Articles, Reviews

words for my father

Father Ballam hooking a big one.

My father is a warrior on many levels. He has risen up through the blizzard of a divorce. He soldiered through his own dyslexia and the currents of a busy family to conquer his Masters in Philosophy. (I better have another drink here this is starting to sound like a damn eulogy…and the bugger is still alive!) Allow me to reel this story in, the way one would clasp the steel nub of a coffee grinder’s arm. I can sum up my father in three words…

Fishing. Philosophy. Ideas.
These are the forces that drive him. They propel him onto the cold mud of a riverbank or into the furnace of concepts jostling in an academic paper. I know when he starts his 5 o’clock mornings ( a ritual the family has grown accustomed to), he first rustles around the kitchen like a wise old badger. To make his coffee he doesn’t turn on the kettle. Instead, he puts a pot of water on the stove and waits for it to boil.

Having a pint with the old man.

I remember being an angst-fuelled 23 year old telling him, “But that takes so much longer!”
He looked at me, a warm smile filling his eyes.
“You do not live with a woman and small children.”
His sensitivity, back then, baffled my own immature mantras. His modest income meant the houses he occupied where no mansions. In a nutshell, he would rarely give up his morning routine and at the same time…restrain himself so the family got enough sleep. Allow me to get back to the badger and his early morning.

My father in his element…or The Element perhaps?

Coffee in hand, he trundles to his favourite chair in the lounge. (If you read as much as this intellectual mammoth, you earn the right. Or perhaps, the chair finds you?) He sits down with a big red book of Rumi (a Sufi poet). It’s the perfect blend for him, mysticism and metaphor.

A gentleman always tells the truth. He allowed me to reel this fatty in so I could experience “the rush”. I compromised and said I’d take the photo as his hands were still full of fish!

Over the years poetry and books kept the two of us together. Much like a weekend for him, alone, pours cool consciousness back into his bones. He may not believe in a god, although he will make an effort to crawl back into nature to get in touch with something close to a Divine. Whether it’s internal or buried in the ripples of a rise…well, that remains to be seen.

Having another pint!

I love you Dad. Happy Birthday!



Articles, Documentaries, Technology

Billions in Change (A great documentary!)

Have you ever watched something and had an “aha!” moment very soon afterwards? Well that exact thing happened to me a few minutes ago.

The documentary I’ve included below is about Manoj Bhargava. He created a 5 hour energy drink that very quickly became a billion dollar product. The next question he had was “What do I do with all this extra money?” For him the answer was simple, give away 99% and help change the world using inventions.

I’ll try give you a brief synopsis of it without spoiling it for you. Manoj decided to set up a company that aims to solve problems like clean energy, clean and recycled water and even better healthcare. What really struck me was the fundamental point he seemed to revisit which goes something like this. Sometimes the solution to a complex problem is a simple one.

Now go watch it before I give away any more!



Additional reading

Articles, Prose

Monologue from Crave (written by Sarah Kane)

The following is a monologue I came across from (what is quickly becoming) my favorite playwright, Sarah Kane. How did I find her? Well, I was browsing a this link about the top playwrights.

It was about the top 10 famous – or terrifying, to be article specific – playwrights. Many of them were the ‘classics’ like Arthur Miller and Samuel Beckett, Jean Paul Sartre. Something that would cause (anyone with an iota of culture in them) to raise an eyebrow, or at the very least leave a footnote in the conversation.

Yes, conversations have footnotes. It’s those fragments that leave with you into the night when you’re having that last cigarette before bed, or you’re lying comatose steadily watching the spiral of the ceiling fan. So good these bits are, you hesitate when reaching for the toilet roll, after you’ve taken a meaningful shit.

This is what Sarah Kane leaves buried in the best (and sometimes the more troubled) of us.


“And I want to play hide-and-seek and give you my clothes and tell you I like your shoes and sit on the steps while you take a bath and massage your neck and kiss your feet and hold your hand and go for a meal and not mind when you eat my food and meet you at Rudy’s and talk about the day and type your letters and carry your boxes and laugh at your paranoia and give you tapes you don’t listen to and watch great films and watch terrible films and complain about the radio and take pictures of you when you’re sleeping and get up to fetch you coffee and bagels and Danish and go to Florent and drink coffee at midnight and have you steal my cigarettes and never be able to find a match and tell you about the the programme I saw the night before and take you to the eye hospital and not laugh at your jokes and want you in the morning but let you sleep for a while and kiss your back and stroke your skin and tell you how much I love your hair your eyes your lips your neck your breasts your arse your
and sit on the steps smoking till your neighbour comes home and sit on the steps smoking till you come home and worry when you’re late and be amazed when you’re early and give you sunflowers and go to your party and dance till I’m black and be sorry when I’m wrong and happy when you forgive me and look at your photos and wish I’d known you forever and hear your voice in my ear and feel your skin on my skin and get scared when you’re angry and your eye has gone red and the other eye blue and your hair to the left and your face oriental and tell you you’re gorgeous and hug you when you’re anxious and hold you when you hurt and want you when I smell you and offend you when I touch you and whimper when I’m next to you and whimper when I’m not and dribble on your breast and smother you in the night and get cold when you take the blanket and hot when you don’t and melt when you smile and dissolve when you laugh and not understand why you think I’m rejecting you when I’m not rejecting you and wonder how you could think I’d ever reject you and wonder who you are but accept you anyway and tell you about the tree angel enchanted forest boy who flew across the ocean because he loved you and write poems for you and wonder why you don’t believe me and have a feeling so deep I can’t find words for it and want to buy you a kitten I’d get jealous of because it would get more attention than me and keep you in bed when you have to go and cry like a baby when you finally do and get rid of the roaches and buy you presents you don’t want and take them away again and ask you to marry me and you say no again but keep on asking because though you think I don’t mean it I do always have from the first time I asked you and wander the city thinking it’s empty without you and want want you want and think I’m losing myself but know I’m safe with you and tell you the worst of me and try to give you the best of me because you don’t deserve any less and answer your questions when I’d rather not and tell you the truth when I really don’t want to and try to be honest because I know you prefer it and think it’s all over but hang on in for just ten more minutes before you throw me out of your life and forget who I am and try to get closer to you because it’s a beautiful learning to know you and well worth the effort and speak German to you badly and Hebrew to you worse and make love with you at three in the morning and somehow somehow somehow communicate some of the overwhelming undying overpowering unconditional all-encompassing heart-enriching mind-expanding on-going never-ending love I have for you.”


