Archive for February, 2010

After an entirely permissible weekend off, I’m back.

Before remembering I was too lazy, I wanted to talk about the Daily Mail. And, your inevitable nausea at reading those words notwithstanding, I’m going to give it a try now.

The Twitter account @polljack exists, as the name suggests, to hijack internet polls. The guy behind it, Chris Coltrane, has the Daily Mail newspaper particularly in mind as a target, and it’s true that the Mail’s website does ask its audience a large number of poll questions which deserve to be skewed heavily in a non-appalling direction by a bloc of mass voting.

The creation of @polljack was prompted by a Richard Littlejohn article about what he found objectionable in the NHS protocol for treating “gipsies” (I genuinely have no idea if that’s an offensive term, or spelt incorrectly, or whether referring to them as “members of the mobile community” would be patronising, so apologies if I’m getting it wrong one way or the other). It was a predictably obnoxious piece, essentially full of reactionary grumpiness at the idea of anyone from a demographic other than his own being treated with similar decency, set in a strange imagined world in which some conspiracy exists in this country to keep the white middle-class Englishman under heel.

Anyway, the article was accompanied by a simple yes/no poll that readers could vote on, asking Should the NHS allow gipsies to jump the queue? Which is a frustratingly loaded and over-simplified question, in which a “No” answer is clearly expected, but which implies agreement with the entirety of Littlejohn’s outrage.

So, @polljack took offence, got to work, and suggested that people voted “Yes”. By the time the poll was closed, “Yes” was up to 93% of the vote.

This was A) funny, and B) an effective way of making the point that not everyone is going to side with casual racism just because of the leading way you phrase the question.

There’s been some discussion recently, though, on just what @polljack’s role should be, and which polls it should attack. For instance, there was another Littlejohn article recently about torturing terror suspects, with the accompanying question: “Is it acceptable to torture terror suspects?”

Now, first of all, the correct answer is “No”. I’ll give you that one for free.

Secondly, even if the answer were more complicated than “No”, or if you wanted to explore the issue in more depth, appreciating that there are many complex issues at play here, you’re not actually making the insightful point you think you are by asking “How should we grill terrorists – with a cuddle and a cup of tea?”

Seriously. The sole counterpoint to “torture” is not “cuddle”. You are not helping to highlight a genuine dichotomy here. You’re making plain that you have no idea how this discussion actually works. You’re greatly over-simplifying things, but in the polar opposite direction to the way anyone with a functioning cerebellum would choose to over-simplify things.

Your rhetorical tactic amounts to “People who disagree with me love terrorists and want to cuddle them, therefore I’m right and those scum deserve to have their testicles electrocuted off”. All it takes is one person to disapprove of torture and yet somehow take a less ludicrous position than that of “More tea, Osama?”, and you look like an idiot.

Perhaps worryingly, the “Yes” vote was winning in answer to the torture question before @polljack got involved – but it currently stands 63% against.

But this isn’t proving the same point as the poll about gipsies. That landslide vote was a direct rejection of the premise of the question. It had been set up so that “No” was supposed to seem like the only sensible answer, but “allowing gipsies to jump the queue” is a complete misrepresentation of the NHS’s position anyway, so the intent was to make the poll look as silly as it clearly was. And it worked.

But with the torture question, they’re just correcting the answer. Whether doing these things is acceptable is a real question, with genuine opinions on both sides. Jacking it makes a very different point.

It’s still a point worth making, of course, and I guess I agree with Chris Coltrane’s rationale for targeting the polls he does. I don’t think there’s any significant criticism to make about giving the Mail extra publicity – the project’s not really going to make a dent in their average daily visitor count.

The only other real objection I recall is that leaving the poll alone allows it to highlight what terrible views Daily Mail readers hold. But I’m not convinced that a depressing poll result really reflects Daily Mail readers as a group any better than the contents of the articles in the Daily Mail itself. And we can infer what Richard Littlejohn thinks about an issue quite easily enough by reading whatever he’s shouted onto the page this time, and it’ll make our eyes bleed just as much regardless of what the poll’s doing.

So, I support the @polljack project, and the mischievous consciousness-raising that it aims to achieve. But choosing polls to target is always going to be tricky, and I think some of the earlier efforts, such as the gipsies, arguably did a better job of turning this level of journalism into the joke it deserves to be.

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My new year’s resolution has been in full force these last couple of days. I’ll write something useful tomorrow, I almost promise.

In the meantime, here’s some awesome Darwin Day artwork. It’s the big D’s 201st birthday today, you know. He’s finally growing into that beard.

Oh, and here’s something Kevin Trudeau wants you to know. He’s going to be fun to write a review of one of these days. I don’t often borrow especially coarse and gratuitously vulgar terminology from the most depraved corners of the internet, but if ever anyone has truly deserved to be cunted in the fuck, Kevin Trudeau is it. (Phil Plait’s write-up is a little more civilised and scholarly.)

Aaaaand teatime.

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So, this Robin Hood Tax thing.

