Of course the Diana inquest is a circus

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Parliamentarians have realised that the Diana inquest is a waste of time and money. I ask how it’s taken them this long to figure it out.

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Well, I suppose it’s good that someone in authority has finally realised that whole thing is a colossal waste of time and money, in which the only possible winners are the publicity-seeking opportunists who’re still, after ten years, trying to make some money or grab some fame through their association with the princess.

Really, we don’t _need_ an inquest into her death; I would have thought that the fact her car hit a concrete wall at speed, while she wasn’t wearing a seat-belt, would be clue enough into how she died. Of course, there are always conspiracy theorists when a much loved public figure dies suddenly, but that doesn’t mean we should give them a publicly funded platform from which to shout.

Mahalo after a couple of weeks

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I’ve been using the new human powered search engine, Mahalo, for a couple of weeks now. This is what I think of it after that time.

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OK; so right now I should be connecting my laptop to work’s VPN and checking up on a database I’m supposed to be diagnosing. Or, failing that, I should be tidying the flat, taking the rubbish out, or thinking about cooking my dinner. Or, failing that, I have some server maintenance, home directory housekeeping and CD ripping that I’m going to have to do eventually. But I’ve had an arse of a day and I’m feeling double-plus-lazy, so I’m going to write something instead. A quick look back in time tells me that I’d promised a second opinion on Mahalo once I’d had time to try it out, and since I’ve had time to try it out; here it is.

The first thing to say is that it’s no google, and I’m guessing they’re not even going for that market. I’ve found it to be close to useless for any search I carry out in the course of my working (as a software engineer) day. Pasting error codes into the search form just throws out a random selection of (usually biographical) pages. The google results at the bottom of the page are as good as you’d expect, but they’re slower to load and less obvious on the page than if I’d just used google in the first place. Searching for information on unix commands leaves it scratching it’s head in bewilderment, and, perhaps more seriously, even relatively well known computer software can leave it similarly speechless.

And it’s not just technical searches, it’s anything … overly specific. If I search for “cat lifespan” it gives me a few options for pages about cats, but nothing that is obviously going to tell me what I want to know. Google, by comparison, gives me the answer in it’s first link (although it’s second one is to a corporate website.) I guess expecting answers to specific questions is just too much to ask of the site’s human indexing engine.

That use of humans to build the entire index is both Mahalo’s biggest weakness and it’s greatest strength, since while I’ve been fairly disappointed in the breadth of subjects it is knowledgeable on, I’ve been hugely impressed with the quality of the results it does return. It’s hard to describe the joy of entering a search term and having the results come back, free from spam or noise, in a neatly categorised list of high quality links. I don’t know, re-reading that last sentence makes me wonder if I’m overreacting to this, but I can’t help it; it just reminds me of what the internet should be; a place where I can get access to information quickly and easily, without having to know the tricks of avoiding spammers and scammers, and without having to trawl through a mountain of ‘sponsored links’ or uninformed twaddle to get to the actual information. Of course, there’s a place for the uninformed twaddle as well (else I’d have to shut up shop,) but I don’t necessarily want a whole load of conspiracy theories polluting my screen when ‘m trying to research the moon landing.

This leads me to believe that the term “search engine” might be something of a misnomer. Certainly, you can search Mahalo, but it’s hardly it’s strongest suit; constructing a search term for a specific piece of information is rarely satisfactory, and that’s what people expect to be able to do with something called a “search engine”; it’s sort-of implied by the name. Where Mahalo really shines, conversely, is on sufficiently broad searches for well defined subjects (say, ‘Evolution’, or ‘Egypt’,) in those cases it’s hand-built nature and high quality put me more in mind of an index, or a guide than of a blind search algorithm. It’s like going back to Yahoo in the really old days, but with a somewhat-useful search feature, and links you actually want to follow. I guess there’s value in the term “search engine”; people know what it means, but I can’t help wondering if they might help differentiate themselves, as well as communicate their unique strengths, if they used a different term.

So, regardless of what it is, would I recommend Mahalo? Yes, absolutely, but not unreservedly. It’s not complete yet; that much is painfully clear in daily use, and I end up falling through to wikipediaor google at least as often as I get the answer from Mahalo, and there are types of searches that I don’t think it will ever be any good for (but then, I think there’s an argument for specialised search engines for many of those anyway.) For the searches it’s designed to handle, though, I think the value of it is well worth the initial inconvenience of having to contribute to the index myself. Suggesting links is quick and easy, and the more people that use it regularly and add the pages that it didn’t find for them, the sooner it’ll be complete and really useful.

So, go on – check it out. If you use firefox, you can configure it to use Mahalo as the default search engine, if not then it might be a little less convenient, but I think it’ll be worth the effort.

A quarter of all mammal species are oranges!

