On books and TV

20 October 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

15 October 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

16 September 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

30 August 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: , ,

Phil Plait says: Don’t Be a Dick

18 August 2010 Comments off

There is a certain irony to this post, considering my previous post, but it’s worth my vaguely embarrassed shuffling feet.

As you may be aware, Dr Phil Plait is an astronomer, science blogger, author (most notably Bad Astronomy [Amazon|UK] and Death From The Skies! [Amazon|UK]), public speaker with magnificent on-screen/-stage presence, educator, and also skeptical activist and the former President of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). He’s also recently announced that he has a TV show called Bad Universe — the pilot airs on Sunday, 29 August 2010. Enough of the plugs…

During the recent The Amazing Meeting (TAM) 8 conference in Las Vegas, Phil gave a talk that generated quite a bit of controversy in the blogging world — including from a number of fellow skeptical activists. That itself is becoming increasingly more common, but what is entirely uncommon was the messages of Phil’s talk. You should watch it.

Phil Plait – Don’t Be A Dick (JREF)

You’d need to have been asleep to not have seen how deeply important that message was to Phil. I’d be hard-pressed to recall any speech I’ve seen or heard that is so deeply impassioned, compassionate and humanistic. Everything he says is correct.

It truly is far too easy to mock the viewpoints of those with whom we disagree, to score cheap points, to shout the doctrines or proofs of our own position over others, to be abusive and insulting, to treat others as sub-human or idiots. You may say (as some of the talk’s detractors do) that this is justified in light of what they or those they identify with have done, but the fact remains that if you’re not behaving like a grown-up when discussing these topics, you’re deliberately expending time and effort showing others how smart you are while confirming both that skeptics are dicks and closing that mind to further discussion. I have better things to do with my time.

It’s impressed me deeply enough to see about how I can re-think my approach to the topics I write about. Stay tuned, sports fans.

Top 10 Signs You’re a Fundamentalist Christian

11 August 2010 Comments off

Normally I’m reluctant (believe it or not) to post blatantly antagonistic anti-theistic posts, but I do make the occasional exception, as I am both qualified to and normally only do so to make a point. This is one such example.

Top Ten Signs You’re a Fundamentalist Christian

10. You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.

9. You feel insulted and “dehumanised” when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.

8. You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.

7. Your face turns purple when you hear of the “atrocities” attributed to Allah, but you don’t even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in Exodus and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in Joshua including women, children, and trees!

6. You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.

5. You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.

4. You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs — though excluding those in all rival sects — will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering.  And yet consider your religion the most “tolerant” and “loving.”

3. While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling around on the floor speaking in “tongues” may be all the evidence you need to “prove” Christianity.

2. You define 0.01% as a “high success rate” when it comes to answered prayers.  You consider that to be evidence that prayer works.  And you think that the remaining 99.99% failure was simply the will of God.

1. You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, Christianity, and church history — but still call yourself a Christian.

/ Hat tip to EvilBible.com.

You have to see Cosmos now, if not sooner

30 July 2010 Comments off

When I first visited the US in 2005, I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw the DVD box set of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage sitting on the shelf in Fry’s. It featured an introduction by Ann Druyan (Carl’s widow), where she discussed how much of the work was still accurate, an addendum after each episode to highlight changes in knowledge and understanding, and was going for US$100 (~£65). I grabbed it without a second thought.

I’d have happily paid twice that for this 13 hour masterpiece on DVD. I value it that much.

While idly paging through Amazon’s Recommendations to me at lunch time today, I saw a re-mastered version of this box set had been released to the UK market. And the price: under £16. That’s for a box set containing 5 DVDs and 780 minutes of one of the best scientific, philosophical, optimistic and future-thinking works of the 20th century.

If you don’t have it, do yourself a favour and buy it now: Cosmos DVD box set (Amazon UK).

And while you’re there, please give some thought to Wonders Of The Solar System on DVD format or Blu-ray format (Amazon UK; under £13 and under £16 respectively). In my opinion, Brian Cox is the worthy successor to Carl Sagan as a brilliant communicator of science, particularly astronomy. Even his sense of wonder and awe at the majesty of the universe is the same.

Watching either of them at work is inspiring.

One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue II

25 July 2010 Comments off

Following on from my previous quote from Cosmos, here is another quote. This one is talking about the paradox of the complexity and simplicity of a cell:

If we plunged through a pore into the nucleus of the cell, we would find something that resembles an explosion in a spaghetti factory — a disorderly multitude of coils and strands, which are the two kinds of nucleic acids: DNA, which knows what to do, and RNA, which conveys the instructions issued by DNA to the rest of the cell. These are the best that four billion years of evolution could produce, containing the full complement of information on how to make a cell, a tree or a human work. The amount of information in human DNA, if written out in ordinary language, would occupy a hundred thick volumes. What is more, the DNA molecules know how to make, with only very rare exceptions, identical copies of themselves. They know extraordinarily much.

