Monday, October 30, 2006

The Political Compass

I like the Political Compass, a way of seeing political and social views in 2 dimensions, not just the familiar left-right polarities, which date back to the french revolution. The Political Compass adds another dimension, Authoritarian-Libertarian which I think is particularly relevant today.

A chart of the political parties in the 2005 elections is here. It is worth noticing how close together New Labour and the Conservatives were in that election, nestled together in the right-wing/fascist quarter of the grid. There really isn't much to choose between them. Of the major parties, only the Lib-Dems were even slightly in the libertarian camp. It's also interesting that the BNP are actually a bit left-wing, although seriously authoritarian.

My chart is here. I'm over in the lonely right-wing / libertarian quarter where there are no political parties. Even the Lib Dems have got more fascistic over the past year. No wonder contemporary politics annoys me so much. Mind you, I'd be more annoyed if I was a green.


Sunday, October 29, 2006

I just can't help myself sometimes

"Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer" -- Mark Twain

Christ I hate this fucking country. I was born and bred here, but I haven't hated the place so much since I was a nine year old at school being beaten with a cricket bat 'for my own good'.

Generally I'm an optimist; I tend to think that life gets better for each successive generation, but reading todays paper made me just want to vomit with rage and frustration at what a filthy fucking pestilant pool of shit our craven, pusilanimous, deceptive, lying, manipulative, self-serving, ignorant political fuckwits are turning this country into.

I remember back in 2000 or so looking out of a bus window, at the recently renovated statue of Prince Albert in Hyde Park, which had just been unveiled, after having being boxed up for the previous two decades (well, for as long as I could remember anyway) . I was filled with sense of well-being at being part of a society that was prepared, and could afford to restore, such a pointless and gaudy monument. The cold war was over, we had no enemies, the economy was good, and a feeling of cheerful liberty was in the air.

And since then, every fucking thing that the government have done has made the place worse.

Here's a small selection of stories from todays Sunday Times:
  • Inland revenue to crackdown on people who have trouble filling in their tax forms, despite the government having made them almost impossible for anyone to understand.

  • Britons are now the most surveilled society in the western world. One CCTV camera for every 14 people, our internet movements tracked, our phone calls recorded, our financial details shared with every fucking small-minded official that wants to see them. Our, and our children's DNA being kept on file. And now compulsory ID Cards and National Register. All 'for our own good'. Bastards, bastards, bastards.

  • Alan Johnson caving in in typically pathetic fashion over the proposal to make faith based schools take a 25% quota of children of other faiths, just so that they realise that there are people who think differently to the religious zealots that are trying to indoctrinate them. What a fucking waste of space that man is.

  • Council tax may double, despite the fact that the CBI says councils are wasting at least £3bn a year.

  • Green parking charges in Richmond, and proposals being made for green taxes to that pension-raiding means-testing cunt Gordon Brown. Despite the fact that we emit only 1/10th as much CO2 as the US, and that CO2 may be an effect of gobal warming not a cause.

  • Britain is becoming increasingly gridlocked despite that fat moron Prescott pledging to reduce congestion by 2010. At the same time, overcrowding on commuter trains into london has doubled since 1996. How do those mendacious fuckers expect us to get into work in the morning if they won't build more railways and roads? Presumably by taking taxis down the bus lanes as they do. Hypocritical wankers. I hope they all get cancer.

Enough ranting for now. Normal service will be resumed after this post.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Can we be religious and sane?

Martin Newland over at the Grauniad's Comment Is Free offers the following assertion - "I am a Catholic. I'm also sane". It is an assertion that the majority of believers in any faith would make.

It is also an assertion which cuts to the heart of the religious vs scientific debate, and makes arguing with theists such an intensely frustrating experience for atheists.

What do we men by 'sane'?

Of course we need to consider what we mean by sane. Wikipedia defines sanity as a legal term denoting that an individual...can bear legal responsibility for his actions. I think that most believers fit this definition, although the definition of children as insane seems odd. I digress.

