Archive for April, 2013

Learning Theory Revisited

Monday, April 29th, 2013

Jenny Mackness has an interesting report on the Learning Theory component of the recently concluded Pedagogy First programme (an online course to learn how to teach online).

Why Should I Write ?

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

I kind of share Stephen Downes’ response to Why You Should Write Daily : zenhabits.

I don’t know that everyone “should” do it, but I do think that formulating and expressing opinions regularly (on topics that may not be part of one’s working life) is a useful exercise for most of us. Not having an audience, I don’t really have the option to persuade anyone, so for me it’s more about clarification and reinforcement of my own thoughts and ideas – and protection against the fear that I will forget them.

Introduction to Mathematical Thinking

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

Prompted I think by Downes, I decided to look into Keith Devlin’s MOOC on Introduction to Mathematical Thinking.

It was nice to see some acknowledgement of the origin of the ‘MOOC’ term with Downes and Siemens, but not so much to see that brief acknowledgement followed by a claim that a concept only attains respectability when adopted by the likes of Harvard, MIT, and Stanford.

I will be interested in seeing how the peer evaluation system works out and in the effectiveness of the discussion forum software. Unfortunately I joined the course too late to really check out the latter although it does seem to have facilitated a number of effective collaborative learning groups.

I do have some comments with regard to the actual course content:

pro-life lefty learns about the internet

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Mehdi Hassan’s claim that “being pro-life doesn’t make me any less of a lefty” is plausible enough, but his attempt to make the case on Twitter (of all places!) was certainly misguided, and while some of the lessons he has learned are good ones his descriptions of others demonstrate the opposite of what he should have learned[1]. I won’t respond (beyond that extensive footnote) to the fact that his argument is less “reasoned and measured”  than he claims as that has already been done, but rather will boringly restrict myself to the technical issue itself.


Dr Jekyl retracts

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

This is actually a pretty smarmy retraction by Dr Jeckyl Dawkins of an honest but nasty tweet by Mr Hyde Dick.

Mr Dick tweeted (perhaps in response to a recent re-tweet reminding him of his frustration at a three month old exchange) that “Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. And New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist.” And in response to the predictable (but in my opinion unreasonable) blowback, Dr Dawkins claims that Mr Dick’s “ill judged words” were just “a rather confused mixture of the following three – admittedly not wholly compatible – spellings-out:”

  • Isn’t it an odd paradox that a journalist good enough to be employed by no less a journal than New Statesman is capable of simultaneously holding a belief at least as absurd as Conan Doyle’s belief in fairies?
  • Given that he believes something at least as absurd as Conan Doyle’s belief in fairies, is it possible that I’ve over-estimated Mehdi Hasan? Could it be that he’s not such a good journalist as I had thought?
  • Conversely, it seems so odd that a good and intelligent journalist should believe obvious nonsense, that I can’t help wondering whether he really does believe it, or whether he only pretends to out of loyalty to a loved tradition.

But let’s see now. It’s no denial of free speech to argue that anyone with experience of the modern world who claims to believe the literal truth of a story about flying around on a winged “horse” (or for that matter about the virgin birth of a male child) is either lying or nuts, and that allowing such a person to express their views does not extend to giving them a platform in a magazine that people rely on for accurate information and analysis. Yes, such a person may have well-founded views on many issues and may be capable of opening my eyes to issues I had overlooked, but I cannot avoid the fact that he is also capable of believing complete nonsense and so his judgement is not to be fully “trusted” (not that anyone ever should be fully trusted of course, but there are different levels of trustability required in different contexts and being published regularly in a major magazine is one of the more demanding I think). Perhaps Hasan has merits which override his evident credulity and it would have been fine for the nice Dr Dawkins to identify such. But the fawning over-compensation with which he does so turns my stomach a bit.

On the other hand he ends well with:

There is a distinction between the Doyle/Dowding belief in fairies and Hasan’s belief in a winged horse. Hasan’s absurdity stems from a major religious creed and is for this reason treated with an over-generous portion of respect. Doyle’s belief in fairies was an individual eccentricity, fit only for mirth. People would blithely write off Doyle among the fairies as a comic nutter while agreeing that he was a very good storyteller; or laugh behind Dowding’s back while agreeing that he was handy with an Air Force. But if you describe a religious believer as a nutter because he believes in a winged horse (or a follower of another tradition because he believes water miraculously turned into wine) you will be in for trouble.

