News from October 2000

(These are entries from my blog from 2000 and early 2001. They were originally hosted on a small server at Macquarie University. Most of the links are dead now, but I have kept them as they are here, for nostalgia’s sake.)

Tuesday, October 31, 2000

10:33 AM ~ Meditate on this interesting snippet:
Sun's chief scientist John Gage told us back in June that he thought one of the biggest headaches in computing in fifty years would be disappearance of the canonical text. He didn't just mean bit-flipping, as any regular Napster user will confirm.

Faced with several dozen versions of Heartbreak Hotel, many of different lengths, recorded at different bitrates, how do you know which version is the definitive recording? Which one drops the start, and adds dead space at the end? At least the central server model ought to guarantee some redundancy. The redundancy in the Napster model is really a redundancy of incompleteness.

Then think about what is meant by definitive in this context. (Or perhaps more usefully, think about what we ought to mean by "definitive" here.)
9:16 AM ~ Happy Birthday wrongwaygoback. Congratulations, Neale. I never had any idea that you'd be so famous when you were in my metaphysics class.

Monday, October 30, 2000

3:49 PM ~ With this free few minutes between meetings, let me attempt to answer Russ' Questions for Unbelievers. The thought of this is, admittedly, a little odd, because I'm not an unbeliever (at least in Russ' sense). However, many of my friends are atheists or agnostics, and I think that it's a useful exercise to see how questions can be answered from different positions. I also don't think that Russ' questions are particularly challenging (just as I don't think that the typical questions posed to religious believers are particularly challenging) and neither are they the important issues facing religious believers or unbelievers. But, to test my conviction here, I'll see how I can go in "answering" them in a few minutes time. Let's go:
  • Prove to me that God doesn’t exist and that my religious experience is false. Are you calling me a liar, or just delusional?

    I have no desire to prove that you're mistaken. I think that you're mistaken, because I think that there is no god. I'm not calling you a liar (you're not intentionally saying untruths) nor delusional in the common psychologically accepted sense. However, plenty of religious believers believe plenty of different things, and believe in the existence of mutually incompatible religious entities. You can't all be right. Likely as not, most of you are wrong. "Delusional" was your word, not mine.

  • If atheism is the way to go, how do you explain the atrocities committed in its name against religious people: the French Revolution, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China (not to mention postmodern hostility to religion)?

    Well, obviously neither religion nor irreligion makes people moral angels. More's the pity.

  • How can you enforce any laws if there is no objective right or wrong, good or bad? What gives you the right to tell anyone that they cannot do anything? Why should I care about anyone else’s “rights”?

    Hang on: I said that there was no god, not that there was no right or wrong. Since when were these necessarily tied? Furthermore, I think that I can show that they aren't the same. Clearly the good isn't good just because a god says so, for a god might ask you to do something wrong. Surely if a god asked me to do something abhorrent (such as killing your firstborn) that would still be Wrong, wouldn't it?

  • Speaking of which: how do I know anyone has any rights at all? Isn’t it just the powerful deciding who has what rights?

    Well, how do I know that there's an external world? I have no idea. What? You're asking me to be an expert epistemologist? I have no idea how we know these things. We just do. Do you have a problem with that?

  • Prove to me that certain rights are “self-evident”.

    Now this is truly funny! Surely the point was that these rights are self-evident. What, they aren't evident to you? That's a shame. The whole point of self-evident rights is that they're obvious. They're not to be founded in anything else more fundamental. You can't prove them in terms of anything more evident.

  • Isn’t the claim that there are no absolutes self-refuting?

    I suppose it is, but whoever said that I was committed to that simply because I deny the existence of gods?

  • For those of you who believe in “a higher being” or heaven: How does one get to heaven? Who goes to hell? Does the higher being grade on a curve, and where is the cut-off point? If only really bad people like Hitler and Dahmer go to hell, what about people almost as bad as them, but not quite as bad? How bad do you have to be to go to hell? How good do you have to be to go to heaven?

    Well, an atheist or agnostic doen't have to answer this, but on the behalf of the deists or whoever else cares, presumably a god will do what that god will do. There are plenty of different policies of judgement depending on what is being judged on.

