27 March 2007

Ben Cousins. Again. Yawn.

The media have gone bananas again.

Not that Ben Cousins doesn't bring it upon himself, though.

But let's just re-cap for those who don't know who Cousins is.

Cousins is probably the highest profile footballer in the AFL at the moment. He won the Brownlow Medal in 2005, which is the league's official Best and Fairest award, voted for by the umpires who officiate at each game.

In 2005, he also won the Leigh Matthews Trophy, which is a Most Valuable Player award voted for by the players. I will note here for my non-Australian readers that the Matthews Trophy doesn't have anywhere near the amount of kudos that the Brownlow Medal does as an individual award, but it still shows the level of esteem he is held in by the other players.

In 2006, his club, the West Coast Eagles, won the AFL Premiership for that season. This makes him officially a champion.

But off-field is where, like another great champion, Wayne Carey, he is more likely to be remembered.

During the end-of-season celebrations in 2002, Cousins was involved in a punch-up with fellow Eagle, Daniel Kerr.

In 2005, Cousins and team-mate Michael Gardiner famously refused to aid police after an incident involving a stabbing and a shooting at Perth's Metro City nightclub.

Incidentally, West Coast management told the pair that they were on their last warning after this affair.

And in early 2006, Cousins stopped his car and did a runner after noticing a booze bus up ahead, and working out that he was well over the legal blood-alcohol limit. He was fined for that, and no doubt copped some ridicule from other players over it.

Then in December 2006, he was arrested outside Crown Casino in Melbourne after getting a little rowdy and then passing out outside. Some incriminating photos were published by the media from this affair.

West Coast's management pretty much went on record at this point and basically indicated that the club would do nothing about Cousins' repeated indiscretions for no other reason than that he is a star player.

But the most recent events are surreal, even by Cousins' low standards.

Cousins' was suspended indefinitely after not showing up to training on repeated occasions.

Speculation mounted before finally it was revealed that Cousins had a drug problem.

Now this is where I get upset.

Cousins problems, bad as they are, relate to recreational drugs. The way that the media are going after him, though, you'd think that he was busted for blood-doping or something anabolic.

Now the AFL does not have a good record with regards to recreational drugs. Being sponsored every other year by either Victoria Bitter or Carlton Draught is hypocritical in the extreme. Alcohol is a recreational drug.

But the AFL wouldn't be alone in this regard.

Cousins should not let his recreational drug use interfere with his career as a professional footballer, however, his recreational drug use is his business, and his alone. And let's not forget, that this only came to light because several Eagles, including Cousins, were drug-tested the day before this was made public.

Some in the media are trying to spin it that Cousins' fall from grace is due to breaking up with his long term girlfriend, but this is also none of anyone's business.

So why are sporting bodies so fixated on recreational drug-use? Provided it doesn't interfere with one's career, one should be free to do whatever they like in the privacy of one's own home, or in a club, or at the pub?

Some have suggested that it's to protect sponsors from Big Alcohol who rather like people to keep chugging their product. If they're not because someone's smoking grass or having a few hits from a ice pipe, Big Alcohol is, quite rightly, going to get upset. After all, they sponsor the game and it's not through altruism, either.

AFL footballers are largely well known for their superhuman intake of alcohol, and this makes them all round good guys in the eyes of the media.

But here's the rub.

While Cousins' "substance abuse" problem is well known, when was the last time you heard of a footballer being 'outed' with an alcohol problem?

Since Cousins' problems were made public, several other key pieces of innuendo circulated about other players' problems in the same vein. Pun unintentional.

But we all remember Dale Lewis being sent to Coventry by the media for suggesting that footballers recreational drug use was anything other than alcohol.

The AFL, the media and the West Coast Eagles Football Club are seriously guilty of burying their heads in the sand on this issue for too long. People, and I like to think that footballers are people too, indulge in all manner of recreational drugs. Just why the hypocrisy exists is a complete enigma to me.

Edit 27/03/2007: Greg has put up a ripper post on this, and my learned advice is to check it out.

Footnote: The mighty Swans play the Eagles this weekend in Round 1 of the 2007 AFL Season. Go Swans!

26 March 2007

Faerie's Aire and Death Waltz

I had to clean my monitor today, after the mouthful of tea that I was drinking was spat out all over it.

