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Brian's Blog

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings."

— Lewis Carrol, "Through The Looking-Glass"

This isn't your normal kind of blog, more an assorted collection of thoughts and opinions that I have accumulated over a long period of time (a bit like those dusty old boxes in the attic), turned into something that I think people might actually want to read.

If you are looking for a particular blog entry, you will find a list of them in the right-hand column of this page. Dates aren't generally important for these entries, but you'll find the latest at the top of the list.

A tale of two blogs...

  • My other blog!
  • You are also very welcome to visit my Categorian Blog, which (unlike this one) has a high pictorial content. I hope that you will find both blogs interesting, in different ways.
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  •  

2016: The Shadow in the West

Picture of rainforest lagoon at sunrise

"Daybreak at Rain Forest Lagoon" © by Christoph Wiemann

  • Note:
  • This post was last updated on 13th January, 2017.
  • A major post about the assault on democracy following Trump's inauguration, and an examination of the ongoing twin evils of “gaslighting” and fake news, will be found here in my Categorian blog.

Sometimes the bright side is very hard to find. Going into 2017, the dark side is definitely rising, and we will have to stand up to it.

2016 was the year in which around 25% of the USA's eligible voters (only just over half of whom voted) elected Donald Trump as the USA's President. Their choice has utterly dismayed many people on both sides of the Atlantic, who find it hard to understand how a nation founded on welcome immigration has chosen a racist, xenophobic, women-denigrating President with no experience of any elected office, a Commander-in-Chief who avoided military service, a leader and representative of its country who is a thin-skinned, petulant bully with no sense of morality, a person who rages and litigates against anything and anyone who makes him look bad, a person uninterested in science or (it seems) any facts that don't suit him, a person capable of tweeting that climate change is a hoax played on the USA by China... the list is depressingly long (and incomplete).

2016 was also the year in which 37% of the UK's eligible voters chose Brexit, which is effectively a major and irreversible constitutional change. If Britain had a written constitution, such a change could not have happened in the way that it did — but that's another story.

For the world as a whole, the election of Trump seems by far the worst news for the future. This is not only because of the effect that Trump's administration will have on people's lives and the environment, but because of the cancerous disrespect for truth and decency that was so much a part of his campaign (and of him personally) — and which also featured, to a serious but much lesser extent, in the pro-Brexit campaign.

Brexit, however, may have more serious consequences in the long term than some might expect, potentially including the breakup of the United Kingdom and/or the EU itself.

We now live, it seems, in a “post-truth” culture. The word has been added to the Oxford English Dictionary, and was chosen by the OED's editors as “word of the year” following its extensive use during the Brexit and Trump campaigns. It describes a culture in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

The rise of the so-called Alt-Reality Media, which tries to confine people to a media bubble and feed them hateful and deceitful propaganda, is a frightening symptom of (and a propagation mechanism for) the cancerous growth mentioned above. Behind its trendy name lies something truly evil and dangerous, as explained all too well in this article. You won't like it, but everyone concerned about the future should read it.

One of the root causes of this evil, and of much other stupidity and damage, lies in certain forms of religion that are all too prevalent in the USA.

It begins (IMO) when the beliefs of a religion are challenged by science. Followers of that religion must then discredit science itself, which results in (among other things) the insane denial of human-caused climate change.

Religions that switch off their followers' reasoning brains open the door to much else, the so-called Alt-Reality Media among them. Their followers are capable of believing anything, it seems.

This issue of a Conservative Christian newsletter (one of many such examples) began with the message:

“Make no mistake about it. If you are a conservative Christian and Hillary Clinton becomes our next president, she will declare war on certain aspects of your faith. Your religious liberties will be targeted, and your biblical beliefs will be branded disturbing, if not downright dangerous.”

If, like me, you feel that you have wandered into a strange alternative universe, you can find out how the “Satanic Hillary” story got started in this illuminating and disturbing New York Times article.

Flip the mirror around, and suddenly you see how Muslims are radicalized.

(If you're interested in my thoughts on science and religion, you will find them in my earlier posts below.)

So where, if anywhere, is the bright side in all this, and what do we have to do to make the world a nicer and safer place?

Sun Rays Coming From Dark Clouds

(HD wallpaper available from here)

Picture of George Takei If (as well you might be) you are worried about forthcoming civil rights abuses, persecution of minorities and the like, then I recommend the Facebook page of George Takei.

George is a well-known actor from Star Trek and (among other things) a committed social activist. He uses his high profile to highlight and oppose many things that need opposing — but he does so with considerable humour.

