Tuesday 31 July 2007

An experiment.

So, here's a scientific study purporting to show that Americans are self-centred. That's a new one.

Rugged American individualism could hinder our ability to understand other peoples' point of view, a new study suggests.

And in contrast, the researchers found that Chinese are more skilled at understanding other people's perspectives, possibly because they live in a more "collectivist" society.

Nice slipping-in of the word "possibly" there. What the researcher, Boaz Keysar, is saying is that his team have made an interesting discovery about the different behaviour of people from different cultures and have no idea what causes that difference, but, let's face it, it's probably that those bloody Americans are insufficiently Socialist, isn't it? The self-centred Capitalist bastards.

But has Keysar really made a particularly interesting discovery? Hmm.

The study, though oversimplified compared to real life, was instructive. Keysar and his colleagues arranged two blocks on a table so participants could see both. However, a piece of cardboard obstructed the view of one block so a "director," sitting across from the participant, could only see one block.

When the director asked 20 American participants (none of Asian descent) to move a block, most were confused as to which block to move and did not take into account the director's perspective. Even though they could have deduced that, from the director's seat, only one block was on the table.

Most of the 20 Chinese participants, however, were not confused by the hidden block and knew exactly which block the director was referring to. While following directions was relatively simple for the Chinese, it took Americans twice as long to move a block.

What is truly amazing about this result is that the only conclusion Keysar has been able to reach from his data is that Chinese are more empathetic than Americans.

What is not being considered here is the obvious fact that the participants were all well aware that the "director" was a part of the research team. If you just happen to find yourself in a room with some bloke, and he asks you to, say, hand him a book, and you can see two books but you can also see that he can only see one of them because there's a lamp or something in the way of the other, it doesn't take much deduction to figure out which one to give him. But if you know that he carefully set the room up before you arrived, that he positioned the books and the lamp, that he decided where you and he would sit in the room, and that he is testing you in some unspecified way, it's considerably less obvious: OK, you can see that he can only see one of the books, but you know full well that he knows about the other one and knows exactly where it is. And you know that these damn psychologists are testing your ability to do something or other — for all you know, it might be your ability to see or to do the non-obvious. In those circumstances, a failure to jump to conclusions would be, I'd've thought, a sign of intelligence — in fact, being slowed down by considering not only what the director can see but also what you think he probably knows would arguably be a sign of greater empathy, not less. Meanwhile, a quick reaction could simply indicate a fear of getting in serious trouble if you don't obey orders quickly enough — which would not be surprising in people used to living under a murderous dictatorship.

And then there's the wording:

the director asked [participants] to move a block

This is just some news report and could be inaccurate, but that wording kind of leaps out because it's so non-standard: "a block", not "the block". If the director really was using that wording, then that skews the experiment yet further, because we simply don't use the word "a" to describe single objects. If the director were genuinely only aware of the presence of one block, he'd say "the block"; saying "a block" would signal to the subject that he knows of at least two of them. This sort of subtlety might well not be noticed by Chinese people for whom English is not a first language. Or, if the experimenters spoke to their Chinese subjects in Chinese, we'd need to know how well that distinction between "the" and "a" translates into Chinese.

There is a brief glimmer of hope that Keysar is aware of his experiment's inadequacies:

"Of course, these are very gross oversimplifications," said Keysar.

No, really?

"Even in America, you can find collectivist societies. For example, working class people tend to be much more collective."

But no: it's not the experiment which is oversimplified; merely the idea that all Americans are selfish. Some are actually OK. And as an example, Keysar names a left-wing designated victim group. It's almost as if the guy has some other agenda or something.

Some of my best friends use the "Some of my best friends" argument.

As a rule, anyone who responds to an accusation of prejudice with any variation of "But some of my best friends are [insert victim group here]" is met with derision. But, though it can be easily shown not to be completely logically unassailable — Norm does so succinctly here — it surely does carry some weight. I mean, if I hated Poles, I'd avoid hanging out with them. Wouldn't you? And I'm sure they'd avoid me too.

Thinking about this the other day, it occurred to me that the some-of-my-best-friends argument is dismissed because it is misunderstood. It is not an all-purpose defense; it is generally used in a specific case.

Here's an example. Bill is gay. John isn't. John says something to Bill. Bill finds it offensive, and says so. Would John use the some-of-my-best-friends response here? Well, he might — never underestimate stupidity, ineloquence, and blind panic — but probably not: it doesn't make sense in such a case. If a gay man is standing in front of you, telling you that he is offended, it does no good to mention the existence of some of your gay friends. There is no reason for him to give a damn.

Now consider this one. Simon and Harry are both white. Simon says something that Harry considers to be racist towards black people, and Harry says so. Simon might well respond to Harry that he has lots of black friends — and it does make sense to do so. This is exactly the sort of situation where the some-of-my-best-friends argument usually occurs: when dealing with people who are offended on the behalf of others.

Considering that, it becomes clear that the some-of-my-best-friends argument is in fact a shorthand.

Some of my best friends are black

really means:

Some of my best friends, unlike you, are black, and I don't have to watch my mouth around them, and they, unlike you, don't think I'm a racist

or, more to the point:

You claim that what I say is deeply offensive to black people, but when I say it in front of actual real-life black people, they don't see it as a reason not to be my friend.

After all, the alternative simply makes no sense:

Some of my best friends are black, but I'm careful not to express my opinions in front of them 'cause if I did they'd hate me.

I think this much-scoffed-at argument may have a lot more weight than the scoffers realise.


This piece on terrorism by Bruce Schneier is very interesting — and deeply wrong in a great many ways. What I particularly wanted to comment on was this excellent example of Bush Derangement Syndrome:

Perversely, Bush's misinterpretation of terrorists' motives actually helps prevent them from achieving their goals.