This was what I was reading.

(Thank you Kathryn.)

Enjoy.

20 March 2007

Why did you end up agnostic? (Part 4)

This is Part 4.

Part 3 is here.
Part 2 is here.
Part 1 is here.

I've complained over the past three posts in this series that atheists don't appear to understand agnosticism. It's still a bit of a loose end, so in this part, hopefully the final, I'm planning to demonstrate, using a particularly well-referenced example, exactly the level of misunderstanding that exists.

The Oxford defines the word agnostic as follows:


agnostic

/agnostik/

noun a person who believes that nothing can be known concerning the existence of God.

adjective relating to agnostics.

— DERIVATIVES agnosticism noun.


As can be seen, there is a belief held by most agnostics that at no time will we know the truth about the existence (or otherwise) of God.

Any agnostic worth his (or her - but I'm going to dispense with the time-consuming task of doing this herewith) salt understands that this is a perfectly reasonable belief to hold. Theists are constantly moving the goalposts on what a god is, and thus this makes it very difficult to actually test in a consistent fashion for deities.

(And before anyone pulls me up, everyone knows that although God - who is normally the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God - is specifically mentioned, this statement refers to all supernatural deities. Don't make me smack you.)

In ancient Greece, the gods were said to live on Mount Olympus.

When people started climbing Mount Olympus, people just moved the goalposts on the home of the gods to an alternate Mount Olympus which existed on another plane.

Richard Dawkins, in his excellent book, The God Delusion, believes that we can test for the existence of God. I say, good luck, because religious folk will always have an out. This makes the agnostic point of view so much more important. Dawkins even says that to 'give up' in such a fashion is intellectual cowardice, and quotes all sorts of arguments as to why we should strive to find a way to test for supernatural deities.

The reason I mention Dawkins is pivotal to this part.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins, who is, pretty much, the world authority on atheism, engages in character assassination of the lowest order on agnostics and essentially invites atheists to join in the fun and games.

In the process, Dawkins uses some surprisingly weak arguments of his own in order to justify this. Which is really a surprise, because for most of the rest of the book, Dawkins nails everything correctly. (I also took exception to his definition of Religion which appears to include Acupuncture and Feng Shui at the expense of Confucianism and Buddhism, but this post isn't about that)

The first thing that Dawkins does when he lets fly at agnostics in chapter 2 is some serious poisoning of the well when, in the first paragraph he issues the following epithets about others' perceptions of agnostics:


[Atheists, at least, compared to agnostics] had the courage of their misguided convictions.

Namby-pamby, mushy pap, weak-tea, weedy, pallid, fence sitters.

Wishy-washy boneless mediocrities who flapped around in the middle.

Dawkins then issues a weak disclaimer, however, like the lady who advertises "massage" in the Personals section of the classified advertising pages along with the phrase, "no sex", this first paragraph is clearly designed to get the word, "sex," metaphorically speaking, out there for all to see.

At pains to exonerate class acts like Carl Sagan, himself a self-proclaimed agnostic, Dawkins creates a delineation between what he calls Temporary Agnosticism in Practice (TAP), and Permanent Agnosticism in Principle (PAP).

Basically, agnostics are OK, Dawkins is saying. Really, they are, as long as they're TAP agnostics, like Sagan, and not PAP agnostics.

Where this leaves Temporary Agnosticism in Principle and Permanent Agnosticism in Practice is really anyone's guess. But we'll leave this point unanswered - Dawkins certainly makes no attempts.

(Incidentally, I completely and utterly accept that Dawkins uses the PAP acronym innocently.)

In a nutshell, a TAP agnostic believes that they can wait until the evidence is in before deciding what it is that they want to believe, whereas PAP agnostics supposedly uphold the dictionary definition on principle, only.

It's fairly early into the chapter that Dawkins leaps to the astounding conclusion that "PAP" agnostics apply an equal probability to the non-existence of God compared with the existence of God.

What evidence does Dawkins give that this is the case? None whatsoever. Dawkins' delineation between TAP and PAP agnostics notwithstanding, this appears to be an attempt to create a pejorative stereotype of an agnostic that simply does not exist.

