We trade stories of New Year's debauchery (a short process, as neither of us drinks - yes, I have a student who doesn't drink. I know, I'm surprised too...) and I decide to go for a walk to clear my head. As I walk, I text her the plan I came up with to get her back to school. By the time I reach the summit of Mount Eden, she's agreed to return this year. I stand there looking out at the sun rising over Auckland. The sight is a magnificent reminder that the city may be an ugly, poorly designed monstrosity, but from the right angle it's breathtaking. One of the few cars on the Mount is playing The Feelers' new track One World loud enough to escape through the windows, so all I hear over the birdsong is James Reid repeating "It's a beautiful world, It's a beautiful world".

If that moment was 2007, I'll take it.

Sure, that wasn't quite how it happened. Mostly, sure, but not exactly. But I think a lot of this year will be what we make it, so if that's the way I think it should start, then that's what I'm going to go with...

Monday, January 01, 2007

Guest Ranting Bastard writes:

I'm sitting here, watching the patterns that the tide and the wind make in the water. The street lamps illuminate from a block away; their yellow halogen glow only penetrates so far. I'm sitting, over the water, while a single headlight shows me what lays beyond the fluid surface. The tide's coming in.

I cannot see across the water. I know the headland lays across the waves; an estuary, the waves start a lot later than in the ocean. The lights are what frame this nullity of vision; pilot lights of red of green and the stars above. A city boy can look up at the stars and not recognise a damn thing.

The waves come in repeditively; I know not their pattern. I should know their pattern - I studied them enough in high school. There's something about REALITY that strips the rules and formulas away, where it becomes the lapping of the ocean, the regular pattern of a world so many of us do not care about.

I'm a two hour drive from anything that I would consider "civilsation"; "We have a supermarket, a cinema, and a Subway - we're REAL now!". Daylight will touch this place the same as any, where is the ligitimacy? Is it for you to decide? Me? I hate this place as much as I hate where I live - wherever I will live - but I ask, is this any less of an existance as any?

There are fish in the water. I know this, as I can see their ripples in the water. Not my ripples - god forbid I ever step foot in actual LIQUID - or my cigarettes or spit or drink. Real creatures. Things that are born, live, and die in this water. Fish, as I was told, are too small to catch with nets - they just pass straight through. And I find this amazing. When was the last time you walked outside and saw life that was not influenced by your way of life?

It's the fireworks and the sound of cars on the road that give it away. The sound of people, of their spawn, and merriment. The doppler effect of automobiles down a roadway; and all the progress that comes with it. And for just a moment, just an instant; it all goes quiet. All I can hear is the wet slap of the water against the sand, and the lone echo of some animal against the wind. And for just a second, I can lose myself - no-one was ever here, and no-one will ever be. And enjoy it. Enjoy it.

It's a humbling experience, archiving twenty years of snapshots down to an explanation. How many people can describe the life of something by twenty years? When one sees something from conception, through it's fumbling beginnings, to growing adolscence? Every year, you say "Every year, it just seems to be growing bigger"; but what do you actually feel?

The patterns in the water are what makes it so captivating; these waves, arches and speckles which dance on the sandy floor. The waves coming off the tide, the wake off the last boat, the interferance from the lay of the sand below it, the fish living within it. And what makes it the most interesting? Being here. Being a part of it, and being able to watch it, partake in it, influence it.

I'd like you to think about that.

- N for Nihilism

Sorely Tested

Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling writes:

As the evil monkey is to Chris, or the chicken is to Peter, so Creationism is to me. I hate it, and find myself standing at the top of the stairs pointing out its obese failings and launching into a hearty attack should it get too close.

I hate Creationism for its abysmal understanding of biology and D-Grade philosophy. I hate creationists for the above, and for their slimy lying deceitful ignorance, their deliberate misrepresentation of other people's work and lack of anything remotely scientific in their own.

This may be all very well. But the thing is, my previous post was an exhortation to all to apply the "Principle of Charity" to our opponents, and here I am facing a belief that deserves nothing but derision. I am sorely tested, but must lead by example nonetheless.

The latest affront comes from Mr Cresswell's Blog, where he gave one Berend de Boer free reign in return for a beer. O tempora, O mores. The old hoary chestnut of transitional fossils and the fossil evidence for evolution was the order of the day, and Peter gave Mr de Boer space to "pile up the quotes from evolutionists having serious doubt about that fossil evidence?"

