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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Beyond Fear – Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World by Bruce Schneier.

I picked this up because I was impressed by another book of his on IT Network Security (which is something I have a passing interest in).

Schneier expands his expertise in the area of IT Security to cover most – if not all – security problems we face today especially, of course, that of fighting terrorism. It seemed to me that this book was written in response to the knee-jerk reactions around the world to the events of 9/11. Schneier makes the point several times (actually he does have a tendency of repeating himself to drive an issue home) that if you want any security measure to be effective you have to think calmly and rationally about things. You cannot have a system which will do the things you want it to if you base your requirement on unreasonable fears.

Schneier also makes the very valid point (again several times) that you cannot prevent attacks no matter what you do. The only thing you can do is be as ready as possible when the attack happens and have procedures in place to mitigate any nasty results. But no matter what you do unexpected things will still occur. Security is a fluid environment so thinking that you have ‘solved’ a security problem is a sure way to invite failure.

Finally Schneier states very clearly that any security measure involves trade-offs. Some of these trade-offs might be worth it – whilst some might not. Of course some people are willing to trade more for security than others. It’s really up to the people involved to find levels of trade-offs that they’re comfortable with.

Whilst rather dry overall this book is well worth a read for anyone concerned about security issues in today’s post-9/11 environment. Aimed primarily (I think) at the US market it can be read by anyone who wants to look at security – both on a small and large scale – in a reasonable manner rather than an emotional one. All in all not a bad read.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Video Time.

This advert has been making me smile for weeks now. It's just so inventive. I like the mini documentary at the beginning explaining how they did the effects and just love the music. Does anyone know who it's by?

Sunday, July 29, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth: Beware the Politician in Fleece Clothing

by John Lang for the Baltimore Sun (Maryland)

September 13, 2006

Dear Mr. President,

It's too bad The Art of War wasn't on your summer reading list. If you'd read it, maybe we wouldn't be mired in Iraq. According to the author, Sun Tzu, esteemed for thousands of years as the Sage of Warfare, you're doing it all wrong. Exactly what military principles you've broken - and how many - I learned by chance. On the first day of classes at Washington College, the title on a shelf of paperbacks caught my eye. I opened at random and found this on Page 10: "In war, better take a state intact than destroy it."

Then came a critique of your plan to recall reservists for more tours: "The skillful warrior never conscripts troops a second time." And, "Supplying an army at a distance drains the public coffers. ... Six-tenths are spent on broken chariots, worn-out horses." That last is archaically put, but don't we have thousands of war-wrecked Humvees and tanks now - while short of funds to fix them? On Page 13, I found: "Treat prisoners of war kindly, and care for them." How does that square with Guantanamo? Page after page, Sun Tzu has something to say to you, even though the principles were stated something like 2,500 years ago. But your reading list this summer, so the White House said, included a three-volume history of the Louisiana Purchase. In a summer past, as casualties mounted, we were told you read a comprehensive history of salt. That's hardly as germane as The Art of War, which states, "No nation has ever benefited from a protracted war."

Of course, reading lists of politicians are always suspect. You feed doubts when you tell us that this summer you also read "three Shakespeares." Your aides have said you don't read their briefing papers but direct them to read them to you. Then why not get those neocons who advised you into this war to give Master Sun a glance? Vice President Dick Cheney owns the book; according to news reports, Chinese officials gave Mr. Cheney an out-of-print copy valued at $3,600, though it's not clear whether he's read it.

Perhaps your advisers can slip Sun Tzu's maxims into the daily digest. After, say, the latest blurb on slaughter between Sunni and Shiite factions, an aide could read: "Without knowing the plans of the feudal lords, you cannot form alliances." Or, before another retired general or formerly supportive Republican congressman goes looking for Iraq's back door, your reader can find: "When an army is confused and perplexed, the feudal princes will cause trouble. This creates chaos in the ranks and gives away victory." Sir, you can be certain, if you don't know Sun Tzu, your enemies do. It's the revolutionary's primer. Mao Tse-tung carried a copy on his Long March. It was Fidel Castro's campfire reading when he was hiding out in the Sierra Maestre.

Can the teachings have escaped the notice of Osama bin Laden? Not likely. Consider The Art of War on evasion: "He changes his ways and alters his plans to keep the enemy in ignorance." Also, "The highest skill in forming dispositions is to be without form; formlessness is proof against the prying of the subtlest spy and the machinations of the wisest brain." Concluding, "The place I intend to attack must not be known; if it is unknown, the enemy will have to reinforce many places ... but I shall attack few." And, "Throw your men where there is no escape, and they will die rather than flee."

Sounds exactly like al-Qaida. What would it hurt to read the guerrillas' guidebook? Don't you owe it to us, and yourself? After all, as you've said to us, "I am a wartime president." And the Master says, "He who knows self, but not the enemy, will suffer one defeat for every victory."