His own story includes a period during WWII, when he was between 5 and 8 years old, which he told here in his own words:

“My mother was born in Sacramento, California. My father was a San Franciscan... We're Americans... citizens of this country. We had nothing to do with the war. We simply happened to look like the people that bombed Pearl Harbor. But without charges, without trial, without due process—the fundamental pillar of our justice system—we were summarily rounded up, all Japanese Americans on the West Coast, where we were primarily resident, and sent off to 10 barb wire internment camps—prison camps, really, with sentry towers, machine guns pointed at us—in some of the most desolate places in this country: the wastelands of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, the blistering hot desert of Arizona, of all places, in black tarpaper barracks. And our family was sent two-thirds of the way across the country, the farthest east, in the swamps of Arkansas [for 3 years].

“And it's from this experience that, when I was a teenager, my father told me that our democracy is very fragile, but it is a true people's democracy, both as strong and as great as the people can be, but it is also as fallible as people are. And that's why good people have to be actively engaged in the process, sometimes holding democracy's feet to the fire, in order to make it a better, truer democracy.”

(Which is where Brexit also comes in — but more of that a bit later.)

New York flooded as Atlantis If (as well you might be) you are worried about what will happen to our environment, then there definitely is a bright side, as well as much cause for worry.

Trump's attitude to the environment (and to reality in general) is well ilustrated by his intention to scrap NASA's budget for Earth Sciences.

NASA's scientific monitoring of the Earth, relied on by many organizations, has been classified by Trump as "politicized science", meaning that it provides inconveniently true information about our planet — and truth is the last thing that Trump needs.

The bright side is that the world is making good progress towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions, even without the USA, and more than half of all new global energy generation capacity now comes from cheap-energy renewable sources. In 2015 the world installed more than half a million solar panels per day and two wind turbines every hour — many of them in the USA.

In December 2016, we heard that Bill Gates and a group of billionaires have launched a Breakthrough Energy Ventures Fund of more than $1 billion, focused on fighting climate change.

It also seems that California will strongly oppose any attempt to stop or reverse policies fighting global climate change, even launching its own satellites if necessary.

There are other reasons, including business self-interest, why the environmental damage that Trump intends may not be quite as severe as feared. You will find these, along with some other therapeutic reading, among the links at the end of this Categorian post, and there is always good news to be found on my Environment & Technology page.

Jesus Wept cropped from And Jesus Wept by Terry Alexander if (as well you might be) you are worried about reason-denying forms of religion (there are other kinds!), then again there is some comfort, as well as much cause for worry — not least the push to remove the intended solid wall between Church and State.

Click the image to the right, or go here, for a short, thoughtful article from which the image comes. At one point the author quotes Matthew 5, which begins: “Blessed are the poor in spirit...”, and then points out to Conservative Christians that Trump preaches exactly the opposite of the Sermon on the Mount. Trump's version would be: “Blessed are the losers” — a sentiment which, of course, Trump would never express except as sarcasm.

So where's the comfort?

Well, there are plenty of media outlets that Trump hasn't found a way to control, and the take-over of the State by the Religious Right is meeting plenty of opposition.

If you are interested in issues of science vs religion, then you may like the Facebook page of the aptly-named Friendly Atheist, even if you aren't an atheist yourself.

You might also like my own posts of the subject which you will find below.

Spending on religions in the US is currently tax-free and huge ($85 billion annually), and some of this undoubtedly leads to various forms of corruption. However such spending is gradually declining, an indication of a changing religious landscape in the US. There is an interesting and thoughtful article on the subject here.

Anyway...

When you're feeling down, it may help to realize that you are not alone in opposing what is happening in the USA, and to remember that some 75% of the US Electorate did not vote for Trump.

Starting in November 2016, it has seemed like every acceptance speech at an award ceremony for the arts, every interview with a music star, every popular concert, contained powerful messages of opposition to what is happening.

In January 2017 there was this devastating example:

and you can read an analysis of Trump's response here, together with this wonderful input from J.K. Rowling.

George Takei keeps you posted with things (some serious, some funny) like the one above, and this:

The actor Alec Baldwin, on the popular comedy show Saturday Night Live, has been mercilessly lampooning Donald Trump's most unpresidential tweeting (click the image to read the article).

Donald Trump (Alec Baldwin) tweeting lampoon

You can also cheer yourself up with the thought that Trump may be the first US president since Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton to have been successfully impeached, but unlike them might not subsequently be acquitted.

