robinturner: (Default)
2014-06-26 11:44 am

(no subject)

At least for the time being I'm leaving Dreamwidth and going back to writing in LJ. Apart from the fact that LJ seems to have regained some of its momentum and become more responsive to its users (something I suspect may have more than a little to do with GoT) Dreamwidth has lost my draft of a long article twice.
robinturner: Citizen Smith (wolfie)
2014-05-29 12:17 am

Reflections on the Reaction in Europe

One of my favourite songs by The Cassandra Complex is "Nightfall (Over EC)". It's a dark 1980s vision of the EU (or EC as it was then) disintegrating into religious and ethnic chaos.
The hills are alive with the sound of gunfire
Kill them all, God will know his own
Night falls over Western Europe
Night falls, and we're alone.

Ironically, the lyrics were penned by one of the most pro-European people I know; in those days Rodney Orpheus was dividing his time between England and Germany and insisting on the band being paid in ECUs, the predecessor of the Euro. But it's an understandable feature of the EU that people should worry about it. Pro-Europeans worry that it will fall apart; anti-Europeans, that it will become an oppressive superstate dominated by gay socialist Muslim bureaucrats. It's in the nature of things to come together and fall apart, and the more recently it came together, the more people will worry that it is about to fall apart. Nobody worries about the impending break-up of France, for example, because France has been around for over a millennium and screw the Corsicans.

All this is of course leading into the recent victory of far-right, anti-EU parties in the European elections, an event you'd think they would refuse to participate in. Come to think of it, the fact that a party whose raison d'etre is withdrawal from the EU thinks it's a good idea to run in elections for the European Parliament is a pretty good sign that the EU is not some monstrous totalitarian superstate. (You can probably generalise this rule: any country in which you can run for election on the platform "This place is a shithole and we don't want to be part of it" is probably not such a bad country to be part of.) These parties range in nastiness from Finns, which "has repeatedly rejected accusations of racism and homophobia" (because this is, after all, Finland) to the Hungarian Jobbik, whose leader called for a national register of Jews on grounds of national security. In the middle, we have the traditional "don't like anything foreign" UKIP and Front National, and, more interestingly, parties whose anti-immigration stance seems to be based more on religion than race, such as the Danish People Party and the Dutch Party for Freedom. No prizes for guessing which religion they don't like.

This brings me to what really interests me, which is why relatively normal people would vote for these parties. Europe has had its share of nutty Nazis since, well, the Nazis, but in a way, WWII was a watershed which defined subsequent Nazis as nutty. Before then, we should remember, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and belief in the superiority of the white race were normal. They might not have been universal, but they were commonly held attitudes that could be safely expressed in the company of people who do not pick their noses in public or settle disputes with broken beer glasses. What is alarming many people is the thought that these attitudes may become normal once more.

I won't deny that such a danger exists, but I'm not so sure we should all pack up and move to Portugal just yet. Back in the '70s, when I first got involved in politics, it looked like there was a real fascist threat, what with the rise of the National Front and its more openly Nazi twin, the British National Party, not to mention an ugly spate of racist attacks. A friend of mine even wrote an article claiming the newly formed Social Democrat Party might be a manifestation of soft fascism. I joined the Anti-Nazi League, marched, handed out leaflets, listened to reggae … the usual stuff. The fascist threat never materialised, despite the fact that prevailing attitudes in the late '70s were way more fascist than they are now. Now I'm not saying that we were wrong to worry or to take action, and it may be in part because so many people took action that the 1980s didn't turn into the third Reich. Or maybe it was because Margaret Thatcher captured the lawful evil vote, I'm not sure. But if fascism didn't sweep over the UK and the rest of Europe in the 1970s, there's no reason to think it's about to do that in the 2010s when conditions are if anything less favourable for potential fascist dictators, or even just moderately nasty fascist parties. Remember those politically correct Finnish fascists? I have seen the future of fascism, and it is bland.

Of course not everywhere is as polite as Finland, as worrying as Hungary or as wacky as Greece (where both the fascist Golden Dawn and the hard left Syriza did well). Let's go back to the interesting middle ground, if you can talk about fascism as having a middle ground. The "I'm not a Nazi but you have to admit things have gone too far" parties owe a lot of the support to the traditional "They're taking our jobs" vote. This is particularly true of UKIP, the political descendants of the people who were complaining about Irish navvies taking all the railway jobs back in the 19th century. (And by "railway jobs", I don't mean driving trains, I mean digging tunnels.) A good sign that politicians are playing the jobs card is if they complain about Poles, because other than working hard for less money, there's not a lot else you can find to complain about when it comes to Poles. Unless you're an old-fashioned Nazi who despises the inferior Slavic race, you can't really be racist about those pale, blond Poles, can you? If a right-wing party dumps Poles in with Somalis, then either they're not really all that racist, or they're doing a good job of confusing the race issue.

The other strand is Islamophobia, typified by Geert "I don't hate Muslims, I hate Islam" Wilders' Party for Freedom. Another good example is the Danish People Party, who, after they got some criticism from the Swedes, came out with this revealing reply: "If they want to turn Stockholm, Gothenburg or Malmö into a Scandinavian Beirut, with clan wars, honour killings and gang rapes, let them do it. We can always put a barrier on the Øresund Bridge." We're talking about Holland and Denmark here, two of the most civilised, tolerant countries in the world. They are certainly not the kind of places where honest-to-badness fascist parties are likely to get many votes. True, even Geert Wilders is seen as an embarrassment by most Dutch, but the fact that there is an Islamophobic backlash at all in the Low Countries and Scandinavia speaks volumes. Since they are not strongholds of fascism, my guess is that we are looking at something different here.