  • You tell me that you can’t believe in the God of the Bible or in a God that judges people, but instead that you believe in a God that is loving and tolerant. Why should I believe in this God? Because you made Him up in your own mind and that’s how you want Him to be? On that basis, why shouldn’t I believe in the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy?

    Again, answering for a theist of some kind, presumably you can tell this by inspecting the notion of "God". What is a "God" if not a morally supreme being, and surely love and tolerance (together with many other things) are bound up in supreme goodness.

  • How can you say some people are more valuable than others? Isn’t a double standard that you insist equal rights and dignity to all people regardless of skin color, race or gender, but deny it to others because of their physical health or their point of development in the womb?

    Colour me stunned! Since when does atheism or agnosticism get tied together with discriminatory treatment? (Presumably theists who burned nonbelievers at the stake weren't making discriminatory judgements of people's value?) Anyway, I see no essential tie between agnosticism or atheism and the issue of abortion. A nonbeliever can be "pro-life" and a believer can be "pro-choice". It's an issue of the relative rights of the mother and the foetus, and the status of the foetus as a person, and this is completely independent of the existence or otherwise of any supernatural being.

  • Is it better to give the choice of having an abortion to a woman while denying the choice of life to the fetus—and forget that she had exercised her choice before getting pregnant?

    See the answer to the previous question.

  • If all religions are really just different ways of reaching God, then aren’t they all wrong since each makes an exclusive claim for the truth?

    I agree entirely. The problem was?

  • Doesn’t atheism (or evolution or big bang or deism) require as much faith as theism? What makes you think your presuppositions are better than mine?

    I said nothing about presuppositions. However, atheism or agnosticism doesn't require the belief in a supernatural, invisible moral agent, so presumably the answer is "no". We don't need that kind of faith. As to what other "faith" is required, and whether it is "as much as" the faith of religious believers, that depends. How can you compare amounts of faith anyway?

  • If all we are are intelligent, soulless animals no different than any other animal and we are accountable to no one, then in the end what does it matter if certain members of our species have to sit at the back of the bus?

    It matters terribly much to me, in just the same way that it matters to cause pain or suffering to anyone or anything capable of pain or suffering. I'd much rather treat other human beings well because of the importance of those human beings themselves (contingent fallible creatures that we are) rather than treating them "well" just be cause there's a Being In the Sky with a Big Stick telling me to. No, it matters to me that we treat other beings well because they're other beings, worthy of respect in their own right, not because of anyone or anything else.

There. How did I go?

I think that these answers are not particularly good, but they're just as good as the stock standard religious answers to questions religious people get asked.

What's the point of this? Simply that I think that religious discussion ought to get past trivial name calling and asking questions whose sole purpose is to put the other party in a bind. Why not explore the issues with a generous spirit? It's possible that we all might learn something.

11:13 AM ~ Palm Computer Used in Contemporary Painting: This is very nice. I've doodled on my Newton before, but not with this kind of purpose.
10:58 AM ~ A slight redesign around here. It's officially warmer weather now, and I thought I'd cool the page down. Browns and oranges are for winter warming. Now some cooler whites, blues and purples for those steamy summery days. (If you don't see the change in your browser, just load the updated stylesheet and then reload this page. An old copy of the stylesheet was left in your cache.)

Of course, it's not getting over 20 today and it feels positively autumnal. Oh well.

Saturday, October 28, 2000

10:57 AM ~ Christine's birthday. Sleeping in, unwrapping presents, and figuring out what we'll first cook in our new french oven.

Friday, October 27, 2000

6:12 PM ~ [Last Night on Earth with the Chipmunks]Remember Alvin and the Chipmunks? You get a passable impersonation of them by getting the Last Night on Earth Video out of the Beautiful Day single (this is just a little tricky, as the file is a hidden Quicktime file, played by the silly Director shell that they provide) loading it up in your Quicktime player, and using the handy fast forward button to play it at double speed.

Can you tell that I'm procrastinating? I should be writing a review of a paper, but this seems strangely compelling.

