The View from Number 80

 


Backwards Glances Index 2004 part 5

A word of warning - owing to the Weekly Glance's attempted topicality some of the links below may be even more ephemeral than usual. (Tip - a search for cached versions of missing sites is often productive using either Google or The Internet Archive Way Back Machine.)

 

October 1st 2004  Natasha's Nonsense

October 3rd 2004  Hellfire, Logic and Hocus-Pocus

October 5th 2004  Missiles of Spin

October 7th 2004  The Devil's Virus

October 9th 2004  Reagan On Bush

October 11th 2004  Pope Stacks Deck 

October 14th 2004  Of Missiles and Road Maps 

October 17th 2004  Bothering God

October 25th 2004  Uncivil War

October 28th 2004  Clone Clash

October 29th 2004  Ancient Dwarves

October 31st 2004  Finding Faith Through Fear

November 3rd  2004  Bleak Outlook

November 5th 2004  Biblical Bilge

November 7th 2004  The Men Who Stare At Goats

November 9th 2004  Vacuous Values Voters

November 11th 2004  Exit the Crisco Kid

November 13th 2004  Breast Cancer Lies

November 16th 2004  Sunken Dreams

November 19th 2004  The Epistle of Brown Nose Bob

November 23rd 2004  Sacred Snippets

November 25th 2004  No Miracle

December 1st 2004  Holy Spam

December 3rd 2004  Unholy Smoke

December 7th 2004  Vardy's Vacuity

December 9th 2004  Shoot to Thrill?

December 10th 2004  Bullshit

December 12th 2004  Implausible Stories

December 14th 2004  Hush My Mouth?

December 16th 2004  Second Front

December 18th 2004  No Still, Small Voice

December 20th 2004  Sanctified Tat

December 22nd 2004  The Unexamined Life

December 23rd 2004  Thou Shalt Not

December 24th 2004  Sikh Censorship

December 25th 2004  Herod the Great

December 27th  2004  Integrated Hogwash

December 28th 2004  Asking Why

December 30th 2004  Antiquities Antics

 

 

 

October 1st 2004

Natasha's Nonsense - just for a moment imagine that you have a gift, a  paranormal power, and you are confident enough in its genuineness to charge people money for the information you obtain using this power. Now along comes a benefactor who says let's devise a test for these powers, the rules and protocols of which we can both agree to beforehand, and, if you pass this test, you will be given a $1 million. What would you do? If you are Natasha Demkina, a 17 year-old Russian girl, like many before you, you ignore the offer. This girl is currently in the UK on a publicity tour, sponsored by the Discovery Channel. She first came to 80's notice back in February of this year when the tabloid end of the British press became excited at her supposed ability to diagnose medical conditions using some kind of X-ray sight. It was at this time that James Randi offered, via a Granada TV researcher, to test Natasha for the aforementioned $1 million. He never received an answer. Now Natasha has been tested for a TV show, reports the Guardian, by representatives of CSICOP, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and, according to the testers, she has failed. Natasha, who surely agreed to the test rules beforehand, has now fallen back on one of the standard psychic's excuses for non-performance under scrutiny. She says that she was unhappy with the way the test was carried out "The atmosphere of the testing was unfriendly. The conditions I was looking for were in some cases dubious. Why is that if I get five out of seven I pass, but if I get four, I'm a total failure?" What, one wonders, does she mean by unfriendly? Were the testers actually hostile or does she mean they were not impressed with her performance? Or was it quite proper scientific detachment? One of the test devisers, Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, was also unhappy with one aspect of the test. Apparently Natasha was sending and receiving text messages during the procedure, something which had been expressly forbidden. This casts doubts on even the "successes" that she had. While no one there is suggesting she cheated, it is a definite possibility. Apart from the dubious text messaging Wiseman also noted that subjects she "diagnosed" tended to react in the way that many folk do to readings by mediums - by remembering the successes and tending to forget the much larger number of failures. Wiseman told the Guardian "When I saw her do her usual readings, I couldn't believe the discrepancy between what I was hearing and how impressed the individuals were. I thought they were going to walk away saying it was embarrassing, but time and again, they said it was amazing. Before each reading, I asked the people what was the main medical problem and Natasha never got one of those right." Wiseman crops up elsewhere this week talking about seances to BBC News - oddly, although the strategies of psychics are discussed, the term cold-reading is not used. This is a widespread and comparatively easily learned technique of eliciting information from the bereaved in order to fine tune the reading given. Those desperate or grieving are often unaware that this is being done and again, as with Natasha's diagnoses, they tend to remember the hits and disregard the misses. Wiseman, in both articles, is careful to be polite and accuses no one of deception or fraud. 80, on the other hand, thinks that most mediums, and particularly the TV species, are ghouls making a living from the bereaved and deserve little more than contempt. As for Natasha, she is going to have to do a lot better if she is going to convince anyone of her abilities. Taking a test, failing, then whining that the atmosphere was unfriendly does nothing to convince this observer. For more on the techniques employed by mediums see Psychic Sophistry by Tony Youens. For a believer's description of how Natasha's powers work this message from the Graham Hancock message board is hard to beat "It's just one more "siddhi"--psychic ability. The human body is not solid--no matter is. Some people are born with these abilities, others pick them up through growth obtained by meditation. She is seeing with her eye-center chakra--or more accurately, when one is "at" the eye-center, one can often see through solid matter, because one is conscious in a higher reality-an etheric or even astral reality. But like I said, nothing is solid anyway." Certainly nothing between the writer's ears.......

Popetown Shutdown - the BBC has been cowed - not this time by the bullying tactics of an unelected official, but by pressure and incessant whining from the Roman Catholic church. It is common ploy these days for various Christian groups that when something is not to their liking they start whingeing about being persecuted and oppressed. The subject of the RC's ire is an animated comedy show called Popetown, which, according to the Daily Telegraph, features "...back-stabbing cardinals and an infantile Pope who bounced around the Vatican on a pogo stick..." (In 80's view, apart from the pogo stick, it sounds like a documentary.) The show was commissioned for the digital BBC 3 channel, with the voice of Ruby Wax as the Pope and that of Jerry Hall as a nun, but has been pulled under pressure from the RC church. The Bishop of Portsmouth told the BBC "It was obviously going to be a controversial programme which would have caused offence, not least among the Catholic community who hold the person of the Holy Father in the highest regard and affection." Unlike many outside the Catholic community who consider him a reactionary bigot. BBC 3's controller, Stuart Murphy, is quoted as saying the comic impact of Popetown did "not outweigh the potential offence it will cause". It would have been nice to have viewed a couple of episodes to see if his assessment was correct. He also said "There is a fine judgement line in comedy between the scurrilously funny and the offensive." Here he is dead wrong - to be scurrilously funny means that you are going to have to offend someone. 80's dictionary defines scurrilous as meaning "Expressing offensive reproach". (It is also worth noting that Mark Thompson, the BBC's director-general is a practising Roman Catholic.) The boss of Channel X, the independent production company that made the show, Alan Marke, made a most telling comment on the BBC's craven behavior when he said "But I understand the world has changed since the series was originally commissioned and sympathise with the difficult decision the BBC has had to make." The key phrase here is "the world has changed". Since the show was commissioned 3 years ago the BBC has been given an unwarranted kicking over the Hutton Report into its reporting of the intelligence that led to the invasion of Iraq. This has made them overly sensitive to the RC church's whining - which has not been confined solely to Popetown. Also, everyone is frightened of being accused of "religious hatred", especially in light of Home Secretary Blunkett's proposed legislation. This is confirmed by a BBC spokesman "The climate in which it was commissioned is different from what it is now. There are heightened sensitivities about the depiction of religion." At a time when the absurdities, cruelties and prejudices inherent in religion are more obvious than ever, a little ridicule and scurrilous fun would have helped redress the balance.


October 3rd 2004

Hellfire, Logic and Hocus-Pocus - there are a couple of items in the Observer/Guardian that, in 80's view, are well worth a moment of your time. The first is a comment piece by David Aaronovitch entitled "Flaws of faith - As religion insinuates its way into public life, secularists must unite to fight hellfire with logic" Taking the BBC Popetown climbdown as his starting point (see Popetown Shutdown) Aaronovitch looks at the assault by religionists, ie "people of faith", on secular society, taking in on the way, the hackneyed calumny that atheists lack morals and the subordinate role of women imposed by many religions. The title of the piece shows the difficulty of the task in combatting faith-based bigotry - how can you "fight hellfire with logic"? Those who believe in the retribution of a vengeful creator God are unlikely to be amenable to logic - Aaronovitch is right that the creeping religiosity in education and government needs fighting, the problem is finding the right strategy. Britain in particular reflects a weird, and infuriating imbalance, whereby an increasingly secular society is still told what to do by unelected religionists in the fields of education, entertainment and government. If you need examples just look at the Popetown fiasco, sectarian "faith" schools, and the Blair government's infatuation with consulting unrepresentative "faith groups" on matters far outside their limited provenance. The second item is Cristina Odone's Diary piece called "Hocus Pocus has never enjoyed such high status with the middle classes" citing the popularity of the nonsensical crap (80's words not Odone's) that is astrology, the attention given to mediums plying their ghoulish trade of conning the bereaved, clown Prince Charles' patronage of a palm reader, and other assorted, irrational, claptrap. Does Odone thinks this should be fought, as Aaronovitch feels about religion, which is, after all, merely established and officially sanctioned claptrap? It seems that although she disapproves, she thinks, probably correctly, that the battle is not winnable, for she concludes "The mumbo jumbo will continue unabated, raking in millions for its perpetrators and delivering a thrill to its believers. After all these years, we truly live in the age of Aquarius." This may seem somewhat of a defeatist attitude, but is, in fact, merely realistic. Even if there is no ultimate victory possible the struggle to hold the line is well worth the effort. 80 took a gloomy look at a world dominated by irrational beliefs (If This Goes On) - it would not be a place worth living in.

Darfur - Denial or Collusion? - the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, has said the Sudanese government are in denial over the horrendous conditions that over 1 million displaced people are suffering in Darfur, after a week-long visit to the area. Referring to the widespread incidence of rape and attacks by militiamen on the refugees she said "I think the government as a whole is in denial about the scale and the severity of the problem." Arbour has called for strengthening both the international presence in the area and increasing the number of African Union monitors. She summed up the situation in grave terms "Displaced people cannot envisage returning home because they do not trust the government of Sudan to protect them. At best they feel the authorities respond inadequately to their concerns, and at worst that they are in collusion with their abusers, including armed groups and militias generally described as Janjaweed." In 80's view it is collusion not denial that is delaying a resolution to this crisis. It is obvious that the government in Khartoum has little interest in improving the lot of those suffering in Darfur. The immediate application of  sanctions, backed up with the threat of military action, is the only thing they will understand.

Crown Imperial ? - whatever the result of the forthcoming US election, the present incumbent's wife is busy remodelling the famous Lincoln Bedroom at the White House. It is interesting to read this description, from the Washington Post, of the centerpiece of the new decorative scheme, "The pièce de résistance, both decoratively and symbolically, will be a carved bed canopy in the shape of a crown. It too has been sent for gilding. When affixed to the ceiling, the crown will support yards of regal purple satin over white lace, both trailing to the floor." It is said much can be revealed by one's taste in furniture and fashions. A crown and regal purple satin speaks volumes........


October 5th 2004

Missiles of Spin - the US has started deployment of its missile defense system - not because it has been tested and proved to be effective, but apparently so that President Bush can claim to have fulfilled one of his 2000 election pledges. SecDef Rumsfeld has tried to justify the deployment with his usual bluster, as quoted in the Washington Post (WP) "Did we have perfection with our first airplane, our first rifle, our first ship? I mean, they'd still be testing at Kitty Hawk, for God's sake, if you wanted perfection." No, perfection was not achieved, but the comparison is misleading - all these examples had a history of development well before deployment - no one tried to make the Wright Flyer into a warplane. Another quote from the WP is rather nearer the mark, from ex-head of the US Strategic Command, Gen. Eugene Habiger, "A system is being deployed that doesn't have any credible capability, I cannot recall any military system being deployed in such a manner." The WP article goes into detail on the many shortcomings of the system, and notes that it has cost so far $31 billion but is liable to top out at over $100 billion - in so far as anyone can tell for "...the traditional reviews and assessments have been bypassed." 80 is reminded of an observation by the late, great Richard Feynman, which describes the current situation very well indeed "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."

Thou Shalt Not Kill - unless of course your victim is gay."I'm trying to find the correct name for it ... this utter absolute, asinine, idiotic stupidity of men marrying men. ... I've never seen a man in my life I wanted to marry. And I'm gonna be blunt and plain; if one ever looks at me like that, I'm gonna kill him and tell God he died." So said Jimmy Swaggart, evangelist and bigot, in a sermon shown on a Canadian TV show (video here). There are several observations to make here, beyond noting Swaggart's rampant homophobia (methinks he doth protest too much). If he sincerely believes in the deity he is always banging on about, does he also believe it is OK to try and deceive that deity? Yes. Is he so stupid to think that he could lie to a being that is supposed to be omnipresent? Yes. All of this merely confirms that Swaggart, who in the past has demonstrated a close personal interest in fallen women, has to be one of the most hypocritical and offensive of a group notable for these two attributes, the TV evangelists. He is thoroughly contemptible, but no more so than his congregation, who met his outrageous remarks with applause. If you can stomach it, this page from BBC news has a video of Swaggart's nauseating and tearful public confession of his "consorting with a prostitute" in 1988. (Thanks to morons.org)

Costly Blind Faith - a short while ago 80 asked the question "Are those accustomed to putting blind faith in a deity more likely to fall for the wiles of religious con men?" (see Faithful Forfeit) The answer at the time was yes - and it still is - and the con man doesn't even have to be overtly religious. Another slightly different instance of blind faith leading to penury has surfaced in the New York Times (reg rqd). Saint Mary's College, a small liberal arts school in San Francisco's Bay Area, has been taken in by a con man who offered the school a donation, initially of $25 million, but subsequently raised to a head-spinning $112 million - an unheard of amount for such a small establishment. The Christian Brothers who run the school are apparently so unworldly that they, on the basis of the promised donation went ahead and built "a $25 million, three-story science center and began plans for several other buildings and major renovations on campus." Now according to Contra Costa County district attorney's office the Brothers "unwittingly became entangled in what appears to have been a real estate fraud that involved more than 120 investors and about $9 million that has disappeared." The big question must be, why did they spend money that they had yet to receive? Another equally large question is how the hell are they going to find the money now to pay for the science center? Answering the first question is easy, here is what Dr Giles Miller, a now retired trustee's board member, had to say "It was accepted on the basis of faith. Faith is a big thing in religion." No shit. So, obviously, is gullibility. The college president, Brother Craig J. Franz, announcing that he would step down in January, made the understatement of the year "I did make some mistake at some point along the line". According to the NYT he is now apparently "waiting for the college's internal investigation to determine precisely what went wrong." What, he still doesn't know? Hey Craig, you spent $25 million you didn't have on the promise of a complete stranger. Is that clear enough for you? As regards the second question, Nicholas G. Moore, the chairman of the board of trustees, says the college "has never been in better shape" financially. 80 presumes that this is a faith-based observation and does not necessarily bear any relation to reality. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the donor, a Conrad Colbrandt, claims that he in turn was conned by "John Banker, an 83-year-old former real estate broker whose license was revoked in 1980 after he pleaded guilty to grand theft and forgery in a real estate case and was sentenced to five years in prison." Banker has now skipped to Mexico, along with the proceeds of the real estate fraud. You can bet he is lighting a candle to St. Duplicitous, patron saint of con artists, right now.

Sound as a Pound - as noted in the intro of this page "the only consistent criterion for inclusion is whether a site catches 80's somewhat fickle attention..." Which is a cunning ploy that leaves 80 free to feature sites that do not fit the usual categories mentioned here. 80 wrote a little while back about coincidence, but here is a case of coincidence's near relative, serendipity. This is defined as "pure luck in discovering things you were not looking for" - the word itself derives from an old name for Sri Lanka, Serendib. But enough preamble. At a party recently 80 serendipitously ran into an old friend, Jack Pound, described on Jack's own website by John Rice (more about John here) as a "musician, cabaret entrepreneur, jobbing builder, local man about town, and on occasion, though hard to credit, a lifeguard..... A highly skilled guitarist and songwriter, his bluesy, often quirky style is particularly appreciated by discerning literary audiences.....whilst the rest of us just enjoy the music". The man and his music are well worth following up, so check out his site for CDs, upcoming gigs and other info. By the way, Jack has, for the second time, contributed a track to a benefit CD in aid of the Demelza Children's Hospice which is "the only children's hospice caring for children living in Kent, South East London and East Sussex." If you can help Demelza House in any way click here to visit their site.


October 7th 2004

The Devil's Virus - the founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, famously said of the turgid nature of much church music "Why should the devil have all the best tunes?" He then most effectively employed profane music for his own religious purposes. It now seems the Roman Catholic church is taking the same tack in its reaction to the Spanish government's intention to legalise same sex marriage. A church spokesman, Juan Antonio Martinez Camino, hasn't borrowed a tune from the devil, but from someone who, in the eyes of most religionists, is practically indistinguishable from that horned figure - Professor Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, a man with an excellent turn of phrase, has referred to religion (accurately, in 80's view) as a "virus of the mind". Camino knows a good metaphor when he hears one, even when coined by an atheist, and has referred to Spain's proposed legislation thus, "It would impose on society a virus, something false, which will have negative consequences for social life." This BBC news item talks of the Socialist government's laudable intention of creating a secular state, which has shaken the Roman Catholic church, and in a telling paragraph identifies the kind of state where the church can flourish. "The changes have distressed and outraged the Church, whose influence on Spaniards has declined precipitously since the death in 1975 of the dictator General Francisco Franco. His regime was closely linked to the Church." Fascism and Roman Catholicism have often been comfortable bedfellows. Also see here

Update - to the above. The Spanish government has approved a draft law which will legalise homosexual  marriages and gives gay couples the same rights as heterosexual couples, including the right to adopt children. The Spanish Bishop's Conference has issued a statement saying "A married couple, producing and educating their children, contributes in an irreplaceable way to the growth and stability of society,"  adding that a homosexual couple "could never have such characteristics". Question - who would you rather leave a young child with, a loving couple, gay or not, or a Roman Catholic priest? Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero said "I deeply respect the opinions of the Catholic Church even if they are very critical of the government. I ask them to show the same respect." He won't get it. Religionists always whinge on about deserving respect but they fail to reciprocate. Zapatero is being too reasonable - the church deserves toleration but not respect - not until it shows some respect of its own for other's opinions. The bishops have the built-in arrogance of those who claim to know all the answers. Superstition and dogma, no matter how longstanding or widespread, have no place in a democratic society. 