I should note that Berend does not explicitly state that he is a creationist, although he does list it as one of his interests (alongside the Bible), and so it would be premature, though not in my presumption inaccurate, to tar him with that brush, and to be fair, he has stated elsewhere that he is unsure about ID being scientific - not that this would make any difference since all creationists ever do is moan about evolution, and moaning about evolution is all Berend has done whether creationist or not.

So, let's see if we can add some formal structure to Berend's argument.

1) Evolution is divided into micro-evolution and macro-evolution.
1a) Micro-evolution is the rearrangement of existing genetic material.
1b) Macro-evolution is the appearance of new genetic material.
C1) If Macro-evolution has occurred then the fossil record would show examples of 1b.
2) The following list of quotes come from believers in evolution.
2a) They state that the fossil record does not show 1b.
2b) They are qualified to make that assessment, and the quotes are scientifically recent.
2c) They have been quoted accurately.
2d) If (2a), (2b), and (2c), were true then we can reasonably assume that the fossil record does not support macro-evolution.
2e) 2d is true.
(C) - The fossil evidence does not support evolution.

Let's start at the beginning. Berend's definition of evolution:

Micro-evolution is natural selection, i.e. Darwin's Finches, but also breeding dogs and horses. It is a rearrangement of existing genetic material. No one is arguing that this is real and is happening.

"[M] the appearance of new genetic material, new functionality that didn't exist before."

I have said before that I have never met anyone who did not both understand evolution and mange to refute it (a quote borrowed from Lenny Flank and that certainly is the case with Berend de Boer. Measuring his definition against reality, we find out that Microevolution is the occurrence of small-scale changes in allele frequencies in a population, over a few generations, also known as change at or below the species level.

Which, of course, means that Macroevolution, if it is even a valid concept, is change above the species level. If it is even a valid concept, mind. But we won't get distracted down that path, the point is that Berend is wrong, and that is premises 1, 1a, and 1b taken care of.

So, Berend has his definitions wrong at the offset, not a good start. Incidentally, speciation, and thus macroevolution, have been observed heaps. Now to our sort of halfway conclusion C1. Let's recap where we are up to

1) Evolution is divided into micro-evolution and macro-evolution.
1a) Micro-evolution is the rearrangement of existing genetic material.
1b) Macro-evolution is the appearance of new genetic material.
C1) If Macro-evolution has occured then the fossil record would show examples of 1b.

C1 is fairly innoccuous. Whatever sort of evolution has occured it would not be unreasonable to expect that if there was a fossil record it would show examples of it. As species evolved, and fossilised, we would expect to find transitional and intermediate fossil examples of them. It might pay to amend it slightly in the light of 1b being rendered meaningless to:

C1a) If evolution has occured we would expect to find transitional fossils in the fossil record.

This might also involve getting rid of premises 1, 1a, and 1b completely, but I'm not going to go overboard examining all the possible permutations. The point is that (once again) whatever happened in evolutionary history we should find examples of it in the fossil record.

Now on to the second half of Berend's argument.

2) The following list of quotes come from beleivers in evolution.
2a) They state that the fossil record does not show 1b.
2b) They are qualified to make that assesment, and the quotes are scientifically recent.
2c) They have been quoted accurately.
2d) If (2a), (2b), and (2c), were true then we can reasonably assume that the fossil rcord does not support macro-evolution.
2e) 2d is true.
(C) - The fossil evidence does not support evolution.

Now then, I am not going to go through every single quote and apply all those criteria to them. We would be here forever. Instead, I will cull them so the strongest (for Berend's argument) quotes are left. If the strongest quotes fail then we would reasonably expect the weaker ones to fail as well.

The most important criteria is recency, part of 2b. Science is an incredibly fluid discipline with many new discoveries being made all the time. If you take science papers at university you would be bloody lucky to get assigned a textbook that had not been revised within the past five years. But we are going to be exceedingly generous and give Berend a twenty year window. If Berend's quotes are more than twenty years old, we can ignore them, they are obsolete.

We ignore quotes of Charles Darwin, of G. G. Simpson in 1959, Norman Newell, Stephen Jay Gould from 1977, Colin Patterson from 1979, S Stanley from 1979, and David Pilbeam. The Richard Dawkins quote is unreferenced.

So, we are left with:

1) A quote from Stephen Jay Gould from his 2002 book "The Structure of Evolutionary Theory"
2) A Colin Patterson quote from 1988.
3) A Mark Ridley quote from 2004.

