mercredi 6 mai 2015

On the ignorance of moral philosophers

 Over the years my online reading has expanded to encompass several philosophical blogs. Of course we all love (phil) knowledge (sophy). So I suppose by a philosophical blog I mean a blog written by someone formally engaged in the activity promulgated by university philosophy departments.
Now in the course of this, I've started to note a pattern in philosophical discourse, in which the author feels free to devise some fairly simplistic example,* and then uses it to reason towards some questioning of a universal value. Here is a recent example, written by Richard Chappell, a philosopher interested in morality at the University of York. In it, he questions the idea that people are equally worthy of moral consideration by inviting us to consider our actions faced with Gandhi and Hitler (as personifications of good and evil presumably) and a single dose of a painkilling drug. I didn't like this, and submitted the following comment:

1) Who was responsible for stock control of the analgesic drugs? Poor job. Most well-established analgesics are cheap. Even with more resource-intensive treatments, there are usually ample rational criteria for selecting patients in whom the treatment would be most beneficial, other than their wealth or putative moral status.
2) The safest, most practical, and most moral course of action is to treat everyone, Hitler, Gandhi (who was no saint), Gilles de Rais, whoever, with as much professional élan as you can muster. In the British Army Medical Corps, for example, there is a certain ethical pride in treating all casualties optimally, whether friend or foe. It's called respect for the Geneva Convention. Would you like to rescind it? And more generally, to do otherwise, in the healthcare domain, is potentially an assault on the patient's right to life. Or perhaps you're planning to do away with human rights as well?
3) In a world in which even professors of moral philosophy question the moral equality of every human being, it is particularly important to be known for trying to treat everyone as well as possible, should you yourself need treatment one day. Imagine a judgmental doctor who considered moral philosophers worthless blowhards and treated them less favourably in some way. That would be awful.

Of course, M. Chappell has no obligation to publish any remark of mine, though I note that he has posted ten other comments, all more cosy to his way of thinking. Setting this comment up has proved somewhat tedious, but I post it here anyway on the general principle that such rejected comments are the most important ones to publish. And Chappell's ideas must be classed in that flora of delicate organisms which survive only under laboratory-controlled conditions, with little, if any, relevance to contemporary problems.

*Stevan Harnad posted a particularly objectionable example of the genre on his Google+ profile recently, inviting the following "thought experiment":
"You are a driver of a runaway train hurtling towards a set of points. You have a switch that can send the train one way or another, but you can't stop. On one track your child has been tied to the rails. On another, someone else's child. What do you do?"
This was presumably designed to evoke contemplation of justice and family values, but my first reaction was: "Well, who's going around tying children to railway lines?" and "err, given the supposèd urgency of the situation, how come you've got this perfect information on the identities of the children ahead?"
But such refusal to join in the philosophical game I fear makes me an unsuitable playmate in this playground.
I dislike all this for the useless waste of time and energy it represents. It is misguided. There is no shortage of real world ethical and moral problems. Why not use your talents and energy to discover and describe real things that have actually happened, then reason about them?

mardi 14 avril 2015

Going Dutch? A note of caution for cycle activists

It's almost certainly unwise of me to publish my original compositions in French: the inevitable clunkiness of my style in that language probably frightens off potential clients, and it is unlikely to be the most useful contribution to debate further afield. Nevertheless, such was my burning desire to express myself during this discussion of the effect of the implementation of cycle lanes on traffic more generally (on the CarFree France site) that I broke the rule. And now, no less a personage than Carlton Reid, author of the excellent (and beautifully illustrated) book 'Roads Were Not Built For Cars,' has asked me to translate my comment there. Happy to oblige! Here it is:

