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

Monday, March 31, 2008

Thinking About: Affairs of the Heart

Technically I suppose that I’ve had two affairs – strangely both with the same woman. The first was shortly after I met her. She was separated from her husband and was in the process of going through a divorce. I understand that he was divorcing her for adultery – which is hardly surprising really. I wasn’t the co-respondent in this case but I guess I could have been. It was a weird feeling being involved with someone else’s (still technical) wife. It did add a strange frisson to the relationship – at least to begin with and I guess I was enjoying all of the advantages without any (or many) of the pitfalls. This was to come later.

About 6 months in she decided that she was going back to her previous lover who she was having an affair with before she met me. At this point you would think that large noisy alarm bells would be going off in my head. Oh, no. I’m the idiot who thought I could change her wandering ways. Laughable though it seems now I honestly thought that she could settle down for me. Anyway, I was dumped. Much anguish ensued at least on my part. She managed, at least in my company, to hold it together unlike me who walked around like the recently deceased complete with hang-dog look and metaphorical black armband. I was honestly devastated.

Knowing her fairly well by now I managed to do something that still surprises me to this day. Not only did I work myself back into her affections – and her bed – but I eventually stole her back. But for 12 long weeks I was seeing her ‘on the side’. This time I was indeed the ‘other man’ complete with stolen moments, ignored phone calls and frightening knocks on the door. Apparently he had quite a temper and was not averse to actually hitting her. I singularly failed to understand why she wanted him over me but I had given up even trying to understand all women years before I met this one. In some ways it was great to have her back. At least kind of back. I saw her once or twice a week and the sex was frantic and rather fantastic. The payment was, of course, when she got out of my bed to drive to his. I have never been so lost or so angry in my life since those days. I understood then with amazing clarity the idea of a crime of passion. Been there – thought about that. If I wasn’t such a sensible person… who knows what might have happened?

Against all expectations though it worked. Finally she realised that I was better for her than him and she left him to be exclusively with me. But, understandably, it was never the same. At first there was the worry that she’d just leave me again. Afterwards I simply didn’t trust her anymore. I’d lost my naiveté about our relationship. Of course the rot set in and within a year she had left me again for someone else. I wasn’t surprised but it still hit me very hard indeed.

Needless to say I promised myself that I would never have another affair. The pain of the experience was just too much to repeat. Anyone who has been the other man or other woman will know exactly what I mean. I must admit though that some women I know have given me pause. If the opportunity presented itself could I have an affair with one of them? I hope that I would be strong enough to be flattered and say thanks – but no thanks. At least I hope I would say that. I’m not as much of a sucker for a pretty face as I once was and I can turn down sex (at least temporarily) but I do wonder sometimes. The ‘problem’ I have is that I can’t do meaningless sex. To me sex is never meaningless. Maybe I’m too in touch with my feminine side here but to me sex isn’t just an activity, its part of the process, part of the relationship. Without the context of a relationship what is sex – but mutual masturbation?

So another affair in my future – probably not. Probably.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

My Favourite Movies: V for Vendetta

[This is my original review of this movie posted here soon after seeing it for the first time. I didn't think I could improve on my first impression.]

Both a dark vision of a possible future and a disturbing comment on the present, V for Vendetta pulls few punches and makes few missteps in its portrayal of a country crushed under the heel of a totalitarian government ruling its population through the manipulation of fear.

We are presented with a frighteningly updated version of 1984, complete with giant wallscreens and the screaming invective of ‘Big Brother’ rather ironically played by John Hurt who reverses his role of Winston Smith in the last cinematic version of Orwell’s defining work. After a series of largely manufactured disasters and terrorist atrocities Britain ‘prevails’ through the fear engendered by the ‘fingermen’ who prowl the streets after curfew arresting, beating and ‘disappearing’ anyone who opposes the New Order. During one such ‘arrest’ we meet both Evey (played superbly by Natalie Portman back on form – and how – after the risible Starwars pre-trilogy) and the enigmatic V (played by the outstanding Hugo Weaving acting behind a mask throughout the entire performance) who rescues her from almost certain rape.

V introduces himself and his plan to change everything. For that night is November 5th – the anniversary of the long forgotten Gunpowder Plot when Guy Fawkes failed to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the hope of freeing his fellow Catholics from religious oppression. V, dressed as his hero Guy, hopes to succeed where Fawkes failed destroying Parliament and freeing England from its present tyranny. To demonstrate both his resolve and his abilities he destroys the Old Bailey which was once a place of justice and is now an arm of the Secret Police. But this is not simply an act of terrorism. This is a symbolic act, complete with music and fireworks. It is also a warning and a promise. V states that on the next 5th November he will return to destroy the ruling Government itself.

