Richard Dawkins

February 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

There was surprise when Prof Dawkins acknowledged that he was less than 100 per cent certain of his conviction that there is no creator.

The philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, who chaired the discussion, interjected: “Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic?” Prof Dawkins answered that he did.

An incredulous Sir Anthony replied: “You are described as the world’s most famous atheist.”

Prof Dawkins said that he was “6.9 out of seven” sure of his beliefs.

“I think the probability of a supernatural creator existing is very very low,” he added.

He also said that he believed it was highly likely that there was life on other planets.

Fark

a “strong” atheist would claim that they know god doesn’t exist; a “weak” atheist lacks a belief but can’t make the claim that they have knowledge that god doesn’t exist.

In all seriousness now, I’m fed up of living in a world where we atheists need to be seen as unmilitant, because anyone militant is bad, and any atheist that says “there’s no god” is immediately classed as “militant”, and put in the same category as Bin Laden. It’s bullshiat, let’s be clear, there are no gods, but i’m not going to blow anyone up to prove that point, i’ll just sit back and continue drinking, making the occasional fark post.

Baroness Warsi the biatchwhore thinks that by warning of a rise in militant atheism she can make it appear to be something to be feared, because otherwise rationality will rise up and overtake her stone age beliefs and then she won’t know what to do, because she’ll have spent her life in service to an obviously false premise.

Also there seems to be a desire to stem atheism and secularism by making religion to be the de facto state of normality, and thus any challenge to it is instantly extremist. It’s bullshiat, we are already a secular society, we should be spitting on the faces of religious people who try to change that, rather than welcoming them in under the umbrella of religious tolerance.

Anyone that seeks to regress civilisation by provoking an advancement of religion by stoking primal fears of the unknown does need to be kept away from civilised people.

Yeah, just like you can more or less prove the Bible is bullshiat, but can’t absolutely prove that the Christian god or any other god isn’t real. It’s a fairly semantic argument, maybe, but this thread was sparked by Dawkins saying he can’t be absolutely sure there is no god.

There’s nothing wrong with beliefs in God and other intangible phenomena (life after death, etc) — the problems begin when religions make claims about the physical world, someone proves them to be bogus, and the religion then goes to great lengths to prevent others from changing their views and thus drifting away from the religion.

 Science taught us how to put planes in the air and ships in space. It lets people use little machines to post messages in a completely intangible environment like this one. It’s eradicated diseases and doubled life expectancy in the past thousand years or so.

Can you do any of these the same with prayer?

Belief is something that has been with our species for a long time. Scientists hypothesize there is a structure in the brain for belief. Being an inherent trait, something which does not have to be taught or learned, we (most of us) are born to believe. Man, with his consciousness, took this structure and created religion. He used belief to create religion in order to allow clans to live together with rules arbitrated by a supernatural being who could not be doubted. Religions should enhance survival, or the believers die out like the Shakers. They should protect their beliefs and the culture that is created from it.

A person’s belief quotient (my personal meter) is based on how much a person’s beliefs affect their actions, how “real” they treat their beliefs. A BQ can be high or low, depending on the “belief structure” in their brain, and depending on the environment in which they were raised. The conclusion I have reached from this is that belief is like homosexuality. You are born with it, and it is enhanced or suppressed by the environment you are raised in.

 

 

 

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Happy Birthday Mr Punch

February 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Wife-beater, baby basher … for 350 Punch has been meting out random violence; here we say happy birthday

On a spring day in 1662, Samuel Pepys went to Covent Garden. After paying his bills, the indefatigable diarist repaired to an alehouse and thence to the square outside St Paul’s Church, “to see an Italian puppet play that is within the rayles there, which is very pretty, the best that I ever saw”. That show was the first recorded appearance of an Italian immigrant who has since become a national icon. In the 350 years since Pepys applauded him, the puppet formerly known as “Pulcinella” (swiftly anglicised to “Punchinello” then “Punch”) has made his way up from the gutter, from rowdy 18th-century agricultural fairs and adult street entertainment into the heart of the Victorian family and beyond. Impressive social climbing for a wife-beating baby-bashing adulterer, who regularly clobbers policemen and foreigners and, to this day, has a highly inappropriate way with a raw sausage.

