Tuesday, February 28, 2012

d) nun of the above

Good job I was only about 15 minutes late getting to work yesterday morning, as Start The Week with Andrew Marr on Radio 4 was shaping up to be possibly the most annoying programme ever broadcast. The title "Faith and Doubt" set the alarm bells ringing even before the guests were announced - "doubt" being a code-word usually used to make the religious sound reasonable and open to new evidence, prepared to adjust their belief system if required, that sort of thing, as well as maybe just a little bit tortured and interesting. It differs from "scepticism" in that it's clearly understood that the doubt will be resolved by a re-affirmation of faith, or at least an undertaking to try harder at it, rather than the abandonment of it.

If that hadn't been enough of a red flag, the name of the first guest, Karen Armstrong, would have given the game away. Armstrong is the former Roman Catholic nun who, after her decision to give up the nunning game (hardest game in the world, the old nunning game), has gone on to forge a lucrative career as a writer of articles and books on religion. These aren't especially in keeping with her Roman Catholic upbringing, though, being more in the wishy-washy hand-waving vein familiar to anyone who's ever stumbled across Terry Eagleton's writings.

Clearly they couldn't risk having an actual rationalist on the show being a spoilsport and not playing by the rules (though I was hoping to be proved wrong and find they'd saved the fourth chair for AC Grayling) - instead they wheeled out a couple of writers of broadly sympathetic views and Richard Holloway, a former bishop whose career seems to have followed a similar trajectory to Armstrong's, i.e. from orthodoxy to a sort of vague hand-waving hello clouds hello sky metaphorical mystical transcendence bullshit.

Just to sidetrack for a minute, I had the idea in my head that the early-90s Kristin Scott Thomas ITV series Body And Soul was a loose adaptation of Armstrong's book Through The Narrow Gate, dealing as it does with a young woman's transition from being a nun to, well, not being a nun any more, with just a little bit of low-key soft-core partial nudity (stockings and the like) to draw the punters in (this is presumably why it stuck in my mind). Anyhoo, it turns out that the two are completely unrelated apart from the coincidental plot similarities - the TV series being based on a novel by Marcelle Bernstein.

Back to the main topic: what you need to pull this sort of thing off successfully is a set of tactics very similar to the accommodationists - a lofty disdain for the "extremists" at both ends of the spectrum (flying commercial jetliners into buildings and writing harsh and sarcastic articles on the internet being broadly equivalent in terms of unacceptable rudeness, apparently), a steadfast refusal ever to define clearly what any of the terms you bandy around (like, for instance, "God") actually mean, and a sort of chuckly patronising dismissal of those who attempt to challenge or tie you down on what you mean and what you actually believe.

Again, this is religion as metaphor without the moral courage or clarity of thought to come out and say OK, but the supernatural water/wine loaves/fishes stuff is all bollocks, though. You have to master the Janus-like ability to say to the mass of 99% of religious people - who totally believe Jesus was a real live white guy with nice hair and lovely white teeth and a beard who just happened to live in the Middle East - yes, we're defending your core beliefs against those nasty shrill scientists who really just want to herd your grannies into the gas chambers, and simultaneously to engage in "respectable", "intellectual" debate on Radio 4 where you do a lot of "could it not be said" and "might we say" and "in a sense" without ever making any testable claim about any aspect of reality. Throw in a bit of conflation of religion (carefully left undefined) and morality and some guff about charity and the kiddies, plus the obligatory Dawkins-bashing, and you're done.

Dawkins-bashing is a pastime where interest never flags completely, but fluctuates in proportion to how much he's been in the news lately. Just at the moment he's been popping up in various places - I caught a bit of Nicky Campbell's The Big Questions (better title: Big Questions To Which The Answer Is No) the other day, but I expect there were others - to publicise the poll on religious belief that his foundation commissioned from Ipsos-MORI recently, and which has some interesting, though hardly very surprising, things to say about the reality of religious belief and observance in the UK, the gist of it being that most people are bovinely unreflective about the whole thing and just rock up to church every Sunday out of habit and social convention, or possibly for the cakes, rather than out of any sort of evangelical fervour, or because they're quite lidderally bonkers about Jesus or anything like that.

