About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A new cat poem from Jenny Blackford

See here for Jenny's post about the forthcoming anthology of fiction and poetry, Futuredaze. This will include her poem, "Learning How to be a Cat".

Following is a provisional table of contents:

E. Kristin Anderson
Jenny Blackford
Cathy Bryant
Sandi Cayless
Alicia Cole
John Grey
Evelyn Lumish
Brittany Warman
Neil Weston
Anna Della Zazzera
Steve Alguire
Camille Alexa
Stephen D. Covey
Danika Dinsmore
Gregory Frost
Nancy Holder
Alex J. Kane
Rahul Kanakia
Miri Kim
Rich Larson
Dale Lucas
Alex Dally MacFarlane
Jack McDevitt
Sandra McDonald
Jennifer Moore
Katrina Nicholson
Chuck Rothman
Mark Smith-Briggs
Leah Thomas
Llinos Cathryn Thomas
Lavie Tidhar
William John Watkins

No holding hands, please - we're Republicans

Now this looks like the stupidest piece of legislation I've read all year, if not in my entire life. A bill passed by the Senate in Tennessee demonises adolescent sexuality to extent that kids are not even supposed to hold hands.

Edit: To be fair - see the thread below - the Bill does not explicitly mention holding hands, although it does define "gateway sexual activity" in a formula that could arguably be broad enough to include petting, kissing, and even hand-holding. I don't know what has been said about any of these by proponents in political debates, but it would have been honest of the site I linked to if it had explained that the Bill does not mention any low-level sexual actvities specifically, and that the inference that "gateway sexual activities" includes such things as holding hands is, well, an inference, even if the debates make clear that it was intended to be caught by the Bill.

This is another example of the perils of relying on reports, rather than actually looking at legislation. Mea culpa. But all that said, the overall intention of the legislation does seem to be to demonise and discourage adolescent sexuality, even in mild forms, as far as possible.

Justin Vacula to debate Catholic philosopher

Justin Vacula (host of the NEPA Freethought Society Podcast and co-organizer of the NEPA Freethought Society) and Catholic philosopher Ronda Chervin will debate the existence of God via podcast on 19 August. Looks interesting for aficianados of such debates. More detail at Justin's blog.

Chris Hallquist on what you can say about Islam

Over here, where he refers to (and quotes from) my discussion of the issue in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. In case the context is not clear, in the quote concerned I'm worrying about accusations of Islamophobia, and the way these are made more difficult to reject when far-right organisations co-opt arguments that actually have merit. So here's another quote from the book to think about:

At the same time, I do not doubt that some dislike of Islam, or impatience with Muslims and their spiritual leaders, has a quasi-racist character, grounded in parochialism and xenophobia, and perhaps a dislike of Arabs in particular. It is not coincidental that much of the public criticism of Islam as a religion, and of Muslims and their practices, emanates from European political parties and associated groups found on the extreme right, such as the Front National in France and the British National Party (BNP) in the UK. These organizations typically promote an intense, even bigoted nationalism — combined with what they portray as a defense of Christian traditions and values, and an endangered "Christian identity." They thrive on a fear of strange cultures and a fear of change — fears that are somewhat understandable in a new century overshadowed by the massive terrorist acts carried out in the name of Islam on September 11, 2001.

An obvious problem for critics of Islam who do not share the values of the European extreme right is that they may find themselves painted with the same brush. Conversely, extreme-right critics of Islam have gained a degree of respectability by co-opting issues and adopting stances that many politicians and members of the public find compelling. In making this point, José Pedro Zúquete refers to arguments about the situation of women within Islam:

"When the situation of women in Islam is discussed, the European extreme right puts forward arguments that, in a not-so-distant past, were considered to be positions exclusive to progressive and feminist groups in the West. The extreme right has been visibly active in its rejection of several cultural practices associated with Islam — ranging from the use of the headscarf and forced marriages, to honour-killings and female genital mutilation — by using arguments similar to those employed by mainstream groups that denounce inequalities and discrimination against women."

Indeed, as Zúquete details, extreme-right groups have also co-opted such notions as secularism and animal rights, in their campaign against what they see as an Islamic threat to European and Christian identities.

So, leading in to the quote on Chris Hallquist's blog, there's the whole question of accusations of Islamophobia being used to shut up people who have genuine criticisms of Islam and related cultures, the problem of the European extreme right opportunistically using arguments that may sometimes even have merit, and what do you actually do if you have criticisms of these kinds, but are not from the extreme right at all?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sunday Supervillainy: The Avengers crushes the Dark Knight Rises

At this stage, there doesn't seem much prospect of The Dark Knight Rises matching the box office takings of The Avengers. Given the terrible events in Colorado a bit over a week ago, the comparison is probably no longer a fair one - all bets are off in such an altered atmosphere, especially in the United States.

