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I haven’t live-tweeted a consciousness-stream of pseudo-philosophical bollocks from the bath in a while. But I did read this article while taking a soak yesterday, and although I kept my pseudo-philosophical bollocks to myself at the time, it irritated me enough to come back to.

Richard Dawkins is being sued for $58 million. The plaintiff claims to be “the only individual on earth in the history of man that has scientifically disproven Evolution”, and reckons that comments Dawkins made in 1989 were a clear and insulting reference to a book this guy published in 2013.

Furthermore, he wants Dawkins to publicly apologize and destroy “by fire or shredding” every publication that includes the statement. So every copy of a New York Times from 1989.

Which is obviously ludicrous, but that’s not even a slightly interesting observation. Creationism is ludicrous, but it’s not utterly incomprehensible. It’s not usually that hard to understand basically what’s going on in the head of someone who believes God created the universe not that long ago. They’re still living in the real world in various important ways, which this guy suing Richard Dawkins emphatically is not.

I mean, look at what he’s saying. Think about how far removed you’d have to be from reality as we know it, to embark on a lawsuit like this. The list of things you have to mistakenly believe – the mountain of basic ideas about how the world works you’d have to fail to understand – in order to act as though a sweeping generalisation made in 1989 was a personal attack on you and your book published in 2013, and that demanding all copies of a decades-old magazine be rounded up and eliminated is a form of redress that could ever possibly be either meaningful or productive – is more than I can get my head around.

This person’s relationship with reality, as far as I can tell, is beyond anything I can conceive of as part of the human experience. I’m not going to start making diagnoses of mental illness over the internet, but you can understand why I’d be tempted.

And this guy’s approach to the world is just as alien to creationists. He is not representative of anyone. He is not further evidence that those kooky god-botherers are all nuts. Most of the folk who agree with him entirely on the matter of evolutionary theory are totally on your side about what a bizarre way this is to try to sue somebody. You remember how your everyday creationists aren’t playing anything like the same game as this guy, right? Most Americans are creationists. Most Americans are not this guy. We’d notice if 60% of a global superpower was this off the page.

But what bugged the hell out of me about this story was something Dawkins’ lawyers said. Now obviously I have no legal qualifications or understanding of anything, and I’ve no idea about the specific details of this case. I’m entirely ignorant of the extent to which it’s important to frame an argument this way or how much they consulted with Dawkins over the precise wording of how they described his intentions. No doubt there are many good reasons that the highly paid experts in their field didn’t act quite how I would have done.

But here’s what Dawkins said in 1989 that’s caused this belated kerfuffle:

It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

And here’s how these words have been explained by his legal defenders:

It is hyperbole meant to make a point. It does not rise to a level beyond what is decent and tolerable in a civilized society.

They deny elsewhere that he was stating a “fact”, and seem to explain his assertion in terms of rhetoric, as if he’d been obviously exaggerating just to make a stronger point.

But… isn’t it clear that Dawkins meant exactly what he said? The scientific conclusion about the obvious fact of evolution is clear, to the extent that anyone who claims to deny or reject it must be doing so through one of the obvious faults he lists.

This seems to hold up to me. To take his options in a different order, if someone doesn’t accept evolution…

…perhaps they’re evil, and lying about it for some nefarious purpose…

– they might be “insane” for some value of such, and simply be unable to build up a coherent picture of the universe which can contain even obvious truths, due to some badly faulty wiring…

– they might be stupid, which is no doubt the case for many folk who fail to grasp a relatively straightforward concept, or who have some obvious blocks or prejudices that stop them from getting it…

– or, maybe, they just don’t know what they’re talking about.

And that last one’s really the crux of this. “Ignorant” may sound like just an insult, and if you just bristle at it and don’t examine further, you may read Dawkins’s claim as amounting to “only dumb-asses don’t agree with me”. But if you understand it to be pointing out that people who reject evolution simply lack knowledge or understanding, which is all “ignorant” really means, doesn’t that accurately describe them pretty well? How many creationists have you seen convincingly pass an ideological Turing test, and demonstrate that they actually know what it is they’re sure they don’t believe in?

