Sunday, February 26, 2006

I'm pretty sympathetic to this column which has been criticized by an astoundingly large number of people over the last few days:

You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know -- never mind want to know -- how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later -- or something like that. Most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator. On the other hand, no computer can write a column or even a thank-you note -- or reason even a little bit. If, say, the school asked you for another year of English or, God forbid, history, so that you actually had to know something about your world, I would be on its side. But algebra? Please.
Of course, I could ask what exactly is the point of knowing something about your world (as opposed to about mathematics). Its highly unlikely that you will need to know Shakespeare or be familiar with world geography in the course of your life.

Still, it seems to me that this guy has a point. If you remember back to your high school days, its likely you'll recall that teachers tried to motivate you by telling you that the stuff you are learning is useful. All the people I've read criticizing this guy tend to emphasize his intellectual uncuriousity. But if you are going to justify teaching math on the grounds of intellectual curiousity, why not be honest about and tell the students? Tell them that they are learning things they are unlikely ever to use, but that they should be interested in because they ought to be intellectually curious people?

I suspect the reaction you'll receive is complete indifference towards the subject matter - even more than now.

And the fact is, most people forget the math they learned in high school very soon after they finish; and most people perform jobs that make knowledge beyond a certain level unnecessary. That level is right about the first quarter of a high school algebra I class.

And the fact is, most students realize that the stuff they are learning is unlikely to be useful. And theres nothing more annoying that teaching a class of people who don't want to learn. Why inflict this pain and suffering on them? It could be argued that knowledge of history, for example, is essential for these people to make political decisions in a democratic society, but the same could hardly be said about math.

On a related subject: if you get this, its pretty funny.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Liberal hypocrisy on freedom of speech: Chris Bertram, speaking of a new British law which outlaws "glorification of terrorism," writes:

Since this measure is, therefore, a far more immediate and effective threat to free speech than the complaints of genuinely and synthetically offended members of a religious minority, why does it not provoke a similar level of outrage?
First, the question is disingenuous: what is a threat to free speech is not complaints, but violence. Secondly, I personally am outraged, but I have a similar question myself. For years, an even bigger threat to free speech has been defended by those on the left.

I'm speaking of the hate crime laws that are in effect in most countries through the western world (though not the USA). For example, has apparently become illegal in Canada to advocate traditional Christian opposition to homosexual sex. For example, the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission ordered the Saskatoon Star Phoenix and Hugh Owens to each pay $1,500 to each of three gay activists as damages for publication of an advertisement, placed by Owens, which conveyed the message that the Bible condemns homosexual acts.
Hate speech is criminalized not because it is considered really bad, but because of its connections to violence. Now the connections between glorification of terrorism and violence are pretty clear: to establish them, all you have to do is interview any suicide bomber (I mean those that were caught, which happens once in a while). On the other hand, the connection between putting some bible verses in an ad and violence against homosexuals is....far more shaky.

So let's see. Whats a bigger threat to free speech: a law that criminalizes speech thats clearly connected to violence, or a law that criminalizes speech with a possible, though not well-established, connections to violence?

Monday, February 20, 2006

I really like this, from a wikipedia article about an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters:

In 2003, scientists at Paignton Zoo and the University of Plymouth, in Devon in England reported that they had left a computer keyboard in the enclosure of six Sulawesi Crested Macaques for a month; not only did the monkeys produce nothing but five pages consisting largely of the letter S, they started by attacking the keyboard with a stone, and continued by urinating and defecating on it.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Can someone explain to me why the VP has an obligation to inform the public every time he shoots someone?

Monday, February 13, 2006

This is cute:

Muslims are disgusted by an adult toy on sale in Worcester because they say it disrespects the prophet Mohammed.

Adult store Ann Summers, in the High Street, is selling a blow-up male doll called Mustafa Shag.

The name of the novelty toy has outraged Muslims living in the city, who have said the name insults the Prophet Mohammed, who is also known by the title al-Mustafa.

Malik Mohammed Fayaz, chairman of the Worcester Muslim Welfare Association, based at Tallow Hill Mosque, said it was the gravest offence to insult any prophet.

He said all the Muslims in the city would share his disgust at the toy.

He said: "Every faith would be outraged if their prophet was insulted and their name used in this way.

