Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Clash of civilizations?

There's an interesting, if slightly alarming, article in the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Magazine on the rise of militant, irrational intolerance, (or "faith", to use the currently fashionable euphemism):

In Britain we are seeing worrying signs of a new Islamic assertiveness, with condemnation by self-appointed Islamic leaders of every perceived insult to Islam, demands for special treatment for Muslims in schools, hospitals and the workplace, and the acceptance of sharia law for the settlement of family disputes.

But this phenomenon is not confined to Britain, or even Europe. It is part of an international campaign, orchestrated by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), demanding the worldwide acceptance and adoption of Islamic norms and values.

For the past 30 years, the OIC, which represents all 57 Islamic States at the UN, and which many observers see as the rebirth of the global caliphate, has been pushing for global recognition of the special status for Islam....

Now, the OIC is pushing for new international law that would be binding on all states, to make defamation of religion – or blasphemy – a criminal offence worldwide. For the Islamic states there is no distinction between religion and state, and sharia law is deemed to be God’s law, so any criticism of sharia law is itself considered blasphemy, punishable by death. This means, to take just one example, that not only is homosexuality punishable by death under sharia law, but so too would be any call for the law on homosexuality to be liberalised....

This new, Islamic-inspired intolerance is spreading beyond the Islamic world and is beginning to affect the daily lives of millions. It has created a climate in which even nominally Christian countries feel able to introduce draconian antigay legislation. In Uganda, for example, under draft legislation before parliament, homosexuality is falsely characterised as “a threat to the traditional heterosexual family” and same-sex attraction as “not an innate characteristic”.

You can read the whole article here, and I'd urge you to do so. What these bullies want is to pick, with impunity, on women, gays, followers of other religions, non-believers and, most of all, anybody who dares to think independently, rather than being told what to think or believe. Anyone who dares to challenge the bullies' agenda is labelled "intolerant". Good evening Mr Pot, have you met Mr Kettle?

This isn't a "Clash of Civilizations", though. The sort of bigotry promoted by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference isn't a million miles from the casual discrimination commonplace here in Britain within living memory, as the BBC reminded us reminded earlier this year:

Gordon Brown has said he is sorry for the "appalling" way World War II code-breaker Alan Turing was treated for being gay.

A petition on the No 10 website had called for a posthumous government apology to the computer pioneer.

In 1952 Turing was prosecuted for gross indecency after admitting a sexual relationship with a man. Two years later he killed himself....
Alan Turing was given experimental chemical castration as a "treatment" and his security privileges were removed, meaning he could not continue to work for the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ).

Britain, in the 1950's and most of the 60's Private sexual acts between consenting men were illegal. Undercover policemen cruised the nation's public toilets on the look out for "immorality". Abortion or attempts to "procure a miscarriage" were illegal except under the most extreme circumstances. Landlords greeted immigrants from the Caribbean and Ireland with signs saying "no blacks, no Irish, no dogs". The Bristol bus company operated a colour bar, refusing employment to blacks or Asians. The Lord Chamberlain's Office protected public morals by censoring theatre scripts.

This wasn't a different civilization. It was the same country, since changed by the tireless campaigning of people who weren't content to see random groups of people being picked on for being "different". There is a varied group of people, united by the belief that different cultures are unchanging, monolithic, incompatible with one another and pure. This group feel that belonging to one culture or another is the most important defining characteristic of a human being. This group includes religious fundamentalists of various persuasions, people who see identity politics as an end in itself, (rather than just a means to highlight and overcome discrimination) and post Cold-War Warriors in search of an enemy.

This group is wrong - the truth they are afraid of is that change does happen to cultures and that people can escape from their assigned pigeonholes. Many of the clashes that matter happen within and across civilizations. History shows that it's not a quick, easy or painless process, but it's happened before and it can happen again - which, I suspect, is what really frightens the bullies of the OIC.

Thursday, 17 December 2009


It's getting close enough to Christmas for something seasonal, so here's a link to Enya's haunting rendition of my favourite Christmas Carol, the beautiful O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Utterly gorgeous.