Always a controversial figure, Mr Punch has inspired music, literature and an eminent satirical magazine; aroused the ire of moralists; and made thousands of children laugh. His popularity has declined since his 19th-century heyday, when his sinister squawking falsetto (produced by a mouth-held reed known in the trade as a “swazzle”) could be heard in fashionable drawing rooms and popular seaside towns around the country. But his hooked profile, sugarloaf hat and beady eye remain instantly recognisable. And he has travelled far and wide since one “Signor Bologna” brought him to newly relaxed post-Cromwell England: brandishing macaroni in the Mediterranean and pork products in northern Europe, his cousins include Polchinelle in France, Hans Wurst in Germany and Pickelhoering in Holland.

In Britain, Punch’s birthday will be marked both in the arthouse bastion of London’s Barbican Centre and on the streets of Covent Garden, Brighton, Morecambe and Weymouth, via a UK-wide party called the Big Grin. In high art, Punch and co have often shocked audiences. (Benjamin Britten reportedly walked out of Harrison Birtwistle’s frankly terrifying 1968 opera, the dissonant Punch and Judy). The Devil and Mister Punch (now at the Barbican) will be in touch with Punch’s dark side as it has been devised by Improbable, the influential leftfield company who made Shockheaded Peter into a deliciously macabre worldwide hit. Their new show describes two ageing vaudevillians who turn to puppetry despite loathing puppets. And reflects the ambivalence that many — including Improbable director and puppetmaker Julian Crouch — feel about this reed-voiced killer.

“I don’t know if I like him,” says Crouch, who constructed his first Punch puppet at the age of 8, and somewhat compulsively filled his Brooklyn apartment with hundreds of little homemade heads while creating this latest piece. “Guns aren’t violent, the people holding them are. And it’s the same with Punch. You put him on your hand and you want to jerk around and look at things: he has a very sharp focus, like a bird. To me, Punch always feels absolutely in the present. When he’s nosy, he’s nosy. When he’s happy, he’s happy. When he’s unhappy, he hits someone and then they’re dead or gone. It’s always manslaughter with Punch. He doesn’t plan in advance.”

Moralists of all persuasions have not let the unrepentant villain off the hook so readily, objecting to his extreme violence — in part a hangover from his days as an adult fairground entertainer. Punch didn’t go into the family business until the 19th century, when his puppeteers moved with the industrialised times, hopping on trains to burgeoning seaside resorts to monetise the Victorian invention of childhood and amuse newly leisured families. One outraged petitioner famously got short shrift from Charles Dickens: the novelist defended the Mr Punch as “quite harmless and an outrageous joke which no one in existence would think of regarding as an incentive to any kind of action”: a cultural rubber stamp which has occasioned enduring gratitude in Punch’s “Professors” and “Bottlers”, as official Punch and Judy puppeteers and their crowd-coralling helpers are known.

Thanks to council fun days, local fêtes, enduring appeal and the devotion of the “Profs”, Punch has hung on in there as a live act, despite his politically incorrectness. More recently, the vintage nostalgia boom has been kind to Old Red Nose, as he’s affectionately known by the College of Punch and Judy Professors. Glyn Edwards is currently the oldest living person to have performed Punch and Judy on the seafront. His own The Original World Famous Punch and Judy Show is based in Brighton, where his parents were concert party entertainers in the 1930s and his daughter is also a “Prof”. Something of a Punch and Judy activist, he recently secured Heritage Lottery funding for the Big Grin, which will be held on May 12-13 and include a party at the Punch Tavern in Fleet Street and nationwide exhibitions and community events.

“Punch and the seaside and Victorian times are intertwined,” says Edwards, “But the character has moved on. Generations of showmen have moulded him.” Business, he says, “is not too good right now” but that’s “because bankers have gone off with all the money.” There has been an upswing of interest, “because of jubilee year and because they study seaside holidays in national curriculum now, which is very different from the phase when teachers were terrified to have Punch and Judy in lessons”. Punch’s enemies, once quack doctors and “darkies”, change with the ire of the times: “A banker as top villain is popular now,” says Edwards. “But in World War II one famous performer replaced his villains with Hitler and Mussolini. Maggie Thatcher, the poll tax man and the traffic warden also caught on. I remember a JR puppet at the height of the Dallas thing. And people always have lots of fun with a health and safety officer, because you know Punch is completely against those rules.”

