Monday, December 03, 2007

Are you ready for the future?

Life is short... or shorter than you might hope, than you might optimistically expect. Then again it can, whilst still being usefully short, be relatively long. I saw an interview on tv with Oscar Niemeyer, the Brazillian architect. He's about to turn one hundred and he can function adequately enough to be interviewed and to provide lucid and interesting answers ('Catholicism was cruel... I met all the most interesting people when I became a communist..'). That's a relatively long human life. The rest of us in the developed world look to statistics and then expect or hope for three score and ten, plus a little index-linked extra. If you're 23 now in northern Europe you can 'expect' to live to be 93.

So we all hope. No-one seriously 'expects', expectation is arrogant, it is tautologically presumptuous. It is not possible to say anything definite about the future. Even the Sun's "inevitable" rise tomorrow morning is only a close approximation to 'definite'. It's still worth worshiping Sun-gods over, or at least it used to be.

If you are at all educated, and even if you're not, our learned world-view is historic in its sweep beyond the personally lived, forcing our minds back hundreds or maybe thousands of years. History allows us to re-transmit a never-ending perspective on the Human condition. The future is largely undealt with besides a soupçon of science fiction and a dash of prognostication. The flat-earthers of our intellectual and power élites confine themselves to carrot metaphors, heavens and paradises, to look forward to as some kind of compensation for a life of toil, tithe and servitude. Or for blasting six-inch nails and your internal organs all over, and through, the shoppers at an outdoor market that the Man-In-The-Big-Hat disapproves of for some geopolitical reason or other madness.

To say that there is in fact nothing to look forward to is an uncomfortable, and highly liberating, perspective of the future. I can look forward to tomorrow with relative certainty, I can get excited about that trip to Italy next year with a not-misplaced expectation, I can fantasise about the big house in the hills that one day I will own and enjoy with, well, my highly developed sense of fantasy. The further into the future you try to optimistically look, the more that doubts and caveats creep in. I'm organising a huge party for 5,000 lucky people for January 21st, 2040. Every guest will receive a party bag containing a credit chip for 5 million Euros. It really will be the best party ever known. Tickets are €1000, first come first served.

So, unless you're over 40, or destined to have an 'unlucky outcome', you have something to really look forward to! You may well be dead in which case, I'm afraid, you will in fact have ceased to exist and certainly will not be in a heaven or a paradise, no matter how the Hats have been programming you. And tickets are non-transferable for security reasons. Apart from that minimal statistical downside have something concrete to motivate you in your toils, a reason to strive towards old-age. It'll be a real celebration of survival and geriatric advances. A feast of medication.
I can't wait!
Oh, and I hope to see you there!

Sunday, July 01, 2007

God keeps his/her/its counsel

There, proof, as if it were needed, that the supposed deity, the superbeing, the all-knowing, all-seeing, Fat Controller of earthly affairs simply cannot be bothered to affim its existence. Well, not on this blog anyway. Or anywhere else for that matter.

So why all the fuss? Car bombs in England and Scotland, for what? Absolutely zilch to do with any kind or religion. The prophet Allah must be turning in his grave.

Tony Blair, the war criminal and murderous zealot, mutters to his skygod everyday..."Dear God, thanks for the new job, I'll do my best. Met that bishop the other day, he said I can join the Catholics. The wife'll like that. Anyway, give us strength to fight the Muslims, we're only doing it for your glory. Gotta go and talk to the Jews now. Please, oh Lord, keep the snipers and suicide bombers away from me. Love from Cherie. Amen.

Meanwhile the battle for Iraqi oil-rights will go on and on. Ultimately Exxon Mobil will not tap the dollar-wells of Iraq. Why not? Because Iraq will be fractured, religious doctrine will become government, law and force and the re-payment contracts (free oil to re-pay the US its hundreds of billions over 25 - 30 years) will be burned on a pyre of American flags and effigies of Bush. Oh yeah, God indeed, $$god$$ morelike. The only successful way out for the American corporations would be if they can install another brutal dictator in Iraq, Saddam II. I can't see that happening. The Americans will almost certainly have a bad outcome. You wonder how the military manages to keep morale...