 Like Benchaouche Yassin, I live in Nantes, and I agree with him that the arrival of cycle paths does not necessarily mean there has been an improvement in life for the cyclist. There have certainly been good intentions to make policy that encourages cycling here. And the town hall spends a fair amount of cash on the streetscape dedicated to cyclists. Unfortunately, a "gymkhana effect" has been created: an obstacle course of kerbs, bollards, deviations, unnecessary curves, contradictory traffic signals two metres apart etc—which may make the keen mountain biker happy, but hardly seems the right thing for a humble worker who just wants to get to work with a minimum of effort. And what's more, the sensible cyclist who avoids this traffic engineering bullshit by riding on the road alongside now gets given a lesson—by the medium of the car horn—by drivers. It must remain an absolute principle that the cyclist must always retain his or her right to ride on the road. The new lanes are for the new cyclists, the old, the disabled, and children. Of course, it's always good to have a choice. But often, that choice will be direct and quick, on a smooth road.
"Mummy, why is the cycle lane compulsory?"
"Because it's rubbish."

vendredi 27 février 2015

No more translations from Jacques Guilbaud

I was sad to hear that Jacques Guilbaud died this week. I didn't know him well: indeed it is only today that I have had the pleasure of perusing his website, which bears impressive testimony to his many interests other than that of being a sworn ("assermenté") translator and interpreter in French and English within the French legal system.

But it was this official status which meant so much to me back in 2010 when I was just starting out as a professional translator. He, presumably over-committed, conferred a set of adoption papers to me, for rendering into English. The job–about ten pages–was notable for being delivered by hand, and I recall that it served as the justification for my first ever purchase of OCR software. (After geeking out on the reviews I opted for ABBYY FineReader, which is... fine). The files that ensued were saved as .odt in OpenOffice (as then was) and thence passed smoothly into OmegaT for segment by segment translation.

Though I say it myself, this was pretty cool and efficient, as I then had little work to do formatting the English version when the translation was completed. The job was equally delivered on paper, and Jacques was kind enough a few days later to judge the translation "immaculate"; quotable praise that was deeply appreciated at the time, as was the cheque which arrived with commendable promptness.

Jacques was old school–he gained his official status in the French system back in 1979, when the idea of a personal computer was an obscure Californian passion, the translator a master of recondite knowledge in communion with a collection of dictionaries, and possibly, if successful, a dictating machine and a secretary. The transcriber of such a tape would have heard a soft Canadian English, with its discernible vestiges from the Scottish highlanders who made northern America their home in centuries past; this I always found entirely delightful to listen to, quite apart from the variety and interest of substance in any conversation with Jacques. He will be sadly missed.

samedi 21 février 2015

No more tracks from Geoffrey Carnall

Geoffrey Carnall 1 February 1927 - 20 February 2015

My father died yesterday aged 88. Much will be said in his memory in the coming days and months by the many who knew him, but the contribution I can uniquely make here is to highlight his brief career as a dub recording artist. At the time he was making fairly frequent visits to various London libraries, researching his biography of Horace Alexander. This meant that I had the pleasure of his company on several evenings. As my great passion at the time was creating tracks in a little digital recording studio I had set up in my front room, it was only natural to offer me dear ole pop a turn at the mic.

Part parlour game, part digital experiment, working under a poster that read "Trust me, I'm an artist," I'd quickly diddle a basic dubtrack into existence, before my father proffered his vocal improvisation, in a single take, ministry of quaker-style. Much more might be said about the detail of the process, but it's perhaps only important to note that the tracks were produced for instant online release on my weblog at the time, entitled "dougie's blog." Edits were light, decisions instant, regrets few, and there's a freshness and spontaneity to these tracks that I still enjoy to this day, besides the obvious satisfaction of immortalizing my dad's voice.

