Archive for March, 2011

Hey, I’m up for it in theory. If he ever actually turned up, he’d be welcome. I’m happy to make a completely empty gesture if that’s what Christians think God wants from me. But would it really help?

(I’ve bought a new camera since filming this one, and it’s way better. The difference will be very evident soon.)

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Here’s an interesting account of someone’s experiment wearing a veil which covered her hair, and the shift in attitudes she experienced when people assumed she was a Muslim. It’s a troubling tale of prejudice and discompassion.

Here’s a clip of Sam Harris, one of my heroes, talking about Islam, asserting among other things that Osama bin Laden’s interpretation of the religion is an entirely reasonable one.

Does one of them have to be wrong?

No, they really, really don’t.

Holding two distinct ideas in your head isn’t always a sign of cognitive dissonance. They have to be directly conflicting for that to be the case; otherwise it’s just a matter of appreciating nuance and complexity. Hell, sometimes it’s no more complicated than understanding basic object permanence, which most humans get the hang of by the age of 12 months.

Islam is a dangerous religion which lends itself to murderous fanaticism. Its primary text advocates theocracy, murder, and slavery, and millions of its adherents use their faith to justify numerous barbaric, primitive, morally indefensible behaviours.

And yet, at the same time as all that being true, you should simultaneously not act like a douchebag to a woman you don’t know who’s wearing a veil to cover her hair.

I mean, who does that anyway? Deciding you know all about someone and how they deserve to be treated with less respect based on your assessment of the way they look? Well, I guess a lot of people do. No doubt I do too, to some extent, but I at least make an effort to watch out for it.

Knowing some facts about Islam is not the same thing as being racist (or rather, prejudiced against individuals because of your generalisations about their religion – I don’t think we have as snappy a word for that, though). Nor does it inevitably lead to it. Islam is shit, but people still deserve to be treated like people, at least, until they actually do something which proves them no longer worthy of that courtesy. And then a bit further than that, too.

If you’re going to say anything especially damning about the religion, it’s worth taking the time to clarify that you’re not seeking to disparage all individuals who follow it, because some people will still misunderstand you even then. Criticism of ideas can often look like bigotry and prejudice, particularly to people who aren’t really paying attention, and never in the history of our species has there been a shortage of those.

But these things can still be said, and sometimes it’s important that they are.

Am I repeating myself tiresomely yet? Hate all religion, love all the people. Same old story.

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There were some protests in London over the weekend, in which large numbers of people took to the streets to express their disapproval with some of the government’s policies.

You might have some less vague things to say about them yourself, if you’re better at assessing information than I am.

The protests – as is generally the case with everything up to and including live kitten transplants – have won support from some corners and criticism from others.

People’s analysis of the protests themselves has tended to correlate, in my amateur reckoning, with their opinions on the politics behind it. That is, people who hate the government generally find the reports and analyses which support the protestors’ effectiveness and moral superiority to be persuasive and well argued. And people who think the government shouldn’t have to put up with all this entitled whining while attempting to fix the country’s problems tend to be most convinced by reports which discredit the protestors’ credibility.

Which is something I could feel jolly smug about until I remembered that obviously I do exactly the same thing.

The lowest estimate I’ve seen for the number of people attending the protests has been 200,000. The highest estimate for the number of “anarchists” who deliberately caused violence and destruction is 500. Based on these, the proportion of the protestors who were being peaceful and reasonable and keeping within the law was at least 99.75%. Some media reports are accused of giving too much focus to the violent minority, as if the occasional small pocket of destruction was representative of the march as a whole. No doubt this sizeable group did have its violent thug contingent, but spend a moment trying to imagine what 200,000-500,000 people charging through central London would look like if they were all bent on property destruction and vandalism. I imagine it would be a bit more noticeable than a few broken windows.

I don’t have an estimate for what percentage of the police in the city were acting with similar benevolent calm to the majority of the crowd, but some members of UK Uncut claim that police lied about directing them towards safety and then arrested them when they were trying to leave peacefully.