This isn’t to say that providing the information they lack will fix their ignorance – if only anything about human psychology were so straight-forward – but I genuinely think Dawkins had covered all the bases with his original statement, and that it should be read as a literal statement of fact. A statement of fact with room for clarification, certainly, about the use of “ignorant”, and how noting somebody’s lack of knowledge can be a sympathetic judgment, not a harsh and dismissive one. But absolutely a statement of fact.

Maybe there’s some legally useful value to claiming it as “hyperbole”, and to deny that a sizeable demographic were being labelled ignorant or stupid by Dawkins’s comments. Maybe a crucial legal point that will affect how quickly the case can be dismissed rides on it being read that way. But I think it misses a fundamental point about just how settled the science of evolution is. And it’s a real indictment of the state of free speech law, if a frivolous $58 million case can really depend on such an interpretation.

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A year after the first confirmed outbreak, progress is being made in the Ebola crisis in west Africa. The situation’s far from perfect, but the news is tentatively good.

So I hope you’ll all join me in a hearty chorus of “Thank you, Bob Geldof!”

You may have noticed he re-re-recorded that song even he thinks is terrible against last year, with another new crowd of young poptastic faces helping to raise lots of money to fix another foreign country where everything’s terrible. It sold well, probably, and pooled some cash that made some sort of a difference to people trying to fight a horrible disease, I imagine.

But I think I may have figured out what it is about his recurring Band Aid obsession that makes him so irritating:

The whole thing is classic Gryffindor.

The whole purpose of the narrative is to put him on display as the Hero who boldly leaps into action to save someone in distress. And when you’re the Hero, there are certain things the narrative requires you to do, like Stick To Your Guns, and Stand Up For The Victim, and other things that perpetuate an idea of black-and-white morality and can best be achieved through posturing. Little things like critical scientific analysis of your methodology don’t fit with the model at all.

I’m not sure if Geldof’s ever heard of effective altruism, but there’s none of it present in his obsession with re-treading old ground over and over again, and I suspect he’d dismiss it as something for smart-arse tossers to feel high-and-mighty about while people like him are out there actually doing the work and raising the money.

It’s an unfair characterisation, I don’t know the man nearly well enough to guess how he might respond to new ideas, but frankly given how little curiosity he displays for improving or reassessing his methods he deserves no benefit of the doubt.

His narrative requires that buying the song is the way you show that you care about diseased Africans, whether or not you like it, as if buying a single on iTunes for 99p as many times as it takes was a remotely efficient way to contribute financially to an international relief effort.

Being a Gryffindor, Geldof jumps at the chance to be selfless and self-sacrificing in pursuit of the greater good, in a way that just so happens to make him look dashing and noble, and it wouldn’t occur to him that maybe a genuinely selfless path wouldn’t put him at the focal point, or that helping other people might leave his ego bruised or ignored rather than elevated. After all, if he doesn’t get to take a messianic role, how can he be saving everyone?

Meanwhile the Hufflepuffs of the world are buying the single in their hundreds of thousands, because they’re kind and decent people who are presented with an easy way they can make some sort of difference. They were also texting their donations a few months before, to an appeal for funds that would improve the medical infrastructure in countries preparing for an outbreak like this, but before such an outbreak gets out of control, at a point when much more harm reduction can be achieved and lives saved at a much smaller expense.

The Ravenclaws have been working on these improvements to infrastructure for a while, but haven’t really gained much serious traction with the public because the Gryffindors keep distracting their potential supporters with grand heroic gestures that end up hurting the cause more than they help.

I’m not sure what Slytherin are up to. I’ve never had a good grip on how that lot think. Patenting an Ebola vaccine?