There could be a good outcome for the Kurds in a few years time, when US troops are forced out: Kurdistan might get drawn onto the new map. Good for them.

Meanwhile the sham and fiasco continues apace with the soon-to-be-a-catholic Tony Blair appointed as Middle Eastern Peace Envoy. You couldn't make it up if you tried!

Friday, September 08, 2006

God drives a UFO

Billy Saunders asked by e-mail:
“I would like to know your thoughts about "other life" that may be out there in our universe or beyond. Do think that we are the only ones with life?”

I’ll start at the beginning and get onto the possibility of other life in the universe later.
In reference to my equating the “god” entity with an extra-terrestrial life-form: this is my interpretation of some religious people’s claims that god is ‘real’, not just a human psychological function but actually existing ‘somewhere’ beyond Earth as a separate, non-human, super-being. Maybe believers in certain gods wouldn’t refer to theirs as a ‘being’ or a 'life-form' seeing as it’s god (in mono-theistic religions) who created all life. I used the term ‘extra-terrestrial’ because it means ‘beyond Earth’ and the same term is used to refer to other biological life forms in the universe that we might also call ‘aliens’.

I don’t wish to demean mono-theistic religious people by suggesting that their belief in a god is equivalent to believing that an alien in outer space is the CEO of Earth, ie that their god is an alien. In fact I haven’t a clue what they think they are believing in. Some religious loud-mouths do talk in real, concrete terms, however, so if they’re going on about how definitely ‘real’ the god phenomenon is then they’re trapped by their own dogmatism in a universe where ‘extra-terristrial being’ means only one thing, a real, living alien, albeit a Super one who makes planets and other life forms, who is generally telepathic, omniscient, was never born and will never die

On the more spiritual side, away from the bullying fundamentalists, I see religion in general as a response to asking unanswerable questions like “why am I here and where did all this incredible force of nature come from?”. My personal answer is “fuck knows! Natural selection acting on primeval protein soup over a few billion years, I guess” but I can empathise with the general sense of awe and mystery.

As society became more sophisticated in the Iron Age and into the Medieval period (in Europe and the Middle East at least), the natural and emotional feeling of awe and mystery became the property of doctrinal religious power groups. People then lived short lives, couldn’t read and did what they were told by the few people who could, or they were killed. It is from these historical roots (and probably earlier) that religion as a form of government over large populations emerged. And it still exists today despite widespread literacy, mass communication and our scientific knowledge base. The radical fundamentalist G. W. Bush is exhibiting his own ‘god-approved’ power to abuse awe and mystery, only being genocidally inclined he has changed it to ‘shock and awe’, trying to imply that the poor Iraqi peasants will experience mystical ‘awe’ at the sight of the cluster bombs raining down on them just before they are incinerated. And other religious extremists are under the impression that by suicidally blowing up trains, cafés and indeed entire skyscrapers full of innocent people as some kind of gift to their god, that they will slip into a parallel dimension filled with nubile maidens and rivers of honey.

The mind boggles, it really does.
So I’m sorry to be the bearer of disappointing news to any readers who are hanging their hopes on aliens and parallel dimensions, but no, in a nutshhell, none of it is real or true. Why we were born is a mystery. And we’re all going to die. As for your actual card-carrying aliens, then I think that that is anybody’s statistics. We are looking though.

Here are two recent articles on the subject of awe and mystery on a big scale. Firstly, the astronomical quest to listen and look out into our galaxy (forget the universe, that’s too mind-blowingly big).
Secondly a demonstration of the pig-headed ignorance exhibited by the American religious extremists as they stuggle to come to terms with some of the science that shows their religion for what it is: metaphysical spirituality abused at the hands of doctrinally obsessive egomaniacs.

But what if no one's out there at all?

Scientists back new projects to scan the skies for alien life - but confidence in finding it is dwindling

Robin McKie, science editor
Sunday May 7, 2006
The Observer

Despite 40 years of effort, it has yet to produce a single result. Millions of pounds have been spent and thousands of man-hours expended, yet Seti, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, remains the great unfulfilled hope of modern astronomy......