It is endlessly interesting to me, the way in which the conviction shared by so many highly intelligent people that George Bush is stupid turns their intelligence off so effectively. Their absolute refusal to consider that he might ever achieve what he sets out to leads them to say things which are simply thick.

Let's, for the sake of argument, assume that everything else in Schneier's article is correct. Even then, wouldn't this make more sense?

Cunningly, Bush's misrepresentation of terrorists' motives helps prevent them from achieving their goals.

As for the rest of Schneier's argument — his conclusion is that terrorism doesn't work — most of his commenters have pointed out the flaws in his reasoning and assumptions, some at great length. Much as I'd love to join in, there's really no point, because this short and unfortunately anonymous comment cuts to the chase and blows the entire idea apart so beautifully concisely:

So if THE TERRORISTS take a deep breath, think it over and change their objective to KEEP the US in Iraq and continue bombing they will fail because terrorism doesn't work and the US will leave.



Thursday 26 July 2007


Jon points us towards yet another example of the welfare state getting it wrong. It has all the usual ingredients: the long-term unemployed being paid so handsomely for doing nothing that they continue to do it; being penalised by the state for working; people who actually work realising that those who don't are materially wealthier.... but we know all this. What's really interesting is the names chosen by this couple for their kids.

Carl and Samantha Gillespie have twelve children: five from Samantha's first marriage and another seven from their own. Well, probably. The Mail, bless 'em, aren't quite sure.

Former book-keeper Samantha, 35, had five children from a previous relationship when she married Carl, who used to work as a door-to-door salesman. ...

The couple then had seven of their own

But, further down the same article:

Paul and Samantha have eight children together and she has four from a previous relationship, making 12 in total.

Interesting. When Samantha's husband is calling himself Paul, her fifth child is his; when his name is Carl, it isn't. These people have an odd relationship.

Anyway, as I was saying before I got distracted by The Mail's world-class sub-editors, it's the Gillespies' kids names that are interesting.

I think we tend to suspect that, when a child gets given the sort of name that a five-year-old girl would give one of her dolls, it's the mother's doing. Calling children Tixie-Wixie, Snugglebunny, Twinkle-Toes, or Plumkin just doesn't scream "bloke". Well, not until now. Step forward, Carl (or maybe Paul) Gillespie.

Former book-keeper Samantha, 35, had five children from a previous relationship when she married Carl, who used to work as a door-to-door salesman. They are Craig, 16, Adam, 14, Jack, 13, Rebekah, 11, and Harry, nine.

Good names, them. Then Samantha married Carl. And just look what happened.

The couple then had seven of their own: twins Parris-Jordan and Kesla Blu, eight; twins Mason and Peaches, six; Logan, four, and the three-year-old twins Skye and Kalifornya.

So, the question is: Did Carl choose these names? Or is it that Samantha's first boyfriend put his foot down and refused to let her give his kids crap names? Come to think of it, maybe that's why they split up. I can just see Samantha storming out of the house, shouting "I want to call my daughter Kesla Blu, and I'm going to go and find a decent man who'll let me!"

Welcome to modern Britain.

Lateral thinking at Microsoft.

Mark Liberman at Language Log links to this interesting observation by Michael Kaplan of Microsoft about how to turn off the hated Office Assistant:

Have you tried being rude to him?

Apparently, type "God damn clippy" into the "What would you like to do" box, and ...

After telling Clippy this, the first item on the list explains how to change the Office Assistant,and the second item explains how to hide or show it.

Michael makes three observations:

An amazing number of people use this exact phrase;

There are reportedly many other expressions of negative Clippy feelings that will have the same effect on search in help;

There are disadvantages to a formal education that make this method of finding a solution less obvious.

That third observation is particularly interesting — but, like, I suspect, everyone else who read the piece, I decided to concentrate on the second one by firing up the Office Assistant and swearing profusely at the little bastard.

My research indicates that the Office Assistant recognises quite a bit of abuse: "Fuck off", "Sod off", and "Bugger off" all work, as does the word "arsehole" (you may need to combine these phrases with "Clippy" or "Assistant"). But my most interesting finding is what happens when you tell Clippy "Fuck you" in Word: the first template he offers you is "Thank-you for job interview". Genius.

And you get the same result for "I wish you were dead".

Tuesday 24 July 2007

Yet more cartoon-related kerfuffle.

I admit I hadn't heard anything about this Islamic Rage Boy nonsense till about ten minutes ago, but this quote from Buckley F Williams, one of the cartoon's creators, puts the whole thing — that's not just the Islamic-Rage-Boy thing, but the whole what's-the-problem-with-Islam thing — perfectly:

We're anti-Muslim-extremism, the loudest voice of the Muslim world right now, which would lead one to believe it is the dominant voice of the Muslim faith.

Believe me, we want to be proven wrong. It isn't as though we were sitting around at our monthly Ku Klux Klan meetings and drawing religions out of a hat to see who would become the object of our scorn and ridicule next.


Monday 23 July 2007

The worst floods in sixty years.

If you've just lost all your possessions and had to be winched to safety by the RAF, you might want to consider suing the Pagans for damages. It'd be great. The case should be easy enough to prove: they could mount an effective defense by claiming that their rain magic doesn't work, but what self-respecting religious nutter would do that?

Thursday 19 July 2007

Publicity and offense.

This story is just great on so many levels:

A giant outline of Homer Simpson brandishing a doughnut was enough to make even pagans go "D'oh".

In my ideal world, the job of a newspaper editor would be to remove that sort of writing. Not at The Mail. Anyway, if you've finished laughing uproariously, I'll continue.

Painted opposite famous fertility symbol, the Cerne Abbas giant, the idea had been to plug the new Simpsons movie due out later this month.

I do recommend you follow the link to see the picture. It's quite brilliant.

