Archive for October, 2011

For something that involves so much lying down and making sympathetic faces, looking after a girlfriend with glandular fever can be surprisingly tiring and time-consuming.

So, apologies that I’m still not very present here. However, although I’m not going to comment at length about Sally Morgan today, it’s worth mentioning that Simon Singh is one hell of a gentleman badass.

Is that a thing people say? That should totally be a thing.

Of course Sally Morgan has every right to decline an invitation to any particular event at which certain of her detractors propose to “test” her, especially in a situation which has not been arranged with her and under circumstances with which she may not be familiar or comfortable. But the point Simon Singh and others are making is that she has by no means demonstrated the validity of the numerous grandiose claims she regularly makes, and in which many people become deeply emotionally invested. If she has any interest in the well-being of her fans, or in being intellectually honest, she should really be actively seeking some way to prove her abilities beyond a level which can be replicated by a practised charlatan.

She could also do with cultivating a slightly thicker skin for criticism, if she’s so inclined to send her lawyers after any prominent figure who may be disinclined to accept everything she says at face value.

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Or possibly, Rapture II: Die Rapturer.

Anyway. Tomorrow is Harold Camping’s second attempt to correctly predict the end of the world (this year). But it might surprise you to learn that his first attempt was, in fact, entirely successful.

It turns out that May 21st, when everyone was holding their breath and excitedly awaiting the abrupt end of all life on the planet, was actually an administrative deadline. It was the day when God finished dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, and filed the paperwork on Earth’s official liquidation. That’s why it looked deceptively like absolutely nothing happened. It was all going perfectly according to plan.

October 21st, though: that’s when the whole physical world “will be annihilated”. For realz. It won’t just be a behind-the-scenes, data-entry armageddon this time around. It’s the real deal. And if you didn’t get your eternal salvation logged and notarised at least five months ago, then boy are you in trouble at the Day of Judgment and Auditing.

Of course, Harold Camping’s not a particularly interesting or original character. Rationalising away your obvious mistakes, and fervently holding beliefs entirely unsupported by facts, aren’t even specific to religious people. And he’s old and tired, and isn’t going to want to make a major adjustment to his worldview at this stage in life, especially if he was loopy enough to become so committed to an obviously barmy idea like this in the first place.

But given how many people gave up their homes and livelihoods last time, on the word of one old man – and how many others make similarly inane sacrifices or acts of devotion based on equally imaginary Biblical prophesy, every day – it’s a pathology that can still be worth examining. It can be good to remind ourselves that this kind of ludicrous behaviour is something that people do. That’s not meant as a point of condemnation or despair of humanity, but an interest in the important subject of understanding ourselves.

Camping and his crowd are kooks, but we shouldn’t let their particular kookiness tempt us to “other” them too completely. They’re experiencing logic failures of the kind to which we’re all susceptible – and which it’s fascinating to attempt to understand, and develop techniques for avoiding.

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I wrote a whole post for tonight on some head-scratching moral analysing of questionable situations, then realised I’d been really boring.

So here’s another thing. I liked this quote from Dr Marty Klein in a recent post on abstinence-only education:

We know how we would describe a parent who’s uncomfortable about his own teeth, and therefore refuses to teach his kids about brushing, flossing, and soda. Imagine that this parent also prevents his kids from learning anything about oral hygiene, and forbids them from going to the dentist.

We’d call this parent neglectful. I’d add irresponsible and unforgiveable. And if this parent got in the way of my kid learning about toothpaste, I’d say he’s dangerous. That perfectly describes adults who desperately need to live in a world without teen sexuality – and selfishly fantasize that they can.

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So, here’s a thing.

Imagine there’s this privileged subset of society who are allowed to break into your home with impunity. Let’s call them the “overlords”.

There’d probably be certain rules about exactly when the overlords get to enter your premises against your will. But imagine too that, if some particular overlords broke these rules and tried to barge in anyway, there was nothing you could do to stop them.

You could try and get them punished later on, by reporting them to other overlords who you hope will be on your side, but it would still be illegal for you to make any attempt to prevent them from illegally breaking in.

You’re picturing it? There is a violently enforceable rule in place, which you didn’t agree to, saying that if an overlord invades your home, you may not do anything to resist them, even if the rules in place to restrict the overlords’ behaviour (and ostensibly to protect you) specifically say that they’re not allowed in.

Scary prospect, right?

