Friday, July 31, 2009


Rudy Rucker
positive singularity: Robert Picardo as the holographic doctor from Star Trek Voyager - click to go to webpageWhat, then, is the Singularity? It’s a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed. Although neither utopian or dystopian, this epoch will transform the concepts that we rely on to give meaning to our lives, from our business models to the cycle of human life, including death itself. Understanding the Singularity will alter our perspective on the significance of our past and the ramifications for our future.terminator - negative singularity
This quote comes from Mike
Treder, managing director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET - which threw me off its forum before I'd written a single word on it), on the Singularity.

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologoes - click to go to websiteThe term "singularity" is a shortened from of the phrase "technological singularity" (updated to "computational singularity), and generally refers to a point at which computers will be so powerful that their intelligence will equal that of human cognitive powers before transcending them. US mathematics professor and science-fiction author Vernor Vinge, in a keynote paper, ascribes the first use of the word to Hungarian mathematician and Los Alamos scientist John von Neumann, who spoke in the 1950s of "approachingJohn von Neumann some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue". Treder, on the other hand, perhaps takes the wind out of the concept's sails by informing us that it is "often derided as wish fulfillment for perpetually adolescent (and typically male) sci fi dreamers".

Rudy Rucker's novel Postsingular, however, reveals a mind that, while bestowed (or burdened?) with a Y-chromosome, is mature and grounded. The novel's second chapter is adapted from a short story called
Chu and the Nants, which was published in Isaac Azimov's Science Fiction Magazine.

In both the short story and Postsingular, Chu is an autistic child who - like any child, I suppose - is both his mother's "joy, and her sorrow". Throughout the novel Rucker encompasses and transcends the two main genres of science fiction - "soft" (concerning sociological comment) and "hard" (concerning technological advance) - to show, for example, the joy of friendship, the pain caused by infidelity and the value of the real world, despite its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, that mAzimov's Science Fiction Magazine - click to go to websiteakes it worth fighting for.

The nants, arthropod nano-machines with power to devour reality and replicate it in virtual reality, are created by a scientist whose guilt drives him to create a world in which a childhood friend can live again. In other words, he sees no conflict between can and should. Chu's prodigious memory is an invaluable weapon in the battle against the creatures.

So we have the scene set for the second wave of nanomachines - orphids, lice-like creatures through whose actions, as Mike Treder says in the quote at the top of this post, human affairs are ireversibly transformed. For one thing, telepathy is possible and we see why Douglas Adams made this a punishment in The Restaurant at the end of the Universe: for the same reason that when Jesus said that "What you have whispered to someone behind closed doors will be shouted from the rooftops", it sounds rather ominous.

But do we have telepathy right now? No, but we have something close to it, in programmes like Big Brother, in which those who are interested can follow the minutiae of somebody's life who has consented to make their lives public property for their chance of winning a prize whose value starts at little more than zero and goes down from there.

In Postsingular, we have "dragonfly cameras" which make the activities of all visible to all who want to view them. More than this, we have scientists with wiki-patches in their brains - is this such a far step from Wikipedia, on which some scientists wish to publishinfinity - click to go to the Wikipedia article their work pre-journal? More than this, we have a soap-opera called The Founders, in which said cameras follow those who were involved in the rolling-out of the lazy-eight dimension (geddit?) so that privacy is impossible.

In positing a future society in which all is known, I believe that Rucker is inviting us to reflect upon our present situation, in which as much as we want known of others' affairs can be through, say, Google Earth: and he reminds us that the limit is within our control.

If Alan Turing, Steven Hawking and Spike Milligan formed a consortium to write science-fiction novels, they might come up with works that resembled the corpus of of Rudy Rucker. But the Swiftian whimsy, I believe, would elude them, like the lost chord animating the talking harp of legend whose rich seams Rucker mines.

In other words, Rucker is inviting us to imagine a world that isn't too different from our own, but which relies on what he calls transrealism:
By using fantastic devices it is actually possible to manipulate subtext. The familiar tools of SF — time travel, antigravity, alternate worlds, telepathy, etc. — are in fact symbolic of archetypal modes of perception. Time travel is memory, flight is enlightenment, alternate worlds symbolize the great variety of individual world-views, and telepathy stands for the ability to communicate fully. This is the “Trans” aspect. The “realism” aspect has to do with the fact that a valid work of art should deal with the world the way it actually is. Transrealism tries to treat not only immediate reality, but also the higher reality in which life is embedded.
I had been worried that science-fiction was condemned to a death by whimper or by falling way behind technology in the real world, a theme recently explored by New Scientist. But as somebody who has gone on record with my cynicism about the quality of sci-fi writing after the mid-1970's, I have to say that Rudy Rucker has proved that my obituaries of the genre were premature. Reading the work, it's not important to know what Belousov-Zhabotinsky spirals are, merely to appreciate the misery of relapse into addiction; likewise, Calabi-Yau hypersurfaces pale in the light of love doing what it does best - not running smoothly. And I laughed when the space occupied by a syncretistic shopfront church called El Santo de Israel was occupied in the Hibrane (an alternative dimension) by a clothes shop where you can pick and choose.

Other than this, the most I can tell you about Postsingular without giving too much away is that if you think you've worked out the ending before the last page, you're wrong.

click to go to Rudy Rucker's site for Postsingular

Related post: Master of Space and Time by Rudy Rucker

Monday, July 27, 2009

political blogs 2009: here's my choices!

click to find out how to vote in the Total Politics Blog Poll 2009
It's that time of year again, when Totalpolitics, in conjunction with Iain Dale's Diary, LabourList and LibDemVoice, are opening polls for the most popular British political blogs, which will be published in the Guids to Political Blogging 2009-2010.

You don't need to be British to vote, you just need to vote for British political this one!

One of the very sensible rules is that you can't publish "templates" for people to cut and paste and send in. So please accept what I offer as what it is - an explanation of why I selected the blogs I voted for, with examples of why they are my favourite blogs.

I did, of course, vote for myself - so here's the other nine!

