Saturday, 11 December 2010
Thursday, 9 December 2010
- Hard-working people on lower incomes should not have to pay for other people to go to university and therefore go on to earn more.
- Those same lower-income non-graduates need other people to go to university to learn to become doctors, teachers and solicitors because one day they will need to call on that expertise.
- People go to university to gain access to higher earnings. Once they have passed through the system, they can afford to pay for their course.
- The awarding of degrees helpfully separates those who are intelligent and hard-working enough to pass a course from those who aren't. This is a good way to determine who is fit to do certain jobs.
- Too many young people go to university. Many of them are studying subjects which have no benefit to society, or the courses they are on are not of a high enough standard to guarantee that they deserve the status of 'graduate'.
- University lecturers should run short, affordable courses for anyone who wants to come along, regardless of age or previous qualifications.
- People should be able to pay for a month's access to the university library and its online resourses over the summer break, when these facilities are underused.
- Systems need to be put in place by which amateur research projects can be assessed by academics, published by university-run journalsand given the chance to make a contribution to knowledge.
- All universities should provide some free-access e-learning courses, covering a mixture of core knowldege from different subject areas, study skills, and current developments.
Thursday, 2 December 2010
We have a new front-runner in the All-Comers Cold Call Completion World Championship (ACCCWC)!
This caller successfully established that the number he had phoned corresponded to the address on his list, despite the non-residence of the elusive 'Mrs Taylor'. Where he fell down was in speaking far too quickly and unclearly to be understood by someone with limited patience who had only just got up:
Caller: That was to establish that I have the right number and the right address, but the wrong name. So what is your name please, madam?
Me: I'm afraid I'm not willing to give that information over the phone.
Caller: Don't worry madam, I'm calling on behalf of the UK government.
Me: Oh yes? [Gah! Council tax? Student loan? Office for the Prevention of Plant Cruelty? (the basil in the window is looking decidedly peaky)]
Caller: So I'm not selling anything. [Aha, so someone will be making money from this somehow...]
Me: Can I ask which part of the UK government, exactly?
Caller: I'm from the rabarber rabarber insulation rabarber.
Me: [Insulation again?] I'm sorry, could you repeat that please?
Caller: a little louder From the National Utility rabarber rabarber.
Me: Sorry, I still didn't understand the name of the...
Caller: shouting, but just as quickly THE RABARBER RABARBER RABARBER RABARBER!
Me: I don't need you to shout, just to say the part of the government slowly so I can understand it.
Caller: very annoyed The point is you don't need to worry madam, it's on behalf of the UK government and...
Me: I don't understand who it is I'm talking to so I'm ending this call.
Dialing 1471 failed to produce a number to call back. Typing 'national', 'utilities' and 'insulation' into Google turned up a few government schemes but nothing with those words in that order in its name. I suspect that this is the same list of phone numbers that the angry (by the end of the call, anyway) Northern Irish man from British Gas was using a few weeks ago. I also suspect I'll be having similar conversations all winter. While I fully support the plan to make sure everyone has the best kind of insulation, in an affordable way, cold-calling on a week-day morning isn't going to turn up many home owners with time to listen. And I'm still not giving out my details or my landlady's over the phone.
A few people who read my previous post admitted to deliberately winding cold-callers up to waste their time. This is me trying to be helpful and they still end up confused, angry and empty-handed. The point? Unless it's a scam, calling landlines out of the blue is not the best way to get what you need.
Wednesday, 24 November 2010
Thursday, 18 November 2010
A little background: there used to be two Mr. Taylors at this address. One has moved out and the other has levelled-up to Dr.Taylor. Either one of them could be person that the cold callers have on their list of victims, but I've never yet managed to find out which, let alone pass on any information (or the phone) to them. Here's why:
*bzzzzzzzrrrrr PEEP PEEP PEEEzzzzzzzzzzbrrrrrEEEEPP bzzzrrrEEEEEEzzzzzzzzzzrrrP*
Caller: Is that Mrs. Taylor?
Me: No, there is no Mrs. Taylor at this address.
...and you asking that has already told me all I need to know about this call: 1. You aren't genuinely interested in talking to the person on your list because you didn't ask if they were available. 2. You are unaware of who actually lives here and therefore you're not important enough to have been informed of these changes. 3. You're an idiot. Just because a female voice has answered, does NOT mean that I am the wife of the person on your little list.
After this it can go a number of ways. One caller today, blessed with staggering levels of both persistence and incompetence, has hung up all three times, apparently unable to deal with the non-presence of a person they'd just invented. One last week decided to play a guessing game, attempting to establish whether I am any relation to Mr.Taylor ("No, I just happen to live here." *long pause* *click*). A couple have launched straight into their sales pitch regardless, and have been interrupted with the question "As I'm not the person you're looking for, isn't this now a waste of time for both of us?". So far, only one caller has scraped together the intelligence to say, "Well, this could be of interest to you anyway".