But instead the image has incited the wrath of British pagans who have now pledged to perform "rain magic" to rid their sacred site of its unwelcome guest.

Ring any bells? A religious group is throwing a tantrum over a cartoon, the poor dears. Thankfully, these nutters aren't threatening to cut off our heads, so we can just sit back and enjoy the spectacle of their batshit-crazy outrage without having to run for the hills or buy lots of Lurpak like last time.

Pagans, eh? A mysterious and ancient religion, predating the Roman invasion of Britain. They have obscure traditions and strange rituals whose origins are lost in the mists of time, and are presided over by the great spiritual leader ...

Ann Bryn-Evans, joint Wessex district manager for The Pagan Federation

Joint district manager? Of a federation? Jesus wept. Oh, sorry — er, someone wept. Maybe it was Herne. I don't know. Anyway.

Ann Bryn-Evans, joint Wessex district manager for The Pagan Federation, said: "It's very disrespectful and not at all aesthetically pleasing.

"We were hoping for some dry weather but I think I have changed my mind. We'll be doing some rain magic to bring the rain and wash it away."

Rain magic! Oo! That's the special Pagan magic where they somehow make it rain. In Britain! During the rainiest Summer in over a century! It's only because they're so deeply in harmony with Mother Earth that they can pull this sort of thing off, you know.

She added: "I'm amazed they got permission to do something so ridiculous. It's an area of scientific interest."

Yes, that's why Pagans object to someone ridiculing their religion: it's unscientific.

Anyway, what's really interesting here is that The Mail appear to have done their research properly, but have mysteriously glossed over its results.

The 17th century chalk outline of the naked, sexually aroused, club-wielding giant is believed by many to be a symbol of ancient spirituality.

That's a good sentence, that. If you weren't concentrating, you might not notice that it's "a symbol of ancient spirituality" rather than "an ancient symbol of spirituality" — an important distinction, because, like it says at the start of the sentence, the Cerne Abbas Giant is not actually ancient, as it only dates from the Seventeenth Century. Paganism wasn't big at the time. Britain had been a Christian country for over a thousand years.

Until only a few years ago, the figure was believed to be an Iron-age monument of some sort. But recent historical research has revealed that this is not the case: not only is the carving a mere four-hundred years old, but it is quite likely to be a satirical cartoon of Oliver Cromwell. Now, if I were a Pagan and I'd built up a load of beliefs and rituals around something that turned out to be a hoax and might well be a picture of a famous Christian, the last thing I'd want to do is draw attention to my (excuse the pun) cock-up. Not so British Pagans, it seems: their approach appears to be a quite staggering degree of disingenuity.

Catherine Hosen, who is the Wiltshire representative for The Pagan Federation ...

I wonder, is a representative more or less spiritually accomplished than a joint district manager? And do they get a special hat? Anyway.

Catherine Hosen, who is the Wiltshire representative for The Pagan Federation, said: "I find it quite shocking and very disrespectful.

"It's just a publicity stunt for a film and we are talking about a monument which is definitely of great historical significance and a lot of people feel has important spiritual significance as well."

Look at that: it's definitely of great historical significance, yes, and a lot of people feel that it's also of spiritual significance, and if I don't mention that the actual reason for its historical significance and the wished-for and now disproven reason for its spiritual significance are completely and utterly unrelated, you'll never notice, will you? It's a great bit of maneouvring: grudgingly concede that the thing's only four-hundred years old but claim that it is nevertheless a symbol of Iron-age beliefs. Of course, it is conceivable that a bunch of Seventeenth-century Pagans carved the figure in honour of their ancient beliefs, but it is unlikely that the local Christian church would then have started paying for its upkeep — which is where the earliest records of its existence come from. The Cerne Abbas Giant simply isn't Pagan.

So, to recap. The Cerne Abbas Giant is a cartoon. Another cartoon has been temporarily placed next to it. Pagans are outraged over this "disrespectful" treatment of something that is not a part of their religion.

Am I breaking Blunkett's religious intolerance law yet?

A displaced fight.

Gary's been blogging about the Silver Ring Thing debacle, and I've been happily baiting one Mr Alex Botten in the comments. Gary has quite sensibly asked that we not have a fight on his blog, so, being a lot more stupider than he, I'm moving it over here. Fun, fun, fun.

Now, I'll a little trepidatious about doing this, because I know Botten of old, and, frankly, I'd rather not have the likes of him commenting on my blog. Yet here I am, inviting him to do so. Will I never learn? Tsk.

(So, this message for him:

Alex, any personal abuse or sweary ranting will get you banned from the comments. And yes, I am well aware that you will want, as usual, to feign ignorance and claim that you've never hurled any personal abuse in your life — to which my reply is that, in that case, continuing not to do so should be no great imposition. Cheers.)

Right. Since this thing atarted as a comment debate, I must apologise for the rather non-linear format that is usual to these things. If you're not used to messageboard fights, you'll get used to it quickly enough.

And on with the show.

Botten is one of those atheists who thinks that no religion has done anything good ever.

Personally I want to see ALL religion wiped from the face of the Earth. It's a poisonous non-thinking that has kept our species in a state of infantism for far too long. Teaching it in schools, or to children in any shape or form is tantamount to child abuse IMO. I suffered years of stress and unhappiness because of the way my parents insisted I go to their church and it has only been comparatively recently that I've been able to wake up on a Sunday morning without a feeling of dread in my gut.

Rather surprisingly, then, he argues strongly against the division of church and state:

[The judge] is right, [the Silver Ring] ISN'T a part of Christianity at all. The Judge was bang on the money. And if it's not for an upholder of the Law to decide who should? The Elders of the local church?

My reply:

> Personally I want to see ALL religion wiped from the face of the Earth.

Yeah, but by reasoned debate or by state fiat? We've seen what happens in states powerful enough to ban religion. It's not good.

