Link blog: funny, politics, equality, humour

Heresy Corner: Equality before the law

"If Harriet Harman's odious Equality Bill reaches the statute book in anything like its current form (in other words, if the House of Lords doesn't manage to delay it before a general election intervenes) then there may well be social and legal chaos in this country. There will also be a lot more work for lawyers. A lot." – Heresiarch reckons the Equality Bill is a bad thing.
(tags: law politics equality)

Killing In The Climb – rathergood.com

Why have them vying for the Christmas number one when you can combine them?
(tags: music video rathergood funny mashup)

DAVID SIMON – Vice Magazine

"David Simon is responsible for one of the greatest feats of storytelling of the past century, and that’s the entire five-season run of the television series The Wire." – Vice Magazine interview him.
(tags: vicemagazine the-wire tv-programmes tv television wire crime drugs politics journalism)

Sumerians Look On In Confusion As God Creates World | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source

Members of the earth's earliest known civilization, the Sumerians, looked on in shock and confusion some 6,000 years ago as God, the Lord Almighty, created Heaven and Earth.
(tags: religion funny onion history creationism)

IEEE Spectrum: Math Quiz: Why Do Men Predominate?

"among top math performers, the gender gap doesn’t exist in some ethnic groups and in some countries. The researchers conclude that culture is the main reason more men excel at the highest math levels in most countries."
(tags: maths mathematics gender feminism equality)

The C Programming Language: 4.10 by Brian W Kernighan & Dennis M Ritchie & HP Lovecraft

"C functions may be used recursively; that is, a function may call itself either directly or indirectly. Uninquiring souls may take this as just another peculiarity of those C folk, of whose ways their neighbours speak little to outsiders but much among themselves.

Keener news-followers, however, wondered at the events of the winter of 1927-28, the abnormally large number of calls placed upon the stack, the swiftness with which that list was sorted, the disturbing lack of heap allocation throughout the proceedings, and the secrecy surrounding the affair."
(tags: funny humour parody C programming lovecraft horror)
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TULIPs from Hamsterdam

In this issue: more Alpha, more de-converts copying me, and more liberal Anglicans doing the Devil’s work. Yes, it’s time to close some more browser tabs before Firefox seizes up completely.

Beta

Chat continues over on my previous posting about Channel 4’s documentary on the Alpha course. I found Jon Ronson, the documentary maker, had been on Alpha himself back in 2000 and written about it for the Graun. The link comes via Metafilter, where there’s some discussion of the article and of Alpha, into which I’ve dipped my toe.

I de-converted before it was fashionable

Jamie Frost sounds like he had a experience of Christianity at Oxford which was similar to mine at Cambridge (except, of course, the Cambridge one was just better). He went to St Ebbes, which is the Doctrinal Rectitude Trust church in Oxford, as StAG is in Cambridge. He was, and is, a science student. He also left Christianity, and his tale (of struggling to keep the faith, being buoyed up by emotional sermons and then realising he didn’t have reasons to believe) sounds awfully familiar. He writes about it in a meaty essay (I think it’s even longer than mine), which is worth a read.

The link to Frost’s essay came to me via the indefatigable Steven Carr, who helpfully posted it to the Premier Christian Radio discussion forum.

OK, so I’ve been watching The Wire

Yeah, so after the Templeton boys got lit up in a drive-by by PZ, I heard it was going down over at the Premier Christian Radio discussion forum, so me an’ my boy Carr grabbed our nines and mounted up. I done showed that Richard Morgan (who used to be tight with the Ditchkins crew before he snitched to the Christers) how we do it, then I had interesting discussion on epistemology [You seem to have slipped out of character – Ed], and shit. [Better – Ed]

Bishops Gone Wild

Those crazy Anglicans and their schisms: I can barely keep up these days, so I don’t usually bother. One thing caught my eye: Ruth Gledhill reports that Bishop Greg Venables, of the Fellowship of Mainstream True Christians Except If You’re Gay, had said of the fight against the godless liberals that “We must remember we are not fighting flesh and blood. This is about principalities and powers.”