"Although it is only a toy it should not have this name."

Jacqueline Gold, the owner of Ann Summers nationwide, said...."If anyone has a better name for a blow-up doll, please contact us."
Well, I'm all for freedom of expression, especially as it pertains to blow-up dolls, but I fancy I could come up with something better than "Mustafa Shag."

This is pretty stupid. Is there a law that says every time the VP shoots someone he has to announce it to the press? If the people in question - the VP, the victim, ranch owner - personally prefer that the incident remain private, theres no reason why they ought to feel obligated to let all the major newspapers know about it.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

This seems to be old news, but I've just now stumbled upon it. It seems that the rampaging crowds in the middle east who demand that Europe punish speech that violates the Koran have found someone who agrees with them:

Cardinal Archille Silvestrini, head of the Vatican's department for Eastern Churches, told the Corriere della Sera freedom is not an absolute.

The Muslim world is furious over a cartoon that first appeared in a Danish newspaper depicting Mohammed wearing a head covering that actually was a lit bomb. The initial uproar prompted newspapers across Europe this week to reprint the offending caricature to emphasize press freedom.

"We, too, here in Europe, should rebel against the idea of mocking religious symbols," Silvestrini said. "Freedom to satirize which offends other people's feelings becomes prevarication."

The Italian news agency ANSA reported other clerics support Silvestrini's position.

"Freedom of the press, including satire, must stop where religious belief begins," said Cardinal Ersilio Tonini, former archbishop of Ravenna .

Friday, February 10, 2006

As I've written before, its more or less untenable to claim that the Jyllands-Posten cartoons are racist. Indeed, this criticisms seems to have more or less dropped out of the public discourse in the last few days; now people seem to be saying that the cartoons should not have been because they are "deliberately offensive" or "gratuitously offensive."

The first of these objections simply does not make sense. I find President Bush's crazed fundamentalism offensive (lets ban human animal hybrids, because its wrong to mess with God's creation); others seem to find Brokeback Mountain offensive. I'll add to that that I find dumb questions about infinity offensive, ok? There is often no way for you to make a controversial political or artistic statement that will leave people unoffended. Whats next, arguments that The Satanic Verses should not have been published because its offensive to Muslims?

The second of these objections makes a bit more sense. People defend the The Satanic Verses because, while offensive to many, it has other benefits - ideas that simply cannot be conveyed without trampling on the religious figures some hold dear. Is the same true of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons? Those who say it isn't so argue that the cartoons are only meant to offend.

The problem is that nothing that I have seen in this debate undermines the original reasons for the publication of these cartoons. Quoting Jyllands-Posten,

The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule. It is certainly not always attractive and nice to look at, and it does not mean that religious feelings should be made fun of at any price, but that is of minor importance in the present context. [...] we are on our way to a slippery slope where no-one can tell how the self-censorship will end. That is why Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten has invited members of the Danish editorial cartoonists union to draw Muhammad as they see him.
Every word of this has proven true in the recent debate; and every word has only highlighted why the publication of the cartoons was necessary, contradicting the claims that the offense was gratuitous. To put it bluntly, we cannot have a democratic, free society when one group attempts to violently coerce everyone else into silence when discussion turns to its holy cows. The controversy over the publication of the cartoons, the torchings of the Danish embassies all over the Middle East, only prove the point that is being made here: that the fundamentals of democratic society is Europe are weak, and that unless change occurs a de facto quasi-censorship will soon emerge.

Update: at Left2Right, Jamie Tappenden gives an excellent exposition of the intrinsic worth of the caroons.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

One particularly important aspect of the Jyllands-Posten cartoon controversy that has been mentioned less often than I think it should be is the reaction of the various governments in the middle east. As the Danish embassy in Beirut was being burned, Lebanon's interior minister resigned because he did not want to order the use of arms against Lebanese to stop the torchings. Also notable are the mad rantings of Iran's most powerful official, who has found in the publication of the cartoons a Zionist conspiracy (surprise, surprise!).