> It's a poisonous non-thinking that has kept our species in a state of infantism for far too long.

Just off the top of my head, here are a few examples of things given to us by religious thinkers: the end of slavery; musical notation; the telegraph; Morse code; the sciences of geodesy and topology; the contraceptive pill (one third of the team behind it was a devout Catholic); clocks; that forgiveness is better than reprisal; the way to make pacifist resistance against a violent enemy actually work; freedom of speech; the separation of church and state; Special and General Relativity; algebra. It makes no more sense to deny the great good done by religions over the years than it does to brush all their evils under the carpet. I might add that the first eight of those examples weren't even just brought about by clever or good men who happened to be religious, but were developed specifically for religious reasons.

But you think Socrates was infantile.

> I suffered years of stress and unhappiness because of the way my parents insisted I go to their church

A lot of people (I'm not one of them) suffer years of stress and unhappiness until they join a religion that suits them. Their experiences matter every bit as much as yours or mine.

And now back to Botten:

> Yeah, but by reasoned debate or by state fiat?

I would hope by people realising for themselves what a world of shite religious belief is.

> But you think Socrates was infantile.

I didn't say that anywhere. Anyway, anyone who believed in the immortality of the 'soul', that he was picked by the gods, and that being 'morally upright' was something bestowed by the 'gods' (thanks, The Internet!) seems pretty backwards to me.

He may have been seen as one of the greatest thinkers of his time but a lot of his philosophies seem laughable to us now, living in a world that is far more enlightened than his.

> here are a few examples of things given to us by religious thinkers: the end of slavery; musical notation; the telegraph; Morse code; the sciences of geodesy and topology; the contraceptive pill (one third of the team behind it was a devout Catholic); clocks; that forgiveness is better than reprisal; the way to make pacifist resistance against a violent enemy actually work; freedom of speech; the separation of church and state; Special and General Relativity; algebra

What an absolute non-argument!! The development of these things were all entirely unrelated to the religious beliefs of the men and women behind them!

Let's have a look at some of those.....

> the end of slavery

A system endorsed by the Church for hundreds upon hundreds of years, even the 'god' of the Bible seemed to be pro-slavery!!

> musical notation

Some of which was banned, for being 'demonic'. And do you know something about the beliefs of the writers of the earliest known representation of musical scores? Cos I'm not sure I do 4000 years later....

> the sciences of geodesy and topology

Let us not forget the Church preaching that the world was flat, that the Sun orbits us.....oh, and torturing and killing people who didn't agree. And the Bible claims the Earth is only just over 6000 years old.

> Special and General Relativity

Einstein was probably an atheist, certainly an agnostic, NOT a believer.

> the contraceptive pill

....which many churches preach is a mortal sin to use.

> (one third of the team behind it was a devout Catholic)

...who must have been not so devout if he was involved in something that was an abomination in the eyes of his 'lord'

Your argument is the kind of nonsense trotted out by religious apologists all around the world, conveniently ignoring both the masses of non-believers who have done far more for us, and the context of the times a lot of great thinkers have lived through (times where, in some cases, not expressing a faith was tantamount to suicide)

> A lot of people (I'm not one of them) suffer years of stress and unhappiness until they join a religion that suits them. Their experiences matter every bit as much as yours or mine.

Sadly they are seeking comfort in lies and childish mysticism.

Again I say, the world would be a far better place without religion of any kind.

And that's where Gary stepped in, so this is where I move it to my blog.

Although Botten says that he never said Socrates was infantile (what he in fact said was that religion kept our species in a state of infantism. Since Socrates was both religious and human, that includes him), he does now say that he was backwards and his philosophies were laughable. I invite readers to compare Socrates with Alex Botten and decide for themselves which is the greater philosopher.

But Alex misses the key point: yes, our world is more enlightened than the times in which Socrates lived, but the reason our world is more enlightened than his is the contribution made to our knowledge by him and people like him. Einstein may have overturned Newton's theories, but he was only able to do so thanks to Newton's theories. When later knowledge supercedes earlier knowledge, it doesn't negate its contribution.

Botten wants religion to vanish

by people realising for themselves what a world of shite religious belief is.

That's hardly a defense of a judge dictating what is and isn't valid religious behaviour. Unless you think that people make up their own minds on issues by being forced to do so by the law.

Botten might well be right about Einstein — I should have checked — but as for the rest....

The development of these things were all entirely unrelated to the religious beliefs of the men and women behind them!

Note what Botten is claiming here: that Jesus's preaching of forgiveness was unrelated to his religious beliefs, and that Ghandi's pacifism was unrelated to his religious beliefs. It's certainly a novel interpretation of history.

[Slavery:] A system endorsed by the Church for hundreds upon hundreds of years, even the 'god' of the Bible seemed to be pro-slavery!!

Slavery was endorsed by every human society for our whole history. It was the banning of slavery that was the unusual event, and it was banned as a result of Christian thinking. Not only that, but the British Parliament decided that, having declared that slavery was wrong, it would be hypocritically immoral to leave the system in place everywhere but Britain. So they used their armed forces to ban it almost worldwide.

[Musical notation:] Some of which was banned, for being 'demonic'. And do you know something about the beliefs of the writers of the earliest known representation of musical scores? Cos I'm not sure I do 4000 years later....

No musical notation was ever banned for being demonic; music was banned for being demonic. And musical notation is not four thousand years old: it was invented around one thousand years ago by Guido Monaco. We do know quite a bit about his religious beliefs, because he was a Benedictine monk. He invented musical notation in order to record and to teach Gregorian chants — i.e. for religious reasons.

[Geodesy and topology:] Let us not forget the Church preaching that the world was flat, that the Sun orbits us.....oh, and torturing and killing people who didn't agree.

