George Takei calls out Clint McCance

November 5, 2010 Comments off

George Takei has a few words to say to Clint McCance:

I just love the “lady doth protest too much, methinks” suggestion near the end.

Some background on this issue, if you’re unaware:

  • George Takei is best known as Mr Sulu from the original series of Star Trek and is a man who fights for human rights, and he just happens to be gay.
  • Clint McCance was a school-board member, an elected official, at the Midland School District in Arkansas who recently said the following — among other things — on his Facebook profile:

    Seriously they want me to wear purple because five queers killed themselves. The only way im wearin it for them is if they all commit suicide. I can’t believe the people of this world have gotten this stupid. We are honoring the fact that they sinned and killed thereselves because of their sin.

  • The reference to wearing purple and the It Gets Better tune relates to the It Gets Better Project (also see The Trevor Project), designed to show young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people that life won’t always suck as much as it seems to right now, and that with adulthood comes reduction of peer pressure and acceptance of who they are.

McCance has now been forced to resign his position, so he can’t do any more damage while in office. It’s hard enough growing up as it is, so I can barely imagine how much harder it would be growing up gay, especially in a culturally intolerant and heavily religious environment.

People suck, particularly when they cherry-pick from religious myths to justify their bigotry.

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

Blaise Pascal

Categories: misc Tags: , , ,

Excellent essay series on Stoicism

November 2, 2010 Comments off

Flickr CC-BY euthman

For many years I’ve internally identified with many of the central tenets of the ancient Stoic philosophy, mostly after reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (Amazon|UK), but it’s not something I’ve seen much about so haven’t really considered it beyond the “Yes, I identify with that” concept that many of us do whenever we encounter a whole or partial philosophy.

I’ve written previously about my exploration of some philosophies and religions, but Stoicism is something I’ve not really spoken about with anyone. It, along with my examination of Buddhism have, largely unconsciously, informed much of my mental wiring with regards to topics such as reactions, drives, ambitions and wants. It affects and informs my interactions with family and friends, my view on possessions and consumerism, many aspects of my personal and working life, and even how I behave in the inevitable British traffic queues.

Imagine my surprise to discover recently on BoingBoing, one of my daily reads, an excellent series of essays on the subject of Stoicism by William B. Irvine, Professor of Philosophy at Wright State University, entitled Twenty-First Century Stoic:

  1. From Zen to Zeno: How I Became a Stoic
  2. Insult Pacifism
  3. Stoic Transformation

They are an excellent introduction to the philosophy, and the comparison to certain aspects of Buddhism resonates with my own experiences. I can’t pretend to agree with everything in these essays, nor do I think the philosophy is without its faults, but by the same measure I don’t completely agree with everything written by atheists or humanists — also worldviews with which I strongly identify.

Even if you are not particularly interested in adopting such a philosophy on life, I recommend looking into what Stoicism is really about. It may surprise you to learn that it’s not really all about emotional passivity and the stiff upper lip. You could read a modern work on the topic, such as Irvine’s own A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (Amazon|UK) — or you could go directly to the ancient writings of Marcus Aurelius (Meditations), Seneca (Letters from a Stoic / Epistulae morales ad Lucilium),  Epictetus, and the logician Chrysippus. Their works aren’t covered by copyright, so are available in many places online, including Project Gutenberg.

Procrastination and Present Bias

October 28, 2010 Comments off

Here’s a brilliant article that explores and explains why there’s a difference between the things we want to do later and the things we actually do later:

The Misconception: You procrastinate because you are lazy and can’t manage your time well.

The Truth: Procrastination is fuelled by weakness in the face of impulse and a failure to think about thinking.

Netflix reveals something about your own behaviour you should have noticed by now, something which keeps getting between you and the things you want to accomplish.

If you have Netflix, especially if you stream it to your TV, you tend to gradually accumulate a cache of hundreds of films you think you’ll watch one day. This is a bigger deal than you think.

Read the rest of the article here: Procrastination by David McRaney

Now, not later…

On books and TV

October 20, 2010 Comments off

Flickr CC-BY linnybinnypix

One of the numerous blogs I read, normally during my lunch break or while cooking dinner, is that of Seth Godin — marketing guru, entrepreneur, public figure and speaker, and populariser and coiner of the term permission marketing (better known in Internet circles as opt-in).

Most of his blog posts are short and to the point, and are normally of relevance well beyond the sphere of marketing. Hence me reading them, averse as I am to marketing in general.

His latest post really struck a chord with me, covering as it does the apparent correlation between book purchases and addiction to television (particularly banal types of reality TV):

Many people in the United States purchase one or fewer books every year.

