Thursday, May 31, 2007

Pi Print Charity Auction Now Live On Ebay

The ebay auction for the first of a limited edition (50 worldwide) signed and numbered print of my Pi landscape painting is now live at:

The auction will run until 10th June with all proceeds raised being divided equally between the National Autistic Society, Autism Initiatives UK and the National Society for Epilepsy.

'Simplified Spelling' Is A Bad 'Eyedihr'

Members of the 'Simplified Spelling Society' are currently in the news for picketing outside the ongoing US National Spelling Bee competition in Washington, holding up placards which read: 'Let's end the 'i' in friend'. The society claims that current English spelling worsens dyslexia and delays children's literacy by several years. However I disagree with the idea of simplified spelling for the following reasons:

1. Which pronunciation would we use to spell words like: tomato, aunt, status, tuna, amen? What about words with varying numbers of syllables depending on how you pronounce them, such as: athlete, every and chocolate?

2. How would sound-based spellings distinguish between homonyms (homographs) such as: weigh/way/whey, i/eye/aye, to/too/two, rite/write/right/wright and air/e'er/ere/err/heir?

3. Foreign languages with words found in English would be harder to learn. Currently easily recognisable French words such as conversation, succès, triomphe and idée would become something like: 'konvuhrsayshun', 'sahrkses', 'treyeahmph' and 'eyedihr' in 'simplified' English.

4. The spelling of many words in English tells us something of their history and origins. That would be lost under a system of simplified spelling.

5. Being a lover of words, I think there is a strong aesthetic case to be made for the present English spelling of words as compared to the equivalent 'simplified' spellings.

6. Finally, I dislike the implication in the idea of 'simplified spelling' that the best way to educate people is by lowering the bar. We should instead be focusing on the most effective ways to teach the hugely important skills of spelling, reading and writing.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Why I'd Vote No To Proportional Representation

In the 2005 UK general election the governing Labour party won 35.3% to the Conservative party's 32.3% and the Liberal Democrats' 22.1%, yet Labour secured 356 parliamentary seats to the Conservatives' 198 and the Lib Dems' 62. Many people assume the result is unfair, but is it and would a system of proportional representation be any better?

I would argue that our system of 'first past the post' is fair, and in fact much more so than replacing it with one using PR.

In the United Kingdom we district our national election into (currently) 646 individual constituencies, making each national battle one comprised of hundreds of much smaller ones. A big advantage of this system is that - in theory at least - every voter in each of the constituencies has the chance of casting the winning vote for a party's representative. For example, in the 1997 election for the seat of Winchester the winning MP's margin of victory was just 2 votes. Another example from a country that districts its national election, the US, is Florida in the 2000 election where George W Bush beat Al Gore by just 537 votes.

Democracy isn't only about giving people equal power in an election (after all, in a dictatorship each voter has equal power of 0) but about giving each person as large an equal share of power in deciding the outcome of an election as possible. The people of Winchester or Florida would have had virtually no chance of having the sort of impact on their respective elections they had if their votes had been diluted into a sea of many millions of other votes, as would happen under a system of PR.

Elections are always lopsided, and the power an individual voter has to make a difference to the election's result goes down the more uneven an election is. Breaking a nationwide election down into lots of smaller localised elections balances out some of this lopsidedness, maximising the individual voter's power.

There are other reasons to support a system of 'first past the post' over PR. Labour may only have won 3% more of the national share than the Conservatives at the last election, but they won seats all over the country, whereas the Conservatives relied on the South of England for much of their support doing particularly badly in the North, Wales and Scotland. First-past-the-post prevents politicians from simply wooing a majority bloc at the expense of minorities.