The Flat-Earthers are, contrary to poopular belief, quite a recent phenomenon: their movement really picked up in the Twentieth Century. Prior to that, it was generally known and accepted that the Earth was spherical — yes, even by the Church. The Church did preach that the Sun orbits the Earth, but Galileo, again contrary to popular belief, was neither tortured nor murdered for teaching otherwise.

Neither of these things, of course, has anything to do with either geodesy or topology. If it's important when the religious suppress innovation, it's important when the religious create it. You can't just ignore half the balance-sheet.

Gauss developed topology and geodesy in his quest to find optimal points on the Earth's surface for positioning observatories. He was concerned with observatories because he wanted the best planetary observations possible, because of his devout belief in astrology.

[The pill:] > (one third of the team behind it was a devout Catholic)

...who must have been not so devout if he was involved in something that was an abomination in the eyes of his 'lord'

Obviously, no-one knew for sure that the Church would oppose it until after it was released. One of its inventors (I wish I could remember his name) was indeed a devout Catholic, whose ambition was to create a form of contraception that the Vatican would not oppose. He had high hopes for the pill because it is made purely of hormones that exist naturally in the female body anyway. He failed in that aspect of his quest.

Your argument is the kind of nonsense trotted out by religious apologists all around the world, conveniently ignoring both the masses of non-believers who have done far more for us, and the context of the times a lot of great thinkers have lived through (times where, in some cases, not expressing a faith was tantamount to suicide)

I'm hardly a religious apologist. I just don't see why being wrong about one thing makes everything someone does reprehensible. Who are these masses of non-believers who have done far more for us than believers ever did? Considering the extent to which they're outnumbered, they must have been pretty damn busy. And do we really need to be told to consider the context of the times that historical figures lived in by someone who says that Socrates was backward?

Finally, Botten is annoyed that people who are made happier by religion

are seeking comfort in lies and childish mysticism.

What militant atheists never explain very well is exactly how that's harmful. I'm with Richard Dawkins when it comes to how the belief in an afterlife makes suicide bombing possible, but most people aren't suicide bombers. If a man lives an ordinary life, working in an office in Basingstoke till he's sixty-five and then doing the gardening with his wife till he's eighty, being kind enough to his children, watching some TV, giving a bit of money to charity, having the odd drink with his friends, does it really matter all that much if he believes something that isn't true and if that belief makes him happier than he would otherwise be? Why exactly is that a problem for the rest of us?

Just as religion isn't for everyone, neither is atheism. It may be true (I certainly think it is), but a lot of people say they find it alienating and lonely. I personally know one atheist who wishes he could believe in God because he knows that his atheism depresses him, and is exasperated at his own intellect's refusal to accept God's existence. The human brain is a complicated thing; there's more to it than rational deduction. And it's hardly irrational behaviour to want to reduce your own depression, even if you do so by believing something irrational.

And then there's the issue of specialism. I'm a musician. A lot of musicians get exasperated by the success of acts who create, well, bland one-dimensional simple music, while so much really clever and accomplished music goes unrecognised. But not me. There are so many areas of human achievement, and no-one has time to be interested in all of them. So, just as I can go on forever about augmented fifths and major sevenths but know sod all about mountaineering, there are people out there who devote so much of their time to studying the latest ropes and crampons that they have no time left to appreciate the deeper technical obscurities of music, so just listen to Westlife instead. There's nothing wrong with that: the music does all it needs to do for them.

Similarly, some of us are more interested in metaphysics than others. Atheism isn't a simple belief. As Dawkins himself pointed out, it's extremely counterintuitive: prior to Darwin, it was even irrational (yes, yes, I have heard of Hume, thanks; Dawkins points out what's wrong with Hume's atheism very neatly in The Blind Watchmaker, which is a damn good read). A lot of people don't want to spend ages studying evolution, which is a pretty complex thing to get your head around — and why should they? If someone's too busy developing new recipes or writing exciting screenplays to devote a big chunk of their precious time to deciding not to believe in God, I for one am happy to eat the food and watch the films.

Monday 16 July 2007

The world's stupidest couple?

Well, it didn't take long for the new civil partnership ceremonies to reveal that gay people are every bit as nasty as straight people:

The civil partnership ceremony between Suzanne Mitchell and her lesbian lover Caroline Beddoes at Shrewsbury register office, on February 1, 2006, was a quiet affair.


But there was one small problem. Suzanne, 30, was still married to her husband Charles, 46, with whom she'd exchanged the same vows at the very same register office some six years earlier.

Even more bizarrely, Charles - the father of two of her five children - was still ensconced at the family home, albeit relegated to the sofa downstairs once 24-year-old secretary Caroline had replaced him in the marital bed.

This embarrassing state of affairs would have remained their little secret, had police not acted on an anonymous tip-off after Suzanne's "marriage" to Caroline imploded within two months and she decided she wasn't gay after all.

You'd think whether or not you're gay was the kind of detail you'd want to check before marrying someone of the same sex. Hey, it's just a thought.

Suzanne Mitchell's excuses are just great:

"The civil partnership ceremony was Caroline's idea. I felt railroaded into it because it was what she wanted. I thought it was just a blessing, not a proper marriage ceremony.

"I didn't lie to the registrar on purpose. Charles told me he was divorcing me, so in my mind I was telling the truth by saying I was single. I didn't think I needed to get divorce papers first."

To quote her is to ridicule her.

"I thought there'd be no harm in it, because I thought it was just a blessing on our relationship."

Yeah, and everyone knows that, as long as you don't actually marry your lesbian lover, merely having your relationship with her blessed while still married to your husband and living with your children is completely harmless.

As it turns out, this eejit of a woman is a good match for her twonk of a husband:

Charles, Suzanne and Caroline had spent an evening drinking together, when Caroline suggested all three of them go to bed together. While Mr Mitchell demurred and took to the sofa, the two women went upstairs.