4:36 PM ~ I think it must be official. U2 have crashed through and are seriously post-cynical. Exhibit A: The second B-side of their Beautiful Day single is this song.
8:51 AM ~ Counterfactual Research News. See what social psychologists think about what might have been.

In a more populist vein, you might consider looking at some work in Alternative History.

Thursday, October 26, 2000

10:45 AM ~ [Erasmus, content in her post-prandial nap]If you don't have time to say anything, just post a picture of your cat. That's what I'd do. Especially since she's so cute.

Wednesday, October 25, 2000

1:25 PM ~ Judith's pumpkin soup sounds very nice.
11:48 AM ~ I knew you could launch a satellite by chucking it out of your spacecraft, but I didn't think that anyone actually would.

Tuesday, October 24, 2000

9:19 AM ~ It's a really busy day for me today. Lots of postgraduate reviews, and lots of other meetings. I cap it off, however, with a concert featuring Quatuor Mosaïques. Should be sweet.

Monday, October 23, 2000

10:44 AM ~ A sorry tale of sleazy editorial practices.

Saturday, October 21, 2000

9:35 PM ~ [Armstrong's Heart Rate]We enjoyed watching the new Working Dog movie The Dish. It's a minimal movie website, and a minimal, affectionate movie about the Australian Parkes Observatory and their involvement with the Apollo 11 moon landing. The observatory website tells their story well. A nice tidbit:
Because the signals for the Australian broadcast did not have to travel to Houston (via satellite) and then back again as it did for the rest of the world, Australian audiences saw the pictures some 300 milliseconds (or 0.3 seconds) before the rest of the world did.
The advantages of being directly involved.
11:54 AM ~ I've been listening to Jacques Loussier playing Bach. It's different. It's good.
11:51 AM ~ JC points me to the sad tale of Piet Hut and the Instituate of Advanced Studies. It is not a happy tale, but it is a salutory one. Academic tenure is a fragile thing in this day and age.
10:32 AM ~ It's now 250 years since the death of J. S. Bach. (Here is a nice list of resources to help further your Bach-knowledge and -appreciation.)

Friday, October 20, 2000

4:18 PM ~ Hmm. There is a use for that VCR lying forlorn in the corner of the lounge.
2:28 PM ~ Alan Jacobs: I have found [students at Wheaton College, a conservative Christian liberal arts college] to be particularly engaged by Gadamer, Bakhtin, and Levinas, and by the rabbinical scrupulosity of much of Derrida's work. They also get a sinister pleasure from reading Foucault, who is after all a kind of Calvinist, only without God -- Michael Warner is right to say that if you think Foucault is suspicious of the human order, try reading Jonathan Edwards. So Foucault is in a weird way one of us.
1:54 PM ~ I spent a not unenjoyable stroll through the new Westfield Burwood at lunch today. It's the usual late 20th Century Shopping Extravaganza, but the food court is indeed quite pleasant. (This is an odd concession from me, as I generally loathe shopping complexes.) At first I couldn't see what made it a pleasant experience, but then I saw it. The windows opened the view to the outside world. You could see the park, and the much-more-interesting cafés and pubs and street life below. You could even open some windows and doors and go out to the baclonies and enjoy the genuine air. This shopping complex isn't merely a sterile concrete box shielded from the outside world. It's a sterile concrete and glass box from which you can view the outside world. It's still a sterile box, but at least you can see your context.

Oh, and I like to think of the written exhortations to [relax], [enjoy], and above all, to [shop] on the tables in the food court to be playfully ironic. (I can only hope.)

Thursday, October 19, 2000

4:52 PM ~ Today's joy: A student saying "thanks" after picking up a marked exam, and going on to say "I like this class a lot." Pure bliss.
11:59 AM ~ Charles Perkins sometimes found it difficult to observe the constraints usually imposed on permanent heads of departments because he had a burning passion for advancing the interests of his people.

Perkins died without seeing real reconciliation between Australia's indigenous people and its colonisers and immigrants. We will all die without knowing if what we've worked towards will come, or if it will last. Hopefully, Charlie Perkins' tireless efforts will not prove to have been in vain.