It was an additional intention of my tweet (spelled out in subsequent ones) to emphasise, yet again, this remarkably widespread double standard. It is a double standard that is applied, with peculiar vitriol, by some who call themselves atheists but bend over backwards to “accommodate” religious faith. If you were to suggest that Conan Doyle was a gullible fool among the Cottingley Fairies, I doubt that anyone would call you a “vile racist bigot”; or say to you, as a British Member of Parliament tweeted to me,  “You really are a gratuitously unpleasant man.” The difference, of course, is that Doyle’s ridiculous belief was not protected by the shield of religious privilege. And perhaps that is the most important take-home message of this whole affair.

Sustainable Economy Panel of Provincial Election Candidates

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

A Sustainable Economy for BC: a Provincial Election Discussion –

Two thoughts

1. The NDP’s Shane Simpson (called in at the last minute to replace Matt Toner) was sitting between Andrew Wilkinson representing the Liberal party which implemented BC’s carbon tax and the Conservative Duane Nickull who denied that it has been effective in reducing emissions and also echoed much of what the NDP said when campaigning it in 2005. But Simpson never took the opportunity to use Nickull’s arguments to support and explain the NDP’s 2005 position as not against the principle but just the specific implementation of the tax – eg by saying something like “Yes it is unfair and ineffective as the Liberals have implemented it, but once we are in office we can fix it and here’s how…”

2. Wilkinson’s argument that extending the tax to cover big industrial process emitters would just drive those industries out of the province without reducing emissions as we’d still have to get our cement from somewhere could be answered by taxing all products on the basis of emissions resulting from their production. This may be the only real way to make such a tax effective but would require more accounting to record the emissions from each stage of production. That’s something which looks a bit like the incremental accounting of a value added tax such as the federal GST and so argues for doing something similar with the PST to create what might be called a ‘Harmonized Sales and Carbon Tax’.  But perhaps we should call it something else…

Environmentalism Behind Unabomber Rampage

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

In his latest post at Discover, Keith Kloor responds to Jerry Coyne’s tweeted blog post headline “Islam Apparently behind Boston bombing” with the complaint that it is an “Islamophobic” response of  “intolerant atheists” who “apparently would blame environmentalism for Ted Kaczynski”. He has a point of course in that the headline is potentially misleading and may encourage unfair prejudice against Moslems in general, but that is not the only way to read it.

The headline “Environmentalism Behind Unabomber Rampage” may also be misleading, but both are within the bounds of current journalistic practice (which arguably do go well outside the bounds of common decency).

There is indeed a sense in which both are quite accurate.  Namely that (presumably invalid) arguments based on (possibly invalid) concerns about the environment (or Islam) lay behind the actions of Kaczynski (or the Tsarnaevs).

Both of course unfairly encourage the alternate more sensational interpretations that an entire movement (be it Environmentalism or Islam) stands behind the nefarious actions of the deluded. But, hey, that’s how we sell papers (and build blog readership)!

With regard to Islam right now I think there are at least two points worth making.

First I have to admit that, despite the appeal some aspects of it have for me including the existence of many peaceful teachings and of adherents who live by those, there is no doubt in my mind that the pro-violence teachings of Islam do exceed those of Christianity and Buddhism (which are still quite plenty enough to provide extremists of even the most peace-loving faiths with excuses for lots of horrific violence).

And secondly, as alluded to in my previous post, it is the excuse of the moment for those who want something to kill and die for. It is not just the religious who find it difficult to properly condemn those who use violence in support of a cause we support, but right now it is indeed Muslims who are most called upon to meet that challenge. And we should be thankful for those who are doing so.

Yes, But..

Monday, April 22nd, 2013

Olivier Roy has been a consultant to the French Foreign Ministry and United Nations, is currently a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, and noted early that al Qaeda was drawing many of its recruits from Western Europe rather than from Saudi Arabia or Palestine or Pakistan. And he is probably right that the motives of people like the Tsarnaevs and Nidal Malik Hasan are less religious than personal. But when he tells New Republic that “They may have gone to mosques, but they were never an integral part of a congregation, they have no real life, social life. Their social life is through the Internet,” he misleads us in two important ways.

One is by overlooking the fact that the use of mass violence and terrorism by relatively isolated people and groups long predates the internet.

