Archive for December, 2005

They may have lost the game…

…but this must have set some kind of record:

What an average!

The ends are the means

It seems to me that we are past the age where we can simply accept ethical principles by reference to some authority. One must justify them by the results we see of them around us in this world. It would be false to label this philosophy as ends-justify-the-means, because that is simply an obstinate and narrow-minded choice to ignore the actual results of one’s actions, as opposed to the intended result. In any case, I think the most legitimate criterion by which to judge an action is the totality of its consequences. I am highly skeptical of “slippery slope” arguments. They may have some legitimacy in cases where doing something will have a very likely affect on someone else’s behavior that (after committing the initial act) will be largely outside of one’s own control. But in cases like judicial decisions, where the same person or people will be in charge of both the current and future cases, it seems like a pretty ludicrous attempt to disqualify actions which are legitimate in their own right. It is applying a heavy-handed disregard for particular circumstances in favor of monolithic patterns. I mean, if one case should be decided a particular way but different circumstances mean a similar but not identical case should be handled another way, are we not sophisticated enough to deal with them as two different cases rather than be childishly beholden to rigid models?

Dawkins talks to the dulls

Here’s Richard Dawkins being slightly more restrained and less arrogant than usual. I suppose that’s probably the effect of talking to an audience that is not necessarily predisposed to agree with you. Nevertheless he of course reiterates his assertion that evolution is the truth and that there is no God, a position that in its epistemological absolutism and certainty has more in common with his religious opponents that most scientists would be willing to go along with these days. Personally, I doubt that any of the current evolutionary theories are true in the sense that they will not be substantially overhauled at some point in the future, just as every major scientific paradigm of the past has. And I find that likely even though there isn’t necessarily any better or more plausible competing theory right now. Most scientists, I think, are aware that there is a big difference between being the best available theory and being the truth. Dawkins may just be condescending to his audience by simplifying, but he doesn’t appear to make any acknowledgement of that. Which is ironic for him of all people, because that is exactly what evolution is about–namely the difference between relative fitness or adaptation, i.e. being better suited to survive in one’s environment than one’s rivals, and absolute fitness, which would be I suppose having the best possible adaptations for survival. Of course relative fitness is the only relevant concept, but truth, like absolute fitness, is an absolute: something is not true just because it is the best of a selected group of explanations, any more than Newtonian physics was the truth just because there were no more viable theories until the 20th century.

Hence truth is somewhat of a chimera, and one needs in the short term a little more solid foundation for separating them. The virtue of scientific theories lies in their ability to make predictions. I wish defenders of evolution like Dawkins, just as much as their religious opponents, would deal on this level rather than in metaphysical fantasies. There is no harm in many cases, surely, in believing in a benevolent power ruling the universe. It may in fact be very beneficial internally, especially in cases like the person dying in a hospital and in search of comfort. But if they are, say, dying of a rapidly mutating pathogen like HIV, knowledge of evolutionary theory is surely at least equally useful and benefiical. I think there is an implicit understanding among a certain number of people that regardless of how one may feel emotionally or aesthetically about something like evolution, the knowledge that it confers brings many tangible benefits, like immunology. So not only are Dawkins’ grandiose claims about the truth of evolution probably epistemologically unjustifiable, they miss the real strength of the theory, which is to say its usefulness. Creationism may be comforting for people (although I’ve never understood the appeal myself), but it’s rather otiose. This sort of explanation is really a form of causistry or ad hoc explanation, where any information can be retroactively fit into the scheme of the dogmatic premises, yet doesn’t generate any useful predictions about untested cases. But since it is infintely flexible, it can organize all known information into some sort satisfying explanatory schema. This is why the division of scientific and religious knowledge into different realms seems to often work on a practical level even though it doesn’t make much sense from a theoretical perspective. Scientific work will continue to pile up useful knowledge about discrete physical phenemona, while almost inevitably people will form (or accept others’) big metaphysical theories to satisfy the need for complete explanations about the world.

“The hooligans are loose”

The author of this article seems to badly misinterpret Americans’ quasi-obsession with “soccer hooligans”. In order to set the record straight, here are the real reasons we cultural troglodytes like to make snide comments about the hooligans:

  1. “Hooligan” is a very silly word. Not quite as silly, perhaps, as “rapscallion” or “scalawag”, but still pretty damn silly. As the late, lamented Bill Hicks once pointed out, “hooligan” evokes nothing so much as a pasty, stringy-haired guy in an Eton jacket and penny loafers without socks mincing around, knocking over dustbins in Shaftsbury and lightly smacking people in the back of the head and then running away. Which all makes it pretty amusing to talk about “soccer hooligans” in hushed, almost reverent tones.

  2. Cognitive dissonance. This requires a slightly longer explanation. The author of the Guardian article goes on and on about violence at football games (well, actually, mostly just semi-apocryphal violent acts at Eagles games, but that’s another story), but let’s face it: football is a very violent sport. The entire premise of the game is the following: find 22 of the biggest, fastest, strongest men you can. Suit each of them up in 15 pounds of battle armor. Put them all on the same field while instructing half of them that their entire objective is to hit a (typically smaller) opponent absolutely as hard as possible 60 or 70 times over the course of the next three hours. Honestly, it would be pretty surprising if the spectators didn’t engage in the occasional fistfight (the Guardian also mentions hockey, which is perhaps the only sport on the planet whose ostensible objective isn’t fighting in which the officials will courteously stop play and stand around watching whenever two of the participants decide to exchange punches; in other words, it might be even more violent than football). The premise of soccer, on the other hand, is to put a bunch of skinny, long-haired guys on the same field to prance around and react like a gazelle on the receiving end of a double load of buckshot whenever the opposition approaches within 2 feet. Which makes the notion of lunatic violence among the spectators roughly as absurd, contextually, as a riot at a John Tesh concert or the realism of West Side Story. → On a probably unrelated note, I’ve often thought that a hip-hop remake of West Side Story would be either brilliant or hilarious. Either way, I think it needs to happen The point is that those of us on this side of the Atlantic aren’t so much gleefully appalled by soccer violence (as the Guardian seems to suggest) as puzzled by the quaintness of it all. Put it this way: the phrase “rugby hooligan” would never penetrate the American lexicon (which is, admittedly, ironic, since rugby is, relative to soccer, an aristocratic pursuit).