Generally speaking, lefties have been unable to deal with Islamophobia because their reaction is to just scream "Islamophobia!" and lump it in with racism, when it is obviously something different. If we want to deal with people's fears of Muslims and stop them flocking to parties who pander to those fears, then we need to understand them, and an attitude that says "You only think like this because you're a bad person" isn't going to help. When British people reacted against the arrival of Kenyan and Ugandan Asians in the 1970s, it was easy to claim they were just being xenophobic, because these immigrants/refugees were generally hard-working, law-abiding, polite people whose only fault was to have brown skin, wear different clothes and smell of curry. (If you're about to screech "RACIST!" at me for that last one, that's part of the problem: anti-racists are all too ready to brand simple facts as racist prejudices. If you eat a lot of curry, you really do smell of curry (particularly fenugreek) just like smokers smell of cigarettes, people who eat a lot of garlic smell of garlic, and I smell of funky Turkish spices when I've been eating sucuk or pastırma.) If you don't like Punjabis, chances are you're either a white supremacist or a Gujerati. Moreover, most of the immigrants were Hindus or Sikhs, and most of the Muslims were not the kind of Muslim anyone would object to. Islamophobia had yet to be invented because if you were racist, they were all wogs, and if you weren't, you didn't care much about other people's religious beliefs.

Ah, those were the days, when racists were racists and had skinhead haircuts and Doc Martins. Now it's more complicated. Pia Kjærsgaard, who came out with the Scandinavian Beirut comment, doesn't fit the type. She may well be racist deep in her heart, but she's survived two legal attempts to convict her of racism. Her anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stance would still work even if she weren't in the teensiest bit racist. That wouldn't make it right, but it does mean we have to take it a bit more seriously. First, just as we had to distinguish between general anti-immigrant rhetoric and racism, we need to prize apart the Islamophobic rhetoric from the general anti-immigrant rhetoric. Remember the Poles: if you get in a huff about Polish immigration, you're not necessarily racist, because Poles are by-and-large white, and you're not necessarily Islamophobic, because Poles are by-and-large Catholics. (On the other hand, if you hate Poles and Irish with equal vehemence, you may just have a problem with Catholics.) You may of course be all of these things, but that doesn't stop them from being different types of bigotry. Give Joe Bigot the choice of living next door to a recently-arrived family of Poles, Bosnians or Iraqis. My guess is that he'd choose them in that order: Poles may be foreign, but at least they're white; Bosnians may be foreign and Muslim, but at least they're still white; Iraqis are foreign, Muslim and brown, so Joe would probably prefer to live next door to a nest of vampires. Islamophobia and racism often coexist, but people who equate them are clearly wrong. When the Boston bombers turned out to be Chechens, nobody said, "Oh, they're white Muslims, that makes it OK."

Having made a distinction between Islamophobia and racism, we also need to separate the paranoid conspiracy theorists who go on about "Eurabia" and the death of Western culture from ordinary people who are just scared of religious nutters. Let's apply the neighbour test again. Who would you rather live next door to: (a) a family of liberal-verging-on-agnostic Muslims; (b) a family of Christian Dominionists? If your answer is "a", you're a normal person; if it's "b", not only are you Islamophobic, you may well be the kind of person other people would be scared to live next door to.

By lumping together racists, paranoid Islamophobes and ordinary worried people under the general heading of "Anders Breivik", leftists encourage these groups to actually come together. Someone will probably still scream "RACIST!" at me, but I have to say it: people often have good reasons for straying towards Islamophobia. My wife, on learning the word, said "Oh, that's what I am," and she's a Muslim. Of course she was being a little tongue-in-cheek; what she really meant was not so much Islamophobia but Islamistophobia, but that word doesn't exist, and would be tough to spit out if it did. I've touched on reasons for Islamophobia before ("Are Muslims the New Catholics?"); the point is that while some of them are clearly kooky, some of them come from real fears and real cultural incompatibilities. Ironically, most of the cultural incompatibilities (the "clan wars, honour killings and gang rapes" mentioned earlier) have nothing to do with Islam as a religion and everything to do with the mentality of tradition-bound, survival-oriented communities accustomed to living with minimal oversight from the state. This is something they have in common with American urban gang culture; it's just that Pakistani villagers and Kurdish tribesmen have been doing it longer. It is also one of several cultural divides within the Muslim community, who are actually united only by a common religion that they take very different views of. Again, we need to differentiate: Islamophobia rests on a view of Muslims as a uniform mass; like the orcs besieging Minas Tirith, they may sometimes look a bit different from each other, but they're all basically orcs. This is of course nonsense, but it's the kind of nonsense that is hard to combat, especially when it's often the nuttiest Muslims who take it upon themselves to act as spokesmen for the rest. A sad example is the Happy British Muslims video, which was doing a great job of combating Islamophobia until all the mad mullahs starting denouncing it for showing music and dancing, which they claimed, without a shred of evidence, are against Islam. The worst was a supposed "halal" version, which was the same thing without the women. One of the problems with Islam is that anyone can put on a turban, give himself a title like "sheikh" and claim that this or that is Islamic or un-Islamic. The same problem applies with Protestantism, especially in its free-market American varieties, but generally people in the West are sufficiently well-informed about Christianity to recognise the nutty stuff.

