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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Hugo Awards 2010 open thread

With the World Science Fiction Convention starting in just over a month and 2010 Hugo Award votes due today, this is a good time to have an open thread about this years' nominees. I'm too far behind in my reading to vote meaningfully, but will try to catch up with some of it over the next month.

How are you going to vote? Or if you're not a member of the convention, but still have an opinion on this, how would you vote if you were eligible? Any observations about this year's nominees, or about what shouldn't have been overlooked?

===

Aussiecon 4, the 68th World Science Fiction Convention, has announced the ballot for the 2010 Hugo Awards.

Best Novel
(699 Ballots)
Boneshaker, Cherie Priest (Tor)
The City & The City, China Miéville (Del Rey; Macmillan UK)
Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, Robert Charles Wilson (Tor)
Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam Spectra)
Wake, Robert J. Sawyer (Ace; Penguin; Gollancz; Analog)
The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade)

Best Novella
(375 Ballots)
•“Act One”, Nancy Kress (Asimov’s 3/09)
The God Engines, John Scalzi (Subterranean)
•“Palimpsest”, Charles Stross (Wireless; Ace, Orbit)
Shambling Towards Hiroshima, James Morrow (Tachyon)
•“Vishnu at the Cat Circus”, Ian McDonald (Cyberabad Days; Pyr, Gollancz)
•The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, Kage Baker (Subterranean)

Best Novelette
(402 Ballots)
•“Eros, Philia, Agape”, Rachel Swirsky (Tor.com 3/09)
•The Island”, Peter Watts (The New Space Opera 2; Eos)
•“It Takes Two”, Nicola Griffith (Eclipse Three; Night Shade Books)
•“One of Our Bastards is Missing”, Paul Cornell (The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction: Volume Three; Solaris)
•“Overtime”, Charles Stross (Tor.com 12/09)
•“Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast”, Eugie Foster (Interzone 2/09)

Best Short Story
(432 Ballots)
•“The Bride of Frankenstein”, Mike Resnick (Asimov’s 12/09)
•“Bridesicle”, Will McIntosh (Asimov’s 1/09)
•“The Moment”, Lawrence M. Schoen (Footprints; Hadley Rille Books)
•“Non-Zero Probabilities”, N.K. Jemisin (Clarkesworld 9/09)
•“Spar”, Kij Johnson (Clarkesworld 10/09)


Best Related Book
(259 Ballots)
Canary Fever: Reviews, John Clute (Beccon)
Hope-In-The-Mist: The Extraordinary Career and Mysterious Life of Hope Mirrlees, Michael Swanwick (Temporary Culture)
The Inter-Galactic Playground: A Critical Study of Children’s and Teens’ Science Fiction, Farah Mendlesohn (McFarland)
On Joanna Russ, Farah Mendlesohn (ed.) (Wesleyan)
The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of SF Feminisms, Helen Merrick (Aqueduct)
This is Me, Jack Vance! (Or, More Properly, This is “I”), Jack Vance (Subterranean)

Best Graphic Story
(221 Ballots)
Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? Written by Neil Gaiman; Pencilled by Andy Kubert; Inked by Scott Williams (DC Comics)
Captain Britain And MI13. Volume 3: Vampire State Written by Paul Cornell; Pencilled by Leonard Kirk with Mike Collins, Adrian Alphona and Ardian Syaf (Marvel Comics)
Fables Vol 12: The Dark Ages Written by Bill Willingham; Pencilled by Mark Buckingham; Art by Peter Gross & Andrew Pepoy, Michael Allred, David Hahn; Colour by Lee Loughridge & Laura Allred; Letters by Todd Klein (Vertigo Comics)
Girl Genius, Volume 9: Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm Written by Kaja and Phil Foglio; Art by Phil Foglio; Colours by Cheyenne Wright (Airship Entertainment)
Schlock Mercenary: The Longshoreman of the Apocalypse Written and Illustrated by Howard Tayler

