“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” Buddha*

March 9th, 2013

The recent death of Hugo Chavez spawned a veritable plague of news articles in the Mainstream Media about the man and his life. Most of the obituaries and reports followed predictable patterns—the capitalist press reviled the man and his reputation and the left wing press praised his humble origins and the benefits that he brought to the poor of Venezuela (I’m generalising here).

So, an unbiased member of the public being told all this has a dilemma (assuming that they access more than one news outlet)—how do they interpret such seemingly contradictory stories? Was he a good man, a despot or what?

Here’s a little true story that distils the problem.

One day at work I was looking at a book that had a picture of a lion feeding on its kill. The angle of its front leg was such that it was easy to imagine that leg as a human arm pinning down the carcass. Almost thinking out aloud I remarked to a co-worker at this similarity and extrapolated how the theory of evolution could come about. This co-worker (who I knew to be a Christian) then revealed his fundamentalism and said that actually, in the books he owned, creationism was the true explanation for the variety we see in the natural world.

As I had been educated in a secular school, science and the scientific method was my dominant frame of reference for checking the veracity of any theory. This only worked of course, if the subject matter lent itself to such a method. Even then, it appears that quantifiable results can be disputed within the scientific community. So simply quoting one book against another doesn’t really help if you’re trying to drill down to any sort of truth.

And as soon as the discussion enters a realm of subjectivity, then the fragile model of the scientific method becomes useless. Economics, for example, is often seen by most people as some kind of science due to the number of university courses available and government advisors mentioned in news reports. The reality is that economics is far closer to religion than it is to science and politicians have ‘faith’ in different belief systems whether they be the teachings of Keynes or Hayek or whoever.

Which system is best is impossible to verify due to the complexity of human society and the massive ambiguity of what ‘best’ means. But that doesn’t stop those people who benefit the most from a particular belief system from promoting that version of the religion, especially if they have the means to do so.

I have long since realised that in the game of news reporting merely deciding which story to report is a political act—one story is more important than another based on which criteria? Even a seemingly ‘neutral’ story immediately runs into trouble once the bare facts are given. The Hillsborough story for example, is that 96 football fans died in a crush. But as soon as the obvious question of “why did they die?” is asked, the propaganda begins.

Propaganda is designed to promote one idea over another and it is conducted most fiercely by those who have the most to gain (or lose) from an idea being accepted.

I said the story about my co-worker was a true one. You don’t know whether it was true or not; I know it’s true because I was there but you just read it here as a story and so if I was duplicitous for whatever reason, I could say that it was a true story even though I made it up. I would do this because it might discredit a rival idea which threatens my belief system.

Coming back to Chavez, I’m told by the media that this person used to exist (I never met him so I don’t even know that basic fact for sure). I’m also told that he believed that the moon landing never took place (what is this information supposed to tell me?). Some stories claim that he was a revolutionary who helped the poor and other stories that he wrecked the economy. Some stories claim that he brought a huge number of people out of poverty.

The one thing that I can be certain of from these stories is that someone, somewhere is frightened of what Chavez represents —and that is all that I can really divine about the man.

Ultimately, propaganda is about preserving or acquiring some kind of privilege. The media is a battle ground of ideas and, like any other human invention it is a continuum of extreme positions. Rational, unbiased reporting is simply one extreme position in the scale of things, like the ideal that everyone is born equal and has equal rights. From my personal experience, encountering extreme positions in the real world is extremely rare.

Here’s my thinking … Apparently, the unbiased news is that Venezuela has huge oil reserves (so I read). The world is addicted to oil (I know this because I have to use it myself). Having oil therefore, is a privilege for those addicted to it. Who gets that oil is down to a battle of ideas first. Then, if lobbying doesn’t work for the more powerful groups who are bidding for it, a physical battle usually comes second. My guess is that the West somehow needs to ’save’ the people of Venezuela from people like Chavez. How best to do that?

*Sounds great. If only it were true.

Doctor Faustus at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

March 7th, 2013
Image courtesy of WY Playhouse

Image courtesy of WY Playhouse

I made a pact with the Playhouse: to go and see Doctor Faustus on a complementary ticket but in return, blog about it. I did the deal but often, these pacts turn out badly.

In some ways, it reminded me of being back at school, the play would only make sense to me if I were studying it line by line for A level English.

I never studied Doctor Faustus at school, although I knew the story of course – a man sells his soul to the devil – so the archaic language at the start of this production filled me with foreboding. The English language from the 16th century is impenetrable for a 21st century inhabitant which is why close study of the text is required (and possibly why the programme has a complete transcript of the play). There was even Latin thrown into the mix as Faust attempts to raise a demon with his incantations (which immediately made me think of what Harry Potter and its pig-Latin might invent in such a scene: “Murdochus appearum” perhaps?).