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Dallas Ellis, a creationist sarcastically tells us than an orange is the parent of a cat, thinking the patent absurdity is an argument against evolution. All he really proves is that he’s too stupid to have a meaningful opinion on the subject.

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… or er something.

Suddenly I feel a lot better about myself again. I mean, I might have underestimated the diversity of an important order of mammals, but at least I can tell the difference between a cat and an orange. This guy is either stupid enough that he can’t or stupid enough to think scientists can’t. I’m not sure which would be worse.

In any case, PZ says everything that needs to be said.

A quarter of all mammal species are bats!

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Carl Zimmer mentioned in passing that a quarter of all mammal species are bat species, which astounded me. I did know that echinoderms were not insects though.

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I don’t know: no sooner do I start to think I might be doing OK at this taxonomy thing, than someone comes along and knocks me right back down to peg one (to mix my metaphors.)

On Monday, I was able to spot the error in Kevin Z’s WTF without even thinking about it1 (Echinoderms are not a subset of Insecta; they’re a phylum all their own, and while I can never keep up with whether Insecta is a class or a sub-phylum this week, I do know for sure that it doesn’t contain an entire other phylum. Oh, and it’s not even like Insecta is a subset of Echinodermata; it’s part of Arthropoda)

So there I was, feeling pretty good about myself, when Carl Zimmer comes along and (amidst an entirely fascinating article) hits me with something I never expected: one quarter of all mammal species are accounted for by bats!

That’s staggering. I had no idea they were so successful or so diverse. I’d always thought of them as being slightly odd outliers on the graph of mammal survival strategies; I mean, stretching your arms out hugely and flapping around using sonar to catch insects is just so far from what you expect mammals to do that it didn’t even occur to me that a significant proportion of them might be doing it anyway.

Obviously a quarter of all species is not even remotely the same thing as a quarter of all individuals, but still — how did I not know this? I guess I just haven’t been paying attention.

  1. Well, obviously not entirely without thinking about it. []

Magicians get something right!

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This is what the Magician’s Dictionary has to say about “Will”

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Regular readers will know what I think of magical thinking in general, but sometimes, even I have to admit they get something right. Check out this section from the Magician’s Dictionary:

Another word for persistence and maintained attention. Will is one of the two natural human powers for altering reality … When faced with an insoluble problem or great odds against us, it is the Will alone that leads us through to solution and victory.

They must have magic powers; it’s like they know me! ;)

Durham council pays ‘psychic’ for ‘exorcism’

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Easington Council has spent taxpayers’ money to pay Suzanne Hadwin, a ‘psychic’ to perform an exorcism on a house in the town. This reinforces superstitious nonsense, as well as funding someone who preys on the vulnerable.

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A council in Durham has spent taxpayers’ money on a ‘psychic’ to perform an exorcism on a home in the town:

Easington Council employed medium Suzanne Hadwin after Peterlee tenant Sabrina Fallon reported paranormal activity including moving objects.

Miss Fallon had even called police after hearing bangs which terrified her children Shannon, nine, and Amie, one.

A council spokesman said it paid half the psychic’s fee as it was the most cost-effective solution.

The council hasn’t suggested that it put’s any stock in the claims, and has attempted to distance itself from that suspicion:

Mr Burnip said: “This family was absolutely distraught and believed what was happening – that is not to say that the council believed.

“What we saw was a relatively small amount to pay for an outcome which in effect saved the taxpayer many hundreds, if not thousands of pounds.”

It should go without saying that this is utter nonsense. Some woman has got herself worked up over something (probably a few spooky noises,) and passed her fear onto her kids, and the council has paid someone to do nothing more than say “there, there, it’ll be OK” in a way she was prepared to believe.

I’d have much rather seen the council spend a little more money to educate this woman’s superstitions away, than to pander to them and, ultimately, reinforce them. This would have had the fringe benefit of the money going to someone who battles against ignorance and mysticism, rather than someone who preys on it. Remember; the data suggests that the probability of Ms Hadwin possessing actual supernatural powers is vanishingly small.

Happy Darwin Day!

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Yes, I know it’s Darwin Day, and I should have something appropriately evolution-themed up here, but I had a pretty busy morning at work and it ended up running into my lunch break, so I didn’t have the time to put anything together. Lame excuse, I know, but there you go. Next year’s the big… Read more »

Yes, I know it’s Darwin Day, and I should have something appropriately evolution-themed up here, but I had a pretty busy morning at work and it ended up running into my lunch break, so I didn’t have the time to put anything together. Lame excuse, I know, but there you go.

Next year’s the big one anyway.

Feedburner

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I’m not using feedburner to track feed subscribers.

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I just switched the site to route subscriptions through feedburner (mainly out of interest.) It should be pretty seamless, but if you find your feed has repeated entries or anything, that’ll be why; it shouldn’t persist.

