Thursday, November 30, 2006

Don't mention the...smooth jazz?!

This article at the Guardian on movie soundtracks is very interesting and everything, but I very painfully tripped over something in the first paragraph.

Now, is it just me, or is this a rather ... strained?... bizarre? ... needless? ... reference to a certain someone?

By covering films in audio wallpaper, usually consisting of contemporary pop or the hideous strains of smooth jazz (a genre then still in its infancy, like a swaddling Adolf Hitler), film-makers ran the risk of making motion pictures that would not only look horribly dated a few years later, but would also sound lame.
(Italics, it probably goes without saying, added.)

If you run across any likely competitors in the pointless-reference-to-Hitler category, please do let me know. I think this one is fairly hard to beat.

Accept no substitutes

In 'Weapon of Mass Destruction' (Washington Post), Larry Kahaner has written a brief but fascinating history of what is probably the most distinctive and well-known weapon ever created: the AK47.

Why is this relevant to anyone's life? Well...

The AK-47 has become the world's most prolific and effective combat weapon, a device so cheap and simple that it can be bought in many countries for less than the cost of a live chicken. Depicted on the flag and currency of several countries, waved by guerrillas and rebels everywhere, the AK is responsible for about a quarter-million deaths every year. It is the firearm of choice for at least 50 legitimate standing armies and countless fighting forces from Africa and the Middle East to Central America and Los Angeles. It has become a cultural icon, its signature form -- that banana-shaped magazine -- defining in our consciousness the contours of a deadly weapon.

This week, the U.S. military's presence in Iraq will surpass the length of time that American forces were engaged in World War II. And the AK-47 will forever link the two conflicts. The story of the gun itself, from inspiration in Bryansk to bloody insurgency in Iraq, is also the story of the transformation of modern warfare. The AK blew away old battlefield calculations of military superiority, of tactics and strategy, of who could be a soldier, of whose technology would triumph.

Given that it seems to have been around forever (and, indeed, it has been around quite a while...since...well, 1947), it's somehow bizarre to realise that its inventor, Mikhail Kalashnikov, is still alive:

Now 85, tiny, feeble, nearly deaf, his right hand losing control because of tremors, Kalashnikov is often haunted by the killing machine he has bestowed upon the world. "I wish I had invented a lawnmower," he told the Guardian in 2002.
(Indeed. That would have been interesting, and would, most likely, have resulted in the most indestructable, bad-ass lawnmower the world has ever seen. But I digress...)

Kalashnikov receives no royalties from his weapon, though, and he has of late turned to marketing another lethal weapon under his name: vodka.

But it doesn't seem that his invention is going away anytime soon.

Even the newly forming Iraqi army -- trained by the U.S. military and civilian contractors -- refused American-made M-16s and M-4s. When the Coalition Provisional Authority was planning to outfit Iraqi forces, they were surprised to find that the Iraqis insisted on AKs.

"For better or worse, the AK-47 is the weapon of choice in that part of the world," said Walter Slocombe, senior adviser to the CPA. "It turns out that every Iraqi male above the age of 12 can take them apart and put them together blindfolded and is a pretty good shot."

Which is not only impressive, but also again suggests the limits to that old slogan that an armed society is a polite society...

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Pseudo-neuro-psycho-physio-linguistics for fun and profit

Quite an excellent blast from the recent past over at badscience.

Apparently a certain someone has not forgiven Ben Goldacre for, earlier this year, pointing out the absurdity of a television programme he (the certain someone) had been involved with called 'The Agatha Christie Code'. Ben links to his earlier discussion, which is...quite extraordinary.

To get a flavour of what this was about, consider the show's press release (provided at badscience). On the one hand, it essentially tried to dress up the blindingly obvious in something more profound-sounding:
Christie deliberately makes use of a repetitive core vocabulary and everyday English. These devices force readers to concentrate on the plot and the clues rather than be distracted by clever wordplay. Readers of Christie are seldom distracted by heavy use of adjectival or adverbial phrases (the statistical count of these type of phrases is proportionally far lower than any of contemporaries such as Dorothy L. Sayers and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
(Ah, the good old 'repetitive core vocabulary', something you'll find quite a lot here at Obscene Desserts...).

It also made claims like the following:

A detailed computer analysis of Christie’s literary output undertaken by linguistic experts from the University of Warwick, University of Birmingham, London University and King’s College, London, has found a clear pattern of recurring literary devices that stimulate higher than usual activity in the brain.

These phrases act as a trigger to raise levels of serotonin and endorphins, the chemical messengers in the brain that induce pleasure and satisfaction.

The release of these neurological opiates makes Christie’s writing literally unputdownable.

According to the study, Christie repeatedly employs literary techniques which at first glance appear deceptively simple but in fact resemble many of the patterns used in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, a cognitive science employed by hypnotherapists and psychologists which is concerned with the importance of words in ordering thoughts and behaviour.

Sounds - sort of - fascinating. If there were anything to it. Which there's not.

Back in January, Ben wrote a long and very entertaining post about this episode, including his correspondence with “project leader Dr Roland Kapferer PhD” (note: a Dr and a!) who turns out be a philosopher and TV producer rather than anyone who should in any way related to scientific claims about neurological opiates, physiochemical responses and the 'combinatorial structure' of Christie's writing.

Kapferer says it was all a bit of a laugh, really.

Ben says:

So I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the public are confused about science, for the simple reason that the media is full of grandiose humanities graduates, acting as self-appointed experts and science communicators, who construct their own parody of what they think science is: and then, to compound their crime, they go on to critique science, as if their parody was the reality.

(As a reminder, you can find the whole story here.)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

"The mullahs keep saying freedom is not good for us."

A fascinating, depressing and infuriating report by Natasha Walter (thanks to Anja for the tip) on the improvements - as well as their disappointing lack - for women in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban.

It's not all bad news:
You can't say that things haven't improved at all in Afghanistan since the Taliban were "removed", and even Alya wouldn't quite go that far. You can now see women moving around Kabul in a way they could not five years ago; the majority do not wear the burka, sporting instead a variety of Islamic dress from shalwar kameez to a short coat with a bright headscarf, as they go to the markets, to the schools, to the university, and to work.

During my time in the city I seek out evidence of change, and I certainly find it. I meet women in the government, including in the ministry of public health, where they are trying to deliver a package of basic healthcare for women. I meet women in non-governmental organisations working on literacy and advocacy projects, women professors and students in the university, and women in the media, including newspaper reporters and television presenters. But each of them has a negative to set beside the positive.
These negatives include frequent threats, violence and assassination.

The balance between the positives and negatives is difficult to discern. Walter, for instance, quotes a female member of the Afghan parliament who asserts that nothing has changed since the Taliban. At the same time, Walter's interviewees include women in several roles that they wouldn't have had under the previous regime: a police officer, a student, a television presenter, a healthcare administrator and, yes, that member of parliament.

These successes, however, seem largely limited to Kabul and a few other reasonably secure enclaves. Furthermore, the problem of women's rights go well beyond the issue of 'the Taliban', since a lot of it arises out of deeply rooted traditions in family life: a change in regime - however welcome - doesn't make all things better.

What is infuriating is that - despite the great promises and real opportunity following the toppling of the Taliban - so little progress was made and so little reconstruction aid actually flowed in to the country.

What Walter's report doesn't make clear is what is to be done.

One thing, perhaps, would be to prevent things from geting even worse.
Like all the other women I meet on my trip, Kochai is very sure that despite all the insecurity and lack of progress, life would be far worse if western forces pulled out. "If the British and American soldiers left now, we wouldn't be able to leave our houses. We would lose all that we have."
Not unrelatedly, at Prospect, Kamran Nazeer points out an intriguing ambiguity about the notion that women's rights advance in step with democracy by taking a closer look at Pakistan:

The most striking chapter [of President Musharraf's memoir] is about women's rights in Pakistan. Musharraf cites the case of Mukhtaran Mai, a victim of "honour rape" who now runs schools and a crisis centre. It is unusual for a Pakistani politician to acknowledge, let alone condemn, this custom. Musharraf, quite rightly, didn't intervene in the legal proceedings at the time, but in the book explains that he sent her money to support her cause when he first heard about the case, and that his government has since spent around £150,000 improving facilities for women in her village.

