Monday, June 30, 2014

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Things I hate

Made me chuckle..

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Burning desire

Here's a photo that caused my eye brows to raise slightly today, it's a photo of a couple whose wedding in Oregon was interrupted by the fire brigade who advised them to evacuate because a nearby wild fire was out of control and moving their way. Apparently all the guests evacuated but the photographer managed to snap some cheeky shots of the bride and groom with the raging inferno as a backdrop, not exactly your average run of the mill wedding album! I wonder what their first song was ... something by Johnny Cash perhaps?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Mind viruses

Here's an alarming story that's doing the rounds at the moment, it's about a Nigerian man called Mubarak Bala who has the misfortune to live in an Islamic region of Nigeria that has implemented Sharia law. Having openly declared himself to be an Atheist (sensible chap) his family had him committed to a mental institution where according to leaked accounts he has been beaten, drugged and held against his will; he may now even face a criminal conviction of some kind for apostasy (leaving his religion).

Such is the insecurity of the religious mind that unless checked by secular law seems to invariably end up implementing "groupthink" by force. This was obvious in the past and is still very evident in places where religion remains firmly in control, places like Sudan, Malaysia, Iran, Mississippi , Tower Hamlets and of course Nigeria. Many religious people hate it when atheists (particularly Richard Dawkins) use the term "mind virus" or "mental illness" to describe their intellectual position. I can understand how that might sound unnecessarily harsh even offensive to some, but in secular countries it's just an opinion that can be engaged with or ignored, for an Atheist like Mubarak Bala in a theocratic state it's a punishable crime. This is an important distinction many apologists gloss over when claiming persecution. If you zoom out and review sectarianism against the backdrop of the thousands of cases of imposed religious "groupthink" like the examples given here; it does in fact look from the outside just like some kind of infection presenting identical symptoms and behaviours, an infection that branches and evolves over time. The analogy can be stretched further if you consider how religion spreads in the vast majority of cases, i.e. by childhood indoctrination or outright conquest rather than by individual free choice.

Hopefully now that this man's case is being made public by secular campaigners here and elsewhere the Nigerian government might be embarrassed into action, although I'm not overly optimistic; there seems to be almost as many sectarian problems in that country as there are in Iraq and Syria at the moment.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Creationism, football and ancient willies

If you're upset about England being bundled out of the World Cup last week then don't despair, here's some good news. The Government "clarified" it's policy on teaching creationism recently by updating the current guideline to include all current free schools and academies, the official line is that creationism cannot be taught as science anywhere. This is a victory for secularists who have been campaigning for this for a while now. The Government claim that the move is merely a clarification but it seems clear to most campaigners that it's plugging a big loop-hole that is being cynically exploited in many religiously oriented academies up and down the country.

Belief in creationism is stupid, believing that the whole universe was created about 22,000 years after the Germans invented the first sex toy (see image below) is daft, but if consenting adults wish to believe such nonsense then (in a free society) they are perfectly at liberty to do so, however, people drilling such stupidity into children under the protective cover of "science" is an abuse, we have criteria by which we define what is and what isn't science, creationism is definitely not science.

For those interested in ancient sex toys then this 28,000 year old phallus was discovered at the Hohle Fels Cave near Ulm which is situated between the German cities of Stuttgart and Munich. It's purpose can only be speculated on but I reckon it's pretty certain that Louis Suarez is feeling just like one right about now.

Whine about wine

Interesting article on the BBC site today about how much restaurants often mark-up the price of wine. Of course with all of the multifarious troubles going on in the world today what us rich (relatively) first worlder's pay for fermented grape juice in restaurants is fairly well down the list of United Nations concerns but never the less some of the mark-ups discussed would bring a tear to any news weary eye. Apparently (and topically) the new luxury hotel owned by Andy Murry (the tennis player) is charging £1800 for a bottle of 2002 Lafite Rothschild (a crap vintage BTW) whereas the same bottle at the Berkeley Hotel in London is a mere £990, the same wine retails for around £400 and could probably be bought at auction for even less. Most people would never dream of paying this kind of money for wine (neither would I!) but my point is not about the price, it's about the mark-up, i.e. it seems unlikely a small Scottish hotel near that well known tourist hot spot (Dunblane?) is actually providing £900 worth of "added value" to a commodity product; more likely, they are relying on the fact that most people visiting such a place either haven't got a clue about wine, are on company expenses or have more money than sense.