A few people on Twitter have posted links to this and commented about the video, in which Bill Nighy is certainly rather excellent. And most of the chatter around it has been reassuringly measured, but there are still a few voices getting a little over-excited and reminding me of some of the less imaginative people I work with.

By which I mean, responding to just about anything to do with finance by a knee-jerk “Tax the bankers” reaction. It’s far too easy to just decide that those bastards took our money so let’s take their money. The Bad Science mantra applies here.

I’m not going to turn this into an economics lecture, largely because I’d have to do loads of revision before I actually knew anything. I’m a small-l liberal, and don’t flat-out object to some sort of tiered tax system where the extremely wealthy pay proportionally more (you can tell I haven’t revised or I’d know at least some of the relevant terminology). But I’m also a half-assed libertarian (as I think my Facebook ‘political’ status will testify), and something of a capitalist, and the idea of tax hikes for the rich being taken lightly, or talked about like it doesn’t really matter because they’re rich and they deserve it, really rubs me up the wrong way.

So for one thing, I think the name they’ve chosen for this proposition is rather unfortunate. He’s supposed to be the sort of hero that the common man can always get behind, because most people consider themselves amongst the poor for whose benefit he’d be robbing the rich. And maybe at the time he was doing good and providing a legitimate form of social welfare that wouldn’t be provided by the state. But I’m not convinced that Robin Hood’s own style of redistribution of wealth has any place in our society today.

There needs to be a much better argument in place for installing a tax like this than “Those rich fat cats will never miss it”, or “They screwed up our economy, why shouldn’t they pay for it?” And I’m sure its proponents have better arguments, which I plan to start making a genuine effort to explore, under-equipped though I may be to understand any of it.

Obviously I’m not against all taxes. I like that we have state-funded emergency services, and the NHS, among other things. I think that while some people do very well in life, and others have crappy luck and struggle to get by, there should be some kind of institutional system in place such that the former are obliged, to some extent, to help out the latter. Yes, it’s a pretty primitive grasp of economics I’m displaying here, but it feels worth going back to the fundamentals to consider why “Tax the rich” is an over-simplification that we shouldn’t quite be satisfied with.

Though having said all that… the bastards did take our money.

A couple of things occurred to me watching the explanatory video, about the practicalities of imposing a tax like this. I’ve no idea if these are among the many important and relevant questions that other better-informed people are probably asking, but this is what I’ve got.

The scheme could raise many, many billions of pounds a year. That’s quite a lot of money, even to a really big bank. And although talking about “raising” all that money might make it sound like it’s being created by some cleverly discovered productive force which generates revenue out of nowhere in particular, it’s just money that’s being taken away from the banks. It’s done by taking a tiny, tiny proportion from each of many transactions, which make only the tiniest dent at the time, sure… but if all those individual charges add up to, say, £10 billion at the end of a year, then surely the effect is the same as if you just ordered them to pay a massive one-off fine of £10 billion. (Obviously not *quite* the same, for reasons which no doubt elude me.)

Either way, however small an effect it sounds like a 0.05% tax should have, it sounds more significant when you consider that it’d have the same effect as taking away tens of billions of pounds from some people, because that’s exactly what it’s doing.

Though off the back of that, my second ponderance is how the banks are likely to respond. Not in the sense of whether they’ll loudly object to the proposed changes, but whether their business practises will change to try and avoid such heavy penalties.

The tax is described as “a charge on all bank transactions that don’t include members of the public – bonds, derivatives, currencies, speculative stuff”. I can’t pretend to know anything much about how this kind of trading works, but it seems like it wouldn’t be unexpected for a tax on all such trading to significantly shift financial pressures and incentivise banks to start doing things differently. I can’t possibly imagine how, I’m not even sure I’d understand it if you explained it to me, and maybe it’s not even an important issue to raise. But it’s something that’s going to be costing these guys billions. Historically, giving away billions of dollars is not how many people choose to operate whenever they have a say in the matter. Mightn’t this effect the overall financial system in some ways, good or bad?

I’ll be staying mostly out of the debate on this myself, I imagine. I’ll be interested to see what comes of it, and what clever people have to say. In particular, I’ll want to hear the objections of people who aren’t on board with it, and what concerns they have to raise. There could be a significant economic impact of such a move that it’s way beyond my abilities to foresee, but if it’s just a matter of my libertarian sensibilities being offended, then I’m inclined to think that my libertarian sensibilities might just have to deal with it.

Also, a last-minute bonus question: Can this work? I’ve been waiting to see something of its like for some time, but have no clue how it might be made practical. I’m definitely waiting for Cory Doctorow to tell me what to think this time.

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I do like getting wound up over a good alleged religious discrimination story once in a while. It’s been ages since that Christian registrar who didn’t want to conduct civil partnerships, so the recent story about Sikh children bringing daggers into school sounded very promising.

Unfortunately, not only am I going to have to steal the subject line from the New Humanist’s report on this (because it’s really the only obvious reference to make, that I can see), I’m also going to fail entirely to have an original opinion.