There are certainly massive problems for women in Pakistan. Human rights activists suggest that a woman is raped in Pakistan every two hours. As Hoodbhoy points out, Musharraf's government recently failed to enact a revision of the rape laws, which would make the burden of proof placed on the prosecution more realistic (a successful rape prosecution currently requires four male witnesses to the act). However, that climbdown came in the face of intense political opposition—the uncomfortable reality is that it was democracy that prevented the reform, not the dictator. Yet Musharraf has persisted, and on 15th November—after Hoodbhoy's piece was written—the government succeeded in getting a revision through the lower house (the upper house is yet to consider the proposal). To offer just a flavour of the criticism of the new law, the leader of Pakistan's largest coalition of religious parties, a major force in the legislature, has suggested that the changes will turn Pakistan "into a free sex society."
Musharraf's take on things in his own memoir are, of course, likely to be self-serving. But there is a key point here which is important. It has to do with the notion that oppression comes merely from above, from the 'regime'.

It doesn't seem that that's true. Oppression can have its source much closer to home. As one of the women interviewed by Walter says:

When I asked the students, who ranged from 13-year-old girls to 50-year-old widows, if they thought all women in Afghanistan wanted more freedom and equality, my translator struggled to keep up with the clamour: "Of course we do," said one widow furiously. "Even women who are not allowed to come to this class want that. But our husbands and brothers and fathers don't want it. The mullahs keep saying freedom is not good for us."
That is obviously not something a ballot-box is going to fix.

It's all in my mind...

I see (via Pharyngula) that Deepak Chopra has been speaking nonsense again. 'Speaking nonsense' in this case is, I realise, quite redundant, as I have yet to find anything he's ever said which makes the slightest bit of sense.

Now, in the course of a series of articles which have been lamely flailing at Richard Dawkins's recent book The God Delusion, he's decided he can disprove materialism through, ahem, a thought experiment.

It involves a yellow flower. It is very silly.

And Dr. Chopra reaches 'conclusions' such as this:

That's why Dawkins will never find God. He's looking in the wrong place. The physical world can't deliver God, not because God doesn't exist, but because the solid, physical world is an illusion--as quantum physics proved long ago--and one must look inside consciousness itself to find what God is about.


What happens when we actually 'look inside consciousness' (whatever that might mean, since consciousness - whatever it might be - is not so much like a box)?

A scientist explains:

What a stimulus, such as the sight of a flower, does is to trigger a response in the pattern of electrical and chemical activity in the brain: associations are made between stored memories, sensations are remembered. What is generated when you visualize a flower is not the flower itself inside your head, or even an image of a flower: the pattern of electrochemical activity is recreated. It's rather bizarre that Chopra thinks a memory of a trumpet requires brass and acoustic vibrations inside your cranium, but he's clearly very naive.

Yes he is. And also a bestselling purveyor of a confused (but highly profitable) form of new age twaddle.

Were his little thought experiment in the least bit convincing, it would certainly be comforting: it would then be easier to believe that not only the yellow flower but also Deepak Chopra doesn't exist. So it is not without sadness that I witness materialism prevail...

Stringing us along (in ten dimensions)?

Although I'm not a physicist, I am disappointed to read (via a very readable review by David Lindley in The Wilson Quarterly) of an increasing tide of skepticism about string theory.

This is not because I have any vested interest in string theory as such, but rather because it's just one of those enjoyable theories which make scientists sound like the babbling acid freaks I used to run into every now and then at college parties who would go on at length about the curvature of reality and their ability to perceive other dimensions. (You may know the type. You may, of course, even be the type. If so, best of luck.)

This sort of thing is good: for humanitites scholars in particular, it is always reassuring to have evidence that at least some of the 'real' sciences have as many wacky-sounding notions as we do.

String theory, if you need a reminder, runs like this:
Elementary ­particles—­electrons, photons, quarks, and their numerous ­cousins—­are not ­point­like objects but “strings” of energy forming tiny, wiggly loops. If a stringy loop vibrates one way, it manifests itself as an electron. If it shimmies some other way, it looks like a quark.


There was one little difficulty: The systems these theories described existed only in 10 ­dimensions.

Since we live in a world that has but three dimensions of space and one of time, that last point might seem to be a ­deal ­breaker, but so appealing were the other virtues of string theory that physicists found a solution. The “extra” dimensions, they proposed, could be wrapped up so tight that we couldn’t see them. In effect, what we thought of as points in our world were tiny ­six-­dimensional structures. A little bizarre, to be sure, but not ­impossible.

A little bizarre, yes. Which is in itself fine, but Lindley suggests that it might be leading 'physics into a rarefied regime beyond the reach of experimental scrutiny'.

In any case, he reviews two new books pointing out the limits (or abject failure) of string theory. One tension which immediately arises is that, if the critique is true, this questionable theory has become dominant in theoretical physics.

Lindley adds some of his own insights along the way (he is also a critic of string theory). One of them is particularly insightful and of broader relevance:
Both authors plead for universities and granting agencies to consciously find room, every now and then, for the mavericks and eccentrics who might bring ­much-­needed new ideas into the excessively closed world of theoretical physics. Fat chance, unfortunately, was my instant reaction, given the way the scientific world, like academia in general, rewards careerism more than ­brilliance.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Back to the drawing board. Please.

This is a very serious matter, and I'm not at all trying to diminish that fact.

But when will I have another opportunity to link to a news story about a 'gun-wielding cartoonist dressed in camouflage'?

He surrendered to police at the office of the Miami Herald.

Police spokesman Delrish Moss said the man, a cartoonist who "says he's been censored by the Herald," was carrying what appeared to be a machine gun. Moss did not identify the suspect by name.

Attorney Joe Garcia said the cartoonist, Jose Varela, called him a couple of times from inside the building. Varela was concerned about a conflict of interest at El Nuevo Herald, Garcia said.

"All that he wants people to know is that he wants the truth to come out," Garcia said. "I think he needs some time to work some things out."

Yes. I should say he does....

Atheism without the butter

A couple of gems from to tide you over for the weekend.

First, Dawkins discusses a very unfortunate meme indeed, the 'I'm an atheist, BUT..' conversational opening, which, as he notes, is typically followed by something which is 'nearly always unhelpful, nihilistic or – worse – suffused with a sort of exultant negativity.'

Second, I just noticed that he is doing the great service of hosting an excerpt from former SNL comedienne Julia Sweeney's one-woman show 'Letting Go of God'. I ran across this some time ago in some way which I can't now remember, so it's great to find it again.

Requires Quicktime and about half-an-hour of your time. It's worth it.

No ifs, ands or...well, you know.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Random thinking

Out of the blue, I've just heard from a long-time friend and (to use an applicable term from a less ironic time) comrade from my undergraduate days, who, happily, has gone on to a successful career in history.

Along with providing another of our periodic chances to catch up a bit, it's gotten me thinking about the many changes in and influences on the way I see the world since that seemingly antediluvian time - shortly before the end of the Cold War - when I ticked the 'Choose a major' box next to 'History'.

In particular, I've long been struck by the extent to which my own intellectual perspective has been subject to chance and coincidence - factors which in more academic surroundings go under the more weighty and serious-sounding term 'contingency'.

I was long plagued by the feeling that 'real' historians developed their conceptual and methodological approach to the world and its mysteries in a coherent, organised way. So, that they systematically and cumulatively increased their understanding of the world starting, let's say, from about secondary school. I have always envied those people, if, in fact, they truly exist. However, I don't think I'll ever be one, as my intellectual development, such as it is, has in retrospect been a rather haphazard undertaking.