1 - Iain Dale's Diary.
Iain is a consummate political commentator and his blog has led to him obtaining a lobby pass for the House of CIain Dale: click to go to his blog, Iain Dale's diaryommons. He is a master of the subtle art of refraining from going on the attack so that the failings of one's opponents shine through all the more clearly by being in their own words. My favourite post of his is an account of a robust interview with hard-left MP George Galloway on the latter's radio show, during which Galloway turned Dale's microphone off when he didn't like what his interlocutor was saying; the post contains a link to the interview - it's well worth hearing. Another worthwhile read is Dale's defence of Trevor Philips, head of the Equalities & Human Rights Commission, who has come under fierce attack from rent-a-bigot Yasmin Alibhai Brown because he has some common-sense ideas - which in her books makes him "a closet Tory".

2 - John Smeaton - SPUC Director.
This blog does what it says on the tin. John Smeaton is the Director of SPUC, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. We're already exploring the difficulties that Iain Dale et al will face in judging this poll, in dealing with blogs by non-party-political groups such as SPUC, which cannot but comment on politics. A recent blog displays the tightrope Smeaton must walk, quoting Tory leader David Cameron's insistence that the Government is responsible for the acts of its quangos (in the context of deciding on whether abortion services should be advertised in Great Britain), while dealing with senior Conservatives' support for reducing the number of late abortion by widening access to early abortions. It's a tricky road to navigate, but John does it with intelligence and insight.

Part of the remit of SPUC is to promote the right to life of people at the other end from birth, and a high point was the organisation's recent campaign against an amendment to a bill in the Hose of Lords to remove the threat of prosecution against those helping somebody to assist suicide. Includes much news from outside the UK and from both the Roman Catholic Church and diverse religious and political sources.

3 - Cranmer. desecrated Bible - click to go to Cranmer's blog
An Anglican theologian who blogs in persona archiepiscopi, Cranmer often hits the nail so squarely on the head that it hurts, but he's never as good for a chortle than when he's in high dudgeon. I was disappointed to see him condemned for "anti-catholic rants" when one person, for example, he praises unstintingly is Pope Benedict XVI, and he is by no means easy on his own church. His targets for boquets and brickbats reflect a voracious intellect. One of my favourite posts was when he related his struggle to be recognised as Archbishop Cranmer by Facebook but was knocked back because the site didn't allow religious titles: so he had to re-register as Ayatollah Cranmer.

On a more serious note, the virtual prelate's exposé of a Glasgow City Council-sponsored "art" installation encouraging people to desecrate the Bible was a valuable insight into the sinister agendas of the corporatist mentality - and in a city that can erupt into religious strife at the drop of a hat.

4 - Cambridge Conservatives Blog.Richard Normington - next for Cambridge?  Click to go to Cambridge Conservatives blog
This is written predominantly by Richard Normington, Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the Conservative Party for Cambridge, a city which has its own inimitable character, not least because of its 800-year-old university, but whose problems and political conflicts can mirror those of any smaller community living in the shadow of a metropolis. His comments are short, laser-sharp and sometimes shocking - for example his revelation earlier this year that no less than £50 million of a Government grant for a proposed congestion charge would have to be stumped up by the city's taxpayers. He's also commented on thefts of theoretically-secure sensitive information and the dangers of proportional representation, and recently returned from helping to represent British business interests in the Far East.

5 - Addiction Today. AS a former drugs-worker, I'm fascinated by this online presence of the magazine of the same name. Their latest post concentrates on the report on a Parliamentary group looking at the lack of treatment options for people who have become addicted to prescribed benzodiazepines (tranquillisers like Diazepam, etc). The group is chaired by Jim Dobbin, a Labour MP who is, among other things, a passionate pro-lifer. It's also not afraid to put the NTA (National Treatment Agency for Drug Misuse) on the spot and, in a classic post by Dierdre Boyd, the quango was asked to explain why over 50,000 people in receipt of Methadone were not required to attend any sort of therapeutic intervention, why residential rehabs are being closed, and why the organisation denied the existence of one of its own assessment tools. Here we have another example of a blog which isn't party-political, but is undoubtedly, among other things, a political blog. Should the Conservatives win the next election, I think Addiction Today and John Smeaton will be asking us some very hard questions.

6 - There's Nothing British about the BNP. This site is invaluable in its relentless insistence that the National Socialist organisation (British National Party) face up to questions from all sectors of the communities that its two new representatives in the European Parliament, Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons, represent. Check out the ten questions it sent to the two on the day they took up their seats.

7 - Conservative History Journal. Iain Dale's one of the contributors to the blog of the Conservative History Group and the aforementioned journal. Go here for fascinating insights into and analysis of historical events and also reviews of historical books. One very poignant post was about the recent death of Harry Patch, Britain's last veteran of the WWI trenches. Also intriguing was an article on the Battle of the Boyne and how the religious and national politics surrounding it were much more confused than communities who inform their identity therefrom often pretend.

8 - The Blue Blog. thinking the right way: click to go to the Blue Blog
The offical blog of the Conservative Party often carries contributions from senior Party figures as well as contributions from rank-and-file members. A fascinating entry was by David Burrowes MP, who represents Gary McKinnon, who in his impending extradition to the US for hacking into federal computers is being failed by both Labour's political laziness in leaving t's uncrossed and i's undotted when the extradition treaty was drawn up, and by the Foreign Secretary's unwillignness to make his voice heard.

9 - Burke's Corner. The author describes himself as "a communitarian conservative and post-liberal Anglican", and presents closely-reasoned essays on modern history and current affairs, from points of view cogent with those that informed Edmund Burke, the Irish-born founder of modern Conservatism. Often controversial and always challenging, his latest article looks at the implications of Richard Nixon's loss to JF Kennedy by 0.1% of the vote in the 1960 presidential election for the modern Republican Party.

Anyway, these are my choices. There are, of course, many blogs from outside the UK that I follow - for example, I think the Jewish Internet Defence Fund would sympathise with Cranmer's travails on Facebook, and for the tell-it-like-it-is tales from the life of a US home-educating Mum, you can't go wrong with Don't Poke the Baby. I hope there's a chance to vote for them in other polls.

So go now and make your own choices - and please don't forget old Frugal Dougal!

Friday, July 24, 2009

de superbia nordovicumque

I'm sorry if tEcce Romani - click to go to the websitehe title seems a little arrogant. I didn't intend it to be so - I'm not even absolutely sure it's correct - it was just, as it were, a postcard from the past.