Quote - "Society bends over backward to be accommodating to religious sensibilities but not to other kinds of sensibilities. If I say something offensive to religious people, I'll be universally censured, including by many atheists. But if I say something insulting about Democrats or Republicans or the Green Party, one is allowed to get away with that. Hiding behind the smoke screen of untouchability is something religions have been allowed to get away with for too long." Richard Dawkins. (Thanks to Positive Atheism)

The Prince of Peace - would be so proud to see his minions beating the crap out of each other. The Guardian headline sums up this undignified episode "Punch-up at tomb of Jesus". Greek Orthodox and Franciscan clerics started belting each other after an imagined slight involving an open door. Things turned nasty, "There was lots of hitting going on. Police were hit, monks were hit ... there were people with bloodied faces." according to one witness. A Franciscan cleric observed "We are all Christians, and there is nothing to fight about." He obviously does not know his Christian history - almost from the start the nascent religion was rent by schisms and things have continued in that vein ever since. Only within a couple of decades of Christ's supposed lifetime, Paul is being hauled over the coals by the "pillars of the church" in Jerusalem, and warning in his epistles against those who preach "a different Christ". Lest Muslims feel smug about all this, remember that the Prophet Mohammed was barely cold when the Sunni/Shiite schism occurred and is still the cause of bloodshed today. Let's face it, revealed religion is divisive and its claims to absolute truth have ever been a recipe for strife. 


October 9th 2004

Reagan On Bush, Second Helping - following on from his scathing attack on George W Bush in Esquire magazine, Ron Reagan is back on the offensive in an interview in the Sunday Herald, in particular accusing the Bush administration of hijacking his father's reputation for its own agenda. In 80's view, Ron Jr doesn't really have all that much to be proud of in his father's record, but it is entertaining to read his venomous references to George Bush, some of which are wonderfully catty. Referring to Bush's attempts to appear as a Texas rancher, rather than the privileged scion of an East Coast dynasty, Reagan finds it "amusing, when you see pictures of him on his ranch with his little chainsaw as if he actually does any work there". He also returns to the subject of the President's opposition to stem-cell research, with its promise of treatments for the Alzheimer's disease that afflicted Reagan's father, and other distressing illnesses. This seems to be at the heart of Reagan's anger and dislike of the current administration, as it is so close to home for him and his mother. Referring to those in favor of banning therapeutic cloning, who seem to equate the use of embryonic stem-cells with abortion, he had this to say "I wonder how they would feel if a child or a loved one developed diabetes or Parkinson’s, and then see where they lie on the debate. Most people have no difficulty in choosing between a petri dish and a human being." On the war in Iraq, and the reasons behind it, he has a question for President Bush "I would ask him whether he felt that the innocent Iraqis and Afghans who died under our bombs were going to heaven as he imagines it. I think the answer to that would be very telling about Mr Bush’s character and his outlook on the world." Asked if he wanted to be a politician, Reagan declined, citing the constraints on what he could say - "My mother probably gets a little nervous if I’m too rough on George Bush – I mean, she has to speak to these people every once in a while." Perhaps no longer - since Nancy Reagan's views on stem-cell research have become public her contacts with the Bush camp are likely to be even less than "once in a while".

From a Cat's Eyes - here is a piece by Yusuf Islam in the Guardian describing his recent abortive attempt to enter the USA. He makes a spirited defence against what he considers "religious profiling" and loudly proclaims his peaceful intentions "I am a man of peace and denounce all forms of terrorism and injustice; it is outrageous for the US authorities to suggest otherwise." He professes himself puzzled as to why the US chose to refuse him admission - and unless those same authorities are more forthcoming this will likely remain a mystery. In 80's view one thing needs further clarification from Yusuf Islam, and that is how he defines the injustice that he denounces - does this include the Iranian death threats against Salman Rushdie? For more on this, see Big In Iran.


October 11th 2004

Pope Stacks Deck - Karol Wojtyla, otherwise known as the Pope, has been busy adding to the ranks of the blessed, nominating 5 more dead Roman Catholics for this posthumous honor, which is the precursor of full-blown sainthood. Among these worthies is the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor, called Karl I in this BBC news item. The thought occurs that if he was the last emperor, how come he has a number after his name? Just plain Karl should suffice. Also how blessed is someone who restricted, but did not stop, the use of poison gas by his military? A miracle attributed to him leaves a lot to be desired as well. According to the Vatican he cured a Brazilian nun of varicose veins. (You just cannot make this stuff up!) An even more controversial choice for beatification is the torture-obsessed, anti-semitic, 19th century German nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich. This strange old girl was the source for the nuttier touches, not attested to in the canonical gospels, that Mel Gibson put into his 2 hour snuff movie, The Passion of the Christ. (see Twisted Sister). Obviously Wojtyla was not awarding the beatification for her S and M Jesus fantasies involving scourges and flails and buckets of blood, or for her grotesque caricatures of Jews, but for her "pious character and concern for the poor." So that's alright, then. By the way, Wojtyla is a veritable saint factory, for according to Reuters, he has beatified "some 1,340 people, more than all his predecessors combined." Perhaps the old boy is stacking the deck in his favor for when he gets to heaven, much like he has stacked the deck of cardinals that will choose his successor. (For more on the deluded old bat Emmerich, her stigmata and childhood conversations with Jesus, see this article. Her book of visions/hallucinations is available online. Also see 80's Saints - Who Needs Them?)

Why Beatify? - a further thought on this business of beatification and sainthood. The whole rigmarole whereby an individual's life is examined for piety and miracles by mere mortals is surely redundant. If God is omniscient (and we are told he is) surely he knows immediately when someone has qualified to be a saint, he hardly needs the Roman Catholic church to tell him. It should be the other way round - when a  person qualifies for sainthood God can just tell us - straight from the deity's mouth as it were. This would avoid the preliminary pantomime of beatification, devil's advocates and the rest of the drawn-out qualification process.

Face Value - 80 was intrigued by the huge amount of media comment on George W Bush's facial expressions during his recent televised debate with John Kerry. So unflattering was the impression given, that the Democrats rushed out a web video which can be viewed here. 80 does not find the features of the President easy viewing at the best of times, but obviously the excerpts featured by the Democrats have been chosen to show Bush in an unflattering light. The DNC chairman, Terry McAuliffe, claims that the video clip, entitled "Faces of Frustration", demonstrated "George Bush had a record of failure to defend, and he failed to defend it. He refused to take responsibility for his go it alone rush to war, and tt (sic) times, he was defensive, annoyed, arrogant, even angry, and showed it." How can we tell these expressions really revealed Bush's emotions? Paul Ekman, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco offers an instructional CD on his website which, for $49.95, claims to train you to analyze facial expressions, even the most fleeting ones, "MicroExpression Training Tools (METT) and Subtle Expression Training Tools (SETT) provide self instructional training to improve your ability to recognize facial expressions of emotion. In under an hour, METT will train you to see very brief (1/25th of a second) microexpressions of concealed emotion. SETT teaches you to recognize the subtlest signs of when an emotion is first beginning in another person." Perhaps a swift course of Ekman's CD will reveal that the general impression given by Bush's demeanor is accurate - or not. It would also be interesting to submit Kerry's features during the debate to the same analysis. For what it's worth, and 80 cannot claim to be an unbiased observer, Bush looked like an irritated brat being chewed out by a superior, and suffering the admonishment with a singular lack of grace. It is  likely that the expressions displayed are more than familiar to Bush Snr - they doubtless preceded Junior's suggestion to settle things "mano a mano" with his old man when he was bawled out for taking his underage brother Marvin drinking and driving back in 1972. These days the whole planet suffers the consequences of his reckless behavior.

Country Blues - highlights from the Ig Nobel awards in this article from New Scientist, which also has the best headline "Invisible gorilla steals Ig Nobel prize", include the study that found "suicide rates for whites in US metropolitan areas is higher in cities where more country music is played on the radio..." Accepting the award, one of the researchers revealed to the audience that "if you play country records backwards, your dog and estranged spouse come home and you get your job back." There was also the study that showed that herring may communicate by farting (you can listen here). Larry Dill of Simon Fraser University observed "It's a kind of bonding thing. Pre-adolescent boys have been doing this for millennia." The Coca-Cola Company of Great Britain also featured in the awards in recognition of the Dasani fiasco, as reported by 80 in Liquid Asset.


October 14th 2004

Of Missiles and Road Maps - it is interesting to note all the fuss about Iran's ex-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's declaration that his nation now has missiles with a range of 2,000 kilometres (1,240 miles). The fact that this theocracy is also moving to develop nuclear weapons makes for some very worrying scenarios. This is not helped when missiles, paraded Soviet-style through Teheran, are draped with banners bearing phrases such as "crush America" and "wipe Israel off the map". In response to suggestions that such showing off could lead to a pre-emptive strike against his country, Rafsanjani resorted to bluster, "The United States and the Zionist regime are our enemies, but given their past experience, the United States knows that they should not engage themselves in a dangerous conflict with us." To compare, say, a long distance stealth bombing mission, to the events that surrounded the Iranian hostage-taking at the end of Jimmy Carter's presidency, and in particular the abortive US rescue attempt is, not to put too fine a point on it, unremittingly stupid. Now, as has been made abundantly obvious elsewhere on this site, 80 is no admirer of the government of Iran and, consequently, it is difficult to make the mental leap that is required to see their point of view, but one item is missing from the reports 80 has seen on the new Iranian Shahab-3 missiles. Israel already possesses rockets of 4000 km range and has had nuclear weapons for years. It helps to remember that any kind of arms race requires at least two participants. On the subject of Israel it is now official that Sharon's government has torn up the road map for a two state solution for Israel and Palestine. Here is a close aide to Sharon, Dov Weisglass, (wonderfully ironic first name) on the matter of the withdrawal from Gaza "The significance of our disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process. It supplies the formaldehyde necessary so there is no political process with Palestinians. When you freeze the process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. Effectively, this whole package called a Palestinian state, with all it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda." Despite this, Colin Powell, the man whose reputation for probity went down the tubes after his Iraq WMD speech at the UN in 2003 , still "does not doubt Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's commitment to the road map." The truth is whatever Israel wants, the current US administration is happy to go along. Is it really any wonder that Rafsanjani is busy doing a bit of scimitar-rattling? (for more on the Bush administration and Israel see Solomon, Arthur and Dubya and for an overview of the whole sorry mess read It's The Occupation, Stupid by Am Johal. 80 also recommends Israeli/Palestinian ProCon.org for an even-handed response to the question, "What are the just resolutions of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?")

Star Wars Stars - Joyce Jillson, famous astrologer, has just died, and this obituary notice in The Globe and Mail (reg rqd) reveals the extent of her influence. Her daily astrology column was syndicated in 200 newspapers, but she had other big clients. It seems she was "official astrologer for 20th Century Fox Studios" and was actually consulted on the best days to release movies. The obit informs us that she "picked the opening date for 1977's Star Wars — the second-highest grossing movie of all time." This is a classic "post hoc propter hoc" fallacious statement, the implication being that the date she selected had something to do with the film's financial success, which is nonsense. It is also more than a little insulting to the director and others who worked on the movie, as though their efforts could have all been for nought but for Jillson's choice of a propitious release date. A list of her clients includes the Ford Motor Co., the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Reagan White House, where it was said Nancy Reagan often made use of astrologers. Jillson's ex-husband, Joseph Gallagher, had a couple of interesting things to say. It seems that although Jillson's birth sign was Capricorn, she regarded herself as a Libra. Does this mean that for her personal preference overruled astrology? It seems a rather offhand way to treat the field from which she seems to have made a good living. Gallagher reveals just what was behind this attitude "She had a complex and very intellectual approach to astrology." Any truly intellectual approach to astrology reveals in fairly short order what irrational hogwash it is - which explains just why Jillson was happy to disregard her birth sign - it was as meaningless as the rest of this sadly lucrative pseudoscience.


October 17th 2004

Bothering God - if there is a caring supreme being that sees even the fall of a sparrow, how come religionists think he can be cajoled into action by intercessory prayers? If a god is truly concerned with the health and well-being of his human creations, why would he need to be prompted into action to save, say, a terminally ill person? Surely, with an omniscient being this should hardly be necessary. Leaving these issues aside, there are many people that believe prayer can alter the outcome of illness. This article in the New York Times (reg rqd) revisits the intercessory prayer debate, a debate that continues despite no convincing evidence whatsoever for the success of this god-bothering. The writer of the NYT piece, Benedict Carey, starts by referring to a recent prayer study that has become a scandal and therefore useless as evidence, although Carey does not seem fully aware of how discredited it now is. (see Without a Prayer). A greater scandal is that the federal government has spent $2.3 million on prayer research over the last four years. If something does not work, or works no better than chance, which is effectively the same thing, throwing money at it will achieve nothing except the transfer of taxpayer's money into the pockets of those conducting the research. An interesting quote comes from the Rev. Raymond J. Lawrence Jr., director of pastoral care at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. He says "There's no way to put God to the test, and that's exactly what you're doing when you design a study to see if God answers your prayers. This whole exercise cheapens religion, and promotes an infantile theology that God is out there ready to miraculously defy the laws of nature in answer to a prayer." When religionists make claims about the real world, as opposed to some spiritual one, then those claims definitely fall under the scrutiny of science and can, should, be tested, but not necessarily with public money, and not repeatedly in the face of null results. When Lawrence refers in disparaging terms to an "infantile theology that God is out there ready to miraculously defy the laws of nature in answer to a prayer." he is describing exactly what many, perhaps most, ordinary Christians believe. The title of the NYT article is partly a question and partly a statement - Can Prayers Heal? Critics Say Studies Go Past Science's Reach. The answer to the first part is, on current evidence, no. As for the second, as is made clear above, any claims that faith, or psi or whatever has an effect in the physical world are testable - but further intercessory prayer studies are, in 80's view, would be a poor use of time and money. (for more see this from the North Texas Skeptics and this piece by Victor Stenger)

Baffle of the Bulge - Elton John is in the news right now lambasting "mystical" pop singer Madonna for cheating on stage, by miming. He accused her of the crime of lip-synching when singing her songs, but at least it can be said that she was miming to her own voice and using her own material. Such a misdemeanor is hardly worth bothering about as the pop world is full of deceptions, and no one is surprised. It would be very different if what was happening on the stage affected the lives of people worldwide, and those listening believed, wrongly, that what was being said was a genuine reflection of the speaker's thoughts and convictions. Which brings us to the first presidential debate between George W Bush and John Kerry. It has been reported that in video footage of that event the President appears to have a bulge (shown here) under his jacket - or as this Guardian article (provided by Salon.com) puts it "The image shows a large solid object between Bush's shoulder blades as he leans over the lectern and faces moderator Jim Lehrer.". There is much speculation about what this object may be, but prime suspect is a wireless radio link to help Bush make his "spontaneous" rejoinders to Kerry's points. Dave Lindorff, writer of the piece, at first suspected some digital manipulation of the image, but was convinced of the bulge's reality after viewing footage of the debate. So what was going on here? A spyware and surveillance expert says that "given its shape, the bulge could be the inductor portion of a two-way push-to-talk system." This could be used with a tiny, indetectable, wireless earphone. There is some evidence that this technology may have been used by Bush before, at the D-Day ceremony in France "when a CNN broadcast appeared to pick up - and broadcast to surprised viewers - the sound of another voice seemingly reading Bush his lines, after which Bush repeated them." If this form of subterfuge is being employed it raises at least a couple of issues. Those listening to the debate were deceived into thinking they were hearing the President voice his own thoughts instead of "channeling Karl Rove", as Lindorff eloquently puts it. Such electronic ventriloquism (80 can't help thinking of Charlie McCarthy) would surely be a betrayal of trust and grossly unfair, pitting a lone Kerry against Bush aided by an invisible team. Puzzlingly, if this was really a wireless receiver giving Bush covert assistance in the debate with Kerry, how come the President came out of it so badly? (If you want to know more about this intriguing story an enterprising soul has set up the bluntly named IsBushWired.com site. The matter is also investigated here at Mediachannel.org, and also at the Cannonfire blog.) By the way, as is the fashion in the press for any political scandal to attract a snappy name ending with "gate", in tribute to the late Richard Nixon, this is already being called Promptergate.


October 25th 2004

Uncivil War - a war that should belong to the past is still very much in existence - this war is no war on terror, but a civil war within western democracies. In this depressing piece from the Guardian by Jonathan Freedland, it is characterized as the struggle between of Faith against Reason. In the US presidential election religion has become another weapon, with George W Bush holding a strong hand. If he is re-elected, Freedland reckons, and in 80's view correctly, that the USA will be on the way to a theocracy. To claim God is on your side is a wonderful ploy, for then any who doubt you are actually doubting the divinity. This can be a surefire way to stifle the questioning and debate that are such basic components of a healthy democracy. A President who admits no mistakes and cannot be questioned without impugning his faith, is a dangerous figure indeed. American citizens may well see, if Bush stays in the White House, the dismantling of the barrier between Church and State. Those people of faiths other than Christian, and those of none, will find themselves increasingly isolated and the idea of an inclusive US little more than a dream. Meanwhile, the European Parliament is riven by the appointment of Rocco Buttiglione, right-wing Catholic politician and confidante of the Pope. This bigot is on record as saying that AIDS is a divine punishment and homosexuality is a sin. If these were merely private opinions they would be Buttiglione's own affair, but when expressed by the European Justice, Freedom and Security Commisioner it is deeply worrying. In keeping with his beliefs Buttiglione also would like to relegate women to a subordinate role "The family exists in order to allow women to have children and to have the protection of a male to take care of them." This vision of women as subservient baby producers is repulsive. The Vatican must be enthralled to have such a devotee in a position of power, but the secularists are fighting back at the appointment of this religious throwback. Naturally the Catholic church, using a common Christian stratagem, has described this understandable reaction as persecution. Buttiglione himself has tried to defuse matters. This BBC page quotes him as saying "The state has no right to stick its nose into these things and nobody can be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation... this stands in the Charter of Human Rights, this stands in the Constitution and I have pledged to defend this constitution." This seems at odds with his stated views elsewhere, but one essential point has to be borne in mind when dealing with some kinds of particularly devout religionists - they have a higher allegiance, they know that they are doing their God's will. Normally lying is considered a sin, and this goes for right-wing Catholics and right-wing born-again presidents, but if that lying is considered to be furthering God's work on earth then it is acceptable. On matters of church/state separation 80 believes that you trust the Buttiglione's and Bush's of this world about as far as you could comfortably spit a large rat. (For the truth about Buttiglione, his beliefs and his membership of a fundamentalist Catholic sect, see this (pdf) from Catholics for Choice)

So Sioux Me - Here's a strange one. The native American Oglala Sioux tribe has decided to complain about a world famous Parisian nightclub that features striptease. It is not the nudity that bothers Harvey White Woman, but the use of his ancestor's name, Crazy Horse, for the establishment and the acts which "featured pseudo-Indian feathered headdresses - on mostly naked dancers." The big question is what took so long for the Oglala Sioux to be offended? The club has been in existence since 1951 - and no one has complained before. Purely in the interest of harmony, 80 suggests that the club drops the name Crazy Horse and chooses one that keeps the Old West theme and is more relevant to the acts on display. 80 feels that the name White Woman fits the bill nicely.