Articles, Philosophy

Living with the Grit on Your Hands

I’ve gone through life long enough now to come to the conclusion I’m an Atheist. Many people hate the ring that word has too it, and instead choose terms like Agnostic or Free Thinker. The reason being is many people misinterpret Atheism. People think you might somehow be sacrificing your intellect when choosing to say you don’t know.

I like to think being an Atheist means you live in the land of not knowing, rather than being at “war with the gods”.

I’ll delve into a few of the myths, or false impressions people have about Atheists. (The following myths I took from this website: Although the responses are my own…think of me conducting my own interview. 😉


“Atheists hate Christians and Christianity.”

Atheists don’t buy into the idea of believing in one single God. I tolerate many different beliefs of other people, this doesn’t mean that because I despise the people I despise the religion they hold dear. In fact if you ever met me, religion is most likely the last topic of conversation I’d go into. I don’t feel the need to tell the world what my views on life are. My opinions on God scare those who haven’t looked inside themselves, so I prefer to question and get to know the person rather than the religion.


“Most atheists started out as Christians, and stopped believing because of some bad experience with other Christians.”

Atheism for me isn’t born out of an accident. You may aswell say that Christians bumped into the Bible. After long discussions, questioning, thinking and reading up of ideas I felt I gained more meaning from other places than some parts of the Bible. Yes I used to be a Christian, and everyone has bad experiences, however, I got to my area of non-belief through my own choices and experiences.


“Atheists’ lives are cold and empty, as they can’t feel the joy and love that comes only from God.”

God isn’t a factory for happiness. There is beauty and joy in so many other things. If people do believe in a God, my hope is they do it not for the sake of pleasant feelings, but rather because they feel secure, rooted, and challenged.


“Atheists live their lives in constant fear of death.”

We are all born to die. From the moment we come squealing out of the womb, we are more vulnerable to getting wiped out by some disease. I’m a very mellow and easy going person. I suffer from depression and anxiety, however, I’ve had the balls to manage it. I hold down a decent job, and I’m too busting with great ideas for paranoia to be my prerogative. In fact, coming to terms with their being no god, means you’re prepared to live with the grit under you own hands. It’s an amazing empowering and authentic thing to know you are the muscles in your own cerebral wings.


“Atheists are depressive and nihilistic, since they believe there’s nothing after death, and therefore there’s no point to anything.”

You may think I’ve already shot myself in the foot, since I’ve already mentioned that I’m dealing with depression. Well no I’m just being honest and upfront. If there was no point to anything I wouldn’t feel the need for this interview, or to explain myself like this.

Orthodox Religion is a form of nihility against the Self. The reason being…you spend so much energy in prayer, song and ritual that you forget to look inside yourself, and pay attention to your ideas. Too much focus in one direction means, you’re losing sight of something equally important.


“Atheists want to forbid religious worship.”

When last did you see a group of Atheists shouting anti-Religious slogans and waving weapons in the air? People misunderstand Atheists and believe we are at war with everything. Many are under the assumption that the basis to an atheist’s argument begins and ends with “I Hate God”.

In fact, if I were asked “Why do you believe there is no God?” I would go on to question the person of their exact definition of ‘belief’ and ‘god’. The fact that I care enough to question the ideas, and get to know the person, means I have no issue with how people express themselves. The only time I get agitated with religion, is if it forcefully tries to tell me I’m wrong and I should rather just ‘believe’ and join them.


“Atheists are incapable of feeling awe at simple things, like a beautiful sunset, as they see everything in terms of cold science, instead of miracles.”

Yes many Atheists are scholars, scientists, and higher minded people, however, this means that they are thinkers who like to get to the truth. I surely hope religion isn’t merely there for the sake of miracles. Religion (if you feel it’s the one for you) should be chosen, because you have found meaning, not simply seeing some sleight of hand and buying into it.