Sometimes I take pity on them and decide to throw them a life-belt, just in case this particular numpty is the single route by which one of the Mr.Taylors, current or recently upgraded, may receive an important message. Stranger things have happened.
Me: There is a Dr.Taylor here. Would you like to leave a message for him?
Caller: Er... / Ummm / *long pause*
Me: Look, if you haven't got a message for him, there would seem to be no point to this call.
Very rarely indeed, one will get their heads around the fact that perhaps the person on their list would be worth getting hold of in preference to his fictional wife / the dogmatic cow who's answered the phone, and so they ask when would be a convenient time to phone back. At this point I go into secretary mode and my flatmate is elevated to the status of a VIP, whose time is incredibly precious (isn't everyone's?). I tell them (again) that I'm happy to take a message and that Dr.Taylor will call them back, within a time-frame convenient to him, if he deems the matter to be worthy of his attention. (Ok, I leave out the last bit). Not one caller has ever taken me up on this offer.
So what of Mr This-could-be-of-interest-to-you-anyway, so far the only one of our starters not to fall flat on his face at that initial made-up-person-is-non-existent hurdle? Well he was from British Gas, had the urgent matter of cavity wall insulation to get off his chest, and was getting almost as irritated as me at the way the conversation was going:
Me: I'm afraid you've interrupted me while I'm working. Is this important?
Caller: Well actually it's very important. It's about the type of insulation in your home, which could be affecting your heating bills.
Me: I'm not the home-owner so I have no idea what kind we have and can't do any...
Caller: So who is the home owner?
Me: There's really no earthly reason why I should give you that information.
Caller: Now look here...
This might all sound like a petty rant at people who are just doing their job, and an unpleasant and thankless one at that, but companies - some of which I have to pay money to - are wasting that money on getting people to waste my time. It's not difficult; successful telephoning is something I mastered before I hit secondary school, let alone started working for more than pocket-money. There's someone you need to communicate with, you ask for that person, you leave a message if they're not there. IT'S THAT BLOODY SIMPLE.
And these are the companies who actually have the correct combination of name and number. Last year I was treated to a whole series of answerphone messages from a company representative giving very important information about a rescheduled delivery. She declined to mention her name, the name of the company, or any contact details at all, and so never found out that I was not Mrs. Wainstrop (or possibly Winscott, or Windtop... if you happen to be reading this, sorry about your new and probably now waterlogged settee). A previous flatmate of mine once received a call on her mobile about four-bedroomed properties in a county a few hundred miles away. On explaining that this was a wrong number, she was asked if she knew the couple the call was intended for. After learning that that's not how mobile numbers are assigned, the agent then asked - with admirable opportunism - if my flatmate was thinking of moving house at all.
A swing and a miss.
Wednesday, 17 November 2010
- Tabloid Watch and Angry Mob, both give excellent examples of shoddy and potentially dangerous health reporting in the papers.
- Avocados on Toast ends in the following very good point about Lib Dems being used as human shields and far too many people shooting right at them:
"I know it's easy and it's rational, because of the narrative of betrayal, but it's unfortunate that it's led to those who are actually the leading party of government - who never opposed raising fees in the first place and would clearly have done this anyway with or without the Lib Dems - getting off scot free."
- Usually fairly calm about these things on Creepy Guys, Nice Guys and The System. Any day now I'll have thought of some way to respond that doesn't involve bashing humanity's collective heads together.
*Which isn't to say they don't make sense usually. Mess. My head. Told you it was.
Friday, 5 November 2010
I went to my favourite museum last Sunday, and found it full of herbalists.
Ok, so it wasn't full of them. It also contained a lot of mathsbuskers, who are utterly lovely people dedicated to communicating proper information to the general public, in a fun, useful, non-profit-except-to-society-as-a-whole kind of way. This made the presence of an exhibition by the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH) even more disheartening. What the exhibition represented was pretty much the opposite of science communication, and therefore had no place in the Museum of Science and Industry**.
It certainly looked sciencey, did this exhibition. It had a definite air of the scientific about it, of the primary-school-biology, let's-colour-in-a-leaf variety. There were units of science arranged within, decorated with a sprinkling of twigs and a half-dead basil plant. However, unlike the other areas of the museum, which chart the rocky progress of various fields from less to more knowledge or from experimental to efficient machines, this exhibition was an incoherent mess of information. This meant that while all of the individual facts presented may have been true, the main message for people to take home was, "Herbs Good; Herbalists Lovely", and, due to the presence of a table covered in leaflets by the entrance, "Go And Book An Appointment".
It's at this point that I wish my phone hadn't run out of battery, because photographs would have been the best way to accurately represent the content. In the absence of more reliable data, here's what I remember from the various information boards. In an order no less logical than how it appeared on the day:
- Plants are awesome. For years and years and years people have used them for shelter, houses, food and medicines.
