March 2008


Oh the irony… this is all over teh Interwebs now, so who am I to avoid jumping on the bandwagon?

PZ Myers was expelled from a screening of the Creationist propaganda movie Expelled. Some background: some time ago, Myers, Richard Dawkins and a number of other high-profile scientists were interviewed for a movie due to be called Crossroads. The movie, so it was claimed, was supposed to explain some of the principles of evolutionary biology. Alas, it seems to have been a ruse, because Crossroads turned into an anti-evolution polemic. Hardly the first time that Creationists have misrepresented themselves when filming scientists.

After Myers booked tickets for the screening — under his own name, via their web interface, just like all the other viewers — he was threatened with arrest and tossed out. And this is despite Myers being thanked profusely in the movie credits for his assistance!

Amusingly, the film-makers didn’t notice Richard Dawkins, who has written more about the incident and the movie itself:

Now, to the Good Friday Fiasco itself, Mathis’ extraordinary and costly lapse of judgment. Just think about it. His entire film is devoted to the notion that American scientists are being hounded and expelled from their jobs because of opinions that they hold. The film works hard at pressing (no, belabouring with a sledgehammer) all the favourite hot buttons of free speech, freedom of thought, the right of dissent, the right to be heard, the right to discuss issues rather than suppress argument. These are the topics that the film sets out to raise, with particular reference to evolution and ‘intelligent design’ (wittily described by someone as creationism in a cheap tuxedo). In the course of this film, Mathis tricked a number of scientists, including PZ Myers and me, into taking prominent parts in the film, and both of us are handsomely thanked in the closing credits.

Seemingly oblivious to the irony, Mathis instructed some uniformed goon to evict Myers while he was standing in line with his family to enter the theatre, and threaten him with arrest if he didn’t immediately leave the premises. […]

More sinister than the artless Lord Privy Seals, and the self-indulgent and wholly illicit playing of the Nazi trump card, the film goes shamelessly for cheap laughs at the expense of scientists and scholars who are making honest attempts to explain difficult points. Cheap laughs that could only be raised in an audience of scientific ignoramuses (and here Mathis’ propaganda instincts cannot be faulted: he certainly knows his target audience). One example is the treatment of the philosopher Michael Ruse[…]

Asked to explain the origin of life, Ruse acknowledged that it was a difficult question, one that modern science has barely scratched the surface of, but suggested that a possible candidate might be something like the theory of Graham Cairns-Smith that modern organic life bootstrapped itself from replicating crystals on the surface of inorganic clays. Even if Cairns-Smith’s theory is wrong in detail — and it would be amazing if it were not — it demonstrates the critical properties of any successful theory for the origin of life: it must show how complex, complicated organic molecules can evolve from simple, robust, common inorganic molecules.

Dawkins continues:

Stein just loved it. Mud! MUD! The sarcasm in his grating, nasal voice was palpable. Maybe this was when Ruse realised that he had been had. Certainly it was at this point that he started to show signs of exasperation, although he may still have thought that Stein was merely stupid, rather than pursuing a malevolent and clandestine agenda.

Curiously, the mostly Christian Fundamentalist audience who finds nothing strange about the idea that God created mankind from clay and dust and ashes, finds it laughable that organic life might have its origin in… clay and dust and ashes. Go figure.

PZ Myers has more about the dishonesty of the Creationists involved, but the funniest comment comes from the jokers at the Landover Baptist Church:

Shocking information has reached us that PZ Myers trophy wife (paid for by the tax payers of state of Minnesota) was taking names of the movie goers to, and I quote her words, “be put first in line for the gas chambers once we overthrow the Constitution”. That is correct, this state funded mistress was making a list of local Christians for eventual extermination.

to which Myers simply replied:

All that money invested in her ninja training, wasted.

I’m really looking forward to Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic (obnoxious Flash site here, amusing promotional clips here). Part 1 was shown last night (England time), with Part 2 tonight, so I’m flexing my remote-viewing neurons and getting ready to peer across time and space to see the show tomorrow night.

In the meantime, I was amused to see the difference in promotional styles between those involved.

Actor Karen David is playing the character of Liessa Dragonlady in the movie. Ms David has created a YouTube account, and has put up some a video of her learning to swordfight for the
movie, and another one where she trains to swordfight upside down.

Karen David, you see, actually wants to promote herself. The more people who see her work, the more likely it is she’ll get more acting jobs. This is a Good Thing.