It is unlawful in this country, I understand, to be carrying a knife (of the potentially-offensive-weapon sort) in public, and this certainly includes what children are allowed to bring into schools. If you think the law should be changed, then try and get the law changed, but as it stands now this is just not something you’re allowed to do.

If anyone can get around this law by claiming that an unlawful act is religiously important to them, then the law might as well not be there. Either it becomes trivially easy for anyone to claim religious privilege on any action they like, or the legal system has to take on the role of judging the validity or sincerity of people’s religious beliefs. The latter even I find worrying and ridiculous, and I don’t have any religious beliefs.

Our society decides on a set of rules that everyone in it must live by, and the prohibition of offensive weapons in public is one of them. No skirting around it. No privilege to anyone who has a “belief” that’s important to them. You can have all the beliefs you like, but you can’t do the things that have been classified as unlawful. Them’s the rules.


We don’t need to be dicks about it.

Something I mentioned when writing about that Christian registrar up there, back in my relatively early blogging days, was that I hoped that her employers would have made at least some effort to accommodate her, and see if they couldn’t find some way she could carry on doing her job usefully, without rigidly insisting that she go through with the part she was uncomfortable with. Maybe it wouldn’t be possible, because the limitations she placed on what she was willing to do just made her hopelessly ineffective at the job, but I hope they explored that option.

And I think Sikhs should be given a similar chance.

The fuss is over a certain type of ceremonial dagger, called a Kirpan, which some Sikhs consider it important to carry on their person. In particular, one boy was banned from wearing his Kirpan at school.

Now, the Kirpan is a dagger, and it’s against the law for people to bring daggers into school. The law applies to hoodies and headmasters, teens and teachers, swots and Sikhs. That’s the first important thing to remember.

And yet, it’s a ceremonial thing that means something to some people, and it merits us asking if there’s any way we can help them achieve their goals. Call it my libertarian streak, but whenever there’s a chance to inch nearer the “let people do whatever the hell they want” side of things, I think it’s worth exploring.

And, indeed, this was explored at the time. The school suggested that wearing “a smaller knife, welded into a metal sheath” would be perfectly acceptable, which seems like a helpful compromise – it should be able to fulfil the religious requirement, and it means the school are willing to acknowledge the difference between an actual offensive weapon and something that’s obviously more of a decorative trinket. But the kid’s parents refused to accept this.

So, it’s the religious end of things that’s making me go “eurgh” and wave my hands in dismissal at the whole business this time. Your religious beliefs are personal to you, and not something anyone else is obliged to give a toss about. If your personal set of priorities require you to carry a knife everywhere you go, then you may find your potential destinations becoming more limited – and if your priorities are that important to you, then that’s a sacrifice that you’re choosing to make and will have to learn to live with.

If my Holy Church of Cricket-Bat-To-Everyone’s-Groin ever changes its doctrine to enforce its one and only tenet more rigorously, I’m going to have a decision to make. Fortunately, you won’t be obliged to accommodate my religious beliefs.

Ooh, and I nearly forgot! On a totally different topic, this is fucking hilarious. Until you remember that millions of people wanted her to be Vice President of the United States. And then it’s so very sad.

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Conservative politician Ann Widdecombe was on TV presenting an hour-long documentary last night, about the Ten Commandments.

She seemed to think that the world would be much better if we abandoned all the laws and social agreements that humanity has come up with over the course of centuries of, y’know, thinking about it, and reverted back to one set of absolute and unquestionable rules from two millennia ago.

I watched it, and was Twittering away throughout. What follows is a complete account of my stream of tweet-sized thoughts from that harrowing ordeal.

Gulp. Here goes then. You can watch too on channel4.com if you enjoy pain, and join in with the hashtag #widdybible

Seconds in and @stephenfry is interrupting voiceover-man to call the Ten Commandments “hysterical believings of a desert tribe”. #widdybible

I made a point of reading Watchmen before seeing the film. Should’ve done it here too. I don’t know any of the characters… #widdybible

“Beacon of social justice for all eternity”. Someone’s got a pretty high opinion of this God fellow I hear so much about. #widdybible

…Commandments appearing on the screen, one of which genuinely said “Commit adultery”. #widdybible

Teaser clip of Christopher Hitchens walking out of an interview, and @stephenfry looking surprisingly wound up. Well done Widdy. #widdybible

Her voice really does sound like the spotty teenager character from The Simpsons sometimes. #widdybible

Apparently it’s only within her life that the ten commandments have stopped being the single moral compass for British society. #widdybible

“sexual promiscuity” among list of signs of recent societal breakdown, because things were all just lovely until so recently #widdybible

“we’ve departed from the law of Moses”…how can we possibly retain any sense of right and wrong without being told what’s what? #widdybible

The way she’s narrating these film clips of Moses I think she might think the Charlton Heston film was a documentary #widdybible

Moses story starts with him killing a guy – official church explanation is it was “to achieve a kind of justice”. So that’s ok? #widdybible