- Lots of plants are endangered through the actions of bad people. Good people are trying to look after them. Good people respect plants.
- Herbalists respect plants.
- Lots of medicines used by doctors are made from plants. In the future, we might find medical uses for other plants, which is another reason why we shouldn't destroy ecosystems.
- Eating plants is healthy.
- People who aren't doctors have also used plants as remedies for thousands of years. In many parts of the world, this is the main kind of medicine. In this developed, modern part of the world, more and more people are realising the benefits of...
So my main beef with the exhibition is that it was a jumble of paragraphs about plants, herbs, medicine, health, conservation and herbalists, which drew no clear distinctions, offered no temporal or causal coherence, and was overshadowed by the huge, very professional-looking sign explaining who the NIMH was, next to a lot of its individual members' advertising bumf.
Now for the non-science bit. In common with organisations of all types and sizes, the NIMH has to define its members and provide them with an identity. As with all processes of identity-creation, this also assigns an opposing identity upon those excluded from membership ('the others'). When an organisation is trying hard to persuade their audience of a distinct identity - whether it's Cornish separatists or a local bakery - a clear opposing identity emerges as the main 'other'. In this way, every statement of a characteristic implies a second label, which is slapped onto the 'other'. In the case of alternative medicine, of which 'medical herbalists' are a part, the other is always conventional medicine.
Therefore, when the NIMH's own leaflet say that their members "are trained to look beyond the obvious, to find the root cause of a problem", it is heavily implying (to the point where they might as well just come out and say it) that any doctor you consult will go for the most obvious answer, and not get to that 'root cause'. I'm sure many of you can see the next sentence looming large on the horizon. All together now: "we do not treat symptoms, we treat people".
Even the title of the leaflet offers a distinction: "Herbal Medicine: for a naturally healthy life". Because you wouldn't want to be unnaturally healthy now, would you? Similarly illuminating statements can be found on their website, including the utterly nauseating:
For many, that first visit to a medical herbalist can be a life changing experience, a chance to experience true healthcare as it should be practised. Your medical herbalist is a genuine, caring partner in health from the cradle to the third age.
Even more frustrating, considering that these leaflets were on offer within - and therefore implicitly endorsed by - a science museum, are the members' own explanations of what herbal medicine is. Compare and contrast the two following statements. Exhibit A is from "medical herbalist and registered osteopath" Catherine Wasik BSc (Hons) MNIMH, BSc (Hons) Ost.***. Exhibit B is from "consulting medical herbalist" Kirstin J Bamber BSc (Hons) MNIMH.
Herbal medicine, just like all forms of medicines, can cause unwanted side-effects, however in the hands of a qualified medical herbalist treatment plans are designed to be safe and effective.
Many pharmaceutical drugs are based on isolated chemical parts of plants. In contrast herbal medicines are extracts from part of the whole plant (e.g. the whole root, leaves etc.) and contain numerous plant constituents.
Herbalists believe that the therapeutic actions of a plant are due to a balanced relationship between all the plant's constituents. Using a plant in this way prevents the many side effects that are often associated with pharmaceutical drugs.
What I would prefer to see from two people with the same degree, belonging to the same quality-assuring association, advertising their £7-per-week multiple plant constituents in a gosh-darned science museum, is some kind of agreement as to whether herbal medicine has side-effects.
And, to avoid devaluing the letters after their names even further, a working knowledge of commas would be nice too. That's the part where I'm picking nits.
* The collective noun for automatic googlepixies.
** Except that they're representing an industry. That's kind of the point but doesn't fit with the flow of what I was saying, y'know?
*** Who doesn't appear to have a web address, although the little picture of a pestle and mortar on the front of her leaflet does.
Sunday, 17 October 2010
1. Are giant black apples glued to the head really the height of French fashion these days?
2. The model appears to be looking into the face of Shelob, suspended above the unsuspecting photographer. You'd think she'd warn him. Or is she another giant man-eating spider in disguise?
3. Seriously, what's with the clumsy cutouts? She looks decapitated. Maybe Shelob's got herself a woman's head on a pike, and the vision of horror in her eyes is the last thing she saw.
4. I don't like the idea of lashes with which I could fatally impale myself or others.
5. Apparently they can't guarantee that they'll be any clumps at all. I DEMAND clumps, dammit.
6. (see below) So why bother with the decapitated, fruit-wearing, probably-a-giant-spider's-decoy woman at all? Why not just have some massive black lines on a white background and say: "Want lashes longer than your nose? Coat them in our very expensive black gunk! Smells better than crude oil. (But we can't promise any clumps.)"?
Make-up: because you're not worth shit without it. Apparently.
Thursday, 5 August 2010
Songs you should never ever listen to in times of emotional turmoil, unless you're very good at self-administered catharsis:
- Thin Lizzy - Still In Love With You (the live version's the worst / best)
- Joan Armatrading - Weakness In Me
- Crowded House - Fall At Your Feet
Songs you should listen to instead:
- Death in Vegas - Aisha
- Queenadreena - Pretty Like Drugs
- Tool - Aenima
- Soulwax - Much Against Everyone's Advice
- Die Toten Hosen - Warum Werde Ich Nicht Satt?
