Month: September 2006

Michael Wolff

September 28, 2006


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Astonishingly ignorant column in Vanity Fair by Michael Wolff.

“Brand America, which ruled the global marketplace with its vision of cool capitalism, has been discontinued. This is Bush Country now, and the world is recoiling from a new image that makes the U.S. as much a danger to its friends—including chief enabler Tony Blair—as it is to its enemies”

You WHAT?? “cool capitalism”? Capitalism may be tolerated in Britain, more than in mainland Europe, as a necessary evil, but only a handful of lunatic-fringies like me would ever have called it “cool”.

Similarly with the YouGov poll Wolff quotes – I’m sure the results would not have been greatly different in August 2001 or in 1998. Clinton was talked about in very much the same terms as Bush is now. The first reaction in Britain to September 2001 was largely a sniggering “Now they see what it’s like”.

As the infinitely better-informed Robert Kagan wrote in the lecture I mentioned here, ‘Samuel Huntington warned about the “arrogance” and “unilateralism” of U.S. policies when Bush was still governor of Texas.’

If American commentators like Wolff can be so unaware of what is really going on in Britain, of all places, what are the chances of there being any insight into what’s going on in Iraq or Pakistan?

At the risk of repeating myself ad nauseam: The major global conflict today is between the EU core and the USA; Britain is very divided regarding the conflict; the antics of primitivist Islam and the war on terror are a sideshow, but may in the long run develop into a proxy war, if the EU position goes from hoping the Islamists can damage the USA to supporting them outright. Blair is as enthusiastic about invading Iraq as he was about invading Yugoslavia, and would have been pushing Bush to invade Iraq had any pushing been necessary.

Ubuntu Dapper on IBM 300PL

September 24, 2006


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(This probably belongs on some Ubuntu wiki page rather than here on my blog – if you’re not currently trying to get Ubuntu to install, this will probably not be of much interest to you).

I picked up a 500Mz P3 box on eBay yesterday, and had a bit of trouble installing Ubuntu on it. I solved the problem in the end, so here’s the solution for those with similar troubles.

The machine is an IBM 300PL model 6862-U60

It would boot off the Ubuntu “Dapper Drake” 6.06-1 disk, but would hang at various points through the boot process.

Pressing F6 at the first ubuntu boot screen lets you see and edit the kernel boot line. I deleted “splash” and “quiet” from the boot line to see more output. That showed that the problem was I/O errors on the CD-ROM drive (hdc).

hdc: media error (bad sector) status=0x51 { DriveReady SeekComplete Error }
hdc: media error (bad sector) error=0x34 { AbortedCommand LastFailSense=0x03 }
ide: failed opcode was: unknown
end_request: I/O error, dev hdc, sector 0
Buffer I/O error on device hdc, logical block 1

I tried different discs, a different CD-ROM drive, and connecting the CD-ROM as slave on the primary controller instead of master on the secondary. No change (except for it being “hdb” instead of hdc in the last case, as expected.)

I tried an old Ubuntu disc (Breezy Badger, in fact). It ran perfectly. I noted that doing “hdparm /dev/hdc” from a shell under the Breezy CD showed that dma was not enabled. It looked like dma wasn’t working properly on the CD-ROM. (the chipset is an Intel PIIX4)

I added the kernel option “ide=nodma” before the ” — ” on the boot line to see if the Dapper CD would work. It got further, but still failed once it came to trying to unpack the package files.

The problem is that while the kernel wasn’t automatically enabling dma on the CD-ROM, the Ubuntu system was enabling it itself in the installer.

There is a separate option “nohdparm” which prevents that. Because it’s a Ubuntu option not a kernel option, it goes after the ” — ” on the boot line.

My full boot line was therefore:

boot=casper initrd=/casper/initrd.gz ramdisk_size=1048576 root=/dev/ram rw ide=nodma — nohdparm

(I hadn’t touched anything before “rw”)

And with that, the installer worked perfectly.

Quick summary: Press “F6” when the Ubuntu screen comes up, remove “quiet” and “splash”, add “ide=nodma” before the ” — ” and “nohdparm” after.

Once the system is installed onto the hard disk, edit /etc/hdparm.conf, and add the following

/dev/hdc {
dma = off

so that the CD-ROM drive will work correctly in the installed system.
The onboard sound isn’t automatically detected; it’s a Crystal 4236B; I added the following line to /etc/modules:


(There might be a neater way of doing that, I don’t know).

Owning Stuff

September 22, 2006


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Cory Doctorow at BoingBoing picks up the story about the 82-year-old woman who paid $2000 in rental for a telephone, but he manages to draw a useful conclusion from it beyond “Aren’t old people daft”.