Many years ago, I attended St Scylla's, a secondary comprehensive school in Glasgow's East End. One of my favourite subjects was Classical Studies. Mr Dux's gentle Irish brogue guided us through the regiments of gods governing Greece and Rome, and helped us navigate translations (in prose) of the Odyssey and the Aeneid. I expressed an interest in Latin, as the resemblances to (and differences from) the Italian I was learning in Modern Languages intrigued me. He seemed to sense some sort of aptitude, and gave me Book One of Ecce Romani, the standard Latin course, followed by the sequels as I devoured each one. He was unable to give me any tuition as his schedule was full, but the experience of learning a language by myself introduced me to autodidacticism. I have so much to thank him for.
historic victory: click to read David Cameron's reaction

The reason that arrogance is on my mind is because of a remark by polymath Minister Harriet Harman, MP for Camberwell and Peckham, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Leader of the House of Commons and Minister of Women and Equality, on Conservative candidate Chloë Smith's convincing win in the Norwich North seat, previously held by Labour. As reported on Iain Dale, "the Tory reaction to the Norwich result is "arrogant" means they have now won the general election, and it's in the bag". (Go to Dale's site to see the video, which I can't embed here because despite - or because of -my daughters' gentle ministrations, my computer is still in a huff.)

There will be much analysis of the Norwich North election in the days to come and in the months before Gordon Brown suffers us to have a general election. I would, of course, like to wish Chloë Smith well deserved congratulations, but would otherwise like to concentrate, in descending order, on three aspects of arrogance that seem not to have occurred to Ms Harman.


Identifying targets will lead to improvement

Obviously we all need goals, but the target culture is something entirely different: it is the application of game theory to management thence assumed into politics - basically that if you give targets to sectors then leave it to them as to how to meet those targets, the result will be all things to all people. Case in point: Labour plans to have as few people as possible claiming unemployment benefit, therefore one would assume that the party would direct as many unemployed people as possible towards work; instead, it directs them towards other benefits, such as incapacity benefit or DLA, thus making life harder for those (of whom I have been one) who have genuinely had to take advantage of one of these. Things have gotten so bad that before the financial crisis, the Telegraph's Edmund Conway reported that there were over nine million people of working age without a job in Great Britain.

is labour working?
I was one of them. Having had an exacerbation of my manic-depression and not wishing to work as a nurse any more, I went to the local jobcentre, explained my position, and was refused admission, the lady on the desk (flanked by two rather big chaps) explaining that I'd have to go down a different "pathway" because I was disabled. So I did, and when I explained to the lady at the rainbow's end that I didn't feel I could work with people in a therapeutic capacity any more because of my illness, she exclaimed that she had just the job she could have me trained up for: a youth worker. 'Nuff said.


Reducing education to the lowest common denominator will raise standards

The government seems to be forever bellycaching about the 7% of children who are privately educated, without considering the situation of the 93% it is doing its best to betray. The number one culprit is the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls - who, for example, in March of this year accused private schools of trying to cream off brainy kids with the offer of an international qualification.

School is, of course, the best place to get qualifications, because childhood is the best time to learn anything. But while opportunities for education of various kinds will present themselves throughout life (a friend in his 80s is writing a thesis for a degree), the drive that some young people have to start working and start earning can be so easily smothered by the demands of an educational process from which they have felt detached for some years. So why can't people under 16 apply for apprenticeships? Could it be that, if they have been educated in a failing state school, they - like their older peers - don't have the skills to start work?


What's possible is right

Mary Shelley's prescient visionIn the early 19th century, Mary Shelley used her novel, Frankenstein, to explore the consequences of "can" being treated as a synonym for "may". Tony Blair's enthusiasm for research into the possibilities of embryonic stem cells continued unabated despite Professor Hwang Woo-suk's high-profile admission of fraud. (This despite it being easier to list the parts of the adult body that pluripotent stem cells can't be gotten from than vice versa.) At the other end of life, there is a movement to legalise assisted suicide, which is economics dressed up as compassion. Thankfully, that movement is being resisted; as just one example, the son-in-law of a man who was killed in Switzerland's Dignitas clinic was moved to question the profits of the place, if they were providing such a service to mankind. I should also say that, having been a nurse, I find it disturbing that the Royal College of Nursing has adopted a "neutral" position on assisted suicide.

I realise that Bismarck described politics as "the art of the possible", but much more is possible now than was in the days of der Eiserne Kanzler. Politics is now so much more than the art of the possible: it is the arena within which our leaders must discern between that which is possible and can build up society, and the possibilities which will lead us to hell in a handcart.

We need to be led by people who have the strength to choose the better of the two, which is why in the next election I will be following the wise lead of the people of Norwich North and voting Conservative - not least because it was under a Conservative government that a teacher was able to give me, with his Latin textbooks, the greatest gift of all: the ability to learn outside of the classroom.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

swine flu - is it time to panic yet?

At work, I took a call from somebody who wasn't going to be able to make it in because she was displaying symptoms of swine flu. I replied it was a shame that she couldn't come and breathe all over us, so that we'd get the bug and hopefully emerge alive and immune to the predicted more serious outbreak later this year; she commiserated with me. When I related this to colleagues, wiser heads breathed a sigh of relief that the effective ban on joking about the bug had been lifted. ok, I think we've got the idea: click to go to the NHS National Pandemic Flu Service

And it was real relief - visiting various workplaces, I've met some very tense people who would not need an especially hard shove to tip them over into panic.

Hampshire, southern England
The stampede of folk who sought to have themselves diagnosed (or otherwise) with swine flu that crashed the new Government website, for example, smacks of panic; in April, a newspaper forecast 20,000 deaths in the southern English county of Hampshire (population 1.75 million); and Professor Steve Field, chairman Professor Steve Field
of the Royal College of General Practitioners, has accused the National Childbirth Trust, in its instructions to woman who want families to try not to conceive at the moment, of "a completely disproportionate reaction...because it adds to the sense of hysteria and panic that seems to be engulfing the nation".