It’s being taken as read that this God stuff is all historical fact. Always creeps me out a little when people do that. #widdybible

“Remember the Sabbath”… isn’t this show going out on a Sunday? #widdybible

Srsly, all the commandments listed, and “commit adultery” was there again. No negative. Graphic designer fucking with them? #widdybible

Father Justin of St Catherine’s Monastery has a rockin’ beard. Well done that crazy man. #widdybible

The word “billions” just doesn’t carry the same majesty in Ann Widdecombe’s voice as it did from Carl Sagan’s. #widdybible

Jews have 613 laws to live by. Good thing Christians don’t have to worry about stuff like where to keep their milk. #widdybible

She’s of the view that Jesus changed Jewish law for us. Wonder if she’s for or against stoning gay people then? #widdybible

Would be so much funner! #widdybible RT @fletcherchriss: @writerJames Read that as Fathers for Justice had climbed St Catherine’s Monastery

Moses not writing all the first five books of the Bible is “disturbing”. And she’s breaking out the sarcasm! #widdybible

Lack of archaeological evidence for a mass exodus apparently smacks of disregarding entire OT “because it talks about God”. #widdybible

The influence of the 10 commandments on our culture has been huge, yes. Are you getting to why this is a good thing? #widdybible

I like the bits where Ann shuts up and lets the actual historians talk. #widdybible

17th century Dorchester was rife with such depravity as “disrespect to elders” until the Puritans sorted it all out. #widdybible

Which laws is this show about, exactly? Where does it talk about drunken violence in the big 10? #widdybible

And if the Bible proscribes some bad things, why can’t we make similar laws as suits us without taking the whole book as Gospel? #widdybible

Yeah, those “trendy skeptics” who think the commandments are “out of touch”… I had my ass coveted just last week #widdybible

And in 30 seconds the vox pops make me *headdesk* more than anything Ann’s said in 30 minutes. Sigh. #widdybible

“A world without the Catholic Church would be poorer, more hopeless…” …and less sexually assaulted. Just sayin’. #widdybible

Hearing Hitchens’s voice after Ann Widdecombe’s is like sipping a cool glass of Coke after swallowing thumbtacks. #widdybible

Has @stephenfry ever not been awesome and made perfect sense? #widdybible

“Like all great philosophies, the Bible contains eternal moral truths”. I’m running out of snark. #widdybible

We should look after elderly parents more, like the Bible says. Does Ann know what it says about disobedient children…? #widdybible

Oh wow, she’s getting onto “legalising killing”, aka euthanasia. Wasn’t expecting that. #widdybible

It won’t happen, but I *so* want Terry Pratchett to turn up and bitchslap her on this point in the last few minutes. #widdybible

She has no real argument against euthanasia. Blah blah, slippery slope, Moses said it, @almightygod said it, don’t change it. #widdybible

Wow. Last two commandments – the thoughtcrime ones – are “sophisticated”. Cue samey antimaterialism rant. #widdybible

Psychologist: “Controlling people’s thoughts by law is impossible”. Ann Widdecombe: *INCREDULOUS STARE* #widdybible

“[The commandments] are part of our moral DNA.” Biological metaphors do not become you, Ann. #widdybible

And there we are. Our painful journey is at an end, and she appears to have learnt nothing. #widdybible

Next week’s show looks like it might have some actually interesting feminist theology. No, really. But for now, goodnight. #widdybible

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Lightning round!

Okay, fingers on buzzers, quickfire answers, no conferring:

Which is better for breathing: oxygen or gravy?

It’s oxygen! Ten points for anyone who got that right.

Who is the current president of the United States: Barack Obama or Dangermouse?

It’s Barack Obama! Another ten points.

Last one. Which is the more abhorrent and “shameful” thing you can do to a teenage girl: pay her millions of dollars to act in a series of blockbuster movies, or murder her by burying her alive as punishment for a trivial infringement of an appallingly misogynistic interpretation of religious dogma?

Ha! Trick question. They’re both the same.

Yep, I know, it’s surprising. I’m pretty sure I’d have got that one wrong. It’s one of those funny, counter-intuitive things that always causes Alan Davies to set off the klaxon in the last round of QI. Luckily Liz Jones of the Daily Mail is here to correct this particular nugget of general ignorance in a truly impressive article, headlined:

LIZ JONES: Honour killings? What we’ve done to young Emma is just as shameful

I’m putting that there so you know I’m not exaggerating her point.

She asks whether the West can really “claim the moral high ground when it comes to condemning these ‘honour’ killings”. I know it’s meant as a rhetorical question, but sometimes those deserve to be answered anyway, so I’m going to take a stab at this one.

Yes. Yes we fucking can.

Any worthwhile commentary that might have been brought to any of these subjects is completely buried under the mounds of overpowering stupid. Liz Jones’s main concern seems to be that Emma Watson – who is 19 years old and physically very attractive – has made more money in this particular year than Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren, two older but very well respected actresses, who just happen not to have featured prominently in one of the most lucrative film franchises in history lately. This is the best example that Liz Jones can find of the deplorable way that we Westerners objectify and degrade women.

