2001/10/31

I have a change in store for you for next month. Instead of ceaseless worry about Federal elections, asylum seekers or a war on terrorism, I bid you to enjoy some solace in abstraction. For all of November, this site will be taken up with Great Moments In Logic. I hope to serve up one insight per day for thirty days, from thirty great philosopher/logicians.

(The alternative --- detailed reflection on the world around us --- is too much to bear.)

2001/10/30

Are you interested in the theory of programming languages and related areas? If so, this collection of resources is a good place to start. It's a collection of online texts.

2001/10/29

Interesting thoughts can be found in the NYRB: There's an article on the end of the Golden Age in U.S. tertiary education. The thoughts apply more generally, and the author has interesting things to say about relevance. The catch-cry be relevant is not necessarily something we philosophers must worry about: as the article says at the end, we need to search for how to be relevant in a new way.

2001/10/28

On the Liberal Party Campaign Launch today: Margo Kingston's reactions seem on the money, and frightening. One thing she doesn't mention is the implicit social engineering in the tax break for new parents. The Liberal party offer is subtle, targeted, and very distressing. The offer is for first-time parents to get a refund on the tax they paid in the year before the birth of their child. For every five years that one parent stays out of the workforce he or she will recieve a fifth of the tax he or she paid in the year before her child was born.

Let me explain why this is a bad thing. Of course supporting new families is a Good Thing (I can see this as a new father myself) but this way of doing it is multiply bad.

  • First, it does nothing to encourage a balanced family life where both parents are involved in outside employment and both parents spend time at home looking after a child. This is not the kind of family that the Howard government wishes to support.
  • Second, it completely ignores the plight of single parents, who need to work and to raise a child.
  • Third, it is regressive. Mothers whose income pre-birth was below the tax-free threshold, despite needing support more than richer mothers, receive a limited baseline payment. If I earn significantly more, I get more back. It in no way directs the money toward people who need it. Instead, it is another way for more tax money to be taken out of the tax system where it can be used for social goods, and redistributed in an inequitable way.
Despite this, the tax-break will do the conservative parties very well indeed. If I were to stick my neck out, I'd say that they'll win this election comfortably.

2001/10/27

I spent a half hour or so poring over this 280KB pdf file indicating who is assigning preferences where in the elections for Senators representing the glorious state of NSW. Some striking facts emerged:

  • My old acquaintance Ian Rintoul is running for the senate. I don't fancy his chances of success.
  • Plotting the likely preference flows between the No GST party, the Fishing Party, the Lower Excise Fuel and Beer Party and ultimately Pauline Hanson's One Nation is a tricky exercise. Don't vote for any of them, please.
  • I didn't know that Fred Nile's Christian Democratic Party gave preferences to Pauline Hanson's One Nation. I had thought that his understanding of Christian morality was a bit more generous and less xenophobic than that. Oh well.
Numbering 65 boxes is not easy. I think this year I'll vote above the line. At least now I can study where these preferences are going. I think I'll be voting Green, but I'm not sure yet. Any advice from my readers?

~

Want to know what makes Martha Nussbaum run? Now you know.

2001/10/26

Ten days ago I mentioned our experiments in online shopping. It's time to report back to my loyal readers. Here's what I've learned from doing grocery shopping online.

  • Things arrive on time. In our two orders so far from Colesonline.com.au they hit the mark on the 2 hour arrival window. The first time they only just arrived on time: the huge truck pulled up our street at 8:30pm on the dot, scraping into the 6:30 to 8:30 spectrum.
  • The process is pretty labour intensive for the $13 service fee you pay. There's someone to collect your items from the shelves of some Coles store or other, write comments on your order form if your selections are not available, more people to pack them into bags and barcode them, and the truck driver who takes at least 5 minutes to get everything off the truck and to your door and then to collect your money from your credit card.
  • They have two tricky loyalty-inducing devices. First, the paperwork you get has a personal note (handwritten) from our personal shopper. Second, you get free stuff. On the first go, we got Radox body wash, an aroma-thingy for the bathroom and antibacterial wipes. On the second go, we got a Colesonline.com.au mousepad (pity we have a powerbook and and ibook at home, with no mice to be seen), a Colesonline.com.au shopping list to be mounted on the fridge, and a paper towel dispenser. So, as you can see, it's mostly useless free stuff, presumably because it's mostly stock in excess in the shops. It's a nice touch, and it lends an air of suprise to the unpacking.
  • There's only been one discrepancy between what we paid for and what we got: We asked for two packets of teething rusks but we only got one. A swift call to the free customer support line meant that we got the value of the rusks as a credit on the next order. This is a swift solution, obviously to their advantage, as it means I shop with them again. Still, there was no arguing and no attempt to get me to verify my claim. I have no idea what they would do if I said that $50 of my order was missing, instead of $2.41.
Altogether, it's been a happy experience thus far. We'll be back for more.