[I guess that Bush was elected ‘to lead rather than to read’……. You would think though that even after he famously said that he doesn’t read newspapers that the ‘Leader of the Free World’ would tailor his reading habits to the difficult foreign policy decisions he needs to be making these days. Instead of reading a 3 volume tome on Louisiana maybe he would have been better served by reading some Middle Eastern history? It’s just a thought…..]
Cartoon Time.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Iraq Now Ranked Second Among World’s Failed States

by David Morgan for Reuters

Monday, June 18, 2007

WASHINGTON - Iraq has emerged as the world’s second most unstable country, behind Sudan, more than four years after President George W. Bush ordered the U.S. invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, according to a survey released on Monday.

The 2007 Failed States Index, produced by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace, said Iraq suffered a third straight year of deterioration in 2006 with diminished results across a range of social, economic, political and military indicators. Iraq ranked fourth last year. Afghanistan, another war-torn country where U.S. and NATO forces are battling a Taliban insurgency nearly six years after a U.S.-led invasion, was in eighth place.

“Iraq and Afghanistan, the two main fronts in the global war on terror, both suffered over the past year,” a report that accompanied the figures said. “Their experiences show that billions of dollars in development and security aid may be futile unless accompanied by a functioning government, trustworthy leaders, and realistic plans to keep the peace and develop the economy.”

The index said Sudan, the world’s worst failed state, appears to be dragging down its neighbors Central African Republic and Chad, with violence in the Darfur region responsible for at least 200,000 deaths and the displacement of 2 million to 3 million. The authors of the index said one of the leading benchmarks for failed state status is the loss of physical control of territory or a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Other attributes include the erosion of legitimate authority, an inability to provide reasonable public services and the inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.

Foreign Policy magazine is published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank. The Fund for Peace is an independent research group devoted to preventing and resolving conflicts.

[It would appear that things are not going well in Iraq….]

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Just Finished Reading: The Last Stand of the DNA Cowboys by Mick Farren

How could I resist reading a book with such a great title?

In the far, far future fate throws back together three friends separated by circumstance. Reave Mekonta, Billy Oblivion and The Minstrel Boy make up the legendary DNA Cowboys - a group with origins shrouded in mystery and with past exploits exaggerated out of all proportion. Each is horrified to find that they must live up to their reputations as they travel across the Damaged World in search of sanctuary, alcohol and pliant women. Unfortunately for them the Universe and an army of vicious killers have other ideas.

Firstly I have to say that this was a seriously strange book. It took a little to get into but once you get settled into the world Farren has created you realise just how truly odd it is. This book really messes with your head – in a good way. It actually reminded me of Michael Moorcock at his best. It was off the wall, violent, funny and sexy and often all four at the same time. It made me smile a lot and laugh out loud on more than one occasion. I particularly loved the pop-culture references that other characters just didn’t ‘get’.

Weird geography, strange science, wonderful technology (in particular 'Stuff Central') coupled with rich characterisation and a great sense of twisted humour – oh, and the odd song or two. Recommended for anyone who wants to expand their mind without the use of chemical stimulants.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Picture Time.

After eight weeks of continuous rainfall the UK Government finally declares a state of emergency.
Just Finished Reading: Marx – A Very Short Introduction by Peter Singer

Despite being a mere 100 pages in length I took my time reading this. Marxist thought can be a little difficult to get your head around though Professor Singer does an admirable job of making his work intelligible to the modern reader.

As I’ve mentioned before, I studied Marxist ideas during my 2 year A level Sociology course as well as in a Comparative Religions unit at University (sounds strange I know) so I wasn’t coming to Marx blind. This book did introduce me to more details of his life however and how Marx was forced across Continental Europe until he ended up in the political refugee’s haven – London.

Singer does a creditable job of placing Marx within the Continental philosophical context – especially in relation to Hegel – which provided a useful background to understanding his ideas regarding the direction of History which, Marx believed, would inevitably lead to Communism. At this point he expected History as we have known it to cease. Without reference to Hegel such ideas seem fantastical.

Marx was very much a man of his time and it is not surprising therefore that much of his economic thought turned out to be so faulty. Capitalism of his time was undoubtedly brutal and it doesn’t surprise me in the least that Marx thought such conditions to be untenable. Rather ironically I think that his criticisms of Capitalism – notably in Das Kapital – helped make Capitalism less harsh and thereby reduced the likelihood of any revolution.

It is without doubt that Marx has had a huge influence on 20th Century history and deserves to be studied on those grounds alone. Much of what he said was mistaken and has proven to be wrong but his ideas of alienation and the economic underpinning of culture still have currency. You cannot understand our recent history without having an appreciation of this man. More Marx to come I think.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Chain of Evidence

I’ve been engaging recently in another of those regular though fairly pointless debates on the existence or otherwise of God. I say pointless because I’m almost certain that the protagonists on both sides of the argument will shift their positions not one inch towards the other. We have both heard all of the arguments laid out before and remain unconvinced of the others point of view.