I attended my midwestern undergraduate university simply because it was nearby and affordable. There, because of my choice of courses and friendships my introduction to historical study came to be shaped by the relatively concrete certainties of the form of Marxism (more old school than new left) which guided the thinking of a small but dynamic cadre of professors in my department. Marxism, you might think, was in itself a fairly serious and invigorating mental leap for a boy from the suburbs (and it was), even if, ultimately, my exposure to it had been a matter of chance (conditioned, of course, by a certain stage in capitalist development and particular forms of cultural hegemony...and so on).

(By the way, that was a long time ago, and the department has most likely changed since then. So, no need to go warning David Horowitz about the red menace lurking on the plains, OK?)

But contingency was only getting started with me. The wheel of fortune had new surprises in store in the form of a graduate fellowship, which not only took me far away from cornfields, but also required an often bewildering submersion in the turbulent waters of post-modern theory. Suddenly, nobody around me was talking about Marx, but rather about a variety of French people I'd never heard of who wrote in sentences I could barely understand. This meant that a slew of new theories then took centre stage, some of which fit well with the older me, some of which didn't. A chance encounter with the field of crime history (What?...crime has a history?!) opened new perspectives all its own, some of which swam with, and some against, the intellectual tide around me.

The result, in such situations, is typically an amalgam, based not only on what you think, but on what the important people around you happen to think, such as your advisors. So it was with me. I had learned a lot; however, there seemed little which was systematic about it. I had taken things from here - modes of production, civilising processes, social relationships - and from there - discourse, narrative, practices, power, you name it - and tried to weave them into something I could wear which at least didn't have any major holes in it.

And then...

Dissertation research - as is probably usually the case - failed to follow the carefully outlined script of the prospectus I had so labouriously sweated over for a year. (Trawling through archives has a tendency to churn up all kinds of bottom-feeding wildlife you don't expect or even want to find. ) Of course, even if you do all the careful, systematic things required of quality historical work (and I had), in the end, you have to make use of what you find and constrain its semi-radomness with a more-or-less coherent framework. But this framework is itself not only the product of well-structured things like reading lists and seminar schedules, but also of comments from random strangers at conferences, serendipitous world events, the background noise of the media, the influence of friends and the mysterious proddings of the unconscious.

Somehow, in the end, it all seemed to fit together in a string of about 100,000 sense-embodying words whose solid grammatical structure and cool logical order conceal the contingencies which gave birth to them.

For whatever reason (I like to think of it as a courageous sense of intellectual might prefer to call it confusion), having achieved a semblance of an orderly Weltanschauung for the length of one book, I almost immediately began remodelling it, since I'd discovered still more things - evolutionary theory, biology, neuro-psychology - which made me think in new ways about the topics - culture and violence - on which I had been working. These have now become a part of what I write just as much as the perspectives which came before.

Now, all along, it's not been so much a matter of throwing out previously gained knowledge and diving into a completely new methodology. (I think we all can think of scholars whose every book seems to trash their last one while asserting 'No, now I really know the truth! Listen...'.) No, rather than radical paradigm shifts, there have been incremental additions of different ways of looking at things. In looking back at some of my work I think that I would today do some things differently; however, I haven't (so far!) found any of it to be so much wrong as simply in some ways incomplete. Ultimately, now having far more experience of how 'real' historians work, I think that just about any book or article is open to this criticism.

In any case, I have - at least in my own opinion - been able to incorporate the best elements of all the various perspectives along the way (whether they go by the names of Thompson, Hobsbawm, Hill, Elias, Foucault, de Certeau, Daly, Wilson, Tooby or Cosmides). In the end, the whole is far more than the sum of its parts.

But can I even say that there was a method to that madness? Mmmm...sort of. I don't know. What if I hadn't attended certain universitives, taken particular seminars, gone to certain conferences, read certain books, checked out certain boxes of primary sources in the archives, etc.?

Would I see history the same way today? Would I have written this paragraph - taken from an upcoming essay - any differently if certain chance encounters had not occurred?

People are no more ‘programmed’ to be violent than they are to be considerate, but ‘selection thinking’ – considering how evolutionary processes have shaped human psychology – can contribute to the cultural analysis of violence. Culture, after all, is not a free-floating force or a realm (for example, defined by text or language) existing independently of psychology or material reality. It is, firstly, produced within an individual psyche with its own in-built predispositions. Secondly, each psyche is possessed by an individual who is positioned within a series of specific relationships with other people. Some of these relationships are consensual and equal; others are less so. Culture, although it cannot ‘do’ anything on its own, provides a framework through which people are motivated to act. Subsequently, incidents of violence are individually and socially understood through narrative, that is, through the stories which are developed by participants, observers and the institutions which deal with them (such as the courts and media). These narratives, in turn, can express motivations or justifications for further violence or, alternatively, for its avoidance or suppression.

I chose this passage simply because I think it contains - in some degree and in very abbreviated form - elements from all the developmental stages in my own thinking noted above. You, depending on your predilictions, views and background, may see something banal, insightful or infuriating, but that's not the point I'm making, which is this: when I read it, I can see the places where things might have gone differently, where the emphases would be different - and perhaps even reversed - had certain, contingent factors not been present.

And that's an odd thought.

(If you happen to be a historian, go ahead, dig out a recent essay and try this at home. Go on. It won't hurt.)

I suppose there is a certain danger for a historian to suggest that his conceptual viewpoint is not a seamless, sytematic edifice of intellectual coherence. On the other hand, I presume that most historians - if they're honest - can see similar patterns in their own development. Moreover: since a certain amount of contingency is central to the subject we study (except for those historians who believe in iron laws of social development...are there still some of those people around?) why should we be afraid to identify it as a factor in producing not only history but also historians?

Along with being set off by the voice from the past which I mentioned at the beginning of this post, my thoughts on this topic have also been sparked by the receipt of a new book I'm to review for a journal in my field. Coincidentally - hey, there's that word again - it's written by someone who used to teach at my alma mater when I was a naive but very serious undergraduate still wrestling with the term 'dialectical', memorising a long series of dates and mastering the art of the topic sentence.

The book, appropriately enough, an inquiry into causality.

I look forward to seeing what he has to say.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Not the best day for humanity...

...and this time no laughing matter.

What people do to people, part I: as various papers report (this excerpt, for convenience sake, from the Guardian):

The death toll of Iraqi civilians in October was 3,709, the highest monthly total yet, and torture continued to be rampant in the country, a UN report said today. [...]

"Hundreds of bodies continued to appear in different areas of Baghdad handcuffed, blindfolded and bearing signs of torture and execution-style killing," the report said. "Many witnesses reported that perpetrators wear militia attire and even police or army uniforms."

Most of the violence occurred in Baghdad, where nearly 5,000 people died in the two-month period, with many bodies bearing signs of torture and gunshot wounds.

The situation for women continued to deteriorate, with increasing numbers either victims of religious extremists or "honour killings", the UN report added.

"Some non-Muslim women are forced to wear a headscarf and to be accompanied by male relatives or spouses. Kidnappings associated with rape and sex slavery have also occurred," the report said.

Meanwhile, The New Republic, a once energetic supporter of the war, concludes:

There is no policy for Iraq that will provide moral and strategic satisfaction and no reason to believe that we might achieve something that could be plausibly described as victory. The coming debate over timetables and troop levels will likely generate much anger, shattering postelection illusions of bipartisanship and provoking intra-party squabbles. But, in the end, this struggle will be over the difference between a largely intolerable outcome and a completely intolerable one.

Which is nice of them to notice, even if other former regime-change enthusiasts, much to their credit, recognised this somewhat sooner. Of course, recognising the problem and having a solution to this
'Mesopotamian hell' are two different things.

To be honest, my own vision of what would constitute the difference between 'largely intolerable' and 'completely intolerable' has been getting murkier of late.

Speaking of which...

What people do to people part II: also as reported in the Guardian:

There are now 39.5 million living with HIV infection, according to the annual UNAIDS report, released ahead of World Aids Day on December 1, and 4.3 million of those were infected in 2006. That is 400,000 more than were infected in 2004.