These are not problems we are going to solve any time soon, especially with progressives sticking their heads in the sand, refusing to accept that immigration can sometimes cause problems and demonising those who point them out. But they may be problems that will solve themselves in the long run. At the moment the EU is trying to cope with massive economic imbalances between its member states which should even out over the years. I'm not saying that Romania is ever going to be as rich as Luxembourg; all that is necessary is for the gap to close enough so that migration between member states is restricted to people who actually want to go and live in another country. When the standard of living in Poland is comparable to England, some Poles will go back to Poland while others will stay in England because they like it there, and eventually being Polish in England won't be that different from being Polish in America (which used not to be that desirable). Non-European immigration is going to take longer to sort out, but as I said, a lot of the things people find scary about these people are the results of coming from places which have radically different cultures because they're several centuries behind on the urbanisation-industrialisation-democratisation timeline. Like I said, Ugandan and Kenyan Asians had few problems adapting to life in Britain (other than racism and lousy weather) because they were middle class, largely urban, well-educated and familiar with British culture and values. A lot of them probably exemplified British culture and values much better than the average Brit. The Pakistani and Bangladeshi villagers who came over a few years later had a much harder time, not just because they were Asian or even because they were Muslims but because they were villagers, with a culture that would have given them problems in Islamabad, let alone Leeds. Ditto Turks in Germany: the educated urban ones had no problems with the German lifestyle; the ones from the backward areas did. Such cultures take time to change, but generally what makes them change is economic security and education. The important thing is to avoid ghettoisation, as happened in France, while at the same time avoiding those cultures becoming mainstream. Racism is not acceptable in polite society, but then neither is sexism or homophobia, and no amount of respect for other cultures should change that. That requires a tricky balance: "Yes, you can have halal meat in the canteen. No, you can't segregate public baths. Yes, you can demand schools teach about religions other than Christianity. No, you can't insist that they stop teaching evolution. Yes, you can teach your culture to your children. No, you can't beat them if they rebel against it. Yes, you can have arranged marriages. No, you can't force anyone into one." It's not going to be easy, but sooner or later it's got to happen.
robinturner: Giving a tutorial, c. 2000 (tutorial)
2014-05-08 08:38 pm

(no subject)

[personal profile] ironed_orchid's post about alleged misbehaviour by a famous philosopher brought to mind a couple of unrelated questions about academic ethics that I still haven't managed to solve.
  1. One reason given for banning faculty members having sexual relations with their students is that it could lead to their raising the grades of said students. But surely someone who was sufficiently immoral to ignore the principle of fair grading would lack the moral fibre to resist the temptation to sleep with their students.
  2. One reason given for maintaining the tenure system is that it means academics cannot be fired for holding unpopular opinions. Does this mean it's OK to fire non-tenured academics for their opinions?
robinturner: Raybans + Matrix coat (rayban)
2014-05-06 11:35 am

Why the Black-Green Dichotomy Doesn't Work (OR, 3D-Printing Your Cake and Eating It)

I have just read Steve Fuller's "Ninety-degree revolution". It's an interesting article but flawed. Fuller's argument is that the old division between Right and Left is out-dated, a claim few would argue with these days, and that the real division is between those who look to the skies and those who look to the Earth, or as he puts it, Black and Green (to contrast with the Red and Blue of left-right politics). The problem is that this Black-Green dichotomy is also a false one.

Back in the 1970s, when I first got involved in politics, it really did look like that, with nice green hippies on the one side and soulless technocrats on the other. Theodore Roszak's The Making of a Counter-Culture was a particularly pernicious example of this dichotomous thinking, and I am sorry to say it had a big influence on me when I was 14. Despite the fact that I and my hippie friends consumed a lot of SF, that shiny future somehow didn't connect with our present or even the near future, which was instead dominated by the need to make the revolution, kick out the technocrats and heal the Earth, all of which could best be achieved by setting up communes where we could grow organic vegetables, smoke weed and practice free love. Interstellar travel would take care of itself at some later date. We'd make telepathic contact with Sirius, or maybe once we'd established world peace, the Vulcans would turn up and give us the warp drive.

Of course I'm exaggerating for effect here, but there's a grain of truth in it: the Green movement of the late twentieth century was a continuation of a critique of industrialisation that started with William Cobbett's Rural Rides, ran through William Morriss and the Arts and Crafts movement, and reached its finest expression in The Lord of the Rings. As Fuller correctly points out, this critique has little to do with Right-Left politics; Cobbett was a Tory turned Radical, Morriss fell out first with the Liberal Party, then with the Marxists and finally with the anarchists, and Tolkien was, in his own words, "an unconstitutional monarchist." It was a progressive movement based on a profoundly conservative worldview.

Contrasting with this movement, we had the utopian technologists, exemplified by the BBC's Tomorrow's World. Even I, as a tiny hippie, loved Tomorrow's World. It was like TED for the 1960s—science and technology would fix every problem we could think of. This was the beginning of what Fuller calls the Blacks, exemplified, as he says, by F. M. Esfandiary (a.k.a. FM-2030), but also, more wackily by Timothy Leary, with his SMI2LE formula (Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension). And it is the inclusion of Timothy Leary here that gives the lie to Roszak's counterculture/technocracy dichotomy. Leary was the father of the hippies, yet here he was saying we needed better technology, not a return to Nature. His friend Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! was almost a Bible for the late counterculture, yet in Schrödinger's Cat he warned that by rejecting technology, environmentalism could destroy the very Earth it was supposed to save.