One slight breath of fresh air was the comparatively infrequent introduction of the idea of evidence for the two positions. Certainly from my perspective this is a little difficult as my atheism is largely based on the ‘lack’ of evidence for God. It’s a bit like presenting an empty box and saying “See… there’s nothing there!”

One of the things that I attempt from time to time – when I find a Christian who will engage with me long enough to get this far – is to ask what they base their belief on, what evidence they have which underpins their belief in God. Of course this presents all kinds of problems in itself. Faith isn’t usually based on evidence, I mean if you have evidence for something why do you need faith as well? But I keep asking the question and find that too often the conversation ends there – sometimes amicably and sometimes not. On a few occasions though the particular Christian attempts to show what brought them to believe in a divine being who created the Universe and yet cares about each one of us personally.

To be honest at this point I begin to wonder if the conversation suddenly switches to an alternate language. One that is close enough to English that I can discern individual words but in which the meaning is lost – maybe in translation. I’ll try to explain further.

The ‘explanations’ of the grounding of Christians belief in God are as varied as the people themselves. Some simply point to the Bible as proof in itself. Others ask questions such as ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ or the classic ‘Where does Morality come from?’ as if these are unanswerable Zen koans that lead to instant understanding and theistic enlightenment. Some of the strangest answers have been things like trees, the Universe or my very own existence as proof of God. How they leap from the evident existence of one thing to the less than self evident existence of something else is beyond me. One of the guys at work tried very hard indeed to explain his faith to me and suggested several times that I should visit his church with him. One of the ‘selling points’ he made was that all of the Christians he knew were happy people. OK, I’m probably not the happiest person on the planet but I don’t think that my occasional periods of unhappiness warrant me abandoning my stance on God. When asked what prompted his belief in God he replied that it was the birth of his son. This was not really the kind of ‘evidence’ I was expecting.

It has dawned on me that theists and atheists often have different ideas of what constitutes evidence. As I said in a previous post on Kevin’s Blog: we must remember that both groups are operating within their own philosophical paradigms which means that one persons argument (or evidence) will be another persons belly laugh. I have, on more that one occasion been completely incredulous regarding the things theists produce as 'evidence'. I think that this factor is central to the problem we have in resolving this issue.

I honestly don’t know what kind of evidence it would take to convince me of the existence of God. I do know that nothing I have seen, heard about, read or been presented to me has even registered on the ‘belief meter’. That’s because what many theists regard as proof I, and many like me, do not. That, as I have said previously, is the nub of the problem in understanding each others case. What theists see as ‘obvious’ evidence atheists tend to see as meaningless. Where atheists see a lack of evidence (or sometimes evidence against the existence of God) theists see a proud and stubborn refusal to face facts.

That’s one of the reasons I see such debate as pretty much always pointless. We generally talk across each other and nothing is resolved – and yet there are those who lose their faith because of inconvenient evidence that undermines their belief in the divine. Likewise there are those who discover something that convinces them of Gods existence. The contradictions and problems inherent in Christianity I can see. To me they are obvious, but as to the ‘selling points’ I just have no idea what these people are talking about. Maybe I never will but I do love a good mystery……
Cartoon Time.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

I AM: Human (therefore Irrational, Illogical and Inconsistant).
I WANT: to start a PhD before I’m 50.
I WISH: that I was 20 years younger.
I HATE: being ill.
I MISS: Pepperoni Pizza (still).
I FEAR: that I will never be understood.
I HEAR: music in my head fairly constantly.
I VALUE: my time very highly.
I WONDER: about things a lot.
I REGRET: not getting to know my Father more.
I AM NOT: nor have I ever been, a member of any Political party.
I DANCE: when I’ve had too much to drink.
I SING: when I’ve had too much to drink.
I CRY: rarely – which is maybe a bad thing.
I AM NOT ALWAYS: at my best.
I MAKE: good biscuits.
I WRITE: as I speak.
I CONFUSE: the difference between friendship and something more (sometimes).
I NEED: a bigger house for all my books.
I SHOULD: really stop putting things off till later.
I START: books before finishing others.
I FINISH: relationships baddly.

Friday, July 20, 2007

UK decides intelligent design is not science

By Iain Thomson for vnunet.com

26 Jun 2007

UK government has confirmed that 'intelligent design', sometimes called neo-creationism, will not be taught in schools as part of the National Curriculum. The statement came in response to a petition calling for the doctrine not to form part of British education. A similar case in the US occurred in 2005 when a Pennsylvania court found that intelligent design was not a scientific theory and "cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents".