And although they may not have been “an integral part” of the congregation of a mainstream mosque, it is not true that the members and imams of mainstream who want to help prevent such things “can’t comply because they guys are not part of these communities (so) they have no access to these guys.” They may not have direct access to the perps themselves, but they certainly have the capacity to more effectively denounce the preachers whose ravings sustain and drive them on.

And we should not forget the cases where mainstream Muslims can and do detect and deflect those who may be on the path to violence.

The Enemy of My Enemy

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

This discussion in USA Today seems to me more on the mark than earlier speculation that the Chechen connection might make it more difficult to reach consensus on Syria.

Facing Horror with Humour

Saturday, April 20th, 2013

During Standoff, Congressman Tweets Global Warming Joke About Boston Bombing Suspect | ThinkProgress.

I’m sorry, but even though it’s tasteless, disgusting and anti-science I actually find it funny. (And I don’t even feel too guilty about laughing because it doesn’t really belittle the tragedy.)

Quivering the Arrow and Missing the Point

Friday, April 19th, 2013

Part of the appeal of the flaneur is his seediness. The worn but well-starched collar,  the thinning elbows and slightly threadbare lapels of his clean and well-pressed suit, and the carefully polished shine on his ancient shoes. All these speak of a genuine love of style in one who has lost (or never had) the resources to support it.

But the lovable flaneur should not be confused with the charlatan that he becomes when he asks you to invest your intellectual capital.

Raymond Tallis’s Reflections of a Metaphysical Flaneur  may turn out to be charming, but I’m afraid that his recent foray into physics smells more of the charlatan.

Draining the River and Quivering the Arrow | Issue 95 | Philosophy Now.

I quivered with anticipation of being drawn into the issue of time, but when the bow was released I found that Tallis’s talk of “Missing the Point” is itself quite off the mark. The argument that time-symmetric physical laws cannot in principle produce time-asymmetric consequences is countered by the existence of broken symmetry in many familiar physical contexts (such as the formation of magnetic crystals for example), so even if the arguments provided so far for broken symmetry in time “fail to deliver” (in Tallis’ attribution to Huw Price) that does not mean that no such argument is possible. And when Tallis says “finding directionality in time requires us to establish in advance that states of the universe are ‘earlier’ or ‘later’ before we could notice that, say, the universe has a temporal trend” then he is subject to a more valid accusation of point-missing than the one he presents. The point is that finding directionality does not actually require finding direction. Although asymmetry does not specify a specific sense of direction it does provide an axis of directionality with the identification of which is “forward” and which is back being just a matter of convention. 

Tallis’s ponderings on the flow analogy are less offensive because they remain in the realm of flaneury and make no real demand for acceptance. That the various versions and uses of that analogy are certainly mutually and often internally inconsistent does not preclude the existence of  consistent versions – but he is right that talk of our moving *with* time is one of the weaker versions. Whether we are dragged forward towards the future through a sea of time or cling to a present past which it flows (from future to past as in the sense of “tomorrow is coming”) is just a matter of choosing one of two relativistically equivalent points of view.  Similarly with the river of time flowing by us on the ever present shore of now, or alternatively our being carried forward floating on the river of now past the shores of time, are both ok.  He’s right though when it comes to describing us as ourselves floating on the moving river of time – which does seem to be a less felicitous version from the physical correctness point of view (but whether or not that makes it bad poetry may be another matter).

Moral Enhancement and Designer Babies

Thursday, April 11th, 2013

It is in the nature of academic ethicists to test their arguments by pushing to the boundaries of what we consider acceptable (often with an open mind as to whether it is their own arguments or our intuitive limits which are at fault when they go “too far for comfort”).

A case in point: Moral enhancement, freedom, and what we (should) value in moral behaviour — DeGrazia — Journal of Medical Ethics argues that parents already engage in various methods of moral enhancement of offspring (eg via both explicit education and implicit learning from manipulated experience and examples) and so, since they also use various biomedical interventions for physical enhancement, then if there is a possibility for comparable interventions of “moral bioenhancement” perhaps “we should open-mindedly consider this non-traditional means of moral enhancement.

This arguably happens already with certain kinds of mental health treatment which could be considered as moral bioenhancement, but it could perhaps also include the use of empathy enhancing drugs on those who are perceived to “need” them and extends also to the use of genetic selection (for those who are prepared to use it for physical features) if  any of the suggestive correlations that have been observed ever actually turn out to be reliable predictors of aberrant behaviour.