Anyway, this fairly uncontroversial stuff has provoked an astonishing upspewing of vitriol from the conservative press - most absurdly the episode a week or so ago where a journalist rang Dawkins up to have a pop at him for one of his ancestors having owned some slaves. To be fair even some of the commenters at the Daily Mail felt this was crossing the line into ridiculousness, which tells you something.

Possibly as part of the same publicity round Dawkins popped up in a debate with the cuddly old Archbishop of Canterbury this week about the whole God thing. I must confess I find Rowan Williams quite fascinating, and it's not just the mesmerising eyebrows, it's the fact that he's a clearly highly intelligent man who believes some patently ridiculous stuff. The interior of his brain must resemble some sort of partially-cleared minefield, with all sorts of barbed wire and giant red signs with skull & crossbones logos on them to mark places where trains of thought must not trespass, lest they unleash an explosion of cognitive dissonance.

As you might expect the debate was all quite donnish and mutually respectful, so in the absence of any "shrillness" to complain about the Mail were left with having to jump on Dawkins' referring to himself at one point as an "agnostic" and claim it as some big AHA! moment. As I said before I think "agnostic" is a term to be avoided, partly because it grants a sort of respect to these particular ridiculous claims that we don't grant to similar ones about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and partly because it's meaningless, since we're technically agnostic about virtually everything that isn't just true by definition ("all bachelors are unmarried" and the like). Anyone who doesn't get this is respectfully requested to wash down their portion of Flying Spaghetti Monster with a nice cuppa from Russell's Teapot, or alternatively to consider whether the Archbish might admit to a 0.1% (or 0.01% or 0.00001%, whatever) smidgen of doubt about the whole God thing. I suspect he would, so you have to ask the question: does that make him an agnostic? Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander, innit.

pob's your uncle

Here's a contribution to the ongoing debate over which 1980s celebrity the current Education Secretary Michael Gove most resembles: Pob or Rick Moranis. Rick Moranis got my vote, but it appears that the people at lovable scatological Geordie publication Viz have other ideas. Have a look:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

golden showers with fanny intervals

Good to see the BBC keeping up their recently instigated tradition of dropping the c-bomb on live TV and radio at inopportune moments (not that there are many opportune ones). The latest one involves weather forecaster Alex Deakin dropping it into a weather forecast. He was trying to say "bucket-loads of sunshine", but - well, see for yourself.

the last book I read

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

Redrick "Red" Schuhart is a stalker. What that means is that he makes a living scavenging various mysterious alien artefacts from The Zone, one of half-a-dozen sites on Earth where alien visitors arrived briefly some years before, before buggering off again as quickly as they came.

These Zones are cordoned off from public access, partly for the public's own safety, since there are physical objects there that can maim or kill, as well as more nebulous things like weird local concentrations of gravity that can crush vehicles (and, needless to say, people) like a grape. The exclusion of Joe Public is also partly prompted by less altruistic motives, inevitably, as some of the alien artefacts, while potentially dangerous if mishandled, have wide-ranging applications for energy, public health, and the like and The Man wants to ensure he gets his cut.

With anything like this there's going to be a thriving black market as well, of course, as long as people are prepared to pay enough to make it worthwhile for other people to risk their lives by breaking into the Zones. Which is where Red comes in. He's an old hand at navigating round the weird death-dealing phenomena to get to the good stuff, and being able to get it out of the Zone and move it on to the right people. Red takes the occasional occupational hazards in his stride - a two-year jail sentence, his old co-stalker and mentor Buzzard Burbridge falling into a pool of alien goop and having his legs dissolved below the knee, another co-stalker snagging some alien spider-web stuff and subsequently dying, that sort of thing.

One of the problems with being a stalker, apart from the constant danger of getting arrested or shot or stumbling into a gravitational anomaly and getting turned inside-out, is the long-term effects of spending a lot of time in the Zone - there's no measurable radiation being emitted, but something happens to stalkers, and those that don't find themselves rendered incapable of having children altogether produce offspring that are a bit, well, odd. Red's daughter Monkey is a case in point, being so named because, well, she looks a bit like a monkey.

