Archive for November, 2010


You may have noticed things being a bit quiet round here lately.

The hassles surrounding the challenge of finding a new flat to move into, and then moving into it, have rendered my feeble constitution utterly incapable of multi-tasking. Achieving any other goals at all, with the increasingly urgent task of lugging half a tonne of accumulated crap across London looming over me, has been simply impossible.

The worst of it’s done though. We’re moved, the new place is nice, and it’ll probably only take a couple of evenings before we’ve unpacked enough to be able to see what our new living room floor looks like.

It’ll take a bit longer, though, before we can get our broadband installed again.

There are temporary workarounds to this, I suppose.

I tried using an O2 USB dongle to get myself online with limited expensive bandwidth, as a temporary measure. But after half an hour on the phone to technical support failing to get it to work, it just seems like more hassle than it’s worth.

I could get some kind of phone which would let me do various internettish things in places where I can’t be sitting in front of a networked computer. But I don’t really know what I want from one of those, and I’m not convinced I’d find enough use for it to justify the expense once my regular internet is hooked up again.

So, I’m going to try living off the grid for a while.

It’s not like I’ve got a shortage of things to do at home. I’ve got a few proper blog entries planned for when I’m back, some of which I can make some progress on without needing to do much online research. My NaNoWriMo attempt ground to a halt at about half-way, and I feel like extending my deadline on that and seeing if I can get it finished before the end of the year.

And then there’s the unpacking. The relentless, interminable unpacking. And then the throwing away of useless shit. All this will keep me busy.

And I can get online from work as much as I really need to, to keep up with important things, emails and such. (And writing and posting this.) I’m not going to even try staying up-to-date with Twitter, though, so we’ll see how well that particular cold turkey goes. (And if anything exciting kicks off there, someone make sure you blog about it too so I can catch up later.)

I’ll be back soon. Not sure exactly when, but hopefully by the time you next hear from me I’ll own a chair and there’ll be some things in our fridge.

I’ll keep you posted.

Also, Leslie Nielsen died. Sadface.

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Living in fear

Fortunately, Hell isn’t such a bad place.

It’s actually a village in Norway, and although I’ve never been, it certainly doesn’t seem as harsh, torturous, or pyrotechnical as its reputation would suggest.

Of course, I’m talking about a Hell that actually exists.

The fictional kinds never seem like much fun. They’re not all quite as homogeneously horrible as the popular Christian imaginings, but unending torment seems to be a regular feature. Other religions had and have different ideas, and many Christians today reject the standard notion of lakes of fire and pitchfork enemas.

But the sadistic idea of never-ending suffering for people who’ve done wrong in life is still a popular and mainstream one, with a majority of Americans believing in some kind of punishment bad enough to earn the name “Hell”.

I don’t buy it for a second. It’s a primitive attempt to reassure oneself and one’s allies that your own tribe is morally righteous and specially preferred, and that injustices against you by “others” will be corrected in your favour, so long as you hold true to the values you were born into. Only humans could come up with something like this.

But it’s still a really scary idea.

Once in a while, I’ll start to really imagine it. I’ll just drift into that hypothetical worldview, picture myself in some dark pit, surrounded solely by creatures wishing me harm, powerless to escape or even to move, being bodily tortured and suffering immense pain, and knowing that this is truly unending – no lunchbreak, no knocking off at 5 to go home, no weekends, not a single other experience of anything that I’ve ever valued, not a moment’s respite from the pain, not even death and an end to it all, no end to this, ever.

Once in a while, I totally freak myself the fuck out.

Only for a few seconds, of course. I’ll let my head wander to this really sinister place, then just shudder and shake it off, reassured that there’s as close to zero chance of it happening as I could ever hope for of anything.

Sometimes, though, I shudder again a little later, as I think about people who can’t be so reassured.

There are people who really believe this shit. Some just loudly assert how agonising a fate everyone else deserves, because of some serious insecurities and a pathological need to claim some kind of superiority over people who won’t let them get their way, however imaginary that superiority might be.

But then there are those who live in terror of making a wrong step, and being consigned to an eternal fate that can make even a devout atheist’s heart beat a little faster. There are kids and adults who’ve had it driven into them that this unending pain is real, and is what their loving god is going to see to it that they get – because it’s what they deserve – if they do anything wrong, or even think sinful thoughts.

It’s not just a fleeting creepy thought for some people, but a permanent terror.

Richard Dawkins has described some kinds of extremist religious education as constituting a form of child abuse. When kids are being terrorised by fantasies like this, it’s hard to call him wrong.