The Telegraph's Jon Swaine reports that the Government has had to deny giving mixed messages to pregnant women, as it originally (wisely) told them not to travel on, say, London's tube at rush-hour, then said that good hand hygeine is sufficient.

I wouldn't wish to minismise the importance of handwashing - the RCGP's Pandemic Planning document states "The good news is that flu viruses are easily deactivated by washing with soap and water or alcohol handrub and by cleaning surfaces with normal household detergents and cleaners" (my italics). But Cambridge University, like others, is taking the eminently sensible step of formulating a "swine flu action plan" should the beastie get bad around the time of the next intake, having learnt from the phenomenon of "fresher flu" (not to mention fresher mumps, glandular fever and sexually transmitted diseases). Likewise, it was reassuring to see that the city's Addenbrooke's hospital is remaining calm in the face of mounting dissatisfaction.

When this outbreak was beginning, something that might have helped could have been a strategy which, although now frowned on, saved many of us over a certain age from the more serious consequences of catching childhood diseases in adulthood - the "chickenpox party" (or measles party, mumps party, etc). That wouldn't be a very clever thing to do now though, because the virus has changed already.

So what's the problem?

The problem is twofold. Firstly, overprescription of Tamiflu, a medication manufactured by Roche that is said to take the edge off the illness and sometimes even shorten its duration. Two years ago, Swedish researchers found that not all oseltamivir, the active ingedient of Tamiflu, is broken down in the body: some passes into the sewage system, thence the water supply, unchanged. The researchers concluded that "there is a risk that [antiviral medications such as Tamiflu] will be ineffective when most needed, such as during the next influenza pandemic". In June, mutated swine flu was detected in Brazil; early in July, a strain of Tamiflu-resistant flu was reported in a teenager in Hong Kong who hadn't taken the drug, and later in the month another mutation was found in London: all responding, no doubt, to evolutionary pressure exerted by the inappropriate administration of anti-flu medication.

manipulative: horror-film imagery used to push flu vaccines
Secondly, at the recommendation of the World Health Organisation, we used to have a policy of vaccinating vulnerable groups against ("ordinary") influenza - older people, children with illnesses like diabetes, people who are immunocompromised, etc. Some years ago, the Government changed this to a manipulative campaign pushing flu vaccination to just about everybody, and this was backed up with documentaries detailing the attritions of the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918 and the chances of another pandemic. The intended effect of mild hysteria provided perfect fodder for the incipient panic we are now seeing.

We do need to keep a sense of perspective, however. For example, over here in Blighty, thirty-one people are said to have died of the flu, but the figure is constantly being revised as people are found to have died alongside their flu from a third cause. Case in point: poor six-year-old Chloe Buckley had swine-flu, but actually died from toxic shock as a result of a tonsillectomy. The World Health Organization's table charting the progress of Influenza A(H1N1) - swine flu - shows, as of the end of June, 2,506 cases diagnosed, and precisely one death confirmed by laboratory analysis. (21,449 and 87 respectively in the US, which of course borders on Mexico, the country of origin.)

The title of the Telegraph's editorial captures it exactly, quoting an undistributed WWII poster that would have been published had the Germans invaded: Keep calm and carry on. Or, as a wise old boss of mine once said: "Don't worry - when it's time to panic, I'll tell you to panic."

keep calm and carry on

related posts

Swine flu and the hazard of hysteria

Happy birthday Charles Darwin

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

crocs, giraffes and the vagrant nerve: Inside Nature's Giants

Joy Reidenberg: click to view her webpage at Mount Sinai School of Medicine
Last night, I saw history made. In the 19th century, the entire length of a giraffe's vagus nerve was dissected out for the first time. Now, for the first time on film, the entire length of the giraffe's recurrent laryngeal nerve (which goes down the length of the neck and part of which joines the vagus nerve, which then goes right on down to the abdomen before returning) has been dissected out - by Dr Joy Reidenberg, as part of the last episode of Inside Nature's Giants. In each of four instalments we saw, in the words of Professor Alun Williams of the Royal Veterinary College, "the post mortem of large wild animals – an opportunity that doesn’t very often happen even in the life of a vet."Inside Nature's Giants: click to go to the Channel 4 Website of the series

Vagus is Latin for "wandering", and in humans alone it's easy to see why the nerve is so named, as it meanders more than Leopold Bloom - originating in the brain, passing into the neck and going past the voicebox, thence through the chest to the abdomen. In the giraffe, the thing's more redolent of Odysseus, going down the entire length of the neck before returning.

A comparative anatomist and Associate Professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, from where she received the Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award among many others (as well as, for example, from the American Association of Anatomists and Society for Marine Mammalogy), she reacted with dignity when Richard Dawkins, behind her, counselled her to be careful not to cut the nerve at a crucial point in its dissection.

Preofessor Dawkins has appeared in short slots throughout the series, although I was surprised that he only popped up twice in last week's programme, during which a crocodile which had died unexpectedly was dissected.

crocodile embryo: click to go to Richard Dawkins' article on croc evolution on the Inside Nature's Giants siteThe reason I was surprised at this was because, to explain why the crocodile has two aortas the team took us through its embryological development. Other embryos lose one or other aortic arches during development, but crocodiles retain both so that when necessary the "extra" one can carry deoxygenated blood, which has a lower pH, to the stomach to help manufacture the amounts of acid necessary to begin digestion of large chunks of meat.

I would've expected more input on this from the author of books like The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype, because for somebody who believes that bodies are vehicles for genes travelling through the ages like a great river (the concept behind 1995's River out of Eden), the game's just about over by the time of birth, for vertebrates at least. All that's then necessary is surviving long enough for the purposes of "finding at least one heterosexual partner and successfully copulating" (in Dawkins' words in the aforementioned work); and for humans, he adds in The God Delusion, sticking together until the offspring reach adolescence.