Writers like Leary and Wilson understood that we were at the cusp of a change in the nature of technology, and it is this change that makes the Black-Green dichotomy obsolete even as it is trumpeted as an alternative to the Left-Right dichotomy. What Cobbett, Morriss and Tolkien were opposed to was not science, or even technology as such, but industrialism. (OK, Tolkien's discussion of magic vs. enchantment might have been opposed to the idea of technology per se, but that's a complicated issue. At the very least, he wasn't against windmills.) It was this gut reaction against the dirt, the destruction, the brutality and the anonymity of industrial technology that pushed me, like many of my generation, into radical environmentalism, just at the point when technology was transforming into something very different and not nearly as ugly. We saw the technological mindset as starting with Blake's Satanic Mills and leading to Huxley's Brave New World, but in fact it was going in a different direction.

I don't want to gush about how wonderful 21st century technology is, particularly when half the Internet is doing that already. The evils Tolkien and Huxley warned us about are still there, just like the injustices Marx and Bakunin railed against are still there. But we are not at a fork in the road of history where we have to choose between Gaia and galactic civilisation.
robinturner: Giving a tutorial, c. 2000 (tutorial)
2014-04-12 08:37 pm

Your Mom

Can we please stop using "your mom" in tech discourse, as in "This is an app your mom can use" or "Linux won't make the desktop until your mom can use it"? Do you really think being female and old enough to have children who read tech forums makes you incompetent? Whenever I hear "your mom", I think first of my mom (well, mum, because I'm British), who is 85 and has been using computers since about 1985. She's no geek, but she can usually work out how to use a new piece of software. Then I think of my colleague Reyyan, who is also someone's mom, and in fact someone's grandma. She's also head of the Computer Education department, an active member of WIC, an expert on information ethics and a pretty competent programmer. So presumably, when you say "your mom", I guess you mean yo mamma.
robinturner: (Default)
2014-04-11 11:06 pm

(no subject)

"There are no earlier entries to display. This page displays only the most recent 1000 entries posted within the last 14 days." Last 1,000 entries? Suddenly I feel very unprolific.
robinturner: Giving a tutorial, c. 2000 (tutorial)
2014-04-11 09:52 pm

When Prevention Isn't Better Than Cure

We are told that prevention is better than cure, and in fact that an ounce of the former is worth a pound of the latter. It seems obvious, and almost impossible to argue against, which is one reason why I feel compelled to do so. The other reason came to me when I was helping administer an exam, but more of that later; first I want to take a more obvious example: burglary.

It is true that with crime in general, prevention is laudable. If you can prevent people from becoming criminals in the first place, then so much the better, but this logic does not apply all the way down the line. Let's assume we have failed in our noble goal of diverting young minds from the path of crime, and that we have the usual number of felons engaged in their employment. Is the best thing always to try to prevent them from pursuing their felonious little plans? It makes sense to lock your doors when you leave the house, cancel the papers when you go on holiday (do people still have papers delivered?) and all the small, unobtrusive crime prevention techniques. Is it, though, always a good idea to put a big burglar alarm on your house? Some say yes, it deters burglars; others say no, it advertises the fact that you have something worth stealing. Gated communities say it even more clearly; you might as well put up a sign saying "Lots of loot here!" Plus there's the fact that the more crime prevention measures you display (barbed wire, security cameras, Neighbourhood Watch signs) the more scared of crime you look, which all encourages the idea that there is a lot of crime about, and therefore crime pays, because criminals are not the kind of people to engage in tiring, unprofitable activity. Conspicuous prevention not only proclaims that there is something to prevent, but also implies that this something is worth doing.

Coming back to exams, it strikes me that conspicuous measures to prevent cheating often encourage it, whereas punishing the cheaters may well discourage their peers. What ID checks on the door, impounding of mobile devices and the like do is say loud and clear "You really should be trying to cheat here." This is particularly true in places where there is already a culture of cheating; every security measure is a move in a game where the students try to cheat and the school tries to prevent them. An honour system at least has the advantage that we can react with outrage if a student is caught cheating; elaborate security measure imply that we expect them to cheat. Better to expel a few cheaters and terrorise the others; cure is better than prevention here; in fact cure, forcibly executed, is prevention.
robinturner: Giving a tutorial, c. 2000 (tutorial)
2014-02-09 11:58 am

"Ho un serpente nello stivale" Or How to Learn Italian in Two Weeks

I recently returned from a trip to Rome. We'd actually been planning on going to Paris but changed our minds for reasons I can't quite remember, which meant I suddenly stopped learning French to see how much Italian I could learn in two weeks. The answer to that question was of course “Not a lot” but also perhaps “More than you'd think for two weeks.” I learnt a little Italian while we were in Deruta for a month for Nalan's ceramics course, but that was 2005 and I'd since forgotten almost everything, so this was an experiment in learning pretty much from scratch. This time I tried three learning methods, the main one being Duolingo, which is cheesily but entertainingly gamified and flies in the face of modern communicative pedagogy. Ignoring the current wisdom that you need to learn language in context with realistic examples, Duolingo relies heavily on translation and seems to generate sentences randomly. My favourites include “Je suis une abeille” from my French course and “Ho un serpente nello stivale” from a recent Italian lesson. Duolingo thus seems as useful a preparation for visiting a foreign country as the language textbooks of yesteryear that gave us such classic (and probably apocryphal) sentences as “My postillion has been stuck by lightning.”

In combination with other methods, however, Duolingo is great way to get the basic structure of a language. To supplement vocabulary I used my old friend Anki with a deck of flashcards that claimed to be “427 Common Italian Words”. They may be common, but they certainly aren't the most common unless Italians spend a lot of time watching war films and are even hornier than they're made out to be: words I've learnt so far include “capitano”, “colonello”, “cullo” and “cazzo”. (There may also be a bias toward the letter C.)