There is currently much talk about impeachment — watch this space...

What the 2016 US Election and Brexit have in common is that in some sense they are both flawed applications of democracy, flaws which seriously need to be fixed.

Picture of Winston Churchill Winston Churchill, one of the greatest war leaders the world has ever seen, is famously quoted as saying: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”, and many people (myself included) have wondered exactly what he meant by that.

The quote is not quite correct, and Churchill's actual words need to be taken in the context of what was happening at the time. But in essence, what he was saying was remarkably similar to the words of George Takei's father, highlighted above.

Churchill was speaking in 1947. His services as war leader were no longer needed, and he had been ousted by the Labour Government. Now just an ordinary Member of Parliament, he was making a speech against Herbert Morrison, Leader of the House and Deputy Prime Minister, organiser of Labour's victorious 1945 election campaign.

Churchill was opposing a further weakening of the power of the House of Lords to veto legislation prepared through the House of Commons. This power forms part of the vital “Checks and Balances” of the UK's democracy, and was weakened successively in the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949.

His speech was really about the degrading of democracy itself, and seems very relevant today. You can read it in the Parliamentary Record of that time. Here is a fragment of it (the bolding of some text is mine):

“...The right hon. Gentleman [Herbert Morrison] spoke about Parliament, about the rights of Parliament, which I shall certainly not fail to defend. But it is not Parliament that should rule; it is the people who should rule through Parliament. That is the mistake he made, an important omission. All this was comprehended by those who shaped the Parliament Act and the settlement which developed upon that Act, so that it was never mentioned again for 36 years until now. That is what the Government are seeking to mutilate, if not to destroy. The object of the Parliament Act, and the spirit of that Act, were to give effect, not to spasmodic emotions of the electorate, but to the settled, persistent will of the people. What they wanted to do they could do, and what they did not want to do they could stop. All this idea of a handful of men getting hold of the State machine, having the right to make the people do what suits their party and personal interests or doctrines, is completely contrary to every conception of surviving Western democracy. Some reverence for the laws ourselves have made, some patient force to change them when we will. We accept in the fullest sense of the word the settled and persistent will of the people. All this idea of a group of super men and super-planners, such as we see before us, "playing the angel," as the French call it, and making the masses of the people do what they think is good for them, without any check or correction, is a violation of democracy. Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.”

You can read his whole speech here.

As I write this, the UK Government is appealing a decision by the High Court to force a parliamentary debate on Brexit, instead of allowing it to go straight from a simple-majority referendum to an irreversible and far-reaching change.

So... how do we move forward from here?

Clearly, our countries need to fix our democratic systems. Easy to say... very hard to do — but it must be done.

Remember, and celebrate, that there are many good things in life.

I'll leave you with what I posted in my Categorian blog:

Text of Way Forward after Trump election

London 2012: The beautiful games

London 2012 Opening Ceremony In a year which saw some extreme and miserable weather, not only in the UK but elsewhere, something truly wonderful happened in the UK: events that brought people together and lifted our collective spirits, in a way that can still be felt in 2013.

That something was the London 2012 Olympic Games, and (in some ways even more so) the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

BTW: Most of the hyperlinks in this section (and clicking the images) will take you to articles in my Categorian Blog, with many more pictures and some video links.

London 2012 Olympic Torch Relay For more than 2 weeks (a lot longer if you include the nationwide, all-inclusive Torch Relay) the UK seemed a different, happier and more community-minded place.

There were street parties, picnics in parks, crowds jostling each other during the rush hour in the best of humour, and smiling mounted police riding along the edge of huge crowds gathered for a road race, slapping hands with the lifted hands of spectator after spectator.

Completely deserted streets in housing estates would suddenly ring to a simultaneous shout of YES!

... and it just went on and on. Even the weather seemed affected, as if millions of exuberant spirits were some kind of psychic high pressure area.

Jennifer Ennis We expected to see (and did see) supreme personal achievements at the Olympics, but there was so much more to it this time.

Countless personal achievements went into bringing the Olympics to London in the first place, into building the facilities and the physical and IT infrastructures, and into everything else that made the Games a success beyond anyone's wildest expectations.

Everyone's contributions (including especially those of the 70,000 volunteer Games Makers, some of whom are shown below) were celebrated magnificently in the London 2012 Olympics Closing Ceremony.

London 2012 Games Makers Training If I had the power, I would give a gold medal to everyone involved, including the BBC's commentary team.