Many restaurants including Murry's hotel regularly mark-up wines by 4,6 or even 8 times their retail price. Many other products are similar, fashion goods are often 3 X wholesale and groceries 2 X, not to mention drugs and things like sunglasses but it's hard to think of anything with such a difference between the price in one outlet versus the price in another often only separated by a hundred yards of high street. Many would say "so what", restaurants should be free to charge whatever they like for the products they sell, fair enough, at the top-end at least, restaurants seem to be testing the limits of that theory just fine; but what does it say about an organisation that treats it's customers with such contempt that they are content for them to pay 6 times more for a product than any other retail organisation, who would happily sell the exact same bottle and still make a productive margin on it. I've heard all the arguments about there being no margin on food and how horrifically expensive those sommeliers salaries are, but such excuses don't wash with me; more than quadrupling your money for nothing more than a bit of storage space and washing-up glassware is pretty good business in any book.

Being a wine enthusiast it's frustrating in the extreme to visit restaurants that are charging £50 for a bottle of wine I know full well is available at a supermarket down the road for £10, it sucks all the enjoyment out of the experience for me and even though the food might be brilliant and created by the most talented kitchen team, I still feel ripped off. I have a personal rule these days; if I know a mark-up is more than 3 X retail then I don't buy the wine, if there's no wine left on the list to buy then I stick with beer and never visit that restaurant again. (having said that the mark-up on the beer, percentage wise, is probably even worse!) I would much prefer to visit a restaurant that keeps it's wine mark-ups between 1.5 and 2.5 X and spend more on a much better bottle than spend less on a bottle with a higher mark-up, up to a point, quality is more important to me than price.

Restaurant wine is a luxury product (in the UK at least), the selection and buying of which intimidates most people; however it can also be a wonderful companion to a meal with friends or family, a talking point, a binding agent and a source of pleasure that remains in our memories for a long time. Excessive profit taking is throttling the pleasure out of dining out; with the recession, the rise of craft beers and the industrialisation of eateries that's going on in our high streets it's time for independent restaurant owners to think again on wine margins, the current upward trend and shrinking market is ripe for disruption by someone who recognises the value of quality.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Statistics for the superstitious

An old one but a good one.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Whose country is it anyway?

Lot's of chatter around at the moment about who we are and what kind of country we live in. I'm not particularly keen on labels or broad categorisations when it comes to people because what you normally find is that sets of things made from DNA bigger than one never contain members with identical properties; however many people cannot seemingly function without labels and some have labels thrust upon them by the labellers. Nowhere is this labelling imperative more visible than in the fields of politics and religion, both fields of discourse dominated by "words" over substance and whose worldly power is directly linked to the cardinality (size) of their sets. Generally I couldn't care less how people labels themselves, I try to deal with people based on what they do and what they say rather than on what they say they are. Unfortunately this isn't always possible, at the intersection of religion and politics we have a critical pinch point. In America they figured this out over 200 years ago and the founding fathers of that republic came up with the "separation clause" in their constitution that enshrines the following eminently rational rule,

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..."

Contrary to what many believe this clause is not there to protect the rights of the majority, it was made to protect the rights of minority religions (and those with no religion) so that they cannot be bullied by the state into doing things or paying tithes outside of their conscience; regardless of which particular group has a majority of followers at any one time.

Here in the UK we unfortunately missed this common sense boat and we still have a state religion that wields power in this world (as well as the next) This has always been justified on the basis that it's supported by a majority of Christian people who live here; even though the quantification of this has traditionally been based on "labels" rather than actual votes. Even as recently as April this year our Prime Minister made the claim in public that Britain is a "Christian country" and in the process upset a lot of British non-Christians who dispute the truth of such a claim and who fear that a desired wall of separation between church and state in the UK will now suffer further delays in planning permission rather than getting on with laying the foundation stones as they'd all hoped for in the 21st century.

Labels are unreliable and imprecise but at the intersection of religion and politics they are seemingly the only quantification we have with which to debate such questions. The latest Government census on the subject (results in the picture at the top) would suggest that on purely numerical terms the "no religion" label is now the majority (by 9%), even if this is not exactly the case (allowing for the imprecision of labels) then the official state religion (Church of England) at 16% is definitely not. On this basis alone it would seem to me to be worth revisiting this question, but with all of the recent controversies around religious bullying in state schools, teaching religious ideas (like Creation) in science classes and discrimination cases in courts I would argue that the mandate for a properly secular constitution now is stronger than ever.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Teaching nonsense

Feeling drained of enthusiasm this morning after watching people on Newsnight last night talking about creationism in UK schools. I saw this cartoon and it summed up a lot of things people do in life in an attempt to get a quick fix, an easy answer or a free lunch, unfortunately just because you want something to be true it doesn't make it so, even if you really, really, really believe it.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Paradise is like faith schools, i.e. selective

For those affluent Westerners who refer to the Maldives "a paradise" (for obvious reasons) here's a story that might make you rethink your view. There seems to be a double standard operating in this tiny island state, on the one hand rich scantily clad tourists are welcomed with open arms to it's hotels, resorts and beaches to spend their money on leisure, alcohol and trinkets; on the other we have a brutal theocratic undercurrent of intimidation, discrimination and violent crime against minorities. At the root of all this is religion and Islam in particular (no shit Sherlock) and a Government that seems hell bent on denying that there's even a problem; it seems hard to see how there isn't trouble ahead for this country. On second thoughts though, maybe all the persecuted people could come to the UK where tolerance and diversity rules and get jobs as school teachers, oh, hold on a minute.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

It's not easy being Ann Widdecombe

Ex-Tory politician and Christian apologist Ann Widdecombe reckons it's easier to be a Nazi than a Christian in England these days. In a radio 5 interview she claimed the following...