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
(541 Ballots)
Avatar Screenplay and Directed by James Cameron (Twentieth Century Fox)
District 9 Screenplay by Neill Blomkamp & Terri Tatchell; Directed by Neill Blomkamp (TriStar Pictures)
Moon Screenplay by Nathan Parker; Story by Duncan Jones; Directed by Duncan Jones (Liberty Films)
Star Trek Screenplay by Robert Orci & Alex Kurtzman; Directed by J.J. Abrams (Paramount)
Up Screenplay by Bob Peterson & Pete Docter; Story by Bob Peterson, Pete Docter, & Thomas McCarthy; Directed by Bob Peterson & Pete Docter (Disney/Pixar)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
(282 Ballots)
Doctor Who: “The Next Doctor” Written by Russell T Davies; Directed by Andy Goddard (BBC Wales)
Doctor Who: “Planet of the Dead” Written by Russell T Davies & Gareth Roberts; Directed by James Strong (BBC Wales)
Doctor Who: “The Waters of Mars” Written by Russell T Davies & Phil Ford; Directed by Graeme Harper (BBC Wales)
Dollhouse: “Epitaph 1″ Story by Joss Whedon; Written by Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon; Directed by David Solomon (Mutant Enemy)
FlashForward: “No More Good Days” Written by Brannon Braga & David S. Goyer; Directed by David S. Goyer; based on the novel by Robert J. Sawyer (ABC)

Best Editor, Long Form
(289 Ballots)
•Lou Anders
•Ginjer Buchanan
•Liz Gorinsky
•Patrick Nielsen Hayden
•Juliet Ulman

Best Editor, Short Form
(419 Ballots)
•Ellen Datlow
•Stanley Schmidt
•Jonathan Strahan
•Gordon Van Gelder
•Sheila Williams

Best Professional Artist
(327 Ballots)
•Bob Eggleton
•Stephan Martiniere
•John Picacio
•Daniel Dos Santos
•Shaun Tan

Best Semiprozine
(377 Ballots)
Ansible edited by David Langford
Clarkesworld edited by Neil Clarke, Sean Wallace, & Cheryl Morgan
Interzone edited by Andy Cox
Locus edited by Charles N. Brown, Kirsten Gong-Wong, & Liza Groen Trombi
Weird Tales edited by Ann VanderMeer & Stephen H. Segal

Best Fan Writer
(319 Ballots)
•Claire Brialey
•Christopher J Garcia
•James Nicoll
•Lloyd Penney
•Frederik Pohl

Best Fanzine
(298 Ballots)
Argentus edited by Steven H Silver
Banana Wings edited by Claire Brialey and Mark Plummer
CHALLENGER edited by Guy H. Lillian III
Drink Tank edited by Christopher J Garcia, with guest editor James Bacon
File 770 edited by Mike Glyer
StarShipSofa edited by Tony C. Smith

Best Fan Artist
(199 Ballots)
•Brad W. Foster
•Dave Howell
•Sue Mason
•Steve Stiles
•Taral Wayne

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
(356 Ballots)
•Saladin Ahmed
•Gail Carriger
•Felix Gilman *
•Seanan McGuire
•Lezli Robyn *
*(Second year of eligibility)

Friday, July 30, 2010

Six reasons why you won't upload your mind

Some of these reasons are better than others, I think. E.g., no. 5 sounds pretty weak to me. If we can imagine a magical technology that does everything else required, I don't see how the absence of an ordinary mammalian body will make all the difference. Once we get to the desired magic-technology point, emulation of bodily experience in cyberspace or in some sort of advanced robot body is fairly easy to imagine.

And I don't find this sample very convincing:

Without frequent physical backups, refreshes, and format updates, precious data will quickly be rendered unreadable or inaccessible. So when we're all "in the cloud," who's gonna be down on the ground doing all that real-world maintenance — robots? Morlocks? Even if that works, it just seems evolutionarily unwise to swap one faulty physical substrate (albeit one that has been honed for millions of years, runs on sugar and water, and lasts nearly a century) for another one that can barely make it from one Olympic season to the next, even with permanent air-conditioning.


Well, yes, but it's easy enough to imagine our robot or Morlock slaves doing the work concerned, or perhaps we'll be those robots. And if we accept everything else - the required super technology, an appropriate conception of personal survival, and so on - it's not a matter of swapping one faulty technology for just another faulty technology. Once we get to that point, it's not so hard to accept the idea of a technological substrate that lasts a lot longer than our current 80 to 100 years (or a lot less if things don't go well). All in all, the fifth reason just doesn't stand up to inspection.

Oh, and the author, or perhaps just the illustrator, obviously has no understanding of who Krang is. That's unforgivable!

All that said, I'm a bit of a sceptic about these mind-uploading scenarios ...