- Primal Scream - Kill All Hippies
- Metallica - Call of Ktulu (S&M)
And that should ease you nicely into something classical to finish off the night:
- Camille Saint-Saëns - Danse Macabre
(*Not my word, one of Angryyoungalex's)
Thursday, 1 July 2010
Some pub chat a few weeks ago concerned the fact that the contradictory, irritating, or even just banal sides of being in love - and the many possible ways of dealing with it - aren't represented in your typical love songs. A few exceptions were mentioned and I've been (largely against my will) thinking of others all day. I've also been noticing a few songs that can invoke utterly different emotions in me on different days. And so it comes to pass that I am presenting you all here with a playlist for the fucked-up-in-love:
Love Will Tear Us Apart - Joy Division
Strange Glue / Mulder and Scully - Catatonia
My Beloved Monster - The Eels
Underwear / Something Changed - Pulp
Ava Adore - The Smashing Pumpkins
Coin-Operated Boy - The Dresden Dolls
Flinch - Alanis Morissette
Shiver - Coldplay
Denkmal - Wir Sind Helden
Fever - Peggy Lee
Trash - Suede
Laid - James
Romeo and Juliet - Dire Straits
A Rainy Night In Soho - The Pogues
And here are some straightforward happy ones I use to blast through all that Leberkäse:
Be With You - Transvision Vamp
Let Your Love Go - Bread
In Your Room - The Bangles
Big Scary Animal - Belinda Carlisle
Private Universe - Crowded House
In These Shoes? - Kirsty MacColl
I Believe In A Thing Called Love - The Darkness (oh yes!)
Plus of course the best song ever written: Love And Affection - Joan Armatrading
Saturday, 26 June 2010
It's not often I'm compelled to whip out a notebook and pencil in my local chippy, but unfortunately for me and my blood-pressure, this one tends to have a stack of old Daily Mails piled up for the entertainment and irritation of their customers.
"VICTIMS OF THE NIGHTWATCH" was a story in the 'Good Health' section (pp.36-7) on Tues, June 15th. The story is on the website - roughly the same as the print edition, from what I can remember - but on page 37 there was an additional black banner with large white print declaring:
Just one junior doctor to look after 400 patients, nurses too harried to help... no wonder even the medical profession is worried about hospital care at night.
I beg your pardon? "Even" the medical profession? As if they're normally the last group of people to worry about the welfare of patients? As if they chose their careers based on a predilection for natty green uniforms and the smell of disinfectant? In Daily Mail Land hospitals are a battleground not between humans and diseases, but between Joe and Josephine Everyman and The Axis of Evil Medics, whose goal is to incapacitate the Everymans in order to sell their organs on the black-market to supplement their gold-plated pensions. Or something. Motivation isn't something the Fail usually bothers to explain; public servants are feckless, self-serving, interfering drones. Nuff said.
The Everyman's only hope is to arm themselves with first-rate medical information from their trusty daily newspaper. What's that they see on the very same page? "HOW SUPERFOODS CAN BE BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH!" Quickly, Josephine! Better cancel the Waitrose home delivery.
Friday, 25 June 2010
We can all agree that such strategies are despicable - they quite obviously cause a great deal of unnecessary distress to those targeted. I'm sure most readers, given the choice, would rather forgo such snippets of information if they knew just what was done to obtain them. Yes, the news from Cumbria was interesting, but most people's tea-breaks would have been just as diverting if the space had been filled by some amusing PR piece about a pig in wellies. No less revenue would have been generated if all papers had told their staff to back off.
And yet, nothing is going to change. Reed's point has been made time and time again whenever there is a major tragic event. Hands are wrung, vague promises of more comprehensive voluntary ethical codes are made, only for the exact same thing to happen next time. So what's to be done?
First of all, the issue needs to be made public. So far, no national news outlet seems to have bothered reporting on Reed's speech. This is an elected representative, calling for a genuine improvement, in the institution dedicated to making such changes (not at a press-conference, media schmooze event, wire-tapped conversation to a colleague or any other of the less appropriate times when the media bother to actually listen to MPs). He is genuinely speaking on behalf of his constituents and he and they deserve to be heard.
So then, fellow dwellers of the blogosphere: pass it on.
Thursday, 24 June 2010
Admirable goals of 'skepticism' as a movement:
- Promote critical thinking and freedom of speech and information, especially concerning access to reliable information on scientific (and other fields of) research.
- Work with the media to improve the quality of reporting, and exposing mistakes, misinterpretations and downright fabrications where necessary.
- Expose the techniques used to part the uninformed from their money.
- Campaign against the introduction of policies which are based on bogus reasoning or misinformation.