But then there’s anti-promotion, where the anti-promoter wishes to discourage people from buying their product. The Times Online is an example. The Times has put up a video clip of Tim Curry talking about his role in the movie — or at least, they say they have put up this clip, but I doubt it is correct. I can’t get it to play in any of three different web browsers, and at least two people have managed to battle the Times’ useless comment system to say that they too can’t get it to work. (I tried to leave a comment, but it got swallowed by the Rift — twice.) The Times’ webpage is so convoluted and confusing, with so much effort put into preventing viewers from accessing audiovisual files, that it’s hardly a surprise that they’ve broken something and the page simply doesn’t work.

That’s anti-promotion. Knowing what I know about the Times, I’m not inclined to waste my time going to their website — and I tell my friends and colleagues. Advertisers, take notice.

I’d like to link to the page so you can try it yourself, but the Times’s Terms and Conditions
prohibits linking to individual pages, or “Micro sites” as they call them. Possibly because the T&Cs were written by somebody with as much grasp of reality as the Bursar of Unseen University, and as much grace as the Dean. Presumably the aim is to inconvenience their readership as much as possible — heaven forbid that readers point their friends and colleagues at specific articles.

However, the T&C don’t prohibit listing the URL to pages, only linking. It’s allowed to tell people what the URL is, so long as it isn’t a clickable link. As if that makes any sense whatsoever. So here’s a non-clickable non-linked URL that you can copy and paste into your browser, if you care that much, and remember folks, some lawyer probably charged the Times tens of thousands of pounds for those T&Cs.

http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article3582378.ece

And when you’re done, don’t forget to send them an email asking why they want to make it difficult for readers to find the page they’re interested in. But if you really want to make an impact, don’t email the Times, email their advertisers, who I’m sure will just love it that the Times is doing their bit to reduce the number of eyes on each page. Actually, considering the annoying, obnoxious Flash video ads, the advertisers are probably just as crazy.

There are lots of advantages to running Linux, even if you’re not technically minded. It’s free (as in “free beer” and “free speech”), it comes with a heap of applications, there’s no spyware and viruses for Linux to speak of, and it gives you as close to total control over your computer as you can deal with.

The disadvantage is that many websites out there treat you not just as a second-class citizen — that (dis)honour goes to Mac users — but as a non-person. Things are far better now than they were a decade ago when I first moved onto Linux, and problem sites are now well and truly in the minority, but it does happen.

For example, the BBC is currently playing an Internet-radio broadcast of Terry Pratchett’s Nightwatch. Sending audio over the Internet should be easy: it could be as simple as offering a link to an ogg (free, open format) or mp3 (closed, semi-open but very popular format), and then let the user choose whatever music player they want to listen to the file. Easy, no stress, no fuss, no complicated web programming, it just works. That’s how the Internet was designed to be.

But no, the Beeb chooses to use streaming audio, and worse, instead of using a semi-open standard like mp3, they use RealMedia instead. Real has a decidedly negative reputation in the marketplace. But I’m not here to talk about that. Instead, I’m going to explain how Linux (and maybe Mac users?) can listen to Nightwatch without being a guru. There’s the tiniest bit of command line work involved, but nothing onerous. Your Auntie could do it.

Firstly, you must make sure you have mplayer installed. If haven’t, you can find detailed instructions on installing mplayer around the Internet. The hard part is setting up the correct software repositories, which is a once-off job. Once you system knows which repositories to look in, installing software is a snap: just use the Add/Remove Software program. It will do all the heavy lifting for you, finding and downloading the software off the Internet. If you prefer to use the command line, yum or apt-get will do the same. Depending on which version of Linux you’re using, there’s every chance that the repositories are already in place.

(I’m being deliberately brief here, because there really are an imperial tonne of instructions out there, and that’s more than a metric ton. If you really can’t find instructions using Google, then drop me a comment and I’ll write something up.) Don’t forget to install the extra codecs.

Come back once you have mplayer installed. I’ll be waiting.

Okay, done? Great. Now, there are three four steps to listening to the radio programme:

  1. Get the URL of the stream.
  2. Download the stream.
  3. Listen to the stream.
  4. Throwing the stream away again. (Yes, really.)

Step 1 is the hard part. Here’s what I did to get the URL of the stream (but don’t do this yourself, because there’s an easier way):

  1. Fire up Firefox (heh, pun intended) and go to the BBC’s Listen Again page and find the entry for Nightwatch.
  2. Click the Listen to latest show link and wait for the BBC iPlayer (“iPlayer”? Apple has a lot to answer for…) to open in a new window.
  3. If you have installed the Linux version of RealPlayer on your PC, and have configured your browser to use it, then (in theory) it should Just Play. But for those who haven’t:
  4. Click the pause button to stop the download, then right-click the Listen using stand-alone Real Player link and choose “Save link as…” or similar (the exact command depends on your browser).
  5. Save the file “nightwatch.ram” to your home directory.