So begins a cat and mouse game between V and the police as they attempt to uncover his masked identity. Cleverly this also introduces the audience into the murky history of the ‘Reconstruction’ when order is ruthlessly restored after a terrorist attack on London. Caught up in the chaos are Evey’s parents who are arrested after a protest and ‘disappeared’ leaving Evey to grow up in a government facility. The audience also learn, piece by piece that V had been resident in a Government facility of a much darker type where biological experiments where performed to produce the perfect weapon. During the investigation Inspector Finch (understatedly played by Stephen Rea) discovers to his growing horror that the suspected Islamic terrorists may not have been responsible for the outrage after all. Starting out as a reluctant arm of State security, Rea moves ever closer to understanding and sympathising with V’s need for vengeance against the people and the system that took his future from him.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that this is a very political film. Nor should it be surprising that it says much regarding how both the US and the UK have responded to the attack on 9/11. Both of those Governments have used fear and the manipulation of fear in an attempt to paralyse their populations into unquestioning obedience. But if one thing is certain – and made blindingly clear by this movie - it is that (with apologies to Ben Franklin) if we give up our freedoms for the illusory promise of security then we will have neither freedom nor security. This film is first and foremost a warning that if we let it happen we can sleepwalk into tyranny despite the best intentions of all concerned. Our governments should not rely on their ability to spin tales of fear to gain our compliance. (As V rightly observed “The people should not be afraid of their Governments. Governments should be afraid of their people”). Nor should we abrogate our responsibilities in the name of safety and security. Though it is true that we live in a dangerous world it is also true that it has always been thus. Nothing much has changed despite what some would have you believe.

If you haven’t seen this film yet – Go see it. Now.
Just Finished Reading: On the Prowl by Patricia Briggs, Eileen Wilks, Karen Chance and Sunny

More tales of things that go bump in the night and bump in the bedroom. There seems to be a large and growing market for supernatural stories of often supernatural heroines fighting the good fight to keep the world demon free – or at least to keep them down to manageable levels.

The four novellas in this volume where of varying quality. Alpha and Omega by Pat Briggs was a tale of werewolf love and was pretty well written. It also introduced the new idea (at least to me) of the Omega wolf. Inhuman by Eileen Wilks was very good and took place in a near future world where magic has returned due to a shift in the Realms. Well written with lots of interesting ideas. I’ll be looking out for more of her work. Buying Trouble by Karen Chance was irritatingly tongue in cheek and was (I can only assume) supposed to be funny. It wasn’t really. I hope this isn’t a typical example of her work as I have two of her novels yet to read. Lastly Mona Lisa Betwining by Sunny was a rather run-of-the-mill variation of the werewolf tale with demons thrown in for good measure. A reasonable way to be introduced to the sub-genre but on the whole not very good.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The milk of humanist kindness

AC Grayling

November 21, 2006

The current quarrel between religious and non-religious outlooks is another chapter in a story whose previous main incidents are to be found in the mid-nineteenth century and the early seventeenth century, in connection respectively with Darwin's discoveries in biology and the rise of natural science. Both are moments in the slow but bloody retreat of religion; so too is what is happening now. For, despite all appearances, we are witnessing the death-throes of religion: I make the case for this claim in Prospect Magazine. Here I wish to comment on something that, in the current climate of debate, has been mainly overlooked: the fact that those who are not religious have available to them a rich ethical outlook, all the richer indeed for being the result of reflection as opposed to conditioning, whose roots lie in classical antiquity when the great tradition of ethical thought in Western philosophy began.

For convenience I use the term "humanists" to denote those whose ethical outlook is non-religiously based - which is, in other words, premised on humanity's best efforts to understand its own nature and circumstances. Consider what humanists aspire to be as ethical agents. They wish always to respect their fellow human beings, to like them, to honour their strivings and to sympathise with their feelings. They wish to begin every encounter, every relationship, with this attitude, for they keep in mind Emerson's remark that we must give others what we give a painting; namely, the advantage of a good light. Most of their fellow human beings merit this, and respond likewise. Some forfeit it by what they wilfully do. But in all cases the humanists' approach rests on the idea that what shapes people is the complex of facts about the interaction between human nature's biological underpinnings and each individual's social and historical circumstances.

Understanding these things - through the arts and literature, through history and philosophy, through the magnificent endeavour of science, through attentive personal experience and reflection, through close relationships, through the conversation of mankind which all this adds up to - is the great essential for humanists in their quest to live good and achieving lives, to do good to others in the process, and to join with their fellows in building just and decent societies where all can have an opportunity to flourish. And this is for the sake of this life, in this world, where we suffer and find joy, where we can help one another, and where we need one another's help: the help of the living human hand and heart. A great deal of that help has to be targeted at the other side of what the human heart is - the unkind, angry, hostile, selfish, cruel side; the superstitious, tendentious, intellectually captive, ignorant side - to defeat or mitigate it, to ameliorate the consequences of its promptings, to teach it to be different; and never with lies and bribes.

Humanists distinguish between individuals and the wide variety of belief systems people variously adhere to. Some belief systems (those involving astrology, feng shui, crystal healing, animism...the list is long) they combat robustly because the premises of them are falsehoods - many, indeed, are inanities - and, even more, because too often belief in some of those falsehoods serves as a prompt to murder. Humanists contest them as they would contest any falsehood. But with the exception of the individuals who promote these systems when they should know better, humanism is not against the majority who subscribe to them, for it recognises that they were brought up in them as children, or turn to them out of need, or adhere to them hopefully (sometimes, and perhaps too often, unthinkingly).