Still, after a very strong working week, Monday to Thursday, The Dark Knight Rises has seemingly pulled in a second Friday gross in the United States well below that recently achieved by The Avengers. I can't see the gap being bridged at this stage... and nor can I see The Dark Knight Rises achieving the same kind of success outside the US as its rival.

That said, The Dark Knight Rises is headed to be an enormously popular movie in its own right. It will probably achieve a total worldwide box office well above a billion dollars ... but not at a level to put it in the top three or four movies of all time, measured in gross, unadjusted box-office receipts.

Justin Vacula also wondering about "sexual images"

He has a post on the subject over here.

While we're on the subject, what about this image? It certainly has something to do with sex. So, would you classify it as a sexual image or not? Should images like this be prohibited from public display because they are regarded as "harassing"? It's certainly foreseeable that a lot of people would be offended by it, but is it offence of a kind that should affect policy?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Twitter joke appeal succeeds

In a small victory for freedom of speech, a British appeal court has overturned the conviction of Paul Chambers, who had been found guilty back in May 2010 of sending a "public electronic message" that was of a "menacing character".

The offending message was a joke which expressed annoyance that an airport was closed because of snow - Chambers was heading there to meet a friend (now his fiance): "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

So, there's one step back from the culture of surveillance, fear, and creeping authoritarianism that we often seem to be heading towards. Good for the court for overturning this ridiculous conviction, and shame on the prosecuting authorities for ever pursuing the case.

My updated CFI profile.

Over here if y'all are interested.

Jerry Coyne on courtesy and posting behaviour

This is a superb post by Jerry Coyne over at Why Evolution Is True. There's much in it for us all to take to heart. I'm not going to repeat it all here, but the sentiments most certainly have my general support ... and I think they're worth passing on if you have a blog or site of your own.

It would be nice if we all saw the internet as a place for respectful discussions aimed at making intellectual progress, rather than, say, a site for war, or for imposition of our own ideas through whatever tactics appear necessary. I know Jerry has copped flak over specific incidents and issues, but if you look at the quality of his blog site, day in day out, over a period of years, it's a fine example of the sort of discourse that we want.

Really, I'm proud to have Jerry Coyne as a friend, even if we're fated (see what I did there?), to go on wrangling about issues to do with free will and the like, and he can take a bow for this particular contribution.

In Jerry's honour, a special bonus kitten photo.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

No sexual images, please - we're atheists

I have a post over here at Talking Philosophy, and it's attracting some good, thoughtful discussion - although the comments thread is fairly brief at this point.

As I say in my latest comment on the thread, you'd hope that what convention organisers are really trying to do is create an environment that won’t be hostile or demeaning to women (or, presumably, anyone else, but I do think that particular issues arise with making the environments of conventions welcoming to women).

Perhaps policies should say that explicitly – it's vague, but it would have some meaning in that it could govern how the rest of the policy is interpreted. Instead, the policy that I'm criticising in the post has prohibited all sorts of categories of behaviour that are described in sufficiently sweeping terms to (one hopes inadvertently) catch up innocuous or beneficial behaviours, such as selling posters of pre-Raphaelite art.

Of course, what is hostile or demeaning to women (and others) is also contestable, and there are large grey areas. We’ve discussed some of the issues right here at this blog, where I’ve often complained about demeaning representations of women in comics. What is perceived as demeaning will depend on certain cultural codes, and not everyone has internalised the same codes in their heads. There are no answers that are objectively binding - there is no such thing as an objectively demeaning image in, say, a metaethicist's strong sense of "objective" - but there certainly are facts about what will, in a particular society, strike ordinary, reasonable people who are not especially prudish as demeaning to women. We're looking for images that are objectively demeaning in the weak sense of "objective" used by lawyers - i.e. not what a particular person actually experiences as demeaning but what an ordinary, reasonable person within the milieu would probably perceive that way.

This image is one that I've criticised in the past, but some people might think it falls in a grey area. Very well, but I could find images much more demeaning than that if I wanted to. The point is that we can keep a convention environment free of images that most people would regard as pornographic and demeaning to women (unless we are actually discussing them) without tending to demonise all expressions of eroticism.