Atheists can be skeptics, and we do enjoy a good debate, but this doesn’t consume our personality to the point of making us stiff, cold and austere beings. I question when I feel the time is right, otherwise, I take everything else in stride.


“Atheists make bad parents.”

Bad choices turn parents against their children. Parenting is tough for anyone, however most Atheists I know take a down to earth interest in people. As I said earlier choosing not to stick to a particular religion and be part of ‘the club’, is liberating and those people are often most caring and textured, than the stiffly ironed people bustling off to church on a Sunday.


The Grit

My father told me a story about an experience he had in Church.

He was in his early twenties. Young, eager, and full of cleanly honed Bible verses. During the church service one of the elders announced they were looking for Youth Leaders in the Church, and those that see themselves fit should head to the front of the Church so that they can be prayed for, and then they would be interviewed at a later stage.
My father went up there, determined to make the world a better place. The prayer happened shortly after, and then the service continued as usual. Once the congregation had sung the last few words of the final song, everyone bows their heads in prayer, and then got up and said their goodbyes to those around them.

As my father was leaving and old man approached him. He was bald, with thin wisps of hair clinging around his freckled head.

The old man to him, “Let me see your hands boy.”
He thrust his two hands towards the chest of the old man.
“Hmmm,” he said as he turned my fathers hands over and inspected them.
“What’s wrong?” my father replied.
“They’re not dirty.”

My father anxiously looked into the creases and lines of his hand, searching for the dirt the old man may have missed.

“Look at my hands.”
The old man raised up his gnarly, wrinkled hands to show him.
“These are dirty hands that have seen life. Yours have not. Before you become a leader go out into the world, and get some real dirt on your hands boy.”




Articles, Reviews

The universe is queerer than we can suppose: Richard Dawkins on

The universe is queerer than we can suppose: Richard Dawkins on

That splendid music, the coming in music- the elephant march from Aida- is the music I’ve chosen for my funeral. And- you can see why. It’s triumphal. I am- I will, I won’t feel anything. but If I could, I would feel triumphal at having lived at all, and at having lived on this splendid planet, and having been given the opportunity to understand something about why I was here in the first place, before not being here.

Can you understand my quaint English accent?

Like everybody else, I was entranced yesterday by the animal session. Robert Full and Frans Lanting, and others- the beauty of the things that they showed. The only slight jarring note was when Jeffrey Katzenberg said of the mustang “the most splendid creatures that God put on this earth.” Now of course we know he didn’t really mean that- but in this country at the moment you can’t be too careful.

I’m a biologist, and the central theorem of our subject- the theory of design- Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection- in professional circles everywhere, it’s of course, universally accepted. In non-professional circles outside America, it’s largely ignored. But in non-professional circles within America,

(slide, from anti-evolution website: “Handy Dandy evolution Refuter”)

it arouses so much hostility that it’s fair to say that American biologists are in a state of war.

The war is so worrying at present, with court cases coming up in one state after another, that I felt I had to say something about it. If you want to know what I have to say about Darwinism itself, I’m afraid you’re going to have to look at my books, which you won’t find in the bookstore outside. (laughter)

Contemporary court cases often concern an allegedly new version of creationism, called intelligent design, or ID. Don’t be fooled. There’s nothing new about ID. It’s just creationism under another name. Re-christened- I choose the word advisedly (laughter)- for tactical political reasons. The arguments of so-called ID theorists are the same old arguments that have been refuted again and again since Darwin down to the present day.

There is an effective evolution lobby coordinating the fight on behalf of science, and I try to do what I can to help them, but they get quite upset when people like me dare to mention that we happen to be atheists, as well as evolutionists. They see us as rocking the boat. You can understand why.

Creationists, lacking any coherent scientific argument for their case, fall back on the popular phobia against atheism. Teach your children evolution in biology class, and they’ll soon move on to drugs, grand larceny, and sexual ‘preversion’ (sic).

(slide: website for National Center for Science Education)

(slide: book cover, Kenneth R. Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, caption: “Educated Christians are Evolutionists too”)

In fact, of course, educated theologians from the Pope down are firm in their support of evolution. This book, Finding Darwin’s God, by Kenneth Miller, is one of the most effective attacks on intelligent design that I know, and it’s all the more effective because it’s written by a devout Christian. People like Kenneth Miller could be called a ‘godsend’ to the evolution lobby (laughter)- because they expose the lie that evolutionism is, as a matter of fact, tantamount to atheism. People like me, on the other hand, rock the boat.

But here I want to say something nice about creationists. It’s not a thing I often do, so listen carefully. (laughter) I think they’re right about one thing- I think they’re right that evolution is fundamentally hostile to religion. I’ve already said that many individual evolutionists, like the Pope, are also religious, but I think they’re deluding themselves. I believe a true understanding of Darwinism is deeply corrosive to religious faith.

Now it may sound as though I’m about to preach atheism, and I want to reassure you that that’s not what I’m going to do. In an audience as sophisticated as that- as this one- that would be preaching to the choir. No, what I want to urge upon you- (laughter)- Instead, what I want to urge upon you, is militant atheism. (loud laughter & applause)

But that’s putting it too negatively. If I wanted to- If I was a person who was interested in preserving religious faith, I would be very afraid of the positive power of evolutionary science, and indeed science generally, but evolution in particular, to inspire and enthrall precisely because it is atheistic.