These are fellow human beings, and humanists profoundly wish them well; which means too that they wish them to be free, to think for themselves, to see the world through clear eyes. If only, says the humanist, they would have a better knowledge of history! If only they would see what their own leaders think of the simple version of the faiths they adhere to, substituting such sophistry in its place! For whereas the ordinary believer has a somewhat misty notion of a father-cum-policeman-cum-Father Christmas-cum-magician personal deity, their theologians deploy such a polysyllabic, labyrinthine, intricate, sophisticated, complexified approach, that some go so far as to claim (as one current celebrity cleric does) that God does not have to exist to be believed in. The standard basis of religious belief - subjective certainty - is hard enough to contest, being non-rational at source, but this is beyond orbit. It is hard to know which are worse: the theologians who are serious about what they say in these respects, and those who know it for a game.

In contrast to the utter certainties of faith, a humanist has a humbler conception of the nature and current extent of knowledge. All the enquiries that human intelligence conducts into enlarging knowledge make progress always at the expense of generating new questions. Having the intellectual courage to live with this open-endedness and uncertainty, trusting to reason and experiment to gain us increments of understanding, having the absolute integrity to base one's theories on rigorous and testable foundations, and being committed to changing one's mind when shown to be wrong, are the marks of honest minds. In the past humanity was eager to clutch at legends, superstitions and leaps of credulity, to attain quick and simple closure on all that they did not know or understand, to make it seem to themselves that they did know and understand. Humanism recognises this historical fact about the old myths, and sympathises with the needs that drive people in that direction. It points out to such that what feeds their hearts and minds - love, beauty, music, sunshine on the sea, the sound of rain on leaves, the company of friends, the satisfaction that comes from successful effort - is more than the imaginary can ever give them, and that they should learn to re-describe these things - the real things of this world - as what gives life the poetry of its significance.

For that is what humanism is: it is, to repeat and insist, about the value of things human. Its desire to learn from the past, its exhortation to courage in the present, and its espousal of hope for the future, are about real things, real people, real human need and possibility, and the fate of the fragile world we share. It is about human life; it requires no belief in an after life. It is about this world; it requires no belief in another world. It requires no commands from divinities, no promises of reward or threats of punishment, no myths and rituals, either to make sense of things or to serve as a prompt to the ethical life. It requires only open eyes, sympathy, and reason.

[Thoughts, opinions, comments?]

Monday, March 24, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Continental Philosophy – A Very Short Introduction by Simon Critchley

Before reading this small volume I was already aware that there are two main streams of thought in Western Philosophy – the Anglo-American or Analytic and the Continental (European). Critchley explains exactly what this difference is and spends several chapters outlining the origins of the split. More interestingly (from my point of view) he points out that Continental philosophy is concerned with three main things: Critique, praxis and emancipation. In other words it criticises present social practices working towards transformation in order to emancipate us from things that are unjust, unfree or untrue.

A second major theme outlined by the author is its response to the problem of nihilism. After the ‘death of God’ Continental philosophy attempts to answer the question: how are we to structure our societies and ourselves to prevent a fall into a world where ‘anything goes’? This, I think, is a vital project. Lastly Critchley spends some time on the tension between the trend towards Scientism and the reverse trend towards Obscurantism in philosophical thinking.

Though very well written – much better than the previous VSI volume – this book did make my head ache at times. However, the main thrust of Continental philosophy did greatly appeal to me – especially the idea that philosophy must be critical of the status quo and also deal with the problem of God (or lack thereof). Both of these themes are, I think, very important indeed in today’s complex world. Needless to say I shall be following this up in the future. This work has certainly helped me focus my attention on an area deserving of more study so you should expect the musings of Continental philosophers to show up with increasing regularity from now on. I would certainly recommend this book to anyone whose knowledge of this subject was as sketchy as mine. An enjoyable if at times mind-bending read.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Thinking About: Being Gay

Some time ago I was attempting to get a friend into bed when she stopped me and said “But, I thought you were gay?” Confused for a moment I looked at her and said: “Erm, no… I’m not” - a response which came as rather a surprise to her. It was an even bigger surprise to me that she thought that I was.

Over the next few days I asked some of my female work colleagues if they have ever thought that I was gay. Most of them said that it had never crossed their minds though a few said that I had made them wonder – at least for a while. It got me thinking about a comment I had some years ago during a training course in London. I was chatting away with 4-5 women when one of them reaching over and said that she was very impressed that I was so at ease with my sexuality. At the time I took it for the compliment it seemed to be. I had assumed that she meant that I was happy in the company of women without the need to be all macho or something. With the benefit of hindsight I’m now thinking she assumed that I was gay.