To point out that all claims may one day be capable of testing, Dawkins repeats Auguste Comte's oft-repeated quote about never being able to know about what stars were made of. So what? Comte was most certainly incorrect, but what's wrong with this?

Never mind that Comte's quote didn't involve metaphysical concepts, nor did he consider goalposts that get moved around like crazy. Comte's quote was straightforward, and wrong, but again, so what?

Dawkins seems to be indirectly implying that agnostics would be unable to accept being wrong about their belief regarding no evidence for or against the metaphysical. Where the hell does he get this idea?

Another gratuitous mention of 'cowardly agnosticism' later, Dawkins then wheels in the big guns, starting with T H Huxley.

Dawkins pours scorn on Huxley for ignoring the question of probability. Then, somehow, Dawkins magically puts two and two together on this and comes to the amazing conclusion that this non-consideration of probability means that Huxley automatically assigns equal time to both existence and non-existence.

Let's take a breather from Dawkins' complete misunderstanding of agnosticism for one moment, and examine his somewhat befuddling fixation with probability.

Suppose I make the statement that I neither believe or disbelieve that the Reserve Bank will either lift or reduce interest rates this year. And let's assume that leaving the rates unchanged is not an option.

Because I haven't mentioned probability, Dawkins would have you believe that I assign an equal probability to either outcome - a situation that is, for anyone who knows me, completely improbable verging on impossible.

Not only that, but in the two archetypes that Dawkins has drawn up, unless a TAP agnostic specifies their allegiance up front, one is now entitled to assume that an agnostic attaches a 50/50 probability to the (non-)existence of God.

Dawkins then appears to contradict himself by creating a spectrum of probabilities, where he considers that a PAP can't be placed on it at the 50/50 mark, because they consider themselves outside such assessment of probabilities.

It's my view that Dawkins is consciously contradicting himself here. He is deliberately misrepresenting agnostics in order to paint them in a pretty poor light.

And then, when most readers of the agnostic persuasion are tearing their hair out in frustration at Dawkins, he invokes Bertrand Russell's teapot. This is folly and Dawkins knows it. Particularly in light of the reverse ferret that Dawkins does at the end.

Let's assume that I'm having a conversation with Russell:


Russell: Let's say that there's this scarecrow and he's orbiting Jupiter...

Me: Hold on, Einstein, why a scarecrow?

Russell: Well, it sounds good. I had to make up something that sounded silly.

Me: OK. Well, go on.

Russell: Let's say that there's this scarecrow and he's orbiting Jupiter. How would you, Mister Agnostic, disprove it's existence?

Me: Well, that's easy, you said, 'Let's say that there's this scarecrow,' and then you said, 'I had to make up something that sounded silly.' You've created what is normally considered to be a hypothetical proposition. It therefore only exists as a figment of your imagination.

Russell: Look, forget what I said. In any event, you haven't actually disproved it. What if one is actually there?

Me: Well, it would be up to you to prove it, wouldn't it?

Russell: Why me?

Me: Well, you're making a pretty extraordinary claim, aren't you?

Russell: Let's forget who is making this claim, the important thing is that if this claim is made, how would you disprove it?

Me: What do you mean, 'Let's forget who is making this claim?' This is pretty important. Why should I bother attempting to disprove this claim if you won't tell me who made the claim in the first place?

Russell: The claim itself isn't important.

Me: Well, clearly it is, if you want me to disprove it.

Russell: Look, just assume that the claim has been made. Now, how would you disprove that a scarecrow is out there?

Me: I wouldn't.

Russell: You mean you couldn't?

Me: No. I mean I wouldn't. I wouldn't even make it as far as showing that I couldn't. First of all, a claim has been made that a scarecrow is orbiting around Jupiter. Secondly, you, Bertrand Russell, come in and ask me, an agnostic, to disprove this claim. Lastly, you tell me that it's not important that the claim has been made, nor who made the claim.

Russell: What's wrong with that?

Me: Well, on the last point I beg to differ. Disproving an unimportant claim is a waste of everyone's time. And in the 'absence' of the person who made this claim, I propose that you're a good proxy for that person, being that you brought this claim to my attention in the first place.

Russell: I'm not sure where you're going with this.