Then I would bring down a horrible pox on everyone (including some of the BBC news team) who cast every kind of doubt on London 2012 before it happened (and even during it), constantly reporting as "news" opinions about forthcoming disasters and bad organisation that completely failed to materialise.

A great part of the achievement of the people who bid for and mounted the Games was overcoming the miserable doom-sayers, who between them have probably never created anything worthwile in their entire lives. Such people talk about "costs" when others talk about "achievements" and "earnings". No doubt they will find every reason why the Olympic Legacy won't happen properly - and I bet that they will be just as wrong.

Was it all over? Not a bit of it!

Something even more amazing was about to come: the London 2012 Paralympics, which were to change our view of disability forever.

It began with the wonderful promotional campaign by Channel 4, who also did a superb job of commentating and explaining the Paralympics to the many people who were watching for the first time:

Channel 4 Superhumans Advertisement followed by the stunning Paralympics Opening Ceremony:

London 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony

In the Paralympics (every bit as popular in the UK as were the Olympics) we saw phenomenal performances and personalities...

Hannah Cockroft

perfect trust and partnership...

Brazilian Paralympic blind runner and guide at Beijing

and heartwarming friendship and sportsmanship...

Victoria Arlen and Ellie Simmonds

As a Brit, I was of course delighted with our great run of Gold Medals. I was even more delighted when the Royal Mail issued commemorative stamps within a day of each medal, exactly as they did for the London Olympics.

Click the stamp below if you would like to see the full set, and read more about each of the gold-winning athletes featured.

Gold Medal Stamp Paralympics Mickey Bushell

One of the athletes summed it up perfectly:

“Beijing was the first Paralympic Games where we were treated as equals. London was the first Paralympic Games where we were treated as heroes.”

As record audiences and visitors watched the London 2012 Paralympics, while the Presidential race continued to run in the USA (where the Paralympics received relatively little coverage, the NBC Studio at the Olympic Park being deserted) I was struck by a strange contrast.

It seems at times that the American political system (unlike very many American people) suffers more than most from disability, dysfunction, negativity, under-achievement, non-cooperation and meanness of spirit.

The exact opposite is what we watched in the amazing events that happened in London.

Maybe we can all learn something from this wonderful group of international athletes...

The beautiful game?

Pelé In 1977 the famous footballer Pelé named his autobiography My Life and the Beautiful Game. I could well understand what he meant: as played by this footballing genius (and by other Brazilians, whether international players or kids kicking a ball around on the endless beaches), the game was beautiful.

Although I was never a great football fan (I can't help feeling that the game would benefit hugely from the absence of a goal-keeper, or at least from a bigger goal area) I do appreciate a really great match - especially if one of the teams is from Brazil.

During the London 2012 Olympics (see my next post above), I was struck by how out-of-place football seemed as an Olympic sport. For me, it had little or none of the spirit of the other events, and I fell to wondering why.

Football, when you get down to it, is a kind of organized and (mostly) bloodless tribal conflict, with each team representing some kind of tribe (which could be the local school down the road, or a town, or a nation, or a group of people whose only tribe, perhaps, is a football club).

It binds communities together in a kind of "us-against-them" spirit - often ferocious but essentially harmless (the perfect example of what I mean are the matches between the Dynamos and the Galliards (example here) in Giovanni Guareschi's The Little World of Don Camillo).

Now I find myself enjoying televised league football less and less. I conclude that the basic reason for this is the fact that a Premier League club does not represent a tribe. The most successful clubs buy and sell players from any country, as financial commodities.

Manchester United, for example, is a highly successful business, and its players can play magnificently - but something has gone out of the game.

And increasingly, it seems, tribes gather at football matches for reasons other than enjoying football - to indulge in verbal abuse of gay people, for example. The Football Association makes efforts to stamp out this kind of thing, but the root problem is sadly out of its control.

Football can be a great game, open to anyone with a wall to kick a ball against. Sadly, however, the game that we see on TV is often no longer beautiful. And that's a great shame.

Higher (and lower) forms of life... and a slight re-think of democracy

It is easy to be depressed by the sheer worthlessness of many people.

You could, for example, make the mistake of reading the thoughts (I use the term loosely) of the human cockroaches who make many of the comments on YouTube, or listen to politicians or religious fundamentalists trying to tear down whatever it is that they don't believe in, irrespective of truth or decency.

And then along comes one person like William Kamkwamba, and suddenly the world is a good place again.