Electile Dysfunction - President Bush has made it clear that if open and fair democratic Iraqi elections mean that there would be an Islamic government, he would accept that decision. This would seem to represent a change of heart on his earlier position - something that if done by others he would no doubt label a "flip-flop". AP quote him as saying "I will be disappointed. But democracy is democracy. If that's what the people choose, that's what the people choose." He is definitely right that selection of government by a majority vote is a good idea, and something that many people feel that the citizens of the US were denied in 2000. Given the already massive problems with early voting in Florida it may be that the real winners in a tied election will be the legal teams assembled by both candidates, who will have plenty of work to do. It is ironic that the country that wants to bring democracy to others, by force if necessary, can be so inept at arranging its own free and fair elections.

Biblical Stooge - here is an interview with Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review,(BAR), in which he attacks the way the Israeli authorities have handled the investigations into the so-called James ossuary (see Box of Hot Air?). This now discredited artifact (see Faking It), a stone box for holding bones, dating from around the first century, has an inscription that includes the names of Jesus, Joseph and James. The combination of these three names to a Christian is like finding the names Moe, Larry and Curly for a Stooges fan - only the inscription, or at least part of it, is not authentic. The whole story of the ossuary and another bogus artifact, the Jehoash Tablet, can be found on the BBC Horizon website. Shanks, apart from editing the BAR (regular readers will know 80 considers the term "biblical" archaeology ridiculous) is also an author and one of his works, in collaboration with Ben Witherington III, is called The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family. Its main subject was the ossuary. This was brought out very swiftly after the ossuary story broke, but before the doubts about its authenticity were widely aired. Was it a cash-in? Maybe, but currently Amazon has 180 used and new copies starting at $0.50. (The reviews are worth a read) It hardly seems reason enough for Shanks to question the methods and probity of the Israeli team that debunked the box, and the tablet, and whose investigations led to the arrest of Oded Golan, the supposed middle-man in the sale of these artifacts, and the discovery of a forgery workshop at his premises. You'd think it would be a subject on which Shanks is unlikely to dwell - but apparently not. He is happy to agree that " Shimon Gibson hyped this cave thing with John the Baptist. I think that's probably true, and some people say that I hyped the ossuary too much, which I think is not true." 80 sees little difference. Shanks is entitled to his opinions, but as 80 has said before, to look at near and middle-eastern archaeology and history through biblical blinkers is to be blinded to the evidence. (see Missing, One Empire)


October 28th 2004

Clone Clash - the United Nations has been debating a ban on human cloning, on and off, since 2001. Recently, after two days of of further debate, a decision still has not been reached. In 80's view this long drawn out process will never bring any kind of clear cut resolution because the subject under discussion is not about science but about religion. The UK, Japan, and the many other countries opposing a ban, prefer a more flexible, Belgian, solution. They are clear that they are in no way promoting the idea of reproductive cloning, but wish to develop therapeutic cloning for the possible huge medical benefits of the technology. The other side, backing a complete ban, originally proposed by Costa Rica, seems unable or unwilling to differentiate between the two kinds of cloning. This is not from ignorance of the science involved but because the opposition is based wholly on religious grounds despite any claims to the contrary. The representative from the Philippines objection to even therapeutic cloning, as it "would have the undesirable result of perfecting the technologies that could be used to clone babies" and would be "playing with fire" sounds very similar to the old mad scientist movie dialog "there are some things Man is not meant to know". New Scientist quotes Gregory Stock, from the University of California in Los Angeles, who accurately assesses the true nature of the debate, "This is about a religious issue that is not resolvable by logical discussion." It is particularly hypocritical that those who oppose even therapeutic cloning cite as one reason the concern that any cloning could lead to the exploitation of women. Most of these countries are dominated by religions which already, in 80's view, do not value women as much as men. Therapeutic cloning, as already pursued by the UK, involves cloning embyos and harvesting stem cells from them. The embryos are then "destroyed before they are 14 days old and never allowed to develop beyond a cluster of cells the size of a pinhead." That such a potentially beneficial technology should be universally banned for reasons of religion and superstition is a very worrying prospect. Can these countries in favor of a ban not be able to tell the difference between "cluster of cells the size of a pinhead" and a suffering human being, for example, the late Christopher Reeve? George Bush's administration, the real power behind the Costa Rican proposal, is desperately trying to force a world ban, for without one, independently minded states within the US, such as California, will simply pursue their own research, whether the Federal government likes it or not. Of course if the US chooses John Kerry the whole nature of the debate will change........

Satan's Sailor - the British Royal Navy (RN) is in the news this week for officially recognizing its first serving Satanist. Naval technician Chris Cranmer, claims to have been a follower of Satan for the last 9 years. The Church of Satan itself was founded in San Francisco and its precepts are, unsurprisingly, based on selfishness and self indulgence. In this BBC report two individuals, both Christian, are asked to comment on the story. The first is an ex-Tory minister who left the Church of England (CofE) and became a Roman Catholic because of the CofE's ordination of women. She professed to be "utterly shocked" at the thought of a Satanist in the RN, although a good case could be made that her chosen church causes more pain and suffering in the world today than any mere handful of Satanists. The second is the director of the Reachout Trust, an evangelical Christian ministry. This bunch provides information on "cults, occult, new age and all groups holding to non-biblical teaching". This seems to include Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons as well as Satanists. Commenting on Satanism in particular, director Doug Harris told the BBC "Following such tenets and working them out practically in your life seems to produce a selfish person not a member of a team." By this he would seem to imply that Cranmer is not suited to serve in the Royal Navy, but this is not necessarily true. If a Satanist is convinced that teamwork, obviously essential on a warship, is the best strategy for his/her survival, then they would be a perfectly suitable crewmember. Exactly how Cranmer will be treated by his shipmates is an entirely different matter.

Straining for Faith - here is a charming little item about the German theologian and constipation sufferer, Martin Luther, from BBC news. It seems the toilet, upon which he sat for hours straining and formulating his ideas on salvation, has been discovered. Archaeologists are excited about the find as usually only grander buildings are preserved. Perhaps it was in this little room that the great man also composed his vicious diatribe against the Jews, called "On the Jews and Their Lies". As you may see from this translation, the work, much like Luther himself, was full of crap. According to the BBC piece "Luther left a candid catalogue of his battle with constipation but despite this wealth of information, certain key details remain obscure - such as what the great reformer may have used in place of toilet paper." In 80's view it is a pity he did not use the pages of On the Jews and Their Lies. Perhaps understandably modern day Lutherans, such as these, have found a way around the embarrassing fact that their figurehead wrote anti-semitic nonsense - they ignore it.

Bring Them On - in a rare instance of Islamic terrorists doing George W Bush's bidding, there is good evidence that the jihadi's destination of choice is Iraq. In July 2003 the President made what is perhaps his most fatuous remark ever - which is, in itself, quite an achievement. "There are some who feel like that the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is bring them on," Bush said. "We've got the force necessary to deal with the security situation." This article in the New York Times (reg rqd) examines the growing evidence for streams of young Muslim men from Europe headed for the turmoil in Iraq. When they are done there, if past evidence is anything to go by, they will return to Europe and elsewhere to apply the murderous skills they have learned. A French intelligence official told the NYT "We consider these people dangerous because those who go will come back once their mission is accomplished. Then they can use the knowledge gained there in France, Europe or the United States. It's the same as those who went to Afghanistan or Chechnya." This certainly seems to answer the question of whether the invasion of Iraq has made the world a safer place - not one bit.


October 29th 2004

Ancient Dwarves - many papers are running with the astounding discovery of a hitherto unguessed member of the human family. Dubbed "hobbits", these people lived perhaps 18,000 years ago on the island of Flores in Indonesia. They were barely a meter tall and had, compared to modern humans, small brains. This did not seem to affect their dexterity as stone tools have been found associated with the remains. It is speculated that these folk, properly called Homo floresiensis, were isolated on the island and evolution selected those of smaller size owing to scarce resources. This effect has been noted with other island dwelling species. It is speculated local legends of little people mean that Homo floresiensis possibly co-existed for a while with Homo sap. Given modern human's record, this may explain why they are no longer around, although at least one scientist, Bert Roberts of the University of Wollongong, thinks it is possible they may still exist somewhere in the deep jungle. It is interesting to note the way the discovery has been reported - the San Francisco Chronicle refers to h. floresiensis as "proto-humans" which would seem to indicate the writer considers them to be in some way a forerunner of modern humans. This reflects the wrong, and yet widespread belief that evolution leads up to that perfect creature - us. In fact the tree of life is more like a bush, and we are just one twig among others. In the UK Guardian, Tim White of the University of California, Berkeley, wonders "How will the creationists cope?" with the news. As their beliefs are divorced from reality and rooted in myths and fairy tales, 80 confidently predicts the discovery will have no effect whatsoever. For those, who, like 80, find the hobbit label insufferably cute just be thankful, for it could have been worse. None of the newspaper wits have realized the obvious cultural reference. These folk were dwarfs and the palaeontologists have found seven of them. Heigh-ho, heigh-ho...............

Outfoxed - Rupert Murdoch has revealed an unsuspected streak of wry humor. Speaking at the News Corporation's annual general meeting in Adelaide, on coverage of the US election race by Fox News, he said "We don't take any position at all. We're not in the least bit biased, we're a fair and balanced company." And pigs are masters of aeronautics............

Cagey Tactics? - for many people who were less than pleased with the outcome of the US 2000 presidential election one state came to represent what they saw as the crooked end of the US electoral process - Florida. It seems that this dubious distinction will be retained in 2004 - certainly according to Greg Palast, reporting on BBC TV's Newsnight program. (Available online for 24 hrs from Tuesday October 26th from 22:30 UK and 5:30 EST Click Latest Show) To quote the BBC news web page " A secret document obtained from inside Bush campaign headquarters in Florida suggests a plan - possibly in violation of US law - to disrupt voting in the state's African-American voting districts." This involves what is referred to as a "caging list" of "1,886 names and addresses of voters in predominantly black and traditionally Democrat areas of Jacksonville, Florida." The only purpose of such a list, it is claimed, is to challenge voters in order disrupt the process and deter them from casting their vote. The BBC page says "Republican state campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker Fletcher stated the list was not put together "in order to create" a challenge list, but refused to say it would not be used in that manner." What does seem puzzling is why such a low level clerical matter should be of interest to Bush campaign bigwigs in Florida and Washington. It is difficult not to see all this as an attempt to affect the vote in what is shaping up to be a very close contest, and one that may well end up in the courts. The reputation of the BBC for impartial and objective reporting will be seen by many as adding weight to such suspicions of electoral skullduggery. Meanwhile, in Ohio, Republicans are challenging the eligibility of 25,000 registered voters, alleging fraud by  Democrats. They intend to field more than 3,000 volunteers around the state to check voter's credentials. The UK Guardian says the Republican's check of voter registrations turned up "120,000 duplicate names, and an unknown number of ineligible voters, including a murder victim and two suspected terrorists." 80 hopes that Iraqi officials are taking notes on how to run a trouble free election.......


October 31st 2004

Finding Faith Through Fear - it is Halloween time again and here is a story from the Washington Post (WP) about groups of evangelist and fundamentalist Christians trying to turn this bit of harmless seasonal silliness to their advantage. The clever scheme is to outgross the usual "haunted houses" popular with kids by portraying their own brand of horrors, both real and imagined, in the hopes of scaring people into faith. Instead of witches, broomsticks, ghosts and pumpkins they tend to feature such things as a " Hell House, a morality play featuring a gay man dying of AIDS, a lesbian suicide, drunken driving and a botched abortion -- and the reeking, fiery hell that is the consequence of such sins..." This charming bit of religionist propaganda was formulated by Rev. Keenan Roberts, pastor of Destiny Church of the Assemblies of God near Denver, according to the WP. He peddles how-to kits at $299 a pop for those who wish to stage their own shows, including nice little touches such as "how to select the best cut of meat to depict an aborted fetus -- and tips for dealing with skeptical journalists." The idea that people have to be scared into belief by such graphic depictations of horrors is repellent, and shows how desperate and scruple-free these religionists are. If anyone other than Christians mounted such shock displays expressly to frighten children and the gullible there would be an outcry. It is a depressing fact that over the last month one such "scare into faith" exhibit by a group from Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, has attracted 20,000 people. Just how many of these succumbed to the message ".... if they die tonight, where will they go?" is not mentioned.

Enter the Ghoul - like some grisly Halloween spectre, the skeleton in the bin Laden family's closet, mass murderer and religious fanatic, Osama bin Laden has popped up another low-tech video appearance just a few days before the US elections. If his intention was to stiffen the resolve of whoever becomes President to hunt him down, along with his confederates, then the ghoul has likely succeeded. The heavily bearded apparition also seems to have managed to knock the news of the horrific death toll of Iraqi civilians off the front pages, (see Price of Freedom below) but then indulging his own ego may be more important to him. The real message bin Laden conveyed was the obvious fact that he is still around - which merely confirms what a misguided and tragic irrelevance the invasion of Iraq was to the hunt for international terrorists. If resources had not been diverted by the Bush administration from Afghanistan to Iraq, bin Laden could well be staring at the four walls of his cell right now and have only his own trial in prospect, instead of planning further mayhem.

Price of Freedom - one of the more notorious quotes from the ongoing campaign in Iraq was that of General Tommy Franks, in reference to Iraqi civilian casualties, "We don't do body counts". Now someone else has, and the total is shocking and almost beyond belief. The website simply called Iraq Body Count has been trying to keep track of "civilians reported killed by military intervention in Iraq" - the maximum figure shown is 16312 on October 29th. Now a new study of the death toll, quoted here in the Guardian, shows this figure to a huge underestimate. "About 100,000 Iraqi civilians - half of them women and children - have died in Iraq since the invasion" So goes the report in the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet, by a group of Iraqi and US public health officials, led by Les Roberts of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. It goes on to say "The risk of a violent death is now 58 times higher than it was before the invasion". This makes President Bush's pronouncements about bringing freedom to the Iraqi people seem like a very sick joke indeed. The battle for their "hearts and minds" was lost long ago. 80 fully expects the grisly total of 100,000 dead to be disputed by the US and its coalition partners in a nitpicking damage limitation exercise. For argument's sake then let's be drastic and halve that number - 50,000 dead - does it sound any better? (A summary and the full report (PDF) is available online at The Lancet after registration.) 


November 3rd 2004

Bleak Outlook - for the first time the American people have elected George W Bush as president. It would be nice to think that the closeness of the final result would be a signal to his administration to be more inclusive and to practice some "compassionate conservatism". This is, of course, hopelessly optimistic, for Bush is not a politician in that sense. It is far more likely that he, and his cohorts, will take the result as an endorsement of their actions over the past four years, and will continue to dish out more of the same. Expect more erosion of the barrier between church and state, more weakening of environmental pollution regulations, more tax breaks for the rich, and more alienation of the USA's traditional allies. Regarding President Bush, 80 can do no better than to quote Winston Churchill, "He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire"

Announcement - from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious. The UK's Mars lander, Beagle 2, failed because of lack of funding from the UK government. Dr Ian Gibson, chairman of the House of Commons science and technology committee told the BBC "As a result, the scientists had to go chasing celebrities for sponsorship when they might have been testing rockets." This may be a revelation to some, but it is very old news to anyone with an interest in the UK's contribution to space research. The amount of money involved was paltry by government standards, but science apparently takes a backseat to important projects such as funding schools teaching creationist drivel.

Curse of Cassandra - as the end of the year approaches psychics of various kinds will offer their predictions for the coming year. From those who write in trashy tabloids to the ghastly (and equally trashy) Sylvia Browne (see her prediction record here), a frequent guest on uncritical TV shows, such as Larry King's, they all have one thing in common - a conspicuous lack of success (see New Year's Crystal Balls). Their predictions are no better than chance guessing - and often not even that good. Demonstrating that his hit rate leaves these psychic frauds in the dust is columnist Harley Sorenson, writing for SF Gate. He lists a series of his predictions that have been proved to be right on the money. One sample should suffice, about the invasion of Iraq, which you will recall took place in March 2003. Here is Sorenson almost a year earlier, in April 2002, when he wrote that the US was being set up "for a war with Iraq, a war that will cost thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of lives ... you and I will be told that our sons and daughters will be fighting in Iraq because Saddam has suddenly unlocked the secrets of weapons of mass destruction and is about to blackmail the world." Accurate or what? Obviously, unlike the psychic con-artists, Sorenson lays no claim to paranormal powers, but modestly states "None of my predictions was rocket science. They all relied simply on public information and a small dose of common sense." Two things that all of his prognostications have in common is that they are unremittingly downbeat and have had no effect on the course of events. It seems that Sorenson for all his "common sense" is doomed to share the fate of Cassandra, prophetess of Troy. For offending the god Apollo she was cursed to foretell events accurately, but never to be believed. (It was she who warned of the Trojan horse and was ignored by her ill-fated countrymen.) Sorenson, our modern day Cassandra, does make one final prediction regarding the winner of the US presidential race, "...I'm predicting victory for a Yale graduate and "Bonesman" (member of Yale's secretive and exclusive Skull and Bones society). The final margin will be, as it was in 2000, a black-robed 5-4, same five, same four." 

Quote - "We have been contacted by followers of the Wiccan religion, and they indicated they have been offended after seeing elementary school depictions of witches with long noses, warts, cauldrons and such." So says said Tony Apostle, a school's superintendent in Puyallup, Washington, who has banned Halloween displays from 31 schools. It seems it is not just the fundagelicals who are miffed by harmless Halloween silliness, the Wiccans have now jumped on the idiot bandwagon. A parent of two kids affected by the decision told the Washington Post "It is unusual for Puyallup to make the national news. We made it by being ridiculous." 