Catch it, bin it, kill it

In my last blog post, I made a facetious reference to having "dragged myself in to work, probably infecting others in the process". In my new role as a respectable small businessman*, guess I'd better point out that that wasn't a serious remark (if I didn't hate emoticons, I might have put a smiley in there). To the best of my knowledge no clients or colleagues were harmed during my sniffy episode, as I took the precaution of carrying and using generous supplies of tissues and antiseptic hand gel to prevent any transmission of disease.

In fact, I've only seriously wanted to spread a virus once in my life. A while back, when I had a short time doing a horrible little office job (the sort that would qualify for a slot in The Idler's "Crap Jobs" slot), I had a similar dose of lurgie. I really felt awful, but dragged myself into work, despite that poky little office being the last place on earth I wanted to be and just got on with what I was supposed to be doing, without complaint. I shared the office with two people, one of whom was an ill-natured toad-like individual who had taken an unprovoked dislike to me from the moment I'd arrived and who seemed to be on a mission to make my working life as miserable as possible, with constant carping, rudeness, theatrical sighing and eye-rolling and heavy-handed attempts to be patronising (this person, like most such colleagues from hell was, of course, bosom buddies with the boss).

On that day, only the toad and myself were in. After having made a supreme effort to get in and do my work to the best of my ability, despite feeling absolutely dreadful, I was greeted by a glowering look of spiteful malevolence from the toad. After a long period of silence, punctuated by ostentatious sighing, tutting and dirty looks, the toad announced in an exasperated voice that this was a small office and that I should be considerate enough go to the GP and demand antibiotics immediately in order not to risk infecting my colleagues (not a note of concern for me or my family, who'd all been laid low by a very unpleasant bug). I was too cross to trust myself to say anything, although in my head, I gave sarcastic thanks for the toad's concern and pointed out the stupidity of demanding antibiotics to treat a virus. At that moment I sincerely hoped that I was infectious and that the toad would catch the same miserable virus. Sad to say, the toad remained in rude health.

* Hi, I'm Sneezy, pleased to meet you Doc, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Bashful and Dopey.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Seasonal annoyances

I've been away from the PC for a few days. Explosive sneezes, violent shivering, hacking coughs, deathly pallor? This isn't just a winter cold, this is M & S Christmas Man 'Flu. With modest heroism, I soldiered on through the valley of the shadow of A Slightly Runny Nose and dragged myself in to work, probably infecting others in the process but, hey, it's good to share, especially at Christmas. Anyway, I'm better now, so that's one seasonal annoyance probably finished with.

Unfortunately, I can't get rid of another one quite so easily - a musical plague of irritating Christmas pop lyrics. The lyrics of the average Christmas hit are like the average Christmas cracker joke. Just as people don't seem to mind cracker jokes being rubbish, the most trite, saccharine words get a similar amnesty, just because it's Christmas and get rolled out again year after year, instead of sinking into well-deserved obscurity. I try not to listen, but sometimes I can't help hearing stuff like this from Paul Mccartney's Yule-tastic eulogy to Simply Having A Wonderful Christmas Time:

The Choir Of Children Sing Their Song

They Practiced All Year Long

Ding Dong, Ding Dong

Ding Dong, Ding Dong

Ding Dong, Ding Dong

Passing swiftly over the ding dong-ing, apparently these children have been practicing all year long. All year? I find it hard to believe that any child, however devoted to choral music, the baby Jesus or unwrapping a new Nintendo Wii on Christmas Morning, really practices carol singing for twelve months of the year. Do you really expect me to think the little blighters were perfecting their rendition of "Hark The Herald Angels" in April? I think not. But it rhymes and everybody's drunk at Christmas, so they probably won't notice.

When not subjected to Xmas pop in public places, I'll be limiting my Christmas music experience to carols (proper traditional ones, not the happy clappy modern rubbish) and the only Christmas Hit that I've ever enjoyed without reservation, Fairytale of New York by the Pogues, featuring the late Kirsty MacColl. When the song first came out, some of the lyrics were thought too fruity by the BBC, who played "an edited version because some members of the audience might find it offensive." Well I'm offended by all that ding dong-ing and year-long carol practice. I'm just off to write an outraged letter to the beeb...

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Crimes, follies and misfortunes

"History" wrote Edward Gibbon "is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind". That view makes some sort of sense if you stick to the "traditional" sort of history that's really just a chronicle of wars and monarchs (the crowning examples of human malice and stupidity). Include the history of invention, discovery and thought, the overthrow of tyrannies and the occasional triumphs of justice, reason, fairness and human happiness and the picture becomes more balanced.

