Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Following the recent mass shooting in California I've been following the usual outpourings of political hand-wringing and intransigence from the pro-gun lobby in the US media. I heard some red-neck on the news yesterday claiming that gun control was pointless as there was nothing that could be done to prevent such massacres. This is coming from the only developed country in the world where these things regularly happen (roughly 2 every month for the last 5 years) I don't understand this, the last time innocent US citizens were attacked (2001) by irrational, arbitrary and deadly violence the Government rallied and sent the most powerful military force in the world into 2 foreign countries, utterly overwhelmed the incumbent regimes, spent a trillion dollars and (for better or worse) set those entire nations (millions of people) on a new political and cultural course. Yet, on the issue of gun massacres in their own country these same constituents are "helpless"?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Holiday weekend

It was a holiday weekend here in the UK and to celebrate this I took my family to Oxford for the day on Sunday to have a look around the natural history museum and to treat them to lunch out. We had a really fun day, the weather was sunny and warm and the museums were interesting and uncrowded. My son snapped this picture of a procession of skeletons of related species, for some reason I was reminded of our political landscape, a procession of old fossils giving every illusion of movement but going nowhere. I couldn't help but reflect on the many famous historical personalities who have graced these hallowed University halls over the centuries, they would surely have disapproved of our current crop of lacklustre leaders.


Can't help but be shocked by the recent shootings in California, not that mass shootings in the USA are particularly rare or this one any worse than any other but this time the media seem to be giving a lot of air time to one particular father of one of the victims who I feel will become somewhat of a media star over the coming weeks. Ricardo Martinez appears to be an articulate and educated man, he speaks with passion and intelligence and it's clear to see why the TV stations love him. What makes him unusual is that he isn't afraid to place the blame where he believes it needs to be placed, at the hands of the (craven) politicians and the NRA (National Rifle Association) and he's doing that with a lethal combination of emotional authority and clarity. I suspect many American liberals will feel energised by his grief, I certainly do and I'm not American nor do I have a vested interest in American gun control save a heart felt empathy with Mr Martinez as a father. Hopefully something positive will actually happen now but knowing how entrenched the political positions are over there around this topic I strongly suspect it may not.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Voting day blues

So we're supposed to vote in local and European elections today. I'll be wandering over to the polling station later to put some crosses in some boxes. I must say I'm finding it very difficult to be confident about any particular party this time, the choice seems to me to be between a cluster of inept extremists and a fuzzy haze of shallow media types, maybe I'll have a revelation while I'm walking over there.

At least I don't live in the USA, over there the choices seem even more polarised. Recently I saw the results of a Pew poll that rated the various desirable (or otherwise) presidential attributes, the results aren't surprising but are strangely alien to an upstanding European, like me.

Serving in the military seems to be the most popular attribute for a President, an optimist would like to think this means strong, honest, dependable etc. but if it were me I'd be nervous about someone who was warmongering, detached from reality and dogmatic. Being a Governor or a business executive were second and third in desirability which seems sensible, at least it demonstrates experience of leadership, then at the bottom of the list are Atheists, apparently the least desirable kind of presidential candidate! It appears that you can betray your spouse, take drugs and have no experience of holding office and still be more suitable to hold office than someone who simply doesn't believe in fairies; I think I'd find it even harder to find a viable candidate in a society that was as insecure as that.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Serious politics

The spoofs are much better than the real thing, and truer.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Cultural evolution

I saw a couple of stories over the weekend that made me think about that thing we call "culture".

First we have the story about Iranian actress Leila Hatami who was greeted at the Cannes film festival by festival president Gilles Jacob in the classical French manner, i.e. with a peck on the cheek (one, two or three depending where you come from). Nothing earth-shattering about that you might think, but then the Iranian "culture ministry" criticized the greeting claiming that it was an affront to the chastity and dignity of Iranian Woman and had tainted the image of Iran to the world. For what it's worth to the people of Iran my immediate thought when I saw this picture was, how nice, an Iranian acting like a normal human being for a change and taking part in a healthy exchange of artistic excellence between nations, but  then I guess I'm an optimist like that.

I also happened upon some unsavoury pictures of the annual cull of pilot whales and dolphins in the Faroe Islands. I'm no tree-hugger when it comes to the consumption of meat and the management of livestock but even so the images were disturbing. People offer many excuses and reasons for this act, culture, tradition, food, rites of passage and fishery management but for me it simply boils down to some obvious facts, these animals are highly social and intelligent and dragging them into shallow water and dispatching them one by one with knives and hooks is not a humane way of killing other sentient beings, whatever the reason.

Both of these stories have supposedly immutable "culture" and tradition at their root, but as we know from history, culture is a transient thing, the nature and content of culture changes over time like water flowing from its source to the sea, there are many twists and turns, the pure spring water becomes diluted as it follows its course, sometimes the whole course itself is altered by the effects of larger forces, I concluded that evolution and change is the only "culture" that truly defines human beings.

If your traditions stink, change them.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Pot, kettle, pink..

I had to laugh when I saw this story, talk about a group of people with an identity problem, no, not the Austrian drag queen who recently won the Eurovision song contest, I'm talking about the Russian Orthodox Church's who's chairman of information said of that victory,

"Yet on more step in the rejection of the Christian identity of European culture and a sign of the world's moral decline and part of the aggressive assertion of Western cultural norms"

Clearly the ROC is opposed to bearded men who wear dresses, oh, hold on a minute...

People that live in glass houses etc..

Why bother..