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So there’s this thing called Skepticon happening in Missouri right now. It’s not really made much of a blip on my radar, but it’s a big annual skeptical meet-up and conference, along similar lines to TAM, but free to attend.

I’m not there. Mostly because it’s taking place more than eight miles from where I live, and you know how I feel about getting organised and doing things. Ugh.

I hope everyone’s having fun there, and I’m sure the skeptical blogosphere will be deluged with reports and personal accounts over the coming days. But I wanted to chime in briefly on an argument that’s been centering around the format of this event.

Jeff Wagg, who’s done great stuff as an integral part of the JREF in the past, wrote a piece this week opining that Skepticon seemed like primarily an atheist convention, and should consider adopting a new name that more accurately describes its anti-religious purpose.

Skepticon organiser JT Eberhard disagreed. And I’m with him. Looking at the schedule for the event, it’s clear that there’s quite a variety of topics on the list for discussion, many of which wouldn’t be of direct interest to anyone just turning up for a fix of angry shouting about how religion is bullshit. (This is a popular caricature of atheists at conferences, which I’d guess is at least 95% straw man.)

There is actually more anti-religious stuff on the agenda than JT acknowledges in his piece – the talk titled “Are Christians Delusional?” surely counts as well, even if the answer it comes up with is more charitable than you might guess – but the list of topics also includes sexism, skeptical outreach, and drinking heavily until late into the night. Several speakers don’t have a description of their talk listed on that schedule, but I know from experience that people like DJ Grothe, Rebecca Watson, and James Randi have much more to say than a simple reassurance that all religious people are idiots.

There’s even a panel discussion on “Does skepticism lead to atheism?”, which implies (I would hope) that arguments against this assumption will at least be considered. And this is what’s central to it, I think – does anyone need to believe that skepticism must lead to atheism to be a part of this conference? And does the way that the conference is arranged imply that its organisers themselves equate skepticism and atheism in this way?

Personally, I’m not worried about religious people feeling excluded from skeptical conferences because of an atheistic leaning at the events. For one, I don’t think anyone’s going to be chased out of the hotel by a baying mob with flaming torches just because they haven’t completely given up on some of the more popular supernatural ideas.

What will happen to such people is that their beliefs are going to be questioned, and the holes in their logic criticised. Because if you walk into a skeptical conference and you believe a bunch of stuff not founded in reason and reality, then these beliefs are entirely fair game.

If anyone is alienated by having their faith questioned like that, then I don’t think it’s our fault for insufficiently pandering to them.

Jeff Wagg wasn’t claiming that any particular atheists at this conference had been especially unwelcoming or hostile to any particular attendants who turned out to be religious believers – he wrote it several days before the event started. And if people were being mean and rude like that, then that should prompt an important conversation about outreach and general dickishness.

Instead, Jeff’s problem seems to be with the very notion that a conference about skepticism has a non-exclusive focus on one particular supernatural belief: that of the existence of an omnipotent deity.

And yet that’s exactly the kind of belief that a skeptical conference should be questioning and criticising. Particularly a conference taking place right in the middle of the Bible Belt, in a country where madcap zealous religion is one of the most harmful and stifling modes of irrational belief out there.

I’m far from the first to make the observation that a homeopath at a skeptical conference, who displayed otherwise intelligently skeptical views, would not be treated with kid gloves, or have his views tip-toed around when it comes to alternative medicine, even if he does have lots of sensible things to say about UFO sightings and psychic powers. Whether or not someone “can still be a skeptic” while believing a particular thing isn’t an interesting question. People can be skeptical or not about numerous different topics, and when their ideas on any topic don’t stand up to reality, they should be open to criticism.

You don’t see many people suggesting that we should try to win more people over to science-based medicine by pretending that alternative medicine isn’t bunk. Nobody seems to want us to de-emphasise how little evidence there is for any alien visitation of Earth, so that more UFO fanatics will listen to what we have to say. It seems to just be religion where we’re expected to tactically act like we don’t disagree with people we disagree with, so that they’ll agree with us.

Hat-tip to the Blag Hag for alerting me to this, and to the Friendly Atheist and PZ Myers who’ve also covered it.

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I’m running out of interest in the ongoing debate in the comments here, now. It was fun for a while, but David’s showing no signs of developing interestingly. timberwraith is still doing sterling work responding to his nuttiness, though, so feel free to cheer her on if you still want to get involved.