"The UK government is aware that a number of concerns have been raised in the media and elsewhere as to whether creationism and intelligent design have a place in science lessons," said the government in its response to the petition. "The government is clear that creationism and intelligent design are not part of the science National Curriculum programmes of study and should not be taught as science." It continues that intelligent design can be referred to in classes, but that it must be made clear that it is not science and that pupils will not be tested on the subject. The report will come as a relief to many who worry that Britain is increasingly being targeted by those who seek to introduce intelligent design into school science classes.

Despite the US court ruling, intelligent design is still taught in many American schools and President Bush has expressed his wish that this should continue. "We are very pleased about the decision," said Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society. "It is very important that the government has made such a plain statement of intent that intelligent design will not be taught in science classes. It is not science and has no business posing as such and creating confusion for children in schools." The concept of intelligent design states that the variety and complexity of life on Earth could not be down to evolution, but must instead have been created by an intelligent entity.

The concept first surfaced in the mid-1980s as attempts were made to overturn the teaching of evolution in schools. One of the main advocates for the theory is the Discovery Institute in the US, which receives some funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 1999 a memo from the organisation was leaked, the so-called 'Wedge document', which outlined the Institute's 20-year plan for attacking evolution. Its stated objective was to "defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies and to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God". The Discovery Institute has never denied creating the document, but claims that its importance has been overblown by conspiracy theorists.

[Finally is has been decided that Creationist nonsense isn’t going to be taught in our schools. Good. So-called Intelligent Design is not a science – it’s a dressed up Creation Myth. If it is to be taught in schools it should be as part of a ‘Comparative Mythology’ course and not in a Science class!]

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Way of the Wolf by E E Knight

The Year is 2065. Forty years after the Kurian Invasion the human survivors and their descendents live in fear of the night. For the night is when the Reavers come to drain them of their blood and their life force. Some do their best to hide, some co-operate in the hope of a longer life and some, like David Valentine, chose to fight back.

Leaving his adopted family as a teenager he is inducted into the growing guerrilla army. Showing an aptitude for hit and run tactics David joins the elite Wolves where he learns the history of the invasion and of the Kurians true nature – they are creatures from legend who visited Earth millennia ago. Called by many names over the centuries and worshiped by some we know them today as Vampires. David must conquer his fears and control his hatred of mankind’s immortal enemies if he hopes to survive his first encounters with them.

Although intrigued by the idea of 'Alien Vampires from the Future' (as I described it to a friend of mine) I was more than a little apprehensive about this book. It was by an author I had never heard of and yet I had bought the first four books in the series on impulse. Luckily I was not disappointed! E E Knight turned out to be a solid and exciting storyteller. The world shattered by alien invasion was a realistic one and the various characters behaviours felt reasonable considering that they often had to grow up in a reality very different from ours. The main character David was particularly well drawn as were the many secondary players. The situations, whilst fantastical in nature, suspended disbelief every step of the way. At no point did I think anything about it was ridiculous or unbelievable – but maybe that’s just me!

This was a real page turner and a valuable addition to vampire literature. The sixth book in the series has just been published in hardback and I shall look forward to reading the rest of them. Recommended.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Is The US Mirroring Rome’s Fall?

by Richard Gwyn for The Toronto Star

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Circling around Washington is a broad swath of highways known as The Beltway. Two Americas exist today: one, “inside the Beltway,” is composed of all the people who run the country; the other, “outside” it, is made up of all of the rest of the United States. Ancient Rome was the same. It too was surrounded by a sacred boundary known as the pomerium.

Run, don’t walk, to get a copy of Are We Rome? by Cullen Murphy. This slim book compares ancient Rome and contemporary U.S., and does it in an exceptionally intelligent and highly literate way. Murphy examines the crucial question whether the U.S., like Rome, is destined to decline and fall. This notion isn’t new but Murphy’s approach is fresh and sharp and wholly captivating. As one example, he points out that Rome never “fell” in the sense most people use the term of a sudden collapse; rather, it “dissolved into history” over about 200 years.

Today, like then, there is the presumption that because an impressive, indeed overpowering, empire exists, it must go on forever. Washington, Murphy points out, has set aside $20 million for a “day of celebration” to mark eventual victory in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Romans thought the same way. Among the very last Roman coins to be stuck were those that bore the legend, Roma Invicta - Rome Invincible. There is the same dependence on military strength and the same ever-mounting difficulty in getting enough soldiers to enlist - Rome depending more and more on barbarians and the U.S. more and more on “military contractors.”

There is the same gap between rich and poor. Far wider in Rome, which had almost no middle class, but far more socially destructive in the U.S. because of America’s founding myth as an egalitarian society. Once that belief is lost, can belief in democracy, a contradiction in terms in a wildly unequal society, be sustained? There is also a parallel across the centuries in the way the private sector in the U.S. is taking over more and more governmental activity in the form of philanthropy (as for universities and hospitals); the change agent here is the multiplication in the number of multi-millionaires, all eager to get their name on a piece of stone. No differently so in Rome where the exorbitantly wealthy few paid for temples, baths, stadiums, public feasts.

