What’s with the title?

The motto “quid tum?” appears on the reverse of a portrait medal of Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72), a true Renaissance man. It has a number of possible meanings, including “What’s next?” or “So what? Why is it important?”

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Government Spying in New Zealand

I recently published an opinion piece in our local newspaper, the Otago Daily Times, which relates to both the recent revelations regarding the NSA in the United States and the new law surrounding our own spy agency, the GCSB.

http://www.odt.co.nz/opinion/opinion/260625/time-show-door-any-spies-inside

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The GCSB Waihopai Spy Base (Photo: Wikimedia)
 

The period for public submissions on the spying law has been extended until 21 June. Details can be found here.

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Open-Source Software and Schools

Our local newspaper, the Otago Daily Times, recently published an opinion piece which I wrote regarding the use of free/open-source software (FOSS), particularly in schools. (WordPress is, of course, open-source software.)

Break Free from Apple and Microsoft

I’ve recently installed a version of the GNU/Linux operating system on a school computer that was about to be discarded, since it was incapable of running recent versions of Microsoft Windows. In half an hour I had the machine up and running, watching YouTube videos, editing my blog, writing documents, and working (if I wanted to) on spreadsheets, using the FOSS office suite LibreOffice.

Here’s Tux, the Linux mascot. Why is he a penguin? There’s a story to be told there, going back to Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux.

  Tux

As I note in my opinion piece, Warrington school, just outside Dunedin, have led the way, running entirely open-source systems. I recently visited the school, who also refurbish and give away computers to families who need them. If only other schools would do the same, we could save a lot of public money.

Unfortunately, the New Zealand government has an arrangement with Microsoft which means that Microsoft are paid for licenses whether or not schools use the software.

That’s a very nice arrangement for Microsoft, who are paid about $60 a year for every computer a school owns, but hardly a good arrangement for the New Zealand taxpayer.

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Science and Religion: The Conflict Thesis

I’m in the process of writing a grumpy book about science and religion, which takes as its starting point Galileo’s clash with the Church authorities.

Galileo_before_the_holy_office

For about thirty years now, historians have been writing against what they call the “conflict” or “warfare” thesis: the idea that there is some unavoidable conflict between science and religion. Invariably, they illustrate this by reference to the works of John William Draper (1811–82) and Andrew Dickson White (1832–1918), who produced highly polemical and one-sided works on the relationship between the Church and science.

The current fashion is to dismiss Draper and White’s talk of “conflict” or “warfare” and to replace it with the observation that the relationship between science and religion is one of “rich complexity.” But such an observation ought to be the starting point of a discussion, not its conclusion. Our task is to unreavel this complexity, to understand the various ways in which religion and science are related.

I began this task some years ago with an article in Religion Compass, a copy of which can be found here. I’ve continued exploring some related issues in a recent article in Relegere: Studies in Religion and Reception.

There is no doubt that there are at least occasional conflicts between religious beliefs and the findings of science. After all, about 46% of the population of the USA believe that the world was created less than 10,000 years ago, which looks like a conflict between at least some religious beliefs and science.

The question is: Which conflicts can be avoided and which are unavoidable? My thesis is that there is a deep conflict between religion and science, not necessarily on the level of what is believed, but certainly on the level of how it is believed.

I’ve recently had an expression of interest from a good publisher. Let’s see what happens once their reviewers have read it.

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The Wealth of Networks or The Hive Mind?

I’m currently reading a book by Jaron Lanier entitled You Are Not a Gadget. Janier has become a sceptic about ideas such as crowdsourcing and, therefore, even apparent success stories like Wikipedia, and warns against what he calls “the hive mind.” One of his targets is the idea that a large number of small contributions from anonymous individuals can be equivalent to the output of a single, great, creative mind. As he writes,

even if we could network all the potential aliens in the galaxy — quadrillions of them, perhaps — and get each of them to contribute some seconds to a physics wiki, we would not replicate the achievements of even one mediocre physicist, much less a great one.

I’m not altogether convinced by his arguments — there’s a critical review here — but it’s a thoughtful work and Lanier makes some good points. As a computer scientist who is responsible for popularizing the term “virtual reality,” he can hardly be accused of being a mere Luddite. A Romantic, perhaps, but not a Luddite, and if that’s a fault, it’s perhaps a lesser one.

Index

In any case, the book is a useful counterbalance to works such as Yochai Benkler‘s The Wealth of Networks, with which I (as a member of the GNU/Linux community) am more naturally sympathetic.

It may be true that crowdsourcing works best when it is coordinated by a small number of talented individuals, perhaps, in fact, by just one. Lots of free/open-source software projects are like this. At least until recently, Linus Torvalds has remained actively in control of changes to the Linux kernel, and the very successful and creative Ubuntu Linux distribution has been headed by Mark Shuttleworth, who (only partly in jest, I suspect) refers to himself as a SABDFL (self-appointed, benevolent, dictator for life).

Individual creativity and collective input may be complementary, rather than opposed.

But the other feature of the free/open-source software community is that it is a meritocracy. Anyone can contribute code, but if your code is not good, you’ll receive no respect. If, as some people are proposing, we “open-source” academic research and teaching, we must somehow find ways of maintaining the meritocratic aspects of university life.

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Creationism in New Zealand

Media commentators charitably refer to the New Zealand government as a “centre-right” government. But it includes people whose political, economic, and religious views are pretty extreme by world standards. An example?

166px-lucas_cranach_the_elder-adam_and_eve_1533

Our Associate Minister of Education recently endorsed creationism. When pressed by the interviewer on a local Christian radio station, John Banks responded as follows:

Interviewer: So let me get this clear, John Banks, Associate Minister of Education, you disagree with Darwin’s theory of evolution, you believe the Genesis account of how life began?

Banks: Yes.

This might seem harmless enough — he, like the rest of us, is free to hold whatever religious views he wants, provided they don’t infringe the rights of others — but he also endorsed the idea of teaching creationism in church schools. As he said,

I don’t see anything wrong with a Christian school teaching Christianity and Adam and Eve and everything that follows.

Again, perhaps harmless enough: church schools are, after all, church schools and not state schools (although many of them are integrated into the state system). But Banks has been a vigorous advocate for Charter Schools. Later in the interview he cited a local church educational institution, of Pentecostal provenance, that he thought would make for a good Charter School.

In other words, our Associate Minister for Education is keen to provide public funding to fundamentalist Christian institutions so they can teach students that Darwin was wrong and the world was created in six days less than 10,000 years ago.

A centre-right government? Yeah, right! There’s nothing centrist about these remarks.

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Selling State Assets

180px-dsci0402

As our right-wing government prepares to sell off more state assets, including power companies, New Zealanders should read James Meek‘s analysis (in the LRB) of what has happened in Britain. Here’s a sample.

More than twenty years after the great electricity experiment was launched, it can be seen that although it was an act of privatisation – of taxation, principally – it was most significantly an act of alienation, lowering an impenetrable barrier of complexity, commercial secrecy and sheer geographical distance between the controlling interests of electricity companies and the customers they serve. It’s easy to switch suppliers. But behind that barrier citizens and small businesses have no way of knowing that they aren’t being fleeced as egregiously by the cheapest provider as they are by the most expensive.

There’s something odd about the idea that you can create a free market in something like electricity. It is, after all, not an optional good but a necessity. There’s no chance of customers simply refusing to buy the product because the price has gone too high. So there is nothing to prevent suppliers from simply (by a kind of tacit agreement) allowing prices to go as high as possible… not even as high as the market will allow, because the market has no real choice.

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