It's in a desperate attempt to generate a lump sum to get some (almost certainly futile) treatment for Monkey that Red takes on One Last Job - finding the Holy Grail of stalkerdom, the Golden Ball, which supposedly has the power to grant wishes. Only old Buzzard has seen this before, and he's passed on two vital pieces of information to Red: not only where it is, but also the importance, on this trip more than ever before, of taking a co-stalker with you - you see, one of you will have to die before the other can get to the Ball.

Needless to say Red decides not to share this piece of information with his co-stalker - in a piece of cruel irony, Buzzard's son Arthur - and once the inevitable unpleasantness has been got out of the way, Red is free to approach the ball, by this stage in a state of almost religious ecstasy.

And then what? Well, we never find out, so you'll have to make up your own mind. Judging by what's gone before, a sudden burst of cleansing joy and happiness whereby everything is OK and no-one has to suffer ever again is probably unlikely, though. I think a useful comparison is to view this book as being a sort of polar opposite of the Iain M Banks books within the science fiction genre (with my usual caveats about whether that categorisation is even sensible or useful) - the Bankses are all about the glorious possibilities of technology to make worlds better places to live, laugh, hang-glide and have weird freaky sex, with the denizens of the Culture representing a sort of perfected version of humanity, while Roadside Picnic is about some unknown aliens dropping into Earth on their way somewhere else (possibly a hang-gliding and freaky sex party, who knows) and just randomly dumping a load of garbage with no particular purpose in mind, probably not noticing the human race even existing, and with no intention of ever coming back. It's very much like, as the book's title suggests, a bunch of people having an impromptu picnic by the side of the road and leaving behind a load of orange peel, biscuit wrappers and plastic forks without any thought to the effect on the local wildlife. A profoundly gloomy view, you might say, but that sort of grinding mundane reality whereby contact is fleeting, baffling and unaccompanied by any sort of context, let alone an instruction manual, seems a much more likely way for any First Contact scenario to play out.

The other way in which this differs from the Bankses is that they are in the main quite big chunky books, while this is a slim 145 pages. There's enough ideas here to fill a much bigger book, though, if you were less inclined to terseness and leaving the reader to work things out for himself. I thought it was excellent in a grimy and gloomy and weird and haunting (and typically Russian, one might argue) sort of way.

Roadside Picnic is most famous for being the source material on which Andrei Tarkovsky's celebrated 1979 film Stalker is based (here's a 5-minute version). Pretty loosely based, by the sound of it, even though the Strugatsky brothers wrote the screenplay. I therefore consider this further confirmation of my earlier theory about short novels being easy to adapt into films. Tarkovsky's most famous film Solaris was also an adaptation of a science fiction novel, this time by Polish author Stanisław Lem. I haven't seen either of the Tarkovsky films, though I have seen the 2002 Steven Soderbergh/George Clooney version of Solaris, which I thought was pretty good in a glum sort of way. I expect the Tarkovsky version is even glummer, though.

Monday, February 20, 2012

gower's about that then

As it was my birthday last weekend we decided to head off for an impromptu weekend away - fortunately we are within relatively easy reach of the UK's first Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Gower peninsula. We booked into the surprisingly extensive and luxurious accommodation at the King's Head in Llangennith - surprising because rather than being attached to the pub the accommodation is based in a couple of purpose-built blocks out the back which I had no idea were there. It's all very nice, anyway, and the pub is as great as when I first went there 20-odd years ago. Usually when we visited Gower back in the day we'd stay at the Hillend campsite over at the northern end of Rhossili beach, and it's very much still there should you fancy something more rustic (and only a mile and a bit from Llangennith village, so you can walk to the pub if you like).

Apart from my epic solo walk on the Friday (of which more in a minute) we had a relatively leisurely weekend, though we did slot in a quick look round the ruined delights of Weobley Castle and the obligatory trip to the Worm's Head Hotel for a pint and a bowl of soup while looking at one of the best views in Britain.

Anyway, while Hazel was off in Penarth on a photographic assignment on the Friday I took myself off for a walk. A couple of constraints: I didn't have the car with me, so I'd have to start from the pub, and one thing Gower doesn't really have is major heights - the highest point being the trig point on The Beacon on top of Rhossili Down at 193 metres (633 feet). So I cooked up a plan whereby I'd walk over to Burry Green, then up onto the Cefn Bryn ridge - the most extensive bit of high ground in the area, and only a smidgen lower than Rhossili Down at 186m (610ft), down into Oxwich, over to Port Eynon, and then along the clifftop path to Rhossili village and then back along the beach to Llangennith.