This decidedly gets my anti-authoritarian hackles up. But there are numerous details I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Nobody was everywhere in this crowd of hundreds of thousands of people. And posts like this go some way toward quelling my “Fuck the Police” inclinations.

At one point it was claimed by some that light-bulbs filled with ammonia were being thrown at police. It was later asked by others how you fill a light-bulb with ammonia, and whether there’s any reason to believe it actually happened. I have no idea how true this claim was.

And there’s plenty of scope for propaganda on the other side, too. I think it’s only a rumour, but a popular one, that people in the crowd were approached by certain news organisations and offered money if they would throw a brick. I’m cynical enough myself to admit that it’s possible that someone might try that as a way of stirring up some more exciting footage, but it’s also the kind of thing which, if you’re part of a large crowd, it’s very easy to just say happened to you without having to back it up. It might even seem like a pretty harmless rumour to spread, if you want to discredit the news reports which, anyway, are totally misrepresenting your cause.

Laurie Penny was in the midst of it somewhere, and reports a largely non-violent demonstration, often being shoved around and mistreated by the police. At one point, she describes how “both sides begin to panic”, and I imagine that’s true. It takes a certain courage to stand up for what you feel is important in the face of possible arrest and incarceration… but it’s also got to be pretty scary staring a thousands-strong angry mob full in the face when you know that you’re the ones supposed to be in charge of keeping things under control, and that you’re hugely outnumbered.

Charon QC has some thoughts on Laurie Penny’s position on political violence. I’m not especially fond of the tone in which he describes “celebrity tweeters” (scare italics his), and the way he asked for a clarification of her position didn’t indicate much respect for it, and seemed to imply that his own mind was more or less made up.

Still, it does merit further questioning if she’s going to ambiguously tweet her support of certain forms of political “violence”. There might be a reasonable point buried in there which she could explain, but it’s important to be very specific about what you’re saying when endorsing any “violence” in the middle of a discussion about banks and shops having bricks thrown through their windows.

Incidentally, Charon QC is curiously incredulous at Laurie Penny’s suggestion that “smashing a window is not the same thing as violence”, and is prompted by this to doubt whether she is a “sensible journalist”. Except she’s quite obviously right. The two things are not equal at all. There are many ways to be violent without smashing a window, and it’s quite possible to smash a window without being particularly violent – as a necessary part of refurbishing your own house, for instance. He goes on to assert that “Violence is against the law… and it should be… in all its forms”. This would be rather dismaying news to the professional boxers, wrestlers, martial arts competitors, and movie stunt-men of the world.

Hey, it definitely felt like I was having an opinion by the end there. I was being more sarcastic, which is usually a good sign that I’m starting to feel like I know what I’m talking about. I hope this doesn’t mean I’ve chosen my side in this battle, though. That sounds dangerous.

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This is one of those times where I’m siding with the anti-gay Christians.

And not even grudgingly, like when your commitment to free speech and intellectual honesty means you sort of have to accept the Westboro Baptist Church’s right to picket military funerals, however much it might pain you to let them to be so hateful.

This time, I don’t think I’m on the side of the gay rights campaigners at all.

Exodus International, a Christian ministry seeking to “address the issue of homosexuality” in a Jesustastic way, have released an iPhone app. It looks like it does mostly the same thing as their website, but in appy form. I don’t have a smartphone and don’t really get the apps thing, but maybe that makes sense to someone.

According to TG Daily, the app is “aimed at ‘curing’ homosexuals by telling them God disapproves”. So, they’re not exactly using ground-breaking levels of techno-wizardry to stomp out the gay.

Anyway, gay rights groups are protesting, and over 80,000 people have signed a petition to have the app removed from Apple’s online store.

And I can certainly see why people object to it. I mean, they’re a conservative Christian anti-gay organisation, and fuck that noise. But since when is banning the message from an entire format of communication a progressive and compassionate way to respond?

