Those crazy Brits!

There’s speculation that we might have a general election soon; November 4th was a date I heard suggested on the radio today. Which means, since we don’t have any kind of hand-over period, that we might have a new government and a new Prime Minister on November 5th.

Guy Fawkes and cronies

To those of you who live in countries with less impetuous political systems, it might seem surprising that we don’t know yet. Well, in the UK, the Prime Minister can dissolve parliament and so trigger an election any time s/he feels like it. It’s a minimum of 17 working days from proclamation to election, according to Wikipedia. The maximum term is five years; we’re about half way through that, but since Tony Blair stepped down and Gordon Brown took over (without an election) their approval ratings have gone up, and there’s speculation Brown might take advantage with a quick election.

Despite having lived here all my life, I find it all rather extraordinary. At the very least, if the government had to give slightly more notice—three months, say—it would seem more sensible. Still, if we do have an election at the start of November, it means only a month of campaigning. Which is a bonus.

China, the Olympics, and antiquity diplomacy

I was just watching Question Time on the BBC, and the panel were asked what ‘we’ should do about Burma. Simon Schama was on the panel, and he suggested that, if China was stubborn about blocking any action via the UN, we should have a mass boycott of the Beijing Olympics, since Burma is a client state of China and the Olympics is one of the few pieces of leverage we have. I’m not going to offer any opinion about Schama’s analysis; I was just struck by something one of the audience members said: ‘What does sport have to do with politics?’

Because my immediate reaction was that this Olympics, the 2008 Olympics in China, is intensely political. I say that without knowing anything about the current state of Chinese politics; I don’t think you need to. The 2008 games just has a frisson around it, an aura. It’s the amount the Chinese government is spending, and the way they’re spending it. I mean, have you seen the stadiums they’re building? They are incredible: huge, dramatic, glamorous. Gesture architecture on the grand scale. It’s not enough for the Chinese to show they can put on a successful Olympics; they want to appear dynamic and, above all, modern.

Beijing National Stadium

It’s no coincidence that the British Museum has an exhibition that includes some of the warriors from the Terracotta Army. Or that last winter there was a huge show at the Royal Academy of work from the C18th Chinese court. It’s all surely part of a concerted effort of cultural diplomacy, an attempt to engage with the world and establish Brand China as sophisticated, exciting, a modern nation amongst modern nations. While, I’m guessing, fighting tooth and nail to keep a rigid grip on the levers of power.

Which isn’t to say that the people running China’s PR department are magicians. The insistence on using every opportunity to assert Tibet’s place as an integral part of China’s heritage seems like a bad idea to me; it just reminds people of the issue. Next year there will probably be literally millions of people who will experience a twinge of hostility, or guilt or whatever, at the moment in the opening ceremony when the mascot representing a Tibetan antelope appears. It would probably have been a better idea to avoid the negative vibes.

This isn’t particularly intended as an anti-China screed; trying to project the right national image is something all governments do, after all, it’s just that big totalitarian governments do it in a big, sweeping, control-freak manner that makes it more obvious. I guess it’s just a feeling that every so often you have to say these things explicitly because, after all, you’re kidding yourself if you think that propaganda doesn’t affect you. I’m planning to see the terracotta warriors; I’ll be watching the Olympics; it will all, inevitably, have some impact on my perception of China. The least I can do is remind myself from time to time that it is propaganda.

» the picture of the stadium is from Wikimedia. The terracotta horses are by molas on Flickr and are used under a by-nc-sa Creative Commons licence.

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Making Money by Terry Pratchett

This was a welcome relief from my ongoing attempts to get Internet Explorer to behave itself. Making Money picks up the story of Moist von Lipwig, the former con man who took over Ankh-Morpork post office in Going Postal. In this one Vetinari offers him the chance to run the Mint.

Folded dollar bill

I said that one of the things I liked about Going Postal was that there weren’t too many genre jokes and clichés surrounding post offices for Pratchett to plunder, so it was more character and situation driven; the same is true here. This one isn’t perhaps quite as strong. Good though.

» Since I don’t have a lot to say about the book, I mainly posted this reviewette as an excuse to show that neat origamied dollar bill, which is taken from Eric Gjerde‘s Flickr account and used under a by-nc Creative Commons licence.