Generally, sane means whatever the majority agrees is sane. In England a century ago, homosexuals, and umarried mothers were regarded as candidates for the local asylum, and a few hundred years previously you would have been thought insane not to believe in god.

Nowadays, by contrast, having an interest in sexually mature members of the opposite sex who are under eighteen is regarded as insane, despite being the norm for most cultures for most of history.

However, probably the definition that most people use in everyday life is: mentally healthy; free from mental disorder. And it is here that atheists and theists disagree.

Atheists believe that it is mentally disordered to believe in supernatural beings without a shred of evidence. They, and I include myself here, feel that all we need to do is point out the irrational nature of belief to a theist, and they should accept our logic and join our ranks. Unfortunately this doesn't happen. Why not?

Why do religious people not listen to reason?

A recent study by Emory University shows that people who are strongly attached to a partisan position do not use facts to make decisions. Brain imaging studies of comitted American political party members using fMRI showed that it is the emotional parts of the brain which is active during discussions, not the reasoning parts. If you argue with someone about an entrenched position, they defend with their emotions, allowing them to ignore contradictory or conflicting evidence.

In other words, it's very difficult to change someone's mind about an entrenched position with logic, because the logical part of their brain isn't listening.

So, is Martin Newland sane? Yes. He's no more insane than the rest of us. He is, however less rational than the majority of his countrymen.

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Darwin Online

The complete works of Charles Darwin have recently been digitised and made available here, courtesy of the British taxpayers via Cambridge University.

Darwins seminal work not only explains that we are in fact descended from a long chain of ancestors, all of whom reproduced and passed on their characteristics to their offspring before dying. What is particularly impressive about this is that Darwin managed to formulate his theory without knowing Mendel's mechanisms of genetic inheritance.

Daniel Dennett called natural selection "the single best idea anyone has ever had", in his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea. He's right. It explains why every creature on this planet looks, acts, eats, sleeps, thinks and fucks the way they do.

Religious fundamentalists of all persuasions should read it before uttering another word about evolution.

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29% of the world think that torture is acceptable

So, almost a third of the worlds population believe that torture is okay. Israel tops the list of folk who want their fellow human beings to suffer unbearably to gain a little security for themselves, closely followed by Iraq, the Phillipines and Indonesia.

It is noticeable, however, that only 16% of Israeli Muslims are pro torture, right down there with the Spanish and the French. The only country better than this is Italy, our overall loser in the pulling peoples toenails out stakes. Salute Italia! Hurrah for Italy and La Dolce Vita!.

There's also a surprising degree of woolly-mindedness about this, especially in India,where 45% of the population couldn't make up their collective minds about whether to waterboard people on spec. Come on chaps, electrodes to the testicles - good or bad?

And what of the British? Only about 1 in 4 of my fellow countrymen like the idea of stress positions and beatings, which I suppose is a good thing, although I find it rather depressing that about 10 million of my neighbours would happily torment me on the off-chance that I might have a bit of useful information.

Still, at least we're not as bad as the Americans, who have recently legalized the use of serious pain in interrogations (although not Extreme pain, of course) , with a 36% approval rating.

What they were specifically asked was:

Most countries have agreed to rules prohibiting torturing prisoners. Which position is closer to yours?
  1. Terrorists pose such an extreme threat that governments should now be allowed to use some degree of torture if it may gain information that saves innocent lives
  2. Clear rules against torture should be maintained because any use of torture is immoral and will weaken international human rights

This post falls into the Death camp, I think.


Thursday, October 12, 2006

arseholes, bastards, fucking cunts and pricks

The Devils Kitchen periodically releases a roundup of swearing blogs. These are blogs which not only use lots of profane language, but also, in general abuse the great and good of our world. Check it out for a lot of sweary gorgeousness.