“Even if you know you’ll never miss a payment, we all know that owning enriches you, renting enriches someone else.”

I think this is fundamentally true. In the long run, the way to benefit from capitalism is to accumulate capital.

His point is directed at the entertainment industry, who are attempting to convert their market from consumers buying and owning recordings, towards consumers renting the right to access recordings. This approach may make sense in the context of the costs of enforcing copyright, but it suffers from the fact Doctorow recognises, that if the industry is not selling ownership of recordings, it is not selling so much value to consumers, and therefore should not expect to take as much money.

An unrelated obstacle to owning stuff, and thereby gaining the full benefits of capitalism, is the general shortage of storage space. That is yet another reason why the War on Housing is the biggest problem facing Britain today.

Meeting with the Representatives of Science

September 20, 2006


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I’ve made two comments about Pope Benedict’s lecture last week – one complaining about the bad internationalization of the website, the second dealing with the spurious outrage from Islamic rentamobs.

Given that, I will complete the “trinity”, so to speak, by addressing the actual content of the speech.

Benny is cool with science. “The scientific ethos, moreover, is – as you yourself mentioned, Magnificent Rector – the will to be obedient to the truth, and, as such, it embodies an attitude which belongs to the essential decisions of the Christian spirit.”

But he claims that science depends on assumptions about the nature of reality which are not themselves scientific:

“This modern concept of reason is based, to put it briefly, on a synthesis between Platonism (Cartesianism) and empiricism, a synthesis confirmed by the success of technology. On the one hand it presupposes the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality, which makes it possible to understand how matter works and use it efficiently: this basic premise is, so to speak, the Platonic element in the modern understanding of nature. On the other hand, there is nature’s capacity to be exploited for our purposes, and here only the possibility of verification or falsification through experimentation can yield ultimate certainty.”

The conclusion is that to justify the presupposition of “the mathematical structure of matter, its intrinsic rationality”, one must resort to the twaddle of the philosophers from Plato to Descartes to Kant, thereby importing Christian theology into the scientific worldview.

Of course, there is no necessity to do any such thing. The only necessary presumption to start doing science is that there is an external reality which exhibits some regularities. One can then start to probe what those regularities might be.

That necessary presumption is unprovable, but it is necessary not only for science but for any kind of social activity. The only alternative to it is solipsism, for if one denies that an external reality exists, or if one claims that it could vary entirely unpredictably, there is no mechanism by which one could become aware, even in principle, of the existence of another mind. It would then follow that anyone other than me that I am aware of is merely a figment of my imagination, and there is no point in attempting to to convince them of anything.

A sad story

September 19, 2006


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An 18-year-old woman was convicted yesterday in Cardiff Crown Court of making false rape allegations. (Attempting to pervert justice).

She was dancing at the house of a stranger she met in a bar, and claimed she had been drugged and raped.

In the normal way of things this case would just have dropped into the 94% of reported rapes that do not lead to a conviction – the figure that Carol is so upset about.

What made it different is that one of the four defendants had phone-video-camera footage that proved the allegations were false.

Even without it, the case would quite likely not have made it to trial. If it did, her personal website on which she described herself as a “wild girl” whose hobbies were “sex and pole-dancing” would have been used by the defence. It would perhaps have been suggested that if that evidence had been disallowed, a conviction might have been more likely, and that such a change would improve the 6% conviction rate.

I do not mean to suggest that all or most of the 94% are false allegations of this kind. But I am sure some of them are. Lack of evidence is not a “technicality”: If the only evidence that a crime took place is the word of the alleged victim, and the accused says it didn’t happen, no reasonable justice system will be able to provide a conviction.

Imagine that she was really telling the truth. In that case, she would be equally unlikely to see the men convicted. There’s simply no way she could prove what really happened.

Andrew Hall of the Criminal Bar Association was quoted in the Times story Carol linked to saying “In my view the system generally works, in that guilty people are generally convicted and innocent people are acquitted.” I don’t think I would go that far. I suspect a lot of rapists are acquitted for lack of evidence, but I don’t think the criminal justice system can do anything about it.

That’s not the same as saying nothing can be done about it. I addressed this issue before at great length a year ago, here and here. We have thrown off the restrictions or repressions of sexual behaviour that were previously the norm, and while they were to some extent the product of superstition, bossiness or patriarchy, they were also protections from real danger. The existence of law and morality do not remove the neccessity of protecting ourselves – that is why we lock our doors. Women who behave like C.S. did are running the risk of being raped (not that that reduces responsibility of rapists), and men who behave like these four men are running the risk of being falsely accused (not that that reduces the responsibility of the false accuser). Casual sex with strangers is dangerous in more ways than one. While people behave the way these five people behaved, the 94% is here to stay.

