The fat of the land

It’s not that I mind the UK government spending millions of tax payers money to campaign against obesity, so much as I mind them using an ad campaign which shows our ancestors killing a dinosaur.


Considering the drive for legitimacy by Young-Earth Creationists/Intelligent Design adherants and such, I can’t help but think they should’ve watched some Bill Hicks before commissioning the ad.


I do mind that the drive is partly sponsored by Kellogs and Unilever, whose products have pushed sugary and/or fatty foods onto the British public for generations. And that the whole campaign is another attempt to foist the responsibility for dealing with a complex social and medical problem onto the public, akin to those ads which tell us to save the environment by turning off lightbulbs while the government supports major industrial polluters such as EON.

It also saddens me that the ad was made by Wallis and Grommet maestros Aardman Animation, who should know better.

My talented friends and family 1

I’m lucky to have kith and kin who are doing great things in the world. So I’m gonna pimp them.

Author, bon-vivant and ex-Athanor cohort David Devereux has his second novel published at the end of this month. To celebrate this, there’s a rather special signing event:

Come and discover a whole NEW kind of signing! At 5:00pm on January 22nd, Forbidden Planet 179 Shaftesbury Avenue, London will be playing host to: –

Joe Abercrombie
Alex Bell
Mark Chadbourn
David Devereux
Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Tom Lloyd
Suzanne McLeod
Steven Savile
James Swallow

To promote the release of David’s new book EAGLE RISING, we welcome a host of science fiction and fantasy talent to one event – an event to bring writers and fans together and to promote interest in new and different kinds of fiction.

This is a NEW kind of signing, bringing the authors out from behind their tables and giving their readers a chance to meet them and talk to them about their work. An array of fantastic books will be on hand to be picked up and signed – including works by every one of the writers present.

It’s a good book – the second in the series featuring the British black-ops combat-magician and all-round bastard, ‘Jack’. Well worth a look if your tastes incline in that direction.

The Woo, the How and the Why

I’ve long been interested in “Occam’s Razor” — the scientific maxim that maintains that all things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the correct one. But who gets the honor of defining “simple”?
It’s a lot like Carl Sagan’s “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” What, exactly, is “extraordinary”? “Extraordinary” to who? Are the criteria subject to change?

Mac Tonnes, ‘Intelligence and the Cosmos’

There are few things more stimulating that reading an intelligent and well-written book whose author you disagree with.

The book in question for me right now is Christopher Brookmyre‘s novel, ‘Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks’. It’s a fine tale, which proceeds from the basic principle that paranormal phenomena are not real and the Rationalist paradigm is the only truth – the book is dedicated to James Randi and Richard Dawkins, which gives you an idea. (‘The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks’ is a Randi term for us poor souls who will never be convinced in the non-existance of the paranormal, no matter how hard our betters try to change our minds…) In the book, Brookmyre does a very good job of showing the arguments of both sides of the debate – though it’s clear that he shares the Rationalist view in the end, he is not too scornful of the Believers of Woo (i.e. not all of us are actual frauds just in it for the money, some are just deluded or too emotionally invested in belief).

The book made me think a lot more about that point of view, and especially why many of those who espouse Rationalism as the One True Truth (not Mr. Brookmyre, I hasten to add) are so very harsh to those in disagreement. And whichever way I look at it, the answer is the same.

They’re Fundamentalists.

Oh I can almost hear their cries right now… “We are not Fundamentalists because that word doesn’t apply to us, because we’re not religious and preaching from a single text and declaring it as perfect and unalterable!”
Well, tough shit.
As Andrew Vachss said so well, ‘behaviour is the truth’. If you act like Fundamentalists, expect to be treated like them.

Here’s what I mean – Do Fundamentalist Rationalists;

Believe in a single inviolable truth?Yes.

(That the modern scientific paradigm is correct in all essential detail and merely requires minor adjustment until it is a perfect description of Reality.)

Insist that those who disagree with their Truth are less important or relevant or capable than them?Oh yes.

(Take, for example, Randi’s finger-poking at the evil proponents of Woo and Dawkins’ declaration that those who agree with him are ‘Brights’ – meaning the rest of us are dim…)

Desire to completely rid the world of opposing beliefs?Yep.

(Rationalist writings of recent years – those penned by Dawkins and Hitchins and such – have explicitly stated that anyone who disagrees with their version of Rationalism is a threat to modern society and strongly express the wish that they cease to do so… admittedly their ‘or else’ is not as unpleasantly explicit as that of Fundamentalist Xtianity or Islam, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say they’d be happy bunnies if all us weirdoes vanished overnight.)

Have double standards around what constitutes ‘truth’?Fuck aye.