The consequence was that the collectivity was hollowed out. In the U.S., as in Rome, public undertakings of all kinds arrive like gifts, with the public excluded from either involvement or obligation. Murphy suggests that three horror-futures may await America. There’s Fortress America, with the world kept at an ever greater distance. There’s City-State America with the U.S. nation-state dissolving and the cities becoming increasingly self-governing and autonomous like the old Italian city-states. And there’s what Murphy calls The Boardroom Scenario in which more and more of government is contracted out and corporations effectively run the country. And he has a fourth option to suggest. Murphy writes: “The antidote is being American.”

Unlike the Romans, who never changed much, Murphy writes, Americans are not happy with the way things are. If arrogant, they aren’t complacent. There is anger at the wealth gap, at the decay of government (as in Hurricane Katrina), and there is a rooted belief in the power of invention, self-help, reform. Let’s hope he’s right because the price for Rome’s decline and fall was paid by everyone, not just the Romans themselves.

[It does make me laugh when America is compared to Ancient Rome (even more so when shortly after 9/11 an American commentator called New York the ‘centre of Western Civilisation’). Sure there are some – largely superficial - similarities but that’s as far as it goes. There certainly seems to be a degree of Rome or maybe just general Empire envy in some quarters of American society. Maybe they never got over not having a real Empire when they had the chance back in the 18th and 19th Centuries? The likelihood of the USA carving out an Empire in the 21st Century is pretty much non-existence being both a horrific and laughable idea at the same time. But if the US is indeed a present day Roman Empire I think that we are witnessing its Fall rather than it’s rise to power – though I shall leave it to future historians to argue over that one.]

Friday, July 13, 2007

Just Finished Reading: The Utility of Force – The Art of War in the Modern World by Rupert Smith

This was a bit of a ‘blast from the past’ for me. Years ago I used to devour any book to do with military hardware or history. I guess I grew up and moved onto other things.

Anyway – As the title suggests the author (a retired General with 40 years military experience) sets out his ideas regarding the art of war on today’s battlefields. The main thrust of his idea is that the shape of war has changed. No longer do massed armies face each other on the field of battle. No, today’s conflicts are based around the concept of war amongst the people. In this type of warfare the strengths of Western forces are diminished. Their technical superiority is neutralised. Their training and structure has been rendered ineffective. They have, to a large degree, lost their utility.

This is, of course, a problem if we are going to be called to fight more conflicts (the author shies away from the word wars) such as those on-going in Iraq and Afghanistan, these being far more likely than the pitched battles envisioned during the Cold War era. Throughout the book Smith gives examples of where flexibility and changes of tactics to suit this relatively new type of warfare has produced results. He proposes that less attention and money is directed to techniques and weapons designed to defeat the (now ex) Soviet Union and instead directed to those processes that can defeat modern insurgents.

To me much of this was common sense. Still over a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall military forces in the West (and elsewhere I imagine) are building weapons that will never be used but are being built at enormous cost. They have little or no deterrent value against our most likely enemies and have almost no utility. Future conflicts will most likely be fought in the sprawling cities of the Third World where the application of our advanced weapons will be useless or counterproductive. We need to recognise that the set-piece battles of World War Two are unlikely ever to happen again and design our Armed Forces accordingly. Without such redesign the apparently endless fighting between high-tech soldiers from the West and poorly armed guerrillas from the rest of the world will continue – indefinitely.

This is a must read for anyone wanting to understand why we can’t seem to win our wars any more.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

We of little faith.

By Sue Blackmore

June 8, 2007

"Religious faith is not inconsistent with reason." I nearly choked on my breakfast when I heard this on the Today programme. These words were spoken by Mr Blair, in his inimitably sincere style. He was addressing an Islamic conference in London, on June 4, and pledging more money to support Islamic studies in British Universities.

When I'd calmed down I went to check, and it really is true. In the full text of his speech, on the No 10 website, he says:

"In the face of so much high profile accorded to religious extremism, to schism, and to confrontation, it is important to show that religious faith is not inconsistent with reason, or progress, or the celebration of diversity."

But religious faith is inconsistent with reason (and much more that we value as well).

I'm not referring to the ordinary kind of faith by which we have faith in another person's honesty, or that taking an aspirin will reduce our headache. I am talking about religious faith, as Tony Blair was too. In this context faith means believing without reason. Indeed, this is precisely how it is defined, for example as "Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence" or in Merriam Webster as "firm belief in something for which there is no proof". Does this make faith inconsistent with reason? I would say yes. Reason demands that you look for evidence and believe accordingly - which is exactly what we do when we trust a friend because they've been reliable in the past, or doubt a rumour until we've checked on the facts.