If you weren’t a CU Bible Study group leader, you might not be able to complete that quote. It ends “and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms“. Yep, liberal Christians are in league with the devil. John Broadhurst, Bishop of Fulham, allegedly said “I now believe Satan is alive and well and he resides at Church House.” As Roy Zimmerman would say, “That was out loud, did you know that?”

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Revelation: documentary on the Alpha Course

Channel 4 recently screened How to Find God, Jon Ronson’s documentary on the Alpha course. You can watch it online for a few weeks. Edited to add: Ronson also went on the Alpha course himself back in 2000: you can read about it in the Grauniad, and find some interesting discussion of his article on Metafilter.

The documentary follows one group of people taking the course at St Aldates, Oxford, a charismatic Anglican church. The group were a mixed bunch, from Dave, a psychology student who was feeling a bit guilty about drinking 12 pints in an evening; to my favourite, Ed, the unemployed freegan who liked to look for spare food round the back of supermarkets.

What we see of Alpha’s apologetics is pretty bad: there’s Josephus‘s reference to Jesus, Lewis’s Mad/Bad/God argument, as appropriated by McDowell, and what ophe1ia-in-red‘s own review (which you should also read) rightly calls a false dichotomy between a life of meaningless debauchery and Christianity. At one point, the male small group leader says that God once spoke to him in his head to tell him he didn’t have to give a talk he was nervous about. When the non-Christians ask how he knows it was God and not his imagination, his wife gets annoyed and accuses them of calling her husband stupid. A rationalist with too much time on their hands could probably have a bit of fun attending an Alpha Course, and it seems some have.

Nevertheless, I doubt that these arguments have a lot to do with Alpha’s success rate (quoted as being about 1 person in each small group of about 8). As Ronson says, “Alpha is all about rigorously structured, almost mathematical, niceness. And this structure is a huge success.” The free food (and the attractive Christian ladies serving it), friendly people and small group discussions are the most important parts of Alpha’s methods.

Despite accusations of bias from the commenters on Channel 4’s site, Ronson’s style is non-confrontational. Rachel Cooke’s review in New Statesman describes it as “like a religious version of Springwatch: instead of wondering which egg was going to hatch first, we were invited to wonder which agnostic would find Jesus first.” I found it a bit like the “who’s going to die this week?” stuff you used to get in the opening scenes of Casualty: Bob’s using the threshing machine and once felt a “sort of energy” when he was a bit down, Alice is on the motorway behind a tanker full of petrol and is unemployed and a bit directionless: who’s going to get Jesus’d?

The “Holy Spirit weekend”, where the potential converts go off on a weekend break and are encouraged to try speaking in tongues, is the most controversial part of Alpha. Indeed, it’s partly what lead the more conservative evangelical churches to replace Alpha with Christianity Explored (that and the conservatives’ feeling that more emphasis is needed on the fact that we’re all sinners who deserve to be tortured forever, and will be if we find ourselves unable to radically change our lives on the basis of insufficient evidence: this is what conservatives call “the Good News“). It certainly made for the most interesting part of the documentary.

After a few explanatory shots of the Toronto Blessing, we follow the group on to a conference centre near Oxford, which it turns out they’re sharing with a conference for Ford GT40 fans. There’s a Derren Brown Messiah suggestion session where everyone stands with their eyes closed, but alas, it’s interrupted by the noise from the GT40s outside (modern day iron chariots, as one of Channel 4’s commenters has it). They carry on, with the Christians singing songs and the pastor singing in tongues, but one of the non-Christians feels he’s been manipulated and walks out of the room. However, the beer-drinking psychology student likes the atmosphere, asks people to pray for him, and says he’ll be going on another Alpha Course. In the end, two of them walk away saying the experience has put them off Christianity, and the freegan says he respects Christians more now. I’d call it a no-score draw.