For some practical and rather more realistic Italian communication I discovered the course “La Mappa Misteriosa”, which was bradcast on BBC 2 and still hanging around the BBC website (I had to log in through a British proxy server to get the videos to play). This is a story in which you help a couple of Italians to follow a cryptic map to find a lost recipe - a very Italian quest! It's shot in first person perspective, which given my background makes me want to click on things with the mouse to shoot them ... “Mi dica?” “Vorrei un kilo formaggio RATTATTATTATT BOOM BOOM!!!” On the other hand, close up scenes with the sexy Italian lady who is leading me all over virtual Bologna tend to put me in mind of different POV experiences, but let's not go into that ;-)

So did all this concentrated learning prove to be of any use? Actually, not so much, since unlike my experiences in Deruta, where hardly anyone spoke English, Rome was filled with English speakers. I managed to follow directions and do a little shopping in Italian, and found an excuse to say “Mia moglie è insegnante di ceramica” in a conversation with an artist from whom we bought a couple of nice landscapes, but for the most part all conversations were in English. I would justify this by saying “Ho solo studiato l'Italiano per due settimani,” not because an apology was called for, but because I wanted to use the Present Perfect tense. Other than that, it was English all the way. I think I'll continue my studies, though, because I love the quirkiness of a language where eggs are masculine and the polite way to address someone is “She” regardless of gender, plus I quite like the idea of being to understand opera.
robinturner: First lesson: stick them with the pointy end (pointyend)
2014-02-09 11:18 am

The Discipline of Domesticity (MOOC assignment)

[This is something I wrote for the MOOC "The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education"]

Of all the skills which are hard to learn and harder to unlearn, household tasks have to come fairly high. For those of us who live on their own all their lives, or, as in a traditional marriage, take sole (or no) responsibility for housework, this is a minor problem; however, anyone who lives with someone who has strong opinions about the correct way to clean surfaces or prepare vegetables, for example, will either have to do some unlearning or face some serious arguments. I did a bit of both.

Fortunately, I had a little solo practice before plunging into married life, initiated by a reading of William Burroughs' quirky story “The Discipline of DE.” The DE stands for “Do Easy”, and it is the philosophy of the story's hero, a retired military man who relearns everything in his domestic routine, from cleaning to cooking to organising his wallet. The principle is simple: the best way to do something is the simplest way and the easiest way; if something seems difficult, you're doing it wrong. Our hero unlearns his previous sloppy domestic habits by breaking them down into their smallest components and practising them extremely slowly so as to eliminate even the slightest error or inefficiency, then putting them back together and speeding up until his displays of domestic skills seem almost magical. As I was at the time learning t'ai chi, which has very similar principles, this method appealed to me. I applied it first to vacuuming, and realised that I had been expending far more energy than I needed by using my arms rather than my hips and by pushing down into the floor. I also spent hours lobbing pieces of paper into the waste paper bin; this is the kind of thing you do when you are young and unemployed. After a while, though, my interest waned, and for the most part my home reverted to its bachelor-pad clutter.

The real test came with marriage to someone who not only had much higher domestic standards than me but also came from a different culture. This brings me to the second point about unlearning: we do things in a less efficient way not only by learning sloppy habits, but because we have been brought up to believe unthinkingly that the way we do them is right. Of course you wash up by filling up the bowl with hot water and dumping the plates in them. Washing them individually under the tap is just inefficient—unless you're Turkish, in which case it is the only way to get them clean. Of course the best way to dust is with a feather duster—unless you're Turkish, in which case it is a damp cloth. Since my wife takes cleaning far more seriously than I do, it ended up with me being the one to do the unlearning, and unlearning not just my own ways of doing things but my family's and sometimes even my culture's. Unlearning and relearning, then, is more than just hacking. With hacking, you know what you want to do and why you want to do it, so it's just a question of finding a more efficient way of doing it. But perhaps sometimes what we have to unlearn is our criteria for efficiency.
robinturner: Dawn of the Dead (zombie)
2014-01-20 05:42 pm

The Dangers of Drunken MOOCing

Opening my Inbox today, I found an invitation to take a pre-course questionnaire for a MOOC called “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education”. The funny thing is that I have no recollection of signing up for this course. It's obviously not spam, since it comes from Duke University, who are giving this course via Coursera, a MOOC platform I have used in the past. In other words, I must have signed up for it then forgotten. So either senility is starting to kick in, or I was drunk at the time. The 'net is full of warnings about drunken texting, but this is the first case I've seen of drunken MOOCing. Still, the course looks like it might be fun to tag along with, and (unlike drunken texting) the worst consequence of drunken MOOCing is that you end up contributing to the depressing statistics on MOOC dropouts. (For the record, I've signed up for 4 MOOCs: two I completed, one I dropped because I thought it was flaky, and one I dropped because it wanted me to “flip” one of my classrooms after the semester had started, so I suppose that was pretty flaky too.)
robinturner: The sacred Chao (chao)
2014-01-16 07:53 am

Russel's Teapot Revisited

After some lively discussions on Eray Özkural's Facebook on the topic of agnosticism (which he regards as utmost stupidity) I was moved to think some more about the subject of my earlier post, “An Argument for Agnosticism Against Atheism”. Here I made the case against an argument known as Russel's Teapot, which is one of those charmingly absurd examples beloved of philosophers. It goes like this: one would not believe in the existence of a teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars because there is no evidence for it; the argument that there is no evidence to disprove the existence of the teapot is absurd. This is used as a stick to beat not only theists but agnostics, since we do not have an open mind on the existence of the teapot—we assume that there is no teapot, even if some people maintain that there is. My argument was basically that belief in the existence of God is not analogous to belief in an orbiting teapot (or leprechauns, or the Great Old Ones) because it is not an assertion that the universe contains something but an assertion about the nature of the universe, and in particular an assertion that the universe is created. Rather than an infinite number of objects that could possibly exist, we are simply choosing between one of two alternatives: either the universe was created or it wasn't. The absence of strong evidence for either of these hypotheses makes agnosticism the most tenable position. (I later found that Brian Garvey has made a somewhat similar argument.)

