Pedantry - Moved to

Saturday, February 08, 2003
Axis of Evil week at Pedantry

Having now lampooned Richard Dawkins, I'm thinking of doing a clean sweep by treating Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett to the same. Pinker's editorial last week in the NYT almost led to a post, but I had too much work to do and ran out of energy for it later. And now, thanks to Brad's comments below, I have an equally fresh Dennett piece to do in.

So stay tuned, mes chers bloguistes...

Friday, February 07, 2003
Genetics: why Prince Charles is so wrong (via Tug Boat Potemkin)

Richard Dawkins believes that concerns about GMO amount to Luddism and, in a contortion of biology and logic that leads one to question if he hasn't finally lost it, thinks that the generation raised with computers will have no problems with GMO's.

I think if I told you what he said, you wouldn't believe me, so here's the very first paragraph:

IT IS HARD TO EXAGGERATE the sheer intellectual excitement of genetics. What has happened is that genetics has become a branch of information technology. The genetic code is truly digital, in exactly the same sense as computer codes. This is not some vague analogy, it is the literal truth. Moreover, unlike computer codes, the genetic code is universal. Modern computers are built around a number of mutually incompatible machine languages, determined by their processor chips. The genetic code, on the other hand, with a few very minor exceptions, is identical in every living creature on this planet, from sulphur bacteria to giant redwood trees, from mushrooms to men. All living creatures, on this planet at least, are the same “make”.

Let's consider his two core contentions here:

The genetic code is truly digital, in exactly the same sense as computer codes. This is not some vague analogy, it is the literal truth.

This is patently false. Does Dawkins contest that environment has a very important - and usually difficult to predict - impact on the expression of genes? If so allow me to direct your attention to Exhibit A, "CC", the world's first cloned cat.

A year later, cloned cat is no copycat

Genes, it appears, do not specify the spots on a cat (or its personality, but let's just stick to the more measurable characteristics for the moment) in the same way that a LISP function specifies how a program will run. If genes do not predict a cat's spots, how exactly does Dawkins propose to guarantee the effects of genetic modification?

Moreover, unlike computer codes, the genetic code is universal. Modern computers are built around a number of mutually incompatible machine languages, determined by their processor chips. The genetic code, on the other hand, with a few very minor exceptions, is identical in every living creature on this planet, from sulphur bacteria to giant redwood trees, from mushrooms to men.

Also false if read as literal truth. Inserting a gene into species A that manufactures protein X in species B might well result in species A also producing said protein, as is the case in the "antifreeze tomatos" that he cites. Or it might not. As I understand it, these things don't always work. Or, it might produce protein X, and protein Y, and protein Z and perhaps other proteins with unknown properties. And protein X may have an unpredictable impact on the organism producing it, suppressing its immune system, or making it more vulnerable to some parasite, or something totally unpredictable.

In fact, let me direct you to Exhibit B: the history of evolutionary programming. EP only works because the results of such "gene transplants" are unpredicatable. The very thing Dawkins claims is impossible is in fact the basis of evolution!

But the part that tells me Dawkins is completely out of touch with the real world is that he imagines that people who grew up with computers trust their software more than those who didn't. I can only laugh at this. Has Professor Dawkins used any recent version of Windows or MS Office? Doesn't he do regular backups?

Obviously, Dawkins has never written a real, useable computer program. If he had, he would know that writing code the way he claims we can modify genes he is a recipe for disaster. Only in the world of theoretical computer science do functions form complete closures, making no use of global variables, nor ever passing control outside the stack, and only the most unambitious of programs have no side effects. Why, pray tell, does Dawkins think software companies spend so much of the development cycle on testing, bug-fixing and quality assurace? Because in the real world, code does not always run in predictable ways.

Would you want your genes to run like Windows XP?

Gotta love the Beeb!
(via Eschaton)

I get BBC1 & 2 and BBC World over cable, so I don't have to deal with the UK's unique TV licensing scheme. Still, I would gladly pay for the privilege of interviews like the one above.

A choice moment:

JEREMY PAXMAN: So there's no threat of force against North Korea?

And when the North Koreans say today that they will themselves engage in pre-emptive strikes if there's an American military build-up are they not merely following the example that has been set them by the threats that you and George Bush have made?