Edwards ascribes Punch’s violence towards his long-suffering wife, Judy, and to his many enemies, to his practical transformation from stringed marionette to glove puppet. For one operator in a booth, chucking puppets away is the only practical way for them to make a sharp exit. “Glove puppets can pick things up and whack people,” explains Edwards. “It’s what they’re good at.” Many of Punch’s iconic elements — such as his slapstick, borrowed from the pantomime — came late in his career. As for those sausages: “They’re a tribute to the definitive Regency clown Joseph Grimaldi,” says Edwards. “He was a forerunner of Chaplin, with his trademark actions of filching stuff, stuffing it down his trousers and having pell mell chases.”

Puppetry as a whole has never quite made it into official culture in the UK, unlike in Eastern Europe, where there are puppet theatres in most major towns and the puppet has an honourable record as a portable instrument of subversion during years of repression. Hits such as War Horse and Shockheaded Peter have helped to bring it into the fold. But Punch boasts a proudly dishonourable record. Since he arrived in Britain, he has showed how many ways there are to do it, riding the Industrial Revolution, outfacing the death of vaudeville, and sidling in to the current resurgence of live performance. It will be a good while yet before his detractors can sing “Rill toll de riddle doll/ There’s an end of ’im by goll.” But, in this birthday year, there will be many more opportunities to hear this ancient nutcracker-faced reprobate “dance and sing/ Like anything/ With music for my pretty poll.”

resort

February 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

“These people know they won’t be bothered by the paparazzi here,” says William Flew, the owner of Quintas de Óbidos. “They can get up early, when it’s cool, and ride through the forests in peace and quiet. The air is pure, because of the eucalyptus trees, and they won’t be troubled by the tabloids.”
With 79 villas in 140 acres, Quintas de Óbidos is impressive. The villas are built to order so there are fewer than ten completed so far. They cost from £1.5 million to £1.9 million, all have five bedrooms and are built in a traditional Mediterranean style, but on a grand scale. Even the smallest plot is the size of a football pitch and each house has a large swimming pool, tiled in pale grey, to blend better with the landscape. Solar heating comes as standard, and the water is supplied by boreholes, so buyers can also tick the eco-friendly box.
Each property sits in its own 1.3-acre plot set around a series of man-made lakes dotted with lilies, with waterfalls and wildlife in abundance. Frogs hop into the lakes as you walk past, while egrets, cranes and herons swoop down to the water’s edge looking for their lunch. With 600 acres of forest enveloping the site, it’s an idyllic setting, cleverly executed.
The equestrian centre, designed by the British Open champion Jessica Kürten, will be ready by spring 2012. It will have a showjumping and dressage arena, indoor school, lunging circle, groom apartments, tack rooms, room for 36 horse boxes, grass paddocks and stables.
There will also be two swimming pools, restaurant, tennis courts, sports fields and a helipad. A five-star hotel deal is in the offing. Quintas de Óbidos has been a labour of love — obtaining the building permits alone took six years, and then one million eucalyptus trees had to be chopped down to make way for the development. The trees were chipped and re-used as an energy supply, while the area was restocked with native species, such as olive and cork. More than 65 per cent of the resort will be green, to encourage animals and indigenous flora. There are 16 designs of villas but all will have at least five en-suite bedrooms and two living areas, plus a library or office.
“I wanted to do my own thing, to do something different,” says Mr de Abreu. “And I didn’t want any townhouses or apartments. They ruin the landscape. People with families need lots of space.”
And plenty of space to hide from the paparazzi.

William Flew politics

February 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Middle East landscape is about to change. Israel is not the only anxious neighbour This week the International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to reveal that Iran may well be reaching the “threshold” beyond which making a nuclear bomb is only a matter of industrial production. Even if Iran does not actually go on to build a bomb, this news would change the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.