Ernst Haeckel: click to read a biographyThere's a lot of theorising about embryos that is frankly strange - for example, that represented by the phrase "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" coined by Ernst Haeckel in 1866, seven years after Darwin published his first edition of The Origin of Species. This was the theory that an embryo recalled in its form the stages through which life had evolved to give rise to that particular species. There's debate about whether the famous drawing, of which the last section is reproduced below, can be traced back to Haeckel, and I realise that some biologists are returning to the theory, albeit with major qualifications - for example with observations that human embryos have develop, for very short periods, structures resembling a yolk sac and gill slits. ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: speculative embryology

Not only did Dawkins not mention embryology, but you can imagine my surprise when I read in River Out of Eden:
after numerous foldings-in, pushings-out, bulgings and stretchings of layers of cells...when the total number of cells has reached into the trillions, the final product is a baby. No, even the baby is not final, because the whole growth of the individual - again, with some parts growing faster than others - past adulthood into old age should be seen as an extension of the same process of embryology: total embryology.
I wouldn't like to present Dawkins as a pro-lifer, and his statement that the moral case for selective abortion will become overwhelming doesn't endear me, as a person living with a disability that tends to run through families, to him; but his statement above still seems to anticipate and turn on it's head that of John Harris, Professor of Bioethics at Manchester University, making the case for euthanasia for newborn babies:
We can terminate for serious foetal abnormality up to term but cannot kill a newborn. What do people think has happened in the passage down the birth canal to make it okay to kill the foetus at one end of the birth canal but not at the other?
Something that made me sit up during the giraffe autopsy was when Graham Mitchell of the University of Wyoming - described by narrator Mark Evans as "the giraffe expert" - commented that the piston-like system of inflating the huge creature's lungs to make running possible "couldn't have been better designed"; there was a polite laugh from the audience of veterinary students when he corrected himself "...evolved". It might have been a simple case of coming out with the wrong word, but the hasty correction reminded me of a phrase from the introduction to the 1996 edition of Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker: "I was reminded of the creationist student who, through some accident of the selection procedure, was once admitted to the Zoology Department at Oxford University".

"That's not intelligent design", Reidenberg remarked of the giraffe's vagus nerve, and I would have found it difficult to disagree. Nor would I have wanted to - I don't predicate intelligence of evolution any more than I do, say, of heat as it boils water, or - more importantly - of yeast as it turns malt and hops into beer. I attribute intelligence, rather, to the person who starts off the process with a specific end in mind. In the case of the kettle or the brewery, the end is a cup of tea or a pint in the Tintinnabula with Professor Calculus.

In that of Creation, I believe God created the universe aeons ago so that it would unfold in a certain way, and is continually present to nurture us if we choose to use our free will to take advantage of that. I realise many will disagree with me - not least some of my co-religionists - but being able to communicate with each other and thereby develop and learn is one of the great things about living in a society in which, at the time of writing, we are to read Joy Reidenberg's giraffe facts on the Inside Nature's Giants website

Related posts: elephants, arthritis and euthanasia: Inside Nature's Giants

Whales and unintelligent evolution: Inside Nature's Giants

Click here to go to the Channel 4 website for Inside Nature's Giants

Sunday, July 19, 2009

hot gossip: Sarah Kennedy and the obvious observation

In his autobiography Mustn't Grumble, veteran surrealist DJ Terry Wogan describes the attachment that BBC Radio 2 listeners have to their weekday captains of the airwaves:
Radio 2 weekdays is a "personality" network. People don't listen to Sarah Kennedy, [now-retired] Jimmy Young or even me for the music. They listen because they've become attached to the person presenting the programme - and, because of the personal, very intimate nature of the radio, far more deeply attached than they would ever become to any presenter on television.
It appears that the first of this trio, Sarah Kennedy, has been "spoken to" for remarking on her Wednesday 8 July early-morning show that the late Enoch Powell was "the greatest Prime Minister that Britain never had".

Enoch PowellThis is as close to a mortal sin as you can get in the radically secularist broadcasting monolith. Enoch Powell started World War II as a private and ended it a brigadier, and had a parliamentary career lasting 37 years. He had many high spots as an MP - for example, his Address to the National Association of Mental Health Annual Conference while Minister of Health in 1961, often referred to as "the watertower speech", which set out an agenda to integrate psychiatric wards into the general hospital structure. But stormtroopers of the liberal-socialist axis categorise Powell by a 20-minute speech made to the Conservative Political Central group in a Birmingham hotel in 1968. It's referred to - wrongly - as the "Rivers of Blood speech", probably because of a reference to Virgil's Aeneid: "like the Roman, I seem to see 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood'".

The speech was about the impact of immigration upon Great Britain. It was delivered in the idiom of another time. I don't endorse phrases like "'in 15 or 20 years' time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man'", of course - but it wasn't original Powell, it was a quote from one of his working-class constituents.

And there's the rub: the dirty little secret that Labour and the BBC conspire to keep between them is that much of the racism we see today comes from the group that Labour sees as its natural electoral fodder - white working class people. We recently suffered the national humiliation of seeing two BNP (British National Party) candidates sent to the European parliament on a slogan of "the Labour Party your grandfather would recognise", elected by abandoned working class people - like an abused daughter seeking out an abusive husband - in constituencies gerrymandered to produce a Labour winner with a ridiculous proportion of the vote.

The disciplinary action against Kennedy seems to have spread shockwaves of compliance through Radio 2. The evening after, Stuart Maconie delivered a bizarre apology at the end of the show he shares with Mark Radcliffe because his guest, fellow presenter Claudia Winkleman, had referred to Oasis as "the best band in the world".

politically correct thought policewoman: Claudia Winkleman
What happened next, on Winkleman's own show, Hot Gossip, was instructive. In a comedy show based on rumours about showbusiness types where anybody is ostensibly fair game, one of the panel started telling a joke about lesbians - and was promptly shouted down by Winkleman, who sounded fairly desperate to change the subject.

Loony leftists like the BNP (deliberately misbranded as "far right") will not be defeated by running away from sensitive issues and shooting the messenger on the flimsiest of pretexts; Kennedy's remark sparked 25 complaints. Compare the 63,000 protests against the screening of Jerry Springer: the Opera by BBC2 in 2005, or the 38,000 against Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand's obscene messages on Andrew Sachs' answerphone about his granddaughter.
Harold Wilson, twice Labour Prime Minister
And what of enoch Powell? Having contributed decisively to the Conservatives' 1970 general election win, a 1972 opinion poll found him the most popular politician in the land. After having encouraged people to vote Labour in the 1974 election over Britain having joined the EEC (now the EU) under Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath, he returned as an Ulster Unionist MP after turning down an offer from BNP precursors the National Front to stand for them. I had always been puzzled as to why Labour hadn't taken on Powell in 1974, given the enthusiastic support shown by trade-unionists to his 1968 Birmingham speech. Professor Calculus provided an answer for me when he remarked that, had Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson welcomed Powell into the party, he would have been welcoming his successor.