However, the main thing that a convention needs to do is make clear that no harassment of any kind will be tolerated. I.e., if someone hassles you - sexually or otherwise - the organisers will have your back (Richard Carrier put it that way in one of his posts on the subject, and I think it's as good a way to convey the idea as any). You need the policy to specify how a complaint can be made, and everyone needs to know that complaints will be investigated fairly. No long list of specific prohibited behaviours is needed. People generally know when they are behaving in nasty or callous ways. The point is to make clear to the small minority who do so that it won't be accepted (and to give that sort of reassurance to possible victims).

There's more from me in the comments on the thread at TP.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises ... falls short ... The Avengers runs out of steam

Against the backdrop of the horrible shooting rampage in Colorado, Box Office Mojo delayed releasing figures on gross cinema takings for last weekend. The figures, now released, show that The Dark Knight Rises fell a long way short of the US opening weekend record set recently by The Avengers. Prior to the release there was much speculation that The Dark Knight Rises could be one of the most successful movies of all time, in commercial terms, with much pent-up interest.

What this really means in the circumstances is difficult to tell. For what it's worth, The Dark Knight Rises ended up with an opening weekend of nearly $161 million. This puts it third, behind The Avengers, with approx $207.5 million and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, with $169 million. I expect that The Dark Knight will struggle to pull in foreign grosses to match those of The Avengers, and that the latter will end up more successful overall. Still, this was such an unusual weekend that we perhaps shouldn't extrapolate anything at this stage.

Meanwhile, The Avengers finally seems to have run out of puff, looking at the general figures for the weekend. Again we have to treat these carefully. It was up against the opening weekend for The Dark Knight Rises, and of course many Americans may not have been in the mood to go to the cinema last Saturday in particular. Still, its takings are now in steep decline, and it's doubtful that it can go any higher among the all-time inflation-adjusted money earners (there's an outside chance of its passing Mary Poppins for 25th spot on that list ... but it's looking less and less likely).

The Avengers now has worldwide takings of about $1.46 billion - so, $40 million short of the $1.5 billion that I extrapolated a long time ago now. It probably won't quite reach that figure, but it should turn out to be a reasonable approximation. The movie has yet to open in Japan, where I'd expect it to do pretty well. This will, of course, still leave it a long way short of the raw dollar worldwide takings of Avatar and Titanic, though it may hold on to third place through 2012. Apart from The Dark Knight Rises, I can't see anything challenging it in the immediate future.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Who can believe some people?

Try for size this sick comment on Tom Brevoort's Formspring page, obviously referring to the massacre in Colorado by a crazed gunman. Words fail me (as Brevoort says in his response).

I'm not much more impressed by weirdos who want to blame the terrible events on atheism, abortion, or evolutionary theory. Frankly, I think we should all shut up until more is known. Alhough I do think it's legitimate to ask whether any civilized country should really be allowing its individual citizens to arm themselves to the teeth in the way that the killer was able to do. Guns don't kill people without human shooters to fire them, but they do kill people quite directly.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Same-sex couples to the rescue of marriage? (New post at Talking Philosophy)

New post here. Quote:

Again, I support moves for liberal democracies to recognize same-sex marriages for those who want them. It is often argued that this will somehow undermine the institution of marriage, but it may be that the opposite is actually true: it might even help the institution’s survival if large numbers of same-sex couples value it so much and start to take part in it; it may even tend to give the institution more credibility when we currently have people fighting to gain access to it. More power to the people concerned.

All the same, what if a time comes one day when marriage no longer seems needed or especially desirable as a legal institution – perhaps if more and more people come to the view that it is not important, and if we progressively extend the legal rights that go with it to couples who are not formally married?

CFI press release on the Aurora shootings

A statement from Ronald Lindsay, President and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, on the shooting that took place early today in Aurora, Colorado.

“A tragedy like this reminds us of how fragile and precious this one life of ours really is. What we do every day is significant; we must make use of every opportunity we have to extend love, sympathy, and support to others, and we should never fail to live up to our highest ethical ideals. We extend our deepest condolences to those who have lost loved ones, and our sincere wishes for full recoveries for those who were injured.”

Friday, July 20, 2012

Friday, July 13, 2012

No hugs please, we're atheists

Just an alert to a newish post by me over at Talking Philosophy (probably best to take any discussion over there, as there's a good thread underway).

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Bizarre (?) Australian traditions

I do like this piece in The Sydney Morning Herald. It all sounds pretty accurate to me - but endearing, rather than anything else. Yes, it does seem crazy that there's such a fondness for goddamn Ned Kelly - a criminal of less than Robin-Hood-like virtues.

Yes, the Aussie habit of abbreviating words must seem odd to outsiders, but what the hey? We could have worse traditions.