And because of this, it’s hypocritical of anyone in the developed world to criticise another country’s routine ritual murdering of teenage girls.

You know, she sort of veers somewhere in the general direction of making some kind of sense, in places. She brings up the issue of violence against women in Britain, for instance, which is a real problem that merits serious attention.

She also points out that, when President Obama spoke to the EU in Istanbul last year, he urged them to accept the country of Turkey into the union, and did not bring up that country’s especially terrible record on women’s rights.

Now, I don’t know if that particular speech would have been really the right time to bring it up – I have no idea of the context in which it was made – but maybe it’s something Obama should be talking about more. I’m willing to hear someone make that case.

But if you’re going to bring up some truly horrifying details about “honour suicides” that women are being forced into, and criticise Obama for concentrating instead on “the far less controversial issue of global warming”, it really doesn’t help when your very next words are:

But let’s look at Emma Watson for a moment.

Sure. Okay. Let’s do that. We’ve talked about women in Turkey being locked in a room with a noose, a gun, and some rat poison, and ordered to kill themselves to protect the “honour” of the group, but that was paragraphs ago, so now let’s have a good natter about how terrible it is the way lots of people are interested in a glamourous young female movie-star.

And after that, we can go to the Holocaust Memorial and get ice cream!

I had thought I wouldn’t get much writing done today. Thanks to @badjournalism for the link, and to Liz Jones for the bullshit to get angry at.

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Man, I had this crazy dream last night. But I’m not going to tell you about it, because listening to other people tell you about their dreams is officially the boringest thing ever. They’ve done surveys. I’m not going to look them up, but I’m about 70% certain that it’s actually true. It sounds right, doesn’t it?

But dreams are pretty fascinating things, and not just in a Freudian analysis way where you get to nod thoughtfully and tell someone that their subconscious wants to shag a camel. For one thing, dreams give us a context in which we can talk about being naked in a school classroom and be confident that concerned bystanders aren’t going to call the authorities – in fact, they can often directly relate to our experiences.

And, more pertinently, they highlight the kind of weird shit the human brain sometimes completely makes up, and the kind of bizarre things that can seem to happen when parts of it are shutting down and going to sleep. If you didn’t really understand anything about the brain, and couldn’t realise that dreams are something that just happen to it sometimes, you might really believe that you magically went flying last night, or were being chased over a hill by some giant peanuts, or that your teeth fell out, or that Simon Cowell said you were a terrible haddock-juggler who’d never amount to anything, or that little green men walked through your wall into your bedroom and did invasive things to you while you had no choice but to lay there completely immobilised.

Yeah. If you didn’t know much about how the brain works, you might take that kind of thing seriously. Maybe even base an entire belief system around it. Sell a few books. That kind of thing.

What I’m getting at is that sometimes people decide that there’s something more substantive to their surreal nighttime experiences, despite the strong precedent provided by dreams. They may have lost count of how many times they’ve flown high above the ground on wings of yoghurt, or discussed the mysteries of the universe with a six-foot chaffinch, and just put it down to the imagined imaginings of an imaginative imagination. But some dreams are more persuasive, and convince people that they were real.

It’s not just the more mundane and realistic dreams that can seem believable, either. I’ve had dreams about hurrying toward a school lesson I was late for, which would by no means make for a weird or inexplicable episode in my life. It’s only the context that lets me know that it was a dream at all – I know that my lessons don’t normally take place in between falling asleep in bed one night and waking up in the same place the following morning, so it probably didn’t really happen. But some of these more persuasive visions, which convince people that they must have been a genuine experience, are way outside the realms of normal possibility.

Somehow, they still manage to feel like more than a run-of-the-mill dream. Often, this is largely due to sleep paralysis.

Have you ever had that thing where you’re drifting off to sleep, then suddenly your whole body spasms as if trying to pull itself out of a fall? I get it a lot. Apparently some people momentarily feel like they’re plummeting down a hole. For me, it comes with a not-quite-dreaming sensation of stumbling over on a pavement. It doesn’t really jolt you awake, and you can get back to drifting sleepwards after a moment or two, but just for an instant it’s very abruptly unsettling.

It’s called a hypnic jerk, and it’s one of those things that’ll happen when you’re falling asleep. The brain doesn’t make a perfectly smooth transition from a state of total consciousness to blissful slumber, and has to sort of shut things down in parts. Although we don’t seem to know exactly what causes a hypnic jerk, it seems to be to do with the way parts of you get ready for sleep at different times. Your muscles may start to fully relax into sleep, but part of your brain is still alert to these things, and when it notices all the tension seeping out of you it worries that you’re about to fall. So, it gives you a kick and jolts you back into action before you hurt yourself. Something like that.

But you’re not operating in perfect synch with yourself when waking up, either. Sometimes your brain can emerge from REM sleep, before the rest of you has caught up to the fact that you’re back in the real world now, and it’s okay to get up and move around.