I'm also going to cull the Michael Denton and Luther Sunderland bits. Because of premise 2., and in Sunderland's case because of the first half of 2b.

We're down to three quotes. Let's start with Colin Patterson. In Berend's words:

"Dr Colin Patterson, a senior palaeontologist at the British Museum of Natural History and author of the book Evolution said (quoted in Darwin's Enigma, Luther Sunderland, 1988):

Yet Gould and the American Museum people are hard to contradict when they say there are no transitional fossils. As a palaeontologist myself, I am much occupied with the philosophical problems of identifying ancestral forms in the fossil record. You say that I should at least "show a photo of the fossil from which each type of organism was derived."? I will lay it on the line-
there is not one such fossil for which one could make a watertight argument. The reason is that statements about ancestry and descent are not applicable in the fossil record."
1988 is (just recent enough to be included, but has Patterson been quoted accurately?


And we are down to two. Messrs Gould and Ridley.

Let's start with Gould. According to Berend:

"In his last book, the Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Stephen J. Gould wrote:
... since we have no direct data for key transitions that occurred so long ago and left no fossil evidence ... such entirely speculative scenarios must be understood within their acknowledged
limits -- that i as hypothetical stories, "cartoons" in Buss's words, invented to illuminate a potential mode and not as claims about any historical accuracy.
Stephen J. Gould also quotes George Gaylord Simpson:
... the greatest and most biologically astute paleontologist of the 20th century ... acknowledged the literal appearance of stasis and geologically abrupt origin as the outstanding general fact of the fossil record and as a pattern which would "pose on of the most important theoretical problems in the whole history of life.""
For those who don't know, "The Structure of Evolutionary Theory" is more than 1,400 pages long. Berend has helpfully left out that page numbers of his quotes. But we can dismiss those quotes for two reasons.

Firstly, when people quote Gould as doubting evolution in any way, they are distorting him.

Secondly, Gould recognises this tactic, and does not approve of it. He does believe there are transitional fossils, as quoted accurately from the above link.

"transitions are often found in the fossil record. Preserved transitions are not common—and should not be, according to our understanding of evolution (see next section) but they are not entirely wanting, as creationists often claim."

Given those two facts, I would bet that Berend has taken Gould out of context and has distorted Gould's message.

Which leaves us with Mark Ridley. Berend again:

"In Evolution by Mark Ridley, published in 2004, we learn why there has never been a Nobel Prize awarded for evolutionary theory. He states:
We need to keep in mind the status of the evolutionary biologist's argument here. The series of stages may in some cases not be particularly plausible, or well supported by evidence, but the argument is put forward solely to refute the suggestion that we cannot imagine how the character could have evolved. (p. 263)
He continues and concludes his argument in the following paragraph:
It is fair to conclude that there are no known adaptations that definitely could not have evolved by natural selection. Or (if the double negative is confusing), we can conclude that all known adaptations are in principle explicable by natural selection. (p. 263)"
To be honest I can't see how this strengthens Berend's case at all. Mark Ridley firstly (presumably, since I don't have Ridley's book, and given Berend's form I have very, very little certainty that he has been quoted fully and accurately) says that there are some cases where evidence is lacking and that scientists put forward scenarios to explain how they could have evolved - which is their job as scientists, to try and find answers and put forward hypotheses, and so on. But Ridley doesn't doubt evolution or the fossil record at all. As he said "we can conclude that all known adaptations are in principle explicable by natural selection."

And that's pretty much that. After culling out a good many obsolete quotes we were left with two distortions and one guy who says that
"we can conclude that all known adaptations are in principle explicable by natural selection." Hardly the death knell for Darwin, is it.

The final word on fossils and evolution goes to Richard Dawkins from his most recent book

"In spite of the fascination of fossils, it is surprising how much we would still know about our evolutionary past without them. If every fossil were magicked away, the comparative study of modern organisms, of how their patterns of resemblences, especially of their genetic sequences are distributed among species, and of how species are distributed among continents and islands, would still demonstrate, beyond all sane doubt, that our history is evolutionary, and that all living creatures are cousins. Fossils are a bonus. A welcome bonus, to be sure, but not an essential one. It is worth remembering this when creationists go on (as they tediously do) about 'gaps' in the fossil rcord. The fossil record could be one big gap, and the evidence for evolution would still be overwhelming. At the same time, if we only had fossils, and no other evidence, the fact of evolution would again be overwhelmingly supported. As things stand we are blessed with both."
The Ancestor's Tale, p13.