As he lay on the sofa, Charles could hear his wife and Caroline making love as their baby daughters slept in the nursery next door. Why didn't he protest? Why didn't he rush upstairs and pull them apart?

"Well, no, it wasn't very nice having to listen to that," he says with staggering understatement. "But I decided that it was best not to overreact. They were drunk and Suzanne and I had been going through a rough patch."

Oh, fair enough, then.

As for the marriage:

"I didn't want her to go through with it, but how could I stop her?"

The bit in the ceremony where the registrar asks if there's anyone present who knows of any reason why the couple shouldn't marry? The bit where your embarassing uncle always coughs? Ring any bells? Never mind.

A bias towards controversy.

One of the interesting things to emerge from the BBC's abject apologies for their libelling of the Queen is that they appear not to know what the words "deliberate" and "accidental" mean.

The BBC and the production company involved, RDF Media, claim that the deceptive preview clip resulted from a blunder in editing at RDF which gave the impression the Queen was storming out when in fact she was storming in.


A source close to the RDF production team said: 'They are extremely good at what they do but this was a complete and utter cock-up. None of us saw the show reel before it happened. It was a case of, "What the hell?" It's mind-boggling but it's a bona fide cock-up rather than conspiracy. People are scratching their heads and asking, "How the bloody hell did this happen?"'

A quick unscientific straw poll of my own has revealed not one person who believes this "cock-up" story. You start off with footage in the order in which it was shot — in a documentary, that would be chronological order. Editing is the process whereby you can change that order. If a mistake is made, you might end up with a bit of dodgy continuity or something: a shot out of place. But what are the chances of making a complete mistake which results, by sheer luck, in a sequence that makes perfect sense, telling a convincing story of something which did not happen?

The BBC and RDF Media have said that the key footage featuring the Queen was put together months ago and never intended to be seen by press or public in the wrong sequence. Neither organisation has been able to explain why this was done or who it was intended to impress.

Note the slight change here from "blunder": they're saying the public weren't supposed to see this. If no-one knew there was anything wrong with the clip, why wasn't it to be shown to the public? If someone did know there was something wrong with the clip, why was it allowed to remain in circulation for months? The only reasonable inference to draw here is that someone knew that the clip was wrong, yet did not repair it, which does rather imply that it was edited that way deliberately in the first place.

This is backed up elsewhere:

Producers are keen to catch the eye of the BBC and win commissions. They show editors the best clips they can find and give a hard sell. In this case, the pitch might have been given too much 'topspin'.

In other words, this was done deliberately, but perhaps the people behind it overdid it a bit.

A senior editor in the BBC's factual division [said]: 'At the BBC the people who make trails don't just do factual, they do all sorts of programmes. Their ambition is to drive as many people to the programme as possible. I'm always asked to approve trails and I've often knocked them back because the last thing you want is to have people saying you promised one thing and this is something else. I've never heard of anyone at the BBC talk about a deception as great as this. People here are shocked and horrified.'

In other words, this was done deliberately, and it's done often, but usually on a smaller scale.

Michael Grade, the chief executive of ITV and former BBC chairman, [said]: 'We are in an age today where there has been a huge influx of young talent into the industry as it expands. They have not been trained properly; they don't understand that you do not lie to audiences at any time, in any show - whether it's news or whether it's a quiz show.'

In other words, this was done deliberately, by people who have been employed to do it.

To recap: someone deliberately edited the footage in the wrong sequence in order to make it look more exciting and controversial, other people knew this had been done and deliberately took the decision to allow it, the libellous clip was deliberately passed by RDF to the BBC, who eventually deliberately showed it to the media. And all this, apparently, was entirely accidental.

Or maybe not. Damning enough though that is, it still assumes the BBC's version of events: that they showed a clip that RDF had edited. As the Biased BBC blog points out (and it'll come as no surprise to you to learn that they're all over this like a rash), it looks like RDF are poised to deny this:

The independent production company at the heart of the row over the royal photoshoot accused the BBC last night of ignoring repeated requests to show it the controversial footage before it was made public.

Sources at RDF, which filmed the monarch sitting for Annie Leibovitz as part of A Year with the Queen, say it asked to see the promotional tape "several times" before it was shown to journalists.

If RDF had made the tape and knew what was on it, why would they be so keen on checking it before it went public? Well, this could cut either way: maybe they had provided the BBC with something libellous and didn't trust them not to show it to the public out of sheer incompetence; or maybe they didn't trust the BBC not to have re-edited the perfectly safe footage they had been given — which in turn would imply that RDF had been stung by the BBC in this way before. Considering the controversy, I'm sure the latter case is the story RDF will try to sell. And, in a case of their word against the BBC's, they shouldn't have too much trouble looking like the more credible party in the light of the BBC's having pulled exactly the same stunt on Gordon Brown — and not in a trailer this time, but on Newsnight, rendering all the above excuses used in the Queen's case unusable. The Head of State and her Prime Minister inside a month? You certainly couldn't accuse the BBC of a lack of ambition.

On a different tack, look at this:

Producers complain of being under pressure to come up with the most dramatic way of putting across their message to win the increasingly competitive ratings war.

As I've whinged before, the entire point of the BBC is that it is immune to commercial pressure. This exempts them from the hassle of ratings battles. That the BBC is even involved in a ratings war in the first place, let alone that it is becoming increasingly competitive, can only be the result of a deliberate decision taken by BBC management. Again, any results of that deliberate decision are, apparently, accidental.

Finally, I must say I'm surprised by this detail:

A Year with the Queen, unfinished but still due to go out in the autumn ...

The Queen hasn't vetoed this yet? What the hell must be going on behind the scenes? Of course, this does rather imply that she trusts the people making the documentary, RDF. Which, again, implies that it's the BBC at fault here.