Most alarming is the increased prevalence in Uganda, long held up as a showcase to the world of what could be achieved in Africa with campaigning, education and widespread condom use. The report shows a rise from a low of 5.6% infection among men and 6.9% among women in 2000 to 6.5% in men and 8.8% in women in 2004.

The reasons for the increase are not clear, but there has been a shift in the message from Uganda's leadership. Between the early 1990s and early 2000s, HIV prevalence fell sharply in major cities among pregnant women - the group most commonly monitored because they have contact with health services - as President Yoweri Museveni worked to raise awareness of the dangers of HIV and put the authority of his office behind condom use.

But in recent years the message on condoms has been diluted in favour of greater emphasis on sexual abstinence until marriage - in line with the thinking of the Bush administration, which is spending millions of dollars on HIV prevention and treatment. Critics say many women are not in a position to abstain from sex and that many are infected by their husbands.

The report says further research is needed to validate the apparent trend "but the current findings do hint at the possible erosion of the gains Uganda made against Aids in the 1990s". There is evidence of erratic condom use and more men having sex with multiple partners.

What to do? Someone knows, and - much like the Bush administration - he's working round the clock and consulting the best available scientific information in order to come to the rescue....or, well, no, maybe he still needs time to think about it a little bit:
The Vatican's office for health care has concluded a study on the use of condoms in the fight against AIDS, and the long-awaited report on it is now being examined by the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog, a senior cardinal said today.

But the prelate gave no indication of the position the study takes or when a final pronouncement might be made.

Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, who heads the Vatican office for health care, told a news conference on infectious diseases that the document was drafted with the help of scientists, theologians and other experts.

"We have prepared a detailed study on condoms from both the scientific and moral points of view and we have passed our study on to the Congregation for the Faith," Barragan said. "Now the dossier is being studied by that office and then it will go before the pope."

'From both the scientific and moral points of view'. Yes... Do you think that choice of words is significant? Since there's nothing more moral that prohibiting the use of a scientifically well-proven method against a deadly disease. However, if any reminder were necessary what kind of attitudes might be revised by this new report (maybe...remember, we have to consider all the moral evils of condom use...), here are comments from Katha Pollitt from a 2004 issue of The Nation:
Now it seems the Vatican is joining fundamentalist Protestants to spread the word against condoms around the globe. "To talk of condoms as 'safe sex' is a form of Russian roulette," said Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, head of the Vatican's office on the family. On the BBC Panorama program "Sex and the Holy City," Lopez Trujillo explained, "The AIDS virus is roughly 450 times smaller than the spermatozoon. The spermatozoon can easily pass through the 'net' that is formed by the condom." That latex has holes or pores through which HIV (or sperm) can pass is a total canard. A National Institutes of Health panel that included anti-condom advocates examined the effectiveness of condoms from just about every perspective, including strength and porosity; according to its report, released in July 2001, latex condoms are impermeable to even the smallest pathogen. [...]

It's bad enough to argue that condoms are against God's will while millions die. But to maintain, falsely, that they are ineffective in order to discourage their use is truly immoral. If not insane.
Gosh, religion seeking to contradict science. That doesn't happen very often. Does it?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Und jetzt lernen wir das Lachen...

You see, I'm not the only one:

"You notice you're becoming more German when you go to England and things don't work. I was on the London Stansted Airport Express, which costs a bomb and is filthy. There was a Japanese passenger who sat down and his seat collapsed. Everyone laughed. I thought: Welcome to Britain. Collapsing chair, overpriced, laughing at foreigners, and all within 10 minutes of arriving."

So says London Times Berlin correspondent Roger Boyes (via Spiegel International, thanks to Anja for the tip), who has written a new book, My Dear Krauts, about his efforts to understand a country he describes (seemingly affectionately) as full of 'paranoid schizophrenics':

"One minute they're convinced they're total losers and start filling their pants. The next they're fervent patriots who think they know it all. It's completely confusing," says the veteran journalist, who began his career in Bonn in the 1970s and returned to Germany in 1993 after postings in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Italy.

The 2006 World Cup was a case in point, says Boyes, 54. "Weeks beforehand they were saying, 'Oh God we can't get anything right, ticket sales are going wrong, security is going wrong, no one's going to come.' Then the World Cup came and they went all patriotic and were suddenly saying no one does it better."

(So, you see, his frustrations are not only with the British...and what better to bring two nations together than their frustrations?)

There's an excerpt from the book at the Spiegel site (in English), which is quite nice but which does...almost inevitably...mention the war.

Where Boyles, however, does seem to go wrong is in the assumption that Germans are not funny. They are, but it takes some time to get the hang of German humour.

Earlier this year, in the run-up to the World Cup (when, briefly, it seemed that at least some British people had an interest in Germany which for a change did not involve Where Eagles Dare style cliches), Stuart Lee examined the peculiarities of German humour. I'm not sure that he's entirely right, but he does say a few insightful things:

The geographical accident of Germany has denied Germans the fun we have with language, and it seemed to me that their sense of humour was built on blunt, seemingly serious statements, which became funny simply because of their context. I looked back over the time I had spent in Hannover and suddenly found situations that had seemed inexplicable, even offensive at the time, hilarious in retrospect. On my first night in Hannover I had gone out drinking with some young German actors. "You will notice there are no old buildings in Hannover," one of them said. "That is because you bombed them all." At the time I found this shocking and embarrassing. Now it seems like the funniest thing you could possibly say to a nervous English visitor.
Lee also recounts the following brilliant joke, apparently known among 'comedy professionals' as 'The German Child':

An English couple have a child. After the birth, medical tests reveal that the child is normal, apart from the fact that it is German. This, however, should not be a problem. There is nothing to worry about. As the child grows older, it dresses in lederhosen and has a pudding bowl haircut, but all its basic functions develop normally. It can walk, eat, sleep, read and so on, but for some reason the German child never speaks. The concerned parents take it to the doctor, who reassures them that as the German child is perfectly developed in all other areas, there is nothing to worry about and that he is sure the speech faculty will eventually blossom. Years pass. The German child enters its teens, and still it is not speaking, though in all other respects it is fully functional. The German child's mother is especially distressed by this, but attempts to conceal her sadness. One day she makes the German child, who is now 17 years old and still silent, a bowl of tomato soup, and takes it through to him in the parlour where he is listening to a wind-up gramophone record player. Soon, the German child appears in the kitchen and suddenly declares, "Mother. This soup is a little tepid." The German child's mother is astonished. "All these years," she exclaims, "we assumed you could not speak. And yet all along it appears you could. Why? Why did you never say anything before?" "Because, mother," answers the German child, "up until now, everything has been satisfactory."
Finally, anyone who says Germans are not funny has never heard of Erwin Pelzig. Of course, for most of you, the humour may pass right by, requiring, as it does, not only knowledge of German but also of the dialect spoken in Franconia, a region to which, for a variety of reasons, I feel inordinately - and quite fondly - attached. (To be honest, probably about 50% of his humour lies not in what he says but how he says it...)

Still, for some of you, perhaps worth a look...

Monday, November 20, 2006

Murder in the subjunctive

Celebrating our 100th post, and while we're on the subject of hype:
In much of the media, there really is less and less interest in the actual content of books or television programs these days. What matters is merely the sell, which increasingly means the hype. The actual product comes last in priority. With free markets comes great freedom but also some responsibility: to publish books worth publishing, to air TV shows actually worth airing, to care about content as well as ratings and sales. Those criteria are distinguishable from what the market will reward. That distinction has been lost in many places. It is not a criticism of the market; it is merely a reminder that markets also require integrity among those who work in them. That point deserves recovering.

Right on, Andrew. (Except, I would suggest, this is a criticism of the market....what else, in this case, would you be criticising?)

Shame about your publisher, though...

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Land of Hype and Glory?

I have been travelling to Britain with some regularity for most of my life (I have one parent who was born and raised there and the family ties were tight), and with particular duration and frequency for the last decade or so, as a result of research and, more recently, to get to my workplace. I have also spent nearly two decades immersed in an academic effort to grapple with the country's culture and history.