I agree that our understanding of human consciousness and how it supervenes on brain activity is at a primitive stage, and there's no sign that it's improving at the rate needed. The lack of sufficiently powerful hardware is not the real issue: the deepest problems would remain even if we had infinite computing power available. Combine our poor understanding of consciousness with issues of personal identity - and what would count as survival if we tried to move our minds from one substrate to another - and I think that much of the discussion that goes on about mind uploading is unrealistic. It's one thing to employ the idea for philosophical thought experiments or as a science-fictional enabling device; it's another to think it's a realistic option within current lifetimes.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Lighthearted

Y'know, the reason I had that afternoon in hospital, two days ago, getting some explorations done was partly because of an ongoing problem with reflux that is being handled perfectly well with Pariet (though it was worth exploring whether there was something that could be fixed once and for all). However, it was mainly prompted by the fact that a routine test had shown me to be at some risk of something much more serious such as bowel cancer.

The latter risk was always quite remote, and I wasn't very worried, at least most of the time. But I've seen too much cancer around me in my life, affecting various people very close to me. Even if the risk is remote, that sort of thing can still play on your mind as the day approaches for the consultations that are meant to rule it out. Okay ... but now that nothing like that was found in my case, the effect is the opposite. Obviously, there's some relief - it's a bit of weight off my shoulders, and although some very personal memories are touched on as I think of other people who've been victims of one form or another of this horrible disease, I've mainly been feeling in a quite lighthearted mood over the past 48+ hours. Just for once, I don't much feel like arguing about religion or politics. Nor do I want to talk any further, just now, about disease and death.

I'm really very fortunate to be in such general good health as I am, despite a minor problem or two. I should be enjoying it while I've got it.

What should we discuss that's not so heavy?

Maybe I need to get out and see some movies or something. Preferably some fun movies that don't require too much in the way of emotional investment or hard thinking. I wonder what's playing that I might enjoy.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Expressing our views on religion

Ronald A. Lindsay has a good editorial piece in the latest issue of Free Inquiry. In light of the latest debates about Gnu Atheism and accommodationism, this piece by Lindsay is especially useful. The following three paras not only provide a good sample of the article but also offer a commonsense approach that is valuable in its own right:

There should be no inherent limits on how criticism of religious belief is expressed, any more than there should be inherent limits on how criticism of a political belief is expressed. Cartoons and slogans are freely used in politics. Is there any reason why we cannot use them to make a point about religious beliefs or practices? Religion should not enjoy a privileged status, especially when many religious people strive to influence politics and public policy based on their religious beliefs. Do I violate some rule of civil discourse if I draw or publish a cartoon lampooning the Catholic Church's position on abortion when the Catholic Church is trying to influence public policy on abortion? If so, I fail to understand the reason for such a rule. Such self-censorship merely serves to perpetuate the taboo mentality that has protected religion for too long. As Daniel C. Dennett has so elegantly stated, we need to "break the spell."

This is not to say that we should do nothing but publish cartoons or work continuously to craft the best twenty-word jab against religion-any more than those engaged in politics confine themselves to cartoons or slogans alone. In criticizing another viewpoint, an array of expressive means is available and acceptable for use, including scholarly articles, detailed arguments, position papers, speeches, cartoons, billboards, slogans, and even jokes. What the appropriate mix of expressive forms may be is determined by the circumstances, including the goal of the criticism and the expertise and capabilities of the person or organization making the criticism. But determining the appropriate mix is a practical question, not a moral one. There is nothing per se immoral or unacceptable about a cartoon with a religious subject.

Nothing that I have stated should be interpreted as endorsing in-your-face criticism of religion around the clock, on any and all occasions. Religious beliefs are not always in play, just as political beliefs are not always in play. If you are at a party and people are discussing a movie, it is pointless, at best, to blurt out suddenly, "There is no God, and anyone who believes there is must be misguided, ignorant, or stupid." We are neither cranks nor missionaries. Similarly, if you attend a religious funeral, it is beyond tasteless to carry a sign saying, "It is a shame the deceased will never know how wrong she was." If you have strong objections to religious funerals, weddings, or similar events, just don't go.


Now, with all respect to Ron Lindsay, this isn't rocket science. It wouldn't have occurred to me that anyone would take an approach greatly different from the above, except for some of the wilder fantasies that appear, and sometimes get endorsed by the gullible, on the internet. But good for Lindsay in spelling it out.