I managed to roughly follow the arguments of Faustus with Mephistopheles as he decides whether to sell his soul or not. Unfortunately, the logical fallacies involved set me off on my own train of thought and I wondered what would happen if the feuding neighbour of Faustus also sold his soul at the same time and they came to diabolical blows – who would have precedence, is there a hierarchy to evil, or does human ingenuity still have a part to play in such matters?

For me, the one unexpected moment in the play occurred here (spoiler alert) when the first manifestation of the demon wriggled from beneath the bed covers in a truly disturbing manner. If only the entire play had been produced along these horror lines, I might have been genuinely moved.

Fortunately, the new additions to the play written by Colin Teevan were in modern English and were set in modern times. This meant I could relax my concentration on the language somewhat and enjoy the writing and the performances instead. These additions were cynical, comic and topical in their tone and suggested that the production was falling between two stools – the gothic horror of the original and the scatological slapstick of the modern. Given a choice, I would have much preferred that the play had opted for the latter direction as it simply made it more relevant. The throwaway sideswipe at the bankers, for example, selling their souls to Mephistopheles suddenly came alive with genuine moral evil and injustice.

I also found that the old stories from the past suffered from our moral progress today. Mephistopheles’ story of his beloved girlfriend being traded like a trinket amongst the court circle didn’t invoke the same sort of sympathy that it might have aroused in the 16th century. It simply made me appalled at the attitude towards women at the time.

During the interval, Phil Kirby gave me some information about Marlowe himself and to be honest, I found this information a lot more interesting than the play; to be an atheist during the time that Marlowe was alive must have been as dangerous and isolating as a politician today declaring their interest in paedophilia. I wanted to learn more about the playwright as a result.

Whenever I go to the theatre I always struggle with the concept of the art form – what is it supposed to do: inform, entertain, enlighten, provide work for actors? There is successful theatre out there, I’m sure of it. For many young people today their theatre of choice is the arena hosting a favourite band whose songs no doubt, speak to them intimately. Add to this the thunder, lights and pyrotechnics on the stage and you have an emotional charge to reckon with. Yes, in that context I can see how such a performance can move an audience.

So, did Doctor Faustus move me? No. Was it entertaining? Yes, mildly.

Not so much Mephisto then as ‘Meh’.

Breaking in America

January 11th, 2013

As the Bettakultcha debate about mainstream gathers pace this Gentle Ihor’s Devotion track suddenly seemed prescient …

12 Breaking America

5 things you need to know …

December 19th, 2012

1. Be able to count. How else are you going to be able to differentiate between the top 10 of things or the top 1000 of things? Apparently one of these sets has more urgency than the other.

2. Learn to read. Nearly all top ten lists (or whatever number) are written down somewhere so if you can’t read you won’t be able to spot these all important nuggets of information.

3. Understand the concept of reductionism. Breaking things down into smaller numbers and simpler components makes you imagine that things really are that simple.

4. Never learn from your mistakes. If you did, you would know that headlines about ‘top five things’ etc., are just link bait to some trashy, meaningless numbers game.

5. Sometimes, real lessons can be found in the most stupid of things …

A universal language

September 28th, 2012

This precipitated this tweet by Jon Beech.

Beechtweet

Later, in the bath, I reflected on the implied criticism of the tweet and found myself in interesting territory. What is wrong with a universal language? If everyone has their national language but their second language is always English, what is so bad about that? You could travel to most places in the world confident that you would find someone who spoke enough English to communicate with.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not precious about the English language (although I am grateful that it is my first language which saves me the trouble of learning it) I could comfortably contemplate Mandarin as being the universal language.

A universal language has been tried before; Esperanto which tried to preserve everyone’s national pride by  bastardising most of them and in so doing pleased no one. Unfortunately it simply wasn’t useful enough in the real world.

In the global economy of today it pays to learn the languages that will give the most return on your investment. If I was to spend the time and effort in learning French I would only be able to use it productively in France (yes, yes, I know that in certain parts of Canada it would be useful). I could speculate that in ten years time Mandarin might become the global language but that predicates on so many precarious economic factors and its inability to adapt itself easily for digital use argues against it.

No, you learn the language of current global usage. If the dominant language is English then so be it, that is what you will learn. I am aware that Spanish speaking peoples outnumber English speaking people but the truth is that the spheres of influence in the world use English as the first language.