In that spirit I've decided, without being too Pollyanna-ish to seek, out more of life's positives in future. There is, of course, plenty still to rant against and sometimes having a good old rant against crimes and follies is a pleasure in itself. So before I start putting my new resolution to the test, one last look at two of the most enjoyable demolitions of malice and stupidity I've come across this year. After all, if shops can start hawking Christmas tat when bonfire night's still a month or more in the future, I don't see why I can't beat the rush and get my New Years' resolution and 'best of 2009' out of the way in December. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

First, the malice. I have zero interest in celebrity gossip, boy bands and associated media froth, so, in general I have no interest, in what anybody chooses to think about these subjects. But this response to Jan Moir's unprovoked, venomously petty attack on someone who'd just died at a tragically early age was a magnificently concise summation of everything there is to detest about Daily Mail editorials composed of one part narrow-mindedness to one part bullying. It's been reproduced a million times already and I make no apologies for reproducing it for the million and first time:

It has been 20 minutes since I've read her now-notorious column, and I'm still struggling to absorb the sheer scope of its hateful idiocy. It's like gazing through a horrid little window into an awesome universe of pure blockheaded spite. Spiralling galaxies of ignorance roll majestically against a backdrop of what looks like dark prejudice, dotted hither and thither with winking stars of snide innuendo.

Thank you, Charlie Booker, for summing up, in one paragraph everything you really need to know about the world-view of the average Daily Mail Columnist. As rants go, that was truly majestic.

Next, the stupidity. The war against Complementary And Alternative Medicine is, I fear, being lost on all fronts, with scarce, precious NHS resources being squandered on unproven quackery, degrees in mumbo-jumbo being awarded by universities and Prince Charles using the accident of his birth to puff the peddling of snake oil to the deluded. Still, at least the skeptics can still come up with the most entertaining comments. Check this out:

Are you a bit hard of thinking? Do you regularly find people taking advantage of your gullibility? Most importantly, have you got more money than strictly necessary for a person of your limited intelligence? Then I would like to introduce you to Tomatso Therapy.

Tomatso Therapy is relatively new to the West, as I've only just thought of it. It is heavily influenced by the teachings of Dr. Mascari Hamsuit 34th Grandmaster of the nine schools of Ninja Turtles in Japan. It takes a holistic approach to a client's financial affairs, seeking to rebalance them in the therapist's favour. After all too large a pension fund, or too large a wallet could easily lead to back aches or other symptoms.

Tomatsu practitioners use many different techniques to suit the circumstances of the patient, but these normally involve tying the patient to the couch and blindfolding him while an assistant goes through his pockets.

The purpose of Tomatso is to aid in the restoration of my bank balance and is extremely effective because it has this core principle: - "The person with the best knowledge of the client's problem is the therapist, so give him all your money."

This means as a Tomatsu practitioner, I will observe you carefully as you fill in our special 'financial disclosure form/power of attorney' before making the necessary adjustment and allowing your body to heal naturally, free of the worry of all that excess money.

If you would like an initial consultation please visit

Respect goes out to the Saltburn Subversives for that one. And to DC's Improbable Science, where I found it, Professor David Colquhoun's anti-quackery soapbox.

I've done crimes and follies, but I'm not going to do misfortunes (crimes and follies deserve to be mocked, but misfortune deserves only sympathy). Still, two out of three ain't bad. That was so much fun, I can see it's going to be hard to stick to my New Year's Resolution. Good job I started early.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Beam 'me' up, Scotty?

I've just seen an excellent short film on YouTube. It's a variation on the old paradox that I first came across as "William the Conqueror's Axe" - the blade's been replaced twice and the handle three times, but it's still the same axe - or is it? Yes, it's the "Ship of Theseus" problem again.

Axes and ships, though, are just objects. What happens when we apply the "Ship of Thesesus" to a person? There's an interesting way to think about this, using a device common in science fiction. Many science fiction stories feature a "matter transmitter" or "teleporter" a device that can make a thing or person in one place disappear and then cause the same thing or person to reappear, practically instantaneously, elsewhere. Famous examples include the Star Trek "Transporter " and the device used by the unfortunate scientist in The Fly to transmit himself from one place to another. There are several explanations for how such a device might work, some involving unlikely concepts such as moving through a higher dimension or some sort of wormhole in space-time.