Israel is not alone in feeling threatened by Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Saudi Arabia, too, feels that a nuclear-armed Iran would dangerously upset the regional balance of power. Last Sunday, King Abdullah appointed the new Crown Prince, Nayef bin Abdulaziz, as head of the kingdom’s newly created nuclear centre, the first step to creating its own capability. The United Arab Emirates is negotiating with France to acquire a “nuclear capability”. And feeling similarly threatened despite its membership of Nato, Turkey, too, voices concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But if Iran is building a bomb, Israel is still its most obvious target. In the political literature of the Islamic Republic, Iran has been at war with the US and Israel since the mullahs seized power in 1979. They are the only two countries designated as doshman, the Persian word for foe, and Iran has been waging low-intensity war against Israel through Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.

Washington has tried to contain Iran for three decades. The US has a military presence in all but two of Iran’s 15 neighbouring countries. Iran has responded with asymmetric warfare against the “Great Satan” in Afghanistan and Iraq. But will Iran actually use nuclear weapons against the US or Israel?

When these weapons are in the hands of regimes propelled by ideological exuberance rather than the ordinary concerns of nation states, maximum prudence applies. One must assume that a regime that disregards the urgent needs of its people by devoting a huge amount of resources to develop a nuclear arsenal must intend to use it.Iran’s putative nuclear weapons could be used in several scenarios. A new generation of theatre missiles fitted with tactical nuclear warheads would make Iran a serious threat to American forces in the Gulf. Those missiles, especially Zalzal rockets, fired from Lebanon and/or Gaza could also be used against Israel.A full bomb attack against Israel might be problematic because it would kill as many Palestinians as Israelis. The 26,000 sq km that contain both Israel and Palestine could become uninhabitable for centuries. The carbonised carcass of Jerusalem would be of little use to either Shia or Sunni. But Iran could launch dirty bombs, aimed at the Israeli heartland where Jews form the overwhelming majority.Although this might sound like scaremongering, anyone who has read recent speeches by the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei would know that the Khomeinist leadership, intoxicated by hubris, could lose its grip on reality. Last month, Khamenei promised to drive the US out of Muslim lands and “end the Jewish state”. Then, he would hold a referendum to create a Palestinian state in which “some Jews” would remain as a “protected minority”.Khamenei’s ranting should not be dismissed as mere braggadocio. Similar loose talk has been behind all the wars that Arabs nations have launched against Israel. Provoking a war is easy; controlling it difficult. It is not fanciful to imagine a situation in which, becoming a prisoner of his own rhetoric, Khamenei is forced to pull the trigger to avoid losing face with his “martyrdom-seeking” audience.Little wonder then that Shimon Peres, the Israeli President, has warned of a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But wouldn’t such an attack merely postpone Tehran’s nuclear programme for a few years? The Israelis heard that claim in 1981 and 2007 before they launched pre-emptive attacks on Iraqi and Syrian nuclear sites. These did not postpone the Iraqi and Syrian projects; they stopped them for good.Israel has always felt that it is living on borrowed time, so even five or ten years respite should not be dismissed, especially given the possibility that the unpopular Khomeinist regime might again face a nationwide insurrection.The stand-off over Iran’s ambitions is reaching a crucial point. No longer able to play wait-and-see, Washington needs something more than President Barack Obama’s “hand of friendship” to deal with a determined adversary that, in the words of its Foreign Minister, is “ready for the bitter end”.

You’ve finally landed after a nightmare flight in cattle class. All you can think of is getting home, cleaning up the cat sick and opening the post and a bottle of wine. Then, at immigration control, you are confronted by a queue that overflows the room while a patient border official steadily works his way through the grumpy mob. It’s enough to make you want to stay at home.I have developed an intense dislike of flying because of the unpleasantness of “the airport experience”, and offer a hug to anyone prepared to try to improve it. So I have some sympathy for the UK Border Agency staff who have been suspended because they apparently sanctioned a slackening of immigration checks down to “level 2” over the summer when queues became too long. Some fear that terrorists may have been let into Britain because “a few airline passengers are moaning about delays”. I have certainly moaned about understaffing at border controls, but were we really exposed to an increased risk of terrorism?This would not be difficult to establish. The Borders Agency must know how many suspects, wanted criminals, pseudo “students” and so on it manages to detain using the standard checks. (It would not have been all of them.) Provided the level 2 regime was used at random then the numbers of such people trying to get into Britain would not be affected. Therefore we can compare how many were caught under level 2 (probably not many) with how many would be expected to be caught by standard checking (possibly not many more).