Now, the difficult problem for any theory of biological design is to explain the massive statistical improbability of living things. Statistical improbability in the direction of good design. Complexity is another word for this. The standard creationist argument- there is only one, they all reduce to this one- takes off from statistical improbability. Living creatures are too complex to have come about by chance, therefore they must have had a designer.

This argument, of course, shoots itself in the foot- any designer capable of designing something really complex has to be even more complex Himself. And that’s before we even start on the other things He’s expected to do, like forgive sins, bless marriages, listen to prayers, favor our side in a war, disapprove of our sex lives, and so on. Complexity is the problem that any theory of biology has to solve. And you can’t solve it by postulating an agent that is even more complex thereby simply compounding the problem.

Darwinian natural selection is so stunningly elegant because it solves the problem of explaining complexity in terms of nothing but simplicity. Essentially it does it by providing a smooth ramp of gradual step by step increment. But here I only want to make the point that the elegance of Darwinism is corrosive to religion precisely because it is so elegant. So parsimonious. So powerful. So economically powerful. It has the sinewy economy of a beautiful suspension bridge. The “God theory” is not just a bad theory, it turns out to be in principle incapable of doing the job required of it.

So returning to tactics and the evolution lobby, I want to argue that “rocking the boat” may be just the right thing to do. My approach to attacking creationism is- unlike the evolution lobby- my approach to attacking creationism is to attack religion as a whole. And at this point I need to acknowledge the remarkable taboo against speaking ill of religion. And I’m going to do so, in the words of the late Douglas Adams, a dear friend who, if he never came to TED, certainly should have been invited.
(voice offstage: “He was.”)
He was- good. I thought he must have been.

He begins this speech, which was tape recorded in Cambridge shortly before he died- he begins by explaining how science works, through the testing of hypotheses that are framed to be vulnerable to disproof. And then he goes on. I quote-

“Religion doesn’t seem to work like that. It has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy. What it means is- here is an idea or emotion that you are not allowed to say anything bad about. You’re just not. Why not? Because you’re not.” (laughter) Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows, but to have an opinion about how the universe began, about who created the universe- no, that’s holy. So we’re used to not challenging religious ideas. And it’s very interesting how much of a furore Richard creates when he does it.” He meant me, not that one. “Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it. Because you’re not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally, there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other. Except that we’ve agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be.”

That’s the end of the quote from Douglas.

In my view, not only is science corrosive to religion, religion is corrosive to science. It teaches people to be satisfied with trivial, supernatural, non-explanations, and blinds them to the wonderful real explanations that we have within our grasp. It teaches them to accept authority, revelation, and faith, instead of always insisting on evidence.

(photo of Douglas Adams)

There’s Douglas Adams, magnificent picture from his book Last Chance to See.

(photo, cover shot of The Quarterly Review of Biology)

Now there’s a typical scientific journal, The Quarterly Review of Biology, and I’m going to put together as guest editor a special issue on the question “Did an Asteroid Kill the Dinosaurs?” And the first paper is a standard scientific paper presenting evidence (reading list of paper descriptions from a fake “Contents” page): “Iridium layer at K/T boundary and potassium argon dated crater in Yucatan indicate that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.” Perfectly ordinary scientific paper. Now the next one: “The president of the royal society has been vouchsafed a strong inner conviction that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.” (laughter) “It has been privately revealed to professor Huckstain (sp?) that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.” (laughter) “Professor Haldley was brought up to have total and unquestioning faith that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.” (laughter) “Professor Hawkins has promulgated an official dogma, binding on all loyal Hawkinsians, that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.” (laughter)

That’s inconceivable, of course. But suppose-

(photo of George Bush Sr., w/ caption “Supporters of the Asteroid Theory cannot be patriotic citizens”)

(laughter & applause)

In 1987, a reporter asked George Bush, Sr. whether he recognized the equal citizenship and patriotism of Americans who were atheists. Mr. Bush’s reply has become infamous- “No, I don’t know that atheists should be considered citizens. Nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation, under God.”

Bush’s bigotry was not an isolated mistake, blurted out in the heat of the moment, and later retracted. He stood by it in the face of repeated calls for clarification or withdrawal. He really meant it. More to the point, he knew it posed no threat to his election. Quite the contrary. Democrats, as well as Republicans, parade their religiousness if they want to get elected. Both parties invoke “One Nation, Under God.” What would Thomas Jefferson have said?

(photo of engraving of Jefferson, caption: “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty”-Thomas Jefferson)

Incidentally, I’m not usually very proud of being British-

(photo: backs of English pound and US dollar, Darwin’s picture highlighted on the pound, “In God We Trust” highlighted on the dollar)

-but you can’t help making the comparison.

(laughter and applause)

In practice, what is an atheist? An atheist is just somebody who feels about Yahweh the way any decent Christian feels about Thor, or Baal, or the golden calf. As has been said before, we are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one God further.