"Christians now have quite a lot of problems, whether it's that you can't display even very discreet small symbols of your faith at work, that you can't say 'God bless you', you can't offer to pray for somebody, if it's an even bigger stance on conscience that you're taking, some of the equality laws can actually bring you to the attention of the police themselves."

"So I think it is a very difficult country now, unlike when I was growing up, in which to be a Christian, an active Christian at any rate." 

Christians also faced a "sort of atheism" that "wouldn't once have been said". There used to be a view that "we've all got freedom of conscience, we've all got freedom of expression", she said. 

"In the 1950s when plenty of people had lost lives and limbs and loved ones to the Nazis, it was still possible to be a Nazi in this country. 

"When we were engaged in the height of the Cold War, when there were all those weapons lined up on the borders of the Warsaw Pact countries pointing straight at us, you could still, in this country, proclaim yourself as a Communist, you could still stand for Parliament for that matter as a Communist. 

"You wouldn't get in but you could stand. You could sell the Morning Star on street corners. 

"We have always respected, no matter how strongly we felt as a nation at the time, we've always respected the right of people to their own views and I do feel nowadays as a combination of political correctness and equality law and all the rest of it, we've started suppressing the expression of conscience."

It's harder to decide what will have a smaller cultural impact, this childish, foot stamping rant or her undignified appearance on strictly; in the interests of equality I am obliged to laugh equally at both. I find it hard to believe that someone like this, who is famous for having a mouth like the Mersey tunnel in receipt of a privileged and elite education i.e. better equipped than most to field a decent argument (if she had one) would feel that she couldn't say "God bless you" whenever the hell she liked, who would stop her?

Much like the recent row about intolerant and extreme Muslim influence in UK schools, religious people have gotten used to the idea that whatever they do so long as they invoke the concept of "faith" (or conscience as she puts it) should be unconditionally respected and immune from ridicule or criticism. Widdecombe chooses to focus on things like wearing jewellery to work and hurt feelings but I'd respect her more if she called out other things millions of religious people think are kosher because they are "faith based", like, discrimination, child abuse, gender segregation, homophobia, extremism, anti-science education, jihad and so on. Unfortunately for whining apologists like Widdecombe rational people are no longer willing to give automatic respect to infantile belief systems just because the adherents demand it, just like strictly, if your Pasodoble isn't up to scratch then best not take it onto the stage wearing sequins and Lycra, people will only laugh at you.

Monday, June 09, 2014

The Elephant in the classroom

Following the recent scandal and subsequent political angst regarding the role of Islam in certain schools in the Midlands and elsewhere isn't it just a matter of common sense that religions (of all stripes) are not the kinds of organisations that we want influencing and running schools, regardless of the education that can be had at some of the better ones, it's like putting the big cats in charge of the small mammal enclosure at the zoo, proselytism and dogmatism are embedded in the core of their nature and purpose. A secular approach is the surest way to minimise disadvantage and division in society.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Quality reporting

It would seem that the good old Daily Mail is up to it's usual tricks, completely inverting the truth of something in order to score cheap popularity points with it's readership; who (judging from the comments at least) seem to fall for it hook line and sinker. Poor old Dicky Dawkins is getting it in the neck for supposedly making a comment at the Cheltenham Science Festival along the lines that fairy tales and believing in Santa causes children harm, you can imagine the headline... "Dawkins wants to ban Christmas", "Dawkins the grinch". Disappointingly I heard the same story repeated on radio 4 this morning on my way to work and I'm sure there are many who would love to believe it; headlines like this confirm their pre-existing prejudices about him and scientists in general, and lets face it, much like immigrants and benefits cheats the Daily Mail in particular thrives on this kind of confirmation bias. In reality though this reported position really doesn't square with what the man actually says.

A couple of years ago he wrote a whole book on myths and legends, comparing and contrasting them with scientific explanations for things (like evolution, cosmology, physics, geology, chemistry etc.), it's a nice book, aimed at 12 year olds and has even been turned into an iPad application. Over and over again the book describes his view on myths and legends, that they can be beautiful, poetic, descriptive and useful in the teaching of morality. This morning he has been tweeting what he actually said, i.e. the exact opposite of what the article claims, i.e. that fairy tales are charming and useful tool in helping children grasp the basics of critical thinking from an early age. From my own experience with my own children this is exactly right, Santa Claus, three little pigs, goldilocks (among many other stories) are great vehicles with which to delight them in their early years and educate them later on as they become able to reason about reality and understand the underlying "human" truths in such stories (many of which are extremely unpleasant!). I suppose the old adage about no news being bad news may have a ring of truth to it; but then again, we all know the moral of a Daily Mail story don't we children...