'Twenty years ago, scientists were confident there were at least a million alien civilisations in our galaxy,' said..... Dr Ian Morison of Jodrell Bank Observatory. 'No one thinks there can be anything like that number now.'

Scientists' failure to hear ET's call accounts for some of this loss of optimism. For 40 years, radio astronomers have trained their telescopes at stars to try to pick up a single 'Hello, I'm here' signal. Earth's own growing ecological woes have also led astronomers to fear that civilisations, if they do emerge, may be extinguishing themselves in very short timespans.

'I am sure life exists on other worlds,' said Morison. 'But it may be rather primitive. Few other worlds may have the right conditions for complex organisms to evolve as they have on Earth.'

For example, our moon keeps our planet spinning in a stable manner while our sun does not have wild fluctuations in radiation output. On other worlds, battered by radiation bursts and crashing comets, life may be so disrupted that it has remained rooted at the level of amoebas and primitive pond life. This is known as the 'aliens are scum' scenario......

One [new] idea..... involves using Nasa's next manned missions to the moon to search its surface for space debris from alien civilisations. 'We are not talking about digging up monoliths like those in 2001: A Space Odyssey,' he said. 'The idea is to look for microscopic fragments of alien spacecraft.'

Russian scientists have calculated that a civilisation capable of space travel would produce massive amounts of debris, like the space junk - old rocket boosters, lens caps dropped by astronauts - that is building up around Earth today. This alien detritus, which would include microscopic particles shorn from spacecraft, could have drifted across space for billions of years, eventually becoming embedded on our moon and ready for astronauts to dig them up......

But this is not the only new concept on offer...... [another new idea is] surveying the sky for signs of interstellar Morse code. 'We used to think alien civilisations would say "hello" by sending radio signals,' he said. 'However, we have realised they could also do it by beaming out laser pulses, so we have built a telescope that can monitor sections of the sky to pick up these flashes. We have studied 100,000 stars in the last two weeks, but have seen nothing.'

At the same time, Paul Allen - one of the founders of Microsoft - has backed the construction of an array of several hundred radio telescopes in California in a bid to intensify the traditional search for electronic messages from alien civilisations. 'If anyone is beaming signals at us anywhere in our neighbourhood of the galaxy we will pick it up,' added Morison. The trouble with this method is that it will only succeed if aliens are deliberately advertising their existence to the galaxy. Although they may be transmitting radio and TV broadcasts to themselves, these would not be powerful enough to be detected on other worlds.

But why would aliens want to announce their presence, some astronomers ask? 'If researchers on Earth wanted to try that sort of thing, they would have to go to their governments and ask for millions of pounds just to send signals into space without knowing if there was anyone out there to pick them up,' added Morison. 'We wouldn't get very far. I am pretty sure of that. So we will just have to hope our alien counterparts have fared a little better with their paymasters.'

We believe in ET, not ID

The tweedy academics of America have joined my battle to stop a creationist take over of outer space

Seth Shostak
Tuesday April 18, 2006
The Guardian

For me, the battle over teaching creationism in US schools has become achingly personal. Groups seeking to oust the theory of evolution from biology class - or at least hint to students that Darwin's ideas are suspect - are invoking my research to support their crusade. I work with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Seti), an effort to find sentient beings in space by using massively large antennas to troll for alien radio signals. Any technologically adroit society will be capable of broadcasting to listeners light years away. If there's cosmic company in our galaxy, a radio antenna might just be the way to find it.

Seti sounds quixotic, but it's solid science. Academics differ in estimating when, if ever, we might tease out a faint radio whistle from the cacophony of the cosmos, but they are nearly all of one voice in saying that Seti makes sense.

Few scientists give a thumbs up to creationism or its subtler variant, intelligent design (ID). The basis of ID is that nature is too intricate to have been built bottom-up by natural processes - as British creationists will hear from John Mackay, a former science teacher from Australia who starts a tour of the UK next week. The meandering course of Darwinian evolution couldn't produce a microbe's flagellum, a DNA molecule, or a human eye, say ID's adherents. They proclaim the complexity of these constructions as proof of deliberate blueprinting by a creator, presumably from outside the universe itself.