From the introduction to the book "The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind":

"At 14 years old, William Kamkwamba wanted to do something to help his family, his parents and six sisters, survive the famine that was spreading across Malawi. The drought had already meant his father, a farmer, didn't have enough money to send William to school. So William improvised. He went to a local library, and with limited English skills began reading books about science. He then began making several trips to the local junkyard and before too long he'd had the requisite parts to build a windmill. He knew if he could provide electricity to his home his mother's life would be easier, and if the windmill could pump water from the earth, his father wouldn't have to depend on the rain from the skies."

In fact, there are a lot of worthwhile people out there.

As I say in the intro to my Categorian blog, the people that I admire most are those who see no end to pain, illness, grief or disability and who still retain a sense of humour, people who spend time making life better for others in any way (William Kamkwamba being a shining example), and people with toxic parents who have "broken the chain" in bringing up their own children.

I also greatly admire anyone who has played a major part in any large, difficult project, staying with it over a long period of time in the face of considerable adversity, and anyone who puts their own life on the line for what they believe in (so long as they are not inspired by religious hatred).

Nevil Shute, an aeronautical engineer and one of my favourite novelists, had similar views to myself on many subjects, and was a person whom I would very much have liked to know.

Among the best of his books was a story called In The Wet, published in 1953. Nevil Shute was depressed by many negative aspects of England at that time (he emigrated to Australia for this reason). One of the ideas in this book is that the apparently fair system of "one person, one vote" has a basic weakness, namely that no account is taken of the human worth (if I can call it that) of the person voting.

Nevil Shute wondered what would happen to society if extra votes could be awarded to each person based on their value to society, a system called multiple voting.

Everyone in the system described in his book still gets a basic vote. However, other votes can be earned for higher education (including a professional qualification or a commission in the armed forces), earning one's living overseas for two years, raising two children to the age of 14 without divorcing, being an official of an established Christian church, or having a high earned income. An extra, seventh, vote is given only at the discretion of the Monarch for special achievement (saving the Queen's life, in the case described in the book).

In practice, such a system would be very hard to introduce, not least because the people in power might realise that they would be voting themselves out of office. One could also imagine endless arguments about the criteria for extra votes, especially the church vote and the seventh vote.

In Nevil Shute's story, the system is first introduced on a trial basis in West Australia, and then spreads to other colonies (modified to suit local conditions) as its benefits become apparent. It is strongly resisted in England until an event forces its government's hand.

Over half a century later, England has turned out better than Nevil Shute feared, without adopting the multiple vote (but adopting many of the other things he believed in).

We could still use some improvement! I like to think that if one part of the world is brave enough to try the multiple voting system in some form, its benefits might convince others that it is an idea whose time has come.

The idea of multiple voting is certainly not dead - see here.

  • Since you're here...
  • If you like Nevil Shute, then you may also like my books page and/or my movies page.

The F word

Picture of swear-word keyboard button

One of the most realistic and moving accounts of war at sea ever written was The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Monsarrat (a short description of which appears in the War Stories section of my Books page).

In its introduction (not all editions) Monsarrat explains why he has not included the swear word that routinely peppers the sailors' language, although to do so would have been realistic.

My present copy of the book doesn't have that particular introduction, but as I remember it, Monsarrat felt that it would have added nothing, and would have subtracted a great deal for many readers. People who had been in similar war situations, he said, would understand that the word was there, mechanical and monotonous, mostly as a meaningless adjective, a kind of safety valve for people who could die at any moment in a number of very unpleasant ways.

If he had included that word, then in all of the many times where it would have appeared, not one of them would been in the form of "F*** you".

Today, unfortunately, sections of the on-line world seem full of it, reflecting a culture of argument by abuse (or even more sadly, just abuse).

I'll risk pointing you at one example which is here. This is a political rant by a person who says he is trying to take the "Duh" out of "Florida".

It happens that I am a great fan of President Obama and what he stands for, whereas I find much of the culture that opposes him (I don't mean individual people) to be ideologically obsessed, proud of its "Christian values" while seemingly having little regard for truth or decency in its campaigns. I ought, therefore, to sympathise with the message that this person is trying to put over. I can't listen to his message, though - the way in which it is written just turns me off.

What does a rant like this achieve, I wonder? I suspect that it makes the writer feel better, and I know at least one pro-Obama supporter who obviously likes it. But apart from letting off steam, I doubt that it will change the mind of anyone who didn't already share this person's views (if that was the intention).

When it comes to the use of strong language, I am with the phrase President Theodore Roosevelt used in a different context, "Speak softly and carry a big stick". Strong language is most effective when it is saved up for when it is really needed.