But however the hat sorted you, don’t let fucking Bob Geldof lecture you on where your ethical responsibilities lie with regard to charitable giving. Try to give more of a shit about the practical end result of a suggested action than how much feel-good cheerleading you get to do about it. Consider donating directly to organisations you know will do real good. Read some folk who live and work in Africa telling Bob Geldof to fuck off, though far more eloquently than you’ll get from me. Cross your fingers we don’t hear another celebrity chorus later this year asking whether they know it’s Christmas in Nepal.

Happy Christmas. War is over.

Or something.

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Well, to paraphrase a recurring Twitter joke that’s usually about Baz Luhrmann or Wes Anderson or someone: I see Charlie Brooker’s made his bleak dystopian satire again.

The thing about Black Mirror, which recently aired a one-off Christmas special, is the same thing that’s always the thing about Black Mirror. It’s really worth watching, it’s generally frustratingly unsatisfying, and it’s sufficiently engaging that it’s prompted me to pour more words into a blogpost about it than any other subject in months.

The way the show presents its ideas is always gorgeously realised, with glorious production values, beautiful sets, fantastic performances, and all that jazz. It suckers you into its shiny world, but there’s not much substance beneath all the pretty and highly watchable gloss. To someone even moderately sci-fi literate, the ideas themselves often aren’t especially revolutionary, or original, or insightful – and the way it takes its time over them makes it seem as if it’s more proud of itself on this score than it really deserves.

It consistently hits “quite fun” levels, but seems to be expecting my mind to be blown. Which is really distracting, and leaves me wondering what could be done if such effort and skill that’s clearly been put into the production could be applied to some really bold, creative, intense sci-fi ideas.

Or at least some sci-fi ideas which aren’t basically always stories about stupid people who are deplorably, unforgivably shit at dealing with their (often self-inflicted and entirely avoidable) problems.

See, I don’t doubt there are things which speculative fiction is well placed to address, regarding humanity’s tendency to be unforgivably shit at dealing with their problems. We are a species with no shortness of innate shitness at all kinds of things, after all. But the lesson I tend to draw from Black Mirror is “you can avoid this terrible fate if you somehow find it in yourself to be fractionally less shit than these complete incompetents”, which doesn’t take long to learn and doesn’t particularly expand my mind in the way good sci-fi can.

In many ways, this show about how technology impacts our lives is much more about the lives than about the technology. It’s not exactly a deep insight to say that the science parts of science-fiction are often primarily a device for talking about universally recognisable aspects of human nature and its flaws. But when seen this way, both the technological dystopias of Black Mirror, and the dark corners of humanity they reveal, are disappointingly unsophisticated.

The bits of the show that work best for me – and thus, by extension, the bits which are the best in objective and unquestionable truth – are the opposite of the bits that are most clearly intended to be powerfully bleak and viscerally horrifying.

Spoilers for White Christmas to follow, because it’s the one I can remember most clearly to cite as a useful example:

People being tortured or simply imprisoned in those cookie things is a genuinely chilling idea. For all that I’m bitching a lot about this show, when it has a thing it wants you to look at, it does a fine job of showing it off, and you definitely felt how sinister that notion was. What’s happening in the story is seriously creepy, and if seeing it proposed as something which could really happen doesn’t deeply unnerve you then you’re thinking about it wrong.

But it gets stopped short of being genuinely insomnia-inducing. In part, the effect is muted by the nature of the proximate cause of the nightmare: namely, the active and direct malice of Jon Hamm’s character (and later of the police officer casually ramping up the torment beyond anything experienced by a single individual in human history). Both the characters we see being tortured in a digital prison are having this punishment deliberately inflicted on them.

That’s fine as far as it goes: Person A really wanted Person B to experience great suffering, and made it happen. On an individual basis, that’s horrible, and scary, but it’s not exactly new. The scale of it that’s enabled by the technology is impressive, but still not unprecedented.