TONY BLAIR: No - because as you know, North Korea have withdrawn from the non proliferation treaty, that's extremely serious.

Can we say non sequitor? What does withdrawing from the NPT have to with the DPRK following Bush's example in responding to threats with pre-emptive strikes?

Another fine bit is seeing Blair trying to talk up "Old Europe." France and Germany may not mean much to Bush, but Tony Blair is clearly feeling pressure from them.

TONY BLAIR: I mean, there have been differences between ourselves and France, between those countries you've mentioned and ourselves and the United States.

But let's just be clear where we're all in common. We're all in common on Resolution 1441.

We're all in common that Saddam has to disarm. We're all in common that the inspectors are the best way to do it.

But actually, we're all in common also that if the inspectors can't do it it's going to have to be done by force.

The only issue between us really is well, when do you make the judgement that the inspectors can do it or not.

But of course, the real joy is in seeing a member of the press actually ask tough questions and call politicians to task for their words. Would that I could see Donald Rumsfeld face this kind of exchange:

JEREMY PAXMAN: Well you said of those UN resolutions and the sanctions which followed them in the year 2000, you said that they had contained him. What's happened since?

TONY BLAIR: I didn't actually, I said they'd been contained him up to a point and the fact is...

JEREMY PAXMAN: I'm sorry Prime Minister - "We believe that the sanctions regime has effectively contained Saddam Hussein in the last ten years" - you said that in November 2000.

Or this priceless piece of theatre:

JEREMY PAXMAN: [The UN weapons inspectors] were not put out of Iraq, Prime Minister, that is just not true. The weapons inspectors left Iraq after being told by the American government that bombs will be dropped on the country.

TONY BLAIR: I'm sorry, that is simply not right. What happened is that the inspectors told us that they were unable to carry out their work, they couldn't do their work because they weren't being allowed access to the sites.

They detailed that in the reports to the Security Council. On that basis, we said they should come out because they couldn't do their job properly.

JEREMY PAXMAN: That wasn't what you said, you said they were thrown out of Iraq -

TONY BLAIR: Well they were effectively because they couldn't do the work they were supposed to do

JEREMY PAXMAN: No, effectively they were not thrown out of Iraq, they withdraw.

TONY BLAIR: No I sorry Jeremy, I'm not allowing you away with that, that is completely wrong. Let me just explain to you what happened.

JEREMY PAXMAN: You've just said the decision was taken by the inspectors to leave the country. They were therefore not thrown out.

TONY BLAIR: They were effectively thrown out for the reason that I will give you. Prior to them leaving Iraq they had come back to the Security Council, again and again, and said we are not being given access to sites. For example, things were being designated as presidential palaces, they weren't being allowed to go in there.

As a result of that, they came back to the United Nations and said we can't carry out the work as inspectors; therefore we said you must leave because we will have to try and enforce this action a different way. So when you say the inspectors, when you imply the inspectors were in there doing their work, that is simply not the case.

JEREMY PAXMAN: I did not imply that, I merely stated the fact that they were not thrown out, they were withdrawn. And you concede they were withdrawn.

Thursday, February 06, 2003
One last little bit of politics. I got this off of Slacktivist, but I'm going to repeat it whole rather than link to it.


WASHINGTON, February 15, 1848.


Your letter of the 29th January was received last night. Being exclusively a constitutional argument, I wish to submit some reflections upon it in the same spirit of kindness that I know actuates you.

Let me first state what I understand to be your position. It is that if it shall become necessary to repel invasion, the President may, without violation of the Constitution, cross the line and invade the territory of another country, and that whether such necessity exists in any given case the President is the sole judge.

Before going further consider well whether this is or is not your position. If it is, it is a position that neither the President himself, nor any friend of his, so far as I know, has ever taken. Their only positions are--first, that the soil was ours when the hostilities commenced; and second, that whether it was rightfully ours or not, Congress had annexed it, and the President for that reason was bound to defend it; both of which are as clearly proved to be false in fact as you can prove that your house is mine. The soil was not ours, and Congress did not annex or attempt to annex it.

But to return to your position. Allow the President to invade a neighboring nation whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such purpose, and you allow him to make war at pleasure.

Study to see if you can fix any limit to his power in this respect, after having given him so much as you propose. If to-day he should choose to say he thinks it necessary to invade Canada to prevent the British from invading us, how could you stop him? You may say to him,--"I see no probability of the British invading us"; but he will say to you, "Be silent: I see it, if you don't."