November 5th 2004

Biblical Bilge - still with matters archaeological is an item from SFGate.com on the discovery of the remains of a ship, near the ancient port of Dorus in Israel. The timbers have been carbon-dated to the 9th century BCE. This seems enough for marine archaeologist Kurt Raveh to take wing on a flight of fancy, unsubstantiated by any evidence whatsoever, a not unusual situation for those who espouse the non-discipline of "biblical archaeology". He has not the slightest hesitation in using the radio-carbon date to connect the ships's remains with the mythical King David and his son Solomon. "I took a little piece of wood and sent it to laboratories in Switzerland. This week we got it back, and it turned out to be from the time of David and Solomon, 3,000 years old." The problem with this assertion is that there is no evidence, bar one disputed inscription, for David. Furthermore, Solomon's great empire, described in the bible, is never mentioned by any of the surrounding civilizations with whom he was supposed to have traded and exchanged diplomatic missions. The writer of the SFGate.com piece, Matthew Kalman, seems to swallow these biblical romances unquestioningly, as does another expert quoted, ancient boat specialist Yaacov Kahanov of Haifa University, who, referring to Dorus, says "In King Solomon's time, this was the major port for the Israelite kingdom." Only once does real world archaeology impinge upon the story when Kalman states "If the remains are indeed 3,000 years old, it would be the first archaeological artifact ever found from the era of the first kings of Israel, with the possible exception of several huge stones at the base of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem." The Temple Mount stones are only attributed to the time of Solomon following an inference from the ancient writer Josephus. If these stones are discounted Kalman's sentence confirms that there is no other evidence of a kingdom of David, or an empire of Solomon, other than the bible tales. Oddly this does not stop him, and the others quoted, from treating fabulous tales as true history - this is typical of "biblical archaeology" where real evidence recovered from the earth is of less consequence than ancient stories. (80's attention was drawn to both the above stories by David Meadows' excellent weekly newsletter, Explorator See here for the story of the Solomonic pomegranate that wasn't)

Cell Block - one consequence of the Bush administration's election victory is that the push, via Costa Rica's proposal to the UN for a complete worldwide ban on cloning, whether therapeutic or reproductive, will go on. (see Clone Clash). Meanwhile in California, the somewhat more savvy electorate voted in favor of Proposition 71, which pledges $3 billion over the next 10 years for stem cell research, via the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative. This is one of the areas where Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger finds himself at odds with the White House, which approaches the subject from a religious point of view, and is more concerned with the wellbeing of a dot-sized cluster of cells rather than the search for possible cures for many crippling diseases. So far the US government has withheld funds for research on any cell lines other than the 22 derived before August 2001. Recent research now indicates that these approved cell lines may well be useless for medical treatments for human beings. It seems they were grown on a scaffolding of mouse feeder cells which, it is now learned, causes the stem cells (properly human embryonic stem cells or hESC) to take on rodent characteristics. This would mean that they would provoke an immune response from any human being in which they are implanted. This pretty well renders research for human applications pointless on the government approved hESCs - plus a further study suggests that 5 of the 22 lines were so difficult to grow that they may not be "clinically useful" anyway, reports New Scientist. The continuing debate in the UN and elsewhere on cloning is perhaps a pointer to the malign effect a theocratically-inclined White House will have on many subjects of global importance - such as the withdrawal of funding for groups that help combat the spread of HIV AIDS, but who also commit the heinous crime of promoting contraception on our massively overcrowded planet. To say four more years of Bush and co. heralds a new Dark Age is perhaps going too far, but the clear light of a rational, scientific worldview will need ceaseless promotion lest it become dimmed further by the forces of religion and superstition.

Bible Basher Bitten - 80 was distressed to read of the ill-treatment of a lion in Taipei Zoo. The poor beast was minding its own business, lolling around dozing, as well-fed carnivores are wont to do, when its siesta was interrupted by a Christian. A man leaped into the lion's enclosure, shouting "Jesus, will save you" to the lion, and its companion. He then, somewhat rashly, called out, "Come, bite me". The lion obligingly did so, sinking its teeth into the man's leg (and his arm, according to this report). Instead of being rewarded for its obedience, the unfortunate creature was driven off with water jets and tranquilizer darts. It is suggested that the man was possibly living out a delusion that he was the biblical character Daniel, who also had a close encounter of the leonine kind. On a more serious note, it is to be hoped that both lion and human make a full recovery from this traumatic experience. If you think that 80 shows little sympathy for the man, you are right. Too often a pleasant, post-prandial doze has been interrupted by evangelizing bible-bashers at the door. So far 80 has shown great restraint and has not bitten any of them, other than verbally.


November 7th 2004

The Men Who Stare at Goats - a new 3-part documentary series had its debut on Channel 4 in the UK on Sunday. Called Crazy Rulers of the World (CRotW) this first part was dedicated to the various whackos that have succeeded in extracting money from the US military for their crazy schemes. It is well-known that the CIA's Stargate program managed to waste millions looking into the possibility of covert surveillance via remote viewing (RV). The Skeptic's Dictionary describes RV as "the alleged psychic ability to perceive places, persons and actions that are not within the range of the senses." whereby the practitioner can use " psychic power alone to dowse the entire galaxy, if need be, for whatever one wants: oil, mountains on Jupiter, a lost child, a buried body, a hostage site thousands of miles away, inside the Pentagon or the Kremlin, etc." The only people who benefited from this waste of time and money were those who still trade on the supposed cachet of having been involved with the project, the better to sell their nonsensical services to the gullible. Crazy Rulers of the World brings things up to date, detailing the work of folk like Major General Albert Stubblebine, ex-head of the US Army's Intelligence and Security Command, who believes, among many other things, that you can walk through walls - you only have to summon up the willpower to do so. He couldn't - and bruised his nose. Another bunch set up a lab at Fort Bragg in order to learn how to kill goats by staring at them - hence the title of the first episode of CRotW, The Men Who Stare at Goats. The big (supposed) scoop of the show is that these and equally nutty programs have been revived in the service of the "War On Terror". (Perhaps we are witnessing the dawn of Dubya's faith-based military, for when reason is discounted in favor of gut instinct and blind faith by the commander-in-chief, they can but follow.) 80 stoically managed to sit through the first 20 minutes or so, but the ravings of one ex-military nut job after another soon swamped the bullshit detectors. Especially the video showing one Guy Savelli mentally influencing the behavior of his pet hamsters - or was it the other way round? (Here is a discussion of martial artist Savelli, including mention of his ability to "drop a goat" using his mind. The correspondent backs up this story by revealing a little of himself "This might sound funny to some people, but I don't always believe in pure science.") If you have the stomach for it, a book of the series, called The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson is available - although you could also read it for free - by remote viewing.

There's More - since writing the above, 80 has found an article in USA Today telling of an Air Force report that calls for $7.5 million to study "psychic teleportation". Asked why the Air Force Research Lab was sponsoring the study a spokesman said "If we don't turn over stones, we don't know if we have missed something." Before these clods and others start turning over stones why don't they they check with people who actually know something about testing  paranormal claims - CSICOP or James Randi would be a good start - and a damn' sight cheaper. Spookily enough (or not) Randi's newsletter this week has a paragraph or two about a remote viewing outfit, Psi Tech,  who have managed, using their awesome RV powers, to come up with a totally erroneous explanation for the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in November 2001. Read an accurate report here in New Scientist. For usefulness and practicality, remote viewing is definitely in the chocolate fireguard category.

Babylon Graffiti - here is an interesting piece from al Jazeera, the news outfit that manages to be a whipping boy for just about everyone involved in the current conflicts in the Middle East. (A passing thought - if al Jazeera is attacked by all sides for perceived partiality then they must be getting something right. Such a situation is surely also familiar to the BBC) It seems that American troops are leaving graffiti in the ancient city of Babylon. Before anyone decries the desecration of this ancient site, the walls being defaced by the GI's inscriptions are of recent origin. They were built on top of the original walls in an act of grandiose vandalism by Saddam Hussein, which did not endear the erstwhile dictator to archaeologists. In fact al Jazeera notes that "The English-language graffiti is not widespread and does not appear to have caused extensive harm. Arabic script is also scrawled on the walls. US-led forces have spent tens of thousands of dollars repairing ruins and protecting them from looters, and are investigating whether US and Polish heavy machinery and rotor wash from helicopters are inflicting damage." As Major David Gilleran, an army chaplain on the site, wisely observed, "This place represents the greatness in human history. We're just passing through."


November 9th 2004

Vacuous Values Voters - in an interesting piece on the role the Christian religion played in the recent presidential election, Harley Sorenson, writing for SFgate.com, comes up with a telling quote from George W Bush in March 2001. Paraphrasing Lincoln, he quipped "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and those are the ones you have to concentrate on." It certainly worked on November 2nd 2004.

Bigot Unbowed - here is a page from the BBC on the future ambitions of failed European Commissioner designate and rabid religionist, Rocco Buttiglione. His appointment to the Commission was effectively blocked following outrage at his opinions on gays and the role of women, which closely toe the line followed by his friend in the Vatican, Karol Wojtyla, aka the Pope. The snappy name for the position taken by Buttligione is "theo-con" - and yes, it is as bad as it sounds. It is defined as a description of a conservative who believes that "religion should play a major role in forming and implementing public policy". Buttiglione is an unpleasant individual who likes to disguise his prejudices as something else - something he smugly regards as morally superior - religious conviction. Label it how you will, it is a very good reason for keeping this person away from any political office where he can dictate to others. A secular Europe cannot allow his, or anyone else's, superstitious beliefs to become law in any way, shape or form. At the moment he and his fellow religionists have been stymied, although many states in thrall to Catholicism would like to see his influence grow. Whilst Spain has turned its back on the malign influence of the Catholic church, newcomers to the Union such as Poland and Malta are still, in many ways, under the Vatican's thumb. It is not acceptable for a union of democratic states to be influenced by a religious bloc of any kind. Such a move would impinge badly on the ideal of inclusivity for a multicultural society. Meanwhile Buttiglione is reduced to the old standby of thwarted religionists - he whines about persecution - a subject on which the Catholic church is expert, although it is rarely on the receiving end. Buttiglione extrapolates falsely from his rejection by the European Parliament to the denial of posts as teachers or professors to Catholics. This is absurd scaremongering, as is his claim of being treated like a "Catholic witch". He was not treated as a witch, but as a religious bigot whose worldview is unacceptably warped by his beliefs. As a private individual he is entitled to believe whatever nonsense he wishes - as a politician in a pluralistic union whose individual citizens hold many beliefs and none he is a dangerous and divisive anachronism. His avowed intent to continue to push for "Christian values" in Europe merely reveals that his selfish desire to impose his beliefs on others is undiminished by his recent defeat. He, and those who follow his agenda, should be strongly resisted at each and every opportunity, not just within the EU but anywhere in the world.

"Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction." Blaise Pascal

Clone Quote - "Bush is entirely willing to let patients die rather than abandon his symbolic acts of respect for embryos (symbolic because funding does not affect the number of embryos destroyed each year)," said Charo, the University of Wisconsin professor, referring to the fact that in vitro fertilization clinics often discard embryos not used by couples. From a Wired article by Kristen Philipkoski.


November 11th 2004

Exit the Crisco Kid - and good riddance. US Attorney General John Ashcroft has tendered his resignation in a letter to President Bush. His tenure will be remembered for the erosion of civil liberties in the name of security, his excessive religiosity, and several high profile terrorist cases that were more hype than substance. The outgoing prude will also be remembered for spending taxpayer's money (allegedly $8000) on drapes to cover the bare breasts of a statue of the Spirit of Justice. It seems he could not keep his mind on the job with those nipples pointing at him. His time in office is summed up by David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University, in the New York Times (reg rqd), . "We had an attorney general who treated criticism and dissent as treason, ethnic identity as grounds for suspicion and Congressional and judicial oversight as inconvenient obstacles. He was a disaster from a civil liberties perspective but also from a national security perspective." What Cole neglects to mention is that Ashcroft's failings matched the Bush Administration's shortcomings only too well. It would be hoped that things can only get better. And then you see that one top contender mentioned by the New York Times to replace the anointed one would certainly be no improvement. Alberto R. Gonzales, White House counsel, is the author of the memorandum that referred to the Geneva Convention as "quaint", and which blurred the lines between interrogation and torture - the results of which were the outrages at Abu Ghraib. Bush wouldn't choose him, surely?

Update - to the above. Yes, Bush has in fact chosen Gonzales, giving a clear indication that it is business as usual in his second term. Here is some of Gonzales' wisdom, "The nature of the new war places a —high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians. In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions." See The Roots of Torture from Newsweek for more. Great choice, George. Especially when Gonzales' inadequate advice in summaries to the then Governor of Texas on clemency pleas is considered. "On execution day in Texas, it was the job of Gonzales to give Bush a summary of the case. The summary was the last information standing between an inmate and lethal injection. Gonzales provided 57 summaries to Bush. Gonzales intended for the memos to be confidential, but author Alan Berlow obtained them under Texas public information law. Berlow found that Gonzales routinely provided scant summaries to Bush. The summaries, according to Berlow, ''repeatedly failed to apprise the governor of crucial issues in the cases at hand: ineffective counsel, conflict of interest, mitigating evidence, even actual evidence of innocence.'' " For more on this see Common Dreams. As for Gonzales' connection with law firm Vinson & Elkins and Enron this article is enlightening.

Quote - from Claire Braz-Valentine's 2002 outraged open letter to John Ashcroft " ...you are out buying yardage to save Americans from the appalling alarming, abominable aluminum alloy of evil, that terrible ten foot tin tittie. You might not be able to find Bin Laden but you sure as hell found the hooter in the hall of justice."


November 13th 2004

Breast Cancer Lies - in a disturbing parallel to the Roman Catholic church's officially sanctioned lies about the inability of condoms to protect against HIV AIDS infection, women in several American states are being told that having an abortion increases the risk of breast cancer. In both cases the lies are in direct contradiction to the best evidence and peddled because of religious beliefs. This Associated Press item says "Women seeking abortions in Mississippi must first sign a form indicating they've been told abortion can increase their risk of breast cancer. They aren't told that scientific reviews have concluded there is no such risk." It goes on to note that similar misleading information is offered to woman in "Texas, Louisiana and Kansas, and legislation to require such notification has been introduced in 14 other states." Here are the results of studies showing no such link from among others, the US National Cancer Institute and a Danish survey, which was conducted on the medical records of more than 1.5 million women. For a woman to seek an abortion is traumatic enough without her being told stressful lies in order to advance someone else's religious agenda.  (Here is a piece telling how writer Scott Gold of the LA Times was criticized for his exposure of this cancer scare crap by his own editor!  John Carroll accused Gold of not troubling to find a scientist promoting the opposite view. What Carroll fails to realize is that about the only maverick scientist on the subject has undergone a "pro-life religious conversion" - which does not bode well for his objectivity. Read the rest of Chris Mooney's article and prepare for your blood to boil.) Following the recent Republican electoral victories it can only be expected that this deceptive and cruel abortion "counselling" practice will become more widespread. From the White House downwards, the awkward findings of science are having to take a back seat to prejudice and superstition. Examples include the denial of a human element in the causes of global climate change, the weakening of anti-pollution laws, and the repeated attacks on the teaching of evolution. The latest skirmish on the evolution front is taking place in Georgia in a court case concerning disclaimer stickers added to school biology textbooks. The publicity given to this is causing shame to many intelligent and educated folk. "We're really busy. We have a lot to do. And here we are, having to go through this 19th century argument over and over again," Sarah Pallas, a biology and neuroscience at Georgia State University in Atlanta told SeattlePI.com. Also quoted is doughnut shop worker Maria Jordan, who said her Atlanta customers were shaking their heads over the latest dispute. "Lord, don't we have more important things to worry about?" she asked. "It's just a flat-out embarrassment." Sadly for every Pallas or Jordan there seems to be at least one person like Marjorie Rogers. It was she who initially complained about the biology textbooks. "I think the (evolution) theory is atheistic. And it's all that's presented. It's an insult to their intelligence that they're only taught evolution." The only insult here is to the American education system. If clods such as Rogers have their way for long enough the US can kiss goodbye to any medical or financial benefits from modern biological research as the torch is passed to places such as the UK that aren't hamstrung by religionists.

Press on Bush - here are a couple of pages chronicling the world's reaction to the Bush election victory. The BBC has a round-up of how the news was greeted by the Arab and Israeli press and from SFGate.com (the online presence of the San Francisco Chronicle) is a wider survey, taking in Germany, France, Russia and Iran, among others. "Oh, that God the gift would give us, To see ourselves as others see us" Even if the view is less than flattering. The UK Daily Mirror said undiplomatically "How Can 59,054,087 people be so DUMB?" but then ameliorated things somewhat by adding "America is still a great country -- generous, exhilarating, gloriously free of anything resembling a class system -- and it will still be a great country long after Dubya has slinked off to his retirement in Texas. Assuming he doesn't blow up the world in the next four years." Iran's Kayhan International had this to say "The Palestinians, Arabs and all Muslims need to do some real soul-searching instead of feeling disappointed over George Bush's victory. No one in the White House or Europe will provide a solution to their problems. Expecting the wolf to safeguard the sheep is the height of stupidity - a syndrome from which the Arab world is suffering."


November 16th 2004

Sunken Dreams - a while back 80 wrote of Robert Sarmast (see Atlantis Found and What's In a Name?) and his quest for the mythical city of Atlantis. In this case the word mythical is not a misuse of that term (as legendary is so often misused) but means exactly that - " lacking factual basis or historical validity". This has not stopped Sarmast announcing his discovery of structures on the seabed near Cyprus, his favored location for Atlantis. His website press announcement trumpets " The 6 day long, privately-funded $200,000 expedition has confounded or at least confused sceptics by bringing back scientific side-scan sonar data which supports evidence from previous scans of the Eastern Mediterranean revealing man-made structures (including a 3km long wall, a walled hill summit and deep trenches) - plus old river beds - in exactly the formation and proportions that Plato himself described for the Acropolis Hill of Atlantis City in his works of 2,400 years ago." If the pictures posted on his website are supposed to be evidence for his discovery it would seem that pareidolia is involved rather than anything resembling archaeology. Pareidolia is "type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct." This can be the supposed likeness of the Virgin Mary on a discolored window or a fencepost, the Face on Mars or, in this case, Atlantis on the Mediterranean seabed. Until more convincing evidence is produced, the jury is not only out on Sarmast's claims,  but their interest has yet to be engaged by anything worthy of attention. The name of his website, DiscoveryofAtlantis.com, certainly seems a little premature. Mind you, if 80 had given up "a promising career in architecture in order to pursue his lifelong passion for ancient history, world mythology, and the search for lost civilizations." and spent the aforementioned $200,000 on a search, only to come up with these blurred scans, he too might indulge in a little pareidolia, if only to keep the spirits up. Perhaps the inevitable TV documentary will help him recoup some of his expenses, if not his time. 80 will be most interested to follow developments closely, especially after this quote from Sarmast "People who dismiss this have not really done their homework, sceptics don't really understand. To understand the enigma of Atlantis you have to have good knowledge of ancient history, Biblical references, the Sumerian culture and their tablets and so on." And so on, indeed. As he evidently believes that he has done his homework, unlike historians and archaeologists, it is to be hoped that the quality of  evidence will justify Sarmast's self-confidence. 