(laughter and applause, cheers)

And however we define atheism, it’s surely the kind of academic belief that a person is entitled to hold without being vilified as an unpatriotic, unelectable non-citizen. Nevertheless, it’s an undeniable fact that to own up to being an atheist is tantamount to introducing yourself as “Mr. Hitler” or “Miss Beelzebub.” And that all stems from the perception of atheists as some kind of weird, way-out minority. Natalie Angier wrote a rather sad piece in the New Yorker, saying how lonely she felt as an atheist. She clearly feels in a beleaguered minority.

But actually, how do American atheists stack up numerically? The latest survey makes surprisingly encouraging reading. Christianity, of course, takes a massive lion’s share of the population, with nearly 160 million. But what would you think was the second largest group? Convincingly outnumbering Jews, with 2.8 million, Muslims with 1.1 million, Hindus, Buddhists and all other religions put together? The second largest group, with nearly 30 million, is the one described as ‘non-religious’ or ‘secular’.

(pie chart showing statistical breakdown of religions circa 2001)

You can’t help wondering why vote-seeking politicians are so proverbially over-awed by the power of, for example, the Jewish lobby- the state of Israel seems to owe its very existence to the American Jewish vote- while at the same time, consigning the ‘non-religious’ to political oblivion. This secular non-religious vote, if properly mobilized, is 9 times as numerous as the Jewish vote. Why does this far more substantial minority not make a move to exercise its political muscle?

Well, so much for quantity. How about quality? Is there any correlation, positive or negative, between intelligence and tendency to be religious?

(series of photos of George W. Bush, one with balloon saying “Them folks misunderestimated me”, caption “Is religion correlated with IQ?”)


The survey that I quoted, which is the Eris (sp?) survey, didn’t break down its data by socioeconomic class, or education, or IQ, or anything else. But a recent article by Paul G. Bell in the MENSA magazine provides some straws in the wind. MENSA as you know is an international organization for people with very high IQ. And from a meta-analysis of the literature, Bell concludes that, I quote,

(chart: “Is Religion Correlated with Educational Ability?”)

“of 43 studies carried out since 1927, on the relationship between religious belief and one’s intelligence or educational level, all but four found an inverse connection.”

That is, the higher one’s intelligence or educational level, the less one is likely to be religious. Well, I haven’t seen the original 42 (sic) studies and I can’t comment on that meta-analysis, but I would like to see more studies done along those lines. And I know that there are- if I can put a little plug here- there are people in this audience easily capable of financing a massive research survey to settle the question. And I put the suggestion out for what it’s worth.

But let me now show you some data that have been properly published and analyzed on one special group, namely top scientists. In 1998, Larson and Witham polled the cream of American scientists, those who’d been honored by election to the National Academy of the Sciences, and among this select group, belief in a personal god –

(chart: NAS religious breakdown, caption: EJ Larson & L Witham (1998) Leading scientists still reject God, Nature 394, 313)

-dropped to a shattering 7 percent. About 20% are agnostic, and the rest could fairly be called atheists. Similar figures obtain for belief in personal immortality. Among biological scientists the figure’s even lower, 5.5% only believe in God. Physical scientists it’s 7.5%. I’ve not seen corresponding figures for elite scholars in other fields, such as history or philosophy, but I’d be surprised if they were different.

So we’ve reached a truly remarkable situation. A grotesque mismatch between the American intelligentsia, and the American electorate. A philosophical opinion about the nature of the universe, which is held by the vast majority of top American scientists, and probably the majority of the intelligentsia generally, is so abhorrent to the American electorate that no candidate for popular election dare affirm it in public. If I’m right, this means that high office in the greatest country in the world is barred to the very people best qualified to hold it. The intelligentsia. Unless they are prepared to lie about their beliefs. To put it bluntly, American political opportunities are heavily loaded against those who are simultaneously intelligent and honest. (applause)

I’m not a citizen of this country, so I hope it won’t be thought unbecoming, if i suggest that something needs to be done. (laughter) I’ve already hinted what that something is. From what I’ve seen at TED, this may be the ideal place to launch it. Again, I fear it will cost money.

We need a consciousness raising coming out campaign for American atheists. This could be similar to the campaign organized by homosexuals a few years ago, although heaven forbid that we should stoop to public outing of people against their will. In most cases, people who out themselves will help to destroy the myth that there is something wrong with atheists. On the contrary, they’ll demonstrate that atheists are often the kinds of people who could serve as decent role models for your children. The kinds of people an advertising agent could use to recommend a product. The kinds of people who are sitting in this room.

There should be a snowball effect, a positive feedback such that the more names that we have, the more we get. there could be non-linearities, threshold effects, when a critical mass is obtained, there’s an abrupt acceleration in recruitment. And again, it’ll need money.

I suspect that the word atheist itself contains- or remains- a stumbling block, far out of proportion to what it actually means. And a stumbling block to people who otherwise might be willing to out themselves. So what other words might be used to smooth the path? Oil the wheels? Sugar the pill?

Darwin himself preferred ‘agnostic’, and not only out of loyalty to his friend Huxley, who coined the term.

(slide: caricature of T.H. Huxley (1825-1895), agnostic, caption “I took thought…”)

Darwin said, “I have never been an atheist, in the same sense of denying the existence of a god. I think that generally an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” He even became uncharacteristically touchy with Edward Aveling. Aveling was a militant atheist who failed to persuade Darwin to accept the dedication of his book on atheism.