He has pretty much described how I see it, and how I think most public critics of religion see it. We're not going to spit on the local vicar, but we do maintain the right to challenge religion's truth-claims and moral authority in a robust public debate analogous the the various political debates that we're all involved in. That may involve presenting our views in books, or articles, or book reviews ... or in other ways such as cartoons and stand-up comedy. It doesn't mean that we are going to go around acting unprofessionally or simply like arseholes ... or that we encourage anyone else to do so. I don't know why this is so hard to understand, but obviously some people find it difficult to get their heads around.

The same issue of Free Inquiry contains a lengthy and favourable review by George Zebrowski of 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Clean(ish) bill of health

I'm back from an afternoon in hospital having a colonoscopy and a gastroscopy. I need to go back to my specialist in a couple of weeks and talk about the results, but I'm apparently fine except for "a small hiatus hernia". I'm not sure what they'll want to do about that, but it's nothing to worry about in the scheme of things and is apparently the reason for the increasingly bad reflux that I've suffered in the last 10 or 15 years (and maybe some other minor things). There was some chance, however remote, that they might have found something seriously wrong with me, and I have to admit that today's scheduled visit was playing on my mind just a leettle.

But no, I have an almost clean bill of health. I'm still planning to be around annoying y'all for another 40 years or so. Muahahahahaha!

More on this topic in a couple of weeks.

Monday, July 26, 2010

New story by Jenny Blackford in Cosmos magazine

The new issue (#34) of Cosmos magazine contains Jenny's story "The Velvet Revolution". Do yourself a favour ...

Jerry Coyne clears the air

I've avoided posting on the whole You're Not Helping/Tom Johnson debacle, although I've been up to my neck in it on some other sites. If there's anyone in existence who is likely to read about the latest here - before seeing it from Jerry Coyne, Ophelia Benson, or PZ Myers, go and have a look at Jerry's new post. This does a lot to clear the air.

The situation now looks as follows. The events described by "Tom Johnson" last year did not take place; nothing at all like them took place; if there was any kernel of truth at all, it related to events wildly remote from the story that was told; the story was not only a complete fabrication, it was always totally implausible on its face, as well as uncorroborated; various people said this to Chris Mooney at the time (I was not the first, though I was one of the most forthright), but he took no real notice; Mooney's bullshit detector was obviously rendered inoperative by his biases; those biases led him to a very serious misreading of the intentions and impact of the "New Atheists" (in this case Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, and Jerry Coyne, who were the individuals blamed by "Johnson").

It would now be nice if Chris Mooney thought about it and acknowledged all this. So far he’s been too proud to do so, and, yes, I do understand not wanting to admit making a serious error of judgment. But he did, and it's not - as has been suggested around the internet - just snark to point this out. Damage continues to be done as long as the implication remains that the story had some facial plausibility, as Mooney has suggested up until now and as various other people continue to insinuate ... or to state explicitly.

How about it, Chris? An unequivocal statement on this can only help your reputation, which has been harmed by the whole episode.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Phelps clan vs. Comic-Con

For some reason the nutty Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelp's mob, has been picketing this year's Comic-Con, the huge comics-and-stuff mega-convention that runs annually in San Diego. Don't ask me why. This, from an interview with one member of the Phelps clan, is about as cogent an explanation as I expect we're going to get:

MARGIE PHELPS: well we're out here to say that if were to invest one fraction of the resources that you spend and invest in worshiping Batman, and the Ghostbusters and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and so fourth in reading the Bible and obeying God, this nation would not be (garbled).

Some of my pals are over there at the convention right now, but this is a situation where we could do with some really heavy hitters like Thor or Magneto or the Incredible Hulk to make an appearance and show the Phelps gang what's up. Hey, that's no more unlikely than the Phelps clan receiving any divine assistance in its creepy activities (such as picketing the funerals of soldiers and heavy metal stars). Meanwhile, as you can see, the comix geeks have been hitting back - hard! - with no superhuman or supernatural help.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Censorship - Labor's hidden policy

Here's an excellent article on Labor's proposal to censor the internet, which has still not gone away despite a change of prime minister. Senator Conroy continues to treat people who are concerned about freedom of speech and worried about scope creep as somehow being friends of pedophiles and child pornographers.