Consider for example these two looks at the ‘skeptical’ approach and that hallowed tool of scientific ‘objectivity’ the Peer Review. Also consider the amusing results of when the tools of field anthropology are pointed at the environment of a working laboratory, or when an actual skeptical mind looks at the paranormal and tries to share their results with the Rationalist set.

Refuse to acknowledge the possibility of being wrong or having any flaws in their own paradigm? Let’s see, shall we?

Drop in on Randi’s website forum, or the comments on the Bad Astronomy or Pharyngula blogs. There’s a lot of straw-man arguments, insults and ad hominem attacks (not the same thing), plus more than a little scorn, rejection of dissent and emotional manipulation of their followers – but neutral considerations of reported phenomena? Pointing their ‘skepticism’ at their own models? Not so much.

So… if that’s not a fundamentalist attitude, it’s real hard to distinguish it from one.

Here’s an illustration of Rationalist Fundamentalism in action…
A few years ago, neurologist and Rationalist spokesman Stephen Pinker wrote a book called ‘How The Mind Works”.
What colossal arrogance. And what a clever title – two false statements in a mere four words.
1. The book is a pop-science work on modern brain theory and research. It’s not about Mind at all… it merely assumes that Mind is a by-product, an epiphenomenon, of Brain. This is something other researchers would query, and even in some cases say is completely refuted (there is evidence for competing models about consciousness as a whole-body, or even a non-local, phenomenon.)
2. We’re an awful long way from knowing how the brain works – let alone the mind.
For instance, I can offer evidence that pretty much every single model of thought and consciousness which regards the brain as central and essential is incorrect – and I can do it with one word.

This is a birth defect where much of the cerebellum or other major brain structures are missing or severely deformed. Normally it’s fatal. But…
There are some people who grow to adulthood with this condition. Sometimes, it’s not even diagnosed until adulthood, due to a MRI for an unrelated condition. In short, there are men and women walking around the planet today who have effectively no brain – just a small bunch or strand of neural tissue and an awful lot of cerebro-spinal fluid in their heads.
(I’ve talked about this before, but the paper I linked to has changed location. Here’s another paper on the subject.)

These people, though rare, are conscious by any reasonable test of same – not imbeciles, they’re capable of thought and speech and movement (and are not, to quote Steve Martin’s classic movie ‘The Man With Two Brains’, “sitting in the corner and going tttthhhppp…”). Yet despite the existence of these people, the standard model of neurology has not, as would be the correct action in a true spirit of scientific enquiry, been binned.

The refusal of scientists as a rule to acknowledge such ‘black swans’ easily (if at all) is understandable to a degree. Their models work pretty well, most of the time. Modern neurology is a damn fine thing, has saved many lives and brought about remarkable understanding. But it’s also incomplete and in many parts contradictory. And its attempts to deal with the so-called Hard Problem of Consciousness, with some noble exceptions, mostly consist of sticking their fingers in their ears and going “la-la-la-la”. (Best example is Susan Blackmore – who merrily insists that consciousness is basically a delusion, but never quite manages to answer the question, “what’s doing the deluding, then?”, or wonder if her own Buddhist beliefs could possibly colour her views.)

Probably a good time (yet again) to state my views on Science…
I think modern science has made the world, on the whole, a better place. I certainly much prefer to live in this time and place rather than under any fundamentalist religious regime.

But… I don’t think science is complete or wholly accurate. I’m fairly sure it can’t be, by definition.

All science can do is make and test models, theories of how reality functions. (To nick from McLuhan – “The map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal.” And no amount of insisting will make a menu edible.)  Useful, but not necessarily completely true.
Plus, that which does the modelling is far from infallible.
I know (from working in labs myself, and knowing various professional scientists in fields ranging from neurology to astrophysics to psychology to particle physics) the actual process of scientific research is fraught with nepotism, political manoeuvring, hide-bound attitudes, bad intellectual habits and on occasion outright bribery and fraud… and if you think you’re going to get a Pure Truth that way, you’re more deluded than Randi’s minions would think I am!

There is a method within the scientific world for dealing with contradictions and oddities – it’s called the multi-model approach, was pioneered by Niels Bohr and has a lot going for it.
Trouble is, it pretty much denies the One True Truth idea… and thus is avoided by Fundamentalist Rationalists like the plague. It’s not a favourite of Fundamentalist Religious types either.
And if that’s not a recommendation…

The point I’m trying to make isn’t that science is completely wrong and mystical belief is always right. Or that all models of the world have equal validity. Far from it.