10:26 AM ~ [Our Messy Loungeroom, with a Picasso Print]There seems to be some discussion going on at the response pages. Well, it's JC and me being pedantic, but at least there's a comment and a response there. That's a start.

Wednesday, October 18, 2000

8:20 PM ~ I continue to be amazed at how variable things seem, depending on emotional tenor and other hard-to-detect factors. Here is a case in point: Last Thursday's lecture was the worst class I've ever given in my life. My train of thought was not merely derailed, it never left the station before grinding to an inglorious halt. (It's rather like the train I'm writing this entry on, as a matter of fact. We're wait outside Ashfield station, letting all the Paralympic Opening Ceremony spectators rush to Strathfield or on to Olympic Park before we get our turn at the station.) Anyway, was vague, addled, distracted, and positively unhelpful. I shudder to think of what the students made of it, or if they'll ever understand the material at all.

Today's lecture, on the other hand, felt fantastic. I was on top of things, I was on fire, preaching it with the best of them. (It's amazing how passionate you can get about the language of predicate logic. Quantifiers are beautiful. But I digress once more.)

Why were these classes different? Why was last week generally a complete write-off and why is this week shaping up as a much nicer week to spend seven days in? The subject matters of my classes were the same. But last week I was recovering from illness, and I was distracted. This week I took more time to prepare (once burned, never to be burned again, at least while I remember what a terrible lecture feels like) and I'm more engaged. I feel more plugged in. But apart from the facts about preparation (which don't determine things totally, as I've given great unprepared classes, and mediocre prepared ones) this is merely a redescription of the phenomenon, not an explanation.

I wonder when the next dip will be, and what I can do to make sure that I never again give the worst class of my life.

9:07 AM ~ It will be interesting watching the progress of devices like Handspring's Visorphone. It seems clear enough to me that some kind of "convergence" of digital devices is coming. After all, do you think people enjoy juggling their PDA, their phone, their portable music player, their digital camera and their gameboy? Imagine just keeping tabs of which batteries are running down and where to recharge them all!

Of course, I've forgotten that these digital devices don't just work to fulfil their explicit functions -- they also have more implicit functions as status symbols. People don't buy these things because simply they are useful and they meet pre-existing needs. We have our needs constructed for us, too. (A consumer society is no good without compliant consumers, always willing to upgrade.) Perhaps the need to have a new X or Y when the Next Big Thing comes on to the market will work against any to consolidation. We shall see.

What do I want? I'd make do with a small (pocketable) PDA/Camera/Music-player mix which could send and receive the occasional phone message (affordably) and would wirelessly sychronise its storage with my resources elsewhere on the network. That would be truly useful. (Especially if it was stylish and available in a choice of colours.) Of course, I'd try to resist the urge to upgrade when in a year or so the new model with twice the capacity comes out.

Tuesday, October 17, 2000

8:43 PM ~ I'd like to see that cooking show. It's Cooking with Bigfoot.
8:36 PM ~ It is nice to see that my reproductive habits (perhaps one child-in-the-making is a lttle much to call a "habit") are among the signs of the end.
3:20 PM ~ [A Rosebud]Learn to fly.
12:45 PM ~ Well, today's meetings have been better. More boring, but much more good-natured. Perhaps there's light at the end of the tunnel.

Monday, October 16, 2000

9:59 AM ~ What was the "super-top-secret news" I mentioned here over two months ago, and of which I promised to tell you "sometime soon"? It's that Christine is pregnant. We're in week 15, and all is currently well with mother and child-to-be.
9:54 AM ~ Today's lyrics:
you're packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been / a place that has to believed to be seen
you could have flown away, a singing bird in a open cage / who will only fly, only fly for freedom
walk on, walk on.
Sometimes things do have to be believed to be seen.

Sunday, October 15, 2000

5:41 PM ~ Now my student Robert is using blogger to keep a track of his research. Go, cheer him on, at least if you're into modal epistemology. Go, Robert, go!