- Provide a welcoming environment and accessible platforms for the discussion of issues related to all of the above.
What 'skepticism' should not do:
- Form a closed community of like-minded people, in a way that appears intimidating to outsiders, either by automatically assuming that everyone present will agree with your position, or by assuming too much prior knowledge in your audience (not a problem I've noticed so far, but something we should always be on guard against).
- Indulge in blanket attacks on a whole aspect of society simply because it is not based in rationality. Better to target individual instances of bad reasoning or potentially damaging policies. For example, there's no point decrying the fact that the Catholic Church's policies on contraception are based on rules whose origin cannot be conclusively traced back to a supreme being. Nobody needs to be told that. There are other, evidence-based ways of proving that such policies are damaging to society.
- Give in to the temptation to insult or make fun of people and groups purely to ease our own frustration. Humour is useful if it helps an audience to see a situation in a different light, and to attract people to what could otherwise be a fairly dry and sombre field. On the other hand, it also serves to polarise the debate and to ostracise portions of the target audience.
As I said, this is a very personal mission statement, and I'm not going to hassle people into conforming to it. One of the best things about the movement is that there is no prescriptive set of rules, or a PR push to present a united front on all issues. Debate and diversity of opinion are what drive us on, and if you'll allow me to rip off Groucho Marx slightly: I don't care to belong to a club that only accepts people exactly like me as members.
Sunday, 6 June 2010
Anyway, this is a response which an interested party left on Facebook. He's kindly agreed to have it reproduced here:
I take your point, but unfortunately there are things more consequential than hurt feelings involved in the the practice of taking your morality - I won't say ethics because there's no system involved - from an invisible friend who supposedly conveyed guidance/instructions for life based on the experience, interpretation and, perhaps, imagination ... of desert tribesman with none of the tacit or explicit, not-subject-to-post-modern
Idealism is interesting in philosophy/ to philosophers counting angels on pinheads, but irrelevant to why you feel grief, how you come to be in the biological form you are, the reasons why and consequences of the fact that GPS systems work (Quantum effects and Relativity), how the systems of nature function, why disasters occur, the nature of disease, the bonds between beings and countless other elements of how my and your everyday life occur. The bounds of knowledge in many areas thought exclusive to arts, humanities and 'social sciences' are quickly falling to probabilistic description by empirical investigation. More so every day.
The idea that you can take the founding elements of your life and society from texts so openly against critical thinking; against and contrary to inter-subjective, falsifiable scientific knowledge; completely at odds with how we live our lives everyday is abhorrent to a rational mind. This is the reason that fundamentalists are shunned by almost all; this is the reason why the hand-wringing moderate person who cannot bear to give up the invisible friend who monitors, influences and dictates is wrong. The unthinking agnostic provides the excuse for the moderate, who provides the scaffold for the fundamentalist. They are all utterly bankrupt on any measure possible to hold up for scrutiny.
It's not bigotry, but a critical mind that dismisses religion, religious 'convictions' and their influence on society.
Andrew's soapbox - a deeply held, honest account of someone's thought on a subject - is well justified in my opinion.... and for every person who might immediately turn their face from GMS for its airing, there may well be many others who turn towards.
AFAIK - All soapboxes are welcome?
Saturday, 5 June 2010
The first couple of items made for good listening, but then things morphed into a special flicking-chewing-gum-at-religion edition. Treatment of the two news items represented sadly missed opportunities: a few minutes of essentially just poking fun at something which warrants more serious treatment, followed by a diatribe from Alex Dennerly, which contributed little other than some inventive combinations of swear words. There was no real analysis of either case so that it seemed a waste to have four self-professed critical thinkers discussing this, rather than a group of bemused grumblers down the pub. I know damn well they can do better than this.
Then came the guest host's 'soap box' section. Andrew did a good job of wrestling the over-used soap-box back from Alex, putting forward his objections to the moderately religious. After years of practice, he can be relied on to produce a well thought out and amusing rant on most topics, usually leaving the reader with a clear idea of how the world could feasibly be made to work a little better. In this case the rant started with an admission that otherwise sensible people who aren't atheists just don't fit into his 'internal model' of a rational universe. The solution was that every religious person should accept that they're wrong and agree to have that 'fixed'. The analogy he used doesn't really help his case:
There was even some disagreement about whether stamping out common delusions constituted education or genocide. And it reminded me of deaf people who refuse a cure because they see it as implying that they're worse than hearing people. And it's absurd. It's like refusing a superpower. You're not Nathan Petrelli, no bad thing is going to happen. Being deaf is objectively worse than being able to hear and in exactly the same way, being wrong about something as important as whether or not an omnipotent being will save you is objectively worse than being right. And if someone helps you fix that, say "thank you".