I wonder what odds William Hill are offering on Peter Fincham keeping his job?

That crazy pricing mechanism.

At some point, I intend to buy me one of these and one of these. And I'll be very happy about it, I'm sure. As ever, that's not what I'm blogging about.

Here's the thing. In most cases, combining multiple technologies in one box lowers the price, for sound economic reasons. Simple example: compare the cost of a car with anti-lock brakes to the combined cost of a car without anti-lock brakes, a set of anti-lock brakes, and getting the latter fitted into the former. And so on.

But not here, for some reason. For those of you who didn't follow the above links, or who did but didn't understand what the gadgets do, here's an explanation.

The Behringer 1622FX is a mixing desk with an audio/USB interface. The mixing-desk bit allows you to take lots of different sound inputs and blend them together into one sound output; the interface bit allows you to transfer the end result digitally to your computer. (And, as an aside, I have to take a moment to collapse in wonder that such a thing might cost less than two hundred quid. They'll be giving them away free with digital watches soon.) As I predicted above, a mixing desk with a built-in audio/USB interface is much cheaper than a mixing desk plus a separate audio/USB interface.

The Behringer BCF2000 is, confusingly, a hardware controller for the software equivalent of a mixing desk. Mixing desks tend to exist as pretty graphics on computer-screens these days, and, while they're very powerful and brilliant in all sorts of ways, twiddling the pictures of knobs and pushing the pictures of faders with a mouse is an utter pain in the neck compared to twiddling and pushing real ones with your actual real-life fingers. That's where the BCF2000 comes in: it has proper knobs and faders on it and it has a USB interface, allowing you to control an on-screen mixing desk using your hands. Excellent.

Now, here's the key thing: both gadgets have faders and knobs; both have a USB interface. You might think there was a great opportunity here to combine the two gadgets in one: simply allow the controls on the mixing desk to double as controls for your computer. Simple. It'd save some precious space on my desk. And you might think that a gadget that combined the technology in this way would cost, at the very most, about the same as the two gadgets added together, more likely even cheaper.

Well, I've been shopping around for a while, and, as far as I can see, if I were to buy two each of the 1622FX and the BCF2000, it would still be far, far cheaper than a single device that does both jobs. The cheapest I've seen is about eight hundred quid.

This makes no sense.

Thursday 12 July 2007

It's Northern Irish National Rioting to Bad Music Day.

Forget the politics. It's the bloody awful music that's the real problem. And the Catholics are no better with their interminable fiddle-dee-deeing, though they're considerate enough not to play it while marching past your house for three hours.

Right past my front door is where the marchers go, so, unlike most people in the Province, I'm taking the opportunity to go to work today. I must be one of the few people ever to go into the centre of Belfast on the Twelfth to get away from the noise and disruption.

Why can't the Northern Irish have a strong tradition of samba?

Monday 9 July 2007

Cruel and illusory security.

There's been much fun to be had taking the piss out of our recent batch of imbecilic terrorists and their inability to hurt anyone at all. But now it turns out that quite a lot of people were hurt after all:

SIX passengers were taken to hospital and another 14 needed medical treatment after being stranded on grounded aircraft for up to 10 hours following the car bomb attack at Glasgow Airport.

This is utterly appalling: a classic case of the overbearing airport bureaucracy that insists the only way to ensure security is to take every last freedom away from passengers. Why, when the bomb hurt no-one but the idiot who failed to detonate it, should six people have ended hospitalised? Because, quite simply, the airport's response to the attack was to gleefully seize the excuse to treat all its customers as vermin.

Strathclyde Police and airport security had kept all 1,250 passengers, pilots and crew on planes which had either just landed when the terrorists struck, or were fully boarded ready to take-off.

All those stranded were eventually taken by bus with police escort to the SECC in Glasgow.

Airport staff started to offload passengers at 9.30pm, but didn't finish till 2am, and up to 250 passengers on some jets began to suffer with air conditioning shut down and the doors staying shut.

Two diabetics collapsed because their medication was in the baggage hold and police were called to one holiday jet seven hours after lockdown after "unrest" amongst passengers.

Unrest, eh? You mean some of the jumped-up plebs actually objected to being treated like this? I for one am glad that, in the wake of a genuine attempt by genuine terrorists to kill people, Strathclyde police devoted some of their valuable time to locking up a load of the intended victims and making it clear to them that they'd be arrested if they complained about it, rather than wasting their time looking for, you know, evidence and stuff.

An airport insider said: "First casualty was a diabetic woman who became unconscious on a Spanish Futura 1510 flight.

"This was five hours after the jeep fire."

Five hours. Personally, I believe that anyone who locks up a diabetic and denies them access to their medication should be charged with attempted murder. Airline staff are trained in first aid, so it's not like they can claim ignorance here: they know that this is an effective way of killing diabetics, and they did it anyway.

What pisses me off is the pathetic excuse:

A BAA Glasgow Airport spokesman said: "We couldn't possibly move the passengers any sooner, because it was a crime scene."

Oh, yeah? Anyone stuck for five hours out the front of the airport, where the bomb actually hit? Nope. Any of the people who gave the terrorist a good kicking, thereby becoming a part of the event themselves, locked up for five hours and denied food, water, fresh air, and medication? Nope. The only people locked up were the ones on planes on the opposite side of the building, hundreds of yards away, many of them just landed from other countries and therefore unlikely to be part of the conspiracy. I'd like to hear an explanation from the police of what happened on the planes that caused them to be classified as crime scenes. On the planes, there were no attacks, no bombs, no muggings, no crimes of any sort — until, of course, some of the passengers committed the unspeakable crime of "unrest".

"The airport was closed 15 minutes after the attack and we started moving people off planes at 9.30pm. The job was finished at 2am as police wanted a police escort with each bus."