However, this argument involved only one view of God—a Deist one. There are plenty of other conceptions of God, or gods, and I was curious about whether the teapot argument applied to them. (Incidentally, militant atheists seem only to be interested in the Abrahamic view of God, something which Dawkins admits in The God Delusion.)

1. God as Creator and Director
The Deist position, as we've seen, is that God is the First Cause, and the teapot argument does not apply for the reasons stated. The Abrahamic view of God takes that and adds a more active role for God, who not only creates the universe but directs it. If we see this as stating that God creates a universe that works perfectly well on its own but nevertheless chooses to interfere with it from time to time, then I think the teapot argument, or something similar, should apply. Interference implies that from time to time things happen which would not have happened if the laws of physics were working normally—in other words, miracles. The very eagerness of religious believers to supply evidence for their miracles (“A hundred people saw the statue move!”) seems to imply that evidence is needed; however, the evidence provided is by no means convincing, putting miracles in the same class as orbiting teapots. There is also the theological objection that it would be absurd for a perfect and omnipotent being to create a universe that required tinkering, but that's off-topic here.

An alternative view of God as both creator and director is that everything in the universe happens as the result of the will of God. This view is expressed in some Abrahamic theologies and in Stoicism, for example. While Occam's Razor may apply (why have something directing everything rather than everything running itself?), I don't think Russel's Teapot does. But this view takes us in the direction of our next conception of God.

2. God as World or World-Soul
The view of God that most atheists argue against is a transcendent deity: God is separate from the universe, which God creates and/or directs. An alternative view is that God is the universe (pantheism), the universe is part of God (panentheism) or God is a part of the universe (not sure what you call that). We find this conception of an immanent deity to varying degrees in Western philosophies such as Platonism and Stoicism, and most radically in Spinoza's pantheism, but it is a minority view in the history of Western religions. The further East you go, the more immanent the deity becomes, moving through Sufism and Hinduism to Taoism. Of course when you go that far it becomes questionable whether what you are talking about is really a god (calling the Tao a god would certainly be stretching the point); on the other hand, the doctrine of panpsychism, currently popular with atheists, is only a smidgeon away from pantheism. In all these cases, the teapot argument does not apply because these are all hypotheses about the nature of the universe, not the existence of some entity in the universe.

3. Gods as Powerful Quasi-Physical Beings
One case where the teapot argument definitely does apply is classical paganism. The ancient Greeks, Romans and so forth had a pantheon of deities who were perceived as powerful physical or quasi-physical entities. (It's worth remembering here that, Plato notwithstanding, most people in the classical era were more-or-less materialists.) The Greek gods not only influenced the physical world, they wandered around it using physical bodies, a phenomenon attested to by the large numbers of pregnancies they caused. As far as I can see, this makes them no different from leprechauns, unicorns or Russel's teapot.

4. Gods as Personifications
Even the Greeks and Romans started to realise that the theology of their fathers was untenable, though not necessarily for this reason. What many educated people in the ancient world started to believe was that Mars, for example, was not a guy dressed in armour who went round starting wars, but was in some way a personification of War, or the warlike aspect of the cosmos. Similar things were happening over in India, where the straightforward deities of the Vedas were evolving into cosmic principles. This principle also forms the basis of Neo-Paganism. The teapot argument does not apply here because no argument does. If you want to personify natural forces, that's your business.
robinturner: 2010 (tricycle)
2014-01-10 04:07 pm


Back in the '80s there were three tunes you could not escape. One was the theme tune to Eastenders, one heralded Dallas, and the other went “Neeeighbours … everybody needs good … neeeeighbours.” Out of curiosity, I dived into YouTube and found that this series actually still exists and is on episode 6750 or thereabouts. This is a triumph of, er, something, but that is not what I was going to write about. I was actually thinking of who I would like to have as a neighbour if I could choose, and that song sprang forth unbidden.

I'm excluding A-list celebrities, because living next to a celebrity wouldn't be much fun what with all the fans and paparazzi, and I'm excluding people I know but most people don't (e.g., my mum) so this is a list of moderately famous people I'd like to live in the same building as.

Tim Ferriss

Now Tim Ferriss has published his third best-seller and got his own TV show, he's getting dangerously close to the A-list, but I still think it'd be possible to live next door to him without being annoyed by fans camping out on your doorstep. I'd like to have him as a neighbour because of his infectious enthusiasm for learning just about anything. Conversations on the staircase would go “Hi Tim, how's it going?” “Not so bad—I just started learning Indonesian nose-yodelling.” He's also a great cook, which is always a good trait in a neighbour.