Update: if you want to listen to what Dawkins actually thinks about myths and fairy tales then listen here..

Wednesday, June 04, 2014


I just came across this wonderful short documentary about the late Christopher Hitchens, it's not a commercial endeavour just something put together by a fan never the less it's well made and engaging. It left me feeling sad that "Hitch" is no longer here but at the same time encouraged by its summation of just how much impact he had in a relatively short period of time.

'The Hitch'- Christopher Hitchens documentary from Kristoffer Hellesmark on Vimeo.

As Hitch himself once said (something like)... it's a disturbing thought that one day we all have to "leave the party", not because we want to stay at the same party for ever but because we know in our hearts that it's going to go on perfectly fine without us.

Moral Authority?

Lot's of people are commenting on revelations from Ireland today that over 800 young children and babies who died between 1925 and 1961 at a Catholic institution were dumped in a disused sewage tank and their bones remain there to this day. The children were born to unmarried mothers which seemingly had a bearing on their value in this warped sub-culture, presumably the nuns who ran the establishment were implementing the Christian idea that the sins of the father (and Mother in this case) must be born down the generations, why else would they not simply refuse to participate in such barbarity and blow the whistle?

What could I possibly say that hasn't already been said about this organisation and the moral values it holds, every which way we turn we seem to find the tell-tale fingerprints of hypocrisy and corruption, it's almost like their ethical foundations are based on the primitive urges of evolved primates and whose dogmas only survive through indoctrination, fear and ignorance. Unfortunately, the religious majority seem unable (or unwilling) to draw the most obvious conclusion from this simple observation, as I reported the other day another flavour of Christians have been attempting to disrupt a major engineering project recently because they are concerned about the sanctity of dead people whose graves might be disturbed without appropriately qualified clergy whispering magic incantations over them; and they wonder why rational people don't believe a word of it.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

The reign in Spain

Interesting news yesterday, the King of Spain (Juan Carlos) has decided to abdicate and hand over the Spanish throne to his son (Felipe). Spain has no specific laws to cover such a scenario and the Government there are rushing through legislation that enables the accession to happen. It's a shame that this seems to be a matter of process and not approval, the Spanish people have a golden opportunity to re-evaluate the purpose and desirability of a medieval institution in the 21st century. You would have thought that with all of the recent Iberian economic woes and the reported excesses of this unelected family (elephant hunting in Botswana) that the time should have come to seriously reconsider upgrading the whole shebang to a republic with an elected and accountable president. This is no guarantee of clean living and stellar representation of course but (with a proper constitution) at least you can get rid of a president at the ballot box without too much trouble. This situation is very relevant to our own monarchy of course, Queen Elizabeth II is reaching an age when she will need to step down and hand over the palace keys to Prince Charles. I doubt whether the suckers subjects who fund this glittering circus will get any say in it, we'll just stump up the cash, buy coronation tea pots and wave our little flags as usual; no one will ask why.

In my experience people who receive wealth and power without having to earn it seldom value it and no matter what invisible friends they think they may have, human beings tend not to be exceptional, special or superior to anyone else unless they put the effort in.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Over my dead body

It looks like the Church of England has entered the fray regarding the new high speed rail line between London and the North of England (HS2). Apparently the Arch Bishops Council has announced that it's opposed to the line being built for a number of reasons, primarily that graves along the route will be desecrated. It's an interesting angle, you'd think taking a position that places the interests of dead people over living people would seem fairly negative but clearly death is a particular concern of the complainants. The logic (not that logic has a big role to play in this) seems to be that since people have been buried in "consecrated" ground then they would be upset if their remains were disturbed and moved elsewhere. Somewhere in that sentence the fact that these people no longer exist seems to have been lost; even if the Christian view of what happens after death is true (pretty unlikely) then the remains are still just "empty vessels", I'd be fascinated to hear how theologians would explain previous owners of these bodies could be upset or disadvantaged if what's left of the lifeless remnants of their bodies are moved or even destroyed (by cremation for example). Now I can understand living relatives getting upset if undue irreverence were shown during the moving process but it must be impossible to lift a single sod of earth on this crowed little island without disturbing the residual molecules of some long since deceased Neanderthal, Pagan, Roman, Viking, Saxon or other immigrant worker, perhaps they can give the decomposed corpses jobs collecting tickets, might breath a bit of life into the whole thing.