As I've said before, when I'm off the leash in terms of having to wait for people to catch up with me I tend to go a bit mental, and Friday was no exception - my GPS track log reckons that the whole circuit was 20.4 miles, which explains my fairly ravenous need for a pint by the end. Fortunately the King's Head had some excellent local ale brewed by the Gower Brewery, which turns out to be just down the road at the Greyhound Inn. Anyway, here's the route map - if clicking on it doesn't provide the detail you're after then try here instead.

I did take a few photos as well - link to follow. [STOP PRESS: here they are.]

Sunday, February 19, 2012

the last book I read

Frankie & Stankie by Barbara Trapido.

Dinah and Lisa de Bondt are two young sisters growing up in South Africa. Daughters of German parents, whose families fled Nazi-era Germany before the outbreak of the Second World War, they soon find that the family has exchanged one repressive regime for another, as their childhood sees the rise of apartheid.

As they move up through school the girls move through a series of best friends and favourite teachers, as girls do, which reflect their differing personalities - Lisa, despite having a gammy arm, is the outgoing robust type while skinny blond asthmatic Dinah is the delicate bookish one.

Eventually puberty and teenagerdom beckons, with all the messy business of menstruation and boys, but also a gradual realisation that they are in a little bubble of privilege which others, some of them people they see every day, are excluded from. Dinah's gradual political engagement is ramped up when she starts going out with Sam, who is a proper activist with links to all sorts of equal-rights campaigning groups and therefore a recipient of regular hassle from the police. Eventually Dinah and Sam decide that enough is enough and skip the country, emerging off the ship at Southampton in early 1964 optimistic of a new life.

Anyone who's read Trapido's earlier novels - my two are Brother Of The More Famous Jack and Juggling - will find this one a bit of a departure. The earlier two hads lots of stuff happening, but they were mostly about people, with all their fascinating frailties and foibles, and with most of the narrative drive being provided by their inter-relationships. Frankie & Stankie, on the other hand, is driven along by the history of South Africa in the second half of the twentieth century, and, although there are lots of people in it, they have to take a back seat to the grand sweep of events. Lots of people come and go without the narrative ever really settling on one of them for long enough to get us interested in them - we get some background about the girls' grandparents and parents and their arrival in South Africa, lots of comings and goings with teachers and schoolfriends, and then a brief sequence of Dinah's boyfriends at the end before she hooks up with Sam.

Even Dinah and Lisa aren't terribly compelling characters - after the girls hit ten or so Lisa barely features in the book at all, and Dinah takes over as the single main protagonist, but even then we don't really get much of an idea about what makes her tick. For instance, she seems to fall into her relationship with Sam almost by accident, and is swept along by the consequences of his political activism (including the relocation to the UK) without ever engaging with it much. And some of the exposition about South African history, fascinating though it is, reads like it's been shoehorned in just because the author had done the research and didn't want it to go to waste, a bit like Neal Stephenson's Sumerian stuff.

This turns out not to be true, as it happens, and the book as a whole makes a great deal more sense when you realise that it's a lightly fictionalised work of autobiography, Sam for instance being a fictional version of Trapido's late husband Stanley. For all that, though, I'm not sure it really works, Trapido's light-hearted style and all the exposition about apartheid being somewhat awkward bedfellows, for one thing. And those big chunks of history leave precious little space for all the usual stuff that makes Barbara Trapido novels so enjoyable, i.e. all the little quirky human bits. So, admirable intentions and all that, but really if you want novels about apartheid then you probably ought to be reading something grittier like the couple of recent entries in this list, or something by JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer or André Brink. Conversely if you want a Barbara Trapido novel then I'd urge you to read Brother Of The More Famous Jack.

Monday, February 13, 2012

hey, Sweden!

I'm sure many many others have blogged about the unique trials and frustrations of a trip to IKEA, so I won't add to the list - suffice it to say that I've always found the furniture to be robust, easy to assemble and reasonably priced, and overall generally worth the anguish involved in getting round the shop and finding what you want.

