Monthly Archives: September 2007

Paul Fussell video interview

Paul Fussell interviewOne of my favorite authors, Paul Fussell, is interviewed for two house (part I – part II) on Doing Battle – The Making of a Skeptic and The Boys’ Crusade.

This shows the value of Wikipedia (where I found the link) and distribution of video over the Internet. I don’t think there are that many people interested in an hour’s interview with an author not much published in Norway. On a Sunday morning, to boot.

By the way, here is “The Mucker Pose“, the essay Fussell talks about, unfortunately behind Harper’s paywall, but they will learn eventually.

(Here is Mucker Pose on Google Books.)

Writing the sizzle and not the steak

Paul Krugman complains that his colleagues write like theater critics rather than critical journalists. I have seen the same thing happening here in Norway. The reason, of course, is that actually figuring out what is going on and explaining it to the public is hard work, requiring understanding, a facility of explanation, empathy with the audience and, most importantly, the need to change your physical location to somewhere less pleasant than press conferences.

Side note: I blog about Paul Krugman because he is no longer behind the NYT paywall. Modern media can in essence choose between relevancy and payment, and NYT took the longer-term view. Good. 

Fry in the morning

A piece of really good news to start the day: Stephen Fry, one of the worlds smarter and funnier specimens and certainly one of my favorite authors, has a blog! One entry so far, on gadgets (that may have cured me of coveting the Nokia E90, but there is that keyboard….), but given his legendary productivity at the keyboard and virtuosity with a sentence, there will be more, and it will be good.

(Via Nat Torkington).

The irrelevance and dangers of religion

Christopher Hitchens: god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Twelve Books, 2007

Synopsis: Religion is, on overwhelming balance, a force for evil in the world. It is unnecessary, malevolent, and impedes mankind’s march towards truth and a livable future. Time to rid ourselves of it.

Christopher Hitchens, the current pretender to the throne of the independent and skeptical intellectual first occupied by Mencken in about 50 years ago, does not pull his punches in this extended essay. He sees no value in religion at all – “religion poisons everything”:

One must state it plainly. Religion comes from the period of human prehistory where nobody – not even the mighty Democritus who concluded that all matter was made from atoms – had the smallest idea what was going on. It comes from the bawling and fearful infancy of our species, and is a babyish attempt to meet our inescapable demand for knowledge (as well as comfort, reassurance and other infantile needs.) Today the least educated of my children knows much more about the natural order than any of the founders of religion, and one would like to think – though the connection is not a fully demonstrable one – that this is why they seem so uninterested in sending fellow humans to hell. (p. 64)

The man can write. And read. He analyzes the old and the new testament, the koran, and every other religion in between, including those long dead and those yet rising. For all of them, he shows how their foundations are built on sand – “fabricated non-events” – and have been changed up through the ages to suit the agenda of clergy and state. Hitchens speaks from first-hand experience: He has traveled widely, has been seen as a god himself (in Turkey), and was a witness against the beatification of Mother Theresa, showing how one of her purported miracles was due to new technology and old-fashioned journalistic gullibility and wishful thinking.

imageHitchens systematically smashes each claim religion may have on our lives: Religion kills more people than it saves, it can be hazardous to your health, its claims to holiness and history are false (the three large monotheistic religions are largely plagiarized from other, older religions and each other), has nothing to offer when it comes to explain why the world is here and how it got started. It does not offer moral guidance – he argues that chances are people would behave more morally and ethically if they were sure this was the only life. God did not make man in his image – man made god in his.