But I digress. My point is that a language is not a currency, it is not an ideology foist upon a defenceless people by some superpower. It is a tool, like an axe, which can be used for many purposes, some good, some not so good.

One of the few examples of a universal standard that I can think of is 16mm film, still in use today. This was developed by the Nazi’s to aid their propaganda machine. So successful were they in establishing the medium that at one period during the sixties and seventies, you could take a 16mm film anywhere in the world and you would be able to find a projector to show it.

But 16mm film is just a medium, it is not an ideology. Anti-fascist films can be made on it too. Language is just the same.

Incidentally we have gone backwards in the technological ease of showing moving images. There are so many formats and protocols for digital video that if you take your .MOV file burned on a dvd, chances are it won’t play on someone else’s branded laptop.

The orbit of health

September 21st, 2012

I’m going to make a prediction here which hopefully, in decades to come, some astute researcher might point to and show that I anticipated a medical breakthrough by a good slice of time.

Of course, I’m just guessing but it’s a guess based on empirical observations and extrapolation.

As far as we can tell the entire universe operates on basic laws and thus conforms to predictable behaviour. Out of these laws has resulted our solar system with many planetary bodies orbiting the sun. There are countless other such solar systems in the universe.

Here on the earth we have life forms that regulate their life cycle based on the rhythms of the moon and the orbit of the earth around the sun. On a smaller level, insects are more profoundly influenced by electromagnetic forces than gravitational ones. Gravity and electromagnetism are elemental forces that have existed since the dawn of time and indeed, possibly shape time itself.

It makes sense therefore that humans are influenced by the more subtle consequences of these forces as well as the more obvious ones. My assertion is that we are influenced by them on a much more profound level than hitherto appreciated.

I have noticed that during my years on this planet I have been visited by various minor afflictions that are cyclical in nature, seeming to flare up every few years. Naturally I tried to discover if there was a contributory factor or factors which could explain the flare up but neither me nor the doctors could find any. By improving my general health overall – by observing hygiene rules, avoiding processed food, exercising regularly etc. – I have managed to minimise the affects of these cyclical ailments. However, there are still certain subtle manifestations in my general well-being such as my mood which seem to ebb and flow in some kind of cycle irrespective of anything I do.

Unfortunately I have not kept a record of the intervals of these phenomena nor the severity of them so I can’t prove in any epidemiological way that there is a regular ‘orbit’ of them.

We are made of star stuff so it makes sense that our organisms bow to the forces of the universe. Our biorhythms might one day be as predictable as the tides of the oceans.

On the origin of gods

August 10th, 2012

Hand-print-in-cave

In The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins the question is asked ‘Where do gods come from?’ but no answer is given.

Every human society around the world has some belief about a spiritual afterlife. Why should that be the case? If it is universal then presumably it cannot be a human quirk developed by accident and dependent on some special configuration of circumstances. This suggests that we are hard wired to develop a belief system or at the very least evolutionary inclined towards adopting this strategy. Here is my attempt at an explanation.

In his book The End of Forever, Darryl Reanney suggests that a belief in an afterlife was necessary to counter the negative impact of self awareness in consciousness. As consciousness developed in our species we inevitably realised that we as individuals would die one day – using intelligence to plan strategy will inevitably pose the question “what happens to us?” No other species has this knowledge, they all live in the moment. I am confident of this assertion because of the reasoning I will give later. If you are aware of your own mortality then this can produce a profound negative feedback loop in your thinking. If you’re going to die anyway, what is the point of doing anything significant or of planning too far ahead? Evolution ‘encourages’ species to develop and adapt to the environment and to ultimately replicate themselves. If we keep reflecting on what is the purpose of it all then, there is a danger that we will find no purpose and ’shut down’ in our consciousness preventing its further evolution.

As an experiment in evolution, consciousness is a hugely dangerous adaptation. For it to develop fully it needed to have a fail-safe mechanism for avoiding the downsides of self awareness.

In mathematics, the appearance of infinity in any equation is an abomination to the mathematician as it produces unacceptable results. In human consciousness the opposite is true; the finite is unacceptable. The realisation of our own mortality is an abomination for our consciousness, therefore the concept of an afterlife has to be created to avoid this finality.

Our species can now continue with the process of procreation using the powerful advantage of higher consciousness safe in the knowledge that there is a purpose for doing so.

In my opinion, Richard Dawkins‘ exploration of a god concept missed two crucial elements to its development, namely, art and drugs (particularly hallucinogenic drugs). To a lesser degree, language is another key component in the origination of an afterlife.