What's more, PR almost never results in a majority government meaning that the parties have to go behind closed doors and haggle with each other over forming a coalition. The public have no say in these backroom negotiations. With no constituency link between members of parliament and the voters, the real power lies with those parties who can successfully jockey for position in a coalition government.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Pi Print Charity Auction Starts May 31st

We will be auctioning number 1 of the limited edition (50 worldwide) series signed print of my Pi landscape painting to raise funds for epilepsy and autism charities. The auction will be hosted by ebay and begins on May 31st at noon (GMT). Here is a link to a poster for the event:

'I don't get 27 votes on Election Day'

Last night on TV I watched a repeat of one of my favourite shows, The West Wing, during which the character Sam Seaborn makes the following assertion:

"Henry, last fall, every time your boss got on the stump and said, "It’s time for the rich to pay their fair share," I hid under a couch and changed my name. I left Gage Whitney making $400,000 a year, which means I paid 27 times the national average in income tax. I paid my fair share, and the fair share of 26 other people. And I’m happy to, ‘cause that’s the only way it’s gonna work. And it’s in my best interest that everybody be able to go to schools and drive on roads. But I don’t get 27 votes on Election Day. The fire department doesn’t come to my house 27 times faster and the water doesn’t come out of my faucet 27 times hotter. The top one percent of wage earners in this country pay for 22 percent of this country. Let’s not call them names while they’re doing it, is all I’m saying."

Incredibly, neither 'Henry' nor any of the other characters in the room replied to Sam's argument. How about something like:

"Sam, you paid more than 20 times the national average in income tax because you were being paid more than 20 times the national average in income. You're not 20 times a better person than the average man. You're not 20 times smarter and you didn't work 20 times more hours. You paid a lot more tax than most people because you got a lot more money than most people."

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Falsifiability and the God Hypothesis

I've recently enjoyed reading the online debate between the atheist writer Sam Harris and Catholic blogger Andrew Sullivan at:
At one point Harris asks Sullivan what kind of evidence he would require to abandon his belief in God; something that Sullivan doesn't subsequently address.

As a Christian myself, I thought I would give my own answer to Harris's question here by listing five scenarios, any one of which I would consider strong enough to falsify my belief in God:

1. If the Universe were shown to be eternal - however the vast majority of scientists accept the Big Bang hypothesis which says that the universe had a beginning (around 13.7 billion years ago). Many scientists (including Einstein) were originally extremely unhappy with the theory that the universe might not be eternal, yet all the evidence indeed points to it having had a beginning.

2. If the properties of our Universe were shown to be non-significant - I'm familiar with the argument that even if our universe had only a (say) 1 in a million chance of existing in the form it does, it doesn't demonstrate anything significant about our universe.

The argument goes that it is equivalent to a person throwing a ball in a field and then arguing that the blade of grass it lands on is special because it had only a 1 in a million chance of being landed upon. However our universe is peculiarly capable of complex, intelligent, self-aware life - dependent on many extremely low-probability factors - so that the correct analogy would be if the ball landed on a blade of grass which was coloured blue while all the others were green.

3. If the Universe were shown to be only one of an infinite number of 'multiverses' - So far, we have zero evidence for any universe but our own.

4. If our Universe were shown to have other complex, intelligent life forms without religion - Although decades ago the belief among scientists was widespread that our universe was teeming with intelligent life, currently we still have no evidence whatsoever for the existence of any other intelligent life in the universe. Some scientists have calculated that the probability of such life existing is in fact close to zero. Humans may well be alone in the universe.

5. If it was shown that our ideas and beliefs are exclusively the result of biological and cultural processes entirely beyond our control (and therefore their content immaterial) - or, to put it another way, if it were shown that there is no such thing ultimately as 'Truth'.

However one such well-publicised attempt - Memetics - has largely failed; its Journal ceasing publication in 2005 and many of its advocates having moved away from it.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

On Learning Icelandic

Shortly after the week I spent learning Icelandic for the documentary 'Brainman' in 2004, I wrote down some of my thoughts on the experience. I reproduce an excerpt from them below:

"Though some might complain about the Icelandic grammar, that isn't the point. Icelandic is not grammar, Icelandic people don't speak grammar. If you learn the language, the grammar will follow. I find that the complexity of Icelandic mirrors the complexity of human thought and nature, and the rich tension within the fabric of everyday life. When paint is cast within a portrait, it becomes something more for being part of something bigger than itself. Blue and grey becomes a sky, green and white becomes a landscape, pink and orange and black becomes a human face. So it is with words which become sentences, like raindrops which form a sea. Why shouldn't 'bók' become 'bókin' at the start of a sentence and 'bókina' at the end. Icelandic sentences are composed of more than just words."