(photo: Edward Aveling, 1851-1898, caption: “Agnosticism writ aggressive”)

-Incidentally giving rise to a fascinating myth that Karl Marx tried to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin, which he didn’t, it was actually Edward Aveling. What happened was Aveling’s mistress was Marx’s daughter, and when both Darwin and Marx were dead, Marx’s papers became muddled up with Aveling’s papers, and a letter from Darwin saying “My dear sir, thank you very much but I don’t want you to dedicate your book to me” was mistakenly supposed to be addressed to Marx. And that gave rise to this whole myth which you’ve probably heard- it’s sort of urban myth, that Marx tried to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin.

Anyway, it was Aveling, and when they met, Darwin challenged Aveling- “Why do you call yourselves atheists?” “‘Agnostic’,” retorted Aveling, “was simply ‘atheist’ writ respectable, and ‘atheist’ was simply ‘agnostic’ writ aggressive.” Darwin complained, “but why should you be so aggressive?” Darwin thought that atheism might be well and good for the intelligentsia, but ordinary people were not, quote, “ripe” for it. Which is, of course, our old friend the ‘don’t rock the boat’ argument. It’s not recorded whether Aveling told Darwin to come down off his high horse. But in any case, that was more than 100 years ago. You think we might have grown up since then.

Now, a friend, an intelligent lapsed Jew, who incidentally observes the Sabbath for reasons of cultural solidarity,

(slide: drawing of teapot orbiting Mars, with ringed planet in background, caption: “You cannot disprove God. So atheism is exactly as irrational as theism.”)

-describes himself as a “tooth fairy agnostic.” He won’t call himself an atheist because it’s in principle impossible to prove a negative. But ‘agnostic’ on its own might suggest that God’s existence was therefore on equal terms of likelihood as His non-existence. So my friend is strictly agnostic about the tooth fairy, but it isn’t very likely, is it? Like God. Hence the phrase, “tooth fairy agnostic.”

Bertram Russell made the same point using a hypothetical teapot (cut back to drawing above) in orbit about Mars. You strictly have to be agnostic about whether there is a teapot in orbit about Mars, but that doesn’t mean you treat the likelihood of its existence as on all fours with its non-existence.

The list of things which we strictly have to be agnostic about doesn’t stop at tooth fairies and teapots, it’s infinite. If you want to believe one particular one of them, unicorns, or tooth fairies, or teapots, or Yahweh, the onus is on you to say why. The onus is not on the rest of us to say why not. We who are atheists are also “a-fairy-ists,” and “a-teapot-ists.” (laughter) But we don’t bother to say so. And this is why my friend uses “tooth fairy agnostic” as a label for what most people would call atheist.

Nonetheless, if we want to attract deep-down atheists to come out, publicly, we’re going to have to find something better to stick on our banner than “tooth fairy” or “teapot agnostic.” So how about humanist? This has the advantage of a worldwide network of well organized associations and journals and things already in place, my problem with it is only its apparent anthropocentrism. One of the things we’ve learned from Darwin is that the human species is only one among millions of cousins, some close, some distant. And there are other possibilities like “naturalist”, but that also has problems of confusion because Darwin would have thought “naturalist” – “naturalist” means of course as opposed to “supernaturalist” and it is used sometimes- Darwin would have been confused by the other sense of “naturalist”, which he was, of course, and- I suppose- there might be others that would confuse it with “nudism”. Such people might be those belonging to the British lynch mob which last year attacked a pediatrician in mistake for a pedophile. (laughter)

I think the best of the available alternatives for “atheist” is simply “non-theist.” It lacks the strong connotation that there’s definitely no god, and it could therefore easily be embraced by “teapot” or “tooth fairy agnostics.” It’s completely compatible with the God of the physicists, the- when people like- when atheists like Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein use the word “god” they use it of course as a metaphorical shorthand for that deep mysterious part of physics which we don’t yet understand. Non-theist will do for all that, yet unlike “atheist” it doesn’t have the same phobic, hysterical responses.

But I think actually the alternative is to grasp the nettle, of the word “atheism” itself, precisely because it is a taboo word, carrying frissons of hysterical phobia. Critical mass may be harder to achieve with the word “atheist” than with the word “non-theist,” or some other non-confrontational word, but if we did achieve it, with that dread word “atheist” itself, the political impact would be even greater.

Now I said that if I were religious, I’d be very afraid of evolution, I’d go further- I would fear science in general if properly understood. And this is because the scientific world view is so much more exciting, more poetic, more filled with sheer wonder than anything in the poverty stricken arsenals of the religious imagination.

As Carl Sagan, another recently dead hero, put it:

(photo: Carl Sagan, 1934-1996, with quote below):

“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”

Now, this is an elite audience, and i would therefore expect about 10% of you to be religious. Many of you probably subscribe to our polite cultural belief that we should respect religion. But I also suspect that a fair number of those secretly despise religion as much as I do. If you’re one of them- and of course many of you may not be- but if you are one of them, I’m asking you to stop being polite- come out and say so. And if you happen to be rich, give some thought to ways in which you might make a difference. The religious lobby in this country is massively financed by foundations- say nothing of the tax benefits- by foundations such as the Templeton Foundation, and the Discovery Institute. We need an anti-Templeton to step forward. If my books sold as well as Stephen Hawking’s books, instead of only as well as Richard Dawkins’ books, I’d do it myself.