Now replace “overlords” with “police officers“. Welcome to Indiana.

A decision earlier this year by the state’s Supreme Court said, in part:

We also find that allowing resistance unnecessarily escalates the level of violence and therefore the risk of injuries to all parties involved without preventing the arrest.

Right. Because the responsibility for not unnecessarily escalating the level of violence and risk of injuries should absolutely fall on the person resisting the illegal home invasion, not the people illegally breaking into someone’s home.

You know that thing about how you’re meant to get more right-wing as you get older? Fuck that.

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Here’s a video that’s kinda fun if you know what’s going on:



Maybe I should explain what’s going on.

Penn & Teller do a regular magic show in Las Vegas, several times a week, and have been doing so for years now. The show changes constantly, with some tricks being retired once they’ve had their time, and new ones being introduced. About a year ago, they started doing a trick where Teller escapes from a bag of helium.

At one point in the trick, for reasons perhaps best known to himself, Penn takes a photograph of the audience. The above video is a collage of all the photos of every Vegas audience they’ve played to, for the twelve months they’ve been doing this trick.

I saw this a couple of weeks ago, I think because Penn posted a link to it on Twitter. Like just about everyone in the comments thread, I wondered if I’d be able to see myself in there. I’ve never been to Vegas, but I saw P&T at the Hammersmith Apollo when they were briefly in London last October, and I’d seen it happen there. I watched the video, looking out for a different theatre appearing at some point near the beginning of the run.

After a little while, though, I thought to myself… Wait… Did I see them do the helium bag thing at the Hammersmith show?

I was definitely at one of their recent live shows at the Apollo. I’ve definitely heard Penn talk about the helium trick a lot, and I’ve definitely seen it on TV… but am I sure I’m not conflating these different events and remembering something which didn’t actually happen?

Going solely by my memory, I genuinely can’t tell.

At first glance, the memory of seeing the trick happen live, in a theatre, right in front of me, appears to reside in my brain. But I don’t feel like I can extrapolate from that to say that it definitely happened.

One thing I can do, though, is to check some other sources, and measure those against what I seem to remember, to see how plausible it is. A quick check of this very blog finds me reporting on seeing the show last July, not October, so already I’m getting things wrong. And if it was July when I saw them, then surely that was before they’d finished working on the trick and had ever performed it publicly.

Furthermore, their Wikipedia page states:

The duo had hoped to put the trick in their mini-tour in London; however, it was first shown to the public in their Las Vegas show on 18 August 2010.

If that doesn’t count as proof positive that my brain is screwy, I don’t know what does. Your memory of what happened is just one piece of data among many when trying to determine the truth.

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My lovely nursey girlfriend’s gone and done a blog thing, about abortion and idiots. She rants good. Have a read.

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One thing that’s important to remember is that I’m a total wuss.

Okay, so in the spirit of combating the stigma surrounding mental health problems, maybe I should use less accusatory language, and not sound like I’m browbeating myself for my sporadic psychic troubles. But you know what I’m getting at. I often get myself into a needless fret over very minor woes, and become acutely and disproportionately distressed over seemingly small-scale problems. Things that shouldn’t really upset me sometimes do, and my intense awareness of how irrational my emotions are being just makes it worse.

I ought to grow a pair and stop being such a girl, in plain terms that a complete dickhead might use.

Anyway, this was relevant on one particular occasion recently, on the holiday I’m just back from. Kirsty was feeling a little under the weather, and after worrying over her and trying to make her feel better and generally making a nuisance of myself, I left her alone to sleep. And I went off and kept fretting.

She was just having a bit of an off-day, and felt kinda bleh. She wasn’t dying. She wasn’t being eaten from the inside by cancer or alien nanites. But I’d got myself all afluster over it, and now I was making myself feel nearly as bad, to no purpose whatever.

This isn’t really about me and my neuroses, though. What it’s about is that, while I was worrying and unable to turn my brain off, it occurred to me to pray for her.

I know, right?

I didn’t actually pray for my slightly ailing girlfriend, because, come on. But it’s something that I’m aware is a real, prominent option for a lot of people in similar situations, and it’s something they often find a lot of comfort in. And it’s an option that’s really not available to me.