Why? What did the police think might happen on those buses? Imagine if, after the July the 7th bombings, the police had locked every bus and train in London and refused to let any passengers off for at least five hours, on the grounds that all those vehicles were one big crime scene. To describe the scenario is to ridicule it.

And the poor passengers weren't even being given police escorts anywhere useful:

All those stranded were eventually taken by bus with police escort to the SECC in Glasgow.

In other words, the police thought, well, we can't keep them locked up on planes forever: eventually, we'll need to lock them up somewhere bigger, with more facilities. Nice. Why not let them off the planes and then — I know this sounds crazy — let them go home? Anyone?

"We had 1,200 stuck on 11 jets."

No, you didn't. They weren't stuck: they were locked up. By you.

A Department of Transport spokesman said: "One feels for those passengers stuck on the planes although this was an unforeseen incident".

Yes, totally unforeseen. Who'd've thought that any terrorist might attack an airport, eh? Totally out of the blue, that one.

To put this nastiness in its proper context, let's just remember what started all this: 9/11. What happened on September the 11th was that the passengers on three planes did what airline security says they should: they subjugated all their rights and all their free will to official regulations: they sat still and didn't make any trouble and were used as weapons to kill three thousand of their fellow human beings. The passengers on one plane decided to damn the regulations and stand up for themselves, thereby saving the lives of hundreds, maybe thousands, of their fellow human beings. The attitude of airport security so clearly illustrated in this appalling story is exactly what makes airports and passenger jets such tempting targets in the first place.

Sunday 8 July 2007

The nature of the debate.

Remember the time Albert Einstein organised that huge jazz festival in order to persuade the public to accept Special Relativity theory?

Monday 2 July 2007


OK, so this isn't exactly momentous, but look at the opening hours of B&Q in Holywood:

Store Opening Hours:
Mon-Wed:     08.00-20.00
Thursday:     08.00-20.00
Friday:     08.00-20.00
Saturday:     08.00-20.00
Sunday:     10.00-16.00

This sort of thing really bugs me. Part of me feels that there must be some reason for it, and then I get quietly driven mad trying to figure out what it is.

And suddenly it all slots into place.

Quoth Laban:

I'd been wondering for a long time why science education was being dumbed down so much, to seeming government indifference.

The fact that these guys can't put anything that makes a bang together is a tribute to our education system. I understand now that Blair and Brown have been playing the long game — ensuring that anyone who hates them won't have the skills to do anything about it.



In the light of the BBC's internal report damningly revealing that, yes, they are biased, it looks like they're making new attempts to cover both sides of political stories. For instance, take this piece by the gloriously-named Laura Smith-Spark about Hilary Clinton's decision to take her husband on the campaign trail with her:

Mr Clinton's abilities as a speaker are undoubted — and he has already been putting them to use at big-money fundraising events on his wife's behalf.

He also enjoys the respect verging on reverence that many Americans accord their former president.

On the one hand, he's wonderful.

But on the other side of the coin, his very charisma brings with it the danger that he will overshadow Hillary and highlight what critics say is her lack of warmth.

On the other hand, is he too wonderful?

See? Balance.

While I'm at it, I may as well go into this in a bit more depth. Bill's abilities as a speaker are "undoubted", his charisma is a given, but Hilary's lack of warmth is merely something that "critics say". Ms Smith-Spark does think to report on the fact that Bill's presidency wasn't all unalloyed sunshine and wonder —

Mr Clinton's reappearance on the campaign trail also risks reminding Americans of the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal and his subsequent impeachment

— but only because of the sex scandal: there's no suggestion that his appearance could risk reminding Americans of his policies or actions — of, for instance, his decision to let Osama Bin Laden go when the offer to extradict him to the US was on the table, or his agreement to give nuclear technology to North Korea. The idea that he could ever have done anything wrong as President, not merely as a man, is never entertained.

There's also no mention of the interesting and extremely relevant fact that Gore and Kerry both tended to perform worse in states in which Bill helped them with their campaigns. To be fair, that omission is more incompetence than bias, but still: the world's leading news organisation? Really? With a budget of three billion, can they not even manage to state the bleeding obvious?

Talking of that budget, does it not stretch to a short internal flight, or even a bus ride? Ms Smith-Spark talks to some real voters to get their opinions, but, even though she's already told us that

Bill Clinton is joining the campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire

she sticks to New York — judging from the photo of one of the voters, she simply hung around Central Park for a while on a nice sunny afternoon and chatted to a few people. I'd like that job. Anyway:

Pundits' predictions of Bill Clinton's largely positive impact are borne out by speaking to likely Democratic and Republican voters in New York, the state Mrs Clinton represents in the Senate.

That's right: to find out whether Bill's presence is likely to help Hilary in states where she faces fierce competition, the BBC asked some voters from the one state in the US where she doesn't. Can anyone imagine the BBC reporting on a New York issue by interviewing only Iowans? We already know New Yorkers vote Clinton: they've been doing it for years. Furthermore, Ms Smith-Spark quotes three Democrats and one Republican. There's that balance again.

But as retired bookseller Mary Butler, a Democrat, points out, whether voters in America's heartlands will be as forgiving as traditionally more liberal New Yorkers remains to be seen.

"His past scandals are nothing compared to what is going on now, unless you think sex is the only thing that counts," she says. "But what the people in Iowa think about him I don't know."

Look at that: even when one of her interviewees actually tells Ms Smith-Spark that she's interviewing the wrong people in the wrong place, the comment goes so far over her head that she quotes it in her report.

For this we pay.

A missing explanation.

If cars and power stations are to blame for the rainiest June in one-hundred-and-twenty years, what was to blame a hundred-and-twenty years ago?

An observation.

In Britain, the weather is more dangerous than Al Qaeda.