I treat religion as a regrettable fact of human nature. Like phobias or weird celebrity crushes,* it seems irrational and silly to the outside observer, can cause a lot of problems we'd all do far better without, but still won't go away not matter how much or how amusingly you complain about it. It's also so bound up with people's self-image, identity and sense of where they belong (similar to when you've built your life around coping successfully with a disability) that the more moderate or wavering believers come under attack, the more likely they are to retreat into the sanctuary offered by a community of people who have shared their experiences. If a 'cure' is going to cause serious mental trauma, it is not acceptable to force people to go through with it.**
Admittedly, I've oversimplified Andrew's argument here. There are parts which I agree with and it's worth a listen. However, in terms of the skeptics movement as a whole, I find rants like this not only pointless but massively unhelpful. It's difficult enough to make any kind of progress against woo, superstition and willful ignorance even when we have hard proof. We need to pick our battles and not go marching off into the treacherous swamps of religious belief, firing shots of "How do you know, you cretins?" into the mist.
I've really enjoyed the skeptics events I've been to and I'm trying my best to encourage friends and acquaintances - some of them moderately religious or buyers of alternative remedies - to come along for a drink, attend the talks, read the blogs and listen to the podcasts. I'd rather not spend too much time having to reassure them that they won't get spit-roasted in some angry atheists' piss-take of ritual sacrifice. In this case, Just Skeptics sadly didn't do justice to the all-round wonderfulness and friendliness of the Greater Manchester Skeptics.
* Stuffed animals and Alan Davies respectively, in case you were wondering.
**Actually, this is my main phobia (just searching for that link was a struggle). I've heard about possible therapies and I'd rather just carry on dealing with the problem, much ta.
Thursday, 3 June 2010
George Orwell, of 1984 fame, famously said that, “He who controls the present, controls the past. And he who controls the past, controls the future.” Of course there are rational people on the state education board fighting these changes, and any insidious changes will be slow and creeping, but this is one of the reasons why I think that the continual promotion of the ideas of the Enlightenment and scientific reasoning, and investigation into bullshitters and snake-oil salesmen needs to continue through vehicles such as this tremendous podcast. Rewriting history to agree with your rhetoric to me is morally bankrupt and intellectually bankrupt, and ironic coming from a religion that lays claim to moral superiority.
While I agree that the proposed changes to the curriculum are clearly an act of politically-motivated revisionism, and could have a very negative effect on the quality of education, I can sense an underlying assumption on the part of the podcasters here which needs to be examined. This is the assumption that there is a 'correct' version of history, which should be found in all textbooks. In other words, that there is a fixed benchmark against which the accuracy of the information in these books can be measured.
Sorry to go all postmodern on yo' asses, but there isn't. Or at least, it's not as fixed and clear as you might hope. Yes, if a book states that the American War of Independence was started in 1509 by a secret society of Welsh feminist trumpet players, it can be pretty conclusively disproven with reference to a vast body of archival evidence. On the other hand, when it comes to assessing which factions of revolutionaries deserve the most credit for victory, and the creation of the United States... there is no 'fact' to be uncovered, just a mass of different interpretations to be weighed up. If this sounds like I'm working up to the line “teach the controversy”, it's probably because I am. But I'd like it taught well.
When 'science' is taught, it is really the scientific method which is being learned. Ok, you get some facts like the structure of cells, or that some stuff floats, but wherever possible this is not taken out of a book, but demonstrated practically. Even better, the kids perform the experiment themselves and discuss their findings (before being told what it was they did wrong). 'Science' is not a static, monolithic thing you can memorise for an exam. It's a system, an engine, constantly adding new knowledge to the pool, or designating previously held 'truths' to be false.
History is the same. The idea of kids learning 'history' from a single textbook, or even a limited selection of textbooks, fills me with horror. History is not a 'story' to be learned by heart and recited. History does not, strictly speaking, exist to be learned. What can be learned is the discipline of history, the methodology of historians, and – as a basic starting point – some of the main things that the majority of historians would consider to be accurate: key events, dates, and actors; probable causes and consequences; aspects of everyday life at different times – whatever gives the lessons some substance, and interest. This should be done, at all levels, via proper engagement with sources (not just texts), examination of locations and artefacts where possible, and the development of critical thinking skills. Something like:
“Right kids, based on this information about French and English weaponry and on the location of the armies, who do you think won the battle of Agincourt? Discuss it in groups for a bit; your homework is to find out the answer – and remember to double check with at least two different books! Next week, we'll discuss a little how historians define one side as 'the winner'.”
What should emerge from this is a sense that history isn't something which is remembered and preserved down the ages, but something which is constantly being pieced together, reshaped and reinterpreted by new information or different methods of analysis. The most useful thing which can emerge is the knowledge that everyone, however well-intentioned, 'rewrites' history, and that statements along the lines of “x was our past, therefore y should be our future” are always total hogswash.
*Second to last, i.e. episode 49. I'm a slow proof-reader.