I will repeat the position I took a year ago:

The whole old-fashioned customs of slow courtship can be seen as a mechanism from protecting women from unprovable rapes, and men from un-disprovable false accusations. It can also, of course, be seen as the rituals of a society not at ease with sex, and again as the result of seeing women at least in part as being the property of men. Return to the past is not an option. But wishing away problems that are eternal does not help either. The idea that we should only have intimate contact with a person if we have already publicly demonstrated a close association with them seems to me neither repressed nor sexist – it is a costly restriction on our freedom that protects us from some dangers

(footnote: I have not named the girl here – in the perhaps arrogant hope that this blog will still be around and searchable in years to come, I do not want to be providing information about her to search engines. She’s been idiotic and done herself a lot of damage, but she’s 18 and still has a life ahead of her. For the same reason, I deplore the newspapers’ decision to publish photographs of her in her underwear to illustrate the story).

The Church again.

September 18, 2006


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There has been an important development in the story about the Pope’s lecture at the University of Regensburg.

They’ve fixed the HTML. If you follow the same link that I gave in my previous entry on the subject, the rubbish characters have been replaced by html entities for the correct greek letters. It now renders correctly, at least in IE on my desk.

I didn’t think the other controversy arising from the lecture was worthy of comment, but now that people are being killed over it, I feel compelled to state the obvious.

Benny was talking about the relationship between religion and reason, and the different attitudes to that relationship that have shaped Christianity through history. His conclusion in a sentence is: “The West has long been endangered by this aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur – this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.”

Along the way, he affirms that the “synthesis with Hellenism” (i.e. Greek philosophy) is not an incidental “preliminary inculturation” of Christianity, but is a necessary part of it: “the fundamental decisions made about the relationship between faith and the use of human reason are part of the faith itself; they are developments consonant with the nature of faith itself.”

It was in the context of this “synthesis” that he opened with the “startling brusqueness” of Manuel II Paleologus.

“The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident.”

Benny then moves on through history: “in the late Middle Ages we find … in contrast with the so-called intellectualism of Augustine and Thomas, there arose with Duns Scotus a voluntarism which, in its later developments, led to the claim that we can only know God’s voluntas ordinata.

“The thesis that the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith has been countered by the call for a dehellenization of Christianity – a call which has more and more dominated theological discussions since the beginning of the modern age.”

… “Fundamentally, Harnack’s goal was to bring Christianity back into harmony with modern reason, liberating it, that is to say, from seemingly philosophical and theological elements, such as faith in Christ’s divinity and the triune God.”

So there is the reason for citing a 14th century emperor — to show the views that were current before the first “dehellenization” in the middle ages.

There are two questions that have been raised regarding this lecture. One is whether Benny anticipated the global reaction to the “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman” snippit of the quotation, but had some nefarious reason for wanting to stir things up.

Maybe I’m being overgenerous, but the Church seems to me to have a track record of saying exactly what it means, right or wrong. If Benny had wanted to take a more aggressive stance towards Islam, he could have done so in his own words.

The second question is whether he should have anticipated the result. Again, the church is not a modern political party. It does not employ focus groups, and if it has spin doctors, they are not primarily concerned with “popular opinion”. The Pope may be regretting having used the words he did (though interestingly, his so-called apology does not actually say so), but I do not think it occured to him or anyone else to scan what he was preparing to say for things that could be taken out of context by the ignorant and the stupid.

Thin Models

September 16, 2006


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Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell has called for ‘stick-thin’ models to be banned from the catwalks during London Fashion Week.
There are three problems with underweight fashion models:

  1. They don’t look very good.
  2. They will suffer ill health through being underweight, and encourage others to do so.
  3. They make people unhappy by presenting an unattainable ideal.

The first problem is really a minor one. If you want to look at attractive women, there are many useful resources available. Just remember to avoid fashion shows and fashion magazines.

The second is the main problem, but since the medical industry is still recommending that people adopt a body weight that is more unhealthy than that which they consider “overweight”, it’s a bit rich to be blaming the dressmakers.

The third is seen as a problem, but in fact it’s the whole point. Fashion is all about exclusivity and status. It’s about in-groups and out-groups, and the most prestigious in-group is the one that people want to join but can’t.