I think I can fairly say that I've long been in love with the place.

Nonetheless: I'm concerned.

what concerns me is something I've had a difficult time expressing. I tried to explain it to a good friend of mine some weeks ago in London by pointing out that despite years of economic growth and loudly trumpeted 'modernisation' so much of Britain - even it's world-class capital - remains so thoroughly...'shabby', as I put it.

Of course, a kind of down-at-heel amateurishness has long been central to the charm of the UK, particularly back when it was combined with a sense that the British were incapable of taking themselves too seriously.

But, I think what I've been noting is a new and unpleasant sense of cultural superiority abroad on the island, a widespread opinion that things are vastly better
(faster, richer, cooler...) in Britain than in, say, continental Europe. Which would be halfway tolerable if it weren't combined with so much selling of old beer in new bottles, if all that half-baked surface coolness was not, in the end, just so tremendously over-hyped and costly.

In retrospect, then, it was less the shabbiness as such which was bothersome and more its coexistence with a shouting, superficial version of hyper-modernity. (Britain has become, in some way, a very bling kind of place.) This - alongside a relentless decline in the quality of public life and the growing tabloid hysteria which seems to be infesting once reliable bastions of at least semi-serious culture (e.g., the broadsheets and the BBC) - has been instilling an increasing sense of discomfort when I'm there, a discomfort which engages in a constant duel with the other side of my brain which is so thoroughly fond of the place.

It's a type of cognitive dissonance.

(Perhaps I'm not alone: A recent story in Spiegel cites a survey according to which up to a quarter of Britons are considering moving abroad.)

But, of course, only a former native can really wax eloquent about the disappointments of 'home', and over at Click Opera, Momus had gone some way toward expressing what I was trying to get across to my good friend on an otherwise lovely night on the South Bank. (I think, however, the only thing I succeeded in was annoying him with my relentless negativity and opinion that many things were, actually, much better in Germany. Sorry, dude.)

Momus, who has spent considerable time living in Japan and now lives in Berlin,
writes of his impressions of Birmingham on a recent trip.
Host Greg, who meets me at the airport [...] tells me that the only good food I'm likely to encounter in Brum is the bratwurst being sold at the German Christmas fair. Apparently the centre of town is full of tiny chalets selling gluhwein and sausages. On loan from Frankfurt.

When I go hunting for breakfast the next morning, I discover the truth of Greg's words. The pedestrian centre of Birmingham is full of familiar retail chains -- Boots, Habitat -- but there are no small businesses, the sort of places where cooking gets done. Everything's pre-packaged, pre-prepared, cold, slick, global. One place says "Cut sandwiches... sausage and egg?" The question mark -- and the lack of tables -- puts me off. I end up eating at a slick chain called "Eat: Real Food". They offer cold dishes in plastic boxes; sushi, feta salad, Thai noodles with cashews. I opt for the latter. It's bland beyond words. And expensive.
Noting the extent to which tabloid hysteria seems to have taken over British media (current obsession: paedophilia), he moves on to discussing - quite effectively, I think - the ways that Birmingham and the hotel in which he stays sums up much of what is unsettling about early 21st-century Britain:
So Birmingham has this contrast between soft and hard, safe zones and danger zones. Soft-and-safe is shopping, marketing, luxury, self-indulgence; chatting to your friend on your mobile phone as you walk through the Mailbox, a luxury shopping centre housing the BBC headquarters. Soft is my hotel, the slick Malmaison, which is "premium marketing-designed" in that terribly British way.

By "premium marketing-designed" I mean that graphic designers and marketers have made something over to allow it to pass as a luxury product and therefore command inflated prices. It's rebranding something upmarket not based on any really expensive new contents, but on a series of luxury signifiers. It's very British, because Britain doesn't really want to put the time and love into really improving quality of life, but it does want to hoist prices.


The room -- tastefully decorated with low-hanging orange and brown lampshades -- is full of amusing signs. Instead of "Shampoo" and "Conditioner" and "Do Not Disturb" and "Please Make Up Room", the signs say "Soft as a feather" and "Fresh as a daisy" and "I want to be alone" and "Room upside down" (printed, cleverly, upside down).

So, a few slipping glimpses of an unfamiliar town in my motherland. Each time I come back, this country seems harder, slicker -- and softer too, if you can afford the soft bits, that is; the spa, the mortgage on the "exclusive" property. In some ways the megalithic slickness of the post-industrial capitalism here makes Britain resemble Japan.... But there are big differences. It isn't just that the mobile phones people depend on so much here are still (ten years after my web-capable Nokia) unable to offer full web access, let alone video like their Japanese counterparts. It's not just that Japan has protected its small businesses, or that it retains a sense that it's worth doing things well for their own sake (rather than just marketing things as "luxuries"). Japanese citizens also have a sense of basic kindness, respect, trust and discretion towards each other.
I'm not familiar with Japan, but I think much of the above also applies in some way to Germany, even though some of the same trends affecting Britain can be (more subtly) noticed here too.

German thoroughness may not be the sexiest of national traits, but it does mean attending to substance as well as surface and function as well as form. There is much less tendency merely to rely on the ethereal hype of PR and instead to actually offer something different or better. (This is, after all, a country which still makes things rather than just selling them.) The corporatist impulse which, it is true, may not be as 'dynamic' as Anglo-Saxon neo-liberalism has meant that forms of social 'solidarity' (though seriously bashed about due to the pressures of reunification and recession) remain meaningful in mainstream politics. A commitment (fraying, but still operative) to avoiding the worst forms of social inequality and maintaining a vibrant public life has meant that the gap between the 'soft' and 'hard' life in Germany remains much less yawning.

That Spiegel story I mentioned above interviews several Britons who have immigrated to Germany, drawn by a greater sense of public safety and the ability to maintain a higher quality of life for less money.

Of course, there are problems in Germany (first among them is high unemployment and second is probably...the inability of most Germans to form orderly queues), but a recent story in the Süddeutsche Zeitung helps - admittedly anecdotally - to put them in perspective: a German sociologist reports taking a group of American colleagues to what is considered a 'bad neighbourhood' in Bremen. The Americans' response: 'How nice!'

Would the same response even be thinkable, I wonder, in the 'danger zones' of Britain?

Friday, November 17, 2006

'I'm candidate from shoulder': or, 'In winter wrestle architects will prepare plans of structures of ways.'

Last weekend, Krzysztof Kononowicz stood as the mayoral candidate of a Polish far-right party for the city of Bialystok. According to Spiegel Online, he was locally known as the 'Frankenstein of the Nationalists', who hoped to be the power behind his throne in case he had won.

He lost.

But his campaign video is very...intriguing. There are, first of all, his appearance and body language. And...then there is that sweater.

One version has been given English subtitles which add to the...poetry. Here is an edited selection of his free verse:

I have graduate trade school as driver, mechanic.

I have mother...
I have brother...
Dady is dead but dady is very my deserved. He was fighting for Warsaw...he was fighting for Poland...He was fighting for god, but no father is here...he has gone. As I say he has changed place of living.
Kononowicz's main aim is to improve his derelict hometown, which, to be honest, sounds like Chicago in the 1920s:
In order to there was not bandits, theft that it was nothing.

Ours plants in Bialystock are smash. [...] So as Spomash in Strosielce.

And I want too move out police to the streets. I want to move out police.

There will not be tatter. They will be only people.

And on spring we will go out with structure. [**Yes, yes, The Wife sighs wistfully, April is the cruelest month....]

And the drivers will be to by police punished rigorously. For alcohol, cigarettes, for everything.

And it is worth to vote on me, because I'm man really honest and fair.

I will do everything. Because I'm person beliving and practicing. [In other words: I'm just a soul whose intentions are good...Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood.] And I know how to do this. How to improve ways. How everything. How to liquidate cigarettes. How to liquidate all!

Total destruction is the only solution? Ahhh...right-wing brainstorming in action is a breathtaking thing to behold.

Breaking a few eggs to make omlettes...or what?

Glad you lost, Krzysztof; but glad you didn't (yet) slide into obscurity.