Specifically, something called REM atonia carries on for longer than it should. While in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, your brain naturally keeps your body paralysed. This is because REM sleep is when you do most of your dreaming, and you don’t want the nightmare about the cross-dressing murderclown to send you hurtling out of bed and into a wall. Your mad, panicky flailing for your life should be restricted to the dreamworld.

But what this means is that, in these cases of lingering REM atonia, you become conscious of your surroundings, probably feel “awake”, but are unable to move. Your brain is still kinda mushy, and not entirely clear whether it’s time to get up and face the real world, or whether it’s not quite done giving you surreal nocturnal visions from your subconscious yet. As a result, you may not just find yourself lying there immobile in the dark. You may also experience what Wikipedia rather charmingly calls a “hallucinatory element”.

By which they mean there might be a demon sitting on top of you eating your soul.

Seriously, that’s a pretty common hallucination/dream associated with sleep paralysis. You feel like you’ve just woken up, you can’t move, and there’s some kind of sprite/goblin/pixie/ugly little mythological bastard of your choosing, sitting right on you, pinning you down. A painting of this exact scenario is used as Wikipedia’s illustration for their page on sleep paralysis.

According to one of Chris French‘s students:

Common images are bearded, goblin-like demons laughing or whispering sinister speech, a faceless girl (usually covering her face with hair, moving around in bed moaning and feeling my body), hands appearing from the wall and attempting to strangle me. A hung man talking in the corner of the room, and some of the most bizarre experiences may include up to a dozen ‘critter’ entities (think Gremlins movie) laughing and talking about me.

That is properly messed up. And it sounds horrifyingly real. I’ve never been through it myself, but these kinds of personal experiences can be extremely persuasive, and when you’ve lived through something as vivid and unpleasant as this, I can imagine that it would leave quite a mark, and that you’d be pretty concerned to find out just what the hell is going on.

But it’s important to take these reports of personal experience with a grain of salt. After all, we’re talking about all this in the context of sleeping, and dreams. Nobody’s seriously denying that the brain regularly simulates some pretty fantastical scenarios for us during the night. Some people just deny that this explains what was happening to them this time, for this particular fantastical scenario that played itself out during the night.

And it’s worth treating this belief sensitively, and not dismissing it out of hand as a derisive inability to distinguish fantasy from reality. Even though that does kinda sound like something I’d do. A lot of people experience sleep paralysis to some extent (possibly between 5-40%, depending on the number of associated symptoms), and even if they don’t ascribe it to any paranormal interference afterwards, it seems common to experience it as something very different from a normal dream at the time.

Lucid dreaming (where you become aware that you’re dreaming) is relatively rare unless you’re actively trying to achieve it, but sleep paralysis tends to come with something close to a normal, waking awareness of the world around you – you really have started to wake up, after all – which is why it’s so scary when you find that you can’t move and there are goblins in your room laughing at you.

But, while we can sympathise with the apparent reality of the experience, we don’t need to take it at face value. Even before we start, a particularly life-like and vivid dream is actually a more reasonable explanation than the genuine presence of, say, a mischievous imp. The kinds of things that sleep paralysis sufferers often report seeing have never before been experienced by anyone who wasn’t, at best, still a bit tired and groggy. These things are often truly unprecedented and unbelievable, and the evidence that there was ever actually anything there, more than simply an unsettling vision, is always flimsy to non-existent.

After all, how far do you have to stretch your imagination to suppose that these experiences are hallucinations provided by a half-asleep brain? Really not that far. Given some of the stuff we’ve all seen our brains do, it’s not outlandish to suggest that it might be providing us with unreliable information even when we think we’re awake and alert and accurately seeing the world as it really is. But positing actual intrusions, only occurring sporadically and momentarily just as you’re on the cusp of waking up, by genuine and real goblins and demons who leave not a trace of their presence after they depart, is not something to be believed lightly.

It’s not just goblins and demons sitting on you, of course. As mentioned earlier, some people report seeing hands coming through the wall, or creepy faceless girls out of a Japanese horror movie. And perhaps unsurprisingly, many reports of alien abduction are strikingly similar to reported experiences of sleep paralysis.

In centuries past, and in less scientifically minded cultures, it made sense that demons, witches, or other un-Christian manifestations would be what plagued people’s nightmares. (Wikipedia has a long list of possible cultural interpretations of the sleep paralysis experience.) But in some parts of the world these days, aliens are a more relevant aspect of society, and so it makes sense that something akin to the standard little-green-man abduction scenario would be envisaged. But with no lasting evidence of any such intrusion, and with the known facts about some people’s experiences of REM atonia while coming out of REM sleep, the “extraordinarily vivid dream” explanation is far more likely until any new evidence comes along to depose it.

If your personal experience has been enough to convince you of something genuinely strange, then can you really discount all the strange-sounding reports from people who claim to have gone through something similar? Was there really a cat with a melting face in Chris French’s student’s room that night? Are there also really regular succubus attacks in Iceland, ghosts in Taiwan and Mexico, hags who prophesy doom if you say the Lord’s Prayer backwards in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the demon Mora stealing people’s speech in Greece and Cyprus? If any of these ideas can be explained away as dreaming, imagination, or a misinterpretation of some other phenomenon, then why not yours?