Of course this perception of me being gay might explain why I have spent most of my adult life as a single male. Women (and maybe some men too) think I’m gay and gay men think I’m straight. OK, it might have something to do with me being plug ugly, boring and weird – but I’m putting all that to one side for now [laughs]. I do wonder though if I have a ‘quality’ like Chandler Bing in Friends. Maybe I give off a ‘gay vibe’? I honestly have no idea. I wonder if it’s because I normally treat women as people rather than as potential future sex partners that has something to do with it – I mean when I talk to women I look them in the eye rather than in the breast. How gay is that! [grin]. Maybe it’s that I’m just too polite to be straight?

It is kind of funny though. All through my life – pretty much anyway – I’ve had more female friends than male friends. I actually enjoy the company of women more than men. I don’t enjoy sports (of any type), or bars or drinking. My god…. Maybe I am gay…. [rotflmao] Or not, actually. I like women far too much for that. I like the way they look, how they smell, how they laugh, how they think, how they taste…. Maybe it’s a curse? I love women but they don’t love me back – but that can’t be right. Women like me. Some women like me a lot. Others love me and have told me so. Some even sleep with me – so they can’t all think I’m gay. I’ll just have to think about this a bit more….. [muses]

Thursday, March 20, 2008

What if you're wrong?

By Adam Rutherford

January 11, 2008

The essence of science is doubt, as my old tutor Steve Jones is fond of saying. Scientists continuously look for what is wrong with their work, and this beautiful system of constant challenge results in a continuum, a process, where being wrong is an essential part of gaining knowledge. I like the phrase biologist John Moore used: "science as a way of knowing".

"What if you're wrong?" is a question I was asked over Christmas by a Christian friend. The answer is quite simple: it really depends on what you choose to believe. I'm not a bad man. Surely a God of love will forgive the scepticism that he granted me and let me through the pearly gates? Any being who would send a good person to eternal damnation just because he has no faith doesn't deserve respect, let alone worship. Is this arrogant? No, it's simply logical. I'd love to be wrong. Heaven is surely a better option than nothingness. But there isn't enough doubt about reality for me consider the divine as an option. Many of you will be familiar with Pascal's Wager, a religious contingency plan from the French philosopher scientist, which can be simplified thus: if you believe in God the gains are infinite if he exists and the losses are none if he doesn't; similarly, if you are an atheist and he doesn't exist you've lost nothing. But if he does exist, you're screwed for all eternity. So you might as well believe. It's a cowardly approach to both positions and the wager is flawed. You might as well believe, just in case? No, thanks, I'll take my chances. If I'm wrong, isn't God going to be a bit narked that I only did it just in case?

Unlike science, religion is not a continuum of knowledge acquisition, and doubt is in many ways the opposite of faith. Nietzsche would have you think that Christianity regards doubt as sin, but it certainly is present: as Saint Mick said even Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain. But religious doubt is always directed, its purpose primarily being a means of returning to a more mature and rigid faith. Fundamentalists believe that the Bible is the absolute and infallible word of God, even though they cherry pick which bits of the Bible they chose to follow. Even liberal Christians, those atheists in disguise, may have moments of doubt, but are not compelled to resolve these niggles in the same way a scientist would of his data.

As an atheist who is not willing to write off the faithful as deluded, I'm trying to understand what faith is and what it means to those who have it. I'd like the good faithful of Cif (Comment is Free) to help out with a thought experiment by trying to answer the same question: "What if you're wrong?" Now, due to the annoying scientific untestability of God, the only way I can see you buying into my scheme is if he actually revealed himself only to erase his own existence. "My experiment has gone on long enough, and you really ballsed everything up. Atheists were wrong, but from this moment are now right: I no longer exist." The god of the Bible is capricious and fallible, so I rather like this hypothetical absolute and ultimate U-turn. It sounds like something the God of the Onion might say. Aside from enduring insufferably smug gloating from both sides, the day-to-day lives of the millions of unbelievers will not be changed one jot. We will continue to live by morals that are guided by intrinsic and extrinsic factors, some inherent and some learnt. Many of the latter are derived from historical religious teaching. Former bishop Richard Harries was gracious enough to declare recently that atheists can be moral, and indeed researchers like Marc Hauser and Chris Frith are beginning to unearth a neurological basis for morality. The more scientists like these reveal about the biological nature of complex and uniquely human behaviours like morality, which the religious believe are rooted in their dogma, the less God is required.

But what would it mean to the millions whose actions are guided by faith, and whose lives are given up for the glory of God and the promise of life eternal? Would you go on as before, or would it mark the end of times? I ask this sincerely, not to mock or tease. Here's what Carl Sagan says on the matter: "You can get into a habit of thought in which you enjoy making fun of all those other people who don't see things as clearly as you do. We have to guard carefully against it." I couldn't agree more.

[It’s a good question – What if you are wrong? What difference would it make to your life if you found out that either God existed or that he didn’t? If you knew with 100% confidence that the opposite of what you believed was in fact true…. What would you do?]

Monday, March 17, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Hume – A Very Short Introduction by A J Ayer.