So when Sarah Kennedy described him as the best Prime Minister we never had - something that's unremarked upon when said of, say, Dennis Healey or Iain Duncan Smith - she was doing nothing but stating the obvious.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

vote for the happy yellow dog!

click to see voting rules!
It's that time of year again! The Total Politics Blog Poll will decide which blogs go into the top 100s of various categories and the Top 500 in the Total Politics Guide to Political Blogging 2009-10 - Conservative, Labour, Green blogs etc - and you were kind enough to put me at number 68 in the Top 100 Conservative Blogs last year.

The poll, this year, is being promoted/sponsored by LabourList, LibDemVoice and Iain Dale's Diary.

You don't have to be British to vote, but you need to vote for ten British political blogs - you can access loads of them at the Total Politics blog directory. Only email that vote for ten political blogs from the UK will be entertained.

My manifesto? I'm a stubborn, opinionated cyber-reactionary, and I promise not to make things easy for sociopathic minority groups. And I like cats.

So vote for the Happy Yellow Dog of the Fens (by appointment) - you know it makes a strange kind of sense!

click for voting details

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Christians in Xinjiang are suffering too

Uighurs (sometimes spelt "Uyghurs" in Latin script, and pronounced "wee-ghurs") don't seem to have their problems to seek right now. Having rioted against the Han Chinese in Urumqi, capital of Xinjian Uighur Autonomous Region - whose numbers, explains Malcolm Moore, the Telegraph's Shanghai correspondent, have risen from 6% of the region's population when Mao set up the People's Republic in 1949 to 40% now - they were prevented from attending Mosque on Friday, and will not be allowed to mourn their dead according to the Chinese custom, a week after death.

There is, however, another minority to think of in Xinjiang - Christians. For example, in his 2007 book Under the heel of the Dragon - Islam, Racism, Crime and the Uighur in China, Blaine Kaltman writes:
The Chinese constitution contains a guarantee of freedom of religion for ethnic minorities. However, the Chinese Communist Party, aware of the role that the Catholic Church played in undermining Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, is suspicious of organized religious activity.
Although I'm unable to get details of how the Roman Catholic Church in Xinjiang is getting on right now, there has been evidence for some time of oppression of Chistians generally in the region, who have to worship in house churches.

Most recently, according to ChinaAid, Beitun House Church, in the A'Ler Tai area of Xinjiang, was raided resulting in the arrest of eight Christians, including two Chinese-American missionaries. Two were released, the missionaries are missing, and four are being held in an undisclosed location. Alimujiang Yimiti, who I repored last year to have been arrested for being a Christian, is sill in prison, despite the local Public Security Bureau having declared "insufficient evidence" to prove that he was "endangering national security, namely instigating separatism and stealing, penetrating, purchasing and illegally providing state secrets or intelligence for overseas organisations and individuals".

Alimujiang's crime is in fact twofold. Firstly, he converted some years ago from Islam to Chritanity, in a region where, in the trial of Christian Lou Yuanqi last December (accused of "utilizing superstition to undermine the law"), the judge acknowledged that Christians were persecuted in the region,but added: "If the Christians have more religious freedom in areas outside Xinjiang, they should consider leaving Xinjiang because Xinjiang is special".

Secondly, Alimujiang belongs to one of many house churches, whereas an undated statement on the PRC's embassy in the US states that "there are no house churches in China".

Last November, when Muslim Uighur Arzigul Turzun was abducted by the state for being pregnant with her third child and was going to be subjected to a forced abortion, two US Congressmen, Chris Smith and Joe Pitts, came forward to organise an international campaign. She was released. Days ago, in response to the riots, The Progressive published an article called Xinjiang Riots Crucial Test for Chinese Regime, in which it bemoaned
the painfully measured U.S. response to the Xinjiang violence, in which it says it is 'deeply concerned,' is 'trying to sort out . . . the facts' and calls 'on all sides to exercise restraint.'
That is, at least, a response; while Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is said to have spoken with his Chinese counterpart for an hour on the riots, the British Government has been quiet as a churchmouse.

The Russian foreign ministy, on the other hand, has averred that the riots are an internal matter for the Chinese. And well they might: just as a central matter in the Urumqi riots are Han colonisaton of a region that is Chinese in name only, ethnic Russians, before and during the long, arid day of the USSR, pushed Westward, Eastward and Southward through the empire to give it more of a Russian character.

Over here in the UK, we are seeing the fruits of the Plantation of Ulster with Scottish protestants as the Orange marching season, celebrating the later Battle of the Boyne - whose religious and national boundaries were much more porous than many modern Catholics and Protestants wish to believe - erupts in violence again.

Northern Ireland still has some way to go, but is much improved because of the efforts of Irish, American and British statesmen concerned to preserve its Christian character. The Turks are following the fates of the Uighurs closely because of their shared ethnic and religious roots; Iran is watching because of the latter.

There are an estimated 184 dead and 1800 injured in the Urumqi riots, which would be difficult to minimise, much as China will try. While this may seem to overshadow the ever-present persecution of the region's Christians in the headlines, isn't it time to draw attention to the plight of our suffering brethren?

You can find out more about Alimujiang Yimiti and the many persecuted Christians in China at ChinaAid.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

"I need to say my say"

Katie Price at a book-signingAlter-egos can be a bit of a bother. Leonard Nimoy once broke down during the shooting of Star Trek because he was living life as Spock; David Bowie had to kill off Ziggy Stardust because he was getting somewhat confused as to which persona he actually was; and Olympic swimming champion turned Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller reportedly spent a short portion of his personal life in character.

Katie Price is a British glamour model, authoress and horsewoman who used to go under the name of Jordan. Just what she thought was sexy about the name of a small middle-eastern country that struggles with Islamism I don't know, but there you go.