2001/10/25

Last Sunday night's Movies @ Macquarie was a lot of fun. The crowd came up with lots of interesting points about 12 Monkeys. It was good to see that the discussion was less about the technicalities of time travel paradoxes (I was wondering how I could get across how I think is the best way to think about such crazy things) and more about the truly big issues in 12 Monkeys: fate and freedom, the role of technology and science in the environment and on human society, and the way our dystopias are much more well-drawn than our ideas of heaven or utopia, which are generally thin and anemic. In the case of 12 Monkeys, the vision of blessed release and freedom is drawn from advertising. James Cole is obsessed with the Florida Keys, which we only ever see mediated through television, radio and print advertising.

My co-conspiritor at the movies, David Macarthur, brought along his book of the Chris Marker film La Jetée which was the inspiration for 12 Monkeys. The book is striking, partly due to incredible black and white images, and partly due to the simple narrative structure. The book is nearly the entire film, because the film is made up of a series of still images, with narration and some music. The images are subtle and thought provoking (especially in comparison to 12 Monkeys).

But don't take my word for it. You can see the film for yourself. Adrian Miles from RMIT in Melbourne has digitised the film and made it available.

2001/10/24

It's been a busy day today, with lots of filing and tidying occupying most of it. I have managed, however, to install Mac OS X 10.1 on both the work cube, and on my Powerbook G3. It's really nice, and works well.

Talking about things from Apple which look really nice and work well, the new iPod (where do they get those names?) looks like the MP3 player to have. I shudder to think of the price in Australia, though. US$399 to carry around 5GB of music sounds kind-of OK to my ears, but translate that US$ into A$, and it's out of the question.

2001/10/23

2001/10/22

Today, Zack and I went in to work together. He was wonderfully patient with me when I dealt with postgraduat e student reviews. They were interesting for me, but not so interesting, I suspect, for him! He much preferred the potato, carrot and cottage cheese lunch, and the chance to play on his mat at lunchtime.

2001/10/21

2001/10/19

My friend Brian has pointed me to a thought provoking article drawing analogies between the Current Crisis and the convulsions of the reformation in Europe in the 16th Century. Historical eras are never identical, but the similarities are provoking.

~

A counterpoint to this article is another by Edward Said, who points out that categories such as Islam and The West are not necessarily the most helpful ways to analyse contemporary events. It's a helpful reminder that broad theses such as Huntington's Clash of Civilisations are almost always necessarily crude and unhelpful.

... why not ... see parallels, admittedly less spectacular in their destructiveness, for Osama bin Laden and his followers in cults like the Branch Davidians or the disciples of the Rev. Jim Jones at Guyana or the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo? Even the normally sober British weekly The Economist, in its issue of September 22-28, can't resist reaching for the vast generalization, praising Huntington extravagantly for his "cruel and sweeping, but nonetheless acute" observations about Islam. "Today," the journal says with unseemly solemnity, Huntington writes that "the world's billion or so Muslims are 'convinced of the superiority of their culture, and obsessed with the inferiority of their power.'" Did he canvas 100 Indonesians, 200 Moroccans, 500 Egyptians and fifty Bosnians? Even if he did, what sort of sample is that?
Read the whole article for yourself.

2001/10/18

Today's song: If It All Comes True, by Chagall Guevara.

As we walk the wire
across desperate times
will tomorrow find us
will you still be mine
will we hold our child
will he have a place
is there a hope for the human race?

If it all comes true
and our dreams fall like bombs from the blue
oh my love come stand by me
It's been a while since I heard that song. It sounds different now.