People often ask why atheists and secularists bother to point out and criticise religious excess, contradiction and general lunacy, after all why waste time on something that you don't even believe is true?

I'm sure there are many reasons but I think the main one is this, Human beings (and I include myself in that set) have evolved to feel empathy and to abhor unfairness, we can't help ourselves, it's a biological condition of being a social primate. Of course there are exceptions to this, psychopaths have defects in their empathy systems (of varying degrees) and people can easily be indoctrinated to feel indifferent or even hostile toward those who aren't within whatever "in-group" they've been indoctrinated into, religious or otherwise. Even though millions of people live in secular countries today where discrimination based on religion (or lack of it) is a moot point, I would argue that for a lot of people religion (or the local interpretation of it) is a major justification for injustice, still.

I can only speak for myself on this but I suspect a lot of like minded people feel the same way, the reason I keep banging on about religion and the effect it has on the world (as I see things) is because of stories like this, a pregnant Sudanese woman (Meriam Yehya Ibrahim) who is sentenced to death for her religious views, she's not an Atheist, she's a Christian; but has the misfortune to live in a backward Islamic culture. This kind of thing is not an exception, it's the rule for a huge number of people on our planet and seemingly will remain so all the while people reject reason, secular justice and freedom.

Many a true word..

Yep, sounds about right to me..

Monday, May 12, 2014

Freedom to be a bit dense

A couple of stories perturbed me last week, first there was one about a guy who got cell time for posting an offensive tweet about the murdered teacher Ann Maguire and then there was the DJ on radio Devon who played a 1932 version of the song "the sun has got his hat on" that has the n* word in it. Two different stories both with pretty severe outcomes for the people involved.

In the first case you have someone who is an idiot, his adrenal glands are too big and his frontal lobes are clearly too small but since Twitter is an opt-in kind of platform (i.e. you have to follow someone) I don't see what a person could possibly tweet that would warrant a jail sentence perhaps if they actually organised some kind of violent or harmful event in the real world then maybe but failing that, sticks and stones etc. In the second case the DJ in question claims that he didn't realise this word (latterly adopted as a racist insult, among other meanings) was in the song. This seems perfectly plausible to me, certainly not something worth losing your job over.

I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that liberal relativism and free speech aren't good bed fellows, if we have to ditch one of these to get back to a sensible level of personal accountability then it's the former that needs to go, anyone who disagrees will offend me greatly.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The good old days...

It makes me cringe sometimes when I hear people bleating on about how our "modern society" is going to the dogs and everything was so much better and people were so much nicer in the past. This trope is a particular favourite of religious apologists of course who like to make an illusionary linkage between morality and their particular deity. I suppose the logic goes something along the lines of - my religion is correct and is synonymous with good morals and there was much more religion in the past, therefore there was much better morality in the past. It's a fallacy of course, religion has very little to do with actual morality as the statistics on crime, homicide and death in conflict since the middle ages clearly show. Simply by virtue of there being so many different flavours with strictly parochial goals it's clear to see that morality is not God given, it's a human construct, something that changes and evolves as our different societies evolve and our local interests change; it's important to be vigilant, values can go down as well as up.

Any notion of increased violence in the world over time is complete bunkum, in the developed world (and most of the undeveloped world) the statistical rate of violent death has declined hugely over the last few millennia, this is a fact when measured properly, i.e. as a rate per head of population. For example the homicide rate in five European countries runs from 100 per 100,000 head of population in 1500 through to approximately 1 in 2000 (Eisner 2003) The execution rate in the USA starts at 80-90 per 100,000 population in the 1600s and is now bubbling along at much less than 1 (Espy & Smykla, 2002) The world (on average) is currently enjoying record low values of crime, death and homicide.

Of course if you want a glimpse of what things used to be like when theocracies based upon ancient scripture ruled the roost then take a look at Nigeria, religiously inspired groups of extremists are terrorising Northern parts of that country by kidnapping young girls, converting them to Islam and then selling them off to the highest bidder as wives, sex workers or just plain slaves. Some might say "what has this got to do with religion", everything in my view. It might be fair to say that this kind of barbarity has nothing to do with religion as practised today by educated people (of any faith) who are products of increasing state secularisation and the enlightenment. However, just look at the Bible and the Koran to read about the morals the Abrahamic God(s) supposedly espoused. People at that time treated prisoners, slaves and Women as property, it was quite acceptable, the stories and texts simply codified those values and called it "revelation", anyone can see precisely where these repulsive ideas come from. The Boko Haram  terrorists are simply taking a literal view of their spiritual hand book which to be fair clearly condones this kind of behaviour and has probably been drummed into them since they were small children. Christians shouldn't be feeling smug at this point either as the old testament of the Bible condones this exact same thing as well (Deuteronomy 21:10-14).

I'm sure the good people of Nigeria can defeat these terrorist gangs, especially with the help of American technology, but the problem is a much wider one than this localised issue, we not only need to defeat such people where ever they terrorise innocents, we need to defeat their literalistic ideas too.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014


It's terribly un-English to kick a man when he's down, but in this case I sense the exception makes the rule.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Great hopping lemons

Tried a new beer last night from local brewer Siren Craft Brew, it's called Limoncello and really does have lemons in it! When I first sipped I winced, so sour, but like a good margaritas it kind of grows on you with every subsequent sip, after a while the hops start to come through and the underlying 9% ABV begins warming your cockles. Probably not something I'd want to drink regularly but I can imagine that on a hot day with the right food, good company and a tall cold glass this original and unusual beer would be just the ticket.