The recent resurgence of fundamentalist religion, be it Christian or Muslim, has nothing to offer either:

Until relatively recently, those who adopted the clerical path [as a state form] had to pay for it. Their societies would decay, their economies contract, their best minds would go to waste or take themselves elsewhere, and they would consistently be outdone by societies that had learned to tame and sequester the religious impulse. […] Faith-based fanatics could not design anything as useful or beautiful as a skyscraper or a passenger aircraft. But, continuing their long history of plagiarism, they could borrow and steal these things and use them as negation. (p. 280)

Hithchens calls for a new Englightenment. Rather than the sordid and brooding atheism of Dawkins and Dennett and their establishment of a new grouping called “brights” (which, I assume, means fighting religion on its own terms, rather than those of rationality), he takes the more optimistic view that fighting religion no longer is the job for the outlandishly brave and superhumanly principled: This is an age where you can argue against religion and be safe. Not popular, perhaps, but relatively safe. The world moves forward, the new tools of analysis and knowledge dissemination mean that it gets harder and harder to misinform:

Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important. Where once it used to be able, by its total command of a worldview, to prevent the emergence of rivals, it can now only impede and retard – or try to turn back – the measurable advances that we have made. Sometimes, true, it will artfully concede them. But this is to offer itself the choice between irrelevance and destruction, impotence or outright reaction, and, given this choice, it is programmed to select the worse of the two. Meanwhile, confronted with undreamed-of vistas inside our own evolving cortex, in the farthest reaches of the known universe, and in the proteins and acids which constitutes our nature, religion offers either annihilation in the name of god, or else the false promise that if we take a knife to our foreskins, or pray in the right direction, or ingest pieces of wafer, we shall be “saved.” It is as if someone, offered a delicious and fragrant out-of-season fruit, matured in a painstakingly and lovingly designed hothouse, should throw away the flesh and the pulp and gnaw moodily on the pit. (p. 282-3)

Mr. Hitchens is not an easy read, but he is very enjoyable. His references and examples go wide and deep, he has read everything and refers to it with little explanation and sometimes little context. But his searing wit, mercilessly logical chains of argument, and illuminating illustrations comes down on the better side of something that could have become a rant with any other writer. This is not a hastily composed monologue or an unconnected series of articles – Hitchens has been writing this book all his life, and will continue to write it.

Now if he would only make the next version include an equally powerful argument against alternative medicine and New Age superstition….

Highly recommended. If you are religious, you need this book to understand what you are in for (and what you need to surmount if you really want to believe.) If you are not, read it for pleasure and to stock up on arguments. In any case, read it for the language and the power of logic and learning.

PS: Here is a fun account by Hitchens himself about the book tour. Heaven forbid (there we go again) I would have to argue against him in any debate….

PSPS: Here is a great interview/radio debate with Hitchens, from WBUR Boston.

Numbers and crunching

Two interesting articles from the latest Economist:

Business by numbers about the inreasing use of algorithms in business. While the examples are a bit trite (the Lune algorithm for credit card number check, for instance, which as far as I know has largely been replaced by a modulo 11 control in Europe) it is a nice overview.

Super Crunchers coverThe Death of Expertise, review of new book by Ian Ayres called Super Crunchers, about how more and more decisions are automated (since computers can do them better than humans) and how humans can be reduced to providing input parameters for automatic decision making. (Incidentally, the title was chosen with help from Google). First para: EVERY time a world-class chess player loses to a computer, humans die a little. In this book Ian Ayres, a professor of law and management at Yale University, explains how in many less high-profile endeavours, human intuition and flair are more easily beaten. The sheer quantity of data and the computer power now available make it possible for automated processes to surpass human experts in fields as diverse as rating wines, writing film dialogue and choosing titles for books.

This is something we have talked about in my research project on search: How approaches based on improving decisions based on capturing user reactions (such as the music site last.fm) win over categorization-based schemes (such as pandora.com) even though the former sometimes make stupid decisions (such as grouping music together because the artists come from the same city.).

A new model for air travel

Jon Udell has an extremely interesting post about Ed Iacobucci and the reinvention of air travel, essentially moving from a hub-and-spoke routing model (which is akin to line switching of a telephone network) to a model that more resembles packet switching. Instead of holding routes constant and let the passenger’s time be a variable, this approach allows the passenger to price his or her own time, and have the airline (with smaller and more flexible jets) respond accordingly. Very interesting, especially in relation to the concept of free flight, where air planes choose their own routes (and, implicitly, manage their own security envelopes) from one destination to another.