As Exodus International have been repeatedly pointing out themselves, the app is only available to people who voluntarily download it from the store and choose to keep it on their phone and actively use it. Nobody needs to do any of those things if they don’t like its message. (Unless that’s actually not how it works, and I don’t understand apps even more than I don’t think I do.)

Whenever something’s going on which the conservative Christians don’t like, our usual response is to just tell them to change the channel. Why would a similar point not apply here? Pat Robertson’s said some appalling things on TV, but I wouldn’t want him banned from ever expressing himself through the form of electromagnetic radiation.

And there’s been a big hoo-hah over Steve Jobs blocking porn on the iPhone in the past. I don’t know how much crossover there is between people condemning this move as dictatorial suppression of free speech, and those demanding that offensive ex-gay apps be cracked down on, but I suspect there’s at least some overlap.

Obviously there are concerns with the impact that this kind of Christian anti-gay rhetoric will have on gay people, particularly young gay people, and I don’t want them to have to put up with a constant barrage of accusations that they’re unnatural and ought to change any more than you do. But then let’s get something else for them to hear on the other side of the conversation as well. There are plenty of gay iPhone apps, and there’s nothing to stop you making your own, if you’re technically minded enough. Maybe one which just tells people they’re fabulous once in a while. Or quotes Bible passages about love and tolerance, and ties it in to sexuality.

I’m no more in favour of the underlying philosophy behind the whole “ex-gay” thing than anyone else. But I don’t think I get to choose what is and isn’t a permissible idea to express, if I’m in favour of smartphone apps being an open marketplace of ideas. I can’t have my porn and eat it too.

…Wait, maybe I can. BRB, making a cake shaped like a penis.

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It’s a popular Christian assertion. Atheists know they’re wrong about God, they just don’t want to admit it.

Makes perfect sense. If you knew there was an all-powerful, all-knowing deity who was going to judge you for eternity based on whether or not you accepted his authority, the obvious thing to do would be to piss him off by feigning ignorance. Sounds like the smart move to me.

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You know that hideously embarrassing English libel law we’ve been trying to get changed, so that it has a slightly greater fighting chance of actually representing some semblance of justice?

Well, some people have been working on that.

In particular, a draft libel reform bill was published by the government today (PDF link). This will be discussed in parliament, and if all goes well then something like it will pass into law before too long, through methods too arcane and mystical to elaborate on any further here.

David Allen Green’s initial thoughts on the draft bill are encouraging. It’s still just another step on a long road, but a number of the suggestions made by the libel reform campaign are being taken seriously.

And, because I’m not really in the mood for being creative or evocative about legal arguments right now, let’s talk about sex.

You should really be reading The Pervocracy, unless sex just doesn’t interest you, or there’s someone in your life who monitors your internet habits closely and has no sense of fun. This latest post is another good one, about the inherent ambiguity in talking about sex while refusing to actually talk about sex:

You can’t be afraid to ask for what you really mean, and you also can’t be afraid to agree to what you really mean. People who agree to the platinum record, tee hee, nudge nudge, but balk at the explicit mention of sex, but really do want to have sex, are also a big part of the problem here. In a world where saying you want to have sex is a taboo that makes men creepy and women slutty, people have to speak in oblique hints – and not everyone can take a hint.

For reference, anyone who wants to have sex with me should stick with the oblique hints, but make sure they consist primarily of R Kelly lyrics. It’s the only language I understand.

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Okay, so that’s not all you’re getting from me tonight. I also posted a video earlier, about the Nightingale Collaboration:

Give it a thumbs-up or a favourite or something if you think it’s worth my doing more of these.

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Today is Albert Einstein’s birthday, and also Pi Day.

But that link’s currently broken, so maybe you should just listen to pi in musical form instead.

Except, The Tau Manifesto makes a pretty good case.

And anyway, I’m English. We don’t write today’s date as 3/14. Technically my Pi Day should wait until the 31st April. (Or, as @thornae pointed out earlier, the 3rd of Decembruary.)

I’ve got a headache, so that’s all you’re getting from me for now.

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I told you yesterday I was having trouble keeping up the earnestness.