Many of those people have seen every single episode of American Idol. There is clearly a correlation here.

Access to knowledge, for the first time in history, is largely unimpeded for the middle class. Without effort or expense, it’s possible to become informed if you choose. For less than your cable TV bill, you can buy and read an important book every week. Share the buying with six friends and it costs far less than coffee.

Or you can watch TV.

The thing is, watching TV has its benefits. It excuses you from the responsibility of having an informed opinion about things that matter. It gives you shallow opinions or false ‘facts’ that you can easily parrot to others that watch what you watch. It rarely unsettles our carefully self-induced calm and isolation from the world.

I recommend reading the whole post: Deliberately uninformed, relentlessly so [a rant]

Like Seth did not, I am not going to try to suggest that you do away with your television. It’s here to stay, in one form or another, and these days it has multiple roles as the display device of television, games console screen and home theatre display.

This is also because I’m rather fond of it myself — perhaps a little too fond. Some time ago I realised that I was getting home from work, switching the TV when I got in the door, and would sit and watch it until I went to bed.

So what?

Life’s not meant to be lived in front of a TV any more than it’s meant to be lived playing video games (also something I’m a little too fond of). There’s more to life than consumption of passive entertainment to fill in the time between work and sleep (or birth and death, perhaps). I am, of course, limiting the context of this post to the developed world.

We’ve never lived in an age where information has been more readily accessible (nor, paradoxically, in an age where we’ve trusted it less). We have the majority of the wealth of human knowledge no more than a few keystrokes and milliseconds away. Yet it’s been argued that we’re slowly developing a population who could never design something like the Internet: science and engineering uptake in schools and universities is dropping, literacy rates are dropping, people are losing the ability to write and communicate, and voluntary ignorance is increasingly prized above intelligence.

As Seth says, it’s not a new problem, but it got me wondering about how it affects my own life. In my own little microcosm, I realised that hours in front of a television was time not well spent. There’s never a shortage of interesting things to watch on TV, and you can’t watch it all. Not even all the stuff that specifically interests you (I could watch crime shows, science shows, documentaries and world cinema all day — and with satellite TV it’s possible to do that 24×7). And let’s not forget the cost of satellite or cable TV — many are on contracts that cost a small fortune, so we want our money’s worth, whatever that means.

Too much intellectually passive entertainment prevents me from doing the intellectually active things I very much enjoy, particularly reading and writing. From self-education in science, finance, skepticism, history and biographies to the escapism of well-written fiction and exploring different genres, I can read all day often with no sound in the house but for my cat gently snoring in the corner. Providing I keep the TV off. And as for being creative, it just doesn’t happen if I even look at the remote control — procrastination takes over and the small voice in my head always says that if I just watch this one show, it may give me some ideas on the story I’m writing. It lies. Not about the ideas, but that I’ll then get writing.

I self-experimented for some time by allowing myself to watch TV or play games until 9pm and then switch it off regardless of what was on (much easier with modern DVR systems such as Sky+), leaving the rest of the evening for creativity. While it did result it wonderful productivity, the downsides are that the time is limited and I quickly realised that once I got going, I couldn’t stop my brain. At all. Every time I tried it and got to bed at a normal time, I’d lay wide awake in bed until 3am or so, wrecking me the next day.

End result: I don’t read or write anywhere near as much as I’d like to, even though I usually read a chapter of a book in bed before switching off the light.

So how can one strike a balance between the passive couch-potato and the (often smug) “I don’t own a TV, actually!” people we all know? Pick nights of the week during which the TV stays off? Set a specific time in the evening at which the TV can be turned on or must be turned off? Something else?

I’m genuinely curious.

Categories: media Tags: , , ,

Countdown to TAM London

October 15, 2010 Comments off

In about twenty minutes my taxi will arrive to take me to the train station, which with then whisk me into London for the start of TAM London 2010, taking place at the London Metropole Hotel.

To say I’m excited is a bit of an understatement. Last year saw the inaugural TAM London, the first ever Amaz!ng Meeting event to take place outside of the US. It was a resounding success and was attended by people from all around Europe from all walks of life — some of whom were household names. During that weekend I made a number of friends, most of whom I have been in regular contact with ever since. Many of us have subsequently joined or started skeptic groups in our own communities and have become more active in our fields of interest.

This year the event is taking place in a bigger venue, as there are far more people attending, and I’m looking forward to seeing those same friends again this weekend, making new ones, enjoying the talks and performances — particularly the world première of Tim Minchin‘s Storm movie — as well as the chance to chat with and get to know people during the breaks.