Saturday, October 14, 2000

6:26 PM ~ [Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater]I took today's shot at Fallingwater, the famous Frank Lloyd Wright designed house in Western Pennsylvania. It's run by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, and it's well worth a visit if you're in the area.
6:17 PM ~ Please, read this. It provides a sane Jewish perspective on the current Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Friday, October 13, 2000

4:55 PM ~ I've just spent the hours since 1:30 in a very difficult meeting. The atmosphere was poisonous for much of the time. I must get out and get some fresh air.

Thursday, October 12, 2000

9:17 PM ~ I don't know what to make of this:
They do not see how their otherwise innocent use of the law of the excluded middle too readily becomes a destructive, violent act of political exclusion.
It's a quote from Andrew J. Dell'Olio's essay: "Between Exclusivity and Plurality", in Postmodern Philosophy and Christian Thought.

Wednesday, October 11, 2000

3:20 PM ~ I never knew that the Schroder-Bernstein Theorem sounded so good. (Thanks to JC for the pointer.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2000

9:55 PM ~ [A view of the AGO in Toronto from a coffee shop across the road]Of course, one nice thing about giving talks is meeting lots of nice people. An enjoyable surprise when I gave my talk at Waterloo a couple of weeks ago was meeting Brenda, of Isomorphisms fame. A bad thing about meeting lots of nice people after having just given a talk is that you feel terribly drained and you cannot think of what to say, as you've radically exceeded your politeness quota for saying things anyway after having talked for 50 minutes (well, that's how it seems to work for me). So, despite meeting nice people, you feel like a goose and don't say anything sensible except "hi, nice to meet you." More's the pity.
9:44 PM ~ I'm still alive. I gave a seminar (this time in my home department for a change) today. I normally feel tired after a talk, and when knackered from having a cold, it just takes the rest out of you. I've been completely exhausted all afternoon and evening.

Counting the number of research talks I've given this year, I notice that it comes to 14. I think I'm glad that I don't have any scheduled for the rest of the year.

Monday, October 09, 2000

7:49 PM ~ I've been hearing lots of argle-bargle about the new Graduate Skills Testing proposed by the Federal Government and drafted by the Australian Council for Educational Research. The idea is simple: we test people as they leave University on generic skills as an indicator of how "job ready" each graduate is. There has been one major response by educators:
  • Why test people all over again with a uniform system-wide university test if it isn't to rank institutions' performance? If you want to do this, a "generic skills" test is a very crude measure of how well we are teaching our students.
There's no doubt that a desire to get a measure of how universities are doing is one factor lying behind this push. However, as a philosophy educator I have a totally self-interested response which enables me to be a little more sanguine.
  • Look at the sample questions on their test! It's exactly the kind of stuff we teach in critical thinking. Philosophy courses are exactly where we teach you the skills you need for these tests. Doing intro philosophy is apparently what it takes to be "job ready".
It's nice to know that we're wanted.
9:23 AM ~ Down with a cold. Feeling ugh. Conserving energy. More later. Probably much later, after I've recovered.

Saturday, October 07, 2000

10:32 AM ~ [Live Bait Vending Machine, at Lake Erie]That's a live bait vending machine. You can get everything in vending machines, apparently not just in Japan, but also on the Pennsylvania shores of Lake Erie. We saw this machine on the way back from Pittsburgh to Toronto.

Friday, October 06, 2000

3:54 PM ~ Hi everyone! I'm back from Toronto and Pittsburgh. We had lots of fun, and now I'm trying to see how quickly I can get back into Sydney time. (We arrived at 9am, and I'm in at work cleaning up my desk, browsing the web, and installing software on my desktop computer. I'm also trying to stay awake until evening.)

It was a blast seeing Sydney at some remove, while away. Never before have I been able to get an up-to-the-minute idea of how the weather was at home, without getting to a net terminal. Less impressive was the exchange rate, especially when we were in the U.S. Ugh!

Anyway, more news later. Now to go home and relax.


I’m Greg Restall, and this is my personal website. I am the Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of Philosophy at the University of St Andrews, and the Director of the Arché Philosophical Research Centre for Logic, Language, Metaphysics and Epistemology I like thinking about – and helping other people think about – logic and philosophy and the many different ways they can inform each other.


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