2001/10/17

2001/10/16

Being a full-time worker and parent, and being married to another full-time worker and parent, we've been exploring the wonderful worlds of online grocery shopping. Here are a couple of observations for potential members of the online shopping public in Sydney or Melbourne.

  • It is impossible, using any of the big four shopping services (that's Greengrocer.com.au, Shopfast.com.au, Colesonline.com.au, Woolworths.com.au), to buy toothbrushes by colour. This is a necessity in our household, where we use colour to identify your toothbrush. I'll buy my toothbrushes locally.
  • There's a big difference between prices, especially for fruit and vegetables. Greengrocer and Shopfast go the gourmet route, and have what they advertise as high quality, produce, with prices to match. It was a surprise to me that Coles was significantly cheaper than Woolworths for fruit and vegies. They were similar when it came to other groceries. However, for fresh produce it is best to shop around and get what things you know to be of acceptable quality.
  • There's also a big difference between the design of each online shopfront. I didn't spend equal times at each of them, but it was obvious that Greengrocer and Woolworths spent more time thinking about the look of their sites than the other players. They have consistent branding and the pages as you shop just look high quality. It's a pity, then, that they're slow loading, difficult to navigate, and (Woolworths, especially) seem to have put little thought in to the interaction design. Colesonline.com.au, on the other hand, looks like a dog's breakfast, with no consistent design elements. However, comparatively at least, it's a breeze to actually use. Finding things is relatively straightforward, and the continuously viewable and modifiable shopping cart is exactly what you want when collecting together a large basket of goods.
I might let you know more, when our order arrives.

2001/10/15

A recent observation, of my 6 months or so of giving Zachary his bath. Despite his being a baby, I've never found myself doing anything remotely approaching throwing him out with the bathwater.

2001/10/13

Let's play spot the bleeding-heart leftie. Who said this?

The widening gap between the rich and the poor in this country is impossible to ignore. Ours is what social scientists call an "hourglass" society, marked by the declining proportion of the middle class and the increasing polarization of upper and lower income levels. The richest one percent of Australian households own more than 15 percent of Australia's wealth.

In 1999, the most affluent 20 percent of Australia's households earned more than ten times the annual income of the bottom 20 percent - and those figures have since drifted farther apart. The average income in Sydney is nearly A$600 per week; even in the most active of our regional towns like Dubbo and Armidale, it's less than half as much. Only around 17 percent of our Indigenous population takes part in higher education - half the rate of Australia's students overall - while Aboriginals in Western Australia and throughout the country are grossly over-represented in our states' prison systems.

Don't know? Look here for the rest of his speech.

It's not exactly what I'd expected from one of the righest men in the world, but I suppose he knows the source of his wealth, and he's keen to make sure it's sustainable. Hyper wealth might not last if the society upon which it's dependent crumbles away.

2001/10/12

Prof A. N. Troelstra has retired from the University of Amsterdam. He's a very famous logician: an intuitionist and proof theorist. (I think for a minute of what that sounds like to someone who doesn't have much exposure to the jargon of 20th Century Logic. It doesn't mean what you think it might mean, but what it does mean is not of great import right now.) Troelstra's Looking Back, his reflections on his time in Amsterdam, interest me. Here are Two extracts: First, on what to do with mathematical cranks:

After my final examination in 1964, I became a mathematics instructor, which meant that I had to teach students in their first or second year how to de exercises in Analysis, Linear Algebra etc. The teaching was a, not unpleasant, routine; but now and then a task a little out of the ordinary came along. At one time there was a little epidemic of ‘trisectionists’, people who believed they had found a construction to divide an angle into three equal parts by means of ruler and compasses only. Mathematicians know that this is impossible; but some amateurs do not. It fell to my lot to answer their letters. When the second letter arrived, I decided to compose a standard answer, which ran as follows: ``Dear Sir, I checked your solution and found it to be entirely correct. In fact, already years ago I found a solution myself, but did not dare to publish it because of the jealousy and the stubbornness of my fellow-mathematicians. Therefore I advise you to do like me, and keep quiet. Yours etc.'' But when the third trisectionist came along, I could not use it, because he came in person, sent on by the Amsterdam tourist office.
Second, on the elements of academic training which provide lasting value (oh, and a little reference to Kreisel's womanising repoutation)
My host at Stanford had a deserved reputation as a top logician, and also, perhaps undeserved, as a womaniser. When I came to his office for the first time, he talked for a long time, and I was thankful for my previous training in looking intelligent while not understanding. From the corner of my eye I scanned some booktitles on a shelf; one title was ‘Seduction’. Afterwards I understood it had been ‘Deduction’, and since then I never needed convincing that our perceptions are influenced by our expectations.