But while it’s certainly believable that this kind of cruelty could take place, I don’t think it identifies a broader human failing that our species as a whole should be worried about. In both instances in the show, this kind of cruelty seems to have been institutionalised into a system in widespread use. Torturing a replica of yourself into acting as some kind of household organiser seems to have become mundane and everyday. Given how much straightforward evil that would require of basically everyone who accepts this system, I don’t see it as likely that we’re going to backslide that far into that level of callousness. (Recent poll results on the support for torture as an interrogation tactic by the CIA among the American public makes me think twice on this one, but it still doesn’t feel authentic, as a path we might be in danger of going down.)

I could’ve sworn I remembered the title Black Mirror as being a classical literary reference of some sort, describing a reflection of the dark side of humanity and making us face the blackness that stares back when we look at ourselves, or something. Apparently I made all that up and it just means computer screens. But even so, the resonance that stories like these will have depends on how well they convince us that they do reflect something meaningful about us. It needs to feel representative of life as a whole, or of “the way the world works”. When a story doesn’t feel believable, it’s not necessarily that we think it defies the laws of physics and could literally never happen, but that it doesn’t fit with the stories we use to frame real life.

So, good guys win, because the world is basically fair, and good will win out in the end, really. Or, the good guys fail, because we live in a hopeless godless world that doesn’t care about us, in which the good guys won’t get what they want just because movies have always told them they will. Either way, the specific example in question is implying this broader set of conclusions about the way the world works.

With Black Mirror, there’s never a “happy” ending, and the conclusions it leads us to about the real world and human nature are always something dark and disturbing. This isn’t a problem in itself; as I say, there’s plenty that’s dark and disturbing about life and humanity that’s worth exploring. But it’s the part where the characters (and by extrapolation humans in general) are flat-out evil, bringing about our doom by deliberate malevolence, that doesn’t ring true.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. Almost no one is evil; almost everything is broken.

So much more harm has been brought about by well-meaning folk being badly organised, by good people getting stuck in harmful patterns of self-defence, by broken systems where nobody’s getting what they want but nobody’s incentivised to change anything, than by evil people simply wishing evil things. And the former has more gut-wrenching horror lurking inside it, too. There doesn’t have to be some brilliantly dastardly mastermind plotting and scheming, derailing the universe’s plan for good people to be rewarded; people can just be human, and well-intentioned, and recognisably good in every important way, and still effect unimaginably terrible suffering. That’s a more relatable and frightening idea to explore, and rings far truer as a probable harbinger of actual future dystopian calamity.

There was a lesson in White Christmas which resonates more strongly with me, about faulty thinking regarding artificial intelligence, and a glimpse of the consequences of fucking that up as badly as we probably will – but that didn’t seem to be the pitfall the show was warning us about. The main message seemed to be the usual theme of technology’s potential to be used to cause suffering when it’s convenient for us, with our philosophically inadequate notions of consciousness tacked on as a chilling coda.

The really scary and horrific things done by humans, historically, have been much more down to social influences than technological ones. Any truly dark and nightmarish future will come from a far less easily predicted direction than that suggested by an entertaining, whimsically spooky TV show.

Merry Christmas.

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The thing about Transcendence is that it’s not in any way a film about artificial intelligence. It’s about being human, and being God, and the implications of our impossible quest for one given the unavoidable limitations of the other, or some such wank. It uses the trappings of AI as a framework for the storytelling but has about as much bearing on the actual path of interactive electronic simulation technology as Lawnmower Man. I might have enjoyed it more if I’d figured out that distinction earlier; there’s nothing wrong with telling that kind of story, or of telling stories that way. But I’d like to see a story about AI that’s actually about AI sometime. Outside of fanfic from some of the funner corners of the rationalist community.

What? Half-arsing something on your phone and then copying and pasting it from a Facebook update totalling counts as blogging. Well, self-plagiarism’s the best you’re getting for now, anyway. Moving house is still keeping me too discombobulated to get much writing done. My online handle’s a bigger lie than my old MySpace username, Extrovert McSmallpenis.

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So a lot of Republican politicians are hypocrites.

I forget what prompted me to bring that up. It’s the kind of self-evident truth I think it’s okay to just throw out there, and take it as a basic, axiomatic principle. Saying “citation needed” seems redundant over something so blandly obvious.