Now that I’ve done it the Hard Way for you, here’s the Easy Way: right click on this link and save it to your home directory. (And, my friends, that’s why Digital Restrictions Management will never succeed in making bytes uncopyable: no matter how hard it is to access the file the first time, the second time is a snap. Media companies, save yourself a lot of money and heartache and learn to live with the rules of physics. Water is wet, and bytes are copyable.)

Step 2, downloading the stream: open a terminal (you’re a Linux user, I trust you know how to do that, right?) and type: mplayer -dumpstream `cat nightwatch.ram`

You should see a short burst of activity from mplayer, ending with “Cache size set to 640 KBytes” (or similar), then nothing for a while. Don’t panic, mplayer is busy streaming the audio file and dumping it to disk. Approximately thirty minutes later, or more if you have a slow Internet connection, mplayer will apparently suffer a seizure:

    Stream EOF detected
    Core dumped ;)
    Exiting... (End of file)

Do not worry, that is normal. Now rename the file “stream.dump” to something more sensible (say, “nightwatch-part_N.rm”). The .rm extension is important.

Step 3 is as easy as you would expect on Windows or Mac: double-click on the renamed file and it should play in the appropriate audio player. Worse case, right-click on the file and choose Open With…. You can play the file using any player that understands the RealAudio format. Mplayer or VLC media player are good choices, or the Linux version of Real Player.

Step 4 is the bit that, in the eyes of the BBC’s lawyers, means you aren’t really downloading the audio, but merely “streaming” it, even though there actually is a download taking place. Yes, it’s silly, but that’s what your music player or browser does every time you listen to a streaming file: download, listen, delete. That’s what the BBC’s own “iPlayer” does. (Disclaimer: I don’t actually know what the BBC’s lawyers will think about this argument, nor do I know what it might cost you to argue it in court.)

So, here goes step 4: once you’ve listened to the audio file, delete the file in the usual way.

And there you have it.

To read conservative pundits is to enter a topsey-turvey world where black is white, war is peace, a Bizarro World of perverse incentives and moral panics and exaggerated scares. It isn’t so much that progressives and liberals don’t indulge in such stupidities themselves, but conservatives seem to do so far more often. Conservatives tend to look backwards to some ideal imaginary Golden Age, while progressives tend to look forward to a hypothetical Golden Future. Conservatives therefore tend to see change in terms of threat, while progressives see change in terms of improvement. Naturally all this is a fairly broad brush, and both conservatives and progressives are equally capable of seeing any specific change as a threat or a benefit. But when you start from a base-line of “Everything is just fine the way it is now”, it’s natural to see every change as dangerous and harmful.

What’s especially fascinating is that two hundred years ago, all the standards of conservative wingnuts were already in place. John Holbo of Crooked Timber has been reading 18th century German jurist and counter-Enlightenment intellectual Justus Möser and has found some doozies:

On reforms by the Hapsburg emperor to abolish requirements that guild members be “conceived by honorable parents in a pure bed”:

A law which makes illegitimate children equal to legitimate ones is a policy error so momentous that I don’t see how the humanitarianism of our age can forgive it.

Yes, that’s right. Allowing children of unmarried parents to become clock-makers or tailors would be Worst. Mistake. Evar!, a calamity second to nothing short of the time Adam said “It’s just a piece of fruit, what harm is there?”. Möser, it seems, as a “compassionate conservative” two centuries before George the Lesser, was worried about the number of poor drowned babies of unmarried mothers, and fears that reducing the disgrace of being born out of wedlock will lead to more and not fewer drowned illegitimate babies. The compassionate thing to do is to increase the shame and punishment of illegitimate children and their mothers. As Holbo dryly adds: “no mere drowning in a sack for you, doxy!”.

On the suggestion that promotions should be made on merit:

I, for one, should – paid or not – never remain within a State in which it is a rule to award all honors solely on the basis of merit. […]

Therefore, dear friend, give up your romantic thoughts of the happiness of a State where everything goes according to merit. When men rule and where men serve, birth and age, or seniority of service, are still the safest and least offensive rules for promotion.