Security checks are as much a deterrent as a means of detecting actual suspects, so they can be random — if a baddy knows there is a reasonable chance of being caught he may think again. So not everyone has to be checked equally, provided it is genuinely unpredictable who will be taken aside. It would be different if it were known that some airports had permanently lax security — that could be seriously dangerous.So with my statistician’s hat on, I would recommend that the Borders Agency installs a little flashing device in each booth that signals at random when someone should be examined in detail. Crucially, the rate of people being selected for full scrutiny could be varied according to the queue.The cost of security is more than just staff wages. The annoyance of returning Brits is one thing, but more important is the image of this country held by bona fide foreign visitors, businessmen and investors. Someone should work out the cost-effectiveness of keeping the queues short.

Ghostwriters Unlimited

February 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

… is the amount in yuan, the equivalent of about £10, that will buy you 1,000 words of ghostwritten brilliance if, like many nailbiting Chinese white-collar workers at this time of year, you need a tautly crafted comedy sketch in a hurry.

China’s online scribes-for-hire have become an established cottage industry at about the same pace that e-commerce generally has soared. The first generation of Chinese ghostwriters are attuned to domestic academic demands and cheerfully will create everything from a high-school essay to a master’s degree thesis on your behalf. The quality is entirely dependent on the fee, one web-based agency said.

But the oddities of seasonal demand in China have produced a new sub-set of the ghostwriter genre. In the past, the run-up to Chinese new year (which falls in late January) involved tortured weeks of writer’s block and frazzled nerves as employees sweated over their offering for the office party.

What is called for is either a tasteful speech or, sometimes, a short play that entertains an audience of colleagues with gentle references to people in the workplace. For many, the challenge of getting the balance just right is too onerous and the new breed of ghostwriters are only a mouse-click away.

“We know what we’re doing,” the manager of a ghostwriting agency in Shanghai said. “All we need is your co-operation and full details on what you need. If you’re not happy, we’ll keep revising it free of charge until you are.”

Increasingly, Chinese office workers have spotted that there is another annual chore ripe for the outsourcing: the writing of the year-end report and self-assessment for one’s superiors. Unlike the script of the play for an office party, the contents of the year-end report conceivably could be fairly sensitive and involve corporate secrets. But that has not stood in the way and the ghostwriters have again jumped in with elegant, low-priced prose.

The interesting thing about the ghostwriters is where they can be found. They are yet another facet of China’s still-tiny services industry that has sprung to life not only on the internet but also on Taobao — one of China’s colossal open-to-all-comers online trading platforms that is changing the structure of domestic commerce more rapidly than any top-down efforts to reshape it.

Few would have much difficulty believing that China is, at heart, a mercantile society, but Taobao is where the animal spirits are truly allowed out to play. The companies that have emerged on Taobao are not like the hundreds of thousands that emerged to meet the needs of foreign buyers; they are what happens when the country’s innate mercantilism is unleashed by the Chinese for the Chinese. These are early days, and the vast majority of Taobao’s innovative energy is directed solely at flogging goods online, but next it will be channelled to services and then into ideas. China may be years from evolving its own Apple, but Taobao could be where the seeds are sown.

Tick the Box Culture

February 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

taking

We all love a good sat-nav disaster story. You know the ones — where some dozy bloke ignores the warning signs and drives into a lake because the TomTom lady told him to. What a dope. What happened to his common sense? We’d never do anything so daft, we say to ourselves.

Except we do. That is to say, many intelligent people in important jobs slavishly follow the procedures and, ignoring all the warning signs, end up doing really dumb things.

Just look at the really dumb things many of the world’s biggest banks did in the run-up to the financial crisis. Most had highly sophisticated risk management systems that told them everything was fine despite obvious warnings that they were heading for disaster. So they just kept going until they drove into the lake.