It's here that they get personal. They say: "If you Seti researchers receive a complex radio signal from space, you'll claim it as proof of intelligent, alien life. Thus your methodology is completely analogous to ours - complexity implying intelligence and deliberate design." And Seti, they pointedly add, enjoys widespread scientific acceptance.

Harsh and offensive. In fact, we are not looking for complex signals, but simple ones (such as a pure radio tone). And we seek this type of signal in places where we suspect planets might exist. It is universally acknowledged that planets don't produce such radio tones; only transmitters do. The analogy with Seti is a poor tactic for defending ID.

Appropriating my day job wasn't the end of the insults. Last year, ID adherents released a one-hour film, Privileged Planet, that caused a minor brouhaha when plans were announced to screen it at Washington's Smithsonian Institution, a few blocks from the Capitol. To my chagrin, I appear in the film, though I say nothing about design, intelligent or otherwise; I simply describe my own research - spliced in, presumably, for the modicum of credibility I bring.

Unlike many Europeans, who find this whole debate faintly farcical, I am not amused. Teaching ID in biology class muddles science with metaphysics. In a country that rides high on technical proficiency, that's serious business.

I was heartened, therefore, to learn that the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest general scientific society, is finally urging scientists to push back on ID. The stand taken to forestall the demotion of Darwin in the classroom and defend the modest claim that 150 years of research has actually taught us something is braver than it might seem. Taking on the ID crowd takes guts, time and a thick epidermis, especially to weather that segment of the US populace that believes society's ills are probably the evil spawn of burgeoning secularism.

Tweedy academics may view stepping on to the street to face down their opponents as inelegant and threatening. But sometimes confrontation is the only option. The ivory tower brigade has thrown down the gauntlet. It will surely be bloodied and bruised. But America can no longer afford fantasy science.

Yes, we Europeans, including more normal and gentle religious people as well as secularists, do find the creationism debate in the USA “faintly farcical”. And a bit dull and boring too, but then these religious fanatics aren’t trying to sack me, discredit me, alter the syllabus of my college course, take funding away from my research etc which is what their 'debate' involves in America.

Monday, September 04, 2006

From superstition to the supernatural & far out hats

Once an idea has been planted in your head you can't really get rid of it, ignore it in a relevant situation, or not think of it at a moment when you are contradicting it, or are tempted to.

I consciously try to avoid superstition but sometimes I can't help it for various reasons. One of these reasons is that I don't want to contradict other people's superstitions if other people are watching. I don't want to upset other people, be offensive or draw attention to myself.

I was walking up the road the other day and some decorators were working on the outside of a pub with a ladder leaning up the front of the building, its feet on the outside of the pavement. My brain had several quick thoughts: the ladder is blocking the pavement; the two painters are standing on the ground smoking and I will walk right past them; there is no danger to me from higher up the ladder, it's empty; no traffic is coming so I can step off the pavement and walk around; what if there were traffic coming? Would I walk under it? And my last thought, or imagining, was that if I walk under the ladder then those two guys will be watching me challenging fate, ignoring the folk wisdom and kind of insulting them. They must watch this little superstitious charade countless times in their line of work. Do they keep a running total? Do they remember faces? Will they take it personally? "Look at that twat! He thinks our ladder's not worth walking round! Bastard! Come on John, let's show him some bad luck!"

Some people have problems with spotting an 'unlucky' solitary magpie, others have all sorts of other little rituals and so on. A lot of these centre on a perceived risk of bad luck, or conversely are to do with bringing good luck.

In the news article below the researcher doesn't extend this line of enquiry to religion explicitly, beyond implying that religious beliefs tack themselves onto this bit of neuronal hardware. Typically, the journalist can't resist stretching the hypothesis with his eye-catching headline.
The Guardian: Humans "hardwired for religion"

The battle by scientists against "irrational" beliefs such as creationism is ultimately futile, a leading experimental psychologist said today.
The work of Bruce Hood, a professor at Bristol University, suggests that magical and supernatural beliefs are hardwired into our brains from birth, and that religions are therefore tapping into a powerful psychological force......