These people simply cannot be trusted to think or behave rationally. I'm optimistic about the ultimate effects of the cartoon controversy, because I believe that it shows the nonrational, mad behaviour of fundamentalists and leaders in the Middle East pretty clearly. Ultimately, it is of no consequence to world history whether a few Danish embassies were torched; however, whether Iran has a nuclear weapon is of great consequence. The expected costs of an air strike on Iran designed to destroy their nuclear program - the lives lost, Iran's retaliation (which could make things more difficult for the US in Iraq) - pale with the expected cost of letting the mad fundamentalists ruling Iran posess nuclear weapons (and the missiles to deliver them).

I ate a Danish pastry today. As far as political statements go, it was delicious.

Today's Times brings unsurprising news. It seems that one political party wants to give government the authority to obtain, without a warrant, a list of the books you read, the websites you visit, and, broadly speaking, any information (financial, travel, video rental, phone, medical) third parties have on you. The other political party is trying to stop them. You can guess which is which.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Arab European League, is a Belgian/Dutch political party of some note - its poll support in either country is roughly the same level as the US Libertarian party. Its unstated purpose seems to be to build grassroots support for terrorism - the Christian Science monitor has reported that its rallies end in repeated chanting of "jihad" and "Osama Bin Laden." Anyway, it has published a message from the founder on its webpage encouraging readers illustrate every wall with graffiti making fun of everything Europe holds as holy: dancing rabbis on the carcasses of Palestinian children, hoax gas-chambers built in Hollywood in 1946 with Steven Spielberg’s approval stamp, and Aids spreading fagots.
I note that Steven Spielberg was born on Dec. 18, 1946. Boy they used to grow up fast!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?

So wrote Jihad Momani, a Jordanian editor, in an editorial besides a reproduction of three of the Muhammed cartoons. The result? He was arrested for "insulting religion."

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Are the Jyllands-Posten cartoons racist? Many people (including a spokesman for the US government interpreted by the press to be communicating the Bush administration position on the matter) have claimed so, and followed it up by saying that it was wrong to publish them. I've been unable to find a complete english translation of the cartoons, but wikipedia provides the following descriptions:

-The face of Muhammad as a part of the Islamic star and crescent symbol. His right eye the star, the crescent surrounds his beard and face.

-Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, with a lit fuse and the Islamic creed written on the bomb. This drawing is supposed to be the most controversial of the lot.

- Muhammad standing in a gentle pose with a halo in the shape of a crescent moon. The middle part of the crescent is obscured, revealing only the edges.

- An abstract drawing of crescent moons and Stars of David, and a poem on oppression of women "Profet! Med kuk og knald i låget som holder kvinder under åget!". In English the poem could be read as: "Prophet you crazy bloke! Keeping women under yoke"

- Muhammad as a peaceful wanderer, in the desert, at sunset. There is a donkey in the background.

- A nervous caricaturist, shakingly drawing Muhammad while looking over his shoulder.

- Two angry Muslims charge forward with sabres and bombs, while Muhammad addresses them with: "Rolig, venner, når alt kommer til alt er det jo bare en tegning lavet af en vantro sønderjyde" (loosely, "Relax guys, it's just a drawing made by some infidel South Jutlander". The reference is to a common Danish expression for a person from the middle of nowhere.)

- An Arab-looking boy in front of a blackboard, pointing to the Farsi chalkings, which translate into "The editorial team of Jyllands-Posten is a bunch of reactionary provocateurs". The boy is labelled "Mohammed, Valby school, 7.A", implying that this Muhammed is a second-generation immigrant to Denmark rather than the founder of Islam. On his shirt is written "Fremtiden" (the future).

- Another drawing shows an angry Muhammad with a short sabre and a black bar censoring his eyes. He is flanked by two women in niqaabs, having only their wide open eyes visible.

- Muhammad standing on a cloud, greeting dead suicide bombers with "Stop Stop vi er løbet tør for Jomfruer!" ("Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins!"), an allusion to the promised reward to martyrs.

- Another shows journalist Kåre Bluitgen, wearing a turban with the proverbial orange dropping into it, with the inscription "Publicity stunt". In his hand is a child's stick drawing of Muhammad, refering to Bluitgens upcoming illustrated childrens book on the life of The Prophet. The proverb "an orange in the turban" is a Danish expression meaning "a stroke of luck" , here the added publicity for the book.