In non-Internet Explorer related news…

The release of WordPress 2.3 is my cue to release my photoblog onto the world.

Since this blog, which is comparatively simple in terms of layout, still isn’t working properly in Internet Explorer, I shudder to think what Clouded Drab will look like. But hey-ho, let’s press on regardless. There’s only one photo at the moment, but I’ve got more queued up, so I hope you’ll check in regularly. Or of course subscribe to the RSS feed.

Polite request

Could anyone with copies of IE7 and/or IE6 please check to see whether something is working?

The menu on the right is supposed to move up and down as you scroll the window. If I’ve done it right, it should still look the same in Firefox, Opera etc; but in Internet Explorer, it should start in the same position but not move when you scroll the window.

Thanks in advance.

Oh crap.

I just got around to testing the new design on Internet Explorer via browsershots, and what do you know, it’s completely fucked up. And for most versions of IE I got an error message; I don’t know what that’s about.

It’s so bloody irritating; why can’t all the various browsers agree on how to render simple CSS? And of course it’s not very convenient for me to try and fix the problem without access to a Windows machine.

Anyway, if you’re looking at the site on Internet Explorer and it looks kind of broken: sorry. I’ll try and fix it.

grumble grumble.

New stuff coming soon

I’m being an absolute dynamo of behind the scenes activity, wrestling with HTML, php and CSS for your reading pleasure. Sort of. Anyway, in the absence of any other new posts, have a video of Seu Jorge:

If you haven’t seen The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, you should. It’s a very good film.

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40 Days and 40 Nights by Matthew Chapman

Full title: 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, OxyContin®, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania. In other words, it’s about the trial in Dover, Pennsylvania where the school board tried to put Intelligent Design into the biology classes and were found to be in breach of the constitutional separation of church and state.

evolution mural from Dover High School

I’m not quite sure why I felt the need to read a second book about this; the blurbs promised a more entertaining read, and it’s certainly livelier and bitchier than Monkey Girl, but didn’t tell me anything new. And despite what Hollywood would have you believe, trials are not inherently charged with drama. Especially this trial, which, with eleven plaintiffs and a bucketload of lawyers and expert witnesses, lacked a personal dramatic focus.

Chapman largely concentrates on personality and anecdote and glides past a lot of the technical evidence; understandably, I guess, but I would have liked more to get my teeth into.

» The photo above, which I found rather unexpectedly on Flickr, is of a mural painted by a student at Dover High School which helped kick off the whole controversy when one of the school board took offence at it and took it on himself to take it away one weekend and burn it. It’s used under a by-nc-sa CC licence.

‘Sacred’ at the British Library

I went yesterday to see Sacred at the British Library. I nearly missed it; the exhibition closes at the weekend. I’m glad I didn’t, as it was extraordinary.

Maghribi script

It’s an exhibition of sacred texts from Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and the selection is seriously impressive. For example, the show includes the Lindisfarne Gospels and a bit of a Dead Sea Scroll as just two exhibits among many. They also have one of the two oldest Christian bibles, from the C4th, an C8th Qur’an, the first printed Mishnah, Henry VIII’s psalter, copies of the Qur’an made for various sultans, a Tyndale New Testament and so on. They haven’t even bothered to include a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, presumably because they have one of those on display in their permanent exhibition anyway.

The Holkham Picture Book

Staggeringly, with a very few exceptions like the Dead Sea Scroll, all these books were part of their own collection. It’s odd to think of all these books, culturally interconnected but originally separated by many centuries and thousands of miles, having made their way, by who knows what means, from monasteries and mosques in Syria, Armenia, Ethiopia, India; and all ending up in a basement in North London.

Micrographia

Whatever my disagreements with religion, I do feel a reverential instinct towards ancient artefacts and books, so I had no difficulty feeling a sense of the sacred. And many of them are extraordinary objects in their own right. I have a new-found passion for Syriac script.

Syriac writing

There are zoomable high-resolution images of 67 of the texts available on the website, so those of you who can’t make it London this week can take a look. That’s where all the images illustrating this post came from. I have to say, generally, kudos to the British Library; all the exhibitions I’ve seen there have been excellent (and free).