With some regularity, some Republican politician will do something pretty messed up in a tiresomely familiar way. One thing that often happens, while their fans are busily sweeping it under the rug or denying its importance, is that their detractors will point out how much of a fuss those same Republicans and their supporters would be making, if it had been a Democrat pulling this kind of shit.

The exact nature of the shit doesn’t matter. A governor buggering a bridge in revenge at a mayor. A committee on reckless spending blowing $10,000s on a cocaine and strippers party. You know, normal politician stuff.

And the whole “you’d be throwing a fit if the tables were turned” argument often looks pretty sound. Republicans grabbing any opportunity to score petty political points over the supposed misdeeds of their opponents? Once again, citation surplus to requirements. But people mostly seem to draw entirely the wrong conclusion from it.

Because the accusation tends to be hurled at the opposing team in exactly the kind of point-scoring tactic supposedly being decried. Not nearly enough blame is apportioned to the tribalistic party political system as a whole, in which we’re urged to pick a coloured hat to wear, fanatically join forces with anyone else wearing the same colour hat as us, and dedicate ourselves to proving the superiority of our particular colour of headwear. This last duty is generally engaged with more zeal than we end up applying to the job of representing the people, or doing anything to improve the world.

Observing that “Republican politicians suck and are hypocrites” is not especially challenging or interesting. Refining your observation to “Republican politicians, finding themselves quagmired in the system we’ve currently decided to use to make our decisions, are massively incentivised to rationalise ludicrous double-standards and to defend their base at the expense of any kind of logic or basic decency, if they want their careers to survive” is a slight improvement.

As soon as you identify as a Republican or a Democrat, you start veering toward these kind of defensive thought processes. You start giving your in-group the benefit of the doubt, and assuming the worst of the outsiders. You start filtering what information makes it through to your consciousness, until it becomes easy to believe that some bunch of assholes got together over there and decided just to be bad, you guys, not like us nice folk over here, who are very similarly entrenched on the other side of the battlezone but are good for totally legitimate reasons that don’t require any selective or motivated reasoning whatever I’m sure.

Once you pick a side, that’s the path you start going down. And it’s not because you’re a terrible person. You’re smart and witty and thoughtful and you look great, you’ve been working out, I can tell. It’s because this is how humans are hard-wired. There is no escaping these traps. The best we can do is to be consciously aware of them, and notice when they might unconsciously be swaying us.

Yeah, you’re right. Republicans probably would have gone crazy if a Democrat had pulled that kind of shit. That’s what you get when a species that’s been building these patterns of behaviour into our brain for millions of years insists on still living in tribes.

People are not generally the antagonists of their own narrative. Very rarely do you find a group genuinely comprised of self-identified baddies intent on committing foul villainy upon the land. Only one springs immediately to mind – and whatever you might like to think, the GOP is not Slytherin.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Why’d I have to pick the Republicans as the purported antagonists here? Isn’t that too easy and crowd-pleasing? Aren’t I giving away my own tribalistic biases there, as I denounce them in others?

2. So what’s the solution, if we don’t like the two-party system? Just add more tribes? Isn’t that just going to distribute the problem over a wider area?

3. Honestly though, can you think of anything to spend $10,000s of taxpayer money on that’s better than a cocaine and strippers party?

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Recently I experienced one of the shockingly few occasions, in my thirty years and change on this world, in which death wasn’t just an abstract concept for me to vaguely understand from an intellectual distance.

Our guinea pigs died a little over a week ago, and as such, this blog is now sadly mascotless.

A couple of years ago I wrote about the loss of Kirsty’s cat Bruno, in a post critically acclaimed and highly lauded by a wide audience of in-laws who’d known Bruno for years longer than I had and were also sad that he’d gone.

This isn’t a eulogy post for Higgs and Boson in the same way that that was for Bruno. But I wanted to write about a few things that I noticed, in the immediate aftermath of that time I wandered outside to give our furry friends some fresh water and grass, only to discover two motionless corpses.