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The role of Mach 1+ attack helicopters in apocalyptic literature

The LadyMetafilter linked to a bunch of Star Wars versions of the opening titles of 80s TV programmes, which in turn lead me to Ernie Cline’s Airwolf monologue, which had me chortling merrily to myself. You should listen to it.

Was Airwolf airwolf? The Lady sure is pretty (pic related: it’s her). The programme itself was usually fun, if you were young enough not to notice that they only had so many stock clips of Airwolf flying through a canyon or shooting at things. Wikipedia says the first series was darker than the later two. I don’t remember that, though I do remember Hawke’s love interest being left to die in a desert by the baddie, a sort of reverse woman in a refrigerator.

Two things made it stand out for me. One was that it has the best theme tune of any TV programme, ever.

The other was that bit which, at least in my memory, occurred in almost every episode. The baddies think they’re having it their own way; then Airwolf rises over a ridge line with her guns out, howling like a demon, and the baddies realise they’re about to have a very bad day indeed.

It is the expectation of this moment that kept me watching. The firefight after that was a foregone conclusion, it was the sudden reversal which was thrilling, the knowledge that justice would now be done. Airwolf as apocalyptic: there must be a paper in that for someone.

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Dollhouse

Contains general discussion of the premise, but no other spoilers.

Dollhouse is the new Joss Whedon thing (you know, Buffy, Firefly: that Joss Whedon). It stars, and is produced by, Eliza Dushku, who played Faith in Buffy. Dushku plays Echo, one of the “dolls” in the Dollhouse. The dolls are reprogrammable people: their personalities are wiped and replaced with whatever the clients of the Dollhouse ask for. The Dollhouse isn’t just a brothel, although it’s part of what it does.

When the first episode appeared, there was a lot of debate on here on LJ, with posts heavily laden with feminist theoretic jargon about agency, the male gaze and so on. It’s easy to see why the feminists objected: the idea of being able to program Eliza Dushku to do whatever I want certainly causes some triggering in my safe space, let me tell you.

Still, a more telling criticism was that it wasn’t really that good. In his other work, Whedon does witty dialogue to keep us amused while the story draws us into the relationships between the ensemble cast, and there’s always a story arc which rewards watching the series in order rather than as individual episodes. This sort of thing was initially absent from Dollhouse. The first few episodes of Dollhouse are pretty much Quantum Leap (which must count as one of the neatest tricks you can do with episodic SF) without the fun bits.

Things have been looking up for the last couple of episodes, so perhaps we can forgive the early stuff as really laboured scene setting. It looks like there is an arc, we’re finding out more about the characters’ pasts so we care about them more, and the last one was funny. Worth a look, I’d say.

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Galactica finale: disconnected thoughts

Contains spoilers, obviously.<lj-cut text=”Let me at it”>

The pace was good until they reached Earth, at which point there were multiple “endings” as we saw in the Lord of the Rings films. infinitemonkeys said Golgafrincham, and I mentioned shaggy God stories (there’s this guy called Adama looking for Earth: see what they did there?).

I was sceptical about the way the survivors all decided to chuck away their technology. As Pratchett and Gaiman said, people who try going back to nature soon find out why civilisation has been a quest to get as far away from nature as possible. That seemed like forcing the characters to meet the demands of the plot.

Speaking of Good Omens, Angel Gaius and Angel Six reminded me of Crowley and Aziraphale, somehow (perhaps because Gaius looked a bit demonic). In a way, I thought the explicit talk about God (who doesn’t like that name) spoilt the mystery of just what the angels were. If it’d been me, I’d’ve ended with Adama on his hilltop; the stuff about modern robots made it look like it was going to turn into the Sarah Connor Chronicles.

They got the supernatural stuff right with Kara: she just vanishes, and we never quite find out what she was. She walked with God and was not, for God took her.

Loved the nods to the original BSG: the old style Centurions, and the old theme playing as Adama takes one last look at Galactica (this video and this one are fun if you remember the old series).