Ken Ham comes to Europe

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I’m depressed whenever someone suggests that creationism is on the rise in the UK.

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Both Phil and Ed have linked to this story:

After the Sunday service in Westminster Chapel, where worshippers were exhorted to wage “the culture war” in the World War II spirit of Sir Winston Churchill, cabbie James McLean delivered his verdict on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

“Evolution is a lie, and it’s being taught in schools as fact, and it’s leading our kids in the wrong direction,” said McLean, chatting outside the chapel. “But now people like Ken Ham are tearing evolution to pieces.”

They seem to think it’s funny, and I guess I can see why; they’ve been living with this level of idiocy for a long time. Personally, I find it depressing whenever it rears its head on this side of the Atlantic.

More on the Archbishop of Canterbury

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The Archbishop of Canterbury is facing severe criticism for his remarks about accommodating Sharia Law in the UK. Contrary to popular belief he has not called for changes to the law, but I still disagree strongly with his position.

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I’ll bet Dr Williams is taken aback at the response his comments has generated, and I have to say, I think a lot of people are overreacting. Obviously, I make no secret of the fact that I disagree with him and I’ll argue my point, but heckling the poor man outside his Church? Calling for his resignation? Not even remotely called for, and nothing more than an attempt to limit his right to hold an opinion and express his views.

At this stage it’s probably worth pointing out that there are — at least — two separate groups who’re being critical of his position, and it’s not the secularists and the liberals who’re calling for his resignation. Those voices are raised from within his own Church, and they’re not objecting on general grounds to religious accommodation in the law, they’re objecting very specifically to accommodation of religions that aren’t theirs. Needless to say, I disagree with those people at least strongly as I do Dr Williams.

In fact, on a re-reading his lecture, I realise just how badly misrepresented by the media Dr Williams was. I’m not saying I agree with him; far from it, but I don’t think he was calling for wholesale modification of British law, either. He makes some subtle points, and his words are, at times, ambiguous (one might say disingenuous,) but there is certainly a way to interpret what he said as nothing more controversial than “just because the law gives someone a right, doesn’t mean we should necessarily force them to exercise that right at all times.” That much is obviously true.

So, surely true enough is fair enough? Well, yes, but the assumption that someone might not want to exercise their rights is a dangerous one to establish legally, and an even more dangerous one to nationally consolidate through the establishment of local courts around the country, which (will inevitably) presume the complicity of the entire local population. Williams talks about these supplementary-jurisdictions as being purely voluntary, but offers no suggestions as to how to ensure duress of any kind does not play a role. Matthew Parris puts it excellently, in his piece in The Times:

Faiths capture people. I do not mean this disparagingly. So of course do patriotisms, ideologies, families. But a religion, properly understood, makes profound claims on an individual and community, quite unlike the demands of a golf club. It involves the use of public places and public services, the subordination of the individual’s will; and may demand that he subordinate his spouse’s and children’s wills too. Hence our unease about duress, and the completeness of “consent”.

Dr Williams, in a welter of words, makes no serious attempt to resolve this. Those who read his speech properly will see that his entire argument turns upon the freedom of the group member to “opt out” of the “supplementary jurisdiction” and choose British law instead. But repressive faith groups make it culturally difficult – sometimes well-nigh impossible – for a member to opt out. This gives them the very togetherness and focus that Dr Williams wants to foster.

A religion is more than a collection of rules and habits: it is a complete moral and philosophical system with deep claims upon the inner and outer life of the adherent, from cradle, through schooling, and beyond. The rules it lays down – the private laws – are of a more commanding kind than the rules of Scrabble or the High Peak Hunt because they are morally joined-up: joined with a loyalty beyond the State; joined within an overarching faith and its explanations of the Universe.

How can we expect someone who’d been raised, educated and governed according to certain cultural and religious prescriptions to realise, when it matters, that they are able to “opt-out” of all that? Everyone they know believes and acts a certain way; they have been raised to do the same. They might not even know there is a wider law guaranteeing them greater liberty. Paris, charitably, talks about religions as providing “togetherness” and “focus,” and I dare-say he’s right, but the other side of that coin is obedience, conformity and acquiescence; not traits that I believe will lead to people looking outside the system for redress.

Put simply, religion and governance are a bad mix at any level. Religions are, by their very nature, strongly ideological, and strongly ideological governments, religious or otherwise, fall all too easily — some might say, inevitably — into oppression of dissenting views.

Additionally, and as I’ve said before, there are real risks with introducing even small-scale supplemental jurisdictions in the context of the current British population. By granting legal status to aspects of cultural codes, we run the risk of granting a veneer of legitimacy to the entirety of those codes, including elements that the majority find abhorrent, and by granting already insular communities even greater autonomy, we don’t increase social cohesion on a wide scale, so much as splinter into a series of small, independent communities with little in the way of commonality to bind them into a cohesive whole.