It's too much fun to watch.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

(A)fairy tales, fundamentalist optimism and historical progress

A.C. Grayling recently did some very fine intellectual (not to say rhetorical) work in his response to the Theos publication with the cringeworthy title 'Doing God: A Future for Faith in the Public Sphere'. There are many sparkling elements in Grayling's piece, but the most helpful ones usefully provide clear definitions for often misused words such as 'secular' and 'humanist'.
Secularism is the view that church and state (religion and national government) should be kept separate. The first secularists were medieval churchmen who did not wish the temporal power to interfere in church affairs. Temporal government of religious affairs produces emasculated and feeble latitudinarian religious bodies like the Church of England (so this, if any religious body has to exist, is a good thing), whereas religious interference or, worse, control of government has a ready tendency to degenerate into what we might revealingly call Talibanism, as history and current affairs overwhelmingly and tragically attest.

Humanism in the modern sense of the term is the view that whatever your ethical system, it derives from your best understanding of human nature and the human condition in the real world. This means that it does not, in its thinking about the good and about our responsibilities to ourselves and one another, premise putative data from astrology, fairy tales, supernaturalistic beliefs, animism, polytheism, or any other inheritances from the ages of humankind's remote and more ignorant past.
Most importantly, Grayling debunks the ever-recurring argument that a lack of faith is simply, to adapt Clausewitz, a continuation of faith by other means:

"Atheism" is a word used by religious people to refer to those who do not share their belief in the existence of supernatural entities or agencies. Presumably (as I can never tire of pointing out) believers in fairies would call those who do not share their views "a-fairyists", hence trying to keep the debate on fairy turf, as if it had some sensible content; as if there were something whose existence could be a subject of discussion worth the time.

People who do not believe in supernatural entities do not have a "faith" in "the non-existence of X" (where X is "fairies" or "goblins" or "gods"); what they have is a reliance on reason and observation, and a concomitant preparedness to accept the judgment of both on the principles and theories that premise their actions. The views they take about things are proportional to the evidence supporting them, and are always subject to change in the light of new or better evidence. "Faith" - specifically and precisely: the commitment to a belief in the absence of evidence supporting that belief, or even (to the greater merit of the believer) in the very teeth of evidence contrary to that belief - is a far different thing....

Well put, Dr. Grayling. (And from today, I would like to be counted - just so as to remove any doubt - as a committed believer in afairyism...)

However, where I think Grayling is on less firm ground is his opinion, expressed recently in Prospect, that rather than a resurgence in religious belief we are currently witnessing its 'death throes'.

The idea indeed has a nice counterintuitive quality, and there is evidence which seems to back it up.

On the other hand...I do wonder whether there's more than a touch of wishful secular thinking behind the notion of religious decline. John Gray, in a book review which appeared a few weeks ago (which I mentioned once before) expressed a view he has long - and repeatedly - been making: that secular liberal hopes for an onward march of reason and progress are indeed a 'faith' which is ungrounded in an honest appraisal of current politics, human psychology or history. As Gray puts it:
Religion - especially of the monotheistic variety that demands universal acceptance - is back. If ever politics was secular, it is so no longer. Presidents whose view of the world is formed from apocalyptic myths are in charge in Iran and the US, and seem ready to act on the belief that salvation comes to humankind by way of Armageddon. The social science that assumed religion must eventually yield to science is obsolete. If you want to understand the beliefs that are shaping global politics, read the Book of Revelation.
Maybe. But maybe not.

In any case, Grayling's comments have set off a vigorous discussion. Some of it has been very thought-provoking, some of it less so and Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels has been distributing praise and scorn where appropriate.

One highlight is her response to the somewhat floundering logic in Mark Vernon's view of the current debates around religion and secularism. Vernon says:
Consider the typical skirmish between secular and religious protagonists (AC Grayling provides a good case in point with his blog). They lead, at best, up a cul-de-sac because their arguments only go round and round in circles. They are, at worst, dangerous because in forcing people to take sides, they nurture extremes - whether religious or secular. This rides roughshod over the ground that is genuinely fascinating, humanly enriching, and socially essential: the places where science and religion reach the respective limits of their understanding and meet. The militant atheist and the fundamentalist believer alike try to rubbish such engagement because it offends their faith that science or religion can and should say it all.
To which Ophelia responds:
One, I would say Theo Hobson provides a much better case in point, and that in any case it's hard to see why Grayling provides a good case in point of both protagonists of that skirmish. Two, what places are there where science and religion reach the respective limits of their understanding and meet? And what's so fascinating and enriching about them? Unless he just means subjects on which everyone's understanding is incomplete so everyone can have a good indeterminate discussion? (But then how do discussions of that kind differ from arguments that 'only go round and round in circles'? Don't they have a good deal in common? But if so, that's not particularly a place where science and religion meet, it's just a place where humans don't know much. You can meet anyone there. Lepidopterists, mountaineers, anyone. And three (loud sigh) very few even militant atheists believe (let alone have 'faith') that science can and should say it all. I've never spoken to or read a single scientist who thinks science can and should say it all - I'd like to challenge all these enemies of militant atheism to cite one who does, with illustrative quotations. Meanwhile I'll think that's a canard, a straw man, a red herring, a magenta halibut. As is (loud sigh) the faith accusation. I wish Gordon Brown would make that illegal, if only on grounds of deep boredom.

In particular, she's right about Theo Hobson's comment being a much more likely candidate for dead-endness.

Hobson starts off asserting that the 'missionary zeal' (ah, such clever - and subtle! - word-play) of assertive secularists such as Grayling reveals a 'faith dimension' in their thinking. I hope he's not saying that being insistent and consistent about something is - in itself - a form of 'faith', since that would be silly and wrong (see, for example, the quotation with which this post will end, below). But, in fact, I do think that's what he means.

He then suddenly changes direction and - accompanied by the wrenching sounds of screeching, overloaded gears and, moreover, ignoring Grayling's definition of atheism - alleges that atheism
entails a certain narrative about historical progress: we can move to a new and better age once we have dispensed with superstition. Atheism is more than the rejection of religion as false: it is the belief that religion is an evil that holds back human history. (Empahsis added)
Huh? Really? Atheism entails ('to have, impose, or require as a necessary accompaniment or consequence') a certain narrative about historical progress? All atheists have the same view of history without which atheism would be impossible?

Gosh. I'm an atheist. I'm also a historian who - like most of my colleagues - holds to a quite different narrative of history than the 'it's getting better all the time' version which Hobson imagines. Does this make me a logical impossibility? Or, perhaps not a 'true' atheist (on the 'no true Scot' model). Or perhaps I'm not a 'true' historian.

Which would be worrying...if this whole argument weren't so obviously ridiculous.

Not content with making a basic logical error, however, Hobson moves onto his quasi-historical argument that, atheism itself is the product, not as you might expect of the Enlightenment or the development of science, but rather of....protestantism.
The atheist narrative, whether Grayling likes it or not, derives from Christianity, more specifically from Protestantism. The Protestants of the 17th century believed that a new era of history was dawning. The dark age of Roman Catholic superstition was giving way to a new age of truth. This is the origin of the modern belief in historical progress. The atheist enlightenment of the 18th century inherits this historical utopianism. It is an ideology full of bastardized Protestant idealism: it believes that the post-religious truth will set humanity free at last.
Now, it's true that no idea comes from nowhere and, thus, 'derives from' something else; however, there seem to be several major intellectual steps missing between Christianity and 'the atheist narrative' (what, only one?) which Hobson decries. The Reformation was certainly an important precursor to the Enlightenment (and even after that a lot of ostensibly secularist thinking has remain influenced by religious assumptions or frameworks), but Hobson's relentless effort to detach atheism from science and link it with a blind, naive optimism about the human condition is bizarre.