It is said that David Hume would have been one of England’s greatest philosophers if only he hadn’t been Scottish. That said he was a very important Enlightenment philosopher indeed. Known more during his life as a great historian, Hume was an arch sceptic and some say atheist – though apparently he denied the latter. This short book concentrates on his ideas regarding the philosophy of mind, cause & effect and lastly a short chapter on his thoughts on morality, politics and religion.

This was by no means an easy read (or at least I did not find it easy) being both rather dry and academic. Professor Ayer might have been a towering intellect in Anglo-American philosophic circles but I found his writing style very off-putting. But I persevered and struggled through this short volume. I’ve actually read some of Hume himself and thought he wrote beautifully – unlike Ayer – so have not been put off returning to Hume at a later date – unlike Ayer who I will be avoiding from now on. Hume came up with some interesting ideas (not all of which I agree with) and it will be fruitful I feel to follow them up in his own words. This work however would not have recommended Hume to me and I cannot therefore recommend it to anyone coming to Hume for the first time. Maybe a book for the more seasoned philosophical reader rather than an introduction – short or otherwise.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Organic Materials Spotted High Above Titan's Surface

From NASA

April 25, 2005

During its closest flyby of Saturn's moon Titan on April 16, the Cassini spacecraft came within 1,027 kilometers (638 miles) of the moon's surface and found that the outer layer of the thick, hazy atmosphere is brimming with complex hydrocarbons.

Scientists believe that Titan's atmosphere may be a laboratory for studying the organic chemistry that preceded life and provided the building blocks for life on Earth. The role of the upper atmosphere in this organic "factory" of hydrocarbons is very intriguing to scientists, especially given the large number of different hydrocarbons detected by Cassini during the flyby. Cassini's ion and neutral mass spectrometer detects charged andneutral particles in the atmosphere. It provides scientists with valuable information from which to infer the structure, dynamics and history of Titan's atmosphere. Complex mixtures of hydrocarbons and carbon-nitrogen compounds were seen throughout the range of masses measured by the Cassini ion and neutral mass spectrometer instrument.

"We are beginning to appreciate the role of the upper atmosphere in the complex carbon cycle that occurs on Titan," said Dr. Hunter Waite, principal investigator of the Cassini ion and neutral mass spectrometer and professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. "Ultimately, this information from the Saturn system will help us determine the origins of organic matter within the entire solar system." Hydrocarbons containing as many as seven carbon atoms were observed, as well as nitrogen-containing hydrocarbons (nitriles). Titan's atmosphere is composed primarily of nitrogen, followed by methane, the simplest hydrocarbon. The nitrogen and methane are expected to form complex hydrocarbons in a process induced by sunlight or energetic particles from Saturn's magnetosphere. However, it is surprising to find the plethora of complex hydrocarbon molecules in the upper reaches of the atmosphere. Titan is very cold, and complex hydrocarbons would be expected to condense and rain down to the surface. "Biology on Earth is the primary source of organic production we are familiar with, but the key question is: what is the ultimate source of the organics in the solar system?" added Waite.

Interstellar clouds produce abundant quantities of organics, which are best viewed as the dust and grains incorporated in comets. This material may have been the source of early organic compounds on Earth from which life formed. Atmospheres of planets and their satellites in the outer solar system, while containing methane and molecular nitrogen, are largely devoid of oxygen. In this non-oxidizing environment under the action of ultraviolet light from the Sun or energetic particle radiation (from Saturn's magnetosphere in this case), these atmospheres can also produce large quantities of organics, and Titan is the prime example in our solar system. This same process is a possible pathway forformation of complex hydrocarbons on early Earth.

[Fascinating. I wonder if hydrocarbons are common throughout the Galaxy and what implication that has for life elsewhere. If complex hydrocarbons are common then maybe life is too? As I said – fascinating.]

Friday, March 14, 2008

Quote

We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness, which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world.

Marcel Proust.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Pupils 'to take allegiance oath'

From the BBC

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

School-leavers are to be encouraged to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen under new government proposals being unveiled on British citizenship. Pupils would give a commitment to Queen and country in ceremonies akin to those for new immigrants. Former attorney general Lord Goldsmith, who conducted the citizenship review, said the aim was more social cohesion. Teaching unions said the plan was un-British, and the Scottish Government has also dismissed the idea.

John Dunford from the Association of School and College leaders said it was "a half-baked idea". A Scottish Government spokesman said it did not support the idea and did not believe it would find favour with parents or school pupils. Lord Goldsmith, who carried out the review at the request of Gordon Brown, believes that citizenship ceremonies for teenagers would help improve their sense of what it means to be a British citizen. He told BBC News: "The point is to find a raft of different ways that we can create a greater sense of shared belonging in this country, greater social cohesion, and for people to understand more clearly what it means to be a citizen of this country. What the rights are and what the responsibilities are as well. "I think a formal ceremony which marks that passage from being a student, who's learning about the theory, to a citizen, who now is practising the reality of being a citizen, I think that is a useful thing."