Here's an example that I always remember, with the mildest of strong language, from Harper Lee's wonderful novel "To Kill A Mockingbird".

Atticus is speaking quietly to his children:

"The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it - whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash."
Atticus was speaking so quietly his last word crashed on our ears.

(Some more quotes from that great novel will be found here.)

I am not a fan of the F word, and I use it very rarely. It is an ugly, mechanical name for what is surely one of the most enjoyable of human activities.

So far as I can remember, I used the F word only once in a work environment. My then manager, who had never heard me swear, was so shocked that (mostly for effect) he toppled backwards against a nearby whiteboard.

The circumstances that provoked it? Well, they had to do with the newly introduced policy of out-sourcing IT support. It had the effect of giving a group of hard-working software engineers, working under considerable pressure on a project whose success was of no concern to the IT department, inadequate tools that kept breaking.

If you want to torture someone, a good way to do it is to give them a stressful job with penalties for poor or late achievement, and then make sure that the tools for the job are inadequate and unreliable.

But that's another story.

It isn't easy being green... actually, it is

Picture of leaf

Here's what I think.

If green is done right, it helps everyone.

Of course it improves the environment, which means that it improves the quality of life that we share with everyone and everything that lives on this planet.

It also creates jobs and investment opportunities in many new industries, both low-tech and high-tech. It reduces our dependence on other countries for essential energy supplies.

What's more, we don't have to give up (for example) living in beautiful cities that glitter at night (if that's what we want to do), or driving fun, fast cars. The technology exists, or is being developed, to allow us to do such things without destroying our planet - quite the reverse.

The best effect in the long run, from my point of view, is that children who grow up in a green environment instead of in a concrete environment are much more likely to have happy childhoods and to grow into happier adults. It's as true for children as for animals in a zoo. And happy children are the long-term solution to much of the misery in this world.

It's encouraging to see the world starting to turn away from concrete boxes and straight, featureless rows of houses, and replacing them with communities centred around green communal spaces. Just doing that helps a lot for the human spirit and happiness. If you add in green housing, local farming, a reduced need to get in a car in order to shop or to meet your neighbours, and other "green" things - in other words, green eco-communities - then we are winning all around!

My green friend Sandy pointed out that the American Indians think that we don't own the Earth - instead, we borrow it from our children. This is a great example of "Pay It Forward" (a philosophy that I would immediately substitute for many forms of religion, should I ever find myself mysteriously promoted to a position of such awesome power!).

If you're interested in green stuff and the neat technology that is increasingly going with it, please visit my Environment and Technology page.

You'll find an article on "Pay It Forward" on my page called The Bright Side.

Science vs. Religion

Creation of Sun and Moon

The relationship between Science and Religion is a fascinating one to me, especially with the sad and highly disturbing rejection of science by many people in America, including people in very high places.

Science aims to build a body of knowledge in a very self-critical way. Adding to this body of knowledge is a very difficult, painstaking process (the scientific method), and one that is firmly based on objective evidence.

Religion could perhaps be defined as a belief system that (by its nature) is not based on objective evidence.

Here, for what it's worth, is my personal summary of each of them: The situation looks kind of symmetrical, in a way, except that a strong case could be made that the worst aspects of religion (as practiced by people) have historically caused far more human misery than have the worst aspects of science (as practiced by people). Furthermore, I have to say that in the "worst" department on both sides, it is (almost?) always men causing the misery, not women. Hmmm...

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama (a truly great man) writes:

"If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview."
(see his article "Our faith in Science").

The Vatican is coming to terms with science in a way that (given history and also some misconceptions on my part) I find astonishing.

Vatican Observatory Director Jesuit Father George V. Coyne delivered a talk entitled "Science Does Not Need God, or Does It? A Catholic Scientist Looks at Evolution," in Florida on Jan. 31 2006, in which he said:

"I would essentially like to share with you two convictions in this presentation:
"(1) that the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, while evoking a God of power and might, a designer God, actually belittles God, makes her/him too small and paltry;
"(2) that our scientific understanding of the universe, untainted by religious considerations, provides for those who believe in God a marvelous opportunity to reflect upon their beliefs. Please note carefully that I distinguish, and will continue to do so in this presentation, that science and religion are totally separate human pursuits. Science is completely neutral with respect to theistic or atheistic implications which may be drawn from scientific results."

The full text of his talk will be found here.

But in America...