Me: Simple. The onus is on you to present evidence for this unimportant scarecrow claim, and immediately after, I'll work on disproving it. Do we have a deal?

Russell: But... but...

Me: And may I suggest that you use something far less controversial than a 'scarecrow'? An inordinate number of people have this phobia of them. Might I suggest a teapot instead?

It's interesting to note that, as Dawkins himself admits, it is perfectly reasonable to be agnostic about Russell's teapot. Russell cannot provide evidence for the claim, and it is a claim that is impossible to disprove. Dawkins, however, introduces this to set up an amazingly patronising assault on agnostics in the closing paragraphs of the section.

It's in the closing paragraphs of this section that Dawkins, quite offensively, lectures agnostics on what constitutes an extraordinary claim.

Dawkins vicious attack on agnostics during this section nearly had me throwing his book at the wall.

The thing that overrides Dawkins' merry trip to stereotypeland is that all his generalisations about agnostics mean diddly-squat in the real world.

In the real world, the vast, vast majority of agnostics recognise what part is the extraordinary claim.

Dawkins' premise about probability, upon which he has built this entire section, comes crashing down like a house of cards when this knowledge is taken into account.

But I wonder if Dawkins knew this all along.

Dawkins is also smart enough to know that an ad hominem attack is unlikely to be called if it is concealed within an argument of some sort, no matter if that argument is as weak as halal beer.

And I wonder if that was what Dawkins intended. Which begs the question - what would he have against agnostics?

Footnote: I only just noticed upon re-reading this section that Dawkins admits to using that witty yet depressingly banal "one less god..." argument that I discussed in Part 3. I have to admit that I lost a bit of respect for him, here.

12 March 2007

Vale John Inman

The world of British sit-coms was rocked this week with the passing of John Inman, best known as Mr Wilberforce Clayborne Humphries from the immortal Are you being served?

Are you being served? was a creation of David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd, themselves responsible for a number of British sit-coms which were all very much in the tradition of the Carry On movies. This genre of British sit-coms derived most of their laughs from the heavy use of double entendre and slapstick.

Are you being served? ran for 10 seasons, starting with the pilot in 1972 and ending in 1985.

Croft and Lloyd would repeat the success of Are you being served? with the brutally funny 'Allo 'allo and reunite the cast of Are you being served? in the early nineties for two seasons with Grace & favour.

With possible competition from Mollie Sugden's character, Mrs Slocombe, Mr Humphries was far and away the most popular character on the show.

Mr Humphries was an effete little man with all the obvious gay wisecracks, but was never on the receiving end of the jokes. Most of the best jokes that Mr Humphries was in had Mr Lucas and Mr Grainger on the receiving end, and sometimes Captain Peacock as well.

Funnily enough, both Inman and Lloyd have said that Humphries was never meant to be gay, just a mother's boy. Mr Humphries sexual orientation was never explicitly stated, although all the jokes were clearly meant to imply that he was gay.

His most famous catchphrase, "I'm free," uttered in full falsetto, is still occasionally wheeled out by shop-staff everywhere to smirks and tittering.

This sort of humour was killed off long ago by the politically-correct thought police.

Inman outlived them, though. He gets the last laugh. RIP.

08 March 2007

Carnage!

Yessireebob, there has been some carnage on the markets over the past week.

And on the whole, I have to applaud the sensible handling of this issue by the media. It was about six years ago that the infamous Tech Wreck happened, and some markets (for example, NASDAQ) around the world still haven't clawed back the ground that they lost during this time.

You may recall that the media fanned the flames caused by the fallout of the Tech Wreck by suggesting in no uncertain terms that investors were 'cutting their losses' by selling up.

Well, there has been none of this irresponsible talk in the media this time around, at least, in the Australian media, anyway. Most of the media commentators I've read are taking a pretty philosophical approach.

So what caused this?

Ostensibly, it appears to have been caused directly by a large slide on, of all places, the Shanghai Stock Exchange. This was a fall of about 9% on the back of fears that the People's Bank of China was about to introduce capital controls to limit speculation by hedge funds.

The fact that markets around the world were spooked by this is a pretty sad indictment on investor confidence generally.