The peer has consulted people in the UK, Europe, North America and elsewhere to pull together a series of proposals aimed at providing a "much clearer vision of what it means to be a citizen". Citizenship ceremonies already exist for immigrants and the report suggests holding them in schools, where youngsters who are about to leave the school and move on to work or further education could participate. The plans have been condemned by the group Republic, which campaigns for the abolition of the monarchy. Spokesman Graham Smith told the BBC: "It's offensive to people who do actually cherish democracy and who actually cherish the sorts of liberties we've fought for for centuries." He said swearing an oath would be an attack on people's freedom of conscience. If children refuse to take part, he added, "are they then going to be told or taught that they are somehow less British or less loyal or less patriotic?"

Labour peer and human rights lawyer Baroness Helena Kennedy said the proposal was based on a misconception of what it meant to be proud of a country. She said: "The symbols of a healthy democracy are not to be found in empty gestures and I'm afraid I see this as an empty gesture." Other proposals are thought likely to include a revamp of Britain's old treason laws, such as sleeping with the wife of the heir to the throne, which is punishable by life in prison. Lord Goldsmith has also hinted at updating the national anthem by removing verses which are rarely performed.

[It would seem that even a Government well known for harebrained schemes can still surprise me and many other people. This is some brainwave I must admit - the importation of a foreign (indeed alien) concept into our schools. I fail to see how anyone within the Government can take this idea seriously – unless they are seriously out of touch with the people. Ah, I think I begin to see the light… As if any (or many) self respecting teenagers would put their hand on heart and swear allegiance to the Queen! Without years of education (or indoctrination) such a pledge on leaving school would be worse than meaningless. What arrant nonsense. Even 30 years ago when I left school I should think that few of my contemporaries who would do such a thing – and that was before the (many) royal scandals since those long gone days. It is both incredibly insulting to say nothing of patronising that people should be asked to pledge allegiance to what is an anachronistic hangover from a bygone age. What will this Government think of next? I honestly shudder to think!]

Monday, March 10, 2008

Is popularity of atheist writers a backlash against faith?

By Rachel Zoll for the Houston Chronicle

June 29, 2007

The time for polite debate is over. Militant atheist writers are making an all-out assault on religious faith and reaching the top of the best-seller list, a sign of widespread resentment among non-believers over the influence of religion in the world. Christopher Hitchens' book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything has sold briskly since it was published last month, and his debates with clergy are drawing crowds at every stop.

Sam Harris was a little-known graduate student until he wrote the highly successful The End of Faith and its follow-up, Letter to a Christian Nation. Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon struck similar themes — and sold. "There is something like a change in the zeitgeist," Hitchens said, noting that sales of his latest book far outnumber those for his earlier work that had challenged faith. "There are a lot of people, in this country in particular, who are fed up with endless lectures by bogus clerics and endless bullying."

Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, a prominent evangelical school in Pasadena, Calif., said the books' success reflects a new vehemence in the atheist critique. "I don't believe in conspiracy theories," Mouw said, "but it's almost like they all had a meeting and said, 'Let's counterattack.' " The war metaphor is apt. The writers see themselves in a battle for reason in a world crippled by superstition. In their view, Muslim extremists, Jewish settlers and Christian-right activists are from the same mold, using fairy tales posing as divine scripture to justify their lust for power. Bad behavior in the name of religion is behind some of the most dangerous global conflicts and the terrorist attacks in the U.S., London and Madrid, the atheists say. As Hitchens puts it: "Religion kills."

The Rev. Douglas Wilson, senior fellow in theology at New St. Andrews College, a Christian school in Moscow, Idaho, sees the books as a sign of secular panic. Nonbelievers are finally realizing that, contrary to what they were taught in college, faith is not dead, he says. Signs of believers' political and cultural might abound. Religious challenges to teaching evolution are still having an impact, 82 years after the infamous Scopes "monkey" trial. The dramatic growth in home schooling and private Christian schools raises questions about the future of public education. Religious leaders have succeeded in putting some limits on stem-cell research. "It sort of dawned on the secular establishment that they might lose here," said Wilson, who is debating Hitchens on ChristianityToday.com and has written the book Letter From a Christian Citizen in response to Harris. "All of this is happening precisely because there's a significant force that they have to deal with."

Indeed, believers far outnumber nonbelievers in America. In a 2005 AP-Ipsos poll on religion, only 2 percent of U.S. respondents said they did not believe in God. Other surveys concluded that 14 percent of Americans consider themselves secular, a term that can include believers who say they have no religion. Some say liberal outrage over the policies of President Bush is partly fueling sales, even though Hitchens famously supported the invasion of Iraq. "There is this general sense that evangelicals have really gained a lot of power in the United States, and the Bush administration seems to represent that in some significant ways," said Christian Smith, professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. "A certain group of people sees it that way, and that's really disturbing."