1. I was surprised how bothered I was that they were dead.

I say “surprised” because this was undoubtedly a less significant and tragic moment than when my cat housemate died in 2011. This is true even though I’d only lived with him for his last couple of shaky months, while the pigs had been around for a few years.

I mean, guinea pigs? C’mon. Not to diminish anyone else’s attachment to their own furry rodents, but they’re a bit rubbish.

Higgs and Boson were squeaky idiots without a great deal of personality, lacking the brainpower to even conceptualise who I was in any meaningful way which might have let me delude myself that they cared about me. Not like cats. Cats are very good at forcing that delusion upon you, especially when they’re hungry.

Our pig-interest had drifted notably in recent months, anyway, especially since Pi came along and was way more interesting. We kept them fed and watered and safe from wild animal attacks, but we hadn’t had much socialising time with them lately. Aside from bringing them in to splash around in the bath while I was cleaning out their hutch a little while ago, we hadn’t really ventured very far above the base level of Maslow’s hierarchy of piggy needs. They were fluffy and cute, and a regular part of my life – just not a hugely important or stimulating one.

But for nearly a week, my mind kept wandering back to the fact that they were gone, and feeling horrible about it. Several times a day my face and throat would start doing that thing like when my wife sees a John Lewis advert or a lonely owl.

I’ve never actually lost anything that’s been as big a part of my life as they were. Which sounds ridiculous, but I think it’s true. Nothing else has been there so constantly and consistently – checking their water and food just about every day, letting them run about in the grass while their hutch gets cleaned out most weekends, making sure they’re tucked in safe every time the wind and the rain picked up – and then suddenly not been anywhere any more.

This was the first death of a pet that was really mine. Not like Bruno; I was just his fellow lodger for a couple of months. But I went with Kirsty to pick Higgs and Boson out from the pet shop. And I dug a hole to bury them in at the bottom of the garden.

2. I think the pigs have kinda acted as a proxy for something I’ve had very little experience of having to face directly.

There’s something ideologically offensive about the idea of something, which once was, just suddenly ending like that. The guinea pigs turning up dead has been a reminder that this is something which can just happen, out of nowhere, to me and to things in my life. Even if pigs rank pretty low on the heartbreak scale, I’m going to lose things I love.

I didn’t so much miss them and want them back – they’re guinea pigs, there’s not a lot to miss – but I wanted this whole thing not to have happened. And let’s be honest: I wanted it not to have happened to me. It was a selfish feeling, more than something based on real sympathy for the pigs’ own plight.

It makes everything feels less certain and stable, in a way that I’m pretty sure you’re meant to figure out when you’re about six, but which I seem to have missed.

3. Often, your physical response determines your emotions more than the other way around.

The phrase to Google if you want to find out the fascinating story here seems to be “misattribution of arousal“. Basically, various physiological states such as fear and excitement have a lot in common, as far as what’s going on in terms of your body chemistry – and whether you’re frightened or excited in any given moment is, to a surprising extent, something your brain can just decide for itself, rather than being entirely determined by the situation you’re in.

This is why horror movies and roller coasters are good first date ideas. The actual reason someone’s pulse is racing might be because they’re being flung through the air, or screaming at an actress not to go outside alone because she’s going to get eviscerated – but on some level, all they know is that they’re sat next to you, and they’re manifesting all the same physical symptoms of romantic interest and excitement, so they unconsciously make up a story to explain why you appear to get them all hot and bothered.

I’ve been able to watch something similar happening to my own emotions. When I was back at work a couple of days after burying the pigs (it was a long bank holiday weekend, I didn’t take compassionate leave), there were a couple of moments when I walked briskly across the office, sat down, felt a bit out of breath (because I walk fast and my body is a frail bundle of out-of-shape twigs) – and suddenly felt sad about them again.