I’m just pointing out that absolute belief in any kind of One True Truth is a trap. As the old Discordian saying goes, ‘convictions cause convicts’. The same habit of thought which leads the likes of Dawkins to insist that modern science proves God doesn’t exist is pretty much the same one that has ‘Intelligent Design’ proponents both ignore all the evidence that contradicts their model and simultaneously miss the point that even if there is evidence for the universe having some kind of Designer, that doesn’t prove that said Designer was their God.

It all comes down, I suspect, to a very human decision. Choosing who to believe, whose word to trust. Who you choose as an authority shapes everything you think.

And we do not always choose wisely.

“Religion is not an exact science. Sometimes, of course, neither is science.”
Sir Terry Pratchett, Nation

(Special thanks to ‘Dr. Jon‘ for several of the links, and of course to the late Robert Anton Wilson for inspiration.)

Death of a journalist

I had not heard of Lasantha Wickrematunge until today. He’s dead now.

He was a journalist in Sri Lanka, for the The Sunday Leader newspaper. He was clearly not a man afraid to speak his mind, even when doing so led to threats and bullets. What he said is universal – for everywhere there are corrupt political and violent forces, there need to be people like him.

His last filed piece before being gunned down, his self-penned obituarary, appears here. Please take a monent to read it.

(Found on Boing Boing.)

Psychic Warfare from 1981-2008

An interesting post on Brainsturbator, on US Military Psi research and brain change.

The year I was born, in 1981, the US Government decided magick was real.  Well, the “US Government” is of course an abstraction—specifically, Congressional Research Service was commissioned to do a report on psychic phenomena and offered the following conclusion:

“Recent experiments in remote viewing and other studies in parapsychology suggest that there exists an ‘interconnectiveness’ of the human mind with other minds and with matter. This interconnectiveness would appear to be functional in nature and amplified by intent and emotion.”

That sounds like a pretty accurate description of magick to me.  Score one for the weirdos, right?

Of course, I don’t expect you to believe that. Ignore any claims that wouldn’t get made outside a college-level physics textbook.  There is no need to believe in non-human or “extra-dimensional” intelligence, no need to believe in telekinesis, no need to believe in any of the claims made by the magick community.  They are merely designing rituals to alter their perception and experiencing self-generated hallucinations.

The illusion of moving images is a puzzle that humans have cracked to great success, and by flashing sequential photographs at 24 frames per second or more, we get to watch movies—windows back in time.  Humans have even learned to “fake” three-dimensional objects with holographic technology.

If it can be engineered, it can be reverse engineered. If these people are “merely” altering their own consciousness and then taking their own imagination at face value, these rituals can be modeled, measured and ultimately replicated.  It is obvious, both to skeptics and to practicing magicians, that most of the words, props and staging involved with ritual is a matter of personal preference and probably not integral to the actual effects.

You’re either on the Atheist Bus, or you’re off it…

I love the Atheist Bus.

I’m sure many of you have heard about it. A group of atheists, humanists and the like had a whip-round and sponsored some London buses to carry a poster which reads, “There’s probably no god, so stop worrying and enjoy your life”.

It’s the word ‘probably’ that makes me love it. If it had said “there is no god”, I’d think it arrogant and stupid. But that ‘probably’ makes it work, adds the element of genuine scepticism and honest doubt which is so often missing from atheist propaganda – and entirely missing from religious propaganda.

So inevitably, Stephen Green (among others)  lodges a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority on the grounds of false advertising.

(A word about Mr. Green. He’s the leading light of Christian Voice, a protest group which was born in the wake of the Jerry Springer – The Opera controversy. The best way to describe Green is that he wants to be the Mary Whitehouse of his generation – except he lacks her charisma, wit and intelligence. And for the benefit of my non-UK readers – yes, that was sarcasm.)

Green’s complaint reads in part;

I believe the ad breaks the Advertising Code, unless the advertisers hold evidence that God probably does not exist.

This is a man who clearly doesn’t understand the word ‘probably’. He’s also delightfully ignorant of the point that, if his complaint is upheld, it will likely mean the end of religious advertising for the exact reason he complains about. Unless, of course, he can prove the existence of his god…

The Atheist Bus is coming to a city near you, if you’re in the UK. In Australia – that bastion of rebellion and freedom of expression – a similar campaign was rejected by the advertising company which had been hired.

A similar plan for atheist bus adverts in Tasmania was thrown out by the state-owned bus company, Metro, which is set to lead to legal action on the grounds that it is discriminatory.

Metro has previously allowed adverts from religious groups including anti-abortion campaigners, but says it has now changed its policy to ban all material deemed controversial.

There’s an interesting debate to be had about how modern belief systems are propagated through the unsubtle application of money and influence, which I hope will be stimulated by all this. And with luck, the notion of trying to ban opinions which differ from ‘deeply-held beliefs’ being treated as blasphemy or religious hatred and prosecuted will disappear as a result.