The provision of the Constitution giving the war making power to Congress was dictated, as I understand it, by the following reasons: kings had always been involving and impoverishing their people in wars, pretending generally, if not always, that the good of the people was the object. This our convention understood to be the most oppressive of all kingly oppressions, and they resolved to so frame the Constitution that no one man should hold the power of bringing this oppression upon us. But your view destroys the whole matter, and places our President where kings have always stood.

Write soon again.

Yours truly,


On to more pleasant things...

Let me recommend another blog, Iranian Girl. This is something unique on the Internet, at least in English, a non-muslim (perhaps atheist?) woman blogging from Iran. She talks about her disaffection for the current regime and her life in school. It's good to have a first hand narrative on Iran, unfiltered by either the Iranian state or the prejudices of media outlets. It's good to see that it isn't that different from the lives of the disaffected young elsewhere, but it's also good to see that the public protests in Iran are real, and loom far larger in the minds of Iranians than the press - either western or Iranian - would have us believe.

A particularly trenchant bit:

I don't know what is happening but I think that each year, the number of people who on Ramadan go on fast decreases & day after day people especially young ones lose their religious beliefs. In this month, for eating there are some difficulties with the people who don't want to go on fast, because if someone eats in public, there would be some violence rules for punishing him or her. also there are some rules in schools too, but fortunately, In girls schools, They can not force students not to eat, because of course in some days of a month girls have a natural problem & because of that problem they mustn't go on fast. But I don't know what's wrong with most of the girls in our school that they seem to have that problem in 30 days of the month!!!

"Iranian Girl", whoever she is, is a lot like the young activists in the old days - the ones Dissident Frogman (see below) blames for the current state of France.

I suspect her revolution in Iran will likely succeed, at least, as long as the US doesn't mess it up. If so, thirty years from now, she can look forward to having a lively public democracy like America's, where resurgent religious fundamentalists can blame her and her friends for messing up the country with tolerance and moral laxity.

Good luck, Iranian Girl.

"Why do they hate America so much?"

I left the US on September 18th 2001, so I have only the Internet and CNN as American information sources. The pedigree of this cliché protest of ignorance and innocence is, therefore, unknown to me. The canned response of course is "They hate us for our freedom", and by all appearances anyone who attempts to answer this question in some other way quickly has the question turned on them: "Why do you hate America so much?"

I will not attempt to offer an answer, but I propose a direction to search for one. In particular, I direct you to a pair of websites, Merde in France and The Dissident Frogman.

In the first case, we have someone - most likely an American by his spelling - who has been for "more than 20 years behind enemy lines" living in France. On his pages, you will find nothing but contempt and hatred for the French government, culture, literature, media - and finally - the French people themselves.

The question I would ask is how someone lives in France for 20 years, is by all appearances possessed of some other nationality, clearly despises the country, and yet remains. Why does he hate France so much, and why does he stay? If opportunity is so much greater elsewhere, what's holding him back? Why did he go there in the first place if it was so horrible? Not everyone has the choice to "love it or leave it" but he does. Perhaps the truth is that he does not actually find France so intolerable as he would like us to believe? Perhaps the nation actually has some virtues? It must to have some mighty ones to keep someone who wants us so desperately to believe that he loaths the place from seeking his fortune in America or Britain.

It is this kind of contradiction that leads one to think M La Merde is just carping to hear himself bitch.

In the case of the Dissident Frogman, we have someone who clearly is a French citizen. Perhaps he tells himself that he really loves his country and that he just wants the best for it by tearing down nearly everything about the place. He also seems to confuse capitalism with freedom, but that is a conventional enough source of confusion for this particular species of anarcho-capitalist. Naturally, someone who was born in France cannot be criticised with the "love it or leave it" line of attack (although this never seems to stop American conservatives.)

If this is representative of the French libertarian right, France has little to worry about from the likes of them. Here's a staggering example of exactly the sort of thing the left does so often:

Je me contrefous de l'Allemagne comme du dernier des Nazis mais ça :

« "L'Allemagne et la France partagent le même jugement concernant la crise Irakienne," a déclaré M. Chirac lors d'une conférence de presse commune Mercredi. »

La France ne t'appartient pas Jacques. La pitoyable farce en guise d'élection qui t'as placé là où tu es ne te donne pas le droit de parler en mon nom après tout.