I mean, at one stage in Western culture nearly all intellectual viewpoints were to some extent religious. Since modern thinking 'derives from' that tradition, it could be argued that Hobson is creating a model in which it would be impossible for anyone to have a truly non-theistic thought.
But more importantly, I have yet to actually find any prominent secular thinker who expresses the view that were we simply to get faith out of the way 'a new golden age beckons':
It [atheism] adapts the Judeo-Christian belief in the "eschaton", the glorious climax towards which history has been straining.
'Straining' towards...a 'glorious climax'. Yes. OK, I'll leave that alone...and turn instead to pointing out that Hobson's argument here relies rather heavily, and awkwardly, on the history of Positivism - which did certainly have a startlingly teleological and progressive view of history - which Gray presented in Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern.

By casting all secularists into that bizarre mould (which is a mistake which Gray himself - for all his worth as a thinker - all too often makes...while all positivists might have been atheists, the equation doesn't work equally well in the opposite direction), Hobson is confusing two very different things: the scientific, secular worldview and a very specific (though in its time influential) intellectual movement which did, at times, develop certain cult-like trappings.

But where, today, are these wildly optimistic secularists proposing that all that stands between mankind and utopia is religion? Are they the same ones also pointing to looming environmental catastrophe? The same people applying the perspectives of Darwinism to the human race, thereby emphasising its animal basis, ultimate limitations and inherent tendencies toward irrationality? The same people who realise that, even were religion to get out the way (and I don't think that even the most optimistic propose that will happen soon, if ever) fundamental conflicts rooted in economics or ethnicity would remain?

If anything, it is a skeptical, secular and scientific outlook which tends against most kinds of fundamentalist optimism. This is not to say that improvement is impossible - it most certainly is - but so, of course, is historical change in the opposite direction.

Not only is a more clear-eyed look at reality - e.g., one involving neither supernatural beings nor progressive teleologies - rarely something which leads to heartwarming sense of optimism, but such a viewpoint is essential if some kinds of desirable - if incremental and always contingent - change can be won or even contemplated. If you look around, I'd say that most of those with a secular perspective are indeed concerned about religion; but they also tend to be concerned about a lot of other things as well, and I think that most of them have no illusions about the meaning of history.

But just to show how little the accusation about a secular worldview being simply another form of faith has changed, I'll give the final word to Richard Dawkins, who in a 1997 essay 'Is Science a Religion' wrote:
I want to return now to the charge that science is just a faith. The more extreme version of that charge — and one that I often encounter as both a scientist and a rationalist — is an accusation of zealotry and bigotry in scientists themselves as great as that found in religious people. Sometimes there may be a little bit of justice in this accusation; but as zealous bigots, we scientists are mere amateurs at the game. We're content to argue with those who disagree with us. We don't kill them.

But I would want to deny even the lesser charge of purely verbal zealotry. There is a very, very important difference between feeling strongly, even passionately, about something because we have thought about and examined the evidence for it on the one hand, and feeling strongly about something because it has been internally revealed to us, or internally revealed to somebody else in history and subsequently hallowed by tradition. There's all the difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation.
Simple enough, wouldn't you say?

So, to religious critics of secularism, I can only say the following: for God's sake, find a new meme.

[UPDATE]: I've just noted another very worthy response to Hobson's commentary here at Fisking Central, who seem like such fine people that I've also added them to my links list.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Gameboys, cashmere and chocolate for freedom

Oh, this is interesting.

While Iraqi civilians and Iraqi and American soldiers are learning about the imposition of 'freedom' the hard way ('stuff happens' as Rummy used to say), the Guardian reports that anti-socialist Cuban exiles have found a much, much more relaxing way to promote free minds (and free markets) in their homeland.

And they're doing so at American taxpayers' expense, no less.

A congressional audit has found 'questionable expenditure' on the part of dissident groups supported by the US government.

There may be nothing new about government funds being wasted by flaky dissident groups (particularly given the track record of the groups that the US government supports...), but what I find even better than the expenses themselves are their vehement justification by the leaders of the groups in question:
The Miami-based Acción Democrática Cubana spent money on a chainsaw, Nintendo Game Boys and Sony PlayStations, mountain bikes, leather coats and Godiva chocolates, which the group says were all sent to Cuba. “These people are going hungry. They never get any chocolate there,” Juan Carlos Acosta, the group’s executive director, told the Miami Herald.**

He also defended the purchase of a chainsaw he said he needed to cut a tree that had blocked access to his office in a hurricane, and said that the leather jackets and cashmere sweaters were bought in a sale. “They [the auditors] think it’s not cold there,” Mr Acosta said. “At $30 [£16] it’s a bargain because cashmere is expensive. They were asking for sweaters.”
That is good reasoning (and, yes, cashmere is expensive), but it gets even better:
“I’ll defend that until I die,” Mr Hernandez Trujillo said of his decision to spend part of his group’s allocation on boxes of computer games. “That’s part of our job, to show the people in Cuba what they could attain if they were not under that system.”
'Until I die'? That's a strong claim, Mr. Trujillo...are you sure?

However, I suppose demonstrating to oppressed Cubans that gringo capitalism not only includes the luxury of a minimum wage of $5.15 an hour but also comes equipped with a BFG9000, is, erm, priceless. That, after all, is what democracy is all about.

Alongside...hooray!....the free market.

So enjoy those government funds, OK?

La lucha continua!

As The Wife can't help but remark: 'Let them eat brioche!'

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

It's the end of the world as we know it...

...but other things are still interesting too.

Light-years away from my previous post - and on a far, far more frivolous note - Dan Kois asks which was the better band of the 1980s: R.E.M. or U2?

The answer, I think, is obvious...

Temporarily speechless

I admit, it may be that I'm somewhat too prone to contemplating the more negative side of humanity, in particular its propensity to wanton cruelty.


But then I read an article like this one, from today's Guardian, on the emerging evidence of the massive scale of rape in Congo's wars over the last decade. The piece's title highlights the numbers, which are horrible enough; however, the real horror lurks in the individual stories, told in paragraphs that I don't even want to repeat.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Just saying....

...not for any reason or anything.

Nominations for the 2006 Cliopatria Awards (in various categories) are now being accepted.

The eternal themepark of the creationist mind

At the Guardian, Stephen Bates reports on his tour of the first partially completed sections of The Creation Museum - motto: 'Prepare to Believe! - which is being built in Ohio. It's well worth reading, since it reveals two important aspects of creationism. First, its power. Two, its jaw-dropping stupidity.

As to the power bit, this 'museum' (which deserves the quotes since, as far as I can tell, it is not actually displaying anything factually true) will cost about $25 million, of which all but $3 million have already been raised. Aside from access to funds, there seems to be a lot of technical know-how behind it - at least with regard to animatronics if not to biology. Finally, the institution seems almost inevitably to have at its disposal the requisite few people with science degrees who wigged out somewhere along the line and decided to let Jesus into their hearts. This wouldn't be so bad in itself, though it seems that in the process he's gone and re-booted their minds as well.

Finally, as the article points out, there may be 50 million Americans who believe in literal versions of creationism. To them should be added the many more with less strident beliefs whose world view tends more toward a squishy mish-mash of half-facts, convenient fictions and lots and lots of angels.

This is, in short, a much bigger story than some strip-mall church adding a few velociraptors to their Winterval nativity scene.

Patrick Marsh, the 'museum's' designer, used to work for Universal Studios before being reborn and committing his life, apparently, to spreading a version of the Good News which seems to go something like this:
"The Bible is the only thing that gives you the full picture," he says. "Other religions don't have that [oh, Patrick, they do, they do...], and, as for scientists, so much of what they believe is pretty fuzzy about life and its origins ..."
('Pretty fuzzy' about life. Er, yes: science has really made so little progress over the past few centuries, I fully agree. And in the meantime there have been all those remarkable breakthroughs in faith healing....)

Whether Bates managed to keep a straight face during this interview is not explained; nevertheless, he gamely throws out some questions in the ultimately vain hope of getting a rational answer.

Predictably, as befits a product of fanaticism, there is nothing fuzzy about the 'museum's' view of life and its origins. The Earth, as any decent Sunday school can teach you, is about 6,000 years old (give or take a few months...) and everything was created by God as explained in Genesis.