It’s also worth noting that hallucinations accompanying sleep paralysis aren’t always paranormal in nature. Sometimes it just seems like some regular human intruder in your home, or something ambiguous like the sound of footsteps or shadows moving across the wall – often still accompanied by the paralysis, so still pretty scary. These also leave no indication of having been caused by any external phenomena once you fully awake. So, either aliens are visiting some people’s houses in the night, and abducting burglars from others, at very precise and opportune moments… or it’s something like a dream, produced by the endlessly creative human brain.

By all reports, sleep paralysis can be a fairly traumatic experience for someone who doesn’t know what’s going on or what to think of it, and the number of people it affects is far from negligible. If you’ve been through anything like this yourself, it might be worth finding other people with similar stories, or organisations set up for exactly this purpose, to try and find some ideas for what might help deal with it. There are some links at the Skeptic’s Dictionary, and easily found across the internet.

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I’m hoping to have a new Skeptictionary post up either tomorrow or over the weekend. This will depend on how lazy I am rendered tomorrow evening by the presence of pizza.

Anyway, a few brief things to comment on today:

– I was all set to link to this first article with a catchy tagline like “Catholic church wants you to suffer, and can fuck off”. But having read the article more carefully, I think something like “Provocative headline overstates a most likely well-intentioned church statement” might be more appropriate. I don’t think they’ve said anything too grossly insensitive this time. So, it’s pretty much a non-story that there’s no real need to link to… and yet for some reason I’m still typing.

– Guilty verdict for the parents who let their son die, not getting him any medical help because they thought that praying would make a damn bit of difference. I find some sympathy for them making it through the anger. I mean fuck, their kid’s dead, that sucks however it happens. They’re not – well, okay, it sounds like they might be pretty horrible people, but they didn’t want this. It was the meme that fucked them.

– On a much cheerier note, Phil Plait blogs about a new book on evolution by Daniel Loxton, aimed at younger readers. It’s a neat-looking science book, with some damn cool-looking pictures, and Phil sums up nicely what’s so completely awesome about this kind of thing.

Simply put, I would’ve loved this book when I was a kid. It would have made me want to be a scientist.

Fucking yes. I used to read so much cool science stuff like this when I was a kid. Oddly, I don’t remember it ever specifically making me want to be a scientist, but it definitely made me love finding these things out, learning stuff about dinosaurs and planets, and telling people about these really cool things I knew. And that’s almost as good as being a scientist right there.

– And interestingly, a story I first blogged about nearly a fortnight ago suddenly got noticed by the rest of the blogosphere today, and really took off on Twitter earlier. Clearly I’m ahead of my time but fail at trendsetting. To recap briefly, Cherie Booth gave a suspended sentence to a man convicted of actual bodily harm, and told him that this leniency was based “on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before”.

Anyway, the majority response was much the same as mine, but of particular interest was the perspective provided by Jack of Kent. He’s a guy whose opinion is always worth listening to anyway, not least because often (as in this case) his legal background gives him a level of insight unavailable to the rest of us lay idiots.

The whole discussion thread on the New Humanist‘s post on the subject is interesting, but I’ll quote some of Jack’s comment here:

There is no actual evidence in this case that an atheist would have received less favourable treatment in seeking to similarly mitigate their sentence.

Indeed, one would find every day judges giving mitigation for a variety of reasons based on the pleas in mitigation made in particular cases.

See, as one of the aforementioned lay idiots, I have no idea what to expect from judges offering this kind of mitigation. I think most people’s objections, like mine, were with the notion of equating religiosity with morality – but although equating these two would indeed be objectionable, Jack doesn’t believe that there’s good cause to believe that that’s happening here. He points out that in such cases the judge is only deciding whether “good character” has been established.

And on reflection, I can see how someone’s religious behaviour could be relevant for such mitigation. For instance, “I see that you regularly volunteer at a Christian charity organisation, therefore you’re probably not as much of a danger to society as all that” might not be wholly objectionable reasoning.

It raises the question, of course, of whether an equivalent non-religious argument could be equally mitigating. I would hope that secular factors can be given equal weight in establishing good character. Although many people were treating the story as evidence of “discrimination” against the non-religious, Jack of Kent is far from convinced that we’ve seen any evidence of this happening.

I’m still really not sure. It still kinda seems that telling someone “You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour” carries a very strong implication that, if they weren’t religious, they couldn’t be trusted to possess such a moral compass. However, it is apparently common for a legal defence to make reference to someone’s “group affiliations” when asking for a lenient sentence, and it makes sense that these affiliations would sometimes be religious in nature and sometimes not. Furthermore, the only qualified lawyer I see around here is saying that it’s a non-story.


… I don’t really have a closing point to wrap this up with. It just felt like I should say “So” with dramatic emphasis, as if I had some idea what I’m doing.