People are always going on about “How did September the 11th change you?” Well, here’s how it changed me: Let’s all stop being so damned respectful. Thank you very much.

Articles, Rantings

Chickens are decent people

Here’s a fellow bloggers article i found particularly hilarious and interesting. They also seems to share my love of George Carlin 😉


Here’s another question I have. How come when it’s us, it’s an abortion, and when it’s a chicken, it’s an omelette? Are we so much better than chickens all of a sudden? When did this happen, that we passed chickens in goodness. Name 6 ways we’re better than chickens. See, nobody can do it! You know why? ‘Cause chickens are decent people. You don’t see chickens hanging around in drug gangs, do you? No, you don’t see a chicken strapping some guy into a chair and hooking up his nuts to a car battery, do you? When’s the last chicken you heard about come home from work and beat the shit out of his hen, huh? Doesn’t happen, ’cause chickens are decent people.

– George Carlin


Articles, Reviews

Bad to the bone; the genes and brains of psychopaths

Hey Bloggers 😀

Here’s a fascinating article a good friend of mine sent to me online the other day. I’ve pasted the article below, although I’ve also included the link for those who would like to browse the rest of the website!



Source: Bad to the bone; the genes and brains of psychopaths.

The manipulative con-man. The guy who lies to your face, even when he doesn’t have to. The child who tortures animals. The cold-blooded killer. Psychopaths are characterised by an absence of empathy and poor impulse control, with a total lack of conscience. About 1% of the total population can be defined as psychopaths, according to a detailed psychological profile checklist. They tend to be egocentric, callous, manipulative, deceptive, superficial, irresponsible and parasitic, even predatory. The majority of psychopaths are not violent and many do very well in jobs where their personality traits are advantageous and their social tendencies tolerated. However, some have a predisposition to calculated, “instrumental” violence; violence that is cold-blooded, planned and goal-directed. Psychopaths are vastly over-represented among criminals; it is estimated they make up about 20% of the inmates of most prisons. They commit over half of all violent crimes and are 3-4 times more likely to re-offend. They are almost entirely refractory to rehabilitation. These are not nice people.
So how did they get that way? Is it an innate biological condition, a result of social experience, or an interaction between these factors? Longitudinal studies have shown that the personality traits associated with psychopathy are highly stable over time. Early warning signs including “callous-unemotional traits” and antisocial behaviour can be identified in childhood and are highly predictive of future psychopathy. Large-scale twin studies have shown that these traits are highly heritable – identical twins, who share 100% of their genes, are much more similar to each other in this trait than fraternal twins, who share only 50% of their genes. In one study, over 80% of the variation in the callous-unemotional trait across the population was due to genetic differences. In contrast, the effect of a shared family environment was almost nil. Psychopathy seems to be a lifelong trait, or combination of traits, which are heavily influenced by genes and hardly at all by social upbringing.
The two defining characteristics of psychopaths, blunted emotional response to negative stimuli, coupled with poor impulse control, can both be measured in psychological and neuroimaging experiments. Several studies have found decreased responsiveness of the amygdala to fearful or other negative stimuli in psychopaths. They do not seem to process heavily loaded emotional words, like “rape”, for example, any differently from how they process neutral words, like “table”. This lack of response to negative stimuli can be measured in other ways, such as the failure to induce a galvanic skin response (heightened skin conduction due to sweating) when faced with an impending electrical shock. Psychopaths have also been found to underactivate limbic (emotional) regions of the brain during aversive learning, correlating with an insensitivity to negative reinforcement. The psychopath really just doesn’t care. In this, psychopaths differ from many people who are prone to sudden, impulsive violence, in that those people tend to have a hypersensitive negative emotional response to what would otherwise be relatively innocuous stimuli.
What these two groups have in common is poor impulse control. This faculty relies on the part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, most particularly the orbitofrontal cortex. It is known that lesions to this part of the brain impair planning, prediction of consequences, and inhibition of socially unacceptable behaviour – the cognitive mechanisms of “free won’t”, rather than free will. This brain region is also normally activated by aversive learning, and this activation is also reduced in psychopaths. In addition, both the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala show substantial average reductions in size in psychopaths, suggesting a structural difference in their brains.
These findings have now been united by a recent study that directly analysed connectivity between these two regions. Using diffusion tensor imaging (see post of August 31st 2009), Craig and colleagues found that a measure of the integrity of the axonal tract connecting these two regions, called the uncinate fasciculus, was significantly reduced in psychopaths. Importantly, connectivity of these regions to other parts of the brain was normal. These data thus suggest a specific disruption of the network connecting orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala in psychopaths, the degree of which correlated strongly with the subjects’ scores on the psychopathy checklist.
All of these findings are pointing to a picture of psychopathy as an innate, genetically driven difference in connectivity between parts of the brain that normally drive empathy, conscience and impulse control. Not a fault necessarily, and not something that could be classified as a disease or that is always a disadvantage. At a certain frequency in the population, the traits of psychopathy may be highly advantageous to the individual.
This conclusion has serious ethical and legal implications. Could a psychopath mount a legal defense by saying “my brain made me do it”? Or my “genes made me do it”? Is this any different from saying my rotten childhood made me do it? Psychopaths know right from wrong – they just don’t care. That is what society calls “bad”, not “mad”. But if they are constitutionally incapable of caring, can they really be blamed for it? On the other hand, if violent psychopaths are a continuing danger to society and completely refractory to rehabilitation, what is to be done with them? Perhaps, as has been proposed in the UK, people with the extreme psychopathic personality profile (or maybe in the near future even a specific genetic profile?) should be monitored or segregated even before they commit a crime.
While it is crucial that these debates are informed by good science, these issues have no clear-cut answers. They will be resolved on a pragmatic basis, weighing the behaviour that society is willing to tolerate versus the rights of the individual, whatever their brains look like, to define their own moral standards.
Craig, M., Catani, M., Deeley, Q., Latham, R., Daly, E., Kanaan, R., Picchioni, M., McGuire, P., Fahy, T., & Murphy, D. (2009). Altered connections on the road to psychopathy Molecular Psychiatry, 14 (10), 946-953 DOI: 10.1038/mp.2009.40
Articles, Reviews