Mouw said conservative Christians are partly to blame for the backlash. The rhetoric of some evangelical leaders has been so strident, they have invited the rebuke, the seminary president said. "We have done a terrible job of presenting our perspective as a plausible worldview that has implications for public life and for education, presenting that in a way that is sensitive to the concerns of people who may disagree," he said. "Whatever may be wrong with Christopher Hitchens' attacks on religious leaders, we have certainly already matched it in our attacks." Lynn Garrett, senior religion editor for Publishers Weekly, says religion has been one of the fastest-growing categories in publishing in the last past 15 years, and the rise of books by atheists is "the flip side of that."

[Do you think that there has been a ‘backlash against faith’ – or is the whole thing just a storm in a teacup? Maybe non-theists just got fed up being picked on? Maybe atheists finally found a voice – actually several voices – and made themselves heard? Is it the growing fear amongst some that the US is in danger of becoming a Theocratic power? All good questions. Any answers?]

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Just Finished Reading: Critique of Criminal Reason by Michael Gregorio

The year is 1804. The armies of Napoleon Bonaparte are rampaging through Europe defeating anyone who stands against them. Meanwhile, in the Prussian Baltic port of Konigsberg a series of gruesome murders has sent the city to the edge of panic. Called in unexpectedly to investigate them magistrate Hanno Stiffeniis is thrown into a whirlwind of conspiracies and secrets which not only threatens the stability of the nation but his very life and sanity. At the heart of events is his old university professor – the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Stiffeniis must uncover the killer before they take any more lives and protect the reputation of the man he admires above all others.

Written by husband and wife team Michael Jacob and Daniela De Gregorio this was an impressive first novel. The setting was particularly well done enabling the reader to be drawn into the life of the freezing Baltic Sea port in which the majority of the action took place. Historically set at the beginning of the Enlightenment it blended the new ways of thinking with the superstitious ways of the peasantry and common soldiers who made up the general cast of this book. Stiffeniss himself was an interesting character though his reasoning (or lack there of) did greatly annoy me at times. His investigation of the murders seems haphazard which contrasted badly with his regular statements extolling logic and reason. Nevertheless, I did enjoy reading this novel and might still pick up the sequel at some point. If the pair can produce a work of this quality on their first attempt I predict that they have a long and fruitful writing career ahead of them. Whilst not an earth shattering work in any way this was a more than reasonable historical murder mystery.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Thinking About: Death.

Next month I’m 48. This means that statistically I’ll be dead in 30 years time. It’s a sobering thought. As I slowly get older I can’t help being reminded of my mortality by the greying of my hair and the aching in my bones. But need I be melancholy about my impending demise? Not really. After all it’s not like I can do anything about it. Sure I can do things which I will hope extend my lifespan – like not smoking – but eventually I will shuffle off this mortal coil no matter what I do.

Am I depressed by the idea of death and ceasing to exist? Again, not really. I mean what would be the point? It’s like being angry for getting wet during a rain storm – there’s no logic in that response to a perfectly natural and expected event. Of course given the opportunity I’d happily take a pill that would extend my life by 100 or even 1000 years. I’m sure that some people wouldn’t but I would. Even living centuries would leave things undone but it would be nice having the time to do some more of them. This doesn’t mean that I’m ever likely to run around like a headless chicken filling my every waking hour with new experiences knowing that after death all possibilities end. That’s too exhausting even to think about. There will never be enough time to do everything and if that is your aim then you will always be disappointed.

Being an atheist I have no expectation of any kind of ‘afterlife’ and this singular fact worries me not at all. Why should it? I’ll be dead. As I am effectively the electrical impulses in my brain when they are gone so am I. Nothing survives death because there is nothing to survive death. Why should that bother me? Most people pass through their lives completely anonymously. They leave little or no trace that they have ever existed except on their immediate friends and family. I have no fear that I will be forgotten because I fully expect to be forgotten within a few decades (or less) of my demise. I do not expect that I will be even a minor character in the history of my country or my world. I will die and be forgotten as most people are.

Don’t get me wrong though. I am not looking forward to dying and intend to put off that inevitable event for as long as possible. Life is just too interesting to leave although I think that the right to commit suicide or (if incapable) assisted suicide should always be maintained. Life isn’t just about quantity but very much about quality too.

Death is inevitable. We should recognise that. Once we accept that we are all going to die and ditch the idea of either reward or punishment in any kind of afterlife we might spend more time and effort making this planet a better place to live – both for ourselves and for future generations. If we didn’t look forward to a better world to come in Heaven or some such place then maybe, just maybe, we’d have a better world here and now. Death… Where is your dominion? In our imaginations that’s where.

Monday, March 03, 2008

My Favourite Movies: Bladerunner

After winning £27 (about $50US) on a Lottery scratch card I treated myself to the Ultimate Collectors box set of one of my all time favourite movies – Bladerunner. Starring Harrison Ford in arguably his best role I remember being totally blown away by this film whilst sitting on my own in a movie theatre in Bromley, Kent. I was already a major fan of William Gibson’s Cyberpunk novels and couldn’t help comparing Ridley Scott’s 2019 LA (yeah, right) to Gibson’s Sprawl.