If you’re a skeptic, atheist, humanist, secularist, or scientist, then the opportunity to commune meaningfully with like-minded people is not to be underestimated.

After all, who said only the religious get to have a social life and sense of community?

Pope Godwins himself

September 16, 2010 Comments off

Today marks the start of the Pope’s bullet-proofed whistle-stop tour of the UK paid, without consent, by the British taxpayer. In an amusing turn of profiteering, the large open masses to be conducted will be charged an entrance fee (£25 or so per ticket). This has, as you might expect, disgusted many of the faithful who are now refusing to attend. Which, in turn, has prompted a sudden decision to truck busloads of Catholic school children to the masses to boost attendance.

Can’t have a Pay The Pope extravanganza with mostly empty seats, can we?

In the Pope’s opening speech at the Palace of Holyroodhouse today — in a predictable example of skewed logic, cherry-picking and outright falsehoods — he has managed to Godwin himself with little effort. It occurred during the part of his speech where he needs to show how the Vatican and Britain are age-old allies, having stood together against the madness of the war in Europe during World War 2, rather than as the fervent opponent of the laws, rights and customs of this country that he really is (emphasis mine):

Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews… As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society…

Full speech: Papal Visit 2010: Pope’s Holyroodhouse speech (Catholic Herald)

Yes, he actually said the Nazis were atheists, and believes that their ‘atheist extremism’ was responsible for some of the worst horrors of the previous century.

Many people unburdened with the inconvenient weight of knowledge use the Nazis, Pol Pot and other awful regimes and events as examples of the ‘dangers of atheism’. Their argument is usually that such things were done in the name of atheism or that the absence of belief in a god let them do such horrible things — the unspoken implication being that faith would have naturally prevented them from doing such things.

Rubbish. Utter rubbish. More than that — it’s outright falsehood. As I have written previously, as have many others, all-but-one of the senior members of the Nazi Party were committed Christians, believing that what they were doing was for God’s glory. Removing God from society was the furthest thing from their minds. What’s more: they were Catholics. It has been documented and proven beyond refute, and the Vatican knows this. That the Pope would spew such demonstrable drivel is an indication of how little he respects the people he is addressing. If you are one of his faithful, that includes you.

That a despot may have been atheist does not mean his actions were done in the name of atheism any more than, say, Tony Blair decided to participate in the invasion and destruction of Iraq in the name of being British. It’s an artificial connection based upon preconceived biases: the Non-Sequitur logical fallacy.

I’m pleased that the British Humanist Association has taken the time to publish a response to the Pope’s speech:

The notion that it was the atheism of Nazis that led to their extremist and hateful views or that somehow fuels intolerance in Britain today is a terrible libel against those who do not believe in god. The notion that it is non-religious people in the UK today who want to force their views on others, coming from a man whose organisation exerts itself internationally to impose its narrow and exclusive form of morality and undermine the human rights of women, children, gay people and many others, is surreal.

Full text: BHA Reacts to Pope’s first remarks on state visit (BHA)

As I have mentioned before, Ratzinger has form as a reality bender, fixer and enforcer in his former role as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That department used to be called the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition. Note that last word. That’s right: the Inquisition. The Pope used to run the very department that rained terror and torture down upon Europe for over 500 years, though now it seems to focus mainly on relocating paedophile priests to new hunting grounds to prevent prosecutions that would reflect badly on the Vatican.

With that background and proven willingness to do and say whatever is required to advance the Vatican, I expect the Pope’s further public utterances in this tour to be equally… interesting.

Unintended consequences on holy days

August 30, 2010 Comments off

Flickr CC-BY mikecattell

Today is a holiday in England and Wales called the Summer Bank Holiday, not a religious one, best known here for being the last holiday before Christmas, the weekend of the Reading Music Festival, and is, in a way, the start of the end of summer.

With the religious origin of many holidays in mind, it was with interest that I read today’s article in Center For Inquiry by Reba Boyd Wooden, where she talks about how holy days meant to bring communities together often seem to have the exact opposite effect, driving a wedge between sects of the same faith. Some points from the article are the differences in subjects and tone fired from the pulpit by different Christian ‘denominations’, and that good people in religion can and would be good even in the absence of their religion.

After all, religion does not make you a good person any more than standing in a garage makes you a car. Surely being good for its own sake is its own reward?

Here’s a partial quote from Reba’s article:

The… minister preached a lot about heaven and hell and said that death is “precious.” … [Was] death “precious” for my nephew and my niece’s husband who died recently in their forties — one leaving two teenage sons?

Here’s the rest of the article: Theology and Ritual Divide Neighbors on Holy Days

Categories: atheism Tags: , ,