Faith is corrosive to the human mind. If someone genuinely believes that it is right to believe things without reason or evidence then they are open to every kind of dogma, whim, coercion, or dangerous infectious idea that's around. If someone is convinced that it is acceptable to base their beliefs on what is written in an ancient book, or what some teacher tells them they must believe, then they will have no true freedom of thought; they will be trapped by their faith into inconsistency and untruths because they are unable to throw out false ideas when evidence against them comes along. The whole point of a university education is to learn to think for yourself, to criticise theories, to compare ideas and to find out the truth by research, exploration and experiment. Whether you are studying French, chemistry, or psychology, you are given tools for thinking independently and ways of evaluating other people's claims. In this there is no room for faith, and should be no room for faith.

I want to be clear about some things I am not saying. First I am not saying that everything has to be rational. There is much about human life that has little or nothing to do with rationality; there's love and affection, art and poetry, happiness, beauty and intuition. But none of these things has to be taken on faith. University courses include much that is not rational, not just in arts courses but even in science, where one has hunches or enjoys beautiful ideas, but again there is no room for holding onto religious faith - wherever the ideas come from they must ultimately be thrown out if they are shown to be wrong. Second, I am not saying that no students should have religious beliefs. This is (and must be, in a free society) a matter for them, in the privacy of their own minds. There will always be some students who believe things on faith and others who don't, but the job of a university course is to make people think and to give them the tools for doing so. Faith is not one of those tools. Indeed, by and large, a university education reduces religious belief, as indeed it should.

I have had countless students on my psychology courses who began as believers in God, or the afterlife, or spirits and souls, and then had to question those beliefs through the process of learning how the mind actually works. I have seen them (and I hope helped them) go through this painful process of throwing off their restrictive childhood religious beliefs and learning to live with the uncertainties and open-mindedness needed for real learning. Finally, I am not saying there should be no courses on Christianity or Islam or any other religion. There are and should be, for there is much of importance to study: the history of the religions, the beliefs, their cultural background and much more. But universities should be teaching people how to think, question, and understand these things, not to have faith in "truths" proclaimed without reason or evidence.

Tony Blair pronounces the word "faith" with just that touch of special reverence in his voice, as though it were something to respect, something we should admire in others and grant them licence to believe whatever they want on its account. Indeed he proclaimed that the conference was "an opportunity to listen; to hear Islam's true voice; to welcome and appreciate them; and in doing so, to join up with all those who believe in a world where religious faith is respected". How despicable. How creepy. How frightening when we see the dire consequences of faith-based actions all around us. Of course people of faith want us to respect their beliefs. For they have no other way of defending them than to appeal to respect, to promise rewards for believers, or threaten punishments for unbelievers. So anyone who cares about the truth should resist these meme tricks. Religious faith is something that we should struggle to throw off when we have better ways of learning the truth about the universe we live in; something we should overcome rather than something we should respect.

I, for one, do not want to live in a world where religious faith is respected. I do not want more "faith-based initiatives". I do not want more faith schools, and our great universities should continue to teach people to think for themselves, to respect the truth, and to take nothing on faith.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Pullman wins 'great book' title

From the BBC.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Philip Pullman's Northern Lights has been named the best children's book of the past 70 years. A public vote selected the book from a list of past winners of the Carnegie Medal for Children's Literature. "This accolade is an enormous pleasure to receive," said the British author. "It is without any question the most important honour I have ever received."

The fantasy adventure is being turned into a film starring Nicole Kidman, under its US title The Golden Compass. A panel of judges whittled down the 70 winners of the Carnegie Medal to deliver a shortlist of 10 books. Among them was Mary Norton's The Borrowers, Robert Westall's The Machine Gunners and Junk by Melvin Burgess. But Pullman's book, which received the medal in 1995, pulled in more than 40% of votes in the global poll. "I am humbled and honoured that Northern Lights has been chosen from among so many wonderful books," said the author.

The His Dark Materials trilogy revolves around the story of a young girl, Lyra, who travels to the far north to save her best friend. Along the way, she encounters shape-shifting creatures, witches and a variety of other-worldly characters in parallel universes. "These books have redefined children's literature and changed the way we think and talk about children's books," said Carnegie judge Jonathan Douglas. "They are classics."

[I always knew that these were great books. As I’ve said before – probably three of the best books I’ve ever read. If you haven’t picked them up yet I advise you to do so. I'm looking forward to the movie(s) with some trepidation - though I heartily approve of Nicole Kidman as Mrs Coulter. I actually imagined her in the role long before it was announced.]