The opera house stuff was a nice way to tie off that mystery. The flashbacks worked well to show us the beginnings of the endings we saw. The endings were satisfying (and in Roslin’s case, moving). I think Ron Moore did well there.

Now to re-watch the miniseries 🙂

Edit: Peter Watts describes it as emotionally satisfying but intellectually empty. Metafilter has more thoughts.

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Derren Brown: Something Wicked This Way Comes

One of the Freeview channels recently repeated Derren Brown‘s Something Wicked This Way Comes. It was the episode which mattghg blogged about a while back, wondering about free will in a universe containing Derren Brown. You can find clips from the programme on Google Video.<lj-cut text=”Cut for people who don’t like talking about how tricks are done”>

Having finally watched the programme, I’m in awe of Brown’s showmanship. It used to be that people doing these sort of acts would claim to have psychic powers, either seriously, if they were charlatans, or as part of the contract between the magician and the audience (we know that the magician who says “I will now read your mind” isn’t really saying he’s psychic, it’s just part of the story told around the trick). These days, as part of our desire to be “scientific”, we sort of believe in pop psychological guff like neuro-linguistic programming. Brown’s hooked into this belief. He rightly lambastes the psychic industry for conning people (e.g. in his appearance on the Dawkins documentary). He’s careful to prefix his shows with a statement that he uses a mixture of “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship”. But! The neat trick is that the misdirection includes the explanation of how he did it. Brown’s frenetic exposition at the end (starts about 4 minutes into this video) is part of the act, just as the claim of psychic powers was for older magicians.

Those of you with plenty of time on your hands can go and argue with all the commenters on YouTube who think that Brown’s an NLP guru. As the man himself says:

Years ago the issue was whether or not you told people it was psychic because people were prepared to believe in psychic ability–and how far down that road do you take them. Now we’re in a situation where we’re into pop psychology, and NLP [Neuro Linguistic Programming], all these huge industries, and people are prepared to believe in that, and maybe in a way that’s the new psychic realm.

The whole interview with Jamy Ian Swiss is an interesting discussion of the difference between what Brown does and what old-style mentalists did and the ethics of misleading an audience who are expecting to be misled. I’d recommend it.

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Richard Dawkins and the Enemies of Reason

Channel 4 screened Enemies of Reason, another Dawkins mini-series, on Monday night. Slaves to Superstition was the first of a two-parter; the second, The Irrational Health Service is on Monday night at 8pm. If you missed the first one, or are foreign, you can see it on Google Video, or get it from BitTorrent.

Having dealt with religion in Root of All Evil?, Dawkins has turned his attention to astrology, spiritualism, dowsing and suchlike; the sort of stuff which regular readers of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column know as “woo-woo”.

As Charlie Brooker’s excellent review says, this time round Dawkins seems to have toned down the outspokenness which gets him a bad reputation in some quarters. Sometimes I found myself wishing he’d been a little more direct, but his tactic of sitting quietly while someone tried to give him a psychic reading (or whatever) and politely pointing out where they were getting it wrong made his opponents look silly without making him look mean-spirited, so perhaps it was for the best. As a commenter on James Randi’s forum said, “There should be at least one program a week where Dawkins stares at people while they try to explain their woo.”

The first part of the programme mostly consists of that sort of thing, of one charlatan (or sincerely deluded practitioner) after another facing Dawkins’s quiet questioning. I thought of it as shooting fish in a barrel, but maybe there really are people out there who don’t know that there’s bugger all evidence for woo-woo. scribb1e pointed out that most of those people probably weren’t watching, but he did have a prime-time slot. We can but hope, I suppose.

Dawkins talks to Derren Brown about mediums and cold reading. You can see Brown’s classic illustration on how psychics work on YouTube, although as ever with Brown, be aware that sometimes his “explanations” of how he did a trick are themselves misdirection. Nevertheless, Brown claims no special powers and yet is able to do this sort of thing. Brown rightly points out that there’s something particularly sleazy about the medium industry, as it feeds of the grief of the bereaved.