Embedded Personalities

Today I was watching the first part of a BBC documentary called Visions of the Future : The Intelligence Revolution. It was all about how virtual reality is slowly turning into augmented reality. Well what is that exactly? Augmented Reality is the ability to make the technology (through the medium of the internet) part of our lives. At the moment it’s limited, by slowly growing. For example if you own an iPhone, with a specific application installed you can walk into a store (at a shopping centre) and hold you phone up to the music that’s playing at the time. This app will tell you the song that is playing, the artist, and gives you the option to download it. Another example is that some high-end motor vehicles have computer chips embedded in their bumpers, so if you car approaches another too rapidly the chip will automatically activate the brakes, and will stop you from a near collision. Folks this is just the start of machines enveloping our world…

As a teenager I could sense this Artificial Intelligence debate, coming and immediately deny that we can’t be replaced by machines, although I’m starting to think otherwise. We’re living in an online culture and it’s starting to become far more apparent than simply a few bumpers on cars. For example there are computer games such as World of WarCraft (WOW) and Second Life, whereas the latter suggests, you can create your own world, and interact with other people in an artificial world. WOW is more of a fantasy based game, where you running around joining guilds (groups of other online players that have their own village), slaying creatures, journeying on new quests, buying better clothes and weapons for your character, and stumbling across other new players.

To those people who aren’t really into computer gaming, it may sound like a feeble attempt in re-creating ourselves, however, the number of people devoting their time to conversing behind the computer rather than in real life is growing quickly. You can’t see the other characters that you relate to and therefore players find that they are free to say what they like. Friendships are made, hearts are broken, and people get married…all online. By married I’m referring to one couple who were playing Second Life. They met each other there and decided that they liked one another. Eventually this lead to hours of chatting, and getting married in real life. (For more information on this couple, you should go and check out the documentary that I mentioned earlier.) IRL is a piece of slang I’ll use that many devoted WOW players use occasionally when speaking to each other. It stands for ‘in real life’, when referring to activities that occur away from the computer.

Now what if computer gaming isn’t your thing? Is there something else that is proof of augmented reality? Well, you just need to look for it. In Japan there are robots that will greet you and bring you something to drink at a restaurant if you are thirsty. They’ve also created robot puppies. That will bark and respond to you when you rub them on the back or under the chin. There are also depressed patients who have had computer chips inserted into their brains to allow the neurons to fire more rapidly and increase their mood. According to one patient it’s helped far more than any other form of therapy included anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, electric-shock therapy and many others. If I am misquoting you’ll have to forgive me and go and watch the film.

Now these interesting and profound experiments leave me with a question. What happens when we embed a chip into ourselves? OR… What happens if we ’embed’ our minds into a computer game environment for 80% of our day and spend the other 20% IRL? Can it affect our choices and our mood? I would love to see an experiment that takes a child and allows them to spend their teen years behind a computer screen. Take another child and give him only a cell phone and no computer. My question is will the child on the computer become bored and frustrated and get out of the house more? OR… Maybe the computer-less child will spend an increasingly more amount of time on the internet, talking to people. Maybe he’ll eventually nag his parents to buy him a computer, and delve into the world he isn’t part of.

Personally I’ve been on the web in many different aspects whether is to do research, chat to people, share poetry and writing, or simple hunt for interesting articles to get boredom out of the way. I’ve done a bit of online gaming as well, although I’ve never really got myself involved in games like Second Life or WOW. The reason is that any RPG (role-playing game) sucks a lot of my time. I’ve played other non-online RPGs like Diablo 2, Titan Quest, WarCraft 3 (dota) and so on. I try to avoid it like someone might avoid a good bottle of wine. Because, unlike the wine, I know that it might end up lasting a few days and maybe even weeks and I don’t want to be apart of that right now.

I’m part of facebook; I have a blog, and subscribe to a few writing forums, as well as IRC (Internet Relay Chat). My personal feeling is to keep the internet as a tool, when I need it. I would still prefer to meet people face-to-face for the time being and see a real kind of emotion wash over their face.

Maybe I’m just old-fashioned!