Even better, read the cartoons / web comics that give my week most of its structure:
Multiplex by Gordon McAlpin is subtly wonderful. The story-lines mature slowly and the jokes are understated and often pushed into second place by film-related news (no bad thing, in itself), but the characters and set-up are so believable and likeable that you can easily forget you're reading a web comic.
David Malki's Wondermark and Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant are what I wish studying history was like - stuffed full of suspiciously modern historical characters and weird and wonderful contraptions.
Dresden Codak definitely wins my vote for most beautiful artwork and most thought-provoking plots.
Regular, unmissable one-shots: xkcd, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, and Doghouse Diaries.
Things that aren't primarily funny but are strange and sad in a way that makes you feel better: A Softer World, Pictures for Sad Children, and Cyanide & Happiness.
NSFW stuff where a few good jokes justify a lot of bodily fluids, tentacles and goodness knows what else: Curvy (for which you really have to start at the beginning) and OGLAF.
EDIT: This is the original illustration used for my thing above.
EDIT #2: I forgot Jump Leads! Forget my own head next...
Friday, 28 May 2010
I'm sorry to say that modern advertisers, however hard they try, will never match the glorious efforts of a hundred years ago: www.vintageadbrowser.com
Saturday, 23 January 2010
Should we consider banning any items of clothing related to a particular religion, we will have to word the legislation very carefully indeed. I'm sure that there is no way to make such a law both workable and non-discriminatory. Say we decided that women covering their hair with a headscarf was 'intimidating' and that banning this practice in public would be a step forward for women's rights. Either many things would be included unintentionally (Hair nets and swimming caps? Will the headgear of Queen Elizabeth, and many other women her age, be banned too?) or the headgear will have to be defined as a symbol of a particular religion. Practically speaking, the only way to determine whether something is being worn as a religious symbol is to determine the religious beliefs of the wearer; if two women are both covering their hair, and only one is a Muslim, only one would be breaking the law. Clearly, that sucks.
My second point is aimed at those who would like to see some practices banned because they are a symbol of female subjugation. It is widely accepted that Muslim women follow rules on covering skin and hair because they will be punished if they don't, and if you are sure of this fact then it must be upsetting to see evidence of this walking around. But forcing a change in behaviour is not the answer. Not only is it denying that women have the right, even the ability, to choose for themselves, but it completely disregards how they may feel about the new, enforced level of exposure.
This is where my personal experience comes in, which should explain why I'm (quite arrogantly) attempting to speak for a group of women I don't belong to. I wear a wig. I have done since the age of about three, due to some piffling genetic oddity, the only symptom of which is that it makes my 'natural' hairstyle resemble that of a mad scientist caught fraternising with the enemy. And there lies the probem - lack of hair in a woman has certain cultural associations. We no longer shave the heads of female fraternisers, prisoners or asylum inmates, but it is still considered a sign of criminality, illness, deviance, or extreme politics. Just look at the perplexed derision that awaited Britney Spears when she shaved her head, even though leaving it an inch longer would have been accepted. As I don't want to attract such associations purely based on my appearance*, I cover my own hair most of the day.
Looking at it logically, it's silly that I should feel this way. Natural -looking wigs aren't cheap. They're also hot in the summer, and uncomfortable under winter hats. They make me worried about going on roller-coasters (and I LOVE roller-coasters) and getting caught it the rain loses much of its romance. My life would improve if I just did away with the blasted things, and the only thing stopping me is the culture I grew up in; because of the way long, thick, shiny hair is fetishised in western culture, and the fact that lack of hair is still considered a legitimate target for ridicule**, I would rather walk down the street with a bare arse than a bare head.
...And I think the same goes for any culturally-imposed rules on clothing. However unfair and unnecessary they may appear to those looking in, imposing change from the outside amounts to a twisted form of bullying. No state has the right to force people to feel uncomfortable, all day every day, as they go about their normal, law-abiding business. Anyone who thinks it a good idea to force women to feel exposed had better be prepared to go naked the next day.
*And because I don't have Sigourney Weaver or Natalie Portman's beautifully-shaped cranium.
** That episode of Johnathan Creek where they repeatedly take the piss out of a bald girlfriend was easily the most traumatic TV experience of my early teenage years.
Thursday, 21 January 2010
For four out of the past five years I've been loving it from afar, from various parts of the EU, teaching foreign kids and business people about our funny language and our even funnier ways. I've been one of those really irritating long-distance lovers, who enthuse, starry-eyed about the object of their affection to anyone who'll listen (and the best thing about being a teacher is the captive audience). I even spent hard-earned cash on British cheese, beer and fruitcake for my students to prove to them that whatever overpriced cardboard they ate and despaired of on their one trip to London is not the sum total of our culinary offerings. I found it a little frustrating that, unlike that of other countries, our produce is not widely promoted abroad*, to the extent that many Europeans think we all live off 'ham and eggs' and perfectly square pieces of dry 'toast' bread.