He [said]... that the standard bearers for evolution, such as the biologist Richard Dawkins and the philosopher Daniel Dennet, had adopted a counterproductive and "simplistic" position.

"They have basically said there are two types of people in the world," he said - "those who believe in the supernatural and those who do not. But almost everyone entertains some form of irrational beliefs even if they are not religious.

"For example, many people would be reluctant to part with a wedding ring for an identical ring because of the personal significance it holds. Conversely, many people are disgusted by an object if it has associations with 'evil'."

In his lectures, Prof Hood produces a rather boring-looking blue cardigan with large brown buttons and invites people in the audience to put it on, for a £10 reward. As you may expect, there is invariably a sea of raised hands. He then reveals that the notorious murderer Fred West wore the cardigan. Nearly everyone puts their hand down......

I've been to about a dozen Christian mass services over the last few years as a wedding guest. Whilst not praying or chanting the incantations doesn't make one particularly stand out, not kneeling onto the praying ledge does. I've learned to move my arse forwards on the uncomfortable bench to avoid being jabbed in the back by the clasped hands of the person behind me as they kneel forwards and rest their wrists on the back of the pew. I've covertly looked about during the praying a few times - I'm generally a bit bored, no big deal: everybody's praying with their eyes closed, except the last time when I notice the priest eyeballing my brazen, obviously heathen face. Why wasn't he praying then, eh? At least there's little chance that he'll come chasing after me with a can of paint.

I wonder if either of those two painter guys walk under other people's ladders, in some kind of gang defiance, or is it sacred doctrine to them and window cleaners? The Ladder Testament of the Divine Bucket.

My sister, an atheist like myself, once remarked that she hated jackdaws and crows, a few specimens of which were nearby; "they're evil" she explained. Now I wouldn't want one as a pet but a crow is just... a crow. Ravens can be intimidating I'll grant you, they're big fuckers, but evil? What does that mean? I don't think it "means" anything, it's just a learned superstition. A relic of medieval rationalisation. Flat world psychology. At least with ladders there is a modicum of common sense, something might fall onto your head. Some people won't walk on cracks in the pavement, the list goes on, spiralling into ever weirder behaviour until you get the paranoid psychopath who only strangles old ladies if there isn't a letter R in the day of the week. Because his beloved father was called Reginald, may his soul rest in peace. "He talks to me everyday, you know".

I think that the link between the superstitious and the supernatural lies not not so much in the possibility that god-bothering has hijacked the bit of brain concerned with irrational predictions of good or bad outcomes, but that it may have more to do with perceived consequences of conforming or not-conforming to irrational but established group behaviours. Once you've got men in dresses and advanced headgear telling you that it's either a bit of mumbling and chanting (and some cash) or burning pain, hell and evil forever, then there's no point sticking your neck out, is there? Put in its medieval context of the men in dresses (men in dresses was a power thing then) being the only people who could read those magic books written by Superman in the sky, and it really was game, set and cash (I mean match) as far as the peasant masses were concerned. The popes and their mates had a great laugh about it while they spent the peasants' cash on palaces, drunken orgies and really far out diamond-studded hats.

And more controversially, perhaps, I'll stick my neck further out and suggest that the habit of prominent and powerful (on the tv) Americans never being seen without the ubiquitous patriotic lapel-pin, or middleclass houses without their own flagpole and enormous flag, is part of the same psychology of conformity and power.

Patriotism and religion are natural adjuncts of tribalism, we've evolved to incorporate them into our brains because we're more successful in groups. And in a combat situation (real or contrived) you need a chain of command to be clearly identifiable (suit-pin-flag-god). I belong to the non-religious, un-nationalistic, non-pin-wearing group (and I only wear a suit to weddings because... my girlfriend makes me!). If I were the only one to behave like this some mob would've burned me to death on instruction from, or to please, the men in dresses and hats.