All who knew him are invited to the funeral (483kB pdf): Mortonhall Crematorium in Edinburgh at 1500h, Friday 27 February 2015. No flowers; donations to the Peace and Justice Centre, St John's Church Crypt, Princes Street, Edinburgh

dimanche 25 janvier 2015

One annotation site to rule them all?

from the my-kinda-people department

I did not know that Marc Andreeson, programmer of the first graphical web browser, NCSA Mosaic, had originally included a built-in commenting feature, but rapidly disabled it when the resource implications of hosting the entire web's remarks about the entire web's content sank in (!) Fair enough. But the reason why commenting is a personal itch for me is because this is the bit of the web that so obviously represents a novel departure from traditional publishing processes. A web "page"? Meh, 2000 years off the pace, dude. Anyone anywhere can comment instantly on what's just been written? Now that is wow! like WOW! Though of course, as Gary Wolf so memorably wrote in his article about Craig's List in Wired all those years ago, the public is a motherfucker.

But from Slashdot to BMJ Rapid Responses, to Comment is Free and a slew of comments across a heap of blogs that I read on RSS, commenting is something I do, and something I follow. It seems to be where the action is. So I was very excited to come across this morning, which, as I understand it, has the ambition of taking up where Andreeson left off, and providing a reliable annotation framework for the whole web:

Digging around a bit deeper, hoping to join in, I came across this design document, written by a leading light in the project back in 2013 which outlined the approach the project is taking to facilitating the quality, and eliminating the spammy*:
The reputation of a user represents our trust of the user. In mathematical terms, we can think of the reputation as of a probability of the user telling us a correct statement. If reputation is zero then the user always gives wrong information. If reputation is 1 then the user always correct. If reputation is 0.5 then the user gives correct information in 50% of cases.

From other point of view, reputation expresses how much useful content a user has contributed. For example, in stackoverflow, more good answers I contribute, more reputation I have. Intuitively, this reputation is proportional to amount of useful work the user has done.
I was impelled to comment:
The idea of "one reputation score to rule them all" is obviously seductive when considering the ranking of multiple comments. But reputation in whose eyes? Surely a reputation system worthy of world wide use should reflect the reality that different people have different assessment of each other's reputations (particularly when we consider--ahem!--interdisciplinary contributions).
I'd certainly be interested in a system that enabled me to deprecate or appreciate comments made by other persistent identities in the knowledge that so doing would reduce or augment my probability of **me** seeing comments by that commenter in future. But I'm sure it would be a bad thing to impose my own assessment of someone else's reputation on anyone else.

But (ironically) that comment seemed not to be registered. So I'm posting it here.

FWIW: The current federated system seems reasonable. We just need better meta-information about sites that host discussion well (including archiving), and sites that cheat: pretending to host comments, but then not doing so, so we can avoid them in future. (cf SourceWatch)

* This plan involved:
Phase 1 - Simple spam triage
Phase 2 - Simple voting
Phase 3 - Metamoderation based on social graph
Phase 4 - User notifications

Update 7/2/14 1423h: 

samedi 10 janvier 2015

May the earth hear the words of my mouth

from the truth-is-still-getting-its-boots-on dept

Email to the Editor, [sent 16:39h, 30/12/2014]

Dear Editor,

I live in Nantes, and I have a google news alert set up for Nantes, which is how I came across your story entitled: ' "French Rampage Attack Injures Ten; Driver Shouted "Allahu Akbar" ' (

I was in the area that evening, and have followed the press coverage of this event particularly closely. Your account is at variance with the local press reports, which clearly state that there was NO reputable report that the driver shouted "Allahu Akbar;" indeed this was categorically denied:


If the driver had indeed made such an utterance, there were certainly plenty of witnesses available to hear it.

I accordingly submitted a comment at the foot of your story which read:

All official sources reported by Ouest France are quite categorical that the driver in Nantes did NOT shout Allahu Akbar: (Fr). There were certainly plenty of witnesses to hear him, should he have done so.
Place Royale is a public square in the centre of Nantes, not an "area."

This you have yet to publish. I wonder if you have any plans to do so? I would be interested to know of your decision.

With best wishes,


Update: 1110h 10/1/15. No reply has been received from the editors, and the comment has yet to appear at the foot of the page, so it is published here.