The thing that frustrated me much, much more than that though was the attitude of the British media - my main link to what was going on back home. Holy smoke, the place fell to pieces the second I left. And - allegedly - thousands of Brits were leaving their beloved home country, being forced out by the changes they had seen to "their" "culture" and the mismanagement they were no longer prepared to put up with. Which was news to me, as I thought I'd left to try my hand at being an immigrant. We live and learn.
It amazes me that people who claim to be patriotic Brits - both in the media and in real life - also tend to be the people who complain about it the most. For all their yammering at how our culture is being destroyed, our institutions undermined, and how we need to stand up for ourselves and MAKE BRITAIN GREAT AGAIN, there's rarely a mention of what might make Britain 'great' in the first place**. And until those elements are defined, no way am I going to advocate curbing the rights of anyone living here in order to 'defend' the British 'way of life'.
To kick things off, here's a list of some things I think we do well and which it would be a shame to lose:
- Food. Specifically our massive range of fantastic desserts, biscuits and cakes which aren't too sweet or made of 90% cream. Also sandwiches with deep, well thought-out fillings (most of the ones I got in Germany were 1 slice meat, 1 slice cheese, 1 gherkin). No-one else does pies quite like we do, and I have never encountered a better variety of sausage. More importantly, we're happy to take elements of other countries' cuisines and make them our own.
- Free entry to museums and galleries. This means that nearby residents can just wander in for ten minutes, whenever they're in the area, and soak up some of that culture that's allegedly disappearing. Same goes for our excellent, integrated system of free libraries, which is certainly not a universal concept. Our tourist attractions too are generally well-run with excellent facilities and genuinely informative exhibitions, even if the gift shops are getting a bit silly.
- Music. That largely silent phase we went through while geniuses abroad were composing their operas and symphonies? We were just saving ourselves for the second half on the 20th century. Ok, so I grew up to be a bigger than average Brit-pop junkie, but really there's something for everyone there.
Of course, these aren't innocent achievements****. I would be the first to point out that Britain's culture is the result of a lot of suffering, most of it inflicted on the populations of other countries, which we didn't give a monkey's for at the time. But that doesn't mean I'd be happy to see that culture disappear. I believe in political correctness (more on that in a later post) but I wouldn't advocate changing something in the present to appease the past. That's just illogical.
What I find far more illogical though, is the two very contradictory views that many people are able to hold simultaneously; that Britain was once 'great', and that our achievements abroad were a good thing, but also that the country is 'broken' and that the evidence of those international links which remains in Britain (our immigrant communities and mixed marriages, our general willingness to acknowledge the contributions made by other cultures to our own) is something to be attacked and stamped out. The two sides simply don't add up.
We could, perhaps, attempt a 'return' to a culture which is devoid of all foreign influences but most people would agree that living off beans and turnips, with fewer attractions to visit and very little music to enjoy on our 'made in Britain' gramophones, wouldn't be all that 'great' after all.
*Incidentally, after writing this I'm going to bake an apple crumble for a Frenchman. In this area at least, I'm prepared to practice what I preach.
**Sure I know it's a geography term. You know I know that. We're cool.
***Imagine my shock at German restaurants serving them still wrapped in foil and smothered in sour cream. Seriously tricky to eat.
****A severe understatement , I know, but not something I want to get into here.
Saturday, 2 January 2010
Most of the time I'm hampered by the overwhelming feeling that our species is doomed, especially those parts of it which have been living well beyond their means for centuries by screwing over other parts and the planet they view as their own life-sized Risk board. Every time I try to write something pro-active and political I remember that groups of people, regardless of the personalities of the individual members, tend to behave as if humans are inherently ignorant, self-centered, self-serving bastards. But as this is the designated time of year for setting unrealistic goals for the future, here are a few of mine for the country. If I stick to one of my personal resolutions, these will be expanded on over the next few weeks.
- Focus on the real positives - let's try and break through all this hell-in-a-handcart, make-Britain-great-again whining from self-pitying (often ex-pat) wind bags and occasionally celebrate some of the things that Britain genuinely does well. Then maybe we'll accept that none of these things are really under threat from immigration, multi-culturalism or anything else people kick off about when they don't want to admit they're scared of foreign-looking hats. Which brings me on to...
- Political correctness doesn't mean what a lot of idiots think it means, but that doesn't matter any more. It's still used as an excuse for people to hide behind nasty little euphemisms and pretend they're being a brave spokesperson for the silent majority. Now we're entering an age in which 'human rights' is a dirty word; 'asylum seeker', 'Muslim' and 'terrorist' are practically synonyms and the only tactic employed against this shift in rhetoric is to shout "racist!" and run away. Speaking of which...
- The left have to get a grip. Seriously guys - we're accused of running the country, we're even accused of having taken over the USA, for heaven's sake, and yet viewed from the inside, we're a fractious bunch of cynical, defeatist, lone-rangers who've forgotten where the common ground is that we're supposed to be defending. We're losing, and it's our fault.