2001/10/11

It's what everyone else is talking about too, but I cannot help link this here for my own readers. Take a look at these photos of posters of Osama bin Laden. See anything weird in them? My theory is this: a Bangladeshi poster designer has a sense of humour and used images from Bert is Evil site. (The Bert & bin Laden picture is no longer on the site but can be found here.)

~

Do you like movies? Do you like talking with people with ideas? Do you live in Sydney? If so, come to Movies at Macquarie and talk through the issues raised in movies with academics with a sense of humour. On Sunday October 21, at 8pm, I'll be there talking about time travel in 12 Monkeys.

~

Happy 6 months, Zachary! It's been one incredible half year. Here's to many more.

2001/10/10

On Monday night, after a gruelling day of sitting through job talks in our department, John gave me a ride home. (An aside: the job market in Philosophy in Australia is tough. We have a number of eminently suitable candidates for our jobs. Choosing between them is tough. Especially for me, knowing how and when I should contribute to the discussion, since I'm leaving here in less than a year's time. But this is a digression.)

Anyway, John and I were talking about the Current State of the World, and about some of what I'd written before: specifically in the relationship between religion and terrorism. We both agreed that a particular sort of metaphysical belief was required for this kind of suicidal terrorist attack. But the required belief is not necessarily one of personal survival after death, despite the intemperate comments of Richard Dawkins which motivated some of my thought in the first place. After all, many people have given their lives in war without thinking that they would survive into some better place. They thought that their Cause was furthered in some way. (Their family, their homeland, their political system, Truth, Justice, The American Way or whatever else.) If a belief is required to make such suicidal action reasonable, a post-mortem reward for the person giving their lives is one way to do it, but there are others. If the person identifies with a cause and that cause is furthered by the action, that might motivate suicidal action too. Reasons are complicated things.

Talk of reasons doesn't exhaust the list of possible causes for actions like these. People might be socialised or influenced into behaviour without having reasons for it at all. Untangling the mix of reasons and causes is even more complicated. I don't dare pontificate about all of what is actually involved in bringing about terrorist attacks.

2001/10/09

Somehow, knowing that the U.S. has a large arsenal of "tactical nuclear weapons" just right for destroying underground bunkers doesn't give me a great deal of confidence for global stability. (Apparently, my opinion is shared by experts.) The use of nuclear weapons has immense symbolic significance, and surely everyone (including U.S. military planners) must know this. The question remains: will those with the weapons think that the symbol is an appropriate one? If so, then what will other groups think of the symbolism of nuclear weapons?

~

A tip: If you ever want to catch up with the CNN website, don't browse the regular website, try the one set up for robots. Since robots don't buy anything, they thoughtfully strip the ads from the version they encourage robots to read. You can be a robot too, now that you know.

2001/10/07

2001/10/06

Two quotes from Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies, which has been very helpful in my thinking on how philosophy works, especially in the case of philosophy of religion (which I'm teaching this semester) and philosophical logic (which is my major research interest). First, on what it is to be a successful philosophy:

A successful philosophy -- and a successful religion -- formulates an entire problem space, not just a solution. (page 205)
That sounds right to me. Successful philosophical positions structure problem spaces, they change the way we look at our world, and how we (philosophers, at least) look at philosophy itself. I learned something when he applied thi truth to the analysis of philosophy of religion. In this current pluralistic society, my students think that the "proofs of the existence of God" are best viewed as attempts to convince unbelievers of God's existence. When you see philosophical activity in its intellectual context, you can see that this isn't the only goal. Philosophers considering religion were sharpening their conception of reason, they were constructing philosophical techniques, and they were tracing interconnections between concepts. All of these insights are important today even for my students who don't think the arguments are convincing.
It is distinctive of the Western religions, not the Eastern, that philosophers devoted much effort to proofs of the existence of God. Such proofs from a religious viewpoint are superfluous; the philosophers were not free in any case to consider whether God does not really exist. The justification was sometimes offered that proofs were needed in order to convince unbelievers or convert members of other faiths, but this seems a patent rationalisation: Christians, Muslims and Jews could not convert one another by proving the existence of God, since all three faiths admitted this, and the differentiating items of faith were not proved in this fashion; and atheist unbelievers were an imaginary foil under these authoritarian regimes. The philosophers' construction of proofs for items of faith was a matter of creating a turf for pure intellectual activity within the institutional space of the religious schools. These proofs became grounds on which metaphysical and epistemological doctrines could be worked out. With a sufficiently complex network of philosophers, such as arose in Christendom by the late 1200s, it was no longer a foregone conclusion that one would have to succeed in proving the existence of God or the immortal soul. By the time of Ockham and his followers, it was acceptable to conclude that these items could not be conclusively proved by reason; this was taken as demonstrating the superior power of faith, and also of demarcating the territory of distinctively philosophical techniques. (page 391)
There's lots more where these came from.

2001/10/05

We're off to the polls on November 10. If (and only if) you're Australian, please read Flying pig topples press club right wing Jack Robertson's tale of a National Press Club meeting which could only happen in a delightful Australia in some possible world remote from here. One excerpt:

With the latest Newspoll showing that 99.9% of voters `strongly agreed' that `All pollsters are irrelevant nobheads', Gary Morgan announced that his colleagues would conduct no surveys during the campaign.

"We feel bad about distorting the democratic process for financial gain," he declared humbly. "Frankly, no survey can possibly decipher the complex impulses driving voters." Asked about the impact of the New New Journalism on financial issues, a spokesman from Access Economics declined to comment, ever again. "Economists are the worst people to ask about money matters, anyway," noted Terry McCrann. "We're so buggered by conflicts of interest that our greatest contribution to this campaign will be to just shut up,'' he said.

There's much more where that came from. A knowledge of the political media landscape in Australia will help you get the jokes, but there should be enough for you to understand even if you're not up with what's happening around here.

~

Just to confirm that Zachary doesn't like everything we put in front of him, here is Zachary reacting to the delicious pumpkin/yoghurt mix in the evening. It was not quite so "yum", apparently.

2001/10/04

Something much lighter for today. Take a look at Zachary eating avocado and yoghurt. Yesterday's lunch. Yum.

2001/10/03

Thanks to Rory, I have yet another item to add to my list of things to get around to reading one day. Jon Ronson's Them: Adventures with Extremists sounds like just the thing I ought to read.

Why? Because I want to get my thoughts straighter about a bundle of ideas in the aether at present. I am uncomfortable with the rhetoric around fundamentalism at the moment. There's no doubt that there is a clash of ideas between western liberalism and different political and religious ideologies. However, I don't think that fundamentalism is the right term to pick out what distinguishes the terrorists from their targets and their enemies. Of course, the Islamic Jihad is committed to a number of fundamental religious beliefs. So are the pacifist Amish and Mennonite communities in the United States. So are pacifist Buddhist communities in Asia. I too am committed to a number of fundamental religious beliefs. What distinguishes these fundamentalist beliefs is their expression in political engagement. It is not only that they see the world in a very different way to others -- we all do that, surely -- I see the world, as a Christian, in a very different way to my friends, colleagues and students who are agnostics, Buddhists, Christians, irreligious atheists, Jews and Muslims, all of different stripes. The difference is not one of religious commitment but instead, how this commitment is expressed in action.

I can see no direct link between the fact being committed to religious belief and violent action. I can see connections between particular religious beliefs and particular violent actions. But the causal factors seem to be varied: social, political, economic, cultural and historical factors all play a part, along with religious ideology, in violent clashes in this world.

Jon Ronson's Them sounds like a good read which will provoke more thought here. Not about violence and its causes, but about different beliefs and fringe cultures. Seeing how and why some of these lead to violence (and some do not) should be more grist for the mill.