Hello Arnie - ex-movie star, bodybuilder, and would-be statesman, Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger has been in Japan this week, trading on his great popularity there to try to drum up some business for his home state. The Japanese have so taken Schwarzenegger to their hearts they even have a pet name for the hulking politician - Schwa-chan - which means 'my dear little Schwarzenegger,' according this article from SFGate.com. It seems he is treasured there as a cultural icon rather than for any acting ability he may or may not possess. "He has an appeal like a caricature -- like 'Hello Kitty' or 'Godzilla," Michael Baskett, a film professor who specializes in Japanese cinema told SFGate. "Taking roles like in 'The Running Man' and the 'Terminator' series ... have kind of endeared him as a living animated caricature." The Japanese prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, certainly got off on the right foot when he met the governator. To Arnie's flattering comment "You're very popular" Koizumi came back with, "You too, more popular than Bush." It is no secret that Schwarzenegger would like a crack at the US presidency and his film star background would be no hindrance, unlike the fact that he was born in Austria. Another part of his background, certainly less well known in the US, is the string of highly bizarre adverts (some of which you can, er, enjoy, here) he made for various Japanese companies in the 90's. It is worth bearing these in mind the next time you see him attempting to project the gravitas appropriate to a statesman.

Unholy Traffic - regular readers will know that, since August this year, 80 has been following the "miracle baby" saga involving the self-styled archbishop, Gilbert Deya (see the whole story here). Now a British high court judge has ruled* that a one year-old child, far from being a miracle from God and a testament to the power of Deya's prayers, is the victim of a baby trafficking scheme "motivated by financial greed" reports the Guardian. While the "parents" of miracle babies may not have paid for them, considerable revenue was generated by tithes collected from congregations who were swayed by the miracle hogwash preached by Deya and others. The archbishop, who "says he casts out devils, cures illnesses and helps infertile couples in his congregation, estimated to be 36,000 strong, to have miracle babies." is wanted in Kenya over allegations of child-trafficking in the slums of Niarobi. According to the Scotsman, the judge described Deya as was "a self-serving and superficial witness who was only too happy to distance himself from the facts". Quite why this person is still at large in Britain is a mystery. (*Read the full judgement here. It makes very clear the cruelty of child-trafficking and confirms that the judge believes the "miracle" parents themselves were duped. This goes to show how sincere but gullible and ignorant people can be manipulated by the unscrupulous, using their religious faith. Thanks, Simon. For more on fleecing the flock, see here.)


November 19th 2004

The Epistle of Brown Nose Bob - even in the highly unlikely event of a conciliatory and inclusive Bush second term there is still plenty of pressure on the President to be otherwise. Here is a charming quote from a congratulatory letter sent his way by right-wing religionist Bob Jones III, of Bob Jones University fame, to make sure that Mr Bush has his priorities straight. "In your re-election, God has graciously granted America - though she doesn't deserve it - a reprieve from the agenda of paganism. Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil. You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ." Exactly who this ignoramus thinks the pagans are is a mystery - probably anybody who doesn't subscribe to his particular streak of bigotry. He goes on to add " Undoubtedly, you will have opportunity to appoint many conservative judges and exercise forceful leadership with the Congress in passing legislation that is defined by biblical norm regarding the family, sexuality, sanctity of life, religious freedom, freedom of speech, and limited government. You have four years—a brief time only—to leave an imprint for righteousness upon this nation that brings with it the blessings of Almighty God." Oddly the full text of his vicious little missive is now missing from his university website, but luckily Google have it cached. (this page has disappeared now) Expect to hear more from Jones and similar nutcases now they have their man in the White House for four more years.

The Map Is Not The Territory - the US electoral result repercussions rumble on. 20 year-old James Zetlen, has started a website called sorryeverybody.com to apologize to the world for a second Bush term in the White House. So far, according to the BBC, his site has racked up over 27 million hits and has spawned rival sites from Republicans who are not sorry for anything. Elsewhere, maps purporting to depict US voting patterns are very much in the news, from a jokey map of the United States of Canada with a country called Jesusland to the south, to one comparing modern voter distribution today with the pre-Civil War so-called slave states. Both of these have predictably sparked some lively discussions and a lot of very strong feelings. This page, from the University of Michigan, is very different. It displays maps, once again of how the vote went,  which also vividly illustrate  that the way the data is displayed has a great effect on the impression conveyed to the viewer. It takes the now-familiar red/blue map that was shown throughout the election by most news stations. and shows how, in many ways, what a misrepresentation of the ground truth it actually was. 


November 23rd 2004

Sacred Snippets - here are three quick hits from the whacky world of religion, culled from the BBC news pages. First off is a storm in an ecclesiastical teacup in Cambridge, England. Each year at Xmas minor celebrities of one sort or another are invited to officially switch on the decorative lights in the center of town. Normally this would be pretty much a non-event but this year the council, in a break with tradition, invited ageing punk rock band The Damned, to do the honors. This bunch may have been controversial 30 odd years ago but times have moved on for everyone - everyone that is except some whiny clergymen who are raising objections to the council's choice. They still don't seem to realize that their onetime religious festival is now a secular orgy of consumerism. One miffed reverend said sniffily, "They are a punk rock band with very doubtful lyrics." Perhaps he should reflect on the fact that his own bible contains enough cruelty and violence to make any lyrics by The Damned look pretty tame. Meanwhile a woman has placed a 10 year-old toasted cheese sandwich on EBay. So far it has attracted 100,000 hits. Why? It is supposed to have a likeness of the Virgin Mary (her again!) upon its surface. It has the miraculous snack's current owner convinced. Florida resident Diana Duyser is quoted as saying "I do believe that this is the Virgin Mary Mother Of God", although this has not stopped her trying to turn a buck on the thing. She adds "I would like all bidders to know that this item is not intended for consumption". The Mary Sandwich has now inspired rivals including a Pope Chop. Meanwhile in Italy Karol Wojtyla, known to his followers as the Pope, granted an audience to the actor who will be playing him in a TV drama. The pontiff modestly told Polish actor Piotr Adamczyk, "You're crazy to make a film about me. What did I ever do?" How about blighted the life of millions, Karol? As for being crazy, in 80's view that surely must be essential for an accurate portrayal. This additional whacky item from Alaska, is really whacky - in the chastisement sense. When Matanuska Christian School principal Steve Unfreid found that two of his male pupils, aged 17 and 18, had been caught kissing girls in the locker room in front of junior students he agonized long and hard as to how to respond. He woke at 3am and prayed. Lo! He had the answer - later, at the school, he took the boys to a basement room and had another teacher whip him with a belt while they watched. Wow, some lesson. Not only will the boys forswear the kissing of girls, but they both have shown a keen interest in male-on-male consensual whipping. Chalk up another victory for Christian morality! Unfried was subsequently fired.


November 25th 2004

No Miracle - so says Coroner William Dolman “For 800 years coroners have been investigating unnatural deaths and this is the first time that we’ve been asked to look into a miracle. I am quite clear that no miracle took place and the scientific evidence is absolutely clear on this. This woman claims she travelled to Nairobi to give birth to this baby and she describes that birth in some detail. I’m convinced that that birth never took place and that baby Sarah is not her child.” Dolman, who was investigating the death of a so-called "miracle baby", confirmed that her DNA did not match that of her alleged parents. So far the real parents have not been traced. This is but the latest episode in the story of self-styled Archbishop Gilbert Deya, who claims his prayers help infertile women to conceive. Deya is wanted by police in Kenya who are investigating child-trafficking. Deya's wife, Mary, has been charged with stealing a child from a Kenyan hospital. (see Unholy Traffic)

Whingeing Windsor  - royal atavist Charles Windsor is in the news once more, this time for his views on education, which were read from a memo given in evidence at an industrial tribunal. One passage reads "What is wrong with people nowadays? Why do they all seem to think they are qualified to do things far above their capabilities? This is all to do with the learning culture in schools. It is a consequence of a child-centred education system which tells people they can become pop stars, high court judges or brilliant TV presenters or infinitely more competent heads of state without ever putting in the necessary work or having the natural ability. It is a result of social utopianism which believes humanity can be genetically engineered to contradict the lessons of history." These few sentences provide a target-rich environment for those who, like 80, are heartily sick of the millionaire dilettante's ill-informed comments. So Charlie is concerned about those who " seem to think they are qualified to do things far above their capabilities?" He should take a look in a mirror and ask why does he consider himself qualified to make public pronouncements on so many subjects in which he has no competence. The only reason his observations on so-called complementary medicine, genetic engineering, faith, or whatever his hobbyhorse of the moment is, are given any attention is solely due to his inherited position and not to any great knowledge or expertise. His remark about people being told that they can become "infinitely more competent heads of state without ever putting in the necessary work or having the natural ability." reflects poorly on his own career - or lack of it. As for his comment about "... social utopianism which believes humanity can be genetically engineered to contradict the lessons of history." What is he, but the result of centuries of genetic engineering the old-fashioned way? In 80's view he is hardly an inspiring outcome after all those years of assiduous inbreeding. Now that is a lesson from history. (The Guardian has obligingly compiled a selection of quotes illustrating Windsor's view of the world. See here for John O'Farrell's take on the Prince's staff management skills. 80 has been reminded that the Prince does a lot for charity - as if this somehow excuses his other activities. He's a multimillionaire - by grace of his descent, he hasn't sweated for any of it - in 80's view he should do a lot for charity.) For a somewhat more sympathetic assessment,  (certainly less rude than 80's rant) but ultimately damning look at Charles and how he came to be the dysfunctional figure he is today, read this article by Johann Hari.

Quote - and now for an announcement from the French spokesman at the Department of the Bleeding Obvious, President Jacques Chirac. "To a certain extent Saddam Hussein's departure was a positive thing but it also provoked reactions, such as the mobilisation in a number of countries, of men and women of Islam, which has made the world more dangerous. There is no doubt that there has been an increase in terrorism and one of the origins of that has been the situation in Iraq." Obvious to anyone outside the Bush/Blair axis of denial that is.


December 1st 2004

Holy Spam! - the definition of spam as "unsolicited commercial email" is in need of revision. It seems that religionists are sending messages offering religious salvation - the fact that many recipients will find this offensive and annoying has not perhaps occurred to them. Message Labs, an anti-spam outfit, told Silicon.com that such missives are perfectly legal according to current legislation as there is no commercial element. The example shown is some inane Christian blather about "I will serve you, Lord, the rest of my life. Deliver me from all my sinful habits. Set me free!" Incidentally, how you can be "set free" by shackling yourself to some irrational superstition is a bit of a mystery. It must cost something to send out such messages, but with no obvious commercial intent perhaps the perpetrators hope to receive their reward in heaven. This is perhaps the modern religionist's version of casting their bread upon the waters, but mixed in with their pious, and doubtless well-intentioned, emails are regular scam ones with a Christian gloss using people's faith as an opening to con them. 80 has noted before how the faithful are easy prey for a convincing religious crook. Tune up your email filters to block this modern plague - Message Labs reckon in the run-up to Xmas there will be more of this junk arriving in your inbox as "even if you have little money you can still send millions of messages." This guy, Chuck Taggart, seems to have the right attitude to this unsolicited trash - including the religious stuff. "I am a writer and editor, and as it's not my primary occupation, most of my writing and editing is done in my spare time. Therefore, since I am available for hire as a writer and/or editor, I will consider any unsolicited email which fits into the description of "spam" as stated above as a request for me to proof-read your email at a standard fee of $300 per message. The terms for these services are 30-day net, with an interest accruing after 30 days."

Literacy and Firefox - astute observers may have noticed a couple of new buttons in the left margin of this page. The first is an addition to the charity links called the Literary Site which, unsurprisingly, seeks to promote literacy amongst the children of poor families. While this currently only benefits children in the USA, it is 80's view that a rise in literacy rates anywhere is a good thing. Additionally, as with the other charity links, it costs you no more than a mouse click to make a contribution. The other link featured leads to the download site of the Firefox web browser. For years 80 has used the various incarnations of Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) along with most of the planet, but the availability of Firefox dictated a change. A huge number of the security patches downloaded from Microsoft address vulnerabilities in IE, even the latest version. Firefox is inherently safer (and much easier to customize) although some sites do not yet work fully without IE. 80 uses Microsoft Front Page to write and publish on this site, which, being a Microsoft product, does not adhere strictly to the standards laid out for web pages. These problems are not visible in IE, being from the same stable, but certainly show up when using Firefox. These can be problems with the size and color of text and placement of items on a page. As 80 spots such infelicities they are corrected but as this site now contains over 70 pages not everything can be fixed immediately. So, Firefox (and Safari and Opera) users please bear with the occasional oddity in the appearance of 80's pages - as opposed to the oddity of their content.

Cell Off - diplomats at the UN have given up efforts to agree a treaty that would outlaw human cloning, as it seems that there is no chance of any settlement. Costa Rica, backed by the US, wanted a worldwide ban on all cloning, reproductive and therapeutic, on religious grounds. Belgium had fielded a proposal banning reproductive cloning but allowing therapeutic cloning, necessary for research into the medical uses of embyonic stem cells. This non-result means that such promising research can proceed unhindered. (See Cell Block and and Clone Clash.)


December 3rd 2004

Unholy Smoke - it would seem that the odor of sanctity is carcinogenic. A study by Maastricht University and published in the European Respiratory Journal shows that the air inside churches can be much higher in carcinogenic polycyclic hydrocarbons than a busy road. Furthermore, with the increase in candle consumption expected at Xmastime the situation could get worse. The researchers found that the fine particulate matter associated with the lengthy use of candles and incense "can penetrate very deep into the lungs and trigger various lung and heart conditions." The PM10 levels after 9 hours of candle burning represented "12 to 20 times the European allowed average concentration over 24 hours". Upon hearing this alarming news the Church of England stormed into action like the dynamic organization it is. "This study certainly bears further investigation, and we will keep a watching brief," a spokesman wheezed. The researchers assessed the risk to priests and those who work in churches as being greater than to members of the public, but as this BBC report puts it "However, worshippers devout enough to spend several hours each day in church could also be affected." The likelihood of contracting a fatal illness with every breath you take while on your knees adoring the Creator certainly brings a whole new meaning to that much-loved hymn "Nearer My God to Thee".

Quote - from Thornton McCamish, writing in The Age (reg rqd) " We seem to have ended up with secularism because there was no other fair way of managing equal citizenship in a plural society; no other reasonable way to share a globe overrun with jealous gods. But what a thing to have achieved! A public ethos that embraces all of us in its insistence on fairness and mutual respect here and now on the beautiful, benighted Earth we share, not in the afterlife that we don't."


December 7th 2004

Vardy's Vacuity - here is an article by Andrew Brown writing in Prospect, where he asks the question "What happens when the government's flagship "academy" schools are run by evangelicals who want to teach creationism?" The whole article is of great interest but 80 could not resist cherrypicking a quote from Peter Vardy, the millionaire whose money partially underwrites these particular academies. "....as a guy who hasn't done a lot of studying and didn't do science at school, I return to my faith position - I accept the view that God created the earth, created man in his own image, quite how long it took him to do it I haven't concerned myself about. As to the whole evolution proposition that we have evolved from slime, I just find it impossible to accept. Obviously things do evolve. But I don't think we evolved from a pile of slime on the floor to the intricate things that we are today." This is a fine example of what is known as the argument from incredulity or the divine fallacy. What this boils down to is that understanding evolution, and the scientific principles upon which it rests, is beyond either Vardy's mental capacity or education to grasp. This he takes as sufficient reason to claim it is his Judaeo-Christian God that is responsible. This point of view is of zero use in understanding anything about our universe whatsoever (see The Shrinking Gaps). If this was merely his personal opinion he would be welcome to it. However, the idea of someone as ignorant as Vardy being welcomed, or even merely permitted, to pollute children's minds with this silliness via his educational activities purely because his money is the right color is, not to put too fine a point on it, repellent. If anyone doubts the intention of the these religionist-funded academies to allow religious beliefs to affect the whole of the school curriculum, read this cached item originally from the Vardy-backed Emmanuel Foundation, and now missing from their website. Also take a look at this lecture by Steven Layfield, Head of Science at Emmanuel College in Gateshead, entitled "The Teaching of Science - A Biblical Perspective."  Here is part of the introduction, " We are interested to know what the Bible says about Science not because we wish to add a certain "religious flavour" to our Science lessons but because the Bible provides us with, as it were, spectacles through which the whole of reality can be sharply focussed. At a most fundamental level of thinking there are really just two alternative starting positions. One is characterised by the assumption that man can find out all that is true by careful enquiry; the other acknowledges the limitation of such endeavour and recognises the need for us to accept Divine help. One is the rationalist voice of autonomous humanism; the other is God-centred Christianity."  It is deeply worrying that this person is allowed into the science classroom at all - remember, Layfield is supposed to be Head of Science not religious indoctrination! There is a tendency in the UK to look at things like the Cobb County stickers row (see Stick It to Creationism below) and think smugly "Those crazy Yanks - that sort of nonsense couldn't happen here". Wipe the grin off your face - it is happening right in your own backyard, right now, aided and abetted by your own government.

Unheeded Counsel? - here is another announcement from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious, this time courtesy of the Pentagon's Defense Science Board which consists of civilians appointed by the military to give advice on scientific and technical issues. This latest report would seem to be a little outside their remit. It refers to the Islamic world's perception of the USA and the Bush administration's singularly inept method of bringing "democracy" to the Middle East. "Muslims do not hate our freedom, but rather they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the long-standing, even increasing, support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan and the Gulf states.Thus, when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy." Will this have any noticeable effect on US policy? Not bloody likely.

