Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Appealing to my MP to oppose the DE bill

                                        Tuesday 16 March 2010

Dear Sadiq Khan,

I am a published technical author, software developer and interaction
designer with a family - my wife, a freelance accountant, and a four
year old son, Johnny.

I am deeply concerned by the disconnection provisions of the Digital
Economy Bill, which it appears is about to be waved through the house
of commons in a sadly undemocratic "washing up" process.

Both my salaried work and my writings depend critically on having a
full bandwidth internet access, for example when I remotely access my
work desktop from home.

My wife's livelihood as an accountant also depends being able to send
and receive both reports and (occasionally substantial) databases of
financial records.

As an immigrant, she would also suffer a loss of family connection if
she could no longer use video skype to talk to her elderly and
otherwise inaccessible parents.

And Johnny is an enthusiastic on-line follower of the BBC's finest
children's programmes and games, such as "AlphaBlocks" (which is
helping him learn to read) and "Relic: Guardians of the Museum" which
so interested him in the British Museum that I had to take him to see
the Egyptian galleries last Saturday.

The prospect of losing these essential services to an automated process
without judicial appeal is frankly terrifying.

As a software professional, I can tell you that my PCs at home are as
secure as I can make them while staying on-line, but even so I have no
idea if anyone has installed illegal file-sharing software, or if
anyone is making illegal use of legal file-sharing software (such as
the first version of the BBC iPlayer, which I didn't even realise at
the time was a file-sharing server as well as client).

You have a strong record of opposing terrorism. You must be aware that
bad people can be inventive and persistent. It seems to me that the
possibilities that such a process of automated disconnection can raise
are endless.

What is to stop political hackers targeting political opponents? Will
you - as an MP - have any special right to appeal against disconnection
that would be denied to others whose jobs are equally depend on

Think about the commercial world. We already have well-established
cases of click-fraud (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Click_fraud) being
used to "to harm a competitor who advertises in the same market by
clicking on their ads. The perpetrators do not profit directly but
force the advertiser to pay for irrelevant clicks, thus weakening or
eliminating a source of competition". Will people who are willing to
commit click-fraud hesitate to target the offices of their competitors
with fraudulent copyright fraud allegations?

And finally, consider the implications of legitimising collective
punishment. Other countries believe in bulldozing the houses of people
whose family member are believed to have committed terrorist acts.
Maybe we could take the middle road, and simply disconnect the families
of licence tax dodgers from power, water and sewage?

The music business didn't die from home taping (whatever they said at
the time) and they won't die from on-line copying. Only our liberties
are at serious risk here.

Yours sincerely,

Francis Norton.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Deeply shallow - why Intelligent Design fails the test of Abraham (and Evolution passes)

I was listening to a discussion on the train last week, involving someone talking to his friends about some kind of alternatives to evolution event he'd been to. The people talking obviously had some feel, some care, for truth; and they were clearly inclining towards a view that while Creationism wasn't very convincing, Intelligent Design was at least interesting and maybe it should be given more equal status with Darwinian evolution.

While I kept my mouth shut all the way until they got off at Wimbledon (I am English, after all), I would really like to talk to people like them - reasonable people of faith, who might be considering the pros and cons of Intelligent Design, and offer them a line of argument which may in some ways make more sense to them than to the average evolutionist.

Some years back I was reading a Danish writer who was talking about God's test of Abraham, when he asks him to sacrifice his first-born son Isaac. Now, even as an occasionally resentful second son, I've never liked this episode - in fact I suspect it contributed to my departure from religion. But some - probably misunderstood - memory of his interpretation of the story as a challenge to choice or commitment stuck in my mind, to resurface from time to time.

Another idea that had stuck in my mind was a quotation that had also taken up long term residence there:
"If it could be proved that any part of the structure of any one species had been formed for the exclusive good of another species, it would annihilate my theory, for such could not have been produced through natural selection."
(Charles Darwin - The Origin of Species, 1859, Chapter 6 - Difficulties On Theory, page 201)

Think about how western culture saw nature up to the moment when Origin was published. The general approach was to seek - and find - examples of Divine Providence in the ingeniously helpful disposition of nature. As Darwin continues in the next sentence, "Although many statements may be found in works on natural history to this effect, I cannot find even one which seems to me of any weight."

A few pages earlier, he does something similar:
"If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down"
(ibid, page 189)

This is just as challenging - an entire strand of Natural Theology had been built on the basis that this was simply not true, including William Paley's well known Watchmaker Analogy.

So Darwin is going out of his way to give opponents a chance to "annihilate" or "absolutely break down" his theory - if they cannot, the world must be very different from what they think. And this is not any old "theory", this is his life's work (it is 28 years since his voyage on the Beagle started him on this road) which, he must have realised, could more or less immortalise his family name. This theory is, almost literally, his baby.

Eventually I made a illuminating connection between these two ideas. Darwin's invitation to his readers to "annihilate" his theory takes similar courage to that of Abraham offering to sacrifice his son - each is offering the destruction of their life's greatest achievement, and of their nearest hope to immortality in this world. And each is driven by a greater love - Abraham's, of God, and Darwin's, of truth.

Now, let's look at Intelligent Design. Whereas Darwin said, in effect, that the natural world we live in is totally different from how we thought it was, proponents of Intelligent Design say that it is almost identical but somewhere, somehow, there is something that will demonstrate Irreducible Complexity or Specified Complexity - but it appears that they do not even seek proposals for actual research.

Frankly, this reminds me an ancient TV sketch where Rowan Atkinson parodies a famous science fiction theme by explaining, over a cup of tea, that he comes from a parallel Earth on precisely the other side of the sun, where everything is just like this earth - except that the gearknob of their Mini Metro has little dimples in it.

Prove me wrong - show me one sentence anywhere in Intelligent Design which shows such courageous love of truth as Darwin's clear and self-imposed tests, and I will revise my views.

But until then, I firmly believe that ID has as much relationship to a brave and beautiful scientific theory as Caligula's horse Incitatus had to democratically elected leadership.