The earliest science fiction descriptions of matter transporters imagined them as some sort of scanner which would scan and analyse a thing or person before transmitting a facsimile rather like a telecommunications message. There are some serious difficulties with such an arrangement, but it's a useful way to imagine the "Ship of Theseus" problem applied to people. This type of imaginary matter transmitter would scan something - for our purposes, let's say a person - in exact detail, down to the last electron. Having scanned a an absolutely complete description of that person, it would then transmit that description to another place where, presumably with the aid of a receiver / reassembling unit, the person is recreated. Hey presto, instantaneous teleportation! You walk into the Transport-Me booth in your home town, press a button and reappear in another booth on the other side of the world, in the time that it would take a photo booth to snap your passport photo.

The idea of teleportation by technology in fiction is much older than Star Trek - a quick rummage in Wikipedia came up with an 1877 story about attempted human teleportation based on what was then cutting-edge communications technology:

Edward Page Mitchell's story The Man Without a Body details the efforts of a scientist who discovers a method to disassemble a cat's atoms, transmit them over a telegraph wire, and then reassemble them. When he tries this on himself, the telegraph's battery dies after only the man's head was transmitted.

Now for the "serious difficulties". Let's ignore flat telegraph batteries and Hollywood's problem with a fly in the transmitter causing a hideous human-fly mashup to emerge at the other end and take a brief layman's look at the problems with the engineering, physics and philosophy of the device.

In engineering terms, teleporting a human in this form is almost certainly impossible - the amount of information required to scan and record a complete description of a human body and mind, such that you could recreate an living, breathing, individual person with thoughts, memory and a sense of self at a given moment is so vast as to make such a thing impossible for all practical purposes.

It's worse than that, he's dead, Jim it's not just a practical impossibility but a theoretical one. A scan on the sub-atomic level could never achieve perfect fidelity because of the operation of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Not a problem if you're using the transmitter to move furniture, but billions of sub atomic copying errors wouldn't be good enough if you wanted to be sure that the person who stepped out of the receiver/assembler was the same one who stepped into the transmitter.

Which brings us on to the philosophical problem of identity. Because, even if it wasn't impossible, a matter transmitter working on this principle wouldn't be a form of transport. It would scan and reproduce. The person walking out of the receiver/assembler wouldn't be the person who'd walked into the transmitter, any more than a copy printed by a photocopier is the original document that was scanned. Of course, even if you'd achieved the impossible task of complete fidelity and the document or person copied was absolutely identical to the original scanned in every respect, you'd end up an original and a copy. The original wouldn't have gone anywhere.

To appear to transport people over distances, rather than creating clones of them somewhere else, the scan/transmit matter transporter would have to destroy the originals. If you were to be completely annihilated only for an exact copy of yourself, with all your thoughts, memories and feelings to reappear somewhere else in the blink of an eye, would you take the "trip"? Would that person be you? It's an interesting thought experiment.

As a thought experiment it may seem far fetched but in the real world, in a piecemeal way, we're constantly being destroyed and created. Consider this:

Every cell in the human body is replaced and renewed within a period of seven years, consecutively, for life. This is known as aging; it includes the brain. Not one cell a person is born with is still there when they reach seven, and again at fourteen, then again at twenty-one, etc. The cells are replaced, respectively, and you are a "brand new" person, however, with the same DNA structure and personality you were born with.

Memory cells can be "recycled" as some information is lost over time.

Sleep repairs and reorganizes the brain; as for new brain cell development, research shows that as one educates their mind new cells form as often as the mind is actively engaged.

Like the Ship of Theseus, we're constantly being repaired and replaced plank by plank, until there are no original parts left - the only difference between this process and being destroyed and recreated in an instant is time.

Which brings me to the short film. It's by John Weldon, it's called To Be and it's great. A word of warning - I originally found this on Overcoming Bias, with the comment:

A while back I saw it on YouTube, but couldn’t find it a few months later; it had violated copyright. I actually bought a $15 dvd of it from the National Film Board of Canada. But as Nathan Cook informs us, it is now on YouTube again, here.

So, if this link doesn't work, apologies, it must have been taken down again. If it does, "enjoy it while you can".