There is a serious argument against making promotion solely on merit, but in my opinion it’s a fairly weak one: the less merit-worthy will feel bad, and everyone will know just how little merit you have by your lack of promotion. Kind of harsh, really, but surely preferable to a society where idiot sons of the powerful gain power and respect merely for the accident of their birth, and incompetents are rewarded for being incompetent for a long time.

Holbo comments:

The thing that’s fascinating about it is that, a decade before Burke inaugurated modern conservatism as a political philosophy, all the stock rhetorical moves of the wingnut op-ed are already up and running. The anti-PC grumbling plus moral panic wires crossed with perverse incentive structures wires. There’s liberal-bashing, minus any hint of liberalism.

One of the slurs thrown around against atheists is that without religion, or at least without God, we’d be left with nothing. Atheists are popularly believed to be nihilists, believing in nothing, caring for nothing.

This could not be further from the truth.

PZ Myers has written a beautiful, brief piece, “An atheist’s creed”, that describes what he believes. We do not need to believe in fairy tales and engage in wishful thinking to see the meaning and beauty in the world.

People often ask, “But if there’s no God, what’s the point?” — life is the point, not some wished-for but never seen After Life. Life is a journey, and the purpose of the journey is to travel, not the destination. I’d like to live forever, and I’d also like a pony and a plastic rocket, but just because I won’t get any of them doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy this Current Life. This is not a dress rehearsal, and a rose is not less beautiful because it is finite.

Nihilism
(Click image for larger view, or see here.)

I’ve posted this cartoon before. I think it’s important enough to post it again.

I think nihilism gets a bum rap. Perhaps the term itself is now so indelibly linked to negativity, anomie, cynicism (according to George Bernard Shaw, “The power of accurate observation is frequently called cynicism by those who don’t have it”) and despair at the pointlessness of existence that the term itself is poison, but then two years ago I might have said the same thing about atheism. But I think people get it wrong. Existence isn’t pointless. Existence is the point.

Remember: there are squirrels.

It’s taken a long time, maybe even too long, but the people and media of the UK are starting to wonder when their formerly Great Britain became the sort of total surveillance society that the East German Stasi dreamt of building: a society where children are routinely fingerprinted and DNA samples taken for the flimsiest reason; where police can look at your phone records without judicial oversight; where the authorities set up road blocks not to look for dangerous criminals but on fishing expeditions; where there are cameras on every corner, and some of them can even count the number of people in your car by scanning for human blood.

And people are starting to wonder how it happened:

We looked with a mixture of condescension and concern at those continental countries where, despite being democratic, the State still kept a wary and distrustful eye on its citizens.

As for the Eastern bloc, thank God we did not live there!

What has happened today would have seemed unimaginable 30 years ago.

Britain has become one of the most bugged, surveyed countries on Earth.

Privacy International says we have the worst record in Europe for intrusion, and ranks us on a par with Russia.

The writer Timothy Garton Ash, who lived in Communist East Germany and later wrote a book about its Stasi secret police, said yesterday that Britain is an even more developed “surveillance state”.

We have more CCTV cameras than any other country in the world – an estimated 4.2 million of them.

We have the biggest national DNA database in the world. We probably also have one of the highest rates of monitoring.

Believe it or not, the authorities, including councils, launch bugging operations against 1,000 people a day. That could include you.

How did this happen? How did a country that was proud of its liberties, and knew the proper place of the State, allow itself to be turned into an eavesdroppers’ paradise?

It seems that there’s no sin too petty for the Little Hitlers in the UK to spy on you, and very little in the way of oversight:

Should the police wish to see your telephone records today, they no longer need to show ‘probable cause’ to a judge. They just need to turn on their computers (or phone a friend). In 2005/6, this power was used a staggering 439,000 times over 12 months – a figure certain to rise with mandatory data retention and its extension to internet usage by 2009. The lack of independent scrutiny means we can only guess what the police were up to, but in accessing records more than 1,200 times a day, we can be certain that their activities went far beyond the scope of organised crime and terrorism.

Often without their parents’ knowledge, children are fingerprinted by their schools for such trivia as identifying their lunch orders and what books they borrow from the library. These school records are a boon to a government which considers everybody a criminal, would-be criminal or soon-to-be-criminal:

Jim Knight, the minister for schools and learning, also said this summer that the police could help themselves to the children’s fingerprints if they are trying to solve a crime – regardless of whether they have ever previously been in trouble with the law. Dowty says it is turning us from a nation of free citizens into a nation of suspects: ‘Why should we have our fingerprints or DNA stored if we have done nothing wrong?’

Why indeed?

(Updated on 18 April: some minor spelling and grammar corrections.)