Obviously when you don't find what you want, as happened when we went to the IKEA over in Cardiff Bay the other day to look for some CD racks, the best course of action to take, if you can restrain yourself from going on some sort of mental Viking rampage, torching the place and dispatching everyone therein to Valhalla, is to pop into the Swedish food shop by the main checkouts and buy some weird stuff.

Now obviously you're going to buy some Swedish meatballs, and quite right too. You'll also be wanting a couple of packets of the creamy sauce mix.

I picked up a couple of more exotic things in there the other day as well - Scandinavian food shops are a good fit to my particular food enthusiasms because they are a rich source of bizarre fish products. So in addition to picking up a few jars of herrings in a variety of outlandish marinades (the mustardy ones look particularly good) I grabbed a jar of herring roe caviar-y stuff and a tube of spread made from similar ingredients.

I haven't tried the jar yet, but I did have some of the squeezy fish product on some toast at the weekend, and.....well, it's a bit odd. You'd be expecting something like taramasalata in a tube (and I bow to no man in my love for taramasalata), and it's a bit like that, but overwhelmingly sweet as well. If you've ever had an urge for a spreadable product that combines the fishy goodness of taramasalata and the sweet fruity deliciousness of jam, preferably by tasting like a mixture of taramasalata and jam, then look no further, as this is the product for you. But what to call it? Tarajamasalata? Taramasalarmalade? Answers on a postcard, etc.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

2012: a whisky odyssey

Right, more whisky. Don't mind if I do.

These are both bottles acquired in different circumstances over the Christmas period which I'm just catching up on. Firstly, Balvenie Doublewood. This is one of the readily available (this bottle was from Tesco, bought on the way over to spend New Year with fellow Munroists and whisky enthusiasts Jenny & Jim) entry-level malts from the Balvenie distillery, Signature being the other. The distillery is in Dufftown, the spiritual home of Speyside whisky, and is owned by Grants who also own Glenfiddich.

Doublewood is a bit like the Glenmorangie Lasanta featured here last time in that it gets a lengthy period of maturation in bourbon casks followed by a short blast in sherry casks at the end. They're a bit cagey about exactly how long it gets in the sherry casks (the label says "a few months"), but it looks like less than the two years the Lasanta gets.

Anyway, a nice big sniff reveals the usual toffee and fruit cake stuff you'd expect from a sherry-matured Speysider, plus something fruity and sweet over the top; strawberry Chewits maybe? This instructional video says they do apply a bit of light peating to their malt, but I don't think you can really tell. It's less sweet than that when you drink it, perhaps nearer the more polite Speysiders like the Cardhu and the Knockando than the really thick dark ones like the Lasanta or the Aberlour. It's very nice though.

Secondly, Highland Park. Now I know this one has technically featured here before, but I really only referred to it in passing a couple of times, and as I have consistently banged on about it being my favourite ever since I thought it would be worth expanding on that a bit (not to mention verifying that it was still the case). As luck would have it my lovely wife bought me a bottle for Christmas, so that all worked out quite nicely.

Highland Park distillery is in Orkney, and is the northernmost distillery in Scotland. This is the standard 12-year-old; as always many other expressions are available including the multi-award-winning 18-year-old and some ludicrously expensive limited editions. Now your man in the video there says that you have to seek out the peat smoke in the 12-year-old as it isn't obvious - I disagree as it seems completely obvious to me. It's not as much of a karate chop to the gizzard as you get with, say, the Caol Ila or the Laphroaig, but it's definitely there. You get other stuff as well, though, a bit of fudgy sweetness and a blast of the same sort of meaty seaweedy cabbageyness you get with the Tobermory and Ledaig and to a lesser extent with the Old Pulteney. Same sort of story when you drink it, except it's even zingier and peatier - still not as much as the Islays, but more than the coastal Highlanders like the Ben Nevis and the Clynelish.

The late great Michael Jackson - no, not him, the other one - once described Highland Park as "the greatest all-rounder in the world of malt whisky" and that sounds about right to me. Is it still my favourite? Yes, I think so.

Friday, February 10, 2012

in which I am filled with a mixture of excital and disappointal

Let's start with a headline of the day, before we move on to other more lofty matters. This is how the BBC introduced a story about the fall-out from Scottish outside-half Dan Parks' decision to hang up his international boots in the wake of Scotland's butchering of what should have been a winning position in a knuckle-chewingly awful game against England last weekend, and his own culpability in having his kick charged down by Charlie Hodgson early in the second half to gift England the only try of the game.