2001/10/02

One distinctive feature of the present conditions of Western society, I think, is the fact that whether you have children or not is an issue. It is a decision that people (primarily women, of course) consciously make, and the fact seems to be that many are deciding not to have children, or only have one. In many societies other than ours, this is not a question that is often asked. Child-rearing is something you do, like eating, breathing, working, sleeping, talking, making friends and all of the other threads of the fabric of life. It's not an option to be considered and possibly accepted or rejected.

This is salient for me, because I sometimes wonder about the decision that Christine and I made, to have a child. We have our reasons, some easy to articulate, and others not so easy. One thing that has struck me recently, is this. Children teach you what it is to be human. I'm a philosopher: When I first think of what's important, I immediately think in terms of what you can learn. Actually, I'm also a mathematician, and I understand that when you want to understand how something behaves, you examine it at its boundaries, you look at its limits. Birth and death, and infancy and impending death have a great deal to teach us about what it is to live. In the months we've spent helping a young boy find his way in the world, we've seen the beginnings of a human life, and we've learned more about what it is to be human: to need to be cared for and supported, to be radically contingent on others, to enjoy laughter and to need rest. People are incredible creatures.

2001/10/01

Today’s entry comes our way via Joao Marcos, a logician now in Belgium, who I met in Helsinki in August.

This is a poem by Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902-1987), seen by many as the best Brazilian poet ever (or at least from the 20th Century). What follows is Joao's tentative translation of it.

ELEGY 1938

Workest joylessly for the ephemeral world,
where forms and actions hold no example.
Exercisest laboriously the universal gestures,
feelst warmth and coldness, lack of money, hunger and sexual desire.

Heroes flood the city parks in which thou dost wade
and they praise virtue, abnegation, temper, conception.
At night, in case of haze, they open coppered umbrellas.
Or they shelter into the volumes of sinister libraries.

Thou lovest the night for the annihilation power it holdeth
and knowest that, sleeping, the problems dispenseth thee of dying.
But the terrible awakening proveth the existence of the Great Machine
and doth put thee, minuscule, faced to undecipherable palm trees.

Walkest among deads and talkest with them
about things of the future time and businesses of the spirit.
Literature hath spoiled thy best hours of love.
In the telephone hast lost a lot, a real lot of sowing time.

Proud heart, hurriest to confess thy defeat
and to postpone to another century the collective happiness.
Acceptest rain, war, unemployment and unfair distribution
since thou canst not, alone, dynamite the island of Manhattan.

(Carlos Drummond de Andrade, “Sentiment of the world” 1940)
For your comparison, here is the original.
ELEGIA 1938

Trabalhas sem alegria para o mundo caduco,
onde as formas e as ações não encerram nenhum exemplo.
Praticas laboriosamente os gestos universais,
sentes calor e frio, falta de dinheiro, fome e desejo sexual.

Heróis enchem os parques da cidade em que te arrastas
e preconizam a virtude, a renúncia, o sangue-frio, a concepção.
À noite, se neblina, abrem guarda-chuvas de bronze.
Ou se recolhem aos volumes de sinistras bibliotecas.

Amas a noite pelo poder de aniquilamento que encerra
e sabes que, dormindo, os problemas te dispensam de morrer.
Mas o terrível despertar prova a existência da Grande Máquina
e te repõe, pequenino, em face de indecifráveis palmeiras.

Caminhas entre mortos e com eles conversas
sobre coisas do tempo futuro e negócios do espírito.
A literatura estragou tuas melhores horas de amor.
Ao telefone perdeste muito, muitíssimo tempo de semear.

Coração orgulhoso, tens pressa de confessar tua derrota
e adiar para outro século a felicidade coletiva.
Aceitas a chuva, a guerra, o desemprego e a injusta distribuição
porque não podes, sozinho, dinamitar a ilha de Manhattan. 

(Carlos Drummond de Andrade, “Sentimento do mundo” 1940)


← News from September 2001 | News Archive | News from November 2001 →

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I’m Greg Restall, and this is my personal website. I teach philosophy and logic as Professor of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne. ¶ Start at the home page of this site—a compendium of recent additions around here—and go from there to learn more about who I am and what I do. ¶ This is my personal site on the web. Nothing here is in any way endorsed by the University of Melbourne.

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