Last Chance - if you lost out in your bid to be the proud owner of a Virgin Mary toasted cheese sandwich or a Pope Chop (scroll down to Sacred Snippets) you can now go one better with an icon more relevant to today's world now posted on EBay - Hello Kitty!

Stick It to Creationism - where it hurts. The concerted effort by those who espouse Creationism (or its poorly disguised bastard offspring, Intelligent Design) to sneak religion into the science class continues unabated in the US. Their methods were described accurately in the 1984 anthology, "Science and Creationism" by contributor Kenneth R. Miller. "The American creationist movement has entirely bypassed the scientific forum and has concentrated instead on political lobbying and on taking its case to a fair-minded electorate... The reason for this strategy is overwhelmingly apparent: no scientific case can be made for the theories they advance." One of the latest ploys is to deface biology textbooks with stickers stating : "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered." This action has now become the subject of a lawsuit against the stickers of the stickers, Cobb County, Georgia, school officials. One parent who filed the lawsuit said "It’s like saying everything that follows this sticker isn’t true." Apart from legal action of this kind, 80 has always felt a certain amount of healthy ridicule has a role to play too. Colin Purrington, an evolutionary biologist of Swarthmore College, Pa. agrees, and has posted a whole range of  stickers starting with the Cobb County original and then applying that blinkered and ignorant attitude to other subjects - "This textbook contains material on gravity. Gravity is a theory not a fact, regarding a force not directly seen.This material should be approached with an open mind, etc etc." Other controversial subjects include the sphericity of the Earth, heliocentrism and continental drift (plate tectonics). Scroll down the page for suggestions as to how the stickers can be effectively displayed - great stuff!  Also see this hilarious site making the case for Unintelligent Design - highly recommended. (Thanks to Michael for pointing out the stickers page)


December 9th 2004

Shoot To Thrill? - 80 has, until recently, been pretty ambivalent toward video games. Lacking the reflexes for the genre called shoot-em-ups, the more puzzle-based games appealed, but even then it is hard to shake the feeling that two hours of playing, say, Myst, is two hours wasted. The ambivalence has gone now after seeing the son of a friend, S, playing Grand Theft Auto - San Andreas which is, 80 has been told, the latest in a popular series. Two things were worrying - firstly he spent six hours straight playing the thing, and secondly was the level of violence. This is not the violence of a fantasy game but is set in realistic locations, and graphically depicted. When 80 looked over at the screen to see what S's frantic thumbing of his game controller was achieving, it was not a pretty sight. He was controlling a figure armed with a baseball bat, which was used to bludgeon repeatedly another figure, lying prone on the sidewalk. Such was the realism that as the bat hit, the prone figure's limbs jerked spasmodically with the force of the blows. (S thought this was very funny and found 80's disgust puzzling.) Another new game recently launched appears on a par with Grand Theft Auto for taste, or more accurately the lack of it, although 80 has not yet seen it played. With a release timed to coincide with the 41st anniversary of that event, JFK Reloaded is about the assassination of President John F Kennedy. The makers of this entertainment "said the objective was for a player to fire three shots at Kennedy's motorcade from assassin Lee Harvey Oswald's digitally recreated sixth-floor perch in the Texas School Book Depository." Your score is determined by how accurately your shots recreate those actually fired by Oswald that day. If you accidentally shoot Jacquie Kennedy you have points subtracted. According to Wired.com "Each shot can be replayed in slow motion, and the bullets can be tracked as they travel and pass through Kennedy's digitally recreated body. Players can choose to see blood by pressing a "blood effects" option." Astoundingly, the thing's creators, a Scottish company called Traffic Games, claim the intent is educational, and "was designed to undermine the theory there was some shadowy plot behind the assassination." If this daft assertion was intended to shield them from accusations of bad taste it is a failure. Produce a violent piece of trash if you must, but don't insult people's intelligence with such a ridiculous justification. One wonders where the trend towards more violent gaming will lead - and it seems the New York Post has found the answer. John Lockwood, described as a Texas entrepreneur, already has links on his website to allow participants anywhere on the web to fire real guns, via their mouse, at targets on his ranch, but now he wants to go one better. His latest big idea is to have a rifle, controlled over the internet, pointed at a game feeder set up to attract animals. Lockwood says "A feral hog might go for $500, a black buck or axis deer for $1,500 to $2,000." This, in 80's view, is disgusting, and raises many questions, including what happens if an animal is wounded by an inept marksman - will Lockwood have someone available on the spot to end the creature's suffering? Like the makers of the Kennedy game, Lockwood seems blithely unaware of how revolting his entertainment is, treating it as the next stage of development in what he calls hunting. Apparently he has received hate mail calling him "a sick, despicable redneck." To which 80 can only say bullseye! Technology has always been a two-faced servant for humanity - the same level of engineering produced the sewing machine and the machine gun. Now it seems that the advances that will lead to remote life-saving surgery over the internet can also be used for the slaughter of animals by idiots. (However, the ultimate shoot-em-up is not yet available to the public - just the military and the CIA. Back in 2002 Hellfire missiles, remotely fired from Predator drone aircraft by an operator many miles away, were used for assassinations.)


December 10th 2004

Bullshit - or, to be more accurate, cow dung is a substance that many folk tend not to dwell on overmuch. However it seems that country pancakes have more going for them than you might imagine - especially if you talk to Hindu fundamentalists. These folk, perhaps better known for inciting riots and generally being as obnoxious and irrational as any other religious fundies, have decided to harness their intellect to research on their sacred animal, the cow - or rather the cow's effluent. That the dung can be dried and used as a fuel is hardly news, but Bhanwarlal Kothari, a senior member of fundamentalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has found a new application for this ubiquitous commodity. Perhaps with one eye on Muslim Pakistan's nuclear weapons and missile tests, he says his researches "... have shown that distemper made out of cow dung and spread over walls and roofs can block nuclear radiation." Another bunch, Vishva Hindu Parishad, (VHP) has been working on that other bovine by-product, cow pee, and surprise, surprise that too has amazing properties - at least in the mind of Sunil Mansinghka. He is quoted in a Wired.com article by Manu Joseph, as saying "We believe that cows' urine can cure cancer, renal failure, arthritis and a lot of other ailments". Believing it is one thing, proving it is an entirely different matter. It adds a whole new meaning to that charming expression "taking the piss". Even these daft claims pale beside that made by one Professor Madan Mohan Bajaj, of Delhi University's physics department. He has been busy for the last 14 years studying the effects of animal slaughter upon various types of disasters. He concludes "The killing of animals causes natural and manmade disasters. But, since the cow is so useful to human beings, its slaughter causes exceptional seismic activity. The cries of the animals go down to the earth through Einsteinian pain waves." On this basis one could expect large slaughterhouses to be the epicenters of earthquakes - countries with highly intensive factory farming such as  Denmark ought to be shaking like jelly - it is funny no one has noticed. As for "Einsteinian pain waves" they doubtless emanate from the aching ribs of those caught in helpless paroxysms of laughter at this fundamentalist claptrap.

Maps and T-shirts - that tell lies. A week or so back 80 wrote about how the various cartographic representations of the US election result could be very misleading because of the way the data was displayed. (see The Map is not the Territory) Reference was made to the most egregious example shown by the bulk of the media which totally misrepresented the actual voting data, resulting in a sea of red states. This has not stopped these nitwits marketing a T-shirt emblazoned with that selfsame map. The text advertising this must-have item gushes "President George W. Bush won with the largest number of popular votes ever cast in American history!" Only because of the size of the turnout - he still only polled just over half of the total votes cast. "By popular demand, NewsMax is now offering Bush Country 2004 – with the county by county map showing how America has become even more RED. You can win every argument with your liberal friends – just wear Bush Country and point to the map!" Two observations - your liberal friends, if you have any, probably already know you are a dumbass - wearing this shirt will merely confirm it. As for "...America has become even more RED." 80 might be showing his age, but imagine what Senator Joe McCarthy would have made of such a statement.

Atlantean Hooey - here is a good piece from the Hartford Courant about archaeologist Kenneth L Feder and his take on the Atlantis story, including the latest claim of discovery made by Robert Sarmast (see Sunken Dreams). Feder is author of "Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology" and teaches, as he has for the past 25 years, at Central Connecticut State University. As far as he is concerned "Atlantis is a plot device. Plato has a very specific agenda in his mind, and he needs Atlantis to prove what he's trying to say." He is happy to use the Atlantis myth as an introduction to discuss real history and archaeology but has noticed a growing belief in such fables during his time in teaching. The proportion of new students who think Atlantis was a real place has grown over the last twenty years, from 30 t0 50 per cent in his estimation. "I think that pattern directly reflects how many documentaries on (pseudoscientific subjects) show up on television, especially cable TV." Anyone who has seen some of the tripe peddled on supposedly factual shows can only nod in agreement. As for Sarmast, Feder says "I'm going to assume that the guy's honest and sincere and he really thinks there's this connection, but for anyone looking at it from the outside, there just isn't enough information." (thanks to the Explorator newsletter)


December 12th 2004

Implausible Stories - perhaps 80 lacks imagination - if while out driving you were caught by a police radar camera which showed you had exceeded the speed limit and you wished to contest this finding, wouldn't you try and think of a plausible excuse? This would be plausible as in "within the realm of credibility" - anything else would likely be counterproductive in convincing a cynical police officer, who must have heard it all before. Or maybe some folk think if the excuse is original or far-out enough, perhaps the cop would drop any charges in sheer amazement. This latter course of action would seem to have been adopted by those motorists who made it to the top ten excuses list made public by the Safe Speed For Life website. Number 1, and deservedly so, is this little gem "I had passed out after seeing flashing lights, which I believed to be UFOs in the distance. The flash of the camera brought me round from my trance." This clown, far from evading a penalty is asking for a driving ban. Slightly more plausible was excuse number 2 "I was in the airport’s flight path and I believe the camera was triggered by a jet overhead, not my car." The two that appeal most are those with an element of the mercy dash to them, namely number 5 "My friend had just chopped his fingers off and I was rushing the fingers to hospital" and number 7 "I had to rush my dying hamster to the vets."

Quote - from a wonderfully vitriolic piece by Maureen Dowd, writing in the New York Times (reg rqd) on the subject of Christmas. "If I hear "Frosty the Snowman" one more time, I'll rip his frozen face off."

Fat Profits from Slimming - the slimming industry in the USA alone is reckoned to be worth around $40 billion a year.  Many people aware of the huge numbers of folk on the planet who are malnourished will find this figure obscene. This time of the year in the western world is reserved for overindulgence in food and drink, using holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas as an excuse for gluttony. This provides the food and diet companies great opportunities to make a killing, and not just of turkeys. Firstly is the selling of all the festive foods and then, after their consumption, there is the sale of various diets which claim to help lose the pounds gained. The important thing about the diets and schemes offered to slimmers is that in the long run they must be ineffective in order to ensure continued sales of the product. Repeat business is essential. For a rundown on various dodgy diet schemes take a look here at Diet Scam Watch - the site is new but already has a lot of useful information. The best rule to follow when looking at any slimming product or program is the old one - if it sounds too good to be true then it is likely worthless. For a good illustration of how a slimming product can be marketed go to FatFoe's web page and read the blurb there "Wouldn’t it be nice to enjoy your favorite foods – pizza, pasta, fried chicken, gooey chocolate deserts – and watch the pounds melt away? Best of all, wouldn’t it be nice to have the trim, shaply figure you’ve always wanted without having to diet or exercise? NOW – FINALLY – YOU CAN!" To be honest this page is more than it appears - click any of the links there to see why. For a look at that slimmer's dream, "the low-carb diet in a pill" see Ben Goldacre's Bad Science column in the Guardian, where he comprehensively shreds the the rationale behind the hype, and questions the manufacturer, Vortex Health's claims of clinical trials. If diets sold to the public are in the main questionable in their effectiveness, how about one with a divine mandate - that's got to be the answer, right? Johann Hari mentions just such a diet in an excellent article provocatively titled "How can intelligent people use alternative medicine?". In this he encounters a book called, wait for it, "What Would Jesus Eat?" This cleverly brings together fad diets and religiosity in one ridiculous package, blending the lucrative believer and slimmer markets together. As Don Colbert, the perpetrator/author of this volume puts it, "If you truly want to follow Jesus in every area of your life, you cannot ignore your eating habits." This of course means taking on the weird dietary rules laid down in that handy slimmer's manual, the Christian bible. The books Leviticus and Deuteronomy, so beloved of Christian homophobes, is also full of advice on what is clean and unclean to eat. The basis for most of this seems arbitrary and full of errors - did you know that insects have four legs - and that rabbits chew the cud? A particular blow to 80 was to find that shrimp and other crustacea and shellfish are an abomination. The lesson to take away from all this is that when reading any of the diet and slimming ads it is important to remember one thing - these people are after your money, whether they give their schemes a religious gloss or not. The place to get trustworthy dietary information is from properly accredited health professionals (no, not Gillian McKeith) - not from someone driven by profit. (Still with diet, here is an interesting article by Louise France looking at Britain's unhealthy obsession with the Devil's food - the humble potato crisp. The Brits "buy more bags of crisps than the rest of Europe put together, second only to the United States. At Christmas, sales rise by 20 per cent.")


December 14th 2004

Hush My Mouth? - no chance. Britain already has adequate laws to deal with hate crimes so why does the Home Secretary, the currently beleaguered David Blunkett, want to introduce legislation to deal specifically with religious hatred? The invasion of Iraq and the so-called war on terror are likely factors influencing the decision, which the cynical would say is purely to win Muslim votes in the next general election. After the atrocities of 9/11 and subsequent terrorist attacks by fundamentalists, many Muslims feel that they are being unfairly blamed for the acts of a minority and would like to see legislation protecting them from abuse on religious grounds. Also, as a consequence of the turmoil in Iraq and Tony Blair's blind allegiance to George W Bush's crusade, Muslim voters have been losing faith in the Labour Party and increasingly turning to the Liberal Democrats, the latter having consistently opposed the invasion of Iraq. The danger with Blunkett's proposal is that it will stifle legitimate free speech and criticism of religious belief. This criticism can often make its point by mockery, a device 80 certainly uses. Who decides when mockery becomes hatred? Rowan Atkinson, comedian and actor, who has done his fair share of such mockery, expressed his concerns in the Guardian, "To criticise a person for their race is a manifestly irrational and ridiculous. But to criticise their religion - that is a right. That is a freedom. And a law that attempts to say you can criticise or ridicule ideas, as long as they are not religious ideas, is a very peculiar law indeed. It all points to the promotion of the idea there should be a right not to be offended... In my view, the right to offend is far more important than any right not to be offended." The thought that in Britain the absurd and irrational beliefs of religionists, of whatever stripe, cannot be held up to ridicule is in itself ridiculous. An additional concern is that the effect may in fact be the opposite to that intended. Dominic Grieve the shadow Attorney General and a church warden, says that the implementation of a similar law in Australia has served to increase intolerance. As far as 80 is concerned, whatever the outcome, religious belief and its malign effect on the world will continue to receive exactly the same treatment as before. 80's prescription is toleration tinged with a healthy dose of ridicule and no respect whatsoever. (also see Religionist Hatred and Islamophobia.)

Slay Ride for Santa - the seasonal silliness has affected that august body the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Their news page carries an item about a paper in the Psychiatric Bulletin called What if Santa Died? Dr. Lynda Breen argues that Santa Claus, real or not, is a symbol of hope and "belief in him teaches children the values of role models, family bonding and sharing, as well as helping the young to think more constructively." How belief in an imaginary, benevolent, bearded fat man who hangs out with elves and creeps into your bedroom at night can help kids think more constructively is beyond 80's comprehension. In an invited reply, Dr. Mark Salter finds no reason to think that belief in S.Claus encourages benevolence, but he does hold some odd beliefs of his own. He warns "...we should beware. Increasingly, in a society that unwisely holds rationality above all else, the significance of myths and magic are being slowly and subtly eroded." What's more "Dr. Breen is offering us a seasonally-flavoured warning, asking us to contemplate not the death of Santa, but of imagination..." To which 80 can only say, what hogwash - failing to believe in some saccharine myth has nothing to do with the death of imagination. The Santa story with all its props such as elves, presents and flying reindeer is a fait accomplit and actually requires little imagination. At this time of year it is well nigh impossible to avoid seeing images of Claus and his entourage in every store and mall. Contrary to Breen's assertion, what this world needs is less myth and magic and a damn' sight more rationality. Furthermore, equating rationality with the death of imagination is nonsensical - imagination and rationality combined, one tempered by the other, is one of humanity's greatest strengths. Two views of the Santa paper by Rebecca Tyrrel, who is for telling children sweet lies, and Francis Wheen (author of How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World) who is very much against, are in this article from the Daily Telegraph. Wheen's attitude is definitely in accord with 80's, and, sad to admit, more eloquently expressed, "This is one of the oldest, most pernicious myths of all – that reason and science are incompatible with a sense of wonder and magic. The creation of the internet and the mapping of the human genome are far more awe-inspiring than Madonna's silly Kabbalah cult and Cherie's (Blair) healing crystals, and they have the great advantage of being founded in reality. With so many genuine marvels, who needs Father Christmas?" Hear, hear.

Santa Under Siege - It seems that some kids have not only lost their belief in Santa but are actively aggressive toward the benevolent, bearded fat man. This year in Clackmannanshire, Scotland he has been given police protection after attacks by crowds of stone-hurling teenagers. Meanwhile in Llanelli, Wales children visiting Santa in his grotto will not only sit next to the old chap and not on his knee but will also be under observation by live CCTV cameras. This is all in an effort to protect the jolly mythical figure from accusations of improper conduct. Aah, the magic of Christmas......