I'm actually inclined to agree with Jim Telfer that Parks was probably a bit hard done by, as he had been for much of his career. Yes, he was a pretty limited attacking outside-half, but so was Jonny Wilkinson and it never did him much harm. Robinson's positive eagerness to let him fall on his sword over last week's defeat (for which he was by no means solely to blame) seems a bit churlish.

Anyway, the headline reads a bit oddly, don't you think? Here's the sub-headline, which also reads a bit oddly, for the same reason.

"Retiral"? Is that a word? "Retrial", which uses the same letters, certainly is (same goes for "trailer", come to think of it), but surely the word the headline-writers were having a bit of a mental block over here was "retirement"? There's a single citation here (which, to be fair, has it as a Scottish usage), but it's hardly a ringing endorsement.

No matter. The other reason the Parks story stuck in my head was that Wales are playing Scotland in Cardiff this weekend, and the last time that happened not only was Dan Parks the Man of the Match, but the game ended with one of the most insanely exciting last five minutes of any game I've ever seen, Wales scoring 17 points without reply to win 31-24. My poor old nerves could do with a more sedate cruise to victory this time, though, particularly after the last-minute nature of our win over Ireland last Sunday.

Back to rugby-related words, and continuing the Dan Parks links: it is odd how the number 10 position in rugby union has such a wide variety of names, usage of which splits broadly across national boundaries (I'm thinking solely of English-speaking nations here: I mean, obviously the French have a different word for it). I think the usage breaks down like this:

England: fly-half
Wales: outside-half
Scotland: stand-off
New Zealand: first five-eighth

I can't think of another position that has so many alternative names - the New Zealanders call what everyone else calls an inside centre a second five-eighth, and people used to call flankers wing-forwards (though that usage is largely obsolete now), but that's about it. I suppose it just reflects the pivotal play-making nature of the number 10 position - a bit like the quarterback in American football, but without the helmet, body armour and terrifying religiosity.

Monday, February 06, 2012

scraping de botton of de barrel

A bit more on the Alain de Botton atheist temple/tower debacle and associated matters, if you don't mind. Just to ease us into things, and to set the appropriate tone, here's the excellent Charlie Brooker on de Botton from way back in 2005 capturing his essence pretty accurately:
.....an absolute pair-of-aching-balls of a man - a slapheaded, ruby-lipped pop philosopher who's forged a lucrative career stating the bleeding obvious in a series of poncey, lighter-than-air books aimed at smug Sunday supplement pseuds looking for something clever-looking to read on the plane - yet if you pick up one of his books and read it cover to cover, you'll come away with less insight into the human condition than if you'd worked your way through a copy of Mr Tickle instead.
Here's a thing that you'll notice if you spend any time hanging out on the internet in the vicinity of discussions about religion - the increasingly high profile of what you might call "out" atheism has created a niche between it and orthodox religion that quite a few people have been only too keen to slot into. The trick here is to sell yourself as a sort of more cuddly, more reasonable sort of atheist, only too keen to try and foster mutual "respect" between belief and unbelief, even to engage in "interfaith activism". You might even be a supposed atheist who "really aspires to be a person of faith some day", for fuck's sake, as if that makes any sense.

In addition to this, you need to sell yourself as someone in a unique position to criticise both sides of the argument, but in reality to spend all of your time distancing yourself from those nasty "shrill" destructive divisive atheists who are actually clear and unambiguous about what they think and why. Then you need to start accepting lucrative grants from the Templeton Foundation to "explore" the science/religion debate, on the understanding that it is already pre-determined what the answer will be: science and religion are totes compatible, and no-one has to abandon their faith in the face of the overwhelming evidence that all the premises it's built upon are laughably wrong. So if those shrill atheists would just sit down and stop rocking the boat, then everything would be nice and nice.

As I said in my previous frothings on the subject, the way to decode the "shrill atheists" meme is to substitute the word "uppity" for "shrill". You can substitute the word "nigger" for "atheist" while you're at it, if you like.