It is my contention that any species that produces art will have a concept of an afterlife, this is why I am convinced that although a species such as the elephant has self awareness, it does not produce art, therefore it has not made the leap into higher consciousness that allows it to extrapolate its own inevitable demise. The footage of elephants fondling the bones of other, recently dead elephants suggests that they are on the cusp of such an awakening. Incidentally, the ‘art’ that some elephants have produced has been shown to be the result of their handlers subtle signals and not any spontaneous expression from the animal.

So what is art?

Art is the demonstration of creativity. It is the leap of consciousness from merely observing the environment to manipulating it. Art has power. It is no accident that Islam forbids the representation of humans and animals.

The cave paintings from Lascaux tell us a great deal about the significance of art and narcotics.

What is not widely known about the cave paintings is that many of the pictures are difficult to interpret because of the curious marks that accompany them; mostly dots obscuring the image beneath. There are also zigzags and semi circles. It has been suggested that these marks represent the visual effects produced by certain narcotic substances. Whether the paintings were done under the influence of these narcotics or the visions were remembered and then reproduced is unknown. But here is the holy trinity for the origination of religion: art, narcotics and language.

Art is an attempt to make a connection with that being depicted. In the case of the Lascaux painters, the beasts that they observed and hunted. Art is creating something out of ‘nothing’ – the colours come from dirt, minerals, plants, insects. The representation of the animal from these basic, fundamental ingredients is a god-like act. It is not difficult to extrapolate from that realisation to the idea that a much larger artist created the world in just such a way. Art is creation, as is god. This connection can be verified by witnessing the hand silhouettes of the artists from thousands of years ago. I find these images disturbing because the art does what it intended to do – to reach out through time in an immortal salute and to defy death. I shiver at their timeless question; who was this person?

The predominance of human and animal sacrifice in many early belief systems points to an obsession with mortality and an afterlife.

The role of narcotics in helping to develop the idea of an afterlife is equally easy to understand. Anyone who has taken any kind of drug will know of its power to provide an alternative view of reality. For a human being (and indeed many other species) this window to another reality is hugely attractive. Again, nearly all human cultures have been shown to use narcotics in one way or another. Why do humans crave an escape from the one reality that they are familiar with? Perhaps we are back to the unacceptable ‘reality’ of our own mortality. Whatever the reason, the drug experience allows us to extrapolate to the conclusion that there must be other dimensions that are yet to be discovered.

The Lascaux artists were probably viewed as shaman or interlocutors by their fellow tribespeole. Vocalised language allowed these shaman to communicate the content of their visions to others. The story of another world that exists beyond our knowledge must have been so easy to believe and the story was then  corroborated by the language of art.

The paintings themselves at Lascaux are not easily accessible for the casual observer, they are deep within a cave system. This suggests an early development of the concept of sacredness or exclusivity for the ’seeing ones’.

How does this help from an evolutionary point of view? My guess is that those tribes with a strongly developed sense of an afterlife would co-operate more with each other and have a stronger sense of community. Crucially however, it would allow the investment of resources and time for bigger projects such as stone circles, calendars and burial mounds. These would help the future generations to have a better chance of survival. Here could be the very foundation of civilisation itself. A large scale meeting of tribes would increase trade, ideas and knowledge. This would give the group a greater resilience to future hardships when compared to godless humans who operated without this network.

Robbin’ ‘Hoods – stealing from the poor, giving to the rich.

July 17th, 2012

Anyone who has bank savings in this country is currently losing money. The interest rates paid on savings can barely keep up with inflation and with public services being cut all the time because of the government having to bail out the banks, those savings will become more important than ever in the bleak future. And the miserly interest rates offered by the banks have to be begged for by the customers every year. If you don’t pay your respects to the mighty barons of the land at least once every year and go cap in hand to them they cut your interest rate to virtually zero.

It was on such a servile visit to a bank that I was subject to yet more scorn and derision. Not content with having me waste my time every year by forcing me to visit their church of money, they then decide to take advantage of the situation by attempting to blackmail me, emotionally at least.

The foot soldier from the bank (I know he’s just doing what he’s told) explained to me the scheme they had attached to their savings accounts. At the end of each year when the interest is calculated I could elect to round down the figure to the nearest pound and whatever pence is left would go to some charity that I had to choose from some list that they had… I had stopped listening to this outrageous nonsense as I tried to comprehend what this prison guard was trying to get me to sign.