A nice sample:

Although Senator Conroy plays down the impact of the filter, saying that determined people can get around it if they really want to, critics are concerned that Conroy's non-policing of filter circumvention will not be mirrored by future governments who may also broaden the scope of the censorship it affords. He told Four Corners, that he "absolutely guaranteed" that no future Labor government would let this happen and subsequently that "If a majority of the Parliament in the future want to broaden the classification, well then, Australians should stand up and say 'just a minute', and I'll be one of them." We contacted Conroy's office to ask how the Senator guaranteed this would not happen but the question was not answered. The notion that all future Australian governments will be formed by Labor is optimistic of Conroy to say the least. That future governments, intent on censorship (probably under banners of "child protection" and "terrorism"), would listen to people "standing up and saying 'just a minute'" is more optimistic yet, given the contempt Conroy himself has shown to all the people disagreeing with him.

Kudos to Nick Ross for preparing this detailed argument against internet censorship, and brickbats to the mainstream media for not running hard with this story.

More brickbats to those commenters on Ross's article who claim it was too long. Do you people have the attention spans of gnats or something? Have any of you ever actually read a frakking novel, or any other kind of book if it comes to that? I, for one, appreciated the detailed analysis.

Still, it can be summed up in a few words: Just Say No To Censorship.

Another sample from earlier in the article:

Championed by Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy, the $30million+ filter is being sold by Labor as an internet block for child pornography, bestiality and extreme pornography with 'wide ranging support from the Australian public' and 'only minimal opposition against'.

But after a new, lengthy investigation it transpires that virtually none of this is true. What Australia will get from this internet filter is a framework for censorship that doesn't stop "the worst of the worst" but will absolutely curtail discussion on politically incorrect topics like euthanasia, safe drug taking and graffiti while banning relatively-tame adult content.

Below we examine the filter from the point of view of the people who know most about it, Australia's tech community, which in the past week has united in one last ditch attempt to bring Labor's censorship policy into the open and bring its discussion into the mainstream media in the run up to the election.


This proposal is supported by a small group of interfering religionists, prudes, all-purpose nutcases with no understanding of the internet, and extreme social conservatives. Somehow they have managed to hijack policy in this area. It's time to take it back.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

My letter to the prime minister - have you written yours?

Subject: Censorship
Comment:
Dear Prime Minister,

I remain concerned about the government's plans to introduce further
censorship of the internet, and about the issues of censorship and freedom of
expression more generally. In particular, I remain angry about the highly
unhelpful response by the former prime minister to the attacks on Bill
Henson, and on the arts community in general, only two years ago.

In my view, there is no issue more important than the long-term protection
and extension of liberal freedoms. There has been far too much retreat from
strict application of the Millian harm principle and the principle of freedom
of speech and expression. This has affected many areas of government policy
under Prime Ministers Howard and Rudd. The current proposals to censor the
internet are of particular concern, given the endless possibility to use the
proposed mechanisms to censor expression that goes far beyond what is claimed
to be the main target: i.e., child pornography.

If child pornography is operating at a level that is causing genuine anxiety
within the government - and this is not just a matter of moral panic - then
more funding should be devoted to ordinary law enforcement to attack the
problem. However, the concept of child pornography must be kept within fairly
narrow limits, so that it can never attach to legitimate artistic images,
such as those created by Henson or the image of Olympia Papapetrou that was
used on the cover of a 2008 issue of Arts Monthly. In any event, it is likely
that child pornography is not spread mainly via publicly-accessible websites,
and that internet censorship will have little effect on it. If so, the
government's current proposals are a dangerous waste of resources.

We need to be confident that whatever steps are taken by the new government
will enhance, rather than further reduce, freedom of speech and expression.
If any measures are introduced, they must be protected from scope creep.
Restrictions on speech relating to such issues as euthanasia must be
liberalised, not hardened up. Importantly, Senator Conroy must stop attacking
free speech advocates as friends of pedophiles - this repeated slur has
caused enormous ill-will towards the government, to the extent where many of
us have lost all confidence in Senator Conroy and hope that he will be
removed from his current portfolio. That is obviously not possible during the
election period, but the signals from both him and yourself during the coming
weeks will be watched closely.

I hope that you will continue to give serious consideration to these matters
as 21 August approaches. Frankly, I am not eager to vote for the Opposition,
and will likely give my first preference to a minor party. Exactly how I vote
will, however, depend heavily on the responses of the major parties to free
speech issues. I need to know that these issues are taken seriously and that
I can look forward to further extension of our liberal freedoms, not to a
retreat into the mentality of censorship.