Maybe Britishness and our general reflexive desire not to give offence is partly to blame: I strongly suspect that there's an element of that in the manufactroversy over Sir David Attenborough's appearance on Desert Island Discs a week or so ago, during the course of which he pronounced himself unable to completely rule out the possibility of a deity overseeing the running of the universe, and therefore unleashed an entirely predictable parade of cretins going AHA!!! see, he's an agnostic, and he knows absolutely tons, so you must be wrong. I absolutely understand the desire not to offend needlessly, or draw attention away from what he feels to be his core concerns, i.e. natural history, but really it's better just to be clear. Otherwise you tempt people who might otherwise be content to stay indoors licking the windows to come out with drivel like this Daily Mail article. It's got "shrill" in the title, for goodness' sake. See if you can parse this sentence into making any sense at all:
There's something divine in the air. Agnostics and atheists are beginning to nod respectfully in the direction of the Almighty, while still, of course, maintaining that He's not there.
No? Me neither. It seems to be nodding towards something that de Botton was saying during his vacuous TED talk; that even if you're an atheist it's axiomatic that there is still a religion-shaped hole in your life that you're going to need to fill with something lest you turn into a cold-hearted dead-eyed soulless godless killing machine. Personally I tend to view the hole left by religion as being analogous to the big ragged bloody hole left after the surgical removal of some giant cancerous tumour: sure, it's real, but we don't tend to sit around wringing our hands and moaning "but what will replace the cancer?", we just recognise that we're all going to get along better all round without it. Top marks for whoever picked the stock photos for the Mail article though for finding a supremely grumpy-looking picture of Dawkins.

There really is a need not to give any ammunition to people who have an interest in perpetuating the "atheism = religion" meme; it seems a bit unreasonable to assign any blame to what you might call "accommodationist" atheism for an article as cretinous as this one by Frank Furedi in Spiked, but I do think misguided attempts to be polite and "inclusive" are probably counterproductive. Incidentally you can have a lot of fun with Spiked, a publication a lot of whose core values I admire, at least in theory, by seeing how many articles they can shoehorn their bizarre anti-environmentalist stance into. There's a brief reference in the article linked above, and they even manage to shoehorn a paragraph into a review of Dawkins' The God Delusion. I mean, yes, the 9/11 terrorists may have killed 3,000 people in the name of Islam, but at least they weren't trying to make the world a better place. The bastards.

On a similar subject here's the occasionally nutty but always entertaining Bill Maher on the subject of atheism as a religion.

There is a serious corollary to this, which is that the more you bang on in a woolly and ill-thought-out fashion about "respect", and bend over backwards not to risk causing offence to even the most rabid religious lunatics, the more you encourage the sort of situation that occurred in Jaipur last week where a rabble of nutters were able to prevent Salman Rushdie appearing at a literary festival, or, nearer home (for me at least), the utter nonsense that's been going down at UCL and LSE over some Jesus & Mo cartoons lately.

And do the supposedly fair and balanced accommodationist types speak out strongly about this stuff, like they do when someone like Dawkins commits the unforgivable sin of clarity? In general, no, they do not.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

the wanking man's think fantasy

I'm much more apathetic than I used to be (not as apathetic as I could be, but I can't be bothered to make the effort) about checking my blog visitor stats (as supplied by StatCounter), but a quick visit there this morning just to check I could still log in OK revealed something interesting - almost without exception all the recent Google searches that have led people to my humble blog have been for some variant of "alice roberts", "alice roberts wild swimming", "alice roberts skinny dip", "alice roberts wetsuit" or some similar variant thereof, and have therefore led people to this page. Indeed the only search in the first 20-odd that didn't include her name was for "roger deakin" which would have led people to the same page anyway.

Further investigation of the stats and a quick Google of those phrases reveals that in most cases it's a Google image search that's turning up the small screen-cap image of the lovely Professor Roberts getting out of a swimming pool that I included in the original post. Your standard text-based web search of the same phrases doesn't bring the post back (at least not anywhere near the top), presumably because the post title doesn't include her name.

All I'll say is: you know who you are, and I hope you're thoroughly ashamed of yourselves. In any case the post itself could be viewed as a microcosm of the programme it's about - sounds intriguing, and it sort of is, but you don't really get to see anything.