Yet again, the final sentence strikes me as a wonderful turn of phrase, particularly as I read everything Carl wrote with the memory of his voice and its peculiar tempo playing in my head.

The Human Genome Project was only half-way through mapping the human DNA when Carl died in 1996. The Project ran from 1990-2003 and, just as we once did with hieroglyphics, we are still only just tapping the surface in deciphering what it means nearly ten years later (also see the extensive Wikipedia entry). Since this initial, mammoth breakthrough, many more donor genomes have been sequenced — it seems to be a growing industry.

And as for Carl’s estimate of the size it would take in print form, the original genome has subsequently been printed into 119 bound volumes, containing all of the three billion base pairs. Though I imagine it would make rubbish bedtime reading…

Categories: science Tags: ,

Mad Max is alive and well…

19 July 2010 Comments off

Flickr CC-BY popculturegeek

I spent yesterday afternoon visiting a friend in Southampton, which was a nice trip away from the Home Counties for a change. The weather was beautiful, and I hadn’t seen this friend in some time.

Anyone who’s travelled the UK motorways on a weekend knows that Sunday evenings tend to be a nightmare, as half the country are returning from day trips to the coast or city, so around 6pm and for a few hours it’s nothing more than a slow-moving queue. There were occasional fast patches, but then it would slow down again. I resigned myself to the long haul, and wasn’t too worried as it was still moving. Much better than the alternative.

As I passed Winchester Services, I noticed an old white Subaru estate zip onto the same carriageway alongside and eventually behind me, and immediately begin trying to weave through traffic in a bid to get ahead. For as far as the eye could see, nobody was travelling over 40mph, yet this guy figured he’d do his best to get ahead of, well, everyone.

Soon after, I see him try to get between the car off my left rear and me by straddling the lines for some time, so I tap my brakes to give him lights and see my nose dip, and he goes mental. He instantly forces his way between the car I’m slowly overtaking and me, pulls in front of me (I was perhaps 1.5 lengths from the car in front?) and stands on his brakes. I had to stamp on mine, and it was extremely fortunate that there was nobody close behind me. As I’m shaking my head and have my hands up in a “what the hell are you doing?” way, he sticks his arm out and gives me the finger and forks repeatedly — for minute or more, over and over.

Thinking that was that, a few minutes later after I’d managed to get into the left lane, I notice that he’s being slowed by traffic in the right lane, and I coast alongside him. The carload of people turn to look as I smile, point at the driver and do a cock-sucking motion. If I hadn’t taken my foot off the accelerator as I saw him lose it, he’d have slammed into me. He changed lanes straight into mine, trying to ram me or force me off the road. Utter psycho. I think his friends got him under control, as he zoomed off into the distance after that.

He looked like a white supremacist (or a football fan; it’s hard to tell), so I figured a gay reference would flip his switch. Spot on the money. Boy I know how to wind people up.

Aside from the shock of both of his overreactions, I was calm through the whole thing. But this guy was bouncing off the walls, even before I got involved. We’re all stuck in traffic — why be a dick?

Categories: misc Tags: ,

Reverence for Religion

16 July 2010 Comments off

I think I’ve made it pretty clear throughout this blog that I respect humanity, but I have no respect whatsoever for humanity’s religions. Beliefs have no automatic correlation with reality (experience has shown me they’re often in opposition to it), but beliefs do encroach upon reality in the actions of believers, giving us subjugation, torture, and wars all in the name of a name in a book. And it’s nearly always the name and book most popular in the country in which your parents were born. Your god smiles upon the arbitrarily accidental location of your birth! What a happy, joyous coincidence! Divine serendipity!

That’s not to say that some religions have no redeeming qualities — such as social cohesion, charity, comfort and a sense of purpose — but none of those positive qualities are unique to religion. (Unfortunately for humanity, the negative results mentioned in the previous paragraph aren’t unique to religion, either, though the justification is).

If you’ve ever wondered why I think this way, I think this quote sums it up perfectly:

“I like to point out how irrational it is to have any reverence for religion at all. We look at the ancient Greeks with their gods on a mountaintop throwing lightning bolts and say, ‘Those ancient Greeks. They were so silly. So primitive and naive. Not like our religions. We have burning bushes talking to people and guys walking on water. We’re… sophisticated.'” —Paul Provenza

It goes hand in hand with this equally excellent quote:

“I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.” —Stephen Roberts

Such words are doubtless confrontational to believers in any deity but, in the absence of evidence for any religious text or doctrine being ‘real’ or ‘true’, they do serve to illustrate the logical chasm that exists in people who contend that their god(s) is real and that your god(s) is clearly an imposter or a delusion (they think you’re mentally abnormal). And with the latter quote, once you’ve excluded all other gods but your own, it’s really only a small step to freedom.

I don’t expect you to agree, but I do expect you to think about it. As I have probably done for your religion (as explained in earlier posts).


Hat tip: LOLgod