It all seems barely less terrible in that part of the world than it was yesterday, but there are other petty things worth getting annoyed about, in between just feeling sad.

Ben Goldacre has pointed to an article in the Daily Mail which is dripping with even more bullshit than you’d expect.

It suggests that a “supermoon” – basically the moon being closer to us than it usually is – could have caused the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. And by describing this as “the latest natural disaster” of its kind, it seems to take it as read that the moon has already been wreaking havoc in numerous other ways.

“Astrologers” are credited with predicting that, in just over a week, the moon will be closer to Earth than it has been in years, and so its gravitational impact will be increased, causing “chaos”.

The first problem with this is fuck astrologers. Astronomers – the ones who actually do science instead of just making shit up – have kinda been on top of the moon’s perigees and apogees – that is, the times when it’s closest or farthest from Earth – for quite a while now. And yes, at the upcoming perigee it will be a smidge closer than it has been for a few years, but not by much. It’s less than half a percent closer than it was in the February perigee, and it’ll be a while before it’s that close again.

The second problem is that this upcoming perigee is due on March 19th. Saying the extra gravity could have caused disasters on Earth in the past few days is like saying “Hey, better watch out for werewolves, it’s only a week and a half till the full moon!” It was at its apogee – the furthest point – less than a week ago. That means the moon was further away from us than usual when the earthquake hit.

All credit to Phil Plait for explaining all this to me so that I can re-explain it all to you. As well as for putting up some repetitive and monumental stupid in his comments thread.

But what’s even more hilarious and/or murderously infuriating is that the Daily Mail posted another article, TWO DAYS previously, which describes “bizarre rumours” about a supermoon triggering “tidal waves, volcanic eruptions and even earthquakes” being put about by “conspiracy theorists” and “lunar-tics” (which, by the way, isn’t even a pun, because that’s where the word ‘lunatic’ fucking comes from).

They actually apply some moderately competent skepticism further down that article, quoting actual scientists who do much to debunk the exact same bullshit that the same newspaper is quite happy to regurgitate barely 48 hours later once something scary happened.

Never mind that the moon isn’t at the perigee for more than a week, meaning it’s currently further away than usual, and so the earthquake in the pacific isn’t what the astrologers predicted at all. Come yesterday’s scare-mongering, all the science gets relegated to way down the page, below the picture, where they know most people probably won’t look. And the last word goes to the “small and vocal minority” who are daring to defy the stodgy old scientists by believing whatever fantasies they want.

Donations are still needed and appreciated at the Red Cross and Save The Children.

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If you have nowhere to turn but me, to be informed about shit that’s going down in Japan right now, or how to donate and help the thousands of people who are having their lives fucked up and homes destroyed, then you have problems that go beyond my capacity to assist you.

Having said that, the latest update from the British Red Cross as I post this is that they currently “cannot accept donations specifically for Japan”, until they’ve been formally asked for international donations by the Japanese Red Cross. The American Red Cross seems to be able to do more, though, and are accepting donations for all those affected by the earthquake and tsunami. And if you find other legitimate organisations seeking funding to help people, knock yourselves out.

The hashtag #prayforjapan has been trending on Twitter all day. The fundamental feeling behind it, of compassion for others on witnessing their suffering, is unquestionably a good one, and I don’t doubt that the majority of those tweeting it also understand the importance of taking action beyond simply asking for divine help.

But, as well-meaning as it might be, and as important the compassion, it’s worth re-emphasising that praying’s not enough.

Any god who can do anything to help in response to your prayers either couldn’t stop this disaster from happening, couldn’t be bothered, or deemed it a just and righteous expression of his wrath. Either way, this was not his finest hour.

Although, this one thing doesn’t prove that there is no loving god, any more than was already obvious.

Whatever. Let’s make this one of those days where we don’t get bogged down in all that. Let’s make this a day where decide to be the kind of people who see this happening and think: fuck it, I can spare something to help.

I am really uncomfortable being this earnest for this long. I’m having to struggle not to title this post “Japandemonium!” or something shit and wacky like that.

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