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The rather excellent Heresiarch posted a piece yesterday about his disagreement with Dawkins. I think that slight twitching feeling I’m getting might be the beginnings of an opinion about something. Let’s see how it turns out.

Howard Jacobson recently presented a documentary on Channel 4 in the UK, looking at the history of the Bible. I didn’t watch it, partly because of the feature on him in the Radio Times, in which he trotted out the kind of uninformed straw-man attacks on Richard Dawkins and the atheist movement generally that I’m so tired of hearing by now. The “He says I’m wrong about something, therefore he’s being closed-minded” level of nonsense and caricature. It put me off the whole thing, and judging by the Heresiarch’s report I was wise not to waste my time.

But having said that, Heresiarch then moves on to discuss a Times article written by Dawkins, in which the man himself supposedly sounds more like the caricature that he’s so often made out to be.

I’m going to go some way toward defending Richie D here, at least against phrases like “remarkably stupid”.

The criticism starts from Dawkins’ opening paragraph:

We know what caused the catastrophe in Haiti. It was the bumping and grinding of the Caribbean Plate rubbing up against the North American Plate: a force of nature, sin-free and indifferent to sin, unpremeditated, unmotivated, supremely unconcerned with human affairs or human misery.

Which seemed innocuous enough to me at first glance. The particular criticism levelled against it is that it is “extraordinarily facile”. The first thing I notice is that this accusation doesn’t seem to deny that any of what Dawkins says is true.

The second thing I notice is that Dawkins is writing primarily in response to Pat Robertson, and others of his ilk, who spared no time in declaring this natural disaster, like so many others, to be a divine retribution for some sort of ungodly behaviour. If you’re looking for a facile argument, I’d say that’s a more obvious place to start.

And that’s the context in which Dawkins is writing here. He’s not an expert political analyst, and so he doesn’t speculate in detail on the “moral complexity of a global capitalist economy”, as Doug Chaplin seems to want him to. There are certainly many interesting and important things to be said about the Haiti earthquake from that perspective, but Dawkins isn’t the guy for that.

Also, lingering on that Doug Chaplin article longer than I’d intended, something else he said winds me up somewhat, where he talks about Dawkins’ “shopping list of disasters that disprove the existence of God”. Well,

A) disproving God by any means is not something that Dawkins has ever claimed, either in this article or in any of his books, and

B) these kinds of natural disasters aren’t a negligible problem, theologically speaking. It’s not like reconciling this amount of suffering with the notion of a loving god is easy. I’ve still never seen it done convincingly. So if he did want to argue that these things disprove God’s existence entirely, it wouldn’t be an argument entirely without merit. I’m not saying it’d hold much water, but it’s not an idea worthy of quite such dripping sarcasm.

The bulk of Heresiarch’s criticism, though, is about Dawkins’ assertion – to paraphrase rather coarsely – that Pat Robertson is the one who’s really doing Christianity properly, and that the more moderate, liberal Christians who decry all his bullshit about pacts with the devil are being hypocritical.

And, well. Yeah.

Is it even possible to read the Bible without being selective? Surely Ned Flanders is the only person who really took the whole thing at its word, even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff. Of course Robertson seems to be ignoring a lot of what might broadly be termed the “good stuff”, like the things about loving people. (Though God has some funny ideas on how to treat the people he loves.) But the moderate liberals really are picking and choosing just as much. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out:

There’s no Hell mentioned in the Old Testament… It’s only with gentle Jesus, meek and mild, that the idea of eternal torture for minor transgressions is introduced.

Which is often conveniently overlooked by people keen to emphasise how lovely Christianity is, how loving Jesus was, and how ridiculous it is to suggest that God would ever visit atrocities upon us as retribution for our sinful existence.

I’m being rather jumbled and disordered here, but Heresiarch also writes that “natural disasters pose challenges… that are very much the province of religion” – in that they raise questions about the nature of God, and the afterlife, and posit suggestions and explanations that may be meant to provide comfort in times of despair. He tells Dawkins:

[Y]ou must surely admit that people who are suffering are looking for something more substantial than a lecture about the workings of tectonic plates.

And yes, I don’t doubt they are, but

A) I’m not convinced that this makes it okay to sanction any kind of religious speculation, and shield it from criticism, on the grounds that these religious ideas may be what people are turning to for comfort right now, and

B) he’s not offering a lecture about the workings of tectonic plates to the people who are suffering. He’s offering it to people who’ve been hearing about their suffering and are in a position to receive a counterpoint to Pat Robertson’s own lecture about pacts with the devil.

And for the people who are suffering, he’s set up a page on his site to donate money to Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross. Which won’t involve trying to tell anyone who needs help digging their family out of the rubble about plate tectonics, or that there is no god and this was just a random act of uncaring nature. He just wrote an article to us about some of those things, and he’s not entirely wrong.

I’d redraft this and have a better idea what overall point I was trying to make if I were a proper writer. Well, I guess I nearly had an opinion, at least.

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