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Cartoon Time.
Just Finished Reading: Dead Headers by James H Jackson

After a mortar attack in Paris kills hundreds, Intelligence Agencies on both sides of the Atlantic go into high gear to find the perpetrators and stop any more attacks. One of those Agencies is a secret part of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service known as Executive Support. Ironically referred to as ‘Dead Headers’ the members of Executive Support have a mandate of terrorising the terrorists by any and all means, and this they do with ruthless efficiency.

An investigation of the Paris attack leads to retaliation against Iraq, Iran and Libya but as the death toll on both sides steadily increases it becomes apparent that there is more going on than random acts of terrorism. Behind the scenes a shadowy figure is manipulating events and people as part of a greater plan – a plan that will plunge the Middle East into a terrible war.

This was James Jackson’s first novel, though you would be forgiven for thinking that he was already an established author. Written with authority, knowledge (including a mention of a dangerous individual called Osama Bin Laden – this in 1997) and style this was a cracking techno-thriller/spy novel and a real page turner. The few faults I found with it were fairly trivial. I didn’t like the level of brutality which I thought was unnecessary, the ‘bad guys’ were unremittingly evil (or simply insane) without a great deal of depth to their characters whilst the ‘good guys’ were full of self doubt and subtly flawed and lastly, as you often find in first novels, the author simply tried too hard.

Saying all of that however, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys the genre. Unfortunately his next two novels in a similar vein are out of print and his latest book takes place during the time of the Roman Empire. Maybe I’ll try that anyway as I’m definitely developing a taste for historical fiction.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Video Time.

Oasis - Wonderwall.

Not only but also……

I guess that I am mostly ‘known’ on this Blog as being what could be called a hard-line atheist. Whilst true it’s not the only thing that defines me. My atheism, though a core component of what makes me… me, doesn’t inform many other aspects of my life. It has little to say regarding my taste in music, art, literature or movies. It probably influences my take on moral issues but it doesn’t determine them and I don’t regard it as having much of any influence on my politics.

I’ve recently been mulling over just exactly what my politics are. This have been prompted by a few Blogs I’ve been reading and contributing to as well as thinking of an upcoming University course which has a heavy political content. This has necessitated me buying (lots of) books to try and get up to speed on the philosophical side of all things political.

I most certainly consider myself to be of the Left politically though I’m not sure where that comes from. My roots are definitely in the Working Class North but by most definitions I am now firmly in the Middle Class (if those terms have much meaning any more). My education up to the age of 18 was as unremarkable as the State schools I attended. Unlike France (and I suspect much of the rest of Continental Europe) English State schools don’t teach much in the way of politics so I didn’t pick it up there. I suppose my first real introduction to political ideology – apart from reading 1984 when I was 14 or so – was during college when one of the subjects I studied was Sociology. The two year course consisted of analysing various aspects of society such as Education and the Family from various perspectives, one of which was Marxism. Thinking about it later I couldn’t help wondering if the tutor was a child of the radical 60’s but whatever his intention he certainly sold me on Marx. When the course ended I could dissect just about any subject from a Marxist perspective. This continued at University where I studied Social Ethics (and Educational Studies). So much so that my Ed Studs tutor began jokingly calling me ‘Comrade’.

But no matter how much I internalised Marxist thinking I never considered myself to be a Marxist nor a Communist. Such ideas, despite or maybe because of their power, never appeared to work in the ‘Real World’ with the Soviet State version of Communism being a case in point. I am more than aware that Soviet Communism is an extremely bastardised version of Communist theory but it still never really caught my political imagination to the extent that I would be happy to adopt the label. What did appeal though was Anarchism.

Anarchism and Communism are kissing cousins politically, sharing some of the same parents, grandparents and a host of other relations. Literally meaning without leaders, anarchism appealed to my deep distrust of authority and hierarchy (which also, of course, translates over into my Atheism) and after reading several good books on the subject I was sold. Unfortunately Anarchism is even more theoretical than Communism. Several attempts at anarchist type communities have been tried but have normally been quickly crushed by the various authorities they ‘rebelled’ against. On top of this I am not totally convinced that an anarchist society could even function. Can people really cope without some form of leadership? Would mutual aid between disparate groups emerge in a usable form before people starved in their homes? What would an anarchist society even look like?

Which leaves me kind of stuck in a political no-mans land. Though I was frankly ecstatic when New Labour won the General Election back in the 90’s I have over the years grown to loath them. I think what actually disgusted me most – even more than their clear move to the Right (to gain the Centre ground) – was their wholesale jettisoning of Socialist Ideology. I know intellectually why they did this – simply to make themselves electable. But it really bothered me. Maybe then I’m actually a Socialist after all? Thinking about it I don’t wholly reject this label. It does bother me that when I think of Socialism I think of badly run State owned monopolies. I think of Government interference, 5 Year plans and gross incompetence. Maybe I’ve just been indoctrinated against Socialism by a Capitalist run Press – though I don’t think that I have.