For starters, the SSE has a total market capitalisation of only about CNY 7.2 trillion, which equates to AUD 1.2 trillion or USD 915 billion.

Compare this with these stock exchanges to see how piddly and little this is (all USD):

NYSE = 15.4 trillion
NASDAQ = 3.9 trillion
Tokyo = 4.6 trillion
LSE = 3.8 trillion

(Source - Wikipedia)

In fact, all the world's big stock markets are massively bigger than Shanghai.

Even the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX), which is not all that big, holds a healthy USD 1.1 trillion, which makes it larger than this tiddler.

Of course, the Shanghai Stock Exchange (SSE) is growing at a furious rate. Much faster than it's little brother the Shenzhen one, and faster still than Hong Kong, which was tipped to be THE stock exchange of China.

Here in Australia, though, the media has been relatively muted on the subject of the markets.

This could be partially due to the fact that the ASX has been one of the world's best performing bourses for three years running. Perhaps that has contributed to the general mood of the media which appears to have taken the attitude that this was a slide that was inevitable.

The ASX has been going gangbusters for some time, and was probably overdue a correction.

But should the concern over the slide in Shanghai have crossed over to the rest of the world's markets in the way that it has? This blogger thinks that the attention that Shanghai is getting is just a little idiotic.

More importantly, though, would restrictions on hedge fund movements in and out of China be a bad thing?

During the South East Asian currency crisis of the late 1990s, the then Malaysian government of Mahathir Mohamad imposed currency controls in order to stem the flow of money out of the country. Commentators everywhere decried this move against a 'free market', but in the end, things worked out well for Malaysia, which came out of the crisis largely intact, as opposed to some of the other member of the SE Asia bloc.

I remember very well at the time Mahathir accusing George Soros of ruining Malaysia with currency speculation.

Fast forward to today, and it appears that there is still paranoia in Asia over hedge fund activity.

The Chinese are being incredibly hypocritical if they are considering capital controls - the People's Bank of China (PBOC) now currently possesses roughly USD 1 trillion of foreign currency reserves. This makes it a powerful player in it's own right.

And it's not immune to its own brand of currency speculation. About this time last year, it engaged in a massive forward contract on the AUD in USD. The AUD was about to sink below USD 0.70 and it became in PBOC's interest to enter the market and short the AUD in order for their deal to pay off.

Meanwhile, the PBOC has kept the renminbi (CNY) at unfeasibly low levels against the rest of the world. It's really no wonder that all this foreign cash if flooding into China.

But as yet, China is not an economic powerhouse. Market reactions around the world to this are patently immature. Maybe in a few years time when the Chinese economy really has some clout, then this scenario would make more sense.

Standard but necessary disclaimer: This is not advice. Only a complete idiot would think that any of this constituted advice. It's not even vaguely reasonable to consider this to be advice. If you are in any doubt as to the content of this, see a good, independent financial adviser immediately. They do exist.

05 March 2007

Dungeons and dragons

Proving once again that his blog is indispensible, Jack Marx has had a go at woo, "self-help" and eastern religion.

His conclusion is stated early on, and quite well:


For peddlers of pseudoscience are the most successful of all hucksters, thanks to what at first seems to be an uncanny ability to appear above criticism, but is actually just the simple fact that you can't bust a dealer when he's selling bags with nothing in them.

As far as pseudoscience goes, this statement sums it up better than anything else I've ever heard and I plan to use it heaps in the future.

The comments thread has gotten a bit out of control - you could apply all of Bronze Dog's Doggerel statements to quite a lot of them, but anyway, have a read for yourself.

Read it here:

The Daily Truth: Dungeons and dragons

04 March 2007

Why skepticism?

Infophile has an excellent blog over at Infophilia.

Over the past few months, he has put together an outstanding series called, Why Skepticism?

I've been meaning for sometime to put up an index to this series for my benefit, so here it is:

Why Skepticism? (Part 1)

Why Skepticism? (Part 2)

Why Skepticism? (Part 3)

It's worth ploughing through parts 1 and 2 in order to contextualise part 3 - but may I suggest that you print these out and read them on the train on the way home from work, or something.

Parts 1 and 2 are pretty heavy going.

Part 3 is great if you read it on it's own, but even better if you take the time to fully parse the first two parts.