Monday, November 27, 2006

Cheshire Crossing

This is a great, if strangely drawn, web comic. It's about Alice Liddell, Wendy Darling, and Dorothy Gale getting sent to the same asylum for disassociative psychosis. (i.e. that they live in imaginary worlds in their own heads) Or is it a real asylum?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

More on free will

The Maverick Philosopher, who I read occasionally, has some interesting posts on free will:

A whole chain of entries

Chess allegories

I'll have to read more of these arguments. As usual, I might have to change some of my views...

Free Will?

If you follow the Dilbert Blog at all, you'll know that Scott Adams has consistently denied the concept of free will. Here's the latest blog entry where he claims it's a superstition. See, this is where Carl Sagan's famous, and *very* subjective, statement "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" really shows its problems. To me, the claim that there is no free will is the extraordinary claim. (I will explain this later) However, to Scott Adams, obviously the claim that there is free will is the extraordinary claim.

Now see, I don't follow the strong form of free will as believed by, say libertarians, where an agent can always make a rational choice, any time, any where. (which would be an extraordinary claim indeed!) While I am a realist and believe that the number of choices can be constrained by prior conditions, I still do believe that there are choices to be made. To show me that free will doesn't exist will involve showing proof that no choices can be made, anywhere, any time, over the entire course of the universe. I believe that is the extraordinary claim. :)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Good(?) science, bad journalism

People reading Slashdot regularly would've no doubt seen this article, linked from this Slashdot entry, where Nature magazine talks about German scientists analyzing Wootz steel and finding carbon nanotubes. Now I'm not informed enough to talk about the idea of nanotubes in antique weapons - there are people who dispute that this finding is new. However, history-wise I found fishy stuff from the Nature article itself. For example:

The Crusaders felt the might of the tube when they fought against the Muslims and their distinctive, patterned Damascus blades.

Sabres from Damascus, now in Syria, date back as far as 900 AD. Strong and sharp, they are made from a type of steel called wootz.

Now I was surprised, since as far as I knew, the oldest known curved sword in the Islamic world is the sword of the (in)famous King Baybars, which dates from the 13th Century. So idea of "sabres" from 900 AD seems wrong. I found the original paper here, and finally figured out the truth:

The specimen used in the present investigation is a part of the genuine Damascus sabre produced by the famous blacksmith Assad Ullah in the 17th century.

Ah ha, so the Nature article was a bit muddled with their facts. Oh well at least it wasn't as bad as in this Royal Society of Chemistry article on the same paper:

To Europeans, Damascus steel blades seemed magical. Not only could they cut a piece of silk in half as it fell to the floor, they could cleave rocks and their own swords without losing sharpness.

Now seriously, I wonder about supposed scientific minds at the Royal Society who actually believe that swords can cut rock. (hint: which material is harder?) And of course, this article is titled "Carbon nanotubes: Saladin’s secret weapon." Saladin lived in the 12th Century!

What's the point of all this? Well, with journalism, even in fairly "respectable" papers, you have to take a "caveat emptor" attitude with the facts they present, and you should really dig a bit to get to the original sources.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Renaissance Myth

An interesting (but old) article about how the idea that the Renaissance was a "great intellectual leap" is bunk. It's from an old (1980s) literary journal article so there are numerous transcribing errors. (many of them look like OCR problems.) It's a very interesting read.

New Blogger

Well, I've switched over from the old blogspot account to the new google account based one. The address and everything are still the same though. I'll see what new features this has.