(Some of you may wish to object that there are two different and contradictory versions of that story, but please don't be so obtuse and disrespectful...remember, 'mysterious ways' and all that...)

So, nothing 'fuzzy' about this perspective, even if there may be a need for some very soft focus camera-work in the end:
We pass the site where one day an animatronic Adam will squat beside the Tree. With this commitment to authenticity, I find myself asking what they are doing about the fig leaf. Marsh considers this gravely and replies: "He is appropriately positioned, so he can be modest. There will be a lamb or something there next to him. We are very careful about that: some of our donors are scared to death about nudity."
So: they can spend millions on a farcical delusion and make complete asses of themselves in public without batting an eyelash, but the thought of the devil's organs unwrapped scares them 'to death'. This spurs two thoughts. First, I think we may have the makings of a new and devastating weapon in the war on irrationality. Second, I am surprised that christian nudists - who are also busy building this year - have yet to protest this shameful concealment of creation's own, erm, pinnacle. I hope they'll get around to it soon enough.

Disappointingly, there is no word in the article about whether Adam and Eve will come equipped with navels.

The 'museum's' 'research scientist' is biologist - oops, sorry, astrophysicist - Dr. Jason Lisle. Dr. Lisle - who seems to have a great admiration of breathless non-sequiters such as "Amazing! God has a name for each star" and "The sun's distance from earth did not happen by chance" - appears to make an interesting - and revealing - distinction between what he knows and what he believes:
And how did he pass the exams? "I never lied, but if I was asked a question about the age of the universe, I answered from my knowledge of the topic, not my beliefs."
As I always say: never let a little knowledge stand in the way of belief.

There is, sadly, nothing new about all of this, I know. Still, it throws me into fits of hair-pulling fury that it is necessary to discuss such things.

What never ceases to amaze me is the thoroughly brazen flippancy with which creationists will refer to science. Statements along the lines as 'There is no evidence of evolution', for example, whereas, of course, there are vast libraries and museums and laboratories across the world where nearly 150 years of post-Darwinian biology are being created, reported, archived and updated.

No, just say it and it is so.

In the face of such overwhelming masses of evidence, plainly inaccurate comments (cited in the Guardian piece) by creationist nut-job Ken Ham such as 'The Bible makes sense and is overwhelmingly confirmed by observable science' or 'nothing contradicts the Bible's account of the origins' are pathetically insignificant (though no less annoying for all that).

Ham, after all, has stated: 'No apparent, perceived, or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the Scriptural record', so his alleged interest in scientific proof and, above all, his predictable and disingenuous recitation of the mantra we just want to show both sides of the story is just part of selling the pretence of a more reasonable version of creationism than actually exists.

There is nothing new under the creationist sun, of course. The 'museum' is just the latest episode in their charlatans' efforts to argue for the coexistence of humans and dinosaurs. (A very fine debunking of one of the more insistent of these claims is available here, via Talk.Origins.)

However, I think articles like the one Bates has written are useful in contradicting the (plainly loopy) argument that the primary force driving fundamentalist religion is the uncompromising and dismissive rejection by atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett or Sam Harris of faith. This view was recently given another airing in an infinitely frustrating article by Gary Wolf in Wired which essentially concludes that the arguments of 'New Atheism' just don't offer enough spiritualist brain candy, naive respect for irrationality and blood-quickening madness as he would prefer. Creationists, predictably, love this argument about 'atheist extremism'; however, as Bates's article shows, the real extremists in this story can find enough fuel for their insane little crusade in their own distorted worldviews.

This article is beginning to make inroads on the optimism I'd developed over the last few days, and despite the joys of the recent election results, I am here reminded of something Christopher Hitchens wrote not long ago.
These days I spend a good deal of my time defending my adopted country from what I have to call anti-American attitudes, many of them based on what seem to me a mixture of envy and ignorance. But, yes, I tell the BBC man when he finally calls back, there is quite a lot of argument this fall about whether or not American schoolchildren should be exposed to the ideas first promulgated by Charles Darwin in the mid-Victorian epoch. Indeed, the subject has begun to open a split in the Republican Party, as well as between it and its critics. There is a brief silence on the line.
A silence which, in the end, I can only echo.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Fair, balanced and boil-inducing

Yet another reason I'm happy to no longer actually live in America: not being confronted with television election coverage.

But someone else is not so lucky:
Last night I was reminded of two things: one, watching televised political coverage makes me break out in weeping boils. Candy “Green Tea” Crowley alone would do it, but when she’s combined with the bloviations of Bill Bennett (who was lamenting Pennsylvanians’ inability to understand the virtues of that good, good man, Rick Santorum) I find myself rolling around on the floor and tearing the upper layers of skin from my arms. And that makes the boils burst, and that just makes a mess.
The second thing (and the rest of his comments) are available here.

I had, incidentally, missed Crowley's green tea comment the first time around. It's interesting, since I'm about to fire up a nice pot of green tea myself...but I wasn't aware that this sort of thing puts me in the ranks of the cultural elite.

Which brings up another reason I'm happy to be here rather than there. Since I moved to Europe, I've become ever more confused by some populist right-wing efforts back home to cast perfectly everyday foods - brie, espresso, baguette, whole-grain bread, balsamico vinegar, good wine etc. - as some kind of effete, snobbish and anti-American conspiracy.

Do real Americans only eat hot-dogs and apple pie? Or perhaps they prefer OxyContin and methamphetamine. the tea and some real work.

And later, perhaps, some wine and cheese.

The beginning of the end and the end of the beginning

Somebody pinch me.

After taking the House - and following Jon Tester's narrow senate victory out in Big Sky Country - it seems that the Democrats are on the verge of something really remarkable.

And, amazingly enough, the decisive tipping-point win seems likely to come from south of the Mason-Dixon (via the Washington Post)....

Webb continued to lead by approximately 7,300 votes with virtually all of Virginia's 2.3 million ballots counted Wednesday evening, and Republicans said there appeared to be little hope that glitches or math errors might uncover new GOP votes. Gillespie said Allen was "realistic," and an e-mail sent late Wednesday said the senator would make a statement "at the conclusion" of the statewide canvass of votes. The e-mail said "more details will follow from the campaign" early Thursday.

Several Republicans who are close to Allen or involved in a potential recount said privately that they doubted Allen could overcome Webb's lead, which stood at 13 times as large as George W. Bush's lead over Al Gore in Florida in 2000.

(Yes, that last figure does seem to have a certain icing-on-the-cake ring to, I haven't gotten over it.)

It seems that - shy of whatever the GOP Dirty Tricks Squad can pull out of their magic bag - AP and MSNBC have already called a Webb victory.

Following their lead, Obscene Desserts now also officially declares Jim Webb the winner.

Congratulations, Senator-elect Webb.

It remains to be seen what effect all this will have. However, one immediate result of the Democratic sweep of 2006 has added further to my delight: the taking of one Donald H. Rumsfeld's scalp.

Of course, no matter how disgraceful his performance in office, how bloody his mistakes, how flippant his attitude toward death and anarchy and how ignominious his departure, he's most likely to leave government only to take up some kind of much higher-paid consulting work for a defence contractor.

Why is it almost impossible to really punish these people? (Rhetorical question. I know why.)

But lest anyone describe the Democratic victory and Rumsfeld's departure as a 'defeat for freedom' and a 'comfort to our enemies', it wasn't al-Qaida which wrote the following:
Rumsfeld has lost credibility with the uniformed leadership, with the troops, with Congress and with the public at large. His strategy has failed, and his ability to lead is compromised. And although the blame for our failures in Iraq rests with the secretary, it will be the troops who bear its brunt.
No. That was Army Times.

So long Don. You bastard.

[UPDATE]: Rumsfeld says Iraq war "complex for people to comprehend." In response, Andrew Sullivan keeps it simple.

[FURTHER UPDATE]: At Slate, Phillip Carter chronicles Rummy's worst mistakes and some of their consequences. Thanks for the memories.