According to Sir Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, some of the regulators were just as bad. They followed the detailed procedures but ignored the alarm bells of mounting debt. They left their judgment at home.

There is nothing new about criticism of a “box-ticking” culture, which has probably been going on for as long as there have been boxes to tick. Some Tory MPs argue that the problem increased under the Labour governments, which were very focused on process, targets and regulation. This seems a bit unfair, given that the trend has been visible in other walks of life.

Whatever the truth, there certainly seems to be a new resolve to do something about it.

The commitment to end the culture of “tick-box” regulation was enshrined in the coalition agreement and the Prime Minister has slammed the way in which health and safety legislation has undermined personal responsibility. Everyone thinks that as long as the boxes have been ticked, they will be safe or they won’t be blamed and if anything goes wrong compensation can be claimed.

Peter Fahy, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, has warned that the tick-box culture had spread throughout the public service. Calling for a return to commonsense policing, he said there was a generation of police officers who were too frightened to use their own professional judgment.

Most recently, David Cameron has blamed box-ticking in local authorities for the fall in the number of adoptions in Britain.

It is much easier to make a commitment to change this culture than to achieve it, but Sir Gus O’Donnell, the outgoing head of the Civil Service, believes real progress is being made. He reports that the Government’s red tape challenge, designed to scrap unnecessary regulations, has been embraced enthusiastically by Whitehall.

But to be really successful this needs a big change in the way civil servants view risk and failure, he says. They must be prepared to take more risks and have a “grown-up approach” to failure. “We should celebrate success and learn from failure.”

Part of the problem, he believes, is a media environment in which “failure is punished much harder than success is celebrated”. There is something to this, though it is rare for civil servants to be held personally responsible for huge failures — the disastrous NHS computerisation fiasco springs to mind — particularly if they can show that they ticked all the right boxes.

Sir Gus argues that the environment is more punishing for ministers and civil servants who take risks and fail than it is in the private sector. But there is a worrying drift towards process-driven box-ticking in business, too.

It seems to be one reason that executive pay has got so out of control in Britain. In the 1990s, company boards and big City shareholders came under fire for bumper payments to executives that did not appear to be justified by performance. They reacted by calling in consultants, who designed highly complex compensation schemes that calculated bonuses according to how top executives performed against myriad targets.

Critics say that this appealed to boards and shareholders partly because they could distance themselves from individual awards by pointing to the rigorous process that determined them. Executives were able to game the system and pay continued to soar. But boards and shareholders could shrug off outrageous awards, saying “there was nothing we could do. He hit all the targets”.

What is needed is for boards to take back responsibility for executive pay and to exercise more judgment about executive performance rather than leaving it to a mechanical formula. Of course, this will be much more uncomfortable for boards and could open them up to legal challenges.

It would be ridiculous to suggest that we can do without rules or to deny the gains from the introduction of a more rigorous and quantitative approach to management in the public and private sectors. But this must not be allowed to squeeze out judgment and personal responsibility.

Sir Mervyn, who will soon become responsible for financial regulation, says it is essential that there should be detailed rules governing the way financial institutions conduct business and treat their customers. But when it comes to the safety of the financial system, regulators should be able to exercise their judgment. They should be able to tell a bank that it is taking too many risks even if it hasn’t broken any specific rules.

This alarms many City firms, which critics say have adopted the highly bureaucratic and legalistic approach to business that dominates Wall Street. “How can you run a business if you don’t know what will be allowed and what won’t?” asks one City lawyer.

The trade-off between rules and judgment is particularly tricky in financial regulation. Northern Rock would not have got itself into so much trouble had there been the sort of limits on low-deposit mortgages seen in other countries. But the Financial Services Authority has been persuaded not to introduce such rules and to continue to rely on the good judgment of lenders.

Whether this proves the correct approach to risk remains to be seen. But it is surely right that, even in financial regulation, we need to fight against the dangers of box-ticking while recognising that it will lead to some mistakes.

Stifling freedom of thought and individual responsibility will cost us dear. If everything comes down to ticking boxes, the Chinese will beat us every time.

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