  3. Internationalization. Violent as American sports fans may or may not be, they are not known for taking their act abroad (in part because we don’t care about non-American sports, but still). On the other hand, the British government routinely takes away the passports of notorious hooligans whenever the World Cup or other big international tournaments roll around in a desperate (and, inevitably, unsuccessful) attempt to prevent rampaging, drunken Englishmen from descending on whatever unfortunate town has to host an England game. On the plus side, host cities seem to be getting smarter: recently they’ve been resorting to semi-radical tactics to get the English to chill out.

  4. Smug Europeans. This is, of course, the clichéd answer, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Europeans love to pretend that violence and racism are uniquely American problems that they’ve transcended with their enlightened social policies. When examples arise to demonstrate that this is the purest schadenfreude (seriously: swastika flags?), it’s hard to restrain from pointing them out. Admittedly, Turkish soccer violence is almost certainly worse than the British variety, but it’s easy to see why we pick on the Brits: (a) The Brits take their show on the road better than anyone (see 3. above); (b) Britain is, at this stage in history, the cultural armpit of Europe, which means that British smugness is especially grating.

Hope that clears everything up.

Daddy’s got a new toy

Specifically this, which showed up yesterday, after months of delays and three weeks after I ordered it…which is to say, if you’re thinking of getting one for yourself, you might just want to spend the extra $50 and get it from your local CompUSA, which, as of last Friday, should have them in stock.

As for the 770 itself, it’s an impressive little toy, with a screen that frankly has to be seen to be believed. I’ve never, ever seen such legibly tiny text. Connecting to a wireless network was a snap (as well it should be, given that Nokia is marketing this thing as an internet tablet), the battery seems to last longer than the advertised 2.5-3 hours, and new apps are easy to install from maemo. Even the text entry is relatively easy, given the constraints, and certainly good enough for quick notes and emails (for example, this entry was written entirely on the 770). My only gripes so far are about the lack of 802.1X support (which I imagine is coming) and that Nokia really should have put a bit more RAM in these things.

I’ll almost certainly have more to say in the coming weeks/months, but, for now, here are some screenshots:

770 Desktop Desktop

selling waves from the 770\'s browser selling waves from the 770’s browser

selling waves in full-screen mode Full-screen mode

FBReader Guy de Maupassant’s “The Moribund” in FBReader

Science 1, Realism 0

I’ve been reading Tom Jones, which is probably today most known for, if anything, a somewhat quaint 18th century salaciousness. But like Lolita, there is a very learned intention behind the scandal. It is probably one of the first novels in English to overtly propound realism in fiction (by overtly I mean directly, in little essays at the beginning of each section).

Two hundred years of indoctrination have dulled our awareness of just how paradoxical the claim of verisimilitude in fiction is. After learning Jamesian distinctions between “specific” and “general” truths in literature classes most of us probably didn’t even feel any conscious violation of our basic categories of truth and falsehood in this. This may be because it seemed like merely an abstruse historical controversy, as the dogma of realism is taken less seriously these days. But in any case, that claim of truth for a genre which is by definition unreal on the factual level is just that-a violation.

It is probably true that to insist on some sort of rigorous factuality in literature would be to grossly mistake its true value and strengths. But I do not particularly buy the aforementioned distinction between “specific” and “general” truth, with literature staking just as firm of a claim to truth as any other discipline, but on a general rather than specific level. For the so-called “general” truth typically (this is certainly true in Tom Jones) seems to consist of subjective interpretation, such as matters of character or ethics, rather than objective facts. Which is fine, but it tends to negate (or rather evade) any objective distinction between truth and falsehood. As the scientific method demonstrates, warring general interpretations are often irresolvable; it is only through prediction of specific facts that theories are ultimately delineated. Fiction, by remaining in the realm of the hypothetical, claims freedom from fidelity to specific facts, but cannot regain the trustworthiness that that fidelity implies, or the respect that prediction of new facts brings.

What any of this matters is debateable. Since most people don’t take novelistic claims of veracity all that seriously anyway, probably not terribly as far as readers are concerned. But maybe it pertains more to the writing than to the reading of fiction. A writer really attuned to the diversity and mutitudinousness of the world has to be aware of the fallibility and the non-universality of all interpretations. Hopefully, this might have the additional benefit of dampening the academic pretensions of fiction writers, and turning them back towards their entertainment function (and also, perhaps, a sort of moral pedagogical function, as Fielding definitely claims for himself in Tom Jones). But even in the realm of theory, I think an awareness of the essential difference between fact and theory will ultimately lead to a greater awareness of plurality and diversity at the level of the intellect and spirit, a realization to which science, surprisingly, has greatly contributed.

To summarize: the pretensions of realim have been largely discredited by an awareness of how suspect interpretations are objectively when unconnected to any specific factual content (as fiction by definition is). Therefore, writers ought to carry on their projects of entertaining and inspiring in the awareness of their own subjectivity.