December 16th 2004

Second Front - a new battle has opened in the war (make no mistake - it is a war) to inject religion into the US public school system, only this time it is over on the West Coast, a long way from Georgia and the anti-evolution brigade. (see Stick It to Creationism) Steven Williams, a history teacher in Cupertino wants to teach his 5th graders at Stevens Creek Elementary School that religion, (he actually means Christianity, his own faith) was central to the Founding Fathers. Some may approve of this tacking on of his beliefs to the school curriculum - others are less than impressed with his efforts. One parent, Mike Zimmers, told the SF Chronicle that "My daughter came home one day and said, 'Mr. Williams talks about Jesus 100 times a day'." Zimmers (and his daughter) are some of the many folk who object to Williams evangelizing in the classroom. Like many overly zealous Christians, who are obsessed with spreading the "good news" where it does not belong, Williams has now resorted to legal action. "Last month, Williams filed suit in federal court in Oakland claiming that administrators were "systematically rejecting" any reference to God or Christianity in his handouts. Williams said his speech and academic freedom had been restricted "because of its religious content and viewpoint." That Williams thinks he can breach the wall between church and state, enshrined in the Constitution, is emblematic of the unthinking arrogance of many bible bashers. The rule surely cannot apply to them, for they have God on their side. He is being paid to teach history not theology - if he wants to tell of his beliefs he should do it in his own time and not in class. Naturally the dispute has sparked the usual intelligent reaction from the fundamentalist right, who must be feeling feisty after the recent election result. The familiar pitiful cries of persecution have gone up (they should have lived in Diocletian's day) and emails have arrived at the school with helpful comments like "all of you in the school district can burn in hell." It is also part of the fundies' propaganda to wilfully misunderstand the issue, and hysterically claim that the school is "banning the Declaration of Independence". With Williams now due to appear on that bastion of unbiased news reporting, the Fox News cable network, this storm is possibly going to need a bigger teacup. Perhaps Williams would like to add to his handouts in history class a few, easily accessible quotations from the Founding Fathers themselves. In fact, for a teacher of history, it seems odd that he is unaware of them - or perhaps he ignores them as they do not further his evangelical agenda.

"The United States of America should have a foundation free from the influence of clergy." George Washington

“Twenty times in the course of my late reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, ‘this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.’ " John Adams

“[A]n amendment was proposed by inserting ‘Jesus Christ,’ so that [the preamble] should read ‘A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion’; the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination” Thomas Jefferson

For more on the Founding Fathers' opinions of religion and government take a look at America's Most Famous Deists and also America--Not a Christian Nation.

Satanic Profits - before we all become sated with seasonal Santa stories 80 could not resist just one last one (for now). In a bid to stand out from the crowd, tourist attraction the York Dungeon has a seasonal Santa grotto with an anagrammatic twist - Satan's Grotto. This features, according to Yorkshire PostToday, instead of the traditional Santa "a dark, cloaked figure, with a red face and horns. Sprawling on a throne, Satan will be handing out gifts such as severed fingers and other body parts, and practical jokes. He will wish revellers a Horrible Christmas and present them with a scroll to sign their souls away." To complete the fun are elves on spikes, spit-roasted robins and Santa himself boiling in a cauldron. Surely there is nothing here for anyone to object to? There is if you are whiny "Best-selling author and retired vicar Graham Taylor". It is his belief that the Grotto "is making a mockery of Christian celebration." Since when did elves and reindeer and a red-clad fatman feature in the nativity fable? For a retired clergyman Taylor's New Testament knowledge seems a bit shaky - perhaps that is why he is an ex-vicar. To further display his ignorance he calls Christmas "Our most important Christian festival...." Surely that should be Easter? He also scores low marks for history as well - the winter solstice was being celebrated for thousands of years before the merriment was hijacked by Christians (see Our Pagan Christmas). Perhaps his moaning is little more than a thinly-disguised plug for his books, one of which, Shadowmancer, has proved popular enough to be made into a movie. It is a stirring tale of good versus evil, although the Amazon review had this to say "... the author, an English vicar himself, tells a very Christian story and his often deliciously dramatic adventure lapses into stiffly presented glowing-halo "Touched by an Angel" moments..." Taylor may write what most of us would consider fantasy but he certainly believes that supernatural evil is abroad in the world today "The grotto is in very bad taste. Satanism is a very real thing." Satanism is not, in 80's view, "a very real thing" but for those selling fantasy books on the subject it can, no doubt, be a very lucrative thing. While Taylor's comments won't have harmed his book sales, a side effect (known as the St Tibulus Corollary) of the concomitant publicity is likely to prove beneficial to the bottom line at Satan's Grotto as well.


December 18th 2004

No Still, Small Voice - but rather a petulant, whiny one. In a world where one billion children caught up in the turmoil of war, famine and poverty have been denied a childhood what is it that raises the ire of Christian Voice? What is it that has them mounting a frenzied email and telephone campaign? Can it be the horror that is Darfur, the countless Iraqi civilians, women and children trying to survive in a country that is little more than a shooting gallery, or perhaps the millions of people in Africa infected with HIV AIDS? No, Christian Voice, a self-described "prophetic ministry" has no time for such trivialities - not when someone has dared to stage a play, in St Andrews, Scotland, portraying Jesus and his disciples as homosexuals. The work, Corpus Christi, by American playwright Terence McNally was first performed in 1997 and is described in this BBC report as "a modern retelling of the Gospels, taking place in the Texan town of Corpus Christi". This is condemned by these religionists as "blasphemous". Stephen Green, director of Christian Voice has not, of course, actually seen the play (neither has 80, but then 80 is not whining about it). His comments are revealing, "The fact is that Jesus Christ is being portrayed here as a foul-mouthed, drunken, promiscuous, homosexual and that is an insult to my faith." If Green has not seen the play how come he knows so much about its depictation of Jesus? And how, pray, can one insult what is nothing more than an unsubstantiated belief? What he means is that he and his group feel insulted. Tough, 80 feels insulted whenever a religionist claims that without religious faith one can have no morals - so what? Live with it. He also adds a touch of Old Testament style prophecy (after all, it is Christian Voice's forte) "Quite apart from that, God is not mocked, and I fear for the town of St Andrews which has allowed this blasphemous, hate-filled mockery." 80 is waiting with bated breath to see what Green's loving God has in store for the town - fire and brimstone perhaps, or something a little less Cecil B deMille, such as killing all of the firstborn? This is what Green would like to see no doubt. The Daily Record describes his agenda thus, "He wants ancient blasphemy laws to be strengthened, and opposes divorce, abortion, homosexuality and laws against religious hatred." He sounds a right little Taliban wannabe. Corpus Christi, whether a good or bad play, is, oddly enough exactly the sort of thing that would be targeted by Home Secretary Blunkett's religious hatred law. Fortunately the chances of that particular misguided proposal actually becoming law seems to be receding. As for Christian Voice, they need to realize that the world has moved on, and their dictum "The only hope for our dysfunctional nation lies in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ." insults British Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Wiccans, pagans, atheists, agnostics, Scientologists and disciples of the Tooth Fairy.

Donald Ducks - the question."You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time." so said US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, replying to a complaint from a soldier about the lack of combat equipment available for troops serving in Iraq. If you are the victim of a preemptive attack, such as Pearl Harbor, then yes, you are plunged into war with "the Army you have". But when you are launching the preemptive strike yourself, the time of which is dictated by political, not military considerations, there is no good reason for troops to be ill-equipped. Soldiers cannot fight a war armed with spin and platitudes - a lesson Rumsfeld has obviously yet to learn. (Be sure to check out Rummy's Greatest Hits by Mark Fiore)

The Big Question - is which is the scientific ignoramus here? Is it the New York Post (NYP) or is it the Fox TV network? One said it , the other reported it uncritically. This quote coming up (wait for it) is taken from a piece in the NYP, reporting that Rupert Murdoch's outfit wants to make a drama series to cash in on the current popularity of Lost, an example of what the NYP calls a "shipwrecked" show. Only Fox are making it a sci-fi* drama series, "Darkside" - and this is how it is described " Plans are under way at Fox — which wants to make a "Lost" of its own — for a new series about a group of of astronauts who go missing after tracing a distress signal to the dark side of the moon. When they arrive on the other side of moon (sic) — which is cloaked in perpetual darkness and beyond radio contact with earth — they discover a mysterious compound." 80 will hazard a guess - this mysterious compound fiendishly erases from the human brain any knowledge of basic astronomy that may lurk there. More than that, it completely removes the desire to undertake even the slightest smidgeon of basic research, just to make sure your plotline isn't silly crap. NYP and Fox are the new Dumb and Dumber. Remember, it was the geniuses at Fox that gave us "Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land on the Moon?"

*As opposed to science fiction or SF, a genre where the laws of physics, while they may well be bent, are not pissed on.


December 20th 2004

Sanctified Tat - time for another swift roundup of news from the wacky world of religion. First up is Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, perhaps best known on 80's pages for allowing a known paedophile* to continue working as a priest,(see Whited Sepulchre) and here fulminating because "Christian symbols are being denigrated over the Christmas period". What rattled his cage was the Madam Tussaud's waxwork nativity scene (which has now been damaged by "a vandal" - as opposed to an Ostrogoth or Lombard or, gulp, a Christian.) by featuring various celebrities, leading him to say "It seems incredible that Christianity, particularly Christmas, is displayed in a way that is so tasteless." Hard to know where to start really - just how Christian are the Christian symbols that he feels are being denigrated? The Virgin Mother and Child is a popular image particularly with O'Connor's own sect, the Roman Catholics. Is it original to them? No - see how the Virgin and Child motif was a part of Egyptian religion long before Christianity. December 25th was the birthday of the savior god Mithras before the Christians claimed it for their own savior. For a fascinating essay on the true origins of the "Christian" midwinter birth feast see here. As for O'Connor's comment that Christianity is being "displayed in a way that is so tasteless" he should walk by 80's local Catholic church. Outside is a shop selling tawdry little statues in garish colors of Jesus, his mother and assorted saints. As for the grisly little crucified man statuettes, complete with copious blood flows the less said the better. (see here for more tasteful Catholic items) O'Connor should make sure his own church is not guilty of the sin of tastelessness before casting stones at others. Elsewhere, another Christian sect, the Russian Orthodox Church, are deep in deliberations as to which saint should be head honcho of the internet. The Roman Catholics tend towards St Isidore of Seville. 80 has a charming statuette of this character (utterly tasteless, naturally) with long white hair and beard, clutching a laptop - the old boy even glows in the dark. It would of course be anathema to the Orthodox to share a patron saint, so they have two other contenders, Saint John Chrysostom, and Saint Feofan the Hermit. A quick scan of John's life story reveals no obvious connections with information technology. Feofan, a 19th century hermit, is an equally mysterious choice although the 21st century geek, home alone, hunched over his monitor, may well be the modern equivalent of a hermit. At least the Roman Catholics have some basis for Isidore getting the job as he "wrote the well-known 'Etymologies' (a type of dictionary), (and) gave his work a structure akin to that of the database." Mmm, very convincing. Meanwhile, the Orthodox church still have a lot to learn about the Internet and the dangers it can represent, if Deacon Andrey Kurayev is anything to go by, "If we get a patron saint for the internet, the next logical step will be to formulate a prayer to deal with viruses." Quite so, very logical, Andrey - and God help the poor soul who gets to do your tech support.

* The Catholic church's embarrassing and devastating record of child abuse by priests now has a counterpart in the Islamic world - according to this BBC report "A Pakistani minister has revealed hundreds of cases of alleged child sex abuse at Islamic schools, or madrassas." Naturally the minister has received great support for his brave revelations from fanatical clerics - they have sent him the usual death threats.


December 22nd 2004

The Unexamined Life - is not worth living. So said Socrates, at least according to Plato. 80 would also like to suggest an unexamined religion is not worth having, although many religionists are unlikely to agree with this. Charles Moore, writing in the Daily Telegraph, has raised howls of fury with a question as to whether, in some modern eyes, the prophet Mohammed would be considered a paedophile. He based this on the tale of the prophet's marriage when aged 53 to a girl of 9. Moore makes short work of such a view pointing out "it seems anachronistic to describe Mohammed as a child-molester. The marriage rules of his age and society were much more tribal and dynastic than our own, and women were treated more as property and less as autonomous beings." Moore only raised the question to illustrate how UK Home Secretary David Blunkett's religious hatred law would impact upon being able to even pose such a question. Where religious faith rests upon a book that is claimed to be not only inerrant but actually holy in some way then that book, whether it is the Christian Bible or the Quran or any other scripture, should be examined to get at the truth of such claims. This is not hatred or blasphemy but a process of rational inquiry - if, say, archaeology or independent verifiable sources contradict the holy book then the religionists will have to live with it. Draconian religious hatred laws or threats of violence should not be allowed to stifle such inquiry. Where religion makes claims that are testable, whether they are miraculous cures or apparitions or the inerrancy and historical veracity of a book, they should be rigorously examined. (Something such as faith, it is claimed, is beyond the realm of such investigation, but with studies into the effect that our genes have in many areas maybe even this nebulous concept will undergo rational scrutiny.) If a belief or faith or political ideology is damaged or shown to be false by such examination then the question must be asked as to whether whether it was worth having in the first place. (see here for comment on the misguided and hysterical overreaction to Moore's article from the Muslim Association of Britain.)

Update - to the above. Polly Toynbee writing in the Guardian notes what strange allies are backing the campaign against the proposed religious hatred legislation, and makes the point that many misunderstand its purpose. "Dead prophets and holy books would be as open to criticism and ridicule as ever. The law will protect the believers, not their beliefs." Citing the Australian experience, Toynbee decides "This will be a bad law, inflaming, not calming, religious passions. Prosecutors will not have to prove a breach of the peace occurred, nor that one was likely, nor even that one was intended." She also cites the recent arrests of neo-nazi thugs as proof that existing laws are capable of dealing those attempting to incite hatred although elsewhere in the Guardian this is disputed..

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. Do not believe anything because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything because it is written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it. - The Buddha, Kalama Sutra

It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got your money as long as you have got it. . . . . . . . . . For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. Which attitude is better geared for our long-term survival? Which gives us more leverage on our future? And if our naive self-confidence is a little undermined in the process, is that altogether such a loss? Is there not cause to welcome it as a maturing and character-building experience? - Edwin Way Teale, Circle of the Seasons


December 23rd 2004

Thou Shalt Not - make an asinine spectacle of thyself. An attempt by an Alabama judge to get the 10 Commandments into his courtroom shows a certain amount of ingenuity, even if he probably looks like an extra from an old biblical epic. Judge Ashley McKathan is attracting criticism from the American Humanist Association for his homegrown version of holy haute couture. He has had his judicial robes embroidered with the Decalogue in gold thread. Apparently "The commandments were described as being big enough to read on the robe by anyone near the judge, but not like eye-catching slogans on T-shirts." 80 has yet to track down a picture of this righteous robe but the mind boggles. Astoundingly, McKathan claims "The Ten Commandments can help a judge know the difference between right and wrong." Anyone needing that kind of help should not be sitting in judgement upon others - he can't have that many defendants arraigned before him accused of coveting their neighbor's ass. Besides, which version of the 10 Commandments is McKathan using - there are at least two versions, one in Exodus 20 and another in Exodus 34? (Moses broke the first tablets of stone in a temper tantrum).Then, of course, these two versions are also available in widely varying translations. Perhaps McKathan has them all on there in gold thread, thereby transforming his robes into a judicial Las Vegas era Elvis suit - which would certainly make for a striking presence in the courtroom.

Bad Science Badmouthed - do take a look at Ben Goldacre's selection of recipients/targets for the 2004 Bad Science Awards in the Guardian. The unusual categories should pique your interest, including "Award for outstanding innovation in the use of the title 'Doctor'" and "Bad Science celebrity of the year" 80's favorite is "Least plausible cosmetics claim". One entry in this category is described by Goldacre thus "PO2 Contour Cream from Laboratoires Herzog is a "patented stabilisation of oxygen within a cream" that "puts oxygen back into the skin, reoxygenates skin cells, encourages natural rejuvenation". It sounds like bollocks; but it smells like peroxide." Which may be better than the other way round............

The Farce - is with you, especially if you are a US taxpayer. Or more accurately it is with the Missile Defence Agency. The so-called Star Wars missile defence shield has failed in its latest test. An interceptor missile shut itself down on the pad instead of chasing after a previously launched target missile with a dummy warhead. The inability to carry through a launch and intercept when you actually launched the target yourself, says volumes about any launch on demand capability - the whole rationale for such a system. George Bush's stated goal of having a basic shield in place by the end of 2004 is beginning to look foolishly optimistic. (Update - this deadline is now scrapped) It would be pointless deploying the system before it has been proved capable of doing the job (although this may yet happen for purely political reasons). The job, it seems at the moment, would be to intercept a possible missile attack from North Korea - there do not seem to be any other candidates for the role. How this expensive and so far unproven system would make the US safe from a far more likely, and insidious delivery system is unknown. Such a delivery system crosses the USA's land borders every day by the thousand - it is called a truck.

Revealing Searches - talk about reinforcing stereotypes. For years now geekdom has contemptuously and unfairly referred to AOL's browser and connection package as the internet with stabilizers/training wheels, with less-than-flattering implications for the intelligence of AOL's clients. Those who disagree with this sweeping judgement (including 80) will find their position somewhat undermined by the results of a survey telling us AOL users' 50 most searched words for 2004. The top three, in descending order, are horoscopes, lyrics and hairstyles. See The Register for more.


December 24th 2004

Sikh Censorship - the author of the play Behzti - Dishonour, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti has gone into hiding. This Guardian report quotes a friend, Shakila Taranum Mann as saying "She has been threatened with murder and told to go into hiding by the police. She is personally paying a high price, she feels this is an attempt to censor her. It is mob rule." In a further development the Birmingham Stage Company has said they will stage Behzti at another location in Birmingham. Actor-manager Neal Foster, said "The story cannot end here. I think freedom of expression is more important than health and safety." Foster is right, a stand must be made against attempts by religionists, whether it is Sikhs resorting to violence or Roman Catholics pressuring the BBC (see Popetown Shutdown), to dictate what the rest of society may or may not see.

Update - to Stifled by Religion (see below). Birmingham's Repertory Theatre company has cancelled the run of the play Behzti, the subject of violent protests by the Sikh community who felt that it insulted their religion. The theatre company's executive director, Stuart Rogers, refused to censor the work and has cited "health and safety" concerns as the reason for the cancellation. According to this BBC report, Birmingham Councillor Chaman Lal, a spokesman for the Sikhs, said there would have been larger protests had the play continued. This could be interpreted as a prediction - or a threat. He said "There are no winners or losers - common sense has prevailed." Wrong, there is one big loser - free speech. It has been stifled by the demonstrations of these religionists. There is also a danger that the Sikhs' protest will lead to "me too" demonstrations from other religions, who feel threatened by the open and free debate that is vital to a secular, multicultural society. Councillor Chaman Lal added insult to injury with this observation, "We have nothing against freedom of speech, but you do not make a mockery of someone's faith or beliefs. That is oppression." To say they have nothing against freedom of speech has been proved to be less than honest - they have certainly succeeded in closing a play by means of violent protest on no other grounds than a perceived insult to their religion. It seems that ex-Home Secretary David Blunkett's proposed law against religious hatred is unecessary - the same unwelcome result can be achieved by recourse to tactics that bear an unpleasant resemblance to mob rule. The Sikh protesters have done the wider perception of their community no favors whatsoever with their behavior and likely have set a very worrying precedent. The word is out - violent protest gets results.