Beauty doesn’t cut it as a marker for fashion. There are just too many beautiful women. Take any beautiful woman, say from the best 5% of the 18-25 age group, and it’s impossible to find another woman that would overwhelmingly be recognised as definitely more beautiful.

Thinness (and tallness) is another matter. You can find a model who’s tall and thin, but if your competitor gets one taller and thinner, everyone will agree that yes, that model is taller and thinner than yours. You want your fashion to be associated in people’s minds with the most exclusive of in-groups, and that means the very tallest and thinnest of models. You want a model who’s one in a thousand, not one in twenty.

It doesn’t make sense to complain about thinness of the model because it presents an unobtainable dream, when the job of the model is to sell a $5000 dress.

Scientific Basis

September 16, 2006


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I recently read Michael Crichton’s “State of Fear”. As a thriller, it’s good but not exceptional. As a contribution to climate debate, I’m not sure it’s helpful – there’s an obvious problem with claiming the media is drowning out the real science in a novel. I assume (and hope) that the claim in the author’s postscript, “Everybody has an agenda. Except me.” is not meant to be taken seriously.

What is a useful contribution is the Appendix in which Crichton draws an analogy between the global warming movement and the eugenics movement of the early 20th century. You can read it on his website.

There’s one point in his argument which I think is interestingly wrong. He says, “there was no scientific basis for eugenics.” Perhaps I’m quibbling over words, but if we’re talking about the fundamentals, there was a very solid basis for eugenics. Evolution is real. Genetics is real. It is true that if a person who, for reasons stemming from their genes, would be unable to live and reproduce in a primitive society, is, in our advanced society enabled to live and reproduce, then the gene causing their inability will as a result become more common than would otherwise be the case. That’s basis.

The problem, of course, is in the details, and in what is built on the basis. To what extent is failure in society due to genetic reasons? To what extent is failure of a society or a race as a whole due to genetic reasons? To what extent is the spread of genetic problems restrained by ordinary individual behaviour in the absence of a concerted policy? How long would it take for a change in selection pressures to have a noticeable effect on the human gene pool – decades or millenia? What can we do about changes that occur? Who is to decide which genes are superior? What are we giving up in exchange for genetic improvement?

Global warming has a very solid scientific basis, as I understand the word “basis”. The greenhouse effect is real. Carbon Dioxide concentrations are increasing. The increase is almost certainly anthropogenic. The basis of the theory of global warming is completely sound.

And the details are less clear. What is the magnitude and speed of the change? How much climate variation is due to atmospheric constitution, how much to land use, how much to solar variation, how much to natural oscillation, how much is random, how much is due to causes we haven’t even thought of? What will be the effects, how can we deal with the effects? Who is to regulate atmospheric emissions? What are we giving up in exchange for a cooler climate?

Where Crichton really hits the nail on the head is in his title. This is all about fear. I have worried in the past about the suspicious way in which my assessment of factual issues such as global warming always seems to support my political views. But the issues I have addressed are not purely factual. Fear is always part of the question. The question I have been dealing with is not “what is the matrix of costs and probabilities associated with climate change?”, it is “how much fear should we have of climate change”. And fears are (or should be) relative to other fears.

I have an agenda. My agenda is freedom. To me, the ideas that 10% of our land area might fall below sea level, and that we won’t be able to grow the crops we currently grow, are worrying. The idea that governments could have the power to regulate CO2 is terrifying. When I disagree with the climate science mainstream, I’m not so much disagreeing with the science, I’m disagreeing with the fear. I have different fear.

And fear leaks into the factual assesments also. If science were done perfectly, it wouldn’t, but it does. I think actually the factual disagreements, though they do exist as a result of the leakage, are less significant than they seem, because when they are converted into something meaningful to people, the fear has to play a part in the conversion.

If my terror seems a bit extreme, let me explain. After all, pollution regulations have been around a long time, and have resulted in huge environmental benefits. The difference is locality. The Clean Air Act was a response to local problems. The people who benefited from the act were either the same people as suffered its restrictions, or else lived among them – and we always have to compromise our interests with those we live among.

But the core assertion of the CO2 issue is that my emissions have effect on others independent of their distance from me. It is not enough, therefore, for me to compromise my interests with those of my neighbours, I must compromise with the whole population of planet Earth. That is a qualitative change from any kind of politics that has ever existed. The Kyoto Treaty, by seeking to restrict the essential private activity of burning fuel, is the establishment of a world government in a way that the creation of the UN, which sought to regulate only relations between states, originally was not.

Humankind has always faced environmental threats and problems, and has a good and improving record of coping with them. We have no such comforting record in dealing with overreaching government and tyranny – as Milton Friedman said in the old TV interview that has been going around recently, tyranny and serfdom are the normal state of mankind, and freedom is the rare and precious exception.