One well-known Australian tradition, discussed in the article, is for women to return home barefoot after a day of getting pissed at the races - pictured below. This can also apply to a night at the disco, or whatever.

But none of these qualifies as the most controversial of Australian traditions. When you go to the comment thread you find an unexpected outcome in that regard.

The most controversial of the traditions discussed is that of asking your friends or rellies (Australian for "relations") to "bring a plate" to a party or similar get-together. If you skim through the comments, this one causes real angst, or more like class warfare. Observe the fierce arguments for and against! Thus, "Tito" says:

Why invite someone over - when your guest has to bring their own food.
If you can't afford the party - then there isn't a party.
It's not the Depression - well not yet!

Ha! This person clearly just doesn't get it.

But I do like the wry observation from "Birdie":

I am now used to the idea of bring my own food to a party - otherwise there wont be much to eat.

I hope it's not really that bad in this person's life.

Sunday supervillainy - The Avengers climbs all-time inflation-adjusted ranks

According to Box Office Mojo, The Avengers is now #26 in all-time box office takings in the US, adjusted for inflation. When the calculation is done this way, it still trails a long way behind past mega-blockbusters such as Gone with the Wind and the original Star Wars. But it is now homing in on Mary Poppins and Forrest Gump, and has already overtaken many other classics of popular cinema. However you measure it, The Avengers turned out to be a phenomenal commercial success.

It's not clear just how useful this particular measure is. Surely it's some use - it gives a better indication than raw dollars would do of the huge success of classics such as the aforementioned Gone with the Wind and Star Wars, or the likes of Ben Hur, Jaws, The Sting, and on and on. If we used raw, unadjusted dollars, we would not get any idea of how enormously successful these really were. It's good to have some measure of how movies from different eras stack up against each other.

However, the markets have been very different in these different eras (e.g., there was no prospect, when Gone with the Wind was released, of waiting until it was available on home video in some format or other). Confining the comparisons to the US market produces some distortion, no doubt, though I wonder whether the figures outside the US are even available for movies that are many decades old. All in all, the Box Office Mojo list is probably just an indicator. Still, it's an interesting one, and it's fascinating to me that a movie like The Avengers caught the imagination of the public to such an extent that it will end up, using what is probably the best indicator we have, as one of the top 25 movies of all time in commercial success.

It has currently made about $1.45 billion worldwide. Since it still has some mileage in the American market and has not yet even been released in Japan, it's still on target to reach about $1.5 billion.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Ticonderoga Press announces Bloodstones anthology

The link is here to what promises to be a fine anthology. And here's the announced contents of the book...

The 17 stories are:
  • Joanne Anderton, "Sanaa's Army"
  • Alan Baxter, "Cephalopoda Obsessia"
  • Jenny Blackford, "A Moveable Feast"
  • Vivian Caethe, "Skin"
  • MD Curelas, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes"
  • Thoraiya Dyer, "Surviving Film"
  • Dirk Flinthart, "The Bull in Winter"
  • Stephanie Gunn, "The Skin of the World"
  • Richard Harland, "A Mother's Love"
  • Pete Kempshall, "Dead Inside"
  • Penny Love, "A Small Bad Thing"
  • Karen Maric, "Embracing the Invisible"
  • Christine Morgan, "Ferreau's Curse"
  • Nicole Murphy, "Euryale"
  • Jessica Otis, "And the Dead Shall be Raised Incorruptible"
  • Dan Rabarts, "The Bone Plate"
  • Erin Underwood, "The Foam Born"

Monday, July 02, 2012

Genetically engineered children

Interesting article in the UK's Daily Mail. Much moral panic over something that seems quite beneficial - assuming it works and all. Here's a quote:

Geneticists fear that one day this method could be used to create new races of humans with extra, desired characteristics such as strength or high intelligence.
I realise, of course, that there are arguments why, paradoxically, that might be a scenario to fear. But "paradoxically" is an important word here. On the face of it, you'd think that it benefits children if they are given greater (potential for) strength and intelligence (in the sorts of environments in which their genes are likely to be expressed). Furthermore, on the face of it you might think that greater intelligence possessed by some people might be socially beneficial , or at least likely to be. So why word things as if it's just obvious that this would be a bad outcome?

I'll be exploring these sorts of things in my forthcoming book, Humanity Enhanced.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

A few more photos from Continuum 8

All photos by Adam Ford, and from the panel on where are the wonder women.

Pulling out of AAP? Yeah, probably

It looks like I'll be pulling out of the AAP conference this year - for the reasons in the previous post. So if anyone who reads this was hoping to meet up in Wollongong ... we'll probably have to wait for another occasion.