Stifled by Religion - is it now the case that any religious group can protest at anything that causes them offence, to the point of violence? It certainly seems so, after members of the Sikh community took exception to a play being staged in Birmingham England. During protests 5 police officers were injured in scuffles outside the theater. The play, Behzti (Dishonour), written by Gurpreet Bhatti, has upset Sikhs with its depictation of sexual abuse and murder within the precincts of a temple or gurdwara. Bhatti has herself received threats and has been advised by police not to say anything in public. So much for artistic freedom and the right to free speech. Mohan Singh, a local Sikh community leader told the BBC "When they're doing a play about a Sikh priest raping somebody inside a gurdwara, would any religion take it?" Maybe not, but they should. If plays and films are to be banned or censored at the behest of religious groups, where will it end? If the play has broken a law then legal action should be taken - if it merely insults a religion, so what? An unwelcome end result could be censorship of any item of comment, scholarship or entertainment that offends touchy religionists. There is a continuum that runs from the Sikh action and that of Christian Voice (see No Still, Small Voice) to the group that murdered Theo van Gogh, so outraged were they by his film, Submission. Religionists are arrogant enough to believe that they alone are the arbiters of taste and decency, but their beliefs are just that - beliefs, they are not rules for the conduct of others who do not subscribe to those beliefs. Religious edicts are not universal in the way that physical law is. To quote Caesar in Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra " Pardon him Theodotus; he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature." Britain is home to 170 different belief systems and catering to the whims of all of them would not only be impossible it would also be ignoring those who do not subscribe to religious beliefs. The NSS Newsline has this interesting statistic - the UK 2001 census revealed the UK has more Jedi Knights than Sikhs - does this mean it is no longer safe to take the piss out of Star Wars? Expect more whining from Christian groups at Channel 4's Christmas Day documentary called  Who Wrote the Bible? It, according to this Guardian piece, contains no more revelations about the Bible and its characters than can be gleaned from a little honest research (see Sheep Turned Goat?). The evangelists who are objecting reveal nothing more than their own abysmal ignorance about their own religion and how it came to be. Finally, in the Observer is an article by Richard Harries called "We should not fear religion". Harries seems to find nothing frightening in the resurgence of religion in the world, whether in the US or the Middle East or outside UK theaters. His complacent and inaccurate view is encapsulated in this daft statement "Religions bind people together and create communities which are part of the world of public events." Religions may bind people together, but only within their own grouping - on a larger scale they are more divisive than any other human construct. It is obvious if you are God's chosen people you are excluding everyone else who does not share your beliefs. A favorite quote from Mark Twain sums this up far better than 80 ever could, "Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion - several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn't straight."


December 25th 2004

Herod the Great - at this time of year Christians will be retelling the Nativity fable with the familiar characters of Jesus and family, wise men, assorted asses and donkeys and an innkeeper, to name a few. One important participant who gets a raw deal every time is King Herod, known to secular history as Herod the Great. (It is doubly unfair as he is the only real historical figure in Matthew's version of the miraculous birth story.) To a Christian Herod has only one role, that of evil despot who committed a foul crime forever remembered as the Massacre of the Innocents. Fearful of news that a new king was born and looking to safeguard his throne Herod "slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under..." according to Matthew 2:16 in the New Testament. (One wonders where was God while all this was going on?) Of the four evangelists Matthew is the only one to mention this horrific event, which seems odd at first, until you realize he was not writing history as we know it. Convinced that Jesus was the son of God, it was inconceivable to Matthew that his birth would not be would not be attended by events signifying this. In a deliberate echo of the massacre at Pharaoh's command which accompanied the birth of Moses, Matthew introduced the Herod copycat crime. How can we be certain that the massacre is not historical? We cannot, not without a time machine, but we can be pretty sure. Herod is a real historical figure and events in his life were chronicled outside the New Testament, by such as Josephus, who was no fan of Herod and is unlikely to have ignored a chance to add to his list of crimes. Mention is made of many of Herod's misdeeds, including the murder of members of his own family, but of the innocents there is nothing. (Emperor Augustus is reported to have said, "It is safer to be Herod's swine than Herod's son.")  A look at Herod's career shows him to be no worse than many other rulers of his time, and an astute politician who managed to keep on the right side of the main superpower of the time, Rome. He was also a great builder - the port of Caesarea and the temple in Jerusalem being two of his achievements. For an historical, as opposed to a theological view of Herod the Great listen to Terry Jones' "Let's Hear It for the King of Judea" archived by BBC Radio 4. (Scroll down alphabetical listing) The wonderfully named King Herod Appreciation Society has this to say ".... we think that Monty Python's Life of Brian says at least as much that is valid about religion as any other religious commentary you can name (and if you can't laugh at your own religion, we ask you -- how strong is your faith, really? Just How Lovely Are Your Tents?) As another, the received wisdom about King Herod is that he was jealous with a distinctly murderous streak. Less appreciated is that he had enlightened ideas about economics; was dedicated to good works; and kept the Kingdom of the Jews alive by adroit politics within an Empire far greater (and more cruel) than anything he could muster. It all depends on whose version of history you read." Part of this comment bears repeating, especially in light of the current number of religionists squealing about insults to their faith "... if you can't laugh at your own religion, we ask you -- how strong is your faith, really?" Over the festive season 80 will certainly be raising a glass to Herod the Great and Brian (I am not the Messiah) Cohen. Cheers! (For those with access to Channel 4 in the UK look out for The Real King Herod showing December 29th 7:00pm)


December 27th 2004

Integrated Hogwash - there are some interesting points to ponder in this item in the Guardian about Charles Windsor, the Prince of Wales' Foundation for Integrated Health. The Foundation, set up by Windsor to press for integration of so-called complementary and alternative health therapies into the National Health Service, has had a Christmas windfall courtesy of the British taxpayer. The Blair government has handed over £1 million "for the delicate task of sorting the experts from the amateurs in alternative medicine." Delicate is an understatement - impossible is nearer the mark when one is dealing with treatments that meet no acceptable scientific standards of evidence of efficacy. Michael Fox, the foundation's chief executive spoke of the difficulties "Take reflexology - there are courses which may not last terribly long. There are also some very good ones that last full-time over three years. The difference in terms of proficiency is significant." Is this proficiency defined as the quality of having great facility and competence? What about ascertaining whether the treatment is of any medical use whatsoever before setting standards for practitioners "proficiency".? A possible reason for reflexology's popularity is suggested by Robert Carroll, "One reason foot massage may be so pleasurable and is associated with significant improvement in mood is that the area of the brain that connects to the foot is adjacent to the area that connects to the genitals." Reflexology is unproven nonsense and no amount of regulation is going to change that. The article also repeats a statement that Windsor made in the Guardian in February this year. It is as ridiculous now as it was then. "It seems extraordinary to me that despite a recent poll indicating that 75% of people want complementary medicine available to all on the NHS, there are still only a handful of clinics offering integrated healthcare for free." Two observations here, Charlie, which you seem unable or unwilling to take on board - firstly, medical treatments should be rated by their efficacy in double blind testing, not by a popularity contest. Secondly, most healthcare professionals see no reason to introduce unproven therapies into their clinics - most of them are more than busy enough employing medicine that actually works. (For more on the Prince's alternative therapy promotion see Complementary Charlie, Taxes for Twaddle and  Whacky Windsor's Wizard Wheeze.)

Update - to Sikh Censorship. It is now reported that, following death threats, actor-manager Neal Foster, of the Birmingham Stage Company, won't be going ahead with plans to stage the play Bezhti, which was shut down in its original venue following violent protests by offended Sikhs (see Stifled by Religion). The author of the play, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, currently in hiding following murder threats (is this really happening in England?) also contacted Foster, asking for the play to be abandoned. Foster is quoted in the Guardian, "They said I would be shot if I continued with plans to stage the play. I have taken them seriously - but at the moment they are just phone calls, and I am not in hiding. I am extremely sad at the continued turn of events. I hope this will just be an isolated incident and will not be repeated." Sadly this is likely to be repeated next time fanatical religionists, of whatever faith, fancy themselves and their beliefs "insulted". Although the West Midlands police have said they will deploy enough officers to ensure the safety of the public at any new production of the play, it is a little late for that. The original production should never have been closed in the first place - it sends the wrong signal to those who resort to violence. The BBC reports another possible venue for Bezhti could be The Royal Court Theatre in London. Harmander Singh from the Sikhs in England organisation told the BBC "Problems that they have had up north will manifest themselves in London if the play is staged here." Now is that a warning or a threat?  Perhaps the Metropolitan police will be more effective at mob control than their counterparts in Birmingham. (Here is a round-up of the UK press's reaction to mob censorship - it is uniformly unfavorable.) As if things weren't ugly enough, the paedophile-shifting Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster,  Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, has jumped on the bandwagon, "There's a balance to be kept here between freedom which I think is rightly cherished in this country.... but there's also some kind of self-censorship that playwrights too have to realise that some things could be very offensive to people." Perhaps he and his church would like to self-censor the offensive lies they spread about the efficacy of condoms in the fight against HIV AIDS, their habit of adorning the outside of their buildings with graphic and offensive representations of a man nailed to a cross and their offensive  attempts to affect the outcome of democratic elections by bringing pressure on voters who happen to be members of their sect.


December 28th 2004

Asking Why - in the UK Guardian Martin Kettle asked the question "How can religious people explain something like this?" with reference to the ongoing disaster on the shorelines of the Indian Ocean. He relates the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 to the rise of the Enlightenment and the search for naturalistic explanations for such acts of nature. Any religion that tries to explain why their god or gods permits such seemingly random, catastrophic events that injure and kill tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children, regardless of race or creed is going to have its work cut out. For those without a supernatural view of the world the question why is meaningless - as stated below, the surface of a planet can be a dangerous place. Here are some responses to Kettle's article, some offered by clergymen using the obfuscating logic of their kind to avoid addressing the question, with observations such as, "Explanations are based on theories, and to theorise about suffering is to degrade those who suffer." What nonsense. Here's another "Religious believers see the totality of experience as part of a greater narrative moving towards an as yet unimaginable goal." There is no narrative - the goal is unimaginable because there is no goal - just a vast and uncaring universe against which superstition is useless - except perhaps for illusory comfort. Another response was to go on the attack, which yet again avoids having to explain anything, as this correspondent demonstrates "However I don't think that Kettle is seeking answers; rather he is trying to score points for his particular world view. His article illustrates the emptiness of humanist atheism; faced with this tragedy, all they can do is to project their anger and sense of hopelessness by attacking someone else's faith system. Atheists seem to be weak on self-knowledge or self-criticism. At least as Christians we can go away quietly and try to light a candle rather than curse the darkness." Atheists do not curse the darkness - and the last thing they would do is "go away quietly and try and light a candle...". The proper response is not to go into some religious equivalent of a fetal crouch, but to learn how such calamitous events come about and improve our global warning systems so that the impact of the next disaster of this kind - and there will be a next one, God or no God - will be lessened. One group, neither scientists or religionists, seems to know who to blame "Technically a tsunami is an act of God but hopefully insurers will look at the situation sympathetically" a tourist industry representative told the BBC. Meanwhile, oblivious to such theological and scientific discussions, many thousands have dreadful days and weeks ahead as they try to cope with the aftermath of the tsunamis. You can help by making a donation to UNICEF, Red Cross/CrescentMédecins Sans Frontières (MSF) , The Institute for Humanist Studies, or see here.

Violent Planet - The humanitarian disaster caused by the sea surges following a submarine earthquake near Indonesia illustrates how vulnerable humankind is in the face of an uncaring universe. Planet Earth twitched, causing many thousands of deaths as the resulting tsunamis engulfed surrounding coastlines. A rearrangement of tectonic plates displaced thousands of cubic kilometers of water, which resulted in huge waves racing across the Indian Ocean. On a planetary scale this was not a huge event, but the consequences for the people living on the surrounding coasts was, and is, devastating, and can only bring home to us all what a dangerous place our universe is, and how puny humanity is compared to the power of nature. And yet this 'quake and the destruction and loss of life it has engendered is tiny compared to what could happen with the eruption of a supervolcano, such as the one below Yellowstone in the US, or a repeat of the massive outpourings of flood basalts that formed the Deccan Traps in India and the Siberian Traps. Instead of spending obscene amounts of money on the quest for more efficient ways of killing each other with military hardware we need to spend more on learning about our home planet - it is the only one we have. All our eggs are in this one planetary basket. The Earth is not a passive backdrop to the events of human history, nor has it been specially created by a divine being to be humanity's home, it is a seismically active planet, its outer plates shifting and rubbing against each other as heat from the core finds its way to the surface. This happens on such a huge and, compared to human lifetimes, slow scale that we do not realize how dangerous an environment the surface of a planet can be. Greater resources need to be dedicated not only to finding out more about the Earth, but also to the setting up of an international network to allow a swift response to such disasters. More research into possible 'quake detection and warning systems such as QuakeSat need to be given a high priority. A global tsunami early warning system is already within our technological grasp, and could be set up for a fraction of the cost of a major modern weapons system. The exploration of the Solar System will enable the nascent discipline of comparative planetology to become an invaluable tool - we will learn so much more than we can from just one example of how a planet is put together. This latest disaster has struck many nations ill-equipped to cope with something of this magnitude, but if a massive eruption ocurred on a scale that we can see evidence for in the geological record, nowhere on Earth would be safe. People in many Western nations, the very ones that possess the technological base necessary to study the planet and the dangers it holds for humanity are turning away from science. There is a worrying increase in the number of people who think that religion holds all the answers. This is an extremely dangerous development. It is science and a willingness to use the knowledge and advantages it confers for the benefit of ALL humans that is our best hope - not the comforting and irrational distractions of supernatural beliefs. In this context and with this recent and ongoing disaster in mind it is worth repeating part of the introduction to these pages. It is 80's contention that "we live in a fascinating, beautiful and, let's face it, dangerous enough universe without complicating matters with gobbledegook."


December 30th 2004

Antiquities Antics - wherever there is a demand some enterprising individuals will supply - and if demand for the real thing far outstrips supply prices rise and the temptation for fakery is overwhelming. This is the case for items classified as "biblical antiquities", such as the so-called James Ossuary and the Jehoash Tablet, both now known to be forgeries.(see Box of Hot Air and Tablet of Deceit). Both items were tainted even before suggestions of forgery were made. They had no provenance, no documented proof of the circumstances of their discovery. For any artifact this lack of context diminishes any archaeological value it may have. This does not, however, seem to affect its value on the antiquities market and it is this market that drives the efforts of forgers. (see here for details of how a fake artifact can be artificially aged) Despite attempts to defend the authenticity of the ossuary and tablet those accused of expertly forging them will now have their day in court. Four antiquities collectors have been indicted by Israeli police, accused of being part of a forgery ring that produced both items. It is expected that further indictments will follow. The lust to own antiquities, particularly if they have a supposed biblical connection, not only powers the forgery industry but also encourages the pillaging of archaeological sites for profitable items, causing untold damage. (What is happening to many priceless sites in chaotic Iraq is anybody's guess.) Aren Maeir, a senior lecturer in archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, Israel told the New York Times (reg rqd) "It's time to realize that collecting antiquities is destroying our archaeological heritage and is driving a market for fraud, this is a game where we are all losing." and archaeologist Shimon Gibson told the Guardian " Now it looks like we are going to have to go backward and double-check all our facts to make sure that what we thought was real really is." Incidentally, Gibson has featured on 80's pages before with his own questionable "biblical archaeology" claim of having found the cave of John the Baptist. (also see Is Nothing Sacred? for the story of the now-debunked Ivory Pomegranate, which was once hailed as the only surviving remnant of Solomon's temple in Jerusalem. Look here for a list of known forgeries)

Daley Belief - for another reaction to the tsunami disaster see this column by Janet Daley in the UK Daily Telegraph entitled "Non-belief rots our national heart". She tries to turn the question "How could a loving God permit such pointless and gratuitous ruin?" into a very shaky argument for the existence of God. Her response to those who point out that such an appalling and indiscriminate catastrophe implies there is no caring God is an odd one. If natural disasters argue for the non-existence of a deity then anything positive, any "wonderful event" ( Daley's term), such as " every cured cancer patient, every child rescued from a fire - has to be evidence that He does." This does not follow at all - to use her examples, an atheist or humanist would say that the cancer patient was cured by skilful doctors and nurses applying medical science, and the child was rescued by brave firefighters employing modern technology. No need or room for God at all - human ingenuity, compassion and courage is enough. Daley then spends the rest of the piece bemoaning the lack of religious belief in modern Britain, dismissing it as cynicism rather than true agnosticism and linking it to what she perceives to be "the great British Saturday night out, with its binge-drinking and its frenetic, mindless violence..." Seeing this, she says observers "will know that something ugly and hollow is eating away the heart of this country." If one sees no evidence for the existence of a loving God, not just in the wake of a great natural disaster but in ordinary everyday life, and yet also sees a government prepared to push a religious agenda in such areas as faith schools and which calls in unelected religious leaders to advise on policy, if one sees religious minorities turning to violence in the face of perceived insults, if one sees paedophile priests shuffled between parishes, unbeknown to congregations, cynicism is a perfectly understandable response. Daley ends with a New Year thought on how Britain could be a happier place "if its people were more in touch with the aspirations, and the consolations, of a belief that life is about something more than the present moment." This could be interpreted as a wish for a religious tranquilizer, in other words don't deal with a harsh and dangerous world with eyes wide open, don't promote rationality, tolerance and kindness in the face of an uncaring universe, but seek solace in supernatural beliefs, let the sharp edges of the world be wrapped in the cotton woolly-mindedness of a loving, caring God. If to attain "happiness" one has to eschew a sane, rational world view in favor of religious superstition, no matter how comforting, it is a bad trade. What Daley fails to realize is that it is possible to be happy and fulfilled in a godless universe with no religious crutch to lean upon. 80 makes no apology for repeating the words of the late and sadly missed Douglas Adams. "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?" (Thanks to Robert for pointing out Daley's article)

* For the population of a country where "something ugly and hollow is eating away" its heart, the British are still capable of surprising charities with the scale of their donations of aid for tsunami victims. The £30 million raised by the public so far gives the lie to Daley's bleak view of British society.

 

 

 

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