I will make a couple of brief points though. Firstly, David doesn’t seem to know what homophobic means. He’s uncovered the Greek derivation of the latter half of the word and decided he’s got it all figured out. But nobody actually uses the word “homophobia” to refer to a phobia or fear in the same sense as, say, arachnophobia. That’s just not how anyone uses the word. The word refers to a prejudice against homosexual people, and it’s a tangential semantic argument anyway.

Also, one of the things David bleats about in a few different ways is the old “shoving it down my throat” canard. He doesn’t “go around with [his heterosexuality] on his sleeve”, like gay people do. His straightness doesn’t define him, like gay people’s sexuality does.

timberwraith takes this one down very nicely by introducing David to a little thing called heteronormativity, and the way in which heterosexuality is assumed as the default mode in many, many, many aspects of culture. If someone’s homosexuality stands out, maybe it’s less to do with how gay they are, and more to do with how overwhelmingly hetero the world around them tends to be.

And even if gay people do want to define themselves by their sexuality, and make it a primary part of their identity, what the hell business of that is anyone else’s? Maybe it’s an attempt to stop themselves feeling like an individual, isolated, lone freak, because they feel different than everyone around them acts. And because people like David are telling them that the love they want to express is wrong, and hiding it in a flimsy veil of loving the sinner but hating the sin.

Final observation: The poem that kicked all this off was about a lot of things. Proselytising. The teaching of evolution. Witchcraft. Politics. Secular responses to expressions of religious opinion. And homosexuality. But the ensuing discussion quickly became really, really gay.

Now, this may not have been entirely David’s fault. Although his was the only voice of dissent, it might be premature to lay all the blame on him for steering the conversation homo-wards.

But clearly a major button was pushed for him. And the impression I get is that, once David knows that somebody’s gay, that’s the only thing he’s really capable of seeing about them. Which says something about how much importance he places on something that he claims not to really care about.

Okay, maybe I’m not completely bored with this yet.

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If you haven’t seen me plugging it on Twitter already, then you may be thrilled to learn I’ve set up a new website.

It’s designed to provide information on inexplicably popular TV nutritionist and current I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! contestant Gillian McKeith.

So, please visit isgillianmckeitharealdoctor.com to learn all you need to know about this fascinating individual.

Leave a comment here if you think there are any relevant facts I might have missed.

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I think I’ve figured out why I’m not an anarchist.

It has to do with why I’m so good (or, arguably, so bad) at procrastinating. Bear with me on this.

I actually have a lot of time for anarchists and crazy libertarians. I’m a big fan of personal freedoms, I’ve never been comfortable with socialism or much of the anti-capitalist left-wing rhetoric, and there’s a profound appeal to the anti-cynicism behind a vision of society that doesn’t need a hierarchical government. I share many anarchistic concerns about the injustice and oppression of government interference in many aspects of life, and the extent to which it’s taken for granted by a populace who think anarchy means smashing windows.

Plus, sometimes anarchists’ ideas about the inherently oppressive nature of the state seem hard to argue with. Attaching the adjective “corrupt” to the noun “politician” is such a clichĂ© that it’s practically redundant.

But the proposed alternative has never really seemed practical. I’ve tried to explain why, but felt a bit vague and uncertain about it. For all that most people’s assumptions provide a needlessly limited view of what a government should look like, I’ve never been convinced that thinking so far outside the box as “no government at all” will get us anywhere. And yet, I was never entirely sure that I could satisfactorily justify the existence of the state and the enforced authority that comes with it.

I’m ready to give it a shot now.

I’ll need to digress briefly first. I think I posted a link fairly recently to this post on the mental processes behind procrastination, and how best to overcome them. Essentially, you’re never going to be as diligent and work-oriented in the future as you fool yourself into thinking you will be. You put things off because you don’t want to do them “right now” and there’ll be plenty of time later – but when later turns up, you’re no more inclined to do them “right now” than you were before.

In the moment, I often find that checking what’s happened on Facebook or Twitter in the last thirty seconds holds more immediate appeal than constructing the rest of this sentence. I can get the work side of things done, but trusting myself to be able to avoid impulsive distractions is a sucker’s game. I’ve had plenty of time to get to know myself better than that.

So there are things I can do to make those impulsive distractions less accessible on impulse. I can shut down Tweetdeck. I can physically unplug my computer from the internet. I can use a program like WriteMonkey to provide a full-screen text editor, so that I can’t even see the potential distractions while I’m writing – this last one has been very useful to me with NaNoWriMo this year. And so on.

The point of all this is that I think the state could play a similar role in society.