Does this sound a lot like the "Not in my Name" people? Why yes, it does. Of course, the Frogman is well aware that public opinion in France is not on his side. One could hardly miss survey after survey where the overwhelming majority oppose war in Iraq without a UN mandate. He knows that if he claims his opinions represent France's, he'd be full of shit. Yet, we see none of the same logic in his remarks on those European governments that have sided with the US.

Why does Tony Blair's opinion become Britain's, or Aznar's become Spain's, as he imputes in all of his various "Axis of Eagles" posts. The actual people of these countries are largely opposed to their own government's policies. Yet, the symettry of the situation appears to elude the Dissident.

The first sign that you are dealing with someone far off the mainstream is his tagline:

The dissident frogman was born and grown in a post 1968 France. And he must cope with that, every fuckin' day. Life is a bitch.

We will set aside the incorrect English, taking it to be his second language and take this in the meaning I presume he intends it. Does he really wish to live in pre-1968 France? His support for US foreign policy could not be less aligned with that of Charles de Gaulle, who took France out of NATO. Does he wish for a school system that requires him to learn Latin to enter university? How about France's pre-1968 gender relations? Or its powerful communist unions? Or the large number of Frenchmen who voted for the pro-Soviet Communist Party? Is that the France he wants back? Those who praise the past for how much better it was than the present are usually expected to study some history.

Frankly, the tagline betrays a streak of self-hatred of exactly the type American conservatives impute to the French left. Is the Dissident perhaps projecting his issues onto others? Perhaps this is why he hates France so much, because he hates himself?

Or does the same answer that found such fertile ground in America apply to both of the highlighted bloggers?

Wednesday, February 05, 2003
For the benefit of the two or three people who actually read this blog, I'm trying to set up a fairly secure means of getting e-mail without having to actually post an e-mail address anywhere. It'll be a form-based solution, hosted wherever I think I can get away with it - probably via the wife's website.

In the mean time, I have a disposable e-mail account as:

I'm suffering under a bit of real life lately. Underslept, concerned about my interminably near-bankrupt employer, working on two unspec'ed, unspecified projects - one actually interesting and the other at least a good thing to add to my resumé. So, I'm trying to wrangle an entry into a PhD in case I need it. Honestly, it's what I'd rather do anyway. I just hate being poor.

The wife and I have decided that our lives are stable enough - and god knows we're not getting any younger - to have a baby. That too, is remarkably time consuming, at least if you do it right. ;^) Is the fun of sex proportionate to how much of a bad idea it is? I certainly enjoyed it a lot more when it was catch as catch can and wait in fear for her time of the month. Actually trying to have a baby turns it into a regular obligation, no matter how tired you are, or if you have a headache, just like doing the dishes.

So, I haven't been posting much. I don't have anything terribly interesting to say about Columbia, except to wonder when the conspiracy theorists are going to start suggesting that the Indian astronaut was a muslim suicide bomber. Or perhaps a Chinese one?

Without the ISS and NASA subsidy, Russia has no space program. If NASA abandons the ISS, China will be the only nation sending men into space. What are the consequences of this? Does it matter? It's not like being a space power means much on the ground anymore.

Thomas Friedman has really pissed me off with his screed last Sunday. His latest doesn't impress me with its logic either.

European are hypocrites because they both smoke and worry about genetically engineered food, so we can ignore their problems with war in Iraq. Ladies and Gentlemen, that's the kind of logic that gets you work at the New York Times.

Anyway - next is the link list, unless my latest build process finishes early. In which case, there's bug, and there goes the rest of my day...

Monday, February 03, 2003
Ronald N. Giere

I just came across this site and I'm surprised I've never heard of the guy before. He's doing some interesting work in philosophy of science, theories of knowledge and distributed/collective cognition. Also (!) he knows something (not much as far as I can tell, but more than most) about neural networks, and (!!) makes the connection between connectionism and distributed cognition.

This kind of thinking is near and dear to my heart. However, his most useful contribution the the collective entity known as Team Pedantry is that he's read Ed Hutchins and Nancy Cartwright and has summarised their key arguments that I can never remember when I need them.