The eugenicists sold their participation in a common humanity for a lower incidence of genetic illness. My fear is of selling the existence of a private sphere within which the individual or group can be free for better weather.

The best source for mainstream climate science is Their criticism of State of Fear is here.
A good source of purely scientific challenge to the mainstream is Roger Pielke Sr
A more obviously political critic of mainstream climate science is Patrick Michaels, who writes at TCS
Michael Crichton’s main attack on global warming is Environmentalism as Religion

In the beginning was the 8`(@H

September 15, 2006


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According to Pope Benedict XVI in his lecture on Tuesday (the one the Muslims are upset about).

The quote is on the Vatican website.

The HTML is rubbish. The line in question contains the text “8`(@H”, wrapped in an HTML font element with a face attribute of “WP Greek Century”.

The document is not xhtml – indeed there is no html version declaration of any kind. There is an http-equiv=”Content-Type” meta element specifying “charset=iso-8859-1”

In other words, the content is published as 8`(@H, in an 8-bit latin character set, with a font requested that would display those characters as greek letters. Since I do not have that font, I get the latin characters.

The file should have had a charset specified that included the proper Greek characters. I might still not have seen them, if I have no suitable font, but I would have been in with more of a chance. Also, the pdf file on the BBC website would probably not have perpetuated the error, since it can include fonts and handle more than latin characters. Since it was presumably produced from the bad HTML, it dutifully reproduces the 8`(@H.

If I were in charge of the Inquisition, the penalty for causing the Vicar of Christ to misquote the first verse of the New Testament would be pretty damn severe, I can tell you.

Update: They’ve fixed it.

[Insert "Short" pun here]

Daniel Finkelstein writes:

[Claire Short] assumes that a hung parliament will lead to proportional representation. This would only happen if a majority of MPs are willing to vote for it (or vote for a referendum on it). Yet many MPs are absolutely opposed to PR and would not support it in any circumstances.

A hung parliament means that a majority government would need support of the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems would (if remotely sane) give support to either party in exchange for PR. MPs “absolutely opposed” to PR might vote for it if it were a condition of being government rather than opposition.

It’s not a certainty, but a hung parliament would have a decent chance of producing PR, and the opinions of individual MPs towards PR is almost beside the point.

In a simplified model, it looks like a hung parliament would not produce PR:

Two main parties are P1 and P2. Balance of power held by D (Lib Dems).

If neither P1 or P2 offer D PR, then D will make a choice P1

If P2 offers PR, P1 can choose either

Offer PR : outcome is P1 in government, with PR.
Don’t offer PR : outcome is P2 in government, with PR.

P1 should therefore offer PR (since it will happen anyway) in order to get in government.

Therefore, for P2, their choice is:

Offer PR : outcome is P1 in government, with PR
Don’t offer PR : outcome is P1 in government, without PR.

So effectively, P2 (whichever party is not preferred by the LDs) has no chance of getting into government, but does have the choice of whether PR will be introduced.

I would guess that the LDs would be more inclined to go into government with Labour than with the Tories. If so, it is the Tories (P2) who would have the choice over whether to force Labour into offering PR or not. Possibly they would. If they can’t get a majority now, it is reasonable to ask whether they ever will. If not, then PR becomes less of a sacrifice.

Of course, my simplified model can be attacked. It makes the following questionable assumptions:

Perfect information
Major parties can commit to introducing PR with perfect credibility.
PR is a yes-or-no issue
LDs care more about PR than about whether Lab or Con get the government (that’s the “if remotely sane”) bit.

I have a non-rigorous feeling that in the real world the doubts and grey areas could drag both P1 and P2 towards offering PR to improve their chances.

That might be wishful thinking though. I am strongly in favour of PR, as it would split the main parties and allow voters the choice of a party that more closely represented their views.

Actually, there’s another move in the game. I was assuming the LD strategy was “Support the P1, unless P2 offers PR and P1 doesn’t, in which case support P2”. If the LD strategy is “Support P1 if P1 offers PR, otherwise support P2”, then, provided P1 would prefer to be in government than to keep out PR, P1’s best strategy would be “offer PR”, and that would be the outcome.

That’s really counter-intuitive. It’s saying that the LDs should say “We prefer Labour to Conservative, but we will only support them if they give us PR. Otherwise we will punish them by support the Tories, whether the Tories give us PR or not.”

I thought this game was solveable, but my limited grasp of game theory might not be up to the task. I’ll have to go away and think about it (and look up the proper notation).