Peter André - click to read about Bollywood deal
Having recently had a high-profile split with her husband, singer Peter André, that has caused a tabloid feeding frenzy, she's just had an interview with former News of the World editor Piers Morgan broadcast, on the grounds that "I need to say my say". She dealt with the question of whether Katie Price was the real woman and Jordan the persona, or vice versa, by saying that "there'll always be a bit of Jordan"; a clip was shown of her in a nightclub in Ibiza informing a group of admiring males that "I'm Katie Price tonight, sophisticated, but after midnight Jordan might come out". She then lifted her top to display her underwear, justifying this to Morgan by describing herself as an exhibitionist.

It can't be easy for any man to be married to a woman who is both so enhanced as to resemble a blow-up doll, and is a former topless model (appearing once in Playboy) who occasionally returns in somewhat more restrained fashion to the pursuit. Their relationship started oMary Pickford - click to read moren the TV substitute for watching paint dry, I'm a celebrity, get me out of here and was charted in the series When Katie met Peter. Much of their life together has been televised, the strain showing in their last series, Katie and Peter: Stateside in which they tried to break into the US market - an activity which has sent more than one marriage onto the rocks. (And not necessarily through failure, as is shown by, for example, the romantic life of "America's Sweetheart", Mary Pickford.)

There's a corrosive side to fame: being a celebrity is often an occupation which eats its own children. Morgan writes on his website about the pressures faced by celebrities in a defence of Susan Boyle, the apparent heir to the crown of this year's Britain's got Talent who unexpectedly lost in the final:
Everywhere you go, people recognise you and want a piece of you - an autograph, a photo, a quick song, a chat to their mum on a mobile phone.

You can’t got out any more without being mobbed in the streets. You can’t nip down the supermarket for a pint of milk or go to the paper shop...

All the fun of being propelled into international acclaim starts to disappear. And you start to feel jittery, self-conscious, paranoid, and fractious.
Just so, Price complained of going out on the town a limited number of times, and being approached by people who would snap her on their phones and sell the pictures to the press. I don't know what was going on, but can understand her defence that she looks in a worse state than she is in these images - I've got a snap of myself taken when I was sober as a judge: I look as if I'd drunk London and Las Vegas dry.

So what lies behind Katie Price's urge to bare all in front of the camera, sometimes in every sense? OK, she says she's an exhibitionist, but I know somebody who makes the same claim and contents himself with breaking into song in public.

Piers Morgan and Katie PriceThe last time Price and Morgan met, it was on Piers Morgan's Life Stories, when she told of doing a photoshoot for a man when she was a teenager, then discovering he was a paedophile. Then she admitted, for the first time, that she had been attacked by "a wierdo in the park" as an infant. She'd previously talked about shocking her family when, aged 13, she was given some money for a dress and got hold of something very revealing. (I wonder who sold it to her?)

I was a psychiatric nurse for a long time - until my manic depression convinced me iJoan Collinst was time to do some admin - and met a lot of people who had been abused. In time you might hear that they had an "exhibitionist" streak, in the sense of lacking boundaries, and very often that this was expressed in a sexual way, especially in women. Our society has many sinister sides: one is that it seems to be acceptable in some quarters for women to bare all without questions being asked when the baring all has the smell of a compulsion. Tabloids all over the world feed on it, printing pictures of the deshabillé girl then presuming to take the moral high ground. I saCaroline Flint, who complained about being used as window-dressing: click to read about a spectacular own goaly "girl" advisedly: Morgan, who is 45, at one point told Price, who is all of 31 years old, "You're no spring chicken, love!" (He seems to be unaware that women over 30 can look good, like Joan Collins; or, closer to his own age, Labour politician Caroline Flint.)

I'm sure this story will keep on running until the media beast finds another victim to "fête and slate". There's a whole lot of proxy bickering going on between Price and André. Unfortunately, sometimes a marriage does go to Hell in a handcart, and it's not an easy thing to behold: any breakdown, if reported on continually, would make uncomfortable reading or viewing.

A sign of hope, perhaps, is Price's assertion that she hadn't gotten married to get divorced; and Kant would have nodded sagely at the nod to his Theory of Ends when she opined that people shouldn't have babies for the purpose of saving a relationship. Can we put her in charge of the fight against saviour siblings?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

how I learnt to stop worrying and love the bomb

Gordon Brown, it seems, is considering scaling down Great Britain's nuclear arsenal in order to provide an exampe to rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran that it isn't necessary to maintain a nuclear arsenal.

Campaign for nuclear disarmament: but what if the other side doesn't disarm?I was somewhat nonplussed by this. I'm aware that CND (the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), founded in 1957 by - among others - Michael Foot, later to be leader of the Labour Party, proposed unilateral disarmament on the grounds that potential aggressors might be nice to us if we divest ourselves of the means to defend ourselves against them. I hadn't realised that the madness continued until today.

How many countries possess nuclear weapons? It's difficult to tell. We have, of course, the US, Great Britain, France, China, India and Pakistan. North Korea is strongly hinting that it has the beast. Both Israel and Switzerland would be mad not to have nuclear weapons. It would be surprising if South Africa didn't have the bomb, given the proliferation of uranium in and around the country.

Tyson versus BrunoSo it would be interesting to see if any other countries than the US and the UK are volunteering to downgrade their defence systems. I note that on the same day that the proposal to downsize UK and US nuclear arsenals happened, we have the 20th anniversary of boxer Mike Tyson's winning the world heavyweight championship (against Brit Frank Bruno). So how did he win - by keeping his arms at his side and hoping that his example would encourage Frank not to hit him; or did he fight?

I'm not making Great Britain out to be a Great Power; I'm merely saying that we need the means to defend ourselves, and if that includes having a nuclear deterrant, so be it. The whole point about the bomb is hopefully not to use it - but should matters deteriorate, we need to have the option to use it first.

To look at a worked example, take 9/11. I remember that on the day after it was reported that the attacks on the World Trade Center should be treated as use of weapons of mass destruction.

we can't undo itSo, imagine that the Afghan government had been given, say, 48 hours' notice that a low-yield nuclear warhead would land on a sparsely-populated area. They would have done one of two things: evacuate the area, or bus people into it on the point of a gun. But, if the threat had been carried through, one thing would have been certain: that the free world was prepared to defend its freedom with all the resources available to it.