Anyway, Bladerunner tells the story of Harrison Ford (in the eponymous role) whose job it is (or was) to ‘retire’ rogue Replicants who are human looking simulacra designed for dangerous off-world occupations. During the film we are also introduced to the next generation of Replicant in the guise of Rachel (played by Sean Young) who has implanted memories and thinks she’s actually human. “How can it not know what it is?” Ford asks at one point.

Ford gradually retires the Replicant team – led by the great B-movie actor Rutger Hauer – one by one, suffering an increasing level of personal injury along the way. The final scene with Hauer is one of the best in the film with his soliloquy being one of the best things about the movie.

Beautifully filmed throughout with outstanding lighting this is a classic SF movie. The rendition of a future world set standards for decades to come and has rarely been equalled never mind surpassed. Together with its haunting soundtrack by Vangelis and its disturbing questions regarding the meaning of humanity this became and remained one of my Top 5 movies of all time and I think I may have watched it approximately 50 times over the years. I still prefer the original version complete with voice over though. The new version – the Final Cut – does have a much cleaner image and has been digitally enhanced to make some of the models more believable but I did miss that Film Noir voice of Fords. Although its power has faded with time (like tears in the rain) this still stands today as a benchmark in SF movie production.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Automated Killer Robots ‘Threat to Humanity’: Expert

by Agence France Presse

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Increasingly autonomous, gun-totting robots developed for warfare could easily fall into the hands of terrorists and may one day unleash a robot arms race, a top expert on artificial intelligence told AFP. “They pose a threat to humanity,” said University of Sheffield professor Noel Sharkey ahead of a keynote address Wednesday before Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.

Intelligent machines deployed on battlefields around the world — from mobile grenade launchers to rocket-firing drones — can already identify and lock onto targets without human help. There are more than 4,000 US military robots on the ground in Iraq, as well as unmanned aircraft that have clocked hundreds of thousands of flight hours. The first three armed combat robots fitted with large-caliber machine guns deployed to Iraq last summer, manufactured by US arms maker Foster-Miller, proved so successful that 80 more are on order, said Sharkey. But up to now, a human hand has always been required to push the button or pull the trigger. It we are not careful, he said, that could change.

Military leaders “are quite clear that they want autonomous robots as soon as possible, because they are more cost-effective and give a risk-free war,” he said. Several countries, led by the United States, have already invested heavily in robot warriors developed for use on the battlefield. South Korea and Israel both deploy armed robot border guards, while China, India, Russia and Britain have all increased the use of military robots. Washington plans to spend four billion dollars by 2010 on unmanned technology systems, with total spending expected rise to 24 billion, according to the Department of Defense’s Unmanned Systems Roadmap 2007-2032, released in December.

James Canton, an expert on technology innovation and CEO of the Institute for Global Futures, predicts that deployment within a decade of detachments that will include 150 soldiers and 2,000 robots. The use of such devices by terrorists should be a serious concern, said Sharkey. Captured robots would not be difficult to reverse engineer, and could easily replace suicide bombers as the weapon-of-choice. “I don’t know why that has not happened already,” he said. But even more worrisome, he continued, is the subtle progression from the semi-autonomous military robots deployed today to fully independent killing machines. “I have worked in artificial intelligence for decades, and the idea of a robot making decisions about human termination terrifies me,” Sharkey said.

Ronald Arkin of Georgia Institute of Technology, who has worked closely with the US military on robotics, agrees that the shift towards autonomy will be gradual. But he is not convinced that robots don’t have a place on the front line. “Robotics systems may have the potential to out-perform humans from a perspective of the laws of war and the rules of engagement,” he told a conference on technology in warfare at Stanford University last month. The sensors of intelligent machines, he argued, may ultimately be better equipped to understand an environment and to process information. “And there are no emotions that can cloud judgement, such as anger,” he added. Nor is there any inherent right to self-defence.

For now, however, there remain several barriers to the creation and deployment of Terminator-like killing machines. Some are technical. Teaching a computer-driven machine — even an intelligent one — how to distinguish between civilians and combatants, or how to gauge a proportional response as mandated by the Geneva Conventions, is simply beyond the reach of artificial intelligence today. But even if technical barriers are overcome, the prospect of armies increasingly dependent on remotely-controlled or autonomous robots raises a host of ethical issues that have barely been addressed. Arkin points out that the US Department of Defense’s 230 billion dollar Future Combat Systems programme — the largest military contract in US history — provides for three classes of aerial and three land-based robotics systems. “But nowhere is there any consideration of the ethical implications of the weaponisation of these systems,” he said. For Sharkey, the best solution may be an outright ban on autonomous weapons systems. “We have to say where we want to draw the line and what we want to do — and then get an international agreement,” he said.

[Whilst we are nowhere near the future world portrayed in the Terminator movies there is a clear path towards that world. Military forces all over the world – but especially in the West - are pouring Billions of dollars into developing increasing autonomous battlefield robots and are arming them with increasingly lethal weapons. I think we all know where that could end. Developing intelligent machines whose single purpose is to kill humans as efficiently as possible is not a wise thing to be doing. Let’s hope we don’t live to regret it.]