Josh Waitzkin

Josh Waitzkin is similar to Tim Ferriss in that they're both obsessed with learning, but is in a way his opposite. Ferriss is interested in becoming the best you can at something with the minimal expenditure of time and effort; Waitzkin is just interested in becoming the best. And he does: eight times US chess champion and three times world t'ai chi pushing hands champion. He also comes across as a really nice guy. Anyway, it'd be fun to have a former world champion to do pushing hands with, though I think I'd pass on the chess. I played a lot when I was a kid—enough to realise that I'd never be that good at it, and that there were more enjoyable games to be played, which neatly brings us to …

The McGonigal Twins

Jane McGonigal shot to geek-fame after her TED talk on how games can make a better world, which if nothing else demonstrates the power of telling people what they want to hear. Inspired but a tad skeptical, I ordered her book Reality Is Broken and was not disappointed. But even if her claims for the benefits of games are wildly exaggerated, I'd love to have such a bubbly, enthusiastic neighbour to play games with. Her sister, Kelly, is a yogi and health psychologist and seems like she'd make a wonderful neighbour too. And hey, twins! Twins are always fun (unless you mix them up, when they can be quite unforgiving, as I found out the only time I dated a twin).


Mazhar Alanson, Fuat Güner and Özkan Uğur are talented musicians and interesting people, performing a unique variety of Turkish folk-pop-rock laced with satire and Sufism since 1971. If you're not Turkish you probably won't have heard of them, unless you used to follow the Eurovision Song Contest in the days when Turkey could be relied on to get “null points”. This is a pity, as they have some great songs (though I don't count their Eurovision entries here). Mazhar Alanson has added his deadpan humour to a couple of films, and Özkan Uğur also acts in sitcoms from time to time. And as I said, they're into Sufism. Definitely the kind of neighbours you'd like to have round for drinks.

Yaşar Nuri Öztürk

Another person I'd like to have round for drinks, though in this case non-alcoholic ones, is the theologian Yaşar Nuri Öztürk. Again, this is someone you probably won't have heard of unless you're Turkish, which is a pity, as he's one of the best writers on Islam around. In Turkey, he's controversial mainly for demonstrating that the so-called "Islamic headscarf" is not Islamic at all. Even if you're an atheist, it's hard not to be impressed by his intelligence, scholarship and good humour.

Malcolm Gladwell

I never paid much attention to Malcolm Gladwell until I watched another TED talk, where he spoke of spaghetti sauce. At this point, I realised his true genius, which is making pretty much anything interesting. What better person to bump into regularly? “Hi Malcolm, how are you?” “Fine thanks, and did you notice the design of this stairwell?”

Ursula Le Guin

Every neighbourhood needs a Wise Old Woman, and since I'm not allowed to include my mum here, who better to fill this role than Ursula Le Guin, who was born in the same year? Not only is she one of my favourite FF/SF writers, she just oozes wisdom. She's like her own character, Ogion the Silent, except fortunately not silent.

So my Sunday would start with yoga with Kelly, followed by t'ai chi with Josh. I'd have elevenses with Yaşar and Malcolm, then learn Ecuadorian juggling with Tim in the afternoon. After dinner (cooked by Tim) we'd have MFÖ round for a sing-song, then Jane would teach us her latest game before Ursula reads us all a bed-time story.
robinturner: Giving a tutorial, c. 2000 (tutorial)
2013-12-21 04:08 pm

(no subject)

I generally tell my students not to write titles for their essays but just write the question instead. All too often they ignore this advice, so that a question like "Critically compare Plato's and Aristotle's views on education" will generate a title like "Plato vs. Aristotle" as though this were a boxing match (after Rumble in the Jungle and Thriller in Manila, I suppose this would be Horror in the Agora). On the other hand, this time round my title-loving students have come up with some that, even though they wouldn't get through peer review. at least make me curious about the essay. I mean who wouldn't want to read a philosophy essay entitled "Happiness is a Warm Gun" or "Dinner with Lucretius"?
robinturner: Citizen Smith (wolfie)
2013-12-04 04:54 pm

Like a Rolling Stone Blowing in the Wind

In France, a country where the hate crime laws are almost a crime in themselves, Bob Dylan has got himself in trouble for comparing Croats to KKK members and Nazis. The sentence that caused the brouhaha was "If you’ve got a slave master or the Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that ... Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood." There are at least two levels of irony here. The first is that someone is being accused of a hate crime for reminding us of racist atrocities committed in WWII by a fascist regime. Sure, he made a serious mistake in saying "Croatian" not "Ustaše" (the Croatian fascists) but that's hardly enough to be taken to court for. If I'm talking about WWII and I say "the Germans", I could be forgiven for not adding "and of course I am exluding those Germans who didn't support the Nazi Party." The second irony is Dylan's using the notion of "blood" in what was supposed to be an anti-racist speech. I was going to say it was also ironic that the writer of some of the greatest lyrics ever should have such problems getting is words right, but then it occurred to me that the fact that Dylan is such a great songwriter may be the problem. If he'd sung that stuff about blood (pronouncing it "bleeerd" in his inimitable way), it might not have been such a problem.

There is also some tragi-comedy to be seen in the debate that immediately sprang up (see the comment section of the article I linked to): specifically, the way Serbs and Croats think they're so different from each other. From the perspective of the rest of the world, what we see here is just an unusually vicious turf war between two micro-nations who have the same language, the same culture and almost the same religion. OK, Croats are Catholics and Serbs are Orthodox, but all that means is that they've been killing each other over some obscure theological dispute which for anyone outside Eastern Europe is about as exciting as the difference between Soto and Rinzai Zen. Or maybe it's the Cyrillic alphabet that's causing all the problems. Or the fact that the Croats got all the good beaches? Beats me.
robinturner: (Default)
2013-11-27 11:13 pm

The Times They Are A'Changing

Every so often I catch myself getting frustrated at individuals, groups or societies who don't seem to have cottoned on to the 21st century. It can be a small slip into the last century, like the university authorities insisting on our being physically present in our offices during the holidays to ensure that we are "contactable". It could be a dramatic throw-back to the Paleolithic, like Syrian rebels munching on their victims' internal organs. It could be something in the middle, like Russia's anti-gay legislation, or Christian groups trying to ban dictionaries that contain the phrase "oral sex". My reaction is always the same, though: I want to scream "Come on guys, it's the 21st century!"