Yours sincerely,

Russell Blackford

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Currently in word-wrangling mode

I'm working on a big chapter about religious freedom and freedom of speech. I've spoken and written on aspects of this before, but mainly in the Australian context. Most of what I'm coming up with now is new material, and a lot of it is based on case law from the European Court of Human Rights, which has developed a rich jurisprudence in this area. It's becoming apparent that there could be a whole book in this topic, but if so it'll have to wait for another time.

I do think that a lot of people (sometimes including the ECHR judges) tie themselves up in unnecessary knots finding conflict between freedom of religion and freedom of speech. The simplest way to understand them is as negative rights against the state. The state can't persecute you on religious grounds and it can't shut you up because it doesn't like what you're saying. In some cases, these freedoms can overlap (e.g. if you're expressing an unpopular religious message, as required by your religion's canons of conduct for its adherents), but they can never be in conflict.

But of course there can be a conflict if freedom of religion is somehow construed as freedom from criticism by fellow citizens, or as a positive right to call on the resources of the state to shut them up if you don't like what they're saying. I reckon we should resist that sort of interpretation. The real historical evils that led to modern ideas of freedom of religion related to state impositions of preferred religions and persecutions of dispreferred religions. Getting rid of those impositions and persecutions should be enough. After that, it's every idea, religious or otherwise, for itself.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

An exercise for the reader

I'm leaving this one as an exercise for the reader - analyse this nonsensical blather, which I found via the ABC's Religion and Ethics Portal, for yourselves. Enjoy!

Debunked!

This is how we should all handle it when a story we've put weight on has been clearly debunked. Good for PZ Myers in setting an example.

Monday, July 12, 2010

ABC Religion and Ethics Portal

Now here's an interesting new resource, complete with an attached blog. Predictably, the whole shebang is edited by a religious bloke, whose credits include a stint as a Protestant pastor, lots of background as a theologian, and some experience in writing about "modern atheism's dependence on the Christian legacy" (that's what it says, right there on the portal, expressed uncritically). None of this entails that's he's not a good bloke. Maybe he is. At this point I could go into my usual song and dance routine about how I always like to have a beer or two with any genuinely moderate Christian who's prepared to shout. But still ...

I suppose they didn't think of the idea that this portal might have more credibility if set up so that it at least looks neutral about all the current religious controversies. I mean, all those Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Daoists, and so on, might think it's not really going to represent them if it's run by a Christian theologian and pastor who even has specific views about Christianity's contribution to atheist thought. Let alone all of us actual atheists, agnostics, humanists, sceptics, etc. And especially as it's a religion and ethics portal - some people would say those two things are opposed, or at least orthogonal, to each other ... and it would be nice if ethics were represented by, say, a moral philosopher. Yeah, I know someone's gotta be in charge, but it would have been easy creating something that looks more like, I dunno, a religious studies department and less like a faculty of theology. There's a big difference.

And of course it hasn't escaped me that this thing is being paid for by public revenue, so I'll be pretty cross if it ends up looking like a taxpayer-funded religious propaganda site.

But then again, let's not carp too much quite yet. I'm getting ahead of myself. The new portal should at least provide some interesting news from around the world. I'll wait until it has some material of substance before I judge its fairness and effectiveness. And then I'll probably carp - let's face it - but all things in their own good time.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A reminder about Chained to the Alien

Over on Amazon, sales for Chained to the Alien don't look strong. Hmmm, maybe this means the interest in the late 1980s/early 1990s debates about science fiction - the kind of ferment that was reflected in the second incarnation of Australian Science Fiction Review - isn't there out in the Land of the Public. I dunno.

Here's the score: I can't twist your arms to buy this book - much as that might be fun. But consider passing on the message to those who might have an interest. As I've previously mentioned, Chained to the Alien contains nearly 30,000 words of my best literary criticism, and it shows me getting involved in rather different controversies from the ones I'm caught up in 20 years later. Maybe some of y'all might find that interesting or know someone who would. It's quite a nifty little book, reprinting much energetic and sometimes ferocious material from the halcyon of ASFR 2, so I wish it success.

Web filter on hold ... but the war isn't over

I'm still absorbing the implications of this story , which seems to indicate a partial backdown by the federal government on the controversial web filter proposal (which, of course, I have consistently opposed).