I hope, and I pray, that nuclear weapons are never used. But if there is any chance of their being used against us, we need to be in a position to assure potential aggressors that what is received will be given back.

Lord, we are broken people: if it be your will, bring us to a time when we need study war no more.

Monday, July 6, 2009

whales and unintelligent evolution: inside nature's giants

Fin whales, from a Faroese stampIn the late 60's in Ayrshire, in south-west Scotland, a minor sensation accompanied a showman as he travelled round showing off an embalmed whale. Perhaps slightly misreading his Bible, he had christened the beast "Jonah the Whale"; we kids dutifully ooh'd and aah'd because the thing had been so hyped-up by the Mums at nursery school, but we were expecting a leviathan from our storybooks, and this creature was about the length of two cows standing nose-to-tail. And, as I recall, it was peeling a bit.

On the other hand, the whale featured in tonight's Inside Nature's Giants on Channel 4 was truly colossal. A fin whale - second in size only to the blue whale - the cause of death, after collision with a ship had been ruled out, was reckoned to have been grounding herself on the sandbank on Courtmacsherry Bay in Cork where she was found, then suffocating as her huge lungs were unable to inflate under the weight of a body unsupported by water.

Mark Evans: click to read about his unusual career on his homepageAgain we had the same intelligent graphics with a voiceover by veterinary surgeon and presenter Mark Evans that last week were put to work teasing out the evolutionary pathway of the elephant. The first "whale", he reckoned, was Pakicetus, a primarily land-living mammal which for some reason headed for the sea and whose progeny saw no reason to leave.

First of all, the whale had to be "deflated" by making small cuts along the blubber. As a cautionary example, a clip was shown of a dead whale being cut open in Denmark and the gases which had gathered post-mortem literally exploding out. That having beclick to go to the homepage of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Groupen done, comparative anatomist Joy Reidenberg of Mt Sinai School of Medicine - described by Evans as "the queen of whale anatomy" - masterfully dissected the animal as far as she could with the help of the Irish Whale and Dolphin group. I say "as far as she could" because the skeleton had been promised to the nearby community of Kilbrittain to display. So she couldn't saw through the ribs to get the heart, which was anchored in place by structures to high up for her to reach.

But those parts she did get were a revelation. The larynx looked about the size of a German shepherd's kennel, and in the search for the hyoid bone - which, she explained, helps the whale both produce sound for echolocation and swim - she had to snap off the point where the clavicles (collar-bones) fuse: it looked like the wishbone from a Brobdingnag chicken.

Dr Joy Reidenberg
Dr Reidenberg seemed a little more willing than the members of the Royal Veterinary society who autopsied the elephant in last week's programme to get into the "intelligent design" debate, saying of the multi-chambered stomach more suited to chewing a cow's cud , and the "vestigial back leg" about the size of an adult human femur, that "if evolution were intelligent we wouldn't have these handicaps - it's a mishmash".

Having never predicated intelligence of evolution, I was rather nonplussed. It's like saying that the processes of slow-cooking or printing a paper are intelligent. I believe that the ingredients of the feast or the thesis were intelligently put together, and that evolution is the inevitable working-out of the right ingredients being together at the right time and put under the right pressures on a planet in just the right place...everything is tuned to within a hair's-width. The only alternative to this scenario which physicists have forwarded is an infinity of alternative universes, each different by a hair's-width (the only half-convincing proof of this is that you never do find those lost socks).

The position I embrace is hardly falsifiable, but I have a strange bedfellow in this, in that Richard Dawkins casts aspersions on Karl Popper's doctrine that a hypothesis is only scientific if it can potentially be proved to be false in The Blind Watchmaker. He believes that explanations will be found for that which cannot yet be explained; I too believe that all things will be known eventually.

Dawkins made six short appearances in the documentary, wearing a bright orange windcheater that didn't seem to shelter him from the studio lights where he was filmed. Something that surprised me was that he never mentioned the phrase "the delusion of design" which we were promised in the teaser after last week's documentary. He restricted himself to making observations that, for example, whales were even-toed ungulates (belonging to the family of mammals with cloven hooves), and arched their backs when swimming as mammals do when they gallop. As yet, the series hasn't - quite - conformed to the nightmare of the Telegraph's Ajesh Patalay, of A gory attempt to disprove 'intelligent design' theories.

Dawkins has, however, been in the very recent news, albeit in an indirect way. A British exam board has been criticised for asking GCSE students to place creationism beside evolution in explaining how we got to where we are, and critique them. The BBC remarked at the end of its article on this that "Last year, this issue led to the resignation of Professor Michael Reiss as director of education at the Royal Society."
Professor michael Reiss - click to go to his homepage at the University of London
Professor Reiss resigned from the Royal Society in the same way that a man who is shot decides to stop breathing. When he merely posited dealing with creationism in science classes when the subject arises, and in milder terms than the exam question, Royal Society member Sir Richard Roberts wrote to Lord Rees, the Society's President:
We gather Professor Reiss is a clergyman, which in itself is very worrisome. Who on earth thought that he would be an appropriate Director of Education...?
now for something not completely different: read Martin Beckford's report that two in three teachers believe in teaching creationismThis is where Dawkins comes in: he immediately put out a statement saying "A clergyman in charge of education for the country's leading scientific organisation - it's a Monty Python sketch." In characteristic fashion, when the job was done he had a letter published by New Scientist, saying "Perhaps I was a little uncharitable to liken the appointment of a vicar as the Royal Society's Education Director to a Monty Python sketch."

One thing I noticed was that, in considering whether the whale might be pregnant, Evans referred to the putative foetus as "a calf"; I hope people who heard the reference to the cetaceous nature of a putative unborn whale will reflect upon the humanity of an unborn child.

picturesque Kilbrittain village: click to go to the Kilbrittain websiteThe old girl's skeleton will be a great focal point for the Kilbrittain community, as well as a memento mori. I'll look out for updates.

The next episode of Inside Nature's Giants deals with an autopsy on an alligator, the "ultimate predator".

You can watch Inside Nature's Giants: the Whale on Channel 4's website

Related post:Elephants, arthritis and euthanasia - inside nature's giants