This is a silly reaction. Of course we are in the 21st century, but that century is in its infancy, and in any case, a century is not really a long time. Forget the information age, the pace of change over the last two centuries has been dizzying, so it's not surprising that a lot of people haven't kept up. (In case anyone is about to protest that this implies a linear view of history, yes I do have a more-or-less linear view of history. Anyone who thinks progress is a myth should be put in a time machine and dumped in the middle of seventeenth-century Europe, preferably as a woman with a suspicious-looking black cat.) Anyway, this got me musing about what was going on, and what hadn't yet happened, in the year I was born, which in turn got me thinking about the world when my mother was born, and so on.

When I was born, the cool kids were listening to Elvis (and the cooler kids were listening to Blues), television was the big new thing but was in black and white, Blacks and Whites could not marry in South Africa and 18 US states, sodomy was illegal in the UK and all US states, a woman could legally be paid less than a man doing the same job, computers were giant pocket calculators, calculators were machines you worked with a handle, and no one had been to the moon.

When my mother was born, the cool kids were listening to Louis Armstrong, radio was the big new thing, alcohol was illegal in the USA, unmarried mothers could be put in mental asylums, the sun never set on the British Empire, it was socially acceptable to be anti-Semitic (though perhaps not quite as much as that young Hitler chappie), and no one had climbed Mt. Everest.

When her mother was born, the cool kids were listening to music hall songs, moving pictures were the big new thing, there was a tsar in St. Petersburg, a sultan in Istanbul and emperors in Beijing and Vienna, women couldn't vote, Roosevelt had just become the first American president to ride in a motor car, and no one had been to the South Pole.
robinturner: Citizen Smith (wolfie)
2013-11-20 11:57 am

How Conservatives Respect Women

Conservative men respect women in just the same way that progressive men do: by not treating them merely as sex objects. The difference is that in order not to treat women as sex objects, the conservative (Christian, Islamic or whatever) requires that women become as asexual as possible, by covering their bodies, avoiding certain words, places or activities and so on. Anything that reminds them that women have vaginas is a deal-breaker. It's rather like respecting Black people only on the condition that they wear face paint to disguise those provocative skin tones. I mean how can you blame a guy for coming out with a racist comment occasionally, when there are people flaunting that brown skin all over the place?
robinturner: Raybans + Matrix coat (rayban)
2013-11-08 03:48 pm

Breaking Bad

Nalan and I have finally finished our Breaking Bad marathon, which took in all five seasons in around a month. Life basically stopped for Breaking Bad, a series I never managed to arouse interest in while it was still airing, but thought might be worth watching after all those Emmy nominations. These are some random thoughts it has left me with.
  • Chemistry is really interesting. The real tragedy of Breaking Bad is that Walter swaps a genuine passion of the magic of chemistry for a lust for power. Well, that and all the dead people.
  • It's never too late for a career change.
  • Hooking up with former students maybe isn't such a good idea.
  • I feel squeamish about using Stevia now.
  • It is becoming difficult to resist the temptation to end sentences with “yo.”
  • Likewise, I really want an opportunity to say “I am not in danger. I am the danger.”
  • Actually, not really. After almost every BB session, I thanked my lucky stars I am an ordinary person with good health and no criminal activities.
  • When it comes to health provision, Turkey beats America hands down.
  • Having seen a record number of underwear shots, I can conclude that the real reason Walter White wants to start a meth empire is penile diminitude.
  • It's time to break out the hat.
robinturner: Giving a tutorial, c. 2000 (tutorial)
2013-10-29 09:56 am

Autumn Cleaning

Over the last few weeks, due to religious and national holidays here in Turkey, I've finally freshened up Sensible Marks of Ideas after neglecting it for years. After reading Josh Kaufmann's The First 20 Hours, I was tempted to learn Ruby and rewrite the whole site, but I resisted the urge and contented myself with tweaking. Although the site still doesn't look wonderful (not least because my transparent PNG images don't seem to be properly transparent), I have at least fixed the broken CSS and PHP that was plaguing it. It could do with a complete redesign, but I don't have time for that.

On the content side, I've added a few more quotes to Learn Logic With Beavis & Butthead, put up “Guns… Lots of Guns”: The role of violence in The Matrix, which originally appeared in the unfortunately defunct Molly: a Pop-Culture Zine, and wrote the first new article in years, 80/20 Happiness. So all in all, I'm feeling pretty pleased with myself.
robinturner: (Default)
2013-10-10 06:56 pm

To book or not to book

That's "book" as in "turn something into a book," not as in "book a hotel." Having nearly finished working the preceding posts on happiness into a proper article, it's occurred to me that there's a book in there. At the moment I have around 5,000 words, and each section could fairly easily be expanded fivefold, giving me 25,000 words, or 100 standard paperback pages, which is around the minimum length for a book. This is an appealing prospect on one level, because I've only written one-and-a-half books (my book on how to write a term paper and half of Lojban for Beginners) so it's high time I wrote another. Moreover, given the subject matter, the potential audience is much larger (people who want to be happy, as opposed to people who need to write a term paper or learn one of the more obscure constructed languages). This suits both my nobler impulses (the urge to help people be happy, for example) and my baser desires (fame, fortune, groupies) though if I'm going to be realistic, noble is a better bet here.

On the negative side, I know that I am much better at starting things than finishing them, and a finished article is much better than an unfinished book.