There are so many aspects of "creationism" and "intelligent design" that seem so unintelligent, for example:

How can an intelligent person of today look into the awesome depths of the night sky and believe that the Earth was created in literal accordance with the Bible? Does this person think that stars and galaxies of stars are glowing dots stuck on a celestial dome of some kind?

(Answer: because this form of religion makes you switch off your reasoning brain.)

An intelligent person looks at the wonders of nature and reasons that they couldn't have come about "naturally". I can easily understand why someone who hasn't researched the scientific knowledge doesn't believe that (say) an eyeball could come about through evolution. It's much too complex for that, right? (Actually, not right, but it's still an understandable belief.) But then the person thinks: "I can't believe this because it's too complex. So what I'll believe instead is that there is something unimaginably more complex that is able to create this complexity..." Hello?

I like Stephen Fry's definition of (good) science as: "Humility in the face of facts". I hadn't thought of applying that definition to religion, and the last place I would have expected to look would have been in the Vatican!

(More on this topic in The Age of Reason? below.)

The Age of Reason?

If you have read my post above, then you will know my take on the conflicts (and non-conflicts) between science and religion. If you haven't read it, may I ask you to read it now before continuing? This is really part 2 of the same story.

In the beginning man created god (neanderthal man and sunrise

The caption is a humanist message appearing in many places. The image is my composite of two images: the first comes from an article on the rough draft of the Neanderthal genome, and the second is from a page of African wallpaper (from a site whose internal links are somewhat broken at present). No scientific link between the two is intended.

Where did God (or Man's idea of God, if you prefer) begin?

It seems certain that at some point in time, early Man must have started to think about the wonders of creation, and about his own place in the world that he saw around him.

And some time later, the concept of "God" must have become associated with whatever Man's reasoning, at the time, couldn't account for (and this is probably a legitimate interpretation of "God" today).

There was plenty of reasoning going on in ancient times (more so than in some parts of the USA today, sadly).

Eratosthenes of Cyrene, for example, who lived over 2,000 years ago and was unhampered by religion, discovered more about the earth (and other things) than many children are taught today. He calculated the circumference of the earth without the benefit of being able to see it from Space, and without even leaving Egypt, and with remarkable accuracy also calculated the tilt of the earth's axis.

The transition from the concept of God to the various forms of religion must have been as complex and various as Man himself.

I am no scholar of different religions and belief systems, but they seem to fall into importantly-different groups:

  1. Those that respond to the evolving knowledge produced by science, and those that don't.
  2. Those that become the basis of power struggles and tyranny over non-believers, and those that don't.
Whether the original intention was good or not, it is fairly clear to me which groups have resulted in a huge amount of human misery, and which have not.

The modern Christian fundamentalist's view of reality appears to be this:

The World Was Created in 6 Days (Earth Blue Marble)

with the words "by God" uncritically replacing the last two lines.

Many probably believe it (or don't allow themselves not to believe it) because they were indoctrinated in it from childhood, and had it reinforced by peer pressure. Others probably believe it because they joined a faith that supplied something missing in the material world around them, and then accepted that faith must replace reason.

When a religion takes as fact things that science knows to be untrue, something happens that is far from wonderful. The power structure of that religion must then insist that people don't reason for themselves, but instead accept what the religion, and the people promoting that religion, say is true.

This kind of religion is a form of slavery, and science is truly its enemy.

Life is much too complex to have evolved naturally, something much more complex must be doing it (female DNA)

This image of female DNA comes from this article dated May 27, 2008. The caption is mine.

This is the central absurdity of the Christian fundamentalist view of science. Fundamentalists cannot believe (and must not learn enough to believe) that the wonders of life being increasingly revealed by science could be due to anything but the hand of their God.

The evolution of life certainly is wonderful, and science (IMO) will never take away all of its mystery. But to imagine a mysterious Being of such immensely greater complexity, and with such marvelous equipment, as to be able to construct the complexity we are already looking at, and to think of this Being as being interested in directing our lives, simply kicks the whole problem into the mental long grass.

Man is naturally sinful, woman is to blame, thank God I'm in charge

This is where so much of the misery that has been caused by some forms of religion begins.

Men have always had an awful urge to convert others to their way of thinking. If there is such a thing as Original Sin, this urge to dominate the minds of others is probably it.

If people must be told how to live their lives, then of course there must be punishment if they don't comply. People will go to some kind of Hell when they die.

Unfortunately, whatever kind of lives people lead, natural disasters and disease still happen. So we must have a reward after death, some kind of better place called Heaven, and it must become virtuous to suffer in our present existence.