The natural assumption, if I were still labouring under the common misconception that I have any innate understanding of my own thoughts and feelings, would be that my grief sometimes causes me to feel physically lethargic and run-down. What’s actually happening far more often is that, after some minor physical exhaustion, my brain notices that slight feeling of sagging due to being a bit puffed, and decides after the fact that I must be feeling sad about the pigs, so it conjures up some appropriate emotions to suit my physical state.

Sometimes, I’m not crying because I feel sad; I feel sad because I’m crying. This is a ridiculous way for a conscious mind to arrange things. But it’s also seriously empowering to know that, if your mood’s kinda low, maybe you just haven’t stood up straight, adopted a Superman pose, and forced a smile in too long – and that such easy fixes can really make a big difference.

4. I gave blood again last week.

It was my fifth time, and it’s still an important, easy, wonderful thing that you can probably do too. It hurts less than banging your toe on a door, which I’ve also done this week, only this way you save lives and you get a free biscuit.

And although that’s still all true, and I believe and stand by my usual spiel as much as ever… I believe it as an idea, on an intellectual level, at a remove from what it means.

When I exhort you to find a blood donation centre near you, and go along sometime to chat about your suitability to donate with some wonderfully professional and friendly nurses, and let them look after you every step of the way while you stop people from dying, just by having a bit of a lie down and then a snack… I’m not really feeling the emotional impact of what I’m talking about.

I absolutely mean every word. Giving blood is good, saving lives is wonderful, and people are important. I’ve been sad, and I’ve missed people, and there are people in my life who I really don’t want to die.

But these two guinea pigs are about the greatest loss I’ve ever actually had to personally deal with.

What it’s actually like – the actual sensations, the qualia, the damnable phenomena and experiences we’re trying to prevent, the aching hollowness, the bewildering sense of loss and being lost, the disorientation of stumbling on a missing stair… that’s all still new to me. It shouldn’t be, for someone my age, given the inevitability of having to face it, and the lack of notice with which it may come. But there it is.

And if it scales up proportionately – from unremarkable whiffly balls of hair who it’s been quite nice to have around, up to, like, people, with brains full of personalities and agency and hopes and clichés and all the rest – then holy crap. Death sucks.

Yep. That’s why you come here. For the frequent updates, and for the profound and original insights into the human condition.

That’ll do, pigs. That’ll do.

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I don’t like to say “atheist” because I feel like atheists have that same chip on their shoulder that people who feel like their religion is the only right thing have. It’s to know something, to think you know something definitively that, I feel, we as mere mortal humans can’t possibly know. I think it’s just as obnoxious.

Sarah Silverman is right. Atheists are totally obnoxious.

You know who’s especially bad though? Anyone who refuses point-blank to even consider sacrificing their only child on the altar of an unknowable deity. I mean, it’s probably not something I’d do myself – in fact, murdering children because of religious beliefs is something of a bugbear of mine – but the people who claim to know with absolute certainty that it’s wrong? They can be equally annoying.

Also, does anyone else get a little freaked out when chemists keep talking about carbon and calcium and aluminium and so forth, and just presume that those are all actual things? They seem pretty damn sure about that big table with all those elements on it, don’t they? I’m not saying that whole “air, earth, fire, water” thing didn’t have its problems, or couldn’t use some updating, but the extent to which some modern extremists so totally dismiss it in favour of their new paradigm doesn’t sit right with me.

And hey, here’s another bunch who wind me up: heliocentrists. Not all of them, by any means, just the hardcore contingent who put me off wanting to identify with the term myself. Sure, I go along with the claim that the Sun’s at the centre of the solar system with the Earth revolving around it, but is it so hard to even admit that it might be the other way around? That maybe this infinite and incomprehensible universe is stranger than we mere mortal humans can comprehend? The arrogance with which some people just tell flat-earthers that they’re “flat-out” wrong really grates on my nerves.

As if that kind of certainty were really possible within the limits of our human perception. It just comes across as narrow-minded.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Can you think of any other completely one-sided debates where it might be fun to occupy a smug middle ground?

2. How reasonable might it actually be that some people have come to this sort of conclusion about atheists?

3. Is this webcomic ever going to stop being relevant?

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