The more opinions out there, the better. Even the ones I hate. And the more of such opinion holders that have the moral courage to add the word ‘probably’ to their opinion, the better.

Subjectivity 2 – The Revenge

I suspect my last post may have prompted the odd ‘what the fuck is he on about’ moment.

As I’ve said before, minds tend to work well when given a metaphor to sift ideas through. I’ve been spending a lot of my down time (well, most of my life really, but it seems to have been especially on my mind recently) trying to put my thoughts about belief, trust, religious and philosophical categories into some kind of form I can express.

Everyone has some opinions about such – and everyone has strong opinions about the kind of music they like (and especially the music they loathe). It struck me just how similar the expression of those can be – hence the last brain-spurt.

The music/belief parallel can be stretched further. And I’m gonna.

I have several friends who think very highly of The Smiths. I, to put it mildly, do not. Among these friends I’ve noticed an odd tendency towards evangelism… every single one of them has, apropos of nothing in the conversation at the time, suddenly tried to convince me of the genius of Morrissey at some point.
And I have to say to them;
‘Seriously – I don’t care how influential were, how Morrissey’s lyrics epitomised the Thatcherite zeitgeist or how ‘good’ a guitarist Johnny Marr is. I think they suck. Listening to them hurts my head and makes me stabby. Morrissey couldn’t write me a fucking shopping list.’

Despite this, I still love those guys who tried to convert me. I don’t hold their (dreadful) taste in music against them and, indeed, there are several bands we enjoy in common.

Which one of us is right? What’s the truth here? Were they wrong to try and share their love for The Smiths with me? Am I just too narrow-minded to appreciate the subtleties of their oeuvre? Or The Smiths really and truthfully a bunch of overrated whiners?

There is no right answer to these questions.

I know damn well my dislike of The Smiths (or Linkin Park, or Coldplay-Who-Are-Shit) is utterly subjective – just the same as my love of Gabriel-era Genesis, 13th Century Troubador songs, the voice of Lisa Gerrard and Clint Mansell’s soundtrack for ‘The Fountain’ is.

But there are those (my dear friends are not among them, I emphasise) who will cheerfully tell you that The Smiths are the best band in the world and anyone who doesn’t think so is an idiot. Or that the music of Bach is ‘inherently superior’ to that of Robert Johnson. Or that ‘jungle music’ is damaging to the soul.

Those kind of folk are rather harder to have a conversation with.
It’s not what they believe – it’s how they act upon it that matters.

I don’t have any problem at all with people believing something different about the nature of the universe than I do.
I don’t even mind them being passionate about their beliefs and expressing that passion to me.
I do have a problem with them telling me that they are indisputably right and that I am stupid/deluded/evil for believing otherwise.

But what about things that are absolutely true? Not subjective at all, like musical tastes, but testable facts?

I would say that there really aren’t that many such absolute facts, and that even these are mostly subject to interpretation.

And this pisses off two superficially different, but fundamentally (pun intended) similar groups – the Christian Fundamentalists and the self-styled ‘Rationalists’.

I’ll be picking a fight with them both soon.


I have a friend who is unable to utter the name of the popular beat combo Coldplay without adding the phrase “…who are shit”.

Now, I am sure that there are many people in the world whose opinion of Coldplay differs from his. After all, they are a very popular band. There are likely many folk for whom Coldplay is the epitome of contemporary rock music and who have found deep emotional and personal resonance with their work.

But you won’t convince my friend of this. You could play him track after track, attempt to point out the lyrical expertise… it will not shift his opinion. His loathing for everything Coldplay stand for comes from a very deep place – his conception of what is ‘good music’ is only one factor, I am sure.

Now, unless Coldplay do something utterly miraculous, or my friend undergoes some kind of transformative experience, this will not change.

But who is right? Are Coldplay shit?

Well, yes. They are.
But not as shit as Linkin Park.

This is the entire history of human religious debate in a nutshell.

aaaand we’re back!

Happy 2009 and all that.

Having spent the last few weeks as a Petri dish for pretty much every viral infection in South West England, I am (somewhat) recovered.

Other news:

The second Guttershaman reprint over at Rending The Veil went live this week, which is very pleasing.

My Beloved The Artist has her first London show this month – more news on that once officially released.

My Beloved The Ex-Neuroscientist Shaman is back in Peru training – her adventures continue at her LJ blog.

As for me… well, the next couple of Guttershaman are forming, as well as a possible long post or new series about the nature of truth, trust and belief – with which I hope to annoy both hard core religious and rationalist types in equal measure.

Oh, and a prediction for the year – Obama is gonna disappoint you. Badly. But he’s still better than the alternative was.

Much more soon!