There are some things humans are not naturally good at doing, when it comes to achieving what we think we want. For instance, I suck pretty hard at ignoring Twitter and getting some writing done. I know I want to write things, and I understand how much getting a novel finished means to me, but in the moment, I also want to know what Jon Ronson thinks of this week’s X Factor.

Similarly, I would prefer not to make things crappier than they already are for people in the developing world. And I know there are things which do make things crappier, which are done by many corporations to help boost their profits.

But when I’m in the supermarket confectionery aisle, I’m not going to just not buy a Kitkat Chunky for 40p.

For a start, it’s not always going to be obvious to me what activities I’m tacitly supporting by eating a chocolate bar. I’m aware that the NestlĂ© boycott is a thing, but for the most part I don’t know what processes are involved in bringing my lunchtime snack all the way from a field of nougat trees in Colombia, to a shelf in Sainsbury’s.

Maybe if I swap to an alternative, and refuse to support what I might think is an unethical choice, I’ll end up unknowingly supporting even more dubious business practices. Maybe the secret ingredient in Mars bars is actually orphans’ tears and I just don’t know it.

But more to the point, those orphans aren’t sitting in front of me when I’m hungry and want some chocolate. They’re a pretty distant and abstract idea. And while I might be firmly against torturing children to extract their delicious bodily fluids in principle, that might not sway me as much as it should when I just want a Kitkat.

I would be a shitty rational consumer, is what I’m saying. And I don’t think I’m alone in this.

So perhaps there should be a system whereby, if enough other people also feel strongly about my tentative no-harvesting-the-tears-of-orphans policy, we band together to remove the impulsive temptation, at some previous stage of the decision-making process. We can recognise that, in some cases, we’re inevitably going to fail to enforce the principles we value at the level of consumption. I get distracted from writing a novel by my Twitter feed, and I get distracted from ethical business practices by delicious chocolate.

Note that it’s not a question of which option – happy third world orphans, or a fleetingly enjoyable mouthful of confectionery – I actually prefer. I’m quite certain on that point. I might be momentarily alarmed and disappointed to see that my favourite snacks have somehow tripled in price, but if it’s because of legislation that’s improving working conditions in the third world, or in some other important way making things better, I’m not going to start making placards demanding we send the kids back to the sweatshops. When I think of the big picture, my priorities are clear.

So, this could be a thing for the government to do. As far as is practical, things should be left to people’s individual choices and responsibilities. But we all plan for the future, and often tacitly acknowledge that we don’t entirely trust ourselves – recovering alcoholics will avoid places they might be tempted to drink, and so on. Given our understanding of how prone our brains are to certain types of cognitive bias, this is an entirely rational way to behave.

This helpful delegation of decision-making is usually overseen only by another “version” of ourselves – one who didn’t want a cigarette as much as we do now, but knew they’re bad for us and so made sure there weren’t any in the house. But perhaps it could be expanded, and a society can take the same type of precautions as an individual.

Of course, I’m not claiming that this is a good description of any particular state in practice. Governments are often seen overstepping their mark, and anarchists aren’t the only ones to object when this happens (though they arguably have the most consistent message). And even my muffled libertarian alarm bells are ringing at the notion of a government deciding that the people “can’t be trusted” to act rationally.

But a state itself is just people, and there needn’t be sinister undertones to people instituting rules about what they find unacceptable, and making themselves follow them.

Ideally, the state would act as described above only to the limits of its usefulness – governing those social activities which are more efficiently achieved through centralised means, and stopping us procrastinating where we decide not to trust ourselves individually – and leave us alone in every other aspect of our lives. We’re a long way from there right now, and when the anarchists who I follow point to specific examples of the state butting inappropriate into people’s private affairs, I’m rarely able to disagree.

But I still think a ruling state can exist with justifiable purpose, for the greater good. What I’ve tried to outline here is how and why.

Government should be our WriteMonkey.


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Project Prevention have been back in the news lately.

I wrote about this organisation before, here and here, and since then my initial reservations have developed into serious concern and outrage. The more their activities continue, the clearer it becomes that the welfare of people is a secondary priority to their ideology. And this ideology amounts to little more than eugenics.

Stuart Sorensen has been at the front line of the efforts to counter what Project Prevention are doing, and his interview on the most recent episode of the Strange Quarks podcast was excellent. If you still think there’s anything positive or compassionate in the way this group bribes drug addicts to be sterilised, you shouldn’t after listening to that.

Short version: There are much better ways than this to help people and children affected by drug problems, which are already being offered by many health services, but Project Prevention doesn’t seem to care.

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