I think that I am just deeply distrustful of Politics. I feel too individualistic to be happy with my life being impacted by a groups political ideology – whether from the Left or the Right. Yet my sympathies are most definitely with the Left. Confusing isn’t it? I think that I need to think on this a bit more and (rather inevitably) do some more reading on the subject. I’ll let you know what I come up with – if anything.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Theologian damns most Britons to hell

By Stephen Bates for The Guardian

Thursday May 24, 2007

Ninety-five per cent of Britons are heading for hell, according to the principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, who has been under fire from some staff for taking one of the leading Anglican theological training colleges in a conservative direction. Richard Turnbull, appointed two years ago, made the claim in a speech to the annual conference of Reform, a conservative evangelical pressure group within the Church of England. If he truly believes it, the figure would encompass at least all non-evangelical Christians, including many members of the Church of England, and those of all other religions and none.

A recording of the speech, made in October last year and seen by the Guardian, was posted last night on the Thinking Anglicans liberal website. In it, Dr Turnbull also warns against the danger of liberalism in the church, talks of "the strategic nature" of evangelical control of training colleges and calls on conservatives to syphon off 10% of their financial contributions to the Church of England to help pay the costs of like-minded colleges. The message excludes even evangelicals who are regarded as more liberal in their beliefs. Dr Turnbull told them: "We are committed to bringing the gospel message of Jesus Christ to those who don't know [him] and in this land that's 95% of the people: 95% of people facing hell unless the message of the gospel is brought to them."

Traditionally Wycliffe, a permanent private hall of Oxford University founded in 1877, has trained evangelical Anglicans for the clergy, but its reputation has been as an open evangelical college, welcoming would-be ordinands from a wide range of theological and liturgical beliefs. Critics within the college have accused the principal of taking it in a much more restrictive and exclusionary direction. At least a third of the academic staff have resigned and its best-known member, the Thought for the Day contributor Elaine Storkey, has been threatened with disciplinary action, allegedly for raising concerns at an internal staff meeting.

In his speech, the principal criticised the Church of England for "restrictive trade practices" in limiting funding for its students and added: "I view [my] post as strategic because it would allow influence to be brought to bear upon generations of the ministry...capture the theological colleges and you have captured the influence that is brought to bear." He warns that unless like-minded parishes fund colleges such as his own, they face closure within 10 years. At the same conference in Derbyshire, Reform members agreed to remain within the Church of England for the time being but to set up an advisory panel to support conservative clergy and encourage ordinands of their viewpoint. They were told by one senior member, the Rev David Holloway, vicar of Jesmond, that the church was a dysfunctional body with incompetent leadership.

In an article to be published in tomorrow's Church of England Newspaper - a more broadly-based evangelical publication - Dr Turnbull's message appears rather more tolerant. He writes: "For me and for Wycliffe, inclusive means exactly that, rather than the exclusion of particular views. So issues which divide ... have to be debated in the open, albeit with care and sensitivity ..."

Dr Turnbull was not available for comment last night.

[Well, if 95% of us Brits are going to Hell at least I won’t be lonely. Most of my friends will be there – actually thinking about Dr Turnbull’s criteria for entry into Heaven all of my friends will be there – and there will be an eternity to get to know the rest of the countries almost entire population….. Fools like this really give Christianity a bad name.]

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Just Finished Reading: Democracy – A Very Short Introduction by Bernard Crick.

Yes, it’s another VSI book [grin]. This one covered to surprisingly complicated idea called Democracy. In 120 pages Professor Crick covered just what we mean by the word Democracy (and how it can be manipulated to mean lots of different things to lots of people), the history of the idea – as well as how recently what we regard as Democracy actually emerged – as well as how it relates to other idea such as Republicanism and Populism.

Whilst not as attention-grabbing (at least to me) as the previous books in this series discussing various ethical or philosophical subjects, this was certainly a readable work. I was kind of surprised at just how difficult the author found a reasonable definition of Democracy to be. I also found it very sobering to see just how young even the ‘Great’ democracies really are – and how rare. A good read for anyone interested in political ideas and history.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Too Many Wolves.

I’ve just picked up a new book and it begins with this rather sombre quote:

Have you ever dealt with people who have lost everything in just an hour? In the morning you leave the house where your wife, your children, your parents live. You return to find a smoking pit. Then something happens to you – to a certain extent you stop being human. You do not need any glory, money anymore; revenge becomes your only joy. And because you no longer cling to life, death avoids you, the bullets fly past. You become a wolf.

Russian General Aleksander Lebed, veteran of Afganistan

It’s clear to me that by our actions around the world the West (including Russia) is producing far too many wolves. Sooner or later (and I’m betting on sooner) we’re going to regret it. Maybe it’s about time we stopped?

Sunday, July 01, 2007