The primary rationale for the Australian government's attempt to impose a technological filter on the internet has always been the need to restrict the online distribution of child pornography. It's unlikely that this goal would actually be achieved, since it seems to be accepted by all the experts that child pornography is not generally distributed via the web, and in any event criminals will find ways to get around the filter. What is needed to deal with child pornography is simply a more concerted and better-resourced enforcement of existing laws. This should include modifications to current laws to clarify and simplify them, to put beyond doubt that they do not catch legitimate artistic expression, and to make sure that they can't be used to waste public resources on achieving ridiculous outcomes that have nothing to do with the welfare of children.

What we don't need is any legislation that permits scope creep, making it easier for governments to interfere with more and more kinds of online speech. We need to study the proposed revisions to the policy, take part in the review that Gillard and Conroy now are talking about (and insist on public involvement), and generally hold the government's feet to the fire as the issue develops. We should not accept any outcome that restricts legitimate speech on the internet (I'm especially thinking here of such things as sites discussing euthanasia) or that will make it easier for the government to widen the scope of internet censorship going into the future. I welcome the fact that the government is now at least reconsidering and talking, but I'm not sure that any compromise is acceptable on such a fundamental issue. Even if it is, in the end, any further proposals will need to be worked out carefully, and with a genuine net gain for our liberty.

This is a start, but there's a long way to go yet in the fight to defend freedom of speech in Australia.

Friday, July 09, 2010

I'm back ... okay?

I had a great time at the AAP conference. Among the many highlights, for me, were the papers by Kim Sterelny, David Chalmers, and Michael Smith. Some of the young up-and-coming philosophers were very impressive.

My own paper didn't attract a huge audience: about 15, which is typical at the AAP for those of us who are not philosophical superstars, what with twelve strands going at once in what isn't a huge conference (besides, I was on at 9 am). However, it was well received and left me with some thinking to do - mainly about issues to do with moral semantics. That's not a topic I'm in love with, but some of my thinking about the phenomenon of morality hinges on it to an extent.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Blog break starting early

I woke up yesterday with a bit of a winter chill or whatever. I've been so healthy since moving north that I can usually shake something like that off in one day, but I still don't feel great today so will take it very easy. I need to be in good shape for the AAP conference, which will be pretty intense if I do the right thing and go to as many papers as possible.

Tomorrow, Sunday, I drive down to Sydney for it. I'll be home on Friday evening. Basically, expect silence for the next week or so.

Friday, July 02, 2010

AAP conference coming up

With the AAP conference in Sydney occupying the whole of next week, I'll be on a blog break soon. Just some advance warning here. The program looks pretty interesting; I just need to get myself sufficiently on human-being time, rather than vampire time, to make sure I get to as many papers as I can. Having my own paper on at 9 am on Tuesday may help with that.

Incidentally, it seems that the metaethical position that I have argued for on this blog and hinted at in, for example, my piece on Singer in The Journal of Medical Ethics last year has been given a name. Or at least a position rather similar. A very recent (2010) paper by Caroline West labels a position much like mine "revisionary moral realism". Okaaaay ...

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Getting a good government back on track

Julia Gillard's rhetoric has been that a good government had lost its way, and that she stepped up last week to get it back on track. It seems to me that she has a great opportunity to change bad policies - to show just where she thought the Rudd regime had gone off track. With a huge amount of good will out here in the electorate, she can do a great deal to reverse selected policy directions that were taken under Rudd. This is her honeymoon with the voters, and it shouldn't be wasted.

That doesn't mean she can just go crazy and introduce a whole lot of massive policy changes only a couple of months out from an election (surely it can't be much more than that). But it's going to be awfully disappointing if the main change that we see prior to the election turns out to be making concessions to the mining industry on tax policy. I'm not here to say that shouldn't be done. Pragmatically, Labor has no choice but to negotiate over this issue and get the best deal it can within a reasonable timeframe so it can clear the issue off the books before an election is announced. That's the political reality and Gillard knows it well. Fine. But if she wants to hang on to all those voters who've come back to Labor from minority parties, she's going to have to demonstrate that big business is not the only, or main, beneficiary of the sudden change of leader.

Over the past few days, there hasn't been much hint of that. From my viewpoint, she's still likeable and seems capable, and she still offers hope for the future if she can get past the looming election. But she's playing safe just a bit too much in my book. Yes, Prime Minister you don't want to be the female version of Mark Latham - that's understood out here in electorate land. But a teensy bit more of the vision thing would be nice right now.