Heaven and Hell were always flaky concepts (if you reason about them in any serious way), but many religions have clung on to them long after science in general, and astronomy in particular, have relegated them to some strange other Universe.

It gets worse.

Once men have a power base rooted in a religion, there can of course be only one true religion - their own. And so we get wars, terrorism and torture, all of it conducted (naturally) in a holy cause. It has been going on for centuries, is still going on, and sadly will probably continue as long as reason-denying religions last.

And once the prescribed way of thinking treats sex, as an enjoyable activity, as "sinful" (unless suitably sanctioned), we get the various ways in which many religions control the behaviour of women, and (among other evils) this:

God told me that it's better for people to die of AIDS than to enjoy themselves using condoms

The photo is Women Empowerment In An AIDS Ridden Society from LIFE magazine / Getty Images. The caption is mine.

The Pope, the Roman Catholic Church believes, is infallible, and has a direct line to God.

The human misery caused over the years by this doctrine is beyond measuring.

As with any inflexible doctrine, reality is starting to make cracks in it, as it becomes obvious to (in this case) Roman Catholics that there is no such thing as the infallibility of the Pope, and that either there is no direct line to God, or else that God has a strange disregard for human life, or else - just possibly - that the God that they were led to believe in might not actually exist.

As with issues such as the ordination of women, the religion's power base fears - rightly - that flexibility undermines the original foundations of the religion, and that its dominance over believers will falter.

This, so far as I can see, is one of the pressures that fuels fundamentalism.

And then there is the big question:

Is there an alternative to religion, or at least to the damaging ones, which will result in us leading good lives?

Yes, of course there is. There are several, in fact.

There is the humanist point of view, the best-known proponent of which is probably the author Sir Terry Pratchett (who was knighted by the Queen for services to literature).

From the British Humanist Association's web site:

Humanists...
...are atheists and agnostics who make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human values. We take responsibility for our actions and base our ethics on the goals of human welfare, happiness and fulfilment. We seek to make the best of the one life we have by creating meaning and purpose for ourselves, individually and together.

Terry Pratchett's humanist outlook is reflected in many of his books - Nation, for example, or his wonderful series of books about Tiffany Aching.

See here for general information on his relationship to the humanist movement.

(My own posts about Terry Pratchett's books will be found here, and there is more about him on my books page.)

There is the possibility of following the precepts of great teachers (including Jesus) without believing that they are divine. Unitarianism, which has many forms, is an example of this.

There is the simple philosophy of Pay It Forward, which creates human happiness in many ways and is supported by people of all religions, or none.

There is bringing up our children to respect themselves, to respect other people and their beliefs (other than beliefs resulting in domination of others), and to respect the natural world in which we live.

There is learning more about the wonders of human intellect and the actual workings of life and nature. See this book by Douglas Hofstadter, for example.

We shouldn't look to science for guidance on how to carry out our lives. But maybe the time has come to stop thinking so much about science vs. religion, and start thinking more about science and humanism.

Did putting man on the Moon really cost America anything?

I am not an economist. Let me make that clear up front.

When people talk about a government spending millions or billions of dollars (pounds, euros, whatever) on something, it is usually to make the point that the government is somehow wasting its taxpayers' money.

The first thing that I do when I hear a comment like that is to divide the sum by the approximate number of households in the region we are talking about (say 20,000,000 households in the the UK, or 100,000,000 households in the USA) and then divide it again by the number of years over which the expenditure applies. This turns the huge sum into something that I can get my head around. When the huge sum translates into (say) $17 per household per year (the approximate cost of the Apollo programme being $20-25 billion over 13 years), it's not so huge.

That's not all, though...

In the case of money spent on a technology or infrastructure programme, I then keep wondering whether spending money on such a thing is quite the same as spending it on (say) hamburgers or foreign imports.

Where, for instance, is all the money that America spent on putting man on the Moon?

It seems to me that most of it is still in America. The money itself is still circulating there, having also been translated into technology and industries that are still providing jobs, making more money, paying taxes to the government, and keeping America competitive.

Now when I spend money, it's for sure that I don't have that money any more. I might have something else instead that I could trade for money, or else I could have nothing left except (say) the memory of a nice meal.

On the other hand, when a government spends money on behalf of its citizens, it seems that it can have its cake and eat it too - if it spends the money wisely.

Right now many of the governments around the world, including (finally) the USA, are spending hugely on essential energy infrastructure and green technology (a whole lot more on that here). That seems to me like wisdom.

As said, I'm not an economist! The different ways of "spending" money are still a mystery to me.