Right, I'm off to the Fred West garage sale to get a cheap suit, whose coming?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

BMXing in cyberspace

Waking groggily and it's very bright outside, breezy blue sky with some tormented cloud. Perfect weather to open doors and windows and air the cigaretty smell out of here. Timetabling a plan of action got me out of bed at lunchtime even though I didn't get in it till dawn, that and the bullying sun cheating its way around my bedroom curtains.

Up, down, fire up coffee machine, turn on computer, random tidying in kitchen, switch on browser and mail, pour (delicious) coffee, roll cigarette, read some news, read e-mail from a guy I haven't spoken to for 23 years who I left a message for on an "old school friends" website, start imagining trying to explain my unconventional existence, go for a dump, read a page from my dump-reading about renaissance art in Florence, return to roll-up and coffee, read his mail again, write this.

God I love my Balinese windchimes, just inside the backdoor hanging from the ceiling. The odd ripple of understated reverberating notes riding little gusts of the breeze coming through the house. I also love this coffee, I added an extra spoonful as a special treat. Lavazza espresso, it was the cheapest in the shop if you bought a twin-pack. Why can't I bring myself to buy the ethically traded stuff? I paid with my credit card so it's not as if I would've noticed the difference. Just symptomatic of my neurosis about not having a decent income, having taken several paths of least resistance and maximum sloth in getting to where I am today, thereby neatly by-passing the possibility of having a career. I remember buying the windchimes, real high quality ones, on a whim in 1992 and paid for courtesy of having an overdraft and a chequebook. Madness compared to how most people behave but I have no regrets about being a bit spontaneous. I'm not a drug addict (except for the coffee and tobacco) or a criminal, I've never hurt anybody (except emotionally), I've always worked (except for times when I jacked everything in to go travelling), I've never cheated anybody and have also often felt compelled to be generous to unfortunate souls whose path I cross. Still feels like a mid-life crisis.

My old school friend lives just a few miles from here, which is why I left him a message on that website. I couldn't not leave him a message seeing as we live so close to eachother, in a different country from where we grew up. I still have a memory of him punching me in the mouth one time, quite without justification, he threw a bit of chewed up paper at me and I threw it back. Blam. I didn't fight back (I never did). A couple of years later and I get an abscess in the tooth that he connected with. That was nearly 30 years ago and a domino effect means that that part of my dentistry is still not quite right and one of my front teeth had to have root canal and is dead and very slowly turning brown. So for 25 or so years I have thought of him punching my tooth every other time I've looked in the mirror or felt that tooth twinge. I honestly never imagined meeting up with him again, due to the general diaspora after school - we all went off to college and beyond. Still he was a mate, that was just one incident in a school life years ago, I'd bet he has no recollection of it as it only lasted for 30 seconds, we all grow up, he is married with two small children. Maybe too much of my dreamy existence is spent seeking memories instead of thinking about possible futures, and what exactly the fuck I'm going to do to improve my earning ability. Just let me win the lottery and I can arse about trying to write a book and reading lots of others instead of wasting my time working. Bollocks. If I had had kids I too could also be skilled in IT and work for a company that puts things in boxes. A good steady job and a total waste of my time. No, no regrets. A feeling of relief actually, that I have quite a bit of freedom if not much money. OK one regret but it is a catch-22: I would love to be able to travel more and for that I'd have to have a better income than just a part time job, but then if I worked hard to have that income I wouldn't get to do my travelling until I retired. Balls, at least I'm off to Italy soon for ten days, which is probably the same as I'd have if I had a career, only with cheaper hotels.

I'm a newbie in cyberworld and I must say it really is amazing but it does take a bit of thinking about. I'll meet up with my old school friend and I'm sure we'll renew our friendship. At least I'm not a fourteen year old kid happily going down to the shopping centre to meet a crazed fifty year old psychotic paedophile who I imagine to be "Mikey the 13 year old who's into bmxing and the same computer games as me". If I were a parent I'd be paranoid about my kids using the internet. But I'm not so I've just got to figure out my reply to my old friend and meet up with him for a few beers. If he's "allowed" to go out for a few beers seeing as he has a proper job, a wife and kids. I'll let him pick a date.

And my teeth are, for the time being at least, fine.

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Le Dingue by The man with no hat is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License.