I could have gone through the rigmarole anyway, of course, and maybe given myself a quick placebo hit of reassurance. It’s not dissimilar to what Alan Moore does with his religion, I guess, and it’s not like I’d be betraying any sacrosanct principles. But even if I could go some way toward hijacking my brain’s inner workings and trick it into feeling better in such a way, my capacity for self-delusion can only stretch so far. People who really believe in their god are always going to have something I don’t.

Now, of course, the fact that a belief has the capacity to provide comfort has no bearing on whether that belief is true. It’s certainly not worth any kind of intellectual trade-off, to let ourselves feel better at the expense of our critical faculties. And I’m well aware that the notion of an all-powerful god who allows such suffering as can be ascribed to him is far more terrifying than reassuring if you give it any measure of actual thought.

But, as is evident from a brief glance at many religious people, giving your beliefs a measure of actual thought is by no means obligatory. They’re comforted by their beliefs, millions of them, every day. As much as I find God’s non-existence immensely reassuring when I consider some of the alternatives, there are times when faith offers something, however superficial, which atheism and reason can’t quite match.

It’s worth remembering this, I think, because it’s worth remembering how much you’re asking someone to give up when you suggest that they abandon their faith. Although a lot of people report feeling liberation on leaving their religion, for others it can be a big, scary step which doesn’t seem to have much in it for them. Going without even the flimsy comforts of Christianity can be a big deal when somebody’s accustomed to being able to rely on them. Even a dedicated unbeliever can sort of miss it, now and again.

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Greetings, people of Earth. I am no longer in Scotland.

Posting is still going to be a bit irregular for a while, but there’s a lot to discuss when I find the time. Here’s Richard Dawkins talking about magic.



The title of his new book, The Magic Of Reality, is an excellent summation of an approach that deserves to be pushed more by skeptics, scientists, atheists, and reality-based thinkers generally. It’s an important myth to bust, that of the skeptic as the humourless spoiler of all things fun. We might insist on pointing out the non-existence of things which don’t exist, but there’s so much that’s really going on in the world, which is thrilling for all the same reasons.

In the above video, he’s discussing what he means by the word “magic”, by breaking it down into three separate categories of event to which the word usually refers. Because of how I’m such a wild and unrestrained free spirit, I’m going to characterise his point as outlined in the title of this post.

Harry Potter. Actual witches and wizards doing actual spells, subverting natural laws and invoking supernatural forces. This kind of magic doesn’t exist. (Boo, party-pooper, etc.) If it did, it would be fascinating – but mostly in the context of a rigorous scientific study of it. Everyone would be dying to know how it works. What are the factors that affect how the magic actually functions? Can certain potion ingredients be substituted while maintaining the effect? Do you get more power if you shout the magic words louder?

Fiction can explore hundreds of questions like this in fascinating detail, and weave wonderful worlds around such ideas. I don’t know of any skeptics who are against the idea of enjoying made-up stories. But they are made-up.

Paul Daniels. Tricks, conjuring, illusions. Stage magic. Rabbits out of hats, coins behind ears. It clearly exists, but only creates a façade of the Harry Potter kind of magic by means of deception. This can also be very entertaining and uncontroversial, so long as you don’t get the two kinds confused. You don’t have to believe that David Copperfield can really fly in order to have a good time being fooled.

Scotland. It might not seem obvious why I’m bringing this up for the third example. But have a look at this.

I’ve just spent a week on the Isle of Skye, looking at stuff like that.

Now, I’m sure you’re all worldly people. You’re more well travelled than me, and have no doubt basked personally in such glorious vistas that my holiday snaps seem dull and meagre. But I’d never been before, so let me revel a bit.

The point is, there are things in the world which can be experienced, and which are just amazing. Scotland is gorgeous, and you don’t need to sit through my slide show to remember or imagine views of the world that fill you with awe and which are worth trekking across the globe to experience.

That right there is the magic of reality.

And one of many reasons why it’s superior to Expecto Patronum is that there are extra layers of wonder beneath the experience itself. There are some views of nature which people almost universally find pleasing to look at – and science can tell us why.

With reality, you get to delve further and find out about things like the evolutionary pressures that have led our species to feel a sense of pleasure or comfort from the presence of bodies of water, which historically has been a positive sign for our survival. You get to find out so much about what’s going on in the magical world around you, and so much of it is truly extraordinary.

…This totally isn’t just a post about how amazing and life-changing my trip to a secluded and unblemished part of the countryside was. It’s totally not. I’m making a serious point here. Shut up.

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