It is interesting to consider how sketchy the evidence is for anything said amidst the understandable distress occasioned by violent events, even when immediate formal investigation of living witnesses is possible, as here. And how easy it is invent any old nonsense that suits your agenda, and broadcast it to the world. But the truth will out, even if, as it would appear, that's not a business that Jewish Voice NY is in.

[About the title: "May the earth hear the words of my mouth" is the masthead slogan of Jewish Voice NY, may peace be upon them]

vendredi 9 janvier 2015

Better to keep quiet and be thought a fool...

from the all-doubts-removed dept

I quite liked the Three Percent podcast in many ways: those guys served my mental model of conversation with a couple of smarty pants east coast literary types. Host Chad Post seems a knowledgeable guy, if slightly pressured in his speech; the lofty drawl of regular guest the bookseller Tom Roberge served in pleasant contrast to him—their chemistry is good. And their objective—of promoting the sale and reading of translated books in the US—is entirely honourable.

So it is with modest regret that I write this post (and hit unsubscribe), following my strict artistic rule that comments that I write for publication in situ "below the line" of a blogpost that do not get posted (for whatever reason) must be logged here.

Briefly, the setup: about 45 minutes into podcast #85, Chad and Tom start to discuss the translation of various English language titles that have been translated into French, and also French titles that have been translated into English. Unfortunately, in so doing, Tom Roberge revealed some rather basic ignorance of the French language, which, considering some of his claims in previous podcasts—to have been welcomed as an honorary member of "Oulipo" for example—are is plainly an embarrassment for all concerned.

Now, ignorance is not to be condemned wholesale—anyone that tussles regularly with the French language knows it's a tricky beast that's best not provoked—and we're all at where we're at in our knowledge of it.

But still, given the academic pretensions of the host, it seemed important to set the errors straight—to leave them unremarked would be to foster ignorance.

Turning to the comments to contest the matter, I found that someone called Marc had already beaten me to the correction of the most egregious errors—Chad and Tom had seemed unaware that the verb "tirer" does indeed mean "to fire [a shot]" as well as "to pull"; and that "personne" does indeed mean "nobody/no-one" as well as "person." As these matters can be resolved simply by consulting a dictionary, these are hardly worthy of further discussion. (Though obviously it would have been worth actually doing this before slagging off the translations in a podcast).

It is more challenging to consider the adequacy of "Whatever" as a translation for Michel Houellebecq's "Extension du domaine de la lutte," but emboldened by the evidently blank terrain that had opened before me, I wrote:
Wot Marc said.
And I would add Houellebecq's title "Extension du domaine de la lutte" is not so nonsensical as all that: "Lutte" (~struggle, but also wrestling (the sport), and political movement) is a common enough word in French. The protagonist's failure with women and incipient racism set up two areas of struggle in his life: what's not to translate?
It is understandable that a title along the lines of 'Expansion of the struggle into new areas'** was not felt to be a commercial proposition by the publisher. We can only surmise the editorial process that led to the choice of 'Whatever', but I sense loss (as in someone lost)—and mischief—all the way.

—**Maybe seek out some retro Trotskyist newsprint before committing to a precise phrase.
I just wrote the comment, clicked submit, and moved on. Someone was wrong on the internet, correction supplied, we've all learned something. But what is totally unacceptable to me (and it is for this reason that I have unsubscribed from the podcast) is that when I went back later to check the comments, I found that they've suppressed the comments altogether.

Fortunately the Disqus commenting system used makes it possible for me to reconstruct the discussion here. But how dishonest! If I have a bête noire online, it is sites that pretend to host comments, but then don't post the ones they don't like. Of course that is their right: but it's also contemptible, and I'll always call it out here.

Update 12:09h, 13/1/15. Both Chad and Tom have responded to this post on Twitter so I have Storify-ed the relevant tweets. (This was a good opportunity to play with Storify for the first time. Verdict: OK to meh). In setting up the comment in this post I mistakenly conflated two different Three Percent contributors in my own mind, Tom Roberge and Daniel Levin Becker. Becker is the Oulipo man, not Roberge. Sincere apologies for this error.