This was a bank. Through such models as fractional reserve banking, only an idiot could fail to make money with a bank. Through their position of privilege and power the banks got too cocky and lost their depositors money thereby requiring the taxpayer to foot the bill. They have since caused job losses, house repossessions and cuts to public services for the most needy in our society. As a reward for such despicable work, they continue to award themselves huge bonuses and maintain that they are the best people to do the job. These people are scum. To then pretend that they have ‘charitable’ inclinations is a lie that beggars belief. Note also, that the charitable scheme required the depositor to make the donation (yet again) whilst the bank contributed nothing (nay, the bank clearly thought it profited from positive PR it thought it was spinning).

Slightly shell shocked and in a tone of voice that suggested I had been tortured for hours but still clung to a vision of reality that made some sense, I declined his heretical document of moral turpitude.

It was only afterwards when I reflected on the sheer hypocrisy of the idea that I became aware of its boldness…

“If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed”. Adolf Hitler.

What have we become?

Networking problem

June 25th, 2012

Equipment used:
HP Photosmart 7510 (wireless print)
Apple TV (3rd generation)
iPad 3

Intention: to wirelessly mirror the iPad screen on a TV and to wirelessly print files created on the iPad.

The equipment was set up and tested on a home broadband network which was password protected. It all worked perfectly.

At the exhibition venue, the equipment was tested before the event. Their wireless network required a browser to open a splash page which then asked for a username and password. The Apple TV found the network but didn’t ask for a username or password. Similarly, the printer found the network but didn’t ask for a username or password. The iPad found the network and did enter a username and password through a browser. However, none of the equipment could see each other and no amount of configuration helped.

The next morning the equipment was tested again as per the night before and this time, for whatever reason, they could all see each other. For a period of about an hour the wireless connection held. Then I wandered about fifteen to twenty metres away from the Apple TV and printer. When I tried to print a file from the iPad the button was greyed out and I discovered that I had lost all connection with the other two pieces of equipment. No further connection could be established wirelessly no matter what was tried (including attaching an ethernet cable from the network to the Apple TV).

When I returned home all the equipment worked perfectly again using the home wi-fi network.

Explanations given;
1. The printer and Apple TV need static IP addresses.
2. An ethernet cable should be supplied to the stand which then plugs into our own wireless router. The iPad, Apple TV and printer are then connected to that routers network (this would avoid issues involving several routers creating one large network in a venue).
3. Faulty equipment. Forums reveal that Apple TV (3rd generation) is completely unreliable and that the Photosmart 7510 model of printer is equally unreliable for its wi-fi connection.
4. Wi-fi is too complex to guarantee any sort of success in varying situations.

Any confirmation of the above explanations welcome!

The thin edge of technology

June 15th, 2012

It’s a shocking revelation to discover just how thin our atmosphere is when compared to other distances but because we are immersed in it constantly, we take it for granted and intuitively imagine that its influence extends well beyond  the reality.

It’s the same with technology. Because we use technology every day we unconsciously perceive it as all powerful, indispensable, unquestionable. However, the truth reveals the incredibly thin edge of technology.

Here is an example. I was an early adopter of satnav technology. I was an early adopter because of my needs; physically finding unknown addresses throughout the country. The new technology, with its amazing background of satellites and triangulation, allowed me to find an address without much research. The biggest benefit however was when I was stuck in a traffic jam—a few taps on the screen and an alternative route was immediately planned. I could leave the traffic jam and easily negotiate roads around it. In the atmosphere analogy, I was breathing whilst everyone else in the traffic jam was struggling for breath.

Then the inevitable happened, as technology becomes cheap enough and reliable enough, more and more people use it. Today, satnav is everywhere—phones, tablets, stand alone devices… If I get caught in a traffic jam now, I can guarantee that any alternative route planned will be duplicated across thousands of other satnavs in similar cars caught in the same jam and the congestion will merely get spread across a larger area. Any advantage I had as an early adopter is gone and we’re all back to the position before we started.

Similarly, if a government develops the ultimate weapon, for a short time, it has to be respected and obeyed. Once other governments develop their own ultimate weapons, a stalemate is achieved and no one dares use their ultimate weapon. As a result, older technologies have to be employed such as tanks and artillery. The progress is backwards, not forwards.

So the benefits of technology are conferred to the few and are short lived.

I accept that it could be argued that the original benefit of satnavs is still there: finding an address with ease. But my point is that we become accustomed to that ease and we default to an automatic assumption about how life is lived. The car and the satnav are no longer amazing achievements in human ingenuity, they’re simply a means of getting to work and back. Imagine not having any shoes. Sure, it would be tough adjusting to the absence of that particular technology but we managed for millions of years without them and we can do so again.

There is a myth about technology that I’m only just beginning to deconstruct.