- A police line-up of seven people, with the witness saying: "Hm... jeg kan ikke lige genkende ham" ("Hm... I can't really recognise him"). Not all people in the line-up are immediately identifiable. They are: (1) A generic Hippie, (2) politician Pia Kjærsgaard, (3) possibly Jesus, (4) possibly Buddha, (5) possibly Muhammad, (6) a generic Indian Guru, and (7) journalist Kåre Bluitgen, carrying a sign saying: "Kåres PR, ring og få et tilbud" ("Kåre's public relations, call and get an offer")
The magnified images, with partial english translations, can be found here.

None of this is even remotely racist. Most of this is commentary on the way Islam is often used to oppress women, encourage suicide bombing, or stifle free speech. This is not a criticism of a particular ethnicity or a particular religion; its a criticism of how a particular religion is used by extremists to propagate repression and violence.

I reject the idea that the "offensiveness" of these images ought to have stopped their publication. Are we also going to criticize research into the historical Jesus because Christians might find it offensive? Are we going to ask newspapers to refrain from publishing three-dimensional pictures of religious figures, because this is considered a grave sin in Orthodox Christianity? Broadly speaking, if we are going to criticize every statement that might offend people, we won't have any political discourse to speak of.

Apparently, Bush has called for a ban on human-animal hybrids in his state of the union address. As someone who has seen many movies on this subject, I am particularly sensitive to the danger that human-animal mutant superheroes pose to our society. No to Batman; no to Spiderman; and certainly no to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This is one policy of the President's I can firmly get behind.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Stupid things I read on Crooked Timber: its flabbergasting how a philosophy professor could write something like this on the subject of the Danish Muhammad cartoons,

I’m puzzled by some of the reaction to the Jyllands-Posten affair. In free speech debates over the last few years I’ve often encountered so-called libertarians who argue that speech ought to be absolutely protected from state interference but that private individuals may legitimately do what they like when it comes to sacking people whose views they disagree with or boycotting products. That isn’t the way I see things, but it is hard to see how someone running that line can object to a private company sacking an editor for reprinting the cartoons or to Muslims boycotting Danish goods in protest.
Umm, lets me try to spell this out really, really slowly. No one would object if Muslims boycotted the newspapers which published these cartoons. However, thats not whats going on; many Muslims have responded with fury at Denmark, boycotting Danish products across the board. This is obviously a large number of people not getting what free speech is all about: the move to boycott Denmark is an attempt to read the Danes allowing a certain kind of speech as being equivalent to the Danes endorsing that speech.

I hope I've made it a bit easier for Prof. Bertram to see how someone running the libertarian line can object to this.

John Quiggin at Crooked Timber writes,

While we’re on the subject of religion, I happened (via Charles Dodgson at Through the Looking Glass) to discover that George Bush rarely goes to church (behind paywall, but the intro gives you the basics).

NTTAWWT - I’m sure he goes more often than I do. But it struck me as a blogworthy factoid.

In the comments, someone says

Doesn’t seem very blogworthy to me, sorry.

and Quiggin replies,

It’s always struck me as paradoxical that anyone would take the effort to type a comment like this.
Well, I'll explain it: while the "factoid" says nothing at all about GWB, Quiggin's opinion that its blogworthy says a lot about Quiggin.

Christianity or religion is not the same thing as church attendance. There are a million of varieties of Christianity out there; and most protestants tend to encourage reading and studying the bible without supervision, and coming to your own opinion about the meaning and interpretation of the various commands and passages, including church attendance - which, incidentally, is never explicitly commanded in the bible, the closest being something like hebrews 10:25.For another, as President, one cannot really visit a church without instantly becoming the center of attention.

As for Quiggin, we can conclude from that he either holds a very narrow conception of Christianity, or he is looking very, very hard for signs that GWB is a hypocrite.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Apparently, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has pledged not to have sex until the election:

The premier's chastity vow came after a weekend meeting with a well-known Sardinian 'charismatic' priest, Father Massimiliano Pusceddu. The TV preacher praised the premier for upholding family values and promised that his movement would back Berlusconi to the hilt during the election campaign .

In response, the media-mogul-turned-politician said: "Dear Don Massimilano, I'll try to live up to your expectations and I promise you two and a half months of absolute sexual abstinence."
Well, if he wins, he'll have one hell of a victory party.