Now, in normal speech with my friends, I swear as much as the next man (nsfw), and despise our leaders as much as any good card-carrying anarchist. However, I don't generally use profanities when I write. The Devils Kitchen made me wonder why not.

For example, the word 'fuck' is probably the most versatile word in the English language. There's a splendid academic paper on it here.

'Cunt' is even older; the prefix 'cu' being described as an indo-european expression of 'quintessential femininity' by the lexicographer Eric Partridge. It's thought to be the root of words like queen, cow, quim, cwm and cirque. There's a nice article about it here.

Every culture, every language has it's own swearwords, commonly related to sex, elimination, or religion. There's an interesting case study about translating the filmic profanity in South Park to Spanish here.

We censor not only a depiction of the thing, but also its name. It's as though we weren't even allowed to say the word 'Murder' because murdering people is bad and had to resort to some sort of euphemism.

So why is it that these versatile, ancient words shock some people? Why do many adults refrain from swearing in front of their children, when we know that every child over the age of 10 knows them all anyway? Why do we censor our films and TV, and occasionally even get imprisoned for swearing?

I appreciate that it's an irrational cultural taboo, but it still seems strange to me.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Religion is just childish

As it says in my profile, I'm a humanist. I'm also an atheist and a bright. Actually I'm an agnostic when it comes to religion, but like Richard Dawkins, I'm agnostic in the same way as I'm agnostic about teapots in orbit around Pluto. In other words, it's possible that they may be true, but the possibility is so slight as to be not worth worrying about.

It's not that I don't know about religion. My grandfather was a vicar and my mother a missionary. I attended a cathedral school and was confirmed into the Church of England at the age of 14. I've been a scholar of ancient religions all my life. And whilst I understand the religious impulse very well, falling for it is simply absurd.

It's absurd in the same way that an adult believing in the tooth fairy, or father christmas, would be absurd. In the same way that belief in genies , rakshasa's or kami is absurd. It's absurd because as adults, we seek to know truth by the best means available to us. And if we don't do that we are wallowing in a child-like fairyland of magic and superstition.

So what counts as a good method of discovering truth?

My Parents told me so - No
My Teachers told me so * - No
Everyone in my society believes it - No
I intuitively feel it to be true - No
It has been revealed to me in dreams or visions - N0
It is common sense - No
It makes me feel better - No
It must be true for moral reasons - No
You can't prove it's not true - No

There is one way, and one way only of discovering the truth about the world. Observe, Hypothesize, Test your hypothesis. Get other people to test it. If it's correct, repeat and move on.

Luckily we don't have to do all this ourselves. There are many many great people who have spent their lives doing this, so that we can reap the rewards of their work. As Newton said, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

All the rest is superstition or hearsay. And that's no way for an adult to live.

* But I said that "My Teachers told me" is not a method of discovering truth. And it isn't if you do it uncritically. If you study what your teachers say, and find a scientist at the root of it, and the arguments are sound, then there is truth there.

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Should women wear veils?

The recent debate about muslim women and veils in the UK has left me in a state of indecision. On the one hand, as an innate libertarian, I believe that people should be able to dress as they wish to. Obviously there is the issue of causing offence to other people by your choice of dress code, but it seems to me that we should all be adult enough to accept other peoples choices, whether it be a niqab or a thong.

On the other hand, the niqab represents pretty much everything that I'm opposed to - subservience to outdated religious practices, a desire for separatism, and in particular a publicly expressed loyalty to Islam, possibly the most regressive of the worlds religions.

As the wearers of the niqab are aware, they are making a statement above and beyond that demanded by their religion, and niqab wearing seems to be on the increase as a result of increased tensions between Britains muslim minority, and the rest of the christian/atheist majority.

On the surface of it, it would seem to be an irrational response to increased hostility to wear clothing likely to inflame that hostility. Terror Management Theory posits that when an individual is threatened, they respond by adhering more closely to their world-view. This seems to be a good example.

A quandary, in microcosm, of the western worlds view of Islam.

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