Dawkins is genuinely concerned that woo-woo is supplanting science, and intersperses his examination of the woo with paeans to science and to the wonders of the natural world. He talks about the decline in people studying science at A-level and university, and of the closure of science departments at some universities (does anyone know how common this is? It’s a worrying trend, if it’s true). Perhaps responding to critics who call him a fundamentalist, he says “I’m often asked how I know that there isn’t a spirit world or psychic clairvoyance. Well, I don’t. It seems improbable, but unlike the fixed worldviews of mystical faith, science is always open to new possibilities.” He follows this up with the story of the discovery of echo-location in bats, a relatively recent example of evidence causing scientific theories to change.

To illustrate the sort of evidence he’s after, Dawkins shows a double-blind trial of dowsers, who are asked to identify which of some sealed boxes contain bottles of water and which contain bottles of sand. After they all fail to do better than random guesses would, their denial in the face of evidence leads into the final part of the programme, where Dawkins questions why these people continue to believe in their abilities.

He settles on the same sort of explanations which some evolutionists have advanced for religions, namely that we are good at spotting patterns and sometimes do so when the patterns aren’t real. Skinner’s superstitious pigeons are an example of the sort of thing he means. We have cognitive and perceptual glitches (see the “Slight of Mind” section in the endnotes to Peter Watts’s Blindsight, for example). These make us vulnerable to conspiracy theories of the sort which, Dawkins point out, find their natural home on the Internet, in the many pages which insist that Armstrong never went to the Moon, or that “Jews did WTC”. In the face of this, how can we know anything at all? Dawkins seems to get close to tripping over something like C.S. Lewis’s arguments on the rationality of naturalism (as a character in Blindsight says, our brains may delude us if that has more survival value than showing us the truth).

In the end though, Dawkins is a pragmatist. He points of the successes of the scientific method as evidence that it works, and to the MMR scandal as an example of what happens when the careful gathering of evidence is ignored in favour of personal feelings. Our glitches may cause us to make mistakes, but we have to do the best we can. Dawkins speaks of the gradual build up of evidence for echo-location in bats, contrasting it with the fleeting evidence for the paranormal. The careful steps of science may be frustratingly slow, but make us less likely to fall into the cracks in our minds.

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Who Review

No blog is complete without a posting on the season finale of Doctor Who. Here’s mine. Contains spoilers.

<lj-cut>I was, in the end, disappointed. It’s clear that Russell T. Davies so wants the geeks to like him, what with all the references to pre-RTD Who and other SF stuff (“the project was our last, best hope”, the funeral pyre, and so on). But what we got was a bit incoherent, long on emoting and short on plot. Geeks like plot, and, as Babylon 5 showed, we can put up with some terrible acting and special effects as long as we get it. RTD worked himself into a frenzy of flashes and bangs from which he had no way out other than using the TARDIS as a big reset switch yet again.

I liked the final scene between the Doctor and Martha because they involved the audience in a way most of what went before had not. RTD can do character interaction.

The best episodes of this series were those which combined this development of the characters with a plot which made consistent (and a little less frenetic) use of the SF elements (Human Nature and the Family of Blood) and one which took a single SF premise and worked through it well (Blink).

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We ought to fill their bones with hot lead

“Witches just aren’t like that,” said Magrat. “We live in harmony with the great cycles of Nature, and do no harm to anyone, and it’s wicked of them to say we don’t. We ought to fill their bones with hot lead.”

I used to watch Dalziel and Pascoe a while ago. I liked the by-play between ageing, un-PC, Dalziel and the painfully trendy Pascoe as Dalziel solved bluff Yorkshire crimes in his bluff Yorkshire way. So, the last double-parter was a bit unexpected, what with the naked pagan sex magick, tarot readers (who always draw major arcana on TV, note), demonic possession and ritual murder. M’lud, in Barnsley, they talk of little else.

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