Biomedical enhancement of any feature is disapproved of by some if the need for improvement is not sufficiently pressing, but it is generally accepted for life threatening conditions and widely accepted even for purely cosmetic purposes.  Perhaps tinkering with the “personality” itself might be more widely rejected, but there will inevitably be disagreements and I am pretty sure that the academic philosophers will not actually resolve them (though if they avoid over-claiming their own expertise they might well be able to help people see where one another are “coming from”).

A completely separate issue is whether or not the specific method of genetic selection is acceptable for *any* purpose.  Of course, those who consider every stage of embryo to be a “person” cannot accept the selection process at all,  but others such as Julian Savulescu insist that “It’s Our Duty to Have Designer Babies”.

Any such discussion inevitably gets labelled as “Eugenics”,  but regardless of whether or not it’s acceptable, allowing or even encouraging the selection of “designer babies”  is *not* the same as forcibly restricting the right to breed, and recommending the consideration of  “moral bioenhancement” per se does *not* necessarily entail the use of genetic selection.

But those who have no respect for the truth and no interest in understanding the positions of others will happily use those two papers to just claim that it’s all some kind of left-liberal-academic-facist conspiracy to “kill babies”.


Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

My brother is left handed and I am averse to unwarranted levels of numerical precision, so perhaps there really is something to this.

NCBI ROFL: Left-handed people avoid using exact numbers. : Discoblog.

The extension of the effect to “the familial sinistral group” with the hypothesis that “their language and number systems tend to be more distributed over both hemispheres of the brain” is interesting.

But I would attribute my own rounding behaviour less to the greater “cognitive effort of using exact numbers” than to understanding the stupidity of wasting any effort beyond what is actually useful.

Indeed the hypothesis of cross hemispheric distribution of the linguistic-computational system may be considered to imply a possibly better integration of the digital and analog systems and so a better overall level of numeracy. Which may explain the ‘left handed nerds’ aspect of this other article (although a simpler explanation may be just that many sports are based on interacting with dexterity and only the particularly talented subset of the non-dextrous are capable of employing that deficit with sufficient success to be dangerously sinister).

What is “Islamophobia”?

Friday, April 5th, 2013

In a comment at 3quarksdaily (on the posting by Robin Varghese  about Jerry Coyne’s response to Glen Greenwald’s criticism of Sam Harris’ attitude to Islam), Abbas Raza objects to Coyne’s and Harris’ claim that those who complain of Islamophobia never define it, and he points to the following (from Greenwald):

It signifies (1) irrational condemnations of all members of a group or the group itself based on the bad acts of specific individuals in that group; (2) a disproportionate fixation on that group for sins committed at least to an equal extent by many other groups, especially one’s own; and/or (3) sweeping claims about the members of that group unjustified by their actual individual acts and beliefs.

Well that may look “like a definition” to Raza, but in fact it is not one.

(Or at least it is not a plausible definition of Islamophobia)

Because the definition following “it signifies” makes no reference to Islam or Muslims. It is plausibly a definition of a general class of predjudicial attitudes but is not a definition of Islamophobia per se.

Perhaps Greenwald (and Raza) mean to say that “Islamophobia” means one of these predjudicial attitudes applied willy-nilly to all Muslims. But then it would be a poorly chosen word because irrational fear and hatred of Muslims should be called Muslimophobia and one can (in my opinion quite rationally[1]) fear and hate Islam (or any other religion) without attaching the same fear and hatred to all of its nominal adherents. (And even an irrational fear of the religion is not the same as prejudice against its adherents)

Certainly the anti-Muslim prejudice that  Greenwald, Raza and others identify as “Islamophobia” does exist and is a problem, and it is also true that criticism of Islam is sometimes a cover for such antimuslim prejudice just as anti-zionism is sometimes a cover for antisemitism. But it is no more true that every criticism of Islam is antimuslim prejudice than that every criticism of Israel is antisemitic, and seeing the Islamophobia card played against every criticism of Islam is just as tiresome as seeing the antisemitism card played against every criticism of Israel.


[1] The sacred texts of most religions include passages whose naive interpretation is offensive and even if that interpretation is rarely put into practice it is quite rational to fear institutions whose lack of offense depends on sophisticated re-interpretations of what they actually say. (It may also be rational to overcome that fear in the light of other putative values of these religions, but I have never been of the opinion that one cannot rationally support opposite positions.)