» Pictures, from the top: 1) An example of Maghribi script from a C13th Spanish Qur’an. 2) One of the people drowned in the Flood in the C14th Holkham Bible Picture Book. 3) Micrographic decoration (i.e. made up of tiny writing) from The Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch, c. 1300. 4) The bible in Syriac, dated by the scribe to 463/4 AD.

Under construction

I’m in the process of changing stuff around on the site: you may encounter occasional weirdness.

EDIT: OK, the tweaking process is still going to be ongoing for a little longer and some things aren’t finished, but the new design is now basically live. This is more or less how I want it to look.

More on the atheism/science malarkey

At Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers comments on the Jake Young article I linked to earlier. The bit of his post I would pick out is this:

Once again, science is a method. It’s a general set of procedures that rest on skepticism, induction, empiricism, and naturalism. Atheism is a conclusion. We look at the universe using the tools of science, and it does not fit any description of the universe derived from religious perspectives: we therefore reject religious dogma. We also see that the nature of the universe does not reflect any of the orthodox conceptions of what a god-ruled universe would look like. We arrive at the conclusion that there is no god.

Science=method. Atheism=conclusion. They’re different.

I have a lot of sympathy with this argument, but with substantial reservations.

I agree with the argument this far: if you assembled a team of neutral observers to take a scientific approach to the question of the existence of God, looking at all the evidence and considering different hypotheses to explain it, I think they would reject the God hypothesis. Absence of evidence is not proof, but it certainly leaves you with a very weak case.

But still… I’m uncomfortable with saying that atheism is the conclusion reached by the scientific method. I guess the reason is this. When someone says ‘Science tells us [something]’, they are claiming a certain kind of authority for that idea. That authority has been painstakingly acquired over a couple of centuries via the slow, methodical, rigorous accumulation of data and the testing of ideas. It comes from millions of man-hours spent observing nature, collecting and classifying specimens, and devising and implementing experiments.

So a statement like ‘humans are descended from apes’ can be backed up carefully and in detail on the basis of the fossil record, comparative physiology and genetics. There are, presumably, thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers discussing the idea. One could make similarly scientific statements about the chemical composition of tears, the weight of the electron, and thousands of other subjects.

‘There is no God’ is not, it seems to me, a scientific statement in the same way as ‘humans are descended from apes’. Most scientists may believe it to be true, and may believe that it is the conclusion most consistent with a scientific view of the world, but that doesn’t mean that it is a product of science.

The public authority of science—the willingness of people to accept what scientists say—is already probably less than it was a few decades ago, having been attacked by a peculiar combination of the religious, New Agers, alternative medicine and cultural relativists. But it is still high. What scientists say carries weight. That authority should be valued, and not invoked lightly. When a professional scientist like P.Z. Myers says that atheism is the result of science, it seems to me he is claiming that cultural authority inappropriately, and risks weakening it.

Myers rightly makes fun of the proponents of Intelligent Design for pretending to be doing science when they’re not, and frequently points out their complete lack of published scientific papers. He rightly sees that they are trying to appear to be scientific in part because they are trying to take some of the cultural authority of science for themselves. They know that if they can convince people they are scientific they will be taken more seriously. But it seems to me that he risks doing the same thing: invoking spurious authority.

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Self-portrait with peristalsis

Actually it’s not a self-portrait—I certainly wasn’t operating the camera—but it is a picture of me. Since my blogging is generally short on personal details and I’ve never even posted a photograph of myself before, I suppose a shot of the inside of my colon seems like a rather radical step. But what the hell, it’s not like any of you are are likely to get the chance to pick my bowel out of an identity parade.

The inside of my bowel

My local hospital consists of a whole lot of buildings added at different times, all joined together by labyrinthine corridors, and all the buildings are referred to as ‘wings’: the Golden Jubilee Wing, for example. I can’t help feeling that it does serious damage to the metaphor; it would be a seriously deformed bird that had five wings, all pointing off in different directions.

They didn’t seem to be terribly worried by anything they found up there, btw. Although I suppose they might be trying to hush up the fact I’ve been impregnated by aliens.

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